Summary: You read the drabble, now read the whole story.
Word Count: 4,390
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” Adam Cartwright asked, sarcastically. He stood in the barn doorway, with his hands on his hips. He did not look pleased.
Guiltily, Joe Cartwright, his youngest brother, started. “You gave me a fright, Adam,” he said, hoping that he would be able to distract Adam from what his brother would think was his latest mis-deed.
“That isn’t an answer,” Adam returned, advancing into the barn. He picked up the cloth Joe was supposed to be polishing the saddles with, and handed it to his brother. “What do you think you are doing? You’re supposed to be cleaning the saddles.” He took the epee from his brother’s hand and examined it closely, as though he had never seen it before. “Does Pa know you’re playing around out here with this?”
“I’m not playing, I’m practicing,” Joe retorted, beginning to feel annoyed. He was an adult, and as long as his work got done, he felt he should be able to take a little time to himself every now and then. “Give me it back.” He dropped the cloth once more, and reached for the epee.
“Uh-uh,” Adam chided, taking a swift step backwards. “You get your work done, then you can play.”
“Damn it, Adam, I told you all ready,” Joe snapped, his temper well and truly up. “I wasn’t playing I was practicing.”
“For what?” Turning away so Joe still couldn’t get hold of the slender blade, Adam glanced back over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow. It was a pose guaranteed to rile Joe, and it didn’t fail this time, either.
“When it’s any of your business, I’ll tell you!” Joe snapped. He lunged for the blade as Adam moved once more, and was lucky not to cut his hand on the edge. They both froze, shaken by the near accident. Joe put his hand out, and Adam placed the epee onto it. They glared at one another for a minute, and then Adam shrugged.
“Sorry,” he said, but he didn’t sound all that sorry to Joe. However, the breach had been made, and Joe tried to be conciliatory, too.
“I promised Jake Hunter and his buddies a few lessons, that’s all,” he said, still sounding sulky.
The precarious peace of only seconds before was shattered once more. “Jake Hunter?” repeated Adam. “Why? What’s that low-life got to do with you?”
“He’s just a friend, that’s all,” Joe replied, his eyes flashing. “And he’s not a low-life! Where do you get off on calling my friends names?”
“Oh grow up, Joe,” Adam said, angrily. “They aren’t your friends. I don’t know what they want from you, but they aren’t with you because they’re your friends. Forget that idea! They want something from you.”
“You don’t know that!” protested Joe. “They are my friends.” He glared angrily at his brother. “You’re jealous,” he declared.
“Jealous?” snorted Adam, disdainfully. “Of you? I hardly think so.” His dark eyes glinted dangerously.
“What’s the matter, big brother?” Joe taunted him, pushed beyond the point where he could control his temper. “Didn’t they want to be friends with you? Are you too superior for them?”
There was no one who could get under Adam’s skin like Joe – and no one could get under Joe’s skin like Adam. They were both so angry that words flew without regard for the other’s feelings. But Adam had had enough. He lost control, and punched Joe in the mouth.
Reeling back, Joe landed flat on his back, the sword clattering to the floor from his hand. For a second he was stunned, but his blood was up, too, and he scrambled to his feet, ignoring the blood pouring from his nose. He took up a stance, his fists up, ready to let fly at Adam. His older brother, after a second’s hesitation, mirrored his pose. For another long second, neither moved, then Joe broke the spell and threw a punch at Adam.
The older man avoided it easily, and moved in on Joe, getting another punch through his defenses. However, the fight got no further than that, for the barn door crashed open, and Ben Cartwright, the boys’ father came in. “Hold it right there!” he bellowed, and hurried over to separate them. He glared at them in fury. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.
“He started it,” Joe spluttered sullenly. “He threw the first punch.” His nose was still bleeding, and his lower lip was split.
“I don’t care who started it!” Ben bellowed. “I am appalled at both of you! Get into the house, get to your rooms and stay there until you have decided to get along like decent human beings!”
Glaring at one another anew, they prepared to do as they had been told. Adam turned without a word, and walked away. Joe wiped the blood from his face with the back of his hand, and looked surprised at the amount there was. Shooting a look at Ben, he realized there would be no way he would get sympathy from his parent this time. He bent over to retrieve the epee, and sidled out of the barn. Ben’s face darkened still further when he saw the sword, but he was too angry to trust himself to say anything.
