Witch Hunt (by Rona)

Summary:  Sequel to “The Witches Coven”.

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9778


 

 

Sitting at the big desk in the study area, Adam Cartwright heard hoofs coming into the yard, swiftly followed by footsteps on the porch. Moments later, the door opened, banged closed, and his father called, “Joe?” When there was no response, Ben came further into the room, and glanced around. His eye fell on Adam and he hurried over. “Where’s Joe?” he asked, urgently.

“I have no idea,” Adam replied, carelessly, his gaze and his mind still on the books in front of him. “I haven’t seen him all day.” He put his finger on the column he was working on and wrote down the figure. “How was the Cattleman’s Association meeting?” he asked.

“Fine,” Ben answered, with a distracted air. It began to impinge upon Adam that his father was very agitated.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” he enquired. “What’s Joe done now?”

“Nothing,” Ben replied, unconvincingly. “He hasn’t done anything. I just need to know where he is.”

“He went out to check the grazing,” Adam reminded him. “You told him to this morning at breakfast. Pa, what’s wrong? And don’t say nothing, for something clearly is!”

Sinking down into the seat by the desk, Ben said, “It’s Patty.”

As an answer, this meant less than nothing to Adam. He perched his hip on the edge of the desk. “Patty?” he ventured. “Who’s Patty?”

“Patty Smith,” Ben said, dully. “She tried to kill Little Joe twice a couple of years ago.”

“Oh, Patty,” Adam repeated, the memory surfacing with a mixture of horror and embarrassment. Patty had twice tried to kill Joe. Adam and Hoss had saved him the first time, and there had been a monumental row afterwards when Joe discovered his brothers had been checking up on him. It had all smoothed over, but Joe had become inveigled with Patty all over again, and she had had a second attempt to kill him.

Patty Smith had decided that she was a witch. With her birthday being Halloween, and her great-grandmother having been burned as a witch, Patty had convinced herself that she, too, was a witch. She had found a book of spells in the attic of her home and had followed them. She had intended to make Joe her sacrifice to the goddess. Finally, she had been committed to an asylum to avoid the necessity of a trial, and a hanging. Initially, there had been reports that Patty was leaving the asylum, despite being locked up, but this was never proved and the Cartwrights had put the incident behind them and moved on with their lives. Now, it seemed she was back.

“What about Patty?” Adam asked, a thread of unease curling through his stomach. He had seldom seen his father this shaken.

Raising his head, Ben gave Adam a bleak look. “There was a fire at the asylum,” he reported. “Patty and a couple of other inmates escaped. She’s at large.”

There was nothing to be said, so Adam said nothing. But his thoughts were instantly with his youngest brother, wondering if he were safe.

*****

“Hi, Pa,” Hoss called, as he came into the yard. Ben was loitering by the hitching rail. He smiled at Hoss, but the middle Cartwright son wasn’t fooled. “What cha doin’ out here?” he asked.

“Oh, waiting for Joe,” Ben replied, trying to sound casual. He failed. He dug his hands into his pockets and tried not to peer past the barn to see if there was any sign of Joe.

“What’s he done?” Hoss asked, dismounting.

“Why do you think he’s done anything?” Ben demanded, irritably. “Just because I want to talk to your younger brother does not immediately mean that he’s in some sort of trouble.”

“It usually does,” Hoss remarked and took Chubb into the barn. Ben gazed after him.

When Hop Sing called them to supper a few minutes later, there was still no sign of Joe. Reluctantly, Ben brought Hoss up-to-date with what was going on, and Hoss also found there was nothing he could say. Patty had made Hoss so uncomfortable that he had buried the memory deep within and he no longer thought about her at all.

“Do you want us to look for him?” Adam asked, as they left the table. Ben had only picked at his food, worrying wrinkling his brow throughout the meal. “There’s still several hours of daylight left.”

“Perhaps we should,” Ben agreed. “He is late, and we know he could be in danger.”

“Let’s go then,” Hoss stated and got to his feet.

They were crossing the yard when a disconsolate figure walked in, leading his horse. “Joe!” Ben exclaimed, rushing over. “Where have you been? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe assured him, wondering why everyone was outside. “Cochise threw a shoe, and I had to walk back.” He made a dramatic face and rolled his eyes. “I bet you didn’t wait supper for me either. I hope you left me something, Hoss,” he joked.

“I thought something had happened,” Ben said, relieved.

“It did,” Joe joked, still not feeling the atmosphere. He was tired from the long walk, and relieved to get home before darkness fell. “My horse threw a shoe!” He turned to take his horse into the barn. Adam and Hoss hesitated, but saw Ben tilt his head towards the house. He wanted to talk to Joe alone. Reluctantly, they went back indoors.

Following Joe into the barn, Ben watched as Joe untacked his mount and gave him some grain. He started to rub the pinto down, casting Ben curious looks. It wasn’t unheard of for Ben to come to the barn to chat, but his father wasn’t chatting tonight. He was just staring. Joe began to feel uneasy, and cast his mind about, trying to think if there was something he’d forgotten to do. Then it occurred to Joe that his family had all been heading towards the barn when he’d come home and they were all armed. And the relief in Ben’s voice…

Swallowing, Joe said, as calmly as he could manage, “What’s wrong?”

Ben started visibly. For a moment, Joe thought he was going to deny that anything was wrong, but Ben looked away and cleared his throat before beginning. “Joe, Patty Smith has escaped.”

For a blessed moment, Ben’s words had no meaning for Joe. Then the memories rushed back, and he had to swallow hard against the nausea that rose in his throat. He paled. “How?” he asked, his voice sounding very unlike his own.

“There was a fire at the asylum,” Ben explained, watching Joe closely. His son’s pallor worried him. “Some of the inmates escaped as they were rescued. Patty was one of them.”

Mechanically, Joe continued to rub Cochise down, but Ben could see that his thoughts were not on what he was doing. Joe was gazing at some internal vista of hell that only he could see. Stepping forward, Ben took the brush from Joe’s hand and put his arm round his son. Joe leaned against the familiar warmth and suddenly he was shaking.

