The Rustlers (by Rona)

Summary: The Ponderosa is being plagued by rustlers, who seem to know everything about where the herd will be next. Who is giving them the information?

Rated: T
Word Count:  10,260


 

The two men rode in single file along the narrow trail through the heavy underbrush. They didn’t talk; each knew what they were doing. It had been a long day, but they were almost finished their allotted task. Both felt it would be good to get home to a hot meal, warm bath and then bed.

From further up the trail, they heard the sound of a cow lowing. The first rider threw a glance over his shoulder. “Told you there’d be some in this canyon, Adam,” he called. “The grazing’s usually pretty good up here.”

Shrugging, the older man smiled. “Okay, I believe you,” he returned. “Now let’s get them outa here so we can go home!”

Grinning, Joe Cartwright, the youngest of the three Cartwright sons faced front again, and urged his pinto horse to a slightly quicker speed. He knew the undergrowth opened up a short distance ahead, and the cattle would be grazing peacefully in the lovely little box canyon beyond. This wasn’t Joe’s first trip to check this box canyon, and he doubted if it would be his last. Year after year, the beeves from the herd seemed to find their way to this spot, and then were reluctant to move.

Following Joe on his big rangy chestnut, Adam was surprised when Joe suddenly pulled Cochise to a halt, just out of the brush. He nudged his horse, and came out into the open, and saw at once why Joe had stopped. There were at least 20 head in the canyon but they weren’t there willingly. There was a fence built across the open end, penning the beasts in.

Making some exclamation of disgust, Joe dismounted his horse, and started to walk across to the fence. Slightly more cautious than his impetuous youngest brother, Adam looked round. All seemed quiet. He dismounted, too, and followed.

“Rustlers!” Joe said, with contempt in his voice. Rustlers were the scourge of the ranch, and it sometimes seemed to Joe that all the rustlers in Nevada were concentrating on the Ponderosa this season. This was the third attempt they had come across in recent weeks. He glanced at Adam, his green eyes flashing with anger. “I suppose we’d better get this fence down.”

“I suppose,” agreed Adam, in a calmer tone. He was no less angry than Joe; he was just better able to control his temper.

As they took hold of the top rail of the fence, one of the horses snorted. Some instinct made Adam pause, and look over his shoulder. Behind them stood two masked men, both pointing pistols in the Cartwrights’ direction. “Stop right there!” one ordered. “Drop your guns.”

They had no choice but to do as they were told. Slowly, they threw down their guns and raised their hands. The two men advanced towards them, and Adam wondered what they were going to do. He and Joe were obviously a danger to them, but he thought it unlikely that they’d be shot.

It seemed the rustlers were thinking along the same lines. They exchanged a brief glance, and then nodded, although not a word had been spoken. “I’ll cover ‘em,” said the man who’d already spoken. “You tie ‘em up.”

As the second man turned away, Joe made a break for the walls of the canyon. “No, Joe!” Adam cried, but he was too late. Joe was already moving. The man shot at him, but missed. Joe began to climb, as Adam dived at the rustler. The gun fired again, and Adam went down and out.

The second rustler had his lasso, and swung it at Joe. His shot was perfect, and the rope fell over Joe’s head. With one swift tug, the rope tightened round his throat, and Joe was pulled backwards from the rock face. He twisted frantically as he fell, but landed with a crash on the ground. He rolled over, but a boot to the head put him out cold.

The rustler stooped over and removed his lasso. They studied the two young men lying unconscious on the ground. “Let’s forget about these beeves, and start again,” suggested the first rustler. “These are the Cartwright boys, and everyone will be out lookin’ for them. Won’t take us long to catch up.”

“All right,” shrugged the second. “You’re in charge. Should we tie ‘em up?”

“Nah, leave ‘em. Let’s go.” Together, they calmly walked over to where their horses were tethered and rode away.

*****

A few minutes later, Joe regained consciousness. His head throbbed, and his throat was aching. He put his hand up, expecting to encounter the rope, and was relieved that it was gone. He could feel the rope burn there. Rolling over cautiously, Joe discovered that he ached all over from his fall, but the most serious hurt was his left knee, which had swollen hugely.

Adam! Joe blinked to clear his vision, and saw his older brother lying a few feet away. He scrambled across, forgetting his own pain, and felt frantically for a pulse. It was there, beating away strongly, and Joe felt an overwhelming sense of relief. He quickly checked Adam over for injuries, remembering hearing shots, and found a bullet crease along Adam’s head. It didn’t look too deep, but it had been bleeding freely.

The horses stood grazing a few feet away, and Joe pushed himself upright and limped over to Cochise for a canteen. His knee wasn’t up to the return journey, so he dragged himself to Adam’s side. Joe trickled some water onto Adam’s head, and was rewarded with a groan. A few moments later, Adam opened his eyes. “Joe?” he muttered, clearly dazed.

“Thank goodness,” Joe murmured, relieved. He helped Adam to drink, then set about getting them both home.

*****

“I thought Adam and Joe would’ve been home by now,” Ben Cartwright said, as he sat down by the fire with his after-supper coffee. “They must’ve found more strays than we thought up there.”

“Musta done,” Hoss agreed, chomping on a cookie. “Hop Sing’s kept them some supper, though, Pa.”

Hiding a smile in his cup, Ben reflected that Hoss could always be counted on to have his priorities straight. Of course, his brothers would be hungry when they got in, and Hoss knew it. It was just his way of telling his father that he hadn’t eaten everything!

Hooves sounded in the yard about 5 minutes later. Ben looked up from his book. “That must be them. They sound pretty tired,” he commented, and laid aside his book. He rose and went to the door, Hoss trailing along behind.

Whatever he had expected to see, the sight that actually met his eyes wasn’t it. Adam was slumped along the neck of his horse, and Joe was alongside on Cochise, hanging onto Adam for grim death. Joe was as white as a sheet, and clearly exhausted. Ben dashed towards them. “Joe! What happened?”

“We ran into some rustlers,” Joe croaked, and Ben saw the rope burn on his throat. “Adam got shot. I think he’s all right, but he’s lost a lot of blood.” Joe released his hold on his brother, and Adam slid into Hoss’ waiting arms.

