Summary: Finding someone camping on the Ponderosa leads to a traumatic ordeal for Joe and Adam.
Word Count: 9954
“Hey, Adam,” Joe called, softly. “Come look at this.” He pointed down the slope from where he sat on his horse.
“What is it?” Adam asked, maneuvering his temperamental chestnut gelding up beside Joe’s pinto gelding. Sport, Adam’s horse, put his ears back and pulled a face at Cochise, Joe’s horse, but Cochise was used to his stable mate’s antics and simply ignored him. Adam curbed his mount’s desire to bite. “Well, what d’ya know?” he mused, rhetorically, looking down at a camp fire with someone sleeping beside it.
“Guests,” Joe replied. “Think we ought to go down and say hello?”
“Definitely,” Adam nodded. “It would be rude not to.” The brothers grinned at each other and turned their horses.
Adam and Joe Cartwright had been out looking at timber that day and were now having a leisurely ride home, enjoying the warm fall sunshine. The leaves were spectacularly colored and just starting to drop. The air was warm, but the wind held a cold edge, reminding the brothers that winter was on its way.
“So what do you think?” Joe asked as the horses picked their way down the hill. “Potential nester or someone passing through?”
“Impossible to tell,” Adam replied. “But we’ll find out in a few minutes.”
The camp site was quite simple, with just the small fire, the horse tethered a little distance away and the sleeping roll. Joe and Adam dismounted, and warily went across. Both were somewhat surprised that the man sleeping there hadn’t been wakened as they approached.
“Hey, mister,” Adam said, quite loudly, but there was no response. “Hey!” he repeated, but again, there was no visible response. Exchanging a look with Joe, Adam went over to crouch by the man. He pulled the bedroll back and gasped. “He’s been shot!” he declared. “Joe, get the canteen.”
Hurrying back to the horses, Joe snatched up his canteen and turned. He froze, for another man had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and had Adam in a strangle hold, with a gun pointing at his head!
“Slow an’ easy, kid,” the man warned. “Put down the canteen an’ drop yer gun.”
Slowly, Joe did as he was told, his eyes riveted to Adam, who seemed to be dazed. “What do you want?” Joe asked.
“I didn’ want anythin’,” the man replied. “Me an’ ma partner there was jist passin’ through. But you fellas jist had ta come an’ be nosey.”
“This is our land,” Joe replied. “We wondered what you were doing here.” He looked at Adam. “Are you all right, Adam?”
“Yes,” Adam replied, but his voice was hoarse.
“Well, you chose the wrong time ta wonder, kid,” the man replied. “Me an’ ma partner is jist gonna mosey on along when he’s feelin’ a mite better, an’ ya ain’t gonna stop us, ya understand?”
“What are you going to do?” Joe asked, his mouth dry.
“It’d be easy enough ta kill ya,” the man replied. “But that might git messy, an’ the law’s already behind us. I’ll need ta think on this a while.” He smiled and Joe thought that a shark’s smile would be warmer. “Git that rope off’n yer saddle, kid, an’ bring it here.”
“Why?” Joe asked, but his only response was a tightening of the choke hold on Adam. Immediately, Joe did as he was told.
“Give the rope ta this fella,” the man ordered, as Joe hesitated in front of him. “And then turn round, git down on yer knees an’ put yer hands behind ya.” He shook Adam. “An’ yer gonna tie his hands an’ feet, real tight, ya understand?”
“I understand,” Adam agreed, quietly. He looked at Joe. “Do as he says, Joe,” he advised. He met his brother’s eyes, willing Joe to see sense. They were too vulnerable to risk trying anything at that moment.
With a hard look at the man holding a gun to his brother’s head, Joe did as he was told, turning round and kneeling, placing his hands behind his back. He felt the rough hemp loop round his wrists and automatically tightened his muscles. But that ploy was not to go unnoticed and he received a swift kick in the backside. “Relax yer muscles, kid, an’ don’ try anythin’ like that again, or this fella gits it.”
Gritting his teeth, Joe forced himself to relax as much as he could and allowed Adam to tie his hands. The rope was secure, but not too tight. However, there was no way Joe would be getting free any time soon. He felt the rope winding around his ankles, drawing his feet tightly together. The end of the rope was dropped onto Joe’s legs and a hand gave him a push, forcing him onto his side.
Glaring furiously at his captor, Joe was forced to watch as Adam went over to his horse, retrieved his rope and was subjected to the same treatment. “Satisfied?” Joe snarled and the man came over to look down on him.
“Almost,” agreed the other, nodding. He went over to look at his friend, and then casually picked up Joe’s canteen to give him some water.
“We were going to help him,” Joe told the man.
“Being the good Samaritan, huh?” The man smiled. “Well, ya know what they say; no good deed goes unpunished.” He laughed.
“What are you going to do with us?” Adam asked. His calm voice belied his discomfort. His head was throbbing where he had been struck.
“Well now, I don’ know ezzactly,” the other replied. “We can’t go on until Bert is ready to travel, an’ he ain’t well right now. As I said, the law is after us, so ya might be useful ta keep around.”
“If we’re not home tonight, someone will come looking for us,” Joe threatened.
“So?” The man’s indifference set Joe’s teeth on edge. “That meant ta worry me, kid?”
“If I was on the run, it’d worry me,” Joe shot back. “What did you do?”
“Does it matter ta ya?” He shook his head. “Boy, ya sure talk a lot, kid.”
Shrugging as well as he could, given his position, Joe replied, “No, it doesn’t matter. The law will catch up with you anyway.”
Kneeling by Joe, the man gave a wolfish smile. “They ain’t caught up with me yet, kid. An’ I don’ intend them ta, either. Ya ain’t the first ta help me out by stickin’ around, an’ I don’ suppose ya’ll be the last, neither.”
“So you mean to kill us?” Joe asked and was pleased that there was no quiver in his voice. “Is that what you’re wanted for; murder?”
“Damn, kid, but ya got a big mouth!” the man growled. “Na, Bert an’ me’s wanted fer bank robbery. It jist so happens that the bank we robbed in Carson City had a clerk with a good aim, an’ he got Bert. But I got him. I couldn’t have anyone shootin’ Bert an’ gettin’ away with it.”
“Did you kill him?” Joe asked.
