Learning a Lesson (by Rona)

Summary:  A small band of Indians are raiding ranches and homesteads, but are surprisingly inept. Joe stumbles on their secret.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   9847


 

“Of course, Roy,” Ben said. “We’ll do everything we can to help you.”

“I appreciate that, Ben,” Roy Coffee, sheriff of Virginia City replied, as he headed towards the door. “I’ll see ya in the mornin’ then.”

Accompanying Roy to his horse, Ben looked round when he heard a horse approaching. He knew from the speed that it was Joe, and he wasn’t disappointed. His youngest son came into the yard at a lope, and for a moment, Ben’s heart was in his mouth as he remembered an occasion when Joe had had a nasty fall doing just this. However, there was no repeat of the accident today, and Joe drew rein and hopped down off his horse.

“Hi, Roy!” he greeted the lawman cheerfully. Roy was an old friend of the family. “Hi, Pa.”

“Hi, Little Joe,” Roy replied, and Joe tried to hide a wince at his nickname, which he had mostly grown out of. “Glad to see ya lookin’ better, son. How’re ya feelin?”

“Fine, thanks,” Joe responded, although this wasn’t always the truth. Joe had broken his leg earlier in the year, and was still inclined to limp when he was tired. The break had been serious, and for a time, they had feared he would lose his leg. Luckily, that fear hadn’t come to fruition but Joe had been on crutches for months. Now, at the start of the winter, he was back doing a full day’s work, although he still found that he lacked his customary stamina.

“See ya tomorrow,” Roy said, as he mounted his horse and rode off. Ben and Joe stood for a moment watching him leave.  Then Ben shivered.

“Is that you finished for the day?” he asked Joe. “Then go and put your horse up, because it’s getting really cold.”

“Sure thing,” Joe agreed, and walked carefully over to the barn, trying desperately hard to hide his limp while he knew Ben was watching. Joe knew that his limp would go eventually, according to the doctor, but it seemed to him that ‘eventually’ was going to be forever at this rate.

“Tired?” Ben asked, as Joe came in a little while later.

“Yeah,” Joe admitted, too dispirited to lie. He went to toast his hands by the fire. “It’s sure gettin’ colder quick.”

“I’d noticed,” Ben replied wryly. “We might be in for some snow if it keeps as cold as this.”

“Well,” Joe replied, as cheerfully as he could, “it’s the end of November. We’re about due for some cold weather.” He reached for the cup of coffee his father offered him. “Thanks, Pa.”

The door opened to admit Joe’s two older brothers, Adam and Hoss. “Tarnation, its cold!” Hoss exclaimed.

“Well, shut the door and don’t let the heat out,” Ben retorted, as Adam did just that. He watched as his sons shed their outer layers and made straight for the fire, as Joe had. He poured them each coffee to help them thaw out.

“Why was Roy here, Pa?” Joe asked. “And why’s he coming back tomorrow?”

“I wanted to talk to you boys about that,” Ben announced. His tone was serious. “Every day for the last week, the stage has been held up, either just before it gets into town, or just after it leaves. Roy’s looking for men for a couple of posses, to see if they can catch the outlaws.”

“No problem,” Adam responded.

“Me, too,” Hoss agreed.

“I’m up for it,” Joe chimed in.

“Not you, Joseph,” Ben stated, flatly.

“Why not?” Joe demanded, on his feet, his eyes blazing from his white face.

“Because you’re not up to it, son,” Ben told him, gently. “You’re not fit enough to ride out all day in this cold.”

“I am so!” Joe denied, hotly. “I’m fine!”

“You’re not fine, Joe, and stop shouting at me. My hearing is quite good!” Ben glared at his youngest, but Joe was too upset to take notice of the warning signs. “You admitted to me tonight that you’re tired, and I saw you limping going into the barn. Now, this is my last word on the matter. You’re not going!”

Fortunately, rage choked Joe and he was unable to say any of the hurtful things that sprang into his mind. Turning on his heel, he dashed headlong upstairs, knowing he was behaving like a child, but too tired to care. From behind him, he heard Ben shout, “Joe!” but he ignored him. Limping into his room, Joe threw himself on his bed, pounding at his pillow as he took out his rage at his body’s weakness.

*****

It was late in the evening before there was a tentative knock on Joe’s door. Lying flat on his bed, arms behind his head, gazing fixedly at the roof, Joe grunted, “Come in.” He knew it was Ben without even turning his eyes in that direction.

“You haven’t eaten, son,” Ben said, softly, knowing that Joe was hurting, and wishing there was something he could do to help. “I brought you some supper.” He put the tray down on Joe’s desk and turned to look at his son. Joe hadn’t moved. “Joe!”

“Thank you,” Joe responded, coldly. He still hadn’t moved.

Despite his best intentions not to lose his temper with Joe, Ben wouldn’t tolerate rudeness. “That’s quite enough!” he snapped. “You are behaving like a child, and if you continue in this manner, I shall be forced to treat you like a child and turn you over my knee!”

For a frozen instant, there was silence, then Joe sat up, but there was as much insolence in the movement as there had been in his stillness a few moments before. “And then you’ll lock me in my room and cut my allowance?” he taunted, and saw at once that he’d gone too far. “Pa, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that,” Joe apologized, knowing that he was too late.

“I’ve made allowances for you over the past five months, Joseph,” Ben said, tightly. “I know that you are finding it frustrating that your leg is taking a long time to heal properly, but there was no cause for you to say that to me! How dare you be so rude!”

“I’m sorry,” Joe muttered, wretchedly. “Really I am!” He turned his face to his father, and Ben saw that his eyes were brimming with unshed tears.

“Apologies come very easily to you,” Ben noted. “Perhaps you should start thinking before you speak, and you wouldn’t have to make so many of them. Now, eat your supper before its cold. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He went out of the room, trying not to slam the door behind him. He failed. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so angry with Joe and he’d had to leave the room before he said something he’d regret. A tight smile passed his lips. Perhaps it wasn’t just Marie that Joe got his temper from!

