Flames (by Rona)

Summary:  A gang of rustlers is plaguing the Virginia City area.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,131


 

“Joe! What are you doing here?” The young man frowned.

“Isn’t that my line?” Joe asked, amused, stepping down from his pinto horse, Cochise. He took the rein in his hand and walked round the horse, smiling at the group of young men gathered in the clearing. “I thought you fellas knew the ranch well enough by now that you’d realize that this is not the South Forty. Are you lost again?”

The five young men gathered there had all been at school with Joe. Although they hadn’t been particular friends, Joe had been quite pleased to see them when they turned up at the ranch looking for work a few months back.  With the fluctuating work situation in Virginia City, a number of the boys Joe had been at school with had moved on, following the gold strikes or trying their luck with the free land in Oregon Territory. When Mikey, Steve, Phil, Jason and Simon had returned to town after seven years away, Joe had been pleased to see them. He was even more pleased to be able to offer them work, as the ranch was just coming up to the busiest season of the year, when the herd was rounded up, ready to drive to the cattle markets in Sacramento.

It was slightly awkward for Joe to be their boss, but Joe put himself out to ease the awkwardness and he thought he had succeeded quite well. The five were hard working and learned quickly. The only stumbling block had been their tendency to get lost, and none of them made any bones about their lack of sense of direction. Joe thought that this encounter was another example of them turning left when they should have turned right.

“I guess…” Jason began, but Simon didn’t let him finish. Joe suddenly found himself looking into the barrel of a gun.

“You’re gonna stop riding us, Cartwright!” Simon growled. “We’re sick of you always on our backs!”

Frozen in place, Joe glanced at the other men and saw that Simon’s attitude hadn’t come as a surprise to them. “What is this?” he asked, trying to keep his voice calm. “Simon, you work for us. Telling you what to do is part of the job.”

“Not any more!” Simon growled. “Put your hands up, Cartwright.”

Slowly, Joe did as he was told. Jason lifted Joe’s gun from his holster. Mikey squirmed uneasily. “This ain’t the way it was supposed to be,” he whined.  Joe remembered that he’d always been a whiner at school, too.

“Just shut up!” Simon warned him and Mikey wisely backed down. Simon had an unpredictable temper, despite his blond hair and angel face. Thin, small Mikey wouldn’t have stood a chance against the taller, stronger, heavier Simon.

“All right, now what?” Joe asked. “What are you planning?”

“Some fun,” Simon responded, coldly. He nodded to his friends and Phil and Steve grabbed Joe’s arms. Cochise snorted and danced a step or two away. Joe, caught by surprise, found his arms in an unbreakable grip. He struggled futilely.

“Whatever you’re planning, don’t do it,” Joe advised Simon, not for his own sake, but for the other man’s. “Just ride away and I’ll forget about this.”

“You always were a coward, Cartwright,” Simon sneered and Joe saw red. He had been trying to defuse the situation, but no more. Not caring that he was severely out-numbered, Joe wrenched his left arm free and threw a punch at Simon.

It never connected. Simon simply stepped back while Phil, who had hold of Joe’s right arm, pulled, swinging Joe around. Joe stumbled and Simon moved in, his fists swinging, too. Joe knew, as the first punch hit him, that he didn’t stand a chance.

It was a free-for-all. Joe tried to fight back, but there were too many of them. As he crumpled to the ground, dazed and bleeding, there was a shot and everyone froze. “Back off!” ordered a voice and Joe managed to raise his head and peer disbelievingly at his father and brothers who sat on their horses a few feet away, rifles pointing at Joe’s assailants.

Slowly, the five backed away. Joe knew he should get up and prove that he wasn’t hurt, but it was beyond him to move. He simply lay there, dropping his head back down to the ground. Holding it up was more effort than he could afford to expend.

“Get out of here!” Ben ordered, disgust clear in his tone. “Keep on riding. If I see you again, I’ll have you arrested!” He, Adam and Hoss watched as the five mounted up and rode out. Jason dropped Joe’s gun onto the ground as he left. Only when they were a good distance away did Ben sheath his rifle and jump from Buck’s back to hurry over to Joe’s side. Adam and Hoss were right with him.

“Joe, are you all right?” Ben asked, kneeling by his son and gently turning him over.

“Thanks for the rescue,” Joe croaked. “Pity you didn’t arrive sooner.” The ghost of a smile flitted across his face.

“Its sheer luck we arrived at all,” Ben replied, taking in the bruises on Joe’s face and the blood coming from both nose and lip. “Adam, get the canteen.”

The water helped revive Joe and he sat up with Ben’s help. Everything hurt, but Joe didn’t think there were any bones broken. He knew that he would have a motley collection of bruises to show for his afternoon’s work. “Feeling better?” Ben asked.

“Yes, thanks,” Joe replied.

“What happened?” Adam asked, eyeing Joe keenly.

“I saw them here, when they should’ve been on the South Forty,” Joe replied. “I thought they’d got lost again, but Simon pulled a gun on me.” He shrugged and bit back the wince that rose to his lips. “The rest you pretty much saw.”

“I wonder what they was up ta,” Hoss murmured.

“You got me,” Joe replied.

“Well, whatever it was, we’ll keep an eye out for them,” Ben responded. “I hated to let them go, but there were more of them than us. Think you’re all right to ride, Joe?”

“I’ll be fine,” Joe assured him and tried another smile. It was slightly more successful than its predecessor. He allowed his brothers to help him to his feet and was grateful for the arm that Hoss kept around his waist while he regained his equilibrium. Ben watched critically as Joe was helped onto his horse, but he could see that Joe, while sore, was quite capable of riding. However, Ben kept the pace slow as they headed for home.

*****

It didn’t surprise anyone that Joe opted for an early night that night. A hot bath had done a lot to loosen stiff muscles, but it was clear that Joe was sore. However, he joined in with the speculation about what the five men had had in mind. Finally, Ben shrugged. “Well, unless we have the misfortune to come across them again, we’ll probably never know,” he admitted. “I’ll pass the word to the others to keep an eye out for them.”

“I think I’ll go to bed,” Joe added, and got stiffly to his feet. He waved away offers of help and walked quite smoothly upstairs.

