The Godfather (by Rona)

Summary: The sequel to ‘Susie’. Susie is married and asks Joe to be her baby’s godfather. When Susie’s husband is attacked, Joe is blamed.

Rated T
Word Count: 8,100

 

The Godfather

“What?” chorused Ben, Adam and Hoss Cartwright.

“You?” added Adam, in tones of total disbelief. “Why you?”

“Why not me?” demanded Joe Cartwright angrily. “What are you trying to say, Adam?”

“Well, it’s a little unexpected,” Adam hedged. “After all, you’re not the person you think of first when it comes to being a child’s godfather.”

“Well, thank you for that vote of confidence,” Joe snapped, his green eyes flashing. “I might have known you’d say something sarcastic.”

“Now, hold on, Joe,” Ben interposed, deciding to calm things down before blood was shed. “I’m sure Adam didn’t mean to sound like that. It was a surprise, after all. Did you expect Susie to ask you?”

Taking a deep breath to get his temper under control, Joe shook his head impatiently. “No, of course not,” he replied, shortly. “Its as much of a surprise to me as it is to you.”

“Josephine,” Hoss said, musingly. “Right purty name, ain’t it?”

“What does that mean?” Joe demanded, curling his fist.

Puzzled, Hoss frowned. “It’s a purty name, that’s all,” he defended himself. “Whatcha bitin’ me for?”

“Sorry, Hoss,” Joe apologized. “I thought you were making fun of me.”

Light dawned across Hoss’ genial face. “Oh, the name bein’ the female version of yourn? I hadn’t thought of it till now, but sure, I wonder how her husband feels about that?”

Giving Hoss a furious glare, Joe stalked across the room and went outside, slamming the door behind him. “What’d I say?” appealed Hoss.

“Exactly what we were trying not to say,” Adam commented dryly.

*****

Exactly a week later, the Cartwrights joined the coach to San Francisco. Joe had regained his temper, and none of the others had said anything to spark it off. That didn’t stop them speculating amongst themselves, however. None of them could quite figure why Susie had asked Joe to be godfather to her baby.

Susie had been a saloon girl when they first met her. It was plain to see she wasn’t the ordinary run-of-the-mill saloon girl. She was well educated, and when Joe took a fancy to her, they discovered her story. For a time, it seemed as though Joe and Susie were destined to be a couple, but Susie left, unable to give Joe the kind of love he wanted from her. The family expected that would be the last they heard from her, but Susie had kept up a lively, regular correspondence with Joe, and had delighted them all with an invitation to her wedding the previous fall. They had liked her new husband, Peter, but it was apparent that there was a slight strain between he and Joe. So the letter asking Joe to be godfather, and the baby’s name, were big shocks.

The trip passed uneventfully, and they checked into their hotel in San Francisco a few days later. After freshening up, Joe grabbed his jacket and announced he was going to let Susie know they had arrived. Adam and Hoss both made moves to follow, but Ben hastily quashed them. Joe hadn’t seen Susie in several months, and he wanted them to have time alone. He had no idea how their relationship worked, but he didn’t want heavy-handed teasing from his brothers to spoil it.

Ringing the doorbell of the substantial house that Susie and Peter lived in, Joe took off his hat. A uniformed maid opened the door, and showed him into the parlor. Susie rose from a chair in front of the fire, and dashed across the room, into his arms. “Joe! Its good to see you!” Susie kissed his cheek soundly, and led him nearer the fire. It was only then that Joe saw they weren’t alone. There was another woman in the room.

“Joe, this is Katja, my neighbor and friend. Katja is Josephine’s godmother.” Susie beamed at her friend.

“How’d you do?” Joe murmured politely.

“I’m so pleased to meet you at last,” Katja said, revealing an American accent. Joe had expected an exotic foreign accent. “Susie has talked about you so much. I feel like I know you.”

Sitting down on the settee, Susie pulled Joe down beside her, and linked her arm through his. Joe saw Katja’s eyebrows rise, and knew it was just this aspect of their relationship which concerned Peter, Susie’s husband. Yet it was totally innocent. Susie treated Joe like he was her long lost twin, and he loved her dearly, although it wasn’t, now, the passionate romantic love he once had felt for her.

Shortly after, Katja took her leave of them, and Susie took Joe up to the nursery to show him the baby. Joe knew very little about babies, but Josephine seemed very small to him. He said that, but Susie laughed. “Not at all,” she said. “Jo’s a big baby.”

“Jo?” echoed Joe, sharply. “Do you call her that?”

“Is there something wrong with that name?” Susie enquired, mischievously. “Don’t you like it?”

“Aw, come on, Susie,” Joe retorted, uncomfortably. “What does Peter think?”

Detecting the seriousness in Joe’s voice, Susie stopped clowning. “Well, we neither of us like Petra, the only female version of Peter we could think of. And I refused to have her called after me. So Peter suggested Josephine, and we both agreed that it suits her. Peter hasn’t shortened her name, yet, but I do it all the time. Joe, Peter doesn’t have a problem with you and I.” Susie rubbed his arm gently. “He knows that you and your Pa and brothers are the closet thing I’ve got to a real family.”

