Malice (by Rona)

Summary:  Two characters from Adam’s past return to the city and they have only one thing on their mind. Paying the Cartwright’s back for what happened years ago.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  T
Word Count:  8,890


The wind began to pick up, rocking the small boat as it drifted aimlessly across the lake. Lying huddled in the bottom of the boat, no jacket, no boots, his clothes in tatters, the young man shivered violently. His head ached mercilessly from the blow he had received. The moon hung low and full just over the edge of the hill, scattering gold dust across the sky. It was as beautiful a harvest moon as the young man had ever seen. But it didn’t gladden his heart. There was the nip of frost in the air, and the stars glittered coldly across the dark velvet of the sky. Come morning, the young man wondered if he would still be alive.

**********

The day had begun like many others. Joe Cartwright, the youngest son of Ben Cartwright, owner of the Ponderosa ranch in Nevada, had had to be called three times before he made it to the breakfast table. His two older brothers, Adam and Hoss, were both almost finished their meal before he showed up.

Slouching into his seat, Joe greeted his family as amiably as he could, before coffee. Hoss, who’d had the unenviable task of rousing Joe, gave a placid hello back. Adam, who found it hard to tolerate Joe’s morning grumps, said “Nice of you to join us,” in as sarcastic a tone as he could. Joe scowled at Adam, but made no retort. He had had a stiff warning the day before about bickering with his brother. Adam had received the same talk, but had been unable to resist.

Ignoring the by-play, but for a dark look at Adam, Ben started to outline the day’s work. “Adam, I want you to go to town for the mail. I’m expecting a letter, and its quite important. Hoss, start the herd moving down to the south pasture. Joe, you better look for strays. You know how easy it is for the herd to get themselves lost in the draws up at the north pasture.”

“Yes, Pa,” they all muttered, although Joe couldn’t resist another black look at Adam, who seemed to have got the best deal of them all. Adam pretended not to notice, which annoyed Joe all the more.

Before long, the three sons were on their way to their various tasks. Ben watched them leave, proud of them all, loving them all, and thankful for them all. He turned round and went back into the house to begin the never-ending paperwork.

*****

About an hour later, Adam rode into Virginia City. It was a lovely sunny day, but the trees were all beginning to look tarnished, and Adam knew it wouldn’t be long before the leaves began to fall, and soon after that, snow would blanket the land. Winter was not Adam’s favourite time of year. All too often, it was long and hard, and he had never forgotten the first winter he, Hoss and Ben had spent at the Ponderosa. Shoving away the thought, Adam hitched Sport outside the mail office and went in.

The mail clerk was in a chatty mood, and Adam listened with half an ear to his complaints about his girlfriend. Finally, aware that time was moving on, and he ought to think about heading back to the ranch, he took his leave.

Roy Coffee, the city sheriff, was standing outside, by Sport. “Hello, Roy,” Adam said. “Were you looking for me?”

“Morning, Adam,” Roy replied. “As it happens, I was. Something I need to tell you. Can you step over to my office?”

“Sure,” Adam agreed, puzzled. “Joe hasn’t gotten into any trouble has he?”

“No,” Roy reassured him. “Joe hasn’t been in trouble for a while. No, this is something else.” And there after, he said nothing until they were in his office, and the door shut. “Have a seat, Adam,” Roy invited.

“What’s this about?” Adam asked, resisting the offer of a seat. Somehow, he preferred to face bad news standing up, and he was sure this news was bad.

“The Gatlin boys are back,” Roy said, and studied Adam’s reaction.

The colour drained from Adam’s face, and he leaned forward, catching his weight by leaning his arms on the back of the chair. His dark eyes remained glued to Roy’s face, as though searching for some sign that this might be a joke. He swallowed convulsively. As Roy watched, Adam straightened again, and his jaw tightened. His eyes narrowed, and Roy thought again how dangerous Adam could seem under the civilised air he wore. “How do you know?” Adam asked, at length.

“They rode into town this morning,” the other said. “I was real glad to see you in town, it saved me a ride out to the Ponderosa to tell you all.”

“Thanks, Roy,” said Adam. “Keep us posted if they leave again, will you? I’ll warn the family.”

“Be careful, Adam,” Roy warned.

Outside, Adam stood for a moment before mounting, his mind reeling. The Gatlin boys had come to the Virginia City school about the time Adam was 16. They had been 15 and 16, sons of a drifter, who’d come to Nevada to make his fortune in the gold and silver mines. They were in school totally against their will, and made the teacher’s life a living hell.

Most of the kids, they’d ignored, apart from leering at the prettier girls, but they had taken an instant dislike to Adam, and then Hoss. Adam was already tall and well built, darkly handsome, and clever. It was no secret that Adam wanted to go to college some day, and he worked hard at his lessons because of that. That was enough to persuade the Gatlins – Luke and Matt – that Adam was soft. They began a campaign to make Adam’s life a misery.

At first it was small things – flicking paper balls across the room – but gradually it got nastier, until he found his lunch pail infested with ants, was being tripped whenever he walked about the classroom, then fistfights during recess. Adam put up with it as best he could, and tried to avoid the fights wherever possible.

Then the Gatlins realised that Hoss was Adam’s brother. Hoss was 10, had just begun a major growth spurt, and had reached that awkward stage where his arms and legs didn’t quite belong to him. It’s a miserable time for any child, but the Gatlins made sure everyone noticed when Hoss tripped over his own feet. They noticed that Hoss wasn’t as interested in books as Adam, and began to call him stupid. Hoss, tenderhearted even as a child, became more and more withdrawn.

