Stranger Things (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6849


 

 

It was morning again and he knew that he would eat the last of his meager rations that day. Not that he hadn’t tried to spin them out – he had done everything short of starve himself. But now, it was snowing and his leg still wasn’t healed enough to allow him to walk out of here. He thought that by the time anyone found him, he would be long dead. It wasn’t a comforting thought.

The effort of moving off the bunk to get himself some water was almost more than he could do, but he knew he needed water. The daily trip to the stream had been just one more torture that he had had to endure to survive. Survival was the name of the game here. The fact that he had caught himself thinking about death showed just how much the cold and his injuries had sapped his strength. But he had to face it; he was never going to get home again. There was no way he could survive the winter in this shack.

Rising painfully to his feet, the young man hopped carefully across the small shack and peered into the water bucket. There was enough in the bottom to let him have a mouthful. Or there would be if it wasn’t frozen solid. Sighing, the young man poked up the fire in the stove and put in the last of his firewood. That was something else he would have to replenish that day and he really wasn’t equipped for the cold weather.

There was no point in putting off the chores, he decided. The snow was starting to come down a bit heavier. It wasn’t lying as yet – it was too wet for that – but the situation could change by afternoon. Shrugging on the lightweight jacket that was the only outdoor gear he had, Joe Cartwright stepped out into the frigid morning.

*****

It had started out as a selling trip. Joe and Rod, one of the hands, had taken six horses across to Placerville to sell to a friend of Ben’s. The journey had gone smoothly, as had the transaction itself. After spending the night in Placerville, Joe and Rod had had a hearty breakfast, stocked up on a few supplies to get them back to the ranch and set off. It was when they reached the edge of the ranch and were preparing to stop for the night that Rod proved that he wasn’t the most reliable of companions.

One moment, Joe was riding along, planning their stop for the night, the next he was face down on the ground with a splitting headache. Moving slowly, Joe discovered that his right leg was agonizingly painful below his knee and when he moved, he guessed that it was broken. Panting against the pain, Joe lifted his head and saw Rod rifling through his saddlebags. “What are you doing?” he cried, reaching for his gun. It was missing from his holster.

“Where’s the money?” Rod demanded, whirling to glare down on his boss. Joe spotted his missing weapon sticking in the waistband of Rod’s pants. Rod threw the saddlebags at Joe when they failed to yield what he was looking for.

“What money?” Joe replied, not having the least idea what Rod was referring to.

“Don’t be stupid, Cartwright!” Rod snapped. He took a step towards Joe and drew his gun. “Where’s the money from the sale of the horses?”

For a moment, Joe didn’t know if he was going to laugh or groan. He did neither. “In the bank,” he muttered. “I put it in the bank!”

“What?” Rod roared, the despair clear in his voice. He kicked Joe hard in the ribs. “You moron! That wasn’t part of the plan!”

“What plan?” Joe gasped.

“What plan!” Rod scoffed. “You really are stupid!” He shoved his gun back into his holster and leaned over Joe, grabbing the front of his jacket. Joe cried out as the pain flared up his leg, leaving the world grey and monochromed. He vaguely felt hands going through his jacket pockets, then the world went dark as he was dropped to the ground.

He didn’t know how much time had passed when he opened his eyes. Long enough that he was completely alone on the trail apart from his saddlebags, which lay a few feet away. Rod and both the saddle horses were gone. Joe felt horribly sick as he remembered what had happened and checked his pockets. The few dollars that he had had on him were gone.

As the rain began to fall, Joe realized that he couldn’t lie on the trail all night. He had no bedroll, no slicker and no shelter. Shelter was what he needed most. He forced himself to think through the aching of his head and remembered that he wasn’t that far from the line shack where he had intended to stay the night.

But ‘not that far’ was now an objective term. It had been no distance at all on horseback. It wouldn’t be that far on foot. But with a broken leg, it might as well be the moon. Discouraged by the thought, Joe continued to lie on the trail for a while longer. However, his natural tendency towards action reasserted itself and he knew he had to do something! Dragging himself through the dirt, he made it to the saddlebags – a small but important victory.

Grasping them firmly in one hand, Joe started to crawl determinedly towards the nearest shelter.

