Stuck (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word count:   13,283


 

“Galldanit, Joe, stop that horsin’ ‘round!” squabbled Hoss, “Ya scarin’ the life outta me!”

Little Joe snickered at the scrunched up expression on his older brother’s rotund face.

“Aw…I’m just funnin’ with ya,” sang Little Joe as he glanced over his shoulder at the steep edge of the deep, dark crevice he was standing over.

“Well ya dun cried wolf twice already today and it ain’t funny no more.  Now move away from the edge of that crevice afore ya really do fall and break ya fool neck,” growled the big man in an angry voice.

Joe Cartwright screwed up his handsome face, turning the young features into a grotesque expression. “Oh…alright, Hoss.  I’m sorry for scaring ya,” Joe said apologetically as he turned away from the rim of the narrow fissure where two gigantic slabs of hard, solid rock had split in two, forming the crevice.

Hoss turned his back to his brother and began gathering up his gear.  It was the sudden, blood-curdling scream that caused him to drop the articles in his hand and spin around on his heels.

“AGHHH…”

Hoss was just in time to see his younger brother disappear over the edge of the ledge.

“JOE!” bellowed Hoss.

Quickly, he ran to rim and looked down.  The crack in the wall of the rocks was so deep and dark that seeing to the bottom was impossible.  Hoss’ heart thumped wildly, making his broad chest hurt.

“JOE!  JOEEE!” shouted Hoss as he flattened his body against the hard stone ground.

His large, beefy hands lay flat on the rocky surface of the rim as he strained to peer down into the dark crack in the earth’s bowels.  His hungry eyes searched desperately for the boy, not yet man. “JOE!  FOR PETE’S SAKE BOY…ANSWER ME!” he cried frantically.

Hoss pushed his heavy form forward, daringly close to the edge trying to see deeper into the division of the aged old stones.  He listened for any sounds, praying silently that his beloved brother would call for him.

“Joe…” Hoss muttered softly, fear rising in his heart and soul, gnawing at his gut.

“Ohhh…Hoss…”

“JOE!” Hoss shouted, breathing a deep, long sigh of relief at hearing the voice, though weak and full of desperation.

“Help…me…” he heard the younger man cry.

Hoss was keenly aware of the pain in his brother’s voice and knew instantly without having to be told, that the boy was hurting and obviously in great pain. “Joe…how badly are ya hurt?”

For several long moments, no sounds came from the deep indention.  Hoss’ eyes had still not yet found the one in which he hungered to see.

“My…arm…it’s broke,” Joe cried in a weak voice.

Joe strained to look up, as hungry to see his older brother’s face, as the one lying on the edge of the crevice was to see the younger man’s face. “I’m…stuck, Hoss…”

“Stuck?”

“Yeah…ohh…my legs…and lower half…are stuck between this…slab of…rocks.  Ohh…Hoss…” gulped Joe, “I can’t feel…anything…and…I’m afraid of sliding. Hoss…hurry!”

Hoss swallowed hard.  He glanced around, troubled that he was alone with no one to help him.  He studied the opening of the crack in the earth and realized that there was no way possible that he’d be able to lower himself into the crevice to help free his brother.  His massive frame was too wide, he, too heavy.

His thoughts raced wildly.  How on earth would he ever free his brother, he thought.  They were miles from home…and help.  Hoss gulped.

“Don’t move, Joe, ya hear me?” Hoss called.

“Agh…don’t worry…Hoss…I can’t…I can barely breathe…I’m wedged in here tight…” called Joe.

“I’ll be right back, Joe…”

“HOSS!  NO…WAIT!” shouted Joe with as much force as he could muster.

His heart beat with fear; his fingers on his right hand clawed at the rocky surface of the rocks that held him prisoner of nature.  He felt little of the pain that ran like shock waves up and down the length of his broken, left arm.  The young man was paralyzed with fear.

“Joe…ya gotta hold on; I gotta get a rope…I promise, I’ll be right back,” Hoss called down. He rose to his feet; his blue, anxious eyes never left the dark abyss in which his brother had fallen.  Hoss swallowed hard, the scent of fear was thick in his nostrils as he forced himself to turn away, ignoring the piteous cries from deep within the earth’s viscera.

As fast as he could, Hoss grabbed his rope from his saddle and raced back to the rim of the opening.  Quickly, he secured one end of the rope about his waste and then dropped to the ground, peering over the edge.  The position of the sun had moved slightly and Hoss was afforded his first peek of his brother.

Joe had turned his head upward, looking for Hoss.  Hoss almost cried out loud when he saw the pain and fear etched on his brother’s face.  Even from the height where he lay, sprawled on the surface, far below where Joe had fallen, the terror in the hazel eyes that stared up at him and the suffering that was evident on the young face was plain to see.

“Joe…” called Hoss, “I’m lowerin’ a rope down to ya…see if’n ya can tie it ‘round ya waist.  I’ll pull ya up,” instructed Hoss.

The rope slipped over the edge and snaked its way downward.  From far below, Joe watched, realizing for the first time, the pain that numbed his left arm.  He winced softly to himself, swallowing down the rising bile that collected in his mouth.

“Hurry…Hoss…I…ain’t feeling none too good,” Joe called from his rock prison.

Hoss watched the rope fall until the end of it dangled just over Joe’s head.  He gasped; the dang rope looked, from his angle, to be too short. “Can ya reach the rope, Joe?”

Joe, hesitant, that he might start to slip further downward, into the narrow opening in the rocks, finally swallowed his fear and slowly stretched his right arm upward.  Hoss heard the soft groan that escaped his brother’s lips.  From his perch overhead, he watched helplessly as Joe grabbled for the end of the rope.  It was torture for the big man to see how his brother strained against the pain he felt while fighting to grasp the rope.  It was a cruel joke that Mother Nature played on the boy, and Hoss hated himself for being partner to it.

His fingers could barely touch the dangling end of the rope.  Joe strained a bit more and then gasped in horror as he felt his body begin to slide. “AGH!” he yelled as he used his good hand to grasp at the rock that pressed into his chest. His fingers clung to the rocks.  Joe used his elbow by propping it on the narrow ledge to prevent himself from sinking further down into the hole.  Frightened eyes looked upward.  High overhead, he could see his brother gazing down into his rocky trap.

“Joe?”

The terrified young man swallowed deeply, frightened to utter a word, let alone move for fear of being swallowed up by the earth.

“JOE!  GET THE ROPE!” Hoss shouted.

“I…can’t…Hoss,” whispered Joe.

“WHAT?”

“I…can’t…” Joe said a little louder.

“WHAT’CHA SAY?  I CAN’T HEAR YA, JOE!”

Joe felt the fear gnawing at his insides, or was that tightened feeling the rocks squeezing the very life from him?

“I said…I can’t…I can’t reach the rope, Hoss…” Joe called in a shaky voice.  “I…can’t breathe…”

Panic was beginning to set in.  Joe felt his body shudder and he suddenly felt chilled.  He tried glancing upward, but when he raised his head, everything began to spin.  Quickly, Joe shut his eyes tightly, willing away the dizzy feeling in his head.

For several long moments, neither Cartwright uttered a word.  Joe was numb with fear.  Hoss was at a loss as what to do to save his brother.  He knew deep down that the only choice he had was to leave Joe and go in search of help.  As he glanced down into the thin slice where Joe clung precariously between the rocks, he could only ask himself if he could go…what if Joe gave up…what if Joe sank further into the crevice, beyond all reach and all hope.  What if he went and while he was gone…Joe died?  Hoss brushed his hand across his face.  He couldn’t just sit there and hope for someone to come by and help him…he had no other choice but to fetch it himself and that meant leaving Joe and going to look for help.  Hoss sighed deeply and called out to his brother. “Joe…listen to me, Punkin, I gotta leave ya…just for a little while.  I gotta get help…I can’t get ya outta there all by myself…”

“NO!  GOD NO!  HOSS…PLEASE…DON”T LEAVE ME DOWN HERE!” bellowed Joe from far below the earth’s surface.

Hoss felt the sting of tears burn his eyes.  His lips pinched together tightly.  He knew what he had to do. “Joe…I’ll come back…ya know that…but I gotta get ya some help…”

“NO!” sobbed Joe.

