Summary: Hoss and Joe become the victims of revenge, but when Joe sees his brother shot down in cold blood, the tables are turned and it’s Joe who declares that it’s payback time.
Rated: PG for Mild Violence (8,000 words)
Brothers Till the End
“Tie him up, and make it good, I’ll be checking,” ordered the gunman.
Hoss looked at his brother, who lay face down in the dirt, unmoving.
“I want his hands behind his back, and his ankles tied,” the man laughed, “like a hog.”
Hoss caught the rope that the man tossed at him. He glared angrily, wanting to put his big fist in the man’s face, but knowing that he couldn’t chance it, not with Little Joe in the shape he was in.
“What are you waiting for?” the man growled.
He pointed his gun toward Joe and Hoss heard the trigger being cocked.
“I’ll shoot if you don’t have him hog-tied in just about three seconds.”
Hoss pinched his lips tightly and moved to Joe’s side. He moved the unconscious boy’s arms to his back and knotted the rope tightly around his brother’s wrists. Joe groaned softly and tried to turn over. He was beginning to wake up.
“Be still, Shortshanks,” Hoss said in a low voice. “I ain’t gonna hurt ya.”
Joe lifted his head and tried to turn so that he could see his brother.
“What are you doing?”
Hoss could hear the slight tremor in Joe’s voice. “I gotta tie ya up, Joe…or this scoundrel here is gonna start shootin’.”
Hoss lifted up Joe’s legs and began twisting the other end around his ankles. Hoss glanced over his shoulder at his adductor who had moved closer.
“Tighter,” the man ordered, pulling on the rope to check to see if Hoss was tying his prisoner to his specifications.
Joe made a grunting sound when the man pulled on the ropes and the man laughed.
“Ya ain’t got nothin’ to say now, do ya, big mouth?”
Joe tried not to squirm; it only seemed to make the ropes snugger.
“Sorry, Joe,” Hoss whispered.
“It’s alright, Hoss, just do what they tell you.”
“Are ya hurtin’, he hit ya pretty hard?”
Hoss had the ropes tied and moved Joe around so that he would be more comfortable. He could see the pain in the hazel eyes that Joe tried to hide but had not done a very good job at it.
“I’m fine, Hoss…don’t worry about me, take care of yourself,” Joe said in a strained voice.
The man waving the gun moved to the opposite side of Joe.
“Shut up that whispering, fat boy, and move away from the boy.”
Hoss’ blue eyes met Joe’s and he rose slowly, backing up a few paces. Hoss watched as the man squatted down, keeping the gun pointed at his middle and using his free hand, the gunman checked the ropes tied around Joe’s wrists and ankles. When he finished, he stood up, smiling.
“Nice job, now move over to that tree, you’re next,” he ordered.
Hoss glanced once more at his kid brother and then turned and walked slowly to the tree the gunman had indicated.
“Sit down and put your arms around the trunk.”
Hoss lowered his heavy framed to the ground and did as the man instructed.
“What are you going to do with us?” Hoss asked as the man tied the rope tightly around Hoss’ thick wrists.
Hoss flinched, the ropes were much tighter than he’d tied Joe’s and already he could feel his fingers getting numb. When his wrists were bound to the man’s satisfaction, his ankles were knotted together and then the man surprised Hoss by driving a wooden stake he fashioned from a branch into the ground near his feet. The man holstered his .45 and pulled tightly on the rope, forcing Hoss’ legs stretched taunt and then tied the rope to the stake.
Hoss was helpless to move and when he saw the grin on the other man’s face, his blue eyes flashed black.
“There, that should hold ya, God, ya big as a bear,” the man complained. He kicked at Hoss’ legs and grinned down at the angry Cartwright. “Ya won’t be going nowhere, not for a long time, I made sure.”
He saw Hoss flinch when the big man tried pulling on the ropes that secured his wrists.
“Ain’t no use, fat boy, ya’ll only cause ya self more pain, those knots are special, the more ya tug on them, the tighter they get,” the captor laughed.
Hoss refused to respond to the comment, but the fella was right, the rope had tightened, and common sense told Hoss that he had better remain as still as possible if he ever wanted to use his hands again. He glanced up at the man who had strolled over to where Joe lay, dazed and barely aware of what was going on around him, and Hoss knew, he did want to use his hands…at least just one more time, to kill the bastard.
“Lou, bring the wagon around, we’ll take the kid with us,” the man ordered.
“Sure thing, Cory,” Lou said.
Cory stood over Hoss, grinning wickedly. “Tell your father…it’s payback time. His baby boy is gonna die, he’ll know why.” Cory started to move away, but stopped and glanced back at Hoss. “I’ll send the boy’s body back to him,” snickered the evil man, “you tell him that, too.”
