Summary: Worried when one of his friends goes missing, Joe sets out to look for him. But he is not prepared for what he discovers.
Rated: MA (subject matter)
Word Count: 10,012
Peering in through the crack between the barn doors, Joe Cartwright felt his breath catch in his throat. Now he knew what had happened to all the young men who had disappeared lately! They were all here! He had to get the sheriff, Joe knew, and stepped silently backwards.
Something hard and round jabbed into the small of his back. Joe froze. “Well, well, well, what have we here?” murmured a familiar voice. “Joe Cartwright, as I live and breathe! You’re a prize I only dreamed of having.” The gun poked Joe hard in the back. “Put your hands up,” the man ordered. Joe did as he was told and felt his gun lifted from the holster. “Now go inside and don’t try anything.”
Slowly, Joe did as he was told. He saw all the heads turn to see who the new person was, and saw shock on several faces. Joe was appalled. All the men in the barn were heavily shackled.
“So what is this?” he asked. “Why are all these men here?”
“That’s easy,” replied his captor, watching as another couple of men came forward with chains in their hands. “You’re all for sale to the highest bidder.”
“Not another one!” Ben Cartwright exclaimed in disgust.
“Another what?” Joe asked, coming out of the barn, leading his horse and finding his father talking to the ranch foreman, Charlie.
“Thanks, Charlie,” Ben said to the foreman before turning back to Joe. “Another hand has disappeared.” He belatedly realized that Joe had been friendly with this hand and braced himself to tell Joe. “Joe, its Drake Preston.” Drake was the third hand to disappear in the last couple of weeks. This was the third time in the last six months that men had just disappeared. It wasn’t unheard of, but it wasn’t something that happened a lot, either.
“Drake?” Joe echoed. “But Drake liked it here. Why would he suddenly run off without being paid?”
“I don’t know,” Ben replied, troubled. “And he left his gear behind, too.”
“Then he’s in trouble!” Joe declared. “Drake would never go off without his gear. All he has to remember his family by is in his gear.”
“Perhaps he took the keepsakes with him,” Ben suggested, but Joe was having none of it.
“I hardly think so,” he scoffed. “I’m going down to the bunkhouse to have a look!” He handed his rein to his startled father and hurried off in the opposite direction. Ben looked down at the strip of leather in his hand and shrugged. When Joe got an idea in his head, he was always quick to follow it up. Ben resignedly led Cochise over to the hitching rail and wrapped his rein around it.
About 20 minutes later, Joe reappeared and there was a scowl on his handsome face. “Drake didn’t just up and quit,” he told Ben and he seemed angry. “Something must have happened to him, Pa. All his keepsakes are still with his gear and I know he’d never go off and leave them behind.” Joe produced Drake’s gear and took out the tattered, much handled photos of Drake’s late parents and his little sister who had died in a wagon accident on their way west. Young Drake, barely 18 years old had been left alone to make his own way in the world. He had drifted from town to town before ending up in Virginia City, where he had the good fortune to fall in with Joe.
The two young men hit it off at once. Joe was a few years Drake’s elder and felt an immediate empathy for the young man and offered him a job on the Ponderosa. They were hiring men for the autumn round up and although Drake had no experience, he was willing to learn. Joe took the good-looking youngster under his wing and friendship blossomed. It seemed inconceivable to Joe that Drake should just run off and leave behind his stuff – all of his belongings!
“Others have left as suddenly,” Ben pointed out. Indeed, it seemed to be an epidemic at the moment. Several of the younger cowboys had just suddenly left. Many had left some of their belongings behind, too, although not everything.
“I know,” Joe responded. “But I know Drake, Pa and this just isn’t like him.” He frowned.
“All right,” Ben said, abruptly. “Take some time and go and look for him. A couple of days and no more.”
“Thanks, Pa,” Joe beamed, for he hadn’t thought as far as wheedling with his father to allow him to look for his friend. He bounced towards the door.
“Joe!” Ben called.
Pausing, Joe looked back. “Yes, Pa?”
“Be careful,” Ben advised him. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“I promise,” Joe replied.
His words came back to haunt him as he watched the men with the chains coming towards him. Joe had not been careful enough. He glanced round quickly, trying to see a way out of this situation. There didn’t appear to be an obvious one, but Joe had never let that stop him before. As the man at his back relaxed slightly and the gun withdrew, Joe dived sideways, somersaulting away from the danger and back onto his feet. He feinted to his left and then broke right, but there were too many men. He almost reached the barn door before he was brought down.
“I want enough chains on him that he can’t move!” panted the man who had caught Joe. “I’m not letting him get away!”
Turning his head, Joe looked at his captor and saw the familiar face. “Why are you doing this, Logan?” he pleaded. He tried not to wince as handcuffs were tightened round his wrists. “You’re the assistant foreman at the ranch!”
“This is better money,” Logan replied, casually. He had been working with the Cartwrights for over six months and was well liked by the men. Now Joe understood why so many of their younger cowboys had disappeared. Logan knew exactly where they all would be. “I didn’t hope to get you, Joe, but now that you’re here, I think I could probably retire.”
“What do you intend to do with me?” Joe asked boldly, as he was hauled into a sitting position and heavy leg irons were attached to his ankles. The length of chain running between them was very short and Joe soon discovered that it was too short to allow him to walk. He was dragged across the barn and a thick leather collar was fastened around his neck with a padlock and attached to the wall by a short length of chain. His wrists were handcuffed behind him and fastened to a chain around his waist. There was no way Joe was going anywhere.
“Well, most of your fellow prisoners are probably going to be enlisted in the Mexican army to fight for – well, whichever side is willing to pay the most. The handsomer ones, like your friend Drake, are going to join you and go to an auction.”
“What kind of auction?” Joe demanded. He shot a glance across the barn at Drake.
“A slave auction,” Logan smiled, seeing Joe flinch despite himself. “Someone somewhere is bound to be looking for a handsome young man like yourself. You’ll fetch a lot of money, Joe.”
