Forged by Fire (by Lisa M.)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,867


 

These persecutions try their faith as gold is forged by the fire, and the faith that stands the test, more precious than gold, will bear fruit.
Peter I: 1:7

Pa was going to be mad.

It was, oddly, his first coherent thought as awareness slowly returned. He painfully blinked his eyes and tried to take in the scene around him.

He was on Cochise, his hands lashed to his pommel with thin strips of rawhide. His fingers were numb and tingly; they looked almost gray in the dusk. His feet had been similarly tied to the stirrups, though Joe thought it was probably overkill. It wasn’t like he’d stupidly try to fling himself off a galloping horse when his hands were attached to the saddle. He felt something thick and heavy dripping along the side of his face and wondered vaguely if it was blood.

Cooch’s reins were being grasped by the dark-garbed man on a horse slightly ahead of him. Joe couldn’t make out his features; the man seemed to be concentrating on seeing where he was going in the fading light of the day. Why was he doing this? Who was he? Where was he taking him? So many confusing questions slammed into Joe’s brain all at once he could feel his headache starting to return. He drew in a shuddering breath and tried to relax – well, as best as he could, under the circumstances. He would find out soon enough, he supposed.

But then, maybe if he tried to say something…

Joe swallowed and tried to find his voice. It was there, though not as strong as he would have liked. “Hey….where are we going? What’s….”

The man angrily whipped his head around to glare at Joe. Joe recognized him then. The stranger in the bar. Still didn’t offer any clue as to what was going on, though. Joe tried again, hating how weak his voice sounded.

“Why are you….” he began.

But Joe’s question was cut off by a stream of expletives. Thankfully, much of it was lost on the wind but the man was obviously angry. And Joe did happen to catch the phrase “your mouth, boy, or you’ll get a damned gag shoved in it.”

So Joe shut up after that. He didn’t think he could stand being gagged on top of everything else.

He tried to focus on where they were headed because for now he wasn’t sure. The landscape looked vaguely familiar, but his headache was making him so dizzy he couldn’t concentrate on it. They were going east, at least he could figure that much. The sun was setting behind them, and the first stars were starting to wink their appearance in the darkening sky. His Pa would probably be missing him by now.

But then, maybe not.

Today had been the first time Joe had been allowed to go into town alone in an entire month. One day last month, Joe had been charged with picking up the mail and stopping at the bank and coming straight back. He still had chores waiting at home, his Pa had reminded him.

Joe hadn’t thought stopping at the saloon would make all that much difference. It was so hot, and a cold beer seemed so tempting. He would have just one and then head straight home. Pa would never have to know.

But Mitch was there, and Seth, and a few more buddies he had gone to school with. They got to talking, gossiping, laughing, and before long, one beer became two, and two, three, and so on. Plus they were getting ready to play cards and Joe just couldn’t resist. It had been months since he had been in a rousing poker game.

And so it was very late when Joe made his way back to the ranch. He nearly stumbled into his frantic father who was just getting ready to saddle up and go out looking for him. Ben took in his son’s intoxicated state in one furious glance and angrily sent the boy off to bed.

So, for the next month, Joe could only go into Virginia City if he was chaperoned by Hoss or Adam.

Hoss was okay, but Adam would look so put out at the task you’d think he was the one being punished. And to top it off, Joe had been ordered to stay out of the saloon, which chafed most of all, especially when he could hear his friends laughing it up inside when he rode past. How come they never seemed to get in trouble?

So, today was his first day of freedom in four long weeks. He knew his Pa was still angry over the incident last month, and Joe couldn’t really blame him. But he had endured his month-long punishment without complaining — well, without too much complaining, anyway.

Joe had been instructed to drop off some paperwork at the lawyer’s office and pick up the mail. He was to return home well before sunset.

Pa hadn’t actually said he couldn’t stop by the saloon, and in the calculating mind of an eighteen-year-old, that was pretty much the same thing as permission. But only one drink this time. If he got himself into another mess like last month, he was liable to find himself restricted to the Ponderosa for the rest of the summer.

He didn’t notice the stranger sitting in the darkened corner at first. He had been too busy greeting his pals and explaining his long absence. Things were busy at the ranch, he said. Joe waved and grinned at the choruses of “Hey, Cartwright!” that were being hollered from several of the tables before finding a stool and tossing a coin on the counter to Sam.

Then he noticed the man looking straight at him, as if in surprise. Joe remembered feeling slightly nervous at the intensity of the man’s stare, but shrugged it off as Sam slid his beer down the counter, and soon forgot about it. When he glanced back over a short time later, the man was gone.

And now, here he was — this man’s prisoner — for some reason unknown to him. He supposed he should have paid more attention back in the saloon. Too late to worry about that now, though. There were more pressing things on his mind.

As the sun made its final descent into the sky and the remaining light gave way to darkness, he still could only think of one thing as he was forced on this unwilling journey.

Pa was definitely going to be mad.

*****

He had to find the kid.

Four weeks ago he had left his lovely home in Sacramento to come to this wretched territory. It had taken some time and preparation, but now he was ready. Everything was in place – everything except for this one last annoying detail.

He had taken a room at the International House just yesterday, wondering how in the hell he was going to locate the boy to begin with. He didn’t even know what he looked like. He had asked around town some, but not too much, so as not to arouse any unnecessary suspicions. He even tried to get some information out of that idiot barkeep; yet he still knew very little about Joe Cartwright, other than his name and the fact that he was the youngest in the family.

It may take days — maybe even weeks — but he would find him. He had time. If he had anything in spades, it was time, he thought bitterly, downing the rest of his warm beer in this dirty saloon. What a god-awful, backward town. He would be glad when the whole thing was over with and he could wash his hands of the whole stinking place.

He plunked down the empty glass and pushed out his chair, wondering if the hotel restaurant had anything halfway edible to offer. Probably not. He sighed and prepared to leave when the swinging doors creaked and someone entered.

It was if it had been fated.

“Cartwright! Hey, Cartwright! Where ya been hidin’, Little Joe?” someone hollered from the bar.

No. No, it couldn’t be this easy. He pressed his lips together to keep the grin off his face, and turned to look at the handsome young man who was finding a seat at the bar. But, there he was — less than fifteen feet away — laughing and waving at all the mindless yahoos hollering greetings at him. Lord, the kid was popular.

It was only a matter of time now. His prey had walked unsuspectingly right into his midst, and judging from the boy’s short stature and small frame, he knew the kid would be easy enough to overpower. He just had to wait for the opportunity.

And he would wait. He had waited this long already. Because it was more than vengeance, after all. It was justice. Adam Cartwright would know what it’s like to have something precious taken from him. He would know the ultimate vengeance when his little brother lay dead at his feet. Dead.

By suicide.

*****

It was to Joe’s detriment that it had been sunny that day.

