Word Count: 22,194
His frightened eyes forced themselves to open. Even that small effort seemed to cause his head to pound and slowly the terrified youth attempted to rise up enough to check his surroundings. The top of his head hit something hard and he groaned. His hand moved to rub the soreness but the arm refused to obey the mind’s command. Joe took a deep breath to steady his breathing, hoping to ward off the rising panic.
“Pa?” he called out softly, tugging at the ropes that held his hands tightly behind his back. He smothered a cry as he tried to turn over, realizing that the space he was in was very confining. Joe raised his head merely inches from the hard surface and leaned with his shoulder to his left and then repeated the move with his right shoulder…the space was barely wide enough to hold his body.
“PA!” screamed Joe as he lost control of his panic.
“PA! PLEASE…WHERE ARE YOU?” cried Joe as he began thrashing about in his frightened attempt to remove himself from his boxed prison.
“PA! HELP ME!” the fearful young man squealed. “Pa, I can’t move, I can’t get out…Pa, it feels like I’m in a casket! I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” cried Joe.
“Joe, listen to me son…please, you need to calm down, you’re only making matters worse,” advised Ben. “Joe, do as I say!” ordered Ben more ardently.
Joe took several deep breaths and lowered his head to the floor of the wooden casket. He could feel his body being jarred about in a swaying motion and it caused his fear to deepen.
“Pa…are you all right?” Joe called when he had regained a measure of calm.
“Yes, son, I’m just a little sore, from where they hit me. What about you?” Ben asked, more concerned for his youngest son than for himself.
Ben had been paralyzed with fear when he had watched the band of outlaws beat and then tie his son’s hands and feet and then placed him in the wooden casket. His fear had mounted to astronomical heights when one man began hammering the nails into the top of the casket to keep it sealed. He knew Joe’s secret fears of being confined and his terror of the dark. He had had those fears since he had been five, when his mother had died and the boy’s world had suddenly been turned inside out. Ben’s fear for his son’s safety now and his own inability to help the boy ripped his heart into a thousand pieces.
“Pa, are we gonna get outta this mess?” Joe said in a small voice, coated with despair.
“We’re going to try son, but you have to stay calm, Adam and Hoss will find us Joseph, I promise.” Ben swallowed his own rising panic and prayed fervently that his words were truthful.
“Pa, I…I…I’m scared.”
Ben heard the catch in his son’s voice and it tore at his heart. “I know you are Joe, but try not to let it get to you. We’ll be all right, son, just as soon as Adam and Hoss get here.”
Ben felt sure that as long as he was able to talk to Joe, his son would keep his panic at bay. What worried Ben however, was what would happen when the wagon in which their casket prisons were being hauled, stopped. The worried father knew that if the outlaws separated him from his son where Joe could no longer hear his voice, the boy’s fright would be his undoing.
“Pa?” Joe called out again.
“What is it Joe?” Ben responded, trying to keep his voice from sounding over confidant. Ben tried to turn onto his side to relieve some of the soreness in his back from having been forced to lie for so long.
“Did they put you in one of these things too?” Joe asked.
“Yes, after they knocked you out and put you in that one,” Ben answered honestly.
“Where are they taking us Pa? Why did they have to put us in these boxes?”
Ben sighed, “I don’t know where they plan on taking us, son. It must be a good ways from where they jumped us, cause we’ve been on the road for a long time.”
“It’s getting hot in here, I need a drink,” sniffed Joe, tugging once more on the ropes around his wrists. “I…don’t like it in here, Pa!”
Ben heard the fear in his son’s voice and ached to gather the frightened boy into his arms and comfort him. That, however was not to be; the only comfort that the anxious father could render was by talking to his son.
“Joe, why don’t you try resting? Just close your eyes for a little while. Surely they will be stopping before much longer, it’s probably about supper time and they will be getting hungry soon,” suggested Ben.
“I don’t think I can rest, my legs are cramping and I have to…I have to go,” Joe said sadly. “If they don’t let me out of here soon, I’m gonna wet all over myself, Pa…Pa…please, can’t you ask them to stop?” pleaded Joe.
The wagon bumped along over rocks and through the ruts that hampered the trail. It seemed like forever to the two men encased in their wooden boxes for such a long time. Their bodies grew weary as the wagon ambled along at a steady pace. Joe was positive that he would be unable to rest, but to please his father, he had shut his eyes. Without even forcing himself, Joe was soon asleep, much to his father’s relief. Ben knew that they were in grave danger and that Joe would need all of his strength in order to fight for survival. Ben took several deep breaths to fill his lungs and closed his own eyes. He needed rest as well, to preserve his dwindling strength. He had not said anything to his son, but the band of outlaws had beaten him, as well as Joe, before being tossed ungraciously into his wooden casket. Ben’s sides ached from his abuse, breathing hurt his ribs and Ben was sure that more than one had been cracked.
Ben allowed his thoughts to wander. The day had started out to be such a good one. He and Joe had been on the trail for only a short while when the band of four outlaws had stopped them and demanded that they come along with them. Their guns had been taken from their holsters, Joe had tried to resist, but one of the men cuffed him on the chin, knocking him from his saddle. Before Joe could collect his senses, two more of the outlaws assaulted him while he lay defenseless on the ground. After kicking Joe several times in the sides and his back, Joe stopped fighting and lay still. Ben had not been able to help his son. Two guns were pointed at his middle, with promises of sure death, should he interfere. When the men tired of their fun, Joe was hauled unceremoniously to his feet and with hands tied, planted into the seat of his saddle.
They rode for what seemed liked hours before stopping for a rest. Joe was sluggish, his body ached from his abuse and it took every ounce of willpower to remain seated in his saddle. Ben could offer nothing other than soothing words to his son, when opportunity presented itself; the gang of ruffians made sure that they kept the father and son separated and it was not until much later that Ben had a good chance to talk quietly with his son.
“Joe, I don’t want you to try another fool trick like you did this afternoon. Do you understand me?” Ben directed as they sat together under the shade of a large oak tree where they had been tied and forced to sit, back to back.
“I’m sorry Pa, I know it was a dumb thing to do,” Joe told his father.
Ben groaned. Joe heard his father make the annoying sound and leaned back against his father and whispered, “Pa, I said I was sorry. Don’t worry, I won’t try anything else, besides my sides hurt too much.”
Ben turned his head around as much as he could, trying to see his son’s face. He could only catch a sideways glance of the boy’s features, but the large dark bruise on the left side of Joe’s cheek was noticeable.
“Are you okay other than that bruise?” Ben whispered as he glanced at the two men who were approaching them.
“I’m fine Pa. Wonder what those two want now?” whispered Joe.
The two men stopped in front of Ben and Joe, glowering down at them. “Don’t the two of you get any ideas about trying to escape. Especially you kid,” growled the one they called Luke.
Joe cast a sideways glance up at the man but refused to say anything. Luke snarled at Joe and then kicked out at him, catching Joe on the side of the leg. “Ya hear me, kid?” he snapped.
“Yeah, I hear you,” answered Joe, refusing to look up at the man.
“Ya better, Jinx, check their ropes, we don’t want’em to get away, Boss has something special in store for’em.” Luke snickered as he watched Joe’s reaction to his statement. He noted the slight look of fear that flickered across Joe’s face and he laughed again.
“Hope ya ain’t scair’t of the dark, boy,” whispered Luke and then laughed out loud when Joe turned his eyes upward to look the man in the face. “Hey Jinx, lookit here!”
Jinx turned his attention to Luke and then followed his partner’s finger that was pointing at Joe. Jinx studied the anxious expression on Joe’s face, not fully understanding what it was that he was suppose to see.
“What?” grumbled Jinx.
“The kid’s afraid of the dark…and you know what the boss intends to do with’em, don’t ‘cha?” laughed Luke.
Suddenly Jinx’s face broke into a wide grin, showing his yellowed teeth. “That ain’t good,” he snickered softly as he glanced over his shoulder to be sure the Boss was not overhearing him.
“Why?” Joe gulped and Ben could feel the tremors that coursed through his son’s body as Joe pressed himself tightly against his father’s back. “What is he planning to do to us?” Joe asked in a weak voice that threatened to break.
Both Jinx and Luke began to laugh. The sadistic sounds of the men sent shivers of fear racing through Joe’s veins. The sudden realization that he and his father were in more trouble than first anticipated shook him to the core.
“I ain’t tellin’ ya. You’ll just have to be patient and find out for yourselves, come on Jinx, lets get back to the fire,” laughed Luke as he turned from Ben and Joe.
“Wait,” Ben called, stopping both outlaws in their tracks.
“What do you want from us?” asked Ben, hoping that if it were money, he might be able to offer the gang a large enough sum that they would release Joe and himself.
“Did ya hear that, Luke, old man Cartwright wants to know what we want of him. Should we tell’em?” Jinx snickered.
Luke scratched his head and looked at his sidekick. “Naw, Boss might not like it if we did.”
Joe watched the movements of both men. They were as tough as any he had ever seen; both were big men, older than he was and probably older than Hoss. Their dirtied complexions hid most of their features, and with the dark shadows of facial hair, it was hard to determine for sure their ages. But their eyes were what caught Joe’s attention. Luke’s eyes were deep set and close together. He squinted when he looked closely at someone or something, but he seemed to never miss a thing, telling Joe that his eyesight was very keen. The color was a strange shade of gray, and when he looked at you in anger, they appeared to be almost black.
Jinx’s eyes were blue, like Hoss’, only Hoss’ eyes were kind and gentle, like the man himself. Jinx would look at you and the blue lakes would draw you deeply into their depths. They were mesmerizing and they frightened the youngest Cartwright. Joe avoided looking directly into the man’s face when he spoke to him.
“Whatever it is you’re planning, you’ll never get away with it,” he chanced.
“Doesn’t matter, you won’t be around to know,” snapped Jinx, kicking his pointed toe boot at Joe. Joe moved his legs in time to prevent the man’s kick from striking him in the hip.
“Do you really think you can get away with killing us?” asked Ben, using his most authoritative voice possible.
“Now, now old man, did we say anything about killin’ ya?” laughed Luke.
Joe’s head shot upward as he listened to the man’s words.
“I only said that you might not be around to find out what we’re up too. Could be you’d be a far piece from here by the time that we steal that go…” Luke began to laugh, “Oh no ya don’t, ya old coot.” Luke kicked Ben once and when Ben tried to pull his body away, Luke kicked him a second time. Joe tried to twist his body around to use his own feet to kick out at the crazed man and prevent him from further abusing his father.
“You stay out of this!” shouted Luke as he slapped Joe across his face with the back of his hand.
Joe’s head spun to the opposite side and he cried out as his teeth sank into the tender flesh of the insides of his mouth.
“Why don’t you leave him alone?” growled Ben, using his back to support Joe’s weight.
“That kid of yours needs to be taught some manners and I’m just the man to do.” Luke bent down and began to untie Joe’s hands but stopped suddenly when he was lifted from the ground by the scuff of his neck.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doin’?” shouted a big man, dressed in faded black clothes.
“I’m goin’ to teach the kid here some manners, that’s all,” stammered Luke when he stood nose to nose with his boss.
“Like hell you are. Leave the boy alone, I want him in one piece when we ship him out of here, and that goes for the old man as well. You’ve already taken too much liberty with both of them. Strike either one of them again and you’re a dead man! Now get back over there where you belong!” ordered the leader of the gang, in a voice that left no doubt to his two cohorts that he meant every word that he said.
The boss stood over Ben and Joe and glared at them. “You best make sure this boy of yours behaves himself. I’d hate to have to kill him, he ain’t worth nothing to me dead.” Boss turned and made his way back to the fire.
“What do you think he means by that, Pa?” whispered Joe.
“I don’t know son. But please, try not to antagonize them again. I don’t want them to beat you anymore,” Ben said softly.
“Joe, lean back on me and try to get some rest, son, I’m going to watch them for awhile, maybe I can pick up on something they say.”
“I can’t sleep Pa, I’m…” stammered Joe, half-ashamed to voice his fears, even to his father.
“I understand, son, but please, try,” encouraged Ben.
Ben had remained awake for a long time after Joe had fallen to sleep leaning against his back. He was worried, from what he could make out about the gang’s conversation; the outlaws were planning on a holdup. Seems as if they were planning on stealing the gold shipment that was being transported on the stage from Sacramento to Virginia City in two days. What Ben had yet to learn was how he and Joe fit into the men’s plans.
It was late by the time that the band of outlaws settled themselves into their bedrolls for the night. He and Joe had managed to move their bodies so that each of them were fairly comfortable leaning against each other. Ben’s sides throbbed from where the men had kicked at him and he could only guess that his son felt no better than he did.
Joe moaned several times throughout the long night, but Ben was satisfied that no major harm had come to his son. Uncertainty as to what the men had in store for them worried Ben; his son’s safety was foremost in his mind as Ben finally shut his own eyes and drifted off into a troubled sleep.
The next morning Ben and Joe were hauled to their feet and under heavy guard were allowed to tend to their personal needs. Joe was forced to go in one direction and Ben in the opposite. Joe had just emerged from the woods when loud shouting drew his attention to his father.
