Shotgun Wedding (by Rona)

Summary:   A sequel to “To Love Again”

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,224


 

 

Travelling by stagecoach wasn’t Joe Cartwright’s favourite means of travel. It was bouncy, dusty and uncomfortable and once, he had been involved in a coach crash. However, after being away from home for more than a week, delivering a horse to a friend of his father’s, Joe had no other option but to return by coach.  He had taken only the horse he was delivering with him, riding the animal on his outward journey. The horse safely delivered, he had banked the money, getting the bank to wire it to Virginia City and had caught the stage home. It was just a pity it was a three day journey.

The passengers on the coach with Joe were less than interesting, too, he reflected. The one woman was a stout, elderly lady who complained about the dust and the heat non-stop. Her husband, a small, thin, hen-pecked looking man, grunted agreement with everything she said, and never voiced a single opinion.

The other passengers were two middle aged men. They talked in quiet tones to each other, but seldom addressed more than the most commonplace remarks to their fellow travellers. Neither man was stout, but when they sat on the seat, there was precious little room for Joe to sit next to them, and he certainly didn’t fancy sitting next to the stout lady who, truth be told, smelt strongly of stale sweat and over-sweet toilet water. Joe found himself sitting on the floor, trying to avoid being kicked. He hoped that they weren’t all travelling to Virginia City.

Unfortunately for Joe, it appeared that they were. The first night’s stop was in a way station hardly bigger than the Ponderosa’s barn. The stout lady was vociferous in her complaints, but the food was good and plentiful, if plain and at least the beds and couches provided for them to sleep on were clean and free from fleas and bedbugs. Joe knew that this place was an exception and only hoped that their accommodation for the next night would be as pleasant.

As dawn broke, they were off, Joe once more seated on the floor. He had yet to learn the names of any of his companions, and they rebuffed conversational gambits each time Joe proffered them. He sighed and pulled his hat down over his eyes. It was uncomfortably warm in the coach and he doubted if he could even manage to sleep the journey away. And perhaps, he mused, it wasn’t wise to sleep when your back was resting against the door!

Trouble struck about mid-morning. There was silence for the time being, the stout lady having ceased her complaining because of a dry mouth. She had scorned Joe’s offer of a drink from the canteen, presumably thinking it was below her dignity to do so. Shrugging, Joe struggled to keep his feelings from his face. Well, he thought, that would be the last time he offered to help her!

There was a sudden cry of “Whoa!” from the driver and everyone sat up looking puzzled. There wasn’t a stop scheduled for some time, a fact that Joe was coming to regret more and more. He scrambled to his feet and peered cautiously out of the window.

“What’s up?” he called.

“There’s a tree down over the road,” the driver replied. “It’s blocked.” The stage bounced to a standstill, and Joe opened the door and jumped out to look. Sure enough, a tree lay over the road.

Looking at it, Joe frowned. There was something not right about that tree, but he couldn’t immediately see what it was. Before he had any more time to think, half a dozen armed men burst from the surrounding undergrowth. “Don’t move!” one called, pointing his gun directly at Joe.

As Joe was relieved of his pistol, the other passengers were urged from the coach. The stout lady, Joe noticed, was no longer blustering, but was clinging to her husband’s arm. They flicked a glance at Joe, copied his stance, and put their hands up.

“All right,” said one of the outlaws, riding forward. “I want your valuables.”

It wasn’t a man’s voice, it was a woman’s. What’s more, it was familiar to Joe. He lifted his head and peered intently at the rider. All of a sudden, he knew what was wrong with the tree on the road. It hadn’t been up-rooted; it had been cut down. One mystery solved, Joe took a step towards the woman, trying to see her eyes, since the lower half of her face was covered by a bandanna. The gunman at his back clicked the safety off his gun. “Don’t move!” he warned again.

Her attention attracted by the movement, the woman outlaw looked from Joe’s saddlebags, which had just been thrown down from the stage roof, to the young cowboy. Her eyes widened.

Abruptly, the memory clicked into place for Joe and he took another step forward, opening his mouth to greet the woman by name. She saw the recognition in Joe’s eyes and nodded to her companion who stood behind him. At once, the man clicked back on his safety and reversed his gun, cracking it down on Joe’s head. The youngest Cartwright boy collapsed soundlessly in the dirt by the coach while the other passengers looked on in disbelief.

“Tie him up and bring him along,” the woman ordered. “And bring his saddlebags, too.” She continued to shoot little glances at her captive as her men efficiently tied Joe up and finished looting the passenger’s luggage. Their haul wasn’t terribly impressive, but the passengers looked distressed. “You’re free to go,” the woman said, as Joe was slung onto a horse.

The outlaws turned tail and disappeared.

*****

When the stage rattled into its next stop, late, the driver jumped straight from the box and hurried into the depot. There, he blurted out the story of the hold-up to the depot manager, who in turn sent for the sheriff. Before very long, the story had travelled around the small town like wildfire.

“An’ you know this boy they took?” the sheriff asked the driver.

“Sure do,” the driver answered. “I seen him lots o’ times in Virginia City. He’s one o’ them Cartwrights what own the Ponderosa.”

“I’ll git a posse together,” the sheriff muttered.

“I reckon y’ought to wire the boy’s kin in Virginia City,” the driver insisted. “Them Cartwrights is real close knit.”

“Reckon so,” the sheriff agreed, and with heavy steps went off to send his message.

*****

How much time had passed before he roused, Joe didn’t know and had no way to tell. His head throbbed miserably and he found that he was lying on the ground, with his hands and feet tied. He opened his eyes and peered round blearily, unable for a moment to remember where he was.

Seeing the outlaws, memory came rushing back to him, and he struggled to sit up. The movement attracted attention and a moment later the woman came over to him. The bandanna was gone from her face.

She was about 5’6” tall, slim, with long dark hair just beginning to be streaked with grey. She was as beautiful as she had been the last time Joe had seen her, several years before. His eyes narrowed as he looked at her. She had hurt Ben, Joe’s father, immeasurably and Joe had never forgiven her for that. But there had also been personal enmity between her and Joe.

“Well, Joe,” Madeline said, standing over him. There was a gloating look on her face. “You haven’t changed much, have you? Although it was the brand on the saddlebags that I recognised first.”

