Summary: The true meaning of Easter is shown to the Cartwrights after Joe and Adam go missing.
Word Count: 10,635
“And I don’t want anyone touching that black filly,” Joe said, pointing to the glossy black mare in the corral along with the other mustangs. “I want to break her myself. I think she might prove to need special attention.”
“Right, Joe,” said Jeb, who was in charge of the horses under Joe. “She does look kinda dainty, don’t she?”
“If she’s as good as I think she might be, I think she’s just what Mr. Jackson is looking for his wife,” Joe admitted. “She’s the right sort for breeding from, too, so that’s an option if Jackson doesn’t want to buy her.”
“When do you want to get started on the rest?” Jeb asked.
“This afternoon,” Joe answered, looking at the sky to gauge the time. “I’m expected back at the house for lunch, then I’ll be back. An hour and a half, say?” He collected a nod from Jeb and glanced to where the hands were gathered. “Break for an hour and a half boys,” he called. “Then we get begun.” He saw the men start to move, heading to get their lunch, and went across to his horse and mounted easily.
The family were just sitting down as Joe strode into the house. “Hi, Pa,” he said, cheerfully and vanished into the kitchen for a quick wash up. He was soon at the table and lunch began. It wasn’t customary for the Cartwrights to be home at lunchtime, but this day Ben had news for them that he wanted to impart.
“I received a telegram from Geoff Smith, owner of the Silver Dollar Mining Company in San Francisco. He urgently needs a hundred thousand feet of timber to fill a contract that fell through. I’m going to meet him in Placerville day after tomorrow. Hoss, I need you to move the herd like we planned, and settle them into the new grazing in the west pasture. Adam, I need you to go and mark out a hundred thousand feet of timber for the mine.” He collected nods from his two oldest sons and turned his smile on the youngest. “Joe, I’m leaving you in charge here. You have the horses to work on, and I trust you to take care of anything else that crops up.”
“All right, Pa,” Joe agreed, easily. He no longer felt snubbed when he got orders like this. He knew that his contribution to the ranch was as important as anyone else’s, and the horses were his responsibility. He would have been loath to leave the horses to move the herd or mark timber for cutting. “When do you go?”
“Tomorrow morning,” Ben said. “I’ll get an early start, and I should be there by nightfall.”
“Any idea what kind of deadline Smith wants on this?” Adam asked, and they drifted into intense conversation about the timber. Joe didn’t listen very closely. He was thinking about the horses he would start breaking that afternoon.
“Excuse me,” he said, throwing down his napkin and pushing his chair back. “I have to get going.”
“You haven’t eaten much,” Ben said, doubtfully.
“I’m fine,” Joe said, grinning. “Besides, it’s better not to bust broncs on a full stomach! See you later.” He threw them all a jaunty wave and headed out of the door, buckling on his gun belt as he went.
It was a punishing afternoon. Even the best riders – and Joe was the best – got thrown occasionally. But that wasn’t the problem. As far as Joe was concerned, it was part and parcel of the job. The thing that got him down was the attitude of one of the hands.
Dennis Hardy was a bit older than Joe – somewhere in his late thirties or early forties – and quite clearly resented the young man who was his boss. Any order that Joe gave had to be repeated at least twice and Joe had little enough patience for that kind of nonsense. He was riding one horse when he saw Jeb talking to the man, but he was sure that wouldn’t do any good. Joe had met this kind of feeling before, and he knew it would likely end in only one way.
What Joe hadn’t expected was that Hardy would blatantly disobey an order that had come through the foreman. Joe took a long drink from his canteen and looked at the chute to see if the hands were ready with the horse he’d just come off. And there was Hardy, trying to force a bridle onto the black filly.
“Hardy!” Joe shouted. He stalked across, anger in every line of his body. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded. “I gave express orders that no one was to touch this filly! What part of that didn’t you understand?”
Glowering at Joe from under the brim of his hat, Hardy didn’t reply. He continued trying to force the bit into the filly’s mouth and Joe was even more enraged. “Drop that bridle, mister, and leave that filly alone!” he said, and the quiet tone of his voice would have sent shivers down anyone else’s spine. But still Hardy didn’t take the hint.
“You ain’t the boss here, Cartwright,” he said. “Your pa is, and I don’t orders from no one but him!”
“I think you might find you’re wrong there,” Joe said. “I’m in charge of the entire ranch for the next week, and if you don’t start doing what I say, you’ll be out on your ear! Is that clear?” He jerked the bridle from the man’s hand and pushed him away. The nervous filly snorted and danced over to the other side of the corral. Joe let her go. He knew that she would need time to settle down before he tried to work with her, and he was furious. Anger and horses didn’t mix.
Turning away, Joe didn’t see Hardy jumping at him. Jeb let out a cry of warning, but it was too late. Joe went down under the other man’s weight, but he came up fighting. They started to slug it out with Joe pinned under Hardy’s weight. However, it wasn’t long before Joe managed to throw Hardy off, and both men got to their feet.
There was blood on both their faces, but neither seemed aware of it. They wrestled back and forth across the corral, and Jeb decided it would be safer for both the fighters and the horses if he got the mustangs out of the corral. Quickly, he organized the watching hands into shepherding the horses into the adjoining corral. Turning his attention back to the fight, Jeb saw that Joe had almost got Hardy where he wanted. The older man had fallen, but Jeb let out a cry as he saw Hardy grab the forgotten bridle and slash Joe across the face with it. Joe cried out, and his hands automatically flew to his face.
There was no longer a question of letting Joe fight this to a conclusion in Jeb’s mind. He gestured to the hands and they spilled into the corral. But despite the pain from his face, Joe had no intention of letting Hardy win. He dived at the other man, who had relaxed slightly, assuming he’d won.
Joe’s uppercut caught Hardy right on the point of the chin, and all but lifted him off his feet. Hardy went down, too dazed to try and fight back. By then, Jeb and the hands had reached them and Jeb left Hardy to the others while he looked at Joe with concern.
His young boss peered back at him through the blood running into his eyes. Joe’s left eyelid was badly cut and swelling rapidly. There was a long cut down his left cheek, and a nasty bruise forming where the bit had hit him near the mouth. Joe managed a grin. “I got him,” he slurred, for his lips were split and swollen.
“You need to get home, Joe, and get your face seen to,” Jeb said, letting go of him.
