Fight for Life (by DebbieB)

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Summay:  Joe becomes the target for revenge when he is forced to participate in a human cockfight in order to save his father’s life.

Rating:  PG Contains violence (16,700 words)

Fight for Life

The thick barred door slammed shut and Joe heard the turning of the key as the lock was secured. Painfully, for he had already suffered a beating from his captors, he pulled himself to his knees from where he had been shoved to the floor and glanced up at the other man. The man, Simon, larger in size and more muscular than himself, towered over the smaller man. Joe gulped, swallowing the fear that had washed over his body as he watched the man take a step in his direction. The roars of the crowd behind him drowned out the words that the man muttered to him as Joe scooted back and forced himself to his feet. He felt his back pressed against the iron bars that held both himself and his opponent prisoners in the cage. Quickly his eyes surveyed his surroundings, there was no means by which to escape, and even the top of the cage had strong metal bars across the upper portion of the enclosure.

 

Someone behind him, on the opposite side of the bars, shoved their fist into his back making him take a stumbling step forward.

“Get on with it!” he heard the angry man yell at him.

 

Joe made a mistake right in that instance and glanced over his shoulder at the angry crowd behind him. The man in the cage with him used it to his advantage and charged at Joe. Joe’s body was slammed into the side of the cage. The pressure of the larger man’s body pressed into his caused the wind to expel from his lungs. The minute the man felt Joe’s wind escape, he grabbed Joe by the front of the shirt, ripping the thin material in two and with both of his massive hands, flung the lighter weight boy through the air and into the other side of the cage. The bars rattled, Joe screamed in pain as he felt his ribs crack and the crowd went wild as they screamed for more.

 

Joe’s body tumbled to the floor; his cries of distress seemed to ignite the onlookers as he struggled to inhale enough air to refill his deflated lungs. Joe tasted the blood in his mouth where he had bitten into the side of his jaw. His head spun and as he moved his hand to touch the tender spot behind, he felt his body hauled upward once again. Though shaken, Joe instantly reacted to the man’s hands on his shoulders by bringing both of his arms up, inside of the powerful arms of the other man’s and with all the strength he could muster, forced the man’s hands into releasing their vise like grip on his shoulders. Speed, powered by the adrenaline that fueled his fear, Joe slammed his left fist directly into the man’s face. The stalwart man staggered back a few paces, obviously stunned, and shook his heard to clear his confusion. He screamed out his fury and made a grab for Joe’s neck, digging his strong fingers into the tender flesh and pushing downward with all of his strength. Joe felt his body being forced to the floor and knew instantly that if the man succeeded in getting him there, the man would then move in for the kill.

 

The crowd had gone wild, their screams and shouts so thunderous that the high pitched sounds made his ears ring. Joe felt the blood rushing from his head as his opponent pushed harder and Joe feared that he might pass out. His face was inches from the other man’s and the man’s breath was warm on his skin. From the sidelines, Joe caught a glimpse of his father and the man who held a knife to Ben’s back. No one could see the silent weapon, but Joe knew it was there, for the individual had warned him, ‘lose the fight, and your father dies, right then and there’.

 

The fear forgotten, Joe’s attention turned once again to the battle at hand. He could hear the frantic grunts of his opponent as the man sought to disable his enemy. Joe watched Simon’s expressions, though briefly and suddenly surprised the man by slumping to his knees and then onto his back. The sudden action caught the big man off guard and he automatically relaxed slightly. Joe quickly seized his opportunity and brought both feet up and into the middle of the man’s stomach. While grabbing both of the man’s wrists, Joe surprised the man by bringing his legs upward and slung the man over his own body. The heavier man jarred the ground when he landed on his back with a crashing sound.

 

The mob screeched and howled, cheering the less likely boy into further action. Joe spun like a top and as his foe pulled himself up into a sitting position, Joe slammed first one fist and then the other into the man’s face. Simon’s head reeled backward from the force of the blows, blood spurted from his nose and one eye quickly began to swell shut. Joe was relentless in his quest to keep the more powerful man on the ground and only when he saw the man become more than a little disoriented did he pause momentarily.

 

Joe was struggling to breathe, his cracked ribs were throbbing from deep inside his chest and he had begun to sway. His knees suddenly felt like rubber as he fought to stay on his feet. His head spun and when he paused again to suck in much needed air, Simon grabbed both of Joe’s fists into the palms of his hands and twisted them both around until Joe screamed in pain as he felt the bone in the elbow of his right arm snap. No longer able to stand on his feet, Joe felt his knees hit the surface of the ground. Simon dropped the broken arm but still claimed a hold on Joe’s left arm. The long fingers folded together, forming a deadly fist that sought and found its target. The blow sent the curly headed boy’s head snapping backward with such force that it nearly snapped the neck of Simon’s victim. Twice more the balled up fist connected with Joe’s face, breaking the skin opened in an ugly gash across the top of one swollen eye and marring the flesh of the once handsome face. Blood spewed across the ground, dotting the darkened earth with bright red drops. Joe’s body had gone slack, his world was slipping into a dark swirling universe of blackness as Simon released his hold on his foe’s arm and allowed the boy’s battered body to sink to the ground at his feet.

 

From across the arena, a man’s cry of anguish brought one last ounce of strength from the boy who had fought to the bitter end to save the life of his father. Somehow, Joe raised his head just enough to get a last look at his father. Their eyes met and locked; the dark chocolate one’s filled with fear for his son, the hazel eyes, filled with agony, induced by the beating that the body had been subjected to, stared into the face of his father.

 

“JOSEPH!” cried the father.

 

“PA!” moaned the boy, stretching his arm outward, toward Ben. When he saw his father’s body twist in a sudden spasm, he screamed again and then watched in horror as his beloved father fell to the ground.

 

The frightened youth tried to haul his body up, nearly succeeding but Joe’s head swirled, spots flashed before his eyes as he stumbled forward. Simon laughed wickedly and with the toe of his boot, lashed out and kicked the boy in the mid-section. Joe folded his body in half, falling to his face in the dirt. His head began to spin and then his world collapsed into darkness.

 

 

“I’ve looked everywhere for him Adam, it’s like he’s vanished off the face of the earth,” explained the youngest of Ben’s sons.

 

“Dadburnit, Adam, I ain’t even found one person that could say for sure that they saw him tonight,” added Hoss, taking his high topped hat and tossing it on the bed.

 

“Me either, and it’s not like Pa to go off alone without letting at least one of us know where he’s going. Joe,” said Adam, turning to face his youngest brother a second time. “Tell me again, exactly what Pa told you before he sent you back here.”

 

“I’ve already told you three times,” growled Little Joe, his worry about his missing father causing him to be more abrupt than he meant to.

 

Adam sighed and let the air slowly from his lungs as he rested his hand on his brother’s back. He knew Joe was worried, they all were, but Joe…well, for Joe it was more a nightmare come true…that one day Ben would leave him and never return.

 

“I know buddy, but just once more, in case you might have forgotten something, please,” he added softly.

 

“Okay, okay,” answered Joe, walking slowly across the hotel room where they had been staying since getting into town. Once on the opposite side of the room, he turned and faced both brothers.

 

“We were down town, fixing to go into the bank to speak with Mr. Alexander, when this here man approached us. He called Pa by name and at first Pa didn’t act like he remembered him but when the fellow introduced himself, Pa suddenly recalled that he had met the man once before, in San Francisco, I think Pa said.”

 

“Do you remember what the man said his name was?” questioned Adam as Joe paced back and forth in front of his brother.

 

“Sure, Peterson, Walter Peterson, why?”

 

“And what were you doing while Pa was talking to this here, Walter Peterson?”

 

Joe stopped momentarily and glanced at his oldest brother. Adam noted the redness that suddenly crept into his brother’s complexion. He couldn’t resist the smile that forced itself onto his face.

 

“You know what I was doing, I’ve dun told you, why are you making me repeat it again?” growled Joe. “I was talking to Peterson’s daughter,” he grumbled.

 

“Ya mean flirtin’, don’t’cha?” laughed Hoss.

 

Joe opened his mouth to make a sharp retort but stopped when Adam rose from the bed and laid his hand on his shoulder. “Hoss,” Adam said with seriousness in his voice.

 

Hoss snickered and glanced sideways at his little brother. “I was just funnin’ with ya, Joe.”

 

“I know, but lay off, will you? Can’t you see I’m worried about Pa? Besides, if I had been paying closer attention to what Pa was saying instead of flir…listening to Carrie Sue, I would have known where Pa was going. You don’t know how that makes me feel inside.”

 

“What I don’t understand is why Pa went anywhere with the man, he was suppose to meet with Mr. Alexander, but instead he suddenly changed his mind and walked off with this other fellow,” pondered Adam aloud.

 

“And without so much as telling Joe why or where or even explaining it to Alexander. Why, that banker must think that Pa wasn’t really interested in doin’ business with’em after all,” Hoss added.

 

“You’re right Hoss, it isn’t like Pa to miss a business meeting for no reason at all, let alone to go off with some man he hadn’t even seen in…how many years did he say, Joe?” Adam directed at Joe.

 

“Eight…maybe nine, ten, I really didn’t catch all of that part of the conversation, I was…hmm…busy,” Joe grinned slightly and then turned his head away from his brother’s knowing eyes.

 

“Yeah, we know,” muttered Adam under his breath as he watched Joe fumbling with the thin curtains.

 

“Hey Adam, look, there’s that Peterson fella now,” Joe said excitedly as he pointed to a man walking swiftly down the street.

 

Adam hurried to the window, followed closely by Hoss who peered over both brothers’ shoulders.

 

“Sure looks ta be in a hurry, don’t ya think?” said Hoss.

 

“Acts sort of nervous too, see how he keeps looking over his shoulder?” suggested Adam.

 

Joe pulled back and pushed his way past his brothers.

 

“Hey, just where do you think, you’re going?” Adam called as he straightened himself up and twirled around, grabbing Joe by the upper arm and halting the boy’s steps.

