The Christmas Payroll (by Rona)

Summary: Collecting the Christmas payroll is such an ordinary chore, that the Cartwrights can hardly believe when things go so wrong.

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  7,610

 

The Christmas Payroll

 

Christmas was only a week away, and snow covered the ground. Ben Cartwright looked at the cloud-filled sky and then at his sons, who stood before him. “Are you boys sure you want to risk this trip?” he asked.

Adam and Joe exchanged glances. “You always give the hands their pay before Christmas,” Adam said, patiently. “Its not too cold today, and its not as if we were alone. We have each other.”

“Sure, Pa,” Joe agreed. “Its not as if you’re having to force us to go to town.”

Ben gave his youngest son a dark look, and snorted. “When have I ever had to force you to go to town, Joseph?” he asked sarcastically. “All right, but be careful.”

Adam and Joe assured their father that they would be, and swung onto their mounts. The middle son, Hoss, came out to say his farewells, and the brothers rode away.

*****

Despite the snow, the trip to town went smoothly. They collected one or two things from the store, and then went to the bank to draw the hands’ wages. The Christmas payroll was always higher than usual, as Ben gave his hands a bonus for work well done. It was common knowledge in Virginia City. Joe glanced back out of the door. “Have you seen them?” he asked Adam.

Adam didn’t even glance round. “Yes, spotted them straight away. Think they plan on holding us up?”

“They might offer to escort us home,” Joe responded sarcastically. “Should we divide the money?”

Adam looked at the cashier, who was listening closely to them. “No, I think one of us should hide the cash, and the other take this bag, just filled with paper. Can you do that?” he asked.

The cashier nodded, and did as he was asked. Joe began to act the fool, and knocked Adam’s hat off, and thus gave Adam somewhere to put the money. He then took the bank bag and tucked it securely, and obviously, inside his jacket. Adam looked unhappy, but said nothing. Joe knew that Adam, despite always complaining that Joe was spoiled by Hoss and Ben, was as protective of him as they were.

*****

It was just starting to snow as they left town. As they rode on, it became heavier, but they decided to push on, reluctant to risk being stranded in town over Christmas. They kept a sharp eye out for the two men who’d been following them, but there was no sign.

It was too cold to talk. Joe rode Cochise, his paint horse, slightly ahead of Adam on Sport. So it was a moment or two before he realised that Adam had stopped, and was dismounting. He turned Cochise, and rode back. “What is it?” he asked.

“Just a stone in his hoof, I hope,” Adam responded. He picked up his horse’s foot, and sure enough, there was a stone wedged in it. He began to pry it loose. Cochise was restless, and Joe allowed him to turn towards home again. “I’ll catch you up,” Adam said, but Joe didn’t hear him. He reined in Cochise, and watched as Adam freed the stone and prepared to remount.

Adam swung back into the saddle and saw Joe disappear over the small rise in front of him. He urged Sport to follow. Moments later, a shot rang out and Sport shied. “Joe!” Adam breathed. He spurred Sport forward.

He was horrified as he rounded the rise. Cochise was bolting, his saddle empty, Joe dragging from one stirrup. Two men were just rising from the position where they’d fired at Joe.

Adam had his gun in his hand without being aware that he’d drawn it. He fired off a quick shot, and after exchanging a couple of rounds, winged one of the men. The other ran off. Adam wasted no time on them. He urged Sport after Cochise, who was now out of sight. “Joe!” Adam groaned.

Cochise had stopped a short distance away. Adam slowed Sport, so as not to startle the other horse, but his instinct was to gallop to Joe’s side.

Joe lay sprawled unconscious on his back, his right foot still hooked in the stirrup. His face was scraped and bloody, and as Adam brushed his hair back, he found that the bullet had creased Joe’s head. Gently, Adam freed Joe’s foot, and began to revive his brother. It took longer than Adam liked, but he eventually brought Joe round.

Adam was faced with a dilemma. Should he leave Joe and go for help, or should he try and help Joe mount and push on for home? Joe was in a lot of pain, but it was getting colder fast, and neither of them had bedrolls with them. The snow was getting worse, and darkness was falling, but they were closer to home than they were to the city. Adam opted to help Joe home. He told Joe of his plan, and helped his brother stand. Joe swayed against Adam, and then was promptly sick. Nevertheless, Adam persisted, and managed to get Joe back onto Cochise.

It was a slow, cold journey home. By the time they got there, it was full dark, and the snow was turning into a blizzard. Adam was holding Joe onto Cochise, and he himself could barely feel his legs, they were so cold.

When they eventually rode into the yard, the house door was thrown open immediately, and both Ben and Hoss hurtled out. “Adam, Joe, where have you….” Ben stopped so suddenly, he sounded as though he’d bitten off his tongue. “What happened?”