“Yeah yeah,” Joe replied, indifferently. He wiped some blood out of his eyes, and walked across to Hardy. “You got a choice,” he said. “You work for me, and do what I say, or you can get your wages and get out. The choice is yours.”
“Damn your wages and damn you!” Hardy shouted, roughly. He had never been humiliated like that before. “You’ll be sorry, Joe Cartwright!”
“Get out,” Joe said, quietly, and nodded to the men to let him go. Picking up his hat, Hardy walked stiffly out of the corral and off towards the bunkhouse. Joe watched him go, then looked round at the men. “See you in the morning,” he said, and they reacted with relief, heading off towards their supper, chatting animatedly about the fight they had just witnessed.
“Can you get home alone?” Jeb asked, seeing that Joe was now feeling the effects of the fight.
“I’m fine,” Joe assured him. “See you tomorrow.” He patted Jeb on the shoulder and headed back to his horse. Joe knew that he would be sore the next day, but he didn’t worry about that. He was more than sore enough now without borrowing trouble.
At home, Joe lingered as long as he could in the barn, reluctant to face the reaction he knew he would get when he walked in. But finally, he couldn’t put it off any longer and he trekked reluctantly across the yard.
The family were already in, as Joe knew, since their horses were all in the barn. He opened the door to the house and slowly took off his hat, jacket and gun belt, rolling the latter neatly before laying it on the credenza. He hesitated before turning to face the family, who were all sitting in front of the fire.
It was Adam who looked at him first. “Joe, what happened?” he said, rising from his seat in the blue velvet chair.
Glancing over, Ben was stunned by the blood and bruising on Joe’s face. He was on his feet, hurrying to Joe’s side before he made the decision to do so. Hoss was at his heels. They managed a dead heat, Joe noted, wryly. “I had a small problem with one of the hands. It’s sorted now.”
“A small problem?” Ben repeated. “Joe, your eye…”
“I didn’t duck fast enough,” Joe said. “He was wielding a bridle.”
Getting a story out of Joe was like pulling teeth, Ben thought, as he guided his youngest over to the settee, so he could take a closer look. Joe’s left eye was completely shut, and the lid badly cut. His cheek had a huge welt on it, and the bruise by his mouth was quite clearly made by a bit. All in all, it looked very painful.
Bending in for a closer look, Hoss’ face was full of sympathy. However, he wasn’t above pulling his brother’s leg over this accident. “Good thing it weren’t Buck’s bridle,” he said. “All them medallions would’ve spoiled yer beauty forever, Shortshanks.”
“Hoss!” Ben protested, and Joe threw Hoss a baleful look from his one open eye. “Fetch me some water and the liniment,” he ordered curtly, and Hoss, not quite sure why his quip had backfired, obediently went off.
The worst thing about a fight, Joe reflected, was the aftermath. Not only did you end up stiff and sore, but you had to put up with stinging liniment and fussing! For the liniment did indeed sting, and Ben fussed endlessly, it seemed to Joe. At that point, he hadn’t seen his face, and so didn’t realized the extent of the damage. He tried to stop Ben from bandaging his eye, which of course involved bandaging round his head, too, but Ben was not to be thwarted!
Gradually, the story came out. Hardy hadn’t worked for the family for long, but he already had a reputation for being surly. None of the others had had any problems with him, but they were all aware that problems often arose with Joe because of his relative youth. For all that Joe was in his twenties, he could almost pass for a teenager. It didn’t usually take long for hands to discover that Joe never asked anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself, a credo that they had all learned from Ben, and then problems disappeared. But occasionally, they came across someone who stubbornly refused to work for Joe. The outcome was almost inevitable; Joe fought whoever it was and the man either knuckled under or quit.
Looking at Joe’s face as they ate their supper, Ben wondered if he ought to stay at home, but when he hesitantly suggest this, Joe all but jumped on him. “Oh, Pa, you can’t do that!” Joe said. “You have to meet Mr. Smith, and I’m quite capable of taking care of the ranch. I’m all right, honest. I can manage. Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you, son,” Ben said. “I just wondered if you felt all right. I’d hate to go away and leave you in charge if you aren’t all right.”
“Honestly, I’m fine,” Joe assured him in an exasperated tone. “And if something did come up, Adam and Hoss aren’t gonna be that far away.”
“You could go and mark trees, and I’ll break the horses,” Adam joked, and Joe glared at him.
“You stick to your job, big brother, and I’ll stick to mine!” he retorted. “I’m running the ranch when Pa’s away and that’s final!”
“Yes sir!” Adam responded and saluted smartly.
They all had to laugh, Joe included.
Early next morning, the family dispersed to their various tasks. Ben rode off to Placerville to meet Mr. Smith to discuss the contracts; Adam headed off to mark out the necessary amount of timber, and Hoss went with the majority of the hands to move the herd to fresh grazing.
Alone in the yard for a few moments after the others had gone, Joe felt a sudden pang of loneliness. Of course, he wasn’t really alone. There were the hands who were assisting with the breaking, and back at the house was Hop Sing, who, in all truthfulness, probably ran the Ponderosa! But the centre of the Ponderosa had always been his family, and Joe was never entirely comfortable when they were absent.
Shaking off the feeling, Joe mounted Cochise and went off down to the breaking corral. He had plenty of work to keep him busy over the next few days, and then the family would be back, and they would each have plenty to tell the others. It was only as Joe dismounted, prepared to start work, that he realized that this coming Sunday was Easter. He paused for a moment, then shrugged. He would just have to make up his mind to be alone that Sunday.
The days were busy, but the evenings stretched out ahead of Joe. He was recovering quickly from his beating, and although his left eye would take a little longer to heal than the rest of his face, it was no longer quite as sore. He read, but he missed the companionship of his family. He had a lot of time to think, and main thing to occupy his thoughts was the sudden harassment he was suffering. Several times, Joe had been pounded by a hail of stones thrown hard. Despite chasing after the perpetrator, Joe hadn’t caught him. He had a shrewd idea of who was at the back of it though– Hardy!
Mentioning it casually to Jeb, Joe discovered that Jeb, too had suffered. He’d put the loosened cinch down to a practical joke the first time, but when his cinch had proven to be consistently loose, he began to suspect that something was up. “D’you reckon its Hardy?” he asked.
“Who else?” Joe asked. “Keep a close eye on things, Jeb. I’d hate to see anything happen to you.”
