Love At Its Best (by DebbieB)

Summary:  Adam and Joe thought their woman problems were over when Adam told his fiancée, Rachel Stanrick, to get out.  Who would have thought she’d have the audacity to return three years later and insist that Adam marry her? What could she possibly do that would make Adam change his mind about how he feels towards her?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG 13
Word Count:  13,490

A Choice to Make Series:

A Choice to Make
Love at Its Best


The cuffs fit tightly about his wrists, which were pulled back behind his back. Once his wrists were secure, the man putting on the chains ran a short length from the wrist’s cuffs downward and locked that length to the shackles around his ankles. He was trapped, with no hopes of getting free and no way of moving, other than to take short staggering steps.

The handsome young man glanced upward at the sky, the sun was at its highest and already he had begun to sweat. He ran his tongue over the tops of his parched lips, he could use a drink, but seeing that his captors were no longer paying any attention to him, he knew it was doubtful that they would even offer him a much-needed swallow from one of their canteens.

He felt a sharp jab to the middle of his back. He flinched and turned his head to see which of the men had inflicted the discomfort. It was the one that he’d heard the others call Toby, and he was wearing a glaring look on his face.

“Move it Cartwright,” he growled as he shoved his prisoner forward.

Adam stumbled forward. The short length of chain between his ankles made if difficult to walk and with every other step his took, Toby crammed the barrel of his rifle deeply into Adam’s back. Toby continued his pushing and shoving until they had reached the wagon and then he ordered Adam to stop.

Adam’s black hat had fallen off his head, but no one seemed to notice but Adam, himself. He had started to ask for it, but decided to leave it, it might provide his brother with a clue that something was amiss, when he came looking for him.

“Walt, help him in,” ordered Toby.

The second man tossed his coffee out and dropped his tin cup on to the ground near the fire. He took his own sweet time doing as he was ordered and his sluggishness angered the man standing guard over Adam.

“Cain’t’cha get a move on?” Toby shouted.

“Aw…hold ya horses,” grumbled Walt as he stepped behind Adam.

Walt stepped up into the back of the wagon and issued an order for Adam to turn around. Adam complied. He was now facing Toby and had his back to Walt. He felt Walt’s hands as they grasped his shoulders and when Walt began hoisting his body up onto the back of the wagon, Adam was forced to clamp his jaws tightly to keep from crying out from the pain he felt in his arms and legs.

“There, enjoy the ride,” Walt sneered as he released Adam’s shoulders and let the chained man’s head fall against the hard wooden boards that made up the floor of the wagon.

Adam was forced onto his back by Walt’s cruel hands and then, Walt forced Adam’s jaws apart with the fingers of one hand while stuffing a rag into his opened mouth. Adam tried to twist his head around to avoid being gagged, but his efforts only earned him a harsh whack to the side of his face.

“Be still, damnit,” growled Walt as he finished tying the band of cloth around Adam’s face and securing the rag within the dazed man’s mouth.

Adam stopped struggling; the side of his face stung where Walt had slapped him. He silently cursed himself for having let down his guard and turned his back on these two strangers. He should have known better, he chided himself. This bit of carelessness was akin to something that Little Joe might have done, not Adam, not after all the warnings his father had preached to him throughout his twenty-nine years. He leaned his head back and rested it on the sack that he had seen in the back of the wagon. The slightly elevated position seemed to lessen the pull of the chains on his arms and legs. Adam took a deep breath through his nose and let it out slowly; until Hoss returned and found him missing, he was stuck.

Walt jumped down from the wagon and with Toby’s help, they pulled a canvas tarp over the top of the wagon, hiding their prisoner from prying eyes. Without a word between them, they quickly secured the tarp and then Toby climbed into the seat.

“Red Rock Canyon’s a good long and hard ride from here, ‘specially in this here wagon,” Toby grumbled to the other man.

“Yeah, ya just be sure to get there on time. The boss ain’t gonna like it none if’n ya late. Rach gave us four days to catch us a Cartwright, and we’s dun wasted more’n a day and half. Now let’s get movin’,” Walt snapped.

Adam could hear the arguing between the two men and wondered who they were, and why they had needed to catch themselves a Cartwright. More so, he wondered who the big boss was, and just why it was so important that he capture one of them. Rach, pondered Adam, a strange name, he’d never heard of anyone by that name and he couldn’t help but wonder at the man’s intentions.

It was late by the time that the wagon finally stopped. Adam ached from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. His bladder felt as if it were ready to explode and the bumpy road had done nothing other than to further his discomfort.

He could hear Toby and Walt talking, but the words were muffled by the tarp that had been put over the top of the wagon. Adam lay motionless trying to make out what the two strangers were talking about, but it was to no avail

“Let’s get him out of there,” Toby said as he began to remove the tarp.

The two men pulled the tarp back and instantly Adam felt the cool air hit him. He struggled to push his body into a half sitting position, for sitting up entirely was impossible with the chains attached to him as they were. He twisted his head, until he felt hands on his face that were tugging at the gag in his mouth. When the gag was removed, he spit out the rag and began sucking in large amounts of air to fill his lungs.

“Come on Cartwright, out ya go,” laughed Toby as he grabbed the chains around Adam’s ankles and began pulling Adam roughly forward on the hard wooden floor.

“Take it easy,” growled Adam.

He was stiff and sore, his bladder was about to erupt and the boards of the wagon bed scraped his backside in a way that was very uncomfortable.

The two only laughed at Adam’s discomfort and continued to haul him out of the wagon. When they had him on his feet, Toby pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it at Adam’s middle.

“Turn around,” he ordered.

Adam glanced down at the gun pointed at him and then back up at the man. He was about to open his mouth and say something, but Walt grabbed his shoulder and shoved him, making Adam spin around until his back was facing the two men.

Adam bit his tongue to keep from marking a sharp comment. He felt Walt fumbling with the chains and then felt the cuffs around his wrists snap open. His arms dropped to his sides and quickly Adam pulled his hands around in front of him and began massaging the feeling back into them.

“Turn around Cartwright, so’s I can see ya face,” Toby ordered.

Adam complied; he wasn’t about to start anything, yet he thought, at least with the chains still locked around his ankles. Any hopes of having those chains removed as well, was short lived when Toby pointed with the end of his gun in the directions of the trees.

“Get goin’,” the man ordered.

“Where to?” Adam asked, not sure what the two dubious men were up to.

“Well I don’t know about you, but I gotta take leak,” laughed Toby as he followed along behind Adam.

They were finished in due time and when they had returned to the wagon; Walt picked up the cuffs. “Turn around,” he ordered in a stern voice.

“Guess there’s no chance of you not using those, is there?” Adam questioned with a look of skepticism on his face.

“You guessed right Cartwright, boss said to bring ya in cuffed and chained. I aim on pleasing, now turn around,” Walt issued.

“About this boss, who is he?” Adam stood with his back to the two men as Walt cuffed his wrists. This time he did not bother to connect the length of chain that ran from his wrists to the shackles around his legs.

His question must have struck his captors as being funny for the pair glanced once at each other and then burst into loud laughter. Adam gave each a disgusted look that only served to ignite their laughter more.

Joe tried to twist his head around so that Rach could not touch his face. He cringed when the boss’ hand grabbed at his chin and forced his face upward. Rach squeezed until the flesh on Joe’s jaw showed red.

“You haven’t changed one bit, Little Joe,” snarled Rach. “You’re still nothing but a cocky little brat!”

Joe jerked his head back one last time and freed his face from the imposing fingers. His reactions to Rach’s words angered the boss and before Joe knew what was happening, Rach slapped Joe across the face. Instantly Joe’s head snapped back, his cheek stung bright red and he turned dark angry eyes up at the one who towered over him.

He was mad, but he held his tongue. Instead he just smiled and raised one eyebrow.

“And you’re still nothing but a bitch, aren’t you Rachel Stanrick?” mocked Joe.

