An Arm and a Leg and an Eye for an Eye (by Debbie B.)

Summary:  Sequel to the story “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,809


 

It had taken longer than what the doctor had first thought, for Joe Cartwright’s leg to heal properly, and by the time Paul Martin was ready to remove the cast, he was feeling somewhat relieved that he’d be rid of his young patient.

Joe had never been known for his compliancy as the model patient but rather more noncompliant to those who tended to his needs.  His impatience to once again be up and about had worn completely out, not only the doctor, but also the young man’s father as well.  It had been a downhill battle for the pair from the very first moment that Joe’s fever had broken and he had started fighting his caregivers against having to stay in the bed.

Both his father and the physician had known the reasons for their patient wanting to be free of his bedridden state as soon as possible.  They were each aware of the driving hate that had been seeded deep within the young man’s core and of his determination to find the one’s responsible for that hatred.  Joe had spent weeks and weeks, confined to bed because of the leg that had been broken and then medically re-broken and set, and the longer that Joe had remained immobile, the greater that dislike had festered and grown now to such proportions that his father feared that once turned free, Joe might make the worst mistake of his young life.  Ben Cartwright smelled revenge seeping from every pore of his youngest son, and the stench burned strong in his nostrils.

*****

“Doesn’t hurt a bit,” Joe tried to assure his father and doctor as he paraded around the room. His face masked the discomfort that lingered in his leg after the cast had been removed, but he vowed not to let the pair see that pain shining in his eyes.

Joe thought he was being clever, masking his emotions, but he had grown careless by forgetting just how well that his father knew him, for Ben watched his youngest son’s face where the telltale signs showed slightly and he listened to the voice that tried overly hard not to quiver when his son spoke.  Joe was only fooling himself, not the father, and from the way that the kindly physician glanced from father to son, Ben knew too that Paul Martin was as aware as he of the ache that remained in Joe’s leg.

“I want to you to take it easy, Little Joe.  No riding, not just yet, and continue using the crutch for a couple more weeks until I’m sure…” ordered the doctor.

“A couple of weeks?” Joe all but shouted, and then remembering his manners, toned down the brash tone to his voice.  “I mean…why?  It feels fine, and I have things…to do,” he said, glancing sideways at his father.

“Yes, a couple more weeks, Joseph, I don’t want that leg giving out on you; it’s taken it a very long time to heal properly.  And as for the ‘things’ you need to do, Roy Coffee is still looking for those men and…” Ben admonished his son.

Joe’s expression turned to one of total surprise as he glanced from face to face.  His lips pursed tightly together as he lowered himself into the nearest chair, defeat showing in his hazel eyes. “How’d you know?” he asked in a muted voice.

Ben rose from the settee where he’d been sitting and moved to sit on the massive square table in the middle of the room.  He faced the young man, whose chin was lowered to near resting on his chest.  With tender fingers, Ben tilted Joe’s head upward so that his son was made to look him eye to eye.  Ben smiled slightly. “Because I know my son, as well as I know my own self.  And I’ve watched for weeks now the hate that you have let consume you and I see the fire that burns in your eyes and I know that you want revenge for what those men have put you through and…”

“And you…yes, I want revenge, those bastards nearly killed you!  They left you for dead, they left me helpless with no way to get help for you; they left me to watch my own father die!  Revenge?  I want to make them suffer, just as we were made to suffer, what man wouldn’t?” shouted Joe as he pushed his father’s hand away from his face.

Joe rose up from the chair and moved away from his father.  Ben’s very presence was unsettling and being in such close proximity to the man, was cause enough for the younger man to question again his motives.

“Joseph,” Ben said softly as he moved to stand behind Joe.

Joe ignored his father, until Ben placed a hand on his shoulder and forced Joe to turn around and face him.

“Joseph,” Ben repeated, “I want you to put aside your hate…I know what those men did to you…to us…was ruthless, cold and heartless, but what you are wanting to do to them, should you manage to find them, is nothing more than a carnal sin.  The good book says that revenge cometh from the Lord, not from man and…”

“It also says, ‘an eye for an eye’!” Joe said angrily.

“Yes, that is does, but Joe…even that should be left up to the good Lord, not us.  I don’t want you to become, as they are, wanted for attempted murder, even murder perhaps.  I don’t want my son hunted like an animal, a man with a price on his head…and Joe, son…could you live with yourself, should you succeed in your mission?” Ben tried to explain.

“But Pa…”

“No buts, Joseph, I mean it.  Roy will handle things…I want those four to pay for what they did to us, as for the money, it means nothing to me, whereas you…mean everything to me,” Ben said as he gently squeezed his son’s shoulder. “Please Joe, let it alone?”

Joe lowered his head, confused by the mixed up emotions that ate away at his insides.  A part of him knew that what his father said was right, but the other half of him, wanted to do it his way, the revengeful way.  Slowly, he raised his head and looked into his father’s eyes.  It was hard to hold the stance, he felt as if some evil force that was hell-bent on destroying him, was gnawing on his insides.

“I’ll try, Pa…but I won’t promise, alright?” Joe said in a strained voice as he lowered himself back down into the red leather chair.

“That’s fine…for now, son,” smiled Ben, glancing over at the physician, who smiled in return.

“Now, Joe, about this leg…” Paul said, picking up where the conversation had been interrupted.

*****

For the next two weeks, Joe was agreeable to his father’s wishes.  He used the crutch as Paul had ordered and secretly admitted to himself that he was glad he had, for there had formed in his leg a constant, dull, throbbing pain that he conveniently forgot to mention to either of the elder men.  Nor did he make mention of the spasms that would suddenly and unexpectedly grip at the calf of his leg, leaving him practically crippled by the way in which the leg muscle would tighten and draw his leg upward in a painful position.  The spasms would last only for a moment or two, but it was intense enough to break the sweat out on Joe’s brow.  He reasoned that it was just a part of the healing process and refused to let his father know, for in the back of his mind, Joe had formed a plan, a plot that would give him the satisfaction he wanted…revenge for all he’d been made to endure, both physically and mentally.

“Joseph, I found this tossed in the garbage heap out behind the house!” Ben shouted. In his hand he held up the crutch that Joe had been using.  He waved it in the air, studying the surprised expression on his son’s face.

“So?  I put it there, my two weeks is up and I don’t need it anymore,” Joe said with a touch of irritability in his voice.

Ben crossed the room, leaning the crutch against the wall at the front door where Joe stood, strapping on his gun and holster. “You were told to keep using it until Paul could come back out and check you over…and just WHERE do you think you are going, young man?” Ben stated in a gruff voice.

“Out…”

“I figured you were going out…I meant where…and how?  And I hope you aren’t planning on riding a horse…Paul said…”

“Pa!  I’m tired of hearing what Paul said…I have things to do, and I intend to do them so, please…just let me get on with…”

“JOSEPH! THAT WILL BE ENOUGH!” shouted Ben, drawing in a deep breath.

He had watched closely how Joe had been so restless, so preoccupied and Ben had been in constant fear of what was happening to his youngest son.  Never before had he seen Joe in such turmoil with himself, his conscience, his fears…that was it, thought Ben.  Joe’s fears were what was really driving him, fear of what happened, fear of his father’s death, fear of his own vulnerability, fear that those four men might return and finish what they had started.  Ben studied Joe’s face as the boy turned to reach for his hat and saw the dark evidence of that fear embedded in every fine line of the handsome young face and knew that the boy needed closure.

Ben swallowed his anger and reached out his hand, placing it lightly on Joe’s arm.  Joe stopped and turned toward his father, surprised at the soft shimmer of moisture that had welled in the chocolate eyes. “Joe…”

“I’m sorry, Pa…for yelling at you…and I’m sorry…but, I can’t keep my promise.  It’s something I have to do…please don’t try to stop me,” Joe said, suddenly feeling like a little boy standing before his father giving an account for his actions.  Joe lowered his head, unable to meet the probing eyes.