Still uncomfortable, but unwilling to show it, Joe capitulated. “That’s great,” he said, and smiled his million dollar smile. Privately, he wondered if Peter had been being sarcastic, and Susie hadn’t realized. He would have to wait until Peter was around to find out.

He didn’t have long to wait. The front door opened a moment or two later, and Peter’s voice floated upstairs. “Susan! I’m home!”

Dragging Joe along with her, Susie left the nursery and headed downstairs. Peter’s face broke into a big smile when he saw her, but Joe noticed that the smile dimmed slightly when he came into view. “Peter,” Joe said. “Nice to see you again.”

“Joe,” Peter replied, and they shook hands. “Drink?” Peter suggested, seemingly at a loss.

“Thank you,” Joe agreed, at no less of a loss. He accepted the brandy Peter gave him, and they sat down, making causal conversation about the trip west. From upstairs came a thin wail, and Susie jumped up. Joe watched her go, then turned back to see Peter looking at him speculatively. He smiled. “Susie looks well. And the baby is lovely.”

“Thank you,” Peter said. “Yes, Susan is well. She was so pleased that you agreed to come.”

“I’m flattered you asked me to be godfather,” Joe responded.

“Susan wanted it,” Peter said, stiffly.

Taking a sip of his brandy, Joe decided to take the bull by the horns. “Peter, I love Susie,” he said, quietly, “but its like she’s my sister. Sure, I was in love with her, but that wasn’t to be. She loves you. I’m not trying to take her from you.”

Peter gave Joe a bitter look. “Really?” he retorted. “Susan talks about you all the time. I’m constantly having to live up to your heroics.”

“My heroics?” Joe repeated. “What are you talking about?”

“The broncos you break, the fights you get into, the good deeds you do. I get force fed them as a steady diet.” Peter put his glass down with a clunk, and rose restlessly to his feet and began pacing. “I’m never allowed to forget how good, and brave and handsome you are!”

Biting back the anger that rose in his throat, Joe took a calming breath before he spoke. “And I get letters telling me how well your business is doing, and the latest deal you’ve pulled off, and how clever everyone here thinks you are, how respected you are. Susie sings your praises in every sentence. Peter, the girl loves you, and if you can’t see past our friendship, you don’t deserve to have her!” Joe shook his head. “You knew how it was with Susie and I. She told you before you ever got married. Surely it hasn’t come as a surprise to you now?”

Glaring at Joe, Peter took a deep breath, and managed to calm down slightly. “I’m sorry,” he said, stiffly. “I do know that what you’re saying is true. Its just difficult for me to see Susan with you.”

“I do know that,” Joe murmured softly. “But you have no cause to be jealous, I promise.”

Just like that, the storm was over. Peter sat down again, and picked up his glass. “My temper got the better of me,” he said. “It happens all the time. I speak first, then think later.”

Grinning Joe nodded. “It happens to me all the time, too,” he admitted, and they smiled at one another. For the first time, Joe wondered if the tension between he and Peter was caused by the fact they were so alike, each seeing themselves in the other. It was an uncomfortable thought, one that Joe shelved immediately. However, the outburst had cleared the air between them, and they were soon chatting away like old friends.

After she returned from the nursery, Susie tried to prevail on Joe to stay for supper, but Joe had promised to dine with his family, and he took his leave. The christening was set for the next again day, and Joe looked for the church on his way back to the hotel.

*****

The Sunday morning of the christening dawned sunny and warm. Joe had been awake for hours, suddenly overcome by the responsibilities of being a godfather. He liked children, but had never really had much to do with them. He hoped nobody would hand him the baby, as he was scared he would drop her!

They arrived at the church in good time. Susie looked lovely in a deep red dress. The baby was wearing a christening robe that Susie had told Joe belonged to her grandmother. Katja was wearing blue, and came over to meet Joe’s family. The previous day, Susie had told Joe that Katja was a young widow, her husband having been killed in a train crash. She was clearly interested in Joe, much to Adam and Hoss’ amusement.

The ceremony was quite simple and moving. Although awake, baby Josephine didn’t cry at all. Afterwards, everyone went back to Susie and Peter’s house for a celebration.

The Cartwrights were very much in demand. Susie had plainly talked about her ‘adoptive’ family quite a bit, and everyone seemed to want to meet them. Katja monopolized Joe, who had wanted to spend some more time with Susie. They were only in town for another 2 days. Finally, the guests began to leave, and only the Cartwrights and Katja were left to share the evening meal with Peter and Susie.

It was apparent that Susie was tired, but she insisted that they stay, as planned. Adam and Peter were soon talking about his business. Ben and Hoss were exclaiming over Little Jo, and Big Joe followed Susie into the kitchen, where she was supervising the meal, so he could talk to her.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Fine,” Susie assured him. “Just tired. How are you getting along with Katja?”

“Okay, I guess,” Joe said, indifferently. “Don’t try and be a matchmaker, Susie. You might get your fingers burned.”

Susie laughed. “Oh, Joe! I just thought you’d get along, that’s all. Why, do you think I should aim her at Plato?”

“No question,” Joe agreed solemnly. “Plato – I mean Adam – would get along famously with her.” They laughed together. “I’m going to miss you when I go back home,” Joe told her.

