Blind Man’s Bluff (by Rona)

Summary:   Returning from a trip with Adam, Joe has an unfortunate accident. Things are then complicated when Joe is kidnapped.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating: T
Word Count: 9,220


 

“You’re very quiet, Joe,” Adam commented as they rode home. “Is there something wrong?”

“No,” Joe responded, glancing sideways at his oldest brother. “I was just thinking.”

“Well, that’s a novel occurrence,” joked Adam. “Was there something in particular, or just everything in general?”

“I was thinking about Jeff,” said Joe, soberly. “It must be pretty bad for him not being able to walk any more.”

“That’s true,” agreed Adam. “But he’s alive, Joe.”

“I know,” Joe answered, but he didn’t sound as though he was convinced by this argument. Jeff Fox, a friend that they often met at the cattle auctions, had been thrown from his horse during a stampede. His back had been broken, and Jeff would never walk again. When Adam and Joe had met him a few days before, Joe had been shaken. Jeff had seemed invulnerable, a giant among men, yet here he was, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his days. He was younger than Joe’s father, Ben. “But I can’t help wondering how you make an adjustment like that. How do you reconcile yourself to never walking again, or not seeing or hearing?”

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “But its something you just have to do, I guess.” He was silent for a minute, trying to imagine what it must be like. He couldn’t. “It wouldn’t be easy,” he said.

There was silence as they rode along. They had been in Sacramento at an auction, getting rid of some barren cows. The trip hadn’t been restful, but it had been good for the brothers to get away from their usual routine, and they were more relaxed now that they were on their way home. They weren’t carrying much money, and they had it divided up between them. Since Adam’s nightmare experience with Cain, none of the Cartwrights had carried much money if they could avoid it.

“Should we stop here for the night?” Joe asked, shortly after they crossed onto Ponderosa land. “There’s a pretty nice place for camping just up head.”

“All right,” Adam said, indifferently. He followed Joe through the woods to a clearing. There, they both drew rein in surprise.

There was a young man there, stripped to the waist, busily chopping logs. A tent was set up, and the area showed all the signs of habitation. Exchanging glances, the brothers rode across. “Howdy,” said the young man, wiping the sweat from his brow. “What can I do for you fellas?”

“This is the Ponderosa,” Adam said. “You’re trespassing, I’m afraid.”

The stare the man gave Adam was completely blank and Adam began to think that they might have trouble. “I knew I’d crossed a fence line miles back,” the man said, unhappily, “but I didn’t realize this was still the same land.”

“If you’d gone another mile that way,” Joe said, throwing a thumb over his shoulder, “you’d come to the fence line again.” He was annoyed that the man had ignored the fence line in the first place. He and his brothers spent enough hours making sure they were in good repair.

“Well, I thank you fellas for telling me,” the man said. “I guess I’ll stick it out though, and hope the owners don’t come up this way.”

“I’m sorry, but they already have,” Adam said. “The ranch belongs to our father, Ben Cartwright.”

“Are you going to evict me?” the man asked, angrily.

“Yes,” Adam responded. “This is our land, and we don’t want any nesters on it. Pack your things tonight, and be off the land by morning.” Adam kept his tone pleasant, but firm.

“Never mind,” he snarled, clearly furious. “I’ll just pack up now and be out of your hair.” He turned his back and began to throw things into saddlebags.

“Let’s camp here as we planned,” Adam suggested in an undertone. Joe nodded, and eased his hand away from his gun. Both brothers dismounted, and began to make preparations to stay for the night. They kept an eagle eye on the trespasser, who hadn’t offered them his name.

It didn’t take him long to pack. As he mounted he turned to glare at the brothers. “You’ll regret this,” he warned. “As sure as my name is Frank Williams, you’ll regret it.”

Not wanting to provoke him into violence, Adam and Joe just looked at him silently. With a last glare, Williams rode off into the forest. “Should we follow him?” Joe asked.

“No,” Adam replied. “Just leave it for tonight, Joe. We can check that he’s gone come morning.” He sighed. “I’ll start supper.”

Crossing to the horses, Joe gave them their evening feed, and checked their hooves. That done, he looked at where Adam was laying out the bedrolls. The frying pan was heating by the fire. Joe went to Williams’ woodpile, and picked up a couple of logs. He dropped them by the fire, and went back for another couple. It looked like it might be cold that night.

As he neared the fire, Joe realized that the top log he had in his arms was filled with fresh sap. It was a pine bough, and Joe made a mental note to throw the log away. Fresh pine sap could be quite explosive if thrown on a fire. The thought had barely crossed his mind when he tripped over something and fell to his knees. He dropped his load, and the logs spilled everywhere. The pine log shot from Joe’s grip and landed on the fire.

Catching himself, Joe was just in time to see the log roll slightly, and a huge drip of sap oozing from it. Then there was an almighty explosion, and Joe felt a stinging sensation on his face. Something hard hit his head, and he blacked out.

*****

“Joe!” Adam cried, as the explosion rent the air. He ducked as flying shards of wood spun crazily past him. He looked up, the danger over, and surveyed the wreck of the camp. The fire was burning fiercely, but luckily the fire pit was deep enough to stop the flames escaping. The frying pan had vanished, and Adam glanced round for it before spotting it lying about 150 yards away. Joe lay on his side, clearly unconscious.

Hurrying over, Adam knelt by Joe and stared at him, aghast. Joe had been hit in the face by a shower of splinters, which were still sticking into his flesh. The frying pan had obviously made contact, too, judging by the lump rising on his temple. But the thing that horrified Adam most was the damage to Joe’s eyelids. The splinters hadn’t stuck in his lids, for which Adam was truly grateful, but Joe’s eyelids were cut, and bleeding.

