The Worst That Could Happen (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  4480


 

It had been years since he had been here, but he recognized every contour of the land before him. Deep within his soul, something cried, “home!” Breathing deeply, he closed his eyes and listened to the silence around him.

After a moment, the hired horse beneath him began to fidget, and he opened his eyes and resumed his journey. What kind of reception would he get? he wondered. He hadn’t said he was coming home. It had been so long – too long, he admitted ruefully – since he had even written his family a letter. Would they all be pleased to see him? He knew his father would welcome him with open arms, and so would his middle brother. But the youngest? He didn’t know. They had too often been at odds with each other. All the years that separated them age-wise, plus all the years of actual separation, might have done their relationship irreparable harm.

A person emerged from the trees ahead, and the man tensed. He didn’t immediately recognize the person, but the sun was at their back, casting them into silhouette. “Mr. Cartwright?” asked the other.

“That’s right,” he answered warily. “What can I do for you?”

“You’ll come with me please,” the man ordered.

“I don’t think so,” Cartwright replied.

“I know you will, Adam,” the other retorted. “I can make you come with me.”

“There’s nothing you can do that will ever make me come with you,” Adam Cartwright snapped. His hand rested on his gun butt.

“Really?” the other retorted. Adam still couldn’t see his face. He watched as the man stepped back and reached into the trees. He pulled and another man, his hands tightly bound in front of him, toppled to the ground.

The startled horse stepped back and Adam soothed it automatically. His eyes were riveted to the man on the ground. He hadn’t seen Joe for years, but there was no doubt that this was his youngest brother. The other man knelt and placed the barrel of his gun against Joe’s temple. “I think you’re going to come with me after all,” the man taunted.

Dragging his gaze away from the battered features of his brother, Adam looked at the other man, and saw himself!

*****

Dismounting slowly, Adam made no unwise moves towards his gun. “I know, you, don’t I?” he asked, prodding is memory for the name.

“You ought to,” replied his doppelganger. “We did meet only the once, and briefly, as I recall, but you ought to know who I am. After all, I bear your face.”

Flicking his gaze back to Joe, the memory suddenly returned. Many years ago, this man – known to him only as Tom – had broken into the Ponderosa ranch house to steal from it. Joe had been there and had done his best to protect his home. Tom had, in the end, escaped empty handed, thanks in the main part to Joe’s efforts, but also due to the arrival of Adam, Ben and Hoss.  Joe had been badly beaten.

Then, a few years later, Tom had returned. At the time, they had not been sure it was Tom, for they never saw him, but he had three times tried to kill Joe. Then a few years after that, Tom had kidnapped Joe to hold for ransom.  Hoss had followed Tom and had been in time to rescue Joe. Tom had fallen into the Truckee River and his body had never been recovered. Adam could clearly remember the letter his father had sent him about that. He had been furious that Tom had hurt Joe so badly, but had hoped that Tom was gone for good. He couldn’t remember how many years ago that last encounter had been, but here was Tom, alive and well, and he had Joe once more.

“Yes, I remember you,” he admitted, although his face had betrayed his thoughts. “What do you want with me?”

“Well, to be truthful, I hadn’t expected it to be you, Adam. Last time I saw Joe, he said you had gone away. No,” Tom shrugged, “I just wanted any Cartwright, but seeing you – well, that’s just the icing on the cake for me!”

“What do you want?” Adam demanded. Joe groaned, and Adam made a move towards him that he halted abruptly as Tom cocked his gun.

“I want the money that Joe promised me,” Tom replied. “I’ll tell you what I want done, and then I’ll let you go and tell your family. But just remember; if you double cross me, I’ll send your brother back to you in pieces.”

“How do I know you won’t kill him anyway?” Adam demanded. Joe groaned again and moved slightly. “Please, he’s hurt. Let me go to him!”

An amused smile played over Tom’s lips. “All right,” he agreed, surprisingly. Putting the safety back on his gun, he backed slowly away, keeping Adam covered all the time. “Try anything, and I’ll blow your head off,” he warned.

Kneeling swiftly by Joe, Adam gathered his younger brother into his arms. He felt a pang of shock to discover that Joe had grey in his hair. It was also much longer than Adam remembered. “Joe,” he said, urgently. “Joe, can you hear me?” He raised his right hand to wipe some blood from Joe’s cheek.

