To Set the Captives Free (by Puchi Ann)

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Summary:  When Adam returns from California, where his father still remains, he finds one brother seriously injured and the other missing.  While caring for the injured, he races to solve the mystery and find his missing brother before it’s too late.

Rating:  K+   Word count:  20,154

 

To Set the Captives Free

As soon as Adam stepped down from the stagecoach, he scanned C Street in both directions, and his expectant smile tightened into a frown.  Having telegraphed ahead, he’d been certain that his brothers would meet him here in Virginia City.  With both older Cartwrights away, Hoss had been left in charge, so Adam had sent the telegram to him, but he had naturally assumed that fourteen-year-old Joe, with his well-deserved reputation for wrapping Hoss around his little finger, would have wheedled his way into the trip to town, as well.  Of course, that youngster also had a well-deserved reputation  for creating mischief and mayhem.  That must be it: the boy must have done something to delay them, and if he’d gotten far enough out of line, even that notable soft touch, Hoss, might have denied their youngest brother the privilege of a trip to town.  And the argument that would have ensued over that edict would only delay Hoss more, Adam concluded with a sigh.

“Mr. Cartwright?” a gravelly voice behind him called.

Adam turned to see the driver extending his carpetbag.  Taking it, he said, “Thanks, Charlie.”  He set it down on the planked sidewalk, took off his hat and swiped away the sweat with the back of his hand.  His muscles ached from hours of jostling around inside the stagecoach, and his black shirt felt clammy against his skin.  He wanted nothing more than a long, relaxing soak in a hot tub, but another long ride stood between him and that pleasure, and goodness only knew when he’d get to even start toward home now.  Well, blamed if he’d stand here on the street, waiting for those tardy brothers of his under a blistering late August sun.  He was hot, tired and his throat, like his clothes, was coated with the dust of the journey.  The Silver Dollar held the perfect cure for that, and if his brothers couldn’t manage to find him there, he’d rent a horse at the livery and make it home on his own . . . with ample time to rehearse a few choice words for when he got there.

“Howdy, Sam,” Adam said genially as he stepped up to the bar, setting the carpetbag beside him.  “A tall, cool one, if you please, kind sir.”

The bartender’s head cocked quizzically; then he shrugged and drew the beer, setting it before Adam and sweeping the two-bits the rancher had laid on the bar into his other palm.

Adam took a long, satisfying quaff of the drink.  Licking the suds from his upper lip and propping an elbow on the bar, he inquired, “What do you think, Sam, of a fellow who refuses to pick up his own brother from the stage?”

“Huh?”  The frown furrows faded from Sam’s forehead.  “You just get in on the stage, Adam?  Then, I guess you don’t know, do you?”

The beer mug clunked onto the counter.  “Know what?”  Adam demanded tersely.

Sam swallowed hard.  “Sorry to have to tell you, Adam, but your brother’s over to the doc’s.  Been knifed, I heard.”

Adam stared at him for only a fraction of a minute before he charged through the batwings of the saloon, leaving the carpetbag behind and racing down the street toward Dr. Martin’s office.  His brother . . . knifed . . . by whom?   Why?  Panting, he flung open the door to the office and burst in.  “Is my brother here?” he demanded of the girl in the starched white apron.

“Oh, Adam, yes, he is,” she murmured, her eyes telling him more clearly than her sympathetic tone that the injury was nothing superficial.  She glanced toward the closed door to her right.  “The doctor’s still working on him.”

“How long?” Adam asked.

“A while,” she whispered.  “I-I’m sure it won’t be much longer, Adam.  Please sit down, and I’ll let the doctor know you’re here.”

Lips taut, he gave her a crisp nod, but he didn’t sit down.  He couldn’t.  He paced the small room, anxiously asking himself unanswerable questions.  Who could have done this?  Why?  His brother was such an affable person that he rarely formed an enemy.  Some chance encounter in the saloon while waiting for the stage to arrive?  Adam would never forgive himself if his simple request had led his brother into danger, but life was too unpredictable to trace every effect to its definitive cause.

The doctor’s assistant came out, closing the door quietly.  “Almost done.  He’ll be out to talk with you soon, Adam.”

He nodded his thanks, still too disturbed for words, and continued his pacing, although its tempo slowed.  At least, he’d soon have the answer to his most serious question: would his brother live?

The door to the treatment room opened, and Dr. Martin slipped out, closing the door behind him.

“How is he?” Adam immediately demanded.  “Will he be all right?”

Dr. Martin sighed.  “It’s serious, Adam.  I’ve repaired the damage, but your brother lost an enormous amount of blood, very nearly bled out.  If he can make it through the night . . .”—he laid a consoling hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “He’s young and otherwise healthy; it’s no guarantee, but there’s hope in that, son.”

Adam exhaled slowly the breath he’d held for far too long.  “May I see him?” he asked politely, although had the answer been no, he would have stormed into the next room, anyway.

“Of course,” Dr. Martin said, opening the door and stepping aside so Adam could enter ahead of him.

At first sight of the colorless face lying on the pillow in a wreath of rampant chestnut curls, Adam gasped audibly and toppled backward so bonelessly that he would have fallen had not the doctor caught him.  “Joe?” he croaked.  “It’s Little Joe who was knifed?”

Dr. Martin steadied him as he said, “I thought you knew.”

Muscles still quivering, Adam shook his head.  “Sam just said ‘your brother.’  I assumed . . . Hoss.”

The gap between his thick eyebrows narrowing, the doctor stared at him.  “Does it matter?”

Adam started to say no, for he certainly cared equally for both his brothers.  Then it hit him with sudden and fierce realization.  “Of course, it matters!”  he snapped.  “It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to hurt a man like Hoss, but he is a man and things happen between men: a quarrel, a robbery, even a grudge.  But Joe’s no man.”  He jerked his head toward the immobile figure on the examining table.  “Anyone who could do this to a fourteen-year-old boy is no man, either!  He’s a fiend, and that matters; that matters a lot.”

The doctor nodded soberly.  “Looking at it that way, I’d have to agree.”  His hand tightened on the young man’s shoulder.  “But that’s a matter for the law, son.  Your first responsibility is to your brother.”  He nodded toward Little Joe as he released his hold on Adam.

Adam moved to his brother’s side and gently stroked the boy’s pale cheek, brushing aside a wisp of hair.  “Where is Hoss?” he asked.  He couldn’t imagine his younger brother being anywhere other than at this boy’s side at such a time, but he clearly wasn’t.

“I don’t know, son,” the doctor said quietly.  “I haven’t seen Hoss.”

Adam’s head snapped around to stare at the doctor.  “He hasn’t been here?  At all?”

The doctor shook his head, concern etching his brow.  “Maybe he wasn’t in town,” he suggested.

“Of course, he was!” Adam shouted.  It was inconceivable that Hoss would have sent Little Joe into town alone to meet the stage.  Only a ranch catastrophe on the scale of Noah’s Flood could have forced him to a decision like that, and it hadn’t rained in weeks.

Dr. Martin shushed him sharply, but it was the strained wince on Little Joe’s face that silenced Adam immediately.

“Don’t you see?” he whispered urgently as he stroked his brother’s arm soothingly.  “Hoss wouldn’t have sent him into town alone.  He had to be here, too, and if I found out almost immediately on stepping off that stage. . . .”

“Hoss would have, too, even if they were temporarily separated,” the doctor finished weakly.  “You’re right again, Adam.  Maybe—maybe he’s with Roy, making a statement?”  A poor suggestion, since the statement could certainly have waited until Hoss had seen to his brother’s care, but it was all Paul Martin could come up with.

Adam moistened his lips thoughtfully, he, too, ignoring common sense to grasp at the flimsy filament of hope.  “Maybe.”   His head came up, his eyes lighting with another idea.  “Has Little Joe been conscious at all, said anything?”

“No, son,” Dr. Martin said softly, “and isn’t likely to for some time.”

Adam sighed as that filament of hope snapped apart.  He glanced at Little Joe, and his lips pursed tautly together.  He wanted to be here; he needed to be here, but he had another brother, too, and he had no idea where that brother was . . . or in what condition.  He wanted to know; he had to know.

Dr. Martin perceived his dilemma.  “Go on,” he urged.  “I’ll be here with Little Joe.  You need to see the sheriff.”

Nodding, Adam bent over his brother and whispered close to the boy’s ear, “I’ll be back soon, Joe.  You hang in there, little buddy.”  He straightened and with determination walked wordlessly from the doctor’s office and headed toward the sheriff’s office.  He forced himself to keep a steady cadence, but his thoughts galloped like a thoroughbred stallion circling a track.  Something was wrong; he sensed it . . . something flitting just beyond the blinders he tried not to look past.  It shadowed his every step, demanding attention, until he had to take the blinders off and stare directly into its ugly face.  There was only one reason Hoss wouldn’t be with Little Joe at that doctor’s office: something had happened to him, too.  Something different, perhaps, but something just as disturbing.  Was he, too, injured, his bleeding body lying undiscovered in some alley?  Or was it worse?  Was he not with Little Joe because he was lying, cold and still, at the undertaker’s?  The August air felt suddenly icy as Adam drew in a sharp breath.  Roy would know; he had to see Roy.

Though he still refused to give in to the rising panic, his stride lengthened, its pace more urgent, and the final few steps to the door of the sheriff’s office might have made him a contender in the annual Founder’s Day footrace.  He flung open the door and rushed inside, only to be stopped short by the silence and emptiness that assaulted him.  Roy wasn’t there.

He wandered aimlessly outside, coming to a halt at the hitching rail.  He stood on one side of it, hands grasping the rough wood, sinking into its support.  He sighed.  Of course, Roy wasn’t here.  A criminal attack had just occurred in his town: he was exactly where he should be, out investigating it.  So, presumably, was his deputy.

Adam leaned into the rail, his forearms now resting on it, his thumbs circling absently as he tried to think like a sheriff.  Any good lawman would examine the scene of the crime first, of course, but Adam had no idea where Little Joe had been found.  It might be common knowledge, gossip generally moving on eagle’s wings in a town like Virginia City, but its flight might not have been so swift that just anyone on the street could answer his questions.  Who could he ask and be certain of an answer?

He nodded slowly and straightened up.  He could think of no place likelier to hold the answer than where it had started—for him, at least—at the bar of the Silver Dollar.  Sam had known about the attack, and there was a good chance that he knew where it had taken place.  The wooden boards clacked beneath his heels as he walked toward the saloon.  He turned in and went to the bar, ending up within inches of his original position there.

“Hey, Adam,” Sam said.  “Come back for your carpetbag, did you?  I figured you would, so I put it here behind the bar, for safekeeping.”

Adam looked at him blankly for a moment, and then realization returned.  Good lands, he had run out of here, leaving his luggage behind.  “Thanks.  Truth is, Sam, I forgot all about it,” he admitted.

Compassion etched on his round face, Sam nodded.  “You had cause.  How is the boy?”

Now, why didn’t he say “boy” before? Adam wondered; then he realized it wouldn’t have made any difference.  Hoss was big enough that few men would be foolish enough to challenge his manhood, but at twenty, still young enough that a man Sam’s age might continue to call him a boy, and Adam would still have assumed that it was Hoss Sam had meant.  “He’s in pretty bad shape,” Adam responded to the bartender’s question, “but right now I’m trying to locate Hoss.  Have you seen him?”

The bartender’s brow wrinkled in thought.  “Not since all the excitement, now you mention it,” he said.

“What about the sheriff?”

Sam shook his head.  “No.  Sorry, Adam, but I been working here the whole afternoon.  Only know what I do ‘cause folks talk, you know?”

Adam exhaled heavily.  “Anyone say where it happened?”

Sam’s face scrunched in thought; then he again shook his head, mumbling another apology.

Adam drummed frustrated fingers on the bar.  This hadn’t helped at all.  Now what?  Something niggled inside his head, and he looked up quickly when he realized what it was.  “You said you hadn’t seen Hoss since all the excitement.  Did you see him before?”

Glad that he could finally give Adam some piece of information he wanted, Sam’s face brightened.  “Caught a glimpse of him earlier, but only at a distance.”

“Where?”

“Over on Union,” Sam replied, “heading up the hill.  Bein’ as it was around noon, I figure he was headed to one of the eateries up on B Street.”

Adam nodded acceptance of the logic.  “Was Joe with him?”

“Sure was,” Sam said.

That told Adam something.  If Hoss had been alone, he would most likely have opted for the hefty fare of Chapman’s Chop House, but having Little Joe along almost guaranteed a different choice—the Young American or, possibly, Winn’s Restaurant.  He’d try those first, see if he couldn’t somehow trace his brothers’ steps through town and, hopefully, run across Roy Coffee somewhere along the way.  “Thanks,” he said, heading for the door.  Just before exiting, he remembered and turned back.  “Keep the bag here for me?”  He added with a wry smile, “I promise not to forget this time.”

“It’ll be here,” Sam promised, “and if you ain’t back by the time I go off shift, I could drop it by—well, wherever you’re stayin’.”  With his brother severely wounded, it was a safe bet Adam would be staying somewhere in town.

“Doc Martin’s, then.  Appreciate it.” Adam saw little point in renting a hotel room, when he’d be spending every moment he could at Little Joe’s side.  He touched his hand to his hat as he walked out of the saloon.  He paused just outside the bat wings and looked down the street to his left, hoping against hope to spot Roy Coffee.  When he didn’t, he turned and headed the opposite way, toward Union.  Reaching the corner, he began the hike up to B Street.  It seemed steeper than usual today, maybe because he was just plain tired to begin with, after that long stage ride, and maybe because his anxious heart was already pumping harder than it should.