The terror had become too much, it overwhelmed the young man; he lost all sense of reasoning.  His chin quivered as tears spilled over the rims of his hazel eyes and ran down the front of his dirt-smudged face, leaving thin white tracks in their wake.

“I gotta, Joe…I’m sorry, Punkin…but I gotta…” Hoss stood to his feet and untied the rope about his waist, letting it drop to the ground. “I won’t be long, Joe…I promise…” he called as he turned to go. He’d only taken a couple of steps when the voice below cried out to him, stopping him in his tracks.  Without realizing he was doing so, he clenched his teeth, puckering up his face.  Blue eyes stung with tears, giant yet gentle fingers balled tightly forming large, rock-hard fists.

“HOSS…PLEASE…I’M…I’M…SCARED!”

The gentle giant scrunched up his eyes, but he didn’t look back; he knew if he did, he’d not be able to leave the boy whom he loved more than life…but he had too…he had to go.  He couldn’t look…he couldn’t bear to see the painful, frightened terror that he knew was showing in his brother’s eyes and in his expression.

“So am I,” Hoss muttered softly to himself.

Minutes later, Hoss was mounted up, racing for home and the help he knew would be there.  Silently, to himself, he prayed as the wind brushed dry the tears that had moments ago dampened his face. “Please God…not for me…but for Little Joe…don’t let’em fall…please God?  Please?”

*****

Hoss scrambled to mount up, willing himself not to listen to his brother’s pleas that rang from the depth of the crevice.  Joe’s voice held such sorrow and fear that Hoss was tempted not to go, but deep down inside of himself, he knew that he must, if ever Joe was to be freed from his earthen prison.

“Giddy-up Chubb,” Hoss ordered his big stallion, kicking the animal in the sides.

Chubb, not used to such rough treatment, skidded sideways a bit and then stretched out full length as he broke into a run.  Hoss guided his mount toward home and leaned low over the stead’s broad neck.  He pulled his big ten-gallon hat down tight on his head to keep the wind from blowing it off.  Mile after mile the horse ran as his master urged him on faster and faster, until at long last the rider pulled back hard on the reins and began slowing the hard breathing animal down to a gentler pace.  Chubb had served his owner well and as Hoss drew nearer to home, he knew that Chubby would need cooling down and though Joe’s predicament was foremost in his thoughts, Hoss did not want to risk making his faithful horse sick. “Easy, big boy,” he said softly as he rode along, letting the big animal set his own pace.

Hoss leaned forward and petted Chubb’s neck.  Beneath his fingers he could feel the sticky sweat that had lathered up on his mount’s hide. “I’ll give ya a good rub down, once we get home and get little brother outta that hole in the ground.”

Hearing a noise, Hoss looked up.  Suddenly without warning, four riders appeared from the brush and quickly circled the big man, forcing him to pull back on Chubb’s reins and bring the lathered animal to a complete stand still.

Hoss glanced cautiously about him at the guns all pointed toward him.  One man, a tall, heavy set man with narrow, mean looking eyes and a whiskered face, urged his own mount forward slightly, breaking the circle that the others had formed around the middle Cartwright son.

“Get ya hands up…and keep’em away from that there gun!” the man ordered.

“What’s this all about, Mister?” Hoss beckoned as he slowly did as the man instructed.

“Ya name, Cartwright?”

“What if it is?” growled Hoss, impatient to be on his way. Joe needed him, and these men where causing him undo delay in getting help for his brother.

“I asked ya question, fat boy,” the man in front of Hoss demanded.

Hoss sighed heavily.  “Yeah, my name’s Cartwright, Hoss Cartwright to be exact. What of it?”

Without warning, Hoss was hit hard over the head from behind where another man had quietly inched forward while Hoss had been pre-occupied talking to the man who was obviously the leader.  He slumped forward over Chubb’s neck; all sense of urgency faded from his mind as another man came forward, grabbing his shirt and preventing the gentle giant from falling off his horse.

“Tie him to the saddle so’s he won’t fall off…and make it fast. I got a present for the mighty Ben Cartwright,” sneered the boss man in a chuckle.

“He ain’t gonna like this, Boss,” Barry, the man who had hit Hoss over the head, said with a shake of his head.

“Do ya think I care what he thinks?  He owes me, big time,” Giles snapped, “and I aim on collecting on what’s rightfully mine.  If’n he wants this big ape back alive, he’ll pay me the hundred thousand dollars he stole from me…or the boy dies…I ain’t got no qualms about killin’ him.  Take him back to the hideout, I’m gonna pay his old man a nice friendly little visit.  Now come on, let’s get a move on!” he snapped as he reached down and grabbed Hoss’ hat from the ground where it had fallen.

Giles Womack turned his horse about and headed down the hill toward the Ponderosa ranch house.  He’d give Ben a choice, pay up for the grief he had cost him or watch the fat man die, slowly and painfully, Giles snickered softly to himself. It would be fun to watch how the high and mighty Ben Cartwright would react as he watched what he’d do to his boy.  It would almost be worth losing the hundred thousand that was stolen from him, Giles reckoned…almost.

*****

“Hoss?”

Joe inhaled deeply, trying to relieve that pressure in his chest.  Sweat beads dotted his brow and dripped into his eyes.  The break in his left arm had sparked a session of painful spasms that ran from his shoulder to the tips of his fingers.  Joe clenched his teeth to keep from crying out.  He tipped his head backward, attempting to see up toward the outer edge of the deep crevice, but the sun’s position had moved since his brother had left him in search of help, and Joe could barely see the outline of the crevice.  It would be dark soon, the young man thought.  That knowledge caused him to shudder at the idea of having to remain stuck between the thick slabs of cold rock for the duration of the night.

Maybe Hoss would be back before much longer, Joe hoped, he’d already been gone a couple of hours, the young man decided, as he looked up again at the fading of day.  Joe gulped; it would be dark, very dark in the crevice…and cold…or was that his fear that caused him to shiver?

“Please, God…make him hurry…” muttered Joe softly to himself.

With nothing else to do but hang between the rocks where his lower body was wedged tightly, Joe closed his eyes.  As long as he remained perfectly still, he felt sure he would not slide any deeper.  He took short, shallow breaths in order not to inhale so deeply that his chest would become smaller, least he slip further into the crack in the rocks.

“Hoss…hurry…I…need you,” Joe whispered with clenched, parched lips.

*****

Ben rose from his chair to answer the knock at the door.  He glanced over at Adam who was deeply engrossed in the book he was reading and who appeared not to have heard the gentle rapping at the door.

“I’ll get it,” Ben said, causing Adam to raise his head and watch as his father walked quickly to the front door.

Ben pushed back the lock and opened the door.  There standing before him was a stranger with a gun pointed right at his middle.  Giles Womack shoved the barrel deeply into Ben’s gut and pushed, forcing Ben to take a step back.

“Howdy, Mister Cartwright,” Giles said in a tone that was anything but cordial.

Quickly Adam rose to his feet, sensing rather than seeing that the man posed some sort of danger.

“Don’t ya move, boy,” Giles, who had seen Adam backing up toward the gun case, said as he waved his revolver carelessly about under Ben’s nose.

Adam froze.

“Who are you…and what do you want?” demanded Ben, as he kept a sharp eye on the man and his gun.

“Aww…ya tellin’ me ya don’t remember me?  That makes me feel bad…” sneered Giles wickedly.

Ben studied the man’s face.  Something about the man’s voice and the way he spoke seemed to stir a memory in Ben’s mind.

“Down Carson City way?  About five years ago?” Giles attempted to jar the memory lose from the back corners of his host’s mind.

Ben squeezed his brows together trying to recall the event, but nothing came to mind.

“Well, hell, man…I’d remember a man if’n I stole a hundred thousand dollars away from him!” snarled Giles.

Ben shook his head, confused and glanced at Adam and then back at the angry stranger.

“I have no clue what you’re talking about!” Ben practically shouted.  “I’ve never stolen any thing in my life…let alone a hundred thousand dollars…you must have me confused with someone else or you’re just plain crazy!”

Giles laughed.  It was a wicked, threatening sound. He shoved the end of his pistol into Ben’s stomach once again. “T’weren’t actually cash, old man…more like property.  I went there to buy Jud Larson’s place and everything that went with it…but ya got there just a few hours ahead of me and bought everything the old man had for sale…including his herd of prime beef, a small herd of some of the finest horses around and all his mine and timber holdins’.”