Ben was on the ground; two men had converged on him and were pounding their fists into his body. Joe cast a quick glance over his shoulder and saw that the two men who were suppose to be guarding him, had turned their attention on the fight as well. Joe saw his chance and without giving a thought to his own welfare, made a dive at the two men who were attacking his father.
Joe sailed through the air as he jumped onto the back of one man. This gave Ben just enough of a reprieve from the pounding fists to get in a couple of his own blows. Joe’s guards came alive then and dove in after Joe, taking him down instantly. The tide slowly turned as Joe and Ben fought a losing battle against their enemies. Joe heard Ben bellow in pain as the larger of Ben’s two opponents drove his massive fist into Ben’s stomach. Ben dropped to his knees, which caused Joe to pause momentarily. Luke doubled up his two fists and struck Joe across the back of his neck, rendering Joe unconscious. Joe fell face down into the dirt at his father’s feet.
“Joseph,” Ben sputtered, crawling toward his son. Jinx and another man, Simon, grabbed Ben by his arms and hauled him to his feet. Ben cringed when Luke kicked out at Joe, making him moan even in his unconscious state of being.
“Leave him alone, you’ve already beaten him half to death,” complained Ben, struggling against the arms that still held him.
Luke stopped, wiped the blood and spittle from his mouth and staggered over to Ben. He stood face to face with his prisoner, and then smiled. Ben studied the man’s face, not caring for the devilish gleam in the man’s eyes.
Luke laughed, and turned. Suddenly his hand made contact with the side of Ben’s face, causing Ben’s head to snap backward. “I warned you about that kid, now he’ll find out who’s in charge here. Tie the old man up,” ordered Luke as he walked back to where Joe was just beginning to come around.
“Simon, you and Max tie the boy up, make sure he can’t get away this time.” Luke walked back to the camp and sat down on a rock next to the Boss.
“Well, you certainly made a mess of things,” Boss smirked. Boss tossed a glance over his shoulder and saw that Jinx, Max and Simon had Joe and Ben subdued and sitting far enough apart from each other that they could not carry on a conversation.
Luke cast his eyes in the direction that the boss was looking and then turned his attention back to the main man. “It’s that kid, he’s trouble, Boss. Let me get rid of him, what’ll we need him for any ways?”
Boss stood to his feet, glaring down at Luke while sipping his coffee. He glanced at Joe who was resting his head against the trunk of the tree where the others had forced him to sit.
“Not yet, he’s our insurance and the old man, too. Cartwright’s other sons won’t hesitate to do what we tell’em to if they think both their old man and the kid are in danger. Besides, the old man wouldn’t give a damn about his own life if’n something happened to his boy over there. No Luke, we’ll just carry through with our plans and wait.” Boss started laughing, “besides, I wanna see the old man’s face when we stuff his
kid in that coffin.”
Jinx and Simon joined their boss and Luke at the fire while Max, Bob and kept a close watch on their prisoners. “When’s Talley suppose to meet us with those coffins anyway?” questioned Jinx as he squatted down in front of the fire and warmed his hands.
“This afternoon, down by the lake. He should be there by the time we get there ourselves and everything should be ready to roll out to that island,” explained Boss.
“Did ya send a note to Cartwright’s other son?” Luke wanted to know, while glancing over at Ben who appeared to be dozing.
“Not yet, I’m sending Max on to the Ponderosa after we get them loaded onto the boats and head out to the island. I wouldn’t want them boys to show up before we got their old man and brother planted in the ground,” snickered Boss, tossing the remainder of his coffee off to the side. “Come on, let’s get going.”
Joe’s hands were kept tied behind his back and it took all of his strength to keep himself from falling out of the saddle. He glanced back occasionally to check on his father. Ben had begun to moan softly though he tried to keep from doing it and Joe was worried that his father might have suffered internal injuries from the beating the outlaws had given him. He wished that he could comfort his father in some way, but there was no chance to speak to him, the men were making sure to keep them as far apart from each other as they could.
Joe soon realized that they were headed for a secluded area around the lake. He had been here himself once before when he and Hoss had been out exploring and they had made mention then that this particular spot would make a good hideout. Joe couldn’t help but wonder what the band of ruffians had in store for them. He was soon to find out, for they stopped at last, and when his eyes spied the two small boats anchored at the water’s edge, his heart skipped a beat.
Jinx and Mac pulled Joe down from his horse and shoved him toward the camp that had been set up by Talley and another man, whose name Joe had yet to learn. He was roughly shoved down on a rock and told to remain where he was, or else.
Joe watched as Luke and Simon pulled Ben from his saddle and cringed when Ben hit the ground with a thud. Joe jumped to his feet but was quickly grabbed by the shoulder by the unidentified man and shoved back down on his backside.
Ben was unceremoniously hauled to his feet and practically dragged to the rock beside his son. “Sit down old man, and don’t make a move, or else,” ordered Luke, giving both father and son a warning glare.
“Are you okay, Pa?” whispered Joe, watching his father’s facial expressions.
“I’m just sore son, nothing more. What about you?” Ben whispered in rely.
“I’m fine,” said Joe, not wanting his father to know how he really felt. He was somewhat unnerved by all that had happened to them, but mostly, he was worried about his father.
“Shut up over there,” yelled Luke, stepping over to Ben and giving him a hard kick on the leg.
Joe’s eyes danced with fire and he started to get up but stopped when his father’s voice ordered him to be still.
“Ya better listen to ya old man, sonny. Ya try anything, anything at all, and your papa gets it. You got that?” Luke leered.
Joe swallowed his pride; the last thing he wanted was for his father to get hurt because of him. He glanced up at the man who towered over him. “Yeah, I got it,” he mumbled, wishing he had his hands free so that he could knock that sneering expression off the despicable man’s face. Luke laughed and turned away from the pair, returning to sit next to Jinx.
Boss was talking to Talley. Ben could tell that they were finishing with whatever it was they were planning. He didn’t like the expressions on either man’s face and he feared the worst for both Joe and himself.
Talley started laughing and glanced over at the prisoners. Ben and Joe both saw the look and swapped worried glances between themselves. “Wonder what they’re planning Pa?”
“I don’t know son, but I can assure you, it’s not going to be pleasant,” whispered Ben.
Joe cut fearful eyes at his father and opened his mouth to ask just what Ben meant but was stopped by the sudden change of expression that crossed his father’s face. Joe followed his father’s gaze and his heart stopped beating momentarily as his mind registered what his eyes were seeing.
Four of the men emerged from the woods. They were carrying wooden caskets and Joe’s eyes seemed to freeze on the figures as they toted the pine boxes over to the camp. Joe’s heart began to beat rapidly as he watched the four men lower the boxes to the ground.
“Pa?” muttered Joe softly, his voice trembling with fear.
“Shh…be quiet son, and try to stay calm,” ordered his father. Ben would not look at his son, he knew what he would see in the beautiful emerald eyes that had so much of the time sparkled with happiness. The thoughts of what was fixing to take place, and the fear he knew his son would encounter, ripped at his heart.
“Okay, let’s get them loaded up,” ordered the boss.
Luke and Jinx each grabbed Joe by the arms and hauled him to his feet. Simon and Max grabbed Ben. Ben rose willingly to his feet but Joe bulked at the hands that gripped his arms. He dug his heels into the earth to keep from being dragged closer to the pine boxes.
“You’re not going to put me in that thing!” he shouted, twisting and turning in an attempt to free himself from the hands that held him tightly.
It took every ounce of strength for the two men to hold their squirming prisoner. Joe fought like a wild animal caught in a trap, to free himself. When Luke tired of Joe’s struggles he had Jinx place a choke hold around Joe’s neck and facing Joe, Luke drove his fist into Joe’s middle several times. Joe doubled up from the agony of the assault and quickly crumbled to the ground at his captor’s feet. Jinx managed to get in a couple of swift kicks to Joe’s ribcage before finally subduing his victim.
Talley tossed a length of rope to the pair and instructed them to tie Joe’s ankles tightly. When that was finished, Luke and Jinx lifted Joe’s unconscious body from the ground and placed him into the casket, face down. Ben watched, fighting tears that threatened to fill his eyes. He turned his head when Luke and Jinx placed the thick wooden top onto the casket and began hammering in the long nails that sealed his son’s fate.
When they finished with Joe, Ben was ordered to lower him self into his own casket. Not wanting to make matters any worse for himself, Ben obliged the men and with one last glance at the box that held his son, stretched himself out in the casket. Ben swallowed his own rising fear and shut his eyes as the men covered his face with the box’s lid. The hammering seemed to last only seconds. Ben noted that for whatever reason, the men had only hammered four nails into his box rather than the dozen or more that he had mentally counted being nailed into his son’s prison. Minutes later, Ben heard the thumping sound that told him that they were being placed onto the back of a wagon. His body lurched forward as the horses began moving. Time passed slowly for Ben, his thoughts constantly on his son. Ben worried about the injuries Joe had received from the beating that had taken place earlier and could only hope that his son had been able to get some rest.
Suddenly the wagon stopped. Ben lay as if paralyzed and listened to the sounds around him. Suddenly Ben’s ears picked up on the scraping sound that told him that Joe’s box was being removed from the back of the wagon.
Ben heard his son calling for him, but before Ben could make a reply, he felt his casket being lifted and knew that the men where carrying him away from the wagons. Minutes later he felt the gentle swaying of a boat as it was being maneuvered out into open water. Ben opened his eyes; it was dark inside his box, and hot. His thoughts turned to his son, knowing Joe’s fears and quite unexpectedly, tears stung the chocolate eyes and slipped silently down the age worn face of the patriarch.
“Pa,” Joe called softly, “do you know where they’re taking us?”
“Shut up in there, kid,” shouted Luke, giving Joe’s box a kick with his foot. Joe felt the rocking of the boat as the sudden movement caused the boat to dip to one side.
Joe swallowed hard forcing himself to remain calm. “Where’s my father? What have you done with him?” Joe shouted back, turning his head just enough so that he could hear the man’s reply.
He heard Luke laugh. “Don’t worry about your ol’ man, kid, he’s taking a little boat ride, too.”
“You better not hurt him, or…” began Joe but stopped when he heard the men in the boat with him start laughing loudly.
“Or what kid? Looks to me like ya ain’t in much of a position to nuthin’,” roared Jinx.
Joe lowered his head to the floor of his box and fought to control his anger, and his fear.
Ben wasn’t sure just how long that they had been rowing, only that his muscles had grown sore and stiff from the lack of movement. He tried stretching his legs out a smidgen further, but to no avail. His space was limited and could do nothing more than groan from his efforts. It was some time later that Ben noticed that the boat had stopped swaying. He could hear the scraping sound on the bottom of the boat that told him that they had reached land. The boat teetered back and forth as the men hauled the boat from the water onto dry land. Minutes later he felt his box being lifted and carried from the boat. He wondered where Joe was and worried about how the boy was coping. Ben felt his casket being lowered to the ground and sighed in relief. He was surprised when he heard one of the men order another to pull out the nails that held the cover in place.
Ben squinted his eyes as the bright sun hit his face. His hand involuntarily reached to cover his eyes from the blinding light but was restrained by the ropes that still held his wrists tied behind his back. Ben was hauled to his feet by rough hands and then forced to sit on the damp ground. When his eyes became accustomed to the light, he looked around at his surrounding, trying to get his bearings as to where he was. Immediately, he spotted his son’s casket. He glanced up at his captors but none of the men seemed to be doing anything about releasing Joe from his boxed prison.
“What about my son? Aren’t you going to let him out?” Ben could not refrain from asking. He knew Joe must have been baking inside of the hot box.
Talley stood before Ben, glaring and shook his head. “No.” He turned from Ben and began speaking with the one they had called Boss. Both men had their heads bent closely together, whispering. Every once in a while Ben noted that they looked his direction and then continued with their conversation.
“Max, you and Simon get over here, you too Luke, Jinx, keep your eye on the old man,” ordered Boss.
When the men had gathered into a tight circle, heads bent together, Ben could no longer make out anything that was being said.
“Max, here’s the note. I want you to go back to the Ponderosa and give it to Cartwright’s oldest son. Make sure he understands exactly what will happen to his father and brother should he not follow my directions perfectly. Simon, you take him inland in one of the boats. You men got that?” Boss asked.
“Yes sir, Boss.”
“Good, now get going, and be careful. I’ll see ya back here no later than tomorrow morning.” Boss turned his attention to Luke and Talley. I want the two of you to help old man Cartwright dig the graves. Make him understand that if he doesn’t do as I say, the boy over there will die.”
“Sure ‘nough Boss. Come on Luke, let’s see what the old man thinks of our plan.” Talley rose to his feet and approached Ben.
“On your feet Cartwright. Jinx, untie his hands. Here’s the deal old man, now listen good,” began Boss.
Jinx untied the ropes from Ben’s wrists and quickly Ben began rubbing the area where the ropes had chaffed his flesh. He felt the tingling sensations as the blood began flowing freely once more through his veins.
