Summary: Adam and Joe are at it again. When Joe’s temper gets the better of him and he screams out an obscenity, unknowingly cutting his usually reserved brother to the deepest core, Adam retaliates. The end result happens when brother must save brother from a pair of thugs with a grudge against Adam.
Rated PG WC 24,300
Michael Landon was once quoted as saying: “Every series I’ve produced has expressed the things I most deeply believe. I believe in family. I believe in truth between people. I believe in the power of love.”
I hope that in every story that I write, I can portray the special love that Michael was talking about. He, along with his TV family, gave us many opportunities to express his love as he wished it to be in real life. I believe he strove to live his life according to his beliefs. He was human, he was man and he was subject to making mistakes, from which he learned and grew both spiritually and in love. DB
The Power of Love
Discouraged, Ben entered the house, closed the door and removed his hat and coat. Adam glanced up from the chair where he sat reading, uncaring that his father had returned without the youngest member of the family in tow. He was still angry, furious at his youngest sibling for the insulting words that Joseph had screamed at him earlier, just before running from the house in tears.
Adam watched as his father made his way over to his chair and without giving him a glance, Ben lowered his weary body into the comforts that the old chair offered. The younger man returned his eyes to the words on the page though he made no real effort at reading them, his mind drifting back to the events of the evening and closing his eyes briefly, Adam saw again his brother’s face, heard the words that had angered him to the point that he had struck out at his brother and slapped the boy’s face for all it was worth. Adam saw before his eyes, the tear filled eyes of his youngest sibling, the shocked look that lay behind the well of unshed tears and the red print that his hand had made across the handsome face of the startled boy. Opening his eyes, Adam saw his father’s eyes studying his face and the look unnerved him.
“I’m not sorry Pa, so please, stop looking at me like that. He deserved what he got, he…”
“You didn’t have to slap him.” Ben stood to his feet in front of Adam who remained in his chair. “It was not your place to discipline the boy, it was mine and you over stepped your authority young man,” Ben fairly shouted at his older son, his right index finger pointing at Adam as his hand waved frantically about in mid air.
“I over stepped myself? What about him? What right did he have to say what he did?” Adam stood and faced his father, angry little darts shooting from his dark eyes, his brows drawn tightly together in defiance of his father’s words. Adam looked much like his father, his voice roared as did Ben’s and both father and son stood nose-to-nose, hands on hips and legs slightly apart.
“He had no right, I do not uphold what he said, neither do I uphold you slapping him as you did. Never have I raised my hand to any of my sons in such a manner as you did to Joseph, by slapping his face,” angered at both of his sons, Ben pointed his finger at Adam a second time, nearly brushing the tip of Adam’s nose as he moved it about.
Before his father had a chance to utter another word, Adam moved to the fireplace and turning again to face his father Adam stormed out at the man before him, “How do you think I felt when he called me a son of a bitch? She was your wife, my mother, and you stand there and try to tell me that he didn’t deserve to be slapped? What he said was a reflection on my mother; he had no call to say what he did. Pa, I’m not the least bit sorry for slapping him and if he had not run from the house, I would have probably slapped him a second time.”
“Son, I admit I was just as angered by what he called you as you were, and I still am, but I really don’t think he meant it as an insult to your mother. Joe is not vindictive like that, I think he was just as angry at you, as you were at him and he said the first thing that came to mind,” Ben had taken a deep breath to calmed himself, “He wasn’t even thinking about your mother when he called you what he did.”
Adam’s frown told Ben that he did not buy his father’s excuse for his brother’s uncalled for behavior. “That’s no excuse Pa. You always told us that we should think before speaking, especially if angered, for once something was spoken it could not be taken back. You also told us that what’s in the heart, comes out the mouth. Well, are you trying to say something different now?” shouted Adam, turning his back to his father.
“No, of course not. I just don’t believe that Joseph meant what he said. Adam,” Ben placed his hand on his son’s shoulder, “please, don’t take it to heart. You know as well as I do that Joseph never thinks before he speaks, especially when he is mad. It is one of many rules that he has yet to remember. And Adam, he is still young enough that he does exactly the opposite of what he should.”
Adam stared at his father’s back as Ben slowly climbed the steps that would take him to his room. When Ben had rounded the corner, Adam dropped his body into his chair, exhausted by the day’s events and angered at the mixed emotions that both his father and his brother had stirred within him. Adam leaned his head back against the chair and shut his eyes trying to dislodge the memory of his brother’s hurtful words. Minutes later the troubled man rose from his chair and ascended the stairs, stopping briefly outside of his father’s room. Adam almost knocked on the closed door but changed his mind going instead to his own room and shutting the door.
