Obeying Orders (by Rona)

Summary:  Being asked to scout for the army leads to a terrifying ordeal for Joe.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  T
Word Count:  10,110


 

“Did you hear there’s half a dozen soldiers coming to stay in town, Pa?” Adam Cartwright asked, over supper that evening. They had all been quite quiet, for it was the height of the haying season, and they were all exhausted from the hard physical work. Adam had gone into town for the mail that afternoon, and as a consequence, was feeling fresher than the rest of his family.

“No, I didn’t, son,” Ben responded, his voice husky with tiredness. “Why are they coming?”

“Roy said that they were scouting round the Indian settlements. There’s been talk of an uprising, and someone, somewhere thought that a show of force might settle things down again.” Adam shook his head. “All this time, and they still don’t understand the Indians.”

“There’s no signs of trouble from the Indians around here,” Joe protested. “I hope they don’t stir things up.”

“Don’t go borrowin’ trouble, Shortshanks,” Hoss said, placidly. “Likely they knows their job better’n we do.”

Subsiding back into silence, Joe went on with his meal, but from the look on his face, none of his family thought he was convinced by Hoss’ argument. They weren’t either. Too often, they had seen the army come in to quell this or that story of possible uprisings, and actually stir up trouble, where none had existed before.

“Where are they going to be staying?” Ben asked, trying to make an effort to keep the conversation going. He often felt, at this time of year, that he and his sons lived in a kind of cocoon, emerging to speak to one another when the hard work was over, and losing track of each other during the period they were working.

“The Jackson homestead,” Adam replied, shooting a sideways glance at Joe.

As he expected, Joe’s head shot up and he fixed Adam with an unblinking glare. “The Jackson place?” he repeated.

“It’s all right, Joe,” Adam said. “We won’t be expected to go there.” A couple of years or so previously, he and Joe had had a very nasty experience there with a girl who’d wanted to marry either one of them – it didn’t matter to her which – and she had set the barn alight, with both Joe and Adam in it. Carrie, the girl, had died in the fire, and Ben, Hoss and Roy Coffee had rescued Adam and Joe. It was still an unpleasant memory for them both.

“I didn’t think it was habitable,” Ben said, staring at Joe as the youth regained his composure.

“Abe Harleson bought it and did it up some, Pa,” Hoss reminded his father. “I think he thought perhaps he could make money rentin’ the place out, but nobody’s hired it till now.”

“Well, I suppose we’d better keep our eyes open for them going about,” Ben said. He glanced once more at Joe, but the young man’s head was down as he shoveled food tiredly into his mouth.

*****

Major Colin Stone rode across the territory of Nevada towards Virginia City, cursing his luck. Stone had been in the army for a number of years, and because his parents had connections, he had been promoted quite quickly. Unfortunately, he wasn’t popular with either his commanders or his men, and had already begun to notice that his career was moving sideways at quite a startling pace. He knew that he was being sent to Virginia City to keep him out of the way, and because it was felt that even he couldn’t mess up this assignment. Resentment smoldered in his soul. He felt he had the necessary talents to become the greatest commander the United States had ever seen, but jealous men were pushing him aside. Before he had left the fort, the colonel had come to talk to him.

“Just keep everything peaceful up there, Stone,” he was advised. “Nevada is still quiet, and we want it to stay that way. You’ll probably come across a man named Ben Cartwright. He owns a big ranch up there, and is a very influential man. He and his sons are on good terms with the natives, so you can ask him for help and advice if you need to. But a word of warning, Stone. If I hear of you riling my friend Mr. Cartwright, I’ll have your command!”

“Sir!” Stone had responded, saluting smartly. He resented the warning, and hoped that Ben Cartwright would do something that put him in the army’s jurisdiction. Friendly with the natives indeed! What kind of decent, God-fearing white man was friendly with the heathen red savages? he wondered. Not any kind of white man he knew. And as for asking a civilian for help – why, he’d as soon ask a savage for help!

Virginia City looked exactly as Stone had known it would – dirty and down trodden and primitive. He rode along the street at the head of his men, pointedly not looking to left or right. He had been told how to find the sheriff’s office, and ordered the men to halt outside it. He dismounted stiffly and went into the office.

It was cool and dim in there, and Roy Coffee looked up as Stone entered. “Well, howdy, Major,” he said, cordially, rising and holding out a hand to the younger man. “Mighty pleased to have ya here.”

Shaking the sheriff’s hand, Stone wondered how on earth a man as old as this managed to keep order in the town. “I was told to report to you here, Sir,” he said, stiffly. “As a matter of courtesy, you understand.”

“I understand, son,” Roy responded. “I’ve known your colonel for many years. Him an’ me an’ Ben Cartwright go back a long way!”

Inwardly, Stone stifled a groan. He didn’t want to be caught here in this office with this man and his reminiscences. However, Roy was acutely aware of the soldier’s discomfort. “Reckon you’d like me to tell ya how to get to your billet, huh?” he enquired, and tried to hide his laugh at the look of relief on the younger man’s face.

“Yes, thank you, Sir,” Stone responded, and listened carefully to the directions he was given. Outside, he resisted the urge to wipe his palm on his pants and mounted up again. Giving the order, he moved the men out. He was acutely aware of the stares as they rode down the street. Tomorrow, he would have to find someone local and reliable to scout for them. It wasn’t a task he was looking forward to.

*****

By the end of that week, the haying was over. None of the Cartwrights was prepared to ride to town to celebrate that first night. They were all too tired and dirty to even think about it. But by the following night, Saturday, they were a little more rested, and Joe began to chafe impatiently under the workload for the afternoon.

“Hurry it up, will ya, Hoss?” he complained, as Hoss seemed to take forever to check his side of the waterhole in the west pasture. “I want to get home tonight!”

“Go on then,” Hoss said. “I ain’t keeping ya here.”

Rolling his eyes, Joe bit back a caustic reply. Hoss knew perfectly well that if Joe returned early from the chore that he and Hoss had been sent to do, Ben would no doubt read the riot act, and Joe would have less than no chance of getting to town that evening! He waited with growing impatience as Hoss poked behind another bush or two before finally turning back to his younger brother.

