Summary: Sequel to Witches Coven
Word Count: 7339
“Adam,” Hoss said, as he and his brother laboriously painted the walls in the main room of the Ponderosa. They were almost finished this chore, and were just touching up some bits. “D’you remember telling us about Jock, who used ta work here?”
“Sure,” Adam replied. “What about him?”
“Well,” Hoss said, putting down his brush, “I were thinkin’ and you was wrong.”
“I was?” Adam parried, not having the least clue what Hoss was leading up to. He remembered the conversation they’d had just a few days before about Jock, but he couldn’t imagine why Hoss was bringing it up now. “In what way?” he enquired, putting his own brush down.
“I don’ reckon we was kids when Jock worked for us,” stated Hoss. “Joe was jist a young’un, but we was both growed up.”
Frowning, Adam thought back. He had mentioned Jock a few days before, when they had been talking about Patty Smith, a young woman who had escaped from an asylum. Patty had tried to kill both Joe and Ben, the boys’ father, and had set fire to the house. Luckily, the damage was minimal and both Joe and Ben were going to be fine. “Yes,” he admitted, “I was wrong. It just seems long ago.”
“That’s cuz you’re gettin’ old,” Hoss assured his brother. “They do say time moves more quickly as you get older.”
“Ah, shut up and do some painting,” Adam advised, but he couldn’t keep the laugh out of his voice.
By the next day, the room was finished. The furniture had been cleaned and was set back into its usual position and life began to return to normal. Joe was laid up in bed still with his sprained ankle and stab wound, but Ben was resuming his usual role once more. Deciding that the freshly painted room demanded a celebration, Ben got Hop Sing to organize a special meal and hatched plans to allow Joe to come down stairs.
When evening came, Hoss carefully carried Joe downstairs and laid him on the couch. Ben tenderly tucked a blanket around Joe’s legs, and made sure he was comfortable. Joe gazed around the room, his eyes finally coming to light on Ben’s face. He looked disappointed.
“What is it?” Ben asked, suddenly worried that Joe had hurt himself.
“I thought it might be pink,” Joe offered in a small voice, and let out a great shout of laughter as he saw the look on Ben’s face.
“Pink!” Ben roared, while Adam and Hoss exchanged puzzled glances. Neither of them had been privy to the conversation where Joe had asked his father if he was intending painting the main room pink or green. However, Ben wasn’t able to keep up the façade of being annoyed with Joe as he saw the laughter glittering in the youth’s green eyes. “I’ll give you pink, boy!” he threatened.
The meal was a wonderful as usual, and everyone ate enough to satisfy Hop Sing – even Joe. His appetite had suffered as he lay in bed, but being up had excited Joe and he ate with gusto. Meals alone in his room had very little appeal for him, despite the excellence of the food.
Afterwards, they gathered round the fire once more. Joe looked tired, but he insisted he was all right, and Ben allowed him to sit up longer, knowing that he would spend the next day in bed. Joe and Hoss played checkers, but it was awkward for Joe to lie on the settee and reach the board and after only one game, he was ready to give up.
Casting around for something to entertain Joe, Hoss once more brought up the subject of Jock. “Hey, Pa, you know somethin’?” Hoss began. “Adam here was wrong about somethin’ today.”
“No wonder we’re having funny weather,” Joe commented. “Did Adam admit he was wrong?” Hoss nodded solemnly. “It’ll be purple snow next!” Joe exclaimed, giggling away.
The struggle to keep a straight face was almost too much for Adam. He shot Hoss what he fondly imagined was a dirty look, but since Hoss was guffawing along with Joe’s giggling, he wasn’t entirely successful in his endeavors.
“What were you talking about?” Ben asked, smiling.
“About Jock,” Hoss puffed. “Adam said the other day that Jock had worked for us when we was kids. I told him Jock worked for us when we was growed up and Joe was a young’un. You’d a bin about 16, Shortshanks.”
“I remember,” Joe murmured, his laughter gone. Hoss looked at him with deep concern. Joe was suddenly very pale.
“You all right, Joe?” he asked, puzzled by his brother’s sudden change in mood.
“I’m fine,” Joe assured him. The color was coming back into his face. “I just hadn’t thought of Jock in a long time, that’s all.” He glanced at his father to reassure Ben that he was all right. “Jock was a nasty piece of work,” Joe commented, and they all thought back.
“Watch what you’re doing!” Adam chided Hoss, as the middle brother almost knocked Joe out of the hay loft with the bale of hay he was heaving up.