Adam removed his shirt and tossed it into the chair near the window. Feeling totally drained, he lay down on his bed, propped his head against the pillows and closed his eyes. Sleep evaded the troubled young man; anxious thoughts began invading his mind giving Adam reason to crawl from his bed, slip on his robe and quietly make his way downstairs. He had just made himself comfortable and had picked up his book to resume his reading when the front door opened, surprising him, not realizing that Ben had at some time, slipped from his bedroom and had gone outside. Adam stood in respect to his father as Ben made his way toward him, regret at having been so vocal with his parent, Adam placed his hand out to halt his father from passing him by. The look that Ben gave to his son told the younger man that Ben was still angry with him and the knowledge caused Adam to feel sorrowful for his earlier actions.
“Pa, I’m sorry for loosing my temper with you earlier,” Adam felt as if he were once again a boy having to stand before his father and give penitence for a misdeed he had committed and it took all of his will power to look his father in the face as a man should.
“But you aren’t sorry for striking your brother are you?” snapped Ben. “I have just come from the barn, where your brother is hiding, ashamed and frightened I might add, to even come into his own home.”
Ben walked away, leaving Adam to stand alone, head down, but Ben stopped and returned to face his eldest son. In a voice so quiet and so unlike his father when he was angry, Adam could barely hear when Ben all but whispered through clenched teeth, “You should see the boy’s face Adam, you should be ashamed of what you have done.”
Ben said nothing more but quickly made his way up the stairs and to his room. Adam turned and watched the retreating back of his father, the way that the broad shoulders slumped and the words his father had flung at him left him with a stinging feeling, as if he had just been slapped him self, making him to question his actions.
Adam allowed himself to drop into his chair, the book now forgotten and lying to the side. When Adam pinched the bridge of his nose, his hand also swiped his face in an effort to ward off the tears that threatened to spill due to his frustrations.
“Damn it,” he cursed as he rose and began pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, trying to justify his own hurt feelings. The clock chimed, momentarily pulling Adam from his thoughts. It was getting late and he wondered if Joe would return to the house or spend the night in the barn.
Surely he thought his father had been exaggerating about the mark on his brother’s face. He hadn’t struck the boy that hard, had he? Adam began to wonder and soon worry for his brother’s welfare began to grow in his troubled heart.
Adam dropped once more into his chair, grabbing his book as he fell to the interior of the cushion. His dark eyes scanned the cover but when he opened it to the place where he had been reading and tried to concentrate on the words, it soon became apparent that it was not to be. Suddenly the door opened and to his surprise, Joe slipped in, unaware that his older brother sat in the dim light given off by the small fire still burning in the fireplace.
Joe moved slowly, his head hung low, feet seemingly to drag as he made his way to the staircase. He was nearly upon Adam before he sensed his brother’s presence and having done so, stopped briefly, giving Adam a troublesome look. Quickly Joe began to hurry on his way but was stopped when Adam rose from his seat.
“Joe,” started Adam but stopped suddenly when Joe turned to face him. Even in the dense light, Adam could see the dark out line of the handprint that had bruised his brother’s face. Feeling about a foot high, Adam started to reach out, wanting to somehow touch his brother, to tell him he was sorry, but when Adam’s arm moved upward, Joe reacted.
Joe’s arms flew up to cover his face, fear of being struck a second time forcing him to draw back toward the bottom step. Adam saw for the first time the tears that welled within the depths of the hazel eyes that peeked out from under the arms that protected the bruised face and cheek. When he moved forward another step, shocked at the atrocious looking mark he had made on his brother’s otherwise strikingly good-looking face, Joe bolted up the stairs, taking them two a time.
Adam ran to the landing but stopped, realizing that he could never catch the fleeing lad. “Joe, wait,” Adam called out.
Joe stopped at the top, just inside the hallway and turned, looking back down into Adam’s face, the tears now streaming down his own cheeks and making his face even more disfigured by the frowns that graced his expression.
“Why? So you can slap me again? I don’t think so.” Joe ran the length of the hall and slammed the door to his room. Adam heard the key turn in the lock and felt himself trembling with the realization that his younger brother felt the need to lock himself in his room. Joe was afraid of him! Adam bit his lower lip to keep the anguished cry from becoming vocal and waking his father.
“Dear God, what have I done? For all the hurt I felt at the name Joe called me, how much more hurt must the boy be feeling at having to cower in fear of his own brother?”
Adam turned quickly and hurried out the front door, he needed fresh air to fill his lungs and calm his nerves, he felt as if he were suffocating and suddenly his stomach became nauseous. Just as Adam rushed from the house and into the yard, the hot boiling bile spilled over and the contents of Adam’s stomach splashed onto the ground.
“What are we goin’ do now? That blasted Cartwright had no right to fire us, hell, all we was doin’ was havin a little drink. He thinks just because his daddy is a big man around here, he has the right to fire us for nothin’.” The man staggered as he moved toward his horse and his brother had to reach out to stop him from falling on his face.
“I think we should pay the man a visit. I’d like nothing more than to take him down a notch or two. I heard tell he’s workin’ fence out in the north pasture, if’n we’re lucky, we can catch him alone,” the second man, a large brawny fellow used to hard work in the mines, mounted his horse and waited for his brother to do the same.