 

“What do you think? I’m going to go down there and find out what happened to Pa,” growled Joe.

 

“Oh no you’re not…and besides, what makes you think he would know anything about where Pa might have gone?” snapped Adam.

 

Joe dropped his head. “I don’t…I just thought since he was the last person we know that talked to Pa, he might have some idea, that’s all.” Joe raised his head slightly and glanced at his older brother.

 

Adam could see the worry that had formed in the deep-set hazel eyes and he quickly released his grip on his brother’s arm.

 

“I’m just…worried, that’s all, Adam. I wasn’t going to start anything, honest,” muttered Joe.

 

Adam gave the boy a smile and patted his back. “I know buddy, we’re all worried. And it’s all probably for nothing. Let’s just relax a little and give Pa a little more time. If he’s not back in another hour, we’ll go see the sheriff.”

 

Adam turned back to the bed and sat down, watching Joe’s face. His brother was troubled that was for sure and the boy was having a hard time trying to conceal his fear from them. Adam couldn’t help but to allow his eyes to follow Joe as the boy wandered back to the window and stood, gazing down to the street below. At nineteen, Joe often boasted that he was every bit as much a grown man as the rest of his family. But deep down inside of himself, Adam knew that his brother still carried much of the ‘little boy’ traits and fears that lingered from his childhood. Oh, Joe was courageous and strong in his own ways, but in other ways, such as being separated from their father for extended periods of time, often unnerved the boy, causing him nightmares and leaving him in fear of losing his father for good. It had been the death of his mother, when Joe had been so young, that had planted the seeds that had grown the fear of his father leaving him and never returning. And as Joe stood watching, Adam could sense a growing uneasiness settling in his brother.

 

“Joe, why don’t we all go down to the saloon and have a beer? Maybe by then, Pa’ll be back?” suggested Adam hoping to pull Joe from his gloom.

 

“Sounds good to me,” the boy said, giving his brother a slight grin. “You buying? I don’t have any money.”

 

Hoss snickered and plopped his hat down on his head. “Guess he’ll hav’ta if he wants our company, cause I dun spent my last dollar over ta mercantile this afternoon. Hey short shanks, wanna try one of these peppermint candies?” offered Hoss as he pulled a small brown sack from inside his vest pocket and handed it to his younger brother.

 

“Thanks Hoss, hey this is pretty good!” exclaimed Joe, stuffing the candy into his mouth. As he reached inside the sack to take another, Hoss quickly snatched the sack from Joe’s hand.

 

“Hey, these cost me my last dollar, don’t eat’em all,” grumbled Hoss as he returned the sack to his vest.

 

“Will you two stop that babbling and come on?” laughed Adam.

 

 

 

Joe groaned as he felt his body dumped on to the cold ground. Every muscle in his body ached, as he tried to gather his senses enough so that he might think more clearly. He cried aloud when he placed his weight on his broken elbow. The pain shot upward into his shoulder and down into his lower arm as it coursed its way to the very tips of his fingers. Tears filled his eyes as he sought to pull his legs up, near his chest. His insides churned, his lungs seemed void of oxygen and breathing was labored.

 

In the darkened room, Joe strained his eyes, silently commanding them to adjust to the near non-existing light. His mind was a rush of mixed emotions, his heart pounded loudly within his chest, tears stung his eyes as an image of his father laying dead on the ground, flashed before his eyes.

 

Joe felt his body shudder, his tears slid passed the rims of his eyes and he heard himself screaming hysterically, repeating the name of the one man whom Joe loved the most.

 

“PA! PA! OH GOD…PA…I TRIED…I TRIED!”

 

 

Much later, Joe woke to a pounding headache. He could feel the cold ground beneath him and the dampness that had soaked through his clothing and seemed to cling to his shivering body. When he tried to move, he found his arms had been pulled high over his head and his hands tied tightly to stakes that had been hammered into the hard ground. He tried to force his legs to move but realized that his ankles had been just as tightly bound to more stakes that held his legs spread widely apart. The battered young man heard himself moan as he tried to position his weakened body into a more comfortable, less binding position, but it was useless, he could move nothing but his head, and even that slight action caused him more suffering. The pain in his broken elbow was excruciating, and having it positioned over his head in such a manner only intensified the agony. Joe swallowed several times, forcing the burning bile that had suddenly filled his throat to return to his stomach. He wanted to cry out for his brothers, but fought the urge. What good would it do, he questioned himself? He had no idea where he was, only that it had grown darker since he had awakened the first time, and that he was very much alone, and frightened.

 

“Papa?” Joe muttered softly, pinching his lips tightly together and squeezing his eyes just as tightly shut. “I’m sorry, Pa…but he was just too strong. I thought I could take him…but…I was…wrong.” The sob caught in his throat and Joe could feel his tears as they slipped down the sides of his face, filling the cavities of his ears.

 

 

 

In another cellar room, at the other end of town, lay Ben Cartwright. This room was bright with slow burning lanterns as the doctor and Walter Peterson stood on opposite sides of the wooden table where Ben had been placed.

 

The doctor, hot and tired, dabbed at his brow with the back of his shirtsleeve as he labored over his patient. “Did you have to stab him so damn deep?” he growled at the man across from him. “Move that light closer,” he ordered.

 

“I only done what I was ordered to do. Hell, the boss wanted me to kill him at first. But I talked him out of it. I finally convinced him that we’d hang if they found out that we killed a Cartwright. It’s bad enough what they’ve done to his boy,” snapped Walter Peterson.

 

The doctor’s head jerked up as he glared at Peterson. “What did they do?” he demanded, momentarily stopping his work of sewing up the deep laceration in his patient’s side.

“Don’t ya know?”

 

“NO Stupid, that’s why I asked!” grumbled the physician.

 

“They tossed that boy into that cage with Simon LaVoy and that monster beat the hell out of that kid. Why there was no way that, that boy was a match to that mad man. It only lasted about five or six minutes, though the kid did surprise me and get in some pretty good punches. Didn’t do much damage to LaVoy, just made him madder, that’s about it. Kid’s probably dead by now and…”

 

“Dead? You and that crazy bunch you’re dealing with, better hope that boy ain’t dead, cause when this here man wakes up and finds out what you all did to his boy, he’ll kill every last one of you with his bare hands. And if that doesn’t work, his other two boys will help him. You mark my word Peterson, you under-estimated this here Ben Cartwright.”

 

Peterson turned from the table where Ben lay and walked to the far end of the cellar. He glanced over his shoulder at the man the doctor was working on and then watched the physician’s face. The wound wasn’t very bad, just deep. Peterson cursed himself silently for allowing himself to become mixed up in the entire mess in the first place. Quickly, he brushed his hand over his face and strolled back over to the doctor.

 

“I’m going to the saloon, I need a drink…several drinks actually,” he called out as he started up the stairs.

 

“Suit yourself, just you remember to keep you’re mouth shut,” ordered the doctor as Peterson went through the door. The doctor turned his attention back to the job at hand. “Okay now Mr. Ben Cartwright, let’s finish getting you sewed up.”

 

 

 

The brother’s were just finishing off their last beer when Joe spied Walter Peterson and the banker, Mr. Alexander, enter the saloon together. Joe turned slightly so that Peterson could not see his face and gently nudged Adam in the ribs.

 

Adam quickly turned his attention to his younger brother, asking his question with his dark eyes.

 

Joe tipped his head in the direction of the men in question and then whispered softly. “There’s Peterson now, with Mr. Alexander. Wonder what they’re doing in here together?”

 

Adam casually glanced over his left shoulder and watched as the two men sat down at a table in the corner of the saloon, and quickly ordered themselves a beer.

 

“Beats me, I thought you said that Peterson told Pa the he and his daughter had just arrived in Cedar Flats,” Adam stated in a low voice.

 

“He did Adam, that’s just what he told Pa earlier, that he and Carrie Sue were new in town, here on business, but he didn’t mention that he knew anyone, least ways, not that I heard,” Joe explained taking a long drag on his beer. “Reckon we should go talk to them?”

 

“No!” Adam almost shouted as he made a grab for his brother’s arm. “Not yet, Joe. Besides, neither one of them knows that Hoss or I are your brothers and that might be to our advantage. Let’s just keep that our little secret for just a bit longer, okay?”

 

Joe peeked at the two men again and returned to his beer. “Whatever you say, big brother, you’re the boss. Hey barkeep, another beer, please,” Joe called out.

 

Hoss and Adam swapped glances and then Adam leaned his head close to Joe’s. “That’s your last one, little boy. I don’t want to have to carry you out of here slung over my shoulder cause you can’t hold your liquor,” he muttered, laughing softly.

 

Joe cut his eyes up at Adam and saw that his brother was smiling at him. “Sure big brother, as I said, you’re the boss.”

 

Shortly after nine, Peterson and Alexander left the barroom. Joe ducked his head as the men passed, not wanting the pair to notice him. The brothers lingered until nearly ten before Adam decided that they should return to the hotel to check as to whether or not their father had made it back.

 

Adam was growing concerned, several hours had passed since seeing his father and though he hated to think of something bad happening, he had now reluctantly admitted that something was amiss.

 

Just as they were about to enter the hotel lobby, Joe stopped suddenly, causing Hoss to stumble into him. “Hey boy, what ya stop fur?” he grumbled, his usual good humor having vanished hours ago.

 

“Look,” pointed Joe.

 

Adam and Hoss turned in the direction that Joe was pointing just in time to see Walter Peterson slip down a darkened alley with two brawny men close on his heels.

 

“Wonder what that rascal’s up to now?” whispered Hoss.

 

“I don’t know, but let’s find out,” answered Adam, motioning for his brothers to follow along. He placed a single finger to his lips, signaling for each of them to be quiet.

 

As Adam reached the alley, Peterson emerged from the darkness, alone. Adam quickly pressed his back against the wall of the nearest building, his arm flung out across the broad chest of his middle brother. Hoss immediately did as Adam and forced Joe’s back against the wall. Peterson turned in the opposite direction, never noticing the three men blending into the shadows.