“Guess everythin’s fine,” he allowed, fighting desperately to keep the smile from his face. It wasn’t often he managed to get one over on Joe, and he was determined to make the most of it! “I suppose we c’n go now.”

“About time,” Joe grumbled. He swung easily onto Cochise, and set off towards home. After a moment, he realized that Hoss wasn’t with him and turned back. Hoss was still standing beside Chubb, looking at the waterhole. “What’s wrong?” Joe asked, riding back.

“Hmm?” Hoss said, sounding pre-occupied. “Oh, nothin’ I guess.”

“What’s nothin’?” Joe asked, suspiciously.

“Nothin’,” Hoss responded, firmly and mounted. Again, Joe turned Cochise towards home, and Hoss still hadn’t got Chubb moving.

“Look, are you comin’ or not?” Joe demanded, his short supply of patience long gone.

“I’m a comin’,” Hoss responded, serenely. He edged Chubb into a sedate walk, and almost choked as he saw the look on Joe’s face. “There somethin’, little brother?” he asked, innocently.

“No,” Joe said, tightly, and curbed his prancing horse to match Hoss’ pace.

The family often joked that Cochise could read Joe’s mind, and now, the actions of horse and rider were so attuned that Hoss could keep his face straight no longer. He let out a great bellow of laughter, and let his own mount lengthen into a ground-eating lope. For a moment, Joe was caught flat-footed, then he realized he’d been duped and set Cochise into a gallop, intent on chasing down his brother.

*****

Neither Adam nor Hoss wanted to go into town that night, but Joe did. It wasn’t that he had anyone to meet, or that he even desperately wanted to play poker or have a drink. He just wanted a change of scene. So after supper, he rode into town alone.

The Silver Dollar saloon was quiet that evening. Joe saw a few faces he recognized, but he didn’t feel inclined to go over and chat. He nodded pleasantly to them, and ordered a beer. “Where is everyone, Sam?” he asked.

“Reckon most folks is tryin’ to keep out o’ the way of them soldier fellows, Joe,” Sam replied. “They’ve been right bad for business an’ that’s the truth!”

“How come?” Joe asked, his interest peaked.

“Well, they’re always pestering’ for someone to lead them to the Injun camps round here.” Sam glanced round and leant in closer. “No one wants to risk stirrin’ the Injuns up. They’ve bin quiet for the last while, and folks don’t want outsiders rilin’ them.”

“Well, that shows some sense, anyway,” Joe responded, relieved that the people felt like that, even though he was surprised. Most of the people in town would hand the Indians over without hesitating. “But I’m surprised, Sam. Don’t the army pay scouts?”

“Sure do, Joe,” Sam agreed. “But the major in charge of this lot don’t seem to get along with anyone. He could rub ya up the wrong way just wishin’ ya good morning!” He shook his head. “Nobody wants to work with him.”

Shrugging, Joe went back to his beer. He’d met a few people in his life that managed to annoy everyone around them. He grimaced. Brother Adam would no doubt comment that Joe was one of them, he thought. A genuine smile broke through as he thought he could jibe the same comment right back. He and Adam were getting on much better these days, although they still had times when they bickered endlessly.

A few more people came into the bar, and Joe glanced at them without much interest. He knew them all, but he didn’t care for them. Led by a cowboy universally known as Porky Pete, they were a crowd of ne’er-do-wells who drifted from temporary job to temporary job, only working long enough to get a stake for a game, or enough to live on for a few weeks. They had worked on the Ponderosa long enough to convince Joe that he didn’t like them at all, and he generally avoided them at all costs.

“Hi, Little Joe,” Porky shouted. He laughed, as did his companions. Joe didn’t bother to even look in their direction. They were all drunk.

For the next few minutes, he tried to ignore a barrage of taunts. He could feel his temper rising, and fought to keep it under control. He’d promised Pa that there wouldn’t be any trouble that night, and he was determined to keep his word. He looked at the last half-inch or so of beer in his glass, and resolved to go home as soon as it was finished.

The swing doors parted again and two soldiers walked in. Sam’s face tightened and he turned away, lifting a glass to give it a totally unnecessary polish. Joe glanced over, but he had no more than a passing interest in the men. He certainly wasn’t going to scout for them.

Stopping just inside the doors, Stone examined the crowd in the saloon. The usual ruffians, he thought disdainfully. “I’m looking for someone willing to lead us to the Indian encampments,” he said, loudly, as though talking to a bunch of retarded children with hearing difficulties.

“Hey, Joe,” Porky shouted. “You know where all them thar camps are, don’t cha?”

“Shut up, Porky,” Joe retorted, but the damage was done. Stone went across to the bar and leant on it, examining Joe closely.

“Can you help us, son?” he asked, his tone implying doubt.

“No,” Joe responded. “Sorry, Major, I’m not your man.” He drained the last of his beer, flipped Sam a coin and straightened up.

“Aw, Joe, you know that ain’t true,” Porky said. “You know them thar savages real good, don’t cha? You could help the major.”

Giving Porky a scorching glance that promised retribution at a later date, Joe walked out into the street. He sensed the major following him, and determined to keep his temper. He could quite see why no one was willing to help the major. But it wasn’t because of the man’s personality that Joe wasn’t willing to help him. He didn’t want to be associated with any trouble that might be stirred up because of the army’s presence in the area. His father had worked long and hard to gain the trust of the local tribes, and Joe wasn’t about to jeopardize that for anyone. He unhitched Cochise and prepared to mount.

“Hold it!” ordered Stone, putting his hand on Joe’s arm. “Those men in there say you know the savages round here quite well. Won’t you help us?”

Shaking the hand off his arm, Joe forgot he was trying to keep his temper. “The only savages you’ll find round here are those men you just listened to in there, Major,” he snapped. “I won’t help you, is that clear? I don’t want anything to do with you. Is that clear enough?” He deliberately aped the man’s manner.

“How dare you!” Stone gasped, outraged.

“I dare because I’m not in the army, and don’t intend to ever be in the army,” Joe responded. “I’m not going to help you scout.” He swung up onto Cochise’s back. “The tribes round here are peaceful,” he said. “I’m not going to help you spur them into an uprising.” He turned his horse and rode away.

Stone was left fuming in the street.

