Leaning on the bar of the Silver Dollar saloon, Adam Cartwright said, “A beer, please, Cosmo.” He smiled his thanks as the glass was placed by his elbow and took a deep draught of it. “We’re in for trouble,” he commented in a low voice.
Standing next to Adam at the bar was his younger, although taller and heavier, brother, Hoss. He glanced sideways at Adam. “How come?” he asked, putting down his glass.
“While I was over getting the mail, I overheard Rudi telling someone that Peter Davis was arrested last night.” Adam took another deep slug from his glass.
“Uh-oh,” Hoss groaned. “What fer?”
Glancing sideways and meeting his brother’s eyes for the first time, Adam replied, “Bank robbery.”
The reaction he got was everything he could have hoped for. “What?” Hoss exclaimed, putting down his glass with a bang. “Ya gotta be kiddin’!”
“I wish I was,” Adam responded, wryly. “Joe’ll be fit to be tied when he hears this.”
Looking around uneasily, Hoss asked, “Where’s he at?”
Raising one eyebrow and grimacing, Adam replied, “At the bank.”
Waiting for the teller to gather the money he had requested, Joe Cartwright couldn’t help wondering why all the bank’s employees were staring at him uneasily. He glanced surreptitiously down at himself, but no, he didn’t appear to be splattered with mud. There was no easy way to the check that he hadn’t split the seat of his pants, but they felt fine. His hat was on straight and he hadn’t accidentally put on Hoss’ ten-gallon hat, or Adam’s black one, both of which were too big for him.
“Hey, John,” he whispered, as the teller came back. “Why’s everyone lookin’ at me funny?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” John mumbled, flushing.
“Don’t give me that!” Joe responded, exasperated. “You know what it is! Now, tell me, please!”
Looking down, John put the last of the money into the pouch and shoved it under the bars to Joe, who tucked it away inside his jacket automatically. “All right,” he agreed. “I’ll tell you.” Taking a deep breath, John said, “Peter Davis was arrested last night while trying to rob the bank.”
For a single instant, Joe just gazed at the teller. “It’s not true!” he stated, but his denial lacked vehemence. “There’s got to be a mistake!”
“No mistake, Joe,” came a deep baritone voice from behind Joe. He turned to see the bank president, Mr. Wilson, standing there, with a bandage round his head and a black eye. Joe felt his insides turn over. “I saw him myself.”
The door of the jailhouse sprang open and both Sheriff Roy Coffee and Ben Cartwright, Joe’s father, turned in surprise. “Joe!” Ben exclaimed, both surprised and embarrassed by his son’s precipitous entry. “What’s wrong?”
“Where’s Peter?” Joe cried, his eyes flashing. “Roy, is he here?”
“Jist settle down, young’un,” Roy advised. “He’s here.”
“I want to see him!” Joe declared.
Exchanging glances, Ben and Roy could only make wry faces at each other. When Ben had arrived in the jail a short time ago, to check that Roy was still coming out a few nights later to play checkers, he had been shocked to discover that Peter Davis had been caught red-handed robbing the bank. Davis and Joe had become fast friends.
This was something of a surprise to Ben. They seemed an unlikely pairing. But then, everything about Davis was a mass of contradictions. He was tall and very muscular, and to look at him, you would assume that he was a cowboy or a miner; someone who did manual labor. But he wasn’t; he was a book-keeper. Davis had fine pale blond hair, with black eyebrows. His dark brown eyes came as a shock in the fairness of his skin. He spoke quietly and gave the impression of being quite a gentle man, yet he always carried a gun, frequently lost his temper and often became involved in brawls. He generally kept everyone at arm’s length – except Joe.
Quite how Joe had come to be such a good friend of Davis’ was a matter for speculation amongst the other Cartwrights. Joe had never said, and they hadn’t liked to pry. Usually with Joe, information either burst out of him, or was released in a gradual trickle, but this time he kept his peace.
As it happened, Joe had kept quiet because Davis had asked him to. They had met one night when Joe, on the outskirts of Virginia City, had heard some firing from up ahead. Racing thoughtlessly into the fray, Joe was in time to see one man ride away, and found Davis on the ground, just getting to his feet with a graze on his cheek.
“Thank,” he panted to Joe. “He was trying to rob me.”
“Are you all right?” Joe asked, torn between helping Davis and chasing the thief.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Davis replied. He brushed the dust off his clothes.
“You ought to tell the sheriff,” Joe suggested, contenting himself to stay where he was. He would never find the thief in the darkness.
“I’d rather not,” Davis responded.
“Why not?” Joe demanded. “He was gonna rob you!”
“I know, but he didn’t get anything, thanks to you,” replied Davis. “And to be perfectly truthful, it’s embarrassing admitting that a big guy like me almost got robbed on the road. Please, don’t tell anyone?”
“All right, if that’s what you want,” Joe agreed, easily. He thrust out his hand. “I’m Joe Cartwright.”
“Peter Davis.” And they shook. Joe found himself often in Davis’ company after that, for the secret they shared seemed to bond them together. Having something of a temper himself, Joe could understand how Davis could lose his temper with very little provocation, and being friends with a Cartwright didn’t do Davis any harm.
“I want to see him, Roy,” Joe repeated.
“All right, Joe,” Roy replied, slowly. He could tell Ben had wanted him to say no, but there was nothing to prevent Joe seeing his friend. “Better give me your gun first.”