As he undressed, Joe looked at himself in the mirror and winced as he saw the dark bruises on his ribs. His face felt lumpy and stiff and his right eye was circled by a rainbow of colors. Luckily for Joe, it wasn’t too badly swollen. “Guess I got off lightly,” he told his reflection. His reflection didn’t look convinced. Joe climbed into bed and fell asleep in an instant.

*****

The next day dawned clear and cloudless and Joe was at the table just a few minutes after his brothers. The discomfort his bruises had given him the night before was wearing off and he had no trouble convincing his father that he was able to go to work. “We’re five men down,” he reminded Ben when it was suggested that he have an easy day. “And the fence on the north range won’t repair itself, Pa.” Joe had been checking on it the previous day when he had fallen foul of Jason, Simon and co.

“All right,” Ben capitulated. “Can you manage alone?”

“I think so,” Joe replied.

“If we get a move on this morning, Hoss and I can go up and help Joe finish after lunch,” Adam suggested.

“Thanks, that would be good,” Joe agreed. He finished his meal and went out to put the things he would need on the buckboard.

“Looks like it’s going to be warn today,” Ben commented, eyeing the sky as he came out to bid Joe goodbye.

“Sure does,” Joe agreed, with feeling. He knew he would be working in the full blaze of the sun and he checked that he had a couple of canteens with him. He was close enough to a stream to refill his canteen if need be, but if he had two to work with, he wouldn’t need to have a break to refill them quite as often. “See you later, Pa.”

“Be careful,” Ben warned him, as he always did. Joe waved in response.

*****

When Joe arrived at the north range, he dropped off the timber he would be using in strategic places along the length of the fence before tethering the team in the shade and setting to work. For the most part, Joe was doing a virtual rebuild of the fence. This high, the snow was deep in the winter and every summer, the fence was broken down. Joe felt he could’ve built the fence in his sleep, he had done it so often.

After a while, Joe stopped, took off his shirt, hat and gun belt and dropped them on the buckboard seat. He took a long drink and tipped some of the water over his head. It felt great and he shivered momentarily as a few cold drops ran down his bare chest. He resumed working.

It was well into the morning when something caught Joe’s attention out of the corner of his eye. Pausing, he glanced around and saw to his horror a plume of smoke rising about the trees. Fire!

Habit had Joe dropping his hammer and turning to jump onto his horse, but even as he turned, he remembered that he was there with the buckboard and team, not a horse and by the time he got anywhere near the fire, it, hopefully, would be well under control. Up at the north range, there was precious little Joe could’ve done to help anyway. He paused, irresolute, wanting to go and help fight the fire, but realizing that he was too far away. Finally, he walked back to the fence and picked up his discarded hammer. But although he worked as diligently as he could, the smoke was a constant distraction.

Gradually, the smoke began to thin and Joe was relieved to see evidence that someone had seen it and was now dealing with the blaze before it could consume too much timber. He could smell the smoke on the air as the breeze moved it in his direction. Content that his help wasn’t needed, Joe applied himself to his fence mending with renewed determination. He hoped that only the larger bits would remain for Adam and Hoss to help him with after lunch.

That thought made Joe pause, for he suddenly realized that it might be quite some time after lunch – if at all – that his brothers would arrive. The fire would hold everyone up. Resolutely, Joe shrugged and continued working.  But then he paused. He thought he could hear… Joe strained his ears, putting down the hammer again, and took a few steps away from the fence, frowning. He could hear the thunder of hooves and for a moment, he thought that it was a stampede, but the herd was far from where he was.

But only some of the herd was far from where Joe was. Some of them – Joe estimated about 20 head – were thundering up the hill towards him, being chased along by five men on horseback. His heart sank as he recognized them as Jason, Phil, Simon, Mikey and Steve. He turned to make a run back to the buckboard for his gun, but he was too late. Simon had spotted him and a bullet bit into the ground near his foot as the cattle turned away from the mostly-repaired fence, slowing as they did so. There wasn’t enough broken down fence to allow them to get through.

“We meet again,” Simon sneered as he stopped his horse a few feet away from Joe.

“And I like it less every time,” Joe replied. “So that’s what you were doing yesterday; making sure that the fence wouldn’t stop the cattle you were planning on rustling.”

“That’s it,” Jason agreed. He got down and moved closer to Joe, although not close enough for Joe to try anything. “We sure worked you over good yesterday, didn’t we?” he laughed. Joe glanced down at the bruises dotting his chest and stomach.

“I’ve had worse,” Joe remarked, knowing it would aggravate them, but unable to stop himself. He gestured with his head to the cattle milling about aimlessly. “If you don’t go catch your cows, they’ll make their way back to the herd,” he mentioned sarcastically. “Or have you decided to forget them for now?”

Enraged, Jason gave Joe a shove. Joe staggered back and bounced off the fence.

“We don’t have time for this,” Simon announced, glancing over his shoulder as Jason and Joe exchanged sharp looks. “The fire’s out and I thought it would take a bit longer to get under control. Let’s forget the cattle for now. We don’t have time to rip down the fence, round them up and drive them away. They’ll catch us. We were seen, remember.”

“What do you want to do about him?” Jason asked.

“Shoot him!” Steve laughed.

“I’m tempted,” Simon agreed, watching Joe to see how this news would affect him, but Joe kept his face sober. “But we don’t want them hunting us down for murder. Let’s just tie him up and someone will set him loose eventually.”

Instantly, Joe knew he wasn’t going to quietly submit to being tied. Simon was malicious and a bully and Joe knew that anything Simon planned would not be pleasant. If there was someone coming after them, it probably wouldn’t be long before they arrived, but Joe couldn’t be sure of that. He took to his heels.

He didn’t get far. Immediately, he could hear hooves after him and moments later a body landed heavily on Joe’s shoulders, driving him to the ground. Joe fought as best he could, but he no more chance against the five of them than he had had the previous afternoon. Dazed, Joe was barely away as he was dragged up against the fence, his back to a stout post. His arms were pulled out from his body and tightly bound to the rails and a loop of rope that was attached to his wrists went around his throat so that he couldn’t move at all.