“What about you?” Ben asked, coming round to help Joe down. His hand brushed lightly across Joe’s injured knee, and Joe let out a cry. The heat from the swollen joint burned through the thin cloth of Joe’s pants. Ben looked even more horrified. “Let me help you.”

It was obvious that Joe couldn’t walk unaided, and as Ben helped him to hop across the yard, he could tell from the way his son’s muscles were trembling that Joe had reached the end of his endurance. Hoss met them at the house door, and picked Joe up, despite his protests, and carried him upstairs.

“Hoss, send for the doctor, then come back up and help Joe. I’ll see to Adam,” Ben instructed, and gave his youngest son a pat. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, son.”

“I’m all right,” Joe insisted. “You see to Adam.” He closed his eyes as Ben left the room.

Across the hallway, Adam had roused, and gave Ben a small smile. “Sorry, Pa,” he said, although Ben had no idea what he was apologizing for. “I’ll be up again tomorrow.”

“You’ll wait and see what the doctor says,” Ben directed firmly. He helped Adam undress, and get into bed. He then got some water and washed the dirt from his face. Adam looked a little better after that. “How do you feel?”

“My head hurts,” Adam admitted. “How’s Joe?”

“He’ll be fine,” Ben assured him. “Do you remember what happened?”

Closing his eyes for a minute, Adam thought back. Slowly, he told Ben what had happened. “I guess he must have shot me, because I don’t remember anything until Joe woke me up,” he concluded. “Joe’s limping, what happened to him?” Adam was feeling a lot better now that he was still. The world wasn’t whirling so much, although he still felt a little sick.

“I don’t know, yet,” Ben said. “Hoss is with him, and the doctor is on the way.” He noticed Adam’s eyelids drooping. “You rest, and I’ll be right here if you need me.” Adam was asleep in moments.

Rising, Ben went across to Joe’s room. Hoss had been busy, too, and Joe’s clothes lay in a pile on the floor, and Ben saw that Hoss had assisted his little brother into a nightshirt. Joe’s face had been washed, and he lay propped on his pillows, grimacing in pain. He looked up as Ben entered, and tried a smile. It wasn’t entirely successful.

“How do you feel?” Ben asked, feeling Joe’s head for fever. It was reassuringly cool.

“Sore,” Joe said, tersely. He knew there was no point trying ‘fine’ – Ben wouldn’t be fooled for a moment. Now that Joe had managed to get Adam safely home, he was feeling the effects of his fall. Everything hurt. “How’s Adam?”

“Asleep right now,” Ben said. He pulled up a chair and sat down. Joe put his head back on the pillows, trying to relax his muscles, and Ben saw clearly the rope burn on Joe’s neck. “Joe, what happened to your neck?”

Joe’s hand shot to his throat, a dead giveaway that he had been trying to hide this injury from his parent. Hoarsely, he explained. “It was frightening,” he admitted. “When I woke up, I thought the rope was still there.”

“You were lucky,” Ben said, soberly. “You might both have been killed.”

“Mmm,” Joe agreed. “The beeves were still there when we left,” he added. “I broke down a bit of the fence so they could get out. It might be worth sending a couple of hands up to see if they are still around.”

“I think those beeves will be gone,” Ben said, wryly, “but I will send someone.”

It wasn’t long before Paul Martin arrived, and examined both boys. He bound up Adam’s head, but the wound wasn’t serious. The concussion he had suffered was quite mild, too. He prescribed ice for Joe’s knee to take some of the heat and swelling out of it, and put a salve on Joe’s throat. “Keep off that knee until the swelling is completely down,” he ordered, sternly. “Otherwise you’ll damage it more.”

“I’ll make sure of it,” Ben said. He knew he would have his hands full for the next few days, making sure his sons rested, as the doctor had ordered. Adam was no better a patient than Joe was. “Thanks for coming, Paul.”

“No problem, Ben,” Paul replied. He knew his way round the Ponderosa.

*****

Later the next morning, Ben appeared in Joe’s room. Joe was reading, an ice pack draped over his knee. He glanced up as the door opened, and gave Ben a welcoming smile. “Hi, Pa,” he said. “What brings you up here? Its not lunch time yet. Not that I’m complaining, mind.”

Grinning, Ben said, “I just thought you’d like to know that those beeves were still at the canyon. The hands just brought them in a few minutes ago.”

“I thought the rustlers would have taken them,” Joe replied. “Well, good thing they didn’t.” He frowned. “I wonder why they didn’t?”

“I do, too, “ Ben agreed. “But perhaps they weren’t sure how badly hurt you two were. Perhaps they thought there would be a search party out looking for you. They must have recognized you.” He didn’t say that, if this were the case, Joe and Adam had been even more fortunate than they’d originally thought.

“Well, whatever, its good news about those beeves,” Joe said. “Let’s hope that’s the last we see of those rustlers.” But by his tone of voice, Ben knew that Joe knew it was a forlorn hope. This band of rustlers was extremely persistent. “How’s Adam?” Joe asked. He was frustrated at being unable to get out of bed to see for himself. But his one try at straightening his knee that morning had brought tears to his eyes, and he decided, wisely, not to risk trying to walk.

“Sleeping a lot, but he looked better when I popped my head in a few minutes ago.” Ben patted Joe on the arm. “Well, I’d better get back to the books. Somehow, I have the notion that they’re not as interesting as yours, young man.”

“I don’t want to swap,” Joe assured his father as he picked back up his dime novel.

*****

By the end of the week, Adam was back on his feet, and complaining at being stuck with barn chores or bookkeeping. Joe was increasingly restless, but the swelling in his knee was taking its own sweet time to go down, and Joe had promised Ben he wouldn’t get out of bed until Paul said he could.

There had been no further attempts to rustle any of the cattle, for which Ben was grateful, as they were soon going to be into the big round up, where they separated out the breeding stock, and drove the rest to market. The more head Ben had, the more money the ranch would make. Although a bad year wouldn’t break the Ponderosa, one bad year often led to another, and it was amazing how quickly things could spiral downhill.

At the end of the second week, Joe was allowed out of bed, and he limped carefully around the house until he worked the stiffness out of his knee. For another few days, Ben kept him restricted to the yard, then grudgingly allowed Joe his freedom to resume his normal activities.

This was none too soon for Joe, as the inactivity had been driving him mad. However, he was soon back into the full swing of things, and his knee appeared to be back to normal. “Just in time,” Joe confided to Hoss. “I’d have hated to miss the dance Saturday.”