“You wanna do this?” Hoss demanded, his back and arms aching from the strain of hauling bale after bale into the loft. Joe had been left in the loft to snag each bale as it came his way, and stack them neatly. Adam had the easiest job of all, passing the bales to Hoss from the back of the wagon. Quite how things always worked out this way was a mystery to Joe and Hoss. They knew Adam was cheating somehow, but neither of them had figured it out.
“No, that’s all right,”! Adam assured him. “I’m quite happy doing what I’m doing.”
“Listen,” Joe called down, indignation coloring his tones. “I don’t want to learn to fly here!”
“Ah hush up!” Hoss panted. He eyed with disgust the bale that Adam had just attached to the pulley.
“What’s all the racket about?” Ben asked, coming out into the yard. He was destined to never get an answer, for at that moment, a horseman came riding into the yard, and they all stopped to look at him, for he was a stranger.
“I’m looking for Ben Cartwright,” the man said, his accent decidedly Scottish.
“You’ve found him,” Ben replied, stepping forward. “How can I help you?”
“I’m Jock,” the other said. “I’m looking for a job and was told you’re looking for men.” His voice was cultured, in contrast to the shabby clothes he wore.
“That’s right,” Ben answered, cautiously. “But I’m looking for cowboys. Have you ever pushed cows?”
“Mr. Cartwright, I’ve done just about every job there is,” Jock responded. “I have done a little. I wouldn’t say I’m experienced, but I’m willing to work.”
“All right,” Ben nodded. “We pay $30 a month, bunk and beans.”
“Thank you,” Jock replied. He swung down from his horse and looked around him for the first time.
“These are my sons,” Ben said. “Adam, Hoss and Little Joe.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Jock responded, eyeing the brothers closely. Ben could see that he was curious about the differences in the brother’s appearance, but he didn’t offer to explain. He knew the hands would soon have the man apprised of the family situation. Jock’s eyes lingered longer on Joe, but he didn’t stare. “Where’s the bunkhouse?” he asked, and Ben pointed him in the right direction.
They stared after him until Joe called, “Any chance of finishing this today? I don’t want to get old and grey up here you know.”
“I’m a comin’,” Hoss grumbled, putting his not inconsiderable muscle into the job.
“Oh to be 16 again,” Ben sighed. “All that youth and energy.”
“And trouble,” Adam added in an aside. Ben grinned and went back inside.
Over the next few days, they all kept an eye on Jock, making sure that he was up to the job. They had round-up coming up and would be on the trail for a few weeks, and the last thing they wanted was a hand who wasn’t up to the job. However, although it was clear that Jock wasn’t experienced, he did have a good idea of what he was meant to do, and they stopped worrying about him.
As they got underway on the big cattle drive, Joe found himself riding drag with Jock. It was the worst position on the round-up, and Joe hated it. However, he knew that he had to take his turn with everyone else. Joe was very conscious of his new adult status. He had left school finally that spring, after persuading his father that he didn’t want to go to college. Ben had guessed this would be how Joe felt, but lived in hope that his son would change his mind. But the boy’s eloquent pleading had finally worn down Ben’s resistance, and he had agreed to let the boy leave school and work full time on the ranch. It was the only thing Joe had ever wanted to do and he could turn his hand to most of the jobs around the place.
At 16, Joe seemed to have stopped growing. He had been small for his age for a long time, but over the last few months had shot up. He was still smaller than everyone else in the family, and slender, but Ben thought he might always be that way. His mother had been small and slender, and Joe resembled her very much. Since starting full time work, Joe had calmed a lot, although he still had a spectacular temper and could lose it at the drop of a hat. Ben thought the change had done him good.
“Bet you never thought you’d end up in Nevada pushing cows,” Joe commented cheerfully to Jock as they stopped for lunch. Joe was coated in dust, as was Jock, but his laughing green eyes were unchanged.
“You’re right there,” Jock replied. “It’s not quite what I thought I’d be doing here in the New World.”
“Where are you from?” Joe asked, not wanting to ask what Jock had envisaged himself doing. “I know its Scotland, but where abouts?”
“I’m from Aberdeen,” Joe replied. “The Granite City, lad.” Seeing the blank look on Joe’s face he added, “It’s on the North-East coast, and is a big fishing port and university town.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” Joe admitted.
“Doesn’t surprise me, lad,” Jock replied with a grin. “Most Americans haven’t heard of it.” He stretched. “Aye, but this is a good country, lad. I miss my home, but I like it here.”
