Summary: This story came about following a discussion on the BonanzaInAussie message board about what we would change on certain episodes. The first one to be discussed was Death At Dawn. Following a suggestion that was made, the challenge was thrown down – quite lightly – for someone to write a fan fiction based on the suggestion. I decided to take up the challenge…
Rated: T (7,060 words)
Death Withheld – An alternative look at ‘Death At Dawn’
“I’ll come with you to see the judge to the stage, Pa,” Joe Cartwright announced.
Frowning, Ben Cartwright turned to look at his youngest son and saw the utter determination on Joe’s face. Joe had been very calm and mature in the way he had behaved following the murder of Cameron, the store-keeper and the subsequent trial of Farmer Perkins. Now, Perkins was in the jail, waiting to hang at dawn and then there would be no further need for the Cartwrights to act as deputies. “I can manage, Joe,” he rebuked his son, mildly.
“I know,” Joe replied and smiled slightly. “But I think we still ought to be careful, at least until Farmer Perkins is hanged. Sam Bryant might try something.”
“Joe’s right, Pa,” Adam agreed. In the jail house yard, the monotonous sound of hammering was beginning to get on everyone’s nerves. But the gallows had to be ready for 5 am, and the carpenter had no choice but to work through the night.
“I’m only going over to the stage stop,” Ben protested, exasperated.
“Yeah, but it’s why yer goin’ ta the stage stop that interests us,” Hoss interjected. “Yer goin’ ta make sure the judge is all right, ain’t ya?”
Opening his mouth to protest that this was not the case, Ben hastily thought better of saying that and closed his mouth again, for it was quite true. He was worried about Judge Scribner reaching the stage stop in safety. Who knew what kind of revenge Sam Bryant and his men might have in mind? “I’ll be fine,” Ben said, instead.
“I think it would be wise, Pa,” Adam persisted. “Perhaps not Joe going with you…”
“It was my idea, Adam,” Joe interrupted. “And I’m going with Pa, no matter what any of you say.”
“All right,” Ben capitulated. “But I’m sure nothing will happen. We’ll all be perfectly safe.” He nodded. “All right, Joe, let’s go.” Ben opened the door for the judge and the three men went out onto the hostile street.
There were quite a few people milling about the streets in a state of high excitement. Ben thought that he would have been quite safe going with the judge on his own, but he could understand his sons’ worries. As he had expected, there were a few people waiting for the weekly stage to Sacramento.
“I’ll be fine now, Ben,” the judge assured him. “You and Joe go off and do whatever it is you have to do.”
“If you’re sure,” Ben replied.
“I’m quite sure,” the judge smiled. He shook hands with both the Cartwrights. “Goodbye, Ben, Joe.”
“Good bye, sir,” Joe replied and he walked across the street with Ben a step or two in front him.
It was growing dark. The people who had been on the street were gradually disappearing and it was much quieter, apart from the noise coming from the saloons. Ben had never been able to fathom why people treating hangings like a party. He hated to have to watch a hanging and he had never done as some parents did, and forced his young sons to watch one.
Ben was so lost in his musings that the attack caught him completely by surprise. He had the vague impression of someone jumping at him from out of the alleyway and then something crashed down onto his head. As he tumbled to the ground, Ben heard Joe cry out his name just before darkness overwhelmed him.
Stunned by the attack, Joe jumped forward, heedless of his own safety. “Hey!” he protested. He was grabbed from behind and a couple of fists thumped into his stomach in quick succession. A hand was clapped roughly over his mouth and his arms were twisted up behind his back.
There was movement in the street and one of the men who had grabbed Joe jerked his head towards the alley. “Leave the old man,” he decided. “We don’t want them catching us.”
Still struggling hopelessly, Joe was dragged away into the covering darkness.
A confused babble of voices brought Ben back to consciousness. He groaned as pain radiated through his skull and a hand touched his arm. “Pa, can you hear me?” The voice was Adam’s.
Slowly, Ben forced his eyes to open and looked into Adam’s worried brown eyes. “I’m all right,” he gasped, but another groan belied his words. He looked around him and discovered that he was in the jail again, and the sheriff was ushering a crowd of people out of the door. “What happened?” he muttered.
“You were attacked by some of Bryant’s men,” Adam reported, his voice tense.
“I remember,” Ben sighed, and closed his eyes for a moment, hoping that the banging in his head would settle down. It took him a moment to realise that the worst of the banging was coming from the yard outside. With that realisation came memory. “Where’s Joe?” he asked, opening his eyes and trying to sit up.
