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He awoke to intense, throbbing, white-hot pain in his head — worse than anything he had ever experienced or could even have imagined. And he couldn’t see. Not a thing. Was it just dark or had he gone blind? Joe closed his eyes for a moment, then carefully opened them again. No, it was still dark. Confused, he turned his head about and rapidly looked in every direction for some change, some break in the terrifying monotony of it. But it was all the same. Inky, black, never-ending nothingness.
Then he noticed the intense quiet. So quiet that he could hear the beat of his heart thumping loudly in his head; so quiet that the raspy sound of his breathing was deafening to his own ears. As his confusion mounted and fear started to claw its way to the surface, he could feel his heart rate start to increase and his breathing become more rapid and shallow. He closed his eyes and deliberately drew in deep slow breaths, forcing himself to relax and keep the panic at bay. For now.
He was gagged. He could feel it. A rough, wrinkled strip of cloth biting tightly into his cheeks and fastened brutally tight at the base of his head, forcing his jaws into an unnatural, half-open position. God, it ached. And if he was gagged, then he was probably also…
He tried to lift his arms, and found he couldn’t. No surprise there then. The attempted movement brought with it waves of tingling sensations from his numbed fingers, and he felt the painful stinging on his wrists as they rubbed against the coarse rope that was wound tightly around them. He shifted his legs and found that they were free of restraints. Thank heavens for small blessings. He wiggled himself closer to the wall he had been laying against and managed to pull himself up into an uneasy sitting position, his head throbbing mercilessly with each tiny movement. Where was he? What was going on?
He had been tied up before. Not the most pleasant of experiences, to be sure, and certainly something he would try to avoid if possible. But it was never like this. Never like waking up from a dream and stumbling into a nightmare. He couldn’t remember anything–being kidnapped, hit on the head, held at gunpoint–couldn’t remember any of the usual events that would have preceded him being thrown into a situation like this.
Think Joe, he told himself. Concentrate now. He closed his eyes tightly and held his breath as if the sheer effort would cause memory to come flooding back.
But there was nothing. Nothing! Not a flicker, not even the most vague, fleeting impression to indicate what had happened to him. He swallowed as he felt the fear returning, and this time he was unable to resist it. His eyes flew open and his breathing became loud and rapid as he desperately tried to fight the sudden feeling of suffocation that swept over him. He yanked mightily at his bonds, tearing the already raw flesh on his wrists, but the ropes held fast. Panic caused him to tremble and sweat, and just as he felt that he had completely lost control, merciful oblivion beckoned him once again.
Ben knew. He knew. Logic would tell him that he was overreacting, of course. After all, Joseph had been missing only a few hours. Anything could have happened. But that didn’t matter to Ben. He had always had some sort of mysterious sixth sense when it came to his youngest son; something that he never really understood or could explain; and that very instinct was telling him Joe was in trouble and needed him. He shot up from the settee and resumed his pacing. “Where could he be? He should have been home hours ago!” he complained loudly, to no one in particular.
Hoss watched his father pace back and forth across the great room, but said nothing. He had given up trying to coax him to relax; he had seen his father work himself up into this state before and knew it was best to just let him be.
Joe had been instructed to return straight home from school in order to help his brothers muck out the stables; a hot and dreadful duty under any circumstance; and had yet to arrive. Of course, it was possible Ms. Jones had kept him after school—wouldn’t be the first time—but even so, he was still overdue. His brothers had given up waiting for him, and proceeded with the loathsome chore on their own; wondering what excuse Joe would have dreamed up to avoid work this time.
Adam had eventually been dispatched to collect and haul home his absent sibling, and had been quite vocal over his irritation at being assigned the task. Dinner would have to wait, and he was hungry. Joe was frequently late — even this morning, when he overslept and barely made it out the door in time for school. Would that kid ever grow up?
Joe awoke again, startled; gasping for breath. He blinked his eyes at the darkness around him and tried to move. So it hadn’t been a bad dream, after all. Awareness brought with it a return of the blinding pain in his head, along with a host of other aches and pains. He was beginning to get damned uncomfortable.
As his eyes focused, he noticed shards of daylight peeping through scattered cracks in the walls around him, just enough to notice that he was in a tiny wooden structure with no windows; probably an old tool shed of some type. He didn’t recognize it as anything he had seen before on the ranch. So, the question still burned in his mind: where was he?
He decided to test the strength of the dilapidated walls by kicking out at them, but the wooden planks held fast. And that’s when he heard voices for the first time.
“Hey, Earl….sounds like the kid woke up.”
Joe pushed himself far into the corner as he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. There were at least a couple of them out there that he could hear. He didn’t know who the two men were, but the voices seemed vaguely familiar. Well, at least that was something. Maybe he would find out what was going on now.
He started as the door slammed opened and he blinked at the blinding sunlight that was now flooding into his wooden prison. The shadowed features of the individual standing in front of him made him seem all the more menacing, and Joe swallowed nervously. The man reached down and yanked Joe to his feet, dragging him out of the structure and into the daylight. Joe barely had a chance to look around before he was suddenly slammed face down to the ground. He tensed as he felt the cold blade of a knife pressed against his face.
“Now pay attention, Cartwright,” a voice hissed into his ear. “You try anything, and I’ll slash ya to pieces, understand?”
Joe closed his eyes and nodded. What choice did he have?