Shrugging indifferently, the man replied, “Probably. I hope so.” He saw the disgust on Joe’s face and laughed. “So ya think ya’re better than me, huh?”
“I’ve never murdered anyone, or robbed a bank,” Joe replied. Adam winced. Joe should have kept his mouth shut!
“Bet you never had anyone in the position yer in either, kid,” he retorted. “Ya should a kept yer mouth shut.” Grabbing the extra rope that was attached to Joe’s bonds, he pushed Joe over onto his stomach and hog-tied him. Joe struggled grimly throughout, but there wasn’t much he could do. He refused at first to open his mouth for the gag, but a savage backhand slap dazed him enough to allow the man to pry his mouth open, shove in a bandanna and tied another one around his head. Standing, the man looked down on him. “Perhaps ya’ll learn yer lesson now,” he commented and walked away.
“Joe.” Adam deliberately kept his voice soft, not wanting to attract any more unwanted attention. “Joe, are you all right?”
Horribly uncomfortable, but knowing there was nothing Adam could do to help him, Joe had little choice but to nod. He lifted an eyebrow questioningly, the only way he could ask Adam if he was all right. Joe didn’t know how much of a blow his brother had taken, but it had to have been pretty bad for Adam to have been overpowered like that.
“I’m okay,” Adam replied, the brotherly telepathy working. “It’s not that bad.” He screwed his head around to watch their captor, who was crouching by his unconscious buddy. Something about him was familiar to Adam, but his head was pounding and he couldn’t get his brain into gear.
At that moment, the man rose, wondered over to look gloatingly down at Joe before he disappeared from sight. Immediately, Joe began to work at his bonds, knowing that it was probably useless. His muscles were already aching from their cramped position. Adam worked his, too, but his ropes were much more tightly tied than Joe’s were. He soon slumped back, exhausted, as the pain from his head got worse.
Seeing Adam slumped down dejectedly, Joe renewed his efforts, but all he had to show for them was abraded skin on his wrists when his strength gave out. He rested his head on the ground, breathing noisily through his nose. Adam had his eyes closed, Joe noted worriedly.
That was how they were still lying when their captor came back. Adam’s eyes opened briefly and the man’s name came to him – Ted Thatcher. Adam had seen the wanted poster in Roy Coffee’s office a few short days before. It had just come in and Roy was perusing it. Adam had looked at it interestedly, never dreaming that he would meet the men in question. However, knowledge didn’t give him any more chance of escape than ignorance had. And they say knowledge is power, Adam thought, ruefully.
“Comfortable?” Thatcher asked Joe and laughed at the black look of enmity that Joe gave him.
“Please,” Adam said, softly. “Please untie him.” He wouldn’t ask for himself, but he would beg for his little brother.
“What’s it to you?” Thatcher asked.
“He’s my brother,” Adam replied. “Please, he’s in pain like that.”
“Yer brother, huh?” Thatcher mused, suddenly looking thoughtful. “That’s ma brother over there.” He pointed to the man by the fire. “An’ I don’ think he’s gonna make it.”
“I’m sorry,” Adam murmured. “We tried to help him.”
“Yeah, yeah, don’ go all soft on me,” Thatcher snapped. “All right, I’ll let him loose from the hogtie. But if he annoys me…” He didn’t finish his threat, but he didn’t need to. Both Adam and Joe understood him well enough. Thatcher leaned down and untied his handiwork, freeing Joe’s feet from his hands, but leaving the gag in place.
Sensing that it wouldn’t be wise to push it, Adam contented himself with a “Thanks.”
The hours ticked past as they lay there, watching Thatcher tend to his injured brother. It was obvious to them all that he wasn’t going to make it and somewhere about dusk, he died quietly between one breath and the next, without ever regaining consciousness.
There was no outpouring of grief. Thatcher simply drew the blanket over his brother’s face and rose to his feet. With one last, long look at his brother’s body, Thatcher walked away into the darkness.
Instantly, Joe began to wrestle with his bonds again, but the knots were as tight as ever and his muscles were sore from the enforced inactivity. When Thatcher returned some time later, Joe and Adam were still his prisoners. Adam was dozing lightly, something that he had been doing on and off all afternoon and evening.
“I gotta git some sleep,” Thatcher commented, and dragged Joe over to a tree, where he looped the rope around it several times and tied it off. He did the same to Adam, causing Joe to seethe. His brother wasn’t going anywhere. Couldn’t the man see that Adam was concussed?
Unconcerned by the black looks Joe was sending his way, Thatcher went back to the fire, threw on a few more sticks of wood, then lay down, wrapping himself in his bedroll. Judging by his snores, he was asleep in moments, leaving the Cartwrights to stare into the darkness, wondering what the next day held for them.
Come morning, Joe was sore, cold and tired. He had slept a little, but the discomfort of his position kept him from reaching a really deep sleep and the cold crept into his bones. He wondered if anyone would come looking for them that day, but doubted it. They had not been sure when they were going to get home and it might be yet another day before the alarm was raised. Would they still be alive then?
Swallowing against the hideous dryness in his mouth, Joe looked across at Adam, who seemed to still be asleep. Joe vowed to do everything he could to make sure that Adam was all right. It was an odd position for them, Joe mused. Usually, it was Adam who was protecting Joe, as he had the previous evening.
A stirring by the fire dragged Joe’s attention away from his brother and he looked at their captor covertly. Joe still didn’t know his name, as Adam had not told him the previous night. Joe wondered what would happen to them, as Thatcher looked over at Joe.
“Sleep well?” he asked, ironically, and laughed. “Guess ya must be gettin’ good an’ thirsty ‘bout now, huh?”
Much as he hated to admit it, Joe was parched. He nodded reluctantly. He desperately wanted to pee, too, but he was in no rush to tell this man that!
However, Thatcher wasn’t a complete monster, and he set about untying Joe from the tree. Before long, he had Joe’s ankles tied in a sort of hobble, that allowed Joe to take small steps, and then he retied his hands in front of him before taking out the gag. “Here,” he said, and handed Joe a small cup of water.
