The SJS (by Lisa M.)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,491


 

Ben put down his pen and leaned back in his chair to peruse what he had written. Nodding slightly in satisfaction, he set the document aside to dry, then slid open the top drawer to search for an envelope. The front door opened and he looked up to see Adam coming in from his morning chores.

“What are you working on there, Pa?” Adam tossed his hat onto the sideboard and strode over to the desk.

Ben smiled. “Oh, just something I’m going to have printed up at Wade Morgan’s shop in town. I’m just about done. Now I have to decide if I want to use the vellum or card stock; I think he’s running a special on both this week.”

“Oh, I remember…..you were just talking about those things the other day. But I thought you were going to look for some preprinted ones to save money?”

Ben scowled. “Well, yes, I asked about them at the Mercantile just yesterday. They threatened to call the sheriff. That is, after they stopped laughing. I’m telling you, Adam, I don’t know if I’ll ever buy anything from that place again.”

Adam picked up the document from Ben’s desk and studied it. “Looks good to me. But I’m not sure if you should leave a blank line after the word amount. Seems to me it would make more sense, and probably save more money, if you just put in some actual dollar figures that someone could just circle. Makes it easier for the person filling it out, too, don’t you think?”

Ben nodded, taking the paper from his son. Adam was always the practical one when it came to financial matters. “Good idea—let me work on it some more and then I can…”

Ben’s head snapped up, startled by a yelp and a loud thump on the stairwell. He and Adam looked over to see Joe lying in a heap on the landing. Adam sighed. “Great. Joe’s fallen down the stairs again. Third time this week. I told you Hop Sing shouldn’t have used that new varnish on the steps in this house–it’s slick as ice.”

He and Ben hurried over to Joe, who was whimpering and trying to pull himself up to a sitting position. Ben reached him first. “Easy now, son…..are you hurt?” He knelt beside his youngest son, searching for broken bones or other obvious injuries with a practiced eye.

“I’m okay, Pa….just slipped, I guess.” Joe tried to stand, but was stopped by his father’s restraining hand on his shoulder.

“Just hold on there a minute, Joe. I have to check for a head injury…”

Joe grunted his impatience. “Oh, come on, Pa…..I’m fine. Just help me up here.”

“Alright,” Ben replied, reluctantly. He and Adam lifted Joe to his feet. “But at least come over to the settee and rest a minute….for my sake.”

Joe rolled his eyes, but allowed himself to be assisted down the remaining steps towards the settee. He was used to his father’s excessive concern when it came to his youngest son’s safety. Heck, it was probably even justified, Joe admitted to himself, considering how many times that safety had been compromised by his own reckless behavior. But it was sometimes a bit overbearing, considering that Joe was now nearly eighteen and no longer a child. Try telling that to his father, though!

Joe grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl before sitting down, and plunked his booted feet on the table. A sneaking glance at his father confirmed he would not chide him for it — not so soon after an accident — though Ben glowered at him. As his father returned to sit at his desk, Adam propped himself on the edge of it, and the two of them returned their attention to the document they had been discussing.

“What’s that, Pa?” Joe asked, only mildly curious. He casually studied his apple for worm holes before taking a bite. Probably some dumb bookkeeping stuff that he and Adam were always so danged excited about, he thought to himself. He sure hoped he didn’t get like that when he was old.

Ben looked up and smiled. “Well, Joe, I’m glad you asked, because I’m just about finished here. Do you remember our conversation last week? You know, about the repeated kidnappings?”

Joe came to his feet. “Oh, you‘re kidding! No, Pa, you can’t possibly be serious about this.” He groaned. “I can’t believe you’re actually considering preprinted ransom notes. I mean, think about it. It would be just like handing out an invitation saying ‘Hey, come and kidnap Joe Cartwright. Everybody’s doing it!’”

Ben sighed in exasperation. “Joe, you’ve been kidnapped eight, no, nine times in the last six months. Now, you know we’re glad to pay the ransom and have you back in one piece and all….we’ve been through all of this. But the point is, the Cartwrights are nothing if not hospitable and civilized. Most of these kidnappers can barely write and their spelling is atrocious. I just think that this would make things easier for everyone involved. It helps avoid any misunderstandings, and you have to admit, it’s much more efficient for us. We’ve been having a devil of a time reading some of these notes in the past. Why, just last month–remember? We couldn’t tell if the kidnappers wanted 25 cents or 25 dollars. Do you know how embarrassing that was when Adam and I came to make the exchange?” He looked over towards his eldest as he recalled that debacle.

“So, Adam and I decided that we should have these notes printed up in advance and then load several into your saddlebags. A few dozen should do it. We should toss in a few pencils too, now that I think of it. You’ll also have to make sure you carry a couple in your wallet, Joe–at all times, mind you–if you happen to be grabbed when Cochise isn’t around. So the next time this happens, you can point these notes out to the kidnappers–even give helpful information on how to fill them out. I think you’ll find they‘ll be pleased with your thoughtfulness.”

Adam smirked. Joe was convinced his older brother was secretly enjoying this.

“Come on, Joe. Pa and I talked it over, and we’ve decided to let you pick the ink color. They have some nice shades to choose from, and….” Adam grinned as Joe scowled and flopped back down on the settee, then he turned back to Ben. “I guess now is not the time to tell him about the coordinating thank you notes you plan to enclose with the ransom money. Weren’t you thinking about getting them scented?”

At that, Joe shot to his feet again, stomping over to the desk. “Pa…..can we at least discuss this some more? I mean, what would my friends think, for crying out loud? What will they do? I’ll tell you what they’ll do–they’ll just lock me up somewhere and fill out one of your little preprinted notes when they need some poker money–that‘s what they’ll do! Aren’t things bad enough as it is? You know how many dates I’ve been forced to miss because I was trussed up and tossed in some barn somewhere? Sometimes the girls just ain’t all that understanding afterwards, let me tell you!”

Adam was clearly amused at this outburst and Joe glared angrily at him. He flung his half-eaten apple at his brother, but it missed, landing with a thunk on the desk.

Ben frowned. This was not going as well as he had anticipated. He had hoped Joe would be grateful for the effort he was making; after all, when it came down to it, it was all for Joe’s benefit and well being. Sometimes he felt as if his sons didn’t appreciate him as much as they should. “Joe, could you at least look at this draft first, and then decide? I’m not trying to put a crimp in your social life, you know that. It’s just, well, for some unknown reason–especially recently–you seem to be the easiest means for these unsavory types to get their hands on some Cartwright cash. Adam’s too intimidating to most of them, Hoss is too big, and so that just naturally leaves you. I don’t know—maybe you‘re doing something to attract these characters.” He turned silent and looked at Joe pointedly.

That got Joe’s attention. “What’s that supposed to mean? It’s not like I walk around wearing some big sign that says, ‘Come get me, I’m completely defenseless and my Pa’s loaded’!”

“I know, I know, I’m not blaming you, Joe.” Ben sighed. “However, this is the situation in which we find ourselves for now. We can’t leave you locked in your room indefinitely, so we feel this is a good compromise. Since it seems to be inevitable that the kidnappings are going to take place, we need to make the best of the situation. It’s the Cartwright way.” Ben looked up expectantly at Joe, pleased with how convincing his little speech sounded. Surely, common sense would get through to his youngest son if nothing else.

Joe closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. It was clear that he had lost this battle. He could already tell his Pa had made the decision for him, and unless he wanted his future freedom severely restricted, he had no choice but to relent. “Let me take a look at it,” he said, resigned to his fate, however humiliating.

Ben picked up the sheet from the desk and handed it to his son. “I think you’ll see it’s pretty straightforward here, Joe. Adam’s made a few changes, and I’ve just worked them into the final draft. There’s a line for the date at the top–that’s a big help, you know–and then, well, you can read it yourself…”

Joe squinted at his father’s handwriting and began to read. “We, the kidnappers of one Joseph Francis Cartwright, hereby demand ransom--Oh, Pa, do you really have to put in my middle name?–in the amount of (circle one)–;” Joe paused. “Circle one? Circle one? You’re really making it easy on these crooks, aren‘t you? What denominations are you going to start with? Two bits?”

“That last part was Adam’s suggestion,” Ben acknowledged as he glanced up and smiled gently at his oldest son, who was trying hard not to look disgustingly proud of himself.

Pompous ass. Joe gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, wanting to throttle his big brother and smack that stupid grin off his face.

Joe handed the paper back to his father. “I think I get the general idea. I still don’t agree with it, though,” he said, his unhappiness clear in his voice.

Ben stood up, and walked around the desk. He regarded the pouting young man in front of him, and lightly grasped his son’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Little Joe. I’m only doing what I think is best for you, like any father would. Can you believe that?” He met his son’s eyes and smiled warmly.

Joe looked up into his father’s loving gaze and found himself blinking back tears. It never failed to affect him.  “But Pa, I….” The corners of his mouth twitched, and soon a reluctant smile broke through. “Alright, Pa. When does this have to go to the printer?”

“Well, I’m glad you’re seeing some sense, now, Joe.” Ben was relieved. He had been forced to use his most cherished secret weapon –the old ‘loving gaze’. Joe had fallen victim to it yet again. Pity he had never caught on. “I’m taking it into Virginia City this morning. I’d like you to come along and help me make the proper ink and paper selections. It is for you, after all.” He carefully folded the paper and placed it in an envelope. “We can leave now, if you’re ready. Isn’t it your day to pick up the mail, anyway?”

Joe thought briefly about the breakfast he had missed, but didn’t want to get into another confrontation with his father, so he decided to grab a snack later if he got too hungry. He and his father put on their jackets and hats and headed towards the barn to prepare their horses for the ride into Virginia City.

Discordant whistling greeted them before they even entered the door. They stepped into the shade of the barn to see Hoss spreading fresh straw in one of the horse stalls. “Hey, Little Joe,” he called out with a grin. “Just finished up with yer pony here. He‘s sure twitchin‘ to go for a ride.”

Hoss patted Cochise affectionately before moving on to Buck’s stall, and started whistling again. It never ceased to amaze Joe how cheerfully Hoss took on the most dreadful of chores. Maybe there was something to that loco weed rumor Adam had mentioned after all.

Hoss paused as they approached Cooch’s stall, leaning a sweaty arm on the hayfork. “Ain’t seen ya all morning, Joe. Was startin’ to wonder if mebbe you’d gone and gotten yerself kidnapped agin, and…” He stopped short at the stricken look on Joe’s face.

“What’d I say?” Hoss looked at his father, puzzled.

“Never mind, Hoss. We’ll….uh….we’ll just talk about it later,” Ben reassured him. “Joe and I are on our way in to Virginia City. Mind giving us hand?” Ben reached for Buck’s silver-studded bridle.

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss agreed as he tossed down the hayfork. Whistling again, he made quick work of saddling up Buck and Cochise, and handed over the reins to Ben and Joe. As they lead their horses out into the yard and mounted up, they could hear Hoss had stopped whistling and was now singing rather loudly and off key, so pushing their hats down firmly on their heads and keen to escape the racket, they set off toward Virginia City at a brisk gallop.