*****

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, an exhausted, soaking wet Joe Cartwright managed to drag his weary, pain-filled body over the threshold of the line shack. He had no idea how many hours it had taken him to traverse the few miles, or even how many times he had passed out while doing so. But he counted it a victory to have reached shelter at all.

Hauling himself onto the low cot, Joe wrapped himself in the threadbare blanket lying there and closed his eyes. He was exhausted, bone weary, but sleep wouldn’t come at once. Slowly, his body cooled and he began to shiver relentlessly. As he clenched his jaw against the pain and to stop his teeth chattering, Joe found himself thinking again about Rod and the callous way he had left. Joe gently fingered the lump on the back of his head. The surge of anger that flooded through his veins warmed Joe considerably and he finally slid into a deep slumber.

*****

Daylight was long established when Joe finally awoke to the insistent pressure of his bladder. He groaned as he looked around, memory coming back immediately. His head still ached and his leg… Joe thought it was best not to think about his leg if at all possible.

Of course, that was a forlorn hope, as his leg immediately became his main concern as he tried to stand. The pain was horrific and his leg refused to hold his weight. Joe’s pants were torn and dirty from his crawl the night before, but there didn’t appear to be much blood on them and none around the area where he thought the break was, so he took what comfort he could from it. Finding an old broom in the corner, Joe utilized it as a crutch. He hopped slowly outside the shack and relieved himself behind the nearest tree, smiling wry as he did so. Who was going to see him away out in the middle of nowhere, after all? But habit prevailed.

After he was through, Joe got himself back into the shack and rested again. He rummaged through his saddlebags for something to eat and forced down a few mouthfuls of jerky. He had almost no food and when he rose to check the cupboard in the shack, he found that it hadn’t been restocked. There was a small amount of flour and one helping of beans and that was it.

Fighting the despair, Joe hunted around some more and found an old canteen. It smelt rather fusty inside, but there was still some water in it, so Joe hoped that it was still watertight. He knew where the stream was and reached for his crutch. Water was essential to survival.

The short afternoon wore quickly away as Joe got himself water and firewood. He was shivering violently by the time he got back to the shack for the night. Putting an icy-cold hand against his head, Joe wondered if he was running a temperature, or if his hand was just very cold. He didn’t allow the thought that both things might be correct.

With a fire going at last, Joe shirked his jacket and sat down by the stove. He rested his broken leg on a chair, but he quickly found the discomfort behind his knee unbearable. He returned to the cot and lay down again.

Sleep swiftly claimed him.

*****

It was colder the next day. Joe stayed inside, conserving his water and firewood as much as possible. He used two straight sticks to form a loose splint, but spent the day resting. When darkness fell, he ate the last of the beans. They lay heavily on his queasy stomach for some time before he was sure he wasn’t going to throw them back up.

Joe was bored. He seldom spent time doing just nothing. He was either riding or working or reading or playing checkers or chess with his brothers and father. Although he liked his own company, he was gregarious and loved the company of others. Joe was basically immobilized and had no one to talk to and nothing to do. Time hung heavy on his hands.

*****

All the next day, Joe looked at his last remaining strip of jerky. He counted himself fortunate that he felt too ill to want to eat it, as it was the only thing he had left. His temperature had climbed that day and he spent most of it asleep, waking often from a restless doze and finding himself thoroughly exhausted by nightfall. He drank the last of his water just after dark.

Morning brought little improvement. His temperature was down a little bit, but by the time he had got some water and wood, it was climbing again. Once more, he just looked at the jerky. It looked incredibly unappetizing and all that went into Joe’s stomach that day was water.

That night, he dreamed of being at home.

*****

It was morning again and he knew that he would eat the last of his meager rations that day. Not that he hadn’t tried to spin them out – he had done everything short of starve himself. But now, it was snowing and his leg still wasn’t healed enough to allow him to walk out of here. He thought that by the time anyone found him, he would be long dead. It wasn’t a comforting thought.