Hoss could do nothing but tug at the ropes that held him captive to the tree. He watched with rising fear as the men hauled Joe roughly from the ground and dumped his brother into the back of the wagon. Hoss had not known until that moment that he was actually capable of hating any man alive; but seeing the cruel and inhumane treatment Joe was receiving removed any doubt from his mind.
The bumping of the wagon was jarring. Added to the way he was hog-tied and the position he was forced to lay, Joe’s entire body was racked with pain. He had made several attempts to free himself, but the knots were tied securely and the more he tried, the tighter the knots seemed to become. At last, Joe gave up, resigning himself to his fate. He could only hope against all odds that Hoss could free himself and go for help before it was too late.
Hoss was attempting to doing just that. He had managed to work his legs free, which took the strain off his heavy body. With his legs freed from the stake, Hoss was able to slide his arms up and down the trunk of the tree, wearing thin the ropes that bound his wrists. The bark scraped raw his skin, but Hoss was determined and undaunted by the burning sensation caused by the rough bark. One last strong tug and the rope broke, freeing his wrists. Hoss rubbed the feeling back into his hands, wincing as the blood tingled down into his fingers. When he was able, Hoss cut free the ropes that bound his ankles and slowly stood to his feet. Glancing at the sun, he determined that it had taken him at least two or more hours to get free, giving Cory Waters and his gang of hooligans a mighty good head start.
Hoss looked around for his horse, but Chubb was nowhere to be found. With nothing else to do, Hoss began walking, following the ruts in the road made by the wagon. He had walked for what seemed like hours when he caught sight of ole Chubb, chomping away on the tender spring grass not more than a few yards in front of him. Hoss smiled broadly, approaching his horse slowly as he muttered softly under his breath.
“Easy there, big boy, it’s only ole Hoss…”
Chubb glanced up from his eating and raised his head in recognition for his master. Surprising Hoss, Chubb walked slowly over to his master’s out stretched hand and nuzzled Hoss’ palm.
Hoss reached for the reins and grinned. “Good boy Chubby, ya didn’t forget me now, did’cha?”
Quickly, Hoss mounted up and spurred Chubb into a gallop, keeping his eyes glued to the trail that would ultimately lead him to his brother. The ground beneath the mighty steed trembled from the weight of the pounding hooves. For man and beast were both driven, Hoss by fear for his brother and Chubby because his rider demanded it of him.
“Let’s stop here and rest the horses,” Cory told his men.
Lou pulled back on the reins, bringing the team of bays to a halt. The wagon bumped sharply on the stones, forcing Joe to moan softly. Lou glanced back, seeing the discomfort on the young face of his prisoner and he laughed.
“You look like hell, kid,” he told Joe, “and I bet you feel about as bad!”
Joe looked up into the menacing face, but held his sharp retort.
“I could use some water,” he said.
Cory had dismounted and stood to the side of the wagon, watching his young captive squirming in an effort to get comfortable.
“Give the kid a drink,” he ordered another man.
Joe turned his head enough that he could better see the man who had taken him as a hostage. The man’s eyes were dark and Joe knew that look was one of hate. Cory’s evil expression caused him to shiver, for he had never seen such loathing in a man’s eyes as what he was seeing in this man’s.
A third man, Thomas, Joe remembered, jumped into the back of the wagon and lifted his head enough that he was able to drink from the canteen that was being pressed against his lips.
“That’s enough!” shouted Cory. “No sense in wasting all of it on a dead man,” he growled at Thomas.
Thomas allowed Joe’s head to drop to the bed of the wagon as he popped the cork back into the canteen. He studied the boy’s face, feeling almost sorry for what he knew the boss had planned for him.
“Thanks,” Joe muttered, seeing the man eyeballing him.
Thomas only nodded his head and then jumped down from the wagon, ignoring Joe after that as he mounted his horse.
“Where are you taking me?” Joe asked Cory who had joined him in the back of the wagon.
“Don’t bother yourself with where you’re going, kid. You best be making your peace with the Almighty,” grinned Cory.
Cory leaned down, using his hand to brush back a strand of chestnut hair from his prisoner’s brow. Automatically, Joe drew back. His expression was one of repulsiveness, which earned him a hard slap across his already bruised cheek. Joe’s head banged against the hard wooden bed of the wagon. He groaned and gasped for air. Cory stood to his feet, his lips a tight line of disgust.
“You’ll learn, kid, I’m the master. I hold your life in my hands, and if I so desired, I could kill you right now,” he snarled and then kicked Joe in the stomach with the sharp point of his boot.
Joe grunted and tried to roll his body into a ball, but the ropes around his ankles and those on his writs, tightly behind his back, made protecting himself impossible. Cory snickered and kicked Joe a second time.
“Get used to it, Cartwright, you’ve got lots worse coming your way…and you can thank your old man for any suffering you’re going to be doing. If he had just left my brother alone…none of this would be happening to you now. But no, your old man was determined to see my kid brother hang…and because of his extreme, willful motives, you’re going to pay…with your life. But you’ll die when I’m ready for you to die…not before.”