It wasn’t nearly enough to slake Joe’s thirst entirely, so the youngest Cartwright took his time, holding the water in his mouth for long moments before swallowing it. Even though it was stale and flat, the water was the best that Joe had tasted. Then Thatcher allowed Joe the privacy to pee, knowing that he wouldn’t go anywhere without Adam and hobbled the way he was. When Joe was finished, Thatcher made Joe sit down, then tied his bound hands to his thighs, so Joe couldn’t attempt to free himself.
Rousing Adam took long enough to worry Joe immensely. However, he was eventually sitting up and allowing himself to be tied in a similar way to Joe. He managed to smile across at his brother, but Joe thought Adam looked dreadful. His brother was pale and had huge circles under his eyes.
“I ain’t got enough grub ta feed ya,” Thatcher told them, as he cooked his breakfast. “An’ I got a long ways ta go. Ya fellas’ll have ta go hungry today.”
“What are you going to do with us?” Joe asked.
“I ain’t takin’ ya with me, if’n that’s what yer worried about,” Thatcher replied. “I found a place to stash ya last night. Someone’ll find ya there – eventually.” He saw the look on Joe’s face. “Say one word, kid, an’ I’ll blow yer brother’s head off. That please ya better?” The gun was in his hand.
Subsiding, Joe shot a look at Adam. He couldn’t take a chance with Adam’s life. They had no choice but to go wherever they were taken. Once they were alone, Joe vowed that he would manage to free himself and Adam and get them both safely home.
Eventually, the little camp site was tidied up and only Bert’s body remained. Thatcher seemed have blocked it out of his mind, for he made no effort to either take his brother along or bury him. He simply went about his business as though the corpse was not lying there.
When he was ready to go, Thatcher tied up Cochise’s and Sport’s reins and set them loose. He untied the Cartwright’s hands from their thighs and tied the ends of the rope to his saddle horn. “Let’s go,” he urged and mounted.
It was immediately clear that Adam wasn’t entirely steady on his feet and Joe did his best to support his brother with his bound hands. It was difficult and they both tripped over their hobbles repeatedly. Joe found it particularly hampering, as he tried to help Adam too, and he fell his whole length a number of times. At first, Thatcher stopped at once to allow Joe time to get to his feet, but after a while, he dragged Joe several feet before stopping.
When they at last came to a halt, both Cartwrights were exhausted. Joe was filthy, with scraped, bleeding places here and there. Adam’s head throbbed mercilessly and he thought he might be sick. He leaned unsteadily against Joe when they stopped.
“This is it,” Thatcher said and gestured towards a cave entrance, partially blocked with fallen rocks. “I’m gonna leave ya here.”
Hope flared through Joe’s heart. This wouldn’t be too hard to get out of, he thought. He fought to keep a smile from crossing his face. They would be home by nightfall!
Dismounting, Thatcher untied Adam’s rope from the saddle horn and led him over to the cave. The rubble came to about waist high and there was no way Adam could climb over it wearing the hobble. That didn’t deter Thatcher. He simply dragged Adam over the rough stones.
“Hey!” Joe cried in protest. “Don’t do that! He’s already hurt!”
“Shut up, kid!” Thatcher snarled as he gave Adam a vicious shove from the top of the pile. Adam vanished soundlessly into the cave.
“You’ll pay for that!” Joe vowed. “Whatever it takes, I’ll hunt you down and you’ll pay for that!”
Furious at Thatcher’s cavalier treatment of Adam, Joe threw himself at his captor as he returned. He used his bound hands to smash at Thatcher’s face, but to no avail. The slack in the rope wasn’t enough to allow him to fight freely, and Thatcher had few problems throwing Joe to the ground.
Undaunted, Joe launched himself at Thatcher again, but this time the other man stepped sideways and hammered his gun down on Joe’s head. Joe went down and out.
He didn’t feel anything as he was dragged across the ground, up the rocks and thrown into the cave. He didn’t hear Adam call his name as Thatcher followed Joe into the cave and bound his hands behind his back, viciously knotting the rope around Joe’s elbows, too. As a last piece of nastiness, Thatcher gagged Joe once more, kicked Adam for good measure and left.
The first thing that Joe became aware of was hands scrabbling at the back of his head. He moaned as pain hammered through his skull. He only remembered where he was and what was going on as Adam finally managed to loosen the gag. Joe spat out the wad of cloth in his mouth. “Thanks,” he breathed.
“Are you all right?” Adam asked, anxiously.
“Fine,” Joe assured him. His head was throbbing, but Joe was determined to keep that from Adam. He tried to lift his head, but a combination of the pain and the position of his arms stopped him. The strain across his shoulders was horrendous. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“I guess,” Adam replied. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Help me sit up,” Joe requested and he was soon sitting by Adam. “Is there any chance you could work on these knots?” Adam’s hands were still tied in front of him.
“I’ll try,” Adam agreed. “But I can’t really feel my fingers too well.” He began to fumble at the ropes.
It soon became clear that Adam wasn’t going to be able to untie the knots, and neither of them had their knives any more. “Guess we’ll have to do it the hard way then,” Joe remarked as cheerfully as he could. “You rest, Adam.”
He wormed his way across the cave until he came to the wall, where he sought around for a sharp edged stone. He eventually found one, and began to slow, laborious up and down movement to fray the ropes on the stone.
It took what seemed like hours and Adam was sound asleep by the time the strands parted and Joe’s hands were at last free. He had to sit rubbing his hands for quite some time to get the circulation going again before he was able to tackle the rope on his feet, but at long last, he was finally free again.
Grasping his stone, Joe stumbled across to Adam, discovering various small aches and pains on the way. “Adam?” he said, quietly, as he began to work the ropes. “Adam, can you hear me?”
“Joe?” Adam mumbled, slowly wakening.
“Yeah, it’s me, big brother. I’ll soon have you free and then we can get home.” Joe worked diligently and soon Adam was free. “Come on, Adam, I’ll help you up.” Joe was relentlessly trying to remain cheerful, but although Adam didn’t normally talk as much as Joe, he was abnormally silent, even for him.
“I don’t think I can do this,” Adam quavered, as Joe dragged him towards the entrance. “Joe…” Adam pushed his brother away as he leaned over and was comprehensively sick.
Assessing his brother, Joe realized that Adam was in no condition to walk home. Joe fought with his own stomach for a few minutes, for he felt quite queasy himself. He finally mastered his sickness, for the time being, and helped Adam sit down again. “You rest here, Adam and I’ll go for help,” Joe proposed.