Concerned, Ben led Joe over to a hay bale and made him sit. The shaking continued, and Joe’s hands clasped one another so hard that his knuckles were white.  Ben supported him, not saying anything; for what was there to say?

Gradually, the shaking stopped, and Joe suddenly slumped against Ben, as though all his strength had drained away. “When?” he asked, and his teeth chattered again.

“Three days ago,” Ben replied. “She was last seen in the company of two other inmates. Joe, I need to tell this bit to Adam and Hoss, too. Can you walk?”

“I’ll try,” Joe replied, for he felt exhausted, as though he’d been ill. He got to his feet with Ben’s help and took a deep breath. With his father’s strong hand under his arm, Joe shuffled forwards, and after a few steps found that he could support his own weight. Ben felt the difference, but kept his hand there. He knew that Joe had had a nasty shock, and his legs could give out again without warning. However, they made the house without any problems, and Joe slowly took off his hat, jacket and gun belt before going to sit on the settee. Adam and Hoss watched him anxiously throughout.

Going to the sideboard, Ben poured them all a brandy. He handed the glasses round, and made Joe take a sip. After a moment, he could see color returning to Joe’s face. Joe glanced at him and nodded his thanks. The brandy had made him feel a bit better.

Sitting down, Ben cradled his glass between his hands. “Patty was last seen in the company of two other inmates,” he said, starting where he had left off in the barn. “Both of them, Calvin Hogg and Johnny Munroe, were locked up after torturing people to death.” He took a sip of his drink. “They both escaped hanging because they are mentally retarded. They didn’t understand that what they had done was wrong. Roy tells me they are both big men and easily recognizable. Hogg is bald, with a scarred head and Munroe has crossed eyes of different colors.”

“Does Roy think Patty is still with these two guys?” Adam asked, conscious that Joe was gazing into the fire and had said nothing.

“Well, from what Paul told me, Patty had made these two men into sort of acolytes. They followed her everywhere and did what she told them to. It seems unlikely that she would leave them once they escaped. It could be that Patty thinks they will be of some help to her.” Ben, too, was looking at Joe.

“What’re we gonna do?” Hoss asked.

“You boys are going to stay in the house until she’s found,” Ben said, firmly.

“You can’t do that, Pa!” Joe protested, on his feet. He swayed unsteadily.

“Joe’s right,” Adam said, as Hoss coaxed Joe into sitting down again. “Pa, you can’t afford to have us all cooped up here. It’s our busiest season.”

“Now, Adam,” Ben started, but Hoss over rode him this time.

“Adam’s right, I reckon,” Hoss stated. “You cain’t say that Patty’ll ever be caught, cos we dunno where she went. We’re too busy to stay home right now, Pa. It don’t make sense.”

“And if we’re all at risk, as you seem to think,” Adam continued, “then having us all here in one place means we’d be an easy target. Both Hoss and Joe are right; we need to carry on as much as usual as we can. I agree we shouldn’t be alone, but we can’t stay here.”

Gazing at his sons, Ben had to admit defeat. Adam was right; they all were. They couldn’t stay at the house day after day for who knew how long. It was their busiest season and he needed his sons out working with the men. Yet he was reluctant to agree. He knew they were all adults, capable of taking care of themselves, yet his instinct was to protect them from harm. He fought the urge to simply forbid them to go anywhere. His sons did as he told them because he was their boss as well as their father; he couldn’t expect them to obey him as though they were still small boys. He smiled faintly as he thought how much easier it had been when he had the final say in any argument.

“You’re right, all of you,” he agreed, heavily. “I can’t afford to have you cooped up. But I must have your promise that you won’t go about alone.” He made eye contact with them until they nodded. Joe was the last one to add his agreement.

“I don’t think you should go about alone either,” Adam suggested to Ben. “Just in case.”

“No,” Ben agreed.

Gulping down the last of his brandy, Joe rose to his feet. He was much steadier this time. “I think I’ll go to bed,” he announced.

“You haven’t had any supper,” Ben protested.

“I’m not hungry,” Joe told him, truthfully. He stomach was no longer churning, thanks to the warming properties of the brandy, but he knew that if he tried to eat, he would be sick. “I’m tired,” he went on, which was also the truth. Joe was tired, but he doubted very much if he would get much sleep. His mind was churning much too quickly to allow sleep to come easily, if at all. But at that point he wanted some time alone.

“Good night, then,” Ben said, doubtfully.

Giving his father a smile, Joe slowly climbed the stairs and went into his room. He shut the door and leaned back on it, his eyes closed. Patty. He had managed to forget about Patty, and now the nightmare was back to haunt him. Stripping off his shirt, Joe looked at his body in the mirror. Tiny white lines were the only visible reminders of his ordeal at Patty’s hands. Mostly, Joe could ignore them. That night, it seemed to him they were particularly visible, as if reminding him that his tormentor was loose once more. With an incoherent cry, Joe threw his shirt over the mirror, blocking out the sight.

*****

At breakfast next morning, Joe was tight-lipped and silent. He was pale and tired looking, but no one suggested that he not go on as normal. It was clear that Joe was ready to snap at anyone who looked at him the wrong way. The others could quite understand. Sleep hadn’t come easily to any of them, and they all felt out of sorts that morning. Ben was grateful that Joe hadn’t had any nightmares, but he didn’t know that Joe had spent a large part of the night awake, fighting off sleep, terrified of the dreams he might have if he did drop off.

“Hoss, I want you and Joe to go up to the new grazing and take a last look around there, so we’re ready when the herd arrives there later this afternoon. Double check the waterholes and we’ll get there as soon as we can.” Ben looked down the table at Adam, trying to ignore the fact that Joe was simply playing with his food, not eating. “Adam, you and I will go with the herd.”

Dropping his napkin on his plate, Joe mumbled something that sounded like “Excuse me,” and went out. Ben wondered if he thought the instructions he had been given were some kind of a slight, but it was pretty standard that Ben send 2 men up to double check the grazing the day they moved the herd. Ben was quite sure Joe had everything under control up there; but he would have sent the boys in any case.