Giving Roy a hard look, Joe hesitated for an instant before handing the pearl-handled revolver over. “Peter wouldn’t do anything,” he asserted.
“I didn’ say he would,” Roy returned. He kept his tone reasonable. He could see that Joe was spoiling for a fight. “But them’s the regulations, Joe. Don’ matter who it is. I gotta take everyone’s gun.”
“Joe,” Ben said softly, and when his son’s green eyes cut his way, he wondered what he was going to say.
“Don’t, Pa,” Joe pleaded. “Don’t say anything.” He held his father’s gaze for a moment before drawing a deep, uneven breath and nodding to Roy. “Can I go in?”
“Sure,” Roy allowed. He laid Joe’s gun on his desk as Joe opened the door between the office and the cells. He stepped through and closed it firmly behind him. He didn’t want his father and Roy eavesdropping on what he said.
“Joe!” Davis exclaimed, jumping to his feet from the bunk. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you, Peter,” Joe responded, suddenly at a loss for words. “Peter, I can’t believe it! It must be some kind of mistake. Tell me what happened and I’ll see if I can get Roy to believe you.”
Davis regarded Joe calmly through the bars. “What good would it do?” he asked.
Sighing in exasperation, Joe stopped his restless pacing and leant his left hand on the bars, turning sideways on to the cell. He didn’t want to believe what he thought Davis was telling him. Not looking at his friend, he replied, “It might help you get out of here. After all, you weren’t robbing the bank, were you?” It was phrased as a question, but came out as a statement of fact.
In a swift movement, Davis crossed the small cell, grabbed Joe’ left hand, yanked it towards him and twisted it up behind Joe’s back. Caught off guard, Joe lost his balance, and found himself falling against the bars. Davis’ other arm snaked around Joe’s neck and putting his hand on Joe’s face, he effectively muffled any out-cry Joe might make while he cracked Joe’s head off the bars several times.
Joe fought furiously, but one bang of his head too many, and he was too dazed to resist any further, his legs turning rubbery beneath him. Davis allowed Joe to slump to the floor, still keeping his hand over Joe’s mouth. He changed his grip so that Joe’s arm was now through the bottom bars and with his other hand, he cautiously released Joe’s mouth and hunted through his friend’s pockets and after a moment, found the knife that he knew Joe usually carried. With it securely against Joe’s throat, he shook his dazed victim slightly before shouting, “Hey, sheriff!”
There was a pause before the door opened and Roy appeared, stopping abruptly so that Ben, who was on his heels, cannoned into him. “What…?” Ben started, before his eye fell on Joe, slumped against the bars, clearly dazed and with a knife held to his throat.
“Glad you’re here, too, Mr. Cartwright,” Davis said, cheerfully. “Now, you’re both going to do what I want, or Joe here will suffer. I want the money I’d have got from the bank last night – what, about $10,000? Bring it here, with a horse and I might let you have Joe back in one piece. Is all that clear?”
“Yes,” Roy nodded, for he had no choice but to agree. “But there ain’t no promises. The bank is shut.”
“I can wait,” Davis returned. “Unlock the cell,” he ordered. “Oh, and I think I’d like to have your handcuffs, Sheriff. I might want to move about a bit, and I can’t risk letting go of Joe here, now can I?” As Roy hesitated, Davis tightened his grip on Joe’s throat, and Joe began to choke. The point of his knife nicked a spot just below his ear and a trickle of bright red blood oozed down his neck.
“Do what he says, Roy,” Ben urged, his voice hollow. “But I’m warning you, Davis. If Joe is hurt, there won’t be anywhere in this world big enough for you to hide in.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before,” Davis responded, indifferently. He watched as Roy slowly turned the key in the lock, then dropped his open handcuffs into the cell and backed away. “All right, you can go,” Davis told them. “But a word of warning. Leave that door open, so I know what you’re doing. And don’t bother to send anyone to shoot at me through the window. I won’t be moving far from Joe’s side, and any bullet that hits me will cause him untold hurt. Clear?”
“Clear,” Roy agreed. He urged Ben back into the office, leaving the door open as he had been told to. Through it, they could see Davis gather up the cuffs, his painful grip on Joe’s left arm never moving. Before long, he had Joe’s hands secured to the horizontal bars above him.
“What are we going to do?” Ben whispered to Roy, his eyes fixed on Joe. His son was only just beginning to come back to full consciousness.
“I dunno,” Roy admitted. “He’s sure got us over a barrel, Ben. I’m real sorry. I never figgered he’d do somethin’ like this.”
“It’s not your fault,” Ben assured him. He found himself wringing his hands anxiously and consciously stopped doing it.
They both tensed as the outer door swung open to admit Adam and Hoss. “Pa,” Adam said loudly as they entered, “Have you heard that…” His voice trailed off as he followed Ben’s horrified gaze, swinging around to see his youngest brother a helpless captive by the cells.
“Nice of you to join us, fellas,” Davis called. “Take a seat where I can see you and don’t make any sudden moves. If you value your brother’s life, that is.” He laughed as both Adam and Hoss subsided onto the desk, their faces white with shock.
