Into the Darkness (by Rona)

Summary:  When a stranger arrives in town with a business proposition for Ben, he won’t take no for an answer.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,740


 

 

The knife pricked into his ribs once more as he hesitated. “Go on!” growled his captor. “I said, move!” This time, he shoved his prisoner and Joe Cartwright stumbled forward a few paces. He desperately didn’t want to go any further into the darkness of the old mine, but he knew he had no choice. Donner, his captor, would not hesitate to kill him on the spot and Joe desperately wanted to live, if only to use his last breath to condemn the man who threatened him.

Had it not been for the man carrying the lantern, the darkness would have been impenetrable. Joe was not afraid of the dark, but he was uneasy nonetheless. He knew that when the lantern was taken away, he would see nothing. The complete absence of light would prevent the development of night vision and Joe would have only his thoughts for company.

Some distance into the mine, Donner said, “That’s far enough, Cartwright.”

Stopping, Joe knew that if he was going to try to escape, now was his last chance. He whirled and kicked out at the man standing behind him, but although he caught Donner in the groin, he had forgotten about the lantern-bearer, a man whose name Joe did not know. This man simply crashed his gun butt down on Joe’s unprotected head and the youngest Cartwright collapsed to the floor, his head reeling.

Dimly, he was aware of something being fastened around his ankles, but his body wasn’t taking commands from his brain right then and he couldn’t move. The manacles around his wrists were checked and he heard Donner laugh. “Get out of that, if you can!” he sneered and kicked Joe heavily in the side. Joe groaned and curled up.

Then he heard footsteps leaving and by the time he could persuade his eyes to open again, Joe was completely alone in the dark.

*****

“Who is he?” Ben asked, and Joe shrugged.

“Said his name is Donner and that he’d like to meet with you to discuss a ‘proposition’.” Joe made a wry face. “He didn’t say it in so many words, Pa, but he sure made it clear that he didn’t want to do business with me.”

Noticing that Joe didn’t look particularly upset by this, Ben joked, “Well, why speak to the monkey when you can talk to the organ grinder?”

“Oh, ha ha,” Joe joked back, but he couldn’t prevent the smile crossing his face. “You’re very funny, did you know that, Pa?”

“I have my moments,” Ben agreed. Sobering, he got back down to business. “Did he give any indication about when he wanted to talk to me?”

“Nope,” Joe replied. “He did say he’s staying at the International House and that you can reach him there, but he stressed sooner rather than later.”

“Did he indeed?” Ben murmured, not liking the sound of that. It made it seem as though Donner’s time was more important than Ben’s and to Ben, that didn’t bode well for a future relationship. “Well, I’m out here and he can as easily come here as I can go into town.”

“I thought you might feel like that,” Joe agreed, his eyes glinting mischievously. “So I told him you could be found here at the ranch most days, although I couldn’t guarantee you would be at your desk.”

Ben knew he ought to scold Joe for being rude to Donner, but in truth, he didn’t blame Joe for replying like that and so he contented himself with a small frown at his son. “If he’s around the next time I’m in town, I’ll speak with him. If not, well, it wasn’t that important.”

“That’s what I thought, too,” Joe murmured. He knew Ben wasn’t really annoyed with him. “I gotta get back to work, Pa,” Joe continued. “See you at supper.”

“Yes, see you then,” Ben agreed, absently. As Joe left the house, Ben found himself wondering about the mysterious business man who had spoken to Joe earlier that afternoon. What did he want? And why did Ben have such an uneasy feeling about it?

*****

“Donner?” Adam repeated. “No, I haven’t heard of him. Why do you ask?” He had just come in from work and had taken off his gun belt and laid it on the credenza by the front door, as they usually did.

“He stopped Joe in town,” Ben explained. “Told Joe he had a proposition for me, but didn’t say what. When he told Joe I could find him at the hotel, Joe told him he could find me here!” Ben laughed. “I feel exactly the same way myself, I must admit. He wants to talk to me, so why should I go chasing after him?”

“Still…” Adam murmured, not wanting to say he thought Joe had been very rude to say that. “What do you think Donner wants?”

“I have no idea,” Ben replied. “Perhaps he wants me to invest in a business venture or perhaps he’s interested in buying a herd from us.”

“Are you going to go and see him?” Adam asked.

“Only if he hasn’t shown up here first, and only if I actually have to go into town anyway,” Ben replied. “We’re busy enough without extra trips to town.”

“Maybe you should make the time to go and see him,” Adam mused. “I’m curious.”

“So am I,” Ben admitted. “But not that curious. It can wait, Adam. I’m not looking for further investments right now.” Ben’s tone was quite final and Adam knew that he would have to curb his curiosity.

*****

But it didn’t have to be curbed for long. The next morning, a man rode out from town with a note for Ben, inviting him to supper at the hotel that evening, and signed ‘Donner’.

“You gonna go?” Joe asked, at lunch, when Ben told them the news.

“I suppose I’d better,” Ben replied. “It would be rude not to. I don’t have anything else on this evening. And then I’ll know what he wants.”

“Is the invitation just for you?” Joe asked, hopefully, wanting to know what the mysterious Mr. Donner wanted. After all, he had met the gentleman in question, which was more than Ben had done!

“Yes, it is, why?” Ben replied, absently. He glanced at Joe, who colored slightly and shrugged.

“I was just asking,” he muttered belligerently, when he saw both his brothers looking at him speculatively. “I was curious, that’s all.”

“Sure you were,” nodded Adam.

“We guessed that,” Hoss smirked.

Ignoring this by-play, Ben rose. “I’ll be gone when you boys get back from work,” he reminded them. “Hop Sing will have supper waiting for you as usual.”

“Have a good time,” Joe muttered as he left.

*****

The ride into town was pleasant and uneventful and Ben arrived in good time for his supper invitation. He asked at the reception desk and the clerk told him that Mr. Donner was waiting in the dining room for him. “Big blond haired man wearing a dark suit,” the clerk advised. “You can’t miss him.”

“Thanks,” Ben replied and went into the dining room.

The clerk was right, Ben saw, as soon as he entered. The gentleman that Ben was looking for was indeed a big blond man, standing at least as tall as Hoss, although he wasn’t quite as strongly built. He rose as Ben entered, clearly having been told what Ben looked like. Ben smiled and went over. “Mr. Donner? I’m Ben Cartwright.”

“Please sit down,” Donner replied and seated himself again. “Thank you for coming. I had hoped you might have come to see me yesterday.” The reproof was clear in Donner’s voice and his tone was rather cold and stiff.

“I was otherwise occupied,” Ben answered, keeping any signs of defensiveness out of his voice. After all, he had nothing to be defensive about. “What can I do for you now that I’m here?”

