Against His Will (by Rona)

Summary:  Summary:  The opportunity for Adam to help out a holidaying professor with his research seems wonderful. But is it too good to be true? And who will pay the price for the professor making Adam do something Against His Will?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:   8746


 

“Well, you’re very spruced up tonight, big brother,” Joe remarked, from his perch on the table in front of the fire. “Who’s the lucky lady?”

“I’m going to the monthly meeting of the literary society, for your information,” Adam replied, in a superior manner.

“That doesn’t mean there won’t be a lady there,” Joe retorted, mischievously. He ducked to avoid the blow Adam aimed at his head.

“Professor Bartholomew Keene is giving a talk about the devices used in novels to make men do things against their will.” Adam sat down to tug on his boots.

“Sounds riveting,” Joe replied, in a tone that suggested he thought the exact opposite. “Have a good time.”

“Thank you, I will,” Adam responded. “A little culture is most refreshing and I heard about Professor Keene when I was at college, although I never had a chance to attend his lectures. You should come, Joe. You might enjoy it.”

“No thanks, Adam,” Joe answered. He smiled at his brother. “It’s just not my scene. Not enough girls, you see.”

“You’d learn a lot from the professor,” Adam told him. “It seems a shame to pass up on meeting him. You, too, Hoss.”

“Nope, that ain’t for me,” Hoss replied. He moved a checker and glanced up at Joe, half smiling.

“Perhaps, but I’ll pass this time,” Joe replied, neatly jumping all Hoss’ remaining checkers.

As Adam left, he could hear Hoss exclaiming, “You cheated!”

*****

The talk was everything Adam hoped it would be. The professor was a natural speaker, with the knack for drawing in his audience. When the talk drew to a close, Adam was disappointed it was over. He drew closer to the speaker as the people filed out and waited to speak to him.

“I’m Adam Cartwright,” he said, sticking out his hand. “I just came to tell you how much I enjoyed your talk, Professor. My room mate at college heard you talk on several occasions, but due to my class commitments, I never had the privilege before now. That was a most informative and enjoyable evening, thank you.”

“Well, thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” the professor replied. He was almost the same height as Adam, with graying, receding hair and a goatee beard. His round eyeglasses reflected the light in a most peculiar way, so that Adam had difficulty in seeing his eyes. “How nice to meet someone who has had more than a rudimentary education. I enjoy giving these talks, but I often find that they are above the heads of most of my listeners.”

Making a deprecating face, Adam shrugged. “Well, a lot of the people in towns like this don’t have time for education. They’re too busy trying to make a living.”

“Is that what you’re doing out here?” the professor asked. He liked the look of Adam.

“Kind of,” Adam responded. “My father has a ranch just outside of town. I live and work there, but I went back east to college and studied engineering and architecture.”

“That’s very interesting,” Keen replied. “Could I interest you in dinner this week? I’m staying here in town for a short holiday, and have rented a house. I’m not going to swear how good my cooking will be, but I hope the company will be to your liking.”

“Thank you, I’d like that,” Adam replied, pleased. “And you must come and dine with us. Please, would tomorrow be suitable? That would allow you some time to get properly settled in.”

“Why, that would be splendid, my dear fellow! However, I’m not traveling alone. I have my assistant, Jim Stevenson with me, too.”

“He’d be more than welcome as well,” Adam responded, smiling at the tall, thin, blond young man standing quietly behind the professor. “I’ll come and collect you.”

“No need,” the professor told him. “I’ve got my buggy with me. Just tell us how to find your home.”

Smiling, Adam did just that, writing down the directions. As he left, Keen and Stevenson exchanged a speaking glance and smiled.

*****

“What?” Joe gasped, dismayed. “He’s coming to supper tonight?”

“Yes,” Adam replied, impatiently. “And you are going to be here, Joe. It would be rude not to be.”

Glaring at his oldest brother for so easily divining what was in his mind, Joe snapped, “I wasn’t thinking any such thing!”

“No, of course not,” Adam replied, while Ben looked on, amused. “Trust me, Joe, you’ll enjoy the evening.”

Sitting across the table from Joe, Hoss looked no less depressed. “I won’t know what he’s talkin’ about,” Hoss mourned.

“Hoss, he’s educated, not stuck up,” Adam replied. “He’s a nice man and you’ll like him, I promise.”

“Sure thing,” Hoss mumbled and stuffed some more scrambled egg into his mouth.

“Well, since we’re having guests tonight, you boys had better come home early and get changed,” Ben suggested.

“Yessir,” they both muttered, dutifully and a few minutes later, they all headed off for the jobs they were assigned to that day.

*****

In town, Professor Keene was wasting no time in finding out about his hosts for the night. There was plenty to hear. Ben Cartwright operated the biggest ranch in the area. Although he denied rumors that he was worth a lot of money, the townspeople were convinced he was sitting on huge sums of cash somewhere. That he had been widowed three times was common knowledge, along with the fact that he was moral, upright and incorruptible.

There was a wealth of information about his sons, too. Adam was the quietest son, thoughtful and logical, given to thinking before he acted. He was considered the ‘clever’ one, because he had gone to college back east. He was upright, dependable, sometimes stuffy and fiercely protective of his family. Ladies liked Adam, but he was cautious with his love life.

Hoss was the middle son, a big, gentle man, who wasn’t into book learning, but nevertheless was wise in his own way. Hoss was hard to anger, but protected his family from all comers. It seemed to be a trait of all the Cartwrights. Hoss was extremely well liked and could take a joke. He was wary of the ladies.