Sickened, Joe held Logan’s gaze, trying to stare the man down. Logan simply laughed. As he walked away, Joe understood now why he hadn’t been beaten up when they caught him; they couldn’t risk leaving a mark that might lower his price. Joe had no idea how he was going to get out of this mess, but he knew one thing – he wouldn’t stop trying.
Joe had started his search for Drake in all the obvious places – the saloons and the jail. Drake hadn’t been seen in either. So Joe retraced his steps to the ranch and tried to trace Drake’s last movements there. His friend had been away riding fence when he vanished and Joe thought that would be why Drake’s belongings were left behind. But he still didn’t think that Drake had gone voluntarily. However, he had no witnesses to corroborate his theory and Joe found himself back at home, glumly wondering what he should do next.
Next day, Joe set off to question the hands, wondering if anyone had noticed if Drake was particularly unhappy, or annoyed about something. But no, none of them had noticed anything, which wasn’t really a surprise. Most of the hands minded their own business.
Thinking that the horse that Drake had been riding must be somewhere – for it hadn’t come back to its home stable, like horses were inclined to do – Joe set out to look for the horse and found it. He hadn’t expected to, but the horse was in the livery in town. Henry, the livery owner, said that he’d found the horse tied up outside his barn with some money tucked under the saddle. He had assumed that the owner had arrived during the night and was too lazy to look after his own horse. He hadn’t particularly noticed the pine tree brand on the hip, but mostly because he was used to seeing it.
With one part of his mystery solved, Joe decided he’d go and have a beer and think about what to do next. As he crossed the street, he saw Logan Blake, the ranch’s assistant foreman, further down the street. “Logan!” Joe hailed and hurried across to him, noticing vaguely that the older man seemed surprised to see him. “Just the man,” Joe smiled. “Drake’s horse is in the livery. Could you collect it and take it back with you please? I’m going to stay in town for a while longer and ask a few more questions.”
“Sure thing, Joe,” Logan agreed, easily. “See you back at the Ponderosa.” He walked across to the livery and Joe stopped to talk to someone he knew, mentioning his missing friend. When Logan emerged from the livery a few minutes later, Joe was still deep in conversation with his friend and only subconsciously noticed Logan leaving town.
After another abortive couple of hours, Joe realized that he was perilously close to being late for supper and went to collect his horse. It was then that it occurred to Joe that Logan hadn’t left town heading for the ranch. In fact, he had gone in completely the opposite direction. Curious, Joe decided it was worth risking Hop Sing’s ire for once and checking it out. Of course, Logan might just be going off to meet friends, but given the circumstances…
The tracks of the two horses were quite clear. Joe followed them for quite some time before he discovered where they were going. It was an old farmstead, run down and ruinous, long deserted, but there were lights on in the ramshackle house that evening. Joe got down from Cochise, and dropped the rein. He guessed he might want to make a run for it, and wanted his horse ready to go, not tethered. If Cochise strayed, Joe knew he would be walking home, but it was a risk he was willing to take.
In the gathering dusk, Joe crept forward, towards the house. A covert glance through the window showed him two or three unshaven men he didn’t know sitting around the table. Drawing back, Joe decided to look in the outbuildings and started with the barn. It was only when he peered through the crack between the doors that Joe knew he had solved his mystery.
“Joe?” A voice drew him from his reverie and Joe glanced across the barn at Drake. “Joe, are you all right?” Drake asked.
“I’m fine, Drake,” Joe assured him. He was also furiously angry, both with himself and with his captors. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Drake sighed. “Joe, do you really think they’re going to… sell… us?”
“I don’t know,” Joe replied, troubled. He knew that the slave auctions in the South were supposedly still going on and had heard rumors that white men and women sometimes appeared on the same block, but he hadn’t given any credence to those rumors. Now, he wished he’d paid more attention to them. He tried to move to a more comfortable position, but there wasn’t one to be had. Enviously, Joe looked at the other men. Although all securely chained, they had more freedom to move than Joe had.
As the night wore on, Joe found it impossible to sleep and spent the time thinking about his situation. He couldn’t see how Logan was going to get his prisoners away unseen. Although this farmstead was abandoned, the road near by was traveled fairly frequently. As far as Joe could see, the men would have walk. How would Logan explain their presence to anyone he met?
Glancing round at the 10 or so men, Joe wondered if they would be willing to join in him attacking their captors. He admittedly had no idea how many men there were in total holding them prisoner. He had counted only five. “Drake,” he hissed and Drake stirred out of an uneasy sleep. “Drake, how many men are there?”
“What?” Drake asked, sleepily.
“How many men guarding us?” Joe persisted.
“Five,” Drake replied. He rubbed his eyes, the chains on his wrists clanking noisily. The guard at the door glanced sharply down the lines. “Why?” he hissed back, quietly.
“Because if we work together, we can overpower them,” Joe replied.
“What?” gasped another man sitting near Joe. “You want us to fight them while you sit there?”
“I’m not sitting like this by choice,” Joe grated. “But they can’t keep me like this forever,” he added, although he privately wasn’t so sure of that. “We’ll get our chance. Pass the word. If we work together, we can do it!”
“Maybe,” the other replied, doubtfully, but Drake had turned away and was whispering to the men closest to him. The two other ranch hands were prepared to follow Joe at once, because they knew that he would lead from the front, not encourage from behind.
Apart from the doubter next to Joe, the other men were all keen to try his plan. They agreed to wait until Joe was able to join them. Every man would count and several of them bullied the one reluctant man into agreeing. Joe, looking round at them all, could see that they looked more alive. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing and he quickly began to explain that they had to try and look cowed, as they had before, so that the guards wouldn’t suspect a thing. As it was, the guard by the door was growing suspicious off all the whispering and came over, looming threateningly over Joe.
“Shut up!” he growled.
“What are you going to do if I don’t?” Joe asked, defiantly. He knew that they didn’t dare hit him, for fear of leaving a mark, which would lower his value at the auction.
“This!” the man responded and gagged Joe. He laughed at his captive’s furious face and walked off. Joe could feel his cheeks burning.
Glancing up, he saw the other men looking at him. Each one met his eyes and nodded. They were prepared to follow him. It warmed Joe’s heart and allowed him to bear the indignities that he was being subjected to with more patience and forbearance than he thought he could have mustered alone.
