Affinity (by Rona)

Summary:  Sent to help at a neighbour’s ranch for a couple of weeks, Joe and Danny run into prejudice that leads to tragedy.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9920


 

“Joe, I think you and Danny should be the ones to go over to Mr. Andersen’s place and give him a hand,” Ben Cartwright decreed over breakfast. “It’s only for a couple of weeks, until he’s fit to work again.”

“Yes, sir,” Joe murmured. He took another slug of his coffee and stifled a yawn. “When do we go?”

“Tomorrow,” Ben decided. “You tell Danny today and you can leave first thing tomorrow.” Ben glanced at Joe’s empty plate. Although his youngest son’s silence was more indicative of his tiredness after a late night doing goodness only knows what, it had allowed him to eat his meal before it got cold, which was something of a change for Joe in the morning. Once Joe got to wrangling with his brothers, his meal was forgotten.

“I’ll go tell him now,” Joe said, and excused himself from the table.

Glancing up, Ben caught a speculative glance from Adam. “Well?” he queried.

“Do you really think Joe and Danny are the best choices to send to Andersen’s?” Adam asked, in his blandest tone. Ben wasn’t fooled for an instant. He cocked an eyebrow to invite Adam to go on. “They can both be kind of volatile, you know, and Andersen isn’t the most tolerant guy we know.”

“Oh, I don’t think there’ll be a problem,” Ben replied. “Sven has become more easy going over the years. And you know your brother; he’s always charmed Sven. And both he and Danny are hard workers, you can’t deny that.”

“I guess,” Adam responded, doubtfully. But he wasn’t convinced. Sven Andersen was a man of his father’s age, a bachelor with a short temper. It was true that Joe had always got along very well with the curmudgeonly man, but that had been on short visits lasting a matter of hours, not days, or even weeks. And for all Ben’s assurances that Andersen was more relaxed these days, Adam had heard that since he had hurt himself the previous week, his tolerance was even more limited than it had been.

“Its settled, Adam,” Ben told him. “We have enough to do round here without you questioning my every decision. Now, let’s get to work.” He pushed back his chair and Hoss, the middle son, stood too, looking relieved. For a few days now, Adam and Ben hadn’t been getting along. The disagreement they had had was quite minor, but both men thought they were right and both were too stubborn to let go of the argument quite yet. It made life very uncomfortable for everyone else round about.

Heaving a sigh, Adam rose, too. He couldn’t quite say why he was suddenly so uneasy about this new assignment of his brother’s. He hoped it was simply that he was out of sorts, not some kind of premonition.

*****

“Sure thing, Joe,” Danny responded. He was rhythmically brushing his horse, Concho, prior to saddling him. “When do we leave?”

“After breakfast tomorrow,” Joe replied. He went across the barn to saddle his own horse, Cochise.

“What’s Mr. Andersen like to work for?” Danny asked. He’d been with the Cartwrights for two years and people who didn’t know often mistook him for Joe’s brother, as they were of a similar lean build, with dark curly hair. Joe’s hair had a more chestnut tinge to it, and his smile flashed more readily, for he had had an easier life than Danny, but they were both good looking young men. “I don’t recall ever meeting him.”

“I don’t think you have,” Joe replied, trying to think back. “We haven’t seen as much of him in recent years. He and Pa started out here about the same time. But I think he’s all right. I’ve never worked for him, myself.” He flashed a grin at Danny.

Grinning right back, Danny jibed, “Some people round here would say you’ve never worked for anyone at all!”

“Oh, so now you’ve been talking to those brothers of mine, have you?” Joe scolded. “You ought to know by now not to listen to a word they say! Huh, some friend you are!”

But he was unable to keep up the front of being offended when he saw Danny’s grinning face. Laughing together, they led their horses out of the barn and mounted up. As they rode away, Adam came out of the house. He paused as he watched them leaving and again felt that pang of foreboding. He wished he could think of a way to stop them going to Andersen’s the next day.

*****

“Take care of yourself, son,” Ben said, as Joe swung into the saddle the next morning. “Be sure and do everything you can for Sven. And behave yourself, Joe.”

“I will, sir,” Joe replied. “Bye, Pa. Bye, brothers.” He lifted a hand in farewell and rode across the yard. Danny fell into place beside him and they headed off for Sven Andersen’s place, which was about 35 miles away.

“Its sure goin’ to be quiet with Joe gone, ain’t it?” Hoss said, as he and Adam went to get their horses.

“At least I’ll get peace to read,” Adam replied. His disagreement with Ben still wasn’t healed and, knowing that Joe was siding with Ben, Adam found it difficult to be pleasant to his youngest brother.  His farewell had been decidedly cool and Joe had responded in kind. They had had a brief spat, in which little was said, but much was felt and Adam had had the final word by turning his back to Joe and refusing to watch him ride away.

“Dadburnit, Adam, if’n you ain’t worse than Joe when you’s in a mood,” Hoss grumped. “Good thing one o’ us Cartwrights can keep their temper, that’s what I say.”

Blinking, Adam wondered if he’d really been that bad. Worse than Joe? Was that possible? He resolved to try and keep his bad mood under better control as he mounted his horse and followed his younger brother out of the yard.

*****

It was well into the afternoon before Joe and Danny arrived at the Andersen ranch. Andersen was a tall, heavily built man, with graying fair hair and piercing blue eyes. Joe had explained on the way over that he was Swedish, like Hoss’ mother had been. He was going around on a stick, his right foot swathed in bandages where he had burnt it the previous week.

“I had a fire,” Andersen told them, gruffly, as he showed them into the house. “My barn burnt down and my hand was killed. Until I am well again, I asked your father if he could help me. So you are here.”

“It’s good to be back again, sir,” Joe replied. “This is Danny Kidd. Danny’s worked for us for the last two years.”

Shaking Danny’s hand, Andersen looked him over. “Danny Kidd,” he mused. “It seems to me that I heard Ben talk about you.”

“Could be,” nodded Joe. “Danny’s a real good worker.” He grinned at his friend.