“You have changed though,” Joe retorted. “Robbing stages? Isn’t that rather a comedown for Madeline Ross, who thought to be Mrs Ben Cartwright? What’s happened to all that money your husband left you? You haven’t spent it all have you?” He was suddenly angry.

“Things change,” Madeline commented. “I rob stages because its easy work and the pickings can be good. Yes, the money is all gone. Does that please you?”

“I pity you,” Joe said, truthfully. He glanced at the men, all of whom were watching closely. Joe wondered if they thought he was going to attack her while bound hand and foot. He wondered what she was going to do with him. The nasty thought occurred that she knew his father was well off; she was bound to hold him for ransom.

“I don’t need your pity!” she cried and slapped his face. “No, you haven’t changed, have you, Joe? Still looking down your nose at me because I’m not a Cartwright.”

“That was never true,” Joe denied. “You’re the one who drove Pa away.  He loved you, Madeline, but you ruined it because you were jealous of us.”

Her face contorted with rage, Madeline was visibly restraining herself from hitting him again. “Its pathetic, a grown man hanging onto his sons like that! I bet you’re all still living there with him yet, stopping him from having a life of his own!”

Shaking his head, Joe said, softly, “You still don’t get it, do you, Madeline? Pa has a life of his own, just as we do. It just so happens we all live in the family home and work with each other. We aren’t stifled by the love we share. Don’t knock something just because you don’t understand it.”

Turning abruptly, Madeline shouted,” Let’s get going!” She turned and looked at Joe. “He can walk. Tie him behind my horse.” The look she gave him promised retribution for the words he had just spoken.

Swallowing, Joe forced himself to hold her gaze as a rope was tied around his middle and made fast to the saddle horn.

*****

“Pa!” Hoss called, as he stopped his horse by the hitching rail in the yard. “Pa!” He jumped down and wrapped his rein around the rail before hurrying towards the house.

As he reached the porch, the house door opened and Ben Cartwright stood there. “What’s all the shouting about?” he asked, eyeing his large middle son.

“This wire jist came,” Hoss said, thrusting the piece of flimsy paper towards his father.

Taking the wire slowly, Ben glanced at Hoss’ anxious face and knew that whatever lay in the wire was not going to be pleasant. His heart contracted slightly and he felt fear fluttering in his stomach. He unfolded the paper and read the stark words.

FROM THE SHERIFF OF BLACK HILLS  STOP

REGRET YOUR SON JOSEPH TAKEN HOSTAGE  STOP

AFTER STAGECOACH HELD UP  STOP

Looking at his father’s white face, Hoss knew exactly how the older man felt. He had felt the same when he read the wire in Virginia City. He had ridden home at top speed, knowing that Ben would want to set out at once for Black Hills, no doubt berating himself all the way that he had let Joe travel so far alone, although he knew that Joe was capable of looking after himself.

“Why did they take Joe?” Ben asked, anguished.

“I dunno,” Hoss admitted. He kept his eyes fixed on his father, just in case Ben should need some physical support, but he seemed to be all right.

“Saddle the horses and get some supplies together. We’re leaving tonight.” Ben crumpled the paper in his hands and turned back to the house to gather what they would need for the trip. He didn’t know why Joe had been taken, but he suspected it was because he had been recognised as a Cartwright and that the outlaws would want a lot of money to free his son. Ben didn’t grudge one single cent of that price, for he loved all his sons. He just hoped that the money would be enough to secure Joe’s life.

Throwing some clothes hastily into his saddlebags, Ben thought of all the things he had to do. First stop would be the bank in Virginia City, where he would arrange with them to wire money to Black Hills when he found out how much he needed. Then he would speak to Roy Coffee, the sheriff, to find out what kind of man he would be dealing with in Black Hills. It was a small town he had been in once or twice on the stage, but never for more than an hour or so.

Packed, Ben went down to tell Hop Sing, their cook and housekeeper what was happening. Hoss had briefed their foreman, and they were soon on the road, knowing that the Ponderosa was in good hands while they were away.

Ben made the bank minutes before it closed. He spoke for quite some time to the manager, who was an old friend and who promised to be on stand-by to send money whenever Ben needed it. “I hope Joe is all right,” he said, earnestly as he let Ben out of the bank building long after closing time.

“Thank you,” Ben replied. It was comforting to know that his youngest son was held in such esteem by the people they knew.

Together, he and Hoss went down to the town jail. Roy Coffee, the sheriff, was dozing behind his desk as they opened the door, but he jerked awake as they went in. “Ben, Hoss,” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes. “What brings ya here?”

“Joe has been taken by outlaws after the stage was held up just outside of Black Hills,” Ben reported. “We’re going to Black Hills now, but I wanted to know about the sheriff there.”

“Black Hills,” Roy repeated. “Sure, I know him. Jim Fullerton. He’s a good man, Ben. He’ll give ya all the help you’ll need.” He eyed his old friend keenly, seeing the strain in his face. Joe held a special place in the hearts of many, including Roy. “I sure wish I could go with ya,” he went on, “but there ain’t no way I can leave right now.”

“No, I realise that,” Ben muttered. “With Clem away, you’re needed here. If this man Fullerton is as good as you say, we’ll be all right.”

“I’ll wire Black Hills an’ let Jim know you’re comin’,” Roy offered. “That way, you can get goin’ right away. Good luck, Ben.”

“Thanks,” Ben answered and left before his fragile control of his emotions shattered. He swung himself onto his horse and glanced at Hoss. The big man’s face was impassive, although Ben knew he was worried, too. He silently thanked God for this son, who was willing to subject his own needs for those of his family. “Are you all right, Hoss?” he asked, realising he’d been selfish in not considering Hoss’ needs, too.

“I’ll be all right when we git Little Joe home safe,” Hoss replied, his voice quiet but full of strength. “Don’ worry, Pa; Joe’s a tough kid.” He nodded as though agreeing with himself. “He’ll be all right, you’ll see.”

*****

The clapboard house that was the outlaws’ final destination had once been very nice, Joe saw, but it was in desperate need of painting, with the old paint peeling in weathered strips from the boards. They dismounted and the horses were led round the back, where Joe presumed there was a barn.

