Only Skin Deep (by Rona)

Summary:  When a chance thief breaks into the Ponderosa, Joe finds himself at the mercy of a killer who looks only too familiar.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9105


 

 

For a split second after the door opened to admit a dark-clad man, Joe Cartwright thought it was his brother Adam. But Adam had left that morning for Carson City and wasn’t due back until night fall. Realizing this, Joe went for his gun, but his holster lay on the credenza behind the front door and he froze as the stranger pointed his gun at him.

“Is there anyone else here?” growled the man, keeping his dark eyes fixed on Joe.

Reluctantly, Joe admitted, “No.” The resemblance to Adam was less intense now that Joe could see his face, but over all, they were very similar.

“Good,” the man said, and closed the door behind him.

Taking advantage of the momentary distraction, Joe threw his cup of coffee at the man. He ducked, and as Joe tackled him about the waist, he crashed his gun down onto Joe’s head. Joe slumped to the floor, unconscious.

*****

When he revived some time later, Joe was at first only aware of his pounding headache and the nausea that threatened to overcome him. He seemed to be lying on the floor, and he rolled over slowly, trying to remember what had happened. As he did so, he realized that he was bound hand and foot, and he remembered what had happened. Opening his eyes, he glanced around, until he spotted the man crouching by the safe, trying to open it.

Again the first impression was of the stranger’s amazing resemblance to Adam. Joe had often heard stories of people who had doubles, but he’d never been sure if they were true or not. But after seeing this fellow, he could well believe it. Joe began to struggle with his bonds, but the ropes were tied tightly and he wasn’t going to be getting out of them soon.

“So you’re awake,” commented the man, having been attracted by Joe’s movements. He walked over to stand by Joe, looking down on the hapless young man.

“Who are you?” Joe asked. “What do you want?”

“I just want somewhere to stay that’s warm and dry,” the man replied. “As to who I am? You can call me Tom.” He stirred Joe idly with his foot, not kicking, but making sure the young man knew who was boss. “This place will do fine. And now it’s your turn. Who are you?”

For a moment, Joe contemplated not telling him, but the foot was still moving him about the floor, and Joe really didn’t want to be kicked. “My name’s Joe Cartwright,” he replied, through gritted teeth.

“Cartwright, huh?” Tom repeated. “So this must be the Ponderosa I’ve heard so much about. Well, and very nice it is too.” He stopped poking Joe and wandered over to the credenza. He lifted Joe’s gun from its holster and admired it before slipping it back in. “Plenty of money here,” he remarked. “Good, I’ll be able to sell this stuff and live comfortably for a while on the proceeds.” He grinned back at Joe, looking to see what the results of his statement would be.

The look he surprised on Joe’s face wasn’t the indignant outrage he’d expected. Joe looked puzzled. Raising one eyebrow, he saw the younger man pale slightly and wondered at it. Joe had not struck him as the type of man to be easily intimidated, even on their short acquaintance. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Tom commented, his interest piqued. “Why?”

“It’s nothing,” Joe muttered, sullenly. He shifted his gaze away from that penetrating stare, and tried to figure out when help might come. It would be a long wait, he thought, ruefully. Adam had gone to Carson City; Ben was in town at a Cattleman’s Association Meeting and might not get back until morning. And Hoss – well, Joe wasn’t exactly sure where Hoss was that day, as Hoss had been gone before Joe came down for breakfast. In fact, if Joe hadn’t come home for some coffee, only to find Hop Sing, the cook, had gone into town to visit relatives, Tom would have been able to rob the Ponderosa with impunity.

Joe was supposed to be looking at horses, but when his mount shed a shoe, he’d had to turn back. The weather was cool and rainy as fall set in, and Joe had been chilled when he arrived home. Deciding that the horses could wait until he had warmed up a little, Joe had headed into the house to make coffee. The first cup had begun to make inroads into warming him up, and he was on his second cup when the door had opened.

Shrugging, Tom continued to look through the credenza. He took out a blanket and spread it open on the floor close to Joe and began to pick up some of the valuables and put them on the blanket. Joe seethed with frustrated anger.

He was curious, too. Tom’s accent wasn’t the kind Joe usually associated with thieves. He sounded educated and there was a familiar edge to his accent, although Joe couldn’t think what it was. His headache was making thinking difficult anyway, and so was his anger. He was furious that someone could so callously help themselves to his family’s possessions.

After emptying the few things of value from the credenza, Tom’s attention wandered to the barometer on the wall beside the downstairs bedroom door. He gazed at it in admiration for some time, but decided against taking it. It was too big, for a start, but it also had Ben Cartwright’s name on it, and that made it far too recognizable to safely sell.

“What’s in here?” he asked, pointing to the door, but Joe refused to answer. Amusement crinkled the corners of the man’s lips and he shrugged. Opening the door, he looked in, but he could see at once that the room wasn’t used regularly and he backed out.

Some sound made him look toward his captive and he saw that Joe was sitting up and sliding on his backside across the floor towards the credenza, where his gun was. Tom immediately realized that he’d made a mistake not tying Joe to something solid. Shaking his head, he went after the other man.

“Oh no you don’t!” he ordered, but Joe kept on going, gritting his teeth and hastening his movements. He knew it was futile, but he had to do something.

Crossing the space between them in two quick strides, Tom grabbed Joe’s jacket front and hauled him upright. “Don’t bother,” he warned, but Joe wasn’t through yet. He raised his bound hands and used them to club his unsuspecting captor in the stomach.

The blow was more of a surprise than painful, and Tom dropped Joe, who crashed to the floor to land painfully on his coccyx. Gasping, but ignoring the pain, Joe resumed his attempt to get his gun.