Cory jumped from the back of the wagon, leaving Joe to ponder his words as he mounted back up.
“Let’s get moving, it’s a long way to the cabin,” Cory ordered.
Once again the wagon jerked forward as Lou slapped the reins down across the backsides of the team. Joe could tell that they were traveling higher and higher into the mountains. The trail had gone from a soft dirt road to one of solid rocks, jarring the wagon from side to side and causing his body to be banked repeatedly against the sideboards.
Joe had no clue to the time that passed; being bone weary he had drifted in and out of a troubled and torturous sleep. Suddenly, he awoke with a start, listening to the shouts of his captors, when suddenly the wagon lurched forward. The team began running over the uneven rocks; the wagon swayed from side to side, rolling its passenger around in the back. Joe cried out in agony as his body beat against the sides, causing more bruises and sharp stabs of pain than what he had experienced already.
Gun shot blasts ripped through the air. He dared to raise his head when the team slowed and the wagon had at last come to an abrupt halt. He could see Cory and Thomas standing over a man, shielding the man’s body from his view. Joe strained to see who the man was, and then, suddenly, his heart leapt into his throat. Cory and Thomas moved, shooing the man’s horse away. Joe watched in horror as Chubb turned and bolt off, fleeing into the thick hillside and out of sight.
A sick, gnawing feeling churned in his gut. Joe struggled to free himself from his ropes. He stared in horror at the prone figure of his brother lying face down in the dirt and rocks, his massive chest a profusion of bright red…Joe sucked in a mouthful of air…
“HOSS! HOSS! HOSS!” he screamed one last time before Lou struck him across the head with the butt of his rifle, silencing his piercing screams.
Cory and Thomas hurried back to the wagon. Cory looked down at his prisoner and then up at Lou. His eyes were dark with anger.
“You better hope you didn’t kill that boy,” he snarled.
“Aw…he ain’t dead, Boss, I just shut him up, that’s all, he was scaring the team,” Lou said with a grin.
Cory’s nostrils were flaring as he untied his neckerchief and tossed it to Lou.
“Then make sure he don’t utter another sound. Gag him, stuff this in his mouth and make sure he can’t be heard.”
Lou grinned and bent down over the unconscious boy. “Yes sir,” he answered.
Lou pried Joe’s mouth opened and stuffed the rag into his mouth. He then grabbed his own neckerchief from around his neck and tied it unmercifully tight about Joe’s head.
“Ready,” he called to Cory when he had seated himself on the bench seat and picked up the reins. He glanced once at Joe and then slapped the reins down on the backs of the team.
He wasn’t weak; he knew that much about himself, yet he did have his fears he concluded. They were fears of the unknown, and yes, the darkness. He hated the darkness; he always had, even as a small child he had feared what lurked in the shadows around him, in his room with the lamp unlit, around the outside, near the house and inside the barn. But he had never really feared any man, only what a man could do to him, like now…here in this dark corner of the cellar where he’d been brought, bound tightly, gagged and now blinded folded. The blindfold only served to enhance the murky darkness and cause his mind to begin conjuring up distorted images that caused him to shiver. The man was crude and hardened to those around him, and Little Joe had no reason to believe that the man would show him any mercy whatsoever. The stranger hated Ben Cartwright with a passion so intense, that killing for revenge meant nothing to the fellow. Hadn’t he said as much? Besides, thought Joe, he had seen it with his own eyes, when the man had turned on Hoss who had only been trying to help his younger brother escape, and had ended up paying with his own life.
Beneath the tight blindfold, Joe felt the sting of tears. Hoss had been his best friend, his confidante, his partner throughout their entire lives, and now he was gone. Joe choked back his tears, trying to wipe the image of the gentle giant lying just feet away, his massive chest covered in blood that oozed from the hole caused by Cory Waters’ gun. Silently, he vowed to get revenge for his brother’s death. Somehow, someway, he’d make the stranger pay for what he had done. If the man thought he could hate, he’d see what real hate was like, once Joe managed to free himself.
The ropes had been moved, probably sometime after Lou had hit him on the head, but his arms were still pulled behind his back and his ankles were also tied, but he was no longer in the hot-tied position. Joe was able to stretch out his legs, for which he was glad; it provided him with a bit more comfort, though his arms still ached from the unnatural position.
Joe’s back was resting against the hard, stone, wall. He had no perception of the time; he was clueless as to how long he had been unconscious after Lou had hit him over the head, but Joe estimated the time as being somewhere between mid-night and dawn. Dampness from the rocks behind him penetrated through the thin material of his shirt and jacket, causing him to shiver from the cold.
It was impossible to tell anything about his prison, other than it was cold and damp and had a musty smell all about him. Joe sat in total silence, his thoughts on finding a means by which to escape. He longed for his family, for his father…for Hoss…Hoss, thought Joe, feeling a swelling of his throat and a sickness in the pit of his stomach that wouldn’t go away. He willed himself not to cry for his brother…not yet, his mind said, later…after I kill the man who took you from me, vowed Joe.