*****

“You’re back early,” Ben said, in surprise as Joe came in the door. He instantly diagnosed that Joe’s evening hadn’t gone to plan when the door slammed shut behind him. “What’s wrong, son?”

Sighing, Joe tried to calm down. He had tried all the way home, but hadn’t succeeded. “I ran into the major in charge of the troop here,” he said. “He’s one of those men, Pa. He annoys you just by opening his mouth. Porky Pete and his pals were there, and Porky told this major that I was the man they wanted for leading them to the tribes. I said I wasn’t, but he was real persistent. Followed me out into the street. I lost my temper, Pa,” he confessed, sheepishly. “I told him I’d never scout for him, and rode off.” He saw the expression on Ben’s face and correctly interpreted it. “No, I didn’t hit him, although I wanted to.”

“Forget him, Joe,” Ben said. “You were right to refuse him. We don’t want to get involved with this. I received a note from him the other day asking me to help and I refused. Pleaded pressure of work here on the ranch.”

“Sam says they haven’t managed to get anyone to help them, and it’s all because of the major’s attitude,” Joe reported, feeling better now he had it all off his chest.

“In that case, you were very wise to ride off before you hit him,” Ben joked, but he was as surprised as Joe. He would have expected that they would have found a scout by now. “I’m ready to go to bed.” he squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “How about you?”

“I’m pretty tired,” Joe admitted. Together they went upstairs, and Joe forgot all about his confrontation with the major.

*****

Several days later, Joe rode out alone to count the foals in one of the horse herds. The horses ran semi-wild on the Ponderosa, and Joe kept a close eye on the mares, cutting out and breaking the ones who were frequently barren, or were just plain getting too old. The herd stallion was a magnificent brown and white pinto called Satan. For one brief season, Joe had tried to break the stallion, but in the end had set him free to roam the hills once more. Shortly after that, Satan had saved Joe’s life. Joe had a really soft spot for the stallion.

He was nearly off the ranch when he found the herd. Satan was in one of his favorite meadows. Joe approached slowly, and the stallion lifted his head and eyed him. Finally, after a moment or two, he lowered his head and began to graze again. The mares, who had all tensed when the stallion did, all relaxed again, and after a minute the foals began to gambol around again.

They were a good crop again this year, Joe thought, assessing them expertly. A number of promising fillies, and several handsome colts. Joe leant his elbow on the saddle horn and watched them, totally engrossed as he planned for the future of these horses. He spun several castles in the clouds before returning to earth with a wry smile.

“Better get back, Cooch,” he said, patting his patient mount. Cochise was quite used to these visits to the herd, and as long as Satan didn’t get too close, he was quite content to stand and drowse.

Turning his mount, Joe rode a few paces, then glanced back over his shoulder. Satan was watching him, and Joe felt again the urge to try and ride him. He shook his head. Those days were long gone. “We’d better go get the mail,” Joe said aloud, and headed into town.

*****

He met them on the road. Joe almost never took the road out of town that ran past the Jackson place, because of the bad memories connected to it. But today, there had been a small landslip on the other road, and Joe had had to backtrack and detour to get round it, had almost missed the mail office, and had decided that he’d go back the other way.

Suddenly wary, Joe rode on, watching the major and his men get closer. He shouldn’t be surprised to see them, Joe thought. They were billeted at the Jackson place. He kept his gaze averted from the buildings where he and Adam had nearly died. It wasn’t the same barn – it had burned down – but the whole place gave Joe the heebie-jeebies.

It didn’t come as a surprise to find the major wanted to talk to him. He and his three men effectively blocked the road, and although Joe supposed he could’ve ridden around them, he didn’t really want to antagonize this man any further.

There were no polite preliminaries this time. “Have you reconsidered your decision?” Stone asked.

“No, I haven’t,” Joe replied. “And I won’t. I won’t be a scout for you. Now excuse me.”

He began to edge Cochise round the men. Stone moved his mount to block the way. “I’ve been told by a number of people that you are the man I want, and I mean to have you scout for me.”

“You can’t force me,” Joe said, not too sure of his ground here. “I’m not going to do it.” He was beginning to feel angry. “Now let me past!”

Pulling Cochise’s head to the right, he attempted to ride around the soldiers. Stone reached out and grabbed his reins, and Joe saw red! With a swift movement, he cracked the loose ends of his reins across Stone’s arm. The major was wearing his army uniform, so it probably didn’t hurt too much, but he certainly was startled by it. He snatched back his arm and reached for his gun.

In a twinkling, he found himself staring down the barrel of Joe’s gun. He froze, his breath catching audibly in his throat. Behind him, his men grinned. Joe flicked a glance at them. “Now, have you finally got the message?” he asked.

Still keeping his gun on Stone, Joe started Cochise moving again, edging past the major. But he was so busy concentrating on the major that he didn’t see that the route he’d chosen to escape effectively shielded the two privates from his view. One of them moved slightly and as Joe appeared around the major, he was ready, and smashed the gun from his hand. The gun spun from Joe’s grasp, and he shifted focus to this new threat, and Stone reacted instantly. He dived at Joe, knocking him off Cochise, and using his greater weight to pin Joe down.

Struggling, Joe managed to get in a few good punches before the two privates subdued him. He was dragged to his feet, and his arms twisted up behind him, as Stone laboriously got to his feet. He brushed off his uniform ostentatiously before meeting Joe’s flashing green eyes.

“You have no right to do this!” Joe stated, not caring if Stone had the right or not.

“You attacked me,” Stone said, smugly. “The army will want to deal with you.”

Horrified, Joe began to struggle anew. For a moment, it looked as though he might manage to get away, but Stone, now that he had Joe in his grasp, wasn’t willing to let his prize go. Moving quickly, he removed a pair of metal handcuffs from his belt and passed them to the soldiers. Despite everything Joe could do, his hands were soon cuffed securely behind his back. “Let’s go,” Stone ordered. He took Cochise’s rein and led the horses towards the Jackson place. The soldiers dragged Joe along with them, although he fought furiously every step of the way.

*****

“Joe’s staying out pretty late tonight, isn’t he?” Adam commented to Ben as they began to prepare to go to bed. Adam was putting away the chess set, although they hadn’t finished their game. Ben’s heart hadn’t been in it, and Adam knew why. They had expected Joe back hours ago, and Ben always worried.