 

Adam wiggled his fingers at his brothers, silently telling them to follow him into the alley. He was determined to find what it was that had taken his father’s supposedly long lost friend into such a place.

 

Adam crept along the wall, pressing his back into the shadows so as not to be easily seen. Behind him, Hoss followed and Joe brought up the end of the line. As Adam led Hoss around the corner of the next building, Joe paused, standing quietly in the dark. He watched as his brother’s slithered through the darkness until they were out of sight. When he was sure they could not see him, he turned and hurried in the opposite direction, deciding to follow after Peterson instead.

 

He inched his way back in the direction he had entered the alley until he had reached the street. Pausing, he scanned his surroundings, frantically searching for Peterson. Not sure which direction he might have taken after coming from the alley, Joe slowly made his way down the street, his watchful eyes pivoting from one side of the dark street to the other. He neared the saloon at the far end of town. It was noisier here than in the one where he and his brothers had shared a few beers. The patrons where loud and the music blared as the pianist pounded on the ivory keys. The sharp shrill voices of the barmaids pierced his ears and the laughter was so boisterous that Joe felt certain that not one man could hear, let alone understand what the person next to him was saying. Joe stood for several moments at the double swinging doors until he felt himself pushed along as others entered the establishment. Joe finally managed to step aside, allowing the newcomers to enter and find themselves a spot at the bar. Quickly his eyes scanned the room for Peterson. He spotted the man in the back corner talking to, a man that looked very much like one of the men who he and his brothers had followed into the dark alley.

 

“Joseph Cartwright!”

 

Joe was snapped from his thoughts by the sound of his name.

 

“Over here!”

 

Joe glanced around the room, surprised to realized that Peterson had spotted him standing in the doorway and was now waving him over to his table. Not sure what course of action to take, Joe hesitated, suddenly wishing he had not been caught.

 

“Hey, Joe, come on over, son,” Peterson called again.

 

Smiling, Joe wove his way in and out of the crowd slowly making his way over to where Peterson waited.

 

“Hello Joe,” greeted Walter Peterson, grasping Joe’s hand in his and giving it a hearty shake.

 

Joe was instantly aware of the dampness in the other man’s palm and fought the urge to wipe his own hand on the leg of his trousers.

 

“What in the world are you doing out this late?” laughed Walter, somewhat nervously. “Does your father know you’re out, or did you sneak away?” Walter tried to make his question sound as if he were teasing the younger man, but Joe had picked up on the slight quiver that the man tried to keep at a minimum.

 

“To be truthful, I was looking for my father. Have you by any chance seen him around?” Joe asked, his eyes watching the other man’s face. He saw Peterson glance at the man at the table and then back at him.

 

“No, I can’t say that I have. In fact I haven’t seen your father since this afternoon,” Walter explained. “Why don’t you sit down, Joseph,” Peterson pulled out a chair and motioned for Joe to sit.

 

Joe saw the other man staring at him and the man’s dark eyes made him feel uncomfortable. He decided that the best thing to do was do as the man suggested. He was hoping that Peterson might tell him something, or let something slip about his father, for the more that Joe studied the man, the most confident he was with the thoughts that this man knew more than he was willing to share.

 

“Sure, why not?” smiled Joe causally and plopped down in the chair. He nodded his head at the stranger.

 

Walter watched, silently and then seemed to have suddenly remembered his manners. “Joe, this is…my associate, Mr. Beck,” Walter turned to the other gentleman, “Joe Cartwright.”

 

“Pleased to meet you, Cartwright,” said Beck, shaking Joe’s out stretched hand.

 

“Same here.”

 

“Buy you a beer?” offered Beck, his eyes studying the young man across from him.

 

Joe started to refuse, but quickly changed his mind. “Sure, why not,” he forced a smile.

 

Beck held up three fingers and yelled for the bartender to bring the beers. It took only a minute or two and the beers were placed on the table in front of the three men. Joe took his in his hand and led the mug to his lips, drinking long of the frothy liquid. He brushed the back of his hand across his mouth and returned the mug to the table.

 

Just then a young lady stumbled backwards, nearly knocking Joe from his chair. “Hey easy there ma’am,” said Joe, jumping to his feet to help keep the lady from falling.

 

The barmaid laughed drunkenly and wrapped her arms about Joe’s neck. “My, my, ain’t ya a pretty thing,” she babbled, bringing her lips close to Joe’s.

 

Joe pushed her gently backward, and smiled politely, “Thank you, hmm…here you go,” he stammered as he turned her around and offered her back to the cowhand who glared at him with angry eyes.

 

“Hmm…sorry,” Joe stammered and hurried to sit back down. Quickly he grabbed his beer and downed the entire glass. Across the table, Beck and Peterson smiled at one another.

 

“Well, if you’ll excuse me, I better be getting back to the hotel, thanks for the beer,” Joe stuttered, his speech suddenly slurred. Joe stood to his feet, his head unexpectedly spinning. His hands, brushed across his eyes, his vision had, without warning blurred. Joe swayed, started to open his mouth to speak but dropped instead, back into his chair. He tried to focus on the faces of the men sitting across from him, wondering why they offered no assistance to his predicament. Suddenly, everything went black as Joe’s head collapsed onto the table.

 

 

When Joe woke, it was to the sound of a familiar voice, one that he had been searching for. “Joseph, wake up son, can you hear me?”

 

“P…Pa?” stammered Joe.

 

“I’m here son, how are you feeling?” Ben carefully brushed his hand across his son’s brow, pushing back the wayward locks of dark curls in so doing.

 

“Oh…my head, it hurts like blazes,” moaned Joe as he sat upright. Joe glanced around him. “Pa…where are we?”

 

“We’re locked away in some old cellar, somewhere, I’m not sure where.” Ben looked into his son’s face. “Are you drunk, young man?”

 

“I don’t know, I didn’t think I was…until that last beer that Peterson and his friend bought for me…”

 

“Peterson?” Ben’s voice gave his words a surprising sound. “Why that sorry, low down…”

 

“Pa, how’d you get here? And why are we both here?” questioned Joe, interrupting his father.

 

“I was forced here at gun point…”

 

“Gun point?”

 

“Yes, when that varmint stopped us on the street this afternoon. While you were talking to his so-called daughter, that man stuck a gun in my ribs and ordered me to keep my mouth shut and come along with him. That’s when I told you I was going to go have a drink with an old friend. When we got here, someone clobbered me over the head and locked me down in this cellar,” Ben explained.

 

“But why? What does he want from you, us, I mean?”

 

“I’m not sure just yet. But whatever it is, I have a feeling that we’re in for a hard time. Joe, where are your brothers? Did you sneak away from them?” Ben’s lips curved ever so slightly as his son quickly lowered his head to hide his expression.

 

Ben cupped his son’s chin and raised the boy’s head up. “Not really Pa…I mean, sorta. We were following Peterson, cause we half suspected that he had something to do with you being missing. And when we were leaving the saloon a while ago, we spotted him sneaking into an alley with two hoodlums and Adam decided that we should follow them, but before we could get to the alley, Peterson came out, alone. So when Adam and Hoss slipped in to follow the other two, I thought I would dog along after Peterson and see what he was up too. That’s when I found him in the other saloon. He and some fella named, Beck offered to buy me a beer. I thought I’d go along with them…hey…the beer was free,” Joe laughed, “but after I finished it, I started to feel really strange. The next thing I remember was waking up and finding you here.”

 

“They drugged you, son,” Ben explained.

 

“But why?”

 

Just then the door opened and five men, led by Beck entered the semi-dark room. “On your feet Cartwright,” he demanded. “You too, kid.”

 

Joe bristled at the word and allowed his hand to slide down his side to his holster. His fingers touched the top of the leather where he carried his pistol. Instantly his eyes dropped to the empty holster and inwardly he groaned.

 

Beck’s laughter brought him back to the present. “You looking for his kid,” he taunted, twirling the pearl handle revolver around with his trigger finger. “Not a bad looking gun. You any good with this?”

 

“Give it back and I’ll show you,” snapped Joe, his quick anger rising instantly.

 

Beck laughed and stepped closer to Joe. “You’re sorta mouthy, aren’t you?” Beck glanced over at Ben who had risen to his feet. Beck smiled wickedly at the older Cartwright and then cut his eyes back to meet Joe’s angry eyes. “Someone should teach you some manners boy.”

 

“You think you’re man enough to try?” Joe snapped, taking a daring step forward.

 

“Joseph,” barked Ben, placing a restraining hand on his son’s arm.

 

“Back up old man, this here boy needs to learn some respect.” Beck handed Joe’s pistol to one of the other men and bushed Ben back from Joe’s side.

 

Joe braced himself for the attack. Beck laughed and circled around until he had Joe’s back to his men. His eyes never left the boy’s face as he moved, “tie the old man up,” he ordered suddenly.

 

Joe’s eyes darted to his father’s face, unaware that Beck had advanced on him.

 

“JOE,” yelled Ben, too late. Beck pounced on the boy with all the fury of a wild animal. Joe was knocked off balance and staggered backward into the arms of two of Beck’s men. Each man grabbed Joe by the arms and held him while their boss pounded Joe’s body and face with his fists. Ben was helpless to offer his assistance; his hands had been tied securely behind him with a post as a wedge between his back and his arms.

 

Joe’s cries of pain pierced Ben’s heart, as Beck showed no mercy in the beating he was dishing out. “Stop, that’s enough,” shouted Ben when Joe could take no more.

 

Beck let one last fist find its way to Joe’s lower stomach, just above the groin area. The blow was sufficient enough to cause extreme pain. The men released their hold on Joe’s arms and Joe dropped to the floor moaning.

 

Ben tugged at his restraints and glared at the man who had inflicted such brutality on his son. “I’ll kill you for that, mister,” snarled Ben.