“Pa?” Hoss spoke hesitantly as they sat down after supper. “Don’t cha reckon Joe oughta be back by now?”
“I’m not sure, Hoss,” Ben replied, with a sigh. Hoss had noticed his father sighing a lot over the last few days. “Joe didn’t say when he would be home.”
“But yer worried,” Hoss declared.
“Yes, I am concerned,” Ben admitted, slowly. “I know Joseph is old enough to look after himself, but a father can’t help worrying.”
“D’ya reckon Joe is right about Drake an’ them other men bein’ kidnapped or somethin’?” Hoss mused aloud.
“I don’t know,” Ben replied. “But Joe knew Drake better than I did, and I have to respect his opinion about Drake’s disappearance. I don’t have any proof to offer to the contrary. But if Drake was kidnapped, it worries me that Joe is out there looking for him alone. After all, you’ve heard the rumors, the same as I have.”
“I reckon Joe’s heard them rumors, too,” Hoss muttered, darkly. “Pa, d’ya think its true? Are white women an’ men being taken an’ sold at slave auctions?”
The rumors had been circulating for months. Nobody was sure who had started them, but ‘reliable sources’ insisted that white men and women were being sold at slave auctions – and not just in the South. Illegal auctions were said to be springing up all over the place. Ben abhorred the system of slavery and defended the rights of all men to be free, regardless of their color.
“I don’t know,” Ben said, thoughtfully. “But I fear they might be.” He didn’t add that he had heard that good looking young white men were being sold for fortunes at these illegal auctions. Ben didn’t want to worry Hoss further. He was already concerned enough.
But Ben and Hoss’ concern only grew as the evening went on and there was no sign of Joe returning. They went quietly off to bed, but neither of them slept. When morning came, they set off in search of Joe.
“Breakfast,” Logan announced, crouching in front of Joe and enjoying seeing his former boss in such a humiliating position. He reached over and tugged the gag from Joe’s mouth, but made no attempt to release his bonds. He held up a plate of something brown and unrecognizable. Joe looked away.
“Oh, so we’re going to be fussy are we?” Logan asked. Determined silence was his only response. “I’m going to be nice to you, Joe,” Logan went on. “And I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. If you don’t eat willingly, we’ll force-feed you. You won’t like it, but that’s what we’ll do. You’ve got to keep your strength up for the auction, you know.”
Despite the growling of his stomach, Joe was determined that he wasn’t going to eat. Knowing that they didn’t want him marked, he thought that Logan’s threat was fairly idle. Unfortunately for Joe, it wasn’t. Before he quite knew what was happening, all the men rushed at him, bearing him to the floor. Joe was helpless, but he fought them as best he could, to no avail. He was pinned on his back, his head was forced back and his nose squeezed shut. Joe tried desperately to avoid taking a breath, but his body screamed for air and his mouth opened to gasp in a huge draught of air.
At that moment, a wooden implement was shoved into his mouth and he could feel and hear it being cranked open, forcing his mouth to stay open. Joe struggled to move, to try and break free of his metal fetters, but it was impossible. Something warm and wet was poured into his mouth, and Joe choked, coughing and gagging as the liquid flowed into his lungs as well as his stomach. For several horrible minutes, Joe thought he was drowning.
But the torture wasn’t prolonged. Logan sat him up and took the thing from his mouth, allowing Joe to spew up the small amount of fluid that had entered his lungs. Joe coughed, spluttered and gasped for air for some time before his breathing settled down.
“So now you see that it’s not worth fighting me on this, Joe,” Logan said, quietly. “If you refuse to eat again, I can simply repeat this. Not pleasant, was it?” He didn’t wait for Joe to say anything, just nodded to the men, who got up and left. One of them returned with a bowl of oatmeal. “As a punishment for refusing food, you’ll only get oatmeal today,” Logan told him. “If you eat it, you’ll get real food tomorrow.” Reaching for his keys, Logan unlocked Joe’s hand cuffs, bringing his hands in front of him before fastening the cuffs again. He correctly assumed that Joe could not face a repeat of the force feeding. “And since I’m not a nursemaid, I’ll allow you to feed yourself. If you behave, Joe, then you may remain like this. If you don’t…” Logan didn’t bother to finish his threat. There was no need.
There didn’t seem to be an immediate reply that didn’t commit Joe to doing as he was told. He knew he had to be more careful, but he was no less determined to get free. He would need his strength, he reasoned as he silently picked up the bowl of oatmeal. He did not ever want to repeat the experience he had just gone through.
“Are you all right, Joe?” Drake asked, fearfully, from across the barn.
“Yes, I’m all right,” Joe replied. He slowly ate the oatmeal, hating the texture, but needing the nourishment. He obediently drank the water he was given, too and was instructed to use the back of the stall to relieve himself. Joe nodded, setting out to prove himself a model prisoner, although he was fairly sure that Logan wouldn’t believe in his sudden quiescence; Logan knew him too well for that. Joe was watched closely all day.
When darkness fell, the men were told to get up, and were chained together in a long line. Joe at last had his legs free and he reveled in the partial freedom. He couldn’t help testing his other bonds, and received a sharp poke in the ribs from a guard’s rifle barrel. The men were all gagged and then marched out of the barn and across the dark land outside.
Casting a glimpse over his shoulder, Joe wondered when he would next see his home again.
Cochise was grazing in the yard when Ben and Hoss went out of the door. Hoss caught the pinto and examined him closely, but there was no sign that Cochise had been running or that Joe had had an accident, but that meant nothing. Hoss put Cochise away in the barn and then he and Ben went off into town to look for Joe and to report his disappearance to the sheriff.
“Ya sure Joe ain’t jist sleepin’ it off somewheres?” Roy Coffee asked, as Ben explained that Joe had disappeared.
“Of course we are!” Ben snapped. He and Hoss had spent a fruitless couple of hours searching the town for Joe and Hoss hadn’t returned yet. “Roy, he was looking for Drake. Somehow, Joe either found out something, or got too close to whoever has Drake and he was taken or… or killed.” Ben’s voice was admirably steady, apart from the momentary hesitation.
