Summary: Inspired by a prank by Joan Sattler. Good one, girl!
Word Count: 7981
“So we’re agreed then.” John Braithwaite looked at his two companions and saw them nod. It hadn’t been a question, after all. “Let’s kill Timothy.”
“Pay day, huh?” Joe Cartwright queried, coming up behind his friend Tim, who was leaning against the bar in the Silver Dollar saloon. “Where’s that $10 you owe me from last month?” he jibed.
Without turning to look at his friend, Timothy Renton smiled. “Probably in the same place as the tooth fairy,” he jibed back. “In the Joe Cartwright land of fairy tales.”
Grinning, Joe signaled for a beer. “Why can’t I have gullible friends who drink too much and forget that they don’t really owe me money?” he asked mournfully.
“Even your gullible friends don’t fall for that one,” Tim retorted. He finally turned his head and grinned at the youngest Cartwright son. “How’s things, Joe?”
“Busy, busy,” Joe responded. “You know how it is at this time of year.”
“Sure do,” Tim agreed. With round-up under way on all the local ranches, hands were at a premium and those who had already been hired were all but living in the saddle. A night off because it was payday was extra special. “Where’re Adam and Hoss?” he asked, glancing around.
“Adam’s at home with a good book,” Joe replied. “He took a knock on the head evading a recalcitrant cow this morning. He’s okay,” Joe added, seeing the concern on Tim’s face, “just tired.”
“Recalcitrant,” Tim echoed. He grinned. “I suppose that’s Adam’s way of saying it was ornery?”
“Good guess,” Joe agreed and they grinned. Tim might pretend he was just an ignorant cowhand, but he was much more than that. An educated gentleman’s son from the East, he had come West to experience a bit of life before settling down to work and marriage. Arriving in Virginia City, he had met Joe and the two struck up an instant friendship. However, Tim had not allowed himself to use that friendship and had got himself a job with another, smaller, rancher. As much to his surprise as everyone else’s, he had loved the rough life of a cowboy, relishing even the cold and the wet. His few months experiencing the West had turned into several years. At 22, Tim was settled and living the life he wanted.
“So what about Hoss?” Tim asked. “Did he volunteer to keep Adam company?”
“No,” Joe replied. “He’s gone to ask Bessie Sue to the dance on Saturday.”
“All by himself?” Tim gasped in mock surprise. “That was brave of him.”
“My big brother Hoss is a brave man,” Joe intoned solemnly.
“Sure am, lil brother, an’ don’ you forget it neither,” Hoss agreed, pushing between the two to signal for a beer. “Hi, Tim,” he continued, slapping the younger man on the back. Tim all but fell over. He was, however, quite used to that kind of greeting and didn’t protest. “You buyin’?” Hoss asked innocently.
Laughing, Tim shook his head. “Not tonight, Hoss,” he replied. “I’ve got a date.”
“A date?” Joe asked, shooting Tim a sharp glance. “Not with Mary Jones?” Mary was the latest object of desire for the young men in the town.
Grinning provocatively, Tim allowed Joe to start spluttering his disbelief before putting his friend out of his misery. “No, not Mary,” he assured Joe. “I wish.” Mary had made it clear to all the ranch hands that they were not good enough for her. She had been trying to make it up to Joe ever since discovering who he was, but he had seen through her and was having none of it. However, he hadn’t stopped ribbing Tim about asking her out and they had a bet riding on Tim’s success.
“That’s a relief,” Joe sighed, and wiped imaginary sweat from his brow.
“Ya see, Tim,” Hoss interjected, “Joe ain’t never got no money, so the thought o’ havin’ ta find it makes him a mite nervous.”
Shaking his head, Tim grinned. “No, not Mary,” he repeated. “I’m going out with Dinah.”
With a theatrical groan, Joe collapsed against the bar. “You’re supposed to be my friend,” he complained. “A real friend wouldn’t steal my girl.”
Patting Joe on the back, Tim started to edge away. “It’s not my fault if you aren’t man enough to keep your girl,” he retorted and dashed out of the door laughing. Dinah was notorious for never keeping a beau more than a night or two.
“He got ya there, Joe,” Hoss remarked as he picked up his beer.
“He thinks he did,” Joe countered. “It’s not over yet.”
Outside, Tim stopped and put his hat on straight. He didn’t mind that he would only see Dinah for a night or two; Tim wasn’t looking to get married. He knew that his parents had expected him to return to New York and then marry the daughter of one of their friends – someone suitable – but he no longer wanted that life. He hadn’t wanted it since he set eyes on the West. His parents couldn’t understand it, but Tim knew that he had to live his life for himself, not them. Besides, his other brothers were doing what they were expected to.
Walking the short distance to where Dinah lived, just past the outskirts of town, Tim silently cursed himself for not putting on shoes more suitable for walking in. Cowboy boots were all very well and good, but they weren’t walking shoes and the stroll he had promised Dinah suddenly loomed in his mind as a torment.
Clearing the last of the buildings, Tim glanced at the sky and saw that he was making good time. At that time of year, the sun set late and rose early. Twilight was just falling and the air was balmy — perfect for a romantic stroll.
