Taken (by Rona)

Summary: After winning the rodeo, Joe is approached by a stranger about a job. He refuses, then disappears. Can the Cartwrights find Joe, when the stranger seems to be innocent?

Rating: T
Word Count: 11,720


 

 

“Ride him, Joe!” Hoss bellowed, leaning forwards as he watched his younger brother sitting the bucking mustang. If Joe could hang on for another few seconds, he would win the prize. “Ride him!”

Beside Hoss, Adam, his older brother, and Ben, their father, also watched intently. The black horse Joe was riding was the toughest, ugliest horse in the rodeo, and Joe had insisted on riding him. Ben’s heart was in his mouth, even though he knew that Joe was possibly the most skilled bronc-buster he had ever seen. “Go on, Joe!” Adam called, and Ben hid a smile. Cool, detached Adam was as caught up in this battle as the rest of the family.

The whistle blew, signaling that Joe had won, but the boy made no attempt to get off the horse. The outriders closed in, just as the horse stopped bucking. Joe didn’t relax until the outriders had a firm grip of the bridle, then he slid from the horse’s back, and made his way on unsteady legs over to the corral rails.

“Well done, Joe,” Ben said, warmly, clasping his youngest son’s shoulder. “I’m proud of you, son.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said, looking up. Sweat ran down his cheek, and after a moment, he raised his arm to wipe it away. A smile flooded his tired face. He looked at Adam. “So you thought you couldn’t be beaten, huh?”

“Oh shut up,” Adam retorted, smiling. He had known all along that Joe would beat him, although he was a very good bronc-buster himself. “Well done.” They smiled at one another.

The organizer of the rodeo was calling for Joe to come and get his prize of $100. Straightening, Joe walked back to the middle of the corral, and accepted his prize. “That’s it, folks!” called Mr. Richie. “Come back next year for the second annual Virginia City Rodeo!”

There was applause from all round, and then the people began to break up, and head towards horses and buggies to go home. Joe walked stiffly back to his family, and groaned inwardly at the thought of climbing onto another horse to get home. As he reached Cochise’s side, a man appeared and said, “Joe Cartwright?”

“Yes?” Joe said, turning to look at him. He didn’t recognize the man at all.

“My name is Lionel Jeffreys. I own a horse ranch down in California.” By this time, Ben and the boys were all listening intently. “I’ve been looking for a new bronco-buster, and having seen you in action, you’re the man I want!”

“Thank you, that’s very flattering of you,” Joe said. “But I don’t want your job.”

“You don’t know all about it yet,” Jeffreys rushed on. “I’m offering you $100 a month, plus board. What do you earn in your current position?”

Exchanging a glance with Ben, Joe said, “Mr. Jeffreys, I’m flattered that you think I’m the person you want for your ranch, but no thank you. I live here with my brothers and father, and I don’t want to move on. Goodbye.”

Frowning, Jeffreys said, “Don’t be too quick to turn me down. Think about it. I’ll get your answer tomorrow.”

“Mr. Jeffreys,” Ben said, stepping in. “My name is Ben Cartwright. Joe is my son. He’s already told you he doesn’t want the job, so please leave it at that.”

The other man stared at Ben. He was tall and dark, with big hands. Like Joe, he was whipcord lean, but stood almost the same height as Hoss. “Very well,” he said, stiffly. “But I’ll be in Virginia City for several more days. Please think over my offer. I’m staying at the International Hotel.”

“I won’t change my mind,” Joe said, “but thank you for the offer.”

He could feel Jeffreys’ eyes boring into him as they mounted up and rode off.

*****

When they arrived at the house, Joe was practically asleep. He slid down from Cochise, his pinto horse, and could hardly restrain a groan. On legs that felt wooden, he tottered into the barn to tend to his horse. The saddle seemed to weigh ten tons, and he didn’t notice the amused glances his family were exchanging behind his back. His eyes were all but closed, and as he began to brush his horse’s coat, his eyes actually did close.

“Joe,” Ben said, taking the brush from his hand. “I think you ought to go inside and go to bed.”

“Hmm?” Joe said, sleepily. He squinted at his father. “I’m not that tired, Pa,” he said, but a yawn shook him.

Smiling, Ben gave his son a small push. “Go to bed,” he ordered. “You’ve had a long, hard day. Good night, son.”

“Good night,” Joe returned, and another yawn shook him. He stumbled out of the barn and disappeared into the house.

“He sure is tuckered out, ain’t he, Pa?” Hoss said, affectionately.

“I know how he feels,” Adam responded. “And I didn’t ride as many horses as he did today.”

“Why don’t you go on, too,” Ben suggested. “We’ll see to Sport.”

“He’s done,” Adam said. “But bed sounds good to me. Good night.” Adam left the barn and went indoors too. He climbed the stairs and glanced into Joe’s room. Sure enough, Joe was on the bed, sound asleep, but he hadn’t even managed to remove his boots. Smiling, Adam went in, pulled off Joe’s boots, and tucked him under the covers. Joe, not surprisingly, didn’t stir. “Sleep well,” Adam murmured, and went to his own room. As he undressed, he heard Hoss and Ben come back into the house, but he was sound asleep by the time they came upstairs a few minutes later.

*****

Both Joe and Adam slept late the next morning. Ben thought they deserved it. They had been very involved with the organizing of the first annual rodeo, and had taken part in every single event. Neither of them was any good at barrel racing, but the bronc busting had shown off their talents. There had been 2 groups competing for the prize, and Joe had ended up in the bigger group, and had ridden more horses than Adam. The whole occasion had been thoroughly enjoyable, and Ben was already wondering what would be on show the next year.

As they all sat around the lunch table, they discussed the offer Joe had had from Jeffreys the previous night. “He must be pretty rich to offer that kind of money,” Adam commented.

“Must be,” Joe replied, indifferently.

“Its plain he don’t know you, little brother,” Hoss joked. “Or he wouldn’t want you to work for him. He ain’t never tried to get you up in the mornin’.”

“Yeah, yeah, ha ha, very funny,” Joe said, but there was laughter in his voice. “What do you want us to do after lunch, Pa?” he asked, losing interest in the subject.

“I think you and Adam deserve the afternoon off,” Ben said. “You worked pretty hard all day yesterday at the rodeo.” He hid a smile in his napkin as Joe’s eyes lit up like Roman candles.

“I think I might go into town,” he said, trying to sound casual. “I know Mitch is going to be in the Silver Dollar later on, and I wanted to talk to him.”

It was Adam and Hoss’ turn to hide a smile at this subterfuge. They both knew that Joe had his eye on a fancy pistol for their father’s birthday, and now that he’d won the $100, he had more than enough money to buy it. Ben’s birthday was only a week away.

“All right,” Ben responded, equably. “But don’t lose all your prize money in one poker game, will you?”

“Pa!” Joe protested, and they all laughed.

“I think I’ll just stay here,” Adam said, and rose from the table to go to his room. Hoss got up and went back outside.

Ben put his hand on Joe’s arm, restraining him. “Joe, about that offer you got last night.”

“What about it?” Joe asked, frowning.

