Behind the Picture (by Rona)

Summary:  Nasty rumours cause trouble and anguish for the Cartwrights. Can Ben, Joe and Hoss save Adam from a lynch mob?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8379


 

“We can get rid of him, Cartwright,” the man cajoled. “It would be easy, an’ ya can watch if’n ya like.”

“What are you talking about?” Adam asked, frowning. He had never been keen on Dick Riddle and his gang and he had no idea what they were talking about. Get rid of whom?

Dick grinned, showing rotting, gappy teeth. It was all Adam could do not to back away from him. “Yer brother,” Dick said, as though that was self-evident. “We can get rid o’ him.”

Biting back his impatience, Adam asked, “Which brother do you think I want rid of?” How he wished he had gone straight home instead of calling into the saloon first. Then he would be being spared this incomprehensible inquisition.

“Joe, o’ course,” Dick replied, still grinning. “Ya can watch, Adam.”

Furiously angry now, Adam demanded, “What makes you think I want rid of him? I don’t! Joe’s my brother!”

“That ain’t how it looked ta us earlier,” Sid Sutter whispered. “When ya was chokin’ the life outa him down at the corral.”

Gazing open-mouthed at the men, Adam wondered how many other people had misconstrued what he had done at the corral a few short hours before.

*****

“He’s a looker, all right, Ben,” admitted Kyle McKenzie reluctantly. “But that’s all ya can say for him. He’s as mean as they come. One minute he’s lettin’ ya pet his neck, the next he’s taken a chunk out o’ ya!”

Studying the big bay stallion, Ben nodded. “I don’t like working with a horse as unpredictable as that,” he muttered. “Has anyone tried to break him, do you know?”

“Tried, but not succeeded,” McKenzie admitted. The two men were standing outside the corral watching the horse within. Adam, Joe and Hoss were perched on the fence, also watching the horse. Several other people were there, too, attracted by the Cartwrights’ interest in the horse. “Most likely ya wouldn’t be able to work him.”

“Well…” Ben hesitated. He was impressed with the horse’s looks, but he didn’t want the risk of passing on that temper to his working stock. He wondered how best to refuse to buy the animal.

Before he could decide, Joe slipped from the rails of the corral and approached the stallion. Ben caught his breath, biting his lip to stop him shouting out Joe’s name. His youngest son was fearless around horses and was very skilled in handling them.

Slowly, Joe approached the big horse, one hand stretched out invitingly towards it. He spoke softly, mostly nonsense, as he drew nearer. “Easy, fella. That’s a good boy. You sure are a pretty one, aren’t you? That’s a boy, let’s see you now.” As Joe reached the stallion, it suddenly decided that it wasn’t going to be nice to Joe after all. It pinned its ears back and lunged at the young cowboy.

Seeing the move, Joe ducked. The raking teeth barely missed his back. Joe hastily backed off, keeping his eye on the horse the whole time. After a few steps, convinced that the horse was not going to follow and attack, Joe turned round and hurried back to the corral rails.

“Joe!” The cry of warning alerted Joe to the fact the horse was coming after him once more. He didn’t take the second it needed to look back; he just ran. Moments later, he was swinging himself up onto the rails close beside Adam and Hoss. “Phew! That was close,” he admitted airily as the horse, frustrated, skidded to a stop below him and snorted angrily. He swung both legs round so that he was seated on the top rail of the corral, with both legs inside the corral.

“Too close!” Adam scolded, but Joe knew it was mostly relief that caused his older brother to sound so angry.

Giving Adam an insouciant grin, Joe was caught by surprise as the stallion’s back feet thudded violently into the fence just inches from where Joe’s legs rested on a lower rail. The whole fence shook, and Joe’s seat on the rail proved to be a lot more precarious than he had expected as the rail moved under the sudden blow and Joe found himself slipping down into the corral, beneath the bay stallion’s feet!

“Joe!” Ben bellowed, and made a move towards him, knowing that there was no way he could get there soon enough.

It was Adam who reacted quickest. He reached down and grabbed Joe by his shirt collar, yanking his startled brother upwards. Joe choked as the material tightened around his throat, but that was the least of his worries a moment later. His shirt was sliding up over his head.

Realizing the same thing, Adam hastily sought another hold as Hoss reached down to grasp Joe’s arm and help his older brother haul his younger brother to safety. It was only as they got Joe out of the horse’s reach that Adam realized that his arm was tightly around his brother’s throat and Joe was choking!

It took Hoss only seconds to drag Joe over the rail and they dropped him carefully into Ben’s waiting arms. Ben lowered Joe to the ground, checking him over visually to make sure his son was not injured in any way.

“Joe, are you all right?” Adam asked kneeling by his brother, his face ashen with worry over the harm he could have caused.

Still gasping for breath, Joe nodded. He put his hand on Adam’s arm and panted out one word. “Thanks.”

*****

Staring at Dick Riddle, Adam wondered in despair how many other people had seen his rescue of Joe and misconstrued what had happened. He knew there was no way he could ever make Dick believe the truth, because the truth didn’t fit Dick’s ideas about the Cartwrights. How many other people would believe that he had tried to strangle Joe? How many people would believe that he had tried to drop Joe into the corral with the wild stallion? Too many, Adam knew. Their friends wouldn’t believe such gossip, but their enemies would make the most of it.