On his left, away from the road, four men reeled into sight, one leading a horse. It was obvious that they were roaring drunk and Tim smiled slightly as one of them broke into something that might be considered song.
With shocking suddenness, the singer’s three companions suddenly sobered up and turned on him. There was a brief scuffle and the drunken singer slumped to the ground. The other three men left at a run. The spooked horse galloped off. Stunned, Tim stood there for several long seconds, barely able to believe what he had just seen.
Movement returned to his leaden limbs and Tim forced himself to run to the downed man. He turned the man over and froze, for a knife was jutting from the man’s chest and he was obviously dead. Backing away, Tim fought to keep the contents of his stomach in place and then he was running for the town, running for the sheriff, his sore feet forgotten.
It was something of a one-day wonder. Murders were, sadly, not uncommon and the ‘singer’ whose death Tim had witnessed was a drifter newly come to town. Quite what the motive was, Roy Coffee, the sheriff, wasn’t too sure. Most probably just a robbery that went wrong, he speculated. After all, it was payday. Everyone was comparatively flush. A shaken Tim admitted that he wasn’t able to give a definitive identification of the miscreants, as he hadn’t really seen them very clearly. It looked as though this would become another unsolved murder – something that Roy Coffee hated.
But a slow news day on the day the drifter was buried in Boot Hill changed all that.
Hunt On For Murderers! declared the Territorial Enterprise that day. It went on: Sheriff Roy Coffee is hunting for the murderers of a drifter who was seen being stabbed last Friday night. The unfortunate man, Donald Riggs, is being buried today. Witness Timothy Renton says there were three men involved. Anyone with further information is asked to speak to the sheriff immediately.
“What was they thinkin’?!” exclaimed Roy Coffee, smacking the paper with his open hand. He was furious, his moustache quivering as he fought to control his rage. “Nobody knowed that Tim had seen them men! How’m I meant ta catch ‘em now?”
“I don’t know,” Joe replied. He was just as angry as Roy, but for a different reason. Roy had kept the news of a witness quiet, with the hope that the murderers might do something to give themselves away and Tim could perhaps identify them. Joe was angry because Tim was his friend and his life could well be in danger. “Where did they get the story from?” Joe asked.
“I dunno, Little Joe, but I mean ta find out,” Roy assured him. “I’m headin’ over there ta talk ta Albert now.” He cast Joe a look as the younger man got to his feet. “Ya ain’t comin’ with me,” he asserted. “I don’ want no heads bein’ broken.”
“I wouldn’t break any heads,” Joe responded sulkily.
“Little Joe, I known ya all yer life,” Roy reminded him. “I know that temper o’ yourn. Ya’re better at controllin’ it than ya was, but ya still ain’t its master. Ya ain’t comin’, and that’s final.”
“But, Roy…,” Joe began, instinctively using the puppy dog eyes that his father found so difficult to resist.
But the sheriff was made of sterner stuff than the father. “I said no and that’s what I meant!” he declared.
“Fine!” Joe snapped, valiantly trying to control his temper and prove the sheriff wrong.
Relenting, Roy patted the young man on the shoulder. “Whyn’t ya go an’ tell Timothy about this?” he suggested. “He’ll need to watch his back if’n those murderers are still around.”
“Good idea,” Joe nodded. “I think I’ll take him back to the ranch with me. He’ll be safe there.”
“So long as I know where to find him,” Roy agreed and the two parted company on the jailhouse steps.
The ride out to the Ranch K didn’t cool Joe’s temper noticeably. His face still felt flushed as he rode into the yard. Anxiety quickened his heart beat and shortened his breath. He just hoped he was in time to save Tim’s life.
“Joe Cartwright!” exclaimed a deep voice. The owner of Ranch K, Ken King, came down the steps from his low home and shook Joe’s hand. “It ain’t often we get a Cartwright out here! What can I do for ya, son?”
Tersely, Joe explained his mission. King looked grim. “I haven’t got my paper yet,” he mumbled. “Come on, I’ll take ya out to where Tim’s working today. What do you plan on doing?”
“I plan on taking him back to the Ponderosa with me,” Joe replied. “It won’t be the first place they come looking for him. Will you be all right here?”
“Sure will,” King assured the younger man as they mounted up. “Now we know to expect trouble, we’ll keep our eyes open. Who knows, we might catch these guys and Tim can come back to work quick. He’s a good man.”
“Yes, sir, that he is,” Joe agreed. He followed his host out to the pasture where the men were sorting out cattle for the long drive ahead of them to market.
It took only a few minutes to separate Tim from the other hands and explain the situation to him. Tim paled. He had hoped that the murder could be put behind him. He had had trouble sleeping since then. “Why…why did they do that?” Tim stuttered, referring to the paper.
“I don’t know,” Joe replied. “Roy Coffee is finding out right now. But the important thing is that you come with me now to the Ponderosa. You’ll be safe there.”
“But…” Tim started, glancing at the cattle behind him.
“Your life is more important than a few head of cows,” King told him brusquely, covering his concern with roughness. He fooled neither of the young men in front of him. “You go on with Joe. Your job will always be here for you, Tim, as long as you want it.”
“Thanks, Boss,” Tim sighed. “Well, in that case, let’s get my gear and head off.”