Rather than force Cochise to roast in the sun in front of the Bucket of Blood, Joe decided to leave him at the hitching rail near the bank, which thankfully provided the animal with a bit of shade. As he left the saloon that late afternoon, he noted the several other horses in front whose owners were not as considerate and frowned slightly.

It was a short walk back to the bank — up the street a few blocks, just past the alley. It was quiet and nearly deserted in the business district of town as most of the establishments were now closed. But Joe had time to spare to make it home well before sundown. Maybe Pa would have some more errands that needing doing tomorrow, he thought to himself, grinning. Might be able to get into that poker game after all.

“Hey, Cooch,” he murmured softly as he reached the hitching rail. He patted his pony’s neck affectionately and adjusted the cinch. He didn’t even notice the figure that sprang from the alley until it was too late. He felt himself suddenly grabbed from behind and a cold hand clamped firmly over his mouth before he could even yell out in alarm. He was dragged struggling into the darkness of the alley. As confusion gave way to sense, he tried to grab for his gun, but found it lifted from his holster and pressed against his temple. He stilled then, and waited to discover what his captor wanted. Money? His horse?

He found out soon enough.

“Easy, Cartwright. We’re going for a little ride, you and me,” came the whispered voice, so sinister in tone that Joe felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck and he began to struggle anew, the threat of a loaded gun at his head be damned.

He heard a single muttered curse before the gun was raised abruptly and sledged down on Joe’s head. And then he knew no more.

*****

Joe lifted his head as he felt Cochise slowing down to a trot and then a walk. Apparently they had reached a destination of some sort. He looked around to see if he could recognize anything, but all he could make out was the irregular shape of a rocky crag. A cave? A mine? Joe couldn’t tell in the darkness.

They stopped then, and Joe held his breath, waiting. He felt the tug on his leg as the rawhide was released from the stirrup, and he immediately kicked out at the man untying him. There was a grunt as his boot made contact with his captor’s chest and he heard the satisfying thud as the man landed on the ground.

But it was a stupid move. Joe had forgotten that his hands and other foot were still firmly attached to the saddle. All he had succeeding in doing was further angering the man. His collar was abruptly seized and he was brutally yanked down so he was face to face with his captor. He gasped as he felt the thin blade of a knife laid against his throat.

“One more move like that, kid, and I’ll saw your head off,” the man hissed malevolently.

Joe swallowed convulsively and offered no further resistance as he was untied and jerked roughly from his horse. His hands were retied behind him, and he felt himself being dragged over the uneven ground and through some sort of entryway in the rocky incline before them. Then the man stopped and flung his captive cruelly to the stone floor, and Joe could hear him rummaging around for something.

Light suddenly flooded the small cave as a lantern was lit. But Joe didn’t spare the time to examine his surroundings. His attention was caught by the features of the man hovering over him. It was hard to mistake the raw hatred in the man’s expression.

And all the questions and confusion that had been plaguing the boy’s thoughts suddenly evaporated.

All that remained was the fear.

*****

Adam Cartwright’s lips were set in a tight line as the structures of Virginia City finally came into view after the long ride. He didn’t have time for this. Why was he always the one who was dispatched to haul home his absent brother? Joe was getting too old for this nonsense, and Adam had rapidly been losing patience with his younger brother’s antics lately.

He knew something like this would happen. He just knew it after that fiasco last month when Joe defied his father’s orders and got himself staggering drunk in the Bucket of Blood. If anyone had asked Adam about it, he would have told them that Joe’s punishment was far too lenient to begin with. But no one ever asked him. He thought Joe should have been banned from town altogether and restricted to the Ponderosa for the entire month. Maybe even two months.

Joe never did apologize for it, after all. Pa was angry, of course, very angry about the whole affair, and loudly let Joe know it almost the minute he got off his horse and stumbled onto the porch. Yeah, Joe knew about the anger, alright.

But Joe didn’t know about the fear. Joe didn’t know that his anxious father had paced back and forth in front of the fireplace for almost two hours; wondering aloud about his youngest son’s whereabouts, worried sick that something had happened to him.

Joe didn’t know that Adam and Hoss had nearly gone hoarse reassuring their father all evening that their little brother was probably fine, that he had likely run into a few friends in town and had gotten delayed. Joe didn’t know that his father finally decided that something was dreadfully wrong and had resolved to ride out into the night looking for him. Joe only knew about the anger.

And on his first free day, Joe went and did it again.

Adam’s hands were nearly shaking with fury as he recalled the events of the previous month, and he fought for control of his emotions. Did that kid ever, ever think of anyone other than himself? Joe was probably at a friend’s place sleeping off a hangover after a rousing night in the Bucket of Blood. Adam had tried to convince his father of just that, but Pa had been insistent that Adam ride out and look for him. Just wait, younger brother, he thought to himself. Just wait. Adam knew that in the mood he was in he was likely to smack his brother about the head a couple times, and he sure was looking forward to it.

Adam dismounted in front of the Bucket of Blood and tied up his horse. He stepped through the swinging doors of the empty saloon.

Sam was wiping down the counter and looked up in surprise. “Bit early for a beer, ain’t it, Cartwright?” he asked curiously.

“Looking for my brother, Sam,” Adam replied. “Was Joe in here yesterday?”

Sam nodded and Adam smirked in spite of himself. He knew it. Just wait till Pa finds out.

But then his expression changed at Sam’s reply.

“He was just in here for a little bit, Adam. I think he had one beer and then left. Said he had to get back to the ranch.”

Adam’s dark eyebrows knit together in confusion. He had been so sure… “Are you positive, Sam? He said he was going back?” he asked, his voice starting to mirror his sudden unease.

Sam nodded again. “Absolutely, Adam. Just one beer. And there were about ten people around offering to buy him another one, but he said no.”

“Thanks, Sam. I’ll keep on looking around, then.”

Adam headed toward the door, but paused when Sam hailed him again.

“Say, Adam…..did your friend ever find you?”

“What friend?”

The little bartender blinked in surprise. “Your friend. The one from Sacramento. Said he knew you from a couple of years back. That’s funny. I thought he would have found you by now. He was in here yesterday asking about you and your family. Seemed like a nice enough fella, and all….”

Adam’s attention was caught. “Who was he? Did he give you his name?”

Sam suddenly looked embarrassed. “Well, no, I guess he didn’t. I suppose he’ll catch up with you soon enough, though.”

“Yeah. I suppose.” Adam left abruptly, his anger slowly giving way to concern. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it didn’t have anything at all to do with Joe’s unexplained absence.

But then, maybe it did.

*****

Stupid, stupid kid, he thought irritably as he dabbed away the blood oozing from his split knuckles. Brand new handkerchief, too. Damned stain would probably never come out. He looked over at the boy who was still curled up on the floor, whimpering from the blow he had just taken to his face. Good. He hoped he broke his jaw this time.

Almost two days with the kid and he still couldn’t quite figure him out. He knew this Joe Cartwright was scared of him, could see it in his eyes. But that sure didn’t stop the boy from trying to fight back, even restrained as he was. Three times already he had tried to escape. He thought for sure he would have beaten that defiant little attitude out of him by now, but the boy was unbelievably stubborn.