He paused at the top, not just to catch his breath, but to make a decision.  A number of restaurants clustered here, near the post office that everyone in town was likely to visit regularly: Winn’s, the Young American, the New World, and the Virginia Bakery, in addition to the chop house he’d already ruled out.  He racked his brain, trying to recall if any one of them was a particular favorite of his little brother.  Oddly enough, it was an obscure detail from a letter he’d received while in college that tipped the scale.  In one of the classic arguments between Hoss and Joe, Pa had reported, five-year-old Little Joe had argued for eating at “Young, like me.”  He wasn’t sure that Joe, with his newly acquired delusions of near-manhood would still lean that direction, but it was as good a starting point as any.

The brass bell above the door jangled discordantly as he entered the Young American, and the aroma of sizzling meat and yeast rolls immediately assaulted his nostrils.  Having foregone the unappetizing fare at the noon stage stop, he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and his stomach was reminding him sharply of its emptiness.  He supposed it would be wise to eat something, but he had no appetite and didn’t feel he could spare the time for a meal until he found out something about Hoss.  A cup of coffee and, maybe, a roll or two might stave off starvation for the time being.  Taking a table by the window, so he could keep a hopeful eye on the street, he ordered that and asked the waitress if she’d happened to see his brothers earlier.

“They ate lunch here, as a matter of fact,” she told him.

Adam’s slumped body straightened.  “Did you happen to wait on them?”

She shook her head, her lips pursing in consideration.  “I think Louisa did.”

“Could I speak with her?” Adam asked.

“Sure.  I’ll tell her and get this order turned in.”  She smiled encouragingly at him.  “Sure that’s all you want?”

“For now.”  Coffee, rolls and Louisa, if she had any pertinent information, felt like a full meal to Adam.

A young girl, her honey blonde hair tied back with a brown ribbon, hesitantly approached his table a few minutes later.  “You wanted to see me, sir?” she asked, her voice quavering in the presence of one of the powerful Cartwrights.

Adam smiled congenially in a determined attempt to calm her down.  “If you’re Louisa.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, lower lip quivering.

“I was told that you waited on my brothers at noon.”

“Around then, yes, sir.”  Her slight figure was almost visibly shaking.  “I’m so sorry—a-about the little one, I mean.  I heard that he’d been hurt bad.”  Fear flickered in her brimming blue eyes.  “Not that I eavesdrop on my customers, of course.  It’s just that—that—”

“People talk over their meals,” Adam supplied gently.  “Of course, you overhear them, without intending to.”

“Yes, sir.”  Her face flooded with relief.  “I’m real sorry about your brother, Mr. Cartwright.  He’s such a little cutie.”

“Yes, yes, he is,” Adam said quietly.  Clearly, this girl, no more than two or three years older than Joe himself, had been taken with his brother, but perhaps that had made her all the more attentive to him and Hoss.  He hoped so.  “Actually, Louisa, I’m hoping you did overhear something . . . when you were serving my brothers, that is.”

“Nothing important,” she said.  “They were laughing, having a good time.  Well, they said something about meeting the stage.”  She blushed as she gave him a faint smile.  “I guess that was you, sir.”

“Yes, that was me,” he said, a tinge of regret in his voice.  The other waitress arrived with his order, and as he buttered a roll, he asked, “Are you sure there was nothing else?  Nothing about where they planned to go after they left here, for instance?”

Her eyes brightened.  “Oh, of course.  They were going to the barber’s.  Hoss said”—she flushed crimson again—“I guess I shouldn’t be so familiar.”

“Of course, you should,” Adam said and to further reassure her, he laughed softly.  “There are too many Cartwrights to refer to all of us as mister.  Hoss is fine, as is Adam, for that matter.”

He could see her teeth this time when she smiled.  “Well, then, Mr. Adam,” she said, still feeling the oldest brother merited extra respect, “Hoss said that Little Joe needed a haircut, and they argued a bit about that, but I’m pretty sure Hoss won, because Little Joe looked put out when they left.”

Adam’s lips were graced by their first genuine smile of the afternoon.  How many times had he watched that scene played on the stage of some Virginia City street?  The only thing out of place, in fact, was Hoss in a role normally played by Pa or Adam himself.  Endearing memories, but he had little time for them now.  “I’m trying to locate Hoss,” he explained.  “I don’t suppose you saw him later.”

With obvious regret, she shook her head.

“Well, you’ve been very helpful,” he said.  “I won’t take any more of your time.”

“I wish I could’ve helped more,” Louisa said sincerely, “and you tell that little cutie I hope he gets better real soon.”

Adam nodded as he bit into the roll.  How he prayed, for more reasons than one, that Little Joe would soon be alert enough for him to deliver that message.  Message!  He choked, mid-swallow, as he realized another message that he needed to deliver—and soon.  Pa had planned to stay in Placerville another week, but those plans would change the minute he learned what had happened to his youngest son.  Adam needed to send a wire as soon as he could, but he wanted to learn what he could about Hoss first, so he could send an accurate report.  He’d, at least, check with the barber and with Roy, if he could find him.  The sheriff might even have sent a telegram already.  The need to find Roy grew more urgent, though he wouldn’t have considered that possible when he’d entered the Young American.

Slipping his remaining roll into his pocket, he left the price of his order on the table and hurried out.  The barber was only two buildings down, so he was soon opening the door to the tune of another jangling bell.

“Hey, Adam,” called the man standing behind the barber chair.  “Heard you was coming in today.”

“From my brothers?” Adam asked.

The barber deftly coiled a hot towel over the face of the man in the chair.  “Yup, Hoss said that was why they needed to get slicked up.”

Adam smiled wryly, suspecting that the need “to get slicked up” had less to do with his arrival than the one to follow a week later.  Then his brow wrinkled.  The mane of hair he’d seen spread on the doctor’s table hadn’t looked freshly shorn.  “You cut their hair, Tom?” he queried.

“I cut Hoss’s,” Tom replied.  Seeing Adam’s puzzled frown, he hurried to explain.  “It was like this, Adam.  They both come in, and I took Hoss first.  Then he sent Joe over to the post office to pick up the mail.  Well, the boy must have lollygagged his way there and back, ‘cause it took about twice as long as you’d expect, and in the meantime two other fellows come in.  I told ‘em the boy was next in line, havin’ come in earlier, but Hoss spoke up and said to let ‘em go first.  He had business in town, he said, and he’d come back and pick up Joe later.”

Adam’s eyebrow arched up.  “And how did Joe take that?”

Tom gave him a lopsided grin.  “About the way he takes any mention of a haircut.”  He’d cut the youngest Cartwright’s hair for years, so he knew whereof he spoke.  So, evidently, did a couple of other customers awaiting their turn in the chair, for they chuckled.

“He didn’t get that haircut, though,” Adam pointed out, looking steadily at the barber.

Tom’s face lost all trace of humor.  “No, and I’m real sorry about that, Adam, but when the fire bell rang, everybody in here, even the man in the chair, ran out, and . . . well . . . young Joe bolted right with ‘em.  By the time I got my cover sheet back from the fellow I was shavin’ at the time and looked up, the boy was clean gone.”

“Fire bell?” Adam asked, his head cocking quizzically.  It was the first he’d heard of any fire in town that afternoon.

“At the Belcher, I heard,” Tom said.

Adam nodded soberly.  Any fire in town would draw every man within sound of the news, either to help or gawk at the conflagration, but fire inside a mine was especially dangerous, because of all the wooden timbering in its shafts and slopes.  A boy Joe’s age could not possibly have resisted the lure of that much excitement, and Adam instantly realized that his other brother, wherever he might have been when he heard that bell, would also have headed directly toward the Belcher mine.  None of the Cartwrights were official members of any of the volunteer fire companies, but all of them— except Joe, of course, unless there were no one around to restrain him—automatically pitched in if they were on hand.  A big man like Hoss was particularly useful if nearby buildings had to be torn down to prevent a fire’s spread or to move charred timbers to rescue survivors.

Adam now knew his next destination, but he hoped to pull one more piece of evidence from the barber.  “I guess you heard what happened to Joe,” he began.  Men in a barber shop had nothing to do but talk while they waited their turn, so Tom was more likely than even Sam at the Silver Dollar to have heard any news in town, like an attack on a young boy.

“That’s why I said I was sorry,” Tom said with a sad shake of his head.  “If only I’d looked up a second sooner, maybe I could have grabbed hold of him, kept him here . . . safe.  Been thinkin’ that all afternoon.”

Adam placed a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder.  “Not your fault, Tom.  I was just wondering if you could tell me where it happened.”

Tom blew out a slow gust of air as he pondered.  “Not exactly,” he said finally.  “Heard he was found in an alley down the hill, but don’t know which one.”

Adam nodded.  It was what he had expected, but it gave him one more clue.  Trouble was, there were a lot of alleys “down the hill;” finding the right one might be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  If he could just narrow it down.  “I don’t suppose you noticed which way Joe ran, when he left here?”

Tom perked up.  “Yeah, I can help you there, Adam.  Most of the men ran down Union, but when I went to the door and called after him, I saw Joe had gone the other way, toward Sutton.  Turned there and headed down toward the mines.”

Adam stretched his hand toward the barber.  “Tom, you’ve been a big help.  I’m trying to track Joe’s movements . . . and Hoss’s, and you’ve shown me where I need to look next.”

“Proud I could help, Adam,” Tom said, shaking the other man’s hand.  “Wish you well and sure hope young Joe gets better right quick.”

“Thanks.”  Adam gave Tom and the other men in the shop a farewell wave and walked out the door.  His boots had no more than hit the dust of the street when the door behind him opened and he heard Tom call his name.  “Yeah?” he said, turning back to face the barber.

“Just thought of something,” Tom said.  “Might mean something, might not.”

“Might’s good enough for me,” Adam assured him.  “What is it?”

Tom stepped down to join Adam in the street.  “It’s just this,” he said.  “I know Hoss said he had business down the hill, but I’m thinkin’ it might be a special sort of business.”

Adam’s hand gesture invited him to continue.

“Well,” Tom went on, “just seems to me that Hoss was gettin’ hisself a mite too slickered up, just to meet his brother.  ‘Cause he had both a haircut and a shave and paid extra for some bay rum, too.”  He leaned close to Adam and half-whispered, “I think it might’ve been female business he had down the hill.”

“It’s a thought,” Adam said.  “Thanks for telling me, Tom.”

“Sure thing.  Well, I got to get back to my customers.”  With that, Tom quickly moved back inside.

Having more to mull over now, Adam pulled the roll from his pocket and tore off a piece.  As he chewed the bread, he also chewed on the fascinating new piece of information.  Tom was right: both the store-bought shave and the bay rum were out of the ordinary for Hoss, and they dead sure weren’t for the benefit of his older brother.  Hoss was so shy around girls that it was hard to imagine him working up the courage to go calling, but it was the only thing that made sense.  It also provided a reason for his apparent eagerness to leave Little Joe at the barber shop for an extended period of time, for he certainly wouldn’t want to spark a girl with that boy in tow.  Everyone in town would hear the high-pitched cackle with which the youngest Cartwright would greet that spectacle.

For a moment Adam was torn, trying to decide which brother’s spoor to track.  Joe’s was more specific, easier to follow, but he knew where that trail led: to his brother lying in a pool of blood in some nearby alley.  Maybe there was something to be learned there, maybe not, but Roy Coffee could probably fill in those details, anyway, once he ran across the lawman.  Hoss’s trail, on the other hand, was less precise, but possibly more urgent.  Adam racked his brain, searching for names of girls that his younger brother might have expressed some interest in.  It was a short list, but long enough that he wasn’t sure where to start.

Then it hit him.  It didn’t matter which girl Hoss had set out to visit; that new piece of information had only distracted him from the truth he’d seen so plainly before.  Once the fire bell clanged, no girl could have kept Hoss from answering its call.  He might have spared time to give her a farewell kiss, but with lives at stake, he’d have rushed down the hill like every other able-bodied man.  So, even if he’d followed a different route, his destination had been the same as Little Joe’s, and while Joe had never gotten there, Hoss might have.  Maybe he was still there, working, and hadn’t even heard about what had happened to their youngest brother.  That would explain everything in the most optimistic way possible.  For the first time hope surged in his heart, and since one route to the mines was as good as another, he turned down Sutton with a grin to follow Joe’s trail toward the Belcher.

As he walked down the hill, however, he scanned each side street he passed in both directions.  He didn’t really expect to see anything useful.  After all, reports placed Little Joe’s attack in an alley, and he couldn’t see those smaller passageways from Sutton.  Nonetheless, as he passed a street about two blocks below C Street, he caught sight of a familiar figure and turned that direction.  “Roy!” he called as the other man disappeared into an alley.

Roy Coffee came back.  “Adam!” he called.  Cocking his head, he asked as Adam walked toward him, “You’ve heard?”

“Soon as I got off the stage,” Adam said.  “Is this where Little Joe was attacked?”

The sheriff nodded gravely.  “I think so.  Reports I got wasn’t too specific about where he was found, so I’ve had the devil’s own time finding the right spot, but this looks to be it.”  With his head he gestured toward the alley, but waited until Adam had caught up with him before entering it.

As he followed the sheriff into the alley, Adam blanched at sight of the pool of blood coagulated in the dust—his brother’s blood.  No wonder Doc. Martin had said that Little Joe had nearly bled out!  The only thing Adam had ever seen that compared was the kill site at pig-butchering time.  “Why?” he whispered, not even aware than he’d spoken aloud.

“We’ll find out who first,” the sheriff vowed, “and we’ll get why out of him, Adam.”

Adam gathered himself.  “What about Hoss?  Have you seen him?”

Roy Coffee’s face compressed in wrinkles of concern.  “Not since this morning.  Mentioned he was expectin’ you in on the stage.  He ain’t with Joe?”

“No, and hasn’t been there, according to Doc.  I’m hoping he’s down at the fire,” Adam said, “and just hasn’t heard about this.”

Lips grimly pursed, Roy shook his head.  “He ain’t there, son.  I’d’ve seen him, if’n he was.  Ain’t much of nobody there now.  Truth is, it wasn’t much of a fire . . . just enough to pull men that direction, keep ‘em distracted, maybe.”