Turning abruptly on his heel, Adam left the saloon. He suddenly had to see Joe; to be sure that Joe understood that it was only misfortune that had caused Adam to catch his brother by the throat. Joe had thanked Adam for saving his life at the time, but had he truly understood that it was an accident? Adam felt a hot pang of guilt flush his face as he remember the comments after he had accidentally shot Joe when out hunting for a wolf. How many people had implied that it was deliberate? Too many.

Looking down the street, Adam saw that his family’s horses were gone and he set off for home, urging his chestnut gelding to a fast pace for some time before his demons had quieted enough to allow him to ride at a moderate pace. Nobody would believe Dick Riddle, he consoled himself. The man was as shiftless as the day was long and his idle gossip was ignored by most. But, Adam couldn’t quite still the little voice that suggested that enough people would believe Dick, simply because they wanted to believe something bad of the Cartwrights.

Arriving home, Adam dismounted and led Sport into the barn. He unsaddled with more haste than usual and gave his mount a very cursory brush down. Throwing the brush aside, he started towards the door.

“What’s the matter, Adam?” enquired a lazy voice from the hayloft. “You desperate to reach the outhouse? Plenty of bushes and trees along the road, you know.”

Glancing up, Adam saw Joe’s face peering down at him, alight with laughter. “It was you I wanted to talk to, as it happens,” he replied, calming down slightly. “Are you all right? What are you doing up there?”

“I’m perfectly fine, thanks,” Joe replied. “And I came up here to get a bit of peace from Pa, who was fussing.” Joe swung himself agilely over the edge of the loft and climbed down the ladder. “Why? Were you worried?”

“A bit,” Adam replied, putting his arm around Joe’s shoulders in a rare show of affection. “Come into the house and I’ll tell you why.”

As they walked across the yard, Adam’s fears vanished. Joe would not be accepting Adam’s arm around his shoulders if he thought Adam had tried to choke him deliberately. He relaxed, suddenly feeling very tired. Joe, for his part, wondered what was wrong with Adam. It wasn’t often Adam would touch him – or any of them – for such a prolonged period of time and as he felt the tension drain out of Adam, he was even more curious. It had something to do with him, obviously, but he couldn’t think what.

“There you are!” Ben exclaimed as they went into the house. “I wondered where you’d got to, Joe.”

“I was in the barn when Adam came in,” Joe replied, giving his father a charming smile.

“You’re just in time for supper,” Ben told his oldest son. “I thought you might be a little longer, to be honest.”

“I might have been,” Adam replied. “But there was an incident.” He smiled as he saw the worry spring into Ben’s eyes. “No, I didn’t get into a fight or anything, Pa, don’t worry.” He quickly told them what had happened, seeing the growing anger on his listeners’ faces.

“That Dick Riddle!” Ben exclaimed, clenching his fists in a move that would have terrified Riddle had he seen it.  “He’s a born trouble-maker if ever there was one!”

“Wait till I get my hands on him!” Joe muttered.

“That’s enough!” Ben warned, pointing his finger at Joe. “No harm has been done by this, Joe and I’m not having you starting a brawl, is that clear?” He loomed menacingly over his shorter, slighter built son, using his height to help him dominate this headstrong child.

Glaring back at Ben, Joe was determined not to back down, until he saw the look in his father’s eye and he knew he had to obey Ben on this. It would do no good to anyone, not least Joe, to start something. Ben was right. He dropped his eyes. “I’m sorry, Pa. I wasn’t thinking,” he apologized.

For another second, Ben continued to glare at Joe, but as Joe looked up and met his eyes once more, Ben realized that his son meant what he said.  “Its all right,” he relented. “I just don’t want this getting out of hand. A few stray words are easily forgotten, but a fight is something else again.” He raised his gaze to include Adam and Hoss. “Let’s just forget about this.”

“Good idea,” Hoss agreed. “Let’s eat!” He led the way to the table, where Hop Sing was laying out supper.

*****

That the story had been repeated in more places than just the saloon was soon clear to the Cartwrights. Their foreman came home from town and told them that he had heard the story repeated half a dozen times. He had scoffed at it each time, but he knew that weeds grew more prolifically than crops. Adam felt a kind of guilt, but as the others pointed out to him, had he dropped Joe into the corral, Joe would have been badly injured under the hooves of the bay stallion. As it was, he had emerged from the corral unscathed. He wasn’t even bruised.

Since there was really nothing they could do to stop the rumors – even with a show of solidarity – the Cartwrights went about their business as usual. Adam and Joe still rankled under the insult and Joe was all for seeking out Dick Riddle and bashing his face in.

The cause of all the fuss, the bay stallion, was still at McKenzie’s place, unsold. Joe was drawn to that horse, but Ben had decreed that he wasn’t to go near it alone, fearing what would happen.  So the next time he went into town, with Hoss, he coaxed his older brother into going to look at it once more. Hoss agreed, but refused to allow Joe to go anywhere nearer than the corral rails. Frustrated, Joe coaxed Adam, on the next trip, to go with him.

“Joe, why are you looking at this horse?” Adam asked, exasperated. “Pa isn’t going to change his mind and buy it just because its good looking and you’ve fallen in love with it.”