“Take it easy, Pa,” Hoss urged, preventing Ben from sitting up. But his tone had told Ben everything he needed to know and he gazed at his two sons with growing dread in his heart.
“They’ve got Joe, haven’t they?” he demanded and Adam reluctantly nodded.
“We think so,” he clarified. “Joe was grabbed by the three men who attacked you and hasn’t been seen since.”
Too shaken to speak, Ben lay back down. Where was Joe? What did Bryant intend to do with him? He looked up to meet the worried gazes of his sons. Bryant had said that they would pay for convicting Perkins. Ben hadn’t liked to believe it; now he had to.
Fighting every step of the way, Joe was dragged through the deserted back streets of the town to the abandoned livery stable. The men opened the door and once inside, threw Joe to the floor. He just barely caught himself before he sprawled flat on his face and pushed himself into a sitting position, taking in the scene before him.
Sitting at a table was Sam Bryant. That was no surprise to Joe. He looked at the men who had brought him there and found that he recognised them all. There was McNeill, a bully a few years older than Joe and Bertram and Turner, both of whom were particularly close to Bryant.
“Why did you bring him?” Bryant asked, looking at Bertram. “I thought we agreed you’d get the old man.”
“We knocked him out, but the boy was there, too,” Bertram explained. “He shouted and we saw someone coming so we took him instead. Does it matter? He’s a Cartwright.”
Rising, Bryant walked over to Joe. When Joe tried to rise, McNeill kicked him back down. Bryant smiled. “Maybe this is for the best,” he mused aloud, looking down at Joe. “The old man would have been good, but could be the boy will be a better hostage. You can take a note over to the jail. Let’s see how keen Ben Cartwright is on hanging Farmer Perkins when his son’s life is at risk.” He gestured. “Tie him up.”
Determined not to be tied, Joe leapt to his feet and made a break for the door. McNeill was on him in a moment, knocking Joe off his feet and pummelling him with verve. Joe had no chance. It was only when he was lying still, gasping for breath, that McNeill dragged his hands behind his back and tied them brutally tightly. He then bound Joe’s feet and dragged him across to one of the stalls, where he threw Joe down in a heap.
As the aching in his body subsided slightly, Joe looked over his shoulder and was disconcerted to see Bryant looking down at him. “You’d better hope your daddy loves you, boy,” Bryant warned. “Or else you’re going to die very young.”
“Pa will do what’s right,” Joe retorted. “Perkins will hang.”
“And if he does, then so will you,” Bryant smiled. “Of course, I may have to give him an added incentive to insure his cooperation.” He reached out and picked Joe up by the lapel of his vest. “How much can you take before you’re begging your father to release Perkins?”
Swallowing against the sudden dryness in his mouth, Joe hoped that he was able to hide his fear. “I can take anything you can dish out,” he boasted.
Laughing at Joe’s bravado, Bryant dropped him back into the straw and walked away. Joe watched him writing on a piece of paper and started to work the bonds that bound his wrists behind him. He had to get free!
A quick but thorough scout around the main parts of town hadn’t turned up any sign of Joe. Discouraged, Adam and Hoss headed back to the jail, where they found Ben looking slightly better. The sheriff let them in and quickly barred the door behind them.
“No sign,” Adam reported, dropping into a chair.
“What’re we gonna do?” Hoss asked, hitching one hip onto the edge of the sheriff’s desk.
“I’d like to know that too,” Sheriff Biggs agreed, as he came over and sat down. “Are you still set on hanging the farmer?”
“We have no choice,” Ben replied, tonelessly. “If we don’t, then we tell everyone that they can murder with impunity.”
“But what about Little Joe?” Hoss demanded, his face aghast. “What’ll they do to him if’n Perkins hangs?”
The anguish on Ben’s face was an answer of sorts. He didn’t know what the real answer was though, but he feared the worst. Yet how could he back down now? He had persuaded Beth Cameron to testify on the strength of his promise that Perkins would hang if she did. Could he now renege on his promise? He didn’t want to sacrifice Joe, but nor could he exchange Joe for Beth. Ben was under no illusions that Beth would be safe if Perkins was let free. “I don’t know,” Ben replied. “But we can’t afford to back down.”
Troubled, but unable to contradict his father, Adam looked away. “Besides, we still don’t know for sure that they have Joe,” he muttered, trying to be optimistic.