As for Joe, he was the protected youngest of the family. Handsome, charming, high-spirited, moody, Joe was well liked by both men and women, it seemed. He was rash and impulsive and again had this need to protect his family. Joe was the shortest, slimmest of the Cartwrights, favoring his mother. Joe was a ladies man.

There was plenty of gossip available, too. Stevenson went to the saloon, and soon found that the men there were willing to talk for the price of a beer. It was common knowledge that Adam had shot Joe the year before and then been forced to remove the bullet himself with no medical tools. Joe got into more trouble than most men ever saw, but seemed to bounce back each time. Hoss and Adam had for a long time had to look out for Joe, until he grew enough that he could fight his own way out of most situations. It was also common knowledge that Joe and Adam did not always get on.

Armed with his new-found knowledge, Keene made his way out to the ranch that night.

*****

Hurrying into the house, Joe braced himself for the inevitable explosion that he was late. He knew he was late; there had been a problem with the last horse he had been breaking that afternoon and Joe hadn’t felt he could leave until it was all sorted out. It was, finally, but Joe was late.

“I’m afraid the bath water’s cold,” Ben scolded, but he didn’t have the heart to be too angry with Joe. It was obvious just looking at his face that his youngest had had a hard day.

“Then I won’t linger,” Joe replied, although he had been looking forward to a hot bath to loosen the kinks out of his back. Hop Sing, scolding all the time, poured a little warm water into the tub for Joe, but it was still too cold for anything except a quick wash. Joe was in and out in record time.

Racing upstairs, he dried himself swiftly and dressed in his starched white shirt and string tie. He brushed his hair carefully back, making sure that annoying curl would not escape right at the start of the evening. He wasn’t too sanguine about it not having escaped by the end! As he slipped on his boots once more, Joe heard the buggy arriving in the yard.

The professor looked exactly like Joe had expected he would, but when he saw Adam’s pleasure in the man’s arrival, he found himself warming to him, despite his reservations. When Joe’s turn came to shake hands, his smile was quite genuine.

“I heard about you all in town,” Keene said, as he accepted a glass of sherry. “It’s very interesting to put the faces to the names and see if it’s all true.”

“Well, it won’t be all true,” Ben denied.

“Unless the stories are about Joe,” Adam interjected. “In which case, they probably aren’t exaggerated enough!”

“Thanks a bunch, big brother,” Joe retorted, trying to find the remark funny, but not quite succeeding. Keene noted the reaction and stored it away for future reference.

“I also made a lot of friends in town,” he went on. “When I said I was coming out here, it was quite amazing the way people fell over themselves to make sure I had what I wanted. I was quite flattered.”

“They are nice people in Virginia City,” Ben murmured, uncomfortable with the praise.

“Now, Mr. Cartwright, don’t run yourself down. I meant it quite sincerely.” He smiled as Ben graciously accepted the praise.

The meal was as delicious as always and Joe was pleased when the professor complimented Hop Sing. As far as Joe was concerned, and the rest of the family too, Hop Sing was one of them, as much family as they were. As ever when faced with grateful recipients of his meals, Hop Sing was beaming at them.

Much to both Joe and Hoss’ surprise, the meal had not been tedious at all. Though clearly well read and very clever, Keene did not talk down to them, and indeed, made an effort to include them in the conversation. Hoss was mostly content to listen, as he often was at meal times, but Joe found himself enjoying the other man’s sharp wits and witty comments. He was disappointed to see the professor getting ready to leave, although he was exhausted from his long day in – and out – of the saddle.

“Thank you very much for your hospitality,” Keene said, as he shook hands with them all. He eyed Joe for a moment before turning to Adam with a smile. “Adam, I do hope you’ll be able to come for supper sometime? I’ll send a note.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Adam replied, smiling broadly.

The Cartwrights stood together as their guests got into the buggy and drove away. As one, they went back into the house. “I’m for bed,” Joe announced, and a wide yawn stretched his jaws.

“Has using your brain tired you out?” Adam teased.

“No, riding a bunch of broncs earlier has tired my body,” Joe shot back. “My brain is just fine, thanks. And before you asked, yes, I did enjoy the professor’s company. Satisfied?”

“Sorry,” Adam replied, putting up his hands, but he didn’t sound very sorry to Joe, he just sounded jubilant. It was clear that Adam had thoroughly enjoyed his evening. “I meant it as a joke.”

“You’re not a comedian,” Joe advised him, as he went upstairs.

*****

A few days passed in the usual rush of work for the Cartwrights, then Adam’s dinner invitation appeared, dated for the following week. He was surprised by how much he was looking forward to going, and threatened to become very boring on the whole topic. However, Adam was not completely insensitive and when his family clammed up every time he said Keene’s name, he swiftly got the message. Ben was still worried that one day Adam would leave and go east again, never to return. Joe dreaded this happening, as he had found it quite upsetting when Adam had gone to college when he was a child. Hoss didn’t want Adam to go either, but he knew that Adam was often restless and frustrated on the ranch.

Come the night of the dinner, Adam was changed in plenty of time and rode off into town. Joe had been cool to him all day, but Adam wasn’t concerned about this. He put it down to Joe being jealous that he had not been asked along. This wasn’t the case at all; Joe was just worried that Adam would be reminded once more about the wonders of the east and leave.

Topics of conversation roamed widely over the excellent meal. They moved on to brandy and cigars after, although Adam refused the cigars, not being a smoker. The brandy was as excellent as the meal had been.

