First Notch (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,913


 

Joe Cartwright strapped on his new holster that housed his equally new Colt .45.  The side arm and hardware had been a special birthday present from his father on the day that he had turned seventeen.  Joe grabbed his hat as soon as he finished tying down the thin rawhide string that held the pistol and holster snugly to his left leg. As he turned toward the door, the door suddenly opened, almost hitting his nose. “Hey,” he snapped and grabbed the door to peer around to see who had almost flattened his face.

“Oh sorry, little buddy, I didn’t know you were hiding behind the door,” laughed Adam softly.

“Ha, ha, ha,” mimicked Joe as he came around the door and tried to scoot past his oldest brother.

Adam blocked the doorway, giving Joe the once over with his eyes.  He instantly spotted the sidearm and he quickly raised his head to peer into his brother’s hazel eyes.  Adam nodded his head toward Joe’s gun. “Where are you heading off to with that thing on?” he quizzed the boy while his eyes grew dark with suspicion.

“Out,” Joe snapped and tried to worm his way past Adam, but Adam, being almost twice his younger brother’s size, hadn’t been as easy to nudge aside as Joe had thought.

“I figured that, I meant, where are you going?  You know Pa doesn’t want you to wear that thing into town, at least not just yet,” Adam reminded his brother.

“I know that, I don’t need you to remind me.  And…for your information, I’m just going out to check the fences in the north pasture.  AND…before you ask, yes, Pa knows that I’m wearing it, he said it was alright.  Now…if you will kindly move, I’ll be on my way.”

Joe gave Adam a small crooked smile that was meant to say, ‘Ha…I guess I’ve told you!’

“Excuse me,” Adam nodded his head, folded his arm across is stomach, bowed gracefully and then stepped aside to allow his brother to leave.

Adam stood in the doorway and watched his younger brother stroll casually across the yard toward the barn.  He was surprised at the stab on regret that had suddenly washed over him at seeing his baby brother wearing a holster and pistol.  It was hard for him to believe that Little Joe was actually old enough now to be allowed such a privilege and Adam couldn’t help feel a bit concerned about the boy.  Joe was young and high spirited, not to mention hot tempered, and tended to react to certain situations rather hastily at times.  Adam could only hope and pray that the boy would use caution and remember the wise words of wisdom that their father had been trying so hard to instill in him if faced with a matter pertaining to having to use his sidearm.

Adam sighed.  He had started to close the door, but stopped when Joe led his horse from the barn.  He couldn’t refrain from stepping back out into the afternoon sun and going to his brother’s side.

“Joe,” Adam called when he’d come near enough for Joe to hear him.

Joe peered over the top of his saddle at his brother.  He knew what was about to happen and he steeled himself for the onslaught of words.  He forced himself to hold his tongue, for he was trying hard to practice patience and tolerance, as his father had insisted were needed if he were to be allowed to wear his sidearm.

“Yeah Adam?” Joe answered in his normal tone.

Adam paused only for a second.  “Hmm…Pa said that there has been some rustling going on up near the buttes around the Anderson’s place.  I know the fence line up that way, divides their property and ours, so…well…just keep your eyes opened and…watch your back,” Adam warned.

He was trying hard not to sound as if he were ordering his brother but warning him of possible danger.

“We’ve been missing some cattle ourselves, and well…stay alert,” Adam said.

Joe leaned his arms across his saddle and studied his brother’s face.  He refrained from smiling, Adam, in his own way was telling…no, asking him to be careful.

“Thanks Adam, don’t worry, I can take care of myself,” Joe said, finally smiling.  “And I promise, I won’t use this thing, unless I have too.”  Joe patted his leg where the new pistol hung.

Adam smiled as well, showing his dimple on the left side of his face.   He wasn’t at all surprised at his brother’s self-assurance.

“Those rustlers haven’t been caught yet, little brother, and they might still be hanging around, so…”

“Adam, don’t worry…I’ve already told you, I won’t use my gun, unless I have too.”

Joe pulled back from his saddle and untied his horse from the hitching rail.  As he swung gracefully into the saddle, he smiled down at his brother.

“You…and Pa…taught me well.  I’m fast, big brother, even you said that and…”

Adam laid his hand on Joe’s knee, squeezing gently.

“That’s right kid, too fast for your own good.  And, I might add, you’ve only been shooting at cans, shooting at a man that is shooting back at you, trying to kill you is something totally different.”

Adam’s voice had taken on a serious tone.  He pointed his finger at his brother; his smile had disappeared.

“It’s no picnic, having to live with the fact that you’ve killed a man, for any reason.  I’d like to spare you that if possible, Little Joe, but sooner or later the day will come when a man will force you into a shoot out, and there will be no way out of it, except to kill or be killed.  I don’t want to see you gunned down.  Yes, you are fast, but remember Joe, no matter how good you think you are, there will always be someone just a fraction of a second faster than you…and that will be the man who might just kill you!”

Adam stepped back from Joe’s horse and removed his hand from his brother’s leg where he had placed it.  “Be careful…and use caution…that’s all I’m asking.”

Joe had seen the deep concern on his older brother’s face and knew that Adam was only looking out for his welfare.  His irritation that he had first felt toward his brother faded.  He gave Adam a warm smile.

“I will Adam, I promise.  If I see anything out of the ordinary, I’ll come straight back here and tell you.”

“Good, now…get going!”  Adam nodded his head and slapped Cochise’s rump, making the startled horse jerk his head up.

Joe kicked gently at the horse’s sides and turned toward the north pasture.  “See ya tonight!” Joe called out as he disappeared around the barn.

Adam tossed his hand in the air and after a brief moment, went inside.  His worry had not faded; not even with his brother’s assurance that he would follow all the rules that had been laid out to him, had he stopped worrying.

*****

Joe felt exuberant as the wind blew against his face.  He kicked Cochise, urging him on even faster.  He lowered himself over the horse’s long silky neck, and allowed his body to move as one with his horse.  It was rare that Joe Cartwright was able to let his pinto run as he was now and Joe was enjoying the freedom of the ride.  Had he known that his father was watching from the hill on the opposite side of the open meadow, Joe would not have felt as he was at this precise moment.

Ben sighed, shaking his head as he watched his youngest and most daring son race across the field below.  He had already determined that he would have a word with the boy about running his mount as he was now doing.  Ben had no doubt that his son was an expert horseman, for he and Adam had taught the boy well.  It was the memory of another expert rider, a fast horse and a sudden death that caused his heart to lurch each time that he saw his youngest son racing with the wind that troubled the anxious father.

Ben smiled as he sat remembering that everything about his youngest son caused him moments of heart-stopping anxiety.  Ben laughed softly to himself.  Joseph’s early arrival into this world had even caused his father a great deal of apprehension and had, in his father’s assumption, been the beginnings of his hair changing to the silver color that it had now become.  He waited until Joe disappeared from his sight before turning Buck around and heading back to the ranch house.  He knew that it would be nearly dark before his son arrived back home, so he had plenty of time to pick and chose his words carefully for the planned lecture he would deliver, though Ben was sure that his words would go unheeded, once Joe was out of his sight.  Perhaps he’d forego the lecture…this time, let the boy have his freedom.  There was no taming the boy, sighed Ben, not that he really wanted too, he loved his youngest just as he was.

*****

Joe made a point of riding slowly along the fence line.  He wanted to be sure that he did not miss any weak or broken places in the fence where cattle might be able to push through, plus the slow ride would give Cochise time to cool off before he started back.