“Pretty late,” Ben agreed, his tone neutral, but Adam wasn’t fooled.

“He probably met someone and is having a drink. You know how he is.” Adam didn’t approve of Joe’s casual attitude to time keeping, but he hated to see Ben worrying.

“Yes, I know how he is,” Ben agreed. “I just hoped that, with the army in town, he might have had the sense to come home promptly.”

“Joe hasn’t had trouble with the army, has he?” Adam asked, suddenly alert. “Nobody said anything.”

“Not really trouble,” Ben said. “But Porky Pete and his pals told the major that Joe was the man to lead them to the camps, and he took it badly when Joe refused. Nobody wants to work with him. I got a letter from him, but it was so badly written that I refused to help, too. It was downright rude, in fact.”

“You don’t think the major has anything to do with him being late, do you?” Adam asked.

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “But if he somehow got Joe to lose his temper, he might be able to claim that Joe attacked him, and make him somehow lead them to the camps.”

“Can he do that?” Adam asked, amazed.

“He might think he can,” said Ben, softly. He clapped Adam on the shoulder. “Let’s get to bed, and home that scamp comes home soon. Then we can all copy your other brother and get some sleep!” For Hoss’ snores could be heard clearly from the bottom of the stairs.

“Let’s hope,” Adam said, wryly. Together, father and son mounted the stairs, both aware that they wouldn’t sleep until a certain young man arrived safely home.

*****

The cellar of the Jackson place was cold, dark and damp. Joe sat with his back to a supporting post in the middle of the floor, his wrists manacled firmly round the pole, his ankles tightly bound. He didn’t know how long he had been there, but long enough for the damp to start seeping into his pants and make him shiver. He had fought his captors every step of the way, and for his pains had been pushed down the cellar steps. Luckily, he had received no injuries bar bruises. He had been angry for a long time, but now he was just tired, hungry and sore.

There wasn’t a single sliver of light anywhere in the room. Joe tried to ease the stiffness out of his shoulders in the vain hope that he might be able to get some sleep, but there wasn’t a comfortable position to be had. Sighing, Joe wondered what his family thought about his non-appearance that night at supper. Perhaps his late returns home weren’t in his favor, he thought. If he arrived on time more often, perhaps the alarm would be raised sooner when he was in trouble.

What did Major Stone plan to do with him? he wondered at last. Would he force Joe to lead him to the camps? Instantly, Joe’s jaw tightened with determination. He wouldn’t do that, not even if it cost him his life! Biting his lip as that thought crossed his mind, Joe knew that was going to extremes. But he was determined not to help the arrogant major.

Joe had once been in the hands of the army before, and the memory wasn’t pleasant. He shuddered violently as he remembered standing in front of the firing squad, sure he was about to die. Joe swallowed against the bile rising in his throat. Stone wouldn’t try anything like that – would he?

Once the thought had implanted itself, Joe couldn’t shake it. He wasn’t sure, because he didn’t know Stone well enough, but he wouldn’t be surprised. After all, Stone had basically kidnapped him. He was a hostage, although he doubted if there would be any ransom demand. Or not a monetary one. His ransom would be scouting for the troop. Once more, Joe’s jaw jutted in the manner that always caused his father to sigh. He wasn’t going to scout for Stone! No way!

Leaning his head on the post behind him, Joe closed his eyes. It was no less dark, and he was thankful that he had never been afraid of the dark, like Hoss had been. But this place still made him uneasy. He was only thankful that they hadn’t taken him to the barn. That would have been too much! Somewhere in the corner, something skittered across the earthen floor, and Joe opened his eyes again. He still couldn’t see anything. He listened to the sounds of the mouse or rat, and wished he could get out the way it had got in.

*****

Come morning, Adam and Ben rose, grainy eyed and worried. It was still possible that Joe had simply been arrested, but neither of them believed that. Over breakfast, they up dated Hoss and Hop Sing about Joe’s disappearance, then went out to saddle up.

The ride into town seemed interminable, and they had to backtrack and find another way round the landslip. There were a couple of men working on clearing the road, but it would clearly take a few days before it would be passable again. “When did this happen?” Ben asked.

“Yesterday,” one of the men replied. “Little Joe reported it to Sheriff Coffee when he come into town.”

“So he wouldn’t have come back this way,” Adam said, as they rode on.

“He’d a come back by the Jackson place,” Hoss said, gloomily. “Cut round the back o’ town and met the road back there’s away.”

The unspoken thought crossed all their minds at once. Hoss drew rein. “I’ll go back an’ look, Pa,” he offered. “He might be there somewhere.”

“Thank you, son,” Ben said. “I appreciate that.” He watched as Hoss rode off, retracing their steps for a bit, before he would turn off to hunt for Joe. “Let’s go,” he said to Adam.

*****

Sounds at the door above him dragged Joe from an uneasy doze. He opened his eyes and squinted at the light that seemed to blaze in. Stone came in, accompanied by another trooper. “So, have you decided to cooperate with us?” he asked.

“I’m not going to help you,” Joe replied. It occurred to him that Stone had never asked his name, and presumably knew him just as ‘Joe’. “So why don’t you just let me go.”

“You attacked me,” Stone said, officiously. “You must face the penalty for that. Or you can help us. Take your choice.”

Looking at Stone, Joe couldn’t hide his contempt. “This would be in an army court,” he said. “Well, Major, I’ve faced army justice before, and it stinks! Army justice seems to be whatever suits the commanding officer! You don’t get in trouble for following orders, do you?” he shot at the unlucky private, who looked away. “And as long as no one checks up on your story, you’re all right, aren’t you?”

“Prepare him for the punishment,” Stone snapped. Even in the poor light, Joe could see Stone was puce with anger. “He’s clearly not going to help us.” He stepped back and drew his service revolver, keeping Joe covered as the private unshackled his hands, and dragged Joe to his feet.

Joe had no idea what they had in mind, but he felt a shiver running down his spine, and tried desperately to control it as he was divested of his jacket and shirt. His hands were then recuffed, and his feet untied. He was pushed towards the stairs, and stumbled a couple of times until his legs regained their normal feeling. Was he going to be flogged? Joe knew that the army did that, and he found the practice brutal. Once or twice, he had been on the receiving end of a whip, and it wasn’t something he wanted to face again.