The pair rode for quite sometime, the fresh brisk air clearing their clouded minds that had become dulled from too much booze the night before. On the last rise above the fence line, just inside the timberline, the two reined in their mounts, stopping to watch the two men who labored at repairing the fence below.
Jaz pointed to the two young men at the fence, “That ain’t Cartwright. I thought you said he’d be here workin’” grumbled Jaz. “And lookit the size of that big one, why he’s nearly the size of a full grown grizzly. I ain’t so sure I wanna tackle that one.”
Hal watched for several minutes as the two men pulled the wire and secured the fencing before he spoke. “I ain’t got no notion who that big brute is, but that young’on is Cartwright’s kid brother. I seed him in town the other day with Cartwright, I heard the kid callin’ Adam, brother. Hey, look, the big guy’s leaving. I got an idy, how we can get back at Cartwright. Listen up.”
“Joe, you’re sure ya don’t wanna ride back to the ranch and fetch more wire? I don’t mind waitin’ here for ya, there’s plenty I can be doin’,” offered Hoss who had worried all day about his brothers.
The kind hearted gentle giant did not like it when members of his family were out of sorts. He had witnessed the argument between his older and younger brothers but had left the house before the war that had been waged had gotten so completely out of control. When he had returned hours later, he had walked in on his father and Adam’s heated words and had just as quickly turned and left the house a second time, heading for the bunkhouse where he had spent the night. By breakfast Hoss had deemed it safe to enter his home in time for breakfast but had found no one other than his father sitting alone and sullen at the table. Hop Sing buzzed in and out from the kitchen to the dining room, chanting in his native tongue words that Hoss could not understand and when his father refused to answer his questions, Hoss had quietly excused himself and gone to the barn.
There, in the barn, the situation had not improved for once inside the big man had found his oldest brother gripping tightly to the arm of his youngest brother. Both were shouting at the tops of their voices, each trying to be heard above the other and when Hoss saw the tears that ran from his smallest brother’s misty eyes, he had somehow managed to pry Adam’s fingers from around Joe’s arm. Joe had grabbed his arm as if it were about to fall off and jumped on his horse leaving the two of them, Adam and himself, standing alone in the doorway of the old barn. The bruise that marred Joe’s handsome features had shocked Hoss and then, when Adam answered his question as to who might have struck Joe, Hoss had all but lost his own temper, the protective side of his nature coming to the surface in defense of his youngest brother.
“I cain’t believe you slapped him like that Adam. That doesn’t sound like you, what ever did the boy do to make you do such a thing?” Hoss had inquired between gritted teeth.
“Never mind Hoss. It’s really none of your business, just leave me alone,” snapped Adam, angry again at Joe’s refusal to even acknowledge him.
“When Joe sports a bruise like that and I find out my big brother is the one responsible, I make it my business.” Hoss grabbed Adam’s arm as Adam turned to leave. “I ain’t gonna ask ya again Adam, what did Joe do that would make you mark the boy like that?”
Adam knew better than to try to force his freedom, choosing instead to answer the question. “Simple, if you must know, he called me a son of a bitch,” Adam said flatly, a dark scowl embedding itself into his brow.
“He what? I cain’t believe that,” stammered Hoss shocked by Adam’s words.
Adam felt the pressure on his arm lessen and he wrenched free. “Believe what you choose, I don’t care.” Adam snatched Sport’s reins from the post and swung himself into the saddle. “You and Joe can work the north fence, I’m heading for the south end.”
Adam turned his horse in the opposite direction and nudged him forward but stopped unexpectedly and leaned backward in the saddle facing Hoss who stood as if rooted to the spot in shock of his brother’s confession.
“For what it’s worth Hoss, I was just trying to apologize to Joe for slapping him. I was angry. If any man other than my brother had said that to my face, I would have killed him. I only struck out at Joe in reflex, and anger I suppose, but I never meant to hurt him like that. I was hurt by his words, more so than he or anyone else would ever know, or even care for that matter.”
Adam left in a hurry, the need to distance himself from the problem making him to ride hard against the wind that had begun to blow into his face. The cool morning breeze felt good and he could feel the sting when the wind slapped against his dampened face caused by the tears that slipped unannounced from his dampened eyes.
“No, you go Hoss. I’d just as soon stay here.” Joe avoided meeting the inquiring blue eyes of his best friend who just happened to be his middle brother and began picking up the wrap that had held the wire and placing it in the wagon.
“Alright Joe, you stay, I’ll go. I won’t be long, I just gotta grab another bolt of that wire and another dozen poles.” Hoss paused and watched as Joe made off like he was busy trying to avoid conversation just as he had done all morning long.
Hoss had tried to talk to his younger brother about the dispute between Adam and himself, but Joe would have none of it, he refused to listen, let alone talk about it. Discouraged, Hoss had changed the subject, but even with that Joe had remained sullen and withdrawn, speaking only when he felt an answer was justified.
Hoss climbed into the wagon and picked up the reins ready to slap them against the rumps of the big wagon team. “Joe,” called Hoss, glancing over his shoulder at the unhappy sixteen-year old boy.