 

Beck tossed back his head and laughed, “You ain’t gonna kill anyone, old man,” Beck stepped up to Ben and laughed again. As he turned, his fist doubled up and when he swung out, he clipped Ben on the end of his chin. Ben’s head snapped backward, rendering Ben unconscious.

 

“Tie the kid, and hurry it up, we got work to do,” order Beck, stepping back and wiping Ben’s blood which had mixed with Joe’s, from the back of his hand.

 

“That’s good enough, he ain’t in no condition to be going anywhere.” Beck snickered when his men turned Joe onto his stomach and tied his hands and legs together. “Now, all I need is a hot branding iron. You don’t look so dashing now, do you kid?” Beck stood over Joe and smiled as Joe moaned softly and tugged at his ropes.

 

“Try to get some sleep kid, I have something special planned for you tomorrow.”

 

Joe raised his head just enough to catch a glimpse of the man above him. “Go to hell, you…OH…God,” groaned Joe as Beck’s boot connected with the side of Joe’s body.

 

“I thought you had learned some manners, obviously not, but you will…you just wait…you will.” Beck turned to his men. “Gag them, both of them, I don’t want the kid crying out for anyone.”

 

Two of Beck’s men hurried and stuffed both, Ben and Joe’s mouth with rags and then wrapped their neck scarves tightly about both their heads. Ben had begun to come around and could hear the soft whimpers of his son and knew that the boy was in great pain. He tugged at his ropes, but it was no use, they were tied far too tightly for him to be able to get free and be able to help his son. His eyes sought his son’s still form in the darkness but when the men had gone, they had taken the lanterns with them, leaving Ben and his son in total blackness.

 

“Hmm…” Ben grunted, trying to alert Joe to the fact that he was nearby. He listened for Joe to make some sort of reply, but Ben could hear nothing other than the perpetual moaning that came from across the darkened room. Ben was subjected to being forced for hours to listen to the piteous sounds, and it was long into the night before they ceased. Ben prayed with all of his heart that his son had somehow managed to fall asleep and hoped that the pain had begun to lessen. Reluctantly, Ben leaned his head back against the post and closed his eyes.

 

 

“Dadburnit Adam, I swear when we find that boy, I’ll wallop him myself. Reckon where he ran off ta?” Hoss ranted as he walked beside Adam.

 

They had found nothing in the dark alley that would give them any clue as to where their father might be. It had been much too dark for them to follow the two men who had somehow given them the slip and when they turned to retrace their steps, Joe was already gone.

 

The brothers fumed, anger growing towards their unpredictable younger brother. Adam stopped; his hands placed firmly on his hips as his dark eyes searched the crowd that had begun milling about from the saloon.

 

“I don’t know Hoss, but something tells me that where ever he got too, he’s going to be headed straight for trouble. First Pa, now Joe…come on let’s check this saloon. If he’s not here, we’ll go back to the room and check. I have a feeling, he won’t be there either, but we’ll have to go see the sheriff.”

 

The brothers pushed their way into the crowded saloon and had to shoulder their way to the bar. Hoss ordered a beer for both of them and then turned around to face the crowd, leaning his back against the counter. His blue eyes searched every face in the crowded room. When he did not find the familiar face for which he searched, he shook his head sadly.

 

“The boy’s not here Adam,” he practically yelled so that his brother could hear him over the ruckus.

 

“Figures,” muttered Adam, scanning the room for himself as he sipped his beer. “I’ll be right back.”

 

Hoss turned to speak to his brother about where he was going but Adam had already started to work his way through the crowd towards a man sitting in the far corner of the saloon. Hoss watched his brother’s movement with his beer mug in one hand, his other hand resting carefully at his side, close to his holster.

 

Adam stopped, spoke to the man and when the man pointed to the vacant chair, Adam pulled it out and sat down. Hoss wondered who the stranger was, and if his brother actually knew the man or not. His brother talked for several minutes and then rose to his feet, hesitated briefly and then returned to the bar.

 

“Let’s get out of here,” he said in a sharp voice.

 

“What was that all about and who…” started Hoss.

 

“I’ll tell you later, I said, let’s go,” Adam gave his brother a gentle nudge toward the door and quickly followed him outside and onto the boarded walkway.

 

Hoss paused and turned to face Adam, but Adam nudged him again. “Keep moving, don’t stop,” he ordered.

 

Hoss knew enough to obey his brother’s command, which sounded more like a warning so without further questioning, he did as directed and moved on down the street. They had gone quite a distance before Adam even so much as cast his eyes around to glance over his shoulder.

 

“Ya ready ta tell me what in blazes is goin’ on?” whispered Hoss, never taking his eyes off the path in front of him.

 

“Just keep moving, Hoss, back to the hotel. All I can say right now is, we’ve got trouble, and lots of it,” muttered Adam in a voice that Hoss recognized all too well.

 

By the time the two oldest Cartwright brothers made themselves comfortable on the bed, it was well past midnight. Their weariness showed on their faces and in both sets of eyes.

 

“All right Adam, out with it, the blazes is goin’ on? Do ya know where our father and little brother are or not?” Hoss quizzed in an agitated tone.

 

“Take it easy big fella, but to answer your question, no. I wish I did, but I don’t.”

 

Hoss was just about to say something else but stopped when his brother held up his hand.

 

“However, the man I spoke with in the bar might have some information for us…for a price that is.” For the first time since returning to their room, Adam looked up into Hoss’ face.

 

“He says there’s talk going around town about a cock fight that’s going to take place in a few hours…”

 

Hoss scrunched up his face and scratched his head. “A cock fight? Doggonit, what’s a cock fight got ta do with Pa and Little Joe?”

 

“I was just getting to that, this particular cock fight happens to be a…human cock fight,” Adam explained, all the while shaking his head. He stopped and ran his hand over his face.

 

“A human cock fight? Ain’t never heard that one before…what happens?” Hoss had pulled up a chair and now sat facing Adam on the bed.

 

“They have an iron cage, so that the men can’t try to run away. Two men are locked together inside of this metal enclosure and are forced to…well, do what the roosters do…fight one another until one of them is either beaten so badly that he can’t continue, or until one is…dead.” Adam glanced over at Hoss watching for his reaction.

 

“And?” Hoss muttered, “Who does the fighting?”

 

“Any one that the big men can find, willing or not so willing. From what the man at the saloon told me, they have one man that has yet to be defeated and that’s who they make all the others fight. Apparently, there’s big bucks won and lost on this sort of thing.”

 

“Sounds barbaric to me. Does your friend over ta saloon, know anything about Pa and Joe?” Hoss asked for a second time.

 

“He wouldn’t say,” Adam told his brother. “The next fight is not until after midnight tomorrow night, that gives me enough time to see Mr. Alexander over at the bank, and get some money…”

 

“What’s the money for?”

 

“Duke, the man in the saloon, he told me I’d have to pay for any more information. He wouldn’t tell me where these fights take place or who does the fighting, though from what little he did say, I think that when they can’t get any volunteers, they recruit their own.” Adam glanced at Hoss, his eyes dark with fear for his missing family members. “Hoss, I’m afraid that’s what has happened to Pa and Joe,” he said softly.

 

Hoss jumped to his feet and grabbed his hat from the bed.

 

“Where are you going?” Adam called as Hoss reached the door.

 

“A good pounding will make him talk,” barked Hoss opening the door.

 

“NO HOSS,” he shouted hurrying to shove the door closed, “You can’t,” he said in a softer tone of voice. “If you do that, they might kill them. You don’t think they’d actually leave one of them alive to squeal on their little money making operation do you?”

 

Hoss stopped at the door and turned to stare at his brother, worry etched into each line of his brow. “Adam,” he said, scrunching up his face. “You don’t think they’re plannin’ on makin’ Pa or Joe fight in one of them there human cock fights, do ya?”

 

Adam took a deep breath and turned away from the door. He knew Hoss would follow him back into the room, he was right, Hoss pushed the door closed and leaned against the frame.

 

“Well…do ya?”

 

“I…” Adam paused to gather his thoughts, “I think it is probably likely, Hoss…oh not Pa, but Little Joe.”

 

“But Adam…Joe wouldn’t stand a chance against that other guy…why Joe’s just…just…a boy! And if’n what ya say is right…why’d they take Pa?”

 

Adam pointed to the chair and Hoss obeyed the silent demand by sitting down.

 

“Hoss, my guess would be that they are using Pa to make Joe fight…hell…I don’t know…maybe they threatened to kill Pa or something so that Joe would agree to fight. They probably make the opponents sign some kind of contract so that it is binding and the men who put this sort of fight on won’t get into trouble with the law. I don’t know Hoss, honest, that’s why I’m going back to talk to that man in the bar, he said for $5,000 he would tell me everything, including whether or not those men where holding Pa and Joe.”

 

Adam had no inkling that his assumption was correct in the way that the human cockfights were presented. When Ben and his son’s had arrived in town, Walter Peterson and his so-called daughter had not been far behind. The entire operation was arranged by Beck, who traveled from town to town, setting up the show. His job was to find a secluded spot, boast around town about his undefeated champion and to take bets. Peterson’s job was to arrive in town a day or two later, picking and choosing the men who were to fight. Most of the men, once getting a look at the champion with the massive fists, declined the challenges. This had been happening more and more and business was almost at a stand still.

 

Beck was head over in heels in debt and would go to any lengths to draw a crowd, often making ridiculous odds, which most men where willing to take a chance on. By the time that Beck and his gang of ruffians had arrived in Cedar Flats, the man was desperate. Peterson arrive in due time and the first man he had spotted had been Ben Cartwright. With a hurried word to Beck that he had a plan that would make him thousands of dollars, Peterson had approached Ben. It had been his initial idea to have Ben fight against the champ, but once he had spied Ben’s son, Joseph, his idea suddenly changed courses. He knew that Ben would never agree to allow his son to fight, for any reasons, but Peterson took a gamble on the chance that the boy would fight an entire army if it meant saving the life of his father. And it appeared to have been working.

