Summary: A WHN for the episode “Credit for a Kill.”
Word Count: 7150
The man pulled the three horses to a stop and dismounted. He turned to a second horse and pulled the man that was stretched across the saddle down from his mount. The man landed with a thud onto the sun-baked earth and moaned softly. The first man glanced down at the younger man and laughed wickedly as he pulled something from a pouch tied among other things on his pack animal. He struggled with the item but after a few moments he dropped the heavy ball and chain at the younger man’s feet.
Joe Cartwright’s eyes widen in disbelief, but because of the ropes that bound him, he was unable to stand and run away from the offensive slave ware. His breathing became labored as he dug his fingers into the hard ground and tried to drag his body away from the hands that grabbled at his ankles.
“Hold still,” growled Dave Jordan as he slapped at Joe’s bound hands that tried in vain to push his captive’s hands away from his legs.
When Joe refused to stop struggling, Dave grabbed the front of Joe’s green jacket, holding Joe upright and then drove his fist into the handsome face. Joe’s head snapped backward and as Dave released his grip on Joe’s clothing, Joe’s upper body fell backwards onto the ground, ending his struggle.
Dave took advantage of Joe’s addled state of mind and quickly removed the boy’s boots from his feet and tossed them off to the side. He’d put them on the packhorse before he went on, being sure that Joe would remain in his stocking feet.
Dave Jordan grinned. It had been easy to sneak up on the kid and bonk him over the head, rendering him defensive…and right in the very stable where the boy had murdered his three younger brothers, too! Dave had wondered just how he could catch the kid alone, but after watching Joe Cartwright leaving his friend, that Morgan man, at the saloon and make his way to the livery, Dave had run ahead, managing to hide in the dark shadows. The boy never knew what hit him, until he had awakened some time later and found himself tied across his own saddle and riding further and further into the boiling desert. It was just what Dave had hoped for, for the man that had killed his family, death by exposure, lack of food and water…a slow, painful way for a young man to die…just what Dave Jordan wanted for the man he’d come to hate more than anyone or anything else in the entire world.
Quickly, Dave pulled a key from his vest pocket and attached the ankle cuff about Joe’s left leg and snapped the halves of metal together. With his key, he turned the lock, securing the heavy object to the ankle. Only then did he remove the ropes that bound Joe’s ankles together.
Grinning, Dave Jordan stood up glaring down at Joe who looked with a horrified glance, into the man’s eyes. It was the first time that Joe had really gotten a good look at the man, and as far as Joe could remember, he had never seen the man before.
“Let’s see you walk with that thing on,” Jordan laughed. “It must weigh about fifty pounds!”
Joe rose up into a sitting position, his nostrils flaring. His lips were pulled tight, into a firm straight line and he gasped for each breath he took. He knew he was on the verge of panic but he willed himself to remain calm.
“You can’t be serious!” he proclaimed, still not fully believing that this man was planning on leaving him here, in the middle of the desert with this heavy object attached to his leg.
“I’ll die out here, like this…”
“Precisely!” laughed the other man.
“But why? I don’t even know you!” Joe said.
“No…you don’t know me…but I know you, Cartwright. And I know what you did…”
“What do you mean? I haven’t done anything to you…”
The strange man’s brow rose slightly and his eyes darkened. “Haven’t you?”
Joe tried tugging on the short chain that ran between the cuff on his ankle and the heavy iron ball, but it refused to budge. With frightened eyes, he looked into the man’s face. “No…I haven’t, but since you seem to think I have; why don’t you refresh my memory?” he barked angrily.
“Alright, kid,” Dave said as he squatted down, facing the boy.
In the boy’s eyes, Dave could see the fear that the kid tried so hard to hide, but had little success. He grinned wickedly as he pulled a long thin knife from his boot and grabbed Joe’s wrists that were bound with rope. As he talked, he cut the ropes lose and then stepped back away from his prisoner, leaving Joe’s hands free. Quickly, Joe began rubbing the life back into his hands and fingers, making a scowl on his face when the blood began to flow once again and leaving his limbs with a tingling sensation.
“Luke Jordan was my brother…same as Boone and Walt and Virgil…” Dave saw his prisoners face pale considerably and his own expression darkened. “That’s right, they were my brothers, all four and you killed them all!” he said in a voice coarse with hatred.