“You be careful, too, Joe,” Jeb said. “You’re ridin’ back and forth to the house all the time alone.”
“I am careful,” Joe responded. He looked at the horses in the corral. They were all broken, apart from the black filly. Of course, there was still work to do on the horses, getting them a bit more than just green broke, but the majority of the hard work was behind them. “I’m gonna start on that filly tomorrow, Jeb,” he said, changing the subject. “I think she’s ready.”
“She’s sure enough gentled down,” Jeb agreed, joining Joe as he went over to pet the filly. “Reckon there’s some warm blood in her, Joe?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Joe said. “She’s a might better bred than the rest of this bunch. Wonder where the stallion picked her up from?” Joe stroked his hand down the filly’s glossy neck, and she turned her head to nuzzle his hand.
With a final pat, Joe and Jeb turned away from the corral. “I’ll send a wire to the army to let them know we’ll be ready for them the week after next,” Joe said. “That sound about right to you?”
“No problem,” Jeb responded.
There was a sudden shot, and both men ducked. Another shot rang out, and since they were both unarmed, Joe and Jeb raced for the dubious shelter of a wagon. “Where is he?” Joe breathed, looking all round. He didn’t spot the gunman, but what he saw froze the blood in his veins. Slowly standing, heedless of his own safety, Joe saw the black filly lying on the ground, a bullet hole in her neck.
It was late when Joe got back to the house that night. He was still angry, and sorrow for the loss of a promising horse was laid over it. He silently took Cochise into the barn, and was surprised to see Sport standing in his stall. He hadn’t expected Adam back so soon.
Feeling unexpectedly cheered by this, Joe settled his own mount for the night and headed eagerly towards the house to tell Adam all the news. He frowned as he thought of the dead filly once more, and vowed that if he ever got his hands on Hardy, the cowboy would pay for her death!
So it came as a huge shock when he opened the door, and saw Adam lying unconscious on the floor, with his hands bound behind his back. Joe’s eyes opened wide. “Adam!” he exclaimed, and rushed over to kneel by his brother.
The ominous sound of a gun being cocked froze Joe to the spot, his hands reaching to untie the ropes binding his brother’s hands. “Don’t move, Cartwright,” said Hardy’s voice.
“What do you want, Hardy?” Joe asked, as the man removed his gun from his holster. “What have you done to my brother?”
“Just hit him on the head,” Hardy replied. “I wasn’t expectin’ him to be here, but he’s proved right useful. Get the right bait, you can catch anythin’.” Hardy laughed.
“What do you want?” Joe repeated. He still knelt on the floor, his hands raised. He wondered what his chances were of catching Hardy off guard, but decided they were small when the gun came to rest on the back of his neck.
“I want to humiliate you the same way you did me,” Hardy snarled. “You think you’re such a big man don’t you? The boss, huh? You’ll learn.”
Kneeling there, Joe didn’t doubt for a single minute that Hardy meant every word.
Jolting along in the back of the wagon, Joe glanced once more at Adam. His brother was tied up on the other side of the vehicle, and looked to have no more chance of breaking free than Joe himself had. Hardy had forced Joe to hitch up the wagon, and then had tied up the young man before throwing him into the wagon and tying him to the wagon itself. Joe struggled fruitlessly against the restraint while Hardy went back into the house. To Joe’s horror, Hardy came back with Adam, and tied the older son to the side, too.
“Are you all right, Adam?” Joe asked. He knew his talking irritated Hardy, but he had to know if Adam was all right. His brother had seemed dazed for quite some time before he finally acknowledged Joe’s questions.
“I’m okay,” Adam repeated. His head thumped appallingly, and he felt a bit sick, but he was basically all right. He was too tired to carry on a conversation, though and he lapsed into silence once more.
“Stop your talkin’, Cartwright,” Hardy called back.
It was on the tip of Joe’s tongue to retort that Hardy couldn’t make him be quiet, but he knew that in fact he could. So he bit his tongue and said nothing. Once more, he peered into the darkness around him and wondered where they were headed. They had been traveling for hours, and by Joe’s reckoning it must be almost 3 am.
The wagon stopped, and Joe was grateful that the jolting was over. Adam raised his head and looked around. Nearby, they could hear the slap of water on land, and Joe guessed they were near Lake Tahoe. He looked with distaste at Hardy as he untied Adam and dragged him from the wagon. It was Joe’s turn next.
“Now we walk,” Hardy said, and gave Joe a push that almost floored him. The shove he gave Adam was scarcely less violent and Joe seethed at the treatment his brother was being forced to endure. But he was afraid to say too much in case Hardy took his anger and resentment out on Adam. He wouldn’t put anything past this madman.
They walked for a long time, stumbling in the uncertain light. Adam was practically out on his feet when they reached a cave. It seemed this was it, and Hardy shoved them unceremoniously inside. Adam collapsed to the damp stone floor, barely conscious. Joe moved to go to his side, but Hardy stopped him. “Get over there, Cartwright!” He gave Joe another push to emphasize his control of the situation, and Joe had no choice but to go where he was told.
He was pushed down and his feet were tightly bound. He glared at Hardy as Adam was subjected to the same treatment, but Hardy was oblivious. He flicked a contemptuous glance at Joe. “Now you’re gonna work for me,” he said. “See how you like being bossed about, Cartwright.”
“You’re crazy!” Joe stated, defiantly. “Why did you kill that horse?”
This was the first Adam had heard of this, and he raised his head and tried to focus on what Joe was saying. Which horse had been killed? Not Cochise, surely? The world swam and he blinked to clear his vision. He focused on Joe, who was clearly angry, despite his cramped position. Adam wanted to say something, warn Joe not to provoke this madman, but he couldn’t find his voice.
“That horse was gonna be special to you, wasn’t it?” Hardy snarled. “An’ you showed me up over it. So what else did you expect me to do? Let you sell it and get praise for it? You must be stupider than you look, boy.”
“You’re sick!” Joe said, disgustedly. Only too late did he see the blow coming and hadn’t time to duck away from it. His head rocked to the side, and he felt blood on his lips. Still defiant, he glared at Hardy. Outside, he could see the sky lightening as dawn approached.
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Hardy said as he went deeper into the cave.
Shortly after the sun rose, Hardy came for Joe. He untied his feet and yanked him upright. “No!” Adam protested weakly. “Leave him alone!”