“I’ll miss you, too,” Susie said. “But I am happy here, Joe. I love Peter, you know.” He nodded, as she went on, “I’m so pleased that you two are getting on better. Peter told me you’d talked.”

“It makes a difference,” Joe agreed. “We’ll see you both for dinner tomorrow night, won’t we?”

“Yes, of course,” Susie replied. “We’re looking forward to it. Peter will meet us at the hotel straight from work.”

“Good,” Joe said, and smiled as he realized that he really meant it.

*****

When he’d learned of their outing to San Francisco, Ben had decided it was an opportunity he couldn’t afford to waste, and arranged several meetings for the few days they were there. On Monday, he and Adam went to speak to the owner of a mine, who was interested in contracting for timber. Hoss was dispatched to finalize a contract to supply beef, and Joe visited a livery stable that was looking to buy more mounts for hiring out.

It was a busy day for the Cartwrights, and they all made their way back to their hotel for dinner with Susie and Peter pleased with their day’s work. Susie joined them right on time, but Peter was late. They sat together chatting about people Susie had known in Virginia City, but as the time crept on, it was apparent that Susie was deeply concerned about Peter.

There was a sudden commotion in the doorway, and they all looked round. There was Katja, her cloak pulled on carelessly, and her hair falling down. She was panting and looked distraught. Joe was on his feet instinctively, helping her to a chair. “What’s wrong?” he asked, thinking of the baby.

“Susie,” Katja gasped. “Its Peter. He was found in the street. He’s been beaten and robbed, and is in hospital. They want you to go at once.”

The color drained out of Susie’s face as though someone had put on a tap. One hand crept to her throat, the other reached for Joe’s hand. He took it, just in time to catch her as she fainted.

*****

“He’s very ill, Mrs. Somerville. At the moment, I can’t tell you if he’ll be all right. We had to operate, and patch up his spleen. I’m afraid its touch and go.” The doctor patted Susie’s hand in a vain attempt to comfort.

Leaning against Joe, Susie began to cry again. “When will you know if he’s all right?” she demanded.

“Give me another 24 hours, and we’ll know more. I’m sorry.” The doctor rose, and left the room.

Rubbing Susie’s arm, Joe looked helplessly at his father. “I’ll stay with you, Susie,” Joe said. He knew Katja was staying with the baby.

The room door opened again, and a policeman came in. “Which of you is Joe Cartwright?” he asked.

“I am,” Joe replied, readily.

“You’re under arrest for the attempted murder of Peter Somerville.”

*****

In the early hours of the morning, Joe and Ben left the police station, with Joe’s name finally cleared. Peter had been muttering Joe’s name in his delirium, and the police had assumed that Joe had something to do with his attack. However, Joe had an ironclad alibi and was free to go. Adam and Hoss had stayed with Susie, who had dissolved into floods of tears at the policemen’s words.

Joe looked tired, Ben thought. Small wonder. Peter’s business partner, John Watkins, had reported that Peter and Joe didn’t get along. It was no longer true, but as Watkins was well known in the city, and Joe was a stranger, the police had naturally taken Watkins’ word. “Why don’t you go back to the hotel and get some rest, son?” Ben suggested.

Smiling tiredly, Joe shook his head. “I’d rather go back to the hospital, Pa,” he said. “Susie is counting on me. Once we know if Peter is going to be all right, I’ll take Susie back to her house. She needs to take care of the baby, and get some sleep.”

“You need to sleep, too, Joe,” reminded Ben, gently. “You won’t be any good to Susie if you’re exhausted.”

“I know, Pa,” Joe agreed, “but I must do this. You go back to the hotel and rest. I’ll send Adam and Hoss back.”

“All right,” Ben said. He was tired. “Be careful, son.” It was what Ben always said when Joe left alone, and it brought another smile to the young man’s tired face.

*****

By the next afternoon, Peter had made a little progress, and was expected to live. He was still deeply unconscious, and the police had been unable to question him. There didn’t seem to be much motive for the attack. Peter seldom carried much money. Susie was at a loss. He didn’t have any enemies that she knew of.

Finally, Joe persuaded Susie to go home. He took her there himself, and Susie went first to see her baby, before Joe and Katja made her go to bed. Katja helped Susie undress, and eased quietly out of the bedroom, for Susie had fallen into a deep sleep almost the moment her head touched the pillow.

Downstairs, Joe was slumbering in front of the fire. He jerked awake at the sound of Katja’s step, and rubbed his face. “She’s asleep,” Katja said, and sat down opposite Joe, studying him through her lashes.

Ever since they met, she had been impressed with Joe’s dashing good looks. Joe’s natural charm had worked on her at once, and she found herself longing to touch his cheek. Now, she saw past the outward beauty, to the inner strength and goodness. She hadn’t suspected that Joe had such a wellspring of strength for others. Most of what Susie had told Katja about Joe, Katja had rejected as seen through rose colored glasses. Now, she wondered.

“Can I get you something to eat?” she asked. “Or coffee?”

“Coffee would be fine,” Joe answered, his voice rough with fatigue. “Then I must go back to the hotel. It wouldn’t be good for Susie’s reputation for me to stay here.”

