Summary: A What Happened Next for the episode “Five Sunups to Sundown”
Word Count: 8732
“Ben, better come see this,” Deputy John Maddock shouted into the jail.
Exchanging a look with the injured sheriff, Roy Coffee, Acting Sheriff Ben Cartwright crossed to the door of the jail and went outside, his heart in his mouth. Four people had been kidnapped over the last four days, one of them his son, Joe, and the hostages were all threatened with death. Ben dreaded what he might see.
Coming down the street at a slow walk was a party of riders. At the front were two figures that Ben knew very well – his sons Hoss and Joe. Joe looked tired and dirty, but he appeared to be unharmed and as Ben rested his foot against the hitching rail, a smile slowly broke over Joe’s face. Ben could do nothing but smile back, although his smile was a trifle watery. Sheer relief threatened to dump him onto the ground, but Ben knew he did not have time for that. For all that Joe and the other hostages were safe his job was not done yet.
The party of riders stopped in front of the jail and Ben hurried to give Joe a brief but heartfelt hug. “Are you all right, son?” he asked.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe nodded and smiled again. “Honest.”
Although he wanted to stand there and do nothing but drink in the sight of his son, Ben forced himself to move. “Good job, Hoss,” he congratulated his older son and patted him on the shoulder. He shook hands with Reverend Holmes, Judge Simpson and Mr Merrick, the prosecutor, who were the other freed hostages. They were also unharmed and looked just as dirty and dishevelled as Joe did.
Then he turned his attention to the other riders in the group, Elizabeth Lassiter and her erstwhile foreman, Kirt. Elizabeth had been quite a looker when she was younger and was still a handsome woman, but grief and regret were now etched on her face. Avoiding looking at Ben, she stepped down silently from her horse. Kirt followed and took her arm. “Carver is dead,” he said, telling Ben about Elizabeth’s son who had orchestrated the kidnappings on his mother’s orders.
“I’m sorry,” Ben replied, for he was sorry; sorry that she was suffering such grief and knowing that her grief was only just beginning. Her other son, Harry, was due to be hanged the next day. It was because of this that Elizabeth had taken the judge who had given the death sentence and the prosecutor who had pushed so hard at the trial. The Reverend Holmes and Joe had been taken for different reasons, the Reverend because he was a notable person in town and Joe because Ben and Hoss were helping the sheriff. She had planned to hang them if Harry hanged. Joe had managed to escape and had met Hoss and the search party. Carver had been killed during a shootout. His death had taken the heart out of Elizabeth and she had realised what she had done.
“Come inside,” Ben said, seeing a crowd of townspeople making their way down the street. He was always amazed by how quickly gossip spread. He didn’t want trouble. The town had been intimidated enough by the Lassiters’ threats. He ushered them all inside.
It was stifling in the jail. The heat wave they had been suffering had yet to break. Roy Coffee was still sitting on the cot where he had been ever since he had been shot a few days before. He looked much better now, but still needed someone to enforce the law for him. “Elizabeth,” he said, cordially enough.
“Ma?” Harry was leaning against the bars of his cell, his inane laughter finally stilled. His face leached of all colour. “Ma?”
Nobody stopped Elizabeth as she went over to Harry, putting her arms through the bars and drawing him as close as she could. “Carver is gone,” she said and burst into tears.
Embarrassed, the men looked away to give her what privacy they could. Judge Simpson slumped down in the chair behind the desk. Reverend Holmes sat in the other chair. Merrick perched on the desk itself. Hoss gave Joe no option and pushed him down beside Roy. “Sit down, Shortshanks,” he ordered. Joe simply grinned up at him, too tired to object.
After a few minutes, Ben went quietly into the cell area. He unlocked the door of Harry’s cell and Elizabeth walked quietly in. Kirt went through without being told and was locked in the other cell. Ben went back into the main office and closed the intervening door for a few minutes.
“Maddock, go and send a telegram to the Army and tell them they won’t be needed now,” he ordered. “And send off to the judge at Carson City and ask him to come to preside over the trial. We’ll need a prosecutor, too.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “Do we give Harry a stay of execution for the meantime?” he asked generally.
“No, it has to be done. No point prolonging it,” Roy replied.
“I agree,” Judge Simpson said quietly. “Elizabeth has made her peace with it, as much as she can.”
“All right,” Ben agreed bleakly. “Tell the hangman there’s no change for tomorrow.” Ben could not remember the man’s name and right that moment, it wasn’t important. He wondered if there was anything else he should be doing. He glanced at Roy.
“Cain’t leave Elizabeth in there overnight,” Roy murmured. “We’d never hear the end of it. Better get her a room at the hotel, Ben, and someone better stay outside her door.”
“Maddock can do that,” Ben decided. “We can give her some more time to spend with her son before we move her.”
“If that’s all for now,” Judge Simpson said, “I’m going to go home.” He rose wearily and looked from Ben to Roy.
“That’s all right,” Roy agreed. “Don’t suppose the trial will start for a couple of days yet.” He didn’t need to add how uncomfortable that trial would be. If Elizabeth had been a man, he would be hanged for his crimes. As a woman, she would probably be sent to jail for quite a few years and yet that didn’t sit comfortably either. Prisons were notoriously bad. The only other option was if she was declared insane and sent to an insane asylum – that was not a pretty prospect, either. Roy shook his head. He was glad the decision would not be his.