Joe turned his body so that he was lying on his side. His weary muscles screamed for rest and Joe knew that come daybreak, he would have hell to pay. He needed his strength and wits if he aimed on staying alive and getting free so that he could seek his revenge. For the first time in his young life, Joe Cartwright knew what it meant to hate, he’d found reason enough to want to kill a man and he had no remorse in his heart for what he aimed on accomplishing.
Joe made himself as comfortable as he could; beneath the blindfold, his eyes closed and for what remained of the night, he slept.
“Bring him up,” Cory ordered the other two men.
Cory sat at the table, sharpening his long, thin bladed hunting knife that he used for skinning hides. Carefully so as not to cut himself, the man ran his thumb over the sharp edge and turned to meet Lou and Thomas as they hauled Joe, still bound and gagged, up from the cellar and stood him on his feet, facing his captor.
“He ain’t doin’ too well, Boss,” snickered Lou.
Joe swayed slightly. It was the first time in nearly two days that he’d been on his feet, and without food or water during that time he was more than just weak. It took both Lou and Thomas to keep him standing upright, especially with that added inconvenience of his ankles still tied together.
“He’ll do,” said Cory as he eased over to stand nose to nose with Joe.
He slipped his knife between Joe’s cheek and the blindfold that had been covering his eyes for the last several hours. The knife sliced through the material as easily as it would have sliced through soft butter and the blindfold slipped away from the emerald eyes, so filled with hate. For several moments, Joe squinted his eyes, wishing for a hand free to rub them into focus. Before he could clearly make out the man standing before him, the knife slipped again between the flesh of his face and the gag that prevented him from speaking. Instantly, Joe spit the wad of cloth out of his mouth and took several large gulps of air to fill his starving lungs. He looked into the brown eyes that watched him with such distaste that Cory felt compelled to slap Joe.
Joe’s head was forced to one side; his cheek bore a bright red handprint. Joe refused to be cowered as he pulled himself upright and faced the man for the second time.
“You’re a brave men, hitting a man with his hands bound behind him, aren’t you?” snarled Joe. “Why don’t you untie me and try again?”
Cory only laughed and pressed the point of his knife into Joe’s throat, causing Joe to lean his head as far back as possible.
“In time,” muttered Cory with a snicker.
He moved the sharpened point only slightly and nicked Joe’s skin, causing a bright red drop of blood to appear. Joe’s eyes widened. He knew that one move on his part, and Cory Waters’ knife would slit his throat.
“Sit down, kid,” Cory ordered, pointing to the chair. He backed up slightly, giving Joe room to move, but Joe refused to budge. Joe glanced down at his feet and then in Cory’s direction.
“Sort of hard to walk, with my ankles tied like they are,” Joe said, hiding the rising hate that billowed from his gut into his throat.
He hated being at this man’s mercy, and once again he silently vowed to seek revenge for what the sadistic man had done to his brother, Hoss.
Cory only laughed at Joe’s predicament, but he squatted down and with his knife, sliced the ropes that bound Joe’s ankles together. When Cory faltered in rising, Joe kicked out with one leg, his booted foot catching Cory under the chin. Cory, having been caught off guard, dropped the knife and fell backwards onto the floor.
Joe turned and bolted for the opened door. In their haste to help their boss and catch their prisoner at the same time, Thomas and Lou became tangled in one another’s arms and legs and both men went crashing to the floor, giving Joe just enough time to make his escape.
Running was nearly impossible with his arms bound behind his back and the weakened state that his body had sank in to, but Joe ran as if the devil himself were chasing him. He wasn’t far from the truth in his thinking for Cory had shoved Thomas and Lou out of his way in his mad scramble for the knife he had so finely honed to perfection.
“Get him!” screamed Cory as Lou and Thomas struggled to get back on their feet.
“Don’t worry, Boss,” Thomas yelled as he and his cohort ran from the old cabin.
They paused in the yard, trying to determine which way their prisoner had taken.
“This way,” Lou shouted as he made for the woods.
Thomas was running right behind his friend, and Cory, catching up, joined his two assailants. The trio thrashed through the underbrush, stopping occasionally to look for signs.
“He can’t get far, not in the condition he’s in and certainly not with his hands tied behind his back,” growled Cory. “Find him, and the one who does, gets the honors of skinning that little bastard alive. All I’ll leave for Ben Cartwright is his kid’s hide, nailed to his own barn…now get moving!”
The words sent shivers coursing down Joe’s spine. He lay among the thick growth that covered the ground as if it were a green carpet on a wooden floor. He dared not breathe, for his three abductors stood only feet away. The knife that Cory held in his hand caught the bright sunlight and the blade glistened sharply. Joe swallowed, wishing with all of his heart that he was back home, that he was safe and that his best friend, Hoss, was still…
“Over here!” Lou said, pointing to the ground.