Over the next few days, Joe began to make friends with Jock, interested in the stories he had to tell about his life in Scotland. Joe learned a great deal, although not about Jock himself. In fact, Jock still hadn’t told them his surname and he never mentioned a family. Joe, although young, wasn’t tactless enough to ask about family. For all he knew, there might have been a tragedy that Jock found too difficult to talk about.
That didn’t stop Joe regaling Jock with stories about his own family. Jock had casually mentioned the differences in appearance between the Cartwright sons, and Joe had needed no more prompting to tell about the boys’ mothers. Jock had been very interested, and was keen to learn how Ben had built up the Ponderosa and all his other business interests. It didn’t occur to Joe that he was being pumped for information.
One of the things that Jock taught everyone was some of his native Scots words. He told them he spoke Doric, which was the name of the north-east dialect. His dour performance had them all laughing as he explained that you never sounded joyful, even if you were and his response of “I’ve been affa weel this whilie bock,” to a question about his health, reported in doleful tones, had them all in kinks. He told them that girls were called ‘queans’ and the boys ‘loons’. He told them that if someone was ‘sleekit’, they were sly and untrustworthy. Jock was a great raconteur.
But for all that, Ben didn’t really like the man. He didn’t know what it was, but he couldn’t bring himself to warm towards him. Neither Adam nor Hoss were particularly drawn towards the man either, even though Joe spent a good deal of time with him. Joe was still young enough and impressionable enough not to see the barrier the man kept around himself.
“It’s more than just a feeling,” Ben murmured to Adam quietly as they stood near the chuck wagon a few mornings later. Jock was regaling them with the history of Dunnottar Castle, which lay outside a small village called Stonehaven, about 15 miles from Aberdeen. Joe was entranced, listening closely as Jock told the story with a great deal of flair. “Have you noticed that since Jock arrived, we’ve been missing some small things?”
“Like what?” Adam asked, looking, to all intents and purposes, as though he was listening to the story, too.
“Quite a bit of that rawhide Hoss had prepared; a couple of hammers, that sort of thing,” Ben elucidated. “Nothing big, but I’ve gone a few times to pick up some tool I thought I needed and it was gone.”
“Do you know for sure it was Jock?” Adam asked, glancing at Ben.
“No, or I would have said something to him before now,” Ben responded. “But just keep your eyes open.”
“I will,” Adam assured him. His gaze was drawn to Joe. “Shouldn’t you warn Joe?”
“It wouldn’t do any good,” Ben replied. “You know what Joe’s like. He’ll defend his friends until his dying breath unless he has concrete proof of their ill-doing. No, leave Joe out of this, but keep an eye on him. It’s odd that a man of Jock’s age should be so interested in the boy.”
Heeding his intuition, Ben had Joe ride with him that day. He was dismayed that Joe’s chatter should be all about Jock, and found it difficult to introduce a new subject. Joe could be frighteningly single-minded about things, but as he listened with half an ear to Joe’s monologue, Ben realized that the boy had absorbed quite a bit of Scottish history without being aware of it. Jock’s style of teaching had struck a chord with Joe and he had sucked up the information like a sponge. Ben couldn’t imagine that Scottish history might be of any use to Joe, but he was pleased the boy was showing an interest.
“Hello, Jock,” Ben said, coming to sit beside the man. “How are you ‘enjoying’ the cattle drive?”
“Its pretty much what I expected it would be,” Jock replied. “Hard work, but its good work.”
“I’m sorry we haven’t had much time to talk,” Ben went on. “Joe was telling me you’re from Aberdeen. You’re a long way from home. What did you do there?”
“I went to university,” admitted Jock. “My people are landed, and there was enough money to let me do that. But, I’m the younger son, Mr. Cartwright, and I have to make my own way in the world, so I decided to come across here.”
“What did you study?” Ben asked.
“History,” he replied, and gave a small laugh. “At one time, I thought I might become a dominie, but teaching seemed a bit of a come down, so I came over here, where my title doesn’t matter.”
“Title?” Ben echoed. “Should I call you my lord?”
“Jock suffices,” the other replied, his face alight with laughter. “You might guess that it isn’t my real name, but that’s what everyone calls me over here, and I don’t mind.”
“What a dominie?” Ben wanted to know.
“That’s what we call the teacher back home, Mr. Cartwright. The dominie is a feared and respected man. He and the minister are beings high above everyone else. Well, almost, anyway. But I didn’t want to have to strap my pupils and boss them around and have everyone hate me. There isn’t much money in it, either, and I’m used to money. I’ve got my chance to make my fortune over here.”
“I wish you luck,” Ben said, truthfully. “But you would have made a good teacher. Joe has learned a lot from you over the last few days.”