“Your brother Luke was killed stealing a horse…it was never proven that it was my bullet that killed him and the others were killed when they tried to murder me in a locked barn, that’s…”
“Do you think I care why you killed them? Hell no…I knew what they were…but regardless, they were my brothers…all I had in this world and you…took them from me…one at a time. That’s why you have to die…slowly…and painfully. I want you to have time to think about what you’ve done. I want you to remember their faces and when you die, I hope you go straight to hell!”
Dave turned and stomped back to the horses. Before he mounted up, he paused and glared at Joe who was slowly trying to get to his feet. Dave watched as Joe bent down and tried to pick up the round cast iron ball, but the chain was too short to be able to stand upright with it in his hands.
With a disheartened groan, Joe let the ball drop to the ground and looked up, seeing Dave Jordan watching him. Joe swallowed hard.
“I’ll need water,” he said humbly.
Dave Jordan mounted up, collecting the reins to Joe’s horse and pack animal. He snarled in disgust at the young man. “You’ll need lots of it when you get to where you’re going, but right now, you’ll have to do without.”
Jordan kicked hard at his mount’s sides and the horses broke into a trot, leaving Joe standing alone with his heavy ball and chain. A new kind of fear filled the boy’s heart as he watched the man ride off into the sun. For the first time in as long as he could remember, Joe was scared. He knew without a doubt that his chances of getting back to civilization were next to impossible, for he was miles and miles from any town. And he knew of no ranches, anywhere in the vicinity where he might find help. The Ponderosa was not even in his range. He was going to die for what the man claimed he had done. Die, just like Dave Jordan had predicted, slowly and painfully. But he wasn’t going to hell, of that he was sure, not when the place was already full of men like the Jordans, Joe told himself.
“He should have been home days ago,” fumed Ben as he walked to the front door and jerked it open so that he could peer outside once again.
Hoss watched his father pace the floor but refused to comment. He knew that as worried as his father was about his youngest son, nothing he could say would still his anxious thoughts.
Ben closed the door and returned to his son. “I’m worried,” he said softly.
“I know, Pa,” Hoss responded. “But Joe’s a big boy now; he can take care of himself.”
Ben sighed and lowered his body into his chair “Of course he can,” he muttered, forcing his lips into a smile.
Hoss stood up, stretching. He turned to his father and smiled. “But you want me to go look for’em, don’t’cha?” he asked.
Ben raised his dark eyes and looked at Hoss with a serious expression. He stood to his feet, his fingers he dug into the tops of his front pockets. “As a matter of fact, no, I don’t want you to do such a thing. What I do want is for you to stay here; I’ll go look for him,” Ben said as he moved to the credenza and began buckling his gun belt to his hip.
Hoss jumped up and moved to stand in front of his father as Ben readied to go.
“Pa…don’t ya think you’re worryin’ for nothin’?” Hoss dared to ask.
“Nothing?” Ben said with a touch of agitation in his voice. He finished tying the leg strap and grabbed for his hat, turning to Hoss. “Ever since Morgan sent me that wire about the Jordan brothers having an older brother that was looking for Joe, I’ve been worried. Joe killed that man’s family…oh, in self-defense of course, along with the sheriff’s help, but Dave Jordan knows only one thing…and that’s that his entire family was wiped out. He doesn’t care about the reasons only that Joe played a major part in their killing, and he’s consumed with hate and wants vengeance. That’s cause enough for me to be worried about your own brother…” Ben pointed a finger at Hoss, “and you should be worried too, Dave Jordan is a hardened killer according to Roy Coffee…he’s killed for lesser reasons than what he wants to kill Joe for!” proclaimed Ben as he turned to go. “I should never have allowed Joe to go back to Morgan’s!” he mumbled under his breath.
Ben walked out the door, leaving Hoss staring at his retreating back. Hoss scrunched up his face and then grabbed his hat from the peg and snatching his gun belt off the credenza. “I don’t care what Pa says, I’m goin’ with him,” he muttered to himself.
Exhausted, Joe dropped to the ground, swiping the back of his hand across his mouth. Drops of sweat dotted his dusty face and rolled into his eyes, causing a stinging sensation. He used his jacket sleeve to rub away the moisture as best he could and then rubbed his ankle where the iron cuff dug into his flesh. His feet hurt and the hot, dry ground had begun to eat away at his socks, leaving the bottoms of his feet exposed to the crusty earth and more than a little tender.
