Word Count: 6525
Hoo boy, Pa was never going to let him be a deputy again. Ever.
Less than a day on the job and he’d gone and gotten himself captured by the bad guys. But then, he really hadn’t had a chance.
Sheriff Coffee hadn’t had a chance either. Shoot, the old man could barely walk, what with his gout acting up like it was. Joe had been left behind to help out Roy, but to his irritation, helping out Roy mostly meant sweeping out jail cells and making coffee. After a few hours of that mind-numbingly dull work, the sheriff finally decided the office was clean enough and charged Joe to make the customary rounds about town. The sheriff rummaged through his desk drawer and produced a tin deputy’s badge; Joe had snatched it up so eagerly that he sliced his finger on the sharp edge.
Joe took his time making his rounds, although admittedly there hadn’t been all that much to do. The streets of Virginia City were quieter than usual, with many of the able-bodied men out with the posse, but nonetheless, Joe took his responsibility as a deputy quite seriously. He stopped first to study his reflection in the barber shop window, and frowned. The little tin star was not near shiny enough, but a quick spit and polish took care of that small problem.
There. He studied himself again, and grinned widely, deciding that the badge made him look even handsomer. Deputy Cartwright. Yep, sure had a nice ring to it.
Deputy Cartwright sauntered up and down C Street, on the lookout for people needin’ arrestin’, and he stopped to chat with several ladies clustered outside the dress shop. Among them was Maribeth Wilkins, the prettiest girl in his school, and her cornflower blue eyes widened as they caught sight of the shiny badge pinned to his vest. He even offered to let her touch it, and she turned so pale at the prospect that Joe wondered if it was possible to faint from being impressed. However, as he moved closer to catch her should such an occurrence take place, Maribeth’s mother shoo’ed him away, and the deputy continued on his rounds.
He’d peered over the doors of the saloons to see if there were any brawls that needed breaking up, and then stopped by the bank and the mercantile to inform the owners that their establishments were safe under the deputy’s watchful protection. Just let me know if you need anything, Joe had instructed, tapping his badge. I’ll be around. The owners had at first looked amused, then annoyed at Joe’s repeated assurances, but Joe hadn’t cared. Sometimes a lawman just doesn’t get the respect he deserves, he thought. Goes with the territory.
Sheriff Coffee had deputized several others the day before, including Joe’s pa and brothers. There was a big trial coming up, and Gus Sattler was finally going to be dealt the justice he deserved in a Virginia City courtroom come Wednesday afternoon. The notorious Sattler gang had been rustling cattle and robbing banks for over a year and were wanted all over the territory. But their recent attempt to help themselves to some Ponderosa beeves proved to be their undoing; a few ranch hands caught them in the act and started firing, wounding the ringleader, Gus Sattler. His injuries eventually slowed him down enough to be captured outside of Carson City and the rest of the gang had scattered like gun-shy rabbits. No one doubted, though, that the gang was back together and hiding out somewhere, likely working on some devious scheme to free their imprisoned leader.
And if there was going to be some misguided escape attempt, it would probably be somewhere on the long journey from Carson to Virginia City. Therefore, precautions had to be taken. The deputies would make up a posse of personal escorts for the infamous Mr. Sattler. Joe had jumped at the chance to go along. He had just turned sixteen and it would be the first time he was old enough to take on such a responsibility. And how exciting it would be to be a deputy! Heck, he might even be able to shoot at bad guys! The sheriff had been all for it – we need every man we can get, he’d insisted. Joe had immediately stood up straight and tried to look extra manly when Roy said that, but his pa still wasn’t convinced. Neither were his brothers. The three of them had stood before the youngest Cartwright with their arms crossed, each wearing the same irritating know-it-all scowl on their faces. Oh, Joe knew they would argue they were just worried something would happen to him, but he knew better. They just wanted to hog all the fun for themselves. Joe cursed again whatever unlucky twist of fate destined him to be the baby of the family.
Still, Joe had begged and pleaded and had even shamelessly put on the ol’ puppy dog eyes, and he had eventually worn his father down. Pa had finally agreed that he could be sworn in as a deputy, but he had to stay behind in Virginia City to help out Roy, who couldn’t even sit a horse. It wasn’t exactly what Joe had been hoping for, but it was better than nothing. Plus he still got to wear the nifty tin badge.