“He’s bright,” Jock agreed. “Better watch out, Mr. Cartwright. I might steal him away from you to help me earn my fortune. He would be very good company.”
Laughing, Ben shook his head. “Joe’s too young to be going off,” he replied. “But good luck all the same.”
“Tomorrow we’ll reach Sacramento,” Ben told his tired crew as they ate supper. Darkness was falling softly around them, and it promised to be another warm night. “We’ve made good time, men. Thanks.”
From all around the hum of voices broke out. It was always the same as the reached the end of the drive. Men who had been too tired to speak suddenly rediscovered their tongues. The next night, they would be sleeping in a real bed.
“You’re on the first shift for watch tonight, Joe,” Adam commented as he put down his plate.
“I hadn’t forgotten,” Joe responded, indignantly. “Let me finish eating at least!” He glared at his older brother as he continued to shovel the bacon down his throat. The prospect of sitting up half the night on watch wasn’t something that Joe had looked forward to. He was tired after the long drive, although he wouldn’t have admitted it under torture, and just hoped he would be able to stay awake.
Finishing his meal, Joe returned his plate to the chuck wagon and went back to mount Cochise. Ben eyed him covertly. He was well aware that Joe was tired, and had been keeping a discreet eye on his youngest. The grin Joe gave one of the hands as he passed a funny comment told Ben that Joe wasn’t too tired to cope with his shift on watch and so he said nothing, just let Joe mount up and ride off. Joe was working full time now, and wasn’t being treated any differently to any other youngster who came round looking for a job. It seemed that Joe was thriving on the challenge, although Ben made a mental note to tell Adam to stop reminding Joe about his chores all the time. Joe got his work done, without Adam riding him all the time.
The herd was settled for the night, some asleep, some grazing peacefully, but all quiet. Joe yawned convulsively once more, and rubbed his eyes, which were grainy. From somewhere along the perimeter of the herd, he could hear a cowboy whistling an aimless little tune. Joe didn’t recognize the melody, but since the cowboy only seemed to know only one line of it, that didn’t help with identification! When the irritation grew too much, Joe moved further along the herd, until he could no longer hear the thready little whistle.
Dismounting, Joe offered Cochise some water, and loosened the cinch slightly. He stretched his tired muscles and yawned again. He still had another two hours until his shift ended. How on earth was he going to keep awake? he wondered.
Movement in the darkness shot a surge of adrenalin through Joe’s system. He reached for his gun and drew it quietly. “Who’s there?” he challenged, and was disgusted to hear a quiver in his voice. “Show yourself!” he added, and found his voice was stronger that time.
“It’s just me, lad,” said a familiar voice, and Joe relaxed as Jock came into view. “Its good to see you’re alert, lad,” he added. “I might have been a pack of rustlers.” Moving closer to Joe, who holstered his gun, Jock dropped his arm round Joe’s shoulder. “In the Borders of Scotland, we call rustlers reivers,” he confided.
“Really?” Joe asked, and was caught completely unaware as Jock clapped a hand over his mouth and bore the startled boy to the ground. Joe fought furiously, but Jock’s weight easily kept Joe a captive.
From all around Joe came furtive sounds, and with a sinking heart, Joe realized that these were indeed rustlers, come to steal some of the herd. Furious at being caught out, Joe struggled even harder, but he got nowhere. Jock produced a bandanna from his pocket and released Joe’s mouth to gag him. Joe took his chance. “Rustlers!” he yelled, and Jock back-handed him savagely across the mouth, before jamming the gag in.
The silence of the night was disturbed as the other men on watch took up the cry. Cursing, Jock pulled the struggling boy to his feet and started to drag him away. Joe fought furiously, and managed to free one arm. He swung a punch at his captor and for an instant the grip on his arm loosened. Joe wrenched himself away, but not far enough or fast enough. A moment later, Jock’s hand fastened on Joe’s wrist, and he reeled the boy in like a fish.
“That’s enough, lad!” Jock growled, clearly furious. He twisted Joe’s arms up behind his back, and the youth whimpered with pain. He was powerless to resist as Jock dragged him further away from the herd. They stopped beside a horse that, even in the dim light, Joe recognized as Jock’s, and the Scotsman took his rope from his saddle. Throwing Joe to the ground, he swiftly bound the boy’s hands behind his back and looped rope around his ankles. With Joe immobilized, Jock stood up again to take stock of the situation.
Joe’s shout had roused the camp and there was no chance now of them getting away with any cattle. It was time to cut his losses, Jock realized, and gave a piercing whistle. Men on horses rode towards him and he called, “Forget it!”