“What about my son? He needs some fresh air, and I’m sure he needs to relieve him self,” Ben stated matter-of-factly.
Boss tossed a glance at the other casket that had been placed in the hot sun, and seemed to be considering Ben’s request. He turned back to face his prisoner and shook his head.
“Too bad. His fate lies in your hands, and in the hands of your other sons. Cartwright, you’re going to dig a grave, two graves actually. One is for him,” Boss nodded his head toward Joe’s casket, and the other one is yours, should your boys fail to comply with my wishes. After the graves are dug, you are going ashore to meet with your sons, Talley here is going along with you, just make sure you don’t double cross us.” Boss snickered.
“You just remember, the boy’s box in going to be in the ground, if you fail to follow orders, all I have to do is give my men a signal, and the boy is buried alive. Do you understand?”
Ben gulped and hoped that his expression showed none of the fear and dread he felt in his heart. “I understand. Just what is it that you want me to do?”
Talley and Boss smiled at each other, so far so good, they thought. “Max is in the process of taking a note to your sons at the Ponderosa. It tells them that I have you and the kid as my hostages. By tomorrow evening, you will be meeting with them at a selected spot and instruct them that they are to remove the $500,000 gold shipment from Friday’s stage and report back to the spot where I will tell you to instruct them to take the gold. I don’t care how they get the gold, just that if they do not, both you and the boy over there, will die a slow and hideous death. I will not hesitate to bury both of you alive. Do I make myself clear?”
Ben’s eyes were dark with anger and hate. Just the thoughts of what this mad man was suggesting, turned his stomach. He glanced at the box where Joe lay, and felt his stomach knot in fear for his son’s safety.
“I understand. Adam and Hoss will do just as you say, I assure you,” said Ben, fully trusting that his older two sons would not let their brother or their father down.
“Good, now get to work,” ordered Boss as he held his arm out toward Ben. Ben took one look at the shovel the man offered him and wished he could use it to beat the bastard’s head into a bloody pulp. Without a word, Ben grabbed the shovel and followed Luke and Jinx to the designated spot and began digging.
It took several hours before the two graves were dug deep enough to satisfy the man in charge. Once Boss and Talley inspected Ben’s handiwork, the order was given for Joe’s casket to be lowered into the opening. Ben watched in horror as Luke and Jinx picked up the box and not caring how they handled their cargo, carried Joe to the open grave. Straps had been placed across the opening to be used to lower the casket to the bottom. Ben was ordered to take his place on one side and do his share in placing the casket just so on the straps. It galled him to know that he was being forced to do something so horrendous to his own son. The hot liquid bile boiled up into this throat and he was forced to turn his head, emptying his stomach’s contents onto the ground.
His reaction made the others laugh, jabbing one another in the ribs as they watched Ben retch repeatedly. At last he swiped his hand across his mouth and glared at the Boss.
“Can I at least talk to my son for a minute, alone?” inquired Ben, hoping that there might be a thread of compassion in the heart of this intolerable man.
Boss watched the expression on his captor’s face. He saw the inner turmoil behind the dark eyes and he almost relented.
“You’re not going to let him, are you?” Talley jeered. He had been watching both men and saw the slight hesitation in the boss’s eyes and thought it would be a fool-hearty move, to allow Cartwright time to converse with his son.
Boss was jarred from his thoughts and turned, shaking his head at Talley. “What the hell do you take me for, a fool?”
“No way Cartwright, just keep working and keep your mouth shut,” ordered Boss as he nodded his head for the men to begin.
Together the men began to slowly lower the wooden box into the ground. Ben felt his stomach churning as he listened with a broken heart to the screams that reached his ears.
“PA! PA! What’s happening? Please PA! Answer me!”
Ben glanced at his tormentors and saw the smiles that spread across their faces. Silently, deep within his heart, Ben made a secret vow that if he got out of this alive he would hunt down each and everyone of them and kill them.
“Please Pa…help me! Help me…help…m..e…”
Joe’s voice had drifted off into silence and Ben knew that Joe had passed out. He silently thanked God and prayed that Joe would not be made to suffer more than what he could bare.
“Well done, old man. Now get something to eat and then you and Talley get some sleep. As soon as Max and Simon get back you will take the boat to the main land and then Talley will take you to the meeting place. As for the kid, he’ll stay right where he is until I have that gold shipment in my hands. It’s up to you and those boys of yours whether or not the kid dies. Remember one thing Cartwright,” the boss paused and studied Ben’s face. “If you are not back by the designated time, we start throwing dirt down the hole.”
“Don’t worry, I plan on being back. You just remember this, if any more harm comes to my boy, there won’t be a rock big enough for you to hide behind. I’ll hunt you down like the animal you are and I’ll kill you.”
Ben turned his back on the man and headed for the fire where hot coffee and beans waited for him. As he sat down, and took the warm coffee into his hands, he felt his stomach churn again and in the dim glow of the fire, brushed his hand through his silver hair, glanced at the opened grave and muttered softly. “I’m sorry Joseph, I’m so sorry.”
“I think we should saddle up Adam and go look for’em. Pa dun said they’d be home before dark, and it’s already eight-thirty,” grumbled Hoss as he paced back and forth in front of the massive fireplace.
Adam glanced up from behind the book he had been reading and watched his brother’s nervous pacing. “I wish you would stop that infernal pacing, Hoss, it’s getting on my nerves. Pa and Joe will be here any minute. I don’t think either of them would take kindly to being searched for like they were a couple of kids, especially Pa.”
Hoss stopped and stared at his older brother, “Well, what about Joe, he is just a kid.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Hoss…” he began.
“Looky Adam, omething’ ain’t right. I feel it in my bones…I think…” He stopped mid-sentence, interrupted by the loud pounding on the door.
Hop Sing rushed from the kitchen to answer the deafening knocking. As he pulled the heavy, thick oak door opened, a stranger dressed in dusty clothing stepped just inside the room.
“I wanna speak to Adam Cartwright,” he growled at Hop Sing.
Hop Sing twisted his head around to summon Adam but Adam was already half way to the door, Hoss just a step behind him.
“You wanted to see me?” inquired Adam, noting the rough appearance of the man.
“You Adam Cartwright?” he demanded.
Hoss glanced at his brother, a wary look on his face that spoke, without voicing, a word of caution to his older brother.
“That’s right, what can I do for you?” asked Adam, masking the sudden uneasy feeling that had crept into his veins.
“Read this.” Max handed the letter to Adam and waited with bated breath until Adam had extracted the note from its envelope.
“Do just as it says and no harm will come to your father and brother.” Max twirled around and walked quickly out, into the night. He sprang unto his mount and turned the horse about and galloped off into the darkness.
Hop Sing closed the door and stood, waiting as Adam unfolded the paper, scanning the words first before going back and starting at the beginning.
His face darkened with anger as he read the words. Once or twice he glanced up at Hoss and then quickly returned to the paper.
“What’s it say, Adam. What’s wrong? Is it Pa and Little Joe?”
Adam held the paper tightly in his trembling hands and turned to Hoss. “Yes. They’ve been taken hostage by some thugs and are being held at an undisclosed location. We’ve been instructed to meet with Pa and one of the men, tomorrow at 6 p.m. up at the lake, at Marie’s grave. The message says that if we don’t come alone, Joe will be buried alive. It says, he’s already nailed in a coffin and is in the ground, only thing left to do is to fill the grave.” Adam groaned. “Damn the man who hammered those nails in my brother’s coffin. I’ll kill the son of a …Come on Hoss, let’s get our things together. Hop Sing, pack us some grub, please.”
Hoss’ eyes blurred briefly at the thoughts of his brother sealed in a pine box, alive. He shuddered, feeling his younger brother’s fear. Hoss shook his head to rid himself of the images that threatened to break him and hurried to follow Adam out to the barn to prepare their things for the ride to Marie’s grave.
Joe gasped, his stomach growled from the many hours that it had been denied food. He licked his lips in an effort to moisten them, and felt the chapped, rough skin instead. His sides and back ached, his head throbbed and with a sickness in his heart, he felt the dampness of his clothes where his bladder had released itself after too many hours of trying to hold himself. Joe felt the tears sting his eyes. He had heard the loud shouts above him, his father’s voice had rang loud and clear as he warned the outlaws that he would hunt them down and kill them should anything happen to his son. Joe’s body screamed to be allowed to move, but nothing Joe did could bring any measure of relief to his wearied bones. He was not even able to turn onto his side, or his back. He was confined to laying face down on the hard wooden boards.
Joe belched, tasting the unpleasant bile that slipped into his throat, burning the interior as it returned to his stomach. He needed water anything to quench his thirst and wet his dry mouth.
Panic continued to haunt the terrified boy. His only thoughts were on his father and the beating that he had taken. He repeatedly told himself that he had to find a way out, so that he could help his father. Ben needed him; get out Joseph, hurry, hurry, sang his heart. Joe closed his eyes but his father’s face danced before him. Ben’s eyes were begging him to help him, his father’s face was bloodied and in Joe’s twisted dreams he saw his father on his knees, crying, screaming, and wailing.
“LET ME OUT! PLEASE, HE NEEDS ME!”
The laughter above ground never reached Joe’s ears, except for one man, Ben. His heart twisted in agony for his son. Ben knew Joe’s mind was slowly leaving this world of reality into a world of darkness where his senses seemed to float from one distorted image to another. He could only wonder what shape the boy’s mind would be in by the time that he was able to free his son of his prison. Ben shut his mind to the piteous screams that tore at him and tried to sleep, but the ache in his heart for his youngest son prevented sleep from claiming him. When, hours later, the screaming had stopped, Ben dozed, though only briefly until the sounds of the camp waking, brought Ben from his tormented slumber.
With his hands tied behind his back, Ben was hauled to his feet and brought to sit in front of the fire. When his hands were freed, coffee and Johnnycakes were handed to him. He accepted gratefully. He felt guilty, eating, when he knew that it had been more than 24 hours since Joe had taken a bite. Realizing that by not eating, he would only make matters worse on himself, leaving him weak and maybe unable to accomplish the mission that the boss had set for him, Ben indulged himself in his breakfast. He had to keep up his strength in order to help his son, he told himself but it still made his food hard to swallow.
It wasn’t long before Ben was finished with his breakfast and made to crawl into the little boat that had brought him to the island. With one last glance at the silent hole where Joe’s casket lay deeply within the ground, Ben silently vowed to return and rescue his son.
“Get going Cartwright,” ordered Talley, giving Ben a nudge toward the boat.
“Ain’t ya gonna tie his hands?” asked Simon, watching.
Talley looked at Ben, studying his face, and suddenly he smiled. “Naw, he knows what will happen to his boy if he tries anything funny, don’t ya old man?”
Ben was solemn, “Yes, I know,” he said flatly and climbed into the boat. Talley followed and sat on the seat facing his prisoner. Simon followed Talley and standing in the back of the boat, picked up one long oar and shoved off.
It took the three men most of the morning to reach the shoreline. Quickly they gathered their things and began saddling their horses that they had been left hobbled to graze on the lush green grass that bordered around the lake.
It was nearly five by the time that Ben and Talley reached Marie’s gravesite. Ben and Talley slid from their horses and laced the reins around the branches of a nearby tree. Simon had stopped a short distance back to keep watch and stay undercover lest something went wrong.
“Sit down Cartwright, might as well make the most of it for now. Once ya talk to your sons, we have a long ride back.” Talley pointed to a rock and while Ben settled down to wait the arrival of his sons; Talley made himself comfortable nearby. “Remember, nothing funny. You only say what Boss told you to say, nothing more, or else.”
Ben shuddered, ‘or else’, he thought. ‘Or else’ Joseph dies. His mind strayed to his son and Ben prayed that Joseph was managing all right, though Ben doubted his son’s ability to cope with all the mental anguish that had been dumped on him. Joe was young, and strong, braver than most men, in most things, pondered Ben. But with confinement, his fear of the dark and his fear of losing face, Joe tended to…well thought Ben, not be a coward, more like boyish with his childlike fears. They stemmed from the loss of his mother at an early age, Ben understood why Joe had those certain fears, and he had never made his son to feel less than a man about them. They were something, with age and wisdom that Ben hoped Joe would one day outgrow. But at the tender age of nineteen, Joe still needed the security of his father and brothers, though he would never admit that to a living soul, except perhaps his father. Ben smiled, remembering the glow in the hazel eyes when he had asked Joe to accompany him on this business trip. The smile died quickly. ‘This is all my fault, his suffering. If I had not asked him along, he would be safe at home right now.’ Ben dropped his head, sickened by what his youngest son was forced to endure because of him.
The pounding of hooves brought Ben from his melancholy mood and back to the present. Talley jumped to his feet, his pistol in his hand and stepped behind Ben. “I’m warning you Cartwright, one wrong move and the boy’s dead.” With that, Talley slipped behind a large boulder, out of sight of Ben’s approaching sons.
“Stop right there Adam,” Ben called, holding up his hand in a signal.