Madeline had been surprisingly kind to Joe on their journey there. She hadn’t forced him to run until he was too exhausted to stand, although he was done in. He struggled to control his breathing, but Madeline had noticed him panting and looked pleased. Tugging on the rope that was still around his middle, she forced him inside the house.

The interior showed similar signs of neglect to the exterior. The furniture consisted of big velvet chairs and dark wood, but the velvet was moth-eaten and worn and the wood hadn’t seen polish in many years. Some of the downstairs rooms were draped with dust sheets, Joe noticed as he glanced around, drinking in his surroundings.

“This will be your home for the foreseeable future, Joe,” she told him.

“So you’re holding me for ransom,” Joe stated, quietly.

“You are a bright boy,” Madeline laughed, stroking his cheek. He forced himself not to pull back from her touch. “I am indeed going to hold you to ransom, Joe. And don’t tell me your father won’t pay up. I know him, remember? He would pay anything for you boys; anything. Ben will pay my price, Joe, or you will pay the consequences.” Her hand lingered on his cheek. Every instinct screamed at Joe to back away, but he forced himself to be still. The next instant, he regretted his decision, as Madeline dug her fingernails into the lobe of his ear. He let out a cry of shock and pain, and she viciously tightened her grip until blood ran from under her nails. Satisfied, she let go and smiled at Joe. “Do we understand each other?” she asked, and saw from his face that they did.

*****

On their arrival in Black Hills the next day, Ben and Hoss went straight to the sheriff’s office. Ben introduced himself and found that Jim Fullerton was another lawman similar to Roy Coffee and was someone he could work with.

“There’s a wire here for ya, Mr Cartwright,” Fullerton said, handing over the sealed envelope. “It were sent to Virginia City, but Roy wired it back here so’s you’d git it when you came in.”

Carefully, Ben tore open the envelope, dreading what he might find. Hoss crowded in close to read over his father’s shoulder.

COME TO OLD PINE TREE   STOP

VIRGINIA CITY ROAD   STOP

TOMORROW NOON   STOP

COME ALONE   STOP

“Where is the old pine tree?” Ben asked Fullerton, showing the man the message.

“Back along the road a ways,” Fullerton explained. “Ya can’t miss it. It stands up atop a hill.”

“I remember it,” Hoss said, and Ben, when he bent his mind to it, could remember seeing it too.

“This wire come from Placerville,” Fullerton said. “I’ll jist wire down there an’ see if any o’ them remember who sent it.” He glanced apologetically at Ben. “But it’s a big place, an’ I doubt if we’ll be lucky.”

“It’s worth a try,” Ben assured him. “Thank you.”

“I wouldn’t advise goin’ alone, Mr Cartwright,” Fullerton went on, earnestly. “It could be a might dangerous.”

“I don’t have any choice,” Ben replied. “My son’s life is in danger. I have to do what I can to get him set free again.”

*****

The meal that Joe was fed was better than he had expected. Madeline was a good cook, he remembered, although she preferred not to cook if at all possible. He was slightly surprised when he was offered a meal and even more surprised when his hands were freed to allow him to feed himself. However, his feet were left bound and he was watched warily throughout.

After the meal, his hands were tied behind him again and he was dragged into a downstairs room, and thrown on the floor. His hopes of being able to move about and perhaps find a way to free himself were swiftly dashed, as his feet were tied tightly to a vast, ugly mahogany sideboard with oddly shaped legs. There was no way that piece of furniture could be moved by a lone man, never mind one bound hand and foot. Joe was disappointed, although not surprised. The house looked so dilapidated that a strong gust of wind might knock it over, and Joe had hoped that he would be able to break free without too many problems. There were distinct drawbacks to being held prisoner by someone who knew you quite well, he reflected, trying to keep his spirits up.

Come morning, after a night spent at least partly asleep, Joe was offered breakfast and a small amount of liberty. He gratefully accepted the chance to wash, and peered at his ear in the mirror above the basin. The ear was, as Joe had guessed, bright red. It throbbed painfully. Blood had run down his neck and soaked into his collar. It looked quite dramatic, he thought, as he washed it off his neck.

Joe lingered as long as he could over his wash, but all too soon, he was man-handled into a chair and tied to it. That was where he spent the rest of the day, watched over by one or another of the outlaws. Joe tried hard to convince himself he was flattered by the attention. The ropes were all together too well tied to allow him any possibility of escape, yet he was guarded as though he might break free any moment.

To while away the time, Joe thought back to when he had first met Madeline. He had seen her briefly in the store in Virginia City, and then later at a dance. They had become friends and Joe had introduced her to his father. Before long, Ben and Madeline were an item. Joe had been pleased at the thought of Ben finding happiness with another woman.

However, things began to go wrong when Joe returned home injured after a minor accident. Madeline had been angry that Joe’s arrival had interrupted their meal, and that his continuing ill-health had caused Ben to cancel a date the following evening. It soon became clear to Joe that he was not wanted by Madeline and that their earlier friendship had vanished.

Then Ben announced that he and Madeline were to be married on Christmas Eve. By then, Joe knew that Madeline would not welcome he and his brothers living in the Ponderosa and was wretchedly miserable. He had no idea what to do about the situation.

It was another accident, a short seven days before the wedding, which had opened Ben’s eyes to Madeline’s feelings about his sons. The sleigh horses had run away, and the reins had been caught under a runner. Joe had been struck by the sleigh and had broken almost every bone on the left side of his body. Adam and Hoss had both suffered concussions. Madeline had insisted that Ben leave the doctoring to the doctor and come and discuss their wedding plans. Ben had been shocked and had told Madeline that his sons were just as important to him as she was. Madeline had told him then that she hated children and that his love for his sons was unnatural. Ben had sadly told her that they could not marry and he had never seen her again after that night.

For some time, Joe knew that Ben had wondered about Madeline; about where she was and what she was doing. He had done so himself. But as the years had passed, the memory of that time faded and was put aside. Joe had pretty much forgotten about her. Ben had had other romances, most of them fleeting and not serious. He had had quite a few himself. He wondered what Ben’s feelings were towards Madeline now.

That was one of the longest days Joe had ever spent. His continuing captivity was onerous and Joe chafed under the restrictions. When Madeline returned in the middle of the afternoon, Joe was in a thoroughly bad temper. It wasn’t helped by the satisfied, feline smile that played on her lovely face.