Not that the badge was doing him much good now, he thought in disgust, peering down at his chest where the shiny star still dangled from his vest. He glanced over at Roy, who remained unmoving on the floor near the desk. He’d been walloped on the head the moment the Sattler gang had stormed into his office.
Joe had unwittingly stumbled through the door a short time later and was viciously seized from behind and slammed against the wall. A scary-looking gun had been thrust beneath his chin, and Joe’s eyes widened as he recognized the three men. The Sattler gang. What were they doing here?
“Who the hell are you?” demanded the ugliest of the three as Joe’s own gun was snatched from his holster.
“The deputy,” Joe squeaked out against an iron hand intent on choking him to death.
The Sattlers had thought this was terribly funny, and as they all burst out laughing, Joe managed to slide out from beneath their grasp. But he hadn’t made it two steps before he was quickly overpowered and tied to a chair. He then knew there would be no escaping this disastrous predicament. He’d hoped someone would come to the office needing the sheriff and discover what was going on and run off to fetch help, but apparently the good citizens were all cheerfully abiding by the law on this sunny day in Virginia City.
So just who would be around to help them?
“Pa, I think we should go on home,” Hoss grumbled as he urged his horse ahead to catch up with his pa and brother. “This is plum crazy.”
Ben shook his head. “No, Hoss. We promised Roy that we’d help him out. I know it seems a little much, but it’s…”
“A little much?” Hoss shot back. “Pa, this Sattler fella has almost twenty bodyguards. You’d think he was the president of the United States or something!”
“Hoss, we had no way of knowing that Carson’s sheriff was putting together his own posse too,” Adam explained. “It was one of those things, you know? What harm is there?”
“Ain’t no harm in it, Adam. I ain’t saying that,” Hoss replied. “But we look like some dadblamed parade! I swear if I see another family running outta their house to look at us and wave, I’ll just…”
Adam interjected. “Well, at least we can be sure that there won’t be any escape attempts. The Sattler gang would be the worst kinds of fools to try anything with this kind of manpower guarding the prisoner.”
“Gus Sattler will arrive safe and sound and right on schedule for Wednesday’s trial,” Ben agreed. “And I don’t think any of that gang will be anywhere near Virginia City come Wednesday, unless they’re planning on getting themselves captured and strung up right alongside him.”
“No loyalty among thieves, right?” Hoss grinned. “Ain’t what they say, Adam?”
Adam smiled back. “Something like that. Except that the Sattler gang is all brothers. I don’t think…”
Adam reined in his horse abruptly and the smile fell from his face.
“Adam? Something wrong?”
“Pa?” Adam said; his voice suddenly serious. “You don’t think…”
“Think what? What is it, Adam?” Ben asked, dread churning in his belly at Adam’s troubled expression.
“What if….what if the Sattler gang is planning something else?”
“What do you mean?” Ben asked again.
“What if…..” Adam paused and swallowed. “What if they’re already waiting for us in Virginia City?”
“Waiting for us? But why would they…?”
Adam stared at him for a long tense moment and saw his father turn pale as the meaning of his words sank in.
“Adam? Do you think…”
“That’s five years right there!” Joe blurted through bloodied lips. He knew he should keep quiet and knock off goading his captors but he couldn’t help himself. They’d been goading him right back — telling him he was too young and stupid to be a lawman.
The big one named Artie laughed and backhanded him again. “Five years for what?” he sneered.
“Five years in prison for assaulting a sheriff’s deputy!” Joe gasped. “It’s the law!”
Actually he hadn’t the slightest idea what the law was, but he had a pretty good idea that the Sattler gang didn’t know either. Not that it served as any incentive for them to quit smacking him around. In fact, it was proving to have the opposite effect.
“Only five? How ’bout we make it an even hundred then?”
Artie drew back his hand to strike him again, but his arm was caught by one of the other gang members.
“Quit it, Artie,” the man named Ned warned. “Kid ain’t worth much dead.”