He was almost finished when he happened upon a section of fence that had been totally demolished.  As Joe dismounted to inspect the damage he found, much to his displeasure, that the fencing had literally been pulled from the ground.  Joe studied the area thereabouts and calculated that at least forty to fifty heads of cattle had been driven through the break. Fixing the fence right then was out of the question, for Joe had been sent to inspect only, not to do repairs.  He mounted back up and rode to the furthermost corner of the property line to be sure there were no more breaks and then started home.  He would have to return in the morning with a wagon and supplies and do the repairs then.

*****

“Yessir, about forty or fifty…at least that was my guess,” Joe explained to his father when he arrived home.

Ben had been sitting at the table on the side porch, discussing other matters with both Adam and Hoss when Joe had returned and reported the destroyed fence and the missing cattle.

“Well, you and Adam can take some supplies back up there in the morning and see that the fence is repaired.  Hoss and I will ride into town and report this to Sheriff Coffee,” Ben said.

Joe looked at his brother and nodded his head.  “We’ll need a whole new roll of that wire big brother…oh, and some new posts.  It sure was a mess,” Joe said.

Adam stood to his feet and stretched his long body first to the right and then to the left.  “Well,” he said as he leaned forward stretching in that direction as well, “I’m turning in; sounds like you and I are going to have a long day tomorrow.”

Joe pushed back his chair and stood as well.  “Yep, and it’s gonna be a hot one too, just look at that sunset,” he pointed to the west where the sun was just dipping behind the mountains.  The sky blazed red and the clouds looked as if they were on fire.

Ben glanced over his shoulder at the sun.  “Sure is pretty, though.”

*****

Adam tapped on his brother’s bedroom door, then pushed it open.  He stuck his head inside, seeing that Joe was still sleeping he grinned.

“Come on sleepy head,” he called and then paused.

“Ohh…what time is it?” Joe groaned.  He was halfway down the bed with the pillow over his head.

“Time to rise and shine!” laughed Adam.

He grinned, he knew Joe hated mornings and he knew that his little brother was almost always the last to get up.

“Come on Joe…it’s five thirty and if you hurry, we might just have that fence repaired before lunch.  Pa said we could take the rest of the day off…if we finished before then. Now get your ornery hide up and let’s get going.”

Joe tossed back the blanket and swung his bare legs over the side of the bed.  He gave his brother a scowl as he ran his slender fingers through the tangle of dark curls.

“Well, you gonna stand there all day gawking at me, or are you going to close the door so I can get dressed?” snapped Joe groggily.  He yawned and scratched his chest, “Well?  What’s it to be…either you close the door, or I stand up and embarrass both of us!”

Adam tossed his head back and laughed, “Okay, little brother, just hurry it up…I’d like to get finished and then…maybe we can do some fishing…just the two of us.”  Adam started to close the door, but stopped when Joe yelled out at him.

“Fishing?  You mean, just me and you?” Joe stammered.

“You and I,” Adam corrected, grinning.

“Yeah, that’s what I said, me and you…just the two of us?” Joe said, smiling.

Adam rolled his eyes but laughed lightly.  “You heard me…just the two of us.”

“Adam…that’s great,” Joe stammered as he started to get up.  He’d forgotten the blanket covering his nearly nude body.

“Whoa Joe!” shouted Adam as he slammed the door.

As he turned to leave, he could hear his little brother’s high-pitched giggle and he laughed again.  He had asked their father the night before if he would mind letting them take half a day off if they finished repairing the fence by lunch time and Ben, hearing that Adam had wanted to spend a little free time with his younger brother, had heartily agreed.

*****

The two brothers worked side by side all morning.  They stacked up the old broken fence posts; the ones that could be salvaged and reused, they stuck back into the holes that they dug.  The cut-up wire, they rolled up into a ball and after removing the new roll from the wagon, placed the balled wire in the back.

“Reckon those cattle thieves rustled our steers, or do you think the cattle just tore down this fence?” Little Joe questioned his brother when they stopped for a few minutes to take a break.  They sat in the shade, with their backs pressed up against a tree.

Adam looked up, seeming to be studying the sky before he glanced at his brother.  “It’s awfully dry up here, Joe…could be they went through the fence looking for water.”

“Dumb bovines,” laughed Joe.  “The watering hole ain’t but a mile or so on the other side of that rise.”

“Dumb is being polite, little brother.  If those steers got it in their heads that water was in that direction,” Adam nodded his head beyond the fence line they had been working on and then continued.  “They’d go in that direction.”

Joe shook his head and giggled.  “That’s why I want to raise horses instead of cattle, at least a horse can think for himself.”

“Joe, even a horse has a will of his own, take Cochise for instance, remember the time that he…”

“Adam look,” Joe pointed to the horizon, “riders,” he said.  “You know them?”

Both Adam and Joe rose to their feet.  Adam shaded his eyes with his hands and stared at the approaching men.  There were four riders that he could count.

“Can’t tell; they’re too far away.”

Adam, hearing horses behind them, spun around quickly, there were four more riders approaching them from behind.

“Get your rifle!” shouted Adam quickly as he made a run for the wagon.

He and Joe stopped abruptly when the men began shooting in front of them to block their paths.

“Don’t move!” shouted one man who maneuvered his horse between the brothers and their wagon where their rifles and gun belts lay in the back.

Adam froze and placed his arm across Joe’s chest to keep his brother from continuing.

“Be still, Joe,” he muttered.

He raised his head and looked at the man and then around at the circle that the other riders had made around Joe and himself. The circle of horses trapped them and Adam sensed immediately they were in trouble.

“What do you want?” he asked of one who seemed to be in charge.

The man nudged his horse forward, causing Adam to take a step to the side.  The man had managed to wedge his mount between the two brothers, separating them.  His horse moved his hindquarters toward Joe and the boy was forced into stepping even further away.

“Tie up the kid,” the man ordered.

Before Joe could gather his thoughts, two men dismounted, starting towards him.  From behind him, Joe could hear the buzz of the rope and then felt the coarseness of the braided twine as it wrapped itself about his shoulders, pinning his arms to his side.  He tried to fight off the two men but the third, the one holding the rope, backed up his horse, tightening the rope that much more.  Joe was pulled to the ground and dragged several paces.  The movement left him on his chest with his arms pinned to his sides.  He felt the knees of one man, press into the small of his back, causing him to groan.  The second man grabbed his wrists and wrenched his arms behind his back.  The rope was pulled snugly just above the elbows where the rope was yanked tightly.  Joe gave a howl of pain as the rope drew his upper arms together and forced his shoulders back in an uncomfortable position.

The man, pressing his knee into Joe’s back, laughed.

“Hurts don’t it kid?” he said in a mocking voice.  “This won’t feel any better,” he warned as he tied the rope around Joe’s wrists and then grabbed the boy’s ankles, pulling them upward, then wrapping the rope about Joe’s legs and securing them to his wrists; thus leaving Joe hog-tied and face down in the dirt.

Adam glared at the man sitting on the horse who snickered at the sight of the boy on the ground.  He had tried to push his way around the man and beast, but with no effort, for the man was constantly moving his horse, hampering Adam’s efforts.

“You can’t help him, Cartwright, so stop trying.  You just do as you’re told, and the kid won’t get hurt,” the man said.

“Who are you and how do you know my name?” demanded Adam, his dark angry eyes and never leaving the man’s face except to glance occasionally at his brother who lay pinned to the ground.

“Name makes no difference, and how I happen to know who you are, is easy, everyone hereabouts knows the Cartwrights,” barked the man.  “Tie his hands and put them both in the back of the wagon,” he ordered his men.  He turned again to Adam.  “We’re goin’ to take a little ride.  Just remember, Cartwright, the boy’s life is in your hands, make one wrong move and he’s dead.”

