Sold! (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:   9196


 

 

As the house came into sight, Joe Cartwright heaved a sigh of relief. He had been away from home for almost three weeks and he couldn’t wait to get back. He had been delivering 4 horses to a customer near the Arizona border and had been held up by torrential rains on the way home. Joe was at least four days late and he hoped that his pa and brothers were still at home waiting for him.

But Joe was to be disappointed. The house was cold and deserted. The note that Ben had left his youngest son explained that they couldn’t delay the cattle drive any longer and had had to go on without him. If Joe arrived home within 24 hours of the date on the note, he should follow them and try to catch up. If it was any later than that, he was in charge of the ranch. Glancing at the date, Joe saw that it was dated three days before. “Guess I’m in charge then,” Joe sighed.

His first priority was to get fires going. Hop Sing had gone with Ben, Adam and Hoss, as they were only taking some cattle into Reno. It wasn’t a long trip. Meantime, all the hearths in the house were cold and Joe couldn’t make himself a hot meal until the fires were going.

Although it didn’t take long to get the fires going and a meal cooked, Joe was much more appreciative of Hop Sing than usual by the time he had done it all. He hadn’t realized how much he had come to rely on a meal being ready for him when he came in cold and tired and he was grateful that he didn’t have to clean up very often afterwards. By then, exhaustion was closing his eyes, so Joe shot the bolt on the door, banked the fires for the night and took himself off to bed.

Dropping his dirty clothes in a heap on the floor, Joe flung himself onto the bed, dragged the blankets up over his bare shoulders and fell asleep at once.

*****

The sun was well up when Joe stirred the next morning. It was a pleasant feeling to lie there, relaxing, but soon Joe’s natural ebullience had him up and out of bed. He went down stairs and washed at the kitchen sink, a thing his father never allowed, before making a quick breakfast. There wasn’t much food in the house, and Joe decided he’d have to go into town for some supplies to tide him over for a few days.

The ranch was never left unattended and Joe saw the men that Ben had left behind working down by the corrals, so he headed over there to let them know that he was back, and that they should carry on with whatever chores they had been given to do. By the time Joe had caught up on the ranch gossip and told about his time away, it was almost noon before he reached town.

First things first, Joe decided and went to have some lunch in one of the cafes, reasoning that there was no need to eat his own cooking when there was good food available! Feeling replete, he then headed over to the store.

“Joe!”

Recognizing the voice, Joe turned and smiled at Sheriff Roy Coffee and waited for the older man to catch up with him. “Hi, Roy.”

“Hi, yerself,” Roy replied. “When d’ya git home, Little Joe?”

Wincing silently, Joe wished Roy would just start calling him Joe and forget about the ‘Little’. “Late yesterday,” he replied. “I got held up and missed Pa and the others. How’re things here?”

“Oh, about the same,” Roy replied, sagely. “Don’t ya go getting inta any fights while yer pa’s away, ya hear, boy? There ain’t nobody ta come an’ bail ya out!”

“I won’t,” Joe laughed. “I’ll see you around, Roy. Take it easy.”

“I’ll do that,” Roy agreed. “You, too, Joe.” He watched as Joe sauntered across the street and into the store before he headed back to his office.

It didn’t take Joe long to buy a few things to tide him over, and he packed them into his saddlebags before heading across to the saloon. He tethered Cochise outside and went in.

There were a fair number of customers patronizing the place and Joe nodded greetings to half a dozen different men as he made his way to the bar. “Hi, Sam, gimme a beer,” Joe said, as he leaned onto the polished surface of the bar.

“Comin’ up, Joe,” Sam replied. A cool beer was soon in front of Joe and he took a deep draught. “Haven’t seen you in town for a while, Joe? You grounded again?”

“Ah, back off,” Joe laughed. “Grounded! You sure are tired of living, aren’t you, Sam?” He laughed again as the barman chortled. “No, I was delivering some horses. I only got back last night.”

“Sure, I believe you,” Sam agreed. The two men had been acquaintances for a long time. He moved off to serve someone else. Joe turned to lean against the bar, looking idly around the room. His eye fell on a group of his friends sitting up at the back, and Joe took his beer and went over to join them, not noticing the two pairs of eyes that were following his every move.

*****

An hour and a half and several beers later, Joe left the saloon and mounted the patient Cochise. He felt pleasantly relaxed and a lot less tired than he had earlier. He didn’t see the man who mounted up and raced off, trying to outdistance Joe. Nor did he particularly notice the fancy black carriage that was parked outside the hotel. As soon as he left the confines of the town behind, Joe put his heel to his horse for no other reason that the love of speed and in perfect harmony, man and horse raced across the land.

As Joe pulled Cochise back to a lope, he saw a man on the road ahead, waving frantically. Joe straightened, frowning. “Looks like trouble of some kind, Cooch,” he remarked. With his hand resting on his gun, Joe rode on.

“Help, please!” the man called as Joe drew closer. “My wagon overturned and my brother is trapped. I can’t move the wagon alone.”

Dismounting, Joe could see the overturned wagon lying in a dip by the road. “What do you want me to do?” he asked. He thought the man seemed familiar, but he was trying to figure out how he could help free the trapped man. He started to move down the slope.

From the corner of his eye, Joe saw a fast movement, but before he could react, something heavy crashed down on his head and he tumbled down the dip, out cold. Another man stood up from behind the wagon and grinned at the first one. “We got him!” he exclaimed.

Movement on the road caught the men’s attention, and they glanced up worriedly. A man was coming towards them, riding a limping horse too hard. After a moment, the men relaxed, recognizing the third partner. As the horse pulled up, one of the men repeated, “We got him!”