The effort of moving off the bunk to get himself some water was almost more than he could do, but he knew he needed water. The daily trip to the stream had been just one more torture that he had had to endure to survive. Survival was the name of the game here. The fact that he had caught himself thinking about death showed just how much the cold and his injuries had sapped his strength. But he had to face it; he was never going to get home again. There was no way he could survive the winter in this shack.

Rising painfully to his feet, the young man hopped carefully across the small shack and peered into the water bucket. There was enough in the bottom to let him have a mouthful. Or there would be if it wasn’t frozen solid. Sighing, the young man poked up the fire in the stove and put in the last of his firewood. That was something else he would have to replenish that day and he really wasn’t equipped for the cold weather.

There was no point in putting off the chores, he decided. The snow was starting to come down a bit heavier. It wasn’t lying as yet – it was too wet for that – but the situation could change by afternoon. Shrugging on the lightweight jacket that was the only outdoor gear he had, Joe Cartwright stepped out into the frigid morning.

*****

He did not expect to see the sight that met his eyes as he stepped over the threshold. Joe gaped in amazement. “What are you doing here?” he demanded at last, not sure if he was hallucinating or not.

“Don’t get any ideas, Cartwright,” Rod snarled. He was dirty and unshaven, but Joe knew that he looked no better himself. “I’m not a murderer. Here’s your nag.” He jerked on the rein in his hand and Joe saw Cochise take a step forward.

If anyone had asked what Joe wanted, he would have replied a way to get home. Having his attacker suddenly appear and bring him what he wanted was overwhelming. Taking a grip on his emotions, Joe refused to allow himself to rejoice.

“I don’t understand,” he murmured. “How did you find me?”

“A blind man could’ve followed the trail you left,” Rod returned, scornfully. “And I told you – I’m not a murderer. Your nag’s too distinctive to sell around here. I don’t want a price on my head for causing your death, Cartwright. I know your father – he would hunt for me to the ends of the earth.” Rod stepped down from his horse. He gestured to the broom Joe was using as a crutch. “Busted your leg?”

“What do you care?” Joe retorted, clutching the broom tightly and bracing himself to swing it at Rod should the need arise.

“I don’t,” Rod agreed. “But if its busted, you ain’t gonna get on that nag by yourself.”

“You’re gonna help me?” Joe scoffed. He swung the broom at Rod, but the other man saw it coming and sidestepped it easily, dodging round it to push Joe. Unbalanced, Joe toppled to the ground.

“I am gonna help you,” Rod panted, as he knelt by Joe. “You’re an ungrateful son-of-a-bitch, but I’m still gonna help you! I’m even gonna give you your gun back, but you aren’t gonna have the chance to shoot me down.” He pulled a length of rawhide from his belt and bound Joe’s hands in front of him. Joe did his best to resist, but he was weak. He lay helplessly on the ground as Rod brought Cochise over to him. “Just remember that I could’ve let you die out here,” Rod grunted, as he hoisted Joe onto Cochise.

There was nothing Joe could say in reply. His head was whirling madly and he wondered if he was going to be sick. He was vaguely aware of the weight of his gun in his holster once more and of Rod forcing his fingers to close around the reins. The end of the thong was tied to the saddle horn. Then Cochise started to move and pain exploded through Joe’s leg. The world grayed around him and when he next opened his eyes, the line shack was no longer in sight and he was alone on his horse.

There was no real need for Joe to guide Cochise. The horse was quite capable of taking Joe home. But Joe wanted to get home that day, not after Cochise had meandered his way home, grazing here, sheltering there. Despite the falling snow, Joe kept urging his horse on at a steady pace, fighting his queasy stomach and the agonizing pain.

By late afternoon, Joe no longer had any idea where they were. Keeping his eyes open was almost beyond him and he rode in a kind of daze. The pain in his leg was constant, sapping his dwindling strength, and the makeshift splint was long gone somewhere back on the trail. The snow had continued falling, softly and quietly covering the landscape in a blanket of pristine white.

Joe was cold; so cold. He wanted to stop and get off his horse, but his numb fingers had been unable to manipulate the knots that kept him a captive on his saddle. He was slumped down over the horse’s neck, and it was only the warmth of the animal’s flesh that kept him from freezing. He was too dazed to notice Cochise’s pace picking up as the horse caught the scent of home.