As his grip on conscious improved, Joe took in his situation. His arms were fastened above his head and he could feel the handcuffs biting into his wrists. His head ached slightly from being bashed off the bars of the cell, but Joe knew it could have been so much worse. The blood that had run down his neck was drying now and was ticklish. He twisted his head slightly to rub against his shoulder. Swallowing, he asked, “Why are you doing this, Peter? I thought we were friends.”
“Well, you thought wrong,” Davis assured him. “Oh, you’re good company, Joe, but we’re not friends. But being seen with you gave me an aura of reliability it would have taken me years to build up. You see, I don’t like to stay anywhere too long. And when you came in here, it gave me the chance I needed.”
“The chance you needed to do what?” Joe asked, turning his head slightly to see his erstwhile friend. Davis moved out of the cell so that he could see Joe’s face.
“Oh come on, Joe!” Davis scoffed. “I didn’t hit your head that hard! Think! I’m in here for armed robbery – what chance do you think I need?”
“To escape,” Joe replied, softly.
“Got it in one!” Davis praised him. “I knew you weren’t completely stupid. This way, I can get away and I get the money I need.”
“I see,” Joe muttered, for indeed he did. He wondered if Davis had found the pouch of money that had been in his jacket. Joe tried to move to see if he could still feel it, but the way his hands were restrained prevented him. There was about $1000 all told, but Joe knew that that wasn’t enough to please Peter. “And to think I came here to protest your innocence!” he commented bitterly.
“Life’s a bitch and then you die,” Davis agreed, sounding singularly unconcerned. “Where’d you hear about me anyhow?” he asked, mildly interested. Glancing through the door, Davis could see Joe’s family and the sheriff watching them. He gave them a cheery smile. He had been wondering how he was going to get out of this one; Joe’s timing was fortuitous.
“At the bank,” Joe responded. He tried to ease his position slightly, drawing up his legs so he was sitting a bit straighter, and taking some of the pressure off his shoulders. Feeling eyes on him, he lifted his head and smiled at Ben, who smiled back, unconvincingly. “Mr. Wilson told me he’d caught you emptying the vault. I told him he was wrong.”
“You know, Joe, before I met you, I didn’t believe the stories of the way you go off half-cocked, speaking before you think. You really are priceless.”
“Thanks,” Joe muttered sarcastically. “But you still haven’t told me why.”
“Why I robbed the bank?” Davis asked. “Oh Joe, really. I wanted the money, of course. Why else would I have bothered?”
Suddenly, they heard the outside door open again, and Davis reacted instantly, crouching close by Joe’s side, his hand shooting out to cover Joe’s mouth, the other holding the knife blade to his throat. Ben rose to his feet and walked over to the intervening door and pulled it partially closed as Roy rose to greet the visitor.
“Got a telegram fer ya, sheriff,” came Rudi’s distinctive voice.
“Thanks, Rudi,” Roy replied, his tone one of unruffled calm. “I’m obliged ta ya.”
“Sure thing,” Rudi answered and the outside door banged shut again.
Breathing out a sigh of relief, Ben opened the door again and regarded Joe with anxiety. Davis did not loosen his grip. “He gone?” he demanded.
“Yes,” Ben replied.
“Lock the door so’s it doesn’t happen again,” Davis ordered.
“What if someone comes wanting the sheriff?” Adam asked. There was a dangerous edge to his voice.
“Then I presume they’ll knock,” returned Davis, his voice no less dangerous. He still had his grip on Joe, who was now struggling as best he could, trying to ease the grip on his face. “Get back to your seats!”
“Siddown, Adam,” Hoss said, quietly, but Adam heeded his brother, resuming his seat reluctantly. Hoss was no less incensed at seeing his brother man-handled in this way, but he didn’t want a careless show of temper to jeopardize Joe in any way. Common sense told him that Davis could not afford to kill Joe, but that wouldn’t stop him hurting Joe badly if he thought it necessary.
“What is it, Roy?” Ben asked, in an undertone as the sheriff read his wire. “Bad news?”
“Ya could say that,” Roy responded slowly. “I sent out wires askin’ about unsolved bank robberies. This is the answer.”
“What does it say?” Ben urged.
“Share your love letter, sheriff,” Davis said. He had silently released Joe, got to his feet and was now standing within a few feet of the door to the office. This was the first time he had moved from Joe’s side, but neither Adam nor Hoss could risk a shot at him, for if they missed, unlikely as it was at close range, Joe was in their line of fire.
Only Ben saw the flash of anger before Roy turned to look at Davis. “All right,” he agreed, in a casual tone. “It’s from the sheriff down in Lodge Pine. He says someone fittin’ your description is wanted fer robbin’ the bank there. Would that be ya?”
“Probably,” Davis agreed. “What else?”
“Oh, a few more along that line,” Roy replied. He cocked a warning eye at Ben. “It says ya murdered a bank clerk back in Missouri, too.”
“Sure did!” nodded Davis. “Any other bits of my career you want to share? I’m truly thankful for you telling the Cartwrights all this, because they might not have believed me if I’d told them. They’d have probably thought I was making it all up so they’d do what I told them. Now, they know that if I threaten to kill Joe, here, I mean it.” He took several casual steps back, until he was standing beside Joe again.
Looking up, Joe wondered how he could have been so mistaken by Davis. He could still see the genial man he thought he had befriended, but there was now an aura of danger about him that Joe had never seen before. He moved uneasily, for the charged atmosphere in the jail house had suddenly tensed even further. The recitation of Davis’ crimes made Joe even more aware of how vulnerable he was. “Peter,” he began, not sure what he was going to say.