“From what Susie told me about when you first became friendly, I wouldn’t have thought that would matter,” Katja commented, jokingly.

“Really?” Joe said, and Katja realized he was furious. “You mean when Susie was nursing me back to health, after I got beaten up by her ex-fiancé’s thug? Susie’s reputation was still intact when she left the Ponderosa. I would never do anything to hurt her!”

“I’m sorry,” Katja gasped. “I was trying to be funny, but I got it wrong. I didn’t mean anything, Joe.” Despite herself, Katja was entranced by his green eyes, so sleepy one minute, the next throwing out sparks of anger. “Susie told me she had been a saloon girl, and that was how you met. I wasn’t trying to suggest anything.”

“No, I’m sorry,” apologized Joe, sounding desperately tired. “I’m pretty tired, and I picked you up wrong.” With a sigh, Joe levered himself to his feet. “I’d better go.”

The doorbell rang. Katja paled. “Please don’t let it be bad news,” she murmured. Both she and Joe looked expectantly towards the door. The maid opened the door and showed in a man who was a stranger to Joe’s eyes, although he was aware of having seen him at the christening. “John,” Katja said. “Come in. This is Joe Cartwright. Joe, this is John Watkins, Peter’s partner.”

“How’d you do?” Joe said, but he felt an instant antagonism towards Watkins. He saw the other man’s mouth tighten as he heard Joe’s name.

“What are you doing here?” Watkins demanded. “I was told you’d been arrested.”

“And I was cleared,” Joe replied, evenly. “I was with someone at the time Peter was attacked.” He sat down again, ignoring Katja’s look of surprise. He didn’t trust Watkins, and had no intention of leaving the house while he was there. “Susie is asleep,” he added.

“Let me get that coffee,” Katja said, and left the room, rather than just pull the bell.

Sitting down opposite Joe, Watkins looked him up and down. Joe flushed slightly. “Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Watkins?” he asked.

“I don’t think so, Cartwright,” Watkins said, with a sneer in his voice. “I don’t think you would understand our business. There’s a lot of money involved.”

With difficulty, Joe kept his temper. “There’s quite a lot of money involved in our business, too,” he commented. “But I wasn’t trying to pry. I just wondered if there was something I could help you with. Susie is relying on me right now.”

“She can rely on me,” Watkins said, sounding annoyed. “I know Susan very well. She can trust me.”

Lazily, Joe smiled, hiding his dislike of the arrogant man who sat across the room from him. “It sounds like we have a lot in common,” he said. “I know Susie well, too, and she can trust me with her life.”

“Let me make things plain, Cartwright,” Watkins said, leaning forward. “You’re not wanted here! Peter doesn’t want you around his wife. Go back to the wild where you belong.”

Angry, and no longer hiding it, Joe leant forward too. “Then let me be plain,” he grated. “I’ll stay here until such times as Susie wants me to leave, or Peter gets better. So don’t count on me leaving any time soon, because I’m not going anywhere!”

The two men glared at each other, until the door opened to admit Katja and the maid, with the long awaited coffee. Katja glanced at Joe and Watkins as she poured, thinking how different they were. Joe was still wearing a suit, but it was hopelessly wrinkled from his long vigil at the hospital. He did look wild and untamed compared to Watkins, who was paunchy, and who’s suit looked as though it had just come off a hanger. At that moment, they both looked dangerous, and Katja was glad Joe had stayed, because she was suddenly a little afraid of Watkins.

Fortunately, Watkins didn’t stay long. It was clear that Susie wasn’t going to waken any time soon, and he left. Joe stayed long enough to be sure Watkins wouldn’t return, then took himself off back to the hotel.

He let himself into the suite the family were sharing, and was surprised to find all three family members waiting for him. Joe was practically asleep on his feet, but he tried to answer the questions his family were asking. It was Ben who stopped the inquisition. He pushed Joe in the direction of his bed, and closed the door. Joe didn’t even bother undressing. He slid off his boots and jacket, and lay down. He was asleep in seconds.

*****

It was the next morning before Joe woke up. He was starving, and thinking back, he realized he hadn’t eaten since the night Peter was attacked. He sat up and looked with disgust at his wrinkled clothes. He washed and changed, and, feeling better, went out into the main room of the suite.

Not much to his surprise, Ben was there reading a newspaper. He glanced up as Joe came in and smiled. “How do you feel, son?” he asked. “You look better.”

“I feel fine, Pa,” Joe assured him. “I’m just hungry.”

“Well, there’s a turn up for the books,” Ben joked. “Sit down, Joe, and I’ll get you some breakfast.”

As Joe tucked into bacon, eggs and pancakes, he asked, “Where’re Hoss and Adam?”

“They went down to collect Susie and take her to the hospital, if she was ready.” Ben watched with pleasure as Joe ate. All too often, he had the impression that Joe would just as soon not eat, and only did it to keep his father off his back. “We had a visit from John Watkins last night,” he added casually, and studied his son’s reaction with interest. Joe’s mouth tightened, and he scowled. “I see you’ve met him,” he commented, dryly.

“Yeah,” Joe mumbled, around a mouthful of eggs. “He came to Susie’s house yesterday, and told me I wasn’t wanted and should go home.”