“So long, Cartwright,” Simon whispered, leaning in close to look in Joe’s face. He punched the helpless man in the stomach, laughing as Joe choked as his body involuntarily doubled over as far as it could go. By now, they could all hear hooves in the distance, coming ever closer. Simon jumped on his horse and they all rode off, leaving Joe alone.

*****

It was imperative that he didn’t struggle, Joe thought. If he pulled at the rope on his wrists, he would choke himself and the rope round his throat was tight enough already, thanks to that punch. He brought one knee up, pushing himself back against the fence, but the muscles in his leg were trembling, thanks to the pounding he had just taken. A burning sensation was starting to creep along his arms and his head was throbbing. “Hurry,” he whispered to whoever was coming his way.

The cattle were no longer milling about anxiously, but were beginning to calm down and start grazing. Joe just hoped that the appearance of the riders that he could hear coming wouldn’t startle the spooked animals again, because if they should stampede, he would be in a lot of danger. Joe swallowed with difficulty, feeling the rope rasping over his Adam’s apple. His mouth was as dry as a desert.

It was another few minutes before the first rider came into view and immediately slowed their horse, putting up a hand to warn the others following. With a vast amount of relief, Joe recognized Hoss. He willed his brother to look in his direction, for shouting was beyond him.

“Here’s them cows,” Hoss called back over his shoulder and Joe saw Adam ride up, along with several hands.

“Joe should be here somewhere…” Adam said. Their voices carried easily over the still air in the meadow. He glanced around and spotted Joe immediately. “Joe!”

Those moments were probably the most dangerous of all for Joe. The relief that he had been found caused his body to start slumping as the tension began to ebb away. But as that happened, he slid down slightly and began to choke anew. Desperately he fought, but that only made things worse.

But he wasn’t alone. Moments later, he felt someone’s arms around him, holding him up and he opened his eyes to look into Adam’s concerned face. “Easy, Joe,” Adam urged. “You’ve got to keep still so we can help you.”

“Keep still,” Hoss urged and Joe felt something cold against his neck. His absolute trust in his brothers allowed him to keep still as Hoss slid his knife blade under the rope round Joe’s neck and gently cut through it. The relief was immediate as the pressure vanished and Joe slumped down even further. It took only seconds before his arms were cut free, and Adam laid Joe gently on the grass.

“Get some water,” he told Hoss curtly. “Joe, are you all right?” He began to rub some life back into Joe’s arms. The returning circulation made Joe wince slightly, but it was a huge improvement over the burning he had been suffering before.

“I’m okay,” he whispered. He heard Hoss returning with the canteen and gulped eagerly at the cool water. “Thanks,” he added, as he finished. He leaned back against Hoss’ broad chest.

“What happened?” Adam asked, seeing that Joe did look better after the drink.

“Simon and company again,” Joe replied. His voice felt raspy and his throat was sore. A hand strayed up to feel his neck, but Adam prevented him. “They set that fire and were going to drive the cattle through this fence, but I’d repaired too much of it.” He reached for the canteen again.

“We’d better get Joe home,” Adam decided. He rose and walked away and a few moments later, Joe could hear him giving orders to the hands. He closed his eyes briefly, suddenly exhausted. He opened them as Adam came back. “Think you’re up to riding?” Adam asked. “Fred will bring the buckboard back; you can have his horse.”

“I can ride,” Joe croaked. Hoss and Adam helped Joe to his feet and Adam went to retrieve Joe’s shirt, hat and gun belt while Hoss kept a close eye on Joe. Apart from a few winces, Joe kept his feet quite easily, which reassured the big man. He had felt his heart contract when he spotted the way Joe was trussed to the fence.

“Here you go,” Adam said, plonking Joe’s hat on at a rakish angle. He slid a sleeve carefully over Joe’s wrist, pulled the material over his brother’s shoulders and up the other arm.

“I can dress myself,” Joe protested mildly.

“I’ll believe you,” Adam responded dryly and handed Joe his gun belt, which the younger man buckled around his slender hips. He stayed close as Joe walked across to Fred’s horse, and watched while Joe mounted and got settled. Then, convinced that Joe wasn’t going to black out, he mounted his own horse and they set off for home.

*****

 If Ben had been angry the previous day, it was nothing compared to his fury when his sons arrived home. His anger was further fuelled by Joe’s appearance and every wince or cough just fanned the flames even higher. Tenderly, he helped Joe into the house and made him sit down on the settee, although Joe protested the whole time that he was all right.

“We’ve got to report this to Roy,” he declared. “And I think the doctor should take a look at you, Joe.” His warm hand lingered too close to Joe’s neck for the young man’s comfort and he moved uneasily. He didn’t know that there was a huge rope burn on his neck, but it was sore enough that he didn’t want anyone accidentally touching it.

“I’m okay,” Joe protested, but it might have convinced everyone more if his voice hadn’t cracked slightly at the end.

“You have to talk to Roy anyway,” Adam pointed out calmly. “You were the one that Simon told about setting the fire.”

“I’ll talk to Roy,” Joe agreed, wearily. He rose to his feet and stifled a wince. He had yet more bruises to add to the collection he had received the previous day. He walked slowly out to the yard and waited obediently as Hoss saddled Cochise for him. All too soon, they were riding into town.

*****

“We’ll git up a posse tomorra an’ go lookin’ fer them,” Roy promised. “I can hardly believe it. Those boys always seemed all right, compared to some of ‘em.” He twinkled a joking look at Joe, who smiled tiredly. But it was true. Simon had always tended to be something of a bully, but Jason usually kept him under control. Mikey was a follower and a whiner, but all right. None of them had ever got into serious trouble and it was because of this reputation that Ben had hired them.

“I know,” Ben sighed. He saw the tiredness on Joe’s face and decided that it would be a good idea to get Joe to the doctor and then home. He had had a hard couple of days. “We’ll be keeping our eyes out for them, too.” He rose and his sons rose along with him. “Thanks, Roy.”

There was a light on in Paul’s surgery and Ben took Joe’s arm to steer him over that way. Joe didn’t bother to resist – he knew an immoveable object when he met one.