Ben’s head snapped up at the sound of horses approaching in the yard. He heaved a sigh of relief; Adam had obviously located his brother. That sure didn’t take long he mused as his deep worry evaporated and anger rushed in to take its place. What was he going to do with that boy? He stood to go out and greet his sons, and was surprised when Adam rushed through the door, followed by Sheriff Coffee.
“Roy?” Ben stammered. He was pleased to see his friend, of course, but knew that his unexpected appearance so late in the day could not mean a social visit. He glanced at Adam, and the grim look on his son’s face caused the alarm and worry to come flooding back. Something was wrong. “Adam?”
“Pa, I found Joe’s horse,” Adam said. “He was tethered alongside the road to Virginia City, not far from the ranch. Pa, I checked. Joe never even made it to school today. There’s just no sign of him anywhere.”
Sheriff Coffee looked anxiously at his friend. “Ben, there’s more. I’m pretty sure I know what’s happened to Joe. I think you need to sit down.” He guided his friend toward the settee. “It’s about the Sheffield trial.”
THREE WEEKS EARLIER…..
“There’s one over there, Pa. Let me get it.” Joe guided Cochise toward the clump of brush at the base of the shallow gully in which the bawling bull calf managed to get himself snagged. Joe was quite proud of his improved proficiency with his lasso and was eager to show off for his father. Anyway, he needed the practice. The sixteen-year-old Cartwright son would be out of school for good in another month, and then he would be working for the ranch full-time with his brothers. And was he looking forward to it! No more stupid history lessons or useless arithmetic for him, no sir. He was an adult now–a man–just like Adam and Hoss. Well, in a few weeks, anyhow.
Ben couldn’t help but smile at his son’s enthusiasm. He had hoped to take advantage of their time together searching for strays to have a talk with Little Joe about what would be expected of him once he was out of school, but so far the opportunity hadn’t presented itself. Ben had been somewhat troubled lately by Joe’s over exuberant attitude toward his pending adult status within the household, and was concerned his son didn’t appreciate the awesome responsibilities that came along with it. Joe had chattered on endlessly for weeks about how much easier life was going to be since he would no longer have to worry about homework or tests, and that Pa should put him in charge of more things on the ranch. After all, he was soon going to be a man! Ben shook his head ruefully. Joe was going to have a rude awakening once school let out. He really needed to talk to him soon.
He was jerked from his musings and back to the present by Joe’s shout. “Hey, Pa!”
“Need some help down there, son?” Ben noticed that Joe had dismounted and moved down into the gully, trying to soothe the agitated spotted calf and guide it out with the rope that Joe had looped around its head.
Joe shook his head. “No, I can get him. It’s just, well….he’s just a little guy. Barely weaned, looks to me. Do ya see his mama around anywhere? I can’t believe she’d up and leave him like this.” Joe was scanning the gully area for the missing bovine.
Puzzled, Ben looked into the stand of trees just to the east for the calf’s mother. “I’ll ride out along the fence line and see if she’s wandered off. She can’t too far.” He grinned at his son. “You be careful with that one, though. He looks a bit ornery to me.” Ben clicked at Buck and spurred him into a brisk gallop toward the distant pines.
Joe grinned back, and returned his attention to the nervous calf, clucking softly to calm him as he attempted to guide him out of the brush. It was an agonizing and slow process, and the calf was becoming more anxious by the minute, but Joe was patient. So intent on his purpose, in fact, he didn’t notice the lone rider that approached stealthily from behind or even hear the buzz of the lasso as it sailed through the air until it looped around him. He was jerked swiftly off his feet and slammed down backward onto the gully floor. Momentarily stunned, Joe didn’t think to struggle until his captor had jumped down and started winding the rest of his rope around the youth and tying his hands and feet. And by then it was too late.
“Pa!” he yelled out, looking around frantically for his father. He opened his mouth to yell again and was rewarded with a backhanded slap that snapped his head back to the hard ground.
“Shut up, kid!” the rustler hissed. Joe could only assume the man was a rustler. He sure smelled like one. The disheveled-looking gunman pulled out his Colt and pointed it at Joe’s head. “So that was your Pa with you, eh? Well, I guess he’ll be back around soon enough then, won’t he?”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth when Ben appeared near the top of the gully. He was already alarmed from having discovered the newly breached fence line, but his heart nearly stopped at the sight of his young son bound and being held at gunpoint. He halted Buck and dismounted carefully, approaching them, his eyes on Joe.
“What do you want?” Ben asked the rustler warily. He looked up as two more horsemen materialized from the wooded area and approached. Ben‘s heart sank. There were more of them. He urgently tried to think of some plan, anything to get Joe out safely. He stepped closer and was instantly halted by the report of a gun blast as a bullet bit into the ground near his feet.
“Far enough, Cartwright,” one of the mounted gunmen ordered. “Well, since you two so rudely interrupted our plans here, you’re just going to have to suffer the consequences. Now throw down your weapon.”
Ben complied; fear for Joe first and foremost on his mind. He didn’t struggle as one of the men dismounted and sprang forward to tie his hands and shove him roughly to the ground beside his son.
“Pa?” Joe twisted his body around to face his father. “You okay, Pa?” he whispered. His mouth was bleeding and a bruise was already darkening the tender skin on his cheek where he had been hit.