The sudden pounding on the door startled them all and they all reached for weapons. Rising, Biggs went to stand cautiously to one side of the door. “Who is it?” he called. There was no response.
Carefully, Biggs opened the door and peered around it. The street was deserted, but he could clearly hear the laughter from the saloon. As he started to step back in, he glanced down and saw something lying by the door. Crouching, he retrieved the bundle, took it inside and locked the door again.
“What is it?” Adam asked. He reached for the bundle and then his heart skipped a beat and his hand froze in mid-air, for he had recognised Joe’s tan vest with the deputy’s badge still attached to it.
“Adam?” Ben queried and rose as he saw how pale his son had become. At once, he recognised Joe’s vest, too. Hoss swallowed audibly.
“There’s a note,” Biggs announced and picked it up. “Release Farmer Perkins and you will get your son back alive. If you don’t, your son will hang.”
The silence in the office was profound, broken only by the regular, monotonous beat of the hammer in the yard where they were building the gallows.
As McNeill advanced towards him with a knife, Joe glared at him defiantly. They had never got on at school and McNeill had thoroughly enjoyed making Joe’s life a misery. He had bullied the younger boy relentlessly, goading Joe into numerous fights. Joe was still wary of him when they met, but he was determined not to show any fear, despite the large knife that McNeill was wielding.
“Gonna give yer pa a present, Joe,” McNeill crooned, sticking the knife under Joe’s chin. “What d’ya think? A finger, maybe?”
“You won’t make him back down,” Joe retorted, pleased that there was no betraying quiver in his voice. “Perkins is going to hang. Bryant isn’t in charge of this town any more.”
Furious at the lack of fear, McNeill dealt Joe a savage backhand slap. The blow knocked the bound man over and Joe bit his tongue and felt the coppery taste of blood. Before he could recover his breath, he found himself hauled upright, with McNeill looming over him, the knife poised. “Don’t say that, boy!” he hissed. “Sam Bryant is in charge of this town and don’t ya forget it! If Perkins hangs, ya’ll hang and I’m gonna be the one to do it.” He shook Joe harder. “Ya better be careful, boy, it’s a few hours till dawn. Who knows what fun I could have with ya before then?” He brought the knife up into Joe’s line of vision and pressed the blade against Joe’s cheek. “Maybe ya won’t be so pretty when I’m finished with ya!”
“McNeill.” The voice was disapproving. Only when his tormentor turned his head did Joe allow his gaze to meet Bryant’s. “Not yet,” Bryant reproved him. “I just need his vest. Now hurry up. The sooner Cartwright gets this message, the sooner the farmer will be freed.”
“All right, Sam,” McNeill agreed, sulkily. He slid the blade of the knife under Joe’s vest, not caring that the cutting edge also slid through the thin material of Joe’s grey shirt and cut the skin below. The cuts were superficial, but they burned all the same. Joe bit the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out. McNeill looked disappointed as he slit through the suede. He repeated the manoeuvre on the other side of Joe’s vest, and again, Joe kept quiet. As the remains of his vest were torn from his back, Joe kept his head up and his gaze on McNeill. He was determined not to show the fear he felt worming through his belly.
“Will he go through with it?” Adam asked. “I don’t think he will. I think he’ll realise that if we have hanged Perkins anyway, he’d be foolish to hang Joe.”
“And what if yer wrong, Adam?” Hoss asked. They had been discussing the matter endlessly, the cut up remains of Joe’s vest lying on the sheriff’s desk in a silent reminder of his peril.
“Look, we’ve never seen Bryant doing his own dirty work,” Adam explained. “He usually gets someone like Perkins to do it for him, doesn’t he? But something like this? He can’t afford to let someone else do it. He has to go through with it himself and I think he’s too clever for that.”
“We don’t know how ruthless he is,” Ben commented. “He commands a lot of respect, but how does he get that respect in the first place? For all we know, he does it by over powering somebody.” He looked up and met Adam’s dark gaze. “He may think that Joe wouldn’t be hard to intimidate, since he’s young.”
Hoss snorted. “Then he don’t know Joe too well, do he?” he remarked and they smiled.
“True,” Ben agreed. He tried to put himself into Bryant’s shoes, but couldn’t do it. He couldn’t imagine threatening to kill someone to have a murderer set free.
“So what are we going to do?” Adam asked.
“Hang Perkins,” Ben replied. “And look for Joe.”