“Son, I know how you feel and I won’t stop you…but you have to understand one thing,” Ben said, releasing his hold on Joe’s arm.

Joe glanced up, puzzled.  “What?”

Ben smiled and moved around Joe, grabbing his sidearm from the credenza and strapping it about his waist.

“What are you doing?” Joe stammered, confused by his father’s actions.

Ben tied the string around his leg and looked up smiling.  When he straightened he reached for his hat. “You didn’t really think I’d let you leave here without me, did you?” Ben grinned, opening the door.

“I don’t understand…I…I…”

“I’m going with you Joseph…I have a score to settle as well.”

“But PA!” Joe shouted as he followed Ben out into the bright morning sun.

Ben did not look back, he was acutely aware that Joe was hurrying to catch up to him as he made his way across the yard and into the barn.  He was also aware of the slight limp to his son’s gait, funny, he thought, he’d not noticed that before.

Once inside the barn, Ben began to saddle his horse.  He glanced once at Joe, who was doing the same.  His plan was working so far; he smiled, pleased that he had come up with the idea of letting Joe think he’d turned just a vengeful as his son had seemed to become.

“Back up, Buck,” Ben said once his horse was saddled.

Joe pushed Cochise from his stall as well and followed Ben and his mount from the yard.  Ben mounted up and turned, facing Joe.

“Pa…wait…”

“Why?  You wanted revenge…well, this may surprise you…but so do I,” Ben said in a strange voice.  “Hurry up, let’s get a move on.”

Ben laced the lead rope attached to Joe’s pack horse, around the horn on his saddle and watched as Joe swung himself up onto his horse.  He tried not to show his true emotion at seeing the stunned look on Joe’s face.

“Pa…you can’t be serious…can you?” Joe asked as he sat beside his father.

“Why not…you are…aren’t you?”

“Sure, but you said…”

“Since when did you start listening to everything I said?  You made it very plain that you wanted to get even with those men for what they did to us.  Well, I got to thinking about it, and I decided that perhaps you were right…we should make them pay…isn’t that what you said?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Then let’s ride…time’s awasting,” Ben said and then kicked hard at his mount’s sides.

Joe felt as if he’d been slapped in the face, and his anger showed as his eyes darkened with emotion.  He’d never thought of his father as a vengeful man.  His pa had always, in the past, tried to stir his sons away from that type of thinking and as he watched his father ride off, a new kind of fear settled about his heart.

The big buckskin bolted into action, leaving Joe behind, sitting on Cochise.  Joe’s horse pulled at the bit and tossed his massive head, anxious to catch up to his stable mate.

Joe nudged Cochise in the ribs and allowed the pinto to set his own pace.  The horse raced to Buck’s side and then without his rider’s instructions, slowed his stride to match that of Buck’s.

Ben said nothing as Joe rode along beside him, but he occasionally glanced in his son’s direction, noting the unpleased expression on Joe’s face. He was more than aware of his son’s displeasure at his being there with him.  Ben wasn’t sure just what it was that Joe had planned, but he was positive that those plans had nothing to do with him being included and everything to do with seeking the revenge that had settled in the boy’s young heart.  Ben’s own plans were to stop Joe from doing something that would ruin his life and perhaps get himself either a long prison term or worse, hung, so he ignored Joe’s unpleasant attitude.

*****

For days the pair rode together.  Joe’s mood remained dark, thus there was little or no conversation between father and son.  Ben did make it a point to bring his vengeful desires to his son’s attention.  He continued to talk about what he wanted to do to the four men, especially Blackie and the one called Blake.  Ben watched the confusion settle in about Joe’s features and knew that the boy was considering his words, and at times even agreed with the things that his father said, but mostly, Ben saw Joe watching him in a strange, different way than he had ever done before.

Ben knew that Joe was pondering the pros and cons of the price for revenge.

*****

Joe and Ben had been riding for what seemed like hours, totally unaware of the two men sitting atop the far distant ridge, watching their every move.   Without warning, Joe yanked back on Cochise’s reins, making the horse to stop quickly.  Joe cried out in a loud voice, forcing Ben to stop as well and stare at him in complete shock.

Ben watched as Joe slid from the saddle and crumbled to the ground, moaning pitifully as he grabbed his leg that appeared to be in some sort of spasm.

Quickly Ben dismounted and ran to his son, bending down and pushing Joe’s hands away.

“Hurts!” Joe wailed.

“Be still Joe,” his father instructed as he began massaging the calf of Joe’s leg.

Joe leaned his head back against the soft earth and tried to keep his cries to a minimum; he gripped his upper leg with both hands.

Ben worked his fingers, kneading the flesh through the course fabric of Joe’s trousers until he could feel the tight muscle begin to relax. “How long has this been going on?” Ben inquired in a tone that was gruffer than he had meant it to be.

Joe’s eyes, clouded with tears, pinched his lips tightly and tried to look away. “Since the doc took the cast off…but it isn’t always this bad…honest, Pa,” Joe said.

Ben continued working his fingers, running them up and down Joe’s leg.

“I guess I’ve sat too long in the saddle,” Joe confessed.

“Then I suggest we stop for the night and give this leg time to rest,” Ben said, leaning back on his haunches.  He gave his son an encouraging smile.  “I guess this leg isn’t as well healed as we first thought.”

Joe pushed himself up into a sitting position and nodded in agreement. “I suppose not.”

“You rest, don’t get up, I’ll take care of the horses and making camp,” ordered Ben as he made his way to the horses.

“Pa…” Joe called.

Ben stopped what he was doing and turned around.

“I’m sorry…I should have told you…but I knew if I did, you…”

“Would have stopped you?  Joe, with all the hate you’re carrying around, eating you up inside, I doubt that anything I could have said to you, would have stopped you from doing what you were so determined to do,” Ben said as he continued to lead the horses and the pack animal to a shaded area.

Joe grew silent; his father had spoken the truth, nothing would stop him from getting the revenge he wanted…needed.  He watched for several moments, his father, and then it suddenly became clear to him and he heard himself laugh softly. ‘You old fox,’ he whispered to him, referring to his father.

When Ben returned to his side and handed him the canteen, Joe’s mood had lightened and he smiled at his father. “You never set out to seek revenge, did you?” he asked Ben.

“What makes you say that?” Ben said as he made himself busy placing stones in a circle to form a barrier for the fire he would soon have going.

“Because you aren’t a vengeful man.  Oh…you had me thinking you’d become one, but just a minute ago, when you said what you said…about not being able to stop me…I knew then what you were up to.”

Ben paused for a split second and studied his son’s face, pleased to see that the lines of hate had softened somewhat and that Joe’s features looked more natural.

“What is it that I am, ‘up to’, as you put it?” Ben asked.

“You couldn’t stop me, so you just came with me…to…take care of me,” Joe said with a grin.

Ben glanced up again, his dark eyes meeting Joe’s.

“I’m not a kid anymore, and I don’t need my father, taking care of me,” Joe said in a soft manner, for the words sounded as sharp as a finely honed knife and his intent was not to stab his father in the heart.

“I know you are no longer a little boy, but at times, Joseph, you act…or maybe I should say…react…as one.  And as to whether or not you need me to look after you, that’s your point of view…I, on the other hand, think differently.  But no matter, it’s too late now to debate the issue.  We’re both here, basically for the same reasons, more or less, so I think it best that we work together to…”

“Pa…you don’t have to worry about me.  I mean, I understand what you’re doing and why.  But you don’t have to worry, honest…I’m not about to go off half-cocked and do something foolish.  I promise…we’ll just try to find those men and take them back to Virginia City and turn them over to Roy Coffee,” Joe said in a firm voice.