As it happened, Joe had barely heard his father’s instructions. He was desperately trying to keep himself from dwelling too long on Patty. It took a real effort to think about something else, and whenever he relaxed even slightly, the thoughts and images tumbled back into his mind.

“Keep an eye on him, Hoss,” Ben pleaded, unnecessarily.

“Ya can count on me, Pa,” Hoss assured him, as he finished his breakfast and went out to get his horse.

*****

Neither brother spoke much as they made their way to the new grazing. The west pasture was played out, and Ben was moving the herd to the South Forty. The grass there was lush and fresh. When they arrived, Joe and Hoss immediately checked the waterholes and found them clear.

“Look at this,” Joe called, crouching near the stream that fed one of the holes. “Fresh tracks. These weren’t here yesterday.”

“Looks like a pretty big cat,” Hoss commented, bending over to look at the tracks. “Recent, too. Reckon we oughta follow them some, Joe. See where they lead to.”

“My thinking exactly,” Joe replied. He straightened and drew his rifle from his scabbard on the saddle. Hoss copied him and they left the horses grazing in the meadow.

It was acknowledged that Hoss was the best tracker in the family. Joe teased him that it was because he was part grizzly bear, but he was proud of his middle brother’s expertise and willingly let Hoss take the lead.

Tracking a big cat was never easy. The cat always seemed to know that there was someone on its tail and often turned the tables on the tracker. Both Joe and Hoss knew this, and were especially careful. They couldn’t afford to have a big cat around the herd. If it was a female, it might have cubs and so would need to hunt regularly. A nice fat herd of cattle in the meadow would be perfect prey for it. It was imperative that they find the cat.

After a few minutes, the tracks led up towards the high country. The ground was stonier and the tracks more elusive and Hoss slowed the pace right down so he didn’t miss any little sign. Joe kept a sharp eye out for any movement in the rocks above, but apart from the odd butterfly, there was nothing.

The morning was strangely still. There was almost no wind to speak of and as he listened, Joe realized that he couldn’t even hear any birds singing. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he shivered. Before he could whisper anything to Hoss, his older brother straightened and beckoned imperiously to Joe before heading off higher into the rocks.

Several paces further on, Hoss came to an abrupt standstill and looked around. “Lost ‘em,” he whispered. “Joe, you climb on up there an’ check the high ground there, ok?” He saw Joe nod. “I’ll go on thisaway.”

As quietly as he could, Joe began the climb. It wasn’t arduous, but the need for stealth made him very careful where he put his feet. Some of the rocks were loose, and Joe thought it might not take much to start a landslip. He slowed even further, but soon reached the flat land at the top.

There was a natural meadow there, and Joe had often thought it a pity that the approaches to it were too steep for any grazing animal. He straightened up, panting slightly and looked around. The trees on the opposite side of the narrow grass strip were dark with shadow. Apart from that, the grassland was empty. Joe cast around, hoping to pick up the cougar’s tracks, but not seeing anything.

He was about to begin his decent and catch up with Hoss when some movement made him pause and look round. There was nothing to be seen, but he knew he’d seen movement. Lifting his rifle, he turned back towards the trees, where he thought he had seen something.

With a loud snarl, the cougar lunged from the trees, right at Joe. Joe whipped up his rifle and fired at point blank range. He missed cleanly. Then the animal was on him, and Joe instinctively twisted away.

The cat’s weight knocked Joe off his feet and by some miracle, the raking claws missed him. The cat skidded to a stop at the edge of the rocks and turned for another try. Joe scrambled to his feet, groping for his dropped gun, and finding only his hand gun.

Backing away, for he needed room to maneuver, Joe was appalled when his left foot suddenly disappeared from underneath him. A searing pain shot up his leg and he fell awkwardly to the other knee. The cat was almost on him, and Joe whipped up his gun and fired several times in quick succession.

The cat hit him, and Joe tensed, preparing for the mauling he knew he was going to receive.

Only it never came. The cat landed at his feet, and Joe saw that it was dead. Somehow, he had managed to kill it.

Relief swept over him. Joe slumped where he was, panting to catch his breath and saying a prayer of thankfulness. It was only when he tried to rise a moment or two later that he realized that he was in big trouble. His left foot was stuck tight in a crevice in the rocks.

“Joe!” it was Hoss. Seldom had Joe been so glad to see anyone.

“Here!” he called. He waved as Hoss’ big white hat appeared over the edge of the meadow and a few moments later, Hoss was kneeling beside him.

“Are ya all right, Punkin?” Hoss asked. “That cat didn’ get ya?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Joe responded. “But my foot’s stuck, Hoss. I can’t get it out.” He tugged futilely on the trapped leg and pain flared up it once more.

Laying down his gun, Hoss tried to free Joe, but the pulling just caused Joe more pain and got them nowhere. “I gotta git help,” Hoss said. “Will ya be all right here?”

Gritting his teeth, Joe nodded. “Just don’t be too long,” he pleaded.

Squeezing Joe’s shoulder sympathetically, Hoss rose to his feet. “I’ll be as quick’s I can,” he promised. He took a few steps away from Joe then stopped. He turned back, a frown on his genial face.

“What’s wrong?” Joe asked. He felt a jolt of panic run through his belly.  “Hoss?”

“Joe, I cain’t leave ya alone like this,” Hoss said, returning to kneel by Joe’s side once more. “Pa said we wasn’t to be alone. What if Patty is around here?”

Biting back the angry retort that sprang to his lips, Joe just looked at his brother. Trying to sound clam, he said, “But we need tools to get my foot free. What are we going to do?”

Pursing his mouth, Hoss thought deeply about it. He knew that they didn’t want Joe’s foot to be trapped for any longer than was necessary. If it swelled a lot, Joe could be weeks before he could walk again, and they didn’t know what kind of damage had been done to it. If they waited for Ben and Adam to arrive with the herd, it could be several hours. Yet Hoss was growing more uneasy by the minute and would not consider leaving Joe alone in a situation like this. Some instinct warned him that they were not alone on that meadow, and it wasn’t just wild creatures that were around.