Adam tried to tell them, but he was too cold. Ben gently pulled Joe from his horse. Joe was nearly unconscious, but he cried out in pain as his injured foot dragged across the saddle. He was burning with fever. Hoss helped Adam, who was barely able to stand. Once Adam was inside, Hoss went to put away the horses.

Ben laid Joe on the settee, and shouted for Hop Sing to bring them something warm to drink. He swiftly fetched blankets, and stripped off Joe’s wet clothes, and briskly towelled him dry. Joe had passed out when his boots were removed, and it was obvious to both Ben and Adam that his ankle was broken. They exchanged concerned glances. With the weather closing in, there was no telling when the doctor would be able to get to them.

Joe revived as Ben bathed his head injuries. “Pa,” he said, weakly. “How’d you get here?”

“You’re home, boy,” Ben said gently. “Adam brought you home.”

“Good ol’ Adam,” Joe said. He shivered suddenly. “I’m cold.”

“Drink this,” Ben urged and helped Joe to drink some warm tea. The shivering abated, and Adam, too, was beginning to feel warmer. He pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders and moved closer to the fire. Ben looked at him. “Feeling better, son?” he asked. “Can you tell me what happened now?”

Adam told the story as simply as he could, and remembered to give his father the hat stuffed with money. “I winged one of them,” he told Ben. “When the weather improves, I’ll go tell the sheriff. I think both Joe and I would recognise them.”

Ben glanced at Joe, who was dozing again. He didn’t say what he was thinking, but he didn’t have to. Adam was thinking it too. If the weather didn’t break soon, Joe could end up a cripple.

A swirl of snow followed Hoss back into the house. He paused to brush the worst of it off his clothes. “Its blowin’ a blue norther out there,” he commented, and caught the worried glance between his father and older brother. “What?” he asked.

Ben shook his head, and gestured slightly towards Joe. Hoss understood at once, and crossed over to look at his baby brother. As if Joe sensed Hoss’ presence, he opened his eyes, and tried a game smile. “Hoss,” he whispered.

“Yup, its me, Joe,” Hoss replied, not sure what to say. He frowned as Joe shivered violently. Ben put his hand on Joe’s head. His temperature was rising. Ben rose and crossed to Adam’s side. Adam was still a little shivery, too, but his shivers were starting to subside. When Ben touched his head, it felt reassuringly normal.

“Let’s get Joe’s head seen to anyway,” Ben said, as though that was what they’d been talking about. “Hoss, can you get me some bandages and clean water?”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss answered, and went to get them. He brought them back, and between them, he and Ben bandaged the wound on Joe’s head. They eyed Joe’s swollen, discoloured foot, but decided to leave it alone.

They sat without talking. The house seemed cold and echoey as the wind screamed outside. Hoss went up to make up a fire in Joe’s room, but after he came back, he said “Its gonna take a while to warm up, Pa. Its real cold up there.”

“Well, we’d better sit here till it is warm then,” Ben replied. “Adam, you’d be better in bed.”

Adam shook off his drowsiness. “I’m fine, Pa,” he lied.

“No, you’re not,” his father insisted. “You’re all but asleep there. Go on, Hoss and I can manage without you, can’t we boy?”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss said.

Adam climbed wearily to his feet, and briefly touched Joe’s cheek. The younger man was sleeping again, but his sleep was restless, and his cheek was hot to the touch. “Night,” Adam said, briefly, and went upstairs.

*****

He didn’t know how long he’d slept when he heard the front door bang. The wind was still howling outside, but it seemed quieter than when he’d fallen asleep. Adam listened, trying to make out voices downstairs, but the wind was still too noisy. He was nearly asleep again when a shot fired.

Adam bolted upright, listening hard now. He heard his father’s voice raised in anger, and then another voice, which he didn’t recognise. He reached for his clothes and began to dress. His gun hung over the chair in his room, and Adam silently checked it, before easing open the door.

As silent as a cat, Adam crept to the top of the stairs. From there, although he couldn’t see, he could hear, and he stopped to listen. “We want food and blankets and money,” a man was saying, his voice rough. He stumbled over the words, and Adam guessed he was very cold. He had felt like that when they’d first arrived home. “If we don’t get what we want, I’m gonna blow his brains out!”

Adam tensed. He crept further forward and peered round the corner. Ben and Hoss stood together near the dining table. Joe was still on the couch. A stranger stood near him, with a shotgun pointing at his head. Another stranger slumped in Ben’s favourite seat. He looked vaguely familiar, and it took Adam several seconds to recognise the men who’d tried to rob him and Joe earlier that day.

Adam quietly cocked his gun and prepared to take a shot. As he targeted the one with the shotgun, the stranger drew back the hammer on both chambers. Adam drew back. If he fired and hit the man, Joe could die. “Get some food!” the stranger ordered.