*****

“I thought Joe would have been home the night before last,” Ben fretted. “Or even the night before that. The wire from Placerville said he would.”

“Maybe the weather caught him out and he’s sheltering,” Adam offered, trying to comfort, but knowing the effort was useless. If Joe had been caught out by the weather, he was in big trouble and there was probably nothing that they could do.

Shooting Adam a dark look, Ben rose restlessly to his feet to pace. The snow was early this year. It wasn’t lying deeply around the house and might well melt again in a few days time. But with Joe out there somewhere and to all intents and purposes lost, Ben was more worried by the snow than he would usually have been.

Rising also, Hoss muttered, “I reckon I’ll go check on Chubb again.” His black gelding had taken a bad step that morning and his fetlock had blown up dramatically. Hoss had slowly walked the animal home and put a poultice on the injury.

“I’ll help you,” Adam offered, wanting to get out of the great room for a few minutes.

Together, the brothers went out into the swirling snow, both of them reminded of how much Joe loved to be out in the first snowfall of the winter. They had never understood the attraction, but it never failed. Joe was thoroughly charmed by the snow and always had to be out.

The barn was quite warm, the horses raising sleepy eyes to their masters as they entered with the lamp. Hoss hung the lantern on a peg and crossed to Chubb, caressing the mole-soft nose and running his hand down the silky neck. He slipped into the stall and crouched down to look at the injured leg.

“How’s it look?” Adam asked softly, feeling the tension leach out of his muscles. There was something so soothing about the partially lit barn.

“Swellin’s down a bit,” Hoss replied. “Reckon he’ll be out a work fer a few more days, though.”

“Probably,” Adam agreed. He put an extra arm load of hay into Chubb’s manger. He had already done the same for Sport and Buck.

A cold draft insinuated itself through the almost-closed barn door and Buck suddenly pricked his ears and whinnied low in his chest. Sport and Chubb both looked interestedly towards the door, too. Exchanging a look, both Adam and Hoss moved away from Chubb’s stall so they could see what had drawn their horses’ attention so thoroughly.

A black and white nose poked through the gap in the door and moments later, Cochise showed off one of his tricks by managing to get the door completely open and walking into the barn. Slumped along his back, unconscious and blue-lipped, was Joe.

*****

It only took a couple of slashes with Hoss’ knife and a few moments to free Joe’s hands. Hoss carefully tugged his younger brother from the saddle into Adam’s waiting arms. Without speaking, they hurried to the house, Adam moving quite deliberately under Joe’s dead weight in the uncertain footing. Hoss threw open the house door and ushered his brothers in.

Ben started up from his chair by the fire, his mouth hanging open in surprise. “Joe?” he stuttered.

“He’s pretty cold,” Adam panted. His brother might be slender, but he was muscular, too and heavier than he looked. “I think we might need the doctor.”

“I’ll send someone an’ see ta the horse,” Hoss offered, turning and hurrying out of the door again.

“Hop Sing!” Ben cried, his eyes fixed on his son’s still, pale face. He dragged his eyes away as he heard Hop Sing come from the kitchen. “We need hot water bottles, quickly!” he urged. “And warm water, too.”

“Right away,” Hop Sing nodded. He felt his heart contract as he saw the pale, unmoving features of the son that he secretly loved best.

Upstairs, Adam laid Joe on the bed and started to take off his sodden clothes. “We’ll need a fire, Pa,” he suggested as Ben came into the room, but he saw at once that his words weren’t needed. Ben carried a flaming branch from the fire downstairs and he put it to the ready-laid kindling in Joe’s fireplace.

“He’s so cold,” Ben worried, as they quickly removed Joe’s boots. Even drawing his pants down over the broken limb didn’t elicit a response. Instinctively, he gathered Joe to him. For the first time, the younger man responded, snuggling in closer to the heat of Ben’s body.

It took only moments to wrap Joe in a down comforter and several blankets while they waited for Hop Sing to bring up the hot water bottles. Adam, at a loss as to what to do, chafed Joe’s hands, trying to restore the circulation. He was horrified to see that Joe’s nail beds were quite blue, like his lips.