“Shut up!” Hardy said, aiming a kick at Adam.
Seeing red, Joe threw his weight at Hardy and deflected the kick enough that Adam wasn’t touched, but Hardy was furious. Joe seemed to show him up all the time. Once, long ago, Hardy had had a younger brother, who was better looking, and more charming, and who got an awful lot of attention. He had been consumed by jealousy, and had engineered an accident for the child when he was barely ten. His brother had died, and nobody suspected that Hardy had been at the back of it. Being made to work with Joe had just reminded him of his younger brother and Hardy had been at breaking point when he and Joe had had the fight.
Dragging Joe to his feet, Hardy began to beat Joe up. He stopped when Joe collapsed, bleeding, to his knees, dragged the young man to his feet again and shoved him outside. He glanced at Adam on the way past. “I’d have thought you’d be glad to be rid of him,” he said, cryptically.
Not understanding the remark, Adam frowned. “If you harm him, I’m not going to rest until you’re hunted down, Hardy,” he vowed.
“Harm? I’m not gonna harm him, Cartwright,” Hardy sneered. “I’m gonna kill him.”
As Hardy left the cave, Adam made a gargantuan effort to stop him, but his attempt to get to his feet failed, and he crashed to the stone floor. For a minute, Adam lay there, panting, his active imagination following Joe and their captor away from the cave and up onto the hillside above. He was almost sobbing.
But Adam wasn’t the type to let his imagination run away with him. He was firmly grounded in reality, and his reality was to get free from his bonds and find a way to rescue Joe. He had no idea when Ben and Hoss would return home, but he knew that Hop Sing, their cook, would have come back from wherever it was he had been and notify the sheriff that they were missing. Or at least, that was what Adam hoped. But he had no idea of Hop Sing had been in the house before he himself had gone in or not. He could only hope.
So Adam struggled against the ropes that bound him. He fought them all day, but when evening came, he was exhausted and still a captive. And Hardy returned with the sunset – alone.
Hardy forced Joe up the hill, with frequent vicious shoves. Joe fought to keep his footing in the uncertain light. He didn’t know what Hardy wanted of him, but as long as it kept Adam safe, he didn’t care. Adam had clearly taken a severe blow to the head and Joe was deeply concerned about is brother’s welfare. He would have done or said anything to keep Adam safe.
But he hadn’t quite envisaged someone like Hardy. Hardy was unlike anyone Joe had ever met. He wasn’t quite sane, Joe thought. He wondered what was in store for him. What did Hardy have in mind? What did he really think?
What Hardy really thought was that Adam would be quite glad to be rid of Joe, the way he had been quite glad to be rid of his charming little brother. It never occurred to the man that not everyone felt the same way he did.
Reaching a large oak tree about a mile away from the cave, Hardy told Joe to stop. It was none too soon as far as the youngest Cartwright was concerned. Stumbling along with his hands tied tightly behind his back, after the beating he had taken, had been quite a chore. But Joe had been determined not to break down in front of Hardy. It was sheer stubbornness that had kept him on his feet, but he had managed to keep going. Now, he fell gratefully to his knees and waited to see what Hardy had in store.
It didn’t seem terribly onerous at first. Hardy forced Joe to sit down – not a hardship at that point – and bound his feet tightly together again. He drew his gun, and pointed it at Joe’s forehead. “Ready to meet your Maker, Cartwright?” he asked.
Swallowing with difficulty, Joe met his gaze. “I don’t have anything on my conscience,” he replied. “Can you say the same?”
“A conscience is a fairy tale,” Hardy said. “Someone made it up.”
“Its real,” Joe answered, having suffered through several crises when he was younger. He had quickly learned that a guilty conscience could make you as physically sick as an illness. It wasn’t something he took lightly anymore, if he ever had. He wondered if there was something in Hardy’s life that pricked his conscience and made him act this way.
“Who made you better than me?” Hardy asked. The question was serious.
Looking at him, Joe said nothing. He didn’t think he was better than Hardy. He worked just as hard, and got paid almost the same amount. He didn’t know where this resentment had come from. He didn’t try and put on airs and graces when working with the men – just the opposite in fact. He tried to show them he wasn’t afraid of hard work when it counted, and expected no less from his cowboys. But there was almost always one in the bunch; one who thought he should be handed an easy job with good wages on a plate, and resented Joe and/or his brothers for having this mythical job.
“I’m not better than you,” Joe responded, having had a lot of time to contemplate this sort of thing as Holy Week had gone on. Normally, Joe had a moderate respect for religion, but didn’t think about it deeply. But something about being alone on this most special week had moved him to think about his own good fortune, and he wasn’t slow to thank the Almighty for it. “I’ve just had different luck.”
“You youngsters always get everything handed to you,” Hardy said, almost absently. “You don’t have to work for anything.”
“That’s not true!” Joe protested, although he’d intended to hold onto his temper. It was always easier said than done, and he seldom succeeded. “I worked to gain control of the horses. If I hadn’t been capable, Pa wouldn’t have turned it over to me!”
“Sure,” Hardy said, scornfully. “Like your rich papa wouldn’t have given you a bit of the ranch to play with. Those brothers of yours must be sick fed up of wiping your snotty nose for you!”
But that was one area where Joe was no longer vulnerable. He had long ago learned that his father and brothers wouldn’t have let him be in charge of Hop Sing’s kitchen garden if he wasn’t up to it. However, Joe still hadn’t learned to think before he acted or spoke. “You must have led a sad life,” Joe said.
With a strangled cry, Hardy flew at Joe once more. The youth ducked and rolled away, trying to avoid the brutal punishment that Hardy intended him to receive. He was only partially successful. Within a few moments, Hardy had him pinned to the ground, and was looming over him with evil intent clearly in mind. “Little kids don’t deserve to live!” he muttered almost under his breath. “You ain’t as good as me!”
Trying to protect his vitals, Joe was soon wishing he’d kept his mouth shut. The world was swirling in large circles when Hardy finally straightened. The older man blew on his skinned knuckles and looked down on the barely conscious Joe with satisfaction. “I’ll rid your family of you, and they’ll be happy,” he said, and his conviction rang in his voice. He truly believed that getting rid of the youngest Cartwright would make the rest of them happy, although he hadn’t noticed any such thing in his own family when he’d murdered his brother.
