The Timber Contract (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:   9567


 

 

“Look who’s here,” Adam Cartwright whispered to his father as the inner office door opened.

Glancing up from his preoccupied thoughts, Ben wasn’t entirely surprised to see Wilson Jones, one of his biggest competitors in the timber business. The two men were opposites in their business dealings. Jones was ruthless and wanted to win at all costs; Ben Cartwright was as honest as the day was long and was a convinced conservationist. “I suspected he might be here,” Ben whispered back.

“Mr. Newton, the manager will see you now,” the pretty young secretary announced to the other man who was in the outer office.

Smirking, Newton rose, throwing a superior glance in Ben’s direction. Ben ignored him. He had no time for Newton, who was a sneaky man, apt to try and sweeten any contracts he was bidding for with a bribe or two. Ben and Newton were old adversaries.

As Jones exited into the street, another man came into the office and Adam only just resisted rolling his eyes. All the players were present, he thought, or had been. All the major timber producers for the area were bidding for this contract to provide some timber for a small local mine that had just struck a bonanza of silver. The only person Adam had not seen until then was the third competitor, who had just walked into the office – David Renton. Renton, Jones, Newton and Ben were the biggest timber producers in Nevada. Ben got on with none of them.

“Cartwright.” Renton nodded as he took his seat.

“Renton.” Ben’s reply was equally curt. As the only conservationist out of the four, Ben was quite used to exchanging heated words with his opponents, although they could be cuttingly polite when the need arose.

The inner office door opened again and Newton came out, throwing smirks at both Ben and Renton. Neither man paid any heed though – smirking was Newton’s habitual expression. The secretary smiled at Ben. “Mr. Cartwright.”

Rising, Ben kept his eyes straight ahead as he walked into the office. Adam followed on his heels and they found themselves in the office of the Number Seven Mine Company.

The company was owned and run by a consortium of business men. The mine manager was responsible for the distribution of contracts and this was the person that Ben and Adam were meeting now. Emmet Johansson was a newcomer to Virginia City and his mixed parentage of Scandinavian father and Irish mother had left him tall and thin, with black hair and pale blue eyes. He appeared to be very diffident, although Ben had seen him in action a few times and knew that his appearance was deceiving. Johansson was a very shrewd judge of character and as decisive as they came. Ben respected him.

“Mr. Cartwright, I appreciate you and your son coming in today.” Johansson smiled. “Do you have your bid? Ah, thank you.” He reached across the desk and took the envelope Ben proffered. He opened it and looked at the paper inside. “Yes, thank you. I’ll be in touch, sir.”

“Are there no questions that you would like to ask?” Adam queried. It was unusual for a bid to just be accepted like that.

Smiling again, Johansson turned his gaze to Adam. “I know you and your father by reputation, Mr. Cartwright,” he replied. “I don’t need to ask questions to verify what I already know – that there are no hidden clauses or penalties and I know that you will honor the contract. Your reputation speaks very highly of you.”

“Thank you,” Ben answered. “We’ll look forward to hearing from you.” He rose, thinking that was probably the shortest interview of that kind that he had ever had.

As they left the office, Ben saw Renton rise to go inside.

*****

In the street, father and son parted company. Ben had some business to take care of at the bank and Adam wanted to see if some books he had ordered had arrived at the store. They agreed to meet in the Silver Dollar before heading off for home together.

It didn’t take long for Ben to conclude his business at the bank and he crossed to the Silver Dollar feeling relaxed. He hoped that they would win the timber contract, but it wasn’t vital for the ranch’s well-being if they didn’t. Ben had had too many years where he was living from hand to mouth to make the mistake of relying on one single bid to secure his family’s future.

There was no sign of Adam, so Ben took his beer and sat down in a corner. He had bought a copy of that day’s Territorial Enterprise and glanced over the front page while he waited. Aware vaguely of someone sitting opposite him, Ben lowered the paper to ask if Adam had got his books and was surprised to see Renton seated at the other side of the table.

“What can I do for you?” Ben asked, putting aside his paper. All his instincts were shouting that this was trouble.

“I’ve come to warn you to withdraw your bid for the mine contract, Ben,” Renton replied.

Blinking in surprise, Ben kept his face schooled to neutrality. “What makes you think I would do that?” he asked, evenly.

“Let’s get one thing straight, Cartwright,” Renton hissed, leaning over the table. “You’re in my way. If you don’t withdraw that bid, you’re going to be very sorry indeed.”

Rising, Ben glared at the man. “I don’t appreciate threats,” he replied, his voice tight and low with anger. “I don’t care for the way you conduct your business, and I don’t appreciate you trying to intimidate me. Get out of here, before I do something you’ll regret!”

“No, you’ll regret it, if you don’t do as I say,” Renton snapped back. “One way or another, I’m going to get this contract.” He didn’t look in the least perturbed by Ben’s anger, but he left quietly all the same.

Fuming, Ben resumed his seat. The cheek of the man! Did he really think Ben was going to cave in just like that over a single threat? If so, Renton didn’t know him very well, Ben mused. He took a sip of his beer and forced himself to relax.

“What’s up?” asked a familiar voice in his ear and Ben raised his eyes to meet Adam’s.

“Renton,” Ben snorted as Adam seated himself. “He was threatening me – or trying to.” He shook his head. “Stupid man!”

“Do you think he meant what he said?” Adam asked, after Ben had related the details.

“That’s just it,” Ben admitted. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to underestimate him, but I don’t think he can be serious.”

“No, don’t underestimate him,” Adam agreed. “Far better to take him at his own inflated opinion.” They both smiled at that. “But seriously, Pa, do you think he would try anything?”

“Seriously?” Ben frowned. “Yes, Adam. I do.”

*****

They rode home without seeing either hide or hair of Renton or Ben’s other competitors. In fact, Ben reflected, he rarely saw them on a day-to-day basis unless they were bidding for contracts. Somehow, their paths never seemed to cross. That suited Ben just fine.