As the three former hostages left the jail house, Ben glanced at Joe, ready to send his son home for a rest. However, Joe had fallen asleep where he sat and Ben didn’t have the heart to waken him. He went over and opened the connecting door to the cells and then retreated to sit down beside Hoss at the desk. “Tell me,” he commanded.
Slowly, Hoss told Ben how they had found Joe at the bottom of a draw, way out in a different direction than they had searched on the previous days. It had been the shouting from Carver and his henchman that had drawn Hoss’ attention and the shots that had been fired. Joe had tumbled down into the draw and had been slow to rise and Hoss’ heart had been in his throat, for he had feared that Joe had been hit. However, Joe was just exhausted from his escape attempt, and seeing Hoss had done a lot to restore some energy. They had shot at Carver and the other man and killed them both. Joe had then led Hoss and Maddock back to the Lassiters’ shack where the prisoners were. They had been prepared for another shootout, but it hadn’t been necessary. Kirt had beaten them back and told Elizabeth the bad news. He had then freed the hostages and the first person that Joe and Hoss had seen come out of the shack had been Judge Simpson. After that, it had simply been a case of getting everyone onto a horse and riding back.
“Thank you, son,” Ben said and Hoss nodded. He knew exactly what he was being thanked for. While stopping the Lassiters had been imperative, Ben’s chief concern had been for Joe. It had taken every ounce of Ben’s willpower to remain behind in the jail when he discovered that Joe was missing. Hoss had been the same, but at least he had been able to go out looking. Ben had felt pretty useless.
The intense heat of the late afternoon made them all lethargic and Ben let Joe sleep for a couple of hours. It would be slightly cooler for him riding home in the evening anyway, if he went home, and this way Ben could be sure he had eaten something before setting off. Maddock had long since returned from his errands, informing the sheriff that the judge would arrive the next day on the noon coach, and would bring a prosecuting attorney with him. A room on the second floor of the hotel had been booked for Elizabeth and meals had been ordered for everyone. He also reported a cloud behind Mount Davidson. Perhaps the heat wave was coming to an end.
The meal was simple but tasty. Maddock gathered together the plates and headed off back to the cafe, Hoss going with him in the hopes of cajoling another piece of pie from the proprietor. “I think you ought to get a room at the hotel, too,” Ben told Joe. His son still looked tired.
“I’ve got some work to do,” Joe reminded him. He had been preparing to go off with some of the cattle when he had been kidnapped.
“Not tonight,” Ben replied. “Tomorrow is soon enough to go home.” He didn’t mention that he wanted the doctor to have a look at Joe. He did not yet know the full story of how Joe came to be a hostage, but decided he would hear it in the morning.
“All right, Pa,” Joe agreed. He wouldn’t have admitted under torture how tired he still felt and although his own bed would have been better, any bed held a great appeal at that moment. “I’ll take Cochise to the livery and head over there.” He stretched and rose, gave his father a smile and a pat on the arm and went out of the door.
The heat hit Joe like a wall, and he paused on the porch of the jail for a moment. He was bone weary and the picture of a soft bed was dancing in his head. He walked over to his horse and untied the rein from the hitching post. Mounting was too much of an effort and Joe simply patted his horse’s neck and turned to lead Cochise towards the livery stable.
In the jail, Ben went into the cell area. Elizabeth was sitting quietly, her fingers entwined with her son’s. Ben hated to disturb her, but evening was drawing on and he wanted to get her moved to the hotel where she would be more comfortable. Both she and Harry looked up as he approached and tears suddenly began streaking Elizabeth’s face. “It’s time to go, Elizabeth,” Ben said, uncomfortably.
Without saying a word, Elizabeth threw her arms round Harry’s neck and hugged him hard. She seemed to sit there for an eternity, but Ben said nothing, allowing her these last few moments with her son. At length she rose and walked to the cell door. Harry slowly got to his feet, his face white and set. As Ben turned the key, he put his hand on his mother’s arm and she turned towards him.
As the cell door opened, Harry threw himself past his mother and hit Ben in the midriff. The force of the tackle hurled Ben back against the wall and Harry’s weight knocked the air from his lungs. He slid to the floor and he felt Harry grab his gun from his holster. Elizabeth let out a cry. “Harry!”
Dazed and gasping for breath, Ben was unable to stop Harry rushing out of the cell area. Beyond, in the main jail, he heard Roy shout, “Lassiter! Stop there!” But he knew the injured lawman was no match for the desperate Harry Lassiter. Breath suddenly jolted back into his lungs, but he was too late to stop Harry running outside, towing his mother by one hand. In the other, he clutched Ben’s stolen gun. The outer jail door crashed open.
Struggling to his feet, Ben lurched into the main room, his steps growing surer with every second as he recovered from the pounding he had taken. Roy was sprawled on the cot, his face pale but furious and he looked at Ben. There was no need to say anything. Ben raced for the door, snatching up a rifle as he went past the desk.
Hearing the door crashing open, Joe turned wearily, wondering what on earth was going on. He saw Harry and Elizabeth coming running out and for a second, he couldn’t believe what he saw. Then he was fumbling for his gun, knowing he had to foil the escape attempt. The Lassiters couldn’t get away! “Lassiter!” he shouted.