“Have ya any idea where he was lookin’?” Roy asked.
“No,” Ben replied, frustrated. “Perhaps Hoss will find something.”
“If he don’t, there ain’t much I can do,” Roy explained.
Rising to his feet, Ben began to pace Roy’s office. Roy watched him with silent sympathy. It was the standing family joke that Ben’s hair had only begun to turn white after Joe was born. It was true – but it wasn’t really worry that had caused it. But Roy wondered how Ben was able to cope with his worries alone. Oh sure, he had Hoss and Joe, but when something happened to one – or both – of them, Ben had no helpmeet to share the load with.
When Hoss did finally come in, he looked grimly satisfied. “Well?” Ben demanded.
“Henry seen Joe yesterday,” Hoss reported. “Drake’s horse was in the livery. Joe said he’d take it home, but Henry says that it was Logan what collected it.”
“Logan,” Ben breathed. “We need to get back and talk to Logan. Roy, we’ll get in touch as soon as we’ve spoken to Logan.”
“Who’s Logan?” Roy asked.
“Logan Blake, our assistant foreman,” Ben explained. “He’s been with us for quite a few months. He came up from the Circle C ranch in Texas. Very good man.”
“Ah,” Roy nodded. “I’ll wait ta hear from ya, Ben.” He watched the Cartwrights mount up and ride away and then he walked over to the telegraph office. “Rudi, I need to send a wire to the Circle C ranch in Texas,” he announced. “It’s urgent.”
It took quite some time to ride back to the ranch and then it took some more before they located Charlie, the foreman, who would know where Logan was working that day. By then, Ben’s nerves were wound up tight.
“Charlie!” Ben hailed and the foreman detached himself from the group of hands he’d been talking to and came over. “Charlie, where’s Logan working today?” Ben asked, urgently, before Charlie could even greet him.
There was a hesitation and Ben exchanged a wordless glance with Hoss. “Boss, I ain’t seen Logan since yesterday,” Charlie told him. “He told one o’ the boys he was goin’ into town yesterday afternoon an’ would be back by supper, but he never come back.” Charlie frowned. “Boss, his stuff’s all gone. I done checked this mornin’. I reckon he’s left.”
“But he hasn’t been paid for this month,” Ben objected.
“I don’t reckon that matters much to Logan,” Charlie told him. “He seems to have a lot of money.”
“A lot?” Ben echoed. “Do you think he’s been winning heavily at cards?” Ben didn’t really approve of gambling.
“I don’t know,” Charlie admitted. “But I doubt it. Logan has to be the worst card player I ever saw. You know how some folks jist don’t have luck with cards? That’s Logan. He’s keen enough to win an’ none too happy when he don’t. So I don’t reckon it were cards. He seemed to me to have too much money for it to be cards.”
“So what do you think it is?” Ben asked. Charlie wasn’t just foreman because he was good with the stock, which he was. He was also good at reading men, and getting a good day’s work out of them for a good day’s pay.
“I don’t have no proof,” Charlie began, hesitantly, and Ben nodded. “But I think it was somethin’ illegal he were doin’.”
His gut instinct was telling Ben to believe Charlie. “Thanks, Charlie. If you see Logan, will you let us know at once? We’re going back into town. You can find us at the sheriff’s office, or someone there will know where we are.”
“Sure, Boss,” Charlie agreed and watched Ben and Hoss ride away before he went back to the other men.
They found Roy in his office, reading something and drinking coffee. Roy glanced up as they came in, but his face was grim. “Ben, Hoss,” he greeted them. “I got some news fer ya.”
“What?” Ben asked, in a mixture of hope and dread.
“It’s about that there Logan Blake,” Roy told him. Ben’s heart sank slightly. “I wired the Circle C right after ya left, an’ I jist got the reply a little while ago.”
“And?” Ben asked, wondering where this was going.
“An’ it seems that Logan Blake ain’t jist a ranch foreman, Ben,” Roy replied. “He’s also a well-known dealer in slaves in the South.”
“I don’t understand,” Ben stuttered, but he was beginning to understand. He groped for a chair and sat heavily. Hoss looked at his father with concern.
“Accordin’ ta ma sources, he’s turned up at nearby auctions twice this year with slaves – and they ain’t all been black men,” Roy replied, hurrying, as though saying the words quickly made them any less repulsive. “The men he had with him were white.”
“But…” Hoss protested, but couldn’t go on as the implications struck him.
“Yes, white men couldn’t be sold as slaves if they could prove that they’re white,” Roy agreed. “But unless ya carry somethin’ that proves it, there are some who don’t care what ya say.”
“But the war’s over,” Hoss frowned. “Slavery ain’t allowed.”
“These weren’t legal auctions,” Roy explained, hating to have to tell them this. “An’ ma source tells me there’s another auction in a few days.”
“Do you think…?” Ben started and then couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence. He abhorred slavery in all forms and the thought of his beloved youngest son in that situation was too much for him. Ben began to shake.
“Get some brandy!” Roy urged Hoss and knelt by Ben’s chair.
It was not only brandy that Hoss brought, but the doctor, too. He had met Paul Martin on his way back from the saloon with the brandy. Ben, however, had regained control, but he still drank the brandy at the doctor’s urging. “I’m all right,” he repeated, this time for Hoss’ benefit. The big man looked so worried. Ben dreaded telling him that Joe had been kidnapped to be sold at a slave auction. But Hoss had already worked it out for himself.
“Logan’s taken Joe ta sell at that auction, ain’t he?” Hoss demanded, watching as Paul took Ben’s pulse without his father even noticing. “An’ Drake an’ them others too, most likely.”
“Yes, I think so,” Roy replied. “I got Clem out lookin’ ta see if’n he can find anyone what’s seen Logan in the last few days. Perhaps we’ll catch him afore he can get away.”
Standing beside and slightly behind Ben, Paul exchanged a worried glance with Roy. He clearly didn’t expect to find Logan and Paul’s heart ached for the fear and misery the Cartwrights – all of them – were going to face in the next few days until Joe was returned to his home safe and sound.
