Summary: A ruthless mining baron takes on the might of the Ponderosa, prepared to do whatever it takes to get what he wants – including murdering the sons of Ben Cartwright.
Word Count: 9,030
The man’s loud voice carried clearly over the noise and hubbub in the saloon. His lips tightening in anger, the young man at the bar straightened. Immediately, a hand clamped onto his wrist. “Don’t,” advised his oldest brother.
“What do you mean, don’t?” Joe demanded, tugging on his captive limb. “You heard what he just said about Pa! It ain’t true, and I’m not just gonna stand here and let him say it.”
“Yes you are,” Adam responded. “Pa said there was to be no trouble, and that’s what he meant.” He didn’t relinquish his grip on Joe’s arm.
“Let go of me, Adam,” Joe said, furiously.
Moving in on Joe’s other side, his middle brother, Hoss, put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “You ain’t gonna do nothin’, Shortshanks,” he said. “Adam’s right. He’s just lookin’ fer trouble, an’ Pa said we wasn’t to cause any trouble. So just simmer down an’ drink yer beer.”
Glaring at his brothers, Joe struggled for a moment longer before bowing to the inevitable. “All right,” he said, sulkily. “Let go. I won’t do anything.”
Looking searchingly at Joe, Adam let go of his wrist. He was more convinced by his brother’s posture than by his words. When Joe was angry, or upset, or sulking, his head dropped, and that was how he was standing now. His head was down, and the tension had gone from his body. Adam was no less angry than either Joe or Hoss, but he knew perfectly well what would happen if Joe started a fight with that particular man. At the end of it, Joe would end up in jail, and the whole town would know about the dispute between Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa ranch, and Bill Collins, of Silver Hills Mine.
“I’m going home,” Joe said. He straightened up and tugged his hat down. “See you later.”
“Pa said to wait here,” Hoss protested.
“Which would you rather?” Joe asked, sparks seeming to fly from his eyes. “That I went home, or started a fight?” Hoss didn’t answer. Joe nodded. “I thought so,” he remarked and strode out. More than one pair of eyes followed him out.
Sighing, Adam drained his glass. Hoss eyed his older brother. “Pa said we shouldn’t go about alone,” Hoss commented, uneasily. “An’ he told us to wait here.”
“Joe can look after himself,” Adam said. “He’s mad plain through, so we’re better to let him go and ride it off. Perhaps by the time we’re all back home, Joe will be in a better mood.” He signaled the barman for another beer. “He was warned what might happen.”
Gazing gloomily into his beer, Hoss nodded. Ben had warned them all that there would be talk in town, but that they weren’t to do anything to stir up trouble – and that included starting a fight to protect his good name. Collins had started this vendetta after Ben had refused to sell him the mining rights for the Ponderosa, which abutted the Silver Hills mine, and then refused to supply the timber needed to shore up the mind. It was after that, that the whispering campaign against Ben had begun. It was reaching the stage that Ben was finding it difficult to hire men, and some of the newer storekeepers in town were demanding payment for every item, instead of allowing Ben credit, as other stores did.
Knowing Joe’s penchant for trouble, Ben had made the stricture about not going about alone. He didn’t really think that anyone would attack his sons, but he was sure someone would try and provoke them into causing trouble, and he thought that if they were alone, it was much more likely than if they were together. It was mostly aimed at Joe, but it wouldn’t be the first time Adam or Hoss had gone off the deep end, either, trying to protect their father.
That evening, Ben had a meeting with his lawyer and the sheriff, trying to establish if there was anything he could do about the rumors that were spreading about him. The boys had gone with him, none of them willing to let Ben go alone, and none of them prepared to wait tamely behind at home. Ben had been uneasy, knowing what could happen in a saloon, and so had laid down the law to them before they left. Now Joe had gone off alone, and Hoss couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling he had. He didn’t know if it was just because Ben would chew them out, or if he suspected something might happen to Joe.
Turning to lean against the bar, Hoss became aware of how many people in the saloon were watching him and Adam. Pretending not to notice, Hoss continued to survey the room. A number of men that he had counted as friends couldn’t meet his gaze. Turning back, Hoss hunched over his glass. “”I don’t like this, Adam,” he said, quietly. “There’s folks in here as I thought were friends of ours, an’ they ain’t even meetin’ my eyes. Collins has spread this story further than we all thought. How can folks who know us believe it?”
“I don’t know,” Adam replied, wishing he had another answer for Hoss. He glanced briefly over his shoulder. “But if something’s said often enough, people start to believe it. And Collins is a powerful man. He’s hired a lot of people since he arrived here six months ago.” He took a sip of his beer, and realized that he didn’t really want it. “Remember how it was with Tom Sladen? He came in and began to build up his business, and before we knew it, he was holding the town to ransom. Its looking like the same thing is happening with Bill Collins.”
“Yeah,” Hoss said, sounding down, and Adam remember that it had been Hoss who had found Joe lying in the road, shot through the shoulder. The memories associated with that whole incident were unpleasant, even if things had been resolved in the end.
There was movement at the entrance, and Ben Cartwright came in. He saw the boys at once, and frowned as he noted Joe’s absence. His face was already grim, and Adam felt a pang through his gut. He dropped a coin on the bar, and he and Hoss went over to join Ben. “Pa?” Adam said.
“Not here,” Ben said. “Where’s Joe?” He glanced round again, as though expecting to see his youngest son sitting at one of the tables.
