Tied in Knots (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:


“Oh…” The moan was weak, barely audible.

Long lashes fluttered as pain filled eyes strained to open.

“Ohh…” This time the moan was louder and had there been anyone near, they could have heard it, if they had been listening for it.  As it were, no one was anywhere near the one who voiced the mournful sounds.

The eyelids fluttered once again and this time the eyes stared upward into the blackness of night.  The sky was clear and the stars sparkled their brilliance throughout the wide expanse of the heavens.  At any other time, he would have enjoyed the sight, the twinkling of the stars, the wide-opened spaces beyond, but now his head throbbed where he had been struck from behind.

“Ohhhh…” Again the sound rang out in the darkness, the vast emptiness, this time filled with the pain that seared throughout the body that lay upon the cold damp ground.  He tried to move but the bonds that held his arms tightly behind his back stopped him from doing so.  He attempted to sit up but found that the ropes extended down to his knees where his legs were tied tightly together then further down to the ankles which were pulled upward and connected to the ropes midway of his legs.  Even those had been securely bound together stopping him from doing anything more than lying there.

“Hmm…” cried the wounded one as he turned his body face down to the ground and rested his aching head in the coolness of the soft earth. Shifting his weight slightly caused another moan to escape and again he felt the pain that spread outward and engulfed his body.

He shivered slightly causing small goose bumps to rise on his arms. The temperature was dropping and the chilly night air seemed to be soaking into his body as water would to a sponge. Again he shivered and wished that he had listened when he had been ordered to return promptly after finishing with rounding up the strays that had somehow broken through the fence.  He remembered stopping to inspect the fence before being jumped from behind.  It was just before that that he had witnessed the four riders off in the distance and then when he had stopped at the fence, he had found that the fence had been cut.  Someone had used wire cutters on the barbed wire thus allowing the cattle to escape, or had they been stolen?  He squinted his eyes shut trying to remember; how many men had there been?  Three…no…four.  He wasn’t positive.  Had the four riders in the distance been part of the group of men who had accosted him and then knocked him out after beating him?  There were too many questions and not enough answers.

He moved slightly and nearly screamed as the pain within his rib cage caused daggers of agony to shoot upward and into his chest practically cutting off his ability to breathe.  When the men had ridden up to him, they had seemed friendly enough but having forgotten a valuable lesson that he had been taught his whole life, he had turned his back on the strangers thus giving them the opportunity to start a bombardment of assaults on him.  He had fought with all the strength that youth provided but he had been out numbered four to one.  Fists had come from all directions and when he had finally dropped to the ground, he had received kick after kick to his mid section then his back and once had felt the sharp pointed boot connect with his face.

Rolling over again he tugged at the ropes that restrained him.  It was no use; whoever had tied his wrists, legs and ankles must have known what they were doing for he could not begin to loosen them.

The moon moved behind a large billowy cloud as he watched and the darkness around him took on an eerie feeling without the moon’s soft glow.  In the distance he heard the sorrowful howling of the coyotes and hoped they would keep their distance.  From a branch high in a tree an old owl hooted and somewhere in another tall pine its mate answered.  Something rustled in the bushes nearby and he tried to focus his eyes on the spot where the sound had been heard all the while willing his heart to slow its rapid beating.  As he strained his eyes the moon slipped from behind the cloud and instantly two tiny field mice could be seen scurrying after one another.  With a sigh of relief he allowed the breath he had been holding to slip through parted lips in a swishing sound.  He hated the dark, he hated being alone in the feared darkness, he hated that he was scared and he hated himself for being so foolish as to allow himself to have become tangled in a mess such as this.

His only hope now was that his family would come searching for him.  He hoped it would be soon, it was getting colder by the minute and with each minute that the temperature dropped his body seemed to become stiffer.  He could no longer feel anything in his hands and fingers; the binding had cut the flow of blood into his hands and moving them was impossible.

Little Joe closed his eyes against the pain and cold and tried to remember the faces of the men who had jumped him.  One man’s face stood out in his memory but he could not put a name to that face.  He was sure that he had met the man before or at least thought he had but could not recall where or under what circumstances it had been.  The man’s eyes was what had stuck out most in Joe’s mind, they were cold, calculating and totally without feelings of any kind other than the cruelty that had matched the force behind his strong fists when they rained their consternation onto his face and body.

Joe felt his body begin to shake violently and he moved trying to draw his knees upward into his chest in hopes of warding off some of the cold but even his legs refused to obey the commands of his brain.  Joe yawned and then wished he hadn’t.  His jaw was hurting from where he had been beaten about the face.  The larger man of the group, the one whose name evaded him, had seemed to take special delight in pounding on his face and Joe remembered that the fist that struck him had been rock solid.  The attacker had strength that surpassed that of his brother, Hoss.  Joe wished he could rub at the soreness on the side of his face but knew that was impossible.  He raised his head slightly and looked off into the distant darkness wondering briefly if his family had started searching for him and praying that they had and that before much longer he could hear his father’s soothing voice and rest safely in his comforting arms.  At eighteen, Joe still needed the comfort and reassurance that his father’s presence always offered him and now he yearned to have his father by his side.

Joe fought to remain awake but his eyes seemed to have taken on a mind of their own and slowly they closed.  Something snapped, a twig or perhaps a branch. Instantly his eyes popped opened and searched the area but were unable to see anything.  Joe knew he had to stay awake, if he fell asleep now he could very well freeze.  How he wished for his heavier jacket instead of the thinner one he was wearing.  Joe’s teeth began chattering and the sound reminded him of the pecking sound of a woodpecker as it pecked away at a spot on a tree.

With teeth gritted to stop his cries of agony, he rolled over and over until he came to rest beneath the low hanging branches of a tall Ponderosa pine.  He chose this tree because of its location directly in front of a small mound of rocks that he had seen earlier.  He hoped that the low branches would stop the cold wind that had suddenly rose blowing in from the north and sending its chilly clutches into his bones.  Joe fought with himself to keep his eyes open but the exertion of rolling time and time again had taken its toll on his battered body.  The burning pain had been unbearable and the damp ground had caused his clothes to become wet, further adding to his discomfort and then causing his muscles to have spasms that took his breath away.  Joe screamed only once before he slipped into unconsciousness.

The night birds ceased their calling; the small ground creatures scurried into their burrows and hiding places and a short distance away, a doe and her fawn momentarily stopped their grazing and listened as the heart wrenching scream broke the silence of the night.  For several seconds the woodland was void of any sound other than the raspy breathing of the boy who clung to life.  Minutes later the forest animals returned to their nightly routine totally unaware of the injured boy who lay unconscious under a nearby pine.

**********

“Good morning to you.”

Adam turned from saddling his mount and looked up as the man and his companion rode slowly into the yard.  The big man was nearly as large as Hoss but where Hoss still held on to his boyish physic, this man was solid, muscular and gave the appearance of being very sure of himself.  His eyes, the color of fresh mined coal, but dull and menacing, giving Adam the feeling that he was staring into the depths of obscurity.  He was older, probably near fifty or better, guessed Adam, and when he dismounted the man stood well over six feet tall.  When the man extended his hand out, Adam acknowledged the greeting by offering his hand in return and was amazed at the strength in the man’s handshake.  Briefly, Adam wondered what it might feel like to be punched by such a powerful man and then as quickly, hoped that he would never have to find out.

“Name’s Alexander Manning, young man, and I am looking for Benjamin Cartwright.  Is this the Ponderosa?” Alex inquired finally releasing Adam’s hand and swiftly glancing around his surroundings with his ominous eyes.

Unknowingly, Adam rubbed at his hand, “Yes sir, this is the Ponderosa, Ben Cartwright is my father.  Do you have business with him?”

Alex looked the young man up and down before he spoke, a look of distaste hidden behind his smile.  “I’m an old friend of his.  What might your name be, boy?”

Adam saw the way the man’s eyes had assessed him and something in the way that the man had referred to him as ‘boy’ sent off a small warning alarm in his sub-conscious.

“I’m Adam Cartwright, his oldest son.  I’ll tell my father that you are here,” Adam said as he scrutinized the older man and his younger companion quickly with his own dark brooding eyes.

Adam turned and left the two men standing where they were as he headed for the house. The men, especially the one who called himself Alex, bothered him but he could not understand why.  Maybe it was the way the larger man had looked at him, spoke to him or maybe because the man’s size left him feeling somewhat intimidated, something that Adam was not accustomed to experiencing.

Ben walked out into the yard with his oldest son and wondered at the expression on the young man’s face.  Before he could question his son, a booming voice as large as the man that voiced it roared through the air, “Benjamin Cartwright, my old friend!”

Ben looked up into the face of the man in front of him momentarily searching the face for recognition before he broke into a loud laugh.  “Alex Manning, why you old son of a gun.  What in heaven’s name are you doing in this part of the country?”

Ben clasped the man’s hand into his own giving him a firm handshake. Alex gathered Ben into a bear hug and each man patted the back of the other.  It was obvious to Adam that the man and his father were old time friends, just as Alex had stated.  Adam felt himself relax at the knowledge and thought possibly that he had misread the man.

Hoss joined his brother and father in the yard as Adam finished saddling his horse.  Ben turned when Hoss approached and Ben made his introductions.  “Alex, this is my middle son, Hoss.  Hoss, this is Alex Manning, an old and dear friend of mine.  We once sailed the high seas together, but that was a long time ago,” laughed Ben.

“Howdy sir, pleased to meet ya.”  Hoss tipped his hat, offered his hand to the man and waited for the man to return the gesture.  Instead Alex turned to his companion and introduced him, totally ignoring Hoss’ out stretched hand.

“Ben, this is my nephew, Daniel.  Daniel, meet Mr. Cartwright.”  Alex smiled in satisfaction when Ben offered his hand to his nephew and Daniel accepted the acknowledgment.

Hoss had moved to stand next to Adam and both brothers exchanged skeptical looks.  Adam mounted his horse and motioned for Hoss to follow suit.  “Pa, we will be back before nightfall.  We’ll find that wayward son for you,” said Adam and he gave his father a reassuring smile.

Ben excused himself from his company and moved to his son’s side.  “Adam, let me know as soon as you find him.  I’m worried that something might have happened to him.  But if he is caught goofing off, I swear I will tan his backside for scaring the life out of me.  I knew I should have never let him ride out there by himself, not with our cattle being carted away by the hundreds.”

“Pa, try not to worry.  Joe can take care of himself, he ain’t gonna let anyone get a drop on him, not if’n he can help it any ways,” encouraged Hoss who tried to hide his own worries behind his smile.

“I hope you’re right Hoss, but I still can’t help it, I’m worried.  It isn’t like Joseph to stay out all night without letting one of us know.  And I doubt seriously that he has been working all of this time.”  Ben gave his sons a frail smile and bid them good-bye.

Alex and Daniel moved to stand behind Ben and the uncle smiled slightly at his nephew. Ben had missed the exchange and was unaware of the pleased looks on the face of his friend and his nephew.