Over supper, Ben told Joe and Hoss about Renton and warned them to just be on their guard if they saw him around. Both of his sons promised they would and Ben couldn’t ask for more than that.

In preparation for the contract, Ben decided the next morning that the three boys should go out and start marking suitable trees. If they didn’t get the contract, it would be no loss – there would be other contracts on the horizon and if the trees were already marked, that would save them time.  Adam was going to Wild Horse Ridge, because Joe didn’t like heights. Hoss was going to Willow Crest, because Joe didn’t like heights. Joe was going to take the largest area of pines on the flatlands. It suited all three of them perfectly.

*****

Until the morning, that was. It dawned dark and rainy and all three Cartwright sons looked out on the downpour with a jaundiced eye. It wasn’t that they would have had the day off if they hadn’t been going to mark the timber. No, it wasn’t that at all. It was just that somehow or other, they always seemed to be wetter while working under the so-called shelter of the trees. Breakfast was a gloomy meal.

By the time they left the house, the rain had gone off for the time being. The skies were still dark, however, and the brothers tied their rain slickers to the backs of their saddles, just in case. The weather was unseasonably chilly and Joe turned his jacket collar against the wind as they rode out of the yard.

They rode together for the first part of the trip, then Adam turned off to go to Wild Horse Ridge, bidding his brothers a casual farewell, as was their habit. Next to turn off was Hoss, who also bid Joe a casual goodbye. Joe rode on alone, his mind already on the job ahead and the shape, height and maturity of the trees he was looking for.

It was mid-morning when Joe arrived at the trees. The sun had poked its head briefly through the clouds and vanished again and the wind had picked up quite a bit. Joe sighed, for it looked like the sky would dump its load of moisture at any minute. He debated taking his slicker with him as he went into the woods, then decided against it. He could always come back if he needed it.

Tethering Cochise so that his horse could graze, Joe began his job.

Marking trees wasn’t a difficult job; it was just time consuming and not terribly interesting. Joe had been working steadily for about an hour when a voice spoke from behind him.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?”

Flinching violently, Joe whirled around, his left hand hovering near his holster. The man standing across the small clearing from him was tall and muscular, dressed in the type of clothing that Joe associated with an experienced logger. However, he wasn’t one of the Ponderosa crew – or if he was, Joe didn’t recognize him.

“Who are you?” Joe demanded. “What are you doing on Ponderosa land?”

“Ponderosa land?” the man replied. “I don’t think so, sonny. You’re on my land.”

“This is Ponderosa land,” Joe repeated firmly, “and you’re trespassing, mister.”

The man looked singularly unimpressed. “I think you’ll have trouble making that charge stick, sonny,” the man scoffed and Joe saw red.

“Really?” he shot back, coldly. “I don’t think I’ll have any trouble at all. Now clear out of here.” His hand was now resting on his pistol, but since the other man wasn’t armed, Joe didn’t want to have to draw. He hoped the threat would be enough.

“I’ll have to show you the error of your ways, boy,” the man smiled.

Tensing, Joe waited for the other man to make his move. However, the logger continued to stand there and smile at Joe, who began to feel intensely uneasy. “Just go on your way before someone gets hurt,” Joe suggested.

At that, the man’s smile broadened. Joe’s unease shot up another level. He closed his hand around his gun, but before he could decide if he was going to draw or not, there was a sound from behind him. Joe started to turn his head and saw something moving in the periphery of his vision. He half-turned to meet it, and something crashed down on his head. Joe tumbled to the forest floor, unconscious.

*****

“How is it that Joe is always last home?” Adam asked. He made sure there was enough hay in his horse’s manger and patted the silky chestnut neck before exiting the stall. In the next door stall, Hoss was completing similar maneuvers.

“I dunno,” Hoss replied. “Maybe ‘cos he works harder than us?”

The look Adam gave Hoss spoke volumes and the middle brother laughed. “Ya asked fer that one, Adam,” he chortled.

“I suppose I did,” Adam agreed as they left the barn together. “You don’t suppose Joe has gone into town, do you?”

“Not from where he was workin’,” Hoss responded seriously. “It ain’t exactly on the way, is it?”

“That’s never stopped Joe before,” Adam remarked. “But no, I suppose you’re right; it is rather a round-about route into town.”

“He’ll be along,” Hoss concluded complacently.

*****

The evening wore on, but there was no sign of Joe. Darkness fell and still he didn’t appear. About midnight, Adam and Hoss went up to bed and at 2 am, Ben gave up his vigil and went to bed, too, but he didn’t sleep much.

Come morning, the first place Ben went was Joe’s room, but the bed was still neatly made and had clearly not been slept in. Anxiety gnawing at his gut, Ben went down to breakfast, detouring past the barn on the unlikely chance that Joe had been so tired that he had bedded down out there. But Cochise’s stall was empty.

“I’m going to look for Joe as soon as I’ve finished breakfast,” Ben announced. “Something’s happened to him – maybe a fall or something.”

“We’re coming with you,” Adam replied. It didn’t really need saying, but he felt that Ben needed to hear it.

“Thank you.” Ben forced himself to choke down a few mouthfuls and noticed as they left the table that even Hoss hadn’t had much of an appetite that morning. Joe’s absence weighed heavily on them all.

*****

“You really think this is gonna work?” asked the logger as he finished binding Joe’s ankles together. Gathering up the loose end of the rope, he tied it tightly to the metal ring set into the wall, meant to keep horses tethered to.

“Of course it is.” Ben’s arch rival, Newton, smirked, as was his habit, as he looked down on Joe Cartwright, lying helpless in his barn. That Joe’s green eyes were open and blazing with anger over the gag stuffed tightly into his mouth didn’t bother Newton one bit. “Ben Cartwright won’t risk his sons for anything – everyone knows that. So, when I tell him I’ve got his son and he’d better withdraw his bid for the Number Seven Mine contract, that’s exactly what he’ll do.”