It didn’t take Ben long to notice that something was wrong with both his sons. Marie, who was still alive, had gently questioned Hoss, to no avail. He shed a few tears, but was ashamed of being called stupid, and didn’t know how to tell Marie. Ben had no more joy than his wife. Finally, Ben cornered Adam alone in the barn and forced an answer out of him.

That night he told Marie, and they made arrangements to go into town the next morning and deal with the situation. Leaving 4 year old Little Joe with the long-suffering Hop Sing, they went to talk to the teacher. It was immediately obvious that the teacher, a pleasant but weak man called Mr Robertson, had no control over the Gatlins. The classroom was in an uproar. As a member of the school board, Ben was furious, and insisted that Mr Gatlin be called to take charge of his boys, removing them from school if necessary.

That night, Adam had come home bruised and bleeding, having had the Gatlins waylay him, and take out their anger at having been expelled from the school. Ben had summoned the doctor and the sheriff, and the Gatlins had been charged. Because they were minors, they were released into the custody of their father, and given a severe warning. Gatlin had upped stakes from Virginia City, but not before the boys had threatened to get their revenge on the Cartwrights.

The thing that had frightened the Cartwrights most about the threats was that they were aimed mostly at Little Joe. They had had no knowledge of the child until a few days after the fuss had died down, but had made him the new target for their malice. Roy Coffee had run the Gatlins out of town, and they had never been seen again. Shortly after that, Marie had had her accident and died. It had been a dark period for the family, but Adam had never forgotten the Gatlins.

Shaking off the memory, Adam unhitched Sport, and turned him away from the hitching post before he mounted. A voice spoke from behind him. “Well, well, if it ain’t Adam Cartwright!”

Turning slowly, Adam wasn’t in the least surprised to see the Gatlins. They looked almost exactly as their pa had looked 15 years or so previously – thin, unkempt and villainous. Looking them up and down, Adam felt 16 again for a moment. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation. He blinked, and the sensation vanished. He said nothing, letting silence speak for itself. After a moment, he mounted Sport and rode away at a walk, not looking back.

Feeling Roy Coffee’s eyes on them from the door of the jail, the Gatlins moved on, until they were standing outside the Bucket of Blood saloon. “He ain’t changed none,” Matt complained, in a thin voice. “Still thinks he’s better’n the rest o’ us.”

“He won’t think so when we’re done with him,” Luke replied. “We’re owed by the high and mighty Cartwrights. An’ they’re gonna pay!”

*****

When Adam arrived home, lunch was on the table. He swiftly washed up, and joined the rest of his family. After they had said grace, and begun to eat, he cleared his throat and said, “The Gatlin boys are back.”

“Who?” Joe asked, round a mouthful of corn.

“The Gatlins?” Hoss said, apprehensively. He laid his fork down. Joe, who had never seen this phenomenon before Hoss’ plate was cleared, stared at his brother as though he had never seen him before.

“How do you know?” Ben asked, his tone a mirror of Hoss’.

“Roy told me,” Adam said. “And when I came out of his office, one of them spoke to me.”

Not understanding any of this, Joe looked at the members of his family curiously. Ben’s dark eyes were wide with shock. “What did he say?” Ben asked. “What did you say?”

Adam repeated the few brief words. “I didn’t say anything,” he admitted. “I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to say.”

“Would you’ve know it was them, if’n Roy hadn’t told you about ‘em?” Hoss wanted to know.

“They look just like their pa,” Adam said, dryly. “Unmistakable. You’d know them right away.”

“I sure hoped we’d seen the back of them critters,” Hoss confessed, and shuddered.

“Well,” said Ben, briskly. “There’s no point in getting too worked up over this. You’re all grown men, and perhaps they’ve learned their lesson. And we all know you can’t judge a book by its cover! But its just as well we know, and can be prepared.” He didn’t sound convinced.

“Who are the Gatlins?” Joe asked, impatiently. He hated when everyone else seemed to know things, and he was left in the dark.

For a long moment, no one said anything. Adam and Ben exchanged speaking glances. Hoss looked at the plate in front of him, and pushed it away. Joe looked round the table again, beginning to feel a little annoyed. “Pa?” he appealed.

“Joe has a right to know,” Adam said, and Hoss shot his little brother a stricken look. Joe began to feel decidedly uneasy.

“You’re right,” Ben said, heavily. Slowly, with many pauses, Ben told Joe the whole story, finishing up by mentioning the threats made against Joe specifically. “The Gatlins were dangerous, Joe. Roy seems to believe that they still might be. I think you are probably safe enough, because you have changed from a small child into an adult, but I think you ought to be careful, and stay out of town for a while.”

A flip comment had been forming on Joe’s tongue, but he bit back the words as he saw how serious the others were. “All right, Pa,” he agreed. “But for how long? What if they’re here to stay?”

Right away, Joe saw that that had been the wrong thing to say. Ben looked even more concerned, Adam frowned darkly, and Hoss clenched his mighty fists. “I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “We’ll just have to wait and see.” And with that nebulous statement, Joe had to be satisfied.

*****

In the Bucket of Blood saloon, the Gatlins had been doing a little wary questioning of the patrons. Everyone knew the Cartwrights. Nothing had changed there it seemed. Joe had been described readily to them, and his pinto pony made him instantly recognisable. With this in mind, the Gatlins set out for the Ponderosa.

Their pa had died shortly after they were forced to leave Virginia City, and Luke and Matt had been left to fend for themselves. This they had done by thieving, and had eventually been caught and jailed for trying to hold up a stagecoach, which they thought was carrying gold. They got the wrong coach.