“Something wrong Ben?  Sounds like someone’s missing,” asked Alex as he and Daniel followed Ben into the house.

Ben shook his head, “I’m not sure.  My youngest son, Joseph, didn’t come home last night.  Adam and Hoss are going to search for him.”

Daniel laughed, “Maybe he has a girlfriend you don’t know about.”

Ben turned his dark eyes to the younger man who appeared to be around Adam’s age and studied his expression.  The boy seemed to have a smirk on his face that instantly annoyed Ben.  Ben moved his eyes to his friend’s face half expecting the older man to make a comment on his nephew’s audacity but the man did not open his mouth.

Ben let the comment drop, better to keep his thoughts to himself.  He had noticed that Alex had acted strangely when he had been introduced to Hoss and had refused his son’s polite hand movement.  Perhaps his friend’s rudeness had been an oversight and Ben pushed the incident from his mind as he made his company welcomed in his home.

**********

Joe opened his eyes slightly.  Even that small movement sent sparks of pain seemingly through the front of his head and out the back.  Every muscle in his body begged to be released from their tight confines.  His hands had lost all feeling and his legs cramped, the muscles in his back ached from the onslaught of the kicks it had received and his chest felt as if each and every rib had either been cracked or broken.  Joe tried to draw in a breath of fresh air but his throat was now so sore and raw that he felt as if it were on fire.  Swallowing was almost impossible and when he tried to call out for help, he could not gather enough air from within to complete a word.

Panic began to rise in Joe’s heart, what if no one found him. Where was his family?  What if they didn’t find him in time?  Didn’t they even care?  What was keeping them?  Didn’t they know how badly he needed them?  Joe’s body trembled with fear as the forbidding thoughts came to play in his mind.  He had to move, he told himself, he had to get out from under the tree and into the open so that he might have a better chance of seeing someone should they ride by.  Fighting to control the piercing pain that plagued his body, Joe attempted to roll over as he had done the night before but his body refused to follow his mind’s order.  Joe felt the tears that gathered in his eyes and when they began to roll onto his cheeks he made no effort to stop them, instead he gave him self over to his despair.

‘Pa,’ he cried silently wishing that the older man were there now, ‘this isn’t the way it was suppose to happen.  I’m supposed to grow old, be a grandfather before I die.  Oh God please…I don’t want to die…not like this.  Not alone, not way out here where no one even knows where I’m at…not by myself.’  Joe could not stop his tears and as he closed his eyes he felt himself slipping back into the darkness and was unaware that just over the rise his two older brothers were searching and calling out for him.

**********

Hoss pulled his horse to a stop and handed the reins to Adam as he dismounted.  Adam waited, knowing that if there were any tracks to be found, Hoss would locate them.  After several minutes of walking in a wide circle searching in all directions, Hoss returned to stand next to Adam’s horse.

“Dadburnit Adam, I can’t find nuthin’, not a hint of a track any where.  Wonder where in tarnation that boy got to?”  Hoss looked up into the face of his brother and the worry he saw in the dark eyes that stared back at him was reflected in his own blue eyes.

“I don’t know Hoss.”  Adam scanned the horizon to the east of him with his eyes then returned to look down at Hoss.  “I think Pa might have been right in worrying.  Joe has done some pretty stupid things in his life, but staying out all night just to round up strays is not one of them.  I’m getting worried Hoss, I don’t like this one bit.”

Hoss saw the expression change on his brother’s face.  Earlier both of them had been aggravated at their youngest brother for the extra time they were having to spend looking for him, but now those feelings had turned first to concern and now to worry.  Hoss pulled his hat from his head and swiped the sweat from his brow before returning it.

“Let me ask ya somethin’ Adam.  What’ca make of that Mr. Manning and that nephew of his?” Hoss wanted to know Adam’s thoughts on the two men.

“Why?  What did you think of them?” Adam replied watching his brother’s reaction and wondering if he had gotten the same uneasy feeling about the pair as he himself had gotten.

“Aw, I don’t know.  That Alex fella, well to tell ya the truth Adam, I got a funny feelin’ about’em.  Did ya see the way he just looked at me?  Didn’t even bother to shake my hand.  And that nephew of his’n, he looked like he could kill ya and never bat an eye while doing it,” Hoss stated his feelings about the two men, one which claimed to be his father’s friend.   “Did ya see the look in his eyes and the way they darted back and forth?  Strange if’n ya ask me.”

Adam handed Hoss back the reins to his horse and this time searched the western horizon, shading his eyes against the sun’s glare.  “I got the feeling Pa’s so-called friend is nothing but trouble.  I’ve never been really afraid of any man Hoss, but to tell you the truth, that man gives me the jitters. Did you see the size of his arms and his hands?  The man makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, know what I mean?”

Hoss remounted his horse and turned to face his brother, somewhat surprised at his older sibling’s confession, “Yeah Adam, I know what’ca mean.  But why?  We ain’t even met the man before have we?”  Hoss felt uneasy, never before had he known Adam to have such an instant dislike of another man and one that he admittedly was leery of.

“I don’t know Hoss, like I said, I can’t explain it.”  Adam nudged his mount forward, saying nothing more about the men in question.  “Come on, it’ll be dark before much longer and we have to find Joe.  Let’s ride over that rise and then we can start back on the other side.  With any luck, maybe we can find something.”  Adam allowed Hoss to ride in front so that he could search the ground for any signs that their youngest brother had possibly been by this way.

**********

From under the tree the young boy struggled to return to consciousness.  When he was finally able to open his swollen eyes, the sun had moved starting its westward descent in the evening sky.  The sky had darkened somewhat and Joe realized that nightfall was once again fast approaching.  Fear clutched at his heart as the thought of spending yet another night alone in the dark, bound hand and foot and not knowing if help would arrive in time, came into mind.  The pain and stiffness in his body warned him that time was running out and fear caused him to force himself to cry out.  As the mournful whimper rose from his chest Joe felt the fire burning within his throat but he managed to swallow the boiling bile that filled his mouth.  Once again tears formed in his hazel eyes and, as hysteria seized his heart, he began jerking and pulling, fighting at his tightly knotted bounds in a frail attempt to free himself but the well tied mariner knots refused to give.

**********

Adam and Hoss stopped once again as Hoss searched the ground.  “Nuthin’ Adam, not a sign.  Let’s start back, maybe he’s already gotten home.”  Hoss’ face held the expression of hope as Adam nodded his head in agreement.

Both brothers rode in silence as they headed home each lost in their own thoughts regarding their brother’s whereabouts.  Suddenly Hoss pulled his horse to an abrupt halt causing Adam’s horse to jerk to the side.  Quickly Hoss jumped to the ground and bent down to examine the dirt as he lightly ran his fingers over the area in question.

“Hey Adam, will ya lookit this?” he called over his shoulder.

Adam joined his brother on the ground and examined the scene.  “What is it?”

Hoss looked hopefully into the older boy’s face.  “Here,” he pointed to a spot, “it looks like something either crawled away or was dragged away.  See how the dirt is pushed to the side?”  Hoss took a couple of steps forward.  “And look,” Hoss stooped down and picked up a fallen leaf.  “This is blood Adam, see?”  Hoss handed the leaf to Adam so that he could inspect it.  “There’s more,” he pointed to the ground, “and lots of it over here.”

“Could have been an injured animal Hoss,” suggested Adam, trying to calm the fear that had begun to surface.  He hated to think that his young brother might have laid out in the cold all night and then again today injured and bleeding, or worse.

“Adam, lookit this,” Hoss handed Adam a small scrap of material and watched as his brother held it in his hands.  Adam’s brown worried filled eyes met those of his brother’s worried blue eyes as realization set in.

“Joe…it’s a piece of his green jacket, Adam.  That means he was here.”  Hoss’ voice had risen an octave as dread filled his heart.  “He’s been hurt Adam.   And badly from the looks of all this here blood.” cried Hoss as he moved forward following the indention’s in the dirt until they ended at the pine tree where unknown to both brothers, the youngest member of the family lay unobserved and lost in the darkness of unconsciousness.

Twilight had nearly fallen on the two distressed figures as they stood by the tree.  Hoss exchanged glances with his older brother asking with his eyes for reassurance.  Adam reached an arm out to his middle brother and together they knelt down as Adam drew his gun from his holster on the chance that under the large low hanging branches might lay an animal that had been wounded.  With his large hand, Hoss pulled away the branches and when their eyes fell on the lone figure lying unconscious on the ground both young men gasped.

“Oh God,” cried Adam aloud as he crawled under the tree trying to reach Joe’s side.  Hoss moved hastily to join Adam and together they turned Joe over so that they might see his face.  Quickly Adam laid his long fingers to Joe’s neck searching frantically for a carotid pulse.  When his fingers found their mark, his eyes swiftly darted to Hoss and he smiled faintly.

“He’s alive,” Adam stated and began working at the knots that held his brother’s arms and legs bound together.  Hoss used his hand and carefully wiped the dirt from the boy’s face as Adam continued to struggle with the ropes.  Finally Adam pulled his knife from his pocket and sliced through the ropes, freeing Joe of the tight restraints that had held him captive for innumerable hours.  For unknown reasons Adam stuffed the knotted ropes into his jacket pocket and returned his knife to the pocket of his pants.

“Joe?” whispered Hoss, “can ya hear me?”  Hoss cradled Joe in his arms and continued to speak softly.  “Joe, open ya eyes Punkin.  It’s me, Hoss.”  Joe lay in his brother’s strong arms, totally unaware that his family had at last found him.  When he made no response to his brother’s pleading, Hoss drew the boy to his heart and wept.  “Come on baby, answer me, please,” he cried into his brother’s ear.

Adam rested his hand on his brother’s large shoulder.  “Hoss, he can’t hear you.  We have to get him help.  Come on, let’s get him out from under this tree and get him warm.  He’s freezing.”

Adam started backing out from under the pine and Hoss, carefully holding on to the injured boy, followed him.  Instantly Adam ran to the horses and removed his and Hoss’ bedrolls returning to wrap Joe’s shivering body into the folds.  Hoss gently lowered the boy to the ground and began gathering wood to start a fire.  When that was completed and the fire roaring, he returned to Joe’s side where Adam knelt speaking in soft tones to his brother and Hoss saw Adam’s tears as they dropped from his quivering chin.  He stood silently, allowing his oldest brother the time he needed to come to terms with what had happened to their baby brother.

When Adam looked up and saw the tear stained face that watched him he regained control of his own emotions and instantly took charge of the situation.  “Hoss ride to the house.  Tell Pa that we found Joe and have one of the hands ride to town for the doctor and have him meet us back at the ranch.  Bring a wagon back to get Joe home in.  We can’t get him on a horse; he’s too badly injured to try to ride home.”  When Hoss made no attempt to move, Adam looked again into his brother’s face.  “Hoss,” he said loudly bringing the other boy back to his senses.  “Did you hear me?”

