The Final Score (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  MA (Violence and torture)  This story contains scenes which may be disturbing for some readers, and not suitable for younger readers. Reader caution is advised.

Word Count:  19,261


 

Ben stepped to the door and opened the heavy wooden structure wide, staring out into the yard.  From across the room, Adam and Hoss stood in front of the massive stone fireplace watching their father.  Guests milled around the great room, swapping pleasantries with one another as they waited the arrival of the honoree.  The small band that had set up in front of the gun case had stopped playing over half an hour ago and had now helped themselves to the punch.

Ben closed the door, a scowl deepening the fine lines that creased his brow.  His eyes caught those of his oldest son’s and held their gaze for several moments.  Adam could see that the anger that had been present not more than an hour ago had vanished and had been replaced with worry.  Adam watched as his father’s eyes swept the room as if they were expecting to see the boy for whom the celebration was being given.  When they failed to locate the subject, the dark chocolate eyes found Adam’s once again and then the blue eyes of his middle son.

Adam nudged Hoss and motioned silently for the big man to follow him.  Together, the two brothers walked casually across the room and joined their father on the opposite side.

“Do you want us to saddle up and go look for him?” Adam asked softly.

Ben stared, wide-eyed into his son’s face and shook his head.  “Let’s give him just a few more minutes; surely he’ll be here by then.  I can’t imagine what has held him up; after all, he knew this party was for him.  How many times does a man turn twenty-one?” whispered Ben, going to the door for what seemed like to the brothers, the hundredth time that evening.

“He sure ‘nough has been actin’ strange the last few days.  Reckon that has anythin’ to do with his being late for his own party?” Hoss questioned as he peeked over his father’s shoulder into the darkness outside.

Ben turned with a surprised expression on his face as he looked at Hoss.  “I’m not sure son, it did seem as if Joseph had something on his mind, but he never said anything to me about it and I didn’t think to question him.  Did he happen to say anything to either of you?”

Adam and Hoss both shook their heads no.  “I know he was excited about this here party.  It’s all he talked about yesterday when we were roundin’ up those steers,” offered Hoss.  Adam nodded his head in support of his brother’s statement.

Ben smiled at a guest as they walked by and then turned his attention back to his sons.  “I’m getting worried about him, I know he said there was something important that he had to take care of, but he promised to be home in plenty of time to get ready for the party,” muttered Ben.

A soft rapping on the front door caused all three Cartwrights to glance at one another.  “Probably another guest,” whispered Ben as he reached for the handle, ready to welcome whomever it might be.

Ben smiled when he spied his best friend, Roy Coffee, standing in the doorway.  “Roy,” greeted Ben, “Come on in, we were beginning to wonder if you were going to make it or not.”

Roy took off his hat and returned the smile.  “Wouldn’t have missed it for anythin’ in the world Ben.  Where is that youngest cub of yours?” laughed the Sheriff as he scanned the room full of guest with his eyes.

“He’s not here yet,” Adam explained.

Roy looked confused and then turned his attention to Ben.  “That sure don’t sound like Little Joe.”

“No, and I’m getting a little worried about him.  You didn’t happen to see him in town this evening, did you?” Ben questioned.

Roy scratched his head and was just about to answer when a second knock at the door interrupted him.

“I’ll get it,” Adam volunteered and then grabbed the door.

“Clem,” Adam smiled.

Clem removed his hat and greeted his friend.  “Sorry to bother you, but I need to speak with Roy.”

“Sure, come on in, Roy,” called Adam and then nodded his head in Clem’s direction.

Clem greeted the other Cartwrights and then pulled Roy off to one side, handing him a slip of paper.  “I thought you might need to see this,” he said.

Roy glanced around at the men who stood close by and then scanned the message that his deputy had handed to him.  “Ben, I think you should see this,” Roy said and then handed the paper to Ben.

Ben looked from one to the other and then read the note.  Adam watched as the color drained from Ben’s face, leaving his father with a white, ghost like appearance.

“What is it Pa?” asked Adam taking the message from his father’s trembling hands and reading it aloud.

TERRITORIAL PRISON

ROY COFFEE, SHERIFF
VIRGINIA CITY, NEVADA

To inform you of the release of one, Lucas Tatum…Stop

And one, Timothy Chase…Stop

Wednesday, of this week…Stop

 

Adam folded the paper in half and glanced again at his father.  “What do you think this means?”

“I wish I knew,” Ben said, the worry evident in the tone of his voice.  “Wednesday, that gives those two plenty of time to get to Virginia City.”  He cast anxious eyes at his two sons and then turned to Roy.  “You haven’t noticed any strangers around town have you?”

Roy shook his head back and forth.  “I’d a known, Ben, if they were in town.  Clem and I’ll keep a sharp eye out for them and if we see ’em, you’ll be the first to know.  Personally, I doubt that they will cause any trouble.  My bet is that those two hooligans have learned their lesson.”

“I still don’t like it,” Ben muttered and then was forced into a conversation with some of his guest.

Hoss poked Adam in the ribs and slipped out, unnoticed.  Adam glanced over his shoulder to be sure they were not seen and then followed Hoss outside and into the moonlight.

“I think we better go look for the kid, Adam.  My gut tells me that somethin’s wrong,” Hoss said in a soft voice.  “Joe wouldn’t miss his own birthday party, not unless somethin’ happened to him.”

“I agree, but what?  I’m like Roy, I don’t think that Lucas and Timothy pose a threat to Joe, after all, it’s been better than five years,” Adam explained.  “But just the same, let’s saddle up and have a look around.  Did Joe happen to tell you where he had to go that was so important?”

Hoss followed Adam into the barn, “Nope, not a word.  I did notice that he crammed somethin’ into his saddlebag though, as he was mountin’ up.”

“Well, that won’t help us any.  Let’s start in town and see if anyone there has seen him this afternoon or perhaps earlier this evening,” suggested Adam as he mounted his horse.

*****

The bearded man shoved the young handsome man into the cell.  The chains that were attached to the man’s wrist and ankles clattered noisily as he stumbled forward, nearly falling to his knees.  The bearded man jabbed his thick wooden walking cane into the chained man’s back.

“Step it up a mite,” he growled in a menacing tone.

The young man cast his eyes over his shoulders at the man behind him and silently cursed the dirty bearded man.

“Put the collar on ’em,” he ordered his companion, pointing to the thick iron neck collar that hung on a ring, which had been hammered into the thick rock wall.

The young man’s deep-set hazel eyes widened in fear when the other man grasped the iron collar and started toward him.  Joe Cartwright stepped backward, trying to avoid the hands that attempted to affix the slave-ware around his neck.

“You can’t put that thing on me,” shouted Joe, as he stumbled backward.  The shackles around his ankles made it impossible for him to move with any speed at all.

“On your knees, Cartwright,” the bearded man barked out his order.

Joe refused to lower himself and stood rock still.  The sudden movement of the bearded man caught Joe off guard as the thick cane walloped him across the backs of his legs, just in the bend behind the knees and knocked Joe to the ground.  Joe groaned loudly as he fought to get up, but with his wrists chained so closely to his waist, it was impossible to do so.

The second man dropped to the ground next to Joe and though Joe fought with all that he could, soon the iron collar had been locked into place.

“Help him on his feet,” snapped the bearded man.

Joe was hauled unceremoniously to his feet and forced to face the bearded man.  “Stand still,” growled his attendant.

Joe stopped struggling; figuring that to fight now was useless.  “Who are you and what do you want with me?” Joe demanded.

The man thumped his cane on the solid rock floor and paced back and forth in front of the youngest Cartwright.  “You disappoint me Joe.  You don’t even remember me, do you?”

Joe studied his jailer’s face for several moments.  It was hard to tell just what the man looked like; the beard was so thick on his face that the man’s features were hidden behind the bristles of his beard.  The man’s eyes were sky blue, but held a mixture of hate and doom in their depths.  His captor walked with a limp, carried a thick wooden cane and tapped it along as he continued to pace back and forth in front of his prisoner.  The man’s voice sounded somewhat familiar to him, but still, Joe could not recall having ever known the man before.

Lucas scowled at Joe and stopped in front of the younger man.  “Put the chain on the collar and take up the slack,” he ordered the other man.

Timmy grabbed the chain that was attached to a long steel spike hammered deeply into the thick rock wall.  On the collar was a round ring that the chain was slipped through and then locked onto the short length of chain that separated Joe’s wrist.  Joe watched in horror, frightened of being chained and caged like an animal, but refusing to let these depraved men see how frightened he really was.

The second man ran the length of chain through two more rings affixed into the rock wall and then pulled through a narrow opening that had been chiseled into the rock.  On the other side of where a heavy iron door had been installed, a thick iron lock, making the chain adjustable from the outside of Joe’s iron and rock prison cell locked the chain into place.  Joe’s wrists were pulled upward and held into place next to the ring on the collar, making a very uncomfortable position for the frightened boy to be in, and rendering him virtually helpless to anything that the pair of jailers wanted to do to him.

Joe’s breathing was rapid, his chest burned with the effort and he felt his heart pounding hard, deep within his chest cavity.  “Are you going to tell me who you are and why you are doing this to me?” he tried to mask the fear in his voice and hoped that the pair would not be able to see the way in which his body trembled.

“Did ya hear that, Tim, Cartwright still ain’t figured out who we are!” laughed Lucas.

Lucas leaned his face within inches of Joe’s.  Joe’s body had been forced against the cold rock wall by the shortening of his chain.  He could do nothing to move his head and free his face from the offending breath of the man who was, but inches from him.

The man tapped his cane on the floor several times, the sound unnerving the prisoner and echoing in the hollow room.  “The name’s Tatum, Lucas Tatum,” snarled Lucas.  He tipped his head at his friend, “that’s Tim Chase,” Lucas sneered and then tossed back his head and laughed at the haunted look that crossed Joe’s young face as the color suddenly drained from the frightened features.

Raw fear filled the hazel eyes that threatened to fill with tears as Joe stared into the face of his former classmate.  Joe could not believe his eyes, for the years had changed the other boy, now a young man of twenty-three.  Lucas looked at least ten years older than he actually was, the beard was coated with gray, a scar just above the man’s right eye traveled downward across the right cheek of Lucas’ face, gave Lucas a grotesque expression to his once handsome features.  No wonder Joe hadn’t been able to recognize the man.

“I thought you said once, that you were not afraid of me…but guess that was a lie, ’cause I can see the fear in your eyes right now.  In fact, I can smell the fear seeping from every pore in your body,” taunted Lucas.  “And it’s justified, Cartwright.  You will soon fear me more than the devil himself.  I promised ya, I’d get even with ya, and ya know I keep my promises, don’t ya?”

Joe swallowed the knot that had suddenly grown in his throat and tried to turn his eyes away from the piercing blue eyes that scrutinized him.  The action fueled the other man’s hatred.

“When I was in prison, we were forced to look eye to eye to our guards, I expect you to do the same thing, Cartwright.  Ya got five years to learn who is boss around here, and that’s me.  Now look at me!” Lucas demanded.

Joe gritted his teeth and refused to turn his eyes to face Lucas.  Lucas only laughed and then Joe felt the stabbing pain to his middle as Lucas jabbed the end of his cane deeply into Joe’s stomach.  Joe’s knees buckled beneath him but the thick iron collar made it impossible for him to fall or bend over, giving in to the pain.  Tears stung his eyes, but he refused to let them to roll free as he squeezed his eyes tightly and clenched his teeth against the agony of the assault.

“Look at me when I speak to ya,” Lucas ordered a second time.

This time, Joe turned his eyes so that he was looking directly into the eyes of his tormentor.  “Five years, Cartwright, that’s what it’s gonna cost ya, just like it cost us,” sneered Lucas.