“Any joy?” Adam asked, as Ben came downstairs, regretting the question as soon as it passed his lips. It was obvious that Ben was still angry.

“No,” Ben replied, shortly and went over to his desk to bury himself in the books. Adam and Hoss exchanged looks, and it wasn’t long before the atmosphere in the room drove them both to go to bed early.

Upstairs, Adam lingered outside Joe’s room for a moment, but there was silence from within, and he didn’t knock. There was no point in him going in and stirring things up again. Joe would have cooled off by morning.

*****

By morning, Joe was thoroughly ashamed of himself. He had barely slept that night, and when he had, his dreams had replayed that last encounter with his father. Joe had managed to choke down some of his supper, and as he rose in the dark, he knew he would have to get rid of the tray, and the evidence that he hadn’t eaten. Since his accident, Ben had been riding Joe for not eating enough. Joe knew that his appetite had suffered, but he hated to be watched, and the more Ben measured his every mouthful, the less Joe had managed to eat. It was a vicious circle.

Going silently downstairs, Joe discovered that he was even up before Hop Sing. As quietly as he could, he made himself some coffee and got some food. He shrugged on his green jacket before donning his sheepskin coat and let himself out of the house.

Crossing to the barn, Joe was distressed to discover that he was still limping, and put it down to not having slept. He had no intention of going far; just to his mother’s grave, a place where he usually found peace. He knew he had to get away from the house for a while to get his head in order.

The ride through the crisp, frosty air did much to calm Joe’s turbulent sprit. He knew that he had to apologizes properly to Ben, and make more of an effort to be cheerful, despite the frustration he felt at the lingering weakness in his leg. But it was hard, and the thought of making more of an effort was exhausting.

“I don’t know how, but I’ll do it, Cooch,” he said aloud, and the black and white ears in front of him twitched. He rode on, watching as the dawn finally broke in spectacular colors. The very sight soothed his soul and when he arrived at the grave, he already felt calmer. He dismounted and went to sit by the grave. “Hi, mama,” he said.

*****

“His horse is gone,” Adam reported, his voice tight with anger. “Do you want me to go looking for him, Pa?” His tone suggested that he had more than just looking in mind.

“No, leave him,” Ben replied, exasperated. “Roy will be waiting for you two. On you go; Joe will come home when he’s ready.” He had discovered Joe’s absence at once, and had been alarmed when he realized that Joe had taken some food with him. However, the alarm had died away when they realized he had only taken enough for sandwiches. Ben had a fairly shrewd idea where his youngest son was, and had Adam stopped to think, he would have known where Joe had gone, too.

“He didn’ mean ta rile ya, Pa,” Hoss commented as he left. “He’s hurtin’ right now.”

“I know,” Ben responded. “But thanks for reminding me.” He found a smile for his two oldest sons as they rode off to join the posse. He hoped they would be all right. He cast a glance at the sky. It was filled with heavy grey clouds, and Ben knew there would be icy rain or sleet before the day was out. He hoped Joe would calm down enough to come home before the weather turned bad.

*****

Exhaustion had caught up with Joe as the morning went on and he awoke, disoriented, about noon. He cursed himself for he hadn’t meant to stay away as long as that. He scrambled stiffly to his feet and went to catch his horse.

Riding slowly home, Joe wondered how Adam and Hoss were getting on with the posses. He had to admit that he wasn’t up to riding all day, and as the first cold drops of rain began to fall, he was suddenly glad that Ben had forbidden him to go. It was just a pity that he had managed to lose his temper in such a spectacular fashion.

Hurrying Cochise, Joe had his head down, not looking too carefully where he was going. He trotted out of a stand of trees, and all but collided with a band of horsemen on the other side of them. Joe pulled his mount to a stop, and found himself looking down the barrel of a gun. Slowly, Joe raised his head. The man holding the gun looked familiar.

“Well, well, if it isn’t Joe Cartwright!” the man exclaimed.

It was his voice that provided the clue for Joe. The English accent was a dead give-away. This was the notorious outlaw Lord Robert Collins. He was wanted in about five states for murder and robbery and he had been at school with Hoss.

Stunned, Joe realized that he had found the outlaws his brothers and the posse were looking for.

*****

“Let’s kill him!” suggested one of the other outlaws, and Joe’s heart constricted in fear.

“No,” Collins said, in that arrogant manner that Joe remembered so well. “No, we’ll take him as a hostage. His father’s worth a bit of money, don’t you know, and as I recall, this one was his father’s pet.”  He grinned at Joe. “You’ve grown a bit since I last saw you, Joe,” he went on. “But you haven’t changed. Rather like Hoss. That was him with the posse, wasn’t it?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Still a tub of lard, isn’t he?”

“Leave Hoss alone,” Joe muttered. “He was good to you at school.”

“Well, if you think being befriended by the school elephant was him being good to me, you and I have completely different ideas about the meaning of good,” Collins said, scathingly. “But then, I do speak the Queen’s English, and you are an ignorant American.” He nodded to another of the outlaws. “Get his gun, and tie him up.”

It took a great effort for Joe to sit passively as his gun was lifted from his holster, and a rope was lowered over his shoulders, and tied tightly round his hands. He bit down on the inside of his lip to prevent him saying anything more. He wondered bleakly what Ben would think when he didn’t return home. How he wished they hadn’t had that quarrel.

“Let’s go,” Collins ordered, and they rode off, leading Joe’s horse. Joe wondered for a minute if he could take the chance of diving from Cochise and maybe running to safety, but realized that the end of the rope was securely round someone else’s saddle horn.

“You think you killed that fat guy?” asked the outlaw who had wanted to kill Joe.

Snapping his head round, Joe fixed Collins with a wide-eyed apprehensive stare. Collins met Joe’s gaze and laughed. After a long moment, when Joe imagined all sorts of dreadful scenarios, Collins shook his head regretfully. “No, I doubt it,” he admitted and the disappointment was clear in his tone. “I might have winged him, but I didn’t manage to do any serious damage, and he certainly wasn’t dead. A pity,” he remarked, “because it would have been another way to keep Ben Cartwright’s nose out of our business.” Joe couldn’t hide his relief. If Hoss had been injured, he wasn’t sure he could have borne it. “As it is, we’ll hit the stage tomorrow. My informant said that was the last possible stage to have the bullion on board. And if by some misfortune it isn’t there, then we’ll sell Joe back to his father.” He glanced at Joe to see how his captive was taking the news.