“Let me have another try,” Hoss suggested. “Y’keep yer eyes peeled, young’un.” He bent over, grasping Joe’s leg firmly just below the knee.

Gritting his teeth, Joe also had to shut his eyes to deal with the pain. He couldn’t prevent a cry escaping him, and Hoss stopped what he was doing immediately. “Dadburnit, Joe, I’m real sorry,” he apologized. Joe didn’t have enough breath to answer.

Suddenly, a rock crashed off the ground nearby. Hoss whirled and grabbed up his rifle. Another rock followed, and another, and whoever was throwing was becoming more accurate. A rock bounced painfully off Joe’s arm. Hoss moved in front of Joe to protect his younger brother. He lifted his rifle and fired a shot.

Peering round Hoss’ bulk, Joe tried to see where the rocks were coming from. Out of the trees was the closest he could get, but he had no doubt who was doing the throwing. He fired at the trees, too, although he was sure his bullet was wasted.

The number of rocks doubled and Hoss ducked to avoid being struck on the head. One or two more found their way past him to strike Joe, and the situation was looking very grim. Hoss fired again and again.

“Joe! Hoss!”

“Up here, Pa!” Joe cried back and let out a grunt as a rock struck his back.

Moments later, Ben, Adam and a couple of the hands appeared over the edge of the meadow and began firing at the trees. The shower of rocks stopped as suddenly as it had started. The hands immediately ran towards the trees, but Ben called them back. The trees were thick there, and whoever had been throwing the rocks would be able to hide too well.

“Are you both all right?” Ben asked, crouching worriedly beside his sons.

“Jist bruised,” Hoss responded. “Joe’s foot’s stuck, Pa.” He looked anxiously at his younger brother. “Joe, ya weren’t hurt none by them rocks, was ya?”

“Like you, just bruises,” Joe replied. “Thanks, Hoss.”

“T’weren’t nuthin’,” Hoss responded, gruffly. “I ‘spect ya’d do the same fer me.”

“Only on a good day,” Adam teased, sending a glinting glance at his younger brother. Joe grinned back. Adam was kneeling by the crevice, examining it closely. “Fred,” he called, looking up, “go and get a crowbar from the wagon and hurry.”

“Yes, sir,” Fred replied and slid off back down to his horse. Dave, the other hand was standing guard over the Cartwrights.

“What happened here?” Ben asked, glancing around. He knelt beside Joe and put his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“We found cat tracks by the stream,” Joe began. “We trailed them to the rocks below and lost them.”

“I told Joe t’ come up here an’ look around,” Hoss carried on. “Next thin’ I heard was Joe shootin’. I come up an’ found him.”

Looking at the dead cat, Ben said, “It didn’t get you, Joe?”

“No,” Joe assured him. “I backed away from it as it charged me, and managed to get some room. But I slipped or something and my foot went down the crevice. I killed the cat before it got me.” He glanced at Hoss. “Hoss was gonna go and get help, but decided it was too dangerous for me and stayed. I’m real glad he did.”

The big man blushed before picking up the tale again. “Then someone started thrown’ rocks at us,” he reported. “We fired at ‘em, but they kept comin’. We was right glad to see ya.”

“Do you think it was Patty?” Adam asked.

“Or her friends. Who else could it be?” Joe answered. “If it had been Paiutes, they wouldn’t have thrown rocks at us.”

*****

The wait for Fred to return seemed interminable to them all. The sun beat down relentlessly on the meadow, and they all longed to be able to move into the shade. However, they didn’t want to leave Joe alone, so stoically sat with him, enduring the sun as best they could.

Finally, Fred arrived back with a couple of crowbars and some rope and the work to free Joe could begin. Adam, Hoss and Fred all crowded round the rocks and Ben placed himself behind Joe, so he could brace his son if need be. Dave remained on guard.

Once Adam had the crowbars placed to his satisfaction, he glanced over his shoulder at Joe. “This is going to hurt, Joe,” he warned. “Are you ready?”

“Just do it,” Joe responded. Ben tightened his grip on Joe’s shoulders.

“All right,” Adam said. They exerted pressure on the crowbars.

For a moment, nothing happened, then there was a shriek of protest from the rocks, which got louder and louder. Joe bit down on his lip as pain flared through his leg. He wanted to call out to them to stop, but he knew he couldn’t. The pressure had to be kept up on the rocks if he was to get free. Joe leant back against Ben, unaware that he was doing it. Ben whispered something that Joe couldn’t catch. He could feel Hoss’ hands on his leg and again wanted to cry out against the pain. The next instant there was a tug on his leg and he was free.

The tortured shriek of the rocks stopped and Joe let out the breath he’d been holding. He slumped against Ben, panting to try and control the pain. Dimly, he was aware that someone was leaning over him, but he couldn’t see who it was. A hand touched his ankle and that was the last straw. Joe slumped down, unconscious.

*****

When he came round, Joe found that he was lying in the shade. He blinked a couple of times and looked round. Ben and Adam were standing nearby, talking. Hoss was nowhere in sight. The pain in his ankle had settled to a steady throb, and Joe made an effort to sit up to look at it.

The movement alerted his family, who came over at once. “How are you feeling?” Ben asked, gently, supporting Joe.

“All right,” Joe replied. “Where’s Hoss?”

“Getting the horses,” Ben replied. He gestured to Adam and his oldest son handed him a canteen. Joe drank the tepid water gratefully.

“Is my ankle broken?” Joe asked, for he couldn’t envision anything worse at that time of year. He craned hi neck to see. His boot was standing beside him, and he was very grateful he hadn’t been awake when it was pulled off. His ankle was black and swollen.

“I’m not sure,” Ben admitted. “We’ll need to get the doctor out to look at it.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, wretchedly.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Ben told him. “Accidents happen.”

“They just happen to you more often,” Adam teased.

“Adam!” Ben chided, but Joe was grinning, even if his smile hadn’t its usual wattage.