It was breakfast before Adam appeared, and in his usual composed manner apologized to his father for the incident the previous night. “I’m sorry I lost my temper,” he said. He shot a sideways glance at Joe’s empty seat. “Hasn’t Joe come down yet?” he asked.
“Since nobody has wakened Joseph this morning,” Ben said, tightly, “it’s hardly surprising that he isn’t down yet.”
“You want fer me t’go up and do it, Pa?” Hoss offered. He hated when the family were at odds with one another.
“Thank you, son,” Ben said, quietly. He watched as Hoss crossed the room and mounted the stairs. He didn’t know what had got into his sons the previous night, but he wanted it sorted out. However, he wanted them both there when he enquired into it.
After a minute, Hoss came clattering down the stairs, and Ben knew at once that he didn’t have good news for them. He rose to his feet, gazing at Hoss. “What is it?” he asked, as Adam slowly turned in his seat.
“He ain’t there, Pa,” Hoss muttered, as though this was his fault. “His bed ain’t bin slept in, neither.”
Moving towards the door, Ben gazed at the three gunbelts coiled on the credenza, and the three hats that hung on the rack. Joe’s were gone.
“What have I done?” Adam whispered.
“You look rough this morning, Cartwright,” Jake Hunter joked, as he roused Joe that morning. “Rough night, was it?”
“Rough enough,” Joe grunted. He rubbed a hand over his face, and took the coffee his friend was offering. “What time is it?” he asked.
“About 8.30,” Jake responded. He leant against the doorjamb and surveyed his guest. “So what happened last night, Joe? How come you ended up here?”
Taking another gulp of his coffee, Joe wondered how much he should tell Jake. “I had a fight with Adam,” he said. “I decided not to hang around for Pa to get involved.”
“So they don’t know where you are?” Jake said, sounding gleeful.
Shaking his head, Joe wondered now if that had been wise. Creeping out of the house like that would just make Ben even angrier than he had been the previous night. If Joe had been less angry at the time, he would never have made the decision he had. Now, he had to find a way to live with it. “No. I guess I shouldn’t have done it,” he admitted.
“Ah, they’ll get over it,” Jake said, grinning.
“I hope so,” Joe said, seriously. “Adam was pretty mad last night.” He unconsciously felt his nose, which was still tender. “We haven’t had a fight like that in years.”
“It doesn’t matter, though, does it?” Jake asked. “Its common knowledge that you and Adam don’t get on.”
Shifting uncomfortably, Joe thought that through. “We get on more often than not,” he denied. “It’s just that sometimes we clash. Like last night.”
“Oh yeah?” Jake said, skeptically. “That’s not what I’ve heard. I’ve heard that Adam would do anything to get rid of you.”
“Jake, that’s just rubbish and you know it,” Joe snapped. “Anyway, what are you so interested in Adam for?”
“I’m not,” Jake said, cheerfully. “I was only tryin’ to make you feel better.”
“I’m not much good in the morning,” Joe muttered.
“Why don’t you stay here till things cool down?” Jake suggested. “Take your time. Decide what to do.”
“What about your folks?” Joe asked. “Won’t they mind?”
“They’re away right now,” Jake said. “I’ve got the place to myself.” He grinned. “So go on back to sleep, Cartwright. You look like you need it. I’ll see you later.”
Nodding, Joe lay back down. “Thanks, Jake,” he said.
Pausing in the doorway, Jake looked back at Joe. “See ya, sucker,” he said, and the door slammed shut. Startled, Joe sat up, in time to hear a key turn in the lock.
In a second, Joe was out of bed, trying the door. He knew it was hopeless even as he did so. From the other side, he could hear Jake laughing. “Don’t waste your energy, Cartwright,” he sneered. “You’re there till your family pays up. And I don’t care who pays. Your Pa to get you back, or your brother to get rid of you permanent.”
A thorough but discreet search didn’t reveal Joe anywhere. None of his friends had seen him. He hadn’t been in any of the saloons the previous night, and Adam even checked out the local girls, too. He hadn’t taken a room in either of the hotels, and none of the boarding house proprietors had seen him. It was as though Joe had simply vanished.
With each minute that passed, Adam became more concerned. He knew that he had been in the wrong the night before, although Joe wasn’t completely blameless either. But Adam judged that, as the oldest, he should have been able to keep his temper. Now, all he wanted was Joe to come home.