“Joe!” Ben’s voice shouted. “Joe!”
Drawing his gun, Jock knelt by Joe as his men melted into the darkness. A moment later, Ben appeared out of the gloom and froze. “Joe!” he exclaimed.
“I can see we understand each other, Mr. Cartwright,” Jock said, slowly rising, and pulling Joe up with him. Joe’s green eyes were fixed pleadingly on his father’s face. “I’m going to ride out of here with your son, and if anyone tries to stop me, or if the sheriff should come after me, young Joe here is going to meet with an unfortunate accident. Do you understand? I’ll let you know how much it’ll cost to get your son back, once I see you’ve sold your herd. Now, unless you want that accident to happen here and now, I suggest you back off.”
“You’ll be all right, Joe,” Ben called, as he backed his horse slowly away. “If you harm him, Jock, there won’t be anywhere in this world big enough for you to hide!”
“You’d better do as I say then,” Jock returned, coldly. “Because I have no compunction about roughing him up a little.” He tightened his arm around Joe’s throat and the boy choked. “Understand?”
“I understand,” Ben responded. “Joe, don’t worry, you’ll be all right, son. Just do what you’re told and I’ll get you back.”
Biting back the sob that rose in his throat, Joe nodded as he saw his father ride slowly away, looking back over his shoulder all the way until he was lost from sight. As Jock hustled him onto the front of his saddle, belly down, Joe realized that he was on his own and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so frightened.
“We can’t just sit here!” Adam exclaimed, jumping to his feet to start pacing again. “We’ve got to find Joe!”
“I know that,” Ben returned wearily. “But there’s nothing we can do tonight, Adam. Sit down, son, please.” After a moment, Adam resumed his seat. “In the morning, we’d better start to pull out like we intended. Hoss, I want you to stay here. We might be being watched, and I don’t want to take any chances with Joe’s life. So, son, I want you to pretend that you’re not well. If you get the chance, see if you can locate any tracks.”
“Yes, sir,” Hoss agreed, quietly. Worry lines were etching themselves between his brows.
“Adam, when we get to town, I want you to circle back and meet up with Hoss here. If you think you aren’t being watched, follow those tracks.” Adam nodded. He was frowning as well.
“What about you?” Adam asked.
“I’ve got to sell the herd,” Ben explained. “Jock is going to want whatever money we make from the sale as his ransom for Joe.” Bitterness had crept into his voice. “He even warned me, you know,” he growled. “Told me he might steal Joe away from me to help him make his fortune.”
Wordlessly, Hoss squeezed Ben’s arm. He wanted to say something encouraging and urge his father not to worry, but he couldn’t find the words. Fear for Joe was eating away at his insides. He had never seen what attracted Joe to Jock and now he wished he’d done something more to keep the man and boy apart. However, a small voice in his head told him that there was nothing he could have done to prevent this. All they could do now was try and get Joe out of this situation without a tragedy occurring.
It was a long night for the Cartwrights.
As dawn broke, they mounted up and headed off towards Sacramento. Hoss stayed behind, curled miserably in his bedroll. He did feel genuinely unwell, his stomach churning from fear and lack of sleep. Ben looked haggard, and he touched Hoss’ shoulder before he left. “Be careful,” he whispered.
“You, too,” Hoss replied and closed his eyes for a few minutes. Once everyone was gone, Hoss rose and pottered about the camp, stirring up the fire and heating up the pot of coffee that had been left behind.
Several times over the course of the morning, Hoss made a simulated dash behind a tree, pretending that he was ill. There was no sign of movement from anywhere round about. At last, Hoss had worked his way around to the area where Joe had been taken the night before and he set about looking for tracks. They weren’t difficult to find and he made a note of the direction they were heading before returning to the fire and drinking some more coffee.
Adam returned in the afternoon. By then, Hoss had had a good scout about and was convinced that if there had been anyone watching him, they were long gone. Adam had also been keeping a sharp eye out on his way back to camp and had seen nothing, so they decided the risk was worth taking and began to follow the tracks that they hoped would lead to their younger brother.
Lying trussed on the ground over by the horse lines, Joe watched every move Jock made. The big Scot had slept for a good part of the night and into the morning, and Joe had envied him the rest, for he had been unable to close his eyes. Sleep would sweep over him, but when he tried to surrender to it, it vanished leaving him gazing into darkness once more.
On and off all night, Joe had fought his bonds, but the ropes never slackened. Joe’s wrists hurt and he knew that he would have bad rope burns on them. His mouth was as dry as a desert, but these were at least his only miseries at that moment. He hadn’t been maltreated as such and for that Joe was grateful.