The three took off running in the opposite direction. Joe pushed himself to his feet and taking a deep breath, darted off in the other direction, distancing himself from the men who wished him dead.
When he could run no more, Joe stopped, dropping to his knees. His breathing was deep, his lungs burned like fire as he attempted to fill them.
“Water…I need water,” he muttered to himself. “And I need to get these ropes off!”
Looking around, Joe spotted a large formation of rocks a short distance from where he rested. Joe forced his weary body into action and headed in the direction of the rocks. As he approached, he spotted one lone rock that stood out from the others. It was just what he had been hoping he would find. Backing up to the sharpest point of the rock, Joe began rubbing his bound wrists up and down, hoping to wear the rope thin enough until it would break, thus freeing his hands.
It was hard work, and took much longer that he expected, for the rope was wrapped several times about his wrists and knotted in more than a couple of complicated ways.
“THERE HE IS!”
Joe jerked his head upward. He’d been so engrossed in getting the ropes off, that he had failed to see the three men coming at him. Joe turned and ran down the embankment, his feet practically flying out from beneath him. He struggled to keep his balance and to keep from falling headlong onto the rocky surface.
As he ran, Joe could hear the shouts of the men behind him. He wound his way in and out among the rocks, making his way back into the thick growth of underbrush. It was draining, fighting the bushes and brambles without the use of his hands. He could feel the stinging sensations from the limbs and branches that tore at his clothing and scraped against his face, ripping his skin as he pushed himself to seek safety.
Joe stopped for a brief second to catch his breath, glancing behind him to see if Cory and the others were still following. He caught a glimpse of Thomas scurrying in one direction and when he turned at the sound of snapping twigs, he saw Lou moving cautiously among the trees. Joe knew that Cory was close behind and he dared not move or make a sound for fear of being found. Joe pressed his body tightly against the trunk of the tree that sheltered him from his enemy’s view and waited until Cory had passed him by. When Joe felt that the coast was clear, he inhaled deeply and ran off in the opposite direction.
It wasn’t long before Joe began to tire. He gasped for air, desperately trying to fill his lungs enough to keep going. Behind him, he could hear Cory shouting orders at Thomas and Lou as they crashed through the brush. Joe glanced once over his right shoulder and caught a quick glimpse of Cory.
“Keep going, keep running,” he whispered to himself in a hoarse voice.
“OVER HERE!” Joe heard Cory shout.
Gasping for air, Joe started running, but stopped suddenly as a sharp, piercing pain drilled itself into the back of his right shoulder, just above the shoulder blade. Joe’s back arched as the pain intensified and he stumbled forward several faltering steps before he fell, face down into the dense brush and vines. With mouth clamped tightly, Joe willed himself not to scream, for to do so would mean certain dead. Somehow, through his pain, Joe maintained enough sense to roll over and over, burying himself deeper and deeper into the undergrowth, tangling himself amid the snarled growth that sheltered him from searching eyes.
When he stopped, Joe was covered in dirt and muck, weeds and leaves, twigs and moss. The knife that had speared his shoulder had broken free and lay by his side. The once handsome face was covered in scratches and cuts and blood seeped from the thin openings, but flowed freely from the hole in his shoulder. Dazed and worn, Joe tried to keep his eyes opened, but the pain mixed with his overpowering need for the essentials was more than he could stand and he slowly slipped into a darkened world of oblivion, free from the pursuit of his tormentors and free of the pain that paralyzed his aching body.
“He’s got to be here somewhere,” growled Cory as he thrashed about in the bushes. “I know I got him with my knife.”
“Are ya sure, Boss…I mean, it is possible that ya…” stammered Lou.
Cory turned black, angry eyes toward his partner; his lips were set in a tight straight line.
“I don’t miss, you fool!” he snarled.
“I can’t find any sign of him, Cory…ya suppose he got away?” Thomas asked.
He was gasping for air. The boss had sent him on ahead to search for the boy, and he had looked everywhere, but had given up and came back empty handed.
“Anything’s possible you idiot, but not likely. He’s here; I can smell the fear in him, we just have to keep searching, that’s all,” determined Cory. “Lou, look over there, Thomas, you move back the way you came, maybe you missed something.”
“Alright, boss, but what about you? Which way ya going?” Thomas inquired, finally getting his second wind. “It’s gonna be dark in an hour or two…”
“Then search until then…I’m going back to camp and make sure things are in order.”
He turned and glared at the pair. “Don’t come back without him, understand?”
“But Boss,” whined Lou, “what if we can’t find’em? I mean, geeze Boss, ya done killed one of Cartwright’s boys…ain’t that enough?”