However, Joe had guessed what Collins had in mind, and kept his face schooled to impassivity. However, he was pretty sure that he would be held to ransom, even if Collins did get the bullion that was apparently coming in on the stage. Joe wondered who could have told Collins about the bullion, for this was the first Joe had heard about it. He wondered if Roy had told his father. It seemed likely. He wondered if Roy had told Adam and Hoss.

A short time later they arrived at the outlaws’ hideout. It was on Ponderosa land, and Joe realized that he’d been fortunate to have gone a different way to his mother’s grave that morning, or he might have run into the band earlier, for they were holed up in a secluded box canyon near Lake Tahoe. As he was led into it, Joe realized that the cold rain was continuing. The ground was too hard for them to track with any accuracy and the rain would soon erase what few tracks there were. At this time of year, the herd was nearer the house, and fewer people would pass this way. Collins had learned his lessons well all those years ago.

*****

Ben met Adam and Hoss at the door of the house. “Well?” he demanded.

“We saw ‘em,” Hoss muttered, “but they got away.”

“Are you both all right?” Ben asked. He could see they were both tired.

“We’re fine, Pa,” Adam assured him. “Although Hoss missed a bullet by not much. But we’re all right.” He glanced around the room as he unbuttoned his coat. “Where’s Joe?”

At the casual question, fear spiked thought Ben’s gut again. He had spent the whole day convincing himself that Joe was all right and would come home soon, but as the day had given way to afternoon, and afternoon to early evening, Ben could no longer pretend to himself that Joe was coming back. “I don’t know,” he replied, trying to mask his fear. He failed.

“Has he run off?” Adam asked, angrily. “Ungrateful brat! I’ll tan his hide when I get my hands on him.”

“We don’t know he’s run off,” Ben protested, his tone no less heated.

“That ain’t Joe’s way,” Hoss agreed, his tone grim. “You know it ain’t, Adam. Joe always comes back an’ apologizes.” He glanced at Ben. “D’ya reckon somethin’s happened to him?”

“I’m afraid I do,” Ben replied, almost inaudibly. “I had hoped he had somehow sneaked round to join with you two, but I was wrong.”

“Do you think he’s had another fall?” Adam asked, allowing his concern to show. He felt bad about thinking the worst of Joe. He knew, as well as Hoss did, that Joe wasn’t the type to run off for days. He would go off for a few hours to clear his head, then come back and make his peace. The fact that Joe had been gone the whole day was worrying. Adam’s burst of anger had been hiding his fear.

“I don’t know,” Ben answered, and the strain was apparent in his voice. After the fall Joe had had in the spring, they had all been concerned lest he have another bad fall. He glanced at the door, although it was shut. “And it’s too dark to go looking for him now.” He shook himself slightly. “What coat had he on?”

“Both on ‘em, I reckon,” Hoss replied, glancing at the hat rack. “It were real cold when he left here, Pa, an’ I know he likes it cold, but even he ain’t that mad!”

“I just hope that, wherever he is, he’s all right,” Ben said, softly. He knew it would be a long night ahead of him.

*****

“Do we gotta feed him?” asked the unpleasant outlaw as he tied Joe up. Joe winced as the rope tightened around his sore leg. He had been unable to hide his limp as he was taken from his horse, and Collins had found the whole thing hilarious.

“Please yourself,” Collins replied. “I don’t care if you feed him or not.” He gave Joe a kick. Joe twisted so it landed on his thigh. “I don’t think he’ll starve through missing one meal.” He gave Joe a hard look. “You’re not built like your brother Hoss, are you, Joe? Hoss could be starved for weeks before you would notice any reduction in weight. Does that little Chink still cook extra food just to feed him?”

“Leave Hoss alone!” Joe cried, passionately. “Hoss was good to you, Collins!”

“So you do have some of the Cartwright spirit,” Collins remarked. “I was beginning to think it had passed you by, just like the family height has.” He crouched by Joe, looking into his face intently. “Why weren’t you with the posse today, Joe?”

Silently, Joe gazed back. He wasn’t going to tell Collins anything. He could feel sweat beading on his upper lip as their gazes continued to hold. He wouldn’t give Collins the satisfaction of looking away first. Above all, he didn’t want to drop his gaze to the leg which was currently giving him so much pain.

So the sudden bunching of Collins’ fist as it crashed into his head came as a nasty surprise. Joe was knocked sideways by the force of the blow. He barely had time to catch his breath before Collins was on him again, and Joe could do nothing but try to protect himself as well as he could. By the time Collins stood up, Joe was unconscious, blood streaming down his face, and his right arm dangling uselessly in the ropes that bound him. “You won’t defy me again in a hurry,” Collins said, and straightening, turned to look at his men. None of them met his eyes, as they all knew his temper too well.

When Hoss had befriended the English boy on his arrival at Virginia City school, the Cartwrights had all been charmed by his manners. The boy’s father had been determined to leave his title behind, but young Robert was determined to hang onto it. He had a dreadful temper, but Hoss seemed to understand that the boy found things very strange and different from what he had been used to, and didn’t take offence.

However, Robert was a nasty child even then. On Joe’s first day at school, he had accidentally on purpose tripped the young boy so he had a bad fall. Thereafter, Joe became his favorite target, and before long, he was openly bullying the boy, only stopping when Hoss was around. Unfortunately for Joe, Hoss had contracted a virus that laid him out flat for several months, and Joe, the smallest boy in the school, had to endure months of harrowing abuse that the teacher seemed not to notice.

It only ended with Hoss’ return. At once, he realized what was going on, and pounded Robert until the boy had admitted his fault. Robert’s father had been summoned, and eventually Robert was removed from the school. Almost a year later, the family had moved away.