Ben met his son’s eyes, and tried to smile. “I’m fine, Joe. Don’t worry, we’re….” He was interrupted by the sound of horses in the distance. Several horses. He lifted his head and saw Adam and Hoss racing toward them accompanied by several Ponderosa hands, firing their handguns into the air.
Severely outnumbered and quite nervous, the rustlers scrambled to escape. The one who had been standing closest to Joe looked up. “What about them?” he asked, his question directed to the apparent leader of the group.
The leader considered, and then shrugged. “Bring the kid.”
To Ben’s horror, Joe was lifted and dragged away struggling by two of the rustlers toward the horses. As they prepared to haul him up and toss him over the saddle of the third rustler, a shot rang out and a bullet slammed into the shoulder of the seated gunman, nearly throwing him from his horse. He struck out and pushed Joe to the ground.
“Forget him….let’s go!” he yelled, clutching at his bleeding shoulder.
The other two mounted and the trio escaped into the stand of trees. Adam and Hoss arrived moments later, nearly leaping from their horses at the site of their brother and father, lying facedown on the gully floor.
Though winded, Joe was already attempting to pull himself to a sitting position by the time Adam reached his side. “Did you see ‘em, Adam? They were rustlers; I could tell right away. They sure got scared when they saw you and Hoss coming. One got shot in the shoulder—did you see? He sure was bleeding a lot.” Joe was wiggling and turning his head around impatiently as Adam struggled unsuccessfully to untie the ropes wound around him.
Adam was becoming frustrated. “Buddy, will you just hold still for a second? I’m trying to get this…..oh, hell.” He pulled out his knife and slashed through the remaining ropes, tossing them aside. He stood and held out his hand to assist Joe to his feet, all the while checking his brother for injuries. “What happened to your face, kid?” he asked, lightly touching the darkening bruise coloring Joe’s cheek.
Joe turned his head away. “I’m fine, Adam, it’s nothing……..Adam, come on, knock it off!” Adam had pulled off his kerchief and was now trying to wipe away the thin stream of blood that still oozed from Joe’s split lip. Joe waved his brother’s hand away. “It’s fine, Adam.”
Adam sighed and stepped over to check on his father. Ben was being helped up by Hoss, and rubbing his sore wrists. Adam was struck by how pale and shaky his father looked, and wondered if he had been injured somehow. “Pa, are you hurt?”
Ben shook his head. “No. No, son, I’m okay.” He reached over to his youngest son, and pulled him into a fierce embrace. “Joe…are you alright? Did he hurt you?” Ben lifted Joe’s chin and studied his son’s face. “He hit you, huh?” he said softly.
Joe eased himself impatiently from his father’s grasp. “It was no big deal, Pa. I hardly even felt it, really. Now, if you all are done fussing, I still have a baby bovine to rescue here.” He walked back over to the calf, which was still stuck and had turned curiously quiet, as if to watch the proceedings.
The remaining ranch hands had given chase, but were starting to straggle back, empty-handed. “Sorry, Adam, Hoss,” Charlie, their foreman, said. “We just couldn’t catch up. Did you know who they were?”
“I know who they were,” Ben said, under his breath. Adam’s head snapped up at his father’s grim tone. “Adam, it was that Sheffield gang. You know—the ones we saw on the poster in the sheriff’s office last week. They’re wanted all over the territory, son.”
Adam nodded. “I remember. Cattle rustling, theft, and a couple murders, I think. It’s a miracle that you and Joe survived, then.”
“Adam…” Ben swiped his hand across his face. “They were going to take Joe with them; I guess as a hostage. Thank God you and Hoss got here when you did. They would have killed him, I know it.”
“And thank God we decided at the last minute to ride the fence in this direction, Pa. That‘s when we heard that gunshot and figured something was up” Adam said. He looked toward the woods where the rustlers had made their escape. “We’ve seen two breaches in the fence line so far. Charlie estimates that they’ve taken about sixty head.”
“Well, they won’t get too far, son,” Ben said, following his son’s gaze. “One’s been hurt, and he’s going to need a doctor soon enough.”
He and Adam started walking toward the horses. Buck and Cochise had skittered away nervously when the gunfire erupted and were now several yards away. “Adam, send one of the hands for Sheriff Coffee,” Ben said quietly. “We need to get Joe back to the house. He’s not fooling anyone.”
Joe closed his door behind him, and drew a long, shuddering breath. He stumbled forward and sank down on his bed, burying his face in his hands. God, this was not how a man was supposed to act.
He had kept up a steady chatter on the trip home, to the point where his brothers were beginning to look annoyed. He had gone on and on about his adventure with the rustlers and his grandiose scheme on how to trap and capture them. There was probably a pretty big reward for them. He could be a hero; maybe even have his name in the Territorial Enterprise.
But they never caught on that he had been trembling like a leaf inside. They never knew how scared he was; how helpless and humiliated he felt after being captured like that; or the sheer terror that had engulfed him when he thought they were going to shoot his father. Joe was supposed to be a man now, after all. Men were in control of such emotions.
Joe impatiently swiped at his tearing eyes. If this was what it meant to be a man, then he was doing a piss-poor job of it.
“What’s the matter, younger brother? Did you fall asleep up here?” Adam pushed open the door to Joe’s room. “Dinner’s about ready and…” He stopped short at the pained expression on Joe’s face.