It wasn’t the first time the Cartwrights had seen hypothermia. It was a fairly regular occurrence, especially amongst Easterners who were experiencing their first Nevada winter. They knew the dangers of being too cold; they knew the dangers of heating someone up again. When the hot water bottles came, they tucked them carefully around Joe.

During the four hours it took for Doc Martin to arrive, Ben and Adam repeatedly washed Joe down with warm water, one limb at a time, avoiding only the obvious break in his right leg. Joe’s level of awareness improved gradually, until he was moaning regularly, with his eyelids fluttering at sounds. As Paul leant over the bed, he was relieved to see that most of the terrifying blue duskiness reported to him had gone from Joe’s lips and extremities.

“You’ve done all the right things,” Paul told Ben, Adam and Hoss. He glanced at the thermometer that he had just taken from under Joe’s tongue and kept his grimace hidden. Joe was still dangerously cold, although he was improving all the time. “Just keep it up while I look at this leg. We’ll try and keep as much of him covered as we can while I’m doing this.”

There was such a long silence after that that Ben could feel his worry growing. “Paul?” he croaked. “What is it?”

“How long ago did this happen?” Paul asked, his face grim.

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted, as though it was somehow his fault and he had neglected noticing that his son had a broken leg. “Joe should have been home the day before yesterday. He arrived back a few hours ago, tied to his saddle…” Ben’s voice gave out. He swallowed. “Paul?”

“I think Joe’s leg was broken several days ago,” Paul replied. He checked for the pulse in Joe’s very swollen right foot, squeezing each toe to check on how fast the blood vessels filled up again. He was pleased to see that the reaction time was quite good.

He glanced up at Ben. “I’m not going to lie to you, Ben,” he said. “This will make setting Joe’s leg trickier. The bone has been like this for several days now and there’s bound to be a little bit of healing started. I’m going to have to move the bones back into position and its going to hurt.”

“Ain’t cha gonna give him somethin’?” Hoss asked, plainly puzzled.

“No,” Paul replied. “Joe hasn’t regained consciousness since you brought him in, has he? So, I’m not going to risk giving him an anesthetic. You’ll have to hold him, I’m afraid.” As the Cartwrights positioned themselves, he felt round the break once more. Joe moaned, but didn’t rouse.

The noise of the bones moving back into place was sickening. Joe was brought to screaming awareness, struggling helplessly against the strength of his father and brothers. Paul hated himself for what he had to do, but he knew he had to keep going and get the leg set as well as he could manage. At length, Joe’s strength ran out and he sank back, conscious, but too exhausted to fight any more. By then, Paul had completed his work.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Ben crooned, stroking the damp curls off Joe’s forehead. It suddenly occurred to Ben that Joe was sweating and he glanced at Paul. “He’s sweating.”

“He’s not alone,” Adam remarked, wryly, making a big deal of wiping his brow.

“Pa,” Joe murmured, clutching weakly at Ben’s sleeve. His hand felt funny – clumsy, with stiff fingers. “What… happened?”

“We found you tied to your horse,” Ben ventured. “Don’t you remember what happened?” He sounded disappointed, despite his attempts not to.

“Oh – Rod,” Joe replied, cryptically.

“Rod?” Adam asked. “What about him?” For the first time, they realized that the hand had not returned with Joe.

“He… did… this,” Joe whispered. He was cold, exhausted and in pain. He shivered. “He…wanted the money… from the sale.” Closing his eyes for a minute to draw more strength, he fought off the drowsiness that threatened to overwhelm him.

“Shh, no more,” Ben urged, looking at Paul.

“When did this happen, Joe?” Paul asked, wanting to know in his own mind.

“Um…” Joe forced his eyes open, wanting nothing more than to fall into the warm cavern of sleep that was waiting for him. “This is… the… fourth day… since it happened.” He shivered, winced, and huddled closer to Ben. “I don’t feel too good,” he murmured, almost inaudibly.

“Just go to sleep,” Paul told him, knowing that his patient would be soon obeying him. He looked at the shell-shocked family and hoped he wouldn’t have to treat any of them.