For a moment, Adam just sat there, paralyzed. As Joe groaned, and moved, Adam knew he would have to get the splinters out of Joe’s face before his brother came round, and did so carefully. By the time he was done, Joe was conscious. “Joe,” he said, softly, “can you hear me?”

“Oh my head,” Joe groaned. “What happened, Adam?”

“Joe, open your eyes for me,” Adam coaxed. “Can you do that?”

Wearily, Joe opened his eyes and winced at the pain. “That hurts!” he protested, and slammed his eyes shut again.

“I know it hurts, “ Adam said, “but you’ve got to open them again, Joe. Can you see?”

Reluctantly, Joe opened his eyes again. “Yes, I can see,” he replied. “But it hurts, Adam!”

“Its all right, you can close your eyes again,” Adam responded, relieved. He patted Joe’s shoulder. “I’m just going to bathe the blood off your face. This’ll nip a bit, all right?”

“All right,” Joe replied, tightly. Adam could feel his muscles tensing under his soothing hand.

As gently as he could, Adam cleaned Joe’s face up. Joe sat rigid the whole time, but the only time he made a sound or a movement was when Adam touched his eyes. With his task done, Adam debated about their next move. Joe’s eyes were clearly very sore, and Adam was concerned lest dirt get into them, and making things worse by causing infection. He came to a decision; one that Joe wouldn’t like. “Joe, I’m going to bandage your eyes,” he said.

He got the reaction he had expected. Joe’s eyes flew open, and he gazed at Adam in disbelief for a second before the pain drove them shut again. “I’ll be fine in the morning,” Joe protested. “Honest, Adam.”

“Listen, Joe,” Adam said, urgently. “Your eyelids are cut, and I hate to think what would happen if they became infected. Right now, your eyesight isn’t damaged, but I don’t know if the same could be said if infection set in. Which would you rather?”

The silence spoke for itself. After a moment, Joe swallowed visibly, and nodded. “All right,” he said, in a small voice. “Do what you think is best.” He heard Adam getting up and walking away, and realized that this was what it would be like for him over the next few days, until they got home and saw the doctor. He would be totally reliant on Adam for almost everything. He raised his chin in defiance of his fears – not of the dark, but of being helpless and vulnerable – and listened for Adam coming back.

*****

Watching from the edge of the trees, Frank Williams grinned as he saw Adam bandaging his brother’s eyes. Williams had been furious at being run off the land, and he thought he would just wait until the Cartwrights had gone, and then move back on. Williams was on the run, having been part of a gang of bank robbers. They had robbed a bank in Kansas, and made off with over $20000. Williams had split from his partners, and each man decided to take a chance alone. So far, Williams luck had held, and he had met no one who recognized him. Now, he was wondering if the Cartwrights would mention him to a sheriff. He decided that perhaps it would be best to make sure that they didn’t – at least for the time being. And watching Adam caring for Joe gave Williams an idea.

*****

“Is it dark yet?” Joe asked. He could feel the heat of the fire in front of him, and the bacon was just beginning to sizzle in the frying pan. It smelt good.

“Pretty much,” Adam responded. He glanced at Joe, and could see the tension and misery in his brother’s stance. “Supper won’t be long. Are you hungry?”

“Starving,” Joe said, a grin momentarily lighting his features.

“Pity,” Adam commented lightly. “I’d hoped that bang on the head would make you lose your appetite. Then there’d be more for me.”

“You sound more like brother Hoss every day,” Joe laughed. “Adam, you’re a hopeless liar!”

“It must run in the family then,” Adam retorted. “Because you can’t lie worth a damn, brother.” He forked some bacon onto the plate and ladled on some beans. “Here you go, Joe.”

Taking the plate, Joe sniffed. “It smells all right,” he said, doubtfully. Carefully, he scooped up some beans, and found his mouth. “Tastes ok, too,” he mumbled through a mouthful. “Hop Sing been giving you lessons?”

“Watch it,” Adam growled, but he was pleased at Joe’s kidding. They ate in companionable silence, and then Adam went down to the stream to wash up. Joe strained his ears, but he couldn’t hear Adam at all. His unease came flooding back.

There was a sound, and Joe turned his head. “Adam?” he said, hearing the quaver in his voice. His hand slid down to his gun, resting reassuringly on his hip.

“Its me,” Adam responded. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. Do you want some more coffee?”

“No,” Joe responded, feeling the tension ease away again. Adam would look after him, Joe knew that. “No, thanks, I think I’ll turn in now.”

He was soon stretched out by the fire, and his even breathing indicated to Adam that he slept. Gazing into the flames, Adam thought about the journey ahead. It would be slow going for most of the way. Joe was being very brave about the whole situation, pretending that it wasn’t driving him crazy, but Adam could see he was extremely uneasy. With a sigh, Adam snuggled down into his blankets for the night.

*****

They ate breakfast next morning, and Adam packed up the camp. Joe sat uneasily, listening. Adam had briefly taken the bandages off Joe’s eyes that morning to check for signs of infection, but thankfully, they appeared to be all right, although somewhat swollen. Joe had again confirmed his sight was fine, before Adam firmly re-bandaged his eyes. “I’ve just got the fire to put out,” Adam said. “Then we’ll get moving.”

“All right,” Joe agreed, listening to the hissing as Adam poured the dregs of the coffee over it. He could visualize Adam putting the coffee pot into his saddlebags. It made him feel less isolated. He heard footsteps, and held his head up.

“Come on,” Adam said, and reached down to help Joe to his feet.

“I’m not that helpless,” Joe chided.

“I know,” Adam admitted. “I just can’t help myself. Come on, get onto your nag!”