“What about Jake Hunter’s place?” he suggested, dubiously. “Joe was talking about him last night.”
“Bin there,” Hoss said, gloomily. “Jake’s folks is away, and Jake said he ain’t seen Joe since the day afore yesterday.”
“How long has Jake been friends with Joe?” Ben asked. This was news to him. “Jake doesn’t seem his usual sort of companion.”
“That’s partly what we were quarrelling about last night,” Adam admitted. “Joe was defending Jake, after I called him a low-life.”
Rolling his eyes, Ben refrained from saying anything. If there was a way to make Joe do something, it was to tell him not to do it. Adam and Hoss even joked that if a job was difficult, all you had to do was tell Joe it was impossible, and he got it done. Telling Joe that his friend wasn’t good for him was a sure-fire way of making sure Joe wanted to see no one else.
The journey back to the ranch was essentially silent. When they got there, Adam took the horses into the barn, while Ben and Hoss went to tell Hop Sing that their mission had failed. He knew that their cook would have plenty to say about that. However, when he went into the house, it wasn’t a tirade of Cantonese that met him; it was the worried faces of his father and brother.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, and Ben wordlessly handed him a note.
We have Joe. Pay us $10,000 to let him go, or $10,000 to kill him. The choice is yours. Keep the law out of this if you want him alive. If you want him dead, Adam, just talk to the sheriff. You are being watched. We will contact you again tomorrow.
Lifting his head, Adam stared blankly at Ben. “Why would they think I want him dead?” he asked, in anguished tones.
“I don’t know,” Ben said.
Prowling round the room that had become his prison, Joe was fuming. Much as it galled him to admit that Adam was right, he had no choice. Jake Hunter had been after him for something other than friendship, and Joe had fallen for it, hook, line and sinker. Jake’s parents ran their ranch at a profit, but not much of a profit. There was rarely any spare cash. Joe realized that Jake had taken him prisoner to get money from his family, and he was furious with himself for not realizing sooner.
There didn’t seem to be any way out. Joe had smashed the glass in the window, after finding it was painted shut, but the window was too small to let his shoulders through, and he had cut himself trying. The door was thick, solid oak, and no way was he going to be able to break it down. There was no way out.
Pacing restlessly round the room, Joe wondered what Jake intended. Once he had the money, he surely knew that Joe would tell the sheriff who had kidnapped him, and Jake would go to jail. He swallowed. Surely Jake didn’t mean to kill him? He would hang for that.
Later in the afternoon, there were footsteps outside the room, and Joe braced himself. He had discovered earlier that his gun was missing, and he looked around for something to protect himself with. There was nothing. The door opened, and Jake came in, his gun drawn. Behind him came his three buddies, Hank Butler, Mike Caldwell, and Bob Jenkins. Hank had a rope in his hands, and Joe instinctively retreated.
There was nowhere for him to run to, but he put up a spirited defense. But before long, his hands were tied behind his back and he was dragged from the room. Outside, he was forced to mount Cochise, and they rode off.
They didn’t go far. The Hunters had a barn down near their biggest pasture, which they used to store the winter feed for their stock. During the summer, it stood nearly empty. This, Joe surmised, was to be his new prison. He was right. Despite his struggles, it wasn’t long before he was tied to a stout post, and then was left alone.
Resolutely refusing to give up, despite the beating he had taken, Joe worked at the rope round his wrists, but to no avail. As night fell, he was still a prisoner.
“I’d better not go into town,” Adam said. He looked pale, as did his parent and sibling. “If I should accidentally bump into Roy Coffee while in town…” He let the sentence trail off.
“Hoss and I will go,” Ben said. He looked strained. “We’ll get the money and come back here. I hope by then we’ll know what to do with it.”
“I hope so, too,” Adam replied. He stood in the doorway and watched them leave. He felt suddenly vulnerable.
It had been a long night for all the family. None of them had slept a wink, worrying about Joe. Adam was appalled that anyone would think that he wanted his brother dead. He was frequently angry or exasperated with Joe, and he often thought Ben was too lenient with him. But he loved Joe with the fierce protective love that he had for all his family.
Too restless to sit down to anything, Adam wondered through the house, and outside. He sat aimlessly for a while on the edge of the horse trough, then went into the barn. The last time he had seen Joe had been in the barn, and he had hit him. Not once, but twice. Adam absent-mindedly patted Sport, wondering how Joe was, and where he was.