In a terrifyingly swift movement, Davis kicked out at Joe, striking him brutally on the hip. Joe, unprepared for the blow, slid slightly, leaving most of his weight hanging from his hands. He winced. Before he could try to move, Davis planted his boot on Joe’s stomach and began putting weight on it. “See how easy it is?” he demanded. “Just remember this when you get your ideas of rescuing him.”
Adam and Hoss were on their feet now. Ben was gazing at Joe, ashen-faced, as Davis continued to put weight on the foot that was on Joe’s stomach. Joe was trying to curl away, but couldn’t, and Ben could see the fight he was waging with himself not to cry out. But a groan of pain escaped him before Davis removed his foot.
Leaving Joe half-curled on the floor, he walked calmly back inside the cell.
Gasping for breath, Joe drew his legs up closer to his chest while he tried to control the pain. As it subsided, leaving only an ache in his hip, Joe felt slightly sick. He grabbed the bars of the cell with his hands and pulled himself back into a more up-right position. The immediate pressure was taken off his hands, but his shoulders were aching relentlessly from their unaccustomed position and his hands were beginning to feel numb.
Raising his head, Joe saw his family, still standing in their frozen positions, all of their gazes riveted on him. Drawing a cautious deep breath, Joe nodded slightly. “I’m all right,” he reported, hoarsely. He tried to smile, but was less than successful.
Gradually, the Cartwrights relaxed enough to sit down again. Ben glanced at the clock. It had been shortly after 5 pm when Joe had rushed imprudently into the sheriff’s office, ready to defend his friend. It was now past 8, with the whole of the night stretching before them. Outside, it had been dark for some time. Ben shivered. He barely felt the chill in the air, for the stove in the jail had not been lit to ward off the autumnal night. Ben shivered from fear. He feared for his sons’ lives. Although Joe was the one in the most obvious peril, Ben was terrified that, somehow, something would happen to either Adam or Hoss, too. Briefly closing his eyes, he sent an appeal to heaven.
“That day you say you were being robbed on the road,” Joe mentioned as Davis paced restlessly. “Was it you who was almost robbed, or were you doing the robbing?”
“What do you think?” Davis replied, looking down at Joe.
“You were trying to rob that man,” Joe stated, with cold certainty. “Who was he?”
Shrugging, Davis replied, “I don’t know. Some drifter; an out-of-work cowboy, who knows? I don’t care, either. He was faster than me, and I almost got shot that time. Your arrival was quite fortuitous then, as well.” He grinned at Joe. “Perhaps you have been a friend to me, Joe.”
Looking steadily back, Joe replied, “If I had known, I wouldn’t have been, Peter. You can count on that. I would have done everything I could to bring you to justice.”
“You Cartwrights – you’re all so sanctimonious!” Davis stalked away in disgust. Joe let him go.
The chill grew deeper. A cold draft crept in through the bars of the cell and moved along the floor, adding to the chill that Joe felt already. He fought to control the shiver that ran up his spine, but the cold was seeping through the seat of his thin pants from the stone floor and he was fighting a losing battle. He smiled faintly as he recalled his father admonishing him as a small child not to “sit on cold stone – you’ll get piles.” At that time, Joe had not had the faintest idea what piles were and wondered why sitting on cold stone could give him piles. Piles of what? he finally asked Adam, who had blushed, wondering why Joe always asked him the awkward questions!
His amusement faded as another shiver wracked his body. Twisting his head slightly and wincing at the pain that shot across his shoulders, he saw that Davis was wrapped in the thin blanket from the bunk in the cell. It might not be much, but it seemed like the height of luxury to Joe at that moment. He only had on his thin green twill jacket, as the day had been warm enough for him not to need a warmer coat. His father and Adam both had on warmer jackets and Hoss had a blanket from the cot Roy sometimes slept on.
“Davis,” Ben said, quietly. He had seen Joe shivering and wanted to do what he could to help his son.
“What do you want?” Davis asked, walking over to Joe’s side. He stood close enough that Joe could not twist his legs around and kick Davis’ legs out from underneath him.
“Joe must be cold. Can I give him this blanket?” Ben held the blanket up to show he wasn’t hiding anything.
“You cold, Joe?” Davis asked, seeing that Joe’s face was pinched and white and his jaw was clenched from the effort of trying to stop shivering.
“Yes,” Joe admitted, reluctantly. He knew there was no point in trying to hide it any longer. He tried not to think of the warmth of the blanket, well aware that Davis might decide to be cruel and not let him have it. Lifting his chin, Joe told himself he would be fine without the blanket. He would just be finer with it!
“All right,” Davis replied. “Put it down there. I’ll give it to him.”
“Thank you,” Ben told him. He dropped the blanket and moved back, his eyes caressing Joe’s face, seeing how cold and tired his son was; seeing the signs of pain that Joe was suffering thanks to the position of his arms.
Picking up the blanket, Davis dropped it carelessly over Joe’s legs, but Joe didn’t mind. After a few moments, he could feel the added warmth creeping up his legs. Although it never reached his butt, Joe felt warmer over all.