“D’you hear that, Coochie?” Joe said, feeling the warm, soft hair under his hand. “He called you a nag.” The pinto snorted and shook his head. Joe laughed. “He doesn’t like you, Adam,” joked Joe.

“That horse would say anything you told it to,” Adam retorted. “He’s not a reliable witness.”

Once Joe was mounted, Adam got onto Sport, and took Cochise’s rein. “Joe, I’m just going to backtrack a bit and make sure that guy from last night left, all right?”

“What ever you say, Adam,” Joe agreed, wondering what Adam would do if he protested. It didn’t come naturally to Joe to sit passively on a horse, but he did his best to be patient. Adam didn’t go far. The tracks seemed to be leading straight for the fence line, and Adam didn’t want to waste any more time over it. He wanted to get home and hand Joe over to Ben.

There wasn’t much talk as they rode through the morning. Adam’s mind was fixed on getting Joe home as quickly and comfortably as possible. Joe’s was fixed on keeping calm. He found it incredibly disturbing not to be able to see. His eyes were sore, and he worried silently about it. He had woken with a slight headache, too, which he put down to the knock on the head from the frying pan. The last thought provoked a small chuckle. It was ridiculous, being knocked cold by a frying pan!

After a brief stop for lunch, they pushed on. Adam estimated out loud that they ought to reach the ranch house by suppertime, which was a cheerful thought for both of them. They were both tired of trail food. Joe speculated out loud that they would get roast pork, or roast beef, or even, if Hop Sing thought it likely they would be home that night, a roast chicken. Adam thought they would be lucky if there was anything prepared for them, as they hadn’t been sure when they would get back.

“You really know how to chirk a guy up,” Joe complained. “What a misery you are, big brother.”

“Well, at least I’m not trying to rival Hoss,” Adam said. “I never heard you talk about food so much, Joe.”

“Its your cooking,” Joe returned. “Its enough to make anyone develop an interest in food.” He couldn’t contain a laugh.

Laughing as well, Adam was caught unawares as a figure jumped on him from a rock by the trail. He let out a cry, and fell to the ground as the weight of the other person hit him full on. Sport snorted and jumped out of the way. Cochise shied sideways, and Joe was almost unseated. He groped frantically for the loose rein, but couldn’t find it. “Adam?” he cried, hearing the noises of the fight.

There was no time for Adam to respond. He was wrestling with Williams, who had the advantage of surprise, and Adam was winded from his fall. He fought back as best he could, but he took a pounding. Williams managed to grab Adam’s gun, and sledged it down on his head. Adam sank to the road, unconscious.

Looking round, Williams couldn’t contain a grin as he saw Joe sitting on Cochise, with his gun drawn, but not knowing where to shoot. As silently as possible, he sidled up to Joe. Cochise edged away, and Joe brought the gun round, but he heard very little sound to tell him where to aim. Fear of accidentally shooting Adam was uppermost in his mind. So when a hand grabbed his gun, Joe flinched, and before he knew it, the gun was gone.

“Don’t move,” said a voice, and there was the unmistakable click of a gun cocking. Joe wisely decided to stay still. “Put your hands on the saddle horn,” Williams ordered, and soon had Joe’s hands tightly bound. With an evil grin, Williams stuck Joe’s gun into his belt, and led Cochise over to where his own horse was tethered. He mounted, and rode off, leading Joe helplessly behind him.

*****

Some time passed before Adam stirred back to consciousness. He put a hand to his aching head, and it came away sticky with drying blood. The lump throbbed when he touched it, but there didn’t seem to be much blood, for which he was truly grateful. Staggering to his feet, Adam glanced around. Sport was grazing a little further up the trail. Of Joe, there was no sign.

It didn’t take Adam long to locate the trail and he followed it for quite a distance before it led onto rocky ground and vanished. Sick with worry, Adam knew that he couldn’t look any more without help, and he reluctantly turned his horse’s head in the direction of home. Despite his headache which throbbed fiercely, Adam kept Sport to a ground covering lope, and rode into the yard of the ranch house a couple of hours later.

It was suppertime, as the smell of roast beef could attest. But Adam didn’t feel hungry; he felt nauseated. He slid from Sport’s back and staggered to the door and let himself in. He could hear Hoss talking, but the words didn’t seem to make much sense.

The sudden appearance of Adam came as quite a shock to his father and brother. He was white-faced and shaking, and there was dried blood on his neck. “Adam?” Ben said, disbelievingly. “What happened?”

“I was jumped, and he’s got Joe,” Adam said, sinking into his seat by the table. “Joe’s hurt, Pa. There was an accident in camp last night, and he can’t see.”

At those words, Ben’s heart contracted painfully. “How bad is he hurt?” Ben asked, urgently, and Adam gathered his scattering wits. Quickly, he told them what had happened, and Ben was partially reassured. But only partially. The thought of Joe alone out there somewhere, injured and unable to see was very painful. He took a deep breath to quell the panic he felt rising, and took charge. “Hoss, get the sheriff and the doctor.”

“Pa, I’m all right,” Adam protested.

“You’re covered in blood,” Ben said, bluntly, in a tone Adam knew only too well. Ben looked at Hoss and nodded, and the middle son headed for the door.

While they waited for Paul Martin and Roy Coffee to arrive, Ben gently quizzed Adam about the accident at the camp, and was reassured that Joe’s injuries weren’t life threatening. He was deeply concerned about Joe, but Adam needed him right now, and he could see that his older son was concussed.

Finally, there was a clatter of hooves in the yard, and the door opened to admit the people Ben had been waiting for with barely concealed impatience. He rose to greet them, and listened while Adam told his story over again. Paul examined him, and dressed the lump on his head, and advised a good night’s rest. “He’s concussed, Ben, so go easy on him.”