*****

By the time they arrived home later that afternoon, Joe was exhausted. Hoss had taken ages to bring the horses and when he finally did arrive, Joe discovered that he had been making a travois for Joe to travel on. Much as he hated to admit it, Joe hadn’t been looking forward to riding home, and was quite glad to lie back and let someone else take charge. Hoss led Cochise and Adam rode with him. Ben traveled beside the travois. Joe knew that this was in case Patty and her pals made another attempt on his life. The first hadn’t been successful, thanks to his family, and Joe knew they meant to keep it that way.

While Hoss saw to the horses, Adam and Ben helped Joe inside and upstairs. “I sent Dave in to town for the doctor and the sheriff,” Ben said, as Joe was eased down onto his bed. “I know Roy’s already looking for Patty, but we might as well tell him what happened today.” He carefully lifted Joe’s leg onto a pillow, but the youth still winced. “Sorry, son,” he said, contritely.

“It’s ok,” Joe denied. “I’m all right.” He closed his eyes for a moment as Ben pulled off his other boot. “Do you think Roy will find Patty?” Joe asked.

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “He’ll probably have to get a posse together.”

“Then I’m riding on it,” Adam declared. He intercepted the look Ben sent him, but decided that now was the time to take his father on. “What would you have us do, Pa?” he challenged. “Sit here until we’re old and grey and wait for Roy to find her? I don’t want anything else happening to Joe, and I certainly don’t want anything happening to you and Hoss.”

“Adam’s right,” Joe agreed. “If he wants to ride with the posse, I think you should let him. Why should he be stuck here with me because of an accident?” He grinned. “Besides,” he went on, “he’ll be old and grey by next week, so you’d better let him work while he still can.”

Laughing, Ben nodded. “I suppose you’re right,” he allowed. “Just be careful.”

*****

About the time that Joe was having his ankle examined by the long-suffering Paul Martin, Patty and her acolytes were discussing their plans. Joe would barely have recognized Patty. She had grown thinner in the asylum, to the point where she was almost skeletal. Her eyes seemed very large in her face and they had an uncomfortable staring quality to them. Her hair was long and raggedly cut into a fringe.

“So he’s at the house?” Patty asked, once more. Calvin nodded enthusiastically, but she was never totally certain what he understood. Violence was his thing and he always understood that, but more subtle things tended to escape him.

“I seed him go in with his daddy,” Calvin elaborated. “He was bein’ half carried.” A grin came over his face. “He looked sore.”

“You did well,” Patty praised and Calvin’s grin grew. Patty knew he was in love with her, but she really didn’t like him. She simply tolerated him to make use of him.

“Did I do good throwin’ them rocks?” Johnny asked.

“You did very good,” Patty replied. She could never figure out how a man so cross-eyed could be so deadly accurate when throwing, but this was not the first example of his skill that she’d had. He had been a whiz at ball games in the asylum – when they got the chance to do some exercise. Those chances had been few and far between.

“What we gonna do now, Patty?” asked Calvin. “You gonna witch him?”

“Yes, Calvin, that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Patty responded. “Tomorrow, I’m going to witch him.” She smiled. “And you two are going to help me.”

*****

Morning saw the Cartwrights together at the breakfast table. Joe’s ankle was in plaster, even though it wasn’t broken, but Paul had been adamant that it would heal better if immobilized and Joe had no choice but to agree. Roy Coffee had been out the night before and Adam had guessed correctly; he was organizing a posse. Both Hoss and Adam were riding with them, and they were starting from the meadow where Joe and Hoss had been ambushed.

“You boys be careful,” Ben admonished them as they left.

“We will,” Adam assured him. “Take care of Joe and be careful yourself.”

“I’ll take care,” Ben replied. “But I don’t think Patty would come to the house.”

“You don’t know what she might do,” commented Adam darkly. “I wouldn’t put anything past her. She’s sleekit.”

“Sleekit?” Hoss asked, puzzled. “What’s that mean?”

“Sly and untrustworthy, basically,” Adam explained. “Do you remember Jock? Used to work for us when we were kids? He used to use that word, and that’s always how I’ve seen Patty. She’s sleekit.”

The unfamiliar word sent an unpleasant frisson down Hoss’ spine. He shuddered. “I remember Jock,” he responded. “Weren’t he pretty sleekit himself?”

“Yes,” their father nodded, his tone dry. “He was indeed!”

“Perhaps that’s why the word stuck in my mind,” Adam responded, with a laugh. “C’mon, Hoss, lets get going.”

They mounted up and rode off. Ben stood and watched them go. He shivered slightly. It almost felt as though someone was watching him. Shrugging off the feeling, Ben went back into the house to tackle the books.

*****

“That’s where you went wrong,” Joe said, pointing to the offending column of figures. “You missed out that one there.” He handed the ledger back to Ben and his father studied it closely.

“How did I do that!” he mused. “Thanks, son. I could have looked at this for the rest of the day and never noticed that mistake.”

“Anything else I can do for you?” Joe asked, airily.

“Oh read your book!” Ben retorted, grinning. “I might make you do all the rest of these books, and I could sit down and read my paper.”

“Go on then,” Joe laughed and Ben dropped the ledger into his lap. A moment later, the receipts joined the ledger. Joe was still laughing. Leaning over the back of the settee, Ben was too.

“D’you think I’m joking, boy?” he asked, and the front door sprang open.

Caught by surprise, Ben had barely more than half turned to see who was coming in when Johnny Munroe tackled him about the waist. They tumbled to the floor, where Ben managed to get in a couple of good punches and scramble to his feet.

Meantime, Joe had thrown the ledger to the floor and scrambled onto his feet. From behind Munroe and Ben came Calvin Hogg, who grabbed Joe by the arms. Already off balance, thanks to the plaster on his foot, Joe was a pushover. In seconds he was helpless, both arms twisted painfully up his back. Then a thin woman appeared by his side and pressed a gun to his head. Joe recognized Patty at the same moment he recognized his own gun.

“Don’t move, Mr. Cartwright,” Patty said, cocking the gun and pressing it against Joe’s temple. “I’d hate for there to be an accident.”