The forced march through the darkness was grueling. Joe was as exhausted as the rest of the men when dawn broke and they were herded into a small thicket of trees. There, they were allowed to sit down, had their leg irons attached again and were given some food and water before being gagged again. There had been no sign of life anywhere around, but Logan was taking no chances. However, all the men were so tired by their exertions that they all fell asleep pretty much at once.
All but Joe. His mind was still working, trying to figure out a way to escape. He knew his only chance was to get the other men to work with him in over-powering their guards. He vowed to try that evening, before they started walking again. They were obviously following a pre-planned route, with each stop well chosen for its camouflage qualities. Joe moved restlessly and the clanking of his chains drew the guard’s eye. Joe sighed, and closed his eyes, willing his body to relax.
But it was some time before he slept.
The captives were fed again in the late afternoon and Joe contrived to speak to as many of the men as he could manage. Everyone agreed to act when Joe gave the signal – everyone but the doubter from Joe’s first night as a captive, a man called Rick. “We can’t fight the guards,” he protested in a heated whisper. “I’m not going to!”
“So you really want to be a slave?” Joe demanded. “Do you have no more self-respect than that? Don’t you have a family or friends waiting for you, wondering what’s happened to you?”
“I ain’t got a family,” Rick muttered, flushing. “An’ I don’t want ta be a slave.” He gave Joe a hard look. “All right, I’ll follow you, but I think it’s a bad idea.”
“I’m willing to listen if you have any others,” Joe replied, but Rick stayed silent.
As they ate their evening meal, Joe watched the guards covertly. Logan was seeing to his horse, putting on the saddle and his gear. Joe could hear the saddle bags clinking and assumed that Logan was carrying extra chains, just in case. Just in case of what, he didn’t like to think.
The moment Joe had chosen was when the guards had their hands full of plates and the one remaining look-out was turned away. With a jerk of his head, Joe gave the signal and dived at the nearest man, bearing him to the ground. After an instant’s hesitation, the other captives followed his lead.
And for a few minutes, it looked as though the captives would win their freedom. Joe felt a surge of triumph as the man beneath him succumbed to the blows Joe had been raining down on him. But as Joe turned away to help someone else, something crashed down heavily on his head.
Caught by surprise, Joe slumped down, badly dazed, but not unconscious. A man’s weight landed on him and Joe was crushed to the ground, unable to get his hands under him to push upwards and free himself. He was vaguely aware of sounds of fighting from all around, but he couldn’t move his head to try and see what was going on.
Gradually, Joe’s head stopped ringing, and he became more aware of what was going on. A man still lay on top of him and Joe was beginning to feel squashed. From the sounds around, Joe gathered that the uprising had failed. He felt a wrenching pang of disappointment and wondered what Logan would do to punish him.
Joe didn’t have long to wait to find out. Still lying face down, Joe felt different hands fumbling with the chains he wore on his wrists. He felt a lifting of his spirits as the first cuff was removed, but it was short lived as something made of canvas was shoved onto his arm and pulled up. Joe renewed his struggles, but now, there were several pairs of hands on his body and as the person who was lying on him rose, Joe tried to fight his way free, but there were too many people holding him.
As he was hauled into a seated position, Joe saw what it was that was being pulled onto his arm and he began to fight again in earnest – it was a straitjacket. Joe had only ever seen drawings of these fearsome things, but he recognized it immediately. He thrashed violently, but to no avail. The second cuff was removed – with difficulty – from his other wrist and his arm forced into the sleeve. With three men working together, the jacket was drawn up around Joe’s shoulders and he could feel it being fastened down his back.
When the back was secure, the sleeves were forced through a strap that ran vertically down the front of the white canvas jacket and pulled around to buckle firmly behind Joe’s back. Joe was then hauled to his feet, fighting all the way, and a leather strap going from the front of the jacket was pulled between his legs and again buckled at the back. Joe was thrown back to the ground and a broad leather strap was buckled tightly round his thighs. His boots were pulled off and another strap fastened his ankles together. Only then did the men step back.
Furious, humiliated, Joe glared around. The other prisoners were all tightly chained again, looking at him in horror. The guards were all smirking as they looked down at their helpless captive. Logan’s was the only grim face amongst them.
“I warned you, Joe,” he said, and the deadly quiet tone of his voice gave everyone pause. “I was nice to you, Joe, but no longer. I can’t afford for you to be marked in any way, so you are going to make the rest of the journey like this. You will eat when you are told to, or I will force feed you. Do you understand?”
“Do what you will,” Joe snarled. “But I’m not going to go meekly to be sold!”
Sighing, Logan shrugged. “I think you’ll find that you will,” he replied. He reached into his pocket and drew out a syringe. Joe stiffened, wondering what it contained. He soon found out as the contents were shot into his thigh and a short time later, Joe was drifting helplessly into unconsciousness.
“Yes, its Joe’s gun belt,” Ben replied, heavily. He handled the familiar worn leather as though it could tell him where Joe had been taken. The barn at the deserted farmstead showed signs of recent occupation and Joe’s gun belt was only one of the things they had found.
“We know he’s alive, then,” Hoss offered, knowing that this was cold comfort if their suspicions were correct. He felt desperately uncomfortable with the lost look on his father’s face and he grasped the chance to go elsewhere and occupy his mind, leaving his father with men more experienced at giving comfort. “I’ll look round outside,” he offered and hurried away. Ben didn’t notice him go.
“Joe,” he whispered and closed his eyes, conjuring his son’s face behind his closed eyelids and seeing the beloved dazzling smile and the sparkling green eyes. Would he ever see Joe’s smiling face again? Swallowing back tears, Ben opened his eyes and saw Roy and Clem watching him with unsettling sympathy. “Where is this auction?” he demanded.
Before Roy could tell him, Hoss hurried into the barn. “They’re on foot,” he reported, breathlessly. “I seen the place where they didn’ quite brush out the tracks right.”
“Show me!” Ben ordered, as though Hoss was likely to refuse.