Ben reached out his hand and rested it on Joe’s shoulder.  “Is that a promise, son?”

“Yes sir…I give you my word.”

*****

The men on the rise had seen all they needed, to know who the two below were, and that knowledge was unsettling.

“What’ll ya know?” sneered one man.  “Blackie sure ain’t gonna like this, nope, not one little bit.”

“Maybe we ought not tell him,” the other man suggested.

Eddie turned dark eyes on his companion and made a smacking sound with his mouth. “If we don’t pass the word on to the boss, there’ll be hell to pay, and ya know it.  Come on, let’s get outta here before they spot us,” Eddie ordered.

Both men glanced one last time down the slope before heading back to town.  Sam, aka, Blackie, would not be happy about learning that Ben Cartwright and his son were getting closer and closer to finding them.

Matt Taylor, who had once worked for the Cartwrights, but had joined up with Blackie and his gang, had sent word a week or so after they had robbed and shot Ben Cartwright that the elder Cartwright had not died as they had first thought.  Matt had explained that somehow, even with all the horses run off and the younger Cartwright with a busted up leg, both had survived the brutal attack and were now seeking revenge for what the four men had committed.

“How far behind us, are they?” demanded Blackie once he learned that Ben Cartwright and his boy was searching for them.

Blackie sat with his back against the wall so that he could face the door.  Blake sat opposite his boss, nursing a bottle of whiskey.  His eyes were slightly clouded due to the amount of liquor he had already inhaled.

“Give me that bottle,” Blackie growled, grabbing the neck of the bottle and wrenching it from Blake’s hands.

“You’ve had enough!”

Blackie looked up at Eddie and Choula, a half-breed Moapa Paiute who had been banned from his tribe for unsavory behavior.  Blackie stood, still waiting for his answer.  His eyes had taken on an angry glow and his patience was worn thin.

“I asked you a question…where ‘bouts did you see them Cartwrights?” Blackie demanded.

“They was about a day’s ride from town,” Choula answered.

Blackie pushed back his chair, “Good, that gives us enough time.”

“Time?  Time for what?” Matt, who had been silent during the whole conversation, finally spoke up.  “What are you planning?” he asked.

“I’m gonna finish what I started,” declared Blackie as he pushed back his chair and stood to his feet.  “But this time, I’ll make sure…I want to see old man Cartwright suffer, I want him to know what it’s like to watch someone you love die…” He took a long swig from the whiskey bottle and then set it back down on the table in front of Blake.  Using the sleeve of his shirt, he wiped the remains of the liquor from his mouth.

“How do you mean?  What’cha gonna do?” Blake laughed.

“I’m going to make him watch while I break every bone in his son’s body…one by one,” sneered Blackie.  “Ben Cartwright will beg me to put his son out of his misery…he’ll know how I felt when my ma died and when they hung my pa and I was forced to watch.”

Blackie wiped his hand across his face and grabbed his hat from the table. “Come on, we’ve got things to do,” he ordered his men.

*****

By the end of the day, Ben and Joe had reached Willow Bend, a small town, down south of Carson City.  The night that Joe and Ben had stopped over in Carson City and talked with the sheriff, they had been informed that the men they were searching for had moved on southward.  A thorough search around the area had proved in vain for the sheriff who had been looking for the wanted men and after several days on the hot, dusty trail, the search had been called off.

Now, as Ben and his son rode down the quite street of Willow Bend, they were unaware of the danger that lurked in the dark shadows of the rundown buildings that lined the main street of the sparsely inhabited town.

Ben guided his horse over to the hitching post just outside of the Red Dog Salon and dismounted. “Let’s get a beer and see if we can find us a room for the night,” Ben advised his son.

Joe reined in his mount and for a moment longer, remained seated. “Place looks deserted,” he commented.

Ben glanced around at the town, noting the run down conditions of the buildings, and the windows that had been boarded up. “Looks like a good place for varmints to hide out,” Ben said, looking over at Joe who was just getting off his horse.  “Might get lucky here.”

“Get knocked in the head and robbed again, would be more like it,” Joe said as he tied the reins to the hitching post.

“Best watch our backs, son.  My gut tells me that even right at this minute we are being watched,” Ben said in a low murmur.

Joe momentarily froze, but with years of training, he made no move to look around.  When he raised his head, it was to look his father in the eye. “Reckon Blackie and his gang are here?” he said in a whisper.

“I’d bet my life on it, come on…let’s have that beer,” Ben replied as he led the way into the saloon.

*****

Inside, the saloon was dark and gloomy.  Its patrons stared at the pair of strangers as Ben led the way to the bar.  Joe glanced at his father, raising his eyebrows slightly as he tried to hide the smile that teased his lips.

“Two beers,” Ben said.

The bartender shoved the two beers down to the end of the counter where Ben and Joe stood, sloshing part of the frothy ale from one mug onto Joe’s hand.  Joe glanced first at his hand and then up at the bartender who ignored him and then wiped the back of his hand onto his pants leg. “Let’s sit down,” he suggested to his father as he turned toward a table at the back of the room. “Lively place,” he muttered with a touch of sarcasm in his voice.

“I’ll say,” Ben replied, sipping his beer.

“Howdy, stranger.”

Joe glanced up into the bluest eyes he had ever seen.  The young lady was beautiful and moved with grace as she circled the table and then sat down opposite Joe.  She smiled at Ben but turned her attention back to the younger of the two. “Buy a lady a drink?” she cooed.

Joe grinned.  “Sure, why not?  BARKEEP…Beer for the lady,” he called out and turned back to the young woman.

“My name’s Sherry…what’s yours?” she asked, batting her long lashes at Joe and ignoring Ben’s presence.

Joe opened his mouth to respond to the girl’s question but suddenly thought better of it. “That’s a pretty name,” he said instead.

“Thank you…ya just passing through?” she questioned.  “Or are ya here on business?”

“We’re looking for someone,” Ben spoke up.  “Perhaps you could help me?”

“Why sure sweetie, I know most everyone here abouts…who ya lookin’ for?” Sherry said.

“Four men…one calls himself Blackie, his real name is Sam Watson; one of his side-kicks goes by the name of Blake.  Blackie’s about my height, big built, coal black hair with dark eyes.  He has a scar right here, over his left eye…”

“Why ya lookin’ for him, mister?” Sherry said as her smile suddenly vanished.

“We have business with him…personal…do you know him?” Ben asked, watching how the girl seemed to be anxious to be on her way.

“No!” she said too quickly.

Joe glanced at his father; he had sensed the woman’s unease as well. “The one they call Blake, he’s younger, blond, blue-eyed, a little bigger than I am,” Joe explained.  “We’d really like to find them, Miss, it’s…rather important.”

“Like I said,” she stammered, pushing back her chair and rising, “I don’t know anyone fitting that description.”

Sherry turned to leave, but as she passed by Joe, he reached out and grabbed the young woman’s arm.  The lady spun around as Joe rose from his chair and with a frightened look on her face, she tried to wrench free of Joe’s fingers.

“I think you’re lying, lady,” Joe said in a threatening voice.

“Let go of my arm!” she said in a shrill voice.  Sherry pulled back, but Joe held on, tightening his fingers around her slim arm.  “You’re hurtin’ me!” she cried.

“Joseph, let the lady go,” Ben said in his deep, commanding voice.

Joe swung his head around and glared at his father. “Why…she’s lying, we both know it…she knows where Blackie is…”

“I said let go of her arm,” ordered Ben. He remained calm as he stared into the angry face of his son.  Ben raised his mug of beer to his lips and took a swig.

Letting the air out of his lungs, Joe turned back to the woman and before releasing her, made a suggestion. “When you see your friends, tell them that Ben Cartwright and his son are looking for them,” he sneered as he eased his hold on the lady’s forearm.

