Payback Time (by Rona)

Summary:  Teenage boys resembling Joe are going missing in Virginia City. When Joe, too, vanishes, Adam defies his father to save Joe. But will either of them survive?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  T
Word Count:  10,965


 

 

The horses clattered wearily into the yard, the three riders not talking. They dismounted as one, stretching to ease the kinks out of tired muscles. They unsaddled their mounts, and led them into the barn. The horses were as different as the men who rode them. One was a chestnut stallion, called Sport. The largest was a black called Chubb, and the most striking was a black and white pinto called Cochise. Joe, the pinto’s rider was the youngest and smallest of the men, being wiry and slim, with chestnut curls and a charming grin. Chubb carried the middle brother, blond, tall Hoss. Sport was the mount of Adam, the oldest son, the most serious son.

Still without talking, they each attended to their mount’s comfort, and then crossed the yard to the comfortable ranch house, which was their home. It was a home they hadn’t seen in almost three weeks, while they had been taking a herd of cattle to Sacramento. All three were covered in trail dust, and sported three weeks’ growth of beard. Deep exhaustion was written on each face.

Adam paused as they crossed the yard. “Either of you notice that horse when we rode in?” he asked, his voice husky with fatigue.

“What horse?” Joe asked. He forced his green eyes to open wider than the slit he’d been working with before. “Oh, that horse. Nope, I didn’t see it.”

“You weren’t seein’ nothin’, Little Joe,” Hoss scolded. “If’n Cochise weren’t such a nice mannered horse, you’d never have got home!” Hoss eyed the strange horse for a moment. “Looks familiar, too,” he commented, to himself.

“Its Roy Coffee’s horse, ain’t it?“ Joe asked. He exchanged a glance with his brothers and shrugged. “I’m sure it is. But we can easily solve the mystery. We could go inside.” He didn’t wait for a reaction, just resumed his weary walk to the house.

It was indeed Roy Coffee’s horse. Roy and their father sat by the fire, drinking coffee, and munching on one of Hop Sing’s delectable cakes. The scent of the coffee caused all three stomachs to rumble loudly. Hoss’ tired face lit up as he saw the food.

Ben looked up as his sons came in and he leaped to his feet, smiling broadly. “Boys! Welcome home!”

All three sons embraced their father unabashedly, as glad to be home as he was to see them. Roy had risen, and exchanged smiles and warm words with each son. He’d known the Cartwrights for a number of years, and was a close friend of the family, as well as sheriff of Virginia City.

The boys removed their hats and holsters, placing them on the pegs and credenza by the door. As one, they began to move towards the stairs, obviously thinking of bath and bed. Ben put out his hand to stop them. “Boys, Roy isn’t here just for a social visit. There’s something you must hear.”

Again, the brothers exchanged glances. They crossed to the fire and sat down. Joe, perched on the edge of the fire, stifled a yawn. He rubbed his face, and looked at Roy expectantly.

Roy seemed to find it difficult to start. He looked at each son in turn and sighed. “There have been a series of disappearances in the last two days,” he began. “Four teenagers have disappeared, all boys, all sons of rich families. Earlier today, Hope Johnston fought off a strange man who tried to grab her.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Roy,” Adam said. “Is Hope all right? I just don’t see what this has to do with us.”

“Hope isn’t hurt, just shaken,” Roy answered. “But the reason this concerns you is this. Last night, one of the fathers received a ransom demand. He’s paying up, but the note warned that nobody is safe. Its not Adam and Hoss that I’m so concerned about, its Joe.”

“Me?” Joe exclaimed, sitting up straighter. “But I’m not a teenager, Roy. Besides, I can look after myself.”  His green eyes flashed with annoyance. He was tired of always being picked out because he was the youngest.

“Don’t get on your high horse,” Roy replied. “But face it, Joe, you could pass as a teenager from the back. I know you can look out for yourself, but I’d be derelict in my duty if I didn’t warn you. Please don’t go anywhere alone until I’ve caught whoever is behind this.”

Joe opened his mouth to protest, caught a glance from his father and instead meekly said, “Sure, Roy.” He rose to his feet and went to the stairs. “Please excuse me,” he said. “My bed is calling me.”

It was the last his family saw of Joe that night.

*****

Next morning, after a solid night’s sleep, Joe was less resentful of Roy’s warning. He knew Hope Johnston, and was sorry she’d had such a fright. He still thought Roy was worrying unnecessarily, but that was the sheriff’s job, he supposed. Meantime, his most important concern was whether Laura Cummings was still coming to the dance with him on Saturday.

Ben greeted Joe as he ambled downstairs for breakfast. Both Adam and Hoss were up and gone, but Joe had been allowed a longer lie, mostly because of the temper he’d been in the night before. Joe was fairly amiable that morning, and promised his father that he wouldn’t go anywhere alone, though the restriction chafed him.

Later in the day, Roy Coffee rode out again, to say another of the city’s wealthy teenagers had been taken. Another parent was preparing to pay a hefty price for the return of his son. Ben watched over Joe with a heavy heart, but when his son showed no signs of running off alone, he relaxed slightly.

It was only on Saturday that Joe’s stubborn streak raised its head again. Ben decreed that they weren’t going to the dance. Joe promptly exploded. “You can’t keep me a prisoner here!” he yelled. “I’ve obeyed you all week, but I’m going to this dance! Laura is expecting me!”

“Laura probably isn’t going,” Ben replied, heatedly. “There could well be very few young people there at all! Didn’t you think of that?”

“Laura sent me a message yesterday saying she would meet me there. How is it going to look if she turns up, but I’m not allowed to?” Joe dragged a hand through his hair. “Pa, I’m a man grown, and I’m going to that dance!”

Ben eyed his rebellious son before him, and in truth, couldn’t refute what he said. He was a man, and short of tying him up, Ben couldn’t stop him. “All right, we’ll go. But Joseph, please listen to me. No moonlight strolls this time, for Laura’s sake as well as your own.”

Joe rolled his eyes, which nearly earned him a lecture, but hastily apologised for his bad manners. “I understand, Pa.”

*****

The dance certainly was quieter than usual. Laura came with her father, and there were a few other girls there. Many of the town’s young men stayed away, so there were enough girls to go round. Ben watched as Joe danced and flirted with Laura, who was a striking young woman. Her red hair hung in ringlets, and her eyes were greener than Joe’s greeny hazel colour. They made a handsome couple.

As always, Ben fell into conversation with some of the other older men, and it took him several minutes during a pause in the dancing, to notice that Joe and Laura were nowhere to be seen.

He caught Adam’s eye, and Adam immediately abandoned the mild flirtation he’d been having to cross to Ben’s side. Hoss, following Adam, arrived in time to hear Ben say quietly, “Where is Joe?”