When Lord Robert Collins had become wanted, the Cartwrights had commented on the name, but thought no more about it. It was only when Roy Coffee told them it was the same person that they began to follow his exploits, horrified that the child they had known had become such a bad person. Hoss was embarrassed that Collins had been a friend of his; Joe wasn’t in the least surprised. He had known that Collins would come to a bad end.

As he slowly roused, aching all over, Joe could only fear for his future. A few months before, he had found a new depth to his faith in God, and a peace that he could deal with whatever came his way. Joe believed that his life was mapped out in front of him, and he wasn’t afraid to die, if that was what was decreed for him. Joe was afraid that his family would blame themselves for something that was nobody’s fault, but came about as a direct consequence of his childish temper the evening before. Joe wished that he had been able to say sorry to them all once more before he died.

*****

The night was cold and wet and Joe was about as far from the fire as he could be. His only consolation was that he had had the sense to put on his big coat that morning, and not just his little green jacket, as he so often did. That didn’t prevent him becoming very cold and his bruises stiffened painfully. Unable to sleep for more than short periods, due to the painful cramps in his limbs, Joe could feel his bad leg becoming sorer and sorer. Come morning, he thought he would be lucky to be able to walk at all.

By dawn, the rain had changed to sleet. Joe was relieved to find he was still shivering helplessly, as that meant he hadn’t succumbed to hypothermia yet. But he was desperately cold and his bound hands were decidedly blue. However, he could still feel his fingers and they did twitch, even on his broken right arm.

The smell of food from the fire made Joe’s stomach rumble loudly. He kept a wary eye on Collins, who seemed to be watching Joe all the time. Finally, he came across and offered Joe some coffee. Joe took the cup, but found that drinking was a painful experience. “Thank you,” he said, grudgingly, as he dropped the empty cup. His right arm was a blaze of misery from lifting the cup to his mouth, but Collins had seemed to enjoy it.

“So tell me, Cartwright, did you go to a fancy college like your brother Adam?” He laughed. “I don’t need to ask about Hoss, do I? Your brother was so thick he could barely manage to read and write.”

“Hoss is a better man than you’ll ever be,” Joe cried, rashly. “Book learning isn’t the only measure of manhood, you know!”

“You really are stupid, aren’t you?” Collins snarled, grabbing Joe by the collar and hauling him to his feet. Joe vaguely noticed that he was taller than Collins. “Didn’t you learn anything from last night?”

“I learned that you haven’t changed,” Joe panted, thinking he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. “You’re still a nasty piece of work, and you’re not fit to lick Hoss’ boots!”

“Oh really?” Collins said, and deliberately grabbed Joe’s broken arm and wrenched it upwards. Joe couldn’t hold back a cry of pain, but he glared belligerently at Collins.

“Yeah, really!” he panted. “You’re nothing!”

With a snarl, Collins threw Joe to the ground, where he landed hard on his bad arm. For a moment, the world threatened to go black, then a boot connected firmly with his ribs and brought him back to consciousness.

This beating was as comprehensive as the one the previous evening had been. By the end of it, Joe’s eyes were swelling closed, and he thought his nose might be broken. His breath came in painful gasps and there was barely one inch of his body that had not been touched one way or another. The darkness beckoned to Joe, and he fell into its welcoming arms with relief.

*****

“We’ve got time to go out and look for Joe before we have to meet Roy,” Adam said. “Besides, this is more important.”

“I wasn’t trying to dissuade you,” Ben pointed out as he buttoned his coat.  He wondered if he ought to tell his sons why it was so important that they help Roy, but decided that if Roy hadn’t mentioned it to them, he had no right to.

Together, they rode in the most direct route to the graveyard, but there was no sign of Joe there. The sleet had stopped, but the ground was wet and there were no tracks to be seen. They cast around for some time, but found no trace of Joe. Finally, Adam took out his watch and looked at the time. “We’d better go if we’re going to help Roy,” he said, reluctantly.

“I’ll come with you, boys,” Ben muttered. “I’d better report Joe’s disappearance to Roy. I know there isn’t anything he can do…” Ben’s voice trailed off, and nobody said anything else. They simply rode off to meet with Roy and the posse.

*****

“I’m real sorry ta hear about Little Joe, Ben,” Roy stated. “But there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it now.”

“I know that, Roy,” Ben replied. “But I just thought I ought to let you know.”

Nodding understandingly, Roy turned his attention back to the Virginia City road, where he expected the stage any minute.  All the men were mounted, ready to go, and the horses were fidgeting from the tension of the riders. Ben drew back, so that he wasn’t in their way and wondered, not for the first time, where his youngest son was.

“There,” a voice said, and everyone looked to where they could now see the stage approaching. There was no tell-tale cloud of dust at this time of year, which made it harder for Roy. He hoped it would make it harder for the outlaws, too.

No such luck. A group of men erupted from the trees by the roadside and fired at the driver. Wisely, the man decided to pull up, and not get shot. Roy’s men were moving at once.

The passengers in the stage ducked for cover as a second group of armed men bore down on them, but the outlaws reacted quickly to this new threat, and turned, firing wildly at the posse. Ben’s heart was in his mouth, watching his sons, terrified that something would happen to one of them.

Suddenly, one of the outlaws broke away and galloped back to the trees from whence he came. Adam shot at him, but missed. A moment later, he galloped out of the other side with another man, glimpsed only briefly by the busy men. There was only one person who saw him leave – Ben. And Ben let out a great cry, for with them was Joe!

Spurring his horse, Ben dived down the hillside to try and catch up with the escaping outlaws. However, he had no chance, for the remaining group, realizing that they had been abandoned, were determined to take out as many of the posse as they could. Ben was soon caught up in the battle.

By the time he was able to fight his way clear, Joe and the outlaws were gone.

*****

“Get up, Cartwright,” Collins ordered, slicing through the ropes that bound Joe’s feet. He put his hand under Joe’s arm – mercifully not the broken one – and pulled. Joe came to his feet, and fought the dizziness that overwhelmed him. He managed to stay on his feet although his pallor gave him away. “Get on your horse.”