Realization began to dawn on Ben then and it showed in his expression and in the depths of his eyes. “I remember…Jud was holding the estate for you…with your promise that you’d be there before noon, or the deal was off.  I got there that morning and waited to be sure you showed up…you failed to do so…so he sold everything to me…lock, stock and barrel…”

“Ya stole it from me…that’s what’cha did…”

“I remember that deal,” said Adam as he came to stand beside his father.  “My father bought that estate in a fair and honest deal…”

“That ain’t so…I told old man Larson what kept me…I even sent him a telegram sayin’ I’d be a couple hours late…but he refused to wait…”

“You didn’t keep your end of the bargain…Jud had every right to sell to me…” Ben explained.

“Like hell he did!” growled Giles.  “I’d been cor-e-spondin’ with’em for nearly six months about that place of his’n…and ya come along in lessen two weeks and stole the entire deal right out from under me!  Now I figure ya owe me…either ya gonna give me the place, and all the stock that went with it…or…”

“Or what?” Ben dared.  “I don’t owe you a thing…as I said…I bought that estate fair and square…”

“Or I kill ya kid,” grinned Giles.

Ben stood in shock.  Adam inhaled deeply, wondering what in the world the man meant.  Hoss and Joe had left that morning, bright and early, headed for the north pasture to drive strays down from the rim rock area.

“What did you say?” Ben demanded.

“I said, give me the deeds to the Larson place, or pay up what I could have bought it for, which was a hundred grand…or I kill the boy…”

Ben’s eyes grew dark, but he hid the fear that quickly washed over him.  His mind raced.  Joe and Hoss were way up at the far end of the north pasture looking for strays.  Who was Giles referring to, he silently asked himself.

“This is the only son here…surely you don’t mean to shoot him down in cold blood,” Ben said in a stressful tone as he glanced over at Adam.

Giles laughed.  “No stupid…I mean the kid who wears this…”

Giles reached into his shirt and pulled out Hoss’ crumpled hat and tossed it down at Ben’s feet.  When Ben bent down to retrieve the hat, Giles snickered.  Ben quickly snatched the ten-gallon Stetson from the floor and held it lovingly in his hand as he twisted it around by the rim.  He swallowed hard.  Adam stepped forward and took the hat from his father.  He noticed how Ben’s hand shook and when he glanced into his father’s face, he noted the deep, dark angry sparks that seemed to shoot from his eyes.

“Where…or I should say, how did you get this?” Ben demanded, pointing to the hat that Adam was now holding.

Giles made a smirk.  “Simple, I took it…”

“How!” growled Adam.

“Just like I said…I took it…”

“There’s no way a scrawny runt like you could take this away from my brother…”

Again Giles felt the urge to laugh.  “I got it, don’t I?”

Adam and Ben exchanged glances.

“Wasn’t so hard…see, my men…oh yeah…I forgot to mention them…they’re holding on to the boy for me…can’t tell ya where…but we stopped him.  He was ridin’ hard…headed this way and when we saw him slow his horse down…sure was lathered that big stallion was…well, anyhow…we stopped him.  He came along without no trouble…course he’s gonna have a pretty good goose egg on his head…”

Ben’s eyes, if possible grew darker.  He bravely stepped closer to his unworthy guest. “If you’ve hurt him…”

“Aw…he’s so big…a bump on the noggin ain’t gonna do him no harm…but if’n ya don’t do like I said…well…he could wind up…dead!” grinned Giles.

Ben took a deep breath and looked Adam’s way.  Both were thinking the same thing.  Where was Little Joe…and why was Hoss in such a hurry to get home…Giles had said that Chubb was lathered…which could only mean that something must be wrong.

Ben swallowed; his belly began to churn; something must have happened to Joe and Hoss was on his way to get help.  Some of the anger that showed in his eyes was lost now, but Adam could see that the rage had been replaced with something else…uneasiness.

“I don’t have a hundred thousand dollars in cash…I don’t keep that kind of money lying around the house, you know,” Ben said as he turned back to Giles.  “And the deeds to the Larson property are locked in the vault at the bank in Virginia City…and it’s Friday night…the bank won’t open until Monday morning…”

For a fraction of a second, Giles looked as if he were at a loss for words. “Damn,” he muttered; he hadn’t thought about what day of the week it was or that the bank would possibly be closed.  Monday was two whole days away…he and his men couldn’t possibly hang around that long.

And neither could Joe for that matter!!

*****

“Awww…” Joe moaned, biting down on his lip.

Even the soft groan echoed between the rocks that held the young man prisoner.  Joe opened his eyes, but he could see nothing, for it was dark overhead and pitch black within the walls of his confine.

His breathing was forced; each breath he took drained his dwindling strength just a bit more.  Joe fought to stay awake, but the lack of oxygen in his starving lungs left him weak and drowsy.  He licked his lips, hungering for a drop of water to wet his mouth.  His dirty chin quivered but no tears filled his eyes, for his body was slowly beginning to dry up.  Joe tried to swallow but his mouth had become so dried that it was nearly impossible.  Death lirked in the darkness, watched from the shadows and waited for just the right moment to step out, showing itself and claim its victim.

*****

“Well…either ya find some way to get me the cash…or the deeds, or I order my men to kill ya boy.  The decision’s yours,” Giles ordered.  “I’ll give ya one hour to think on it…say, ya got any food in this house? I ain’t ate all day,” Giles informed both Cartwrights. He kept his sharp eye on the two men as he stepped backward toward the dining room to peek around the corner of the wall to see into the kitchen.

“Pa…”

“Shh…we have to find out where Hoss is first…”

“Shut up!”

Ben pressed his lips tightly.  Adam balled up his fists as they swapped looks.

“We’re just trying to figure a way out of this…without someone getting hurt, or killed,” Ben explained as he motioned for Adam to sit down.

Giles came back from the kitchen door waving his gun in the air. “Come on…into the kitchen,” he snarled, pointing with his pistol.  He looked at Adam with a fierce look.  “Ya can fix something to eat…make it enough for four men…the fat boy ain’t gotta eat…” instructed Giles.

Adam stepped passed the uninvited intruder, followed by Ben as both marched into the kitchen.  Adam sighed deeply but did as instructed.  Giles pointed to a chair, indicating that Ben should sit down, which he complied.  His thoughts were on his middle and third son.  Where were they…what had happened that had sent Hoss riding wildly for home…was Little Joe alright, or was the boy lying hurt somewhere, perhaps dying…or could he already be dead?  Ben’s heart was in his throat.

“Look…why don’t we ride into town…I’ll go to the banker’s house, explain the situation to him, perhaps he’ll open the bank and give me the money…or the deeds, which ever you prefer?” suggested Ben. He dare not mention Little Joe to this crazed man.  Best he concentrate on finding out where Hoss was and getting him free…as soon as possible.

“Ya think I’m nuts?  And I suppose while you’re lookin’ for the banker, this here other son of yours will be hunting for the sheriff.  What do you take me for, Cartwright…an idiot?”

Adam, his back to the man, rolled his eyes upward.  “Wouldn’t be far from wrong…” he muttered softly to himself.

“You say something, smart mouth?” barked Giles turning and glaring at Adam’s back.

Adam twisted his head around to look over his shoulder at the man holding the gun on him.  Behind Giles, Ben had risen from his chair.  Adam kept talking to the man in front on him, giving Ben time to pick up the heavy pot that lay on the table.  Just as Ben raised the pot high over his head, Giles spun around. Seeing that he was about to be bonked, he fired his gun, wounding Ben in the right arm.

Instantly, the pot dropped to the floor with a loud clang.  Ben grabbed his arm.  Giles grabbed Ben by the shirt and shoved him down into the chair.  With Ben incapacitated, Giles raised his arm and whacked Ben across the shoulder with his gun.  Ben groaned loudly and slumped over, unconscious, into the floor.  As he did so, Adam raced forward in an attempt to help his father, but Giles, turned around, pointed the gun directly at Adam’s heart and pulled back on the trigger.

Adam stopped, frozen to the spot where he stood, looking with horror at his father who lay motionless on the hard wooden floor of the kitchen.

“Don’t make a move…I’d just as soon kill you as that big ox you call brother, or your old man…now get back over there and finish filling that sack…and hurry it up!” ordered Giles.