Adam stood without moving as another man tied his wrists behind his back and then shoved him toward the wagon.  When Adam glanced at the wagon, the ball of wire had been removed and placed on the ground.  He watched with growing fear as three men grabbed Joe by his bound arms and legs and carried him to the back of the wagon where they unceremoniously dropped him face down onto the hard planks.  His heart hammered deep within his chest when Joe cried out from the pain and then turned tear filled eyes up at him.

“Hang on Joe,” Adam whispered.

“Where are they taking us?” Joe whispered in return.

“Shut up!” snarled one man who had climbed into the wagon with them.  He jabbed Joe in the middle of his back with the butt of his rifle and glared at Adam.

Joe gritted his teeth to the pain and clamped his mouth shut to muffle the sound.  A lone tear rolled silently down from the corner of his eye as he glanced once more at his brother.

Adam could see the fear that etched itself into his brother’s expression and he tried, pleading with his eyes, to send the boy a voiceless message of reassurance.  Joe took a deep breath, the jarring about of the wagon intensified the pain in his arms and legs, but he forced himself to smile slightly at his older brother.

Adam counted eight men, including the one who deemed himself the leader.  He had no idea who the men where or what they wanted with the two of them.  Looking down at his brother, Adam knew they were in big trouble; Joe would be no help to either of them if the chance arose, he couldn’t even help himself, tied the way he was.

The afternoon wore on and the day grew hotter and hotter with each passing mile.  They had been moving constantly for more than two hours, estimated Adam as he watched the passing landscape, trying to get his bearings.  The soft pastureland had turned to rock and the going was getting rougher and rougher as they made their way higher into the mountains.

He recognized the landmarks around him and knew that they were headed in the direction of Eagle’s Nest.  Once there, Adam knew that there would be a thousand hiding places in which the men could hold out.  The rocks formed blind and boxed canyons on either side of the highest peak and a man could stay hidden away for weeks without ever being found.  Game was plentiful, as was water and positioned just right, a lookout could spy an approaching man on horseback, long before the rider was aware that he was being watched.

Adam’s attention was drawn to his brother, for Joe had moaned weakly.  Joe was sweating profusely and from the grimaces on his face, Adam knew that the pain in his arms and legs was reaching near unbearable.  Joe had stopped struggling against the ropes long ago, for which Adam was thankful.  He had tried to whisper to his brother to just relax, but the man sitting in the wagon with them had struck him in the back of the head with his fist. Since, Adam had kept silent, fearing that one of the men might take their wrath out on his brother.  He hoped they would be stopping soon, Joe needed water, and he confessed silently, so did he.  His mouth was dry and felt as if cotton had been shoved down his throat and knew that Joe must be feeling as badly if not more so, than he.

It was as if the man driving the wagon had read his thoughts, for suddenly the wagon lurched to a stop.  The boss man rode to the back of the wagon and pulled his horse to a halt.

“Get out,” he ordered Adam.

Adam glanced quickly at Joe and then scooted on his behind to the end of the wagon.  “Could use a little help,” he said in a tight voice.

“Jack, you heard the man, help him down,” ordered the boss.

Jack, the man who had been riding guard, stepped over Joe and reached down, grabbed Adam by the back of the shirt and all but shoved him out of the wagon.  Adam turned and gave the man a daring look, which only served to get his face back-handed.  Adam’s head snapped backward and he staggered a step or two.

“Lay off!” shouted the boss.

“Then tell him to keep his dirty looks to himself!” growled Jack, who gave the boss a go-to-hell look.

Boss pulled his pistol from his holster, and before anyone was fully aware of his actions, pointed and fired the gun at Jack.  The sharp sound of the bullet caused Adam to jerk to his right, out of the way.  Jack staggered and slumped to the floor of the wagon, landing crossways on top of Joe.

Joe screamed out in agony as the weight of the man landed onto his back, pulling on his shoulders.  The scream sent panic into the team of horses, which bolted into a run.

Adam watched in horror as the team of chestnut bays fled, tossing the wagon from side to side along the pitted path between the rocks.  Joe’s cries could be heard in the distance as the horses rounded a bend in the road.

“Stop those animals!” the boss screamed in fury.

Two riders gouged their mounts into a full run and took off after the wayward team.  It was several long agonizing minutes before Adam saw the men return, leading the horses.

As soon as they stopped, Adam ran to the back of the wagon to check on his brother.  Jack had been tossed from the wagon during the wild ride, but Joe had somehow managed to remain where he was.  His face was ashen and Adam could see the fear written in each fine line and saw how his brother’s body trembled.

“Are you alright?” Adam asked.

Joe nodded his head.  “Water…please,” he begged.

Adam looked up at the boss man and the man nodded his head.  “Pete, untie Cartwright’s hands and let him give the boy some water.”

Pete slid from his horse and quickly had Adam’s hands free.  He tossed the canteen to the oldest Cartwright and Adam quickly jumped into the back of the wagon.  Carefully, to avoid hurting Joe, Adam turned Joe over as best he could and glancing up at the boss pulled the cork from the canteen.

“Can’t I untie him, so his shoulders aren’t in such a bind?” Adam asked as he held the canteen to Joe’s parched lips and allowed the boy to drink his fill.

“No!  Just give him the water and then get out of the wagon,” the boss ordered.

Adam turned his attention back to Joe.  “Sorry, pal,” he said softly.  “I know you’re hurting, Joe, but try to hang on a little longer.  I’ll get you out of this mess…somehow.”

“I thought I told you to give the kid some water, not carry on a conversation.  That’s enough, now get out of that wagon!” the boss man ordered Adam.

Adam popped the cork back into the rim of the canteen and tossed it back to the man called Pete.  With a reassuring glance down at his brother and a gentle pat on the arm, Adam climbed out of the wagon.

“Jesse, you drive the team, Billy, you keep an eye on the kid.  Pete, bring Jack’s horse over here,” the boss instructed.

When Pete had Jack’s horse ready, he handed the reins to Adam.

“Mount up Cartwright.”

Adam looked at Joe who was straining his neck trying to see what was going on behind him.

“Where are we going…and what about the boy?” Adam questioned.

“I said mount up…unless you want Billy boy there to…work the kid over a little…it could be arranged.”

Adam had seen Billy stand up in the back of the wagon and glanced in his direction.  Billy was standing over Joe’s body; the barrel of his rifle was digging into the side of Joe’s head.  The sight sent terror into Adam’s heart and he turned dark, indignant eyes back up at the boss man.

“I get the message…just call off your dog!” snapped Adam.

“Get on your horse, Cartwright.”

The boss man made a nod of his head at Billy and Billy backed away, but not before pushing the end of the rifle down just hard enough into Joe’s temple to make Joe groan.  It was Adam’s face that Billy watched and he grinned wickedly when he saw the fiery daggers that Adam shot at him.

Adam knew that the man had made the gesture just to prove to him who was in control.  Adam swallowed his pride and mounted his horse.  He turned to the boss.

“What do you want me to do?” he questioned, still unsure of this man’s motives.

“I’ll give you your instructions as we ride along,” boss said to Adam.

He turned to Billy who had moved away from Joe and to Jesse who was sitting in the wagon seat.

“Take the wagon and the boy to the hideout.  Make sure he doesn’t get away, Billy that’s your job.  The rest of you men, get back to the herd, if something should go wrong and I’m not back by nightfall…kill the kid.”

“Move out Cartwright,” issued the boss.

Adam gave one final glance over his shoulder at the wagon that was slowly moving in the opposite direction.  Billy had sat down next to Joe and was saying something to his brother, but Adam could not make out what was being said.  He glanced at the boss man and saw that he was being watched.  A deep seeded anger washed over Adam.

