Wolf in the Fold (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:


 

“Joe, give me a hand with this sack, would you please?” Ben Cartwright asked, as he bent over to lift the sack of potatoes. There was no response, and he straightened up, expecting to see his youngest son intent on chatting with a young lady. Instead, Joe was peering down the dusty street, a frown marring his handsome face. “Joseph?” Ben said, more sharply.

“Hmm?” Joe asked turning his head. He saw at once that his father looked a little annoyed and hurried his step to go over and help. “Sorry, Pa.”

“What was so interesting?” Ben asked, as they laid the heavy sack onto the back of the buckboard. “Some new beauty come to town that you haven’t met yet?”

Biting his lip, Joe hesitated for a moment before replying. Ben eyed Joe. He wondered what on earth Joe could have seen that had him so upset. Ducking his head, a sure sign of distress, Joe replied, “I thought I saw Adam.”

For an instant, Ben wasn’t sure that he’d heard his son correctly, for his voice had been very low. “Adam?” Ben repeated. “You couldn’t have, Joe.” Ben’s tone was eminently reasonable. “Adam’s in Europe.”

“I know that!” Joe flared, then subsided and shot a repentant look at Ben. “Sorry. I know Adam’s in Europe, but I could have sworn I saw him down at the other end of the street.”

Sighing, Ben clapped his hand onto Joe’s shoulder and squeezed sympathetically. “I know you miss Adam, son,” he told Joe. “We all do. But I’m afraid that this was just wishful thinking on your behalf.”

“Maybe,” Joe responded in a neutral tone. He wasn’t so sure he did miss Adam. Well, he did sometimes, but he had become used to life on the ranch without his big brother and it seemed to him that he had been able to keep his temper better since Adam left. He had more responsibility, yet conversely, more freedom, too.

There wasn’t much Ben could say. He knew that Joe missed Adam, but he could see that his youngest son had matured a great deal since his brother had gone. Joe had been schooling himself not to admit to missing Adam, for the oldest son had written very few letters since leaving home the previous year. Joe’s sudden distress at the thought of seeing Adam was because he had been hurt by the silence from his oldest brother and he wasn’t sure how he was going to deal with Adam’s reappearance, whenever that happened.

“I’ll finish up in here,” Ben advised Joe. “Why don’t you go off and meet your friends and I’ll see you at home later?”

Smiling, Joe’s sullen mood vanished as quickly as it had come. “Thanks, Pa,” he replied. “I won’t be late, I promise.”

Nodding knowingly, Ben laughed. “I won’t hold you to that rash promise,” he responded. “But try to get home for a few hours sleep.”

“I will,” Joe answered and giving Ben another smile headed off down the street to the Silver Dollar saloon, where he was going to spend the evening with his friends.

*****

It was pay day and the Silver Dollar was busy. Joe wasn’t in the mood to play poker and he shrugged off the invitation to join the players at the card table. “You sick, Cartwright?” Dave Williams jibed. “Passing up the chance to win some more money?”

“I’m just not in the mood,” Joe replied. His unsettling glimpse of someone like Adam had spoiled his fun before the evening ever got under way.

“Well, if you ain’t playin’,” suggested Jeb Turner, “why don’t we go down to that new saloon that’s opened on C Street? I hear they’ve got great girls.” His hands described a woman’s figure in the air.

“Why not?” Joe agreed. He had heard there was a new saloon opening, but he hadn’t had the chance to see what it was like for himself. Perhaps he would find a distraction there that would take his mind off his oldest brother.

Dusk was falling as they headed across to the new saloon. It was called ‘Spit and Polish’ and Joe decided that the name had to be a joke, for the place looked as though it had never seen polish in its life! The floors were grubby; the big mirror behind the bar was mildewed and dirty and the wood in the bar top was scarred.

“I suppose the glasses are clean,” Joe remarked as he took a swig of his beer. Judging by some of the patrons, they wouldn’t have been too fussy even if the glasses weren’t clean. Joe could see a number of the town’s degenerates in there and thought it was the kind of place that suited them perfectly.

“Ain’t a patch on the Silver Dollar,” Jeb complained. “The girls ain’t worth writin’ home about.”

“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” Dave returned. He turned a jaundiced eye on the girls, who certainly weren’t as pretty as the girls at the Silver Dollar.

“Let’s finish this beer and go back,” Joe suggested and the other two agreed.

As they rose to their feet, there was a sudden snarl from one of the customers by the bar and a little saloon girl was knocked flying by a big drunk. Joe caught her, saving her from a nasty fall. “Are you all right?” he asked and the girl nodded, looking apprehensively over his shoulder.

Turning to see what she was looking at, Joe realized that the man who had knocked her down was coming towards him, and he didn’t look too happy. Joe pushed the girl aside, out of harms way and prepared to talk himself out of trouble.

“She’s my girl, mister, you leave her alone,” the man growled.

“I only stopped her from falling,” Joe replied. “She could’ve hurt herself badly.”

Looming over Joe, the man didn’t seem appeased. In fact, he seemed even more annoyed. Joe turned his head slightly to escape the sour alcohol fumes that the man was breathing over him. That annoyed the man even further. “Look at me when I’m speakin’ to ya, boy!”

“Back off,” Joe told him.

That was the final straw for the drunk. He punched Joe heavily in the face.

Reeling back, Joe tried to catch himself on the closest table, but his groping fingers missed the edge and he crashed to the floor, bouncing off a chair en route. Shaking his head, Joe scrambled to his feet, his temper well and truly up. He found his opponent standing over him, but Joe was ready this time. He ducked beneath the next blow, wondering where his friends had got to and why they weren’t helping him out.

Next moment, Joe realized that the whole place was in an uproar and his friends were too busy fighting off other drunks to help him out. He ducked another punch, but his momentary distraction allowed his opponent to grab Joe’s jacket and reel him in like a fish. Despite everything he could do, punches were soon raining down on Joe’s face and stomach.

As he toppled to the floor, a blow to the back of his neck put Joe out for the count and he didn’t feel the pain as he once more became entangled with a chair. Around him, the battle raged for several more minutes, until finally, the barman regained control.