“Your father will be here tomorrow, Joe,” Madeline told him. “You see, I told you it would be useless to tell me he wouldn’t pay a ransom for you. I do know him, so very well.” She stroked his cheek again, a gesture she seemed incredibly fond of, considering she didn’t like Joe at all. “He wants you back, it seems, Joe. I can’t understand him wanting you all around.”

“That’s because you don’t really understand love,” Joe told her, rashly. “You loved Pa for what he could give you, not for himself.”

“How dare you!” Madeline spat, and slapped his face. Joe’s head snapped round, but he looked back at her fearlessly, despite the fact his lip was bleeding.

“I dare because it’s true,” he stated quietly. “You loved Pa because he could give you everything you wanted, but it wasn’t real love. If it had been, you would have loved us, too, because he does.” He looked up at her. She looked very beautiful when she was angry. “The very fact that we are still living together at home should tell you of the kind of bond we all share. Driving us away would never have made Pa happy, and you know that. It just goes to prove what I said; you didn’t really love Pa.”

Hot colour stained her cheeks. Jerking her head to the outlaw who was currently guarding Joe, she said, “Get him out of my sight.”

“That won’t stop you hearing my voice,” Joe said, as he was dragged to his feet. The ropes that bound him to the chair fell amongst his feet, and he almost tripped over them as he was hurried away. “Once you hear the truth, there’s nothing that will silence it,” he called.

“Shut him up!” Madeline screamed, and as Joe was shoved into the room where he had spent the night, the outlaw came after him, kicking and punching the helpless youth. Joe curled up, trying to protect his vulnerable midriff, but the beating went on, until he could barely breathe. He was aware of a gag being forced into his mouth before the door banged shut, leaving him alone.

*****

“I don’ think you should go alone, Pa,” Hoss protested again, knowing that his protests were useless.

“The sheriff says it’s too exposed up there for you to be able to hide effectively,” Ben repeated, his patience sounding strained. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, son. You can track me, if you need to.”

“D’ya think Joe’s all right?” Hoss asked. His misery was written clearly on his face. Neither man had slept much the night before, wondering about Joe.

“I hope so,” Ben replied, his voice low. He was deeply concerned for the safety of his youngest son. It was so out of character for stagecoach robbers to take a hostage when they weren’t being threatened that Ben was made very uneasy by it. To him, it meant that Joe had been recognised and taken because of who he was. And that suggested his captor had a personal grudge against Ben. He couldn’t imagine who this person might be, but he feared the worst.

Mounting up, Ben found the semblance of a smile for Hoss and rode out of the town towards the old pine tree. His heart thumped uncomfortably against his ribs and his breath seemed to pant away from him. Finally, he rode up to the tree. It was about ten minutes to noon.

Time ticked past, as Ben began to despair. Noon came and went without any signs of anyone else. Just as he was about to give up and return to Black Hills, another rider appeared out of some trees nearby and rode slowly over. Ben stared. There was something hauntingly familiar about this person.

“Madeline!” exclaimed Ben, his heart lurching. He gazed at her in disbelief, not understanding how she came to be there, but noticing that she was still a beautiful woman. “What are you doing here?”

She smiled at him and gestured. Three armed men rode from the trees. Ben swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. “I’ve come to collect Joe’s ransom,” she purred and revelled in the shock on Ben’s face.

*****

The clapboard house had seen better days, Ben thought, as he rode up to it. He was all too aware of the guns trained on his back, but at least he hadn’t been tied up, he reflected. Knowing that Madeline had Joe, Ben was more than willing to do what he was told. Madeline had led the way and Ben had noticed that they made no attempt to brush out their tracks. This gave him a small measure of comfort, for he knew that Hoss would be able to track him.

“Come in, Ben,” Madeline invited as they dismounted in front of the house.

“Where’s Joe?” Ben asked, as they went inside. “I want to see him.”

“How tiresome you are about those boys of yours, Ben,” she chided him. “I thought you’d want to visit with me; catch up on all the news.”

“I want to see Joe,” he repeated, stubbornly. “When I know he’s all right, we can discuss his ransom.”

A look that he couldn’t interpret crossed her face. Before he could say anything, she turned away, leading him across to a room on the ground floor. A gunman followed closely at his back. Throwing open the door, Madeline gestured grandly. “There he is, Ben. Satisfied?”

Gasping, Ben pushed past her into the room. “Joe!” he exclaimed in horror as his son looked up at him. Joe’s left eye was swollen shut and he lay curled up, as though he hurt.

“That’s far enough!” Madeline said, sharply. She swept past Ben to point a gun at Joe’s head. “You wanted to see him; well, you’ve seen him. Now out.”

Horrified, Ben was prodded out of the room at gunpoint, his eyes riveted on his youngest son, who was bound, gagged and had a gun pointed at his head. “Don’t worry, Joe,” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll get you out of this.” He saw Joe nod slightly before Madeline stepped out of the room and locked the door behind her.

“How could you do that to him?” Ben asked. He wondered if he had ever known this woman at all. It had almost broken his heart to send her away, and the memory of his love for her had kept him awake at nights for quite some time. He had never regretted his decision not to marry her, for he knew that she would have driven a wedge between him and his sons. Now, the last vestige of his love for her curled and died.

“Well, personally, I never laid a hand on him,” she protested, smiling. “Oh, well, perhaps that’s not quite true. I did slap him. But I needed to show you that I mean what I say, Ben.” She went over to him and linked her arm though his. Ben drew away in disgust. She glared at him. “Let’s discuss that ransom, shall we?”

*****

As evening fell, Hoss turned to the sheriff. “Come dawn, I’m goin’ out lookin’ for him,” he stated. His tone brooked no argument.

“The posse’ll be ready,” Fullerton agreed.

“I knew Pa shouldn’t a gone alone,” Hoss fretted. “I knew somethin’ bad was gonna happen.”

“No news is good news,” Fullerton comforted. “We ain’t found no bodies, so they’re prolly still alive.”

“I hope so,” muttered Hoss, but he wasn’t so sure. He went off to force himself to lie down, but he knew that sleep would be in short supply that night.