“It wasn’t that,” Andersen replied, doubtfully. He shrugged. “It will come back to me. Now I will show you where you sleep.” He led them into the small bunkhouse adjacent to the main house. It had a couple of bunks in it and was clean and warm. “I don’t allow drinking or swearing,” he informed them. “You will eat with me in the house. If you are not on time for a meal, you will not eat. Supper is at 6.” He left.

“Phew, he’s tough,” Danny commented, rolling his eyes.

“I guess he is,” Joe replied, throwing his saddle bags down on a bunk. He sat down to test the bedsprings.

“What do you think we’ll be doing?” Danny asked, copying Joe and finding that the bunks were firm but comfortable.

“I dunno,” Joe replied. “Chores, pretty much like at home, I guess.” He stretched. “I just hope he doesn’t want us to rebuild the barn!”

“Joe,” Danny ventured, after a moment’s silence. “You don’t suppose he remembers your Pa talking about me being in prison, do ya?”

Sitting up, Joe met his friend’s worried eyes. “He might,” he replied, honestly. “We didn’t make a secret of it, Danny. And apart from that trouble with the Carters, things have gone well, haven’t they? After all, you’re a free man now, and have been for over a year.”

“I know that,” Danny muttered. “But, Joe, you know there are always people who don’t believe that a person with a prison record can ever go straight. And they are right, a lot of the time. How do I convince him I’m not one of that kind?”

This wasn’t the first time that Joe and Danny had had this discussion, and Joe didn’t for one moment suppose it would be the last. For all that Danny had been free for the last two years, it hadn’t been easy for him to overcome the conditioning of the last 10 years. In fact, Danny had been institutionalized since he was five, and Joe was learning that that created habits that were hard to break. But most of the people he had come in contact with since his release after saving Joe’s life had accepted him at face value. Joe just hoped Sven Andersen did the same.

“You convince them the same way you always have,” Joe replied. “By working hard and being honest. I know it’s hard, Danny. But you have to prove yourself a lot less now than you did in the beginning, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Danny answered. He found a crooked grin for Joe. “I was right that day, when we fought, you know. I asked if I’d have to prove myself to everyone I met and you said yes. And then I said something about it being hard and not wanting to do it. Well, I was right, it is hard, and there are still days that I don’t want to do it.”

“I know,” Joe said, quietly. He had been a witness to Danny’s journey from wounded, caged animal to the happier, more relaxed individual he now was. It was a testimony to Danny’s strength of character, and to Joe’s steadfast friendship that he had completed the journey. Right from the beginning, Joe and Danny had been friends, and their affinity had just deepened over time. “I wish you didn’t have to.”

“Well, I do,” Danny replied, briskly. “And it has been worth it, Joe. It has been worth it.”

“Good,” Joe answered, smiling. He knew they had come through another crisis.

*****

Supper was surprisingly good, but mindful that they had to be up early next morning, and had had a long ride that day, Joe and Danny didn’t linger after the meal. They washed up the supper dishes and brought in kindling for the morning before heading off to bed.

But sleep didn’t come easy to either of the young men that night. Joe was thinking about what Danny had said to him earlier and wondering, not for the first time, if Danny would one day leave to go somewhere where his name wasn’t known, where he wouldn’t have to prove himself to everyone he met. Joe wouldn’t blame him if he did go, but he would miss him.

Across the room, Danny listened to the faint howling of a wolf. He was uneasy. Andersen had eyed him speculatively all over supper and some deep instinct was telling Danny that this man would not be happy to discover that he had an ex-con working on his place. Sighing, and rolling over again, Danny tried to convince himself that he was just tired. It was natural to be apprehensive, he chided himself silently. He’d only ever worked at one place – the Ponderosa, where tolerance was expected from everyone and enforced. Of course he was going to be nervous working for a new boss, even if it was only for a few weeks.

The night was well advanced before either of them slept.

*****

Danny’s instinct was proved right as they went in for breakfast the next morning. Andersen glared at them both as they trooped in, yawning. Silently, he pointed to the frying pan on the stove and sat down by the fire.

Exchanging glances, Danny and Joe went to fry the bacon and eggs that were sitting out. The silence was stifling, and it wasn’t until they were at the table that Andersen spoke. He gave thanks to the Lord and they began to eat. Almost at once, though, Andersen began his attack.

“I know what you are,” he declared, looking at Danny. “I remember what Ben said to me. You are a convict.” He shot a sour glance at Joe. “How could you bring such a man here?”

“Danny’s not a convict,” Joe protested, hotly. “Its true, he was in prison, but he’s a free man now. He’s worked for us since getting out and he’s proven himself honest and reliable.”

“You Cartwrights always were a trusting lot,” Andersen answered, skeptically. “Once a convict, always a convict.”

“I’ll leave this morning and go back to the Ponderosa, sir,” Danny interjected, quietly.

“No you won’t!” Andersen objected. “I don’t want you going about my land without someone to keep an eye on you. Who knows what you might do?”

“Mr. Andersen,” Joe began, but the older man talked over him.

“You stay here and do the yard chores where I can see you, young man. Soon as you finish eating, you get to work. Joe, I want to talk to you.” Andersen filled his mouth and glared at them.

After another exchange of glances, Joe and Danny went on eating, although neither of them had much appetite now. It was going to be a long couple of weeks at this rate. Joe was incensed by Andersen’s attitude, but he remembered his father’s warning about behaving himself and bit back the harsh words that sprang to mind. Losing his temper wasn’t the way to make Andersen see sense.

As soon as they finished eating, Andersen gave Danny a verbal list of yard chores to do and motioned to the door. Shooting Joe another look, Danny meekly said, “Yes sir,” and went out to get on with them.

“Now that he is gone,” Andersen began, “I can tell you what I intend to do. Joseph, I have sold this ranch. I move in two weeks, which is why I asked your father for help, rather than hire someone new to help me. I have bought a house near here, but I don’t want everyone knowing where I have gone. I don’t want people ‘visiting’ me. Being nosy more like. What I want you to do, Joseph, is start taking my belongings to the new house. I will tell you how to find it. But I don’t want you telling the convict where it is, understand? I don’t want him going over there some night and stealing my stuff. I am sorry you have to share the bunkhouse with him.”