The brothers glanced around, but they knew that Joe wasn’t in the hall. “He must be outside,” Adam said, anger and worry tightening his voice. “After all you said to him…”

“Now, Adam, maybe it ain’t like that,” Hoss protested, as Adam had known he would. “That Laura, well, she’s a pretty little filly, but she’s mighty strong minded. Could be she set her heart on goin’ out, and Joe just had to go with her.”

Adam gave Hoss a black look, which Hoss ignored. He knew Adam was as worried as he and Ben were.  Together, the family made their way outside. They split up, each heading towards the favoured courting places of the town’s young folk, but there was no one to be seen. Then Hoss called, and there on the ground was the corsage that Joe had given Laura. It had been trampled by several pairs of feet.

There was no doubt now. Laura and Joe had been kidnapped.

*****

Joe stirred, and his head immediately began pounding loudly. When he tried to move, he discovered that he was bound hand and foot. For a few moments, he couldn’t remember what had happened. Then it all came flooding back.

Laura had coaxed Joe outside for a little fresh air, and they had walked to the corner of the hall, and stood for a moment before Joe kissed Laura. As they drew apart, a movement behind Joe attracted Laura’s attention, but she had no chance to warn him. A pistol butt sledged down on Joe’s unprotected head, and he was down and out without realising they weren’t alone. Laura’s terrified scream had been cut short by a meaty hand clamping across her mouth, and she had no choice but to go with her captor. Joe had been picked up, and slung into the covered wagon beside her. They had both been bound and gagged, and then the wagon had lurched out of the city.

Joe groaned, and immediately felt someone touch him. He blearily opened his eyes, and as they adjusted to the lack of light, recognised Laura. It was only when he tried to speak that he realised that he, too, was gagged. Joe struggled against his bonds, but couldn’t get them to loosen.

The wagon travelled for quite a while, but Joe didn’t think they’d gone that far, as the wagon hadn’t been moving fast. When it stopped, he managed to sit up, and looked apprehensively at the back, where his captors would appear.

A man came into sight, and cut the ropes binding Joe’s feet, and pulled him out of the wagon. He did the same for Laura, and she moved closer to Joe. Joe looked around, but it was a cloudy night, with no moon, and he couldn’t recognise anything. Then the light from a lantern struck their faces, and the young couple ducked their heads away from the glare.

“At last!” said a voice that sounded vaguely familiar to Joe. “You’ve finally caught the right boy!”

Joe ground his teeth in frustration at being labelled a ‘boy’. He lifted his head and glared at the man holding the lantern. Seeing this, the man stepped forward. “Hello, Joe,” he said. “Don’t you have a welcome for your Uncle Jeff?”

*****

Joe was stunned for a second. He had no uncle Jeff. Laura made a shocked noise, and Joe knew that she believed the man. Unable to speak, Joe refuted his claim the only way left to him. He charged, and threw his shoulder into the man’s stomach.

Caught off guard, the man staggered, but regained his balance. He thrust the lantern at one of his men, and grabbed Joe, ripping the gag off. Joe immediately gave vent to his voice. “You’re no relative of mine!” he declared.

Casually, the man backhanded Joe across the face. He kept his grip of the boy’s shoulder to prevent him falling, and backhanded him again. He grinned. “Watch your mouth, boy,” he warned, softly.

Joe, panting from the pain, eyed the man more closely. He seemed familiar, but Joe couldn’t place him. Then the light fell full across his face, and Joe saw that he had odd coloured eyes – one blue, one brown. A memory clicked into place, and Joe gasped. “You!” he said, flatly. “You’re no relative of mine. You’re that so called friend of Adam’s. The one who robbed us blind while staying under our roof!”

“I see you remember me,” Jeff chuckled. “And I remember you.” He shook Joe.

Joe sank his teeth into Jeff’s hand. Jeff yelled, and snatched his hand away. The man standing behind Joe punched him hard in the kidney. Joe fell to his knees. Trying hard to control the pain, Joe watched Jeff wrap his bleeding hand in a handkerchief.

He remembered Jeff. Adam had brought him home from college. Everyone thought he was wonderful, apart from Joe, who at 12 or 13, was jealous of Adam’s friendship with this stranger. Joe had resisted all Jeff’s attempts at befriending him, and was finally proved correct, when Ben, hearing a noise downstairs, found Jeff helping himself to the money and documents in his father’s safe. Ben had received a nasty stab wound from Jeff before Hoss had finally overpowered him. Joe had been quite traumatised at the time, but the memory had faded with the years, and until tonight, he hadn’t thought about the incident in a long time.

“You haven’t changed,” Jeff said, cuttingly. “Still a stupid, impulsive boy.”

“And you are still scum,” Joe retorted, his temper flaring at being called a boy again.

Jeff yanked Joe to his feet and backhanded him again, harder this time. Joe landed in a heap on the ground, bleeding from his mouth. “I’d be careful if I were you,” Jeff warned him quietly. “I don’t have to keep you alive.” He nodded to his men. “Get them inside, and send back that kid who’s pa paid up.”

Joe was yanked to his feet and forced into the house. He and Laura were taken to the attic, where Laura’s hands were untied, and the gag removed. She was pushed up a narrow ladder into the dimly lit space above. Joe was then pushed after her, his hands still bound behind him.

Joe looked around. The other missing boys were there. Then one of their captors put his head into the room, and pointed to one of the boys. “You, get down here. And don’t try anything!” The boy, who Joe knew by sight, but not by name, had gone, the small hatch shut.

Laura, at last giving in to tears, knelt by Joe and tried to free his hands. She was the only girl in the room. When her shaking hands couldn’t defeat the knots, she enlisted help from the others. Free at last, Joe sat rubbing his wrists, and wiped the blood from his torn, bruised mouth as best he could. He was the oldest there by several years, and he took charge, trying to find out what the others had gone through. There was very little information they could give Joe, and it was late. Joe’s head pounded mercilessly, and he felt his eyelids drooping. They settled themselves as best they could in the spartan room.

Laura was wearing only a dance dress, and her shawl was inadequate to keep the cold out, and there were no blankets. Joe, glad for once that he’d been wearing a jacket, gave it to Laura, and persuaded her to snuggle up to him. They had plenty of chaperones, he pointed out, and Laura gave a watery giggle before allowing sleep to over take her.

*****

None of the Cartwrights had much sleep that night. Ben, Adam and Hoss had spent much of the night with Roy Coffee, but he had no leads to go on. There had been no witnesses to Joe and Laura’s abduction. Roy could give Ben little comfort; bar pointing out that at least one parent had their child back safe and sound after paying a ransom. Unfortunately, they had all heard stories of parents paying out a ransom, and never seeing their child again.

Shortly before dawn, a second boy had returned to the town, and Roy had left the Cartwrights in his office while he went to speak to the boy. His name was John Peterson, and his father had a share in several general stores scattered across Nevada. John was 19, the oldest of the youngsters taken, until that night. He proved to be an excellent witness.

