Summary: A tense situation at the Ponderosa leads Ben to see his sons as hostages to the fates.
Word Count: 7948
“So you drew the short straw, did you?” Ben asked Joe as his son handed him a cup of coffee.
Smiling, Joe shook his head. “I volunteered to stay,” he admitted. He sat down on the sofa opposite his father and picked up his own cup.
Raising one skeptical eyebrow, Ben silently invited Joe to continue. Joe sipped his coffee. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, Pa, I’d have enjoyed the trip to Sacramento, but it didn’t need three of us to go, and we certainly didn’t want to leave you alone here. And there wasn’t anything pressing I wanted to do when I got there. Adam wants to go and buy books and I can’t for the life of me imagine what Hoss wants, apart from maybe a change of candy, but there was nothing I really wanted to do there. I can see pretty girls and have a beer here in town.”
“Are you sure there isn’t an irate father baying for your blood?” Ben teased.
“Quite sure, thank you!” Joe laughed. “Don’t you trust me, Pa?”
“Only when I can see you,” Ben intoned solemnly, and then laughed. “Seriously, Joe, I didn’t expect any of you boys to stay behind. I’d have managed alone.”
“Pa, I didn’t mind staying,” Joe insisted. “This way, I can get a head start on those horses, and do the chores for you. It’s not even as if Hop Sing is home to look after you! I know you’re much better, but I wouldn’t have been happy leaving you alone.” Joe smiled lovingly at his father. “You don’t shake off double-septic pneumonia in a couple of days, you know!”
“Double-septic pneumonia!” Ben spluttered indignantly. “You cheeky young pup! I’ve got a broken ankle and I’m getting about on this crutch very well!”
Grinning unrepentantly, Joe shrugged. “Well, they’re very similar, Pa. You can’t expect me to remember all these little details.”
Three weeks previously, Ben’s horse had been lame and he had taken one of the young horses from the corral. Unfortunately, that had been the day when the inexperienced gelding had met its first angry bull and Ben had been unceremoniously dragged off under the branch of a tree. The fleeing horse, clumsy as well as nervous, had trodden on Ben as it fled and had broken his ankle.
Although Ben had had no intention of making the trip to Sacramento anyway, he was rather annoyed to have the choice taken away from him. Adam and Hoss were perfectly capable of dealing with the negotiations with the beef buyers. The surprise – a pleasant one – was Joe announcing that he would stay at home, too. That freed Hop Sing, their cook, to go and visit one of his myriad relatives.
Sighing, Ben said, “Well, at least this didn’t happen just before round up.”
“That’s something, I guess,” Joe agreed. “Although now we’re negotiating the contracts before hand, it’s taken a lot of the stress out of the drive. We can take a day or two longer without missing out on the best prices.” Joe gazed into the depths of his cup and Ben wondered what he was seeing there. After a moment, Joe blinked and brought his gaze back into focus and looked at Ben. “I’ll get started on breaking those horses tomorrow, Pa,” he went on and Ben hid a smile. He should’ve known Joe was thinking about his beloved horses!
“Just you be careful,” Ben warned him. “We don’t want another Cartwright with broken bones!”
“I bounce,” Joe responded. “Besides, with Doc Martin trotting out here every couple of days to look at you, we wouldn’t have to worry about sending into town for him. Say, when is he next coming out?”
“I thought it would be today,” Ben replied. “But you know how busy he is, Joe. It could be that he simply hasn’t had the time. Besides, my ankle is doing fine. He doesn’t need to keep checking up on me.”
“It’s because he’s torturing you, isn’t it?” Joe teased. “Go on, Pa, admit it! He tortures us, so why should you escape!”
“He does not torture you!” Ben denied. “Joseph Cartwright!”
Unrepentant, Joe grinned at his father. “You wouldn’t say that if he’d given you half the noxious medicines he gives me!” he retorted. “Its favoritism, Pa! I tell you it is!” Joe giggled.
They were both startled by the sudden sharp knock on the door. “Now look what you’ve done,” Ben chided teasingly, as Joe rose to his feet to answer the door. “You’ve conjured Doctor Martin and he’s come to torture me now, to prove I’m not his favorite patient.”
“I thought you said he didn’t torture you?” Joe cackled, walking sideways towards the door, so he could look back at Ben.
“Just answer the door, young man,” Ben growled.
Still grinning, Joe opened the door and was met by a rifle butt crashing off his chin. He slumped to the floor, unconscious, blood spurting from a split lip.
Shock flowed through Ben as he gazed at the two strange men at the door. He started to lever himself to his feet, but the rifle was turned on him and he froze, half up and half down, uncomfortably propped on his arms. “Siddown,” ordered the man who had struck Joe, and Ben realized that he had no real choice. He slumped back into his seat, frantically craning his neck to see around the pier table behind the sofa to look at Joe.
The two men came in, carefully shutting the door behind them. They looked around curiously, but it was the fire as opposed to anything else that drew one man’s attention. “It’s warm in here!” he exclaimed in obvious delight.