“I’ve ordered supper, it will be served momentarily,” Donner evaded. “Would you like wine? I’ve ordered a rather nice bottle of red.”

“That will be fine, thank you,” Ben replied, amused at the man’s efforts to keep control of the evening. If he hadn’t already been that way inclined, this show of dominance would have pushed Ben towards refusing whatever was on offer. He liked to be an equal partner in a venture, not dominant and certainly not subordinate.

As he took a sip of the fine wine, nodding appreciatively, Ben studied his host more closely. He guessed Donner’s age to be about 35, a year or two older than Adam. His thick blond hair fell boyishly across one eye, but there was nothing boyish in his face. His eyes were cold and grey. Ben instinctively didn’t trust him.

For his part, Donner had been returning the scrutiny. “I was told that the young man to whom I gave the original message was your son,” he said.

“That’s right,” Ben replied. “Joe is my youngest son.”

“I trust the boy passed it on,” Donner went on, not quite asking a question.

“Of course,” Ben responded. “Joe told me about it when he came in. What can I do for you?”

Once again, Ben had to wait as the meal was brought to the table. He was pleased to see that it wasn’t some over-sauced fancy dish, but a good honest steak with all the trimmings. Across the table, Donner had some sort of fish, drowning in a pale-colored sauce. Ben took a bite of his steak and found it to be as excellent as he had expected.

“Is it good?” Donner asked. “I believe the supplier is local.”

“Yes, thank you,” Ben responded, smiling. “And the supplier is local. I’m the supplier. This is Ponderosa beef.”

Almost anyone else, in that situation, would have laughed and the ice would have been broken. But Donner apparently didn’t see the humor and just nodded. Ben stifled a sigh. This looked like it would be a long evening. He wondered how long he would have to sit there before he could decently make a move.

At last, Donner broached the reason that Ben was there. “Mr. Cartwright, I believe that you are a very wealthy man and that you have a diverse number of business interests. Is this correct?”

“I’m certainly involved with a few companies,” Ben replied, cautiously.

“I’m looking for investors to join with me in opening up a new gold mine,” Donner announced, with a hint of self-importance in his voice. “Of course, all profits and losses would be divided according to the number of shares you buy. I will be the majority stockholder, but I would be prepared to offer you all of the remaining 35% of my mine.” He tried a smile, but Ben thought it didn’t look right on his face, as though the man’s muscles were unused to the action.

“Where is the mine?” Ben asked. “Have you had it assayed? Is it a new venture? Have you bought it from someone who has got all he can out of it?”

“I see you’ve had some experience of mining, Mr. Cartwright,” Donner commented, disapprovingly.

“That’s right,” Ben nodded, not adding anything more to the statement. Two could play cat and mouse games, he thought. He waited patiently for the answers, already knowing that he was going to refuse.

“I inherited the mine from my uncle,” Donner said, finally. “He didn’t work it to its full capacity, which I am about to do now. I have the assayer’s report in my hotel room and I can assure you, sir, that you won’t be disappointed.”

But that information was more than enough for Ben. “You’re Tom Breyer’s nephew?” he asked. “You inherited the Breyer mine?”

Narrowing his cold grey eyes, Donner regarded Ben with suspicion. “You know of this mine?” he asked.

“Everyone around here knows of the Breyer mine,” Ben replied. “Tom worked that mine hard and although he got out quite a quantity of silver, he never saw a trace of gold. He closed the mine down when the silver became too hard to get out. You might get some silver out of there, Mr. Donner, but you won’t find any gold, I’m afraid.” Ben rose and thrust out his hand. “Thank you for supper and it was a pleasure to meet you.” He wondered why he felt obliged to tell this social lie. It hadn’t really been much pleasure at all.

“You mean you’re not going to invest?” Donner demanded, ignoring Ben’s hand. “Why not?”

“Because the mine is played out, and I am not interested in throwing money down a hole in the ground. Good evening, sir.” Ben knew it would be pointless to stay and argue and he didn’t want to create any more of a scene that they already had created. He started to walk across the dining room.

He hadn’t taken more than one step when a hand fell on his arm and swung him around. “I’m warning you, Mr. Cartwright,” Donner hissed quietly. “If you don’t invest in this mine, you’ll regret it.”

A pang of disquiet shot through Ben, but he didn’t show it. Instead, he looked down at the hand on his arm. “Let go, Mr. Donner,” he ordered, his tone quiet and reasonable. “I am not going to invest in your mine. Good evening.” Ben shook the hand off his arm and left, quietly seething.

*****

“He threatened you?” Adam echoed. “Did you tell Roy?”

“No, I didn’t bother Roy,” Ben replied. “What was the point? He hadn’t done anything.”

“I suppose,” Adam allowed. “I wonder if he has had any assaying done.”

“I doubt it,” Ben responded. “I think he just wanted my money. I don’t think for a minute that he’s actually going to re-open the mine.”

“What a waste of an evening for you,” Joe commented.

“The company wasn’t up to much,” Ben agreed, “but the steak was good.” They all grinned.

*****

By next morning, Ben had dismissed his anger at Donner’s attitude and decided to just forget about the whole meeting. He was pretty sure that Donner would, somewhere, find someone who was willing to invest in his mine, for there might still be enough silver in it to make some money from it. What Ben didn’t know was why Donner had decided to choose him as an investor and why he had become so annoyed when Ben refused. However, he shrugged it off as unimportant and life went as usual on the ranch.

On Friday night, Joe, Hoss and Adam went into town. It had been a long week, and apart from Joe’s brief excursion to town earlier in the week, none of them had been off the ranch. They hitched their horses outside the Silver Dollar and went into the saloon, relishing the noise and bright lights.

“I’ll buy the first round,” Adam offered. “But after that, you’re on your own.”

“Thanks, big brother,” Joe grinned and leaned against the bar to survey the crowd as Cosmo got them their beers. His eyes widened as he spotted a familiar face in the crowd and he excitedly swung round to tell his brothers. “You’ll never guess who’s here,” he teased.

“Who?” Adam asked.

“Guess,” Joe urged.

“Ah, dagnabit, Joe, we ain’t never gonna guess,” Hoss sighed. “Jist tell us?”

“Donner,” Joe responded.

“Where?” Hoss responded, instantly turning to survey the crowd.

“Don’t make it so obvious!” Joe hissed, tugging on Hoss’ sleeve. “You’ve got to be casual like.”

Ignoring his younger brother, Hoss continued to look round. “Where is he, Joe?” he asked.

“In the corner by the stairs,” Joe replied resignedly. He met Adam’s amused look and shrugged. He might have known that Hoss would look round at once. It was the same thing he most likely would have done in Hoss’ shoes.

“The fellar with the blond hair?” Hoss asked, finally realizing he was staring.