He knew he was pushing his luck with this mad woman, but he couldn’t refrain from putting Adam’s ex-fiancee in her proper place.

Rachel’s own eyes grew dark and she slapped Joe again and then again before he had time to gather his thoughts. She turned and stomped off a few paces and stopped, keeping her back to the young man tied in the chair. Joe could not see what she was doing, not that it mattered, he was in no position to do anything about it, he wasn’t even able to protect himself from the woman who held him prisoner.

Rachel spun around and marched back to Joe, stopping in front of him. “You think you were so smart, turning your brother against me three years ago, well, I have news for you, Little Joe…your brother will marry me this time…”

Joe snickered, all the time keeping his eyes on the woman. Rachel had begun pacing the floor in a nervous manner.

“SHUT UP!” she snarled loudly. “He will marry me, you just wait and see…because Little Joe…if he doesn’t, he’ll be very, very sorry that he didn’t!”

“I doubt that, my brother Adam is smarter than you give him credit. There’s nothing that you can say, or do, that will make him marry you…he hates you…you are aware of that, aren’t you?” Joe informed the woman. He couldn’t resist the urge to taunt her.

Rachel stopped her pacing and deemed it her time to laugh. “Oh you foolish boy…you are naïve, aren’t you?” laughed Rachel. “You just wait…that damn brother of yours is so noble, he’d do anything to save your useless hide, even marrying a woman that he hates!” Rachel glared down at Joe, a menacing look on her pretty face.

“What do you mean, save my hide?” Joe asked, suddenly suspicious of the woman. Was she playing tricks with his mind? Just what did this deceitful woman have planned for him?

Rachel threw back her head and laughed loudly in a very unladylike manner. “Simple, if he doesn’t marry me, he’ll just have to watch his baby brother die, that’s all!”

Joe grew silent; he lowered his head for several moments, pondering her words, before looking up. Rachel was studying his face and her scrutiny of him, unnerved him.

“You’ve got to be joking,” he said.

He willed his voice not to tremble, for he had learned three years ago, just what this woman was capable of doing. And now, because of what happened then, she had spent the last three years hating him for destroying her relationship with his older brother. Joe studied her expression, she was nuts, and time had nothing to improve her disposition or her contempt she held for him.

“Do you think for one minute that if you kill me, my brother could ever love you? If you believe that, you’re crazy!” Joe added.

Rachel spun around on her heels and walloped Joe with her folded up fist. Joe’s head snapped backwards and then slumped forward; she had clipped Joe on the chin and knocked the young man out. Quickly, she grabbed a wadded up cloth and forcing Joe’s mouth opened, stuffed it inside. When she finished, she wrapped a long cloth around Joe’s head, covering his mouth and preventing him from being able to speak once he regained consciousness.

She opened the door to the cabin and ordered her man inside.

She pointed to the unconscious boy, “Carry his chair into the back room, and make sure he keeps quiet. I have plans for him later on,” she smiled wickedly, as she pulled a syringe from her bag. “He will sleep like a baby, once his brother gets here,” she laughed again, and gave the man a frown.

“GET HIM OUT OF HERE! God, I hate that boy with a passion, I won’t mind in the least killing him!” she snarled as her guard drug Joe, chair and all, into the back room and shut the door, leaving him alone in the darkened room.

The wagon finally stopped. Adam tried to wrench his head around attempting to remove the blindfold that the men had used to cover his eyes. Adam had wondered why the blindfold, but Walt had only hinted to him that the boss had ordered it, to protect the boss’ identity. He could hear Walt and Toby whispering and knew when they had gotten down from the wagon. For several moments everything was quiet and then Adam could hear the squeaking of a door as it was being opened. Again he could hear the mumbled voices but could not make out what was being said. He knew that someone else had joined Walt and Toby, but that person was speaking in a voice so low that Adam could barely hear the person.

Adam suddenly felt hands grappling at his body and he began to fight against the persons that were trying to haul him from the wagon. One man grabbed his arms and another grabbed the short length of chain that separated the shackles about his ankles. He felt his body being raised from the rough wagon bed and though he tried, he could not refrain from moaning at the pressure put on his arms and legs.

“Take it easy,” Adam heard Walt order, “Boss wants him in perfect condition.”

“Ah, Rach don’t care what condition he’s in, only that he’s here and in one piece,” laughed Toby. “Move aside Mace.”

Adam listened to the banter between the men. He counted three, plus the boss, whomever he was, and wondered if there might be more. As it were, he was outnumbered four to one, which in Adam’s way of thinking, were not very good odds, even if his hands were not chained.

Adam was carried inside and Rachel pointed to the cot on the far side of the cabin. There were no words needed, the men seemed to understand when she pointed and the silent instruction was followed obediently. He felt his body lowered onto something soft and figured it to be just what it was.

Rachel gave another silent command, and the chains were removed and Adam was helped into a sitting position. Adam straightened himself up and rubbed at his wrists where the chains chaffed his skin. He made to take away the blindfold but was stopped by a hand placed over his. He stopped, surprised at the tender feeling of the flesh against his work worn skin. It was then that he noticed for the first time, the faint scent of a woman’s perfume, and though he couldn’t see whom it was that stood before him, he raised his head questioningly.

“Well, this is a pleasant surprise…when may I have the pleasure of seeing your face, which I’m sure is very lovely, if the softness of your hand in mine is anything to judge by?” Adam said in a light voice.

Rachel motioned for the guards to leave them, and moments later she was alone with the man she had once loved but now hated with a passion. She would play his game, but only until she tired of it. Rachel smiled to herself and tenderly ran her hand down the side of Adam’s face until she cupped his chin. Gently she tilted his head upward and then lowered her own head, placing her lips gently over his and sealing his mouth with a kiss. She pressed her lips tightly against his, savoring the rush of passion that filled her.

His breath caught in his throat as Adam returned the woman’s impassioned kiss. He felt his senses reeling as she forced her tongue into his mouth and explored the warm interior. When she pulled away, he was reluctant to do the same, for her fervency had awakened a desire in him that had long been denied.

Rachel’s eyes had grown dark with desire as she studied what could be seen of Adam’s face beneath the blindfold. The sensations that his kiss had stirred within her shook her very being. She had hated him for such a long time, that the sensuality of his kiss had caught her unprepared.

Rachel took a deep breath to calm herself and steady her breathing. “It’s been a long time, my darling,” she said at last.

Adam, whose hand still covered hers, let his hand fall away. He tugged at his blindfold, trying desperately to remove it from his eyes so that he could see into the face of the woman standing in front of him. His fingers fumbled with the knot until he gave up and jerked the blindfold upward over his head.

When Adam looked up, his bottom jaw fell slack, as his eyes grew dark with anger. Quickly he checked his response, closing his mouth as he stared into the face of the woman that he had once believed he had loved. Rage caused his body to shudder and he stood to his feet. His jaw was now clenched tightly, his fingers folded into tight fists and when he spoke, his anger was evident in the tone of his voice.

“What the hell is the meaning to all of this?” he demanded, towering over the woman.

His dark glare frightened the young woman and Rachel found herself taking a step backward, putting distance between herself and her one time lover. She tried to smile, but felt the corners of her mouth twitch as she did so.

“Darling,” she said coyly, “that’s not a very nice way to speak to me.”

“Don’t ‘darling’ me!” snapped Adam. “You had better have a damn good reason for having me kidnapped and chained, and brought here…against my will!”

Rachel found it hard to look into the handsome face that had haunted her dreams for months on end. Casually, she strolled around the edge of the table and stopped, smiling up at him.

“Adam, you can’t say that you’re not happy to see me…by the way that you kissed me, I can only assume…”

Adam banged his fist down on the table. “I’m not the least bit happy to see you…and as for that little display of passion, that was totally your doings, I only partook of what was being offered, my dear!”

Rachel tossed back her head and laughed.

“May I ask what is so funny?” Adam snarled.

“Oh Adam, really, you are so dramatic!” Rachel moved closer to Adam.