“You takin’ Julie?” Hoss asked, pretty sure he knew the answer. Julie had kept Joe’s attention for a lot longer than any of them had expected.

“Sure am,” Joe responded, grinning broadly, leaving Hoss in no doubt that his brother was thinking about her. Julie was a few years older than Joe, and very beautiful and worldly. She was a very young widow, having lost her husband just two months after their marriage, when he was killed in a railroad crash. Distraught, but left with quite a bit of money, Julie had been traveling to help mend her heart, and had come to Virginia City to visit relatives. She and Joe had taken an immediate fancy to one another, and although Ben had predicted that Julie would tire of Joe quickly, their romance still seemed to be on track. In fact, Julie had confided to Joe that she was thinking of buying a place nearby.

On Saturday, Joe dressed with great care, making sure his suit was immaculate, and his white shirt crisp. He carefully tied his black sting tie, and examined himself critically in the mirror. Julie was a beauty, with long dark, shining hair, and big, almond shaped dark eyes. Joe didn’t want to let her down by being untidy.

When Joe came downstairs, he found his brothers waiting for him, and endured with equanimity the jibes about his beauty. Ben, who had decided to stay at home that night, found himself marveling at Joe’s self control. He bid the boys have a good evening, and watched them mount up and ride off, still bickering amiably. You just never knew where you were with Joe, he mused. A casual remark that might be greeted with a shrug one day would send him off the deep end another, and there was simply no telling which day would be which. Perhaps Julie was having a positive influence on him. Ben closed the door. There was something about Julie that he didn’t like, although he couldn’t say exactly what it was. She was pretty and mannerly, and sometimes a little outrageous. Ben knew he ought to be as enchanted by her as the rest of the town was. Maybe it was just that she was older than Joe, or that he wasn’t yet ready for the baby of the family to leave, or perhaps it the similarity of her name to that of Julia Bulette. Ben didn’t know. All he was sure of was that he found being polite to Julie a trial, and so had decided to avoid her wherever possible. It was a relief to him that the boys hadn’t noticed his ploy.

Julie was already at the hotel when the brothers arrived. She was wearing a dress of crimson silk, the very color declaring her independence. She was exposing a lot more of her pretty shoulders than the matrons of Virginia City thought entirely proper, but none of the young men seemed to mind. Joe felt a pang of jealousy when he saw Julie chatting to a couple of men when he arrived, but as soon as she him, she excused herself and crossed to his side. “Hi,” she said, in her seductive, husky voice.

“Hi yourself,” Joe answered, grinning at her, his pleasure in her company showing all too clearly. He gestured to the dance floor. “Would you care to dance?” he asked, and swept her out onto the floor.

All through the evening, they laughed and talked and danced. Julie had heard about Joe and Adam’s run-in with the rustlers, and demanded details, listening with wide eyes as Joe told her the story. Being Joe, he couldn’t resist embellishing the details slightly, and he felt a shiver run down his spine when Julie touched her fingers to the faint mark on his neck. He caught her hand, and brought it to his lips. “Don’t do that,” he said, his voice husky with desire.

With a visible effort, Julie changed the subject. “Are you begun with round-up yet?” she asked.

Blinking, Joe shook his head. “Not quite. We start on Monday, moving the herd to a new pasture, then we’ll cut out the breeding stock, and then we head for market.”

“So where are the herd going to be grazing then?” she persisted, although Joe heard enough talk about the round-up at home, and would sooner talk about something else.

“We’re moving them to the South pasture,” Joe answered. “Listen, do we have to talk about cows?” he added, plaintively. “I hear about them all day at home!”

Laughing, Julie said,” Why, I thought cowboys only talked about cows.” She smiled. “Let’s dance,” she suggested, and Joe was quick to agree.

*****

Monday came too quickly, and the men of the Ponderosa were soon hard at work pushing the cows from one piece of grazing to another. It was a task Joe especially hated. Cows were stupid and obstinate, and they smelled bad. No matter where you rode, you ended up eating dust, and Joe had once more been left to ride drag, the worst position of all, right at the back of the herd.

By mid-week, the majority of the herd was settled into the new grazing, and some of the men were out hunting for strays, while others started separating out the breeding stock. Joe was looking for strays, and he and Adam were often paired together as they hunted through underbrush and in the small tracts of woodland along the route they’d traveled.

There weren’t many strays, but when the tally was complete, they were almost 50 head down. “Rustlers!” Ben said, in disgust, as he eyed the tally sheet. They had all counted the herd, and still came to the same count – 50 down. “From now on, the hands stay with the herd. We can’t afford to lose any more.” Ben mounted Buck and rode off to talk to Charlie, the foreman.

“Let’s go,” Joe said, picking up Cochise’s rein, and preparing to mount.

“Let’s go where?” Adam asked, putting his hand out to stop his youngest brother.

“Yeah, where?” Hoss echoed. He tipped his hat back on his head. “We ain’t likely to find no tracks, Joe. We’ve had men ridin’ all over this place.”

Frustration pinched Joe’s mouth. “Well, we’ve got to do something,” he protested. “We’ve got to look.”

“That’s up to Pa,” Adam pointed out. “But Hoss is right. We have no idea where to look. We got off lightly the last time they struck. The beeves were still there, but we haven’t a clue where to hunt this time.”

Knowing Adam was right didn’t ease Joe’s frustrations any. He wanted to go out looking for the missing cattle. There was a faint chance they might be found, and although he didn’t admit it to himself, Joe wanted to catch the rustlers, too. “Fine,” he said, shortly, but his mood was set for the afternoon. Adam and Hoss exchanged glances, then left Joe to stew in his own temper.

*****

“But 50 isn’t a lot out of a herd the size of yours,” Julie said, that evening, as Joe took her for a buggy ride. “Why are you getting all worked up about it?”

“Its not a lot,” Joe agreed. “But stealing is stealing, Julie. We worked hard raising this herd, and now someone thinks they have the right to come along and help themselves! Its not right!” As always, when talking about something he felt deeply, Joe’s voice rose.

“Hey, calm down,” Julie said. “You don’t need to shout at me.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe apologized, “but this gets to me. I couldn’t even go out hunting for tracks, because we’ve been all over that area looking for strays, and any tracks have been messed up.”