“What do you want?” Ben asked. He could see Joe sprawled on the floor, but couldn’t see his son’s face. Anxiety was a sharp pricking in his gut.
“Fire,” answered the man. “Food. Looks ta me like ya got both.” He looked slowly around the room. “Nice place.” He nodded to his companion. “Tie the kid up an’ then we can git somethin’ ta eat.”
“I ain’t gonna do no cookin’!” the other complained. “Why’nt we git the ol’ man ta do it?”
“Bob, I know yer eyes ain’t great, but surely even ya can see he’s got a cast on that there foot!” He snorted.
“Oh,” replied Bob. “Sorry, Dan.” He scratched his head, lifting his greasy hat to do so. Ben thought uneasily about lice for a moment before he craned his head to look at Joe once more.
Joe was stirring, moving slightly and moaning softly. Ben longed to go to his side and see how badly injured the young man was. He started to draw himself up once more, but found the business end of the rifle pointing in his direction again. Dan glared hard at Ben before going over and yanking Joe to his feet.
At once, Ben could see that Joe was dazed. “It’s all right, Joe,” he called, and Joe’s head slowly turned towards Ben and he squinted at him.
“Pa?” he murmured. “What happened?” He ran a shaking hand through his hair. Joe’s lip had bled all down his chin, which was bright red with an embryonic bruise.
“I happened, boy!” Dan told him. “Now ya git inta that kitchen an’ make us somethin’ ta eat, hear?”
Not understanding, Joe took a step towards the kitchen and then stopped. He turned back. “But…” he began, but Dan wasn’t having any backtalk. He gave Joe a vicious shove and Joe’s equilibrium was still so out of kilter that he tumbled to the ground.
“Joe!” Ben again half rose and this time Bob stepped in close, his rifle pointing at Ben’s face.
Lifting his head, Joe looked at his father and his blood froze. “Pa,” he breathed, horrified.
“If’n ya want yer pa ta stay healthy, boy, ya’ll do as we say!” Dan snarled. “Now git inta the kitchen an’ make us some food.”
Deathly pale, Joe managed to climb to his feet with some help from a dining chair and staggered into the kitchen. For a moment, Ben hoped that Joe would take his chance and go for help, but Dan followed him. Ben was left impotently watching Bob, who stood so close to the fire that Ben wondered why he didn’t just climb right inside it.
At length, Joe appeared back from the kitchen, carrying two plates. It smelt to Ben like the end of the stew Joe had made for them both. He set both plates carefully on the table and straightened up. Dan grabbed one of the chairs and moved it away from the table, closer to Ben. “Siddown,” he ordered and Joe collapsed gratefully into the seat. Dan jerked a length of raw-hide from his pocket and tied Joe’s hands behind his back. The men fell on the food like they were starving.
“Joe,” Ben murmured and Joe lifted his throbbing head. “Are you all right?” Ben asked, his dark eyes full of compassion.
“Yeah,” Joe answered, but he wasn’t very convincing. “Are you all right, Pa?”
“I’m fine,” Ben replied, reassuringly. “They haven’t touched me, son.” He didn’t point out that they didn’t have to hurt him. He was hurt each time they abused Joe.
Joe cast a glance over his shoulder at the men and Ben could see the bruise on his jaw starting to darken. Ben winced, for it looked very sore. “Joe,” he whispered and Joe slowly turned back to Ben. “If you get the chance, get out of here and fetch help, do you understand, son? Don’t worry about me. Just get help.”
“I can’t leave you alone with them!” Joe hissed. “You can’t ask me to do that, Pa.”
“Joe, you have to,” Ben hissed back. “We don’t know what they want.”
“I won’t,” Joe declared, and jutted his chin in his usual fashion. He winced at the movement, but Ben could see that his son was not going to do as he was asked and try and make a break for freedom. If they could only expect Hoss and Adam back, but they were not due back for a couple of weeks. “I won’t leave you, Pa.”
“Shut up!” snapped Bob, throwing them a black look. “We’s tryin’ ta eat!”
Later, they untied Joe and made him go into the kitchen to clear up. Ben tried to find some humor in the fact that these two filthy men were worried about the kitchen being clean. He failed. When Joe finally came back into the great room, Ben could see how tired and sore his son was.
“Reckon ya could put our horses away,” Bob commented to Joe. “Seein’ how it’s rainin’, we’ll be stayin’ here fer the night.” He jabbed Joe painfully in the back with his rifle. “Move, boy.”
Gritting his teeth, Joe shot Ben a look before he went outside. It was indeed raining, huge cold drops that soaked through Joe’s thin shirt on the short trek across the yard to the barn. The men’s two thin, ill-kempt horses stood head down by the trough and Joe led them into the barn, wondering when they had last had a meal. He hated to see horses mis-treated and took his time unsaddling them and gave them both a generous portion of grain. He quickly tended to their own horses, too, and glanced round at Bob while he petted Cochise’s head after feeding his gelding. Bob was more than half asleep. Joe grinned. This was his chance.