“You idiots,” the third man swore. His partners, his brothers, looked astounded. Before they could speak, the oldest one went on, “There ain’t any other Cartwrights home right now! There’s no point in holding Joe for ransom when there ain’t anyone to pay it!”

“How was we meant to know that, Jim?” asked the one who had been hiding behind the wagon.

Relenting, Jim replied, “All right, so you didn’t know. If this horse hadn’t turned lame on me, I might’ve got here before him an’ warned you.” He sighed and looked down on Joe. “We’d better tie him up and take what money he’s got on him. Then we’ll get out of here.”

There wasn’t much money in Joe’s wallet and his left-handed gun belt was too distinctive to take into town to sell. Rob, the middle brother, gave Joe a hefty kick in the ribs. “For a rich man’s son, he ain’t carryin’ much money,” he complained.

“I can help you there,” offered a voice and all three men swore, not having heard the dapper little man approaching. They drew their guns.

“Who’re you?” Jim asked. “What do you want?”

“My name isn’t important,” the man replied. “I work for Lady Jane Beresford. She would be willing to pay you to take this young man off your hands.”

Uncertainly, Jim looked at his brothers. None of them were great shakes as thinkers, but he could see the greedy gleam in the eyes of his youngest brother, Jake. This seemed like a good way out of their predicament. Joe Cartwright knew them slightly, and when he came round and got free, he would undoubtedly go to the sheriff and report them. “How much?” he asked, warily.

“$5000,” the little English man replied, and the brothers nodded. That was more than twice the amount they had thought of asking!

“Done!” Jim agreed, putting his gun away. His brothers copied him. He watched as the man extracted some money from his inside pocket and handed it over. Jim counted it quickly and nodded to his brothers.

“Now, go away,” the Englishman ordered. He watched as the brothers rode away, then knelt by Joe, swiftly blindfolding and gagging him. That done, he stood and whistled piercingly. A moment later, the black carriage appeared and drew to a stop beside him. The driver jumped down and helped the little man load Joe into the carriage. It then drove away, with Joe a prisoner inside.

*****

When Joe came round a short while later, he couldn’t figure out what was happening. He was being bumped around and he could hear talking, yet he was ignored, even as he struggled against the tight ropes that bound him. The way he was cramped up, he couldn’t move his head enough to rub off the blindfold and by the time the carriage stopped its journey, many hours later, Joe was exhausted and his limbs were cramping badly.

As he was dragged from the carriage, Joe renewed his struggles, but it was hopeless. He couldn’t loosen the ropes at all. He drew in a draught of fresh air before he was taken inside a building of some kind. Joe heard a big door boom shut behind him, and many feet on wooden floors. Then he seemed to be going upstairs. He heard another door open and then his journey ended as he was dropped on a carpet covered floor. The door closed behind him again.

Now, Joe at least had a way to remove the blindfold and he rubbed his head on the carpet until the material pulled away from his eyes. Joe had to blink several times before his vision cleared. He looked around curiously.

He was in a large bedroom. A big, canopied bed occupied part of the room. A dark armoire stood against the wall, with a matching dressing table and chest close by. Thick velvet curtains hung over the window and they were closed. Candles burned in sconces all round the walls. Joe didn’t know where he was; he had no idea if it was night or day; he was hungry, thirsty, sore and he needed to pee. Joe felt that his temper was ready to explode at any second.

The bedroom door opened and a strikingly beautiful young woman came in. She was wearing dark traveling clothes, and Joe could see at once by the style and cut that they had cost a lot of money. The woman came straight across to Joe and stood over him, looking down. He craned his stiff neck to look at her more closely. He did not like what he saw.

“I am Lady Jane Beresford,” she announced. “I have just bought you as my personal servant. Please me, and you’ll live like a king. Displease me, and you’ll regret it.”

Incensed by her words, Joe tried instinctively to protest, but the gag held back his words. He was outraged.  He was not a piece of property to be bought or sold! He renewed his struggle against his bonds, but he was too tired to fight for long. He slumped back and realized that Lady Jane was looking at him with amusement.

Calmly, she went over and pulled on an embroidered bell pull and a few moments later, the dapper little man who had negotiated for Joe came in. “Yes, my lady?” he enquired politely.

“Take out the gag, Giles and let’s find out who he is,” Lady Jane instructed. She perched herself on the trunk at the end of the bed and watched with interest.

Joe was more than relieved to be rid of the gag, but he found his mouth was too dry to speak for a few moments. ”Let me go,” he demanded. “You can’t keep me here! I’m a free man!”

“Not any more,” Lady Jane replied. “You were free, but you aren’t now. These are the facts, accept them. What is your name?”

“My name’s Joe Cartwright, and my father and brothers will be looking for me!”

“Those stupid men I bought you from said that there was no one in your family at home right now,” Lady Jane informed him. “They were rather in a quandary about what to do. I gather they were going to hold you to ransom. I offered them a large sum of money which they accepted. So you are mine, Joe Cartwright. I know of your father, if he is Ben Cartwright, but that doesn’t worry me. Soon, you’ll be willing to be mine.”

“I’ll never willingly be yours, because I’m a free man, not a slave,” Joe retorted.

“Take him away,” Lady Jane ordered. “He’s boring me. Make him secure for the night. I’ll start training him tomorrow.”

“Very good, m’lady,” Giles agreed and went to the door.