She knew her men were just outside the door and would come instantly if she called out for them. She grinned, once Adam knew about the boy who was hidden out back, the mighty Adam Cartwright would be like putty in the hands of the potter. She glanced up at his face, smiling, she was most assuredly, the potter.

Joe’s eyes fluttered and opened at last. He was forced to squint for the sun’s rays were blinding. When he tried to move, nothing worked. His head was pounding and thinking straight was almost as impossible as moving seemed to be. Suddenly the sun disappeared as a shadow loomed over him. He pinched his eyes tightly and then opened them. He was surprised to find himself staring at a worn pair of boots. Joe looked up, suddenly terribly frightened at the man who towered over him. He tried to speak, but his mouth was so dry that he could do nothing to force the words from the back of this throat.

Joe tried to wrench his arms free of the mound of dirt that covered his entire body but the earth that they had buried him in restricted any movement other than turning his head from side to side. He felt the panic slowly begin to rise as he realized what a predicament he was in. His eyes clouded with unshed tears, and he was forced to swallow several times to keep at bay the rising bile. He was buried up to his neck in the hard packed dirt. He had known that Rachel Stanrick was ruthless, and that she would go to any means to get what she wanted, but he had not been prepared for such drastic measures.

When he heard the man standing over him laugh, Joe, in spite of his earthen prison, felt his body begin to tremble in fear of what this woman was capable of doing. Surely he had underestimated the woman.

Adam paced around the room; his anger had reached its limit. He glanced at the door, all he had to do was walk away, and he’d be rid of…her. He stopped his pacing in front of the door and glanced at Rachel. She seemed unconcerned with his anger and his hatred, surely she knew he hated her! Adam placed his hand on the door but stopped at the sound of her voice. She didn’t seem bothered with the prospect of his escape.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” she stated simply and matter-of-factly.

“And why not? What’s to stop me?” Adam barked in response.

Rachel placed her hands on both hips and grinned at Adam.

“Have you forgotten? My men are outside,” she reminded him.

“Oh,” grunted Adam as if three armed men were merely a daily occurrence and something that he should fear, for he feared no man. “And if I walk out that door, you’d order them to kill me? Hmm…After all you went through, just to get me here? I hardly think so.” Adam cocked his head and smiled. He tipped the rim of his hat at her and opened the door.

“I’ll have them kill the boy,” she stated calmly, and Adam froze.

Slowly he turned and faced the woman he had once loved. “Boy?” he said slowly. “What boy might that be?”

Rachel saw in the dark eyes a glimmer of uncertainty and she smiled. She was positive now, that she had Adam Cartwright right where she wanted him to be. Rachel sashayed up close to Adam and rested her hand on his chest. Minus any fear she might have felt in the beginning, Rachel fingered the black button on his shirt and then brazenly ran the back of her hand tenderly along his jaw line.

Adam grabbed her wrist and twisted it around, just enough to cause Rachel a smidgen of discomfort. He heard the lady wince in pain, but he continued to keep his fingers wrapped around her wrist.

“What boy?” he snarled through tightly clinched teeth.

“Your kid brother, you know, the one that told all those lies about me and made you hate me…what’s his name…Little Joe, isn’t it?”

Adam’s eyes went black and when Rachel tossed back her head and laughed at him, he twisted her arm a little more, adding to her displeasure and silencing her mocking laughter.

“What about my brother? So help me God, Rachel, if you’ve hurt him in anyway, I’ll kill you!” Adam growled.

It was Rachel’s turn to shudder, for the dark angry look on Adam’s face frightened her, and for the first time since coming up with her plan to force the handsome Adam Cartwright into marrying her, she questioned her judgment.

“Answer me!”

“Let go of my arm, you brute!” Rachel had gathered her nerve and when she yanked on her arm, she broke free of Adam’s fingers. Quickly she stepped away from him.

“There’s no reason to excite yourself, Adam, darling. I’ve brought you here for one reason, it’s really quite simple…” she began.

Adam turned from the door and glared at Rachel. “What reason and what does Joe have to do any of this?” he demanded.

“Please, won’t you sit down,” Rachel pointed to the chair near the table, “and I will explain everything to you, my dear.” She smiled and waited until Adam had taken a seat.

He felt a gnawing fear deep down in his gut and he almost dreaded to hear what this vile young woman was about to tell him. Adam knew it could not be pleasant, for nothing about what Rachel Stanrick did was pleasant. He silently chided himself for having thought that he could possibly love a woman such as she. All the mean and nasty things she had done to his youngest brother, and the boy had not even been fifteen at the time. He remembered the lies she’d told to him, about Little Joe and herself. She’d tried to make herself out the victim when in truth Joe had been the one victimized by her. Adam clenched his jaw, now here she was again, and somehow she had managed to bring Joe back into the picture.

Rachel moved around the table, keeping it safely between Adam and herself. She studied his face and she knew that he would go crazy with anger once she told him about her plan and what she would do to his kid brother, should he fail to comply with her wishes.

“You see Adam, I brought you here so that you and I could be married and…”

“WHAT!” shouted Adam, jumping to his feet. “I know you’ve lost your senses now, there’s no way in hell I’m going to marry you!” Adam almost laughed in the woman’s face, but something about the look in her eye, warned him against doing so.

“I didn’t think you would marry me, not willingly at least. That’s why I brought some collateral,” she smiled slyly at him.

“What do you mean, collateral? And you still haven’t told me what my brother has to do with this crazy scheme you have plotted,” Adam sat on the edge of the table, his long arms folded across his broad chest.

Oh, she thought, he thinks he’s so smug…ere…you just wait Mr. High and Mighty!

“Oh, I think you will marry me, and very soon or…”

“Or what? You’ll sic your dogs on me? Well lady, I don’t frighten that easily!” Adam had stood up and slowly rounded the table.

Without warning, he grasped Rachel by the shoulders and drew her body against his. His eyes scrutinized her face and he heard himself groan, for despite her wicked ways, she was still beautiful and he still ached with the desire to kiss her again. He lowered his head, his lips already slightly parted and moist, but she turned her head, snapping him back to reality.

“You may kiss me Adam, but only after we are married,” she hummed.

Adam gave her shoulders a firm shake and forced Rachel to look up at him. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that…now you better start doing some explaining. I want to know just how my kid brother fits into this.”

“Alright Adam,” she sighed and wrenched free of his hands. She wouldn’t admit it, to him leastwise, but the very touch of his hands on her body filled her with longing.

She strolled casually to the rear door and opened it. Walt was standing guard and she motioned for him to follow her. “Come on Adam, I’ll show you my collateral,” she wiggled her finger at him and he trailed along behind her.

When Adam glanced over his shoulder, both Toby and Walt were at his back. Toby had his pistol pointed at him and was carrying a set of wrist cuffs in his other hand. Walt was toting a double-barreled shotgun and every once in a while dug it into the small of his back, a silent reminder of who was in charge. Adam kept his thoughts to himself as he followed Rachel around the corner of the shed and into the bright sunlight.   At first he had to shield his eyes from the bright rays. He wasn’t sure what it was that Rachel expected him to see, until she stepped aside. It was then that he saw his brother, and what he saw left him speechless.

“JOE!” screamed Adam as he made a mad dash for his brother, who was buried in the dirt up to his neck.

Walt and Toby each grabbed his arms and hauled him backwards stopping Adam. Adam lost his balance and tumbled to the ground. Instantly he began fighting against the two men, but lost his battle when Toby whacked him over the head with the butt of his pistol. Adam lay crumbled on the ground just feet from where his brother was moaning painfully.

“Adam,” uttered Joe in a weak voice.

“Chain him to that tree!” ordered Rachel as she pointed at a nearby sapling that grew just a few feet away but still within view of the boy. Rachel wanted to be sure that Adam could see his brother, and watch as the boy suffered.