Shaking his head, Tom once more grabbed for Joe. Joe was expecting him and twisted to try and escape, but it was a useless effort. Tom once more hauled him upright, then raising his hand, he deliberately backhanded Joe and dropped him to the floor.

The blow was all the more painful for the very deliberateness of the act. Joe landed hard and for a moment, his head swam. He fought his way up from the darkness that threatened to overwhelm him. Joe felt himself being dragged across the floor and he fought Tom as best he could. Another backhander left him too dazed to resist and when Joe at last opened his eyes again, he found his hands tightly bound to the leg of the coffee table in front of the fire.

As he looked around, he saw Tom standing looking down on him. “I really didn’t want to do that, Joe,” Tom told him, for all the world like Joe was a small boy who had just been smacked for getting in trouble. “But since you can’t be trusted, I had no other choice.”

“Can’t be trusted,” Joe choked. His headache was worse than ever, and he wondered if he could possibly avoid being sick over himself. “Can’t be trusted not to try and free myself to protect my home from a thief?” he asked, bitterly.

“I don’t blame you, Joe,” Tom told him. “I’d probably feel the same way, if I had a home to protect. But I can’t let you stop me.” He sounded oddly regretful. Giving Joe a small, rueful smile, he crossed the room and began to ransack the sideboard by the dining table.

Propping himself awkwardly on his elbows, Joe watched. Suddenly, Tom froze, his hand extended towards a silver framed photograph sitting on the top of the sideboard. Joe swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat. He knew what Tom had found.

“Who is this?” Tom asked at last, lifting the picture and turning towards Joe.

Looking away, Joe remained silent. He heard Tom walking over, and a moment later a hand curled into the front of his jacket once more. Tom thrust his face into Joe’s. “Answer me, Joe!” he demanded. “Who is this man?” He waved the photo in Joe’s face.

Reluctantly, Joe looked up. “He’s my brother, Adam,” he replied. “And that’s my other brother Hoss.” The photo had been a birthday gift to Ben earlier that year. His three sons, sitting together and smiling. Ben had been very moved, and the photo was still perambulating around the house until Ben found the place where it would live permanently. So far, it had been on his bedside table, the desk and now the sideboard by the dining table.

Letting go of Joe, Tom crouched back on his heels. “So that was what was wrong with you earlier,” he murmured. “I look like your brother.” He glanced at Joe once more. “You don’t look much alike,” he commented. “I look more like your brother than either of you do.”

Again, Joe was silent. He wasn’t about to blurt out their family history for this man. He sensed Tom was waiting for a reply, but avoided his eyes. What good would it do to talk about it? None of his family was going to be coming to his rescue anytime soon. By the time they did, Tom would be long gone and he, Joe, would still be a prisoner or, he shuddered, dead.

Realizing that Joe wasn’t going to say anything, Tom rose. He put the picture down on the table by Joe’s head. “Where is your family?” he asked.

“Out,” Joe replied, shortly.

“Don’t try and be clever, Joe,” Tom warned, wearily. “We both know what I’m willing to do. Just answer the question. I’d hate for them to walk in on me – especially my twin.”

“Pa’s in Virginia City,” Joe told him, wondering quite why he was doing so. “Adam’s gone to Carson City. I don’t know where Hoss is today.” He wondered how long Hop Sing would be in town, but decided that since it was only himself and Hoss at supper – and for all he knew it might just be him at supper – Hop Sing might not be back until late. He glanced at Tom, and had the distinct impression that he was waiting for something else.

“And your mother?” Tom asked, finally, his tone impatient.

“My mother is dead,” Joe replied, gritting his teeth against the expected pity.

It didn’t come. Tom just shrugged and looked around once more. “Well, with luck, I should have time to gather a fair bit of stuff. You just rest there, Joe. You don’t look too good.” He laughed at his own wit and walked away towards Ben’s desk. He paused and looked over his shoulder. “I don’t suppose I could persuade you to give me the combination of the safe?” At the look on Joe’s face, he laughed again. “No, I thought not.”

It didn’t stop him trying to open it, though. Joe was tied so that his back was to the office alcove and he craned his neck to look over his shoulder, watching what Tom was doing. The safe defeated him, and he straightened and began to rifle through the desk drawers. Joe was beginning to get a crick in his neck from his awkward position, but he couldn’t take his eyes from Tom. Sure enough, the thing he dreaded happened; Tom spotted the pictures of their mothers.

Wrenching his eyes away, Joe wasn’t quite quick enough to avoid Tom’s questioning gaze. He knew the other man would be over any moment, bringing the pictures with him. Joe didn’t want to answer any other questions. His headache, which had died down slightly, came back with a vengeance. He closed his eyes briefly.

When he opened them again, Tom was sitting on the edge of the table, looking at the pictures, then Joe. “I’d guess this is your mother,” Tom said, brandishing the picture of Marie. “You’re like her.”

“Yes,” Joe admitted. There was no point trying to deny it.

“And the others?” Tom asked, and Joe debated not saying anything.

But when his silence provoked Tom into reaching for his jacket again, Joe muttered, “Adam and Hoss’ mothers.”

Raising his eyebrow in that dreadfully familiar way, Tom looked at Joe speculatively. “Different mothers, all three of you?” Again, the familiar raising of the eyebrow. “All dead?” he asked.

“What is it to you?” Joe flared.

“Ah-ah,” Tom warned, nudging him none too gently with his foot. “None of that now. Just answer the question.”