Joe glanced up at the sun and then back in the direction in which he had walked, dragging the heavy ball along behind him. The tired man shook his head, disheartened, he’d only walked about a mile, if that far, and already he was drenched in sweat and coated in dust so thick that it practically choked him just to breath. And his left leg hurt like blazes, dragging the heavy ball behind him. Joe could feel the burning in the muscles in his leg from straining so hard when as he walked.
Death loomed before his eyes, eyes that misted but refused to relinquish their tears.
“Oh Pa…I need your help…badly,” Joe whispered, lowering his head slightly.
“I’m sorry, Ben…but I haven’t seen Joe since…night before last. We shared a beer at the saloon and he left, saying he was heading home. I just assumed that he had,” Morgan explained.
“Well, he didn’t make it home, Morgan,” Hoss said.
“I hate to hear that, you don’t reckon he ran into that Jordan fellow, do you, Ben?” Morgan asked with a touch of worry in his voice. “The Sheriff said he was a bad one…”
“I don’t know Morgan, but since Joe never made it home, I was worried that perhaps he might have,” Ben answered.
“Know if anyone has seen him about town?” Hoss questioned.
Morgan shook his head. “No, can’t say that I have, Hoss. All I know is that the sheriff rode out this way about three…no, four days ago and said that he’d gotten a wire from the sheriff over towards Dayton that said Dave Jordan was released from prison last week and was headed over this way.”
Ben pinched his lips tightly and mounted up. “Thanks, Morgan. You and Martha take care, and keep your eyes opened,” Ben said, tipping his hand to his hat brim.
“Thanks, Ben, we will. What are you and Hoss going to do?”
“Look for Joe…”
“Want me to ride along? After all, part of this was my fault and I feel sort of responsible…”
Ben shook his head, “No, no, we’ll find him. You stay here and take care of Martha. Just keep your eyes opened, Morgan…just in case,” warned Ben as he turned to go.
“I will, Ben…see ya…good luck. Let us know when you find Joe,” he called as Hoss turned, waving bye and hurried to catch up with their father.
The sun had begun to fade into darkness by the time that Joe sank to ground. He had shed his jacket hours ago when the sun was at its highest, leaving it lying where it dropped. Now that night was quickly descending and the temperature was declining, Joe wished he had managed to hang on it, for he was growing cold.
There was nothing but wide-open space before him and behind him. There was nothing to provide him with a bit of protection and for sure there had been nothing during the day to hide behind to protect himself from the boiling hot rays of the sun. Joe, his eyes draw together in tiny lines, barely able to see due to the sun that had burnt his flesh, curled his body into a tight ball in order to keep warm. He shivered violently, muttered something incoherent and lapsed into a troublesome slumber.
“Let’s stable the horses and then get a bite to eat,” Ben said as they rode into town.
“That sounds fine to me, I’m so hungry I could eat a whole steer,” Hoss said.
“You’re always hungry,” Ben muttered, giving his son a teasing look.
“Well shucks, Pa…I can’t help it…I’m a growin’ boy,” Hoss snickered.
“Yeah…well, why don’t you stop to think about your kid brother?” Ben growled. “Might just be, he’s hungry too…maybe even thirsty…ever consider him?”
A strange look came over Hoss as he fell silent and stared at his father’s sudden bad mood.
“I’m sorry, son, that was uncalled for. I know we’re tired, and we’re hungry. Worrying about whether or not Little Joe is one or both, won’t fill our bellies right now,” Ben said, putting an end to the argument.
They had stopped in front of the livery and dismounted. Hoss gathered the reins to both horses and with a hurtful look at his father, muttered, “I’ll tend to the horses; you go on down to the saloon and order supper. I’ll be along directly,” he said as he led their mounts into the barn.
“Hoss…I’m sorry,” Ben said, stopping Hoss before he had a chance to move into the barn. “I shouldn’t have been so…sharp with you, I apologize.”
Ben extended his hand out toward his son and waited to see if Hoss would accept it. Hoss gave his father a grave look and then smiled, taking Ben’s hand into his own.
“Forget it, Pa…I know ya worried, but just remember one thing, will ya?”
“What’s that?” Ben asked.
“I ain’t forgot about Joe…not for one minute…and I’m just as worried about the boy as you are.”
Ben, feeling humbled by the gentle giant’s words, nodded his head. “I won’t forget,” he smiled.