Without speaking, Joe looked up into Hoss’ face.
“He was hurt too, by what you called him. He said he felt like it was a slur to his mother’s name. I thought maybe ya oughta know.” Hoss clicked to the team and the animals jerked the wagon forward and started down the dust-laden trail toward the ranch.
Joe stood stone still and stared at the wagon as it moved around the bend in the road and out of sight. Joe thought on the words that Hoss had just said to him and he found himself surprised that he cared, for just earlier that day he had tried to make himself believe that he no longer cared whether his brother still loved him or not. Joe was taken back by the fact that Adam had been hurt by his words for it had not been his intention to offend his brother, Joe reasoned that he had only shouted the obscenity because he had been angered by his brother’s false claim that he had not finished what had been given to him to do for the day, thus making him look bad in their father’s eyes. It had happened too, just as soon as Adam had crawled down his back, his father had turned on him, shouting at him that he had wasted the day and had not followed his instructions. Before Joe could even begin to explain, his father had ordered him to his room with the promise that he would be up shortly to finish their ‘little discussion’. Joe had turned his wrath on Adam. One thing led to another and within minutes the heated argument had escalated to the point that Joe had shouted out the cutting words and had been rewarded with an unforgiving slap across his face that had startled him into speechlessness.
Joe remembered running from the house, his father’s voice as he called out for him to stop and then later when Ben had found him in the loft, crying like a baby. Shame that his father had seen him in such a condition and remorse that he had spoken in such a manner filled Joe with such sorrow that he had refused to come back into the house. Ben had seemed to understand his son’s discomfort and had allowed Joe the time he needed to collect him self. Joe had waited until he was sure that everyone, even Adam, had retired for the night before permitting his conscience to let him venture back inside. He had been startled and dismayed at finding his angry brother still up and apparently waiting for him.
Panic had ceased Joe when he tried to pass by Adam and saw the older boy rise from his chair, blocking his path. When Adam had reached out, Joe had drawn back in fear, fear that stemmed from his own confused feelings about the way that his brother had reacted to his nasty words. Never had it entered his mind that Adam’s feelings would be hurt or that his brother might take the harsh proclamation as an insult toward the mother who had given him life but who had died before Adam had ever gotten to know her on a personal level.
Joe felt the tears well up in his eyes, shame flooded into his heart and soul and just briefly panic seized him that perhaps his father had also taken the cruel and unkind words as a slur against the woman he had loved and married first.
The sound of thundering hooves lured Joe from his misgivings and to the two riders that pulled their horses to a stop, just feet in front of him. Joe had to step back a couple of paces to shield his eyes from the afternoon sun in order to be better able to see the faces of the strangers who were now dismounting and coming at him.
An uneasy feeling caused Joe to take several steps back but his steps were halted when he felt the trunk of a tree pressing into his back. Hal stepped up closer, an evil smirk on his whiskered face. Joe could feel the man’s warm breath on his own face and he turned his head to avoid the piercing eyes. Jaz joined his partner and when Joe made an attempt to run, for the little voice in his head that his father preached to him to listen too, had told him he was treading on dangerous ground, Jaz reached out and grabbed Joe by the scuff of the neck, instantly bringing his escape to a halt. Joe’s body was jerked backward and Jaz shoved Joe forward into Hal’s waiting arms.
“What’s the hurry kid? We just wanna talk to ya fur a minute,” sneered Hal, jerking Joe around to face him. Joe felt his body tremble slightly for the man was as large as his brother Hoss, nasty smelling and Joe nearly gagged when his nose picked up the smell on the man’s breath that reeked of alcohol.
Joe turned his head to avoid contact, the closeness of the pair giving his stomach reason to want to retch. Hal grabbed Joe by his hair and forced the boy around so that he could see his face. Suddenly Hal laughed, “Hey Jaz, lookit this, someone’s already beat the hell outta this brat.”
Hal pulled Joe’s head back so that his partner could get a better look at the handprint that showed plainly on the bruised face. “Maybe his daddy walloped him. What’ca do kid?” asked Jaz, laughing at Joe’s apparent discomfort.
Joe refused to answer the question, there was no way he was going to tell the likes of these two how he had come by the hand print that temporarily branded his face.
“Is your name Cartwright, kid?” demanded Hal, forgetting that Joe had not answered Jaz’s first question.
Again, Joe refused to respond. Hal became impatient with Joe’s defiance and rewarded the insolence with a sharp jab to his mid section. Joe doubled up from the pain but felt his body jerked upward until he was staring into the eyes of his tormentor.
“I asked you a question, is your name Cartwright?”
This time Joe nodded his head yes. “You’re Adam Cartwright’s kid brother?” Again Joe nodded his head in response to the question.
Hal laughed and looked up at Jaz, “tie him up, gag him and let’s get out of here before that big ape gets back. I have the perfect place to hide him,” again Hal laughed and when Joe began struggling against Hal’s hands that held him prisoner, Hal laughed even louder at his futile efforts.