The ropes were loosening. Joe kept his movements as small as he could as he battled free of the ropes. His wrists were bleeding, but that didn’t matter to Joe. All that mattered was that he was finally making some progress towards getting away. There was an open window at the back of the stall he was lying in and although it was small, Joe was sure he could get through it. The last loops fell from his hands and Joe lay still, glancing towards Bryant, who chose that moment to rise and walk out of Joe’s sight. Frantically, Joe wrestled with the ropes that bound his feet and they came loose easily. Not wasting any more time, Joe scrambled to the back of the stall and jumped for the window.
“Hey!” The cry told Joe that he had been spotted at once, but he paid no heed and wriggled with all his might. The space was tight and he felt his shirt ripping as he squeezed his shoulders through, but the cost in torn skin was worth it to him as he fell to the ground outside, rolling to absorb the impact.
Springing to his feet, Joe glanced both ways before turning to the right and running off. He heard pounding footsteps behind him, but he didn’t risk a glance over his shoulder. That way could easily lead to a fall.
Veering left, Joe raced full speed along the next alley. If he could just keep ahead of his pursuers, he could make it back to the main street where he would be safe. Joe stumbled, but caught himself, panting, resisting the temptation to see how close his captors were.
From ahead, Joe could suddenly hear other footsteps. He didn’t know who the person was, but reasoned that it was as likely to be someone he could trust as someone he couldn’t trust. He ran towards the sound.
As Sheriff Biggs came into view, Joe felt overwhelming relief course through his veins. He was safe! “Sheriff!” he cried and felt something slam into his shoulder, knocking him off his feet.
The echo of the thud as he hit the ground was quickly followed by a shot. Lifting his head, Joe was horrified to see the sheriff fall to the ground, unmoving. He tried to get to his feet, but pain was radiating outwards from his shoulder. Joe felt rough hands grab him and he struggled weakly to get free. He was dragged quickly back the way he had come and a gag was thrust into his mouth as his hands were twisted up his back. Something was ripped from his shoulder and the pain was so intense that Joe almost blacked out. He was barely conscious as he was hurriedly dragged back to the stable and the gag was removed.
“So you thought you could escape did you, boy?” Bryant sneered, forcing Joe’s chin up. “I can see we’ll have to watch you!” He let go of Joe. “Tie him up again and this time do it properly,” he ordered. “And we’ll try the noose out for size while we’re at it.”
Waves of pain lapped at Joe’s consciousness as his hands were tied roughly behind him again. Once they were further secured by a rope going around his waist and back over his bound hands, Joe was dragged over to a pile of boxes and forced to climb them. He stood, wavering, on the top and Bryant climbed onto a chair and fitted a noose over his head, tightening it around his neck.
“It’s a good fit, boy,” Bryant sneered. He peered into Joe’s face, taking satisfaction from the pain he could see etched there. “How does it feel?”
“Pa won’t back down,” Joe croaked. His head was reeling and something warm was trickling down his back. Joe knew he was bleeding badly.
“I think he will,” Bryant insisted and Joe almost asked him why he thought he knew Joe’s father better than Joe did. But the effort of framing the question was too much for him. He stood quiescent as the noose was loosened again and then McNeill dragged him down from the boxes, allowing him to fall to the floor. The impact hurt his shoulder anew and he couldn’t prevent a cry from escaping his lips.
Dragging Joe across the floor to the stall once more, McNeill knelt to tie his feet together. This time, he threaded the end of the rope through the metal ring set into the wall that was intended to keep horses from straying and then tied it around Joe’s ankles again. There would be no escape. “Ya made me look like a fool, boy,” McNeill hissed as he knelt by Joe on the pretext that he was checking the rope that bound his hands. “But I got even with ya.” He held up his Bowie knife. “I knew what I was doin’ an’ the sheriff ain’t gonna be tellin’ yore daddy where ya are!”
Left alone, Joe closed his eyes. The pain in his shoulder had abated slightly now that he was no longer moving and he didn’t feel so dizzy lying down. A movement on the periphery of his vision made Joe look that way.
The noose swung backwards and forwards, a constant reminder of his fate.
The cry of “Sheriff!” echoed faintly through the streets, but Adam recognised the voice at once. He spun around and began to run towards the voice and was shocked when he heard a shot. Adam forced his feet to move faster, but he knew that he would be too late. There was no return of fire. Gun drawn, he barrelled round the corner and saw Biggs sprawled on the ground. Blood poured from his chest.
There was no one else in sight, and Adam cautiously holstered his gun before kneeling by the sheriff. Biggs was still alive, but he was gravely wounded. Adam looked up, wondering what would be best to do, when he heard footsteps and moments later, Hoss panted into view.