Several minutes later, Hoss joined his father in the saloon’s dining room. Ben had ordered two big steaks. As they waited for their meal, Ben glanced around at the array of customers in the room.
“See anyone whom ya might think could be Jordan?” Hoss asked in a low voice.
“He could be any one of these men. All I have is a description from the sheriff…and so far, I don’t see a man who fits it,” Ben said.
Their meal was brought to them and placed on the table. Hoss licked his lips in anticipation.
“Will there be anything else?” the waitress inquired.
“No, this is fine,” Ben said, smiling. “Oh…ma’am, there is one thing, however…some information.”
The lady smiled at all three Cartwrights. “Certainly…”
“Do you happen to know of a man by the name of Dave Jordan? He’s about six foot four…big built and has a small scar down the left side of his face.”
The young lady seemed to be thinking and then suddenly, her face lit up and she leaned down close to Ben’s face. “I don’t know him personally, and I don’t think I’d care, too, Mister. But he was here, last night, he spent time with Rosie…that girl over there in the corner,” the young woman explained as she pointed in Rosie’s direction.
Hoss stopped eating to turn to look at the girl the waitress referred to as Rosie.
“Do you know if he’s still in town?” Ben questioned.
The lady had straightened up. She shook her head.
“No…I couldn’t say; like I said, I didn’t want anything to do with him…there was something…odd about him. But perhaps Rosie could tell you. I’m sorry, Mister, but I have to get back to work.”
With that, the woman hurried back into the saloon and began waiting on customers there.
Ben pushed back his chair, stood to his feet and wiped his mouth. “I’ll be right back,” he commented.
“Where are you doing?” Hoss inquired, taking another bite.
“I’m going to have a word with Rosie…don’t worry…I’m just going to ask a few questions, that’s all.”
The night air was chilly, much more so for the young man who lay beneath the open skies and twinkling stars, shivering because his flesh had been toasted by the afternoon sun. During the day, the temperatures had risen to an all time high, draining his young body of vital fluids needed to keep him alive. His body, coiled tightly shivered violently, his thoughts muddled and the images that danced before his eyes were distorted and fearful in appearance. A soft moan escaped passed his parched lips as the sounds of his dying pleas were carried away on the night breeze.
Ben moved through the throng of men toward the bar where Rosie was chatting with fellow customers. He managed to squeeze in next to the young woman and smiled in greeting. “Howdy, ma’am,” he said in his deep voice.
Rosie grinned broadly at him, and was just about to return the greeting when a man entered and paused in the doorway. Rosie’s attention was diverted to the stranger, causing Ben to turn around to see who had caught the barmaid’s eye.
Ben watched as the man scanned the room and smiled when he spotted whoever it was that he had been looking for. The man walked slowly toward the bar, surprising Ben by elbowing his way between himself and Rosie.
“Hello, Sweetheart,” the man said brazenly as he swept the young woman into his arms and smothered her with kisses.
“Oh…Dave,” cooed Rosie. “Where have you been? I’ve been so lonesome without you,” Rosie giggled.
“I had some unfinished business to take care of…”
“What kind of business?” Rosie asked boldly.
Dave Jordan laughed, leaned his head down low and kissed Rosie again. “It would bore you,” he whispered.
Ben could not help but overhear the conversation. He had recognized the stranger as Dave Jordan the minute the man elbowed him out of the way. Ben had held himself in check, though inside he was anxious to tear into the man, for stuck inside the man’s belt was his youngest son’s pearl handle .45!
Ben glanced at Hoss, catching his son’s attention with a nod of his head. Hoss rose, and slowly made his way to the bar. Ben was edged in on one side of Dave Jordan and Hoss managed to squeeze in on the other.
Dave glanced first at Ben and turned to look into Hoss’ blue eyes. He saw nothing of the animosity that dwelled within either man or was aware of the trouble he had brought to himself.
Without saying a word, Dave grabbed Rosie’s arm and started to move away from the two men who, in his opinion, was crowding him out. As he turned, Dave was somewhat surprised to find himself looking into Hoss’ face, which was just as unreadable as the others.
“Get out of my way,” warned Dave, looking at the giant of a man with an angry glare.
Hoss clenched his jaw tightly, but stepped aside and let Dave lead his girl away from the bar. Hoss moved up to the bar, next to his father and leaned over propping his elbows on the counter.