He hadn’t taken too well to the idea of being shackled, but that was just the way it had to be. Sure had a smart mouth on him too. He had tolerated about twenty minutes of having insults hurled at him on that first night before he ended up gagging the boy. He smirked as he remembered it. The kid sure hadn’t liked that one bit. He had taken the gag off after a couple hours, and now all he had to do was wave the cloth in front of the boy’s face when he got tired of his mouth. That usually shut him up, but good.

He knew the boy was going crazy wondering what was going on and why he was being held prisoner. But that was part of it. So far he had successfully kept mum about his plans, despite the kid’s pleading. He had slipped tonight, though, and mentioned something about his brother Adam, and was unprepared for the blazing anger that suddenly erupted in the boy’s eyes. The kid jumped up and tried to head-butt him, and that’s what earned him a fist to his face. He’d have to be more careful about what he said in front of the boy before he ruined another handkerchief. But no matter. It was just a matter of time, anyway.

Adam Cartwright would be here soon enough.

*****

Two days. Two days and still no sign. Adam couldn’t understand it.

The sheriff had formed a posse and they had searched the countryside in nearly every direction, but had so far been unsuccessful. He and Hoss had spent every spare moment retracing Joe’s route into Virginia City, yet there was still nothing. It was as if their little brother had just vanished.

Pa was barely coping. Adam could hear him late in the night, pacing back and forth, opening the door and looking outside over and over again, as if his wayward son would suddenly come galloping into the yard. This morning he and Hoss discovered their father slumped in his chair in an exhausted sleep. He refused to even go to bed until his son was safely home.

As one day gave way to another and then another, the Cartwrights were forced to admit that something dreadful had befallen their youngest member. And inevitably, it all came down to the stranger. Adam had learned that the man had made the rounds about town asking questions that day, claiming he was a friend of Adam’s, trying to find out things about his family. And about Joe.

Unfortunately, the man seemed to have disappeared as well, which was all the more suspicious. And frightening.

Why Joe? Why?

Had the boy been kidnapped? Then why was there no ransom note?

No. There was something more ominous going on. Adam didn’t know what had happened to his brother, but he knew that it was more than a quick play for some Cartwright cash. He could feel it. And until he knew for sure, he would keep looking for Joe, and hoping he wasn’t too late. He headed back toward the International House to ask questions again, hoping there was someone, anyone who may have seen the man who he was now certain had something to do with his brother’s disappearance.

He was hailed immediately by the desk clerk upon entering.

“Mr. Cartwright!” Stan gestured him over. “I got a message for ya. Just delivered this morning.” The clerk handed him an envelope with Adam’s name printed in plain block lettering.

His heart in his throat, Adam opened it and quickly read the brief message inside.

Death is a debt we all must pay – Euripides

Marilee died for love of you.

As will your brother.

Adam spared only a brief glance for the curious desk clerk before running from the building. He had to find the sheriff.

He knew what had happened to Joe.

*****

His jaw was broken. He could tell. He had felt the ominous crack as the man’s uppercut made contact with his face. And now, the swelling was so bad he could hardly see out of his left eye.

And it hurt. God, it hurt. He couldn’t remember the last time something hurt so bad. The slightest movement or twitch of his mouth sent indescribable shards of pain rocketing through his whole head. He couldn’t eat, could barely drink the dank water the bastard had been forcing on him, and most especially he couldn’t talk.

If there was anything good about it, it might prevent him from having that gag shoved in again. But then again, maybe not. The man was just mean enough, just spiteful enough, to gag him again for no reason at all. Joe couldn’t even imagine how much that would hurt.

Not that talking had been very useful, anyway. Joe had tried several times to taunt his captor into telling him what was going on, why he was being held prisoner. But all that had earned him was an angry glare and a gag shoved in his mouth, sometimes a few punches tossed in as a bonus.

How long had he been here now? Two days? Three? Joe could see that he was being held in a cave of some sort but he didn’t know whether it was day or night. He remembered that first awful night, when his hands had been yanked together and forced into handcuffs, his boots jerked off and his feet shackled, and how he had hated feeling so helpless, so scared. He hated even more the waiting, hated not knowing why he was a prisoner in the first place. Was he being held for ransom? Maybe, but Joe was thinking not. Something would have happened by now; he was sure of it. No, it was something more than that, but until this morning, Joe had no clue.

He had been awakened abruptly by water splashed on his face; and then the scornful sound of his captor’s laughter.

“Just look at you now, kid” he jeered. “Wait till yer big brother Adam sees ya. Won’t be much longer…”

Adam?

What did this man want with his brother? Was he after Adam, too?

Joe had shot up then and slammed into his captor, knocking them both to the ground. But hobbled as he was, Joe was unable to offer much resistance when the man angrily hauled him to his feet and started hitting him again and again. It was that last fateful blow that had broken his jaw.

The man sneered at him angrily before stalking away and taking the lantern with him.

Left alone in the darkness; all Joe could do was wait. And pray.

*****

He remembered Marilee Henson. How could he not? Was it only a couple of years ago when they first met?

She was quite lovely — blonde hair, clear blue eyes, soft curves, and a deliberate way about her that indicated that she was well aware of her attractiveness. However, that didn’t matter to Adam Cartwright; he’d always had a healthy appreciation for beautiful women.

He had been on an extended business trip for the ranch that summer when he came out of the Cattlemen’s Association Building in Sacramento and nearly collided with her. She unexpectedly lost her balance and he’d grasped her arm to prevent her from falling. He knew immediately that her clumsiness was contrived; he hadn’t even touched her. But that was okay with him. He’d ended up asking her to supper and she accepted.

He had called on her regularly after that, and enjoyed her company and humor, but that was the extent of her appeal to him. In little more than a week he had discovered how self-centered and obsessive the woman was — the only child in a wealthy family and quite used to getting whatever she wanted. And she wanted Adam Cartwright.

She had fallen in love with him in a impossibly short time — less than a month, in fact — and he began to get nervous when she started hinting about him moving to Sacramento to be near her. He had heard that she had been murmuring coyly to friends about an upcoming special announcement, and even browsing the fashion boutiques for bridal gowns.

He ended the relationship soon after those troubling events started to occur, and was quite relieved a week later when it was time for him to return home. She had gotten married shortly afterward, and though Adam had been surprised when he heard the news, he was glad to know that she had moved on with her life.

But she hadn’t.

Shortly after his return to the Ponderosa, he started receiving letters from her. Week after week; month after month; even after her marriage to another man. Pleading, demanding, obsessive letters, all declaring her devotion to him and her anguish over marrying a man she didn’t love. After a few months, Adam started bundling the letters up and returning them unopened. Then, the letters stopped coming altogether; and he thought that was the end of it.

And then, suddenly, she was dead.