“And then?” asked the big man, rising to his feet.

Newton smirked again. Joe writhed against his bonds to no effect. “Why, I’ll kill him, of course.”

Together, the two men left the barn, leaving Joe wrestling with the ropes that kept him prisoner, determined that somehow, he would manage to escape and prevent Ben from doing exactly what Newton predicted he would.

*****

There was no sign of Joe anywhere. The knot in Ben’s stomach grew steadily as the day wore on and his youngest son remained missing. They hunted high and low, but there was nothing to see, no tracks to indicate where Joe might have gone.

It was after noon before Adam persuaded Ben to go home with Hoss and rest. He was extremely worried by his father’s pallor and the dark circles forming under his eyes. “I’ll go into town and tell Roy that Joe is missing,” he promised, noting his father wince as he said the word ‘missing’.

“Don’ be too long,” Hoss warned him in an undertone as Ben silently mounted Buck. “Else Pa’ll be worryin’ about ya, too.”

“I won’t,” Adam promised. He turned and rode into town, wondering vaguely if Joe had made this journey the day before and somehow neglected to come home. It seemed highly unlikely, but Adam allowed himself to cling slightly to this false hope. Joe could be thoughtless, though not to this extent, but Adam didn’t want to admit, even to himself, that his youngest brother was in trouble once more.

*****

There really was nothing the sheriff could do, but Roy Coffee assured Adam that he would keep an eye out for Joe and ask around the town to see if anyone had seen him. It was only as he was about to leave the office that it occurred to Adam to mention the threat Renton had made to Ben. Roy frowned in sudden concentration and Adam suddenly felt a flutter of excitement. Perhaps they might find Joe and he could bring him home that very evening!

“I gotta git a search warrant,” Roy mumbled to himself and left Adam in the office while he went to get one.

Although Adam thought he ought to accompany Roy and Clem, his deputy, to Renton’s house and help them search, Roy would have none of it. “Ya ain’t a deputy,” he argued, “an’ I ain’t makin’ ya one, Adam. Yer too close ta this. Ya can come along an’ wait outside, but ya ain’t comin’ along official like.”

It was too easy to look at Roy Coffee and see a man past his prime, small and slightly plump and think him ineffectual. But Roy knew what he was doing, which was why he was still sheriff and Adam was forced to give in and agree to Roy’s terms or be left behind completely. Adam knew that if he pestered the sheriff enough, he might find himself waiting locked inside one of the cells!

Renton was indignant that Sheriff Coffee should suspect him of such a low-down crime and willingly opened his home to a thorough search. He scorned the search warrant as unnecessary and as Adam waited uneasily by the gate, Roy and Clem gave the place a good going over, finding many places where Renton’s cleaning lady had skimped on the polishing, but finding not a single trace of Joe. At length, they had to admit he wasn’t there and took their leave.

Sighing, and feeling utterly weary, Adam mounted Sport and turned towards home. He had allowed himself to picture riding home with Joe and seeing his father’s face light up with relief and now he felt incredibly deflated.

Twilight was laying soft shadows over a purpling landscape as Adam left town. He didn’t notice the beauty of the dying day, or the way the setting sun left gold streaks on the glittering surface of the lake, or the gloriously hued clouds hovering over the mountains. Adam’s head was down, his gaze alternating between his hands and the road and his thoughts firmly on his missing brother.

The attack came without warning and although Adam tried to put up a fight, he didn’t manage to get in more than a few blows before the world went dark around him.

*****

The grandfather clock chimed out the hour and Ben stood looking up at it, his face expressionless. Midnight had come once more. Joe had been missing for over 24 hours and now Ben was forced to face the stark truth – Adam was missing also.

Unbidden, his mind drifted back to the conversation with Renton in the saloon. Had the man followed up on his threat and was using Ben’s sons as hostages to ensure that he won the contract? Swallowing down the sudden panic that started his heart pounding, Ben tried to think rationally. He didn’t care about the contract – all that mattered were his sons. If he had to withdraw from the race, then he would. That still wouldn’t guarantee Renton won the contract, but would eliminate one of his competitors.

But the harsh question remained. When Ben withdrew, would Renton free his sons and allow them to come home?

Taking a deep breath and looking across the room to where Hoss gazed deeply into the flames in the fireplace, Ben blinked back tears. He knew the answer.

It was no.

*****

Jerking awake from a restless doze, Joe tried to find a comfortable position to lie in. He failed. His shoulders were cramping violently from having his hands bound behind him for such a long period of time. His head still throbbed where he had been struck and his jaw ached from the gag. His mouth was as dry as a desert and his legs had that numb ‘asleep’ feeling. Altogether, Joe was utterly miserable.

The barn door opened and the logger came in. Joe had had visits from him twice before and each time had had been given water and a modicum of freedom to take care of his personal needs. But there had been no opportunity to make a break for freedom. This man was clearly all too familiar at dealing with prisoners.

Watching his captor approaching, Joe couldn’t understand why he was being given water and why his bonds were checked to make sure that his circulation was all right. Newton had already said that he was going to die when this was over, so why were they keeping him alive in the meantime?

The logger crouched by Joe, untied the gag and pulled out the bandanna that had been shoved in his mouth. Joe drew in a deep breath and surreptitiously licked his lips. It made no difference. Joe’s tongue was as dry as his lips and the skin felt harsh and cracked.

Still silent, the logger helped Joe to drink, then, when he was finished, roughly turned Joe over so he could check the tightness of the ropes around Joe’s wrists. He grunted with satisfaction as he realized they were still secure. The knots were tied where Joe’s questing fingers could not reach them.

“Why haven’t you killed me?” Joe blurted.  He hadn’t meant to ask the question, but he was weary from lack of movement and his brain was whirling.