That wasn’t what he was facing. He was shoved out of the yard and away from the town. The soldier at his back kept shoving him and Joe’s temper was flaming dangerously by the time they reached their destination about half an hour later.

They were in the middle of nowhere, and Joe looked around, puzzled. He didn’t know why they had come out here, and he bit down on his lip as he wondered if he was going to be shot and quietly buried, without anyone being the wiser.

The soldier shoved Joe onto the ground as Stone dismounted his horse and began to pound a peg into the ground. Joe half watched, as the soldier removed his boots and socks. Another peg went into the ground, and it suddenly became clear to Joe what they intended to do.

He didn’t hesitate. He kicked out, catching the soldier unawares on the chest, and leapt to his feet. The ground was rock hard, but Joe didn’t notice as he began to run back towards the town. But he was hampered by not having his arms free, and the disgruntled soldier soon caught him up. He tackled Joe around the knees, and brought him crashing to the ground.

Winded, Joe fought back, but he had no chance. Several hard clips to the jaw, and Joe was soon dazed and bleeding from a split lip. He drew in ragged breaths as he struggled to clear his head. Once more, he was dragged to his feet, and shoved unceremoniously across the rough ground. Joe could feel the pain from his feet now and was soon limping.

He was stopped in front of Stone, who smiled viciously. “Coward!” Stone sneered, and backhanded Joe across the face. Joe stumbled and fell to his knees.

Working quickly, Stone and the soldier attached rope to Joe’s ankles, dragged him upright, and led him over to where Stone had pounded 4 pegs into the ground. It took a struggle, but they finally had Joe sitting on the ground, his legs stretched out as they bound his feet to 2 of the pegs. Then they tied rope to his wrists before removing the handcuffs, and stretching him out so he was tied up, spread-eagled on the ground. Once he was secure, Stone went round and tightened all the ropes, so Joe’s muscles were at their full stretch.

Standing over Joe, Stone allowed another smile to escape. “I’ll be back later, boy,” he said. “And then we’ll see whether you’ll scout for us.”

“Never,” Joe said, as they walked away and left him. “Never,” he repeated.

*****

“Well, I don’t know what to tell ya, Ben,” Roy Coffee said. “I didn’t see Little Joe after he stopped off here to tell me about the road bein’ closed. He weren’t in any o’ the saloons when I done my rounds last night.”

Frowning, Ben and Adam exchanged looks. “Nobody has seen him since he collected the mail yesterday afternoon,” Ben said. “Roy, we’re pretty worried. Joe had a run-in with that army major.”

“Him!” Roy snorted, not trying to hide his disgust. “I’ve had a word or two with him myself, Ben. He thinks he can ignore the law, just ‘cos he’s in the army, and I’ve had to talk sharply to him about it.” Roy shook his head. “Ben, I’ll tell ya this because I know you won’t let it get out. But I sent a wire to his commandin’ officer, because I reckon he’s stirrin’ up a passel o’ trouble in this town. That there Porky Pete and his buddies are windin’ him up a treat about Joe being the best scout around here, and Stone just won’t believe that Joe ain’t willin’ to help.”

“Colonel Forbes is a good man,” Ben said. “Have you had a response?”

“He’s comin’ here hisslef to look into it,” Roy said. “Just got the wire n’more than an hour ago. He should be here tomorrow.”

“We can’t wait until tomorrow, Roy,” Adam said. “We need to look for Joe there today. Can you help us?”

“Sure can,” Roy agreed. “Jist let me get my gun.” He crossed over to the gun cabinet, and took down his rifle and began to rummage for shells. Ben and Adam exchanged glances.

The door opened and Hoss came in. His face told the whole story – he hadn’t found a trace of Joe. Grimly, he shook his head, and watched as the hope died from Ben’s face. “No sign, Pa,” he said, although he didn’t need to speak.

Silently, they rode through the town, and up to the Jackson place. Adam shuddered. Ben shot him a concerned look, but Adam ignored it. He could stand a little discomfort for Joe’s sake. He squared his shoulders as they dismounted and looked around. One soldier stood idly by the barn, smoking a cheroot. Another joined him at the door briefly, then returned to the interior. A token guard stood by the door. Of the other three men in the troop, there was no immediate sign.

“I want to talk to Major Stone,” Ben said.

For a moment, he thought he was going to be refused, but the door swung open and Stone came out. “Can I help you?” he asked, looking down his nose contemptuously, and Ben could see at once why he was so disliked.

“My name is Ben Cartwright,” he began and saw the change of expression on the man’s face. He didn’t give Stone the chance to speak. “I’m looking for my son, Joseph. I believe you have talked with him.”

“Not that I’m aware of, Mr. Cartwright,” he answered, more pleasantly, but still with traces of contempt in his voice.

“In the Silver Dollar,” Ben persisted. “One of the cowboys told you that my son was the man you wanted for your scout. I believe you asked him to help and he refused.”

“There was such a man,” Stone said, slowly. “But I don’t believe it was your son, Sir.” He tried to keep his resentment of Ben out of his voice. He didn’t quite manage. “This young man was dressed like a cowboy. He wore a green jacket and light colored pants. He had curly hair and green eyes. He carried a left-handed gun.” He frowned. “I believe he said his name was Joe.”

With every word, Ben had grown angrier. “That is my son!” he all but shouted. “Where is he?”

Alarmed, Stone just looked at Cartwright. This was the man the colonel had said was friendly with the natives, and he wasn’t to rile him at all. And now, he had the man’s son pegged out in the hot sun, hoping to break his spirit. Stone made a fast decision.

“I haven’t seen him,” he said stiffly.

“Roy, I want to search this place,” Ben said.

“Not without a warrant,” Stone objected. He needed time to get rid of the evidence – Joe’s clothing, which still lay on the cellar floor.

Seeing how angry Ben was, Roy laid a restraining hand on his arm. “He’s right, Ben,” he said. “We need a warrant to search the place.”

“And by the time we get one, he’ll have taken Joe out by the back door,” Ben said, angrily.

“Sir, I protest!” Stone said, stiffly.

“Pa, Hoss and I will stay here and keep watch on the place,” Adam offered. “You go with Roy and get the warrant.”

