Little Boy Lost (by Rona)

Summary: Joe and Adam are held hostage on the ranch. But something doesn’t add up. Who is behind it, and can they escape before one or other of them is killed?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: T
Word Count: 12,210


 

The door opened as Adam Cartwright reached the bend in the stairs. He looked at it blankly for a moment, as he didn’t expect his brother Joe back so early. He gaped in astonishment as Joe himself came into view, supported by two men. But this was a vastly different Joe to the cheerful, carefree one that had ridden out earlier that morning. Adam barely had time to register it before Joe groaned, “Adam, watch out!”

At those cryptic words, Adam bounded down the last few steps and hurried across the room. The men came into the house, and shut the door behind them, closing out the wet, windy day. “Joe, what happened to you?” Adam asked, still trying to make sense of this.

The men holding Joe shoved him viciously at Adam, who tried to catch him, but missed. Joe tumbled to the floor, and Adam knelt by his side, gently turning him over. “Joe,” he breathed. His younger brother had a gash along his right cheekbone, which bled sluggishly, and another along his hairline, where he had obviously been struck by something. His right eye was lumpy and swelling, and his lower lip was badly split. Blood streamed from his nose. He seemed dazed. “What happened?” Adam demanded, turning to the men. He felt a flash of shock as he saw the guns aimed at him.

“We happened,” said one of the men. “We’ve been waiting for our chance, and its here now. We’re here to take our wages out of your sorry hide!”

*****

Kneeling by Joe’s side, Adam gazed at the men. They had been hired a couple of months back to help with the autumn roundup. Neither had been a great worker, but they had done what was required of them, and when the round up was finished, they had taken their wages and left. Adam tried to recall their names, and finally came up with them. Thorne and Wilder. He had seen them hanging around Virginia City a few times, but hadn’t paid much heed to them. Something niggled at the back of his memory, but he couldn’t remember what it was.

“You got your wages when you left,” Adam said, trying to keep calm. He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, feeling the boy’s jacket wet through, and the shivers that weren’t caused just by the rain. “What do you want?”

“Call those wages?” scoffed Thorne. “We don’t. Heard tell the Ponderosa was a rich ranch. Wages were supposed to be good.”

“You got standard pay,” Adam said. “$30 a month, plus food.” He was beginning to feel very angry, and made a move to stand up. He aborted it the instant both guns were cocked.

“Well, it ain’t enough,” Wilder added. “Not enough to be told what to do by a group of snotty rich boys.”

Looking down at Joe again to hide his anger, Adam thought frantically. Somehow, they had to get themselves out of this. Ben and Hoss were in Placerville, and Hop Sing was off visiting one of his myriad cousins in Sacramento. No one was due out to the house until they got home, and Adam had no idea when that would be. Charlie, the foreman, had everyone organised for the next few days, and was unlikely to appear unless there was trouble.

“So you took out your anger on a boy,” he said, coldly, keeping his hand on Joe’s shoulder, to still any protest. “How brave!”

“He’s man enough to give us orders,” Wilder retorted. “So he’s man enough to take what we dish out.”

A groan of pain escaped from Joe’s lips. Adam patted him gently, offering him comfort and strength. Joe’s dazed green eyes were fastened on Adam’s face, trying to tell him something, but Adam couldn’t read the message. He essayed a small smile, but it didn’t feel convincing, and Joe didn’t look reassured.

“What do you want?” Adam asked, knowing he had to find out. Then, he could start planning.

“We want to kill you, in time,” said Thorne, casually. “But before then, you can go to the bank with me and draw out a large sum of money. Cooperate, and we’ll kill you quick. Cause trouble, and you’ll die a slow death.”

*****

It was far too late that day for them to go to the bank, Adam knew. They would somehow have to survive the night without angering their captors, and Adam would have to alert someone in town that they needed help, before Thorne and Wilder killed them. He schooled his face to neutrality, to hide his thoughts. “Let me tend to Joe,” he said, roughly.

“No, I don’t think so,” Wilder said. There was laughter in his voice. He holstered his gun, and went outside. Adam watched, eyeing the distance to Throne, and judging that Thorne would have plenty of time to shoot him before he could reach him. Wilder came back in, closing the door firmly against the wind. He threw something on the floor beside Adam. It was a coil of rope. “Tie him up,” he ordered, gesturing to Joe.

Adam straightened. He gazed back at Wilder disbelievingly. The other man laughed. “Do what I say, and you’d better make a good job of it!”

“No,” Adam said.

Wilder’s gun went off and the bullet buried itself in the floor by Joe’s leg. The injured youth flinched. “Next time, I won’t miss,” he promised. “Now, get him tied up.”

Shaken, Adam lifted the rope and pulled Joe’s hands together. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said, softly.

“I know,” Joe replied, resolutely. “Just do it, Adam.”

“Not like that,” Thorne protested. “Behind his back. And make sure you tie his feet, too!”

As Adam hesitated, Wilder shot out his leg and gave Joe a solid kick in the side that flipped him over. In a swift movement, Wilder had his cocked gun pressed against Joe’s head. “Here’s your choice,” he said, softly. The menace in his voice was unmistakable. Swallowing hard, Adam tied Joe’s hands behind his back.

When he was finished, Wilder checked the bonds, then dragged Joe across to the settee, and threw him onto it, face down. Adam ground his teeth in frustration. His temper was building. “Lie down,” ordered Thorne, and it wasn’t long before Adam was bound hand and foot, just like Joe. He was thrown into the red leather chair, and then Thorne and Wilder disappeared into the kitchen.

“Joe,” Adam said, softly. “Are you all right?”

Slowly, Joe turned his head to look at Adam. His face was caked in dried blood. He looked dreadful. “I’m all right,” he muttered. “Are you?”

“I’m fine,” Adam assured him, and once more tried a smile. It came out a bit better than the last one. “What happened, Joe?”

With a deep sigh, Joe squirmed a bit to try and get more comfortable. “I was heading into town for the mail,” he began. Adam knew that; he’d charged Joe with that task in the morning. “I was riding almost off the ranch, when they jumped me from that big oak tree by the road. I fought them as best I could, but one of them clubbed me with his gun, and I blacked out.”

“Did they beat you up then?” Adam wanted to know. He struggled against his bonds, but they held firm.

“When I came round,” Joe said, “ they wanted me to tell them where Pa was. I wouldn’t. They wanted to me to tell them if we had money in the house, but I wouldn’t. It was then they beat me up.”

“Oh, Joe,” Adam said, sympathetically. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”

“My ribs,” Joe answered, reluctantly. He found it difficult to speak round the split lip. His whole body ached from his cramped position. “Adam, what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Adam responded. “At the moment, try not to annoy them. They want me to go into town tomorrow and get money out of the bank for them. So they can’t take the chance of hitting me anywhere obvious. Unfortunately, that means they’ll pick on you. Don’t say anything, Joe, please. I’ll do what they want, to keep you safe.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Joe said, typically. “Do what you have to, Adam. I’ll be all right.” He lifted his eyes and looked straight at his brother. “If you can get away to get help, do it! We don’t want Pa walking in on this.”

“No,” Adam agreed. “We don’t.” He looked away, unable to say the rest of his thought to Joe, and not wanting his younger brother to divine his thoughts, as he sometimes did. He didn’t want Pa walking in and finding two dead bodies, either. Lifting his gaze again, Adam saw that Joe had heard the unspoken thought anyway. His green eyes were dark with worry and fear.

*****

“Dadburnit, Pa, why are you in such an all-fire hurry to get home?” Hoss asked, rubbing his back as he and Ben rode home. “I thought sure we was stayin’ at least another day.”