The man in his arms opened his eyes a slit and gazed at Adam for a moment. “Leave me alone,” he hissed, through swollen, bleeding lips.

“Joe, it’s me, Adam,” his brother pleaded. “If you don’t believe me, turn your head. Tom is over there.”

With a suspicious look on his face, Joe slowly turned his head. His eyes opened wider and his mouth gaped for a second as he saw Tom standing by the tree, covering them with his gun. His head swiveled back to Adam. “Adam?” he gasped, incredulously. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve come home,” Adam replied. He saw Joe’s eyes fill with tears that he hastily blinked away. “Joe, are you all right?”

A spasm of pain crossed Joe’s face. “I dunno what happened,” he murmured, closing his eyes. “I remember him jumping at me from the trees and Cochise spooking. I guess I fell.”

“How did you get in this state?” Adam wondered aloud. He glanced at Tom, who was smirking.

“I did that,” he assured Adam gleefully. “Now, put your brother down and lie face down on the ground.” When Adam hesitated, he fired a shot into the ground near Joe.

Realizing that Tom was a madman, Adam did as he was told, carefully laying his injured brother down, before lying face down himself. Tom was kneeling on his back in an instant, and Adam swallowed a wince. His back had not improved in his years away from the Ponderosa. He wasn’t surprised when Tom dragged his arms behind his back and tied them. He tied Adam’s feet, too, although the ropes didn’t seem very tight to Adam.

Laughing, Tom rose and dragged Joe to his feet. Adam turned his head to look at them. Joe was barely able to stand, and his head lolled on his shoulders. Fear raced through Adam’s gut.

“Listen good,” Tom ordered. “You tell your father that I want $25,000 if he wants Joe back. I’ll meet you here tomorrow at noon. Come alone and unarmed. I’ll tell you where to bring the money and when. If you do this, I’ll let you see Joe. You screw up, and I’ll send you a piece of him and the price will go up. Clear?”

“Clear,” Adam grated. He watched helplessly as Joe was dragged off into the trees. Adam began the struggle to free himself, vowing that he would do whatever it took to rescue Joe.

*****

As he rode into the familiar yard, Adam could feel tears prickling in his eyes. He blinked them away; his years of exile having only repressed his emotions still further, not released them. Ben was standing in the yard, talking to a ranch hand that Adam didn’t recognize. Ben glanced up when he heard the hooves and for a moment he froze, unable to believe his eyes.

“Adam?” he whispered. He took a step closer, then he was running across the yard. “Adam!” he cried, joyfully. “Adam, you’re home!”

“Hi, Pa,” Adam replied, unable to think of anything else to say. He dismounted slowly, and Ben looked at him, perplexed by his son’s behavior.

“Adam, what’s wrong; are you ill?” Ben asked, putting his arms round his long-lost son and hugging him.

“No, it’s just…” Adam stopped, unable to say anything else for a moment. He was saved by Hoss coming out of the barn and rushing over.

They exchanged greetings, Hoss not being ashamed to shed a few tears. But like Ben, he was quick to spot Adam’s discomfort. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Ain’t cha pleased ta be home?”

“Of course I am!” Adam cried. “It’s just…” He took a deep breath and blurted out what had happened. “I met Tom on the road. He’s got Joe, and is holding him to ransom.”

All of a sudden, Ben looked old. He paled dramatically, and Hoss quickly took hold of his arm, even though he didn’t have much more color. “Tom?” Ben whispered. “I thought he was dead.”

“So did I,” Adam replied. “But it was him. He’s beaten Joe up pretty badly, Pa. He wants $25,000 to give Joe back. I’ve to meet him alone and unarmed tomorrow, and he’ll tell me where we’ve to give the money and when.”

“The nightmare has begun again,” Ben muttered. He headed towards the house. Slowly, Adam and Hoss both followed. Hoss told the ranch hand to tend to his brother’s horse.

The house hadn’t changed. His familiar, well-loved blue velvet chair was still sitting by the bottom of the stairs. The sofa appeared to have had the fabric changed, but the large square coffee table was still in front of the fire. A delicious smell of roast beef permeated the air and Adam suddenly realized he was hungry.

“Suppa ready,” called a voice that Adam knew almost as well as his own.

“Hop Sing!” he exclaimed.

Startled, the diminutive Chinese cook looked at Adam before bowing deeply to him. “Welcome home, Mista Adam,” he said. “Been away long time. I set extra place.”