Adam’s breath caught in his throat.  “Distracted from this?” he asked, his hand sweeping toward the pool of blood.  “You think someone planned this attack on Little Joe?”

“I think someone planned something,” the sheriff said carefully.  “My first thought was a robbery, but none’s been reported.  Then I heard about young Joe and started investigatin’ that, not thinkin’ to connect the two things, and I ain’t sure we should.  There’s signs of a struggle here, though, more than a tussle with a fourteen-year-old boy accounts for.”

“Show me,” Adam demanded.

“Over here.”  The sheriff took a few steps down the alley and pointed at the boot prints overlaying one another in the dirt.  “As you can see, these were made by grown men, not a boy Joe’s size, though there’s some that could be his back by that pool of blood.”  He bent down to touch a couple of parallel gouges.  “And I’m guessin’ boot heels made these . . . someone bein’ dragged . . . someone heavy.”

“Hoss,” Adam murmured flatly.

“Could be,” the sheriff admitted, “especially if he was with Joe.”

Removing his hat, Adam raked frustrated fingers through his dark hair.  “He wasn’t.  At least, not from what I’ve heard, but I suppose they could have run into each other, if they were both headed toward the fire.”  He followed the path of the gouges.  “They end here, where these wagon ruts begin.”  He straightened up.  “Someone took him, Roy.”

Roy nodded reluctantly.  “Definite signs someone was took, all right, and in the absence of anyone else bein’ reported missin’, I have to assume it to be Hoss, less’n he turns up right quick.”

“We have to find him, Roy,” Adam said urgently.  He hand swept toward the blood in the street.  “These men are killers.”

“Easy, son,” Roy said, laying a hand on the other man’s shoulder.  “No reason to think the worst.  The fact that Hoss is missing is a good sign he’s still alive.  If they wanted him dead, they’d’ve just killed him here and left his body, like they did Joe’s.”  He continued to look around the alley and suddenly jogged over to one side to pick up something lying against the back of a rough-boarded building.  “Come here, Adam,” he called.

With wide strides Adam crossed the alley and took the wooden rod Roy handed him.  One end was covered with blood.  “Joe was stabbed,” he said.  “This wasn’t used on him.”

“No, didn’t think it was,” Roy said.  He pointed at some strands of light hair matted in the blood.  “That look like Hoss’s shade to you?”

Adam swallowed hard.  “Yeah.”

Roy nodded.  “Yeah.  Me, too, but I trust a brother’s eyes more than my own.  Well, that settles it, far as I’m concerned.  We got us an assault and a kidnapping, and both of ‘em happened here.  You know any reason someone might take your brother, son?”

“Ransom?” Adam ventured.

“Make more sense to take Joe, in that case,” the sheriff argued.  “Easier to subdue, easier to handle.”

Adam quirked an uneasy smile.  “Apparently, you don’t know my little brother as well as you think, sheriff.”

Roy snorted.  “I take your meanin’, but I stand by what I said.  Compared to Hoss, Little Joe’s the easier target, and if’n it was ransom they wanted, they’d probably figure Ben would pay quicker for his baby boy.”

“I suppose,” Adam agreed absently.  “But if not ransom, then what?  None of this makes sense!”

“We’ll make sense of it,” Roy promised, “but I don’t think there’s anything more to be learned here.  I ain’t had a chance to get down to the doc’s yet, so I’m gonna head down there, see how Joe’s doin’ and if the doc can tell me anything.  You headed back there?”

“Yeah,” Adam said.  “Been away too long as it is.  Did you by any chance wire my father?”

Roy shook his head.  “No.  Sorry, son.  Didn’t know where to reach him—or you.  Just knew you was both over in California on business, but not exactly where you was.”

“I’ll need to do that first, then,” Adam said.

“It’s on the way,” Roy said.  “I’ll walk with you.”

 **********

             Except for emergencies, Adam had always preferred writing letters to telegraph messages.  A man who loved words as much as he found the ten-word limit for the basic rate restricting, but though he could afford to pay for extra words, he normally felt stimulated by the challenge to state his business succinctly.  Today, he would have paid any amount, but he didn’t even need those ten words to accomplish his goal.  The few he had chosen would send Ben Cartwright racing for the next stage out of Placerville:

JOE ATTACKED

STOP

SEVERELY INJURED

STOP

HOSS MISSING

STOP

STAYING DOC’S

STOP

ADAM

FULL STOP

He wished now, as he sat by the bedside of his strangely still youngest brother, that he had asked when that stage was due to arrive.  Thankfully, the Pioneer Line ran twice a day into Virginia City now, and if Adam knew his father, he would be on the first stage into town.  Adam himself had taken the 2 p.m. accommodation stage from Placerville yesterday and spent the night at Strawberry, but Pa would come straight through, he was sure.  That should put him in about nine tomorrow night, Adam decided.  He leaned forward and gently took his brother’s hand.  “Hold on, little buddy,” he whispered.  “Pa’s coming.”  There was no discernible response, and perhaps it was wishful thinking, but Adam was almost certain that his younger brother had taken strength from the words.

 **********

             Adam roused slowly, his stiff body stirring uneasily in the chair in which he’d alternately dozed and kept vigil throughout the night.  Dawn’s rosy light filtered through the lacy curtains that ruffled softly in the slight breeze, but none of that had wakened him.  He wasn’t sure what had until he felt the faintest brush against the palm of his hand, which still cradled his brother’s smaller one.  “Joe?” he whispered.  Seeing a brief flutter of his brother’s eyelids, he leaned forward and called the boy’s name again, a little louder and more urgently.  The eyes didn’t open, but Adam saw movement beneath the lowered lids.  Chafing the boy’s hand between his palms, he urged, “Come on, Joe.  Wake up, boy.”

The eyelids rose only a fraction, and Adam’s breath caught in his throat as his brother weakly murmured his name.  “Right here, buddy,” he said.  “Everything’s gonna be all right.”

Joe’s eyes slowly opened.  “No, no,” he gasped.  “Hoss.”

Adam squeezed the boy’s hand.  “What about Hoss?” he asked eagerly.  “What can you tell me about Hoss, Joe?”

“Hurt . . . took,” the breathless boy sputtered.

Adam squeezed his hand again.  “Yes, I know,” he said.  “Someone hurt Hoss and took him away.  Did you see them, buddy?”

Little Joe answered with the barest dip of his chin.  “Took . . . help,” he pleaded.

“I will,” Adam said.

“Pro . . . pro,” the boy panted.

With his free hand Adam stroked soothing fingertips down his brother’s cheek.  “I promise.”  He knew he dared not press his brother much harder, but if he were to keep that vow, he needed as much information as the boy could give him.  “How many men?  Did you recognize any of them?”

Little Joe’s head moved weakly from side to side.  “Three,” he whispered and then through a strangled throat, “Sor . . . ry.”

Adam tenderly cupped his brother’s fevered cheek.  “You don’t have anything to be sorry for, little buddy.  Rest now.”  But he needn’t have said anything; the pale eyelids had already closed.

About half an hour later, by Adam’s estimate, Dr. Martin came in to check on his patient, as he had periodically throughout the night.  “Any change?” he asked.

“Yes,” Adam said with a noticeable lift to his voice.  “He was awake briefly, talked to me a little.”

The doctor’s brows knit with concern.  “Only a little, I trust,” he said as he placed his stethoscope against the boy’s chest.

“Only a little,” Adam said.  “I asked a few questions, but didn’t press him.”

“I would have advised against the few,” the doctor said plainly, “but I understand why you did it.  Was he able to tell you anything about Hoss?”

“Not much more than I already knew,” Adam admitted.  “He confirmed that he’d seen Hoss taken, and I know now that we’re looking for three men.  Nothing more.  I really didn’t push him.”

“Good,” Dr. Martin said, rising and taking the earpieces from his ears.  “His heartbeat’s slightly stronger.”  He smiled.  “Not out of danger, but it’s a good sign, Adam.”

Adam nodded.  “I know it’s not much, but I should probably let Roy know what Joe said.”

“I’ll stay with Joe,” the doctor said.  “Give Roy your report—and make sure he understands that your brother is still too weak for any significant questioning.  Then I’d suggest you get yourself some breakfast.  I don’t know when you last ate, but I’m certain it’s been too long.  You’re no use to him if you collapse in a dead faint.”  With his head he gestured toward Little Joe.

Knowing he was in no such danger, Adam smiled slightly, but accepted the wisdom of the doctor’s words.  “I’ll have breakfast,” he promised.

 **********

             Sheriff Coffee followed Adam out of his office.  “You be sure to let me know when Little Joe’s strong enough to be questioned,” he said.  “I know you said he didn’t recognize the men, but if he can give me a good description, that’ll be a help in tracking ‘em down.”

“Not sure when that’ll be,” Adam said.  “Dr. Martin wasn’t happy with the little questioning I did, but I’ll let you know when he feels Joe is strong enough.”

“Glad to hear he’s doin’ some better,” Roy said.  “You heard back from Ben yet?”

Adam shook his head.  “I doubt he took time to send a wire.  I figure he’ll be in on tonight’s stage.”

Roy chuckled.  “Knowing Ben, I reckon he’ll do just that.”

“I’m headed up to the Young American for breakfast,” Adam told the sheriff, “in case you hear anything.”

Roy nodded perfunctorily.  He knew there was next-to-no chance of any news turning up that quickly.

As Adam walked down C Street, toward Union, he didn’t notice the swarthy man with the slouch hat covering his face slip from his post at the corner of the jail and head down the hill.

 **********

             “Fool!” sneered the portly man in the richly brocaded vest.  “Why didn’t you finish the boy off to begin with?”

“Thought I had,” the swarthy, grizzle-faced man snarled back.  “Besides, we had our hands full, gettin’ the big un out of sight ‘fore anyone came runnin’ to see what the commotion was about.”

Shaking his head in disgust, the other man paced the luxuriously appointed room.  “Another bone of contention, Saunders!  A town full of ne’er-do-wells to choose from, and you have to take a Cartwright!”

“How was I supposed to know his name?” Saunders growled.  “I ain’t from around these parts.  Cartwright or Smith, what’s it matter, so long as the merchandise fits the contract?  And this one was everything you asked for, Franklin.”

“Except obscure,” Franklin grunted.  “Maybe you don’t know what the name Cartwright connotes in this town, but I do!  Best friends with the sheriff, and that’s just where the man’s influence starts!  Old man Cartwright will tear this town apart to find whoever hurt his boys.”

“This wasn’t no old man,” Saunders said.  “Was a young fellow I saw talkin’ to the sheriff.”

“Adam, then, Ben’s oldest.”  Franklin stroked his fleshy jowl.  “Not sure that makes it any better.  Got a reputation for being sharp, that one.”

“It’s the little un I got to worry about,” Saunders said.  “If he can identify me, like the sheriff’s hopin’ . . .”

“See to it he doesn’t get the chance!” Franklin ordered.  “Then get out of town before anyone connects you with me.”

 **********

             Adam finished the sandwich he’d brought from the Young American that morning for his lunch and laid a hand across his brother’s forehead.  Bringing his hand away, he rubbed his thumb against his moist fingertips.  Sweat.  Was the boy’s fever beginning to break?  If so, that would be good news with which to greet his father when the stage arrived in a few hours.  He stood and walked to the window, more to work the kinks out of his back than to look out.  There wasn’t much to see, after all, since Dr. Martin had given Little Joe a bedroom at the back of his house, to guard him from the noise of the street.  Whether it was the quiet or simple weakness, Joe had been resting, almost motionless, ever since Adam had returned from breakfast, and that was just as well.  Adam instinctively knew that if his brother wakened, he would immediately ask the one question for which he had no answer.  He’d promised to help Hoss, but he still had no idea how he could.  No clue whatsoever to who had taken his hefty brother or where or why.  Whatever slim clues there were resided inside a boy who really shouldn’t be troubled, but who would be nothing but troubled if he heard that Hoss had not yet been found.

Pacing the room softly, Adam again pondered why anyone would take his middle brother.  Not for money.  Sheriff Coffee had pegged that correctly.  Not for malice, either.  Hoss had few, if any, enemies, and while the Cartwrights as a family had garnered a few over the years, anyone wanting to hurt the family would surely not have left its youngest, most vulnerable member behind.  No, whoever had taken Hoss clearly wanted Hoss and Hoss alone.  Why?  Adam shook his head, his thoughts as confined as the room he paced.  What made Hoss special?  To most of the world, he was only a big, strong, strapping hulk of a man.  To Adam, of course, he was much more.  Except for Pa, Hoss was the finest man he knew, a man stronger of heart than of body, which in Hoss’s case was saying much: tender, compassionate, kind to a fault.  But you don’t kidnap a man in hopes he’ll be kind to you, Adam mused.  Anyone who knew that those qualities resided in big-hearted Hoss would also know that all he had to do to get his brother’s help was ask.  No, whoever had taken Hoss probably wanted nothing more than brute strength, and since they hadn’t simply asked, it also followed that they wanted it for no good or reputable purpose.  That much was easy enough to reason out, but it brought him no closer to finding his brother.

Adam was still pacing the space at the foot of the bed when Dr. Martin walked in.  “I can’t afford a new carpet,” the doctor said with a wry smile.

“Sorry,” Adam said, grasping one of the four posters as if only such an anchor could halt his incessant steps.

“I’m not really concerned about the carpet,” Dr. Martin said, “but I’ve seen all my patients for the day and, frankly, am not in the mood to add another Cartwright to the list.  Not the easiest of patients, any of you.”

“I’m all right,” Adam insisted.  “Just edgy and—face it—my little brother’s not providing much entertainment.  Leaves me nothing to do but think—in concentric circles, I’m afraid.”

“Let’s see how he’s doing,” the doctor suggested, walking to the side of the bed.

“I think his fever’s breaking,” Adam reported, coming up behind the doctor.

Dr. Martin rested the back of his hand against the boy’s forehead and then his cheek.  “I believe you’re right.  Has he been awake?”

