Word Count: 10,788
“It ain’t good enough, sheriff!” Dan Waites shouted at Roy Coffee, banging his fist on the sheriff’s desk. “My house burned down last night! What are ya doin’ ta catch these men?”
“I’m doin’ everythin’ I can!” Roy objected. “I’ll get them, don’ worry.”
“Too late,” Waites replied, bleakly. “I ain’t got anythin’ left ta worry about.” He turned and left the office, his anger gone, his shoulders slumped. Roy watched him go.
“Do you need more deputies?” Ben Cartwright asked. He had kept quiet during the confrontation, but now he saw that his old friend needed some comfort and support.
Washing his hand over his face, Roy nodded. “I sure could, but ain’t none of the men willin’ ta be deputized.”
“The boys and I…” Ben started.
“I know ya mean well, Ben, but ya ain’t here in town, an’ that’s where I need the men ta be.” Roy sat down heavily, looking old and tired, Ben thought.
“If there’s anything I can do,” Ben offered and Roy nodded.
“Thanks, Ben. You’ll be the first.” Roy essayed a smile as Ben left.
Walking slowly over to his horse, Ben saw Dan Waites leaning on a building nearby. Dan was just the latest of a string of men who’d lost their homes or businesses to a gang of thieves who torched the place they robbed as they left. Roy had been trying to find them, without any success. But it was the lack of men willing to be deputies that was the problem and most of them wanted to stay home and protect their properties and families. Ben couldn’t blame them. He was lucky to have extra men to stand guard over his property.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Dan?” he offered, drawing rein beside the grieving man.
“No, thanks all the same, Ben,” Dan replied. He straightened. “At least I had no family to lose.” He turned and walked away.
“What news?” Ben asked, when Joe returned from town two days later.
The look on Joe’s face was enough to tell Ben that the news wasn’t good. Joe dropped his hat onto the credenza with unnecessary force and his gun belt clattered down alongside it a moment later. “Dan Waites has petitioned the town council to get rid of Roy,” he replied, biting out every word. “They want to bring in a US Marshal to take control of the town. They say Roy is too old for the job.”
“Who is ‘they’?” Ben asked. “You said Dan Waites.”
Ticking them off on his fingers, Joe enumerated. “Dan Waites, Jim Fenton, Pete Daly, Daly’s boys, Arthur Abbott, Ted Henderson, John Radley and Dave Branson.”
“All the men who had their property destroyed,” Ben murmured. He would have been surprised if Joe had mentioned any other names in connection with this. “What did the council say?”
Flinging himself down onto the sofa, Joe grunted in disgust. “They are ‘considering their position’,” he quoted sarcastically. “How can they do this to Roy, Pa? He’s been a good sheriff for years!”
“They haven’t done anything to Roy yet, Joe,” Ben corrected him gently. “I hope they’ll have the courage to stand behind him. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“It still doesn’t seem fair,” Joe grouched.
“It isn’t,” Ben sighed. “But there’s nothing we can do about it. None of us are on the town council because we don’t live in town.” They exchanged wry glances and a lot of the tension left Joe’s body.
“Well, I hope they do the right thing, then,” Joe muttered.
“Amen,” Ben prayed.
But the town council didn’t move fast enough. There was another break-in and fire that night and this time, the home owner lost his life. There were a number of volunteers for the posse and they followed the trail up into the high country, where it petered out amongst the rocks.
This small success on Roy’s part was enough to convince the council that he should retain his job meantime and the Cartwrights were relieved. But the men who had demanded Roy be replaced were not happy. They banded together and vowed to hunt down the criminals themselves.
“Vigilantes,” Ben growled, when he heard the news. “They should have more respect for the law!”
“What can we do?” Joe demanded, frustrated.
“Nothing,” Adam replied. He had his arms folded across his chest and was frowning hard. “If Roy wants our help, he knows where we are. But we can’t go after the vigilantes, Joe. That would make us no better than them.”
“They shoulda agreed ta be deputies when Roy asked ‘em,” Hoss growled. “Then this might not have happened.” He looked as angry as they all felt and Ben reflected that if the men in question met an angry Hoss, they might well change their ways.
“As Adam says, Roy will ask for our help if he wants it, but in the meantime, keep clear of those men!” Ben cocked an eyebrow at Joe, the one most likely to go off half-cocked and saw his youngest son nod obediently.
The attack on the Ponderosa came that night.
One minute, Adam was standing guard outside the house, smothering yawns at birth and wishing time would move a bit faster so that Joe would come out and relieve him and the next, he was ducking as a gun butt grazed his cheek.
Stunned, Adam barely avoided another swipe at his unprotected head. He fumbled for his gun and fired, not aiming particularly at the criminal, but giving the pre-arranged signal that there was trouble. He felt a bullet bite into his hand moments later and his gun fell from nerveless fingers to clatter uselessly on the ground beside him. Frantically, Adam scrabbled with his left hand to grab his gun.
With a banshee yell, Joe erupted from the house, clad only in pants, brandishing a rifle. He spotted Adam at once and fired at the man standing over him. The man fell backwards and his gun discharged harmlessly into the ground.
Although he was concerned about Adam, Joe knew that he had to protect the house and barn. He raced towards the barn, ignoring the stinging from his bare feet. He yanked open the barn door and saw two men in there, freeing the horses from their stalls. “Hold it!” Joe ordered. He advanced a few steps into the barn as the men raised their hands.
There was a rustle from inside Buck’s stall and Joe sensed, rather than saw, someone stepping towards him. Then something hard cracked him hard across his back and head. Joe collapsed soundlessly to the floor, not quite out. He vaguely saw feet stopping beside him, then the boot drew back and that was the last thing Joe saw.
The firing had roused the whole ranch. Ben and Hoss ran from the house in time to see Adam stagger to his feet by the corral. Men were hurrying from the bunkhouse. Shots were fired.
“Get out a here!” ordered the leader of the outlaws as he glared down at Joe, lying unconscious at his feet. He thought about kicking Joe again for good measure, but as he saw Ben coming towards him, he regretfully decided against it. He hurried off, firing at Ben, but missing.
“Joe!” Ben knelt by his son, peripherally noticing that the horses were loose in the barn, but all still there. Outside, he could hear hoof beats as the outlaws made their getaway. There was still some shooting, but Ben’s attention was on his son.
“Is Joe all right?” panted a voice and Ben glanced up at Adam.
“I think so,” Ben replied. “Adam, you’re bleeding.” He could see the bullet wound in the back of Adam’s hand.
“It’s just a graze,” Adam replied, dismissively. He avoided Ben’s outstretched hand and peered more closely at Joe. “He’s taken quite a blow to the head,” he observed.