“You aren’t any better than me,” Adam observed, seeing how pale Joe was and the huge lump that had risen on his head.
“I’m fine,” Joe denied. “I’ll be back soon.”
He didn’t dare linger, for Joe really didn’t feel any better than Adam. But he had vowed to get his brother home safely and that was exactly what he was going to do.
The first priority for Joe was to find some water. He had nothing to carry water in, but he thought if he drank his fill, it would temporarily quieten his stomach, which was rumbling and gurgling. Perhaps the cold water would help his headache, although Joe didn’t really think so. He blinked sweat out of his eyes, wondering why he was sweating so much when the wind was cool.
Knowing roughly where he was allowed Joe to guess where the nearest stream was, but it took him much longer than he expected to walk there and he was quite disturbed to see that it was afternoon when he reached it. So much for getting home tonight. Joe stumbled to his knees by the stream and dipped his face into the cool, refreshing water. His thirst was over powering, and Joe drank and drank, knowing he shouldn’t, but unable to stop himself. When he had finally drunk his fill, Joe dunked his head into the icy cold water.
Pushing back to his feet, Joe set off once more, heading towards home. He knew now that he was facing another night outside without the right equipment, but there was nothing he could do about it. Perhaps, if he was very lucky, he might come across one of the line shacks, but Joe wasn’t hopeful. He would have to detour to find a shack and time was of the essence.
He had been traveling perhaps half an hour after leaving the stream when the first of the cramps hit. One minute, Joe was walking along at a steady pace, the next, he was curled over, gasping at the pain that gripped his stomach.
It was only the first of many cramps. The second one hit a few minutes later, just about the time Joe had regained his breath and walked a few steps. This time, he vomited too, the water he had drunk coming back up. Over and over again Joe retched, until there was nothing left to come. Even then, he suffered through some dry heaves before he was able to stop, and he was slightly alarmed to see some blood when he wiped his mouth. It was just a broken blood vessel in his throat, caused by the violent vomiting, but Joe didn’t know that.
Pushing himself to his feet, Joe staggered on a few steps, one arm wrapped gingerly around his mid-section. He was sweating profusely now, and his headache was worse than ever. Lights danced on the edge of his vision, and everything was blurry. Another cramp struck, forcing Joe to his knees once more. He moaned aloud, curling over in the hopes that this would help the pain, but it made no difference.
After a time – it seemed like forever to the distressed young man – the cramp eased. Panting, Joe gradually relaxed his body, becoming aware that he was lying on his side on the grass. With a shaking hand, he wiped sweat from his brow, and then pushed himself upright. His head swam alarmingly, and Joe blinked owlishly as he looked around. “Damn, what’s wrong with me?” he muttered to himself. He couldn’t bring his vision into focus at all.
Rubbing his eyes, Joe blinked again, but it made no difference. He still couldn’t focus. “Don’t matter,” he told himself. “I gotta get help for Adam. Get on your feet, Cartwright!” He struggled to his feet and squinted at his surroundings to determine which direction he should be going in. Decided, he set off, his pace noticeably slowed.
The cramps set in ever more frequently and Joe was soon spending longer and longer lying on the ground in a daze while he tried to deal with the pain. Each time he ‘recovered’, he pushed on a bit further, but he was finding it harder and harder to keep going.
Looking up suddenly, Joe realized it was almost dark. He could barely make out any of the landscape around him. “Gotta find shelter,” he muttered. He thought he saw some shrubby trees up ahead, and decided they would do. Drawing on what was left of his reserves of strength and courage, Joe stumbled on.
It was only when the ground gave way beneath his feet that Joe realized that he must have strayed from his intended course. The shale slope was familiar territory to him, but it lay south of the route he’d been following in his mind. But there was no time to think of that. Joe’s feet were moving of their own volition and he lost his precarious balance, landing on the already moving slope going forward.
The next thing he knew, Joe was tumbling head over heels down the slope. A cry, drawn from his own lips, was the last thing he heard as pain consumed him.
“Yes?” Ben replied, turning round to look at Fred. “What is it, Fred?” Fred had been with the family a long time.
“I think I jist seen Mr. Adam and Little Joe’s horses,” he ventured, doubtfully.
“Oh good,” Ben replied, missing what Fred was trying to say completely. “I thought they’d be coming home today.”
“Ya don’t understand, sir,” Fred persisted. “I seen the horses, but they was alone, grazin’ in the pasture jist down the road.” He pointed in the general direction and Ben turned away from the corral where he had been looking at Captain, their prize stallion. The horse had been lame a few days before and Ben was checking to make sure that his leg was healing properly.
A small thread of alarm wormed its way through Ben’s stomach. “You’re sure the boys weren’t anywhere around?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” Fred replied. He bit his lip. “The reins was all tied up.”
“Get Hoss,” Ben instructed. “Meet me down there. Tell him to bring provisions and the wagon. Hurry!”
“Yes, sir,” Fred agreed and ran over to his horse. Ben mounted Buck and set him into a gallop.
“What d’ya think, Pa?” Hoss asked, as he looked at his brothers’ horses.
“I think they’ve run into trouble of some kind,” Ben replied, grimly. “Fred, take the horses back home, please. We’re going to look for them. You ready, Hoss?”
“Ready,” Hoss agreed, climbing onto the wagon seat.
They knew the general direction that the brothers had intended to travel, but beyond that, their only real hope of finding Adam and Joe lay in luck.
Wakening suddenly, Adam blinked and looked around. It was hours since Joe had left to get help and Adam was now beginning to feel a bit better. He wished he had tried harder to get Joe to stay with him, so they could go on together when they were both feeling a bit better. Rising, Adam went outside the cave to get some fresh air and wondered about setting off for home. Finally, he decided against it, because he knew Joe would bring help directly to the cave and it would be foolish to set off for home, miss his rescuers and cause a panic. But the enforced sitting and waiting didn’t please Adam. He finally set off to get himself some water and he also managed to find some late berries growing.
Even so, time ticked past horrendously slowly. Although feeling a good bit better, Adam was still suffering the effects of a mild concussion and he found himself falling asleep again in the late afternoon sunshine.