Moving quickly, while Joe was still dazed, Hardy untied the ropes binding his hands. He stripped off Joe’s jacket and shirt and changed Joe’s position so that he was standing awkwardly on his bound feet, re-tying Joe’s hands so that they were stretched above him, attached to the branches of the tree. He laughed at the pain etched on Joe’s face. “Don’t go away, Cartwright,” he sneered. “I’m just goin’ to go an’ deal with your brother.” He paused. “Unless you don’t want me too.”
There was no hesitation in Joe’s soul. He ached from every place in his body, and he knew that he would suffer more. But he didn’t count the cost or hesitate for a single second, for he loved his brother more than life itself. He knew how often Adam had put his own life on the line for Joe’s and he was more than willing to do the same. “Do what you want to me, just leave Adam alone.”
“Really?” Hardy said.
“Really, just leave Adam alone!” Joe had no idea what Hardy intended to do to him, but he knew it would be bad. He was stretched almost on tiptoe, but couldn’t reach the branches above to help himself balance.
“Tell you what,” Hardy said, leaning in close to Joe. “You take what I give you an’ I’ll let your brother go free.”
Looking at the crazy eyes inches from his own, Joe knew he had no way to know if Hardy meant this, or if it was just another way to torment him. But he couldn’t refuse, for Adam’s life might depend on him. “All right,” he said, shakily.
Laughing, Hardy turned on his heel and walked a short distance away. Joe watched him go, his heart in his mouth. What if he were lying about Adam? Opening his mouth to shout, he saw Hardy stoop and reach under a large bush. What he drew out caused Joe to draw in his breath. He’d never seen one before, but he knew what it was – a cat o’ nine tails.
The beating went on and on, and Joe could barely breathe. He longed to pass out, but every time he looked like he was fading, Hardy would stop, and throw water into his face, bringing him back to full, hellish wakefulness. Joe choked on the water, too tired and sore to even shake his head to get rid of the sopping hair that dangled over his face.
Finally, after a time, Joe realized that the beating had stopped. His back was aflame and his arms ached mercilessly. He could barely support his own weight, and his legs trembled from the effort. Blinking, Joe looked to see if his tormentor was still nearby. To his immense disappointment, he was. He was drawing something from a canvas bag, and Joe gaze at the object without recognising it.
“Ever seen one of these, Cartwright?” Hardy asked, displaying the – thing – to his pitiful prisoner. He didn’t wait for a response. “Its used in asylums to force feed the lunatics. It keeps their mouth open, and’stops them talkin’. What a useful doo-dad, don’t yah think?”
Adrenalin began to pump through Joe’s system and he fought against his bonds once more. It didn’t matter. Hardy was exhilarated by Joe’s struggles, and he showed no mercy in forcing the awful contraption onto Joe’s head.
There were straps, which went round his head, and two flat metal pieces went into his mouth. Joe resisted, and his mouth was cut and bleeding when the pieces of metal were finally slipped between his teeth. In truth, Joe was fortunate that none of his teeth were broken as the metal was shoved home.
As Hardy buckled the straps behind Joe’s head, he thought it didn’t seem quite as horrific as he’d first thought. Although the taste of the metal in his mouth was awful and his tongue was firmly pressed against the bottom of his mouth, at least his mouth was closed.
But then Hardy began to crank a cog on the device, and Joe’s mouth was forced open. The pain was appalling as the metal cut into the tender corners of his mouth. Joe could feel the blood trickling into his mouth and he discovered that it was almost impossible to swallow.
“Lots of lunatics choke to death wearing one of these,” Hardy whispered. “I might come back an’ feed you later. Would you manage to eat without choking to death, I wonder?” He laughed at the look of panic in Joe’s eyes. “Or I could just go an’ kill your brother now.” He saw quite clearly that Joe was willing to endure anything for Adam’s life, even this. “Well, I have some more entertainment in mind. You just wait there.” He slapped Joe on the back, and the pain, which had temporarily been subjugated by the new torture, re-awoke with a vengeance.
“Oh, God, help me,” Joe prayed, silently. It occurred to him that this was Good Friday, the day that Christ had hung and suffered on the cross, and Joe wondered if He had ever regretted his decision to save others. Joe’s jaws ached from their unnatural position. What else did Hardy have in mind?
Fortunately, what he had in mind didn’t involve any more physical abuse, but was unpleasant enough. He returned with a sackful of ants and bees and emptied it all over Joe. Then he threw more water over him, and the enraged insects stung Joe in several places. The ants walking all over his skin made Joe itch like mad, and he could feel them on his abused back. Some even went into his mouth, and he retched uncontrollably. Hardy found the whole thing hysterical.
As the afternoon waned, he seemed to grow bored. It grew colder, and he smiled to himself. Joe hung there, his hands totally numb, barely able to hold himself on his feet. Hardy was highly entertained by the whole thing. Only one more thing was left to do. Joe had to die.
Crossing to his captive, Hardy unbuckled Joe’s belt and yanked his pants and drawers down. Joe began to struggle at once, and received a terrible blow to the stomach to quieten him. Quickly, Hardy untied his feet, stripped off Joe’s boots, socks, pants and drawers and stood back to look. Joe was totally naked, and Hardy grinned. He re-tied Joe’s feet, and then went away. Shortly after, he returned with more water and systematically soaked Joe from head to foot.
Goosebumps rose on the young man’s abused flesh as he stood there shivering in the icy wind that had risen from the lake. The sun was heading down fast, and Joe could see from the clearness of the sky that there would be a frost that night. He knew he wouldn’t survive it.
“You’ve been fun, Cartwright,” Hardy said. “I won’t bother feedin’ you. Why should I feed a dead man? I’ll take your brother home, don’t you worry. Aren’t you even going to say goodbye?” He laughed as Joe raised dull, pain-filled eyes to him. He lifted his cat o’ nine tails again and gave Joe a couple of strokes across his stomach. For a moment, he looked at the youth and then he simply walked away.
“Where’s Joe?” Adam demanded. He had struggled all day against his restraints, and had failed to get free. “What have you done with him?”
“I’ve got rid of him for you,” Hardy said, sounding surprised. “He agreed to give up his life for you. Good of him, weren’t it? Bet it’s a relief to know that he won’t be around no more. He were entertaining. I got a lot o’ fun outa him.”