Limping slowly over to Cochise, Joe knew there was no way he was going to be able to mount his horse alone. He hurt all over, the pain thumping at him mercilessly. It was all he could do to stay upright. Mounting his horse seemed as likely as flying to the moon, under those circumstances.

Collins must have guessed, for he nodded to a couple of his men, who forcibly got Joe mounted. His head reeled horribly, and he nearly vomited, but finally things settled down. By then, his hands were bound to his saddle horn, and he had squandered his chance to escape. After berating himself for a few minutes, Joe recovered enough to realize that he hadn’t had a real chance of escape. Not in the condition he was in, with half a dozen outlaws watching him closely.

They rode for what seemed like a long time to Joe. The jostling of the horse caused his broken arm to throb, and he had no way to ease his suffering. He drew in deep breaths to try and keep the nausea at bay and by the time they stopped, in a grove of trees, Joe had long passed the end of his endurance.

Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t over. Collins ordered him gagged, and one of the outlaws – the one who had wanted to kill him at the beginning – was ordered to watch over Joe. Then the others drew their bandanas over their faces and waited.

About half an hour passed before they heard the stage drawing near. Joe fought his bonds to try and get free to warn them, but to no avail. He received a cuff to the head that all but knocked him from his saddle, and when his head stopped whirling, he saw that the outlaws were gone.

Gunfire sounded from all around, and Joe brightened up slightly. The prospect of the posse killing or wounding Collins was high, and for a minute, Joe allowed his hopes to take flight and believe that he would be rescued very soon.

Then, Collins burst through the trees and grabbed the rein of Joe’s horse, and dragged the startled Cochise after him, as they fled from the scene of the hold-up. Joe clung to the saddle horn, trying desperately not to retch against the gag in his mouth, realizing that his hopes had been dashed.

There was no one in pursuit of them.

*****

The wound wasn’t serious, but it was bleeding persistently. Hoss sat back and allowed Adam and Ben to tend to his injury. Ben had yet to tell them about Joe, but for the moment, he was dealing with his injured son, and nothing could distract him.

“You’ll live,” Ben announced. “Let’s get you home.” He glanced over at Roy, who had taken the outlaws – the ones that had survived the shoot-out – into custody.

“What’s up, Pa?” Hoss asked. He had been watching Ben and had seen that his father was somewhat agitated, more so than his wound would merit. “Is it Joe?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “He was with the men who escaped.”

“What?” Adam gasped. “Joe? Not willingly?”

“I don’t know, but I doubt it. That’s not like Joe,” Ben responded. He swallowed. “We’d better get Hoss home, first, and get this arm seen to.” Ben was torn. He wanted nothing more than to race after Joe and bring him home, but he also felt the need to be with Hoss, now that he was hurt.

“I’m going after them!” Adam declared.

“Not alone!” Ben cried and Adam could see the fear in his father’s face. The fear that something would happen to him, too and Ben didn’t know how he would cope with that.

Before Adam could say anything further, Roy came across. “Adam, I need your help gettin’ these men back to town,” he said. He glanced at Hoss. “Are you all right, boy?” he asked, in his kindly manner.

“I’ll be all right, Roy,” Hoss responded, gruffly. He went pink.

“I’d better take him home, Roy,” Ben suggested, anxiously.

“You do that, Ben,” agreed Roy.

“Roy, the men that rode away had Joe with them,” Ben said, softly.

At once, the sheriff fixed Ben with a sharp look. “You figger he’s their pris’ner?” he asked, putting Ben’s fears into words.

For a moment, Ben was silent, as though putting his fears into words would make them so. But finally, he nodded. “Joe wouldn’t be a part of this kind of thing, Roy,” he protested angrily, as though Roy had accused Joe of some wrong doing. “You know that!”

“’Course, I do, Ben,” Roy defended himself. “I only asked if you thought the boy was their pris’ner. I know Joe wouldn’t do a thing like this.” He glanced around at his prisoners. “Soon as I git this lot back to town, I’ll muster another posse an’ look fer Joe.”

“That might not be wise,” Adam interjected and Ben swung round to look at him as though he had grown horns.

“What?” he spluttered.

“Collins isn’t among this lot we’ve caught, Pa. And we both know what he’s like. If he thinks there’s a posse out looking for Joe, he might kill him. We’ve got to try and find Joe ourselves.” Adam’s cool dark gaze met his father’s angry one steadily. He knew he was right. And after a moment, Ben conceded he was right, too.

“Yes, of course. Thanks, Roy, but we’ll look for Joe ourselves.” Ben nodded to Adam. “Hurry home, son,” he muttered, and went to help Hoss onto his horse.

*****

By the time the horses stopped, Joe was semi-conscious and staying in the saddle by sheer stubbornness. The only part of his mind that was functioning was solely engaged in keeping him riding. When his hands were untied, he fell into the arms of the person standing there, uncaring of who it was. The movement was the final straw for his abused body and he tumbled into unconsciousness.

He had no idea how long had passed before he roused, and he surfaced slowly, aware only of cold and pain. He forced his eyes to open, and saw that he had been thrown down in a cave. His limbs were tied once more, but he doubted if he could have moved enough to escape even if he hadn’t been tied up. His body was horribly stiff and each tiny movement cost him dearly.

A small, smokeless fire burned near the entrance to the cave. The horses stood at the back. Joe frowned. The place seemed familiar, somehow, although his mind was too befuddled by the pain to work out why. Collins and the other outlaw crouched by the fire, cradling steaming cups. The scent of the coffee reached Joe and he felt a raging thirst well up. He was still gagged, though and so couldn’t ask for a drink, even supposing his pride had allowed him to.

Closing his eyes, Joe slipped into an exhausted sleep.

*****

When Adam returned from town, he brought Paul Martin with him. Hoss protested mightily that he didn’t need a doctor. The bullet had gone straight through his arm and the wound was nice and clean. Paul smiled and listened to this recitation while taking off the bandage Ben had put on and checking the wound out for himself.