However, as the camp roused and men headed off this way and that, Joe knew that Jock would be keeping a close eye on him. Joe remembered what his father had said, and vowed that he could keep his temper, no matter the provocation. His life might depend on his good behavior.
At last, Jock came over to Joe and stood looking down on him. Joe could feel a flush creeping up his neck, but he didn’t dare drop his eyes from the big man. “Well, Joe, sleep well did you?” Jock asked, finally sitting down beside him. “No, I see that you didn’t,” he noted, the betraying circles under Joe’s eyes telling him what he needed to know. “I don’t suppose your precious family did either.” He laughed at the look of rage that swept over the boy’s face. “You shouldn’t have told me so much about your family, Joe. You told me everything I needed to know to set this whole thing up.”
Guilt, swiftly followed by anger, swept through Joe. He glared at his captor, renewing his struggles against the ropes that bound him. Jock watched, clearly amused.
“Yes, you are spirited, Joe,” he commented, as worn out, Joe lay still once more. “You’re a good kid. I like you.” He grinned. “You’re bright, you know. You run yourself down, lad. You told me brother Adam is the clever one, but you’re no slouch yourself. Unlike brother Hoss, who isn’t in the same class.”
Another bust of anger shook Joe as he heard Hoss being run down in that fashion. Hoss might not be good at book learning, but he knew things Jock would never learn. Adam was recognized as the clever one of the family, but Joe had never thought about his own abilities in that direction. He had never thought he was running himself down at all. He just knew he didn’t want to stay on at school or go to college. But praise from this man was not something he could accept.
Smiling, Jock reached down and pulled the gag from Joe’s mouth. “You hungry?” he asked.
“Yes,” Joe whispered. His lower lip began to throb as he spoke. He had forgotten about the smack in the face he’d received the night before. He’d had too much else on his mind.
“Thought you might be,” Jock commented and got up to fetch some food and water. Coming back, he set it on the ground and pulled Joe into a sitting position, leaning him back against a tree. “I’m not going to free your hands, lad,” he warned, “So don’t get any ideas.” He held a cup to Joe’s mouth and the boy drank gratefully.
“Why are you doing this?” Joe asked, looking with distaste at the rubbery scrambled eggs on the plate.
“I told you I’d come to America to make my fortune,” Jock reminded him. “And when you so gaily told me the kind of price your father could expect for his herd, why, I saw my chance.”
“You’re despicable,” Joe muttered. “After Pa gave you a job.”
“Pushing cows isn’t a great job,” Jock told him. “If you’re stupid enough to want to do that all your life, then you’re as brainless as that fat lump of a brother of yours.”
“Stop calling Hoss stupid!” Joe flared. “He’s not stupid!”
Anger erupted in Jock’s eyes and Joe shrank back in fear. He remembered his earlier vow to keep his temper and cursed himself silently. Jock reached out and casually backhanded Joe again. “Don’t raise your voice to me, boy,” he warned. “If I say your brother’s stupid, then he’s stupid, got that?”
Glaring at him, Joe didn’t answer. He couldn’t bring himself to say his brother was stupid, no matter the cost to himself. Jock grinned. He lifted a forkful of eggs towards Joe, but the boy was too angry to be hungry and he turned his head away.
“Suit yourself, lad,” Jock commented, putting the plate aside. “It’s no matter to me if you decide to starve yourself. I’m not going to make you eat.” He lifted the gag again and Joe recoiled.
As Jock tried to put it on, Joe kicked out with his feet, desperate to avoid having the gag on again. He struck Jock painfully on the shin and the big man dropped the gag to clutch his leg until the sting went out of it. Joe looked at him wide-eyed, suddenly realizing what he had done.
“That was very stupid, laddie,” Jock said, as he regained his breath. “Very stupid indeed.” Moving very slowly and deliberately, Jock grabbed the front of Joe’s jacket and hoisted the boy to his feet. He relished the look of fear in the boy’s eyes as he cocked his fist then threw the first of many punches.
When he had finished, Joe lay semi-conscious on the ground. Kneeling beside him, Jock examined his handiwork. The boy’s face was already puffy with bruising and there was blood running from his nose and mouth. Both his eyes were starting to swell and blood ran down his cheek from a cut by his ear, where he had struck his head on the tree. “I told you that was a stupid move, lad,” he commented as he gagged Joe, oblivious of the boy’s torn lip. “Believe me the next time.”