“I understand,” Julie assured him, running her hand down his arm. Joe brought the buggy to a halt, and turned to face her, kissing her gently. For an instant, he thought about proposing then and there, but he decided the timing wasn’t right. He would wait until after the cattle drive, when he had extra money in his pocket. He would take Julie for a meal, with champagne, and pop the question then.

They sat silently for a few minutes, Julie’s head resting on Joe’s shoulder. “So what happens next?” she asked. “The big drive you were talking about?”

“Pretty much,” Joe agreed. “I’ll be gone for a few weeks. You’ll still be here when I get back, won’t you?”

“I think so,” Julie answered, steadily. “It takes a few weeks? Do you lose many cattle on the way?”

Again, Joe had to stifle his impatience. He realized that Julie was new to all this, and it was of interest to her, since it was part of what he did for a living. “Sometimes,” he said. “It varies. Usually, we get there with the same number we leave with.”

“I don’t know how you do it,” Julie said. As Joe grinned, she rushed on. “No, I mean I really don’t know how you do it. Tell me about driving cattle. Do you guard them all the time? Ride all day and all night? What?”

Smiling, Joe told her the bare details of pushing cattle to market, wondering that she seemed to be taking it in as if it were interesting, when Joe knew it was really quite tedious. He even told her the route they were taking. Julie seemed to find it all riveting, although for the life of him, Joe couldn’t think why. However, he was more than willing to indulge her. After a time, he leaned forward, and kissed her again.

He was unwilling to end their evening, but he had to be up early the next morning, and the dusk was drawing down. Julie didn’t seem to mind too much, and he lingered for a moment on the porch, giving her another kiss. “See you soon,” he whispered.

“Hurry back,” she replied, and went indoors. Joe got back into the buggy and shook the horse up. He wished he didn’t have to leave so soon.

*****

It was a little past 4am when Joe rose the next day, and rode out to stand watch on the herd. Morning wasn’t Joe’s favorite time of the day, and it had been an enormous effort to get going at 4. He didn’t bother with breakfast, knowing he would get coffee and bacon from the chuck wagon. Dawn was breaking as he left the yard.

As he ate, Joe listened to Charlie tell him about the peaceful night that had just passed. There hadn’t been any more sign of rustlers, and with luck, there wouldn’t be. The next morning, they would move the herd out, and wouldn’t be home again for three weeks.

Finishing, Joe mounted Cochise, and turned sharply as a shout rose from the other side of the herd. “Rustlers!” There was a shot, and all the men dived for their horses. Joe kicked Cochise into a gallop, and raced across the meadow, his pistol in his hand. He could see the band of rustlers – about 6, he guessed – pulling one of the herd behind them as they attempted to escape. Joe was pretty sure they would abandon the awkward beast as the wranglers got closer, and a moment or two later was proved correct.

Ignoring the beast, Joe sped after the rustlers. The herd lowed uneasily when they heard the gunshots, and the cowboys got to work containing a possible stampede. Oblivious to all this Joe thundered alone after the rustlers.

“Joe! Come back!” Charlie shouted, but his voice was lost in the general melee.

It was only when he followed the fugitives into the tree line that Joe realized he was alone. He pulled Cochise to a halt, and hesitated. It went against his nature to just let the rustlers escape, but he was alone against 6; those weren’t reassuring odds. Glancing round, he turned the horse, but he had hesitated too long. A rope sang out, landed over his shoulders, and Joe was jerked from the saddle.

He struggled automatically, but he was winded from his fall, and before he could recover, he found his hands tightly bound behind his back, and his feet secured. He glared wildly up at his masked captors, who looked down on him disdainfully. “We’ll get you!” Joe declared, rashly.

None of the rustlers spoke, but Joe was dragged to the nearest tree, and tightly bound to it. A gag was jammed into his mouth, and when he fought them, he received a savage backhand slap. Once he was secure, the rustlers simply walked away and left him there. Joe fought his ropes, but it was hopeless. He was trapped.

*****

Several hours passed before Hoss found Joe. By then, Joe had stopped struggling. All he had done was to tear the skin from his wrists. His body ached from the tight ropes, and he’d been unable to rub the gag from his mouth. His relief when he saw Hoss was enormous.

“Joe!” Hoss exclaimed, and fired three shots into the air. He knelt by Joe and pulled the gag from his mouth. “Are you hurt?” he asked, rumpling the younger man’s curls.

“No,” Joe croaked. “Just thirsty.” He sat patiently while Hoss hacked through the ropes that bound him. Once he was free, he started to rub the life back into his hands. Hoss took over, his larger hands gently stimulating Joe’s sluggish circulation.

“Here,” Hoss said, handing Joe a canteen. “Mind yer lip.”

“My lip?” Joe repeated, but didn’t wait for an answer. He drank thirstily, instantly discovering that he had a split lip. It didn’t matter. The water tasted wonderful.

A couple of riders came through the trees, and Hoss tensed, until he recognized Ben and Adam. They both slid down from their horses, and hurried across. “Joe!” Ben said, relief in his tones. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe said. “Just a little stiff.”

“Let’s get him up,” Ben said, and Hoss and Adam each took an arm, helping Joe to his feet. It took a moment or two for his legs to feel normal again, but Joe was soon standing without support, and Ben was reassured that Joe really was all right. “What were you thinking of?” Ben asked.

“He wasn’t,” Adam replied, dryly, and Joe couldn’t disagree with him.

“I thought the men were behind me,” Joe explained, feeling about 15 again. Only Adam could do that to him now. “I didn’t realize till I got here that they weren’t with me.” He looked at Adam. “It was the same lot as before. I recognized the two we met last time.”

Unable to say anything about the close call his son had had, Ben gave Joe a rough hug, and they started walking back to the horses. Joe suddenly realized that he didn’t have a horse to ride, and could barely stifle a groan at the thought of walking all the way back to where the herd had been. That was assuming that Cochise had gone back there, and not back to the ranch. He ducked his head, and Ben glanced across at him, guessing what was on his mind.. He and Adam were leading their horses, and it hadn’t occurred to Joe that Hoss’ horse was nowhere in sight. So it was a great relief to get clear of the trees, and see Chubb and Cochise tethered together.