By the time they were released, they had decided that all their troubles stemmed from the Cartwrights, and vowed to go back and take their revenge on the youngest son – Joe. They had no idea what they were going to do, but were pretty sure that it would involve Joe’s death.

*****

It was a sorely troubled Joe Cartwright who rode back out to the north pasture that afternoon. If it hadn’t been for the reactions of his family, he’d have laughed off the idea of someone coming from 15 years in the past to make trouble just for him. Joe could barely remember that time. The loss of his mother had been very traumatic for the young boy, and if he’d had any inkling of trouble then, it had been thoroughly blotted from his memory. The description he’d received of the Gatlins fit almost every drifter from here to San Francisco, and he had no real idea how he was supposed to identify them, even supposing he came across them.

However, he still had work to do, and he pushed the unpleasant thoughts from his mind as best he could. He rode in and out of the many draws, sometimes finding a stray or two, more often finding nothing. Hunting strays wasn’t the most interesting job in the world, and by mid afternoon, Joe was more than ready to call it a day. Recalling his family’s unease at lunch, Joe made an effort to be especially thorough, and checked the last few draws, before turning down to ride home along the lakeside road. Vaguely, he thought about visiting his mother’s grave.

The afternoon sun was still warm, and Joe stopped beside the water to allow Cochise to drink. He stretched, drank from his canteen, and crouched to refill it. Just for a moment, Joe closed his eyes. He felt content. It was a rare feeling for one so tempestuous by nature, and he revelled in it.

Cochise threw up his head and snorted. Joe came out of his peaceful reverie and stood up. He turned, and walked right into an iron fist. With a splash, Joe fell backwards into the water.

For a moment, he floundered helplessly, then the person who had hit him grabbed the front of his jacket and pulled him from the water. Joe shook the water from his eyes, and looked at the two men before him. The chill that ran down his spine had nothing to do with the cold water dripping from his clothes. He knew that his father’s worst nightmare had just come true. These men were the Gatlins!

Taking the initiative, Joe lashed out at the man holding him. His fist connected solidly with the mid section of the man in front of him, and Joe swiftly followed up with a right hook. The grip on his jacket lessened, and Joe jerked free. He didn’t wait to see what the other fellow was doing. He just made a beeline for Cochise, and leaped onto his pony’s back.

A lariat slapped around his shoulders and pulled him backwards from the saddle. Cochise, startled, fled. Joe landed with a thud on the ground, and had the wind knocked out of him. By the time he could breathe again, he was tightly bound. He fought the ropes, even as the Gatlins stood looking at him, with sneers of their faces.

“Quite a feisty little cub, ain’t he?” Luke laughed.

“He is right now,” agreed Matt. “But he won’t be by the time we’re finished with him!”

*****

It didn’t matter how much he fought, the Gatlins were too strong for Joe. They stripped away his boots and ripped his jacket off his back. They tied his hands tightly in front of him, and bound the rope round his waist before securing it to the saddle horn on one of their tired looking ponies. By the time they had done this, Joe had suffered a variety of kicks and blows.

Panting from his struggles, Joe watched his captors uneasily. Trying to get a rise out of him, they took it in turns taunting him about being Adam’s baby brother. With difficulty, Joe had held onto his temper. He was appalled at the things the Gatlins had learned while in the saloon. They knew Adam had been to college, that Hoss had become the biggest man in Virginia City, and that they both looked out for their brother, Little Joe.

It seemed to give both Matt and Luke great delight in calling him Little Joe, the emphasis on the little. Although used to the nickname, it was seriously beginning to annoy Joe. Every time they said little, they punched or kicked him. A few times, Joe retaliated – it wasn’t his nature to not fight back – but he paid for it each time. Now, trussed up like he was, Joe wondered what they had in mind for him.

He soon found out. Both Gatlins mounted, and urged their horses to trot. Joe was forced to run behind them, slowly at first, then faster and faster, as they urged their horses to greater speed. Bootless, Joe’s feet were soon cut and grazed, and he stumbled often. Only his fear of falling kept him on his feet. However, the Gatlins weren’t satisfied with that. Matt, whose horse Joe was tied to, soon persuaded his aged gelding into a shambling gallop, and Joe couldn’t keep up. He fell, and found his nightmare come true.

*****

“Have you seen Joe this afternoon?” Adam asked Hoss as they met up at the corral.

“No,” Hoss replied, and immediately looked worried. “I ain’t seen him since he left here after lunch. D’you think he’s all right?”

Frowning, Adam said, “I hope so.” He caught the look on Hoss’ face. “I know, we were pretty quick to let him go off alone, weren’t we?”

“Dadburnit, Adam, we all thought the Gatlins wouldn’t try anything today. They only got into town this mornin’. But what if we was wrong?” Hoss pushed back his hat and scratched his head. Adam eyed the gesture with growing disquiet.

“Does your scalp itch?” enquired the oldest Cartwright.

“I guess it does,” replied Hoss, gloomily. “Reckon we’d better go lookin’ for Little Joe?”

“I think we’d better,” agreed Adam. “I’ll tell Pa.”

“He’ll want to come,” Hoss warned his older sibling. “I’d better saddle Buck.”

Hoss was right. Ben did want to come with them. They rode out to look for Joe, a growing sense of foreboding repressing each one. Hoss’ itching scalp was always the harbinger of trouble. They were all sure the trouble was aimed at Joe, who attracted trouble like a magnet.