“If you want to take it up, then do it. I would hate to think that you turned down a job you really wanted just because you thought you couldn’t leave here,” Ben said, seriously.

“Pa, it was a generous offer, but let’s be honest here,” Joe said. “Would you want to break broncs day in and day out? We both know that it’s too hard a thing to do every day. I’m happy here; you know that. I get enough horse breaking here. I need to do other things, too. I don’t want to take him up on the offer.”

“That’s fine, Joe,” Ben said, relived. “But the Ponderosa isn’t your prison, it’s your home.”

“And precisely because its my home, I really don’t want to leave,” Joe said, firmly, getting to his feet. “See you later, Pa.”

*****

The ride into Virginia City was pleasant, and worked the last of the kinks out of Joe’s back. He dismounted in front of the gunsmith’s shop and looped Cochise’s rein round the hitching pole. “Cartwright,” said a voice, and Joe turned slowly.

“Mr. Jeffreys,” he acknowledged.

“Cartwright, have you though any more about my offer?” Jeffreys stepped in close.

“Yes, I have, and the answer is still no.” Joe started to turn, but Jeffreys’ hand shot out and grabbed his shoulder.

“Don’t be too hasty,” he said. “I’ve asked around about you. People say you’re a great horseman. You and your brothers work on your father’s ranch for the same sort of wages as the hands do. You could do a lot better with me.”

“Mr. Jeffreys, the Ponderosa is my home,” Joe said. “I’m already in charge of all the horse breaking that we do. Thank you for the offer, but I don’t want to leave. Goodbye.”

“You will work for me,” Jeffreys said. “You will.”

Joe said nothing, just walked into the store. He closed the door behind him, and felt immediate relief. Jeffreys had been angry – too angry it seemed to Joe. He fervently hoped he would never see the man again. Crossing to the counter, Joe bought the pistol for his father. But his pleasure had been tainted by the encounter outside the shop.

*****

Having been caught out before, Joe did indeed meet Mitch in the Silver dollar, but he didn’t linger. After only one beer, he decided to head for home. He wanted to get the pistol hidden away before Ben had the chance to notice he was carrying a package. Mitch admired the pistol, and agreed that Ben would love it. Ben’s liking for fancy pistols wasn’t a secret.

The late afternoon sun was warm, and Joe felt sleepy as he rode slowly home. He knew that his father planned to stay haying in the next few days. Haying was not Joe’s favorite pastime. It was hard, hot work, and everyone had to pull their weight.

Cochise suddenly broke into a trot and Joe looked up, shaking the sleep out of his brain. Coming fast towards him were a bunch of men. Joe immediately urged Cochise into a gallop. He didn’t know who the men were, but he wasn’t intending to wait around to find out. The pinto was one of the fastest horses in the area, and Joe was confident that he could out ride them.

Perhaps he could have, but he hadn’t reckoned on their dexterity with a lasso. The first throw hissed past him, but the second settled round his shoulders. A third looped over Cochise’s head. Joe was jerked from the saddle. He landed hard, but rolling, and managed to get half way to his feet before the men arrived. He hadn’t managed to get his gun drawn, and the rope tightened around his arms and chest again. Several guns were aimed his way, and they were all cocked.

“Jeffreys!” Joe exclaimed, disgustedly. “I might have known!”

“I said I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Jeffreys said. He nodded to two of the men, who dismounted and approached Joe warily. Under the unwavering aim of four guns, Joe wasn’t foolhardy enough to try anything. He submitted with bad grace as they bound his hands tightly behind his back. “Let his horse go,” Jeffreys said, as soon as Joe was securely tied. “Get going, and I’ll see you in a few days.”

“You won’t get away with this!” Joe vowed, as he was forced onto a horse. One of the men jumped up behind him, and they rode slowly away.

*****

“Why am I not surprised that Joe isn’t back?” Adam asked, as they at down to supper.

Ben laughed. “Probably for the same reason I’m not,” he responded. “I don’t expect to see him this side of midnight.”

His sons laughed, too, but Ben didn’t notice the glance they exchanged. They were both in on Joe’s secret gift. “When are you gonna start haying?” Hoss asked.

“Tomorrow,” Ben replied. “Its ready, and the weather looks promising.” He forked the lamb into his mouth, and watched as Hoss demolished the huge pile of food on his plate. “Hoss, there’s plenty of food, son. You’ll give yourself indigestion, eating that way.”

“That’ll be the day,” Adam commented, and Hoss just grinned good-naturedly at them both. “And don’t tell us you’re just a growing boy,” Adam added. “We’ve heard it all before!”

“But I am!” Hoss said, and they all laughed again.

As they sat by the fire after supper, Ben thought it was a while since he’d seen his sons so relaxed. There was always a lot to do on the ranch, and in the summer especially, they all tended to work too hard to keep up. The rodeo had provided them with a change, and as the old adage said, a change was as good as a rest.

“That might be Joe now,” Adam commented, as they heard hooves in the yard.

They waited for the rush of feet over the wooden porch, but none came. After a few minutes, Adam got up and went across to open the door. Sure enough, there was Cochise, and Adam wondered if Joe was climbing in over the roof, so he could hide Ben’s gift. He went out to catch the pinto, which Joe hadn’t even hitched to the rail, shaking his head over his brother’s wild ideas.

It was only as he was looking round to see how close Joe was to coming back that he realized that Joe’s bedroom window was shut tight. Adam frowned. He looked more closely at the horse, and saw a bulge in the saddlebags. Reaching in, Adam found the pistol. Alarm flared through him. “Pa!” he shouted.

“What is it” Ben asked, coming to the door.

“Joe’s horse has come back alone,” Adam said.

There was no need to say it, but Ben did, anyway. “Saddle the horses.”

*****

The men who had taken Joe captive rode throughout the night. The last man in the group brushed away their tracks for a long time. They stopped at one point, and transferred Joe onto a horse they had left tethered. They stopped for a brief meal in the early evening, and then pushed on. Joe had choked down a few mouthfuls of food, but he was growing angrier by the second, and could barely swallow.

Come morning, he was reeling in the saddle, worn out by trying to sit the horse and keep his balance with his hands tied behind him. However, he didn’t have much further to go. They stopped in the shade of an old tree and pulled Joe roughly from the horse. One man stood guard, while the others prepared a meal. Once again, Joe was fed. The men talked among themselves, but never addressed a word to him. After he had finished eating, Joe fell asleep.

He was woken a few hours later by the rattle of a wagon, and hope sprang into his heart. His hopes were soon dashed as it became apparent that the men had been waiting for this wagon. He was yanked to his feet, and shoved into the back of the wagon. His feet were tied, and one man sat close by and watched him. Some of the men rode off in another direction, and Joe and the three men with him went another way. Joe had seldom been as uncomfortable, but his lack of sleep caught up with him again, and he slept.

Two days later, the wagon finally rolled to a stop in the yard of an imposing ranch. The land was green and fertile, and the horses grazing there were magnificent animals. Under other circumstances, Joe would have been impressed. As it was, he was furious and disgusted.