“Adam! Are ya all right?” Hoss gasped.
“I’m fine,” Adam replied. “But Biggs is hurt. We need to get him to Doc Martin.” He helped Hoss to pick Biggs up, evoking a groan from the injured man. “I heard Joe’s voice,” he added. “Just before the shot. I thought…” Adam couldn’t go on, but Hoss knew what he had thought.
“Ya thought it were Joe what was hit, didn’ ya?” he asked, gently.
“Yes,” Adam nodded. “There was no sign of him, but I couldn’t leave Biggs to look.” The anguish was clear in Adam’s voice.
“Course ya couldn’,” Hoss agreed. He walked steadily towards the doctor’s house, but his thoughts were with his younger brother.
“This is bad news,” Ben commented, as Adam finished his report. Biggs would live, but he was going to be out of action for some time to come. Ben’s eyes drifted to the clock. It was almost 4 am. Perkins was due to hang in an hour and Joe was still missing. Ben clenched his jaw and swallowed hard to fight down the fear that threatened to rise up and overwhelm him. Much as Ben desperately wanted to let Perkins go and get Joe back, he knew that he didn’t dare risk doing so. Virginia City would become a lawless desert if he did.
“How are you feeling, Pa?” Adam asked. Ben had regained a lot of his colour and looked much better to Adam’s eyes.
“I’m fine, son, thank you,” Ben replied, rather distractedly. He rose and walked over to the door that separated them from the cells.
As he had expected, Perkins was awake, slumped on the narrow cot. “Time is running out,” Ben told him, coldly. “Do you want to see a preacher?”
“I killed a preacher once in Kansas,” Perkins responded, rising and coming to stand close to the bars. “For preachin’ at me!” He laughed, the irritating giggle making Ben want to strike him. “Where’s yore boy, Cartwright? Ain’t seen him. Could it be that Sam’s got him?”
“You’ve got less than an hour left,” Ben replied, ignoring the question. “If I were you, I’d make my peace with God.”
“Well, you ain’t me,” Perkins sneered. “Sam ain’t gonna let me hang. I don’t have nuthin’ ta worry about.” He giggled again.
Silently, Ben left the cells, closing the door behind him. Perkins smirked to himself as he sat back down on the cot.
“Where do you think you’re going, Turner?” Bryant demanded loudly.
Jolted out of the light doze he had fallen into, Joe craned his neck to peer around the stall partition. The way he had been tied, his feet were slightly raised in the air, and he couldn’t use them for leverage to change his position.
“I’m leavin’, Sam,” Turner replied. “You ain’t gonna win. The farmer’s gonna hang an’ I don’t want ta be around when he does.”
“Coward!” McNeill cried.
Drawing his gun in a quick movement, Turner aimed it at Bryant. “Don’t make me shoot you,” he warned them. “Sam, I’ve done your dirty work for the last time. Ben Cartwright ain’t gonna back down. He’s gonna hang Farmer Perkins and there ain’t nuthin’ you can do about it. But I ain’t gonna stay here and watch you hang an innocent boy. Bertram’s already gone.”
“Sam’s done everything for ya!” McNeill argued. “Ya rotten traitor!”
Putting his hand onto McNeill’s arm, Bryant shook his head. “Let him go if he wants. I don’t want anyone working for me whose heart isn’t in it.” He fixed Turner with a level gaze. “But I’ll remember this when Perkins is set free.”
Shrugging, Turner slipped through the stable door. He looked unperturbed by the implied threat.
“How could you let him go, Sam?” McNeill cried, turning to his mentor.
“I’m better off without him if that’s the way he feels,” Bryant replied. “And you’re still here.”
Mollified by that admission of trust, McNeill started to preen himself. He glanced over towards Joe, and was enraged to see Joe peering round the partition. “He’s seen it all!” he cried. “Cartwright saw Turner leave!” He raced across the barn.
There was nothing Joe could do, nowhere that he could run. He was lying flat on his back, on top of his bound hands and his legs were tied to a metal ring in the wall. But that didn’t stop him trying to squirm across the floor to get away, despite the pain the movement awakened in his injured shoulder.
McNeill’s boot caught Joe in the left ribs and the force of the kick rolled him onto his right side. Joe’s bad shoulder felt like it was going to explode as his weight was placed on it and Joe’s legs were twisting painfully. He groaned and rolled back, just in time for another hard kick to his ribs. This time, he was flipped over onto his face.
