Hunting for Hidden Gold (by Rona)

Summary:  Joe falls foul of a group of young men who are hunting for something on the Ponderosa.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8469


 

 

Joe wasn’t afraid – and that was his first mistake. He rode in amongst the young men and shook his head. “What are you boys doing away out here?” he asked jovially. “Looking for work or are you lost?”

The hand that pulled him from his horse was only the first of many that found its way to his body in the next few minutes. When the onslaught was over, Joe was bleeding, semi-conscious and knew he was in deep trouble.

Trouble was not unusual for Joe Cartwright to be in – but this time, he had no idea what was going on.

*****

The voice of reason edged its way into one of the young men’s minds. He backed away from the bleeding man on the ground and muttered, “This is wrong.”

Another of the young men, exhilarated by the beating, looked at him contemptuously. “What?” he sneered. “You aren’t getting cold feet about this are you?”

Stung, the other glared back. “I agreed to go along with the plan but you didn’t say anything about hurting anyone!” He gestured to Joe. “Joe could be badly hurt!”

“Why are you worried about Cartwright?” The other man shook his head. “What difference does it make to you if we beat him up a bit?” He kicked Joe and the injured man groaned and rolled slightly away from his tormentor.

By now, the first man’s worry was spreading, infecting the others as their killing rage cooled. “Ray’s right,” stammered a thin, unkempt youngster with a straggly beard. “Nobody said nothin’ about beatin’ up a Cartwright!”

“He’ll tell on us!” yet another objected.

“Shut up!” the leader bellowed. He glared at Ray, who glared back, unrepentant. “So we’ve beaten up Joe Cartwright! So what? The Cartwrights aren’t the law around here. Nothing’s changed, except we have a handy hostage if anyone gets too close.” His eyes gleamed maliciously. “You want to back out?” he asked Ray and in one smooth movement, he stooped and drew Joe’s gun from the holster.

Looking down the barrel, Ray knew what his answer would have to be. “No, Floyd,” he murmured. “I don’t want to back out.”

Grinning, Floyd stuffed the gun into the front of his pants. “I thought you’d feel like that,” he commented. “Now, get me some rope and we’ll make our ‘guest’ feel more at home.” He sniggered loudly as he flipped Joe over onto his stomach and dragged the man’s arms behind his back. “I never thought I’d see the time when I was pleased to see you, Cartwright,” he mentioned, tightening the rope viciously around Joe’s wrists.

He laughed again when Joe didn’t reply.

*****

To say Joe was confused was something of an understatement. He lay on his side on the ground, watching as the young men set up a crude camp. Joe’s body ached where the fists had caught him; he didn’t think anything was broken, but the bruises were bad enough. What he couldn’t figure out was why these men were on the ranch. None of them showed much inclination towards working, despite being in their late teens or early twenties. Joe knew them all, as he knew most of the young men in town, but he was friends with none of them. He knew none of them were the types to come and do a hard day’s work on the ranch.

The ground was cold and damp, following a heavy rain shower earlier in the day and Joe could feel the chill seeping into his bones. But he was more interested in noticing the way the young men persistently failed to get things right while making their camp.

First of all, they didn’t dig a deep enough fire pit, nor surround it with rocks. Joe was quite glad that they were so inept, as it would have taken only one small gust of wind to allow the fire to escape its confines. However, they had chosen probably the greenest, dampest wood around and it stubbornly refused to light for them. Despite the situation he found himself in, Joe could barely keep from laughing aloud.

In the second place, Joe was surprised that they were camping out in the middle of a field, in plain sight. Given what he had heard – or what he thought he had heard – Joe assumed that they were trying to hide, since he might be a valuable hostage. Being in the middle of an open field didn’t constitute ‘hiding’ to Joe.

Joe grew colder and stiffer as what was left of the afternoon wore into evening. The fire was still not going, which meant there was going to be no warm meal for any of them that night – assuming they even decided to feed Joe. He continued to watch his captors, but he was no longer amused by their ineptitude.

Finally, Floyd crossed over to crouch in front of Joe. “I seen you laughing,” he accused. “You think you can do better?”

“I know I can,” Joe replied, not bragging, but with a matter of fact air. “But I’m not going to help you.” Joe would not admit, even to himself, just how good a warm fire would feel.

“You will if you want to stay alive!” Floyd threatened.

“I don’t think so,” Joe answered. He kept his level gaze on Floyd, but despite seeing the violence in the other man’s eyes, he still flinched when Floyd grabbed him by the collar and yanked him closer.

“I ought to cut out your tongue,” Floyd hissed and Joe fought back a wave of nausea. He fully believed that Floyd would do it. Floyd had never been entirely mentally stable.

“Floyd.” The single word was spoken quietly, but the warning was clear. Floyd dropped Joe back to the ground and Joe valiantly fought back a groan of pain. Ray stood there, watching them.

“You got something to say?” Floyd challenged.

“Threatening Joe isn’t going to work,” Ray replied. “You should know that.” He looked at Joe. “But one of the boys saw Adam riding that-a-way,” he pointed, “a little while ago. It shouldn’t be hard to catch up with him and I’m sure we could persuade Joe to help us if Adam was here.” He grinned.