“And what did you say?” Ben enquired, half expecting a tale of bloodshed.

“I told him I was staying until Susie told me to go, or Peter recovered.” Joe gulped some coffee. “What did he want here?”

“Pretty much the same thing,” admitted Ben. “Told us to stay away from Susie and the business, and go home where we belonged.”

Father and son exchanged a concerned look. Joe laid down his fork. “I think we should go and look at the books for their business,” suggested Joe. “It seems to me that he has something to hide.”

“We thought the same thing,” admitted Ben. “Adam was going to ask Susie’s permission to look at the books.”

Shoveling the last of the food into his mouth, Joe rose from the table. “She’ll say yes,” he said, swallowing first. “I’ll go down to the office right now and have a look. Maybe you could go to the hospital and ask Adam to join me. He’s more likely to see things that are out of place than I am.”

“All right,” agreed Ben, reluctantly. “You be careful, son.”

“I will,” Joe assured him, giving his father a loving, sunlit smile. “See you later.”

*****

When Joe arrived at Peter’s office, the only person who was there was an office boy. Reluctantly, he let Joe in and Joe began a thorough search. Adam arrived a little while later, and Joe handed him the few accounts books he’d found. Adam sat down and began to peruse them.

“These are gibberish,” Adam said after a while, raising his head. “If these figures were true, Susie and Peter would be destitute. So would Watkins. According to this, their warehouse burned down, and they are waiting for the insurance money for it.”

“Where’s the warehouse?” Joe asked, looking over Adam’s shoulder.

Laughing, Adam replied, “It doesn’t actually tell me in this book.” He laughed even harder as Joe looked abashed. “Ask the office boy?” he suggested.

“I don’t remember Susie mentioning a fire,” commented Joe, as he beckoned to the boy. He asked for the location of the warehouse, and the boy gave it readily. “I think I’ll go down there and have a look,” Joe suggested. “I’ll meet you back at the hospital.”

“Do you think you should go alone?” Adam asked. “We still don’t know what happened to Peter. The person who attacked him is still out there somewhere.”

“I’ll be careful,” Joe assured him, unconsciously patting the gun strapped to his left thigh. “I won’t be long. I’d like to see Susie today.”

“Don’t be longer than an hour,” Adam instructed him. “We don’t want Pa and Susie worrying about you.”

With a long-suffering sigh, Joe agreed to be back in an hour. He bade Adam goodbye, and left his brother to the dusty books. Adam didn’t mind. He raked through the drawers and cupboards, searching for any clues there might be.

*****

The warehouse wasn’t very far away from the office, and Joe found it without too much trouble. He stood looking at the building for a few minutes, shaking his head. There hadn’t been a fire, but it looked as though it would topple into the bay any minute. Joe was angry, too, that Susie and Peter could become involved in a fraud that they didn’t know about.

Crossing the road, Joe found the entrance had a stout lock on it. However, a little more scouting showed him a small door, which was open. After a swift look round, Joe went in. He paused just inside the door to take in his surroundings.

The warehouse wasn’t empty, as Joe had expected. One end of the building was stacked high with crates. The other end was built over the water, and had capacity for a ship to dock. Joe peered into the nearest crate, and thought he saw furs. However, the boxes were too big for him to handle alone, and he looked round for a crowbar to lever a crate open with.

But Joe wasn’t alone. As he rounded the end of one stack of crates, a hand, holding the very tool Joe sought, descended towards Joe’s unprotected head. At the last moment, Joe saw the movement, and dived to the floor. The crowbar crashed onto his back, and not his head. Joe still felt like he’d been broken in half.

Rolling desperately away, Joe scrambled to his feet, and saw a large man, dressed in work clothes, coming towards him. Deciding that discretion was very much the better part of valor at that moment, Joe turned tail and fled. However, he’d become disorientated, and was running away from the side door where he’d entered.

Another workman appeared in Joe’s vision, and he skidded round the corner of the nearest stack of crates, hoping to throw the men off, somehow. But there were too many men there. Joe dodged and twisted, but it was useless. He was finally grabbed, and his arms twisted painfully up his back, and marched to the warehouse office.

It came as no surprise to see John Watkins there. Joe’s temper flared, and he spoke without thinking. “We’re on to you!” he gloated. “You’re done for!”

Looking calmly at Joe, Watkins nodded, and one of the workers stepped in front of Joe and punched him hard in the stomach. Joe groaned, and tired to curl up, but the grip on his arms increased and he was unable to. “Who’s we?” questioned Watkins.

Joe remained mute. He’d made his blunder, and would have to live with the consequences, but he wouldn’t say any more. He tried to tense his stomach muscles as the man stepped up for another blow, but it didn’t work. Joe sagged in the grip of his two captors, but that only increased the pressure on his shoulders. Joe straightened, knowing that he could be left with two broken arms if he wasn’t careful. He looked at Watkins, still silent.

“I asked a question,” Watkins said, deadly menace in his voice. Joe repressed a shudder, and still said nothing.

There was very little more irritating than Joe’s stubborn silence. Ben and his brothers could attest to that. Unfortunately for Joe, Watkins didn’t know that there was no way he could beat the information he wanted out of Joe. So that was exactly what he tried to do. It was only when Joe was stretched out on the floor, almost unconscious, that Watkins realized he wasn’t going to get what he wanted from him.