Tim was essentially silent as he packed his valise and they rode to the Ponderosa. Joe could understand why. It was bad enough to have witnessed a murder without having your name all over the front of the newspaper.
Dinner that night started out as a quiet meal, but gradually Tim warmed to the conversation, even when it turned to his trials and tribulations. “You’re more than welcome to stay here as long as you need to, Tim,” Ben assured him.
“Thanks, Mr. Cartwright,” Tim replied. “But I can’t stay forever. I’ve got to get this cleared up one way or the other.” He forcibly relaxed his shoulders. “I can’t live my life like this, hiding away from everyone.”
“Well, there are a few things that Sheriff Coffee will have to clear up,” Ben agreed. “But don’t worry – I can use your help around here. You’ll be safe with the boys.”
“Thanks,” Tim murmured.
“Pa, I might go and see if there’s anything I can help Roy to do,” Joe volunteered.
“Mighty kind o’ ya, Little Joe,” came the sheriff’s voice. He waved a hand at Ben. “I jist let maself in, Ben, since I knowed ya’d be at the table.”
“Pull up a chair,” Ben invited. “You’re just in time for coffee.”
Looking please, Roy pulled up a chair. “Thanks, Ben.” He looked over at Joe. “I don’t reckon there’s anythin’ ya can do ta help me,” he said.
“How did the paper find out about me?” Tim asked.
“Albert says that the little Perkins boy who helps him set the type was hanging around outside the jail when we was talkin’ about it,” Roy replied, looking disgruntled. “I spoke ta the Perkins boy an’ he admitted it.” Roy made a face. “He’s a sneaky little brat an’ it ain’t the first time I seen him hangin’ around the jail.” He chomped on his moustache for a moment. “He won’ be doin’ it agin, though,” he vowed with quiet satisfaction.
Roy was very deceptive. Anyone looking at the man would see someone who appeared to be well past his prime, bumbling and a bit stupid. Roy was careful to cultivate that image – it helped him to hoodwink some of the criminal types he met. Joe had known Roy all his life and he knew that the sheriff could put the willies into a child whenever he wanted to.
“What about finding out more about the victim?” Adam queried, seeing how crushed Joe looked. “Where he came from, why he was robbed – that kind of thing?”
“All in hand,” Roy replied. He allowed a smile to cross his face. “I am a sheriff,” he pointed out. “I do know how ta run an investigation.” He exchanged a grin with Ben. “But I appreciate the offer, boys. Joe, yer best off here keepin’ an eye out fer Timothy.”
It was funny how gossip could speed around a rural area. It took no time at all before people in Virginia City knew that Tim was staying with the Cartwrights at the Ponderosa. Roy wasn’t happy about it, but he wasn’t surprised, either.
Riding out to the ranch once more, Roy debated that his own presence at the big house had doubtless fuelled the speculation even further. But there had been a development in the case, and Roy was anxious to pass the news along.
Not surprisingly, the house was deserted apart from Hop Sing, who was hanging sheets out. Chattering in disapproval, the diminutive Chinese factotum directed the sheriff out to the South Forty, where he knew the Cartwrights were working that day. Not in the least taken in by Hop Sing’s demeanor, Roy just grinned and headed in that direction.
Ben was at the edge of the pasture, watching as the men herded the cattle down the lush grass. “Mighty small herd, ain’t it, Ben?” Roy teased, knowing full well that the majority of the animals had already been separated for going to market and Ben was now moving his core breeding stock.
“Depends on your point of view, Roy,” Ben replied, dead-pan, then grinned. “What’re you doing all the way out here?” he continued. “Have you got some news for us?” Ben kept his tone as level as he could, but the tension was there, under the surface.
“Sure have,” Roy responded and grinned. “An’ you fellas won’t believe it!”
They rendezvoused back at the house, the better to keep the conversation private. “All right, what’s so unbelievable?” Ben asked.
“Our drifter,” Roy replied unhelpfully. “I did some checkin’ on him.”
“And?” Adam prompted when Roy smothered another grin at birth.
“Well, seems he ain’t much o’ a drifter after all,” Roy mused.
Exchanging an impatient glance with his family, Joe took the bait this time. “What does that mean?” he asked.
“Oh, he was driftin’ all right,” Roy allowed, knowing full well how infuriating he was being. “But jist not in the way we usually think o’ drifters.”
“C’mon, Roy, spit it out!” Hoss demanded.
“Mr. Donald Riggs was goin’ from place ta place,” Roy relented. “He was goin’ from Boston ta San Francisco incog… incog…” He floundered.
“Incognito?” Tim suggested blandly.
Roy glared at the young man and nodded. “That’s the word. Shoulda stuck ta disguised,” he complained, not quite to himself.
“I still don’ unnerstand,” Hoss admitted.
“Riggs were only pretendin’ ta be a drifter,” Roy explained. “He were actually a multi-millionaire travelin’ across country ta close a business deal. He were carryin’ quite a bit o’ valuables, from what I unnerstand.”
“So the motive was robbery,” Tim breathed. “Someone either knew or figured out who he was, and robbed and murdered him.”