“Scares ya too, don’t it?  I know what ya thinkin’, that your family will find ya and save ya ass…but it won’t work this time, cause no one, not even God, knows where we’re at,” laughed Lucas.  “I’m gonna make ya pay Little Joe, just like I promised ya I would.  Ya gonna die in this here cage, with them chains around ya neck and it’s gonna be slow and painful.  I plan on makin’ ya suffer, just like Tim and I did.”

Lucas backed up a step or two and turned his back to the chained man.  “See this here leg?  They broke my leg Cartwright, hurt like hell, too.  They never even let me see the doctor to have it set…made me a cripple…”

Lucas began thumping his cane on the floor.  His eyes seemed to glaze over and Joe could feel the hatred emitting from the man’s trembling body.

Joe shivered as he watched the transformation take over Lucas’ body.  Joe jumped when Lucas screamed out in frustration and twirled back around to face him.  “I’m gonna do the same to you, Joe Cartwright.  I’m gonna make ya a cripple, just like me, but ya ain’t gonna know when it’ll happen.  It’s gonna be a surprise!”

“What do ya make of them promises, Cartwright?  Ya shakin’ real bad.  Lookit here, Tim, the high and might Joe Cartwright’s afeared of me!”  Lucas’ wicked laughter filled the room and Joe turned his head away to keep from watching the evil expressions on the man’s face.

“Say it Cartwright…let’s hear ya say…I’m afeared of Lucas Tatum,” the man demanded.

When Joe refused to acknowledge the statement, Lucas began thumping his heavy cane.  Joe chanced a glance at the depraved man and could hardly believe his eyes.  The blue eyes had turned red and Joe suddenly felt as if he were in hell, standing before the devil himself.

Without warning, Lucas’ hand lashed out and struck Joe hard against his cheek.  Joe’s head snapped backward, hitting the hard rock behind him.  He tasted the blood in his mouth where his teeth had bitten into the tender flesh inside his mouth.  Joe swallowed several times and glared at Lucas with hate burning in his eyes.

“Answer me when I ask you a question,” yelled Lucas, the thumping of his cane getting louder as his anger grew.

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

His statement only served to anger Lucas more and using his opened hand, Lucas left his mark on the face of his captive.  Joe was powerless to defend himself against the attack as Lucas rained his fury against the tender flesh of Joe’s face.

When Lucas had finished, Joe’s face was marred by the handprint that left their brand on the fiery flesh of Joe’s cheeks.  Tiny droplets of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. Lucas grabbed a handful of Joe’s dark curls and yanked his head upward.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” whispered Lucas.  “Such a bad boy…but you’ll learn.  Just stand there for a day or two, and you’ll soon learn to be a good boy, Cartwright.”  Lucas released the dark curls, allowing Joe’s head to drop as far as the wide iron collar would permit.

Lucas motioned for Tim to follow him and together, they left the cell.  The thick iron door was pulled shut and a large iron lock sealed shut the door.  The light was extinguished, and the pair strolled away to the outside of the cave that was now home to the youngest Cartwright.

Joe waited until he was sure that his tormentors were gone before he opened his eyes.  The room was dark, not a sliver of light could be found and it took Joe’s eyes several minutes before they became accustomed enough to be able to see through the darkness.  Joe felt his body shiver as the cold, solid rock pressed into his back.  He needed to sit down, but the collar with the chain pulled tightly would not permit him to do so.  His arms ached from having been pulled upward, close to his neck and made stationary.  His ankles burned where the shackles had rubbed against the flesh of his legs, leaving a burning sensation about his ankles.

Suddenly, Joe’s hazel eyes filled with tears.  It was his birthday, his twenty-first birthday to be exact, and here he was, locked away in a make shift cell someplace where only God knew the location.  Though he tried to stop them, the tears rolled slowly down his burning cheeks.  At home, Joe knew that his father and brothers were waiting for him.  They had planned a big celebration in his honor, a birthday party to celebrate his special day.  His family had planned for weeks just for this night, and now, without a doubt, Joe would miss the celebration.  Joe wondered if his family had begun to search for him, knowing in his heart that before they realized that he was missing, his father would flume for several hours about his being late to his own party.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” whispered Joe to the darkness as he struggled against the chains that held him in their cold grasp.  Eventually, Joe tired of his battle and leaned his weary body against the rigid walls of his rock prison.

*****

“Sorry, Adam, but I ain’t seen Little Joe since…hmm…night before last.  Wednesday, I think it was.  He came by here on his way home.  He seemed a little put out about somethin’, don’t know what though.  I didn’t ask him, he just ordered a beer and then left without so much as a thank ya,” Bruno explained to the pair of Cartwright brothers.

“Want another, beer?” he asked and then poured one when Hoss nodded his head yes.

“Got any idea where he could’ve gone, Adam?” Hoss pondered out loud.  He downed his beer and when he placed the mug on the counter, it clanged slightly.

Adam had his back to the bar, watching the crowded room for any of his younger brother’s friends.  Adam shook his head.  “Nope. I wonder where everyone is tonight?” Adam said, more to himself than to his brother.

Hoss glanced over at Adam and shrugged his shoulders.  “Probably out at the Ponderosa waiting for Little Joe.  Come on Adam, we might as well head on back, Joe for sure ain’t in here.  Maybe he’s already home.”

Hoss pushed his tall hat down on his head and jerked his pants back up to his waist, for they tended to slide downward at times.  Adam snickered, amused at his brother’s gestures and followed the bigger man from the barroom.

As Adam unwrapped his mount’s reins from the hitching post, he sighed deeply.  “If Joe’s not got a very good reason for worrying Pa, he sure is going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Hoss, who had already mounted up, turned Chubb around so that he could face his brother.  “I sure ‘nough don’t wanna be around when Pa starts his shoutin’.  Man, last time he got started, he rattled the winders in the entire house,” laughed Hoss.

“I don’t know, Hoss.  I’m getting worried about that baby brother of ours.  Something’s not right, we should have heard from him by now,” Adam mused aloud.

“Yeah, well, you know Joe…most times he forgets where he’s suppose to be and when he’s suppose to be there.  If’n he’s found a pretty little gal somewhere, he’s most likely havin’ himself a private little party,” laughed Hoss.

“Joe?  You can’t be serious Hoss, Joe might think he’s a lady’s man, but in truth, I doubt seriously if he’d know what to do with a real woman,” joked Adam.  “You saw the way he nearly panicked the other night when Belle down at the Bucket of Blood tried to lure him upstairs with her!”

Hoss couldn’t help but laugh out loud too.  “Aw Adam, Belle’s gotta be at least forty years old!  I’d a panicked too if’n she’d tried to drag me up them stairs with her!”

Adam snickered and shook his head and then just as quickly turned serious.  “Hoss, Belle isn’t as old as you think, and she’s not as bad as people make her out to be.  She’s a nice lady, and not too bad looking either, when she washes all that paint off her face.”

Hoss stared in shock at his older brother.  “And just how would you know?  When have ya seen her without her…paint?” quizzed Hoss as he studied his brother’s expressions.

Adam just turned his dark eyes toward his brother and smiled.  “Now Hoss, I wouldn’t be a gentleman if I were to tell all of the lady’s secrets, now would I?”

Hoss pulled back on the reins and grabbed Adam by the arm, forcing his brother to stop as well.  “Ya been up to her room, ain’t ya big brother?”  Hoss smiled shyly, the gap between his front teeth clearly seen in the glow of the street lantern.  “Tell me Adam, is she as good as the men say she is?” he whispered as he cut his eyes around to be sure that no one else heard him ask the question.

Adam couldn’t help but to laugh at the expression on Hoss’ rotund face.  “Better,” whispered Adam and then nudged Sport into a canter.

*****

By the time that Adam and Hoss had returned to the ranch, Ben had sent his guest home.  Hop Sing was standing in a chair taking down the Chinese lanterns that he had hung earlier in the day.  He was angry; it was plain to see by the dark fire that burned in his eyes.  Neither brother had to ask why or at whom the little Chinaman’s anger was directed; they both knew.  Hop Sing continued to work and mutter in his own strange language as Adam and Hoss proceeded to the house.

Ben was standing in front of the fireplace, jabbing at the dying embers with the poker.  At the sound of the door opening, he turned and glared at his two sons.

“Just where in blazes have the two of you been?  Don’t you realize that you left me here, alone mind you, with a whole roomful of people demanding to know where Joe was and then when they realized that the two of you were missing as well, they all began shouting at me?” ranted Ben.

“Answer my question!” he snapped, leaving no margin of doubt to his sons that he was very angry and worried.

“We went into town to see if we could find Joe,” explained Adam.

Ben seemed to calm, “Well?  Did you find him?”

“No sir,” Hoss replied.  “Ain’t no one seen hide nor hair of him.”

Ben brushed his hand across the front of this face and then looked again at his sons.  “He’s got to be somewhere…we just have to figure out where.”

*****

It had been too many hours since Lucas and Timmy had left their prisoner alone in his dark cell.  The hunger pains gnawed at his insides, making his stomach growl and the pounding pain in his head nearly blinded him.  Joe’s mouth was dried out and he longed for a drink of cool water.  His legs had grown weak from supporting his body and his knees had folded slightly, adding to the pressure of the iron collar around his neck that now supported the majority of his weight.

The iron door squeaked as it was pulled opened.  The lantern, held high over Timmy’s head, shed its bright light into the darkened cell and caused Joe to have to squint his eyes to keep from being blinded by the brilliant glow.  Lucas and Timmy entered the room and stood silently, observing their captive for several moments before either of them spoke.

“Wa…ter,” Joe forced the word up from the back of his throat as he strained to see the faces of the ones who held him chained against the rock wall.

“What was that?” asked Lucas, an evil smile spreading across his face.  “Water?  Is that what ya said?”

“Plea…se” stammered Joe.

“Did ya hear that, Tim?  Cartwright’s all ready learnin’ some manners.  Think we gotta give him a drink?” taunted Lucas as he jabbed the end of his cane into Joe’s already aching stomach.

Timmy just smiled but said nothing; he was watching the hazel eyes that were trying to focus on his face.  Something in the way that they stared at him unnerved him.  “Yeah, why not?” he answered at long last.

Lucas jerked his head around and looked at his helper.  “Naw, not just yet.  Little Joe has to tell me something first, don’t ya Joe,” Lucas said as he returned his attention to the young man who was practically dangling by his neck chain.

“Can ya say, ‘I’m afeared of ya, Lucas’…can ya say that Cartwright?  Just once, and I’ll let ya have a drink of this nice cold water.”  Lucas pulled the cork from the canteen he was holding and gently tipped the spout upward and watched Joe’s eyes widen as the precious water trickled onto the hard rock floor.

“Just say those words…and the canteen’s all yours,” smirked Lucas as he replaced the cork.

Joe licked his lips; the water looked too good to be true.  Joe felt the scabs that had formed on his chapped lips and longed for a taste of the canteen’s contents.  Lucas laughed and jabbed his cane at Joe a second time.

“Come on Cartwright, it ain’t gonna kill ya to admit it,” laughed Lucas.  “Either say it, or I pour the water out on the ground,” Lucas tempted.

Joe watched Lucas’ expression and felt the hate growing in his heart.  “I should…have killed you…when I had the…chance,” cursed Joe, his voice dry and cracked as he forced his thoughts into words.

Lucas’ laughter faded and he glared at Joe.  He yanked on the cork and turned the canteen upright, allowing the water to spill onto the floor.  His eyes never left Joe’s face and when he saw the beginnings of tears forming in his former classmate’s eyes, he began laughing hysterically.  He stepped up to within inches of Joe’s face.  Joe could feel the man’s spittle as he spoke.

“Ya ain’t so high and mighty now are ya, Little Joe?”