She had been pregnant at the time. Adam had never heard how she died, was not even aware of her death until several weeks afterward. He felt no grief at her passing — not really — but he did feel regret that she had passed away so young and that their relationship had ended on such a sour note.

And now, Little Joe was missing, and his disappearance seemed inexplicably related to all of these events — events that had nothing to do with the boy.

Someone had taken his brother, and it was somehow all because of Marilee.

And all because of him.

*****

He dreamt of her again. About Marilee.

So, so lovely she was. He could close his eyes and still see her clearly, as if she was standing right in front of him.

He had adored her since she was quite young, had tried to court her for years, but always she refused him. He had watched helplessly from afar as she went through one suitor after another, inept morons who weren’t even fit to buckle her shoes. Many of them had fallen hopelessly in love with her, but she never returned their love, discarding them one by one as she learned that they were unworthy of her.

And then she met Adam Cartwright.

Cartwright was the one man who seemed impossibly immune to Marilee’s charms, and that seemed to make her all the more determined to win his affection. Nothing about her seemed to overly impress him; not her beauty, not her social status, not even the lure of her family’s wealth.

The arrogant cowboy called on her anyway, possibly out of boredom or loneliness, but more likely to take advantage of the social realm that she could introduce him to.

Then Cartwright broke off the relationship abruptly and left town. Marilee had been heartbroken, of course, but she soon learned that Cartwright was completely unsuitable anyway. Cartwright could never love her the way she deserved. Cartwright could never love her like he did. He truly, truly loved her.

Marilee soon became agreeable to his desire to court her, and to his delight and surprise, accepted his proposal of marriage a month later.

Before long, he was basking in the life he had always deserved; he had the most beautiful woman in town as his wife; he lived in a lovely, luxurious home; he delighted in the parties and galas and other benefits of their high social standing; and they were going to have a child of their own. His life had become the envy of everyone he knew.

Until that fateful day she killed herself.

He had found her body in their bedroom — blood everywhere, so much blood, still dripping from the slashes on her arms and wrists she had made with his own razor.

He had been shocked and devastated by her death; his entire life suddenly and cruelly ripped away from him, and he had been nearly overcome with despair.

And then, some weeks later while sorting through her belongings, he found the letters.

There were dozens of them. Dozens. Each one addressed to that idiot cowboy in Nevada; each one returned unopened. All of them pledging her undying love for Adam, and declaring her loathing for the man she married.

Him. The only man who truly loved her.

Over time, he began to convince himself who was really to blame for his wife’s death.

Adam Cartwright.

If not for Cartwright, she would have loved him. She would still be alive, and he would still be enjoying the life he had always deserved.

How easy it had been to plot his revenge. No one questioned him when he locked up their lovely townhouse a month ago, expressing the need to get away, to escape from the terrible memories within.

Cartwright would soon suffer from the enormous pain and grief that had come to consume his own life. Someone Cartwright knew and loved would die all because of him.

It would have been perfect, more fitting, of course, if Cartwright had a wife, or even a lady love who would suffice as a victim. But after a few discreet inquiries, he learned that wasn’t the case.

He did have a little brother, though.

A kid named Joe.

*****

Adam and Hoss barely spoke as they made their way back to the Ponderosa that afternoon; each brother was deeply lost in his own thoughts about what they had learned that day.

Bradley Willcox was his name. It had to be him, Adam thought. The man that Marilee had married over a year ago.

It made sense, of course.

He and Hoss had gone to the sheriff and shown him the cryptic message that Adam had received. A few telegraphs to Sacramento had disclosed that Willcox had left town for parts unknown over a month ago, apparently despondent over his wife’s suicide. Yes, her suicide.

Adam hadn’t known how to take that bit of news. He remembered the note that he had received that claimed that Marilee died for love of him. Had he in some indirect way been responsible for her death? Was it something he had done or failed to do? Perhaps he should have confronted her about her many letters and made it clear that he did not love her. Perhaps he should have ended their relationship sooner than he did.

So many things to rethink, to consider, and yet his mind had to remain focused on something infinitely more important right now – his brother. How did Joe fit into all of this?

But he knew. Of course he knew. He could try to deny it or push it aside from his thoughts, but the truth was still there, staring him in the face. Joe was somehow an unwilling pawn in a sick man’s game of revenge. He was trying to get to Adam through Joe.

Dear God, how was he going to tell Pa?

As the brothers galloped into the yard, and their father ran out to meet them, the look of hopeful expectation on his Pa’s face nearly broke his heart. Adam caught his breath as he dismounted and prepared to tell his father what they knew.

He had never felt so helpless.

*****

He knew he shouldn’t have riled the man like that. Pa had always reminded his youngest son to think before he acted, and this was yet another one of those sorry times when he failed to do so.

He had nearly screamed when the man had clutched his face and tried to pour water down his throat again. Can’t have you dying on me yet, boy, he had said. Maybe it was anger or just pure reflex, but Joe jerked his head away and spit the water back at his tormentor. He knew a brief moment of utter satisfaction when the man started sputtering and coughing in surprise.

But Joe was unprepared for the fury the man unleashed on him as a result. He angrily grabbed a length of chain and started swinging it, slamming it against Joe’s body, his chest and his legs, drawing blood with the force of it. Joe felt the nauseating crack as the sudden impact broke his left wrist.

He grabbed Joe’s hair and slammed his head back against the wall. Joe felt the sharp blade of a knife pressed to his throat, and he gasped.

“I should just kill you now, boy” the man hissed. “I should just kill you now and be done with it.”

The man held Joe in place and stared at him for a long moment, as if he was considering. Then he snickered.

“No” he said. “No. Just wait till your brother gets here, boy. Just wait till then.”

And with those frightening words, he let go of the boy and left him whimpering in the dark.

*****

Adam had known that Willcox would try to contact him. It was only a matter of time.

The summons had come the following day when he and Hoss returned to Virginia City to join up with a new posse that Sheriff Coffee had formed. They now had a name and a motive, and the search for the missing Joe had taken on a new momentum.

It had arrived much as the first one had — this time anonymously left overnight under the door of the telegraph office. Frank, the telegrapher on duty that morning, sought Adam out almost immediately. Luckily, Hoss had been busy talking to the sheriff when Adam received it. He didn’t know how he would have been able to explain it away otherwise. The message had been as grim and terrifying as the first one.

Adam Cartwright: Be at the grove of poplars near Virginia City at sunrise. Come alone. Tell no one, or he will die.

Tomorrow morning. He didn’t know how he was going to make it through the rest of the day and through the night with the endless waiting, but what choice did he have? In the end, Adam didn’t know if he would even come out of the situation alive, but he knew without doubt or hesitation that he would be at that grove of poplars at sunrise. And alone.

His brother’s life was at stake.

*****

Adam and Hoss joined up with the posse in what was to be yet another long fruitless search near Virginia City. Adam remained distracted through the day as he agonized over the message he had received and whether or not to tell his family about it.