“There wasn’t any point in staying,” Ben said. “That deal fell through, and I only intended to stay overnight, because I thought we would be celebrating with a big meal at the hotel for Mr Devon.”

“Sure would’ve helped out if’n we’d got that lumber contract, wouldn’t it?” Hoss asked, gloomily.

“There would have been some extra money around come winter,” Ben said, philosophically. “But we’re all right without it, son. We got a great price for the herd, and I have the mining contracts to fulfil, and we have the mines, too. We won’t starve.”

“Aw, Pa, I know we won’t starve,” Hoss said, uncomfortably. “We ain’t never starved since we come here. But it’s a shame we didn’t get that contract.”

“That’s life,” Ben remarked, although he was disappointed, too. To change the subject, he said, “I wonder how your brothers are getting along without us.”

A smile split Hoss’s face as he imagined the rows that could be going on at home. “They’re probably accusin’ one another of trying out poison,” he remarked, gleefully forgetting that when he got home, Hop Sing likely would still be away, and he would be eating either Joe or Adam’s cooking. “I almost wish I was there!”

*****

The afternoon wore on. Sometime after dark fell, the Cartwrights were untied and given some food. Joe winced his way through a few mouthfuls before turning his nose up at it. Adam ate what he was offered, since he wasn’t sure when, or even if, they would get another meal. He was rather surprised that they were being offered food, but he guessed that the men didn’t want him passing out on the ride into town the next day.

As Thorne retied Joe’s hands – in front of him, Adam noticed – the outlaw said, “When’s your pa gonna be home from Placerville?”

Immediately, Joe shot Adam a look. Ben’s trip wasn’t common knowledge in town. How did Thorne know where he had gone? “Hurry up and answer,” Thorne growled. Joe looked back at him, still silent, and Thorne sent his fist into Joe’s stomach, curling the youth over in pain.

“Leave him alone!” Adam snapped, rising from the table. He froze as Wilder’s gun came to rest on the back of his neck.

“When will your Pa be back?” Wilder growled.

“I don’t know,” Adam answered, angrily. “Maybe tomorrow, or the next day. He didn’t say.” He longed to go to Joe and comfort him, but he feared the consequences if he did. Not for him, but for Joe. Enough had happened to him that day already.

Exchanging glances with Wilder, Thorne dragged Joe back to the settee, and tied his feet once more. He cuffed Joe round the head and laughed. Adam’s muscles tightened, but he held himself in check. Then Thorne came and bound Adam’s hands again. Like Joe, this time, Adam’s hands were tied in front of him. He couldn’t understand why their captors were suddenly being so generous.

As evening fell, Throne settled off to sleep, leaving Wilder on guard. Adam watched him, hoping that he might fall asleep, too, but he didn’t. Joe’s eyes closed, and he dozed uncomfortably, waking whenever he tried to move. It was obvious to Adam that Joe was in quite a bit of pain, although he wouldn’t have admitted it on the rack. Adam did his best to sleep, too, but his uncomfortable position, and the racing of his mind effectively robbed him of rest.

*****

Pulling his horse up, Ben wondered if he and Hoss should stop for the night, or push on. They could be home within a couple of hours. However, as he allowed Buck to drink from the stream, Ben realised he was dog-tired. Yes, they were on Ponderosa land, but he wanted to rest. “Let’s make camp,” he suggested. “We can get an early start in the morning, and be home before Adam and Joe get going.”

“All right,” Hoss said, and started to unsaddle his horse. It was only then that Ben realised that Hoss had been uncharacteristically quiet for a while.

“Are you all right, Hoss?” he asked, frowning. Hoss wasn’t as voluble as Joe, but he certainly wasn’t normally as taciturn as he had been all afternoon. “You’re very quiet.”

“I bin thinkin’, Pa,” Hoss returned. He dropped his saddle, and turned to face Ben. “That feller, Devon. The one who was offering the contract. I think I’ve seen him afore.”

“Oh?” Ben said, unsure what to make of this statement. “Where have you seen him?”

“I dunno,” Hoss admitted. “I can’t recollect. But I know it weren’t in Placerville, ‘cos I haven’t been there in a coon’s age. And I know I ain’t talked to him afore, but I seem to remember his face from somewheres.”

“Well, I can’t help you there, son,” Ben said. “But if you remember, tell me.”

“Sure will, Pa,” Hoss agreed. He carried on setting up camp, but his movements were slower than usual and his mind clearly wasn’t on what he was doing. Ben watched him for a few minutes, before turning to his own tasks.

Later, as they sat by the fire, drinking the last of the coffee, Hoss suddenly said, “I got it!” He put his cup down and turned to Ben excitedly. “I remember where I seed him before! It was in the Silver Dollar! He was talkin’ to them fellers we hired for the round up. What were their names?” He looked round for inspiration, and snapped his fingers. “Thorne and Wilder! He was talkin’ to them.”

“Thorne and Wilder?” Ben repeated. He frowned as he sought to attach faces to the names. He finally conjured up the faces. “Are you sure, Hoss? When was this?”

“Just the other day,” Hoss insisted. “Could be the day afore we left. I went in for the mail an’ supplies, an’ stopped in for a beer. I seed them sittin’ there, but I never thought no more of it. They wasn’t great workers. They was always bellyachin’ about their wages. I wasn’t about to go sit with ‘em.”

“How odd,” Ben said. “He didn’t mention he’d been in Virginia City at all.” He thought round and about it for a few minutes more, but there was no law saying a man couldn’t talk to a couple of cowboys in a saloon. However, something about the situation made Ben feel uneasy, although he didn’t know what. “Well, there you are” he said, not knowing what he meant by the comment, but feeling he ought to say something. “Let’s get some sleep, and we’ll be home early tomorrow.”

“Night, Pa,” Hoss said, and curled himself into his bedroll. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

*****

Waking once more from an uneasy doze, Joe glanced across at Adam. The dark gaze met his, as Joe had known it would. He didn’t think Adam had slept at all that night. Joe shifted uncomfortably, and looked to see if Thorne was awake. He was, and watching Joe with unnerving intensity. Joe forced himself to meet Thorne’s eyes before he looked away.

In truth, Joe had been uncomfortable with Thorne ever since he had met him. From the very first, Thorne had made it obvious that he didn’t appreciate taking orders from a kid. There hadn’t been any of the outright rebellion, which had caused many a fight in the past. It was much more insidious than that. Thorne had tried to undermine Joe’s authority with untrue tales. Most of the men were long-time workers for the family, and shrugged off Thorne’s lies. But some of the new men believed them, and Joe frequently found himself being watched and whispered about.

Now, Joe wondered if Thorne had been out to get him from the very start. Had Throne and Wilder been planning something like this even then? It wasn’t the first time, and doubtless wouldn’t be the last time, that someone had decided to rob the Ponderosa, and use a Cartwright to ensure their plan went through. So far, they had been lucky, and nobody had managed to escape with any money, and none of them had been killed. But how long would their luck hold? Joe caught his lip between his teeth as an unwise move caused stabbing pains from his ribs. He had told Adam earlier he could take whatever came his way, just so Adam could escape and get help, but at 3 am, he wasn’t so sure.

Feeling Adam’s eyes on him, Joe looked over and made an effort to smile. Adam gave him an answering smile, and Joe felt reassured. Between them, he and Adam would somehow make sure they escaped. They would each watch out for the other, as they had always done. Well, Joe corrected himself, not quite always. Adam had been watching out for him all his life, and he had only really been watching out for Adam for the last few years.