“Bastard,” whispered Joe, which earned him several punches to his face.

The blood spewed from his nose as Lucas repeatedly hammered away at Joe.  When the furious man tired of Joe’s face, he turned his wrath to Joe’s stomach where he delivered several jabs with his fist.  Joe tried to twist his body away from the assault but in so doing, one hard punch hit him in his lower back, knocking the wind from his lungs.  Joe screamed in agony and then succumbed to the pain as he lost contact with the world around him.

*****

“We’ve covered nearly every inch of this ranch, Pa, and still haven’t found a trace of him,” Adam said as he tipped his canteen upward and allowed the cool water to empty into his mouth.  When he had satisfied his thirst, he punched the cork back into the spout and laced the strap around his saddle horn.  He then lifted his hat from his head and swiped his sleeve across this brow to wipe away the droplets of sweat.

Ben sat staring off into the distance and slowly circled, with his eyes, the surrounding area.  Hoss and Adam could see the intense fear that had taken residence in their father’s eyes and knew that Ben was grieving for his youngest son.  It had been three days since Joe’s birthday party that he had failed to attend; three days of worry, searching and praying.  It was as if the boy had dropped off the face of the earth, for there was no sign of Joe, no word from anyone in regards to his whereabouts.  What were they to think?  Had Joe met with an accident in some remote section of the ranch where he might have lain, hurt, or wounded, until death had claimed him?  Ben had even thought that perhaps his youngest son might have been kidnapped, but that was ruled out after the second day when no word had been sent to them asking for a cash settlement.

“Pa?” Adam said gently.  “Pa?” he repeated when his father failed to acknowledge him.

“I’m sorry Adam, I guess my mind was somewhere else,” Ben said softly, the sadness in his voice and in his expression visible for all to see.  “I was thinking about…your…brother.”

“Pa, why don’t we call it a day, it’s getting late.  Maybe we’ll have better luck tomorrow,” suggested Adam.

Ben was worn out and Adam knew that he needed rest, but doubted seriously that his father would call off his search for the missing boy for more than an hour or two.

“All right son.  We best be getting back to the ranch.  Maybe Hoss had found something,” Ben agreed as he turned his horse back toward the house.  “It’s nearly supper time anyway, we can eat and rest up a bit and then look a while longer, at least until nightfall.”

Adam refrained from answering his father’s statement and instead turned his horse around and followed his father back to the ranch.

It was with great surprise that met the anxious father’s eyes when he rode into the yard to find his youngest son’s pinto standing at the hitching rail.

“Adam!” Ben nearly shouted as he jumped down from his mount and rushed to the pinto’s side.

Just then the door to his home opened and Hoss hurried to join his father.  His look was grave as he greeted his family.  “It ain’t what’cha think Pa,” Hoss started to explain but stopped, seeing the glimmer of hope reflecting back at him from the pair of chocolate eyes.

“It’s not?” Ben said in a whispered voice.

Hoss pinched his lips tightly together and shook his head.  “No sir, his horse came in about half and hour ago…alone.  I’m sorry Pa,” Hoss forced out his words.   “I know what ya were thinkin’.”

Ben, who had been standing with his hands on Joe’s horse, drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.  For a moment he was speechless.

“Did you check him over real good?” he asked Hoss at last.

“Yessir, he was clean, no sign of anythin’,” answered Hoss.

Adam came around to join his father and brother and unlaced the flap to Joe’s saddlebag.  “Did you check in here?  You said something the other day about seeing him stuff something into them?”

“Lordy, Adam, I plum forgot,” Hoss stated, his voice sounding his excitement.

Both Ben and Hoss waited as Adam rummaged through the contents.  “Nothing,” he told them, “except this wadded up paper,” sighed Adam as he unruffled the paper.

“Dadburnit,” groaned Hoss, “I was hopin’ we’d find somethin’ that might help us.”

Ben placed his hand on Hoss’ shoulder in a gesture of comfort and turned toward the house.  “Come on boys, we’ll all feel better after we eat.”

“Pa, wait a minute,” called Adam, studying the paper.  “Take a look at this, wonder what it means?” he said as he handed the paper to his father.

Ben glanced at Adam and then Hoss, took the paper from his son and scanned the scribbled words on the paper.

‘See ya soon, Cartwright.’

Ben looked again into the faces of his sons, puzzlement written all over his own face.  “I have no idea,” he stammered.

Adam pulled a second scrape of paper from his brother’s saddlebag and unfolded it. “Look, this one says, ‘Watch ya back, Cartwright’.”  Adam handed the second paper to his father and waited until Ben had read the short message for himself.

“This sounds like some sort of threat or warning, are there any more?” Ben asked and then waited until Adam checked the other side of the saddlebag.

“One more, but that’s all,” Adam said and began to undo the tiny ball of paper before handing it to his father.

‘I got a surprise for ya birthday.  Can’t wait to give it to ya.’

Hoss, who had been looking over his father’s shoulder, scratched his head.  “Reckon it’s from some gal?” he suggested.

“No,” Adam answered quickly.

“What makes ya so sure?” Hoss wanted to know.

“Because Hoss, no lady would call Joe, Cartwright, and this second note does sound like a threat, just like Pa said,” Adam explained.  “Besides, look at the handwriting, most ladies aren’t this sloppy, this is definitely a man’s writing.  What do you think, Pa?”

“I agree, but whose?  And more importantly, why?” Ben said, scanning the faces of each son.

*****

Joe had no idea how long he had been unconscious, only that it was dark again in the cell and cold.  He shivered and was surprised to find that he could move his arms more freely.  He was more surprised when he realized that his chain attached to his collar had been loosened and now he could move around a bit.  Joe tried to stand, but found that next to impossible in his weakened condition and the fact that his ankles were still shackled together.

“Damn,” he cursed silently as he managed to pull himself up, into a sitting position and began rubbing the backs of his legs where the muscles had tightened.

Joe took a deep breath to ward off the nausea that had suddenly overtaken him.  The unexpected pain that seized the pit of his stomach caused him to moan loudly.  He was passed hungry, he was starving, and his stomach had gone hours and hours, possibly days with no food or water.  Joe had no concept of time; he had no idea if it were day or night outside.  The only things that he was sure of, was the fact that he was hungry, thirsty, cold and scared.

Surely, he thought, Lucas and Timmy were not going to let him starve to death, though that did seem to be the jest of things.  Joe wiped the dampness from his face and tugged at the chain that remained attached to his collar.

“Pa,” he heard himself muttering as he closed his eyes against his rising fear.  “Please hurry, ya gotta find me,” he whispered, fighting the urge to give in to his dismay.

Joe heard the clicking sound of Lucas’ cane and cringed.  The sound had begun to get on his nerves, and he knew that with the arrival of the man, who carried the menacing stick, he was in for more misery.  Joe pulled himself to his feet, clinging tightly to the chain for support, staggered slightly and waited for the heavy door to be pulled opened.

“Well, lookit here,” sneered Lucas as Timmy held the lantern up, “Cartwright’s on his feet, finally.”

Lucas moved further into the room, and watched Joe as he leaned against the wall.  “Ya hungry, Joe?  It’s been better’n three days, almost four really.  Guess the old stomach’s getting pretty hollow by now, reckon so Tim?”

Lucas jabbed his cane out at Joe, but Joe managed to step aside and avoid the jab.  “Why are you…doing this?” Joe muttered, almost too weak to even speak.  “I’ve never done anything to you…except for what you deserved.”

“Oh yeah?  Is that what ya think, Cartwright?  Well, ya wrong.  Ya know all my life I’ve had to listen while someone was always comparin’ me to ya.  ‘Why can’t ya be more like Little Joe Cartwright, how’s come ya ain’t smart, like Joe Cartwright?  Ya ain’t as nice lookin’ as that handsome Joe Cartwright’, well guess what Cartwright?  I got tired of hearin’ it, especially from my old man,” growled Lucas.

He swung out his cane and caught Joe on the shoulder.  The stricken boy winced with the pain, and grabbed his shoulder.  “That’s not my fault, Tatum,” Joe said in defense of himself.

“Oh no?  Well, that’s your opinion.  I’ve hated ya since we were kids, since that first day I saw ya old man bring ya to school on that big fine horse of his’n.  I hated ya more the day that Lizzie Carlton kissed ya under that old oak tree.  I was sweet on her myself, but you?  You never cared on whit about her and ya made her cry more’n once, I hated ya for that, ’cause she’d never paid me no mind, she didn’t know I existed when ya was around.  She only had eyes for ya…”

“Lucas…I was only ten years old!  Surely you can’t hate me for those reasons?” stammered Joe shocked at the man’s confessions of why he hated him.

“There’s more Cartwright, plenty, like when ya got that pinto of yours for ya birthday.  I’d been begging my pa for a horse for over a year and he said ‘get a job, then ya buy what ya want’.  And then, just because ya pa’s rich, all ya gotta do is ask’em for somethin’ and he gets it fur ya.  It ain’t fair, it just ain’t fair.  That’s why I hate ya Joe; them’s my reasons.”  Lucas pounded his cane on the rock floor, his eyes had gotten bigger and he seemed to be staring a hole right through his captive.

“Lucas…listen, just name your price and let me go.  My pa will give ya anything ya want, just set me free.”  Joe hated himself for begging, but he had to get out of there, anyway that he could.

Joe realized too late that he had said the wrong thing.  Lucas turned dark, angry eyes on him and stepped forward, his cane raised high in the air.  Joe turned his back and pressed his front side against the hard stone.

“YOU THINK MONEY IS ALL I WANT?” he shouted as he brought the stick down across the back of his victim.

Joe’s head snapped back as the pain coursed along his spine.  Again, Lucas raised the hard stick and walloped Joe, nearly knocking the wounded boy to his knees. Again and again, Lucas brought his cane down on Joe’s back until Joe gave up trying to protect himself as he fell face down on the ground.

Lucas raised the stick one last time and was about to deliver one last blow when his friend’s voice stopped him.

“Lucas, wait…don’t hit him again, he’s…he’s already out cold,” Timmy reached out his hand and grasped Lucas’ arm.  “I’ve got a better idea,” he smiled.

Lucas slowly lowered his arm, “What?” he asked, seeing the gleam in his partner’s eyes.

“Hmm…hmm…” stammered Timmy.

 He hadn’t really had a plan, he was just afraid that Lucas would end up killing the other boy.  Joe was already in bad shape, what with having been deprived of food and water for three days, and then there were the wounds from where Lucas had continually beaten the boy.

“Well?” shouted Lucas, growing impatient with Timmy.

“Why don’t we…”

Lucas smiled suddenly, “break his legs?”

“Umm…I…I…don’t know, ya think that’s a good idea?  I mean, he’s already near dead; I thought ya wanted to keep him here for five years?  If’n he gets any sicker, he’ll die too soon.”  Timmy was stalling for time, trying to think of a plan that would keep him and Lucas from going back to jail for murder.

Lucas seemed to be considering Timmy’s words.  At last he spoke, “I don’t care when Cartwright dies, now, next week, five years from now, I don’t give a damn.  I just wanna watch him suffer.”  Lucas began pacing back and forth, clicking the end of the cane on the rocks as he moved about.

He stopped suddenly and faced Timmy.  “Tell ya what we’ll do, go get that bucket of slop and the dish water and bring it in here.  MOVE!” he bellowed when Timmy hesitated.

Timmy jumped into action and hurried to do, as Lucas had demanded.  He reached for the slop bucket, glancing down into the pail at the contents.  He almost retched, the leftovers had started to mold, and he had to shoo away the flies that buzzed about.  He picked up the dishpan, the water was murky and there remain tiny residues of food floating around on the top.  Reluctantly, he carried both back to the cell where Lucas waited and set the pail and the dishpan down on the ground.  Joe had started to regain consciousness and had pulled himself into a sitting position.