 

Peterson took Ben to Beck’s make shift office, his derringer stuffed into his pocket and poking against Ben’s ribs. Once inside, he had explained everything to Beck, bringing a wide smile to his boss’ face. Ben had been led through the back alley and down the dark steps into the cellar where he had been knocked unconscious.

 

The trick now was to lure the young boy away from his brothers so that they could proceed as planned. The arrangements had been made, bets had been placed, now, all that was needed was a worthy or not so worthy opponent, namely Joe.

 

Beck had not let on to anyone, but he was well versed on the name of Cartwright, and he hated any man who bore the name, young or old. It had been Ben Cartwright who had, many years earlier, been the star witness in a murder charge that had sent him to prison more than eighteen years ago. He had been just a boy, only nineteen, the same age that Ben’s youngest son was now. Beck had served his time, hating the name of Cartwright more each day of the eighteen year prison term and had made a promise to himselt that one day, he would find the man and make him pay. He had been more than joyous when he had, by chance, stumbled onto the man and his son in Cedar Flats.

 

Beck laughed to himself, the old man had not even recognized him. Naturally he had changed, no longer a boy, the years spent in hard labor had taken its toll on him, both physically and mentally. Of course the fact that he had changed his name had helped with the fact that Ben Cartwright had no notion who he really was. Everything was going his way and soon, his pockets would be full of money, his revenge satisfied and then, only then, could he move on with his life.

 

Beck thought about the young boy whom he knew, after asking around town from the people who had known the Cartwrights, that the boy was Ben’s pride and joy. He had watched from behind assumed closed windows at the inner action between Ben and his youngest son. Beck had soon realized that if he wanted really sweet revenge, he would have to hurt the boy unmercifully in order to bring Ben to his knees. Beck had no fear of retaliation, he was driven by raw hate, and to hurt, even kill the boy right before his tormentor’s eyes, would not move him one iota; in fact, he might even enjoy watching Ben beg for his son’s life. First, he had to force the boy to fight, and then he had to be sure of winning all his bets. Lastly and most important to his plans, he had to make sure that the boy could, in no way win against the champ; not that he believed the boy stood a chance against Simon LeVoy, for the man was unbeatable.

 

 

Adam and Hoss were waiting in front of the bank by the time that the doors opened. “Do ya want me to mosey on down to the saloon and keep my eye on that Duke fella ya chatted with last night whilst ya get the money?” Hoss whispered to Adam before they entered the business.

 

“No, I can’t risk loosing another member of my family, you better stay with me,” said Adam sternly and then seeing the pout on his brother’s face, he smiled and rested his hand on Hoss’ shoulder.

 

“I might need you myself, Hoss, what would I do if someone tried to waylay me?” he grinned.

 

Hoss snickered softly, “Okay big brother, I’ll stay, and we’ll find Pa and Little Joe together. But let’s hurry.”

 

Adam quickly wrote out a bank draft in the amount that Duke had demanded and signed the check. Mr. Alexander held the draft in his hands for several seconds, and then glanced up at the two brothers. Adam could see the man’s hand begin to tremble.

 

“Is something wrong, Mr. Alexander? I do have authorization to sign that,” Adam explained.

 

“Um…yes, Mr. Cartwright, I am well aware of that, but…um…you see…I cannot accept this…”

 

“Why not?” demanded Adam, his face a mixture of emotions as he swiftly cast his brother a fearful look.

 

“I’m afraid that your father was in late yesterday and closed his account with our bank.”

 

“But that’s impossible! Our father has been missing since…”Adam, stopped himself and grabbed the paper back from the banker, ripping it into tiny pieces and tossing it on the banker’s desk.

 

“Come on Hoss, let’s get out of here!” grumbled Adam, spinning on his heels and stomping toward the door.

 

Hoss dipped his head at the man behind the desk and hurried to follow his brother. Adam was halfway across the street by the time that Hoss was able to catch up with him.

 

“Hold up Adam,” he called as he fell into step beside Adam. “Where ya headed?”

 

“I’m going to do what you wanted to do last night, I aim to beat that information out of that bastard and make him tell us what he knows about Pa and Joe.”

 

Though the hour was too early for most men to be in the saloon, Adam was not the least bit surprised to find Duke sitting in the farthest corner of the room, waiting for him.

 

“Morning Cartwright,” beamed the man named Duke, for he was sure that today, he would be rich. His hopes were dashed the minute he saw the anger and hatred that shone in the man’s dark eyes.

 

Adam said nothing as he approached the table, but when he was standing directly across from the man, he stretched across the width of the round table, grabbed the front of the man’s shirt and hauled Duke to his feet.

 

Adam’s face was inches from the other man’s and he snarled when he spoke. “Tell me everything that you know about my father and little brother, right this instant, and if you get it right, I might just decide to let you live!” Adam shoved the man back into the chair. Duke’s eyes were wide with fear and when he saw Hoss settle himself in the chair next to him, Duke began to tremble uncontrollably.

 

“Okay, okay…just stay calm…it’s like this…”

 

 

Ben was awakened by the sound of voices as four men made their way down the rickety old stairs of the cellar. In the hands of two were lanterns that cast their light into the dark underground room. Ben squinted his eyes in an effort to adjust his vision to the bright light. Frantically, he examined the area for his son but could not make out his body that lay in the deep shadows on the opposite side of the room.

 

“Looking for something, Cartwright?” laughed Beck, as he motioned for one of the men who carried the lantern to move across the room. Beck waited until the man held the light higher in the air.

 

“Perhaps you were looking for…that?” Beck watched Ben’s expression as it turned first to shock and then to fear. Ben tried to speak but the gag that had been placed around his mouth muffled his words. Beck started to laugh loudly.

 

Beck’s man used his foot to poke at Joe, causing him to begin whimpering. With one strong shove of his foot, Joe was turned onto his side where everyone could see his face.

 

Ben’s rage at what had been done to his son caused his face to redden. Joe’s face was no longer the color of the golden sun. Dark blue and black bruises covered nearly every portion of flesh about the boy’s face. His features were distorted by the swelling of his cheeks and around the tops of his brows where Beck had beaten him the night before.

 

“Untie his hands and feet, and drag his sorry butt over here,” he ordered the man. Turning to Ben he yanked the gag from around the senior Cartwright’s face and tossed it in the dirt. Ben immediately began sucking in large gulps of air to fill his lungs. His mouth was dry from the rag that had been stuffed in his mouth and left there for so many hours.

 

He glanced at Joe who was being dragged over to where Beck stood, and Ben cringed. He knew that his son’s mouth was as dry as his was and must have hurt like the dickens because of the battering about his face. Joe tried to walk upright, but having been hog-tied all night long, his legs were stiff and refused to carry the weight of his body.

 

When the two men stood in front of Beck, they released their hold on Joe’s arms and Joe crumbled to the ground in a heap at Beck’s feet. Beck laughed and then turned to Ben, a smirk across his ugly face.

 

“We’re going to make a deal, Cartwright,” he leered, his face close to Ben’s.

 

“I’m…not making any…deal with the…likes of you,” Ben said, forcing his words between his parched lips.

 

Beck tossed his head backwards and laughed. “Oh yes you will…or would you rather watch while I kill your boy?” Beck pointed to Joe who was, through self-imposed determination, pulling himself to his feet.

 

“Water,” Joe mumbled as he swayed and then staggered over to his father. “Pa?” he said in a whispered voice as he leaned against Ben’s shoulder for support.

 

“Take it easy son,” whispered Ben, “you’re going to be all right.”

 

“All right?” bellowed Beck, “Like hell he will, unless he agrees to my plans.”

 

“What plans?” asked Ben. After seeing how Joe had been made to suffer, he was at least ready to listen to what this madman had to say.

 

“A human cock fight,” Beck sneered.

 

“You must be out of your mind,” Ben exclaimed. He had heard of men who participated in such things but he had never been witness to one.

 

Beck’s laughter died suddenly and he moved a step closer to Ben. “Not quite. Now you listen, both of you,” he snarled as he jerked Joe around to face him. “You, kid, are going into that cage and fight with everything you have to offer, or your old man here dies, you got that?”

 

“Fight? My son is in no condition to walk, let alone fight a man! Look at him, he’ll be killed!”

 

“Then you will die…you see Cartwright, when I made you write out that bank draft for ten thousand dollars, I placed all the bets on my man. I know he will win, he always does. And when your son looses…well, as I said, you will die as well. But I want to be fair about things, so if my some strange stroke of luck, the boy here should happen to knock out Simon LaVoy and win, then I will let you live. That’s fair enough, don’t you agree?” laughed Beck, as he stepped back and sat down on a crate.

 

“You’re mad, you’re crazy!” yelled Ben angrily.

 

“May so, but it’s either your boy fights LaVoy, or you watch him die. I’ll kill him slow and easy like and you’ll watch every minute of it. I’ll make him scream and beg me for mercy. I’ll skin him alive, just like the Injuns do their captives. It will take him days to die and he’ll suffer pain such as no man has ever felt before.” Beck paused, watching the way that Ben’s face seemed to crumble and then turned to his son to witness the tears that had filled the blackened eyes. Beck saw the boy gulp and lean his body closer against his father’s.

 

“I can do…it Pa.” Beck heard the boy whisper to his father.

 

“No, son, you’re in no shape to…”

 

“I have to…I have…no other choice…”

 

“Joseph…no…”

 

“What’s it to be Cartwright?” Beck asked in a voice that appeared unruffled and self-possessed.

 

“I’ll fight…your man…but you swear…you’ll not harm my father if…I win?” Joe said in broken words.

 

“That’s the deal…you win, your father and you go free, unharmed. But…if you lose, your father dies right then and there…understand?” stated Beck.

 

Joe nodded his head in agreement, purposely avoiding looking at his father. “When’s the fight?” he asked between clinched teeth.

 

“Mid-night.”

 

Both Ben and Joe’s head popped up and they stared opened mouth at the crazed man. “MID-NIGHT!” shouted Ben, glancing at Joe. “There’s no way that my son can fight that soon!”