“Yes,” Joe sighed. “Whyn’t ya just go over there and speak to him, ya big lug? You couldn’t have made it any more obvious that I was talking about him!”

“Stop being so dramatic,” Adam scolded, picking up his beer and taking a drink. He turned to lean his elbows against the bar and surveyed the patrons, nodding and calling greetings to a few friends. His gaze simply skimmed over Donner, but Adam knew that he would remember the man’s face. “So that’s Donner,” he commented softly.

Before Joe could reply, his friend Mitch Devlin came into the bar and Joe abandoned his brothers to go and sit with his friend. It was only a matter of minutes before the table where Joe and Mitch were sitting was surrounded by young men and saloon girls. One redhead was already sitting on Joe’s lap.

“How does he do that?” Hoss wanted to know. Adam simply shrugged. He turned round to lean more comfortably on the bar and chat to Cosmo the barman.

In the corner, Donner watched the Cartwright brothers closely.

*****

As the evening progressed and the crowd became rowdier, the Cartwrights forgot all about Donner. Joe and his friends were involved in a light-hearted poker game, Hoss was deep in conversation with an acquaintance and Adam was yawning. He had met with some of his friends, but he was now beginning to feel tired and he decided to head for home. Going over to Hoss, he put his hand on his brother’s broad shoulder. “I’m going home,” he said quietly.

“Ya feelin’ all right?” Hoss asked.

“Fine,” Adam assured him. “I’m just a bit tired. Are you coming now, or waiting for a bit?”

“I’ll come with ya,” Hoss decided. “I’ll jist tell Joe an’ I’ll meet ya outside.”

“Okay,” Adam agreed and strolled outside. He was crossing to the hitching rail when he heard a groan from the alley at the side of the saloon. Pausing, Adam wondered for a minute if he’d imagined it, but then the sound was repeated. “Hello?” Adam said, cautiously going closer. “Are you all right?”

Another groan was his only answer and he took another few steps closer. A man was slumped against the wall, clutching his ribs. Concerned, Adam went closer and put his hand out to touch the man. “What happened?” he asked.

The answer he got was not the one he was expecting. The ‘injured’ man made a miraculous recovery and grabbed Adam’s arm, yanking the surprised Cartwright towards him, while at the same time, he threw a powerful punch to Adam’s face. Caught off guard, Adam reeled back, but the grip on his arm allowed his attacker to haul him back and sink another punch into his gut. Curling over, Adam was completely unprepared for the fists that hammered down on the back of his neck and as he tumbled into darkness, he vaguely heard Hoss’ voice shouting, “Hey!”

*****

“Hey!” Hoss shouted and charged into the alley with Joe at his heels.

At once, Adam’s attacker turned and fled. “I’ll get him!” Joe cried and raced off, leaving Hoss to bend anxiously over Adam, who was out cold.

“Adam?” Hoss knelt by his brother and shook his shoulder gently. Adam groaned and after a moment or two, his eyes flickered open and he looked blearily at Hoss. “Adam?” Hoss repeated.

“ ’m all right,” Adam mumbled. He moved to sit up and Hoss helped him, supporting him gently until he saw that Adam was able to support himself. “Where’d he go?” Adam asked, looking round.

“That way,” Hoss replied, pointing. “Little Joe went after him.” Hoss looked intently at Adam. “Who was he? What’d he want?”

“I don’t know,” Adam replied, wryly. He wiped away blood from his nose. “I heard him groaning and I thought he’d been attacked. He didn’t say anything, just lit into me.” He rubbed his stomach reflectively.

“Can ya stand?” Hoss asked and when Adam nodded, he helped his older brother to his feet. Hoss brushed some dirt off Adam’s black clothes.

It suddenly dawned on them both that Joe had been gone for some time. Adam glanced at Hoss uneasily. “Shouldn’t Joe be back by now?” he asked.

“Reckon so,” Hoss agreed unhappily. “Ya gonna be all right ta come lookin’ fer him?”

“Yes,” Adam replied, grimly. His stomach started to throb as he began walking and the bleeding, which had almost stopped, started up again. Adam took the bandanna from his pocket and held it against his nose as he followed after Hoss, allowing his younger brother to take the lead.

But although they searched high and low, they found no trace of Joe.

*****

Racing after Adam’s assailant, Joe wasn’t really concentrating on where the chase was taking him. All he wanted was to catch the man and find out why he had attacked Adam. Joe was by far the faster runner and he was gaining on the man.

Glancing over his shoulder, the man seemed surprised to see Joe so close and ducked into an alley. Joe knew he should be cautious, but he still charged recklessly into the alley. Almost instantly, he tripped over a rope that was drawn taut across the alley at knee height and he crashed to the ground. Two people jumped onto his back and before he could regain his breath, Joe found his hands manacled behind him and a gag tied tightly across his mouth.

Struggling uselessly, Joe was dragged to his feet where he glared at Donner. “Young Mr. Cartwright,” Donner purred. “What a pleasure. All mine, of course. I’m so looking forward to renewing our acquaintance, and that of your father. He was extremely foolish not to do business with me. But I’m sure he’ll change his mind now he knows what’s at stake – your life.”

Glaring furiously, Joe made an attempt to throw himself at Donner, but the accomplice prevented the move. He drew a knife and grabbed Joe tightly, and put the knife against Joe’s throat. Donner smiled. “Don’t forget, Joe, that your father has two other sons. I don’t need to keep you alive. I can easily kill you and take one of the others as my hostage.”

Next moment, as though to add emphasis to the threat, Joe heard Hoss’ anxious voice calling his name. “Joe! Where are ya, boy? Joe!”

Despite the knife at his throat, Joe struggled to free himself, feeling a couple of sharp nicks. He froze when Donner drew his gun and laid it against Joe’s temple. For several long moments, their gazes locked and Joe could see that Donner would cheerfully blow his brains out and not feel any remorse at all. Joe didn’t want to die, but it was fear for his brothers’ safety that made him keep still, not fear for his own life. He didn’t want either of them to be in the position he was currently in.

Seeing Joe’s capitulation, Donner turned round to look back out of the alley. He could see Hoss and Adam stop in the middle of the street. “Joe?” Adam called.

Shockingly, Donner fired and Adam toppled to the ground. As Hoss instinctively ducked, drawing his gun, Donner shouted, “Let that be a warning! I have your brother. Tell Ben Cartwright that if he wants his son back alive, he’ll meet me at tomorrow noon at Indian Falls, alone!”

“Damn you!” Hoss shouted. “Let Joe go!” He looked in anguish at Adam, who was ominously still. His only answer was another shot that made him shield his injured brother from harm.

“Get… Joe,” Adam whispered, but Hoss still hesitated a moment longer. When Adam forced the words out again, he jumped to his feet and ran over to the alley. But he was too late. Joe and his abductors were gone.