Almost as though he had heard, Joe groaned and moved his head. Ben caught the hand that Joe raised to feel his head. “Easy, Joe,” he soothed.
Groaning again, Joe opened his eyes. His head was throbbing. “Pa?” he asked, sounding puzzled. Then, as his focus improved, he saw Adam leaning over Ben’s shoulder, cradling his injured hand, and memory came back with a rush. He bolted upright and wavered dizzily. He would have fallen if Ben hadn’t caught his shoulders. “The horses!” he cried. “Did…?”
“No, they didn’t get them,” Ben soothed. “Easy, Joe, relax. You took quite a knock there.” He gently turned Joe’s head to look at the darkening bruise on his temple. As he did so, he braced his arm along the back of Joe’s shoulders. Joe winced and twisted away. “What…?” Ben began, as Hoss came into the barn, carrying another lantern.
“They got away, Pa,” he reported. “There’s one dead one lyin’ beside the corral.”
“That’s the one Joe shot,” Adam explained. He watched with interest as Ben guided the light Hoss was carrying so that it spilled on Joe’s back.
“You get hit here, too?” Ben demanded. He sounded almost angry.
“Yeah,” Joe replied. “I dunno what they hit me with. I was knocked over and then I saw a boot…” Joe shuddered.
“Hoss, help me get your brothers into the house. Do we have any other injuries?” Ben assisted Joe to his feet, keeping a tight grip on his arm.
“No.” Hoss moved to Adam’s side, but the older Cartwright was steady on his feet.
Inside, once all the lamps were lit, Ben took a close look at both his sons. Adam was right – the bullet had just grazed across the back of his hand. It was a painful injury and would prevent him from using a gun for several days, but there didn’t appear to be any broken bones. He submitted quietly to having his hand cleaned and bandaged and then went gratefully off to bed.
There was very little Ben could do for the bruising on Joe’s back and head except bathe the areas in cool water. Joe’s feet had a smattering of small cuts and grazes on them, but he claimed that he couldn’t feel them. Nonetheless, Ben bathed and bandaged his feet and ordered Joe to bed, too. Joe protested that it was his time to stand guard, but Ben simply hustled him upstairs. Hoss was standing guard and had organized the men so that there were more guards about the place.
Come morning, Adam and Joe proclaimed themselves quite all right after a late breakfast. Adam was disgruntled to discover that his hand had swelled slightly and he found it awkward to do things with his left hand. Joe had discarded the bandages his father had put on his feet and was walking around without even a limp to show. However, the bruise on his back was stiff and painful and his headache was still hanging on.
“We ought to report what happened to Roy,” Adam commented, as he carefully maneuvered the fork towards his mouth.
“Good thinking,” Ben agreed. He had taken the last shift of the night on guard. “Joe, why don’t you do that and while you’re in town, have Paul check out those bruises of yours.”
“But I’m fine, Pa,” Joe protested. “Perhaps Adam should go, since his hand is hurt.”
Giving Joe an exasperated look, Adam opened his mouth to make a sarcastic comment, but Ben beat him to the punch. “Good thinking, son,” he praised. “Adam can go, too and you can each make sure you both go to the doctor.”
Smiling tightly, Adam shot a glance at Joe that promised retribution at a later date. Joe shot one back, rolling his eyes. Ben pretended not to see either reaction. “Since Adam can’t use his gun hand, it wouldn’t be wise to send him in alone, and you did take quite a knock last night,” Ben reminded Joe. “So Adam can keep an eye on you, to make sure that you’re feeling all right on the ride in.” He rose from the table. “And don’t be all day,” he reminded them.
“Good going, Joe,” Adam snarled, as the eggs dropped off his fork once more.
“Oh shut up,” Joe sighed in resignation.
The ride to town was accomplished in near silence. Adam kept an eye on Joe and Joe kept an eye on Adam and both were in a thoroughly foul temper when they reached town.
“Looks like Doc Martin’s in,” Adam growled as they rode down the street. He had just seen the doctor ushering a patient out into the street. “Let’s go there first.”
“Whatever,” Joe mumbled. He had hoped that Adam would decide that neither of them needed to see the doctor.
They entered an empty waiting room, which was something of a novelty. Paul Martin was a very busy doctor. He looked surprised to see Joe and Adam, but he instantly spotted the bandage on Adam’s hand and grinned. “It’s usually Joe who needs an escort to force him to come in here,” Paul joked. “Have you taken on Joe’s mantle as the most stubborn Cartwright, Adam?”
“We both need to be seen,” Adam responded, giving Joe another grim look. Joe returned it in kind.
It didn’t take long for Paul to get the full story and he quickly gave Joe the once over. Both bruises were darkly colored and obviously sore, but there was nothing Paul could do for them. Leaving Joe to shrug back on his shirt and jacket, Paul began to unwind the bandage around Adam’s hand, noticing the older Cartwright wincing as he did so.
“I’ll go and talk to Roy,” Joe offered, seeing the set look on Adam’s face. “I’ll meet you over there, all right?”
“Fine,” Adam replied. He glanced at Joe as his brother put on his hat. His face softened. “Don’t let anyone bump into you.”
Smiling at the sudden offer of a truce, Joe nodded. “And don’t you hit anyone,” he joked, slipping out of the door.
Roy Coffee looked utterly weary and Joe felt guilty about adding to his burden. He kept his narrative short, but Roy looked even wearier at the end of it. “We’re not expecting you to hurry out,” Joe reiterated. “The dead man is slung on a horse outside. I don’t recognize him.”
Rising, Roy followed Joe outside and they inspected the dead man once more. “Yeah, that’s definitely one of the gang,” Roy sighed. “You folks had better watch out; they’re gonna be mighty annoyed that ya done killed one o’ ‘em.”
“We’ll be careful,” Joe agreed.
Turning, Joe saw, with a sinking heart that Dan Waites was coming towards them, followed by the others that had formed the vigilante group. Roy sighed heavily and straightened his shoulders. “What do you boys want?” he asked, belligerently.
“Who’s the dead man?” Waites demanded.
“I don’t see where that’s any of your business,” Joe retorted.
“Is it one of the gang?” Waites went on, ignoring Joe. “Who got him?” He lifted the dead man’s head by the hair, looked at it in satisfaction for a moment, then spat in his face.
Joe was revolted. “I did,” he growled.
The change in their attitude towards him was nauseating. Instantly, they were ‘hail-fellow-well-met’, Waites even moving to put his arm across Joe’s shoulders. “Good for you, Cartwright!” Waites cried. “You show this old fool how it’s done!”