“It hurts,” Joe muttered fretfully and Paul mixed him the mildest painkiller he could. It was enough to take the worst of the pain away and by the time the splint was in place, Joe was sound asleep.

*****

“I wish we’d looked for him sooner,” Ben chastised himself as they drank coffee in front of the roaring fire.

“Pa, Joe’s an adult,” Adam reminded him. “If he’d decided to stop for the night in town for a bit of… of fun, he wouldn’t have been happy to see us arriving, would he?” Adam knew perfectly well that Joe had a ‘liaison’ with a saloon girl that Ben definitely wouldn’t approve of.

That wasn’t an argument that would sway Ben that night. “I’d far rather he was embarrassed than ill!” he snapped.

It fell to Hoss to be the peacemaker, as he often was. “Pa, ya ain’t got second sight,” he reminded his father. “How was ya ta know that Joe were in trouble? An’ where was ya gonna look?”

Smiling into his cup, Paul saw that Ben didn’t have an answer for that one! “Hoss is right,” he agreed. “And so is Adam. The simple facts of the matter are that you can’t be with all your sons for 24 hours every day, Ben. You are one single human being and this is not your fault. You did not send Joe to Placerville with the sole intent of him being robbed by the trusted man who went with him, now did you?”

“It’s not that simple,” Ben growled, cornered.

“Yes, it is,” Paul replied. “You know as well as I do that Joe can look after himself. He was just unlucky this time. We’ll find out what exactly happened tomorrow. Meantime, I think you should all get some rest and I’ll sit with Joe. I’m not going to try and go home through this snow.”

“I’ll relieve you later,” Adam offered.

“I can do it,” Ben objected, but Adam shook his head.

“Pa, you haven’t slept properly for the last few nights,” he reminded Ben. “Have a good sleep and if Joe needs you, I’ll waken you. If not, you’ll be fresh for him in the morning.”

“That sounds good to me,” Paul agreed, before Ben could say anything else. “It’s decided then. Good night, all.” He met Ben’s irate stare with a blank look of his own, but he couldn’t quite disguise the twinkle in his eye. “Yes?” he enquired sweetly and Ben shook his head.

“Never mind,” he sighed wearily. “Good night.” He started to climb the stairs. Paul and Adam exchanged a triumphant smile before Adam, too, headed upstairs. Paul took the last cup of coffee from the pot before he went to start his vigil at Joe’s bedside.

*****

By morning, Joe’s temperature had settled back to a normal level. He had wakened a few times through the night, bothered by the pain in his leg and needing something to drink. First Paul and then Adam had dealt with these complaints and Joe had quickly settled to sleep once more.

After breakfast, Paul examined Joe again, pleased to see that the swelling in his foot was reducing now that the injured leg was elevated and the bones properly aligned. Paul kept to himself the worry that Joe would be left with a limp if he hadn’t managed to get the bones set properly.

“I’ll come out again tomorrow, Ben,” Paul told his friend, “and I hope to be able to fit a cast on it then.” He slipped on his heavy overcoat and headed out into the snowy morning to his buggy, which Hoss had hitched for him.

Slowly, Ben went back upstairs. Joe was awake when he went into the room and Ben smiled at him, more relieved than he cared to mention that his son was home, safe if not sound. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Better than last night,” Joe replied.

“What exactly happened?” Ben asked. He didn’t want to distress Joe, but he wanted to know how his son had ended up this way.

Sighing, Joe looked down. “We’d reached the boundaries of the ranch,” Joe started. “I’d banked the money in Placerville as I’d told you I would and we were riding home. And then Rod hit me on the head from behind. I must have fallen off Cochise ‘cause the next thing I knew, my leg was killing me and I was on the ground. Rod wanted the money and when he couldn’t find it, he rode off with Cooch and left me behind.”

“With a broken leg?” Ben gasped, utterly aghast.

“Uh-huh.” Joe moved uneasily, hissing through his teeth at the pain in his leg. “I managed to get to a line shack…”

“How?” Ben demanded. “How did you manage?”

“I crawled,” Joe admitted. “Well, kinda anyway.” He gave Ben a twisted smile. “It was dark by the time I got there and it had been raining. I was cold and wet and dirty. Next morning, I managed to get water and wood and there was a little food in the saddle bag Rod had thrown at me. There was a helping of beans left, but nothing else in the cupboard. Pa, someone forgot to re-supply that shack.”

