Mind Games (by Rona)

Summary: On the way home from Placerville, Joe and Ben are held up. Ben is kidnapped. When Adam and Hoss get the ransom demand, they assume Joe is with their father. But is he?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: T
Word Count: 10,770

 

Mind Games

“It sure is a nice day, Pa,” Little Joe Cartwright said, smiling across at his father. “Its been a good trip.”

“Yes, it has,” agreed Ben, although he hadn’t thought that on the first day. He and Joe had been on a trip to Placerville, looking at horses, and on the first day out, Joe had been in a fit of dark depression, after breaking up with his girl the night before they left. Ben had been so disgusted with the young man’s attitude, that he’d almost turned round and gone home. However, as was so often the case, Joe’s mood had changed overnight, and he was back to his normal, irrepressible self by morning. “I think we’ve picked out a lot of good horses there, son,” he added.

“I think so, too,” Joe smiled. “We make a good team, Pa.”

They made good time as they rode back home. The day was sunny and warm, and the summer beckoned. About noon, they stopped for lunch, and ate the sandwiches provided by the hotel. They chatted casually about the ranch and the horses they’d bought, and which hands would accompany Joe went he went back to collect the horses later in the month. Ben drank a second cup of coffee, while Joe went to fill the canteens at the river, and water the horses. He and Joe didn’t get this kind of time together often enough, Ben thought. In fact, he didn’t get this kind of time together with any of his sons. Ben made a mental note to try and do this more often.

Setting out again on the last leg of their journey, Ben smiled as he listened to Joe crooning to himself almost under his breath. Adam was the recognised singer of the family, but Joe could hold a tune well enough, and his voice wasn’t unpleasant. After a few minutes, Ben found himself humming along, and as they reached the end of the song, they shared a smile.

Silently, from the trees ahead, a group of six horsemen appeared. They stopped in the middle of the road, facing the Cartwrights. Looking round, Ben saw them, and he felt uneasy. There was nothing immediately menacing about these men, but Ben had a strong instinct for trouble. To him these men seemed like trouble.

“Who are they?” Joe asked, quietly, and Ben saw that his son was taut, too. Joe was very perceptive towards feelings and atmospheres, and had picked up on his father’s unease without being aware of it.

“I don’t know, son, but let’s just be a little wary,” Ben advised. “They may simply be lost.” A quick glance at Joe showed that Joe believed that no more than Ben did himself.

Pulling up the horses, Ben smiled at the men in front of him. “Is there something we can do for you?” he asked.

“I expect there is,” replied one, and another laughed. “You’re Ben Cartwright, ain’t you?”

“And if I am?” asked Ben, feeling distinctly nervous now. He kept his gaze on the spokesman.

“Then its you we want!” the other responded. He made a movement, and found himself under the steady aim of Joe’s pistol.

The speed of Joe’s draw caught them by surprise, Ben noted. He had often deplored the time Joe had spent learning a fast draw when he was younger, but there were times it came in useful, like now. “Back off!” Joe warned.

“Hey, mister, settle down,” the man said, nervously. His horse began to sidle away, and he curbed it viciously. The animal reared in protest.

The other horses began to mill around anxiously, picking up on the first’s concerns. Cochise wasn’t immune to the anxiety spreading through the horses. He began to sidle away, too. Joe tried to soothe him, while still keeping the men covered. Ben ran a hand down Buck’s neck, and moved him to try and grab Joe’s rein. But Buck’s sudden movement startled the pinto, who sidled closer to the group of men, so that Joe was now closer to them than he was to Ben. One of the men took the opportunity offered him, and lunged at Joe. Cochise reared, and Joe was dragged from the saddle by one of the men.

Reaching for his gun, Ben found it was too late. One moment he was sitting on Buck, trying to help Joe, the next he went down under a flurry of blows. Desperately, he fought back as best he could, but there were too many of them. Before long, Ben was firmly tied.

As his captors stepped back, Ben looked around frantically for Joe. He soon spotted his youngest son lying in a crumpled heap at the edge of the road. “Joe!” he exclaimed and tried to get to his feet to go to him.

“Where do you think you’re going, old man?” asked the leader, pushing him back. “You leave the boy be. He ain’t dead. You’ll see him again, once he’s paid your ransom.”

“Ransom?” Ben gasped, his eyes fixed on Joe.

Yanking Ben to his feet, the leader pushed him over to Buck. “Sure. I reckon those boys of yours will pay handsomely to get you back. $20,000 ought to do it.” Laughing at Ben’s horror, he whipped of his bandanna and blindfolded Ben. Shortly after, Ben found himself mounted and riding off into the unknown, leaving Joe lying on the road behind them.

*********

Quite some time passed before Joe regained consciousness. As he gradually regained his senses, he was aware of the heat of the sun beating down on his neck. He opened his eyes slowly and squinted around. He was totally alone. For a moment, Joe couldn’t remember what had happened, but as he forced himself to his knees, he saw his father’s hat lying in the dust, and memory came rushing back. “Pa!” he called, knowing it was hopeless.

Retrieving his own hat from the side of the road, Joe looked around in the hope that Cochise might still be somewhere close. There was no sign of the pinto. Joe whistled, but he didn’t appear. “Guess I’ll have to walk, then,” Joe told himself, and began to trudge in the general direction of home.

It seemed to Joe that the sun had grown very hot while he lay in the road. Sweat ran down his face, and his head throbbed. Several times, he had to stop and rest, and by sundown, he had travelled barely a mile.

Somewhere deep within, Joe knew he was concussed. It wasn’t the first time, and he recognised the symptoms. Lying down, he made no attempt to light a fire, even though he knew the spring nights were still cold, and he fell asleep at once. It was fully dark when Joe woke. His head ached a little less, and he wondered what had roused him. Normally, once he was asleep, it practically took dynamite to rouse him.

The sound came again, and Joe realised that it was a wagon on the road. Sitting up, he saw the bobbing of a lantern, and pushed to his feet. “Hey!” he called. “Hey! Can you help me?”

The wagon drew to a lumbering stop, and Joe distinctly heard the click of a safety catch being removed. “Who’s there?” came a gravely male voice.

Slowing his impetuous rush, Joe moved into the range of the lantern. “My name is Joe Cartwright,” he said, lifting his hands to show he was unarmed. “My Pa and I were bushwhacked this afternoon, and my horse was stolen. My pa has disappeared, and I was wondering if you could give me a lift to Virginia City so I can tell the sheriff.”