Artie glared at Joe and reluctantly stepped away, but as Joe slumped in the chair in relief, his face was caught and jerked up roughly by Ned.
“You’d do well to keep your mouth shut, boy,” he warned, his voice low and fierce. “I can’t keep Artie away from you all day.”
Ned moved back to the window and peered around the shade, waiting for the arrival of Gus Sattler and the posse.
Joe cursed again his own stupidity for allowing himself to get into this god-awful mess. He had unwittingly stepped into the darkened sheriff’s office and right into a trap. How laughably easy he had made it for them, Joe thought bitterly. But then, no one had even considered such a possibility. No one had expected the Sattler gang to come galloping into town in broad daylight and waltz right on into the sheriff’s office. Pa had thought Joe would be safe if he was left behind in Virginia City. What would Pa think now?
Joe bit his lip as he regarded his captors. Downright ugly, all three of ’em. He wondered about their mother and why she thought giving birth to one homely offspring after another was a good idea. Was she blind or did she think they’d start looking better over time? It was on the tip of Joe’s tongue to ask just that, but then he thought better of it. Comments like that were what got him beat up to begin with.
Joe gripped the edges of his seat again and pushed hard against the ropes but found them holding just as tightly as ever. He heaved a frustrated sigh. Talk about overkill. They could have just tied his hands, but instead they chose to bind him to the chair with several yards of rope, making it virtually impossible to move or even take a deep breath.
It hadn’t been too hard for Joe to figure out what the Sattlers were planning. Their original idea of ambushing the posse guarding Gus Sattler had obviously been abandoned, and so they had devised a new plan. They’d lay in wait for them here in Virginia City, and the Sattlers now had themselves two hostages to use as ammunition.
Ned Sattler had declared that Sheriff Coffee and his deputy would only be released if Gus Sattler was released. Didn’t the gang realize that there was no chance of that happening? There was a federal marshal accompanying Sattler, and there was no way he was about to let a known murderer go free, much less the rest of the gang members. There’d be gunfire and shouting and fighting and someone was going to end up being killed. Maybe even Joe himself.
A pained moan punctuated Joe’s thoughts, and he turned his head to see Sheriff Coffee moving about and struggling to sit up.
“Back down, Sheriff!” Ned ordered, cocking his gun. “Or you’ll find yourself trussed up same as your deputy here!”
Roy looked up and noticed Joe for the first time. “Little Joe? You alright, son?” he asked. He scanned the room and noted the armed men crowding his office. “What’s going on?”
“You’ll find out soon enough, Sheriff.”
“Roy, it’s the Sattler gang and they’re holding us hostage,” Joe told him, glaring angrily at Ned Sattler. “They’re waiting for…”
Joe cried out as Ned unexpectedly slapped him.
“I told ya to keep your mouth shut, kid,” Ned snapped. “I ain’t got no problem stuffing a gag in it, ya hear?”
Joe stared angrily at him but kept quiet.
Roy caught hold of the edge of his desk and shakily pulled himself to his feet. “It’s alright, Little Joe,” he said. “I’ve pretty much figured out what they want.”
Roy steadied himself and narrowed his eyes indignantly at the gunmen. “You boys are fools if you think you’re gonna get away with a hot-headed scheme like this,” he snapped. “You’d best take your guns and ride on outta here. We ain’t gonna stop ya.”
Artie chortled at that. “Stop us? Stop us? Sheriff, you ain’t about to stop nobody.”
He strode forward and grabbed the sheriff by the arm. “Hey, brothers. How’s about we give ol’ sheriff here a taste of his own medicine?”
Roy was pushed so roughly that he nearly fell. Joe yelled out in protest, but he could do nothing but watch helplessly as Roy was dragged through the jail doors and brutally shoved into one of his own cells.
Artie closed the jail door behind him as he stepped back into the office, and laughed at the muffled sound of Roy bellowing indignantly from inside the jail cell. He fixed Joe with a pointed stare and grinned.
“Shouldn’t be too long now, Deputy,” he smirked.