All the fighters were evicted, the unconscious Joe included. Dave and Jeb were amongst the last to be thrown out, and by then, Joe had disappeared. “Where’d he go?” Jeb asked.

“That young fella you was with?” asked one of the other fighters. “His brother come an’ got him. Said he’d take him home.”

“Don’t he always fall on his feet?” Dave asked. “C’mon, Jeb, let’s go home.” He wiped the blood from his nose with his sleeve and made a face. “Sure wish I had a big brother like Hoss to come take me home!”

*****

“Ain’t Joe home yet?” Hoss asked, coming in from the barn and collapsing onto the settee with a groan. “That sure was a long day, Pa.”

“I know,” Ben replied, glancing up from his book. “Why don’t you go up to bed, Hoss? I’m sure Joe won’t be long.”

“That sounds right good,” Hoss agreed. “You comin’ up soon, Pa? You’ve had a long day, too.”

“Yes, I’ll be up shortly,” Ben answered vaguely. His attention was straying to his book once more. “I’ll just finish this chapter…”

Smiling, Hoss got to his feet and bid his father good night. He knew what Ben was like when he had a new book, and it was entirely possible that he’d come down in the morning and find him asleep in the chair by the fire, book clasped in his hand, finished.

About an hour later, Ben closed his book and put it down. The words were beginning to blur on the pages and he realized that he ought to get to bed. He was surprised to see that it was almost midnight, but he hadn’t really expected Joe home any earlier. Stretching, Ben walked over to peer out of the front door, but there was no sign of Joe as yet, and so Ben retired to bed. Good thing he hadn’t made Joe promise to be home early, he thought.

*****

A hideous jolting sensation heralded Joe’s return to consciousness. He struggled to make sense of it, but his breath was knocked from his body with every bump and he found that he couldn’t open his eyes at all.

After a few minutes, Joe’s brain finally kicked into gear, and he realized that he was slung, belly down, over a horse, which was traveling at some speed. This realization made Joe attempt to push himself into the correct position for riding, but he discovered at once that he was tied down, and wouldn’t be getting free any time soon. He was blindfolded and gagged. Joe swallowed against the sudden dryness in his mouth. Clearly, he wasn’t alone, and by concentrating, he could hear other hoof beats pounding the ground.

Who had done this to him and why? Joe could remember the fight in the saloon, but he thought it unlikely that the man he’d been fighting had been annoyed enough to kidnap him. So who was behind it? Someone with a grudge against the family? Joe tried to think if he or Ben or Hoss had made any enemies recently when bidding for contracts, but he couldn’t think of anyone.

The journey seemed to go on forever, and Joe was groaning steadily when the horses finally came to a stand still. He felt completely pulped, and his limbs were cramping painfully. Still, when the horse stopped, Joe started to struggle against his bonds, in the hopes of freeing himself before his kidnapper reached him.

It was a forlorn hope, of course and Joe knew that, but it wasn’t in his nature to accept captivity passively. He froze as a hand grasped his chin and forced his head up at an uncomfortable angle. The gag was ripped from his mouth and a moment later, his blindfold followed. Joe screwed up his eyes at the sudden light, but when he opened them again, he couldn’t prevent a gasp escaping his lips.

For a moment, his head reeled and Joe knew why he thought he’d seen Adam earlier in the day. “Tom,” he croaked.

His captor, Tom, laughed.

*****

“It’s been a long time, Joe,” Tom commented, as he started to untie Joe from the saddle. “Aren’t you pleased to see me?”

“Not noticeably,” Joe replied, sourly.  “Last time we met, you tried to rob my home.”

“Last time we met in person,” Tom corrected, amicably.

“What do you mean?” Joe gasped, as Tom pushed him from the horse to the ground. He couldn’t stop himself curling up, trying to relieve the awful ache in his ribs and stomach. He bit the inside of his lip to stop himself groaning aloud.

“Let me see,” mused Tom, as he knelt by Joe and untied his feet. “Three years ago, I suppose it would have been. You met with a series of unfortunate accidents. A rockslide, an explosion, a tree falling on you and a near drowning.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “Do you remember now, Joe?”

“That was you!” Joe gasped, temporarily forgetting his discomfort. “But why?” He tried to resist as Tom dragged him to his feet, but a backhand slap reminded him that Tom was in charge. “Why are you doing this now?”

Dragging Joe into a small cave with an earthen floor, Tom threw him face down to the ground and began to re-tie his feet. “That day at the Ponderosa,” Tom began. “You made my life a misery.”

“Your life was already miserable,” Joe taunted him, heedlessly, remembering what Tom had said about his circumstances.

Kneeling on Joe’s back, Tom said nothing as he untied then bound Joe’s hands behind him. Joe wheezed and gasped as the knees in his back caused him more misery. He tried to resist, but it was hopeless. Tom tightened his bonds cruelly before rising and looking down on Joe with contempt.

“Let’s get one thing straight here,” he warned, in a low, cold voice. “I’m in charge and it’s in your own best interests if you don’t annoy me. Got it?”

Joe kept silent, but Tom took his silence as assent, for the time being at least. Yanking Joe into a sitting position, Tom turned away and began to build up the fire. Joe looked around the cave. There were signs that it had been occupied for some time.

Once the fire was going again, Tom turned back to Joe. He looked a little more relaxed. “Yes,” he resumed, as though there hadn’t been a break in the conversation. “You did something to me that day, Joe. You awoke my conscience.”

“You haven’t got a conscience,” scoffed Joe. “You beat me up, stole our things and read my brother’s journals! Some conscience that was!”

“That was then!” Tom spat back. “But you – you made me think. And I didn’t like myself much. I still don’t. I haven’t changed, though, so don’t think your moralizing worked. I’m still a wanted murder and bank robber.”

“That doesn’t tell me why I’m here, or why you tried to kill me,” Joe persisted. He tried to ease his shoulders, but there was no give in his bonds.