Joe abruptly turned away. “Geez,” he snapped. “Doesn’t anyone ever knock around here?”
Adam leaned against the door jamb, arms folded across his chest. “You wanna talk about it?”
Joe stood and walked over to look out his window. “What’s there to talk about? Tell Pa I’ll be downstairs in a minute.”
“Alright, then,” Adam replied. “Just don’t forget to wash up. You know how Hop Sing gets.”
“I won’t.” Joe bit his lip, hesitating. “Adam?”
Joe sighed. “Nothing.”
Adam considered his brother a moment, and then shrugged as he turned to leave. “I’ll see you at dinner, then.”
Joe pressed his forehead against the glass and watched the sun setting over the distant ridge of pines. He knew Adam wouldn’t understand. Would he? Because of their age difference, Adam had been a man for Joe’s whole life, or so it seemed. Hoss had always been so easy to talk to; why wasn’t it ever that way with his oldest brother?
Does it ever get easier, Adam? Was it ever hard for you, too, Adam?
Do you ever get scared, Adam?
Joe gasped as the gag was abruptly released. He was yanked up to a sitting position, and a canteen was held to his lips. He drank the tepid contents thirstily for a moment, before it was swiftly snatched away again.
“Don’t know why we’re wastin’ good water on him,” he heard someone grumble.
Joe looked up then and recognized the pair. The rustlers. The Sheffields. Their older brother Aaron was due to go on trial in just a week. His own father had been asked to testify. How these two had successfully eluded the posse was anybody’s guess, and Joe couldn’t fathom how he had managed to get himself captured by them. But, here he was. Now he just needed to figure out why.
“What…..” Joe croaked, his mouth still dry from the gag. He swallowed. “What do you want?”
The one called Earl cackled. “Ya hear that? He’s the one who ambushes us, and he wants to know what we want?” He crouched down in front of Joe. “It was just good luck for us, kid, that you did something so stupid.” He reached out suddenly and seized a handful of Joe’s hair, pulling him forward. “Now we’ll get your old man for sure.”
They had managed to gag him again. Joe had fought it mightily, and had received a few hard slaps for his resistance. His captors had tossed him back into his wooden prison and he was alone in the dark and quiet once again. He kept the fear at bay by trying to dredge up his most recent memory. Had it only been yesterday?
Joe had had yet another sleepless night and he was running late for school. Again. So late that he was unable to even grab a biscuit off the sideboard for breakfast. He had almost made it to the door when his arm was seized by his older brother.
“Late again, younger brother?” Adam snapped, irritated. “Joe, when are you ever going to grow up?”
Joe rolled his eyes at that and tried to pull his arm from Adam’s grasp. “Come on, Adam. I don’t have time for….”
Adam interrupted. “Oh, you have time for this, brother. Have you forgotten that you’re supposed to be a man, now? Do you know that Hoss and I will be stuck with your chores because you decided to sleep in again? Or do you not know how to handle adult responsibilities? Maybe you should just stay in school like all the other little kids.”
Joe yanked his arm away at that. “I’m not a little kid, Adam.” He ran out the door before his brother could lecture him any more. As he left the yard at a brisk gallop on Cochise, he turned his head once to look back. Adam was still standing in the doorway, his hands on his hips, frowning.
Sheriff Coffee sat in the blue chair, facing his friend. “Ben, I got some information about the Sheffield trial that I think you should know about. In fact, I was just on my way out to see you when I ran into Adam here. I understand Joe is missing?”
Ben nodded, becoming a bit alarmed by the sheriff‘s serious tone. “Roy, what’s going on? And what does this have to do with Joseph?”
“Well, Ben, we think the two other Sheffield brothers have been causing some trouble. The posse just hasn’t been able to catch up to ‘em. I mean, your idea to place a deputy in all the doctors’ offices in the area was pure genius, that’s for sure. You were right when you said Aaron Sheffield would eventually show up for treatment on that shoulder wound, and with your testimony and those two other witnesses from Placerville, we were sure that we’d get him convicted and hanged.”
Ben was becoming irritated. “Roy….just get to the point. What trouble are you talking about?”
The sheriff sighed. “Ben, the other two witnesses were killed yesterday. Just got the telegram this morning. Shot in the back, both of them. That’s why I was coming out here. I’m pretty sure that the Sheffields are back in the area; and they may try for you next. They’d have a hard time getting to you all the way here in the house, but if you were to leave the Ponderosa, then….” Roy didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t have to. He knew that Ben would come to the same conclusion he had when he first came upon Adam searching for his lost brother.
“Joe.” Ben whispered. He rubbed his eyes and turned to his friend. “So, what do we do now, Roy?”
“We wait, Ben,” Roy replied. “We wait….and keep looking for Little Joe.”
Joe stopped Cochise near the wooded, overgrown trail off the main road that led to his school. Hoss had showed it to him years ago. It was a shortcut that would shave several minutes off his trip, and since he was running behind, it was only logical that he should take this route if he didn’t want to face Ms. Jones’s wrath again for being late. It didn’t make the dark, secluded trail any less scary, though.
Joe reached behind him and grazed his hand over his saddlebag where his gun and holster rested. Pa would have a stroke if he knew that Joe had been taking his new, pearl-handled Colt with him to school, but after that incident with the rustlers a few weeks back, it just felt better to have a weapon nearby in case….well, just in case. Even now, its bulk and shape under his hand was comforting. He blew out his breath. “I‘m not a little kid” he said quietly to himself as he guided Cochise onto the grassy trail.