“Cartwright, eh?” said the man. His face was deep in a shadow cast by the large brim of his hat. Joe felt that he was familiar, but couldn’t place him. “That the same Cartwright as has the Ponderosa?”

“That’s right,” Joe agreed, relieved that the name was known. “Can you help me, please?”

“I reckon I can at that, sonny,” the man replied, and Joe bit back his indignation at being called ‘sonny’. “Looks like you took a beating yourself. Hop into the back of the wagon there and rest while we go to town.”

“Thank you,” Joe said, gratefully, and it was a relief to stretch out in the back of the wagon. Despite all the jolting Joe was asleep again within moments.

*****

All afternoon, Ben was forced to ride with the men who had kidnapped him. He had made an attempt to remove the blindfold, but he had been stopped, and his wrists bound to the saddle horn. All the while, he worried about Joe. Finally, they stopped, and Ben knew by the chill in the air that it was evening. He was forced from the saddle, and tied to a tree. Later, a hot meal was brought to him, and he was fed, whether he liked it or not. His own comfort immaterial to him, Ben wondered if Joe was all right.

Much to his own surprise, Ben slept that night. He was woken by a kick, and given something to eat and drink. Once more, he was made to mount, his hands tied, and they rode on. Fear nicked at the corners of his mind. He hated the thought of Adam, Hoss and Joe having to deal with this. He hoped that Joe had arrived safely home, not realising that Joe’s pinto was in the group with which he rode.

At what felt like mid-morning, they stopped, and Ben was taken from his horse and pushed up a few steps into a building. He was pushed along until hands stopped him, the blindfold was snatched off, and a door banged shut behind him. Blinking furiously, Ben saw he was in a small room of a cabin. There was a window, but it was almost totally boarded up. A little light came through the gaps between the boards. There was a cot, and that was it. This, he guessed, was to be his prison until his ransom was paid. Sinking down upon the bed, Ben said a silent prayer for strength for his sons to deal with this crisis. He added an extra one for Joe’s safety and well-being.

*****

When Joe woke later that night, his body felt strangely heavy, and his mind was foggy. For a while, it was too much for him to deal with and he slept again. But somewhere deep within, Joe’s mind was working and he woke again a short while later. This time, his mind was clearer, and his body didn’t feel so heavy. As he tried to roll over, he suddenly became aware of the clanking of chains, and to his horror realised that they were on his body!

Panic brought Joe to full wakefulness, and he recognised the after effects of ether. The man who picked him up on the road must have drugged him while he slept, and then chained him up. It was pitch black, but Joe knew from the feel of the air that he was inside. Feeling along the chains, he discovered that his ankles were shackled together, very short, and his wrists were firmly attached to a chain that went round his waist and down each leg to his ankles. For along time, Joe fought against his bonds, knowing full well it was hopeless. It wasn’t until his wrists were chafed and bleeding that he gave up and lay back down. Tears seeped out from beneath his closed eyelids. It had been a long day, and too much had happened. After a time, his mind slipped into neutral, and Joe slept.

*****

The morning came before Joe was ready to face it. One moment he was asleep, the next someone was kneeling beside him, fastening a blindfold round his head. Joe fought as best he could, but he was unable to prevent it from happening. “Hey!” he protested, at the top of his voice. “What are you doing? Why are you doing this? What harm have I ever done you?”

“Shut up, sonny,” said the gravely voice from the previous night, and a hand cuffed Joe around the head. “I got a little payback due your daddy, and I’m gonna work the debt outa your hide!”

A hand grabbed his shirt at the shoulder, and Joe was yanked to his feet. The same hand gave him a push in the small of his back, and Joe stumbled forwards. His ankles were shackled so tightly together that he couldn’t get his feet underneath him, and he crashed to the ground. The man laughed as he yanked Joe upright again.

With great difficulty, Joe shuffled the way he was told to go, and found himself outside. He stood warily, awaiting developments. “I’ll treat you real good if you work for me, sonny,” said the man. “But if you don’t work, this is what you’ll get.”

Joe felt the sting of the whip bite into his legs before he heard the sound. He let out a cry of pain, and the whip wrapped itself round his shoulders. Fire burned where the whip had bitten into his flesh. As he gained control over the pain, Joe discovered he’d bitten his lip. He licked the blood, to stop it from running down his face.

Standing there, waiting to find out what abuse he faced next, Joe strained his ears. There came more rattling of chains, and he tensed, waiting. He heard someone come up to him, and swung round, trying to face whomever it was, just in case he got a chance to defend himself. He could smell the sweat on the man’s body, and his nose wrinkled involuntarily. Something touched his neck, and Joe stiffened even further, as a leather collar was fitted round his neck.

“Come on, sonny,” the man urged, and Joe felt the pressure on his throat. With the options of resist and be whipped, or follow and hope, Joe opted to follow.

Deprived of his sight, Joe made more use of his other senses. He could smell the sweat on the man, and on himself. From somewhere nearby, and growing stronger, came the smell of horses. After a few moments, the tug on the collar stopped, and Joe sensed it being fastened to something. He was finding it very frustrating not to be able to give names to the objects round about him. Moments later, a bar was thrust into his hands, and a thong was tied round his wrists to keep them in place. Joe was frowning, totally perplexed.

“This is the horse whim, sonny,” said the man, his voice very close. “You’d better keep walking, or who knows what might happen to you.”

With that, the bar in Joe’s hands gave a jerk, as did the leash on the collar, and he found himself stumbling round. In his mind’s eye, Joe could picture perfectly the horse whim. Behind and in front of him were horses, and they would walk endlessly round in a small circle, raising water, or threshing wheat or any one of a number of things. If Joe fell, he would be dragged round, and probably stepped on, if not trampled outright. His mouth suddenly dry from more than just lack of water, Joe concentrated on putting one foot past the other.

*****

“Adam! Hey, Adam!” Hoss shouted. He thrust open the door to the house and went in. Adam wasn’t, as Hoss had expected, at the desk. “Adam!” he called again.

“What’s all the noise about?” enquired Adam, coming from the kitchen with a cup of coffee in his hand. “What’s got you so riled up?”

“This!” Hoss responded, and shoved a piece of paper at Adam.

Taking it, Adam laid down his cup, and gave Hoss a long look before opening it. His younger brother looked agitated, and when Adam read the contents of the paper, he fully understood why. It was a ransom demand for $20000 for their father – and to be delivered by noon tomorrow without fail. “Where did this come from?” Adam asked.

“Fred brung it with the rest of the mail,” explained Hoss. “What are we gonna do, Adam?”