Adam and Hoss pulled their mounts to a sudden stopped and jumped from their saddles. “Pa, are you okay?” asked Adam as he took another step closer.
“Adam, don’t come any closer, there are guns pointed at us. But to answer your question, yes, I’m fine.” Ben forced a smile and nodded at Hoss. “Hello, son.”
“Hi ya, Pa. Where’s Little Joe? Is he all right?” asked Hoss. “What happened to your face?” he growled after spotting the bruises that darken his father’s features.
“Hoss, please, I don’t have much time. Joe’s being held prisoner; I’m not at liberty to tell you where, not yet. There is something that you boys have to do. I don’t care how you do it, just do it. Joe’s life depends on it,” Ben explained.
“What about yours?” Adam demanded glancing about hoping to find where the guns were that was suppose to be aimed at them.
“Adam, I’m not worried about myself, but I am worried about Joseph. They have him in a pine box, nailed shut, sitting at the bottom of a six-foot hole. Now listen to me…there is a stage due into Virginia City tomorrow afternoon. It’s going to be carrying a gold shipment, $500,000 in gold to be exact. You have to take the gold and get to the west end of the lake, you remember where we had that camping trip a couple years ago?” Ben questioned.
“Yeah, we remember,” Adam confirmed.
“You two have to take the gold there, no later than seven o’clock. And come alone. Once you get there with the gold, one of the men will tell you what to do next,” Ben paused. “Adam, Hoss your brother’s life depends on this working out. He’s been hurt, but I don’t think too badly. I just want him out of that box, and as soon as possible. I’m afraid of what’s happening to his mind.”
“We understand Pa, but are you saying we have to holdup the stage?” Adam asked, shocked at the unusual request being made of Hoss and himself.
“Yes, just make sure you don’t get wounded by one of the guards and try not to get one of them hurt. You know the driver, explain it to him and tell him I’ll stand good for the loss, even if it means selling everything I own, understand?” Ben said.
Ben caught a movement from behind one of the boulders to his son’s back. “I have to go now boys, do your best, and please, be careful.” Ben wished with all of his heart that he could step forward and embrace his two sons, but knew that would be impossible. “God bless you, both,” he called as he turned and disappeared around the huge stones and into the woods.
Hoss and Adam stood several moments, staring at each other. Hoss took a deep breath and let it out slowly, “Well, big brother, what’s say we rob a stage?” He laughed lightly and slung his massive arm about the shoulder of his brother.
“I guess there’s a first time for everything,” muttered Adam, totally disgusted with the ugly task they had been commissioned to perform.
Adam and Hoss swung into their saddles and turned the horses in the direction that the stage would be coming. “Might as well get there and get ready,” he muttered to Hoss.
“Ya got a plan, Adam? I mean, we ain’t never robbed a stage before. I ain’t got no idey where to begin…I remember the time Little Joe and I robbed the bank, but…well…this is different,” Hoss mused, pushing his big tall hat back on his head and casting a sideways glance at his brother.
Inspite of himself, Adam had to laugh. “Hoss, how could you think of that bank robbery at a time like this?”
Hoss giggled, “I dunno Adam, ya know how that kid brother of ours is forever gettin’ one or both of us into some kind of trouble, it just sorta popped into my head, supposin’.”
“Well, looks like he’s done it again, doesn’t it?” Adam snapped.
“Aw…shucks Adam, this tweren’t Joe’s fault no more’n it was Pa’s,” Hoss said protectively.
Adam gave Hoss a serious look, his expression dead serious, “I know that Hoss, and I’m afraid for Little Joe. I don’t even want to think about what he could be going through, sealed in that pine box. You know as well as I do, what happens to Joe in those types of situations. And I’ll tell you this much, if they so much as harm a hair of those unruly locks of his, I’ll kill them with my bare hands. Now, enough jawin’, let’s get to the forks.” Adam said nothing more, but spurred his mount into a gallop; Hoss followed suit, bringing his mount up beside Adam’s as they rode along.
Ben sat silently, as if he were a statue in the boat as Talley and Simon rowed the boat out to the island. He was lost in thoughts, wondering just how Adam and Hoss would be able to pull off the robbery and whether or not someone would be injured or worse, killed. And then there was Joe; Ben feared the worst for his youngest son. He could only imagine what was going through the boy’s mind, and he worried that the outlaws would not keep their word once they had the gold in their possession. Would they kill him and Joe, would they do as they had threatened and bury both of them alive? Or worse, bury Joe and make him watch, or even help them cover the grave. Ben felt his body tremble and he glanced at the two men, hate filling the dark depths of his eyes.
“Pa? Oh…someone…please? Adam…Hoss…help me!” Joe muttered incoherently. No one could hear him, no one even cared that he was scared, or hungry, or wet. Joe was almost passed caring himself. His reserve was nearly gone, his body was in agony, and his hands were without feeling and were burning from the ropes that had held his wrists for hours behind his back. In his befuddled mind, his pa was gone, maybe even dead and the only thing that the troubled mind could hold on too, was that his Pa needed his help.
“Papa…hold on,” whispered the inaudible voice in Joe’s head. “I’ll find a way out of this, and I swear…I’ll help you.”
Once back at the camp, Ben was ordered into his box. He cast an anxious glance at the hole where he had helped to lower his son’s body into the ground. He gave a sigh of relief at seeing the grave had not been filled with the rich, dark dirt that remained piled high near the opening.
“Hurry it up ole man,” ordered Luke, giving a shove with his hand, to Ben’s back. “And don’t worry about the kid, I ain’t heard a word from him in hours. Probably dead by now,” laughed Luke, wickedly.
Ben cast angry eyes at the man standing behind him. “You better hope he isn’t. Cause if he is, I’ll hunt you down and kill you with my bare hands,” Ben growled.
“Aw…shut up and get in the box. You ain’t gonna kill no one, lest of all me!” Luke snapped in return, though he did make note of the dark eyes that did nothing to conceal the hatred the older man was feeling. Luke gulped, “Hurry up!”
Ben did as ordered and stretched out the best he could. At least this time the men had not tied his hands, and for that small consideration, Ben was grateful, though he felt guilty knowing that Joe was bound hand and foot.
Adam and Hoss hid behind the thick grove of trees and waited for the stage to arrive. They had decided not to cover their faces, there was no sense in doing so, the driver would probably recognize them right off any ways. Instead, they would meet the stage head on, on foot. They would explain to the driver their predicament and hopefully the driver would be understanding and just hand over the gold shipment to them. Adam had taken the time to write out an IOU in his father’s name, promising the bank that he would stand good for the gold, should it not be retrieved later on. He also wrote out a note to Roy Coffee, sheriff of Virginia City, explaining why they were holding up the stage.
“I hope this works Adam,” Hoss said, glancing down the road in hopes of seeing the stage.
“We better pray it does,” Adam answered, following his brother’s gaze.
Hoss turned to study his brother’s expression. “What are we gonna do if’n if don’t?
“It will Hoss,” Adam turned to look into the crystal blue eyes that studied his face. “Even if we have to take it by force, we will not leave here without that gold.”
Hoss was just about ready to open his mouth and comment, when his attention was drawn to the sound of the approaching stage.
“Come on Hoss, this is it,” said Adam, stepping out into the middle of the road. Hoss hurried to join his brother, a worried frown on his face.
Adam held his hands up, signaling the stage coach driver to pull to a stop.
“Whoa…” he heard the man say to the teams of horses. The guard immediately pointed his double-barreled shotgun at them.
“Take it easy, ole timer,” cautioned Adam approaching the side of the stage. “Hello Mark,” smiled Adam, hoping to defuse any doubts as to why he and Hoss might be stopping the stage.
The stage door suddenly swung opened; Clem Foster, Roy’s deputy stepped down.
“Adam, Hoss, what the blazes are you doing here?” he asked, surprised to see two of the town’s most important men standing in the middle of the dusty road.
“Lost your horses?” he laughed teasingly.
“No, we’re here to rob the stage,” said Adam silently, so that only Clem could hear him.
“What? What are you talking about, Adam?” Clem almost shouted and then quickly lowered his voice.
“Listen Clem, we don’t have much time, I’ll explain it all to you and Roy later. Right now there are some men holding Pa and Joe as their hostages and will bury them alive if we don’t get them this gold shipment by 7 p.m. tonight. We can’t waste anymore time. Now, please, give us the gold,” Adam said with urgency.
“Now, Adam, you know darn well I can’t do that, why Roy would have my…”
Hoss stepped up nose to nose to Clem and glared down at him. “Clem, our family is dependin’ on us. You just tell Roy what big brother here just told ya and he will understand. Adam has an IOU sayin’ that Pa will stand good for the gold. Now get to it, afore I lose my temper…I’m already boilin’ mad as it is at them varmints that’s got Pa and Little Joe.”
Clem blew what breath he had left in his lungs, outward and shook his head. “Okay, okay, but I’m warnin’ ya boys, this better be on the up and up.”
“Clem, do ya think we’d lie to ya about somethin’ as important as this? And ‘sides, what’ll ya take us for, anyways?” snarled Hoss.
“Huh…it wouldn’t be the first robbery you ever committed now, would it?” said Clem half jokingly.
“Aw…that was Little Joe’s doin’s, I jist went along with’em, t’alls,” stammered Hoss.
“Hand me the box with the gold, Mark,” ordered Clem.
“WHAT!” shouted the driver, giving his guard a daring look.
“Don’t try anything, either,” Clem added for good measure. “We’ll give it back to the bank later.”
Mark tugged on the heavy box until he had moved it close to the edge of the top of the stage. Hoss crawled unto the wheel and hoisted the box down to the ground. “What about the key?” he asked the drive.
Mark dug in his pocket until he found what he was looking for and tossed the key to Adam. “Thanks Mark, you just might be saving a couple of lives today,” smiled Adam.
“Clem, take this note to Roy, tell him we’ll be in touch if we need his help. I don’t know where Pa and Joe are being held, but we’ll find them,” Adam explained as Clem climbed back into the coach and nodded at the driver to be on his way.
“Good luck Adam, Hoss and be careful,” called out Clem.
Hoss and Adam watched as the coach rolled around the bend and out of sight. Helping Adam pick up the heavy box and carry it to where the horses were tied, Hoss could not refrain from asking.
“How we gonna carry all this? This stuff is heavy,” he groaned.
“Guess we take it out of the box and pack it in our saddle bags. Come on, we don’t have much time, it’s getting late,” said Adam as he unlocked the thick lock that held the box lid in place.
“Wow! Will look at all of this gold?” stammered Hoss as his fingers gently wrapped around one of the thick bars of shiny gold. This is the stuff that dreams are made of,” he whispered.
“Sure is, men kill for this type of riches. Come on Hoss, help me get this loaded up.” Adam shook his head to clear the menacing thoughts from his mind and began packing the golden bars into his saddlebags.
The gold bars were heavy and it took more time than the brothers would have like to waste. Once they stabilized the heavy saddlebags on the back of their horses, they headed to the west side of the lake to meet with the men who would be waiting for them.
Talley and the Boss were waiting for Adam and Hoss when they arrived at the designated spot. Both men held their fingers at their guns, ready to draw and shoot if need be, though they doubted that the Cartwright brothers would try anything foolish, fear of loosing their father and brother would prevent them from trying anything. They had yet to learn the whereabouts of their loved ones, so Talley and Boss felt confident.
Adam and Hoss glanced at one another and then cautiously dismounted. Talley and Boss approached the brothers with as much wariness as the Cartwrights approached them. Adam’s sharp eyes took in the appearance of each man, knowing instantly that the two men bore watching. Talley was tall, nearly as tall as Adam, though more muscular and out weighed Adam by several pounds. Adam’s thoughts briefly called to mind his younger brother and he wondered if either man had laid a hand on the boy. Joe’s size and strength was no match for Talley, and Adam could only imagine the damage that Talley’s massive fists could do to his little brother.
Boss was more brain than brawn, he was quiet and more reserved than his associate, his demure plainly left no doubt that this man was The Boss. “You got the gold?” Boss asked, keeping his eyes trained on the brothers.
“That depends,” stated Adam, meeting Boss’ glare.
“Depends?” stammered Talley, giving a questioning glance at Boss. “What the hell do you mean by that? Ya wanna see your ole man and kid brother again, don’t ya?” he barked sharply.
“Sure, but what do you have to prove to us that they are still alive?” Adam dared, hoping that he wasn’t pushing too hard. He had to think of a plan, until now, he had no idea who these men were and still, he had no idea where his father and brother were being held.
Talley laughed, joined by Boss. “Well, aren’t you the smart one, Cartwright.” Boss said and laughed again. “I guess you will just have to take our word for it, now won’t you?”
Hoss swallowed and glanced at his brother. “Why don’t you just tell us where you have them, and then maybe we’ll give you the gold?”
“Maybe? Ha…You’ll give us the gold first, then we will tell you. Don’t play games with us Cartwright, or the kid dies. Look behind you, one signal from me and he goes straight back to our hideout and starts filling the hole,” Boss stated firmly, keeping his tone low and even, under lined with a threatening thread.