Sherry drew back as if she’d been slapped; grabbing and rubbing the arm that Joe had held so tightly. “I…I…I’m sorry,” she stammered and then turned to go.

Joe watched as Sherry hurried to climb the stairs and turned the corner out of sight.  He looked over at his father, who was watching him.

“Sit down,” Ben said.

Joe swallowed and did as instructed.  He picked up his beer and downed the contents in one gulp.

“Let’s go,” issued Ben, rising and tossing a coin on the table.  “I could do with some sleep…in a real bed.  A week in a bedroll is too much for this aging body,” he grinned.

Agreeing, Joe stood and followed his father out the door.  Together, they stood on the boardwalk, glancing up and down the street, taking in their surroundings.

“Livery’s this way,” Ben said, gathering Buck’s reins and walking alone beside Joe.  “We’ll bed down the horses and then get us a room.”

It didn’t take any time at all for the two to make their way to the livery, leave their mounts and start toward the hotel.

“Pa…”

“Shh…I see them, son,” Ben said, walking along as if everything were as it should be.

Joe started to place his foot on the step but was unexpectedly yanked into the alleyway and into the shadows by his father.  Ben, still clinging to Joe’s arm, pulled his son along with him as he hurried deeper into the darkness. Behind them, the sound of running footsteps could be heard.

“Hurry!” Ben called over his shoulder as he wove his way in and out between buildings and down another alley.

“Pa!” Joe shouted in a loud whisper.

He had tripped over something blocking his way and had fallen into the dirt.  Joe tried to scramble to his feet but a sudden sharp pain to the back of his head, rendered him senseless as his world spun into a black mass and then total obscurity.

Ben, unaware that Joe was no longer behind him, kept making his way around boxes and crates until at last he emerged into the open street at the far end of Willow Bend.

Winded, Ben bent over to catch his breath.  “Whew,” he said, huffing, “that was close.”

“Joe…Joe?” Ben called, peering into the darkness behind him.  “Joseph?”

*****

Joe knew he’d opened his eyes, yet everything around him was black.  The searing pain at the back of his head caused him to moan softly as he tried to raise his chin from where it rested on his chest.  His arms, tightly bound together at the wrists were pulled mercilessly high over his head, holding his body in an upright position from the ground.  His toes, barely scraping the ground and his legs, bound just as tightly about the ankles and then again around his upper thighs felt like dead weight pulling down on his shoulders from where he was suspended by something over his head.

Joe tried to glance up to see what was holding him, but in the ominous blackness he could see nothing and it hurt to move his head too quickly.

“Pa?” Joe called softly into the eerie darkness.

The sound of his own voice seemed to bounce back at him, alerting him to the fact that he was inside some sort of room, or building.  As his mind cleared and his senses became more alert, Joe picked up the faint aroma of hay.  He strained his eyes, trying to penetrate the darkness, determined to know where he had been taken once he had been knocked out and bound as he was.

When the sound of a nearby horse nickered, Joe knew instantly that he was being held captive in a barn, but where, he questioned himself.  And what had become of his father?

*****

Ben cautiously retraced his steps, keeping as close to the walls of the buildings as he could in order to keep to the shadows.  He paused, listening for any sound that might alert him of danger.

“Joe?” he called softly.

Treading quietly, Ben proceeded ahead in his search.  When he reached the spot where he had last seen his son, Ben stopped and searched the ground for any clues.  Just by accident he spied a hat lying upside down on the opposite side of the narrow alley.  Ben reached down and picked up, what he knew to be as his son’s hat, fear beginning to gnaw at his insides.  He moved slightly, just so the glow of the lantern along the street could shed its light upon the item he held in his hand.  Ben turned the hat over and peered inside.  His heart fluttered and he heard himself groan.  With fingers that trembled slightly, Ben dabbed at the red stain within the brim of the hat and knew it for what it was…his son’s blood.

“Dear God, Joseph…what’s happened to you?” Ben muttered softly as he clutched the hat to his breast.

Ben emerged from the alleyway with Joe’s hat tucked safely into his coat, and made his way down the street toward the sheriff’s office.  It was late, past 10 PM, surmised Ben as he paused outside the doorway that separated him from the sheriff on the other side of the door.

Taking a deep breath, Ben pushed opened the door and walked in.  Almost instantly, his eyes found the sheriff leaning back in his chair, his long legs stretched out and resting on the desk.  The soft sounds of snoring could be heard filling the room.  Ben felt as if he were intruding, but brushed the thought aside. “Excuse me!” he called in a mellow voice, so as not to startle the sleeping lawman.

“Sheriff?” Ben said, reaching across the desk and gently shaking the man.

The sheriff’s eyes popped opened and it took the man a moment or two to remember where he was and what it was he should be doing.  He looked up, spying Ben staring down at him.  Instantly his feet hit the floor and he straightened himself upright. “Sorry, most have dosed off,” he said in defense of himself.  “What can I do for you, mister?”

“My name’s Ben Cartwright,” began Ben.

“Cartwright?  I’ve heard of you…ain’t you got some big ranch up toward Virginia City?” he drawled.

“Yes, the Ponderosa…I was needing…” Ben began a second time.

“Yeah…big spread, I hear tell…biggest in this part of the country.  What’d you say you needed, Mr. Cartwright?” the sheriff said.  “Oh, by the way, name’s Frank…James,” he snickered.  “Name’s got me in trouble more’n once in my time.  Don’t have no idey why on earth my mama wanted to name me after some dang outlaw.  Guess I was destined to be a lawman…had too…either that or end up at the end of a rope paying for some other man’s sins,” he laughed.

“Yes…well, Mr. James…I was needing some help.  You see, my son, my youngest son, Joseph…”

“Son?  You got a son too, I’ve got two boys…fine boys they are too.  Say where is your son, Mr. Cartwright?” the sheriff babbled.

“That’s what I want to know…”

“You don’t know where you son is…that’s strange.”

“Look!” bellowed Ben as he pulled Joe’s hat from his coat.  “My son and I were running through the alley and Joe got…”

“What was you running through the alley for?  Someone chasing you?” the sheriff asked, suddenly interested in what Ben was saying.

“Yes…exactly and…”

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know…not for sure, but…”

“You don’t know?  Then why was they chasing you?”

“I DON”T KNOW!” shouted Ben.

The sheriff rounded his desk and placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder to try to calm him. “Now Mr. Cartwright, you just take a deep breath and calm down.  Don’t make no never mind right this minute why this person was chasing after ya…I’ll help ya find your boy.  Now…” said the sheriff, turning back to his desk and grabbing paper and pencil.

“How old is the boy and what does he look like?  You said his name was Joey?”

Ben let out a long sigh, shaking his head from side to side. “Joseph…and he’s not a little boy…he happens to be twenty years old,” grumbled Ben. The hours spent on the trail, the lack of sleep and his growling stomach were beginning to take affect on the man, making him more than just a little irritable. “We were looking for some men, they’re wanted back in Virginia City for assault and attempted murder…we followed them here, to Willow Bend.  I suspect that it was Blackie Watson and some of his men that were chasing us and we…”

The sheriff’s eyes grew dark and his expression changed to one of shock. “Sam Watson…Chester Watson’s boy?  What’s he got to do with all of this?” the sheriff asked in a demanding voice that Ben instantly recognized.

“He and three of his men…one named Blake, I don’t know the names of the other two, but they broke into my home, assaulted my son, Joseph, and after forcing me to open my safe, robbed me of $10,000 and shot me, leaving me for dead…”

“Can you prove this, Mr. Cartwright…those are pretty intense charges.”

“Of course I can prove it…Roy Coffee, the sheriff in Virginia City, knows all about it…”

“If he knows so much, why ain’t he the one after Sammy and his men?”