“You made me an offer the last time we spoke,” Tom went on, calmly. “So I’ve come to take you up on it. I’ve had a run of poor luck lately and I decided that I’d come and get that ransom you so generously offered me.”

“Pa won’t pay you,” Joe informed him, knowing all the time that Ben would. He gazed at Tom, seeing the changes that the years had wrought on him. He looked more like Adam than ever, Joe thought, or was that just because he hadn’t seen Adam in such a long time? That superior smile and the patronizing way of talking were Adam to a T.

“Of course he will, Joe,” Tom told him, condescendingly. “I’ve learned a lot about the Cartwrights over the years, and I hear that your Papa would move heaven and earth for you boys. And now I’m told that Saint Adam has gone.”

“I knew it wasn’t Adam I saw this afternoon,” Joe muttered.

“I was watching you, Joe,” Tom told him. “Just like last time, people thought I was Adam.” He smiled wolfishly. “Didn’t anyone mention that they’d seen your brother riding about?”

“No,” Joe grunted, privately thinking that if he’d seen Tom on a horse, he’d have known at once that it wasn’t Adam, for his brother had a unique seat on a horse, due to his bad back.

“I even told someone tonight that I was your brother, as I scraped you off the sidewalk. You made it so easy for me, Joe!” Tom laughed. “And now I’m going to pay you back for making my life a misery.”

Leaning back against the cave wall, Joe met Tom’s gaze with a level look of his own. “If I awoke your conscience, Tom,” he said, quietly, “it’s because it wasn’t really asleep. You proved that to me last time when you told me about yourself and your family. Your conscience had always been awake – you were just deaf to its voice.”

Glaring at his captive, Tom suddenly remembered why he had grown to dislike Joe so much. With great clarity, he remembered Joe telling him that he could still turn himself in, that it wasn’t too late. What was it about this boy that made him wish he’d lived his life differently?

“Don’t worry about it, Joe,” Tom said, harshly. “Your Pa will give me enough that I can live on it for the rest of my life and not have to rob another bank.”

“And will your conscience be quiet then?” Joe asked.

Goaded, furious, Tom rose to his feet and loomed threateningly over Joe, who looked up at him, undaunted. Tom realized that Joe was no longer a boy, but a man, who was comfortable with himself. He had been impossible to cow the last time, when he was less mature; Tom knew he would be equally impossible now.

“Shut up, Joe!” he ordered and jammed the gag back into his mouth.

Crossing the cave, Tom sat down in the shadows, but he could still see Joe looking at him pityingly across the space between them.

*****

It was a dark morning, the skies heavy with unshed rain. It was on mornings like this that Ben Cartwright found it hardest to get out of bed. He rose reluctantly and went down for breakfast. As ever, Hop Sing had the table set and within moments of Ben’s arrival at the table, the coffee pot appeared and the appetizing smell of bacon filled the air.

Within a few minutes, Hoss was down, timing his arrival with the platter of bacon arriving on the table. “Mornin’, Pa,” he greeted, cheerfully. “You didn’ stay up an’ finish that book last night, did ya?”

Laughing Ben shook his head. “No, son, just for once I didn’t. I went to bed about midnight.”

“What time did Joe git in?” Hoss asked, piling food onto his plate. “I didn’ go in an’ wake him, ‘cos I figgered you’d done it.”

“I don’t know,” Ben replied. “He wasn’t in when I went up. I didn’t think to wake him. I’ll go in a minute.”

They ate in companionable silence, but when Hop Sing began to mutter under his breath and send pointed looks at Joe’s empty chair, Hoss took the hint and rose. “I’ll go an’ wake Little Joe,” he offered and Ben accepted. Waking Joe was never a pleasant task when he had been out late the night before.

Ben was just pouring himself a second cup of coffee when Hoss clattered back down stairs. “Back already?” Ben queried. “That didn’t take… Hoss? What’s wrong?”

“Joe’s bed ain’t bin slept in,” Hoss told his father. “His clothes ain’t there from yesterday an’ his hat ain’t hanging up by the door.”

“You don’t suppose he’s been arrested, do you?” Ben asked, trying not to think that something bad had happened to Joe, and failing.

“Could be, Pa,” Hoss agreed, for he, too, didn’t want to think that something had happened to Joe.

“I’ll go into town and see Roy Coffee,” Ben suggested, pretending that he wasn‘t concerned. He hurried over to strap on his gun belt. Hoss was at his back.

“I’m comin’, too,” he declared. “If’n somethin’s happened to Joe, I want ta be with ya, Pa.”

“Thanks, son,” Ben whispered. He patted Hoss’ arm blindly. “Let’s go.”

*****

The ride into town seemed interminable to them both. The rain began when they were less than half way there and by the time they arrived at the sheriff’s office, they were soaked. Neither man really noticed. They dismounted and climbed the steps, opening the door to the office and going inside.

“Howdy, Ben,” Roy Coffee, the sheriff and a long-time friend cried as they went in. “What brings you here on such a foul day?”

Those words told Ben that his worst fears had been realized. He groped for a chair and sat heavily. Hoss hitched a hip onto the desk and dropped his head. Water poured from his hat onto the floor, but he was too miserable to notice.

“What is it?” Roy asked. “What’s wrong?” He gazed at his silent friend for a moment. “Is it Joe? What’s happened? Ben, answer me.”

“Joe didn’t come home last night,” Ben reported, in a low voice. “We thought he might be here.”

“No, I ain’t seen him in a couple a days,” Roy replied. “I did have a couple a drunks in here last night from that new place, the ‘Spit and Polish’, but Joe ain’t one o’ them.”

“Where can he be?” Ben whispered.

“He wouldn’t a stayed at some friend’s place?” Roy suggested. “He might have had too much to drink to think about riding home. You checked the livery?”

“No, I never thought of that,” replied Ben, looking slightly less worried.

“I’ll do it, Pa,” Hoss offered and headed out of the door. Ben watched him go, knowing that Hoss was as worried as he was.

“I’m not even sure who he was meeting last night,” Ben admitted to Roy as they waited for Hoss to come back.