It was a bluff; Joe knew it was a bluff. He was sure of it. Yet his heart was racing uncomfortably at the thoughts of what they would do to Adam to make him help them and he knew that it was a bluff that he couldn’t call. What if Adam had been fairly close by? What if they could catch up to him? Joe knew that he couldn’t let anything happen to Adam.

“All right,” he allowed, grudgingly. “I’ll help you.”

He knew he would take the bitter memory of Floyd and Ray’s triumphant grins to his grave.

*****

Despite the hobbling ropes on his wrists and ankles, Joe managed to get the little camp set up efficiently in a very short time. He hadn’t suggested that they move to a more secluded spot – he wanted them to be found – but he had persuaded Ray to dig a deeper fire pit and showed a couple of the others how to find dry wood. By the time the fire was blazing, Joe was exhausted. His body ached fiercely as he was shoved to the ground and his hands retied behind his back.

The sky was darkening, deep purple shadows clothing the land as twilight claimed sway. Joe wished that he was at home, wondering what his father was thinking and feeling. He was rather surprised to be pulled from his reverie and offered some food. Although reluctant to be fed, Joe knew that he had to keep his strength up and ate what he was offered. Unfortunately, that added to another growing problem, but it was quite some time before Joe could persuade himself to ask for what he needed.

“Ray.” Joe caught the young outlaw’s attention, feeling that his face had already started burning.

“What do you want?” Ray was something of an enigma to Joe. He seemed to sometimes be on Joe’s side, yet had showed no real friendliness or a willingness to help Joe out of this dilemma.

“I need to go.” Joe kept his voice as low as possible. He didn’t know why he should be embarrassed about this – after all, he had been watching the other guys step behind the trees since he was captured.

For a long moment, Ray stared at him blankly and Joe thought he was going to have to repeat his request. He braced himself to be slightly more explicit to make his need understood. Then the light dawned. “Oh right.” Ray looked embarrassed, too. “All right. I’ll loose your hands, but if you try anything…” He didn’t elaborate on his threat, but the way he patted his gun told Joe a lot.

It was a huge relief to have his hands free for a few short minutes. Joe made the most of it, fully aware that several pairs of eyes were watching him, but doing his best to ignore them. He finally turned to face Ray again. “Thanks.” It was the best he could do under the circumstances.

“Turn round,” Ray ordered. “Put your hands behind you.”

Sighing and wincing, for his shoulders were stiff and sore from the unnatural position, Joe did as he was told. “Ray, why are you doing this?” he asked, as the other man worked on his bonds.

“What difference does it make?” Ray asked.

“It makes a difference to me!” Joe flared. “I’m a prisoner here in case you haven’t noticed! It would be nice to know why!”

His conscience prodding him again, Ray tightened the ropes more than was necessary and only slackened them slightly when Joe winced. “The less you know, the safer you’ll be,” he replied. He turned Joe around and guided him back to the spot where Joe had been sitting, making sure that the hobbled man didn’t trip.

“Safe,” Joe scoffed. He looked up at Ray. “I’ve seen your faces,” he reminded the other. “How safe does that make me?” Joe shook his head. “I’m dead as soon as you have no more use for me.”

“Shut up!” Ray hissed and struck Joe across the face. For a moment, he gazed at Joe, horrified at what he had done. There was a trickle of blood coming from Joe’s mouth. Ray turned and walked away, unable to watch any more.

*****

It was so late now that none of them doubted that Joe had run into some kind of trouble. He had been out since very early that morning – even if he had decided to go into town for the evening, he would have been back long before now. The snag was that it was also too late to do anything about Joe’s disappearance.

Sighing, Ben Cartwright pushed himself away from the fire, where he had been standing, gazing into the flames, leaning on the stonework. “We ought to try to sleep,” he suggested.

“Easier said than done,” Adam replied. He had spent a good part of the evening reading, but it had been hours since he had turned a page. The volume lay, forgotten, on his lap. Ben idly wondered if it was a new book or an old favorite.

“Dadburnit, how comes its allus Joe what gits inta trouble?” Hoss muttered. He clenched his large fists as though doing violence to something neither of the others could see.

“He has a target on his back?” Adam suggested, trying to lighten the atmosphere. The dark looks he got from father and sibling told him that he had failed dismally. “Sorry. Pa, you’re right; we have to try and sleep.”

“Yes,” Ben nodded. “And you were right, too. It won’t be easy, but we need to be fresh to look for Joe come morning.” He started to put out the lamps and Adam and Hoss slowly mounted the stairs. Following closely behind them, Ben bid his sons good night and went to his room.

Closing the door, he leaned against it for a moment, trying to discipline his thoughts, not allowing the disturbing, frightening, picture of Joe, lying on the ground, helpless and bleeding, to dominate his mind. He failed. His son – his youngest – was somewhere in the night, alone and in trouble. Ben hated the feeling of helplessness he was experiencing.

He undressed and slid under the covers, extinguishing the lamp, waiting for the heat from his body to warm the chill sheets. A shiver wracked his body that came not from the smooth linen, but from his imagination, as he once more pictured Joe alone in the night.

When sleep came, it was filled with amorphous images that wakened him often. When dawn came, Ben rose with gritty eyes and an aching heart.