 

“Your son has already agreed. He should have asked when…before…now it’s too late. There will be no backing out.” Beck pointed his finger at the boy, “the show begins in six hours, you be ready.”

 

Beck turned to leave and mumbled to his men. “Get them something to eat and drink, untie Cartwright.” Beck had climbed half way up the steps and then stopped, turning to face the father and son duo. “Don’t try anything funny Ben, I know that you have two other sons roaming around town trying to find you and the kid. They won’t, I assure you, but if you should do something stupid, just understand that it will be their death warrant.” Beck finished his climb to the top and slammed the door on this way out.

 

Ben spent the next several hours talking with his son, pleading for him to reconsider his decision, but Joe was adamant.

 

“Pa, I have to do this, don’t you see, we’re dead either way. They aren’t going to let either one of us walk away from this thing. And besides, if I fight the man, it may give Adam and Hoss more time to find us and then…”

 

“Shh…Joseph,” Ben said in a whispered voice as he pulled Joe into his arms. They had been sitting together in the dark; Joe had propped his back against his father’s chest where Ben had been holding the boy for the last hour.

 

“I know what you’re trying to do son, and I thank you for it,” Ben added.

 

Joe had suddenly grown very quiet as he rested his head on his father’s shoulder. “Pa?” he whispered through the darkness.

 

“Yes son?”

 

“We’re not going to make it this time are we?” Joe muttered. Ben heard the catch in the boy’s voice and leaned his head down, kissing the top of Joe’s.

 

“I don’t know son, I wish I could tell you that everything will be fine, but I just can’t, I’m sorry, Joseph.” Ben felt his heart grow heavy with dread.

 

“Pa…I just want you to know, just in case we don’t make it, that I’m sorry for all the bad things I’ve done over the years…and…and I want you to know that I…love you.” Joe turned his head just enough so that he could almost see into his father’s eyes.

 

Ben felt his eyes slowly begin to water as he heard his son’s words and he had to squeeze them tightly to keep the tears from escaping. “I love you too, precious.”

 

The turning of the key in the door that told both, father and son that the time had arrived shattered the moment. Ben helped Joe to his feet. The boy was still weak and though Joe tried to hide his pain from his father, Ben could see through the mask.

 

“Joe,” whispered his father, softly as he supported the boy’s weight with his own body.

 

“I’ll be fine, Pa,” replied the son.

 

Walter Peterson appeared behind Beck as they descended the stairwell. Ben shot a dark look in the man’s direction, hating the man for what he had done to involve his son, and himself, into. Secretly, Ben vowed that should he somehow make it through this, he would kill the man with his bare hands, Beck as well as Peterson.

 

“Let’s get going Cartwright, come on kid,” ordered Beck as he watched two of his men place themselves on either side of the boy and having to support his weakened body, aided Joe in climbing the steps. Beck forced Ben to follow behind and soon they were all standing in the cool night air. Taking a quick glance, trying to determine his locale, Ben could tell nothing about his unfamiliar surroundings. He was pushed forward and for several long minutes he followed Joe and the two men in front of him as they wove around corner after corner before finally stopping in front of an dilapidated building.

 

From the within the building, Ben could hear yelling and shouting. It sounded to his ears as if a mob had gathered inside and he felt the fear and dread that he had held in check all day, wash over him. Quickly he stole a glance at his son and saw Joe watching him. Ben tried to offer his son a smile of encouragement, but he could not force his facial muscles to corporate with the order from his brain.

 

The small group had stopped just outside of the door and pausing briefly. Ben’s eyes never left his son’s face and when Joe turned toward him one last time Ben mouthed his son a silent message.

 

“I love you, Joseph.”

 

Joe nodded his head, and then his son was gone. The two men had shoved him through the door. Ben stepped inside, Beck covering one side of him and Peterson on the opposite side. The crowd was not very large, but the noise was deafening to his ears. Joe was ushered in one direction, Ben in another. The crowd parted as Joe was forced to make his way to the cage; Ben, Peterson and Beck had stopped at one corner of the cage where they would be in full view of the fight. The door was pulled opened, Joe hesitated, his eyes searching the crowd for his father’s face but not finding it. Suddenly, Joe was shoved forward and onto the ground as the man turned the key in the lock.

 

Ben’s eyes followed his son’s gaze until he spied the thick bulk of the man on the opposite side of the cage. Ben’s heart was in his throat as the man took the first advancing step in his son’s direction. Joe scooted himself to his knees and then forced himself to his feet, taking a step backward. When Ben saw Simon LeVoy charge his body into that of his son’s, Ben shut his eyes, unable to witness his son’s decadence, for Joe was as good as dead.

 

 

 

The doctor stood over his patient, the back of his hand pressed against Ben’s forehead as he checked the semi-conscious man for fever. “No fever, but I still don’t think you should move him.”

 

“Well, I ain’t paying you to think, now am I?” growled Beck. “I want him moved now, Peterson, you show the men where to take him. Once he comes around, I want him to see what I have done to his boy. I want to see the look on his face when he opens his eyes and sees his son stretched taunt on the cold hard ground. I want Ben Cartwright to watch as I make his brat suffer. I want to hear him beg and plead with me to stop and when the boy cries out for his father to help him, I’m going to let Cartwright put his own son out of his misery!”

 

Peterson and the doctor glanced at one another and both men shivered at the shrill sound of Beck’s evil laughter. “Get on with it!” screamed Beck.

 

The two men snapped into action as they prepared Ben to be transferred from one cold cellar to the another, halfway across town. Beck left the men to do his bidding, giving one last glance over his shoulder as he rushed out the door and into the cool morning air. He stole a quick glance at the sky, noting that he had at least two more hours before daybreak. Rubbing his hands together, he hurried through the alleys, reaching the old barn in a matter of minutes. Quickly, looking over his shoulder to assure himself that he had not been followed, he pushed opened the door and slipped inside. Grabbing a lantern from the nail on the wall, he pulled a match from his pocket and struck it, lighting the wick inside the globe. He allowed the thin layer of smoke to clear before replacing the glass and then turned the wick up, allowing only a small flame to burn.

 

Beck made his way across the large old barn and into a side room, once used for storage. Pushing back an old worn rug from the floor, Beck stooped down and pulled on a short rope, lifting a small wooden door, in the floor. He turned the wick up, giving off more light and began to carefully made his way into the underground room. Even before he had completely entered the room his ears picked up on the soft whining sounds of his victim that now lay staked to the cold damp floor.

 

Beck could feel his facial expression change into a smile and by the time he towered over the broken body of Ben Cartwright’s youngest son, he was grinning broadly. He squatted down next to the shattered form, holding the lantern high over the body so that he could see the damage for himself. He was surprised to find the boy semi-conscious and he could not refrain from poking at Joe with his finger.

 

“Wake up kid,” Beck said aloud.

 

Joe groaned softly and tried to find the man behind the voice. He strained to open his eyes, but the room had suddenly filled with bright light and the light blinded his vision and impaired his sight.

 

“Pa?” he cried, the tears rolling gently down the sides of his face. ‘Oh God, I hurt,’ his body complained to his brain. “PA!” Joe thought he heard himself scream. ‘Who’s doing all that laughing? Oh, my arm…it hurts…my eyes…why can’t I see?’

 

‘Adam? Hoss?’ Joe tossed his head from side to side. ‘Why won’t he stop laughing, doesn’t he know how badly I hurt, doesn’t he care how much pain I’m in?’

 

“STOP IT! STOP IT, I SAID!”

 

Beck hung the lantern on a nail and came back to stand over Joe. “What’s wrong kid? Does it hurt?” he laughed.

 

Joe had found the man’s face and his eyes had locked onto the man’s features. Though he tried, he could not force himself to speak or answer the man’s ridiculous question.

 

“I asked you a question boy, does it hurt?” demanded Beck.

 

Joe peered through pain filled eyes at his tormentor. The spark that once burned deep within the heart of the youngest Cartwright still flickered.

 

“Go to hell,” muttered Joe in a tiny voice and then shuddered when the look in the man’s dark eyes turned to one who looked as if he could cut a man’s heart right out of his chest without ever batting an eye.

 

Beck was livid with anger as he stood between Joe’s wide spread legs. Joe cringed when he felt the pressure of the man’s foot pressing down on the inside of his inner thigh. “I’ll give you a small glimpse of what hell is going to be like for you.”

 

He said nothing more only raised his foot and without warning slammed his boot down on the tender flesh between the boy’s knee and the place where the upper thigh joins the hip. Again and again the man drove his foot into Joe’s inner leg, being sure to dig the heel of his boot as deeply into the flesh as possible.

 

Joe screamed each and every time that he felt the man stomping his boot into his leg. The pain soon turned to pure agony until it became so unbearable that Joe could no longer withhold his tears.

 

“No…please…no!” he sobbed until at last his broken words found their way into the crazed man’s mind, and brought a halt to the attack.

 

Beck’s body trembled with hate as he sucked in large gulps of air to steady his breathing. He looked down at his prisoner staked to the ground, shocked at the amount of blood that covered the ground between the boy’s out stretched legs. Beck had pounded his boot into not only the inner thigh, but also the top of the leg, as well as the lower portion of Joe’s leg. The flesh had ripped and torn and blood oozed from the openings.

 

Beck, in his sick mind, for it appeared that the man had at last lost touch with reality, tossed back his head and laughed loudly. “Hell is what you asked for, hell is what you got, and there’s more to come before you reach your destination, Cartwright!”

 

Joe shut his eyes to the agony that crept from his left leg up and into the upper part of his body. He knew his leg was broken, probably shattered, for it was impossible to move so much as a toe. He could feel the sticky cold blood as it spread over his leg and Joe felt as if he might be sick.