“Danny is my friend,” Joe stated, quietly, although his temper was flaring. “I don’t mind sharing the bunkhouse with him. I’m perfectly safe, as is your new house. Danny isn’t a thief.”

“Believe what you will, Joseph,” Andersen returned patronizingly. “But I know I’m right.” Beckoning to Joe, he led him into the other room, where several trunks and boxes stood ready. “Hitch up the wagon and you can take these over to the other house.”

*****

For a single man who’d never been married, Andersen sure had a lot of stuff to move, Joe thought, ruefully, as he maneuvered a large sideboard into the new house.  He had been given explicit instructions as to where all the stuff was to be left, so he shoved the sideboard over to one wall and dusted his hands off on the seat of his pants. That was the last load for the day, and he left the house, carefully locking the door behind him.

It was a lovely house, Joe thought as he drove away. It was secluded, but not too far from the main road, with views over to the mountains and Lake Tahoe. But Joe couldn’t figure why Andersen had bought a mansion like that, when he lived alone. Shrugging, Joe headed back to the ranch and his supper. He wondered how Danny had got on that day. He had only seen his friend in passing.

Supper was a strained meal. Danny’s closed face reminded Joe only too clearly of the months when he had first arrived at the Ponderosa and he made no attempt at conversation. Joe tried, but found Andersen almost as silent as Danny. Finally, even Joe’s ebullience was dampened by the atmosphere, and after doing the dishes, they headed back to the bunkhouse as quickly as possible. Joe was infuriated when Andersen patted him consolingly on the shoulder as he was leaving.

“Tough day, huh?” Joe asked, as they walked across the dark yard.

“You could say that,” Danny responded. “He rode my back all day, Joe. Nothing I did was good enough for him, but he sure knew how to sing your praises.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe replied. “I didn’t know he was going to be like this and I’m sure Pa didn’t either.”

“It’s not your fault, Joe,” Danny assured him. “I was just letting off steam.” He smiled sideways at Joe. “So what have you been doing all day?”

“Well, keep it under your hat,” Joe confided, “but he’s moving off the ranch in a couple of weeks, which is why we’re here, and he has me moving his stuff for him.” He groaned and stretched his back theatrically. “I’m not supposed to tell you where the house is, but I’m going to anyway. If something were to happen to me between here and there, I’d rather someone reliable knew where to come looking for me.”

“Makes sense to me,” Danny replied, touched by his friend’s declaration of trust. “Given the amount of accidents you have, that sounds really sensible. In fact, that’s not like you at all, Joe. Are you ailing?”

“Ha-ha!” Joe retorted, but was unable to hide his laughter. As the two of them settled for the night, Joe described the location of the house and what it was like inside.

*****

Over the next two days, Joe helped Danny with the neglected chores around the yard. They worked well together, able to chat without the chat slowing their hands any, which was why Ben had assigned them to work together. Unfortunately, despite Joe’s attempts to charm Andersen, he was still coming down hard on Danny. Had it not been for Danny’s insistence that Joe say nothing, there might have been an almighty explosion of Joe’s temper. But with his friend working so hard to prove himself, Joe bit his tongue.

On the third day, Joe was sent back to the new house with a bed frame that Andersen had purchased, and which had just been delivered to the ranch. Joe was given strict instructions as to which of the bedrooms it was to go in. “Set it up for me, son,” he asked and Joe agreed.

“I’ll be back as soon as I’ve done this,” Joe told him. “I hope it won’t take too long.”

“You’re a good boy, Joe,” Andersen told him. “I wish I had a son like you.”

Smiling, for he couldn’t think of a way to answer that statement, and he couldn’t tell Andersen that he wasn’t a boy anymore, Joe climbed into the wagon once more and set out. He could see Danny chopping wood, and knew that at least some of that wood would have to be transported up to the new house. Well, that would probably be his job for tomorrow. Andersen was certainly working them hard.

It was a warm day and the air in the house was stuffy. Joe carried in the pieces of the bed frame and laid them all out on the floor before he set to and put it together. He tried desperately hard to open the window in the bedroom and let some air in, but it was painted shut. Joe thought about hunting for something to pry it open with, but in the end decided that it would be quicker to just build the bed and leave.

It was a handsome frame of wrought iron with brass knobs on each post. Joe had never seen one quite like it and wondered how on earth it would hold together, as he began to slot the pieces into place. However, once he’d figured out a way to brace the already built bit against a wall to stop it all falling apart, it went together quite easily and was then screwed into place. By the time he was finished, a couple of hours later, Joe was quite confident that it wouldn’t come apart.

Tidying up the rubbish that had come wrapped around the frame, Joe wiped the sweat from his forehead. The inside of the house was like an oven. Checking the windows, Joe discovered that they were all painted shut. He knew that Andersen would be furious with whoever had painted the house, but that wasn’t his problem.

Going back out to the wagon, Joe stood for a moment, relishing the cooler air outside. He would hate to be stuck inside that house for any length of time, he thought. Climbing back onto the wagon seat, Joe smiled as he realized that their first week was almost over. He could bet Danny knew that too and was counting the days until they were headed back to the Ponderosa.

Getting the horse moving, Joe’s smile faded. He couldn’t wait to get home either.

*****

As Joe had expected, his chore for the next day was to stack the wagon with wood and take it up to the new house. “The convict can help you load up at this end,” Andersen observed, scathingly. Danny’s face darkened, but he didn’t say anything.

“At least we’re working together this morning,” Joe commented, as they hitched the wagon. “I’m sorry this has been such a bad trip. I’m sure Pa wouldn’t have asked you to come along if he’d known what Andersen would be like.”

“Guess I shouldn’t complain,” Danny sighed. “He’s at least just sticking to insults. After all, we both know some men would have come after me physically.”

“I’m still sorry he’s being so horrid,” Joe persisted. “It’s not fair. You’ve worked really hard this last week and he’s done nothing but complain.”

“It’s not your fault, Joe,” Danny reminded him. “Come on, let’s get this wood stacked. Remember, you have to do all the work at the other end!”