“Tell Roy, first and foremost,” Adam replied. “Then we’d better start getting the money together.”

“Adam, this here note says it’s a ransom for Pa. What about Little Joe?”

Shaking his head, and giving a short sigh, Adam replied, “I don’t know, Hoss. Send a couple of the hands to look for him, just in case he wasn’t taken. More than that, I don’t know what to do. He might be with Pa. He might…” Adam turned away abruptly, not finishing his sentence. Hoss knew why. The same thought had occurred to him.

Joe might be dead.

*****

“There’s no sign of Joe anywhere,” Adam concluded. “At the moment, we’re working on the theory that he’s with Pa.”

Nodding gravely, Roy Coffee eyed the two young men in front of him. Hoss’ anxiety was clear to read on his face. Adam looked as calm as ever, but a certain tightness around the mouth gave away his worries. “I’ll get some men out looking, Adam,” Roy said. “But you’d best gather that money together.”

“The bank is already working on it,” admitted Adam. “Is there anything else we should do?”

After a moment’s thought, Roy shook his head. “I don’t think there is,” he said. “Get the money and go on back to the ranch. If we find anything, we’ll let you know.”

“Thanks, Roy,” they said, and shook hands with him. Wearily, they made their way back to the bank building. There, Hoss took possession of $20,000, and together, the brothers rode home. They had nothing to do now but wait and pray.

*****

When the horse whim was finally brought to a stop for the day, Joe was reeling with exhaustion. He’d had two short breaks, while they changed the horses over, and had been given water on both occasions, but no food. His hands were untied, and his leash tugged to make him follow. He’d been led back to the building where he’d been all the previous night, and the chain was made fast to the wall. When he bent over to try and removed the blindfold, he discovered that the leash was fastened too tightly to allow this manoeuvre.

Despair swept over him, and a few tears escaped his control. “Oh, Pa, I need you,” he whispered. “Where are you? Are you all right?” He was desperately hungry, thirsty and tired, and his heart leapt when he heard footsteps approaching his cell. As he heard the door open, the smell of bacon and beans hit his nostrils, and his stomach rumbled loudly. “You done work well enough for a start today,” said the gravely voice. “So here’s your food.” A tin plate and cup were put into Joe’s hand, and the man left.

It didn’t take Joe long figure out that he had no knife and fork. It was almost impossible for him to get the food to his mouth, as he couldn’t bend. After a time, Joe realised that he was supposed to put the plate on the ground and eat like a dog. He wasn’t yet hungry enough for the prospect to appeal to him. He managed to eat a couple of pieces of bacon, and left the rest. He drank the water thirstily, and it was soon gone. Shortly after that, Joe could stay awake no longer, and fell into an exhausted sleep.

*****

The crack of a whip woke him fractionally before it bit into his flesh. With a startled cry, Joe jerked upright, confused and momentarily unable to remember where he was. Unfortunately, memory came back with a rush. “You done wasted good food!” Gravel Voice was shouting. A second crack from the whip, which landed across Joe’s chest. “No food for you today!”

Sore and angry, Joe fumbled to try and catch hold of his captor as he passed by to unfasten the leash. He failed, and earned himself a kick in the ribs. Before long, Joe was forced outside, and again led to the horse whim. There was no sun today. There was a cold wind whipping across the land, and Joe shivered. He wished he still had his jacket, but it had been on the back of his saddle, and who knew where it and Cochise were now? His wrists were tied again, tighter this time, and the whim began to move. Joe ached all over from the continuous struggle to keep his feet the previous day, and he stumbled and nearly fell several times before he rediscovered the knack for keeping moving.

Soon, the cold was the least of Joe’s problems. Rain began to fall, lightly at first, then more heavily, until finally it turned into a storm of impressive magnitude. As the thunder and lightning roared and crashed around him, Joe realised that hail was falling. Winter hadn’t quite lost its grip of the land. A chunk of hail sliced down Joe’s cheek, leaving a thread of blood behind it. Exhausted, dehydrated, and despairing, Joe tucked his head down and laboured on. As always when in trouble, Joe thought about Ben. Not knowing where his father was, or even if he was alive, was eating the heart out of Joe. Grief wore him out almost as much as the physical labour.

By the end of the day, Joe could barely stand. He trudged back to his cell, falling several times on the way. He gulped the small amount of water he was allowed, and fell at once into a deep sleep.

*****

As his second day of captivity began, Ben Cartwright woke slowly. He had spent a good deal of the previous day leaning up against the door to his room, listening. He had hoped he would be able to her his captors speaking, but the voices he did hear were pitched too low for him to catch more than the sound. Frustration and worry had worn him out and he had slept the night before, but he didn’t feel rested. The only comfort he could glean from the situation was that his boys were dealing with this together.

About mid-morning, as close as he could guess, they came for him. Whenever someone had come into his room, they had had bandannas over their faces, and there was no change today. Yet he was blindfolded again, and propelled out of the cabin. It was nice to get fresh air again, and Ben drew several deep breaths.

They hadn’t ridden very far when all hell broke loose. Blindfolded, Ben couldn’t see what was going on, but the gunshots and shouting left him in doubt. Someone was attacking the group he was with. Ben ducked low in his saddle, hoping that a stay bullet wouldn’t hit him. The horse he was riding – he assumed it was Buck – twisted beneath him, and Ben spoke as soothingly as he could manage. Whoever had been leading his horse had dropped the rein. Moments later, somebody grabbed it again, and a familiar voice said, “Are you all right, Ben?”

The blindfold was slipped off, and Ben looked with disbelief at Roy Coffee. “Roy!” he exclaimed. “Am I glad to see you!” He grinned broadly at his friend and looked round to see what was going on.

There were a couple of bodies on the ground, and the posse had the other four men rounded up. Ben felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Roy untied his wrists, explaining that they had spotted the hideout the previous night, and Ben rubbed them until his hands felt more normal. “Are the boys all right?” he asked.

An odd look flitted across Roy’s face, but was gone before Ben could interpret it. “Adam and Hoss are waiting a mile or so back,” Roy said.

“And Joe?” demanded Ben. “Where is he?”

“We’d hoped he was with you,” Roy said, slowly. “He hasn’t been seen since you left Placerville. We assumed that he’d been kidnapped with you.”

The colour had gone from Ben’s face. His shoulders slumped. “When I saw Joe last, he was lying unconscious by the side of the road,” Ben said, and told Roy exactly where. At the look on Roy’s face, Ben knew that they hadn’t found any trace of Joe near there. An icy hand clutched his heart. “We’ve got to find him,” he said.