Shooting a glance over his shoulder, Joe made a face. “He might,” he hazarded. “If I could just get on its back and try it out…”

“That’s not going to happen,” Adam told him kindly, going over and patting Joe on the shoulder.

“I’m sure I could break him,” Joe protested.

“Perhaps you could,” Adam agreed, “but Pa isn’t going to change his mind and Kyle McKenzie will ask you if he wants you to try and ride that hellion!” He smiled. “Come on, brat, let’s go.”

“I’ll ‘brat’ you!” Joe retorted, grinning broadly. He paused for another look at the stallion as Adam began to walk away.

*****

Hiding behind a wagon loaded with hay, Dick Riddle and his gang were watching this exchange with interest. “Them Cartwrights is trying ta make fools outa us, boys,” he whispered. “Tryin’ ta pretend they’s really friends! Let’s teach ‘em a lesson. Let’s grab Joe an’ if Adam really is his friend, he’ll kick up a fuss. If’n he ain’t, then he won’t mind an’ we can have some fun wi’ Mr. High-and-Mighty Joe Cartwright!”

Seeing his cronies grin, Dick nodded and they dashed out of their hiding place and charged at the Cartwrights. Startled, Joe and Adam half-turned to meet their attackers, but both were borne to the ground by the sheer weight of numbers.

Fighting like a madman, Joe couldn’t guess what had provoked the attack. He hadn’t really seen faces as the men rushed at them, but he could guess who the men were. Fists rained in on Joe, and he was getting the worst of it. He suddenly saw an opening and smashed his fist into one man’s face. The man fell away and his startled companions fell back slightly too, allowing Joe to kick them away and scramble to his knees.

“Adam!” he cried, seeing his older brother overwhelmed. He made a dive for the nearest man.

Something sledged down on his head at the same moment as something sharp slid up his stomach. Joe spiraled down into darkness, aware of his brother’s despairing cry and the pain in his stomach. Then, he knew nothing.

*****

The door to the sheriff’s office opened abruptly and Adam reeled into the office, catching himself on the door. “Sheriff!” he gasped. The office was empty. Adam groaned in despair, but he was starting to turn to go and locate Roy Coffee when he heard the older man’s voice from the inner room where the cells were.

“I’m comin’,” Roy muttered and gaped in surprise at Adam for a second before he hurried over to catch the younger man’s arm and help him to a seat. “Clem, git the doc!” he called and Clem Foster, his deputy, hurried out the door, casting Adam an anxious glance as he went. “What’s wrong, Adam?” Roy asked. “Who done this ta ya?”

“Don’t know,” Adam replied. His head was splitting and nausea kept coming in waves. All his body ached and thinking took a positive effort. “They’ve got Joe,” he managed and slid into a dead faint.

*****

While Paul Martin roused Adam and checked him over, Roy Coffee waited in an agony of impatience. Adam said Joe was missing, but until Adam was able to tell him where they had been, Roy had nowhere to start looking for him. “Well?” he asked, anxiously, as Paul Martin straightened.

“He’s had a nasty knock on the head,” Paul replied, “and he’s taken quite a beating. A couple of cracked ribs and more bruises than I care to count, but he’s been lucky.”

“Can I talk ta him?” Roy asked.

“You’d better,” Paul replied, grimly. “If Joe is missing, he might be hurt, too. I’ve given Adam something for the pain, so ask quickly before it sends him to sleep.”

Crouching by the couch where Adam was lying, Roy smiled. “Adam, tell me what happened, boy.”

“Joe…wanted to look…at that stallion,” Adam began. One eye was swollen shut and rapidly turning black. Adam found it very strange not to be able to see properly. “Someone jumped us. There were…a few of them,” he went on, unable to remember how many. “They hit Joe and… he’s gone.”

“All right, you rest now, son,” Roy calmed him. He stood up and glanced at Paul. “You stay here with him?” He knew he didn’t really need to ask. Paul nodded. Roy glanced at Clem and saw that his deputy was ready.

*****

There wasn’t much to see at McKenzie’s corral. The stallion had attracted a lot of attention and the ground was well marked with different sets of footprints. But it was easy enough to see where the scuffle had taken place, as the ground was dotted with bloodstains and Joe’s green jacket, the front saturated in blood, was lying on the ground.

*****

The messenger had reached the ranch quickly, but dusk was drawing down by the time Ben and Hoss   arrived in town. They hurriedly dismounted and all but ran into the doctor’s office where Adam was to be found, resting comfortably.

“Hello, Ben,” Paul said, as his friend came into the office. “Adam’s in here and I’m pleased to say he’ll be just fine after a good night’s sleep.”

“What about Joe?” Ben asked, relieved that one son was safe, but deeply concerned about the other.

“I don’t know,” Paul admitted. “You’ll need to ask Roy.”

“I’ll git him, Pa,” Hoss offered, seeing how torn Ben was. He turned towards the door, but it opened before he reached it and Roy Coffee came in. He had been watching out for Ben’s arrival.

“Roy, where’s Joe?” Ben demanded.

“I don’t know,” Roy admitted. He quickly told Ben the little he knew and saw the worry on his friend’s face deepen.