There was no question that he would keep the information from the sheriff. Roy Coffee was skilled and quite competent, but to have the law charging in with guns blazing was the last thing Adam wanted. It would likely get his brother killed.

Somehow, though, he knew he couldn’t keep his secret from his family. He couldn’t keep something like this from them; not now, not when Hoss was so upset that his normally substantial appetite had become almost non-existent; not when his Pa looked ill from his worry and lack of sleep.

Joe’s disappearance had been hard enough on all of them, but as for Adam, the thought that his little brother was being held prisoner for someone’s maniacal notion of revenge against him was almost unbearable.

It was late in the evening — after Hop Sing had sadly carried away three barely touched dinner plates; after the three men had sat silently in front of the fire, trying to find words of comfort they could offer to each other, and failing.

Unable to abide the terrible silence, Ben got up and walked outside.

When Adam joined him several minutes later, he saw his father standing on the porch, staring searchingly into the darkness. Adam had never seen his father look so tormented, so sad.

Ben didn’t turn around at his son’s approach, but knew it was Adam. “I can’t stop thinking about it, Adam,” he said softly. “I can’t stop wondering about my boy; if he’s hurt, or scared, or… I can’t stop thinking about what that bastard might be doing to him.”

Adam nodded, and grasped his father’s shoulder. “I know, Pa. I know. We all feel the same way. But we’re going to find Joe, I know we will.” He hesitated briefly before continuing.

“Pa,” he said. “Pa, I got a message today. From Willcox.”

Ben looked up abruptly. “A message? Another note?” He turned and clutched Adam’s arms, suddenly alarmed. “Adam, what did it say? Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Adam looked away, unable to bear the accusing look in his father’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t know if I should tell you.” He sighed. “Pa, it told me to go to the grove of poplars tomorrow morning–alone. Said that I’m not to tell anyone or Joe’s going to…” Adam stopped suddenly; he didn’t need to say any more.

Ben stared back at his son for a long moment and turned around to gaze out into the night. “I can’t let you do it, son. I can’t….I can’t lose two sons like this,” he said with a tremble in his voice. Then his shoulders stooped and he suddenly broke down, unashamed, in front of his eldest. “But I don’t know what to do, Adam. I just don’t know what to do. Where can he be? Where is that man — that monster —  holding my boy? What if he’s…” Ben’s voice broke as he nearly spoke aloud the most terrifying possibility of all.

“No, Pa” Adam said, touching his father’s shoulder again, looking into his eyes. “No. We’re going to find him. We’re going to find Joe and we’re going to bring him home. Alive.”

Without waiting for a response, Adam turned then and walked back inside, wishing with all his heart that he could believe his own words.

*****

After much debate and argument between the three of them, Adam agreed that Ben and Hoss should ride out well before sunrise to the designated meeting spot at the grove of poplars. There they would stay well hidden and watch from a distance until Adam arrived. Hopefully, Willcox would turn up shortly afterward and lead them all to where Joe was being held.

It was a desperate plan, but all they could come up with on such short notice.

The following morning, as the rosy hues of dawn streaked through the sky, Adam saddled Sport and prepared to leave. None of them had been able to sleep and his father and brother had left earlier in order to conceal themselves just in case Willcox showed up ahead of time.

Adam led his horse out into the yard and stopped to adjust the cinch before mounting. Adam had already placed one boot in the stirrup when he felt something hard pressed against his head and the unmistakable sound of a hammer being cocked.

“Back down, Cartwright,” Willcox said quietly. “Nice and slow.”

Adam raised his hands as he felt his gun being lifted from his holster. Willcox laughed. “You didn’t think I’d let you keep this, did you?” he said, shoving the gun into his belt. “Now, turn around.”

Adam turned to face the man and for the first time looked into the dark eyes of Bradley Willcox, and couldn’t help but notice the hatred and malice burning in them.

Willcox sneered and nodded toward the road. “I saw them leave, Cartwright. You didn’t think I was stupid, did you? I knew you’d try to get help. Won’t they be disappointed when you don’t show up?”

He pulled a pair of handcuffs from his pocket and tossed them to Adam. “Put those on–and do it tight. I’ll check.”

Adam did as he was told, cuffing the shackles firmly to his wrists. “Now what?” he asked.

Willcox checked the cuffs and then nodded at Sport. “Back up on your horse. You want to see your baby brother’s body, don’t you?”

He laughed at the sudden look of fury and alarm that crossed Adam’s face at that remark. “Don’t worry, Cartwright, he’s still alive. For now.”

He held the reins while Adam mounted, and led him to where his own horse was tethered and hidden behind the barn. He mounted and they set off at a brisk pace, Willcox leading his new captive behind him.

Adam turned and looked helplessly back at the house and at the road that his father and Hoss had taken, which stretched in the opposite direction of where he was now headed. He swallowed nervously. What was he going to do now?

*****

Joe rolled over, trying unsuccessfully to find a more comfortable position. It seemed that every inch of his body was hurting in some way.

Plus, he was hungry. His captor hadn’t provided much in the way of food. And he was so, so thirsty. Another unfortunate result of spitting at the man yesterday. Joe hadn’t been offered water since.

He closed his eyes and sighed, thinking of home, thinking of his family. Was Pa worried about him? Were they out looking for him? Why hadn’t anyone found him yet?

Joe didn’t think he would survive long enough to find out.

He lifted his head at the sound of someone’s footsteps entering the cave. He knew the man would pause to light the lantern and Joe soon saw the soft glow of it as his captor approached the inner chamber where the youngest Cartwright was being held. At least he would have some light for a while, Joe thought. He was getting weary of the constant darkness.

But something was different, and Joe tried to make it out in the dim light. He was hearing something odd. Scraping and shuffling noises. As if the man was dragging something heavy.

Nothing could prepare him, however, for the sight of his older brother being tossed cruelly to the floor in front of him.

Adam was handcuffed and semi-conscious, his face bloodied from a laceration alongside his head. But before Adam could turn his head to seek out his younger brother, he was abruptly yanked away and pushed up so he was sitting with his back to the wall. Willcox made quick work of stretching lengths of chain across Adam’s chest and securely attaching them to iron rings that had been firmly embedded into the stone surface.

He looked angrily down at Adam and kicked him. “You shouldn’t have done that. Cartwright. I warned you, though, that your brother would pay.”

At that Willcox stepped over to Joe and delivered a well-placed kick to the boy’s abdomen. Joe yelped in pain and tried to twist away from his tormentor, but Willcox was there, kicking him again. He drew his leg back to inflict a further blow, but stopped suddenly, grinning down at the boy who was now curled up and whimpering.

“That’s enough for now, boys. We’ll have some more fun later.”

With that he left the cave, leaving the flickering lantern behind.

Adam blinked his eyes and shook his head, trying to concentrate on his surroundings. As his eyes began to focus in the dim light, he saw his brother lying on the floor several feet away.