Grinning, the logger sat back and regarded Joe. “Are you that keen to die?” he countered. He was genuinely amused by Joe’s bravado, but he didn’t know the answer to Joe’s question and that bugged him. He didn’t know what Renton had in mind for this young man. Killing wasn’t something that worried the logger, but he was less keen on playing games with a person’s mind. “Do you want more water before I gag you again?”

Nodding, Joe drank as much as he could for the temporary feeling of fullness it gave him. He hadn’t had any food since he was kidnapped. Then his hands were untied for a few moments to allow him to relieve himself. Joe knew that the time had come for him to take advantage of this kindness. Yes, his feet were still bound, but if he waited any longer, the lack of food would take its toll on his strength and escape would be out of the question.

He waited until the logger had a grip on his left wrist and used the man’s weight as leverage, swinging his body around to drive a ferocious right hook into the man’s face. Joe yanked his left arm free as the logger staggered, and launched himself, as best he could, at the other man.

There was no way Joe could win. His feet were still tightly tied and that hampered him more than he could believe. But he fought furiously and when at last he was vanquished, he lay pinned in the straw, panting, bleeding from his mouth and with his left eye going black.

“Good try, Cartwright,” panted the logger as he wrenched Joe’s arms viciously behind his back. “But you’re not going to get away that easily!” The big man quickly looped the rope around Joe’s wrists and tied it so that Joe was in a much more uncomfortable position. After a bit of a struggle, which resulted in Joe receiving a hard backhand slap, the gag was put back into place.

Rising, the logger looked down on his furious prisoner. Joe’s eye was rapidly starting to swell shut. He smiled. “Better luck next time.” With that, he left Joe alone again.

*****

The note was clear and to the point.

I have your son. Withdraw your bid for the mine contract if you want to see him alive again. Once I know you have done this, I will contact you again.

Naturally, it was unsigned.

“I’ll go inta town an’ tell Roy,” Hoss offered.

“You’re not going anywhere alone!” Ben thundered.

Knowing the fear that Ben felt, Hoss didn’t snap back, as was his first inclination. “I’m not gonna go alone,” he reassured his distraught father. “I’m gonna take Fred with me.” Fred was a long-time hand, utterly reliable. “I’d better take that note in.”

“I’ll come with you,” Ben decided. “I’ll talk to Johansson and tell him why I’m withdrawing. He can let the others know.”

“If’n that’s what ya think is best,” Hoss agreed. He was keeping a close eye on Ben, afraid that the strain might become too much for him.

Together, they walked to the door, collected their gun belts and hats and headed outside. Ben stopped so suddenly in the doorway that Hoss almost bumped into him. “What’s wrong, Pa?” he asked.

“Look!” Ben pointed with a trembling hand. There, lying on the porch, weighted down with a rock, was a second note.

Warily, Ben bent over to pick up the note, his hands trembling so much he could barely read the words.

Your son is my prisoner until you agree to withdraw your contract. Once I have confirmation that you have done this, you will get your son back, unharmed. If you do not do as I say, your son will pay the penalty.

It was also unsigned. Silently, Ben handed it to Hoss. “Does he think I didn’t get the first note?” he wondered aloud.

“This ain’t the same handwritin’!” Hoss exclaimed. “Look, Pa. An’ it’s worded different, too.”

Frowning, Ben practically snatched the notes from Hoss’ hands and compared them. “You’re right!” he cried and Hoss nobly refrained from telling Ben that he knew he was right. “But what does this mean?” Ben wondered aloud, his head reeling.

Grimly, Hoss told him what Ben didn’t want to hear. “It means someone else has Adam. That’s what it means.”

*****

“It would be better for you if you let me go now,” Adam said, in his most reasonable tone.

“Just shut up,” his captor replied. He checked Adam’s bonds once more before leaving the room. Adam sighed heavily. He was tied to a straight-backed chair, his wrists bound to the armrests and his ankles to the legs of the chair. He was blindfolded, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t know who his captor was. He had heard Renton’s voice recently enough for it to stick in his memory. He hadn’t mentioned this pertinent fact just in case Renton decided that Adam was a danger to him. And since Adam couldn’t rub his blindfold off on anything, Renton was able to maintain the fiction that Adam was unaware of the identity of the kidnapper.

Sighing again, Adam wriggled helplessly against the ropes. He wondered how Ben was coping with this additional stress and wondered – not for the first time – if they had found Joe and how long it would take them to find him. “Damn this timber contract anyway!” Adam grouched to himself as he faced a long, lonely and uncomfortable night as a prisoner.

*****

“Adam, too?” Roy looked in disbelief at Ben and thought that his friend looked suddenly older. He took the notes from Hoss and read them both. “No, these weren’t written by the same fella, that’s fer sure,” he agreed. “But it weren’t Renton what took Joe,” he added, sounding perplexed. “But ya know that.”

“No I don’t!” Ben objected. “How would I know that?”

“Adam an’ I went ta see Renton an’ me an’ Clem searched his place,” Roy told Ben in a tone of great, strained patience. It was only as he finished speaking that he realized that Adam hadn’t made it home and so wouldn’t have had the chance to tell Ben what they had found out. “I’m real sorry, Ben,” he apologized. “Ya couldn’ know that.”

Unable to speak, Ben just shook his head in forgiveness. His mind was reeling. If Renton didn’t have Joe, who did? It had to be one of the other two, but which one?

“Hoss, go down ta the livery an’ git Clem fer me would ya?” Roy was asking. “Then me an’ him will go git a couple search warrants.”

“Sure thing, Roy,” Hoss agreed. He gave Ben a worried look before he left, knowing how Ben was feeling. It was hard for them both.

Hurrying down the street, Hoss was oblivious to the passers-by. He didn’t hear anyone who spoke his name, but one look at the worried frown on his genial face told everyone that the Cartwrights had found some kind of trouble – again.