“He went home,” Adam replied. At the look on Ben’s face, he said, “There were comments and Joe decided it would be better to go home than have a fight.” As his father’s frown deepened, Adam said, “Joe can take care of himself, Pa.”
“Let’s go then,” Ben said, although it was clear that he wasn’t happy with Joe’s decision. He turned on his heel and left, with Adam and Hoss following. He silently mounted his horse and turned towards home.
It wasn’t until they were out of the city that Adam finally persuaded Ben to tell them what had happened. “There’s been a new development,” Ben said, his tone hard. “Promissory notes have been signed in some of the stores with the initials BC. It was implied that those were my initials, and that’s why the storekeepers weren’t happy. Bills have been run up, and Collins is denying that they are his, and saying outright that they are mine.” Ben swallowed down his indignation, and continued. “As it happens, I can prove that they aren’t mine, but it leaves the storekeepers out of pocket, some of them for a large amount.”
“But you think its Bill Collins,” Adam probed.
“Yes, that’s what I think, and what Roy and Hiram think.” Roy was Roy Coffee, sheriff of Virginia City, and Hiram was Hiram Wood, Ben’s lawyer. “But we can’t prove it. I asked Hiram to write to the storekeepers to assure them that I can pay my bills, as there is now a story going around that I am bankrupt, and can’t pay for timber crews, which is why I’m not selling timber to Silver Hills.”
“It’s all so pointless,” commented Adam, angrily. “Does he really think that we’ll give in and sell him that timber, when you’ve explained why you aren’t going to?”
“Yes, I really think he does think so,” Ben responded. “What scares me is what he’ll do when he discovers I won’t change my mind.” Ben said no more, but Adam was able to follow his thoughts with ease. What if someone went after his sons? What then?
It was a relief to find Joe safely at home. Ben said nothing about him leaving alone, for he could plainly see how Joe was feeling, and knew that a lecture, however well intentioned, would result in an explosion of temper, and Ben was too tired, and too angry, to deal with Joe’s tantrums. Ben knew only too well that when two angry people clashed, things were said that weren’t meant, but were never forgotten. Following Ben’s lead, neither Adam nor Hoss said anything either.
It was late, and they were all tired, but Ben wasn’t the only Cartwright who found it difficult to sleep that night. Joe was so wound up that it was nearly dawn before his eyes finally closed. Hoss had managed to drop off near midnight, and Adam made it by 2 am. Ben fell asleep about 3. His dreams were populated by dark shadows and a strong sense of foreboding. When he woke about 6, he felt as though he had never been to sleep.
Over breakfast, Ben once more insisted that the boys didn’t go around alone. After the discussions the previous night, he knew that they would have to be extremely wary, so as not to confirm any of the rumors, even accidentally. He didn’t want them getting involved in any brawls, especially in the saloons, and they were not to go into town alone for either mail or supplies. “Collins wants to discredit us by our own actions,” he said, eyeing Joe especially. He knew the trouble Joe’s hot temper could get him into. “So please, don’t do anything that might play into his hands.”
Solemnly, they all promised to be careful. They didn’t eat much that meal, and soon excused themselves to get on with the day’s work. This was about the worst crisis any of them could remember, and it knocked even Joe’s natural ebullience for six. They were all silent as they went about that day’s work.
In the shack that passed for an office at Silver Hills mine, Bill Collins listened intently as his right hand man, Jerome Weber, told him about the reactions of the Cartwright sons in the saloon the previous night.
“That’s our next move, then,” Collins said. “If we can get to Ben Cartwright through his sons, then that’s what we’re going to do. Find someone and pay them well. Enough to shut their mouths. Get them to do what’s necessary, and then kill them. We can get the money back then.”
“How far do you want us to go?” Weber asked.
Glancing out of the grimy window at the entrance to the mine, Collins thought. “It would be useful to have one here, where we can get our hands on him at any time,” he said, finally. “And you could kill one. I’m sure Cartwright would get the message then.”
“Right, boss.” Weber turned away, then looked back over his shoulder. A wolfish grin split his face. “Whatever it takes, huh, boss?”
“That’s right,” Collins said, exchanging a grin with him. “Just like in California, Jerome. Whatever it takes.” He watched his friend leave, remembering when they had done something similar in California a few years before. Then, it had been the man’s daughter he had attacked, and through that had gained the mining rights for his almost played-out mine there. When it was almost exhausted, he had sold up, and moved to Nevada, where there were fortunes in silver being mined from the Comstock load. He wanted the rights to mine under the Ponderosa, and he was going to get them, whatever it took.
“Whatever it takes,” he repeated to himself and smiled slightly. He entertained visions of Ben Cartwright’s face when he found one son dead and another missing. He found the prospect rather pleasing.
Crouching above the road, Weber and his new accomplice, Jim Smith, saw two of the Cartwrights riding towards them. Weber smiled. This would make things easier for him, he reflected. Collins was growing impatient at his lack of progress in killing and kidnapping. Almost a week had passed since the orders were given. It had taken Weber three days to find Smith, and they had been watching the road into town continuously since then. They knew that some of the Cartwrights would go into town eventually, as they had to collect mail and supplies. Finally, here were two of them, going into town, and on a wagon, no less. Things were going his way, he reflected.
There had been silence on the wagon so far, but Joe finally broke it. “Pa sure is down,” Joe commented. “I hate to see him like this.”
“I know,” Adam agreed. “I sure wish there was something we could do, too, but I don’t know what.” He shook up the team slightly. He shot a mischievous glance sideways at Joe. “What’s wrong, buddy? Tired of being good?” he joked.