“If anything happens to that boy, I’ll hunt you down and kill you, all of you…that’s a promise,” snarled Adam as he nudged his mount into a trot.

The boss ignored the Cartwright’s wrath and added more indignity to fuel Adam’s hatred of the man by tossing back his head and laughing loudly.

*****

The wagon bumped along the deep rutted road for another hour before finally coming to a stop.  Joe twisted his head around to try to see what was going on.  Billy had jumped from the back of the wagon and gone to talk to a couple of the men.  In the back ground, Joe could hear the low mooing of the steers and realized that these men must have been the ones who had torn down their fencing and then had rustled their cattle.

Joe was in the process of trying to raise his head when he felt hands on his arms and legs.  He winced when the hands pulled his body from the back of the wagon and carried him, by his ropes, over to the shade of a large overhanging boulder.  He was dropped, rather than placed, on the hard rocky ground.  His muffled cry when he was dropped slipped by his tightly pressed lips and the men standing over him snickered.  One man managed to get in a good hard kick to his sides before walking away and leaving him groaning face down in the dust.

Joe was left to himself for a long time.  He had begun to squirm, he needed to relieve himself but nobody would come near enough so that he might ask to be untied.  He waited another half-hour and when Billy finally strolled over to him, Joe looked up into the other man’s face.  He hated the thoughts of having to ask this person for permission to relieve himself, but he knew if he didn’t swallow his pride, it would be more damaged if he were to have an accident.

“Hey…I gotta go…mind untying my hands?” Joe asked in a weak voice that he tried not to sound too pleading.

Billy snickered as he placed himself on a nearby rock and watched the boy.  “Say please, and I might just let you,” he taunted.

Joe gave the man a menacing glare but when Billy only shrugged his shoulders and then rose as if to walk away, Joe took a deep breath and swallowed his pride.

“Please,” he whispered softly.

Billy stopped and turned back to Joe.  “What?  I didn’t hear you.”

“Please,” Joe said a little louder.

“That’s better,” laughed Billy.  “Hey, Jesse, Pete…did ya hear that, the kid’s gotta take a leak, reckon I should let’em?” asked Billy as he poked at Joe’s side with the toe of his dirty boot.

Jesse walked over to stand next to Billy and in a moment, Pete joined them.  Joe eyed each man cautiously.  Jesse jabbed him in the leg and then laughed.

“Sure, let the kid take a leak…I’ll watch him and make sure he don’t wander off too far,” Jesse offered.

“Okay, kid, you heard the man, I’ll untie you, but I’m keeping this rope around your legs, if ya try anything, I’ll haul your butt to the ground, got that?” snapped Billy.

“I got it, just hurry up, will you?”

Billy burst into laughter as he worked at loosening the ropes around Joe’s arms and legs.  When Joe felt the ropes go slack, he dropped his legs down and tried to stretch them out.  They were stiff from being held in the awkward position for so long.  His arms were the same way and it took Joe several long minutes before he could move comfortably enough to try to stand.  Once he was on his feet, Billy tied the rope tightly around one ankle.

“Hurry it up, kid; you’ve got about two minutes to finish your business.”

Joe swallowed the lump in his throat and, feeling as if every eye in the camp were watching him, slowly he made his way to the edge of the camp and behind a boulder.  He finished his business in due time.  Billy had tugged gently on the end of the rope to be sure that his prisoner had not taken off.

Joe leaned down and using fingers that trembled, he quickly untied the knot in the rope around his leg.  As soon as the rope was untied, Joe quickly tied it off to the biggest rock he could find and then took off at a run into boulders.  He hadn’t gotten very far when he heard the shouts of the men who were supposed to be guarding him.  Joe paused just long enough to see three men sprinting toward him.  He turned and fled, running as fast as his stiff sore legs would permit.

His freedom was short lived.  Billy had coiled up his rope and when he swung it out, over Joe’s head, the rope slipped neatly about Joe’s body.  Billy stopped running and yanked with all of his might on his end of the rope.  Joe was hauled backwards onto the hard ground and the wind was knocked from his lungs.  He lay dazed, trying desperately to suck in large amounts of air to fill his deflated lungs.  Billy was by his side in seconds, kicking and gouging Joe in the side with his boot.  Joe twisted in the opposite direction, only to be kicked repeatedly in both sides by Billy’s companions and then when Joe turned onto his stomach, one man stomped on his back.  Joe screamed out his agony but to no avail.  The three men were ruthless in their assault.  It was only after Joe had stopped fighting and gave way to the blackened world that sought to claim him, did the men cease their brutality on their prisoner.

Joe woke several hours later.  His head was pounding and when he tried to focus his eyes, and move his body, he found that he had been blindfolded as well as tied tightly.  His jaws ached and Joe realized that he had been gagged as well.  Fear began seeping from every pore in his body and he wondered where he was and what had happened to his older brother.  He was afraid of dying…and above all else, he hated the darkness that disallowed him to see the world around him.  His back ached as well as his stomach and for the first time since he was a kid, he wished that his father would come for him, for he wanted nothing better than to go home.

Joe tried to move, but something besides the ropes were holding him down.  He was unable to move his legs for his captives had spread him eagle on the hard burning sand and had staked his ankles to spikes driven into the rock.  The same had been done to his arms and wrists and even under his chin where the rawhide pulled upward and back on his lower jaw, forcing his head into a very confining position.  He groaned; the sand beneath his body was hot and his back felt as if it were on fire.  Though he tried to stop them, Joe felt the tears that filled his eyes underneath his blindfold and knew without a doubt that they would soak through the tight cloth that covered his face.

He felt the end of a gun barrel pressed lightly into his bare chest.  “You awake kid?” he heard Billy ask.

Joe thought about not answering his captor and for several minutes he held himself in check.  When the barrel of Billy’s rifle pressed deeper into his chest cavity, Joe tried to wiggle his upper body in an attempt to dislodge the gun.

“About time,” laughed Billy.  “Enjoy the sun, kid?” he snickered.  “Hope so, it’s a long time ‘til dark,” Billy said and then strolled over to the fire where the other men had gathered to sip on cups of hot coffee.

*****

Adam and the boss, whom he finally learned was named Marcus Bass, had ridden back toward town and now had stopped just on the outskirts of Virginia City.

“You understand what you are to do?” quizzed Bass.

“I understand, but it will never work, you’ll see,” Adam said in a voice laced with contempt.

“You better hope that you don’t fail, it could cost you the life of that brat you call brother,” snapped Bass as he glared at Adam.

“What if Morgan doesn’t want to buy the cattle?  I can’t force the man to something that he’s not interested in doing,” responded Adam.

He hadn’t like Bass’ plan.  Selling his father’s cattle, which had been stolen, to a man whom Ben had always disliked, for a price far below the market value.  The idea that he’d be forced into giving Morgan a bill of sale for those same steers, would never give Adam the proof he needed to prove that Bass had actually stolen the cattle and then forced him, against his will to sell the herd.  Adam seethed with anger…if Bass could somehow pull this deal off; he might easily put Ben Cartwright in a state of financial destruction. Adam knew that Ben could overcome the financial strain, but at what cost, Adam wondered.

“Move,” ordered Bass as he nodded with his head.

Adam tapped lightly at his mount’s sides and slowly the pair moved down the street.  Adam’s eyes searched for a familiar face.  He remembered his father saying that he and Hoss would be in town sometime today, and Adam’s eyes flickered from one side of the street to the other in search of his father and brother or their horses.  Any hope of finding either was short lived as Bass ordered him to stop in front of Morgan’s office.