*****

The journey away from Virginia City was unpleasant for Joe, lying flat in the back of a wagon, his face to the rough boards and a knife pricking in his ribs the whole way. Wherever they were going was quite some distance from town and Joe was stiff and sore when the wagon wheels eventually stopped turning.

There wasn’t much to see. The landscape was draped in shadows, unrelieved by the lack of moonlight. Joe could make out the hills against the starlit sky, but that was about all. As Donner hauled Joe to his feet, the other man lit a lantern, instantly killing any night vision Joe had been developing.

“So, Mr. Cartwright, we’ve arrived at our destination,” Donner mused, pulling the gag from Joe’s mouth. “You can shout for help as much as you like; there’s no one around here to come to your rescue.”

“Why are you doing this?” Joe asked.

“I need money to restart my mine,” Donner answered, as though Joe were very dim. “Your father is the richest man in Nevada. He can afford to help me.”

“But there must be other men you could ask,” Joe objected. “You could have had several partners.”

“Your father’s name will open a lot of doors for me,” Donner replied. “With his help, I can become governor, a senator or even President of the United States of America. With his help, the sky’s the limit!”

Gazing at him in bemused wonderment, Joe forgot for a moment that he was this man’s prisoner. “You don’t need Pa’s help to do that,” Joe replied. “Anyone can stand for election.”

“Don’t be stupid, boy!” Donner snapped. He glared at Joe. “I have a past. The only way I can do these things is if I have someone helping me, showing everyone that my mistakes were just youthful transgressions. Your father’s reputation for honesty will do this for me.”

“What does this have to do with the mine?” Joe asked.

“Your father will invest a lot of money in this mine,” Donner replied. “And then, when he’s in very deep, he’ll discover, tragically, that the mine is played out and in fact is derelict, and has been for many years. Sadly, both he and I were led astray by my mine supervisor and I only discovered this when you are killed in the disaster that shows the mine is unsafe.”

Joe could scarcely breathe. Donner, he now knew, was mad. Completely deluded. Did he really think this hair-brained scheme of his would work? And with a pang, Joe remembered seeing Adam fall to the ground. Donner was crazy enough to kill until he got what he wanted. Joe knew that Ben would move heaven and earth to get him back, especially with Adam already hurt. Would Donner really hold him prisoner until he was on the way to being US president?

“And now, Mr. Cartwright, its time to show you to your new accommodations.” He gave Joe a shove.

“So this is how I happen to be in the mine when it collapses,” Joe sneered. “I’m already a prisoner there!” Joe knew where the Breyer mine was located and now knew where he was and how he could get home. There was just the small matter of the manacles around his wrists.

Donner backhanded him.

Caught unawares, Joe stumbled. Donner was no longer being even pseudo-polite. “You’ll do as you are told, Cartwright, or I’ll kill you like I killed your brother!” he hissed.

Raising his head, Joe glared back. “And I’ll see you hang for that, Donner!” he shot back. “If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll make sure you hang!”

Enraged, Donner punched Joe in the face once, then again. Blood ran down Joe’s chin from his split lip, but he wasn’t cowed. He tried to head butt Donner, but the older man avoided him easily and smashed his fist into Joe’s ribs. As Joe curled up, Donner simply pushed Joe to the ground and planted his foot in the middle of Joe’s back. He ground the heel of his boot into Joe’s kidneys. Joe writhed with pain, but he was determined not to cry out.

After a moment, Donner hauled Joe to his feet and Joe once more felt the knife pricking in his ribs. “I’m going to really enjoy killing you,” Donner breathed malevolently in Joe’s ear. “Now move, or I’ll kill you where you stand.”

The knife pricked into his ribs once more as he hesitated. “Go on!” growled Donner. “I said, move!” This time, he shoved his prisoner and Joe stumbled forward a few paces. He desperately didn’t want to go any further into the darkness of the old mine, but he knew he had no choice.

Had it not been for the man carrying the lantern, the darkness would have been impenetrable. Joe was not afraid of the dark, but he was uneasy nonetheless. He knew that when the lantern was taken away, he would see nothing. The complete absence of light would prevent the development of night vision and Joe would have only his thoughts for company.

Some distance into the mine, Donner said, “That’s far enough, Cartwright.”

Stopping, Joe knew that if he was going to try to escape, now was his last chance. He whirled and kicked out at the man standing behind him, but although he caught Donner in the groin, he had forgotten about the lantern-bearer, a man whose name Joe did not know. This man simply crashed his gun butt down on Joe’s unprotected head and the youngest Cartwright collapsed to the floor, his head reeling.

Dimly, he was aware of something being fastened around his ankles, but his body wasn’t taking commands from his brain right then and he couldn’t move. The manacles around his wrists were checked and he heard Donner laugh. “Get out of that, if you can!” he sneered and kicked Joe heavily in the side. Joe groaned and curled up.

Then he heard footsteps leaving and by the time he could persuade his eyes to open again, Joe was completely alone in the dark.

*****

“Wh-what?” Ben stuttered, as Hoss charged into the ranch house in the early hours of the morning and woke his father with the dreadful tale of woe. “But who did it?” he asked, befuddled.

“I dunno,” Hoss admitted. He sat down and dropped his head into his hands. “I never saw anyone. I jist heard his voice an’ it didn’ sound familiar ta me.” He looked miserably at Ben. “I’m sorry, Pa.”

“How is any of this your fault?” Ben demanded. “You have nothing to be sorry for, Hoss. Now tell me again; how is Adam?”

“He was hit in the side, Pa,” Hoss replied. “But it were jist a flesh wound. Paul says he lost a bit o’ blood, but he’s gonna be jist fine. He didn’ want me ta bring him home tonight, cos he were plumb wore out, Pa.”

“I’ll get dressed and go in,” Ben declared, but Hoss jumped to his feet.

“Pa, it’s the middle o’ the night!” he protested. “Adam’s doin’ jist fine an’ it won’t do ya no good ta go off in the dark like this.” He patted his father’s arm. “Get some more sleep an’ wait till morning’. Tomorra might be a long day.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Ben admitted, although he felt rather guilty. He really should be by Adam’s side. “I doubt if I’ll sleep, though.” He looked more closely at Hoss. “You look done in, son.”

“I’ll be all right when I git some sleep,” Hoss admitted. They both went to bed, but Hoss was the only one who slept soundly. Ben dozed, wakening often, his dreams fragmented and disturbing. He rose with the first light of dawn, feeling profound relief.

*****

“I’m fine,” Adam replied, impatiently, although he felt as weak as a kitten and was finding that standing up straight was beyond him.

Finally satisfied that Adam wasn’t lying to him – too much! – Ben relaxed marginally. He was still worried to death about Joe and he was beginning to suspect that the person he was going to meet was Donner. It seemed very unlikely that there was anyone else wandering around who would kidnap Joe.