They rode back to the herd, and Joe endured the good-natured teasing the hands subjected him to. He knew it was their way of expressing relief that he was all right. Joe dismounted by the chuck wagon, and accepted a cup of coffee and a sandwich gratefully. He had no idea how long he’d been tied up, but his stomach told him it was lunchtime. He was just finishing eating when Ben rode up. “Come on, son,” he said. “We’re going home.”

“But, Pa,” Joe said, frowning, but he got no further.

“We’ve got an early start in the morning,” Ben interrupted. “And you’ve had a hard day. Don’t argue.”

“Yes, sir,” Joe said, dutifully, and mounted up. To his relief, he saw Adam and Hoss were coming back with them. That made him feel less like an errant school boy.

*****

It was cold and wet the next morning, and Joe wasn’t the only one to wish he could stay in bed that day. They said goodbye to Hop Sing, and headed off. It would be three weeks before they saw their home again. The herd was obstinate that morning, and none of it seemed to auger well for the rest of the drive. However, once they were actually under way, the petty niggles were forgotten in the constant pushing of the cows.

Apart from the foul weather, the first few days passed uneventfully enough. They were all tired, as the rain kept them from sleeping as soundly as they might have. Everyone was wet and dirty, and jokes about walking mud holes soon began to be heard amongst the men.

Finally the weather cleared, and everyone began to feel more cheerful. They managed to pick up the pace a little, as the bad weather had slowed them down. As Ben pointed out, it would slow all the other beef producers down, too.

It was on the third day of fine weather that the rustlers struck. They appeared from the hills, and rode down on the

wranglers, shouting and firing their guns. The herd began to panic, and before they knew quite where they were, the herd was stampeding!

It was pandemonium. Cows began bawling, the hands were shouting, and shooting back, and the rustlers managed to get several head to split away from the main bunch. Ben was trying to bellow orders, and keep the men away from the front of the stampede, so nobody got hurt. Adam raced Sport to the front of the herd, but he couldn’t slow them immediately. Hoss and Joe galloped after the rustlers.

It was as though the rustlers had known where to find them, Joe thought, as he fired at one. He was beginning to be very angry at this particular set of rustlers, as he had once more recognized the ones he and Adam had run into originally. Bullets whistled past his head, but Joe kept going. Chubb stumbled, and almost fell, and Hoss dropped behind.

Once more, Joe was chasing the rustlers alone, and once more unaware of the fact. “Joe!” Hoss yelled, trying to get him to stop. “Joe! Come back!”

It was too late. As the majority of the men turned to go to Joe’s aid, the rustlers turned back abandoning the cattle they had taken, and surrounded Joe. A gun was aimed at him, and his own gun was lifted from his hand. Joe made a lunge for the nearest person, and a gun sledged down on his head. He slumped forwards, all but unconscious, and someone took his reins, and they rode off. The Ponderosa men fell back, stunned. Joe and the rustlers vanished.

*****

Any hope that Adam and Hoss had had of persuading Ben of letting them follow the rustlers alone was soon dashed. There was no way Ben was allowing his other two sons to go anywhere without him, especially when it involved the rescue of his third son. Charlie, long time foreman and trusted friend, was charged with getting the cattle to market, and getting the best price possible for them. “I hope we’ll catch up with you before then,” Ben said, softly.

“I understand, Ben,” Charlie assured him. “You find Little Joe, and don’t worry about the herd. I’ll take care of them.” He clasped his boss’s arm for a moment, and then moved off to mount.

Moving round to mount Buck, Ben looked at his men for a moment. Each man had taken the time to come to him, and express the hope that they found Joe soon. Ben was very touched. He glanced at Adam and Hoss, who were mounted and waiting for him. They had taken some food from the chuck wagon, and were ready to follow the tracks. Ben closed his eyes for a moment, to pray that Joe was all right. Drawing a deep breath, he mounted, and the Cartwrights rode away. Behind them, the herd lowed, mournfully.

*****

It seemed to Joe an interminable amount of time before the rustlers stopped to rest. His hands had been roughly tied to his saddle horn, and he had been ignored for the rest of the ride. Joe’s head ached where he’d been struck, and he thought he was lucky not to have been knocked out. He sat on his horse while the rustlers all got off theirs and stretched the kinks out of their backs. They seemed unworried about the trail they had left behind them. A blind man could’ve followed it, Joe thought.

Finally, two rustlers came over and untied Joe’s hands before pulling him roughly from the saddle. He was prodded at gunpoint over near the fire one was lighting, and forced to sit down. Then his hands were tied behind his back, and his feet bound. Joe couldn’t help but struggle a little, and earned another thump on the head, but from a hand this time. Then the rustlers gave him a shove, laughed as Joe fell to his side, and walked away.

Darkness fell, and the rustlers made a meal. Joe was offered nothing but water. He kept testing his bonds, but the ropes held firm. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, because Joe had had a previous opportunity to become acquainted with the knot tying ability of the rustlers. It hadn’t stopped him hoping, though.

Eventually, Joe fell asleep, despite the discomfort of his position. He was woken by a kick at first light, and offered some coffee, which he drank, gratefully. He was once again tied to his horse, and they set off, riding at a ground-covering lope. Once or twice, Joe looked back, but there didn’t seem to be anybody following them.

“Where are you taking me?” Joe asked, when they stopped at noon.

“What does it matter?” asked the person who was untying him. “You’re goin’ even if’n you don’t wanta.”

Eyeing the man with displeasure, Joe debated about jumping him, but the gun trained on him dissuaded him from such a risky idea. While he had the chance, Joe rubbed some life back into his hands, noticing that his wrists were chafed and raw. Again, he was tied up, but this time he was offered some food. Joe was hungry, and accepted, even though the beans were being reheated for the second or third time.

They were soon on the move again, and Joe wondered once more where they were headed. Soon, he began to recognize landmarks, and realized that they were heading back towards the Ponderosa and home. They were riding over rougher ground than was suitable for cattle, so were traveling more quickly. Joe was very uneasy. He realized that the person who was organizing this gang must be someone they knew. Someone who had known where the herd was, and which route they were taking on the drive. He had the feeling he was going to find out soon.

It was to be sooner than Joe thought. They crested the brow of a hill, and below them, Joe saw the flicker of a campfire. He looked more closely, and saw a large tent pitched there. The rustlers rode straight for it, and stopped. Once more, he was pulled from the saddle and his hands were re-tied behind him. He was pushed into the tent.