Lucas glanced down at the slop and snickered.  “Here’s ya supper, Cartwright,” he said.  “And something to drink.  Enjoy it, if ya don’t eat all of it, I’m gonna break ya leg, and if ya don’t eat it after that, I’m gonna break ya arm, and I’ll keep on breakin’ ya bones, til it’s all gone!”

Lucas smiled at Timmy, picked up the lantern and started for the door.  When he stopped and turned back around, his eyes were filled with loathing and Joe swore that they had red sparks shooting out at him.

“Ya got two hours Cartwright, ya understand, just two hours, and if it ain’t gone, well…I dun told ya what I’d do to ya.  Oh, and don’t get no idea about pouring any of it out, ’cause if’n ya do, well…ya won’t like what I’ll do to ya then.”

He was gone, the thick iron door clanged shut and Joe was alone again.  He sat for several minutes, giving himself time to clear his head and hopefully to think straight.  After five or ten minutes, he inched his way along the cold hard rock until he found the bucket of slop and the dishpan.

It was hard to make out in the dark, what had been tossed into the pail.  Joe cringed when he dipped his fingers into the contents and felt the greasy, slime that floated on the top layer.  It was all that he could do to keep from vomiting as he scooped up, with his fingers, a morsel from the bottom of the bucket.  He carefully lifted it to his nose and sniffed.  The odor was repulsive and Joe slung the morsel off his fingers.  There was no way he could eat that stuff, no matter that he was starving, he hadn’t gotten so hungry that he could be forced into eating what he considered, pig’s slob.

His other hand found the dishpan and Joe slowly allowed his fingers to dip into the soapy water.  It was disgusting as well, but Joe knew that even without food, the body had to have liquids, so he raised the dishpan to his lips, took a deep breath and tipped the water to his lips.  He gagged as the first drops entered his mouth and after several swallows he had to put aside the pan.  When he began coughing, he gagged and the disgusting liquid came back up into his mouth.  Joe clenched his mouth together tightly and forced himself to swallow the mixture.  Once it went down and stayed down, Joe took a second drink and then a third.

His mind begged him to give up, to let Lucas Tatum do what he had to do, kill him if need be.  But his heart urged him to fight, fight for his life, fight to get back to his father, his brothers, his home.  Joe felt the tears as they filled his eyes and when the rolled freely down his face, he didn’t even bother to wipe them away.  He felt less than a man did, less than a dog chained and caged like an animal and he wondered if anyone even cared enough to find him.

*****

“Roy, someone sent these messages to Little Joe…all we gotta do is ask around town and find out who!” shouted Ben as he slammed his fist down on the sheriff’s desk in front of Roy.

“Ben, I understand your frustrations, but how in blazes are we gonna know for sure who wrote those notes?  And second, do ya really think that the person who did would own up to it if we were lucky enough to find the person?” Roy shouted back, just as loudly.

Ben straightened up and sighed.  “I suppose not, but someone gave him these notes, they just didn’t drop out of the air!”

Roy stood to his feet and walked around his desk and sat down on the corner.  “I know that, Ben.  But ya ever stop to think that, just maybe, someone put them in his saddlebags…when he wasn’t lookin’?”

“Pa…” Adam jumped to his feet as well, “Roy might have something there.  Suppose Joe was in…say the saloon…Bruno said he was there last Wednesday, what if someone did slip them inside the bag?”

Ben scratched his head and plopped down in a chair.  “Say they did, one maybe, but three?  No, I think the notes were delivered at three different times.”

“So, that means, say once while Joe was in the saloon on Wednesday.  Joe came back into town on Thursday and went to the blacksmith’s shop, remember Pa, ya sent him to pick up that harness Jonesy was fixin’ for ya.  Let’s see, on Friday morning, the day of his party, Hop Sing sent him back into town to the bakery to pick up more of that special cake flour that he likes to use.  That would account for the three days and the three notes,” smiled Hoss.

Ben, Adam and Roy stood speechless in awe of Ben’s soft-spoken son.  Ben started laughing, “Hoss, you never say much, but when you do, you say it all!”  Ben moved to Hoss’ side and slapped him gently on the back.  Hoss blushed red and then stuffed his fingertips into the pockets of his trousers.

“All we have to do now is find someone else who was in town on those days that might have seen something,” Adam said.

“Adam, there were people all over the place, how do you reckon to single out just one?” questioned Roy.

“Maybe there weren’t just one, what if there were three different people what put those notes in Joe’s saddlebags?” volunteered Hoss.

“Okay,” Roy said, “So now we gotta find, not just one person, but three.  How do you reckon on doin’ that?”

All four men exchanged looks with the others, looks of doubts filling their eyes as they glanced around the room.

“Well, it was a thought,” muttered Hoss, discouraged and down hearted.  “I think I’ll go over to the saloon and get a beer.  Anyone wanna go along?  Adam?”

“No thanks, I think I’ll mosey over to the livery and have a talk with Jonesy.  What about you, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben stood to his feet; the days of worry had taken its toll on him.  He looked tired and worn; his son had been missing for nearly a week now with no signs, and hope of ever finding the boy had begun to fade.

“I think I’ll go to the bakery, maybe Marge noticed something,” he said as he put his hat on his head and followed his sons outside.  “Thanks, Roy,” he called over his shoulder.

*****

Joe had backed himself up as far as his chain would allow him, into the darkest corner of his cell.  The tapping of the wooden cane against the stone floor had alerted him to the arrival of Lucas Tatum.  Joe cringed, for he had no doubt that the crazed man and his partner would keep his promise.  He had been unable to eat the slop, he had vomited up the soapy dishwater and those two things would earn him a broken leg.

Joe heard the turning of the key in the lock and watched as the heavy iron door was eased opened.  Lucas’ features were hidden in the darkness of the cell by the lantern light behind him that Timmy held high over their heads.

Joe gulped, his hands trembled but he placed them behind his back, so that Lucas would not see how they shook.  Joe watched as Lucas ordered Timmy to hold the lantern so that he could look into the slop bucket.  Joe saw the man’s eyes swiftly turn and look at him; they were dark and filled with anger and hate.

“You didn’t eat your supper,” Lucas stated in an angry tone.

Timmy had his free hand held behind his back.  Joe could not make out what it was that the man carried but knew that whatever it was, it would not be something that he wanted or needed.

“Take up the slack on his collar,” ordered Lucas.

Timmy turned; the object in his hand still hid from Joe’s view as Timmy slipped into the side room and began yanking on the chain.  Joe immediately felt himself being pulled along and as he slid along the cold floor, he struggled to his feet.  By the time that the chain had been shortened as much as possible, Joe’s back was pressed against the wall.  He heard the chain being locked in place to prevent him from moving away.

Timmy returned and looked to Lucas for further instructions.  “Put the shackles on his wrists, this time, chain them behind his back.”

Timmy hesitated briefly while looking at the fear that flooded the hazel eyes of the young man chained to the wall.

“Don’t move Cartwright, I’d just as soon shoot ya, as break ya leg,” warned Lucas as he pointed his pistol at Joe.  “Now, put ya hands behind ya back.”

Timmy had the shackles in his hand and moved next to Joe.

“You’re nuts, Lucas, loco,” stammered Joe, who was finding it harder and harder to breath.

“SHUT UP!” screamed Lucas as he whacked Joe with his cane.  “Put ya hands behind ya,” he bellowed and raised the cane high in the air.  “Ya wanna feel this on ya head?”

Joe swallowed and turned his eyes on Timmy as he put his hands behind his back.  Joe felt the cold iron as it wrapped around his wrist.

“He’s crazy, Timmy, surely ya realize that?” whispered Joe.

Timmy paused and glanced over his shoulder at Lucas.  The man was mad, driven by hate, the man had tuned into a lunatic.

“Help me get outta here Timmy, and I promise, I’ll help you stay outta prison,” Joe said softly.

Timmy seemed to be considering Joe’s proposition until Lucas’ loud voice broke through his thoughts.

“Hurry it up, you idiot!” he screamed at Timmy.

Timmy clamped the last shackle onto Joe’s wrist and then backed up, averting his eyes so that he could not look into the frightened eyes of Lucas’ captive.

Lucas advanced on Joe who was determined that Lucas would not see the fear that he knew was in his eyes.

“Say it Joe, tell me how frightened you are?” whispered Lucas, his voice soft and smooth.  “Say it, just once.”

Joe swallowed the fear he felt building in his throat that made him want to retch.  “I told you five years ago that I wasn’t afraid of you, nothing’s changed,” Joe declared.

“Have it your way then.”  Lucas backed up several paces and never taking his eyes off of Joe’s expression, he barked out his orders to Timmy.  “Let the chain out.  On the ground, Cartwright…NOW!” he shrieked.

The chain had been released just enough to allow Joe to kneel down.  To put up an argument now would only serve to suffer more.  Joe kneeled down as instructed.

Lucas laughed loudly.  “I can see the fear on your face, Joe.  It does nothing for your looks,” he giggled and pushed Joe to the ground with his foot.  Joe tried to move, but the shackles around his ankles and the ones holding his arms behind him prevented him from being able to move fast enough to get out of harm’s way.  He froze; dreading what was to come.

“BE STILL, CARTWRIGHT!” screamed Lucas, his red face visible in the bright lantern light.

Joe dared not move, Lucas loomed over him and in the glare from the lantern, Joe watched as Lucas raised the thick wooden ax handle high over his head.  Terrified, Joe squeezed his eyes shut.  The pain was so quick, so sharp and lasted for such a short time, that Joe had hardly known when the bone in his right leg snapped.  He felt the blood rush to his head, his eyes had snapped opened only to see the stars dancing overhead and the only sound that lingered in the stillness of the stone cell was the echo of his agonizing scream just before the blackness rushed in and took him away.

*****

Hoss was waiting for his father and brother in front of the sheriff’s office where they had left the horses.  As he propped his heavy frame against the pillar, he watched as a young boy scurried across the street and stopped a man as he was entering the post office.

“Hey, mister, I got a message for ya,” called the lad who appeared to be about ten years of age.

Hoss watched as the boy slipped the gentleman a small, folded, white piece of paper and then waited for his tip.

“Thanks,” Hoss heard the man say, dropping a coin into the outstretched palm.  The boy’s fingers folder over the coin and he smiled up at the man and in the next instance, took off down the street.

Hoss scratched his head, deep in thought and was unaware when his father approached him, Adam following behind.

“Hoss?” Ben said, placing his hand on Hoss’ shoulder.

Hoss glanced up, puzzlement written all over his face.

“Something wrong, son?”

Suddenly, Hoss’ chubby face spread wide open as a smile replaced the frown.  “I got it, Pa.  Come on,” Hoss said excitedly and took off down the street after the young messenger boy.

Hoss found the boy, chatting with another boy about the same age.  He approached them slowly, a smile on his face, so that he would appear less threatening to them because of his size.

“Hey kid,” he called out.

The boys turned and looked upward into Hoss’ face.  “Who, me?” the boy asked, his finger digging into his chest as he pointed to himself

“Yeah, you’re the one.  I need to ask ya somethin’, got a minute?” smiled Hoss.

“Sure, for a dime,” the boy smiled back.

Hoss glanced up at his father and brother as he dug in his vest pocket for the required dime.  “Here ya go, buddy,” said Hoss.

“What’cha wanna ask me?” the little boy prompted.

“Well, I was just wonderin’ if ya do this very often?  Deliver messages to people, I mean.”

“Sure, we do it all the time.  Why ya wanna know?  Got somethin’ ya want delivered?” the boy asked.

“No, no,” Hoss shook his head. “What I do need though is some information.  First off, what’s ya name?”

“Todd, and the information will cost ya two bits,” Todd bargained.