Adam shook his head.  “No, not at all.  Should I be concerned?”

The doctor chuckled.  “No.  It only suggests that the sedative I administered is working.”

“Oh.  I guess I should have realized you had, still as he’s been.  Good to hear.  I was afraid he was just too weak to stir,” Adam admitted.

“He is still very weak, son; that’s why I want him resting,” Dr. Martin said.  His eyes narrowed in appraisal of the young man before him.  “I’d like to see you get some rest, too, Adam.  I know you didn’t sleep last night, and, frankly, you appear dead on your feet.”

Adam offered him a chagrined smile.  “Guilty as charged, I’m afraid, but I don’t see what I can do about it.  I’ll sleep once Pa gets here.”

“Tonight?”

“Yes, I’m sure he’ll be on the night stage.”

“Good.”  The doctor gave the young man’s shoulder an encouraging pat.  “And be sure to get yourself a hot meal, you hear me?”

“I hear,” Adam said.  “In the meantime, you wouldn’t have a good book I could borrow, would you?”

The doctor chuckled.  “You’re welcome to anything I’ve got, Adam, but I would imagine you’ve already read anything I have, old as they are.  Why don’t you take your supper break a little early, see if you can’t find something more to your taste?”

For the first time in twenty-four hours a genuine sparkle lighted Adam’s hazel eyes.  “I think I will.  You’ll stay with Joe?”

“Of course.”

 **********

             Adam placed a marker in his new copy of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and laid it on the small round table beside his chair.  He wasn’t sure why the intricately plotted novel had caught his eye, since it wasn’t his typical sort of reading material.  Perhaps because the bookseller had described it as a mystery and he hoped it might teach him to think like a detective or, at least, distract him from the real life conundrum that, thus far, had proved impossible to solve.  He stood, stretched his back this way and that and went to stand at the foot of the bed.

Little Joe was sleeping, as he had been almost the entire evening.  He’d only roused once, and Adam hadn’t had a chance to speak to him then because Dr. Martin had been checking on his patient when the boy’s eyes had opened and had quickly shushed Joe’s sole attempt to communicate . . .

 

“Hoss?” Little Joe asked weakly.

“Hoss is fine,” the doctor quickly told him.

Life sparked in the expressive green eyes.  “Found?” he whispered.

“Everything’s all right,” Dr. Martin said.  “Just rest, son.”  He immediately spooned a dose of laudanum into Joe’s mouth, and soon the boy was beyond asking any further questions.

Adam gave the family physician a dour look.  “What happens when he finds out you lied to him?”

“Hopefully, by the time he asks again, it will be the truth,” the doctor said.  “And, if not, at least he should be stronger, more able to handle the stress.”

Adam kneaded his aching temple.  “I hoped he could describe his attackers.  If I just had some idea what they looked like, maybe I could . . .”

“Nothing,” Dr. Martin insisted.  “You could do nothing, Adam, because not even you can be in two places at one time . . . and here is where you’re needed.”

With a glance at his brother, Adam nodded.  “Until Pa comes.  Then I intend to find my other brother, if I have to tear this entire town apart to do it!”

 

. . . Until Pa comes—Adam checked his watch.  The stage should be in any time now.  Though his instinct was to meet the stage, he didn’t want to leave Little Joe that long, especially since Dr. Martin had turned in for the night.  Still, Joe was sleeping deeply, and a breath of fresh air would be bracing.  The back window was raised so slightly that the breeze barely rippled the lacy curtains, and suddenly Adam felt stifled.  Just a few minutes, just enough to breathe freely again; thanks to the laudanum, Joe wasn’t likely to even move in those few minutes.

Adam walked to the front door and stepped out onto the porch.  Hot as it had been during the day, the temperature had dropped, as it always did once the sun went down, and the gentle wind that brushed wisps of black hair across his forehead was pleasantly cool.  In the distance he heard the thunder of horses’ hooves, which at this time of night, could only mean one thing: the stage was in, and surely Pa was on it.  For the first time since he’d gotten off the stage himself yesterday, Adam felt his burden of anxiety lift.

He remained on the porch until he saw the familiar figure at the end of the street; then he hurried forward to meet his father.  As he passed the first intersecting street, a lanky figure came out from the sheltering shadows to his left, slipped stealthily across the street behind him and slunk down the alley behind the doctor’s house.

“Joseph?” Ben Cartwright asked anxiously as Adam took his carpetbag from him.

“He’s better, Pa.  Still weak, but better.”

“And Hoss?”  The older man’s voice was sharp with fear.

Adam shook his head.  “No sign of him yet, but I’ll find him, Pa.  I promise I will.”

Laying a hand on his eldest son’s shoulder, Ben squeezed it, both for his son’s support and his own reassurance.  “Take me to Joseph,” he whispered, and the two of them walked briskly to Dr. Martin’s house.  Mindful of those sleeping within, they entered quietly and made their way soundlessly to the back bedroom, Adam slightly ahead of his father.

As he opened the door, however, both Cartwrights gasped in shock at the scene before them, for the low lamplight revealed a man hulking over the bed, pressing a pillow to the face of the boy they had expected to find in peaceful slumber.  Instead, thin arms feebly flailed, legs weakly kicked beneath the covers.  For only an instant were they frozen at the door, and then both rushed forward.  Adam, being in front, got there first.  He grabbed the intruder by both shoulders, pulled him back from the bed, spun him around and drove a fist into the man’s face, while Ben rushed to his youngest son and snatched the pillow away, throwing it against the opposite wall.

Adam’s punch had been inhibited by the cramped space, so the assailant easily kept his footing and returned the blow.  Adam evaded the thrust to his jaw and struck again, with full power this time.  His opponent fell back, colliding with the table, knocking it over and sending The Woman in White, as well as the oil lamp, flying.  As Adam again came toward him, the man hooked a long leg behind Adam’s boot heel and toppled him to the floor.  The two men wrestled and rolled across the floor, Adam’s heart wrenched by the sound of his father’s frantic pleas of “Joseph?  Little Joe?”

Then he heard another, more ominous sound, the crackle of flames, and caught a whiff of smoke.  “Pa!  Fire!” he cried.  He had no time to say more, for his adversary took advantage of his momentary distraction to rain blows at his face.  Ben heard, however, and hurried to stomp out the flames before they did much more than singe the carpet.

Suddenly, another figure loomed in the doorway, clad in nightshirt and bare feet, bellowing, “What in the name of mercy is going on in here?”

“Paul!” Ben called, stomping out the final sparks.  “Get to Joe.  Hurry!”

Paul Martin instantly responded to the need of his patient, although getting to him required some artful dodging around the men wrestling on his floor and the broken glass and other debris they’d scattered in his path.  As soon as Ben saw that the doctor was with his youngest son, he moved quickly to help his eldest, and the two Cartwrights soon had the man subdued.

“You have any rope, Doc?” Adam panted.

“I’m not in the habit of tying down my patients,” the doctor growled, although his irritation was not with the man toward whom it was presently directed.  “Use the curtain ties, and get that scum out of my house!”

“A little chloroform might work better,” Adam suggested dryly as he stripped the ties from the curtains.

The doctor frowned.  Needlessly drugging a man, even one as worthless as this, went against his medical ethics.  Besides, his services were more urgently needed elsewhere.

Ben Cartwright clearly agreed, for he, too, frowned at what he considered ill-timed levity.  He helped Adam tie up the assailant; then he turned to the doctor.  “Paul?  Is he . . . ?”

“Let me work, Ben,” the doctor said.  “Get that man down to the jail, and by the time you get back, I should be able to tell you something.”

The last thing Ben Cartwright wanted to do was leave his youngest son, but he didn’t trust those fabric bindings any more than Adam did.  Furthermore, he couldn’t have agreed more with the doctor’s verdict that this man belonged in jail . . . awaiting the hangman’s noose.  Each taking an elbow, the two Cartwrights all but dragged the other man up to C Street and down to the sheriff’s office, where they dropped him at the foot of Roy’s desk.

“What we got here?” Roy asked, standing.

“Garbage even a pig would turn up his snout at,” Adam snorted.

Roy’s nose curled.  “Got the odor for it, I admit, but ain’t no law against smellin’ bad.  Howdy, Ben.  Glad to see you made it in all right.”

Ben nodded in acknowledgement and then pointed to the man bound on the floor.  “I made it in to find this brute trying to smother my youngest son in his bed,” he said tersely.

Roy sobered immediately.  “That a fact.  Now, that we do got laws against.  Yes, sir, we call that attempted murder.”  His face grew even graver.  “Attempted murder is the right charge, ain’t it?  Joe’s not . . ?”

Ben’s vestige of composure collapsed, and he croaked hoarsely, “I don’t know.  Doc’s working on him.  If you don’t need me, Roy . . .”

“You got any information Adam can’t give me?”

“No.”

“Then get back to that boy of yours,” Roy said.  Without a word Ben hurried out the door, and Roy turned to Adam.  “Help me get this trash into a cell, son.”

“My pleasure,” Adam grunted, again grabbing a convenient elbow.  Together, he and the sheriff herded the prisoner, whose eyes were wide with fear, into the first cell.

Roy removed the curtain ties and held them out to Adam.  “Reckon these belong to Doc, and he might want ‘em back . . . after a decent launderin’, that is.”

Adam took them and stuffed them into his pocket.  Then he grabbed the prisoner by his shirt lapels and, standing nose to nose, demanded, “Where’s my brother?”

“Let him go, Adam!” the sheriff ordered.

“Not ‘til he answers me.”  He gave the prisoner a teeth-rattling shake.

“Adam!”

Adam forcefully thrust Joe’s attacker away from him.  The man fell onto the cell’s cot, where he lay, pointing a bony finger at Adam.  “You keep that madman away from me, sheriff.  I ain’t done nothin’.”

“Nothing!” Adam shouted.  “You call kidnapping and attempted murder nothing?”  The word “attempted” almost stuck in his throat, for fear that the actual charge might go beyond that.

“Kidnapping?” Sheriff Coffee asked as he pulled Adam from the cell and locked the door.  “You think he’s the one took Hoss?”

“Stands to reason, doesn’t it?” Adam said.  “Why else would he attack Joe?  He knows the boy can identify him!”

Roy nodded slowly.  “Makes sense, all right.  I’ll look into it, but right now, young fellow, I need to get your statement, so I got cause to hold him.”  Seeing Adam’s reluctance, he took the young man’s elbow, although more gently than either of them had handled the prisoner’s, and after locking the cell door, pulled him back into the outer office.

Concisely, but with precise detail, Adam told the sheriff exactly what had happened at the doctor’s house.  “That enough to hold him?” he asked sarcastically.

“More than enough, especially as I got two witnesses to confirm the charge,” Roy said.

“Three,” Adam corrected.  “Doc Martin was there, as well.”

Shaking his head, Roy smiled.  “He can testify to a struggle, but not the attack, from what you just told me.”

“Give me five minutes alone in that cell,” Adam said, “and I’ll get you some more charges to file!”

“Yeah, and they’ll be against you,” Roy snapped, hackles rising.  “You know better’n this, Adam.  You best leave the law to the law, boy, and get on back to that little brother of yours.”  He swallowed painfully.  “And if . . . well, I just hope I’m filin’ the right charge.  What I mean is . . .”

“I know what you mean,” Adam said quietly, “and I do want to check on Joe, but . . . I have another brother, too, Roy.”

Roy laid a hand on the young man’s shoulder.  “I know you do, son, and we’re gonna get him back, but we gotta do it right.  You know what your pa would say.”

Adam smiled wryly.  “I have a feeling he might sound more like me than you right now, Roy.”

Roy shook his head as Adam turned to leave.  He had a feeling young Cartwright had pegged it just about right.

Like his father before him, Adam raced down the street to the doctor’s home, but he stopped at the door, took a deep breath and kept his steps soft as he entered.  Unsure what he might find, he approached the back bedroom cautiously and paused in the open door frame.  “Is he . . . ?”  He couldn’t bring himself to finish the question.

Dr. Martin looked up from his post at Little Joe’s side.  “He’s alive,” he said, “but barely.  I wish I hadn’t given him that last dose of laudanum.”

“He couldn’t have fought off that man, regardless,” Adam said, coming into the room.

The doctor shook his head.  “No, but laudanum depresses respiration, son, not exactly what a person needs to fight off the effects of near-suffocation.  His breathing’s very shallow, ragged.  It’ll be touch and go tonight, I’m afraid.  Hand me that other pillow, Ben.”

Adam collapsed into the chair in which he’d been sitting earlier that evening.  “My fault,” he moaned.  “All my fault.”

Helping the doctor place the pillow to elevate Little Joe’s torso, Ben glanced over at his oldest son.  “What?”

“I left him,” Adam choked out.  “He was sleeping.  I thought . . . air.  If I hadn’t . . .”

“Oh, for mercy’s sake, Adam,” the doctor scolded.  “How could you possibly have foreseen this?  Yes, your leaving gave that man the opportunity, but how could you have known he was out there, waiting for it?  You give yourself too much credit, boy.”

“Credit!” Adam sputtered.

“Yes, credit . . . for clairvoyance,” the doctor stated firmly.  “I certainly never expected anyone to break into my home and attack a patient.”  His visage softened.  “Adam, this is what I tried to warn you about earlier.  How can you hope to think clearly on the amount of food and rest you’ve had?  I’ll be here with Little Joe through the night, so you might as well take my bed.”

Adam shook his head, but Ben Cartwright eyed him gravely.  “You will do as the doctor says, young man.”  When Adam again shook his head, his concerned gaze fixed on the motionless figure in the bed, Ben walked across the room and, grasping his son’s upper arm, pulled him to his feet.  “I’ll let you know if . . . if you’re needed . . . for any reason.  Now, do as you’re told.  Go to bed.  I’ll brook no argument.”