Joe hadn’t gotten far when he heard the sound of nickering horses several yards away in the deepest part of the woods. Who could be nearby? As far as Joe was aware, few people knew about this trail or used it as a shortcut to Virginia City. Maybe there were some drifters around. Or Indians. Or…
It sure explained why the posse hadn’t caught up to them. The ground was so overgrown and treacherous, the woods so dense, that it would have been nearly impossible to follow any tracks through the area.
Joe stopped Cochise, indecision clouding his thoughts. He should turn right around. Turn around, ride back home, and get help. But then….
He bit his lip. “Be a man, Joe.”
He dismounted and tethered his horse behind a large pine. He pulled his gun and holster from their hiding place in his saddlebag. After he had quickly buckled his holster into place, he drew his gun and quietly crept toward the sound.
Be a man, Joe. Be a man, Joe. Be a man….it became an insistent mantra in his head that kept time with his furiously beating heart. Within minutes, Joe had discovered their camp, and the two Sheffield brothers heating coffee over a low fire. He crept in so close he could hear them talking to each other. Joe plastered himself behind a wide tree and listened.
“And I say we just ain’t gonna be able to get at him so long as he’s holed up in that house up there. That Ponderosa’s more fortified than a castle. They got men all over the place.”
“Well, Bill, whaddya wanna do? I guess we have to wait till he leaves, then. We can always try for him when he goes to testify.”
Joe gasped then as he realized what the two men were discussing. His father. They were going to kill Pa! He had to do something, anything. “Be a man, Joe,” he whispered. He gulped and revealed himself from his hiding place then pointed his gun at the rustlers. He successfully managed to prevent any tremor from sneaking into his voice as he addressed them. “Alright…you’re surrounded. Drop your weapons.”
Two heads snapped up, and the Sheffields were more amused than alarmed at the site of a pale-looking teenager holding a gun on them. The one named Bill grinned widely. “Hey, lookie here, Earl….looks like the sheriff got himself a new deputy. So what’s the deal, boy? They letting the schoolhouse kids lead the posse now?”
Joe cocked his gun then, the click of it quite loud in the secluded clearing. “I said, drop your weapons.” Be a man, Joe.
But his nerves took over, and his hand started to shake. Before Joe could bring up his right hand to steady his left, his gun accidentally fired; the blast of it deafening in the morning air as the bullet discharged harmlessly above the rustlers’ heads. Then, there was a second shot from another gun, and Joe knew no more.
The brothers stepped over to stare down at the unconscious youth; now bleeding copiously from a bullet wound that had streaked a narrow furrow alongside his head. Bill holstered his gun and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Hey Earl, you know who this is? It’s that Cartwright kid. Let’s tie him up. I got an idea….”
Ben wordlessly held out his hand to receive the wrapped item from his son. It had been tossed on the road just outside the Ponderosa’s boundaries some time during the night. Adam had discovered it immediately as he and Hoss set out on a predawn search for some sign of their brother’s whereabouts.
It was Joe’s tasseled gray jacket. Joe hadn’t been wearing it lately because it had been so warm, so he usually kept it stashed behind his saddle or shoved into his saddlebags. It was liberally smeared with blood. Shaken, Ben untied the sleeves and opened it up to reveal Joe’s holster and pearl-handled Colt. Wrapped around it was a note.
To Ben Cartwright: Five thousand dollars for your son’s life. Come alone and unarmed at sunset to the old Miller homestead. No law, or your son will die.
Ben fought to keep his breathing under control as anguish threatened to overpower him. He had to stay calm; had to keep his wits about him if he was going to get Joe out of this. “Adam,” he said, trying to keep his voice level. “Ride for the sheriff.”
Why couldn’t he remember anything? He had left for school, late again. He remembered that much. Adam had been mad at him about something or other. And then…..he was here, here in this wooden prison, tied up and nursing a blazing headache. The Sheffield brothers were gone again, somewhere; or at least he couldn’t hear them. All Joe knew was that they were after his Pa for some reason. He had to get out; escape some way and warn his father. But how?
Be a man, Joe.
And then, with the force of a living thing, the memory slammed back. Joe had tried to ambush the rustlers on his own. They were going to kill his Pa to prevent him from testifying at their brother’s trial and instead of doing the smart thing and going for help, Joe had rushed in like an idiot kid to save the day and wound up being captured himself. The Sheffields now had in their hands the one thing that would draw his father right into their line of fire.
Suddenly overwhelmed with remorse, Joe hung his head as he felt hot tears overflow and track their way down his cheeks. Oh, God, Pa….I’m sorry. So sorry.
Ben guided his horse from the barn and adjusted the cinch. “Hoss, is the money ready?”
Hoss nodded sadly. “It’s already there in your saddlebags, Pa.”
“Pa!” Adam ran from the barn to his father’s side. He was furious. “Pa, you can’t possibly be thinking of going there alone. It’s a trap, you know that. You know the ransom thing is just a ruse to draw you out.” Adam yanked Buck’s reins from his father’s grip.