“That was Dave Jordan,” Ben muttered softly. “He has Joe’s gun stuck in his belt.”
Hoss’ blue eyes rounded and Ben heard his son make a growling sound as he stepped away from the bar.
Ben quickly grabbed the big man’s arm, forcing him back to the bar.
“Not yet, son…hold up; there’s too many people in here,” cautioned Ben.
“We’ll wait until he leaves and then follow him,” Ben instructed.
Ben motioned for his son to sit back down. For over an hour, they sat sipping their beer, keeping an eye on Jordan. When Jordan finally rose to leave, the Cartwrights gathered their hats and walked nonchalantly out behind the man whom they suspected of knowing the whereabouts of the youngest member of the family.
Dave was unaware that he was being followed. His mannerisms were sluggish from the whiskey he’d consumed and his dulled senses kept him from his usual alertness. When Jordan stepped into the livery to fetch his horse, he was caught off guard when Hoss shoved him up against the wall. He twirled around; his hand moved to the pistol hanging from his hip, but hesitated instantly when he saw Ben’s gun drawn and pointed at his mid-section. The scraping of the barn door being shut drew his attention to the man at the door. Dave recognized both men from the barroom and quickly assumed that he was being cornered for having shoved the stranger to the side. The look of confusion turned to one of remorse as he forced himself to grin at the two men.
“Look, mister,” he said, addressing Ben. “I apologize for bumping into ya in the saloon…I was just too…hmm…excited to see my girl, Rosie,” Dave said, trying to explain away his rudeness. He smiled but it was obvious to both Cartwrights that the smile was just a mockery of what the man was actually thinking.
Still leaning against the wall, Jordan was beginning to get nervous. He let his arm slide down to his side and when Ben saw the man’s fingers brush the tip of his handgun, Ben reached out and pulled the gun free of the man’s holster. Hoss leaned forward and pulled Little Joe’s gun from the man’s waistband. He held it up and waved it in front of the man’s face. “Where’d ya get this?”
Dave Jordan’s mind seemed to clear in that instant and he made a snarl at Hoss. “Ain’t none of your damn business where I got that gun!” he growled.
“What happened to the boy you took this from?” Ben said, stepping closer.
Jordan refused to answer, but he began to squirm slightly. He was out numbered to be sure, and he knew that if he were to get free of the imposing figures, he’d have to keep his cool. “I don’t know anything about a boy…and as for the gun, I…I…found it…”
“You’re a liar,” proclaimed Hoss as he grabbed Jordan by the front of his shirt and hauled him up so that Dave’s toes were barely touching the ground. “That pistol belongs to my little brother and if you want to live to see morning, ya best be tellin’ us what ya done to him? Where’s Little Joe?” Hoss demanded as he shoved Jordan’s back hard against the wall.
Dave let out a little moan. He pulled on Hoss’ hands trying to break them free of his clothing, but it was of little use.
“You’d better tell him what he wants to know Jordan…”
Jordan’s eyes got big as he stared at Ben.
“That’s right; we know who you are…”
“Then it was your kid that killed my brothers!” Dave Jordan said in a loud voice.
The man suddenly started to laugh, bewildering the Cartwrights and bringing them to a momentary silence.
“Well what do you know!” laughed Jordan. “I’ll tell you about the kid…he’s dead!”
Jordan continued to laugh for about half a second…until Hoss’ massive fist split Jordan’s lip and ended the awful sound. Jordan’s head banged against the hard wooden wall and then his body slumped downward, his back scraping against the wood.
All was quiet until Ben filled a bucket with cold water and tossed it into the man’s face. Jordan spat and sputtered and finally opened his eyes. Roughly, Ben grabbed the man’s arm and hauled Dave to his feet, shoving him toward the door. “Come on, get a move on!” he ordered, pushing Jordan along.
“Where are ya taking me?” Jordan demanded.
“To jail…I’m sure the sheriff would enjoy hearing your confession!” Ben said as he led the way out, into the night.
“Wait a minute…you can’t do that…I haven’t done anything…” declared Jordan.
“You just claimed to have killed my son…for that you will hang, Jordan…my son here, is a witness to the fact…”
“I lied…honest…it was a lie…I didn’t kill him…”
Hoss grabbed Jordan’s arm and jerked him around so that they were facing one another.
“Make up ya mind, mister…did ya or didn’t ya kill my little brother?” Hoss said angrily.