It was cold when he woke and he looked round, startled to find that it was almost dark. The sun was setting and he was in the shade. Adam shivered, wrapping his arms around his body and knew he would have to collect some wood for a fire and go back to the shelter of the cave. He did so slowly, feeling his head reeling as he bent down.
It took a few minutes to get the fire going, but Adam was grateful for its warmth. He sat just inside the cave entrance, watching the flames create dancing shadows on the walls. Had Joe reached safety? Even walking, he should have got home by now, Adam reasoned. Rescue should come in the morning. Sighing, he decided that he might as well give in to the waves of sleep that were threatening to overwhelm him. Lying down, he snuggled as close to the fire as he dared and closed his eyes.
A sound outside a moment later made him sit up, straining to hear. Just as he thought he’d imagined it, the shout came again. “Adam! Joe!”
“Pa!” he cried, scrambling to his feet. “Pa! Over here!”
“Adam!” Ben’s horse hove into view and a few moments later, Adam was safe in his father’s arms, with Hoss grinning at him as he got down from the wagon seat. “Are you all right, son?” Ben asked.
“I’ve got a bit of a headache, but I’m fine apart from that,” Adam assured him.
“Where’s Joe?” Ben asked and the smile left Adam’s face.
“I thought Joe had sent you,” he replied, slowly. “He left here hours ago to get help.” Adam looked helplessly at his father and brother as the implications sank in. “I knew I shouldn’t have let him go!” Adam cried. “But he told me he was all right! Why did I believe him?”
“Sit down,” Ben instructed his oldest son. “And tell me what happened.”
Slowly, in fits and starts, Adam told the story. Ben and Hoss exchanged grave looks when Adam stopped talking. They hadn’t seen Joe at all on the way and it was only because Hoss had seen the tracks that they had found Adam at all.
“Well, there’s nothing we can do tonight,” Ben said, finally. “It’s too dark. We’ll have to look for Joe in the morning. Hoss, get the blankets and food from the wagon. I think Adam is probably hungry.” He smiled gently at his oldest son. “Adam, stop blaming yourself. You couldn’t have stopped Joe from going, short of tying him up again. We’ll find him. I’m sure he’s all right.”
But as the night wore on, Ben slept very little, worry for his youngest son disturbing his sleep. Where was Joe?
Groaning, Joe lifted his head. It was dark and he couldn’t see further than a few feet in front of him, but he knew not to move. Just lifting his head had caused the shale slope he was lying on to shift under him. Joe had no desire to be carried down the hill and into the small river at the bottom. Drawing in a deep breath, Joe took stock of his situation.
He was lying on his stomach, with his feet higher than his head. He carefully lifted his hand to his head and probed gently. The ache remained and Joe could feel some rough areas under his fingertips that flared with pain as he touched them. So he had hit his head – again. Moving his legs caused pain to shoot up into his back, but Joe didn’t think his legs were broken. It was difficult to be sure, as he didn’t dare move them too much, in case he started another landslip. He knew he was lucky that he hadn’t gone into the river already. Sighing, he twitched his arms. His left arm worked well enough, but his right wrist hurt. After a little gentle poking, Joe decided it was just a sprain.
There was really no other choice but to stay where he was until daylight, but Joe wasn’t enthralled with the idea of spending the night there. He pillowed his head on his arms, and thought that at least the stomach cramps had quit.
The thought had barely passed through his mind when his stomach cramped painfully. Joe gasped, and drew his legs up slightly. The cramp was less severe than some of the earlier ones, but it was still bad enough. Joe instinctively tried to curl into a ball, and it took him several moments to realize that he was moving.
Desperately, he reached out to grab something – anything! – that would slow his descent, but there was nothing stable to hold onto. Slowly at first, then ever faster, Joe slid inexorably down the slope.
The second awakening was worse than the first. This time, Joe could feel the blood trickling down his face and he was soaked to the skin, lying face up in the river. Everything hurt and when he tried dragging himself out of the water, he failed. His body simply had no strength left.
Shivering helplessly, Joe simply lay there, thankful that his head was above the water, but tormented by the cold and by the pains that occasionally shot through his legs and back and the relentless stomach cramps that threatened to double him over and pitch him headfirst into the water. Joe knew that if that happened, he would drown. Once more, he made an attempt to drag his body from the river, but again he failed and slumped down, exhausted.
As he grew colder, Joe slipped in and out of consciousness and by dawn, he was no longer truly aware of his surroundings. The cold was sapping his dwindling strength faster and faster and even the sun, when it peeked above the distant horizon, couldn’t provide him with warmth.
Joe was dying.
Dawn saw the other Cartwrights up and getting ready to move. Adam was the only one of them who had slept properly. Hoss and Ben had spent large tracts of the night gazing into the darkness, worrying about Joe. Adam’s head injury, minor though it was, kept him asleep.
“I found some tracks, Pa,” Hoss told Ben. He pointed. “Could be Joe.”
“What aren’t you telling me?” Ben asked, seeing that Hoss couldn’t meet his eyes. “Hoss?”
Reluctantly, the big man met Ben’s eyes. “I followed ‘em a fer a bit,” he admitted. “An’ whoever it was ain’t too good. They’d bin sick.”
“Let’s go,” Ben suggested. “Come on, Adam, let’s get you into the wagon.” He tried not to hurry his oldest son, but his anxiety had communicated itself to the others and Adam scrambled into the wagon as fast he could.
Relinquishing Buck to Hoss, Ben got into the wagon seat and they set off.
The tracks were tricky to follow, as they didn’t go in anything approaching a straight line. They wavered and wandered all over the place. The evidence that whoever they were following was unwell was plain to them all and the anxiety grew.
Then they came to a place where the wagon couldn’t go. Hoss got down from Buck and followed the tracks on foot. Silently, Ben and Adam waited. Adam took a drink from the canteen, for he was still feeling the effects of not enough water the previous day.
“Pa!” The shout startled them both, but not as much as the sudden crashing noises that indicated Hoss was running towards them. “Pa!” Hoss appeared from between the trees. “I seen him! Quick!” He mounted Buck and spurred the gelding towards the river.
Perplexed, hoping, but disquieted by the look on his middle son’s face, Ben whipped up the team, and followed as quickly as he dared. As they broke into the open, Ben couldn’t see any sign of Joe at all. Hoss didn’t hesitate to point out his brother. He simply raced Buck to the river’s edge and threw himself from the saddle. It was only then that Ben saw Joe.