She watched as Toby and Walt dragged Adam’s body over to the tree and propped him up with his back against the trunk. Walt affixed one cuff around Adam’s wrist and wrapped the chain around the tree trunk. Toby took the other cuff and fastened it to Adam’s other wrist, securing it snugly. Adam was as trapped as his brother, and with no hope of escaping, and no way of helping his defenseless brother, unless he could find a way to rip the tree from the ground where it’s roots sank deeply into the hard soil, and that wasn’t likely.

Adam tilted his head backward and squinted up at the sun. His head was pounding and it was several moments before he could bring his eyes into focus. Suddenly his senses seemed to snap him from his stupor as the memory of his brother jarred him back to reality.

“JOE,” he called loudly, his eyes searching the ground.

“Adam?”

He heard the weak plea.

“Here Joe, over here buddy,” Adam called out.

He watched as Joe struggled to turn his head so that he could see Adam. “Are you hurt?” Adam asked when he was sure that Joe had spotted him.

“My…chest…it’s hard…to breathe,” moaned Joe.

“Just take it easy buddy. Try not to move around any more than you have too,” advised Adam.

“Adam…it…was…” Joe’s words were coming out in painful grunts as he tried to suck in much needed air to fill his lungs.

“Rachel…I know Joe, and I’m sorry about this. I’ll get you out of here, somehow, I promise, Joe, I promise.”

Joe turned his head slightly so that he could see Adam. Adam saw the painful expression on his younger brother’s face and the haunted look in his eyes and knew without asking that his brother was suffering. Adam was afraid that Joe had already given up.

“Joe listen to me…” he began.

“No…Adam…don’t marry…her, that’s…why she’s…doing…this…so you’ll marry…her,” Joe strained to get his warning out to his brother.

“Well, well, well,” taunted Rachel as she strolled up to the tree where Adam was chained. Her two cohorts were with her and when she stopped, Walt moved to where he stood behind Joe’s head.

“I suppose you find this amusing?” Adam asked as he glared upward into the woman’s face.

“Certainly, don’t you?” she snickered.

“What do you think?” growled Adam.

Rachel slithered up next to Adam and gently ran her hand down his cheek, smiling seductively up at him.

“Oh Adam, Adam, Adam, must you always be so nasty to me? All I wanted to do was to bring you here, so that we could be married and live…happily ever after,” she said in a wee voice that dripped with sarcasm, and then pinched his cheek as one would a small child.

Adam jerked his head away from her fingers. “I’ve already told you…I don’t plan on marrying you, or have you forgotten?”

“Oh no,” she said with wide eyes, “I haven’t forgotten. But you will change your mind…just you wait and see. The boy there,” she nodded her head in Joe’s direction, “will die, unless you marry me, it’s that simple, Adam…you decide, it’s either marry up with me, or your brother pays with his life!”

She twirled around as if to leave, but stopped and turned around to face the man she planned on taking as her husband.

“You have twenty-four hours to make up your mind, or the kid dies, and you’ll watch how slowly and painfully death will take him,” she snarled.

“Walt!” she shouted.

Adam turned toward the man standing behind his brother. He was totally shocked and speechless as he watched the man pick up a shovel full of dirt and dump it on Joe’s head. Joe sputtered and tried to turn his head to avoid the dirt getting in his face but there was nothing he could do to prevent it from happening. By the time that Walt lifted the second shovel full over Joe’s head, Adam had found his voice.

“NO! STOP!” he bellowed loudly.

Rachel held up her hand, halting Walt from dumping another shovel full of dirt on Joe’s head. She turned to Adam, a twisted smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“Yes my dear? Did you wish to say something?”

She had placed her hands on her hips and was swaying gently from side to side in front of Adam. He swallowed, for her beauty stirred in him a deep longing. Damn her, thought Adam, why did she have to be so conniving?

“Leave the boy out of this Rachel…he’s done nothing to you…”

“DONE NOTHING!” screamed Rachel, angered by Adam’s words. “LIES, LIES, AND MORE LIES, THAT’S WHAT HE’S DONE TO ME!” She took a deep breath and inched closer to his face.

“He turned you against me, dearie, remember? It was that brat,” she pointed a finger in Joe’s direction, “that destroyed your love…and my life.”

Rachel walked the few steps to stand over Joe. She’d like nothing better that to kick his face, but she resisted the temptation, there would be plenty of time to rid herself of the kid, once Adam agreed to marry her. She scowled down at Joe and kicked a bit of dirt in his face before walking back to Adam.

“You have twenty-four hours to make up your mind, Adam…either marry me, or the boy dies.”

With that she walked away, motioning for Walt and Toby to come along with her. Joe and Adam were alone once more. Adam turned to Joe, worried about the painful expression on his face.

“Joe?” he called.

Joe’s lips parted and Adam could see how the boy struggled to inhale. “Joe!” he called a second time.

“I…can’t breathe…Adam,” muttered Joe as his head dipped backwards and his eyes closed.

It was much later when Adam first noticed that Joe had begun moaning again. He had already made up his mind, he would marry Rachel, as much as the idea turned his stomach, but he had to do something, or Joe would surely die. He had no doubts that Rachel would make good her threats, she was ruthless and heartless and cared little about anyone other than her own self. Adam cringed at the thought of being tied to her for the rest of his life, but he’d do what needed to be done, in order to protect his younger brother. With any luck, he could find himself a good lawyer and divorce Rachel, once he was positive that his brother was safely back home with their father. But at what cost, pondered Adam. Rachel could claim half of everything he owned, including his forth of the Ponderosa. Adam pinched his lips tightly together, he’d never allow that to happen, he’d kill the bitch first he swore to himself. He’d be damned if he let her take away so much as one acre of what his father and his brothers had worked a lifetime to achieve. He aimed on keeping what was his, his father’s and his brothers’, including keeping Little Joe alive.

“Ah…ah…help…me…”

Joe tossed his head from side to side. Adam could see his brother’s face plainly in the bright moonlight. The boy looked haggard and the tiny beads of perspiration that had collected on Joe’s brow, glistened in the glow of light fathered by the moon. Joe groaned again, this time more dejectedly and the sound both angered and worried the older Cartwright.

“Joe,” Adam called softly.

“Don’t…wanna…die…like…this,” cried Joe in distress.

“Joe…buddy, listen to me…you’re not going to die! Do you hear me?” Adam demanded.

“Water…water…please…” Joe’s voice faded into a low murmur and Adam could no longer understand his brother’s mumbling.

“Damn you Rachel, a hundred times damn you!” cursed Adam, tugging fruitlessly on his chains.

Wonder where them two took off too?” Hoss pondered aloud to his father.

They had given up waiting for Adam and Joe and had gone ahead and began eating without the pair, something that had put Ben in a bad mood, his oldest and his youngest sons both being late to the table.

“How should I know, I thought you went with Adam, now you’re telling me that Little Joe went instead?” grumbled Ben as he jabbed at the food on his plate with his fork.

“Nosir, I went with Adam, but then I came back…”

“Oh,” muttered Ben, giving Hoss a doubtful look, “and then Joe went with your brother?”

“Nosir, see Pa…”

“No Hoss, I don’t see!” snapped Ben as he tossed his fork down in his plate.

The silverware made a tiny dinging noise when it was dropped. Ben pushed back his chair and stood up, dropping his napkin down on top of his plate and covering the shiny silver fork.

“Pa…Adam and I went out to the upper pasture this afternoon. We were almost finished with that fence, when Adam told me to come on home. He said he would finish it and be along directly, ‘ceptin’ he ain’t here yet,” Hoss twisted his face up, making his nose wrinkle as well.

Ben moved around the table and went to the front door and opened it wide, peering out into the night. After several moments, he closed the door and glanced up at the grandfather clock. At that instance the clock chimed the hour, it was eight o’clock. Ben let out a long sigh and returned to the table.

“What about Little Joe?” he asked Hoss.

Hoss swallowed the sip of coffee he had in his mouth and shrugged his shoulders.

“Don’t rightly know, Pa…I ain’t seen the scamp since breakfast. Joe said he was riding out to check on the herd in the lower pasture and then…”

“That shouldn’t have taken him all day!” snapped Ben.