“How much money was he carrying?” Joe asked. He anticipated the answer would be a large sum, but when Roy told them, they all gaped.
“A million bucks worth o’ diamonds,” Roy responded coolly.
There was a long silence. Roy looked from face to face, enjoying the results of his revelation. He knew how they all felt – he had felt the same way when he first heard.
“You’re right,” Ben said at last. “I don’t believe you.” His tone said otherwise.
“Was he mad?” Adam asked. “Carrying all those diamonds and dressed as a drifter? Why wasn’t he travelling with several armed guards?”
“His wife said he liked to deliver diamonds hisself,” sighed Roy. “I jist cain’t unnerstand it maself, Adam. Seems the feller was plumb mad.”
“So where does that leave us?” Tim asked.
Sobering, Roy chewed his moustache for a moment. “Well, son, I don’ really know, ta tell the truth,” he admitted. “I ain’t too relaxed in ma own mind that them fellars what killed Riggs is gone. There’s a few business types stayin’ at the International House right now, waiting fer the weekly stage connection ta Sacramento. Now we know Riggs weren’t what he seemed, I wanna keep an eye on them fellars ‘til they leave. Cain’t be too careful, ya know.”
“Very wise,” Ben agreed.
It was quite normal for Roy Coffee to check on the travelers staying at the hotels in town. It wasn’t quite as normal for him to check on them a second time. Gus, the desk clerk, was feeling rather nervous. “There isn’t any trouble, is there, sheriff?” he asked, surreptitiously wiping his sweaty palms on his pants’ leg.
“No, no trouble,” Roy assured him, looking at the register again. “I jist reckoned I ain’t never met Mr. John Braithwaite, is all. Nice fellar, is he?”
“Y-yes,” Gus stuttered. “Very nice gentleman.” He glanced towards the bar, where Mr. Braithwaite was currently having a pre-dinner drink.
“What about Mr. Somerville an’ Mr. Leighton?” Roy went on blandly. “Are them three the fellas what take a late afternoon constitutional up an’ down the street?”
“I-I be-believe so,” Gus nodded, the sweat popping out in beads on his forehead. “Is there a problem, sheriff?”
“No, no problem,” Roy soothed. “Jist curious.” He glanced up from his perusal of the register to see a look of complete horror crossing Gus’s face before he once more had on his professional smile. Wondering what had got the clerk so het up, Roy turned around.
Coming across the lobby from the bar were the three gentlemen in question – Mr. John Braithwaite, Mr. David Somerville and Mr. Simon Leighton. They were all smartly dressed in suits and neckties, although Roy had seen them going around in more casual clothing. He smiled. “Howdy, gents,” he hailed them. “I ain’t had the pleasure. I’m Sheriff Coffee.” He thrust out his hand.
“Delighted to meet you, sheriff,” Braithwaite responded, although Leighton looked as though he would rather shake hands with a snake. “Is there some kind of problem?” Braithwaite continued.
“No,” Roy replied, thinking he’d said that rather too often in the last few minutes. “I like ta make the acquaintance o’ the folks stayin’ in our town.”
“It’s a very nice town,” Somerville lied. “We’ve enjoyed our stay.”
“Shame about that bit of excitement last week,” Leighton mentioned. “We were quite worried by it. Have you caught the killers yet?”
“Not yet,” Roy admitted. He forbore to take offence at the clearly intended insult. Let the man think he was an idiot. “But I expect to make an arrest at any time. See, the witness can identify the murderers.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Braithwaite declared. “If you’ll excuse us, sheriff… Gus, is our table ready?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Braithwaite,” Gus breathed in an ultra-respectful tone.
“Excellent.” Braithwaite inclined his head. “If you’ll excuse us, sheriff.” He didn’t wait for a reply and simply walked away.
“Charming,” Roy mumbled, as Gus rushed after them to open the restaurant door for the trio. Roy took his own leave, wondering idly what result he would get from the idea he had planted. Probably nothing – Braithwaite didn’t strike him as the murdering kind.
In Braithwaite’s suite after a leisurely dinner, the three men gathered for a brandy. Braithwaite looked at the newspaper clipping he had kept. They had known it was a risk to remain in Virginia City after killing Riggs, but it was a risk they felt was worth it. “Timothy Renton,” Braithwaite murmured. He crushed the paper in his hand.
“So we’re agreed then.” John Braithwaite looked at his two companions and saw them nod. It hadn’t been a question, after all. “Let’s kill Timothy.”
“Pa, you can’t stop Tim going into town,” Adam reasoned. “Besides, we’ll all be there with him and the extra pair of hands won’t go astray collecting the supplies for the round-up. He needs to get off the ranch for a while and try to get back to normality.”
“I suppose so,” Ben agreed reluctantly. “I’m just feeling a bit anxious after what Roy told us.”
“I know,” Adam agreed. “It was some story. I’m still not sure I believe it.”
“Roy wouldn’t have dreamed up a million dollars worth of diamonds,” Ben scoffed. “That’s like something out of a novel.”
“A pretty far-fetched novel if you ask me,” Adam laughed. “See you later, Pa.” He picked up his gun belt as he headed out the door to join Hoss, who was driving the wagon, and Tim and Joe, who were already mounted and waiting.