“Frank Williams, eh?” Roy said, thoughtfully. “There’s a warrant out for his arrest. Ben, I’ll be back in the morning with a posse. We’ll find Little Joe, Ben, don’t you worry.” He gave his friend a reassuring nod and left with Paul.

“Let’s get you to bed, Adam,” Ben said, but Adam protested that he could manage on his own and went off to bed.

Ben knew that he would be very lucky if he slept that night.

*****

It seemed to Joe that they rode for a very long time. He had no idea which direction they traveled in, and he had no idea of what time they stopped. He didn’t know if it was daylight or darkness. He was trapped in a nightmare with no way out. When they did finally stop, Joe was exhausted. Ever since the accident, he had been tense, and his muscles were shaking with fatigue.

Rough hands untied the ropes that bound him to the saddle horn, and Joe was hauled from the saddle. He managed to get his feet underneath him, and leant against Cochise’s warm side. It gave him a small measure of comfort.

“Put your hands behind your back and turn around,” the voice ordered, and Joe baulked.

“Who are you and what do you want with me?” he demanded.

The backhand slap caught him completely by surprise, and he almost fell over. “Do as you are told, or take the consequences,” warned the voice. “Put your hands behind your back and turn around!”

Warily, Joe did as he was told. The man had the upper hand for the moment, but Joe vowed to find a way to make a break for freedom. He winced as the rope was tightened cruelly round his wrists. Once his hands were secure, Joe was taken by the arm and led across some rough ground and dragged up a step onto a wooden structure. He almost fell, as the man leading him didn’t warn him about the step. He bumped into what felt like a doorframe, and knew from the feel of the air that they were inside a building of some kind.

“Sit down, kid,” the man said, and gave him a shove. Joe could sense something solid there, and when he sat down, he guessed it was a wall. He leaned back against it. He was no less lost, but at least he had a point of reference.

“You’re the man from the camp, aren’t you?” Joe accused. “Williams, wasn’t it?”

“Clever boy,” mocked Williams. “It gave me great pleasure to see what happened to you last night, boy! It certainly helped my plans.” He laughed sadistically. “Yep, it was real nice to see all that blood coming from your eyes. Your brother sure was concerned about you, yes siree! Pity I couldn’t have stayed to watch his face when he saw you were missing!”

“There’ll be a posse out looking for you,” Joe warned. “My family won’t just sit back and leave me.”

“They won’t find us until I’m ready,” Williams said. “I aim to get me a bit of the Ponderosa, and if I have to use the blind son to get it, believe me I will. You guys will be sorry you evicted me.”

“They’ll get you, Williams!” Joe exclaimed, furious. “Scum like you won’t get way with this!”

A hand folded into the front of his jacket, and Joe was yanked to his feet. He could feel Williams’ breath hot on his face. “You’re real cocky for someone who’s helpless,” Williams hissed, menacingly. “You give me trouble, and you’ll regret it, boy.”

“Sure,” Joe scoffed, recklessly. He was completely unprepared for the fist that crashed into his stomach, and doubled over, falling to the floor with a crash. He lay curled on his side, unable to catch his breath for several terrifying seconds.

“That was a warning,” Williams said, calmly walking away. Joe heard a door close, and wondered if he was alone. After a time, he managed to sit up, and leaned back on the wall. Williams was right. He was helpless right now. He began to feel along the wall, hoping that he would find a protruding nail, or piece of board that he could use to try and get free, but his questing fingers found nothing. Joe wouldn’t allow himself to despair.

*****

Later, Williams made a fire in the stove in the line shack where he had holed up, and cooked some bacon. He fed Joe, who ate reluctantly. He was hungry, but there was a residual ache in the pit of his stomach. He choked down what he could, and listened to the sounds of Williams preparing for the night. He felt his muscles growing tense as footsteps approached him again.

“Gotta tie your feet, Cartwright,” Williams said, crouching by Joe. “I can’t take the risk of waking up and finding you gone, now can I?” He briskly bound Joe’s feet, and then hauled his captive forward to check the ropes binding his hands. Finding them still tight, he shoved Joe back against the wall. “Sleep well, Cartwright,” he sneered.

The footsteps retreated, and silence fell. After a time, Joe heard soft snores from the other side of the cabin, and he relaxed. It took some time for him to realize that the ropes around his feet weren’t as tight as they had been. When he did realize, he wriggled carefully, until the loops fell loose around his feet. Slowly, Joe raised one foot, then the other, and shook them, hoping the rope would fall free. The small thud showed him it had. He froze then, listening to make sure the small noise hadn’t roused Williams.

Reassured by the continuing snoring, he eased across the floor on his butt, feeling carefully with his feet for obstacles in front of him. Joe had tried to rub the bandages off his head, but Adam had done too good a job of putting them on, and they weren’t budging. So he was forced to make his break for freedom much more slowly than his nerves could stand. Every instinct screamed at him to rise to his feet and run!

He was sweating profusely when he reached the door. He eased to his feet, and felt for the latch. It was awkward to open it with his hands bound the way they were, but Joe persevered, stopping often to listen to the sound of William’s breathing. The door opened slowly, and Joe stepped carefully outside, taking care to close the door silently.

For a moment, he stood there, leaning on the wall of the cabin, gathering his strength and courage before he started off. He knew it was a foolish risk, but the thought of being held hostage for a piece of the Ponderosa was too much for him, and he knew he had to try and get away. He didn’t know where he was, was tied up, and couldn’t see, but Joe felt freer than he had since Williams attacked Adam. Cautiously, he edge towards the steps he knew were there.