A ragged gasp from behind Ben told him that Adam had seen his brother, too, but Ben had eyes for no one but Joe at that moment. He drew the wagon to a halt and jumped down to kneel by Joe on the bank where Hoss had just laid him.
For a horrid instant, Ben thought Joe was dead. Then he detected the almost imperceptible rise and fall of Joe’s chest and his fingers sought Joe’s wrist to feel his pulse. “He’s alive!” Ben exclaimed.
“Barely,” Hoss grunted. He grabbed the blankets from the back of the wagon as Ben began to strip off Joe’s soaking clothing. Joe was so cold that he was no longer shivering. His flesh was tinged slightly blue and his fingers and toes were all wrinkled.
Before long, Joe was warmly wrapped in blankets and Hoss carried him to the back of the wagon. Adam climbed down and made his way up to the wagon seat, feeling guilty that he had allowed Joe to go off alone to get help. “Is he badly hurt?” he asked, as Hoss hitched Buck to the back of the wagon and Ben pillowed Joe’s head on his lap.
“Looks like it,” Hoss nodded. He jerked his head to the slope above them and for the first time, Adam saw the signs of someone sliding down it. “Looks like he might have broke his legs,” Hoss went on. “An’ maybe his arm, too. His head’s bin knocked about, as well.”
“This is my fault,” Adam lamented.
“No its not!” Ben denied. “Joe will be fine when we get him home and warmed up.” Ben crossed his fingers and said a prayer that Joe would be fine. He could feel a little warmth creeping back into his son’s body and he pulled off his coat and draped that over Joe, too. Joe had not moved, nor made a sound since they had found him. Ben was more worried than he cared to admit. There were dark bruises all over Joe’s body and Ben was terrified that the bruises indicated broken ribs, which might cause more injuries. The blood on Joe’s head might indicate a fractured skull. Even though he didn’t want to think of what might be wrong with Joe, Ben couldn’t stop his mind enumerating each possibility. “We’ve got to get him home!”
The journey seemed interminable. Ben kept his place on the wagon to allow Hoss to ride for the doctor. Adam protested that he could have done it, but Ben wasn’t having any of that. “You were hurt, too,” he chided Adam. “And I need you to sit with Joe.”
By now, Joe was warmer, but he still hadn’t regained consciousness. Occasionally, he mumbled something, or groaned when the wagon hit a bump, but apart from that, he had shown few signs of life. Ben was unable to articulate his worry, even to himself. To admit to his fears would be to validate them.
Cradling Joe’s head in his lap, Adam found himself praying hard. Joe had been injured going to get help for him. He was the older brother. He should have insisted that Joe stay and they could have made for home together. He knew Joe had had a bad knock on the head – a worse knock than he, Adam, had had. Yet Joe had somehow been able to pull himself together and set off for home. Where had that protective instinct come from?
“Wake up, Joe!” Adam begged in an undertone. “You’ve got to wake up!”
At last, the ranch came into view and Adam breathed a sigh of relief. Fred and a couple of other hands came to help the Cartwrights get into the house and to tend to the team. Ben carried Joe inside and laid him carefully on the bed. Then there was nothing else they could do but wait.
They didn’t have to wait for long. Paul Martin appeared a short while later and set about examining Joe with a grim expression on his face. “Joe’s got a sprained wrist,” Paul began, pointing to Joe’s right hand. “And a head injury, as you knew. I’m pretty sure he’ll have a fairly bad concussion, but until he’s conscious, I won’t know how bad it is. His right leg is broken just below the knee and his left ankle is broken. Apart from that, he’s still rather cold. Could we get hot bricks up to help him warm up?”
“Hop Sing is already heating them,” Ben told him, his voice flat. “Paul…Joe will be all right, won’t he?”
“I hope so,” his friend replied, soberly. “But he’s had a couple of good wallops on the head, Ben and you know the dangers as well as I do.” At that moment, Hop Sing arrived with the hot bricks, which were tucked at Joe’s feet and by his stomach.
For a time, there was silence, as Paul worked on Joe’s injuries. But after a while, Joe began to groan steadily and Ben moved closer, reaching down to brush the curls off Joe’s head. “Joe?” he questioned, softly. “Can you hear me, son? Open your eyes, Joe.”
He continued to coax Joe to waken and at last he was rewarded as Joe’s eyes slowly opened and he looked blearily at Ben. He seemed confused. “Adam…” he breathed. “Adam… hurt.”
“Easy, son,” Ben soothed. “Adam’s just fine. We found him.”
“Good,” Joe breathed and his lashes dipped again.
“Not so fast, young man!” Paul chided him. “You can’t go back to sleep. Joe, look at me.”
Reluctantly, Joe opened his eyes again. He licked his dry lips and Ben looked at Paul for permission before he gave Joe some water. As the youth started to gulp it eagerly, Paul hastily reached over to stop him. “Not too fast, Joe, you’ll be sick.”
Blinking, Joe forced a question. “Is that why… I was sick… before?”
“When?” Paul asked.
Slowly, Joe explained. Paul nodded soberly. He didn’t like to tell Joe the danger he had been in. “You were lucky those cramps weren’t any worse,” he told him. “That was the wrong thing to do, Joe, and I’m sure you realize that now.”
“I was so thirsty,” Joe whispered.
“I know,” Paul agreed. “But drinking too much too quickly is bad for you. Did you have blurred vision and start sweating?”
“Yes,” Joe agreed. He had started to nod, but the movement made his head spin and he was nauseous enough already.
“You were lucky,” Paul reiterated. “You could have done more than just chill your stomach.” He bent closer to Joe to look into his eyes and he asked a few more questions. “Well, your concussion isn’t as bad as I had feared,” he concluded. “Joe, next time, wait to be rescued.”
Smiling, Ben shook his head as he caught Joe’s eye. “Joe doesn’t know what the word ‘wait’ means,” he joked, relief flooding his soul as he realized his son would be all right.