“Stop it!” Bryant ordered. He dragged the enraged McNeill away from the helpless prisoner. “We need to keep him alive for a little while yet. It’s not quite five.” He patted McNeill’s shoulder. “After all, you do want to see him hang, don’t you?”
“Sure, Sam,” McNeill grinned, his killing rage draining away as though it had never been.
“Good,” Bryant grinned. “Now, go down to the jail and see what’s happening.”
“All right,” McNeill agreed. He trotted obediently to the door and slipped through.
Watching his henchman go, Bryant then turned his attention back to Joe. He bent down and flipped Joe over onto his back again and smiled grimly at the yelp of pain that Joe let out. “Your time is almost up,” he told the young man with chilling quietness. He moved down to Joe’s feet and began to free them from the ring in the wall. “Are you ready to die? It seems a shame for someone so young to die so needlessly, but if your father thinks as little of you as that, then perhaps it doesn’t matter so much.”
“You don’t understand,” Joe scoffed. His back burned with fire and he could feel fresh blood oozing from the wound on his shoulder, but he was waiting for Bryant to free his feet so he could make a break for freedom again. “This isn’t about me any more.”
Giving Joe a hard look, Bryant turned his attention back to the length of rope in his hand. He tied it around Joe’s knees. “That’s surprisingly perceptive of you,” Bryant observed. “I didn’t think you were clever enough to work that out.”
“There are a lot of things you didn’t think of,” Joe retorted and gasped as Bryant’s fleshy hand struck him hard on the mouth.
“It doesn’t change anything,” Bryant told him, hauling Joe to his feet by the tattered remains of his shirt. “You’re still going to hang. How long do you think you can balance up there with your legs tied like that?”
Fear fluttered in Joe’s belly and he felt a strong urge to urinate. “I’m just sorry I won’t be around to see you hang, Bryant,” he declared. He jerked his head aside as Bryant once more struck at his face. He missed, but caught Joe across the face with his return swing.
“You think you’re so smart,” Bryant hissed in his face. “Well, we’ll see who the smart one is, won’t we, boy?” He dragged Joe across the floor and bodily lifted him onto the boxes. Joe teetered uneasily on his bound feet as Bryant settled the noose over his head. “Are you ready to die?” Bryant asked.
Much as Joe wanted to smile in his face, he couldn’t. Frozen with fear, he awaited the end.
“What’s in that area of town?” Ben asked.
“Warehouses, sheds, the old livery,” Adam replied. “Why?”
“I was just trying to think if there was somewhere that was suitable for Bryant to keep Joe,” Ben replied. “But there are too many!”
“Not really,” Hoss denied. “Most of them warehouses is real full o’ stuff, Pa. There wouldn’t be room fer Bryant ta hide Joe in one of them.”
His dark eyes suddenly alight with excitement, Adam nodded. “Hoss is right!” he cried. “But they could be in the old livery! Plenty of room in there!”
“We’ve got to check it out,” Ben declared, rising. He glanced at the clock. It was five minutes to five. “But one of us has to stay here to see Perkins hanged.”
“I’ll stay,” Adam offered quickly. He was no keener than the rest of the family to see the grisly sight, but he knew that the tender-hearted Hoss would hate to do it and Ben desperately needed to see that Joe was all right. Adam did, too, but that couldn’t be helped. “You go and get Joe.”
“Thank you, son,” Ben breathed, putting his hand on Adam’s arm. He nodded to Hoss and they hurried out of the door.
Once they were gone, Adam took a deep breath and went to the cells. “On your feet, Perkins,” he ordered. “Turn around and put your hands behind you.”
For a moment, he thought the other man was going to refuse, but with an insouciant grin, Perkins did as he was bid. Adam quickly tied his hands behind him. “Ain’t gonna do ya no good,” Perkins told Adam as the latter opened the cell and pulled Perkins out. “Sam ain’t gonna let me hang.”
“I would put a bet on that,” Adam replied, coolly, “but you aren’t going to be around to pay me.”
Just for a moment, the other’s confident mask slipped, but as he was made to go up the gallows steps, he was still grinning and giggling to himself. The hangman adjusted the noose around his neck and made sure Perkins was standing on the trapdoor. Adam watched, but the person he saw with a noose around his neck was his youngest brother.
Blinking, Adam looked at his watch. “Its five,” he announced and the trapdoor opened. Adam looked away.