“Nosir, I reckon it shouldn’t have,” agreed Hoss.

He cast worried eyes up at his father who had stood up once again. Ben wandered into the great room and snatched the paper off the center table and then lowered himself into his red leather chair. Hoss shrugged his shoulders and followed his father, seating himself on the settee.

“Ya don’t reckon anythin’s happened to’em, do ya?” Hoss asked after a few silent minutes.

Ben lowered his paper just enough so that he could peer over the top at Hoss. He studied his middle son’s face, the boy was worried, that much was plain to see, but he wondered if there was reason to worry. It wasn’t like either Adam or Joe to be this late, and, decided Ben, they had both gone in different directions. Could their tardiness just be coincidental? Probably not, he decided. Joe was the one most likely to be late…but Adam…that was unusual…perhaps…

“Pa?” Hoss said in a troubled voice. “Ya don’t reckon somethin’s happened to’em, do ya?” he asked again.

“No…no, son, I don’t think that at all,” Ben said with more assurance than he felt.

“Joe?” Adam whispered.

It had grown very dark and the moon had slipped behind a cloud, making Joe’s face invisible to Adam. He hadn’t heard a sound from his younger brother in more than two hours and the silence was almost deafening.

“I’m…here…Adam.” Joe coughed softly trying to clear his throat.

“How are you doing, buddy?” Adam asked. He heard Joe make an attempt to laugh, but it only set him to coughing again.

“Dry…my mouth’s…dry…and it hurts…to breathe…ah…” moaned Joe in a weak voice.

“Just try to hang on Joe, it’ll be light soon, and then I will get us out of this mess,” Adam promised.

“Please…Adam, promise me…you…won’t marry her…she’s no…good,” muttered Joe. “Promise…me?”

Adam took a breath to steady himself; Joe sounded as if he had already resigned himself to the fact that he was dying and Adam was not about to let his seventeen-year old brother give up that easily.

“Joe listen to me…I’d marry the devil himself if it meant saving your hide.” Adam tried to make his voice sound light, so that Joe might be encouraged. “Don’t you worry about me, little brother, I’ll find a way out of that marriage, once I’m sure you’re safe, do you understand?”

“It’s no…use…I can’t last much…longer…like this…” the boy groaned. “Adam…I want…you to know…I…didn’t lie…about her…before…honest Adam…honest.”

“I know that Joe, I suppose deep down, I knew she wasn’t what she claimed to be, I just didn’t want to admit it. And then, after I saw what she was doing to you…well, I couldn’t let her get away with hurting you like that…and I won’t this time either, pal. She’ll pay…I guarantee it!”

“Mornin’ Pa,” Hoss greeted his father as Ben came to the table.

“You’re up awfully early…any special reason?” Ben questioned as he sat down and began filling his plate.

Hoss pinched his lips tightly, forming a straight line across his face. “They didn’t come home last night, Pa, and I aim to go look for’em.” Hoss took another bite of his breakfast and stuffed it into his mouth.

“I see,” Ben said calmly. “And just how were you going to manage that? I mean, you did say that Joe went one way and Adam the other…how do you plan on going in both directions at the same time?” Ben covered his amusement by filling his mouth.

Hoss paused and turned to look at his father. He grinned, showing the gap between his front teeth. “Well now,” he began, “that’s where I was ahopin’ that you wanted to help me. The way I figured it, I could go look for Adam, and you could go look for Little Joe and then…”

Ben interrupted Hoss with his laughter, but just as quickly sobered. “I was planning on asking you the same thing, son,” Ben said seriously. “I’m just a little worried about those two…it isn’t like them not to let me know if they were planning on being gone all night, especially Adam…now Little Joe, that’s another matter.” Ben laughed softly, thinking about his youngest son.

Hoss snickered, “Yeah, Little Joe, he ain’t even allowed to stay out all night…what’d he do if’n he did, anyway?” Hoss laughed, he figured he knew what Adam would be doing, but Little Joe…naw…he wouldn’t!

“I don’t even want to think about what kind of trouble your youngest brother might get himself into by staying out all night, Hoss…I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t in Roy Coffee’s jail right about now!” laughed Ben. “And if he is…”

“You’ll bail’em out…ya always do.” Hoss heehawed loudly and then sobered quickly when he saw his father frown at him.

“Hurry up and eat, son, we need to get going. And the first place I’m going to look for that rascal is in Roy’s jail! You head on back to the upper pasture and see what you can find there. I’ll ride into town, just in case, and we’ll meet back here at noon.”

Hoss wiped his mouth and pushed back his chair. “Sure thing, Pa…oh…and Pa…if’n Joe’s in jail…”

“Never you mind boy, I’ll take care of that little brother of yours, you just find Adam!”

“Yessir!”

At that exact moment, Joe was wishing that very thing, which was, that his father was there to take care of him.

“Pa?”

“No, Joe, it’s just me,” Adam called through the semi-darkness.

“Pa…Pa?”

Adam pulled on his chains for the hundredth time that night and still they refused to give. He glanced up at the sky with relief, seeing how the early dawn was breaking away into morning. It wouldn’t be long now, Rachel would return and he’d be forced into marrying her, she left him no other choice.

Adam fixed his gaze on his brother’s face, which he could barely make out in the fading darkness. Joe looked beat, his face was smeared with dirt where the sweat from his brow had dripped and left thin white streaks along the front of his face. The boy’s head was slumped backwards in an awkward position and Adam knew that Joe would have a crick in his neck when he came around. The eyes were closed and Adam could make out fine narrow paths that began in the corners of each eye and ran downward of his cheeks. It was obvious that his brother had been crying though Adam was not sure if his tears came from the dirt that had been kicked into his face, or from the want of his father.

“Joe…it’s almost day-break, Rachel should be here soon, and I’ll make sure that she gets you out of that dirt pile,” promised Adam.

“Oh, and how will you do that, if you don’t mind my asking?” Rachel had appeared out of nowhere and Adam had been caught unaware.

“How do you think?” he answered with sharpness in his voice. “Can’t you see the boy’s in need of water…let him go Rachel…and I’ll…”

“You’ll what Darling, marry me?” Rachel smiled seductively.

“Yes…I’ll marry you, that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” Adam said.

“Yes…it’s what I’ve always wanted, you knew that when you sent me away.”

Rachel walked over to where Joe’s head protruded out of his earthen prison. She squatted down so that she could better see his face. With her hand, she grasped Joe’s chin and turned his head toward her. Adam could not see the wicked smile that creased her face.

“The boy don’t look very well, Adam,” she said and then rose, returning to stand in front of him.

“Then dig him up and put him on his horse, send him home…”

“What? And have you change your mind? I don’t think so. I think we’ll get married first, and then I’ll let Walt and Toby dig him up,” she smiled at the frown on his handsome face.

Rachel could not resist; she leaned her body against Adam’s and slid her arms up, until they wrapped around his neck. Adam opened his mouth to speak, but Rachel covered his with her own and kissed him deeply. Repulsed at her forwardness and her wickedness, he twisted his head until his lips broke the kiss.

Rachel reacted by laughing loudly as she petted his cheek. “I’ll send for the preacher, we’ll be married right here, and your brother can be your best man,” Rachel turned to glance over her shoulder at Joe who was just coming around. “Not that he’ll ever live to be a man!”

“What do you mean by that?” snapped Adam, seeing for himself just how drained his younger brother really was.

“Look at him, my dear, he doesn’t look as if he’ll even live long enough to see his big brother get married. What a shame,” she mocked and then strolled away. She’d only gone a few paces when she stopped and turned around. “Don’t go away, sweetheart, I’ll be back in a short while. I have to put on my wedding dress.”

The sound of her laughter rang, in Adam’s ears, as an evil reminder of just how shrewd his soon-to-be-wife really was.

Ben pulled his horse to a stop; Hoss was tearing up ground as he raced towards his father. It was only when his middle son pulled his big stallion along side his, that he recognized what Hoss held in his hand.