Snorting, Joe tried very hard not to laugh, but he couldn’t quite manage. “Haha,” he said. “You’re so clever, did you know?”
“College educated,” said Adam modestly. “I knew that.” He ducked to avoid the swing Joe made at him.
The bullet from Smith’s rifle hit Adam in the left chest, and knocked him back against Joe, who clutched at Adam to prevent them both falling out of the wagon. The reins dropped from Adam’s hands, and the horses, confused, shambled to a stop. Joe had his hands full with the unconscious Adam, and hadn’t even drawn his gun when Weber and Smith appeared at the side of the wagon.
“Get down, kid,” Weber ordered, his voice muffled by the bandanna tied over his face.
Hesitating, not sure what to do about Adam, Joe was unprepared for Weber grabbing his arm and hauling him bodily from the seat. Adam toppled over to bounce from the seat to the running board of the wagon. “Adam!” Joe cried, and started to rise from where he had landed on the ground, but was met with a vicious kick that floored him again.
“Tie him up,” Weber ordered, and Smith put down his rifle and uncoiled the rope that hung on his shoulder.
Glancing between the two, Joe had no idea who they were, or what they wanted, but he could take a pretty good guess. In that split second, he made up his mind, and leaped to his feet, bowling Smith over. He managed four steps before Weber tackled him, and brought him crashing to the ground once more.
But Joe wasn’t prepared to give in that easily. He jabbed his elbow into his attacker’s face, and Weber’s grip loosened. Joe kicked him off, and scrambled to his feet again. But Smith was there, too, and recovered from Joe’s initial attack. He had retrieved his rifle, and as Joe regained his feet, smacked the weapon hard between Joe’s shoulder blades. Joe went down and out.
Panting, Weber regained his feet. “Tie him up, and make sure the knots are tight,” he ordered Smith. “I want him blindfolded and gagged, too.” He looked down on the unconscious youth with disgust. “You don’t have to be too gentle with him, either,” he commented, as he retrieved his hat.
Smith grinned as he knelt by Joe and began to bind the youth’s hands.
A short time after, Weber rode off, leading a horse that had Joe slung over it. Smith’s body lay a short distance from the Ponderosa wagon where Adam lay, his life’s blood pumping slowly out of his body.
It was a desperately uncomfortable journey for Joe, both physically and mentally. When he roused, he wondered for several minutes where he was, and when he realized that he was blindfolded and gagged, he was furious. He struggled fiercely against his bonds, but to no avail. He had a splitting headache, and an unrelenting throb had centered between his shoulder blades where the rifle had struck him. Finally admitting that he wasn’t going to get free in a hurry, he slumped down, trying to concentrate on breathing, for every step the horse took jolted the breath from his body.
But ceasing to struggle physically gave him time to think about what had happened, and he wondered if Adam were alive or dead. Joe hadn’t heard the shot that struck Adam, and he doubted if Adam had either. But Joe had certainly seen the blood spurting from Adam’s back and he could feel it sticky on his fingers. Tears soaked into his blindfold as he thought about his injured brother. Would Adam survive until help reached him, or would he die from his injuries? Not knowing was torture for Joe.
Finally, the horse jolted to a stop, and a voice spoke. “Two in one move, boss.” Joe recognized it as the man who had pulled him from the wagon. “The other is dead.” Joe’s heart contracted painfully.
“Good,” replied another voice, close by Joe’s head. He flinched. “Which one is this?”
“The youngest, I think,” said the first. “Does it matter?”
“Not to me,” answered the second voice. “But I want to know what name to put in the note to Cartwright. Get him out of sight.”
“Right, boss,” replied the first, and the horse began to move again. Within a few moments, Joe could tell they were in a barn. The horse stopped, and fingers fumbled at the thongs holding Joe onto the saddle. He made an effort to kick at the person, but missed completely. He paid for it, however, as he was dragged from the horse to land with a crash on the ground.
While he was still gasping for breath, he was dragged a few feet across the ground and hauled into a sitting position, his back against something firm. Joe guessed it was a timber supporting the roof as he felt a rope tied around his chest. It was tightened brutally tight, and another loop was tied around his stomach, which ached from his position on the horse.
A hand ruffled his hair, and Joe ducked away from it. A second later, the fingers tightened in his hair, pulling. Joe stifled a wince. “Behave, boy, and you’ll be all right,” he was told. “You don’t behave, you get what your brother got.” His head was given a shake. “That clear?”
Reluctantly, Joe nodded. He was completely helpless, and no one knew where he was. As the footsteps retreated, and the barn door banged, Joe felt his heart plummet into his boots. Trouble had found him once more, and this time his Pa was going to be the one to suffer the consequences. Hot tears soaked into his blindfold once more as he thought of Adam, and of how his family would feel when they found him.
It was a long night for Joe.
Looking down at Adam, Ben felt anger growing in him, stronger and stronger each minute. His sons had been ambushed, and he was responsible for it. But how was he to have known that Collins would go to such lengths to get what he wanted? And was it still worth refusing, Ben wondered. He didn’t care what happened to him, as long as his sons were safe. Collins obviously knew this. Joe was missing, and Ben had to assume that Collins had him.
Tension sat heavily across Ben’s shoulders, and he flinched when a large, warm hand touched his shoulder and began to massage gently. Turning his head, he met Hoss’ concerned blue gaze. “Are ya all right, Pa?” he asked, softly, lest he disturb his sleeping brother.