Biting back a cry of pain, Joe rudely shrugged Waites’ arm off and took a step away to stand beside Roy. “Roy Coffee is still the sheriff here,” he grated. “And I came here to tell him something that has nothing to do with you.”
The camaraderie died just like that. Waites’ eyes narrowed. “I don’t think you ought to talk to me that way, boy,” he warned.
“That’s enough!” Roy bristled indignantly. “This here’s none o’ yer business an’ I suggest ya git out a here afore I arrest ya fer loitering.”
For a moment, it looked as though Waites was going to argue and he would certainly have carried the day, given the superior numbers he had. But there was a crowd gathering, watching the confrontation between the legal sheriff and the illegal mob.
“I won’t forget this, Cartwright,” Waites warned him.
“Neither will I,” Joe rejoined, grimly.
“What was all that about?”
Turning, Joe saw Adam standing behind him. “Just Waites and his friends trying to throw their weight around,” Joe replied. “They seemed to think I was on their side.” He snorted eloquently. He glanced down at the bandaged hand resting on the gun that Adam had insisted on wearing that day, despite knowing that he couldn’t use it. “What did the doc say?”
“Just a graze,” Adam replied. “I’ve not to use it much until it heals.” He shrugged. “Guess we’ve both got a clean bill of health, more or less.”
“More or less,” Joe agreed. He stepped down off the boardwalk. “You go inside and talk to Roy. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Where are you going?” Adam asked, suddenly not keen to let Joe out of his sight.
“Relax, big brother, I’m just going to take the corpse to the undertaker.” Joe gestured to the sky. “In case you hadn’t noticed, its summer and Roy wants him buried.”
As Joe turned the horse, Adam went into the jail.
Handling dead bodies was not one of Joe’s favorite occupations. He couldn’t understand how the undertaker could bear to do his job. Exiting the building, Joe leaned against the side of it for a few moments, his eyes shut, as he breathed deeply of the hot, fresh air. As he straightened, something round and hard pressed into the middle of his back.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” warned a voice. “Just keep your hands where I can see them and move on down to the back of the building.” A nudge in the back emphasized the words.
Raising his hands slightly, Joe walked down the alley, wishing that there was someone around to see. The undertaker’s store was on the main street, but Joe had used the side entrance to leave by and had therefore left himself open to this peril. “What do you want?” he asked, roughly.
“You don’t talk!” The gun dug further into Joe’s back. “You just do as you’re told.”
The five men waiting for Joe at the back of the undertakers were not the ones Joe had been expecting. He thought that it would be Waites and his gang, but the men were strangers to him. Or were they? Joe narrowed his eyes as he recognized two of them. He had last seen them in the Ponderosa barn, trying to steal his family’s horses.
A large man, almost as tall and broad as Hoss, grabbed Joe by the throat and slammed him up against the building. Joe choked and grabbed at the arm, but he had no chance of moving it. “One of my men is dead because of you,” he hissed malevolently. “I’m going to take that out of your hide, boy and then you’re gonna help me complete last night’s robbery.”
“I don’t think so,” Joe gasped. He saw the grin growing on the big man’s face and acted instantly, lifting his leg and kicking violently out. He caught the man exactly where he had wanted and the hand relaxed enough for Joe to follow up with a stinging uppercut.
But he was still seriously outnumbered and even as he ducked under one grasping hand, he felt his jacket caught by another. Joe lunged forward, feeling his jacket pulled down over his arms, but before he could complete the maneuver and escape, a fist buried itself in his stomach, doubling Joe over. Another fist hammered down on his shoulders and he grunted in the sudden sharp pain, which drove him to his knees. His arms were effectively trapped behind him by his jacket and Joe knew that his chance to escape was past. Only divine intervention could save him now.
A hand twined into Joe’s hair and his head was yanked painfully backwards. “You’re gonna pay for that, boy!” the big man warned. He slammed Joe’s head down and only good fortune stopped it from bouncing off the hard ground. “Tie him up good, blindfold him and gag him,” the man ordered. “He ain’t gonna get away from us.”
Joe was forced unceremoniously to the ground where his hands were bound tightly behind him and a gag was thrust into his mouth. A blindfold cut off his vision and he felt himself dragged to his feet. He was forced onto a horse and a rope was tied around his middle. As they began to move, Joe could only hope that someone saw them leaving.
“Where is Joe?” Adam asked, impatiently. He and Roy had talked all around the situation several times, but hadn’t got anywhere. Now, Adam was startled to realize that over an hour had passed since Joe left for the undertakers and he still wasn’t back.
“Probably met someone he knows,” Roy replied. “Ya know Joe.”
“If he’s gone to the saloon…” Adam didn’t bother completing the threat. He rose. “I’d better go and look for him. Pa did tell us not to be gone all day.”
Following Adam to the door, Roy said, “Tell yer pa I’ll do everythin’ I can ta find these men afore they try again.”
“I will,” Adam replied. He frowned in the direction of the doctor’s. Sport, his horse, was still waiting patiently at the hitching post, drowsing in the sun. Cochise, Joe’s horse, was gone. “He can’t have gone home without me,” Adam murmured, feeling a thrill of adrenaline shoot through his gut. He frantically scanned the street, hoping to see Cochise tied up else where.
“What’s wrong, Adam?” Roy asked. “Yer as white as a sheet.”
“Joe’s horse is gone,” Adam responded numbly.
Frowning, Roy peered down the street, too. “Perhaps he jist put Cochise somewhere shady,” Roy suggested.
“He would’ve moved Sport, too.” Adam began to walk towards Sport, as though he might find some clue to Joe’s whereabouts by his horse. Roy silently followed, Adam’s worry infecting him.
They searched high and low. Nobody they talked to had seen Joe since he stepped into the undertaker’s office. So that was where they concentrated the search. Adam retraced Joe’s steps out of the side door and saw the footprints in the dusty street. With Roy at his heels, they followed the prints to the back of the store, where there were clear signs of some kind of disturbance. There were a number of hoof prints and Adam followed them until they vanished into the hard rocks at the back of town.
Retracing his steps, Adam was forced to admit that Joe was missing. But who had him and why was anyone’s guess.
“I need deputies,” Roy insisted. He glared at the saloon crowd. “Joe Cartwright’s missing.”
“We’re trying to catch this gang that’s plaguing us,” Waites replied. “Is Joe with them?”
“We don’t know,” Adam admitted. “But Joe killed one of them at our place last night. He was knocked cold by another one and saw at least two of their faces.” Fear began to trickle through Adam’s veins. “They might have him.”
“You should’ve stopped them long ago!” Arthur Abbott shouted at Roy.