They all followed Hoss outside and he showed them the place where one footprint had escaped the efforts to brush it out. Ben studied it for a moment before looking up. “Which way were they going, do you think?” he asked.
“That way,” Hoss replied, without hesitation, pointing to the south east. Ben glanced at Roy, who nodded.
“If’n ya go that way long enough, ya come ta Ironstone,” Roy stated quietly. “That’s where the next auction is to be held.”
“When?” Ben asked, bleakly.
“In about three days,” Roy replied.
“We leave today,” Ben told Hoss.
Joe had no idea how long he drifted in the darkness, but when he finally was able to open his eyes, he discovered he was tied to a travois being pulled behind one of the horses. As he tried to move, he realized that he was still trapped in the straitjacket and his legs strapped together. By craning his head, Joe could see the other captives walking obediently in line through the moonlit dark. They were all, him included, gagged.
And nothing changed as the trek continued. Joe was kept totally isolated from the others and allowed no freedom at all. He was sedated regularly. His captors, Logan in particular, did everything they could to humiliate him. He was never allowed to feed himself, but Joe had learned his lesson the first time and ate what he was given. He did not want to go through force feeding ever again. As soon as Joe was finished eating, he was gagged again, although the other captives were allowed a short time to talk to one another. Joe hoped desperately that Drake would cajole them into another escape attempt, but Joe’s harsh captivity had cowed them all.
When they arrived at their destination two nights later, Joe was almost relieved. Perhaps he would be able to find a way to escape now they were in a town. And hope flared even higher as they reached a large warehouse on the outskirts of town, for a man stood there waiting for them and he wore a badge.
But the hope died at once as the sheriff spoke. “I thought you were never going to get here, Logan,” he called.
“I’m right on time,” Logan responded. “And wait till you see this lot.” He dismounted and together he and the sheriff walked along towards the line of prisoners. “Look at this one first. He’s given me a lot of trouble, but don’t you think he’s worth it?” he asked, gesturing towards Joe.
Leaning down to peer more closely at Joe in the dim light, the sheriff grinned as he saw the way Joe was trussed up. “Real good lookin’,” he agreed. “You gonna let him out o’ that now you’re here?”
“No,” Logan replied, enjoying seeing Joe blanch. “He’s got to learn his lesson and besides, it keeps the others quiet, too. I’ve never had a march so easy.”
The sheriff laughed and moved off to inspect the other men. Joe forced himself to keep his breathing even. I can do this, he told himself. Pa will be looking for me by now. He might not find me right off, but he will find me. And Joe held tight to that thought as he was carried into the warehouse and a leather collar fastened around his neck and chained to the wall.
“You’re going to be sold tomorrow,” Logan told Joe, as he clicked the padlock shut. “I’m going to really enjoy that, Joe,” he added. “Just like I’ve enjoyed seeing you brought down a peg or two, trussed up like that.” He laughed. “Better get some sleep, boy, because you want to look your best for the ladies and gents, don’t you?”
Gagged as he was, there was no response that Joe could make. But his silence was pleasure enough for Logan, who laughed once more. “See you in a few hours,” Logan smiled. “Then, I’ll get you ready to be sold.”
Morning came only too soon. Waking uneasily from the first natural sleep he had had in days, Joe glanced round to see what had wakened him. All around, the other men were being prepared for the day ahead. Joe wondered what was going to happen to him. From what Logan had said the previous night, Joe didn’t think he was going to like it.
When Logan did appear at Joe’s side, he had the sheriff with him, plus another man, one of the guards from the journey. Joe swallowed. The handful of chains he had expected to see were not evident, but Logan dropped something made of iron onto the ground where it landed with a solid clunk.
Leaving the collar and leg restraints in place, Logan forced Joe to sit up and slowly began to unbuckle the straitjacket. Joe could have cried with relief. His arms were so stiff and cramped from being in the same position for so long. As soon as the straitjacket was off, Joe was stripped of his green jacket and shirt. Then he was pinned to the ground while Logan gave his face and upper body a wash. Joe didn’t mind. He had been dying for a wash for several days.
“I’ve got something special for you, Joe,” Logan grinned as he threw the wet cloth into the water. He picked up the iron thing he had dropped and held it up for Joe to see. It was basically round, with a straight piece of metal dissecting the circle and about 2 inches deep. One side was slightly open. “It’s called a chalet cuff,” Logan explained, opening it up. “I got it from a Frenchman. He used it to keep his slaves in line. It’s very effective.” Logan grinned. “Turn him over, boys.”
Despite Joe’s struggles, he soon found himself lying face down, with his hands behind his back. The chalet cuff was fastened around one wrist, the metal bit in the middle clicking closed before the other wrist was forced into place. Joe both heard and felt the screw close. For the first few seconds, as they padlocked the cuff securely, Joe thought that this wasn’t going to be too bad. But as soon as the restricting grip on his arms loosened, Joe discovered why Logan had used this. The cuff was so deep that Joe was unable to relax his arms at all. His forearms were forced together and the strain on his arms and shoulders was bad. The cuffs immediately began to bite into his skin.
“Do you like it, Joe?” Logan asked, in a solicitous tone. “No? Well, never mind.” He patted Joe’s shoulder and laughed. He hauled Joe to a sitting position again and turned to the guard. “Get me the short leg irons,” he ordered. “The heavy ones.” He reached down and began to unstrap Joe’s ankles. “Slaves don’t get to wear anything on their feet, Joe, did you know that?” Logan asked as he pulled off Joe’s socks. “Don’t worry; the soles of your feet will soon toughen up.”
Joe said something his father wouldn’t have approved of, but Logan was unfazed. “It’s good to see that you haven’t lost any of your spirit,” he commented. “Lots of people will be attracted by it. They’ll want to break you. You’re going to make me a very wealthy man, Joe.” He glanced up as his assistant returned with the short leg irons, took them, and fastened them tightly around Joe’s ankles, not worrying that he caught the skin. Joe winced despite himself. “I’ll be back for you shortly, Joe,” Logan commented as he rose. “And remember to keep quiet.”
“What?” Joe scoffed. “You expect me to keep quiet? No way!” He wondered why the leather strap hadn’t been taken off his thighs. Then he realized that it was to make walking almost impossible for him; another way of keeping him under tight control.