“We will, Ben,” Roy said, “but first we got to get you checked out by the doc.”

*****

The relief on his sons’ faces brought tears to Ben’s eyes as he rode into view. For several moments he held his sons in his arms, as they reassured him and each other that they were fine. It was only when they realised that Joe was not with the returning posse that the joy faded from their faces. Clem, Roy’s deputy, had gone back to check the cabin where Ben had been held, and he returned trailing Cochise behind him.

It seemed an interminable ride back to the city to Ben. He saw Doc Martin, who gave him a clean bill of health, then Ben remounted and the Cartwrights rode off to begin the search for Joe. First stop was the Ponderosa, where Ben had a bath, a change of clothes and a hot meal. They packed up enough supplies to last for several days, and then left.

Just before they left, Roy rode into the yard. “Well, Ben I just thought I’d let you know that we’ve discovered the identity of your kidnappers. The ringleader is young Lafferty, who’s father used to own that little place just to the north of here that went bust a few years back. He seems to think that it was your fault that his father went bust. Thought he’d get some money the ‘easy’ way.”

“Lafferty,” repeated Ben, thoughtfully. “Edward Lafferty?” At Roy’s nod, Ben said, “Yes, I remember him. Wasn’t the son at boarding school back East? No wonder I didn’t recognise him.”

“That’s not all,” Roy said. “Ed Lafferty has a new place – over near the Placerville road.”

The Cartwrights exchanged glances. “Thanks, Roy,” Ben said. “We’ll check it out.”

“I’ll be sending somebody that way myself, tomorrow,” Roy said. He needed to add no more. The Cartwrights understood the warning clearly enough. They mounted as one, and rode out.

*****

The night had been cold, and Joe wasn’t feeling well come morning. He had been soaked through the previous day, hadn’t eaten in 24 hours, and ached in every limb. The thought of even sitting up was too much for him, and he barely reacted when he heard the door to his prison open. To his surprise, he was given some water, but not unchained. Curious, Joe lifted his head. “Why are you doing this?” he asked, hoarsely.

“Shut up, sonny,” said Gravel Voice, and cuffed Joe around the head.

“I won’t!” Joe retorted, angrily. “I want to know why you’re doing this to me!”

Footsteps, and Joe completely lost his temper. “Come back here, you coward!” he yelled, and paid for it a moment later when the whip sliced into him again. “You can’t silence me like that!” he cried, and a moment later a fist crashed into his face.

Stunned, Joe sagged back, and felt a gag being forced into his mouth. He fought and struggled against it to no avail. When Gravel Voice stepped back, Joe had been silenced. “You’re pathetic,” Gravel Voice commented. “Small wonder your brothers have to spend all their time looking out for you!”

All that day, Joe stayed in his prison, fighting to try and get the blindfold and gag off. He knew it was hopeless, but couldn’t prevent himself from trying. He wondered why this day was different to the previous two days. He decided it was because he hadn’t eaten, and this was another way to punish him.

At some point in the day, Joe heard horses arrive in the yard. Joe fought the gag even harder, screaming into the cloth, trying desperately to be heard. He was sure that a few ragged whimpers might have been heard had someone with keen ears been standing right outside his prison, but as it was, nobody heard, and the horses soon left again. Joe wondered if the riders were his family, but he had no way to find out.

That was when Joe began to despair.

*****

They had been tracking now for a couple of days, but had found nothing. The hailstorm of a few days ago had obliterated all traces Joe might have left. Stopping at every dwelling, no matter how far from the road, the Cartwrights asked for information about Joe, but no one had seen him. The only place they hadn’t stopped was Lafferty’s place. Clem finally caught them up, and told them about their visit there.

“Lafferty was real cut up about what his son did,” Clem said. “He hadn’t seen the boy in a few days. Didn’t know what he was planning.”

“Was there any sign of Joe?” Ben asked. He looked tired and old. Worry was robbing him of sleep.

“No,” Clem admitted. “But we could hardly demand to search the place. We don’t know that he ever saw Joe. Roy says to stay away from him.”

Frustration and anger tightened Adam’s mouth, and he turned away from his friend. “That’s easy for Roy to say,” he grated.

“No, its not easy for Roy to say,” Clem flared back. “But it could cause problems at the trial if you go charging in there and accuse him of kidnapping Joe.”

For a moment, the two men stood nose-to-nose, alike in age and build and colouring. Also in common sense, for they both backed down at the same moment, and muttered apologies to each other.

“All right, Clem, we’ll do as Roy asks,” agreed Ben, reluctantly.

Watching Clem ride away, Adam turned to Ben. “You agreed to that very easily,” he commented. “Do you have something in mind?”

“Yes,” Ben said. “I plan to set up watch on Lafferty’s place.” He looked at his sons’ faces. “It’ll be cold and unpleasant. Are you with me?”

“You jist try and stop us, Pa,” Hoss declared, and Ben gave him a grim smile.

“Let’s go,” Ben suggested.

*****

For another day, Joe was left alone. He was given no food, and no water. By then, he was feeling the effects of not enough food. So when he was given some food and water the next morning, he simply ate it, not wasting energy he didn’t have in fighting. Gravel Voice fed Joe, then dragged him to his feet and outside.

“Your Pa has more of a debt to pay than I figured,” Gravel Voice said. “My boy has just been arrested for kidnapping him. I figure it’ll be a long while afore you see your family again.”

“They’ll find me,” Joe said, defiantly. The news gave him hope. It didn’t sound like Ben was dead. “My Pa and brothers won’t rest till I’m back with them.”

“Huh,” commented Gravel Voice, and forced the gag back in Joe’s mouth. “That’s what you think!”

This time, Joe wasn’t fastened to the horse whim. He could smell horse very strongly, and feel the warmth coming from the horse on his left side. His leash was fastened to the horse, Joe thought, and his hands were bound to a smooth pole on his right side. Feeling it, Joe thought the feel familiar. It wasn’t until the horse began to walk that Joe realised what it was. He’d been harnessed to a buckboard, along with the horse.

Joe swiftly found that if he didn’t hold the shaft, the weight of it hung from his bound wrists. He stumbled along, his muscles trembling with the effort of keeping hold of the shaft, and staying on his feet. The stopping and starting as the buckboard was loaded with what Joe assumed to be bales of hay, took a toll on his weakened body, and after an hour, he could barely stay on his feet. He finally stumbled and fell, and for several steps was dragged along by the horse. Then he heard a curse, and hands took hold of him, placing him on his feet.