“Yes, all dead,” Joe agreed. “Happy now?”

“Well, now, I don’t care one way or the other, personally,” Tom told him. “But it might put your mind at rest. My mother doesn’t look like either of these two, so I’m not a long lost brother.”

Joe winced. His other brother, Clay, had come into his life briefly a few years before and had then left again. Joe missed Clay desperately, and hadn’t heard a single word from him since he left. Forcing thoughts of Clay from his mind, Joe glared at Tom.

“Of course,” Tom added, “your father and mine might be the same. He could well have been indiscreet at some time in his youth. How come there isn’t a picture of him around?”

“If you knew my father, you’d know that couldn’t be true,” Joe told him. “Don’t judge everyone by yourself.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” Tom told him. “Everyone sews wild oats when they’re young. Who’s to say I couldn’t be your brother?”

 “I know you’re no brother of mine,” Joe said, with quiet venom. “No brother of mine would act the way you’re acting.”

For an instant, Tom’s nostrils tightened with anger. Then he deliberately relaxed. He couldn’t blame Joe for sticking up for his family. However, he meant to get what he could from this house, by whatever means and whatever cost.

“He might, in like circumstances,” Tom suggested.

“Never!” Joe declared. “Adam would never steal. Nor would Hoss!”

“Never is a long time,” Tom commented. He looked around. “Have you ever been hungry, Joe?”

“No,” Joe agreed, “not the way you mean. But that’s no excuse. You could get a job.”

“The rich man’s son,” murmured Tom, rising restlessly. “You have no idea! Get a job, says he!”

“Other people do it,” Joe flared. “They struggle, but they don’t resort to stealing.”

“Save your moralizing for someone who’s interested,” Tom told him disgustedly. “If you were starving, you’d steal, too, if that was the only path left to you.” He gestured to the photo. “So would your precious brother, Adam.”

“You might look like him,” Joe shot back, “but the resemblance is only skin deep! Adam is nothing like you, I’m glad to say.” At once, Joe saw that he’d succeeded in goading his captor into anger. He tried to duck away as Tom reached for him. It was hopeless. Once more, Tom backhanded Joe and let him fall to the floor.

Without a word, Tom stalked angrily into the kitchen and left Joe alone. Wearily, Joe licked the blood from his lips and prayed for deliverance.

*****

The smell of the food emanating from the kitchen made Joe’s stomach rumble. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to eat even if he was offered something, for he was still queasy, but as Tom lingered in the kitchen, Joe realized that he wasn’t going to be fed. Resting his aching head on his arm, Joe tried to doze, telling himself it didn’t matter if he missed a meal or two.

He failed utterly to sleep, his cramped position proving too uncomfortable. Joe tried to flex his throbbing arms, and succeeded in moving the table slightly. That made him wonder if he could get his shoulder under the edge and lift the table high enough to slide his hands free. Moving cautiously, to avoid a rush of nausea, Joe got onto all fours, and heaved.

For an instant, the table lifted and Joe grunted with effort. He knew how heavy the table was, but he’d never tried to lift if alone like that, and had to set it down to catch his breath. After a moment or two, Joe was ready to try again, and heaved once more. The blood roared in his ears and his panting breath obliterated all other sound.

Sudden weight slammed the table to the floor again and Joe was knocked over. Unable to put out his hands to catch himself, he sprawled inelegantly onto his face, sending spasms of pain through his shoulders and grazing his cheek on the floor. Panting, he gazed up at Tom, who had one foot on the table and was leaning on that leg.

“You never give up, do you?” he commented ruefully. “And I thought you’d never be able to move this monstrosity!”

“Faith can move mountains,” Joe panted. “And so can determination.”

“I dare say,” Tom agreed. “But that doesn’t solve my dilemma. I’m going to have to move you, Joe, but I’m sure I can trust you not to try something while I untie you, can I?” Joe silence was quite eloquent. “No, I thought not.” He sighed. “I hate to have to hit you again, but needs must.” He snatched Joe up and punched him hard in the face twice.

The punches weren’t enough to knock Joe out, but they set his head to ringing. He tried his best to fight Tom, and managed to get in a good swing, but his hands were numb from being tied and his aim wasn’t the best. Another backhander set his senses reeling and when he was able to grasp them again, he was being dragged across the floor by his arms.

“Oh, make this easy on yourself, Joe!” Tom panted, as Joe once more managed to free one arm.  “I don’t want to hurt you.” But Joe fought on, and Tom punched him hard in the stomach. Joe folded and Tom used the opportunity to tie him to the newel post of the stairs.  Checking his handiwork, Tom sat back on his heels panting. “You’re beginning to annoy me, Joe,” he told the suffering young man. “At this rate, I might beat the combination of the safe out of you!”

“You can try!” Joe told him.

Sighing, Tom rose slowly to his feet. “This brother of yours,” he said, looking down on Joe. “Is he about my height and weight?” Joe didn’t reply and kept his eyes down. “I thought he might be,” Tom commented, taking the silence as a yes. “Well, I fancy a change of clothes. I’ll just go up and see what I can find.”

Panic flared through Joe’s heart. Adam had his architects drawing tools in a special box in his room. They were precious to Adam, and therefore precious to Joe, too. He didn’t want Tom to find them, nor to go looking in the other rooms. He knew that his mother’s jewelry was kept in Ben’s closet and he couldn’t bear the thought of Tom touching it.

“Haven’t you got enough?” he burst out. “Do you want to become Adam, too?”

“Give it up, Joe,” Tom told him. “You’re not going to talk me into becoming a model citizen, believe me. There’s far too much water gone under the bridge for that.”