“So, what did you think of my choice of topic for last week’s talk?” Keene asked.

“I thought it was very interesting,” Adam replied, truthfully. “I think it’s very difficult to make a man do something against his will if he has very strong principals. There always has to be a lever of some kind.”

“Like fear, you mean?” Keene asked.

“Yes, or love,” Adam responded. “Or even a combination of the two. A man would do a lot to protect his family, out of fear of what might happen, and love for the family. But if its something he feels really strongly against and he is being pressured to do something that is against his nature, then I think he would probably refuse to do it.”

“Really?” Keene leant forward. “That’s very interesting. What do you have in mind?”

“Murder,” Adam replied. “I don’t think a man could be made to murder if he was convinced it was wrong. But you would be talking of a man who was mentally strong.” Adam was talking from experience here, having learned the hard way about the things a man could be made to do.

“It’s interesting that you mention love,” Keene replied. “I hadn’t thought about love as a lever. But what if the man hasn’t got a wife and children?”

“Just because he doesn’t have a wife and children doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a family,” Adam pointed out. “Look at me. I don’t have a wife, but I do have a family. We’re very close.”

“So I’ve heard,” Keene murmured, having worked the conversation round to the direction he wanted. “Everyone says you and your brothers are very close. Although I have heard tell that you and Joe don’t always see eye to eye.”

“Well, that’s true, I’m afraid,” Adam agreed, ruefully. “But that doesn’t stop us being close.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Keene responded, smiling. “Adam, I’m writing a novel and I want to try a little experiment. Would you help me?”

“If I can,” Adam replied, flattered. “What would you want me to do?”

“Can you come back here in a couple of days on short notice? I’m not quite sure when, as I’m waiting for some research material to reach me and I can’t progress until then. I’m sorry to be so mysterious, but if I tell you what it’s about, I’ll spoil the experiment. Is that all right?” Keene spread his hands a looked rueful. “Believe me, if I could tell you about it I would.”

“I’m sure that could be arranged,” Adam agreed. “I’ll admit, Professor, you have me intrigued.”

“Good,” Keene laughed. “I’m glad to hear it!”

*****

The first thing Adam did when he got home was tell Ben all about the professor’s proposed experiment. “What do you think he wants you to do?” Ben asked, hiding his sudden unease about the idea.

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted, “but it’s probably something to do with arguing my case against something someone has said. Don’t worry, Pa, I’m sure its nothing illegal!”

“Well, I don’t have a problem with you doing this as long as you let me know when you’re going. I wouldn’t like to send out a search party for you, only to discover you’ve been in town all along,” Ben joked. He couldn’t admit his unease to his son.

“Now, Pa,” Adam teased back. “I’m not Little Joe!”

*****

“And please try not to be all day about this, Joe,” Ben warned. “I don’t want you getting lost in the saloon, is that clear?”

“Sure, Pa,” Joe replied, slightly nettled at the thought that he wasn’t trusted complete. Okay, so he had a tendency to get side-tracked, but it was raining and he hated riding in the rain, so he wouldn’t stay out a minute longer than he had to. Although the saloon was warm and dry, his saddle would get wet, and there was very little worse than riding on a wet saddle! “I’ll come straight back, all right?”

“Make sure you do,” Ben reminded him, and gave Joe a small smack on the behind. He smiled fondly at his youngest son as he left.

By the time Joe arrived in town, he was quite wet. He went to the mail office and collected the mail that had accumulated there over the past few days. Absently leafing through it, Joe was startled when someone touched his arm. “Joe! How are you?”

“Fine, thank you, professor,” Joe replied. “How are you, sir?”

“Very well, my boy,” Keene replied, beaming at him. “Could you spare a few minutes to come to my house?”

“Now?” Joe asked. “I’m sorry, sir, but I promised Pa I’d be straight back with the mail.”

“I wasn’t really asking,” Keene informed him, as something stuck into Joe’s back. “Now, don’t try anything rash, boy, as Stevenson here has another gun pointed at you.” Joe turned his head to see the professor’s blond sidekick standing close by. His hand was in his overcoat pocket. “Now, just act normally, Joe. Put the mail away and bring your horse. If you try anything, your brother Adam will definitely suffer, believe me.”

“Adam?” Joe repeated, sharply. He hadn’t seen his oldest brother since that morning.

“He’s my prisoner,” agreed Keene. “And if you do anything stupid, your brother is going to pay for it with his life!”

“All right.” His mouth dry, Joe put the mail carefully in his jacket pocket and took his horse’s rein, all the time careful to keep his hand away from his gun. He walked up the street towards the professor’s house, his thoughts tumbling wildly around his head.

When they arrived, he obediently hitched his horse to the fence and went inside. At once, Stevenson relieved Joe of his gun. He and Keene moved away, and both aimed their guns at Joe. “All right, Joe,” Keene said. “Take off your boots and socks.”

“What?” Joe frowned.

Quick as a flash, Stevenson backhanded Joe across the mouth. “Do as you are told,” Keene advised him. “Your brother’s life depends on your obedience.”

Swallowing, Joe hauled off his boots and socks. The hall floor was cold. He dropped them where he was told to. “Where’s Adam?” he demanded. “What have you done to him?”

“All in good time, boy,” Keene smiled. “Now, off with your jacket and shirt. And the hat, of course.”

Again, Joe had no choice but to obey. He hoped desperately that Adam was all right. He couldn’t imagine why they were holding Adam, or what they wanted him for, but with Adam’s life in jeopardy, he wasn’t going to do anything that might get him killed.