*****

Hop Sing was going to be annoyed that they hadn’t eaten more breakfast, Ben mused, as he pushed the food around on his plate. Even Hoss hadn’t eaten as much as usual and it took a lot to put the big man off his food. But as the Chinese housekeeper cleared the table, he didn’t say a word and Ben knew that his concern for Joe was a great as theirs was.

“Joe was checking the timber stand over on the lower slopes of Wild Horse Ridge yesterday,” Ben started, as they gathered by his desk.

“It’s a good hour ta an hour and a half ride over there,” Hoss mentioned.

“And there are two different routes from there to here,” Adam mused. “Which one is he most likely to have taken?”

“This one,” Hoss declared decisively. He pointed to the map and traced the route with his finger.

“Why that way?” Ben asked. “What makes you so sure? I’m not doubting you, son…”

“I know, Pa,” Hoss replied. “But Joe allus goes that road ta Wild Horse Ridge. There’s a meadow here, see? Joe jist loves ta race that pony o’ his across it. I reckon Cochise likes it as well as Joe does, ‘cos he’s allus champin’ at the bit ta git goin’.”

“The one time I went there with Joe, that’s the route we took,” Adam agreed. “And he did race Cochise over that meadow.”

“Did he win?” Ben asked, dryly and they all laughed, for they knew that Cochise would have won. “All right,” Ben concluded, the momentary light-heartedness gone, “we’ll start from there. Let’s go.”

“Here!” Hop Sing thrust the small parcel at Ben as he shrugged on his coat.

“What’s that?” Ben asked, making no move to take it.

“Food,” Hop Sing replied, in a tone that implied Ben was lacking a few brain cells. “Lil Joe be hungry.” The look he gave told Ben that the food was for them all, but if they wanted to think it was all for Joe, they could please themselves. “He need good food.”

“Yes, you’re right, thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben nodded, giving in graciously. He knew that he would not have been allowed out of the house without the parcel of food. Sometimes, he thought Hop Sing rang the ranch and he just worked there.

The horses were waiting in the yard and the Cartwrights didn’t hesitate to mount up and ride out. They were determined that, by nightfall, Joe would be home with them once more.

*****

The night was long and cold for Joe. He did manage to get some sleep, but most of the time was spent gazing up at the cold stars above him, or at the embers of the camp fire. He had struggled uselessly against the ropes that held him captive. The knots defied his tingling fingers and eventually, he gave up, knowing that his wrists were raw and bleeding.

With nothing else to do, Joe spent his time trying to figure out what on earth this gang wanted. It was clear that there was a purpose behind their being on the ranch, but Joe hadn’t the least idea what it might be. They weren’t knowledgeable enough to be cattle rustlers, although rustling was a constant problem for the Ponderosa. Trees were impossible to steal in their raw state. What else could they want?

The answer was still eluding Joe when morning arrived. He watched them men bickering as they stirred up the fire and someone burned bacon and beans. Joe was almost glad that he wasn’t offered anything, judging by the expressions on everyone else’s face.

Finally, they started to pack up the camp. One man poured water on the fire and Ray came over to haul Joe to his feet. “I need to go,” Joe told him, past embarrassment now. “And I need some water.”

With a nod, Ray repeated his actions of the evening before. Joe was grateful, although his fingers were clumsy and the tingle of returning circulation was agonizing. But he kept his face impassive as he went about his business and then accepted a canteen.

As he sipped the water, resisting the urge to gulp it down, Joe looked around as best he could. Cochise stood, saddled, near by. Joe knew that if he could get to his mount, he would be able to escape. Cochise was the fastest horse in the district.

It took no more thought than that – and that was Joe’s second mistake. He thrust the canteen into Ray’s face and turned to run for his horse, quite forgetting that he was hobbled at the ankle. He made one step before he crashed down, face first, over the fire.

It was Ray’s quick thinking that saved Joe from a severe burn. He grabbed the back of Joe’s green jacket and yanked the other man off the dying flames. Joe fell onto his back, gasping and risked a glance down. His shirt front was scorched, but intact and Joe hoped that the flesh underneath was the same.

He had no chance to find out for himself, though. Floyd was on him in a moment, growling and yelling. Joe couldn’t catch the words, but he could guess the gist. Floyd was furious that Joe was trying to escape and Joe was about to get the beating of his life.

But once again, he had Ray to thank for his deliverance. Floyd’s first two open-handed slaps caught Joe viciously across first one cheek, then the other. As Ray grabbed his arm, Floyd’s hand missed its mark – Joe’s nose, and caught him full between the eyes. It was a painful blow, but Ray undoubtedly saved Joe from having his nose broken.

“Floyd! If you beat him too bad, he won’t be able to show us what we’re looking for!”

For an instant, Joe hung in mid-air, suspended by his jacket collar, as Floyd glared at him, panting. Then, the killing rage went out of his eyes and he dropped Joe to the ground. “Make sure he can’t run away,” he ordered. He kicked Joe. “You’re going to lead us to what we want and no arguing.”

Too breathless to say anything at all, Joe lay quiescently as his hands were tied in front of him. As everyone else mounted, he was led to his horse, his ankles freed and boosted into the saddle. His hands were tied to the saddle horn and Cochise was snubbed tight to Floyd’s horse.