Settling back as best he could, Joe thought about his relationship with his family. He got on remarkably well with his brothers, compared to some of his friends. He and Hoss were friends as well as brothers, and Hoss could usually be replied upon to follow along with Joe’s crazier plans. His relationship with Adam was more complex, which, he supposed, was natural, since Adam was a more complex person than Hoss. They fought a lot, and the fights had sometimes come to blows. Joe wasn’t entirely sure why this was, as he loved and admired Adam. Perhaps it was because he had his own innate need to lead sometimes, not just follow. Joe didn’t know. All he did know was that he would lay down his life for Adam any time it was required.

Watching Joe, Adam wondered what he was thinking about. His eyes drifted irresistibly to the man on watch. He felt a profound sense of unease under the man’s gaze. With an effort, he moved his eyes away. Gazing into the fire, Adam found himself pondering on this whole situation. There was more going on here than met the eye. Thorne and Wilder, although admirably suited to manhandling and abuse, didn’t appear to be the driving force behind this operation. Adam didn’t know who was, but it was somebody that knew that Ben and Hoss were going to be away from the ranch. His mind flickered over the possibilities, and dismissed them all, one by one. Roy Coffee – well, that was the most unlikely thing he’d ever thought of! Roy and Ben were old, old friends. Mr Wilson, the banker? No, likewise, he and Ben were old friends. Who else had known? Charlie, the foreman? Well, he was hardly likely to try and take Ben for money. No, it was more likely the world would stop turning first. One other person occurred to him, and Adam caught his breath. From the settee, Joe shot a worried glance at him, and he smiled slightly and shook his head.

However, the thought stayed with him, and Adam realised that he might have hit on the answer, although it didn’t make sense. The only other person who knew Ben would be away was the man he was meeting in Placerville – Devon! He thought round and about it some more, but even though it seemed incredibly improbable, it was the only answer. Adam knew nothing about the man Ben was to meet, apart from his name, so he couldn’t really speculate about what was behind this. But he felt he had one small clue, and so perhaps he would be able to think of a way out of this mess.

*****

It began to rain shortly after 4 am. Ben, wakened by the huge drops splashing on his face, rolled over, but he knew there was no chance of him getting back to sleep in this downpour. He got up, and poked at the fire, but it just spat at him, reluctant to break into a blaze again. Disgusted, Ben let it be. Hoss was awake, too, and they decided to get on their way. The light was growing, and they were on familiar ground.

*****

By the time it was fully light outside, Thorne and Wilder had made themselves some coffee, and were eating. Adam’s stomach rumbled and he tried not to sniff the appetising aroma of the coffee. He felt exhausted, and he raised his hands to rub at the bristles on his chin. They surely must free him to allow him to tidy up before going into town? He looked at Joe, who was resting his head on the arm of the settee. Joe looked terrible. His face was still covered in dried blood, and the bruising was reaching its most colourful stage. He still tried for a smile when he saw Adam looking at him.

“What time do you think you should leave?” Wilder asked Throne.

“Bank don’t open till 9,” Thorne replied. “We’ll probably leave here about 8. There ain’t no rush. Its only 6 now.”

“Guess we’d better let him shave, huh?” commented Wilder. “I ain’t never seen him look untidy.”

“I’d like to put a razor to his throat,” Thorne agreed, harshly. He laughed, and Adam forced himself to control a shudder that wanted to run down his spine. Thorne walked across and stood between the brothers, looking at them closely. “Especially this one,” he said, and dragged Joe up by his collar.

Stiffening, Adam implored Joe with his eyes not to do anything rash. Joe, however, wasn’t looking at Adam. His eyes were fixed to the man looming over him. Joe had had enough bad treatment from him the previous day to expect the worst, and he tightened his muscles against the pain. Instead, Thorne ran his hand down Joe’s face, almost in a caress. “He’s a pretty boy, ain’t he?” he commented.

“Sure is,” Wilder agreed, cheerfully. “Bet he won’t be so pretty when we’re finished with him.”

Turning his head, Thorne enjoyed the look on Adam’s face, as he continued to run his thumb down Joe’s cheek. “The ladies go wild for him,” he said. “Must be his pretty face.” Still the thumb stroked Joe’s cheek. Adam was tense, and Joe looked as though he would like to faint. Beads of sweat popped into being on his forehead. He shot a fearful glance at Adam.

Almost as though that was the cue he had been waiting for, Thorne lifted his hand and crashed it across Joe’s face in a vicious backhand. Adam saw fresh blood spurt from his brother’s nose and mouth, and made an impotent move. He froze at once as Thorne’s hand closed on Joe’s throat. Joe’s eyes grew wide, and he looked at Adam once more before resolutely closing them.

Unable to take his eyes from his youngest brother, Adam knew why Joe had closed his eyes. If his eyes were shut, he couldn’t look pleadingly at Adam, nor could he see his brother suffering as he was tortured. Adam was paralysed by fear. He didn’t know if he should plead or be silent.

“Please, don’t hurt him,” he said, unable to stay silent. “I won’t go with you to the bank if you hurt him.”

For a minute, Adam thought he had signed both their death warrants with that statement. A moan escaped Joe, as Thorne’s knuckles grew white. Then, with an abrupt movement, he dropped Joe, and the youth slumped to the floor. Heedless of their captors, Adam threw himself down beside Joe, lifting and supporting his head, while he checked to make sure Joe was still breathing.

Fathomless green eyes flickered open, as Joe gasped for breath. His bound hands came up to grasp Adam’s arm, and Adam welcomed the pressure, as Joe fought to steady his breathing. “Easy, Joe,” he murmured. “Take it easy.”

A few minutes passed before Joe’s breathing was back to normal. Adam could see bruises rising on his brother’s throat already, and he thought how easily that golden skin was marked. He shied away from the thought that Joe could have died there in front of him. It hadn’t happened, and somehow, Adam had to make sure that it never happened.

“Adam,” Joe whispered, hoarsely. Adam looked at him, and gently brushed the hair back from his forehead. He fumbled with the neckerchief at his own throat, and used it to wipe the blood from Joe’s face. He resisted glaring at Thorne and Wilder, who were laughing themselves sick at Thorne’s actions.

“Don’t try to talk, Joe,” Adam said. “Just nod. Are you all right?”

He was relieved when Joe nodded. The bleeding was stopped, and Adam dropped the blood stained cloth to the floor. He helped Joe to sit up, and saw for himself that his younger brother didn’t have any trouble breathing. Joe winced every time he swallowed, but there was nothing Adam could do for him. Joe looked at Adam, his expressive eyes thanking his brother for the timely rescue, and showing his concern.

“Take it easy, Joe,” Adam said, quietly. He glanced at the men holding them, as Wilder came nearer.

“All right, Cartwright, its time to get you cleaned up. I’ll untie you, but one false move, and he’d a dead man.” Thorne moved in round the other side of the settee, and hauled Joe back onto it, and took his gun from his holster. With deliberate cruelty, he cocked the gun and pressed it against Joe’s temple. Adam could see the skin whitening under the pressure from the barrel. Joe’s eyes flickered to Adam, and he swallowed painfully. Both knew that Thorne could pull the trigger without any provocation.

“There won’t be any trouble,” Adam said.

With Wilder watching him closely, Adam was allowed to wash, shave and put on clean clothes. He returned to the great room in trepidation, although there hadn’t been the sound of a shot. However, Thorne didn’t appear to have done anything to Joe, even though he was still sitting with the barrel of his gun pressed to the youth’s head. With obvious disappointment, he put the gun away. Joe looked frazzled.