“All right,” Ben responded. He stalked back to his horse and mounted. Roy followed quickly and the two of them rode out. Adam beckoned to Hoss.

“Let’s go up to the road, and that way we can keep an eye on the whole place,” Adam proposed. He didn’t want to stay in that yard for a moment longer than necessary. He wondered how Joe was coping. If he felt like that, how did Joe feel?

The sense of relief as they left was liberating. Adam felt quite light –headed for an instant and closed his eyes. “Adam!” Hoss said, sharply, and Adam opened his eyes to glance at his brother. Hoss was pointing to an object lying by the road, and Adam’s heart missed a beat.

It was Joe’s hat.

*****

To begin with, Joe didn’t find his position too onerous. He even managed to sleep for a short time. But before long, his muscles were cramping painfully, and the sun beat down on him mercilessly. By noon, Joe was dizzy from the lack of water. His chest and the bottoms of his bare feet were sunburned. He could feel the thinner skin on his underarms following suit. The sun seemed to penetrate even his closed eyelids. He didn’t know how much longer he could bear this. He didn’t think Stone would ever come back for him. An errant breeze trickled over his skin, reminding him of how hot he was. He prayed for deliverance.

*****

“There was definitely a scuffle here,” Adam said, pointing out the tracks to his father and Roy. “And this is where Joe’s hat was.”

“Any sign of them trying to move Joe?” Ben asked, glancing back at the buildings below them.

“No,” Adam responded. “I don’t think we’ll find Joe there, Pa. I’m sure Stone has something to do with Joe’s disappearance, but I don’t think we’ll find him there.”

“You’re not suggesting we don’t look are you?” Ben demanded, horrified.

“No, of course not,” responded Adam, impatiently. “We might find something.”

“Let’s go then,” Ben said, and urged Buck back down to the house.

They searched long and hard, but the house was empty of any signs that Joe had ever been there. Disappointed, but not yet discouraged, Ben then headed to the barn. Stone immediately began to object once more, protesting that the warrant only covered the house, but Roy swiftly over rode him, pointing out that the warrant covered all the buildings. Leaving Stone standing in the yard as though frozen, they went on into the barn.

At once, they discovered why Stone didn’t want them going into the barn. Cochise was in one of the stalls. The pinto snorted as it caught familiar scents, and Ben crossed to the animal, gently stroking its silken ears. “Where’s your master, eh, boy?” he murmured.

Encouraged by the sight of Joe’s horse, Adam and Hoss were soon throwing hay bales around. Adam climbed into the loft, while Hoss scoured the floor for a hidden trapdoor. The sight of the loft made Adam want to vomit, but he controlled himself. He soon found more evidence – Joe’s jacket and shirt.

“Pa,” he called, and held up his trophies.

Ben’s jaw tightened and he turned to Stone, who stood wilting in the doorway. “Where is my son?” he grated.

“I don’t know,” Stone denied. He kept his gaze riveted on the wall, refusing to make eye contact with any of them.

For a minute, Roy thought Ben was going to thump Stone, and he really wouldn’t have blamed him, but he hastened to intervene. “If’n you know where Little Joe is, I suggest you tell us,” he said, sternly. “I could arrest you for his disappearance.”

“I am an army officer, and you can’t arrest me without proof,” Stone said.

“What do you think this is?” Ben demanded, thrusting Joe’s clothing in front of his face. He glanced round at the troopers, who seemed to be enjoying their officer’s discomfort. “Have any of you seen my son?” he asked.

“Don’t answer him, any of you; that’s an order!” Stone snapped. “I’ll court-martial any man who talks to Mr. Cartwright!”

Moving as one, Adam and Hoss each caught one of Ben’s arms. Ben strained against their grips for a second before finally relaxing. “I’m all right,” he said gruffly, glancing at each son. “You can let go.” He drew in a deep breath. Cautiously, his sons let go.

“Major Stone, I’m arresting you on suspicion concerning the disappearance of Joe Cartwright,” Roy said. “I’m takin’ you into custody, and we can sort this out with your commanding officer tomorrow.”

Silently, Stone saddled his horse to accompany Roy to the jail. Adam began to saddle Cochise. Hoss went outside, looking disgusted. Ben eyed the soldiers, most of who looked extremely uncomfortable under his stern gaze. He was desperately worried about Joe. Stone clearly knew where he was and so did at least some of the others soldiers. Colonel Forbes was due in the next day, but would that be soon enough to help Joe?

*****

The pain, the cramps, the sun; they all combined to make Joe’s life a living hell. He drifted in and out of consciousness. His breathing was beginning to be affected by his position, and he sometimes felt that the air he gulped into his lungs was as thick as molasses, and about as useful. In his delirium, he saw the members of his family standing beside him, discussing him as if he wasn’t there.

“He’s always late, Pa,” Adam said, dismissively. “If he kept better time, we’d have been in time to rescue him.”

“Cain’t trust him to do nothin’,” Hoss agreed.

“Seems to me like you’re right, boys,” Ben said, regretfully.

“Pa, I’ll be better, I promise,” Joe panted. “Please, Pa, believe me.” He blinked the sweat out of his eyes, and realized that his family had gone. With a groan, he realized that they had been figments of his fevered mind. For Joe was indeed fevered. “Oh help me, somebody!” he screamed, and slipped into unconsciousness again.

*****

“He’s not said a blessed word, Ben,” Roy said, dispiritedly. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Clenching his fists, Ben thought of what he’d like to do. But his respect for the law was such that he couldn’t allow himself the dubious satisfaction of beating the information he wanted out of Stone. “Keep trying, Roy,” he said. “The boys and I will go back out to the Jackson’s place, and see if we can get any of the other to talk.”

Giving Ben a searching look, Roy nodded reluctantly. “All right, Ben, but be careful. I don’t want you ending up in here, too.”

“I won’t do anything, Roy,” Ben said, but he was glad of the reminder all the same. He went outside, where Adam and Hoss leant on the hitching rail, talking quietly. “Let’s go back and talk to those soldiers,” Ben said to them.

“All right,” Adam said, and they took their reins.

A clatter of hooves down the street made them all glance up. Ben straightened. “It can’t be…” he said. “Bill!” he called, and waved.