“There was blood on his jacket?” Ben echoed. “How much blood?” Ben’s heart was pounding hard in his chest and as he glanced at Hoss, he saw the same fear on his son’s face as he was feeling. What had happened to Joe?”

“Not as much as you’re thinking,” Paul replied. “Ben, I’ve looked at the jacket. You know as well as I do that a little blood can go a long way. I don’t know whose blood it is, or what caused the bleeding, but it isn’t anywhere near fatal. Sore, I would suspect, and I don’t suppose it was just from a nosebleed, but that is possible.”

“What do we do now?” Ben asked. “I want to see Adam.”

“We’ll have another look in the morning,” Roy replied. “Its too dark tonight ta do any more. Ya go an’ see yer boy, Ben. We’ll leave at first light.”

*****

Consciousness came back and Joe wished it hadn’t. His head was pounding and as he tried to move to relieve an ache in his back, he felt a sharp pain in his stomach that took his breath away. Memory came back with a rush and then Joe realized that he was tied up, his hands bound behind him and his ankles firmly fastened to what looked like the edge of a stall in a barn.

Blinking, Joe cleared his vision and peered around him. He was definitely in a barn, he thought as he squinted in the growing gloom. It was almost dark outside, but there was still enough light for Joe to see what his nose had been telling him. He was in a barn, but it hadn’t been used for horses in a long time. There was no smell of horses at all, just hot, stale air.

There was no sign of Adam.

Angry and worried, Joe fought with his bonds until his wrists were raw and bleeding. Exhausted, with his head pounding worse than ever, Joe slumped down and took stock of his situation. It was almost dark and he wasn’t about to get out of this predicament in the next few minutes. He glanced down at his stomach and saw the long, thin cut that ran up his belly, courtesy of someone’s knife. The front of his shirt was stained with blood, which felt horribly stiff against his tender skin. Joe knew that he would have to rest for a little while before he renewed his struggles to get free. He knew there was no point in shouting for help; if he had been anywhere near habitation, he would’ve been gagged.

He closed his eyes and forced his body to relax. A multitude of smaller areas of pain began to put in their claim for notice, but compared to his head and his belly, they were nothing. Joe barely felt them as he drifted into sleep.

*****

“Ah…Sheriff?”

“What d’you want, Riddle?” Roy asked, glaring at him. Roy had no time for the idle young man. And right now, he was busy trying to organize a search and was asking if anyone had seen Joe the previous afternoon.

“I seen Joe Cartwright yesterday afternoon,” Riddle replied. “Ain’t that what yer askin’?”

“When d’you see him?” Roy demanded. “Where?”

Taking a step back, Riddle meekly replied, “Round at McKenzie’s corral. Him an’ Adam were goin’ at it somethin’ fierce…” He let his voice trail off and eyed Roy apprehensively. “Ya know what Adam’s like. Him an’ Joe don’t git on that well. Adam hit him.”

“What happened then?” Roy asked, a growing disquiet in his heart. It was no secret that Joe and Adam clashed much more often than Joe and Hoss or Adam and Hoss, but it was stretching it somewhat to say that they didn’t get on that well.

“Joe shouted that Adam weren’t his pa an’ he wouldn’t do what Adam told him. An’ then Adam said…” Riddle hesitated and Roy made ‘go on’ motions with his hands. Everyone round about was listening avidly. “Adam said, ‘I wish I’d choked ya the other day when I had the chance!’”

*****

There were shocked murmurs from all around and not a few voices rose in dissent, but Roy knew that there would be enough gullible people to believe Riddle’s outrageous story. For himself, he didn’t believe a word of it and he just hoped Ben hadn’t been close enough to hear it. It was a forlorn hope as Ben appeared out of the crowd and loomed over Riddle. “What lies are you telling about my sons?” he bellowed.

A sleepless night, flavored with anxiety, had done nothing for Ben’s temper. Adam was looking better this morning, awake and aware, allowing Ben to change his focus slightly and think more about Joe, his missing son. But to many, Ben’s loss of control indicated to them that Ben knew this was the truth and Adam was indeed guilty of harming Joe. After all, hadn’t he once shot his brother, they whispered to each other, and then claimed it was an accident?

Quailing under Ben’s furious gaze, Riddle stuttered, “Its true, Mr. Cartwright. I swear it’s true!”

Putting his hand out across Ben’s chest, Roy took charge of the conversation again. “So what happened then?” he asked Riddle, shooting his friend a warning look.

“Joe punched Adam,” Riddle went on. He glanced at his cronies for support. He hadn’t expected to say any more, and was beginning to sweat under the pressure. “Adam hit him back an’ I decided I didn’ want ta see no more. Them Cartwrights always makes out that they’s better’n us, an’ they ain’t, brawlin’ in the street like that!” He looked round self-righteously and several of his cronies nodded and muttered agreement. It was frightening how quickly the muttering was picked up by others who knew nothing about the circumstances.

“So Adam and Joe were fightin’ when you left, is that what yer sayin’?” Roy asked. He didn’t believe a word of it, but he could see how the crowd was swallowing it.

“That’s right,” Riddle replied, sounding happier. “I think its plain terrible what Adam done to Joe.”

“What did Adam do to Joe?” Ben asked, coldly. The information that Joe might be injured was not common knowledge outside the doctor, family and sheriff.