Grimacing, Joe grumped, “Thanks for reminding me, pal!” They grinned at each other as they began to stack the wood.

The wagon was half full when disaster struck. Joe had noticed the previous day that there was a loose board in the side of the wagon, but by the time he had got back to the ranch, untacked the horse and gone in for supper, he had forgotten all about it. As Danny moved away to pick up a log that had rolled away from the rest of the stack, the board gave way as some of the logs in the wagon settled. One moment, everything was fine, the next, the logs were pouring out of the wagon on top of Joe!

Hearing the noise, Danny whirled and stood frozen for a moment. “Joe!” he cried and leapt forward, pushing logs aside to grab his friend beneath the arms and haul him free.

It was perhaps not the most sensible thing to do, but Danny was terrified that the rest of the logs would come toppling out of the wagon, and he was right. He had barely dragged the unconscious Joe clear when the side of the wagon gave way completely.

Kneeling by Joe’s side, Danny took in his condition. Joe was unconscious, his head bleeding from a wound near his hairline. His clothes were dusty and torn, and Danny could see blood on Joe’s skin. He wasn’t sure enough of himself to find out if there were broken bones, but he thought it likely.

“What are you doing?” cried a voice and Danny turned to find Andersen covering him with a gun.

“The wagon gave way,” he panted. “Joe got caught under the logs. I’ve got to go for the doctor, Mr. Andersen. Joe might be hurt bad.”

“You did this to him!” Andersen cried. “I knew you were up to no good! I’ll see you swing for this!”

“What are you saying?” Danny shouted. “Joe’s hurt; he needs a doctor! I’ll go into Virginia City and bring back Doc Martin.” He rose to his feet, unwilling to leave Joe to this man’s care, but having no other choice. The wagon was clearly too badly damaged to put Joe into and he didn’t want to waste time hitching the ancient buckboard. But as he turned towards the stables, he felt something strike him hard on the head. It was the last thing Danny Kidd knew for quite some time.

*****

“Sheriff Coffee! You must help me!” Sven Andersen burst into the jail house in Virginia City and all but fell into the chair before the desk. Roy looked startled.

“What’s the trouble?” he asked, in his gruff but kindly way.

“Joe Cartwright,” Andersen puffed, putting his hand onto his heaving chest while he tried to get his breath back.

“What about Joe?” Roy asked, frowning. He knew that Joe had been over at Andersen’s ranch for the last week, but he couldn’t imagine what kind of trouble the boy could have got into while over there.

“He’s disappeared,” Andersen panted. “That convict, Kidd, he went off with Joe today and when he came back, he had blood on his clothes and Joe was gone.”

Going white, Roy asked, “Where is Kidd now?” He knew Danny, and found this hard to believe.

“Tied up in my buckboard outside,” answered Andersen, his breathing now under control. “I managed to knock him out.”

Hurrying outside, Roy saw that Danny was indeed tied up and a trickle of dried blood down his face gave mute testimony to the force of the blow Andersen had used. When Roy went over to him, Danny glanced round, but it was clear he was dazed, for he offered no greeting.

Bringing Danny in and putting him, reluctantly, in a cell, Roy summoned Doc Martin, who declared that Danny had a slight concussion, but wasn’t well enough to answer questions. “But I gotta ask him, doc,” Roy protested. “Little Joe’s missing, an’ he’s the only one as knows where he is.”

“I don’t think you’ll get a coherent answer, Roy,” Paul told him. “But go on.” He stood aside as Roy went over to the bunk where Danny was lying.

“Danny,” Roy said, repeating his name until the young man looked at him. “Danny, where’s little Joe?”

Blinking, it seemed for a moment as though Danny didn’t understand the question. “Joe…wagon…help him,” Danny muttered.

“What’s he talking about?” Roy asked, glancing at Andersen.

“The side of my wagon gave way when they were loading it,” Andersen replied. “It was after that that they rode off, to borrow one, and only Danny came back.”

Frowning, for this made no sense to Roy at all, he glanced at Paul. “This blood his?” he asked bluntly.

“Only on his face,” Paul replied. “The rest belongs to someone else.”

“I’ll keep him here for the meantime,” Roy suggested to Paul. His friend nodded. “I’ll organize a posse an’ send someone out to the Ponderosa to tell Ben and the boys.”

“I will go home,” Andersen said. “I am quite willing to testify against him, sheriff.”

“I doubt if it’ll come to that,” Roy claimed. He had never liked Andersen, but he knew there were enough people in Virginia City that would believe Danny was guilty of assault or murder to get a conviction, should this matter come to trial, even on such shaky evidence as he had right then. It was a worrying thought.

*****

Consciousness seeped back into Joe’s mind and he tried to move slightly and relieve the ache in his lower back. He had barely moved his legs an inch when pain assaulted him from all over and caught his breath. Joe’s stomach roiled queasily and his head began to pound. Joe couldn’t stop a groan from escaping.

After a time, the pain subsided slightly and Joe opened his eyes. He had no idea what he had expected to see, but this wasn’t it! He was lying in the upstairs bedroom of Sven Andersen’s new house, on the very bed frame he had constructed the previous day.

None of this made sense to Joe, and he tried to sit up and look around. Just lifting his head provoked such a feeling of nausea as his head whirled alarmingly, that he lay back down at once. Breathing shallowly though his nose, Joe closed his eyes in the hope that the walls would stop spinning and they eventually did.

Memory was coming back now, and Joe could remember the wagon side exploding at him and the logs falling. Mercifully, his memory stopped there. But now Joe knew why he hurt all over. But what he couldn’t figure out was why he was where he was. The accident had happened at Andersen’s ranch. How had he come to be out here?

Realizing that he was lying in a desperately uncomfortable position, Joe tried to bring his arms down from their position beside his head. It was only when he did that that he realized that he was a prisoner, for his hands were tied to the head of the bed.