In that instant, both Harry and Joe hesitated, Harry from surprise and Joe from tiredness. Joe paid the penalty. Harry recovered more quickly and shot at Joe. It was a remarkably good shot for being so quick. The bullet scored along the back of Joe’s gun hand and up his arm and his gun dropped from his suddenly nerveless fingers. Cochise snorted and pulled away, yanking his reins from Joe’s other hand and high tailing it off along the street. Seconds later, Harry grabbed Joe and jabbed the gun into his throat.
“Joe!” Ben halted at the edge of the raised jail porch. The rifle he carried pointed down, for he couldn’t risk taking a shot at Harry; Joe was far too close.
“Just keep away, Cartwright!” Harry shouted. “Come any closer and I’ll blow his head off!” He laughed triumphantly and behind him, Elizabeth started to smile. They suddenly had a bargaining chip and she could see that her son might escape the noose.
“Shoot him, Ben!” Roy urged from behind Ben’s back. He staggered forward, holding a gun in his hand, but he froze as he saw the tableau in front of him.
“You won’t get away with this,” Ben warned Harry. His eyes were glued to his son, who clutched his left arm with his right hand. Ben could see the blood down the back of Joe’s hand and hoped the wound was not serious.
“Oh I think we will,” Harry retorted, although he wasn’t sure of their next move. They were on foot and had to get to shelter quickly. Hoss and Maddock would be coming back from the cafe at any moment. They had to get off the street. He tightened his hold on Joe and began to back away. “Ma, let’s go to the livery,” he suggested over his shoulder. “Get Joe’s gun.”
“Good thinking,” Elizabeth agreed and scooped up Joe’s gun. She led the way as Harry dragged Joe backwards down the street, Ben and Roy following a cautious distance behind. Ben was relieved that Joe seemed fairly steady on his feet, but he couldn’t see a way out of this. They simply could not let Harry Lassiter go. He watched as the Lassiters disappeared into the livery with his son and slammed the door. Moments later, they heard the bar go down.
Inside the livery, Harry looked around. There were a few cobwebby windows letting in a dim light, but they were all too high up for anyone to climb into easily. There were four horses dozing in stalls and the livery man wasn’t there. Harry surmised he had gone to get his supper before coming back to shut up for the night. There was only one door and they had it barred from the inside. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it had possibilities. They would have a mount each when they were ready to leave and perhaps there might be some ammunition in the saddlebags that were piled on the floor.
“Bring me some rope,” Harry ordered his mother, not relinquishing his choke hold on Joe. He sniggered. “It’ll be just like old times for you, Cartwright,” he chuckled. “Tied up and a prisoner of the Lassiters. You don’t learn, do you, boy?”
“Doesn’t look like you do either,” Joe choked. His hand and arm were burning with pain, but the feeling had come back into his fingers and he didn’t think the wound was life threatening. His arm was still bleeding, but there was very little he could do about that. “Look what happened to Carver when he’d had me tied up.”
It wasn’t the wisest thing to say, Joe reflected later. Harry gave a sound of fury and shoved Joe face first into the side of a stall, using his extra height and weight to keep the slighter man pinned there while Elizabeth bound Joe’s hands behind him. Joe struggled as much as he could, but the lack of air and his exhaustion told against him and when Harry stepped back and allowed him to drop to the floor, Joe was in no shape to resist having his feet bound, too. He was dragged over to a pole and tied there.
“What do we do now?” Ben wondered aloud.
“We’ve got them cornered,” Roy replied. “We jist have to wait them out.” He looked pale and shaken and Ben thought he really ought to be sitting down.
“They have a hostage,” Ben reminded his friend. “When they come out with a gun to Joe’s head, what am I meant to do? Let them ride away?” He ran his fingers through his already dishevelled hair. “Even if I wasn’t acting sheriff, I couldn’t let them do that. As soon as they were far enough away from here, they would kill Joe.”
The church bell began to toll and Ben took a second to marvel at Reverend Holmes. He had only been freed that day and yet he was back into his usual routine and the thought of the other hostages’ courage in helping Joe escape to bring them help stiffened his resolve. He had to find a solution to this problem here and now and Harry Lassiter was going to hang come morning.
“Sit down, Roy,” Ben suggested, interrupting the lawman, but he hadn’t heard a word Roy had said anyway. “You look like you need to.”
Wearily, Roy took a couple of steps backwards and sat down against the side of the nearest building. “I ain’t leavin’ here till Hoss or Maddock gets here,” he declared. “What’re you thinkin’, Ben?”
“I’m going to wait here and prevent them getting away,” Ben replied. “Lassiter isn’t going to get away and he isn’t going to harm my son.” Ben still had no real idea how he was going to accomplish that; he just knew he would somehow. Joe’s life was at stake and there was no way that Ben was going to let anything happen to his son. He stepped back into the shade and cast a glance at the sky. The clouds over Mount Davidson were gathering apace and a rumble of thunder trembled in the air.
One way or another, a storm was coming.
The livery was stifling. Elizabeth was sitting in the stable man’s chair, leaning against his desk looking wilted. Harry had been pacing, but even he had stopped and sat down. The only sounds were the horses eating the hay in their mangers and the normality of that sound seemed odd in the charged atmosphere.
Harry could not take his eyes off Joe.