There was going to be no easy escape from this predicament.

******

They rode for quite some time, but it took Joe a while to realize that this wasn’t just a random trek. It appeared that the gang was looking for something. The nagging question was – what? Apart from trees, grazing and a few shallow caves, there was nothing of any interest around. The herd was on a different part of the ranch. Joe was more than confused.

He watched in puzzlement out of two swollen, blackening, eyes, as they reached one of the caves and Floyd and Ray dismounted and disappeared inside. They emerged a short time later and remounted. Neither said anything, but Joe would have given odds that Floyd was furious. He didn’t understand at all.

About noon, they stopped for a break. Joe was tied to a tree and offered neither food nor water. He didn’t expect to get them, so he wasn’t disappointed. Or so he told himself. His mouth was as dry as a desert and his stomach was rumbling on a regular basis. The food looked less than appetizing, especially to someone used to the delicious food Hop Sing produced, but it didn’t smell too bad. But nobody so much as looked in Joe’s direction while they ate.

Mounted once more, they continued their meander around the ranch, eventually arriving at another small cave. Joe watched silently once more as Floyd and Ray disappeared inside once more. When they emerged this time, Floyd wasn’t just furious, he was in a tearing rage and it looked as though someone was going to pay for his frustration – and that someone was Joe.

“Where is it, Cartwright?” Floyd cried. He grabbed Joe’s lapel and dragged him down so that they were face to face. Joe might have had the height advantage, but with his hands tied to his saddle horn, there was nothing he could do with it.

“Where’s what?” Joe retorted. “I don’t know what you want.”

“Don’t play the fool with me!” Floyd snarled and dragged Joe off the horse. Joe winced as his captive wrists objected to the move. Pain shot all the way up his arms to his shoulders. “Tell me where it is!”

“Where what is?” Joe shouted back. “How can I tell you where something is when I don’t know what you’re looking for?”

The blow to his stomach caught Joe unawares and he sagged at the knees, gasping for breath. Cochise sidled away, adding to the pain in Joe’s arms. Somehow, he managed to get his feet underneath him again. He slowly raised his head to meet Floyd’s eyes.

Seeing that he had Joe’s full attention again, Floyd gave a nasty grin. “I never thought any of you Cartwrights had much brains,” Floyd sneered. “Even your so-called clever brother Adam. None of you are as smart as me.”

It seemed a pointless waste of breath to tell Floyd that he hadn’t a clue what he was raving about, so Joe said nothing. He kept his gaze on the other man. He had no idea what Floyd might decide to do next, but Joe was sure it would be something unpleasant.

Leaning forward so that his face was only inches from Joe’s, Floyd hissed, “The gold, Joe. I want the gold.”

Beginning to wonder if he had taken more of a blow to the head than he had realized, Joe blinked. He still had no idea what Floyd was talking about. Gold? What gold? There wasn’t gold on the Ponderosa, nor ever had been, apart from the odd nugget washing through in the rivers. If the Cartwrights had to rely on finding gold to keep the ranch alive, it would have died years ago.

“What gold?” he asked.

The blow knocked Joe against, Cochise, who startled sideways and this time Joe felt something give in his wrist. The pain was overwhelming and for several seconds, the world was obliterated by a whirling maelstrom of agony. When he finally could open his eyes again, Joe had lost the thread of the conversation entirely. He wondered if he was going to throw up.

Joe might have lost the thread of the conversation, but Floyd certainly hadn’t. He was still glaring at Joe with an expectant air about him, as though waiting for the answer to a question. Joe had no idea what the question was. He blinked sweat out of his eyes and tried to control the pain. He remembered what the topic of conversation had been and repeated, “What gold?”

Rolling his eyes, but with his temper seemingly under control, Floyd sneered again. It wasn’t attractive. “The gold, Cartwright,” he explained with exaggerated patience. “The gold you’re hiding for Brownstone Mines.”

Things became slightly clearer to Joe, although he was still a bit puzzled. Brownstone Mines was a new operation that had taken over an old silver mine, renamed it and struck gold. With the discovery of a new load on the Comstock, there had been an up-turn in the number of men prospecting in the area. Brownstone had reputedly hidden the gold somewhere other than in the mine and it was proving very tempting to the less honest citizens of Virginia City. Several attempts had been made on the bank recently and the manager had issued a statement in the newspaper saying that the gold was not being kept there. It had to be admitted that most people thought he was lying.

“We’re hiding the gold?” Joe queried. It was the first time he had heard that particular theory. “I don’t think so.”

“Oh, but I do,” Floyd replied. “This place is perfect – out of the way, but close enough to get it when they want it. So come on, Cartwright, spill the beans. Where is it?” Floyd’s voice had turned menacing again.

Despairingly, Joe wondered what on earth he could say that would save him from another beating. But nothing came to mind, so he fell back on the truth. “We aren’t hiding the gold,” he insisted.

It was the last thing he remembered for quite some time.

******

The campsite was easy to find. The thin tendril of smoke from the nearly extinguished camp fire led them there. Kicking dirt over the last embers, Adam glanced around. “I wonder who they were,” he mused. “And where did they go?”

“They went this way,” Hoss replied, pointing. He frowned at the tracks on the ground. “Something don’ seem right.”