The front Joe had been keeping up crumbled the instant he saw the person in the tent. His mouth fell open, and he knew he was gaping, but he couldn’t help himself. Shock reverberated through his system. “Julie?” he finally gasped, incredulously.

“Hello, Joe,” she answered, coolly.

*****

“I think we’re gettin’ closer, Pa,” Hoss said, straightening. “These tracks ain’t more than a few hours old.”

“Let’s push on then,” Ben said, as though any of them had thought of doing anything else. They had ridden as hard as they dared over the last day, and had forced themselves to eat regular meals, but all their attention was fixed on the trail they were following.

“I still don’t understand why they aren’t worried about leaving such an obvious trail for us to follow,” Adam fretted. “Surely they knew we’d follow?”

“I don’t understand either,” Ben said, tiredly. “They must have something else in mind, but what?”

“We’ll get Joe back, Pa,” Hoss comforted, although his assurances sounded a little less certain than they had done the previous day.

Riding on, it didn’t take them long to realize that they were headed for home. They exchanged glances. “Someone we know,” Adam said, bitterly. “How could they?”

“Quite easily, it seems, as they quite easily took your brother hostage,” Ben returned. Once again, he closed his eyes and entreated the Almighty to let Joe be all right. He didn’t know how many times he’d repeated that little prayer, and he couldn’t guess how many more times he might say it before Joe was restored to them.

Grimly, they rode on.

*****

“You told me everything I wanted to know,” Julie told Joe, reaching out to stroke his cheek. He jerked away. “I got quite a few head to sell on, thanks to you. But then you became a nuisance, and I decided on an easier way to make money. I decided to sell you back to your father. Given the way you kept harping on about him, I assume he’ll be willing to pay handsomely for your safe return.”

“You won’t get away with this,” Joe vowed, horrified to find that his voice wasn’t quite steady.

“Oh, Joe,” Julie laughed, once more stroking his face. “Did you really think I’d fall for a boy like you? You’re sweet, but I need a man.” She put her hand out to the man that Joe had kept meeting, and he stepped forward to take it briefly before grinning nastily at Joe. “Sven here is the perfect man for me.”

“A crook for a crook,” Joe said, unable to keep silent. He wanted to inflict hurt as deep as the hurt she’d inflicted on him.

Casually, Sven backhanded Joe. The youth staggered, but kept his feet. Julie looked interested. “Oh Joe,” she mocked. “Did I mean that much to you? Did you fall in love with me?” She laughed, as Joe fought to keep his feelings from his face. “Were you intending to marry me?” She nudged her lover. “Sven, he’s in love with me! Have you heard anything so funny?”

“Why, Julie?” Joe demanded, ignoring the pain in his heart. “Why did you do it?”

“It was fun,” Julie said. “I wanted to see if I could outsmart the men round here, and you were just wonderful! Naive and trusting! And with a rich daddy! Perfect!”

Unable to face any more, Joe turned away. He had no idea where he intended to go, but he just knew he had to get out of that tent. Julie made an urgent motion with her hand, and Sven grabbed Joe by the shoulder and swung him around. “That’s far enough!” he stated.

Gazing at him incredulously for a moment, Joe said nothing, simply turning away again. He had only one thought in mind. He had to get away from Julie, but she and Sven had other ideas. Sven grabbed Joe once more, and punched him full in the face. Julie caught her breath. Sven was an ideal match for her, in that he was as ruthless and violent as she was. It excited her to see Joe being beaten up, and the fact that he couldn’t fight back excited her very much.

But Joe made a fight of it. Even with his hands tied, he did his best, using his head as a battering ram, but Sven was too strong, and Joe took a severe beating. Eventually, he lay on the ground, bleeding from nose and mouth. He was barely conscious. Pain battered him from all over. He slipped in and out of consciousness.

Time passed, and Joe was vaguely aware that he still lay on the ground in the tent, and Julie and Sven were on the bed. It sickened him to realize that they were making love, turned on by the beating, and he struggled not to throw up. He tried to move, but his body rebelled. The pain was too intense.

*****

Crouching on the hill above, looking down, Adam glanced at Ben. “What do you want to do?” he asked, although his every instinct was to fling himself on his horse, and ride into the camp, guns blazing.

“We’ve got to get Joe out of there,” Ben said. “We know he’s in the tent, so we’ve got to get to him. We don’t have time to go for help. We’ll have to get down there, and pick them off one by one.”

It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was the only one they could think of. Silently, they slipped through the undergrowth, until they were close to the camp. Dusk had fallen, and the light was uncertain in the camp. Adam took the first one out; placing an uppercut on the point of the lookout’s chin before he was even aware Adam was there.

It was eerie, how fast they fell, but only three had gone when the alarm was raised. In the tent, Sven raised his head, before getting up and dragging on his pants. He crossed to Joe, and lifted the injured man by his shirtfront, and putting a gun to his head. “Make one sound and I’ll kill you,” he threatened. Joe didn’t care at that point. Sven dropped him, and Joe couldn’t stifle the grunt as he hit the ground.

There was a sudden brawl outside, and Sven dived out of the tent opening, leaving Joe alone with Julie. She sat up, and made herself decent, glancing often at Joe. There was shooting from outside, and Julie got to her feet, looking less confident now. She searched in her bag for something, and produced a small derringer.

Suddenly, the side of the tent caved in, the tent pegs came loose, and the whole thing folded in on itself. Julie let out a shriek. Joe tried to fight clear of the enveloping canvas, but failed. There was a sudden whoosh and crackle, and with a surge of adrenalin, Joe realized that the tent was on fire!

Rousing himself from his stupor, he shouted for help. He could hear Julie screaming loudly. Joe fought his bonds furiously, tearing his wrists up even more, but was unable to loosen them at all. Smoke billowed into his face, and Joe inhaled a huge lungful, and began to cough. The more he coughed, the more he had to cough, and the more smoke he inhaled.

Suddenly, pain raked down his back, and Joe let loose a scream. He thought the flames had reached him, but hands grabbed him and hauled him free from the folds of the tent. Joe’s eyes were tearing too much from the smoke to let him see at once who had saved his life, but as his vision cleared, he realized that the strong arms round him belonged to Adam. He coughed once more, and his back sent another stab of pain through him. “Adam!” he gasped, and collapsed into darkness.