Ben sighed heavily. Under other circumstances he would have been angry at his son’s audacity. But he knew that Adam’s fears mirrored his own. He gently retrieved the reins from his son’s grasp. “I know, son. But I have no choice. They’re going to kill your brother.”
Sheriff Coffee interjected. “But Ben, it would be suicide. They’ll shoot you on site the minute they see you. Adam’s right. At least let us go with you, and…”
“No, Roy. The note said to come alone. I can’t risk Joe being hurt any further…” Ben flinched at the thought and closed his eyes. Joe was already hurt. Was he even still alive?
Hoss spoke up then, his voice soft. “And what use are you going to be to Little Joe if you die out there, Pa? What use? They’re going to kill him too, Pa.”
Roy agreed. “Ben, it’s a fool’s errand. I can’t allow it. Now, we’re coming along whether you like it or not. We’ll stay behind and keep you covered, and if they start shooting, we’ll be ready. It’s the only way we’re going to get Joe out of there alive, Ben, you know that.”
Ben swiped his hand across his face and reluctantly nodded. “Alright. I don’t know what else I can do.”
The door slammed open, waking Joe from the restless sleep he had fallen into. He blinked at the light that suddenly flooded the space, and caught his breath as he was swiftly yanked to his feet.
Bill grinned at the fear on Joe‘s face. “Almost sunset, kid. Your Pa’ll be here soon.”
Joe was again dragged away from the confines of the wooden structure. His Pa was coming? As the frightening implications of that statement suddenly became clear, Joe began to struggle with renewed intensity, and somehow managed to tear free from Bill’s grasp. He had almost successfully made it to his feet when the two brothers plowed into him and drove him back to the ground. Dizzy and weak to begin with and still hopelessly bound, Joe could not put up even a token amount of resistance as their combined fists and boots angrily plowed into him again and again. He was bloodied and nearly unconscious as he was once more swept up and dragged into the clearing where his father would soon be arriving.
The sun was starting to set as Ben approached the long-abandoned Miller homestead. Most of the structures had long since collapsed, save for a crumbling barn and small tool shed. Adam, Hoss, and Roy had fallen behind and were finding positions in the wooded area surrounding the property.
Ben squinted in the fading light, searching. Searching for any signs of the rustlers. Searching for Joe. But he saw no sign of either. He guided Buck closer to the barn, and was stopped by the click of a gun behind him.
“That’s far enough, Cartwright,” Bill said. “Now just get yourself down offa that horse, nice and slow.”
Ben shook his head. “No. I want to see my son first. Where’s Joe?”
“You’ll see him soon enough. Did ya bring the money?
“I brought it. But you’re not getting any of it until my son is safe.”
Bill laughed. “You sure got a lot of nerve for someone who’s got a gun pointing at his back. But, since ya asked…” He whistled. “Hey, Earl!” he called out loudly. “Bring the kid on out!”
Ben turned his head as the barn door suddenly opened, and was horrified when his son was dragged out, bound and obviously severely beaten. Joe was thrust roughly to the ground just feet away from his father. The entire right side of his head was caked in blood, and several bruises marked the delicate skin of his face. He was gagged, but Ben could quite clearly see the pain in his son’s eyes. And something else that he couldn’t quite discern. Sorrow?
Heedless of the danger to himself, Ben quickly dismounted to get to his son. As he scrambled to Joe’s side, he noticed a swift movement near the side of the barn as Adam positioned himself. Unfortunately, the Sheffields also noticed, and they swung their guns around to fire. At Adam’s shout, “Pa, get down!” Ben dived to the ground to protect Joe. Gunfire rang out from three directions, and both Sheffields went down, but not before one of their bullets sailed through Ben’s left arm.
The gunfire stopped. The Sheffields were both dead. As Adam, Hoss, and Roy emerged from the deepening shadows, Ben turned his full attention to his youngest son, ignoring the stinging in his arm. His hands shook as he fumbled with the gag. “It’s over, son. It’s gonna be alright,” he said softly as he pulled the material from his son’s mouth. “Joe?”
Joe looked into his father’s dark eyes, and felt tears springing up in his own. “Pa? You okay, Pa?” he said, in a hoarse whisper. “I’m sorry, Pa.” His voice caught on a sob. “I’m so sorry.”
Adam and Hoss were soon at their father’s side, touching their little brother. Adam’s face was creased with anger and concern as he cut away the remaining ropes binding Joe. Ben fumbled with the canteen until Hoss grasped his father’s hand. Ben lifted his head to look into the blue eyes of his middle son. “Pa” Hoss said gently. “Pa, let me.”
At that Hoss gently eased Joe from his father’s grasp. Hoss lifted Joe’s head and held the canteen to his lips. Joe drank gratefully, and then his arms came up weakly and he clutched at his brother’s shirt. “Hoss,” he whispered, burying his face in his brother’s massive chest. In one graceful movement, Hoss was on his feet, carrying his little brother.
Sheriff Roy Coffee hung back discreetly as the Cartwrights took care of their youngest. He knew they didn’t require his assistance at this moment, but that was okay. He had seen enough of these Cartwright family reunions to last a lifetime.
Ben closed Joe’s door behind him and sighed. Maybe Joe would eat something at dinner; at least he hoped. Hop Sing had been preparing all of number three son’s favorite foods, but to no avail. Ben carried the untouched lunch tray downstairs and his eyes met Adam’s as he reached the landing. He shook his head.