“At last,” Joe teased. “We thought you’d decided to stay behind to avoid the work.”
“That’s your trick,” Adam chided him, mounting Sport. “Let’s go, since you’re so all-fired eager to get going.”
Turning, Joe waved to Ben, who was standing at the door, and trotted decorously out of the yard. The moment he was out of sight of the house, Joe yelled, “Race you!” and put his heel to his horse. Cochise shot off across the meadow, with Tim chasing after him. Wild laughter, unique to Joe, floated back to the older brothers.
“Ah, youth,” Adam sighed.
The supplies were always pre-ordered, which was just as well or the store would be cleaned out. With varying degrees of willingness, the Cartwrights and Tim set to and loaded the wagon.
“Do we really need all this stuff?” Joe moaned, as he loaded yet another bag of flour into the back.
“Some of it is for the house,” Adam replied, although Joe’s question had actually been rhetorical. Joe already knew they were picking up house supplies, too.
Tim nudged Joe with his elbow. “Your Pa pays pretty good wages for us to do this, you know.”
“Yeah,” Joe agreed, nudging Tim back. “And he expects his money’s worth!” He fought to keep his face straight.
“There speaks the rich man’s son,” Tim jibed. “Never done a day’s work for a day’s pay in his life.”
“Listen who’s talking!” Joe hooted and they broke up laughing.
It was good to hear Tim laugh, Adam thought. The young man had been far too solemn for the last few days. It was understandable, but not Tim’s real nature. Impulsively, he said, “Why don’t you two head off to the saloon and get the beers in? Hoss and I will just settle up with Mr. Hanson.”
Blinking, Joe looked at Adam for a long minute. “Who are you and what have you done with my brother?” he asked.
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Tim advised and dragged Joe away before Adam changed his mind.
Walking down the street, Tim felt himself relax for the first time since the murder and newspaper story. Joe glanced at his friend, and smiled. It was good to see Tim acting more like himself. Doing something ordinary, like going for supplies, was a step forward.
Suddenly, Tim blanched. He reached out and grabbed Joe’s arm. “What’s wrong?” Joe asked. He was alarmed – he’d seen corpses with more color.
“Its them,” Tim whispered, through a mouth as dry as a desert.
“What?” Joe followed his friend’s gaze and saw three men turning into an alley further down the main street. They didn’t look like murderers, but Tim’s pale face and abnormal stillness told Joe all he needed to know. “Get Roy!” he cried and took to his heels, racing down the street.
Behind him, Tim stood frozen.
If there was one thing that Ben had failed to teach Joe, it was to think before he acted. With Joe, action almost always came before thought. It was just as true on this occasion as on any other. Joe simply acted, racing off down the street, intent on catching up with the murderers.
Although not crazy enough to rocket around the corner at full speed, Joe didn’t slow his headlong dash that much. He was terrified of the men getting away. Drawing his gun, he sidled round the corner and immediately picked up speed again when he saw that the alley was empty.
Unfortunately, Joe hadn’t looked closely enough. As he ran, he tripped over a stick that was suddenly thrust amongst his feet. His tumble to the ground was assisted by a well-placed blow to the head. Although Joe wasn’t unconscious, he wasn’t able to defend himself either and his gun was plucked from his suddenly-lax fingers.
Hands laced into his jacket front, hauling him up. “Damn, it isn’t Renton,” Braithwaite cursed. “Who is this guy?”
“Its Renton’s friend, one of the Cartwrights,” replied Somerville. “Renton is staying with them on their ranch.”
“Well, he’ll do,” Braithwaite purred and before Joe could sort any of that out, a fist slammed into his face two or three times. He blacked out.
Tim was moving without being conscious of it. His feet led him inexorably towards the corner where Joe had disappeared. Tim had no idea what he would find when he got there; he simply had to go.
Luckily, Adam and Hoss appeared just then and immediately took notice of the odd way Tim was walking. It was as though Tim had become a marionette that had just had its strings cut. His legs looked stiff and he staggered slightly when he walked.
“What’s up wi’ Tim?” Hoss gasped.
“I dunno,” Adam replied. “Where’s Joe?” He quickened his pace and caught up to the young cowboy. “Tim! Tim, where’s Joe? What’s wrong? Tim!”
His exhortations finally cut through Tim’s stupor and he glanced at Adam. “They have him,” he whispered. “The murderers.”
“Where?” Adam demanded.
“That alley.” Tim lifted a leaden arm to point. “They ran down there and Joe went after them.” He blinked and seemed to come more into focus. “Adam, I think Joe’s in trouble.”
“I think so, too,” Adam agreed. “Hoss…” He didn’t need to finish his sentence.
“I’ll git Roy,” Hoss promised and headed off, showing a surprising turn of speed for a man of his size.
Drawing his gun, Adam moved quickly and quietly to the entrance of the alley. A deserted saloon lay on one side, its windows and doors roughly boarded up. On the other, a ladies’ dress shop tried to pretend it was really a Paris salon. Swallowing, Adam slid to his knees and peered around the corner.