Roy was finally able to give the Cartwrights good news – Joe was at least alive! He tactfully admired his cell as the brothers hugged Ben and each other, shedding tears of mingled relief and concern. After they had regained their equilibrium, Roy told them something he’d noticed only that night.

“Ben, I don’t supposed it occurred to you, given that I only just saw it myself, but have you noticed that all the missing boys look a little like Joe?”

Ben frowned, and exchanged glances with his sons. “I don’t really know any of them, Roy,” he said. “I doubt if I’d be able to pick one out on the street.”

Adam and Hoss were now thinking furiously. “I suppose they do,” Adam admitted, doubtfully. “But only superficially, Roy. You couldn’t say they were Joe’s doubles, any of them.”

“No, Adam, I’m not saying they’re Joe’s doubles, but they are all slim and dark haired. They all have curly hair, and dark eyes.” Roy let that sink in for a few moments.

“So you’re saying that whoever took those boys was looking for Joe specifically?” Ben asked, incredulously. “But you don’t know who took him.”

“I know more now than I did,” Roy said. He held up his hand. “Now, don’t go gettin’ all riled up. Just listen. The Peterson boy said that Joe arrived tonight at wherever they were being held. It’s a big house, somewhere within a half hour ride of Virginia City. Well it seems that Peterson has sharp ears. The men bringing him back were talking about the fact that they’d finally got the right kid, and they wouldn’t have to ambush anyone else.”

The Cartwrights looked pole-axed. “They were after Joe all along,” Ben said, softly.

“Could Peterson give a description of his abductor?” Adam asked, his voice hard. Adam, for all his control, had always struck Roy as a potentially dangerous young man. The all-black clothing and the stubble of dark beard added to the impression. And all the Cartwrights were fearsome in protecting each other.

“Yes, he did. There were several men, but the one in charge had odd coloured eyes. One light, one dark. He was tall, thin, with mousy, short cropped hair.” Roy looked at his audience. “Mean anything?”

Adam suddenly slumped in his chair. “Odd coloured eyes,” he repeated. “It sounds like Jeff.” His eyes lifted to meet his father’s brown, loving gaze. “Jeff  Randall. Oh, God, no!”

*****

Joe watched the dawn creep into his prison with burning eyes. He had slept only fitfully, listening to the sounds from the house below, and shivering from the cold. His mind had been busy all night, remembering his last encounter with Jeff. Joe recalled the little cruelties he’d shown a suspicious 12-year-old boy, nothing too obvious, nothing that couldn’t be passed off as a little teasing. And with Joe’s short temper, he hadn’t been able to convince his father of anything different.

Joe slipped his arm from under Laura and rose stiffly to his feet. There was a window in the gable end wall, but it was shuttered from the outside. Joe pushed and shoved at the wood, but it was too sturdy for him to force. Even if he had, there was no way Laura could climb down a rope, even supposing they had such an object.

Joe hated to be caged. He could spend hours happily in the house or barn when it was of his own choosing. As soon as he couldn’t go out, he was like a caged panther, pacing restlessly. If by some misfortune he was confined to bed, his temper became shorter with every passing hour, especially as he recovered. Joe rolled his shoulders, trying to make himself relax. He had to stay strong to help the others through this ordeal, and Laura was his particular responsibility. She would never have been taken if she hadn’t been with him.

His companions, Bob, Jim, Terry and Nathan, stirred and woke. Looking at them in the feeble light of the room, he realised, as Roy had a few short hours before, that they all looked a little like he did. The realisation made him loathe Jeff even more than he had before. Jeff had gone to a lot of trouble to get Joe, and had even managed to get a little money along the way. Joe felt sick.

Totting up the years since Jeff had been jailed, Joe guessed it must be at least ten. He’d been 12, he was sure. Perhaps just turned 13. Either way, Joe was 23 now. He had changed quite a lot in that time. Joe had been small for his age back then, and perhaps Jeff thought he was younger than he actually was. Joe smiled slightly. That might give him an advantage, somehow.

Laura was awake, too, and pulled Joe’s jacket tighter round her shoulders. She tried to smile, but the realisation of their plight made her chin wobble. Joe crossed to her, and took her in his arms, rubbing his hands briskly up and down her arms, hoping to warm her a little. “Morning,” he said, and gave her a smile. It wasn’t its full wattage, by any means, but Laura responded as though it was his usual devil may care grin.

“You’re Joe Cartwright, aren’t you?” Bob asked.

“That’s right,” Joe responded. “Your parents have been looking for you. Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yes,” Nathan answered. “They haven’t mistreated us. But it looks like you weren’t so lucky.”

Joe had forgotten about his split lip, and touched it gingerly. “Well,” he said, “I’m okay. And don’t worry, they won’t start beating up on you.” He smiled again to reassure them, but didn’t want to say more. The only one in danger of being beaten up was Joe.

About an hour later, the hatch of their prison opened, and one of the men came up, his gun drawn. “Get down,” he ordered, and covered them from the bottom of the ladder. Joe held Laura back till the boys had gone down, them helped her as best he could, before following her. He kept his arm round her shoulders, his green eyes flashing defiance at the man, who obviously wanted Joe to leave her alone.

They were herded downstairs and into a room with a few hard chairs and a table. There was food, of a sort, on the table. Some oatmeal, coffee and a few mouldy looking biscuits. They were told to sit and eat, the gun still covering them.

Joe, not being much of an eater at the best of times, picked at a little oatmeal, but ate next to nothing. He drank a couple of cups of coffee, and watched the others eat. Laura kept her eyes either on Joe or her plate. The boys watched the man with the gun. Nobody spoke.

Jeff finally appeared as they were finishing their meal. He grinned at the signs of his handiwork on Joe’s face, and Joe had to work to control his temper. Last night, Jeff had been content to pick on him. But this morning, with the evidence of Joe’s care for Laura plain to see, Joe suddenly feared for her. With a flash of insight, he realised that this was how Adam and Hoss felt about him.

Jeff walked round the table, making sure he never got between the gun and its targets. As he passed each boy, they stiffened, and then gradually relaxed as he went by. They kept their eyes on him, now, Joe noted. He watched Jeff less obviously, and forced his body to remain relaxed as Jeff stopped right behind him. Laura was so tense, Joe could feel the fear oozing from her pores.

Jeff put a large hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe didn’t even turn his head. He smiled faintly at one of the boys, Bob, who looked as though he might pass out any minute. Jeff waited, and so did Joe. He could feel sweat starting to bead on his forehead, but sternly forbade his hand to wipe it away.

Then Jeff’s hand began to tighten, and he squeezed harder and harder, till Joe was relaxed no longer, and was biting at his already torn lips to stop crying out. This was a ‘trick’ he remembered from ten years ago. Jeff would clap a ‘friendly’ hand on Joe’s thin shoulder, and squeeze, and the pain would be excruciating. Now, Joe fought a battle for control, and clenched his fists.