Jordan swallowed hard. Going to jail would mean going back to prison…and if the boy were dead…and these men found the body…it would be as Cartwright had said, he’d hang for sure. His best bet would be to play along, lead them in the opposite direction and when they least expected it, he’d make a break for it and hightail it to higher ground.
“Alright…alright, I’ll show you were the kid’s at…he ain’t dead…honest…that is, lessen he broke his neck tryin’ to get outta that…well…I tossed him into,” Jordan lied.
“Well? What well…where is it?” Ben demanded, casting an anxious glance at his son.
“There’s an abandon farmhouse about five miles out…I caught the boy off-guard and bonked him on the head…I tossed him down into the well…”
Jordan saw the look of horror wash over the older man’s face and he almost smiled.
“I’ll show you were it is, but ya gotta promise ya’ll let me go…I didn’t hurt the kid, but he’ll have a headache…”
“Just shut up and let’s get a move on,” clamored Hoss.
“My horse…” stammered Jordan, pointing back to the stable.
“I’ll take him; you get his horse,” Ben instructed. He grabbed the collar of Jordan’s shirt and marched him down the darkened street where they had left their own horses. Hoss quickly saddled Jordan’s horse that was still in the livery and then hurried to join his father.
Ben tied Jordan’s hands together and then tied them to the saddle horn to ensure that the man would not break away. Hoss gathered the reins and mounted up, leading Jordan’s horse along behind his own.
Ben insisted that they push hard to reach the old farmhouse, worried sick that his son might have already met his fate by being in the old well for so many hours. He and Hoss were quiet as they rode along side by side, each lost in their own concerns for their youngest family member.
“How much further?” demanded Ben.
Ben held his hand up to motion for the others to stop. He glared at Jordan who seemed just a bit too smug to suit him.
“Just around the bend,” Jordan said, pointing with his chin.
They rode on for another mile before the outline of the old house and barn could be seen against the sky. The closer they came, the faster they urged their mounts.
As soon as the reached the yard of the dilapidated house, Ben swung down from his saddle.
“I’ll, see if I can find some light; Hoss, keep an eye on Jordan,” ordered Ben.
He looked around frantically for the well, but in the dark it was almost impossible to spot.
“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben, cupping his hands around his mouth. “JOSEPH…CAN YOU HEAR ME!”
Ben quickly found a lantern and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a match that he struck on the heel of his boot. He turned the lamp wick up and held the lantern high over his head, searching the yard for the well.
“There!” Ben cried, pointing to the side of the house.
Ben started running toward the well. When he reached to opening, he held the lantern over the hole and tried to look down inside.
“It’s too deep to see all the way to the bottom,” he said with agitation.
“JOE? JOE!” Ben yelled into the opening.
The worried father listened intently for any sound or cry that might tell them that Joe was alive, but there was nothing but eerie silence that seemed to mock them.
‘I’ll have to climb down,’ Ben thought to himself. “HOSS, BRING SOME ROPE!”
“Alright ya varmint, get movin’,” Hoss ordered Jordan.
Hoss had his gun drawn and pointed at Jordan, but turned slightly to grab the rope from his saddle. As he did so, Jordan saw his chance and Hoss, unaware that Jordan had moved closer, was belted across the back of the neck by Jordan’s strong fists. Hoss slipped to the ground without making a sound.
Laughing to himself, Jordan grabbed for Hoss’ gun and then mounted up…
“HOSS, HURRY UP WITH THAT ROPE!”
While he waited, Ben placed the lamp in an old bucket he’d found and tied it off to the pulley, lowering the bucket and lamp, hoping to see into the bottom, unaware of what was taking place across the darkened yard.
Jordan spun his horse around, screaming and yelling at the top of his lungs. The Cartwrights’ horses bolted and ran off in different directions. Dave dug his spurs into his own mount’s sides and raced off, into the darkness.
“WHAT THE…HOSS!” shouted Ben, pulling the bucket up and setting the lantern on the side of the well. He ran over to where he could see Hoss trying to get to his feet.
“What happened?” Ben said, concerned that his son had been injured.
“Aw…dadburnitall, Pa…I let that rascal get the drop on me…I’m sorry, Pa…”
“It doesn’t matter right now…are you hurt, son?”
Hoss was rubbing the back of his head and neck, but shook his head. “Naw…I’m alright…what about Joe…did ya find ‘im?”