“What do you mean?” Ben asked, looking down at the spot Hoss indicated.

“Lookee here,” Hoss told him, pointing to a certain spot. “There’s bin a scuffle o’ some sort. Someone fell there, I reckon.” He crouched and frowned at the tracks. Adam joined him, leaning over to get a clearer view. “I reckon someone fell here, too,” Hoss concluded.

“Over the fire?” Ben gasped.

“It looks that way,” Adam agreed. He put a calming hand on Ben’s arm. “Pa, we don’t know that this has anything to do with Joe.”

“Don’t we?” Ben shot back. “We find this camp on a direct line from the house to Wild Horse Ridge. What do you expect me to think?” He looked down at the fire again and felt a thrill of fear in his stomach. “I think we ought to follow these tracks. Even if they have nothing to do with Joe, they might be able to help us.” He walked over to Buck and mounted. Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance and copied him. Despite his words, Adam was sure that the tracks at this camp would eventually lead them to Joe. He kept his misgivings to himself.

******

It was the pain that woke Joe. He felt as though he couldn’t catch his breath as the pain seemed to consume his whole body, but as his grip on consciousness improved, the pain settled mostly into his arms. Joe slowly opened his eyes, unable, for a blessed moment or two, to remember what had happened to him.

Reality came back with a crash. Joe found himself hanging from his saddle horn by his arms, his legs folded beneath him so that he was almost on his knees. Pain was the only constant of his world as he tried to grasp what had happened. Turning his head, Joe saw Floyd from the corner of his eye and he remembered.

It seemed important to Joe to regain his feet before Floyd realized that he was awake. But that was harder than he anticipated. His hands were still bound to the saddle horn and it was abundantly clear that there was something the matter with them. Joe could barely make his fingers twitch, let alone grip the horn so he could maneuver to his feet.

Moving was hellish, there was no other word for it. Joe gritted his teeth together, but no amount of stoicism could prevent the groans that escaped his lips. Getting to his feet was probably the hardest thing Joe had ever done. By the time he was upright again, he was grey, sweating and nauseous, his head reeling unpleasantly.

As he gained control of his roiling stomach, Floyd came back over. “You gonna tell me now?” he asked. He lifted a bloody, bruised fist. “Or do you want some more of this?”

Speaking was pretty much beyond Joe at that point. He could barely catch his breath and it was taking him all his time to stay conscious. It felt to Joe like he had been ripped to pieces, the pain was so intense. “I… I can’t… can’t tell you… something… I… don’t… know,” he panted. He gritted his teeth, sure that he was going to vomit and dreading the experience.

Floyd growled, but by now, Ray wasn’t Joe’s only advocate. The others in the gang were looking uneasy at Floyd’s continuing violence against the helpless man. “Leave him alone, for pity’s sake!” cried one of the others.

Whirling, Floyd glared at them all. “He could tell us what we want to know!” he objected. “He will, soon enough.”

“He doesn’t know anything about the gold,” Ray countered. “You’ve always hated Joe; we all know that. I think you’re beating him because you hate him.”

Silently, Joe congratulated Ray on his insight. He and Floyd had always disliked one another, although Joe wasn’t sure why. He hoped that Ray wouldn’t regret his words, for Floyd had an unpredictable temper. Joe leaned against his horse’s side, grateful for both the warmth and support. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep on his feet and the prospect of falling was a daunting one. Surely something had to happen to end this stand-off. Joe didn’t allow himself to think that what might happen could make matters worse.

But it did. A scuffle broke out between Ray and Floyd and they fought viciously, trading punches, kicks and bites as they staggered around the impromptu arena created by their watching gang. Joe could only watch in mesmerized horror. Ray was not his friend, but he was the only one who had shown any concern for the prisoner and Joe was afraid of what would happen should Ray lose the fight.

Seconds later, Joe lost all interest in the proceedings. Ray reeled backwards from a particularly brutal punch and crashed off Cochise’s shoulder. The pinto shied sideways and the sudden movement was too much for Joe’s injured arms. The pain overwhelmed him and he blacked out, falling and hanging from the saddle once more.

*****

“Listen!” Adam’s face was fierce and alert and he held his breath as he tried to pinpoint the sounds he had heard.

Ben and Hoss froze, too, straining their ears to hear over the sounds of their horses’ breathing. But just as Ben was about to ask what Adam had heard, the sound reached him, too. “Someone’s fighting,” he breathed.

“Let’s go!” Hoss urged and they urged their horses into a lope, throwing caution to the wind.

It didn’t matter – the crowd of young men were oblivious to their new audience as they urged and cheered and jeered the two fighters in their midst. The two men in question didn’t notice the newcomers either – not until the Cartwrights were suddenly among them. Adam dragged Ray away, while Hoss had the unenviable job of stopping Floyd.

As for Ben, he had eyes for only one person. It had taken him only seconds to spot Joe and he threw himself from Buck’s back to reach Joe’s side. Desperately, he supported his unconscious son’s weight and cried, “Help me, Adam!”