As the sheriff’s office came into view, Ben recognized his son’s pinto at the hitching rail with several unfamiliar horses crowded alongside. He also noticed that all the window shades had been drawn, and the door stood slightly ajar. His heart sank at the sight, realizing that Adam’s suspicion had likely proven devastatingly correct. He knew better than to barge right into the sheriff’s office, not knowing what he would be walking into, yet his heart constricted at the thought of his youngest son falling into the hands of known killers.
Ben closed his eyes as guilt washed over him. It was his fault, all his fault. He’d been the one who’d insisted that Joe stay behind, thinking the boy would be safe. But who could have guessed something like this would have happened?
Ben gestured quickly to his sons, and the three turned into a nearby alley, out of sight of the sheriff’s office.
“Pa, what’re we gonna do?” Hoss asked urgently. “What if they got Joe in there?”
“I don’t know yet, Hoss,” Ben replied grimly. “But we can’t just go storming in there. Adam, how far away would you say the posse is?”
Adam shrugged. “At least a couple hours, Pa. You think one of us should ride out and warn them?”
Ben shook his head. “Can’t see what good it would do,” he replied. “The Sattlers have probably already seen us and realized we’re out here by now.”
He drew his revolver and quickly checked the cylinder before returning it to his holster. “I think we’re on our own, boys.”
The Cartwrights carefully positioned themselves across the street from sheriff’s office and Ben gave a curt nod to Adam, who cautiously stepped into the open.
“You in there!” Adam called out. “Come out with your hands up! You’re all under arrest!”
Adam’s demand was rewarded by a flurry of gunfire and he scrambled for cover behind a wagon.
“Where’s the posse?” Ned hollered. “And who the hell are you?”
“I’m with the posse,” Adam called back. “I’m the deputy.”
Ned snorted. “Another deputy? Sorry, mister, but we already got ourselves one. Got us a sheriff, too. And they’re both gonna end up dead if we don’t get our brother back!”
They’ve got Joe.
Fear for his brother rose as a hard knot in Adam’s chest. He swallowed. “If you surrender now, the judge’ll go easy on you,” he said.
Ned laughed. “Easy on us? What’s that mean? A softer noose?”
“There’s no way this foolhardy plan is going to take place. The posse’s under orders to shoot you on sight.”
“Then I guess this kid deputy in here ain’t worth much to anyone, is he?” Ned replied malevolently. “Cause anyone starts shooting, he’s gonna get it first.”
Joe started in surprise at the sound of his brother’s voice, and he gasped when the Sattlers started firing. “No!” he pleaded weakly. “No, don’t shoot!”
He couldn’t make out everything being said by Ned and Adam, but he knew that the Sattlers had no intention of giving themselves up.
Ned fired off another round and snickered from his position at the window. “Lookit him run!” He shot a glance at Joe. “You deputies are pretty much useless in this town, ain’t ya?”
“Is it the posse?” Artie asked eagerly. “You think they’re here yet?”
“Don’t think so. We woulda heard ’em.”
“But that deputy out there says he’s with the posse. You think he’s lyin’?”
Ned shrugged. “Dunno. But I know there’s more of ’em out there. I can see one of ’em right now, peeking out from behind that barrel ‘cross the street. Some old geezer with white hair.”
Joe caught his breath. Pa.
Ned moved away from the window and crossed the room toward the jail door.
“What are you doing?” Artie asked.
“To fetch the sheriff,” Ned replied without looking back. “I think we need to let ’em know out there that we’re serious.”
“What’re we gonna do now, Pa?” Hoss asked anxiously. “They got Joe!”
Ben sighed heavily. “I don’t know yet, son. Any ideas, Adam?”
“I’m thinkin’ on it, Pa. It ain’t gonna be easy, but at least as far as we know, Joe’s still alive.”
As the Cartwrights pondered their next move, the door to the sheriff’s office abruptly burst open, and Sheriff Coffee himself came stumbling out. Ben rushed forward to assist his friend.
“Roy? Are you alright?” he asked, quickly leading the sheriff to the opposite side of the street and helping him to sit on a nearby bench.
Roy gingerly touched his head and winced when he hit a tender spot. “I’ll be okay,” he replied. “But Ben, they got Joe in there.”