 

His head reeled, his stomach churned; Joe shut his eyes to the misery that coursed through his body. He heard himself moan and then cry out, pleading with God to let him die and wondering why the man upstairs would not grant him his release from the pain and suffering. His mind began to drift, taking him further and further from this dark, damp place where his body could find no measure of freedom from all the wretchedness that surrounded him. ‘Please…Pa…’

 

Joe’s mind summon forth pictures from the dark recesses of his memories and Joe saw again his father’s body falling to the ground, he could see for a second time, the knife that protruded from his father’s bleeding side. In that instance, Joe knew…Pa was dead…and it was his fault for not fighting harder, for not giving more than he should, his father had paid for his son’s shortcomings with his own life.

 

Joe opened his eyes, no longer aware of the agony that had enveloped his body. His heart had shattered with the knowledge and realization of his father’s death and the cause for it. Joe stared at the ceiling above, his eyes looking, yet not fully seeing, until the face of a man loomed before him.

 

Joe blinked, the vision vanished momentarily and then returned. Joe blinked again, yet to the one looking down, the hazel eyes appeared dazed, unseeing as they stared out into the world of nothingness.

 

“Joseph…can you hear me son?”

 

Joe felt the touch of hands on his body, felt the pain that advanced from his head to this feet as the gentle hands lifted him carefully from the ground. Joe’s body shivered, he was cold but he seemed no longer to care. Joe blinked his eyes again, it hurt for they had become swollen and the least bit of movement only served to dish out more of the same. The hands had wrapped a warm blanket about his body…no it was two blankets his sub-conscious mind correct him.

 

“Take it easy Short Shanks, ole Hoss’ll have ya outta this here hole and into a warm bed in no time.”

 

‘Short Shanks? Hoss? Bed?’ Joe turned his head into the man’s chest and with his eyes tried to find the man behind the soft voice. ‘Had he imagined it?’

 

“Be careful son, he’s hurt badly.”

 

“Don’t worry Pa, I’ll be careful. Here, help me get him up in the wagon, Adam.”

 

‘Pa? Adam? Was he imagining things again?’ Joe turned his head toward the direction that he thought the voice was coming from, yet his troubled pain filled mind could not find the person.

 

“Papa?” he heard himself cry. And then the hands…they were touching him as they had often done many times throughout the years. He knew their tender, loving touch, and they were now caressing his face. His left hand inched its way to his face, ouch, even his face hurt. But his fingers found the loving hand and he felt the hand’s fingers entwine themselves with his own. He clung to the fingers and to the hand and as he cried, he felt the thumbs as they tenderly wiped away his tears from his battered, swollen and broken face.

 

“Shh…please Joe, don’t cry…it’s over sweetheart, no one’s going to hurt you now. We’re all here, Papa, Adam, and Hoss and we’re going to help you get well again.”

 

For nearly a week Joe lingered between life and death. The physician, who had attended Ben and then had given in to his conscience, had reported the whole stabbing, fight, kidnapping and torture scheme to the sheriff had remained constantly by Joe’s bedside. He was determined to do all in his power to save the life of the young man who had suffered surmountable amounts of injustice at the hands of the crazed, hate filled, lunatic.

 

The soft sounds of the angels murmuring lured the young man to enter the next world. Promises of peace, freedom from suffering…the covenants enticed the weakened boy to enter into their world of angelic beings. Joe’s mind sought the peace that the whispers assured him of.   But the low, soft sounds of the human voices held his attention as the words encouraged him to fight, to over ride his desire to leave the world from which he lingered and to come back…those very words, spoken in the deepest, most alluring tones of all, his father’s.

 

Five days later, Joe made his decision. His eyelids fluttered and slowly but painfully, his eyes opened. It was as his father promised, Ben’s smiling face loomed over his, and Joe somehow managed to return the smile with one of his own.

 

“Hi…Pa,” he managed to mutter softly.

 

“Hello, Joseph, welcome back.” Ben brushed back the dampened curls from his son’s forehead and leaned down and replaced them with a kiss that lingered for several moments.

 

When Ben raised his head, Joe had his first glimpse of the misery his father had been suffering. Ben appeared aged, his face was drawn and under his loving eyes, dark circles had appeared. Joe raised his uninjured hand and gently brushed the side of his father’s face, feeling the coarse growth of facial hair that had grown there.

 

“Did ya lose you’re razor, Pa?” Joe uttered softly.

 

From the opposite side of the bed, Joe heard his brother’s laughter. Slowly, he turned and gave them a faint smile.

 

“Hi ya Short Shanks,” beamed Hoss.

 

Adam made himself comfortable on the edge of the bed, “It’s about time you woke up,” he teased gently.

 

“Sorry…”

 

“That’s all right buddy, I’m just glad you’re going to be all right,” Adam assured his brother.

 

“That goes for all of us,” added Hoss.

 

“Your brothers are right, son. For a while there we thought you might decide to leave us,” Ben said and Joe noted the strain in his father’s voice.

 

“I’m sorry Pa…I didn’t mean to be so much worry for you,” Joe said softly.

 

“Well, what do we have here?” called a cheery voice from the doorway. “I see our patient has finally decided to wake up.” The doctor approached the bed and smiled down at Joe. “Well now, let’s have a look at you and see how you’re doing. Gentlemen, if you will excuse us for just a few minutes?”

 

Ben rose from the bed, giving Joe one last caress with the back of his hand to the still swollen and bruised cheek. “We’ll be just outside the door, son. You let the doctor check you over and then I’ll be back.”

 

Joe watched as his family reluctantly moved to the door. He glanced up at the strange doctor and suddenly the old fear of being alone without his father, returned. “Pa!” he called in as strong of a voice as he could muster.

 

Ben turned and saw the tears that had filled his son’s eyes and hurried back to the bed where he took Joe’s out stretched hand into his. “Joseph, what’s wrong, son?”

 

“Please…don’t go…I want you…to stay here…”

 

Ben looked up at the doctor and the physician nodded his head. “I think that would be best, considering,” he smiled a knowing smile at the relieved father. “I might even need your help.”

 

 

 

“Pa,” said Joe when his father had finished straightening the pillows behind his back so that Joe could sit more upright and comfortable. “Did I hear Adam saying earlier that he and Hoss were going back home tomorrow?”

 

Ben finished with the pillows and then made himself comfortable in the oversized chair that had been brought to the room for the family’s convenience. “Yes, son, you did. We decided that since you were getting along so well, they best be getting home and seeing about matters there. Why, is something wrong?”

 

“No, I was just hoping that you and I could go home too. Did the doc say how long I’d have to stay cooped up like this? I really wanna get home…I don’t like it here,” said Joe softly, glancing up at his father from beneath his long lashes.

 

Ben smiled slightly for he knew that already, Joe was tired of having to stay in the bed and cooped up in the tiny hotel room. The boy was bored to death, and, thought his father, he couldn’t say that he blamed his son either, there was nothing to do but read, eat and sleep. Not very interesting in the least for an, other wise healthy nineteen-year old young man who was always on the move and loved the wide opened spaces that the out-of-doors offered.

 

“Joe, I’m sorry son, really, but you know good and well that it will be at least two more weeks in bed, and then, only if the doctor says you may, will you be allowed up for a few minutes each day.”

 

“But Pa…”

 

“Joseph, not only does the doctor want to be sure that your ribs are healed, but you’re elbow as well, and…young man…your leg. He said that with the proper rest and exercise, it is very likely that you will not even have a limp. Please son,” pleaded Ben in a soft tone, “I want you one hundred percent well. I want my boy back, just the way he was before this terrible thing ever happened…I…”

 

Joe raised his head; Ben stopped in mid-sentence, startled to see that the hazel eyes had filled with tears. Quickly he placed himself next to his son on the bed.

 

“What is it son? Tell me what’s upset you so suddenly.”

 

“Don’t you know that I’ll never be one hundred percent well…oh physically I will, but tell me, please Pa…how do I forget what happened to me? Better yet…explain to me why it happened?” Joe brushed the sleeve of his nightshirt across his face and dried the dampness from his eyes.

 

“I can only tell you why I think it happened to you, to all of us really, but the blunt of that man’s hatred was directed at you. I believe that it was because of something that I was involved in many years ago, about a year before you were born actually,” began Ben and then paused as Adam and Hoss came into the room.

 

“Hi Pa, Joe, how are you feeling, buddy?” smiled Adam, taking the other chair and pulling it close to the bed.

 

“I’d feel better if I was going home with you and Hoss tomorrow,” complained Joe.

 

“Yeah, I know how ya feel short shanks, we wish ya and Pa were goin’ too, but the doctor says…”

 

“I know what the doctor says…stay in bed…so what else is new?” groaned Joe, but then surprised them all by flashing them a bright smile. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to complain…”

 

“Sure ya do, ya always complain about somethin’!” teased Hoss as he ruffled the thick mass of dark curls.

 

“Hey cut that out!” laughed Joe, as he tried to push Hoss’ large hand from the top of his head.

 

“That’s enough Hoss, don’t make him move around so much. Sit down, please. I was just about to tell Joe about Beck and then the two of you can tell him how you found out where he and I were being kept.”

 

“Now, as I was saying, Joseph, about twenty years ago, I was a witness in a murder trial. Beck was accused of killing a man. He was a young man then, about your age in fact. It was my testimony that sent the man to prison for twenty years. I can only suppose that over the course of time, Beck learned to hate me more and more each day, and decided when he got out that he would seek his revenge.”

 

“When you saw him with Peterson, didn’t you recognize him?” asked Joe.

 

“No, he was just a young man then, the years and hard labor obviously took their toll on him and he had changed his name. His real name is Frank Daily, he must have changed it when he got out of prison so that no one would know who he was or what he had done,” Ben explained.

 

“What about that Peterson fella, Pa…where’d you know him from?” questioned Joe.

 

“I met him about eight or nine years ago in San Francisco on a business trip. He was making a bid on the same contract that I was and unfortunately, for him, I won the contract by just a few dollars. I never saw him again afterwards, until I ran into him in town. Seems he and Beck teamed up somehow and set out together to try to make a fortune. As luck would have it, neither one of them appeared to be very good businessmen, nor how they ever got mixed up with this human cock fighting shenanigans, I’ll never figure out. But that’s beside the point,” Ben went on.