“Well, Ben, Hoss here is right. It must be a great comfort for you to have your own doctor right here in the house.” Paul grinned at his old friend, seeing the care weighing heavily on his shoulders, and trying to make him smile, if just for a moment. He succeeded as a brief smile lightened Ben’s features.

“Adam told me what happened,” Paul went on, sorry to have to kill Ben’s smile. “Hoss, you aren’t fit to be going looking for Joe. Not tonight, anyway.” He glanced at the others. “After what you’ve been through, I don’t think any of you should go tonight. Besides,” he added the clincher. “It’s getting dark.”

It was clear that Ben wanted to argue with Paul’s logic, but he could see the sense in the words. Hoss, although fine, shouldn’t be out in the cold after losing blood from an injury. And there was no point in trying to look for Joe in the dark. They would never see his tracks that way. But waiting was the hardest thing of all.

*****

Having been persuaded to go to bed early, Hoss found he couldn’t sleep. His arm was sore, but it was of minor moment compared to his concern for Joe. Right from day one, Hoss had set himself up as Joe’s protector. Through school, he had been there for Joe, making sure he was all right, letting him fight his own fights when he had to, but always being there for him. Things hadn’t changed much when Joe reached adulthood. Hoss was still there to help Joe out when he needed it. There were times when Joe resented his help, but generally, he accepted Hoss’ help much more gracefully than he accepted Adam’s although the same impulse prompted them both.

Gradually, Hoss slid into a light doze and he dreamed of the times he had brought Robert Collins home to play. He had been taller than Robert even then, but Hoss had been taller than all his class mates. He had been flattered that this English boy, the son of a Lord had agreed to be his friend. Hoss could see that the boy found American ways very different to the ones he’d been used to, and he was quite prepared to allow the boy some leeway with his temper until he found his feet.

It had been a rude awakening for Hoss to discover what was going on when he got back to school after his illness. Joe had been quiet for months, and Ben was worried sick about him. Once or twice he had come home bearing bruises, but they were easily explained away by him being an active boy.

But Hoss had heard the taunts that first day back, and had taken steps to see that they were never repeated. Lord Collins had been brought to the school and Robert had been removed. Hoss knew that he’d made an implacable enemy that day. When they’d met in the street, there had been a look of such hatred in Robert’s eyes that Hoss had shivered. He had shielded Joe from it whenever possible.

Jerking awake, Hoss suddenly knew that this was why he was so worried. Robert had had it in for Joe, and Hoss was afraid for Joe’s life now that Robert had him in his clutches again. And in that twilight moment between sleep and wakefulness, Hoss knew exactly where Collins would be hiding out.

Sitting up, he threw the covers aside, shivering in the icy air. The fire in his room had died down, because he hadn’t banked it properly. Hoss grabbed for his clothes and began to dress quietly. He had slept longer than he had realized, for he could hear the clock downstairs chiming 5 am. It would be light in a couple of hours, and Hoss planned to be ready to leave the moment he could see properly.

But Hoss wasn’t the only one wakeful that night. Neither Ben nor Adam had slept much, and when Ben heard Hoss moving about, he began to worry over his middle son, too. Rising, Ben wrapped his robe over his nightshirt and lit a lamp.

“Hoss?” Ben questioned, puzzled as to why his son was dressing at this time of the morning. “Its still early, son, go back to sleep.” He didn’t allow Hoss time to say anything, just went and stirred up the fire so the room was warmer. “You rest,” he said, as he left again.

Frustrated, Hoss lay back, but he didn’t close his eyes, and when the clock chimed an hour later, he rose again and silently left the room. This time, he didn’t disturb anyone.

*****

“I hate to tell you this,” Adam said, coming down the stairs, “but your middle son has copied your youngest son and done a bunk.”

“What?” Ben gasped, gazing at Adam, his coffee cup frozen on the way to his mouth.

“His room is empty,” Adam elucidated, but his dark eyes were already sweeping the room, and a few moments later he spotted the note Hoss had left them. Ben joined him as he read it.

 

Dear Pa and Adam,

I’ve gone looking for Joe. I think I know where to find him. Please don’t be cross. I think Collins has holed up in the old ‘cathedral’ cave, near the Carson City road. It always was his favorite place on the ranch when we was kids. I must help Joe.

Hoss

 

“Get the horses saddled,” Ben ordered. “We’d better go and help him.” He shook his head. “I should’ve guessed there was something like this in the air when I caught him getting dressed about 5 this morning.”

“Yeah, well, you know how he is about Joe,” Adam commented. He was annoyed though. He wished Hoss had woken him, so they could have gone off together. Crossing to the barn, Adam’s mouth twisted wryly. But would he have woken Hoss? He wasn’t sure. “Be careful, Hoss,” he muttered.

*****

The arrival of morning brought no cheer for Joe. He was running a slight temperature from the exposure he had suffered, and the pain from his broken arm was draining what little strength he had left. Collins came over and looked at him for a minute, and whatever he saw seemed to satisfy him. Joe didn’t know that he looked dreadful – both eyes were black and the left one only opened partially; he was very pale and his eyes were glazed from exhaustion and pain.

“We’d better think what ransom we want for Cartwright before he dies on us,” Collins said to his companion. “What do you think, Jim?”

“How much d’ya think the old man’s worth?” Jim responded. “$5000?”

“More than that, surely,” Collins answered. “I’d have thought $10,000, or more.”

“It still ain’t gonna be as much as that bullion though, is it?” Jim demanded, in a disgruntled tone. “There was to have been $50,000 in that.”

“Well, beggars can’t be choosers,” snapped Collins. “At least this isn’t going to be a total failure, if we get money for Cartwright.”

“An’ what if he does die?” Jim asked.

“It won’t matter,” Collins assured him airily. “We’ll just return the body. I won’t promise to give him back alive!”

“That’s what I like about you,” Jim responded, with a wolfish grin. “You’re as ruthless as me.” Collins grinned back.

Listening to this, Joe was horrified. He knew he wasn’t well, but he had to get out of there somehow. He had no idea where they were, although the cave did look familiar, but if he could only get outside, he would know instantly where he was, and would be able to get home. Despite being bound hand and foot, Joe began to slide across the hard-packed dirt floor.