“What are we going to do?” Adam asked quietly. Joe had his eyes closed and Adam wondered how his brother could sleep in that position, but after a few seconds, Joe’s eyes opened again. Adam’s fists were clenched.
“I don’t see what we can do,” Ben admitted, equally quietly. It was now almost midnight. Outside, the town was quiet, and Roy was glad, in a way, that there had been no disturbances. On the other hand, if there had been, he might have risked taking a pot shot at Davis through the jail window. He hated to feel as powerless as this. “Davis holds all the cards.” Ben gestured to Joe.
“There must be summat we c’n do,” Hoss muttered. “I hate ta see the young’un sufferin’ like that.”
“We all do,” Adam agreed. “Surely there must be something.” He curbed the impulse to rise to his feet and pace. As time wore on, Davis was becoming tenser and more unpredictable.
“Our only chance may come while Davis is trying to escape with Joe,” Ben replied. “I hate to leave him there as much as you do, but I don’t want to jeopardize his safety.” He rubbed Adam’s shoulder gently for a moment, feeling the muscles tense beneath his hands.
“What are you Cartwrights saying?” Davis called through. “Break it up.” He was hovering over Joe and they reluctantly moved apart.
Laughing, Davis sat down by Joe. “What do you want, Peter?” Joe asked, wearily. He was beginning to feel a bit breathless, although he couldn’t understand why. His shoulder muscles were cramping painfully and his hands had almost no feeling in them.
“You know what I want, Joe,” the other responded.
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” Joe told him. “What do you want to do when you get out of here?”
“I want to get away,” Davis replied. “And I think I probably want to kill you to do it.”
“Why wait?” Joe wanted to know. “Why not kill me now? You’ve got plenty of other hostages to torment.”
For a moment, Davis just looked at Joe. “I didn’t know how I was going to get out of here, Joe, I’ll be honest. I trusted that something would turn up. It looked pretty bleak for me until you came. Even though you weren’t allowed to have your gun, I was fairly sure you would be carrying your knife. And its effective, Joe. I’m going to get what I want; the money from the bank. And I’ll have my freedom, too. You’ll have to take your chances I’m afraid.”
“I came here because of the trust I had in you,” Joe explained. “I believed you were innocent.” He met Davis’ gaze steadily. “I know better now, of course, but I would like to know why. Why do you rob banks? You’re not stupid; you get any kind of job you wanted.”
Sighing, Davis shook his head. “You don’t understand, do you? Its simple, Joe. I don’t really want to work. Working is so boring! But I like to live the good life. I like to drink and gamble and that requires money. So, when I get a bit short, I rob a bank.”
“And what about the people?” Joe asked. “Do you ever think of the people whose money you’ve stolen? And what of the person you killed. He might have had a wife and a family.”
“I’ve killed more than one person,” Davis admitted. “And I don’t think of them, any more than you think of the people you’ve killed.”
“What makes you think that I don’t think about them?” Joe retorted. “Because I do. Not all the time, but I do think of them.” He tried to ease his shoulders again. “Why do you pretend to be someone you’re not? Why do you stay in a place for a time before you rob the bank?”
“I don’t know,” Davis admitted and for the first time sounded a little uncertain. “But I guess I can’t be on the run all the time.”
“Is it worth it, Peter?” Joe asked. “I don’t think you’ll get away from here, even if you do kill me. Give yourself up now. All right, you’ll get a few years in jail, but…”
“I’ll hang!” Peter declared, flatly. “Don’t forget, Joe, I’m wanted for murder.”
Biting his lip, Joe subsided for the moment. He flicked a glance at his family. Ben was still looking at him. Hoss had his eyes shut, but Joe didn’t think he was asleep. Adam was swinging one leg restlessly as he sat on the edge of the desk. Roy Coffee was leaning against the wall. “We were friends,” Joe stated, returning to the attack. “Oh, deny it if you like, but we were friends. Is it going to be that easy to kill me, if that’s what it comes down to?”
“You felt what I did to you earlier,” Davis replied. “That was easy for me. What do you think?”
“Beating me up is different,” Joe responded. “But can you kill me? Can you honestly say you can look me in the eye and kill me without thinking about those times we shared? Can you?” Joe’s voice had risen slightly and his tone was challenging.
The next moment, Davis was on him, the knife pricking under Joe’s chin. Joe heard Ben cry out, but he fearlessly met Davis’ gaze. After a long pause, Davis lifted the knife away from Joe’s chin and slid the blade down his cheek, the flat against the skin. Joe’s eyes were still locked with Davis’. Sliding the blade across Joe’s mouth, he turned it so the tip ran up the young man’s cheek. A thin ribbon of blood appeared and began to run down Joe’s face. For a moment, there was no pain, then the cut began to burn like fire, but Joe voiced no sound.
Leaning in close, Davis whispered, “You tell me – friend!” He rose and walked back into the cell.
Ben was on his feet, gazing at Joe in undisguised horror. “Joe!” he said, watching the blood oozing down his son’s cheek and soak into the collar of his shirt.
“Keep your distance, Cartwright!” Davis ordered. “Keep your distance or I’ll kill him!”
“Pa!” Adam took Ben’s arm. He eyes flitted between Joe and his father, who was as pale as his youngest brother. “Pa, please,” he said, urgently, and pulled Ben back to the desk, where he made him sit down.
“Davis, you’re gonna pay fer this!” Roy warned him.