The bonds on his feet were cut, and he was hauled to his feet. He was prodded into a building, and the ropes on his wrists were finally removed. Joe rubbed the chafed skin, restoring the circulation. He eyed the man who still covered him with a gun. “Get undressed,” he ordered. “Then get in the bath.”

Slowly, Joe did as he was told. He’d already learned that not obeying would get him a savage backhand across the face. Besides, the thought of a bath was appealing. He could feel his own smell, and he knew how bad the others he’d been traveling with smelled. Three days of constant traveling, coupled with sleeping on the ground, wasn’t designed to leave a man nicely fragranced.

Bathed, clean and feeling more human again, Joe found clean clothes and his own boots waiting for him. He dressed slowly, constantly aware of the supervision he was subjected to. He knew where he was – sort of. He was at Jeffrey’s ranch. He knew it was in California, but he didn’t know exactly where. The topic had never come up. He wondered if his family had questioned Jeffreys. He hoped they didn’t think he was dead, but he had no way to find out. Jeffreys hadn’t traveled with them, and Joe wondered why not. He had the uneasy suspicion that Jeffreys was giving himself an alibi for Joe’s disappearance.

Once he was dressed, Joe was taken at gunpoint to the house, and forced to go upstairs. This house was much grander than the Ponderosa, with marble floors, and intricately decorated ceilings. The walls were smooth white plaster, and there was gold paint here and there. It was opulent, and grand, and Joe hated it on sight. He preferred the homely ranch he’d grown up on, where you could wear your dirty boots into the main room without worrying too much about the floor, and where you could put your feet on the furniture – but only when Pa wasn’t looking!

The room he was shown into was also opulent. It had a thick carpet in a warm red color, velvet drapes, satin bedspread, comfortable chairs and bars on the window. The door shut behind him and the locked clicked, and Joe was alone. He hadn’t spoken a word to anyone since he had been kidnapped. He stood there, looking round, and thinking that this was not his kind of room at all. “Gilded fetters are chains just the same,” he murmured, and was surprised at how hoarse his voice was.

He prowled round the room, discovering that it was actually a suite. The second room was one of those new-fangled indoor outhouses, complete with a flush. It had no windows or doors. The bars on his window were secure, and the door was stout under its coat of glossy white and gold paint. Joe tapped all the walls, but couldn’t hear any sound that indicated a weak spot. Finally, he sat down in one of the chairs, and simply waited. There was nothing else to do.

*****

“There’s simply no trace of him, Ben,” Roy Coffee said, wearily. “Jeffreys was around the city when Joe vanished. He was seen talking to quite a few people, and he’s been very cooperative in answering my questions.” Roy frowned. In fact, Jeffreys had been almost too helpful. As a lawman, Roy had developed a nose for people who weren’t telling the truth, but there was nothing he could do .He couldn’t prove that Jeffreys had anything to do with Joe’s disappearance, and the man appeared to be in no hurry to get back home. “I don’t know what else to do, Ben. I’m so sorry.”

“Thanks for trying, Roy,” Ben said, wearily. He seemed to have aged a year since Joe disappeared. “If there’s any news at all…”

“You’ll be the first to know, “Roy assured him. “I wired the sheriff for the area where Jeffreys lives, but its pretty remote there. It could be a few days before he gets the wire, then another few days before he can check the ranch out. Wish I could do more, but my hands are tied.”

“We’ll give it a few days,” Ben said, rising, “then we’re going out there.”

“Don’t do anything rash,” Roy warned. Ben grunted, but Roy wasn’t sure what he meant by it. He watched as Ben mounted his horse and rode away. The Cartwrights had taken Joe’s disappearance badly, as was to be expected. He wished there had been something for him to do, but the boy had vanished into thin air.

Standing at the door of his office, he saw Jeffreys come out of the hotel with his saddlebags and mount a horse waiting there for him. Roy wasn’t surprised. He’d known Jeffreys was going home; the man had said so the previous day. Roy wished he could see inside his head. He’d wager money that Jeffreys knew more about Joe’s disappearance than he was letting on.

*****

Lying on the bed in the room he was using – Joe refused to think of it as his room – Joe nursed his bruises. He had taken a knife from his dinner tray, but the men who brought his food had noticed its absence at once, and had beaten him. They’d found the knife easily, for there weren’t many hiding places in the room. Now, Joe ate all his meals under the watchful gaze of a man with a gun in his hand.

Over a week had passed since he’d been kidnapped, and Joe was almost climbing the walls with boredom. He had tried talking to the men who brought his meals, but they refused to answer. There had been no sign of Jeffreys at all. As always, Joe’s appetite had been the first thing to suffer, and he barely picked at his food.

There was a commotion outside, and Joe rose slowly to look through the bars. His room faced the back of the house, and the barn. His heart rate accelerated as he recognized Jeffreys dismounting from a horse. He swung around from the window quickly, not wanting Jeffreys to look up and see him watching. His fists were clenched as a great anger rose in his heart. More than anything, Joe wanted to hurt Jeffreys, as he himself had been hurt.

By his reckoning, more than an hour passed before Jeffreys came to his room. The usual gunman was with him, and Joe dug his nails into the palms of his hands, trying to keep his temper under control. He stood silently, glaring at the man who had orchestrated his kidnapping.

For his part, Jeffreys was amused at this show of defiance. “I’m told you aren’t eating properly,” he said, without preamble. “As of now, that will change. You will eat everything you’re given, or you will be punished. From tomorrow morning, you will start working in the corrals, breaking the horses. There is no point in trying to escape, because you will be guarded at all times. Disobey me, and you will be punished.”

Still silent, Joe slowly shook his head. “Your threats mean nothing to me,” he said. “My family will be looking for me.”

“Oh they are,” Jeffreys assured him. “But they won’t find you here.”

“I wouldn’t count on that,” Joe responded, flatly. He turned away. “I won’t be working for you, Jeffreys.”

With his back turned, Joe didn’t see the gesture Jeffreys made, or the short, springy whip that the guard passed to him. The first he knew of it was when the crop crashed down between his shoulder blades. The blow stung painfully, and he half-turned, raising his arm to protect his head. Jeffreys hammered blow after blow on Joe, as he fought to gain control of the crop. But Jeffreys was stronger, and when he finally stepped back, breathing hard, Joe was curled up on the floor, bleeding. One eye was swelling shut, and a trickle of blood ran from a cut on his ear. He glared at Jeffreys. “You can’t force me,” he whispered.

Laughing, Jeffreys left the room. The door locked behind him, and Joe was alone. His body ached from the cuts and welts, and he lay on the floor for a long time before he struggled to his feet. Surveying the damage in the mirror, Joe couldn’t repress a shudder. He knew what he faced now. For each time he defied his captor, he would be beaten. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. But it wasn’t in his nature to knuckle under. Joe went and lay down on the bed. His back and arms burned mercilessly. He refused to give in to the tears that rose in his throat.

*****

When morning came, Joe was roused by a few rough shoves, and handed his breakfast. He choked it down somehow, unable to face another beating that day. His back and shoulders ached relentlessly. Shortly after he finished eating, he was taken from the room at gunpoint.