As the silent battle went on, everyone’s eyes were glued to the two men. Sweat was pouring down Joe’s face, and he’d bitten his bottom lip raw. Blood dripped from between his teeth. Still, Jeff squeezed. A moan escaped Joe, totally against his will and out of his control. Jeff laughed triumphantly, and let go. Spots of blood showed on Joe’s white shirt where Jeff’s nails had pierced the skin through the thin material. Laura let out a cry of distress. With an iron will, Joe kept his hands in his lap, though the urge to grip his injured shoulder was almost overwhelming.

“I still know how to get the better of you, boy,” Jeff said. “It would pay you well to remember that.”

Joe lifted his head and smiled at Jeff, his totally charming smile, the effect spoiled by the blood on his lips and chin. “Think again,” he said. “I’m not a little boy any longer.”

Jeff looked murderously angry for a moment, then realised what Joe was trying to do. “You’ll have to try harder than that, Little Joe, much harder. After all, I learned control from the master – your oldest brother.”

“What makes you think I didn’t learn from him, too?” Joe challenged. “I have lived with him all my life.”

“A leopard doesn’t change its spots,” Jeff said, cuttingly. “You couldn’t control yourself at all as a child. No way can you do it now.”

Joe let an amused grin play over his lips. “We’ll see, then, won’t we?” he asked, hoping he looked as supercilious as Adam could.

“Oh sure, we’ll see,” Jeff echoed. He put his hand under Laura’s chin, tilting her face up towards his. Laura kept her eyes down, terrified of what might happen if she looked at Jeff. “Quite a little beauty,” Jeff said, appraisingly. “Did Adam teach you taste, too?”

“The other way round, as it happens,” Joe said, coolly. “Adam learned taste from me.”

Jeff laughed. Laura’s eyes flew to Joe’s face, and he ghosted a wink at her. She gave him a faint smile. “You sure don’t lack for gall, boy,” Jeff said. “I’m gonna enjoy this more than I thought.” And he laughed at the sudden pallor of his captive’s face. “Right,” he said, turning to his men. “Get these kids outta here, like we discussed last night. Her, too.”

Laura drew in her breath in a ragged gasp. Joe instinctively clutched her hand. He tried to keep his expression neutral, like Adam always did, but he feared for Laura’ safety, and was sure his face gave him away. “What are you going to do with them?” he asked, his voice surprisingly calm.

Jeff allowed his eyes to roam salaciously over Laura’ neat figure. Her face burned with colour, and Joe’s temper rose to boiling point. His grip on Laura’s hand tightened unconsciously, and would leave bruises, which she would find later. At the time, neither Joe nor Laura noticed.

Then Jeff laughed, contemptuously. “I don’t want a kid, Cartwright,” he sneered. “Naw, I’ve got what I want, and these kids can go back home.”

Laura burst into tears. “No, please, I want to stay with Joe!”

Joe gathered her into his arms, smoothing her hair gently. “Shh, Laura, its all right. He really will let you go home. I promise.” He raised his head and met Jeff’s amused gaze. “You will let her go, won’t you.” It wasn’t a question.

Jeff made a face. “I already told you, Cartwright, I don’t like little girls.”

Laura, drawing courage from Joe’s strong arms around her said “What about Hope? Why did you try to take her?”

Joe shot Jeff a look, and was surprised to see him looking genuinely blank. “Hope?” he said. “What are you talking about, girl?”

It was one of his men who answered. “Some girl was attacked on the street a day or so back. I heard someone in the saloon mention it. They thought it had to be the same person as was takin’ the boys.”

Jeff shrugged. “It wasn’t us, girlie.” He jerked his head. “Now, get ‘em outta here.”

Laura tried to give Joe his jacket back, but he shook his head, smiling, and urged her to keep it. She began to cry in earnest as she was ushered out of the room, leaving Joe sitting by the big table. She was afraid that she would never see him again.

Joe kept the smile on his face until Laura was gone, then focused his attention back on Jeff. Jeff, for his part, just watched Joe, and as their gazes locked, Joe fought the compulsion to look away.

But Jeff had twelve years more experience than Joe, and the younger man finally flickered his eyes away. He was furious with himself for doing so, but he couldn’t have stopped it. Jeff laughed. It was a sound Joe was coming to hate. “So, what now?” Joe asked.

“Now, Cartwright, you’ll tell me the best way to get brother Adam out here alone.”

Joe put his head down and shook it. “Oh come, surely you don’t think I’m going to tell you that?” He gave a snort. “You must be even stupider than you look.”

Jeff’s big hands clenched slightly. He eyed Joe with cold displeasure and whistled once. Two men appeared in the doorway instantly. “Yes, boss?”

“Get that shirt off him and tie him up.”

Joe’s eyes darted round the room, but there was no escape and nothing he could use as a weapon. He pushed himself to his feet, allowing the chair to fall over backwards, and moved warily sideways. As the first of the men grabbed for him, Joe dodged, then threw his weight full at the man, knocking him off balance, into the path of the other man. He carried on running, knowing that it was his only chance.

But Jeff was there, and the second man hadn’t fallen, and between them, they cornered Joe, with the first man joining them, once he’d regained his footing.

The room wasn’t big enough to allow Joe any chance. They caught him with ease, and despite his struggles, when he landed several good punches, their combined strength overwhelmed him, and he soon found himself shirtless, with his hands bound tightly behind his back. During the melee, he had received several blows, and now his right eye was slowly swelling shut.

Jeff walked round Joe, where he knelt on the floor. “Let’s start again, shall we?” he said, softly. “If I get the answers I want, I may untie you. If I don’t get the answers I want, you will pay for it. Do you understand?”

Joe was silent. Jeff kicked him hard in the ribs. Joe grunted – he couldn’t help himself – but still stayed silent. Silence was his only defence. He could not hand Adam over to this madman.

Jeff questioned Joe for hours. Where was Adam most likely to be found? What kind and colour of horse did he ride? Which saloon did he go to in town? Joe said nothing. Jeff became steadily more enraged, and Joe took a beating. Jeff took turns with his men, punching and kicking Joe, or backhanding him across the face. By the end of it, Joe was unable to speak, and was barely conscious.

They dragged him outside, and tied him to a post in the corral. The air revived Joe slightly, and he was able to take in his surroundings. For several horrible minutes, he thought they were going to whip him. But when they went away and left him, Joe knew he was being left to the mercy of the hot sun beating down on his unprotected head. Shortly after that, he became aware that his wrists were bound together by wet rawhide, which was drying out in the sun, and tightening painfully. Panicking, Joe fought to free himself, but only succeeded in giving himself more bruises. When they came back for Joe, several hours later, he was unconscious, and his hands had no feeling in them.