“Is he hurt?” Ben demanded urgently. “Did they hurt him?”
Roy nodded. “I think so, Ben,” he replied soberly. “Couldn’t tell how bad. The Sattlers got him tied to a chair. They sent me out here with a message.”
“What is it?” Ben asked. “Did they say what they wanted?”
“We already know what they want, Ben,” Roy scowled. “They want Gus Sattler set free in exchange for Little Joe. They said they’d kill him otherwise.”
Ben stiffened. “Anything else?”
Roy nodded. “Fresh horses and supplies and a clear path out of town. They’re planning on taking Joe with them. When they get far enough away and no one follows, they’ll let him go. Or that’s what they say,” Roy added soberly. “But I wouldn’t put much stock in anything they promise, Ben. Rascals like that ain’t known for keeping their word. They might…”
“Roy, do they know who Joe is?” Adam interrupted, stepping closer.
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, do they know that Joe’s a Cartwright?”
Roy fell silent for a moment as he considered the question. “No. No, I don’t think so, Adam. I don’t think it was even mentioned.”
“What are you getting at, Adam?” Ben asked.
“Pa, think about it a minute,” Adam replied. “Gus Sattler was shot on the Ponderosa. The Sattlers have plenty reason to hold a grudge against us. They’d probably jump at the chance to have a Cartwright as a hostage.”
Ben jerked his head to look back at the jail, and then resolutely rose to his feet. He stood staring at the building for a long moment before reaching down to untie his holster.
Adam stared at him in alarm. “Pa?” he asked. “What are you doing?”
“Going to try and talk to them,” he replied.
“Pa, don’t let them . . .you can’t let them know,” Adam said urgently. “Things could get worse for Joe”.
“I understand,” Ben replied. “I won’t let them know that Joe is my son.”
Ben tossed his gunbelt to the ground, and stepped into the middle of the street with his hands held up.
“Pa!” Adam called after him, panicking as suddenly realized what his pa was about to do. “Pa, no! Don’t! Don’t tell them…”
They’d probably jump at the chance to have a Cartwright as a hostage.
“Sattler!” he yelled. “Sattler! My name is Ben Cartwright!”
“Cartwright?” came the muffled voice behind the door. “From the Ponderosa? What do you want?”
“Yes, from the Ponderosa,” Ben replied. “I just want to come in and talk to you. I’m unarmed, see?”
There seemed to be a frantic, muffled discussion within the office, and then Ned’s voice came through the open window.
“You already know what we want!” he hollered. “And if we don’t get it, you’re gonna have one dead deputy in here!”
“How do I know the deputy’s not dead already?” Ben replied. “I want to see him to make sure he’s still alive.”
Ned guffawed. “You’re pretty cocky to be demanding things from us, Cartwright. We’re the ones with the guns here.”
“I want to see him,” Ben demanded again. “Please. I want to make sure he’s alright.” Please let him be alright.
Ned disappeared from the window, and there appeared to be some negotiation among him and his brothers.
He was back a moment later. “Alright, Cartwright,” he yelled. “You can come see for yourself. Just you.”
As Ben stepped toward the jail, Adam reached out to grasp his arm. “Pa? Are you sure…”
“I have to see him, Adam,” Ben replied grimly. “I have to know.”
“But what if they…Pa, they might…”
Ben crossed the street to the sheriff’s office and ascended the stairs. The door was held open and he entered, pausing to allow his eyes to adjust to the dimness within. In the next moment, he was scanning the room until his eyes settled on the figure of his youngest son. Joe was tied tightly to a chair, and his head was down. Ben couldn’t even tell if the boy was conscious. He frowned as he noticed the deputy star still dangling crookedly on his son’s vest, pushed aside by the numerous coils of rope restraining him. Dear God, what had they done to him?
“There he is, Cartwright. See for yourself.”
“I want to make sure he’s okay,” Ben said quietly, hoping Joe wouldn’t hear.
“Be my guest, old man,” Ned said.
As Ben approached his son, Joe’s head came up, and Ben was alarmed at how battered the boy’s face was. He saw Joe’s eyes brighten in recognition, and then narrow in confusion at Ben’s impassive expression.