“Tie him up,” he ordered. “Then let’s get the boat in and loaded. We can tie him to one of the pillars under the dock. High tide will take care of him.”

Hearing that chilling threat, Joe made a last galvanic effort to get to his feet. He made it as far as his knees before a kick to the stomach put him out for the count. The foreman immediately began to tie Joe up.

Looking down at his captive, Watkins laughed. “You should have heeded my warning,” he said. “You should have gone home, Cartwright!”

*****

As he entered the hospital, Adam was met by a whirlwind that he discovered was Susie. She threw herself into his arms, and kissed his cheek. “Peter’s awake!” she crowed. “He’s going to be all right!” Disentangling herself, Susie looked behind Adam. “Where’s Joe?” she demanded, looking disappointed.

“He’ll be here,” Adam laughed. “That’s good news, Susie!”

They went into the room, where Ben and Hoss were seated. On the bed, Peter still looked pale and wan, but he was awake. He smiled as he saw Adam. Susie immediately sat down on the chair by the bed and took Peter’s hand. He smiled at here, then looked expectantly at the door. “Where’s Joe?” he asked.

“There must be an echo here,” Adam joked, and Susie laughed, on a high. “He’ll be here shortly. I’m glad to see you awake, Peter.”

“Thanks, Adam,” Peter said. He looked back at Susie.

Rising, Ben drew Adam outside. “Where is Joe?” he asked.

“He went to look at Peter’s warehouse, which has supposedly burned down. I said I’d meet him here. He shouldn’t be long. The hour is nearly up.” Adam glanced at Ben, who was frowning. “Relax, Pa, how much trouble can Joe get into here?”

“Plenty,” growled Ben. “But I’d rather not wait a while before we go looking for him.”

Puzzled, Adam frowned. “Pa, he’s not even late, yet,” he pointed out. “Why do we need to look for him?”

“It was something Peter said,” admitted Ben. “It was only when you mentioned the warehouse. Peter was going to it on his way to meet us. That was when he was attacked. It just made me uneasy.”

“I can see why,” Adam replied. “Its made me uneasy, too. Look, Pa, you stay here with Susie and Peter, and Hoss and I will go look for Joe.”

Throwing Adam a dark look, Ben shook his head. “I’m coming, too,” he stated. “Joe is my son. Get Hoss, and don’t scare Susie and Peter.”

Nodding, Adam went back into the room. Susie gave him a smile. “Susie, we’re going to go and get some coffee, and let you two lovebirds be alone for a while. We’ll come back later, all right?”

“All right,” Susie agreed. “But what about Joe?”

“We’ll get hold of Joe,” Adam assured her. “Come on, Hoss.”

“Right,” Hoss said, lumbering to his feet, and following Adam out. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked.

Quickly, Adam brought Hoss up to date. Hoss scowled. “What are we waitin’ for?” he growled. “Let’s get goin’!”

“Wait a minute,” Adam protested. “What about Susie and Peter? Are they safe here?”

Shrugging, Ben looked thoughtful. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “We’ll have to hope so. Just let me alert the doctor. Maybe that will be enough.” He did so, rejoining his sons a moment later.

Grimly, the three men headed for the door.

*****

Lying, bound and gagged, on the office floor, Joe listened helplessly as the men loaded the crates onto a boat that had backed slowly into the warehouse. He fought uselessly against his bonds, hoping against hope that they would start to come loose. But whoever had tied him up had known his job. The knots resisted his every effort. The hands on the wall clock crawled slowly round. Joe wondered how late Adam would let him be before coming to look for him. However long it was, Joe guessed that it would be too late. His optimism was rapidly draining away.

When the foreman came for him, Joe fought anyway, not knowing what else to do. He only earned himself more bruises as he was thrown down the steps from the office to the warehouse floor. The crates were all loaded, and the boat was chugging out of the bay doors. Joe noticed that the tide was creeping in. From the marks on the floor, it appeared that the whole of the dock area was covered at high tide. Joe could feel his breath catch in his throat. He made another abortive attempt to gain his freedom.

He was pulled to a stop in front of Watkins. “Are you ready to tell me who knows you are here?” He pulled the gag from Joe’s mouth.

It made no difference. Joe wasn’t going to say anything. Watkins smiled. It chilled Joe to his very soul. “I never did like you, Cartwright,” he said. “Poor little Josephine. Lost her godfather before she could ever know him.”

Whether it was the final straw, or hearing Josephine’s name linked with his own nickname, Joe wasn’t sure. What he did know was that he was blazing mad. With a roar, he launched himself at Watkins, and managed to butt the man in his stomach before being dragged off. He was thrown to the floor, and several pairs of boots kicked him repeatedly. He heard Watkins’ voice, and was yanked to his feet, his head reeling. Watkins had regained his feet and looked furious. He nodded to his foreman, who took a handful of Joe’s hair and hauled his head up. Watkins backhanded him several times across the mouth. Joe felt blood running from his mouth.