*****

They rode home as fast as they could. Joe lay on a travois, unconscious, although coughing often. Adam, in freeing Joe from the burning tent, had accidentally dragged the knife down the length of his brother’s back. His remorse had almost paralyzed him, until he realized that they still had to get Joe home, and send a posse to get the rustlers. Julie had died before they could reach her, and, looking at the corpse, Ben was thankful that this young woman would not have to live out her life hideously disfigured.

As they neared home, Ben sent Hoss on ahead to warn Hop Sing, and send a hand for the doctor. Adam led Cochise, who pulled the travois, and looked almost as pale as Joe. Ben had been unable to convince Adam that Joe would not hold the injury against him. After all, Adam had undoubtedly saved Joe’s life.

Dirty and tired, they finally reached home, and Ben and Adam almost butted heads as they bent over the unconscious figure on the travois. Looking at his oldest son’s pale face, Ben decided to let Adam carry Joe into the house.

Going inside, they discovered that Hoss had everything ready for them, and a fire was burning in Joe’s room. Hop Sing had heated water, and Ben removed the shredded remains of Joe’s clothes while Adam went to get changed and wash up. Then leaving Joe in Hoss’ capable hands, Ben went quickly to change himself. Briefly, he thought of the rustlers they had left tied up in the valley, but the thought didn’t linger. Joe needed him, and so did Adam and Hoss, even if they wouldn’t admit it.

Going back into Joe’s room, Ben was in time to hear him speak his name. “Pa?” he gasped, then coughed. Swiftly crossing to his son’s side, Ben stoked his tangled curls.

“You’re home, Joe, rest easy, son,” he soothed. “We’re all here.”

“Julie,” Joe whispered, then coughed once more. Dark bits of soot were expelled from his lungs. “It was Julie, Pa,” he went on, determined that Ben should understand. “My fault,” he persisted, as Ben tried to shush him. “I told her… everything she… needed to know. Sorry, Pa. My fault.”

“Hush, Joe,” Ben said. “Its not your fault at all. Rest now. Paul will be here soon. Have a drink of water.”

As he lifted Joe’s head, the youth cried out. “My back!” He bit his lip, but then the initial agony settled down, and he gulped thirstily at the water.

Standing over by the door, Adam winced, and turned away when Joe cried out. He started to leave, but Hoss saw his intention, and went over to catch his oldest brother by the arm. “Adam, he don’t mean anything by that. He’ll be grateful to you for savin’ his life, I promise. He won’t mind that you hurt him. It weren’t on purpose, Adam, an’ Joe’ll know that, when he’s himself again.”

“And what about before that?” Adam asked, quietly. “When he’s out of his head with pain, and maybe fever? Will he understand then? I should’ve been more careful.”

Not knowing what else to say, Hoss just stood there, still holding Adam’s arm. In the quietness of the room, Joe spoke. “Where’s Adam and Hoss?” he asked. “They all right?”

Beckoning them over, Ben said, “They’re here, Joe. Look.”

All but shoving Adam before him, Hoss went to the bedside. “We’re here, Shortshanks,” he said, bending over to ruffle his brother’s hair.

“Joe,” Adam said, kneeling by the bed, so his brother could see him. “Forgive me, please.”

Glazed green eyes gazed back at Adam. “You ain’t… done anything,” Joe whispered. “What do I… have to forgive… you for? I shouldn’t a… been so stupid. Didn’t think. Don’t be mad at me, Adam.”

“Oh, Joe,” Adam whispered, and tears filled his eyes. This boy could do it to him every single time, and he still didn’t know how. One minute he was asking forgiveness; the next, Joe had turned everything round, and needed Adam’s approval. “Of course, I’m not mad.”

“Pa?” Joe said, craning his neck. Ben stepped forward. “You mad at me? Sorry. I was stupid.” Joe began to cough again.

“Rest, Joe,” Ben said. “I’m not mad at you.”

Joe seemed to slip into a light sleep, and they sat silently by his bed, waiting for Paul to arrive. It wasn’t much later that they heard the buggy, and Paul appeared. He woke Joe, and examined him. He diagnosed broken ribs from the beating, and bandaged Joe up tightly. The knife wound in his back, although painful didn’t require stitches, as it was quite shallow. Paul was concerned by the coughing, and the sound of Joe’s lungs, and kept him awake for a couple of hours until that had settled down a bit. Then he gave Joe something for the pain, and let him go back to sleep.

By now, it was almost morning, and the Cartwrights looked exhausted. Paul began his usual bullying to get them to rest. He had a quick look at each of them, as they had all inhaled a small amount of smoke, but they were all fine. Eventually, he convinced them all to get some sleep, and let Hop Sing sit with Joe, who would sleep now for several hours.

When Ben went back into Joe’s room later, his son still slept. Hop Sing was bathing his brow with cold water, as Joe was running a slight temperature. As Ben went to the bed to take over, Hop Sing gave him an oblique look that Ben couldn’t interpret. “What is it, Hop Sing?” Ben asked. Joe seemed to be sleeping peacefully, despite his fever.

“Mistah Adam,” replied the little man, enigmatically.

Frowning, Ben wondered if Adam had received an injury of some kind that had escaped Paul’s eagle eye. He ran a loving hand over Joe’s curls, and then hurried across to Adam’s room. The bed was empty. Turning, Ben hesitated for a moment before going slowly downstairs. There was no one in the great room, so Ben followed his instincts, and went outdoors.

Standing leaning on the corral rails, Adam was the picture of misery. Ben’s heart twisted. He went across and leaned beside Adam. “I didn’t expect you to be up,” he said.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Adam responded. “I kept hear Joe screaming as I cut him with that knife.”

“I can understand that,” Ben said, putting his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I heard it a few times myself last night.” Adam shot Ben a dark look through his lashes. Ben ignored it. “But, you know, son, I’d sooner hear that cry than one like Julie made when she died. How much worse would we all feel if Joe had died in that tent? Don’t beat yourself up, Adam. Joe’s injury is minor, and he survived, thanks to you. Bad things happen to people, and we do sometimes hurt people unintentionally. But weigh the good against the bad. The good is Joe is alive. Don’t you think that’s more important than a small cut?”