‘Sammy,’ thought Ben, ‘sounds a bit too friendly for my liking.’

“Your town is out of Sheriff Coffee’s jurisdiction, you should know that,” Ben said, not bothering to hide his rising anger.

Ben tossed Joe’s hat on the table.  “I want my son back, Sheriff…and I’ll find him either with you or without you.  And I can promise you this much, if so much as one hair on his head has been hurt…there will be hell to pay!”

Ben straightened his back and glared at the sheriff.  “Now, are you, or are you not, going to help me find my son?” he demanded.

It was Sheriff James’ turn to sigh, and he did, in a big way. “I’ll help you, only because of who you are, and what you say was done to you and your boy…but rest assured Mr. Cartwright, you ain’t gonna be taking the law into your own hands.  If what you say is true, and Sammy Watson is a wanted man…I’ll find him…and I’ll see that he’s turned over to the proper authorities.”

Frank James sat back down at his desk.  “Now, start from the beginning and tell me everything.”

Ben nodded his head, reached across the room for the other chair and pulled it up to the desk.  When he sat down, he took a deep breath and began…just like the sheriff suggested…at the beginning.

*****

“You can scream all you want, kid, but there ain’t no body around that’s gonna hear you,” snickered Blake. He doubled up his fist and planted it into the middle of Joe’s stomach for the umpteenth time.  Joe’s cries of pain had long subsided and his only reaction to the punch was his spinning body that still dangled from the rafter where he’d been tied, hours ago.

There was a faint hint of blood showing on Joe’s face, where Blake had also punched him, and one eye had already started to turn dark with a promise of being totally blackened by morning, if Joe lived that long, which Blake seemed determined not to permit.

Blake jerked Joe’s swaying body around and brought it to a stand still, facing him.  He grabbed a fist full of the chestnut curls and yanked Joe’s head back until Joe thought his neck would snap.  Joe tried to stifle the cry that swelled in his throat, but the pain that ran throughout his entire body, forbid him from doing so.  Blake’s laughter rang in his ears and Joe clenched his teeth, more determined not to further the man’s amusement.

“We wanna know where your old man is.  I ain’t gonna ask you too many more times, boy…where’s your Pa?” jeered Blake as he added more pressure to Joe’s already strained neck.

“Go to hell,” Joe muttered between clenched teeth.

“Why you…” Blake, who was standing to Joe’s side, doubled up his fist and delivered a commanding punch to Joe’s left kidney.  Joe’s back arched from the agony and spun around and around in a circle.  Each time that Joe’s back faced the angry man, Blake would deliver another punch to the kidneys, sending Joe’s body into a whirlpool of pinning.

When he’d seen enough, Blackie moved from the darkened shadows of the old barn, into the rays of sunlight that filtered in from the roof where the slab shingles were missing and lit the whirling body as if Joe was in a spotlight. “He’s had enough, Blake; leave him alone…for now.  We wouldn’t want to kill him before his pa got a chance to see what we’ve done to his little boy, now would we?” sneered Blackie, as he circled Joe’s body.  When he stood to Joe’s back, he grabbed the back of Joe’s shirt and ripped the material completely from Joe.

Blackie smiled as he took in the sight of the numerous bruises that covered the lower portion of Joe’s body, both front and back. “I think the kid’s telling the truth,” Blackie said, more to himself than to the others.

“How so?” Blake asked, rubbing his fist with his other hand.

“Look at him…unless he’s a fool, he’d be singing like a bird telling us where his pa’s at,” determined Blackie.

“Ya wrong,” Matt said as he emerged from the murkiness and joined the group who stood gawking at Joe’s battered form. “Ya don’t know these Cartwrights like I do.  He’d never tell…no matter how badly you beat ’em.  He’d die first before he’d betray his old man.  They’re all like that…all four of them.  Their way of thinkin’ is one for four, four for one.  Nope…he has an idey that the old man is around; he just ain’t sayin’,” Matt explained to his boss.

“Well, then, if the kid wants to die, I can arrange that.  But I want him to be very clear on one thing…I will find his pa and I will kill Ben Cartwright.  I owe the man, but first, I want Cartwright to watch his son die…then I’ll kill him.” Blackie headed for the door but stopped and turned around to face his men.  “Eddie, you stay here and keep an eye on the kid.  The rest of you men, come with me.”

“Where we headed, boss?” Choula inquired, rubbing his hands together as he paced around in a circle looking Joe over from head to foot. He had sat and watched the abuse the young man was taking, but had said nothing to his companions.  He was disappointed that the boy had not begged for mercy. He liked to hear the white men cry out; the sound of their pleading was as music to his ears, food for his ego.  He could make the boy talk; all he needed was ten minutes alone with the kid. “Why not let me skin him alive?” the half-breed whispered in an evil tone.  His black eyes darted from the men standing around the prisoner to Joe’s limp body that had finally stopped swaying.

“I can make him sing like a bird,” jeered Choula. The Indian pulled his sharp pointed knife from the doeskin scabbard around his waist and pressed the fine point into Joe’s side, drawing a droplet of blood.

Joe, feeling the sharp prick to his side, opened his weary eyes.  The once bright eyes, glazed over now with fresh pain, searched each face that stood before him.  He could make out only the outlines of each man, their features lustrous in the bright light that shone from above. “If you’re going to kill me…just do it…be done with it…I’ll never tell you where…my father…is” murmured Joe.

Choula, whose name meant, ‘fox’, twisted his lips upward to form a sly smile.  He pushed a little deeper, the sharp point of his knife, into Joe’s flesh and began moving the blade upward.  He moved his weapon slowly, allowing Joe’s pain to linger and burn, until he’d made a two-inch slice into the skin.  Blood dripped freely from the cut, running down Joe’s side and collecting on the waistband of his trousers.

Choula and the others watched the expression on the tortured one’s face, waiting for the boy to scream, but Joe willed himself not to be driven into hysterics.  The Paiute moved the knife upward once more, barely slicing the skin, and going no deeper than the first layer of flesh.

Tiny beads of perspiration dotted Joe’s brow and his breathing was becoming labored as he fought against the extricating pain that penetrated his side.

“See how it hurts,” mocked Choula, standing with his face mere inches from his captive’s face.  “Just imagine the suffering, should I peel away your entire top layer of skin.”

Choula laughed, “The pain alone would kill you…and it would come slowly, for I have seen some men, much stronger than you, take days to die.  The buzzards would feed on your organs before your God could claim your soul!”

The other men, stared in horror at the Indian, each trying to envision in their minds what it must feel like to have your skin peeled, inch-by-inch, from your body.  Matt shuddered and turned to Blackie. “Tell him to stop!” he practically shouted.

All eyes turned to the only man brave, or stupid enough, to order the boss to do anything.  Blackie moved to face Matt and grabbed him by the front of the shirt. “Just who the hell do you think you are?” he demanded.

Matt pulled Blackie’s hands free of the shirt and gulped, taking a step back. “I only meant…that if the Indian didn’t stop, he’d kill the kid now, look at him, he’s done passed out cold.  I thought you wanted his father to watch…make Ben Cartwright watch the Indian skin his son alive!” Matt babbled.

Blackie turned his attention to Joe, who had passed out.  He noted the black and blue marks and the dripping blood that branded the boy’s body and he smiled. “You’re right, friend: let’s save the skinnin’ for the old man’s enjoyment…ahahhaa…” laughed Blackie. “Come on boys, let’s find Cartwright, there’s a show he needs to see.”

*****

A soft gentle knock that tapped three times on the door, alerted Ben to someone’s presence. With his pistol in one hand, Ben moved silently to the door.

The knocking tapped out the signal again.

“Who is it?” Ben said in a voice that sounded different than his own.

“Us…Adam and Hoss,” Adam whispered through the thick oak door.