“Good riddance, Cartwright,” Watkins said, thickly. He forced the gag back into Joe’s bleeding mouth, and watched impassively as Joe was pushed to the edge of the dock, then manhandled to one of the pilings under the dock, and bound to it.

Footsteps sounded above him, leaving, and Joe looked down at the water, which was already lapping up his ankles. Please, God, help me, Joe prayed.

*****

“That’s it,” Adam said, pointing. He glanced at the policeman who had come with them. They had encountered the cop in the lobby of the hospital, and he told them he was on his way to question Peter again. Adam swiftly told him of their discoveries that morning, and the cop elected to go with them, and question Peter later. En route, he told them they’d had no reports of a warehouse fire.

“There’s Watkins,” Hoss added.

“Let’s stop him,” ordered Sergeant Smith. He drew his gun, and went boldly into the street. “John Watkins! I want to talk to you!”

Surprise was clearly written on Watkins face, but it didn’t slow him down. He drew his gun and fired. From behind him, his men also began firing. Ben and the boys dived for cover one way, and Sgt Smith went the other way.

For a few minutes, they exchanged fire with Watkins and his men, then Adam finally got lucky and winged the foreman. He went down, and took the barrel he and another were using for cover with him. It took as little as that for the heart to go out of Watkins’ men. In short order, they had all thrown down their guns, and Smith was arresting them all.

“Where’s my son?” Ben demanded, looming over Watkins.

“How should I know?” Watkins asked, sneering.

For a moment, it seemed as though Ben would lose control and throttle Watkins. Smith stepped in. “You men cover them while I get help,” he ordered. He gave Ben a steel-eyed glare. “I don’t expect to come back and find any of them beaten up,” he added, pointedly.

“You won’t,” Ben assured him.

The waiting seemed interminable to the Cartwrights. It took Smith about 15 minutes to return with reinforcements. Gratefully, They turned the men over to the police, who began to herd them away. Watkins had a sneer on his face. Smith thanked the Cartwrights.

“We’re going into the warehouse to look for my son,” Ben said.

“Good luck,” Smith said, but his mind was on his own concerns.

“Pa,” Adam said. “Look! Smoke!”

The end wall of the warehouse was smoldering. “I’ll get help,” Smith said. The Cartwrights ran across the street.

Entering the building, they looked at each other. It was empty and echoing, with smoke curling lazily along one wall. Adam spotted the raised office, and sprinted up the few steps. He looked down at his family and shook his head. “Joe!” Ben shouted. “Joe! Can you hear me?”

Silence. Hoss took a few steps away from the others and peered at a stain on the floor at the bottom of the steps. “Blood,” he said, softly. He looked around and spotted something further over, near the edge of the dock. The water, dark and murky, was quite high. “More blood,” said Hoss.

Crossing to where Hoss was standing, Ben looked despairing. “How old?” he asked.

Hoss crouched down. “Not long ago,” he commented. “Less than an hour.”

“Joe!” Ben shouted.

“Listen!” Hoss exclaimed. He tipped his head. Adam and Ben exchanged a glance. They had heard nothing. “Its coming from down there,” Hoss said. He crawled to the edge of the dock and peered underneath. “Joe!”

Shoving each other in their haste to see what Hoss could see, Ben and Adam knelt at the water’s edge. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the gloom, but what they saw caused Ben’s heart to almost stop. Joe was bound to a piling, and the water was lapping at his chin. His pitiful whimpers just reached his father’s ears. “Hang on, Joe,” Ben shouted. “We’re coming!”

Shucking his boots and coat, Adam retrieved his knife from his boot and dived into the water, Hoss copying him. Ben knelt on the dockside and watched anxiously. The tide was rushing in, and they didn’t know it, but it was the highest tide of the week, and came in very fast.

Working as fast as they could in the frigid water, Adam sawed at Joe’s bonds as Hoss ripped the gag off, and supported Joe’s weight. “We got ya, Shortshanks,” Hoss puffed.

Opening his mouth to say something, Joe swallowed a mouthful of brine and choked. He coughed and spluttered, and rested his head on Hoss’ broad shoulder. Alarmed, Hoss quickly lifted Joe’s head, and smiled into the glazed green eyes. “Just you hold your head up, young ’un,” Hoss instructed him.

On the dock, Ben looked anxiously at the smoke. It still curled along the wall, but there were no flames to speak of. Ben realized that the whole place was so damp; it would take a while for the flames to catch hold. He hoped they wouldn’t catch until Joe was safe.

The final strand of rope binding Joe to the piling severed, and Hoss found himself supporting all Joe’s weight. He turned Joe over, so Joe was on his back, and began to swim back to the edge of the dock. Adam followed, guiding Hoss. Ben breathed a sigh of relief. He reached over the edge and grasped Joe under the arms and pulled him onto the dock. Adam and Hoss climbed out, and Adam continued to work on the water sodden rope binding his younger brother.

Drawing Joe into a close embrace, Ben wiped water from his face. “Joe!” he said, and there was such thankfulness in his voice, that Hoss found he was blinking back tears.

“Pa,” Joe answered. He coughed again, and began to shiver. Adam cut through the last rope, and eased the frayed ends from his brother’s bleeding wrists. Joe winced as Adam helped him sit up. “Watkins, Pa. He loaded crates onto a ship, and it left. He put me …. there.”