“Won’t get much work out of you,” Gravel voice complained. “I can see why they call you little Joe. You’re puny. Small wonder your father has to do all your fighting for you. You’re too weak to be much good to anyone.”

A sound remarkably like a growl issued from behind the gag. Gravel Voice didn’t seem to notice. “At least my boy had a bit of gumption. I suppose it musta been a relief to your Pa that his other two boys are at least big and strong, even if that second one isn’t too strong in the head. Better a strong back than a strong head I always say. But you! What a waste of space!”

Had he been feeling even a fraction better, Joe would have made some effort to get at his captor. But standing upright was taking everything he had, so he had to let the slurs on himself and Hoss stand. It hurt him to hear his big, gentle brother damned as being stupid. Hoss was many good things, and stupid was not one of them. Joe suddenly felt an urgent desire to weep. He quelled it as best he could. He couldn’t let this man see his tears.

“Get walking, sonny,” Gravel Voice said, and the horse began to move. Joe had no choice but to follow.

*****

It was almost dark before Ben and the boys reached a vantage point above Lafferty’s place. They settled themselves as best they could, and prepared a cold supper. By then, it was full dark, and they wrapped themselves in their bedrolls. Sleep didn’t come easily to any of them, and come morning, they were all hollow eyed.

After the last few cold days, spring was again flirting with summer, and the sun soon became quite hot. It was quiet on the Lafferty place. Once, a man that Ben identified as Lafferty, walked across to a shed near the barn. He was there for quite a while, before finally coming out. “New outhouse?” Adam suggested.

There was no sign of Joe. Lafferty’s few horses milled about in the corral, and a few skinny cows mooed endlessly in the dusty field. Finally, long after lunchtime, Lafferty forked some hay onto the almost barren pasture. “Small wonder he went bust,” Hoss commented. “If’n that’s the way he looks after his cattle.”

*****

For several days, Joe had been locked in his prison. He was still gagged and blindfolded. He still did not know who was holding him prisoner. He hadn’t spoken to another human being for longer than he could remember. With no sight to tell him if it was day or night, and nothing except the temperature to differentiate the two, Joe’s body clock began to lose track of time. If it was warm, it was daytime, but he had no way of telling if it was morning or afternoon. Joe could no longer keep warm and had started running a low-grade fever. His mind played tricks on him, and sometimes he thought he heard Ben’s voice. At other times, he imagined that Adam was blaming him for Ben’s death. He had been a prisoner for so long, he wondered if his family had given up looking for him. Yet deep inside, a tiny spark of hope remained, a spark that whispered to him that his family would never give up looking.

Gravel Voice had taken to coming at odd times and taunting him about being useless. Joe was consumed with anger, and he tried not to listen. But then the taunts changed. No longer did Gravel Voice just say that Joe was useless. He told Joe his family had given up looking for him. It was Joe’s worst nightmare come true.

“They’ve decide that the Injuns have taken you,” Gravel Voice said. “They don’t want to tangle with Injuns. You’re not worth it. They’re back home on the Ponderosa, and nobody’s missing you at all.” He laughed. “If they could only see you now, sitting there in your own mess! Even the injuns wouldn’t want you like that! You’re pathetic, sonny.”

Some sound must have escaped past Joe’s gag, for Gravel Voice suddenly didn’t sound amused at all. “Got something to say have you, sonny? Let’s hear it then.” He ripped the gag off.

Joe’s voice was hoarse, but there was no mistaking the venom in it. “You’re lying, old man!” he grated. “My family would never give up on looking for me! Never! Just because your son was as stupid as to try kidnapping and got caught, you’re taking it out on me! Why? I don’t even know who you are!”

“You ain’t going to know who I am either, sonny,” Gravel Voice replied. “You don’t like not being able to see, do you? Or to talk. Well, I intend to make sure you don’t ever see or talk again. One of these days I’m gonna put your eyes out with a hot awl, and cut your tongue out with scissors.” He laughed as his young captive blanched. “You’ll never know when. Each time I come, that might be the time I do it. You ain’t ever getting out of here.”

“Do your worst!” Joe shouted, surprising himself at the volume he could manage after days gagged. “You’ll pay for this!”

The crack of the whip as it curled round his shoulders made Joe flinch. He was covered in weals, he knew. Everything he did caused him to receive at least one lash as punishment. He no longer tried to avoid it, knowing it was pointless. “Go on, beat me!” he cried, his voice going. “It’s the only way you can hurt me!”

A fist caught Joe by surprise and knocked him to the ground. The gag was forced back into his mouth with a great deal of unnecessary force, and Gravel Voice’s foul breath was on his face as he said, “Your daddy has been telling everyone the truth at last – that you were adopted. He don’t miss you at all! He’s glad you’re gone! You ain’t even his!”

With that last, cruel taunt, Gravel Voice left. Alone in the unending darkness, Joe gave in to his tears.

*****

Five days after their vigil began, the Cartwrights were still no nearer finding Joe. Lafferty showed scant interest in his animals, causing all the family to wrinkle their noses in disgust at his slovenly, careless ways.

But it was on that day, Ben announced he’d had enough waiting, and was going in, regardless of what Roy said. It was then that they heard shouting from the shed that Lafferty spent so much time in. “Joe!” Ben said, and he was mounted in a second. Adam and Hoss were right behind them.

The area where they had camped was too hilly for them to gallop, so they allowed their horse to pick their way down. The slow pace was very hard to bear. None of them knew for sure that it was Joe in that shed, but some instinct told them that it was.

As they galloped onto Lafferty’s place, the man himself appeared, brandishing a shotgun. “Don’t come no closer!” he ordered. “The sheriff told me you wasn’t supposed to come here! Now git!”

“You’ve got my son in there!” Ben yelled back. “And I’m not leaving until we have him!”

Enraged, Lafferty swung the shotgun round on Ben, who dived ungracefully from the saddle to avoid the shot. Adam drew his gun and fired back. His aim was a bit off, since Sport decided to rear, but he still managed to clip Lafferty’s arm. Hoss put his heels to Chubb’s side and raced across the yard. He jumped on Lafferty, and the danger was over.

“Pa!” Adam was at Ben’s side. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” Ben gasped. “Help me up.” With Adam’s assistance, he got to his feet, and looked round. He spotted the shed and ran across to it.