Ignoring their captors, Adam sat down beside his brother and gave him a quick hug. “It’ll be all right, Joe,” he promised. “Just keep your wits about you.” He flicked a glance at Wilder, who was staying behind, and Joe nodded imperceptibly.

“Be careful,” he whispered. His voice was scratchy and sore.

Adam gently touched his cheek. “I will be,” he said, and rose before Thorne decided to take another chunk out of Joe. “I’m ready,” he said.

As he opened the door and stepped out onto the porch, Adam clearly heard the sound of approaching hooves. With sudden intuition, he knew it was Ben and Hoss, and he feared that his father and brother would be hurt. Taking a huge risk, he threw himself at Thorne before the man realised what he was hearing.

Startled, Thorne pulled the trigger, but his shot went wild. Ben and Hoss hauled their horses to a stop, and jumped off, racing behind the wagon to take cover. Inside the house, Joe heard the shot, and took advantage of Wilder’s confusion, and jumped on him.

On the porch, Adam wrestled desperately for control of the gun. His hands were slick with sweat, and Thorne was able to tear his hand from Adam’s grip. He brought the gun down and it went off, once then again. Adam flinched, but grabbed the hand, and forced it away from him again. It seemed to be easier for him this time. Seeing this, Ben and Hoss raced forward, and Hoss grabbed the gun in his huge hand, and yanked it away.

“Adam, are you all right?” Ben asked, pulling his oldest son off the man.

“Joe’s in the house, hurt, and another man with him,” Adam gasped. “He’s tied up. Hurry.”

Ben didn’t need to hear another word; he flew into the house, and saw Joe lying on the floor, as Wilder kicked him viciously in the stomach. Wilder’s gun was lying on the floor by the table. “Hold it!” Ben ordered, and Wilder turned, his hand going for the gun he no longer had. Realising, he slowly put his hands up.

“Joe, are you all right?” he asked, and got a groan as an answer. Ben kept his gun and his attention on Wilder. He had to get this man neutralised somehow. He heard footsteps from behind, and recognised them as Hoss’. “Hoss?” he said.

“The other one’s dead, Pa,” Hoss said, coming into sight. “Adam’s bin shot in the thigh, but he’ll be okay. It’s just a flesh wound.”

“Get this one to the sheriff,” Ben said, “and get the doctor out here, fast.” He kept the gun steady until Hoss had Wilder under control, then he shoved the gun back into his holster and ran to kneel by Joe. “Joe!” he said, urgently.

“Pa?” Joe croaked. He tried a smile, but it was too painful for him.

“My God!” Ben breathed, as he took in his son’s condition for the first time. Gently, he helped Joe sit up, and untied him. “I’m going to put you on the settee, Joe,” he said, sliding an arm under Joe’s legs to lift him.

As soon as Joe was lying there, Ben patted his arm. “I’ll be right back,” he said, and hurried out to help Adam. Hoss had helped Adam into one of the porch seats, and Ben slung an arm over his shoulder, and supported Adam as he limped painfully into the house.

“How’s Joe?” he gasped.

“I think he’ll be all right,” Ben panted, and directed Adam to the blue chair. From there, Adam could see Joe, and was relieved to see that his brother didn’t look much worse.

“What happened here?” Ben asked, slitting Adam’s pants leg to examine the injury.

Talking quietly, Adam related the story. Ben was understandably horrified. He frowned as Adam mentioned his suspicion of Devon. He wondered why Devon would have set up this type of thing, when he had been asking the Ponderosa to bid on a contract. It didn’t make any sense. However, he didn’t have time to think about it, because both his sons needed attention.

*****

“Adam’s leg should heal without complications,” Paul Martin said, as he drank his coffee. “Joe will be all right, too, once those ribs heal up. There are no signs of internal bleeding, which is a mercy. There doesn’t appear to be any damage to his vocal chords, either. Just bruising.” Paul shook his head. “They were lucky.”

“They were indeed,” Ben agreed. He had already thanked the Almighty for His timely assistance, allowing he and Hoss to arrive home in time to help out.

Later, after Paul was gone, Ben went back upstairs to see his sons. Adam was deeply asleep, which didn’t come as a surprise, given that he’d had next to no sleep the night before. Ben felt his forehead gently, but there was no sign of fever. Adam didn’t move under his hand. Ben allowed himself to stroke his oldest son’s hair, a gesture that Adam would have rejected if he’d been awake.

Leaving Adam, he went into Joe’s room. Joe, too, was asleep, and Ben stood for a minute, cataloguing his son’s injuries. The bruised, gashed face, the split lips, the finger marks on his throat, and finally, the bandages on his ribs. Then there were the rope burns that both sons had suffered. Ben sat down beside Joe’s bed, and stroked his hair, as he had done to Adam. It was a gesture that both signified his love, and gave comfort, and not just to Joe. Ben drew comfort from it, too.

He must have fallen sleep there, for he woke with a start, and looked round, disoriented. A lamp burned low on the dresser, casting a warm glow through the room. Ben blinked, for it hadn’t been there when he came in. He rubbed his eyes, and realised that Hoss must have brought the lamp in.

“Pa?” whispered a voice, and Ben knew what had drawn him from his sleep.

“How do you feel?” he asked, leaning forward to stroke Joe’s head. The boy’s head was warm to the touch, but no more so than normal.

“Sore,” Joe admitted. His voice was still hoarse, and it hurt him to talk. “How’s Adam?”

“He’ll be all right,” Ben assured him. “He’s asleep right now.”

“What about those men?” Joe asked. He coughed slightly, and winced. Ben got some water, and helped Joe to drink. The cool water was like balm to Joe’s tortured throat. It seemed to him that he could still feel Thorne’s hand on his neck, squeezing, as he gasped for breath, and the world turned black around him. With a start, he shook free of the waking nightmare, and realised that Ben was looking at him with concern. He shivered, feeling cold sweat slick on his skin.

“What is it?” Ben asked. “Memories?”

“Mmm,” Joe agreed, nodding. His hand strayed unconsciously to his throat, where he gingerly felt the sore flesh. Ben instantly knew what Joe was remembering. “The men?” he prompted his father.

“The one who was with Adam, Thorne, he died,” Ben said, and saw a fleeting flash of satisfaction in Joe’s eyes. “Wilder is in Roy’s jail. I’m going in to talk to him tomorrow, to see who was behind this.”

“What do you mean?” Joe asked. He hadn’t thought about the situation too closely, as he was mostly trying to deal with his hurts, and think of a way to escape. Now he waited to be told, as thinking was almost too much effort.

Quickly, Ben summarised the thoughts he and Adam had had about who was behind this attack. The other unanswered question was why? Joe listened in silence, blinking and nodding to show that he understood. “Adam thinks it’s the man you met?” he whispered, before Ben had finished.

“That’s right,” Ben said. Joe hadn’t been the world’s best scholar, mostly because he was too restless to sit still for that long, but he wasn’t stupid. Ben had guessed that he would work it out. “But we don’t know why.” He smiled as Joe tried to hide a huge yawn. “Go back to sleep, son,” he said.

“G’night, Pa,” Joe said, and turned his head, his eyes drifting shut of their own volition.

*****

Gazing through the bars of the jail cell, Ben felt Hoss tense beside him. Wilder slumped on the cot, ignoring his visitors. “If you cooperate, it’ll go easier with you,” Roy said, coaxingly.

“If I cooperate, I’ll die,” Wilder returned. “But I won’t be hanged for this. A couple of years in prison, and then I’ll be out.” He smiled. “No, I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”

“Can’t do no more,” Roy said to Ben. “I can’t force him to tell us.”