“I don’t know, son,” he admitted. “Adam might have died out there, and for all we know, Joe might be dead. How can I be all right?”
“I know,” Hoss said, heavily. “But Paul said Adam’s gonna be all right, didn‘t he?” The anguish in Hoss’ voice was unmistakable, and Ben was reminded, as if he needed reminding, that he had three sons that needed him.
“Yes, Paul thinks Adam will pull through,” Ben said. “But if he had lain out there until we realized he was missing, he would have died.” Ben tried to repress the shudder that ran down his spine. If Fred hadn’t been coming back from a neighboring ranch, where he had been helping out for a few days, Adam would certainly have died. As it was, he was seriously ill, but likely to recover. Roy was still trying to discover the identity of the dead man found at the scene.
Of Joe, there had been no trace.
There was no discernible difference between night and day for Joe. He thought he had slept a little, but the relentless throb of his shoulders and stomach robbed him of rest. When he was awake, he strained his ears to hear any sounds there might be, but apart from some snuffling of the horses in the barn, there was silence.
When the barn door opened the next day, Joe started. Unconsciously, he drew his legs up, so he felt slightly less vulnerable. But Joe was no fool. He knew he was completely helpless, and at the mercy of whomever had taken him captive. Although Joe suspected that it was Bill Collins, he didn’t know, and had no way of finding out. Footsteps approached him, and Joe suddenly caught the smell of hot bacon. His stomach rumbled. It had been many hours since Joe had last eaten.
Rough hands pulled the gag out of Joe’s mouth and a canteen of water was shoved at him. “Drink!” ordered a voice, and Joe obediently gulped down the liquid. He didn’t need to be told to do it. After a few mouthfuls, the canteen was withdrawn and Joe smelt the bacon suddenly closer. He opened his mouth without prompting and chewed the resulting mouthful. The bacon was burnt and crispy, but it tasted great to Joe. Once he had finished eating, he was offered more water, and allowed to drink his fill. Not knowing when he would next get any, Joe drank deeply.
The canteen was withdrawn again, and Joe started to thank whoever it was for the food. However, he didn’t get a chance to say anything, as the gag was thrust roughly back in. Joe fought helplessly against it, but the cloth was tied tightly round his head. Then the blindfold and the ropes were checked, and then the footsteps left.
Joe was alone.
Sitting looking out of the office shack’s window, Collins stroked his chin thoughtfully. He knew that Joe Cartwright would be useful to him, but he wasn’t sure how long he wanted to keep the youth around for. The longer he was there, the more chance there was of him being discovered by one of the miners. Although Collins paid well, and was almost universally feared, he knew there was always a chance that someone would find Joe, and tell the sheriff.
Rising to look at the map pinned to the wall, Collins traced the path he wanted to mine under the Ponderosa. How long would it be before Ben Cartwright capitulated to his demands? Collins smiled grimly. Did Cartwright really think that giving in would get him his son back in one piece? No, once Cartwright had granted the mining rights, he would get Joe back dead. And he still had another son living that could prove useful if the need arose. And if he had to kill all three sons, well, it didn’t matter. Cartwright certainly wouldn’t have any resistance left if that happened.
The office door burst open, and Weber came in. Collins knew at once that he wouldn’t like whatever his deputy had come to tell him. He was right.
“Boss, Adam Cartwright is still alive!” Weber panted. He shut the door behind him with a bang. “I just heard in town.”
“How can that be?” Collins demanded. “Didn’t you make sure he was dead?”
“He was bleeding heavily,” Weber said, defensively. “The wagon was miles from anywhere. I was sure he’d be dead before anyone found him.”
The anger burning through Collins couldn’t be contained. He swung on Weber and backhanded the bigger man across the face. “You idiot!” Collins screamed. “He might be able to identify you!” His mind raced as he tried to see a way through this mess. He drew in some deep breaths, and Weber surreptitiously wiped his mouth as he warily watched his boss.
Calm at last, Collins sat down. Weber hid the sigh of relief that shook him. He had somehow survived the storm, although he knew others who had paid with their lives for making a mistake like he had done. He kept his gaze on Collins, determined not to transgress again.
“This is what we’ll do,” Collins said. “Once the shift has changed, and the miners have gone home or underground, move Cartwright. Take him to the abandoned shaft. It’s all ready. There are supplies ready there.” He gestured to a box in the corner. “Then you get out of sight. I don’t want to see you until I send word that its all clear.”
“Where will I go?” Weber asked, fearfully.
“There’s an old cabin near the abandoned shaft,” Collins said. “You can stay there. Check on Cartwright every day. Keep his blindfold on, but you can remove the gag. If I need you to kill him, I can send word.”
“Yes, boss,” Weber said. “I’m sorry.”
“Get out,” Collins said, contemptuously.
As night fell, Adam’s fever rocketed again. Ben had been by his side all day, fighting the infection that coursed through his oldest son’s body. Adam had been unconscious since he had been found the previous day, and there had been no word about Joe. The combined worry had robbed Ben of any chance of rest the previous night, and he didn’t anticipate things changing that coming night.
“Pa!” Hoss charged into the room, flapping a piece of paper. He looked agitated.
“What is it?” Ben asked, tiredly, wondering if he really cared what it was.
“This note – it’s about Joe.” Hoss thrust the paper at his father.
“Joe?” Ben snatched it and read it. It basically said that Joe was a prisoner and would be held until such times as Ben agreed to allow Silver Hills to mine the Ponderosa. As the meaning of the words sank in, Ben collapsed back onto the seat. “Oh Lord, no!” It was a prayer.