Caught, Riddle gaped at Ben with his mouth open. “Wha…what?” he stuttered.

“I said, what did Adam do to Joe?” Ben was leaning in closer now, using his height and weight to intimidate the smaller, slighter, Riddle.

“Well, ya know,” Riddle babbled, trying to back away.

“No, I don’t know,” Ben disagreed. “Why don’t you tell me?”

“Ben…” Roy warned.

“It’s all right, Roy,” Ben reassured him, without turning round. “Well, Riddle? I’m waiting.”

“Beatin’ up on the boy an’ such,” Riddle gasped. “It ain’t fair when he’s so much bigger’n Joe. Joe don’t got a chance against him.”

“So Joe was coming off worst then?” Ben asked, sounding nothing but concerned. “Bleeding, was he?”

“Yeah,” Riddle agreed, no longer sure how to get out of the corner he’d painted himself into. “Joe was bleedin’ real bad like.” An idea suddenly came to him. “Then he took Joe off to the big barn back there and I heard a scream.”

“Really?” Ben asked, and lost in his own invention, Riddle didn’t see the danger.

“Really,” he nodded earnestly. “Joe was shoutin’ out Adam’s name.” That bit was true, he thought. Joe had shouted Adam’s name as Riddle had cut him with the knife. “An’ then he fell silent as Adam dragged him into that barn. I would’ve gone in after him, but I was afraid. With Adam in a temper like that, he might’ve turned on me next!” He looked around the crowd, as though begging for sympathy for his fear and sensible attitude. A number of people nodded.

“Why didn’t ya tell me this last night?” Roy asked coldly. His voice cut through Riddle’s euphoric glow of self-congratulation. “Yer lyin’, boy! We searched that barn last night an’ it was completely empty!” Roy grabbed Riddle’s arm. “Now tell me the truth!”

Trapped by his own words, Riddle looked around desperately for help, but, like rats leaving a sinking ship, his cronies had all slipped away. Riddle was alone.

*****

As daylight crept through the grimy, cobwebby windows of the barn, Joe slowly woke. His head wasn’t pounding quite as hard as it had been, but he still knew about it. He didn’t feel any more rested, for all that he knew he’d slept soundly for many hours. He moved slightly and his body sent up a chorus of protest.

The last thing on earth Joe wanted to do was struggle against his bonds, but, and he smiled at himself, the other last thing on earth he wanted to do was stay where he was, a prisoner, until such times as his captors appeared. Resolutely, he made up his mind to get free.

It was a long struggle. At one point, Joe caught his right thumb unawares in the ropes and in jerking to free his hand, he felt the thumb break. The pain shot up through his wrist and he couldn’t contain a cry. For several long minutes, he sat there, biting his lip and panting to control the pain. It diminished slightly after a few minutes and Joe slowly resumed his struggles, but it was much harder. Every move of his hand caused him pain and as the ropes slowly gave way, they chafed his wrists more and more so that his already raw wrists were in a sorry state when the ropes finally did part.

Drawing his hands round in front of him, Joe simply sat for a few minutes, cradling his right hand gently and looking at the blood congealing on his wrists. It had taken him hours to get free. Reaching down to untie his feet, Joe knew that he wasn’t safe yet. He had to find out where he was and get home. Injured and on foot, that might not be easy.

It took a few moments for Joe to get his equilibrium back and he staggered from stall to stall until he reached the barn door. It wasn’t even locked. Joe opened it a fraction and peered out. An untidy yard met his eyes, but there didn’t seem to be any signs of life.

Slipping through the partially open door, Joe went right outside and looked around. He knew where he was all right – on the old Miller ranch about five miles out of Virginia City, on the other side of town from the Ponderosa. The ranch had been deserted for over a year.

There was still water in the well. Joe drew himself some and drank it gratefully. He looked at the road once more and knew he had no option; he’d have to walk it. Splashing his face with some water and drinking a little more, Joe took his first steps on the road home.

*****

“Why are we wasting time talking to this sorry excuse for a man?” Ben hissed at Roy as he and Hoss sat in the sheriff’s office. “We should be out there looking for Joe!” He gestured towards the door.

“Where do ya suggest we look?” Roy asked, his patience stretched. “Ben, ya know we’ve turned this town upsides down lookin’ fer Joe, an’ he ain’t to be found! Now, where else do ya want us ta look?” He paused for only a second before going on. “Riddle’s story ain’t true, we all know that. But I think he knows more about this than he’s tellin’. So let us lock him up fer a bit, an’ then he’ll be willin’ ta sing.”

“Roy’s right, Pa,” Hoss agreed. “There ain’t nowheres we ain’t looked fer Joe. He ain’t in town, an’ it’s a big country out there.”

Subsiding, Ben sighed deeply. He was tired; his sleep had not been restful the previous night. “All right,” he capitulated. “I’ll back off for now. But I’m telling you, Roy, I’m not going to wait forever.” He rose. “I’m going to see Adam.”

“I’ll come with ya,” Hoss added and got hurriedly to his feet. He flashed an apologetic smile at Roy as he followed his father out of the door. “Roy’s right, ya know,” Hoss said, as they reached the doctor’s office.

“Yes, I know,” Ben replied, heavily. “That doesn’t make it any easier, though. I hate this waiting. I wish there was something I could do.”