“I would,” Hoss said, quietly, and Roy frowned. He knew that it took a lot to rile Hoss, but the callous, sadistic abuse that Joe and Adam had suffered had really wound the big man up. He looked ready to tear Wilder limb from limb, and he was probably capable of doing so.

“Hoss,” Ben said; no more than that, but Hoss subsided. His fists were still clenched, and he still looked angry, but he backed away from the cell. “Thanks for letting us do this, Roy,” Ben went on. “Did you have any luck finding out about Devon’s background?”

“Nothin’s come back yet, Ben,” Roy said. “I’ll let you know when it does. But, as I told you earlier, the sheriff over in Placerville says that Devon ain’t in the hotel any more.”

Still talking, Ben and Roy moved into the office part of the jail. Hoss turned for one last look at the man who had hurt his brothers, and saw a look of surprise and worry cross Wilder’s face. The moment, Wilder realised Hoss had seen it, he schooled his face into neutrality, but it was too late.

Moving quickly, Hoss told Ben and Roy what he had seen. Immediately, Roy went back to the cell. “So the fact that we know about Devon worries you, huh, son?” asked Roy.

“No,” Wilder said, but there was nothing convincing about the word. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“When I find Devon,” Ben said, “I’m going to be doing a lot of talking. And your name is going to come up. And I won’t be telling him that you kept quiet. I’m going to say that you told me everything.” Saying that was a chance Ben felt he had to take. It was tantamount to threatening the prisoner, and Ben hoped Roy wouldn’t jump in. However, Roy guessed what Ben was doing, and kept quiet.

“You can’t do that!” Wilder protested, leaping to his feet, his pose of nonchalance gone. “He’ll kill me!”

“That’s not my problem,” Ben returned, and coolly turned away.

“Wait!” Wilder cried, and Ben stopped, his back still turned.

“Well?” he said, coldly.

“We were to meet Devon in San Francisco. He’s staying at the Palace hotel there. We were to take the money to him, and we’d get paid off.” Ben slowly turned. “He wanted the money from you, and we were to kill your sons. He didn’t care how we did it, he just wanted them dead.”

“Why?” Ben asked, and the anger in his voice cracked like a whip.

“I don’t know!” Wilder said. “Honest, I don’t! He just hired us, and said he’d give us $5000 each for doing the job.”

“And how much money did he want?” Ben asked. “$50,000? $100,000? How much?”

“$50,000,” Wilder said, slumping down.

They questioned Wilder further, but he didn’t know anything else. Going back into the office, Roy closed the door to the cells behind them. “I guess that answers one question,” he said, ruminatively.

“And throws up a dozen more,” Ben said, wryly. “Thanks, Roy. Perhaps you could wire San Francisco, and let them know we’ll be coming? I don’t want Devon alerted, though. Could you do that?”

“All right, Ben,” Roy agreed, though they could hear the trace of doubt in his voice about the wisdom of the action. “Just make sure you stick to the law.”

“Don’t worry, I will,” Ben promised.

*****

They rode home to the ranch quickly. Ben wanted to get off to San Francisco as soon as possible, but first he had to persuade Adam and Joe that they weren’t well enough to go. As he had expected, they protested loudly. “Pa, you can’t just go off there!” Adam said. “You don’t know why Devon was doing this. Let the law handle him.”

“I want to come with you,” Joe said, quietly.

“Neither of you are coming,” Ben said. “You aren’t fit enough for a ride like this. Hoss and I will be careful, but we need to find out what’s going on. And really, the law doesn’t have a lot to go on. Devon is a respected business man, and Wilder is a proven thug.”

“I think this is a bad idea,” Adam said, but he completely understood Ben’s desire to go and face the man. He would have liked to go, too. He wanted to see the man who had ordered the torture of himself and Joe. He shook his head, feeling frustrated that he was confined to the house, and going about on a stick. “When are you leaving?” he asked.

“In the morning,” Ben replied. “We’ll get some rest, and pick up some supplies to take with us. We’ll be home as soon as we can.”

There were hoof beats in the yard, and Hoss got up to see who it was. Clem, the deputy, was just getting off his horse. “Hoss,” he said. “Roy asked me to come past with this telegram. It arrived shortly after you left. He thought you should see it.”

Taking the proffered piece of paper, joss led Clem indoors, and handed it over to Ben. Clem greeted Adam and Joe and asked how they were. The answers he got were short, as they were both interested in what the telegram said.

“Its about Devon,” Ben said. “Roy was trying to find out about his background. Here it is.” He fell silent again, his face troubled.

“What does it say, Pa?” Joe asked. His throat was still sore, but this was the first day he had felt an improvement in it.

“It says he’s well known for his mining operations in California. However, there is no information about his background at all. Like so many others, he arrived in California a short time ago, with money to spare, and bought a mine. Nobody knows where he’s from, or how he came by his money.”

“Not very helpful,” Adam commented. “Pa, please, change your mind, and leave it to the law.”

“We can’t do that, Adam,” Hoss said. He looked at his brothers. “We gotta find out why he did this to ya. Can’t you see? I can’t just let him walk away without payin’ for this.”

“Hoss,” Adam said, frowning, but Hoss interrupted him.

“No, Adam. We all look out for each other, and I can’t let someone like this walk around free. He was gonna kill you both, and anyone who hurts my brothers has to pay.” He clenched his fists. “I ain’t gonna do anythin’ that’s agin the law, but I gotta catch him, afore he does this to someone else.”

Swallowing, Joe ducked his head. Adam looked away from Hoss, and Ben silently put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. Joe could remember each time Hoss had calmly stated his intentions to rip apart anyone that hurt his little brother, like the escaped army prisoners at Netta’s ranch, and Vince Dagen, when they had been held hostage by Dagen and his gang of bank robbers. There were many more occasions. Those were just the ones that sprang to mind. It was funny, he reflected, he hadn’t realised that Hoss felt that way about Adam, too. He tended to think of Adam as invulnerable, but remembered that he had wanted to look out for Adam just a few days before, when they were both in danger.

Gazing into the fire, Adam blinked back the tears that wanted to form in his eyes. He knew that they all looked out for one another. It was so basic, it didn’t need said. And he knew how Hoss felt. He wanted to find the man who had been at the back of the plot to hurt, and eventually kill Joe. He was moved that Hoss wanted to bring the man to justice. “You’re right,” he said, huskily. “Go to San Francisco, and find him. But please, be careful, both of you!”

*****

Ben and Hoss left early the next morning, admonishing Adam and Joe to take things easy, and take care of each other. It was a grey day, with looming clouds that promised rain before the day was out, and Ben felt a bit depressed. He had been racking his brains to think of a reason why Devon would be trying to kill his sons. He had never met the man before the day that he bid on the contract.

They rode steadily west, and the rain held off. When they stopped for the night, they had covered a lot of ground. Next morning, they were up early, and riding on. “I think we should stop at the next town and get some more supplies,” Ben said. They had taken some from the ranch, but with Hop Sing still away, they hadn’t wanted to empty the kitchen too much.

“All right, Pa,” Hoss agreed. He headed his horse towards the small town of Watson’s Crossing.

The general store was easy to find, and Hoss went in to buy supplies, while Ben wired the ranch, letting Adam and Joe know where they were. He had hardly left the tiny telegraph office when the operator came out after him. “Mr Cartwright, sir! Wait!”

“What is it?” Ben asked, perplexed.

“Got a wire here for you from the sheriff of Virginia City. Asked me to pass it on if you should stop here.” The clerk handed over the wire, and left.

Scanning the words, Ben could feel the colour draining from his face. He read the words again.