“Yeah, I heard ya.  I’m sorry Adam; it’s just…well…what if’n…” Hoss stopped; he could not finish putting his fears into words.  “I’ll be back as soon as I can.  Ya take care of little brother now, ya hear?” he called over his shoulder as he turned to mount his horse.  With one last glance at the badly beaten boy lying helpless on the ground, Hoss kicked Chubb hard in the flanks and took off at a gallop, headed for home and help.

Adam turned his full attention back to Joe.  Taking water from his canteen and wetting his handkerchief he began cleaning the battered and bruised face.  Joe stirred slightly as the coldness of the water touched his skin.  While Adam worked, he spoke in whispered tones, hoping that the boy might respond.  He was afraid for the boy; Joe’s injuries appeared severe.  He had lost a large amount of blood and he was running a fever.  Adam worried about internal injuries and hoped that Hoss would return before long with the wagon so that they could get Joe back home and have the doctor examine him. Adam continued talking to the boy and was rewarded a short time later when the eyelids began to flutter and the eyes at last opened.

“Hey little buddy,” smiled Adam speaking in a low controlled voice.  “Looks as if you’ve had a rough time.”

Joe blinked his eyes trying to focus on the face in front of him.  He recognized the voice of his oldest brother but he was having difficulty bringing the face into something other than the blurry form he was seeing.  When he opened his mouth to speak, he could not complete a sound, so inflamed was his throat and he struggled even to swallow.

Adam tried to reassure the boy as he gathered him into his arms.  The sight of seeing his baby brother in such a condition ripped at the walls of his heart allowing ire and loathing to flood their way within.

“Shh, don’t try to speak, Joe.  Hoss has gone for help.  As soon as he gets back, we’ll get you home.”  Adam continued to hold his brother and watched as Joe once again tried to form his words.

Tears filled the bruised and swollen eyes as Joe looked into the face of the man whose arms held him.  Again he tried to speak and still no words could be heard.  Joe squeezed his eyes tightly and allowed the tears to roll down his cheeks.  Adam watched with dismay as his brother struggled with his words as he tried to understand what it was that Joe wanted to tell him.

“What is it Joe?  What are you trying to say?” he asked never allowing his eyes to leave the wounded boy’s face.  “Don’t try to talk, just form the words with your lips.”

Joe opened his eyes and relaxed against Adam’s chest.  He could hear the steady beating of his brother’s heart and instantly Joe was comforted.  He formed only one word using his lips as Adam had instructed and struggled to watch the face to see if his brother had understood.

Adam’s eyes lit up when he realized what his brother had said.  “He’s coming Joe.  I promise, Pa will be here soon.”

Adam watched the tears of relief flow from the eyes of his brother and felt his own eyes fill with tears.  Adam had known in his heart that the first person his brother would have asked for would have been Pa.  The bond that existed between their father and his youngest son was one that only God in heaven could explain and one that no man could sever.

Adam watched as Joe struggled with his misery and wished that he could do something to make the boy more comfortable.  Several times Joe had attempted to cry out while flinging his arms about in the air and Adam had known that the discomfort in the boy’s hands was due to the feeling returning to them. The rush of oxygen deprived blood that flowed forth to feed the hungry veins of his hands caused the boy to have excruciating pain. Adam had only been able to hold the arms close to Joe’s body gently massaging the hands hoping to alleviate the tingling sensations that he knew were causing the boy severe anguish.

While Joe slept, Adam added more wood to the fire and decided that it would be in Joe’s best interest to remove his damp clothing.  As Adam undressed his younger brother he was amazed at the number of bruises that covered the boy’s body.  Adam felt his blood begin to boil with the anger that he felt toward the perpetuators that had inflicted the injuries to Joe’s flesh.

Adam wrapped Joe back in the bedroll and hung the damp clothing on a nearby branch close to the fire so that they might dry.  When Adam returned to Joe’s side he noticed that Joe had kicked aside the lower part of the blankets and that the muscles beneath the battered skin of his legs had started to spasm.  Adam watched in alarm as Joe’s body tensed as the convulsive movements of the muscles took control of the body.  Quickly kneeling down Adam pulled the remaining covers from around Joe’s legs and began massaging the taunt members until he felt the muscles begin to soften.  After Joe’s body had relaxed and he had replace the blankets, Adam stood taking the canteen from his saddle and pouring a small amount into his hat, he held it high enough over the open fire to allow the heat to warm the contents without burning the hat.  When the chill had been knocked from the water, he returned to his brother’s side and raised Joe’s head.

“Joe, wake up little buddy,” encouraged Adam.

Joe’s eyes slowly opened and he was able to give his brother a tiny smile.  Adam poured a small amount of warm water into his cupped hands and offered it to Joe.  Joe sipped slowly, allowing the warm liquid to fill his mouth.  Suddenly Joe gagged causing the water to seep from the sides of his parched lips.  Joe looked into Adam’s eyes and Adam could see the sudden fear that reflected in the hazel depths.

“It’s okay Joe, we’ll try again later.  Once Pa gets here and we get you home, Doc will make you feel better, I promise,” soothed Adam as he tenderly brushed back the stray curl that had fallen on the boy’s brow.

Adam started to move away but was stopped when Joe whimpered drawing Adam’s attention back to his brother.  “What is it Joe?  What do you want?” Adam asked kindly as he knelt down watching Joe’s face.

Joe formed the word once again as his eyes filled with tears.  Adam saw the pleading look cross the young face and had to fight to hide his own tears from his brother.  Never before had Adam seen his brother as he was now, helpless, wounded, defenseless, and vulnerable and it tore at the very core of his being.  Once again Adam offered encouragement to the boy.  “Joe, I promise, Pa is coming.”

Joe tried to raise himself from his spot on the ground but was stopped by Adam’s restraining hands.  “Joe, you need to lay down and be still,” instructed Adam but Joe turned his head until it rested on his brother’s arm.  Adam raised the quivering chin with one hand and held the boy in a semi-upright position with the other.  “I don’t understand what it is you are wanting, little buddy?”

Joe forced his aching arms upward until he could almost rest them on his brother’s shoulders and tried to pull Adam’s body toward his.  Suddenly Adam understood his brother’s need.  “Joe, do you want me to hold you?”

Joe nodded his head up and down as Adam moved to sit behind the boy and gather him into his arms.  Reaching for the blanket, Adam recovered Joe from his shoulders down to his feet and leaned back, cradling the young boy as he had often done when Joe had been a small child in need of his brother’s comfort.

Adam was suddenly awakened from sleep by the sound of an approaching wagon.  Glancing down at the boy he still held in his arms and seeing that he was still sleeping, Adam being careful not to wake him thus igniting his pain once again, quietly laid the boy on the blanket where he had been sitting.  As he rose, Hoss and Ben pulled the horses to a stop.  In a movement that reflected the dexterity that his father still maintained, Ben jumped from the wagon and was beside his youngest son instantly.

Ben was shocked at the discoloration that adorned his son’s once handsome face and he looked questionably up into the face of his oldest son.  Adam could not miss the look of anguish that clouded the dark eyes of his father.  Ben returned his attention to Joe and carefully began to unfold the blanket that Adam had covering his youngest son’s body.  He wanted to inspect the extent of the boy’s injuries and with each bruise that his father counted, Adam could see the pain multiplied within the dark penetrating eyes.  Adam knew that his father was struggling to maintain control of his emotions as the tears dripped from his father’s eyes onto the blanket that covered his youngest son.  Once, Adam had seen the clenching and unclenching of his father’s jaw as he struggled with the hatred Adam knew was growing within and silently prayed that his father’s faith in God would prevent him from doing something that he might later regret.  Vengeance was forged on every line that had furrowed their way onto the older man’s face as Adam watched in awe of the deepening creases that manifested themselves.

Ben was incensed, angrier than he had ever been in his entire life.  How dare a man, any man, lay their hands in such a manner to one of his sons?  This was just a boy, not fully grown and yet, he had suffered a beating that most men could not have endured.  And for what? Ben questioned himself, a few heads of cattle, money?  What reason would a monster have to batter a boy to such a degree and then leave him wounded to die alone in the elements?  Ben struggled to keep his disgust at the injustice of the situation within himself but he had lost the battle with his tears.  As they spilled over once again, he made no move to hide them from his two older sons who had each come to kneel next to him beside their brother.  Hoss and Adam watched their father’s breakdown and knew how he felt for just a few short hours ago; they too had fought their own private hells as to how and why this had taken place.  Now they waited patiently as their father fought to conquer his own living hell, ready to give their support.

“Pa,” Adam spoke softly and laid a reassuring hand on his father’s slumped shoulders.  Ben raised his tear-streaked face briefly and stared blankly into his oldest son’s face.  “We need to get him home.”

Adam stepped across Joe’s prone body and as he knelt on the opposite side, Joe moaned in pain.  Ben’s thoughts snapped back into the present and instantly he gave his young son his full attention.

“Joseph, sweetheart, your Pa’s here.  Son, can you hear me?”  Ben waited with baited breath as Joe struggled to find his father’s face in the dim light of the fire.  When his eyes at last found what they had been searching for, Joe opened his mouth and tried to speak but the only thing that was heard was soft protesting sounds.  Joe made a scowl and tried a second time but still his voice continued to evade him as silent tears of yearning filled his eyes.

“Pa, his throat has been so sore, he hasn’t been able to say a word,” Adam explained to his father.  “I think what he wants to say is that he is happy you are here.”  Adam turned to Joe, “is that right, Joe?”

Joe nodded his head yes in response to his brother’s question.  “I came as soon as Hoss told me what happened son.  Now, let’s see about getting you home and having Paul check you out.”  Ben bent down, placed a kiss on Joe’s brow and gave his son a smile that was meant as encouragement but Adam saw that the smile was only on the lips and never made it to light his father’s eyes.

Together Ben and Adam carried the injured boy to the back of the wagon and with care placed him on the bed of thick hay that Hoss had spread about for Joe’s comfort.  Joe tried not to cry out as he was carried to the wagon but twice the pain in his hands and legs reach unbearable magnitude forcing his voice to crack through the burning canal of his throat.  By the time his father and brother had tenderly placed him in the wagon, Joe had fainted.

Ben crawled in next to his son and made sure that Joe was covered warmly with the extra blankets that had also been tossed into the wagon earlier.  Hoss climbed into the seat as Adam gathered his belongs, doused the fire and mounted his horse.

Hoss guided the horses carefully through the darkness, moving at a snail’s pace to avoid jarring his brother and causing him more discomfort.  The ride was slow and by the time they reached the yard of their home, the morning sun’s rays could be seen rising atop the distant mountains.  Paul Martin and Roy Coffee met the Cartwright family as the horses were called to stop.  Paul stopped the family from moving Joe as he jumped into the wagon to briefly check out his young patient.  Right away Paul did not like what he saw and the look of grave concern that showed on his face was mirrored in the four faces that watched him.