Ben froze, his eyes glued to Joe. Munroe bounced on the balls of his feet, like a child about to get a treat. “Now, Patty?” he asked. “Can I do it now?”

Smiling evilly, Patty nodded. “You can do it now, Johnny.” She looked at Ben. “I’d say it was nice knowing you, but it wasn’t.”

“Pa, run!” Joe shouted, struggling fiercely against the grip on his arms, but Calvin was too strong for him to break free.

There was no time for Ben to react to Joe’s words anyway. Munroe threw himself on Ben, fists flying and although Ben fought back, Munroe was too strong for him, and in a remarkably short time, Ben was unconscious on the floor, bleeding from many cuts and bruises. Joe struggled uselessly the whole time, as Calvin twisted his arms ever higher. When Ben was finally still, Patty uncocked the gun and nodded to Calvin. Reluctantly, the big man threw Joe onto the settee face down.

His arms ached, but before Joe could regroup, he was yanked to a sitting position. Calvin had a tight grip on his hair, and Munroe grabbed one arm, pulling it back from Joe’s body. Movement was impossible.

“Darling Joe,” Patty crooned, sitting down on the coffee table and stroking Joe’s face. “You escaped my clutches the last time, but you won’t get away this time.”

“There’s a posse out looking for you,” Joe told her. “You won’t get away with this.”

“We’ll see,” she replied. “I might, or I might not. But I can tell you for free that you and your precious father won’t get away.”

“What do you want?” Joe asked. He was frantic with worry about Ben.

“Why, Joe, I want you, of course,” Patty laughed. “I’m more of a woman than I was the last time. I know that I can summon the goddess when I sacrifice you. I am a witch, you know.”

“You are mad,” Joe claimed, his voice low and throbbing with anger. Next moment, Calvin pulled his head so far back that Joe thought his neck would get broken. He struggled to get his breath.

“Ease up, Calvin,” Patty said, sharply. “I’m going to kill him, not you.” The pressure on Joe’s neck eased.

Rising, Patty began to circle the room, picking up objects. The candles were the first things she collected, then a couple of small ornaments that had belonged to Joe’s mother. She piled them on the table. Lastly, she drew a knife from her clothes. Joe shuddered. He remembered all too clearly what Patty had done with a knife the last two times.

“It is time,” Patty intoned and raised her arms dramatically. Calvin and Johnny dragged Joe from the settee and forced him to lie on the floor, each holding down his arms and legs. Joe craned his neck frantically to look at Ben, but his father was still out cold.

Fear leant Joe strength and he fought to free himself, but Patty’s friends were able to keep him pinned spread-eagled to the floor. Patty knelt beside him and slowly cut his shirt off, sliding the scraps of fabric to the floor. Then she rose and took one of the oil lamps from the wall and began to spill the oil all over the floor.

“What are you doing?” Joe cried, unable to keep silent. “Pa, wake up! Pa!”

There was no response as Patty continued to pour the oil all over the floor. Joe continued to fight frantically, and finally succeeded in throwing off Calvin Hogg, who held his arms. Immediately Joe sat up, throwing a punch at Munroe. The surprised man let go and Joe tried to get to his feet. The plaster cast slowed him down and he hadn’t yet made it upright when Calvin hit Joe from behind. At the same moment, Joe heard a shot and his body jerked as a bullet bit into his thigh. Joe crashed to the floor.

Enraged that Joe had escaped, Calvin punched him repeatedly, completely unable to control himself. Joe thought he would die under the onslaught, and tried to curl up to protect himself, but it made no difference. “Pa!” he cried once more, hopelessly. He wasn’t even sure his father was alive.

There was a shot, and suddenly the beating stopped. Joe was trapped under Calvin’s body and he wavered on the edge of unconsciousness. Then the body was removed and Patty flipped Joe over onto his back. Joe was too exhausted to resist. His leg was bleeding, and Joe’s only consolation was that it was the same leg that was already injured.  The bullet had just creased him, but it was enough. Blood poured out of his leg.

“There is no escape from me, Joe,” she told him, running the knife down his chest. Joe shivered, but the cold steel didn’t cut him – this time. “You are going to be my sacrifice to the goddess, and then I too shall die gloriously in the flames as they consume this earthly life.”

“Don’t,” Joe pleaded. “Please, Patty, don’t.”

Gesturing to Johnny, Patty rose to her feet. Joe saw his gun lying a few feet away and lunged towards it. Patty anticipated his move, and kicked Joe’s arm, connecting just below the ball of his thumb. Pain shot through his arm. While he was still trying to recover from this, Johnny grabbed Joe’s arms and forced him to lie on his back once more.

Waving her arms again, Patty began to chant loudly. For Joe, it brought back more hideous memories; memories he’d thought he wouldn’t have to deal with again. He began to pray, not just for his own deliverance, but for his father’s too.

*****

Where he lay on the floor, Ben Cartwright could hear quite clearly, but couldn’t seem to see. The world was swimming in and out of focus and he felt terrible. He didn’t know what was wrong, but he knew that something was.

Someone was speaking very loudly – no that was wrong. Someone was chanting – a woman. That didn’t make sense. There were no women at the Ponderosa. Where were the boys? Ben tried to make his eyes open, but they refused. Still, he tried to get up, but the pain hammered him down, and he slid back into unconsciousness without anyone in the room being aware that he had roused.

*****

Her incantations over, Patty paused dramatically above Joe, the knife poised for its downward stroke. Johnny was looking up at her adoringly. Calvin lay dead where he had fallen, forgotten about already. Joe struggled weakly against the restraint on his arms. This time, he didn’t think he would escape. Perhaps it would be over quickly this time. All Joe could do was pray that Ben would somehow survive the killing.

“Now, goddess, I come to thee!” Patty cried and drove the knife down.

Joe felt an agonizing pain as the knife plunged into his chest, but the end didn’t come. Once more, Patty had missed any vital organs, and the knife skidded down Joe’s breastbone, cutting the skin, but not killing him. However, blood spilled from the wound; lots of blood that convinced the girl that she had mortally wounded him.