“Get down Cartwright, and remember…I left Billy in charge of your kid brother.”

Adam remembered and he remembered the fear that shone in Joe’s expressive eyes when the wagon in which he was being carried off in, had moved away in the opposite direction.

Adam took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  Bass pushed opened the office door and stepped back so that Adam could enter in front of him.  Morgan sat at his desk and casually glanced up when he saw Adam Cartwright enter the room, followed by a tall dark stranger.

*****

“You really are brave, aren’t you?  I’m mean, as long as you have a man tied down,” groaned Joe.

Billy had removed the gag and the blindfold from Joe’s face.  He had begun to grow bored with just having to sit around in the hot sun.  The cattle had become thirsty and had started milling around so the others had gone down to the makeshift corral to keep an eye on the unsettled herd, least they decide to bolt through the crudely built fence that kept them tightly corralled within the boxed canyon.

Billy planted his boot onto the top of Joe’s exposed stomach.  Joe felt the pressure but forced himself not to let his tormentor see the fear that Joe felt deep within.  Billy had spent the last several minutes kicking and gouging at him with either his booted foot or the barrel of his rifle.  His sides showed the bruised areas where Billy had kicked him, his flesh was inflamed by the sun’s hot rays that cooked his skin, and Joe felt sure that if he was not allowed up soon, he would die lying on the rocks roasting in the late afternoon sun.

“How good are you at fighting a man when that man can fight back?” Joe taunted his captor.

“Shut up!” snapped Billy.

“You yellow, Billy?” Joe dared to ask the man.

It was the wrong thing to say for Billy dropped to his knees and began punching Joe in the face.  Almost immediately, Joe’s lip busted open and began to bleed.  Billy’s fist slammed into Joe’s nose that spurted blood all over the attacker.  Billy had raised his fist for one more blow when he felt his arm jerked upward.

“That’s enough, Bill…he’s practically unconscious now,” growled Jesse as he pulled Billy to his feet.

“Serves the brat right, spouting off like he was,” stormed Billy as he kicked out at Joe.

The tip of his pointed boot caught Joe in the lower side, and though unconscious, he grunted painfully as Billy strolled away.

*****

“Well, Adam Cartwright,” Morgan greeted as he rose from the chair he’d been sitting in.  He extended his arm and offered Adam his hand.

Reluctantly, Adam accepted and shook hands with the man.

“To what do I owe this visit?” Morgan chanted, his eyes taking in the tall stranger who accompanied the eldest Cartwright son.

“Mr. Morgan, this is…Marcus Bass…hmm…” began Adam.

“The Cartwright’s new foreman,” supplied Bass as he gave Adam a warning glare.

“Mr. Bass,” Morgan extended the same courtesy to the stranger as he had to Adam.

“I’m here about the cattle that you offered to buy from my father…he’s hmm…changed his mind,” Adam said flatly.

“He’s changed his mind?  My, my, I find that hard to believe.  May I ask why?” Morgan asked as he rounded his desk and went back to sit down in his chair.  He leaned back and tapped the ends of his fingers together lightly and studied Ben Cartwright’s oldest son.

“Call it a change of heart, I suppose,” Adam explained.

He had no intentions of explaining to this man his real cause for wanting to sell the stolen cattle, which in truth, if he sold them, then they weren’t really stolen.  It was getting complicated.

“How much?”

“Excuse me?” stammered Adam.  He’d been caught off guard by Morgan’s abrupt question.

“How much…for the cattle…perhaps I should ask, how many?” Morgan repeated himself.

Adam glanced at Bass.  The expression on Cartwright’s face had not gone unnoticed by Morgan.

“Two hundred head of prime beef,” Bass informed the other man.

“That many?” Morgan pondered aloud.

“And we’re ready to let you have them below market price…say $15 a head?” Bass stated to Morgan.

Morgan was surprised; he’d only asked Ben Cartwright for half that many steers.  Morgan studied both Adam and his friend, Bass.  Something wasn’t right, Adam Cartwright would never let another man, let alone his foreman, talk up a deal that pertained to Ponderosa business, but he kept silent, wondering where all of this would lead.

“Market price is $20 a head…$15 a head is quite a savings.  Let’s see now, that’s…” Morgan began trying to quickly figure the cost in his head.

“$3,000,” Bass said quickly.

Morgan looked up, first at Bass and then Adam.  Adam met his gaze with a steady one of his own.  Instantly, Morgan knew that the young man was trying to tell him something by the expression on his face, but what, he pondered.

“Adam?” he said.

“That’s right sir, that’s the price my father said to agree on,” Adam said.

Two hundred heads of prime beef, Adam had no idea that they had been missing that many steers.  He felt his repulsion for the man standing next to him, grow even deeper than before.

“Then $3,000 it will be.  I will write you out a draft on…”

“NO!” Bass all but shouted.  “I mean…Adam…you said your father wanted cash, remember?”

Adam’s eyes narrowed, “Certainly, Pa said cash only, Mr. Morgan, if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all, Adam, not at such a good savings.”  Morgan pulled open a drawer from his desk and withdrew a leather moneybag.  He untied the thin straps and counted out the bills required.

“I think this is correct,” he said as he counted the money so that Adam could see and placed it into Adam’s hand.  “Now, all I need from you is a bill of sale.”

“Of course, I have that right here,” Bass withdrew the paper from his vest pocket and opened it for Morgan before handing the paper to him.

Morgan took the paper and glanced over in Adam’s direction.  He noted the dark eyes that spoke volumes without voicing a word.  Morgan dipped the tip of his pen into the ink and gently tapped the end on the rim of the inkwell.

His hand stopped halfway to the paper and he glanced again at Adam.  “You’re positive this is what you want?”

“Give me pen so I can sign it!” Adam snapped and grabbed the pen from Morgan’s fingers.

He quickly scribbled his name on the document and then tossed the paper and pen across the table to Morgan.

“Let’s go!” Adam barked at Bass as he picked up the money and shoved it into his pocket.

Adam turned toward the door and flung it opened, marching out into the late afternoon sun and started for his horse.  He was already swinging his leg across the saddle by the time that Bass caught up to him.

“Wait!” shouted Morgan, bringing Adam to a sudden stop.  “What about my cattle?”

“I’ll have our men bring them out to your place.  Adam here can give them directions, can’t you Adam?” Bass called out.

“Yeah, I’ll tell them how to get there.  Morgan,” Adam said and tipped his hand to the rim of his hat.

They rode slowly out of town, side by side.  Adam kept his eyes trained straight in front of him, his mind busy with troubling thoughts of his younger brother.  He was totally unaware that from the other side of the street, his father had been watching from the window of the sheriff’s office where he and Hoss had gone to report the broken fence and the missing cattle.

“That’s strange,” muttered Ben.

“What is?” Hoss asked, turning his attention to his father.

Hoss dipped his head and peered out the window trying to see what it was that his father thought was so strange.

“Adam, he just rode past with some fellow.”  Ben scratched his head.  “He’s supposed to be mending fences with Little Joe and then they were going to do some fishing, wonder why he was in town?”

“Maybe he needed more supplies?” offered Hoss.

“No, he would have gone to the house first, it’s much closer and he knows that we have everything he’d need right there…something else strange too, he wasn’t riding Sport,” Ben said as he glanced out the window for the second time.

“That’s odd, sure ‘nough,” muttered Hoss.  “Wonder why short shanks wasn’t with’em?”

“Don’t know, but I aim on finding out, come on Hoss.”  Ben grabbed his hat and shoved it down on his head.  “See ya, Roy,” he called as he made his way out of the office.

He and Hoss were just about to mount up when someone called out his name.  Ben stopped and turned toward the voice.