Picking up some hay, and trying to look as meek as he could, Joe walked towards one of the men’s horses, looking as though he was going to give the horse the hay. Bob barely glanced at him.
In a sudden move, Joe threw the hay in Bob’s face and jumped him. They wrestled furiously, but Joe had caught Bob completely off guard and in a remarkably short time, had knocked him out. He hesitated for a moment, but there was no way he was going to go for help and leave Ben alone with these two, especially if he had made a break for freedom. No, Joe couldn’t leave Ben alone.
Scrambling to his feet, Joe went to the barn door and peered out. The May evening was cold and damp, with the rain still pouring down. The front door of the house was closed and Joe decided that his best option was to go around the side and in through the kitchen.
He flitted across the yard and eased his way into the kitchen. There, Joe paused to catch his breath and listen. There was no sound from the great room and Joe cursed silently. If only one of them would speak, he would know where they were. Joe assumed his father was still in the red leather chair by the fire, but where was Dan?
Step by careful step, Joe made his way silently across the kitchen, barely allowing himself to breathe. He crouched and peered round the wall. Sure enough Ben was still sitting by the fire, looking over towards the door or the study; Joe wasn’t sure which. He needed to know where Dan was. Joe slid back round the wall until he was sitting on the floor and slipped off his boots and socks.
On silent feet, Joe took two long strides into the dining room and dropped to his hands and knees behind the shelter of the table. Safe from a casual glance, Joe peered between the forest of table and chair legs and spotted Dan over by Ben’s desk. Gritting his teeth in frustration, Joe began to move down, so that he was closer to Ben, but he wished that Dan was nearer so he could tackle him.
Time was against him, Joe knew. Bob could regain consciousness at any moment and Joe wished he had tied him up. He had to try and deal with Dan before Bob came back into the house.
“Pretty fancy place ya got here,” Dan commented to Ben. “Looks like we picked a good place ta spend the night.”
“Does it,” Ben replied, coldly. He cast an anxious glance at the door, wondering what was keeping Joe. Was he all right? What was happening out in the barn?
“Ya ain’t too keen on us bein’ here, are ya?” Dan remarked. “Ya think yer too good fer us, with yer fancy house an’ all, don’t cha?” As he spoke, Dan walked closer to Ben. Joe eased himself into a better position.
“I don’t know anything about you,” Ben snorted. “But I haven’t broken into your home, attacked your son and held you prisoner!”
“Ya really think yer somethin’,” Dan snarled. He took another step closer to Ben.
It was the chance Joe had been waiting for. With a roar, he flung himself at Dan. The startled man half turned, bringing his rifle up, but it was too late. Joe struck him about waist level and bore him to the floor.
Startled, Ben took a moment to collect himself, wondering where on earth Joe had come from, but his inactivity didn’t last for long and he pushed himself to his feet and grabbed the crutch. He hobbled over towards the gun rack, edging carefully around the table, wishing it wasn’t there.
Meanwhile, Joe and Dan wrestled furiously on the floor. This was Joe’s second fight in a very short time. He traded punches with Dan, but couldn’t seem to get the better of him. Joe’s only consolation, as he dodged a wild haymaker, was that Dan wasn’t getting the better of him, either.
Before Ben could reach the gun rack, the door burst open, admitting a wet and dripping Bob, who fired his rifle into the air. Dan flinched and Joe got in a punch that stunned his opponent.
But he paid for it, and for knocking Bob out. With a coldness of purpose, Bob aimed his pistol at Joe and pulled the trigger. Joe felt a moment of searing agony as the bullet hammered into his thigh from a distance of about three feet. His body reacted instantly to the shock, and Joe slumped to the floor, all but unconscious as blood began to trickle from the hole just above his knee.
“Joe!” Horrified, Ben began to hobble towards his stricken son, but froze as the gun came up to point at Joe once more.
“Don’t move, old man!” Bob ordered. His face was lumpy and red, a mute testimony to Joe’s handiwork in the barn. “Move an inch an’ I kill him!”
Fear flooded Ben’s heart that Joe was already dying as he saw the blood pouring from his leg. If an artery had been nicked, then Joe would die before his very eyes in a matter of a few moments. In anguish, Ben looked down at Joe and saw his son’s pain-filled emerald eyes looking back at him. “Please let me go to him,” he begged.
As Dan started to sit up, Bob stepped back and nodded. Ben hobbled across and awkwardly sat on the floor by Joe’s side. At once, he tore the leg of Joe’s pants and looked closely at the wound. It was bleeding profusely, but the blood wasn’t pumping out, which was something of a relief to Ben. Nevertheless, Joe’s leg needed attention now. The bullet had gone right through at high speed and Joe’s leg was a mess. There wasn’t much Ben could do for his son, but he ripped the sleeves from his shirt and bound the makeshift bandage round Joe’s leg. To his intense relief, the bleeding gradually slowed, then stopped altogether.