“Yeah, yeah,” Davis replied, unconcerned. He looked down at Joe. “You still think I’ll find it difficult to kill you?”
Looking up, Joe met his gaze. “Yes,” he replied, simply.
Giving a bark of laughter, Davis went back into the cell. Joe fought back a wince and met Ben’s eyes. “I’m all right,” he told him. “Pa, honestly, I’m all right.”
“Joe, I’m sorry,” Ben began, but Joe interrupted him.
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for, Pa,” he stated quietly. Each word sent a new wave of agony through his face. “I trust you, Pa. I trust you and Adam and Hoss. Do you understand?”
Blankly, Ben shook his head. What did Joe mean?
“I understand, Joe,” Adam assured him. “You can trust us.” He nodded, to add emphasis to his words and saw Joe nod slightly in return. Seeing that Ben still did not understand, Adam leant in close and whispered, “Joe trusts us to get him out of this, Pa. What ever we decide to do is all right by Joe. He’s telling us to do what we have to, to get him out of this mess.”
“Yes, I see,” Ben agreed. His eyes were still locked with Joe’s. “You can trust us, son,” he told him.
The corner of Joe’s mouth quirked slightly. “I knew I could,” he replied.
It was almost 4 am. The cold was intense and there was a bitter frost outside. The silence in the jail was absolute. Davis crouched near Joe, who was resting his head back against the bars of the cell. His cheek had stopped bleeding, but the pain hadn’t lessened any. His hands had no feeling in them, although he was still able to make his fingers wiggle, and his shoulder muscles were in constant spasm. Every now and then, a cough forced its way out of Joe’s throat, and it hurt the muscles in his chest. Joe did not know that the position he was in, with his hands forced above his head, was causing the breathing difficulties he was having. All he knew was that he was incredibly uncomfortable and in pain.
For some time, Adam had been drawing aimlessly on a piece of paper. He looked down at the concentric circles he had drawn and realized that perhaps he had found a way to tell Ben, Hoss and Roy of his plan to rescue Joe. Trying not to make it obvious, he began to write. Since Davis had been watching Adam doodle for some time, he paid no attention when the oldest Cartwright son began to write.
After a while, convinced that he had written down everything he needed, he slid the paper over to Ben. “Pa,” he whispered and nodded at the paper. Ben rubbed a weary hand over his face and glanced down.
“That’s risky,” he whispered.
“I know,” Adam replied, equally quietly, as Hoss moved the paper slightly so he could see it. Roy read it over his shoulder. They eyed Adam gravely. “Joe said he trusts us,” Adam reminded them.
“But, Adam…” Ben began.
“Joe trusts us,” Adam interrupted. “We have to do something, Pa; Joe can’t take this much longer. He’s hurt and needs our help. It’s not a great plan, but what else do we have? Davis might kill Joe at any time, in a fit of temper. He’s becoming more and more erratic. What other choice do we have?”
“We have no other choice,” Ben agreed. He looked down at the paper again, his heart in his mouth. Adam’s plan was simple, but risky. When Davis moved away from Joe, one or other of them would take a shot at Davis. The risk came from the chance of hitting Joe if they were not 100% accurate, or having the bullet ricochet off the bars or walls. But as Ben said, they had no choice.
“What are you all whispering about?” Davis demanded. Lack of sleep was telling on his temper and the waiting seemed to be interminable.
“They were asking each other if they are all right,” Joe retorted, before Ben could say anything. “It’s something that family and friends do – check that everyone is all right. But you wouldn’t know that, would you, Peter? Because you don’t have any family or friends!”
“Shut up, Joe!” Davis shouted and kicked him. “Just shut up, damn you!” He kicked Joe again. Both blows landed on Joe’s hip, which began to throb painfully.
“The truth hurts, doesn’t it?” Joe asked.
With a snarl, Davis rounded on Joe and delivered a back-hand slap that caused Joe’s cheek to start bleeding again. Again, he lifted his foot and kicked Joe hard on the hip, seeming to forget the knife he held in his hand.
This was the chance that the Cartwrights had been waiting for, yet for an instant, they all sat there, paralyzed. Then Adam reacted, drawing his gun and firing at Davis.
The bullet hit Davis in the back of the shoulder, sending him staggering against the bars. Catching himself, he slowly straightened, and as Hoss fired at him, he plunged the knife into Joe’s shoulder. Joe let out a shriek of pain as Hoss’ bullet caught Davis in the stomach. For a moment, the outlaw just stood there, gazing down at his stomach in disbelief as a bright flower of blood blossomed there. Amazingly, he took several steps towards the Cartwrights, then, his hands clutching at the injury, he collapsed slowly to the floor.
For a frozen instant, none of them moved, then Ben found himself at Joe’s side, his arms around his injured son, heedless of the blood staining his clothes as he sought to give Joe what comfort he could. “Joe,” he cried.
“Oh, Pa,” Joe replied, unable to say anything else. His muscles began to tremble and a cough shook his slender frame.
“I’ll go git the doc,” Hoss offered and Ben heard the door bang shut as Hoss raced away. Roy went over to check on Davis while Adam found the keys for the handcuffs and released Joe’s arms.
The pain as he brought his arms down made Joe cry out again. He tried to catch his breath enough to thank Adam, but his chest was suddenly horrendously tight and breathing was difficult. “Pa,” he breathed, fighting down the panic he felt, and trying desperately to get air into his lungs.