*****

The pummelling had stopped. Lying wheezing on the ground, Joe realised that it must have been stopped for a little while. He felt pulped. His thin shirt was torn, and his pants were little better. He could feel something remarkably like blood running down his chest and legs. His throat was full of dust. He didn’t think he would ever be able to stand up again.

Somewhere near by, he could hear voices. Joe wasn’t able to make out what they were saying. His head throbbed too much for that. But somehow, he knew they were deciding his fate. He had to get up, and get away. Gathering his determination, Joe made it as far as his knees before his body protested, and he fell flat again. Pain shot through every part of him, and he couldn’t repress a groan.

After a time, Joe was pulled to his feet, and Luke and Matt peered interestedly into his face. They saw a young man, his clothes torn and bloody, unable to stand under his own steam, but still glaring at them defiantly.

“Sure is a stubborn cuss, ain’t he?” Luke commented. “What’re we gonna do now? Shoot him?”

“Naw, I’ve had enough of him. Let’s turn him adrift in this skiff. He’ll die for sure!” Matt laughed.

As they began to drag him towards the boat, Joe tried to fight back. He had spent quite a bit of time fooling about in boats with his brothers, but they weren’t his natural habitat. Ben’s sea-faring genes had by-passed his youngest son entirely. Joe’s struggles annoyed the Gatlins, and finally, Matt whipped out his pistol and cracked Joe on the head. Joe sagged unconscious to the ground.

“Let’s get the rope offa him and go huntin’ for another Cartwright,” Luke suggested.

“I like the way ya think, bro,” Matt agreed, and they untied Joe before throwing him into the skiff, and pushing it out onto the lake.

*****

“We’re going to have to split up,” Adam said, in his most reasonable tone. “It could take forever to find Joe otherwise. Look, I’ll ride along by the lake to Mama’s grave. He’s most likely there. You two can go and look in the north pasture, just in case he has suddenly found his work ethic, and is still looking for strays.”

Not appreciating either Adam’s suggestion or his flip tone, Ben frowned. Logically, he knew they could cover more ground apart. But he feared for all his sons, and hated to let even one of them out of his sight. Yet the fall day was already beginning to shorten, and it would be dark within a couple of hours. “All right. But be careful!”

They separated, and Adam headed straight for the graveyard. He was certain he would find Joe at his mother’s grave. It was the youngster’s favourite place when he was troubled. And Adam was in no doubt that Joe was troubled by the revelation he had heard over lunch. Who could take the thought of such persistent malice lightly? So Adam was relieved when he saw Cochise grazing by the graveyard.

The relief gave way to anxiety as he realised that Cochise was alone. The gelding was unhurt, and none of Joe’s gear was missing. Adam was deeply concerned now. He picked up the pinto’s rein, and began to ride further along the lake. Adam wasn’t the tracker that Hoss was, but he knew Cochise’s prints, and could follow them fairly easily. A little further along, he found Joe’s boots, holster and torn jacket.

Knowing, now, that something bad had befallen Joe, Adam unshipped his gun and fired twice into the air. He knew Ben and Hoss would be along soon. He crouched down and examined the tracks, trying to decide what had happened. The trail was too mixed for him to be certain. Two sets of tracks led away along the road, and Adam followed them on foot.

Two riders suddenly burst from the brush cover at the roadside and headed straight for Adam. One threw himself from his horse, and Adam had no choice but to try and meet the attack. He caught the man about the arms, and half threw him away, but the weight and speed of the other knocked Adam backwards onto the ground.

It was a desperate fight. Adam was outnumbered, and had no chance to draw his pistol. He punched blindly, and knew that he left his mark on each man. But he had no chance when Matt Gatlin drew a knife, and stabbed Adam in the stomach. Pain erupted through Adam’s whole body, and he fell into welcoming darkness, where he felt nothing.

*****

There was no warning – just the shot, and Matt Gatlin went down, screaming, clutching his leg where Hoss’ bullet had hit. Luke’s head snapped up, and he saw Ben and Hoss thundering down on them. He abandoned his brother to his fate, and lunged for the nearest horse. A shot whistled by so close that he felt it pass. He ducked, terrified. Next instant, a huge hand clamped down on his shoulder, and Luke Gatlin knew he was going nowhere.

“Hoss, don’t hurt him,” Ben warned. “Leave him for the sheriff to deal with. Quick, I need help with Adam.” There was deep concern in Ben’s voice.

Working at breakneck speed, Hoss swiftly bound the Gatlins and tethered them to a tree. He knew there were hands coming along behind them, and they would take charge of the two villains. Ben was kneeling by Adam, who was unconscious, and had a knife in his belly. Hoss didn’t let himself think about that. He couldn’t bear the thought of Adam dying.

A rattling signalled that the hands were nearing. As luck would have it, they had been heading off into town to get some supplies that had been late arriving. With few words, Ben got the men to turn the wagon, and he and Hoss loaded Adam carefully into the back, while one man mounted Buck and galloped off to get Doc Martin, and the other organised the prisoners for Roy Coffee.

It was an appallingly long journey home. Adam didn’t seem to be bleeding much, for which Hoss and Ben were truly grateful. But he didn’t waken at all. At the house, they gently carried him up to his bed, where Paul Martin was soon in attendance. It wasn’t long after that, that Ben and Hoss were firmly ushered from the room, and Paul began the delicate task of removing the knife.

Downstairs, Hoss paced the room restlessly, his gaze often turning to the door. He knew he couldn’t track in the dark, but it didn’t stop him wanting to rush off and find Joe. Yet, he was scared to leave in case Adam died. Frustration kept him on his feet.