The penetrating stare was making Joe mightily uncomfortable, but he was not going to show that. He stared right back, trying to glean what the other man intended to do. It was clear he was going to use the horses in the livery, but Joe wasn’t sure exactly what Harry was planning. He would do everything he could to thwart the remaining Lassiter son, but at the moment, Joe couldn’t see what he could do, either. His bonds were secure and there was no convenient nail to work them on, even if Harry ever looked away. The gunshot wound on his hand and wrist were throbbing painfully, but it seemed to have stopped bleeding.
Thunder rumbled outside and one of the horses snorted restively.
“Storm’s a comin’,” Harry said. The air all but crackled around them.
“What’re we gonna do, Harry?” Elizabeth asked. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
The question seemed to settle the idea firmly in Harry’s mind. He dragged his eyes away from Joe and looked at his mother. “We’re gonna wait a little while longer, till it’s almost dark,” he replied. “Then we’re gonna mount up and ride out of here. Cartwright is gonna be our ticket to freedom, Ma.”
“They’ll be waiting,” Elizabeth warned him.
“Old Ben won’t shoot at his baby son,” Harry declared. “We ride hell for leather to the edge of town, shove Joe off the horse and shoot him. That’ll slow them down and by the time they’ve discovered he’s dead, we’ll be long gone in the dark.”
“It won’t work,” Joe told him calmly. “You’re not going to get away.”
“What would you know?” Harry sneered. “You’re the one who’s all tied up!”
“You’re the one who’s cornered in the livery,” Joe reminded him. “There’s only one way out of here and you can bet that my Pa has got it well covered.” He tried to shrug and stopped the motion as pain shot up his arms. “Sure, I might stop a bullet as well, but one way or another, you’re not going to escape justice.”
Having Joe point out the gaping hole in his plan infuriated Harry. “Shut up!” he shouted and kicked Joe on the hip. He whirled away from his prisoner and began pacing again, walking the length of the broad aisle between stalls and back several times. His furious pace slowed until he finally stopped beside the back wall of the building. Joe, watching, didn’t like the look that crept over Harry’s face. He wondered what Lassiter had in mind now.
“Ma, are there tools under that desk?” he asked, coming back down the aisle.
Frowning, wondering where Harry was going with this idea, Elizabeth bent over and peered under the desk. “There’s a hammer and a saw,” she replied. “Why?”
“There might be only one door at the moment,” Harry replied, “but there’s nothing stopping me making another one.” He hefted the hammer aloft and grinned. “This old place is about ready to fall down.”
It was perfectly true. The livery stable was a lumber-built building and it had seen better days. Many of the boards were warped and it wouldn’t take much of an effort to pull enough loose to create an exit. Joe knew immediately that he had to try and stop Harry and bound as he was, his only option was to shout and let Ben know. “Pa! He’s going to break out…”
The backhanded slap that stopped him in mid-sentence wasn’t a surprise, but the force behind it all but took Joe’s head from his shoulders. Joe caught his breath and before he could gather his wits, another blow crashed across his face. Blood dripped from his mouth and nose. A hand grabbed his chin cruelly, forcing his head back and Joe looked from under half-closed lashes to see Harry Lassiter’s furious face only inches from his own.
“Shut up, Cartwright!” he hissed furiously. “Good thing for you that I need you for a while longer or you’d be dead right now.” Harry glanced over his shoulder. “Ma, find something to gag him with.” He continued to hold Joe’s jaw while his mother found a couple of rags. One was forced into Joe’s mouth by the simple expedient of holding his nose and the other was bound round his head. Joe struggled to get adequate air through his partially blocked nose. He was reminded of why Harry was facing the gallows, but he didn’t regret what he had done if it helped his father end this stand-off.
“Pa, what’s goin’ on?” Hoss demanded, striding up the street towards his parent and towing Joe’s runaway horse behind him. “I found Cochise here way up the street. What’s Joe playin’ at? I swear…”
“Lassiter broke free and has Joe hostage in the livery,” Ben interrupted. “We can’t let them get away.”
A frown creased Hoss’ tired face. “Is Joe all right?” he asked.
“He had a wound on his arm, but it seemed minor,” Ben replied, but he couldn’t quite pull off the casual air he affected.
At that moment, they heard Joe’s voice shouting from the livery. Ben took several steps forward, Hoss at his shoulder. “Pa! He’s going to break out…” His voice abruptly ceased and neither Cartwright needed much imagination to guess why.
“Of course he’s gonna break out,” Hoss murmured, his frown deepening. “Why’d Joe feel the need to tell us that?”
“I don’t know,” Ben replied, thoughtfully. “There’s only one way out of the livery. We’ve got to be ready.” Hoss nodded and took Cochise down to the nearest hitching post. He strode back and drew his gun.
Then all they could do was wait.
While Harry worked on the back wall of the livery, Elizabeth made herself useful by saddling a couple of horses. Darkness was falling and the air was still hot and humid. Thunder rumbled almost continuously, but the storm had still not broken. The horses were restive, sensing the coming storm and agitated by the atmosphere inside the stable. Joe worked on his bonds, twisting and turning his wrists as much as he was able, but the rope simply burned into the tender flesh on his wrists and remained tight. He had no more success with the gag. He didn’t have the necessary leverage to rub the cloth on the pole he was bound to. For the moment, there was nothing he could do.