*****

Gazing at Madeline, Ben said, “What?”

“The ransom for your son is marriage,” Madeline repeated patiently. “If it hadn’t been for your sons, we could be married now. When I found fate had delivered Joe into my hands, I could hardly believe it. Yes, I am holding him for ransom, Ben and the price of his life and his freedom is your marriage to me.”

“That’s no basis for marriage,” Ben spluttered. He was shocked rigid at her suggestion. “Why would I stay married to you under those circumstances?”

“Because you would never know when the boys were in danger,” she told him calmly. “They will never be entirely safe, Ben. I would always have that as my ultimate threat over you. We will be married and you will stay with me.”

“The boys will never accept that,” Ben muttered. His mind was reeling. “How could you expect Joe to accept that?”

“If Joe wants to live, he’ll accept it,” Madeline stated flatly. “You will convince him of that, won’t you, my darling. You claim to dote on your sons – well here’s your chance to show me how much. You will marry me, or I will kill Joe. Once we are married, you and I will live together at the Ponderosa. Joe will accept that, or face the consequences. My men will come with us, so there’s always someone around who could carry out my threat.”

Try though he might, Ben could see no way out of this dilemma. He didn’t know what to say to Madeline and so said nothing. He didn’t realise that his silence spoke for him quite eloquently. She smiled. Gesturing to one of her men, she said, “Bring him.”

Rising, she led the way across to the room where Joe was being held. She unlocked the door and went in. Joe winced and turned his head away from the sudden light. Ben ached to run to him, but the gun prodding into his back reminded him to do what he was told.

Setting down the lamp she had brought with her, Madeline went over to Joe and crouched beside him. She ran her hand down his cheek and Joe flinched. “Do you see what I can do, Ben?” she asked, turning her captive’s head so that his father could see his lacerated earlobe. Ben winced. “That’s not   all I can do.”

“No!” Ben cried, sensing what she was about to do. He was too late. With one smooth movement, Madeline raked her nails down Joe’s face. Ben lunged forwards, determined to throttle the life out of this woman. The man behind him sledged his gun onto Ben’s unprotected head, and he tumbled to the floor, unconscious.

From where he lay, panting against the pain and groaning into his gag, Joe glared at Madeline. He fought his bonds, further tearing the skin on his wrists, but he was unable to get free and take his revenge for her hurting his father.

Laughing, Madeline rose to her feet and looked down at Ben. “Tomorrow, you will agree,” she whispered and she and her henchman left.

*****

Ben roused a few minutes later. He sat up groggily, and became aware of a pair of green eyes watching him anxiously from across the room. “Joe,” he murmured and clutched his throbbing head.

Somehow, he managed to cross the room, and sat down next to Joe, gently removing the gag and taking his son into his arms. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” Joe answered, thickly. His mouth was dry and his lower lip was badly split. He sat quietly as Ben pulled him against his chest and began to struggle with the ropes that held him captive. After a time, he got Joe’s hands free, and while his son began to rub some life back into his hands, he untied Joe’s feet. “Are you all right, Pa?”

“I’ll be all right,” Ben answered. He freed Joe’s feet and sat back, looking closely at his son’s face. The scratch marks on Joe’s cheek were still bleeding slightly and he hunted his pockets for a handkerchief. He pressed the material carefully to Joe’s face, but the youth winced anyway. Now that he was close, Ben could see a faint, handprint bruise on that same cheek. “Where are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” Joe protested, but Ben wasn’t having that. He held Joe’s gaze until the young man squirmed slightly and dropped his eyes. “Just some bruises on my ribs, Pa, honest.”

Not convinced, and accustomed to Joe’s evasion regarding his health, Ben gently probed Joe’s ribs, satisfied that nothing was broken. Together, they stood up and made themselves as comfortable as they could on the furniture in the room.

“How much money does she want?” Joe asked bitterly. He avoided Ben’s gaze. He knew there was nothing he could have done to avoid being kidnapped, but he still felt bad.

“Not a red cent,” Ben answered, flatly.

Joe’s eyes flew up to meet Ben’s, a question already formed on his bruised, bleeding face. “What?” he asked. “I don’t understand. What does she want if not money?”

“Me,” Ben replied. “She wants me.”

*****

“She wants to marry you,” Joe repeated, as though the words didn’t make sense. “But, how does she expect that to work? You wouldn’t live with her. You’d get her arrested as soon as I was…” His voice trailed off as the implications of his words hit him. “She’d never let me go, would she?” he demanded. “She’d forever hold me as a hostage.”

“You or Hoss,” Ben agreed. “She says she’d always have one of her men with you, watching you, so that I could never leave her, or have her arrested.”

“Don’t do it!” Joe urged. “Pa, she’s bluffing, she must be! Don’t do it!”

“I can’t call that bluff, Joe,” Ben chided him gently. “You know that she means it. Look what she’s done to you.”

Anguished, knowing that Ben would marry Madeline to save his life, Joe could only gaze at Ben, tears glazing his eyes. “Pa, you can’t,” he whispered. “There must be a way out of this.”

Feeling a lump rise in his throat, Ben drew Joe against him again. “I can’t risk your life, Joe,” he murmured, one hand rising to stroke the boy’s head. “I would do anything to keep you safe.”

They sat like that for a long time.

*****

Dawn found Hoss, Fullerton and the posse on the road. Hoss had barely closed his eyes that night and he felt worry pinching at his gut. It took them almost an hour to ride to the old pine tree, and there, Hoss scouted around carefully for some time before he was sure he’d found the tracks he was looking for. Slowly, they rode off, following them.

“There’s quite a number o’ them, ain’t there?” Fullerton asked, as he joined Hoss at the head of the posse.

“Sure looks like it,” Hoss agreed. “I reckon there are three or four different sets o’ tracks. I sure hope my Pa an’ Joe are all right.”

It was slow going tracking through the belt of trees. Once or twice, they lost the trail all together and had to back track. At noon, they stopped briefly and had something to eat. Hoss’ impatience soon had them back in the saddle and tracking once more.

The afternoon was half gone when the trail led out towards a house in the distance. The posse stopped, and dismounted. “I reckon we go on foot from here,” Hoss said, taking his rifle from the scabbard on his saddle. He glanced round at the men, all of whom copied his actions. Receiving a nod from Fullerton, Hoss led the way.