Adam was silent. Beneath his hand, Ben could feel the tautness of Adam’s muscles. He knew how Adam liked things to go exactly to plan, and how he would shoulder the blame, even if the blame wasn’t his to shoulder. But Adam was also a creature of logic, and as Ben had hoped, that logic got through to him. “Of course, you’re right, Pa,” Adam said, and in his dispassionate tones, Ben could hear the relief as he let go of his guilt. “I wasn’t seeing the whole picture.”

“Go and get some sleep,” Ben ordered. “You’ll see it for yourself when you’ve slept, I promise.”

“All right,” Adam agreed. He rubbed his eyes, and then rasped a hand over his chin. “Once I’ve done that, I’ll speak to Joe, and go catch up with the herd. One of us should be with them.”

“Thank you, son,” Ben said, simply. He would never have asked Adam to do that, but he had thought that one of them ought to get back to the drive, and let the hands know that Joe was all right, if nothing else. He stood for a few minutes, watching Adam go back into the house, and thinking about the bonds of love that his sons shared.

Looking in on Adam when he went upstairs a short time later, Ben saw that his oldest son was already deeply asleep. He looked younger in sleep; less tightly controlled. Ben smiled, and closed the door softly behind him. He doubted if Adam would have woken even if the door had slammed.

It was apparent that Hoss was still asleep, judging by the snores coming from his room, so Ben left him undisturbed. He returned to Joe’s room, and this time, the little Chinese housekeeper relinquished his place at Joe’s bedside without a word. “Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben said, and Hop Sing knew exactly what Ben meant.

“I bring coffee,” he said, and disappeared out of the door.

The smell of the coffee brought Joe stirring back to wakefulness. He moved, and winced, then turned his head to look at Ben. He had known that Ben would be there. He couldn’t recall a time he had woken after an injury and Ben wasn’t there. “Pa?” he whispered, and Ben smiled at him.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Sore,” Joe said. He was lying on a pile of pillows to ease his sore back. “My ribs hurt most,” he added. He frowned. “Did I dream about Adam saying sorry for something?”

“No,” Ben said, helping Joe to drink. “That was last night, after we got you back here.” Ben felt Joe’s head, which was still a bit warm. He rinsed the cloth in cool water, and put it back on Joe’s head.

“I don’t know what he was talking about,” Joe said. He moved slightly, and winced again. “I don’t remember much about last night. Did I tell you that it’s all my fault?”

“Joe, it was nobody’s fault,” Ben said. “I told you this last night. Julie used you. It’s not your fault at all. You and Adam! What a pair you are for taking the blame!” He ruffled Joe’s curls.

“Is Julie..?” Joe couldn’t finish the question.

“Yes,” Ben said, matter-of-factly. “She died in the tent fire.”

Dark lashes swept down, hiding Joe’s thoughts. Ben said nothing, waiting to let Joe absorb this piece of news. After a moment, Joe looked up. There were tears in his eyes, but they didn’t fall. “Was I in the fire, too?” he asked, hoarsely. “Was I burned?”

“Yes, you were in the fire, but no, you weren’t burned. Adam saved you.”

Thinking back, Joe suddenly remembered the pain in his back, and Adam’s arms pulling him free from the suffocating canvas folds. “How did he get me out?” he asked, his memory fogged by the trauma he’d suffered, and the smoke he’d inhaled.

“He cut the canvas, and pulled you out.” Ben hesitated, but went on. “He cut your back accidentally when he was getting you free. He feels pretty bad about it.”

“Why?” Joe asked. “He didn’t mean to cut me, did he?” Joe let go a small grin, which was the best he could manage with his face still stiff and sore from the beating the previous day.

“Of course not,” Ben said, impatiently, and then realized he was being teased. He remembered, suddenly, Joe teasing Adam as he recovered from his injuries after Adam had accidentally shot him. Joe had looked plaintively at Adam, and asked, quite solemnly, if he looked that much like a wolf. It had taken Adam a moment or two to see the funny side, but they had all laughed about it. “You brat!” he scolded, lovingly.

*****

Ben never knew what Adam said to Joe, or Joe to Adam, but there was no doubt that each brother felt better for having spoken to the other. Adam and Hoss both rode off back to the herd alter that day, and by the time they returned a couple of weeks later, Joe was back on his feet, although still being very careful with his mending ribs.

For all the stresses of the cattle drive, the sale of the herd had gone much better than anyone had expected, and they had received record prices for the beef. As ever, though gratifying, that wasn’t Ben’s main concern. He wanted to see that his sons were all right, and he sought each of them out separately. Both assured him that they were fine, but a small reservation remained in Adam’s tone.

A couple of days later, Ben was heading out to the barn to saddle Buck to go into town, when he heard voices in the barn. Slowing, he recognized them as Joe’s and Adam’s. He stopped, unashamedly eavesdropping. “I didn’t really get the chance to thank you properly for saving my life,” Joe said. “You were going off back to the herd, and you were so busy apologizing, that you didn’t give me the chance to say much.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” Adam responded. “And I am sorry I hurt you.”

“Adam, I know you didn’t mean it,” Joe said. “Look, there’s not even much of a mark.” Ben could hear the rustle of cloth, as Joe presumably stripped off his shirt. There was a pause, and Ben wondered if he ought to put his eye to the crack of the door. Then there was a great peal of laughter. “Your hands are cold!” Joe shrieked, breathlessly. “You could’ve warned me!”

“That would’ve taken all the fun out of it,” Adam retorted. The brothers laughed.

Taking that as his cue, Ben strolled nonchalantly into the barn. Joe was buttoning his shirt, and Adam was watching. They both looked at Ben, and the laughter was still on their faces. “Did I hear something about cold hands?” Ben asked, innocently.

“You’re not kidding!” Joe exclaimed. “Don’t let him near you, Pa!”

“Its revenge for all the times you crept into my bed as a kid with your icy cold feet,” Adam said.

Smiling, Ben reached for his saddle.

“Pa,” Joe said, “did I ever tell you about the time Adam shot me accidentally on purpose?” He let out another shriek as Adam lunged for him, and the two of them disappeared out of the barn.

“Well,” Ben said to Buck, as he put the saddle on. “Looks like things are getting back to normal around here.”

*****End*****

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