It didn’t take Paul long to establish that no permanent damage had been done to Joe’s throat or vocal cords. He was quite bruised by then, and the rope burn looked red, so Paul bandaged it gently, along with the burns on Joe’s wrists. “Go home and rest,” he ordered. “Keep the bandages on for a couple of days, till we make sure no infection sets in, but you’re fine, Joe.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied, gratefully. He steered Joe out into the waiting room where Adam and Hoss were sitting. He gave them both a smile and even before he spoke, they knew that Joe was going to be all right. “He’s fine, boys,” Ben reassured them. “Let’s go home.”

*****

“…So keep an eye out for anything suspicious,” Ben concluded. He watched as the men gathered around him nodded and mumbled agreement. He had been warning them about their erstwhile colleagues. At least, he thought as he dismissed the men, he hadn’t had to give descriptions of the men. The hands all knew each other.

Turning to his sons, who were standing together by the corral, Ben raised his eyebrows. “Have you no work to do?” he enquired, in a tone that suggested that ‘no’ would be the wrong answer.

“Sure do,” Hoss agreed and moved off with alacrity. He was more than happy for Adam and Joe to talk to Ben.

Raising his eyebrows, Ben waited. Sure enough, Adam immediately began to speak. “We should ride up and warn the timber crews, too, Pa,” he suggested. “The fire yesterday didn’t do much damage, because it was spotted in time. But if the men are busy, they might not notice another one as soon. They need to be alert, too.”

“I suppose they do,” Ben agreed. “And you two thought you’d go and do that, did you? Very commendable, sons.” He hoped that he had hidden his amusement from them. Their motive was so transparent.

The brothers exchanged a look. “Told you Hoss leaving would give us away,” Joe commented laconically.

“So you did,” Adam responded. “What do you say, Pa?”

“All right, go tell the timber crews,” Ben sighed. “But don’t spend all day looking for the others, all right? I would like you both do some work today. Joe, don’t overdo it, all right?”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Joe agreed, readily. Too readily, Ben thought. He knew that if by some chance Joe and Adam did meet up with the gang, overdoing things would not be on Joe’s mind at all! He watched them mount. “Be careful,” he called after them, although he hadn’t meant to say anything.

As Ben went into the barn to get his horse, an uneasy feeling crawled down his spine and it took all his determination not to go after them both.

*****

Riding out to the timber camps took longer than the actual explanations did. The crews agreed that they would keep a look out for the men, and the boss frowned thoughtfully. “I think I seen them men,” he muttered as everyone else went back to work.

“Where?” Joe asked eagerly.

“Let me think,” the man muttered and scratched his sweating, balding head. It was another hot day. Joe looked at Adam, but his older brother was watching the boss. “I know!” he exclaimed. “I seen them over by the Carson City road a day or so ago.” He pointed. “I’m sure it was them.”

“Thanks,” Adam told him, clapping him on the shoulder. “C’mon, Joe, let’s go.”

Joe didn’t need any urging. He was already mounting.

******

Silently, they rode towards the Carson City road. It took them about an hour to reach the place that they had been told about, where the gang had been seen.

Cautiously, they dismounted a short distance away and tethered the horses securely. Wordlessly, Adam drew his gun and glanced round to see that Joe had drawn his, too. He nodded. Joe returned the gesture and they made their way over to the campsite.

Separating, they eased their way through the foliage. Adam felt a twinge of worry as Joe disappeared from his sight. True, Joe had not been badly hurt in his last two encounters with these men, but Adam was not naive enough to think that this pattern was bound to continue. If something was going to happen, it usually happened to Joe.

There was a sudden cry and Adam felt a lurch in his gut. He dived through the concealing foliage and discovered that Joe’s cry had been of frustration, not fear.

“They’re gone!” Joe exclaimed in disgust.

“So I see,” Adam retorted in equal disgust. “You do know that I thought they had attacked you again? When you shouted a minute ago, I thought they were here.” He drew a deep breath, trying to calm himself. It was the mingled fear and relief that were causing him to lose his temper. He couldn’t prevent giving his youngest brother a glare.

“I’m sorry,” Joe replied, contritely. “I didn’t think. I was just so frustrated that they’re gone.”

“I know,” Adam nodded, placing a hand momentarily on the back of Joe’s neck. “And I didn’t mean to jump all over you.”

“What are we going to do now?” Joe asked as Adam holstered his gun. “Just go home?”

“Why don’t we let Roy know what we found?” Adam suggested. He was as disappointed as Joe that they had found the gang’s encampment too late.

“All right,” Joe agreed. They made their way back to the horses.

*****

“You’re very quiet,” Adam noted as they reached the outskirts of the town.

“I was just thinking,” Joe replied. “These guys are looking to rustle some cattle, so they must have somewhere in mind to stash them.”

“Uh-huh,” Adam nodded cautiously, wondering where Joe was going with this.

That was all the encouragement Joe needed. “Why don’t we start looking in the most likely places?” Joe urged, enthusiastically. “After all, we’ve lived round here long enough to know the best hiding places.”

“Joe, that could take forever,” Adam admonished. “We could spend the rest of our lives doing that.” He saw Joe’s face fall. “Besides, what do you think Roy has been doing?”

“I don’t know what Roy’s been doing!” Joe shot back. “But Roy is only one man, Adam. He can’t be everywhere at once. He’s needed in town, too.”

“Well, I suggest that we find out what Roy has been doing first, before you shoot off on one of your little adventures,” Adam replied, sarcastically. “After all, you’ve come off worst both times you’ve met them and needed us to help you out.”

He regretted his sarcastic words at once. “Don’t you think I know that?” Joe retorted, his face showing all too clearly his hurt at Adam’s words. “I was just suggesting that we do something to help Roy out. But fine, you please yourself, Adam! After all, we all know you’re always right!” He urged his horse into a quicker gait.

“Joe! Dammit, don’t go off mad!” Adam called after him, but he might as well have been spitting into the wind for all the effect his words had on his brother. Cursing under his breath, Adam urged Sport to a lope.

*****

It was rather a relief for Adam to see Joe dismounting in front of the sheriff’s office as they had planned. Joe waited for Adam to dismount and they went into the office together, but Joe resolutely refused to look at Adam and said not a word. Adam knew he would have to talk to Joe to sort things out between them, and soon, but he didn’t want to do it in public, or in the sheriff’s office.