Coming round was not pleasant for Joe. His face felt stiff, his mouth as though it was stuffed with cotton. As his awareness increased, Joe realized his mouth was stuffed with cotton, and something was tied around his head to effectively create a gag. His arms were bound awkwardly in front of him by a thick leather belt and a large foot was resting on his chest.
Squinting upwards, Joe guessed that he had found the murderers. Anyone less like the archetypal villain Joe had never seen, but he supposed vaguely that murderers came in all shapes and sizes. These men were smartly dressed, wearing suits and ties, with gold watch chains gleaming against the expensive material of their suits. Still dazed, Joe wondered if he was hallucinating.
He must have made some noise or movement, for the pressure of the foot on his chest suddenly increased. “Don’t worry, boy,” sneered the man holding him down. “You won’t be like this much longer. Just long enough for us to kill your friend Timothy and then we’ll put you out of your misery.” He laughed.
There was no mistaking what the man meant by that comment and Joe immediately began to struggle. The foot removed itself from his chest and buried itself several times in his ribs, rolling him over and over. White-hot pain flashed through Joe’s body. He fought for breath.
Coming to a stop against a wall, Joe desperately wondered how he was going to get out of this predicament.
Eyeing up the deserted saloon, Adam thought he spotted movement behind the filthy, broken windows. He wondered how on earth he was going to get Joe out of this predicament. He glanced behind him at Tim. “I think they’re in the old saloon,” he breathed. “We’ll wait for Hoss and Roy.”
Turning back to keep an eye on the place – or as much of an eye as he could – Adam hoped that he would be able to come up with some sort of plan before Hoss and Roy arrived. If only he knew exactly what he was up against, he mused – and was startled when Tim suddenly moved past him, out into the alley.
“Tim!” Adam hissed, but the young cowboy ignored him.
“I know it’s me you want!” Tim shouted. “Let Joe go.”
“Oh damn!” Adam swore, and leapt to his feet. Behind him, he was vaguely aware of Hoss and Roy running across the street towards him. But he had no time to think further. A plan was now useless, even if he had had one. Tim had changed the odds in a tactic that Adam was all too familiar with – act first and think later. He just hoped Tim would have time to think later.
Flinging himself at Tim, Adam hit him around the knees, driving Tim to the ground as the first shot was fired. Adam fired back, aware that Tim was almost certainly hit. How badly didn’t matter at that moment. It seemed unlikely that either of them would survive, given how exposed they were lying in the middle of the alley.
Behind them, Hoss and Roy laid down some covering fire, allowing Adam to drag the injured cowboy to relative shelter against the saloon wall. He raised his own weapon and fired, and for several minutes, bullets pinged across the confined space, biting chunks out of the dress shop wall.
With shocking suddenness, the window of the saloon shattered as a body fell through it. For a horrible moment, Adam thought it was Joe, but he realized his mistake instantly as he saw the suit. He didn’t know who this man was, but someone had fired a lucky shot and that person, whoever it was – well, he was unmistakably dead.
Lying face down on the floor, Joe flinched every time a bullet bit into the wall above his head. He kept his head down as splinters showered down on all the men from the wall above. Suddenly, Somerville clutched his chest and staggered into Braithwaite, who showed his loyalty to his friend by giving him a vicious shove away. Silently, Somerville fell backwards through the plate glass window into the alley.
In an instant – without thinking – Joe leapt to his feet. He couldn’t do much fighting with his arms bound they way they were, but he couldn’t simply lie passively on the floor and wait to be killed. He kicked sharply at Braithwaite’s knee and made a good solid hit. Braithwaite yelped and turned on Joe.
This time, Joe was prepared and he ducked the swinging gun. He drove his bound fists into the middle of Braithwaite’s stomach with all the force he could muster, a grunt of effort escaping from behind the gag. As Braithwaite doubled over, Joe decided that he had to get out of there before his luck ran out completely. He turned with a lithe movement that belied his sore ribs and dived headlong through the remains of the window.
Taking advantage of the slight lull in the fighting, Adam glanced at Tim. The bullet had gone through his shoulder, and although it was bleeding heavily, the young man was conscious, biting his lip to keep from crying out with the pain. That was a good sign, Adam thought. With any luck, Tim’s wound wasn’t mortal.
From the corner of his eye, Adam saw someone else coming through the window, broken glass flying from every part of his body to further coat the ground in a glittering carpet of deadly shards. It was Joe!
There was no need for coordinating shouts. Hoss and Roy recognized Joe in the same instant and both stepped forward and opened fire at the remaining figures in the saloon. Adam pushed himself to his knees, exposing himself to danger as he laid down covering fire for Joe, who should have been pulling himself out of danger, but wasn’t.
It wasn’t necessary. The superior firepower of the Cartwrights and Roy Coffee won the day. Roy took down one man and the other threw out the weapons and gave himself up. Leighton wasn’t prepared to fight on alone for the chance – the very remote chance – to kill Timothy Renton.
“You all right?” Adam asked Tim, as he scrambled to his feet.
“Yeah, yeah,” Tim panted. “Get Joe.” He turned his head as far as he could so he could see his friend, but with both Hoss and Adam kneeling beside Joe, he couldn’t see anything. With a groan, he relaxed as much as he could.