The ride was uneventful and few words passed between the two riders. The acquiescence that Ben had managed to obtain from his son through the ‘loving gaze’ trick had long since dissipated and, unfortunately, had only about a fifteen minute staying power. Ben had to be sparing, however, with his use of the ‘loving gaze’ as too much of it tended to put Joe into a hypnotic state–the last time, he damn near passed out.

So, Joe fell into a pout. After a few miles, though, Ben became frustrated by the awkward silence, and tried to amuse himself by singing a melodious falsetto version of Early One Morning. However, he was forced to stop when he observed his twitchy and thoroughly annoyed son reaching for his gun.

Morgan’s Print Shop was their first stop in Virginia City, and as they entered the tidy little establishment, Ben warmly greeted Mr. Morgan, the proprietor and family friend. Joe emerged from his sulky mood long enough to smile at and nod at Mr. Morgan, but then sank back into irritated silence.

Joe remembered as a child he had always adored visiting this shop with his father, loving all its interesting smells, sounds, and shiny equipment. Mr. Morgan would sometimes sneak him handfuls of rubber bands so he could take them home to shoot at Hoss and Adam. Too bad he didn’t have a few on hand to snap at his arrogant older brother earlier, he mused, frowning. He looked over his shoulder and could see his father and Mr. Morgan bent over the counter, studying the draft Ben had brought in.

Mr. Morgan glanced over at Joe, and then looked away guiltily. Joe felt his cheeks redden. It was obvious that his father had already discussed the matter with the printer. Could this situation get any more mortifying? Maybe his Pa should just have an announcement printed in the Territorial Enterprise: Useful Tips for Cartwright Ransom Notes.

Joe made his way to the counter where the infamous printing project was being discussed as Mr. Morgan was scribbling notations onto the draft that Ben had presented.

“Well, Ben, business is a bit slow right now, so it turns out I can have this done for you by tomorrow morning, first thing. Let‘s see, it looks like you’re going to want this printed in a lot of 350?”

350?” Joe was incensed. “Geez, Pa, are you getting a lifetime supply? Just how many times do you expect me to be kidnapped?”

“Now, son,” Ben replied, trying to be patient, “It’s just better to have too many than not enough; don’t you think? And, Mr. Morgan here made an excellent suggestion. For just a little extra money, we can actually double our order to 700, and…”

It was the last straw. With an angry glance at his father, Joe slammed on his hat and stomped out of the shop.

Ben shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. He considered going after his son, but decided against it. He knew from past experience that it was nearly impossible to deal with Joe when he was in a snit like this. Better to leave him alone and give him time to cool off. He watched from the window and saw Joe turn left and head toward the post office. Good. Maybe he’ll remember to pick up the mail this time.

Ben turned back toward Mr. Morgan. “I guess I’ll be making the selections, after all, Wade.” He sighed. “Do you have any samples for me to look at?” He blinked at the vast array of colorful pieces of card stock Mr. Morgan spread in front of him. This was going to take longer than he thought.

*****

Joe meandered down the boardwalk, in no particular hurry to reach the post office. He took deep breaths in and out, in an attempt to suppress the bitter resentment he was feeling. He supposed his father only had his best interests at heart, but the whole ransom note issue continued to annoy him. He supposed he should have told Pa where he was going, but he was afraid of losing his temper in front of Mr. Morgan.

Then, all thoughts of ransom notes flew from his head as he paused at the window of the Mercantile. Yep, even after two months, it was still there. Nearly every recent trip to Virginia City had found Joe at the window drooling over it.

The Heiser saddle–direct from Denver, and the only one he knew of in the whole territory. Black, sleek, and shiny hand-tooled leather, with shimmering mother-of-pearl accents.

His saddle.

Might as well have the name Joe Cartwright emblazoned across the sway. How handsome it would look on his pony. He had considered sweet-talking Pa into buying it for him for his next birthday, but he knew his father would balk at the $300 price tag, especially with all the ransoms they had been forced to shell out lately. And because of Pa’s newly-enacted policy of refusing to pay anyone being held for ransom, Joe’s own savings were virtually depleted.

Reluctantly, Joe left his dream saddle behind and continued on toward the post office down the street. He was stopped short by the feel of a gun pressing into his back. Oh, goody. Here we go again. He felt a tug on his hip as his own weapon was lifted from its holster. Someone with severe halitosis breathed into Joe’s neck.

“Hold it, Cartwright. We’re going to take a nice, quiet little walk toward that alley. Make any sudden moves and I’ll shoot you where you stand.”

Joe was in no mood to go anywhere with ol’ ‘Stinky Breath’, but even with his usual tendency toward recklessness, he was smart enough not to argue with the business end of a gun. Joe’s only hope at this point was that someone would notice what was going on and alert the sheriff or his father. But there appeared to be no witnesses in the immediate vicinity; the street remarkably deserted for that time of morning.

Great. Just great. Where was everybody? Was the entire town in the saloon or something? He sighed loudly, and turned toward the alley, Stinky Breath pushing him onward.

As his eyes adjusted to the sudden shade of the alleyway, Joe noticed two other men waiting for them, guns drawn, triumphant grins on unshaven faces. “Haw, haw, it was easy, Jack, it was easy, just like you said,” Stinky Breath proclaimed. “He might as well have been wearing a big sign that said ‘Come get me, I’m completely defenseless and my Pa’s loaded’!” He missed the scowl that crossed Joe’s features at that statement.

Joe noticed then that, despite their disheveled appearances, the would-be kidnappers were nevertheless prepared, noting the wagon and horses waiting near the dark opposite end of the alley. Damn. They always ended up being smarter than they looked. How did they even know he was in town? The timing of it all was almost absurd, considering that his father was even now selecting the paper stock for ransom notes.

The taller of the two men, a blonde, gap-toothed dude Joe assumed was “Jack” approached him and pushed his pistol under Joe’s chin, forcing his head back. Joe stared up unblinkingly at the individual before him. He sure was ugly.

“We’re going for a little ride, Cartwright, and that rich daddy of yours is going to have to cough up some cash if he wants to see you alive again. Now, you cooperate, and nobody‘ll get hurt and you‘ll get home in one piece. Understand?”

Joe nodded and suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. He knew the routine well by now. Almost verbatim, in fact. But he also knew that he was no match against three big dudes with guns. More quickly than he could have thought possible, he was tightly bound and gagged, and tossed roughly into the back of the waiting wagon.

*****

Ben stepped out of Morgan’s shop, his head swimming with the stress of selecting a final design for the print job. Who knew it would be such a complicated process? He’d had no idea there were so many different typefaces to choose from and so many dozens of varieties of paper stock. In the end, he had settled for a simple 12-point Edwardian Script on a soft green linen, although the rainbow-striped paper had been awfully pretty as well. As he approached his horse, he was nearly run down by a speeding wagon carrying three men. He frowned at them as they flew past. Why was every one in this town in such a fired up hurry?

Ben was relieved to see Cochise still waiting outside. At least Joe hadn’t decided to go home by himself. Sure was taking a long time for him to get the mail, though, Ben noted. He smiled to himself. His son had most likely run into one of the throngs of females that somehow materialized whenever he came to town. His smile faded, though, as a vague feeling of unease settled over him. He shook his head. All this ransom talk was just getting to him. Joe was fine, and tonight Hop Sing was preparing a special dinner to celebrate three straight weeks without a Cartwright kidnapping. At least, that’s what Ben hoped. Otherwise, it would be a damned waste of a perfectly good turkey.

His reverie was suddenly interrupted by a voice calling from just inside the post office. “Mr. Cartwright! Mr. Cartwright!” It was Charles hollering and waving frantically from the door of the building, gesturing for Ben to come over. Ben approached, warily, as the strange little postal clerk had always creeped him out a bit.

“I seen them, Mr. Cartwright!” Charles said, excitedly. “I seen them. Three ugly lookin’ fellas; they tied up Joe and took him away in a wagon. I seen them. See, I’d been having the stomach cramps, doncha know, and I had to keep on goin’ to the privy down in the alleyway, and that‘s where I seen them. Woulda told ya before, but then, I had to go to the privy again, and then….”

So, that was it, Ben thought grimly to himself. Joe was missing again. Kidnapped. He sighed and turned in the direction of the sheriff‘s office, leaving the postal clerk still stammering in his wake.

After all that planning. Couldn’t they have at least waited until the ransom notes were printed?

*****

Joe squinted against the bright afternoon sunlight, wishing he had his hat. He had managed to pull himself up into a sitting position within the confines of the moving wagon and was slightly more comfortable, save for the awkward position of his bound hands. Once they had reached the outskirts of town, one of the kidnappers had removed the gag, and for that Joe was grateful. He hated being gagged.

He had been mostly ignored by the trio, though they occasionally threw an evil sneer his way, clearly trying to intimidate him, but only proving how unattractive they were. Joe regarded his captors curiously. Cowpokes, the lot of them; Joe would have bet his life on it. He had been around such types all his life on the Ponderosa and was quite familiar with their mannerisms, dress, even that distinct cowhide odor that could never really be washed away. When they washed, that is.

He glanced around at the passing landscape and wondered idly where they were taking him this time. Since he was now up to nine, no, ten kidnappings, he knew the locations of the more common hideouts in the area. There were any one of several abandoned mines, line shacks, and caves around where they could choose to hole up until the ransom was paid. Joe grimaced at the direction of his thoughts. He had been around crooks like this so much lately that he almost knew what they were thinking.

After nearly an hour of traveling at a steady pace, the wagon finally slowed and turned left toward a pass. Joe knew then where they were taking him. The only possible hideout nearby was a cave situated at the base of the canyon at Indian’s Leap, a cave whose entrance had been almost completely concealed by boulders from an ancient landslide.

It had served as a useful lair for many disreputable individuals over the years, and Joe remembered it from a previous abduction. Point was, he also knew that with recent heavy rains a large part of the cave was flooded, and would be completely unsuitable as a shelter. Joe nearly grinned. Maybe they were as dumb as they looked after all. Should he say something? At first he hesitated, but then he cleared his throat, and addressed his captors for the first time.

“Ummm, I don’t know if you know this, but…”

*****

Sheriff Roy Coffee’s head popped up as Ben came through the door, and he stood up and came around his desk to greet his friend. “Well, howdy, there, Ben. What brings you to town? Don’t tell me Joe’s been snatched again, eh?”

He chuckled, but stopped when he saw that Ben was not amused. “You’re kidding, Ben. Don’t tell me Joe‘s missing again? You’re going to have to put a leash on that one, I tell ya. What happened?”

Ben sat on the edge of Roy’s desk and rubbed his eyes. “Yes, Roy, it looks like he’s been kidnapped again. Charles at the post office saw the whole thing. And it’s a shame, Roy, a damned shame. Just one more day, and the ransom notes would have been printed and ready to go. They’re going to be real spiffy, too. Just wait till you see ’em.”