From the side of the cabin, Cochise snorted loudly. Joe flinched, and froze. He couldn’t tell if Williams was still asleep or not, so decided to keep going. Cochise whinnied. Joe hurried his steps, sure now that Williams would be awake. “Thanks, Coochie,” he muttered.

It was a nightmare journey for Joe. He tried to hurry, but stumbled frequently over unseen projections, and bumped bruising into trees. He fell to his knees more than once, and was trembling with exhaustion in a very few minutes.

“Cartwright!” shouted a voice from behind, and Joe tried to quicken his steps further. He paid the penalty immediately by crashing his head off a low-hanging branch. The blow was hard enough to knock him over backwards, and he rolled over onto his stomach, feeling something trickling down his forehead. He forced himself to his knees, but his head swam, and Joe was still kneeling there when Williams arrived a moment or two later.

“Good try, Cartwright,” Williams sneered. “But just not good enough!” He yanked Joe to his feet, and buried his fist in the youth’s stomach. He dragged his gasping captive back to the cabin, not caring that Joe stumbled many times. Once back, he threw Joe to the floor, and snatched up the rope. This time, he bound Joe’s feet to the table leg. “Don’t bother trying that again,” he warned, and kicked Joe in the stomach before returning to the bed.

Lying groaning on the floor, Joe knew that there would be no escape this time.

*****

The posse arrived at the ranch shortly after dawn. Despite Ben’s protests, Adam was determined to go with them. He pointed out, correctly, that he was the only one who knew exactly where he and Joe had been, and where he had followed the trail to. Ben capitulated, although he vowed to keep a close eye on his oldest son, who was still somewhat green about the gills.

It was almost mid-morning before they reached the spot where the attack had taken place. Adam looked shaky, but insisted that he was all right. As Roy examined the area, Ben forced some water on Adam, hoping that his son would last the pace.

“Where to now, Adam?” Roy asked, eyeing him with concern.

“This way,” Adam said, and soon picked up the trail.

As soon as Hoss saw it, he took the lead, and Adam relinquished his position at the front quite willingly. He felt dreadful, but his concern for Joe’s well being far out weighed his concern for his own. He hoped they would find Joe quickly, but some little voice told him this was a forlorn hope.

Soon, they came to the place where Adam had lost the trail the day before. “We’d better split up,” Roy said. “Ben, you and the boys go around that way. We’ll go this way. Fire a signal if you find anything.”

They rode off in separate directions, and Ben allowed Hoss once more to take the lead and cast around for the trail. He eyed Adam worriedly. “I’m all right, Pa,” Adam said, patiently.

“I know,” Ben replied. “If ‘all right’ includes going the shade of green you are right now. Adam, you heard Paul last night. You’re concussed.”

“Its not bad,” Adam said, knowing he spoke the truth, but feeling ill all the same. He hadn’t been stricken with bouts of nausea, which he counted as a plus, but his head ached relentlessly. “Besides, it would have taken you longer to get here without me. And we need to get to Joe as soon as possible.”

“Thank you, Adam,” Ben said, quietly, but Adam shrugged the praise off.

“He’s my brother,” he returned, softly, and no more needed to be said.

*****

They hunted fruitlessly for over half an hour before Hoss found the trail again. They quickly fired off a couple of shots, and waited anxiously for Roy and the posse to appear. Ben fretted silently that the shots would alert Williams to their presence, but there was nothing he could do about it. He had looked at the poster Roy had brought out with him that morning, and shuddered. It wasn’t a good drawing, but it was good enough for Adam to nod recognition at once. Williams had the coldest eyes Ben had ever seen. In his career as a bank robber, Williams had shot and killed 4 men. Ben could only pray that Joe wouldn’t become number five.

Another 15 minutes passed before the posse rode into sight, and they followed Hoss cautiously along the trail. Finally, after several miles, they came to one of Ben’s line shacks. The trail led right to the door.

There was no need to be careful, for it was obvious at once that Williams and Joe were no longer there. The door swung in the wind, and there were no horses in the lean-to. Ben dismounted and rushed into the structure. The stove was still warm, and the blanket on the bed was rumpled. Two dirty plates lay on the table.

Roy and Hoss scouted the area to pick up Williams’ trail again. Adam sat on the step, resting his aching head and longing to lie down. Ben paced restlessly. He watched Roy and Hoss talking and pointing to the ground. Drawn, he went over to them. “What have you found?” he asked.

“Boot prints,” Hoss said. He pointed them out again for Ben. “Whoever this was stumbled an’ fell a lot, Pa. Fell all his length there,” he added, pointing to another place. “There’s another set of prints coming from the cabin, too. Then they both go back. This one seems to have stumbled a lot agin.” Hoss didn’t say more, but they both knew that these prints belonged to Joe.

“There ain’t any blood,” Roy said, comfortingly. “Not here nor in the cabin, Ben.”

“Have you found their trail?” Ben asked, numbly.

“Yeah, right over here, Pa,” Hoss led the way over. “Looks like he’s goin’ back the way he come.”

“Let’s go,” Ben said. He went back to the cabin and looked at Adam. “Do you want to stay here and rest, son?” he asked, gently.

“I’m all right,” Adam asserted. “If you’ve found Joe’s trail, I’m coming with you.”

Quickly, Ben brought Adam up-to-date on what they had found. Adam looked at him soberly. “Let’s go,” he said, echoing his father from moments before.

Grimly, they mounted up again.

*****

Lying on the ground, Joe listened for sounds coming from Williams. He had been roused with a kick that morning, and Williams had forced him onto Cochise after a scanty breakfast. His hands were still bound behind him, and Joe had to concentrate furiously to stay in the saddle. They had ridden for a long time, and when they stopped, Joe had been more than willing to slide form the saddle and sit down. Williams had tied him to a tree and gone away. Joe hadn’t heard a sound from him since.