It was a toss up as to which brother reached Joe’s side first. Hoss instinctively reached for Joe’s head, hesitating momentarily as he saw all the glass glistening in Joe’s chestnut curls. Very gently, he began to brush them out. “Joe? Can ya hear me, boy?
Adam’s method was more direct. He lifted Joe’s chin slightly and peered into his brother’s face. “Joe?”
Bleary green eyes opened and blinked. Relieved, Adam hastily untied the gag and when Joe made an attempt to spit out the cotton cloth in his mouth, Adam obligingly pulled it free. “Are you hurt?” he demanded.
“No,” Joe rasped, but Adam wasn’t convinced. He made short work of the leather belt binding Joe’s arms and then he and Hoss gently turned Joe over. The gasp of pain Joe gave when they did it was enough to tell Adam his brother had been somewhat less than truthful about his injuries, whatever they were.
“Tell me what hurts,” Adam demanded, exchanging a worried look with Hoss. “Is anything broken?”
A snort of unwilling laughter escaped Joe; would he ever be able to fool Adam? “Everything hurts,” he whispered, too tired to pretend any longer. Besides, he knew his brothers. He would find himself at the doctor’s surgery before he would be allowed to go anywhere and Doc Martin would definitely find the bruises.
“We need to get Joe and Tim over to Doc Martin’s,” Adam told Hoss unnecessarily. “We’ll need another pair of hands to help.”
“I can walk,” Joe insisted and started to prove his point by struggling to get up. Adam tried to restrain him, but unsure as to Joe’s injuries, didn’t try too hard. Joe made it to his feet with only minimal help and a smothered groan. However, once upright, he seemed quite steady, if a little pale. “Get Tim,” he added, breathing heavily.
Rolling his eyes, Adam went to help Hoss get Tim onto his feet and then they assisted the younger men across the street to the doctor’s office. Meanwhile, Roy Coffee took the men into custody, although he knew Braithwaite would need to see the doctor, too.
It was drawing on to evening before Ben Cartwright arrived in Virginia City. He rode his horse directly to the doctor’s office and dismounted there, patting his sweating mount before he climbed the steps into the building.
“Hello, Ben,” Paul Martin said, as Ben opened the door and came in. As greetings went, it was as casual a greeting as Ben had ever received entering that office for a similar purpose and Ben took heart from it.
“Paul,” he acknowledged. “How’s Joe?”
“Doing fine, although he’s going to be sore for quite some time to come,” Paul replied. “He broke a couple of ribs and managed to sprain both his wrists. I think it was something to do with hitting one of the men when he was tied up. I didn’t quite get that one,” he mused. “A possible concussion, so keep an eye on him tonight. He and Tim are both over at the hotel. I vetoed them going back to the ranch for a couple of days, but they aren’t ill enough to warrant a stay here.” A twinkle appeared in Paul’s eye. It was seldom missing for long. “Joe is complaining vociferously and Adam is probably sitting on him right now.”
“And Tim?” Ben moved to sit down, relieved that Paul felt able to joke, although his own heart wouldn’t settle completely until he could see Joe for himself.
“Tim will be fine, but he lost quite a lot of blood.” Paul patted his friend on the knee. “They’ll both make a full recovery. Just don’t expect them back at work any time soon.”
“Thanks, Paul,” Ben replied and rose.
Smiling, Paul told him, “I’ll come over and see them both in the morning and decide if they can go home then.”
The hotel had given the Cartwrights a suite. Joe and Tim were in one room, the fire blazing in the hearth, both propped on stacks of pillows. Adam was sitting reading in the main room of the suite while his charges both napped. An open door showed another bedroom with a couple of beds in it.
“Hi, Pa,” Adam smiled.
Smiling, Ben made his way into Joe’s room. He wanted to see for himself that his son was all right. Then he would hear Adam’s side of the story. Hoss, who had brought both the news and the supplies home, had excitedly spilled out the story and Ben was sure he’d missed bits here and there. Anxiety tended to block his hearing slightly.
The thick drapes at the windows blocked out the sunset. The room was dim and rosy, warm after the rapid cooling outside. Joe lay on his back, sound asleep, looking about 16. His face was bruised and his nose had obviously had quite a blow, for it was slightly swollen, but there was no sign now of blood and it clearly wasn’t broken. Ben drank in the sight of his youngest son and ran a gentle hand through his tangled curls. Joe stirred slightly, but didn’t wake.
Turning, Ben looked at Tim, who slept in the other bed. The young man was pale and his arm was in a sling. Apart from that, there was no evidence of any other injury and Ben silently gave thanks that both of them had come out of this dreadful situation.
When Ben came out of the room, Adam put aside the paper. “He’s fine, Pa,” Adam teased.
“I know,” Ben responded. “Tell me what happened.”
“What did Hoss say?” Adam countered.
“Quite a lot,” Ben admitted, “but I’d like to hear it from you, too.” He listened carefully as Adam told him the story in sequence, as he had learned it from Joe and Tim, concluding with the trip to the doctor and then their retreat to the hotel.
Darkness had fallen by the time Adam had finished talking. “What has Roy said about these men?” Ben asked, rising to light the candles.