A moment later, two other men came in and Joe was dragged out of that room, along a corridor, up another flight of stairs and into a different room with no furniture in it. There, his jacket and boots were stripped off and the ropes were exchanged for shackles, despite Joe’s best efforts at resistance. He was chained to the wall and left alone.

Looking round, Joe saw that there was some food and water set out for him. The one lamp burned dimly, and there was a blanket for him. No fire burned in the empty grate, and curtains covered the windows. Joe made use of the chamber pot and ate. Then he wrapped himself in the blanket and waited for morning to come.

*****

Next morning, Lady Jane was the first person into the room, followed by the faithful Giles. “Good morning,” she smiled. Joe looked back, but said nothing, remaining huddled beneath the blanket. It had been a cold night.

A flash of annoyance crossed her face, the lips tightening noticeably. “When I come into a room, you will rise and answer me politely.”

“I don’t think so,” Joe responded, quietly. “You haven’t treated me with respect, so I don’t have to treat you with respect.”

Without saying another word, Jane swept out of the room and the door slammed shut behind her. Joe winced slightly and made a rueful face. He had laid his cards on the table now, and would have to live with the consequences. But Joe had no intention of buckling under. He had to fight to get free until Pa and his brothers arrived home and discovered he was missing.

Miserably, Joe wondered just how long that would take.

*****

Knocking briskly on the door of the big house, Fred waited impatiently for a reply. He tried again a few moments later, and when there was still no answer, opened the door and went in. “Joe?” he called, with the familiarity of a long-term ranch hand, which he was. “Joe!” There was no reply.

Perplexed, Fred looked back out of the door, and sure enough, Cochise still stood in the yard where Fred had tethered him a few minutes ago. Fred hadn’t seen Joe come home, and he was rather surprised that his boss hadn’t tended to his horse, but perhaps Joe was going back out again. However, the continuing silence was making Fred uneasy and he took the reluctant decision that he had to search the house for Joe.

The kitchen fire was out, as was the fire in the great room. A few dirty dishes were sitting by the pump in the kitchen. Fred lifted a moldy apple from the bowl on the table and dumped it. Joe was obviously nowhere downstairs and so Fred ventured into new territory and went upstairs.

The bedrooms were deserted. Joe’s bed was unmade and a breeze fluttered the curtains at the partially open window. The water in the glass by his bed sparkled with dust motes in the afternoon sunshine.

Leaving the house, Fred searched the barn, spring house, smoke house and corrals, but all the time he did that, he knew that he wasn’t going to find Joe. With a sinking heart, Fred went to put Cochise away, then saddled a horse for himself and rode into town to report Joe missing.

*****

The wire reporting that grim news reached Ben, Adam and Hoss the next morning, three days after Joe’s disappearance.  Adam and Hoss both watched their father’s face as he read the telegram. “What is it, Pa?” Adam asked, anxiously.

“Joe,” Ben replied, with a distracted air. He read the words once more. “He’s disappeared.” He handed the paper to Adam and Hoss crowded in close to read it. Ben thought furiously. “Hop Sing can bring back the wagon alone. Boys, you and I will head for home at once. Fred says that he’s alerted Roy Coffee, so hopefully he’ll have found something out by the time we get home.”

They hurried to their hotel rooms and packed. Ben sent a wire back, saying they were on their way. After a brief stop to despot the money from the sale of the cattle, they were in the saddle and riding as though the devil was on their tail.

*****

“Pa,” Joe breathed, barely aware of his surroundings. Joe’s body begged for water and he moaned as a cramp spasmed through his empty belly. He had not had food or drink for 2 days and his body was beginning to shut down.

A hand lifted his head and some cool water trickled into his mouth and Joe swallowed eagerly. He cried out in distress as the water was withdrawn. “You’ll get some more soon,” a voice soothed, and Joe was too weak to protest any further. He slipped into a restless sleep.

Over the next day or so, Joe’s strength gradually crept back as Lady Jane allowed him to eat and drink again. Joe used the time to think. He wasn’t sure how long he had been there, having lost track of time while delirious, but he knew that resistance wasn’t going to get him anywhere. His only hope, as he saw it, was to play along, pretend to be cowed and hope for a relaxation in his captivity. Now that he was getting better, he was in shackles once more. But he didn’t have the physical reserves right then to have made a break, even if he hadn’t been in chains. So, despite it going against the grain, Joe did what was expected of him and tried to be meek. It didn’t come easy.

Yet after a few days, he began to see a glimmer of light. Lady Jane seemed to believe that his spirit was broken. She allowed him more contact with the other servants, and Joe began to gather some information about his ‘mistress’.

He already knew that she was English. Her father had been Lord Beresford, but he had not been married to Jane’s mother. She had no right to use the title, but here in America, nobody knew any better. Jane’s mother had also been aristocratic, but her father had thrown her out when it was discovered that she was with child. Jane’s mother had managed to make a marriage with a rich draper; something of a comedown in class for her, but a huge step up for the man.  They had had no other children, and when he died, Jane’s mother had inherited his wealth. A few years later, Jane had come to America, bringing many of her servants with her.

It was there that Joe suddenly found the servants less willing to talk. There was some mention of living back east, but nothing specific. Joe tried not to appear too curious, and as it became obvious that Jane was preparing to make Joe earn his keep, he soon reaped the reward for his patience. The first evening that Jane sent for Joe, the footman who took him whispered, “She’s mad. Just remember that.”

“What?” Joe whispered back. He was becoming depressingly used to the shackles, but was still forced to walk more slowly than he was used to. “What do you mean, mad?”