Suddenly angry, Adam whirled on him. “If you men had done your civic duty and signed on as deputies, perhaps Roy might have caught them by now. As it is, you’ve prevented anyone else from signing on. Don’t you see? You could hunt down these men just as easily with Roy’s help. You’re as much to blame for his failure as anyone! How can he do this job entirely alone?”
Realizing that everyone in the saloon was watching him now, Adam let go of Abbott’s arm and stepped back. He drew in several deep breaths, but was unable to calm himself. He met many pairs of shocked eyes, but kept his head up and his gaze hard.
“You’re right.” The words came from Waites and his friends looked surprised. “I hadn’t thought of it that way, Adam. Your family has always been good to me and I hate to think of Joe in the hands of those men.” He turned to Roy. “I’m sorry, Sheriff Coffee. I’d like to serve as a deputy, if that’s all right with you.”
Taken aback by the sudden about-face, but knowing that he couldn’t afford to turn down anyone, Roy simply nodded. Within moments, he had all the deputies he could want.
“What did they get from the Ponderosa last night?” Waites asked.
“Nothing,” Adam replied. He looked at the older man and his eyes widened. “You think they might come back?”
“And they’ll bring Joe with them,” Waites guessed.
“I think our next move is to tell Ben what’s happenin’,” Roy suggested. They all went to get their horses.
The ride seemed to go on interminably to Joe. When at last they stopped, he hoped that the gag and blindfold would be removed, but they weren’t. Joe was dragged down off the horse and shoved along, tripping over unseen obstacles until he sensed they were inside a structure of some kind. Judging by the chill in the air, Joe guessed it was a cave. His guess was confirmed when he was pushed onto a dirt floor. He could feel cool, damp rock walls at his back as his feet were tied together.
How long he sat there was anyone’s guess, but he could hear the men moving about, conversing in low tones. A fire was started and coffee brewed. Joe was desperate for a drink. He moved his arms as much as he could. They were getting very sore and the ache between his shoulder blades was very nearly unbearable.
Exhaustion was beginning to take its toll on Joe when footsteps finally approached him. He tensed as a hand grabbed his head, but there was no violence. The gag was just untied. Joe waited in vain for the blindfold to be removed.
“Get him on his feet,” growled a voice. Hands grabbed Joe’s arms and dragged him upright. “You killed my man last night.”
Swallowing, Joe replied, “And if I hadn’t, he would’ve killed my brother.” He kept his chin up defiantly.
Grabbing Joe’s chin in his hand, the leader leant in close, breathing heavily into Joe’s face. Joe tried to twist away to avoid the man’s bad breath, but he couldn’t move. “You’re going to tell me how to get past those guards, aren’t you, boy?” he purred. “And if you tell me the right things, I might just leave you behind there after we’ve looted and burned the place.” He sniggered.
“Only when hell freezes over,” Joe responded softly.
He couldn’t see the blows coming and there was nothing he could do to fight back. When Joe was finally dropped to the dirt floor of the cave, he was beyond speaking. The leader stood over him, panting and massaging his skinned knuckles. “You will tell me, boy,” he warned. “In a while, you’ll tell me everything I want to know.”
Sitting, stunned, Ben could barely hear what Adam and Roy were saying to him. His thoughts were struggling to come to terms with the idea that Joe was a hostage – most probably of the men who had tried to raid the Ponderosa the night before. His mind replayed the scene in the barn from the previous night, and he felt his heart stutter.
“What?” he asked, realizing that Adam had said something that he had missed. “What did you say?”
Knowing the shock that Ben had just received, Adam was patient with him. “We think they might come back here tonight or tomorrow,” he repeated. “This is the only place they’ve raided so far that they have gone away empty handed.”
“Yes, I think you might be right,” Ben agreed. “They might think that we aren’t expecting them to come back.”
“The big difference this time is that they’ll have Joe with them,” Dan Waites suggested.
“What do you mean?” Ben bristled. “Are you suggesting that Joe would willingly help those men?”
That was exactly what Waites had meant to suggest, but faced with Ben’s out-raged glare, Adam’s dark glance and Hoss’ fury, he backed down on the suggestion. “No,” he responded wretchedly. “What I meant is that they’ll have Joe with them as a prisoner. They might use him as a shield.”
“They might,” Adam snapped. “But Joe is only one man. He couldn’t shield them all at once.”
Furious at Adam’s arrogant assumption, Waites flared back at him. “If they rode in here with a gun to Joe’s head, I don’t suppose you’d argue with them, would you?” he sneered. He was quite gratified to see Adam blanch slightly.
“What do you propose?” Ben asked, coldly. He had taken a sudden dislike to Dan Waites.
“I was reckoning on secreting the posse around the ranch, Ben,” Roy replied, ignoring Waites. “They can augment your men. The gang won’t know they’re here, not tonight. If’n the gang don’t hit tonight, we can think on somethin’ else.” He put a reassuring hand on his old friend’s shoulder. “We’ll git Joe back, Ben, jist ya wait an’ see.”
A boot roused Joe from the shallow sleep he had fallen into. He still lay face down on the dirt floor of the cave, his hands still bound tightly behind him, his ankles tied. The blindfold hadn’t moved an inch. The only thing that had changed was that Joe hurt all over from the beating he had taken. He was yanked to his feet. Hands slid under his arms on each side and he was dragged away, his feet still bound. Joe tried to struggle, but he didn’t have the strength. He suddenly felt himself lifted up and before he could catch his breath, he was dropped belly down over a saddle.
As the hands that had put him there secured him with leather thongs, Joe could hear sounds of the men moving all around. He guessed it was dark – or almost dark. They couldn’t risk attacking the Ponderosa in daylight. Joe felt a sudden burst of panic. He hadn’t told them anything, had he?
The horse he was on side-stepped nervously and Joe felt a hand in his hair, pulling his head up. He was so tired of that gesture, he thought. He gritted his teeth against the pain.
“You gonna tell us what we want ta know?” asked an all-too familiar voice.
There didn’t seem to be an appropriate answer to that, so Joe held his peace. He wasn’t sure he would be able to speak anyway. His throat was so dry and his lips were so swollen. A hand crashed across his face and Joe gasped with the pain. His nose began to bleed heavily.
“What we gonna do if’n he don’t tell us?” asked a high-pitched, nervous, young sounding voice close by Joe’s ear.
“If he doesn’t tell us, I’m gonna start cutting bits off him!” the leader growled. Joe felt something cold pressed against his cheek and knew from the feel that it was a knife. “An ear, a finger – who knows? But when I cut off enough bits, he’ll tell us.” He laughed and Joe felt the knife withdrawn and sagged limply.
Moments later, his horse began walking and Joe realized that the leader was probably cleverer than Joe had given him credit for. After bouncing along on his belly like that for a few miles, Joe’s resistance would be further weakened.