There was a sound, and Joe swung round. “Thirsty, Cartwright?” Williams asked, and Joe nodded. He gratefully accepted the water Williams gave him. “Time to go,” Williams said, freeing Joe’s feet, and hauling him to his feet. “We’re nearly there, Cartwright. Does that please you?”

Saying nothing, Joe concentrated on staying on his feet. His stomach still ached from the kicks he had received the previous night. He had learned to be wary of Williams. He obediently put his foot into the stirrup, and mounted with Williams’ help. He wondered where they were going, but he was determined not to ask.

The ride was much shorter this time. The horses came to a stop, and Williams’ came to Joe’s side. “We’re here,” he said, and before he could stop himself, Joe kicked out at his captor.

For a blind shot, it was remarkably accurate. Joe felt his foot connect, and Williams let out a cry. Joe dug his heels into Cochise’s side, and the pinto lunged forward. However, it hadn’t occurred to Joe that his rein was still firmly tied to Williams’ horse. The other horse took several steps before it balked. Cochise swung round as the rein tightened, and Joe was caught unawares, and slid out the side door, crashing to the ground.

In a couple of strides, Williams crossed the clearing, and grabbed Joe. “That wasn’t very bright,” he snarled. “You’ve annoyed me now.”

“Oh, you’re so brave when my hands are tied,” Joe shot back. “Bet you wouldn’t be so brave if I were free!”

“Me, scared of the blind man?” Williams taunted him. “I don’t think so, son.” He yanked Joe to his feet, and dragged him across the clearing, throwing him down at the base of a large pine. With economical movements, he tied a rope round Joe’s ankles and knees, tightening them cruelly. “Let’s see you get out of that,” he sneered, and walked away.

Gritting his teeth, Joe tested the ropes, but there was no give in them. He was still a prisoner.

*****

They lost the light, eventually, and were forced to bed down for the night. Adam was convinced by now that Williams was heading back to the clearing where he and Joe had first met him. Roy wasn’t so sure, and was making them follow the trail, rather than take a short cut that would have got them there by now. The Cartwrights chafed under the delay, but Roy was in charge, so they did as he wanted.

After supper, Adam lay down and went straight to sleep, and Ben was relieved. He knew that Adam was exhausted, and really should be at home in bed. He hoped that the next day, they would catch up with Williams and Joe, and that Joe would be all right. Lying on his bedroll, Ben begged the Almighty to spare his sons any further harm. It was another sleepless night for him.

*****

Next morning dawned cold and cloudy. The posse ate a cold meal, and drank water, rather than build a fire and waste more time. To Ben’s and Hoss’ relief, Adam looked slightly better, and he brushed off their concerned enquiries about his health.

They were soon mounted, and following the trail much more quickly than the previous day. It was almost as though Roy had become convinced overnight that Adam was correct, and Williams would be found in that clearing near the boundary.

As they drew nearer, and Adam’s theory proved to be correct, they slowed, and approached with much more caution. Roy sent Clem on ahead to scout the lay of the land, while the Cartwrights seethed impatiently.

Clem was back after a short time, although it seemed to have taken forever to the anxious family. The clustered round Clem to hear his report. “He’s got the clearing set out just the way you said, Adam,” Clem began. “There’s a tent pitched up at the back, next to the woodpile. Williams is sitting out front, cleaning his rifle.”

Crouching, Clem drew a rough map in the dirt to show the others. “There’s a fire out front, and Joe is tied up over here beneath a tree.” He marked an X on the map to show everyone.

“How does he look?” Ben interrupted, although he’d promised himself he wouldn’t do that.

“Difficult to say,” Clem answered, slowly. “His eyes are bandaged up, and he’s all tied up. I wasn’t close enough to see anything else, sorry, Ben.”

“All right,” Roy said. “Clem and I will come in from this side.” He drew a line, showing that they would come from Williams’ right. “Ben, you and Adam circle round and come on Joe from behind. Hoss, you come from the front, along with Dave and Jim here.” He glanced round the circle of faces to be sure everyone understood him. He collected nods from everyone and drew his gun, checking it. They all did the same. “Let’s go, and everyone be careful out there.”

They set off on foot, as quietly as they could. Ben could feel anxiety shortening his breath and he glanced at Adam to see his son’s face set and white with tension. They were so close, but anything could go wrong…

The thought had hardly crossed Ben’s mind when there was a shot! They froze, then plunged towards the clearing, their instructions forgotten. All that mattered was Joe!

*****

It had been a long cold night for Joe, under the tree. His hands and feet were already numb from the ropes, and he was worried that they would be seriously damaged if he didn’t manage to get away soon. But he didn’t know how to get free. The knots defied his every effort.

He heard footsteps, and a kick crashed off his hip. Joe winced. “Awake, Cartwright?” Williams asked. “Sleep well, did you?” He hoisted Joe to his feet. “Not very talkative, are you, boy? Good thing I like my own company.” Casually, he let Joe fall again, and laughed callously. “I’m gonna have some fun with you today, boy,” he said, and went off.

The morning passed slowly for Joe. He heard Williams walking about, and wondered what he was doing, but no power on earth could have forced Joe to ask. He knew that whatever Williams had in store for him, it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Footsteps approached, and Joe tensed. Then there was a shout from further away, and a shot rang out. Williams dropped to the ground, and grabbed Joe, using him as a shield. Williams gun went off very close to Joe’s ear, and the youth flinched.

Shots seemed to be coming from all around, pinging off the ground. Williams changed his grip on Joe, getting him in a strangle hold. Joe struggled helplessly. “Come any closer and I’ll kill Cartwright!” Williams shouted.