“I’m sure Joe’s fine,” Roy assured his friend. “You’re jist jumpin’ the gun here.”

“I hope so,” agreed Ben. “I hope so.”

But when he heard Hoss’ steps outside a few minutes later, Ben knew that the news wasn’t good. And when the door opened to admit his middle son, it only took one look at his face to know that trouble had caught up with Joe once more.

*****

“Pete says someone collected Cochise about 9:30?” Ben persisted.

“Well, he ain’t too sure, Pa, cos he’d stepped out for a few minutes,” Hoss told him. “but when he got back jist after 9:30, Cochise was gone an’ the money was lyin’ on his book.”

“We’d better go looking,” Ben suggested to Hoss and rose.

“I’m comin’ with ya,” Roy told them.

Their first port of call was the Silver Dollar. Bruno, the barman, was sweeping up, looking tired. “Sure Joe was in here for a while,” he said, when asked. “He was with Dave and Jeb. Joe wasn’t playing poker and they didn’t stay more than an hour. Don’t know where they went, though.”

Perplexed, they began trailing from saloon to saloon, and came up with nothing. “We ain’t tried that new place, yet,” Hoss commented morosely. “Reckon he might a gone there?”

“We might as well try,” Ben agreed and they headed over.

The barman there had clearly just surfaced and let them in with bad grace. There were over turned tables and chairs all over the place and broken glass. “Looks like it was quite a night,” Roy observed, sourly.

“I handled it,” the man returned.

“Did you see a young man in here, about this height,” Ben indicated with his hand, “curly hair, green eyes, wearing tan pants and a green jacket?”

“Oh him,” sneered the barman. “He got into the first fight. Next thing I knew, everyone was at it. I threw them out.”

“Where did the young man go?” Ben persisted.

Shrugging the barman began to pick up chairs. “I dunno. He was still out cold when I threw him out.”

“Out cold?” Ben echoed, feeling a cold hand grab his heart. He suddenly wondered if Joe had managed to get part way home before feeling ill and losing his way. Perhaps he’d had a bad fall.

“Let’s find Dave an’ Jeb,” suggested Hoss. “Maybe they took Joe back with them.” Both of Joe’s friends lived in a nearby boarding house.

As they walked over to the boarding house Roy tried to think of something encouraging to say to the Cartwrights, but he couldn’t think of anything. He knocked briskly on the door and when the landlady answered, asked to speak to Dave and Jeb.

Showing them into the parlor, she went off to get them and a few minutes later, they appeared in the doorway, yawning and unshaven. “Hello, Mr. Cartwright,” Dave said. “Hoss, Sheriff.”

“I need to ask you about last night,” Ben began.

“Oh shoot, it weren’t Joe’s doing, that fight,” Jeb butted in. “He were the innocent victim, I swear.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” replied Ben. “But what happened after the fight? When you were thrown out? Where did you take Joe? To the doctor’s?” He wondered why he hadn’t thought of looking for Joe at the doctor’s office.

“No,” Dave responded, frowning. “Why, Hoss here took him home. Didn’t cha, Hoss?”

“Joe never arrived home,” Ben told them. “Why did you think Hoss had taken him?”

“Well, this feller, he said that Joe’s brother had come an’ taken him home. What other brother does Joe have but Hoss?”

Exchanging glances with Hoss, Ben remembered that Joe hadn’t known Dave and Jeb all that long, as they were newcomers to town, arriving just a few short months before. They probably wouldn’t know about Adam, as Joe seldom mentioned him. But it hadn’t been Hoss who took Joe away.

His mouth suddenly dry, Ben muttered, “Joe said yesterday that he thought he’d seen Adam in the street.”

“You don’ think…” Hoss began. His voice was hoarse and he looked stunned and white. “Pa, you don’t think it was…” Again, he couldn’t go on.

“Who?” Roy demanded, looking impatient. “Not Adam, surely? He’s in Europe, ain’t he?”

“Yes, Adam’s in Europe,” Ben answered absently. “But it has to be. Oh, Lord, why? It must be Tom!”

“Tom?” Roy echoed, suddenly remembering. “You think Tom is back?”

Dave and Jeb looked at one another, not having a clue what the Cartwrights were talking about.

“Tom is back,” Ben whispered. “And this time he’s got Joe.”

*****

The night had been long and cold for Joe. The fire kept the worst chill out of the air, but Joe wished fervently that he had a bedroll, too. For a long time after Tom fell asleep, Joe rubbed his bound hands up and down the rough stone wall behind him, but he couldn’t keep the movement up as the cold crept into his muscles. There didn’t seem to be any give at all in the ropes, but Joe was determined to keep trying.

He fell asleep sitting up, his exhaustion finally catching up with him, and he woke, stiff and cold, many hours later, haven fallen sideways onto the earthen floor with a thud. From across the cave, Tom was looking at him with sleepy amusement and Joe struggled hopelessly to right himself. Eventually, he slept again, though his dreams were peopled with dark, menacing shadows.

When Joe woke again, shortly after dawn, he could feel the dampness from the rain outside permeating the air in the cave. He shivered slightly and watched Tom building up the fire. Once more, he tried to lever himself into a sitting position, but the stiffness of his muscles defeated him. He bit deeply into the gag to muffle any groans of frustration that might escape his control.

Finally, Tom came over and yanked Joe to a sitting position and removed the gag. “You want something to eat?” he asked and Joe nodded, swallowing to try and relieve the dryness in his mouth. He had to keep his strength up if he was going to make an escape attempt.

The beans that Tom fed him were clearly on their second or third reheating and were not what Joe would have chosen for breakfast, but he ate them without complaint. The coffee was good and between that and the food, Joe could feel a little warmth spreading inside him.

“I gotta go out for a bit, Joe,” Tom told him, as he came back from washing the plates. Joe had once more been rubbing the ropes against the walls, and Tom saw at once what he was doing. Kneeling by his captive, Tom hauled him forwards to check the ropes. To his satisfaction, they were still tight and not fraying. “But since I can’t trust you not to try to escape, I’m going to have to leave you somewhat uncomfortable, I’m afraid.”