Sitting in his favourite chair by the fire, Ben watched Hoss’ movements, but his mind was elsewhere. A good deal of it was upstairs with his oldest son, who was fighting for his life. The rest was with his youngest son, wherever he was, facing some ordeal unknown to Ben. He prayed for both his sons, and added a prayer for the middle boy, who would suffer just as much if anything happened to either of his brothers.

There was a brisk rap on the outside door, and Hoss crossed to it in two strides and opened it. Standing outside was Roy Coffee. He came in, looking ill at ease, and both Ben and Hoss knew instinctively that he brought bad news.

“What is it, Roy?” Ben asked, standing.

“Ben, I’m real sorry, but its bad news.” Roy took his hat off, and twisted it uncomfortably in his hands. “The Gatlins say that they killed Joe and threw his body in the lake.”

“No!” Ben exclaimed. “No!” He sank down into his seat, his face draining of colour. “Oh dear God, no!”

Hoss stood as if he had been turned to stone. He couldn’t conceive of a world without Little Joe. Tears rose in his blue eyes, and he let them fall.

Into this scene, Paul Martin came wearily down the stairs. He took in the atmosphere at a glance, and turned questioning eyes on Roy Coffee. Roy shook his head, and Paul knew that Joe was probably dead.

Dragging his eyes from the internal vista of hell, Ben focused with difficulty on the doctor. “How is Adam?” he asked, and his tone said he feared the reply. Paul had been upstairs a long time.

“Adam’s going to be fine,” Paul said, relieved that he had some good news. “The knife missed all his vital organs. The only thing it nicked was his appendix, so I removed it. He’ll be at least six weeks before he’ll be back to himself. He’s sleeping right now. I’ve left some powders for the pain.”

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said, and suddenly broke down weeping. Hoss crossed to his father’s side, and knelt by him, and they held each other in their mutual misery.

Not knowing what else to do, Paul and Roy left together.

*****

A faint pink tinge lightened the eastern horizon. Ben watched it from the window of Adam’s room. Adam slept deeply, as he had done most of the night. He was running a slight temperature, but nothing too worrying. From the room next door, Ben could hear Hoss snoring, and was relieved that his son had finally managed to get some sleep. It had evaded Ben entirely, and his eyes burned with fatigue. His thoughts strayed again to Joe, wondering where his boy was. He could hardly believe Joe was dead. He didn’t know how he was going to tell Adam.

*****

A faint pink tinge lightened the eastern horizon. Huddled in the bottom of the skiff, Joe watched it, amazed that he had lived through the night. He knew about the dangers of exposure. He had been incredibly lucky. Clouds had rolled across the moon as the night had worn on, and the threat of frost had lifted.

Despite his throbbing head, Joe knew he would have to swim to shore. He was a good swimmer, but he had never swum this kind of distance after a sleepless night, or the kind of beating he had taken yesterday. Every bit of him ached. But Joe clenched his jaw against the pain and chill, and resolved to do it. If he didn’t save himself, no one else could. They didn’t know where to look. Taking a deep breath, Joe dived over the side of the boat.

The water was incredibly cold. Joe struck out for shore, trying to ignore the pain that blossomed all over his abused body. After only a few strokes, he was exhausted. Yet somehow he swam on, his limbs finally numbed from the cold. He no longer looked to the shore. He concentrated on moving his arms and legs, and breathing every now and then. Almost an hour later, he reached the shore.

Dragging his body a little out of the water, Joe’s strength gave out, and he collapsed in a heap, gulping in deep draughts of air. The shore felt warm compared to the water, and he lay there, unable to summon the energy to move. After a while, he fell asleep.

The sun was quite high when Joe wakened. His head throbbed mercilessly, and as he rolled over, he was sick, spewing up mouthfuls of lake water. Every move was painful, and Joe discovered that he had no energy to stand. He was cold, and shivering, despite the sun. His clothes had been wet and dry too often. The cold had seeped into his bones.

But he had to get home somehow. His vision was blurry, but Joe squinted at the landscape until he was sure he knew where he was. Resolutely, he began to crawl towards home.

*****

Time passed for Joe without him being aware of it. He could crawl a few yards, then he would have to rest, until his body recovered enough to allow him to go on. For each few yards he gained, he had to rest for over an hour. Joe slipped into a stupor; he was barely able to focus his thoughts, and unaware when he slipped into longer and longer periods of heavy sleep. His body had done enough, and was gradually shutting down. After a time, Joe wasn’t able to go on at all.

*****

Looking at the distressed face in the bed, Ben felt as though someone was carving his heart out. Adam was so pale, that Ben feared for him anew. Paul had been out, and had given Adam a thorough check over, and was pleased with his progress. He told Ben that the time had come to answer Adam’s increasingly persistent questions about Joe.

“Adam?” Ben said, gently.

The great dark eyes shone with unshed tears as Adam looked at his father. “Has he been found?” he asked, his voice a whisper strained with too much pain.

“No, not yet,” Ben replied, hearing the crack in his own voice. “Everyone is out looking.”

“Why Joe?” Adam asked, anguished. “It had nothing to do with him!”

“I don’t know, son,” Ben replied. “I just don’t know.” It wasn’t an adequate answer, but it was the only one Ben had. He shuddered to think of the evil that caused men to wait 15 years for revenge on a childhood wrong. It was beyond understanding, as far as he was concerned.