Ben lay in the floor for several moments before coming too enough that he could pull himself up using the chair.  Once he was able to sit back down, he covered his injured arm with his free hand, seeing the blood that dripped from the bullet wound.  He gritted his teeth as he watched his son finish with putting food supplies into the sack.  When he was through, Adam held the sack out for Giles.

Giles grabbed the sack from Adam’s hand and then looked from Adam, down to Ben, who sat somewhat lopsided in the chair.

“Ya got until this time tomorrow to get the money…forget the deeds…me and my gang ain’t hangin’ ‘round this place.  I’ll be back tomorrow night and if’n ya got my hundred thousand, I’ll tell ya where to find ya kid…if’n ya ain’t, I’ll send word to my men…and they’ll kill the big ape.  Got that, Cartwright?” Giles stated as he backed toward the door.

“How do I know you’ll keep your word…what’s stopping you from killing my son anyway, after you’ve gotten the money?” demanded Ben through clenched teeth.

Giles cocked his head to one side and grinned at Ben.  “Guess ya just goin’a have’ta trust me, ain’t ya?” he said, and then disappeared out the door.

Instantly, Adam rushed over to his father and knelt down, trying to see the bullet wound.

“It’s nothing, son, the bullet only grazed my arm…go after him…follow him, he’s bound to head back to their hideout…see if you can find Hoss…but be careful!”

Adam quickly stood to his feet.  “Alright, Pa…but what about you…and Joe?”

“I’ll be fine…and once you free Hoss…he’ll know where Joe is…now hurry son.  I’m going to ride into town and see Mr. Humphrey, the banker, and then have a talk with Roy…”

“Be careful, Pa,” Adam called as he too disappeared out the door after Giles.

*****

Deep within the dark confines of his rock prison, Little Joe Cartwright sighed a sigh of relief.  Dawn was slowly beginning to light the night sky and with the new day, new hope grew in the young man’s heart.  The night had been the longest of his life, the darkness the darkest and the most frightening.  He had been on the verge of giving up, of succumbing to the fate that Mother Nature had dealt to him.  With each hard earned breath, Joe feared it to be his last.  The pain in his arm was becoming unbearable and the pressure he felt in his chest was overpowering.  But what amazed him as he faded in and out of consciousness were the images of his family that danced before his cloudy eyes and the voices that seemed to come from no where that urged him to hold on.  Soft, muted whispers that gave him encouragement along with promises of rescue, if only he’d wait for them…and wait he did.

Joe opened his eyes and strained to look upward toward the rim of the crevice, hoping to see a familiar face.  Disappointment shown in his tormented eyes, though there was not one present to see.

“Hurry…Hoss…please,” Joe murmured as his eyes closed once more.  “I’m trying…but…I don’t know how much…longer I can…hold on…”

*****

“Look Mr. Humphrey, I wouldn’t be here this early in the morning if I didn’t need the money…”

“Oh, Ben…I know that…but the bank just isn’t equipped to loan out that kind of money…”

“I’ll sign a paper…anything…you know I’m good for the money…I’ll…I’ll give you the Ponderosa for collateral if that’s what you want, Henry…you know that it’s worth far more than what I’m asking…”

“Ben…I couldn’t ask you to do that…why, everyone knows what that ranch means to you…”

“My sons mean more, Henry,” Ben said with determination.

The banker sighed heavily.  “Alright Ben…lets go down to my office and see what we can work out.”

*****

Adam slipped quietly from his horse and tied the reins about a low hanging bush.  He had ridden for miles behind Giles, following the man, hoping to find his middle brother.  As he glanced up at the sky and saw that daybreak was only a matter of time, he couldn’t help but whisper a silent prayer that he’d find Hoss soon; he was losing the cover of darkness.  And the deep seeded fear that something had happened to his younger brother was gnawing at his gut.  The night, determined Adam, had been like no other he could ever remember.  He almost laughed, though it was not really a laughing matter, but when he thought of his two brothers and how they were just going to the north pasture to round up strays and then all the things that had gone wrong the previous night, he couldn’t help himself.  Wasn’t it just like Joe and Hoss to have Trouble for a riding companion? It seemed at times that nothing they did ever turned out right, that one way or the other, his two younger brothers always needed rescuing…and here they were again in some sort of predicament and in need of saving.

Adam pushed aside the bushes, being careful not to make a sound.  The fire the gang had started the night before was almost burned out.  It was light enough now that Adam could plainly see Hoss across the camp.  The big man was tied tightly, his long arms stretched around the trunk of a tree that served as a prop for Hoss’ back.  Adam noted the bruises that marred the pudgy face and knew without having to be told that his brother had put up quite a fight before being subdued and restrained to the tree.

He’d have to come up with a plan, and quick too, if he were to get Hoss out of there before Giles returned to the ranch and demanded payment…which Adam knew his father would pay if it guaranteed his brother’s return.  The loss of that much money would put them in a financial strain, but considering the consequences, Ben would risk anything to save a son.

Adam watched as Giles made his way over to where Hoss was tied.  Giles bent down, saying something to his prisoner, but Adam was unable to hear what was being said.  He was able to hear Hoss laugh but gasped when he saw Giles backhand Hoss across his face.  Giles rose from his squatting position and spun around, making his way back to the dying fire. “Get me some coffee,” he demanded of his men.

The only man that Adam knew to be in camp and guarding his brother jumped up, quick to obey the command.  He poured a cup full of the hot brew and then handed it to Giles.

“Tonight…I will have my revenge.  Cartwright will pay me what he owes me…” Giles glanced over at Hoss, whose lip was now showing signs of blood from where he’d been hit.  “And I will give the high and mighty Cartwright back his son…”

“Ya really gonna send the fat man back?” the coffee pourer said, in awe of the comment.

Giles lowered his cup, which had been halfway to his mouth and stared at the man. “Of course I am…I don’t break my promises,” he laughed wickedly, “only Cartwright thinks the boy’s gonna be alive…”

“But he ain’t, right?” snickered the other man.

“Nope…he’s gonna be deader than…say…where’s Pete and Andy?” Giles demanded spinning around and realizing for the first time that two of his men were missing.

“We’re right here, boss,” said Pete as he and Andy came pushing through the brush.  “And look what we found nosing around…”

Hoss glanced up, stunned to see his older brother being manhandled into the clearing.  Adam’s head was slumped low over his chest; Giles’ two men stood on either side of Adam, supporting his body as they dragged him into camp.

Giles dropped his tin cup, spilling the contents onto the ground as he rushed over to his men.  Grabbing a handful of the raven hair, he yanked the stranger’s head upward and then gasped loudly. “It’s Ben Cartwright’s son…” he laughed, sounding pleased.  “Well, well…what do you know…now I have two of his sons to return to him,” Giles gloated.  “This is getting better and better all the time.  Tie him up over there,” Giles ordered, cocking his head sideways toward the tree where Hoss was being restrained.

The two men did as ordered, leaving Adam tied on the opposite side of the tree that Hoss was tied to.  When finished, Pete and Andy returned to the fire and sat down.

“Adam…psst…Adam?” whispered Hoss as he strained his neck, trying to see over his shoulder.  It was no use; his brother was out cold.

*****

Joe’s eyes remained closed.  His breathing had become so shallow that his lips had begun to turn blue from lack of sufficient oxygen.  The grip he’d held for so many long hours had given way to his comatose state.  Now, the only thing keeping the boy from falling deeper into the earth’s core was the slab of rocks that seemed destined to squeeze the life from the once vivacious and energetic son of Ben Cartwright.  Death, once hiding in the shadows had begun to show itself and crept nearer and nearer to the grime reaper’s newest victim.

*****

“Alright, Roy,” Ben agreed at last.  “You bring your men out to the ranch…but remember what I said, you have to stay hidden.  If Giles sees you, or learns that you’re anywhere near, he’ll kill Hoss…and in turn, Little Joe will most likely die as well…if he hasn’t already,” Ben said with great sadness as he swallowed hard.

“Adam should be back by the time we get there.  Hopefully he’ll have some news to report.  I warned him about taking on Giles and his gang by himself,” Ben added.

“Once we have this here varmint in our control, he’ll tell us where he’s hiding Hoss…don’t worry, Ben, we’ll get your boy back…both of them,” Roy promised.  “Mount up men!”