“Nothing yet,” Adam admitted. “I haven’t seen him since we took Joe and Tim to see Doc Martin. There seemed to be some doubt in his mind if the ringleader would live, but I haven’t heard. The other man has been locked up and the third one is at the undertaker’s. I don’t know anything about them.”
“Guess we’ll just have to wait for Roy, then,” Ben conceded.
It was morning before Roy Coffee showed up. By then, both Joe and Tim were up and dressed, their clothes having been given to the Chinese laundry overnight to be cleaned and mended and Doc Martin had given them permission to go back to the ranch.
“Morning, Ben, boys,” Roy called as he ambled into the suite. “Yer lookin’ better than ya were yesterday, Little Joe.”
“Thanks, Roy,” Joe replied. “I feel a bit better, too.”
“So?” Ben questioned. “What’s the story?”
“Well.” Roy sat down and rubbed his hands together. “Braithwaite an’ his friends knew all ‘bout Riggs an’ his peculiar ideas. Seems that the diamond deal was common knowledge among them business folks back east an’ Braithwaite musta decided ta ambush him. Weren’t hard ta find out where Riggs was goin’ apparently. So him an’ the others got here jist in time ta ambush Riggs an’ look like they was jist respectable business folks waitin’ fer the stage.”
“Were there actually diamonds?” Tim asked.
“Sure were,” Roy chortled. “Got a couple o’ marshals sittin’ in ma office guardin’ them right now.” He frowned slightly. “Weren’t as many o’ them stones as I thought there would be.” He seemed disappointed. “Anyway, seems they thought they’d got off scot-free till that newspaper story come out. From what Leighton tol’ me, they had planned fer one o’ them ta take ill if’n they hadn’t managed ta kill Timothy here afore the stage was due, so’s they had an excuse ta stay.”
Wiping his hand nervously on his pants leg, Tim cleared his throat. “Will I have to testify against them?” he asked, almost inaudibly.
“No, son,” Roy replied, comfortingly. “Ain’t no need. Braithwaite and Somerville are dead an’ Leighton is blamin’ the whole thing on them and sayin’ he were too scared ta say anythin’. Don’ worry, though; he only started sayin’ that after Braithwaite went and died on him, and afore that, he was singin’ like a canary.” Roy chuckled again. “He admitted it in front o’ witnesses and the judge is comin’ right on over ta sentence him.”
“That is a relief,” Ben sighed and smiled at the two young men. “It’s over, boys.”
“Sure is,” Joe agreed. “Can we go home now?”
“Let’s go home,” Ben agreed.
That evening, Joe eased out of the front door. As he expected, he found Tim leaning against the corral fence. His friend had been uncharacteristically silent all day. Joe could understand. The overwhelming sense of relief that Joe felt knowing that the men had been stopped must be nothing beside what Tim was feeling. After all, Joe wasn’t the one whose life had been threatened.
“Tim?” Joe walked over and glanced at Tim’s face. “Are you all right?”
“I will be,” Tim replied. “I was just wondering how to tell my father about this. He really didn’t like the fact I’d ‘thrown my life away’ to become a cowboy, but quite how he’s going to feel when I tell him I witnessed a murder and was almost murdered myself, I don’t know. What if Pa knew these men?”
“He’ll find it pretty hard to believe, either way,” Joe agreed. “But I’m sure the most important thing to him is that you are all right.” Joe glanced back at the house where he knew his father was waiting. Ben was no longer as anxious about Joe, but Joe knew that his father would keep an eagle eye on him until he was better and suspected that Tim would be subjected to the same level of concern.
“I’m really grateful for everything your family has done for me, Joe,” Tim went on. “You didn’t have to help me out.”
“No, we didn’t, but what kind of a friend would I have been if I hadn’t helped out?” Joe objected. “That’s what friends are for, Tim, and don’t forget it! Your family may not be right here, but you have us.”
“Yes, I have you,” Tim replied and his voice cracked for a moment. Slightly embarrassed by the near show of emotion, Tim glanced away and silence fell for a few moments. He felt suddenly better than he had since he had been shot the day before. “I think I might go home for a visit,” he announced. “While I’m waiting for my shoulder to heal. I can’t work much like this.”
“I’m sure Pa would let you do the books,” Joe offered, his eyes wide open and his tone entirely innocent.
“I’m right-handed,” Tim replied, smoothly. “Besides, he’s got you for that. You won’t be working much either until those ribs are healed.”
“I sprained both my wrists,” Joe murmured pathetically. “I can barely feed myself.”
Struggling to keep a straight face, Tim nodded solemnly. “And you are a rich man’s son,” he agreed. “Work is a word you don’t know all that well.”
The laughter felt good after all the tension of recent weeks. Joe clutched his sore ribs and Tim clung to the corral fence as they sniggered like schoolboys.
The grin still on his face, Joe spoke up. “Say, Tim. Are you going to stay on the Ponderosa? You might as well. The boys in the bunkhouse have got used to you and you work pretty well. For a rich man’s son that is.”
Ben sighed as the front door burst open and Joe came in, laughing, trying to run, but not succeeding. Tim followed at an equally slow pace. Ben knew he should say something to them both about being careful of their injuries, but the smiles on their faces kept the words frozen in his mind.
It was good to see them smiling.