“Any word about Joe?” Adam asked.

“No,” Ben admitted. “I’ll need to leave soon to get to Indian Falls on time.”

“Ya ain’t goin’ alone!” Hoss declared, stoutly. “I’m gonna go with ya!”

“But…” Ben protested, but this time it was Adam who spoke.

“We discussed it last night,” Adam replied. “Hoss will follow you, Pa. We have to assume that your life is in danger, too, not just Joe’s, and we aren’t willing to let you go alone. I know you don’t want to involve Roy in this, but it’s foolish to go alone.” He saw Ben draw breath to protest and spoke before he could do so. “Pa, its settled. Hoss is going, too.”

“We’re putting Joe’s life at risk,” Ben replied, his voice barely audible.

“His life is already at risk,” Adam responded, just as soberly. He didn’t want to mention that they didn’t even know if Joe was still alive. However, he could see that fear in Ben’s eyes.

“I’d better go,” Ben muttered, looking at the clock. He put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’ll be just fine when you bring Joe home safe and sound,” he replied. “I’ll wait here for you, Pa.” He smiled as he saw his father and brother out of the door, but he couldn’t keep up the façade when he was alone. He was desperately worried about all his family.

*****

The darkness was completely impenetrable. Joe could feel it weighing down on him as time ticked past. It felt as though the rock walls were pressing in on him. Every now and then, he could hear a fall of rocks and debris. The whole mine seemed to creak. It was terrifying.

Once again, Joe tugged against the chains on his ankles. The irons themselves had no length of chain between them; they were welded tightly to each other, so Joe couldn’t move his legs apart. The irons were attached to a chain that was somehow attached to the wall. With his hands tightly manacled behind him, Joe found it difficult to trace down the end of the chain. He could only twist round so far.

Pain and exhaustion eventually claimed Joe and he fell into a restless sleep. He awoke with a startled cry as a shower of rocks fell onto his legs. They weren’t heavy enough to do more than bruise him, but it brought home to Joe just how precarious his position in the mine was and made him more determined to somehow get out of there.

Gritting his teeth, Joe began to pull his legs sharply away from the wall behind him. The first tug told him that the chain was not very long, but he hoped that would be all for the better. The links must have been cut to this specific length and he knew that each chain had a slightly weak spot in it. All he had to do was exploit that weakness. Joe didn’t allow himself to think that the chain might be brand new and the weak spot negligible.

He didn’t know how long he spent tugging at the chain, or how many times he had to stop to rest his aching legs. All Joe knew was that he had to keep going; he had to break free. He bravely bore the pain of the fetters rubbing his ankles raw, even through the protective covering of his boots.

When he could no longer force his legs to tug against the chains, Joe was covered in sweat and breathing raggedly. He closed his eyes to rest for a minute and sleep swept over him. It would be many hours before he woke again.

*****

There was nobody at Indian Falls when Ben arrived. He dismounted stiffly and stretched his back. For the hundredth time, he wondered how Joe was. Would Donner have Joe with him? Ben certainly hoped so.

He was just beginning to think that nobody was going to come when he heard hooves. Donner rode into sight and a short distance behind him, another man pulled up his horse and glanced all around. Ben knew that he was making sure Ben had come alone and Ben hoped Hoss was well out of sight. “Donner,” Ben said, flatly. “I thought it might be you.”

“I’m glad not to disappoint you then,” Donner replied and Ben quelled the urge to wipe the superior grin off the other man’s face.

“Where is Joseph?” Ben asked

“Somewhere secure,” Donner smirked. “You’ll get him back – eventually.”

“What does that mean?” Ben demanded angrily.

“It means you’ll get him back when I am ready to let you have him back. Until then, Cartwright, you’ll do as I say, or your sons will pay, starting with Joseph. Didn’t Adam’s problem last night teach you anything?”

“You shot Adam?” Ben whispered. He took a step forward, but froze when Donner’s companion cocked his gun. “Why?”

“To show both you and Joe that I meant what I said. I could have killed Adam last night, but I didn’t. However, I have Joe and I will kill him if you don’t do as I say. And if I kill Joe, I’ll simply take another of your sons, until you either do as I ask or have no sons left. Either way, I’ll get what I want in the end.”

“What do you want?” Ben asked, knowing that he couldn’t gamble with his sons’ lives.

“I need your money to invest in my mine,” Donner replied, smugly. “$5000 ought to do for a start. I expect you to bring to my hotel this evening.”

“And for that, will I get Joe back?” Ben asked, pretty sure he knew the answer.

“Not for this $5000,” Donner answered. “But maybe the next $5000. We’ll have to see what happens.” He easily read the fury in Ben’s dark eyes and laughed. “Now, Mr. Cartwright, be careful. Any displays of petulance will add time to Joe’s incarceration.”

“Damn your hide!” Ben whispered, but he knew he had no choice. “All right, I’ll get your $5000!”

“Excellent,” Donner responded. His smile reminded Ben of the cat who’d got the cream. “Bring it to my suite at 7pm.” He remounted his horse. “You’d better wait here until I’m gone, or your son will pay the penalty, do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal,” Ben growled. He watched as Donner rode off and then he slowly mounted Buck. He wondered where Hoss was as he rode back towards town. When there was no sign of him, Ben hoped that Hoss was following Donner.

*****

Wakening wasn’t a pleasant experience for Joe. He wasn’t exactly cold, but he did feel slightly chilled. The air in the mine was stale and the sweat from his exertions had dried on him, leaving him feeling chilled. The floor of the mine was damp, too. It was very unpleasant. But it was when he tried to move that Joe discovered the cost of trying to get free. His legs muscles were horribly stiff and sore and moving caused the fetters to chafe against the raw skin on his ankles. Joe’s shoulders were stiff from having his arms manacled behind his back and his wrists were abraded where the metal had rubbed the skin away.

Once more, Joe tried to trace down the end of the chain that kept him captive, but it was buried under the rubble that had fallen previously. Joe bit his lip. The thought of tugging the chain again was daunting. For many minutes he lay there, longing for a drink, wondering if it was day or night and suppressing the urge to scream. The darkness seemed to get more and more oppressive, as though it was physically pushing him into the ground. “You’ve got to do it!” Joe scolded himself aloud, and flinched at the ‘dead’ sound of his voice. It was the first inkling he’d had that shouting for help wouldn’t do him any good, even if by some miracle someone came into the mine looking for him. The knowledge that he was really on his own, in this desperate situation, crushed him. Joe blinked back tears of despair. He couldn’t afford to think negative thoughts.