*****

Ben Cartwright opened the door to his home and looked at the room as though he had never seen it before. He was dog-tired, having had no sleep the night before. It was dusk, now, and Joe was still missing. He knew that Joe had still been alive that morning, as Laura and the missing boys had turned up in the middle of the afternoon. Laura still had Joe’s jacket on.

Adam touched his father’s shoulder, and Ben moved forward to allow his sons into the house, too. They were perplexed. They knew who had taken Joe, and the kidnapped youngsters had all seen their faces, and gave good, clear descriptions to Roy. But it was unusual behaviour for kidnappers. From the little Roy told them, kidnappers kept their identities secret, and frequently killed their hostages, even if they hadn’t been recognised, and even if the money had been paid. The last batch of youngsters had been released without any ransom.

Adam was the only one who had come up with a possible reason. “Jeff wants us to know its him,” he said, as they rode slowly home. “He wants us to find him. He knows how we feel about each other, and he wants to take a piece out of my hide.”

“If’n that’s the case, Adam,” protested Hoss, “why did he pick on Joe? Why not grab you?”

Adam’s face darkened. “Think about it, Hoss,” he said. “Joe disliked Jeff from the start. Sure, okay, it was jealousy of a little kid, but still, he always said Jeff was no good. Joe was able to say ‘I told you so’ when Jeff was caught. Being sussed by a kid? That riled Jeff.” He was reluctant to add the rest – that he had made the mistake of telling Jeff of the promise he’d made Marie; that he’d look after Joe. Adam found it difficult to talk about his emotions. It was one of the reasons that he and Joe were so often at odds with each other. Joe was very free with his emotions, and couldn’t really understand why Adam wasn’t. But for all their differences, Adam loved Joe, and the thought of his baby brother in danger brought him out in hives.

Ben looked at Adam. “You think he wants to… kill…. you?”

“Don’t you?” Adam returned, coolly. “But I expect he wants me to suffer first,” he added cynically.

Ben’s face paled even further, and Adam was instantly sorry he’d let his mouth run away with him. “Pa, somehow, we’ll make it come out right,” he promised.

Now they were home, and it seemed quieter without Joe’s boisterous presence. Hop Sing rushed out to meet them, his face alive with hope, and falling when he saw that Joe wasn’t with them. “You want food?” he asked, with none of his usual enthusiasm.

Ben started to shake his head, but Adam gently over rode him. “Pa, we’ve got to eat. Starving ourselves won’t help Joe any. We need to keep out strength up.”

“I expect you’re right, Adam,” Ben replied. “Yes, Hop Sing, thank you, we will eat.”

Hoss produced a smile, but it wasn’t as broad as usual. “Sure, Pa, we’ll find Joe soon, an’ then we’ve gotta be ready to help him.”

Ben clapped Hoss on the back and smiled. “Yes, okay, I get the message. But one thing, Adam.” Adam raised one eyebrow, and waited. “I don’t want to sacrifice one son for another.”

Adam hesitated. Ben read his immobile face all too easily. “No, Adam, I know you. You’d willingly trade places with Joe, but I don’t want either of you killed. So please, bear that in mind. I don’t want to lose any of my sons. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Pa,” Adam said, but Ben could hear the ‘but’ in his voice.

“But, what, son?” he prodded.

Adam gave him a look he couldn’t read. “How do you always know?” he asked, but Ben wasn’t to be put off. He simply held Adam’s gaze until the younger man shuffled his feet slightly, and cleared his throat. “Pa, I know I go on about how Joe’s spoiled.   Let’s be truthful, we all spoiled him. But none of us wants anything to happen to Joe. If the price of his freedom is mine, then that’s a price I’m willing to pay.”

Ben’s eyes filled with tears, and he pulled Adam towards him, hugging his oldest son to his chest. “Adam, I meant what I said. We must get Joe back, but I don’t want anything happening to either you or Hoss. You are both as dear to me as that little scamp, never think anything different. If I seem to favour him, its because he is the youngest, and was still a child when you were both men grown. It’s a hard habit to break, for all of us.”

“Aw, shucks, Pa,” Hoss said, his face as flushed as Ben had ever seen, “we know that you love us just like Joe. Its just Joe has a way of gettin’ under your skin.” Hoss stopped, not sure how to say what he felt.

Ben reached out to include Hoss in his embrace, and at that moment, with his two big sons in his arms, he felt as though there was nothing they couldn’t do.

*****

Joe woke slowly with the dawn, wishing he could stay asleep. He didn’t feel the pain of his injuries as much when he was asleep. No, he thought, he just felt them every time he turned over, and the pain woke him again. He breathed shallowly through his mouth, knowing that too deep a breath would hurt his bruised ribs. He flexed his aching fingers slightly, and they woke to full throbbing misery. At least having the circulation cut off hadn’t damaged his fingers, he consoled himself. His wrists were deeply welted by the rawhide. Joe finished his injury tally with the numerous bruises and the black eye he bore. He counted himself fortunate that no bones had been broken.

A canteen lay on the floor nearby, and Joe braced himself to rise and get a drink. His head throbbed, still, from the sun yesterday, and Joe wondered if he was facing mild heat stroke. Either way, he was extremely thirsty, and the canteen was too far away for him to reach without moving.

The first effort was the worst, but Joe got himself onto his knees, and shuffled across the floor that way. His dress pants were beyond saving, and more dust wasn’t going to hurt them. Holding the canteen was an effort, and Joe cursed Jeff silently. He was determined that he wasn’t going to speak at all, so he couldn’t accidentally give away anything, which might help Jeff. Even so, he couldn’t help but fear the beating he knew would follow his stubborn silence.

Joe heard footsteps approaching the room where he was being held. He thought about making an effort to get to his feet, to pretend to be strong, but decided against it. For all that he was trying to be like Adam, he didn’t have his brother’s cool temperament, and he knew his own rage took a lot out of him. Still, he lifted his head and gave Jeff a cool look when he entered the room.

Jeff looked Joe up and down, admiring the bruises, which covered his whole torso. “Changed your mind yet?” Jeff asked.

Joe just looked at him, then calmly took another drink of the slightly stale water. He suspected it might be about the only nourishment he was offered all day. He wasn’t terribly surprised when Jeff crossed the room in one big stride, and dashed the canteen from his lips. “Get up.” The voice was menacing.

Joe fought the urge to sigh, knowing it would only cause him pain, and made the effort to stand. Once on his feet, he gave Jeff his best ‘Adam’ look, and saw, with pleasure, that it riled Jeff as much as it riled Joe. Jeff gave Joe a shove, which nearly sent him tumbling to the floor, but Joe managed to regain his balance in time to save himself another bruising fall. He preceded Jeff out of the door.