It was still twilight by the time Harry managed to get enough boards removed from the back wall to allow a horse to pass through. He led the two horses outside and Elizabeth followed him and mounted one, holding the reins of the other. Joe braced himself to fight as best he could when Harry untied him from the pole.
But Harry didn’t come directly to Joe, as Joe had expected. Instead, he set the other two horses loose and knelt by a pile of straw in an empty stall. Joe craned his neck to see what Lassiter was doing and saw a spark. Fear thrilled through Joe’s gut. Harry was setting fire to the livery! He began to struggle against his bonds again.
Approaching Joe and crouching near him, Harry gave him a nasty grin. “I’m tempted to just leave you here, Cartwright,” he sneered, “but I might need you.” He sliced through the bonds on Joe’s feet with the knife he had found in a saddlebag.
Joe kicked him in the face.
Later, he reflected that he had made his move too soon. If things had gone differently, Joe might have found himself still firmly bound to a pole in a burning livery and might well have not survived it. As it was, Harry was incensed. He slowly picked himself off the floor, blood pouring from a split lip, and spat a tooth into his hand. “God damn you, Cartwright,” he swore. “You’ll pay for that!” He moved behind Joe and cut the rope binding him to the pole and yanked Joe to his feet. He drove his fist into his captive’s stomach several times, leaving Joe gasping for air and almost incapacitated.
The fire had quickly gained a hold and was burning merrily away through the old, dry wood and straw. It wouldn’t be long before the livery was totally ablaze. Harry dragged Joe with him to the back of the building and forced him onto the horse. He mounted behind and they rode cautiously away.
With a sudden crash of thunder and flash of lightning, the storm broke in drenching sheets of rain. Behind them, a shout announced that the livery fire had been seen. Harry grinned at his mother. “Let’s ride!” he cried and spurred his horse forward into a gallop.
It was Hoss who first noticed the flickering flames. “Fire!” he bellowed and dashed forward, forgetting, for a moment, that the door was barred from the inside. He was momentarily thwarted until he spotted a loose board and gave it an almighty yank. It came free and Hoss grabbed the next one, forcing an entrance into the stable, intent on rescuing his younger brother.
Although the smoke had gathered quickly and the flames burned brightly, Hoss could see that the livery was empty. He coughed and backed out.
“Hoss!” Ben’s face was pale.
“They’ve gone,” Hoss coughed. “Get the horses. They’ve gone out the back.”
“How…? Never mind!” Ben turned and ran for his horse, standing patiently waiting at the jail. Hoss and Maddock followed and Roy, cursing the injury that kept him from following, shouted for the volunteer fire department. Fires spread only too easily.
They were to be helped in that respect. The storm broke and rain poured down. Although the flames did not die away completely, they were reduced and the fire did not spread to other buildings, although the livery was destroyed.
Neither Ben nor Hoss was aware of that. They rode to the back of the livery and Hoss dismounted to pick up tracks. They would have to move quickly, before the rain washed away any trail there was, although the ground was too hard after the heat wave to show much in the way of hoof prints.
“There!” Maddock pointed and they spotted two horses riding away at full speed. Quickly, Hoss mounted up and they galloped off.
The storm had hit Virginia City with a vengeance. The ground, rock hard from over a week of burning sunshine, flooded as the water found it impossible to permeate the soil as quickly as normal. Lightning and thunder flashed and rumbled continuously and the riders were soaked to the skin before they reached the outskirts of the town.
As the footing became more and more uncertain, the Lassiters were forced to slow their headlong gallop as the horses stumbled in the rivers of rainwater that filled the streets and ran over the trail. The horses were uneasy, spooking at the lightning and Elizabeth was struggling to keep her horse under control. “We need to find shelter,” she called across to Harry, pushing her soaking hair from her face.
“Not yet,” Harry shouted back.
“But we could go to the Webbers’ place,” Elizabeth pleaded. “They’re away back east and nobody is there all the time. We’d get shelter and food…”
“No!” Harry shouted. His hand tightened on the rein and his horse threw its head up and snorted in protest. “It’s too close.”
“Harry!” Elizabeth protested.
“It’s not your neck on the line, Ma,” Harry shouted, his face suffused with anger. “I’m telling you we keep on going!”
Perched uncomfortably on the saddle, his hands still bound behind him and gagged, Joe wished that Elizabeth had prevailed. His thin shirt provided him with no protection from the cold rain; his jacket lay forgotten on the cot in the jail house, where he had shucked it hours ago. Joe wondered what he could do to change what was happening, but nothing constructive sprang to mind. Yes, he could try and throw himself from the horse, but Harry had a pretty good hold of him and while dragging Harry down with him was a fair idea, Joe knew he would pay dearly for it. His only other option wasn’t fair on the horse, but Joe had more things to worry about than the horse that bore him. If he could kick the animal into a run, the combined weight of himself and Harry would wear the beast down very quickly. The snag with that idea was that Harry had a good hold of the reins and would be able to stop the horse. Still, it was worth a try…
He kicked. The horse threw its head up and bounded forward. Harry was caught unaware, his attention having been on thinking of a place they could hole up where they would not be found too soon. For a moment, Joe thought his stratagem might work as Harry, perched awkwardly behind the saddle, swayed backwards. He kicked the horse again.