TO BEN CARTWRIGHT STOP

DEVON IS NOT IN S.F.ANY LONGER STOP

LAST SEEN HEADING EAST STOP

SUGGEST YOU RETURN HOME AT ONCE STOP

ROY COFFEE STOP

“Hoss!” Ben called, barging into the store. “Hoss, we’ve got to go home at once. Never mind the supplies.”

Frowning at Ben, Hoss nevertheless picked up the goods he had just bought, and hurried outside with Ben. “Pa, what’s wrong? Nothing’s happened to Adam or Joe, has it?”

“Look!” Ben gave him the wire, and began to stuff the food into their saddlebags as Hoss read it. “Somehow, Devon found out that we caught Wilder and Thorne.”

They mounted up and rode out at a gallop.

*****

“Joe, for pity’s sake, will you stop pacing?” Adam demanded, irritably, as Joe levered himself awkwardly from the settee, and headed towards the door.

“I’m not pacing,” Joe retorted. “I’m going out to the barn.”

“To do what, exactly?” asked Adam, sarcastically. “Chop wood? Put up some hay?”

Glaring at his older brother, Joe said, “I’m going to see my horse and get some fresh air. What’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is, you’re supposed to be resting. Now, will you please sit down and do just that?”

“I’m going outside,” Joe said, stubbornly. “What’s going to happen?”

“Knowing you,” Adam said, snidely, “almost anything!”

Wordlessly, Joe crossed to the door, and slammed it as he left. Adam grimaced. He hadn’t meant to annoy Joe, but his younger brother’s restlessness was making him restless, too. For a moment, Adam thought of going after Joe, but walking was still a trial to him, despite his stick, and he opted to stay put. He could put things right with Joe later, and maybe the fresh air would help soothe the younger man’s fidgets.

Outside, Joe walked over to the corral, where Cochise seemed pleased to see him. Joe patted the mole-soft nose, and rubbed the silken ears, but what he really wanted was to mount up and go for a gallop. However, Joe knew he wasn’t up to it, so he tried to content himself in giving his horse some attention.

It was the afternoon of the second day since Ben and Hoss had gone, and Joe missed them both sorely. He had wanted to go with them, and find out what was behind the attack. It seemed very strange. He and Adam had discussed this the previous evening, but neither had been able to come up with an answer.

A horse rode into the yard, and Joe turned to greet the rider. He was surprised to recognise Jack Bonner, one of Virginia City’s more shiftless residents, who, on occasion, had put in a day’s work on the ranch. He couldn’t imagine what Jack wanted, as they weren’t taking on casual workers right then, and Jack knew that.

“Jack,” he said, by way of greeting. “What can I do for you?”

Sliding from the back of his horse, Bonner gave Joe a weak smile. “Got a message for you, Joe,” he said, and began to pat his pockets, as though looking for a piece of paper.

“A message?” Joe said, walking over. “Who for?”

As Joe neared, Bonner’s face cleared, as though he had found what he was searching for. As indeed he had, but it wasn’t a piece of paper. It was a knife. Joe took a step back, but froze as Bonner brought the knife up in a manner that suggested that he had plenty of experience in using it.

“Oh, this message is for you and your brothers and your Pa,” Bonner said. “I came to give it to you personally.” He made a slash at Joe, who instinctively put his hands up to defend himself. The knife sliced across his right palm.

Backing away, cradling his injured hand, Joe tried to keep out of Bonner’s way. “Why are you doing this?” he gasped. He barely avoided a slash at his face.

“I been paid real good for it,” Bonner said, clearly gloating. “All I had to do was send a wire.”

“You’re working for Devon,” Joe realised, and stumbled slightly. This time, the knife slid down his right arm as he tried to get away. “Adam!” Joe yelled, knowing he had to warn his brother. “Adam!”

Inside, Adam heaved a big sigh, as Joe’s shouts reached him. “Now what?” he grumbled, putting his book aside, and reaching for his stick. He levered himself to his feet, and began to limp across the floor. As he reached the credenza by the door, Joe let out a scream.

Yanking open the door, Adam wished he had paused to pick up his gun, for Joe lay crumpled by the horse trough, Jack Bonner standing over him, grinning widely. Adam had no idea what Bonner had just done to Joe, but he knew it was bad.

It was too late to turn back for his gun. Bonner had spotted Adam and was running across the yard at him. Adam knew he didn’t have a chance to reach his gun, and he prepared himself to meet his attacker. Bonner leapt at him, and Adam went down under the other man’s weight. He swung his stick up, and cracked Bonner mightily across the back.

They wrestled back and forth, rolling over and over, each trying to gain the advantage. Adam was furiously angry, and that lent him strength, but his injury told against him, and he was beginning to lose the fight when he vaguely heard the thunder of horses galloping into the yard. Next instant, Bonner was hauled off him, and Adam dragged in a huge breath, wiping the sweat from his eyes with a shaking hand.

A familiar face peered down at him, and offered him a hand. It was Clem Foster. “Are you all right, Adam?” he asked.

“Never mind me. What about Joe?” he gasped, accepting the assistance.

Once upright, Adam gaped in surprise at all the men in the yard. Roy Coffee was there, kneeling by Joe, and Bonner was being handcuffed by one of the other men. Adam had no idea what was going on, or why Roy and his men were there, but right now he didn’t care. His only concern was Joe. Leaning heavily on Clem, he limped over to collapse beside Joe.

A knife was buried in Joe’s shoulder, and he was bleeding from numerous other cuts on his arms, hands, belly and chest. “Joe!” Adam exclaimed, in horror. He looked at Roy. “What’s going on?”

*****

The ranch house came into view, and Ben and Hoss clattered into the yard. They had pushed their horses to make it home, and darkness had fallen a short time ago. The yard was full of horses, and Ben wondered why. His heart rose to his throat, as he recognised Paul Martin’s buggy. An armed deputy identified himself, and one of the hands came to take their horses.

Together, he and Hoss ran to the house. Flinging open the door, part of his concern was eased when he saw Adam sitting in the chair. Adam looked exhausted, grey and drawn, and he had several nasty bruises on his face. He opened his eyes, and looked relieved when Ben and Hoss came in. That was enough to make Ben worry more. “Adam, what’s wrong?” Ben asked, crossing to his side.

“Its Joe,” Adam said, bleakly. “He’s been stabbed.”

Clutching the chair back, Ben’s dark eyes were wide with horror. He looked upstairs, and after touching Adam’s arm gently, he headed up. Hoss crouched by Adam. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“I’m okay,” Adam assured him. “Just some bruises.” This wasn’t quite true, as Adam had burst some of the stitches on his leg, and had had to have them done again. However, he felt that Ben and Hoss had enough to worry about.

Upstairs, Ben went into Joe’s room, to find Roy Coffee there, holding Joe down, as Paul put some stitches in his shoulder. Clinging to the door, Ben could hardly believe what he saw. Joe’s golden skin was ashen, and stained with blood. There were lines of stitches in a few places across his chest and abdomen, and the gash in his shoulder was clearly very deep. Joe’s eyes were closed, but judging by the tautness of his muscles, he was awake and aware.

He must have made some sound, as all the eyes in the room turned to him. Ben saw relief flare in Joe’s pain-filled green eyes. He lifted one bandaged hand, and Ben reacted to that silent entreaty at once. He crossed over to Joe’s bed, and leant over to stroke his son’s sweat-dampened curls. “I’m here, Joe,” he said, softly.

“I’m glad to see you got my message,” Roy said. “We have men out looking for Devon right now. I’ll tell you all about it later,” he added, knowing that Ben wouldn’t hear anything until he knew how Joe was going to be.