“Stop wiggling kid, we ain’t gonna hurt ya, much, as long as ya do as you’re told,” Hal untied his neck scarf and wrapped it around Joe’s head using it as a gag while Jaz tied Joe’s hands behind his back.
Together, with Joe fighting against them, Jaz and Hal managed to place Joe into the saddle of Hal’s horse. Jaz held the horse’s reins until Hal had mounted up and then mounted his own horse. Both men, pleased that they now had a weapon to use against the man whom they detested, kicked hard at their horses and hightailed it to the abandoned mine shaft where they had been camping out.
“We’ll be finished before dark Pa. I just needed some more wire and poles,” explained Hoss as he placed the needed supplies into the back of the wagon.
“Good, I’ve been worried about Joe. He seems okay then, to you?” Ben asked, concerned about his youngest offspring.
Hoss stopped and faced his father. “He’s quiet, but he’s workin’ steady. I tried to talk to him Pa, but he ain’t interested. I did manage to tell him how hurt Adam was by what he called him. Maybe being up there alone will give him time to think about what he said. Have ya heard anythin’ from Adam since he headed out this morning?” Hoss finished placing the poles in the wagon and moved to the front where he climbed into the driver’s seat.
Ben followed him, propped his hand on the wagon wheel and looked up at his son. “No, Adam hasn’t been back yet. I hope Joe considers what you told him. I don’t believe it was meant to hurt Adam, you know Joe, he usually speaks before he thinks. He no doubt said the first thing that came to mind. Hoss, be careful, try not to say too much, it’ll only make for an uncomfortable evening if the boy comes home mad at you as well, he’s already mad at Adam and myself, I guess I was too hard on him yesterday. Unfortunately, I didn’t give the lad time to explain him self before I jumped on him. My mistake I guess, I’ll have to correct that when you boys finish with the fencing.”
Ben stepped back from the wagon as Hoss made ready to leave. “Don’t worry Pa, I’ll take care of him for ya. Maybe by the time I get back up there, he’ll have had time to think about how Adam feels instead of him self. See ya, Pa.” Hoss clicked to the horses moving out of the yard. Ben tossed his hand up in a wave and returned to the house where the dreaded ledgers waited for him.
Hoss arrived back at the north pasture where he and Joe had been repairing the section of fence that had been down and was surprised to find Joe gone. Climbing down, Hoss scanned the area thinking perhaps his brother might have had to take a little walk into the woods. Hoss pulled the needed poles from the wagon and stacked them neatly in a pile. Next he pulled the roll of barbed wire from the back and laid it along side the poles. Straightening his back Hoss looked around for his brother once again.
“JOE!” shouted Hoss studying the line of woods in front of him. “JOE! Where are ya, boy?”
Hoss removed his hat and scratched his head. “Dadburn rascal, wonder where in tarnation he’s gone to,” muttered Hoss to himself, as he grabbed the posthole diggers and began digging a new hole to place the needed pole.
After digging two more holes and placing the new posts inside, Hoss stopped, slinging the tools to the ground as anger began to get the better of him. “Dadburnit, Little Brother, you better get your ornery hide down here and help me,” shouted Hoss giving another look toward the edge of the woods where he believed Joe to be hiding from him.
After several more minutes passed without Joe putting in an appearance, Hoss began to worry that something might have happened to his brother, or perhaps Joe had grown tired of waiting for him and had decided to walk home. Hoss shook his head, no, Joe would not have done that, it was too far to walk in this heat and besides reasoned Hoss, he would have passed the boy on the way back to finish the fence.
Hoss began scanning the ground for any signs that might tell him in which direction the boy might have taken off. Within minutes, Hoss spied the tracks made by the two horses and looking closely saw that the riders had dismounted. Hoss looked carefully seeing that the two pairs of prints made by the riders where much larger than the smaller print that he recognized as his younger brother’s. Hoss could make out in the dirt the scuffle that had taken place, followed the prints back to where the horses had been tied and realized that Joe had been made to ride off with the men. The horse carrying the two riders left a deeper print in the dust than the horse with only one rider.
Fear for his brother’s welfare filled the older boy’s heart and moving with agility uncommon in most men, let alone a man of Hoss’ massive stature, Hoss bolted for the wagon and urged the team into a run heading for the Ponderosa where he could be assured of getting help in searching for the missing Cartwright.
Hal and Jaz hid their horses in the small opening within the outer walls of the mine where they were not likely to be seen by any unsuspecting passerby. Hal shoved Joe from the saddle leaving the boy moaning on the ground below him.
“Get on your feet, Cartwright,” he ordered as he handed the reins to Jaz.
Joe struggled to his knees, unable to stand without the aid of his hands that remained securely tied behind his back. Joe glanced up at his captor, unable to ask for help because of the gag still around his mouth. Hal watched, a scowl forming across his brow, finally grabbing Joe’s arm and yanking the boy to his feet. With a shove that left him stumbling toward the cave’s opening, Hal pushed Joe deep inside of the dark interior of the cavern forcing him to walk for what seemed like miles to the weary and frightened youth.