“Carefully, move him very carefully,” instructed Paul.  “I’m sure he has some busted ribs, maybe a concussion and God only knows what else.”  Paul jumped down from the wagon and walked ahead of Adam and Hoss who carried Joe’s body inside and up the stairs.  Ben and Roy followed closely behind, Ben giving no thoughts to the two men, which stood across the yard watching.

**********

The two men watched from the side of the yard as the injured boy was lifted from the wagon.  Stepping a bit closer, both gasped softly when the boy’s beaten face came into view.  When the family had all entered the house, Alex looked to his nephew with a troubled expression on his face.

“You idiot,” he muttered, “don’t tell me you didn’t know that was Cartwright’s son?” accused Alex.  “What do you think I am paying you for, goofing off?”

The younger man stood as if in shock unable to speak.  Alex slapped the stunned face and repeated his question.  “Did you know that was Cartwright’s boy?”

“No uncle…honest, I had no idea,” Daniel rubbed at his stinging cheek as he tried to plead his case.  “Besides, why are you yelling at me?  You’re the one who beat the boy like that; all I did was kick him a few times.”

Daniel’s lips parted in a small smile as he recalled how the boy had cried out painfully for his father each and every time that his pointed boot had connect to the boy’s body.  Daniel laughed at the mental picture of the boy when he had screamed as the boot had ended up in his face, bringing forth the blood and splattering droplets on the hard surface of the ground only to be absorbed by the dirt.  His amusement was quickly dashed as Daniel’s attention was reverted back to his uncle when he heard the anger in his voice as the elder man snapped at him.

Daniel’s statement infuriated the older man and he turned on his nephew, “you had better keep those thoughts to yourself, or I’ll give you a taste of what I gave the boy there.”  Alex nodded his head toward the retreating backs of the men as they closed the front door of the house.

“You had better get rid of that pinto you were planning on keeping before anyone finds it and puts two and two together, and do it soon, understand?  Because if you don’t there will be hell to pay,” Alex turned in a huff from his nephew and moved to enter the house.

Daniel stood in silence until his uncle entered the house before he walked to the barn and saddled his horse.  Minutes later he rode away from the house heading to the hideout to do his uncle’s bidding.  He had wanted to keep the Cartwright’s pinto but knew that now it would be impossible, if anyone recognized the horse, his uncle’s plans to send the Cartwrights into financial destruction would be foiled.  Daniel knew that Alex would do to him what he had done to the young boy inside.  More than once he had felt the sharp pain that came from his face making contact with his uncle’s powerful fists and he did not intend to feel it again so soon after the last time.  Daniel briefly wondered how the boy had managed to live throughout the night, they had tied him in such a manner as to prevent his escape and his uncle had assured him that the kid would be dead by morning.  Neither had realized that the boy was the youngest son of the man he planned on destroying.  Uncle had under estimated the boy’s will to survive.

**********

In the house, Joe had been placed carefully on his bed for Paul to start his examination.  Joe’s blanket had been removed leaving the boy’s body fully exposed except for his lower extremities, which Paul had left covered to avoid embarrassment.  Gasps filled the room as four pairs of startled eyes took in the sight of the battered boy.  The bruises were better seen in the brighter light than they had been in the dim glow of the campfire from the night before.   Joe’s family could not hide their shocked expressions that had suddenly become visible on their startled faces and the looks that where exchanged between themselves spoke volumes about the turmoil that brewed within each man.

Paul turned to Ben and his sons requesting that they leave him to examine the boy. No one made a move to exit the room each shaking their heads no, indicating to the doctor that they were not about to be leaving.

Paul shook his head and mumbled under his breath, “I should have known, Cartwright trait, you are all as stubborn as mules.”

Paul started his examine beginning at Joe’s head and turned slightly as he heard the approaching footsteps behind him.  When he looked up, Ben, Adam, Hoss, and now Hop Sing had circled him around the bed.  Roy had chosen to wait in the great room and visited with Ben’s friend, Alex Manning.  Inwardly, Paul smiled; he knew this family’s great love for his young patient and had known ahead of time that the family would remain close to the boy’s side.

Joe opened his eyes when he felt the doctor’s hands on his brow.  Paul noted the rise in temperature and immediately noticed the white of the right eye was bright red, indicating that it had hemorrhaged.

“Joe, have you experienced any pain, double vision or decreased vision?”  Joe could only shake his head yes.  Paul took note that the pupil was larger than the left eye and that the right eye drifted in the opposite direction than what the other eye was focusing on.

“Ben, this particular injury of the eye his called hythema, or bleeding into the anterior chamber of the eye, thus obstructing the iris.”  Paul went on to explain what treatment he would be administering.  “Proper treatment is to place a protective shield over the injured eye to prevent further injury.”  Paul looked into the concerned faces and continued before giving the men a chance to react.  “I am going to cover both eyes to minimize movement and strain on the healthy eye.”

Joe searched for his father’s face, the fear clearly etched on his own.  Tears filled the wounded eyes as a soft whimper escaped through the cracked lips.  Ben knelt down beside the bed and took his son’s enlarged hand into his own.

“Joseph, it will be okay, I promise.  Try to calm down, please.  You will not have to go through this alone.  One of us will always be close by.”  Ben watched as the tears continued to roll down Joe’s face and felt his own tears join his son’s.

Paul continued with his examine wanting to finish before Joe became too distraught.  Paul felt the glands on the side of Joe’s throat taking note that they were swollen.  At that point, Joe was instructed to open his mouth, which he complied.  Paul used a small candle holding it within inches of Joe’s mouth and peered inside.  The throat was raw and inflamed thus being the reason for the boy to be having problems swallowing and speaking.

“Joe, your throat is a mess.  It is very raw and I’m sure very painful for you.  That is the reason you are having trouble swallowing and speaking. That’s the cause of your drooling also, but don’t be alarmed, I will take care of all of that for you.” Paul then turned to Hop Sing and instructed the little man on how to prepare a mustard plaster to wrap around Joe’s throat.  Turning back to Joe he explained to the boy what he was going to do.

“We will wrap the plaster around your throat until the swelling subsides and the soreness is gone.  It will be uncomfortable but well worth it, I assure you,” smiled Paul as Joe nodded his head to show the doctor that he understood and accepted the treatment.  Hop Sing left Joe’s bedside to do as the doctor instructed as Paul worked his way downward in his examination.

Paul left along each of Joe’s arms, relieved that there we no breaks.  Paul saw the rope burns on each wrist and that Joe’s hands were badly swollen.  “Joe, you will be unable to use your hands for awhile.  Look at these fingers, the joints are so swollen that you are not able to bend them.  This was caused by your wrists being bound so tightly and cutting off the blood flow to your hands and fingers.”

Moving over to the chest cavity, Paul gently probed along the ribcage frowning as his fingers felt the numerous cracks to the ribs along both sides of the thorax.  Paul cast worried eyes at Ben, knowing that he would have a fight on their hands when the boy realized that not only would his ribcage be bound but that the arms would have to be bound as well in order to avoid unnecessary movement that might cause further damage.

Gently probing the abdominal area and noting the large black and blue bruise that spread from the hips to the genital hairline Paul applied a small amount of pressure which caused Joe to stiffen his body in pain.  Paul looked up at Joe and apologized for hurting him.

“I’m sorry Joseph, but I needed to find out if this was a bruise that resulted from the beating or an internal injury as a result of the beating,” Paul explained.

When Paul again applied the same pressure to the area above the hairline, Joe’s bladder unexpectedly reacted and released itself.  Joe turned his head to the side hiding his face in embarrassment as the tears fell from his eyes.  Ben who still knelt at Joe’s side gently drew his son’s face into his chest and lovingly stroked the back of his head.  Ben knew the abashment Joe was feeling and wanted to shield his son from the faces of the other men who stood watching.  Adam turned his head and Hoss felt his own face redden at his brother’s humiliation and quickly left the room.  He returned moments later and handed Ben dry blankets that Ben quickly substituted with the wet ones.

Immediately Paul saw the reddish tinge in the urine confirming his suspicions that there had been trauma to the kidney.  Paul moved to the legs as his friend continued to console his son.  Again rope burns were seen about the knees and under the tender probing of Paul’s expert fingers he could feel the tightness of the muscles from being confined in an unnatural position for an extended period of time.

Paul leaned back after finishing his examines and took a deep breath before facing the boy’s family.  Ben moved from his spot where he had been kneeling next to Joe’s bed and sat down next to his son on the side of the bed.

“Well, what do we do first?” Ben asked and then watched Joe’s face as the look of panic rose into his eyes.

“Joseph,” started Paul, as he looked the boy in the face.  “The first thing that I want you to do is to take a sedative to help you relax and rest.  It will make you sleepy, which is what I want you to do and what you need to do.  When you are fully relaxed, I will then bind your cracked ribs and apply the application to your eyes.”  Paul saw the tears that welled up in the sad bruised eyes and felt his own heart become heavy with sympathy for the boy.

“Joe, remember I have to also bind your arms when I do the ribs, so you won’t have use of them for awhile.  I just wanted you to remember so that when you wake up, you won’t be scared.  Do you understand?”  Joe shook his head in understanding and then cast his panic filled eyes at his father.

Ben caressed his son’s arm hoping to calm the boy’s fears.  “Son, one of us will always be with you.  Try not to worry.”

Joe watched as Paul dug into his black bag and whimpered when he saw the needles and vials that the doctor pulled from his case.  Paul turned at the sound to see Joe attempting to rise from the bed.  “Whoa, where you going boy?” asked Paul, knowing that Joe feared the dreaded needles.  Joe stopped and sank back down against the pillows; he knew there was no escape. The doctor covered one side of him, his father the other and both his brothers stood at the foot of his bed.  Joe reluctantly resigned himself to his fate.

Joe turned toward his father and buried his face into the older man’s chest as Paul prepared to administer the first shot.  Joe’s arm tightened slightly as he felt the needle penetrate the skin.

“Joe, I’m going to wait until you fall asleep before I give you the morphine for the pain, how’s that?”  Joe did not bother to answer the doctor but instead, kept his face buried in his father’s chest.  Within minutes Joe had fallen to sleep leaning against Ben.  Ben held Joe in his arms and watched as Paul inserted the second needle carrying the morphine to relieve his son’s pain.

While Ben held Joe in an upright position Dr. Martin began wrapping both the ribcage and arms leaving enough space to enable the lungs to expand without causing the boy any further discomfort.

Hop Sing returned to the room bringing with him the mustard plaster for Joe’s sore throat and blankets that he had warmed.  Paul took the plaster from Hop Sing and loosely secured it around Joe’s neck.  Ben lowered his son back into the pillows and covered him with the blankets, being sure to tuck them in securely.  Ben looked at his son and thought how vulnerable he looked.  A stray curl had fallen onto the boy’s brow and Ben could not resist the urge to brush it back. Lightly his hand moved from the boy’s brow to caress the bruised cheek.  Leaning down in order to reach his son’s face, Ben placed a kiss on each side of the battered face.  Tears gathered in his brown eyes as he thought of the senseless pain that his son suffered, and silently vowed that if it took the rest of his life, he would hunt down the man or men who had done this to his boy and bring them to justice.