But it was an effort, and Joe didn’t realize that he was grunting from behind the gag, and Collins turned at once. “Going somewhere, Cartwright?” he asked, rising to his feet and looming over his captive.

Wordlessly, Joe just gazed at him. He tried to brace himself for what he knew was coming, but his body was too badly injured. Collins kicked him hard in the ribs. Joe fell to his side, trying to protect himself as best he could. Collins’ boot struck him on the back and kidneys, all down his thighs and finally on the broken arm. Joe screamed into the gag and the world wavered around him.

A shot brought Joe to partial consciousness, but he couldn’t make sense of the sounds and movement all around him, for the pain was the worst he’d ever encountered, and took his breath away. His head swam and his stomach rebelled, and it was some time later that he came back to full consciousness and found that he was free, and cradled in Hoss’ loving arms. Collins and Jim both lay unmoving by the fire.

“Joe, are ya all right?” Hoss asked, anxiously, and Joe had the impression that his brother had asked this more than once. He couldn’t answer. “Yer safe now, punkin,” Hoss went on. “I’m here, an’ everythin’s gonna be all right.”

A shudder ran through Joe as his body relaxed. “Water,” he whispered, and Hoss laid him gently down while he retrieved a canteen. He gently gathered Joe up, and tilted the canteen to his lips. Joe drank eagerly.

Bundling Joe carefully in a couple of bedrolls, Hoss began to make preparations to bring Joe home. It was obvious that he wouldn’t be able to ride a horse, so Hoss intended to make a travois, however, a short time later, he heard a wagon approaching and went out to see.

It was Ben and Adam. Ben, after a moment’s relief to see Hoss alive and well, was furiously angry. He jumped from the wagon to take his son in his arms. “Don’t ever do that again!” he scolded.

“I’m sorry,” Hoss mumbled, hanging his head. “But I jist couldn’ leave Joe out here with him.”

“Is Joe?” Ben began, then fear froze his tongue.

“Inside; he’s in a pretty bad way, Pa,” Hoss apologized, as though it was his fault. Ben patted Hoss’ arm and pushed past him into the cave.

Cathedral cave had been so named because of the size of it. It was huge and echoey and Adam and Hoss had loved playing there when they were younger.  Joe hadn’t been as keen on it. There was an air of serenity in the huge space, which had reminded Ben of the cool shadowy cathedrals of the East.

Now, he didn’t notice any of that; he was intent only on reaching his youngest son. Despite Hoss’ warning, he wasn’t prepared for the sight of Joe, and had to work very hard to keep the horror off his face. Behind him, he heard Adam’s ragged gasp.

“Joe?” he whispered, kneeling by his son and stroking his head gently. “Joe, can you hear me?”

The ghost of a smile flickered across Joe’s battered face and was gone. “Hi, Pa,” he whispered.

“We’ll get you home, son, don’t worry,” Ben soothed. He glanced around, to where Adam was now looking at the bodies of the outlaws, and frowning. “Adam? “

“They’re both dead,” Adam replied, still frowning.

“Help me get Joe into the wagon,” Ben ordered, dismissing the outlaws from his mind. He had no idea what was troubling Adam, but he didn’t have time to worry about it. Joe needed medical attention – and soon!

Despite their care, Joe let out a cry of pain as they lifted him, and they both stiffened. “We can’t stop, Pa,” Adam panted, trying to hide his own distress at Joe’s condition.

“I know,” Ben gasped, and they eased their way out of the cave, and soon had Joe settled. Ben stayed with him, while Adam went back to help Hoss load the dead outlaws onto their horses. “You’ll soon be home, Joe,” Ben soothed.

“Good,” Joe whispered. “Sorry.”

“Hush, don’t try to talk,” Ben told him. “You’ve nothing to be sorry for.”

“Sorry…for…my…temper,” Joe persisted, although his eyes were closed. “All… my…fault.”

“No more talk,” Ben ordered, sternly. “We can talk about this when you’re better. Just sleep, Joe.”

The injured youth gave a big sigh and winced. But he didn’t try to talk any more.

*****

Adam rode for the doctor, as Hoss brought the outlaws back to the ranch. They left the dead men slung over the horses for the sheriff to take back to town, and Hoss helped Ben get Joe inside. Despite their care, Joe passed out as Ben tried to remove his filthy clothes, which made it easier for Ben, as he was able to complete his task before his son roused.

He took the bowl of warm water from Hop Sing and began to wash the dirt from Joe’s face. The soothing rhythm soon brought Joe around. He gazed wordlessly at his father, then tears filled his eyes. “Pa,” he whispered.

Dropping the cloth, Ben took Joe’s hand in his. Joe’s body was covered in bruises and he could feel the tremors running through his son. “You’re at home, safe,” Ben told him, gently. “Collins is dead. Adam will be here soon with the doctor.”

That seemed to soothe Joe and he closed his eyes again. Ben, still holding his hand, resumed his washing. When Paul Martin arrived, Joe was in a light sleep, but he roused at the sound of the footsteps.

It didn’t take Paul long to make his diagnosis. “Broke arm, broken ribs, and multiple abrasions and contusions,” he told the family. “He’s going to be sore for some time to come.” Joe was asleep, knocked out by the painkilling injection Paul had given him.

“When can I talk to him?” Roy Coffee asked. He had arrived shortly after Paul and had examined the bodies.

“Later,” Paul advised. “He’ll be asleep for some time. This afternoon, maybe.”

Grunting in disappointment, but not surprised, Roy nodded. “Hoss, I’ll talk to you then, too. Don’t go discussin’ this with anyone in the meantime.”

“No sir,” Hoss mumbled.

*****

That afternoon, Roy came back out to the ranch, and took Hoss upstairs with him, so he could question Joe and Hoss together. Reluctantly, he allowed Ben and Adam to come too.  Paul had warmed Roy to go gently with Joe, and Ben was determined to see that he did. Not that he didn’t trust Roy, but his need for facts as a lawman sometimes over-rode his compassion.

“What happened, Joe?” Roy asked, and Joe told his story in a low voice.