Suddenly a large dimly lit room opened up before them and Joe stopped to stare in wonder at the natural room deep within the walls of the cave.
“Get over there and sit down,” ordered Hal, pushing Joe up against the hard rock walls.
Joe pressed his back into the coolness of the stone and using the rock wall as support, allowed his body to carefully side downward until he was able to sit propped against the wall.
Joe felt his stomach gurgle and then growl. He was hungry. Last night’s supper had all been forgotten, what with the argument with Adam and then breakfast had been passed up for Joe had not wanted to face his family, the bruise on his face a reminder of the night before. Joe had been in no mood to listen to one of his father’s lectures, nor did he wish to be scrutinized the entire time by his older brother’s dark probing eyes, so he had chosen instead to skip both meals. Now his stomach was telling him that it was well passed eating time but Joe had no other recourse than to sit and listen to his belly’s complaining.
Joe sat silently and watched the pair as they readied their camp. The pair acted as if they had forgotten their prisoner and while they worked, Joe quickly scanned the cave room for an escape route.
“Ain’t no use kid, there’s only one way out and that’s the way we came in,” Jaz laughed. He had been watching Joe from the corner of his eye and had seen the way in which the frightened boy had been looking around.
Joe’s eyes darted up at the man, surprised that the stranger had been watching him. When Jaz stepped up to Joe, Joe felt his body shudder slightly from fright and hoped that the big man had not seen him. Jaz towered over his prisoner, staring down at the boy with dark menacing eyes that warned Joe he was in deep trouble. Briefly he wondered what the pair had planned for him and why were they so interested in the fact that he was Adam’s brother.
Jaz knelt down, facing Joe. Suddenly and without warning, Jaz grabbed Joe’s chin and jerked his head backward and began laughing. The sound gave Joe cause to tremble for it rang with venom and when Jaz raised his fist high in the air, Joe struggled to pulled free of the vise like grip that held his chin before the disgusting man’s fist made contact with his already battered face. The struggle ended quickly as Jaz vented his hatred of Adam onto the face of the eldest Cartwright son’s youngest brother.
Joe woke at last, his jaw ached from where his tormentor had punched him repeatedly and even trying to open his eyes caused more pain around his facial area. Joe could not stop the moan that escaped as he tried to push himself into a sitting position, but was stopped when his head banged against something hard. It was darker now than it had been and Joe felt as if he were swaying to and fro. The movement puzzled Joe and he felt the fear beginning to squeeze around the walls of his heart. Carefully, fearing that he might fall, for he felt as if he were hanging in mid-air, Joe tried once again to sit up, this time using his hands to help him. It was then that he felt the hard bars that imprisoned him. With both hands Joe felt along the bars that encircled him both overhead and along the sides. It appeared that the cage had a rough wooden bottom in it on which Joe laid. From what he could make out the cage was made of thick wooden bars, and he tried to kick at them but they were too strong to give way. As he moved about, panic seized him as he realized that the cage was not even large enough for him to stretch out his legs or to rise into a full sitting position. The space was just barely enough for him to remain in a fetal position. Fighting the urge not to cry, Joe took several large gulps of air as nausea wash over him, leaving him feeling light headed. Each time that the frightened boy attempted to move, the cage swayed back and forth, doing nothing to help the queasiness that upset his stomach.
Without being aware of the tears that slipped down his cheeks, Joe sighed deeply and looked up. From what he could tell from the tiny ray of light overhead, he was about midway into a natural made crevice and the cage that had become his prison was held suspended nearly fifteen feet above the bottom of the deep hole by what looked to be a strong rope or ropes attached to some sort of pulley concocted by his captors.
The crevice was dark and cold and Joe shivered, both from fear and from the dampness that seemed to encase the deep ravine. Joe’s thoughts quickly turned to his family wondering if Hoss had returned to the north pasture and if so had he realized that his brother was missing and not just hiding in the woods playing a trick on him. Hopefully Hoss had seen the signs and had ridden back to the ranch for help. In his fear, Joe’s imagination sparked doubts that his family might never find him and as panic seized him he screamed out for his father, the sound of his voice echoing against the rock walls of the cave deep within the depths of Sun Mountain.
Hal and Jaz squatted down behind the large bolder and watched as the three Cartwrights rode passed. An evil sneer spread across Hal’s face and he looked up at Jaz, his eyes glowing with wickedness.
“We have them wondering already. You just wait, Adam Cartwright will be sorry he ever heard of the Morgan brothers,” laughed Hal. “By the time I’m finished with the kid, his own family won’t even recognize him.”
“What’ca got in mind Hal?” Jaz smiled and rubbed his hands together, if he liked anything at all, he loved being in the position of feeling superior to another man, even if the man was just a boy. Jaz recalled the times that he had felt his step-father’s wrath on his own body and he had learned well how to administer grief on another individual.