Hoss went into the kitchen, and came back shortly after with some bread and ham. The injured stranger ate first, then took over with the shotgun. Adam seethed with impatience. Finally, they appeared to have eaten their fill. “Give us some money,” demanded the first stranger.

“I have no money in the house,” Ben replied, quietly.

“Don’t lie to me, I saw him taking the money from the bank. Now where is it?”

Ben’s head went up, and he looked the stranger in the face. “It was the wages for my men,” he said, quietly still, but with under tones of anger. “I gave it to them hours ago.”

“In this weather? I don’t think so. Now, where is it?” The man reached down and dragged Joe up by the hair. When Joe groaned, he forced the shotgun barrel into Joe’s mouth. “Where?”

Ben looked defeated, and went across the room. From his desk, he took some bills – a much smaller pile than Adam and Joe had brought home, Adam noticed. Ben handed it over to the men. The man let go of Joe’s hair, and he flopped back on the couch with another groan. Blood began to trickle from Joe’s torn, bruised mouth.

“Thirty dollars? Is that it?”

“I told you, the men got their wages earlier. That’s just some petty cash I have in the house in case something comes up.” Ben was seething at the way Joe had been treated. He bit his tongue to stop himself saying something he might regret.

The man grunted. “Tie ‘em up,” he ordered his partner, and Ben and Hoss had no choice but to let to submit. When they were securely bound to chairs, Joe’s wrists were bound in front of him, and the men moved away.

Adam took his chance and fired. His first shot missed by inches, and he barely ducked back in time as the shotgun expended both barrels in his direction. He jumped forward again, but too late. The uninjured man had Joe by the neck, and was holding a knife against his throat. “Put it down!”

Adam hesitated, and the knife nicked Joe’s neck. A thin trickle of blood appeared. Adam put down his gun. Before long, he was tied like his father and brother. “Sorry, Pa,” he apologised.

“You tried, Adam,” Ben excused him. “You had no choice.”

*****

The night wore on. Hoss fell asleep, and snored loudly. Adam and Ben dozed uneasily. Each new awakening reminded them of the wretchedness of their situation. Joe seemed to sleep most of the night, although his shouts woke them all shortly before dawn.

The wind had dropped, and when one of the men opened the door to peer out, they could see the new snow piled high around the barn. It was perfectly still. With a shiver, the outlaw closed the door again. The metallic scent of snow hung on the air. While the Cartwrights watched, the man built the fire up again.

Hoss was struggling quietly against his bonds, and Adam and Ben knew that he was the most likely of the three of them to escape. The outlaws had become careless, and were ignoring their captives. The shotgun and Adam’s handgun lay on the table in front of the fire. In their present condition, it was as far away as Cathay.

Joe suddenly let out another shout and sat up. His eyes were wild as he glanced around. He turned, too abruptly it seemed, and fell from the couch, knocking everything from the table as he went down.

The uninjured outlaw went after him, and grabbed Joe’s shoulder to turn him over. Halfway there, he froze, as in his bound hands, Joe had Adam’s revolver! “Make one false move, and it’ll be your last,” Joe warned. “Now, untie my family!”

The man hesitated, and Joe cocked the hammer. “Now!” Joe was shaking with pain and fever, but there was no mistaking his seriousness.

With slow movements, the man did as he was told. Adam swiftly stretched the kinks out of his muscles, and crossed to Joe’s side. He took the gun from him, and Hoss came over to release Joe’s hands. Joe slumped down in relief, and for a few moments, it looked like he might pass out.

“Well done, Joe,” Ben said, putting his arm round his son’s shoulders. He and Hoss helped Joe back on to the couch and gently placed his broken ankle on a cushion. Joe was sheet white when they had finished.

“What are we going to do with them?” Adam asked, gesturing to their prisoners.

“Just what they did to us,” Ben replied, grimly. “Hop Sing went into town last night after you went upstairs, and he was to bring the sheriff and doctor back with him.”

“Hop Sing went alone?” Adam asked, horrified.

“I tried to stop him, but he was determined,” Ben answered. “I hope he got to Virginia City before the worst of the storm broke.”

“If these two could get here,” Adam said, “then I’m sure Hop Sing got through.”

*****

As the day wore on, the Cartwrights became more and more concerned for the safety of their Chinese cook. Ben wouldn’t allow either Adam or Hoss to go after him. He reasoned, correctly, that all three were needed in case Joe turned sicker, or the men tried to escape.

Joe was obviously concussed, and after using up his energy to free his family, felt terrible. He slept a lot, but when he was awake, the others took turns sitting with him, trying to keep his mind off his woes.

About mid-afternoon, Adam went to the barn to feed the horses. When he came back, they released their prisoners to have something to eat. Ben sat with Joe and Adam and Hoss watched the prisoners. Once they had finished, Adam gestured to them to sit down again, so Hoss could tie them up.