A hand grabbed Joe by the hair and in an instant, he was falling. The landing winded him, and Joe lay there, feeling the burning pain in his scalp where Harry had pulled some of his hair out by the roots. He was finding it hard to catch his breath, gagged as he was and the world turned in slow circles around him. The rain battered down on his aching body and he closed his eyes against the onslaught.
From somewhere close by, someone was swearing a blue streak and someone else was shouting a name. For a few moments, it meant nothing to Joe, then his breath came back with a jolt and he struggled to sit up, knowing that he had to get away before Harry recovered from the fall.
Gaining his feet, Joe staggered off, not knowing where he was heading, and not caring, just intent on getting away. His body ached and he was panting after only a few steps, but he didn’t stop. His life depended on him getting away. He stumbled on the uncertain footing and went down on to his knees, but struggled back to his feet, sloshing through the water now lying on the land.
There was an odd singing noise in his ears, but Joe paid no attention. If he had been slightly more alert, the lasso might not have caught him on the first throw. But it did, and Joe was yanked viciously from his feet to land heavily on his bound hands. Pain shot through his arms. In an instant, Harry was on him, kicking and punching, taking his anger out on Joe.
Dimly, Joe became aware that the abuse had stopped. He was curled in a ball on his side and someone had removed the gag. He was vaguely grateful for that, although it was beyond him to say so. He couldn’t have spoken if his life depended on it. He just lay there, the rain lashing down on him as Elizabeth Lassiter looked with disbelief at her one remaining son and finally understood how dangerous Harry could be. It scared her, but she was his mother and she loved him.
Seeing that Harry was finally calm, Elizabeth touched his arm gently. “We need to move on,” she told him. They were on foot now, for Elizabeth’s horse had run off when she dismounted as the fight began and Harry’s mount was long gone. She shivered and looked down at the bleeding young man at her feet. Harry followed her gaze and yanked Joe to his feet. As his captive stood, dazed, he tightened the lasso around Joe’s waist, added an extra turn of rope over his bound hands to secure it and then tied a length around Joe’s thighs, effectively hobbling him.
Walking was hard enough without the addition of the rope. Harry pulled Joe along by it, laughing when Joe tripped over his own feet and fell headlong. The youngest Cartwright was soon splattered with mud, his clothing torn and his limbs cut and bruised.
Darkness had fallen and the only light was provided by the lightning, which was becoming less frequent. The rain steadied into a downpour, the initial onslaught of water having been eased only slightly. Soaked to the skin, even Harry Lassiter had to admit that they were getting nowhere fast and he led them to a copse of trees where the inter-lacing branches overhead provided some respite. He shoved Joe to the ground and kicked him for good measure, before going and sitting close to his mother, putting an arm around her to try and help her warm up.
Shivering with cold and pain, Joe thought it was going to be a very long night.
“We’ve lost them.” The comment was almost unheard over the sounds of the storm.
“Only temporarily!” Ben snapped. He shot Maddock a look that his sons would have recognised immediately. That it was the first time Maddock had seen it didn’t matter – he knew what it meant and shut up at once. He hadn’t realised that Ben would hear his comment, or he would never have made it aloud. He peered through the torrents of rain and wished that he was back at the jail with Roy.
They were all soaking and there were no tracks to be seen. They were proceeding only on instinct and Ben’s determination to save his son’s life. Maddock hadn’t been in Virginia City very long, but he already knew all about the Cartwrights. He had liked working with Ben, seeing that the man was decisive and cool-headed in a crisis and he admired the way Ben had not allowed his personal feelings to cloud his judgement. Until now, that was. He thought Ben was being foolish now, but he wasn’t going to venture that notion. He wished he was off duty, like the other deputy who had been with Hoss that morning.
“Pa, look!” Hoss was swinging down from Chub, his attention fixed on something on the watery ground. Maddock wondered how on earth he had seen anything in the gloom. Total darkness was only moments away.
“What is it?” Ben asked, peering closely.
“Rope,” Hoss replied. “Someone cut off a trailing end and dropped it. Recent like. Its dry, Pa.” He proffered the 6 inches or so of rope to his father to feel.
As Ben fingered the rough hemp, Maddock looked around. “There!” he exclaimed and pointed, glad to have been able to redeem himself slightly and do something useful. “Horses.”
Although none of them knew what the horses in the livery looked like, they all knew it was extremely unlikely they would find two other horses, saddled, wandering loose in the rain in the area where they knew that Joe and the Lassiters had been heading. “They’re on foot,” Ben breathed and glanced at Hoss. “Can you see anything?” he asked, although he knew it was hopeless.
“No,” Hoss answer reluctantly. “But if they’re on foot, they ain’t gonna have gone far. Probably lookin’ for shelter…” He let his voice trail off as he looked around, getting his bearings. “Ain’t many places to get shelter hereabouts, but there are a few.” He swung onto Chub’s back and set off.
It was clear within a few minutes that most of the places Hoss had thought of were not accessible to people on foot in that weather. Retracing his steps, Hoss led them to the lee of a large boulder and pointed to the copse of trees about half a mile away. “I reckon they’re there,” he declared. “We’ll need to go on foot; plenty of cover on foot, but not so much on a horse. I’ll circle round and go in from the back.”
“And if they’re not there?” Maddock wondered if he had suddenly developed a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease, but he had to know.