“Yes, it does hurt,” Adam agreed through gritted teeth. “But you need every available hand and I can’t just sit here and do nothing, Pa.” He continued to unwind the bandage from around his injured hand and dropped it in a heap on the table. Flexing his hand, Adam swallowed a wince and closed it around his gun. It did hurt – it hurt a great deal – but Adam wanted to be ready if the outlaws arrived that night. Joe was in trouble and that was a good enough reason for Adam to ignore his pain.
“Adam…” Ben looked troubled, but before he could voice any further arguments, Hoss put his massive hand on Ben’s arm.
“Pa, I reckon Adam’s old enough ta know what he’s doin’,” he chided gently. “Ya’d do ezzacly the same thing if’n it were yer hand that were hurt.” He kept his level blue gaze on Ben, willing his father to agree. Hoss didn’t like to see any of his family hurting, but he knew exactly where Adam’s thoughts were on this. He would be doing the same thing if the positions were reversed.
“You’re right,” Ben capitulated. He heaved a big sigh and washed his hands over his face. Joe had only been missing for a few hours, but it felt like days to Ben. He could only hope and pray that his son was still alive and unharmed. He placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “I’m sorry, son.”
“Don’t be.” Adam briefly put his hand over Ben’s. It was an unusual gesture for so self-contained a man. “Joe’s in trouble. We’ve got to do whatever we can to help him. Joe wouldn’t do any less for any of us.” He eyes grew unfocused for a minute as he thought back. “Remember when he broke his coccyx? Remember how he came and sat in the water with me?”*
“Sure do,” Hoss grunted. “He was so sore, he couldn’ git up. I had ta carry him.”
Indeed, Ben could remember that time, as he could remember every time his sons did something selfless for the others. It was something he had encouraged in his children and he was incredibly proud of them all. They were all so different, all so like the mothers who had borne them, and yet they were all so alike in many ways. Ben blinked back the tears that sprang to his eyes.
“Just remember,” he said, huskily, “I don’t want to sacrifice one son for another.” And it wasn’t just Adam he looked at. They both nodded.
“I’m going to post myself with Waites,” Adam announced, as he holstered his gun. The posse was all outside, acquainting themselves with the hands, so they didn’t accidentally shoot one of the good guys.
“Why?” Ben asked, as Hoss shot Adam an approving glance and nodded. He didn’t trust Waites either.
“Good thinkin’,” he praised.
Nodding in return to Hoss – Adam had known that his younger brother would have picked up on the odd vibes coming from Waites – Adam replied, “I don’t trust him, Pa. He changed his mind awfully suddenly back there in town.”
“People do have sudden changes of heart,” Ben suggested, but his heart wasn’t in the defense.
“I know.” Adam sighed and looked thoughtful. “But it just didn’t seem right to me. I can’t really explain it.”
“Just be careful,” Ben begged and Adam nodded. They headed off to take up their positions.
Hanging painfully over the saddle, Joe wondered if it was possible to be any more miserable. He could barely catch his breath and had there been anything in his stomach, he was sure it would have been long gone. But at last, the horse was no longer moving. The relief of being at a standstill was tempered by the fear that the leader of the gang would start tormenting him again. Joe couldn’t tell the man what he wanted to know, and he feared the pain that he was going to face because of that. Would the man really cut off a finger? Much as Joe wanted to deny it, he couldn’t silence the small voice that said it was more than possible.
From all around, Joe could hear the sounds of men dismounting from horses. He desperately wanted to see where they were, what was happening, but the blindfold seemed to be on for the duration. He strained his ears, but couldn’t catch more than the low murmur of voices. Once more, he made an effort to free himself, but his arms were completely numb and his body ached violently.
“You’re not gonna get away.” The voice caught Joe by surprise and he stopped squirming. “You’re gonna tell me what I want to know.”
Swallowing, Joe knew that he didn’t have enough saliva in his mouth to say anything, much less what this man wanted to hear, even supposing he felt inclined to tell him anything. Joe felt a strong urge to urinate as he realized again just how helpless he was. He felt the cold blade of the knife trail lightly round the bottom of his throat. It didn’t appear to have drawn blood, but Joe wasn’t sure that he would realize if he was bleeding.
“Get him off that horse,” the leader ordered and Joe felt hands fumbling at the ties that kept him on the horse. For the first instant, it was a relief to be down, then the pain hit and Joe found himself curled up on the ground, fighting not to groan aloud.
Unseen hands wrestled Joe into an upright position and untied his hands. He groaned anew as his arms were drawn from behind his back and the circulation began to revive. He struggled as best he could, but all he succeeded in doing was to make his captors tighten their grips. His right arm was drawn out to the side and his left was pushed out in front of him, the hands holding fast to his wrist.
Another hand, with hard, calloused skin, took hold of Joe’s left hand and straightened the fingers out. Joe tried to draw back, but he was helpless. He felt something cold and sharp come to rest against the side of his hand and froze in fear. Surely the leader didn’t really mean to cut off his finger? Joe could only imagine how painful it would be and he tried to block out the thought of what the loss of a finger would mean. He was left handed. He could probably adjust in time, but the thought sent tremors down his muscles.
“I was going to cut off your finger,” the leader began, his voice quiet and somehow mocking. “It would be sore, wouldn’t it, boy?” The sudden slash of the knife across the base of his pinkie brought a scream to Joe’s lips. He could feel the heat of his blood streaming across the back of his hand. “Yes, I thought it would hurt,” the mocking voice went on, a hint of laughter now creeping in. “But I thought I’d try something else. Perhaps if I threatened to cripple this hand, you’d tell me what I want to know.”
The thought of losing the use of his dominant hand was a paralyzing one. Joe gasped for breath, trying to calm his terror. “I can’t tell you,” he whispered. His voice was barely audible, so dry was his throat, but the leader heard.
“You are stupidly stubborn,” he sighed. With a single, swift movement, he broke Joe’s pinkie.
Joe had had broken bones before, but that didn’t make the pain any less. In fact, it seemed to hurt more than Joe remembered. The world spun around him as he hyperventilated, trying to control the rivers of agony that shot through his abused hand. He came back to some sort of normality just in time for his forefinger to be broken, too.
By the time Joe had collected his scattered wits, he had no idea how much time had passed. A canteen was put to his lips and he eagerly gulped the water. Sweat was drying on his forehead and a shiver went through his body as a chill wind caught his sweat-soaked clothing.
“Ready to tell me yet?” Joe’s left hand was still extended in front of him, despite his attempts to draw it towards his chest and cradle it protectively.