Hank, the injured one, rose to his feet, and staggered slightly. Adam tensed, but Hoss, with his kind nature, reached out a hand to help. Hank didn’t try to take on Hoss; he simply shoved the bigger man away. Taken off guard, Hoss fell backwards.

Adam instinctively made a move towards Hoss, and then checked himself. But it was all Ike, the other outlaw, needed. He launched himself at Adam, and within moments they were wrestling ferociously on the floor.

Hoss lumbered to his feet, and made a grab for Hank, who slithered out of his grasp like an eel. Hank threw himself at Ben, and pushed the older man away. He grabbed Joe and pulled him up to use as a shield. He had a knife in his hand – the knife from the table. It wasn’t very sharp, but sharp enough. “Hold it!” he ordered.

They all froze, and Ike, who was on top of Adam, struck him hard across the face. Adam was already bleeding from their fight, and Ike’s blow opened a gash down his cheekbone. Adam’s eye began to swell slowly.

Ike looked at Hoss. “You, get outside and saddle up a couple of horses. Any funny business, and your brothers here will get it.” For emphasis, Ike backhanded Adam again. Adam, pinned under Ike’s weight, couldn’t avoid the blow.

Hank, following Ike’s example, backhanded Little Joe.

For a moment, it looked as though Ben and Hoss would sacrifice their lives to get revenge for those blows, but both had too much common sense to allow that thought full rein. Ben nodded, and Hoss went to the door, and went outside.

Ben remained standing by the fire, overwhelmed with helplessness. He was thinking so hard about how they might get out of this situation alive, that it took several seconds for him to realise that the front door was opening very, very slowly. Ben didn’t know what was going on, but he had to distract Hank and Ike. “Please, if you’re going to take a hostage with you, don’t take one of my sons,” he said. “I’ll go.”

Hank turned to look at him. Ike finally took his eyes from Adam’s face, and grinned nastily. “Oh, I don’t think so, old man,” he replied. “I think we’ll take young Adam here. He won’t slow us down too much, and his presence will stop you from following too close behind.”

“Please, take me,” Ben repeated.

“No, Pa,” Adam protested, thickly.

Ike looked back at his victim, and caught the movement of the door from the corner of his eye. The gun came up, and Ben gave a shout. Roy Coffee, the sheriff, burst in to the room, and fired at Ike. Ben dived at Hank, and wrestled with him for control of the knife. Hank fought madly, not caring if he hurt anyone. Ben was trying to avoid hurting Joe any more. Joe himself helped his father out, by punching Hank in the stomach. Ben got the knife, and knocked Hank to the floor.

Panting, Ben looked up, and saw that Hoss was helping Coffee handcuff Ike. Dr Martin stood on the threshold, unsure who needed his help most. Behind him, grinning like a Cheshire cat, stood Hop Sing.

*****

Later, much later, Ben sank into his bed wearily. Adam had been in bed for hours, his bruises and scrapes dressed and cleaned. Hoss had helped Coffee take the men back to town, and had then returned. Ben had had a bad cut on his hand bandaged, before Doc Martin had given Joe some laudanum, and set and bandaged his broken ankle. After Hoss had returned, they had carried Joe to bed, and Hoss had volunteered to sit with him. Martin had ordered Ben to bed, and had agreed to stay the night, to save himself a long, dark ride home in the snow.

Adam, his face bruised and swollen, was unable to settle in bed. Martin had offered him some laudanum, for the pain, but he had refused. He was uneasy, but wasn’t sure why. Hoss had told them that Hank and Ike were securely in jail. Eventually, he slipped into a light slumber, but he woke frequently.

Dawn came late, and with it, more snow. Paul Martin looked at the weather, and accepted Ben’s hospitality once more. Joe was resting more comfortably, but still in pain from his ankle. Adam’s right eye was swelled completely shut, and Paul bathed it in cool water. Hoss went to the barn to check on the horses, and Ben went to the bunkhouse to give the hands their pay.

All day, the snow fell lazily, huge fat flakes settling on the piles already softening the landscape. Hoss dug a path to the barn, to make feeding the stock easier, and Paul Martin made a joke about being holed up at the Ponderosa for the whole winter.

In truth, he was needed, as both Adam and Joe developed a cough. Joe’s temperature rose steadily throughout the day, and Ben was kept busy sponging Joe with cool water, in an effort to keep him cool. Adam, too, was slightly fevered, but stayed away from his father as much as possible, so as not to give him something more to worry about.

By the time darkness fell, another two feet of snow lay on the ground.

*****

Ben woke from a doze, and by the guttering light of his lamp, saw that it was 2 am. He rose stiffly from the chair he had been dozing in, and looked at Joe. For now, he was sleeping peacefully, and was fairly cool. Ben paced across to the window and looked out. The blizzard was still howling outside, and something was creaking.