“Okay, I’ll get the gold, half now, half when you tell us where you have my father and brother, Hoss, get half of the gold,” Adam instructed his brother, never taking his eyes off the pair of outlaws.
Hoss quickly stepped behind the boulders where the horses were tied and removed his saddlebags from Chubb’s back. He hurried to return to his brother’s side and tossed the bags at Talley’s feet. Talley stooped down and grabbed the bag, lifted up the flap and let out a loud low breath.
“Whew…will ya lookit this?” he asked, giving Boss a peek into the saddlebag.
Adam noted the smile that spread across each man’s face. “Now, where’s my family?” he demanded.
“Go on, tell him Boss, so that we can get the rest of the gold and get out of here,” Talley told the boss man.
“Hold on just a minute,” Boss leered, giving Adam a swift once over.
“Stop making excuses, tell us where our brother and father are, or…” said Hoss, taking a threatening step toward both men.
“Hoss, hold on,” ordered Adam, grabbing the big man’s arm and holding him back.
“Ya better listen to your brother, fatso, or you won’t ever see your kin alive,” Talley barked.
Adam watched the pair, they were getting nervous and Adam sensed that the one called Boss might give the signal to their partner hiding in the bushes. “Get the other saddlebag, Hoss.
“Are ya sure, Adam?” questioned Hoss, doubtfully.
Adam nodded his head and Hoss reluctantly did as his brother requested. When Hoss returned minutes later, Adam took the bag from his brother and held it at arm’s length from Boss. Talley made a grab for the bag, but Adam, anticipating his move, jerked back his arm, preventing Talley from taking the gold from him.
“The location, first, then the gold.” Adam spoke directly to the boss, never giving his partner another glance, he knew that Hoss had his eyes set on the man.
“I’ll have your father meet you at the falls. You do know where that is, don’t you?”
“I know. What about my brother?”
“Your father can take you back to where he is, that will give my men and myself ample time to make our getaway. Now hand over the gold, and stop wasting time. Your little brother doesn’t like being in that box, he’s getting restless,” Boss taunted the brothers.
He knew he had said the right thing, for he noted the sudden intake of air by the fat man and the darkening color of the man called Adam.
Adam extended his hand toward Boss. Boss touched the saddlebag, ready to take possession, but Adam’s strong fingers clutched the bag briefly. “You better not double cross me, because if you do, I’ll hunt you down, if it takes the rest of my life and I’ll kill you. You understand me?”
Boss felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck rise. Something in the man’s tone warned him that Adam was a man of his word and he would do exactly as he promised. “Don’t worry Cartwright, I’m not stupid, just cautious. You can meet your father at the falls, by daybreak.”
Adam’s fingers unfolded slowly from around the heavy saddlebag. Boss’ eyes glowed with what Adam could only define as greed as the men slowly backed away and mounted their horses. In a split second they disappeared into the brush and were gone.
Hoss rubbed his large beefy hand through his thinning hair and turned to his brother. “Think they’ll keep their word, Adam?” he asked doubtfully.
Adam hung his head, looking up only with his eyes at the direction the men had ridden off in. “They better. Come on, let’s get something to eat and then catch a couple hours of sleep, then we’ll ride over to the falls and be waiting for Pa.”
Hoss took a deep breath and followed Adam over to their horses and began making camp. Several minutes past before either brother spoke. Hoss stood facing his saddle, his heart in his throat. “I didn’t like what that varmint said about Little Joe being in that there casket.”
Adam looked up from the fire he was starting and glanced at his brother. He knew Hoss was on the verge of tears. His large oversized frame was nothing compared to the size of the big man’s heart, especially when it came to Little Joe, he was a softy.
“I know Hoss, I know how Joe is, but we can’t do anything right now to help him. But soon, I promise you, we’ll get him out.” Adam had come to stand behind Hoss and could see the massive shoulders begin to quiver. He placed a hand on the back of his brother’s shoulder and squeezed tightly, offering what comfort he could.
“He’ll be all right, Hoss, after all, he’s a Cartwright, isn’t he?” Adam said lightly, hoping to improve Hoss’ mood.
Hoss nodded his head and turned to face his older brother. “Yeah, ya can say that again. I just hope that this hasn’t been more’n the boy could stand…I mean, we both know that the kid is…”
“Hoss…try not to think about it like that…we’ll be there in a few hours, come on let’s eat something,” said Adam, gently leading Hoss toward the fire.
Max guided the little boat onto the sandy bank and jumped out to pull it out of the water so that the boss and Talley could disembark without having to put their feet in the water. Luke, Simon, and Jinx hurried to the shoreline to greet the two men as they entered the camp.
“Did ya get the gold?” inquired Luke.
“Come on, let us see it,” Jinx hurried to ask.
“Hold on, hold on,” laughed Boss. “Give me a minute to sit down and warm my hands, first.” Boss and Talley moved to the fire, followed by the others who stood impatiently, wanting nothing more than to get a peek at the gold bars.
Boss tossed his saddlebag at the men’s feet, followed by Talley. Quickly, Jinx and Luke grabbed the bags and opened them while Simon stood over their shoulders trying to see into the bags.
“Wow, would ya look at his,” squealed Luke, pulling one of the golden bars from its resting-place.
Simon reached down and pulled a second bar into the light. The soft glow of the fire caused the bar to sparkle brightly. “Man…can you believe this? Five hundred thousand dollars in gold, yehaa! We’re rich!” he yelled, dancing around the others.
The men broke into a loud laughter. They were all very pleased with the way in which they had pulled off the holdup, making the sons of their captive do the actual robbing for them.
“Come on, let’s break camp and get out of here,” Boss ordered, getting to his feet.
“What about our guest?” Talley asked, nodding his head in the direction of the open graves.
Boss stopped to ponder his associate’s question. “I’d like to just leave them, cover them up and leave them. But…that Adam Cartwright doesn’t strike me as man who would let something like his father and brother being buried alive, go unanswered for. Take the old man ashore and see that he gets to the falls.”
“What about the kid?” asked Luke. “I sure would like to…”
“Forget it Luke!” Boss growled. “Leave him be, let his family come back to get him. Hell, he’s probably already dead as it is. You heard anything out of him?”
“Not me, have you Jinx, Simon?” asked Luke.
“Nope, not in several hours,” answered Jinx. Simon nodded his head in agreement. “Me neither.”
“Fine, when we take the old man ashore. Bury him,” ordered Boss as he walked away to gather his own things.
It didn’t take the men long to gather their belongings, each man was anxious to get off the island and as far away as they could. It would be dawn soon, and two men still had to row the older Cartwright to shore.
Just before daylight, Ben was allowed out of his box. Simon and Max had to help Ben pull himself up and hold him while he steadied himself. Ben squinted his eyes and rubbed at them, trying to bring back his clear vision. As he glanced around him, he saw that the men had broken up camp and were preparing to leave.
“What’s going on?” he asked, stumbling toward Joe’s open grave.
“You’re leaving here. Your sons will be waiting for you by the falls,” Boss explained. “Come on, get in the boat.”
“What about my son?” Ben asked sharply. “I’m not leaving him here…”
Boss grabbed Ben’s arm and spun him around, “Your not taking him with you either. He stays Cartwright; once you meet up with your other sons you can come back here and get him. That will give us time enough to get far away from here. Now get in the boat!”
Ben was forced to march ahead of the Boss and Simon, each man helping him along with a not so gentle shove to his back.
“Joseph! I’ll be back son, hang on!” yelled Ben over his shoulder, praying that his son had heard him.
Simon, when you and Max get to the falls, let Cartwright out and then meet us at that big bend down river,” Boss instructed.
Ben, who had been sitting on the floor of the boat, snapped his head up, meeting the eyes of this man whom he had come to loath. “What about my boy? How are we to get back here, to the island?”
“There’s a canoe hidden in behind the falls. Use it, and Cartwright, thanks for your help!” Boss tipped the rim of his hat and smiled at the dark scowl that Ben gave to him.
As the boat made it’s way out into open water, Ben could still hear the disreputable man’s wicked laughter. The sound of his voice could be heard, far from the shore, as the night carried it’s evil sound across the smooth, silent waters.
The men were just about ready to go, everything that could, had been loaded into the boat with Ben and Simon, the rest had been loaded into the one remaining boat.
“Cover him up, make it fast,” ordered Boss, smiling as Luke and Jinx began throwing shovel after shovel full of dirt into the opened grave. Talley stood beside of his boss and watched silently.
“I hope this doesn’t take too long, we need to get the hell out of here,” he grumbled, anxious to be on his way. The lure of having so much money to spend was making him nervous.
From the dark recesses of his mind, Joe could hear the loud thugs that hammered on the top of his box. His mind struggled to find it’s way back to reality from where it had wandered to a no man’s land where his fears had lain dormant for many hours. Now the thumping sounds were disturbing his tranquillity and forcing him to face anew, his inner weaknesses.
“Pa?” he heard himself calling. There was no answer, but the sound above him had grown strangely softer, like it was further away. Joe tried to raise his head, but he was so weak from lack of water and nourishment that he had only enough strength to hold his eyes open and mutter softly.
“Papa…papa…” Joe felt his brow bead with perspiration, and his breathing was becoming labored. It was as if his lungs were being denied oxygen. He began taking long drags, forcing air into his lungs. He struggled at his ropes that held his hands and reaching a near panic level, Joe began kicking his feet against the end of the coffin, in a futile attempt at escaping.
Realization hit the frightened boy like a ton of falling rocks. The men’s voices above him had virtually lowered to a near non-existent level. They were filling his grave!
“NO! NO! OH GOD, PLEASE HELP ME!” he screamed loudly. “PA! I can’t help you now…hell, I can’t even help myself,” cried Joe, the sting of tears burning his eyes as he took one last deep breath before collapsing into unconsciousness once more.
“That’s enough, that’s enough,” Boss finally shouted at the two men filling the grave. “Come on, let’s get going.”
Luke and Jinx tossed their shovels off to the side and hurried to join the others in the boats. Pushing the boat off and then jumping in, they grabbed the oars and quickly make their way into the deep dark waters and began rowing toward the bend. It would be mid- morning before they were to meet with Simon and Max. By then they would be well down river and with any luck, would be miles away before Ben Cartwright and his sons could return to the island, dig up their youngest and then get back to Virginia City to get help.
Boss and Talley smiled at one another, they had pulled off the biggest robbery ever attempted and succeeded. Their dreams of fortune had become reality, at least in their minds. If things went according to their plans, they would be well rid of their cohorts soon, and then could divide the money between just themselves. Boss nodded at Talley.
“Let me row for awhile, Luke,” offered Talley, taking the oar from the tired man.
“I’ll relieve you Jinx,” Boss said, surprising Jinx as well.
“Sure Boss, I could use a little rest, especially after shovelin’ all that dirt,” said Jinx thankful for the reprieve from his duties.
As Jinx and Luke stood to move, making room for their relief workers, Boss gave the signal and working as if one, he and Talley slammed the heavy oars onto the back of each man’s head. Jinx’s head burst opened, spewing bright red blood down his back as he toppled forward into the dark water. Luke staggered and Talley whammed him a second time on the back of the neck. Boss heard the cracking sound as the top of the spine broke and Luke fell face down into the silent water, joining his friend in a watery grave.
Boss and Talley clicked the oars back into place and rowed away, never looking back at the bloody bodies slowly sinking out of sight.
“PA!” shouted Hoss as he spied the boat rowing in nearer to the sandy shore. Hoss hurried to offer his hand to his father and helped him from the boat. Ben’s feet were barely on dry land before Max and Simon had the boat floating away from the water’s edge.
“Where’s Joe?” demanded Adam in a thick, angry voice.
“They made me leave him there…” Ben started to explain but was cut off by Adam’s angry stomping.
“And just how do we get back to that island and get him out of that damn box?”
“There’s a canoe behind the falls. Please, Hoss, see if you can find it. We have to hurry, I’m almost positive that bastard ordered his men to fill up the grave,” Ben sputtered, trying to steady himself, his nerves and his enraged oldest son.
“Those low down, sorry pieces of…” Adam caught himself before going too far. “I’m sorry Pa,” he said, squatting down in front of this father. “Are you okay? I mean, they didn’t hurt you anymore, did they?”
“No, no, I’m fine son, honest. I’m worried sick about your brother. I heard a couple of the men say that Joe hasn’t said a word in several hours.”
“Here is it Pa. Ya up to goin’ back or do ya want to wait here and rest while Adam and I go?” Hoss asked as he slipped the narrow canoe into the water and picked up the oars, handing one to his brother.
“No, I’m going with you!” Ben said, standing to his feet and making his way to the canoe.
Adam got in first and helped his father into the middle. Hoss waited until both his father and Adam were seated and then pushed the canoe off of the sand bar into the water.
The canoe moved quickly and silently through the water. The slender long shape of the boat made maneuvering easy for the brothers that worked together as a team to stir the vessel smoothly, atop the blackened water.