There was a faint noise from the yard, and Adam drifted incuriously towards the door. A young man was creeping across the yard on foot, clutching a scrap of paper in his hand. Adam’s attention sharpened. He kept back in the shadows, watching. The young man crossed the yard, and tucked the paper under the doorknocker. As he turned, Adam drew in his breath. He recognized they young man as Hank Butler, one of Jake Hunter’s buddies. He drew further back into the shadows as Hank passed, not wanting to be seen. When Hank had gone passed, Adam slipped out of the barn, sprinted to the house, read the note and grabbed up his gun belt.
“Hop Sing! I’m going to follow Hank. Tell Pa and Hoss went they get back. Tell them to try the Hunter’s place.” Adam didn’t wait for a reply. He just headed off to saddle Sport, and follow Hank’s tracks. They should lead him right to Joe, he thought.
They were all gathered in the barn when Hank got back. “The old man and the fat boy went into town,” Hank reported. “I put the note on the door, like you said, Jake.”
“Good,” Jake said. “Now we just wait for them to arrive with the money.”
“They won’t come with money,” Joe said. “They’ll come with the law.”
Turning, Jake walked across the barn till he stood in front of Joe. “Did you say something?” he asked, menacingly.
Ignoring the tone of Jake’s voice, Joe ploughed on. “My family won’t pay you a penny,” he said. “They’ll come with a posse, and you’ll pay for this.”
“Will I?” Jake drawled, and punched Joe viciously in the stomach. Joe doubled over as far as he was able, given that he was still bound to the post. He gasped for breath. This wasn’t the first time Jake had used his fists, and Joe didn’t think it would be the last, either. But he was determined to show no fear. “Your old man has gone for the money. Funny that brother Adam didn’t go with them, don’t you think? Could it be because he hates you so much?”
“There’ll be a good reason for Adam not going,” Joe declared, hotly.
“Yes, there is,” Jake said. “Because he hates you so much.” He laughed. “Adam doesn’t want you back, kid. He wants you dead.”
“You’re a liar!” Joe snarled. “Adam was right, you are a low-life!”
With a sound remarkably like a growl, Jake fell on Joe. He punched the helpless youth repeatedly, until Joe was sagging in his bonds, blood dripping from his nose and mouth, and one eye swelling. But that wasn’t enough fun for Jake. He glanced around to see what else he could use to make his victim suffer, and his eye fell on the big whip. “Come on, boys,” he said.
It didn’t take them long to strip off Joe’s shirt, and tie his hands above his head. Joe could feel fear curling in his belly, but he was determined to hide it. He bit his lip. He hoped against hope that his family would come.
“Adam won’t come to rescue you,” Jake taunted, as the whip bit into Joe’s back. “He wants you to die.”
“He doesn’t!” denied Joe, gasping for breath through the pain. “He’ll come for me, you wait and see.”
Again the whip cracked, and Joe couldn’t contain a cry. “So where is he then, this wonderful brother of yours?” Hank cackled, as he took his turn with the whip.
The thugs were merciless and relentless as they slashed their victim.
“We want an answer and we want it now.”
“Go to hell,” Joe said, vehemently.
“Where is your brother? Why are you protecting him? He doesn’t care about you.”
Joe’s mind started reeling.
“Yeah, why isn’t he here,” they taunted him.
The boy was hurting. Did he really rile his eldest brother to the point that he’d abandon him?
Another crack of the whip. “Give it up, kid.”
A figure in black blazed into the room. “You touch him one more time and I’ll kill you.
Joe…I’m right here!”
Caught unawares, Jake, Hank, Mike and Bob spun round. Jake still had the whip in his hand. Adam had his gun drawn, and was shooting small glances at Joe while trying to watch his brother’s captors. Jake immediately took advantage of Adam’s shock, and the whip cracked towards him.
Too late, Adam tried to sidestep, but the whip caught him across the back of his hand, and the gun dropped from his suddenly nerveless fingers. Blood began to drip from his hand. Instinctively, Adam cradled the injured appendage to his chest, and Jake and his friends didn’t hesitate. They dived across the barn at Adam, and began to beat him up.
He fought valiantly, but they were too many for him, and soon, Adam was trussed up and flung on the floor at his brother’s feet. Joe hung in his bonds, head lolling, barely conscious. He peered down at Adam, and groaned aloud. “Adam,” he gasped. “Oh, Adam.”