Ben stopped still, and listened to the creaking. It seemed closer than the trees outside, but he couldn’t quite place where it was coming from. Joe muttered something, and Ben crossed the room to his side.

It was as well he did, for with a groan that roused the whole house, the roof above Joe’s window caved in under the weight of the snow! Ben was knocked off his feet, and the lamp tipped over. There was a whoosh, as the flames licked up the wall.

Ben could hear shouting coming from the other rooms, but he was more concerned with the fire that had broken out. He grabbed the basin of water that he’d been using to bathe Joe, and threw it on the flames. A handful of snow followed, and mercifully, the worst of that danger was past.

But the rest of the roof was creaking badly, and Ben knew they had to get downstairs, and probably out of the house altogether. Adam was suddenly by Ben’s side, and they lifted Joe carefully. Joe had been startled out of sleep, and the snow whirling in the room, and the acrid smell from the fire, set him to coughing. Adam, as Joe’s weight settled into his arms, also began to cough. He stumbled, and would have fallen if Hoss hadn’t arrived. Swiftly, the middle son took Joe into his arms, leaving Ben to help his older son, who was shaking with fever.

They made their way downstairs, and across to the dining area, where there was only one level of roof to worry about. Paul Martin came at their back, and he examined Adam and Joe while Ben and Hoss wrapped up warmly, and went out to inspect the roof.

It was nearly an hour later when they returned, having cleared as much snow as they could from the roof of the house. Some of the hands had helped them, and they had rigged a tarpaulin over the gaping hole as best they could. By the time they came in, they were wet through.

Paul ordered them to change out of their wet clothes immediately, and Hop Sing soon had hot coffee and broth ready for them. Joe was laid back on the settee. Paul would have preferred the table, which gave better support to his ankle, but the settee provided more comfort. Adam was sitting in a chair by the fire, wrapped in blankets, coughing steadily. He smiled at his father, as Ben sank into a chair opposite him. “You look exhausted, Pa,” he whispered hoarsely.

“I am,” Ben agreed. “How are you feeling, Adam?”

“Wrung out,” Adam admitted. “Guess we’re lucky that Paul got marooned here?”

“What’s lucky about that?” Joe asked. “He’s torturing me!”

“I’ll torture you, young man, if you don’t stop complaining!” Ben said, sternly, but his eyes were twinkling. If Joe could crack jokes, he must be a little better. He hadn’t had the energy to be cheeky before.

“Ben, the day Joe doesn’t complain about my treatment” Paul said wryly, “the world will stop turning!”

They all laughed, and it felt good to release some of the tension. What was left of the night passed quietly, but Paul had little rest. Adam took a turn for the worse, his fever shooting up, and the cough tormenting him sorely. Paul raided the kitchen, and fed Adam sips of honey, which soothed his throat for a while and allowed him a short respite from the cough.

Come daylight, Paul confirmed to Ben that Adam had pneumonia. They fixed a bed for him downstairs, and took turns laying cold cloths on his hot forehead. Adam struggled for breath between bouts of coughing, and his wheezing could be heard across the large room. At one point, Paul fixed up blankets and brought cauldrons of steaming water from the kitchen, hoping that the steam would relieve the tightness in Adam’s chest. It worked for a while, and Adam sank into a deep sleep.

Ben sat down, exhausted from all the worry. At first, it seemed like Joe was the only victim, but now he was seemingly on the mend, and Adam was desperately ill. Hoss was doing all he could, but Joe still needed attention, and could do very little for himself. Adam was Ben’s rock. He always seemed to be there for Ben to lean on when Joe got himself into yet another scrape. He and Adam were temperamentally alike, and despite the saying that opposites were the best companions, he and Adam were friends, as well as father and son. Adam had grown up early, and Ben missed the adult company. Hoss got on well with everyone, and Joe was his mercurial youngest, but Adam was the person he leaned on when times got too tough. As well as fearing for Adam’s life, Ben missed his support.

Ben woke with a start, not realising that he’d been asleep. The house was quiet. Hoss slumbered in a chair by the fire, Paul was nowhere in sight, and Adam was so still, Ben feared he had died. He checked Adam’s breathing, which had eased, and changed the cloth on his head. Then Joe spoke, and Ben realised that he’d been woken by his son’s voice. Wearily, with stiff muscles, Ben crossed the room.

Joe was still sick, but was finally recovering. His fever was down, but he still suffered a lot of pain from his ankle. “Pa, how’s Adam?” he whispered. The cough he had had roughened his voice to a whisper.

Ben ran a hand through his son’s hair. “He’s sleeping,” he replied. “Just like you should be.”

Joe shook his head. “I’ve done enough sleeping,” he protested. “Pa, is Adam going to be all right?”

“Yes,” Ben replied, firmly. “I’m sure he’s going to be just fine.”