Snapping open his eyes, Joe ignored the sick feeling as he twisted around until he could see the knots binding him. His body screamed in protest at the movement, and despite his determination, he could not maintain his position and slowly straightened up. It didn’t really help. His ribs were agony; his hips ached, his back throbbed and his legs were so sore that a simple look carried enough weight to make them worse. And as for his feet… Joe choked back a mirthless laugh. Whoever had brought him here had taken off his boots, but not done anything to tend his injuries. He could see blood on his body through tears in his clothes and the familiar, persistent throb of his head told Joe he had some sort of head injury.

Later, he wouldn’t be able to guess how long he fought and struggled against the ropes that kept him captive. The pain and nausea became so bad that he was glad when he slipped into oblivion once more.

*****

The thunderous knocking on the front door drew Ben Cartwright out of sleep and he was still rubbing his face groggily as he opened the door. “Roy!” he exclaimed, stepping back. “Come in. This is a surprise. What can I do for you?”

Closing the door, Ben took a closer look at his friend and felt an unaccountable throb of alarm. “Roy, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“Ben, it’s Joe,” Roy replied, miserably. He’d been rehearsing what he was going to say all the way from town, but those carefully memorized words were suddenly gone.

“Joe?” Ben repeated. He paled. “What about Joe?”

“It seems there was some kinda accident at Andersen’s place,” Roy began. “I ain’t too clear on it, but Joe an’ Danny went off to git a wagon an’ Danny come back alone.”

“What?” Ben said, shaking his head.

“Andersen, he claims that Danny killed Little Joe. He knocked Danny out, an’ he’s back in my jail right now. He ain’t well enough ta be moved, Doc says. He’s got blood on his hands that ain’t his though. I’m gettin’ up a posse, Ben.”

“I’m right with you,” Ben replied, snatching up his hat and gun belt. “Adam and Hoss are just down by the corral. They’ll come too.” He paused and looked at Roy. “You don’t think Danny did anything, do you?”

“You know I don’t, Ben,” Roy protested. “I know that boy an’ he ain’t got a mean bone in his body. Ol’ Andersen’s got a screw loose somewheres, I reckon. But we won’t know the truth o’ this until Danny is well enough to talk or we find Joe.”

“Let’s go,” Ben suggested.

*****

“Joe?” The voice was persistent.  Joe wished it would go away and let him die in peace. However, the voice repeated his name once more and Joe finally opened his eyes.

The walls were spinning violently and Joe instantly felt sick. “Pa,” he muttered. “I don’t feel so good.”

“Poor boy,” the voice went on, and Joe realized that it wasn’t Ben who was talking. He squinted desperately to focus on the face above him.

“Mr. Andersen,” Joe croaked. He tried to move, but discovered that he was still tied to the bed. “Let me go.”

“My poor son, are you not comfortable?” Andersen crooned. He fumbled with the ropes holding Joe’s right hand, and for a moment, Joe thought his nightmare was over.

His muscles were so cramped that the pain as his arm was brought down to his side took Joe’s breath away. His ribs throbbed and breathing was painful. But as Joe’s head cleared again, he realized that instead of setting him free, Andersen was tying him to the side of the bed.

“What are you doing?” he cried. “Let me go!” He struggled against the restraints, but his awkward position and the pain that seemed to consume his whole body effectively combined to prevent him from breaking free.

“Joe,” Andersen soothed.  “Don’t fight me, Joe. You will be happy here with me. I’ve got rid of the convict for you and once he is dead, I will send you back to your father.”

“What?” Joe whispered. “What have you done?” Raising his head, and ignoring the nausea, Joe called, “Danny!”

“Now, Joe, you don’t have to pretend with me,” Andersen told him. “I know you were too scared of your father to tell him you didn’t like the convict, but I understand.”

“No, it’s not like that!” Joe cried, but his throbbing head was now making speaking difficult and bright lights were going off at the peripheral of his vision. He swallowed against the bile rising in his throat. “Please, get my Pa,” he begged. “Please,” he mumbled, his voice trailing off.

Within moments, Joe was unconscious again. Andersen finished tying his hands to the side of the bed and patted Joe on the head. He didn’t see the injuries Joe had sustained and didn’t realize how ill the young man was rapidly becoming. The only thing Sven Andersen was thinking of was ensuring that Danny Kidd was hanged.

“Convicts,” he muttered as he left the room, locking the door behind him. “Too many convicts in this world. They should all be hanged.”

*****

As the posse rode up to the Andersen ranch, they could see Sven Andersen sitting on the front porch. He made no effort to join them as they dismounted from their horses and didn’t even turn his head. Perplexed by this behavior, Ben mounted the steps and called his name. “Sven?”

When there was no response, he went over and shook the man gently. Andersen’s head lolled on his shoulders. Alarmed, Ben knelt by him, but he could see he was too late. Glancing up, he told the others the bad news. “He’s dead.”

His sons’ grim faces grew grimmer at his words. Now, the only person who could help them find Joe was Danny, and from what Roy had told them, it might be some time before Danny was in a fit state to tell them.

“We’d better have a look around here afore we take him into town,” Roy suggested.

They split up, although there wasn’t much to search. Hoss went into the house. Roy went over to the small smokehouse and Ben and Adam went round the back. There, they found the spilled logs and something that struck terror into both their hearts – Joe’s hat.

“You can see the blood on the ground,” Adam said to Roy in a deceptively calm tone. He continued to point out the signs to Roy, although the sheriff could read them as well as Adam could. “Someone was pulled free from under the logs – Joe we must presume – and then was loaded onto a buckboard or something. But the ground is hard and we can’t follow the tracks any further.”

“It’s going to be dark soon,” Ben commented and his voice was strained.

“There ain’t nuthin’ else we can do here,” Roy agreed. “Let’s git Andersen into that buckboard an’ take him back to town. Maybe Danny’s feelin’ better an’ can help us.”

“I hope so,” Ben muttered. “I hope so.” He went over to mount his horse, and stood for a moment, eyeing the fallen logs, before mounting. He wondered where Joe was and how he was. It was Ben’s unspoken fear that wherever his son was, he was alone, and dying.