“I know what ya mean, Pa,” Hoss agreed. “I hate thinkin’ o’ Little Joe out there somewhere alone an’ hurt.”

Wordlessly, Ben patted Hoss’ hand. He knew of the bond between the brothers and it was especially strong between Joe and Hoss. They were as different as brothers could be, yet were each other’s best friends. “We’ll find him, Hoss,” Ben vowed. “I promise you, we’ll get Joe back, somehow.”

*****

“Any word of Joe?” Adam asked, sitting up sleepily. He was appalled to find himself sleeping most of the time, but with a head injury like he’d had, the doctor couldn’t be too careful and Adam had been wakened every couple of hours throughout the night and consequently was catching up on lost sleep, as well as making good the blood he’d lost the previous day.

“Not yet,” Ben replied and Adam sank back, weary again as the news hit him.

“This is my fault,” Adam muttered.

“How do you work that one out?” Ben enquired. “Just because Dick Riddle thinks he saw something that he didn’t, it’s suddenly your fault? I don’t think so, Adam.”

“No, I suppose not,” Adam agreed. Logic always worked with him. “But how many people saw me catch Joe and almost choke him? How many think I was trying to do him harm?”

“It’s very easy to see the surface of a picture,” Ben told his son, sitting down beside him. “What’s not so easy is to see behind the picture. Yes, someone might have come along and seen you leaning over the fence, choking the life out of your younger brother. What would be your first reaction in that situation, having seen Hoss help pull Joe free?”

Frowning, Adam replied, “I’d have asked someone what was going on.”

“Exactly. Riddle was just being a rumor-monger. He’s a lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothing and is to be pitied. He gets his kicks from making up stories about people and you just happened to make a convenient target, Adam.”

“Do you think he meant what he said that day about getting rid of Joe?” Adam asked, uneasily. “Because he seemed keen enough to get rid of Joe when he and his mates jumped us…” Adam trailed off and gaze at Ben. “It was Riddle!” he exclaimed. “Pa, Riddle jumped us! Riddle and his mates! I’ve got to tell Roy!”

“No, you stay here!” Ben ordered him. “You’re not up to traipsing about the town yet, Adam. We’ll tell Roy!”

Sagging back on his pillows, Adam watched as his father and brother ran out of the door. He just hoped that Joe was okay and they would find him – soon!

*****

The walk home was proving even harder than Joe had anticipated. He was fit, but he rode more than he walked and he didn’t usually get beaten up or go without a few meals before he set off for a long walk. By the end of the first mile, he had a huge blister on his right heel and well before he had limped to the end of the second mile, it had burst.

Stopping for a rest in the shade of a big tree, Joe fell asleep almost at once. When he woke, he was disturbed to see that a couple of hours had passed and he got to his feet in a rush. For a moment, his head swam dangerously, reminding Joe that he hadn’t eaten in 24 hours, and that he had had very little water over the same period of time. Catching hold of the tree to steady himself, Joe took several deep breaths as he mentally girded his loins to begin walking again.

Immediately, the very thin crust on his heel broke open and Joe wondered how something as small as a blister could hurt so darned much. It did take his mind off his other woes – slightly – but as soon as Joe thought of them, they started up a separate chorus of misery.

Not for the first time, Joe thought of Adam and fervently hoped his oldest brother was all right. What had their attackers done with him? A tremor of fear passed through Joe as he fought not to think what he was thinking.

Was Adam dead?

*****

“I think we’ve got him!” Roy declared, smacking one fist into the other hand. “Come on, Ben, let’s see what he says now! Miserable little worm!” Roy led the way to the cells, where Riddle lolled insolently on a cot.

Initially, Riddle had been quite frightened when Roy had locked him up. Essentially a man who had never used his brains, Riddle hadn’t realized that a lie is more effective if it is kept simple. Then, you don’t have to remember too many plot twists and turns. But Riddle had allowed his own cleverness to impress himself and had uttered the very words that had trapped him.

But as the afternoon had worn on, and there had been no attempts to beat the truth out of him – he had a most lurid imagination – he began to feel quite smug. He had got one over on the Cartwrights, and there was nothing they could do about it. Only he and his cronies knew where Joe was and perhaps when he was released later on, he could let the Cartwrights know where Joe was. Perhaps.

“Well, sheriff, come to let me go?” Riddle drawled. He had already embellished his part in this into a heroic man standing against injustice. Twisting the facts to suit himself was another of his more dubious talents.

“No,” Roy replied. “I’ve come ta charge ya fer assault and probable kidnapping. If’n Joe ain’t found soon, ya’ll hang fer murder, too.”

The color drained out of Riddle’s face as though someone had turned on a tap. His casual, insolent posture straightened immediately and his eyes opened so wide that Ben half expected his eyeballs to pop out. If ever there was a guilt ridden response that was it. “Wha…what?” he gasped.

“Adam Cartwright has remembered what happened ta him last night,” Roy went on. “He’s gonna press charges against ya and yer buddies.” He glanced around the little jail. “Its gonna be a might crowded in here, but I expect ya’ll manage, bein’ as how yer all such good friends.”

“Wait!” Riddle cried as Roy acted as though he was going to leave. “I’ll tell ya where Little Joe is if’n ya’ll let me go!”