Later, Joe couldn’t even guess how long he lay there, trying to make himself move. Time no longer had any meaning for him, although his stomach told him he had missed a few meals. At long last, Joe began to tug on the chain, and blanked his mind, concentrating on the rhythm he had created.

He had to get free.

*****

To Hoss’ intense disappointment, Donner and his friend didn’t go to wherever they were holding Joe. Instead, they took a roundabout route back to Virginia City. Hoss diligently followed them all the way, hoping right up until the last moment that they would lead him to his missing brother.

Weighed down by his crushing disappointment, Hoss made his way back to Doc Martin’s, where he found Ben pacing the room looking anxious and Adam asleep. “Pa,” he said, softly.

“Hoss!” Relief colored Ben’s tones. He took a couple of quick steps across the room to throw his arms around his largest son and hugged him close. “I was so worried about you.”

“I’m fine,” Hoss responded. He hated to have to tell Ben the news, but there was no way to soften the blow. “Pa, they didn’ go nowhere near Little Joe. Donner jist came back here ta town.”

The hope that had been in Ben’s eyes was extinguished. He turned away from Hoss, but not in time to hide his expression. Wordlessly, Hoss put his hand on Ben’s shoulder, giving comfort the only way he knew how. Ben patted Hoss’ hand, but didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then he drew in a deep breath and stood straight again. “All right, I’ll get the money. Hoss, perhaps you could have a word with Roy? I think that later on, we might want to go and have a look at the Breyer mine.”

Admiring his father’s fortitude, Hoss nodded. “Sure thing, Pa. How’s Adam?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” Adam responded, drowsily. He blinked a couple of times, then focused on their faces. “No luck?” he asked.

“I met Donner, who wants money from me,” Ben replied, bitterly. “He’s going to keep Joe until such times as he’s got every penny he can get. He said that if I didn’t pay up, he could kill Joe and take one of you two and he admitted shooting you, Adam.”

There really weren’t any words that expressed Adam’s feelings. He was angry, upset, worried. He wanted to get Donner and beat the living daylights out of him for putting his whole family under such stress. He wanted to leap to his feet and somehow rescue Joe and the knowledge that he was too weak to do that frustrated him. He remained silent.

“I’m going to the bank,” Ben announced and walked out.

“Pa’s taking this really hard,” Adam muttered. He pushed himself to a sitting position, wincing as he did so. “He’s so worried about Joe.”

“Ain’t we all?” Hoss replied. “I really hoped Donner would lead us right ta Joe.”

“It’s not your fault,” Adam consoled Hoss. “And the idea was good.” He moved, trying vainly to find a comfortable position. “Did Pa say something about Roy?”

“He wants me ta speak ta Roy an’ tell him what’s goin’ on,” Hoss nodded. “Guess I’d best do that. Ya’ll be all right alone, Adam?”

“I’ll be fine,” Adam assured him. He watched Hoss leave, and fervently wished that he was well enough to help in whatever Ben planned to do to find Joe.

*****

“The Breyer mine?” Roy echoed. “I didn’t think old man Breyer had any relations.” He shook his head. “Well, ya never know, do ya?”

Impatiently, Hoss shook his head. “Roy, he’s got Joe!” Hoss repeated.

“I heard ya, Hoss,” Roy replied. “But I’m tellin’ ya what I think. Jim Hawkins, who was foreman o’ the Breyer mine, is in town right now. I seen him down at the Silver Dollar not more’n an hour ago. He’d be the fella ta take ya round that mine, now. He’d know it like the back o’ his hand. Me an’ Clem’ll come along ta arrest this Donner fella. But it’d be better if’n ya make sure ya can find Joe an’ git out o’ the mine yerselves.”

“Good thinkin’, Roy,” Hoss nodded. “I’ll go find this Jim Hawkins an’ meet ya back here later.” He hurried out of the door.

*****

Deciding his first port of call was Doc Martin’s, to up-date Ben and Adam, Hoss headed in that direction. He was relieved to find Ben was back from the bank, but it was also apparent that all was not well between the patriarch of the Ponderosa and his eldest son. They were glowering at each other, although Ben’s looks were definitely the blacker of the two. “What’s goin’ on?” Hoss asked.

“Your idiot brother wants to come with us,” Ben replied, shortly. “Less than 24 hours after he was shot!”

“Oh,” Hoss nodded and had to bite his lip to stop an inappropriate laugh escaping.

“Oh?” echoed Ben. “Is that all you can say?”

“Calm down, Pa,” Hoss soothed. “Adam ain’t completely stupid. He knows he cain’t sit on a horse fer that long yet, don’t cha, Adam?” he added challengingly.

“Yes, of course I do,” Adam responded, somewhat testily, not sure if he should be amused or annoyed to find himself referred to as ‘not completely stupid’. “I meant going in a wagon.” As Ben glared at him anew, Adam added the clincher. “Joe might not be in any fit state to ride home.”

The anger drained out of Ben’s face to be replaced by worry. Adam hastened to dispel it. Worrying his parent hadn’t been his intention. “Pa, I’m not suggesting that Joe’s hurt. But he’s bound to be exhausted.”

While Ben digested this, Hoss explained that Roy and Clem would be on hand to arrest Donner later. “I’ll git hold a Jim Hawkins,” he concluded.

For the first time that day, Hoss could see hope in Ben’s eyes. “Thank you, son,” he said, simply.

The door opened and the town physician, Dr Paul Martin, came in. He was a close personal friend of Ben’s as well as the family and town doctor. “Hello, Ben,” he cried. “Come to relieve me of my patient at last?”

“In a way,” Ben responded, wryly and Adam knew that he would get to go along on the rescue mission. As Ben explained things to Paul, Adam listened quietly, not wanting to jeopardize his chances by speaking out of turn.

“All right,” Paul agreed, cautiously. “As long as Adam rests until its time to go and promises to stay in the wagon all the time, I don’t see a problem.”

“I’ll git a wagon, too,” Hoss offered. “An’ if anyone asks, I’ll tell ‘em its fer ol’ Adam here.”

“Which is true,” Ben reproved, mildly.

“And less of the ‘old’ thank you very much,” Adam added.

*****

How long had it been? Joe wondered. His legs felt like they weighed a hundred tons each and he was no longer sure he could make them work. His abused muscles trembled constantly. Joe felt quite sick with exhaustion. He didn’t think he would ever get free now. The lack of water was telling on him.

One last try, he thought. As he brought his legs up towards his chest, there was another fall of rocks on his feet. A strangled scream escaped Joe’s parched lips as pain rocketed through his body. It took several minutes to realize that he was lying curled up on his side, the opposite side from the one he had been lying on throughout his captivity and in a position he hadn’t been able to achieve before. He was free!

Free was, of course, a relative term. Joe’s feet were still firmly attached to each other, even though the combination of the falling rocks and Joe’s determined tugging had snapped a weak link in the chain. His hands were still manacled behind his back.