No, Joe, no. Ben willed silently. Please, please, don’t let them know….
He gave the slightest shake of his head, hoping desperately that his son would understand, and was profoundly relieved when he saw that he did.
Joe’s surge of hope at the sight of his father was brutally extinguished when he saw his father’s face. Pa was looking at him strangely, almost as if he didn’t even know him. Why? What was wrong? Pa? Joe opened his mouth to speak but stopped suddenly when he saw the almost imperceptible shake of his pa’s head and the intense look in his eyes. Then he understood.
Pa didn’t want them to know who he was.
“Are you alright, Deputy?” Ben stood before the chair gazing down at his bound son. “They beat you pretty bad, didn’t they?”
Joe gave the barest of nods, not trusting himself to speak. He couldn’t understand the deception, but trusted that his pa knew what he was doing.
“We’re gonna get you out of here, Deputy. I promise we will.” Ben said. He reached out as if to touch Joe, but immediately caught himself, and his hand dropped to his side. “You understand?”
Joe looked into his father’s eyes and caught his breath at the misery in them. “I understand, sir,” he whispered.
Ben straightened and turned back to Ned. “I have a proposition for you, Sattler.”
“You ain’t in no position to proposition anything, Cartwright,” Ned scowled. “You saw him. Now get on outta here.”
“Take me in his place,” Ben continued. “The deputy here is in no condition to go anywhere with you. Can’t you see he needs a doctor?”
“Why the hell would you want to take his place?” Ned asked suspiciously.
Ben shrugged. “Just seems like the right thing to do. Boy’s hurt. He’d only slow you down.”
Joe’s eyes widened as he realized his father’s intentions. No, Pa! He began shaking his head vigorously, trying to get his pa’s attention, but Pa didn’t seem to notice. “No,” he protested hoarsely. “No!”
His pa held up his hand, trying to calm him. “It’s all right, Deputy. I’ll…”
“No!” Joe cried out again, his voice gathering strength with his growing fear. “No, Pa!”
Joe’s words seemed to hang in the air as an abrupt silence fell on the room.
“Pa?” Ned said. “Pa? Is this man your pa, boy?”
Joe dropped his head and didn’t respond.
Ned strode to the chair and snatched a handful of Joe’s hair and yanked his head back.
“Answer me, boy!”
Joe glanced from the man to his pa, who looked defeated.
“I’m sorry, Pa.” Joe said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I’m sorry.”
Joe didn’t hear his father’s response over the Sattler brothers’ gleeful laughter.
“Your pa? Well now, this sorta changes things, don’t it, old man?” Ned declared, though his humor was quickly turning to anger. “‘Just seems like the right thing to do?’ Ain’t that what you said?”
He swiftly shot forward and seized Ben by the collar, jutting his gun barrel beneath Ben’s chin.
“Pa!” Joe yelled. “Pa!” He struggled mightily against his bonds, but he was ignored.
“I don’t like being played for a fool, old man,” Ned hissed. “That happens again and you’ll get your son back with a bullet in his head. I don’t care if he is a Cartwright.”
With those cryptic words, Ned pushed Ben toward the door and shoved him through it, slamming it behind him. He then turned to grin wickedly at Joe.
“Well, how bout that, Artie?” he laughed. “Looks like we snagged ourselves one of them rich Cartwrights! Must be our lucky day!” He stepped forward and pressed his gun to Joe’s forehead. “You better hope that old man cares for you, boy,” he sneered. “I ain’t got nothing to lose by killing you.”
Joe glanced up at the big clock on the back wall. Almost three. It had been almost an hour since the Sattlers shoved his pa out the door, but not much had happened since then other than the Sattlers peeking out the windows and pacing the floor and grumbling. They broke the pattern every now and again to toss him a dirty look, as if to remind him that they could just stroll on over and start smacking him again if they got bored. Joe sure hoped they didn’t get bored.
He pushed futilely against the ropes again. They held just as fast as before, but this time there was a metallic clink as his tin badge broke free from his vest and landed beside his leg, inches from his hand. He looked down and read the word DEPUTYengraved into the smooth, shiny surface. He grunted in disgust. Fat lot of good that stupid badge was doing him now. He reached for it, intending to fling the despised object to the floor, but paused when his questing fingers came in contact with the sharp thin edge, and he bit his lip as an idea came to mind.