“Lordy, Todd, ya make more money than I do,” laughed Hoss as he rummaged through his pockets for the two bits.

Todd opened his hand and waited for Hoss to drop in the coin.  Hoss held the coin just above the opened palm.  “The information first, then the coin,” he said.

Todd stared into the sky blue eyes, judging the man’s trustworthiness and then smiled.  “Okay.”

Hoss smiled and then glanced at his father, “Todd, did you or maybe one or two of your friends, happen to deliver any messages to a young man, about twenty years old?  Maybe ya didn’t give him the message directly, but put it in his saddlebag instead…which is fine,” Hoss added to assure the boy that he was not in any trouble if he had.

“You might remember ’cause the man rode a black and white pinto.”  Hoss watched as the boy’s eyes widened and darted to his friend.  Hoss glanced up at the other boy.

“Ya ain’t in no trouble Todd, neither is ya friend, all we’re trying to do, is find out who asked ya to deliver the note to my little brother, that’s all,” Hoss smiled.

“He was ya brother?  The guy on the pinto?” asked Todd.

“Sure ‘nough.  His name’s Joe Cartwright, but we call him Little Joe, cause he was so tiny when he was born,” explained Hoss.

“Ya sure we ain’t in no trouble?”

“Positive,” Hoss said and then dropped the coin into Todd’s hand.

“Yeah, I put a note in his saddlebag,” confessed Todd.

“So did I,” his friend added.  “And Jessie, he was asked to put one in the saddlebag too, on Friday, a week ago.  I remember ’cause we was all talking about that pinto and how we wished we all had one like ’em.”

“Good…now Todd, this is really important, do you remember the man who asked ya to take the note over and put it in my little brother’s saddlebag?” Hoss asked hopefully.

Todd puckered up his mouth, thinking hard.  “I remember,” his friend jumped in to say.  “It was an old man, at least he looked old.  He had a beard and walked with a cane.”

Ben knelt down in front of the boys and smiled.  “Are you sure?  It’s really important, because my son’s missing and we think that the man who wrote the note might be able to help us find him.”

“I’m sure mister, I remember ’cause when he walked, he made a clicking sound on the boardwalk with his cane.  It was sorta spooky,” the little boy explained.

“Good…what did you say your name was?” asked Ben.

“Freddy Belcher’s my name, Todd here’s my cousin and Jeff is his brother.  He’s the one what put the last note in your son’s saddlebag.”

“Well, Freddy, I think you’ve earned a reward as well,” smiled Ben as he placed a coin into the hand of Todd’s cousin.  “I’ll give ya another coin if ya can tell me the man’s name that paid you to carry his message.”

Todd and Freddy swapped looks.  Todd shrugged his shoulders.  “I don’t know, he didn’t say,” Todd told the Cartwrights.

“He had a friend with ’em though and I heard that bearded man with the cane, call his friend, Tim,” Freddy said.  “He had a mustache and was dirty and all, but he never said nuthin’ to us, or to his friend.”

Ben’s color drained slowly from his face as he stood to his feet.  “Thank you,” he said softly and slipped Freddy another coin.  Ben glanced at Adam and then Hoss.  “That has to be Timothy Chase, but who was the bearded man?”

“Could have been Lucas Tatum.  He had five years to grow a beard, that’s for sure, and plenty of time to go lame,” offered Adam.

“But how could they have been in town to send the notes, if Roy had just gotten the telegram the day that Joe came up missing?” puzzled Ben.  “It doesn’t add up, something’s not right.”

“Let’s go back and talk to Roy, we’ll tell him what we just found out and maybe he can come up with something,” suggested Adam.

“Sounds good, come on boys,” Ben said, leading the way down the street.

*****

The bright light blinded Joe and he tried to turn his head so that the light would not be directly in his face. The fierce pain that burned in the upper part of his leg caused him to moan loudly as he tried to turn over.  His hands still chained behind him, and his broken leg, made moving next to impossible.  When Joe saw Lucas coming nearer, he tried to scrunch up his body, fearful of what the mad man had planned next.

“Must hurt somethin’ awful, we could hear ya moanin’ long afore we got here,” laughed Lucas.

Lucas squatted down next to Joe.  Joe raised his head slightly and turned his face away from his tormentor.  Lucas laughed.  “Ya cain’t get away from me Cartwright.”  Lucas grabbed Joe by the hair and twisted his head back around so that he could see the pain filled eyes better.

“How’s come ya didn’t eat your slop?  I told ya an hour ago, that ya need to eat to keep up your strength.  Cartwright, ya dwindlin’ away to nothin’.  Just lookit how skinny ya are?  Now, I’ll give ya another hour to finish everythin’ up and then I’ll be back.  If’n there’s food left in the bucket, I’m gonna break ya arm.”

Lucas rose to his feet and picked up the slop pail and moved it closer to Joe.  He then snatched up the dishpan and flung the dirty water across the cell.  He then placed the pan directly under Joe’s nose and then filled it with slop.

“That should be easy enough.  Now get to eatin’; I’ll be back to check on ya.”  Lucas limped away, his cane making that infuriating noise as it clicked on the rocks.

Lucas was true to his word; exactly one hour later, he towered over Joe.  The pan of slop had not been touched.  Joe had managed to scoot his broken body away from the offending mess and had somehow managed to push himself up, into a sitting position.

“Tsk…tsk…tsk, such a waste of good food.  Ya should be ashamed of ya self, Joe,” smirked Lucas.

“If you like it so much, you eat it,” snapped Joe, the fire once again beginning to burn deep within.

Joe’s audacity angered Lucas and he struck out with his hand and slapped Joe across the face.  “Watch how ya talk to me, Cartwright.  That tone of voice will earn ya a beatin’ with the whip!”

Joe’s eyes widen at the man’s statement.  The sudden fear that momentarily flashed in Joe’s eyes was not missed by his persecutor.

“My, my,” laughed Lucas, cupping Joe’s chin with his fingers.  “What’s this I see in your eyes?  Can it be?  Are you scared of me now, Cartwright?  Does the thought of a whip ripping the flesh from your back make you fear me?” Lucas tossed back his head and roared.

“Well I’ll be damned.  At last, I found somethin’ that scares the hell out’va ya!”  Lucas stood to his feet and wobbled to the iron door.

“Hey Tim,” he shouted at the top of his lungs.  “Bring me that whip what’s in the supply box,” he shouted and then turned back to Joe.

Joe’s body shook partly from the pain that filled his body and partly from the fear he felt beginning to consume him.  He fought against the tears that he felt building in his eyes.  The last thing that he wanted Lucas to see was him crying.  The crazed man might kill him, might break every bone in his body, or beat him unmercifully with a whip, but Joe vowed to never let the other man see him cry.

Lucas uncoiled the whip and snapped it a couple of times through the air, never taking his eyes off Joe’s face.  Joe had his own eyes trained on the whip.  He gulped, suddenly terrified by what he knew the whip could do to his already agonizing body should Lucas rain its fury onto his back.  Joe scooted as far as he could against the rock and let a soft moan escape due to the pain he was feeling in his broken leg.

“What’s wrong, Cartwright?” laughed Lucas as he snapped the tip end of the whip close to Joe’s head.

Joe managed to turn his head just enough so that the lash missed his cheek.  He glared up at Lucas, not trying to hide the animosity that he felt toward his jailer.  The whip snapped and popped in the air again, this time the frayed tip struck Joe on his left shoulder, ripping the thin material of his shirt.  He winced in pain, unable to move his head to inspect the damage.

“Hurt?” mocked Lucas, snapping the whip and catching Joe on the opposite shoulder.  Joe bit down on his lip to keep from crying out and fueling his man’s pleasure that he was obviously getting from torturing his prisoner.

“I can make it worse Cartwright.  I could force ya to stand, strip ya down to ya birthday suit and in a few minutes, have ya flesh hanin’ by threads from ya body,” taunted Lucas as he whirled the whip around and snapped it at Joe’s chest.

Joe groaned as he pushed his body deeper against the hard rock, but there was no escape, Lucas made the tip of the whip sting across his chest, snapping a button from the front of Joe’s shirt.

“I learned how to use this in prison. Ya see Joe, after they broke my leg, I learnt really quick like to be a good boy.  In fact, I was a model prisoner, so when someone else acted up, like ya been doin’, I got to be the one what whipped them ‘ole boys,” Lucas bragged as he began to coil the whip.  “Best behave ya self, or I’ll be force to show ya just how good I really am.”

Lucas said nothing else, but limped away through the door.  Joe let out a long sigh and watched his jailer’s retreating back.  Timmy stood briefly in the doorway, watching Joe as the wounded boy struggled to find a position that would lessen his pain.  For a fraction of a second, Timmy’s heart filled with remorse.  No one knew, not even his lifelong friend Lucas Tatum, how Timmy truly felt about the youngest member of the Cartwright family.  He’d never told a soul, but to him, Joe Cartwright was his hero.  From that first day of school, so many years ago, Timmy had watched with admiration and respect for the tiny young boy as his father helped him down from his big buckskin stallion and walked hand in hand together to the front of the school.  Timmy remembered how Little Joe had stopped and told his father that he would walk the rest of the way by himself, ’cause he didn’t want the other kids to see him holding hands with his father.  Timmy recalled the tears that had quickly come and gone in Joe’s father’s eyes and the smile that Ben had given to his tiny little boy.  From that one day, to this, Timmy had admired the courage that possessed the young man who now, partly because of his self, might very well die, alone in a cold stone cell.

Timmy gritted his teeth as he pulled the heavy iron door closed.  Lucas was his friend, his best friend, but Timmy knew that Lucas had changed.  He had become a mad man, hell-bent on destroying another human being, all because of his insane jealousy and hatred.  He couldn’t let that happen, the world didn’t need any more Lucas Tatums, but they sure could do with many more Joe Cartwrights, reasoned Timmy Chase.

Lucas was saddling his horse when Timmy reached the front of the cave.  “Where ya headin’?” he asked his companion.

“Thought I’d ride into town and get a beer, got a problem with that?” growled Lucas.

“Naw, just wonderin’, that’s all,” Timmy replied as he poured himself a cup of coffee.  “Better be careful though, might run into them Cartwrights.  I saw ’em yesterday over on the ridge; they’s still lookin’ for Little Joe,” warned Timmy.

“Don’t worry, they ain’t gonna see me, and they ain’t gonna find Joe.  Ya just make sure that ya stay outta sight, got that?” Lucas grumbled.

“Yeah, I got it.”

“I’ll be back afore dark,” called Lucas as he urged his mount on.

*****

Roy spied the Cartwrights riding along the ridge to the north of him.  He kicked his horse hard in the sides and hurried to join the small group of men who had volunteered to help Ben and his sons continue with their search.

“BEN!” shouted Roy as he raced to catch up.

Ben heard the distant shout and reined in his mount.  “Hold up boys, that’s Roy,” Ben said.

In a matter of minutes, Roy was beside Ben and pulled his horse to a halt.  “Hi’ya Ben, boys,” he greeted the Cartwrights.  “Got some news for ya, thought ya might like to know,” he smiled.

“What is it?” Adam asked, glancing over at his father.

“Well, it’s about that telegram from the warden at the prison.  I did some checkin’, like I told ya I would.  I talked to both Bill and James over at the telegraph office and seems like that telegram that Clem delivered the night of Joe’s party was a week old.”

“A week old?” Ben nearly shouted.

“That’s right Ben.  Seems what happened was, James got the telegram the Saturday before Little Joe’s party.  He had started to take it over to my office when his oldest son came runnin’ into his office, all excited like, and informed him that his wife had gone into labor.  James tossed everything down and took off home, completely forgettin’ about the telegram,” explained Roy.