Stopping in the alley by the livery to catch his breath, Hoss was astounded to suddenly feel a gun being poke into his ribs. He froze, still more annoyed than actively worried.

“Don’t make any sudden moves,” warned a thin, nervous-sounding voice and Hoss’ usually placid temperament deserted him and he whirled on the hapless gunman like an enraged grizzly.

Grabbing his assailant by the collar, Hoss snatched the gun and glared at the would-be kidnapper. “Wilson Jones!” Hoss growled. “It don’t surprise me none!” Shaking the petrified man, Hoss hauled him bodily into the livery, where Clem looked up in shock.

“Hoss? What’s going on?” Clem moved quickly towards them. He didn’t think he had ever seen Hoss so angry.

“This little weasel tried ta kidnap me!” Hoss complained. He shook Jones again and the man’s teeth practically rattled. “I were comin’ here ta git ya, Clem. Adam disappeared last night on his way home, an’ Roy wants ta git search warrants.” He shook Jones for a third time.

“We’ll get him down to the jail then,” Clem replied, grimly. “And when we get there, he can answer a few questions.” He nodded to Henry, who owned the livery and who had been caring for Clem’s lame horse. “See you later, Henry.”

“Sure thing,” Henry replied, his eyes round with the news he had just overheard.

“And don’t mention this to anyone,” Clem warned, suddenly remembering Henry’s propensity for gossip.  The livery owner looked disappointed, but nodded his agreement.

Pulling Wilson Jones between them, Clem and Hoss returned to the jail, where Ben and Roy looked up in astonishment. “What’s goin’ on?” Roy demanded.

Between them, Clem and Hoss told the story and Roy’s glower grew darker. “So what did ya think?” Roy asked. “That havin’ two sons would make Ben do as ya wanted?”

“Two?” twittered Jones. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I was only trying to take Hoss.”

“I think ya’d better tell me the whole sorry tale,” Roy instructed.

Wretchedly, Jones tried to squirm his way out of it, but with Clem and Roy on one side and Ben and the furious Hoss on the other, he was well and truly stuck. “I’m getting married and I wanted some extra money,” he admitted. “And when I saw Hoss, I knew Ben would pay to get him back.” He looked despondent.

“Where are Adam and Joe?” Ben demanded angrily. He loomed threateningly over Jones.

“I haven’t seen them!” Jones protested. He was starting to look really panicky. “Honest, Roy, I haven’t seen them!”

“Lock him up!” Roy ordered. He looked disgusted. “Then we’ll go find yer other boys, Ben.”

*****

It had taken quite some time, but the ropes were finally slackening. Joe was grunting with the effort of continually twisting his bound hands against the ropes, his shoulders were aching and his wrists were raw. Yet at last, Joe could feel the ropes starting to give and he didn’t pause for a much-needed breather, he just kept on going. It had been hours since the logger had last checked on him and Joe suspected that there might not be another visit that night – not after he had tried to escape during the last one.

Finally, the first of the loops fell off and Joe knew that he would be free soon. He redoubled his efforts, now worried that the logger would arrive in the barn before he was in a position to defend himself properly. He didn’t allow himself to think of the size difference between him and the logger.

Another half hour passed before the last strands fell away from Joe’s hands. With relief, he drew his hands forward, wincing at the pins and needles that shot through his arms, and massaged his wrists gently. They were rubbed raw and bleeding in places, but his hands were a normal color and after a few minutes, his fingers felt like they belonged to him again.

Reaching up, Joe dragged the gag out of his mouth and heaved a huge sigh of relief. His mouth was desperately dry, but he knew he could remedy that as soon as he got his ankles free. Leaning forward, he began to fumble with the knots.

Joe had just started rubbing the feeling back into his legs when the barn door opened. Cursing, Joe tried to scramble to his feet, but his legs were stiff from inactivity and he slipped on the straw.

“Why, you…!” the logger cried and dove for Joe.

Knowing that he couldn’t outrun this guy – and not wanting to – Joe rolled out of the way and came up into a crouch, braced and ready. The two men crashed into one another, grappling for position. Joe tried to use his weight to throw the other man off balance, but it was like trying to knock over a tree. The logger moved slightly, but used the momentum to come back at Joe. He was barely able to avoid a knockout blow.

Gasping for breath and horrified at how weak he felt, Joe backed off, his legs shaky beneath him. He was trapped, he knew, the wooden walls of the stall closing in on either side of him and he was in no condition to vault over them. He glanced around frantically, wincing at the pain in his black eye. His opponent grinned tightly.

“There’s nowhere to run, Cartwright,” he remarked. “Give up now and I’ll take it easy on you.”

There was no point in replying, Joe thought. He wasn’t going to give up, but his mouth was too dry to say so. Joe let his actions speak for themselves. Following the old adage ‘if in doubt, attack’, he did just that, hurling himself at the logger who gracefully side-stepped and smashed the edge of his hand down on Joe’s neck.  Joe crashed to the ground and the logger was on him in a second.

It wasn’t a fight. Joe put up what resistance he could, but the blow to his neck had dazed him. The few punches he threw were weak and uncoordinated, and most of them landed off target. In return, the beating the logger gave Joe was brutal in its efficiency. When it finished, Joe was drifting on a sea of pain, barely conscious.

“You should’ve listened to me, Cartwright,” the logger commented as he carelessly flipped Joe over onto his stomach. He ignored the grunt of pain this elicited from the injured man.

Moving quickly, he bound Joe’s crossed wrists between his shoulder blades, securing the rope around Joe’s shoulders and upper arms. He tied it off to the ring in the wall that had previously secured Joe’s feet. Another rope was bound round Joe’s knees and ankles, then again tied off to the ring. He savagely tightened the knots. This time, Joe wouldn’t be going anywhere!