*****

That same morning, Joe and Ben were dragged from sleep by the sound of the lock clicking open. Ben sat up hastily, but he wasn’t fast enough to jump the outlaw entering the room with Madeline. He glared at the woman before going over to check on Joe. He hadn’t meant to go to sleep, but his lack of sleep from the previous night had caught up with him and he had dozed off.

Biting back a groan, Joe sat up slowly. He was incredibly stiff, but he gave Ben a glance to reassure him he was all right. He, too, glared at Madeline, feeling her gaze on his bruised, scarred cheek. He could scarcely believe what she intended to do and the very thought of Ben marrying this woman to save his life was repugnant to him. He vowed to himself to make his escape if he could.

“Joseph, my pet,” Madeline greeted him cheerily. “How pleasant it must have been for you to have your dear father spend the night with you before his nuptials. I’m afraid that this will be the last you see of your father for some time to come.” She laughed at the identical looks that flitted over the faces of father and son. “You see, Joe, it would be too dangerous to have you running around free, so you will have to stay here. I’m sorry you can’t come to the wedding. Ben would no doubt love to have you stand up with him, but that’s not possible, I’m afraid.” She nodded to her henchmen, who started to prod Ben to his feet. “Let’s go, my love. You have to get tidied up before we see the preacher.”

Enraged, and heedless of his own safety, Joe lunged at Madeline, determined to stop her, somehow.

“Joe, no!” Ben gasped, as he saw the men moving to protect Madeline. He had no idea what kind of hold she had over these men, but their loyalty to her was absolute. The men behind him grabbed his arms and twisted them up behind his back, stopping Ben from going to help Joe.

The others grabbed at Joe, but he twisted away from their grasping hands. He grabbed at Madeline and managed to catch her sleeve. He was tackled from behind and driven to his knees, but he didn’t relinquish his grip, and Madeline was dragged to the floor, too. Joe kicked out frantically, desperate to keep the slight advantage he had, but it was no use. There were too many of them. A rifle butt sledged down on his hand, once, then again. His grip broke as agonising pain shot up his arm.

As Madeline scrambled to her feet with undignified haste, Ben watched in horror as the men moved in on Joe, intent on taking him apart. Ben struggled helplessly against the grips on his arms. “Stop them!” he demanded of Madeline. “They’ll kill him!” He shot a glance at her, and played the only card he had left. “I won’t marry you if Joe’s dead!”

“Enough!” she commanded, realising that Ben wouldn’t marry her if Joe died. Reluctantly, the men backed off. Ben gazed in horror at his son.

Blood ran from Joe’s nose and mouth; his shirt was torn in several places.  “Joe!” Ben called, anguished, fighting the men who had hold of him. “Joe!” His son didn’t stir.

“Tie him up,” Madeline said, gesturing to Joe. “Your precious son isn’t dead, Ben,” she went on. “Now, the preacher will be here within the hour. You need to get a move on.”

Glancing over his shoulder as he was hustled out, Ben saw Joe, still unconscious, being cruelly tied up again. As the door was closed behind him, Ben looked at Madeline. His heart contracted within him at the thought of marrying her, but with Joe’s life on the line, he knew he had no choice. He didn’t know how, but he vowed that somehow, he would find a way out of this situation.

*****

Coming back to consciousness wasn’t pleasant for Joe. He could barely breathe between the blood caked and drying on his nostrils and the gag jammed into his mouth. He had been left lying on the floor, his hands bound tightly behind him, and his ankles tied to his wrists. His left hand throbbed painfully where he had been struck. The hogtie position was desperately uncomfortable on his sore ribs, too, and Joe knew that Madeline’s men had done this deliberately to make him suffer.

Despite feeling ill, Joe was determined to escape if he could. He struggled against the rough hemp, but was unable to move the ropes so much as an inch. His already lacerated wrists soon began to bleed again. Joe gasped for breath, and finally slumped in his bonds, too exhausted by his injuries to keep fighting.

A sound from the window made him lift his head, but he couldn’t see much. The curtains were drawn almost all the way across the glass, and the light was further obscured by long net curtains. The sound was repeated. Joe felt his heart suddenly hammer against his chest. Slowly but surely, the window was being raised.

There was no way to tell who it was. Joe wondered if one of Madeline’s frustrated henchmen was coming back to finish off what he had started. He fought against his bonds once more, his grunts and groans of effort and pain being absorbed by his gag.

The first person into the room was a stranger to Joe. He had a gun in his hand, and Joe gazed at him, wondering who on earth he was. The stranger looked at Joe for a long moment, then beckoned to someone outside the window. Swallowing against the dryness in his mouth, Joe gazed mesmerised at the person climbing through the window.

It was Hoss.

*****

“Joe!” The word escaped Hoss’ lips and he tiptoed quickly across the room to take his younger brother in his arms and gently take the gag from his mouth. “Are ya all right, Punkin?” he whispered, while fumbling through his clothes for a knife to sever his brother’s bonds.

Groaning with relief as the ropes parted, Joe nodded. “I’m fine,” he whispered back, unable to speak any louder because of how dry his mouth was. It had been well over 12 hours since Joe had had anything to drink. He immediately betrayed the lie by burying his head in his brother’s broad chest as Hoss untangled the rope from his injured hand. The pain left Joe panting and nauseated, and he thought his hand might be broken.

“Easy, Joe,” Hoss murmured, rubbing his brother’s back gently until the pain eased slightly. “Here, take a drink.” Tilting the canteen that Fullerton had handed him to Joe’s mouth, Hoss looked at his brother worriedly. Joe’s face was badly bruised; he had a torn cheek and earlobe and his nose had clearly been bleeding heavily. His left hand was swollen and useless and unless he missed his guess, Joe had cracked or broken ribs, too.

Gently, Hoss used his neckerchief to wipe Joe’s face. “Thanks,” Joe breathed, leaning against Hoss. “How did you get here?”

“We followed Pa’s tracks,” Hoss explained. “Where is Pa? Is he all right?”

“Madeline’s going to make him marry her,” Joe told him. “She was holding me to make him do as she wants.”

“Madeline?” Hoss repeated. “Madeline Ross? Her what Pa was gonna marry?”