“Take it easy, Joe, I’ve got you,” Ben soothed, frightened by Joe’s obvious distress. He glanced at Adam, who looked as concerned as he felt.
“Davis is dead, Ben,” Roy reported. Ben grunted. He didn’t have a single thought to spare for Davis now. Joe demanded all his attention.
“Pa,” Joe mouthed, but there was no sound. A moment later, he slumped unconscious in Ben’s arms.
When Paul Martin arrived at the jail with Hoss, he was shocked to find Joe lying on the bunk in the cell and a dead body carelessly covered with a blanket. “Bring me some more light,” he ordered as he gently pushed Ben aside so he could see Joe more clearly.
The most obvious injuries were the stab wound to the shoulder and the cut on Joe’s cheek. He was also slightly cyanotic, although as Paul watched, he could see the normal pink coloring beginning to return to Joe’s lips. “What happened?” he asked, bending over to see the stab wound more closely.
Quietly, Ben told him the whole story. Paul nodded a few times before getting out his stethoscope and listening to Joe’s chest. “His lungs don’t sound too bad,” he commented, stuffing the tubes into his pocket. “And his color is improving. I’ve got to take this knife out, and I want to take a few stitches in his face. However, I don’t want to give him any anesthesia, because he has been having difficulty breathing. You’ll have to hold him down for me. Can you do that?”
“I can help,” Hoss offered.
“Me, too,” Adam added.
“Yes,” Ben agreed.
“All right,” Paul said, trying desperately to hide a smile. He knew he could count on the Cartwrights. “Hoss, take his legs, Adam, his arms, and Ben, could you hold his head still? All right, let’s get started while he’s still out of it.”
As Paul eased the knife out of his shoulder, Joe mumbled and tried to move, but his family held him down firmly and he didn’t waken. With the knife out, Paul was able to remove Joe’s jacket and shirt and begin to clean the wound prior to taking some stitches.
The alcohol swab brought Joe back to life with a jerk. He writhed frantically in his attempts to break free and escape the pain. “No!” he begged. “No! Pa! It hurts!”
As Ben soothed and calmed his son, Paul worked quickly, knowing that Joe was in a lot of pain. It only took a few minutes for him to stitch the wound and he smoothed some salve on it before getting Ben to help Joe sit up so he could bandage the injury.
“How does your chest feel now, Joe?” Paul asked.
“Tight,” Joe replied. “But a bit easier than it was.” He coughed and a spasm of pain crossed his face.
“I think its just muscle strain,” Paul assured him. Although Joe’s breathing was clearly not normal, it wasn’t as bad as Paul had feared it might be. “Don’t worry about it. Try and stay relaxed and that will help, all right?”
“Okay,” Joe agreed. He glanced down at his hands which rested in his lap, staring with detachment at the swollen red fingers. There were deep grooves on his wrists where the handcuffs had cut into his skin. He winced.
“I’ll deal with your wrists once I’ve stitched your face,” Paul told him. “Joe, I’m so sorry, but there’s very little I can give you for pain right now.” He handed Roy a small packet. “Roy, mix that in some water, will you please?”
“I’ll be all right,” Joe asserted. From somewhere, he found a small smile for his brothers. Hoss was still pinning Joe’s legs to the bed, although Paul wasn’t doing anything at that moment, and Adam was hovering close by. Joe leant back slightly, into Ben’s warmth, feeling reassured by his father’s touch. A moment later, Roy brought Paul the glass of water and Paul made Joe drink the mild painkiller.
“All right, Joe, lie down again and stay still,” Paul ordered, after he’d given the drug a few minutes to work. He nodded at the other Cartwrights, who all resumed their posts. After a searching look, making sure they were ready, Paul began to stitch Joe’s face.
Later, all Ben could remember was feeling Joe’s head trembling between his hands, and the whimpering sounds that escaped Joe’s control. He resolutely kept his eyes averted from the needle that flashed in Paul’s hands, and when Joe finally passed out, Ben was so relieved that he almost copied his son. “Get some brandy,” Paul told Roy, who hurried off on his errand while Paul wrapped a bandage around Joe’s face to protect the stitches. He turned his attention to the cuts on Joe’s wrists and soon had them cleaned and bandaged, too.
By then Roy was back with the brandy and Paul made Ben, Adam and Hoss all take a good slug. Reaction was setting in now, and they were all suffering from mild bouts of the shakes. The strain they had been under for the last 12 hours had been enormous. “You all need to be somewhere warm,” Paul advised them. “Can you help me get Joe across to my house? Then you can sleep.”
As they lifted Joe, he roused and so they were able to walk him across to Paul’s house, where he was settled to sleep on the couch by the fire. Ben persuaded Adam and Hoss to take the beds they were offered and Roy Coffee went home. Paul checked on Joe one last time before returning to his own bed.
Sitting by the fire, Ben finally felt his own shivers abating. Joe was tucked warmly under a thick comforter and several blankets and slipped into a deep sleep. Yet although Ben was tired, he found he could not fall asleep. His mind kept replaying the scenes from the jail over and over again. His gaze lingered on the bandage on his son’s face. Joe was such a handsome young man. Would there be a bad scar left behind? Paul had assured Ben that this would not be the case, for the cut was narrow and Paul’s stitches would put many a lady’s embroidery to shame. Yet a slight marring of Joe’s facial beauty was not what was worrying Ben the most. What he feared was that a bad scar would forever be a reminder to Joe that he had given his trust to someone who did not deserve it. The memories would be enough to cope with, without adding a scar, too.