Flinging open the door, he looked in and a gasp was torn from his throat. Joe was lying on the floor, in chains, blindfolded, gagged and wearing a collar and leash. The stench of the place was truly appalling. Joe flinched back from the opening of the door, and Ben clearly heard him whimper. “Joe!” he said, and saw the pitiful captive’s head come up. “Joe!” Ben hurried to his son’s side, and stripped off the blindfold and gag.

“Pa?” Joe whispered in a tone of wonder and disbelief. He turned his head from the light, making a distressed sound. “So bright,” he said.

“Help me, Adam,” Ben said, and between them, they released Joe from the chains. Gently, they eased him to his feet, but Joe had been too many days without food, and his legs wouldn’t hold him. Ben gently picked him up.

Emerging into the daylight, Joe’s true condition became apparent. His clothes were little better than rags. He was covered in weals and cuts from a whip. He stank to high heaven, and had obviously been forced to sit in his own mess. Joe had been in darkness for over a week, and he found the light very painful. The chains had chafed his wrists raw, the flesh was red and inflamed. He felt warm to the touch.

“We’ve got to get him home,” Ben said. He looked up to meet Adam’s dark gaze. “Lafferty must go to the sheriff, too.”

“We’ll do it,” Adam said, and began to organise it.

*****

Paul Martin was waiting as Ben rode slowly into the yard. Joe was slumped on the saddle in front of him, wrapped in Ben’s coat. The journey had been too much for him, and he drifted in and out of consciousness. He was still filthy, for Ben hadn’t wanted to waste any time trying to find a bathtub at Lafferty’s place. Hoss had taken Lafferty to Roy Coffee, alerting the doctor on the way. Adam had galloped for home, to alert Hop Sing. A tub of steaming water was waiting for Joe.

With gentle, loving hands, Ben and Adam bathed Joe, easing the fabric away from the crusted welts all over his body. The pain was bad, and Joe couldn’t help but cry out. But he didn’t speak, and in fact hadn’t spoken apart from those few words when Ben first found him. Ben and Adam exchanged concerned glances, then wrapped Joe in warm towels, and carried him to his room, where Paul began to examine him. It was now growing dark outside, but Joe still seemed to find the light disturbing. Paul looked closely into Joe’s eyes, but couldn’t see any signs of damage. Thereafter, he cleaned up Joe’s injuries, bandaged them, and gave him something for the pain. When Joe was safely asleep, he went down to join the rest of the family.

The other members of the Cartwright family had taken the chance to clean up, and all looked better than when Paul had first seen them. He sat down and accepted a brandy from Ben. “I’m not going to beat about the bush,” he said, after his first sip. “Joe is very weak. He has lost a lot of weight, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. He is quite badly dehydrated. He has been whipped a few times, and there is some sign of infection. It doesn’t appear too bad, really, given the condition he was in when you brought him home. There are no broken bones, and his eyes will right themselves, given a few days. That’s the physical side. As for how he is mentally? I couldn’t get Joe to talk to me at all. He’s going to need lots of reassurance. He was held in appalling conditions for far too long. Don’t be surprised if he’s totally silent, or cries a lot. Just be there for him. Call me if you need me.”

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said. He rose to his feet. “I’ll go and sit with him.”

*****

It was morning before Joe woke. For several seconds he wondered where he was. He felt different. Then he realised that the chains and blindfold had gone. He was lying on a soft bed. Joy bounded through his heart. He opened his eyes, and the light struck him like a blow. He let out a cry and crammed his eyes shut, flinging an arm over them. The joy disappeared. “Its all right, Joe,” said Ben’s voice. “You’re home.”

Cautiously, Joe eased his arm away from his eyes, and used it to shade them. “Pa?” he whispered.

Smiling, Ben reached out to stroke Joe’s head, and was horrified when his son flinched away. “How do you feel? Would you like something to eat?”

“I don’t know,” Joe whispered. He had longed to be home. Why wasn’t he happy any more? Tears welled in his eyes, and moments later, he was silently crying, totally unable to stop himself.

“Joe, son, its all right,” Ben crooned, gathering his sobbing son into a warm embrace. “You’re safe now. Lafferty is in jail, and you’re home.”

Lying in his father’s arms, Joe felt safe. Then a small doubt appeared in his mind. “Pa,” he whispered. “Are you really my father?”

Totally stunned, Ben moved slightly so he could see Joe’s face. “You know I am, Joe,” he said, gently. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m not adopted?” Joe throat was sore and dry, but he persevered. “You did want me back?”

Tears welled in Ben’s eyes as he began to get a glimpse of the mental torture Joe had had to endure. He blinked them away. “Son, I definitely wanted you back. We all did. Adam, Hoss and I spent a week camping out looking for you. And you aren’t adopted. You were born in that room across the hall. You know that. You are as important to me as the air I breathe.”

Doubtful green eyes squinted up at Ben. “Truly?” he faltered. Joe desperately wanted to believe, but his self-belief had been rocked by his captivity.

“Truly!” Ben said, firmly. “Joe, we all love you.” He hugged the youth close as Joe dissolved into tears again. “Son, I don’t know what Lafferty told you, but none of it is true.”

A small, tired sigh escaped Joe, and Ben remembered that his son hadn’t eaten or drunk much since his return home the previous afternoon. Gently laying Joe down, Ben patted his arm. “I’ll go and get you some broth,” he said. “And tell your brothers that you’re awake. Would you like to see them?”

The hesitation and the mild look of panic in those green eyes gave Ben pause, but Joe resolutely nodded. “All right,” he whispered, and Ben could hear the fear in his voice. As the door shut behind Ben, Joe shuddered violently. “I’m home, I’m safe and Pa loves me,” he whispered aloud.

*****

Downstairs, Adam and Hoss looked up as Ben appeared. “Well, how is he?” Adam asked.

“I’m not sure,” Ben replied. “He wanted to know if he was adopted, and if we’d been looking for him.”

“Huh?” Hoss said, scratching his head. “Why’d he want to know that?”

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “Lafferty must have been poisoning his mind towards us. Telling him that we had abandoned him.” Ben bit his lip. “He’s agreed to see you, but go easy. He looked terrified when I suggested it. No jokes. He can’t take it. I’ll get him some broth.”

Watching Ben go to the kitchen, Adam and Hoss then exchanged concerned glances before heading for the stairs. Joe sounded like he was in a bad way.

*****

As the door opened, Joe flinched awake from a half doze, and was part of the way out of the bed before he realised that it was Adam and Hoss who had come in, not Gravel Voice. His reaction hadn’t been missed by his brothers, and Adam crossed the gap to pull Joe into a tight embrace. “Easy, buddy,” he soothed. “Its just us. Sorry we startled you.”