The portly man on the big bay horse looked a lot older than Ben, but he grinned. “Ben!” Pulling his sweating animal to a halt, he slid from the saddle with evident relief. “I didn’t expect a welcoming committee,” he said.

“Its not,” Ben said. “We didn’t expect you until tomorrow.”

“What’s wrong?” Forbes asked, noting the grim expressions on the faces of all three men.

Quickly Ben explained and Forbes’ face grew dark. “Right, I’ll sort this out,” he said. “Stay here, Ben.” He went into the jail.

“I guess that’s Colonel Forbes, then,” Adam said.

“Yes,” Ben said. “Sorry, I didn’t get the chance to introduce you.”

“If he gets us what we want, I don’t care if you never introduce us,” Adam commented.

They waited impatiently. Raised voices could be heard from within, and shortly the door opened, and Forbes came out. He looked furious. “That moron won’t talk,” he stated. “Take me to the billet, and I’ll get the enlisted men to tell me. We’ll get your boy back, Ben, don’t worry.”

As they rode over, Ben introduced his other sons to the Colonel. Adam was intrigued to realize that he had met the man once before, when he was a little boy. He had no recollection of the meeting however. Forbes seemed to have a little difficulty associating the dark young man with the quiet little boy he remembered, too.

The soldiers were all lounging about in the sun when they arrived, but hastily snapped to attention as they recognized Forbes. He roundly chewed them out for their slovenly appearance and soon had them smartening themselves up as best they could while on parade. To Ben, it all seemed like a waste of time. The afternoon was drawing to a close, and he was beginning to fear the worst for Joe.

“All right, where is Joe Cartwright?” Forbes demanded.

For a second, the men all looked uneasy, but finally, one man stepped forward. “I can take you to him, sir,” he said.

“Well, do so and make it snappy!” Forbes ordered. “Where is he?”

“Pegged out in the grasslands, sir,” the trooper answered.

“Pegged out?” Forbes repeated. He shot a glance at Ben. “Is there a wagon here?” At the nod he received, he snapped, “Then get it harnessed now!”

“What does he mean ‘pegged out’?” Ben asked, quietly, dreading the answer.

Reluctantly, Forbes explained. He put a hand under Ben’s arm, for the other man had gone very pale. “Is there a doctor here?” he asked. “I think you might need him.”

“Send one of them,” Ben said, gesturing to the soldiers. “We’re coming with you.”

*****

They were underway within two minutes, but each second seemed like an eternity to Joe’s anguished family. Adam filled the canteens at the well. Hoss tossed hay into the back of the wagon to try and soften it slightly. Then they were off and moving, and the trooper kept the team going at a smart trot.

The ten minutes it took to reach Joe was almost unbearable. But finally, they saw a figure on the ground a short distance away, and Ben could keep to a trot no longer. He spurred Buck forward, and raced to Joe’s side, flinging himself from the saddle before the horse was even stopped. “Joe!”

Kneeling by his son, Ben was horrified at what he saw. Joe was unconscious, his skin burnt by the sun, his muscles visibly quivering from the strain they had been under all day. He began to fumble with the ropes that kept his son captive, and found Adam’s and Hoss’ hands there, slicing through the ropes.

As he gently moved Joe’s limbs, his son let out a fearsome groan of pain, and his eyes flickered open. His lips moved as he registered the face above him, but no sound came out. Joe’s lips were cracked and blistered. Ben reached for a canteen, and found it put into his hand without him having to ask. He trickled a little water into Joe’s mouth.

Heat radiated from Joe’s skin, and Ben feared he might have sunstroke. “See if we can rig up something to shade the wagon,” he said. “It’s all right, Joe, you’re safe now.”

“Pa?” Joe croaked. He groaned again. Ben moved slightly so that his shadow fell over Joe’s face.

“You’ll be safe now, son,” Ben assured him, and hugged him close. Tears stood in his eyes as he realized how close he had come to losing this precious child.

*****

The journey back to Virginia City took longer than the one going out. Hoss, who was driving the wagon, didn’t go back to the Jackson place; he drove straight to Paul Martin’s office. Ben was in the back with Joe, and Adam rode close by. Forbes and the unlucky soldier who had assisted Stone went back to the billet. Ben had no interest in what would happen to him. All that mattered was that he had spoken up in time to save Joe.

They had been unable to shade the wagon, and Ben had moved around constantly during the ride back, trying to keep himself between Joe and the sun. He fed Joe small sips of water at regular intervals, and was glad to notice that his son’s precarious hold on consciousness improved slowly.

Arriving at the office, Hoss slid from the wagon seat to come and help Ben lift Joe. They were gentle, but Joe still cried out in pain. “Sorry, Joe,” Ben gasped, as Adam opened the office door for them. They laid him down on the table as Paul stepped forward to examine him.

“Well, it’s not too serious this time, Ben,” Paul said. “Joe has sunstroke, and he’ll be drifting for quite a while, I suspect. He’ll be fevered and nauseous for sometime. His feet are a terrible mess, and there’s some infection in there, under the sunburn. I’ll clean them up before you take him home. Apart from that, I’ll give you a salve to help take the heat out of the sunburn. Be careful not to break the blisters on his underarms. He’ll be very sore. His muscles are badly abused. Let him rest, and he’ll fine in about a week or ten days.”

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said, wilting with relief. He went over to Joe’s side and stroked the boy’s hot forehead. “You’re coming home, Joe,” he whispered. Joe slept on, but he seemed to settle more comfortably at the sound of his father’s voice.

*****

The evening air was cool as the wagon rolled into the yard at the Ponderosa. Joe rested comfortably after a dose of painkiller from the doctor, designed to get him home. He stirred as they lifted him from the wagon, and was fully awake by the time he was settled in his own bed.

“Can I get you anything, son?” Ben asked.

“Water, please,” Joe answered. It was almost the only thing he’d said. He’d been too sick to want to eat anything, but his need for water seemed never ending. Ben could see that his son’s skin tone had improved, and Paul assured him that meant Joe had almost conquered the dehydration he’d suffered. Ben helped him drink. “Thanks, Pa,” he whispered.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Ben found himself stroking Joe’s hair again. “I thought we’d lost you for good this time,” he said. He tried to make the comment come out as a joke, but failed.