“The guards will have doubled,” Joe croaked. “There’s no way you can get in.” He swallowed. “So I can’t tell you what you want to hear.”
The defiance enraged the leader. He had an extremely short temper and his men had been more than glad that Joe was around to be a punching bag for him. He back-handed Joe violently across the face and while Joe’s head was still reeling from the blow, he broke Joe’s two middle fingers and his thumb. The pain was over whelming and Joe slid into welcome darkness.
When Joe regained consciousness, his hands were once more bound, but in an unlooked for leniency, they were tied in front of him, crossed at the wrists so that his injured hand was supported slightly by his right hand underneath it. Joe drew his hands closer to his body, as though that could ease the pain that enveloped his left hand.
“So you’re awake at last.” The voice was so close to his ear that Joe flinched. “Let’s get going.”
“W-what?” Joe stuttered as he was dragged to his feet.
“I think you told me what I needed to know after all, boy,” the leader replied, sounding as though he was the last person on earth to lose his temper in an uncontrolled display of violence. “If we can’t sneak in because of the guards, we’ll just ride right up the main road – with you as a hostage.”
“No!” Joe began to struggle, knowing that Ben would do anything to save his life – including giving the Ponderosa to these men to loot and burn. But his struggles were in vain. He was boosted onto the back of a horse – sitting up this time – and someone got on behind him. A gun was placed behind his ear.
“Try anything, and I’ll blow your head off.” The gun was removed and a moment later, a bandanna was forced into Joe’s mouth and then they began to move. Every step the horse took caused jolts of agony to burst through his hand. Joe was going home, but it was the last place on earth he wanted to take these men.
The movement in the darkness caught them all by surprise. “They’re coming up the road,” Roy breathed into Ben’s ear. “What on earth…?”
But Ben had instantly seen what Roy had not. Joe, bound, gagged and blindfolded, was sitting on the front of the lead horse with a gun pointing to his head. “Joe!” he breathed, his emotions warring between relief and fear. As the horse stopped in the yard, Ben rose from his place on the porch, motioning for Roy to stay down, and walked forward.
“What do you want?” he asked, his voice quite composed. He was slightly relieved when Joe turned his head towards his father’s voice.
“I’m sure you can guess that,” the leader replied. He cocked his gun and put it to Joe’s head.
Before anyone could say any more, Waites leapt to his feet and fired. One of the outlaws tumbled dead from his saddle. Adam, distracted by the sight of his brother, bound and helpless, tried to stop Waites, but he was too slow. And in that moment, all hell broke loose.
The horses startled slightly from the sudden shot. Ben, his face blanched of all color, took a step forward and froze as the gun returned to Joe’s head. From all around, there came the sound of shooting, but Ben, Joe and the leader of the outlaws seemed to be in a separate oasis, protected from and oblivious to all that was going on around them. Ben’s eyes were locked to the eyes of the man holding his son a captive.
“If you hurt Joe, there won’t be anywhere in the world that you can hide,” Ben declared. His voice wasn’t raised, but it cut through the hullabaloo without any trouble. “Hell itself will fear to shelter you.”
A shudder ran down Joe’s spine at those words; they didn’t sound like they came from his father at all. A bullet whined past his ear and Joe flinched. He had no idea what was going on, but it sounded like a war had started. He was exhausted, in a great deal of pain and felt incredibly ill.
From out of the darkness that had surrounded Joe for the last several hours that counted his captivity came a voice he knew very well. A voice he trusted implicitly. “Joe! Jump!”
It would cost him in pain, but Joe didn’t hesitate. He launched himself sideways from the saddle, knowing that he had to just fall; there was no opportunity to dismount. He felt the man behind him grab his arm, but all that did was cause Joe to twist around as he fell. As he went down, he felt the air move as a bullet missed him by scant inches. The crash of the shot sounded strangely doubled, but then Joe hit the ground hard, the wind was knocked out of him and pain rocketed through his injured hand. A heavy thud beside him caused him to flinch once more, but Joe couldn’t move to get up and flee, even if he could see where he was going.
As his breath came back with a jolt, Joe felt hands on his shoulders, gentle hands, familiar, loving hands and he relaxed. He was safe. Those hands fumbled to untie the gag and free it carefully from Joe’s torn mouth and then the blindfold was finally removed from his eyes. Joe blinked furiously to clear his vision, but he didn’t need crystal clear vision to recognize his father. He tried to speak, but his mouth was too dry to allow any sound to emerge.
“Joe, are you all right?” Ben asked, anxiously. He helped Joe to sit up, supporting his shoulders.
Before Joe could nod, Hoss and Adam appeared out of the gloom. They both looked incredibly anxious and Joe tried to smile to ease their worries, but judging by the looks on their faces, he wasn’t too successful. His mouth was too sore to make smiling a pleasure.
Someone else appeared and Joe blinked in astonishment at Roy Coffee. What was going on? Why was Roy at the ranch? How had he got there so fast? Joe felt completely bewildered. Roy’s gun was in his hand and was still smoking slightly. “He okay, Ben?” Roy asked, looking down at Joe.
“I think so,” Ben replied, but he didn’t sound convinced. “Come on, boys, help me get Joe into the house.”
Stepping forward, Adam holstered his gun and reached for his knife to cut the rope that held Joe’s hands captive. As the rope fell away, Joe brought his injured hand close to his chest, cradling it protectively. The pain was horrendous. And suddenly, the shock hit him and Joe began to tremble. As Ben and Hoss helped him to his feet, Joe found the world started to spin on its axis. He stumbled, feeling Ben’s arms tighten around his waist. “Wait,” he breathed, but his voice was too faint to carry. He managed another couple of steps before his knees buckled underneath him and he tumbled to the ground. Joe was vaguely aware of Ben talking to him, but it was easier to just let go. He slid into unconsciousness.
“Five dead, including Dan Waites,” Roy reported. He held his hands out to the warmth of the fire in the great stone hearth and sighed heavily. “That fellar you shot is still alive, though, Adam. Clem’s takin’ him inta town.”
“Good,” Adam replied, but his attention was still mostly focused on the stairs, waiting for Ben and Hoss to come back down. Adam had helped Roy with the aftermath of the massacre started by Waites. Adam had been correct in suspecting that Waites’ change of heart was put on. He had simply wanted his chance to kill the men who had destroyed his life. Very few of the men had emerged unscathed from the gun battle and Adam was still unclear how it was that none of his family had been touched. He shrugged to himself. It didn’t matter; all that mattered was that they had Joe back alive. “Roy, I’m just going up to see how Joe is.”
“I’m goin’ back ta town,” Roy nodded. He was surprised Adam had waited around that long. “I’ll hurry the doc.”