Exhaustion was creeping over Ben, and he longed for the oblivion of sleep. But he couldn’t leave Adam now, when he was needed so badly. He rubbed his face, and took Adam’s hand. The pressure was returned for a moment, before Adam freed his hand from his father’s grip. Moving gingerly, Adam caught his breath at a stab of pain.

“Here, son, drink this,” Ben said, so lovingly that Adam felt tears pricking in his eyes again. He drank down the pain powder willingly, despite his dislike of them. Anything that would let him sleep, and forget his woes, was welcome.

When Adam was soundly asleep, Ben walked wearily over to his own room. Hoss was out with the hands, scouring along the edges of the lake, in the hope of finding Joe’s body. Ben lay back, intending to rest only for a moment, and fell sound asleep.

*****

Guiding his horse along the road, Paul Martin thought he would just check back at the Ponderosa, since he was so close. A call to an injured hand at a neighbouring ranch had brought the doctor close enough that he wasn’t being taken out of his way, going home via the Cartwrights.

Dusk was falling softly. The lake looked dark and leaden as the light departed from the sky. Paul sighed as he looked at the water. Somewhere out there, Joe Cartwright lay. It was a depressing thought. Paul had known Joe all his life. He sighed again, wondering how the family was coping.

Something stirred on the road ahead, and Paul’s horse shied slightly. Paul tightened the reins, and drew the buggy to a halt, wondering what it was. The light was going fast now, and he couldn’t see more than a dark shape. Sliding warily from the buggy, Paul moved closer. As he realised what he was seeing, he froze for a moment, before his training took over, and he knelt by Joe’s side.

The youth was cold – very cold, Paul noted with alarm. He jumped to his feet and fetched a rug and his bag from the buggy. Joe was alive, but he was in very poor shape. His chest was very congested, and he wheezed audibly. Paul knew he had to get Joe home, and gently lifted him. Thanking God that he had come this way, he eased the unconscious boy into the buggy, and whipped his horse up, heading for the Ponderosa.

*****

“Ben! Ben!” Paul shouted, sliding from the buggy. “Ben!”

The house door opened, and Ben Cartwright appeared in the glow of lamplight that spilled out. “Paul?” he said, confused. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Paul said, “but I need your help. I’ve found Joe and he’s alive!”

“Joe?” Ben repeated. “Joe!” He ran across to the buggy. Hoss appeared in the doorway, attracted by the shouting. He saw Ben and Paul struggling with the body, and ran over. At sight of Joe, he reached out his mighty arms and scooped his younger brother into a tight hold.

They took him straight upstairs, where they immediately stripped off his ruined clothing, exclaiming in horror as the extent of his injuries was revealed. His chest and legs were badly scraped and cut, and the wounds looked red. Joe’s face was bruised and his lips were badly split. Paul had found a large lump on the back of his head. There were bad rope burns round both wrists. His feet were cut to ribbons. But the most worrying thing was the rattle in his chest.

As Ben organised warm blankets, Paul took a bottle of alcohol from his bag and began to clean up the scrapes on Joe’s chest. Joe began to moan as the warmth penetrated his body, and the stinging alcohol pierced the darkness in which he had lain for so long. “Pa,” he breathed, and began to cough.

The coughing spell brought Joe back to full consciousness. He seemed dazed, which Paul put down to concussion and exposure. He certainly knew where he was, but he didn’t have the breath to speak. Each intake of breath gave him frighteningly little oxygen. He lay on the bed, clutching Ben’s hand as a lifeline.

With frightening speed, Joe’s temperature, which had been dangerously low, shot up as fever consumed him. Paul had no hesitation in diagnosing pneumonia. Joe’s lungs were quite wet from his long swim in the lake, and the time he had lain unconscious by the water. Paul swiftly measured out some medicine, which he hoped would help, and propped Joe into a sitting position.

“You’re going to be fine, Joe,” Ben assured him, running his hand through the damp curls. Joe’s green eyes fastened mutely on Ben’s face, drawing strength and reassurance from his father’s presence. He drank the water Ben offered him, but was too weak to lift his own head. His eyes closed again, and he slipped into an uneasy sleep.

*****

For the next few days, Joe hovered between life and death. It seemed to his waiting family that death often had the upper hand. Ben was exhausted, spending time with both Joe and Adam, no longer afraid that Adam would die, but certain that Joe would. Adam was making good progress, and was allowed to sit in a chair after the first three days. He was even, grudgingly, allowed to take the few steps across to Joe’s room, to see his brother for himself.

The pneumonia hung on for longer than Paul liked, and he began to wonder if Joe had been too far gone. Certainly, another few hours out there by the water, and Joe would have died for sure. Paul was all but sleeping at the ranch, helping Joe battle the fever.

At last, Joe’s fever broke with a drenching sweat, and his lungs began to sound clearer. His struggle to breathe visibly eased, and finally, after 5 days of delirium, Joe woke up. He opened his eyes slowly, aware of sunlight in the room, which seemed very bright. Squinting, he saw Ben sleeping in the chair by his bed. Joe tried to move his head, to look around, but he couldn’t do it. A surprised sound escaped his lips, and Ben stirred, then woke. He looked at Joe, and saw at once that he was awake. “Joe!” he exclaimed, joy in his voice. “How do you feel?”

Opening his mouth to reply nothing but a squeak came out. Astounded and embarrassed, Joe looked helplessly at his father, who swiftly gave him some water. Even after drinking it, Joe’s voice was incredibly weak. “How did I get here?” he whispered.

“Paul found you on the road, and brought you back. Do you remember?” Ben took Joe’s hand, and squeezed it gently. Joe returned the pressure as best he could, but there was little strength in his hand.