“I thought so too,” Joe agreed, soberly. “I thought I saw you all, standing beside me. Adam said I was always late, and if I’d kept better time, you’d have come to rescue me. You and Hoss agreed with him, and you all left.”

“Oh, Joe!” Ben exclaimed, horrified. “We’d never do that.”

“I know,” Joe assured him. “But I wasn’t feeling exactly rational right about then.” He tried to make a joke of it, too, but also failed. He licked his cracked lips, and Ben offered more water. After a sip, Joe drew his head away. “I met Stone by the Jackson place,” he said. “There was a landslip on the other road, and I had to go home that way.”

“I know about the landslip,” Ben said, patiently.

“Stone stopped me, and grabbed my rein. I hit his arm with the ends of the reins, and he tried to pull his gun. I drew mine first and tried to ride away. But one of his men tried to stop me, and when I looked at him, Stone jumped me. Next thing I knew, he had me handcuffed, and I spent the night in the cellar.” Joe shuddered. Ben put a warm hand on Joe’s arm and squeezed gently. “It was horrid being back there, Pa, but at least I didn’t end up in the barn. Then, this morning?” he glanced at Ben for confirmation, having lost all track of time that day. “They took me out there, and tied me down. I tried to run away, but I didn’t get too far.” He looked ruefully at his bandaged feet. “Guess I don’t go barefoot as often as I used to.”

“Roy arrested Stone,” Ben said, filling in the rest for Joe. “Stone denied you’d ever been there, but Cochise was in the barn, and Adam found your clothes in the hayloft.”

“He went up there?” Joe said, awe in his voice. His own memories of the place were such that he didn’t know if he could have done that.

“I did it once before for you, Joe,” Adam said from the doorway. “I’d do it again if I had to.” He and Hoss came into the room. Joe found a small smile for them. His lips were too cracked and sore to allow for a bigger smile, but his eyes shone as they usually did, and both Adam and Hoss were adept at reading Joe’s feelings.

“Colonel Forbes came a day early,” Ben said. “And he was able to make the men tell us where you were. The rest you know.”

“Who’s Colonel Forbes?” Joe asked, his headache making him a little slow on the uptake.

“Stone’s commanding officer,” Adam said. “Pa knows him, and I met him once when I was a little boy.”

“What happens now?” Joe asked, snuggling down into the pillows. He ached all over, despite the painkiller, and he was beginning to feel sleepy. His head was pounding.

“You rest, Joe,” Ben said. “That’s what happens.” He saw the sleepy smile on Joe’s lips as his eyes closed. He sat for another minute longer, but by then, Joe was deep in a healing sleep.

Rising, Ben saw that Adam and Hoss were standing by the door, waiting for him. Together, they went downstairs.

*****

A couple of days later, Roy Coffee and Colonel Forbes came out to the ranch. Joe was downstairs, having managed to traverse the hallway on his feet, and negotiated the stairs on his behind, much to Ben’s disapproval. His vicious sunburn was cooling, and the blisters along the undersides of his arms had gone, and he was able to get a shirt on without too much discomfort. Still, he was sitting with his feet up along the settee, looking tired. He greeted the visitors cheerfully enough, but he looked tense.

“Stone is being court-martialled, and tried by a civilian court,” Forbes explained. “Unusual, I know, but we felt that this is an unusual case.”

“What do you think will happen?” Ben asked.

“He’ll be kicked out of the army,” Forbes said. “We’ve been wanting to get rid of him for some time, but didn’t have any reason for doing so. Then, I assume he’ll go to prison for a spell.”

“I’d think so,” Roy said, nodding. “But it’s up to the judge, o’ course.”

“I’d like to offer the army’s formal apology to you, Joe,” Forbes said. “I realize that it’s of little comfort, but we don’t condone Stone’s actions at all.”

“Wasn’t he just obeying orders?” Joe asked, bitterly.

Shooting a glance at Ben, Forbes was glad that Ben had taken the time to explain Joe’s disquiet regarding army justice. “He certainly wasn’t following my orders,” he said, baldly. “And I despise a man who doesn’t think for himself and hides behind the phrase ‘obeying orders’. There’s no room for that kind of thing in my command.”

“Thank you,” Joe said, softly. “I accept the apology, Colonel.”

*****

After Roy and Forbes had left, Joe was silent for some time. Ben pottered around, knowing that Joe was building up to something, and content to wait until his son was ready to share his thoughts.

But Ben had to wait. It wasn’t until later that night, as he looked in on Joe, that he learned what was on Joe’s mind. “Not asleep? Are you all right? Anything I can get you?” he asked, looking round the door.

“I’m all right,” Joe answered. “I was just thinking.”

“What about?” Ben invited, coming in and sitting down.

“The army. And obeying orders. There are many different interpretations of that, aren’t there?” He glanced at Ben, who nodded.

“Sure are, son.”

“Most of the army commanders seem to value people who blindly obey orders above the ones who can use their own initiative. That seems mad to me.”

“And me,” Ben agreed. “Neither you nor I would be much good in the army, Joe. We aren’t good at obeying orders. But some men need to be told what to do. And while I do prefer if you do as I say, I brought you up to be your own man, and make your own decisions. Your brothers as well.” He smiled. “There are times for obeying orders without question, and other times where you should question. Like Sergeant O’Rourke.”

Sighing, Joe grinned at Ben. “Well, good thing I never thought about the army as a career, then, Pa,” he joked.

“A very good thing!” Ben agreed, emphatically. “You’d never have lasted through training.”

“What do you mean?” Joe protested. His eyes were twinkling merrily. “You would? You just told me you weren’t suited to the army either!”

“Ah, but I’m good at giving orders,” Ben said. “They’d have made me an officer at once.”

“Sure,” Joe said, in a disbelieving tone. “Colonel Cartwright, is that it?”

Rising, Ben smiled. “I preferred General, myself,” he said, blandly. “It’s got a better ring to it.” He was followed to the door by Joe’s laughter. He paused before going out. Joe lay in bed, looking as good as new and Ben was overcome by gratitude once more. “Good night, son,” he said.

“Good night, General Pa,” Joe answered.

Laughing, Ben closed the door firmly behind him.

*****End*****

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