Listening to the man plead, Ben felt suddenly sick. This low-life nobody had been enjoying lording it over the Cartwrights, indifferent to Joe’s suffering at his hands. If Roy hadn’t just threatened his own life, would Riddle now be talking? Or would they have been forever ignorant of Joe’s whereabouts?

“I cain’t let ya go,” Roy reproved him. “But I’ll be sure an’ tell the judge ya cooperated. He might go lighter on ya fer that.”

For a horrible minute, Ben thought Riddle wasn’t going to respond, but then he jumped to his feet. “I’ll tell ya!” he babbled. “I’ll tell ya!”

*****

Adam was bored. Paul Martin had spent a good part of the day in his office, treating the people who had come to see him and checking on Adam often, but he had been called out a short time before. Rising, Adam walked slowly around the office, but none of Paul’s medical tomes enticed him to pick them up.

It seemed to have been a long time since Ben and Hoss had left and Adam was growing anxious again. Had they found out Joe’s whereabouts from Riddle? Had they found Joe and… Adam didn’t allow the thought to coalesce. Joe was not dead. He was going to be fine. But the waiting and solitude were suddenly too much for Adam to bear and he picked up his hat before going over to the door.

Whatever he had expected to find outside the office, a crowd of drunken, angry men was not it! Adam took a step back as a roar went up when he appeared. What was going on? Why were all these people in the street? Adam hesitated for a moment before deciding he would go over to the jail where he would find out what was going on.

He hadn’t taken more than a few steps before the mob had him. “Here he is!” cried one man. “Here’s the man who’s murdered his brother and claims another did it! What are we going to do with him?”

“Hang him!” shouted another man and the mob took up the cry. “Hang him! Hang him! Hang him!”

Bewildered and frightened, Adam tried to shrug off the hands gripping his arms, but was unable to move them. “No, wait!” he cried. “You don’t understand!” His cries were ignored.

But as his hands were tied behind his back, Adam caught a glimpse of one of Riddle’s cronies and suddenly it all made sense. He knew that Riddle was in jail, but clearly Roy had not yet caught up with the others in the gang, and they, fuelled by drink, had decided to spread Riddle’s lies even further.

Suddenly, Adam knew he was going to die.

*****

“What’s all that shouting?” Roy asked, distracted from Riddle’s confession. He crossed to the window and a gasp ripped from his throat. “Ben, quick! They’ve got Adam!” He snatched up a shotgun and threw it to Ben, while grabbing another for himself.

Racing out of the door, Ben was halted by the sight which met his eyes. An angry mob had Adam. His hands were tied behind his back and a noose was round his neck. “Adam!” Ben wasn’t aware he had spoken. He ran after Roy, vaguely aware that Hoss and Clem were coming behind him, both armed. Adam had already been dragged to the livery stable and forced onto a wagon that had been hauled under the projecting bar usually used to swinging hay into the loft. Now, it was to be used to lynch Adam Cartwright!

*****

Reeling with exhaustion, Joe finally reached the edge of town. He had seen not a single person on the road. His belly burned with fire as his arm constantly rubbed against the gash on it, and his broken thumb was swollen to almost three times its usual size. Joe didn’t feel very well, for his headache had never gone away and he was sweating profusely as he forced his tired body to keep going.

Deciding that the best place to aim for was the sheriff’s office, Joe headed in that direction. Now that his goal was almost within reach, Joe was finding it harder and harder to keep walking. He just wanted to lie down somewhere and rest. Something to eat and drink would be good, too, he thought.

It was about then that the noise began to impinge upon his consciousness. Joe shook the fog from his brain and listened more closely. The shouts were angry and Joe wondered what on earth was happening. Then one word got through to him – lynch! It was a lynch mob!

Somehow, Joe persuaded his legs to move a little faster and he threaded his way through the buildings until he was on the edge of the main street, at the opposite end of the street from the jail. He paused, leaning heavily against a building while he tried to make out what was going on. It didn’t take him long.

At once, he recognized the dark head and custard-colored coat that belonged to his oldest brother. Fear sprang into Joe’s heart and he began to hurry towards the people, shouting, protesting, but his voice was lost in the general hubbub.

It was only as he began to push his way through the press of people that he realized why they wanted to lynch Adam. He began to pound on men’s backs, forcing them out of the way, not feeling his injuries any more, just desperate to get to Adam before the mob did something it would regret and Adam died. Joe knew he couldn’t bear it if Adam died in this way.

But Joe’s presence was being noticed by the mob now, and a murmur was beginning to spread. But before he could reach the ears of the men with Adam, a shot was fired and Roy Coffee was standing near by. “Let him go!” he ordered.

“No way, old man!” shouted one of the men on the wagon. Joe recognized him as one of Riddle’s gang, Mark Shaw. Shaw drew his gun and placed it against Adam’s head. Joe increased his pushing and shoving, knowing that perhaps he was the only one with a chance of reaching Adam before he was killed. “He murdered his brother an’ we aim fer him ta pay fer that!”

At last, Joe was through and he jumped onto the back of the wagon in a fluid move that belied his injuries and exhaustion. A murmur swept through the crowd. “I’m not dead!” Joe shouted. “So how could Adam have murdered me?”