“Easy, son,” Ben soothed. He stripped off his coat and wrapped it round Joe. “Watkins is under arrest. Don’t worry.” He looked at Hoss and Adam. “Hurry and put your coats on, boys. I don’t want you catch cold. We’ve got to get Joe to the hospital.” He smoothed a hand through Joe’s wet curls. “Can you walk, son?”

“Yeah,” Joe said, but he was proved wrong when he stood up. His legs were weak and trembling, and numb from the cold water. Adam swung Joe’s arm over his shoulders, but Joe cried out in pain. Hoss solved the problem by picking Joe up. It was all too much for Joe. He slipped into darkness.

*****

How much time passed before Joe woke again, he never knew. Ben was sitting by his bedside, and the sky was darkening outside his window. Joe moved, but his body rebelled and a groan escaped Joe’s split lips. Ben reacted at once, and took Joe’s hand, smiling. “Welcome back,” he said. “How do you feel, son?”

Trying a smile, Joe replied, “I’m fine.” But the smile was no more convincing than his words. Ben wasn’t deceived. He said nothing, just continued smiling. Joe sighed. “All right, not so fine.” He moved minutely again, and wished he hadn’t. A shiver ran down his spine. “Thank goodness you came,” he added.

“The police want to talk to you. Not today, but tomorrow, depending on how you are.” Ben stroked his son’s head. Joe moved his head, looking round. “Hoss and Adam are back at the hotel getting into dry clothes. They should be back soon.” Ben swallowed. “Joe, you took quite a beating.”

“What have I broken this time?” Joe asked, wryly. He closed his eyes for a moment.

“Ribs, and your shoulder blade.”

The green eyes opened wide, and fastened on Ben’s face. “Huh?”

“Your left shoulder blade.”

“Well, that’s a new one,” Joe said, blankly. “I wonder how… Oh, I remember. The crowbar.” He shuddered again and winced. “Good thing it didn’t hit my head,” he commented lightly, but Ben was shocked.

“You mean that whoever hit you with a crowbar was aiming at your head?”

“Sure,” Joe agreed. “How long will that take to heal?” he asked.

“Nobody seems to know,” Ben commented dryly. “Its not the most common of injuries. If it hadn’t been for the bruise on your back, they might not have probed. But they did, and you’ve caused a lot of interest.”

“Oh,” Joe said, and his own interest in his injury faded. He closed his eyes again. “How’s Peter?” he asked.

“Conscious, and on the mend,” Ben replied. “Adam is going in to tell them about you, and Watkins, when he comes back.”

“Good,” Joe stated. He opened his eyes as he heard someone at the door.

It was Hoss. “Hey, Shortshanks,” he said, sounding pleased. “You done wake up.”

“Yup,” Joe agreed, smiling slightly. His split lip was obviously troubling him. “Can I get a drink, Pa?”

Hoss poured some water into a glass, and Ben eased Joe upright. His left arm was bound to his side and across his chest, but even so, it was painful. Joe drank gratefully, and lay down again. His head was pounding. He heard the door open again, and looked round to see Susie and Adam. “Hi,” he said.

For a moment, it looked like Susie might cry, but she swiftly got herself under control. “Oh, Joe,” she said, and there was the tiniest quaver in her voice. “Every time you come to my rescue, you get hurt.” Tears filled her eyes again.

“He gets hurt every time he gets out of bed,” Adam commented, dryly, and broke the atmosphere. Everyone laughed, though Joe caught his breath at the pain stabbing through his ribs and back. “Its not your fault.”

They talked for a few minutes longer, but Ben could see that Joe was tiring, and ushered everyone out. He was staying with Joe for the night.

*****

A week later, Susie kissed Joe, and stepped back. “Be careful,” she ordered. Joe had testified that Watkins men had beaten him up and left him to die. Peter had testified that Watkins had attacked him, after he had spotted discrepancies in their books. The boat had been stopped before it left the bay, and Watkins illegal goods had been seized. Peter’s business had been saved. As Peter, with Adam’s help, had looked closer into Watkins’ doings, he discovered the man was a genius at misdirection. It was fortunate he had been stopped when he had been, or Peter and Susie could have lost everything, and Peter might have gone to jail.

“I second that,” Peter agreed. He had baby Josephine in his arms. “Come back and visit real soon,” he said.

“Thanks,” Joe said. “I will.” He turned to the woman standing next to Susie. “Goodbye, Katja. Take care of these three for me.”

“Always,” Katja assured him. She kissed his cheek.

Moving carefully, for he was still very sore, Joe nodded to Ben. “I’m ready,” he said, and Ben helped him into the stage.

“Goodbye, Susie,” Ben said, and hugged her warmly. He shook hands with Peter and climbed into the stage.

With a crack of his whip, the driver got the horses in motion. Susie waved. The Cartwrights all waved back, then the coach turned a corner and they were gone. Susie took the baby from Peter and laid her in the pram. “Let’s get you home,” she said to Peter.

As they walked, Katja commented, “Susie, I’ll never doubt anything you tell me about Joe Cartwright again!”

With a grin, Susie said, “I should think not, either!”

*****End*****

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