“Where did you find that?” Ben asked worriedly as he looked at his oldest son’s hat that Hoss held in his hand.

“Along the rode home, Adam must have made it half way afor he lost this. There are tracks everywhere Pa…whomever he met up with took the wagon…and Adam. I found this too.”

Hoss reached into his saddlebag and pulled Adam’s pistol out and handed it to his father. Ben held the gun in the palm of his hand. His fingers folded tightly over the pistol as he looked up into his middle son’s face.

“He’s in trouble son,” Ben said in a low voice. He seemed to be contemplating something. “The sheriff said he hadn’t seen anything of Joe since yesterday morning. Roy said he rode into town with a stranger and then rode out again.”

“Roy didn’t know who the stranger was, or why Little Joe would be riding out with’em? ‘Sides, I thought Joe went over to the lower pasture to check on the herd, what’s he doin’ in town anyway?” studied Hoss aloud.

“I don’t know son, but something tells me that Joe and Adam’s disappearances are connected,” Ben determined.

“But why? If’n they were kidnapped, wouldn’t we have had word by now?” pondered Hoss.

“I don’t know Hoss…I just don’t know. Tell you what son, you ride back into town and tell Roy what you found while I ride on over to the north pasture and see if I can pick up a trail. If someone took the wagon, and Adam was with it, then I’ll follow the wagon trail, you and Roy go there, follow my trail, I shouldn’t be too far ahead of you.”

“Yessir,” agreed Hoss. He turned Chubb toward town and kicked at his horse’s sides. “Let’s ride, Chubby!”

It took Rachel much longer to return than what Adam had thought. He’d been keeping his eyes on Joe, watching how the boy seemed to wither away as the sun continued it’s climb higher and higher into the sky. It was hot, but at least Adam had the comfort of the shade from the tree where he was chained, but Joe, was planted right out in the open where the sun beat down and baked the top of the boy’s head. With each passing hour, Adam’s hatred of the beautiful Rachel Stanrick deepened and by the time that she finally appeared, Adam felt as if he could rip her limb by limb for the ways she had made his brother suffer.

“It’s about time you got back,” he snapped in anger.

“Hold ya tongue, Cartwright,” growled Toby as he shoved the barrel of his rifle into Adam’s middle.

Adam groaned and glared at the man.

“Adam, darling, do you like my dress?” Rachel asked as she prissy-tailed around in front of him.

Had the dress, been worn by any other woman other than the one before him, Adam would have admitted in truth that the dress was indeed lovely. In fact, Rachel had out done herself in preparing for her wedding day, she was radiant, a truth that disturbed Adam immensely. How could he hate her so much and feel a growing desire for her at the same time? He questioned himself on his motives, had the knock on his head affected his thinking…and his logic?

“I asked you if you liked my dress!” she demanded.

His eyes sought her face, she was furious at him for not commenting on the dress immediately and he knew that if he didn’t squelch her anger, she would take it out on Little Joe.

He smiled, “It is beautiful, and I might add, so are you.” Well, it was the truth, he told himself, she was beautiful, the most beautiful bitch in Nevada Territory!

Ben had given up waiting around for Hoss and Roy, figuring that something had detained them, so he had started following the wagon tracks alone. He had ridden hard and fast, a sense of urgency had invited itself to take root in his gut and with his stomach pumping hot acid up into his throat, Ben left Hoss and Roy to find their own way.

It was just after the noon hour, judging by the sun, when Ben pulled Buck to a stop. The wagon tracks had led him this far, to the top of a small rise that overlooked the entrance trail to Red Rock Canyon. Down below, Ben could see the deserted old homestead, but what stopped him was the thin train of smoke that spiraled upward from the chimney.

For several minutes, Ben remained hidden behind the boulders that provided shelter from prying eyes. He recognized his wagon and his team of horses that were locked away in the makeshift corral down below with several other horses. Ben tied Buck’s reins to a scrub brush and carefully wormed his way down behind the rocks toward the shed. He wanted to see what was hidden inside.

It took several moments for him to climb down through the protruding rocks and dry brush but he reached the back of the shed without rousing any attention from the shack’s occupants.

The dirtied window had one pane of glass missing and Ben peered inside. His breath caught in his throat when he spied Joe’s pinto housed in one of the stalls. There were two more horses that each had saddles on them and Ben could easily tell that they had been ridden hard for they were still lathered in sweat. Not very smart, Ben thought to himself.

Ben eased carefully and silently around one corner of the shed and then stopped suddenly as the door to the cabin opened. A man, alone, stepped out onto the broken down porch, rolled a cigarette and then walked slowly toward the shed. When he paused to light his smoke, Ben was able to slide into the shed and hide behind some barrels. The man, known to the others as Mace, took several long puffs on his cigarette and then tossed it into the dirt, stomping it with one foot to be sure it was out. As he entered the shed, he paused, just inches from Ben. As a thief in the night, Ben raised his hand high and brought the butt of his pistol down across the back of the man’s head. Mace dropped like a fly having been swatted. He crumbled to the floor in a heap at Ben’s feet. Quickly, Ben grabbed a rope and pulled the man’s hands behind his back and laced the rope tightly about Mace’s wrists and then pulling the man into the corner, tied his feet and then gagged him. Once secured, Ben headed from the shed toward the cabin. He reached the porch without making a sound. When he peeked into the window, he was just in time to see a woman dressed in what looked to the puzzled Ben, as a wedding dress. Behind her followed three more men and they were all marching out the back door.

Ben slipped off the porch and to the back corner of the cabin and watched as the woman and the men quickly made their way around the other building. Confused by what he was seeing, Ben inched slowly along, darting from tree to tree to avoid being seen. He could hear voices and he listened intently.

Adam! His heart rang out…but Joe’s horse was in the shed! Ben chanced a look around the edge of the building. He almost gasped aloud at what he was witnessing. Adam stood, chained to a tree; Rachel Stanrick, of all people, stood next to his son, smiling happily.

One man stood to Rachel’s right; another man, dressed in a black suite stood before his son and the woman on his left. The third man had moved apart from the others and seemed to be pointing the tip of his rifle at something on the ground. Ben could not see what it was, for the man’s body was casting a long dark shadow over the object that obstructed his view. The third man moved slightly. Ben was watching, and when his eyes at last saw the object, his heart momentarily stopped it’s beating.

“Dear God, Joseph!” Ben cried softly.

He nearly fell to his knees as he legs gave way beneath him. He clung to the side of the building for support until he had steadied himself.

He was horrified at seeing his youngest son buried in the ground with nothing but his head sticking out. His eyes searched his son’s face and the despair and hopelessness that Ben could see etched into the dirtied and sun bronzed flesh that covered the boy’s once handsome features, caused his eyes to fill with tears. Without thinking, Ben started forward and then stopped suddenly by the words that were being spoken.

“Do you, Adam Cartwright, take this woman, Rachel Stanrick, to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love and honor from this day forward until death…”

Ben was disbelieving of what he was hearing. Was Adam actually marrying that insidious woman? It appeared to be so…but why? And then the reason hit him square in the face…Adam was being forced into this marriage in order to protect his brother! The notion stuck in Ben’s craw and he was angrier than ever before; how dare that brazen woman subject his sons to such devious, cruel and inhumane treatment.

“And do you Rachel Stanrick take this man, Adam Cartwright, to be your lawfully wedded…”

“Yes…I do, now hurry it up and get done with this!” Rachel shouted.

Ben was trying to think of some way to interrupt the ceremony before the preacher pronounced the couple as man and wife. He glanced around, unsure of what action to take. There was only two, not counting the minister, and Ben doubted that he would cause any trouble, he’d be startled by the gun play…the gun play, pondered Ben suddenly. He’d have to be careful; he didn’t want either of his sons to be injured. Joe was already in bad shape from what he could make out from his hiding place, and he surely didn’t want his oldest son shot down while being chained to a tree like an animal.