“It’s that Collins, ain’t it?” Hoss asked, angrily. He was twisting his large hands into fists, and Ben didn’t doubt that his son wished he could do that with Collins’ neck, and wring the truth out of him. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be that simple. Wherever Collins had Joe hidden, it wouldn’t be openly on Silver Hills Mines property.
“It looks that way,” Ben said. “This isn’t signed, and I doubt if Collins was stupid enough to write this himself. And even if Roy got permission to look round Collins’ mines and home, I doubt if we’d find Joe there. We’ll have to try and convince Collins that we’re willing to let him mine the ranch, and trick him into leading us to Joe.”
“D’you think that will work?” Hoss asked, doubtfully.
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted, looking at Adam. “But I have to try something.”
At the sound of hurried footsteps entering his prison, Joe lifted his head. He was extremely weary, his body aching from the tight confinement. Yet sleep had evaded him. Now, he tensed, and was surprised when someone began to fumble with the ropes that bound him.
He must have made some sort of questioning sound, for there was a grunt of muffled laughter. “No, I ain’t here to rescue you, boy,” Weber growled. He was none too gentle as he removed the ropes.
Tense, Joe wondered if he would be freed enough to make a break for freedom, but his hopes were to be dashed. His hands and feet remained bound, and he was dragged roughly across the ground before being heaved onto a horse, face down on his stomach. He had barely recovered from his last experience of that, and couldn’t stifle a groan. Weber ignored him as he tied the thongs that would stop Joe sliding off the saddle.
It was a miserable trip for Joe, and by the time it ended, he was in a great deal of discomfort, and determined to make a bid for freedom. He didn’t know how much longer he could endure his captivity. He had too much time to think, and his thoughts were centered chiefly on his family, and the grief they must be feeling over Adam, for Joe was convinced that his oldest brother was dead.
He was dragged into an echoey place, and somewhere nearby came the steady drip drip drip of water. The air felt damp, too. Joe shivered as the cold penetrated his jacket. He didn’t know where he was, and was afraid to let his imagination break free. Although not claustrophobic, Joe hated mines, and avoided them whenever possible. He had seen too many disasters to be totally comfortable within their confines. Somewhere, a little voice was telling him that this was a mineshaft. Joe tried, hopelessly, to ignore it.
His chance to break for freedom came as his captor untied his feet. Joe had been awaiting just such an opportunity, and forced his stiff legs into a run. He had no idea which direction to head in, and ran straight into the rock wall. The force of the impact knocked Joe off his feet, and he was dazed for a few minutes. That allowed Weber the chance to shackle Joe’s feet with the irons that were already imbedded in the rock. Then, he untied the youth’s hands, and clipped handcuffs round them. The cuffs were then attached to a chain that went round Joe’s waist. The chain was short enough that Joe wouldn’t be able to get his hands to his face without extreme difficulty. But to make sure that Joe didn’t get the blindfold off – not that Weber thought it would make any difference if he did – he fastened a collar round Joe’s neck, and the chain from it was hammered into the wall, too, and effectively kept the youth from bending over.
Grinning, Weber stepped back to admire his handiwork. Joe was chained to the walls in a seated position. He would be barely able to move, but the food and water would be left within reach. Not easy reach, for Weber had a streak of sadism in his nature, and didn’t want to make anything easy for this boy. Seeing the youth stirring back to full consciousness, Weber reached down and removed the gag.
“Listen good, boy,” he said. “There’s food and water here.” He put Joe’s hand on them, seeing the youth’s struggle to reach. “I’ll be back to check up on you. There’s no one to hear you shout, so don’t waste your breath.”
“My Pa will kill you for this,” Joe grated, through his dry mouth. His head pounded unmercifully.
“Oh yeah?” Weber laughed, and punched Joe in the stomach. “I don’t think so, boy. Your Pa is too busy grievin’ for your brother to worry about you!” With a nasty laugh, he left.
The pain in Joe’s stomach was nothing to the pain in his heart. “Oh, Adam,” he sobbed.
“I reckon you’re right, Ben,” Roy said. “But Collins is a slippery fellow, and catchin’ him is gonna be difficult.”
“I know that,” Ben agreed, his tone exasperated. He tried to stifle his impatience, knowing that he had had time to think this through, and Roy hadn’t. “But we’ve got to make Collins think that Adam is dead, and I’m willing to do what I have to, to get Joe back.” He swallowed. “If I thought that allowing him the rights would get Joe back safe and sound, I wouldn’t hesitate. But I know that I won’t get Joe back safely if I do give in.” Ben bit his lip to control the emotions that threatened to break free.
“I bin checkin’ into Collins background,” Roy said. “Although he don’t have a record, he’s well known for bein’ ruthless in business, and there are a few unproved rumors of him doing similar things to this in the past. Are you sure you want to risk this, Ben?”
“If it was your son out there, would you want to?” Ben shot back, and Roy said no more. In truth, Ben wasn’t sure if this was a viable risk, but he had to do something. Adam still hovered between life and death. He still hadn’t regain consciousness, and they were beginning to fear that he never would. Ben didn’t want another son in jeopardy for one second longer than was necessary, and was willing to put his own life on the line to ensure Joe’s safety.
Once more, they went over the plan, until Roy had it straight. Then Ben rose, put on his hat and shuffled disconsolately outside to his horse. It wasn’t hard to act as though he had lost a son, for in truth he had. He didn’t know where Joe was, and Adam, although they had his body, his mind seemed to be beyond reach. Many people, seeing his downcast head and grim demeanor, paused, and said a prayer, for it was apparent that Adam had died.