Paul wet the eye compresses in warm water and placed them over Joe’s closed eyelids.  Paul then secured the bandages by tying a small knot in the material at the back of Joe’s head.  The doctor rose from the bed and as he began gathering his instruments he instructed the family on his patient’s care.

“Ben, the boy must have as much liquids as you can get him to drink.  His throat should be somewhat better by the time he wakes up, try just a little then.  Don’t force it, but be persistent.  Rest; make sure he gets plenty of rest, which will aid in the kidneys healing much faster.  And please, try to keep him as quiet as possible.  Under no circumstance is he to leave that bed, is that clear?”  Paul looked from Ben to Adam, Hoss and finally to Hop Sing.

“No worry doc, Hop Sing keep litle one in bed,” promised the little Chinaman bowing respectfully to the doctor.

“I will leave you a sedative.  Give this as needed to help him rest and the painkiller every eight to twelve hours.  Both are in powder form; I gave him the shots because I wanted them to work faster, God knows the boy needed some relief.”  Paul turned to Adam and Hoss, “if you can, you might try massaging his back and legs to help loosen those muscles.  We don’t want them to spasm.  That would likely be most unbearable for him.”

Ben walked with the doctor to the door, “Thanks Paul for coming out; you know I appreciate it.”

“Ben, you know I always come anytime you need me, you know how I feel about your family, especially that boy upstairs.”  Paul put on his coat and reached for his hat.  “If you need me anytime today or tonight, send word, otherwise I will be out in a couple of days to check on him.”

Ben closed the door and for just a quick second, rested his head on the frame as he sent a plea of mercy for his son, heavenward.  Drawing a deep breath and straightening his back, Ben turned toward the great room.  It was then that he remembered his friend who was now visiting with the sheriff.

Roy stood when Ben moved to sit in his chair; Adam and Hoss had remained with their brother upstairs, which did not surprise their father. He knew they would.

“How’s the boy, Ben?” Roy was the first to ask, concern evident in the tone of his voice. Alex remained seated and listened intently for Ben’s reply.

Ben rubbed the back of his neck hoping to ease the tension that had settled there.  “Not good, Roy.  He’s in a bad way, nearly every rib was cracked, he can’t see well, his kidney is injured, his throat is so sore and swollen he can’t even speak.  And his hands…God, Roy, you should see them…and the pain…” Ben’s voice cracked and he stopped, unable to continue.  From out of no where, Hop Sing appeared with a glass of brandy and handed it to Ben.  Ben accepted the glass and smiled his thanks as Hop Sing moved to pour one for each of Ben’s two guests.

Roy moved to stand in front of Ben’s chair, on the settee, Alex’s thoughts were dancing in his head, this was getting better by the minute, he thought.  The plan is working better than I even thought it would, and I didn’t even know that the damn kid was Cartwright’s.  Alex covered his mouth, faking a small cough to hide his smile.

“Ben, hang in there, Joe is young and he’s healthy and strong.  He’ll pull through this,” encouraged Ben’s best friend.

“I know Roy; it’s just hard to see him like that.  I know he’s hurting, but he’s scared too.  We have to find the people that did this to him,” Ben looked up at Roy with a look that Roy had never before seen on his friend’s face, hatred, cold and unconfined hatred.

“Has the boy been able to tell you anything about what happened or who was involved?” asked Roy.

Ben shook his head.  “No Roy, not yet.  We haven’t even asked him.  We thought it best to get him home first and have Paul examine him before we started questioning him.  Hopefully in the morning or the day after he can tell us something.  I’ll let you know as soon as the doctor says its okay for you to talk with him.”

Roy bobbed his head up and down.  “Okay, Ben, but you let me know as soon as you can.  I want these people in my jail soon.  I’ll be back tomorrow, you try to get some rest ole pal, that boy’s gonna need his pa.”  Roy gathered his belongings and showed himself to the door.

Alex watched Ben from under downcast eyes as his friend stood and stretched.  Suddenly Ben spoke and turned to Alex.  “I’m going to sit with my son Alex, I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all Ben, you go right ahead.  I’ll make myself at home and wait for Daniel to return.  He…hmm…had a couple of errands to do for me.”  Alex gave Ben one of his most charming smiles and stuffed the small piece of cord he had been knotting back into his pocket.

“I’ll see you at supper.  If you need anything, just let our cook know, he will take care of everything for you,” stated Ben turning toward the stairs.

Ben climbed the stairs slowly and returned to Joe’s room.  Adam had made himself comfortable in the overstuffed chair in the corner and Hoss had moved the old rocker from his father’s bedroom into Joe’s room and placed it close to the bed.  Ben found Adam reading and Hoss was leaning over Joe, lovingly running his large beefy fingers through Joe’s thick curly hair and whispering softly into the sleeping boy’s ear.  Ben smiled at the sight; his sons might fight and argue amongst themselves, but when the chips were down, they always managed to come together united in brotherly love.  That knowledge was confirmed in the way in which both boys tended to their youngest sibling, not just in his waking hours but also while he slept, being by his side constantly hovering over him lest he need anything.

“You boys need to get busy, there is work to do.  Adam, will you check with the cowhands?  Take one of them with you and find out if we have any more cattle missing. Hoss, I need you to ride over to the Devlin’s. Don’t you go alone either; I want you to take someone with you.  Ask Charlie, he’ll ride with you.  Let them know what has happened, tell them to be careful, we don’t know who these guys are or just how far they will go to get what they want,” Ben gave his orders and his sons stood ready to leave.

“Pa, please try to rest.  When Joe wakes up, he’s gonna be a handful, you know that the same as I do.  You will need all your strength to handle him,” advised Adam as he patted his father’s shoulder and went out the door.  Ben smiled and lowered his body into the seat that Adam just vacated.

“Adam’s right Pa.  And besides, when we find these guys…well…aw shucks, Pa.  You know what I mean,” stammered Hoss.  Hoss paused at the door and glanced back at his younger brother.  “Take care of ‘em Pa,” whispered Hoss as he joined Adam in the hallway.

**********

Two days later there was a frantic knock at the door and Alex lifted himself from Ben’s favorite chair to see who could be making such a racket.  The rider explained to Alex that he needed to speak with Adam Cartwright.  Alex had no choice but to force his large body up the stairs and seek out the young man.  As he approached the bedroom where his friend Ben, the doctor, sheriff, and both of the older Cartwright brothers stood huddled around the bed of the beaten boy, Alex paused and stood quietly just outside of the door listening to the questioning going on inside.

“Joe, did you know the man who did this too ya?” questioned Roy.  Joe moved his head slowly from side to side. ‘Only that his fists were made of rocks,’ thought Joe to himself.

“Okay son, can you tell us how many men there were?” continued the sheriff.

‘Felt like a couple dozen,’ Joe’s mind cried out.

Joe moved his lips and tried to speak.  His throat was still raw but the swelling had gone down somewhat making trying to talk a bit easier.  “Four,” came the raspy one word answer to Roy’s question.  Before Roy could comment, Joe tried to speak again.  “More.”  The word was expressed in a soft voice.

Roy had misunderstood what Joe was trying to say.  “Four?  Did you say four, Joe?”

Joe again moved his head slowly from to side to side.  Adam moved in closer to his brother and leaned down near to the boy’s face.  “Say it again Joe, one more time, slowly, so that I can hear you and tilt your head up slightly so that I can see your face better,” Adam instructed.

Joe repeated himself and Adam looked up into his father’s face.  “More.  He said there were more.”  He turned his attention back to his brother.  “Joe, were there four men present when they jumped you?”  Joe was nodding his head indicating to Adam that was correct.  “Then there were four more men.  Eight all together, is that what you want us to know?”  Again, Joe confirmed Adam’s statement.

“Eight men altogether.  That at least gives us an idea as to what we are up against,” commented Roy.  “Joe, this next question is very important son.  I know you’re getting tired, so I’ll hurry.  If you saw the men who attacked you, could you identify them?”

Joe squirmed on the bed; the questioning was beginning to annoy him.  What he really wanted was to be left alone so he could sleep and try to forget everything that had happened to him.  He didn’t want to remember how his face had hurt each time that the big man had hit him or when the smaller man had repeatedly kicked him when he had fallen to his knees and minutes later when his face was in the dirt.  He wrinkled up his face when he thought of those eyes, so dark, so menacing and so terribly frightening.  He no longer wanted to remember his fear as they tied his wrists, legs and then rode off taking his horse, leaving him alone to die with their laughter ringing in his ears.  Most of all, thought Joe, he wanted to forget that he had been scared, terrified that he would die and yet with the piercing pain that had been racing throughout his body, he had hoped that he would die.  At least in death there would be no pain, but his Cartwright spirit and strong sense of survival refused to allow his innermost self to succumb to the body’s desire of death, he could not do that to his family; so he lingered, hoping, wishing and praying.

Ben saw his son’s hesitation and laid a reassuring hand on his son’s brow.  “Joseph, it’s all right, son.  Roy just needs to know, so that we can find these men and put them behind bars where they belong.”

Joe shook his head yes. Alex took that time to step into view at the door and watched as the beaten boy nodded his head in the affirmative.  Alex drew his lips together tightly and vowed at the first opportunity he would take care of this loose end; he did not need someone to be able to identify him.  Right now he only hoped that the boy would not recognize his voice and alert his family.  He needed just a little more time before he would be successful in bringing the mighty Ben Cartwright to his knees, and what better way than to strike him where it hurts the most, in the heart.  It was no secret how the man felt about the young boy laying in the bed fighting for his life.

“Excuse me gentlemen, I don’t mean to intrude.  Adam, there is a gentleman outside to see you.  He said it was urgent.”  Alex delivered his message, glanced at the boy lying in the bed and left the room, the sneer on his face unnoticed by the men in the room.

Alex was pleased with what he saw, it would be days before the boy could talk well enough to give any information and just as long or longer before he would see well enough to identify him or his nephew.  By then, it would be too late; the boy would be dead, without anyone knowing he had been behind Cartwright’s destruction and his son’s death.  He and Daniel would suddenly disappear and the next time he came across the name of Ben Cartwright it would be when he read of his losses in the local newspapers.  The taste of victory was already in the mastermind’s mouth and he savored the flavor.

Adam excused himself and met Mat in the yard below.  “Mat, what’s up?  Hope there’s nothing wrong.”  Adam greeted the miner with a firm handshake and lost his smile when he noticed the dirt and dust that covered the man’s clothing and body; even the tiny particles of crushed rock remaining in the man’s hair had not gone unobserved by Adam’s sharp eyes.