“She was in an asylum,” the other whispered. Joe thought his name might be Mark. “Giles got her out, but she’s crazy! You be careful not to make her angry.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Joe replied. He had already been apprehensive about what she wanted from him and he was doubly so now. Reluctantly, he walked into her room and the door shut behind him.

“Good evening, Joe,” Jane purred. She was stretched out on a chaise lounge in front of a blazing fire, wearing a filmy negligee.

“Good evening, m’lady,” he replied, as he’d been taught.

“Come over here and kneel down,” she ordered. Joe nervously obliged. She studied him closely, her face only inches from his own, one hand caressing his cheek. “So beautiful,” she breathed and leant forward and kissed him.

For a moment, Joe resisted, then allowed her tongue to insinuate itself between his lips.  Jane put her hand on the back of his head and drew him closer. After a moment, she backed off. “You will kiss me back,” she ordered. Without waiting for a reply, she claimed his mouth again. Joe could not bring himself to do as she asked. After a moment, she drew back, but she clamped her sharp white teeth into his lip as she did so and ripped mercilessly back. Joe let out a startled cry as his lip began to bleed heavily. “You won’t defy me again,” Jane warned him.

“No, m’lady,” Joe agreed. He longed to raise his hand and wipe away the blood that ran down his chin, but he couldn’t.

Satisfied, Jane reached over and began to unbutton the white shirt Joe was wearing. She pushed the fabric as far back on his shoulders as she could and ran her fingers down his chest. Joe shivered slightly. “Stand up,” she ordered and Joe did as he was told.

Swinging her legs to the floor, Jane sat up and reached for a bunch of keys on a small table near by. She slowly opened the lock that kept Joe’s hands attached to his waist, then the chain round his waist, and lastly opened the shackles on his ankles. It was complete bliss to be almost free again. Joe hopefully held out his hands and was elated when she opened one cuff.

“Take your clothes off,” Jane ordered. “Shirt first, and don’t try anything.” She patted a cushion significantly, and Joe assumed that she had a gun there. But he had to gain her trust, even though he knew now what was expected of him. He slid his shirt off and submitted meekly when she refastened the cuffs round his wrists.

When at last Joe stood before her in all his glory, Jane caught her breath. She had spotted Joe on the street in Virginia City and had wanted him from that first moment. Her delight when they had found him already unconscious and tied up had been great. Money was no object to her and she intended to have this young man. It hadn’t taken much to break him, she mused. She had thought it might require more brutal methods, but she was just as glad not to have to mar that golden skin. He had a few odd scars, but they only enhanced his perfection. She hadn’t suspected how muscular he was. His slender build had been deceptive.

“Come over here,” she coaxed and led Joe to the bed. He kept his face impassive. He had known this was coming.

*****

Next day, Joe deliberately kept his mind away from the coming evening. Joe knew he had to do what was necessary to survive and he was in no doubt that if he displeased Jane enough, he wouldn’t survive for long. By now, Joe knew that his family would be looking for him, and he had to stay alive long enough to escape or for them to find him.

But already, his cooperation had provided dividends. Joe’s ankles were no longer shacked! He reveled in this relative freedom and spent quite a long time walking about his room, stretching out the cramped muscles in his legs. Joe was concerned that all the time he had spent in inactivity would adversely affect his fitness. He had to be as fit as possible when he came to make his escape.

*****

The faint hope that Ben had had that Joe would be home before they were was crushed. Joe was still missing. It was too late that night to do anything other than fall into bed and try to sleep, but when morning came, Ben felt that he hadn’t closed his eyes at all.

Breakfast was a sketchy meal, as Hop Sing was coming home more slowly with the chuck wagon. Ben and the boys grabbed a few mouthfuls standing in the kitchen, then headed out to mount the horses that Fred had saddled for them.

“Hi, Ben!” Roy cried, as Ben walked into the sheriff’s office.

“Roy,” Ben replied. “You know that Joe is missing?”

“Yes, I do,” Roy agreed. “An’ I think I might be able ta help ya out there.”

“You can?” Ben cried. “How?”

“Well, ya know the Morton boys?”

“Morton?” Ben repeated. “No, I don’t…”

“They have that little spread on the outskirts of town, Pa,” Adam reminded him. “They raise chickens.”

“Oh, them,” Ben nodded, his tone betraying what the entire town thought of the Mortons. “What do they have to do with this?”

“Well, they’s been spreadin’ a lot o’ money about town fer the last week,” Roy explained. The frown on Ben’s face told him that he still had no idea what Roy was talking about. “So I started askin’ questions. Jim decided to take me on, an’ I arrested him. O’ course, his brothers had to git involved, an’ so I got all three o’ ‘em in the cells.”

“And?” Ben asked, clearly baffled as to what this had to do with Joe.

Patiently, Roy continued. “Jim was in the Silver Dollar the day Joe disappeared. Jim lit out after Joe an’ the very next day they had lots of money.”

“But Joe wasn’t carrying lots of money,” Adam objected. “He wouldn’t have had much money on him at all. He banked the money before he came home. It was wired here the next day.”

“Jim admitted to me that they sold Joe to some woman.” Roy settled back to wait for the explosion. He wasn’t disappointed.

“WHAT?” Ben bellowed. “Sold him?”

“Fer $5000,” Roy agreed. He stepped in front of Ben as the irate man turned towards the cells. “Now, Ben calm down.”

“Calm down?” Ben repeated, dangerously. “They sold my son! Why should I calm down?”

“Because I think I might know where Joe is,” Roy told him. “This Lady Jane Beresford has a place right near Carson City. Jim says that’s who he sold Joe to.”