Roy put his hand on Ben’s shoulder, and tried to sound encouraging. “Ben, we’ll get him back. You know we will. Have you received any word yet? Were you able to read their demands this time?”

Ben shook his head. “There’s nothing yet. It’s probably too soon.” He sighed. “We’ll just have to wait to hear from them, I guess.” He came to his feet and turned to leave. “I need to get back to the ranch, Roy. Adam and Hoss will have to be told, and I want to be there when the ransom note arrives. Besides, Hop Sing’s cooking turkey for dinner.”

The sheriff saw his friend to the door. “Don’t worry, Ben. We’ll get Joe back. I’ll go down and talk to Charles and see if anyone else saw anything, and then I’ll be out to the Ponderosa first thing tomorrow. We’ll see if the ransom note has arrived by then.”

Roy watched as Ben walked down the street, then unhitched and mounted Buck and headed in the direction of the Ponderosa, leading his son’s pinto pony behind him. Roy frowned and heaved a tired sigh as he thought of the paperwork ahead. Joseph Cartwright’s kidnapping reports were taking up an entire drawer in his file cabinet.

*****

After what seemed like hours, Ben rode wearily into the yard of the Ponderosa. At the sound of his approach, Adam and Hoss trotted out to greet him. Simultaneous looks of confusion crossed their features as they noted the rider less Cochise, and then understanding dawned as they realized Joe had probably just been kidnapped again. Adam looked irritated as it would be his turn this time around to do Joe’s chores; Hoss had been stuck with that unhappy duty the last time Joe went missing.

Ben dismounted. His sons’ expressions had not gone unnoticed. “Well, I guess you figured out what happened. Have we received any word yet?”

“No, Pa.” Adam paused before continuing. “How did this happen, Pa? How could someone just waltz right up and snatch him off the street? Weren‘t you with him?”

Ben had the grace to look embarrassed. “Well, we were at Morgan’s shop and he got mad again about the ransom notes and he walked out. I thought he was just heading over to pick up the mail. I guess that’s when it happened. Charles saw three men grab Joe and take off in a wagon.”

Adam lightly grasped his father’s arm to lead him towards the house as Hoss tended to the horses. “Pa, you couldn’t have known. Too bad about Joe, though. He’s going to miss a great dinner. Hop Sing went all out.”

*****

The sun was setting as the wagon came to a stop in front of the dilapidated line shack. Joe’s captors had been skeptical of his claim that their original choice of a hideout was largely underwater, and they actually drove the wagon all the way to the cave to find out for themselves. Seeing that Joe had told them the truth, they sheepishly asked if he could recommend another location.

Joe was surprised at this, but he was starting to realize that the three men were obviously not locals and truly did not know where to go next. He shrugged and then gave them directions to a secluded and mostly deserted line shack on the abandoned Wilson property, west of Virginia City. He had been taken there for kidnapping number two and remembered that it was fairly warm and dry and had a working fireplace.

Once they arrived at the new hideout, Stinky Breath hopped down and pulled Joe from the wagon. Joe felt a bit unsteady after the prolonged ride, and nearly fell when assisted to his feet, but was caught quickly by Jack, who was standing nearby. The third kidnapper–Joe had dubbed him ‘Big Ears’–went to work concealing the wagon and horses in the thick woods behind the tiny dwelling.

Joe was escorted into the line shack and pushed into one of the dusty chairs within. Jack set about lighting the kerosene lamps throughout, then sat down at the table, facing his captive. “Looks like we’re gonna be here a little while, Cartwright. Might as well try to get comfortable if I was you.”

Joe scowled at him. “I’d be a lot more comfortable if my hands were untied.”

Jack seemed to consider this, and then shook his head. “Sorry, can’t do that right now, Cartwright. Ya may just try to run off on us and we can’t be having that now, can we?”

Stinky Breath entered the dwelling. “Jack, where’s that ransom note? We gotta get it over to old man Cartwright so we can git our money and git outta here.”

Jack looked up blankly, and then came to his feet. “I thought you was takin’ care of that! I told ya, I don’t write good! You tellin’ me you didn‘t bring one?”

Stinky Breath looked exasperated, and then embarrassed. “Jack, I can’t write at all!” he admitted. “Yer the only one who knows how to write. Yer just gonna have to write one now, and I’ll take it on over to Cartwright’s place.”

Joe smirked as he observed this exchange, and was even more amused when it became apparent that his captors had neither paper nor pencil among them. Obviously not the brainiest crooks in the territory. He admitted reluctantly to himself that those preprinted ransom notes sure would have come in handy about now. His eyes flickered up as the door opened, admitting Big Ears. Before long he too was equally perplexed at their disastrous predicament.

After several minutes of listening to them bicker amongst themselves, Joe decided to speak up. For a seed of an idea was starting to take root in his mind. Perhaps there was a way out of this situation that would work out for everyone, himself included, he thought.

“Uh, hey, maybe I can help…” Joe began, cautiously.

Three heads snapped up, and his trio of captors suddenly fell silent as they regarded Joe with suspicion. Stinky Breath narrowed his eyes and glared at him warily. “Why? What would you do?”

Joe continued. “Just how much were you planning on asking for a ransom for me? Did you have a specific amount in mind?”

The kidnappers looked at each other, clearly hesitant to share this information. Jack finally shrugged. “Um, a hundred dollars.”

Joe shook his head and suppressed a grin. Another woefully small ransom. Were they just that dumb or did they really not have any clue how wealthy his father was?

It had been the common element of the last nine kidnappings. Every ransom note, the ones they could read anyway, always demanded pitifully small sums of cash. They were all amounts much less than would be expected for a son of Ben Cartwright, though Adam had gleefully announced that the kidnappers had successfully figured out how much Joe was really worth.

“Untie my hands, and perhaps we can make a deal, gentlemen. I think we could discuss an arrangement that’s mutually beneficial.” Joe said. The three looked at him blankly. Apparently polysyllabic words were beyond their comprehension. He reworded it. “There can be something in it for all of us.”

Jack eyed Joe cautiously. “Why should we trust you? We kidnapped ya, boy. Wouldn’t ya just try to escape, first thing?”

Joe responded, “Well, I did tell you where this cabin was, didn’t I? I suppose I could have just given you directions to the sheriff’s house instead, right?”

His captors looked at each other and nodded, conceding Joe’s point. Stinky Breath sighed, and rising up, came around the table towards him. Joe shrank back as Stinky pulled out his knife, then exhaled in relief when he felt the rope binding his hands being cut away. Stinky returned to his seat, and the trio looked back at Joe expectantly.

Rubbing his chafed wrists, Joe leaned forward in his chair and began, “Okay, here’s what I have in mind….”

*****

As they neared the cave near Indian’s Leap, Ben and Adam reined in their horses and dismounted. They continued on foot over the rocky terrain, looking for the designated black stone under which they had been instructed to place the ransom money. They had received the note late in the night; it had been tucked under the door as the three Cartwrights slept, full and bloated from Hop Sing’s excellent dinner.

Ben observed that the note had been written by Joe himself, on Ponderosa letterhead, no less. His poor, helpless son must have been terrified at being forced to do such a thing. The kidnappers were asking for $160 this time around; an unusual figure, to be sure, but easily accessible in the petty cash box. At least these ransom amounts hadn’t harmed the ranch’s finances, Ben thought cynically. Hoss remained behind at the Ponderosa, in case Joe showed up or they received another note from his captors.

Finding the large obsidian stone just outside the entrance to the cave, Ben pulled the envelope out of his pocket, and placed it underneath. He squinted and scanned the horizon, hoping for some sign of his son, but saw no movement anywhere in the tawny-colored landscape. Nodding to Adam, they made their way back to Buck and Sport, and hoped that the kidnappers would keep their promise to release Joe after the cash had been collected. If not, this would have been an entirely wasted trip.

*****

Joe Cartwright was feeling pretty good about himself. Everything had worked out exactly as planned. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cut of the ransom. He riffled through the new bills in his hand and grinned. Fifty bucks! Almost as much as he made in a month working on the Ponderosa. A few more kidnappings and he would have that saddle in no time at all.

He never did find out the real names of his captors, except for Jack. They collected the ransom money without incident and happily forked over Joe’s share, and promised that ten dollars would be donated to charity. That was to assuage Joe’s guilt over helping himself to some of his father’s money. As for Joe’s part of the deal, he agreed to remain willingly with the kidnappers until the cash was collected, and would not pursue criminal charges against the three men if they were caught. And, of course, he had also provided the pencil, paper, and writing ability for the ransom note.

Joe had been dropped off, as agreed, on the Virginia City road outside of the Ponderosa, where he would have about a twenty minute walk home. He shook his captors’ hands and waved goodbye as the wagon faded into the distance. Joe had told his new friends about the lovely dream saddle in the Mercantile window, and they had listened with interest. They promised Joe that they would tell their friends about him, and arrange for future kidnappings so Joe could earn enough money to buy it. All in all, not a bad way to make a few bucks, Joe thought to himself. Good thing those ransom notes would be ready soon–he was certainly going to need them.

As he approached the house, Joe stopped for a minute and made an effort to force the grin from his face. He reached down and grabbed a small handful of dirt, patting it against his cheeks. Next, he ripped his shirt. Then, taking a deep breath, he bit his lip and successfully managed to work up a couple of tears. He continued into the yard of the Ponderosa, trying hard to look weak and upset.

“Pa, Pa!” he called out. As his father and brothers came tearing out the door, Joe rolled his eyes back and feigned a perfect faint.

*****

Nearly a month had passed since the kidnapping, and life on the Ponderosa had returned to its normal, busy pace. Sheriff Coffee had tried without success to obtain a description of the kidnappers from Joe, but apparently Joe had been so traumatized by the entire experience that he didn’t remember any of it. Ben eventually shrugged off the incident, feeling that it was hardly worth throwing a posse together over a measly $160. Joe had come back to them, safe and sound, and had made a remarkably speedy recovery after passing out in the yard.

Joe thought about his kidnappers from time to time, and wondered if they would keep their promise to tell their friends about his willing assistance in his own kidnapping. To tell the truth, he hoped they had forgotten about it. Once he reflected on the events, he began to regret his hasty impulse to turn the idea into some quick money-making scheme. He cringed to think what would happen if his father caught him taking part in something like that. Pa would probably work himself into a stroke just planning Joe’s punishment.

At the time Joe agreed to the kidnapping plot, though, he had still been smarting over the ransom note issue, as well as freshly lusting over the shiny Heiser saddle. The ransom notes had been delivered as scheduled, and Joe had to admit that they were quite tasteful and attractive, though they remained untouched in his saddlebags.

It was Tuesday, Joe’s regular day to pick up the mail in Virginia City. Adam had accompanied him to town this time, having the need to stop in and see Hiram Wood to sign papers regarding an upcoming timber contract. The brothers separated at Mr. Wood’s office and Joe headed first toward the Mercantile, as always, to moon over his saddle. The possibility of actually purchasing it at this point seemed bleak. He sighed and continued on to the post office to collect the mail. Stepping inside, he was once again goggled at by that creepy little Charles. The little dude was always winking at him. What the heck was his problem, anyway?