Rising, he looked down on the helpless young man. It had been mildly unfortunate that Joe had managed to get free of his bonds, he thought, but the beating wasn’t a total disaster. Joe’s father didn’t appear to have made any moves towards withdrawing his bid for the timber contract and he was to get a further warning note the next day. The logger expected that Joe would be dead by the following evening. And if he died during the night, it would be no loss. He shrugged and turned away.

******

Wincing, Adam continued to struggle against the ropes. His body ached from the position he had been forced to maintain and he was utterly weary, but he couldn’t do more than doze for a few minutes at a time. He wasn’t even sure how long he had been a prisoner, since he was still blindfolded and had no way to gauge the passage of time, but he guessed it must be at least 12 hours.

Boredom was his biggest problem. Despite his efforts, his bonds hadn’t loosened at all and Adam reluctantly admitted that it was unlikely that they would loosen now. The adrenaline that had been in his system was gone and he had nothing with which to keep his mind occupied. Adam wondered if it was possible for a person to die of boredom.

Suddenly, he heard a sound in the depths of the house. He perked his ears up and strained to hear the noise more clearly. It was almost the first sound he had heard from outside the room that he was in. It sounded like raised voices. In fact… Adam swallowed. Stop it! he chided himself. You just think its Pa because you’re so desperate to get out of here!

Moments later, he heard the key turning in the door and he turned his head, not sure what to expect, braced for both rescue and disaster, wishing fervently that he could see what was going on. The sudden tension in his body started his head aching again.

“Adam!” The voice, throbbing with a mixture of anguish and relief, was the one Adam had been praying to hear.

“Pa!” To his own ears, Adam sounded desperate and very young. He sagged in his bonds as he felt warm, familiar hands fumble with the knot on the blindfold.

Blinking away his blurry vision as Ben and Hoss started to cut him free, Adam looked around him. The room he was in was an unused bedroom, the furniture covered with dustsheets and the dusty velvet curtains pulled across the window. The only light came from the open door and showed Adam that it was early afternoon.

“Are you all right?” Ben asked, gently rubbing Adam’s wrists. Hoss was massaging Adam’s legs.

“Just hungry,” Adam replied. He raised one hand to probe the swelling on the back of his head, but it only twinge slightly. “And stiff!” he added, as he tried to get to his feet. He clung onto Hoss for a few minutes as his muscles got used to activity again. “I’m glad you found me,” he continued. “How’s Joe?”

A shadow darkened Ben’s face. “We haven’t found Joe yet,” he replied.

“Where do you think he is?” Adam asked.

“We think Newton’s got him,” Ben answered. “Adam, I think you should go with Clem back to the jail and he’ll get Doc Martin to have a look at you…” Ben’s voice trailed off, for Adam was shaking his head, wearing that stubborn expression that made him look so much like Joe.

“No way, Pa!” he declared. “I’m coming with you. You might need help.”

With mixed emotions, Ben agreed. He didn’t want anything else happening to Adam, but he didn’t want to let his son out of his sight any time soon. They went out to the street and headed for Newton’s large house on the outskirts of town.

*****

The knock on the door caught Newton completely unawares. He had just composed the last two notes he intended to send to Ben Cartwright, one reminding him that the clock was ticking and if he didn’t withdraw his bid, his son would be killed and the other telling him that Joe had died because of Ben’s tardiness. Not expecting to find the law on his doorstep, he opened the door without trying to hide the evidence.

The look on Newton’s face was all the answer they needed. Even as Newton tried to slam the door in their faces, Hoss was bulling his way in, grabbing Newton by the arm and reeling him in like a fish.

From beyond Newton, Ben saw a man glancing through an open door and a look of panic flash over his face. Ben didn’t hesitate or wait for Roy, he just took off after the other man, convinced that this man knew where Joe was and Ben didn’t think his intentions were good where Joe was concerned.

For an instant, Adam and Roy hesitated, then, seeing that Hoss had Newton under control, they hurried after Ben, through the kitchen and out of the back door which stood ajar. They were in time to see the first man, closely followed by Ben, disappearing into the barn. “Come on!” Adam cried, unnecessarily.

*****

Through the haze of pain, Joe heard the barn door open. He lifted his head with extreme difficulty and peered through the tiny slit that was all his eyes would open. He squinted, but couldn’t quite see who had come in. Dropping down his head, he decided tiredly that he didn’t care; they had undoubtedly come to kill him. Joe didn’t want to die, but he had exhausted all his strength trying to get free and all he could do for himself now was pray. And pray he did.

Just as the logger reached for Joe, the door opened again. Joe tried to move away, even knowing that he could move barely more than an inch in any direction. He didn’t know who the second person was, but he couldn’t think that it was someone who would help him.

The logger grabbed the rope harness around Joe’s shoulders and yanked him upwards. Joe couldn’t hold back a cry of pain, for the rope bit into his body, increasing the pain in his abused muscles. He didn’t seem able to catch his breath as the tightness increased more and more.

And then suddenly, he was falling and the small amount of breath he had left in his lungs was driven out with an explosive grunt. Joe panicked, unable to breathe, not sure what was going on. He tried to move, but his body, still fighting to get the oxygen it needed, failed him. The world was going grey and dots speckled his vision when his lungs decided to work again.

Panting, Joe realized that there was quite a fight raging in the stall beside him. He wasn’t sure exactly who the protagonists were, since his vision was blurry from the two horrendous, swollen black eyes he had. But whoever they were, they were close to him and he had no means of getting out of their way. And even as Joe thought that, a foot landed hard in the middle of his back for a moment.

Then, confusingly, there seemed to be more people in on the fight. Joe’s throbbing head couldn’t cope with sorting this out and he closed his eyes, hoping against hope that nobody would stand on him again. He could hear grunts and the thuds of fist hitting flesh, the shuffling of feet in the straw as the fighters sought some extra purchase or leverage. Then there was a loud thud and the other noises ceased, apart from some heavy breathing.