It was done, and nothing could recall Perkins to life. As Adam walked slowly back into the jailhouse, he wondered if it had really been worth it. What if Joe had died, too?
There was a crowd outside the jail, but Ben and Hoss managed to get through them without saying anything. Most people were too inebriated to prevent their purposeful pushing. But once they were onto the side streets, they became more cautious. It wouldn’t do to somehow walk into a trap.
But what they walked into wasn’t a trap – it was McNeill.
Hoss grabbed the smaller man in one big hand and shook him. “Where’s ma little brother?” he demanded.
When he was angry, Hoss could be very intimidating and he loomed over McNeill. “I…I don’t know,” McNeill stuttered unconvincingly.
“What d’ya want me ta break first, Pa?” Hoss enquired.
Even though Ben knew that there was no way on earth that Hoss would really harm McNeill with such cold blooded deliberateness, he was still shaken by the venom in his son’s voice. “A finger?” he hazarded.
“I’ll start there,” Hoss agreed and dragged McNeill’s hand up in front of his face. He got a good grip on the pinky finger. McNeill’s face was white.
“The livery,” he whispered. “The old livery. Please, don’t hurt me.”
Looking contemptuously at him, Hoss drew back his fist and punched McNeill in the face. The other man went down and out and Hoss dropped him to the street. “Scum,” he muttered. “C’mon, Pa.”
“That was very impressive, son,” Ben commented, as they hurried towards the livery. “Remind me never to get on your bad side.”
“Aw, Pa, I wouldn’ really have hurt the little weasel,” Hoss muttered, embarrassed.
“I know,” Ben replied and they smiled briefly at each other.
As they neared the livery, they slowed and crept up quietly, but there was no one on watch. They eased to the front and Hoss put his hand on the door. They both had their guns drawn. For a moment, their eyes met and then Ben nodded.
As he jumped in through the door, Ben saw Bryant’s hands on the box that Joe was standing on. He didn’t hesitate; he simply fired. The bullet caught the fat man in the side and he staggered back, his hand going to the wound in his side.
But it wasn’t enough to stop him. Grimly, Bryant reached for the box again. Ben fired again. The bullet caught Bryant in the chest. He staggered back a step and looked surprised. “He’s going to hang, Ben,” he croaked.
“No,” Ben replied. He kept his gun raised, ready to fire once more, but Bryant was finished. He sat down suddenly in the straw.
“My town,” Bryant panted and collapsed backwards. His chest heaved for a moment, then Ben clearly heard the death rattle in his throat.
Only then did Ben become aware that Hoss was standing on a chair, holding Joe in both hands. “Pa, quick,” he called and Ben hurried over, reaching for his knife as he did so.
It only took them seconds to free Joe from his bonds. He looked dreadful, his face pale, his clothing torn and bloodstained. He appeared to have fainted. Ben held him close while Hoss cut the ropes that had kept him captive. “Joe, can you hear me?” Ben asked. “Joe?”
“He’s bleedin’, Pa,” Hoss commented, drawing back the torn edges of Joe’s shirt to look at the deep knife would on the back of his shoulder.
“We need to get him to a doctor,” Ben replied. He slid off his sheepskin coat and wrapped it around Joe. He tried hard not to touch the wound on Joe’s back, but his hand brushed over it and Joe groaned. “I’m sorry, Joe,” Ben whispered, hoisting his son into his arms.
“He won’t … give in,” Joe panted, his eyes still tightly closed. Ben raised his eyes to look at Hoss.
“Joe?” Ben probed. “Joe, its Pa, can you hear me?”
“Pa?” Joe murmured. His eyelids cracked open and Joe looked blearily at the face above him. He swallowed. “Pa.” The relief in his voice caused tears to stand in Ben’s eyes. “You… found me.” His eyes slid shut again and Joe nestled closer to Ben’s chest.
“I’ll get him to the doc,” Ben whispered to Hoss. “You go and get Adam.”
“Okay, Pa,” Hoss agreed. He gestured to Bryant. “He’s dead, Pa.”
“Good,” Ben replied and carried his precious burden out of the old livery stable.
Several times on the way to the doctor’s office, Joe roused slightly, opening his eyes and looking at Ben’s face as though he could hardly believe what he was seeing. A few times he groaned. Ben soothed him, crooning meaningless sounds to comfort his injured son. The journey seemed endless, yet Ben delighted in the solid feel of his son’s body in his arms. Joe was safe!