“Joe!” he called out softly and urgently.

Joe turned his head at the sound of his voice. Adam gasped when he saw the condition his little brother was in. He looked gaunt and ill, his body bruised and bloodied. Joe’s face was puffy and misshapen on one side; and Adam could see from the swelling and the guarded way he had positioned his cuffed hands that his left arm was probably broken. He saw Joe moving his lips, trying to speak.

“A…..Adam?” Joe said, his voice hesitant and whisper soft, hardly daring to believe his brother was so near.

“Adam?” Joe repeated, his voice now laced with desperation. His breath hitched on a sob.

“I’m here, Joe. Over here. By the wall” Adam said gently. “Can you come any closer? I can hardly hear you.”

Adam’s heart nearly broke as he watched Joe make the gargantuan effort to move closer to his brother. He half-crawled, half-scooted, moaning softly when his bruised body suddenly scraped against the hard floor. After several minutes, Joe was beside him, heaving his shackled body to a sitting position beside his brother.

“Adam” Joe said softly, looking up, his face a mingled combination of relief and sadness and pain.

Adam studied Joe’s bruised and misshapen cheek. “Your jaw.” he said. “Did that bastard break your jaw? Is that why it’s hard for you to talk?”

Joe nodded. “I…..can talk…..a little bit” he said, the painful effort causing the boy’s eyes to mist over with tears.

Adam clenched his jaw in anger. “We’re going to get out of here, Joe,” he said. “I promise you. We’re going to get out of here somehow.”

Joe looked at his brother for a long moment and nodded slowly to show that he understood. Then, for the first time in four days, Joe let himself relax. He slumped against Adam and nestled his face in the curve of his neck. It was, Adam realized sadly, the same way Joe used to cuddle up against him when he was a toddler, seeking out his big brother’s lap whenever he was hurt or frightened. Adam didn’t think it would be possible to offer much comfort now as he thought furiously of a way to get the two of them out of this mess.

He looked up and studied the high-ceilinged chamber in the dim light. He knew where they were, knew instantly the moment the rocky landscape came into view. They were, incredibly, on the Ponderosa — probably less than fifteen miles from home — in a rarely traveled area that boasted a series of shallow caves. He and Hoss used to explore them when they were kids.

It had been ingenious of Willcox to decide on the place as a hideout, and also explained why no one had been able to find where Joe had been taken. No one would have thought to search an area so close to home.

It had been a risky move on Adam’s part to slam into his horse and send him galloping away. Unfortunately, Joe had borne the punishment for that decision.

But if Sport made it home somehow, and his Pa and brother managed to track him to this location, then there was a chance he and Joe could be rescued. Maybe just a slight chance, but it was their only hope, and Adam clung to it.

“Adam?” he heard Joe whisper sleepily. “Adam……wanna…..go home.”

Adam felt Joe’s breath become soft and regular against his chest, and knew that his brother had fallen into an exhausted sleep. Adam tried to shift position slightly and close his eyes, but he knew the effort was futile.

Sleep would be a long time in coming.

*****

Damn that Cartwright! Damn him! Willcox thought furiously, almost trembling in anger. He had successfully brought Adam Cartwright to the cave hideout with little resistance — all according to his meticulous planning. But he should have been paying closer attention. As he yanked him from his horse to lead him into the cave, Cartwright suddenly slammed into the beast and the startled animal had galloped away. Willcox then angrily slammed his gun into Cartwright’s head, but by then it was too late. The horse was already out of sight.

It would definitely force him to change his plans. Over an hour of searching and he still couldn’t find the blasted nag; it was likely headed back to the Ponderosa, and from there it would only be a matter of time before it was traced back to here.

He had hoped to stretch out the torture for several days, but Willcox now knew that his time was limited.

He made his way back inside, and smirked when he saw the pose the two brothers presented. They were sitting side-by-side, apparently asleep, the boy leaning heavily against his brother’s chest. He kicked the kid to wake him up.

“Rise and shine, Cartwrights” he said, grinning down at the two startled faces. “It’s time now.”

He noted the fearful look the two men gave each other, but ignored it as he grabbed Joe and dragged him roughly away from his brother.

Adam tried desperately to protest. “Willcox! Leave him alone!” he begged, hating the pleading sound of his own voice. “It’s me you wanted – just leave my brother alone!”

Willcox laughed. “What? And let him miss out on the fun?”

He hauled Joe up so they were face to face and glared maliciously at the boy. “Your brother’s the most important part of my plan, Cartwright. You see, I lost someone because of you. She’s dead, and it’s all your fault. And now, you’re going to find out what it feels like to lose someone. Someone you love.”

With that, he dropped the terrified boy to the ground.

Adam was speechless, horrified, as the deranged man’s plans now became evident. Willcox straightened and pulled out Joe’s pearl-handled Colt from his waistband. He fingered it lovingly, and turned to Joe.

“Nice piece you got here, kid. Looks expensive. Tell me, have you ever killed anyone with it?”

Joe glared up at him and said nothing.

That earned him a vicious backhand to his face. Joe fell back, nearly sobbing with pain.

Willcox grinned again, amused by the boy’s suffering. “No matter. First time for everything, I suppose.”

He turned his attention back to Adam, who was fuming and pushing desperately against the chains binding him to the wall.

“Give it up, Cartwright. There’s no way you’re getting out of that. I put in those iron rings myself.”

Adam glared hostilely up at his captor. “Why are you doing this? You already got me. Let Joe go. He had nothing to do with this!” he yelled, though he knew by now that the man wouldn’t listen to him.

Willcox crouched in front of him. “Afraid I can’t do that, Cartwright; I got me some special plans for your brother.” He lifted the gun and pointed it at Adam’s head. “You see, I’m going to give little brother over here a choice. He’s going to kill you…..” he paused dramatically, “or he’s going to kill himself.”

He stood up then. “Either way, one of you is going to end up dead. And one of you is going to have to live with the agony of it forever. Just like I am,” he added, a note of sadness touching his voice.

He turned to walk out of the cave, but stopped and looked back over at Joe. “I’ll give you two some time to talk it over,” he said, and then he was gone.

*****

It took several minutes, but Joe managed to make his way slowly and painfully back to his brother’s side, but was too exhausted to try and pull himself back up to a sitting position. He slumped down beside Adam and rested his head against his brother’s leg.

He looked up miserably at his older brother and tried to speak but the words were hesitating and hoarse. “Adam……why is he……doing this? Why?”

Adam regarded his brother sorrowfully, wondering how much he should tell him. He bit his lip and tried to explain.

“His name is Willcox, Joe. Bradley Willcox. His wife killed herself a few months ago, and he’s blaming me for it.” Adam paused before continuing. “Her name was Marilee.”

Joe’s eyes widened. He remembered the Marilee letters from a while back. He had teased Adam a few times about how his older brother was breaking hearts as far away as California, but Adam hadn’t thought it was very funny at the time. He knew that the letters started to really upset his brother and how he wouldn’t even open them after a while. But then, the letters stopped and Joe had forgotten about it.