“I don’ unnerstand,” Hoss admitted. “How could they sell Joe?”

 “Seems that they was gonna hold him for ransom,” Roy explained. “But Jim discovered, too late, that you folks wasn’t home, an’ there wouldn’ be anyone to git the money. But by the time he reached his brothers, they’d already knocked Joe out an’ was in a real state. They ain’t much fer thinkin’, that’s fer sure,” he added in disgust. “This English feller came along an’ offered them the money. It was more than what they was gonna ask ya fer, an’ so they took it.”

“We’ve got to get out there right now,” Ben declared and they all rose to their feet.

“Slow down, Ben,” Roy advised. “There’s somethin’ ya ought ta know. This Lady Jane is crazy.”

“Crazy?” Adam echoed. “How do you mean?”

“She was locked up fer a while back east in an asylum. Seems some relation o’ hers, a fellow called Giles Ponsonby, come along an’ persuaded the doctors that he would look after her. Seemed ta be doin’ a good enough job, till now.” Roy chewed his moustache meditatively. “Might not be a real good idea ta go chargin’ in there.”

“It might not seem like a good idea to you, Roy,” Ben replied, “but it seems perfectly reasonable to me. Come on, boys!” He glared at Roy. “I thought you’d have gone to arrest her by now.”

“Ain’t my district,” Roy replied, nettled. “I done wired the sheriff down in Carson. He’s gonna go out an’ ask some questions. Should be there by now, I reckon.”

“Come on,” Ben told his sons and they left without a backward glance.

Roy slumped in his chair. That had gone just about as well has he had feared it would.

*****

Pacing restlessly around his room, Joe threw a frustrated look at the windows. The curtains were still shut, but even if they had been open, Joe had no way of looking out. The windows were shuttered tight on the outside. His door was always locked. Joe knew that he was on the first floor of the house, but he had no idea how far up that was. It didn’t matter. He was going to make his escape the first chance he got. It was becoming increasingly more difficult to sit passively at Lady Jane’s feet and take her odd moods. The night before, Joe had looked at her for too long, and she had hit him on the shoulder with the poker. Luckily for Joe, he had seen the blow coming and managed to duck far enough away that the blow didn’t break his arm, but the resulting bruise was extremely painful.

Suddenly, the door to his room opened and the two footmen, Mark and George, raced in, with Giles just a step or two behind. Joe looked at them blankly as they grabbed him. “What’s going on?” he asked, but got no further. A wad of cloth was shoved into his mouth and another strip tied around his head to keep it in place. Joe was thrown to the floor and his feet were tightly tied together, and then he was hustled across the room and the doors to the large armoire were thrown open. Joe was thrust inside, made to sit down and his hands, still handcuffed together, although no longer chained to his waist, were dragged over his head and tied to the sturdy clothes rail. Moments later, his feet were similarly secured, so that Joe could not move at all. The armoire doors were then shut, with him still inside.

Desperately, Joe struggled against his bonds, but his position was too awkward and uncomfortable to allow him to move about at all. He was balanced precariously on his tail bone and the weight of his body caused the handcuffs to bite painfully into the flesh of his wrists. Joe had no idea what was going on.

Joe had no idea how long he had been in there when he suddenly heard muffled voices in the room outside. Hope flared in Joe’s heart, and he tried desperately to rid himself of the gag, but all he managed to do was slide on the bottom of the armoire slightly and place yet more weight on his hands. In a last ditch effort to get help, Joe deliberately slid further and banged his feet off the side of the armoire and waited.

Nothing happened. Joe had left his attempt too late and he was left hanging in that painful position for some time before the doors opened and Giles stood there.

By then, Joe was sweating and feeling light headed. The air inside the armoire was growing rapidly stale. Joe looked up and met the Englishman’s gaze. He felt a surge of fear curl through his belly. What if Giles had heard his feet banging? Would his chance to escape come to nothing?

Silently, Giles cut through the rope holding Joe to the clothes rail and the young man slumped down in gratitude. Still silent, Giles pulled Joe from the armoire and left him sprawling on the floor while he checked the gag. Satisfied that it was secure, he then checked the ropes binding Joe’s bare feet and nodded. “Lady Jane will be up to see you shortly,” he informed his puzzled, apprehensive, prisoner. “If you are still like this, she has promised that you will get a treat tonight. If, however, you have broken free, you will be punished.”

A shudder ran down Joe’s spine. He met Giles’ eyes. The Englishman smiled. “That was the sheriff,” he told Joe. “He had come here with a warrant to search the place for you. As you can see, he wasn’t very thorough, and you are still here. Rest assured, you will be remaining here. I will make sure of that!” Nodding, Giles left.

*****

Over three hours passed before Lady Jane appeared. Joe was still lying there obediently, gagged and bound. He was determined that tonight was the night he was going to escape and he wouldn’t do anything to mess up his chances. He carefully kept his eyes down as Jane walked over and knelt beside him.

“What a good boy,” she praised him and Joe wanted to vomit. He forced himself to remain still as she ran her hand down his cheek, lingering on the gag. After a moment, she moved on, running her fingers down his bare chest, for she insisted that Joe was shirtless and bare foot at all times. Her fingers then brushed over his groin before she looked with interest at the chafed and reddened skin on his ankles where the rope bit into them. “I do like you like this,” she purred.

Keeping his eyes averted, Joe tried to appear cowed, not revolted, for he knew that she would punish him if his revulsion showed. He bore a number of dark bruises on his abdomen from her boot. Jane appeared to be delighted with his meekness.