As Joe turned over in his sleep, his jacket, which had been dropped on the bottom of the couch, fell to the floor. There was a distinct thud and Ben frowned, wondering what on earth Joe was carrying that made that noise. Lifting the jacket, he found that there was more weight on one side than on the other and he put his hand into the jacket pocket.
Gazing at the bank pouch in his hand, Ben realized that he had forgotten that Joe had gone to collect the wages for the hands that day. Joe could have offered that money to Davis for his freedom, Ben thought, yet hadn’t mentioned it at all. The money didn’t matter to Ben – his sons were far more important – yet Joe hadn’t mentioned the money at all. Of course, Ben knew it wouldn’t have been enough in itself to realize Joe’s freedom, but he was touched anew by his son’s determination not to give up something that was important to them all.
More relaxed now, and beginning to be sleepy, Ben sat down and gazed into the fire. With sudden clarity, he saw how lucky he was with his sons. They worked alongside him willingly, each taking on some of the responsibility of the ranch. They liked each other, respected each other and trusted each other. It was that trust, stated so publicly by Joe that had allowed Adam to suggest the plan by which Joe was freed. Had Joe not said that, there would have been no attempt to free him at that point.
His head nodding, Ben realized that Joe had said he trusted them, not just for one specific thing, but as a sweeping statement. He trusted his father and brothers to do the right thing, the thing that would keep him alive, accepting that any decision they made was in his ultimate best interest. Sitting up straighter, Ben looked at the sleeping young man beside him. Joe looked a vulnerable 16, but Ben knew that he would trust Joe – trust any of his sons – with his life. What more could any man ask? That he was loved, liked, respected and trusted by his children – there was nothing better than that.
Ben slipped into a peaceful sleep.
By noon the next day, the story was all over town. Ben had sent Adam and Hoss home that morning with the supplies they had picked up the previous day, charging them, unnecessarily, with telling Hop Sing what had happened. He stayed with Joe, who was still feeling a bit breathless. Paul was pleased with the progress of his hands, which were no longer swollen and red, but back to a more normal color. None of Joe’s injuries were showing signs of infection, which was good, but Paul wanted to keep an eye on the cough Joe had, just in case. He also had some blood loss to make up, but he was young and strong and Paul knew he would be back on his feet by the following day.
“Have you seen the bruise on my hip, Pa?” Joe asked, as he rested in front of the fire. “It rivals that one I had on my butt that time, do you remember?”
“I remember you talking about it,” Ben replied. “And I remember Hoss teasing you about it, but oddly enough, son, you never offered to show it to me!”
“I didn’t offer to show it to Hoss, either!” Joe exclaimed. “I never did get him back for that, you know.”
“Well,” hedged Ben, “there was quite a lot going on at the time, Joe.”
“True enough,” Joe agreed. He squirmed around slightly and slipped the blanket down to show his father the rainbow that decorated his right hip. Ben winced in sympathy. “Now, don’t say you haven’t seen this one!” he chided his father teasingly.
“Oh, I won’t,” Ben assured him. He eyed Joe closely. “You seem in good spirits today,” he remarked, cautiously.
“I am,” Joe agreed, sobering slightly.
“Any particular reason?” Ben enquired, still keeping his tone light.
“I’m alive,” Joe returned, bluntly. He saw Ben wince and hurried to apologies. “I’m sorry, Pa, I didn’t mean it to come out like that. But I am alive, and yesterday, I was sure I was going to die. I know I told Peter that I thought he wouldn’t kill me, but it wasn’t true. I was sure he would.”
“I’m sorry,” Ben said.
“Don’t be,” Joe told him. “You have nothing to be sorry for. I thought I knew Peter and it turns out I didn’t really. But you said it yourself, Pa, about Hoss’ Uncle Gunnar. You can’t ever really know another person. I thought Peter was my friend, and I found out the hard way that he wasn’t. I found that out the hard way in school a few times, too, didn’t I?” he asked, ruefully.
“You sure did,” Ben agreed.
“I’ll get over it,” Joe went on. “Because the most important things in my life are still the same. My family is there for me. That’s important. More important than my finding out that my friend wasn’t really my friend. Do you know what I mean?”
Touched, Ben nodded as he blinked back tears. “Yes, I know. Joe, what you said about trusting us…”
“I meant it, Pa,” Joe interrupted. “I trusted you, all of you, to help me get out of that situation. I had no way to help myself. I knew there were risks in anything you tried and I wanted you to know that I accepted the risks. You were unlikely to try something very risky, like a direct confrontation, so I knew that whatever you decided to do would help me in the end. And it did. Thank you.” Joe wiped the tears carefully off his face. “I didn’t get the chance to thank Adam and Hoss.”
“I know they’ll appreciate hearing it,” Ben told him, huskily, “as I did. But they don’t need to hear it, son. They know they have your gratitude.” He gently squeezed Joe’ hand.
For a long time, they sat in silence and listened to the sounds of the town outside the window. Then Joe stirred. “As long as I can trust my family, I have nothing to worry about,” he said.
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