The relief at being out of that room was overwhelming. Joe found himself swallowing repeatedly, trying to keep the lump from his throat. He was ushered out the front door, and round to the barn. Jeffreys was waiting there, and Joe felt his stomach contract. “Ah, Cartwright,” Jeffreys said, as Joe stopped silently in front of him. “I hope you slept well, and that you’ve learned your lesson?” As he spoke, he tapped the short whip against the glossy black knee high boots he wore.

Glancing round, Joe said nothing. He could feel the warmth of the sun on his shoulders, and reveled in it. The sharp crack of the crop against the back of his thigh made him jump.

“I asked you a question,” Jeffreys said, his voice quiet and deadly.

“No, I didn’t sleep well, and I don’t think I’ve learned the lesson, either,” Joe returned, his voice just as quiet and deadly. “You just proved that, didn’t you?”

Eyes narrowed, Jeffreys studied his captive. Joe’s face was washed clean of the blood that had marred it last night, although his eye was black, and his ear looked a little red. There were no other outward signs of the beating he had taken. Jeffreys relished the challenge of breaking Joe to his will. He had done everything he could to hamper the Cartwrights’ investigation into Joe’s disappearance. The sheriff that Roy was waiting to hear from was dead. It would be some considerable time, if ever, before his body was found, and in the meantime, the law would be paralyzed. By the time another sheriff was appointed, Joe would be his willing slave, and the Cartwrights would never find him. Jeffreys gestured with his head, and one of the hands ran forward with a pair of chaps, and handed them to Joe.

Looking at the leather blankly, Joe let his hand open, and they dropped to the ground. The sting of the crop wasn’t unexpected. He stood stoically, looking into the middle distance, waiting to see what Jeffreys would do next. He guessed that Jeffreys wouldn’t knock him about too much, as he was obviously expected to do some horse breaking that day, and it was impossible for an unconscious man to do that.

He was right. After a moment, one of the hands buckled the chaps onto Joe. He was then dragged across to the corral, where a horse was penned into the chute, saddled and ready. Joe was forced to climb the rails and drop onto the horse. When he sat there passively, his feet were forced into the stirrups, and he was handed the rope. He automatically shifted it into his left hand, and then the chute opened.

There was no way Joe could just sit passively on a bucking horse. For one thing, if he was thrown, he would probably get trampled. For another, bronco busting was his favorite occupation, and he was good at it. He rode that jughead to a stand still, but he paid for it. His back was bleeding as he slid down from the sweating animal, and made his way on rubbery legs to the side of the corral.

One of the men offered him a drink from a canteen, and Joe took it gratefully. He winced as the cool water stung his back as he poured some of it over his head. The guard with the gun stood a few feet away, still covering Joe. He almost laughed. Did they think he had the energy for an escape attempt after that?

“Excellent, Cartwright,” Jeffreys said. He nodded to the foreman. “Keep it up.”

“You’re mad,” Joe said, and ducked the blow, taking it on his shoulder. “I’m being held captive, you’re beating me up, and you expect me to break your horses! Well, I have to tell you, Jeffreys, I’m not going on.”

He wasn’t given an option. Again he was forced onto a bronco, and his choice was ride it, or get thrown. Joe rode it. By early afternoon, he was too exhausted to stand under his own power. He was covered in dust and blood, and his head ached.

He was led over to the bathhouse, and slid gratefully into a bath. He had realized that he was never allowed into the house dirty and dusty, although there must be a bathroom of sorts in the house, given the fancy plumbing. After, he was prodded back to the house, and this time shown into the dining room. Jeffreys was seated at the table, and as Joe sat down, a servant came in with the meal.

The food was good, Joe had already noted, but he was too tired to be really hungry. He ate most of the clear soup, and after reflected it was just as well he had. When he picked up the knife and fork to switch them over, he received a sharp rap across the knuckles. Stunned, he looked at Jeffreys. “What was that about?” he asked, angrily.

“Your family might have let you use the wrong hand, but I won’t tolerate it here,” Jeffreys said. “You use the correct hand at all times, and if I have to tie your hand down to make you, so be it.”

“I’m 23 years old,” Joe hissed. “Don’t you think it’s a bit late to reform me?” He carried on changing hands.

That was the last Joe saw of the meal that night. He was wrestled to the floor by his guard and another man that Jeffreys summoned, and his left hand was tied behind his back. Joe fought furiously, but he was already tired and sore from the physical exercise and the beatings he’d had. “Take him away,” Jeffreys said, in disgust. “Make sure he can’t free himself.”

They dragged Joe back to the room, and threw him on the bed. His right arm was tied to the bedhead, and then the door was shut and locked. Joe struggled against his restraints, but the knots defeated him. Totally helpless, Joe vowed that he wouldn’t give in, no matter what it cost him.

*****

The next morning, Joe was dragged down to breakfast, his left hand still bound behind him. He sat at the table, staring straight ahead, determined not to give into this madman, however hungry and thirsty he was. Jeffreys was almost as stubborn as Joe, and his men were soon forcing the food into Joe’s mouth and holding his mouth shut until he swallowed.

“Why do you insist on fighting me?” Jeffreys asked, after Joe had been fed. “You could be like my son, if only you’d relax and let yourself enjoy this place.”

“But I’m not your son,” Joe said. “I’m Ben Cartwright’s son, and nothing you say or do will change that.”

“Joe,” Jeffreys said, softly, grabbing the youth’s chin, and forcing him to look at him. “You are my son. Somehow, Ben Cartwright has got you brainwashed into thinking you are his son, but it’s not true.”

Dazed, Joe gaped at his captor. What was he talking about? “I’m Joe Cartwright,” he declared, stubbornly.

“No, you’re not,” Jeffreys went on, gently. “I knew you were my son, Michael, the minute I saw you. You always loved to break horses. You were always the best at it. Why did you run away, son? Why?”

“I’m not your son,” Joe repeated. “And if you treated him anything like the way you’re treating me, I’m not surprised he ran away.” He shoved back his chair and stood up, breaking Jeffrey’s grip. He struggled furiously to free his left arm, but failed. His guard stepped forward and jabbed his pistol into Joe’s back. Joe froze.

“You shouldn’t talk to your father like that,” Jeffreys warned, and backhanded Joe viciously across the mouth. Joe’s head snapped to the side, and he stumbled slightly. He could feel blood running from his nose and mouth. “Now, there are horses to be broken, and I expect you to get out there and get on with it tomorrow. If you don’t, you’ll be punished.”

It was with a sense of something like relief that Joe was pushed from the room and up to the room. Jeffreys was mad. Joe had know that there was something odd about the man form their very fist meeting, but he hadn’t quite expected to be told Jeffreys thought he was his son. Joe wondered how on earth he was going to get out of this.

*****

“We’ll be back as soon as we can, Charlie,” Ben said, as he mounted Buck.

“I’ll be here, and so will the ranch,” Charlie assured him. “Jist you bring back Little Joe.”