After a minute of reveling in his helplessness, Jane untied the gag and Joe was able to spit out the wad of cloth with relief. His mouth was bone dry and he licked his lips in a fruitless attempt to gain some moisture.

“Here, my darling, drink,” Jane whispered, offering Joe a glass of water.

“Thank you,” Joe croaked and began to drink carefully, knowing that Jane could snatch away the glass at any second, or tip the water down his throat so fast that he choked. Oh, he knew most of her little ‘tricks’ by now. This time, Jane was honest with him and allowed Joe to drink.

Reaching for the stiletto that she kept with her all the time, Jane cut the rope binding Joe’s feet and ordered him to get up. Joe knew what was coming now. It was the same every night. Giles would be outside the door to make sure Joe obeyed Jane’s commands. Then, Jane would find some new way to tie Joe up so that he couldn’t run away while she tormented him.

*****

“It’s going to be dark when we get there, Pa,” Adam worried.

“I know,” Ben replied, in a discouraged tone. “But I still think Joe is there, even if that sheriff says he’s not! I’m going to find him, if it’s the last thing I do!”

“We’re with you on that, Pa,” Adam agreed, “but we’ve got to be careful. If we go in there with our guns blazing, who knows what might happen to Joe.”

“I know,” Ben nodded. “I’ll be careful, son.”

“There’s the turn-off,” Hoss called from ahead. As twilight fell, the road became less distinct and Ben had been afraid that they would miss the turning.

As the house came in sight, Ben felt his heart pounding in his chest. He knew that Joe was a prisoner in there and he determined to do what he had to, to ensure his son’s freedom.

*****

At last, Jane was asleep and Joe rolled over painfully, being careful not to jostle her. He was bleeding from a dozen scratches and Jane had tied his ankles together again. But this time, she had not bound his hands and as Joe slipped silently to the floor, he was more than grateful.

It took him an anxious couple of minutes to untie his feet. Joe cast another look at the bed, but Jane slept on. On silent feet, he made his way across the room to the window. There was no time to hunt for the handcuff keys. He had to get out of there before Jane awoke.

Sliding behind the curtains, Joe was surprised to discover that it wasn’t completely dark outside. He had not seen daylight since he had been sold, and had lost track of time. Judging by the light and the time of year, Joe thought it must be about 8 pm. The sun was clearly going down and Joe knew his timing couldn’t be better. It was tough to track someone in the dark!

It was awkward opening the window with his hands cuffed together, but Joe was determined and managed. He drew in a deep breath of fresh air, swung his legs out of the window and lowered himself as far as he could before he dropped to the ground.

It was easily an eighteen foot drop. The shock reverberated up Joe’s legs and he bit the inside of his cheek to muffle any outcry as he fell to his side on landing. Breathing heavily, Joe tried to decide which way to go. It didn’t really matter, he decided, since he had no idea where he was. There were some trees about 20 feet across a stretch of grass, and Joe decided that was his best option.

Rising to his feet, he caught his breath as he realized that he had not escaped unharmed from his fall. Pain radiated up his left leg from his foot to his knee. Clutching the offending limb just above the knee, Joe limped off as fast as he could, heading for the trees.

*****

The frantic knocking on her bedroom door roused Jane from her sleep and it took her a moment to realize that Joe was not beside her. Snatching up her robe, she slid it on while calling, “Come in!”

It was no surprise to see Giles, but he looked alarmed. “M’lady, three armed men are approaching!”

“Where’s Joe?” Jane cried, looking all round. “Where is he?”

Quickly, Giles moved so he could see around the room, but there was no sign of Joe. He knew that Joe had not gone into the corridor, as he had been outside the room all the time. Suddenly, a breath of air moved the curtains, and he raced across the room to throw the curtains aside.

“There he is!” he cried, pointing.

Running across, Jane saw Joe limping across the grass. Her temper ignited; Joe was the best man she had ever had and she didn’t want him getting away. In two steps, she crossed the room, snatched up a rifle and raced back to the window.

She was an excellent marksman. Her bullet hit Joe in the leg, knocking him over, but not causing the fatal injury she had hoped for. His limp had foiled her plans. “Get him!” she shrieked at Giles. “Get him and bring him back. He’s not going anywhere!”

“But those men,” Giles reminded her.

“I’ll deal with them,” Jane told him, lifting the rifle significantly. She glanced back out of the window, where Joe was dragging his injured leg across the ground.

*****

“That was a shot!” Hoss exclaimed, as they pulled their horses to a halt.

“Sounds like it came from the other side of the house,” Adam added.

“Let’s go!” Ben urged and they sent their horses in that direction.

*****

As the bullet bit into his already injured leg, Joe collapsed to the ground with a cry of pain. Jane knew he was free and she would be coming after him, he knew. Despite the pain and the blood that flowed from his thigh, Joe began to drag himself along the ground. His breath panted away from him as he tried to hurry, but his task was made doubly difficult by his handcuffed hands.

Somewhere behind him, a door banged shut, and Joe knew that the chase was on. He managed to get part way to his feet before his leg refused to hold him. Turning his head, he saw Giles running towards him, a gun in his hand. Joe braced himself for the bullet, even as he dragged his wounded body closer to his goal.

His heart was thudding in his ears, sounding like galloping hooves, but Joe knew that was the blood loss causing delusions. He wished that he had had one last chance to say goodbye to his family. The world was going dark around the edges and Joe didn’t realize that he had stopped moving. A shadow appeared on the edge of his vision and Joe squinted at it, realizing that it was Giles. Giles slowly raised his gun until it was aimed at Joe’s head, and Joe closed his eyes, not wanting to see the moment when death came racing towards him.