“Great,” he muttered in a low voice.

Hoss glanced up to see Harry Morgan hurrying down the street toward him.  Hoss looked over at his father and saw the aggravation on his face.  He started to speak, but Morgan beat him to it.

“I must say Ben, I’m surprised at you!” Morgan said with a wide grin on his face.

“At me, why?” Ben questioned as he mounted his horse.

“Because of your change of heart.  I know we’ve had our differences in the past, but this…this is most gracious on your part,” smiled Morgan.

“Morgan, I’m sort of in a hurry, if you don’t mind,” Ben said as he forced Buck to back away from the hitching post.  Ben nudged the animal’s side and slowly Buck walked down the street.

Morgan was not to be put off and he walked quickly beside of Ben.  “Ben…Ben…about these steers that Adam just sold me…I wanted to tell you thanks, that’s all…”

Ben jerked back on Buck’s reins.  “Adam sold you some cattle…what the hell are you talking about?” Ben demanded in a deep voice.

Morgan spent the next several minutes telling Ben about Adam’s arrival into his office with his new foreman, and the below market price he’d just paid Ben’s son for two hundred heads of prime beef.

Ben’s eyes grew smaller and the color changed from chocolate brown to ebony.  “I don’t have a new foreman!” bellowed Ben, “and I did NOT authorize the sale of any cattle, let alone to YOU!”

“Pa, calm down!” Hoss said, grabbing Ben’s arm and pulling him away from the other man.

Ben had stepped up to Morgan and stood nose to nose with him.  “If this is some kind of joke, I don’t find it funny!” shouted Ben.

“It’s not a joke…I have a bill of sale!” Morgan shouted back at the rancher.

He’d cursed himself for having the audacity to approach Ben Cartwright and out of the goodness of his heart, try to thank the man, he should have known better, he told himself.

“Let me see that!”

Ben grabbed the folded paper out of Morgan’s hand and unfolded it.  He could barely believe what he was seeing.  It was Adam’s signature on the paper stating that Morgan had purchased two hundred head of cattle for the sum of $3,000.”

Eyes glaring, he handed the paper back to Morgan and turned around to Hoss.  “Come on Hoss; I want a word with that older brother of yours.”

*****

Bass signaled for Adam to stop.

“Give me the money,” he ordered as he stretched out his opened hand.

Adam studied the man’s face.  He’d have to think of something fast, if he planned on getting Little Joe back safely, for he had no doubt that once Bass had the money in his hand, they were as good as dead.  There was no way that the man would allow either of them to live, not with all they knew.

“Not until we get back to the camp.  I want to make sure that Joe is alright,” he dared to say.

“Suit yourself,” Bass said, surprising Adam.  “I have some men around this bend; I’ll have them move those steers out while we go on to the camp.”

Bass rode off, leaving Adam behind.  He knew the man would not make an escape, he’d already seen how devoted the man was to the kid.  No, Adam Cartwright was filled to the brim with loyalty; he’d never abandon his brother.  What a shame, thought Bass, to kill a man like that, but he was left with no other choice, he’d have to kill them both.

They stopped once more, at the edge of a boxed canyon.  Adam stared in wonder at the cattle that milled around.  He knew that they had been loosing cattle here and there, but he had no idea that the loss had amounted to this many.  Even hearing Bass tell Morgan that they had two hundred steers to sale, seemed nothing compared to actually seeing the two hundred heads.

He waited while Bass spoke to his men.  Again his thoughts turned to his younger brother and he dared to imagine what the boy might have suffered in his absence.

*****

“Untie him!” shouted Billy to Jesse as he stomped around, angered by the constant taunting of his prisoner.  “I ain’t afraid of no man, much less a smart mouth boy!  I’ll show him…hurry it up, untie him and then get out of here, both of you!” he ranted.

“I can handle this brat easily…I don’t need the likes of the two of you standing around watching…get down to that herd!” he order the other two men.

Joe knew that his only hope was in getting free of the ropes that bound him to the ground.  Unless he could get to his feet, he’d die staked to the hot stones beneath him.  He slowly and deliberately took his time to get to his feet.  His body was battered and bruised from Billy’s constant kicking and jabbing at him, and he was stiff from being immobile for so many hours.  He got to his knees and rubbed at the soreness in his hands and along his wrists where the rope had burned into his flesh.  He flung his hands a time or two to force the blood into his fingers.

“Get on your feet!” shouted Billy.

He glanced around; Jesse had taken off with Pete to start moving the cattle like Bass had instructed them to do earlier, before he had ridden into town with the other Cartwright.  He laughed; he was alone with just the kid.  This was what he’d been waiting for all day.  He despised the kid for reasons known only to himself and it would give him great satisfaction to kill the boy, in his own time and in his own way.

Billy unfastened his sidearm and tossed it to the ground.  This was one fight he’d fight fair, or die trying.  Again he laughed, the boy was a weakling, he out weighed the boy by thirty or forty pounds he surmised, and he was taller, thicker and in better shape than the kid was.  Having been staked out for more than four hours had clearly taken its toll on the boy.  Billy rubbed his hands together.

“Let’s get on with it,” he dared Joe.

Joe got to his feet at last and right away, Billy began circling his prey.  They walked in a full circle before Billy threw his first punch, which whizzed passed the end of Joe’s chin.  Joe ducked and then threw a punch of his own when Billy staggered a step or two toward him.  Joe’s punch clipped Billy’s chin and Billy’s head snapped back.

When he’d regained his footing, he took a step back and laughed.  “So, there’s still some fight left in you!”

He dove at Joe’s mid-section and plowed into the younger boy, knocking him to the ground.  Billy held on to Joe and tumbled down with him.  He reared back his fist and pounded it into Joe’s face.  Again and again he delivered blow after blow until Joe was beaten near senseless.

Joe had been weaker than he had thought and had only been able to hold his arms outward attempting to ward off the other man’s punches.  He’d gotten in a couple of ill-fated jabs to Billy’s face, but Billy had been so incensed that he’d barely felt the blows.

Joe was tiring quickly and he knew it was only a matter of time before Billy moved in for the kill.  He tried tossing the man over his head, but his legs refused to obey his brain’s silent commands.

One more blow to the side of Joe’s head rendered him defenseless.  He lay dazed, trying to collect his thoughts.  Billy allowed himself time to catch his breath.  As Joe lay gasping for every breath he struggled to take, Billy got to his feet and grabbed his pistol from his holster.

“Time for you to die, kid,” snarled Billy.

Joe raised his head enough that he could see Billy standing over him.  He tried to scramble away, but he was too weak.  Billy took a step closer to the frightened boy and pointed the gun at Joe.

Joe swallowed hard; his throat was thick.  He heard the cocking of the trigger and heard Billy laughing; he closed his eyes and the last thought that ran through his mind before he heard the blast from the pistol, was of his family and how much he loved all of them.

Joe heard someone call out Billy’s name and then his head hit the ground; he lay motionless until he felt the weight of the body that toppled onto him.  Shocked, he opened his eyes and found himself staring into the blank face of his tormentor.  Instantly, Joe shoved the body off him and turned toward the ruckus that was taking place just a few feet away from him.

He was surprised to see Adam and the boss man fighting.  Not sure where they had come from, when, or who had shot Billy, Joe felt a pang of relief wash over him.  He tried to get to his feet but was still too weak, his body battered and the piercing pain shot throughout his whole being when he tried to move.

His eyes found Billy’s gun laying just a few feet from him and he forced himself to crawl along on his bare stomach until he reached the pistol.  Sounds of the fight forced him into turning; Adam had just flung the other man over his body and had turned to face the man, ready to lock arms.  The boss man whirled onto his front side and hunkered down.  Joe saw him take a deep breath and then charge into Adam, using his body weight to knock Adam backwards and onto his own back.