As soon possible, Adam insisted that Roy Coffee be brought to the ranch so that Adam could tell him who it was that had held them captive. He explained to Roy about Bert Thatcher dying and Ben had already sent someone out to reclaim the body. There was already a wanted poster out for Ted Thatcher and Roy promised to wire to the neighboring towns to alert everyone that he was in the area. Roy didn’t think Thatcher would stay around, since the bank clerk had indeed died, but you never knew.
But somehow that didn’t seem enough to Adam. He pestered Roy to get a posse together and only backed down when Roy got annoyed enough to involve Ben in the argument. “Tell him, Ben!” Roy insisted. “Its bin too long! There ain’t no tracks left ta follow!”
“Roy’s right,” Ben agreed. “Adam, the time to track Thatcher with a posse was the day he left you and Joe in that cave. It’s been almost a week now. There are no tracks to follow and he’s long gone from here!” Ben shook his head. “You sound like Joe!”
“I’m not that bad!” Adam retorted, startled by the comparison.
“No?” Ben questioned and Adam reluctantly smiled.
“All right,” he allowed, ungraciously. “I suppose you’re right. But it’s so frustrating!” Adam spun around and started pacing. “He shouldn’t be able to just get away with this.”
“I agree,” Roy replied. “But he’s bin gone a week, Adam, an’ we looked fer him, an’ don’t let anyone tell ya otherwise. We looked all over fer him and there were no sign anywhere.” He sighed. “There ain’t no more I can do, Adam.”
Adam’s frustration was destined to go unrelieved. Thatcher seemed to have disappeared. Joe made a quick recovery from his injuries, but it was a few months before he was back to work. By then, they were into the quiet months of the winter, which allowed Joe more opportunity to rest when he felt he needed to, without worrying about the work falling behind. Ben was pleased and relieved to see his son making such a good recovery.
By spring, no one would ever have known that Joe had been so badly injured. He was as energetic as ever, relieved to be out of the house after a winter cooped up by snow storms. It was with a feeling of mild relief that Ben waved all three of his sons off as they headed for Sacramento to negotiate a deal with the cattle buyers.
The trip there was uneventful and they checked into their hotel just before a major rainstorm hit. They went to sleep that night listening to the rain battering off the windows and woke to the same sound.
“What a rotten day,” Joe grumbled over breakfast.
“So we’ll get a bit wet,” Adam replied impatiently. “So what? We get wet often enough at home.”
“Doesn’t mean to say I have to like getting wet, does it?” Joe retorted. “I hate getting wet.”
“Oh stop moaning,” Adam snapped. “We’re all in the same boat here.” The two brothers glared at each and Hoss heaved a martyred sigh.
“If’n ya two are gonna fight, I’m gonna knock yer heads together,” he warned them. “Ain’t none o’ us likes gettin’ wet, but there ain’t nuthin’ we can do ta change the weather.”
“You’re right,” Adam conceded and Joe nodded. “Joe, you go on over to the Cattle Association offices and I’ll meet you there when I’ve dropped the bid into the railroad offices. Hoss…”
“I know,” Hoss sighed. “I’ll go an’ check on the horses an’ git provisions for goin’ home.”
“You can do the negotiating if you want,” Joe protested, not wanting his middle brother to feel left out.
“No way!” Hoss declared vehemently. “I ain’t doin’ that! You two is more than welcome ta it!”
“Why you…!” Joe cried, as he realized that Hoss had been teasing them.
Grinning, Hoss rose to his feet and put one hand on Joe’s head, keeping his mock-irate little brother at arm’s length. Adam watched them tussle for a minute before they both gave up, grinning, and resumed their seats. The other patrons in the dining room were watching them, either with disgust or amusement. “Are you quite finished?” Adam asked, trying to sound disapproving, but neither brother rose to the bait.
“Guess we’d better go if’n ole Adam here’s gettin’ sarcastic,” Hoss confided to Joe.
“Good idea,” Joe agreed and the brothers left the hotel in complete amity, something that hadn’t been the case a short time before. Adam wondered how Hoss always knew just what to do to break up a potential quarrel between him and Joe.
They went their separate ways, with Adam going over to the railroad office and Joe heading further down the street to the Cattle Association offices. The rain was keeping people off the streets, so Joe didn’t have to do too much dodging of ladies with umbrellas, but the town was still busier than Virginia City. As he walked, Joe mused about how easy it would be to blend into the crowd in a town as big as Sacramento. It was something of a novel thought and Joe was still pondering it as he went into the offices of the Cattle Association.
It took a moment for him to realize who the other man in the room was, and as it sank in, Joe made a belated grab for his gun. But he was too late, and he found himself looking into the barrel of a .45, and the man holding it was none other than Ted Thatcher.
“I thought sure I’d never see ya again, kid,” Thatcher drawled. “Drop that gun belt real slow an’ put yer hands up.”
“What are you doing here?” Joe asked, as he slowly did as he was told.
Grinning tightly, Thatcher replied, “I’m robbin’ these here offices. Plenty money kept in the safe back there, kid. Is some o’ it yours?”
Ignoring the question, Joe’s eyes turned to the door that hid the inner office. What would he find if he went in there? Bodies? He swallowed against the dryness in his mouth. “Have you killed them?” he asked and was pleased to hear that there wasn’t a quiver in his voice.
“They ain’t dead yet,” Thatcher replied. “’Course, that don’t mean they won’t die.”
“Now what?” Joe wanted to know. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Good question,” mused the other. “I ain’t decided.” He gave Joe a wolfish smile. “I enjoyed makin’ ya squirm last time we met,” he added. “Perhaps I’d like ta do that again.” He reached into the pocket of his shabby coat and Joe heard metal jingling against metal. Thatcher pulled something from his pocket and threw it at Joe. “Put those on, kid.”
Instinctively, Joe caught the object and discovered that it was handcuffs. He looked up to meet Thatcher’s eyes and saw the cruel killer looking back at him. At that moment, Joe knew that Thatcher wanted him to refuse, so he could shoot Joe dead. Gritting his teeth, Joe clasped the first metal bracelet around his wrist.
“Boy, you learned your lesson real well, kid!” Thatcher sneered. “Now, fasten yer hands behind ya. Turn around so’s I can see ya doin’ it. I don’t trust ya.”
“You don’t trust me?” Joe gasped. He was shaken by the man’s audacity and sheer cheek. Nevertheless, he did as he was told and turned around, fastening the other cuff so his hands were behind his back. “Satisfied?” he demanded.