“Put your hand together and stand still,” Keene ordered, and Joe did so, even though he knew they were going to tie him up. Stevenson was quick and thorough, for when Joe tested his bonds, there was no give in them at all. He left a long end of rope trailing from Joe’s wrists. “Okay, get moving.”

Prodded with the gun from one side, and pulled by the rope on his wrists from the other, Joe had no choice but to go with them. He was led upstairs and into a room. It was bare of furniture, except one chair. Joe was forced to sit down and his hands were tied to a large metal ring driven into the wall above his head. The position wasn’t too bad to begin with, but Joe knew it would become desperately uncomfortable. His feet were bound together.

“Why are you doing this?” Joe cried, unable to keep silent any longer. “Where is Adam?”

“In fact, Adam hasn’t arrived yet,” Keene told him, enjoying the look of shock and horror on Joe’s face. “But he’ll be coming along soon to help me with a little experiment. I just needed you here first, to help me.”

Appalled, Joe lashed out with his feet, striking the professor on the shins and almost knocking him over. Stevenson caught Keene and steadied him before he snatched up a length of rough hemp from the floor. He stuck Joe with it across the chest, leaving a red welt behind. The next blow caught Joe’s face and Joe ducked away from it.

A few more blows and Joe was panting with pain, his torso criss-crossed with red marks. Stevenson dropped the rope and stood looking at Joe, panting. “Gag him,” Keene ordered. He was crouched on the floor, massaging his shins. “And tie his legs down, too!” He rose. “You’ll regret that, Cartwright!”

Joe could not answer, for Stevenson pried open his mouth, shoved in a bandanna and tied another cloth around his mouth. Moments later, he had tied Joe’s feet to a ring set into the floor that Joe had not noticed before. Then they went away and left him alone.

*****

When Stevenson arrived with the note from the professor, Adam left the herd, only pausing to send word to Ben that he had gone. Stevenson watched impassively as Adam spoke briefly to Hoss before following the other man into town. He tried to make conversation, but Stevenson was reticent in his answers, and Adam eventually gave up the attempt. When they arrived at the professor’s house, Stevenson took Sport for Adam, while Adam went on inside.

“Adam, glad you could come,” Keene called out, hurrying over to greet him with a handshake and a friendly slap on the shoulder. “Sorry it’s raining.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Adam assured him. “We’re used to working out in all weathers, although my brother Joe doesn’t like riding in the rain.”

For a moment, Keene’s heart faltered as Adam mentioned Joe’s name, but then he reasoned that Adam couldn’t know that his brother was a prisoner in the house. “Really?” Keene enquired. “I’d have thought you wouldn’t mind.”

“I think it’s just because Joe’s vain,” Adam confided. “He’s scared that he’ll come in looking all wrinkled and find the girl of his dreams waiting for him in the house and he’s not at his most attractive!” He laughed.

“Come and have some coffee,” Keene invited, ushering Adam into the parlor, where a bright fire burned against the dampness of the day. “When Jim comes back, we can begin the experiment.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Adam assured him and Keene grinned broadly.

“Not as much as I am!”

*****

What?” Adam gasped, incredulously, looking at Keene as though he had lost his mind. “What would it take to make me go out and murder someone?”

“That’s what I said,” agreed Keene. “Under what circumstances would you agree to murder someone?”

“I can’t imagine anything that would make me murder someone,” Adam replied, reminded all too forcibly of Kane and what he’d tried to make Adam do. “I couldn’t do it.”

“Well now, that’s interesting,” Keene muttered. “I thought you might say that. So what about a lever?”

“What lever?” Adam asked, suspicious now.

“One of your brothers,” Keene replied. He smiled at Stevenson, who sat silently in another chair, listening. “Joe, perhaps?”

“I would do a lot to save Joe’s life,” Adam responded after a moment. “But I don’t think I could bring myself to murder to save him.” He frowned. “Wait; are we talking about shooting someone who was doing Joe harm? Or are we talking about me going out and gunning someone down in cold blood? Because, if I had to shoot to save Joe from someone who was hurting him, I would. But would I go out and shoot someone otherwise? No way!”

“Hmm, well, that answers that question, I suppose,” Keene mused. “But, suppose someone were to threaten to hurt Joe and you didn’t have a gun?”

“I still wouldn’t murder to save him,” Adam replied, shortly. “That makes it sound like I don’t care for my brother, but that’s not true. I care very deeply, but I can’t do something that goes against the grain like that.  The answer is still no.”

“Come with me,” Keene urged, and he got to his feet. Adam reluctantly followed. Some instinct was now telling him to be very careful. “I want to show you my research material.”

He was perplexed when they went upstairs, the faithful Stevenson trailing along behind. Adam was becoming seriously worried now, but he didn’t really know what was going on and until he did, he didn’t want to make any rash moves. Smiling broadly, Keene unlocked a door, opened it and stood aside, gesturing Adam to go in.

Whatever other horrors Adam had imagined, this was not one of them. Joe was trussed up against the wall, gagged, his green eyes swiveling round to widen in horror. He was covered in painful looking red welts. “Joe!” Adam exclaimed and made to go over to him.

“Oh no!” Keene cried, and moved to block Adam. From behind him came an ominous click as the safety was removed from a gun. Adam froze, his eyes locked with Joe’s. “Move over there, Adam,” Keene ordered and Adam obediently went to the chair Keene indicated. He sat when told to and felt a pair of handcuffs click around his wrists, trapping him in place.