The boss hammered at Adam’s face.  Blood spurted from his brother’s nose, but Adam was able to grab the man’s fist.  A power struggle resumed as the two men pushed against the other, both slowly rising to their feet.  The boss was first to break free of Adam’s vise like grip and when he did, he swung out, clipping Adam on the end of his chin.  Adam, dazed from the powerful blow, faltered and staggered backward, crumbling to the ground.

The other man laughed and glanced over his shoulder.  He found what he was looking for, and quickly he grabbed his gun, which had been knocked free of his hand minutes before.  He aimed the pistol down, pointing it at Adam and pulled back on the trigger.

“NO!” screamed Joe, who held Billy’s pistol in his own trembling hand.

Joe staggered to his feet.  The boss stopped, turned toward Joe and quick as a flash pointed the gun in his direction.

Joe’s eyes met the blue eyes of the man facing him, and when he fired his gun, he had no idea that he had struck the man in the center of his chest.  The other gun went off.  Joe heard the whiz of the man’s bullet as it buzzed by his head.  He watched, transfixed as the boss man’s legs folded beneath the weight of his body and crumbled to the ground.

Joe stared, wide-eye in horror at what he had done.  His heart pounded deep beneath his breast and his stomach began to churn at the sight of the blood that seeped from the hole in the man’s chest.

Joe turned away from the sight.  Tears filled his eyes as the hot bile boiled to the surface from the pits of his stomach and he began retching violently, time after time.  He was hardly aware of the hands that tenderly held his head or of the person who knelt beside of him.

When he’d emptied his stomach of its contents, he was only faintly aware that someone pressed a cool wet cloth into his hand and ordered him to wipe his mouth.  The damp cloth felt good against his raging skin and brought him slowly back to his senses.

He turned to look into the dark compassionate eyes of his brother.  Joe’s chin began to quiver, his eyes filled again with unshed tears until he blinked and then they rolled gently down the front of his face.  Adam’s hands clutched his younger brother’s shoulders and Joe, beyond going, gave him self over to the tender touch and fell, weeping into his brother’s caring embrace.

“I killed him…I killed him, Adam,” sobbed Joe.

“I know Joe…but it’s going to be alright,” whispered Adam.

His arms had entwined themselves about his brother’s heaving shoulders and his fingers were laced amid the thick curls at the base of his brother’s hairline as he held Joe against his breast.

“I didn’t want…to kill him…but he was…going to shoot…you,” wept Joe.

“I know, Joe…you had no other choice…”

“But I didn’t want to kill…him.  Adam…I killed a man…I…”

Joe’s words were lost in his tears as he sobbed out his sorrow while clinging tightly to the only support he could find, his brother.

Adam’s lips were pressed tightly into a fine straight line.  He knew that Joe had been forced into killing Bass.  The man had pointed a loaded gun at him, had Joe not fired when he had, Joe would be the one lying in a pool of bright red blood, not Bass.  Somehow he had to make his brother understand that.

“Joe, listen to me buddy,” pleaded Adam.  “I know how you feel…honest.  I remember the first time I was faced with having to kill a man.  I remember how it felt, knowing that I had actually ended a man’s life, but believe me buddy, you had to do it.”

Joe had momentarily stopped his weeping and appeared to be listening to his brother’s words.  However he made no move to remove himself from the protecting arms of his older brother.

“Joe, just like I did, you had to make a choice; it was either kill or be killed.  If you hadn’t shot him when you did, Joe, you’d be dead now…and so would I.  Bass wouldn’t have let me live, not after killing you.  Don’t you see, little buddy, he was planning on killing us both anyway.  Joe, you saved my life, pal, mine and your own,” explained Adam.

He could still feel the tremors that surged through his brother’s body.  Joe pulled back from Adam enough to see his face.

“You ain’t just saying all of this to make me feel better…are you?” he stammered.

Adam met Joe’s intense gaze and he smiled a tiny smile.  “No, I wouldn’t lie to you, Joe.  You really didn’t have another way out, except to kill the man.”

Adam brushed the stray curls back from Joe’s sweat dampened brow with one hand.

“I suppose you’re right, but…I…can’t believe I killed a man.”  Joe’s chin quivered and he grasped Adam’s vest with trembling fingers.   “I hope I never have to kill another man, Adam…”

“So do I Joe, because it never gets any easier.  I’ve killed when I’ve had no other choice, but it’s always the same, I get sick to my stomach, just like you did.  It makes me mad that men put one another into positions where they are forced to protect themselves or their families with guns and with killing…I don’t know, Joe, maybe someday men will find a way to settle their differences in a more civilized manner instead of with guns.”

Joe wiped away the tears that lingered on his face and when Adam handed him his handkerchief, Joe blew his nose.

“I hope so too, Adam.  I’ve killed one man, even if he deserved to die, I didn’t relish being the one to make him.”

“I know Joe.  I wish I could have spared you all this pain and guilt…I wish I’d been the one, instead of you…if I could have…”

“Adam, stop.  It was bound to happen, sooner or later; even you said that, yesterday.  Don’t you remember, you said, ‘sooner or later the day will come when a man will force you into a shoot out, and there will be no way out of it, except to kill or be killed.’”

“That day came sooner than either of us expected, little brother…I’m sorry about that,” Adam whispered softly.  The look on his little brother’s face did nothing to hide the fact of what Joe was feeling.

Adam cupped the back of his hand around the base of Joe’s neck and pulled the boy back into a hug, where he held him for several moments.

“What say we go home and get you into bed?” he muttered into Joe’s ear.

He felt Joe nod his head in reply.  Adam helped Joe to his feet, when they turned, they were surprised to see their father and Hoss ride into camp.  Behind them was Roy Coffee, the sheriff and about a dozen men.

Ben slid quickly from his horse and rushed to his son’s sides.  “Adam, Joe…are you both alright?” he asked.

He took in the discoloration on both of his son’s faces, the dried blood, the cuts and scrapes and when Joe’s legs started to give way, Ben reached out to support the wobbly boy.  He glanced at Adam with eyes full of concern and unanswered questions.

“Come on, let’s get you both home.  Joe, I want you in the bed,” Ben instructed as he helped Joe over to the wagon.  “Easy now, just lie back, and we’ll have you comfortable in no time.  Adam, you too, in you go,” ordered Ben.

Adam didn’t bicker with his father, but did as instructed and climbed in next to his brother.  Hoss had fashioned a bed or sorts from their bedrolls so that his brothers could be as comfortable as possible on the ride back to the ranch.

When both sons were settled, Ben tied Buck to the back of the wagon and crawled into the back with them.  Hoss tied his horse as well and jumped into the seat.

“I’ll drive,” he called back to his family.  “You two just sit easy,” he gave them one of his winning smiles.  The relief of having his family together again showed in the glimmer of his sky blue eyes.

They had only traveled a few miles when Ben noticed that Joe had fallen to sleep.  He was leaning against his brother.  Adam moved just enough to be able to lower Joe’s head into his lap and then turned, smiling at his father.

“The kid’s had a rough day, Pa,” he said in a low voice.

“I can see that, in fact I can see the results of his day all over his body, and yours,” Ben observed sadly.

“How’d you find us Pa?”

“Hmm…believe it or not, it was Harry Morgan, the rascal,” Ben laughed to himself.

“Morgan, how?” questioned Adam.