“By the next day, James was so excited about his new daughter, that he never gave another thought to the message.  Somehow, it got mixed up in a pile of papers, and when Bill came to work the Saturday of Joe’s party, he found the telegram and thought that James had taken the message earlier that day.  That’s when he took it to my office, gave it to Clem and Clem delivered it to me that night.”

“Well, I’ll be danged,” muttered Hoss.

“That would explain how Lucas could have gotten into town, written those messages and had those boys put them in Joe’s saddlebags,” determined Adam.

“That’s not all, Ben,” Roy said.  “I took those messages over to the school and asked Miss Jones if’n she thought it possible that Lucas might have written them.  She said she had some old papers packed away in the storeroom and would dig through them to see if she had any written in Lucas’ hand writing.  It took her til this mornin’, but she found some and we compared them.  Ain’t no doubt Ben, Lucas Tatum most surely did write those notes.”

Ben could feel his face beginning to turn red as the anger he had fought so hard to keep at bay, suddenly began to surface.  His breathing became hard as he glanced around at his sons.

“The scoundrel,” he swore.  “I’ll kill the rascal if I find out that he had anything to do with my son’s disappearance.  And if he’s so much as laid on hand on my boy, I’ll….”

“Let the law handle it?  Isn’t that what you’re always preaching to us, Pa?” Adam finished his father’s sentence.

Ben cut his dark, angry eyes at his son and glared.  For several moments he sat in silence and then Adam could see the lines beginning to soften in his father’s face.  “That’s just what I was about to say,” smiled Ben lightly.

Ben turned back to Roy.  “Any thoughts as to what to do next?  We’ve covered every inch of this ranch, more than once, and haven’t come up with anything positive.”

“I’m sorry Ben; I ain’t got a clue as to where to look.  Have ya tried those old mining shafts along the ridge to the north of town?  Clem mentioned them to me earlier.  He thought they would make a pretty good hidin’ place if’n someone didn’t wanna be found?” Roy suggested.

“No, but that’s a good idea.  Never thought about them to be honest.  Somehow I guessed that Joe was still on the ranch,” answered Ben, turning to his sons.  “What do you think?  Want to get it a go?”

“Sure,” Adam said.

“I’m with you, let’s ride,” smiled Hoss, happy once again to have a plan that might help them to find his missing brother.

*****

Joe groaned loudly.  The small movement caused the pain in his broken leg to shoot upward to the upper portion of his body.  Every fiber of his being throbbed in agony, he shivered, for one minute he was cold and the next he was burning up.  He had not been able to rest very well, the fever that he felt burning through his body had kept him tossing and turning all through the long hours.  He barely remembered the cool compresses that had been pressed against his hot brow or the warm broth that had been spooned into his mouth.

When he had been able to open his eyes at last, he was startled to see Timmy bending over him.  Joe tried to speak, but his mouth had been so dry, and he was so weak from lack of food that he had been unable to voice his gratitude for the tender care.

“Don’t try to talk, Joe.  Just swallow this; it’s warm and it don’t taste too bad.  I ain’t the best cook in these here parts, but I ain’t the worst either,” Timmy had whispered.

When Joe had eaten all he felt comfortable with, for his stomach had started to rumble and he feared that he might not be able to hold down the broth that Timmy had fixed.

“Here, drink some of this,” Timmy pulled the cork from the canteen and tipped it up to Joe’s mouth.  Joe’s eyes locked with Timmy’s, unsure of the young man who had suddenly seemed to switch sides.

“It’s okay Joe, it’s not dishwater, I promise,” Timmy said and then offered him a small smile.

Joe felt the well of tears that pooled in his eyes, but try as he might, he could not stop them from rolling down his bruised cheeks.  He felt his face redden in embarrassment; he certainly hadn’t meant to let either Timmy or Lucas see him cry.

Timmy pinched his lips tightly together; Joe’s tears were ripping his heart in two.  He knew what it was costing this proud young man to give in to his frustrations, he knew the Cartwright pride and he knew that Joe Cartwright was the proudest of all his family.  Timmy felt Joe’s humiliation and knew that Joe would consider it his last bit of degradation.

“Aw…Joe, don’t cry…please…I promise, I won’t let ya die.  And I swear, I’ll never tell a soul that I saw ya cryin’. I know what ya feelin’,” whispered Timmy.

Joe pinched his eyes tightly together to stop the tears and nodded his head.  “Thanks,” he managed to get out and then allowed Timmy to help him take a much-needed drink from the canteen.

When Joe had satisfied his thirst, Timmy helped him get as comfortable as possible before he stood up.  “Listen Joe, this has gotta be our secret, okay?  If’n Luke was to find out that I helped ya, he kill both of us, got that?”

Joe nodded his head, “Please…Tim…ya gotta get me out of here.  Is there some…way ya can get word…to my father?”

Timmy squatted back down, glanced over his shoulder to be sure that Lucas had not gotten back and shook his head.

“I cain’t Joe; he won’t let me go into town with him, and if’n I leave him here alone with ya…well…he’ll kill ya Joe.  He’s nuts…he wanted to kill ya last night, but I talked him out of it…I made him think it would be more fun to watch ya suffer…I’m sorry, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

“It’s okay…thanks Tim,” whispered Joe as his eyes slowly began to close.  “I’m tired…so very…tired…and cold.”  As if to verify his statement, Joe began to shiver and moan.

“I can’t help ya there Joe,” Timmy said to the sleeping man.  “I’d give ya blanket, but it would mean sure death, to both of us.”  Timmy felt Joe’s forehead, shook his head in sorrow at the heat that burned his opened palm and then hurried to close the cell door.  “I’ll be back,” he promised softly as he snapped the lock into place and slipped the key into his pocket.

From that day on, Timmy, when possible managed to slip small morsels of food and small amounts of water in to Joe.  It wasn’t much, but it was enough to keep the wounded boy from dying.  Joe’s leg throbbed with pain.  The bone had begun to heal and with the healing process, Joe was forced into accepting the fact that he would be as Lucas had deemed, crippled for the rest of his life.  Lucas had made sure of that, he had known even before he had broken Joe’s leg, that the bone would never be allowed to be set properly and that his prisoner would be made to live his life as a crippled and twisted man.

Joe was surprised at the amount of hate he felt in his heart for this despicable human being.  Lucas had stopped trying to force him in to eating the pig slob and drinking the dishwater.  He had been puzzled that Joe had not already starved to death, he had reasoned that the youngest Cartwright had gathered from deep within himself, some sort of inner strength that had stopped his demise.  Lucas had given up; he was furious with himself for he had failed to break the spirit of his prisoner, had failed at bringing the young man to tears and had even failed to starve the boy.  What angered Lucas the most, and would eventually be Joe’s undoing, was the fact that Joe Cartwright would not admit to being afraid of him.

It was a week after having broken Joe’s leg that Joe heard the nerve-wracking sound of the cane as it clicked along on the stone flooring.  Lucas yanked opened the iron door.  He walked alone into the cell, the whip held tightly in one hand.  Joe took one look at the coiled whip and felt his blood run cold through his veins.  He felt his body tremble; the one thing he feared most was the whip and what it could do to his flesh.  His hands had remained behind his back, Lucas had refused to free them and had it not been for the care given to him by Timmy, Joe would have given in to his plight days ago.

With anxious eyes, Joe searched the doorway for Timmy, and then groaned when he realized that his secret friend was nowhere around.  “Where’s your side-kick?” he dared to ask.

“Why?  He ain’t gonna help ya, I sent him into Genoa for supplies,” laughed Lucas when he saw the raw fear that Joe was unable to hide.

Lucas took a step closer to Joe.  Joe pushed his back against the wall. Lucas grabbed Joe’s arm and hauled him to his feet and spun him around so that his face was pressed against the cold rock.  Joe staggered slightly, barely able to support the weight of his body on his one good foot.

“Don’t move, Cartwright,” warned Lucas as he moved to the opposite side of door and pulled Joe’s chain taunt so that Joe was not able to move at all.

When he came back, he stepped up close to Joe’s back and without a word or warning, ripped the back out of Joe’s shirt.  The sudden blast of cool air caused tiny goose pimples to rise on Joe’s flesh.  He felt his body begin to tremble, there was nothing he could do to stop what he knew Lucas was fixing to do to him.

“You’ll never get away with this,” Joe chanced.  “My family will find me, eventually and when they do, they’ll come after you.  You’ll never be able to hide; they won’t stop until your body is in the ground.”

The whip whizzed by his head.  Joe shut his eyes; the man was toying with him, trying to scare him.  He was scared, more scared than he would ever admit to anyone, but if he had to die, Lucas Tatum would never know just how scared Joe Cartwright was at this very second.

Again the whip buzzed his head.  Lucas laughed.  It was an evil, wicked laughter, and Joe thought that if he somehow got out of this alive, he would never be able to forget the sound.  He heard the crack of the whip and felt the first sting across his back as the tip met his flesh.  Joe groaned softly and flinched, arching his back.  It stung, but didn’t hurt.  This was a game; Lucas was testing him, burning his flesh without causing a lot of pain.  The man had not been lying when he had told Joe that he knew how to use the whip, he was well trained and Joe knew he was in for one hell of lesson.

The second sting of the whip caught Joe in the small of the back and burned worse than the first lash.  Joe bit down on his lip to keep from voicing his pain.  When the third crack of the whip alerted Joe, he was prepared, or so he thought, the scream that ripped from his lips echoed in the hollow cell.  The whip had left its mark across Joe’s back in the form of a wide bright red welt that seeped droplets of blood.  Joe’s leg folded beneath him and slumped down as far as the neck collar would allow.  Behind him, he could hear Lucas’ hysterical laughter.

Joe moaned as the tears rolled from the corners of his eyes as he tried to regain his footing.  The collar felt as if it were choking him, his hands, still chained behind his back, burned from where the lash of the whip had also struck.  Again the whip cut into his back. Once more Joe screamed and when his one good leg gave out completely, Joe fainted.  His body slumped downward and was now held off the ground only by his collar.

Deep within Joe’s throat, small gurgling sounds could be heard.  Lucas tossed back his head and continued to laugh.  He popped the whip through the air, striking Joe on his shoulders and watched as Joe’s body quivered and jerked in response.  Lucas raised the whip for the forth time, his laughter filling the cell and bouncing off the walls.

“Drop the whip, Luke!”

Lucas, his hand poised in the air, spun around on his heels and stared into the face of his long time friend.  “What the hell are ya doin’ here? I thought I sent you to Genoa?” he shouted at Timmy.

“I said drop the whip; ya ain’t gonna hurt’em no more,” Timmy answered.

Lucas allowed his arm to fall to his side.  “Ya gone nuts?  I thought ya was on my side!”

“I was, until I realized just how crazy you are.  Ya was plannin’ on killin’ him all along and I ain’t gonna let ya do it, Luke.  I ain’t gonna be partners with ya in murderin’ someone, especially Joe Cartwright.  Now drop the whip…or else…”

“Or else what ya yella-bellied coward…ya ain’t gonna do nuthin’,” stormed Lucas, “ya ain’t man ‘nough,” he said and charged his friend.

Timmy jumped backwards and fired the gun.  The bullet hit Lucas dead center in the chest and he slumped to the floor, blood spurting onto his chest and coating the material of his shirt.

Timmy dropped the pistol and rushed forward, taking his dying friend’s head into his lap.  Tears coursed their way down the front of his face and dripped from the end of his chin onto Lucas’ shirt and mixing with his friend’s blood.

“I’m sorry Luke, I’m so sorry, but I couldn’t let ya kill’em,” wept Timmy.

Lucas coughed and sputtered, unable to put sound to his words.  His body arched and life slipped from Lucas Tatum forever.

*****

“Was that a shot?” Ben called as he pulled Buck to a sudden stop.