Roy Coffee, the sheriff, was buckling on his gun belt as the Cartwrights entered his office. He looked up, then smiled a welcome. “I jist sent someone out ta speak ta you folks,” he announced. He glanced past them, clearly expecting to see Ben and Hoss, too. “Ain’t yer pa with ya?” he enquired.

“No, just us,” Adam replied. “We were coming to tell you that we found the place where that gang had been camped, but they’ve gone.”

“I sent someone out ta tell ya that we think they’ve done another ranch yesterday. Same pattern as they used on yer place,” Roy explained. “They set a fire first, then stole a bunch of cattle.”

“Any leads?” Adam asked.

“Reckon so,” Roy replied. “Ya fellas wanna come along?”

“Sure do,” Joe agreed before Adam could say anything. He shot Adam a glance.

Before Adam could react, there was a thunder of hooves outside and Roy dashed over to the door and threw it open. Clem Foster, Roy’s deputy, was just getting down off his horse. “Roy! We’ve spotted them on the outskirts of town! They haven’t seen us, and the posse’s keepin’ them under surveillance. Hurry!”

He didn’t need to add that last word, as Roy was already hurrying towards his horse. Joe thought vaguely that he had never seen Roy moved so quickly, but the thought was nebulous and swiftly lost as he mounted his own horse.

They went by a roundabout route to avoid alerting the men they were chasing. Adam tried to get Joe’s attention to talk to him, but Joe was deliberately blanking his older brother and Adam finally gave up. Shouting back on forth on a horse was not the way he wanted to straighten things out.

Stopping at the side of the old feed store, they left the horses there and went on, on foot. The deserted livery stable – out grown when the mines hit silver – gave them shelter as they crept forward.  About 100 yards away, the men were sitting under a tree, talking.

“Bet they’ve got the cattle hidden in Dry Creek Canyon,” Joe whispered and was gratified to see Roy nod in agreement. Dry Creek Canyon was close to town, but only local kids went there to play sometimes.

“Let’s move out,” Roy suggested.

“Joe, be careful,” Adam said, as Joe followed in Roy’s wake.

For a moment, Joe looked at him. “And you,” he replied, although his tone did not yet have the warmth that Adam was accustomed to hearing.

It wasn’t really enough, Adam decided as he, too, followed Roy. But it was all they had time for and would have to do.

*****

Given the lack of cover, it was no surprise that the posse was spotted at once. Jason, Phil, Simon, Steve and Mikey all leapt to their feet and made a dash for their horses. Phil made it as far as his saddle, but by then, gunfire was being exchanged and Phil stopped a bullet. As he dropped from his saddle, the other horses broke free, spooked by the repeated firing so close by, and took off.

 Simon took a shot at Roy that blew the sheriff’s hat off and fled into the trees. Jason followed close on his heels. Seeing this, Joe veered off to go after them, and Adam raced after him. He momentarily lost sight of Joe amongst the trees and when Adam did spot him again, he was in time to see Simon appear out of the trees and swing his gun down onto Joe’s head. Silently, the youngest Cartwright toppled to the ground.

“Joe!” Adam cried and heedlessly dashed to his brother’s rescue, forgetting that there was another suspect in those trees. He fired wildly at Simon, knowing that his aim was erratic and Simon ducked, grabbing Joe. Next moment, a gun butt crashed down onto Adam’s head and he fell to the ground, the world spinning crazily.

He could hear crashing all around and somehow forced himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the nearest tree for support. He glanced towards where Joe had been lying and realized that his brother was gone! Turning too swiftly, Adam almost lost his precarious hold on his balance, but somehow managed to right himself. He staggered from the trees in time to see Simon and Jason dragging Joe into the old livery stable. Adam took a step after them and crashed to the ground, out cold.

*****

“Tie him up!” Simon ordered Jason as he barricaded the doors. They were both panting, but unscathed. Joe lay in an unconscious heap on the ground where they had thrown him. There was blood matting his chestnut curls. Jason snatched up a length of discarded rope, briefly tested it for soundness, and used it to tie Joe’s hands and feet.

As Jason finished tying Joe, he glanced at Simon, who was prowling about the building. “What do you think?” he asked.

“I think we should get into the loft,” Simon replied. “We can defend it more easily. Take that rope – it’s long enough that we can lower ourselves to the ground. But they can only get up into the loft by this ladder. Throw Cartwright up there, too. He’ll be useful as a hostage.”

“I like your thinking,” Jason replied, with a wolfish grin. Between them, they maneuvered Joe into the loft and set about rigging the rope for their escape.

*****

“Adam, can ya hear me?”

“Roy?” Adam murmured, recognizing the voice that pulled him from the all-enveloping blackness. He struggled to sit up. “What happened?”

“I reckon ya must’ve got conked on the head,” Roy replied, once more wiping away a trickle of blood from Adam’s cheek.

“Joe!” Adam remembered and tried to get to his feet, but a wave of pain from his head hammered him back to the ground. “They’ve got Joe!”

“I know,” Roy replied, grimly. “They’ve holed up in the old livery.” He exchanged a glance with Clem. Now, they had a hostage situation to deal with. Roy hated that, as the hostage seldom survived.

“Joe!” Adam whispered, anguished. One thought beat through his mind; they hadn’t properly made up their quarrel.

*****

Slowly, Joe opened his eyes. The world swam in front of his eyes for a moment before his focus finally sorted itself out. His head was thumping and when he tried to move, he discovered that he was bound hand and foot. Squinting, Joe lifted his head and peered around him. What he saw made no sense; he seemed to be in a hayloft. How had he got there? Turning his head a bit further, he saw Simon and Jason crouching by the big doors usually used to bring hay bales into the loft. Memory came racing back to him and he couldn’t stifle a groan.

Hearing the groan, Simon rose and walked over to Joe, standing over him and gazing impassively down. Joe fought to keep his expression neutral. “So you’re awake,” Simon remarked. “Don’t try anything, Cartwright. I’ll kill you as soon as look at you; just remember that!” He brandished his gun.