“Why?” Joe demanded. He really didn’t care about the answer to his question, he simply wanted to keep Tom talking and occupied down here in the forlorn hope that someone might come home. Anything to keep him from further ransacking the house. “What have you done?”

 “Do you really want to know?” Tom asked, and the bleakness of his tone hit Joe like a faceful of cold water.

“Yes,” Joe replied. “I want to know what made an educated man like you turn to crime.”

After a long minute, Tom sat down beside Joe. “Why do you think I’m educated?” he asked, curiously.

“Your accent,” Joe responded. “There’s something about it that’s familiar, but it’s more than that. You sound educated.”

“Are you a college man, Joe?” Tom asked. “Is that why you think I sound educated?” He looked at Joe, who didn’t answer. “Or is it that brother of yours again? Is Adam a college man? That’s it, isn’t it? One more thing we have in common.”

Shaking his head, Joe once more refused to answer. “You sound educated,” he persisted.

“Well, you’re right there,” Tom admitted. “I am a graduate of Harvard. I studied law.”

Frowning, Joe tried to make sense of that. Was Tom lying to him? “You steal for a living, yet you’re a lawyer?” Joe blurted.

“I’m wanted for murder,” Tom told him, coolly, and was gratified to see the other man blanch. “On the night of our graduation party a bunch of other fellows and I were drinking and celebrating in our dormitory. I had an argument with one fellow. I don’t even remember what it was about, because I was drunk. But I pushed him out of the window and he fell to his death two floors below.” Tom shrugged. “I ran, of course. I was drunk. A warrant was put out for my arrest, and so here you find me, Joe. A Harvard educated lawyer, wanted for murder.”

“When was this?” Joe whispered. He felt sick and his headache was back, worse than ever.

“Ten years ago,” Tom replied, calmly. “I haven’t seen my family since then. I don’t even know if they are alive or dead. I suppose I’ll never know.” He smiled ruefully. “I was a rich man’s son, too, Joe. We have more in common than you think.”

“No,” Joe denied. “I couldn’t stay away from my family for all that time.”

“Don’t get all sentimental on me,” Tom chided him, rising once more. “I can’t stand sentimentality! You’ve hindered me enough. I’m going to get myself some of your brother’s clothes. These ones must be pretty ripe by now.”

“Don’t!” Joe pleaded. “Don’t touch their things!”

“What did I just say, kid?” Tom demanded. He was now regretting opening up to Joe, but he kind of liked the kid, despite himself.

Despising himself, but not thinking straight, Joe could see no other way to have Tom leave his family’s precious things alone. Joe muttered, “My Pa’s rich; you said so yourself. Take me, and he’ll pay your ransom. Just don’t touch their things.”

Exasperated, Tom wished he’d never clapped eyes on Joe Cartwright. First of all, he opens up and tells Joe his life story, then the kid offers himself as a hostage, to protect his family’s possessions. Tom shook his head. Didn’t the kid know that most families would rather have the person, not the things? “Don’t you understand yet?” he demanded angrily. “I’ve killed since then! I’m a wanted man! I live alone and I kill when I need to, to escape. If I got stopped while trying to take you with me, Joe, I’d kill you, understand?”

“I understand,” Joe assured him. “But do as I ask! Please!”

“Damn you, Joe!” Tom cursed and turned away, walking with long strides towards the door. For he found himself considering the idea seriously.

Suddenly, footsteps sounded on the porch outside and Tom was back across the room, his hand jammed over Joe’s mouth, pushing his head back against the newel post. “Don’t make a sound,” he warned. “Or I’ll cut your throat.” He produced a knife from his boot and pressed the blade against Joe’s exposed throat.

The person outside knocked on the door. “Joe?” a voice called.  It was Charlie, the foreman. Joe’s eyes turned to the door, terrified that Charlie would simply open it and come in. He knew that Charlie was a dead man if that happened. Again the thunderous knock on the door. “You in there, Joe?”

In the pregnant pause that followed, Joe could hear the measured tick-tock of the case clock by the door. His heart hammered erratically against his chest and he felt the knife blade nick his skin, as a reminder to be silent. Joe willed Charlie to leave.

It seemed that Charlie got the message. The footsteps retreated back along the porch and a few moments later, they heard the hooves ride out of the yard. Joe relaxed fractionally, but Tom remained crouched by his side, covering his mouth and keeping the knife at his throat. Joe slid his eyes round to meet Tom’s and saw the hunted look in them and suddenly comprehended what this man’s life must be like.

With an exhalation of air, Tom finally released his grip on Joe and the younger man breathed a sigh of relief. He could feel something warm on his neck and realized it was a trickle of blood. He was shaken by the speed that Tom had reacted to the threat, and knew that if Charlie had come in, as well he might, he would have died. Joe knew that if Tom did take him as a hostage, his life would be in even more jeopardy than it already was.

“Who was that?” Tom demanded, gesturing towards the door.

“Charlie, our foreman,” Joe replied.

“What did he want?” asked Tom. “Will he come back?”

“I don’t know what he wanted!” Joe replied in exasperation. “You heard as much as I did, and I was hardly in a position to ask! And I don’t know if he’ll come back; he might. It depends on how urgent it is and if he can find anyone else.” Hoss, he thought with a pang. If Hoss finds out Charlie couldn’t find me… The bleakness of that thought told Joe he couldn’t go with Tom as a hostage. His family would be worried sick over him. He would have to figure out another way to protect their belongings. He couldn’t think why he’d thought offering himself as a hostage would work. Joe didn’t realize that his thinking was fuzzy from the mild concussion he had suffered.