But Ben wasn’t fooled. He knew that if Joe moved about, the bleeding would start up again. They needed the doctor there right now. He saw that Joe’s lips were slightly blue and that his son’s skin was pale, sweaty and clammy. Joe was going into shock.
The brisk knock on the door took them all by surprise. Before any of them could react, the door opened and the very person Ben most needed to see came into the house with all the familiarity and casual ease of an old friend. Doctor Paul Martin looked totally shocked as he took in the scene that met his eyes.
“Paul!” The word escaped Ben’s lips involuntarily.
“What…?” Paul began and then stopped as Bob raised his pistol and aimed it at him. He cautiously raised his hands, debating for a moment if he should throw his Gladstone bag at the men, but after another searching look at Ben and Joe, he decided that he was going to need his bag and quickly!
“Who are you?” Dan demanded.
“Doctor Paul Martin,” Paul replied briskly. “And it’s a good thing I’m here. If that man doesn’t get attention right now, he could die.”
“What do we care?” Bob sneered.
“Right now,” Ben said, with quiet authority, “you can ride out of here and if the sheriff catches up to you, you might go to jail for a time. If Joe dies, then you’ll hang when the sheriff catches you.”
This was clearly a thought that had not occurred to either man and they exchanged an uneasy glance. Then Bob’s bravado surfaced again. “Well, we ain’t goin’ till mornin’,” he insisted. “But I guess ya can look at the boy.”
With a hasty, but heart-felt, prayer of thanks, Paul hurried over to Ben and Joe, pausing only to grab a blanket from the credenza by the door. Kneeling by Joe, he gave Ben a harried smile and tucked the blanket over Joe’s torso. “In trouble again, huh, Joe?” he smiled.
Valiantly, Joe tried to smile back, but the effort was too much for him. He was gasping for breath as the pain hammered through him. “Just take it easy,” Paul urged. “Breathe deeply, Joe, while I take a look at your leg. As soon as I know what’s what, I’ll give you something for the pain.” He removed Ben’s makeshift bandage and examined the wound, his face grim.
“How is he?” Ben asked, anxiously.
Not answering the question directly, Paul sat back on his heels and fixed the two intruders with a steely gaze. “I need boiling water, right now,” he informed them. “I need to operate on him and I must sterilize my instruments.”
“Well, ya ain’t gonna git no water,” Dan replied. “Ya do what ya have ta do ta the boy, but ya ain’t gonna move outa this room, hear?”
For a moment, Paul considered arguing further, but he was afraid to push them. Joe had lost a lot of blood and if his leg wasn’t seen to at once, he might lose the use of it, or even the whole leg. Sighing, Paul searched his bag for what he needed and dropped some chloroform onto a cloth, which he held to Joe’s face. It didn’t take more than a few breaths for the youngest Cartwright to succumb.
Rolling his sleeves up, Paul began his work.
Time ticked relentlessly and steadily by, but for Ben, time seemed to stand still. Every time he looked at the clock by the door, the hands didn’t seem to have moved. Outside, it was completely dark and the rain poured down in torrents. Paul worked steadily and silently, only the occasional grunt or sigh escaping him. Dan and Bob watched with detached interest as they consumed the contents of Ben’s brandy bottle.
At last, Paul began to bandage Joe’s leg and he indicated to Ben that the chloroform wouldn’t be needed again. He glanced over at Dan. “I need something to splint his leg with.”
“Ain’t my problem,” Dan replied. He was gloriously drunk. “Ya wanted ta treat him – well ya done that. Ya ain’t goin’ nowhere’s else.”
“Is Joe’s leg broken?” Ben asked.
“No,” Paul replied. “But I’d rather he didn’t move it at all.” He peered into his bag and produced another roll of bandage. “I’ll have to just bandage his legs together for now.” He did so, acutely aware that Bob had risen to his feet and was standing just behind him. He was glad he had already given Joe a large shot of morphine. He really didn’t want Bob rifling through the contents of his bag.
“Well, that’s a right good idea ya have there, Doc,” Bob slurred. “Dan an’ me’s a bit tired. We want ta have ourselves a sleep, but we don’ want ya goin’ nowheres. So ya jist set yersel’ in that there chair, Doc, an’ no harm’ll come ta ya.”
Reluctantly, Paul got to his feet. He sat where he was told and submitted to having his hands tied to the chair behind him. He had done everything he could for Joe, but he hated not being close at hand should a crisis arise.
“An’ ya, old man,” Bob ordered, when he was finished with Paul.
But Ben baulked. “No, I’m not leaving Joe,” he insisted. He deliberately turned his back on Bob.
“Ben!” Paul cried in warning, but he was too late. Bob crashed his gun butt across the back of Ben’s head and the older man collapsed in a heap on the floor. Paul fought his bonds furiously, but there was no give in them. He could only watch as Ben was dragged across the floor and tied to the chair that Paul was sitting in. Nor was there anything he could do when Bob turned Joe onto his side and tied the young man’s hands behind his back.
They were helpless.