“I know that…and you’re probably right, but this kid…he irks me. He’s a smart mouthed punk, and I want him…just because I know I can. And he’s afraid of me…and he hates me with a passion for killing that big ox of a brother of his…that makes him dangerous, don’t you see? If he’s not dead, he’s liable to come looking for me…and I don’t like watching my back, so find him, and when you do, bring him or his body back to me, now get moving, times wasting.”
“Alright, but I don’t see what chance we have, not in the dark…” grumbled Lou as he tossed his head in Thomas’ direction and marched off into the thicket.
It was nearly dawn before Joe began to stir about. He moaned softly as he raised his head to peer about him. His mind was boggled from the rough and tough fall he’d made and the stab of pain in his shoulder nearly caused him to cry out loud.
Joe sucked in a chest full of air and let it out slowly. His hands felt numb from the lack of blood flowing into them and when he tried, he could barely move his fingers. Glancing around, Joe spotted the remains of the knife that had somehow been dislodged from his shoulder.
For the first time in three days, Joe grinned, his heart filled with new hope. Using his head to balance himself, Joe pulled his legs up under him until he was able to get to his knees. He then turned over, sitting on his backside and using his hands, managed to scoot along on his rump until he was able to reach the knife. Joe gritted his teeth against the throbbing in his shoulder as he grasped the knife in his hand and began sawing at the ropes that still held his wrists bounds behind his back. All the while he worked, Joe kept a sharp eye out for the three men who had relentlessly pursued him the night before.
Joe had to stop to rest his aching hands and fingers several times, but alas, the ropes were cut entirely.
“Whew,” Joe muttered as he rubbed new life into the fingers.
The limbs throbbed as the blood began to flow into the tips of his fingers and Joe was forced to clench his jaw tightly. Several times he flexed his hands and fingers, willing them to do what they were designed to do. When he felt sure that they were once again useful, Joe turned his attention to his shoulder.
The bleeding had been stopped by the accumulation of debris that had stuck to the congealed blood. The litter had served the same purpose as a compress might have in stopping the loss of blood.
Joe tried to see the wound by looking over his shoulder, but it was impossible. Instead, he took off his belt and fashioned a sling to support the injured arm.
“Thank goodness it wasn’t my left arm,” he whispered.
Joe peered through the trees and rocks from his hiding place, down toward the cabin where he knew Cory and his two blundering accomplices were still hiding. His common senses told him that he should make his way home, but the hate that had festered in his heart overruled his better judgment. More so than ever before, Joe was determined to even the score between himself and Cory Waters, the man who had murdered Hoss without so much as a sign of remorse. Cory had done so with a smirk on his face that seemed to say that the world had lost nothing more than an over sized galoot.
But Joe knew better, Hoss was the kindest, gentlest man he had ever known. Hoss had been his best friend, brothers till the end, they had always promised one another. The gentle giant was a man among men, one who loved deeply, who had more compassion for his fellow man than most men have for their own families. Hoss had been one of a kind, and the searing memory of him lying in a pool of his own blood, shot down needlessly by a man who cared so little for life, sent a refreshing dose of hate surging though Joe’s veins.
Mind and body were weary; a heart was broken into a trillion pieces, yet Joe Cartwright stepped into the clearing and shouted out Cory’s name. He waited with bated breath for his brother’s murderer to emerge from the cabin. His only weapon, hatred…a loathing so deep that the fine features, covered in dirt and dust betrayed the gentler side of his nature and twisted his facial appearance into one that would frightened the bravest of men.
Cory emerged from the cabin, surprised that his young captive was capable of calling him out, but he refused to allow his surprise to be seen by the hate filled eyes that glared at him. Behind him, Thomas and Lou stepped into the morning light, hands already resting on the side arms that hung low on each hip.
“I thought you were dead, Cartwright,” Cory muttered, moving further into the yard and turning just enough that he placed himself with his back to the bright, glaring sun.
Cory knew that Joe had no weapon and that his right arm was totally useless. He could only wonder what the maimed kid had up his sleeve, what plan did the boy have?
“I’m going to kill you, Waters,” Joe threatened. “You murdered my brother.”
Cory snickered, gloating at the man before him.
“With what, one arm, one hand…it isn’t likely, Cartwright. I’d say the odds are against you,” he taunted, nodding his head at Thomas and Lou.
“Could be I might die…but you’ll know you’ve been in a fight, that is, if you’re man enough to face me alone,” Joe dared.
He’d been watching Thomas and Lou move in behind him. It was trying, watching all three men at once, but Joe kept Cory well within his sights and gave the murdering rascal most of his attention.
“Are you…or are you all talk? It’s easy to shoot a man down in cold blood, but are you man enough to fight me…You’ll have the advantage, I’ve only one arm, no thanks to you and that sharp knife you carried around.”
Thomas and Lou both laughed at the suggestion. Cory made a snickering sound, but Joe noticed that the man had unbuckled his gun belt and tossed it off to the side. Joe moved as Cory moved around in a circle. Joe’s full attention was now on the man that he loathed and was unaware that Cory had maneuvered him in such a way that his back was now to Thomas and Lou.