Swinging round, Shaw looked utterly shocked to see Joe. “You…” he began.

“Let him go, Shaw,” Joe warned.

“Joe!” Adam croaked. “Behind you!”

Turning, Joe barely missed having his head bashed in by another of the gang, Ed Watson. The blow from the gun butt missed his head, but crashed onto Joe’s right shoulder as he twisted away. Joe fell, pain radiating up his neck and down his arm.

Had they been alone, neither Joe nor Adam would have survived. Fuelled by drink and spite, Shaw and Watson were intent only on killing the witnesses that could put them in jail, forgetting completely about the mob they had raised.

Roy Coffee raised his rifle and shot Shaw in the chest as he turned to put his gun to Adam’s head once more. Hoss got Watson as he reversed his gun to shoot Joe. And as suddenly as that, the mob was a mob no more; just a group of shocked people who realized what they had almost done.

As Ben and Roy fought their way to the wagon, Joe scrambled to his feet and staggered over to Adam. With his good left hand, he carefully pulled the rope from round his brother’s neck and embraced him. With his hands still tied, Adam couldn’t return the gesture, but he laid his head on top of Joe’s where it lay on his shoulder.

And then Ben was there, his arms round both his sons as Hoss freed Adam’s hands.

*****

“Are you all right?” Ben demanded, not sure which son he was asking.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Adam replied, rubbing his wrists gingerly. “Thanks to Joe and you.”

“I’m okay,” Joe added, smiling at Adam.

“Let’s get you both to the doctor then,” Ben beamed, and turned away. Adam was beside him, but it took him a second to realize that Joe hadn’t moved. Turning, he was just in time to see his youngest son’s legs give way beneath him.

All day, Joe had been forcing himself to keep going and his energy levels were very depleted. He had expended the last of his energy to save Adam and now that Adam was safe and the adrenalin had drained from his system, Joe found his legs would not obey him. His body had had enough and he collapsed.

“Joe!” Ben, Adam and Hoss all reached for him as Joe looked surprised to find himself unable to get up.

“I’m all right,” Joe told them, but discovered, to his own surprise, that he was anything but all right. He broke out in a cold sweat as reaction caught up to him and his legs began to cramp fiercely. Suddenly, his entire body hurt.

“Help me,” Ben told Hoss and together, they picked Joe up and with Adam creating a path, made their way through the crowds of people to the doctor’s office. Paul Martin fell in with them on the way over.

“Was he hit?” Paul asked, glancing down at Joe’s wan face.

“I’m all right,” Joe protested, and bit his lip, proving himself a liar, but since no one had believed him, no one chided him.

Before long, Joe was stretched out on the examination table as Paul checked him over. Roy Coffee was quickly in attendance, too, but it became clear pretty soon that Joe would be fine with some rest and tender, loving care. “That gash in his stomach will need stitches,” Paul reported, “But it could’ve been much worse, obviously. His wrists should heal without a scar and his shoulder is just bruised. But I’ve got to set your thumb, Joe, so I’m going to give you something to make you sleep.”

“All right,” Joe agreed. “And look at the blister on my heel, please, doc? It hurts worse than everything else.”

Smiling, Paul replied, “Maybe that bump on your head is worse than I thought, Joe, if you’re worried about a blister!”

“A blister!” Hoss scoffed, leaning in to smile with relief at his youngest brother. “Why a blister ain’t nothin’!”

“So that was someone else I saw limpin’ pitifully when you were breakin’ in a new pair of boots a month or two back, was it?” Joe retorted. The sound of Hoss’ laughter was the last thing he heard as he slid off into a drugged sleep.

*****

There was a trial, of course. Shaw had died shortly after Roy shot him and Watson was badly injured, but recovered. The rest of the gang was rounded up and they all stood trial. Adam’s testimony was the one that sent them all to jail, as Joe couldn’t remember seeing anyone’s face during the fracas.

Both Adam and Joe had recovered well from their ordeals. Joe had had his hand put in plaster to allow the thumb to heal properly and he and Adam had gone home that night. Although they had been gone little more than 24 hours, it felt like weeks to them both. Joe had slept deeply for hours and eaten ravenously for what seemed like days afterwards.

After that their recovery had been more a matter of talking to each other, reliving the event and coming to terms with the idea that they could have done nothing more than they did and that what happened was not their fault. If Adam had nightmares about his close brush with death, he kept them strictly to himself.

As ever, Joe was more open about it and talked at length with his father about his feelings of fear when he spotted Adam with the noose around his neck. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like,” Joe admitted.

“I don’t think you want to imagine that,” Ben replied. “I know I don’t.” Ben shuddered, for he had stood in that place, with a noose around his neck when he was innocent.

“Pity I hadn’t had this cast when I jumped up there,” Joe remarked. He lifted up his hand. “It’s heavy enough to have knocked Shaw cold!”

“Well, just remember that its purpose is to help your thumb heal,” Ben chided him, smiling. “Not to give you an unfair advantage when fighting with your brothers.”

“Me?” Joe squeaked. “Fight? Never!” He jumped to his feet to avoid the gentle swat Ben sent his way. “Thanks, Pa; you’ve just given me a great idea!”

“Joseph!” Ben bellowed as the front door banged shut.

***End***

To be continued in:  My Kingdom for a Horse

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