“Kind of,” Joe admitted, for he did have vague recollections of lying in bed, not able to breathe. He thought back, and remembered the Gatlins. His eyes opened wide with terror. “Pa, Gatlins…”

“Easy, son, easy,” Ben soothed. “We know about the Gatlins. They’re in jail. They told us you were dead.” The remembered pain was still in Ben’s eyes. “We know what they did to you, Joe. How they dragged you behind their horses. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”

“Not your fault,” Joe breathed. He shifted minutely, and his body sent up a chorus of protests. Joe winced. “’M I hurt bad?”

“Not really, but you have been very ill for the last few days. You gave us quite a fright, young man. You’ll recover in time.” Ben smiled reassuringly at Joe. He was visibly tiring now, his eyelids drooping.

Fighting off sleep, Joe said, “Where’re Hoss and Adam?”

“Hoss is outside,” Ben replied. He hesitated.

“Adam?” Joe persisted, looking alarmed.

“Adam was hurt, Joe,” Ben said. “He’s going to be all right, though. Don’t worry.”

Wide green eyes demanded more details, and Ben reluctantly filled him in. He could see that Joe wanted to get up and see Adam for himself, but he was too weak to move. “Stay there!” Ben cautioned. “I’ll get him for you, if he’s awake.”

Left alone, Joe listened as Ben’s footsteps crossed the hall to Adam’s room, and he heard voices. Sleep was coming in waves now, and he fought them off as best he could. It distressed him not to be able to move under his own power. It gave him an inkling of how ill he’d been.

The door opened again, and Adam shuffled in, supported by Ben. Joe’s eyes opened wide again. Adam looked awful. “Adam,” he croaked, and his oldest brother gave him his usual casual grin.

“Hi, buddy,” he said, sinking with relief into a chair. “Glad to see you awake at last.”

“Adam,” Joe said again, unable to get the words to come.

“Don’t try to talk,” Ben warned.

“You take it easy, Joe,” Adam said. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk later. Get some sleep.”

Smiling his beautiful smile, Joe slipped easily into the land of dreams. Adam smiled at Ben, who returned the gesture. “I think we’re all going to be all right, Pa,” he said.

*****

Recovery of the two invalids continued apace. Ben and Hoss gave evidence at the Gatlins’ trial, and they were sentenced to 10 years in jail apiece. Ben watched them going back into Roy’s jail to await the arrival of the prison wagon, and wondered again how two people could be so evil. Joe and Adam had both given Roy statements, and Paul had been called to verify the severity of their injuries. The whole thing caused a ten-day wonder in the city. But then life got back to normal, and the Gatlins were forgotten again.

At the Ponderosa, Adam was up and about, pottering around the house and doing the majority of the paperwork. Joe was still bedridden most of the time, but was allowed up for an hour or so each afternoon, to sit in a chair. He was longing for the day when he was allowed to go downstairs under his own steam, and was becoming quite short tempered.

The leaves were turning colour now, and the nights were definitely colder. Although the daytime temperatures were still pleasant, there was a cold edge to the wind. The cattle were all being brought down from the high country, and the horses were growing warm winter coats. There was snow on the slopes of the Sierras.

Sitting at the desk, Adam heard horses thunder into the yard. Joe was upstairs, asleep. Ben and Hoss were out working. Curious, Adam wondered who it could be. As he rose carefully to go and find out, the door opened and Matt and Luke Gatlin erupted in. Adam froze in shock and disbelief. He thought the Gatlins were safely locked up in jail.

“Don’t move,” Matt ordered, pointing his rifle at Adam. “Where’s everyone else?”

“I don’t know,” Adam lied, calmly.

“Get him tied up,” Luke said, and within a few moments, Adam was tied to a straight-backed chair. The confinement was too tight, but he wasn’t getting out of those ropes in a hurry. That was a pity, as the position of his arms pulled on his healing scar.

“What do you want?” Adam asked.

Giving him a nasty look, Matt said nothing. It was Luke who told him what he wanted to know. “We want all of you Cartwrights in the house, and then we’re gonna burn it down around you,” he sneered.

Meeting Luke’s gaze, Adam gave nothing away. But he quite believed they would do it, and he wondered how on earth to warn his family. Hop Sing, as luck would have it, was in Virginia City, collecting the supplies, a chore that normally fell to one of the sons. Adam was on his own.

*****

“Ben!” Roy cried, galloping towards his friend. “Ben!”

Finally becoming aware of the cries, Ben turned, surprised to see Roy out here. “Roy. What’s wrong?”

Panting, Roy said, “It’s the Gatlins. The prison wagon crashed, and they escaped.”

Ben went pale before Roy’s eyes. “Dear God, and Adam and Joe are alone at the house. Hoss!”

Grabbing Ben’s rein before he could ride off, Roy cautioned,” Now hold on! We don’t know the situation at the house. It wouldn’t do to go galloping in.”

Shrugging off the warning impatiently, Ben said, “Well, you follow on behind, and come in from another way. My sons are there, and I’m not leaving them alone for a moment longer than necessary! Hoss! Come on!”

“Ben!” Roy protested, knowing it was useless. He watched the Cartwrights galloping off, and beckoned to his men. “Let’s go in the back way, and keep quiet about it!”

*****

When the horses came galloping into the yard, the Gatlins leaped to their feet. Matt slapped a grimy hand over Adam’s mouth, to prevent him shouting a warning. Adam was sorely tempted to bite him, but a healthy concern for his own comfort prevented him. He didn’t know what he might catch. Matt pulled a gun, and pointed it at Adam’s head.