“Ain’t sure yet, been kickin’ it around some. I want Adam Cartwright to hurt, not just physically but I want him to know what it feels like to watch someone you love die just because the other person is his brother. “’Member how we felt when ole Tave was killed by the injuns and we watched? Well, I want Cartwright to feel worsen we done felt.”
Hal pushed himself back from the rock, “Come on Bro, let’s get back to the hideout.”
Ben and his sons pulled their horses to an abrupt halt just short of where Hoss and Joe had been working and dismounted. Quickly Hoss showed his father and brother the signs that had told him that Joe had surely been taken against his will. Ben listened and scanned the area where Hoss squatted and pointed to the tracks left in the dust by the two unknown riders. Adam stood back, silent and listened to the remarks being made by both his younger brother and his father, not sure that he believed that Joe had been forcibly taken against his will.
“What do you think, Adam?” Ben asked, turning to face Adam. “Looks like there might have been a scuffle.”
Adam moved a step closer and leaned down inspecting the ground. “I don’t know Pa. Personally I think this is Joe’s idea of a joke, a sick joke mind you, but I think it is just a way to gain attention.” Adam straightened his back and glanced up at his father.
“Aw doggoneit Adam, you don’t believe that do ya?” Hoss asked as a look of total surprise spread across his face. “Joe was hurt by what happened, same as you were, but he’d never pull such a low down trick as what ya’re suggestin’.”
“Your brother is right Adam. I don’t like your insinuations either; I think you are being very unfair. Suppose Joe is in some kind of trouble, how would you feel then?” asked his father. Ben turned to mount Buck but stopped suddenly and glared at Adam. “Well? I asked you a question.”
Adam’s face wore a disgusted look and he knew his father had seen the dark expression so he decided that there was no sense pretending to hide his feelings. “Look, I know Joe and I know how he gets when things don’t go his way. He uses every little trick he knows to gather sympathy from the two of you, especially you Hoss cause he knows how gullible you can be. I think this is one of those times. He probably met up with a couple of his friends and just rode off with them not giving one thought to what any of us might think. Give him enough time and he’ll tire of his game and go on home but if the two of you want to waste all day looking for him, be my guest, I have work to do.”
Adam said nothing more; instead he mounted his horse and headed back in the direction of the ranch. Hoss was angry with his oldest brother for he did not think for one minute that Joe was mean enough to do what Adam had suggested.
“Hoss, let’s look around, try to pick up the trail and let’s just ride on a bit.” Ben mounted his horse and waited for Hoss to do the same.
As Hoss stood ready to pull his large frame up into his saddle he stopped and turned toward his father. “You don’t think Adam is right, do you Pa?” The doubt had begun to work on Hoss’ thinking and he knew that if what Adam had said turned out to be true, his youngest brother was in for a world of trouble and the thought gave his stomach cause to begin churning.
“I don’t think that for one minute son. Adam is still angry with Joe about what happened and is not thinking clearly. I’ll have a talk with him after we find Joe and get the boy home. It’s time that the two of them sat down like grown men and settled this thing. I don’t like to see my sons at odds like this. Come on Hoss, let’s ride.” Ben urged his big buckskin into a trot leaving Hoss to mount his gelding and catch up with him.
Adam rode slowly back to the ranch. His thoughts and emotions were banging together and by the time he found himself at his front door his head was throbbing from the effort of trying to sort things out. Adam tossed his hat on the credenza and walked slowly to his father’s whiskey cabinet and pulling out the brandy decanter, poured himself a drink. The class was emptied in two gulps and Adam poured a second drink, taking more time to sip at the refreshing liquor.
“Damn,” muttered Adam softly as he set the glass down on the table. Adam paced the space between the coffee table and the hearth moving slowly back and fourth in front of the warm fire. Once he stopped and stared into the flames and listened as the fire crackled suddenly remembering the Christmas long ago when Joe had convinced Hoss to slide down the chimney just to be certain that Santa Clause would fit. Adam snickered softly to himself, he had gotten caught up in his brothers holiday cheer and had ended up facing his father along side his younger brothers when Ben had suddenly returned home from a day of Christmas shopping and had found Hoss stuck in the chimney while he, himself was up on the roof and Joe inside with his head crammed into the chimney.
Adam felt the smile disappear as he lowered himself into the blue chair he had claimed as his favorite. Leaning back and shutting his eyes, He saw before him the cherub like face of his youngest brother. The hazel eyes that stared unseeingly at him, so tiny, so new, his little brother, given to them by the mother that he had refused to accept until the night that she nearly died giving birth to his father’s third son.
Adam used his opened hand and swiped at his face, weary from the long day of pulling fences back to their proper places and then the sudden and speedy ride back from the south pasture to home when word had been sent to him that he was needed. A small sigh passed from Adam’s lips and he squeezed his eyes tightly, pinching the bridge of his nose while trying to pull his thoughts together and settle the turmoil that had been growing inside since the previous night when he had slapped his brother’s face. Again the stinging words that Joe had screamed at him echoed in his ears and he could almost feel his anger beginning to boil once more. But was it anger, or was it hurt? For the words had cut into his heart as sure as if a knife had been stabbed into the center of his chest.