Right then Ben caught a movement in the bushes behind the tree where Adam was being held. He watched closely and then seeing Hoss creeping along on the ground, Ben smiled. He glanced around at the other bushes and saw Roy and two other men. Ben breathed a long sigh of relief and daringly stepped out into the open, pistol drawn and ready to fire.

“Therefore, by the power vested in me and according to the laws of the Territory of Nevada, I pronounce you…”

“NO!”

The sudden outburst from the man standing to Rachel’s right had called an abrupt halt to the ceremony. All eyes turned to stare in shock at Toby who had shouted out. He had grabbed the preacher by the coat front and had shoved him aside. Rachel had tried to grab Toby’s hand, but he brushed her aside as well.

“What are you doing, you idiot!” she screamed at Toby.

She reached out and shoved him, placing her opened hands on his chest and pushing him backwards. Toby stumbled back several paces as Rachel ran to the minister who was trying to dust the dirt from his trousers.

“Hurry it up…get back over here!” screamed Rachel like a woman possessed.

She grabbed the minister’s coat sleeve and tried to drag the man back to her bridegroom, but the man lost his footing and stumbled a second time, falling on one knee.

“Good God, can’t you even stand up!” Rachel continued with her ridicule.

Toby pushed Rachel’s hand away from the minister and began yelling at her.

“You can’t marry him, he don’t love ya…I’m the one what loves ya!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Ya gonna marry me, not him!” he pointed his finger at Adam, and began shaking it under Adam’s nose. Adam pulled his head back as far out of the man’s reach as possible.

Rachel started laughing. The sound was hauntingly vicious as she stepped up to Toby and drove her finger deeply into his chest.

“Marry you! Why, you’re nothing but a drunken tramp. Don’t you remember where I found you? Down in some back alley tavern, so drunk you didn’t even know your own name and you think I’d ever marry you!” Again her laughter pierced the air.

Toby, furious, his body trembling in anger, stepped back from the beautiful Rachel.

“Don’t laugh at me!” he bellowed in a deep voice as he swung out his hand and slapped her pretty face.

Stunned, Rachel tumbled backwards. “Kill him Walt…KILL HIM!” Rachel shrieked at the top of her lungs.

Walt quickly stepped over Joe’s head and pointed his gun at Toby. Toby fired at the same time as Walt. His bullet struck Walt in the center of the chest. Walt’s gun went off as he crumbled to the ground just a short distance from where Joe was buried.

Rachel screamed out in anger and with fists flying, she charged at Toby, hitting him repeatedly in the face, the chest, on the arms, anywhere that her balled up fists could do damage.

Ben started forward, shouting. “Drop your gun!” he said several times.

Roy and Hoss, the two men with them, all came out of the bushes. Rachel was hysterical and well beyond knowing what was happening as she continued with her assault on Toby.

Toby wrenched free of the fraying fists and turned, gun pointed, in Ben’s direction.

“Drop it!” Ben ordered as Hoss grabbed Rachel from behind and pinned her arms to her sides. She kicked at him and tried twisting her body to free herself, but Hoss held on tightly.

“Last warning Mister, drop your gun!”

Toby never batted an eye, but instead raised his gun as if to fire. When Ben saw the unspoken signal, and he fired his gun. Toby fired as well, missing Ben by a foot as he balled himself up and dropped to the ground, dead.

Rachel screamed again, sounding something akin to a wounded animal. She stomped the heel of her boot down onto Hoss’ foot, causing the big man to release his hands and grab at his aching toe. Rachel snatched Toby’s gun from the ground and turned it to Adam. The look in her eyes caused Adam to tremble and he drew back against the tree, all the while knowing that there was no way he could protect himself from her assault.

“Don’t do this Rachel!” Adam said.

“If I can’t have you, neither will any other woman!” Rachel raised the pistol and cocked the trigger.

“Rachel don’t…”

A gun fired and for a fraction of a second, the world stopped spinning and all was silent. And then the beautiful Rachel Stanrick, once the love of Adam Cartwright’s life, fell limply into the dirt.

All eyes turned to Roy, who had fired his gun to save the life of his best friend’s son. Roy swallowed and slowly holstered his pistol. As he walked over to the body, the group of men could see how his hand shook as he gently turned Rachel over to inspect the body.

“She’s dead,” Roy said. He looked sadly up at Adam, his eyes troubled. “She left me no other choice, son…I’m sorry.”

It took Adam, Hoss and their father nearly two hours to dig the dirt away from Joe’s body. Ben had washed the boy’s blistered face and given him a cool drink from his canteen. Joe’s lips were parched and cracked, his eyes red and irritated by the dirt particles that had gotten into them.

“We’ve almost got his arms free,” muttered Adam as he slung a handful of dirt over his shoulder. “Easy Joe, it won’t be long now, buddy,” Adam said.

He glanced at his brother and smiled though Joe was in no shape to see, for he had kept his eyes closed the entire time to prevent more dirt from getting into his eyes.

“I think I can pull his arms out now,” Hoss said as he leaned over the hole and took a hold of Joe’s left arm. Gently he tugged upward. Joe cried out as if in pain and instantly Hoss stopped trying to free the arm from the dirt.

“What’s wrong, son?” Ben questioned, giving Adam and Hoss a worried look.

“My…hands…tied,” groaned Joe. “Hurts…bad…Pa…”

“Tied!” squawked Adam in disbelief. He looked at his father with a painful expression on his face. “She practically buried the boy alive and she left his hands tied behind his back? What kind of a woman was she, anyway!” he demanded.

“I’m sorry Joe…I’d never have thought that she would dare to come back and do this to you. Can you ever forgive me?” Adam brushed his fingers through his brother’s thick curls.

“Just…get me out…please…you promised Adam…”

“Alright, Joe, just hang on.”

Adam glanced at his father and then went to digging with a fervor that Ben had never seen before. Within minutes, Adam had dug down enough that he could reach into the hole and untie his brother’s hands. When he had pulled the rope away, Adam clasped Joe’s arms gently within his hands and taking special care so as not to hurt his brother, Adam raised Joe’s arms upward.

Joe pinched his lips together to keep from crying out in pain. But the agony was etched into every line on Joe’s young face. When he could stand it no longer, Joe’s body went limp against his father who had been cradling the upper portion of his son’s torso in a protective manner.

“He’s out cold, boys. Get to digging, let’s get him out of here before he wakes up,” suggested Ben.

Hoss took over for Adam. They had to toss aside the shovels and were now digging with their hands. It took another hour before they had loosened the dirt enough around Joe’s feet to be able to pull him from his dirt prison. Several times during the course of digging, Joe would wake up, cry out when in pain and then sink again into the world of obscurity.

“Let’s get him inside so that we can wash off this dirt and see how badly he’s hurt,” Ben ordered.

He slipped his hands beneath Joe’s body and started to lift him up. He was about halfway to standing when Adam slipped his hands under his father’s. Ben stopped, looking into Adam’s face.

“Please, Pa…let me carry him?” Adam asked in a low voice that trembled. “It’s my fault…”

“No Adam, it’s not your fault. But you carry your brother, if you like,” Ben offered his son a smile of encouragement and moved his hands, allowing Adam to carry his younger brother into the old cabin.

Inside, he placed Joe carefully on the cot. “Bring me some water and see if you can find some soap and a towel. I want to bathe him off,” Adam said.

Hoss looked questioningly at his father. Ben nodded his head at Hoss, who hurried to collect the soap and water. Ben built up the fire in the old stove and set the water on to heat. When he glanced over to the corner of the room, he could see that Adam had already stripped Joe of his shirt and was now tugging on his boots.

“Need some help?” Ben called.

“No,” Adam said sharply.

Ben noted the sharp edge to his son’s tone of voice but he let it pass. He knew that Adam blamed himself for what happened to his brother, even though the guilt was certainly unjustified. Adam had no way of knowing just how vile that Rachel had become or that she would come back and seek revenge for the things that happened in the past that he or Joe had had no control over. Ben studied his eldest son’s face. It would take time for his son to recover from his hurt, no doubt much longer than it would take his younger son to recover from his injuries.