He dropped a bundle in one corner, and Adam recognized Joe’s blood-splattered clothes. He could feel the world graying around him, and was glad to let go. He had failed Joe. He didn’t know if he could live with that knowledge. He was dimly aware that Hardy was moving him around, dragging him painfully across the stone floor of the cave, but he was too far gone to resist. When he did come to again, he found himself out of the cave.
Realizing that his captive was back among the land of the living again, Hardy untied Adam’s feet, yanked him upright and forced him to walk. Eventually, they reached the wagon, which Hardy had abandoned the previous night. “Get in,” Hardy said, giving Adam an appalling shove.
The older Cartwright was quite glad to be sitting down, although he was once more tightly bound to the side of the wagon. His head still throbbed miserably, and the ache in his heart was little less. Adam could think only of Joe, picturing his broken body lying alone on the hillside somewhere.
It was still dark when the wagon rumbled into the yard of the Ponderosa. Hardy jumped down from the seat and disappeared at once. Adam yelled angrily after him, and fought against the ropes once more, but they still defied his efforts. He had no idea how he would get out of this mess, but as he slumped hopelessly down, there was a sound behind him, and a voice spoke sharply. “Who’s there?”
“Pa?” Adam said. “Pa?” He could hear footsteps coming nearer, and twisted, trying to see.
“Adam!” Ben exclaimed, horrified. “Are you all right?” He was immediately slicing through the ropes binding his son. “Where’s Joe?”
“Joe’s dead,” Adam said, and was overcome by remorse once more. He could barely bring himself to gasp out the story, and see the tears standing in his father’s white, pinched face. “It’s my fault,” he said.
“Hush,” Ben said, supporting Adam into the house. He could see the dried blood on Adam’s head, and the blood on his wrists where he’d been tied. Ben’s heart was swelling, and he thought he might die from the grief coursing through his body for his youngest son. “It’s not your fault, Adam.”
It wasn’t long before Ben had the household roused. Adam found himself bathed, changed and tucked securely into bed, while Ben brought him up to date with what had happened on the ranch. Hop Sing had returned on Good Friday morning from Virginia City, where he had been visiting cousins. The door had been standing open, and when he went in, he found signs of a struggle. A quick search showed that Joe was missing, and since Sport was in the barn, too, he assumed Adam was missing as well. He had sent a hand to get the sheriff, and the hand had met Ben on the road, returning early from Placerville.
“Hoss should be back by daylight,” Ben said. “We’ll track the wagon back and find Joe, don’t worry. Perhaps he’s all right.”
“Hardy said he’d killed him,” Adam said. His exhaustion was beginning to get the better of him, and his eyes were closing.
“Sleep,” Ben soothed him, and when Adam was resting, left the room. He sat in front of the fire, waiting for dawn to break. After the initial moment of heart-rending grief, Ben now wondered if Joe was dead. Hardy might have said so, but there was no body – yet, he had to add. Perhaps Joe had somehow survived.
Dawn broke, and although Hoss had been riding for most of the night, he made no complaint at riding off with Ben to hunt for Joe. Adam had roused briefly and wanted to go with them, but he wasn’t fit enough, and to his intense disgust, he’d been left at home. However, he realized that he wouldn’t have been able to keep up, as he hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours and was as weak as a kitten. Still, it was galling to be left behind.
Ben and Hoss tracked steadily for most of the morning before they finally found the cave Adam had described to them. They found Joe’s jacket, shirt and boots, but his pants were gone. Collecting these items, they pushed on up the hill, following some faint tracks Hoss had found.
Beneath an oak tree, they found a confusion of mixed tracks, showing someone had come and gone a lot. There was a bloodstained cat o’ nine tails lying abandoned on the ground, and an odd looking contraption of metal and leather. They both looked at it blankly. There was rope and a broken branch, but no sign of Joe.
“You don’t think he come back an’ took Joe somewheres else, do ya, Pa?” Hoss asked. He was furious that someone had mistreated his brothers.
“I don’t know, son,” Ben answered, genuinely perplexed. “Let’s see if we can find any tracks.” They separated and began looking.
“Nothin’,” Hoss said, in disgust. “You find anythin’, Pa?”
“No,” Ben replied, discouraged. They had hunted around for well over an hour. He glanced around. “It’s going to be dark shortly,” he said. “There’s nothing more we can do here. Let’s go home and see if there’s been any word from Roy.”
“I sure hate to leave,” Hoss said.
“So do I,” Ben admitted. “But we don’t really have any choice. Joe isn’t here.” He led the way back down the hill.
After Hardy had gone, Joe hung there, shivering in the cold wind, his body rebelling against even that slight movement. His jaws ached from being stretch so widely. He wished he could die, just to get it over with and spare himself any more misery.
And then a thought occurred to him, a thought so monstrous that his eyes opened again and he stared blindly into the distance. What if Hardy was going back to kill Adam regardless? What if he did to Adam the things he’d done to Joe? Joe was so over wrought by this thought that he didn’t notice the whip lying at his feet.
But it gave him a reason to renew his efforts to escape and he fought his bonds, twisting and turning against them, heedless of the cost in pain from his back. He panted desperately, almost choking on his own saliva, for he could hardly swallow. He broke into a sweat, which the brisk wind chilled on his body. He didn’t notice any of these things. He was intent on getting free to rescue Adam.
It had been dark for some time when the branch above him broke. Joe had long ago given up expecting to get free. His movements had slowed to a standstill, and he sagged in his bonds. It was this sudden introduction of his weight that did the job for him. The branch snapped and he tumbled headlong to the cold ground.
Bruised, winded, Joe lay still, not believing his luck. As the blood began to return to his arms, they throbbed painfully. Gradually, Joe was able to sit up. For a time, he just sat there, but he knew he had to get free. Shuffling over the ground, he came to a boulder with a jagged edge, and began to draw the rope on his wrists over and over it.
It was incredibly painful and difficult, for Joe’s arms were leaden and he had little feeling in them. But he persevered, resting frequently, until finally the strands parted and his hands were free. Gazing at them in disbelief, Joe realized how swollen his fingers were. Would he be able to unfasten the straps holding the hated contraption round his head? After a couple of minutes rubbing his hands together, he began to fumble with the straps. It took several attempts, but finally the buckles yielded and the thing came loose. Gently, Joe drew the metal out of his aching mouth, gratefully closed his jaws and swallowed.