“Sounds like it, over there,” pointed Adam as he headed off in that direction.

After going a good ways, the three Cartwright’s stopped.  “I only heard one shot,” Ben exclaimed, looking all around him for a sign that would give them a clue as to where the shot came from.

Hoss’ big stallion was dancing in circles and he was having a hard time keeping the horse under control.  Chubb spun around a second time.  This time, Hoss’ sharp eyes spotted something off in the distance.

“Pa, lookit, over there, looks like a man,” Hoss said, his adrenaline pumping the excitement through his veins.

“Come on boys, let’s ride,” shouted Ben as he urged his horse into a run.

Within minutes, he jerked back on the reins, causing Buck to rear up as Ben jumped from his horse’s back.  Quickly he pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it at the man who was just standing to his feet.  Adam and Hoss had their guns pointed at the man as well and waited as Ben stepped forward to inspect the body of the dead man.

Ben made a face at the sight before him, the man most certainly was dead, a hole in the middle of his chest proved that.  Ben glanced up at the other man, noted the tears that stained his face and the way in which the man trembled.

“I take it, this is Lucas Tatum?” questioned Ben.

Timmy nodded his head.  “I…I killed him,” he stammered, unsure of what these three men might do to him.  He had recognized them as Joe’s family the minute that they had ridden up.

“And you’re Timmy, right?”

“Yessir,” Timmy replied.  “Mister Cartwright, Joe’s inside the cave, Lucas was fixing to kill him, that’s why I had to shoot him.  Ya best be getting to your son, come on, I’ll show ya where he’s at.”

Ben slipped his pistol back into his holster, “Joe?  He’s here?”

Ben, trailed by his sons, followed Timmy into the cave.  It seemed to Ben as if they had walked better than a mile before the heavy thick door to the cell came into view.  The pitiful moaning sounds that reached their ears tugged at Ben’s heart.  His eyes sought those of Adam and Hoss’ and the fear that he felt was reflected back at him in the eyes of his sons.

“Get that door opened,” shouted Ben, fueled by the sounds that reached his ears.

“It ain’t locked Mister Cartwright,” Timmy said as he pulled on the iron door to open it wider.

Adam carried the lantern inside as he father rushed ahead.  “JOSEPH!” he shouted as the sound of his voice echoed off the walls.

“Over here Pa,” Adam said as he raised the lantern higher so that they could see the interior of the cell.

“Oh dear God,” whispered Ben when his eyes had adjusted enough that he could make out the still form of his son, dangling from his neck collar, the shirt gone from his back.  Ben’s eyes filled with water as he grasped Joe’s sagging body in his arms and raised the limp form up to alleviate the pressure on the collar.

“Someone get these chains off…NOW” bellowed Ben, glaring at Timmy.

Timmy fumbled in his pocket for the key.  His hands shook so badly that he was unable to place the key into the lock.  Hoss snatched the key from Timmy and did it himself.  Within minutes the chains, including the tight fitting collar lay in a pile on the rock floor.

Joe’s lips were parted, he gulped in large amounts of air and when his eyes opened, they filled with tears.  Ben held his son carefully and tenderly in his arms and whispered soft soothing words into Joe’s ear.

“Shh…don’t cry son, it’s all over now.  We’re all here and we’re going to take you home,” muttered Ben as he caressed the battered and bruised cheek.

“Hoss, help me get Joe outside.  We’ll have to make some kind of travois to put him on in order to get him home,” Ben informed his son.  “Adam, you take this…varmint into town and turn him over to the sheriff, take the dead man too, and have Paul meet us back at the ranch.  Joe’s in bad shape,” ordered Ben.

“I’m on my way.  Come Chase, let’s get going,” Adam said as he shoved the other man toward the front of the cave.

“Hoss, be careful when you lift him, his leg is broken.  Looks like it’s already begun to heal too,” he said worriedly.  “I hope Paul can straighten it out and set it properly,” the anxious father whispered softly.

“Pa…Pa…” cried Joe.  His hand was reaching outward, into the air in search of something solid to cling too.

“I’m right here, sweetheart,” assured Ben, taking the fraying hand into his own.  “It’s going to be okay, we’ll have you home and in your own bed in just a little while.”  Ben leaned down and placed a kiss onto his son’s brow.

Joe clung to his father’s hand as if it had been a lifeline that would keep him from slipping through death’s door.  His eyes searched hungrily for his father’s face as the tears rolled slowly downward.

“Please…Pa…Timmy he…saved…my…” Joe’s voice trailed off into a whisper and then stopped.

Ben’s eyes swept Joe’s face.  “He’s fainted.  Come on Hoss; let’s move him while he’s out so that he won’t feel so much pain.”

It took several hours before Ben and Hoss reached the house.  Their journey was slowed for each time that Joe cried out Ben stopped to comfort his wounded son.  It was nearly dark by the time that they finally rode into the yard.  The front door burst opened and Adam rushed out, offering to help with moving Joe inside and up stairs to his room.

“Be very careful, boys,” advised the doctor.  “Try not to move that leg any more than absolutely necessary.”

Paul hurried behind the brothers, watching to be sure that they obeyed his orders on how to gently carry Joe inside.  “Take him straight on up to his room.  First thing we have to do is get those nasty clothes off and clean him up.  Then I can assess the damages.”

An hour later, Paul joined the anxious family downstairs in the great room.  He had hardly placed his foot on the bottom step before Ben was standing, expectantly, in front of him.

“How badly is he hurt?  Can you do something about his leg? Is he awake?”

Paul smiled and placed a calming hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “Ben, please.  First off, Joe isn’t hurt as badly as I first thought.  His leg is broken and it has started to heal, improperly.  It’s a bad break Ben but I believe that I can repair the damage.  It’s going to require surgery…”

“Surgery?” sputtered Ben, casting worried eyes at his two sons who huddled with him around the doctor.

“That’s right Ben, surgery.  I will have to re-break the leg and set it properly.  But I can’t do that for quite a while.  Joe is malnourished and dangerously dehydrated.  Right now my main concern is getting plenty of fluids and good food into him.  He’s lost way too much weight and needs to gain a few pounds before I can consider him healthy enough to operate,” explained the physician.

Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  His brow wrinkled when he frowned.  “Can I see him?”

Paul smiled and nodded his head.  “Of course you can, Ben.  You too Adam, Hoss, just keep it a short visit.  I gave him something for the pain and something to help him rest, he’ll be asleep soon.”

Ben turned and started up the stairs.  “Ben?” Paul called.

“Don’t worry about other injuries.  They’ve pretty much healed over by now; there’s more bruising than there is anything.  I put some salve on the welts on his back, they should heal just fine,” he smiled.

“Thanks Paul,” smiled Ben.  “If you’re hungry, tell Hop Sing; he’d be happy to fix you something. Supper’s almost ready; you’re more than welcomed to stay and eat.”

“Thanks Ben, I might just do that,” laughed Paul.

*****

Ben eased opened the bedroom door and slipped inside.  Hop Sing had just pulled the blanket up to Joe’s neck and was tenderly tucking it in around Joe.

“Boy almost sleep,” he whispered to Ben as Ben stood beside the bed.  He nodded his head at Hop Sing and when Hop Sing stepped aside, Ben sat down on the edge of the bed.

Tenderly, his fingers brushed through the damp curls that had fallen to his son’s brow.  “Joe,” Ben said softly.  “Are you sleeping?”

The long lashes fluttered and when the lids opened Ben saw dull, pain filled eyes looking up at him.  “No,” Joe whispered.

“Are you in pain son?  Paul said he gave you something…”

“Just…a little…Pa…” Joe was fighting the effects of the laudanum that Paul had made him take.

“Shh…don’t try to talk son.  You need to rest and get your strength back…”

“I know…but Pa…I gotta know…something…” Joe’s eyes filled with tears as he reached out and grabbed is father’s arm.  His fingers squeezed tightly, surprising Ben by the strength in which they held on.

“Joe, what is it son?”  Ben took Joe’s hand into his own and held it within the folds of his fingers.  “Please, don’t cry, everything is going to be fine…I promise.”

“But…my leg…he made me…a…a cripple!”  Joe’s tears ran freely downward and he jerked his hand free of his father’s and swiped it across his face.  “That bastard…made me a…cripple!” Joe shouted as loudly as his voice would allow him.

Ben instantly gathered his sobbing son into his arms and held him against his breast.

“No…no…Joe…honest…Paul said later…after you’ve gained your strength, he could fix your leg.  Joe…don’t cry…Paul’s going to make it better, honest, son…but you have to give it time…please Joe.”  Ben looked imploringly up at his other two sons.

“Pa’s right short shanks, the doc just told us, he’s gonna fix that leg of yours,” Hoss said.

“Won’t even have a limp, buddy,” added Adam.

“Come on Joe…Look at me,” Ben begged as he gently pushed Joe back so that he could see his son’s face.

“You still trust us, don’t you?” smiled Ben.

Joe gulped and then swallowed.  “Yeah, sure…Pa?  I mean…you wouldn’t just say that…would ya?”

Ben scowled at his son.  “What do you think, Joseph?  Have I ever lied to you?”

Joe shook his head, the tears stopped and he glanced up at his father and then around the bed where his two brothers were standing.  “No…I’m sorry…Pa…I was just…scared…I didn’t mean…”

Ben smiled, erasing the frown, “I understand Joe.  Now…you lay down and get some sleep.  The sooner that you get your strength back, the sooner that the doctor can get that leg fixed.”  Ben leaned over and kissed his son’s cheek.  “Close your eyes,” he whispered.

Joe closed his eyes as ordered and then opened them.  “Pa…please…will ya stay with me…just until I go to sleep?”

“You just close your eyes precious, I’ll be right here when you wake up,” smiled Ben, taking the chair and pulling it up, next to the bedside.  “See, I’ll sit right here.”

Joe forced a small smile for his father.  “Thanks, Pa,” he said, as his eyelids became too heavy for him to keep opened.

*****

When Joe woke, it was as Ben had promised.  Though he dozed lightly in the chair, he had remained at his son’s bedside.  Joe smiled at the sight of his father.  Ben’s head was tilted back, his lips parted slightly and he snored softly.

“Pa,” Joe said softly.  “Hey, ya gonna get a crick in ya neck,” he giggled as Ben’s eyes opened and his head popped forward.

He started laughing and rubbed the back of his neck.  “I think I already have.  How are you feeling, son?”

“Better.  How long have I been sleeping?” asked Joe.

Ben stood up and stretched, giving Joe a smile.  “Oh, about two days.”

“Two days?  Ya gotta be kidding!”

“He ain’t kiddin’, short shanks.  It sure ‘nough has been two days, and Pa ain’t moved from that chair for more’n five, maybe ten minutes at a time,” laughed Hoss.

Joe turned to his father, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.  “Thanks, Pa,” Joe whispered.

“I made you a promise; it was my duty to keep it.  Besides, I enjoy watching you sleep,” Ben laughed lightly.  “You’re just like you used to be when you were a little boy, all innocent and…”

“Aw, Pa,” giggled Joe and then turned serious.  The smiled died and he began fidgeting with a thread on the blanket.

Ben was quick to see the change that had come over Joe and sat down on the edge of the bed.  “Something on your mind, Joe?” asked Ben.

“I need to talk to you about something, ere…someone really,” he stated.

“Well, I got chores to do, I’ll see ya later Joe, Pa,” Hoss tossed his hand up in the air, bidding them good-bye.

“No Hoss, wait…please.  I want you to hear this,” Joe said quickly.

“Alright Joe,” Hoss said, glancing over in his father’s direction.  “What’s up?”

“Pa, it’s about Timmy…I know he was Lucas’ friend and all, and what he did was wrong…but Pa, Timmy saved my life,” Joe began, watching his father’s reaction.