“I’m sorry, Joe,” Adam mumbled, between split lips. “I failed you.”
“No,” Joe denied. “No, Adam.” He let out another cry as the whip cracked round his body once more.
Furious, Adam fought his bonds, as the thugs kept torturing Joe. It was torture to Adam, too. He knew that he shouldn’t have come alone, or should have waited for help to arrive. But he couldn’t just stand there and let Joe be hurt.
“Jake, that’s enough,” Bob Jenkins said, worriedly. “If you keep goin’, he’s like to die on ya.”
“I don’t care,” Jake declared. His face was lit with an evil glow. He panted from his exertions, but he looked as though he was enjoying himself. Adam looked sick. “I don’t care if he dies. Cartwright’s gonna pay to get his boy back anyway. What does it matter if one of them dies?”
“It matters,” said a hard, cold voice from the doorway.
With a startled exclamation, Jake whirled around. Ben and Hoss Cartwright stood in the doorway. Hoss cradled a rifle in his hands. He looked very large and very dangerous as he surveyed the four young men in front of him. Ben had his pistol drawn, and he looked furious. “Put down that whip, Jake,” Ben ordered.
Glancing down at the implement in his hand, it seemed for a moment as though Jake was going to try something stupid. However, the killing madness had drained out of him, and he meekly dropped the whip. “Put your hands up,” Ben ordered, and they did so.
With Hoss keeping them covered, Ben hastened across to his sons. Joe was practically unconscious. He hung from his bonds, his legs barely able to support him. Ben holstered his gun, put an arm carefully round Joe and reached up to slice through the ropes holding him captive. He had been prepared to support Joe, but the sudden transfer of his son’s weight made Ben stagger. Gently, he laid Joe on the ground. Only then did he turn his attention to Adam.
“Are you all right, son?” he asked, seeing the bruising.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Adam replied. “Don’t worry about me. How’s Joe?”
“He’s in bad shape,” Ben said, worriedly, kneeling by Joe once more. He gently stroked the youth’s hair, and Joe’s eyes slit open.
“I’m…glad…to…see…you…Pa,” he whispered. “How’s…Adam?”
“I’m fine, Joe,” Adam said. “I’m fine.”
Sitting in the blue velvet armchair, Adam closed his eyes and thought about going to bed. He was exhausted and sore, courtesy of the fight he’d had in the barn. Jake and his pals were now in Roy Coffee’s jailhouse, along with both the ransom notes. Joe was safely upstairs in bed, and Adam felt he could finally relax. Joe had been badly hurt, but he was going to be just fine.
“Adam?” Hoss said, and Adam opened his eyes to smile at his brother. “I was worried about ya,” Hoss said. “You all right?”
“I’m fine,” Adam replied, still smiling at Hoss. His younger brother had been a tower of strength all afternoon and evening. He had managed to take all 4 youths into town to the sheriff, and found the doctor, too. Ben had had the equally difficult task of taking Joe and Adam home
Adam hadn’t needed much treatment. His biggest injuries were the cut on the back of his hand, and some cracked ribs. What he needed now was rest. Paul Martin, the doctor, had been with Joe for quite a while now, but he had assured the worried family that Joe would be perfectly all right, given time. “I’m going to bed,” Adam said, and was grateful when Hoss came across to help him to his feet.
They went upstairs together. Without spoken consultation, they both went into Joe’s room. Joe opened his eyes and looked at them. A smile played over his lips and was gone. He was too sore to smile. “I’m glad to see you, Adam,” he whispered.
“Not as glad as I am to see you, buddy,” Adam responded. “I thought we’d lost you there.”
“I thought you might not come,” admitted Joe. Ben put his hand on Joe’s arm and squeezed gently. “We’d had such a fight, and I thought you were too mad to come look for me.” He gulped audibly as he tried to swallow the lump that had risen in his throat. “I’m sorry we fought.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Adam said. “It was none of my business, Joe. I keep forgetting you’re not my annoying little brother who needs reminded to do his chores.” He smiled. “You’re just my annoying little brother, and if you don’t do your chores, it’s not my problem, right?”
His joking tone of voice made Joe smile again. “Just be sure you remember that next time, big brother,” Joe responded.
Turning to leave, Adam hesitated half in and half out of the door. “I’ll always be there for you, Joe,” he said.
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