Pushing himself into a sitting position, Joe drew in as much of the stale, dust-laden air as he could and concentrated on threading his body through his manacled hands until they were finally in front of him.

The physical and emotional relief of achieving this position sapped Joe’s strength for a few minutes and he simply lay there, rolling his shoulders to try and ease the stiff muscles. Then he gingerly felt down his legs, wincing as he touched what felt like a bleeding gash across his shins. After a moment or two of tentative exploration, Joe became aware that his eyes were squeezed tight shut as he concentrated on what his fingertips were telling him. Joe had to laugh. There he was sitting in the dark with his eyes shut!

But the laughter didn’t last. Joe might be in a better position, but he seemed to be bleeding quite a bit and he couldn’t walk. He was already exhausted and had no idea in which direction the mine entrance lay. He had partially freed himself, but now he had no idea which way to go. He put his head down and closed his eyes.

*****

Lifting his head abruptly, Joe suddenly felt more alert. Was that a current of air? Or was it his fevered imagination running away with him? No – for there it was again!

Galvanized by hope, Joe began the laborious task of dragging his exhausted body towards the source of that elusive breath of air.

*****

Looking at Donner’s smug, smiling face as he entered the hotel room, Ben found himself repressing a desire to throttle the man. He swallowed down his rage, conscious of his audience eavesdropping outside the door. “Here’s the money, Donner,” he muttered. “How much more do you want before I get my son back?”

“A further $5000 tomorrow will be another step on the road,” Donner replied. “With $10,000, I’ll be able to start hiring the men I need to reopen my mine.”

“And will you return Joe tomorrow?” Ben asked. “What guarantee do I have that Joe is alive and unharmed?”

“You have my word,” Donner replied. “If that isn’t good enough, perhaps I could give you something of Joe’s to convince you. Would a finger suffice?”

As Ben gasped in horror, the door behind him opened and Roy and Clem burst in, guns drawn. “Don’t move, Donner,” Roy warned. “You’re under arrest!”

But Donner wasn’t the type to do what he was told. He dragged a derringer from his jacket pocket and fired wildly at Ben, Roy and Clem. All three of them ducked. The bullet went wide, but it gave Donner a moment to dive for the window.

“Oh no you don’t!” Ben roared and leaped across the room, grappling Donner around the waist. Donner turned and punched Ben heavily on the shoulder. Ben wondered why neither of the lawmen was coming to his assistance when he heard a shot fired behind him. He threw a desperate punch at Donner and managed to clip the man’s chin. Donner sagged back, and then Clem appeared, grabbing Donner firmly by the arm. “What happened?” Ben asked getting to his feet rather shakily.

“This fella appeared,” Roy explained. He rose from where he had been kneeling by a man Ben recognized as Donner’s companion from earlier that day. “He tried ta shoot me.” The man was obviously dead.

“He was with Donner earlier,” Ben told him, and Roy nodded knowingly.

“Come on, you,” Roy said to Donner as Clem dragged him across the room.

“You’ll never get your son back, Cartwright,” Donner hissed malevolently. “Never!”

Shaken despite himself, Ben hoped fervently that they were right in assuming Joe was in Breyer’s mine. He followed the others down the stairs and found Hoss and Adam outside waiting for him. Another man was mounted and waiting beside the wagon. Hoss and Adam both looked remarkably grim. “What is it?” Ben asked, his heart suddenly in his mouth.

“This is Jim Hawkins, Pa,” Hoss replied, gesturing to the man on the horse. “He says the mine was in a right bad way.”

Raising his eyes to meet Hawkins’, Ben saw the other man nod. “It’s true, I’m afraid, Mr. Cartwright. A lot of the mine was flooded and the bit that wasn’t was in a bad state. Old man Breyer hadn’t spent the money to shore it up right an’ the roof were unstable in lots of places.”

“Then we’d better hurry,” Ben declared and climbed onto the wagon seat.

*****

There was a rock right in the middle of his back and no matter how Joe tried to move, he wasn’t managing to shift it at all. He coughed, expelling some of the dust from his lungs, but the air was thick with the tiny particles and each cough only succeeded in dragging yet more dust into his airways and Joe coughed until he thought he would choke. Eventually, the cough subsided and Joe lay there, feeling too pulped to move.

The latest rock fall had partially buried Joe. The rock on his back was preventing him from moving very much and his legs were buried to his knees. For the first time, Joe admitted to himself that he wasn’t going to get out of this predicament alone. He was so hot and so thirsty. Would anyone find him before he died?

In the depths of despair, Joe found that he was too dehydrated to even be able to cry.

*****

It was almost dark when they arrived at the mine. Adam was exhausted, but he didn’t dare admit it to Ben. He helped them light the lanterns, then was forced to sit and wait while Ben, Hoss and Hawkins ventured into the mine.

The search of the mine was time consuming, but Hawkins was thorough and obviously knew every nook and cranny. The air in the mine was stale and as they went deeper in, it became warmer, too. “Can we call for Joe?” Ben asked, but Hawkins shook his head.

“No!” he declared, firmly. “The roof is too unstable for sudden noises. There aren’t many more places left to look,” he added, sounding discouraged. “These other tunnels are all collapsed.” He paused for a moment, clearly thinking deeply. “Let’s try down here. There’s a large open area where lots of tunnels converge. They might have taken Joe there.” He set off purposefully, with Ben and Hoss following along behind.

They hadn’t gone much further when Hawkins stopped. Ben peered around the man and saw a fall of rocks partially blocking the way. But that wasn’t what had caused Ben to catch his breath, Hoss saw as he looked over Ben’s shoulder. Joe was lying there, partially buried. “Joe!” Hoss breathed and he and Ben pushed past Hawkins to kneel by Joe’s side.

“Joe?” Ben coaxed. “Joe, can you hear me?” He ran his hand through Joe’s hair and was relieved to find only one small lump on his head. But Joe was warm; very warm. “Joe?” There was no response. Ben looked up at Hoss. “Can you move those rocks? We’ve got to get him out of here.”

“Let me help,” Hawkins offered and put his lantern down on the floor. Ben watched them for a moment, then returned his attention to Joe, who groaned as the rock was moved from his back.

“Joe?” Ben repeated and this time, Joe stirred. His eyes slit open and he immediately let out a cry of pain, slamming them shut again.

“Joe?” Ben cried, anxiously. “What is it, son? Are we hurting you?”

“The light!” Joe muttered. “Hurts!” He tried to raise one hand to shield his eyes, but the effort was too much for him. However, the movement drew Ben’s attentions to the manacles around Joe’s wrists, and he was instantly furious.