“I’m still going to try to escape,” Joe warmed him. “No matter what you do to me.”

“I quite believe you, Joe,” Tom nodded. “Look what you did to yourself last time. What was it, dislocated shoulder?”

“Broken collarbone,” Joe muttered. He wondered why he was telling Tom this.

“That’s what heroics do to you,” Tom gloated.

“You’re going to deliver the ransom note to my Pa, aren’t you?” Joe demanded and saw the cynical smile on Tom’s face as he nodded his agreement. “You are scum!”

“Perhaps,” Tom agreed, in an oddly quiet voice. “But with one of his sons gone, will your father want to risk losing another son?”

It was an argument Joe couldn’t refute. He knew his father would beggar himself on behalf of any of his sons and not count the cost. But Joe wondered if he could live with himself if his father did that. Somehow, he had to get away, and before Pa could pay as much as one red cent of the ransom.

“How much do you think you’ll get for me?” he asked.

“I don’t think $20,000 is out of the question,” Tom replied.

“We don’t have that kind of money,” Joe responded. “You’ll wait forever if that’s what you want.”

Smiling cynically, Tom shook his head. “Good try, Joe,” he commented. “But, if you’re right, then we’ll grow old together while I wait for your father to make good the money.”

“I’m telling you, Pa doesn’t have that kind of money,” Joe insisted.

“Oh shut up, Joe!” Tom snapped and shoved him roughly over till he was lying on his stomach. Grabbing up another length of rope, Tom swiftly hogtied Joe so that he couldn’t move and put the gag back in. “I’ll be back later,” he advised his helpless captive. “Once I’ve delivered the ransom note for $20,000!”

*****

The wet weather was tailor made for Tom’s nefarious purpose that day. He encountered no one as he rode from his hide-out the 20 odd miles to the ranch. Anyone who didn’t have to be out on such a foul day was sensibly staying indoors, although Tom was confident that in his all-black outfit, he would be mistaken for Adam Cartwright once more.

On his previous sojourn to the territory, Tom had intended, once he’d made Joe’s life enough of a misery, to take Joe hostage and hold him for ransom then. His plans had been changed dramatically by the return of Adam. There was always a chance then that he’d meet the ‘real’ Adam, as had happened on his first encounter with Joe, and that would spoil his plan completely.

Tom had drifted for some time after leaving Nevada, committing a few robberies, but never netting enough money to live on. He didn’t know if his luck had simply run out, or if Joe’s moralizing had made him more careless, but somehow, things just hadn’t gone right for Tom since meeting Joe. Finally, he decided that the only way to sort things out was to get hold of Joe, get a ransom for him and perhaps kill him. Tom hadn’t really decided if he wanted to kill Joe or not. He felt a strange bond with Joe; the youth’s determination to protect his home had touched a chord in Tom, even if he denied it now.

The yard of the ranch was deserted and Tom watched for quite some time to make sure there wasn’t anyone lurking in the barn or bunkhouse. He slunk down to the house under cover of the undergrowth, uncaring that he got soaked in the process. He shoved the ransom note under the door and left the way he had come, unnoticed. The temptation to break in and ransack the place once more was almost overwhelming, but Tom knew he would get more money sticking to his original plan.

Riding back the way he had come, Tom smiled to himself. He would get his reply the next day, and then Ben Cartwright would have just two days to come up with the money, or he would send Ben a bit of Joe in a box, just to prove he was serious. Would it be an ear, perhaps? Or a finger? Tom nodded. This was going just the way he’d planned.

*****

By the time Tom arrived back, the afternoon was well advanced. Joe was still on the floor, more or less where Tom had left him. The suffering green eyes that Joe turned on him gave Tom a great deal of amusement.

It had been a horrendously long day for Joe alone in the cave, bound the way he was. He had struggled mightily against the ropes, but had failed to move them one bit. He had managed to get a little closer to the fire, by dint of a huge effort, but not for warmth, although that was welcome. No, he’d hoped to set fire to the ropes, thereby setting himself free, no matter the cost to himself in pain. But despite his struggles, all Joe had done was burn one hand.

When Tom returned, Joe was exhausted, but unable to rest because of the agonizing cramps in his limbs. For an unguarded instant, Joe had let Tom see his pain, but then the barriers went up and he sent Tom a look of contempt.

Ignoring Joe, Tom first built up the fire, and changed out of his soaking clothes. Only then, having made the point that he was in charge, did he untie the rope between Joe’s hands and ankles. As his body flopped open, Joe was unable to bite back the groan of pain that the movement caused him. He curled up involuntarily as Tom removed the gag.

The pain was incredible as the blood began to pump round his veins again. Joe could do nothing but lie there and suffer as muscles spasms caused his limbs to jump uselessly against their bonds. He was deaf to the small sounds of distress that he made.

Finally, after what felt like years to Joe, but had been ‘only’ hours, the pain died back to a dull ache and Joe was able to focus on his surroundings once more. He was surprised to catch a sympathetic look in Toms’ eyes. “That was tough, huh?” he asked.

“As if you care,” Joe ground out. “In case you’d forgotten, it was you who put me in that position.”

“I can’t afford for you to run away,” Tom reminded him. “But I’ll try to think of something else for tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Joe repeated. He winced as he made an unwise movement with his head.

“Tomorrow, I find out your father’s response to the note I delivered to him today,” Tom informed him. “See if he’s going to pay up without me having to hurt you a lot.”

“You know every despicable trick,” Joe replied, bitterly. “Hurt me if you must, but will you be able to live with yourself after you’ve done it?”

“I expect $20,000 will help ease the pain,” Tom retorted and got up and walked away.

Joe watched him go, then closed his eyes in despair. He knew that Ben would pay up, and he hated to think of how his father would feel when he read the ransom note. Despite the pain he felt, Joe vowed that he would somehow manage to escape.

*****

There had been no conversation on the ride back to the Ponderosa. When they reached home, they handed their horses over to the hands, and went inside. As the door opened, Ben spotted the paper on the floor and bent over to retrieve it. “What’s this?” he asked.