Instantly Ben unlocked the door and pulled it open just enough that he could peek out.  When he saw his sons, he hurried to usher them into the room and then quickly shut and locked the door.

Ben spun around, a smile, the first in two days, graced his weatherworn face as he embraced first one and then the other of his sons. “What a sight for sore eyes, you two are,” he grinned.

“Well, it took some doin’, but we found ya,” smiled Hoss.

“How…how on earth did you manage?” Ben asked, pointing to a table and chairs in the center of the room.  “Tell me all about it, and then…I have some news…bad news, I’m afraid.”

Adam and Hoss swapped looks.  “That must mean that little brother is in some sort of trouble, again…and we’re gonna have to bail ’em out.”

In spite of his fears for his youngest son, Ben could not help the smile that tugged at his lips. “You boys certainly know your younger brother very well,” he said.

“Years of experience…and bailing his butt out of trouble,” said Adam, with a stern smile.

“What’s happened this time?  Don’t tell me, let me guess…”

*****

“That’s about it, I retraced my steps but still no sign of him, other than his hat,” Ben explained, holding Joe’s hat in his hands and gently, almost lovingly fingering the brim. “I know Sam Watson and his gang have Joe; I know it…I feel it in my gut, and I tremble to think of what that man will do to your brother, just to get back at me!”

Ben stood to his feet and tossed the hat onto the bed.  He crossed the room in three easy strides and looked down into the street from behind the thick curtains.

“We’ve got to find him…before…they hurt him,” muttered Ben.  “I’m tired of waiting for that stumble-bum of a sheriff to do anything.  The man’s a nit-wit…he doesn’t even know which end is up!” ranted Ben.

Adam snickered, drawing his father’s attention away from the window.  Ben turned dark eyes on his oldest son.  The worry he carried in his heart showed in the fine lines across his brow where they had furrowed into the sun-darkened flesh. “What’s so dang funny?” he snapped.

“I’m sorry Pa…but I couldn’t help it…you sound just like that youngest cub of yours,” smiled Adam, standing and picking up his brother’s hat. “And as impatient, as well.” His smile died, and Ben heard Adam sign deeply when he tossed the hat back onto the bed. “Hoss and I are going to do some snooping around.  No one here ‘bouts knows who we are.  We’ll start at the saloon…”

“Adam, there’s a girl there…let’s see, what did she say her name was…humm…Sherry, that’s it, Sherry.  Talk to her; she knows something…Joe and I questioned her about Blackie and she suddenly got all closed mouthed about the subject and the next thing we knew, she took off.  It was later that same night that your brother and I were followed,” explained Ben.

“The night someone nabbed Joe?” Hoss asked.

“The same night,” Ben affirmed.

“Let’s go, Adam…I think I’ll buy the little filly a drink…a nice long drink,” grinned Hoss.

*****

Blackie and Choula sat in the far corner of the saloon, in the deep shadows.  Both faced the door, neither wanting their backs up against trouble, should any enter through the front of the building.  Sherry had perched herself on Blackie’s lap with her arms entwined around the young man’s neck.  She leaned into the fold of the man’s neck and nibbled gently on his ear lope.

Choula watched, desire growing in his loins as the white girl made love to his friend’s ears and neck, kissing and nibbling, causing Choula to rise and find his own woman.

Blackie watched the Indian cross the room and grab the arm of a dark skinned young woman.  He pulled the girl into his arms and welded his lips tightly onto the girl’s.  She struggled at first but then Blackie watched her young body relax and mold itself against Choula.  In another moment, Choula, clinging to the woman’s arm, practically dragged the young lady toward the stairs, climbing them quickly in a rush to satisfy his desire.  The couple disappeared from Blackie’s sight and he turned his attention back to Sherry. He was unaware of the two tall strangers that entered the saloon, and elbowed their way up to the bar.

“What’d it be, stranger?”

“Two beers for starters, and some information,” said Hoss.

“Two beers comin’ up,” the bar keeper said, turning his back to his customers and pouring the beer.

The bartender turned back around and set the two mugs down in front of Adam and Hoss. Ya lookin’ for someone?” he inquired. “Most folks are around these parts,” he laughed.

Hoss took a big swig of his ale and nodded his head.  “A girl…name’s Sherry.  We was told she works here.”

The bartender smiled wickedly and bobbed his head toward the back corner.  Over in the corner,” he advised, returning to his work.

It made no never-mind to him who wanted to keep company with his girls.  He didn’t ask questions, and true to form, he didn’t ask the two strangers their business either.  He’d leave that up to Blackie, when they tried to cut into his time with the lovely Sherry.

Adam turned to glance over his head in the direction where the bartender had said they would find the girl in question.  Just as he was about to start across the room, Hoss elbowed him in the ribs.

“Looky yonder, Adam,” Hoss whispered as he motioned, with his head, toward the door.

“Well, what do you know? Let’s go have a word with Mr. Matt Taylor,” muttered Adam.

Adam hurried to stop the former employee before he could make it into the saloon.  Matt’s eyes widened in shock when he saw Adam and he made an attempt to run, but was soon overtaken and knocked to the ground when Adam hurled his body into the fleeing man.

Matt struggled, but was quickly yanked to his feet by Hoss and shoved into an alley. What…what’s…the meaning…of this…Mr. Cartwright?” stammered the startled man.

“Why don’t you tell us?” Adam said, “Word around town is that you’re connected to Blackie Watson and his gang.”

Both brothers, having never seen the man or any of his gang, had no clue to the fact that minutes before they had been within feet of the very man they were searching for.  But Matt knew and he wasn’t about to give his boss away to these two Cartwrights…that is, unless he absolutely had too.

“That’s a lie!” Matt declared.

“Is it now?  Then how come the minute Blackie and his thugs robbed my father and left both he and Little Joe alone to die, you high-tailed it out of town?”

“I left…sure, but it had nothing to do with what happened to your family…honest, Adam…”

“I don’t believe ya,” Hoss said in a threatening voice.  “Our little brother is missing, and we happened to know that he’s being held by those friends of yours.  If’n ya know what’s good for ya, ya’ll talk, or…I’ll skin ya alive,” threatened Hoss as he pulled his long pointed knife from his boot and waved it about in front of the man, who trembled.

The sight of Joe hanging helplessly from the rafters in the old deserted barn flashed before his eyes.  He saw Choula’s knife slowly peeling away at the youngest Cartwright’s flesh and heard again the muted cries of pain.  Matt gulped, swallowing hard. “If I help you, Blackie will kill me, for sure,” mumbled Matt, his eyes fixed on the knife that Hoss held in his hand.

“Make it easy on yourself, Taylor; if you don’t tell us, I’ll let the big man here cut you into a zillion pieces and feed your flesh to the vultures,” promised Adam.

Matt’s eyes took on a faraway look.  His mind conjured up the image that Adam had described and his body shuddered in fear that the two men standing before him would not hesitate to do just as Adam had said.  He had seen the Cartwrights together, as a family and had learned quickly that they stood together, against friend or foe and he feared that unless he did as they said, he would find himself buzzard bait, just as Adam had sworn.

“Alright, I’ll tell ya, but ya gotta get me out of town…ya gotta promise,” begged Matt.

“We’ll have the sheriff send a man with you back to Virginia City; you’ll be safe there.  But only AFTER we know for sure where Joe is…and don’t even think about lying to us,” warned Adam.

*****

Adam tapped out the signal while Hoss held on to Matt’s arm.  Ben opened the door, surprised to see his former employee practically being dragged into the room.

“Lookit what we found over at the saloon,” Hoss grinned as he shoved Matt down onto the bed.

Ben approached the bed, glaring at the man whom he had once considered his friend, as well as a trusted employee. “Matt…what do you have to say for yourself?” Ben said in a manner that spoke of his dislike for the man to whom he was addressing.