“Is this your lever?” he asked, furiously. “Your ‘research material’?”

“Quite effective, don’t you think?” Keene replied. “You went quite pale there, Adam. Perhaps you do care for your brother after all.”

“Why are you doing this?” Adam asked.

“I’m interested in what makes men tick, Adam. Its research. I asked if you would help and you agreed.”

“I didn’t agree to murder anyone!” Adam snapped. “And Joe certainly didn’t agree to this!”

“Well, that part is quite true,” Keene agreed. “So, Adam, how do you feel now that you can see what we’re doing to your brother? Would you murder now?”

“No,” Adam stated, quietly.

Keene turned and walked over to Joe, who regarded him levelly. “It’ll be interesting to her what you’re going to say about this, Joe. But not quite yet. You still have a part to play.”

“No!” Adam shouted, realizing, too late, what Keene intended to do. Keene kicked Joe heavily in the stomach. Joe groaned, the gag not absorbing all the sound, and doubled over as far as his bonds would allow.

“Jim,” Keene invited, and Adam fought with the chair, managing to get to his feet before Keene pushed him back down.

Moving smoothly, Stevenson untied Joe’s hands and yanked him to his feet. Joe tried to fight him off, but the pain from his stomach was coming in waves and he couldn’t manage. In a moment, Stevenson had his hands tied to another rope that dangled from the ceiling. He pulled on the second rope until Joe was practically standing on tiptoe, his feet still tightly bound to the floor, but with his hands stretched above his head, and tied it off. Adam could see every muscle straining in Joe’s body. Stevenson brutally stamped down his whole weight on Joe’s left foot. Joe writhed in his bonds, unable to escape the searing pain.

“Have you changed your mind yet?” Keene asked, as Adam met Joe’s gaze again.

“No,” he replied, strengthened by what he had seen in his brother’s eyes.

But he wasn’t prepared for the punch Stevenson swung at Joe that landed hard on his stomach. Joe’s body tried to contract again, but couldn’t. Joe bit into the gag as tears formed in his eyes. He blinked them away.

“You know, its funny, Adam,” Keene remarked as Adam gazed in horror at Joe. “But I heard tell that you shot your brother here last year.” He walked around Joe, and touched the not quite faded scar on Joe’s shoulder. “You operated on him without anesthetic, or medical tools. How did you feel about that?”

“I hated it,” Adam responded. “But I had to do it to save Joe’s life!”

“Yet, you won’t murder to save Joe’s life.”

“That’s different!” Adam cried. “I did what I had to do! But I can’t go out and gun down someone in cold blood! Not even to save Joe’s life!”

“Yet you shot him in cold blood in the first place,” Keene stated.

“No, it was an accident!” Adam cried. “I was aiming at a wolf, and the bullet hit Joe instead! It was an accident!” Adam looked at Joe to see how his brother was taking all this. Joe’s head was hanging, and he was breathing noisily through his nose. But just at that moment, he lifted his head enough to look at Adam and nod.

“I’ll believe you, Adam,” Keene replied, insinuating with his tone that he didn’t believe Adam at all. He nodded to Stevenson, who hit Joe again.

And so it went on. Keene asked Adam if he was prepared to murder and Adam told him no. Then Stevenson punched Joe. Soon, Joe was covered in nasty red marks that would soon be very ugly bruises.

“All right, we tried it the easy way,” Keene said, after a time. He nodded to Stevenson, who picked up a whip. Before Adam could even draw breath to speak, the whip had cracked and curled around Joe’s body, leaving a bloody trail behind it. Joe’s head snapped back, his eyes open wide.

“Leave him alone!” Adam cried, filled with self-loathing that he had not seen through this man’s façade.

“A crack in his armor?” Keene cried, but when he stopped, Adam stubbornly shook his head.

As the whip snaked out towards Joe once more, Adam asked himself why he couldn’t agree to do what Keene wanted, to save Joe from further torment. And the answer surprised him. If he agreed to a murder, Keene would then expect him to go out and murder someone – anyone would do. And when he came back, both he and Joe would die. At least this way, Joe was still alive, and someone might find them.

But the question was who? And would they come before Joe was fatally injured?

*****

“If I’ve told that boy once, I’ve told him a thousand times!” Ben stormed. “Come straight home, I said! But did he listen? I’m going into town to find him.”

“I’ll come with you,” Hoss offered, knowing that Joe might require a buffer between his father’s anger and himself. Ben had been ranting away for hours.

Together, they mounted up and rode into town. The ride went part of the way to cooling Ben’s anger, but he knew it would flare up again if he found Joe in a saloon. The rain that was still falling cooled him off slightly, too.

They took their horses to the livery stable, rather than leave them standing in the rain, and Ben felt the first pangs of true concern when he saw that Cochise was not in the livery as he had rather expected. “Why don’t we split up?” Ben proposed. “We’ll cover more ground that way. I’ll meet you back here.”

“All right,” Hoss agreed, thinking that when he found him, he would have time to warm Joe not to make any smart remarks.

However, as they went from saloon to saloon, both father and son became more and more concerned, for Joe had not been seen all day. Finally, they met up again, after almost an hour of fruitless searching. “He ain’t bin in any o’ ‘em, Pa,” Hoss reported.

“No, it’s as though he just vanished,” Ben agreed, a worried frown puckering his brow. “I don’t understand it.”

“Evenin’, Ben,” said a familiar voice from the shadows and they turned to greet Roy Coffee. “What cha doin’ out on a night like this?”