Ben saw that Joe had opened his eyes. He was having trouble focusing, but Ben noticed that when Joe raised his hand, it went straight to his brother’s face and touched Adam’s cheek. Adam had clasped Joe’s smaller hand in his and was holding it to his lips. Ben could hear the soft mumbled words coming from the cot on the other side of the room, but he had no idea what the two brothers were saying to one another.

Ben stuck his finger into the water to test the temperature. It was warm enough now for a comfortable bath. He turned to tell Adam and then stopped, staring in awe.

Joe had raised up into a near sitting position and had folded his arms about his brother’s neck. Adam in turn had entwined his own long arms about his brother’s body and the two clung to each other as if they had just found one another after a long separation.

Ben felt the dark eyes of his oldest son, turn and look his way. A smile carved his son’s handsome son’s face in to a ray of sunshine, and then Adam winked at his father. Ben felt his heart lurch and nodding his head he exited the cabin.

The minister, Roy and his two men had left earlier with the bodies and Mace, who had been left in the shed tied up. Hoss had stabled their horses and seen that they had been watered and then had given them some grain.

Ben pulled up an old rickety chair and sat down. He’d give Adam and Joe their time together. He had no doubt that they had a lot to talk about, obviously Adam would do most of the talking, at least for now, until Joe felt up to it. And he need not worry that his youngest would lack for care, for Adam could be nearly as bad as his father when it came to mothering the youngest member of the family.

Ben smiled. The sun was beginning to set and the evening sky was ablaze with the heat from the sun. Tomorrow would be another hot day, and a long day, for they would be returning home. Doc Martin would be called to the house to give Joe a thorough examination. Ben would make sure that his friend, the physician would look Joe over from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet…he’d settle for nothing less than a complete recovery.

Time slipped by and before Ben, having been absorbed in his pondering had just realized the sun had set and the day had faded into night. He rose from the old cane back chair and slipped back inside. His eyes went straight to the corner where Joe lay sleeping.

He eased himself over to the edge of the cot. Adam was dozing in a chair; Hoss lay on a pile of soft blankets in front of the fireplace, snoring softly.

Funny, sighed Ben, he had not even been aware when Hoss had slipped inside. Ben glanced down at Joe and was surprised to see that the boy had opened his eyes.

Ben smiled when Joe placed a single finger over his lips and motioned for Ben not to wake Adam.

“He’s had a long day…and night,” whispered Joe.

Ben nodded his head in agreement. “So have you. How do you feel, son?”

“I’m fine, Pa… just a little stiff…but honest…I’m okay…now,” he said, looking at his brother, Adam.

“Wanna know what he told me, Pa?” Joe whispered softly.

“If you’d like to share it with me, yes,” smiled Ben.

He had moved to the other side of the little bed and had sat on the very edge. “What did your brother tell you?”

“He told me that he loved me,” Joe said in a thick voice and then swallow to wash down the knot that had formed in his throat.

Ben gently caressed the boy’s face and smiled. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

“Sure I did, but that wasn’t all he said to me,” answered Joe. “He told me that he used to wish that he had been the youngest, but as he got older, and I got older, he was glad that he wasn’t. He said that when you’re the oldest, you have all this responsibility dumped on your shoulders, whether you wanted it or not, and there were times that he resented having to take those on. But then it dawned on him how important being the first born really was. He said he realized that shortly after my mother died. He said that for the first time in his life, he felt as if he were really needed. He understood then that you needed him in a way that you’d never had to before, and that Hoss and especially me, needed him as well. And he got all choked up, but he said that he needed us just as badly as we needed him. So he promised himself and us that he’d do whatever it took to keep his family safe and together, if it meant dying for one of us, then he’d do it, without question.”

Ben was absorbed in what his youngest son was revealing to him about his oldest son and he marveled in the new found knowledge.

“Go on, please,” Ben encouraged after Joe had changed positions in the little bed and settled himself.

“Adam said that everyday of his life, every morning when he first gets up, he has to make a decision on how he will live his life, for that one day. This is what he told me, he said, ‘Joe, I choose love, because no occasion justifies hatred, even though for a while I thought I hated Rachel…but no injustice warrants bitterness, so I’ll not have hard feelings toward her, for what she did to us. She died, because of her wicked ways, not because of anything that we did to her…she must have hated herself more than what we ever could have.

And everyday, I choose joy…I refuse the temptation to be cynical, I refuse to see people as anything less than human beings created by God.

I choose peace…I will forgive so that I can live in peace…though forgiveness is something hard to do, Joe, but I try, because without forgiveness, our hearts become hardened to the people and things around us…so remember that, the next time someone gives you an apology.

And I choose patience…though with you, it is sometimes hard pressed in coming.’

He laughed, and that’s when he took my hand, Pa, and told me that he loved me.”

Joe brushed his hand across the front of this face to wipe the tears that had filled his eyes.

“He said, ‘I choose kindness…I know that I have to be kind to the poor, for they are alone, kind to the rich for they are afraid, and kind to the unkind, for that’s how God treats us.

I choose goodness,’ Pa, he said he’d rather go without a dollar before he’d take a dishonest dollar.” Joe smiled up at his father.

“That sounds like something Adam would say…and do,” agreed Ben. “Anything else?”

“Yes sir, he said that he’d choose faithfulness because that was the way to earn a man’s trust. And he’s right about that, Pa. If he hadn’t always been there for me, when I was a kid, and you couldn’t be, then I wouldn’t be able to trust him when he makes me a promise. Just like you Pa, he’s never lied to me…not once.”

“He added gentleness to the list too. He explained to me that nothing is ever won by force. And the last thing he told me that he chooses is self-control.” Joe snickered softly.

“He sure didn’t have too much of that today when he was being forced into marrying that…woman.”

“Joe, your brother Adam is a rare type of man, I’m very proud of him, he’s everything that you just said…and then some.”

“I know Pa, and I know that I’m lucky to have him for my brother. I know I grumble and complain a lot about how he treats me, but I can understand why too,” Joe grinned, “I’m not the easiest person to get along with at times, am I?”

“No, sometimes you can be quite a challenge, for me and Adam,” laughed Ben.

“I’m a lucky guy, Pa.”

“How so, son?”

“Because I have you for my pa, Adam and Hoss for my brothers. Adam keeps me on the straight and narrow and Hoss…well, Hoss just goes along for the ride, but like Adam, I know he’d give up his life for me, if need be.”

Joe smiled mischievously at his father, “But I doubt if he’d ever marry up with a witch like that Rachel Stanrick, for any reason,” giggled Joe.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that Little Joe,” smiled Ben.

“Maybe so, Pa…let’s just hope we never have to find out,” declared Joe.

Joe yawned and rubbed his eyes.

“You need to get some rest son, it’s late and tomorrow will be a long day.” Ben said as he pulled the blanket up around Joe’s shoulders. He leaned down and kissed the top of Joe’s sunburned forehead.

“I was scared at first Pa, when she made me dig that hole and then tied my hands and made me get down in it,” whispered Joe. “But then later, when I saw Adam, I knew everything would be alright, and that he’d get me out of that dirt pile before it was too late.”

“You certainly put a lot of faith in your brother, young man.”

“It really didn’t take too much…you see Pa, Adam made me a promise…and I knew he’d keep it, he proved it when he told Rachel that he’d marry her if she’d let me go. He was willing to live the rest of his life with a woman whom he could never love just to save the life of a brother that he swore to always love. That’s love at it’s best, Pa…anyway you look at it!”

***The End***

September 2003

 Author’s Note:Joe’s short recital of Adam’s speech is compliments of Max Lucado, no infringements intended. The words, some of which came out of my own heart, but those of Max Lucado were just too beautiful to bypass and seemed to suit perfectly with my views of Adam Cartwright.

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