“You’re surrounded!” shouted a voice that sounded very like Roy Coffee to Joe. His heart leaped in anticipation.

“Anyone comes near me and I kill the boy!” Williams repeated. “Now, throw down your weapons and come out where I can see you!”

After a pause, the posse did as they were told and reluctantly came into view. As Hoss glared across the clearing at the man holding his little brother hostage, he suddenly realized that neither Adam nor Ben were in sight. He kept his gaze fixed on Williams, just in case his wandering eyes should alert the other man. To keep Williams attention on him, he said, “Are you all right, Little Joe?”

“I’m fine, Hoss,” Joe replied, but Hoss could hear the strain quite clearly in his brother’s voice.

“We’ll get you outa this, don’t worry, Shortshanks,” Hoss went on.

There was movement from behind Williams, but as Adam’s head appeared, the bushes rustled loudly, and Williams whirled, firing wildly in that direction. Hoss took advantage of his distraction and snatched up his gun. The rest of the posse did the same, and a volley of shots was fired. Williams jerked as at least one of the bullets found its target, and he dropped Joe.

Thereafter, it was a confusion of movement and shouting for a few minutes. Williams was still alive, although gravely injured, with a bullet in his lower back. Joe lay still, and Hoss knelt by him, his heart in his mouth. He felt frantically for a pulse, and it was there, erratic, but there.

Glancing up, he was relieved to see both Ben and Adam coming from the bushes, apparently uninjured. “Pa, quick,” he said, but Ben needed no urging. He knelt by his youngest son, and checked him over.

There was a bullet high in the back of Joe’s right shoulder. Ben swiftly unwrapped the bandages from his eyes, reasoning that Joe would need to see to be reassured after this, and Adam cut through the ropes binding his brother. “Look at these rope burns, Pa,” he said, in a low voice. Joe’s wrists were raw and had been bleeding.

With a groan, Joe began to revive. His eyelids fluttered before opening. He squinted disbelievingly at Ben. “Pa?” he ventured, then winced. “How’s Adam?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Adam said, leaning in so Joe could see him.

“Yankee Granite head,” Joe muttered. His eyes closed and he winced again.

“Make a travois,” Ben said to his older sons. “Joe’s in no state to ride home. Once that’s done, Adam, you ride back to the ranch and send a hand for the doctor. We’ll keep moving until we get home.”

“Understood,” Adam said, and they moved off.

“Joe?” Ben said, leaning over his son again. “Joe, your eyes are a bit inflamed, so I’m going to bandage them again, all right? I won’t leave you, son, so don’t worry. Williams is under arrest, and you’re safe.” Ben brushed the curls back from Joe’s head, and grimaced as he saw a gash and bruise running along his forehead.

“All right,” Joe said, but Ben could hear the fear running through his voice. “Pa, my shoulder hurts.”

“You’ve been shot, son,” Ben explained, gently. “The bullet is still in there, but we have to get you home to a doctor before we can do anything about it. Rest easy. Your brothers are making a travois.” He began to wind the bandage round Joe’s eyes again, and then laid his son’s head tenderly in his lap. After a time, Joe slept.

*****

It was a slow journey back to the ranch. Roy and Clem had rigged a similar travois for Williams. However, it seemed doubtful that he would survive the journey back to Virginia City. Ben couldn’t find a shred of pity in himself for the man. He had made Joe’s life a misery over the last few days, and had taken contemptible advantage of a man who couldn’t see. If Williams didn’t survive his injury, Ben wouldn’t grieve.

It had been dark for a couple of hours when the weary procession finally reached the yard of the Ponderosa. Joe was too exhausted to stand unsupported, and was running a temperature as the bullet began an infection in his system. Hoss, although extremely tired himself, picked Joe up as though he weighed nothing, and carried him into the house and straight up to bed. Adam, who had been back for some time, put the horses away.

Entering Joe’s room, Ben saw Paul Martin bending over Joe, examining the wound. He was chattering away nineteen to the dozen, reassuring Joe that he would be fine in no time. His voice was cheerful, but his face was grim. He glanced round at Ben, nodded, and reached for his medical bag. “Joe, I’m going to give you something to make you sleep, and when you wake up, you’ll feel better.”

“You always say that,” Joe said, his voice light and breathless.

“And I’m always right, aren’t I?” Paul said. “And don’t answer that, young man!”

There was a gurgle of laughter from Joe, and Paul applied the ether mask, and shortly thereafter, Joe was deep in a drugged sleep. Ben was firmly ushered from the room, and Hop Sing assisted Paul during the operation.

Downstairs, Adam made Ben and Hoss have something to eat, and they both washed up. After that, it was just a matter of waiting. Time seemed to stand still. No matter how often Ben glanced at the clock, its hands seemed frozen. But at last, Paul came downstairs.

“He’ll be all right, Ben,” Paul said, sitting down. “He’s running quite a little fever up there, but there wasn’t too much infected flesh to cut away. Give him a day or two to get over the shock to his system and he should be on the mend. His eyes are on the mend, even though they don’t look too good. Leave the bandages off until he’s regained consciousness. But I think you can leave them off all together in a day or so.”

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said. “Please, stay the night.”

“I’d like to,” Paul said, honestly, rising. “But I have another patient to see tonight, Ben.” He made a wry face. “If he’s still alive that is.” Collecting his hat, Paul left.

The Cartwrights went up stairs and into Joe’s room. Hop Sing gave them all a searching look before relinquishing his place by Joe’s bed. Ben sat down on the edge, and Hoss and Adam crowded close. Joe was still deeply asleep, his right shoulder bandaged, and his arm in a sling. The dirt had been washed from his face, leaving the bruises and scratches standing out in dark relief against the pale skin. His eyes looked swollen and red, but Adam could see an improvement in them since the accident happened.