Ben took a deep breath and did the same.  The plan that he and the sheriff had conjured up seemed like a good one, at the time, but now Ben was having second thoughts.  What if Giles refused to tell them where Hoss was being held prisoner?  He’d already said that if the money were not delivered to him, Hoss would surely die…and what about Little Joe, pondered Ben.  Where was he…what had happened to him…why hadn’t he come home…was he able…was he hurt, or worse…dead?  All these thoughts raced through the older man’s mind, causing his head to start pounding fiercely.  Ben rubbed his palm against his temple.

“Head hurtin’, Ben?” Roy asked, noticing his friend’s gesture.

Ben glanced over at Roy and nodded.  “Yeah…”

“Maybe ya should stop over at the doc’s office and have ya head looked at?” Roy suggested as he mounted up, anxious to catch up with his men.

“No…I’ll be alright, come on, let’s ride,” Ben said, swinging into his saddle.

*****

Adam groaned softly, alerting Hoss to the fact that his brother was about to wake up.

“Adam,” whispered Hoss.

“Yeah?”

“Ya alright?”

“My head hurts like hell, but other than that, I’m fine…how about you?” Adam asked. He turned to see Giles and his gang sitting around the fire, which had been stoked and was now burning again.

“I’m alright…but listen, Adam…we gotta find some way to get outta this mess…Little Joe’s hurt…bad…”

“We figured as much…where is he…how bad’s he hurt?”

“He’s over at the rim rock…he slipped, fell into a deep crevice and he’s stuck tight…’tween the rocks.  I tried to get’em out, but he’s too deep, the rope was too dang short and I’m too dang fat…”

“Good grief,” muttered Adam.  “Pa and I figured something must have been wrong. Giles mentioned that when he stopped you, your horse was lathered…”

“Yeah,” sighed Hoss, “Ol’ Chubb done run like the devil was after ’em.  Got any ideay how to get outta here?  Joe’s probably given up by now…”

Adam twisted his head around as far as he could so that he could barely see Hoss’ profile.  “No…don’t worry about that; Joe’s never given up on anything in his life, Hoss, you know that…he won’t quit now either.”

“Guess ya right; he sure is a stubborn little cuss…but Adam…he sure was scared…being stuck down there and it gettin’ dark and all…you know how he is.  And ‘sides, I promised not to be gone long…he begged me not to go…” Hoss puckered up his lips recalling how his younger brother had pleaded with him not to leave him alone.  “It’s been hours…he probably thinks I ain’t comin’ back.”

“Nonsense, he knows better,” Adam said, trying to console his brother.  “Let’s see what we can do to get out of here…HEY YOU!” he shouted, drawing Giles and his men’s attention.

*****

Ben was more than a little surprised when he got back to the ranch and found that Adam had not yet returned.  A new dread filled him with fresh fear.  Not only was his youngest son unaccounted for, his middle son was being held against his will at some undisclosed location, but to add to his current woes, Adam, seemed now to have disappeared as well.

Ben dismounted and led his horse to the barn.  Roy ordered his men to dismount and set about giving them orders as to where to hide and get ready for Giles to return.  When Ben had finished with grooming his horse for the night, he went directly to the house.  Hop Sing had a small supper prepared and waiting for him.

“I take it Adam hasn’t returned?” Ben asked his cook.

“No sir, Mista Cart’lite…no one here all day but Hop Sing.”

Ben tried to push the anxious feeling to the back of his mind and plan ahead for when Giles showed up.  He had the money; he prayed that Giles had his son Hoss…and that Adam would return; he was anxious to know what his eldest son had found out.

“You eat, Boss,” Hop Sing ordered gently, pointing to the table.

“Thank you, Hop Sing, but honestly, I’m not very hungry,” Ben said, though he did take a bite of the potatoes on his plate.  “I have some thinking to do…”

*****

“What’s all the yellin’ about?” demanded Giles as he neared the tree where his two captives were tied.

Adam watched as the man came closer.

“How long you going to leave us like this?  I thought you had an appointment with my father?” Adam asked.

Giles turned to the others and grinned and then looked down at Adam. “I do…but you’re not part of that meetin’, only the big guy there,” he said.

“My father is going to get suspicious if I’m not back by the time he gets back from town with the money…”

“Do you think I care what your father thinks?  I don’t…I only want one thing from him…and that’s what he owes me.  After I get that…”

“But you won’t get the money, if my father doesn’t get Hoss…and if I’m not back…he just might decide not to let you have it…unless we go along with you…”

“What!”

“Sure…instead of one hostage, you’ll have two…that’s twice the insurance you need to be guaranteed that Pa will pay you…think about it…”

“The man’s right, Giles…Cartwright’s more likely to part with his money, if’n ya promise to give him back both his sons,” Andy offered, while Pete stood back and nodded his head in agreement.

Giles seemed to be thinking about the suggestion.  Wouldn’t matter either way, he decided, he aimed on killin’ the fat man any way…he’d just as soon gun down two of Ben Cartwright’s boys as one. “Sure,” he said after giving it some thought.  “We’ll take’em both; old man Cartwright won’t put up much fight, ‘specially with a couple of gun’s aimed at his kids’ heads…after we get the money…we’ll kill’em both, right in front of the old buzzard…give’em somethin’ to remember us by,” laughed Giles wickedly.

Pete and Andy swapped worried glances, they weren’t big on killin’ a man, or in this case, two, out right for no good reason, but they knew better’n to argue with their leader.

“Come on, get’em untied from that tree and put them on a couple of horses, it’s a long right back to the Ponderosa,” Giles sneered.

As Pete and Andy set about undoing Adam and Hoss’ hands, the two brothers exchanged glances.  As Hoss’ hands were freed, he rubbed his large beefy fingers about his wrists to stimulate some circulation.  Adam did the same.

“Hurry up, get them on a horse and tie their hands again, so’s they won’t get away,” issued Giles.

Before Pete or Andy could make a move, Adam silently nodded his head at Hoss and motioned toward the man nearest to his brother.  Hoss understood the unspoken gesture and together, acting as one, both Adam and Hoss charged their two abductors, knocking both to the ground at the same time.

Hoss’ battle with Pete was short-lived as he wrestled the smaller man about the ground and delivering one solid punch, rendered the man unconscious.  Quickly he grabbed Pete’s gun from the ground where it was tossed and pointed it at Andy who was still wrestling with Adam.  The third man went for his gun, but Hoss fired first, killing the man instantly.  Giles, hearing the commotion, spun around to find his men incapacitated.  As he went for his gun, Hoss fired a warning shot, causing Giles to freeze.

“Drop it…nice and slow like,” Hoss warned the leader of the gang.

Carefully, Giles did as ordered.  Andy had given up his fight with Adam and slowly got to his feet.  Hoss waved his pistol at the man, signaling for him to join his boss.

“Watch them, Hoss; I’ll get the rope and tie them up…we’ll deliver them to Pa.  Then we’ll go rescue Little Joe…”

“I sure hope it ain’t too late…he’s been hangin’ in that crevice a mighty long time,” Hoss sighed.

Adam made quick work of tying the hands of all three gangsters on their horses.  The dead man, he strapped across his own horse and secured the body with a length of rope. He turned and forced a smile for his brother. “I told you, Hoss…Little Joe’s not a quitter…he might think he can’t hang on…but trust me, he will…”And in his heart, he prayed he was right, for both Hoss’ and Little Joe’s sake.

*****

By the time that Adam rode into the yard, all of Roy’s men were in hiding.  Ben came from the house the second he heard the sound of horses and stood in shock at the end of the porch as he watched Hoss dismount.  As the realization of seeing his son struck him, he grinned from ear to ear and rushed across the yard to greet both Hoss and Adam.

“Hoss…thank God, you’re alright!  Welcome home…”

“Thanks, Pa…what happened to your arm?”  Hoss asked.

“Oh…it’s nothing, I’ll tell you about it later.”  Ben turned to Adam, smiling.  “Well, I see you’ve brought company!” he said, nodding toward Giles and his two cronies.

“Yep…didn’t take much to out smart them…” snickered Adam.

“ROY!” shouted Ben as he turned back to Adam to explain.  “His men are hiding out, everywhere…”

Roy appeared then from the barn.  “I see you Cartwright boys are doin’ my job again!” he said with a mock frown.