“No he’s not in the well, Hoss…I lowered the lantern down in the bucket…there’s nothing down there but dirt and rocks…”
Hoss squeezed his eyes shut tightly, shaking his head in disappointment. His lips were pulled into a fine, straight line and his eyes, had they been able to be seen, were black with anger.
“Let’s see if we can find our horses,” Ben said, heading off in one direction while Hoss went in different directions.
It was half an hour later that the two men met again in the yard of the old house.
“What now?” Hoss inquired.
“It’s too dark to follow any tracks; I suggest that we bed down for the night in the barn…it looked as if it were in better condition than the house. We’ll rest for a few hours and then be ready to ride at dawn.”
Dawn brought with it, a clouded sky and soft dismal rain, which only added to Joe’s current misery. He awoke to the soft pitter-patter of rain gently beating against his face. When Joe tried to sit up, the aching in his entire body caused him to moan softly. He looked up, frowning and then tried to stand, but weak from hunger and lack of water, he wobbled helplessly and then dropped back to the ground. “Oh…my leg…hurts,” he mumbled, rolling over so that he could push himself up into a sitting position.
Joe pulled his pants leg up so that he could see his ankle where the heavy ball and chain was attached. “God,” he muttered, seeing the raw and bloody mess.
He felt his stomach do a flip-flop and then start churning. His flesh had been eaten away by the iron cuff and left his ankle looking as if it had been caught in a trap. “No wonder…I can barely pull that blasted thing.”
Taking a deep breath, Joe pulled what was left of his sock from the same foot, wincing in pain at the cotton material that had become glued to the dirt mixed with blood. As he removed the sock, pits and pieces pulled the soft scabs away that had formed and fresh, bright blood mixed with the crusty grime that also coated the bottom of Joe’s foot.
“Agh…” Joe complained weakly as he worked to remove the second sock, which proved to him what he had already feared, and that was that his right foot was in no better condition than the left.
“Oh God,” sighed Joe in a trembling voice.
He looked all about, seeing nothing different than what he’d seen the day before…a vast emptiness, and his heart sank. Joe wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt and glanced up at the sky. The drizzle had stopped and the sun was intruding itself among the clouds. Joe knew that within minutes, the hot rays would be beating down on his bare head, hotter than the day before because of the rain that had only served to intensify the heat. Joe felt as if he were sitting in the middle of a brewing hot, being steamed and boiled alive.
Moaning pitifully, Joe forced himself to stand up.
“No need to just lie here…if I’m going to die…it’s not gonna be without a fight,” he vowed as he lumbered forward, dragging the hefty iron ball along behind him and stifling his cries of pain.
Ben and Hoss had easily picked up Jordan’s trail and had spent the better part of the morning hurrying to catch up. Ben was livid; the vile man was the only person who could tell him where to find his son. He was sure now, that something bad had happened. How else would Dave Jordan have come by Joe’s gun? The fear he’d felt when he first learned that Jordan was out of prison and searching for his brothers killer, began gnawing away at his gut, leaving him feeling nauseous.
“Pa, look…over yonder, on the horizon, a man,” Hoss said, pointing.
Ben shielded his eyes from the bright rays of sun so that he could better see what Hoss had pointed to.
“It’s a man alright, son,” Ben confirmed. He gathered his reins, nudging Buck into action. “That’s probably Jordan, let’s follow along, perhaps, with any luck, he’ll lead us to Joe.”
It seemed that the harder the Cartwrights pressed to catch up with the man on the horizon, the harder the man pressed to stay ahead of them. When they finally did catch up, they were horrified at what they found.
Jordan was using his pistol to beat the near unconscious man who could do nothing to protect himself. Jordan paid little mind to the fact that the Cartwrights had ridden up, guns drawn and ready to do battle.
The man on the ground cried out in a raspy voice with each blow that Jordan delivered to the battered body. Ben saw the man on the ground try to scoot away, unable to do so, but not understanding why, until Jordan paused long enough to look over his shoulder.
“HOLD IT RIGHT THERE MISTER!” shouted Hoss, sliding down from his saddle.
The assailant whom they recognized as Dave Jordan stood over the crumbled body of the man. It was then that Ben saw for the first time, the huge ball and chain that had been attached to the man’s ankle. Ben was appalled even more so when he caught a glimpse of the young man’s dirty face.