Joe resolutely refused to let his mind speculate on what was in store for him. Jeff took him to the room with the table, and there, with the help of his henchmen, tied Joe to one of the straight-backed chairs. Joe bit back the cries of pain that threatened to overwhelm him as the rope tightened around his abused wrists. He tasted blood in his mouth, where he’d bitten the inside of his lips.

“I’ve been nice to you, Joe,” Jeff said, putting one booted foot on the chair, and leaning in close to Joe. “Now, are you going to tell me what I want to know, or am I going to have to force it from you?”

Joe looked over Jeff’s shoulder, out of the grubby window. He concentrated on trying to recognise the surrounding landscape, but he couldn’t see enough to identify where he was.

“Okay, you were offered the choice.” Jeff walked away, and Joe heard him opening a door behind him. He kept his gaze on the hills outside, and fought to still a chill that wanted to become a tremble.

Jeff returned with a bottle of whisky. He opened it, and took a slug. “Ah!” he said. “Perfect. Okay, Cartwright, open up.”

Joe clamped his jaws together in a motion that always caused his father to sigh in exasperation. Jeff, however, was having none of it. He nodded to his henchmen, and Joe found himself in a stranglehold, and his nose pinched shut.

Against his will, his mouth opened as his oxygen ran out, and Jeff began pouring the whisky down Joe’s throat. Joe choked and spluttered, but his reflexes took over, swallowing so he wouldn’t drown. Despite all he could do, Jeff managed to get the whole bottle down his throat. Joe was left alone then, though another bottle sat, unopened on the table.

Joe coughed until his breathing righted itself, and it was then that he began to feel the effects of the whisky. By the time Jeff came back, Joe was roaring drunk.

At first, he was silent, but some more whisky was forced into him, and Joe was too drunk to know what he was doing. He’d never been much of a drinker – a few beers were his limit. Joe had been drunk before, but never like this. He had no control over his tongue, and Jeff had no problem getting Joe to talk about Adam. It wasn’t long before Joe told Jeff what he wanted to know.

*****

When Joe regained consciousness, he was lying in a pool of his own vomit. The stench of cheap whisky was everywhere, and Joe vomited again. He had never felt so ill. The room was spinning around him, and his stomach felt queasy. He barely managed to raise himself away from the vomit and find a clean patch of floor to lie on. His mouth tasted like old socks, and he was terribly dehydrated. He could barely keep his eyes open to look for a canteen, but he did finally find one. He gulped at the water, then stoppered the canteen and lay down again. Even with his eyes closed, Joe could still see the walls spinning. He had no idea how he came to be in this state. He simply wished he could die. “Pa, I’m sorry,” he whispered. He knew his Pa hated drunkenness. After a while, he slipped back into a heavy stupor.

*****

Adam crossed to the barn and began to saddle Sport. Roy was leading a posse to try and locate the house where they were sure Joe was being held. All the Cartwrights were going, but Adam hoped to get away before the others were ready. Despite what his father had said, Adam still thought Joe’s best hope of freedom was Adam’s offer to take his place.

Cochise stood in his stall, picking listlessly at some hay. He nickered at Adam, who stroked his soft muzzle, feeling the horse lip his fingers in search of a treat. “I’ll get him back for you, Coochie,” he whispered into the velvet ears. “I promise.”

“Adam, you’re as bad as Joe, talkin’ to that there horse,” Hoss joked, coming into the barn. “One of these days, Cochise there will talk back.”

Adam cast Hoss a dark glance, which Hoss didn’t even notice. Now that action was in the offing, Hoss had relaxed slightly. He couldn’t conceive of a situation where they didn’t get Joe back. Joe had lived through any number of potentially fatal scrapes, and Hoss was convinced that his little brother led a charmed life. Optimism came as naturally as breathing to Hoss.

Hoss, too, petted Cochise, then began to saddle Chubb. He eyed Adam as his brother slung his saddle onto Sport. It was obvious that Adam’s mind was somewhere else. Hoss continued to saddle his own horse by instinct, watching Adam, trying to guess what was on his mind. “Adam, you don’t think Shortshanks is dead do you? You’re real quiet.”

“Hm?” Adam was pre-occupied with his plan. “What? Oh, no, I don’t think Joe is dead, Hoss. And we’ve got to make sure he stays that way!”

“What cha plannin’, Adam? You plumb better remember what Pa said last night.” Hoss leaned on Chubb’s broad back.

Adam gave Hoss another irritated look. “I remember,” he said, shortly.

Hoss wasn’t fooled. “Adam, you’re plannin’ on getting’ to Joe afore the posse, ain’t you? Pa’ll be plumb mad if’n you do!”

“Well, he’ll be mad,” Adam said, though he hated to anger his father. “But Jeff is sure to kill Joe if he sees a posse riding over the hills. I can’t take that chance. I’ve got to get there first.”

“Well, you ain’t goin’ alone,” Hoss declared. “I’m comin’ with you.”

“Hoss,” Adam protested.

Hoss swung onto Chubb’s back. “If’n you don’t hurry, they’ll be here afore you’re ready,” he said.

Adam gave Hoss a sunlit smile before mounting, and they rode quietly out of the yard.

*****

 

Ben nearly had an apoplexy when he discovered what his sons had done. “I thought Joe was bad, but those two are worse!” he declared. “They should know better.” He paced back forth in front of the fire. Roy Coffee watched his friend sympathetically, and with a small amount of amusement. The Cartwright boys were as different from one another as could be most of the time. But they had one thing in common – stubbornness. And they had all got it from the one parent they had in common – Ben. Roy decided not to mention it to Ben. He wanted to remain friends.

“Let’s go, and see if we can find them,” Roy suggested, and they quickly left.

Adam and Hoss weren’t as far ahead of them as they imagined, but the Ponderosa was a huge place, and they had no idea which direction they had taken. So, following the plan they had decided on previously, they headed towards Virginia City.

*****

Jeff watched Adam and Hoss ride towards them from his hiding place in the trees. He hadn’t expected Hoss, although he realised now that he should have. He remembered that the brothers stuck together and supported each other all the time, especially when trouble was brewing. Well, Hoss owed him a debt, too, and today he would collect.

As the brothers drew closer, Jeff took careful aim on Hoss. He balanced his rifle on the branch in front of him, determined to get this right. He waited and waited until the distance was exactly right. He fired.

Just at that moment, Hoss spotted something on the ground, and leaned over to see more closely. The bullet hit him high in the arm, and he fell from the saddle. Adam drew his gun and looked round, but there was no obvious target. He jumped down to kneel beside Hoss.

Jeff and his henchmen ran from their cover and to their victims. Adam heard them coming, and fired wildly at the figures running towards them. He missed. Then Jeff and his men were on top of them, and Adam went down beneath the weight of several bodies.

Hoss fought as best he could, but his body was shocked by the bullet wound, and for once, he was easily overcome. Jeff and his men left Hoss lying unconscious on the ground as they dragged a bound Adam away.