Ray was spent. Adam dropped the other man and hurried over to Ben’s side, seeing for the first time what had scared their father so much. For Ben was scared and with good reason. Joe’s face was bruised, bloody and swollen. Both his eyes were black and dried blood flecked his torn lips. But it was Joe’s arms that scared the men the most. Joe was tied to the saddle horn and his left shoulder was clearly dislocated. His right wrist appeared to be broken about mid-way between hand and elbow. His hands were swollen and their color was bad. Joe’s shirt front was scorched. All in all, it was not a picture to bring Joe’s family any kind of comfort.

It was the work of only a couple of minutes for Adam to cut through the ropes that bound Joe. Then he helped Ben lay his brother gently down on the ground before he looked up to see how Hoss was coping.

Admirably was the answer. The young men had all dropped their guns. Floyd was lying face down on the grass and Ray was sitting in a dazed heap near by. Hoss looked angry, as well he might and the gang seemed to think it was prudent to do as Hoss had asked of them. Adam thought it was probably a wise move, too. Hoss was furious at whoever had caused such hurt to Joe and until he discovered who was to blame, he was holding everyone responsible. Hoss would never hurt anyone deliberately, but when provoked, he had his share of the Cartwright temper.

There was no time to ask questions. The day was well on and Joe needed to get home and be seen by a doctor as soon as possible. Adam set about gathering up the guns and Hoss bullied a couple of the young men into helping him piece together a makeshift travois.

While Adam and Hoss were doing that, Ben knelt by Joe, raising his head to dribble a little water into his mouth. After a few minutes, Joe moaned and rolled his head, wincing as he regained consciousness. “Joe?” Ben questioned. “Can you hear me, son?”

“Pa?” Joe whispered, disbelief clear in his voice. He forced his swollen eyes to open just a crack and gazed at his father. “How…?” he started but Ben shushed him.

“I’ll tell you all about it later,” he promised. “Meantime, let’s get you ready to travel. Joe, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to move your arms. I need to do something to protect them and I’m afraid it’s going to hurt.”

“’S okay,” Joe mumbled. The pain was making it very hard for him to think clearly, but he would have agreed to almost anything Ben said, so pleased was he that his father was there.

Working quickly, Ben tore the bedroll from behind his saddle into strips and used them to bind Joe’s arms to his torso. He had to steel himself to ignore the winces and moans of pain that escaped Joe’s lips every now and then, but he knew that he had to do something. Joe’s arms were already injured and he didn’t want them to get any worse before they got home. Ben was also concerned about Joe’s stomach, wondering how bad the burns were, but he again didn’t want to meddle in something he knew nothing about. The priority was getting Joe home and getting the doctor.

“We’re ready, Pa,” Adam told him.

Glancing over his shoulder, Ben saw that the men were mounted, with Hoss keeping a close watch on them, his rifle in his hand. Hoss still looked angry and as Ben looked at the men, he could quite understand his middle son’s feelings. These men were responsible for the terrible pain Joe was suffering. “Help me get Joe on the travois, Adam,” Ben suggested. Together, they lifted Joe to the contraption and covered him with yet another bedroll. Ben made sure he was as comfortable as possible and then looked round. “Let’s go.”

*****

It was a slow journey home and darkness had fallen when they arrived. The arrival of a large number of people drew the hands from the bunkhouse and they were quickly roped into helping. One was sent to town and the others were set to guarding the gang. Then, Adam, Hoss and Ben carried Joe inside and up to his room. Joe had had a bad time on the journey and passed out again as he was carried inside, but Ben didn’t think this development was all bad. It meant he was able to get Joe’s filthy, burned clothes off while his son couldn’t feel the pain.

Looking down at Joe, Ben was horrified at the extent of his son’s injuries. His stomach was not much burned, just slightly red, like sunburn. It was, however, dotted with dark bruises. Joe had clearly dislocated his left shoulder, but the left wrist looked to have a break in it, too. The right wrist was swollen and discolored as well and the bruising ran to the top of his arm. Again, there were other bruises dotted here and there. The only positive thing Ben could find was that Joe’s legs, aside from some bruises, showed no other signs of injury. Joe had enough to deal with.

“Why?” Ben whispered, anguished. He hadn’t realized that Joe was awake again until the hoarse voice spoke.

“They were… hunting… for hidden… gold,” Joe croaked. He was finding it difficult to focus, but knew it was important to tell Ben this. “Floyd thought… we were hiding… Brownstone’s gold.” He gritted his teeth and rode out another wave of pain with only a slight moan escaping his control.

“What?” Ben gasped. When it looked as though Joe was going to try and repeat himself, Ben hurriedly assured his son that he had actually understood what had been said. “It’s all right, Joe, I heard you. But I can’t understand why he would that.”

“He doesn’t,” Joe remarked and made a sound remarkably like a chortle. Ben was even more perplexed.

“What?” The conversation seemed to be spiraling out of control.

“Floyd,” Joe explained. “Thinking…” Again came the chortle, accompanied by a gasp of pain. “Floyd doesn’t… think.”

“Oh.” Ben smiled, reflecting that Joe was quite probably right in that respect. Floyd wasn’t inclined to spend time thinking. “He’s the ringleader, huh?”