“Thanks.” With a smile, Adam hurried upstairs while Roy let himself out.
When he regained his senses a short time later, Joe was slightly surprised to find himself being tucked securely into his bed. He swiveled his head and Ben paused for a moment before tucking the blankets around Joe’s bare shoulders and sitting on the edge of the bed. “How do you feel?” he asked, his eyes gently caressing Joe’s bruised, pale face.
Opening his mouth, Joe was embarrassed when only a squeak emerged, but Ben seemed to realize what was wrong and a few moments later held a glass of water to Joe’s lips. Joe sipped gratefully. The first swallow was sheer bliss. Joe wanted to grab the glass and gulp the water down as fast as he could, but seeing the way Ben was holding onto the glass, he knew that his father wouldn’t allow him to.
When Joe finally finished the glass, Ben smiled at him. “Now, how do you feel?”
“Better,” Joe replied, his voice still hoarse. He cleared his throat and moved slightly. His body hurt all over, especially his stomach and hand. He looked round. “Where are Hoss and Adam? Are they all right? What happened out there?”
“Don’t worry,” Ben soothed. “Your brothers are both fine. Hoss just went down to get some water. Adam was helping Roy outside.”
“What happened?” Joe persisted.
“I’m not exactly sure,” Ben replied, truthfully. “Dan Waites shot one of the outlaws and the next thing I knew, there were bullets flying everywhere.” Ben eyed Joe assessingly. “I was trying to get the leader to let you go. Then Adam shouted to you to jump and you did. The leader shot at you, but missed. Then he fell – I think Adam might have shot him.”
“But they didn’t…”
“No, they didn’t get anything, and they didn’t set fire to anything, either.” Ben frowned as Joe moved and winced. “What happened to you, son?”
“They grabbed me as I left the undertakers,” Joe replied. “The big man, he wanted me to tell him where the guards would be posted. He beat me up when I refused. I was kept blindfolded and tied up most of the time and when he asked again and I refused he… he…” Joe swallowed and closed his eyes for a moment. “He broke my fingers,” he concluded in a whisper. His eyes opened again to look into Ben’s appalled face. “I told him he’d never get through; that you’d double the guards.” Despair colored Joe’s voice. “And he decided to ride right up to the house. He said if I was lucky, he would leave me behind when he’d finished burning things.” Joe blinked away the tears that clung stubbornly to his lashes. “I didn’t mean for that to happen, Pa. I’m so sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for, Joe,” Ben soothed. “Nothing. I’m so sorry that you got hurt.” He reached out to brush the curl back from Joe’s forehead. It was a familiar gesture that brought comfort to them both.
The bedroom door opened and Hoss came in bearing a basin of warm water and Adam came in at his back. Both looked relieved to see Joe awake and hurried over to the bed. “Good to see those green eyes open again,” Adam teased.
“Good to see you, too,” Joe smiled. He moved again, unable to find a truly comfortable position and winced again.
“Let me wash some of the dirt off your face, son,” Ben suggested.
“Hop Sing’s bringing up a couple of hot water bottles,” Hoss volunteered, beaming down at Joe. “Hiya, Shortshanks.”
“Hey, Hoss.” Joe forced another smile, but in truth, the pain was now crowding in on him and he felt exhausted and ill. He submitted to Ben washing his face and felt better for it afterwards. It was somehow comforting to be treated like a child. But once Ben was done, Joe curled onto his side, hoping to ease the pain in his stomach. His hand was a ball of burning misery.
Opening his eyes, Joe saw that his family were looking down on him worriedly. “Yeah, Pa?” It was an effort to speak.
“Joe, the doctor’s on his way.” Ben knew that what he had just said was totally inadequate as comfort. “Can I see what hurts so much?”
“Sure,” Joe sighed, not caring. If Ben was going to leave him alone after looking, Joe was quite happy for him to do that.
Being careful of the damaged, swollen hand, Ben drew back the covers. When he had stripped off Joe’s dirty, damp clothes, he hadn’t paid much attention to the condition his son was in, other than to be careful. But now, his eyes skimmed down over Joe’s muscular chest to the lean, taut belly and saw the dark bruising spreading there. Worried, Ben raised his eyes to glance at Adam, whose eyes were also dark with worry.
“Let me put a bottle there,” Adam suggested smoothly, when Ben’s voice appeared to have failed him. Luckily, Joe had his eyes shut again, and so hadn’t seen the stricken look on Ben’s face.
The heat was soothing and Joe sighed slightly as the warmth began to penetrate. He felt Ben tuck the covers around him again and snuggled in deeper. He hadn’t seen Ben catalogue all the bruising which dotted his torso. There were even finger-shaped bruises on his throat. But they were superficial. The worrying bruise was the one on Joe’s stomach – did it denote internal bleeding?
Glancing at the dark sky outside, Ben prayed that the doctor would hurry.
Joe was in a restless sleep when Paul Martin arrived several hours later. Ben had kept a steady vigil over him and Hop Sing had kept the hot water bottles hot. Adam had told them all about the number of dead and injured from the battle in the yard and it was during this recitation that Joe had dozed off.
“Dan Waites.” Ben shook his head. “I never would have thought of him as the vengeful type.”
“Nor I,” Adam agreed. “But that was why he and his buddies agreed to join the posse and come out here. They weren’t interested in arresting the outlaws; they wanted to kill them, pure and simple. I would suspect they’ll all go to jail – the ones who survive, at any rate.”
“How many of our men were injured?” Ben asked.
“Just two,” Hoss replied. “Fred fell off of the edge o’ the roof, but he pretty much bounced an’ his head’s pretty hard.”
Ben couldn’t help smiling at that. “But was he hurt?”
“Not so’s ya’d say hurt,” Hoss hedged. “He jist banged his head, an’ we all know that Fred ain’t got much up there.” This was an old joke. Fred had been a reliable hand for years. He wasn’t blessed with much of an imagination and he knew it. It was a running joke between he and Hoss that Hoss looked thick and wasn’t and Fred didn’t look thick and was!
“Jim took a bullet crease in his arm,” Adam reported. “But he’s fine. Everyone else is all right. We were lucky, Pa.”
“Sure were,” Ben agreed. “I’ll go and see Fred and Jim in the morning.” He had risen to pace the room, pausing often to look out of the window or study Joe.
So when the door opened to admit the physician, there was general relief in the room, although it wasn’t all for the same reasons.
“Sorry I’ve taken so long,” Paul apologized. “How’s Joe?” He bent over the sleeping man and studied his color. “Joe?”
It didn’t take much to wake Joe and Paul questioned him about his experiences. Like Ben, Paul examined the bruise on Joe’s stomach, but he didn’t touch it at all. His face gave nothing away, but Ben was sure that Paul was worried.