*****

When next Joe opened his eyes, it was dark. It didn’t matter to him particularly. Just because he couldn’t see the walls spinning didn’t mean that he couldn’t feel them spinning. The heat was stifling. He felt dreadful; his head was throbbing, his mouth was dry and his body was wracked with pain. Moving his legs slightly to relieve his cramped muscles caused pain to shoot up his left leg from his foot. There didn’t seem to be a single bit of his body that didn’t hurt.

The worst problem for Joe was his thirst. His tongue was so dry it seemed to be sticking to the roof of his mouth and even licking his lips didn’t help. Cracking open his eyes, Joe peered through the rosy darkness in the hopes of spotting some water nearby, but, as far as he could tell, the room was empty apart from the bed.

Lying carefully back down, Joe tugged once more at the ropes that held him captive, but they were no looser than they had been and he was unable to break free. His wrists were raw from his struggles, but Joe hardly noticed them. They were just one more misery among many. His temperature was beginning to climb as his dehydration increased.

“Please come, Pa,” Joe mumbled, barely able to form the words. Nausea gripped him again and this time, Joe wasn’t able to conquer it. He leaned as far over the edge of the bed as he could and retched helplessly. The uncomfortable position, combined with the heaving, played havoc with his injured ribs and by the time Joe had recovered enough to lie flat, he could hardly manage to catch his breath.

There seemed to be only one way for him to bear the pain and that was to lie absolutely still. Gradually, concentrating hard, Joe forced his tense muscles to relax, but he discovered after only a few short minutes that they were all tight again. A moan escaped his lips and he could feel tears burning behind his closed eyelids. Eventually, he slept again.

*****

As the posse arrived back in Virginia City, they saw that there was a crowd gathered outside the jail. Puzzled and worried, they hurried down there. Roy dispatched one of the men to take Andersen’s body to the doctor, and he and the Cartwrights rode down to the jail.

“What’s goin’ on here?” Roy demanded.

Clem Foster, Roy’s deputy, came out of the jail with his shotgun in his hands, looking relieved. “They’re bayin’ for Danny Kidd’s blood,” he told Roy. “Andersen’s told them about Joe bein’ missin’ and they want to drag Danny out here, beat the truth outa him then string him up.”

Turning to the crowd, Roy shouted, “Listen to me!” He paused for a moment and the muttering died down. “Danny Kidd is in my jail because he’s too ill to go anywheres else. We ain’t got no proof that he done anything’ wrong! Joe Cartwright is missin’, but Danny ain’t got anythin’ to do with it!”

“Andersen said he did,” shouted an anonymous voice from the crowd.

“We all know Andersen didn’t have no time for folks as had had a brush with the law,” Roy replied. “But that don’t make Danny guilty. He ain’t bin charged with anythin’ an’ he won’t be.”

“Don’t you want him charged for killin’ your boy, Cartwright?” the voice shouted.

Turning, Ben sent a burning look into the crowd. “I don’t know that Joe is dead,” he said, coldly. “But I do know this; Danny Kidd would never hurt Joe. Never!  Why don’t you folks go back to your homes and your families?”

“Yeah, go on, get outa here,” Roy added and made shooing motions with his hands. They all stood there until the crowd began to disperse, with much muttering and mumbling.

“I’m real sorry about that, Ben,” Roy apologized as they went inside. “That Andersen had a big mouth.”

“It’s not your fault, Roy,” Ben told him. He glanced at his sons, seeing the toll the day had taken on them. Hoss looked worried, a frown seeming to be a fixture between his eyes. Adam looked impassive, but Ben knew that he was suffering just as much, if not more, than Hoss. For Adam couldn’t help but remember that his last words with his brother had been harsh and he had turned away, rather than bid him goodbye.

“Let’s see Danny,” he suggested.

*****

All that day, Danny had drifted in and out of consciousness. When he was awake, he knew who he was, but not where he was. Clem, following the advice Doc Martin had given, didn’t tell him he was in the jail. He simply kept an eye on Danny, cleaning up the bucket when necessary and giving him water at regular intervals. Danny often spoke Joe’s name when awake, but without any realization that he was doing so.

However, by the time the Cartwrights arrived, Danny’s periods of lucidity were growing longer. As Ben went into the cell, Danny stirred and opened his eyes. For a moment, he gazed at Ben in disbelief then blinked furiously, as though to clear his vision.

“Take it easy, Danny,” Ben soothed, sitting down on the edge of the cot beside him. “How do you feel?”

“Not too good,” Danny ventured in a cracked voice. A hand passed a tin cup to Danny from behind Ben and the young man drank eagerly.

“Danny, do you remember what happened?” Ben asked, gently. The urge to shake the answers from him was almost overwhelming, but Ben resisted.

“We were loading the wagon,” Danny reported, in a dull voice. He put one hand onto his head, and winced. “The side of the wagon collapsed and Joe got caught under the logs. I pulled him out and then Mr. Andersen said it was all my fault and I think he hit me on the head.” The dark, worried eyes, still slightly glazed, came up to meet Ben’s. “How’s Joe? Is he all right? He looked hurt bad.”

“Danny,” Ben began, then hesitated, trying to compose himself.

The color leached out of Danny’s already pale face. “Joe’s not dead?” he gasped.

“No, no,” Ben cried. “Joe’s not dead.” He swallowed hard. “At least, as far as we know, Danny. Joe has disappeared. Andersen said that you’d ridden off together and come back alone. Danny, he said you’d killed Joe.”

“I’d never hurt Joe,” Danny denied, vehemently. “You gotta believe me, Mr. Cartwright. That isn’t true!”

“I do believe you, Danny,” Ben assured him. “But, Danny,” he leant forward. “Joe is missing. Andersen is dead. Can you think of anywhere that Joe might be?”

Silence fell. Danny closed his eyes and screwed his face into a frown as he forced his sluggish brain to work. Ben glanced over his shoulder and exchanged looks with his sons and Roy Coffee. Ben had no idea what time it was, but he could feel the grains of sand trickling through the hourglass of Joe’s life as they sat there. Out in the main room of the jail, the big wall clock ticked away the seconds solemnly.