Watching from his office window, Roy gave Ben some time to get clear of town, then went to spread the word that Adam Cartwright had been murdered.
That night was the longest yet for Joe. With extreme difficulty, he had managed to force down some bread, but although he was hungry, his stomach rebelled against the food, and Joe gave up after a time. His head still ached, and his nose was blocked with what felt like dried blood. He had very little recollection of crashing into the wall, and wondered if he had been beaten more than just the punch he remembered. He was grateful that the gag was gone, for otherwise, he’d have been in grave difficulty with his breathing.
His mind whirled non-stop, and Joe had grieved for Adam endlessly. Once or twice, anger at the callous person who’d shot his brother broke through, but the brief, warming spurt never lasted long as the depressing reality of his captivity impinged on his consciousness again and again. By morning, Joe was no longer sure if he cared whether he lived or died.
But as the earth above him warmed up with the rising sun, hope began to make its presence felt. Joe was by nature optimistic. He was sure that Ben would be hunting for him, and perhaps his captor was lying about Adam being dead. He was certain his brother had still been alive when he himself had been dragged off, and surely someone would have found him in time? Against all the odds, Joe found that he was no longer despairing.
“That is tragic, Sheriff,” Collins said. “Poor Mr. Cartwright. Who would do such a thing?”
“That’s the question,” Roy said, nodding as though he were a complete idiot. He’d often found that his exterior persuaded criminals that he was a bumbling old fool and used it to his advantage. “We’re askin’ everyone if they were round there about the time it happened, or have heard anything that might help.”
“I’m sorry,” Collins said, fighting to keep the shocked look on his face. “I had heard that Adam had been shot – I believe one of the miners mentioned it – but I didn’t know it was life-threatening.”
“It’s sad,” Roy said. “And the younger lad kidnapped, too. It’s a wicked world.” He kept his eyes on Collins and his face as bland as he knew how, squinting as though he was very shortsighted, and was rewarded a moment later when Collins couldn’t quite contain a smile.
“Poor man,” he said again. He couldn’t wait to get the sheriff out of his office. He now had Ben Cartwright exactly where he wanted him, and he couldn’t wait to start putting the pressure on him. In his pocket was a note from Ben, saying he was willing to meet and discuss the mining rights.
After a few more pointless questions, Roy took his leave, making a meal out of mounting, and being sure to clutch the saddle horn as his horse turned. He could feel Collins’ grin on his back until he was out of sight. It didn’t worry Roy that he could no longer see Collins, for Clem and a posse were watching Collins closely.
“I wish I didn’t have to leave you, Adam,” Ben said. “Hop Sing is here, though.”
“Joe needs you, too,” Adam whispered, and his eyes opened briefly. Adam had finally come round a short time ago, and Ben had filled him in on what had happened, to the best of his knowledge. Adam was still seriously ill; his temperature was high, and he was finding it difficult to stay awake and alert. Ben wished that he could stay with Adam and keep watch over him, as he had through most of Adam’s illnesses, but he had to go and find Joe.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Ben promised. He allowed himself to briefly caress his son’s head.
“Be careful,” Adam whispered, and didn’t move his head. It comforted him to feel his father’s reassuringly cool hand on his head. As Ben left, Adam slipped into a restless sleep once more.
“He hasn’t moved yet,” Roy said, and the frustration was clear in his voice. “But he sent someone off to town, so I’d guess he’s going for more confirmation.”
“Good,” Ben grunted.
“There is something odd though,” Clem Foster, the deputy said. “The man he sent isn’t his second in command, who usually does these sorts of errands. We haven’t seen him once since we got here, and that’s been hours.” Clem gave Ben a significant look. “They’re usually joined at the hip,” he added.
“Where would he be?” Roy asked. “Any idea where he stays?”
“Far as I know, he lives with Collins,” Clem said. “I’ve never seen him anywhere else.”
“He hasn’t been there for a few days,” said one of the other men. “He left a few days ago, and nobody’s seen him come back.”
“Look,” interjected one of the others. “He’s leaving.”
They all crowded closer to the ground to avoid being seen, and watched as Collins mounted a bay horse standing outside the shack. He turned and rode off in the opposite direction to the one they had been expecting. “Come on,” Roy said.
It’s fairly tricky for quite a large body of men to follow one single person in relatively open country without being seen. But thanks to Roy’s skill, and Ben’s determination, they managed the feat. After a short ride, Collins drew up in front of another shack. Weber came out onto the rickety porch at once.
Sound carried quite well in that area. “What are you doing here?” Weber asked, clearly surprised.
“You’re off the hook,” Collins said. “Adam Cartwright died, and Ben will agree to let me mine on the Ponderosa. He wants to ‘discuss’ it! He’ll agree, don’t worry. Leave the kid where he is, and come on back to town. We have plenty to do. We need more men just for starters.”
“I don’t think you’ll just leave the kid where he is,” Roy said, stepping into view.
Recoiling, Collins inadvertently stepped in front of Weber, who took immediate advantage of it. He dived back into the shack, and exited through the back window. “Shoot him!” Clem shouted.
“No, don’t!” Ben contradicted. “He knows where Joe is!”
“You won’t get your son alive!” Collins shouted. He drew a gun from the waistband of his pants and fired at the posse. At once, a couple of men fired back, and Collins crumpled to the ground.