Adam blew out his breath in frustration. He took the tray from his father to return it to the kitchen. He was totally bewildered at his brother’s refusal to eat anything beyond a bite or two, and even that took a supreme amount of coaxing. “Pa, it can’t go on like this. He’s just getting weaker and weaker.”
“I know, Adam…don’t you think I know that?” Ben snapped. He sighed. “I’m sorry, son. I know you’re worried. We’re all worried. I just don’t know what’s wrong with him.” He looked up the stairs to Joe’s closed door. “I don’t know what to do.”
It had been four days since they had brought Joe home. Even now, Ben’s breath caught as he remembered how dreadful his son looked as Hoss and Adam laid him gently on his bed and they became aware of the extent of his injuries. His condition had been very critical that first night. Doc Martin had proclaimed him concussed from the gunshot wound to his head, and had also diagnosed cracked ribs from the beating he had suffered. Joe was covered with a myriad of bruises and cuts and his hands were discolored and swollen from the tightness of the ropes that bound them. The skin on Joe’s wrists was so torn they’d had to be heavily bandaged.
Most concerning of all, however, was Joe’s agitation. He was obviously in pain, but even after receiving a large dose of morphine, Joe continued to thrash about the bed, sobbing. Doc Martin had been forced to sedate the boy heavily, and even that didn’t quiet him completely. Joe still moved his head from side to side, mumbling, and even crying in his sleep. “Sorry, Pa…so sorry, Pa.” The doctor and Joe’s family were completed mystified by it.
Now, four days later, Joe’s wounds were healing well; his bruises starting to fade. His fever had long broken, and Joe had admitted that the pain from his head wound and ribs was better. He should have been improving by now–eating, drinking, talking, even sitting up and walking about a bit. But he wasn’t.
Joe spent his days in bed, staring at the walls with dulled eyes. He ate and drank only sparingly; despite the most fervent coaxing and encouragement by his family. He spoke only briefly; and slept fitfully, often crying out in his sleep. Always the same thing. “Sorry, Pa.”
He was easily upset. On the second day, Joe noticed the sling on his father’s left arm, and learned that Ben had been shot while trying to rescue him. Joe turned visibly pale then and nearly burst into tears. Even after Ben assured him that it was only a flesh wound and he would recover fully, Joe seemed inconsolable. “I’m sorry, Pa….so sorry.” he whispered, his voice hitching on a sob. Joe seemed to draw even further into himself after that.
Joe watched his father leave with the lunch tray, and sighed. He knew he was disappointed in him; he could hardly bear to meet his father’s eyes because the sad, worried look in them just tore at his heart and nearly brought him to tears again. But Joe wasn’t hungry. He lacked the energy and the will to eat anything.
It was his fault, of course. The whole, bloody, senseless fiasco was his entire fault. All the worry and hurt, Joe had caused himself. His father could have been killed as much as wounded when they came to rescue him. The Sheffields were dead, so his father didn’t know all the circumstances surrounding Joe’s capture. And he must never know. Ever. What would he think of his son, then? What would he think of a son who idiotically tried to be a hero—tried to be a man—and ended up being nothing more than the stupid boy that he really was?
He knew what his father would think. He would hate him. His Pa would hate him, and Joe didn’t think he could live if that happened.
Joe looked up slightly as his door opened again and his father came back in. He was carrying Joe’s gun and holster in his free hand.
“Joe, I just wanted to talk for a minute if you’re feeling up to it.”
Ben looked at his son expectantly. He had thought maybe it would help if Joe talked about his experience with someone. Keeping everything bottled up inside was only making things worse, after all. If he just knew what was bothering him, then maybe…
Ben was nearly struck speechless by the look on Joe’s face. The color drained from his son’s face as he stared at the weapon, and he started to tremble violently. Alarmed, Ben put the holster aside, and sat on the bed beside him. He gently lifted Joe’s chin and turned his face up to look into his eyes. And he caught his breath at the profound sadness he saw in them.
“Joe, son…..please. Please tell me what’s wrong. Please. I just want to help you” he pleaded.
Joe tore away from his father’s grasp, and covered his face with his hands. He drew a long, ragged breath, and shook his head. “I can’t, Pa. I’m so sorry. I just can’t.”
The following day the Cartwrights learned that in an ironic and sad twist on the day after Joe was captured, Aaron Sheffield had been shot and killed in an ill-fated escape attempt as federal deputies prepared to escort him to Virginia City from Placerville. There had been no need to prevent Ben Cartwright from testifying. There would be no trial. Ben debated on whether or not to share this news with Joe, and decided against it.
Joe was no better and showed no signs of improving. Ben was becoming increasingly alarmed as his already slim son continued to lose weight and appeared to be wasting away in front of his eyes.
By dinner, Adam had had enough of it. As Hop Sing returned another untouched dinner tray to the kitchen, all the time clucking sadly in Cantonese, Adam stood and threw down his napkin. He left the table and stalked toward the stairs. Ben jumped up and tried to catch up to him. “Adam, what are you going to do? He’s sick, son, Joe’s sick!”
Adam stopped on the landing and turned around to face his father. “Pa, we’re being too gentle with him. He needs to start taking responsibility for once. He can’t keep doing this to himself—to you! I think that kid needs a good talking to…” Adam turned and ran up the steps toward his brother’s room.