“Dunno,” Hoss responded, peering over Ben’s shoulder.

I have your son, Joe. If you want to see him again, then do exactly as this letter tells you. Tomorrow, go to Forge Creek crossroads at noon and leave a bag containing exactly $100. I will count this as your first payment of the $20,000 you will need to pay me to get Joe back alive. If you do not do this, the next day, I will send you something of Joe’s. Not a possession, but a piece of Joe. If you go to the sheriff or set any kind of a trap for me, you will never see your son again. The following day, you will leave the rest of the $20,000 at Forge Creek crossroads. If I retrieve the money safely, you will get Joe back alive the next day.

The note, not surprisingly, was unsigned. Hoss looked anxiously at his father’s face. “Joe’s alive,” he pointed out, seeing the horror on Ben’s face.

“For now,” Ben agreed. He walked on stiff legs over to his chair in front of the fire and collapsed into it. “How am I going to find $20,000?” he asked.

“Tomorrow mornin’, you go into the bank,” Hoss told him. “They’ll help, Pa, I know they will.”

“Of course,” Ben responded. “I wasn’t thinking, son. I’ll leave the money at the crossroads on the way back.” He looked up at Hoss, who had a thoughtful look on his face. “What?” he asked.

“I reckon that tonight, after dark, I’ll jist mosey on down to the Forge Creek crossroads and hide myself, so’s I’m ready to follow whoever comes for the money.”

“Hoss,” Ben protested, but Hoss held up his hand.

“Pa, I gotta do this,” he said, earnestly. “Joe’s in trouble, an’ we cain’t leave him for another two days! We don’ know much about Tom, but we do know he’d hurt Joe if he tried to escape. I gotta follow Tom an’ rescue Joe.”

Sighing, for he knew that Hoss was set on doing this regardless of how he felt about it, Ben nodded. “All right, son,” he agreed, reluctantly. “But you be careful, you hear?”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss mumbled. He was pleased that Ben hadn’t forbidden him to do it, as Hoss had intended to go ahead anyway, but now that he had his father’s blessing, he was suddenly terrified that he would somehow mess it up, and be the cause of more pain and suffering to his little brother. Giving Ben an unconvincing smile, Hoss sent up a prayer that his quest would be successful.

*****

The wind changed direction as darkness fell and soon the rain was blowing into the cave. Tom was forced to retreat further into the small space, reluctantly dragging Joe with him. It was only then that he became aware that his captive’s clothes were already damp from the natural dampness of the cave.

“Don’t get sick on me,” he threatened and Joe looked at him with poorly disguised amusement.

“Lord forbid that I should disoblige you by getting sick,” he retorted, scornfully. He did feel a bit shivery, but put it down to his unaccustomed inactivity.

“Don’t get smart, boy,” Tom responded.

“Well, I’d hate to foul up your plans for me,” Joe shot back. “After all, you wouldn’t want to feel any compassion for me, would you?” He smiled scornfully. “Oh I forgot; you’re the hard man who doesn’t allow feelings to stop him, aren’t you?”

“Shut up, Joe,” Tom warned.

“Why?” Joe asked. “Am I making you feel bad? Why would that be? Is your conscience bothering you, Tom?”

“Shut up!” Tom yelled, backhanding Joe heavily across the face. Panting, he looked down at his bleeding captive and realized that Joe had somehow gained the upper hand in that exchange. “Don’t push me, Joe,” he threatened quietly. “Or your father might just get that piece of you sooner than he expects.” His knife was in his hand in a second and he was gratified to see Joe’s eyes flick to it.

“Do what you feel you have to,” Joe told him, calmly. He schooled his face to impassivity as Tom placed the edge of the knife under his chin. He remembered Tom doing this the last time they had met. There was a sharp prick and a trickle of warmth ran down Joe’s neck. He knew what it was. He met Tom’s eyes and their gazes locked, but it was Joe who eventually looked away first.

*****

The rain stopped during the night, for which Hoss was thankful. He had been camped out by the crossroads since shortly after dark, and with no fire to keep him warm, he slept very little. Although the temperature didn’t rise when the rain stopped, it felt less cold and Hoss was grateful for any help with this vigil.

Quite early in the morning, he saw his father riding to town. Ben kept his eyes on the road, not allowing himself the luxury of looking around, just in case he gave away his son’s hiding position, although he had no idea where Hoss was. Chubb, Hoss’ big black horse, was tethered some distance away to prevent him neighing.

Sometime before noon, Ben rode back, looking anxious, and stopped to leave a small leather bag in an obvious place on the side of the road. Hoss nodded to himself; things were progressing. He just hoped he would be able to trail Tom back to where Joe was, and so save Ben from having to pay the ransom. Once more, he settled down to wait as patiently as he could.

*****

“I’m leaving,” Tom told Joe and picked up the rope he had used the day before and headed for his captive. Joe reacted instinctively; he did not want to be hogtied again. His abused muscles had barely recovered from the previous day.

Kicking out frantically, Joe caught Tom unawares. He staggered back as Joe squirmed his way across the floor in a desperate, futile attempt to escape.

Catching himself, Tom lunged after Joe, furious that he’d been caught out. “Come here!” he bellowed.

“No!” Joe panted, kicking once more, but this time Tom was ready for him. Reaching down, he snagged the front of Joe’s jacket and hauled him semi-upright. He slammed his fist into Joe’s stomach twice before dropping him to the ground. Again, he hauled his captive upright and back handed him, the rope he held loosely in his hand whipping across Joe’s face.

While Joe lay groaning on the ground, Tom knelt and bound his ankles and wrist together, as he had done the previous day. Looking at Joe’s bleeding face, he felt a pang of pity, which he ruthlessly subdued before shoving the gag into Joe’s torn and bleeding mouth.

Pulling Joe’s head up by the hair, Tom gazed deep into his eyes. “I almost hope your old man hasn’t got the money, Cartwright,” he snarled. “Because right now I would very much enjoy cutting off one of your ears!” He dropped Joe and stormed out.