It took less time than they had thought possible before reaching the island. Quickly all three jumped from the boat, Ben seemingly had found renewed strength, led the way to where the outlaws had placed Joe’s body. His heart beat wildly as he eyes sought the grave, now half filled with dark, rich dirt.
“Dear God!” he bellowed, falling to his knees in a heap. “My baby, my baby!” the retched cries sending the sparrows flying.
“Pa, take it easy,” urged Adam clamping his hand down on his father’s shoulder.
“Adam, looky, here’s the shovels. Come on, maybe it’s not too late.” Hoss handed one shovel to his brother and quickly stepped into the half-filled grave and began throwing dirt over his shoulder.
Adam glanced at his father and saw that Ben’s dark, water filled eyes were glued to the grave. Adam stepped in with Hoss and seconds later dirt was flying in two different directions. Both young men worked feverishly, driven by love, fueled with determination until a short time later, the top of the pine box could be clearly seen.
Hoss tossed aside his shovel and stooping down tried to pry the lid from the top. “It ain’t budging,” he told Adam. “Pa, hand me a hammer.”
Ben jumped to his feet and searched the area. Luck was on his side, under a bush he spied the remains of an old hammer. The wooden end had been broken, but the claw was still intact.
“See if this works, it’s all there is.” Ben handed the hammer to Hoss who quickly began pulling nails from the cover.
“Help me lift the lid up, Adam.” Hoss grunted once and yanked hard. The boards were thick and hard to pull up, but after a second try, Adam and Hoss had the cover removed.
“Whew…let’s get him outta there,” whispered Adam, giving his middle brother a worried look.
Straddling the box, Adam pulled Joe by both arms and hauled him upward to Hoss who stood above, waiting to take Joe from his older brother. In one swift move, Joe was raised from the bottom of the box and gently guided to the ground at his father’s feet. Hoss quickly removed the ropes that had held his brother prisoner and turned Joe onto his back.
Ben knelt on the ground, gathering his son into his arms. “Joseph, Joseph,” he whispered, brushing the sweat and particles of dirt from the thinning face. “Open your eyes, sweetheart, Pa’s got you now,” sobbed Ben, cradling his youngest son tightly to his breast.
“Oh please, Joe, can you hear me?” Ben began rocking back and forth, holding his precious child in his arms.
“Hoss, get him some water, hurry,” instructed Adam. Adam watched his father’s face and knew that Ben was nearing the breaking point and that it would be up to him to see that they all made it home in one piece.
“Pa, he’s unconscious, he can’t hear you. We have to get him home where the doctor can take a look at him.” Adam placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Pa, did you hear what I said?”
Ben raised his head, looking, but not really seeing Adam’s face. “My baby…”
Hoss returned with the water and Adam held the tin cup that Hoss had found, to his younger brother’s lips and tipped it upward. At first the water dribbled down Joe’s chin, but with Hoss’ help, pinching open the dry, chapped lips, Joe managed to swallow a few drops.
“Pa…” Hoss’ face scrunched up, making a frown when he turned to Adam. “What’s wrong with Pa?” he said to Adam.
“I’m not sure, but we need to get both of them home. Come on Hoss, help me, you carry Joe to the canoe and I’ll take Pa.” Adam moved to make room for Hoss to slip his arms under Joe’s body in order to carry him. He had just about gotten his arms under Joe when his father snapped to life.
“NO!” bellowed Ben in that deep roaring voice he often used when angry at one of his sons. “I’ll carry him!”
Ben rose to his feet, bringing Joe up in this arms. Joe’s head leaned into his father’s chest as Ben quickly made his way to the canoe. Adam and Hoss wasted no time in following and were soon pushing the canoe off. Ben had placed himself in the floor of the boat with Joe’s head resting in his lap. As Hoss and Adam rowed, they could hear their father whispering softly to their brother, encouraging him to open his eyes and speak to him. The pitiful sounds of his begging tore at each of his son’s hearts. Ben was exhausted, and was running only on sheer willpower. Adam worried that Ben might even collapse before being able to get him home and in the bed.
“Faster Hoss,” Adam muttered in a low voice. Hoss instantly glanced at his brother and followed Adam’s slight nod of the head. Ben was crouched low over Joe’s body, gently kissing the boy’s forehead, his pleas to awaken becoming more intense and more urgent.
Hoss understood the silent message and began rowing like the devil was after them. The shore lay before them, beckoning them to hurry, and hurry they did. As the bottom of the canoe scraped against the ground, Hoss jumped out and pulled the boat ashore. Adam leaned over his father, who still clung to the unconscious body of the boy whom they all loved more than life itself.
“Pa, we’re back at the falls. We need to get Joe home, come on.” Adam reached down, offering his hand to his father. Ben turned tired, dark eyes up at his son. Adam saw the weariness in his father’s expression and it worried him. They had to hurry.
“Pa, let Hoss take Joe now. We have our horses, and Joe can ride double with him. You can double with me. Please Pa, we have to go home now,” Adam urged.
Adam gently pried his father’s hands and fingers from around Joe and gently lifted his brother into his arms and passed him to Hoss. Ben watched the proceedings silently but took Adam’s hand when offered to him. Adam gently pulled Ben to his feet and then guided him to the horses. Ben climbed onto Sport and waited until Adam helped Hoss with Joe, covering the trembling form with a warm blanket from Hoss’ bedroll.
They were half way home when Joe began moaning softly. His head rested against Hoss’ massive chest. The strong arms of his brother prevented Joe from sliding from the saddle as the prodded along.
“Shh…take it easy Short Shanks, we’ll be home soon,” whispered Hoss, gently rubbing one hand up and down Joe’s arm. “Won’t be much longer.”
Ben had fallen to sleep in the saddle, his head was slumped forward and it took all of Adam’s strength to keep his father upright in front of him. He could hear the soft sounds that his brother was making and was afraid that Joe might wake up and be totally confused before they were able to get him home and comfortable in his own bed.
The piteous sounds grew louder, and more distinct. “Pa…gotta help…Pa.” Joe cried, beginning to struggle against Hoss.
“Shh…Joe, its okay pal, Pa’s right behind us. Ole Hoss will have ya home in a just a few more minutes.” Hoss cast worried eyes back at Adam and who was having his own problems with their father. Ben had begun to mumble as well, calling out to Joe in his delirium.
Adam shook his head at Hoss, and urged his mount to quicken the pace. Hoss took the hint and did the same.
Hop Sing must have sensed their arrival. He stood waiting in the yard when the boys rode in and with him stood the sheriff and Clem along with several of their hired men. The men quickly took the horses and helped Adam and Hoss get Joe and Ben into the house. Adam ordered one of the men to ride into town to bring out the doctor.
Joe was quickly taken straight to his room and carefully placed on his bed. Two of the men, led by Hoss helped Ben to his room. Ben had awakened and though tired and worn, would not be forced to his bed, but demanded in a none-too-quiet voice, to be allowed into Joe’s room.
Already Hop Sing and Adam had begun to strip the soiled and smelly clothing from Joe’s body. Hot water was brought into the room and as Ben positioned himself at the head of the bed, Hop Sing and Adam washed and cleaned the battered body thoroughly and then placed Joe under several layers of clean warm blankets.
Ben brushed his fingers through the dark wavy curls that crowned his youngest son’s head. Leaning down he kissed the tender, bruised flesh on his son’s brow and whispered words of encouragement into Joe’s ears.
Joe’s eyelids fluttered but the eyes remained closed tightly. His head tossed from side to side, and his muttering grew steadily, but the only words that were recognizable were Pa, Pa, and Pa.
“I’m here son, I’m here,” repeated Ben, each time that Joe called for him.
Paul arrived just before dark and hurried into the room. He took one look at his patient, then at Ben and quickly set about tending to each one. Joe had been made relatively comfortable, though he continued to toss about and call out for his father. Ben on the other hand looked like warmed over death, and this concerned the physician.
Looking at Adam, he declared Ben unfit to remain in the room. “Get him to his own room, now. And see that he is bathed and in his bed by the time that I am finished in here. Hop Sing, go with them and see that my orders are carried out.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Doctor.” Hop Sing bowed and motioned for Adam and Hoss to bring their father.
“No, I’m needed here. I can’t leave him…what if he wakes up and I’m not here. NO! Adam…Hoss, take your hands off of me…NOW!” shouted Ben, fighting with the hands that pawed his body.
“Ben,” Paul said calmly as he stood nose to nose with the patriarch. “Listen to me, please. I assure you, Joseph will not be waking up for several hours. I am going to give him something to help him rest. I want you to get some sleep, so that when he does wake up and need you, you will be in better condition to help him.”
“No buts, Ben. Here, drink this,” Paul quickly mixed a sleeping powder in a glass of water and handed it to his friend. “I want you to drink this, take a warm bath, and if you’re not asleep by then, eat a little something. Let me care for your son until you can. Trust me, Ben, please,” Paul said softly. “I have done it for many years, I won’t let anything happen to your baby Ben, I promise.” Paul smiled.
Ben turned the glass up and returned the smile. “I’m holding you to that, old friend.” Taking one more glance at Joe, Ben pursed his lips tightly, fighting the tears that threatened to spring into his eyes, and willingly followed Adam and Hoss from the room.
Ben did as Paul had suggested, his warm bath seemed to calm him and clear his mind where he could think and focus on the situation at hand. As he crawled into bed, Hop Sing appeared at his door, with a tray of food for him. His nose instantly picked up the aroma that floated in the air, causing his stomach to growl. He hadn’t realized just how hungry he was, until Hop Sing placed the tray across his lap and removed the napkin, revealing his meal.
“This looks, and smells wonderful, thank you Hop Sing,” smiled Ben. Ben grabbed the spoon and scooped up the steaming hot soup, placing the spoon to his mouth, he suddenly stopped and glanced around the room at the faces that watched.
“I feel very guilty, eating this, knowing that Joe has been starved for nearly three days,” he muttered sadly and set the spoon back on the tray.
“Pa, look,” said Adam, closing the distance between himself and the side of his father’s bed. Adam placed a reassuring hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Paul says that Joe needs to rest right now. He’s already spoon fed him some broth that Hop Sing fixed just for Little Joe and the boy took it without too much resistance.” Adam sat down in the chair close to the bed. “He’s going to be fine Pa, really,” added Adam.
Ben stared into his son’s dark hazel eyes to assure himself that Adam was correct in his assumption. “You’re positive that Joe ate? I can’t stand the thoughts of what those men did to him. Ben had to swallow the thickness that had sudden squeezed his throat. “You have no idea how it made me feel, seeing my son stuffed into that box, beaten and tied like he was. The fear I saw in those beautiful eyes, will haunt me for the rest of my life…and just knowing that I could do nothing…nothing Adam, to help my son!” Ben took a deep breath to steady himself.
“Pa, take it easy, try not to get yourself worked up. Joe’s home now, he’s safe and I promise you, if it’s the last thing I ever do, those men will pay for what they did to Joe and to you.” Adam stood up, his eyes growing dark with anger, as he thought about the abuse, both physical and emotional, that had been done to his youngest brother.
“Now hold on just a minute, young man, and that goes for you too, Ben. What you are contemplating is wrong, it is my duty to bring those varmints in and the court’s duty to charge them.” Roy had been waiting for a chance to speak with Ben about what had happened and had just entered the bedroom in time to hear Adam declare his revenge.
Adam spun around on his toes, meeting Roy with an angry glare. “Then do something, and do it quick!” he snapped.
“Adam, son, now you calm down. Roy’s right of course, it is his job to hunt them down and bring them in for trial,” Ben explained.
Adam faced his father. “I’m sorry Pa, Roy, it’s just that…well…Joe is like my own…son,” Adam glanced at his father and smiled slightly. “And I can’t stand to see the boy suffering like he is.” Adam stepped up to the sheriff and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You talk to Pa, I’ll be in Joe’s room, Roy, if you need to speak to me about anything. Hoss and I will ride with you when you’re ready to go after that gang.”
Roy’s head bobbed up and down in agreement. “Thank you Adam, I knew I could count on you. I’ll let you and Hoss know when I’m ready to leave.”
Adam turned back to Ben, “Eat something Pa, before it gets cold and Hop Sing gets back up here.” Adam smiled and for the first time in days, the glow had returned to his eyes. “You don’t want him to return to China…again…do you?” he laughed softly as he made his way through the door.
“Adam, wait,” called out Ben. “Please, wake me if Joe should call for me,” he requested as Adam stuck his head back around the door.
“Don’t worry Pa, I promise, now eat and then get some sleep, man, you’re almost as bad a patient as your youngest son!” teased Adam.
Adam returned to his brother’s room, feeling somewhat better about things. He knew that Roy was more than capable of doing his job and that he had no need to worry. He and Hoss had already discussed their options and had agreed that when the sheriff and his posse went searching for the men who had caused so much mental anguish on their family, they would join forces with the sheriff to see that justice was served.