“The wound is deep,” Paul Martin told Ben, leaning over Joe. “I’ll need to take stitches in it.” He felt Joe’s ribs once more and Joe winced miserably. “And it feels like Joe might have some broken ribs here, too.” He sighed. “Joe’s had a good beating, that’s for sure. These knife cuts on his shoulders are superficial, luckily. I’ll clean up and bandage his wrists. He’ll be weak from blood loss for a while, but Joe has been incredibly lucky.”
“I know,” Ben replied, hoarsely. He glanced at Adam and Hoss who stood near by. They looked as relieved as he felt. He wondered if they knew how close he had come to letting Farmer Perkins go. How he had agonised over his decision to go ahead, despite Joe’s captivity and danger. Would Joe understand what he had done and why? Ben didn’t know the answer to that one yet and wouldn’t until Joe was feeling a bit better.
It didn’t take so very long to get Joe patched up and he fell into a deep sleep, aided by the pain medication that Paul had given him. Seeing that Joe was in good hands, Adam went back to the jail, for Biggs would be some time before he was back on duty and someone had to be around, just in case. Hoss fell asleep in a chair, worn out by the night’s events.
Ben was dog tired, but he couldn’t sleep. He wouldn’t be able to rest properly until he was sure that Joe knew why his life had been left on the line. He had underestimated Bryant’s ruthlessness and that mistake had almost cost his son his life. Ben dropped his head into his hands and wept silent tears of remorse.
The release of tension must have lulled him into sleep, Ben realised as he dragged his eyes open later. He blinked and then realised that he had heard Joe say his name. He moved quickly so that he was sitting in his son’s field of vision. “How do you feel, Joe?” he asked.
“Thirsty,” Joe replied. Ben took the hint at once, supporting Joe’s head so he could sip the water. With a sigh, Joe lay back down again. “What happened?” he asked, his voice stronger now.
“What do you remember?” Ben enquired.
“I remember McNeill being sent to go and see what was happening at the jail,” Joe answered. “Then Bryant put me on the boxes and put the noose around my neck.” Joe’s voice shook slightly on the last few words. “Then…” Joe swallowed and looked embarrassed. “Then, I think I must have fainted.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me, Joe,” Ben soothed. “You’ve lost a lot of blood.” He smiled and Joe smiled back. “Hoss and I were coming to look for you. We met McNeill and Hoss made him tell us where you were. We arrived just before Bryant had the chance to – do anything and I shot him. Hoss caught you and we brought you here.”
“Did you hang Perkins?” Joe asked.
This was the moment, Ben thought. This could be the moment when he lost his son. Bracing himself as best he could, Ben nodded. “Yes,” he said, simply.
“I knew you would,” Joe replied and the satisfaction in his voice caught Ben by surprise. “I told Bryant that you would and he didn’t believe me.”
“Joe, I didn’t want to lose you,” Ben explained, not sure whether to believe Joe’s satisfaction. “But I couldn’t back down on this.”
The gentle fingers on his lips caught Ben by surprise. “Pa, you don’t need to tell me,” Joe assured him. “I knew you had to do it. I knew.” Joe smiled, not telling Ben that he wasn’t sure that he himself could have stuck to his guns if it had been the other way round and Ben had been the one facing a noose. He pushed the thought from his mind, deciding that nobody could make that kind of decision without being in the situation and Joe would just as soon never face that choice. “Did you say you shot Bryant?” Joe was beginning to feel sleepy again. He was surprised to see that it was daylight outside. It felt like the middle of the night.
“Yes, he’s dead,” Ben replied. “He won’t hurt anyone again.”
“I’m not sorry,” Joe said, defiantly, waiting to see if Ben was shocked.
“Neither am I,” Ben agreed, although that wasn’t entirely true. He was sorry that he had been forced to kill another human being, but he wasn’t sorry that Bryant was dead. It seemed like a contradiction to Ben, but he didn’t quite know how to sort out his feelings, so he didn’t try.
“When can I go home?” Joe asked and yawned. He winced as the jaw-cracker pulled at his split lip.
“Later,” Ben replied, smiling. “Just sleep now, Joe.”
“The town’s safe now, Pa, isn’t it?” Joe murmured, his eyes dipping closed.
“Yes, it’s safe,” Ben agreed. He sat holding Joe’s hand until his son was deep in sleep, then he rose and went to the window.
Gazing into the bright sunlight, Ben gave thanks that this day had turned out so differently than he had expected. Life seemed to have a sharper clarity than usual. Death had come, but not to his family. For them, death withheld her hand…