The only answer Joe could think of to that wasn’t the wisest one, so he kept it to himself, contenting himself with holding Simon’s gaze until the other man turned and walked calmly away. At once, Joe began to struggle against his bonds. He watched his captors all the time, immediately ceasing his struggles if one of them began to turn round.

But neither Simon nor Jason were overly interested in Joe at that point. They were too busy watching the goings-on outside through a gap in the big doors. “Look!” Jason exclaimed. “There’s Ben Cartwright!”

“Might have known he’d show up,” Simon remarked, disparagingly. “Aw, look; he’s kneeling beside Adam. Ain’t that sweet? Daddy’s worried about his little boy!” He laughed.

The relief that Joe had felt at the sound of his father’s name died away. Adam! What had happened to Adam? Fear lanced through Joe’s heart.

******

“I’m all right, Pa,” Adam insisted. The unfocused gaze told his concerned father a different story. Adam was, at the very least, concussed. He gently restrained his oldest son.

“I’m sure you are, son,” he agreed. “But you stay right there until the doctor says you’re all right.”

“But Joe!” Adam protested, trying to get up once more. A sideways tilt of the world kept him down.

“Let Hoss and I worry about Joe,” Ben instructed. “We’ll get your brother out safely, don’t worry.” He exchanged a glance with Hoss.

“We sure will,” he agreed. “An’ if’n ya don’ stay down there, I’ll sit on ya!” Adam gave a sort of laugh, which was reassuring to his family.

Just then, Doctor Paul Martin arrived and knelt by Adam. Ben hovered helplessly, but Paul was soon smiling up at him. “No skull fracture that I can feel,” he told the anxious father. “But he’s got a concussion. I’ll take him back to the office and he can rest more comfortably there.”

“No,” Adam objected. “I’m not going anywhere until I know Joe is safe.”

Before either Ben or Paul could say anything, Roy came up. “Ben, I’m gonna talk to them boys now. I figgered ya’d want ta come?”

“Yes, I do,” Ben agreed. He went with Roy and Paul let Adam stay where he was. Now that he knew the situation, he could see why Adam wanted to stay.

*****

“Here’s the sheriff comin’,” Simon hissed to Jason, who had been tormenting Joe by kicking him.

“You boys in there!” Roy shouted. “Put down yer weapons an’ come on out!”

“No way!” Simon shouted down. “Keep away!”

“One way or another, we’re comin’ in fer ya,” Roy told him. “Make it easy on yerself an’ give up now.”

“No!” Simon replied. He backed over to where Joe lay and swiftly cut the bonds on Joe’s feet. He yanked Joe to his feet and dragged him across to the door and threw it wider open. “If you value Joe Cartwright’s life, then back off!” he cried, holding his gun to Joe’s head.

Beside Roy, Ben gasped. “Don’t hurt Joe!” he begged. “He hasn’t done anything to you!”

“Back off and we won’t hurt him,” Simon informed him. “We want to get out of here, so get us some horses and we might leave Cartwright here. Try anything, and we’ll take him to pieces, one bit at a time.” He shook Joe and the injured young man groaned. The sudden movement had caused his head to start swimming again, and Joe was unaware of the blood that was dried all down his cheek. “Now back off! I don’t want to see you again unless you’re bringing us horses!” He dragged Joe back into the loft and threw him to the floor.

Outside, Ben turned to Roy. “Get the horses,” he instructed the sheriff. “Hoss and I are going to try going in the back.”

*****

“Think it’ll work?” Jason asked.

“I don’t know,” Simon replied, irritably. “But I tell you one think, Jase, I ain’t hangin’ around here to find out!” He glanced around. “It’s always worked before, so why not again now?” he mused aloud.

“Flames?” Jason asked, his eyes lighting up. A shared fascination with fire was one of the things that drew the two young men together.

“Sure. We set the loft alight an’ leave Cartwright here. We’ll make good our escape while they’re all trying to save him. Course, they won’t succeed.” He grinned broadly and Joe thought of the saying ‘beauty is only skin deep’.

“I like your thinking, Si,” Jason responded, also laughing.

Horrified, Joe tried to get his feet under him to get away, but Simon saw the movement and dived at Joe, grabbing him by the jacket collar and throwing a hard punch into Joe’s face. Joe gasped, but still struggled, so Simon did it again, but harder. This time Joe slumped down, not unconscious, but very close to it.

Dimly, he heard the others moving, and then the footsteps hurried off somewhere behind him. After a few moments, he heard the sound he most dreaded – the crackle of flames!

*****

“Smoke!” Hoss cried, pointing. He drew his gun and ran over to the barn, Ben, Roy and Clem right on his heels.

They threw open the small side door and through the smoke spotted Simon and Jason running towards the back of the building. “Stop!” Roy ordered. A bullet whistling past him was his only answer. None of them hesitated. Simon and Jason went down.

By then, the fire had a thorough hold of the old, dry, building. The loft ladder was already ablaze. “Get out of here!” Roy cried. He caught Ben’s arm. “Ben, ya can’t go in there! The whole place could collapse any minute!”

“But Joe!” Ben cried.

“Ain’t no use, Pa!” Hoss yelled over the noise of the flames. He coughed. “If’n we don’ git out, we’ll all die!” He used his brute strength to drag his father from the burning building. They knew that if either Simon or Jason had survived the shooting, they would have been overcome by smoke.

Outside, Ben fell to his knees, coughing and retching. His agony for Joe was complete. “Joe,” he whispered.

“Look!” At the shout, everyone turned and looked up, following Adam’s pointing finger.

*****

The crackling the flames provided Joe with the stimulus he needed. He fought his bonds, but to no avail. They were not going to move. “Think,” he urged himself. “Think!” He coughed. Suddenly, Joe knew what he could do and sat up, painfully threading himself through his bound hands. For a horrid minute, he thought he wasn’t going to be able to do it, but his natural athleticism helped him out and finally his hands were in front of him – a marked improvement.

A single glance at the ladder told Joe he would not be going down that way! The whole thing was engulfed in flames and as he watched, fascinated, they began to crawl over the floor towards him. He was totally unaware of the shooting from below; the noise of the fire was too intense.

There was only one hope and Joe went over to the door and paused. He didn’t care for heights and the thought of jumping from the loft was daunting. He took another step closer and salvation appeared. Joe saw the escape rope that Jason had rigged for himself and Simon.