“Yep, sure have, Sheriff,” laughed Hoss.  He turned to his father.  “Pa…we gotta go…Joe’s stuck between two rocks and I promised him hours ago I’d be back as soon as possible…”

“Stuck, what do you mean?  I knew something had happened to him…come on, we best hurry…you can explain it all to me on the way…is he hurt…”

“Pa…we might need a couple more men…”

“Take Jack and Wes with you,” offered Roy, “I can handle these varmints…being as how ya done tied them up and all.  Bill, you and Tom ride back into town with me…Ben, ya want me to send Doc Martin out this way?”

Hoss spoke up before giving his father time to answer the question. “Ya better, Roy…Joe’s arm is broken and I don’t know for sure if’n anything else is hurt…come on, we better hurry,” Hoss insisted as he remounted his horse.

Within minutes, Ben, Adam, Hoss and two of Roy’s deputies were riding fast toward the rim rock where Hoss had left his younger brother, many hours before.  Deep down inside of him, Hoss feared for his younger brother.  His heart cried out in silent fear, was Little Joe still alive, had the boy given up, did Joe believe that his older brother, had for the first time ever, lied to him or failed him?  Hoss pushed his mount on faster.  He had to know…and he wouldn’t stop until he did.

“Giddy-up Chubb,” Hoss shouted as he leaned low over the big stallion’s neck. He pushed his hat down deep on his head and used the ends of the reins to slap the stead’s backside.  As he had done before, Chubb raced toward the rim rock with Adam, Ben and the two deputies following close behind.

As soon as the Cartwrights reached the site, all three slid from their saddles and raced to the rim of the crevice.  Hoss flattened himself on the ground and leaned daringly over the edge.

“LITTLE JOE!” shouted Hoss.

“JOSEPH!” yelled Ben when no response was returned.

“HEY, JOE!” echoed Adam.

Nothing but silence followed the anxious cries.  All three men looked from one to the other.  Adam scrambled to his feet and began pulling off his vest.

“Hoss, get a rope, and a canteen…I’m going down…”

Hoss pulled his massive frame up from the ground and hurried to do his brother’s bidding.

As soon as he returned with the rope, Ben helped Adam tie it around his waist. “You be careful down there, son…”

“Don’t worry, Pa…I intend to just that,” Adam said as he adjusted the rope.

“You boys help Hoss lower me into the crevice; Pa, can you guide the rope to keep it from getting snagged?” Adam asked.

“Sure…” Ben confirmed as Adam began inching his way into the deep crevice.

Ben lay on the ground looking into the earth’s hole and watching as his son sank deeper and deeper into the vastness that had swallowed up his youngest son.  It was several moments until Ben heard Adam call up to give him some slack on the rope.

Ben, his eyes never leaving the fissure, motioned for Hoss and the other two men to stop.  Hoss handed his end of the rope to one of the other men and hurried to join his father at the edge of the crack in the earth.

“HOW IS HE?  IS HE HURT BADLY?” Ben shouted to Adam.

“HOLD ON…” came Adam’s reply.

Joe’s face was ashen, his lips had turned a light shade of blue and he was wavering in and out of consciousness.  Adam found a foothold and braced his feet as he leaned his shoulder against the cold rock, attempting to brace his body to stay level with Joe.

“Joe,” Adam said softly as he gently lifted the boy’s head.  “Hey buddy…can you open your eyes for me?” Adam asked after checking to be sure that the entrapped boy was still alive.  He sighed in relief, not realizing he had been holding his breath. He watched as Joe struggled to do as the voice had asked him to do.  Joe’s long lashes fluttered.

“That’s it…here, swallow some of this,” Adam said as he gently poured a small amount of water into his brother’s mouth.

Joe swallowed the cool liquid and then sputtered.  His eyes opened briefly.

“Adam?” murmured Joe as he tried to focus his eyes on the image in front of him.

“Yeah, Pal…it’s me…how you doing?” Adam said.

“Aw…hurting some…”

“Did you think we weren’t coming?”

“No…I knew Hoss would get help…but it…sure took…him long enough…” Joe said with a painful smile.

“Yeah…well, sorry about that, kid…I’ll tell you all about it later…but first, let’s see about getting you out of this mess.”

“HE’S TALKING, PA…” Adam called up to his father.  “DROP DOWN ANOTHER ROPE!”

“Pa’s here too?” Joe asked between struggling for a breath.

“Pa, Hoss and a couple of other men.  Here, let’s get this rope around you and see if we can pull you up…”

Quickly, Adam fastened the second rope around Joe’s chest and secured the knot.  He studied the tight crack in the slabs of rock where Joe’s body had become wedged.  His brother was fitted as snuggly between the rocks as a hand is fitted into a glove.  Adam pinched his lips tightly together; getting his brother freed would not be as easy as he had first thought. “Joe, can you move your lower body, at all?”

“No…I can’t feel anything, Adam,” Joe said.

Adam noted the fearful expression on his brother’s face and offered the young man a small smile. “Don’t worry, Joe, it’s because you’re wedged in there so tightly…”

“I don’t know, Adam…I’m…stuck pretty good…”

Adam rolled his eyes and patted Joe on the head.  “You always were a glutton for punishment,” he laughed softly. “Let’s see if we can stick your arm into your shirt, it’ll keep it from moving around so much and hurting you.”  Adam opened his brother’s shirt and moved Joe’s broken arm as easily as possible until he had it secured inside the boy’s shirt.  Joe tried to stifle his pain filled cries.

“Sorry, Pal,” Adam apologized for causing his brother undo pain.  “Alright, Joe, get ready…I’m going to tell Hoss to start pulling.  When you feel the rope tighten, see if you can wiggle your lower body.”

“HOSS…START PULLING HIM UP…BUT GO SLOWLY!”

Overhead, Hoss and the two men gently began tugging on the rope.  Ben, unable to help because of his own injury, watched anxiously, his eyes darting from his middle son to the two inside the earth’s core.

Below, Adam held the slack in the rope until the rope was pulled taunt. “EASY NOW!”

The rope tightened about Joe’s chest.  He felt the first tug on the rope as it strained to pull his body free from its earthen prison.  As the rope tightened, Joe’s jaw clenched tightly to keep from crying out.  The pressure of the rope on his chest, cut into his flesh.  His broken arm blazed with a fiery burning sensation.  The lower half of his body refused to dislodge.  When the pressure became too much to endure, Joe cried out in pain.

“AUGH!!!  Adam…it hurts too much,” Joe sputtered between gasps of breaths.  His words were broken and filled with pain.

Instantly Adam scrambled up a ways calling out to the ones overhead. “STOP…HOSS!  STOP…YOU’RE RIPPING HIM IN TWO!”

Instantly the rope went slack.  Joe drew in a deep breath of air and let it out slowly.  His fearful eyes watched his older brother’s face. “I’m gonna die in here, aren’t I, Adam?” he whispered.

Adam stare was intense as he studied the situation, not daring to look his brother in the eyes for fear that Joe’s statement might actually be true.  Adam swallowed and hid his own fear before finally looking at Joe. “Nonsense,” he said.  “We’ll just have to try something else…”

“Adam,” muttered Joe as he watched Adam’s expression.

“Yeah, Joe?”

“I’m…scared,” Joe whispered in a tiny voice.  His troubled eyes glistened with tears, but he held them in check.

The statement forced Adam’s eyes to dart upward where he looked long into the tortured face of his brother.  Joe’s fear was evident, even in the dim light that shone softly down from the opening at the top of the crevice.

“So am I, kid,” Adam said truthfully, for he was scared, scared that his brother might die, and scared that he might have to watch the boy’s death and that this giant scar in the earth’s bowels might very well be his brother’s final resting place; but he couldn’t tell Little Joe that and he wouldn’t let himself believe that it would be so.  If it were the last thing he ever did for his brother, he would not let his brother die…at least not alone. Right then and there he vowed that no matter how horrific the situation became, he would not leave his brother.  Again, he swallowed.

“I promised you I’d get you outta here…and have I ever lied to you before?” Adam said, forcing himself to smile.

“No…but…”

“No butts, Joe…I made you a promise and I aim on keeping it.  Now be quiet and let me think.”

Adam’s eyes brightened some when he heard Joe’s infamous giggle.  His smile, this time, was genuine.  For several long agonizing minutes, all activity in the deep crevice came to a complete standstill.  The silence was insufferable to those who waited above ground and for the young man caught in Mother Nature’s trap.