Joe’s green eyes, the image of his mother’s, caught Ben’s gaze. “He saved my life,” Joe said. “I wish there was something I could do for him. We sometimes don’t see eye to eye, but he’s my brother.”

“I know,” Ben said. “But right now, you have to concentrate on getting better yourself. Paul is here, and is doing everything he can for Adam. How do you feel?”

Joe sighed. “My ankle feels pretty bad,” he admitted.

“What about your head?” Ben asked, turning Joe’s head to the side, and lifting his curls to examine the bullet crease. It appeared to be healing well, and the bruising was finally starting to fade.

“Its okay, I guess,” Joe said, indifferently. “Its not sore, just – I don’t know – tight. Like the skin is pulled over it.”

“It was,” Ben said, dryly. “You scraped all your face, and the scabs look a little tight as they’re healing. Paul says they shouldn’t leave any mark at all.”

Joe smiled briefly, but for all his brothers’ jibes about his beauty, Joe wasn’t a vain young man. He liked to be tidy, and he took care of his appearance, but he couldn’t see what was so remarkable about his face. As long as the girls liked him, he didn’t care. Now, he could see the fatigue on his father’s face, and he hesitated before speaking. “Pa, my back is real sore lying here. Can’t I sit up?”

Ben frowned, and Joe, not wanting to cause his father more grief, said quickly “Its all right, I’ll stay lying down.”

“If your back hurts, you need to change your position,” Ben said. “Hold on, while I move the table, so you can rest your ankle on it.”

Joe watched as Ben moved the furniture around, and placed a cushion on the table. Then, Ben helped Joe to sit up, gently holding his son’s injured ankle as Joe wriggled around to a comfortable sitting position. Ben tucked the covers around his son once more as Joe sighed with relief as the ache in his back disappeared. “Gee,” he said, “I’m getting to put my feet on the furniture!” Ben smiled.

Paul came back into the room from the kitchen, and smiled at Ben. He came across and sat beside them. “Adam is doing a little better,” he told them in a hushed voice. “I expect the fever to break by tomorrow, at the latest. How are you doing, Joe?”

“Fine,” Joe said, but Ben hastened to tell Paul that Joe’s ankle still hurt. Paul took a look at it, and loosened the bandages and splints, slightly. “Your ankle is still pretty swollen and sore, and it will be for a while. I don’t want you trying to walk on it for at least a week, not even with crutches. It won’t take any weight. If you stand on it now, you’ll undo all the good the resting has done.”

“Aw, doc,” Joe protested.

“I’m serious, Joe,” Paul said sternly. “If you try and walk on your ankle too soon, you could end up with a permanent limp.”

Joe subsided. “Okay, I promise to stay off it.” He looked at Ben. “I’m sorry, Pa. It means more work for everyone, especially with Adam still sick.”

“We’ll manage, son,” Ben assured him. “You and Adam just need to get well, that’s the most important thing.”

“Dagburn it, Pa” Hoss said, “Joe must be sick, if he’s worryin’ about work!”

Joe snorted. “I know you,” he retorted. “You always save the worst jobs for me when I’m sick!”

Ben sat back and listened while his sons continued their verbal sparring. Joe was definitely on the mend, and Ben was thankful. He rose and went back to his vigil at Adam’s side.

*****

Adam’s fever broke the next morning, and within a few hours, he was sitting up and eating the broth Hop Sing had made for him. He was thin and weak, but recovering. Paul Martin was relieved. The snow had finally stopped late the previous night, and although it lay nearly 6 feet deep in places, a thaw had already begun. The eaves were dripping steadily. Paul took Ben aside and told him he was preparing to ride back to Virginia City that day.

Ben argued with him, and finally persuaded Paul to stay another night, and leave the next morning. Hoss volunteered to go with him. By morning, the snow had visibly melted, but was still ‘deep and crisp and even’, as Joe put it very seasonably. Christmas was now only a couple of days away.

Ben sent Paul away with thanks ringing in his ears, and some food to keep him going. It was a slow, tiring ride, with the horses sometimes chest deep in snow. Hoss had seldom been so glad to see anywhere as he was to see the city.

As he tied his horse up outside the general store, a voice hailed him. “Hoss!”

It was Roy Coffee. Hoss stared. Coffee’s face was bruised and he limped slightly. “Roy! What happened to you?”

Coffee met Hoss’ worried gaze with the soberest expression Hoss could ever remember seeing. “There was a jail break last night,” he said.

“Jail break? What? How?” Hoss couldn’t get his tongue to form the questions his brain was screaming.

“Someone blew my jail last night, and Hank and Ike got away,” Roy reported.

“Got away? Oh, Lord, no!” Hoss turned back to his horse.

Roy put his hand on Hoss’ arm. “They had outside help, Hoss,” Roy continued. “They didn’t have dynamite in my jail. I don’t know who helped them, yet, but I’ll find out. I’m gathering a posse now, but I’m glad to see you. You, Ben and Adam need to keep your eyes open.”