Joe tucked the small stack of mail into his jacket pocket, and made his way to the Bucket of Blood, where he was to meet Adam. Well, he was actually supposed to meet him on the bench outside the saloon, but Joe could never pass up an opportunity for something cold and bubbly on a warm day. He knew he would probably catch it from his older sibling, knowing how much Adam and his father disapproved of drinking on a work day, but what the heck was wrong with just one drink?

Joe found a table near a window and ordered a beer, settling in to wait for his brother. Adam always took longer than expected when he came to see the family’s faithful lawyer. Only his dull older brother would find something exciting to chat to Hiram about.

Joe had barely taken two sips when an unfamiliar looking cowboy approached and sat down opposite him. “Is that your pinto pony outside?” he asked.

Joe looked up, confused, but nodded. “Can I help you?”

The cowboy looked around nervously, and leaned in closer to Joe. “I’m a friend of Jack’s.” he whispered. “Are you Cartwright? Joe Cartwright?”

Joe nodded again, starting to comprehend the stranger’s objective.

The cowboy continued in a low voice. “Then, ya know why I’m here. I got something fer ya….from Jack.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of parchment, handing it to Joe. “This here’s the schedule. We need ya to be ready.”

Joe unfolded the paper and stared at it in surprise. It appeared to be some type of hand-drawn calendar. Different locations and times were scribbled on designated dates. Though roughly presented, it was quite clear to Joe what was expected of him. He was to make himself available for kidnapping when and where it was indicated. Scrawled across the top, in red letters, was the phrase SJS Skedul. Joe looked confused. “SJS? What’s that?”

“Oh, uh, just ignore that part, kid. Now, ya understand what yer supposed to do?” The cowboy pushed his hat farther down on his head and looked around again, obviously in a hurry to leave.

Joe carefully refolded the parchment and handed it back, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve reconsidered this arrangement. It’s not going to work out after all. Give my regards to Jack, won’t you?”

The cowboy shot up so quickly he nearly upended his chair. The table rocked, upending Joe’s beer and splattering the contents onto his shirt. Joe stood up then, preparing to leave, but the cowboy roughly grabbed Joe’s arm, stopping him. “Ya can’t do that, kid. Everything’s all planned. Ya need to keep yer end of the deal.”

Joe jerked his arm from the stranger’s grasp. “This conversation is over, sir.” He walked out of the saloon and paused near the hitching rail, scanning the street for his overdue brother. Hearing footsteps behind him, he started to turn, and felt something hard slam down back of his head. He sank to the ground, a whimper escaping his lips as he descended into darkness…..

*****

A short time later, Joe slowly opened his eyes to bright, blinding light. He tried painfully to remember where he was or what had happened. As he attempted to focus his blurry vision, a figure in black appeared in his line of sight.

The Grim Reaper!

Joe hollered and unsuccessfully tried to scoot away from the ominous specter. Then, his vision cleared, and the image materialized into his brother Adam, who was crouched next to him, one black eyebrow raised sardonically. Joe blew out his breath in relief, determined anew to speak to his sibling about that stupid, slimming all-black look he insisted on wearing every single day. He could give a guy a heart attack.

Adam checked his brother for obvious injuries, finding only a small bloodied area on the back of his head. The little runt must have whacked himself on the hitching rail as he passed out. He helped Joe sit up.

“So, how much have you had to drink, younger brother?” he asked, his voice tight with disapproval.

Joe tried to protest. “No, Adam, I was…”

Adam shook his head, frowning. “I don’t want to hear it, Joe. I can smell the beer on you. Pa’s not going to be happy with this. You know how he feels about drinking in the middle of a work day.”

And leave it to older brother to march right in and tattle on him, Joe thought to himself grimly. He reached up and grabbed the hitching rail and started to pull himself up. Adam came around behind to assist his brother, who was swaying on his feet. Joe steadied himself and once more attempted to explain the situation.

“Adam, I didn’t pass out. Someone came up and…” Joe suddenly fell silent as he noticed the piece of folded up parchment peeking from his vest pocket, and realized then what had happened.

“What was that, Joe?” Adam asked, distracted. He was guiding his brother around toward Cochise. “Do you think you’ll be able to ride, Joe, or do you want to rest a bit more?” It was clear in Adam’s voice that he was eager to be on his way.

Joe paused to get his bearings for a moment, and then grabbed his pony’s reins and carefully hoisted himself up into the saddle, foregoing his customary swing mount.

“I’ll be okay, Adam. We can go back,” he said, preoccupied with the piece of parchment resting in his pocket, and its obvious implications. What the heck was he going to do now?

*****

At the sound of his sons’ horses loping into the yard of the Ponderosa, Ben put aside his pipe and threw down the newspaper he was reading, stalking out to confront the two. How dare they spend so much time in town when there was plenty of work to be done here at home?

His angry accusations died on his lips, however, when he saw Joe’s pale face. Joe was gingerly trying to dismount, and Ben sprang over to assist.

He was stopped by a disgusted-looking Adam.

“Don’t feel sorry for him, Pa. Your youngest son here decided to stop at the Bucket of Blood while I was at Hiram’s office. I found him passed out on the boardwalk in front. I could smell the alcohol on him.”

Joe glared accusingly at his brother. Leave it to ol’ Adam to start blabbing to Pa before he was barely off his horse. Joe rubbed his eyes and stumbled unsteadily towards the house, intent only on finding his bed. The trip back from Virginia City had been slow and agonizing, the brothers being forced to keep the horses to a walk, as anything faster brought on such waves of dizziness that Joe almost slipped from the saddle. He had puked, twice, and Adam had used up the remaining water in the canteens to rinse down Cochise’s neck, all the while glowering angrily at his younger brother.

Joe had barely reached the bottom step when he heard the bellow of his enraged father. “JOSEPH FRANCIS CARTWRIGHT!!”

Joe winced. Uh oh, the you’re in big trouble now voice. Joe didn’t even have to be asked to turn around and sit himself down on the settee and wait for his father’s lecture. He had been in this exact position more times than he could count.

Ben paced in front of the fireplace for a few moments, before stopping to stare furiously at his son. “Joseph, is it true that you’ve been drinking?”

Joe lowered his head. “Well, yes, Pa, but I….”

Ben continued. “And is it true that your poor brother here found you passed out in front of the saloon and had to help you home?” Ben looked sympathetically over at Adam, who was pulling up a chair to get a good seat for the lecture.

Joe raised his head and narrowed his eyes at his older brother, who had instantly donned a long-suffering, martyred look for his father’s benefit. What a great actor. Joe knew how Adam always enjoyed a good Joe-punishing.

Joe tried once more to defend himself. “But, Pa, I didn’t pass out. I was….” He stopped. How on earth could he explain the disastrous situation he now found himself in without getting into even more trouble? Heck, Adam would probably sell tickets to that lecture. He put his head in his hands, resigned. “I’m sorry, Pa.”

Adam interjected. “Pa, I really don’t want to interfere here, but…” Joe nearly rolled his eyes at that. Oh, please. He knew his brother was just dying to interfere. “I think you should consider a much more harsh punishment than your standard lecture…”

“And what do you have in mind, son?” Ben asked, noticeably interested in the pearls of wisdom that were about to come spewing forth from the sanctimonious mouth of his perfect oldest son. Oh, boy, am I in for it now, Joe thought.

Adam looked pointedly at Joe. “Well, it’s obvious that you need to send a message that will stick this time. Sort of a “hit him where it hurts” type of scenario, if you will.” He paused theatrically at that point, nearly preening at the rapt attention he was receiving from his father. Joe felt like throwing up…again. Adam continued.

“I think you should dock his wages, Pa. He’s obviously in no shape to continue working for the rest of the day, and maybe even tomorrow. And perhaps you should even consider that I’ve fallen behind in my own work because I had to help him home, and deduct even more. I mean, it was completely his own doing, as you know.”

“Pa, I can’t believe you’d actually listen to him!!” Joe was livid. He shot suddenly to his feet, and instantly regretted it, catching the back of the settee to steady himself. He paused for a moment, hung his head in a dejected manner, and continued on in his poor, sad, remorseful Little Joe voice. It usually worked like a charm on his Pa.

“I’m really sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean to disappoint you. It won’t happen again, honest.” Joe tried to sneak a peek at his father to see if it was working. It was quite evident it wasn’t.

Ben was nodding. He stepped over to pat Adam on the back. “Adam, I believe that’s a fine idea. I’m sorry that you had to put up with all this nonsense.” Ben then turned his attention to Joe.

“And you, son, will go directly to your room right now to sleep it off. You’re obviously intoxicated. And your wages will, indeed, be docked significantly due to your drinking on the job. Now, get upstairs!”

Joe scowled, and turned toward the stairs, but not before sticking his tongue out at his brother. Adam noticed, and smiled innocently at him. Joe slowly made his way up to his room, and immediately fell across his bed. As he drifted off to sleep, his mind was bubbling over with plots of deadly revenge against the jerk sibling he had been cursed with.

*****

Night had fallen by the time Joe finally woke up, and he sat up to light the lantern on his nightstand. His nausea had dissipated, and the headache was mostly gone. What was still there, though, bright as ever, was the anger.

So, his Pa thought it was a fine idea to cut his wages, was it? By odd coincidence, it was only then that he remembered the folded up piece of paper in his pocket. Yep, it was still there. He pulled it out, intending to tear it to pieces, but something, he wasn’t sure what it was, made him pause and unfold it. It looked the same as when the stranger had handed it to him in the Bucket of Blood, save for one more sentence that had been scrawled on the opposite side.

“No choice, Cartrite– Co-oprate, or risk the rath of the SJS.”

There it was, that mysterious “SJS” again. Was it somebody’s initials, maybe? Joe shrugged, and studied the paper more closely. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss the idea. It certainly would have been less painful, he figured, grimacing, as he lightly fingered the bump on the back of his head.

The next kidnapping had been scheduled for the following morning. Nothing like giving him plenty of notice, he thought. Joe’s job was apparently to meet up with the kidnappers at sunrise immediately outside of the ranch’s boundaries, on the old mill trail, just off the road to Virginia City.

Joe sighed, considering. He folded the paper and returned it to his pocket as he headed downstairs, where the remaining Cartwrights were eating dinner. Conversation ceased, suddenly, as they looked up and noticed Joe enter the dining room. It was obvious to Joe what, or rather, who, they had been discussing.

Hoss broke the silence, grinning up at his younger brother. “Hey there, Joe, guess ya ain’t feelin’ so well today, huh?” He started chuckling, and Adam joined in, cackling along with him. Joe glared silently at his two brothers, who were nearly falling out of their seats laughing by now, and considered stalking back up to his room. His empty belly won the battle over his injured pride, however, and he glumly sat down to eat.

Adam started in on him right away. “Well, younger brother, I hope you’ve learned a valuable lesson today.” He had paused between bites and was pointing his fork at Joe. “When you refuse to obey the rules, you have to suffer the consequences. Perhaps next time you’ll remember that when you feel an urge to get drunk when you’re supposed to be working.” For emphasis, he stabbed at a piece of beefsteak and popped it into his mouth.