The Cartwrights rode out of the yard, and headed for California. The last few days had been the longest Ben could remember. He had spent them making preparations to leave. Charlie had been left in charge, and if the search for Joe looked like it was going to stretch into weeks and months rather than days, he would send Adam and Hoss back to take over.

They spoke very little as they rode over the endless miles to California. Jeffreys’ ranch was south of San Francisco. There hadn’t been any word from the sheriff of the area, and Ben’s patience was long gone. He was going to get his son back. They pushed their horses, and two days later, they arrived in the area.

After a night spent at least partly asleep, they asked for directions to Jeffreys place. The first man they asked told them how to reach the ranch, and also warned them that Jeffreys wasn’t completely sane.

“What do you mean?” Ben asked.

“His only son up and ran off on him three-four years ago,” said the man. “It was said Jeffreys was real hard on the boy. He had a real gift with horses, and spent a lot of time breaking them. His pa bought that horse ranch for him, you know, so he’d have plenty of horses to break.” The Cartwrights exchanged uncomfortable glances. “But the boy couldn’t take his old man no more, and he ran off. Jeffreys went after him, and the boy was shot and killed. Jeffreys ain’t been right since. Goes on long trips looking for the boy.” The man shook his head. “Better be careful if you’re goin’ up there, mister. Jeffreys has the place guarded like a fortress.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Ben said, and they rode off. Further down the road, Ben pulled up and looked at his sons.

“We should’ve asked what Jeffreys’ son looked like,” Adam said.

“I don’t reckon we needed to,” Hoss commented. “I reckon the description would fit Little Joe to a T.”

“I think so, too,” said Ben, morosely. “Let’s find the ranch and see how well it’s guarded. Then we can decide what to do.”

*****

It was a beautiful spot for a ranch, they all agreed. The horses grazing in the paddocks looked sleek and glossy, the sun shining off their coats. As their informant had said, there were men with guns everywhere they looked. Hiding in a thick stand of trees about a mile from the boundary, Ben surveyed the lay of the land. “Not much in the way of cover,” he noted.

“We could sneak down at night,” Adam said. “Or one of us could. Then we would have an idea of how the buildings are set out.”

“All right,” Ben agreed. “Let’s set up camp here, but no fire! We don’t want them to notice us.”

After darkness fell, Adam and Ben had a brief, but heated, argument about which of them was going to scout the ranch. Adam finally won, with some help from Hoss. Reluctantly, Ben gave in, and watched Adam slip into the undergrowth, his black clothing blending into the night, until he was invisible. All they could do after that was wait.

Several hours passed before Adam returned. Ben felt a pang of disappointment that Adam returned alone. Somehow, he had been hoping that Adam might have found Joe and rescued him. He schooled his face to remain neutral, but Adam wasn’t fooled. He, too, had hoped that he might find and rescue Joe, but things were never that easy. “There are several corrals near the barn,” he began, tiredly. “There are two doors into the house. The main door isn’t going to be easy to get by. It’s quite thick, and there’s no cover. Round the side, there’s another, plainer door. I would guess that the servants use it. I don’t think it would be difficult to force, if we needed to. Down by the breaking corral, there’s quite a lot of undergrowth. If we made our way down there tomorrow night, we could hide in it, ready for what might happen.”

“What about the men?” Hoss asked.

“That’s the big one,” Adam said. “There are quite a few of them dotted about. The ones I saw were all in the same places when I came back, so they won’t be difficult to avoid. But once we get Joe, it’ll be hard to get away, with all those armed men around.”

“Any sign of Joe?” Ben asked.

“No,” replied Adam, quietly. He looked down, not wanting to see the disappointment on his parent’s face.

“All right, we’ll go down to the hiding place you mentioned tomorrow night,” Ben decided. “And we’ll play it by ear from there.” He patted Adam on the shoulder. “Thank you, son,” he said.

*****

Life continued to be hell for Joe. He refused to use his right hand at all, enduring several beatings and force-feeding. His physical strength was ebbing away slowly, and the continual horse breaking was taking its toll. He had had a bad fall that afternoon, and been knocked out. He didn’t know how long he lay unconscious, but when he wakened, Jeffreys was there, looking down at him with an unsettling mixture of hate and affection. Even though Joe was clearly not fit to do more, Jeffreys forced him back onto the horse, and Joe had taken another spill.

This time, the horse had been injured too, as it crashed through the rails of the corral. How Joe had escaped serious injury, he wasn’t quite sure, but he was stiff and sore, despite the hot bath. His head ached, and he was queasy, yet Jeffreys expected him to eat his meal. Once more, his left hand was strapped down. Joe was depressed to find that he was almost used to it.

Almost. Perhaps it was the mild concussion he had suffered. Perhaps it was just his survival instinct, but Joe had had enough. As they tried to feed him his meal, Joe fought like a demon. His left hand might have been out of commission, but his right still worked well enough. His guard got an elbow in the diaphragm, and a fist in the face, and went down, caught completely unawares. Joe launched himself at Jeffreys, fighting for his freedom and his life.

It was a wasted effort. Jeffreys threw his glass of wine into Joe’s face, and the liquid blinded him, stinging in his eyes. Then, Jeffreys systematically began to take the boy apart. Joe tried his best to defend himself, but it was too much. He fell to the floor, and rolled away slightly, trying desperately to gain some time, hoping that Jeffreys’ killing rage would cool. He could see that the man had lost what little control he had, and Joe’s eyes quartered the room, looking for a way out.

His eye fell on the window. Outside, it was dark, and had been for about an hour. Joe dodged to avoid a swinging boot, and it caught the elbow of his bound left hand. That was the last straw. Heedless of the danger, desperate to get away, regardless of the cost, Joe pushed himself to his feet and dived head first through the window.

The glass shattered spectacularly as Joe tumbled to the ground outside. The window was higher than he had realized, and he rolled awkwardly, feeling his captive arm take the brunt of the fall. Pain spiked along it, but Joe struggled to his feet, and began to run.

Something sticky was running down the side of his face, but Joe ignored it. There were pinpricks of pain all over his body, and he stumbled several times. But he was determined to get away, and kept on running, despite the pain it caused him. He could hear shouts from behind.

A body appeared out of the darkness, and Joe swerved, violently, shouting incoherently. But the person grabbed him around the waist, and spoke, and Joe recognized Adam’s voice. “Easy, Joe, easy. I’m here, you’ll be safe now.”

“Adam?” Joe said, dazed. He suddenly felt overwhelmingly weak. His already throbbing head was ringing, and the pain was becoming too much for him to handle.

“Its all right, Joe,” Adam said, dragging him frantically back to their hiding place. “Just be quiet, and we’ll look after you.” He was concerned by what he could see of Joe’s appearance in the dark. Luckily for them, there was no moon that night. He glanced over his shoulder towards the light and noise coming from the house. Men were milling about in the light, but none of them appeared to be coming in their direction.

“Pa!” Adam hissed, as he approached their hiding place. “I’ve got him! But he’s hurt!”

“Quickly,” Ben said, and they pulled Joe under cover. Ben gently ran his hands over Joe’s head, and winced as he encountered the blood running from the cut on Joe’s forehead.