Joe was sleeping as Adam settled himself in the old chair and picked up a book to read. He was having a difficult time focusing his attention on the written pages; his eyes constantly sought his brother’s face. What he saw there, bothered the oldest of the three brothers. Joe’s face was thin and pale; he had dark circles under his eyes, and bruises across his jaw line and on one cheek where he had so obviously been struck repeatedly.
Adam could not stop from brushing back the wayward curls that had dropped onto Joe’s brow. His heart fluttered as his fingers caressed the tender flesh and hearing Joe’s soft whimper caused Adam’s eyes to sting. Quickly he brushed at them to stop the tears from forming, he couldn’t cry, he wouldn’t, he told himself. He had to remain strong, for his family, and for himself he silently confessed.
The long night dragged on; Ben finally woke sometime near dawn and had managed to slip from his bed and into Joe’s bedroom. He smiled when he spied Adam, sleeping in the chair, an open book lain across his lap, and his right hand resting on his brother’s left arm.
Ben gently touched his oldest son’s shoulder. “Adam,” he whispered, not wanting to startle Adam or wake Joe.
Adam’s eyes instantly opened and looking up, smiled sheepishly at his father. “What are you doing out of bed?” he asked, straightening himself in the chair and then quickly glancing at his brother.
“I couldn’t stand it anymore, I had to see for myself that he was really here,” smiled Ben. “Why don’t you go to bed for a little while, son. There’s still a couple of hours before daybreak, I’ll sit with your brother for awhile.”
Adam stood and stretched, raising his arms high over his head. “Thanks Pa, I think I’ll take you up on that.”
Ben made himself comfortable in the chair that Adam had vacated and watched his youngest son sleep. Joe’s eyes flickered about under the eyelids that hid from Ben, the beautiful shade of green of his son’s eyes. Joe was dreaming, and his worried father could only pray that it was something pleasant, rather than a nightmare forming in the back of Joe’s tortured mind. Ben’s eyes stayed trained on his son’s face, watching carefully for any signs that might tell him that Joe would be in need of his comfort.
Hop Sing appeared unannounced in the doorway with a breakfast tray for Ben. As he set it on the table, and Ben moved around the chair, a heart-piercing scream shattered the blissful morning calm of the Cartwright home.
Ben jumped, spilling his hot coffee down the front of his shirt. Hop Sing dropped the dish of scrambled eggs down on the tray with a loud bang, bringing both Adam and Hoss scurrying from their beds to join Ben at their brother’s bedside.
Joe was thrashing about on the bed, his arms flinging haphazardly around in the air as if seeking a stronghold in which to grasp. His cries where loud and piteous and it took his father and both brothers to keep the youngest Cartwright from falling out of the bed and into the floor.
“PA! PA! I gotta help him…please…let me out!” Joe sobbed. “Get me outta here!”
“Joseph, son, it’s okay, you’re home now. Joe, please wake up, Pa’s right here sweetheart, I’m fine,” Ben repeated as he pressed Joe’s weakened body back onto the soft bed.
Hoss stood at the foot of the bed and watched his baby brother fight the hands that had always brought such comfort to each of them. His wide eyes filled with tears as he watched Joe’s own tears slip from the corners of his tormented eyes and roll down, onto the crisp, white pillowcase beneath his head.
Adam sat on the opposite side of the bed, aiding his father in restraining his brother. “Take it easy little buddy, everything is okay now. Joe, can you hear me?”
“I can’t breathe…help me,” moaned Joe. “I’m suffocating…”
“Joe, take some deep breaths son,” Ben instructed, his hand gently brushing at Joe’s tear stained cheeks. “Deep breaths, son, that’s it. Let them out slowly, good.”
Ben glanced up at Adam, his eyes troubled and sad. “He doesn’t realize yet, that he’s even home.”
“I know Pa, but give him time,” Adam whispered, glad to see that Joe was beginning to calm down and go back to sleep. Adam pulled the blankets back up to Joe’s chin and carefully tucked them around the frail body.
Ben glanced up at Hoss who had said nothing until now. “I’ve got chores to do, and then I’m ridin’ into town to see what Roy’s adoin’ about this.” He nodded his head toward Joe, brushed away the dampness from his face stomped from the room without another word.
“Hoss,” Ben called.
“Let him go, Pa. I think I’ll ride into town with him. That is if you think you can manage here okay?” Adam nodded at Joe.
“Yes, I’ll be fine, Hop Sing is here if I need any help. I’d like to know what Roy’s got planned as well. Keep me informed son as much as possible,” Ben instructed. “I’ll be right back, I need to change my shirt, this coffee is hot,” he half smiled, pulling the shirt off as he slipped from the room.
Adam and Hoss rode out about mid-morning, Ben watched from the upstairs bedroom where he had settled in for the day. He hoped that Roy had been able to pick up a trail, he had given the sheriff all the information he could about what Boss and Talley had talked about, that and with what little Hoss and Adam could add to the story, Ben hoped that it would be enough.
The worst part was that the gang had used boats to float down the river and by doing that, a sure trail would make tracking the band of robbers, next to impossible until Roy could find where the men put to shore. It could take days; maybe even weeks of searching before a clue could be found, maybe never, Ben sighed deeply. Then, what would become of them? Would he be forced into selling everything that he had worked a lifetime to accumulate, would his sweat and blood and years of hard work be gone in a flash?
Joe moaned softly, drawing his father’s attention away from his woes. Ben placed his hand on Joe’s arm, feeling the warm flesh beneath his fingers. Tenderly Ben allowed his fingers to brush up and down his son’s arm. No, he thought, what did all of his earthly wealth mean, had he not had his son back safely. Nothing was more important or dear to heart than his sons, especially this youngest son, who needed him so much more right now than his older sons.
“I love you, Joseph,” Ben whispered softly, not really caring that Joe could not hear him, but just voicing the words aloud, brought a measure of comfort to his heart and soul.
Adam and Hoss returned just before suppertime, exhausted and dirtied, covered with trail dust. Adam stood just outside of the door, dusting his black trousers with his hands as Hoss slapped both legs with his hat.
“I sure am beat,” groaned Hoss, straightening to his full height.
“Yeah, me too, and hungry,” said Adam, giving his hands a swift brushing down his pants legs before opening the front door, unaware of what had just transpired between his father and younger brother.
Joe woke with a start; fear etched itself into every feature of his face. His eyes were wide, opened to the fullest as they frantically searched the room for whatever or whoever he was looking for.
Driven by unknown sources, Joe kicked the blankets from around his legs and using his fists, flung them to the floor in a heap as he dragged his body from the bed.
“PA! PA!” bellowed Joe, taking his father by surprise as Ben entered the room carrying a tray with Joe’s supper.
Instantly Ben placed the tray onto the nearest table available and moved to gather his wailing son into his arms, attempting to put the boy back into the bed.
“Joseph, it’s okay son, I’m here now,” Ben tried to soothe the frightened lad.
Joe struggled against the arms that prevented him from going where he seemed determined to go. “Let go of me, my pa…my pa…I gotta help him…he needs me!” sobbed Joe, pushing at Ben’s arms.
“No Joseph, it’s okay, it’s okay, I’m here…I’m fine son…JOSEPH…look at me!” yelled Ben trying to reach through the fog that seemed to block his son’s rational thinking.
“LET GO OF ME!” hollered Joe at the top of his lungs. “I gotta find my pa…” Joe shoved Ben backwards, pushing his father into the wall as he struggled to find a way to remove this man’s vise like grip on his arms.
“Joe, stop fighting me son, please…” Ben pushed back from the wall, making Joe take several staggering steps backward, toward the bed.
“Listen to me, son,” continued Ben easing Joe to the bed and making him to sit. “Lie down, please Joseph.”
Joe seemed to have relaxed for a brief moment and Ben lessened the hold he had maintained on his son’s arms. It was a mistake, Joe jerked his left arm free, and folding his hand into a fist, swung out and clipped Ben on the end of his chin. Ben’s head snapped back, causing him to wobble backward. Joe must have sensed that he had just gained his freedom, for he bolted for the opened door.
“I gotta help my pa…” he shouted as he ran barefooted down the hall.
“JOSEPH FRANICS CARTWRIGHT, YOU STOP RIGHT NOW!”
The deep bellowing voice echoed throughout the empty house. Joe suddenly froze, halfway down the stairs and turned toward the sound of the now familiar voice.
“PA?” shouted Joe, taking one step at a time, very slowly.
“PA?” he yelled a little louder.
“Joe, help me son…please help me.” Ben had heard the change in his son’s voice and realized that by shouting out his name and then calling for help, he had caught the disoriented and frightened boy’s attention.
“Joe,” Ben’s voice was calm as he slowly raised from the spot where he had fallen.
“Help me son,” Ben said, spying Joe standing in the doorway. Ben held his hand out to Joe, waiting, hoping, and praying.
Joe stared at the man in the floor; tears billowed in his eyes as recognition began to dawn on him. Instantly Joe was on his knees, taking his father’s hand into his.
“Pa…you’re all right,” wept Joe, pulling Ben into a tight embrace.
“Yes, son, I’m all right,” whispered Ben, wrapping his arms about his weeping son.
“Oh Pa…Pa…” Joe began to sob as Ben tightened his hold. “I thought…I thought they had killed you…I tried to…help you…but I couldn’t…get out…of…of…oh Pa…hold me, hold me…please.”
Joe buried his head against Ben’s chest and sobbed out his misery. Tears threatened to fill Ben’s dark eyes as well, but he willed them away, choosing instead to hold his emotions in check.
Ben allowed Joe to cry for several moments and then gently pulled the boy to his feet, holding tightly to the trembling body. Ben carefully led Joe to the bed, where he lowered Joe enough so that his son was sitting on the edge. Ben sat down next to Joe, and smiled.
“Everything’s going to be fine now, son. We’re both home, and we’re safe. Nothing is going to bother you again, I promise.”
Joe swiped the back of his hand across his eyes and glanced up at his father. “I…I…was so scared…being in that coffin. I couldn’t…” Joe sniffed his nose. “It was a like a bad dream…I…” Joe’s eyes filled with tears again and Ben watched as the tiny beads of water slipped silently down the sides of his son’s already tear streaked face.
“Joe, it’s okay son, I understand. Why don’t you just try to forget for a little while and get some rest? Please, lay down.” Ben eased Joe back down into the bed and quickly pulled the blankets from the floor and covered his son.
“Don’t leave me, Pa…please?” Joe’s misery was written all over his face as his eyes sought reassurance from his father.
“I won’t son, I promise. You close your eyes and rest, I’ll be right here when you wake up,” Ben whispered and gently brushed back the damp curls that had glued themselves to his son’s brow.
Joe was exhausted but his eyes refused to stray from his father’s face as he fought the sleep that tried to claim him. “Pa,” muttered Joe.
“What is it son?” Ben said, drawing near so that he could better hear what Joe was trying to tell him.
Ben squeezed his eyes tightly together to will away his tears and swallowed the lump that had unexpectedly developed in his throat. When he opened his eyes and gazed down at his son, Joe was sleeping.
“Pa?” whispered Adam, slipping silently into the room, with Hoss close on his heels.
Ben turned toward the sound of his name, surprised to find his older sons standing in the doorway. Quickly he rose from his chair and motioned for Adam and Hoss to join him in the hallway.
“We heard shouting, what’s going on?” Adam asked.
“Joe, he snapped out of his delirium. He knows who I am now, and what happened to him.” Ben smiled and rubbed the sore spot on his chin. “Walloped me good though, but it was worth is, it seemed to break through the maze that had trapped his mind.”
“He’s resting right now. Hopefully he won’t have a relapse. How did you boys make out?”
“Oh golly Pa, ya won’t believe everythin’ that’s happened. Why them two varmints, Talley and Boss, they dun kilt two of their own men. Roy found their bodies afloatin’ in the river. Had their heads bashed in,” explained Hoss excitedly.
“Must have been Luke and Jinx, they were the ones that stayed behind while Simon and Max took me to the falls. What else did Roy find out? Did he locate Talley and the Boss? Those are the two men, I’d like to get my hands on!” snarled Ben, remembering how the scum had treated his youngest son.
“Not yet Pa, but he has a pretty good idea where they are heading. Seems like they tried to do away with Simon and Max as well, but Max got away. Guess Boss decided not to waste time searching for the man, so they took off. Max was nearly dead by the time that we caught up with him and he told us everything he knew, about what they were planning,” explained Adam.
“Roy is sending a wire to the police department in San Francisco, that’s were Talley and Boss are suppose to be headed. With any luck, the department will be able to pick them up. Once they are apprehended, Roy can have them extradited back here to stand trial,” smiled Adam.
“They have two accounts of kidnapping, robbery, three murder charges, four if Max dies, and a whole list of other things. They’ll hang for sure, Pa, and I can’t say that I’m sorry for that,” Adam said flatly.
“Me neither, Pa, not after what them rascals dun to Little Joe,” Hoss added.
“Well boys, all I can say is that they will get their just reward, of that I am sure.” Ben heard the soft whisper of his name and hurried back into the bedroom.
“I’m here Joe, what’s wrong son? Are you hurting?” asked Ben, brushing Joe’s arm with his fingertips.