Joe wordlessly turned his attention to his father. Was he really going to allow that condescending jackass to talk to him like that? Joe was shocked to see his father gazing proudly at Adam. “Took the words right out of my mouth, son. Of course, Joseph here may not be able to afford to drink for a while, anyway.”

At that, Hoss and Adam resumed their snickering.

Joe stood up, his appetite quite suddenly gone. His decision was made then and there. All trepidation and reluctance evaporated as if they had never been. Joe headed for the door, stopping only for his hat and jacket. Turning to glance once more at his family, he left, not sure particularly where he was going, but knowing that sunrise would find him on the old mill trail, just off the road to Virginia City.

Just wait till their precious little brother got himself kidnapped again. His brothers wouldn’t be so amused when they were doing his chores tomorrow…

*****

Silvery rays of early sunlight were beginning to filter through the towering Ponderosa pines as Joe arrived at the designated meeting place. He was saddle-sore and sleepy, having ridden around aimlessly a good part of the night. His anger and hurt still simmered, and he remained confident in his decision, though he found himself feeling somewhat uneasy as the darkness began to fade.

He guided his pony into the open from the shadows of the trees, and saw two men waiting on horseback. Joe regarded the pair warily, recognizing the cowboy from the day before at the saloon. As he came closer, they hailed him and dismounted.

Joe dismounted himself and approached them. He shook their hands and introduced himself, though he felt such social niceties felt somewhat strange under the circumstances. They in turn introduced themselves as Sam and Bill.

“Okay, gentlemen, let’s discuss this arrangement,” Joe said. “I agree to go with you willingly, and in return I’ll receive a portion of the ransom, is that correct?”

Sam nodded. “Yep, just like Jack said. Oh, and kid, sorry ‘bout bashin’ ya on the head yesterday. It’s just, well, we dun already had this planned out and…”

Joe held up his hand. “No, please. No offense taken.” He sighed. “Let’s just get this over with, okay?” He returned to mount his pony, and the other two followed suit. The three riders turned their horses toward the main road. After several minutes, Joe turned to his “captors”, suddenly curious. “Where are we going…..ummm, I mean, where are you taking me?” he asked, winking.

Sam grinned at Joe and answered. “Oh, just up the road to Virginia City a piece, then due south a few miles toward the old Miller place. It’s out of the way,” he said. “It’s pretty run down, but the barn’s still standing.”

Joe remembered. It was where he had been taken for kidnapping number six. Not the coziest hideout in the area, but it was mostly secluded and dry. Certainly the journey to the location this time around was much more comfortable. He fell silent for a while as they continued on, keeping the horses to an easy lope. Vague doubts were beginning to surface, and he wondered for the first time if he was making a big mistake in involving himself in this crazy plot.

The three riders continued on in relative silence for nearly an hour until they reached the boundaries of the Miller homestead. The overgrown and rough trail leading to the property was difficult to traverse, but eventually the abandoned dwelling came into view. The original house was uninhabitable, due to the ravages of the elements and scavengers, but the barn, surprisingly, was almost completely intact.

As they approached the structure, something scurried from beneath the door and disappeared into a thatch of overgrown weeds. Joe shuddered. He had forgotten about the rats.

*****

“What do you mean you can’t find him?” Ben Cartwright fought to keep his voice to a reasonable level as he faced his two sons. Adam and Hoss had just returned home after an unsuccessful attempt to locate their missing brother. They had all assumed that Joe would return home safely after taking an hour or two to cool off, but the waiting had turned into an all night vigil. The previous evening, Ben had ignored his impulse to go after his son immediately after he had so abruptly stormed out, and now he regretted it.

Hoss laid a large hand on his father’s shoulder. “Hey, Pa, just calm down, now. I’m sure he’s just fine. We followed Cooch’s tracks for a while all the way up to the old mill trail there, but then we dun lost them on the road to Virginia City. There are just too many tracks to pick up the trail. Little Joe probably just met up with some friends at the saloon or something. I’ll bet he’s just off somewheres sleeping it off.”

Adam piped in then. “Or, you never know, Pa. Maybe he’s just been kidnapped again. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Ben blew out his breath indignantly. “Well, he better hope that’s what happened. He’ll get more than a lecture if I discover he’s been out drinking again.”

*****

Upon arrival at their hideout, Joe presented his kidnappers with one of the printed ransom notes, and they were quite impressed. He even helped fill it out for them, gleefully deciding on a ransom of $200 this time. Wait till Adam sees this, he thought.

Sam and Bill looked over the completed note, and they nodded their approval. They agreed that Joe would have a standard cut of $50, with the obligatory $10 for charity. Now, all that was needed was for the note to be delivered. Joe suggested tucking the note inside his pony’s saddlebags, and sending him on back towards the ranch. Cooch would find his way home, no problem, he assured his companions.

Bill remounted his horse and grabbed Cochise’s reins, intending to lead the pony back down the overgrown trail to the main Virginia City road, and then send him on his way toward the Ponderosa. Joe and Sam made themselves as comfortable as possible on the earthen floor of the barn, and the two settled in to wait for Bill’s return. They soon fell into an easy conversation.

Joe took the opportunity to ask a question that had been burning in the back of his mind. “Sam…there’s something I’ve been curious about.” he asked. “What exactly is the SJS?”

Sam looked embarrassed. “Well, I guess someone might as well tell ya, since ya been so helpful and all. It all started a while back, ya know, maybe about eight, nine months ago. See, we all work as hands at the Bar-M ranch, just outside Mormon Flats. We had all just come back from a pretty long cattle drive, and a bunch of us came to town to have a few drinks and maybe play some cards. And then who should come in but you and yer Pa. Don’t know what you was there for, and you only stayed for a few minutes, but our pal Lester sure enough noticed yer Pa right off. Lester was kinda new then, but he told us how he used to work for the Ponderosa a while back, and how yer Pa just up and fired him one day for no reason, and that you Cartwrights were so high and mighty that someone should teach y‘all a lesson. Well, we had all had a few drinks by then, so we thought it was a fine idea. Before long, Lester came up with this idea of snatching one of Cartwright’s sons; just for the hell of it. He pretty much decided on you, what with your pinto pony and green jacket, you were the easiest one to recognize. We could just take turns doing it, he said, not to really hurt ya or nothin’; just scare ya some, and scare yer Pa.”

Joe was speechless. All the kidnappings, every last one of them for the past eight months, were related? Eleven kidnappings and counting; all part of some crazy plot designed by a bunch of drunken cowpokes. The puzzle pieces were starting to trickle into place–the frequency and similarity of the kidnappings, and the men involved in them. He found his voice then.

“And the ransoms? What about them?”

Sam continued. “We always kept the ransom amounts small – maybe about a hundred bucks or so–more or less. Usually enough to buy drinks for everyone. We figured that once yer Pa got ya back safe and sound, he probably wouldn’t set the law on us for a measly hundred bucks. I mean, it was all just a joke. No one wanted to go to jail for it.”

Joe nodded. Sam was right. His father never worried about the paltry sums of money, only about his son‘s safety, and once Joe was returned unharmed each time, Pa almost always dropped the matter legally and soon forgot about the incident. “You still haven’t told me about the SJS. What’s that all about?”

Sam grinned. “Well, after a few kidnappings, Lester thought it would be fun to start some kind of secret club or something for everyone who got away with snatching the Cartwright kid. Before long, all the hands at the Bar-M wanted in on it. It’s pretty popular–even hands from other ranches are hankering to join up now. We’re even thinking of getting matching tattoos. Joe, SJS stands for the Seize Joe Society.”

Joe shifted uneasily, not sure how to take that news. He was the focus of some secret club? That’s what this was all about? He didn‘t know if he should feel flattered or insulted.

“Sam, I didn’t know about…” Joe stammered, not sure exactly what he wanted to say. He bit his lip, considering. “You said people are still trying to get into the club, I mean, the SJS?” How many more kidnappings were being planned, for crying out loud?

“Oh, you betcha. The SJS is getting real well known round about Mormon Flats, you know.” Sam chuckled. “Sure makes things a lot easier, now that you decided to cooperate. Jack told us about that saddle you wanted, by the way. Sounds like a real beauty. Shouldn’t be too long afore you can get it now.”

Joe smiled slightly at the mention of the saddle. It was true. Just a few more kidnappings and he would have more than enough cash to purchase it; maybe even a little extra for a matching bridle. Of course, he would have some tall explaining to do about where he obtained the cash for such an expensive item, but he would worry about that later.

*****

Adam tightened the cinch on Sport’s saddle. He had just finished up his own morning chores, as well as Joe‘s, and he was preparing to launch a second search for his missing brother. His annoyance made his movements rougher than usual, and Sport nickered in protest. The sound of hoof beats made him pause as a lathered and exhausted Cochise came flying into the yard.

Adam stepped out to intercept his brother’s pony, and was assisted by Hoss and Ben, who had also been alerted by the sound. As Hoss stroked and soothed the terrified animal, Adam made quick work of examining the saddle and searching the saddlebags for any clue to his brother’s whereabouts. He found the ransom note almost immediately. “Pa….,” he said, handing the green card to his father. “I guess we know what happened to Joe.”

Ben took the card and scanned it carefully. He sighed. “Well, it looks like they want $200 this time around. We’re supposed to leave it under the black rock at the cave at Indian’s Leap before sunset today. Hmmm. Just like last time; isn’t that odd? If we follow the directions exactly, then Joe will be released shortly afterward.”  He tucked the card into his vest pocket and regarded his two sons. “Well, I guess we have no choice, then. Adam, do we have enough to cover that amount in our petty cash box?”

Adam nodded. “More than enough, Pa. Good thing these ransom amounts haven’t been all that high. It sure would be a big hassle to have to go to the bank.”

*****

Dusk was falling over the ranch house as Joe made his way into the yard. He had earned his fifty dollars, as well as a ten dollar tip from his grateful captors, and he was quite pleased. The next kidnapping was scheduled in three weeks, and he would make sure he was ready for it. Sure was an easy way to make a few bucks, he thought, patting the bulge of crisp bills in his pocket.

Joe had decided that his reunion with his family would not be as dramatic as last time. Didn’t want to arouse any suspicions, after all, so he dispensed with the fake fainting spell this time around. He did, however, manage an expression of extreme relief as he stumbled his way through the door.

“Pa! Pa!” Joe called out, looking for his father. Spying him standing near the settee, Joe ran to embrace him. “I’m so glad I’m home, Pa. It was terrible! Just terrible! Thank God they let me go, Pa. They were dangerous criminals!”

Ben held his son at arm’s length, assessing him for injuries. Satisfied that Joe was physically unharmed, he guided him toward the settee and they sat down together. “Well, son, it’s over now. I’m just glad you’ve come home safely. Are you okay? Are you hungry? Is there anything I can get for you?” he said, searching his son for any signs of distress.