Joe caught his breath, and his eyes suddenly filled with tears. “But…..why does……why does he want me……to kill you?”

Adam frowned. He had hoped his little brother hadn’t heard that.

“Joe, he wants to make me suffer. Just like he’s suffering. He says it’s my fault, but I don’t know why. I think he feels that Marilee was still in love with me.” Adam hesitated. “Joe, did you hear everything that Willcox said? About making you….” Adam’s voice broke.

Joe closed his eyes and nodded. Then he looked fervently back at his brother. “Adam, I….”

Adam shook his head “No, Joe……you know what you have to do. If we….if we somehow don’t get out of this, no matter what happens….Joe, you can’t turn that gun on yourself. It would kill Pa.”

Joe looked away, and the brothers laid quietly in the darkness for a time, unable to express the storm of emotions flooding their hearts.

They both looked up, alarmed, as they heard footsteps in the distance.

Willcox was coming back.

*****

Adam looked up fearfully as Willcox strolled in casually and approached the brothers.

He looked down at Joe and nudged the boy with his foot. “Well, kid? You ready?”

Joe cowered away from him and tried to press himself even closer to his brother. Willcox laughed. He stepped away briefly, and pulled out Joe’s gun. He opened up the cylinder and slowly and deliberately removed each bullet from it.

All except for one.

Joe looked up at Adam. “Adam……I’m sorry…..please…….don’t be mad…….so sorry, Adam,” he whispered sadly, tears beginning to track their way down his cheeks. “Don’t be mad.”

Willcox shoved the gun into his belt, and came for Joe.

Adam desperately pushed against his restraints. “NO! Joe, no!” he yelled, trying to kick out at Willcox with his legs.

Willcox easily sidestepped Adam’s attempts, and grabbed Joe by the collar, dragging him away.

Joe struggled, and tried to look over at his brother again. “Adam…..” he whispered fervently. “Tell Pa…..tell Pa that I…..Adam!” But Joe’s words were cut off abruptly as Willcox hauled him roughly to his feet and slammed him against the wall. He unlocked the cuffs from Joe’s wrists, and twisted Joe’s left arm up behind his back. He then pulled Joe in front of him so that he was facing his brother.

Joe felt Willcox’s breath hot in his ear as he hissed. “Well, boy….you know how to shoot a gun, don’t you? What’s it going to be? You or big brother here?”

Joe, pale and trembling, turned his face away and refused to answer.

Willcox pulled the gun from his belt and tried to press it into Joe’s right hand. “Oh, I forgot….you’re a lefty, aren’t ya?” he said, smirking down at Joe’s swollen left wrist. “No matter, though. I’ll help you aim, kid.”

Joe pulled his hand away, and shook his head. “No….no….. I can’t!” he whispered, and looked down at his brother.

Willcox cruelly jerked Joe’s injured arm, leaving the boy gasping in agony. “Listen to me, kid. You grab hold of this gun or I’ll shoot your brother in front of your eyes, and I’ll make him die slow and painful. He’ll bleed to death right in front of you!” he spat out in a fierce whisper.

Joe swallowed and shakily grasped the pearl handle. Willcox pressed his hand over Joe’s and forced Joe’s finger around the trigger. Joe looked at Adam desperately.

“Adam……” Joe whispered, his breath hitching on a sob. “I’m sorry….”

Willcox grinned. “You need some help, kid? Here, let me…” he said, and drew back the hammer.

“Now, what’s it going to be? Him?” He pulled Joe’s arm down so the gun was pointing at Adam’s head. Adam sucked in his breath.

“Or you?”

Joe’s arm was bent upward and he felt the gun being thrust under his chin. He closed his eyes, caught his breath, and slowly nodded.

Suddenly, horrifically realizing his brother’s intent, Adam started to scream. “NOOOO! Joe! Dear God! NO!!”

Joe gave his brother one last sorrowful look.

Then he pulled the trigger.

*****

The sound of gunfire was obscenely loud in the small space; its noisy reverberations echoed off the stone walls sounding like rolls of thunder.

Adam was still screaming and crying even as the smoke cleared and revealed his little brother lying in a heap on the floor.

“Adam!”

Someone was grabbing him and shaking him. Yelling his name.

But the devastated man only had eyes for the dreadfully still form of his little brother.

“Joe!” he sobbed. “No! Joe!”

Adam turned his head away from the terrible sight and closed his eyes as if to shut out the awful memory of what had just happened. Of what his brother had done for him.

“Adam!” came the voice again.

“Come on, now! It’s okay! Joe’s gonna be alright, Adam. Pa’s with him….”

It was Hoss’ voice.

Adam opened his eyes to the worried gaze of his brother. “Hoss?” he said softly, hopefully.

Hoss nodded. “Yep, sure looks like we got here in the nick of time, brother.”
He turned back to where his father had lifted Joe up and was clutching him tightly to his chest, nearly weeping in his relief. “Joe woulda been dead for sure.”

Hoss pointed over at Willcox, lying in an expanding pool of blood, his eyes open and staring. The man was dead.

“I think Pa and I both fired at the same time; not sure which bullet took him,” Hoss said sadly. “We didn’t have a choice, Adam. I don’t know what that feller was planning, but when we heard ya screaming and ran in here and saw him holding Joe with that gun to his head, then we……” He stopped and looked down. He didn’t need to continue.

Hoss stood up. “Now let’s see about getting you outta them chains, Adam. Bet Willcox has some keys around here somewhere.” He stepped over and rummaged through the dead man’s pocket until he found what he was looking for. He detached the chains binding Adam to the wall, unlocked the handcuffs, and reached out a large hand to assist his brother unsteadily to his feet.

Adam immediately pushed past his large younger brother and stumbled over to where Joe had fallen. “Pa?” he asked fearfully. “Joe? Is Joe…?”

Ben looked up at his oldest son; profound relief shining in his eyes. “Adam! Are you okay? Did he…?”

Adam shook his head. “Joe?” he repeated. “Is Joe…?”

Ben looked down at his youngest son again; and a look of concern crossed his features. “He’s hurt, Adam. Hurt pretty bad. We need to get him home. I think one of those shots winged him in the shoulder.” He turned Joe slightly so that Adam could see the bright circle of blood that had blossomed near Joe’s collar.

Adam frowned, confused. “But his gun, Pa. Joe’s gun. He was going to……Willcox was trying to make him…..”

Adam stopped and closed his eyes again as he felt the overwhelming terror threatening to return.

He looked around and noticed Joe’s discarded Colt lying on the floor next to him and bent down to pick it up. He opened the cylinder and dropped a single bullet into his palm.

Joe had pulled the trigger on an empty chamber.

*****

“Joe? Joe, it’s your Pa. Wake up for me now, son. Joe?”

He could feel something cool and wet being placed on his head, could feel the touch of a familiar hand stroking his face, a strong familiar arm lifting him up. Who was it?