“I thought you might say that,” Logan grinned and put up his hand. The sheriff handed him the all too familiar syringe and Joe got yet another shot. This one was not as strong as the ones that had kept him unconscious, but it was enough to scatter his wits. He found himself flopping down, lying painfully on his bound arms, but unable to move enough to turn onto his side.
“See, Joe? You can’t win,” Logan smirked and left.
In the main warehouse, Ben Cartwright sat quietly at the back of the large crowd. He was dressed in a very fancy coat and trousers, and was wearing a ridiculous floppy hat that effectively hid his face. Outside, Hoss was waiting with several deputy US marshals. It was much harder to disguise someone of Hoss’ size. Beside Ben sat the US marshal that had come to arrest the organizers of this auction.
“Keep quiet until some of the captives have been sold,” he warned Ben. “Otherwise, we can’t prove anything against any of them.”
“All right,” Ben agreed, but he was finding it difficult to sit still, knowing that Joe was somewhere close by.
Promptly at 10 am, the auction started. The first few ‘lots’ out were black men and Ben wondered why the marshal was waiting before taking action. Surely this had gone on long enough. The people who bought the blacks went out and the marshal leaned over to whisper in Ben’s ear. “Everyone leaving will be arrested, and the captives freed,” he confided and Ben relaxed slightly.
Then the first of the white men came in and Ben recognized one of his hands. Bidding was brisk and Ben was shocked at the amount of money the man was sold for. He fought to keep the disgust he felt off his face.
“This is our star lot, folks,” the auctioneer declared. “A challenge for whoever buys him, but I’m sure you’ll agree with us that he’s worth every penny.” He gestured and Joe was hustled into the room by Logan. A murmur went round and the marshal’s hand clamped down hard on Ben’s arm.
“As you can see, we’ve had to restrain him more than the others,” the auctioneer went on. “And gave him something just to keep him quiet. But you can see what a fine specimen he is. Look at that musculature!” Joe was turned round so that they could see the muscles bulging in his arms.
Bidding was fast and furious, leaping up into tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of moments. Ben sat rigid, his gaze fastened to his son. He could see Joe’s eyes were glazed and the way his head lolled told Ben that his son had received a strong drug to quiet him. He was disgusted and horrified at the way Joe was bound, but relieved that Joe seemed to be in good shape otherwise.
The hammer fell at $60,000 and the marshal let go of Ben’s arm. “Get the men,” he hissed and rose to his feet. “Everyone freeze. US Marshal Kent. You’re all under arrest.”
There was instant pandemonium. Ben rose, and saw Logan look directly at him and recognize him. Instantly, Logan threw an arm around Joe’s throat and began to drag the dazed young man out of the room. Ben forgot that he was supposed to be getting the deputies, and began to push his way towards Joe. Luckily for Kent, the deputies had been watching and now hurried in to help.
Oblivious to this, Ben fought his way through the crowd, cursing as he got held up. He burst through the back door in time to see Logan mounting a horse. Joe was slung face down over the saddle in front of him. “Hold it!” Ben shouted, drawing his gun.
Turning, Logan shot at Ben, missing as the older man ducked. He kicked his horse into a gallop as Ben shouted for Hoss and shot back, also missing. Ben raced towards the nearest horse, seeing Hoss appearing out of the corner of his eye. “He’s got Joe!” Ben cried, pointing at the fleeing figure. That was all the prompting Hoss needed and he jumped onto the other horse standing there.
Face down over the saddle, Joe fought with his queasy stomach as the ground flashed past beneath him. He was already dizzy from the drug. He felt himself start to slide, but Logan must have noticed, too, for his hand clamped down onto Joe’s back, pressing him harder to the saddle.
A shot whined past and the horse shied, almost throwing Joe once more. Logan let out a curse and tried to grab Joe, but with Joe’s torso being bare, there was nothing for Logan to get a proper grip of. With another curse, Logan abruptly changed his mind and slid his hand under Joe’s shoulder and heaved upwards. Joe crashed from the fleeing horse to the ground.
Dragging his horse to a standstill, Logan turned it, and deliberately took aim at Joe as he lay in agony on the ground. His aim was true, despite the dancing horse beneath him and the bullet bit into Joe’s side.
Next moment, a bullet hit Logan in the chest and he fell backwards from his horse. Hoss galloped past his stricken brother to secure the brute that had treated Joe so badly, while Ben leapt from his horse to kneel by Joe’s side.
“Joe!” he exclaimed, seeing the blood pouring from just below Joe’s ribs. He moved to free Joe’s hands and was instantly thwarted by the padlock. The only part of the restraints that he could remove was the strap around Joe’s thighs, which he did. “Joe?” he repeated. “Can you hear me?”
There was no answer. Ben glanced over at Hoss, who had dragged Logan to his feet and was now frisking him thoroughly. “These what cha want, Pa?” he asked, throwing Ben a handful of keys.
“Thank you, son,” Ben replied, scooping them up and beginning the laborious task of trying each key until he found the one that fitted the padlock. Then he carefully unscrewed the cuff, freeing Joe’s hands. Joe’s arms fell free and Joe let out a cry and jerked back to consciousness. “Easy, Joe, easy,” Ben soothed, dropping the keys to gather his son into his arms. “You’re safe now, Joe.”
“Pa?” Joe whispered. He forced his eyes open and blinked to try and sort out his focus. “Pa,” he repeated. “Hurts,” he slurred.
“What hurts?” Ben asked, anxiously.
“Side,” Joe breathed. “Arm.” He swallowed painfully.
Carefully, Ben moved his position so he could feel gently down each of Joe’s arms and he discovered that Joe’s right arm was broken just below the elbow. “You lie still, Joe,” Ben soothed. “I’ll get these chains off your feet and we’ll get you back to town to see the doctor.” He laid Joe down on the ground and saw his son shiver. Immediately, Ben stripped off his coat and covered Joe with it. “Hoss, put those horrid things on Logan so we can take him into town while I get these irons off Joe.”