*****

Ben and Roy stopped as they heard firing, exchanged glances, then were thundering towards the sound. They were too late, of course, but saw the back of one horseman disappearing over the horizon. “Hoss!” Ben exclaimed, and yanked hard on Buck’s reins to stop him. He leapt off before the horse had stopped.

He lifted his son’s head, seeing the blood on his arm. Hoss stirred and opened his eyes. “Pa,” he said. He moved, and a spasm of pain crossed his face. “Dadburnit,” he said, in a stronger voice, “I’ve bin shot.”

Ben couldn’t hold back a gurgle of laughter. It was such a typical Hoss statement. He knew then that Hoss wasn’t badly injured. In a short time, Hoss was on his feet, and agreeing to go with one of the posse to Doctor Martin’s office in the City. “But you find them fellers who’ve got Adam and Joe,” he ordered his father.

“Go on, Hoss,” Ben urged, gently. “We’ll find them.” Ben watched as they rode off, then remounted. “Let’s go,” he said, grimly.

*****

Joe stirred as he heard noises. He tried to open his eyes, and winced as the light struck ferociously into his befuddled brain. He managed to sit up, leaning heavily on his hands, as the room still threatened to spin when he moved too quickly. The door opened, and Joe gaped as he saw Adam pushed into the room. He wondered for a moment if he was hallucinating. “Adam?” he breathed.

Adam, bruised and battered, saw with relief that Joe was at least alive. He looked ghastly, grey and sweating, covered with bruises and welts. Adam stumbled across the room to take his brother in his arms. “Joe, thank goodness! Are you all right?”

Joe groaned at the sudden movement, and went quite green. By then, Adam could smell the drink from him. “Joe?”

“Adam, I feel awful,” Joe blurted. “He made me drunk.” Tears squeezed from Joe’s eyes. “I musta told him…where…to…find…you.” He began to sob in earnest.

Adam was alarmed. Joe seldom cried nowadays. It had been one of the first signs of his growing maturity. But after forcing his unwilling brain to work, he realised that it was the booze coming out.  He held Joe, soothing him, assuring him that it was okay. After a while, Joe calmed down, and snuggled up to his brother. His skin was cool to the touch, and Adam gently rubbed his arm, trying to warm him.

The stench of the room was almost overpowering, and Adam helped Joe to move to where the air was slightly clearer. “Joe? When did he make you drunk?”

Joe stirred. “Dunno,” he slurred. “Dunno. This mornin’? Yesterday? Dunno.” He raised bleary eyes to his brother. “I don’t like bein’ drunk, Adam.”

“I should think not, Shortshanks,” Adam replied, amused, despite the circumstances. He looked more closely at his brother’s injuries, and concluded, as Joe had done, that there were no bones broken. He could see the marks on Joe’s shoulder, but couldn’t decide what they were. “Joe? What happened to your shoulder?”

“Shoulder? Oh, Jeff. He dug his fingers in, like he use ta when I was a kid, ‘member?” Joe licked his lips. “Adam, I’m thirsty.”

Adam laid Joe gently down, and retrieved the canteen. It was nearly empty. Adam took a quick slug himself, then helped Joe to drink. Joe muttered something that Adam took as thanks, and drifted off into sleep.

Adam sat and watched Joe, wondering what they were facing now. He wondered how badly injured Hoss was, and said a prayer for his both his brothers’ safety.

*****

It was morning before Jeff reappeared. It had been a cold night and Adam had kept Joe close to him, to try and keep his brother warm. Joe had slowly sobered up, but had a terrible hangover. The little water there had been was gone, and Joe’s dehydration had become worse. His skin was slack, and his colour was still dreadful. Combined with his raging headache, Joe was a very sorry young man indeed.

Adam had woken before Joe that morning, as was usual. He had gently slipped his arm from round his sleeping brother, and got up to ease his stiff muscles. The cold had penetrated Joe’s body, and he woke shivering. “Adam?”

Adam went back to Joe’s side. “How do you feel?”

Joe shivered. “I’ve never felt like this before,” he whispered. “I never want to be drunk again. Is there any water?”

“Sorry, Joe, its all gone.” Adam looked at his brother’s chalk-white pallor with concern. “You don’t look too good, kid.”

Joe looked up and winced. “Oh, Adam, how can you forgive me?”

Adam frowned. “Forgive you for what, Shortshanks? Jeff made you drunk. It was hardly your own choice.”

Joe shook his head, tears welling in his eyes. “No, Adam, I betrayed you. I told Jeff where to find you. I tried not to, but I did.”

Adam gathered his brother into his arms. “Joe, listen to me. There is nothing to forgive. Jeff made you drunk, and when you’ve had a lot to drink, you’re not entirely responsible for your actions. How much did he give you?”

He barely heard the whispered reply, but was horrified. “A full bottle of whisky? My God, Joe, you’re lucky to be alive. Men have died of alcohol poisoning from drinking less than that! As soon as we get out of here, you’re heading straight to Doc Martin’s.”

Joe groaned. “Oh, please, not you, too!”

Adam laughed slightly. “I think we could both do with seeing him.”

They heard a noise at the door, and drew apart slightly. Joe sat up, supporting his aching head with one hand. Neither was surprised to see Jeff standing there. “Well, friend Adam, you haven’t changed much.”

“And obviously neither have you,” Adam retorted, coolly. “Still picking on someone smaller than you.”

“Most folks are smaller than me, Adam. You must find the same thing yourself.”

“The difference is, I don’t go around picking on them.” Adam stood up, and casually extended a hand down to Joe. “I hope you’re willing to pay for this, Jeff. My Pa won’t stand still till you’re back behind bars.”

Jeff shrugged. “Is that supposed to impress me? Think again, Adam. I have what I want here. You, and the kid.”

“You don’t want Joe,” Adam said. “You want me. Now you’ve got me, let Joe go.”

Jeff laughed. Joe grated his teeth against the too familiar sound. “You don’t understand, do you, Adam? I wanted you both. You wanted Joe back, so I knew you’d come looking for him. And now I’ve got you both, and its payback time. I don’t want money from you. There isn’t enough money in the world to make up for what happened to me, or to set you two free. No, Adam, you two are going to die here together.”

*****

Ben and Roy had lost the tracks in a rocky area, and had ridden in ever widening circles trying to pick them up. They’d been forced to camp for the night when it became too dark to see any tracks, but they hadn’t slept much. Ben was worried about all three of his sons, and tossed restlessly all night.

As they broke their fast in the pre-dawn cold, they heard horses approaching. Looking up, they loosened their guns in their holsters, but the first rider to hove into view was instantly recognisable. It was Hoss. His arm was bandaged up, but he looked as well as ever. Ben clasped his son to him, and questioned him thoroughly before accepting that he was fine.