“I’ll see to it, son,” Ben promised solemnly. “Go on.”

“There’s not much more to say,” Joe told him. “I was like that for a couple of days and then yesterday…” Joe frowned trying to work out if he’d lost a day somewhere or not. He shrugged, giving up the battle. “Yesterday, Rod appeared with Cochise. He said that he wasn’t a murderer. He tied my hands so I wouldn’t shoot him when he gave me my gun back. He put me onto Cochise and tied me on. I hadn’t trusted him, Pa and tried to knock him over with the broom I was using as a crutch. I sort of remember riding home, but I don’t remember getting here.”

“If he wanted the money so badly, why didn’t he sell your horse?” Ben growled, not really expecting an answer, merely letting out his anger.

“He said Cooch was too distinctive to sell around here. I guess he’s right.” Joe shifted in the bed again and sighed. He didn’t think he would ever find a comfortable position. “I don’t know why Rod did this, Pa. He’s worked for us for years.”

“I don’t know, either,” Ben replied. He thought about the hand. He was quite a young man, in his late twenties or early thirties. He had worked for the Cartwrights for about eight years and had proven completely reliable until this trip. Admittedly, he was rather too fond of the cards and frequently gambled away his month’s wages in a single evening, but he had always been honest in his dealings with the family. “I suppose we’ll find out when the law catches up with him.”

“If it catches up with him,” Joe remarked. “I don’t suppose he’ll hang around town waiting for Roy to pick him up.”

“No, I don’t suppose so,” Ben smiled. “But stranger things have happened.”

*****

By the following day, the snow had gone. Paul Martin came out and put Joe’s leg into a cast, finally admitting – after persistent questioning from Joe – that he couldn’t swear Joe wouldn’t be left with a limp. The limb seemed quite straight, but the final proof would be when it was healed.

Ben went into town and filed a complaint against Rod, but over the next few days, there was no news at all. To all intents and purposes, the man had simply vanished. Ben was annoyed, but there was nothing they could do about it. He concentrated on making sure the ranch was ready for winter and making sure that Joe was getting better.

Almost two weeks after Joe had returned home, there was a knock at the ranch house door one afternoon. Sighing wearily, for he was alone in the house at the time, Joe reached for his crutches and hobbled to the door.

It opened just before he reached it and three strange men burst into the room. All of them were brandishing guns but the most curious thing was that they all wore business suits. “Stay right there, boy!” one of them ordered.

“What do you want?” Joe asked. He knew there was no point in trying to make a break for his gun which was safely put away in the credenza. “Who are you?”

“Just shut up,” ordered the man. He pointed to the sofa. “Sit him down over there.”

Before Joe could object any further, his crutches were snatched from his hands and he was half-dragged, half-carried over to the sofa, where he was forced to sit. One of the men produced a pair of handcuffs from his pocket and cuffed Joe’s hands behind his back.

“All right,” the first man smiled, coming and standing with his back to the fire. He had carefully shut and bolted the door. “Where is he?”

“Where’s who?” Joe shot back, thoroughly shaken and out of sorts. He twisted his wrists fruitlessly against the handcuffs.

“Don’t try to get clever with me,” the man retorted. “I know you’re hiding him.”

“Hiding who?” Joe cried. “I don’t know who you’re talking about!”

“Rod!” snarled the man and one of the others took Joe by the shoulder and shook him hard.

Whatever else Joe had expected the man to say, that was not it. He gaped at him, aware that he probably looked like an idiot, but then he felt like an idiot, too. “What?”

Again, his shoulder was shaken and the man by the fire looked less than pleased. “I’m gonna say this only once more, sonny boy,” he threatened. “Where is Rod?” He separated each word as though speaking to someone exceptionally stupid.

“I’d kind of like to know that myself,” Joe snapped. “It’s because of him that I’m like this.” He nodded to the cast on his leg.

“What’s going on?” demanded a cool voice from the kitchen.