An odd half-smile lifted a corner of Adam’s mouth.  How many times had his father dictated bedtime to him, a man fully grown, as if he were only a little boy?  It was annoying and endearing at the same time.  Sometimes he resisted; others he simply obeyed.  The choice was his, always, and this time obedience won, although it was really the doctor’s final question that tipped the scale.  How, indeed, could he hope to think clearly with inadequate rest?  And if he were to find Hoss, as he had promised his baby brother, he’d need all his wits about him.  Thanking the doctor for the offer of his bed, he headed out of the room.

He paused outside the door only long enough to hear Dr. Martin make the same suggestion to his father.  “You’re tired, Ben; you’ve had a long journey.  Why don’t you . . .”  The doctor didn’t finish his question, and his father never spoke, which was enough to tell Adam that Ben Cartwright had fixed his friend with the look his sons always found unanswerable, as well.  There was no way under heaven Pa would be leaving his baby son tonight.

 **********

             By the clock on the mantle, it was nearly 5 a.m. when Adam woke from a restless night spent with his eyes open as much as they’d been closed.  If that wasn’t literally true, he felt as if it were as he swung his legs over the side of the bed.  It was late enough now, though, that Pa wouldn’t be concerned to see him downstairs, and he was anxious to learn how his little brother had passed the night . . . if he had passed the night.  The fear that he might not have made Adam wash his face hurriedly and hustle into clean clothes.  He was eager, too, to return to Roy’s office, confirm the right charges on which to hold the beast they’d captured last night and squeeze the last drop of information regarding Hoss’s whereabouts from his sorry hide.  Oh, for five minutes alone in the cell with that fiend!

He ran a quick comb through his dark hair and took the stairs at a brisk walk.  Taking a bolstering breath, he entered the downstairs bedroom, and his anxious eyes immediately sought his brother’s face.  “Is he . . .?”  He couldn’t bring himself to finish the question.

The doctor smiled.  “He is.  Breathing’s more regular, although not as deep as I’d like.  Quite a fighter, this little brother of yours.”

“Yes, he is,” Adam breathed with relief.

“Good morning, Adam.”

Adam turned toward the cello tones, in his concern for Little Joe not having even noticed his father’s presence until now.  “Good morning, Pa.  You look a bit worse for wear.  You should have joined me upstairs.”  Whatever sleep Ben Cartwright had gotten that night had obviously been taken in the lightly padded side chair by the small table.

“Cartwrights rarely take their doctor’s good advice,” Paul Martin grunted.  “I’m glad you did, boy . . . to some extent.”  His trained eye noted the telltale sag of eyelids that had spent too little time shut.

“You did rest, son?” Ben asked, his brows knitting together in concern.

“Quite a bit,” Adam lied with aplomb.  “Now that I know Joe is all right, I think I’ll head back to Roy’s and see if he’s learned anything from the man we apprehended last night.”  And help our esteemed sheriff learn a little more if he hasn’t, he thought, though he scrupulously schooled his voice to remain calm and reasonable.

Ben’s brow remained furrowed.  “Nothing outside the law, Adam.”

“Pa, I just said . . .”

“I know what you said.  Nothing outside the law, son.”

“Yes, of course,” Adam replied, trying not to grit his teeth.

“Before you do anything else, young man, get some breakfast,” Dr. Martin said.  “In fact, both of you go along and do that.”

Ben shook his head.  “No, I . . .”

“Yes,” the good doctor interrupted insistently.  “I can stay with your boy now, Ben, but once office hours begin, I can’t spell you, so take what opportunity you’ve got.  Don’t be as stubborn as this boy of yours.”  He nodded in Adam’s direction.

Adam sported a saucy grin.  “Where do you think I got it, Doc?”

“I know where you got it!”  The doctor chuckled.  “Just be grateful your baby brother inherited it, too—in spades!”

Ben stood slowly.  “If you’re sure he’ll be all right . . .”

“I’m sure he’s in good hands,” Dr. Martin said with a wry twist of his mouth.

“All right, then.  Give me time to wash my face, son, and I’ll go with you.”

Having his father in attendance was scarcely what Adam had planned, but he nodded as Ben passed him.  Then he moved to the side of the bed and lightly rested his hand on the tangled chestnut curls, watching with contentment and relief the soft rise and fall of his brother’s chest.

 **********

             After breakfasting together at the International House, Ben Cartwright returned to his youngest son’s bedside, while Adam headed directly to the sheriff’s office.  Greeting the lawman as he entered, he immediately asked, “Have you gotten anything out of him?”

“Just his name,” Roy said.  “Calls himself Ike Saunders.”

Adam’s jaw hardened.  “Five minutes, Roy; that’s all I’m asking.”

“Now, you know I can’t do that!”

“Well, what can you do?”  Adam paced the outer office like a caged panther in a zoological garden back East.  “Hoss was injured, Roy; we don’t know to what extent or what his condition might be by now.  It’s been almost two full days!”

“I got young Ed Reed in with him now,” the sheriff began.

“Ed Reed!” Adam sputtered.  “A boy barely older than Little Joe!  That’s who you have interrogating that—that . . .”

“He’s got a good five years on your baby brother,” Roy said, “and he ain’t interrogatin’ the prisoner; he’s drawin’ him.”

Adam stopped dead still and swung around to face the sheriff.  “Drawing him?” he asked, suddenly thoughtful.  “But he’s already in custody; we don’t need a wanted poster.”

“My thought was to take this here drawin’ around to some places in town Saunders might have frequented, maybe see if we could pick up a mite more information about him . . . where he works, lives, any known associates.  Easier—and safer, I might add—that haulin’ him around to every saloon in town.”

Adam nodded.  “That’s . . . a good idea, Roy, and the Reed boy is a gifted enough artist to capture a good likeness.  This might lead us to the other two kidnappers.”

“My thinkin’ exactly.”  Roy snuffled his irritation and muttered, “I do know my job, even if some folks think they could do it better.”

Adam smiled ruefully.  “Not better, Roy . . . faster, maybe.  Look, if you don’t mind, I’d like to make the rounds with you.”

Roy’s mouth skewed first one way and then the other in consideration.  “Whether I mind or not depends on whether you can contain yourself, young fellow.  No more talk of beating information out of people, you hear?”

“Nothing outside the law, Pa said,” Adam told him.  “I think I can contain myself to that, sheriff.”

“Then you’re welcome to come along.  You got sort of a gift for noticin’ things others miss, boy, and in an investigation, that’s as good a gift as Ed Reed’s for drawin’.”

 **********

             After visiting half a dozen saloons, Adam took the sheriff by the biceps.  “Wait a minute, Roy,” he said.  “We’re going about this all wrong.”

“I know it’s tedious, son,” Sheriff Coffee said, “but it’s usually best to do this in an orderly way.  Less likely to miss something.”

“Yes, I agree,” Adam said, “but we’re giving our culprit too much credit.”

“How’s that?”

“By asking about him in any saloon of decent quality,” Adam explained.  “A man like him would never show his face in the Washoe Club, for instance.  Personally, I doubt that he’d even patronize something as high-class as a two-bit saloon.”

Roy stroked his chin.  “I ‘spect you’re right about that.  You think we’d have better luck if we started down to the south end of C Street?”

“That’s what I’m suggesting, Sheriff.”

Roy tapped Adam’s shoulder with a lightly doubled fist.  “See?  I knew I done right, lettin’ you come along.  Let’s try it.”

The lawman and his assistant had to try eight of the single-bit saloons in the cheaper part of town before anyone would admit knowing the man depicted in Ed Reed’s sketch.  Adam thought he had discerned a glint of recognition once or twice before that, but had nothing but instinct to tell him that those barkeeps were more interested in keeping the goodwill of a steady customer than in assisting the law.   However, the bartender at the Silver Slipper, which might have been more aptly called the Tattered Sandal, said at once, “That’s Ike Saunders.  Used to come in real regular, Sheriff.  Not so often the last few months.”

“Any idea why?” Adam asked.

The bartender glanced inquiringly at Roy, who nodded permission to answer the man without a badge.  “Just said he’d been busy when he came in the other day.”

“What else you know about him?” Roy Coffee asked.

The bartender slowly exhaled as he considered the question.  “Works in some mine.  Not sure which one, but might be Walt Franklin’s outfit.  I’ve seen him hang around a couple of men that I know work there.”

Adam leaned urgently over the bar.  “Would you have a name to offer?”

The barkeep grinned.  “Mister, I can do better than that.”  He gestured toward the back of the room.  “That’s one of ‘em at that corner table.  Calls himself Williams.  Rube Williams.”

Adam turned swiftly and would have charged that corner had Roy not blocked his path.  “You’ll spook him,” the sheriff hissed in an undertone, and taking a calming breath, Adam nodded.  Together, the two ambled to the back of the room and stood over the corner table.  “Hear you work for Walt Franklin,” Roy drawled.

Reuben Williams eyed him warily.  “Who says so?”

With his chin Roy gestured over his shoulder.  “Barkeep.”

“Yeah, well, what of it?”

Roy shrugged.  “Just thought you might know another one of his men, an Ike Saunders.”

The dark eyes grew warier still.  “Maybe.”

“Either you do or you don’t,” Adam said.  “It’s a simple question.”

“Yeah, well, I might,” Williams admitted.

“I reckoned you might, seein’ as how he’s one of your drinkin’ buddies,” Roy grunted.

The man shot a disgruntled glare at the bartender.  “Yeah, all right.  I know him some, enough to take a drink with.  Ain’t seen him around lately, though, if you’re lookin’ for him.”

“I ain’t,” the sheriff said.  “I know exactly where he is.  If you know where he lives, on the other hand . . .”

“I don’t,” the man said quickly, too quickly in Adam’s opinion.

“He works for Franklin, same as you?” Adam asked.

Williams gave his lips a nervous lick, as if trying to decide what would be the safest answer.

“Either does or doesn’t,” Roy said, echoing Adam’s previous statement.  “Ain’t a tough question, Mr. Williams, but if you need time to mull it over, I can offer you a nice comfy cot in my jail while you’re considerin’.”

That apparently settled the matter in Williams’ mind.  “Naw.  I know he used to work for Franklin, but we was never in the same crew.  Seems like I heard he’d been let go awhile back, but I ain’t sure.  Like I said, I ain’t seen him around lately.”

“Even so, Franklin should have a record of his employment, including a home address,” Adam suggested.

“Should have,” Roy agreed.  “I reckon that’s where we’ll head next, then.”

Roy went directly out, but Adam stopped at the bar.  Leaning over it, he asked softly, “You said Saunders had been in here the other day.  Can you recall how long since you last saw him?”

“Oh, couple of days,” the bartender said.  Then his eyes lighted with certainty.  “The day that fire broke out down to the mines.”

“And this one?”  He moved his head slightly in the direction of the back table.

“He was with him,” the bartender whispered.  “That important?”

“Might be,” Adam said.  “Thanks.”  He hurried outside to meet Roy.

“Decide to wet your whistle?” Roy chuffed.

“No, asked a couple more questions,” Adam explained.  “Roy, that man lied to us.  The bartender just told me that he’d seen Williams and Saunders in here together the day of the fire.”

“That a fact.”  Roy’s jaw hardened.  “Maybe we’d best have another little talk with our friend Williams . . . down at the jail.”

Adam nodded, and the two men walked briskly back into the saloon, only to find the back corner table now vacant.

The bartender looked up.  “Headed out the back, soon as you left.  Looked to be in a powerful hurry.”

“Come on!” Adam cried, running toward the back door with Roy lumbering along at his heels.  As he raced down the back alley, he spotted his quarry, just rounding a corner, headed downhill.  The man ran past the attractions of D Street, past the hoisting works below that and had just turned right onto F Street when Adam leaped forward and knocked him to the ground.

They scuffled long enough for Roy to catch up and draw his gun.  “On your feet,” the sheriff ordered.

Having heard the cock of the pistol, Williams quit struggling, and Adam hauled him to his feet.  “What’s your beef?” the miner demanded.  “Answered all your questions back at the Silver Slipper, didn’t I?  What more you want?”

“The truth, for a change,” Adam grunted.  “Where’s my brother?”

“Mister, I don’t even know you, much less your brother,” Williams protested.

“About the way you barely know Ike Saunders and ‘ain’t seen him around lately’?” Adam taunted.

“Man lies to me about one thing, makes me suspicious of everything he says,” Roy amplified, “so let’s mosey down to the jail and see if you can’t get your story straight, huh?”

Williams struggled in Adam’s grasp.  “I got business to tend to,” he said.

“I’ll bet you do,” Adam said.  “Take him, Roy.  I think I’ll walk over to Walt Franklin’s office and ask some questions.  I have a strong suspicion that’s where this gent was headed in such a hurry.”

“It’s close to here,” Roy admitted, “but you ain’t goin’ there without me, Adam.  Let’s get this fellow locked up and then we’ll both pay a call on Mr. Franklin.”

Adam gritted his teeth.  More needless delay.  Didn’t Roy understand that a man’s life might be at stake?  He’d promised his father to stay within the law, but the law was frustratingly slow, especially when he had another, more important, promise to keep.  When they reached the jail, he all but threw Williams into the cell next to that of Ike Saunders, who had grasped the bars so tightly his knuckles turned white at sight of the new prisoner.  “Let’s go,” Adam said urgently as soon as Roy had turned the key in the lock.

“In a minute,” Roy said.  “Got to give some instruction to my deputy.”

Adam groaned audibly.  “I’ll be outside,” he grunted.

“Right outside,” Roy said with a significant look.

Adam exhaled with notable exasperation.  “Yes, of course.”  He walked outside and paced the boardwalk in front of the sheriff’s office.  Suddenly, he stopped dead still, and a sly smile twisted his mouth.  When Roy finally came out, he drew him aside.  “I’ve got an idea,” he whispered.  Touching his index finger to his lips, he moved to the alley beside the jail and slipped down it with the cunning stealth of a cougar stalking prey.  Keeping his own steps as silent as Adam’s, Roy followed, for he had quickly discerned the other man’s intention.