“Joe, what that man did was short of…”

“Pa…ya don’t understand.  Timmy only went along with Lucas because they had been life long friends.  But when he saw that Lucas aimed on killing me, which he was…he tried to starve me to death, well…Timmy would sneak food and water in to me.  Lucas couldn’t understand what was keeping me alive, but if it hadn’t been for Timmy, I would have…died…long before you found me.”

Joe swallowed hard, the memories of what he had been made to endure where still too fresh to him.  “When Lucas started using the whip…Timmy stopped him, he shot Lucas…killed him, to protect me.”  Joe wiped his eyes with his fingers.  “Don’t that count for something?  I mean…can’t you help him somehow?  Please, Pa, please…will you talk to the sheriff and see what you can do.”

Joe’s emotions were still raw and ran his hand under his nose and sniffed.  “Pa…I saw first hand what hate can do to a man.  It was just like you explained it to me five years ago…Lucas hated me.  He told me why too, and they were silly reasons, no reasons at all actually.  But Timmy, I don’t think he ever hated anyone in his whole life.  Lucas is dead, he’s paid for all that hate he had in his heart, but it ain’t right, or fair, to make Timmy pay for something that Lucas did.”

Joe glanced around at Hoss and Adam who had entered silently and listened to what Joe was telling their father.  Joe’s expression held a look of pleading.

“Pa?”

Ben pursed his lips tightly and swept the room with his eyes and then fixed on Joe’s face.

“Alright son, I’ll see what I can do.  I won’t promise that I can do anything, but I’ll try.  I suppose that I owe the boy that much, after all, he did help you so he can’t be all bad, now can he?” smiled Ben.

The tension seemed to leave Joe’s face and he smiled at his family.  “Thanks Pa, that’s all I ask.”

*****

By the end of the second week home, Joe had regained enough strength that Paul deemed him healthy enough to operate on Joe’s broken leg.  Ben gathered around his son’s bed with the doctor, and Adam and Hoss as Paul explained to Joe what he would be doing.

Ben watched his son’s face.  He knew that Joe was scared, but the boy hid it well.  It was only because Ben knew his son so well, that Ben could see through the facade that Joe attempted to keep up.  Ben watched Joe’s eyes, saw them widen when Paul explained that he would have to break the leg a second time and then reset it so that the bone would heal properly.

Paul saw the fear that briefly flickered in the hazel eyes and in the way in which Joe sought his father’s face.

“You won’t feel a thing, Joe, I promise,” smiled the compassionate doctor.  “You’ll sleep through the entire procedure and when you wake, you’ll already have a cast on your leg.  After that, a couple of days in bed, and then you’ll be up and moving’ around again.”

Joe laughed lightly, “That’s all there is to it?”

“On my honor,” smiled Doc Martin.

Joe pinched his lips tightly and then smiled, “Okay, let’s get on with it, the sooner you do it, the sooner it’ll be over with.”

Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and smiled.  “That’s the spirit, son.”

*****

Several hours later, Joe woke from his drug-induced sleep.  “Pa?”

“I’m here son.  How do you feel?” smiled Ben, taking Joe’s hand in his.

“Is it over?  Did doc fix my leg?” whispered Joe.

“I certainly did young man,” called Paul Martin from the doorway of Joe’s room.  “And you have my guarantee that it will be as good as new in just a few weeks,” smiled Doc as he sauntered into the room.

“I’ll hold you to that,” smiled Joe weakly.  “Thanks, doc,” Joe smiled, his chin quivering slightly.  “I was scared that I would be…” Joe pinched his lips tightly, unable to finish his sentence.  He lowered his head so that his father and the doctor could not see how quickly the tears had filled his eyes.

“That’s all right Joe,” Paul said as he too sobered.  “You know son, what was so sad about all of this, is that had Lucas only known, I could have done the same for his leg.”

Joe’s head came up quickly and he looked at the doctor.  “Really?”

“Really.  Oh, he might have had a slight limp; after all, his leg had been broken for much longer than yours. But for sure, he would not have been crippled,” Paul explained.

“He let his hate get in the way of a lot of things, son,” Ben said.  “Hate destroyed him and it nearly destroyed you, and his friend, Timmy.”

“What about Tim, did you talk to the sheriff?” asked Joe

“Yes and Roy seems to think that under the circumstances, he just might be able to help the boy.  We’ll have to wait and see, the circuit judge will be here in a few days and it all depends on what you tell him and how he makes his ruling,” Ben said.

“Now, young man, think you could eat something?” smiled Paul.

Joe’s face brightened, “Thanks Pa…for everything, and doc, how’s about a nice fat, juicy steak?”

“How about a nice hot bowl of Hop Sing’s miracle cure-all soup?” laughed Paul.

“Aw, come on…” giggled Joe.

“Joseph!” said Ben, and then laughed.

“Okay…miracle cure-all soup it’ll be…but can I at least have a piece of apple pie?” Joe asked.

“How’d you know Hop Sing baked an apple pie?” asked Adam from the doorway.

Joe started to giggle, “My leg’s broken big brother, not my nose.”

The sound of his son’s laughter was like music to his ears.  “I don’t think Doc would mind if you had a small slice, would you Paul?”

“No, not as long as I get the first piece,” laughed the doctor.

“Agreed,” chorused the others.

*****

Five days later, the judge had come and gone.  Joe sat on the settee with his leg propped on pillows and resting on the wide table in front of him.  He was lost in his book and never looked up when a soft rapping on the door caused Hop Sing to scurry from the kitchen to answer the knock.

“What you want?” barked Hop Sing at the young man who stood in the doorway.

“My name’s T…”

“Hop Sing know what name is, why you here?” he demanded.

“Hop Sing!” rebuked Ben; “Timmy is a guest in our home, no need for you to be rude to him.  Timmy, come in please,” greeted Ben.

Hop Sing scowled at Timmy and then at his employer and shuffling his feet along the wooden floor, returned to his kitchen.

“You’ll have to forgive our cook, but he’s sort of protective towards Little Joe,” smiled Ben.

“That’s all right, Mister Cartwright, I understand.  Hey Joe,” smiled Timmy shyly when he saw Joe sitting on the settee.

“Hey Tim, what brings you out here?  I thought you’d been on your way to San Francisco by now,” Joe said as he laid his book to the side and offered his hand in welcome.

Timmy shook the offered hand and then sat down on the corner of the table.  “How’s ya leg?”

“Getting better everyday, thanks,” smiled Joe.

Timmy grew quiet and began twisting the rim of his hat.  Joe’s heart softened as he watched the other young man struggling to find words to say whatever it was that brought him to the Ponderosa.

“Tim, I’m glad you stopped by.  I was hoping that I’d get a chance to thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” smiled Joe.

Timmy turned wistful eyes at Joe.  “I only did what I thought was right, Joe.  Ya didn’t deserve to die, or be treated like ya was.  Luke was wrong; it took me a while to realize just how wrong he was.  He hated ya, and he let that hate eat ’em alive.  It’s all he ever talked about in prison; how he was gonna make ya pay for sendin’ him to jail and all.  I only went along with ’em ’cause he was my friend; I never thought he’d do the things that he dun to ya.  I just want ya to know Joe, that I’m sorry for ever being a part of it.  I should have realized years ago that Lucas tweren’t nothin’ but trouble.  And, I wanna thank ya and ya Pa for helpin’ me out.  The judge put me on a year’s probation and is lettin’ me work out my fine while livin’ with my grandfather in San Francisco.  Come to find out, the judge knows Grandpa, so it all worked out just fine.”

Joe glanced up at his father and then turned back to Timmy.  “I’m glad too Tim.  I would have died, had it not been for you.  Maybe someday, I do something for you in return.”

“Joe’s right, Tim. We don’t know how to thank you; my family and I are most appreciative,” smiled Ben.

“Well, I learnt a hard lesson.  First off, it don’t pay none to be a follower.  A man’s gotta learn to stand on his own two feet and make his own decisions, be his own man.  And second, hate can corrode a man’s heart and smother a man’s soul, and its true, cause I done seen with my own eyes how that works.”

Joe smiled and when he met the chocolate eyes of his father, Ben was smiling as well.  Both remembered a similar conversation, five years previous to this one, only this time, it was someone else doing the preaching.

“I think I’ve heard those same words before Timmy, and trust me, the man who said them was right!  I saw it with my eyes, too, and I think we’re both better men for having done so,” smiled Joe.

“I gotta go now, Joe; the sheriff’s waiting, guess he wants to make sure I get on the stage,” laughed Timmy as he stood to his feet and shook Ben’s hand.  He turned to Joe; “Maybe I’ll see someday, Joe.  Take care, now.”

Ben walked as far as the door with the young man and waited until he was mounted up.  He waved his hand in the air as Roy and Timmy turned and rode off.  When he returned to the couch, Joe seemed deep in thought, Ben smiled.

“A penny for your thoughts,” he said, sitting on the table.

“Just a penny?” laughed Joe teasingly.

“Okay then, how about a nickel?” Ben teased back.

“How about you just sitting over here with me for a little while?” said Joe, patting the space next to him on the settee.

Ben quickly moved to the spot that Joe had deemed his and sat down, waiting, for he sensed that Joe had something on his mind that he needed to get off.

After several moments, Joe turned and faced his father.

“Thanks Pa…it’s been a long time coming, maybe too long.  But I don’t think I ever thanked you that day when you tried to make me understand how hate can ruin a man’s life.  Oh, I knew you were meaning well, that you believed what you were telling me, and I suppose deep down, I believed it too, but at the time, I was so confused and…scared.”

Joe swallowed and met his father’s eyes.  “I’ve never told a living soul this; in fact, I’ve only just been able to admit it to myself.”

“What’s that son?” Ben asked, the love and compassion that he always held for his sons, showing now in his eyes as he watched his youngest son coming to terms with something that apparently had haunted him for a very long time.

“It’s something that Lucas tried for years to get me to admit and I never would.  I suppose if he had killed me, I would have died before ever owning up to it.  Funny thing is, I think he really did know, he just wanted to hear me say it, but I was too stubborn, but he knew, deep, deep down inside of him, Lucas knew,” whispered Joe, dropping his head.

Ben waited, when Joe refused to go on, he gently cupped the quivering chin and tipped his son’s head upward.  Softly, in a voice that spoke of the love and respect he held in his heart, he whispered.

“What did Lucas know, son?”

Joe gulped, his eyes filled with tears and when he blinked, they rolled gently down his cheeks.

“That I…” Joe gulped again.

“That I really was…afraid of…him.  Ever since that first day in school, I’ve been scared of him, but I wouldn’t ever let him know, ’cause his knowing scared me more.”

“I see,” Ben said softly.  “Joe, I know what it is to be afraid of someone, something.  Being afraid doesn’t make you less a man, I hope you know that.  It makes you stronger, it gives you a greater understanding of people around you, of the person that you’re afraid of, and most importantly, of yourself.  I think something deep within your heart has known for years that the relationship you had with Lucas was something to be wary of.  Your fear kept you safe, it kept you watchful and it saved your life and changed the life of another young man.  And it helped you to look deeply within yourself and face something that you never thought you’d be able to face.  But today, you did, and I’m proud of you son, very, very proud.”

Ben put his arm about Joe and pulled his son’s head onto his shoulder, planting a kiss amid the dark curls.  “Have I told you lately that I love you?” whispered Ben.

Joe giggled and moved his head just slightly upward so that he could see his father’s face.  “Only about a hundred times…and that’s just been since breakfast!”

Ben squeezed Joe tighter, causing both father and son to start laughing loudly.  “Let’s make it a hundred and one times then; I love you Joseph. More than you will ever know, I love you.”

“Pa, that’s a hundred and two times…”

***End***

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