“Who is there for him to find?” Tom asked. When Joe did answer, he shook him, but still Joe remained silent. Anger flared through Tom. “Damn it, Joe, answer me!” Once more, Joe kept quiet. Furious, Tom backhanded Joe again.

Looking down at the helpless young man before him, Tom realized that Joe wasn’t going to tell him, no matter what he did. However, he guessed that time might be running out for him to get clean away, and he decided to go upstairs, get some clothes and see what else he could find. Joe’s reaction suggested that there might be more valuables upstairs. Stepping over Joe’s legs, he grasped the banister.

It was fortunate for Tom that he did, because Joe, as he realized his captor’s intent, raised his legs and tripped him. As Tom tumbled to his knees, Joe twisted as far as his bonds would allow and kicked him, desperate to keep him from going upstairs.

Breaking free, Tom kicked Joe’s legs out of the way and when Joe tried once more to kick him, he kicked Joe in the face. The youth slumped unconscious at once, a thin ribbon of blood forming on his cheek. Panting, Tom stood looking at him, regret flooding his mind. He liked Joe, but his own freedom was more important to him than Joe’s wellbeing. Still panting, he went on upstairs.

*****

The first room he looked into was clearly unused and Tom didn’t linger. He tried the next door and found himself in a room lined with books. He picked up the book on the bedside table and glanced at it. It was obviously an old favorite, for it was well handled. Opening the cover, he read the inscription on the fly-leaf.  To Adam. Happy Birthday, love Pa 1860’. He smiled. So this was the saintly Adam’s room!

With interest, he looked at the titles of the books. They were many and varied. Some of them Tom had read many years before. Some of them he’d never heard of. He found the books on architecture and engineering and guessed that this must be what Adam had studied.

Rifling through the drawers of the desk, he found some drawings of houses. He looked at them thoughtfully before putting them back and hunting some more. He found the box of tools in the next drawer and smiled. These would be worth a penny or two.

In another drawer he found letters and journals. At once, he opened them, eager to find out what kind of man his doppelganger was. The journals went back many years. Idly, Tom flicked through them, stopping whenever a name would catch his eye.

Joe insisted today that he’ll be able to break that big stallion. I know Pa has severe misgivings about it, but the kids won’t listen, of course. I’m just waiting for the day when he’s brought home half dead, for I know it’ll come. 

Underneath that was another passage.  Well, it’s happened. Pa got home and found Joe lying in the corral, severely injured. The horse was gone. Joe tells us he set it free. I wanted to track it down and shoot it, but Pa insisted that I do nothing. It’s frustrating, but I guess he’s right. I just hate to see Joe so down

In another journal he read about Adam accidentally shooting Joe and the aftermath of the accidentI feel bad whenever I see Joe struggling, but he will be all right. How could I have been so stupid? I knew Joe was around there and I never thought! There are times I would cheerfully push Joe down a flight of steps, but I love the kid. When he was so ill, and the doctor wouldn’t stay, I was so worried. What would I have done if Joe had died?

Turning the page, Tom read on.  Joe and I had a terrible row today, which ended up coming to blows. Pa was furious and I don’t blame him, but I can’t bring myself to apologizes to Joe. All right, he had done the work today, but most days he wouldn’t have and I feet justified in checking up on him.

Pa has just told me we are to go to work alone until we’ve calmed down. That suits me just fine! Joe is already sending me ‘puppy dog’ looks from under his brows, but that won’t work with me today!

So much has happened that I haven’t had the chance to write anything. Joe was injured while we were away and it was my fault. I think I scared him so much that he’ll never want to speak to me again. I think it best if I pack up and leave. Maybe then Joe can regain his perspective about me and we can be friends again in a year or two. How could I have hurt him like that? I was angry, but still… I pride myself on my self control. Where was it these last few days?

I can’t believe that Joe came to find me. We talked and I explained myself as best I could. I don’t think what I said was enough, but Joe forgave me. I don’t understand him sometimes. He irritates me so much, then turns round and is wonderful. Maybe I shouldn’t try and analyze it; I should just accept his wonderful, loving nature. So here I am home again, and all because of Joe.

And then the most recent entry of all, dated only the day before.  I have to go to Carson tomorrow on business. Joe’s going out looking at the horses again. Whenever he tells us that he’s going to do this, I find myself getting tense. I know that Satan is the most unpredictable animal on the ranch, and I know he saved Joe’s life, but I still feel uneasy when Joe is near him. What if he decides to try to ride him again? Joe promised that he wouldn’t but the quickest way to get Joe to do something is to forbid him, or tell him it can’t be done! I’d hate to see anything happen to him.

Closing the journal, Tom looked round the room thoughtfully. Adam had come to life for him. He was no longer just a person who looked like Tom. And downstairs was his beloved younger brother. Tom wondered if he ought to take Joe as a hostage. Perhaps he could meet his ‘twin’ and find out what he was really like before letting Joe go.

He went to the bureau and opened a drawer, drawing out clean underwear, shirt and pants. Using the water he found in the ewer, he had a wash and shave before dressing. Adam’s clothes fitted him quite well.

Feeling refreshed, Tom went into the next room. This one seemed to be Joe’s, from the clothes he saw in the drawers. He picked up one or two things there before continuing his search. One of the things was a likeness of an older man. Tom correctly assumed this was Joe’s father.

The next room he surmised belonged to Hoss, judging by the picture of Inger that he saw there. Hoss had fewer books than Adam, and less things hanging on the walls than Joe, and Tom wondered about him. Joe had said very little about Hoss, but then, the person that interested Tom most was Adam, because of his resemblance to him.