“Adam’s bin sick, too,” Hoss said, dully. “Pa’s lookin’ after him an’ Joe alone. Paul just came back to town with me.” Hoss shook off Roy’s restraining hand. “I’m gonna head back now,” he said. “You kin follow along when you’re ready.”

“Be careful,” Roy warned. Hoss nodded, but Roy doubted if he’d heard. For a moment, he watched Hoss riding away, then he shouted to his deputy “Hurry them up!”

*****

Hoss rode Chubb as fast as he could, but the horse was already tired from the trip in, and Hoss didn’t want him failing. When he rode into the yard, there was no movement from the house. Swiftly, Hoss put his horse up, and thought about his next move. There was no reason his father should have come to see who was moving about outside. After all, he was expecting Hoss home again. But surely not that quickly, Hoss reasoned. It could be that Ben was asleep; he’d had little enough sleep in the last few days. Neither Joe nor Adam could get up and walk about yet. Hoss nodded his head. They were all plausible theories, but he didn’t believe any of them.

Hoss went to the kitchen door, and eased it open. There was no sign of Hop Sing, but the room seemed empty, and Hoss went in. Drawing his gun, Hoss crossed the kitchen with a lightness of step that belied his size. He stood listening at the door to the main room. There were voices, but Hoss couldn’t hear what they were saying. Very slowly, he turned the door handle, and eased the door open a fraction.

The voices became clearer. One was Ben’s; the other seemed familiar, too. Hoss frowned for a moment before recognising it as belonging to John Hopkins, a man who had a neighbouring ranch. Hopkins was a pest – always complaining, and blaming things on the Cartwrights. He could never see that his own laziness and short-sightedness caused many of his problems.

Hoss began to relax slightly. Hopkins was over to complain again, he thought. Probably thought the snow was the fault of the Ponderosa, too! Then Joe let out a cry, and Hoss tensed again. He had heard his little brother cry in pain before, and he recognised the sound now.

Tossing his tall, white hat onto the floor, Hoss eased round the doorpost to have a look. Hopkins stood with his back to the fireplace, a rifle in his hands. He was watching something, and smiling slightly. It wasn’t a pleasant smile.

Joe cried again, and fell to the floor at Hopkins’ feet. Hopkins put his foot on Joe’s back, and placed the rifle against his head. Hoss tensed, angrily. Ben spoke again, from somewhere outside Hoss’ vision. “Leave him alone!”

Hopkins laughed. “Why should I, Cartwright? Its giving you anguish to watch and its giving me pleasure. You think you know it all, but you’re wrong.”

“Why are you doing this, John?” Ben asked, his tone reasonable.

“You Cartwrights got Hank and Ike put in jail. How am I meant to work my ranch when they’re locked up? You never think of anyone but yourself, do you?”

“They work for you?” Ben repeated, his tone surprised. “Well, it wouldn’t have made any difference even if I had known that. They ambushed Joe and Adam!”

“It’s a lie!” Hopkins declared. “Adam shot Hank.”

“I shot him because he shot Joe,” Adam’s voice said, weakly. “Then they held us hostage, and beat us up.”

“Huh,” Hopkins said, disdainfully. “Beat you up indeed.” He gave Joe a kick. Joe jerked. Hoss saw his brother’s face, which was bleeding from the nose and mouth. Joe, in that moment, saw Hoss, and hastily looked away.

“Please,” Ben said. “Leave Joe alone.”

Hopkins looked down at his captive and smiled again. Hoss shuddered. Joe was squirming away from the pressure of Hopkins’ boot heel in his back, but Hopkins simply increased the pressure, eliciting a grunt of pain from Joe.

“What do you want?” Ben asked, wearily. “I have no money to give you.”

“I don’t think I want your money anymore,” Hopkins said. “I’ll just take your son, and your horses and ride away. That would hurt you more than money.”

“Joe isn’t fit to go anywhere,” Ben protested, not denying the truth Hopkins had seen. “Nor is Adam. Take me!”

“No, Pa,” Joe protested. Hopkins kicked him again. Joe groaned. Hoss’s grip on his gun tightened. He’d heard enough. From the other side of the room, he heard Adam protest, too, and Ike growled something Hoss didn’t catch. He risked another glance round the doorpost. Joe was looking at him, and Hoss nodded.

Joe suddenly reached around and grasped Hopkins’ ankle, and pulled. It was a risky move, given that there was a gun pointing at his head, but Joe didn’t hesitate. Hopkins gave a startled cry as he over balanced. His rifle swung up and discharged into the ceiling, bringing down some plaster. Hoss charged out of the kitchen, and took in the situation. Adam still lay on his makeshift bed, and Ike had a gun pointing at him. Hank was covering Ben. Both men looked at their boss in astonishment. That gave Hoss time to make a move. Ben, too, reacted, punching Hank hard in the stomach. Adam grabbed Ike’s gun and wrestled for control of it.