His return to consciousness was hellish. He ached all over, but the worst ache was in his heart. Ben forced open his eyes and saw, as he had dreaded, that he was separated from Joe, and that his son, too, was tied up. He groaned as a sharp pain stabbed through his head.
“Try not to move,” advised a calm voice from above him. Ben recognized it as Paul’s. “Breathe deeply, Ben.”
“Joe,” he muttered and Paul made a ‘tsk-tsk’ sound under his breath.
“I’m keeping an eye on Joe,” he assured Ben, although there was nothing he could do for Joe should he waken. But Paul was fairly sure that the morphine, combined with the last lingering effects of the chloroform, would keep Joe slumbering for quite some time yet. “You just do what I tell you.”
Across the room, Dan and Bob were also slumbering, but the raucous snores indicated that they had had more than their share of the brandy. “Ben, is it possible that Adam and Hoss might come back?”
“No!” Ben declared, vehemently. “I don’t want them to come back, either.”
Shocked, for Paul was sure that Ben would want the help and support of his older sons, he asked, “Why not?”
“I don’t want them here till its over,” Ben replied. “I don’t want them in danger too. It’s bad enough that Joe is hurt, without anything happening to Adam and Hoss.” He swallowed audibly. “’I have sons,’” he muttered, obviously quoting something. “’We have given so many hostages to the fates.’”
“Hostages to the fates,” Paul echoed, struck by the aptness of the words. “Who said that?”
“A Roman poet, Lucan,” Ben replied. He sounded exhausted. “He, of course, said it in Latin. I can’t quite remember it all. But it ends ‘Dedimus tot pignora fatis’. There’s another quote, too. Let me think.” Ben forced himself to remember. “’He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.’” Ben sighed. “That was Francis Bacon,” he added.
“I can see what you mean,” Paul agreed. “But I still think it’s a pity that Adam and Hoss aren’t going to come riding to our rescue.”
“We’ll think of something,” Ben murmured. “We have to; for Joe’s sake.”
His return to consciousness was hellish. His head felt fuzzy and strangely thick. The feeling was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. An unpleasant smell lingered in his nostrils and when he tried to raise his hand to rub his nose, he discovered that his hand wouldn’t move.
A surge of adrenalin raced through Joe’s system, bringing him closer to full awareness. He recognized the smell as chloroform at the same moment that he realized his hands were bound behind his back. Joe tried to move, but his legs seemed to be tied, too and a stab of pain shot through his right thigh. Memory came back with a rush. Joe forced his eyes to open.
The two vagrants that had broken into the house were asleep in the chairs by the bottom of the stairs. The cold hand of fear suddenly squeezed Joe’s heart when he realized he couldn’t see Ben. “Pa?” he whispered. “Pa?” he called again, louder now.
“Easy, Joe, I’m here,” Ben called, softly. He didn’t want to risk wakening the two men. “Don’t try to move, son, please.”
Craning his neck frantically, Joe could just see Ben over his shoulder. Ben smiled reassuringly, not realizing that there was a little blood on his shirt collar from where he had been struck. “Pa, you’re bleeding,” Joe gasped.
“It’s superficial,” Paul informed him. He had been frantically straining against his bonds, and thought that there was a slight loosening. But the last thing he wanted was the men wakening up when he was freeing himself. “Joe, lie still. If you move too much your leg will start bleeding again. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Joe muttered and dropped his head back down. His shoulders were cramping painfully. His bare feet were freezing. Joe twisted his hands against the rawhide around his wrists, but there was no give in the tight knots. Joe kept trying until exhaustion swept over him and he slid into sleep.
As dawn broke at long, long last, Dan and Bob stirred. They were both clearly hung over and they moved about the house without checking on their prisoners. Without addressing a word to any of them, Dan and Bob left the house and a short time later, they heard hoof beats as the men rode off.
By then, Paul Martin had already managed to drag his lacerated wrists free from the rawhide that had kept him prisoner for a good part of the night, and he quickly set Ben and Joe free, too. Joe was clearly in a bad way, and Paul moved him gently to the sofa where he tucked the blanket in more snugly and hurried to get some water to give the exhausted young man a much-needed drink.
“Are there any ranch hands on the place?” Paul asked Ben, urgently. “I don’t want to leave Joe for long, but we need to tell Roy what happened.”
“In the bunkhouse,” Ben replied, all his attention focused on Joe. He sat awkwardly on the edge of the table and stroked Joe’s hair. Joe was running a temperature and shivering slightly. He stirred and moaned before opening his eyes slightly.
“What happened?” he asked, clearly disoriented.
“Its all right, those men have gone,” Ben soothed. “Paul’s sending someone to get Roy. You just lie still. Do you want another drink?” Ben’s thirst had been outrageous, and he could barely imagine Joe’s, which must have been worse than that, with the combined effects of blood loss and anesthetic. Joe nodded.