“Then we’ll think again,” Ben told him, but Maddock could tell that Ben thought Joe was there. He had often heard stories of parents who sensed their children were in trouble and he wondered if this was a similar case. He nodded to Ben and they dismounted, making their horses as secure as they could.
It was a good thing they were already soaked, Ben thought, as he crawled through sodden grass and crouched behind dripping bushes, for they would have been thoroughly drenched otherwise. The rain was a double-edged sword – it protected both sides and made it difficult to see the other. Ben drew a deep, calming breath, seeking to slow his breathing. It didn’t work, his pulse was still bounding away anxiously and his breath came in short pants. If Joe and the Lassiters were not there, as Maddock had suggested, he had no idea where they would look next.
It must have taken them over an hour to cover that half-mile. As they drew nearer, they moved even more slowly. Ben and Maddock took up positions and then waited for Hoss to circle around. Ben’s heart rate had picked up even more, for they had detected movement within the copse. It had to be them; it would be too cruel for it to be other, innocent, travellers seeking shelter.
“What are we going to do?” Elizabeth whispered. She was huddled against Harry, but still felt cold. She shivered, both from fear and the rain.
“We’ll get out of here when it gets light,” Harry replied confidently. He wasn’t sure where they would go or how they would get there, but he couldn’t allow himself to think of failure. Failure led to the gallows and Harry could not conceive of hanging. He had never believed it would happen and he refused to believe it now. He was a Lassiter; he would escape.
Huddled on the ground where he’d been thrown, Joe shivered violently. He was pretty sure he had a couple of cracked ribs and his arms hurt and his hip was badly bruised from Harry kicking him. The cold was making everything stiff and he felt utterly miserable. Making an escape was beyond him after that beating and he could feel blood congealing on his knees, which were cut up after all his falls. Come morning, Joe knew he wouldn’t be able to go on on foot and he would then die. It wasn’t a comforting thought.
A slight sound came from somewhere behind him and for an instant Joe wondered if Harry was coming to check on him. He craned his neck and saw Harry and Elizabeth still sitting in the same spot a few yards away. There was another sound from behind Joe, louder this time. Harry looked up sharply, taking his arm from around his mother and drawing Ben’s stolen gun. Elizabeth looked at him, then lifted Joe’s gun and held it uncertainly.
There was silence, apart from the sounds of the rain. Harry looked around. Joe realised he was holding his breath and let it out shakily. He tried to ease his position again and a small twig snapped under his body. “It was just Cartwright!” Harry exclaimed, disgust colouring his tones. His voice sounded very loud in the quiet. Even the rain seemed to have eased. “What’s the matter, Cartwright? Can’t you get comfortable?” He laughed nastily and laid down the gun. Elizabeth copied him.
For some time after that, the silence was only broke by the rain, and, gradually, Elizabeth’s steady breathing slowed as the exertions of the day caught up with her and she fell asleep. Harry was soon nodding, too. Joe wished he could sleep, but his cramped position and the pain in his body kept him awake.
There was the slightest of rustles for behind Joe and a large hand suddenly clamped firmly over his mouth. “Easy, Joe,” Hoss breathed. “Don’t make a sound.”
Barely able to believe his ears, Joe stayed still and quiet as he felt Hoss slide a knife blade over the ropes that bound his wrists. As the hemp parted, Ben and Maddock stepped into the thicket.
With a jerk, Harry came awake and lunged for the gun, but he wasn’t quick enough. Ben scooped it up and Maddock retrieved Joe’s gun from beside Elizabeth. “Don’t try anything stupid,” Ben warned them, although the warning was principally aimed at Harry.
It was all over in a matter of moments. Maddock handcuffed Harry. When it was clear Maddock had everything under control, Ben stepped over to where Hoss was helping Joe to sit up. “Are you all right, son?” Ben asked, leaning forward to cup his son’s cheek.
“I’ll be okay,” Joe replied and tried to smile, but it was more of a grimace. He didn’t want to show his father how much he was actually hurting, but Joe couldn’t help but wrap his arms around his sore ribs. He was grateful that Hoss was supporting him, as he wasn’t sure he would have been able to sit up alone. He shivered and winced.
“We’d better try an’ git everyone to shelter, Pa,” Hoss said, exchanging a worried look with Ben over Joe’s head. “We can’t stay here.”
“No,” Ben agreed. “I’ll go and get our horses.”
“I’ll go,” Hoss corrected him. “You stay here with Joe.” He gently patted his younger brother on the shoulder. “Won’t be long, Shortshanks.” Hoss transferred Joe’s weight to Ben’s welcoming arms.
As much as Ben longed to find out how badly Joe was hurt, he sensed that his youngest son wasn’t ready to talk yet and simply allowed Joe to lean against him. Elizabeth Lassiter was leaning against Harry, her eyes distant. Harry said nothing, but his eyes spoke eloquently; he was furious at being caught and terror was beginning to creep into his soul. He glanced around, but Maddock was alert. “Don’t try anything,” he warned.
It wasn’t long before Hoss came back and he had not only the three horses he, Ben and Maddock had been riding, but the two others they had seen wandering loose. The loose horses had followed behind Ben and the others and had instinctively sought shelter with others of their own kind. As far as Hoss was concerned, it was great news, for only one person would have to ride double, not all of them.