Easing away from Adam, Joe winced. Adam had inadvertently put pressure on his injuries. Swallowing against the fear he felt rising in his throat, Joe said, “Adam, can you remember me being born?”

“Sure I can,” Adam said, readily. “You were born in that room across the hall. You came early, and were really small. Marie gave you to me to hold, and that was when I realised I didn’t resent her any more.”

“You were as cute as a button,” Hoss put in.

Those words, the same ones Adam always used when telling Joe stories about his birth, were very reassuring. Even Hoss’ interjection was as familiar as old clothes. Somehow, the simplicity of the tale gave Joe more reassurance than more details would have done. He felt one of the burdens he carried easing.

The door opened again, and Ben came in carrying the broth. Again, Joe flinched. Ben pretended not to see. Adam and Hoss eyed each other worriedly. “Do you want some help to sit up?” Ben asked.

“I guess so,” Joe agreed, after trying. Adam eased Joe upright while Hoss sorted his pillows. As Adam let him go, he was shocked to see tears running down Joe’s face. “Joe, what’s wrong?” he asked, the concern apparent in his voice. “Did I hurt you, buddy? I’m sorry.”

Shaking his head, Joe fought the tears. “No, you didn’t hurt me,” he sobbed. “But I can’t do anything for myself. I’m useless!”

“You know that’s not true, Joe,” Ben said. “You’ve been through a hard time, and you’ve barely eaten for days. No wonder you can’t sit up unaided. You’re not useless.” Giving Joe a searching look, Ben saw that his son didn’t believe him. He offered the broth, unsure what to say. “Do you want help drinking this?”

A flash of anger sparked from Joe’s eyes, and was gone. “I can manage,” he said, and took the bowl. He met each set of eyes with something like a challenge in his own eyes. “I can manage.”

As Joe struggled with his meal, the others brought him up to date on their search for him. He listened intently, although it was obvious that he was tiring very quickly. Finally, he had eaten all that his shrunken stomach could hold, he gave the bowl back to Ben, and slid gratefully down the bed. His eyes were heavy with sleep. “Pa,” he said. “You weren’t hurt?”

“No, Joe, they didn’t hurt me,” Ben said, reassuringly.

“Good,” Joe murmured. His eyelids closed involuntarily. He heard the others rise to leave. “Pa, don’t shut the door, please?”

“All right,” Ben agreed, as if this was a common request. “Sleep well, son.”

*****

It was a forlorn wish. Joe slept fitfully, and often wakened screaming from a nightmare, where voices taunted him from the darkness, where a whip was always ready to cut at him. Ben began to leave a light burning low in Joe’s room all night. He regained his strength gradually, although his natural ebullience was missing. His injuries all healed, and soon he was fit enough to ride into town with Ben, in the buckboard at first, and later on horseback. He had never again asked about his birth, and seemed to accept that he was really Ben’s son. But his self-esteem was at an all time low. He had no belief in his ability to do anything. While he was still off work, he never volunteered an opinion on any of the ranch work that the others talked about. In fact, he rarely spoke unless spoken to. The family were very concerned, and Ben consulted Paul about it several times. All that Paul could suggest was that they continued to treat him normally, and show they loved and wanted him.

About 8 weeks after his return home, Joe rode back towards the house. He had gone to visit his mother’s grave, the first time he had been there in weeks. He had been unable to say anything to her, which was unusual, but he did derive some comfort from his visit. Now, he rode slowly home. He knew that he would have to start taking on his share of the ranch work again soon. He was doing his yard chores every day, and he had re-built most of the muscle he had lost during his captivity. Yet he didn’t feel better. He felt as though he was on one side of a sheet of glass, and everyone else was on the other. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but one Joe didn’t know how to tackle.

Sport was standing in the yard, and Joe dismounted beside him, and hitched Cochise’s rein to the post. “Adam?” he called. Silence. Joe shrugged, and headed towards the house.

“Joe? Did you shout?” Adam appeared at the door of the barn, covered in dust and little bits of hay.

“I just wondered where you were,” Joe replied, feeling the distance between them.

“I’m just loading some hay into the loft. You couldn’t give me a hand, could you?” Adam looked down at his black clothes in disgust, and brushed at the dust clinging to them. As his hand was equally dusty, all he did was move it around a little.

Shrugging, Joe said, “I suppose,” in an unenthusiastic tone, and turned around.

Watching, Adam saw that Joe’s head was down, and he scuffed his feet as he walked. It was totally different from the high-spirited youth who always looked you in the eye, and almost bounced when he walked, because of his love of life. “Hoss was supposed to help me do this,” Adam complained, “but he ended up clearing out a waterhole in the South 40.”

No response. Adam stifled a sigh, and turned back to the wagon loaded high with hay bales. He had dragged it into the barn, and had been standing on it, throwing the bales into the loft.

“You jump onto the wagon and throw them up to me,” he suggested, and climbed up the ladder.

For a while, the hard worked soothed Joe into a feeling of near normality. He and Adam worked smoothly together with no more than the odd word to help them along. But Joe still wasn’t as fit he would have liked, and he had to call to Adam for a rest.

Climbing part way down the ladder, Adam saw Joe sitting on the bales that were left and smiled at him. “I could do with a break, too,” he said. “I was doing this alone until you happened along.” Reaching out with one leg, Adam dropped gracefully onto the back of the wagon. His foot slipped, and he plunged to the ground. On the way down, he caught the bale sitting ready to go up to the loft, and pulled it down on top of him. He knocked his head hard against the loft ladder.

“Adam!” Joe exclaimed, leaping to his feet. For a second, he stood, irresolute, unsure how to deal with the crisis. Then he jumped down to Adam’s side, and heaved the bale off his brother. “Adam!” he said again, and felt for a pulse.

It was there, strong and steady, and Joe realised that Adam had just knocked himself cold. Getting to his feet, Joe ran over to the house. He burst through the door. “Pa! Hop Sing!” No answer. “Pa! Hop Sing!” There was nobody at home. Joe remembered that Pa was in town seeing Roy Coffee, and Hop Sing had gone to collect the supplies.

Running back outside, Joe tore off the bandanna he wore, and soaked it in the horse trough. Going back to the barn, he knelt by Adam, and washed the blood off his brother’s face. Adam groaned. Joe continued his ministrations for a few minutes longer, and Adam gradually came round. “Joe?” he said, dazedly. “What happened?”