“No, Pa,” Joe replied. “I’m okay, really. I think I’ll just go upstairs and lie down for a while if that’s okay?” He stood up and turned toward the stairs. He hesitated, though before heading up, turning once more to face his father. “And Pa?” he said, “Thanks for paying the ransom, Pa. I was afraid, Pa. I was afraid that they were going to kill me.” Joe was pleased that he was able to manage a slight tremor in his voice at this remark.

Ben smiled warmly at his youngest. “It’s okay, son. You’re worth it. Now, just go on up and rest and I’ll have Hop Sing come up with some dinner in a little while, okay?”

“Great, Pa!” Joe grinned and darted up the stairs, quite forgetting that he was supposed to act sad and frightened. Ben wondered briefly about his son’s sudden change in mood, but dismissed the thought immediately. The poor boy had been through enough already. He was entitled to act a little weird, Ben supposed.

*****

The pleasant spring soon turned into blazing summer, and everyone’s tempers were short during the busiest time of year at the Ponderosa. It hadn’t helped that Joe had been kidnapped four additional times in three months, leaving the ranch shorthanded, and the petty cash box running quite low. It was the same story each time; the ransoms were paid as required and Joe was released a short time later. He was never physically harmed during each occurrence, but he was well and truly terrified afterward–so much so that Hoss and Adam were forced to take on Joe’s chores for several days after he was returned safely to his family.

Joe drove the buckboard toward Virginia City to collect the mail and other supplies one humid Tuesday morning; glad to be free from the glowering stares of his overworked brothers and the hovering, worried gaze of his father. He had just been released from his last kidnapping only two days earlier, and it had taken quite a bit of pleading on his part to be allowed to get away on his own. As he left the boundaries of the Ponderosa, he couldn’t help but smile to himself.

For today was the day. After so many months of waiting and wanting, today that saddle would be his. It was fate, he decided, that no one had seen fit to purchase it yet. Destiny had decided that the saddle was for no one but Mr. Joseph Cartwright, and this morning, destiny would be fulfilled. He could hardly wait.

He had struggled over what he would tell his family when they asked how he could afford such a costly item–and they were sure to ask, no doubt about it. He decided at long last to tell them that he had won the money in a poker game, as flimsy as that explanation was. He couldn’t seem to think of any other, though, and telling them the truth would be unthinkable, of course.

The kidnappings had become routine, but to tell the truth, they were getting a bit tiresome. He was starting to wonder if his Pa and brothers were becoming suspicious at this point. Adam, especially, had been wondering aloud at the similarity of the kidnappings lately, and Joe knew it wouldn’t be long before his analytical brother would start putting two and two together. Now that Joe was going to have his saddle, at long last, he had no further need for the additional cash at this point. And then there was that worried look he was starting to see in his father’s eyes after each incident. Joe was beginning to feel increasingly guilty over his part in the abductions as the summer wore on. But how could he stop now? From everything his captors had telling him recently, the SJS was more popular than ever, and cowpokes from all over the territory were wanting in.

Just one more time, he decided to himself. He would agree to participate in just one last kidnapping; scheduled for two weeks from today. Then, no more. The SJS would just have to find itself another willing victim.

*****

Late in the afternoon some two weeks later, the Cartwright brothers found themselves on the road to Virginia City. Moods had lightened considerably in the previous two weeks and the three joked around and chatted amiably among themselves on the journey. Hoss and Adam took the buckboard, but Joe preferred to ride alongside on Cochise, still breaking in his shiny new saddle. The saddle turned out to be everything he had hoped for; it fit as if it had been custom made.

His family had all admired Joe’s expensive purchase when he first brought it home, and they had initially seemed a bit skeptical at Joe’s explanation of a winning poker game, but they didn’t question him about it, especially since Joe had also showered his family with thoughtful gifts–a book of Longfellow poetry for Adam, an hand-carved ivory pipe for Pa, and a silver-embossed whittling knife for Hoss. Since that day, Joe had also worked diligently from sunup to sundown; no one had to nag him to get on with his chores. In fact, his family had rarely seen him so dedicated to his work.

As they neared town, however, Joe became increasingly subdued and quiet, to the puzzlement of his brothers. Once they arrived at their destination, the brothers went their separate ways to complete their individually assigned tasks–Hoss to the Mercantile to procure and load supplies for Hop Sing, Adam to the lawyer’s office to discuss a pending timber contract, and Joe to collect the mail and make a bank deposit. The three decided to meet up at the Bucket of Blood once their errands were completed before heading home together.

Joe felt the weight of depression on him as he completed his tasks. Tonight he was scheduled to meet up with two more kidnappers just before sunset, where he would be whisked away to some place unknown, and be separated once again from his family for one night; maybe two. He had tried to come to town alone to make it easier to accomplish, but his father had insisted that the brothers make the trip together. Pa was still uneasy from Joe’s previous kidnapping only two weeks ago.

Now Joe would have to think of some lame excuse to separate himself from his brothers so he could meet up with his captors without Adam and Hoss being aware of it. He’d probably have to start an argument or something, and he hated the idea, since they had all been getting on so well lately. Joe was eager for this crazy plot to be over with once and for all, so life on the Ponderosa, and with his family, could return to normal.

His mission accomplished more quickly than he anticipated, Joe made his way to the saloon to wait for his brothers to arrive. As he looked around to locate an available seat, he was hailed by a blonde, gap-toothed individual standing near the bar. It was Jack.

“Joe! Joe Cartwright!” Jack waved him over and gestured clumsily to a nearby stool. Jack’s voice was loud and slurred; he had obviously had more than a few drinks already. “Fancy seein’ you here! Come on over, kid. I’ll buy ya a drink.”

Joe glanced around a bit nervously. The saloon was mostly deserted, save for a lone cowboy sitting in the shadows at the far end of the establishment, and a couple of mean-looking dudes sharing a table near the door. He sat down next to Jack.

“Jack, I don’t know if it’s a good idea to be seen with you,” he said in a low voice. “Someone might figure out what’s going on, you know.”

Jack chuckled, and slapped Joe on the shoulder. “Ha! Don’t worry about it, kid. So, ya’ll ready fer tonight? You’ll like the two new guys that yer gonna meet up with; real nice fellas. They said they’d even give ya a big tip. They sure were happy to get the job, I’ll tell ya that.”

Joe stood up, extremely uncomfortable by now. “Sorry, Jack, but I gotta go. I don’t think I should be here right now.” He got up and headed toward the door.

“Alright, there, kid,” Jack yelled after him, grinning. “But don’t ya forget about tonight.” Jack turned back to his whisky then, and didn’t notice the dark cowboy that came to his feet in the darkened corner of the saloon.

Adam Cartwright had heard most of the conversation, and was quickly putting two and two together.

*****

Slim and Red Slade huddled at their table near the front door of the Bucket of Blood. The fortunes of the two brothers had not been good lately; though they had done well in the past through a variety of nefarious activities such as cattle rustling and petty theft, pickings were slim recently, and the two found themselves on the run from the law once again.

They needed cash, and quick, so they could make an escape into Mexico until things blew over. And then, a solution presented itself in the form of a handsome young man walking into the saloon. Someone hollered a greeting to the kid from the bar. Well, whaddya know? He was a Cartwright – one of them rich Cartwrights. Yep, things were beginning to look up, for darn sure. When the young man suddenly up and left a few minutes later, the brothers stood up to follow.

*****

The sky was a blazing kaleidoscope of red and orange as sunset lit the Nevada sky, but Joe was too preoccupied to notice. He had been waiting for his kidnappers to arrive for nearly a half hour now, at the assigned meeting place near a grove of poplar trees just outside of Virginia City. The meeting place was easily visible from the main road, so he watched anxiously in case his brothers should happen by on the buckboard. He hoped that they would just assume that he left town early and went home on his own.

At the sound of approaching horses, Joe’s head popped up, and he tried to focus on the two riders in the dimming light. He noted with dismay that the kidnappers were none other than the two mean-looking dudes he had first noticed in the saloon. They seemed somewhat different than his other kidnappers – harder and meaner, somehow. Why did Jack say he would like these two?

They dismounted and pulled out their guns simultaneously. “Are you Cartwright? One of them rich Cartwrights?” Slim asked as he approached.

Joe nodded, and regarded the two quizzically. “There’s no need for the weapons, gentlemen. I’m here willingly, remember?” Joe had been in this situation before, though for some reason this time he was starting to feel uneasy.

Slim ignored Joe‘s protestations. “Just drop yer gun, kid. We’re gonna take a little ride, now. Yer Pa’s got a lot of money, don’t he? So how much do ya think yer worth to him?”

Joe dropped his gun as directed, quite nervous by now. “Listen, you two are with the SJS, right?” he asked.

Slim and Red exchanged glances. “What the hell is the SJS?”

Alarmed, Joe looked around frantically for a means to escape, and tried to make a break for it into the woods, but the Slade brothers were on him instantly. Within minutes, Joe was unconscious.

*****

Adam approached the stranger at the bar. He grabbed Jack’s arm and yanked him towards an empty table, pushing him down forcefully into a chair. Jack gaped at the black-garbed cowboy, and cringed at the furious look on his face. About that time, Hoss strolled into the saloon. Adam gestured him over, and then turned to his guest. “I think we have a few things to talk about, friend.”

Jack sank back into the chair, nervous, and nearly panicked when the other massive cowboy came in and sat down across from him. “Ummm, can I help you, gentlemen?” he asked, his voice slurring.

*****

Joe awoke to a pounding headache, centered on the back of his head where he had been hit. He moaned softly as his memory returned. His hands and feet were bound, and a gag had been shoved into his mouth. He tried to turn his head to see where he was, but even that small movement brought on throbbing pain. Though it was mostly dark, he figured he had been taken to a line shack somewhere, and the condition of the dwelling indicated that it had likely been abandoned for some time.

His captors had seated themselves at the tiny table and were struggling to write a ransom note in the light of the single kerosene lamp. Slim finished writing, and handed the completed note to his brother. “Now, get this on over to their ranch. Then, we can collect our cash and get on outta here.” He looked over at his captive. “Oh, so yer awake, eh, Cartwright? Sure hope yer Pa’s willing to pay up, or we might have to hurt ya some.” He cackled at that, and walked over to Joe, giving him a kick for good measure.

*****

Adam regarded Jack intently. “So, you’re telling me that there is another kidnapping planned for tonight? When and where is this supposed to take place?” he demanded, his voice tight with anger.

By now, Jack was truly terrified. It was bad enough when Adam had threatened to march him right over to the sheriff’s office, but when his rather large companion fiercely threatened to tear off both his arms; it was all Jack needed to tell them everything he knew. Jack nodded, and his voice was nearly hoarse with fear as he answered. “Yeah, tonight. Just out by the poplar grove ’bout a mile outside of town.”

Jack gasped as his collar was suddenly seized by Hoss and he was yanked roughly out of his chair. Hoss pulled him forward until they were nearly nose to nose. “You better be telling the truth, mister. You know what I’ll do to ya if I find out yer lying?”

Jack gulped, speechless. Adam interjected, then, grasping Hoss by the shoulder.