“Joe has been stabbed,” Paul said. “The cut on his shoulder is the worst, but I’ve had to take stitches in all of them, Ben. Joe had been lucky. The bandages on his ribs saved him from fatal injury. The knife didn’t penetrate far enough to damage any organs.” Paul indicated the slashes over Joe’s stomach, which, though deep enough to require stitches, had been minor compared to what might have been.

Pretty soon, Paul had Joe’s shoulder stitched up, and he began the tedious job of bandaging all the cuts. Both of Joe’s palms were cut to ribbons, and Paul said that he often saw injuries like those when people were defending themselves against knives. It didn’t take Paul long to get Joe cocooned in bandages, and then he gave him something for the pain.

“We’ll wait downstairs,” Roy said, as he and Paul left. Ben grunted.

“Pa,” Joe said, the first word he had spoken since Ben arrived.

“Easy, son,” Ben soothed. “You’re going to be fine.”

“Glad you’re back,” Joe said, sleepily. The morphine was working now. “Adam’s a rotten nurse.” A small smile curved his lips, and he slipped gently into a drugged sleep.

*****

Downstairs, Ben found Roy and Paul drinking coffee, and he took a cup for himself. “I got a wire that Devon had left San Francisco,” Roy began. “I sent that wire on to you, since he’d been spotted heading east. I didn’t know if he was coming back here or not, but I thought it would be better for you to come home.”

“I appreciate it,” Ben said.

Shrugging that off, Roy went on. “We set off out here to tell Adam and Joe, so they would know what was going on. I thought I’d leave a deputy or two here till you got back. When we got here, Adam and Jack Bonner were fighting, and Joe was bleeding by the trough.”

“We got some of the story out of Joe,” Adam said, taking up the tale. “Bonner said he had a message for us, and pretended he’d lost the paper. Joe went over, and Bonner pulled a knife. Admitted that he was working for Devon, and had wired him, saying that Thorne and Wilder had failed. Bonner was to finish the job.”

“I don’t understand why Devon is doing this,” Ben said.

“Neither do we – yet,” Roy said. “But all the sheriffs round here are watching out for him. Clem is back in town. I’m going to leave a man here, Ben, just in case. Perhaps we’ll know where Devon is come morning.”

“Thank you, Roy,” Ben said. He was exhausted.

“Keep Joe in bed for several days, Ben,” Paul said, as he rose to leave. “He lost quite a bit of blood. Give him fluids, and soft food for the first day or so, and he should be well enough to get up in about a week.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Ben said, and saw them out. “Let’s get you to bed,” he said to Adam, but his oldest son shook his head.

“I can manage, Pa. Thanks. Why don’t you get some rest?” Adam got stiffly to his feet.

“I’ll sit with Joe for a while,” Ben said, as they knew he would. “Good night, boys.”

“Night, Pa,” they said, and went to bed.

*****

Morning arrived with torrential rains. Ben peered blearily out, before deciding that he would spend the day at home. He had fallen asleep by Joe’s bedside, but his son hadn’t stirred all night. When Ben woke that morning, he felt Joe’s forehead for fever, but there wasn’t any. Relieved, he had slipped quietly out of the room, and gone to wash and change his clothes. Hoss was next up, followed shortly by Adam, and then Ben went to check on Joe and found he was awake.

They were eating breakfast when they heard hooves outside. A moment later, there was a knock on the door, and it opened to reveal Hiram Wood, Ben’s lawyer. He shook off the rain, and accepted a cup of coffee to warm up. “What brings you out here on such a foul day, Hiram?”

“Someone is making a claim against the Ponderosa, Ben,” Hiram said. “They’ve filed against your title to…” he felt in his pocket for a piece of paper, and told Ben the plot under threat. “I don’t believe there’ll be a problem proving your claim, Ben,” Hiram went on, as his client sat there, wondering what else could go wrong. “The land is worked regularly, and your boundaries are clearly marked, and there is a fence line there. But we must go through the motions.”

“Who is doing this?” Ben asked.

Consulting his paper again, Hiram said, “John Devon.”

There was a collective gasp from round the table. Hiram looked at them. “I take it you know Mr Devon?” he asked.

Quickly, Ben told him the story, and Hiram frowned. “The fact that he’s wanted for questioning will go against him, should the unthinkable happen, and he takes this ridiculous idea to court,” Hiram said. “Do you know why he has such a grudge against you?”

“No,” Ben answered, feelingly. “I wish I did. Then perhaps my youngest son wouldn’t be lying upstairs, badly injured.”

“I’ll go back to town and start dealing with this,” Hiram said, and took his leave. Ben saw him out, then sat down wearily in front of the fire. His muscles were stiff, after the long ride, and the past night. He closed his eyes, and visualised Devon, trying to think if he’d seen him anywhere before. He was convinced that he hadn’t.

Later that morning, Ben was upstairs with Joe when he heard hooves in the yard again. A strange man, his face obscured by the wide-brimmed hat he was wearing, was dismounting from a flashy grey gelding. The deputy was talking to him. Not really interested in who the stranger was, Ben went back to sit by Joe. Joe was sitting up, and tackling some scrambled eggs that Ben had prepared. They all hoped Hop Sing would get home soon, for Ben’s cooking was elementary to say the least.

There was a sudden clamour from downstairs, and Joe and Ben looked at one another. “What on earth?” Ben said, and rose.

“Be careful,” Joe said, fear in his voice. Ben paused to give his son a reassuring smile, when they heard footsteps in the hall, and the door flew open to reveal the stranger from outside. He was pointing a gun at Ben.

“Don’t move!” he warned.

“Devon!” Ben said, and Joe shivered. This was the man who was behind all the grief they had been suffering. “What have you done to my sons?”

“They’re alive – for now,” Devon said. “I knocked them out.” He smiled, but it seemed to Joe that it was the kind of smile a snake might have, if they could smile. “Sit down, Cartwright.”

Slowly, Ben did as he was told, keeping a close eye on Devon’s every move. “Why are you doing this?” Ben asked.

“I knew you wouldn’t recognise me,” Devon said, in a smug tone. “I knew it! Would it come as a great surprise to find out that my name isn’t John Devon?”

“No,” Ben answered. “What is it?”

“My father was your friend when you first arrived out here, Cartwright,” Devon said. “His name was Bill Hardy. You killed him! Thanks to you, I was brought up in an orphanage, instead of on a place like this. So I’ve come to get what I’m owed by you.”

“You’re Bill’s son?” Ben gasped. “Oh, Johnny, I looked for you for years!”

“Don’t give me that!” Devon exclaimed. Keeping his gun pointed at Ben, he sidled round nearer to Joe. “I’ve heard it all before!”

“Its true,” Ben protested. “I knew you only had your father and his sister, but after Bill died, your sister said you had run away, and I hunted for you.”

“Sure,” Devon agreed. “Sure. Like you really wanted another man’s kid on your place.” He looked at Joe. “But you married again, didn’t you? Bet your new wife persuaded you to stop looking.”

“My mother would never have done that!” Joe protested. He shrank back on the pillows as Devon turned the gun on him.

“Oh yeah?” Devon scoffed. “Bet she never even heard my name!”

“Johnny, I looked for you for 5 years,” Ben said. “After that, I had nowhere else to look. I thought you might be dead, too. There was no way to tell. But Joe is right. His mother didn’t stop me looking for you. She encouraged me.”

“You got what would’ve been mine, sonny,” Devon said to Joe. He was almost puce in the face with anger. Joe shot a glance at Ben.

“Why didn’t you just come to me, Johnny, and tell me who you were?” Ben asked, sorrowfully.