“There’s no need,” Ben told him. “Hop Sing, Joe’s been kidnapped.”

The stricken look on the cook’s face told everyone of his grief at the news. “I get suppa,” he muttered tonelessly and shuffled back into the kitchen.

  *****

The line shack was one that Joe knew well, for he had provisioned it often. Tom threw him down on the floor and Joe couldn’t bite back the groan that escaped. He ached all over and his stomach throbbed from his journey to the shack face down over the saddle of his horse. Joe was only too familiar with Tom’s ‘tricks’ and wondered with dread what he faced now.

Kneeling by Joe’s side, Tom tied Joe’s feet tightly, then rose and went over to the bunk. From its hiding place under the mattress, he pulled a collar and chain. Joe shuddered. He tried to keep the fear from his face as Tom came back to him and fastened the leather collar around his neck. Tom grinned at the look on Joe’s face as he padlocked the chain, very short, to a ring in the wall. Joe wasn’t going to be going anywhere, even if by some miracle he managed to break free of the ropes.

“So where did you go?” Joe asked. “After you fell into the river?”

“Does it matter?” Tom replied. “I drifted back into my life of crime, if that’s what you truly want to know.”

“Why have you come back here?” prodded Joe. “It’s been years.”

Looking at Joe askance, Tom didn’t reply. He wasn’t too certain why he had come back here, either. He hated Joe with a vengeance, for the younger man had always managed to prod his conscience into life. Tom couldn’t stand it, yet he had never forgotten Joe and had felt drawn to come back to Nevada. Finally, he had succumbed to temptation and arrived in Nevada, made his plans and was delighted to have them fall into place so easily.

Sighing, Joe abandoned his questioning, knowing that he wasn’t going to get the answers he wanted. Watching Tom begin to make a meal, Joe surreptitiously tested his bonds, finding them as tight as ever. He’d only managed to break free the last time by burning the ropes – and his feet – in the fire. Joe vividly remembered the pain, as he had been bedridden for some time afterwards.

As Tom turned his back, Joe reached up with his bound hands to try and find the buckle of the collar. If it was within reach, he might be able to unfasten it, and break free. Even though the buckle was at the back of his neck, Joe found he could reach it easily and began to fiddle with it.

“Damn, Cartwright, if you aren’t the most irritating person I ever met!” Tom cried, turning round and catching Joe at it. He crossed the shack in two strides and yanked Joe’s hands away, casually backhanding him for good measure. “Why do you always have to try to escape? Can’t you ever learn that I won’t tolerate it?”

“Doesn’t look like it,” Joe gasped, through lips that were bleeding again. “Any more than it looks like you haven’t learned that I won’t just sit here passively.”

“And I thought this might be enough,” Tom murmured and Joe frowned. What did that mean? He watched, his hands again rising to his neck as Tom crossed the shack to delve in his saddlebags.

It wasn’t any other instrument of torture that Tom brought back with him; just more rope. Joe fought to keep his face impassive as Tom bound the rope tightly around his thighs, just above his knees, then pulled his wrists down to his thighs and bound them there. “You won’t be getting out if this in a hurry, will you?” Tom taunted as he walked away.

Sighing again as he looked down at his doubly trapped hands, Joe wished he hadn’t been as impulsive as to try to escape while Tom was still awake. “Still acting first and thinking after,” Joe chided himself, quietly. He wondered what Adam would say when he found out about this.

*****

As Tom ate, Joe thought about Adam. The sight of his brother on the road that afternoon had come as quite a shock, especially after realizing that he was Tom’s prisoner once more. Joe had not known that Adam was on his way home. It had been months since the family had last heard from him, and Joe knew that Ben feared the worst. If something happened to Adam while he was traveling alone, would they ever know? Did Adam carry some form of identification that would ask someone to get in touch with his family so far away? Joe didn’t know the answer.

In fact, Joe wasn’t too sure how he felt about his brother’s return. He knew that Ben would be pleased, for his father had missed Adam dreadfully over the years. Hoss would be pleased too, for he and Adam had always been close. It was Adam and Joe that fought; Adam and Joe that could resort to fisticuffs to resolve their problems; Adam and Joe that could be as warm and loving as the rest of the family. It was a difficult dynamic for them to deal with. The oldest and the youngest had been butting heads on and off for years. Although Joe had missed Adam very much initially, he had suddenly found that he was accepted much more easily, for he didn’t have to constantly prove himself to Adam. Joe grew up, took on much of the responsibility that was Adam’s and flourished. Did he now want Adam to come home and maybe take over again?