Joe didn’t hesitate any longer. He could feel the heat of the flames growing with every moment. He grasped the rope firmly in both hands and swung himself out of the door.

*****

“Look!” At the shout, everyone turned and looked up, following Adam’s pointing finger. Silhouetted against the flames was a dark figure.

“Joe!” Ben gasped and rushed forward as his son jumped from the loft, convinced that Joe was going to fall to his death.

It took a moment before Ben realized that Joe was holding into a rope and his heartbeat slowed a fraction. But his relief was short-lived, for suddenly the fire burst through the door where Joe had been a scant few moments before and began to eat its way down the rope.

“Joe!” Ben screamed and rushed forward.

Feeling the sudden give in the rope, Joe glanced up and saw that it was giving way. He dropped a few feet quite suddenly and realized, with horror that he was going to have to jump for it. But there was no choice. Joe let go and plummeted to the ground, landing with a sickening thump. The flaming rope coiled down after him, missing him by some miracle.

By then, Ben was at Joe’s side, knowing he had to move his son to safety, but terrified that Joe was badly injured and moving him might make everything worse. Joe’s eyes were shut. Then other hands were there, and Ben saw that Paul Martin was taking charge and he knelt to help in any way he could. Together, he, Hoss, Clem and Paul lifted Joe and carried him across to where Adam lay. As they set the injured young man down, there was a loud crash from behind them as the barn caved in on itself.

“Joe!” Ben knelt by his son and gently stroked the blood-matted curls back from his son’s face. He was oblivious to Paul ordering a stretcher and Hoss slicing through the ropes that held Joe captive. All his attention was fixed on his son’s pale, unmoving features.

*****

The waiting was driving them crazy. Adam lay on a couch in the waiting room, a basin strategically placed by his side. He slipped in and out of an uneasy doze, his head still throbbing mercilessly. The bouts of nausea seemed to have abated for the moment, but he wasn’t too sanguine about them not returning. Adam had been concussed before.

Across the room, Hoss slumped in a chair that seemed far too frail to support his large frame. He had washed his face free of soot at some point and had tended to Adam when the sickness had hit. Now, he just waited, his anxiety printed all too clearly on his usually genial face.

Neither brother was able to find the words to reassure the other that Joe would be all right.

At long last, the door to the surgery opened and their father came out. Hoss was on his feet without realizing, his chair rocking from his precipitous exit. Adam, too, tried to rise, but as his stomach flipped over nastily, he aborted the movement. They both looked wordlessly at Ben.

“Your brother is awake,” Ben reported and saw the smiles beginning. “He’s got a serious concussion, as well as two broken ankles and a broken collarbone.”

“Is he going to be all right?” Adam asked. From inside the room, through the open door, he could hear Joe coughing.

“Yes, he’s going to be fine,” Ben replied, reassuringly. “He breathed in too much smoke, but Paul says his lungs sound clear. Come in and see him, and Paul wants to look you over, too, Adam.” He went over and helped his oldest son to his feet.

Inside the surgery, Joe lay on the examination table. He was incredibly pale, his shoulders bound in a figure-8 bandage and his right arm in a sling. The sheet that covered him was drawn back to his knees, allowing the still-wet plaster casts the chance to dry. There was a bandage round his head, similar to the one Adam wore. But he was awake, even if he wasn’t smiling. But the relief on his face when he saw Adam was evident.

“”You see?” Paul asked. “I told you he was fine. You’ve got to start believing me, Joe!”

For a few minutes, Adam and Joe just looked at one another as Hoss fussed over Joe, drawing a wan smile from his little brother while Paul checked Adam’s head. But apart from a few glances at Hoss and Ben, Joe kept his eyes riveted on his older brother, who made his way over to Joe’s side as soon as the doctor was finished with him.

“I never got the chance to apologize properly to you,” Adam said softly as he sat down by Joe, the ever-present basin on his lap.

“Nor I to you,” Joe agreed. He looked at the basin. “Is that for you or me?” he asked, for he had thrown up several times since wakening.

“Whichever of us needs it,” Adam replied. “We’ll share; how’s that?” He put his hand lightly on Joe’s arm. “I am sorry, Joe. I shouldn’t have jumped all over you like that.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Joe replied and coughed hollowly. He sighed, completely worn out. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper.” He moved his good arm and put his hand on top of Adam’s and squeezed gently.

After a moment, Ben gently intervened. “You need to get a little sleep, both of you,” he chided them. “Adam, there’s a bed prepared for you over there. Hoss, you get yourself a room at the hotel for the night.”

“What about ya, Pa?” Hoss asked, frowning.

“Your father will be joining you as soon as these two are settled,” Paul replied. He held his hand up as Ben started to protest. “My nurse is quite capable of wakening them every two hours during the night, Ben and you can get some rest while you can. Joe is going to need a lot of help for a while.” As if to reinforce that message, Joe leaned over and vomited into the basin on Adam’s lap. A moment later, his older brother copied him.

“I’ll help you clean this up,” Ben offered as he saw the resigned look on Paul’s face. “And then I’ll leave you to it.” Together, they cleaned the boys up and then Ben bid each one a tender goodnight.

With Hoss at his side to make sure he didn’t return to the doctor’s office, Ben went to the hotel for a much needed sleep.

*****

It was doubtful if any of them got much sleep that night. Ben was disturbed by visions of Joe silhouetted in the doorway against the flames, but in his dreams, Joe didn’t always escape. Hoss’ dreams were more nebulous than that, but woke him regularly all the same. Both Joe and Adam were wakened every couple of hours all night, and come morning, Joe was very cranky.

“I think he’d be better off here where I can give him the painkillers he needs when he needs them,” Paul argued when Ben suggested taking his sons home. “And it saves me a trip out to the ranch every day.”

For a moment, Ben wavered; he knew how busy Paul was, and the Ponderosa wasn’t exactly close by. But then his eye fell on Joe, who was saying nothing, but his face was pinched and white as he thought of being left behind in town. He knew his family would visit him every day, but it wasn’t the same as being home and Joe desperately wanted to go home. He wanted to sleep in his own bed and eat Hop Sing’s cooking. He didn’t want to be lonely and sick in town. He far preferred being lonely and sick in his own bed, where he knew he was only disrupting the daily routine a little bit.