“It is done!” she cried, leaving the knife stuck at an odd angle in Joe’s chest. She snatched up a match, struck it and dropped it onto the floor.

The oil ignited with a whoosh and Johnny looked startled. Patty snatched up Joe’s gun, leaving bloody fingerprints all over the pearl handle and shot Johnny coolly between the eyes. She tossed the gun away, laughing wildly, and Joe kicked her feet out from underneath her.

Caught completely by surprise, Patty toppled to the ground, striking her head on the corner of the table. She was unconscious at once, blood pooling under her head.

There was no time to think. Smoke was billowing through the room, and Joe knew he had to get Ben out of there if they were to have any chance of surviving this carnage. He was in no state to get up, but that worked in his favor, as he was below the smoke as he dragged his wounded body over to Ben’s side.

To Joe’s immense relief, Ben was breathing and his pulse was steady.  Gritting his teeth against the pain, Joe started to drag Ben across the floor towards the front door.

*****

“This is a witch hunt that’s going nowhere,” Adam growled as the rain started. They had been out for what seemed like hours, and hadn’t found a single track anywhere. “I think we ought to call it a day and start looking somewhere else tomorrow.”

“I tend to agree with ya, Adam,” Roy Coffee said. “Ain’t no point in gettin’ soaked. An’ I dare say Ben could do with a break from Little Joe right about now.”

“Why don’t you all come back and get some coffee?” Adam suggested. The weather had turned really foul and he wouldn’t have been surprised if they had some hail mixed in with the rain.

The posse all agreed with alacrity, for they were all cold. The Ponderosa was much closer than town, and they could at least get warmed up before heading for home. They set off at a ground covering lope.

*****

“I can smell smoke!” Hoss declared as they neared the house.

“Me, too,” Adam agreed. “Come on!” He urged his horse into a gallop.

They burst into the yard to be greeted with smoke pouring out of the door of the house, and two figures lying on the porch. “No!” Adam cried, unaware that he’d made any noise. He was off Sport’s back and racing across the yard before he had made the decision to do so. Hoss was on his heels.

“Pa’s alive,” Adam said, glancing over at Hoss, who knelt by Joe. “But he’s in a bad way.” His eyes widened as he took in Joe’s condition, too. The knife was still in his brother’s chest. “Joe?”

“He’s pretty beat up, bleedin’ from his leg, but I don’ think the knife done that much damage. Should I take it out?” Hoss glanced at Adam for guidance.

“Take it out,” Joe mumbled, and coughed. “Patty’s in the house,” he went on and coughed again.

There was a fresh eddy of smoke from the house, and Adam realized that they would have to get away from the building, in case the whole place went up. Roy and the posse were already starting to fight the fire. “Get the knife out and help me move them,” Adam decided. He moved so that he could hold Joe while Hoss took the knife out. “Easy, buddy,” he whispered, and Joe’s hand tightened on his.

One yank, and the knife was out. Between them, Adam and Hoss picked Joe up and ran with him towards the barn. They laid him gently on some clean straw and went back to move Ben. They laid him next to Joe, who turned his head to look at his father. Ben’s face was bruised and bloody, but his eyes were at last open. “Joe?” he whispered.

“Right here, Pa,” Joe answered, but his voice was weak. His chest hurt where the knife had been removed, and he could feel the blood trickling down his side. Moments later, Hoss put a handkerchief on the wound and pressed down. Joe let out a fearsome groan and slid into the waiting darkness.

*****

The smell of smoke was heavy on the air, but the fire was out. Adam wiped his soot-streaked face with the back of his hand. Hoss stood nearby, along with the men who’d been helping fight the fire. They were all filthy and most were coughing hard. Fortunately, because of the years of polish on the floor, the boards hadn’t burned easily, most just smoldering and giving off a nasty toxic smoke. Patty had been alive when she was pulled form the building, but had died shortly afterwards, probably from the head injury she had. Calvin Hogg and Johnny Munroe’s charred bodies were decently covered by a tarpaulin.

The main room hadn’t been badly damaged. The smoke had fouled the walls, and they would need scrubbed down and re-painted, the floor would need replaced, but nothing irreparable had been lost, and they would be able to live in the house while repairs went on, which was the main thing. All the bedroom windows stood open to let the smell of smoke out of the house.

“Lucky we turned back when we did,” Roy commented. “Else who knows what would have happened.”

“We could have lost the whole house,” Adam replied, although he knew Roy’s statement was rhetorical. “And Joe and Pa with it.” He turned anxious eyes to the barn, where Paul Martin was currently tending to his family.

“Go on, son,” Roy said. “Ain’t no more you can do here for now.”

With no further encouragement, Adam began to walk towards the barn. Hoss joined him. With their hearts in their mouths, they went in, not at all sure what they would find.

It was a pleasant surprise. Ben was sitting up, leaning against a stall partition. He essayed a smile when he saw his sons, and they were relieved to see no visible bandages. Ben’s face had been cleaned of the dried blood, and he looked less deathly than when they had first seen him. “Are you all right?” Ben asked, concerned by the soot on their faces.

“We’re fine,” Adam replied. “How are you?” He went over to kneel beside Ben and glanced over to where Paul still worked on Joe. “What happened?”

Slowly, Ben told them the little he knew. A good deal of his attention was also on Joe, as Paul meticulously stitched closed the cuts on his chest and thigh. Joe’s eyes were closed, but it was clear to all of them that he was awake. The cords in his neck were stretched taut, and spoke more clearly of his pain than any cry could have done. Adam moved to take Joe’s hand without being aware of it. Joe’s eyes slit open and his hand tightened on his brother’s.

A few minutes later, it was over, and Paul bandaged Joe up. Adam offered his brother some water, and when Roy came into the barn, he stayed beside Joe to offer his support as his youngest brother told the story.

“After Johnny beat Pa up, Patty told me she was going to sacrifice me to the goddess,” Joe began. “They made me lie on the floor, and held me down. Patty picked up a whole lot of stuff. I don’t know what she wanted it for. Then she began to chant.”