He heard a shot and slid into the waiting darkness.

*****

“Look!” Adam panted, and grabbed his rifle from its scabbard. The man on foot glanced briefly at the Cartwrights, but dismissed them. He raised his gun and took aim at the man huddled on the ground. Adam didn’t hesitate. He fired.

The man went down, and the Cartwrights urged their horses forwards again. It was only as they drew closer that Ben realized the other man on the ground was Joe! He flung himself from Buck’s back and knelt by his youngest son, while Adam and Hoss checked on Giles.

“How is he, Pa?” Adam asked coming over to look down on Joe.

“He’s in a bad way,” Ben replied. He ripped the neckerchief from his throat and pressed it against the bleeding wound in Joe’s thigh. Joe groaned and moved slightly. “What about him?” he asked, tilting his head in Giles direction.

“He’s dead,” Adam told him. “From the sheriff’s description, I think this must be that Giles fellow he talked about.”

Next moment, a shot rang out and Adam let out a grunt as he slumped to the ground. Ben ducked over Joe protectively, and he sensed, rather than saw, Hoss throw himself over Adam. Another bullet bit into the ground near Ben.

“Let’s get ‘em outta here, Pa,” Hoss cried. He grabbed Adam by the back of his coat and hauled him away. Ben spotted blood on the custard-colored fabric and felt a pang of worry. He ducked as another bullet whined overhead and pulled Joe a few feet further over, where they had a little shelter from the curve of the house.

“How’s Adam?” he panted as he laid Joe carefully down.

“I’m all right,” Adam replied, as Hoss picked up his brother’s rifle and then groaned, giving the lie to his words.

“Hoss, be careful,” Ben ordered as another bullet flew past his middle son’s head.

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss agreed, and a moment later, he fired. There was no answering fire and Hoss rose slowly to his feet and disappeared from sight.

Ben wanted desperately to go after him, but he couldn’t leave Joe and Adam alone. Adam was sitting up, cradling his left arm, where the bullet had passed. Ben checked the wound on Joe’s thigh and was relieved to see that the bleeding was almost stopped.

Footsteps approached and Adam drew his gun, but his caution was unnecessary, because it was Hoss. He put the rifle down heavily and sat down. “It were a girl,” he announced. “An’ she’s dead.”

“You did what you had to do to protect your brothers,” Ben soothed him.

“I guess,” Hoss agreed and Adam began to reassure him too.

At that moment, Joe groaned and mumbled his way back to consciousness. He opened pain-dulled eyes to see his father’s anxious face hovering above him. “Pa?” he breathed. “How did you get here?”

Smiling, Ben replied, “On horseback, son, the way I usually get places.” He glanced at his other sons. “Come on, Hoss, let’s get these two to shelter.”

*****

After commandeering a wagon, Hoss drove slowly to Carson City, while Ben rode beside the wagon. Adam and Joe were in the back and there wasn’t room for Ben, too. Joe was weak from blood loss and the bullet was still in his leg. He was wrapped in Ben’s bedroll and his head lay on Adam’s lap. Adam slumped against the back of the seat. The high-powered bullet had done a lot of damage to his arm on the way through. A few inches to the side, and Adam would have been a goner. To Ben’s intense frustration, Joe’s hands were still in cuffs, as when they had gone to the house, they had found it deserted.

There was no doctor available in Carson City when they got there. He had been called out and had not yet returned. Reluctant to wait, Ben made the decision that they would push on to Virginia City. Joe was quite stable and the sheriff had a key that fitted the handcuffs. Ben put Hoss’ bedroll over Joe and they set off.

It was nearing dawn before they arrived in Virginia City. Joe was running a fever, and Adam looked little better. Ben and Hoss were exhausted with worry. It had been a very long night.

Knocking on the door of Dr Paul Martin’s surgery, Ben was astounded when the doctor opened the door almost at once, fully dressed. “Paul,” he muttered. “Sorry, but…”

“I know,” Paul told him, pushing past. “Its Joe and Adam. I got a wire from the sheriff in Carson. Bring them in, Hoss,” he called. “Ben, go and sit down. I’ll help Hoss.”

Opening his mouth to protest, Ben found that he would only be talking to himself if he did, so he went in and slumped in the nearest seat. Ben felt as though he had been in the saddle for weeks. Next moment, Hoss appeared with Joe in his arms and Ben got up to hurry over and support Joe’s head, which lolled on his shoulders in an alarming fashion. Moments later, Paul came in supporting Adam.

“All right,” Paul said, as he deposited Adam in a chair. “I’m going to have to operate on Joe to take out that bullet. Adam, you sit down there and rest. Hoss, put this into a glass of water and make Adam drink it, even if you have to sit on him to get it down.”

“I think you’ve got your brothers mixed up there,” Adam retorted, dryly. “I’m the one who can obey orders, remember?”

“It never hurts to remind you who’s in charge,” Paul smiled and Adam couldn’t help smiling back. “The kitchen is through there, Hoss and we could all use some coffee, I think.” He watched for a moment to be sure that Hoss was following his instructions, then turned his attention to Joe.

The youngest Cartwright was lying on the examination table. His eyes were open, and he was trying to smile at Ben, who was stroking the hair back from Joe’s damp forehead. Paul went over and took Joe’s pulse. The tired green eyes turned in his direction. “Hi, doc,” he breathed.