“I’m going to set those fingers of yours, Joe,” Paul told him at last. “You just have a nice sleep there. When you wake up…”
“I’ll be sick to my stomach from the chloroform,” Joe joked, weakly. “Do you have to use it?”
“You wouldn’t like to be awake while I do this,” Paul replied.
A sick look crossed Joe’s face and he shuddered. “No,” he agreed. “I wasn’t too keen on being awake while it was happening, either.”
There was an uneasy pause and then Paul filled the gap. “That shows a modicum of sense,” he remarked. “Are you sure you’re not concussed?” He produced the chloroform and Joe was soon slumbering.
Setting the broken fingers was a tricky job, but Paul accomplished it with Ben’s help. The hand was splinted and wrapped in lots of bandages, until it resembled a giant snowball. The breaks were quite straightforward and Paul didn’t really expect any complications in healing. The gash at the base of Joe’s pinkie was deep but straight and clean and Paul put a couple of stitches in it.
Then he examined Joe’s stomach. He had feared internal bleeding when he first saw the dark bruise spreading like some sort of malignant cancer across the young man’s golden skin. He had feared that Joe’s spleen might have ruptured, in which case there would be nothing he could do. Surgery really wasn’t an option. But as he carefully felt around, he became more and more certain that this was just what it appeared to be – a huge bruise. The spleen area did seem to be tender, but it wasn’t enlarged and if Joe had been bleeding from a ruptured spleen, he almost certainly would already be dead.
None of Joe’s other injuries was serious. Paul waited for Joe to come around before he gave him something for the pain. Joe soon drifted off to sleep again.
“He’ll be fine, Ben,” Paul assured his old friend. “A few days rest and he should be feeling much better.”
“Thank you,” Ben replied. He ruffled Joe’s curls tenderly. “I really feared for him this time, Paul.”
“You fear for him every time,” Paul chided, gently. “And for Adam and Hoss. Come on, let’s go and tell them the good news.”
Joe certainly was sore for a few days and he was only just starting to creep around the house when word was sent from town that the circuit judge had arrived and Joe was wanted to give testimony at the trial of the remaining outlaws. Ben wanted to ask for a few more days rest, but Joe vetoed the suggestion.
“I just want to get it over with, Pa,” he explained.
Seeing Joe so pale was worrying for Ben, but he had to admit that he could understand Joe’s thoughts on the matter. So, reluctantly, they set off for town in the buckboard the next day. Joe had required help to get into the buckboard, partly because he was so stiff and partly because his left arm was securely in a sling.
There was a crowd at the courthouse in town and Joe was embarrassed to be seen being helped down from the buckboard, but there was nothing he could do about it. He received lots of sympathetic and pitying looks and heard open speculation about what had actually happened to him. He knew that after his day in court, everyone in town would know what had happened.
The trial itself proved less of an ordeal than any of them expected. The leader of the outlaws clearly hadn’t expected to see Joe turning up to testify, but the effect of the pale, injured young man on the jury wasn’t to be underestimated. A couple of the other outlaws had offered state’s evidence in exchange for the promise of a lighter sentence and Joe’s testimony, offered in a clear, slightly shaky voice, was just the icing on the cake. The sentence of death was carried out that afternoon, less than two hours after the jury had returned a verdict of guilty.
“What’s going to happen to the others?” Joe asked that night, as he slumped tiredly on the sofa in front of the fire. He was exhausted, but he wanted to know the answer to his question before he went off to bed.
“I’m not sure,” Ben admitted. “There’s going to be a trial, I know that much. Adam is testifying.”
“What they did was wrong, wasn’t it?” Joe asked. “There’s a word for it, but I can’t remember what it is.” He smothered a yawn at birth, only for another one to break free. “Sorry.” He rubbed his eyes.
“Vigilante,” Adam supplied. “Someone who takes the law into their own hands.”
“I don’ understand why they done that,” Hoss admitted.
“Neither do I,” Joe agreed.
“Well, neither do I, entirely,” Ben replied. “After all, Roy was looking for a posse and they both wanted the same thing – to catch the men responsible.”
“But Dan and the others didn’t want to hand the men over to a judge,” Adam pointed out. “They wanted to be judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one and not bother with a trial at all.”
“And look where it got them,” Joe remarked sadly. “A trial all their own.”
“We have laws for a reason,” Ben reminded them. “The law isn’t perfect, but it’s all we have and everyone has to support it. If not, then law and order break down completely and people start doing this kind of thing and it all ends in tragedy.”
There was a long silence, but at length, Joe shook off the drowsiness that was threatening to overtake him and got to his feet. “I’m going to bed,” he announced.
“I’ll come and help you,” Ben volunteered and the others bade Joe goodnight.
Upstairs, Joe was thoughtful. “Sometimes, its very tempting to take the law into your own hands, isn’t it, Pa?” he asked.
“Yes,” Ben agreed, warily.
“But you pay for it in the end, one way or another, don’t you?” Joe went on, as he sat down to allow Ben to pull off his boots. “You might seem to get away with it at first, but it always catches you up in the end.” He sighed. “Either the law gets you, or you end up getting shot by someone who works for or with the law. But you always pay in the end.”
“There’s always a price,” Ben agreed. “Even when you don’t get caught or shot, there’s always a price.”
Puzzled, for he was desperately sleepy, it took Joe a moment to realize what Ben meant. “Your conscience,” he nodded. “Of course. And you can never get away from your conscience.” He slid beneath the covers. “I’m glad the ranch wasn’t burned, Pa.”
“Me, too,” smiled Ben, as Joe’s eyes dipped shut of their own volition. “And I’m glad you’re safely home.”
“G’night,” Joe breathed.
“Good night, son.” Ben walked quietly to the door where he paused and looked back. Joe’s breathing had evened out already and he was sound asleep.
Leaving the room, Ben paused again, thinking. He was lucky that his sons, although they may have been tempted as Joe suggested, had never taken the law into their own hands and become vigilantes. He knew of a few occasions when they had actively worked against that and he gave thanks that the things he had tried to teach them had taken root so strongly.
As he walked downstairs, he heard Adam and Hoss discussing that very thing and saying pretty much what Joe had said. His sons might be as different as chalk and cheese, but they were remarkably similar. Ben smiled as he recalled thinking that before. Then it must be true, he thought.
“What’s so funny?” Adam asked him as Ben gave a quiet chuckle.
Smiling, Ben refused to answer. If he insisted that his sons were all alike, he knew they would start to deny it, not realizing that their denials were simply proving what he had said.
They were all together and all safe. What more could a man ask for?
* Doing What Had To Be Done