Suddenly, Danny’s eyes opened, and he struggled onto his elbows. “The house!” he exclaimed, as though that enigmatic statement made sense. “I bet he took him to the house!”

A surge of disappointment passed through Ben’s body. “But we checked the house, Danny,” he said. “There was almost nothing in it.”

Again, the frown creased Danny’s face. Ben could feel the effort he was making. Then his face cleared. “Not the ranch house,” he said, his voice excited. “The new house!”

“What new house?” Adam asked, crowding in.

Impatient, both with his own weakness and the others’ lack of understanding, Danny shook his head, wincing at the pain. “You don’t understand. Andersen had sold the ranch. He’d bought this house, and he told Joe where it was. Joe was taking all his stuff up there for him, while I did the chores. Joe wasn’t supposed to tell me where the house was, but he did.”

“Where?” Adam demanded.

Again the pause. Danny looked uncomfortable. “I only know how to get to it from the Andersen ranch,” he admitted. “I can’t quite remember…” He lapsed into silence again.

“This isn’t getting us anywhere!” Adam exclaimed.

“Adam, hush!” Ben ordered, annoyed. Danny was doing his best and it was clear to them all that he’d had a bad head wound only a few short hours before. He was doing very well under pressure.

“Take me to the ranch,” Danny begged. “I can tell you better from there. Please, Mr. Cartwright.”

“I’ll get a wagon brought to the back door,” Roy said and nodded to Clem. “Ain’t no reason the boy can’t go with you, Ben,” he went on. “He ain’t bin charged with anythin’ an’ I reckon he’s the best chance you got o’ findin’ Little Joe.”

“You’re right,” Ben agreed. “Danny, are you sure you’re up to this?”

“I’m sure!” Danny insisted. He sat a bit further up and tried for a smile. It wasn’t convincing, so he abandoned the attempt. “Joe’s my friend. I don’t want any harm to come to him.”

“Thank you, boy,” Ben breathed. “Thank you very much.”

*****

The wagon was brought to the back door of the jail by a round about route, to avoid the few men who still hung around outside the jail, waiting for the chance to make trouble for Danny. Ben thought they were contemptible.

Dawn was only a few hours away, and as they neared the Andersen ranch, the first faint tendrils of light could be seen along the eastern horizon. Danny was dozing, warmly wrapped in blankets against the chill of the night.

“We’re here, Danny,” Ben said, rousing him. He looked at Adam and Hoss and wondered if he looked as bad as they did. Adam’s face was darkened by a day’s growth of his heavy dark beard, and even Hoss looked slightly shaggy, although his blonde beard was more difficult to see. Ben felt his own chin and sighed at the rasping sound his hand made.

It took a few minutes for Danny to wake properly and he peered around blearily. After a moment, he closed his eyes, and was clearly reliving a conversation under his breath. After a minute, his eyes popped open and he nodded. “I remember now,” he stated firmly. “Follow this track for about half a mile and there’s a turn off to the left. Joe said it was faint, but he’s been up there quite a few times since then, so it should be more noticeable now.  A bit further along there’s another left turn and the house is about a mile further on.”

“Let’s go,” Adam urged and they set off at once.

As Danny had said, the turn offs were more noticeable and they found them without any difficulty. By now, the light was growing and Hoss hurried the team slightly. Ben could feel his breath shortening as his anxiety grew. His heart hammered erratically in his chest and his hands were shaking. He resolutely did not allow himself to wonder what they would do if Joe was not in the house.

The moment the house came into view, Adam touched his heel to his horse and raced towards it. Pulling up by the porch, he flung himself from his horse and dashed up the steps. The door was obviously locked by the way he rattled it. By then the wagon had reached it and Ben jumped down, admonishing Danny to stay where he was.

“Come on, Hoss,” Adam urged and together, they put their shoulders to the front door.

It took several attempts and both men were bruised when the door finally gave way, but neither of them seemed to notice. Inside the hall, they paused. “Spread out,” Ben told them. He hurried into the downstairs rooms, while Adam took the stairs two at a time. Hoss went to check the kitchen at the back of the house.

The downstairs rooms were empty and Ben was part way upstairs when he heard a crash, then Adam’s voice shouted, “He’s up here, Pa!” There was such urgency in his voice that Ben found himself running upstairs.

Hurrying through the door of the room, Ben stopped in dismay as he beheld the figure on the bed. Joe’s breathing was an audible grunt, and he lay desperately still. The room stank of vomit and was like an oven. Ben crossed to Joe’s side, taking in the torn, bloodstained clothing and the terrifying pallor of his youngest son. And then his eye fell on the ultimate wrong done to the boy – the ropes tying him to the bed.

“We’ve got to get him to a doctor,” Ben cried and with Hoss’ help, they gently freed Joe and carried him downstairs to the waiting wagon.

*****

It was a nightmare trip back to town. Ben’s concern was chiefly for Joe, who was very ill, but Danny had exhausted himself helping the Cartwrights to find their missing loved one and had taken a turn for the worse, too. Ben was very relieved when they reached the doctor’s office and Paul was in.

Joe was quickly settled in the office, while Danny stretched out on the couch in the waiting room. Paul, after a single look at the Cartwrights, knew he had no chance of getting them to leave. Sighing, he began to cut off Joe’s clothes.

“Has he moved at all?” Paul asked.

“No,” Ben replied, worriedly. “He’s taken some water, but that’s about it.”

“Well, that’s good,” Paul replied. He began to check Joe over, beginning with the head injury. By the time he reached the young man’s feet, he had a catalogue of injuries. “All right,” he began, straightening. “Joe’s got a serious concussion. That’s just to begin. He’s got broken ribs on both sides His left fore arm is broken just below the elbow. His left ankle is broken. Both knees are dislocated. He’s covered in cuts and bruises and there is some evidence of crush damage to his pelvis. He’s very dehydrated and he’s running a fever. I’ll do what I can for him, but the only person who can pull Joe through is Joe.”

*****

Time had developed an elastic quality, Adam thought as he glanced at the clock in the waiting room again. The hands didn’t seem to move for what felt like hours at a stretch, then, when he looked again, they had leapt onwards, leaving him with huge blank spaces in his memory.