“Joe.” The voice was soft, familiar and the one Joe had wanted to hear above all others.

Lifting his head, Joe forced his eyes to open and squinted at the blurry figure kneeling by him. His swollen, cracked, lips moved, but no sound came out. But there was no mistaking the word he was trying to say – “Pa.”

It was the work of moments for Ben to cut through the ropes binding Joe. Together, he and Adam helped the younger man sit up, Ben lending his strong shoulder for Joe to lean against when he saw that his youngest son was too weak, for the moment, to support his own weight. Ben didn’t feel his own hurts from the fight he had just had. He was only subliminally aware of the throbbing gash on his forearm where the logger had caught him with the knife he had intended to plunge into Joe’s heart. His eyes were fixed on his son’s battered and bruised face, his big warm hands gently massaging Joe’s lacerated wrists. Adam looked round for some water, but couldn’t see anything useful.

“We’re going to take you into the house, Joe,” Ben told him, gently. “We’ll try not to hurt you. All right?” Ben was horrified by Joe’s battered face and dazed appearance. He was partially reassured when Joe nodded slightly and braced himself.

As gently as they could, Ben and Adam lifted Joe to his feet, each one supporting him under his arms. Ben slid an arm around Joe’s slender waist to give extra support and slowly, the three walked out of the barn, heading for the house. Joe’s head was down as he shuffled along and he was unaware of Hoss standing at the back door, drinking in the sight of his younger brother. It was probably lucky for Newton that Clem had arrived from the jail to help out, as Hoss wasn’t sure he would have been able to control his temper.

“Get some water, Hoss,” Ben ordered as they entered the house. “Some for him to drink and to clean him up a bit.”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss nodded, casting an anxious look at his sibling. Joe was now so exhausted that he was beyond lifting his head to look in Hoss’ direction.

While Hoss got the water, Ben and Adam practically carried Joe through the house to the living room, where they laid him on the sofa. Joe murmured a wordless thanks and sighed heavily, his body relaxing into the soft cushions. Ben eyed him worriedly.

Hoss arrived in with the water and Ben slid an arm under Joe’s shoulders to help him drink. Joe sipped slowly, wanting to gulp down the liquid, but not having the strength. Ben, suspecting how thirsty Joe was, kept control of the cup, although Joe doubted if his numb hands would have held the china anyway. He was content to rest for a minute while Ben washed the blood and dirt off his face and he found it very comforting.

“How do you feel, Joe?” Ben asked, when at length he put down the empty cup.

“Better,” Joe breathed. “Thanks, Pa.” He wasn’t sure of the veracity of his statement, but he did feel better than he had a short while before. Joe didn’t know if it was the drink or the wash or a combination of both that had done the trick. He opened his eyes again and was slightly surprised to see Ben, Adam and Hoss leaning over him, anxiety on every face. “Hi, brothers.”

Smiling, since Joe was improving, Ben said, “Let’s get Joe to the doctor. You, too, Adam.”

“I’m fine, Pa!” Adam protested.

“Adam?” Joe squinted at his brother. “You hurt?” Speaking was difficult, due to his badly split lip and a lump on his jaw. His mouth didn’t seem to open properly.

“No, Joe, I’m all right, honest,” Adam replied. “I just had a bump on the head yesterday and you know what Pa’s like.” He shot a look of entreaty to Ben not to say any more right then. Joe might be improving, but he was still a long way from well and Adam didn’t want him worrying. Besides, Ben could do to have some treatment for the knife wound on his arm. Their father didn’t appear to be feeling it for the moment, but Adam knew that the discomfort would hit as soon he knew that Joe was going to recover.

“Ok.” Joe subsided, too tired to think any more. He heard Ben saying something about the doctor again, but Joe’s eyes were closing and he couldn’t stay awake. He had a vague impression of being lifted then remembered no more.

*****

“As far as I can see, only Joe’s ribs are broken,” Paul assured Ben as he bandaged the older man’s forearm. “Joe has been very badly beaten and he’s going to be sore for quite some time. His eyes would appear to be all right, but they are badly swollen and I’m concerned by the amount of broken blood vessels that are showing up. I’ve put soothing compresses on his eyes and before you ask, yes, I did bandage them down. With any luck, Joe can take them off tomorrow, but apart from changing the dressing regularly for the next 24 hours, I don’t want Joe’s eyes uncovered.” Tying off the ends of the bandage, he went on, “Apart from that, Joe is exhausted. His wrists are sore from the ropes and he obviously hadn’t been given anything to eat. Other than the lack of water, Joe’s biggest problem right now is that he needs a bath! However, I’d take him home, first.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied, meaning both for his own treatment and the news that he could take Joe home. “What about Adam?”

“Tired, shaken up and hungry,” Paul replied. “He’s got a couple of rope burns but the bump on his head is superficial, Ben. He’s fine.” Paul patted his friend on the shoulder. “Hoss has organized a wagon and Roy tells me Clem found Sport and Cochise, so you’re all set to go.” He smiled as Ben rose eagerly. “And keep those boys of yours out of my surgery for a week or so, please!” They laughed. “I’ll be out tomorrow to look at Joe’s eyes.”

“Thank you,” Ben repeated and went to find his sons.

They were all outside, Hoss settling a protesting Joe into the back of a hay-filled wagon and tucking a blanket securely around him. Adam was stiffly mounting Sport and yawning widely into the bargain. Cochise and Buck were hitched to the back of the wagon, since Hoss had rightly assumed that Ben would rather ride in the back with Joe.

“I could ride,” Joe grumbled, but he was asleep before they reached the outskirts of town.