“And you’d have welcomed me with open arms, huh?” scoffed Devon. He reached out and pushed Joe’s chin up with the barrel of his gun. “Treated me like your own son, would you?”

“This isn’t the way to find out,” Ben said. “When your dad died in that accident, I wanted you to come here to live, so I could try and make up for his death. But your aunt told me you had run away. I hunted everywhere I knew to look, and never found you. If I had, you would have been like my own son.”

“An accident!” Devon said, scornfully. “You killed my dad.”

“It was a wagon accident,” Ben said, “and there was no one else involved. We don’t know exactly what happened, but the wagon was found at the bottom of a gully.”

“It must have been you!” Devon cried. He still had the barrel of the gun pressing into Joe’s chin. “You wanted his land. You own it now!”

Understanding dawned in Ben’s brain. “I own the land now,” he agreed. “But I only had the chance to buy it ten years ago.”

“He’s telling the truth,” Joe interjected. Devon turned to look at him.

“My men did you good, didn’t they?” he gloated. “I wish I could’ve seen them doing it. But never mind, I’m going to see you die.”

“Johnny,” Ben said, sharply. “Its not too late to walk away from this. No one has died. But if you kill us, then you’ll be hunted down.”

“Walk away?” Devon shrieked. “No way! I’m going to kill your sons, and then I’m going to kill you, old man!” He was panting with rage now. “I’m not some little boy lost you can talk round with your kind words and money. I don’t care if I hang! As long as I can pay you back!” He leaned closer to Joe, and deliberately dug his fingers into Joe’s shoulder wound. “How does that feel, boy?” he asked.

Writhing in pain, Joe struck at his attacker. The gun slid out from under his chin as Devon staggered slightly. But he still had hold of Joe’ shoulder, and he swung the gun round to crash against the youth’s face. Blood sprang into being along Joe’s cheekbone, and poured down his face. Joe sagged unconscious.

Leaping to his feet, Ben was pushed aside by a figure charging through the door. He crashed to the ground, realising dimly that it was Hoss who had come in. Through a haze, Ben saw Devon whip the gun up to fire at point blank range. Against his will, Ben’s eyes closed. He couldn’t watch his son die, trying to save his life. There was an almighty explosion, and the room seemed to shake. Ben’s eyes flew open, as he gazed in relieved disbelief at the figure before him. Devon lay on the foot of the bed, clearly dead.

“Hoss,” Ben whispered, and his son turned to him.

“I’m all right, Pa,” Hoss said, shakily. He had a wound on his head, oozing blood still. “Adam is, too.”

“What happened?” Ben asked, looking at the body of his dead friend’s son.

“The gun blew up,” Hoss said, slowly. “He used it on Adam an’ me. Guns do that, if they’re thumped around a lot.”

“He hit Joe with it, too,” Ben said, hurrying to the bed. He wondered why he was surprised. He knew that if you threw a gun, or used it as a club, it could explode. Devon had paid the price for misusing his weapon. He bent over Joe, seeing the gash on his cheek, and his son’s blood everywhere.

“Hoss, get rid of the body,” he said. He snatched up a cloth, and held it to Joe’s cheek, staunching the bleeding.

*****

The row of stitches along Joe’s cheek couldn’t have been finer if a lady had put them in a sampler, Ben thought. Paul had done a wonderful job. The gash had been deep enough to allow the bone to show, and for a time, they feared Joe’s cheekbone was broken. However, Paul had assured them it was intact, and had stitched Joe’s face before the swelling had become too bad.

All three Cartwright boys were concussed. The deputy was, too. He was moved back to town, and Paul was delighted to notice that Hop Sing had returned from his break, just in time to help with the nursing. The whole story was told again and again, it seemed to Ben, who was desperately tired from the tension and emotions of finding, and losing, his friend’s son. Finally, the body was removed for burial, and they were able to mark case closed, apart from the trial of Wilder and Bonner.

At last the house was still and quiet, as it usually was. Ben locked the door, and slowly climbed the stairs. He had looked long and hard for Johnny, and when he found him, he hadn’t known him. Ben remembered the child he had been, the little boy lost air that he wore. Ben wondered if Johnny had realised where the phrase that he had used had come from, for Ben had often said that to him, jokingly. Johnny had thought it funny, as he knew where he came from and wasn’t lost.

Sighing, for regrets couldn’t bring him back to life, Ben opened Adam’s door and peered in. His oldest son was sound asleep. He had suffered a head injury, but his biggest problem had been that he wasn’t able to rush upstairs and protect Joe and Ben. But Adam was logical, and once the emotions of the day had died down, he would see that he bore no blame for what happened.

Further down the hall, Ben had no real need to see if Hoss was asleep, for he could hear his son snoring quite plainly. However, he couldn’t help himself. It was a nightly ritual. He opened the door, and looked in. Hoss was flat on his back, as usual, and had his arms flung out, using the whole bed. Ben smiled. He thought how wonderful Hoss had been that evening, answering questions, and helping Ben in myriad, unasked ways, despite his own injury. There was a great deal of strength in Hoss, and they did tend to take him for granted. Ben made a mental note to thank Hoss just for being himself.

The third door was always the last one Ben opened. Joe was twisting restlessly on the bed, and when the glimmer of light came into the room, he turned, and showed Ben that he was awake again. Paul hadn’t given Joe much for pain, as he was quite concussed. Now, Joe was awake and sore, unable to get comfortable. Ben went in.

“Let me sort your bed, Joe,” Ben said. “You’ll rest better if I straighten the sheets for you.” He assisted Joe to sit up, and gently eased him out of bed. Joe’s head swam desperately, but he made it to the chair, and conquered his nausea. Tiredly, he watched Ben tidy up the rumpled sheets and blankets, turning and plumping the pillows.

Back in the cooled down bed, Joe looked worriedly at Ben. “You look tired,” he said. “Pa, he didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“No, Joe, he didn’t hurt me. Not physically.” Ben perched on the edge of the bed, and stroked Joe’s curls.

“You would’ve looked after him when his pa died, wouldn’t you?” Joe asked, and Ben marvelled that, after all that had happened, Joe’s question was devoid of accusation or bitterness. He simply wanted to know.

“Yes,” Ben answered, simply. “I would.”

Thoughtfully, Joe said, “Do you think he would’ve turned out all right if you had taken him in?”

Taken aback, Ben said, “I don’t know, Joe. He might. There wouldn’t have been the bitterness in him, I suppose. But I don’t know.”

“We’re so lucky,” Joe said. He was feeling sleepy now that he was comfortable. “I know we lost Mama, and Adam and Hoss lost their mothers, but we at least had each other, and there’s been enough love to go round.”

Blinking back tears, Ben agreed. “Yes, there‘s been enough love to go round, hasn’t there? That’s all that matters in the long run, isn’t it?” He stroked Joe’s head once more, wondering how Paul could be so sure that the gash on Joe’s cheek wouldn’t leave a scar. “You sleep now. It’s been a long few days. You have a lot of getting better to do.”

“Good night, Pa,” Joe responded, his voice slow and sleepy. “I love you.”

“I love you all,” Ben responded. He swallowed the lump in his throat and went to his room. There, he got down on his knees, and thanked God for the miraculous reprieve they had been granted that night. He prayed that Johnny would find some peace, after his troubled life.

Lying in bed, Ben reflected on the trials and tribulations of bringing up children. It was never easy, but the joys always out-weighed the sorrows. He wondered what it would have been like to have had four sons. As sleep swept over him, he doubted if he would ever have the chance to find out.

*****End*****

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