“I was angry because Pa said I couldn’t go on the posse,” he began. “I got up early next morning and went down to the grave. I fell asleep there, and when I woke, it was getting late, and I knew Pa would be worried.” He shot an apologetic glance at Ben, who nodded. “As I rode home, I literally rode into the outlaws. It was Lord Robert Collins,” he added, as though they might not have known this.

“We know,” Ben soothed him.

“They took me prisoner, so they could hold me to ransom if the bullion robbery went wrong,” he went on, and both Adam and Hoss looked surprised. They had still not known why the stage was being held up. “Collins beat me up that first night, and a couple of times after that.” He closed his eyes briefly to suppress the memories, and felt Ben’s warm hand on his arm. He opened his eyes and managed a smile at Ben, although it was very shaky. “They took me with them when they went to hold up the stage,” he added. “When the posse came, Collins and Jim escaped and took me with them. He said it wouldn’t matter if I died, as long as Pa paid up the money. He said he wouldn’t promise to hand me back alive.” Sighing Joe added the last bit. “I passed out after he beat me up. When I came round, Hoss was there.”

“Where were the outlaws?” Roy asked, as Joe seemed disinclined to add any more.

“I don’t know,” Joe replied. “I didn’t notice. I didn’t feel too good.”

“Hoss?” Roy questioned.

“I snuck out afore Pa an’ Adam was awake,” Hoss began. “I done left them a note, so’s they’d know where to find me. I knew Collins liked the cathedral cave when we was kids, an’ I reckoned he mighta gone there to hide out. When I got there, I could see they was there, an’ I went up real quiet like. But that other feller was watchin’ an’ I had ta shoot him, cos he was firin’ at me.” Hoss wasn’t meeting anyone’s eyes and Ben was feeling increasingly uncomfortable about the whole thing.

“Go on,” Roy encouraged.

“When I went in, Collins was standin’ over Joe, and Joe was bleedin’. I thought he was dead. Collins an’ I fought, and I knocked him out. When Adam went to check on him, he were dead.”

“How did he die?” Roy asked. “Did he hit his head? What?”

“I dunno,” Hoss mumbled. “I didn’ look at ‘em after I found Joe. He needed me.”

Roy frowned at Hoss, who shrugged miserably. Ben and Adam were both frowning. Joe was looking at   them all without understanding. “What’s wrong?” he asked, his voice thin and tired. “Hoss wouldn’t have killed Collins, you all know that.”

“I reckon we do know that, Joe,” Roy returned while Hoss mumbled something none of them caught. “I jist don’t like open ends, that’s all.”

“I can’t say no more, Roy,” Hoss offered, and Roy gave him a searching look before nodding abruptly.

“All right, Hoss,” he capitulated. “I’ll get back to town an’ write ma report. You’ll likely git reward money. He was wanted all over the place.” He rose, and Ben went to see him out.

When he came back, his sons were still in Joe’s room. “What did happen, Hoss?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know, sir,” Hoss answered. “Like I tol’ Roy, I was tendin’ to Little Joe, an’ didn’ notice.” Hoss’ guileless blue eyes met Ben’s brown ones, and locked, and Ben was disquieted to discover that he wasn’t sure that Hoss was telling the truth. But he had no way to find out.

“I believe you, son,” he responded, for what else could he say? He glanced at Joe, who was watching Hoss with a troubled frown. “I think this young man is tired, so I suggest we leave him to get some rest.”

Smiling, Adam ran his knuckles gently down Joe’s cheek. “Sleep well,” he offered.

“G’night, punkin,” Hoss mumbled.

“Hoss,” Joe said, putting his hand up to snag his brother’s sleeve. “Thanks. I didn’t get the chance to say it before, but thanks for rescuing me.”

“Oh, shucks, there ain’t no need fer that,” Hoss denied, blushing.

“There is,” Joe persisted, and looked at them all. “And I need to apologies for my temper. What happened to me was my own fault. If I hadn’t stormed off in a temper, then none of this would have happened. You were quite right, Pa. I was just too stubborn to admit it. Riding around in the cold all day didn’t do me any favors.” He dropped his eyes. “All this happened as the direct consequence of my childish behavior, and I’m sorry.”

“Its all forgotten,” Ben assured him. He ushered his oldest two sons out, and went back to Joe’s side. “I’m sorry that you had to learn a lesson this way, Joe, but perhaps next time you’ll listen to what I tell you?”

“Sure; I’m sorry,” Joe replied. “I knew I wasn’t up to the ride, but my pride wouldn’t let me admit it, Pa.”

“Its over,” Ben repeated, and smiled at Joe. He tucked him securely in, and sat briefly on the edge of the bed to stroke Joe’s hair.

“Pa?” Joe ventured, hesitantly. “Do you think Hoss did kill Collins?”

There was a long pause. Ben’s hand never stopped its rhythmic stroking. “I don’t know,” he admitted finally. “And this has to go no further than us, Joe. I doubt if Hoss intended to kill him. It might just be that he hit him too hard. It might be that he had another injury that none of us noticed. No, Joe, I don’t think Hoss killed Collins. But one thing I do know – he saved you.”

“I know that, sir,” Joe replied. “And I’m more grateful than I can say.”

“You get some sleep now,” Ben suggested, seeing that Joe was tired. “Good night, son.”

“G’night, Pa,” Joe replied, and closed his eyes. Ben dropped a kiss onto his head, and left.

Outside, the room, Ben stood for a moment. Like Joe, he wondered if Hoss had killed Collins. For the first time ever, he didn’t know the answer for sure, and he somehow sensed he would never know.

Lying in bed, Joe’s eyes were open again as he thought of what his brother had done for him. Joe didn’t know if Hoss had killed Collins, and he didn’t care. As long as Hoss was all right, that was all that mattered to Joe.

In the great room, Adam was reading, while Hoss pestered Hop Sing to find out what there was for supper, which was due in about an hour. When Ben came downstairs, Adam raised his head, and their glances locked for a long moment.

None of them would ever be sure if Hoss had killed Collins.

***End***

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