“Wish I could tell ya there wasn’t, but there is.  James sent me to fetch ya.  Walt’s been murdered and James said fur ya to come quick.  The mine had been sabotaged.  We can’t even work it now, best hurry.”  Mat relayed his message to his boss and waited until Adam informed his father of what had happened.

As Adam opened the door, Roy and Ben were descending the stairs.  “Roy, you better come with me.  Walt’s been murdered and we’re needed at the mine shack.”

“Walt’s been murdered?”  Ben moved to the door with Adam and Roy.  “First Joe, then the cattle, now Walt, what next?”  Ben’s worry and concern showed in his eyes and on his face.

“Pa, the mine has been sabotaged too.  Mat said it would be days maybe even weeks before they can dig out the mess.”  Adam watched his father and noticed the expulsion of wind from his father’s lungs.

“Do you realize how much all of this is costing us?  Not that the money is that important.  The lives of our men are, but without those cattle and now the mine, we can’t even pay our workers.  What then?”  Ben shook his head.  “Go son, you better see to Walt.”

Adam, Roy and the young miner, Mat, mounted their horses and rode quickly to the mine camp.  James, the foreman’s right hand man was waiting at the door of the shack when the three riders dismounted and greeted his boss with a handshake and frown on his weathered face.

“Adam, you need to see this.  Walt’s been murdered, beaten to death.”  James stepped aside and opened the door to allow Adam and the sheriff to enter.  He stepped in behind Roy and closed the door, barring the entrance to the small group of miners who stood outside anxiously waiting for news regarding their foreman.

Adam stopped at the sight on the floor and instantly felt his stomach move to his throat as he struggled to keep down his dinner.   Walt was unrecognizable; his head had been pulverized and was lying in a pool of blood that had seeped from the wounds about his face.  Walt’s nose was no longer in the middle of his face; it lay lopsided nearly under one eye, and left no question to Adam that it had been broken.  The face was black with bruises that cover both eyes and the jaw line.  The jaw its self, laid slack, broken and both the upper and lower lips had been split open.  Walt’s forehead had a wide nasty gash where he had either been hit with something hard or had fallen into something sharp; nonetheless, his head had nearly been split in two.  The blood was thick and it was everywhere, turning Adam’s stomach once again.  But all of that was not what held Adam’s attention; it was the way in which the mine foreman lay bound.  Adam stooped down next to the man’s body and examined the knots.

“Roy, look at this,” pointed Adam, drawing the sheriff’s attention to the way in which the knots were made.

Roy inspected the ropes, “strange lookin’ knots.  But what’s botherin’ ya son?”  Roy asked looking to Adam and waiting for the younger man to find the words he needed.

“The way Walt is tied….it’s the same way we found Joe.  Arms pulled tightly behind his back, tied at the wrist, legs knotted together and feet pulled up behind him.  And these.”  Adam pulled the ropes with the funny knots that had held his brother bound in the same way from his pocket and showed them to Roy.

Roy took the ropes from Adam and compared them to the knots that held Walt’s battered body tied.  “The exact same.  That means, whoever beat your brother, must have also killed Walt.  Adam, have you shown these ropes to Ben?”

“No, with everything going on with Joe, until now I had forgotten about them,” Adam confessed and wished he had remembered to show them to his father.

“Adam, these knots look kinda like the knots sailors use aboard those ships that your daddy used to sail on,” Roy turned the ropes over in his hands.  “No wonder Joe couldn’t work himself free; I can’t even get them untied.”  Roy handed the knotted rope back to Adam and Adam returned them to his pocket.

“That’s what I was thinking, and right now, I know of only two people that know how to make knots like these,” Adam said and used his knife to slice through the ropes on the dead man.  He slipped those into his other coat pocket.  “One is my father; the other is his so-called friend, Alexander Manning.”

“What are you suggesting, Adam?  That Manning had something to do with this?” Roy pointed at the bloody body, “and with what happened to Little Joe?”

“Well, they used to sail together years ago so they would both be familiar with how to tie these and we know for certain it wasn’t Pa, don’t we?”  Adam’s voice had taken on a slightly vicious ring to it.  “James, has anyone other than yourself seen this?”  Adam pointed at Walt’s body and then pulled the knotted rope from his pocket and held them up for James to see before returning them to their hiding place.

“No sir, boss.  Just the three of us,” answered James. “That’s why I sent Mat to fetch ya.  I stayed here so’s no one would bother nuthin’” he finished.

“Good, let’s keep it between the three of us.”  Adam knew he could trust James.  He had been working for the Cartwrights at the mines for over five years and had on several occasions proved himself to be a trustworthy and loyal friend.  “Take care of Walt for me James, please.  He has no family, so if you don’t mind, see to all the arrangements while you’re at it.  I need to get back home and show this to Pa.”

“Sure thing, Boss. Don’t ya worry about nuthin’.  I’ll take care of everythin’ fur ya,” agreed James.

“Thanks James, I’m leaving you in charge.  I’ll inform the men as I leave.”  Adam turned to Roy, “I’m riding back to the ranch, I think Pa might want to see these and I may ask his so-called friend a few questions myself.”  Adam’s jaw had begun clenching and unclenching as Roy saw the sparks that seemed to shoot from the dark eyes of his young friend.

Roy placed a restraining hand on the young man’s shoulder stopping him from going out the door.  “Adam, show Ben the ropes, but not in front of Manning or his nephew.  Let me send a few wires and ask a few questions before you confront the man.  Maybe, just maybe we can find out something that will help us put that beast away for the rest of his life.”

Adam nodded his head; “You’re right Roy.  If he did beat Joe and leave him to die and kill Walt, I want to see the man hang, not just go to jail.”  The hatred had once again returned to reveal it’s self in the depths of his eyes, turning them from brown to ebony.

As Roy and Adam walked out on of the weathered porch of the shack, a rider had just stopped his horse and bounded off.  “Mr. Cartwright,” called the agitated man running up to Adam.  “Ya gotta come quick; the northern edge of the timber is on fire.  It’s spreading like a prairie fire.  And that wind up there isn’t doin’ nothin’ to help it either.”

Adam could not believe his ears.  Someone was out to destroy his father and he and his brothers as well.  “What happened, what started it?” asked Adam as he ran for his horse.

The young man followed Adam and mounted his own horse as well. “Jesse said it was started intentionally. Someone set it ablaze, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Damn,” cursed Adam and kicked Sport into a full gallop headed for the lumber camp, the peculiar knotted ropes momentarily forgotten safely tucked away in his coat pockets.

“I’ll catch up with you later, Roy,” he called over his shoulder to the sheriff.  Roy’s reply was lost in the wind as Adam galloped from the yard of the mine shack heading in the direction of the lumber camp.

**********

Later that afternoon, Hoss returned to Joe’s room to find that his father had remained by his brother’s side through out the day.  “How’s he adoin’ Pa?” Hoss asked as he stepped close to his brother’s side and watched as the boy moved slightly trying to find a more comfortable position.  Hoss noticed that Joe’s face became distorted, as the pain seemed to follow him about on the bed and moved to sit next to the boy.

“He’s been sleeping about all day.  Once his legs cramped up pretty badly and it took Hop Sing and I both massaging them until the muscles relaxed enough that he could rest again.  Other than that, he’s done pretty well,” Ben explained to his middle son as he watched the large boy caress his young brother’s cheek.

Hoss turned tear filled eyes to look at his father not the least ashamed that his father saw that he cried.  “Why Pa?  Why would anyone want to do this to him, he’s just a boy?  I don’t understand it, so much pain…so much suffering.  They didn’t even know him did they Pa?”  Hoss didn’t wait for an answer; the events of the last couple of days had taken their toll on him as well as his whole family and his heart was in his mouth.

“They couldn’t have, not the way we know him.  They knew nothin’ about him, not his humor, not the way he liked to play practical jokes on all of us. They didn’t know his ability in breakin’ horses; they didn’t know that Christmas was his favorite holiday.   They didn’t know about his quick temper or how quickly he could forgive and forget or how he could always turn somethin’ serious into somethin’ funny.  They never even heard his laugh; they didn’t know how it sounded when he had the giggles or that after awhile how it could grate on your nerves.  Didn’t they know how much I love him, how much we love him, Pa?  Didn’t they even think about those things before they tried to destroy him?”  Hoss’ sobs racked his body causing it to shake uncontrollably and he buried his face in his large opened hands allowing the anxiety to liberate its self.

Ben quickly rose to his feet, slipped his arm about the sobbing young man’s shoulder and drew him close.  “No son, they didn’t.  Beasts that do things to boys like this could care less.  They have no conscience, they don’t care who they hurt; they only care about themselves and their needs. But Hoss,” Ben drew his son back, “he’s going to be okay.  He knows you love him…that we all love him, and that love is what is going to help him through this.  Do you understand?”

“I understand,” Hoss wiped the tears from his face with the backs of his hands and looked back at the young boy on the bed, his tears now spent.  “But I promise ya this Pa, when I find the man who did this to my baby brother, I’m agoin’ to kill him with my bare hands.  I swear to God, I will.”

Hoss left his father standing alone in the room and as he left, he failed to notice the lone tear that somehow had managed to slip passed the bandaged eyes, down the cheek, and came to rest on the pillow that cradled the wounded boy’s head.

By early evening a lone rider rode into the yard and pounded on the heavy door of the house.  Hoss answered and was surprised to find one of the lumberjacks from the timber camp standing on his porch.  “Mr. Cartwright, I was sent to get you and your Pa.  There’s a fire up at the camp and you’re needed there.”

Ben had heard the pounding on the door and the anxiety in the man’s voice as he stopped mid way on the landing of the stairs.  “What’s wrong son?” he called as he descended the remaining steps to inquire as to the man’s message.

“Fire at the camp, Pa.  We gotta hurry.”  Hoss grabbed his hat and gun belt before he went out the door.

Ben hesitated briefly, not sure as to whether he should leave Joe or stay.  He was confident that Hoss could handle whatever was going on at the lumber camp.  With Adam already taking care of problems at the mine shack, he had just about decided to leave his two oldest sons in charge when his attention was drawn to Alex, who had just started speaking.

Alex saw Ben’s indecisiveness and recognized this as his chance.  Everything was working as planned.  “I’ll sit with the boy Ben, if you want me too.  You’re needed elsewhere right now, you run along.  The boy will be fine,” he offered hopefully.

“Would you mind?” asked Ben.  “I really shouldn’t leave him but he should sleep for several more hours.  I shouldn’t be long.”