“Hmm,” Thatcher replied, and came over to tighten the cuffs. Joe bit back a wince as the cold metal bit into his skin. Did Thatcher really think that he was going to get out of those cuffs? He whirled Joe around and studied his helpless captive for a moment before dropping his gun into his holster.
“Now what?” Joe asked again.
“Sit down,” Thatcher invited him, indicating a sturdy, straight-backed chair. As Joe did what he was told, Thatcher took down the velvet cords that were decorating the curtains in the room. Moving behind Joe, he used one to tie Joe’s already bound hands to the back of the chair and then swiftly knelt to bind the young man’s ankles together. Rising, he looked with satisfaction on Joe’s fury and frustration. Then he drew a bandanna from his pocket and another from around his neck. Joe recoiled as far as he could, but he couldn’t get far enough away to escape the other man and a couple of backhand slaps left him too dazed to resist and Thatcher soon had Joe gagged, too.
Now completely satisfied, Thatcher turned to head for the door just as it began to open. Joe let out a warning yelp that got no further than his teeth, but Adam didn’t need Joe’s warning. The first thing he saw as the door opened was his little brother, bound and gagged, and any further warning was superfluous. Adam drew his gun and dived into the room.
Caught by surprise, Thatcher let off one wild shot, which missed entirely, and made a dive for Joe. Adam checked himself, not willing to risk shooting in Joe’s direction, just in case he missed. He advanced further into the room, looking as menacing as Joe had ever seen him. “Put your hands up!” Adam ordered Thatcher. “It’s all over.”
“No its not!” Thatcher declared and grabbed at Joe, who wrenched himself out of the grip on his jacket. Infuriated, Thatcher swung his gun round and hit Joe with the barrel on the side of the head. With a grunt, Joe collapsed in his seat.
Taking advantage of his quarry’s distraction, Adam threw himself across the remaining space between them and tackled Thatcher around the waist, bearing him to the floor. The fall sent small rivers of pain through Adam’s bad back, but he ignored them as best he could, wrestling for control of Thatcher’s gun.
From somewhere above and behind him, Adam heard a shout, but he ignored it, concentrating on the man beneath him. The fight was beginning to go against Adam when a hand reached down and grabbed Thatcher’s arm. Moments later, another arm appeared from the other side, and took control of the gun. A third set of hands helped Adam to his feet.
Suddenly exhausted, Adam leant heavily against Hoss, who was supporting him. “Ya all right, Adam?” Hoss asked, worriedly.
“Fine,” Adam panted. “Joe?” He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and looked at his younger brother. Joe was still bound and gagged, but he was moving his head slightly.
Galvanized by the sight, Adam shrugged off Hoss’ hands and hurried over to remove the gag from Joe’s torn mouth and to begin working loose the cords that bound him. “Joe?” he called. “Joe? Wake up.”
Groggily, Joe’s eyes drifted open and he peered blearily at Adam. “What…?” he muttered and winced. “My head,” he breathed.
“Stay still,” Adam advised him. “You got quite a crack from that pistol.”
“Thatcher,” Joe murmured and started to struggle against the handcuffs.
“Dadburnit, Joe, stay still an’ let me git these things off ya,” Hoss chided him. “How’m I meant ta do that if’n yer wrigglin’?”
“Hoss?” Joe asked, squinting at his brother. “How’d you get here?”
“Good question,” Adam noted, helping his brother sit up as Hoss finally released the handcuffs, thanks to the key the sheriff was carrying.
“I heard someone shoutin’ in the street that they’d heard shots comin’ from here,” Hoss explained, gently taking Joe’s head in his hands to look more closely at the red/purple bruise growing on his temple. “I followed the sheriff an’ when I saw ya were both in trouble, I jist stepped in ta help.”
“Everyone all right here?” the sheriff asked, coming over.
“I think Joe needs to see a doctor,” Adam replied, before Joe could draw breath to say that he was fine.
“What about the people in there?” Joe asked, gesturing towards the inner office. “Are they…?”
“They’ll probably be all right, in time,” the sheriff replied. “I’m afraid they’ll have priority over you in the doctor stakes, though.”
“I don’t mind,” Joe mumbled, which brought laughter to both his brothers’ lips. “What?” Joe demanded, looking at them with as much indignation as he could muster through the thumping of his head.
“So Thatcher is behind bars and facing a hanging,” Adam concluded.
“How odd that you should meet him in Sacramento,” Ben muttered. “Joe, are you sure you’re all right?” he added.
“Quite sure,” Joe replied, firmly. He knew that the bruise on his head was at its most colorful, but his headache was gone at last. “I feel fine, Pa.”
“Good,” Ben replied. He glanced at Adam. “Are you satisfied now?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” Adam replied. “It’s a relief to know that Thatcher isn’t wondering around out there somewhere.” He smiled at Hoss. “I don’t remember when I was last so glad to see Hoss.”
“You weren’t the only one what wanted ta see him behind bars,” Hoss replied. “I wanted that too, fer what he done to ya and Joe.”
“It makes you think,” Joe mused. “No wonder those men in the bible story of the Good Samaritan didn’t want to help the man beaten by robbers. Who knew what might have befallen them?”
“And will you follow their example from now on?” Ben asked. “Pass by on the other side?”
“You know I couldn’t, Pa,” Joe replied, slightly impatiently. “I don’t regret going to help. That’s not just the way you brought us up, it’s the way I am. If someone needs help, I’ve got to offer it and do what I can.”
“I do know that,” Ben agreed. “And I’m very proud of all my boys.” He gave them all a smile. “Now, tell me, what kind of price did you get for the cattle in the end?”
At once, Joe sat up a bit straighter and a grin spread over his handsome features. “Pa, they were so grateful that we’d stopped Thatcher getting away with the money that they gave us a really great deal!” he cried enthusiastically. “You’ll never believe it…” he went on.
Ben smiled to himself. Joe’s heart was in the right place, but he didn’t let that get in his way when making a good business deal, he thought wryly. But when Joe mentioned how much they were getting per head, he forgot his thoughts about Joe taking advantage of the Cattle Association.
“Good work, son!” Ben declared. “Why, that’s the best price we’ve ever had!”
“Told you so!” Joe crowed to his brothers.