“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss replied, with grim satisfaction in his voice. He began to fasten Logan’s hands in front of him.
At last, Ben found the correct key to open the leg irons and saw that Joe’s ankles were bruised and raw where they had been pinched. He dropped the irons on the ground in disgust. At once, Joe stretched his legs out and then drew them up, so he was curled in a ball. He muttered something that Ben missed.
“What did you say, son?”
Slightly louder, Joe repeated the one word he had said. “Free.”
Marshal Kent had everyone under lock and key by the time the Cartwrights arrived back in town. Joe had lost quite a lot of blood, and was in shock when they returned and the doctor was summoned urgently.
“The bullet’s still in there,” he explained to Ben and Hoss. “I’ll need to operate.”
“Joe was drugged,” Ben replied, worriedly. “I don’t know what he was given exactly. Will that make any difference?”
“Yes, it will,” the doctor replied. “I can’t risk giving him anything else until I know what he had. Is there any way to find out?”
“The man who drugged him is refusing to talk,” Ben replied. “In fact, he’s your next patient.”
“I’ll be right back,” the doctor told him an unholy light twinkling in his eyes. Ben frowned after him, perplexed, but sure enough, he was back a few minutes later wearing a satisfied smile. “All right, I know what I can and can’t do now, Mr. Cartwright. Don’t worry, Joe will be just fine.”
“What did you do?” Ben asked, watching as the man prepared for surgery.
“Oh, I just told him that I would some of his own restraints to hold him down while I operated on his shoulder without anesthetic,” the doctor replied in an innocent tone. “Amazing how helpful he became then.”
“Thank you,” Ben replied, fervently.
“Thanks to you, this dreadful trade has been stopped,” the doctor answered. “We can start putting right all the wrongs. And believe me, it was my pleasure.” He patted Ben’s arm. “Now, let me work.”
It was the next day before Joe was up to talking about his experiences with Marshal Kent. Ben sat quietly by Joe’s side as his son quietly told his story. Most of it, Kent already knew, from questioning the other men who had been held captive, but Joe’s testimony would be doubly necessary to get a conviction, since Logan had shot him. But Ben and Hoss were hearing it for the first time and were appalled. Ben stroked Joe’s uninjured arm gently throughout and Joe took strength from that familiar touch.
At last, Joe was finished and he leaned back tiredly on his pillows. “Where did he get all that stuff from?” Joe asked. “All those chains and stuff.” He couldn’t quite repress a shudder and winced as his side twinged violently. He had refused any painkillers, telling Ben that he couldn’t face the spaced out feeling he had had the day before, or the long periods of unconsciousness he had had to endure before that. Although Ben was unhappy that Joe was so sore, he couldn’t deny that he totally understood his son’s choice.
“From what I’ve been told so far, Logan worked in some asylums, and just helped himself to things like the straitjacket. The chains he bought from other slavers,” Kent replied.
“What about the others?” Joe asked. “Drake and Rick and the others? What are they going to do?”
“Drake is coming back to the ranch with us,” Ben replied, “as are the other two hands. The others are going to go back to their homes and families.”
“We’re working on finding the other men that Logan kidnapped and sold,” Kent told Joe. “Once we’ve found them, we can take Logan to trial. It could be some time before that happens.”
“Just tell me and I’ll be there,” Joe replied. Kent smiled, and put out his hand to shake Joe’s. There was a moment of awkwardness as Joe held up his casted arm, but after a second they shook hands with their left hands, smiling at the ludicrousness of it.
“How do you feel?” Ben asked Joe, after Kent had gone.
“All right, I guess,” Joe replied. He looked ruefully at the cast on his forearm. “But just as I got out of one lot of restraints, I find myself stuck in this! How exactly did it happen?”
“We think it happened when you fell from the horse,” Ben replied. “Something to do with that evil thing securing your wrists.”
“Logan sure knew what he was doing,” Joe mused. “He knew exactly what to do to keep me immobile and to cow the others.” Joe blushed. “It was pretty bad,” he concluded and Ben knew that whatever thought had made Joe color like that was a lot worse than just ‘pretty bad’. “After the straitjacket was put on, I wasn’t allowed to do anything for myself,” Joe went on, looking across the room. “And I mean anything. I couldn’t feed myself nor…” Joe’s voice trailed off and the color deepened. Ben understood instantly.
“He was a cruel and sadistic bully,” Ben declared, with a great deal of feeling in his voice.
“He sure weren’t too tickled at havin’ ta wear them things on his wrists,” Hoss recalled, his voice laden with satisfaction.
“Good!” Joe replied, and Ben didn’t feel inclined to chastise either of them for their blood-thirsty feelings.
A few days later, Ben was allowed to take Joe home and they made the journey in easy stages. Joe was quiet, but Ben put it down to tiredness, for his son had been through quite an ordeal. He thought that Joe would probably perk up once they got home and he was right. For the first time since being rescued, Joe slept through the night without any nightmares.
Next day, Ben came into the house to find Joe sitting in the leather chair by the fire, gazing pensively into the flames. “Are you all right?” Ben asked, coming over to sit by Joe.
“I was thinking,” Joe replied. “I always knew slavery was wrong, but I never really thought about how bad it must have been for the slaves until it happened to me. You know, I always kind of leaned towards the South during the war. I was wrong, Pa. I reckon I should’ve fought with the North.”
“I’m glad that none of you were involved in any of the fighting,” Ben reproved him gently. “Slavery is wrong, Joe, I agree. But how could we really know exactly what anything is like without experiencing it first hand? I never completely realized how awful things could be, either. I knew that depriving a human being of his freedom was wrong, but I never allowed myself to think of the horrors that other human beings could inflict upon them.” Ben saw that Joe was looking at him and he smiled at his son. “But I don’t think that necessarily makes us bad, either, Joe. After all, we weren’t holding slaves, nor encouraging others to hold slaves.”
“I guess not,” Joe replied. “Chains and slavery. I was so lucky you found me, Pa.”
“I’m the lucky one, to have you back,” Ben corrected him.
Blinking back sudden moisture, Joe smiled. “Perhaps we’re both lucky,” he responded.