While Maddock supervised Harry and Elizabeth mounting, Ben and Hoss helped Joe to his feet. It was immediately obvious that Joe could not walk unaided and they helped him limp across to Buck. Hoss practically lifted Joe into the saddle and supported him there while Ben mounted behind him. Maddock had secured both Elizabeth and Harry to their saddles and Hoss took Elizabeth’s rein. They set out into the wind and rain again.
The journey back took a long time. The horses were cold and tired; the humans were soaked and miserable. It was well past midnight when they saw the lights of the jail house once more. Wearily, they dismounted and Hoss reached to take Joe from their father’s arms. Joe was too spent to try and make an effort to walk by himself. The ride had sapped the ends of his stamina and the pain was constant. He took a couple of limping steps before his knees gave out. Hoss simply caught Joe up in his arms and carried him into the jail.
The warmth and light of the jail was more than welcome. Roy, Reverend Holmes and Judge Simpson were all sitting waiting for them and leapt to their feet as they came in. “Ben!” Roy exclaimed and heaved a sigh of relief as he saw Maddock shepherding the Lassiters into the jail.
Laying Joe down on Roy’s cot, Hoss glanced at the reverend and the judge. “Would one of you go and get the doctor?” he asked, tugging the blanket up and covering Joe. His younger brother was deathly pale and his face was lumpy with swelling and embryonic bruises. Reverend Holmes immediately got to his feet and left.
“Lock them up,” Roy ordered Maddock and watched as his deputy ushered the Lassiters into the same cell they had absconded from earlier that evening. He nodded approvingly as Maddock left Harry handcuffed. There were going to be no more last minute escape attempts.
With the Lassiters once more in custody, the crisis was over. Roy slumped down in the chair Reverend Holmes had vacated and looked old and tired. “Where’d you find them, Ben?” Roy asked. “And what did they do to Joe?”
Quietly, Ben told Roy of their search. “I don’t know exactly what they did to Joe,” he concluded. “I haven’t asked.” His hand strayed to the soaked curls lying so limply on the pillow. Joe was in an uneasy sleep. “But it seems obvious enough.”
It was perhaps half an hour before Reverend Holmes returned with Dr Paul Martin. With the breaking of the storm, the heat wave was over and it seemed chilly by comparison. Judge Simpson made a fire in the stove to help warm and dry Hoss, Ben, Maddock and Joe. Paul greeted them quietly and knelt by Joe.
His examination didn’t take long. Joe answered the questions he was asked quietly, his voice hoarse, mumbling over his split lip and told them all that he had endured since Lassiter took him hostage. “We need to get these wet clothes off you, Joe and get you settled in bed in the hotel.”
“No,” Joe said.
“What?” Paul looked confused. “Why not?”
“I’m staying here,” Joe responded. “I’ll go to the hotel once Lassiter has been hanged, not before. I want to see it out to the end.” He looked at Ben and saw that his father understood. “The Lassiters planned to kill me when they got far enough away. Elizabeth and Carver were going to hang me, Reverend Holmes, Judge Simpson and Mr Merrick if Harry was hanged. I’ve been involved with this from the beginning almost. I need to see it through to the end.”
“Joe’s right,” Judge Simpson said. “We all need to see this through to the end.” He sighed a rubbed a hand over his face. “We have to ensure that justice is done.”
Nodding, Paul looked at Joe. “All right. You win. You can go to the hotel later.” He produced a roll of bandage. “Let’s get this over.” He helped Joe sit up and remove his wet shirt.
The doctoring didn’t take long. Joe’s injuries, while numerous, weren’t life threatening. He was wrapped up like a mummy afterwards, with bandages on his ribs, his knees and his left wrist. The gunshot injury he had sustained had done no lasting damage, although the abused tissue was quite swollen. Joe’s knees were probably the worst of all and they were heavily bandaged. They would keep him from work and riding for several weeks until they were properly healed. For the growing black eye and multitudinous bruises, Paul could do very little. Joe refused all but the smallest dose of painkiller and soon was sleeping. Paul patted Ben on the shoulder and left.
The dawn broke all too soon. Ben wondered if he looked as dirty and haggard as Hoss and Maddock. The hangman – Ben could still not remember his name and was too tired to ask – arrived and Harry Lassiter was escorted to the gallows by Acting Sherriff Ben Cartwright, Sherriff Roy Coffee and Deputy John Maddock. Elizabeth Lassiter, the condemned man’s mother, was escorted by Judge Simpson and Reverend Holmes. She was a broken woman, a far cry from the harridan who had had four men kidnapped. Hoss supported Joe.
At the stroke of 5am, the trapdoor opened and the small crowd watched with fascinated revulsion. Elizabeth Lassiter let out a cry and collapsed in a heap on the ground, sobbing piteously. Dr Martin declared Harry Lassiter dead and the undertaker was left to his grisly job.
Exhausted, Ben turned away and looked at his sons. Joe still leaned heavily on Hoss’ arm, but his head was up and his one open eye was fixed on Ben. For a long moment, they communicated in silence, then Joe nodded. Ben nodded back. They had seen it through, at a cost to themselves that they didn’t care to linger over and now they could go home. The fifth sundown had passed and Virginia City was secure once more.
Ben found himself standing beside Joe and Hoss. “Let’s go home,” he said.