Ben started to follow, but was halted by Hoss holding him back. “Pa….just let him go. We need to try something. Nothing else is working, Pa.”
Ben sighed. He hoped Adam knew what he was doing.
Joe flinched as his door flew open and his oldest brother stalked in. He looked angry. Really angry.
“That’s it, Joe. You’ve got to stop this. You’ve got to start eating. Do you know what you’re doing to Pa by this behavior? Do you have any idea how it’s destroying him to see you like this? It’s selfish, Joe, just plain selfish.”
Joe paled at that, and moved his mouth as if to respond, but he was interrupted. Adam wasn’t finished.
“Look, I know you had a hard time of it and all; we all know that. But you’ve got to get over this, Joe. Whatever it is. Whatever this….this misery is that you insist on wallowing in or it’s going to kill you. You need to push it aside, Joe. Suck it up. For God‘s sake, be a man, Joe.”
Be a man, Joe.
Then Adam saw his little brother crumble before his eyes. Joe turned away and covered his face with his hands. Even from his position across the room, Adam could see the quiet sobs that racked his body.
“I’m sorry, Adam,” Joe sobbed softly. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean to do it. I’m just so damned sorry.”
His anger suddenly gone, Adam came around the bed and knelt before his brother. “Joe?”
Joe looked into his brother’s eyes, and took a chance. His emotions had become suffocating beyond his ability to bear them. The whole wretched story came tumbling out between sobs and fits of tears. His stupidity. His fear. His overwhelming guilt. And his utter failure to be a man.
After a time, Adam stood up quietly and walked to the window. “Does Pa know about any of this?”
“No, Adam,” Joe said softly. “He’d hate me! I just know it.” He looked up at his brother. “You’re not going to tell him, are you? Please. Please don’t tell him, Adam. I just couldn’t take it if he knew.”
Joe shook his head, so relieved to be able to talk about it at last. He felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from his heart. “God, I can‘t believe I was so dumb to do something like that.”
Adam came back to his brother’s side. “It was more than dumb, Joe. It was more than stupid or idiotic. It was damned insane.” He sat on the bed next to Joe. “But I’m not going to waste any time chastising you for it. Seems like you’ve been doing a good enough job doing that on your own.”
A slight grin lit Joe’s features at that. “Thanks, Adam.”
Adam continued. “But, Joe, you seemed to be confused about what it means to be responsible, or to be an adult. To be a man. Oh, Joe, don’t you know? You are a man. One of the best I know.”
Joe frowned. “Oh, come on, Adam. You don’t believe that for a minute.”
“Don’t I? Tell me, Joe. When you overheard those rustlers talking about killing Pa, were you scared?”
Joe sucked in his breath at the memory. He nodded. “More scared than I’ve ever been in my life, Adam. I’ve never felt that way before.”
“Then why didn’t you just run away?”
Joe looked up. “Because I had to stop them from hurting Pa.”
“Right, Joe. You had to stop them from hurting Pa. You were scared senseless and yet you still charged right in there to protect someone you cared about. Joe, it’s about the bravest thing I’ve ever heard of. I know you weren’t able to do it, and the rustlers ended up turning the tables on you, but in that crazy, stupid moment, Joe, you were a man. You cared more about someone else than yourself. Joe, that’s what being a man is.”
Joe blinked at his brother’s words. “But I was so scared, Adam. A man isn’t supposed to get scared or anything. You’re supposed to be in control of all that, just like you, and…”
Adam grinned. “Joe, you think I don’t get scared? You think I keep my feelings under control all the time? God, if you had seen me the day you went missing! Joe, being a man is a lifelong process. You’re always going to lose control. You’re always going to make mistakes. But you learn, and grow, and change. And you know what? I think you’re coming along just fine.”
He stood up and headed toward the door.
Joe sat up in bed. “Adam?”
Adam paused to look back at his brother. “Yeah?”
“Could you…..could you tell Pa that I’m kinda hungry?”
Adam stepped up from the breakfast table and grabbed his hat from the sideboard. It was going to be another long day rounding up strays in anticipation of the upcoming cattle drive to Sacramento. He sighed. Looks like it was going to be another hot one, too.
“Joe!” he yelled. “Come on, we gotta go!” Dang, what was keeping that kid now?
Nearly three weeks had passed since the incident, and the warm spring had given way to blazing hot summer. Joe was mostly back to his old self, except for an occasional headache from his head wound. The bruises were gone, the cuts mostly healed by now.
“Sorry, Adam. Overslept again. Just hold on.” Joe scrambled to put his boots on while munching on one of the biscuits he had grabbed from the sideboard.
Adam crossed his arms over his chest and waited for his brother. He thought back about the weeks that had ensued since Joe’s kidnapping. Adam had kept his promise not to tell their father about the circumstances surrounding it, and Joe hadn’t said anything either. Maybe he never would. Some wounds take longer to heal than others.
Joe stood up and caught his hat as Adam tossed it to him.
Hoss came through the front door. “Adam, I got the horses all saddled up and ready to go. We can just….” He paused as he noticed Joe putting on his hat. “Well, lookie here, Adam. Ponderosa’s newest ranch hand has decided to join us this morning! You coming along, Little Joe?”
Joe exchanged a look with Adam. He grinned. “Sure, Hoss, I’m coming along.”
I’m coming along just fine.