“Oh, Pa!” Joe breathed. Ben gathered him against his broad chest, and Joe clung there for a moment. But his strength had run out, and a moment later, his head slumped.

Working quickly, with Hoss standing guard, Ben and Adam freed Joe’s arm, and checked as best they could for injuries. It seemed to them that Joe’s arm was broken, and their fingers were covered with innumerable little cuts from all the shards of glass sticking in Joe’s clothing. “We’ve got to get him out of here,” Ben said.

“I’ll carry him,” Hoss said. “We can take turns. Let’s go.”

On silent feet, they eased their way from their hiding place, and followed Adam as he led them back to the stand of trees where the horses were tethered. It was a long, tiring journey. Ben took over carrying Joe after a while, then Adam. They had to keep stopping to hide from the men out searching for Joe. Several times, it seemed to Adam that the men had seen them, but no shouts ever went up. Perplexed, they kept going. Finally about 2 hours from dawn, they reached the trees, and laid Joe on the grass. He was conscious, and had been for a while. The need for silence had been obvious to him at once, and he had worked hard at stifling the groans of pain that welled up in him. Now, finally still, he lost the battle with his nausea, rolled over and threw up violently.

While Ben tended to Joe, Adam and Hoss saddled the horses. They were one horse down, but that didn’t matter. Joe was in no fit state to ride alone anyway. “Ready,” Adam said, tersely, and helped Joe to stand.

Before long, they were riding away from Jeffreys’ place. They had no idea where they were headed; it was enough just to be moving. When dawn came, they were several miles away. Adam pulled up Sport, and looked around. Joe had to get to shelter, so they could let him rest, and see if they could tend to his injuries. Jeffreys would be out looking for them. Up ahead, almost merging with the landscape was a small cabin. It wasn’t too far to ride, and it would give them shelter.

By the time they got there, Joe was beyond the end of his endurance. He slipped in and out of an exhausted sleep as Ben carefully stripped off his torn clothes and washed the blood from his body. Joe bore many cuts as a mute testimony to his exit through the window, but only the one on his head was deep enough to cause concern. His left arm was clearly broken just above the elbow, and with infinite gentleness, Ben set the bone and wrapped the arm in bandages and a sling. He was horrified by the number of welts on Joe’s back and arms, but forbore to question the exhausted youth.

“Here they come,” Hoss said, sudden tension in his voice.

“You stay right there!” Ben ordered his youngest, as he snatched up his rifle, and made his way to the window. Joe grimaced. He couldn’t lift his head off the pillow, never mind lift a gun.

“They can’t miss the trail,” Adam commented, grimly. The grass was clearly flattened, even from this distance.

“It can’t be helped,” Ben replied, his voice equally grim. They waited as the riders drew closer. Then, inexplicably, they turned away. Ben frowned. “I don’t understand,” he said. “A blind man could follow that trail.”

“Let’s hope they don’t try and creep up on us from behind,” commented Adam. He crossed the cabin to the tiny back window, and crouched there.

They kept vigil for what seemed like an eternity. Joe, waking from a much-needed sleep, groaned as pain hammered through his body. Ben went to his side, and tenderly helped his youngest to drink. The boy was beginning to feel warm to the touch, and Ben hoped that the fever was only the result of shock, not infection.

“Pa, there’s a man coming on foot,” Hoss reported, and Ben immediately went back to the window.

Sure enough, a man was making his way across the grass to the cabin. He appeared to be concerned that someone was following him, given the way he glanced over his shoulder, but the Cartwrights wondered if this was some sort of subterfuge. “Ho, the cabin!” he called quietly. “I’m not armed. Can I come over?”

Opening the door a fraction, Ben slid out, his rifle aimed at the man. “Come on,” he agreed.

The man halted warily a few feet away, his arms raised. “Hear me out,” he pleaded. “I work for Jeffreys. He’s sent us out looking for the boy, but we’re deliberately not going to find him. We all know that Joe isn’t Jeffreys’ son. He’s almost killed that boy, and we all liked him. After dark, we’ll send out a wagon for you, with supplies in it. I can guarantee that Jeffreys won’t bother anyone again.”

“How do I know we can trust you?” Ben asked.

“You don’t,” the man admitted. “But I’ve watched that boy taking the abuse handed out to him, and still manage to do a day’s work. Jeffreys has become odder and odder over the last few months. Even his guards are beginning to be weary of him. We intend to do something about this now. We can’t risk him taking another young man, and killing him.” He eyed Ben. “My word is my bond. I’ll bring the wagon to you as soon as I can. You may well hear us taking care of things, even from here. Your trail was easy to follow, and we all saw you leaving last night. Nobody stopped you. We could have, but we didn’t. Now do you believe me?”

Lowering the rifle slightly, Ben nodded. “Yes, I do,” he admitted. “I do believe you.”

“My name is Jack Robinson,” the man said. “Are you Joe’s father?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Robinson said. He turned and headed back the way he had come.

“That explains a lot of things,” Adam said, thoughtfully, as Ben came back into the cabin. “I knew we’d been seen last night.”

Checking on Joe, Ben saw he was asleep. “You two boys have a rest,” Ben said. “I’ll stay on watch.” He felt incredibly tired.

Reluctantly, Adam and Hoss agreed to have a rest, and were soon stretched out on the floor. Ben stood by the window, fighting off sleep. The small cabin was warm under the summer sun. Every now and then, he checked Joe. The boy’s temperature rose steadily, but never got too high. Ben bathed his face. Joe slept on, secure in the knowledge that his family was with him.

After a couple of hours, Adam roused, and persuaded Ben to lie down. He glanced out of the window and said, “Pa, look!”

Following his son’s gaze, Ben saw a column of black smoke rising into the sky. It was coming from the direction of Jeffreys’ ranch. “Do you think that’s what Robinson meant about ‘taking care of things’?” Adam asked.

“I don’t know,” Ben responded. “But it could be.” He gave into his son’s urgings, and lay down. Sleep claimed him at once.

*****

Several hours had passed before Ben woke. He glanced round, sensing that something was different. Joe was still asleep, muttering under his breath. Hoss stood by the window, rifle in hand, but Adam was nowhere in sight. Ben sat up abruptly, and Hoss turned. “Adam’s outside, talking’ to Robinson,” he said.

Stiffly, Ben rose to his feet, checked on Joe, and went to the door. The two men outside looked at him as he came out. “Sir,” Robinson said, in greeting.

“Robinson and his friends have solved one of our problems for us,” Adam said, in that wry way he had.

“Oh?” Ben ventured, unsure what that meant.

“There was a tragic accident at the ranch,” Robinson said. “The big house burned down, and Mr. Jeffreys was caught in it. The fire was too fierce for any of us to risk going in. Several of his men died in the fire, too.”

“That is a tragedy,” Ben agreed, feeling a thousand pound weight lift off his shoulders.

“I brought the wagon,” Robinson said, and Ben glanced at it. “I put a couple of mattresses in it, and some blankets and food. Good luck, sir.”

“Thank you,” Ben said, softly.