Moving on, Tom opened the door to the master bedroom. Rooting about in the drawers, Tom found silver and gold cufflinks, and a silver engraved money clip. He pocketed them. In the closet, he found the jewelry box and after raking though it, decided to take it, too. He also took Ben’s silver dueling pistols from their hooks on the wall.

Suddenly becoming aware that time was against him, Tom made his way back downstairs, carrying his plunder. Joe was awake, he saw at once. His cheek was still bleeding sluggishly and his eye was starting to swell shut. The scorching look Joe gave him promised retribution.

It was only when Tom drew close that Joe saw everything he had in his hands. But it was the jewelry box that ignited his temper. Before Tom was completely off the last step, Joe was kicking at him again for all he was worth, screaming with fury as he brought his bound feet up again and again.

“Shut up!” Tom cried, fearful suddenly that the noise would bring someone. Charlie’s arrival had shaken Tom. He dodged past Joe and put the things he’d stolen onto the blanket with the other stuff. He glanced around and saw Joe pulling furiously at the ropes that bound him. “Simmer down, you’ll hurt yourself!” Tom told him, roughly.

Ignoring him, Joe fought on. The way Tom had tied him, Joe’s hands were pulled back and tied to the second rod of the banisters. He was twisting in his bonds, oblivious of the hurt he was causing himself. Tom looked away, and his eye fell on the photos he had left on the coffee table. The frames looked expensive and he walked over to the table and began to gather them up.

“No!” Joe yelled, struggling even harder. “Leave them alone!” There was a sudden twinge of pain along one shoulder, but Joe ignored it.

Placing the photos on his pile, Tom threw Joe a hard look. “Shut up!” he warned again, and crossed to the office window to look cautiously out. There was no one in sight, but Tom was becoming increasingly nervous. He walked back over to Joe and stood looking down at him, just out of reaching of Joe’s thrashing legs. “I’m leaving,” he told Joe.

The words threw Joe into a panic. He swung his legs around, twisting to try and reach his tormentor. As he kicked to try and reach him, his hip slid on the floor, and Joe found himself sliding, but still tied to the banisters. There was an audible crack as his right collar bone snapped under the sudden pressure. Joe went limp.

Shaken, Tom hurried to Joe’s side. He found the other man conscious, gritting his teeth to try and bear the pain, and totally unable to move. “Damn you!” he cursed Tom. “You won’t get away with this!”

Wishing that he’d never found this ranch, or met this young man, Tom helped Joe to sit up again. Joe growled through his teeth, but he couldn’t find the breath to say anything. His expressive green eyes spoke volumes, however.

Leaving Joe where he was, Tom walked over to the blanket and began to bundle up the things he intended to take. He was regretting letting his guard down with Joe. He’d never done that sort of thing before, but then, he’d never stayed so long in a house he was robbing. He glanced around, looking to see if there was anything he’d missed when an idea struck him.

“Give me the safe combination, Joe,” he ordered, crouching by him once more.

“Go to hell,” Joe panted. His face gleamed with sweat. He rested his head on the post behind him, as it was the only way he could hold it up. The pain made him feel sick.

“I can make you tell me,” Tom warned. “You’re a rich man’s son, Joe. You haven’t had to work and you won’t be able to bear the pain. Life hasn’t prepared you for it.”

“I’ve done more work than you’ll ever do,” Joe choked. “You don’t know anything about me! I’ll never tell you!”

“Where are the calluses on your hands, then?” Tom demanded.

“You tied me up, didn’t you notice?” Joe taunted him. He laughed. “Or was it just that you didn’t recognize them for what they are? After all, you’re a rich man’s son, Tom. You’ve never done an honest day’s work in your life! A college boy and a thief! What do you know of work?”

Goaded, Tom snarled, “The same could be said of your precious brother, too, couldn’t it? He was a college boy too!”

“Adam has worked harder than you can imagine!” Joe retorted. “He knows what it is to work hard for what you want!”

“He knows, does he?” Tom growled. “Your perfect big brother, huh? Well, from what I can see he frequently finds you annoying. What was it his journal said? Oh yeah, he could cheerfully push you down a flight of stairs!”

Appalled, Joe just looked at Tom. “You read his journals?” he gasped, more concerned about that than about what Tom had repeated to him. It wasn’t a secret between Adam and Joe; Adam had said it jokingly to him, and it had become one of their favorite phrases for deflecting tension between them. “How could you!”

“They were very illuminating,” Tom retorted. “They show you up for the spoiled brat you are.”

Looking at him, Joe made an unwise move with his head and pain shot along his shoulder. He winced and gritted his teeth. He felt incredibly ill. “And they show you what might have been,” he observed hoarsely. “If you hadn’t run away, you could be with your family now, instead of here, being jealous of my family.”

“Tell me the combination of the safe, Joe,” Tom gritted. “Tell me before I do something you’ll regret.”

“No,” Joe replied, quietly. “Even wearing Adam’s clothes, you aren’t like him, not really. You do what you have to do, Tom, and live with the results. My family will track you down, whether or not I’m with you. You’ll go to jail.”

“Shut up!” Tom cried and backhanded Joe again and again. The young man slumped in his bonds and Tom gradually brought himself under control. Realizing that Joe was unconscious again, he rose slowly. He’d been mentally taunting Adam for being less than perfect, but he was worse. He’d taken a liking to Joe, and yet look what he’d just done to him. “And worse,” he said aloud. “What I’m about to do to him.”