Horrified, Ben stood frozen for an instant, until Hoss nudged him. “Come on, Pa,” he urged. “That other fella must know where Little Joe is! Let’s follow him!”
“Of course, you’re right,” Ben said, rousing from his reverie. Roy was kneeling by Collins and shaking his head. Ben knew that his rival was dead. He didn’t feel even a single pang of remorse. There wasn’t time. Weber was running flat out away from them, and Ben’s concern was with Joe, not the dead man.
They were gaining on him rapidly, spurred on by their anxiety, when Weber ducked into an old mine shaft opening. Ben panted out some garbled instruction to Hoss, but he could barely understand what he’d said himself, far less expect Hoss to follow it. And anyway, his son knew the gist of it – be careful.
Inside the mine, the sound of running footsteps roused Joe from a momentary doze. He listened, terrified that his mind had conjured the sound, but still they came. There was no way to tell if it was friend or foe, but Joe chose to gamble anyway. “Here!” he yelled. “I’m here! Help me!”
“Shut up, kid!” snarled a voice and Joe flinched away from the sound. He felt hands unbuckle the collar round his neck, and then the man fumbled with the shackles at his feet. Joe tensed himself to make a bid for freedom.
“Here, Pa!” Joe yelled, as loudly as he could. “I’m here!” He gasped as Weber backhanded him viciously across the face.
As Ben and Hoss came into the tunnel, guided by the tiny, flickering light Weber had lit, the fugitive grabbed Joe and dragged the helpless youth in front of him as a shield. He drew his gun and pointed it at Joe’s head. Ben and Hoss skidded to a wary stop.
“Back off,” Weber warned.
“Where are you going to go?” Ben asked, in what he hoped was the voice of calm reason. He certainly didn’t feel calm and reasonable, seeing his youngest son in such a predicament. He wanted to throw himself on Weber and tear Joe from the man’s grasp. But he forced himself to stand calm and still, ready for any move the man might make.
“I don’t care, I’m just going to get out of here,” Weber snarled. He started to rise, then realized that he hadn’t managed to free Joe’s feet, and the youth was still shackled to the wall. Straightening, he beckoned to Hoss. “Put your gun down and come and unlock his feet. Don’t try anything.” He cocked the gun and placed it hard against Joe’s head. Ben saw Joe swallow.
“It’s all right, Joe,” Hoss said, as he carefully did as he was told. He knelt by Joe’s feet and began to intentionally fumble with the chains. “We’ll get you out of here, Joe. Collins is dead.”
“What?” Weber gasped. His grip tightened slightly. “You’re lying.”
“Nope,” Hoss said, still fumbling and peering as though he was having difficulty seeing what he was doing. “Seen him layin’ there dead myself.”
“It’s not true,” insisted Weber.
“Hoss doesn’t lie,” Joe said, suddenly. They all glanced at him, slightly startled. He sounded completely calm. Ben decided it was probably some kind of shock setting in. It took all the self-control he could muster just to stand there and watch.
“The posse’s waitin’ for us outside right now,” Hoss asserted in a confident tone. “I’m afraid Collins done left you to carry all the guilt.” He actually sounded quite sorrowful.
That was apparently the last straw for Weber. He suddenly leapt to his feet, firing wildly. The Cartwrights all ducked, although it would probably be fairer to say that Joe fell. Hoss threw himself on top of his younger brother, determined to keep him safe. Joe let out a shout of anguish. But neither Ben nor Hoss was looking at him, for Weber turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger.
“Joe, are you all right?” Ben asked, snatching his son into a warm embrace, while Hoss finished releasing the evil chains that had held him prisoner for so long. Gently, he eased the blindfold off.
After so long in the dark, Joe’s eyes protested to even the small amount of light there was in the tunnel. However, after several minutes, he was able to stand it better, and Ben helped him to his feet. Joe was weak, but refused to be carried from the mine as though he was totally helpless. With Ben on one side and Hoss on the other, he shuffled slowly across the uneven surface, welcoming the pain of returning circulation.
Outside, they met up with the posse, who had heard the shooting and come running. After greeting Joe joyfully, Roy looked at Ben. “Weber?” he asked.
Inclining his head, Ben said,” Back there. It was suicide.”
There was no need to say more. Clem looked at Roy, who nodded, and he disappeared into the mine. After a very short time, he re-appeared, looking rather green. He didn’t say anything to Roy, but the look on his face said it for him.
Meantime, Joe had been resting, leaning against Ben, who couldn’t keep from touching his youngest boy. Joe was filthy and pale, but looked wonderful to Ben’s anxious eyes. He could see various indications that Joe wasn’t in perfect health, but he had expected that. He was just grateful to have him back in one piece.
“Pa?” Joe murmured. He had his eyes shut against the brightness of the light. “How’s…?” He was unable to go on, but Ben knew exactly what he wanted to ask.
“He’s going to be all right,” he said. “Adam is still ill, but he’ll make it, Joe, don’t worry.”
Despite the pain he suffered, Joe opened his eyes to look deeply into his father’s eyes. He knew Ben wouldn’t lie to him about this, but he just needed to make eye contact. The dampness in Ben’s eyes triggered a corresponding dampness in Joe’s and he hastily shut them, but not before one tear escaped and tracked its way down his dirty cheek. “I thought…” he said softly, but didn’t need to go on. Ben knew only too well what Joe had thought. He hugged his son close.