“I’m sorry Mr. Cartwright, honest…but…they made me do it…work for you, I mean,” Matt said in a quivering voice.

“Explain yourself,” growled Ben, “and you better not lie to me, or I’ll have Hoss…”

“I know, sir, I know…you’ll have him skin me alive,” Matt said in a small voice.

Ben looked at both Hoss and Adam, not really knowing how the man on the bed knew what he’d have his middle son do to him.

“He’s been warned,” Hoss supplied the information.

“Back about six years ago, I rode with Blackie and his gang, but I got tired of that kind of life and…well…I met a girl…and I wanted more than anything to marry her, but I was an outlaw, so I took off.  I tried to start over — that’s when I went to work for you — but Blackie found out where I was and when he realized who you were Mr. Cartwright, he said if I didn’t spy on you for him, he’d turn me over to the law.  I couldn’t let that happen…me and Amy…we’d already married by then and she was carrying my child.  So…I…agreed.”

Matt swallowed hard and looked into the three faces.  “I didn’t know that Blackie planned on killing you…I knew he was gonna rob you…but honest, Mr. Cartwright, I had no idea of the other.  It was over a week before I heard how badly you’d been wounded and then Little Joe…his broken leg smashed and him left helpless…I’m…sorry…really sorry,” Matt looked up, tears shining in his eyes. “If I could undo it all, I would…if I could,” he muttered.

“Maybe you can Matt,” Ben said.

“How?  I’ll do anything…anything to undo all the wrong I done and the sorrow I brought to your family.”

“Take us to Joseph,” Ben ordered.

“Alright, Mr. Cartwright…he’s being held about three miles outside of town, way back in the woods in an old run down barn,” Matt explained as he rose from the bed.

“Is he alright?” Adam inquired.

The Cartwrights watched as Matt fidgeted with his hat.  It was several moments before he could look them in the eye. “They tied him up to the rafters and then…beat him.  They tried to make him tell Blackie where you were, but he wouldn’t say.  So they…” again Matt swallowed.  “Blackie let Choula…he’s the half-breed, cut your boy up some…”

“I’ve heard enough,” Ben said in an angry voice.  Visions of his son’s battered body floated across his mind’s eye and Ben had to squeeze his own dark eyes closed to shut out the image.  “I’ll kill the man with my bare hands if I get half a chance,” he vowed.

“Where do we find this Blackie dude?” Hoss wanted to know.

“The saloon…” Matt glanced at Adam and then again to Hoss.  “He was there when you spotted me.  His girl works there…”

“Sam Watson was in the saloon when we were?” snapped Adam.

“Yep.”

“Then he must have seen ya come in…and if he did, he seen us take ya out,” determined Hoss, casting worried eyes at his family.

“That means he’ll kill Joe…he was plannin’ on it anyway, but he wanted to wait and make you watch.  He’s sick, Mr. Cartwright; he’s eat up with hate…and if he thinks I ratted on him, he’ll not wait to take you captive, he’ll just out and out kill the boy, just to spite ya!”

“Then we’d best get moving,” Ben issued as he reached for his hat. He paused, looking down at Joe’s hat.  Adam and Hoss saw the renewed fear spread across their father’s face.

“Come on Pa, we best get goin’,” Hoss said, gently taking his father’s arm and guiding him toward the door.

*****

Blackie cursed the Indian, Choula, for it had taken nearly an hour to bring the man to his senses enough that they made it back to the old barn where Joe Cartwright was being held.  Blackie had seen Matt enter the saloon and had been just about ready to call out to him when he saw the two strangers approach his friend and all but shove Matt back out the door.

Curious as to whom the pair might be, Blackie had followed the trio outside.  He stood in the deep shadows to keep from being seen, and though he could not see anything through the ebony darkness enough to see what was happening, he had heard all he needed, to know that the two men where brothers and that they were the elder sons of Ben Cartwright!

Blackie and Choula raced back to the barn, startling Eddie, who had remained behind.  They burst through the door, only to be met with a double-barreled shotgun pointed in their faces.

“Take it easy, Eddie,” Blackie called out.  “It’s only us.”

“Sorry boss, I couldn’t tell in the darkness…what’s wrong, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Eddie stated as he laid aside his rifle.

“Just about,” Blackie swore.  “It’s Matt; he’s double crossed us.  He’s bringing Cartwright and his two sons out here after the kid,” Blackie explained. “We have to get ready.”

“What are we going to do?” Eddie inquired.

Blackie looked in Joe’s direction and watched the Paiute trying to bring Joe back to life.

“He been like that the whole time?” Blackie wanted to know.

“Yep, ain’t made a sound,” Eddie told his boss.

“Let me wake him up,” grinned Choula.  “Then I will skin him and tack his hide to the door, for his father to see, when he comes here.”

“Not yet, Choula…wake him up though, if you can.  Eddie, light a lamp, turn it up high, and place it just so the light will be shining on the boy when his old man tears through the door.  I want Ben Cartwright to see what we’ve done to his boy,” jeered Blackie.

“Blake, you stand watch, signal when you see anything,” Blackie ordered.

“Sure thing, Sam,” Blake called as he made for the rear door.

Blackie went to the front of the barn and peered out, listening for the sound of approaching horses. When he satisfied himself that they were alone in the barn, he turned to the Indian.

“He’s yours…just don’t kill him, but cut him up, make him bleed,” sneered the boss.  “I want his old man to hear him screaming…just like I heard my Pa…right before the hangman pulled down on that lever.”

*****

The Cartwrights, Matt Taylor and the sheriff, plus four other men, rode along in silence.  It didn’t take them long to locate the old barn where Joe was being held against his will.  Matt had warned that Blackie would post a man as a look out and had suggested that they spread out and circle around to the south and come back in from that direction.  The plan had worked, for now they lay hidden in the bushes, surrounding the barn.

“They sure ain’t tryin’ to hide, Pa.  They’s got that lamp burnin’ bright,” Hoss said.

“Shh…listen,” Ben whispered in a near inaudible voice.

“Sounds like whimpering,” Adam said, casting his dark eyes toward the barn.

“Joe…its Joe, Mr. Cartwright…that Indian…he swore to skin your boy alive!” Matt explained as he inched in closer to the senior Cartwright.

Ben’s eyes were wide with horror and easily seen in the darkness that surrounded them.  His voice was thick, full of emotion when he spoke. “You can’t be serious?”

“AAGGHH!” an agonized cry ripped through the stillness of the night, sending the night birds fluttering into flight.

Ben jumped to his feet and took a step toward the barn but felt his body yanked backwards by strong arms.  He struggled to free himself of the vise like grip.

“Let me go…Joe…

“AAGGHH!”

“Hoss, let me go!” shouted Ben, flinging his shoulders from one side to the other. “My son!”

“Pa…wait, not like this; you’re making yourself an easy target!” Adam warned his father as Hoss hauled Ben down to the ground.

“I don’t care about myself…they’re killing him!”

“Well, I care…”

Ben took one long look into his oldest son’s face and saw that Adam’s heart was in his eyes, something so rarely seen.  He drew a deep breath to still the tremors that shook his body and brushed aside Hoss’ hands from his arms. Without a word, Ben picked up his pistol from the ground where it had been knocked during the tussle.  His nostrils flared with anger and fear and it took every once of inner strength not to run headstrong into the barn and kill every man that had laid a hand to his youngest son.

“I’ll circle around back,” Hoss whispered.

“I’ll take the left side, Sheriff, you and a couple of your men, take the front entrance…”

“NO!” Ben groaned.  “I’m going in the front…”

It had only been seconds since the last piteous cry but it seemed like a lifetime to the anxious father.