When Joe opened his eyes again, the pain was still there and Tom was still there. But Tom was calm now and his eyes were cold and distant. “This is your last chance, Joe,” Tom told him. “Tell me the combination of the safe.” He deliberately drew his knife from his boot again.

This time, Joe didn’t bother to answer. He let his head loll back against the wood behind him, and the pain eased marginally. Blood caked his nose and mouth and Joe felt pulped. He knew that Tom would be long gone before his family got back and found their things missing. He certainly wasn’t going to tell Tom the combination of the safe, and allow this man to steal their most valuable documents.

The tip of the knife pricked underneath his chin. Joe opened his eyes to look at Tom. “Don’t move,” Tom warned him, and deliberately grabbed Joe’s injured shoulder.

White hot pain stabbed through him, and Joe let out an incoherent yell. His body tried instinctively to curl forwards, adding more pain as the ropes binding him prevented any movement. The knife dug into him slightly further, but Joe barely felt it. The world was dark around the edges and Joe gasped for breath.

Letting go, Tom watched as Joe fought the pain. He knew that there was no way that Joe was going to tell him anything. He’d tried everything he knew, and still the boy held out. Rising, he shrugged. “Thanks for nothing, kid,” he said, not sure if his captive could hear him or not. He wasn’t sure he cared. Joe had awakened his conscience, and he didn’t like the feeling.

He went over to the blanket, drew the four corners together and tied them securely. He picked it up, slung it over his shoulder and had a last long look around. There wasn’t anything else portable enough to be worth stealing. Finally, his gaze came to rest on Joe.

Glazed green eyes were watching him. Joe’s face was caked in blood, swollen and bruised; his hands and feet were bound and blood tricked down his throat from the nick under his chin. Yet he had a certain dignity. “You still have time to change your mind,” he whispered.

“Damn, Joe, there’s only one way to shut you up!” Tom complained. He didn’t want Joe calling out too soon to whoever came into the house. He didn’t know how much time he would have to make a clean getaway and every second might count. Putting down the blanket, he went across and gagged Joe.

Retrieving the blanket, he opened the door and went out. Joe slumped down, defeated at last. There was nothing else he could do to protect their belongings. He let go and slid off into unconsciousness.

*****

It had been a completely wasted day, Adam thought, annoyed, as he rode into the yard. He’d gone all the way to Carson City, only for his business contact to not turn up and not send any word. A cold, damp ride in both directions for nothing, he grumbled.

He put up Sport in the stable, noticing that Cochise was already in the stall. The horse was completely dry and it was only when Adam checked his legs that he discovered the missing shoe. There wasn’t another horse missing, so Adam surmised that Joe had remained at home that day. Adam’s annoyance spilled over onto Joe, and he began to silently berate his brother in his thoughts.

As he left the barn, Adam saw the house door open and drew in his breath to let rip at Joe. So it was with total shock that he saw himself leaving the house. For an instant the two men looked at each other disbelievingly. Then, the one by the door said, “Damn me if it isn’t St. Adam! Why am I not surprised you’re here?”

That incredible statement didn’t make any sense to Adam at all, so he disregarded it. What did make sense to him was the blanket slung over the man’s shoulder, and the clothes he was wearing. Without being truly aware of it, Adam drew his gun. “Hold it!” he warned. “Drop the blanket.”

Moving slowly, the other man let the blanket down to the ground. “I wouldn’t want to drop it,” he explained. “Joe spent so long trying to stop me getting this stuff, I’d hate for it to be broken.”

Fear flared through Adam’s heart. “Joe!” he exclaimed. “What have you done to him?”

“He’s still alive, and moralizing, don’t worry,” the other returned sarcastically. “And thanks for the clothes, they fit real fine.”

“Put your hands up,” Adam told him. “We’re going inside.” He gestured with his gun fractionally.

At that moment, Tom drew his gun and fired at Adam. Adam sensed rather than saw the movement, and dived sideways, feeling the air ripple as the bullet missed him by inches. Even as he dived, Adam shot back, and saw his bullet strike his opponent in the upper arm. Tom’s gun clattered to the ground and he dropped to his knees, scrambling for it.

Further up the road, Hoss and Ben exchanged worried glances as they heard the shots and spurred their horses into a gallop. Hoss had been concerned when Charlie came to tell him he couldn’t find Joe, and Hoss had gone into town to get Ben. He’d met his father on the way, as the Association meeting had finished much earlier than expected, and they rode back together.

As they raced into the yard, they saw what looked like two Adams lying on the ground, shooting at one another. For an instant, they froze, unable to believe their eyes, then one of the men shot at them and they hastily dismounted and took cover.

“Adam!” Ben called.

“I’m all right, Pa,” he shouted back and ducked as his alter ego took another pot shot at him.

By now, Tom had worked his way into cover. He sent a fusillade of shots at the Cartwrights, then took his chance and fled. Adam saw the movement and leapt to his feet. Ben reacted to Adam and rose, too. “Get him!” Adam cried, but Ben’s head was cooler.

“Wait!” he shouted. “Where’s Joe? We need to find him!”

“He’s inside,” Adam told him. He hesitated, but concern won out over anger, and he hurried inside, with Ben and Hoss following. Hoss picked up the blanket on the way.

Ben bumped into Adam, who had stopped just inside the door, gazing at Joe in shock. “Joe!” he breathed. Hoss took one look, turned on his heel and called, “I’ll get the doctor,” as he exited the house.

They hurried across to Joe’s side. Ben was scared to touch him at first terrified that he would do Joe more harm. “Joe?” he said, softly, removing the gag. “Joe, can you hear me?”