“Looking for Joe,” Ben replied, wearily. “Have you seen him?”

“Not since he went to the professor’s house,” Roy replied. “That were this afternoon.”

“What are you talking about?” Ben asked, confused. “It was Adam who went to the professor’s house.”

Now it was Roy’s turn to frown. “Listen, Ben, maybe I ain’t as young as I used ta be, but I do know Adam an’ Joe apart! And it were Joe I saw goin’ to the professor’s house this afternoon.  The professor were with him, an’ that other fellar that stays with him; Stevenson.”

“Joe went with the professor to his house?” Ben repeated. He looked at Hoss, seeing the same bewilderment on his face. “Did Adam mention that Joe was going to be there, too?”

“Never mentioned him ta me, Pa,” Hoss denied.

“I don’t understand this,” Ben admitted. “Perhaps we should go and ask the professor how long Joe was there and why.”

“Want me to come with ya, Ben?” Roy asked.

“That might be best,” Ben agreed.

*****

The whipping had been thorough and brutal. By the end, Joe was barley conscious. His ragged breathing was audible across the room. Sickened, Adam could only watch his baby brother hanging there in his bonds. There was nothing else he could do for him.

“Have you changed your mind yet?” Keene asked. He was beginning to be annoyed with Adam. Not that he wasn’t enjoying torturing Joe, for that was something else he was interested in – how a man reacted to pain –  but he wanted Adam to break.

“No,” Adam answered, dully.

“Well then, I’ll leave you alone with your brother for a while and see if he can change your mind for you.” Keene nodded to Stevenson, who roughly pulled the gag from Joe’s mouth. They left the room, locking it firmly behind them, as though either of the Cartwrights were in any position to escape.

Dragging the chair across the room, Adam looked in sorrow at Joe’s bleeding, bruised body. “Joe,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

Lifting his head, Joe looked Adam in the eye. “Adam, don’t give in,” he pleaded. “Don’t let them make you do something like this! It doesn’t matter about me! Don’t let them win!”

“Joe, I can’t bear to see you like this!” Adam cried. “This is all my fault!”

“No, its not,” Joe whispered. His mouth was so dry after wearing the gag for so long that he could barely speak. “Don’t you know they’ll kill me as soon as you’ve killed someone? If you do this, you’re dead. They’ll kill you, or you’ll be hanged. Adam, don’t do it, I beg you!” He coughed weakly, the spasm hurting him deeply. Much as Joe wanted the torture to end, he did not want Adam going against his principles, for if, by some miracle, they survived this ordeal, and Adam had killed to save him, their relationship would never be the same again. Joe wasn’t sure how he knew this; he just knew it.

“I never wanted to hurt you, Joe,” Adam told him. “I didn’t know this is what he had in mind.”

“I know,” Joe whispered. He wished it was all over. He wanted to just lie down and sleep, so he didn’t feel any more pain. “Adam, promise me you won’t do it, no matter what happens.”

“Joe,” Adam agonized, but his youngest brother was determined.

“Promise!” he hissed, fiercely and Adam, hooked by the pain in those green eyes, promised.

*****

“Hoss, have a look in the barn,” Ben ordered, as they hid close by the house that Keene was renting. Catching the look Roy gave him as Hoss vanished into the darkness Ben snapped, “What did you expect me to do, Roy? Knock on the door and ask if my boys are there?”

“Calm down, Ben,” Roy soothed. “I didn’ say nuthin’.”

They waited in silence as Hoss checked the barn. He was back quickly. “Cochise and Sport are both there, Pa,” he reported. “They must be inside.”

“Hoss, you go round the back,” Roy instructed. “When we go in the front, you come in the back, all right?”

“Yes sir,” Hoss agreed and moved away, surprisingly light on his feet for such a big man.

“What are you going to do?” Ben asked.

“We’re gonna go right in,” Roy replied. “I ain’t got a search warrant, and we don’ want to give ‘em any chance to do Adam an’ Little Joe any harm.”

“Thank you,” Ben said, fervently and Roy gave him a lop-sided smile.

“Why, Ben, I dandled Little Joe on my knee many a time. You think I want to see harm come to either o’ those boys?” Roy, satisfied that he’d made his point, drew his gun and they headed towards the front of the house.

*****

The lock clicked open and Adam turned his head, giving Keene a look full of hate. “Well, Adam, I hope you’ve changed your mind?”

“No,” Adam replied, coldly.

Looking surprised, Keene walked round to in front of Joe and lifted his head up by his hair. Joe’s pain-dulled eyes looked back at him expressionlessly. “You mean you weren’t able to persuade your brother that your life is more important than his principals? Joe, I’m ashamed of you.”

“I told Adam that he mustn’t back down,” Joe hissed. “I don’t care what you do to me!” A cry broke from his lips as Keene punched him hard in the stomach.

“We’ll soon see!” Keene cried. He dropped Joe’s head and snatched up a stout piece of rounded wood. He swung it in a wide arc and it crashed off Joe’s ribs. Joe could not restrain his cry. Adam flinched. “Will a broken bone change your mind, Adam?” He swung this time at Joe’s arm, catching Joe just below the elbow, once, twice, a third time. The bone snapped quite audibly and Joe sagged in his bonds.

The next moment, there was a loud crash from down stairs. Keened and Stevenson looked at one another, and Adam took the chance presented to him and threw himself and the chair at Keene. The professor went down in a flurry of arms, legs and bad language.