Bending low, Adam ducked under the barred window and flattened himself against the wall, while Roy took up a similar position on the near side of the window.  Both were instantly rewarded with a loud and unguarded conversation.

“What’d you tell ‘em?” Rube Williams demanded of the man in the next cell.

“Not a word,” Saunders declared.

“Then, how’d they know to come lookin’ for me?”

“I got no idea.  I never mentioned your name.”

There was a pause and then Williams hissed, “Just make certain you don’t mention Franklin.  I told ‘em you used to work for him, but was let go awhile back.  See you stick to that.  And you don’t really know me all that well, got it?”

Saunders snorted.  “And neither one of us ever heard of the Golgonda, I reckon.”

“Doggone right, we ain’t!”

The men fell silent then, and Roy signaled for Adam to follow him out of the alley.  When they were a safe distance from the jail, Adam observed, “I found that quite revealing.”

“Yup,” Roy agreed.  “Definitely sounds like Franklin is involved somehow.  Wouldn’t have figured that, respected businessman like him.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard of the Golgonda,” Adam said.  “Is that a new venture?”

“New to me,” Roy said.  “One more thing to ask Franklin about.”

Adam leaned in conspiratorially.  “I’d love a look at his records.  I don’t suppose . . .”

“If we had a warrant,” Roy said with a slight grin.  “I’m willin’ to guess a smart fellow like you can come up with some reason we need to see them books.”

Adam slowly rubbed his lower lip.  “To verify the prisoners’ assertion of their employment?” he suggested.  “Possibly to find the name of the third perpetrator?”

Roy’s grin broadened.  “Seein’ as it’s Judge Lawson, I think that’ll do it.  Let’s get that warrant and then pay a little call on Mr. Franklin.”

 **********

             The time-consuming process of getting the warrant had irked Adam, as all delay did at this point.  What if Franklin heard that two of his men had been arrested?  What if he felt a sudden need to destroy all evidence pointing to the crime of which Adam was now convinced he was guilty?  He wasn’t thinking of the books, although he sensed they had something important to reveal; no, the evidence he feared might be destroyed was, in fact, his brother Hoss, eyewitness testimony being the strongest of all.  Hadn’t one of Franklin’s men already tried to silence Little Joe’s testimony in the most permanent manner possible?

Judge Lawson, no defender of the rights of supposed lawbreakers, had proven as willing as Roy had suggested to grant their request, and they now stood on the doorstep of Walter Franklin’s mining office.  “Let me handle this,” Roy warned, for Adam looked like a horse seething at the bit.

“Just do it,” Adam growled through gritted teeth.

As the business was a public place, they just walked in, and Roy asked to see the president of the company.  He and Adam were soon escorted into a richly appointed inner office, where Walter Franklin graciously welcomed them with a warm handshake for each man.  “Young Cartwright, isn’t it?” he asked as he took Adam’s hand.  “Say, I was sorry to hear about your young brother’s attack.  Terrible thing, terrible thing.  Broad daylight, too, or so I heard.  I hope you’ll find the perpetrators quickly, sheriff.  Can’t have riff-raff like that on our streets.”

“Got two culprits in my jail right now,” Roy said, watching Franklin’s face for any reaction.

Franklin’s eyes widened slightly.  Then a smile appeared on his face.  “Excellent work, sheriff!  I hope you’ll prosecute them to the full extent of the law.  Hanging’s too easy for anyone who would molest a child.  Strangers, I presume.  Surely, none of our good citizens would . . .”

“Claim to work for you,” Roy stated bluntly.  “Ike Saunders and Rube Williams?”

Franklin shook his head.  “I don’t recall those names.”  He laughed hoarsely as he scratched his neck with an index finger.  “I can’t be expected to know the names of every man on my payroll, sheriff.”

“We do,” Adam grunted.

Franklin hooked his thumbs behind the lapels of his brocade vest.  “Yes, I’m sure, but the El Dorado employs a much larger number of men than a family operation, big as the Ponderosa is.”

“And the Golgonda?” Adam threw out.

“Golgonda?”  Franklin visibly paled at the mention of that name.

“Don’t see why you look so surprised, Mr. Franklin.  One of your operations, ain’t it?” Roy asked.

“Well . . . yes,” Walter Franklin finally replied.  “I was only surprised that you’d heard of it, sheriff, it being outside your territory.”

“And where, exactly, might that be?” the sheriff pressed.

“Really, Sheriff Coffee, I don’t understand your interest,” the mine owner said.

“Then let me make it clear,” Adam snapped.  “Where is my brother?”

Roy glared at the young man for interrupting, but said nothing.

Franklin adopted an astounded look.  “Why, he’s under the doctor’s care, isn’t he, either at his home or, perhaps, the hotel?”

“My other brother!” Adam barked, moving toward the mine owner.

Roy planted himself between the two.  “Adam, back off,” he ordered.  He turned to the other man.  “Sorry about that, Mr. Franklin.  It’s natural for my young friend here to be kinda upset, what with one brother attacked and the other missing.”

“Really?  I-I hadn’t heard about that.”  Again he scratched his neck, looking thoughtful.  “Well, of course, I understand young Cartwright’s concern, sheriff, but I don’t see how I can be of any help.”

“Fact is, we need a look at your books, Mr. Franklin,” the sheriff said.

“My books!  Whatever for?”

“Well, first thing, we need to verify my prisoners’ claim that they work for you.”  Seeing Franklin about to remonstrate, Roy hurried on.  “If they lied about that, it might be they’re lying about other things, you see?  And we’re lookin’ for a third man we believe to be tied in with them, so we’re hopin’ to get a lead on that by lookin’ at your payroll.”

“Well, I don’t know, sheriff,” Franklin sputtered.  “How am I supposed to keep track of my affairs if you have my records?”

Roy waved the concern aside.  “Oh, we’ll get ‘em back to you quick enough.  Adam’s gonna help me with that.  Sharp young eyes, you know?”

Franklin’s own eyes looked razor sharp as he turned them on Adam.  “Yes, well, I . . .”

“We got a warrant,” Roy said, “so I will be takin’ those records, Mr. Franklin, or I’ll be takin’ you to jail for resistin’ a lawful writ.”

Palms raised, Franklin moved them quickly back and forth.  “No need, no need.  Always happy to cooperate with the law.  Just think it’s a waste of time in this case.”  He hastily pulled three ledgers from a shelf behind him.  “Here you are, sheriff.”

“Give ‘em to Adam,” Roy said.

Adam stepped forward to take the ledgers and quickly scanned the opening pages of each.  “These are all for the El Dorado,” he said.  “What about the Golgonda?”

“Oh.  Yes, certainly,” Franklin said.  “Keep that separate, of course, it legally being in California.”  He pulled a similar volume from the bottom drawer of his desk and laid it atop the pile in Adam’s arms.

“Whereabouts, exactly?” Roy asked again.

With his chin Franklin indicated the ledger.  “All detailed in there, gentlemen.  Now, if there’s nothing more, I have several matters to attend to.”

“Best get ‘em tended to, then,” Roy said, sounding amiable.  “Come on, Adam.”

 **********

             Ben looked up at the sound of footsteps and exhaled with relief when his oldest son entered the bedroom.  “It’s about time,” he chided.  “I was beginning to think I’d lost my third son to whatever this is.”  His brow wrinkled in thought as he noticed the stack of books in Adam’s arms.  “What’s all that?”

Adam set the ledgers on the round table.  “Hopefully, the key to ‘whatever this is.’  How’s Joe?”

Ben glanced back at his youngest son.  “About the same.  Holding his own.”

“I’ll sit with him,” Adam offered.  “You need to get some food, rest.”

Ben arched a meaningful eyebrow.  “Did you?  Food, I mean.”

“Yes.”  Adam carefully omitted saying that the food had only been a few nibbles of whatever was on offer at the saloons where he and Roy had shown Ed Reed’s sketch of Ike Saunders.  “I’m going to be knee-deep in these for a while,” he said, tapping the ledgers, “and I might as well do that here as anywhere.”

“All right.”  Ledgers struck Ben as a peculiar place to be searching for his second son, but he trusted his eldest implicitly.  With a final stroke of his youngest’s warm cheek, he rose and headed for the door.  “I’ll be at Winn’s, if I’m needed.”

“He’ll be fine, Pa,” Adam assured him.

As soon as his father left, Adam sat down and spread a ledger open on the table.  He decided to start with the records for the Golgonda, primarily because Franklin’s palpable reluctance to part with them had raised his hackles of suspicion.  He checked the mine’s location first, but what was written was as meaningless as most property descriptions without familiarity with the reference points.  Adam did recognize the name of the county, at least; as the mine owner had said, it lay just over the border into California.

Filing that information at the back of his mind, he began to scan the Golgonda’s list of employees.  It didn’t take long to find the two names he was looking for.  Williams appeared earlier in the record, with Saunders’ name joining the list some three months later.  Adam arched an eyebrow as he read the job title beside each name.  Williams was listed as superintendent, while Saunders’ job was labeled supply, whatever that implied.  In both cases, the man didn’t seem to match the apparent level of responsibility.  In fact, had Adam been hiring either man for the Ponderosa, he’d have been more likely to trust them with cleaning out the pigpen, with the possibility of promotion to feeding the chickens if they proved reliable.  Running his finger along the line to check their salaries, however, he observed that the amounts were not only in keeping with positions of responsibility, but generous, compared to other mine payrolls he’d seen.  Obviously, these were valued workers.  Yet Franklin had claimed not to recognize their names.

On a hunch he checked the records to see if any other workers were as liberally compensated.  Most did not even receive the $3.50 per day typical of the average miner, although that was how they were designated.  A good number were paid significantly more, though still not as much as Williams or even Saunders’ slightly lower salary.  In each case these jobs were classified as security.  Valuable property, such as a mine, warranted protection, of course, but the unless the Golgonda was a huge operation, the number of guards seemed larger than average.  By the time he reached the end of the ledger, Adam had discovered only one other man whose compensation seemed in line with the top two men.  Elias Whittier, beside whose name the word “supply” was also written, received a salary equal to that of Saunders.

Adam was just closing the book when his father returned.  “Any change?” Ben asked.

“Hmm?”  Then Adam glanced at the bed, chagrinned that he couldn’t recall when he’d last checked on Joe.  “No.  He’s been resting quietly.”

Ben removed his hat and stood opposite his oldest son.  “And you?”  He tapped the cover of the ledger.  “Find what you were looking for?”

“I think I know the name of the third man who attacked Little Joe,” Adam said.

Looking incredulous, Ben nodded at the ledger.  “In that?”

Briefly, Adam explained what he’d discovered.

“It’s odd, I grant you,” Ben said when his son finished, “but it doesn’t really prove anything, except they all work for the same man.”

“A man who claimed not to know two of his highest paid workers,” Adam pointed out.

“Suspicious,” Ben agreed, “but what does it prove, son?”

Adam shrugged.  “So far, only that Franklin didn’t want us to know about the Golgonda or anyone who worked there.”  He raked through his dark hair with a frustrated hand.  “Something’s wrong with that operation, Pa, and the answer’s in here somewhere.”  He slammed his hand onto the ledger.  “I just can’t figure out what it is!”

“And you think figuring that out will lead you to Hoss?”

“I’m almost certain the key is somewhere in these pages.”

“Want me to go through them?  Maybe a fresh eye . . .”

Adam smiled, but shook his head.  “Tempting, Pa, and it might be helpful, but your place is with Joe.  He needs you more than I do.  Let me struggle on with this for a while, and if I feel like I’m not getting anywhere, maybe I’ll take you up on that offer.”

“All right, son.”  Ben looked relieved and moved directly to the side of  his youngest son.

Adam stood and gathered the ledgers.  “I’m gonna take these up to the bedroom.  Sometimes it helps to pace while I think, and I don’t want to disturb Joe.”  He looked toward his brother.  “You’ll call me if . . .?”

“Of course, son.”

 **********

             As the hours passed, Adam became increasingly glad that he’d moved to the upstairs bedroom, for his frustrated pacing and mumbling under his breath might well have disturbed his young brother’s rest.  He himself had found no rest, for either body or mind.  When he wasn’t pacing, he was poring over the pages of the ledgers, though he still couldn’t find the key he was certain lay within them.  He was unaware of the passage of time until the room darkened enough to necessitate lighting a lamp.

He was again pacing the dimly lit room when his father walked in.  Adam spun on his heels and anxiously asked, “Joe?”

“He’s all right,” Ben assured him.  “No better, no worse.  Dr. Martin is with him, and I’ve come to take you to dinner, young man.”

“No, thanks, Pa.  You go on.”

“Adam, you have to eat,” Ben said firmly.  “I have two boys in trouble.  I’m not sure my heart can handle it if I have to worry about all three.”

Adam gave him a wry half-smile.  “You’ll outlive us all, Pa.”

Ben grasped his oldest son by both shoulders.  “Does it ever occur to you, son, that that’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

Adam’s breath caught in his throat as he suddenly saw the entire scenario through his father’s eyes.  “I understand,” he said, “but missing a meal or two will not jeopardize my health, and I can’t stop now, Pa; I just can’t,” Adam said, his voice almost pleading.  “I’m close; I know I’m close.  The answer is just beyond my reach.”

“In those ledgers?” Ben asked with a glance at the books sprawled across a table in the doctor’s bedroom.

“Yes,” Adam said tersely.  “I know it doesn’t make sense, but . . .”

“I trust your instincts,” his father said, “but perhaps that fresh eye . . .”

Adam sighed with unexpected relief.  “Yes . . . absolutely.”  He walked to the table and, offering the chair to his father, tapped the larger pile.  “These are Franklin’s Virginia City operations, the ones we knew about.  They seem to be straight forward business accounts, nothing out of the ordinary.”

“And this one?”  Ben laid his palm on the open pages of the remaining ledger.

“The Golgonda.  The opening pages match the accounts of Franklin’s other mines, down to the wages paid, although the profits, when there are any, are much lower.”  He turned back a few pages.  “I presume that’s why he lowered the miners’ wages at this point, to cut expenses.  From here on the Golgonda’s profit line increases substantially, more so as the months pass.”