“Well…” Adam said at last.  He looked at his brother with deep concentration.

“Well, what?” Joe said in a muffled voice.

“Looks like I’m just going to have to blast you out of here………”

“WHAT!” Joe shouted in as loud a voice as he could muster.  “Are you out of your ever-loving mind!”

Ben, hearing the commotion below, edged closer to the rim and peered over the side. “What’s going on down there?” he growled, sick with worry over how long it was taking to free his son from the trap he’d fallen into.

“Nothing, Pa,” Adam called, “I was only explaining to Joe how I was going to have to get him out…and he didn’t much like that idea,” he shouted, turning and grinning at the expression on his younger brother’s handsome face.  “Don’t worry, Joe…I won’t blow you up.”

“Well…hell, that’s a relief,” Joe muttered.  “Come now, Adam…be truthful…how are you going to get me outta here?”

“Just like I said, Joe…I’m going to blast this rock with a stick of dynamite and when this slab of rock gives way, I’m going to have Hoss and his buddies pull both of us up at the same time,” Adam explained.

“What…you’re nuts…you know that…”

“Joe, look, I spent four years in college…I learned all about this sort of thing…it’ll be easy as pie…”

“Sure it will,” Joe fussed and then fell silent.  What could he do…he was totally helpless and at the mercy of his brother.

I’ll be right back…the first thing I need to do is to have Pa and Hoss rig you up a harness…this rope isn’t going to work, it cuts into your skin…HOSS, PULL ME UP!” Adam then shouted.

“Wait!” cried Joe as he grabbed for Adam’s arm.  “You…I mean…don’t…” he swallowed hard.

“HOLD UP, HOSS!”

Adam saw the glistening of tears return to the frightened eyes and the fearful expression that crossed his brother’s features.  Realizing what his brother was trying to say but couldn’t, he placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and gently squeezed.

“I’ll be right back…I promise,” Adam said in a serious voice.  “I just want to explain to the others what’s going to take place…and I need to send one of the men back to the ranch for the explosives…”

Joe chin quivered slightly but he nodded in his head in compliance. “Alright, big brother…I suppose I’m not in any position to argue…I only hope you know what you’re doing…cause if this doesn’t work…we’re both gonna die, you know that, don’t you?” Joe asked.

“Joe…look at it this way…if it doesn’t work…then at least we’ll be together…”

“But Adam,” Joe said; he was on the verge of tears.  “I don’t want you losing your life…just for me…I don’t want Pa grieving over two sons…”

“Look Buddy…I’d die for you in a heartbeat…you’ve always known that…and I wouldn’t regret it for a moment.  But I don’t aim on dying…not today…and I don’t aim on you dying…but if it happens…then I’ll know in my heart I’ve kept my promise…”

“Promise…what promise?” Joe questioned.

“A promise I made a long time ago, Little Joe…to your mother,” Adam explained.

“What kind of promise…and why to my mother?”

“Your mother was dying, Joe…I was with her for a bit, right before she passed.  She was worried sick about what might happened to you after she died.  She asked me…to help Pa take care of you…so, I promised her I’d always be here for you…and to look after you.  I’ve tried to keep that promise all of your life…and mine,” he added.  “Hasn’t always been easy, you know, you being a trouble magnet and all,” he laughed lightly.

Joe’s tears could no longer be contained.  When he blinked, they dripped slowly down the front of his face.  He raised his head, placing his hand on his brother’s arm and gently squeezed. “Thanks, Adam…I…I didn’t know…it means…a lot to me…”

“She meant a lot to me, Joe…and so do you…now, enough of the mushy stuff…I got work to do if you want to be home in time for supper…”

Joe laughed softly.  “I do…I’m starved.”

“Alright then, let’s get to it…HOSS PULL ME UP!”

When Adam reached the surface, his father demanded to know everything about his youngest son.  Adam reassured him that Joe would be fine, allowing more confidence to show than what he actually felt.  As he set about explaining to the others his plan to free Joe from his entrapment, one man was sent with Hoss, back to the ranch to acquire the needed items.

“Adam,” Ben said in a troubled tone, “are you absolutely sure, this is going to work?”

Adam was busy working on a harness that he intended to strap around Joe’s upper body to lessen the pull and the pain he knew Joe would be feeling when the others were instructed to haul the younger man up to the surface.  He glanced over at his father sure that Ben could read the doubt he tried so hard to hide from the others. “Nothing is absolute…but I’m expecting it to work,” he explained.

He did expect it to work.  He had studied the rock formations and the angles, where to place the blasting powder and just how the rocks should break apart.  If everything went according to his calculations, one blast should shift the rock just enough that when he gave the word, Joe and himself could easily be hauled safely out of the deep crevice.  Adam explained that to his father, but what he omitted was the possibility that the slab of rock he was hoping to move might shift in the opposite direction and if that happened, both he and Joe would be crushed to death.

“I wouldn’t be honest with you, son, if I said I agreed with what you’re about to do,” Ben said in a grim voice.  “If it doesn’t work…well,” he muttered, “I will have lost two sons this day, instead on one…I don’t know if I can risk that, Adam.”

Adam stopped working on the harness to stare at his father.  “Pa, would you rather I leave Joe down there to die like a trapped animal?”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Adam…I wasn’t suggesting you do such a fool thing…but if there’s some other way…a safer way perhaps…”

“Like what…I’m certainly opened to suggestions,” Adam stated.

“I don’t know…” Ben said, obviously thinking.  “How about if you chisel away some of the rock…just enough so that Joe could wiggle free…”

“Pa, I’ve studied everything about the rocks down there…Joe’s managed to get himself wedged in between those slabs of rock so tightly, he can barely breathe.  I’m not sure how much longer he can hold on…if we don’t do something drastic…and do it soon, he’s going to suffocate…I can’t stand by and watch that happen to him…nor will I…if it means dying with him, then that’s what I’ll do.  But I’ve got to try something to get him free…and chiseling just won’t do it…please,” Adam said softly, “Trust me…”

Ben sighed deeply, resigning himself to the fact that either both sons would be coming back out of the hole together or that both would not.  He reached over and gripped his son’s shoulder. “Of course I do…I understand how you feel, Adam…I can’t let him die without trying something more…”

“Thanks, Pa…for understanding,” smiled Adam.  He held the harness up for his father to see.  “What do you think?”

“I think it should work nicely.”

“Good, I was hoping you’d say that.  Now, I have to go back down…I promised Joe I wouldn’t be long…he’s…frightened Pa…”

“I’m sure he is…I would be.  Good luck, Adam…and God bless you.  Tell Joe that…I’ll…well, tell him I’ll see him shortly,” smiled Ben as he watched Adam climb over the rim of the slice in the earth’s surface.

The deputy held on to the end of the rope while Adam lowered himself inside the crevice.  The instant that Joe saw his brother spiraling downward, he smiled.  Adam noticed how strained the expression was and knew that Joe was suffering though trying hard to hide it.

“I’d have brought you something to eat, buddy, but I didn’t want to run the risk of…fattening you up and making it harder to get you out of that crack you’re stuck in,” Adam said in a mockingly cheerful tone.

“I can wait,” Joe said with a grin.  “Is that the harness?”

“Yep…lets see how it fits,” Adam said as he uncoiled the rope that was still around Joe’s chest.  “Don’t move a muscle,” warned Adam, “I don’t want to run the risk of you slipping any further into that cleft and becoming even more tightly wedged,” Adam said as he began to place the harness around Joe’s upper body.

“Don’t worry about that, I’m too scared to even flinch,” Joe said with a touch of sarcasm.

Adam glanced at Joe and offered him a smile, but avoided responding to the comment. “How’s that?” he asked after fitting Joe with the harness.

“More comfortable than that rope,” Joe said weakly.

“Good, now you stay right there, I’m going up once more to see if Hoss and that deputy Roy sent along, is back with the blasting powder.  They’re going to bring a wagon back so that you can lay down on the ride home, once we get out of here,” explained Adam.

“Good,” grinned Joe with a painful expression, “I didn’t sleep too well last night.”

“Ha ha ha,” smirked Adam.

“PA…IS HOSS BACK?” shouted Adam.

“HE’S JUST NOW GETTING HERE…HOLD ON!” responded Ben.