With Hoss’ help, they soon found the trail, and set out at a ground-covering lope to follow it.

*****

Adam exchanged a horrified look with Joe. Somehow, they had to get out of there. Jeff was covering them with his gun. Joe wasn’t really up to a fight. But Adam, for all his vaunted brains, couldn’t see another avenue of escape. They would have to make a fight of it.

Jeff could read Adam’s thoughts. “No way out, is there?” he taunted them. “You have no idea how much I’m enjoying this!”

He beckoned over his shoulder, and his two henchmen came in. “Tie ‘em up,” Jeff ordered, and slowly holstered his pistol.

Again, Joe and Adam exchanged glances, Adam’s questioning, and Joe’s accepting. They braced themselves. Slowly, the men came closer. Adam could feel Joe’s tension. “Now!” he bellowed, and jumped at the nearest man.

Joe followed suit, and a wild melee broke out. Adam punched ferociously, and soon was getting the better of his opponent. Joe, on the other hand, was really in no fit state to be brawling. He had never let that stop him in the past, and laid several good punches on his man. However, Jeff quickly evened the odds by striking Joe with his pistol butt, and Joe went down and out. Adam was out numbered, but fought on, till Jeff got in a blow on the point of Adam’s chin, and Adam was too dazed to fight on.

By the time he had regained his senses, he was bound hand and foot, and hogtied. Joe was in the same predicament, but still out cold. Jeff squatted beside Adam. “Know what I’m gonna do now, Adam?” he asked. Adam didn’t deign to reply. “I’m gonna set the house on fire, and you and little brother there are gonna burn right up.” He laughed, and the sound bordered on madness. “And I’m gonna stand out there and watch.” He stood up and nudged Joe with his boot. “Shame your little brother ain’t awake to hear my plans.” He kicked Joe viciously in the ribs, and then did the same to Adam. “I told you, payback time. Bye, Adam.”

He left, shutting the door behind him. Adam began to fight with his bonds, knowing in his heart that he would never get free. He could hear his breath sobbing in his ears as he twisted and turned, tearing the skin on his wrists. He had no idea how long it would take the fire to reach them, but not long enough.

From outside, he suddenly heard gunfire. But even if it was rescue, it would be too late. Smoke was already seeping through the door. Adam coughed as the smoke reached his lungs. Joe, too began to cough, and stirred.

“Adam?” Joe called, and turned his head. “Adam, are you okay?” Joe began to struggle, too.

“Keep your head down, Joe,” Adam said. “Jeff’s set fire to the house.”

Joe’s white, strained face was almost more than Adam could bear. He renewed his struggles, and was astounded when the rope between his ankles and wrists suddenly snapped. He flopped round until he was able to sit up, and wrestled with the ropes even harder. The smoke was getting thicker, and they could hear the roar of the flames as they swept through the dry building.

Adam tried to untie Joe’s bonds, but he couldn’t manage. His struggles with his own just seemed to tighten them. The smoke was irritating his lungs more and more, and he could barley draw breath between bouts of coughing. Joe, too, was being over come.

As Adam sank down, no longer able to stop coughing, past being able to struggle to free himself, the door burst open, and several shadowy figures ran into the room. They all had bandannas over their faces, but Adam recognised one as Hoss. He tried to speak, but drew in a huge lungful of smoke, and blacked out.

Hoss drew his knife and swiftly cut his brothers’ bonds. Ben and Roy hoisted Adam to his feet, and each slung an arm round their shoulders, and set off, dragging him with them. Hoss gathered Joe up into his arms, and followed them. The fire was raging round them, and the whole place was ready to collapse.

Ben and Roy disappeared outside with Adam. Hoss looked anxiously at the roof and hurried as fast as he could. His injured arm was throbbing with the strain of Joe’s weight, slight though it was compared to Adam’s. Hoss stepped through the door to safety as the roof fell in, and the resulting gust of hot air blew Hoss to his knees, and he let Joe fall.

Someone helped him to his feet, and someone else picked Joe up, and they all moved further away from the conflagration. “That has to be the closest call yet!” Hoss declared, looking at the soot-blackened faces around him.

*****

Adam eased himself slowly into bed and smiled as his father tucked the covers in around him. “Thanks, Pa,” he said, his voice still husky from the smoke. It felt good to be home. “Thanks for everything.”

Ben smiled. “I still have a lecture I could give you, young man, about breaking a promise to me, but I guess you’ve heard it before.”

Adam smiled back. “I guess I might at that,” he agreed. “Pa, I’m sorry about disobeying you. But I couldn’t think of another way to get Joe back alive.”

“I know, son,” Ben said, sitting down heavily on the edge of the bed. “As it happens, you and Joe were both lucky to get out of this alive.”

Adam closed his eyes. The journey back from town in the back of the buckboard with Joe hadn’t been the most restful trip he’d ever taken. His chest was still tight from all the smoke he’d inhaled, and his wrists were bandaged. “I’m glad Jeff Randall is dead,” he said, quietly. “At least we don’t have to worry about what he’d do the next time he got out of prison.”

“You try and sleep, Adam. Call me if you want anything.” Ben caressed Adam’s head, as he often did to Joe. It was a gesture that Adam had grown away from, but it comforted him today. He was asleep before Ben was out of the room.

Ben crossed to Joe’s room, to find him also tucked securely into bed. Joe had his wrists bandaged, like Adam, but unlike his older brother, his ribs were strapped up, too. Jeff’s last kick had done the damage. Joe’s face was decorated with bruises, but his eye was open again. Like Adam, his chest was still tight, and coughing was an absolute nightmare with the broken rib. Paul Martin had been very worried by both brothers for a while, and had insisted that they stay in his office, where he could keep an eye on them both.

Ben sat down by Joe, and took his son’s hand. “I’m so glad to have you home,” he said.

Joe’s angelic grin shone out in answer. “I’m so glad to be home,” he replied. He sobered slightly. “It was weird, you know? There I was, that first night, and I was the oldest. I felt what it must be like to be Adam.” He looked at his father. “I even tried to copy Adam. You know, to be cool and calm. I tried to make out to Jeff that I was just like him.” He laughed slightly. “But its real hard work, Pa, did you know that? I could never be like that all the time.”

Ben smiled. “It was hard work for you because being cool and calm isn’t in your nature, Joe. Oh, I’m sure its sometimes hard for Adam, too, but his nature is different from yours. You know the saying ‘To thine own self be true’?” Joe nodded. “Well, that’s partly what it means. All you boys are true to yourselves, and I’m very proud of you for that.”

“Well, I tell you, Pa,” Joe said, his voice getting sleepy, “I might not be such hard work for you and Adam for a while. Now that I know what its like to be the oldest.”

Ben chuckled. “I love you, son. Sleep well.”

As Ben neared the door, Joe’s sleepy voice called after him “And I promise I’ll never get drunk again!”

*****END*****

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