Across the room, Ben and Hoss sat slumped in their chairs. There were sandwiches on the table, provided by one of the local cafes, but none of them had been able to eat a single bite. The coffee had long gone; it was the only thing they had been able to stomach.

Nearby, Danny was sleeping again, but he was looking better. The rest had done him good and Roy and Clem had made sure that everyone knew that Danny had been instrumental in saving Joe’s life. However that had not stopped a hardened few, who still insisted that Danny was to blame for everything that had happened to Joe. Andersen’s poison had found more than a few sympathetic ears.

Looking at Danny, Ben wondered if he would stay on. A lot had happened to him and Ben wouldn’t blame him if he decided to leave and go somewhere where he could leave his past behind. He would be sorry if that happened, for Danny was a good worker and a nice man to get along with. He and Joe had a special affinity that Ben would be sorry to see broken. Right then and there, Ben resolved that if Danny did leave, he would leave with money in his pocket; good money, so that if he wanted to buy a spread of his own, he would be able to do so. They owed Joe’s life to Danny twice over now. Giving him money seemed such a small thing to do in comparison.

At last, the surgery door opened and Paul came out. He looked utterly weary, but he was smiling slightly. “Joe’s conscious,” he reported, and stood back so that he didn’t get crushed in the rush. With a smile, he followed them into the room.

Sure enough, the youngest Cartwright son was awake and he managed a slight smile as he saw his family. “I thought I’d never see you again,” he whispered. “Andersen took me to his house and left me there.”

“It’s all right, Joe,” Ben soothed, stroking his hair. “You’re safe now.”

“Is Danny all right?” Joe asked, his eyelids dropping. He felt no pain, thanks to the injection Paul had given him.

“Yes, Danny’s all right,” Paul said. “He’s like you, got a hard head.”

“Good,” Joe replied and slipped into a healing sleep.

*****

It was almost a week before Joe was well enough to be allowed to go home. Danny had gone back with Adam and Hoss that first day, while Ben stayed in town with Joe. To begin with, Joe slept a great deal, but when he was awake, he told his story in dribs and drabs.

“Andersen had a real down on Danny from the start,” Joe told Ben. “I was annoyed when he tried to make out that you had forced us to be friends, and he wouldn’t believe me when I told him that it wasn’t true.”

“Sven Andersen had undergone a change, Joe,” Ben told him. “You remember that I told you he had died?” Joe nodded. “Well, Paul examined him after we brought him back and he determined that Sven had had a series of strokes and they were gradually altering his personality. By the end, we don’t think he was completely aware of what he was doing.”

The bitterness that Joe had been feeling towards Sven Andersen dissolved in a rush of pity. How awful, to lose oneself like that, he thought. “How’s Danny coping?” he asked.

“Oh, not too bad,” Ben replied. “The talk in the town is dying down, but there will always be one or two people who don’t believe he’s innocent, the same as there were before, I’m afraid.”

“He’ll leave,” Joe mumbled. “I know he will.” He raised tired, teary eyes to Ben. “I wish there was some way to show him how grateful I am.”

“I’m sure we can find a way,” Ben soothed and watched as Joe fell into sleep once more.

*****

Months passed before Joe was finally on his feet again. He had had a hard time of it, being virtually helpless for a lot of the time. However, time had once more brought about recovery and Joe was back in the thick of things as soon as he was able.

During his time in bed, he and Adam had managed to resolve their differences again. Joe hadn’t realized that Adam hadn’t bid him a proper goodbye the day he left for Andersen’s and so hadn’t been nursing the grudge Adam had been expecting. It had come as rather a blow to realize that he had offered an apology when it wasn’t needed and he felt a bit snubbed that Joe hadn’t noticed his turned back. But, in retrospect, it did seem an extraordinarily childish thing to have done and he was glad that he had apologized for doing it.

About six weeks after he had begun working again, Danny sought Joe out in the privacy of the barn. “Joe, I’m leavin’,” he stated, simply.

Putting down the brush he’d been using to groom Cochise, Joe looked at Danny. “I knew you would,” he replied. “Where are you going to go?”

“I don’t know,” Danny answered. “West, into California, to begin with. After that, I don’t know. I’ll just see where the mood takes me.” He looked at Joe. “I’m sorry to leave you, Joe, but I can’t live here any longer. Those people still believe the worst of me, and I can’t take it.”

“I wish there was something I could do for you,” Joe told him. “I owe you my life twice over!”

Smiling, Danny tried to hide the moisture that sprang into his eyes. “If not for you, I wouldn’t be free now,” he reminded his friend. “And your father’s given me money. Enough money to buy a small spread. Who knows what I might do, Joe? The sky’s the limit!”

Moving away from his horse, Joe threw his arms round his friend and gave him a brief hug – all that Danny could tolerate. “I’m gonna miss you,” he quavered. “Be sure and write, you hear?”

“I hear,” Danny replied, in a voice as unsteady as Joe’s.

And to Joe’s delight, he threw his arms round Joe and hugged him back.

*****

“Post for you, Joe,” Ben Cartwright called as he came into the house from town. “Looks like Danny’s writing.”

“Thank, Pa,” Joe replied, catching the letter and tearing open the envelope.

Looking round at Joe a few minutes later, Ben saw that there was a big smile on Joe’s face. “That looks like good news, son,” he encouraged. “You gonna share it with us?”

“You know Danny bought that spread in California last year?” Joe asked. “Well, this letter is asking me to be the best man at his wedding!”

Cries of delight came from all round. Ben found himself blinking back tears. So much good had come from the friendship between these two young men, and he couldn’t now regret that Danny had left them two years previously. He was a good man, and he no longer had to prove himself to anyone.

Good could sometimes come out of evil. In fact, Ben thought good frequently did come out of evil, although it wasn’t always apparent at the time. Here was another example and he hurried to open a bottle, pour out drinks and offer a toast.

“To friendship,” he declared.

His three sons lifted their glasses high.

“To friendship.”

***End***

For Claire, my sister and my friend

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