Slowly Joe stirred and opened his eyes. “Pa?” he slurred. He looked round, carefully not moving his head and saw Adam. A smile flitted briefly across his face and was gone. “Hi, Adam,” he muttered. “I just saw your double.”

If it hadn’t been for the fact they, too, had seen him, Ben and Adam would have thought Joe had lost his mind. “We saw him, too,” Ben told him.

“Where is Tom?” Joe asked, trying to sit up and immediately biting back a cry of pain. Adam was working on freeing his hands, horrified by the raw skin under the ropes.

“If you mean my double,” Adam replied, “I shot him and he got away. Empty handed, by the way.”

“I tried to stop him,” Joe explained. “But he beat me. I wouldn’t give him the combination of the safe, Pa.”

“Well done, son,” Ben replied, not caring about his safe, only caring about his son, but knowing that Joe needed reassurance. “Joe, we’re going to move you upstairs. Where does it hurt?”

“My shoulder,” Joe mumbled. “I think I broke something.”

“All right, you just stay still and let us do the work,” Ben told him. He saw Joe brace himself for the pain, and although they were as careful as they could be, Joe couldn’t take it, and passed out once more. That made it easier for Ben and Adam and by the time Joe roused again, he was in his own bed, his blood stained clothing had been removed and Ben was washing his face with infinite tenderness.

“Pa?” he murmured. Pain was shooting through his arms in waves and when he tried to move his head to look, he was unable to prevent the cry that escaped his lips.

“Easy, Joe, easy,” Ben soothed. “Hoss has gone for the doctor; he’ll be here soon.” He stroked the tangled curls back from Joe’s face. “Can you tell me what happened, son?”

“Can I get some water?” Joe asked. “And where’s Adam?”

“Right here, buddy,” Adam replied, having come back into the room as Joe spoke. “I was just putting some things away.” He leaned over the bed and smiled at Joe. “How do you feel?”

“Terrible,” Joe admitted as Ben helped him raise his head to drink. He drank his fill, then lay back with relief. “For a split second, I thought he was you, Adam,” Joe began and haltingly told his tale. Finally, he was finished and he closed his eyes briefly. “I don’t know what I was thinking of when I offered to go with him,” he admitted ruefully.

“You had a knock on the head,” Ben reminded him gently. He’d felt the knot on the side of Joe’s skull. “Your thinking was probably muddled. Did you have a headache?”

“I still do,” Joe told him and his readiness to admit to his injuries was enough to tell Ben that his son was slightly concussed. “What time is it?” he asked.

“About supper time, according to my stomach,” Adam joked. Joe smiled briefly. “When did Tom burst in?”

“I guess it was about 10 am,” Joe replied. “It was a long day.”

“It was indeed!” Ben agreed. He hadn’t realized that Joe had been a prisoner that long. “You rest, Joe. The doctor will be here soon.”

“Adam,” Joe said, looking at his brother. “He told me – he told me he’d read your journals. I’m sorry.”

Anger poured through Adam for a moment at the thought of some stranger reading his journals. He forced a smile at Joe. “It’s not your fault, buddy,” he told him. “From what you said, you did everything you could to prevent him ransacking the house. Stop apologizing and start being proud of yourself. You kept him so busy that we managed to get home in time to stop him stealing our things.”

“Why are you home so early?” Joe asked, and first Adam and then Ben told Joe about their day.

“I was so afraid for Charlie,” Joe muttered. “And for Hoss, walking in on that.” He yawned and winced.

“It won’t be long now,” Ben soothed, hoping he spoke the truth. Joe needed medical attention now.

“Here’s Paul now,” Adam announced from the window. He opened the bedroom door and a few minutes later, Paul and Hoss appeared.

“What is it this time?” Paul asked, cheerfully, before settling down to his job.

*****

After a couple of days in bed, Joe was soon up and around again. He was still stiff and sore, but his right arm was in a sling and the figure 8 bandages kept his broken collar bone in place. Ben, Adam and Hoss had replaced all the things in the blanket back in the places where they belonged. Nothing was damaged. Even the glass in the photo frames had survived.

“He really did look like Adam, didn’ he?” Hoss asked, as they sat drinking coffee after supper that evening.

“To begin with,” Joe agreed. “But not really when you saw him more closely. The resemblance was superficial.”

“Good thing too!” Adam declared. “I’d hate for people to think I was a criminal!” Tom was still at large and Joe had the odd feeling that he wouldn’t be caught. He wondered if they would ever meet again. They had discussed Tom several times.

“They wouldn’t,” Joe said, quietly. “The resemblance was only skin deep.” He had thought about Tom a lot in the last few days. Under the tough exterior was someone, Joe felt, who wanted to give up his hard life and go home, but could never do it. Joe pitied him, despite everything Tom had done to him.

“It weren’t even that deep on the skin,” Hoss commented, totally missing what Joe was trying to say. “Jist at first glance. Even in Adam’s duds, he weren’t that alike.” He shook his head. “Sure wish we’d managed to catch that feller!” Tom’s tracks had led away from the house and vanished abruptly.

From his seat across the room from Joe, Adam smiled. He knew what Joe meant. “Thank you,” he replied. “That means a lot to me.”

“It’s the truth,” Joe responded. “I wonder if he’ll ever come back.”

“No, Joe,” Ben assured him. “He’ll be long gone from this territory. You’ll never see him again.”

*****

High up in the Sierra mountains, Tom fed some twigs to his fire. He glanced back in the direction of the Ponderosa. “You’d better live, Joe Cartwright,” he said aloud. “Because we’re going to meet again one day, I promise you that!”

***End***

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