Remembering that this was the first Hoss knew of this, Joe gathered his strength to tell Hoss the story of his abduction and subsequent imprisonment. Hoss was silent as he listened, but he kept hold of Joe all the while. Joe could gage the depths of Hoss’ anger by the tightening of his brother’s grip on his arm. By the end of the tale, Joe had to add, “Hoss, let go my arm, please?”

“Sorry, Joe,” Hoss said. “Dadburnit, you was right about her all along, Joe. Where are they now?”

“I don’t know,” Joe replied. “It’s been a while since they left me here.” He cast a curious glance at Hoss’ companion, and Hoss hastily introduced Fullerton.

“The rest o’ the posse’s outside,” Hoss explained. “Joe, we gotta leave you here while we get Pa.”

“No way!” Joe protested, sitting bolt upright. “I’m coming with you. It’s because of me that Pa’s in this mess, and I’m not waiting here to find out what happens.”

“But, Joe,” Hoss began, but got no further.

“I’m coming!” Joe stated and Hoss didn’t argue. He knew it was a waste of breath when Joe got that look on his face. Instead, he gave Joe another drink and helped him to his feet. Joe took a moment to regain his equilibrium. He felt ghastly, but wouldn’t admit it to Hoss. He had to get to his father before Ben did something he would regret for the rest of his life.

It was obvious to both Hoss and Fullerton that Joe was weak, and they helped him to climb out of the window. Drawing in a deep breath of fresh air, Joe began to feel more optimistic than he had since his capture a few days before. He glanced at Hoss to see what was happening next. Fullerton, being slightly more familiar with the house, led the way.

A little further towards the front of the house, Fullerton cautiously forced another window and he, Hoss, Joe and another two men climbed in. The other members of the posse continued on to the front of the house. They could hear voices coming from the next room.

“Joe, you stay back,” Hoss ordered. He could see that Joe was feeling dreadful, even though he tried to cover it up. He was cradling his injured hand, and was unarmed. “Let us handle this.”

Reluctantly, Joe nodded. He knew that he couldn’t be of any real help to the others, but that didn’t make him feel any better about being kept out of the action. He hung back slightly as they eased open the door into the hallway. There was no one in sight and they followed the sound of the voices.

Suddenly, the sounds became words, and Joe recognised the words of the wedding ceremony. He broke out in a cold sweat, fearing they were too late. He shot a glance at Hoss, who nodded to Fullerton. They burst through the door into the large drawing room, and the startled preacher jumped.

The outlaws reached for their guns, but Hoss and the others had them covered. The rest of the posse threw up the windows and covered the outlaws from that side. Ben and Madeline, standing before the preacher, looked shocked. Ben, however, also looked relieved.

“I’m afraid that this is a weddin’ that ain’t gonna happen!” Hoss drawled. “The groom ain’t in a marryin’ mood today.”

With a scream of inarticulate rage, Madeline threw herself, not at Hoss or Ben, but at Joe. The startled youth, who had been grinning at his father, threw himself to one side, hoping to avoid the woman’s mad rush. He landed hard on his left side, the pain jarring his breath from his body, as Madeline hurled herself on him, throwing punches and scratching at him.

Taking their cue from their leader, the outlaws took the chance Madeline had supplied them and opened fire. Hoss dove at Ben, forcing him to the ground and covering him with his own body. Fullerton took the preacher down, but not before the man had taken a bullet in his upper arm.

In the melee, it took a moment for Ben to realise that Joe was unable to hold Madeline off. Part of it was his injuries; Joe was in pain and the fall he’d taken had hurt. Part of it was his natural disinclination to hit a woman, and, knowing this, Madeline took full advantage of the fact.

However, the instant that Ben saw Joe was in danger, he leapt across the space separating them, and dragged his erst-while bride from on top of his son. Screaming at the top of her lungs, Madeline scratched at Ben’s face. He caught her hands and held her. The temptation to strike her was almost overwhelming, but Ben resisted.

Holding her away from him, Ben was startled when a bullet sang past his ear. He flinched and the next moment, Madeline collapsed against him. She looked into his face, and whispered, “I love you, Ben.” Her eyes suddenly went blank, and Ben realised that the bullet that had nearly hit him had killed her. Gently, he laid her down, feeling a pang near his heart for the waste of a life. The life of someone he had once loved.

The shoot-out collapsed when Madeline died, and it was an easy matter for the posse to take charge.

Leaving Madeline’s body, Ben knelt by Joe. “What kept you?” Joe joked weakly. His hand had received a fresh knock and Joe was white and sweating from the pain. “I’d never live down being beaten up by a woman.”

Relieved that Joe could joke, Ben gathered him carefully into his arms. “Thank goodness you’re all right,” he murmured.

After making sure that everyone that should be was in custody, Hoss went across to join his family. “Pa, are you all right?” he asked, anxiously.

“Thanks to you,” Ben replied. “I don’t know when I was last so pleased to see anyone.” He put out a hand and squeezed Hoss’ beefy shoulder. The big man blushed.

“I was real pleased to see him, too,” noted Joe. He suddenly felt all shuddery and leant against Ben. “Thanks, big brother.”

“That’s what big brothers are for,” Hoss replied.

Across the room, the preacher was saying, “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

*****

The doctor in Black Hills found himself in demand later that afternoon as the weary posse rode back into town. One of the outlaws had succumbed to his injuries on the ride into town; a couple of others had minor gunshot wounds, as did the preacher. Joe needed his broken hand set, his broken ribs bound up and his ear and cheek dressed. In consequence, it was almost midnight before he and his family reached the hotel room.

By then, Joe was too tired to stay awake, and accepted help in undressing before falling into bed. Ben was also exhausted, as was Hoss, and neither of them was far behind Joe in going to sleep. It was the first good night’s sleep that any of them had had since Joe had been abducted from the stagecoach three days before.

*****

The sun was well up when Joe awoke the next morning. He ached all over and sat up cautiously. His hand was in a cast, which reached to his elbow and his ribs were so tightly bound that he couldn’t take a deep breath. However, these were now minor considerations to Joe, who was simply relieved to be free.

The hotel suite was empty, and Joe looked with disgust at his dirty, torn clothes. Spying his saddlebags in the corner, he began to rummage through them for clean clothes, and was struggling to get his shirt buttoned when the door opened and Ben came in.