Throwing open the door, Luke caught Ben and Hoss before they had even dismounted. “Take it easy,” he warned them. “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to ol’ Adam here.”

Glancing at one another, Ben and Hoss did what they were told. They entered the house, and saw at once that Joe was nowhere in sight. Adam was looking at Ben, and when their gazes met, Adam glanced swiftly to the roof, telling Ben where Joe was. “Are you all right, Adam?” Ben asked.

“Fine,” Adam replied, although it wasn’t strictly the truth. His side throbbed with pain.

It wasn’t long before Luke had Ben and Hoss tied up as well. Hoss tested out his bonds, and found them to be secure. He would need to put real muscle power into getting free. Ben kept his anxious gaze on Adam, hoping that they wouldn’t think to ask about Joe. Everyone knew he had survived the Gatlins attempt to murder him.

“Where’s the little boy?” Matt asked. For a moment, Ben feared that he’d spoken hi worries aloud.

“He went to stay with his grandfather in New Orleans,” Adam answered, smoothly.

“Oh yeah?” grunted Luke. “Why he’d do that?”

“To convalesce,” Adam replied, hoping they would know what that meant.

“What it is to be rich,” sneered Matt. “Well, I wonder how much of that there ‘convalesce’ he’ll do when he hears about you folks bein’ burnt up.”

“Don’t be a fool,” Ben said. “The authorities will be looking for you. You won’t get away with it.”

“If’n you’re dead, Cartwright, that’s enough for me,” Matt proclaimed.

“Why do you hate us?” Ben asked. “For getting into trouble when you were children?”

“You wouldn’t have got us into trouble if’n we weren’t dirt poor,” Luke said. “If’n Adam here had behaved like that, nobody’d have said a word.”

“That’s not true,” Ben said.

“It don’t matter,” Matt went on. “We’re getting’ our own back now. Let’s get on with it, Luke.”

From the pocket of his prison coat, Luke drew a pack of matches. He glanced round, and crossed to one of the lamps. “Plenty oil in here,” he said, shaking it, and deliberately dropped it on the floor. The oil pooled at once. Smiling, Luke began to strike the match.

“Hold it!” said a hard voice, and everyone looked round in surprise. Joe stood, leaning heavily on the wall, part of the way down the stairs. He held a rifle in his arms. Adam recognised it as the one from his room. Joe’s bandaged feet had muffled all sounds of his approach. “Drop that match, and I’ll blow your head off,” Joe warned, hoping they couldn’t see the shaking of his hands. “Now, untie them.”

For a moment, it seemed as though Luke was going to argue the point. He glanced from Joe to the oil on the floor. Just as it seemed he’d decided to take the risk, the front door cannoned open, and Roy Coffee erupted into the room. He saw at once what Luke was going to do, and turned his gun on him. “Don’t move!” he warned.

Still, it seemed as though Luke was going to ignore everything, and drop the match. Roy took no chances, and shot him down. Matt let out a wail, and fled to his brother’s side. It was obvious to all that Luke was dying.

Roy’s deputy, Clem, untied the Cartwrights, and helped Adam to a comfortable seat. Ben took the stairs at a dead run, and caught Joe as his legs gave way underneath him. “Oh, Pa,” Joe said, and tears of pain and relief streaked his face.

“Just rest, Joe,” Ben said, hugging him. “Thank you for saving our lives. Are you all right?”

Laughing, and sniffing at the same time, Joe nodded. “Yes, but I don’t think I can stand up. I may have to sleep here on the stairs!”

“Don’t you worry none, Shortshanks,” Hoss interjected. “I’ll not leave you here.” And he bent and scooped Joe into his loving arms, and carried him back to bed.

“How’s Adam?” Joe asked, as Hoss tucked him in.

“He’s all right. Stretched his stitches some, I reckon, but he’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” Hoss sat down beside Joe, and took his hand. Joe’s skin was clammy. “I’m right glad you were about, Little Joe. You came in right handy there.”

“If I’d known Roy was coming, I’d have stayed here,” Joe kidded. He felt awful, having exhausted all his strength. What was the saying? Like death warmed up – yes, that was how he felt.

Shortly, Ben and Adam appeared in the door of Joe’s room. Adam was pale and in obvious discomfort. “Thanks, Joe,” he said, briefly, but it was enough for Joe.

“What makes people want to do what they did?” Joe asked. Adam moved into the room and sat down. Ben followed, wanting Adam to go to bed, but interested to hear what might be said.

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “I don’t think I want to know, either.”

“I think they just didn’t get shown right from wrong when they were young ‘uns,” Hoss said. Ben looked interested. Encouraged, Hoss went on. “If’n you don’t get shown that early, why, you might reckon that rules apply to other folks, not to you.”

Nodding thoughtfully, Joe yawned, and shivered. “Or else they’re just plumb loco,” Hoss concluded.

“And on that note,” Ben said, with finality, “your brothers are going to go to sleep. I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day!” He helped Adam stand, and ushered him out of the door. He was back a few minutes later, and stroked Joe’s curls. Joe opened sleep-shadowed eyes.

“Pa,” he said, dreamily, “I’m sure glad you taught us right from wrong. Just think what it would’ve been like here otherwise.”

Laughing, Ben stood up. “You’re enough trouble as it is,” he commented, lovingly. “Come on, Hoss, let him get some sleep.”

Letting out a contented sigh, Joe snuggled closer under the covers, and was asleep in moments.

******End*****

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