It was clear by now that Joe wasn’t going to get anything to eat. He wriggled his fingers, making sure the circulation hadn’t been cut off and was relieved to find his fingers still worked. The ropes were just as tight as ever and Joe felt a pang of unease. How was he going to get himself out of this one?

Darkness fell, and Tom rolled himself in a blanket and fell asleep. Shivering on the floor, Joe tugged and pulled at his bonds in the hope of loosening them, but there was no play in the ropes. When dawn came, he was still a prisoner.

 *****

“It hasn’t been much of a homecoming for you, Adam,” Ben commented that evening after supper.

“That’s hardly your fault,” Adam pointed out. “But don’t worry, Pa, we’ll get Joe back safe and sound.”

 “Of course we will,” Ben agreed, but his voice sounded hollow and unconvincing, even to his own ears. “I’m not worried.”

Hoss exchanged a look with Adam. How many times had they heard Ben say something like that about Joe? Of course he was worried, as were Adam and Hoss. Tom was a madman. At his last meeting with Joe, he had come far too close to cutting off one of Joe’s ears before Hoss was able to stop him.

“Pa, we’ve got to make plans for tomorrow,” Adam insisted. “We can’t just let Tom abuse Joe like he had. We’ve got to get Joe back tomorrow, before you have to pay any money.”

“It’s so risky,” Ben replied. “If anything happened to Joe…” He couldn’t go on.

“Pa, Tom don’t mean ta let Joe go, even if’n he does git the money,” Hoss chimed in. He hated to say it, but someone had to. “He’s gonna kill Joe, one way or the other.”

There was a long silence while Ben just looked at his two remaining sons. The worst thing that could happen was the death of one of his sons. Ben knew that they had to live their lives and that the unexpected was always waiting round the corner. But to actively put his sons in danger, even to save one, was very difficult for him. But even he could see that Adam and Hoss were right. Tom meant to kill Joe, and their best chance of rescuing him appeared to be the next day.

“All right,” he agreed. “What should we do?”

 *****

It was a long night for all the Cartwrights and sleep was in short supply. An hour before dawn, Hoss and Ben rose, dressed and left for the rendezvous, there to find places to hide. Adam picked at the food Hop Sing prepared and spent the morning wandering aimlessly around the house. Several times he tried to settle to read, but each time found himself wondering how his youngest brother was faring.

It seemed unfair to Adam that he should return from wandering the earth, only to find one of his family in mortal danger. Somehow, Adam had always assumed that everything at the Ponderosa would remain unchanged. He had frequently comforted himself with the thought that he could always go home and find them waiting for him. Now, he found himself wondering why he hadn’t come home sooner. Was his life so good that he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – give it up to come back here? This was where his heart lay. Why was he wandering the world, finding nowhere to settle, when he had this place to come back to?

It was a question he was unable to answer, and he decided right there and then that he was home for good. He could write to friends to sell his house in England. He had nothing there that he desperately wanted to keep. He would miss his friends, but this was home.

As he left to go to the rendezvous, Adam felt more settled than he had for a long, long, time.

 ******

For Joe, the journey to the meeting had been tortuous. Tom had forced him to run behind his horse, and more than once, Joe had fallen and been dragged for a time before Tom had stopped and allowed him to regain his feet. Joe hadn’t had to worry about not voicing his pain, as Tom had gagged him before leaving the shack. By the time they reached the place they were to meet Adam, Joe was trembling with exhaustion.

They didn’t have long to wait before Adam appeared. Joe raised his head and peered at his brother. Adam shot Joe a long look, and turned furious brown eyes on Tom, his doppelganger. “Why is Joe gagged?” he demanded.

“I’m sure you can guess,” Tom replied. “Did you know that we share more than just our face, Adam? We’re both college men, but I didn’t manage to do anything worthwhile with my education. What have you done with yours?”

“What difference does it make?” Adam demanded. “You want the money for Joe and I’ll make sure you get it!”