“Joe, I’m just going to give you something to make you sleep,” Paul told him. “You should feel a bit better when you waken, all right?”

“I couldn’t feel much worse,” Joe responded and Paul took heart from the bad joke.

Within a couple of minutes, Paul had Joe anaesthetized and began to unwrap the blankets. He paused, looking down at Joe, then slowly raised his eyes to Ben’s. “What happened to him?” he asked.

“We know he was shot,” Ben replied. “But I don’t know what to tell you about this.” Ben sounded tired.

“What?” Adam rose from the chair he’d been sitting in and came over. “All these scratches,” Adam muttered. “They were done by fingernails, weren’t they?”

“I’d be surprised if they weren’t,” Paul replied, sighing. “Adam, go and sit down. Try and get some sleep if you can. Ben, perhaps you could clean up these marks while I remove this bullet.”

“Yes, all right,” Ben agreed, numbly. He wondered what on earth had happened to his son. The only person who could tell them was soundly asleep.

*****

Later that day, Joe was transferred back to the Ponderosa. He had roused briefly after the surgery, which had gone well and Paul had loaded him up with painkillers for the trip. Although it was more convenient for Paul to have Joe on his premises, a certain morbid curiosity had sprung up about his kidnapping and subsequent ordeal and Paul thought it would be better if he was protected from the rumors and gossip until such time as the trial of the Morton brothers was held.

“Go inside, Adam,” Ben ordered, as he helped his oldest son down from the wagon seat. “I’ll come and help you get ready for bed in a minute.”

“I can manage, Pa,” Adam assured him. His arm was in a sling and Paul had told him not to use it for a few weeks. “You see to Joe.”

Ben patted his shoulder. “I’ll be in,” he repeated. “In a minute.”

“All right,” Adam agreed, realizing that Ben wouldn’t rest easy until he was sure Adam was settled. He went carefully into the house, seeing by the roaring fire in the hearth that Hop Sing was home. Sure enough, the diminutive Oriental came out of the living room and looked at Adam gravely. “You find Lil Joe?” he asked.

“Pa and Hoss are bringing him in now,” Adam replied.

“Room all ready,” Hop Sing informed Adam and went back into the kitchen.

Adam had barely sat down on his bed when Ben and Hoss carried Joe into his room. Hoss had Joe’s shoulders and Ben was dealing with the unwieldy cast that Paul had put on Joe’s leg. Joe ankle and knee had both been badly sprained and Paul did not want Joe even attempting to walk on that leg until they were healed properly.

A few minutes later, Ben came in and pulled off Adam’s boots. He helped his son slip on a night shirt, then pulled the covers back for him. Adam couldn’t help sighing as he relaxed onto the soft bed. He had had a couple of hours sleep at Paul’s office, but he was still exhausted. His eyes closed involuntarily and he was drifting off to sleep even as Ben adjusted the covers around him Adam never heard his father leave the room.

*****

It was early evening before Joe stirred. By then, Ben had had a few hours sleep, leaving Hoss, who had slept at Doc Martin’s watching Joe. Now, feeling refreshed, and having had a meal, Ben was back on duty at his youngest’s bedside.

“Welcome back,” Ben said, leaning in to feel Joe’s head. The fever had broken a few hours previously. “How do you feel?” His dark eyes spoke of the love he had for Joe.

“Sore,” Joe admitted. He glanced around the room without moving his head. “When did I get here?”

“Earlier,” Ben replied. “You slept all the way. Do you want something to eat?”

“Yeah, I think I do,” Joe agreed. He let Ben help him sit up and relaxed back on the pile of pillows. After a moment, he raised his wrists and looked at the bandages there. “Free,” he whispered.

Troubled, Ben paused, but Joe had his eyes shut again and so Ben decided to leave the questioning until after Joe had eaten. He was glad that he had put a nightshirt on Joe so that he couldn’t see the scratches on his skin.

After Joe had eaten two bowls of Hop Sing’s chicken soup, Ben put the tray aside and looked at Joe. “Can you tell me what happened, son?” he asked.

A shadow flitted across Joe’s face and was gone. Slowly, he told Ben what had happened to him over the course of the time he had been gone. Ben listened without interrupting. Joe faltered as he came to the part where he had done as Jane expected, but Ben’s face didn’t change. “I did it to survive, Pa,” Joe stated defiantly.

“I know that, son,” Ben replied, his warm hand resting on Joe’s arm. “What about the… scratches?”

“Jane was even crazier than usual,” Joe explained. “I think it was the sheriff’s arrival that tipped her over. I don’t know. But she wanted to hurt me. She hit me and I blacked out and when I came round, I was covered in marks.” Joe shuddered. “How bad is my leg?”

“Nothing broken,” Ben assured him. “But your knee and ankle are in a bit of a mess. The bullet didn’t mess up your thigh too much, though. Paul says you won’t even have a limp when it’s healed.”

“Did Adam get shot, too?” Joe asked. “Or did I just dream that?”

“No, Adam got hit in the arm, but he’ll be fine in a few weeks,” Ben replied.

“And what about…Jane and Giles?” Joe had to force the names out.

“Both dead,” Ben answered. “There won’t be a trial as far as they are concerned, Joe.”

“Who was it kidnapped me in the first place?” Joe asked. “I thought I knew one of the men, but everything happened so fast.”

“The Mortons, who have the chicken farm outside town,” Ben told him and Joe nodded.

“How embarrassing,” Joe muttered. “Being kidnapped by them.”

Ben chuckled. Joe was obviously going to be all right. “Everyone’s entitled to an off day,” he teased.

***End***

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