Never had a sale of beef seemed so slow to Ben, yet he had sold his herd in record time and for a record price. The big cities were desperate for beef, and Ben had built up a good reputation over the years. The buyers were waiting for him to arrive, and as he was one of the first breeders to appear, he got top dollar prices. Within 2 hours, every head of beef had been sold, and Ben, after paying the men off, had a profit of $10,000.
Normally, he would have been cock-a-hoop over such a profit, but the nagging worry for Joe robbed his triumph of its luster. Ben knew that this money would go towards freeing Joe. He didn’t begrudge the money for Joe’s life, for he loved his son. He just feared that the wily Scotsman wouldn’t keep to his side of the bargain.
“I’ll go back and join Hoss,” Adam told him. “Be careful, Pa.”
“You, too, Adam,” Ben responded. “Both of you.” He watched as Adam rode off out of sight.
Disconsolately, Ben walked back to Buck, and patted his horse absently. He had no idea what to do next.
Turning, Ben saw a young, dark-haired man, dressed like a cowboy. “Yes?”
“Jock sent me.” At those casually uttered words, Ben stiffened. The young man noticed at once. “Don’t do anything stupid,” he warned. “I’ve got a message for you. Bring the money and follow me if you want your son back.”
“All right,” Ben agreed, knowing he had no choice. He tightened his cinch and led Buck over to where the cowboy’s horse was and mounted. They headed off out of town, the cowboy saying not another word. Ben started to pray.
“Can you see anything?” Adam hissed.
“There’s Joe,” Hoss answered. “He’s tied up by the horses and Jock’s with him.”
“How does he look?” Adam wanted to know. There wasn’t room for them both to peer down from the vantage point Hoss had found.
“Cain’t tell,” Hoss replied. “He’s all curled up.” Hoss slithered backwards until he was once more beside Adam and out of sight of the camp below. “I seen a trail leadin’ over that way. If’n we go on foot, we shouldn’t be seen.”
“All right, lead the way,” Adam said. “How many men are there?”
“I seen four countin’ Jock,” Hoss replied, as he led the way to the trail he had seen. They kept their voices down and moved slowly, so as to avoid knocking any loose rocks.
“I bet there’s one meeting with Pa,” Adam suggested. “Bound to be, don’t you think?”
“I reckon,” Hoss agreed. “I jist hope we can get Joe out a there without any o’ us bein’ hurt.”
“Me, too brother,” Adam said, fervently. “Me, too.”
It was late afternoon before Ben arrived at Jock’s camp. He had been led in a circuitous route, which hadn’t fooled him at all, although he didn’t mention this. He dismounted as told, wondering if Adam and Hoss had found the camp yet. He fervently hoped so, as his chances of getting out of this alive were very slim.
“Over here, Cartwright,” Jock called, and waved cheerfully.
Slowly, Ben made his way over, careful to keep his hand away from his gun, which was still in his holster. He was rather surprised at this, but was willing to take any lucky cards that fate dealt to him. Anything that might give him an edge was welcome.
Jock was kneeling by Joe. As Ben neared, he saw that Joe’s face was bruised and bloody, and his heart contracted. “What have you done to Joe?” he demanded angrily.
“Ah-ah,” Jock chided. “Mind your manners! Joe and I had a little falling out this morning, Cartwright. I had to teach him a few lessons. You really should teach him not to cheek his elders and betters.”
It was on the tip of Ben’s tongue to retort that Jock might be Joe’s elder, but he certainly wasn’t his better, but he held his tongue. This was no time to play games. “Let me go to him,” Ben pleaded.
“No, not yet,” Jock returned. “How much did you get for your herd?”
Swallowing his rage as best he could, Ben said, “$10,000.”
“Well, that’s much more than I expected,” Jock said, delightedly. He nudged Joe, none too gently, with his foot. “Did you hear that, lad? Your father did real well.” Joe groaned. His eyes were so swollen he could barely open them more than slits. “Joe doesn’t seem to be pleased by your success, Cartwright,” Jock went on.
“Take the money, just let my son go,” Ben ground out.
“There’s been a slight change of plans, Cartwright,” Jock said, slowly. Ben stared at him, wondering what was coming. He shot a glance at Joe. “I think I might just have to keep Joe around for a while. I’m sure you could find another $10,000 to get him back, couldn’t you? I’d be much more comfortable with $20,000 in my pocket.”
“You animal!” Ben cried, and threw himself at Jock.
From their hiding place, Adam and Hoss took that as their signal and leapt into action. Ben was wrestling with Jock and his men were watching. As the Cartwright brothers jumped into view, one of them went for his gun, but Hoss was too quick for him and he fell where he stood before he managed to fire more than one shot.