Maybe this badge might serve some useful purpose after all.
He looked up quickly at the Sattlers, but no one seemed to be paying attention to him at the moment. If he could just…
Joe carefully positioned the badge in his hand so it wouldn’t be noticed, and began the tedious process of sawing through the ropes binding him….
“Pa, you need to settle down,” Adam said, gently patting his father’s arm. His dark brows furrowed in concern. “You’re not going to be any help to Joe like this.”
“I know…I know, Adam!” Ben replied, pacing the sidewalk as he tried to control his agitated breathing. Joe’s terrified screaming resounded over and over in his head and it was taking every shred of willpower to keep from storming back into the building and pounding the daylights out of the Sattler brothers. “I just don’t know what else to do,” he added anxiously, pausing to regard his eldest son. “If we don’t do what they say, they’re going to kill Joe.”
Adam shook his head soberly. “Pa, it’s likely they’ll kill him anyway once they’re clear of Virginia City,” he said. “Especially since they know who he is now.”
“Then what do we do?”
“I’m not sure yet. But if we try something, it’s going to have to be soon. Once the posse shows up, the marshal may just decide to barge right in with guns blazing and Joe’ll get himself caught in the crossfire, I know it.”
Ben sighed. “Do you have a better idea?”
Adam shook his head. “I’m not sure yet. I just wish we could…” Adam continued. “But there’s no way we can just storm the building without them seeing us. They’d shoot Joe before we could even get a foot inside the place.”
“And there’s no back door,” Hoss added.
Adam turned his head to study the building. “If we could only…if there was just some way to …I don’t know…distract them for a few seconds or so, we could…” He paused for several long moments, lost in concentration. Then his head jerked up, and he was grinning. “Hoss, remember that time Joe tossed those firecrackers into the chicken coop?”
“You mean last summer? I remember. I don’t think them hens laid eggs for a month!” Hoss replied, chuckling in spite of the grim situation. “And I don’t think little brother sat for a week after that.”
“Then you know what we need to do,” Adam said.
Adam nodded. “Yeah. Straight through the jail window.” He stood and pulled out his wallet.
“Pa, if this works, you have your youngest son to thank for it.”
Joe felt the immediate slack on the ropes as the sharp edge of the tin badge sawed all the way through, and sighed in relief. Lucky for him the Sattlers weren’t all that good at tying people up. He stole a glance at them to make sure they were still distracted, and then slowly, slowly began to work his left arm free. He knew the loosened ropes could easily drop to the floor in a heap and give him away, so he was careful in his movements. He had no idea what he’d do once he was completely free, but at least for now he could breathe easier.
His chance came only moments later, when Artie decided that Joe was due for some more abuse and drew his arm back as if to strike him. Joe’s eyes immediately fastened on the gleaming handle of Artie’s gun peeking enticingly from his holster. It was only inches from Joe’s freed hand. All he’d have to do was reach….reach….
Joe grabbed his chance and yanked the pistol and shoved it into Artie’s soft belly, clicking back the hammer.
Artie started in surprise, and stared stupidly at the gun and then at Joe. After a tense moment, he seemed to come to his senses. “You idiot kid,” he sneered. “You don’t really think you can shoot all three of us, do ya?”
Joe didn’t even blink. “No, Artie. Just you,” he said with a calm he was far from feeling. “Just you.”
Artie licked his lips, and Joe swore that man was starting to look nervous. By now, the other two Sattlers had noticed the little standoff and were standing unsure of what to do.
“Artie?” Ned asked.
“Get back!” Artie snapped, but Joe could hear the uncertainty in his voice. “Kid’s got my gun.”
Joe shoved aside the remaining ropes with his free hand, and slowly stood, the gun still pointed at the large man. This is it, he thought gravely, knowing that if he wavered he’d be killed for sure.
“You two over there, throw down your guns,” Joe demanded, hoping he sounded mean enough for them to comply. “Do it!” he bit out when the two brothers hesitated. Joe emphasized his point by poking the gun at Artie again.