Wincing, Joe saw Adam approaching out of the corner of his eye. He was pretty sure that Adam’s arrival was going to throw everything into a spin. “Adam…” he began, but the next moment, he was dragged to his feet, an arm around his throat and a gun to his head.

Adam didn’t appear noticeably fazed by this. “Leroy, what are you doing here?” he asked. “And don’t try and tell me my family owes you money, because I know that’s not true.”

By now, Joe’s eyes were on stalks. He couldn’t believe that his brother was having a conversation with someone who had broken in and was holding his brother hostage. And Adam sounded annoyed, to boot! Had he taken complete leave of his senses?

“Adam,” acknowledged Leroy. “I’m looking for Rod. He owes me.”

“So why are you picking on Joe?” Adam asked, coldly.

“That’s Joe?” Leroy looked surprised and made a quick gesture. Joe was dropped back to a sitting position on the sofa. He almost toppled onto the floor, courtesy of the handcuffs and the sudden movement combined. “I didn’t know. He don’t look like you.”

“I told you he didn’t,” Adam agreed. “Anyway, I’m sure Joe’s told you that Rod has done a runner. He tried to rob Joe, left him to die and rode away. That was a couple of weeks ago. I’m afraid you’ll have to whistle for your money.”

Scowling, Leroy looked as though he didn’t entirely believe Adam. Joe tried to catch his brother’s eye, but Adam ignored him, keeping his gaze on Leroy. He looked irritated. “Leroy, have I ever lied to you?” Adam demanded.

“No,” Leroy admitted. “Sorry, Adam. We’ll just be going. No harm done.” He took a step towards the front door, his goons obediently following.

“Handcuffs,” Adam snapped. Joe’s eyes got even wider. But Leroy took no offence. A moment later, the cold steel released his grip on Joe’s wrists and he drew his hands round in front of him and began to rub them. “Now get out and don’t set foot on the Ponderosa again!” Adam moved over to stand by Joe and watched the men leave.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Joe slumped down against the back of the sofa and closed his eyes. He could feel a faint trembling in his muscles. A weight sat down beside him and he felt Adam’s hand on his arm. “Joe? Are you all right? They didn’t hurt you, did they?”

“I’m fine, Adam,” Joe replied, opening his eyes. Adam was peering at him worriedly. “Who were those guys? How did you know them?”

“That was Leroy and his crew,” Adam said, which didn’t explain anything. “He runs a gambling den in town.”

“Gambling?” Joe repeated, wondering how he didn’t know about its existence.

“Of the worst kind,” Adam nodded. He was examining Joe’s wrists, making sure that the handcuffs hadn’t done any damage. “He lets you borrow money when you run out and then hits you for a load of interest, too.”

“Oh, that kind,” Joe nodded. He knew now which gambling den Adam was referring to and remembered taking his brother’s warning to heart when he was first allowed to go into town alone. He couldn’t remember exactly what Adam had told him, but whatever it was had scared him off and Joe was glad of it now. “How do you know of him?”

“Leroy came here from the East,” Adam replied, apparently satisfied that Joe was all right. “I knew him when I was at college.”

“You didn’t owe him money,” Joe gasped.

“Of course not, Joe!” Adam sighed, exasperated. “But one of my friends did and… Well, I’m not going to get into it with you. Suffice it to say, Leroy knows better than to cross this family.”

“What’s going on?” came Ben’s voice from the door and Adam winced.

It didn’t take long to explain things to Ben. It would have taken even less time if Joe had left it entirely to Adam, but he was still excited from his strange encounter and couldn’t keep quiet. Ben looked more and more strained as the explanation went on, but finally agreed that Joe was all right and that there was no point in charging Leroy since no harm had been done.

Later on, as Ben was helping Joe arrange his casted leg on the pillows in bed, Joe spoke up. “Pa, remember when you said stranger things had happened?”

Frowning, Ben wondering when this conversation had happened, but he just nodded, not really wanting to listen to another long and involved explanation that evening. “What about it?” he asked.

Yawning widely, Joe smirked. “I just kind of thought that today was that ‘stranger thing’,” he remarked.

A smile quirked Ben’s face. “You know, son,” he agreed. “You could well be right!”

***End***

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