“You fell,” Joe explained, and Adam nodded briefly, before groaning again. “Come on, let’s get you into the house.”

He heaved Adam to his feet, but Adam let out a cry, and leant heavily against the ladder. “I’ve hurt my ankle,” he groaned. “Give me a minute.” Joe stood tautly beside him as Adam took several deep breaths, hoping the searing pain in his ankle would subside. It didn’t.

Realising this, Joe took charge. “Come on, lean on me. You can’t stay here, and I’m not up to carrying you yet!”

“All right,” agreed Adam, and looped his arm round Joe’s slim shoulders. In this fashion, they slowly crossed the yard.

Once in the house, Joe eased Adam into a seat, and gently pulled off his boot. Adam hung on to the arms of his chair, and tried not to yell too loudly. “Looks like a sprain,” Joe said, after examining Adam’s ankle. Rising, he found a stool and a cushion, and propped Adam’s ankle on it while he went to get cool water and some bandages.

It was only when Joe was finished tending to his older brother that he became aware that Adam was looking at him thoughtfully. “What?” he asked, flushing.

“Do you know what you’ve done?” Adam asked, gently.

With wide eyes, Joe shook his head. He obviously expected some detrimental comment. “What have I done?” he asked, defensively.

“Just exactly what I would have expected you to,” Adam replied. “You took charge, and helped me, doing all the right things. For someone who has spent the last few weeks protesting his uselessness, I’m impressed.”

A frown crept over Joe’s face as he absorbed the meaning of Adam’s words. “What do you mean?” he asked, warily.

Smiling slightly, Adam said, “I mean, Joe that you aren’t in the least useless. There isn’t anybody I’d rather have on my side when the chips are down. Remember when I got shot when we were protecting Captain Johnson from Cochise? You came down to get me, risking your own life to do so. And when we went hunting those cougars? You put aside your own injuries to get me safely back here. If that’s uselessness, Joe, then I wish we had a useless lot of hands!”

Staring at Adam, Joe’s face was totally blank. Adam suddenly wondered if he should have said anything. Then, like a sunburst after a storm, Joe’s face cleared and lightened, until a smile played around his lips. It had been so long since Adam saw Joe smile, that he had forgotten what an attractive smile it was. “Lafferty was wrong,” Joe said, like it was a revelation.

“If he told you you were useless, he certainly got it wrong,” Adam said, and there was anger in his voice. “He was a bitter, twisted old man, who spent his whole life blaming someone else for his own problems.” Adam shook his dark head. “He was jealous of you, Joe. That’s why he tried to make you feel bad about yourself and others.”

“Oh Adam!” Joe cried suddenly, and launched himself at his brother, wrapping his arms around Adam’s waist and burying his head in Adam’s chest. “It was awful!” And the story of his captivity, bottled up until now, poured out of him.

Holding Joe, Adam listened with growing horror and comprehension. He knew his brother’s desperate clinging was because Joe was afraid that Adam would pull away, and prove Lafferty right. But Adam had no intention of doing that. He drew Joe closer, and hugged him tightly, tears standing in his eyes. Finally, the words slowed, and Joe began to cry in earnest. But these were healing tears, washing away the pain and loneliness he’d felt in these last weeks, isolated from his family by an invisible barrier erected in his mind.

As the tears slowed, Joe slid gently from Adam’s grip to the floor, totally exhausted, but feeling more like himself after the catharsis of tears. Adam, reluctant to break the contact completely, kept his hand on Joe’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that, buddy,” he said.

Leaning against Adam’s leg, Joe rested his head on his brother’s thigh. “I went to him for help,” he said. “Of all the people in the world, I chose the wrong one.” Sliding his head, he looked into Adam’s face. “I never asked, but what happened to him?”

“He went to jail,” Adam said, matter of factly. “He pleaded guilty. His son went to jail, too.”

“I tried to protect Pa,” Joe said, miserably.

“You were out numbered,” Adam reminded him. “And remember, Lafferty junior didn’t mean for anything to happen to you. He was counting on you coming home and telling us about the kidnapping, so that we would do exactly as he said. But when Ed Lafferty met you on the road, his desire to hurt Pa took over, and he took you captive. There was nothing you did that could have made this happen, and you did nothing wrong.”

The house door opened, and for the first time in weeks, Joe didn’t flinch. He lifted his head and turned to see Ben and Hop Sing coming in. Just behind them was Hoss. “Boys?” Ben said, sounding surprised. “Is everything all right?”

“Adam fell and hurt his ankle,” Joe said, sitting up a little straighter. “I got him in here and patched it up as best I could.”

“I see,” Ben said, coming across to look anxiously at Adam, who smiled back. “What a good thing you were here, son,” Ben said.

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said, and there was in his voice the old bubble of laughter. He rose in one fluid motion. “I guess I’d better go finish stacking those bales,” he added, and strode purposefully to the door, giving a surprised Hoss an affectionate slap on the back. “Once you’re out of those dirty clothes, you could help me,” he suggested.

There was a moment’s hiatus as Joe left, then Ben sat down in the nearest seat. “Am I hallucinating, or is that our Joe back?” he asked.

Nodding, Adam gave a mischievous smirk. “You noticed a difference then?” he joked. “Pa, I think this accident was the best thing that could have happened.” Ben made a face, but Adam ploughed on. “No, listen. Joe had no one here to help him, and he just did what had to be done. I told him that for someone who insisted he was useless, he had done well. And it all came out, all the mind games Lafferty had used on him.” Adam told them everything that Joe had said, and his listeners’ faces grew grim.

“Dadburnit!” Hoss spat, when Adam finished. “I wish I could get my hands on that Lafferty!”

“Yes, we all feel rather like that,” Ben agreed heavily. “But the law has taken care of him. Adam, do you think Joe will be all right now?”

“Well, I’m not a doctor, but I certainly think he’ll be better. After all, he’s finally let it out. It won’t be eating away at his soul any more.” Adam shifted uncomfortably as his ankle began throbbing anew. “Just give him my chores to do, and let him get back to normal. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Thanks, son,” Ben said, huskily, and crossed to the door to look at his youngest son lifting hay bales in the barn.

“Hey, Pa!” Joe called.

“Yes, son?”

“Tell Hoss to hurry up, will ya? I don’t want to do all this myself!” Joe’s bright grin was swiftly followed by his unique, high-pitched giggle.

Smiling, Ben turned back to the house. He was sure that Joe was going to be all right now.

*****End*****

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