“Fine, you hurry along and I’ll go up and make myself comfortable.”  Alex fingered the small piece of cord he carried in his pocket as he climbed the stairs.  When he heard the heavy door close, he laughed out loud, the sound echoing in the upstairs hall.  Quickly doing an about face, he silently stole into the kitchen where he found the family cook busy at the stove.  Gently he tapped the little man on the shoulder and as Hop Sing turned around, he was met with an iron like fist to his nose.  Instantly the oriental fell to the floor, his head hitting the hard wooden boards beneath him.  Alex laughed, “one down, one to go,” he jeered as he easily lifted Hop Sing in his arms and carried him down the cellar steps only to drop him to the floor in a bundle.  Alex locked the cellar door when he returned to the kitchen.  As he passed by the small worktable, he grabbed a fresh baked cookie from the cooling rack and crammed it into his mouth.  He paused briefly at the foot of the stairs, an evil look clouding his eyes as he rubbed his strong hands together in anticipation of his next victim.  Nonchalantly, as if with no care in the world and all the time to waste, he made his way upward, pausing only momentarily before entering Joe’s bedroom and closing the door quietly behind him

**********

Adam pulled Sport to an abrupt halt.  “Pa, Hoss,” he said in a stunned voice.  “What are the two of you doing here?”

Adam had been surprised to find both his father and brother in the lumber camp and he knew instantly that Joe had been left unguarded at home.  Neither his father nor his brother was aware of the evidence that implicated Alex Manning as the man who had so savagely beaten the younger Cartwright and murdered their hired man, Walt.

“We got word of the fire and were needed here.  Why son?  What’s wrong?” questioned Ben noting the worried expression on the handsome face.

Adam’s brow wrinkled as deep furrow lines etched their way across his forehead drawing his dark brows together, “Who’s with Joe?” he barked in a fearful tone of voice at his father.

“Alex, he offered to sit with the boy.  I told him I wouldn’t be long, why?” Ben asked watching Adam’s face as it turned red with anger.

“Manning!” Adam nearly screamed.  “Dear God!”  Without another word, Adam spun his horse around and spurred him into a gallop.  Adam’s thoughts ran rampart with his fear as he continued to urge his horse to go faster.  ‘Please God, don’t let me be too late,’ he prayed silently.

Adam had finally put all the pieces together concerning his brother’s beating, the missing cattle, the mine foreman’s murder, the destroyed mine and now the fire that had wiped out hundreds of acres of prime timber.  While Alex had been playing at being his father’s long lost friend, the man’s nephew had suddenly disappeared, making sure that all of his uncle’s orders were being carried out sending his family in all different directions at the same time.  The pair had devised a master plan to wipe out all of his father’s holdings and crumble his empire.  But Adam was not sure of Manning’s motive.  What had his father ever done to the man that Manning could hold such hatred toward his father?

Whatever the reasons, now his youngest brother’s life was in danger of being snuffed out by the very man his father had considered a friend.  Joe was the only one left alive who could identify the men who had so savagely beaten him and left him to die a slow and painful death alone and frightened.

Adam slowed his horse before he rode into the yard, not wanting to draw attention to his urgent return.  Quickly and with quiet caution Adam entered his home.  Silence hung heavy in the large house and Adam listened intently for any strange sounds that might signal danger.  As he neared the foot of the steps he heard it.  From upstairs came the muffled cries of someone struggling.  Throwing caution to the wind, Adam bounded upward, taking the steps two at a time.  The sound was coming from Joe’s room.  As quietly as a snake slithers through the tall grasses, Adam pushed open the bedroom door.

***********

Alex had taken pleasure in tormenting the boy.  He lay bound by his bandages, blinded by the cloths wrapped about his head.  The boy had sensed his presence when he had entered the room but was unable to speak more than a weak whimper. There had been no one to hear the cry other than himself, and he had laughed at the boy’s failed attempts.

“No one’s going to hear you, everyone’s gone.  It’s just you and me and shortly, very shortly, it will be only me.”  Alex’s laughter sent chills down Joe’s spine as recognition woke his dulled senses and he fought with the blankets trying to free himself from the bed.  As he raised up, Alex slapped his face with his large opened hand and roughly shoved him back down onto the bed.

“You aren’t going anywhere, except to heaven, maybe even hell, depends on how good you’ve been.”  Alex ripped the mustard plaster from around Joe’s neck and slung it to the floor.  Joe squirmed on the bed until he was on the far side but Alex only laughed again as he snatched a handful of Joe’s hair pulling him back to the other side. He grabbed Joe’s upper arms, sending currents of pain downward and into his injured hands and fingers. Again he laughed as Joe struggled to make a plea for help.

“Stop fighting so much, make it easy on yourself.  This won’t take long, I promise.”  The man’s laughter was driving Joe insane and feeling totally at the mercy of this madman scared him more than anything that had ever scared him before.

Joe continued to twist his body around ignorant of the pain in his ribcage as he tried to escape the death like grip that held his arms.  Brutally Alex ripped the bandages from Joe’s eyes and the boy fought to find a way to shield them from the light.  A second time Alex slapped Joe, this time across the mouth snapping his neck backward from the force.  Joe tasted the blood in his mouth from where he had bitten the inside of his cheek.  He could feel his head spinning and fought to stay awake.  He knew if he passed out, he would never wake up; the big man would kill him instantly.  His only chance was to fight, or die trying.

When the big man tired of toying with his victim, he pushed Joe’s head down against the mattress and with one last laugh at the terror in the boy’s hazel eyes, he covered the boy’s face with his own pillow and pushed downward.  The last thing Joe remembered hearing was Alex’s instructions that he bid the world good-bye.

The sight before him literally stopped the beat of Adam’s heart.  On the bed, Joe was desperately thrashing his lower body from side to side as he fought the massive weight of the big man that held him captive.  Alex sat on the bed, straddling his brother and with his large powerful hands he was pushing the pillow tightly down on Joe’s face, forcing the boy’s head deeply into the mattress.  Joe was fighting for release but Alex held firmly to the snowy white pillow, pushing harder the more Joe struggled.  Alex was suffocating his brother!  The laughter that filled the bedroom was loud and heinous, sending chills of fear down Adam’s spine.  Joe’s legs slowly ceased their thrashing as air continued to be denied from filling the lungs.  With his arms still bound to his chest and in his weakened condition, the boy stood no chance against the man who was determined to stamp out his young life.

Adam heard the loud roar of his own voice, totally unaware that he had made the noise.  In a single bounding motion and with adrenaline pumping in his veins, he sprang onto the bed, catching the larger man off guard.  Adam grabbed at the insane man’s arms and tried to pry them free from the pillow.  Alex was too strong and as the anger filled his soul and hate, his heart, he held the pillow with one hand and with the other he backslapped Adam hard across the face.  The force from the blow sent Adam tumbling backwards to the floor below.  Instantly Adam was back on the bed but Alex had anticipated his move and as Adam rose up against the man, a powerful punch was delivered to his chin.  Again, Adam was knocked to the floor.  Shaken and seeing stars, Adam fought to reach his brother but before Adam could pull himself up, he saw Hoss’ massive form standing in the doorway of the room.

“Stop!” screamed Hoss.  Alex looked over the back of his shoulder and saw his second and most aspiring opponent in the open doorway; the look of deep rooted hate embedded into the fine lines of his young face.

With one hand Alex reached for the gun hidden within the folds of his jacket and smiled at Hoss as he pointed the weapon in his direction.  Hoss had seen Alex slip his hand into his coat and had predicted the move.  With speed that surprised the evil man on the bed, Hoss pulled his pistol from its holster and fired a single shot, hitting the man in the right shoulder.

Adam had also seen the move and, at the same time that Hoss had fired, he had also fired his gun, his bullet hitting its target in the left arm.  Alex toppled backward from the bed but moving with lightening speed, undaunted by his wounds, he pulled himself to his knees and once again pointed his gun in Hoss’ direction.

Hoss pulled the trigger a second time and this time the bullet accomplished what it was designed to do.  Alex’s body slammed heavily into the wall behind him as the bullet passed through his heart and out his back.  The man lay dead, propped against the blood stained wall of Joe’s bedroom.

Adam immediately was on the bed with his frightened brother who was attempting to fill his lungs with air and attempted to gather the boy into his arms.  When Joe felt hands grabbing at his shoulders, he began to kick and thrash himself about, desperately trying to free himself from the unseen hands that continued to hold him.

Adam realized that Joe thought the man who had been trying to kill him was again attempting to harm him.  Joe’s bandages hung precariously about his injured eyes and he had no idea that the arms that held him were the same loving arms that had often cradled him as a baby and small boy.

“Joe, calm down buddy.  It’s Adam.  Everything is okay now,” said Adam in a soothing voice, all the time maintaining his firm hold on his brother.  He knew Joe needed to be still; he was risking the chance of adding more injury to his already damaged body.

“Joe, he’s dead…Alex is dead Joe.  He can’t hurt you anymore.”  Adam felt Joe’s body relax slightly as his words began to register in the boy’s mind which had closed down to everything except fighting to stay alive.  Adam used the opportunity to draw Joe into his embrace.  As Adam felt Joe’s body begin to relax more, he restored the wraps around Joe’s eyes and retied the strip of cloth at the back.  This would just have to do until the doctor returned to examine Joe for new injuries or damage to the present injuries, thought Adam.

Hoss stepped over Alex’s body and sat on the opposite side of Joe.  “Adam’s right, Punkin.  I killed him.”  Hoss reached out his hand and laid it on Joe’s shoulder.  Suddenly Joe whimpered and flinched at his brother’s touch.  Hoss drew back his hand as if it had been slapped and Adam watched as his middle brother’s blue eyes filled with tears.

“Joe,” whispered Adam, “that was just Hoss that touched you.”

Joe forced the air up into his lungs, giving his vocal cords the strength to work.  “Hoss.”  The name came out slightly slurred but clear enough that the larger brother understood and he smiled even though Joe could not see how his brother’s sad face had suddenly brightened.

“Yeah, little brother, it’s just Ol’ Hoss.”  Hoss patted the boy’s shoulder once again and this time Hoss was rewarded with a small smile.  Hoss could not contain his joy at seeing Joe smile, be it how small, and he laid his open hand on the boy’s head and rumpled his curls as he leaned down and placed a kiss on his brother’s battered face.  Joe’s smile grew a little bigger.

Adam leaned Joe back into the pillows as he and Hoss both rose from the bed.  Joe felt the movement on either side of him and as his brothers stood he struggled to speak again.

“Adam,” cried Joe is a raspy voice.

Adam saw the quivering chin and returned to his spot on the bed.  Cupping his brother’s face with one hand, he turned Joe to face him.  “What’s wrong buddy?”

“Stay.”  It was a simple one-word request from a frightened teenage boy to his oldest brother.  Adam felt his throat tighten.  He knew that his brother, helpless in this condition had been terrified of dying.  Adam nodded his head at Hoss and then at the body on the floor, an indication that Hoss remove the dead man while he remained with Joe.  Hoss quickly went to work.

“I’ll stay with you Joe.  Pa will be back soon, I’m sure.  He had some trouble at the logging camp but that shouldn’t take much longer.  You rest pal, I’ll be right here next to the bed,” Adam reassured the boy.

“Promise?” muttered Joe weakly.