For a while, that was all Joe was able to do. He leaned against the rock and drifted in a sort of stupor. However, he roused as a particularly cold gust of wind hit him, and began the awkward task of freeing his feet. It must have taken him another hour to get them free, and by then, Joe was shivering uncontrollably.
Resolutely, he got to his feet and started down the track to the cave. Part of the way there, he came across his pants, and gratefully slid them on. After a resting, Joe set out again, aiming for the cave, but he was exhausted and his sense of direction had got turned around, and Joe wandered for quite some time before realizing that there was no way he was going to find the cave.
But his sub-conscious must have been helping him out, for he was heading towards home. Joe knew it would be a long walk, and he was barefoot, but he set off.
As dawn crept into the master bedroom at the Ponderosa, it found Ben Cartwright still awake. All the previous day, he had searched for Joe, and finally had been forced to stop by the onset of night. He had made Hoss and Adam go to bed, and had lain down himself, but he had never closed his eyes. Joe was out there somewhere and he didn’t know where. As of last night, Roy Coffee had had no luck locating Dennis Hardy either. Ben seldom felt the need to take the law into his own hands, but he knew that if he met Hardy, he wouldn’t be responsible for his actions.
Rising stiffly, Ben dressed and went downstairs. The house was silent, and he was alone with his thoughts. He poked up the fire, and went to make some coffee. The clock read 5.30am. Ben hoped his sons would be able to sleep for a while longer. His eyes burned and he rubbed them.
From outside, there came a sound. Ben cocked his head, wondering what on earth it could be. He rose from his chair by the fire, and was shocked rigid when the bell rang. He stood frozen for an instant before dashing across the room, throwing the bolt and yanking the door open.
An apparition stood there, clinging onto the bell-string. Ben gaped in astonishment. “Joe?” he ventured, disbelieving.
“Happy Easter,” Joe said, obviously disoriented, and collapsed in a dead faint at his father’s feet.
Complete pandemonium ensued as Ben called for help to get his unconscious, badly beaten son into the house. Joe was filthy and exhausted. Hoss, once roused, carried Joe tenderly upstairs and then hastened to get the doctor. Adam dragged himself out of sleep and hurried to help.
As Ben washed the dirt off Joe’s face with warm water, his son roused, and peered at him blearily. “Pa, he’s got Adam,” he said.
“I’m here, buddy,” Adam said, leaning in so Joe could see him. Of necessity, Joe was on his stomach, his back being too inflamed to risk laying him on it. “I thought you were dead.”
“I almost was,” Joe said, and slid off into a deep sleep.
They left him undisturbed until Paul Martin arrived with Hoss and Roy. Ben and Adam had speculated endlessly on where Joe had been, but they knew they wouldn’t get any answers until Joe was well enough to tell his story.
Escorting Paul upstairs, Ben told the little he knew. Paul went over to the bed, drawing aside the covers and gasping as he saw the broken, lacerated flesh there. He got to work at once, gently wakening Joe to peer into his eyes and check for a head injury before giving Joe a painkilling injection that sent him once more into the arms of oblivion.
For a long time afterwards, Paul was busy cleaning and stitching and generally working his magic on Joe. When Ben was finally allowed back into the room, Joe was awake, and lying on a huge pile of pillows. He was swathed in bandages, and had dark shadows under his eyes. However, when he saw Ben he smiled, then winced. “Pa,” he said.
“How do you feel?” Ben asked, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
“Sore,” Joe responded.
“I’ve given him something for the pain, Ben,” Paul said. “Everything will settle down again now that I’m finished with him. But he’ll be there for some time to come. You’ll have to be careful with his back. There’s some infection there, and on his feet, obviously.”
“His feet?” Ben said, not having consciously noticed that Joe had no boots on when he arrived home. He glanced down the bed in time to see Paul draw the covers back slightly and reveal huge puffballs where Joe’s feet should be. He looked back at Joe. “Your boots are downstairs,” he said, and Joe laughed.
“That’s why I couldn’t find them then,” he joked weakly.
Smiling, Ben ruffled Joe’s hair. “Can you tell us what happened to you?” he asked, gently, and the smile ran away from Joe’s face.
“Yes,” he said, but there was the faintest tremble in his voice.
“It would be best if we had Roy Coffee up here, too,” Ben said, in warning, and Joe simply nodded.
“Let everyone come,” he said, and he sounded tired. “Then I won’t have to tell it again.” He lay back against the pillows while Paul went to call the others. Ben put his hand on Joe’s, and found his son clutching his hand like a lifeline. Joe’s fingers were swollen and cold, and Ben gently chafed them.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” he said softly, and Joe looked at him, his eyes suddenly very green.
“I do,” Joe said, resolutely. “I must.” He swallowed. “But it’ll be hard,” he added, and tears suddenly slipped from his eyes.
Gathering Joe carefully into his arms, Ben held him close. “I’m here for you, son,” he said. “I’m always here for you.”
They heard the others at the door, and Joe moved slightly. Ben took the hint and helped Joe lie carefully back. Joe glanced over and smiled, wincing once more, at his brothers. “Hi,” he offered, and they both responded in kind, but although little was said, much was meant and felt.
“Can you tell us what happened, Little Joe?” Roy asked.
Starting at the beginning, with the confrontation over the filly, moving on to the harassment of stone throwing, via the shooting of the filly, to his kidnap along with Adam, Joe told it all. When he began to catalogue what happened to him on the hill, his voice quavered and broke. He couldn’t contain his tears, and the other men looked away, to allow him to regain his control. Ben helped him drink. Thanking Ben, he continued on, and told them of how he agreed to whatever Hardy wanted, to spare Adam’s life. Adam colored as Joe threw him a loving glance. It was plain to see his delight that Adam was indeed alive. Finally, he told them how he had broken free and trekked home. It had taken him all day, as he had to rest, and fell asleep.
When he finished there wasn’t much anyone could say. Adam had already crossed to the bed, and was sitting close by Joe, not saying anything and not touching him, but conveying what he felt nonetheless. It was humbling to realize that Joe had agreed to all that simply to keep him alive.