*****

Moving was almost impossible, for Joe’s muscles had begun to cramp up the moment he was hogtied, but he relentlessly pushed himself to get over beside the dying embers of the fire. After much wrestling, he finally was able to flip over onto his side. Heedless of the pain it would cause, Joe thrust his feet into the fire.

His boots were smoldering when the ropes finally burnt through and snapped. By then, Joe had been screaming into his gag for quite some time, but he refused to give up. As his body flopped open, Joe forced himself to bang his feet off the floor, stamping out the embryonic flames. Once that was done, he rested, exhausted.

For quite a long time, the pain was almost more than Joe could bear. The ropes round his feet hadn’t quite burned through and he knew he would have to struggle on some more. Biting deep into the gag, Joe tried to force his feet apart, knowing that would strain the singed ropes. It took a long time, but finally the strands parted and Joe’s feet were free.

Sagging back, Joe leant against the cave wall and allowed his breathing to return to normal. He wanted his hands free too, but one glance at the fire told him that it had burned out. So be it, he thought. I can deal with this. He turned his head and rubbed it against the stone walls of the cave to loosen his gag. It came off in the end and Joe drew in a deep draught of air.

Joe had no idea how long Tom had been gone, or how soon he’d be back. Scrambling to his feet, Joe cried aloud at the pain, but he resolutely refused to let that stop him from escaping. Limping painfully, he went to the cave entrance and looked around.

There was no immediate sign of Cochise, although quite how Joe would have mounted the horse even if he had found him right there was anyone’s guess, Joe’s included. However, although he didn’t know exactly where he was, he could take a fair guess, and turned in the direction of home.

*****

Forge Creek crossroads were much closer to Tom’s hideout than the Ponderosa and it took him less time to ride there. He looked around before he approached the bag on the ground, but he didn’t see anyone. Dismounting, he picked up the bag and glanced inside it. There was $100 in it. Tom grinned. He’d known all along that Ben Cartwright wouldn’t balk at paying the ransom.

After another careful look around, Tom remounted and turned his horse back the way he had come. He could use some more supplies, but decided it could wait for the next day, when he would be a rich man. Joe would survive on short rations. For all he had eaten at his last two meals, Tom was surprised that Joe survived at all.

Hidden in the brush, Hoss watched Tom intently until he was out of sight. Scrambling to his feet, Hoss hurried to where he had left Chubb, mounted and headed off after Tom. It took him no time at all to pick up the other’s trail and he rode along it as fast as he dared

*****

Stumbling along, Joe was caught unprepared as his feet went out from underneath him as he stood on a loose stone. He crashed to the ground, unable to catch himself and lay there, panting, wondering if he could possibly get to his feet yet again. This wasn’t the first time he’d fallen and he doubted if it would be the last. His boots, badly singed in the fire, were now falling apart and his feet, in addition to the burns, were being cut by the stones under foot.

“Get up!” he told himself aloud. “Get up! You don’t want Pa to pay that ransom, do you?” He struggled into a sitting position, resting there for a few minutes before he climbed onto his feet.

He had just gained his feet when he heard hoof beats and a surge of adrenaline shot through his system. Tom! It was bound to be Tom coming back! The trail that Joe was on was little more than a deer track. It was clearly not widely used and it was unlikely to be an innocent passer-by. Hurrying, Joe scrambled for cover.

He was too late. Tom came into view before Joe had reached sanctuary and let out a shout. “Hold it!”

Risking a glance over his shoulder, Joe almost slipped off the trail. Below him were bushes and scrubby trees no more than a few feet high, and below them was a drop into the Truckee River. Trying to right himself, Joe fell once more.

In an instant, Tom was off his horse and charging across the clearing at Joe, who had no chance to protect himself. Tom grabbed him, punched him several times in the stomach and then hauled him upright by the collar of his jacket. Tom had his knife drawn.

“Damn you, Cartwright!” he swore. “Everything’s gone wrong since I met you, but I won’t let you ruin this! I’m gonna make you pay! Your father’s gonna get a memento and you’re gonna remember who’s in charge here!”

“Go on, do your worst!” Joe taunted. “Nothing’s gone right since you met me? Ask yourself why, Tom. Go on! Could it be because you really don’t want to live like this any more? You want to turn yourself in and have the chance to go back to your family. You’re jealous of me, because my family loves me enough to beggar themselves for me! You’re jealous of Adam, because even though he’s gone, we still care about him. We care about him more than anyone’s ever cared for you!” Joe saw that his taunts had hit home, but he also knew that he was about to pay for them.

“I hate you!” Tom screamed. “I’m going to enjoy this!” He raised his knife and placed it on top of Joe’s right ear. The blade began to bite into the cartilage and for a moment Joe felt no pain. Then the blood began to flow and he screamed as the agony drove his wits asunder.

From somewhere behind Tom, there was an enraged bellow, and for a second, Joe thought that a grizzly bear had happened upon them. Then Tom was dragged away from Joe, the knife sliding down his cheek, leaving a thin, burning line of red behind it, and Joe slumped down, all but unconscious.

Hoss, angrier than he had ever been before, dragged Tom away from Joe and hit him in the face. Tom looked stunned, but he tried to fight back, bringing the knife up in a futile attempt to protect himself. Contemptuously, Hoss hammered his fist down on Tom’s wrist and the knife dropped from his deadened fingers to the ground.

Frantically, Tom threw a punch with his left hand, but it glanced off Hoss’ cheek without making any impression on the enraged bigger man. Hoss was shaken by Tom’s resemblance to Adam, and he felt almost as though it was his brother, who had suddenly gone mad and tried to kill Joe.

Lifting his head, Joe saw Hoss beating the living daylights out of Tom. “Hoss, no!” he cried and tried to get to his feet. The last thing he wanted was Hoss beating anyone to death on his behalf. “Hoss!” he cried again, trying to get to his feet, but failing.

But Joe’s voice had penetrated the haze of anger that had fallen over Hoss’ mind. He gave Tom one last punch and looked let go of him. Tom reeled backwards and fell into the brush. Hoss made a grab for him, but missed. Tom screamed as he tumbled down the slope and fell into the river with a resounding splash.