As Adam and Hoss shot it out with Jock’s men, Ben and Jock fought furiously. Joe curled up to try and avoid being stepped on, but it seemed to him that Jock was doing everything he could to keep Ben close by Joe. Suddenly giving Ben a push, Jock broke free of the older man’s grip and threw himself on top of Joe. Ben went for him, only to pull himself up short, for Jock had his gun pressed to Joe’s head.
“I don’t care, Cartwright,” he panted. “I don’t care if I kill the boy.” He glanced at his men, but they were all defeated. Adam and Hoss stood frozen, staring in horror at Jock and Joe.
Slowly, Jock got to his feet, using the injured boy as a shield. “You all just stay put,” he ordered, pulling Joe along with him. The nearest saddled horse was Buck, and Jock made his way towards him. “I’m getting out of here,” he said. “And if any of you move, I’ll kill the boy.”
Suddenly, Joe’s bound feet became entangled in some brush, and although Jock pulled, the brush wouldn’t give up its hold. Distracted, he yanked harder, and Joe groaned. Again, Jock tugged, and this time, Joe’s feet came free, but with much greater speed than Jock was expecting. As he tugged, Joe’s weight, slight though it was, knocked Jock off balance. His gun dropped, and Adam threw himself onto the Scotsman, bearing both he and Joe to the ground.
For a terrifying instant, Joe found himself squashed between Adam and Jock, and couldn’t catch his breath. He struggled to get free, and a moment later, Adam and Jock rolled away from him, and Joe gulped in a lungful of air.
Turning his head, frantic with worry for his oldest brother, Joe was in time to see Hoss join in the fray and knock Jock out with one solid punch. The next moment, Ben loving arms were round Joe, pulling him gently to a sitting position and taking the gag from his torn mouth. “Joe!” he exclaimed and gathered the boy into his arms.
That riding was going to be painful for Joe was obvious. However, Joe himself made no complaints when Ben helped him onto Buck. His body ached all over, and although there were no broken bones, Joe was in no fit state to ride alone. Ben had washed the blood from Joe’s face and had given the boy water. While Adam and Hoss prepared the bodies to bring back to town with them, Ben had found something for Joe to eat and he had managed to keep it down.
They only heard Joe’s story when they got back to Sacramento and turned Jock over to the sheriff. Before that, Joe had barely spoken, apart from his heart-felt, “I’m so glad to see you!” Once in town, he told the sheriff his story in a low voice, pausing frequently to rest and gather his thoughts. By then, he was exhausted and was very glad when Ben tucked him up in a hotel room bed and he drifted off to sleep.
“Jock was indeed a nasty piece of work,” Ben muttered, remembering.
“There was one thing I never quiet understood,” Adam ventured, looking at Joe. “Why did he beat you up? You didn’t say at the time. You just said that you’d made him angry. What did you say to him?”
“It wasn’t something I said,” Joe responded. “He wanted me to say Hoss was stupid, and I wouldn’t.”
“Stubborn little cuss,” Hoss muttered, proudly. “As if sayin’ it makes it so.”
“I know, but I was furious. When I wouldn’t say it, and refused to eat the horrid looking eggs he was going to feed me, he was going to put the gag back in, and I really couldn’t face it. So I kicked him on the shin.”
“Ouch!” Adam commented, having had experience of Joe kicking him on the shin.
“That was when he went mad, and beat me up,” Joe went on. But I couldn’t say that to the sheriff. I was too embarrassed. It wasn’t my mouth that got me into trouble, but it was still my temper.” He glanced at Ben. “I wonder what happened to Jock after he got out of prison.”
“As it happens, I do know,” Ben replied. “When he was released, the sheriff of Sacramento wired me to let us know, just in case he fulfilled his threat and came after you again.”
“And?” Adam prompted when Ben paused. All three pairs of eyes were riveted on his face.
“He went to hold up a bank and was shot and killed, the very day he was released.” Ben sat back and enjoyed the looks of surprise on his sons’ faces. He’d seen no need to remind them of Jock’s existence, when Joe had so successfully put it out of his mind. He’d been worried when Hoss had brought the subject up again, but Joe had clearly made peace with his ordeal.
“Sleekit indeed,” he observed, almost to himself.
Deciding it was time to change the subject, he glanced at Joe. “So you thought the room might be pink, huh, son?” he questioned and they all laughed as a flush crept up Joe’s neck.
“It was just a suggestion, Pa,” he protested.