“Hoss, come and help me….I think he’s starting to come around…”

Hoss? Was Hoss here?

“Come on, son….I need you to wake up.”

But Joe didn’t want to wake up. Everything hurt when he was awake. It hurt so bad. He tried to move and remember where he was or what had happened. He painfully blinked open his eyes and the first thing he saw was the anxious face of his father, inches from his own.

“Pa?” he tried to speak, but the effort sent sudden pain shooting through his head. Then he remembered.

Suddenly terrified, Joe tried to struggle against the strong arms holding him in place. “No! Pa! He was trying….to make me……to make me…” Joe’s voice rose frantically; tears streaming down his face from the agony of speaking the words.

Ben lifted Joe and clutched him to his chest; tearfully whispering to his son. “No, Joe…..it’s over now, son. It’s over. Pa’s here.”

As his father’s gentle words reached out to comfort him, Joe felt himself go slack in his arms. He drew back and looked into his father’s eyes, putting into words the deepest fear of all. “Adam?” he whispered tearfully. “Pa, where’s Adam? Is he…?”

“Here, Joe.” he heard his brother say. “Right here.” Adam crouched down beside his little brother and grasped his hand.

Joe looked up at him. “Willcox?” he asked softly.

Adam turned to look at the slumped form behind him. “Dead, Joe.” He looked back grimly at his brother. “He’s dead.”

“I’m glad, Adam” Joe said, and closed his eyes.

*****

Within a few days Joe had recovered enough so that he felt comfortable sitting up in bed. But that was about the limit of what he could do.

Dr. Martin had fashioned a special bandage for his broken jaw that wrapped around his chin and attached snugly at the top of his head, holding his jaw firmly in place. It was only allowed to be loosened slightly when Joe was fed the pureed foods that Hop Sing had prepared for him.

In another instance, Hoss would have probably pulled out a mirror and let his little brother have a look at how silly he looked with it, but he didn’t this time. He knew how much it hurt for Joe to laugh.

Joe had been able to speak a little in the cave, but now he couldn’t talk at all, a fact that was frustrating him to no end.

Hoss had cleverly hauled out Joe’s old school slate and a few pieces of chalk so that perhaps his little brother could write down the things he wanted to say, but with his left arm in a plaster cast, that solution was pretty much ruled out.

So, communication with his family was mostly limited to yes and no questions.

After the first few worry-filled days, Adam found himself avoiding his brother.

Try as he might, he couldn’t forget those final moments in the cave; he couldn’t forget the terrible vision of Joe tearfully holding a loaded gun to his own head and deciding to kill himself to save his brother’s life. It haunted Adam constantly.

He found himself wondering about it late into the night, wondering how he could have been so wrong about his little brother.

Somewhere along the line, Joe had changed dramatically from the immature, impulsive boy that Adam had always thought him to be and had become a man.

But not just a man. A good man. A brave man. A man who would willingly and unhesitatingly commit the ultimate sacrifice and give his own life for that of his brother. His own life!

The thought terrified Adam, but what scared him the most about the whole ordeal was that he didn’t know if he could have done the same thing.

Would he himself have been brave enough or strong enough to make that sacrifice, even if it was for someone he cared about? For once the usually stoic and level-headed Adam had no answer.

In the course of a few pain-filled days, Joe had become the better brother, the better man, the stronger person than Adam could ever hope to be and it left him feeling unworthy and deeply, deeply ashamed.

*****

It was late on another sleepless night that Adam finally crept in quietly to Joe’s bedroom.

It was the first time he’d ventured in for days. Joe’s bedside lamp was burning dimly so Ben could easily check on his son throughout the night. Adam seated himself in the chair next to the bed where Joe lay in a fitful sleep, still in so much discomfort from the broken bones and bruises that covered his body. Adam picked up Joe’s right hand and held it in his own. He gazed wonderingly at the pale face that still showed the marks of the beatings he had endured at the hand of Willcox.

“Why did you do it, Joe? Why?” he whispered. “How do you think I could live if you had killed yourself? Why, Joe? Why did you do it?”

Adam closed his eyes as emotion threatened to overcome him again. Then, he felt his brother’s hand move beneath his own. He looked up and found Joe awake and staring up at him.

“Joe?”

Joe clutched Adam’s hand and gently pulled it closer to himself and placed it flat on his chest, covering it with his own. Adam could feel the strong and steady beat of his brother’s heart beneath his fingers. Joe patted his brother’s hand slowly, all the while staring at him intently.

Adam nodded, feeling tears forming in his eyes. He understood what Joe was trying to tell him.

He gently removed his hand and smiled down at him. “Get some sleep, little buddy,” he said softly, reverting to the affectionate childhood nickname he had for Joe. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Joe nodded.

As Adam stood to leave, he turned to look at him once more. Joe’s hand was still resting over his heart. Adam lifted his hand and placed it over his own heart.

“I know, brother. Me, too.”

And as Adam left the room, he knew in that moment, without question or hesitation, that he would have done the same thing. He would have cried and struggled and hated it, but he would have held that gun to his head. He would have taken that bullet.

It was his brother.

*****

Pa had said that gold forged by fire was the strongest and most prized gold there was. It was in the Bible somewhere. Joe smiled even as he remembered. Pa seemed to have a ready-made Bible verse to fit any occasion.

His father had quoted that one just the other night, when Joe had awakened in the night, gasping from yet another nightmare. He didn’t know how Pa knew, but within seconds there he was at his bedside, turning up the lamp.

Joe’s dream had him back in the cave, being held again by Willcox, being forced to take his own life, and the deafening sound of the gunfire and the awful realization that he was dead. That was always the part where he woke up.

Pa had clutched his hand and tried to offer words of comfort to his son. He told him that he couldn’t undo the terrible wrong that had been done, and that no one’s love and loyalty should ever have to be put to the test like it had been for Joe.

If there was any blessing that could be derived from the terrible event, Pa said, it would be that Joe would emerge a stronger person because of it.

Funny thing, though, Joe didn’t feel stronger. He just felt sad.

A month had passed since the event, and Dr. Martin had given Joe a clean bill of health. Now all he had to do was concentrate on eating well and replacing the weight he had lost in the past few weeks. Hoss had charitably said he would show him how.

Adam and Hoss had decided to drag their despondent younger brother into town to cheer him up a bit with a promise of a cold beer. Resigned, Joe went along, especially after his father kept coaxing him to get out of the house for a while.

And now, relaxing in the Bucket of Blood with Hoss and Adam, Joe was glad. He was glad that he could share a beer, a joke, a teasing comment with his two brothers. Glad that he was still alive to do so. The brothers sat for a long while and simply enjoyed each other’s company and before long one beer became two, and two, three, and so on.

The sun had nearly set as the three men left the saloon. Joe thought vaguely that Pa was probably going to be mad.

But this time, he didn’t mind so much.

***The End***

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