“Let’s go,” whispered Ben. He was halfway across the clearing when the third and most atrocious sound he had ever heard reached his ears.  It was as if time had stopped, for each man froze for an instant.  Ben was the first to thaw, and he bolted for the barn door.

With gun drawn, and ready to fire, he practically ripped the door from the hinges in his haste to reach his son.  The blinding light caused him to falter and he was forced to cover his eyes with his arms.

In the background, the sound of laughter reached his ears and he moved slightly, out of the main stream of light to look into the brightness.  What he saw caused his heart to stop beating.  His breath expelled from his lungs, his heart beat wildly and he heard his own voice screaming out his son’s name.

“JOSEPH! JOSEPH!”

From somewhere in the darkened interior, Ben heard the blast of a gun, and then several more shots were fired.  He felt a burning pain in his leg, but paid it no heed as he charged forward.  His only aim focused on cutting his son’s body from the rafter where he dangled, bruised and dripping of blood.

Ben was unaware of the figure that stepped from behind the swaying body, until he stood nose to nose to Choula.  The Indian’s hands were stained red, blood red…his son’s blood.

The anger and hate that had eaten away at his son, now chewed holes in his heart.  His first reaction was to strike out at the man.  Ben brought back his fist and slammed it into the red man’s face with all the power he could draw from every muscle in his body, shattering the long nose and high cheekbones.  Choula screamed in pain, covering his face with both hands as he rolled his muscular body into a tight ball at Ben’s feet.

Behind him, Ben heard a muted curse and spinning around, he was met with a fist to his lower jaw.  Blackie hit him again and again until he staggered backward, bumping into Joe’s form.  Ben’s arms automatically wrapped themselves about Joe’s legs.  His son’s painful cry, muffled by the noise around him, reached Ben’s ears as he struggled to remain on his feet.  Hands from out of the darkness grabbed for him and slung him sideways, sending him sprawling to the ground, grabbling for a handhold.

Another shot, then several and suddenly there was silence.  Ben’s head pounded as he struggled to regain his senses.  The stabbing pain in his leg, reminded him of the gunshot wound he’d received. Hands reached for him, hauling him to his feet; he turned to find Adam standing at his side.

“It’s over, Pa,” he said, huffing.  “Blackie’s dead.  So is that other man.”

“Blake…his name’s Blake,” Ben said, still in a stunned condition.

“Joe?” Ben stammered finally coming back to his full senses.  He turned to find Hoss cutting the ropes that had, for so many hours, held his brother prisoner.

Carefully, Hoss lowered his brother to the floor.  The sight of Joe’s body…the cuts and slices made by Choula’s knife, the bruises where he’d been beaten…all sickened the big man.  He felt tears flood his eyes and before they overflowed, his vision momentarily clouded.

“Joe…Joseph?” Ben whispered, dropping to the ground and taking Joe’s head in his hands and easing the boy into his lap.  “Answer me son,” Ben pleaded, ignoring his own pain.

“Here, Pa,” Adam said, pulling the cork from a canteen and offering to pour some water onto a cloth.

While Ben wiped the blood and dirt from Joe’s face, Adam tended to his father’s leg.  The coolness brought Joe back from the world of obscurity, where he had hidden from the painful torture he’d been forced to endure.  Slowly, his eyes opened and he could barely make out his father’s face.

“Pa,” cried Joe weakly.

“I’m here, son…Hoss and Adam are here as well,” Ben cooed.

“My arms, hurt…” cried Joe.

Ben smothered a groan and leaned down close, so that Joe could hear him.  “My leg hurts.”

“Great pair we make…this revenge…is hard work…Pa…” Joe said, forcing his words to be heard.

“Why Joe…why is it so hard…the hate seemed to come very easily,” Ben whispered.

“Cause…it cost us…an arm and…a leg.”

“Shortshanks, I cain’t believe ya still got a sense of humor…that Injun plum near skinned ya alive and ya lyin’ here makin’ jokes,” teased Hoss.  “Ya should be complainin’ about the pain in ya belly, where he cut ya.”

Joe flinched and arched his back as the pain that Hoss mentioned, became real to him. “I’ll do…that…just get me…home, please,” Joe said as another wave of pain ripped at his body.

This time a faint cry slipped from his swollen lips and Joe’s eyes closed, rendering him unconscious.

*****

“It will take some time, Mr. Cartwright, but the boy’s young and healthy.  He should heal nicely.  I doubt that these little cuts will leave scars, and if so, they won’t be noticeable.  No need to worry,” the town’s doctor proclaimed to Joe’s family.

“Just keep him in bed, make sure he drinks plenty of liquids and see that he eats properly.  The boy’s puny…unlike your other son, here,” the physician said, pointing at Hoss. “Now there’s a young man who has missed very few meals,” he laughed.

The doctor picked up his bag and started for the door.  He spun around, facing Ben. “You stay off that leg, and you,” he said, pointing to Hoss and Adam who had been standing at the foot of Joe’s bed, watching, “make sure that these two do as I ordered. Willow Bend is a long way from Virginia City, and they both need to be completely well before I let them go home.”

“Don’t worry, Doc; we’ll take care of ’em, won’t we, Adam?” Hoss grinned.

“Sure we will,” Adam agreed.

“I’m not sure I like the sounds of that,” Joe muttered.

Both of his brothers laughed.  “Don’t worry, kid, we’ll go easy on you…for now,” teased Adam.

*****

“Hey Pa…you never did get around to telling me what happened to Matt Taylor,” Joe said from his bed where he rested, propped against half a dozen fluffy pillows.

Ben, who sat with his leg supported by an ottoman, lowered his newspaper he had been reading. “Sheriff James sent him back to Roy.  He’s going to testify on our behalf, against Choula and Eddie for what happened back home,” Ben explained.

“What will happen to him?  Will he have to go to prison?”

“Probably, for a short spell.  I wired Roy and explained how Matt helped to save your life, and told him that Matt would turn state’s evidence.  So the court will probably go easy on him.  I plan of see about that, as soon as we can get home.”

There was a long silence and then Joe spoke again. “Pa?”

“Yes, son?”

“I haven’t said it, but…I want to say thanks.”

“For what?”

“For everything…saving my life…stopping me from doing something stupid.  You know, Pa, you really had me going there for a while.  I really thought you were as filled with hate and revenge as I was…you sure proved me wrong,” Joe said, turning toward his father and smiling.

Ben’s eyes grew dark and he lowered his head, unable to speak.

“Pa…did I say something wrong?” Joe asked, concerned by the expression on his father’s face.

“No…it isn’t you son, it’s…me.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You said I wasn’t filled with hate, or revenge…but you’re wrong Joe.  When I opened that barn door and saw what those monsters had done to you…I could feel myself burning with hatred and all I could think of was killing the ones responsible for hurting you like they did…I was ready to kill, I wanted to swap, an eye for an eye…”

Ben became quiet and he had to turn from his son.  If he had been able to get up, he would have walked from the room, so great was his shame.

“Pa…that’s the way I felt…when Blackie shot you, and left you for dead.  But you made me see that hate and revenge will get you nothing but grief…the satisfaction is useless, when you stop to think about having to live with yourself for the rest of your natural life, knowing what you’ve done was for all the wrong reasons.  It isn’t up to us to settle a score…it’s up to God…isn’t that what you’ve always tried to teach me?” stressed Joe.

Joe heard the sound of his father’s soft laughter and was surprised when Ben turned at last to smile at him.

“I guess we’ve both learned a lesson then haven’t we?” Ben stated.

“What do you mean, Pa?” Joe asked, puzzled.

“An eye for an eye, wasn’t worth an arm and a leg, was it?” laughed Ben.

Joe giggled, a sound that was as music to his father’s ears.

“No…I reckon not,” Joe giggled, “I reckon not.”

***End***

Once again, good has overcome the bad.

Return to Debbie B.’s home page

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