For a frozen instant, Hoss stood there, just looking, then his shoulders slumped and he turned to Joe. “I didn’ mean to do that,” he croaked miserably.

“I know,” Joe panted. He suddenly felt shivery and sick and his ear began to throb violently.  He leant heavily against the nearest tree, his head spinning.

Moments later, Hoss was beside him, gently cutting his hands free and rubbing the life back into them. “Joe,” Hoss whispered. “Joe, I’m so glad ta see ya.”

Lifting his head and managing a smile, Joe croaked, “Not half as glad as I am to see you, big brother!”

*****

After a time, Joe persuaded Hoss to go and find Cochise, which didn’t take as long as he had expected. But somehow, Joe didn’t think he could have brought himself to mount Tom’s horse. In point of fact, when push came to shove, he was unable to mount Cochise, and returned home riding double with Hoss.

“Pa!” Hoss called, as they entered the yard. “Pa!”

The front door opened and Ben rushed out. He saw Joe slumped in the saddle in front of Hoss and hurried over to take his youngest son into his arms, even as Joe protested in a whisper that he could walk. “Get the doctor,” Ben told Hoss and the other son nodded, sending one of the hands.

Inside, Ben was carrying Joe upstairs and Hoss followed, after telling Hop Sing to bring some warm water up. He arrived in Joe’s room in time to help Ben pull off the singed boots. Joe, mercifully, passed out at that point and so they were able to strip off his filthy clothing without causing him any more pain. When Joe roused again, Ben was gently washing the blood off his face with a damp cloth.

“Welcome home,” Ben said, his voice filled with emotion.

Joe’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to cost you so much.”

“I paid no more than $100, son,” Ben told him gently. “And I would have paid all $20,000 to get you home safe.”  He smiled though the tears that were standing in his eyes. “It’s so good to have you back.”

“It’s so good to be back,” Joe replied.

*****

The gash along Joe’s ear would require several stitches to correct, as would the cut on his cheek. Paul diagnosed broken ribs, and the burnt feet and hand would also need treatment. The rope burns on Joe’s wrists weren’t good, but they were minor compared to everything else. The ether mask came out and Joe was soon deep in a drugged sleep, while Paul tended to his injuries.

“Any deeper, and Joe might have lost that ear,” Paul confided to Ben, while Hoss was out of the room and Joe still unconscious. “Has he told you what happened yet?”

“No,” Ben replied, shaken. “Roy is coming out to hear the story. He has a posse searching the banks of the Truckee River, just in case Tom survived the fall.”

“You know for sure it was Tom, then?” Paul asked, tying off the bandage that swathed Joe’s head.

“Yes,” Ben replied. “Hoss fought with him.” He shuddered. “I hope we’ve seen the last of him this time.” Reaching across, Paul squeezed Ben’s arm sympathetically.

*****

By the time Roy Coffee arrived at the ranch, Joe was awake and gingerly eating some soup that Hop Sing had brought up for him. He hadn’t felt very hungry, but both Paul and Ben had insisted that he try to eat and he was rather surprised that he was managing to get anything down at all.

Roy’s arrival was the excuse Joe needed to put the soup aside. Slowly he told them about the fight in the saloon, and awakening face down over his horse. Each revelation and cruelty caused Ben’s face to grow grimmer and his hand stroked Joe’s arm in a soothing rhythm as his son relived his ordeal. Finally, he came to the point where Hoss had come to his rescue and gratefully stopped. Ben offered him some water, which he sipped. “Thanks, Pa.”

“I alerted the towns that lie downriver from here, Ben,” Roy offered, “but I doubt if we’ll find his body. Could be he’s drowned.”

“I woulda killed him if’n it weren’t for Joe,” Hoss muttered.

“Don’t fret none ‘bout that, son,” Roy assured him. “Ain’t nobody here blamin’ ya fer that. You done what you had to do to save Joe, here, an’ I bet he don’ blame ya none.”

“You saved my life, Hoss,” Joe told him, sleepily from the bed. “And I can’t thank you enough. You saved Pa from having to pay that ransom.”

Smiling lovingly at both his boys, Ben patted Hoss on the shoulder before stroking Joe’s hair again. “You boys mean everything to me,” he told them, huskily. “I’d pay any amount of money to have you safe.”

Clearing his throat, Paul rose. Roy took the hint, too. “I think Joe needs some rest,” Paul announced, and gave him some morphine for pain. He knew that Joe would be sore for quite some time to come.

As Hoss showed Paul and Roy out, Ben tucked Joe in and made sure he was comfortable. “Pa,” Joe said, sleepily. “It was weird seeing Tom again. You know, he’s so like Adam. To look at I mean, and the way he talks sometimes, all superior. But do you know what he reminded me of most?”

“What’s that?” Ben asked

“Like a wolf in the fold,” Joe replied. “Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, pretending to be Adam again, but not realizing that they are so different that he could never pass himself off as Adam for more than a few minutes at a time.” He paused and gazed at Ben through glazed green eyes. “Do you think he’s dead?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. He sat with Joe until his son was deeply asleep, then he rose and looked out of the window. That was where he was when Hoss came looking for him some time later.

“Pa?” he whispered. “Hop Sing says supper’s ready.”

Following Hoss downstairs, Ben was silent. He sat at the table and looked without interest at the food placed before him.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Hoss asked. “Ya ain’t mad at me for what I done to Tom, are ya?”

“No, son,” Ben assured him. “No, I’m not mad at you.”

“Then what’s wrong?” Hoss asked, perplexed. “It ain’t Joe is it?”

“No, Joe will be fine in time. But it was something that Joe said.” Ben looked at Hoss. “He asked me if I thought Tom was dead.”

“What did you say?” Hoss wanted to know.

“I said yes,” Ben replied. He raised his eyes to meet Hoss’. “But I lied,” he added.

***End***

Special thanks and much love must go to my sister Claire once more for help with the title.

 

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