“Hmm.” Joe licked his dry lips. Ben immediately offered him a little water. Joe took some, but he didn’t drink as much as he would have liked because he felt slightly sick, still. The last thing he wanted to do was puke up what little was in his stomach. “Ray… tried to… help me,” he added. “He stopped… Floyd.” Joe longed to move to try and relieve some of the pain, but he knew that wasn’t possible. “Pa, am I…hurt bad?”

“Bad enough,” Ben answered as steadily as he could. “We’ll need to wait for Paul to tell us just how bad. But you’ll be all right, Joe, I promise.” Ben stroked the dirty, tangled curls back from Joe’s face. “How about I get some hot water up here and give you a wash, huh?” he suggested. “That’ll make you feel a bit better.”

“All right,” Joe agreed, listlessly. He tracked Ben’s movements to the door without turning his head and when Ben was gone from his sight, he sighed, wincing at the pain that the movement caused him. Joe just wanted to fall into some sort of oblivion until he could wake up and find that his hurts were all healed. Bearing the pain was becoming harder and harder.

*****

“…and that’s what Joe told us,” Adam concluded. He looked expectantly at Roy Coffee, the sheriff.

“Don’t jibe with what Floyd tol’ me,” Roy groused. “But I guess I didn’ expect it to.” He nibbled on the edge of his moustache, a habit that Joe found highly amusing. Thinking about Joe’s reaction to this, Adam had to hide a smile of his own.

“What about them others?” Hoss asked. He laid down his coffee cup and cast another longing glance at the stairs, but the people upstairs ignored this cue and remained out of sight in Joe’s room.

“I reckon they’ll say more when they don’t got Floyd sitting glarin’ at ‘em across the room,” Roy admitted.

“And Ray?” Adam probed.

“Ain’t said a word,” Roy replied. He didn’t sound concerned about it and reached out to snag another of Hop Sing’s delicious biscuits. Hoss lifted the coffee pot to offer a top up and Roy nodded. Roy appreciated his visits to the Ponderosa, not being much of a cook himself.

That kind of exhausted the topic of conversation for the time being and Hoss returned to gazing aimlessly into the fire and Adam eyed the book he had left on the coffee table. It would have been rude to read while Roy was in the room anyway, but Adam knew he would be unable to concentrate on his book. His mind was upstairs with Joe.

“Reckon I’ll be able ta talk ta Joe tonight?” Roy asked. The biscuits were finished and he looked disappointed.

“I doubt it,” Adam replied. He couldn’t get the image of Joe’s broken, dislocated arms out of his mind. Roy looked concerned, so Adam elucidated a bit. “Paul had to give him ether so that he could set the shoulder and wrists. Joe probably won’t be up to talking to you until morning at the earliest.”

“That’s too bad,” Roy clucked sympathetically. “Mind if I wait an’ find out how he’s doin’?”

“No, of course not,” Adam replied automatically, although he had to fiercely suppress the sigh that wanted to break free. He wanted to be alone with his family so he could brood in peace, not play polite host, even if Roy was an old friend of the family.

They didn’t have much longer to wait. About half an hour later, they heard footsteps on the upstairs landing and then Ben and Paul appeared on the stairs. Both looked tired. Adam realized that he was on his feet and glancing round, saw that Hoss was, too. Roy watched from the sofa. “How is he?” Adam asked.

“Sleeping right now,” Ben answered. He sat down on the sofa and rubbed a weary hand over his face. Paul slumped down beside him. Hoss hurried off to order some fresh coffee for them both.

“Joe’s going to be sore for a few days,” Paul elaborated. “I’ve set the breaks and the shoulder and when the swelling comes down, I’ll put him in plaster. But it’s going to be hard for him, as both his hands are going to be out of commission. I have no doubt that life will be hard for you all until the plaster is off.” He grimaced. “Joe’s going to need quite a lot of painkillers until I can get those casts on, so I would expect him to be fairly drowsy for a couple of days.” He glanced at the sheriff. “You can try talking to him tomorrow, Roy, but you’ll need to catch him early.”

“I can do that,” Roy agreed. He rose. “I’d best be headin’ back ta town.”

“You are welcome to stay,” Ben offered.

“Thanks, Ben, but I got them prisoners ta watch. I’ll be back tomorra.” Roy hitched his pants up slightly and made for the door. He had it open before Adam caught up with him to see him out. Unfazed, Roy sketched a goodbye and continued into the darkness.

Closing the door, Adam returned to his seat and slumped into the blue velvet. The sigh he had repressed earlier escaped with a vengeance. He heard a slight chuckle and looked up to meet the tired eyes of the family doctor. “What?” he asked defensively.

“Adam, it’s not as bad as you think,” Paul assured him. “Yes, Joe is going to be in a lot of pain for a day or two and I have no doubt at all that he will try your patience endlessly in the weeks to come, but it could have been so much worse.”

“I know,” Adam admitted. “It’s just…” He stopped, unable to put into words what he was feeling.

“I know,” Ben said quietly. “I know.”

It was Hoss who put it into words.

“It jist ain’t fair.”

*****

The next six weeks were something of a nightmare for the Cartwrights. Joe’s frustrations grew with each day that passed. He was unable to do anything for himself and found it humiliating to be fed and require help with personal needs. Tempers grew short all round as Joe lashed out verbally, often driving away the very people he needed around to help.