“I saw you ride out of town with that stranger, Bass, Harry said his name was.  I suspected that something was wrong; I just didn’t know what it was.  Hoss and I were on our way to follow you when Harry stopped me and thanked me for selling him two hundred heads of our prime beef.  I thought the man had lost his mind.  Then he showed me the bill of sale you gave him and when he said that you told him Bass was our new foreman, I knew for sure something was mighty wrong, so Roy got some men together and we trailed you.  We found the herd and the men who were guarding it; they didn’t give us any trouble after Roy explained to them that cattle rustling was a hanging offense.  We didn’t tell them that in truth; you sold those cattle, in a legal and binding contract, I might add.”

Ben stopped to gather his thoughts.

“I didn’t know where Joe was until we got to the camp.”  Ben’s words were beginning to falter as he thought about all that his youngest son had been put through.

“They kept him tied up, they knew I wouldn’t do anything to endanger his life…I only wish that…”

“Adam, you did all you could to keep your brother safe.  I couldn’t have asked more of you, son.  I want you to know how proud I am of you…of both of you,” Ben said as he gently rested his hand on Adam’s arm.

“Joe’s going to have a hard time dealing with having killed Bass.  He only did what he had to do, Pa…you could very well have lost two sons tonight, if Joe hadn’t killed that man,” Adam explained.

“I realize that, son.  And yes, Joe will have a hard time dealing with this, but he knows that we’re here for him…now and always.  And son, I have no doubts that he’ll be forced into having to kill again, someday, somewhere and for the same reasons, either kill or be killed.”

“How old were you, Pa…when you killed your first man?” Adam asked unexpectedly.

“Whew…that was many years ago son.  But I remember it like it was yesterday, it’s something that a man never forgets.  I was about twenty, I was at sea, with your grandfather and pirates attacked us.  I had to shoot a man, he came at me with a saber,” Ben paused and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.

“I guess I was luckier than most, I was twenty-two,” admitted Adam.  “Remember, we were in Carson City, at the bank, when those robbers came in.  I can still remember the frightened look on Little Joe’s face when that man grabbed him and held a gun to his temple.”

Ben could see his son’s hand begin to tremble as he gently fingered the curls on Joe’s head.  When Adam looked up, Ben could see the shine of tears that his son forbid to fall.

“I’d have killed that man a hundred times over if I could have, for what he did to Joe that day,” whispered Adam in a thick voice.  “Of the men I’ve had to kill, he’s the one I’ve regretted the least.”

“I understand, Adam.  I regret that Joe is so young and yet has had to experience something that some men twice his age, have yet to endure,” Ben concluded.

“Seventeen years old for what…three weeks?  He’s man for sure now, Pa…killing Bass took away Joe’s youth…and part of his innocence…for that I can allow myself to hate the man,” Adam said sorrowfully.

“Adam, don’t waste your time hating Bass…it could have been anyone, he just happened along at the wrong time…for Joe I mean.  Not too many men in this day and time have lived without having killed someone, for some reason…it’s almost a part of life.  Hopefully, someday, that will all be changed, but until then, we live with it.  Bass was an outlaw, he lived by the gun…that was his choice…and he died by the gun…that too was his choice…not Joe’s.  And I…” Ben stopped mid-sentence.

“Joseph, I didn’t know you were awake, son,” Ben said as he smiled down at his son.  “We’re almost home and then you can…”

Joe pulled himself into a sitting position and glanced at his father, then Adam and back to Ben.  “Did you mean what you just said?” he asked.

Ben looked puzzled.

“About Bass living by the gun and dying by the gun?” Joe questioned.

“Yes, I meant it.  Men like Bass who make breaking the law their way of life, know that some day they may very well die in much the same manner as they live.  That’s their decision to make son, why?”

“I just wanted to know, that’s all.”  Joe dropped his head.

They had reached the house, and Ben jumped from the back of the wagon where he had been sitting with his sons.  Adam followed and waited while Ben helped Joe down.  As Joe stood to his feet, he glanced up at his father.  Ben noted the accumulation of tears that welled in Joe’s hazel eyes.

“What’s wrong, son?” Ben whispered as he pulled Joe into his arms.

He could feel Joe’s arms slide around his waist and squeeze his mid-section.  Adam gave his father a wink and walked away, nodding his head to Hoss who followed him into the house.

“Joseph?” Ben murmured.

“I’m just glad to be home, that’s all, Pa,” Joe muttered.  He pulled back and looked up at his father.  “When I got up this morning…I never gave a thought to the fact that today…I might have died…or that Adam could have been killed…or that I would end the day by taking the life a man I didn’t even know.”

Ben heard the catch in his son’s voice and he tightened his arms a bit more.

Joe leaned his head down on his father’s chest.  “Life is a mystery, isn’t it, Pa?  I understand now what you mean when you tell me to live today as if today was the last day of my life…you know…it almost was.  I love you, Pa,” whispered Joe, “I haven’t said that in a long time, but I want you to know that I do.”

Ben swallowed the lump that had thickened his throat.  “I love you too, Joe…you just don’t know how much I truly do.”

“Hey, you two going to stand out here all night or what?” Adam called from the doorway.

“No Adam,” Ben laughed as he guided Joe toward the house.  “I think we’ll come inside, I believe Little Joe is just about ready to drop.  Hoss, help me take him upstairs.  Come on you little scamp, bedtime…and we need to tend to these cuts and bruises too.”

“Aw Pa…I’m fine, really,” Joe muttered, but he didn’t resist when his father and Hoss took his arms and gently guided him upstairs.

They had Joe in bed in a matter of minutes.  He was long asleep by the time Ben finished bathing his blistered, battered and bruised body.  Ben covered his sleeping son with the blanket that he pulled from the foot of the bed.

*****

Joe slept through the night, the next day and far into the second night before he woke.  His eyes had swelled some, his lip had been stitched by Doc Martin, salve for his sunburned chest and back had been applied by Hop Sing.

“Well, welcome back!” greeted Ben with a happy smile.

“Have I been gone long?” Joe asked.

“A couple of days, that’s all.  How do you feel?”

“Fine…where’s Adam, Pa…we were supposed to go fishing!” Joe said as he made as if to climb out of bed.

“Whoa…just where do you think you’re going, young man!” demanded Ben.  He gently pushed Joe back down and covered him up.  “It’s the middle of the night!”

“Oh,” stammered Joe, “I thought it was almost morning…Adam and I…”

“Little Buddy,” Adam called from the door.  He’d been awakened by the ruckus of the argument that his little brother was having with their father.  “I promised that we’d go fishing, but first…you have to get better.”

“I am better,” Joe smiled.

His smile faded and his expression changed.  He stared at his brother for a long moment before finding his voice.

“Thanks Adam,” Joe said in a low voice.

“Thanks?” puzzled Adam.

Ben had seen the look that washed over Joe’s face and knew that the boy had something on his mind that he needed to say to his brother.  He took his cue and slipped unobserved from his son’s room.  There’d be plenty of time come morning, to talk with both Adam and Joe.  Ben pulled the door closed, but not before he saw Adam sit down on the side of his brother’s bed and take Joe’s smaller hand into his.  He smiled to himself, they might fight amongst themselves, but Ben knew that each of his sons would readily give up their lives for the other.

He’d done his job as a father; satisfaction swelled his chest.  Somehow along the way, he’d been able to lead his three sons into manhood, teach them honesty and integrity and how to love one another.  Joe had earned his first notch, not something to brag about, but pride in the fact that he’d saved his brother from certain death, justified the boy’s actions.  It had been another milestone in his youngest son’s life, a hard lesson to learn at such a tender age, but Ben had no doubt that Joe would survive, he was after all, a Cartwright, and hadn’t the Cartwright name survived for generations?

***End***

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