“Joe was so proud of you when we first met,” Tom confided. He patted Joe’s face just a shade harder than necessary. “And even last time we met, he was bragging about how much the family still loved you. I rather thought it sounded like he was protesting too much, but now that you’re back, I wonder. Maybe he was telling the truth.”

“Joe doesn’t lie!” Adam asserted. He shot another look at his brother, trying to convey with his eyes that everything would be all right. He was shocked by Joe’s appearance. The other man looked exhausted, his eyes glazed. Every now and then, Joe grimaced as pain shot through his body. Adam was deeply concerned. “Look, what do you want? Please, tell me, so we can start getting the money together. Please.”

“You know how much I want,” Tom countered, coolly. “I want it by tomorrow. You get it all here by noon, and I’ll give you Joe back.”

“Alive,” Adam stipulated. “And without you having harmed him any more.”

“I don’t think you’re in any position to be giving orders,” Tom growled, hauling Joe closer to him and placing his gun, which he’d drawn earlier, against Joe’s head.

Taking a deep breath, Adam forced himself to be calm. Joe’s green eyes were suddenly wide with terror and pain. “No, I guess I’m not,” Adam agreed. “But he’s my brother; you can’t blame me for trying.”

Surprisingly, this made Tom smile and relax. He shoved Joe away from him again, causing the other man to stumble and nearly fall. Adam burned with anger, but he hid it. “I guess I can’t,” Tom nodded. His tone turned hard again. He pointed his gun at Adam. “Get going, Cartwright!” he ordered.

Knowing that he had to do as he was told, and hoping that Ben and Hoss were in position, Adam slowly turned to walk away. Joe felt bereft. He glanced at Tom, and was horrified to see him cocking his gun, ready to shoot Adam in the back.

Without another moment’s thought, Joe launched himself at his retreating brother’s back. There was a fusillade of gunshots as Adam hit the ground, and a cry of pain. From a distance, he could hear his name and Joe’s being called frantically, but he was too winded to answer. And all he could hear after that was the rattle of breath in Joe’s throat and then silence…

*****

With a jerk and a cry, Adam woke from the nightmare, feeling sweat cooling on his body and his heart thumping erratically. He raised a shaking hand to wipe his face, then fumbled for a light.

The warm glow from the lamp was reassuring. Adam glanced at the clock and realized that he hadn’t been asleep very long. Midnight had not yet been struck, and it was still Halloween. The horror of the nightmare was still very much upon him, but he decided that the ghost stories he and a friend had been telling each other earlier that evening, plus the amount of ale they had drunk, had contributed to the dream.

Despite this, it was a long time before he went back to bed and fell asleep.

*****

In the morning, Adam found himself thinking about home. He had lived in England now for some time, but he still didn’t think of it as home; home was the Ponderosa and Adam suddenly realized how much he missed it and his family.

Until the dream the previous night, Adam had always thought that nothing would change on the Ponderosa. Everyone would still be there when he returned. But Joe’s death in that dream had scared him. He wanted to go home.

With Adam, thought led to action, and he went through to his room to begin packing. It was with a jolt that he realized that the thoughts he had had in his dream were quite correct. There was very little in that house that he wanted to keep. His most precious possessions were thousands of miles away. Suddenly, he was very homesick.

Later that morning, a letter arrived. Adam recognized the handwriting at once as his father’s. He held the envelope for a long moment, thinking that his reply to this would be delivered in person. The thought warmed his heart and he smiled to himself.

Opening the letter, he was completely unprepared for its contents.

 

My dear son, Adam,

 It is with great sadness that I write to tell you of the death of your brother…”

 

The words blurred into a haze of hot tears for a moment, and Adam did not know which of his brothers had died. Because of his dream, he feared it was Joe; he had no idea how to bear it if it were Hoss; he didn’t know if he could bear to read on and find out, but he had to.

 

…the death of your brother Hoss. He collapsed and died here at home, and we do not know why. I hate to write to tell you this. I know that you will be as grief-stricken as we are. Joe is so bereft, yet will not give in to his grief. I fear for him, Adam. 

 I know I have no right to ask, but will you come home? We need you right now, and I think that you need us also.

 Your loving father,

Ben Cartwright.

 

Collapsing onto the nearest seat, Adam wept out his heartbreak. Hoss had been dead for over a month and he had not known it.

As he looked around the bare little house, Adam realized that he had left it too late to go home. Everything had changed. How he wished it was all a bad dream.

 

***End***

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