The Sattlers complied, and their rifles clattered loudly to the floor. Joe knew a moment of intense relief until he made the mistake of looking directly into Artie’s eyes. His heart skipped a beat at the man’s expression. ‘Cause Artie sure didn’t look nervous anymore, no-sir-ee. Artie Sattler was furious.
Joe swallowed nervously and he must have hesitated, ’cause in the next instant Artie was reaching for him, grabbing at him. The gun jerked wildly in Joe’s grasp and he reflexively pulled the trigger. An explosion of gunfire rocked the room, and Joe was stunned to see Ned yelp and fall to the floor, clutching his leg.
But the gun slipped from Joe’s grasp as Artie fell onto him, slamming him to the floor. Artie swiftly caught Joe around the neck and his fingers closed tight around it, tighter, tighter. Joe tried desperately to break Artie’s iron grip, his arms flailing about as he tried to hit out at his tormentor, but within moments black spots began to dance at the edges of his vision and he could feel his strength abandoning him. I shouldn’t have tried to get away, he thought as he began to slip into oblivion, hoping his pa wouldn’t be mad at him for doing something so stupid.
Then suddenly, there were several popping explosions, as if an entire army battalion had opened fire on them at once, and in the next moment there were people scurrying about and running and yelling, and Artie was yanked away and Joe found he could breathe again. He closed his eyes as he coughed and wheezed as he greedily gulped in huge draughts of air.
“Little Joe?” came the voice as if from a distance. “Joe!”
And then Joe was caught up in strong, familiar arms, and he didn’t even have to open his eyes to know that his pa had him.
Joe eyes fluttered open to his father’s worried gaze. “We get ’em, Pa?” he rasped.
“Yeah,” Pa replied softly. “We got ’em.”‘
Deputy Cartwright yawned as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. He must be more tired than he thought. Course, it sure enough had been a long day. Being a deputy was pretty hard work.
The Sattlers were cooling their heels in the Virginia City jail, and when Gus Sattler joined his brothers a short time later, he wildly scolded his brothers for flubbing up the rescue attempt. Sheriff Coffee took great pleasure in locking all four bickering siblings in the same cell.
Joe had managed to walk out of the sheriff’s office without any help, and it was a good thing, too. He’d been surprised by the crowd that had gathered in the street, and among the onlookers was Maribeth Wilkins, daintily dabbing her eyes with a lacy handkerchief. He’d caught her eye and waved to reassure her that he was unharmed. He’d wanted to tell her in person so that she could be impressed by his bravery, but his pa had insisted on dragging him over to see Doctor Martin.
The doctor had treated his cuts and bruises, and declared him fit enough to be deputy again in a couple days or so. Joe had glanced at his father hopefully when the doctor said that, but Pa had glowered at him. “Not in a million years!” he’d snapped. Joe smiled to himself. He knew he’d be able to talk Pa into it when the time was right and the memory of the day’s events had faded.
He reached into his pocket and carefully pulled out the pilfered badge and gave it a quick polish with his shirt sleeve. The tin star gleamed softly in the lamp light. Danged little thing came in handy after all, he thought as he studied it for a long moment. He pinned it to his vest and studied his reflection in the mirror, and decided that he looked just right. In fact, the bruises on his face made him look even tougher. Those bad guys would be quaking in their boots if Deputy Cartwright ever headed in their direction, yes sir.
Yep, next time would definitely be different. Next time he’d probably have to shoot at more bad guys and he’d probably end up saving the whole town, and wouldn’t Maribeth be impressed by that? She’d probably have to kiss him then. Didn’t heroes always get the girl?
Joe yawned again as he pulled on his nightshirt and slid beneath the covers. He reached over and propped the tin star against the lamp, and he studied it through bleary eyes as sleep tugged at him. Next time, he thought. Next time would definitely be different, alright.
And Deputy Cartwright dropped off to sleep, barely stirring moments later when his pa gently tucked his blanket around him and blew out the lamp.
Thanks again, Dodo and Corinna for your help with my story!
(I sure hope you don’t start charging for this!)