“No, I thought I heard voices. Is Adam and Hoss here?” Joe muttered softly.
“Hey short shanks, we’re right here,” smiled Hoss stepping to his brother’s bedside.
“Hey Hoss, hey Adam,” Joe smiled weakly. “Where ya been?”
Adam glanced at his father, not sure just how much he should tell his brother about their absence. When Ben nodded his head, Adam agreed with the silent message.
“We found a couple of those men, Joe, that had you and Pa. They were dead, apparently Talley and Boss murdered them,” Adam told his brother. “Roy’s on the trail of the two leaders, hopefully we’ll find out something about them, soon.”
Joe’s expression suddenly changed and he glanced at his father, “You don’t think they’d come here, do you?”
Ben heard the anxiety in his son’s voice and was quick to reassure him. “No, don’t worry about that Joseph, those men are far, far away from here. Roy thinks they’ve headed for San Francisco, they wouldn’t dare stay around here, not with all of that gold they’re toting.”
“Oh.” It was all Joe said as he laid his head back into the soft pillow and glanced at the faces around him. “I didn’t know about the gold…I was…preoccupied.” The boy smiled, however briefly, but it gave a measure of comfort to his family.
Joe’s nightmares waged war against his sleep. Most nights his father remained faithfully by his son’s side while Joe struggled to get some rest. His piteous cries throughout the nights tore at Ben’s heart. The reluctant father had even surrendered to sending for Doc Martin who gave the restless lad something to help him relaxed and sleep. But even during those times, when the effects began to wear away, Joe would awaken his family with his shrill cries, begging unknown ghostly figures to free him from his wooden box.
Night after night the dream stayed the same, Joe seeing his father beaten, he, himself beaten and tied, tossed face down into the hard, cold, thick pine box. His ears heard again and again, the pounding of the hammer as the long ten-penny nails were driven into the top, sealing his tormented body into the tight confines of his prison coffin.
“PA! PA!” bellowed Joe, jarring Ben from his sleep where he had been resting on the small cot that had been brought into Joe’s room, so that he might be near when his son needed him.
Ben jumped to his feet, grappling for Joe’s hands and arms that swung haphazardly about in mid-air. Ben managed to catch one arm and quickly slipped down on to the bed, embracing Joe around the shoulders.
“Shh…take it easy son, Pa’s right here. You’re fine Joseph, you’re fine,” repeated Ben until the mist had begun to clear from Joe’s tormented mind.
Joe’s tear filled eyes sought his father’s face. “Pa?” he whispered softly, his breathing coming in short, gargling sounds.
Ben brushed away the tiny beads of water and tightened his hold around his son’s shoulders. “I’m right here.”
“I was dreaming…” Joe gulped and glanced sideways at his father. “I was in…in that box…I couldn’t get…out.”
Ben eased Joe back down on the pillow and covered Joe’s trembling body that had begun to shiver. “I know…son, listen, it was a terrible thing they did to you. I understand that, and I understand that it will take some time for you to get over what happened.”
“I don’t know if I can, Pa. I…I was so scared.”
Ben noted the catch in his son’s voice and saw the haunted look that crossed the young handsome face. “Joseph, I was scared too, not just for myself, but for you as well. Remember, I am your father, I know your strengths and your weaknesses, I understand you probably more than any other person does, and yourself included. I know that you were terrified, and rightly so, there is no shame in being afraid, please remember that, Joseph. And don’t condemn your self for it.”
“I am ashamed, I cried like a baby…God, Pa…I can’t even sleep all night without waking you and everyone else up screaming like I was a little boy again,” sobbed Joe. “I mean…I try not to wake you…but in all honesty, I can’t stand the thoughts of you not being right here in the room with me! What’s wrong with me Pa? When will it stop?”
Joe balled up his fists and beat the mattress on either side of him until, exhausted, he stopped. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he looked deeply into the dark loving eyes of his father and spoke softly.
“Tell me what to do, please Pa, please.”
“Joseph, I believe that every man has, in his reserve, an inner strength that he may or may not even be aware that he has. When something as horrible as what happened to you, tries to destroy a man, it’s only natural for that person to become frightened, scared, even terrified. But it’s just as natural for that man to fight for survival, and sometimes, when things are really, really unbearable, that man has to draw from deep within one’s own self and pull from that inner core, the strength and courage that it takes to move beyond the terrible thing that has happened. You have that inner resource, son. I have seen you draw from it time and time again, and most of the time, you were unaware that you were doing so. Use it now, draw from it, make it work for you. If you give in to your fears, those men would have succeeded in destroying you, is that what you want? To live the rest of your life in fear of…your fears?” Ben gave his son an encouraging smile and waited while Joe sorted out his words.
“No, of course not. But how, I mean how do I get past this?” muttered Joe.
“Minute by minute, hour by hour, one day at a time, son if that’s what it takes…and you know that your brothers and I are here for you Joseph.”
“I know you are, Pa. You don’t have to remind me of that, you and Adam and Hoss have always stood by me.” Joe smiled, “Guess there’s something good about being the youngest after all, heh?”
Ben laughed softly, “I suppose so, but youngest or oldest, we are family and we have always stuck together, and been there for one another, regardless of the circumstances.”
“It’s a good feeling…I mean to know that when you’re at your lowest, there’s still someone who cares and wants the best for you.” Joe turned dark hazel eyes up and met darker brown ones. “Thanks, Pa,” he whispered as he snuggled down into the comforts of his bed. “I think maybe I can sleep now.”
Ben stood to his feet and tucked the covers around his son. “Good night Joseph, I’ll be right here if you need me…”
“No, why don’t you go to bed too, in your own room? I’ll be okay now…” Joe pressed his lips into a tight smile, “but if I need ya, I’ll holler for ya.”
“All right son. Sleep tight, and God bless,” smiled Ben as he slipped from the room, a silent prayer on his lips, that God in His infinite wisdom, would provide his son with the comfort and strength to overcome his nightly hallucinations.
Ben raised his head, hearing the slight noise on the landing. His face broke into a happy smile as he watched his youngest son make his way across the room and slide into his chair.
“Well, good morning,” greeted Ben, his dark eyes dancing happily. “It’s a welcomed sight you are.”
“Morning, Pa. I thought it was time I ate down here, with you. I’m tired of eating alone in my bedroom.” Joe offered a bright smile, “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“No, on the contrary, I am happy to have your company. I’ve…missed you, son.”
Joe felt the rush of color to his cheeks and dropped his head just enough to prevent his father from seeing his face. “When’s Adam and Hoss coming home?” he asked in an attempt to change the subject.
He had known that his brothers had gone to San Francisco, he had heard Roy talking to them about the police department there getting a lead on Talley and Boss. Joe looked expectantly up at his father, waiting.
“I got a wire late last night, after you were asleep. Seems that those two no-goods managed to rid themselves of two more partners, Simon and Max. Adam didn’t say much, naturally, but did indicate that an arrest might be made soon,” Ben explained as he passed the eggs to Joe, who heaped a generous portion onto his plate.
“Good…I mean about the arrest. Though in all honesty, I can’t say I’m not happy about those other two.”
Ben stopped his coffee mid-way to his lips. “It’s never a good thing Joe, when a man dies and has not prepared himself to meet his God.”
Joe quickly turned to face his father, surprise written across his face. “I know that,” he said softly, “I’m not that callus, yet. I just meant that…that, well…if…” stammered Joe, unsure of how to phrase his words.
Ben let out a small breath, “I understand son, no need for you to explain, really,” he smiled.
Two days later, Joe stood at the hitching rail, tightening the cinch on his saddle when the sounds of pounding hooves caused him to raise his head. From across the top of Cochise’s back, Joe smiled to himself as he watched his two older brothers slide from their mounts and toss the leather reins around the hitching post.
“Well, will ya lookit this,” teased Hoss, gathering Joe into a bear hug. “How ya been?” laughed Hoss as he spun Joe around.
Adam came around the end of his horse, laughing. “Don’t hurt him, Hoss, we won’t ever get any work out of him, if you do.”
“Hey, I’ve been doing my share, and yours too for the last few days,” grumbled Joe in good spirits.
“Aw shucks, Joe, ya ain’t never dun…” began Hoss.
“Now, now, young man, I’ll have you know that your little brother has worked hard since Doc let him out of that bed. He’s worked from sunup till sundown,” beamed Ben, obviously very proud of the fact that Joe had indeed indulged himself in his work. “Let’s go a little easy on him, now.”
“Hey, we’ve got some news that might make you happy, Pa,” smiled Adam. “The gold is being shipped back to the bank. The army is bringing it!”
“Hey,” Ben slapped his son’s shoulder, “that’s wonderful news Adam. I have to admit, I was beginning to think we would be selling, if something didn’t happen soon.”
“Well, we talked to Roy, and Mr. Harrison at the bank, and Harrison said that once the gold was safely back, then the IOU you wrote, will be ripped up,” Adam explained, pleased to see the look of relief spread across his father’s face.
“That is good news, son. Thank you,” Ben said.
“I’m hungry, what’s Hop Sing got fur supper?” said Hoss, turning and sniffing his nose in the air. “Baked ham and sweet potatoes, with fried hominy! Yummy am I hungry, come on, let’s eat,” laughed Hoss heading straight way to the house.
Ben laughed and slinging an arm across his oldest son’s shoulder, fell into step behind his middle son. Ben stopped after a few paces and allowed Adam to go ahead. “Aren’t you coming, son?” Ben asked, glancing back at Joe who was still with the horses.
Joe smiled, the glow shimmering in his eyes. “I’ll be in, in a few minutes, Pa. I think I’ll stable the horses. Those brothers of mine look as if they could stand some of Hop Sing’s good home cooking.”
Ben watched his son’s back as Joe led the horses to the barn. It would take months, maybe even longer, Ben knew, but Joe would be all right in time. He had found that inner core of strength that his father had told him he had hidden deep within him self and the boy had made good use of it. Nightmares might still haunt his nights, but now Joe was assured of his self, and his family’s love and devotion, which Joe knew, were the key ingredients, needed to give him peace of mind.
Ben joined Hoss and Adam at the table, smiling at the food piled onto his middle son’s plate. “Did you leave anything for the rest of us, son?” laughed Ben, happy to have his sons home once again.
“Aw shucks Pa…” stammered Hoss, “I’s hungry, that’s all.”
“Then eat up, there’s plenty, I’m sure,” encouraged Ben.
“Joe’s not coming in?” asked Adam, glancing toward the door.
“He’s putting up the horses for you,” smiled Ben. “He’ll be in shortly.”
“He seems to be doing okay. Still having nightmares?” Adam inquired.
“Believe it or not, he hasn’t had one in about four or five nights. If he wakes up at all, I don’t hear him,” Ben responded. “He’s really trying hard to over come what happened to him.”
“He’ll be fine Pa. If I know my little brother, he won’t let this beat him,” smiled Adam. “And once those men are behind bars, he’ll rest better for sure.”
“We’ll all rest better, big brother, not jist Little Joe. Them ole boys dun give me the wollies too, ya know.” Hoss pointed his fork at Adam to add emphasis to his statement.
“When is the gold coming in, son?” Ben asked Adam.
“Should be here day after tomorrow. Pa, we didn’t want to say anything to you, in front of Joe, but the army is bringing back Talley and Boss when they bring the gold.” Adam watched as his father’s smile faded and knew that now Ben would worry about Little Joe and his reaction to the return of the men who had treated him so callously.
“I knew that eventually, those two would be back, to stand trial of course. I just wish Joseph didn’t have to have anymore dealings with them, not this soon,” Ben grumbled.
No one appeared to have noticed when the front door opened and closed softly, nor did they notice when Joe slowly approached the table, until he spoke.
“It’s okay, I can handle it,” the youngest of Ben’s sons declared. “After all, I have a winning team on my side, right Pa?” smiled the handsome boy.
All heads turned to face Joe surprised by the smile that he wore. “Well, am I right?” he said as he slipped into his regular place at the table.
“Yes, son, you certainly are right. We are a team.”
And they were right, when it came time for Joe to be sworn in to give witness to all that had transpired he did himself, and his family proud. With Ben’s own words to back up his son’s testimony, the two conniving thieves were convicted of not just robbery, but four accounts of murder, fraud, kidnapping and a whole slew of other charges. Within a week, both men were hung, the gold was safely back in Mr. Harrison’s bank vault and the IOU signed by Ben Cartwright, guaranteeing his son’s safety, was returned to Ben in many ripped up pieces.
The gallows stood empty, silent now, it was over. Two men had paid with their lives for the evil that they had committed against others. Neither had been prepared to face their maker. Ben’s words from weeks before, stuck in Joe’s mind as he ambled slowly toward his horse and glanced back at the gallows in solemn retrospect just before swinging into the saddle.
“Are you all right, son?” asked Ben, noting the unsettling look on Joe’s face.
“All right? Yes, Pa…I’m all right.” Joe smiled, his heart appeared in his eyes, and without asking, Ben knew that Joe was all right, with everything within his life, and with his God.