“Sorry, Joe,” Ben murmured. He moved the light slightly, so it no longer shone in Joe’s face, and tried to coax his son to open his eyes again. Joe did slit them open for a moment, but the light seemed very bright to him after over 24 hours in complete darkness and he allowed his eyes to shut. He was so tired, but he knew he wouldn’t sleep again while the rocks were being moved from his legs. Everything hurt.

At last, the rocks were cleared and they saw for the first time that Joe’s ankles were fettered together. A small length of chain hung from the fetters. Ben’s face was grim as he spotted them. But he had other, more pressing concerns. “Joe, can you feel your legs?” he asked.

“Yes,” Joe breathed through gritted teeth.

That was a relief, for Ben could be fairly sure that Joe’s back wasn’t broken. However, they couldn’t leave Joe there, for the roof above them was very unstable. “We’re going to carry you outside, Joe,” Ben told him. “I’m sorry, but it’ll hurt.”

“Do it,” Joe breathed. He gritted his teeth again, preparing for the pain, but it still caught him unawares and he slid gratefully into the waiting blackness.

*****

It was a slow journey back to the ranch as Adam fed Joe small sips of water. Hoss had ridden off to get the doctor and they knew that somehow or other they had to get the chains off Joe when they got home. In the light from the lanterns, they could see how pale Joe was and the raw skin on his wrists. There was blood caked into both his pants legs and Ben didn’t disturb the material to examine the injury. There would be time enough for that later. First priority was to get Joe home.

When the wagon rumbled to a halt in the yard, Ben hurried to get some tools and apologized to Joe before he began working on the shackles. Joe once more slid off into unconsciousness and Ben was quite glad, for he knew the pain it must be causing his son as he hammered the unyielding metal.

At length, Joe was free once more, and Ben moved to help Adam into the house, but Adam insisted that he could manage alone, so Ben carefully gathered Joe into his arms and took him inside. Hop Sing had already started the water boiling and he hurried ahead of Ben to open doors and turn down the blankets on Joe’s bed.

As Ben started to take off Joe’s filthy clothes, Joe’s eyes flickered open. “Pa?” he whispered, squinting in the light. This time, it wasn’t quite as painful.

“You’re home, Joe and you’re free,” Ben told him. “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Joe assured him. He tried to oblige Ben by moving his arms and legs, but he felt too exhausted to make much effort and gave Ben an apologetic look. “Sorry,” he whispered. “Not much help.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ben replied. “You just rest.” He smiled at Joe, who smiled back, sighed deeply and closed his eyes once more. Within a few minutes, Joe’s breathing had evened out and Ben knew that he slept.

He woke again as Paul Martin came in, accompanied by Roy Coffee. Once more, Joe’s temperature, which had dropped slightly when he was first rescued, had begun to climb. Paul examined him closely, paying close attention to Joe’s eyes, and to the gash that ran across both legs.

“Joe’s been lucky,” he finally said. “He’s very badly bruised, but there’s nothing broken. But this gash on his legs and the welts on his wrists and ankles are all infected. I’ll clean them up, but they will need watching. Joe, I don’t want you walking at all, all right?”

“All right,” Joe agreed, listlessly. He was too tired to walk, he thought.

While Paul worked, Roy asked Joe what had happened to him. Joe told the story in fits and starts, concluding with his fortuitous escape and Ben and Hoss finding him. Everyone had listened in appalled silence and Ben’s dark eyes were wide with horror. He stayed close by Joe, holding his son’s hand to lend comfort, offering water whenever Joe faltered. By the end of the recitation, Joe was almost beyond thought. He barely felt the painkiller that Paul shot into his thigh and slid off into sleep.

“When he wakes up, give him something light and liquid to eat,” Paul suggested. “I’ll come back tomorrow and see him.”

“I’ll git back, too,” Roy agreed. “When Joe feels stronger, perhaps we can git a statement from him then. But we have enough to send Donner away, even if’n Joe don’t want ta testify.”

Downstairs, Adam and Hoss were both waiting in an agony of impatience. Adam looked exhausted and Paul immediately declared, “Bed for you, Adam!”

“What about Joe?” Adam demanded and so the story was told once again.

“Hawkins says he’ll testify,” Hoss told Roy. “An’ I’ll testify, too!”

“Good ta know, thanks, Hoss,” Roy replied. He and Paul left.

“Let’s get you to bed, Adam,” Ben suggested.

“I can manage, Pa,” Adam assured him. “But what I can’t figure out is why Donner did all this. Did he really think there was gold in that mine?”

“I don’t know,” Ben replied. “But gold does strange things to men’s minds. Come on; let me help you up at least.”

Smiling, Adam accepted Ben’s help. He lay down to sleep, knowing that he could at last relax, since Joe was finally safe.

*****

Over the next few days, Joe slept a lot as his body recovered from the trauma it had been through. The infections hung on stubbornly, but at last Paul was able to get on top of them and Joe finally began to feel slightly better. He and Adam spent quite a bit of time together, since Adam was unable to do anything strenuous around the ranch and they tried mightily to puzzle out Donner’s reasoning.

On the evening of the first day that Joe had managed to stay awake all day, Ben came in to get him settled for the night. Joe was looking pensive and Ben wondered what was wrong. “Are you all right, Joe?” he asked.

“I was just thinking,” Joe replied. “How do blind people keep track of day and night? I was completely turned around in there and I was only in the dark for about a day.”

“You had nothing to use to give you other clues,” Ben reminded him. “No noises of any kind, bar the falling rocks, no activities going on. It must have been very hard.”

“I thought I might go mad,” Joe admitted. “And I thought I wouldn’t get out of there.”

There wasn’t an answer to that, and Ben just rested his hand on Joe’s arm. After a minute, Joe looked at Ben and smiled. “I don’t think I ever thanked you for rescuing me,” he mentioned. “Thanks, Pa. I couldn’t have held out much longer.”

“I’m just sorry it took so long to find you,” Ben replied. The memory of the last few days would stay with him for some time, he knew.

“At least you did find me,” Joe persisted. He brushed the back of his hand over his eyes.

“My life wouldn’t be complete without you boys,” Ben reminded him. “And I would search to the ends of the earth until my dying day if it meant bringing any one of you home safely again.”

“You’re the best, Pa,” Joe told him. He smiled sleepily as Ben colored. “Good night.”

“Good night, son,” Ben murmured. His hand strayed, unbidden to brush the curl back from Joe’s forehead. “I love you.”

Joe’s even breathing soon told Ben that his son slept peacefully, but Ben stayed by his bedside for a while longer, drinking in the sight that he had feared he would be deprived of. At last, he rose and went down to join his other sons in front of the fire. He was thankful that Adam was recovering well from the shooting and that Hoss had been there, stalwart and reliable through the whole crisis.

Working as a family, they had gone into the darkness, and come out into the light once more.

***End***

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