Drawing Paul aside, Ben lowered his voice. “If this was Adam we were discussing, I’d agree, Paul. Adam would make the best of it and recover just as quickly here as he would at home. But this is Joe we’re discussing and I don’t think its best for him. He needs to have us as close by as he can. Yes, all right, we might not be in the house with him, but we’d be on the same ranch, and we both know that, mentally, that’s better for Joe. He’ll stay here if I insist, but look at him, Paul. I’m sorry, but I think it’s best if Joe is at home, under my eye. Hop Sing will keep an eye on the boy if we’re not able to be there. And it’s not as if I’ve never nursed a sick child before!” He rolled his eyes as he made this last statement, for heaven knows, Joe alone had required more nursing than both his brothers put together!

“You do realize that Joe will be completely dependent on you, Ben, don’t you?” Paul asked. “There’s very little he can do for himself.”

Smiling, Ben nodded. “And you do remember that Joe is left-handed?” he prompted. “He’ll be able to do enough for himself. Lord knows, he’s endured worse than this. At least this time he can pee by himself!” The burst of laughter from the doctor and Ben made all three sons look at each other, one quizzical eyebrow raised.

“I give in!” Paul spluttered. “Take him home! I’ll travel the extra miles and not count the cost!” He shook his head at Ben. “Its all right, I’m teasing. I think you’re right, Ben. I think Joe will be better off at home. I’ll give you some painkiller to take back with you, but be careful how you hand them out, all right? No more than one tablet every four hours.”

“I’ll be careful,” Ben promised. He turned to Joe, who still looked white and worried. “You’re coming home, son,” he told him and was rewarded with Joe’s brilliant smile.

*****

Joe’s recuperation was not completely straightforward. He found it frustrating not being able to get about alone, although he was extremely grateful that he only required minimal help with his personal bodily needs. To begin with, he had Adam for company, as his older brother recovered from the severe concussion he had received.  But once Adam was well again, Joe spent more time alone and he spent a lot of time thinking about the day he and Adam had quarreled.

With the passage of time, and the use of 20-20 vision in hindsight, he could see that Adam had only been worried about Joe’s safety. However, he had expressed it badly, and Joe had reacted badly. Neither of them had come out of the encounter with any laurels! The breach had been mended without any lasting recriminations and Joe vowed once more to think before he spoke or acted. Whether he would ever manage this miraculous feat he didn’t know, but he intended to try.

A couple of weeks later, Ben came and told him about the outcome of the trial. Mikey and Steve had both received long stretches in prison for rustling. “What happened to Simon and Jason?” Joe asked.

“They were shot,” Ben replied. “And we couldn’t get to them because of the fire in the barn. But when the bodies were recovered, we knew they were killed before the fire got to them.”

“I wondered,” Joe replied, quietly. “I can never forgive them, Pa. They left me there to die.” For a moment Joe was silent and Ben prayed fervently that God would give him the words he needed. “I was never friends with them, exactly,” Joe mused before Ben could speak. “We got on all right, I suppose, when we were kids in school. I was enough of a daredevil to earn their respect, I guess. They never bothered me. I suppose I was in trouble quite a bit.” He grinned at Ben after that admission. Ben grinned back. It was no secret that Joe had not been happy in school. An exceptionally clever boy, he had absorbed facts without noticing and relieved his boredom by playing pranks. Luckily, none of the pranks had been nasty, and almost every teacher had been charmed by Joe; apart from Miss Abigail Jones, who had seen Joe as a means to get to his brother Adam, and had not taken it too kindly when her wiles failed.

“You were pleased to see them when they came home,” Ben remarked, neutrally.

“Yes, I was,” Joe agreed. “But apart from Tuck and Seth,” Joe made a face at the mention of Seth’s name, “most of my school friends had moved on.” He sighed. “I guess I was just pleased to be able to help someone I knew. I suppose I colored those memories, Pa.”

“It’s sometimes hard not to color memories,” Ben ventured. “I find myself doing it, too. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Joe, I have a lot of good memories. But I sometimes find myself looking at people or situations through rose-colored glasses and sometimes we pay a penalty for fooling ourselves.” He hesitated for a moment, unsure if he should venture on, but he saw that Joe had already picked up that he had something hidden and was waiting for Ben to reveal what it was. This youngest son of his was all too quick to pick up on unspoken thoughts. “But I found out the other day that Simon had often set fires when he was young. His mother’s friend says he tried to set fire to her house one day after she had refused him another cookie. Luckily, she had caught the fire before it got going. Simon was whipped for it, and everyone assumed that his love affair with fire was over. Roy has been asking about Simon, and it seems that everywhere he went in those years that he was away from town, he had been around when there had been a major fire. Paul says there’s a word for the condition. Pyro – pyro-something. I can’t remember what it is. So it seems Simon was sick.”

There was a long silence as Joe assimilated this information. Ben watched him anxiously throughout. Joe was one of the strongest people he knew, but he wasn’t sure how his son would take this information.

“I can understand Simon was sick,” Joe said, at last.  He lifted his green eyes to meet his father’s dark gaze. “But I can never understand why he could have left me there to die. All right, we weren’t the friends I thought we were, but I couldn’t leave someone alone and helpless to die.”

“I know that, Joe,” Ben assured him, realizing that he was holding Joe’s good hand. “You could never kill a man in cold blood. None of my boys could.” He patted Joe’s hand. “I’m very proud of all my boys,” he whispered, suddenly close to tears with that pride.

As he lay down to sleep, Joe thought that he and his brothers had been incredibly lucky. Granted, others might not think so, given that each boy had lost his mother at a tender age. But they had had a father who loved them deeply and had shown them, by example as well as by word, how to behave. Joe hoped that one day, when he became a real grown-up, he would be just like his pa.

“I hope you’ll be a better man than me,” Ben whispered and Joe was startled to realize that he had spoken that thought aloud.

Sleepily, Joe reached out for Ben. “You’re the best father ever,” he replied as the flames of love fanned high in his heart.

***End***

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