It wasn’t long before Paul was back. He knelt by Joe’s side and checked the wound on his leg. He was afraid that there would be some infection in the wound, since he hadn’t been allowed to sterilize his instruments. However, despite the wound being obviously very tender, there didn’t seem to be any sign of infection. Paul went over to the wood box and found two suitable sticks which he used to splint Joe’s leg, preventing the young man from bending his knee.
“Listen to me, Joe,” he instructed, sitting down on the table next to Ben. “You aren’t going to be walking anywhere on that leg for some weeks. The damage the bullet did was severe and if you walk about on it before I say you can, you might damage it permanently.” He paused to look closely at Joe to make sure he understood. Joe’s green eyes were riveted to his face. “Do you hear me, Joe?”
“I hear you,” Joe responded. He looked apprehensively at his leg, stretched out on the sofa. He could see that it was hugely swollen and the bandaging extended from mid-thigh to well down his shin, and the tattered remains of his pants leg was liberally soaked in blood. The pain was building up again as the morphine wore off.
“Good,” Paul replied. He took a closer look at the wound on the back of Ben’s head, but as he had said to Joe the previous night, it was superficial, although he didn’t doubt Ben had a thumping headache to go along with it. “All right, I’m going to make you both something to eat, and then we’ll see about getting you transferred to bed, Joe. Ben, once Joe’s settled, I think you ought to get some sleep, too.”
As they finished eating the scrambled eggs that Paul had produced, they heard horses in the yard. Paul, suddenly wary, took Joe’s gun from its holster and went to the door, but he needn’t have worried, as it was Roy Coffee, the sheriff, and a posse.
The story was told quickly and clearly, and Paul enlisted help from Clem, Roy’s deputy, in carrying Joe upstairs. Paul was still with Joe when he heard the posse ride out. He glanced at his now-sleeping patient and went to cajole Ben into bed. Paul was exhausted, too, but he was reluctant to leave Ben and Joe alone in the house. But when he went back downstairs, he was relieved to find that Roy had left a deputy behind to guard them.
Sighing, Paul went to get his buggy and go back to town. He didn’t doubt there would be a queue of patients for morning surgery, when all he wanted to do was lie down and sleep. Ah well, he consoled himself, such is the life of a doctor.
“Its good ta be home,” Hoss commented as the ranch house hove into view ten days later.
“Sure is,” Adam agreed. “And I know Pa will be pleased at the contracts we got.”
“Yup,” Hoss agreed and beamed at Adam. “Wonder if’n Joe’s driven Pa mad yet, wi’ fussin’ over him?”
“Oh, I would expect so,” Adam smiled. “And we both know how limited Joe’s cooking is. I hope Hop Sing got back yesterday as planned. I shudder to think what Joe might rustle up as a welcome home meal!” He laughed.
“He ain’t that bad!” Hoss chided, laughing, too. “He cooks a sight better’n ya do!”
Trying to look offended, but failing dismally, Adam shook his head. “I’m hurt,” he declared but Hoss wasn’t fooled.
Still smiling, they rode into the yard and dismounted stiffly from their horses. They looped the reins round the hitching rail in the yard, eager to get inside and greet their family before they put the horses away.
“Hi, Pa!” Hoss exclaimed as he threw open the door and saw his father sitting in front of the fire.
“Hoss! Adam! You’re home!” Ben rose to his feet and the boys saw that the cast was off his ankle, although Ben still used a stick. He smiled at his sons. “I’m so glad to see you.”
But Adam was frowning. “Pa, you look tired,” Adam remarked. “Where’s Joe? I thought he was supposed to be keeping you from over-doing it?” His tone was disapproving.
A shadow crossed Ben’s face. “Better sit down while I explain,” he began. “Would you like some coffee? Hop Sing! Coffee for three.”
Deeply concerned now, Adam and Hoss exchanged a worried look before taking their seats. Their Chinese factotum appeared with coffee almost at once, but didn’t smile at either son before departing back to the kitchen and that was enough to make both sons realize that whatever had happened was serious.
Ben poured the coffee and took a fortifying sip of his before beginning. He began to talk, telling them what happened. “Joe’s been confined to bed ever since,” he went on. “Roy has been out looking for these men, but he hasn’t found them yet. They just seem to have disappeared.”
Shock registered on both faces. Ben studied them with tired detachment. “How is Joe now?” Adam asked.
“A little better,” Ben admitted. “He’s been pretty sick. Because Paul couldn’t sterilize his instruments, an infection started in Joe’s leg and at one point we thought he might lose it.” Ben’s tone was admirably steady, but the fear that had haunted the house for a few hours that day would never leave his heart entirely. “Joe’s leg is still badly swollen and he won’t be walking on it any time soon. But Paul was out this morning, and he is more optimistic.”
“I don’ understand,” Hoss admitted. “What did them fellers want?”
Making a rueful face, Ben shrugged. “As strange as it seems, Hoss, they really did just want a warm place to stay for the night. They didn’t want money, and they didn’t seem to notice the safe, or if they did, they didn’t know what it was. They didn’t know who we were, and didn’t ask. Apart from drinking all the brandy, they didn’t steal anything.”