Smiling his understanding, Robinson mounted his horse and rose away. Ben wondered what he would do now, and where he would go, but he suspected that Robinson and his friends would make out just fine. He looked at Adam. “Let’s get out of here,” he suggested.

*****

It was a long journey back to Nevada. Joe was very unwell, and his fever raged night and day. Ben pushed on, anxious to get home, and let Doc Martin tend to Joe. Joe was often nauseous and confused, and frequently let out shouts of anguish in his delirium. When they rolled into the yard of the Ponderosa 3 days later, they were all on the edge of total collapse.

The men helped move Joe into the house, and Hop Sing was soon preparing everything that Doc Martin would need. Somehow, he also managed to get some food on the table, and hot baths organized for all of them. Adam and Hoss bathed first, then bullied Ben into bathing while Paul Martin tended to Joe.

“How is he, Paul?” Ben asked, coming back into the room.

“Sick,” Paul said, bluntly. “All those injuries, in such a short space of time. There were some tiny shards of glass in a couple of those cuts. That was what was causing the infection. He’ll get over it in time, but it’ll take a while. Do you know what happened?”

“Not exactly,” Ben replied. “We know he was kidnapped because he looked like that man’s dead son. And we know that he was badly treated, but Joe hasn’t said anything about it. I probably shouldn’t have rushed him home like that, but I just couldn’t rest easy knowing he was still close to where it had happened.”

“I gave him a sedative,” Paul said, “so he should sleep the night through. You get some rest, Ben, or you’ll be sick, too.”

Having hardly closed his eyes in the last three days, Ben was too tired to argue. He knew Hop Sing would sit with Joe, and so he went to lie down on his bed for a few minutes. He was asleep in seconds.

*****

By morning, Joe’s fever had broken. Ben ate a hasty breakfast, and went to sit with him, while Adam and Hoss went to find out what was happening on the ranch. Ben hadn’t been sitting there long when Joe woke. “Pa?” he said, squinting at the figure in the chair. “So it wasn’t a dream.”

“No, Joe, it wasn’t a dream,” Ben said. “You’re home and safe.”

Joe shut his eyes, but the tears seeped out between his lashes, and ran sideways into his hair. Ben, not knowing what was causing his distress, took Joe’s hand in his and held on tight. “Its all right, Joe,” he said. “You’re home now.”

“I thought I would never get home,” he admitted, opening his eyes again. “Jeffreys was determined to make me into his dead son, and I don’t think he would have hesitated to kill me.”

“Jeffreys is dead,” Ben said. “You don’t have to worry about him any more. He won’t be coming after you again.”

Again, those green eyes closed. “He was mad,” Joe said, flatly, after a moment. His eyes popped open, and he glared at Ben, as though it was his fault. “He wanted me to use my right hand, and whenever I didn’t, he punished me. He tied my hand behind my back so I couldn’t use it, and when I was alone, my right hand was tied down, too.”

Anger coursed through Ben, and he suddenly wished he’d managed to lay hands on Jeffreys. He said nothing, because he wasn’t sure if he would have his voice under control.

“When I wouldn’t eat enough to please him, I was force-fed,” Joe went on, his voice emotionless. “I wasn’t allowed into the house unless I had had a bath. I was forced to ride those horses, and even after I was knocked out, I was made to get back on.” Then the anguish became too much, and Joe began to sob in earnest, his good right hand holding Ben’s hand so tightly that it would leave bruises. “The horse broke through the corral rails, and was so bad hurt, it had to be put down. It was my fault! If I had been all right, I’d have been able to do something about it.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Joe!” Ben said, firmly. “The fault was Jeffreys’. No sane man would force an injured rider to get back on a wild horse. Nothing that happened was your fault!”

“I refused to do what he said,” Joe went on, his emotions temporarily back under his control. “He beat me with a small whip. He beat me for strange things. I put on the wrong color shirt one day. I knew I couldn’t please him, so I didn’t try.” His gaze fastened on to his father’s. “Am I going to be badly scarred?” he asked.

“Paul doesn’t think so,” Ben answered, steadily. “By the time your arm is healed, you’ll be as good as new.”

Looking down on his broken arm, Joe said, “I broke it jumping out of the window. I couldn’t take it any more, Pa. I just had to try and get away. He said you wouldn’t ever be able to find me…” Once more, the pent-up emotions broke free, and this time, heedless of the youth’s injuries, Ben gathered him into a comforting embrace.

The emotional release exhausted Joe, and as his tears ceased, he slid into slumber, still clutching his father’s now-soaked shirt. Gently, Ben lowered Joe down onto the pile of pillows placed there to ease his bruised and welted back. He was sure there was more of the story to come out, but the little he had heard made him furiously angry.

He was downstairs when Adam and Hoss came back in for lunch, but he scarcely heard a word that they said. His thoughts were churning, still. Seeing their father’s preoccupation, the boys gradually stopped telling him the news. After a few minutes, it impinged on Ben’s mind that his sons were silent, and looked up. “You’d better hear this from me,” he said, “because I don’t know if Joe will be strong enough to tell you.” And he poured out the whole, horrendous story.

When he finished, Adam pushed his chair back and stood up abruptly. He stalked over to the fireplace, and leant one hand against the rough stone. He kicked it sharply, but only the once. Hoss pushed his plate away and buried his face in his hands. Ben reached out and stroked Hoss’ arm. He knew exactly how both his sons felt. He had no idea how to let the anger out.

“The poor kid!” Adam said, roughly. Ben thought that if Jeffreys had ever seen Adam look as he looked just at that moment, he’d never have touched Joe.

“That snake!” Hoss muttered. “I reckon Robinson and his friends did us more of a favor than we thought.”

Silence reigned for a few more minutes, as each man fought to control the emotions bubbling inside him. But it was too hard. Hoss suddenly went outside, banging the door behind him. Adam slammed his fist down on the back of his blue velvet chair. The blow hurt, but he didn’t really notice.

“Is Joe going to be all right?” Adam asked. A stranger might have thought that there was a distinct lack of sympathy in his tones, but Ben knew his son well enough to realize that Adam was trying to pretend that everything was normal.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied.

He watched as Adam copied his middle brother and slammed out of the house.

*****

“NO!” Joe screamed and startled awake, sitting bolt upright in bed. His eyes flew open, and he looked round the room. As he realized that he was safely home, the pain in his back hit him hard, and he groaned. Ben helped him to lie back, and supported his head as he drank. As Ben wiped the sweat of his nightmare from his face, Joe asked, “What was all the banging about earlier?”

“It was just Adam and Hoss,” Ben said, soothingly.

“They never fell out?” Joe questioned, skeptically. “Not Adam and Hoss!”

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” Ben quoted.

“I’m sure there are,” quipped Joe, “but that isn’t one of them. Tell me, Pa,” he demanded, the humor going from his face. “Did you… Did you tell them about me?”

“Yes,” Ben admitted. “Do you mind?”

“No,” Joe said, and there was relief in his voice. “I’m glad you did, Pa.” He closed his eyes for a bit. “Did Cochise get back?” he asked.