Frown lines wrinkled Ben’s forehead as he glanced at the figures on the page.  “Fifty cents an hour would mean a great deal to the miners, but it shouldn’t be enough, in itself, to account for a sudden upturn like this.  Have you checked their figures?”

“No.”  Adam shook his head at his own stupidity.  “I just assumed they’d recorded them correctly, but you’re right: something doesn’t add up.”

“And if it happens every month, it’s not a simple miscalculation,” Ben suggested solemnly as he stood.  “I’m going to run over to the café, son, and get us a couple of sandwiches.  We have work to do, and we need fuel.”

“Right,” Adam said, taking the chair and beginning at once to set down figures of his own from the Golgonda’s puzzling records.  By the time his father returned, bearing two sandwiches wrapped in brown paper, the sheets of paper he’d borrowed from the doctor were filled with calculations.

“Any progress?” Ben asked.

Excitement edged Adam’s voice as he answered, “I think so.  I thought this expense line seemed incredibly low, even given the decrease in wages, so I added up the wages of each man listed and came up with a figure significantly higher than the total expenses.”  He paused to let his father digest that information and then continued, “What I find even more astonishing is the amount of the difference.”

Ben raised an eyebrow.  “Which is?”

Adam leaned back in his chair.  “The exact total of all wages purportedly paid to the miners.”

The gray eyebrow arched higher.  “None of those wages are charged as expense?”

“Not a penny.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Ben said slowly.

“Oh, it makes perfect sense,” Adam grunted.  He turned the ledger so his father could see it.  “Notice anything odd about these names?”

At first, Ben didn’t see anything unusual, but then he began to detect a definite pattern in the names on the roster:  Abraham Smith, Benjamin Smith, Caleb Smith—and scattered among the Smiths a similar list of Jones and Browns attached to alphabetical first names.  “Either this region of California is populated by only three families,” he mused, “or . . . these miners don’t exist.”

“They exist,” Adam said harshly.  “I’m sure they exist; they’re just not listed under the names they were born with.”

“What are you suggesting, son?”  Ben suspected he knew, but hesitated to accuse anyone, especially a respected businessman, of something so heinous.

“The records suggest these miners aren’t being paid,” Adam stated bluntly, “and I know of only one kind of miner who works without wages.”

Ben nodded reluctantly.  “Slave labor.  And you think . . . Hoss?”

Adam’s jaw hardened.  “If it’s muscle they were looking for, he’d have enough to mine the Sierras single-handed.  Yeah, Pa, I think that’s exactly why they took him.”

“Ben!  Ben, get down here!”  At the sound of the shout from downstairs, Ben bolted for the door with Adam close behind him.  They burst into the guest bedroom, where Dr. Martin was bending over Little Joe, holding him still with both hands.

“Get him calmed down—now!” the doctor ordered, stepping aside.  “I don’t want to have to sedate him; it’s too soon.”

“Joseph, Joseph . . . easy now,” Ben said, gathering the boy into his arms.  “Everything’s all right, son.”  For him, it was simple statement of fact.  His boy was back with him, no longer wandering in some cloudy domain between life and death.

“Pa . . . hurt,” the boy said between heaving gasps for air.

Ben’s eyes registered instant concern.  “Where, son?  Where does it hurt?

Little Joe shook his head wildly.  “No . . . Hoss.  They hurt . . . Hoss.”

“Yes, son, I know,” Ben soothed, “but your brother will be all right, and you, young man, need to settle down.”

“Where is he?” Little Joe asked, eyes brimming with fear.

Ben floundered for an answer.  The little he knew—more truthfully, suspected—was not something he dared share with such a debilitated boy.  “Son, I don’t . . .”

“Pa . . . let me,” Adam said.  His father surrendered his place at Joe’s side, and Adam came forward to take his brother’s small hand in his own.  “Joe, I promised I’d find Hoss, remember?  Have I ever broken a promised to you?”  When Little Joe shook his head, Adam squeezed his brother’s hand.  “I won’t break it now, little buddy.  I know where Hoss is, and I’m going to get him right now.  Okay?”

Ben arched an eyebrow at the stretched truth, but he exhaled in relief when Little Joe whispered, “Now?  Okay,” and the hand that Adam held relaxed.

“You take it easy, little buddy, and I’ll have Hoss here almost before you know it,” Adam said.  With a final pat of his little brother’s hand, he straightened up and looked directly at his father.  “I promise,” he said.

Ben nodded.  Adam had never broken a promise to him, either.  This one might prove impossible to keep, but so long as Hoss was still alive, Ben knew that nothing would stop his oldest son from bringing his middle boy back to him and, what was more important in this moment, back to his baby brother.

 **********

             Adam ran up the dark street.  He’d not only doubled down on his promise to Little Joe, but he’d made the same brave vow to his father, and he knew that with every tick of the clock his chances of keeping his word grew slimmer.  Hoss had been hurt.  How badly, he didn’t know.  Hopefully, not so badly that he’d become useless baggage to his enslavers.  Then, the very fact that Franklin knew that he and Roy were closing in on the operation put Hoss at greater risk.  Adam could only pray that the mine owner was so cocky that he’d believe no one could see through his scheme, or maybe, he’d trust in the distance between here and California to give him extra cover—or, at least, extra time to cover his tracks.  Either way, Adam had no time to lose.

He was panting almost as breathlessly as his young brother by the time he reached the sheriff’s office, but he pushed through the door and began pouring out words as if he had an endless supply of air to propel them.  “Slave labor,” he said.  “They’re using Hoss . . . and more . . . as slave labor.”

Roy stood from his chair.  “Huh?”

With both palms Adam leaned against the desk separating him from the lawman.  “The Golgonda . . . books all wrong.  Only paying head men.  The rest—slave labor.”

“Show me,” Roy ordered.  He stared at Adam’s empty hands.  “Where’s the books?”

Adam groaned.  “Back at the doc’s.”

Roy rounded the desk and guided Adam to a chair.  “Sit a spell, boy, and get your breath.  Then start over.”

Adam nodded and, as ordered, took several deep breaths before trying to continue.  “The ledgers prove it, Roy.  Page after page of miners whose wages never get tallied as expense.  They’re being held at the Golgonda; I’m sure of it.”

“We’ll get ‘em.  You think Hoss is there, too, huh?”

“Sure of it,” Adam said, “and we’ve got to hurry, Roy.  If keeping him alive becomes too great a risk . . .”

“Yeah,” Roy said.  “We better move fast.”

The office door opened and Ben Cartwright entered, his arms weighed down with the indicting ledgers.  “I thought you might need these,” he said, “as well as this.”  He handed Adam the sandwich, which he’d also left in the doctor’s bedroom.

“Thanks, Pa,” Adam said.  The sandwich was exactly what he needed for the long ride to California.

“Bring my boy back, Roy,” Ben said as he moved toward the door.

“How’s your other boy?” Roy asked.  “Adam didn’t say.”

“Better,” Ben said.  His gaze took in his oldest son, as well, for he realized that Adam didn’t have the latest report, either.  “Once he settled down, Dr. Martin was able to examine him.  He’s breathing easier.”  Seeing Adam’s eyebrow arch skeptically, he smiled.  “The gasping you saw was primarily agitation.”

“Good,” Adam said with obvious relief.

“I’d better get back, in case he wakes again,” Ben said.  “Take care of yourself, son.”  He pointed at the sandwich.  “And eat!”

Adam lifted his right hand in a smart salute.  “Yes, sir!”

With a roll of his eyes and a shake of his head, Ben left, wondering as he walked back to the doctor’s house why all of his sons, the eldest in particular, seemed to pick moments like this to mock a father’s rightful authority.

He might have felt less abused had he been able to see inside the office he had just left, where that eldest son was proving that it wasn’t only the authority of his father that he was willing to buck.  “Why are we waiting?  We need to leave for California immediately!” Adam demanded.  He could think of nothing except his brother’s life, which delay only further jeopardized.

“Just where in California?” Roy asked pointedly.

Adam huffed in frustration.  “I don’t know, but surely any assay office in the state can look up the location of the Golgonda.”

“Maybe,” Roy conceded, “but there’s a quicker way.”  In answer to Adam’s quizzical look, he said, “Just ask.”

“And you think Franklin will just tell us, if we ask nicely,” Adam scoffed.

Roy quirked a lopsided smile at the scornful young man.  “Not him . . . and not nicely.  Which of our guests in there”—he cocked his head toward the cell block—“you think might be the easiest nut to crack?”

A spark of enlightenment flashed in Adam’s stormy eyes.  “Saunders,” he said.

Roy nodded.  “Just what I was thinkin’.  Let’s get him out here and see if he don’t have a sudden notion to talk his head off.”

Before I tear it off.  Adam’s thought was only revealed by the smirk that slowly replaced the grin with which he’d first greeted Roy’s suggestion.

Ike Saunders, hands cuffed in front of him, slunk warily into the outer office at Roy’s direction.  “Have a seat, Saunders.”  The sheriff pointed to a chair near his desk.

“What’s this about?” Saunders said.

“Need a little information,” Roy said, pausing briefly before he added, “about the Golgonda.”

Saunders blanched.  “What’s that?”

Adam held up the pertinent ledger.  “According to these records, the place of your employment.”

Though it scarcely seemed possible, the prisoner grew even paler.  “Oh . . . that Golgonda.”

“Yeah, that Golgonda,” Roy snorted.  “Wondered if you could tell us where it’s located.”

Saunders threw an anxious glance at the door to the cell block.  “Uh . . . well, it’s . . . uh . . .”

“You do work there,” Adam again pointed out.

“Uh . . . yeah.  It’s . . . uh . . . in California.”

“Whereabouts in California?” Roy pressed.

“Uh . . . well . . . south of Downieville, some ways.”

Adam could no longer contain his sense of urgency.  “Mister, you tell me exactly where that mine is right now or I will literally tear your limbs from your body.”

Saunders turned frantically toward the sheriff.  “You gonna stand for such as that?”

“Such as what?” Roy said, his face a portrait of innocence.  He gave Adam a significant look.  “Reckon it’s time I made my evening rounds.  You’ll watch the prisoner for me, won’t you?”

“Glad to,” Adam said, his mouth curling with sinister-looking satisfaction.

“You cain’t do that!” Saunders yelped.  “I got a right to protection, Sheriff.”

“You got a right to spill your guts about where you and your cohorts got Hoss Cartwright held prisoner,” Roy said.  “Until you do that, I got no interest in any other rights you think you got.”

Saunders raised his cuffed hands to wipe his slobbering mouth.  “Okay, okay,” he said with another furtive glance toward the cell block, “but you cain’t be lettin’ Williams . . . or Franklin know I told you.”

“They won’t hear it from me,” Roy promised.  He felt no obligation to give his opinion of the intelligence of either of those men if they couldn’t figure that one out for themselves.

“All right, then.”  Saunders swallowed the mouthful of nervous saliva flooding his mouth.  “If it’s him you’re lookin’ for, it ain’t the Golgonda you need.  We never got that far, him bein’ hurt and all.”

Adam grabbed the man by his shirt front.  “Spit it out!  Where is my brother?”

Whites of his eyes showing, Saunders sputtered, “Old shack . . . just past Gold Hill.”

“Get three horses, and if you see my deputy out on rounds, tell him to get back here and take charge of the office,” Roy ordered Adam.  Turning to Saunders, he said, “You’re gonna lead us there.  Help us get that boy back alive and I’ll put in a good word for you with the judge.”

Figuring that cooperation was his best hope of avoiding a long prison term or, possibly, even a hangman’s noose, Saunders nodded mutely.

 **********

             Per the plan developed in quick consultation with Sheriff Coffee, an apparently unconscious Adam Cartwright was dragged into the rickety shack Ike Saunders pointed out and dumped onto the dirt floor.  The explosive entrance produced a marked reaction on the two current occupants of the room.  One bolted to his feet in alarm, which caved into relief when he caught sight of Saunders, though he said suspiciously, “Heard you was in jail.  Reason I had orders to lay low here.”

“Let go,” Saunders said.  “Lack of evidence.”

“Sure you weren’t followed?”

“Yeah, I made sure.”  Dunderheaded as he was, Saunders knew better than to mention that Roy Coffee was even now pressing his ear against the door, waiting until he heard Adam take action.

The other man jerked his chin toward Adam’s prone form.  “What you got there? We don’t need no more merchandise, when we can’t even ship out the big fellow over there!”

Adam’s heart leaped in his chest.  Hoss was here, mere inches away!  Somehow, he managed to keep still, for the plan was to wait until Whittier had taken his presence for granted and turned his attention elsewhere.  Then Adam could take the man by surprise, Roy would hear the ruckus and rush in to make the arrest.

“That’s the one been makin’ all the trouble,” Saunders explained to his cohort, “the one what got me arrested—the big fellow’s bothersome brother, Adam Cartwright.”

“You crazy!” the other man hollered.  “Ain’t we got troubles enough with one Cartwright?”

“No-ooo.  Not Adam, too.”  A long, mournful moan came from the corner of the room, and Adam could almost feel himself shaking as he recognized the familiar voice.  Hoss was here . . . alive and conscious!  Restraining himself became almost impossible, but he kept an iron grip on his emotions and schooled his body to stillness.  Not yet, he told himself as he listened to the argument between Saunders and Elias Whittier.

Judging by the sound that those two men no longer stood between him and the back corner from which Hoss’s voice had come, Adam risked a small flutter of his eyes.  Hoss, head crudely wrapped in a blood-stained bandage, lay tied to a cot, but he was even now straining against the binding ropes.  Concerned that his brother might further injure himself, Adam knew he would have to take action soon.  He closed his eyes and moved slightly, as a man returning to consciousness might and waited for a reaction.  There was none.