“And there’s been no trace of them since?” Adam asked.
“None,” Ben agreed. “It’s very odd.”
“How did you manage?” Adam demanded.
“Paul sent out help from town,” Ben admitted. “Hop Sing got home yesterday and scolded me all day, as far as I can gather. Paul took the cast off my ankle this morning.”
“Why didn’t you wire us?” Adam wanted to know. “We’d have come home at once.” His tone indicated hurt and annoyance.
Smiling at his oldest son, who was fiercely protective of his family, Ben replied, “We would have needed help for the few days it would have taken you to come home, son. So we thought there was no point in worrying you unduly. We knew you wouldn’t linger longer than necessary.”
“But we could have been here for you when you were so worried about Joe,” Adam objected.
“Yes, that would have been nice,” Ben agreed. “But the decision wasn’t ours to make, Adam. The decision was Paul’s – and God’s. If it had been necessary to amputate Joe’s leg, he probably wouldn’t have survived the procedure. I couldn’t wish the knowing of that onto you.” His voice quivered and Ben took another mouthful of coffee. He noticed that his sons’ cups were untouched. “And besides, you wouldn’t have been here in time anyway, if that had happened.”
“Well, we’re here now,” Adam stated, as though Ben hadn’t already noticed this. “And we’ll take over. You just rest. You look exhausted.”
“I am pretty tired,” Ben agreed and he finally was persuaded to go and have a nap while Hoss tended to the horses and Adam went to see Joe.
As he lay down, Ben thought how nice it was to have his sons back and have someone to share the burden with. He didn’t have to worry about them being hostages to the fates now. Or so he hoped.
Over the next couple of weeks, Joe continued to progress and was finally allowed out of bed. His leg was in good shape, considering the damage the bullet had done, but he would be on crutches for some time.
It was about then that they heard the reports of a couple who had been held hostage overnight by a couple of vagrants called Dan and Bob. Once again, nothing had been stolen and the couple had escaped unscathed. Roy investigated, but once more, the men seemed to vanish without trace.
But once one sighting had been reported, there seemed to be a positive avalanche of sightings. They were scattered all over the area, and Adam and Hoss took to plotting the places on a map. Neither one had forgiven the men for hurting Joe so badly. However, there didn’t seem to be a pattern to the wanderings, and so they weren’t able to predict where the next sighting might be.
About a week later, Adam rode into the yard and found Joe standing leaning against the corral, petting his horse. Joe had only been allowed out of the confines of the house in the last 24 hours and was making the most of it. Adam knew that Joe was risking over doing things, but he couldn’t altogether blame his youngest brother. Adam knew how he felt when he’d been confined to bed for a spell.
“Hi, Adam,” Joe offered and braced himself for the expected lecture.
“Hi,” Adam replied, peaceably. “How’s Cochise doing? Pleased to see you?”
“I think so,” Joe answered, surprised and pleased that Adam wasn’t riding herd on him. He gave his horse a final pat and angled the crutches under his arms. Adam joined him as he slowly made his way back to the house. “Any more word about those two men?” he asked.
Adam didn’t need any elaboration to know to whom Joe was referring. “No, they’ve disappeared again.” He glanced at Joe. “I wish I could find them! Then they’d pay for what they did to you.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Joe advised, cynically. “I don’t think they’ll ever be caught.” He made a face. “Once I can walk properly again, all this will be forgotten.”
Shocked by Joe’s cynicism, Adam stopped walking and put his hand on Joe’s arm. Joe stopped and turned enquiring eyes on his brother. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” Adam asked. “Because it’s not true.”
“Of course it is!” Joe replied. “Everyone will want to forget about this and Roy isn’t going to catch them, is he? We don’t even know who they are. In time, I’ll be the only one who remembers this, because I won’t be able to forget, not with this scar.”
“We’ll never forget, Joe,” Adam replied, quietly. He was reeling from the bitterness in Joe’s voice. “Do you think Pa will ever forget those hours he spent tied to a chair while you were lying injured on the floor? Do you think he’ll ever forget the hours when he thought you might lose that leg – and your life? I don’t think so! I’ll never forget Pa telling us what happened, Joe. Never! So don’t you even think that once you’ve recovered this will be forgotten, because it won’t! Is that clear?” Adam shook Joe and then had to catch him as Joe’s precarious balance almost gave way.
Shaken by more than Adam’s physical touching, Joe nodded, tears glimmering in his eyes. The elusive nature of these men had suggested to Joe that nobody was looking for them very hard. He had come to the conclusion, in the middle of a long, dark, pain-filled night, that only lip-service was being paid to the hunt, and that as soon as he was back on his feet completely, it would be forgotten about. But Adam’s quiet vehemence – growing into anger and that shaking – had convinced Joe more thoroughly than anything else that his conclusion was wrong. “Its clear,” he agreed, softly.
“Go and sit down and put that leg up,” Adam suggested. “And I’ll get us some coffee.”