“This shouldn’t take long,” Cory jeered.
The man charged at Joe. His head low, Cory plowed into Joe’s mid-section, doubling Joe in half and sending him staggering backwards and into the waiting arms of his two cronies.
Thomas and Lou grabbed Joe’s arms and forced him upright, giving Cory an open target. Joe let out a loud gasp of agony but the scream was lost in the forceful blow to his stomach. Unable to fold his body into a protective ball, Joe waited until his tormentor charged him a second time and used the pair holding his arms as a lever, Joe raised both legs and kicked Cory Waters in the lower abdomen.
Cory dropped to his knees. Joe jerked his good arm free and managed to drive his folded fist into Thomas’ face. Thomas screeched loudly and turned away, leaving Joe free to do the same to Lou.
His first assailant charged Joe from behind, jumping onto the boy’s back. Cory pounded his fist into the wound in Joe’s shoulder. Once more an agonizing scream filled the air as Joe toppled to the ground, Cory still clinging to his back.
Cory was relentless in his attack of the younger man. Taking advantage of Joe’s disadvantage, Cory grabbed Joe and flung him onto his bloodied back and began pounding Joe’s face repeatedly with his fists.
From deep within himself, Joe’s determination labored to overcome the brutality of his attack. He fought back with every once of his waning strength. The picture of Hoss lying dead drove him; his hate of the man fired his need to kill. Slowly the advantage became his as Joe at last gained the upper hand.
Beyond him, unaware that others had joined him, Joe’s only resolve was to avenge his brother’s dead. The boy became as a mad man, delivering one powerful blow after another, practically rendering Cory Waters senseless. When Cory sank to the ground next to him, Joe straddled the man’s body and placed his hands about the villain’s throat. Cory’s eyes flashed with fear as the slender fingers tightened about his neck, stifling the air needed to keep him alive.
Joe’s emerald eyes were as sparks of fire. His jaw was set firm; his hands had become lethal weapons, yet he smiled down into the face that fought for air.
“Now you die, Waters…” Joe said with gritted teeth. “This is for killing my brother!”
The fingers tightened. Cory’s legs jerked about as the dying man tried in vain to remove Joe’s body from his own. The man beneath him bucked and twisted; his hands covered Joe’s trying fruitlessly to remove them from his throat. Cory’s eyes rolled back in his head, his hands fell free from the ones squeezing his life from his body…
“JOE! JOE! NO, DON’T DO IT, SON, DON’T DO IT!”
Hands grabbed at Joe’s shoulders, forcibly trying to remove his hands from Cory’s throat. Another set of hands grabbed his and prized his fingers from around the dying man’s neck. Joe twisted his body about, trying to recapture his hold on his brother’s murderer.
“LET ME GO…LET ME GO!” He screeched loudly.
Joe’s face was a twisted mixture of hate and grief and pain. He was roughly pulled away from the man by the very hands that had always before been a comfort to him. But in his illogical state of mine, Joe was unaware that his father and his older brother were the ones trying to prevent him from doing the very thing that he believed Cory Waters had done…and that was to murder a man in cold blood.
Joe’s extreme hate and deep seeded grief fashioned him into a man that neither his father nor his brother, Adam, had ever seen before.
“Joe…listen to me,” Ben pleaded as he grasped Joe firmly about the waist to keep him from his victim.
He hauled Joe from Cory’s body and spun the boy around, losing his hold on his son. Joe dropped to the ground and tried to crawl back to Cory who was gasping for air and being helped up by Adam.
Ben dropped to ground in front of his distraught son. Joe’s eyes had filled with tears that dripped down the front of his dirt-smeared face. The tiny droplets left miniature white tracks in their wake. Joe, by this time was sobbing, his thoughts still dominated by his need to kill as he struggled with his father.
Just as suddenly and without warning, Joe’s strength dissipated. He stopped struggling as he rested on his knees, his head lowered in defeat as he wept.
“Pa,” he sobbed, “you don’t understand…I have to kill him…I promised…I promised Hoss…Hoss, Pa…that man killed my brother…Hoss is DEAD!” he shrieked loudly, as the past events overcame him. Joe fell into his father’s opened arms.
Ben’s arms automatically wrapped about the trembling shoulders as he gathered his son in close. Ben’s hands lovingly held Joe’s head pressed against his rapidly beating heart. His own voice was laden with emotion as he tried to comfort the sobbing boy.
“No…No…Joseph, listen to me…please son,” Ben muttered, glancing down into the upturned face, so dirty and so battered from the abuse he’d endured.
“He’s dead,” Joe continued to cry.
“No…Hoss is alive, son…he’s alive…” Ben assured.
“I promised to kill…” Joe’s words faltered as his father’s statement began to take shape in his head.