“Come on, Hoss, we gotta find Joe before he does something stupid.” Adam turned his attention to Jack again. “But we’re not finished with you, friend.” he grimly warned Jack. “We’ll be in touch.” At that, Adam and Hoss hurried out of the saloon and jumped onto the buckboard.

Although sunset was rapidly fading into dusky evening by this time, Adam and Hoss located the poplar grove easily shortly after leaving the boundaries of Virginia City. To their disappointment, though, all they discovered was an anxious Cochise, nervously pawing the ground where he had been tethered, and Joe’s hat, lying alongside. Joe, however, was nowhere to be found.

*****

Ben Cartwright unfolded the parchment again, and tried for the tenth time to try and make sense of the strange scribblings on it.

SJS SkedulRisk the rath of the SJS? What the hell did that mean? What was SJS? Someone’s initials, maybe? And what were all these dates and locations?

Hop Sing had discovered the strange document when cleaning some items out of Joe’s closet just that afternoon. It had likely fallen out of one of Joe’s pockets. Though hesitant to invade the boy’s privacy, the little Chinese servant was alarmed enough about the paper that he turned it over to Ben.

Ben sighed. He had no choice but to confront Joseph with it when he returned from town and demand an explanation, but he had an uneasy feeling that the existence of the paper had ominous implications.

Ben’s examination of the parchment was interrupted by the sounds of the buckboard rumbling its arrival into the yard. He walked outside to greet his sons, and was stopped short at the sight of the rider less Cochise. Adam and Hoss jumped out of the wagon and met up with their father on the porch.

“Boys?” Suddenly concerned, Ben addressed his sons. “Where’s your brother?”

*****

Shaking with emotion, Ben gingerly lowered himself into his chair. He couldn’t believe it. Even when Adam described the whole notorious plot that Jack had admitted to him. Even when confronted with the truth of it–Joe riding off mysteriously on his own just prior to each kidnapping, the similar ransom requests, Joe’s possession of a significant amount of cash recently, and the SJS Skedul that had been discovered in Joe‘s room. Ben just couldn’t believe it!

He shook his head and looked up at his sons. “How could Joseph have gotten involved in something like this? How?” he cried, utterly bewildered.

Adam paused in his pacing. “Pa, I think there may be a way to end this whole thing, and maybe teach Joe a lesson in the process.” he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “We should be getting a ransom note shortly, right? Maybe we can turn the tables on these alleged kidnappers.”

Almost as if on queue, there was a slight noise outside. The Cartwrights looked at each other, and ran to open the door. Ben bent over to pick up the envelope that had been tossed on the porch, and scanned the darkness for the person who delivered it. Seeing nothing, he returned inside, and quickly opened the note. He read it aloud to his sons.

If you value your son’s life, leave $5000 in cash inside the poplar grove by noon tomorrow. No law or your son will die, Cartwright.”

Adam took the note from his father’s hands. “Well, Pa, it looks like the kidnappers are going to be surprised at noon tomorrow.” He smiled then. His little brother was going to be very surprised indeed.

*****

The door to the line shack burst open and Red stomped in, obviously quite angry. He confronted Joe. “What the hell is this all about? What’s going on, Cartwright?” He had a note of some type in his hand, and he was shaking it in the face of his bound and gagged prisoner.

Slim came groggily to his feet, disturbed from his catnap. “What is it, Red?” he asked, rubbing his eyes. “Did ya get the money?”

“No, I did not get the money!” Red hollered, flinging the handwritten note on the table in front of his brother. “All I got was this! Just read it! Read it!”

Slim picked up the note and read it aloud. “Before we agree to pay any cash, we must be certain that you actually have Joe in your possession. Please send us a finger or toe as proof, and then we will be happy to negotiate an appropriate ransom. Best wishes, The Cartwright Family” Slim frowned, and dropped the note back on the table. “Is this for real?”

Joe, meanwhile, from his position on the floor, was wide-eyed in disbelief. There had to be some misunderstanding. Surely his family wouldn’t demand proof of his abduction in the form of an amputated body part, would they?

Slim glared at his prisoner, then. “Well, kid, yer lucky I ain’t one for chopping off fingers. If they want proof, though, we’ll give it to ‘em.”

*****

The next note arrived at the Ponderosa two hours later. Adam picked it up from the porch decking and opened it as he came inside. “Pa!” he called out. “We’ve heard back from the kidnappers.”

Pa and Hoss came into the great room as Adam started to read the note aloud. “For proof that we have your son, please come to the cave entrance at Indian’s Leap at sunset today. Ransom amount to be determined at that time. No law or your son will die.”

Adam folded the note carefully and placed it in his shirt pocket. “Pa, Hoss and I will go.” he said. “To get there before sunset, we‘d better leave within the hour.”

Adam sensed his father was about to protest, and he held up his hand to stop him.

“No, Pa, it’s best if you stay here. We need to teach these characters a lesson. You just get too emotional when it comes to your youngest son, and you may well agree to anything they ask, even though you already know this whole thing is set up. Anyway, there’s a chance they may just give up and drop Joe off here before Hoss and I get back.”

Ben sighed. He knew Adam was right. All that was left to do now was to wait for his sons to return. Hopefully, all three of them.

*****

Once they’d arrived at Indian’s Leap, Slim and Red dragged their bound captive to higher ground so they could easily see the arrival of any riders from every direction, and settled in to wait. Shortly before sunset, they spied two riders on the horizon. Joe lifted his head and knew immediately that they were his brothers. He nearly went slack with relief. Finally!

As his brothers approached their location, Slim and Red stopped them with cocked pistols. “That’s far enough, you two. Now, hand over yer weapons, nice and slow-like.” Slim instructed.

Hoss and Adam hesitated at first, but complied. Slim continued. “I assume you two are Cartwrights? Where’s the old man?”

Adam answered. “Our Pa was too busy to come. Now, we want to see our brother.”

Red dragged Joe into view and dumped him at the feet of his brothers, still keeping his gun trained on the pair. Adam glanced down briefly, and looked bored. “Yeah, it’s him all right. Mind if I talk to him for a minute?”

Slim shrugged. “Suit yerself. But don’t ya touch that gag. That kid’s got a smart mouth on him.”

Adam chuckled at that. “Don’t I know it! Can’t tell ya how many times I’ve wanted to gag him myself at home.”

Adam crouched down in front of Joe. He had to admit, Joe was putting on a good performance. He even looked scared.

“Well, little brother, what’s your cut going to be this time?” he asked, quietly. “Hoss and I had a little chat with your friend Jack yesterday. We know about everything, Joe. The kidnappings, the SJS, the whole thing. Do you know what this crazy scheme of yours has been doing to Pa? Maybe you all should just quit while you’re ahead, huh?”

He patted Joe on the head and stood up.

Joe’s eyes went wide at Adam’s words. He shook his head frantically and struggled to make as much noise as he could; practically screaming through the gag, but the sound came out as a muffled moaning. When that failed to get his brother’s attention, he started to bang his bound feet on the ground.

Hoss then knelt down and started to fumble with the ropes binding Joe’s hands. Joe turned still as he felt the tug on his wrists, convinced that at least one of his brothers was going to help him. That is, until he felt the ropes become suddenly tighter.

“Looks like he was startin’ to get loose on ya, there,” Hoss explained to Slim. “I just tightened the ropes up a bit fer you fellers.” He stood back up, and patted Joe on the head. “Guess yer not feelin’ all that comfortable right now, huh, Short Shanks?”

At that, Joe resumed his protests louder than before. Slim became irritated. “Get him outta here, Red,” he said, and Joe was dragged away from his brothers’ sight, still making noise and banging his feet.

Slim turned his attention back to Hoss and Adam. “Okay, now ya seen him. Let’s talk about what it’s going to cost you to get him back.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged a brief glance before Adam addressed the kidnappers. “Well, the thing is, Joe’s been kinda slacking off on his chores and all lately, and to tell the truth, we’re not sure if want him back yet. Would you mind giving us some time to think about it? Oh, and by the way, I think you made a mistake on your ransom note. I’m sure you must have just forgotten the decimal on the amount. You were asking for fifty dollars, and not $5,000, right? Cause we all thought that was pretty funny back at the ranch.” He paused for a moment. “Okay, tell you what. We’ll consider a hundred dollars, tops. It’s just, well, the kid ain’t worth all that much.”

Slim and Red looked so stunned that Adam almost laughed. The negotiations were obviously not going as planned. Slim found his voice eventually. “Now, wait a second. You do realize that we’ll kill the kid if you don’t pay up, right? We’re serious, here.”

Adam nodded. “Give us 24 hours to think it over, and we’ll let you know. We’ll leave a note right here tomorrow giving you our answer.” He nodded at Hoss, and they turned to leave. “Can we have our guns back, though?” he asked.

Red reluctantly handed back the weapons, though he kept his own gun pointed at them. Adam looked annoyed. He pushed Red’s gun to the side. “And for God’s sake, would you mind not pointing that thing at us? You could hurt somebody.”

Adam and Hoss remounted their horses, and turned back toward the Ponderosa, leaving two thoroughly confused criminals and a very nervous younger brother in their wake.

Joe heard his brothers’ departure, and he closed his eyes in misery. He knew what was going on, of course. His family had apparently learned about Joe’s involvement with the SJS and his willing participation in his own kidnappings, and they assumed that this was just another such incident.

Talk about reaping what you sow, he thought ironically. He imagined his father was quite upset with him over the whole thing, but Joe had more important concerns at the moment. He supposed that all of this was somehow his own fault, but then, how was he to know that he would fall into the hands of two real criminals?

Boy, oh boy, Joe. You’ve sure gotten yourself into a real fix now, he thought.

*****

The Cartwright brothers were still snickering as their horses trotted into the yard of the ranch house a while later. Hoss chuckled as he dismounted, “And did ya see his face when I tightened up them ropes? His eyes got wide as saucers, I tell ya.”

Adam laughed and nodded. “Joe sure looked surprised, didn’t he? I’ll bet he had no idea that we would refuse to pay up right then and there.” Their horses secured, the two walked up to the house. “Just wait till Pa hears, and…” He opened the door, and his words died on his lips as he saw the stricken look on his father’s face.

Ben was standing near the sideboard, his face pale with shock. He was clutching a note in his hand. He silently handed it to his oldest son, before finding his voice. “It just came by messenger a few minutes ago, son, addressed to Joe. It’s….Adam, we were wrong….”

Adam snatched up the note and read. “Now, Joe, ya know I don’t rite good. Sory that no one met ya yesterday. Somthin came up. I tryed to find ya, but ya musta gon home allreddy. Thar wont be no more “apointmints” anymore. The SJS has bin desbanded. Thanks, Jack”

Adam reread the note, and looked at his father and brother. “Then, this means..” he swallowed. “This means that those two were real kidnappers. And God, Hoss, Joe was trying to let us know, and we just ignored him.”

Ben grabbed Adam’s arm. “What about Little Joe? Did you see him? Has he been hurt?” he asked anxiously.