“All right,” Joe agreed and made his way slowly across the room.
He had just put his crutches on the floor when the door opened. Joe glanced round, expecting to see his father or brother, but what he saw froze Joe in place; it was Dan and Bob!
“Looks like what we heard is true, Dan,” Bob drawled. “The boy is still alive.”
“Stubborn cuss, sure enough,” agreed Dan. “I didn’t think he had a chance.”
In the kitchen, Adam and Hop Sing exchanged glances when they heard the voices. Adam went to the door and glanced round the corner. Joe was sitting in Ben’s leather chair, where he had a stool for his leg, looking like a rabbit caught in the fox’s gaze.
Immediately alerted, Adam drew back into the kitchen and put his finger to his lip. Hop Sing’s eyes were huge. “Have you got a gun?” Adam whispered.
Nodding, the little Oriental went over to the broom cupboard and from among the mops and brushes produced an ancient rifle. Smiling his thanks, Adam quietly let himself out of the side door.
“What do you want?” Joe asked, numbly. All his nightmares came flooding back. He hoped Adam would stay in the kitchen out of harm’s way. “A warm place to spend the night?”
“Well, that’s what we wanted first time round,” agreed Dan, smiling. His smile made Joe think of a big cat just before it tore the throat out of its prey. “But now we know who ya are, boy. An’ we want more this time. We hear yer daddy’s got money an’ we want some o’ it.”
“You’re not going to get it,” Joe told them. He was suddenly angry. “There’s a posse out looking for you!”
“We heard,” Bob remarked. His smugness made Joe’s temper spiral higher. “But they ain’t gonna catch us.”
Suddenly, a movement from behind the men, from outside, caught Joe’s attention. He knew at once that it was Adam and he was afraid that the men would see something on his face that would give his brother away. Rather than risk that, Joe took the initiative and attacked.
Snatching up a crutch, he fired it across the room at the two men, who were taken completely by surprise. They recoiled, although there was no way that Joe, muscular though he was, could throw the heavy crutch far enough to actually reach them. But it did as he intended and distracted them enough for Adam to charge in.
“Hold it!” he ordered as Bob’s gun came back up. He dug the barrel into Bob’s back. “Drop the guns.” When there was a hesitation, he dug the barrel in harder. “I said drop the guns!” There was a clatter as the guns dropped to the floor.
Kicking the guns aside, Adam ordered the two men to sit on the floor with their hands on their heads. He stepped back from them, retrieved his own hand gun and then put aside Hop Sing’s rifle. “Are you all right, Joe?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the men.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Joe replied. “Where did that gun come from?” Joe, in actual fact, was feeling distinctly shaky now that the danger was past.
“Hop Sing,” Adam returned. A smile crossed his face. “It’s not actually loaded.”
“What?” Joe squeaked.
“I thought you’d like that bit,” Adam agreed. His smile broadened as he saw the expressions on his captives’ faces. “It was a ploy worthy of you, little brother.”
“Thanks – I think,” Joe replied, faintly.
“An empty gun?” Ben thundered. “Are you mad?”
“I didn’t have much choice,” Adam responded. “Joe was in here alone and unarmed. It did give me a bit of a turn when I discovered that, I admit. But what did you want me to do? Hide in the kitchen?”
Muttering something that sounded like ‘yes’, Ben turned away and continued to pace the floor. All his sons watched him. Swinging round, Ben went straight back on the attack. “You could’ve been killed!” he cried.
“Pa, I know that,” Adam replied, trying to hold on to his patience. “But I couldn’t leave Joe here alone.” He looked at his parent’s set face. “Tell me you wouldn’t have done something similar,” he challenged. “Tell me you’d have left Joe alone with those men.”
It was plain to them all that Ben couldn’t have done that. He sat down heavily. Adam sat down beside him. “Pa, this time, they wanted money. When Roy questioned them, they admitted that they had lost everything and were drifting around. When it got too cold, they would break into a house and stay there for the night, taking the chance to have a good meal and something to drink, if possible.”
Joe took up the story. “The people at one of the places they broke into realized at once who they were and it was through them that they discovered who we were. They hadn’t even heard of the Cartwrights or the Ponderosa when they were here. But once they knew who we were, they decided it would be worth coming back and seeing if they could get some money this time. But they couldn’t exactly remember how to get here.”
“But they found us again,” Adam went on. “It was just luck that I came back early this afternoon. Now they are safely locked up down in Roy’s jail house.”
“I’m very glad you’re both all right,” Ben told his sons. “Very glad.” He rose. “I’ll just go and wash up before supper.” Looking at his three sons, he said, “Dedimus tot pignora fatis.” So saying, he went upstairs.
Frowning, Hoss and Joe looked at one another and Joe shrugged. Both looked to Adam for enlightenment. “What do that mean?” Hoss asked.
“Hostages to the fates,” Adam replied, as mystified as his brothers.
Hearing them, Ben decided not to enlighten them. He went to his room and leant for a moment against the door. His ‘hostages to the fates’ were safe.
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