“I heard that,” Ben put in. “I came round and heard her, but I couldn’t think what was going on. Then I passed out again.”

“I managed to break free,” Joe continued. “Calvin came after me, and Patty shot me. Calvin was beating up on me, and I thought I was going to die.” He swallowed. “She shot him, too and killed him. And Johnny. She killed Johnny after she stabbed me. The house was on fire, because she’d spilled oil on the floor. I kicked her and when she fell, her head hit off the table.” Joe looked at Roy. “Is she still alive?”

“No,” Roy reported. “She’s dead.”

“I had to get Pa out,” Joe resumed, after a pause. “But I could only get as far as the porch. I guess I must have passed out, because the next thing I knew, Adam and Hoss wee there.”

“Thank you, son,” Ben said, reaching out to squeeze Joe’s hand. Every bone in Ben’s body ached, but nothing was broken. He would be sore for several days to come, but there would be no lasting damage.

“Is the house habitable?” Paul asked. “Joe needs to be inside, in a bed. Straw is all very well, but he’d be more comfortable with sheets and blankets.”

“Everything stinks, but it’s habitable,” Adam replied.

“Let’s move him then,” Paul proposed. “Ben, you stay there until we’ve got Joe settled. You’ll need a hand, what with all that bruising.”

Before too long, both Ben and Joe were settled into their beds, which, as Adam, had predicted, smelt of smoke. Paul gave Joe a painkilling injection, which soon had him slumbering peacefully. He looked in on Ben to find the older man already asleep without medical intervention.

Downstairs, Paul joined Adam, Hoss and Roy as they looked at the room. “Quite a mess,” he commented.

“We’ll get it cleaned up,” Adam said. “Roy, about Patty…”

“Ain’t no charges comin’ against Joe, if’n that’s what you were thinkin’,” Roy assured him. “He were acting in self-defense, and it ain’t his fault she hit her head as she fell. An’ now we don’ need to worry ‘bout her comin’ back another time. I’ll wire her folks an’ let them know. Poor people.”

“Poor people,” Adam echoed. He remembered Patty as a young girl, and then as the deranged figure who had tried to kill Joe. It was almost inconceivable that they were one and the same person.

Shaking off the thought, Adam turned to Paul. “So how are they?”  he asked.

“Your Pa will be fine in a few days. Just make him stay in bed for a day or two, and certainly no sitting up with Joe! As for Joe, well, he’s got a bullet wound in this thigh, and the cut on his chest, plus a broken thumb. That, along with the beating he took, should keep him flat on his back for at least a week. He lost quite a lot of blood, and is exhausted. Just keep him quiet and he should do all right. He’s running a slight temperature, but that’s just shock and should settle before the night is out. Mentally, I can’t say. Let him talk if he wants to, and give him lots of love.” Paul grinned. “I know that’s not a problem in this family.” He patted Adam on the shoulder. “They’ll be fine,” he predicted.

*****

Over the next few days, Adam and Hoss nursed Joe and Ben, while keeping an eye on the repairs going on downstairs. The ranch hands all willing pitched in, although none of them were used to working with buckets of hot soapy water. Some of the town’s women gave advice on cleaning the furniture, and remarkably little had to be discarded. By the time Ben was coming down stairs again, the walls were gleaming with a fresh coat of paint and the windows were all clean. The curtains were being washed and the crockery, dishes, ornaments, lamps and photographs were all as good as new.

There was still the smell of smoke in the upstairs, but it was gradually being aired out. Ben spent a lot of time sitting with Joe, as he was forbidden by his older sons to take any part in the house cleaning or painting.

“I thought you were dead,” Joe admitted one afternoon. “I thought that Munroe had killed you, because you were so still.” He shook his head. “People talk about the strength of madmen, but it’s true. They were both incredibly strong.”

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Ben said. He had been feeling unsettled since the incident, and knew that Joe must be feeling the same. “I couldn’t take the chance that Patty would shoot you, Joe. That’s never a risk I could take with any of you boys. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help you.”

“Even if Johnny hadn’t beaten you up,” Joe replied, earnestly, “What could you do against three of them? Patty had a gun to my head, and for all we knew, the others were armed, too. Pa, you always taught us to be realistic. Realistically, what could you have done against them?”

“I don’t know, son,” Ben replied. “I don’t know.” He sat silently for a minute, then looked back at Joe. “How do you feel?”

“Relieved,” Joe answered. “I’d forgotten about Patty mostly. Oh, sometimes the thoughts would surface, but generally, I hadn’t thought about her in a long time. I assumed that she was secure in the asylum. Now, although I know I’ll never completely forget any of this, I’m relieved. She’s dead, and won’t be coming back to haunt any of us.” He looked at Ben. “She hurt you and she hurt me. I’m going to be weeks in this bed, I guess. But do you know what, Pa?”

“What?” Ben asked, softly, his eyes taking in his son’s injuries and wishing he could have borne them instead.

“I feel sorry for her,” Joe said. “I pity her. She could have had a good life, but she threw it away, hunting for a way to turn herself into a witch. I’m lucky; I have a good life and a home that I love. Patty had none of that.”

They were silent for a few minutes as Ben mulled over what Joe had said. He was frequently surprised at Joe’s emotional maturity; it came as such a contrast to his mercurial nature and the tantrums he often threw. Ben hadn’t expected Joe to be sorry for Patty. He himself hadn’t yet got past feeling anger towards her. Now, he thought about what Joe had said, and knew his son was right. Now the danger was past, and they were on the mend, he could afford to feel pity for a young woman who had wasted her life. He found he couldn’t speak.

After a while, Joe looked at Ben and the corner of his mouth quirked. “So, what color are they painting the great room?” he asked.

“Oh, same as before,” Ben answered, caught by surprise by the change of subject. “Why?”

“Nothing, I just thought you’d fancy a change,” Joe replied, innocently. “You know, pink, or orange, or bright green?” He laughed as a look of outrage passed over Ben’s face.

“Pink?” Ben repeated, indignantly. “Pink?!”

***End***

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