Adam smiled, “I promise little buddy, I promise.”

When Hoss returned a short time later he brought with him a sleeping powder ready for Joe.  He thought it would help the youngster to relax enough to rest.  His ordeal with Alex had upset him, moving about on the bed had brought a return of pain to his slow healing body and Hoss knew that Joe needed to calm down.  Without the medicine, Hoss doubted that the boy would ever close his eyes, let alone go to sleep.

“I thought he might need this.”  Hoss offered the water and powder to Adam and watched as Adam held the glass to Joe’s lips and instructed him to drink it.  Without his usual complaints at having to drink the bitter liquid, Joe drank the offered medication and before long the exhausted boy was sleeping soundly, his ear lying precisely over his brother’s beating heart.

Weary himself and not wanting to pull himself away from his brothers or the inviting chair, Hoss knew there was unfinished business.  Hop Sing was missing and fearing for the family servant and friend, Hoss went in search of the little man.  After searching for Hop Sing in his private quarters he located the man locked in the cellar.  Hoss helped Hop Sing back up the cellar steps and into the kitchen where he went about cleaning the blood from the cook’s face.  After several unsuccessful attempts to put his friend to bed, Hop Sing who was adamantly refusing to go to bed had returned to his kitchen duties.

**********

It was late by the time Ben returned, cursing himself for having left his injured son for such a long period of time.  Hopefully, Joe had not awakened long enough to become too upset with finding him gone.

Things had gone from bad to worse after Adam had ridden off leaving him wondering.  Minute’s later Hoss deserted ranks and had followed his older brother, leaving him alone at the lumber camp to deal with matters there.  Later, Roy had showed up with telegraphs from various places regarding his friend, Alex, and his long list of devious dealings.  Roy and a posse had caught Alex’s nephew red handed riding Joe’s pinto, Cochise, and the young man had, when threatened with a hanging because of horse stealing, had spilled his guts about his uncle’s activities and his own role in the plans to crumble the Cartwright’s domain.

It was only after hearing of Alex’s plans to financially destroy him and Roy’s explanation of the knotted rope pieces had Ben then fully understood Adam’s sudden shock at finding that Joseph had been left alone at the ranch with Alex.

Ben entered the house cautiously, not knowing what he might find.  As he made his way across the room and up the stairs, his eyes fell on the small droplets of blood that dotted the rugs that covered the wooden floor.

Ben felt his stomach lurch as he followed the droplets until they stopped at Joe’s bedroom door.  With gun in hand, Ben silently pushed the door opened.  When he saw his sons, he returned the pistol to its holster and smiled at his oldest son who had been watching him creep into the room, armed and ready to do battle if need be.

Hoss slept slumped in the chair, snoring loudly.  Adam was holding his sleeping brother in his arms and in his free hand he held an opened book.

“What took you so long?” Adam smiled broadly at his father; he knew Ben must have run into more trouble after both he and Hoss had deserted him on the trail.

Ben first stepped close to the bed and gazed at his youngest.  He pushed back the infamous stray curl that clung to his forehead and brushed lovingly the cheek that still held the imprint of a hand.  Ben looked suspiciously into Adam’s dark eyes for the answer all the while fighting to control the sudden anger and rage that threatened to resurface once again at the injustice that this boy had been subjected to.

He’s dead Pa.  Alex is dead, Hoss killed him,” explained Adam.  “He was trying to suffocate Joe, I tried to get him off of the boy, but the man was too strong.  He knocked me to the floor; that’s when Hoss showed up and when Alex drew down on him, both Hoss and I fired.  The man refused to stay down and when he aimed at Hoss a second time, Hoss shot him through the heart.”

It was when Adam was telling him the story of how Alex died that he saw the dark bruise on the side of his oldest son’s face and he lightly traced the mark with his fingers.  Adam feeling drained himself, leaned into his father’s touch and smiled slightly at the man in front of him who had always been his source of strength.

“Thank God, the three of you are safe.”  Ben sat on the foot of the bed, shaking his head from side to side.  The events of the last several days had finally begun to take its toll on the monarch and it showed on his tired face and reflected in his dark eyes.  “I came very close to losing all three of you tonight.  Adam…if that had happened…I…I…”

“Pa, it didn’t happen…Thank God, all four of us are all right.  Especially this little scamp,” Adam smiled down at the sleeping boy.  “Even with his arms bandaged to his sides, he was still trying to take the man out; he was determined not to give up, Pa.  This boy never ceases to amaze me.”

Adam leaned down, planted a kiss on Joe’s head and then rested his chin on the top of the thick dark curls.  He then briefly closed his eyes; glad that he would not have to know what life would be like without his ‘little buddy’.

Ben explained to Adam the events that had transpired after he had left to return home to find Joe struggling with Alex.  Ben would have to retell the story again when Hoss woke and again a week later to Joe who had by then recovered enough to have his bandages removed from his eyes and to be allowed to join his family down stairs in the great room.

Joe’s questions were endless as was his chatter and Ben spent hours patiently repeating himself just to satisfy his youngest son’s ever amazing curiosity.  He had come so very close to losing the boy that it was nearly impossible for him at this point to deny the boy anything, especially his time, for time, like a river, would continue on when life had ended.  Ben wanted, even needed this time with this extraordinary son, he craved it, yearned for it and found happiness and peace in it.

 Hoss would laugh and even teasingly threaten to gag Joe if he did not stop his endless questioning.  It was as if Joe himself was making up for the days that he had not been able to talk at all and acted as if his voice would suddenly be snatched from him, unannounced.  Ben sensed an underlying fear that was still present in the boy’s mannerisms that told him that his son’s ordeal was still very much alive in his thoughts though Joe tried desperately to hide that fact from his family, especially his father.  Unfortunately for the boy, his father could read him as well as his oldest son could quote a verse from one of his favorite sonnets.  And Ben worked hard at putting the unspoken fears to rest with lots of attention, comfort, and most of all, love.

“I think I liked little brother here,” Hoss and Joe sat on the settee and Hoss had pointed his thumb at Joe, “better when he couldn’t speak.  At least we had a little peace and quiet then,” teased Hoss as he ruffled his brother’s curls.  Adam and Ben joined in the laughter and even Joe saw the humor in his family’s teasing and he too laughed.

Joe’s recovery continued to improve daily.  When Joe’s hands had healed to the physician’s satisfaction, his arms had been released from the tight confines; Joe’s spirits soared higher, much to the delight of his family.  Even when the doctor had re-wrapped his ribs, Joe held his usual complaints to himself delighting his family even more.  From there it had been smooth sailing; having been witnesses themselves to Joe’s outbursts and denials of medical attention in the past, the complacency that the youngest now displayed was a welcomed change.

Only once during Joe’s recovery had he had a nightmare.  That night in the wee hours just before dawn, Joe’s screams had pierced through the walls of the large home, bringing from their warm beds his father and brothers.  As the older members of the family raced into the hall, the screams became more intense from within the forth bedroom.  Ben yanked the door opened and ran to his son’s bedside, Hoss and Adam circled the bed, each wanting to calm and reassure their brother.  Joe was fighting with an unseen assailant, his arms flinging about in the air in an unwarranted attempt to hold the imaginary intruder at bay.

Ben struggled to hold the boy’s arms as Joe continued to fight against him.  “Joseph, son, wake up,” soothed Ben in a calm voice.

Ben gently pulled his son close to his chest until he could secure his arms around Joe’s chest holding the boy’s arms to his sides.  Ben continued to speak in soothing tones to his son until at last the sound of his father’s voice registered.  When Ben felt Joe’s body begin to relax, he turned the curly head until the boy’s ear was directly over his heart and rubbed at the back of Joe’s neck, comforting his son.

Joe’s eyes slowly opened and glancing up saw his two brothers standing at the side of the bed.  “I’m sorry.”  It was all that he spoke as the tears began to roll from his eyes down his cheeks.

Ben tightened his hold slightly as the trembles engulfed Joe’s body and whispered, “It’s okay son.  Shh…you just had a bad dream.  We are all here now and you are safe.”

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Joe raised his head to look into his father’s dark eyes and saw the love that was reflected back at him.

“Joseph, it’s okay.”  Ben returned his son’s head to the pillows and tucked the covers about his body.  “You go back to sleep, I’ll stay right here with you.  It’s almost morning anyway, but I want you to rest.  Now close your eyes young man.”  Ben smiled and kissed the boy’s brow before getting comfortable in the overstuffed chair Hoss had pulled to the side of the bed for him.

Hoss tousled Joe’s hair and smiled down at his baby brother.  “You rest Short Shanks, I’m gonna go back to bed for a while.  Night young’on.”

“Night Hoss,” replied Joe and turned his attention to his oldest brother.  “Sorry that I woke ya, Adam,” smiled Joe through his tears.

Adam returned the smile and patted Joe’s shoulder.  “No problem little buddy.  I was already awake, I was just putting off getting up, and now since I am awake and up, I think I will go have some coffee and get an early start.  I’ll see you later Joe.  Pa, I’ll take care of your chores, you sit with Joe and I’ll have Hop Sing bring the two of you up some breakfast later.”

Adam turned to leave but stopped at the door and glanced back at his brother and father.  Joe had already closed his eyes and his father was redoing the blankets that had been fine in the first place.  Adam had seen the worry come into his father’s eyes and knew that the older man found as much comfort in staying with the boy as the boy received by the father’s presence.  Adam smiled, his face dimpled and he quietly closed the door on the endearing scene.

**********

The bad luck that had befallen the Cartwrights when Alex Manning and his, just as evil nephew, had ridden into their yard suddenly changed with the man’s death.  Late that same night, unseasonal rains doused the fires, saving hundreds more acres from being destroyed.  Daniel Manning had informed the sheriff of the whereabouts of the Cartwright cattle that they had stolen and the six other men who had been part of the plan.  Both the missing cattle and the rustlers had been rounded up, the cattle returned to their proper owners and the cattle thieves locked safely in Roy’s jail awaiting trail.

Daniel had confessed his part in everything, the thief of the cattle, beating Joe, starting the fires and destroying the mine, but he adamantly denied any involvement concerning the murder of Walt, the foreman at the mine shack.   At his trial, he continued to maintain his innocence, claiming to be as much a victim of his uncle’s cruel plots as Joe had been a victim of his uncle’s beating.  Even after being sentenced to the state penitentiary, Daniel had screamed out his innocence as he was led from the courtroom but those proclamations had fallen on deaf ears, justice had been served.

Ben had been able to recoup most of his losses much to his satisfaction.  But what gave his heart the greatest joy was knowing that his family was safe and that his youngest son was on the road to recovery and to hear, once again, the sound of his infectious laughter filling the walls of his home and his heart.

*****End****

Thanks to Jennie for her thoughts on my story and for her favorite book, her medical journal!  Without it, I could not have gotten Joseph the proper medical treatment that he so often tries to refuse.

Return to Debbie B.’s Home Page

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