“Hoss, let’s get Joe home,” he said, feeling Joe shiver in the chill wind. Hoss came over to help, but once again Joe insisted on walking, and they supported him to where they had left the horses. Not knowing what kind of condition they would find Joe in, Ben had opted not to bring another horse, and so he boosted Joe onto the front of his own saddle, so he could have the reassurance of Joe’s physical presence as they rode home.
By the time they arrived back at the ranch, Joe’s seriously diminished stamina had run out entirely, and his legs refused to support him. He was pale under the dirt caked over every inch of him and looked totally exhausted. Ben slid down form Buck’s back, and eased Joe down, and then he and Hoss carried him to the house between them. The posse was sending Doc Martin out from the town.
“We’ll take him straight up to bed,” Ben panted, for although Joe wasn’t heavy, carrying him like that was awkward.
“I wanna see Adam first,” Joe protested in a thin voice. “Please, Pa. I gotta see him.”
“All right,” Ben capitulated, totally understanding Joe’s need to see Adam. And he knew that Adam felt the same way, and it would be several days, at best, before either young man was fit enough to get up and walk about the house.
The oldest Cartwright son was slumbering when his bedroom door opened to admit the rest of his family, and he stirred reluctantly to peer blearily at the intruders. However, any disgruntlement disappeared when he saw who was doing the disturbing. “Joe!” he exclaimed, and made an unwise move to sit up.
Ben all but dropped Joe as he put his hand out to stop Adam from rising, but the rush of dizziness that Adam experienced as he lifted his head reminded him that he was in no fit state to do much moving, and he lay back own at once. Joe said nothing, but the smile on his face left none of them in any doubts about his feelings. The last time Joe had seen Adam, he was bleeding copiously and deeply unconscious. His blood had dried into the clothes Joe was still wearing.
“Right, bed now,” Ben said, and they took Joe to his own room.
Because of his son’s weakened state, Ben gently helped him strip off the filthy clothes, only belatedly realizing the blood on the jacket wasn’t Joe’s. Apart from the blood on his face, Joe’s injuries seemed to be mostly restricted to bruises, but then, as he helped Joe off with his shirt, he saw the huge red welt between his shoulders. “What’s this, son?” he asked, resisting the temptation to touch it.
“I got hit by a rifle,” Joe said. “When I was kidnapped. I made a break for freedom, and nearly got away. But I got hit by the rifle, and when I woke up I was face down over a horse.” He tenderly felt his stomach, which was certainly well bruised.
At that juncture, Hoss arrived with the tin bathtub, and after a few trips up and down stairs, the bath was filled with warm water, and Joe was able to soak the grime off. Ben helped him rinse the soap from his hair, and dry off. Hoss was just removing the bathtub when Paul Martin appeared.
After a thorough examination, Paul straightened. “No major damage this time,” he said. “His eyes might be sensitive for a while, but there’s nothing wrong with them. That welt on his back is slightly infected, but nothing too bad. I’ll clean it up, and put a dressing on it. Apart from that, the rope burns, cracked ribs and that grazed face are the big problems.”
Frowning, Ben said, “But the graze on his face isn’t serious is it?”
“Well, it is when you’re as vain as Joe,” Paul said, with a straight face, and both Ben and Joe had to laugh, even though Joe clutched his ribs as he did so.
It wasn’t long after that that Joe was bandaged and settled off to sleep with the aid of some painkillers. Paul took the opportunity to look in on Adam, and was pleased to see that his fever had gone at last. “You’ll be fine in a few weeks, Adam,” he said. “Just don’t rush back to work. Help keep Joe occupied.”
Rolling his eyes, Adam said, “I’d rather go back to work, thanks!”
Later, after Paul had gone, and Hoss was in bed, Ben put out the lamps and went upstairs. He looked in first on Adam. He looked a lot better, with his face resuming its normal healthy color. Ben couldn’t help but check for fever once more, although it had gone. Adam didn’t stir under his touch. “God bless,” Ben whispered.
In the next room, Hoss was sound asleep on his back, snoring away gently. Ben tucked the blankets round his shoulders, for the night was cool. Hoss was oblivious to the presence of his parent and slept on. Once more, Ben whispered, “God bless.”
Lastly, he checked on Joe. He was sprawled all over the bed, as was his habit, and although he was still pale, and seemed thin, Ben knew that he had come to no serious hurt this time. Joe murmured something and Ben crossed to check him for fever. As he touched Joe, the youth’s eyes flew open, and Joe said, “Pa?” in a confused tone.
“Shh, Joe, go back to sleep,” Ben soothed. “I was just making sure you were all right.” He straightened the bedclothes and sat down on the edge of the bed. Joe took his hand.
“Is Collins dead?” he asked, which was not what Ben had expected him to say at all.
“Yes, he is,” Ben answered.
“Then the land is safe?” Joe went on, and Ben could see where he was headed now.
“Yes, the land is safe, and you are all safe, too,” he said.
Comforted, Joe closed his eyes briefly. “What about the men who work at the mines?” he asked. “Will they lose their jobs?”
“I don’t know,” Ben said, stroking Joe’s head. “But I’m sure someone will buy the mines, and the men should be all right. Don’t worry about them now, Joe. Just rest and get better.”
“I’m all right,” Joe said. “At first, I thought Adam was dead, but you know, Pa, after a while, I became convinced he wasn’t. And I knew you’d come looking for me.”
“Always, son,” Ben said, hoarsely. “I’ll always come looking for you when you need me.”
He drew Joe into an embrace, and they sat there for a long time, until finally the younger man slipped into a deep, restful sleep. Laying Joe carefully down, Ben looked at him. “Always, Joe,” he repeated.