Adam reassured his father. “Pa, he seems okay, just scared is all. They had him gagged, so he couldn’t talk to us, but we were able to talk to him.” Adam flinched then, remembering the things he said to his brother.

“I’ll bet Joe’s none too pleased with us right now,” Hoss added softly, his voice laden with guilt.

Adam shook his head. “Unfortunately, that’s the least of our worries for now, Hoss. We need to figure out how to get our brother back.”

*****

Joe spent a sleepless night after being dragged back to the line shack the previous evening. Although his captors had briefly untied him to attend to his personal needs, and removed the gag to give him a sip of water, he was back to being bound hand and foot. Not the most comfortable position for sleeping, especially on a hard floor. Through the lone, filthy window, he could just make out the rosy hues of dawn. Thankfully, they had not gagged him again. Joe didn’t think he could have tolerated another night with that nasty rag stuffed into his mouth.

He sighed as he regarded the loudly snoring brothers stretched out on the two rickety cots, hoping they would awaken soon and offer him some water and maybe some food this time. He sure was getting hungry.

The two woke a short time later, and the snoring soon gave way to shouting. There they go again, Joe observed, somewhat amused in spite of the circumstances. He gingerly scooted himself up to a sitting position so he could get a better view of the yelling match. The disagreement had started the night before, shortly after they had returned to the line shack with their captive. Unsettled by the unsuccessful ransom negotiations with his family, the brothers turned on each other as they argued over what to do next.

“Well, I says we just kill him now and get outta here!” Slim was pacing the floor and hollering loudly. “Them Cartwrights ain’t gonna pay up. It’s like they hate that kid or somethin‘!”

He stomped over to Joe then and roughly yanked him up by the collar. He clearly blamed the youth for the entire fiasco. “Just what the hell is wrong with your family, kid? Don’t they know that we’ll kill ya?” he barked angrily.

Joe glared up at him but said nothing, only blinking at the spittle flying in his face. Slim snarled in disgust, and flung Joe back on the floor.

Red was arguing back. “And I says we wait. Cartwright’ll pay up. Everyone in the territory knows how that old man is soft on those sons of his. I think that older boy was just bluffin’. I sure would like to pound that arrogant son of a…” He slammed his fist on the table for emphasis.

Joe scowled at the mention of his older brother. He would sure like to pound Adam himself! Although he knew that Adam thought the entire abduction was a scam, Joe had clearly heard all the comments his brother made about him yesterday. Ol’ Adam sure knew how to play it to the hilt, didn’t he?

“I‘ve wanted to gag him at home myself….we’re not sure if we want him back….Joe’s been slacking off on his chores….the kid just ain’t worth all that much…” And that charming little note requesting a finger or toe? That was Adam‘s idea–Joe would have bet money on it.

And Hoss!

Hoss with his clever “I tightened the ropes up a bit fer you fellers”–ropes that Joe had been diligently loosening up for hours. No doubt about it. If he managed to get out of here alive he and his two brothers were going to have some words.

*****

Sunrise found the remaining Cartwrights preparing to start a search for the kidnappers and the missing Joe. All agreed that it would be impossible to pick up a trail in the treacherous terrain around Indian’s Leap at night, though that hadn’t made the waiting any easier. It had been a long night for all three of them.

It was decided that Adam would fetch the sheriff and meet up with his father and Hoss at Indian’s Leap, where they would begin the search. When Adam arrived at Roy Coffee’s office, he was dismayed to discover him tacking up a new wanted poster with sketches of the Slade Brothers–the very two individuals who had abducted Little Joe. It seemed the Slades had quite an infamous reputation and a long line of crimes including assault, theft, and cattle rustling, and were wanted throughout the territory. After grimly explaining to the sheriff what had happened, the two left immediately to meet up with the other Cartwrights.

The trail had been quite easy to pick up; the Slades had obviously been too distracted by the events the evening before to cover their tracks. Within an hour the four came upon the dilapidated line shack where they were convinced Joe was being held. Even from their location several yards away they could hear the shouting from within, though they couldn’t make out the words.

*****

Slim was still yelling, and Joe was amazed that the dude hadn’t gone hoarse by now. It had been going on and on for about two hours, by Joe’s estimate, and Joe was still hungry and thirsty. He’d been largely ignored by the two during the loud disagreement, save for the occasional evil-looking glare thrown in his direction. Joe wisely kept quiet, afraid that he would be gagged again if he said anything.

“And I say we can’t just let the kid go! He’s seen us – he knows our names fer cryin‘ out loud!” Slim yelled. “We don’t need another charge hangin’ over our heads! Don’t ya know what they do to kidnappers in this territory? I’ll tell ya what they do, they…” he stopped short at the sound of the horses nickering outside, and rushed over to the window. His voice dropped to a loud whisper. “Wait! Ya hear that, Red? I think someone’s out there…”

Joe’s head came up at that. “Pa!” he exclaimed softly, before he could stop himself. He found himself suddenly yanked to his feet and pushed up against the wall by Slim, a grimy hand covering his mouth.

“You just keep quiet, kid!” Slim spat into his ear. He then addressed Red. “I’ll stay in here with Cartwright – you go on out there and look around.”

Red looked like he was about to argue, but he grabbed his gun and slowly opened the door. Looking around and seeing nothing, he stepped out into the sunshine to peer around the tiny structure. Nothing. He walked around to the back. Nothing there either, except the horses. Damn nags–probably frettin’ at flies or something.

He sighed in relief, and holstering his weapon, turned around, and walked straight into the cocked, shiny Colt revolver of Hoss Cartwright. Startled, Red looked up and gaped in terror; less frightened of the weapon than the enraged expression on the big man’s face. Hoss slammed him into the side of the dwelling, and clamped a large hand around Red’s throat. Quietly and deliberately, Hoss hissed into the man’s face.  “Where’s…mah….brother?”

Red choked and struggled, wild-eyed in fear, and suddenly went limp as he slipped into a dead faint at Hoss’ feet. Hoss carelessly nudged him aside with his boot, and gestured for the sheriff to come and collect the unconscious man.

Adam and his father, meanwhile, had made their way around the opposite side of the line shack, and so were in clear view of the front door when Slim came out with his young hostage. It hadn’t taken Slim long to figure out that something was up, so he quickly sliced through the ropes binding Joe’s feet and pulled the boy up in a choke hold towards the open door, his gun barrel pressed tightly to Joe’s temple.

“Come on out!” Slim yelled. “I know yer out there. Now come on out here and drop yer weapons, or I‘ll shoot the kid, I swear!” His eyes were darting around frantically, looking for the intruders.

Adam and Ben revealed themselves then, and threw their guns down as they were told. Joe’s eyes locked with his father’s and he could read the worry and fear there. He wished that he could somehow let his father know that he was okay, but it was a bit hard to do considering the hairy arm that was currently choking the breath out of him.

He saw a whisper of movement out of the corner of his eye, and noticed Hoss sneaking stealthily from the side of the shack. He caught his brother’s eye, and nodded ever so slightly at him. Hoss winked at him in understanding.

For a big man, Hoss was exceptionally light on his feet. When Joe suddenly lifted his feet and fell forward, Hoss darted out and slammed the butt of his gun into Slim’s skull. Slim’s gun discharged harmlessly into the air, and the man was unconscious even before he dropped to the ground on top of Joe.

Ben and Adam ran over then, and together they pushed Slim aside to get to the still bound Joe, who had fainted from the impact of a 200 pound body landing on him. Ben gathered his son up and patted his face gently, attempting to arouse him. “Joe….it’s Pa. Joe!”

After a few moments, Joe’s eyelids flickered and focused on his father’s face, inches from his own. He turned his own face away, suddenly ashamed.

“Hey, Pa. I…,” Joe whispered hoarsely, swallowing at the dryness in his throat. “I guess you’re pretty mad at me, huh?”

Ben grasped his son’s chin, and turned his face so he could look into his eyes. “Yes. But the important thing is, you’re okay now. We’ll talk about everything else later.”

Adam crouched down and pulled out his knife, slicing through the ropes still binding Joe’s hands together. He looked his brother over, and finding no obvious injury, he and Hoss eased Joe from their father’s grasp and gently lifted him to his feet. Once he was standing, Joe angrily pushed away from them, and his hands tightened into fists as the memory of the things his brothers said and did came rushing back. His chest was heaving with hurt and anger as he glared at them.

“So, I ain’t worth all that much, huh? You’re not sure if you want me back, huh? Why’d you even come here, then?” He charged at them, punching and shoving wildly, though in his weakened state his blows were feeble and glancing.

Adam held his brother at arm’s length and tried to diffuse the situation, “Joe, we’re sorry…..Hoss and I…it’s just that we….” He fell silent, not quite sure how to make up for the things he had said.

Nearly trembling with anger, Joe paused for an instant and glanced up at his two brothers. Something in the sad way they were looking at him caught at his heart, and he felt the anger and hurt leave him as suddenly as they had appeared.

Damn. When had his brothers learned about the ‘loving gaze’?

Joe’s fists unclenched, and heaving a big sigh, he stumbled forward into the arms of his family.

*****

Joe was awakened suddenly from his nap by the sound of Hop Sing calling him down to eat. He rubbed the sleepy feeling from his eyes and sat up. Better wash up a bit before supper, or Hop Sing would throw a fit, he thought.

He had been home for two days now. His father had insisted that Joe be seen by the doctor after returning home, despite Joe’s heated protests. Doc Martin proclaimed him dehydrated, bruised, sore, hungry, thirsty, fatigued, and generally weak, but otherwise perfectly healthy. After a day or so of taking things easy at home and eating a couple of Hop Sing’s hearty meals, Joe was back to feeling normal again.

Yesterday, Adam and Hoss had made the trip to the Bar-M Ranch near Mormon Flats. After a lengthy discussion with the owner and several of the hands, as well as a conversation with the local sheriff, they were assured that there would be no more kidnappings. The SJS no longer existed.

The lecture Joe had received last night seemed to last for hours, but Joe had expected as much. He noticed that Hoss and Adam had front row seats to the event, but the two blessedly made few comments as Pa ranted on and on about Joe’s irresponsibility and recklessness and dishonesty. Joe’s wages would be docked until the end of the year to replace the money that had been paid out in ransoms.

Adam had thoughtfully figured out the exact dollar amount, down to the penny, along with calculations of simple interest added in. To top off the situation, Joe’s beloved saddle had been sold. The only bright spot of the entire evening was when Joe was allowed to toss every remaining ransom note into the fire and watch the wretched things burn to ashes.

Joe sighed heavily, thinking wistfully of the beautiful saddle that was no longer his. Hmmm. If he could just earn a little money somehow, he could buy that saddle back. Or maybe even a nicer saddle; a prettier saddle!

Maybe he could raise rabbits or something. He had heard once that there was a lot of money to be made from rabbit pelts. Or maybe he could become a detective and catch bad guys and collect the reward money. Maybe….just maybe.

And with a grin on his face, and a fresh spring in his step, Joe ran down to join his family for supper.

***The End***

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