For a moment, Stevenson didn’t know what to do, then he went to rescue Keene, shoving Adam aside. Adam felt the breath whoosh from his body as the chair was flipped onto its back, and pain shot through his imprisoned arms.

But despite the pain, Adam wasn’t completely helpless, and he took a leaf from Joe’s book and kicked out at Stevenson, desperately trying to keep the man off balance until whatever help was downstairs arrived.

Once more, Stevenson shoved Adam, pushing him further across the floor, and helped Keene to his feet. Keene stumbled into Joe as he rose and so it was that Roy Coffee saw Keene attacking the helpless youth as he burst through the door. He fired at once.

As Keene toppled to the floor again, Stevenson snatched up the wooden stave and made to hit Joe with it. Ben, giving a strangled cry, pushed past Roy and threw himself bodily at his son’s attacker. Stevenson pushed Ben aside as though he were a fly. He raised the stave again and felt something hit him in the stomach. Looking down, he saw blood on his shirt. Then the pain hit him and Stevenson dropped the stave, his hands clutching his midriff. He looked surprised as he dropped to the floor, dead. Hoss stood in the doorway, his smoking gun in his hand as he looked at the horrific scene before him.

*****

Working together, Ben and Hoss cut Joe free from his imprisonment and lowered him gently to the floor. Roy helped Adam to sit up and then hunted around for the key to the handcuffs, which he eventually found. “Is Joe all right?” Adam asked, anxiously.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied. “We’ve got to get him to the doctor!”

“You get goin’,” Roy ordered. “I’ll help Adam here.” He looked down on the two bodies. “These two ain’t goin’ anywheres.”

There was barely an inch of unmarked skin on Joe’s body and Ben was almost afraid to touch him. But his son needed treatment, urgently. He murmured under his breath as they carried Joe down stairs and outside.

The rain was still falling, coming down harder than ever, but they didn’t have time to worry about that. Joe stirred as they rushed along the road, moaning slightly at first, then crying out with pain. Ben panted reassurances, but Joe was confused and in agony and not sure what was going on. He struggled weakly, which didn’t help Ben and Hoss carry him, but they eventually arrived at the doctor’s office. They had collected a sizeable following by then, as cowboys poured out of the saloons to see what was going on.

“What happened?” Paul Martin cried, as they entered his surgery.

“We don’t know,” Ben panted, carefully laying Joe down. His son gave another cry and Ben reached for his hand, holding on tightly to give support. “Easy, Joe,” he whispered. “You’ll be all right now, son.”

“Pa?” Joe croaked. He forced his eyes open and looked into his father’s worried face. “Adam?”

“Adam will be here in a minute,” Ben soothed. “He’s all right. You just rest and let the doctor look at you.”

With that, the door opened and Adam came in under his own steam, although Roy was with him. Ben looked at him anxiously, but Adam seemed to be bruise free and Ben could not understand it. Adam rushed to Joe’s side. “How is he?” he cried.

“Do you know what happened?” Paul asked.

“Yes,” Adam replied, and slowly, he catalogued all the things that had been done to Joe that night. The others listened in silence, their mouths hanging open in shock.

“Right,” Paul said, briskly, bending over his patient again. “Now I know what I’m dealing with.” He began to gently feel down Joe’s ribs, apologizing when Joe winced miserably.

Drawing Adam away from the examination table slightly, Ben asked, “But Adam, why? Why did the professor do this?”

“This was his experiment,” Adam replied. “He wanted to see if he could provoke someone like me into murdering in cold blood. He wanted to see how much pressure he had to apply to his ‘lever’ before I gave in and agreed.” He raised dull eyes to Ben. “I couldn’t agree, Pa. I just couldn’t.”

“It’s all right, son,” Ben soothed, although he was not sure what he would have done in the same situation.

“Keene finally left me alone with Joe and removed the gag so Joe could talk to me. I guess he thought Joe would beg me to do it, so the torture would stop.”

“And what did Joe say?” Ben asked, sensing that this was crucial.

Swallowing, Adam replied, “Joe made me promise not to do it, whatever they did to him. He begged me not to do it, Pa.” Adam looked shattered.

“Sit down,” Ben urged, and guided his son into a seat. Adam dropped his head into his hands, squeezing his eyes shut. “Adam, Joe is going to be all right.”

“You don’t know that,” Adam objected. “Pa, I should’ve given in!”

“No, you shouldn’t,” Ben contradicted. “Adam, if that was the right decision for you, then that’s what you had to do. Joe knew that.” He looked more closely at his son. “Adam, if you had given in and you’d both somehow survived, would you have been able to live with Joe, knowing that you had destroyed your convictions to save his life? I don’t think so. I think you would have found it impossible to look at him. I think Joe knew that, which is why he made you promise. You did promise, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” Adam agreed, miserably. “How could I not, with him in such pain because of me?”

“No,” Ben objected. “Not because of you. Because of some madman. You can’t control everything that happens in life, Adam. Both you and Joe were the victims in this case. Something happened that was out with your control, but you kept your integrity intact. I’m very proud of you, son.”

“I’m very proud of Joe,” Adam whispered, but he seemed calmer.

“As am I,” Ben agreed. He noticed that one of Adam’s hands was red and swollen, but he resisted the urge to touch it, contenting himself with massaging his son’s shoulder.

After a few minutes, Paul beckoned Ben over. All three Cartwrights went over, he noticed with amusement. It faded again at once. “Joe is going to be fine,” he told them. “He’s badly bruised, but there’s no internal bleeding. As you know, he was whipped and the cuts all have to be cleaned, but there’s no sign of infection. His left forearm is broken and so is his left foot.” He looked enquiringly at Adam.