“He’s safely in the barn,” Ben replied. “No doubt waiting with baited breath for your arrival.” He patted Joe’s arm, and the youth took his hand, opening his eyes again.

In a low voice, he told Ben how he came to be captured, and about the three days bouncing about in the back of a wagon. “They hardly spoke to me,” Joe said, quietly. He sounded tired, but Ben wouldn’t have stopped him for the world. He knew that all these things were better out in the open. That way, Joe could begin to heal. “If I didn’t do whatever it was at once, they used to hit me round the face. You know, they wouldn’t allow me into the house if I was dusty and dirty? I always had to bath first.” There was the first trace of humor in Joe’s voice.

“Sounds like a good idea,” Ben joked, tentatively.

“They had indoor plumbing, too,” Joe said. He went on to describe the house, and Ben could see immediately why Joe hadn’t been comfortable there. Opulence was not Joe’s thing. He was much more comfortable in the places where he could put his feet up on the table or settee, and where you could wear your dusty boots without worrying.

There was a short silence after Joe finished speaking. He let out a long sigh, and Ben thought he looked more relaxed. “I wish I could have saved you from that,” Ben said, softly.

“Its over,” Joe said, his eyes still closed. “I want to see Hoss and Adam.”

“Sleep first,” Ben suggested. “They’re still working. When they get back, I’ll send them up to see you.”

Before long, Joe slid into a deep sleep. Ben watched him for a long time. He thought it a pity that Jeffreys wouldn’t be brought to trial, for he would have liked to have seen him hang. But he knew that to have made Joe face a trial would have been unnecessarily cruel, and it was better the way things had happened. Ben didn’t approve of thing the law into your own hands, but he couldn’t find it in his heart to condemn the men who had done so.

*****

Within a week, Joe was out of bed for a few hours every day. His back was healing quickly, and no longer gave him pain. He seemed to be his usual self, but he still had nightmares sometimes. Adam and Hoss found it difficult to treat him as they normally would, and relations between the brothers were a little strained. Joe wasn’t quite sure why, and he didn’t want to push to find out what was wrong, since he hated when people did that to him.

Finally the great day came when Joe was able to totter to the barn under his own power. His appetite had picked up, and he was regaining the weight he had lost. The dark circles were mostly gone form under his eyes, and the bruises were fading. About the only visible reminder was his broken arm.

As he began to get back into the way of things on the ranch again, something that had been at the back of his mind broke through, and Joe realized that he’d missed his father’s birthday. He frowned, unsure what had happened to the pistol he’d bought. There was no way he could ask Ben, but he thought he could ask his brothers. The difficulty was tracking them down alone.

As it drew on towards the time that they would be home, Joe made an excuse to wonder out to the barn. He was spending a lot of time with Cochise, and the bond between man and horse was helping his heart to heal. Joe found that he still tired easily, so he perched himself on the side of Cochise’s stall, and waited patiently. Sure enough, a little while later, Adam and Hoss came into the yard, and led their horses to the stable.

They were tired, and didn’t notice Joe for a moment or two. By the time they didn’t, they were part way through unsaddling their mounts, and so could hardly ‘run away’, as Joe termed it to himself. It was surprisingly hard to begin. It seemed as if neither of his brothers could make eye contact with him. “The day I was taken…” he started, and was amazed to see Adam flinch. “Adam? Are you all right?”

Slowly, Adam looked at him. “How can you ask that?” he whispered. “How can I be all right after all that happened to you?”

Looking at Hoss, Joe was surprised to see tears in his big brother’s eyes. “Joe, you don’t know what it was like,” Hoss said, brokenly. “All that waitin’, and knowin’ that someone had taken you away, and there weren’t nothin’ we could do.”

“Pa told us what he did to you,” Adam said, harshly. “And that makes it worse, knowing that you were suffering like that, while we were looking for you here, and riding out there to get you.”

“But you came for me,” Joe said. “And it wasn’t your fault that Jeffreys took me. How were we to know he was plumb crazy? If you hadn’t been there that night, I would’ve died! You have nothing to blame yourselves for.”

It was Hoss who made the first move. He threw his arms round his younger brother, and hugged him as though he would never let go again. Joe didn’t protest, as this was the fist physical contact he’d had with either brother, beyond a brief handclasp, since he got home. After a moment, Adam joined them, and the touching was healing for them all. Hoss wasn’t the only one with wet eyes as they drew apart.

Suddenly, there seemed to be a lot to say, and it wasn’t until they were heading out of the barn that Joe remembered what he wanted to ask. “Did you find a parcel with Pa’s present in it?” he asked.

“It was in your saddlebag,” Adam said, after a moment’s thought. “I put it in the bureau in my room. Do you want it?”

“No,” Joe said, in tones of strained patience. “Of course not! Why would I ask for it if I didn’t want it? Of course I do, you idiot! I missed Pa’s birthday, and I went to a lot of trouble to get that gun!”

“Okay, okay,” Adam said. “I’ll fetch it for you. I guess we never gave Pa our gifts, either.”

“Let’s do it now, then,” Joe said, and grinned broadly at both brothers. “Hurry up.”

*****

As they sat down to supper, Ben knew there was mischief afoot. He wasn’t quite sure what it was, but Joe’s mouth was twitching, Hoss looked shifty and Adam looked superior. All give away signs to their parent. He said the grace and they all began to eat. He eyed the boys covertly, but Adam and Hoss stuck resolutely to talk of ranch work, and Joe asked the odd question – the first real signs of interest he had shown since his return.

When Hop Sing cleared away the main course, Adam rose. “Pa, it pains me to say it, but your sons are guilty of neglect.”

Wiping his mouth with his napkin, Ben raised an eyebrow. “And you’re admitting this?” he asked, disbelievingly.

“We are, and we mean to rectify it at once.” Adam reached under the table, and pulled out a small, flat package. He solemnly handed it to Ben. Joe reached into his sling, and handed another small parcel to him. In chorus, they said, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PA!”

Flabbergasted, Ben just looked at them. “But my birthday was…” he stopped, not wanting to remind Joe of his ordeal.

“We know,” Joe said. “And I went into town that afternoon to buy your gift. Open it!” he urged. Joe loved gifts, even if they were someone else’s and he knew what was in them. His eyes sparkled with the joy of giving.

Blinking the tears from his own eyes, Ben opened Joe’s gift first. The pistol was silver plate, and intricately carved. It was a beautiful piece. “Thank you,” he whispered, looking at Joe, who beamed even harder.

The package from Adam and Hoss was a book. It was an old favorite of Ben’s and his copy was dog-eared and falling to bits. “Thank you, both,” he said, no less sincerely. “Thank you all. I had forgotten about my birthday.” He didn’t say that, while Joe was missing, he felt he never wanted to celebrate it again.

“Its not that easy to stop adding years, Pa,” Joe said, and laughed, delighted with his success.

Watching as Adam patted Joe gently on the shoulder, and Hoss made some comment about cheek, Ben realized that his sons had come together again, for the first time since Joe had come home. He looked down at the gifts, chosen with loving care by his sons. He didn’t say that his greatest gift was the love he could feel flowing round the table.

*****End*****

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