He moved his head slightly and opened his eyes.  As soon as he saw that Whittier’s back was to him, he cautiously came to his feet.  Hearing the shuffling behind him, Whittier turned and, seeing Adam crouched, sprang forward.  Adam was ready, however, and slammed into Whittier’s legs, bringing him to the ground as the door crashed open and Roy Coffee, gun drawn, came barreling in.  Whittier was quickly apprehended and cuffed.  “You traitor!” he bellowed at Saunders.

Saunders shrugged, holding out his own hands when the sheriff extended a second set of handcuffs.  “Man’s gotta look out for his own skin.”

As soon as the prisoners were secured, Adam hurried to Hoss’s side.  “Easy, buddy,” he said as he untied the ropes holding his brother.  “It’s all over; you’re safe.”

Tears began to stream down Hoss’s face.  “Joe ain’t.  They killed him, Adam.”

Adam cupped his brother’s face between his hands.  “No, Hoss.  He’s alive.”

Face wracked with agony, Hoss shook his head.  “I saw ‘em.  They knifed him, Adam; blood everywhere.”

Adam insistently held Hoss’s head still.  “I know, but I swear, Hoss: he’s still alive.”  He smiled broadly.  “You know what a fighter our little brother is.  You think the likes of them”—with his head he gestured at the culprits in Roy’s custody—“could stop him.”

Hoss’s lower lip began to quiver.  “He—he went after ‘em to save me.  I thought . . . he’s alive . . . for sure?”

“For sure.  He’s at Doc Martin’s—Pa, too—and that’s where we’re taking you, big fellow.”

Finally, Hoss’s characteristic wide grin split his face.  “Best news I ever heard.”

Adam helped his brother to his feet, but when he saw how unsteady Hoss was, he immediately sat him down again on the cot.  “Roy,” he called, “we’re going to need some transportation.”

“I can make it,” Hoss insisted.

Adam laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “No, buddy.”

“Might be the easiest way to get these two back to the jail, anyway,” Roy said.  “You hold the fort here, and I’ll get things arranged.”  Before leaving, he cuffed one of each prisoner’s hands to the end of the bed.  “Stay right where you are, Hoss,” the sheriff said.  “I don’t reckon they’re likely to drag off that cot with you holdin’ it down.”

Hoss nodded with satisfaction, but then held a hand to his head in a way that raised Adam’s concern.  Head injuries, after all, were nothing to take lightly, no matter how well his brother might appear otherwise.

Though certain that Roy was moving as quickly as he could, the wait seemed eternal to Adam.  He tried to further assess Hoss’s condition, but the constant bickering of the men at the foot of the bed distracted him until he threatened to stuff gags down their throats.  They were silent for a minute or so; then Whittier, noting Adam’s concern for his brother and apparently hoping for leniency, said, “I took care of him best I could.”

Adam slowly turned a set of smoldering hazel eyes on the man, who gulped under the severe gaze.  “So, basically, you’re saying that you’re the sort of man who prefers to keep his pack mules in good working condition.”  After that, both prisoners kept scrupulously silent and yearned for Roy’s return as eagerly as Adam.  The sooner they were safe behind bars, out of reach of Adam Cartwright, the better.

Eternity finally passed, and Roy returned with a wagon.  Though he would have preferred to have Hoss lie down, Adam didn’t want him riding with his former captors.  Instead, he helped his brother onto the wagon seat and then helped the sheriff toss the prisoners unceremoniously (and with a bit of unnecessary roughness) into the back.  Tying his horse and the one Saunders had ridden to the rear, Adam mounted the wagon and drove toward Virginia City with Sheriff Coffee, eyes glued to his prisoners, following on horseback.  “Not far now, buddy,” Adam told Hoss.  “Not much more than a mile back to town.”  And given Hoss’s condition, how grateful he was that they weren’t making that drive from California!

“Just get me to Joe,” Hoss said.

Adam nodded his understanding.  Having seen that vicious assault on their baby brother, Hoss had to see with his own eyes that Little Joe was still with them.  He drove first to the jail.  “Need any help with them?” he asked.

“Naw,” Roy snorted.  “They ain’t gonna give me any trouble, are you, boys?”

One look at the chiseled granite of Adam’s gaze was enough to produce promises of saintly behavior from the two men scrambling out of the wagon.  Moments later, Adam was driving to the doctor’s home, and minutes later he was helping Hoss down from the wagon.

The door to the doctor’s house opened, and Ben Cartwright strode onto the porch.  “Hoss!” he cried, hurrying forward to engulf the big man in his arms.  “Thank God.”

“Pa,” Hoss whispered, and for the first time uttered a sob of relief.

“The doctor needs to see him,” Adam said, tapping his head with his index finger.

“I need to see Joe,” Hoss said, lower lip thrust out in stubborn demand.

“Fine, son, fine,” his father soothed.  “I’ll take you to Joe.”  The look he exchanged with his oldest son told Adam that Hoss would also find Dr. Martin there.

“If you can manage without me,” Adam said, “I’ll get this rig back to Gold Hill.”

“We can manage,” Ben assured him.  As Adam turned to leave, his father’s voice stopped him.  “Adam . . . thank you.”

Adam merely nodded and mounted the wagon, taking the reins and urging the team forward.  The sooner gone, the sooner he could return again to his reunited family.

Watchful for any sign of weakness, Ben led his middle son inside, straight to the room where his youngest lay with the family doctor in attendance.  “I’ve brought you another patient, doctor.”

Dr. Martin strode briskly across the room, but Hoss brushed him aside.  “I wanna see my little brother,” he insisted.

“By all means, son,” the doctor said, recognizing an irresistible force when he met one.

Hoss fell into the chair at Little Joe’s bedside and took the slender hand in his larger one.  “Punkin,” he croaked.

The voice he had most longed to hear penetrated the boy’s light slumber, and he woke, stretching trembling arms toward his brother.  “Hoss,” he sighed with contentment.  “Adam did find you . . . like he promised.”

Hoss made no answer except to hold his baby brother tightly as tears streamed down his cheeks.  He might have stayed there the rest of the night had not the doctor placed a firm hand on each shaking shoulder.  “And now, young fellow, it’s time for me to examine my second patient.  No argument.  Come with me.”

Reluctantly, Hoss loosened his hold on his brother and, with promises to return soon, he meekly followed the doctor out.  Once outside the door he asked, “Is he gonna be all right?”

“I can’t promise yet,” the doctor said with an encouraging smile, “but I wouldn’t ever bet against a Cartwright.”

A month’s time would validate the doctor’s faith in the Cartwright stamina.  All the Cartwrights were home again at the Ponderosa.  Hoss was fully recovered, and while the same could not yet be said of Little Joe, he was definitely out of danger and growing feistier by the day.  In the meantime Adam had made that trip to California after all, where he was instrumental in freeing the other men held captive in the Golgonda mine and seeing that Franklin, Whittier and Williams were all charged and extradited for trial there.  As a concession to Saunders for his help in recovering Hoss and testifying against the others, Sheriff Coffee and Judge Lawson conspired to have him charged in Nevada Territory, instead, and only for the crimes committed in that jurisdiction.  He would still serve hard time in prison, but he considered himself lucky to do so in a different state from his vengeful cohorts.

By Thanksgiving cards and letters from the former prisoners in Franklin’s mine came pouring into the Ponderosa.  Ben read the profuse expressions of gratitude with satisfaction, but he didn’t really need to.  He had only to look into his own heart or the smiling faces gathered around the hearth after stuffing themselves with turkey to know exactly the relief and joy those men and their loved ones were feeling.  That his three sons had been the means of proclaiming deliverance to the captives and setting at liberty those who had been bruised, as the Scripture put it, was only the whipped cream atop the pumpkin pie.  And the huge mound of it gracing the slice Hoss was currently inhaling seemed, symbolically, about the right amount for what he was feeling.

 

The End

© December, 2014

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Author: Puchi Ann

I discovered Bonanza as a young girl in its first run and have been a faithful fan ever since. Wondering if the Cartwright saga could fit into the real history of the area, I did some research and wrote a one-volume prequel, simply for my own enjoyment. That experience made me love writing, and I subsequently wrote and published in the religious genre. Years later, having run across some professional Bonanza fanfiction, I gobbled up all there was and, wanting more, decided I'd have to write it myself. I decided to rewrite that one-volume Cartwright history, expanding it to become the Heritage of Honor series and developing a near-mania for historical research. Then I discovered the Internet and found I wasn't alone, for there were many other stories by fine writers in libraries like this one. I hope that you'll enjoy mine when I post them here.

42 thoughts on “To Set the Captives Free (by Puchi Ann)

  1. And, a reread of this as well. I didn’t have time to leave a fitting review last time (was on my phone, which is just an annoying way to type reviews), so I thought I’d give it another shot …

    This was maybe the second story of yours that I read. The first was a Christmas story, I believe — perfect for early June. 😛 I was very excited to find stories where Hoss got such good parts (though he wasn’t actually in this one much. But it seemed like he was. Much appreciated! ;-). Great detail in this particular story — I don’t know if all those saloons and other places you named were real or not, but I was convinced! Good plot, too — I can actually maybe see an unscrupulous (that word makes me cringe, BTW, when used seriously — I’ve probably read too many Hardy Boys books — so laugh along with me here) businessman giving this sort of scheme a shot, back when it was a bit easier to slip such things under the radar (because, they didn’t *have* radars then. Hmm …).

    Anyway … it’s terribly late and I seem to be a bit slaphappy, so I’ll wrap up. I loved this story, I enjoyed it as much the second time, and I’m glad I got a chance to leave a more detailed (if somewhat confusing) review. Thanks as always for writing!

    1. Oh, silly girl, you know you’re supposed to read Christmas stories in July. 🙂
      Still, I’m glad you gave this one a try and pleased that you felt Hoss was there, even if he was rather inactive throughout most of the story. (So was Joe, for that matter!)
      The saloons are mostly fictitious, although the Bucket of Blood and the Silver Dollar sometimes appeared on the series and are part of Virginia City today. (I think there was a historic one called the Bloody Bucket, though, so that’s close.) The Washoe Club did exist back then. The Silver Slipper I made up out of whole cloth. 🙂 The restaurants mentioned are authentic to the times.
      Maybe I’m slaphappy, too, but I loved your thoughts on radar!

    1. Thanks so much for coming back again! That’s always a compliment. Adam is a take-charge kind of guy, isn’t he?

  2. such a well thought of ,beautifully written story with importance given to all characters equally!!!! including sherrif Roy coffee & doctor Paul Martin!!!!i enjoyed each word including SJS,JPM,JAM,APM,ADAM ROY MOMENTS!!! very well plotted! I kept on thinking why was Joe assaulted & Hoss kidnapped? quite confusing! but it satisfied the query!

      1. Yes!I started my fanfictions journey with your story WHN of my brother’s keeper which you wrote amazing!!I gave it a reread recently & put a review!thanks for sharing beautiful tales of yours!!

  3. Loved your story. The interaction and profound love between each member of this family always makes the best stories. You did an excellent job showing the relationships of the brothers.

  4. Wow ! Great job ! I couldnt stop reading this trying to figure out the mystery ! Believe me this must have been good as im a total joe gal so usually he has to be my main focus in story but i was glued to this till the end !

    1. Thanks for staying with me, Joesgal. I’m glad you enjoyed the story, even though Joe isn’t in much shape to take a major role.

  5. ”One look at the chiseled granite of Adam’s gaze was enough to produce promises of saintly behavior from the two men scrambling out of the wagon.” I laughed and laughed at that sentence!! Even now I’m chuckling, I loved the fear Adam instilled in all the prisoners–priceless, completely priceless!!! Also loved the mystery, you wove a complicated story simply brilliantly!! The scene with the ledgers was so intricately done, it had me chasing my tail as it did Ben for a while—Adam is so incredibly smart and his eyes definitely burn like fire when his family is threatened!! This story made me think of the ”Legacy” episode. Pernell Roberts was a complete natural at pulling off strained expressions and his look of vengeful pain as he stared down the man he thought had killed his father was the epitome of talent and helped me to picture how he looked in your story!! Great read and a awesome mystery–thank you so much!!

    1. I’m so pleased I was able to keep you guessing! As a reader, I love mysteries, but I find them hard to craft, so I’m really glad this one worked for you. Thanks!

  6. I am new to this website but I have to say this is among the best I’ve read so far. I was supposed to be in bed well over an hour ago but I could not stop reading this. EXCELLENT JOB. You really captured the personality of the characters and I could imagine this playing out on the tube. Good job!

    1. Thanks so much and welcome to Brand! Writers just LOVE keeping people up at night, so your comment really made me smile.

  7. Keep it within the law! Better words were never spoken, and obeyed. Love the detective.

    As I began reading, the tone felt ominous and held true as events were revealed!

    Our whip cream on the pumpkin pie was the family together!

    Great job!

    1. Thanks so much, BWF! I so appreciate your pointing out parts that were especially meaningful to you. Glad you liked the whipped cream metaphor.

  8. A wonderfully constructed mystery thriller with Adam as a detective and Roy as his wise companion in pursuit of the villains. A great read!

    1. Thank you, Betty. I always feel a little uncertain when writing a mystery, so comments such as yours are especially appreciated.

  9. Couldn’t stop reading, Puchi. Clever of Adam (of course) to find the clues in a book. I know you finished this just now, but was it in response to the Adam Cartwright, Detective challenge? It sure fit!

    1. I didn’t even know there was an Adam Cartwright, Detective challenge–LOL. Pity, as I do think I might have earned a badge with this one! I’m so pleased to hear that it kept you enthralled.

    1. Much as I love Joe Cartwright, Detective, I do think Adam’s mind was more suited to that sort of quest. So glad to hear this story kept you glued to the page!

    1. Oh, that’s wonderful to hear! I haven’t done many mysteries and don’t really consider them my genre, so to hear that I kept you guessing is sweet music, indeed.

    1. Thanks so much, Julie! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I didn’t expect any comments this soon, so a special thanks for that surprise.

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