“Hoss is alive, son…Adam and I found him, two days ago. He’d been shot, but he wasn’t dead, Joe…he wasn’t dead. So you see, son, there’s no reason for you to kill Cory…no reason…” Ben said with a thickness in his voice.
Adam had turned the men over to Roy and his group of men who had joined in the search for the missing Cartwright. Now he had joined his father, who still held Joe in his arms. Adam squatted down and patted his brother on the back. Joe turned tearful eyes upward to look into his brother’s face.
“How do you think we knew where to look for you, kid?” Adam said with a grin. “You should know by now that it takes more than one little old shoulder wound to keep that big brother of ours down,” he said with a light laugh.
Joe still looked doubtful. “Are you positive?” he asked weakly, looking from one concerned face to the other. “He sure looked like he was dead…all that blood…”
“Well, I ain’t dead!”
All eyes turned to see Hoss as he dismounted and walked as if he had no cares in the world, over to where his father was helping Joe to his feet. A sling that was tied about his neck supported Hoss’ injured arm.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Ben as he dusted some of the dirt from Joe’s clothing. “You were told to stay in bed!”
“Aw…I ain’t hurt bad…’sides,” he grinned as he approached his younger brother. “I thought maybe the kid here, might need my assistance,” he laughed.
Hoss grinned down at Joe, whose chin began to quiver. The boy fought back the tears that threatened to spill over.
“Boy…are you a sight for sore eyes!” he grinned as he flung his arm about the bigger man’s neck.
Hoss held his brother in a bear hug until Joe moaned softly. When Hoss released his brother, Joe began sinking to ground. Quickly Ben grabbed Joe’s arm and with Adam’s help, held Joe upright.
Joe, his eyes dazed, grinned up at his father. “Guess I need to lay down,” he said as he passed out.
Three days later found Joe sitting up in bed, enjoying a hot breakfast. Hoss sat in a chair nearby and watched his brother devour his meal.
“Ya better slow down, Shortshanks, ya gonna make yaself sick,” Hoss warned. “That’s your third helpin’ of biscuits and gravy!”
“Can’t help it, big brother,” Joe said as he stuffed another bite into his mouth. “I’m starving to death. You know them rascals didn’t give me one bite to eat the whole time, except for that nasty rag they stuffed in my mouth?”
Hoss scrunched up his face in disgust. “I’d a died, Joe…going three days without food! Why I’d plum near starved to death by the second day.”
Joe giggled. “You’d a die if you went three hours without food,” he teased lightly.
“Yeah…I guess I would have,” Hoss snickered. “Say Joe…I been meanin’ to ask ya somethin’,”
Joe looked up from his plate, but his hand continued to hold the biscuit that he used to sop up the gravy on his plate.
“Was ya really goin’ to kill that fella…Cory?”
The seriousness of the question drew Joe’s attention from his breakfast. He fixed his eyes on his brother’s face. Slowly, Joe allowed the biscuit to drop into the remaining scrape of gravy; he swallowed hard.
“I suppose I was intending to, Hoss. I thought you were dead, and I swore to get even with him for killing you…but…” Joe’s eyes lowered; he found looking into the blue eyes that scrutinized his face, difficult to do.
“Hoss…I’ve never known what it was like to hate a man so much…but I hated Cory Waters…and I guess if Pa hadn’t come along when he did, I’d most likely would have killed him.”
Joe swallowed again and glanced up at his brother who had moved to sit on the edge of the bed, next to him.
“I’m not proud of what I did…but I can’t say I’m sorry either,” he said in a low voice.
“He deserved killing…at least in my thinking, but Pa said that it wasn’t up to me to get revenge. He said that revenge comes from God…not man…and what I was aiming on doing was wrong. I’ve thought a lot about it…I guess it was wrong…but all I could think about was seeing you laying there, covered in blood. You have no idea how that made me feel, Hoss…I mean…you’re…you’re my best friend in the whole world…”
“Pa was right, Punkin…” Hoss grinned. “But I would have probably thought the same thing, thinkin’ ya was killed outright, I’d a done the same as ya did…”
Joe’s expression brightened somewhat and he was able to look directly into his brother’s eyes.
“Well…we are brothers till the end, aren’t we? Of course I’d a wanted to avenge ya murder…but I’d agone about it a bit different,” Hoss explained.
Joe looked puzzled. “Oh yeah, how?”
Hoss tossed back his head and laughed.
“I’d a done what Pa always says to do, ‘let the law handle it’. I’d a brought that varmint in and let Roy hang’em…that’s what I’d a done!”
“And if he didn’t hang…but went free instead…what then?” Joe said.
Again Hoss snickered. “THEN, I’d a done what ya did!”
Hoss and Joe both laughed.
In the doorway, Ben grinned and then turned to go about his business, leaving his two younger sons alone to enjoy one another’s company, as they always had. But as he strolled leisurely down the hallway, Ben paused, raised his eyes heavenward and whispered a soft prayer of thanks that both of his younger son’s lives had been spared, yet again.