 

“I think it was purely accidental that our paths crossed here in Cedar Flats. I have a suspicion that Peterson had seen me in town before he approached Joe and I that day on the sidewalk. I really believe that he had plans on taking me as his hostage and making me his patsy for the upcoming fight. But when he spied Joe with me that day on the street that he confronted us, Joe became the pasty, and I became the bait to force Joe into fighting that Simon LaVoy.”

 

Joe glanced around the room at his family and then back at his father. “It worked too, cause you know I’d fought the devil himself if it meant your life, Pa.”

 

Ben rested his hand on his son’s arm and smiled. “I know you would, Joe, and I thank you for that. I’m just sorry that you got hauled into this and that you were the one who ended up nearly dying.”

 

“It wasn’t your fault Pa, those men were crazy, all of them,” stated Joe. Joe turned to his brothers then and began questioning them. “After we went into that alley, and I slipped off…sorry about that…how did you find me? I mean, when I ran into Peterson in that saloon across town, how’d ya know where to find us?”

 

“Well, we searched everywhere little brother, and needless to say, I was fuming by the time we got back to our room. I was ready to toss your little butt across my knees, and I would have, if I had found you,” said Adam sternly, his dark eyes dancing with amusement.

 

“You’d had a fight on your hands!” giggled Little Joe. “Go on, what happened after that? I mean, by the time I woke up from that drug those two slipped me, I was pretty much shaken and then that Beck started working me over. I think he wanted to make sure I’d lose that fight, that’s when he beat me and tied me up. The next morning, he told me I was going to fight LaVoy, or he’d kill Pa…and if I lost, he would kill Pa anyway.”

 

“Joe’s right Adam, Beck was going to kill me regardless. When Joe did lose the fight, he stabbed me in the side. He knew Joe saw it and he wanted to make Joe really think that I had been killed. After the fight, he had his men take me to one place so that the doctor could sew me up, and he had Joe taken to that old barn where you found us. Beck’s plan was to kill both of us, but he hated me so much, that he was going to torture and kill Joe first and make me watch. That was to be my punishment for testifying against him and sending him to prison.”

 

Ben watched the rush of mixed emotions that crossed Joe’s face. “Son, why don’t you rest and we can talk about this later?”

 

Adam and Hoss’ attention immediately turned to their younger brother. “Yeah Joe, why don’t you…”

 

“No, I’d rather hear it all now and be finished with it. After you tell me everything about what happened, we’ll forget it. Adam, go on, explain to me how you found us.”

 

Adam glanced at his father and when Ben nodded his head, an indication for him to continue, Adam started again. “By late that night, Hoss and I went to that saloon on the other end of town to check if you were there. It was pretty crowded, but I spotted a man sitting alone in the back corner. I had noticed him as soon as I walked in and thought it strange that I had seen him at the first saloon, the one where we had our beer. I thought perhaps he might have witnessed something or heard something that would be useful, so I went over and had a talk him. He willingly gave me a little information, but nothing specific. Oh, he claimed to know plenty and was willing to share it with us, for five thousand dollars.”

 

“Wow…you didn’t pay him did you?” asked Joe, surprised at the man’s audacity.

 

“I was going too, but by the next morning, when Hoss and I went to the bank, I wrote a draft for that amount and was told that Pa had closed his account and so could not cash the draft. Beck had told Pa that he had kidnapped Joe and would kill him if Pa didn’t give him a check for ten thousand dollars. He even showed Pa, Joe’s gun, so Pa knew that Beck wasn’t lying, so he paid him. We found out later that Beck used Pa’s money to make all his bets.”

 

“What’d you do?”

 

“I’ll tell ya what we dun. We marched right down to that saloon and I made that varmint talk. He didn’t take much convincing, after the first dozen or so punches, he spit out the entire story. Bad thing though, short shanks, we didn’t know about the fight ya was in, in that cage an’ all, till it was too late.” Hoss pinched his lips, dropping his head. It still troubled him that he had not been able to protect his little brother from the brutal beating he had suffered.

 

“Hoss, it’s okay…really…you and Adam didn’t know what was happening. Please, Hoss, it’s all right.”

 

“No it ain’t little brother, it shouldn’t ahappened ta ya, why there was no way ya could’ve taken that ole boy…”

 

“Hoss, tell me what happened after you got that man to talk…I don’t recall much of anything after the fight in that cage…cause…I thought they killed Pa…I couldn’t think about anything else besides the fact that it was my fault…”

 

“Now Joseph, we’ve already talked about that, it was no one’s fault except for those who caused it, and that’s even been taken care of. Let Hoss finish…Hoss, go on, son.” Ben motioned for his middle son to go ahead with his part of the story.

 

“Well, like I dun said, that ole boy sung like a bird. He told us where Beck had taken Pa and what he planned to do with you. The first thing we dun was rush on over ta that cellar. Peterson and another man was helpin’ Pa up the stairs and when they seen us, they’d about let Pa fall down them steps, too. One ole boy took off running and Peterson, he pulled a gun out and pointed it at us, but the doctor was standing right behind him and tried to knock it outta Peterson’s hand. It went off accidentally and the bullet struck Peterson in the arm. Me and Adam managed to get Pa sat down afore he fell, he was pretty woozy, what with that stab wound and all. Peterson must’va been afraid of dying, cause he told us where they had been headin’ with Pa, and why, and that’s when we run over there.”

 

Hoss paused and turned to Adam. “Maybe ya oughta finish.”

 

“Sure, well Joe, the good doctor had only been a part of this entire mess because he was being forced into it. We left him there to take care of Peterson. His wound wasn’t much and the doctor put a quick bandage on the wound and then took him to the sheriff. Meanwhile Hoss and I started after you, we tried to get Pa to go with the doctor but…you know Pa,” laughed Adam, cutting his eyes over to check his father’s reaction.

 

Ben couldn’t help but to laugh, which caused Joe to start giggling. “Anyway, as I was saying, Hoss and I had to practically carry Pa, but we found the old barn and just as soon as the three of us slipped inside, we heard Beck laughing.” Adam had to pause, his mind had suddenly conjured up the mental images of his brother when the three of them had peered down the darkened stairwell and seen Joe staked to the ground.

 

Adam took a deep breath and swiped his hand over his face. “Needless to say, little buddy, you were in very bad way. Beck was standing over you laughing hysterically. There was blood all over his boot and that’s when I saw your leg. I suppose I must have snapped right then, because I don’t recall much of what I did from that point until Hoss pulled me off of Beck. He was pretty messed up by the time I’d finished with him and we all thought he had passed out. We were so busy trying to take care of you that we didn’t see him get up and go for his gun. It was just a stroke of luck that the sheriff and some of his men had gotten there when they did. Beck was pointing the gun at Pa, and the sheriff yelled at him to drop his gun but Beck turned and fired at the sheriff but the shot back. Beck dropped right at Pa’s feet and died seconds later.”

 

“After that Joseph, our only concern was getting you out of that hole in the ground and getting you some medical help,” Ben had taken up where Adam had left off, finishing the tale.

 

“But wait, what happened to that fighter, Simon LaVoy?” Joe asked. “He must have been part of it all.”

 

“He was a pitiful man who Beck and Peterson had picked up at some carnival that had gone out of business. He had been the strong man in the carnival show. Beck and Peterson offered him a job fighting, and he agreed. Basically, he didn’t do anything wrong, to him it was a job. Beck told the man, fight as if you were fighting for your life, or take the chance of someone killing you. And that’s what he did. We did find out Joe, that Simon never really did kill anyone, not like Beck and Peterson made the crowds believe,” Adam explained.

 

“Where’s he now, and what about Peterson and his daughter, Carrie Sue? What will happen to them?” asked Joe with a worried frown on his face.

 

“We don’t really know about the girl, I suspect that she’s long gone. I did learn that she wasn’t really his daughter, she was just some unlucky young woman who got messed up with the wrong people.”

 

“As for Walter Peterson, he’s on his way to the nearest prison where he will, most likely, considering his age, live the rest of his life. And Simon LaVoy…well, he wasn’t such a bad fellow after all, Joe, I want you to know that son,” Ben said.

 

“Pa sent him to San Francisco. Simon told us that he had always wanted to go to sea, so Pa got him a job with an old sea faring Captain friend of his, and I guess by now Simon is pretty seasick,” smiled Adam.

 

Joe glanced at his father and started to giggle. “And you claim Hoss is the one who is a softy. You, Ben Cartwright, are the biggest softy of all,” laughed Joe.

 

Ben joined in his son’s laughter, not caring the least bit that he was the butt of their little joke. “Just don’t you boys go spreading that kind of foolish gossip around Virginia City!”

 

“Who us? Did you hear that Adam, heh Hoss? Pa thinks we’re going to tell everyone he’s a pushover!” giggled Joe. “Never!”

 

“Hey, hold on there a minute Joe, let’s think this through a little more,” said Adam, winking at his little brother. “How much is it worth to you, Pa? You know what they say about silence being golden.”

 

“It’s not worth a plug nickel. But I will tell you what is worth something though, in fact its priceless,” teased Ben, then looked into his youngest son’s emerald eyes and smiled.

 

“And that’s the sound of this boy’s laughter, and the shine in his eyes, and the happy smile that I see on his face. There’s no amount of money, silver or gold that could have bought it back for me, if I had lost it,” whispered Ben as he took Joe’s hand in his.

 

“I’m proud of you son, I want you to know that I think you are the bravest young man that I have ever known. You were more than willing to fight for my life and die if you had too, you’ll never know how much that has touched me, thank you, son.” Ben then leaned forward and embarrassed his son by kissing his cheek. “I love you Little Joe,” he softly whispered into his son’s ear just before moving away.

 

Ben was rewarded with one of Joe Cartwright’s most angelic smiles, and it was priceless.

 

THE END

March 2003

 

*Thanks to Lillian…WordsThatWill…for helping to edit!

 

 

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Author: DebbieB

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