Mumbling something about a posse, Roy shuffled out of the door. Paul Martin, after giving Joe a final check over, followed him. None of the family moved. Hoss stood by the window, twisting his handkerchief aimlessly. Ben’s eyes were glued to Joe. He knew this boy, inside out, and it didn’t surprise him that he cherished his brother so much. He knew Joe cherished them all that way. But it didn’t detract from Joe’s bravery. He wanted to say something, to thank Joe, but he feared all his words would be trite and meaningless. So they just stayed there, in silence, but none of them felt isolated or alone. The atmosphere in the room was warm and loving, and Joe soon fell asleep. Only then was the spell broken, and the others went back downstairs.
When Joe woke later, he looked a lot better. The shadows were going from under his eyes and his eyes had regained their sparkle. But as Ben fed him some soft eggs, Joe was quite serious. “This is Easter, isn’t it, Pa?” he asked.
“It’s almost supper time,” Ben said, “but yes, it’s still Easter. Why?”
“Because I was thinking about that a lot this week when I was on my own,” Joe said. “And what happened to Adam and I was sort of like the Easter story.” He flushed as he realized exactly what he’d said. “I don’t mean to sound presumptuous,” he said, hastily. “But there was a willing sacrifice, and a resurrection of sorts.” He frowned and Ben forbore to interrupt him. “And I got a glimpse – the barest of glimpses – of how it must have been for Christ on that cross, Pa. The pain, and humiliation, and yet how it was worth it. I also know why he began to despair, for when something feels like its never going to end; you can’t keep trying to be cheerful. It all gets on top of you Do you understand? It made the true meaning of Easter so much plainer to me. ”
“Yes,” Ben said, huskily. “I understand, son.”
Very quietly, Joe said, “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whoso believeth in Him shall have everlasting life.”
Ben had never heard it said with any more meaning.
When Hardy hadn’t been found by the next day, Adam and Hoss both went out with the posse hunting for him. They had no better luck. By then Adam had told the odd story of how Hardy had thought he would be glad to learn that Joe was dead. Roy sent out enquiries, which came back with the news that Hardy’s younger brother had died at an early age. They assumed he was jealous that Adam still had Joe.
It was Jeb who unexpectedly found Hardy a few days later. He was on his way up to the big house to tell Joe that they were still on target with the training of the horses. He wanted to see how his young boss was doing, too.
As he rode into the yard, a shot rang out, and the bullet whizzed past Jeb’s cheek. Without hesitating, Jeb urged his horse into the barn, ducking as he went through the door. Safe for the moment, he slid from his horse and went cautiously to the door. The door to the big house opened and Ben stepped out onto the porch. A shot bit into the post near his head. With a startled sound, Ben ducked back to safety.
The second shot had given Jeb the chance to locate the gunman, and he slipped out the side door of the barn and eased through the corral. The horses there were milling about anxiously, and Jeb was able to use them for cover quite easily. Behind the bunkhouse, he looked up, and there was Hardy, lying on the sloped roof. His attention was fixed on the big house, and Jeb cocked his gun. ”Don’t move,” he warned.
Hardy turned and fired a quick shot, but Jeb was ready for him, and was no longer standing there. He was no longer alone, either, for Adam had been in Joe’s bedroom, heard the shooting and located the gunman, too. He had come out of the side door, and round the end of the bunkhouse, safely unseen. “Hold it!” he ordered, and Hardy took heed of the steely tone of Adam’s voice.
Herding the man into the house, Adam felt an almost uncontrollable urge to crash the butt of his gun over this man’s head, as a small payment for all that had happened to Joe. But that wasn’t Adam’s way, and he did manage to control himself.
It was difficult to say which of the Cartwrights was angriest, but Hardy didn’t seem to care. He slouched on the hard chair he was thrown into, and looked around with interest. “Not much sign of mournin’ here,” he commented.
“Joseph is not dead,” Ben said, clearly, and they saw the shock on Hardy’s face.
“I can finish the job if’n you like,” he offered. “These little ones is a real pest to get rid of.”
Although rage was nearly choking him, Ben decided to play along to get the man to tell them why he had done it. “Have you any experience?” he asked, shooting a glare at each of his sons, daring them to speak.
“Sure, I done in my little brother afore I was 10,” he said, proudly. “Nobody guessed it weren’t an accident.” He scratched his head. “There was others, but I ain’t always too clear on the details. But I strung a few o’ ‘em up. Want for me to finish the job?”
“Get the sheriff,” Ben said, disgust clear in his voice. “He’s going to be busy.”
Hoss headed off to do his father’s bidding. Adam and Jeb kept their guns trained on the prisoner. “Why’d you shoot at me?” Jeb asked.
“You’re the youngest, ain’t cha?” Hardy asked, sounding surprised. “Didn’t cha tell me you was the youngest?”
“And Mr. Cartwright?” Jeb persisted.
“He was gonna try and stop me,” Hardy said.
“I’ll be upstairs,” Ben said, and left before he could throttle the deranged creature before him.
“Don’t drop me!” Joe said, sounding slightly panicked as Adam and Hoss carried him gingerly downstairs a few days later. Joe was feeling much better, but it would be a while before his feet were up to bearing weight.
“If’n you don’t stop wrigglin’ like that,” Hoss puffed, “I am gonna drop ya!”
“Promises, promises!” scoffed Adam, who had to admit that their stairs were not built to take three abreast – or at least not when one of them was Hoss’ size. He tightened his grip on Joe’s leg as he felt his brother slip.
“Adam!” Joe protested, his hand clutching harder at the material of his brothers’ shirts.
“Honest to goodness,” Ben said, coming into the room and failing to hide his laughter. “Do you boys have to make such a meal of this?”
“I ain’t gonna eat him,” Hoss protested. “And I ain’t takin’ him back upstairs if’n he’s gonna wriggle like that.”
“I’m not wriggling!” Joe exclaimed, indignantly. “You almost dropped me!”
Still bickering amiably, Adam and Hoss carried Joe over to the table and deposited him in his usual place. “Supper downstairs,” Joe said, grinning. He was tired of being stuck upstairs. He didn’t even complain when Ben stuffed a pillow down his back.
“It may be a little late,” Ben said, when they were all seated, and before Hop Sing brought out the food. “But I thought about what you said, Joe. Easter is past, but this Easter I learned the story anew, and it means even more to me now than it did.” He bowed his head. “Lord, thank You for the gifts You have given us, and for the love You bore the world when You gave us Your Son. Amen.”
“Amen,” his sons echoed, and seldom had the simple prayer of blessing seemed so profound.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoso believeth in Him should not perish, but have ever-lasting life.