“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben as he jumped from his horse and ran forward.
Dave Jordan suddenly raised his gun and pointed it at Ben, giving no heed to Hoss whose pistol was already pointed at him and cocked.
“Don’t do it, Jordan,” warned Hoss.
Ben sank to the ground next to his youngest son just as Jordan spun around and fired his gun at Hoss. Hoss managed to move to the side, avoiding being struck, but he fired his weapon, killing Jordan instantly.
Jordan dropped to the ground as Hoss holstered his gun and rushed to his brother’s side.
Ben had gathered Joe into his arms and was gently wiping the dirt from the boy’s face.
“Get the canteen, Hoss…hurry, he’s in a bad way,” Ben pleaded.
“Joseph…can you hear me, son?” Ben whispered.
Hoss returned and soaked his neckerchief with the cool water and then handed it to Ben who wiped it gently across the blistered and cracked lips.
“Hmm…” whimpered Joe. “Wa…ter.”
“Here you go, son,” Ben said, tilting the canteen to Joe’s lips and waiting while Joe drank his fill. “Easy, not so fast,” he cautioned.
“Good,” muttered Joe, looking up and seeing his father’s worried face. “My leg…ankle…hurts.”
“I know…don’t worry, we’ll get that thing off,” Ben promised. “Hoss, check Jordan’s pockets and see if he has a key.” Ben smiled into the weary face. “You just take it easy, son…we’ll get you home soon.”
Joe, weary to the bone, nodded and leaned his head against his father’s chest to rest. Beneath his ear, he listened to the steady rhythm of his father’s beating heart. Instantly he relaxed, knowing that now his father would take control and that before he knew it, his father would have him home, where he’d be safe.
“I was coming from the livery stable when he hit me over the head,” explained Joe, two days later.
He was propped up by half a dozen pillows, comfortable in his own bed, explaining to his father and Hoss how it was that he came to be under the clutches of Dave Jordan. Ben sat near the bed and Hoss stood at the foot, both listening intently.
“I had no idea what happened, until later when I woke up bound tightly and tossed over my horse like a sack of potatoes. My head was pounding and every inch of my body ached from the ride,” Joe went on. “It seemed like we rode for hours and it kept getting hotter and hotter. I tried to look around as we went along; I wanted to get my bearings so I’d know which way to go, once I got loose from that man, if I did.”
Joe swallowed hard. “I’d never seen him before, didn’t know who he was or why he was doing what he was doing. You can only imagine what raced through my head when he told me his name was Jordan,” Joe said a tiny grin. “I almost swallowed my tongue! And, I’m not ashamed to say, I was somewhat scared, especially when he locked that ball and chain around my ankle…and then took my boots.”
Joe lowered his head, trying to regain his composure, for the incident had left him more than just a little troubled. “He left me in the middle of nowhere, without water…to…die,” he said in a whispered voice.
Ben watched as Joe struggled with his words. He reached over and took Joe’s hand in his, causing Joe to raise his head and meet the chocolate eyes. Ben smiled. “It’s over now, son…there’s no need for you to relive the incident…there are no more Jordans…I promise,” Ben said.
“I certainly hope I’ve seen the last of them, Pa.”
“I made sure; I had Roy Coffee check for me…just in case. It’s all finished,” Ben said in his deep reassuring way.
Joe nodded his head, the words were too hard to say, but his father understood; Ben saw the relief wash over his son’s expression.
“Now, young man…get some rest,” Ben grinned, rising. “Come on Hoss, your brother needs to take a nap…and, you need to get to work. There’s been enough loafing around lately,” Ben teased.
Hoss winked at Joe before leaving his brother to nap. “Take it easy, kid…I’ll be up later and we’ll play a game or two of checkers…and, I might even let you win…”
“Let me win!” laughed Joe. “You’d best be practicing!”
“Oh…we’ll see about that…”
Joe snickered as he snuggled down beneath the covers. “Why, Hoss, I’ll bet you…”
“Oh no you won’t!” declared Ben, tugging on his middle son’s arm and practically dragging Hoss from his brother’s room. “There’ll be no betting in this house!” he proclaimed.
The door shut with a bang and Joe could hear his father and brother laughing as they descended the stairs. Joe snickered softly. “I wouldn’t want to bet on that, Pa,” he muttered, closing his eyes. “You’d only lose, for sure.”