After about an hour, Joe began to revive. He groaned several times, and then his eyes flickered partially open. His gaze fell on Ben’s face, and he smiled brilliantly. “Hi, Pa,” he whispered, and licked his lips.

While Ben helped him to drink, Joe squinted at his brothers, but they could see it was an effort to keep his eyes open. They didn’t need any urging from Ben to wish their brother good night, and head off to bed. It was already close to midnight, and none of them had had much sleep in the last few days.

“I’ve got to bandage your eyes again, Joe,” Ben said. He had deliberately not mentioned it until he saw Joe was ready to go back to sleep. It hadn’t taken long.

“Mmm, all right, Pa,” Joe slurred. “I’m tired.”

“Then you sleep, son,” Ben said, tenderly, as he did his work. And not much to his surprise, Joe was asleep before Ben had pinned the bandage into place.

About 5 am, Adam came in and relieved Ben so that his father could get some sleep. Joe had been restless all night, tossing and thrashing around, mumbling endlessly. His fever was high, but not uncontrollably so. Adam took over bathing Joe’s head.

Sometime about 7 Joe woke. “Pa?” he whispered. His hand groped in the air.

Catching his hand, Adam squeezed it, as he said, “No, it’s me, Joe. Pa’s asleep. He was up until about 5.”

Returning the pressure, Joe asked, “What time is it now?”

“Seven,” Adam replied. “Seven in the morning.”

Joe sighed deeply, and winced. He was covered in bruises, but he hadn’t suffered any broken ribs. “Do you know,” he said, “this is the first day in ages that I’ve known what time of day or night it is?” He swallowed. “Not since you were attacked, really. I lost track of time that first day.” He drank eagerly as Adam offered him water. “I sort of knew it was day time because we were moving, but I could hardly sleep, and I was never sure. It’s awful, being in the dark, Adam. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

“But you’ve coped,” Adam pointed out. “And in the worst of circumstances, too.”

“I guess,” Joe said, doubtfully. He yawned. “I’m tired,” he said, plaintively, and Adam laughed.

“Go back to sleep then,” he said. “I guess I can do your chores for you today.”

“Thanks,” Joe said, so sleepily that Adam knew he hadn’t got the joke.

*****

As Paul had predicted, Joe continued to run a slight fever over the next few days. He slept a good deal of the time, and Paul came out regularly to check on him. He reported, without any grief, that Williams had died before he had got back to town. Apart from a savage “good!” from Ben, nobody said anything.

They didn’t tell Joe for several days. Once his fever broke, he began to show signs of recovery. Paul kept a sharp eye on the shoulder injury, but it showed all the signs of healing very quickly. After two days, Paul took the bandages off Joe’s eyes and spent a long time peering into them, and asking Joe questions. Ben waited anxiously at the other side of the room. Adam and Hoss waited anxiously in the living room.

Finally straightening, Paul said, “Your eyes are fine, Joe. No damage at all. I don’t see any need for the bandages again.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Joe said, his eyes shining. He threw a glance at Ben, and his father thought how much he’d missed those loving glances from his son’s expressive green eyes.

“You can get up now, as long as you don’t over do it,” Paul said, wagging a finger at his patient for emphasis. “You’ve had a hard few days, and don’t forget that shoulder will need at least another 2 weeks to heal properly!”

“I understand,” Joe assured him, and was out of the bed before Paul was out of the room.

It was good to have Joe up and about again, although he obeyed doctor’s orders to the letter, showing Ben that eh wasn’t feeling as well as he made out. However, he continued to improve, and was soon strolling gently to the barn to visit his beloved Cochise.

But there was a change in Joe, Ben noticed. He was quieter than usual, and although it took a little maneuvering, Ben finally got him alone by the corral one afternoon. “All right, son?” he asked, casually, leaning on the fence.

“Yes,” Joe replied, but his answer wouldn’t have convinced anyone.

“Out with it Joe,” Ben said. “There’s something bothering you. What is it?”

“Adam said I coped with being blind very well,” he said.

Startled, Ben looked at him. “Your brother is right, son,” he said. “You did cope very well, and under trying circumstances.”

“That was almost exactly what he said, too,” Joe commented, wryly. “But I didn’t cope well, Pa. I was terrified! I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know if there was anyone with me, and I couldn’t get away.”

“Joe, anybody in his right mind would have been terrified,” Ben insisted. “That’s partly why people like Williams blindfold their hostages. It takes away some of their self-confidence, as well as prevents them identifying their captors. It’s a rather sadistic way of playing Blind Man’s Bluff, don’t you see? In that game, you take away someone’s sight, and try and make them find other people. Its done in the name of fun, but it’s the same idea. I think you were extraordinarily brave to try to escape the way you did. But you did cope, Joe.”

“How can you say that?” Joe demanded.

“I can say it because you came back to us whole in mind, if not in body. If you hadn’t coped, Joe, you would’ve gone mad. But one way or another, you found the means to deal with the deprivation of your sight, the same as you found the ways to cope with trying to deal with your imprisonment. Joe, you are a very strong personality. Lord knows, we’ve had some battles because of that, haven’t we?”

“We sure have,” Joe said, ruefully.

Clapping a hand on Joe’s shoulder, Ben said, “Because you are a strong personality, son, you’ll always be able to cope. It might not feel like you’re coping at the time, but you can do it. We never know what life will throw at us, and I’m glad. But you can cope, son. You don’t need me or your brothers all the time, although we’ll always be here for you, the same as you are always here for us.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Joe admitted, huskily. “Thanks, Pa.”

“You’re welcome, Joe,” Ben said. “You’re welcome.”

*****End*****

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