“You’re awake,” Ben smiled, and came over to assist with the buttoning. Within a few minutes, Joe’s hand was tucked securely into a sling and he was ready to go down for breakfast. “I’m starving,” Joe commented. The previous night, he had been too tired and nauseated to eat more than a few bites of the meal he’d been offered. It had been days since Joe had eaten properly.

Not much to Joe’s surprise, Hoss was in the dining room, just finishing off the last of the bacon. He grinned at Joe, and a waiter brought fresh bacon to the table along with some coffee. Ben had to cut the bacon, but Joe managed to feed himself, although both father and brother watched each mouthful anxiously to be sure it reached Joe’s mouth. All the scrutiny made Joe uncomfortable, but it also made him want to laugh, and he was never sure thereafter how he managed to get each forkful to his mouth without bursting out laughing.

It wasn’t until Joe had eaten that Ben brought up what they had to do that day. “Joe, you’ll have to come to the jail and tell Sheriff Fullerton what happened to you,” he said. “So do I, for that matter.”

“I guess,” Joe murmured. Ben wished his son didn’t have to relive it all, but it was necessary. He drank down the last of the coffee. It was strong and good. Swallowing, Joe nodded. “Let’s do it,” he said, resolutely and Ben felt his heart swell with pride at his son’s courage.

The walk to the jail was quiet and Joe’s head was down most of the way. However, he gave his statement in a confident, if low voice. Fullerton wrote it down, while Hoss looked on angrily. Ben knew how he felt. He himself sat beside Joe and kept his hand on the young man’s shoulder throughout.

“Thanks, Joe,” Fullerton said, as Joe finished talking. There was no way Joe could sign his statement, so Ben and Hoss signed it, saying that they had been present when it was given. One of the deputies also signed.

“Have any of them said anything yet?” Ben asked as they rose to leave.

“Yes,” Fullerton replied. “It’s a strange story, Mr Cartwright. Madeline had met up with the leader of this gang a few years back. They had been an item,” he blushed, “an’ she had eventually joined with them when they were doing hold-ups. Turns out she was cleverer than the leader. His name was Johnston, an’ he was wanted all over the place. When he died, she jist took right over. Most of the men realised she was the brains, an’ they liked the way she divided the loot. She sure sold ‘em on the idea o’ the Ponderosa, it seems. Told ‘em they’d all be rich men.”

“And they would’ve been,” Joe commented bitterly. “Madeline was clever all right.” He remembered all too clearly how she had fooled his father and brothers into thinking that he and she had had a teasing relationship, when all the time she was getting at Joe and making his life a misery. The thought of being her prisoner for a long, long time made Joe shudder, even though the danger was past.

“When can we go home?” Ben asked. He wanted to get back to his familiar surroundings and forget the nearness of their escape this time.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Fullerton replied. “I’m right pleased you an’ your boy are safe, sir.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied, and shook the sheriff’s hand. Roy had been right, he reflected silently; Fullerton was a good man.

Standing outside the jail, Ben said, “I think we should wait until tomorrow before we go home.”

“I want to go today,” Joe protested.

“You aren’t up to it,” Ben objected. Joe was still pale.

“I want to go home,” he insisted. “Please, Pa, let’s go home.” Joe sounded strained and Ben nodded, although he wasn’t sure Joe was up to a long ride and a night’s sleeping on the ground. “I want to sleep in my own bed.”

“All right, young man, you win,” Ben capitulated. “But if you feel at all unwell, you tell me at once, understand?” Although quite what he would do on the trail if this happened, Ben didn’t know.

“Joe’s right, Pa,” Hoss added. “We need to get out a here.”

“I said we’re going,” Ben protested. He followed them back to the hotel, where they stuffed their gear into their saddlebags and went to retrieve their horses. Hoss had had the foresight to bring Cochise for Joe and he patted his old friend lovingly before mounting gingerly. There was no swing mount today, Ben noted.

There was no hurry for them to get home. Ben wanted Joe to take things as easily as possible, but Joe wanted to get home and as far away from Black Hills as possible. They had covered a good part of the way home before making camp for the night.

It was clear Joe was exhausted, and he willingly rested while Ben and Hoss made camp. Hoss cooked and Ben tended to the horses. “Tomorrow we’ll be home,” Joe commented quietly as they ate supper.

“Good thing, too,” Hoss mumbled through a mouthful of ham.

“That’s the second time today you’ve said something like that,” Ben noticed. “Why is it a good thing?”

Snorting, Hoss replied, “Well, what with Joe gettin’ abducted an’ all, I jist feel we’ll be better at home.”

“And what’s the real reason?” Ben enquired, for he’d never heard such a lame excuse from anyone before, and Joe had had some beauties over the years.  He saw Hoss and Joe exchange glances. “Come on, out with it!” he demanded impatiently.

“Well, Pa, it’s like this,” Hoss began, then glanced at Joe.

When it became clear that Hoss wasn’t going to say anymore, Ben looked at Joe for enlightenment. His youngest son shrugged. “We don’t want to have to rescue you from another shotgun wedding, is all,” Joe dead panned.

For an instant, Ben just sat there, gazing from one son to another. Hoss choked on the end of his meal and Joe’s face paled. “A shotgun wedding, huh?” Ben repeated. “A shotgun wedding!” Hoss leapt to his feet and backed away, but that wasn’t an option open to Joe. His father’s hand snagged in his jacket.

“Hoss!” Joe objected. “Help!”

“I’ll give you a shotgun wedding,” Ben threatened.

“Help!” Joe cried.

Unable to keep a straight face any longer, Ben let go of Joe and began to laugh. Hoss paused in his retreat, then began to laugh, too. Joe looked at them both indignantly. “Some big brother you are,” he chided Hoss, but the laughter was silvering his voice. “Running away and leaving me alone when I’m hurt and unable to take care of myself.”

“You should have seen your faces,” Ben laughed. “Shotgun wedding indeed!” He slapped both sons on their shoulders, and was thankful that they were able to see the funny side of it. He knew, then, that they would be able to put this whole situation behind them, in time. “Wait till I get you home,” he threatened, lovingly.

***End***

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