The only thing that made this whole scenario bearable was the fact that Joe was genuinely contrite after he had lost his temper. His family all knew how trying the situation was for him and made allowances for the tantrums. As Hoss pointed out, at least Joe couldn’t throw anything at them!

But gradually, things got better and after 6 weeks, Paul removed the cast from Joe’s left hand. The muscles were weak after their long imprisonment, but Joe was more than eager to build the strength up again. His mood improved by leaps and bounds and the depression that had lingered so close by vanished as though it had never been. Joe’s appetite improved, until he was rivaling Hoss with the size of his portions. It was only then that Ben realized how thin Joe had become.

The only set back that Joe faced was the trial. He was dreading it. Ray had finally talked and corroborated Joe’s story, but Floyd was furious about that. Then, the night before the trial was due to start, Roy Coffee appeared at the ranch.

“Hello, Roy,” Ben cried, as he let his friend in. “What can we do for you today?”

“Oh, nothin’,” Roy replied. His eyes gleamed. “But if’n Hop Sing’s got any o’ them biscuits…”

Smiling, Ben assured Roy that Hop Sing would have something tasty tucked away somewhere and showed the sheriff to a seat. Roy tucked into the coffee cake as though he hadn’t seen food in a month. Ben contented himself with sipping a cup of coffee and waiting to find out what Roy wanted.

“I come ta see Joe,” Roy announced, when he was pleasantly full. “It’s about Ray.”

“I’ll get him,” Ben replied and went to fetch Joe from his room.

“What do you think it is?” Joe asked apprehensively, as Ben helped him slide a shirt over his remaining cast.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied, buttoning the garment. “But I’ve no doubt you’ll find out as soon as you get downstairs.” He looked at Joe, and saw that his son had paled. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah.” Joe sighed. He took a step, then stopped. “Pa, what if Ray isn’t going to tell the truth anymore?” he blurted.

“Is that going to stop you telling the truth?” Ben enquired.

“Of course not!” Joe retorted. “It’s just…” He frowned and drew in a deep, claming breath. “It’s just that makes it my word against theirs, and there are a lot more of them. Who is the jury going to believe?”

“Don’t go borrowing trouble,” Ben advised. “We don’t know what Roy is going to say. But your duty is to tell the truth, Joe. And we’ll deal with whatever happens after that.” He cupped his hand over the back of Joe’s neck. “Don’t worry about it.”

Together, they made their way down stairs; Ben watching attentively to make sure Joe’s balance was all right. He made it safely to the bottom and sat in the nearest chair. “Hi, Roy,” he offered listlessly.

“Little Joe,” Roy replied. “I came ta tell ya that Ray ain’t gonna be testifyin’ tomorra.” He looked slightly surprised at the in-take of breath and sharp look Joe sent Ben, but ploughed on. “See, when we brung them back from the county jail, Floyd managed ta get hold o’ a knife an’ he stabbed Ray.” Roy looked sorrowful – or at least, that’s how Ben thought he was trying to look. “Ray didn’ make it.”

There was silence while Ben and Joe absorbed that information. Joe grew paler. “What does that mean for the case?” he asked.

“Wall,” Roy began, expansively. “Floyd an’ the others is still facin’ a charge o’ kidnap an’ assault. Ain’t no question they’ll be found guilty there.” He sounded satisfied. “Floyd’s facin’ a murder charge now an’ I reckon he’ll hang fer it.” Roy didn’t sound as though he regretted the potential loss of the young man’s life. “But them others has changed their tune since Ray died. They’re backin’ everythin’ ya said, Joe. So I reckon that it’s likely ya won’ need ta testify after all. Ya still gotta come ta court, but ya ain’t got nothin’ ta worry about.”

The relief was overwhelming. Suddenly, Joe wasn’t facing being the lone voice against the gang. He was sorry that Ray had died, for Ray had done his best to protect Joe. “Thanks, Roy,” he croaked.

Breathing heavily down his nose, Roy waved his hand. “Kinda ironic when ya think there weren’t no gold in the first place.”

It had come as a nasty shock to everyone – not just the Cartwrights – to discover that Brownstone had not stuck gold after all. Quite how the rumor had started was anyone’s guess. A new vein of silver had been discovered, but it was considered too dangerous to work, due to the instability of the ground.

“I suppose ironic is the word,” Ben mused. He felt it wasn’t quite right, but couldn’t think of another word in its place. He glanced at Joe, relieved to see that the anger Joe had first felt at hearing the news was missing this time. The youngest Cartwright appeared to be in a world of his own.

Joe was barely aware of the rest of Roy’s short visit, but when Ben closed the door and turned around, he was met by something he hadn’t seen in weeks – Joe’s wonderful, happy smile. He couldn’t help but respond as he crossed the room again. Of course, Joe had smiled sometimes, but it hadn’t been that wonderful, heart-stopping smile that seduced every lady in Virginia City without trying. Joe’s eyes were sparkling, suddenly very green and he was so like his mother in that moment that Ben felt a sudden wrench of grief for Marie’s loss.

“You know, Pa,” Joe commented, “I think everything’s going to be all right.” His grin – impossibly – widened.

“You know something, Joe?” Ben replied. He suddenly found a wide smile stretching his mouth in reply. “I think you’re right.”

***End***

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