“Stevenson stamped on it,” Adam replied, dully.

“And he has a couple of broken ribs,” Paul concluded, nodding. “But after I’ve bandaged him all up and set those bones, I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t go home with you tonight. He’ll be in bed for quite a spell, but he’ll be fine.” Paul smiled at the relieved faces. He, too, had feared the worst when he first saw Joe. “Adam, Joe’s asking for you.”

Slowly, reluctantly, Adam crossed the few steps that separated him from his brother. It was obvious at once that Paul had given Joe something for the pain, for his eyes were glassy and unfocused. “Adam,” he whispered and smiled.

It didn’t matter that Joe’s lips were split, or that his face was lumpy with bruising. The love he felt for his older brother, and the relief that Adam had come through the ordeal largely unscathed were writ large on his face. “Listen,” he whispered, and Adam bent in closer to hear. “Don’t go beating yourself up about this,” he urged. “You did what you had to do. You hear me? If I find you’ve been getting bent out of shape over what you think you should have done, I’ll get out of my sickbed and come after you.”

“You just worry about yourself,” Adam told him. “I’m fine.”

“Sure,” Joe agreed, skeptically. His eyes were beginning to droop shut. “But you listen to me. You did what you had to do, and none of this was your fault.”

“All right,” Adam soothed. He tried to disentangle his hand from Joe’s grasp, but Joe was having none of it.

“Promise,” Joe slurred and tightened his grip until Adam reluctantly agreed.

“Promise.”

*****

When he woke, late the next morning, Adam lay still for a few minutes, listening. When Paul had examined him the night before, it turned out that Adam had a broken hand. He looked down ruefully at the bandage on his hand. He had had to break his right hand. Joe always said that you never broke the hand you didn’t use as much, and he was right.

Rising slowly, Adam wondered what kind of night Joe had had. Paul had doped Adam up with painkillers, too and he had been unable to do anything except fall into bed when they arrived back from town in the wee small hours. Shrugging on his dressing gown – his clothes seemed like far too much hassle right then – Adam made his way across the hall.

He stood outside Joe’s door for several minutes before summoning the courage to open it. He did so quietly, in case his brother was asleep, and saw that he was wise to have been quiet, for Ben was asleep in the chair by Joe’s bed.

Joe was awake and when he turned his head and saw Adam, he smiled at him. Adam felt like weeping. Since he had promised his brother that he would not dwell on the incident, he had found it surprisingly easy to follow instructions. Part of it had been physical and emotional exhaustion. But part of it was that he had never broken a promise to Joe and didn’t intend to start then. Another part of it was that Joe was not holding any grudge.

“How do you feel?” Adam asked, sitting carefully down on the bed. Joe was swathed in bandages.

“How do you think?” Joe grunted, his smile fading, but Adam was reassured. Joe might well be feeling very bad indeed, but his grumpiness was standard when he was on the mend. Adam knew it was too soon for Joe to be healing, but he took it as a sign that all would be well.

At the voices, Ben stirred and woke. He jumped up at once, and laid a hand on Joe’s head to make sure there wasn’t any fever. Joe had been a little warm the previous night, but that was put down to reaction. “How do you feel?” he asked, and Joe made a face at Adam, who laughed.

“I just asked that,” he advised, “and got some cheek in response.”

“Well,” Ben blinked, “that must be a good sign, don’t you think?” He smiled at Adam. “How do you feel?”

“Fine, Pa,” Adam replied, using Joe’s standard response. “I feel fine.”

“I’ll get you something to eat,” Ben told them and headed down stairs.

Alone with his brother, Adam looked uncomfortable. “Joe, about last night,” he began.

“No, I haven’t changed my mind,” Joe interrupted. “I meant what I said. You had to do what was right for you. I told you not to beat yourself up over this and you promised.”

“I know,” Adam agreed. “But I had to be sure that you meant it, now that it’s over.”

For a moment, Joe was quiet, thinking. He glanced down at the cast on his wrist, and wondered why he always broke his left hand, when he was left handed. Was it some kind of law? Then he noticed the big bandage on Adam’s hand and relaxed. It must be, for Adam had broken his dominant hand. Pity it hadn’t been the other way round, for then they would have had a working pair.

Seeing his brother’s eyes on him, Joe drew a cautious breath. “I think it was Shakespeare that said it. In Hamlet if I remember correctly.” He closed his eyes briefly to remember the exact quote. “’This above all; to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not be false to any man’.”

“I thought you didn’t like Shakespeare?” Adam asked, huskily.

“Not much,” Joe agreed. “But I like that. It fits us, doesn’t it? We stick to our guns, don’t we? None of us is easily changed. It’s important that we be true to ourselves, when there are so many people out there who aren’t. If we don’t have principals, we don’t amount to much. I think it’s the difference between those people who are dirt poor, but are honest and work hard, and those who steal. Principals. And we’re lucky we have them.”

“Yes, I suppose we are,” Adam agreed, slowly.

Giving Adam a cheeky grin, Joe said, “Well, since you’ve gone to all the bother of having principals, it seems mad not to stick to them.”

“I really hate to admit you’re right,” Adam remarked. “But you are.”

The door opened and Ben and Hoss came in bearing trays. “All right?” Ben asked, generally, keeping his tone light.

Glancing down at Joe, Adam nodded. “You know, Pa, I think we are.”

Smiling, Joe gently corrected his brother. “I know we’re all right.”

***End***

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