Hoss wasn’t sure who to help first, but decided on Adam. He charged across the room, like a moose on a rampage, and Ike was startled. He pulled the gun from Adam’s weakened grip and fired wildly at Hoss. Despite having such a large target, he missed by yards. Then, Hoss was on him, swinging his mighty fists, and Ike went down and out.

Hoss turned his attention to Ben, who seemed to have things well under control. So Hoss turned his attention to Little Joe. Joe, hampered by his broken ankle, was curled on the floor, trying to protect his vitals, as Hopkins viciously kicked him and struck him about the shoulders with his gun. “Hopkins!” Hoss bellowed, and charged at him. Distracted, Hopkins missed his target, and struck Joe’s ankle. Joe let out a shriek and uncurled. Hopkins, still with one eye on Hoss, kicked Joe in the face. Joe went down, blood spurting from under his clutching fingers.

By then, Hoss was there, and Hopkins threw his gun at Hoss, never once thinking to fire it. Hoss took the blow on his shoulder without even noticing it. Hopkins made an abortive try to run, but Hoss grabbed him, and punched him once in the face. Once was enough; Hopkins fainted in terror.

Looking down on the unconscious man before him, Hoss quelled the rage pounding in his veins, and turned to check on his family’s safety. Ben stood over Hank, breathing hard, but with only a few red marks on his face. Adam was sagging back on his pillows, obviously exhausted, but managing a shaky smile for his younger brother. Hoss turned his gaze on Joe, and knelt by his baby brother. He prised Joe’s hands away from his face.

Blood gushed from the split up Joe’s right cheek, and his face was swelling as Hoss watched. “My God!” Ben breathed. “Hoss, get some water!”

Hoss lumbered to his feet, and they heard horses galloping into the yard. “Now what?” Ben wondered.

“It’s the posse,” Hoss remembered, and went to open the door. Ben, meanwhile, yelled for Hop Sing, who, it turned out, had slept through the whole siege! Roy Coffee came in and looked at the three men for a moment, before motioning to his deputies to take them away.

Ben looked up from bathing Joe’s face to see Paul Martin looking down on them. “Paul!” Ben exclaimed, confused. “How did you get here?”

“I came with the posse,” he said, pushing Ben gently aside. “Roy asked me to come, so I got a fresh horse and here I am. Good thing, too.”

When Joe came round a little later, he discovered that Paul had put a few stitches in his face, and had re-set the injured ankle. Paul had used a little ether to keep Joe out of it while his injuries were attended to, and Joe felt slightly sick. However, he wasn’t in pain, thanks to the dose of laudanum Paul had also given him. He was rather surprised to learn that he was lying on the dining table, and disgusted to be told he was to stay there for another day or so.

*****

Joe crutched his way slowly down stairs, and out to the rocker on the porch. He sat carefully, and eased his ankle onto the stool. Hoss and Adam came from the barn and grinned when they saw him. “Well, dadburn it!” Hoss exclaimed. “If’n it ain’t Little Joe, up and dressed before noon!”

“Must be on the mend,” Adam commented, dryly. “I wonder how soon it’ll be before Pa has him back clearing out the water holes.”

“Not that soon,” Joe assured him. “Besides, who could sleep with all that hammering going on?”

Adam and Hoss laughed. The repairs on the roof were going well, and the last of the tiles was being replaced that day. There after, Joe’s room would be habitable again, and he could go back to his own bedroom. He’d been sleeping in the spare room, and complaining about it.

Joe scratched at the healing cut on his face, which showed only a thin red line, and would heal without a mark, Paul had promised. Adam reached out and smacked Joe sharply on the knuckles. “Leave it alone!” he warned.

“Adam, don’t you have something better to do than torment me?” Joe complained.

Adam sat down on the bench beside Joe. “Actually, no,” he replied. “I’m still on light work, remember? And I’m finished for the day. I’ll be able to keep you company, and make sure you keep off that foot, and don’t scratch your face.”

Joe reached for his crutch. “I think I might just go back to bed,” he said. Hoss snatched it away. “Hoss!”

Adam reached under the bench and produced an accounts book. “You can help me with these,” he said.

“Uh, Adam, I don’t think so,” Joe answered, trying to get his crutch back. “I’m supposed to rest.”

“Yeah, but you don’t want your brain to rot while you’re restin’” Hoss said. “Pa thought you could help.”

Joe sank back with a scowl on his handsome features. “Next time, I’m going to get laid up far from home,” he complained.

“What – away from your own bed? How on earth will you manage that?” Adam asked, and laughed as Hoss went off into gales of helpless laughter.

Joe watched them for a few seconds, scowling, but the corner of his mouth twitched, and then he began to giggle.

*****End*****

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