“GOOD!” shouted Adam, grinning at Joe.  “I’ll have you outta here in no time, little brother.  SEND DOWN THE BLASTING POWDER AND FUSES. LITTLE JOE”S GETTING ANXIOUS TO GET OUT OF HERE!”  Again Adam grinned at Little Joe.

“You think this is funny, don’t you?” Joe said with a painful looking smirk.

“No, Joe…I don’t find anything funny about this…it’s risky what I’m about to do…not just to you, but to both of us.  Do you think I want to die, or that I want to live with the fact that I’ve blown up my own brother?”

Joe hung his head.  His expression was remorseful. “No…I’m sorry, Adam…it’s just that…well…I’ve already told you once…I’m scared,” muttered Little Joe.

“You’d be a fool if you weren’t, Joe…” Adam said and then offered a small smile.

Hoss had lowered the blasting supplies carefully down into the crevice where both of his brothers were.  Adam grabbed the end of the rope and attached it to the harness he had rigged for Joe and yelled for Hoss to pull up on it until all the slack was taken up. After he had set the blasting powder and fuses in the places he prayed would move the rock that held Joe prisoner, he attached himself to the same rope that was already secured to his brother.

“HOSS, PA…I’M ALMOST READY.  WHEN YOU HEAR THE BLAST, COUNT TO THREE AND START PULLING…MAKE IT FAST!” Adam called out to those who waited anxiously overhead.

“ALRIGHTY, ADAM…I HEAR YA.  JOE…IT WON’T BE LONG NOW!” Hoss shouted into fissure.

Joe glanced at Adam, swallowing hard.

“You ready?” the older brother asked of the younger.

“I suppose so…Adam…” Joe paused and sighed deeply.  “No matter what happens, I want you to know that…well…I appreciate everything you’ve ever done for me…not just this…but everything.  And I know my mother would too…you’ve kept your promise to her…I…I just wanted you to know that,” Joe said as his voice trailed off to a whisper.

Adam smiled warmly, touched by the tender words.  His fingers lovingly brushed the dirtied cheek of his younger brother. “Thanks, Joe…that means a lot.”

Adam hurried to finish setting the blasting powder and fuses.  Jo’s face had long ago betrayed his weariness and Adam knew that the pain from Joe’s broken arm was almost unbearable for the boy, yet Joe had not complained to him the first time.  The boy was brave, even if the kid didn’t know it himself, smiled Adam to himself.  When he was finished, he turned back to Joe.  Joe had closed his eyes but the expression on his brother’s face, told Adam all he needed to know. He had to hurry; Joe’s strength and resistance was waning fast.

Gently, he touched his brother’s arm.  “Joe…”

Joe’s eyes opened quickly.  “What?”

“We’re ready…here, use my jacket to cover your head.  HOSS GET READY. I’M SETTING THE FUSES…REMEMBER, COUNT TO THREE AND THEN START PULLING US UP!”

Overhead, Hoss took a deep breath and glanced around at the others.  “Get ready fellas,” he said in a solemn tone.  The others nodded their heads.

A commotion behind Ben and the others caused them to turn.  Getting down from his buggy was Doc Martin.  The physician rushed over to Ben and Hoss and knelt down, looking into the hole.

“Hoss told me what was going on out here…I thought I’d better ride on out, just in case, he did say Little Joe was hurt,” Paul explained.

“Thanks, Paul…best back up, Adam’s about ready to blast that slab of rock apart.”

“I’M LIGHTING THE FUSE…GET BACK!” the warning came from below.

Adam gave one last quick glance at his brother and then struck the match.  He quickly held the tiny flame to the end of the wick, moved quickly to the second wick and lit it as well.  As he blew the match out, he turned, covering Joe’s body protectively with his own.  Behind them, the two brothers could hear the muted sizzle of the fuse as the flame crept closer and closer to the powder.

BOOM!

The blast echoed up to the top of the crevice.  Dirt and dust and tiny particles of rocks pelted their bodies as the rubbish spewed through the opening like a small volcano.  Ben, Paul and the others covered their heads.

Hoss counted to three and then with the others, began tugging on the rope.  It seemed like a lifetime for the big man before he felt any resistance on the other end. His heart raced both with fear for his brothers and anticipation of seeing them again. “Don’t stop,” he ordered the others as he moved one hand over the other, pulling the rope nearer and nearer to the top.

Ben and Paul, who were leaning over the edge waited with baited breath.  Ben waved his hand in the air, clearing the soot and dust from barring his view.  Minutes later, he saw what his heart had longed to see.  The bodies of his two sons came into view.

“Here they come, Hoss…keep pulling on that rope!” Ben shouted as he and Paul helped pull the boys to the surface.

When the air cleared, Ben could see Adam’s face.  His son was covered in dirty dark dust, but the smile on his eldest son face was a welcomed relief.

“Hi, Pa…” grinned Adam.

“Adam!” cooed Ben affectionately quickly giving his son a welcoming hug.

Hoss rushed over to help his father and doctor finish pulling Joe and Adam to the surface.

“Joe got hit with a rock; he’s unconscious,” Adam advised the doctor as he slipped the rope from around his chest and dusted himself off.

Paul bent over Little Joe’s still form, examining the injured boy. “Get some water,” he ordered.

A canteen appeared almost at once.  The doctor damped his handkerchief and gently wiped Joe’s face.  The boy began to stir about; his long lashes fluttered and then to everyone’s relief, the hazel eyes opened.

The first face that Joe saw was the worried one of his father.  Instantly, his chin began to quiver.  Ben, feeling the same flood of emotions, gently gathered his son into his arms and held him against his pounding heart.  His fingers caressed the boy’s face.

“Thank God, you’re alright, both of you,” muttered Ben in a thick voice. He glanced over at his oldest son.  “Thank you, Adam…thank you…”

Adam, his own emotions on the verge of spilling over, could only nod his head in response.  His hand rested on the boy’s shoulder, his eyes turned to look up at Hoss and noted the dampness on his middle brother’s cheek.  They all felt the same…the love of each one for the others, the devotion that had, over the course of their lives sprouted and grown to such a rare magnitude that most men never knew what they knew or felt what they felt…it was a rare gift that had been graciously given to them from a higher source.  Adam whispered a silent prayer of thankfulness, not just for the safe return of his brother, but for his entire family and what each one of them meant to him.

*****

It was days later before Little Joe was allowed out of bed.  He sat in the great room with his family where they had retired after supper.  Joe glanced around at each one, proud that he was a part of such an extraordinary family of men.

“Hoss…I never got a chance to thank you…or to tell you I’m sorry…” Joe said.

Everyone’s eyes turned to the young man sitting on the settee.

“Thank me for what?  And what do you have to be sorry for?” Hoss asked. He put aside the bridle he had been working on, laying it on the wide boarded table in the center of the room.

“Thanks for coming back…”

Hoss scrunched up his face and grinned at his brother. “Did ya think I wasn’t?” he asked.

“Of course not…though I was beginning to worry a bit…I thought you might have taken so long because you were mad at me…you know, paying me back for teasing you that day…” Joe explained.

“Naw…I wouldn’t do ya like that, little brother…and I wasn’t mad…just aggravated.  But I explained to you why it took me so long to get help…”

“I know…and I understand…it couldn’t be helped…but just the same…I’m sorry I teased you that day…guess I got paid back,” Joe snickered.

“Guess you did, young man…that should teach you not to cry ‘wolf’,” his father scolded gently.

“Never again,” laughed Joe.  “Say, Adam,” Joe said, turning to his eldest brother, “you never did tell me how you figured out just where to set off those blasts…”

“Yeah…ya never did, Adam.  How did you know?” Hoss inquired.

Adam’s expression took on a strange countenance as he glanced around the room.

“Well?” asked Ben, “how did you know?”

“You wouldn’t believe it, if I told you…” Adam stammered and then returned to reading his book.

Joe looked from one to the other. “Try us,” he dared his brother.

Ben, Hoss and Joe stared hard at Adam, who glanced again across the room at the trio.  He swallowed hard; his expression was unreadable as he confessed. “I guessed.”

“WHAT!” chorused the trio.

“You heard me…I guessed,” Adam repeated and then went back to reading.

Ben glanced at Joe, who glanced at Hoss, who in turn glanced at his father.  All three, stunned into silence, glanced at Adam, who purposely avoided glancing at his three family members.  He didn’t dare…it had been luck, pure and simple.

***End***

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