*****

It wasn’t until next day, after Joe had got the bandages off his eyes, that the family gathered downstairs to hear Roy’s report. Joe lay on the sofa, cushions behind his back and a blanket covering his legs. He still looked pale and tired and the black eyes he had were quite spectacular. Adam sat quietly in his favorite blue velvet chair and a book rested across his legs. Hoss perched on the stone hearth, Roy sat in Ben’s chair and Ben sat on the arm of the sofa by Joe.

“Renton’s business is in financial trouble,” Roy started. “He needs this contract ta keep things goin’. So that’s why he decided ta warn ya off, Ben. He had intended ta grab Joe, ‘cos he reckoned Joe would be less trouble than either o’ the other two, but got Adam instead.” Everyone looked at Joe when Roy said ‘less trouble’ and there were knowing smiles all round. If only Renton knew!

“Seems Newton had the same idea, simply ‘cos he wanted the contract,” Roy continued. “So he took Joe an’ planned ta kill him once he’d got ya ta pull out.”

“I couldn’t figure out why he kept me alive,” Joe admitted quietly. “He said right from the start that he was going to kill me and his logger friend seemed quite happy to oblige.”

“I asked the same question,” Roy agreed. “Newton said he was holdin’ on ta ya so’s he could git yer pa ta come out ta the house, if’n he refused ta pull out o’ the biddin.” Roy didn’t add that Newton had practically admitted that he was prepared to murder Joe inch by inch to persuade Ben to cooperate. He didn’t think it would do any good to tell the Cartwrights that.

“Now you’re going to tell us that Jones needed the contract to keep his business afloat,” Adam remarked sourly.

“No,” Roy denied and smiled at the surprised expressions that crossed the faces of his listeners. “His business is secure an’ he’s well off. But he’s thinkin’ o’ gettin; married an’ wanted extra money ta impress his bride-to-be.”

“What?” Hoss gasped. “He really was gonna kidnap me ‘cos o’ that?” Hoss shook his head. “That don’t make sense, Roy.”

“I never said it did,” Roy answered. He twinkled at the family. “It were plain ol’ greed. He were gonna kidnap Hoss fer ransom.”

As he had rather expected, the Cartwrights didn’t know whether to laugh or be outraged. In the end, they were outraged and then laughed. It was such a ludicrous situation and now that all his sons were safe, Ben could see the funny side of things.

“All that, for a timber contract,” Ben sighed. “What’s going to happen to them all, Roy?”

“Prison,” Roy replied, prosaically. “I reckon Newton an’ his henchman will hang. But it’s up to the judge.”

*****

After Roy left, the family were quiet. Joe fell asleep, Adam resumed reading and Hoss went out to do some chores in the barn. Ben sat and gazed aimlessly at his books, but his mind was elsewhere. They gathered again for lunch and the atmosphere was more like normal. They had all come to terms, as best they could, with what they had learned. None of them could understand how anyone could stoop so low.

The knock on the door early in the afternoon came as a surprise to them all. Ben rose to answer it and was surprised to see Emmet Johansson on the doorstep. “Come in!” he exclaimed, hoping that he didn’t look as surprised as he felt. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Thank you, that would be pleasant,” Johansson replied. He accepted the seat he was offered and Ben ordered coffee.

“What can I do for you?” Ben asked.

“I came to tell you that your bid for the contract for shoring for our mine has been accepted. None of the other bids could match yours.” Johansson smiled. “Your reputation precedes you, sir.” He held out an envelope.

Slowly, Ben reached for it and sat holding it in his hands, making no move to open it. This contract, that he hadn’t had to bid for, had caused so much grief. Could he take it on now? Ben glanced at Adam, who gazed back non-committally. Joe’s face was averted from Ben’s, his eyes riveted on the envelope. Ben couldn’t tell what Joe was thinking. He looked at Hoss, who was frowning thoughtfully, but he got no help from that side, either.

The decision then was his. Should he accept the contract, knowing what it had almost cost him? And yet, if he didn’t, who would they find to provide the shoring? This was vital safety work and since it was a friend of Adam’s who had invented the square set timbering for mines, Ben felt strongly about encouraging its use.

Looking at Adam again, Ben received a nod and a faint smile. Joe was now waiting with seeming impatience for Ben to open the envelope and Hoss’ frown had relaxed. He was watching Ben, too. “Go on, Pa, open it,” he urged. Adam and Joe echoed Hoss.

As he slit the envelope, Ben asked, “Have you heard what happened, Mr. Johansson?”

“Happened?” Johansson echoed. “No – although I can see Joseph has been in a fight of some kind.”

“Yes, a fight,” Ben agreed. He told Johansson the whole story and could see from the manager’s face that he had not heard it before and the acceptance of his bid was in fact genuine. Ben was saddened that his faith in his fellow man had been shaken, even if it turned out to just be temporary. “Thank you, Mr. Johansson; I have great pleasure in supplying the timber for your mine.”

Rising, Johansson shook his head. “Believe me, Mr. Cartwright, the pleasure is all mine. I’m especially glad, now that I know what was going on, that yours is the bid we liked best.” He jammed his hat onto his head. “It pays to have a good reputation, you know.” With those words, he left.

Sitting down, Ben looked at his sons. “Well?” he asked.

“We’re quite happy for you do provide the timber,” Adam replied, although Ben wondered when – or even if – he had spoken to his brothers about it. “We’re all fine, Pa. And you won this fair and square. Johansson just told you that. It wouldn’t be right to turn it down or back away now. And not just financially. Morally, too. Show the Newtons, Rentons and Joneses of the world that you do business honestly.” Adam gave Ben a lop-sided smile. “After all, if you weren’t an honest man, they wouldn’t have been able to hold us for ransom, would they?”

“Thank you,” Ben replied. He was always proud of his boys, but especially so at times like these.

They were silent for a time, respecting the emotions that had been flying around. But as the atmosphere eased, it was Joe who spoke first. “Hey Adam!” he protested. “What do you mean we’re all fine? I was hurt, even if you got a cushy kidnapper…”

***End***

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