Adam had no idea how long he had been sitting, only that it had begun to grow dark within the house. Most of the light had moved off with the setting of the sun and the only bright light was coming from what remained of the fire. Adam forced himself to his feet and went to the gun cabinet where he pulled a rifle from the gun case and opening a drawer, removed a box of shells, which he slipped into the pocket of his vest.
He had made a decision. Sometime during the course of the dwindling daytime, Adam had closed his eyes and without meaning to, dozed. In his dream he saw Joe as a small boy, climbing into his lap, slipping his arms about his neck and Adam had been sure that he had heard his brother’s voice as Joe whispered that he loved him. Adam’s dream reviled other scenes where Joe sat in the saddle in front of him learning to ride and Adam saw again the tiny little boy who wept tears of sorrow for the loss of his mother and Adam’s dream showed to him the sad and grieving child that clung to him, pleading with him to bring his mama back from the dark shadow of death. He heard Joe’s sobs as the dirt was tossed into the open grave and Adam felt again the wetness of the tears that soaked his clothes as he carried Joe from the scene and back to the waiting carriage. And Adam remembered another time, a happier time not so long ago, when Joe was surprised with a party the day he turned 16 and how happy the handsome young man had been when presented with the pearl handle pistol he had given his brother as a birthday gift. Naturally their father had ruled Joseph still too young to go armed with the weapon but Adam and Joe had spent many pleasant hours together as Adam taught his younger brother how to use the gun in the proper fashion.
Adam felt himself smile as he recalled that Joe had shaken his hand in thanks for the gift rather than to embrace him as he had always done in the past. From infancy to young adulthood he had watched his brother grow and mature. Joe, thought Adam, young enough and impulsive enough to still be boy but old enough in his mind to buck the title. Adam felt himself smiling again, remembering how quickly Joe’s temper would rise when he and Hoss would tease their younger brother by calling him ‘boy’. Joe hated that, Adam knew it too and thinking about the times he had set the match to the fuse, Adam felt a twang of guilt at having done it more often than necessary. Truth was, admitted Adam sighing, I love the boy, always have, always will.
When Adam reached the door, he grabbed his hat, walked out to the porch, determined that he would find his brother. “I’m sorry squirt,” he said aloud, though there was no one about that could hear him.
Entering the barn, Adam grabbed his saddle and readied his horse, more determined than ever to make things right between himself and Joe, for all the anger he had been feeling had dissipated once he had managed to collect his thoughts and once dozing, the dreams helped him to remember something that his father had taught him years ago and that was no matter what, blood was thicker than water. Joe needed him, Joe might not think so, but Adam knew, he could feel it deep down in his heart. “I’m coming Joe, hang on.” Adam did not like the uneasy feeling that had unexpectedly wash over him as he jump mounted onto Sport’s back and rode from the yard.
Joe was doing just that, hanging on, for overheard his tormentors were laughing loudly and shouting obscenities down at him as they pushed against the strong ropes that held his cage suspended in mid-air. The cage rocked from one side of the narrow ravine scraping against the hard rock wall before swaying in the opposite direction only to bump against the other side and jarring the cage’s occupant. Joe clung to the wooden bars with both hands, terrified of the height; every so often Hal or Jaz would let out on the rope causing the cage to drop unexpectedly. Joe screamed out each time that the pair released the ropes and laughed when they heard Joe squeal in fear. After several minutes, the loathsome duo tired of their game and at last the swaying cage came to a stop. Joe lay unmoving, breathing heavily; the rocking motion making his empty stomach to do flip-flops, as he remained motionless with his eyes tightly shut fighting the urge to vomit.
Hal and Jaz laughed as they settled themselves down in front of the small campfire they had started just before beginning their heartless game they had dubbed, ‘rock-a-bye baby’.
“Did ya hear the way that kid screamed?” snickered Jaz as he pulled a leg from the rabbit he had cooking on a stick over the open fire.
Hal joined in the laughter, “Yeah, the stupid kid is afraid of heights, and the dark, I heard him crying earlier. Hell, he sure ain’t tough like that damn older brother of his, that Adam is as tough as leather, I tried to take him in a fight one night and he just about done me in. Hell, if I hadn’t been drinkin’, I’d awhipped him for sure,” bragged Hal, helping himself to the rabbit. “Ouch, that’s hot,” he said while he licked his fingers.
Joe could barely make out the sound of the voices as he tried to find a more comfortable position to rest his aching body. The effort was useless as the tight confines of his mini jail cell offered little in the ways of comfort and Joe sighed deeply, wishing with all of his heart that his family would come for him. The smell of the roasting rabbit high above him reminded him that it had been hours since his last meal and just as the thought poked into his thoughts, his stomach took that second to rumble loudly. Joe felt the gurgling sounds of protest that his insides made against his brain, begging the rest of him to fill the empty cavity that pleaded for nourishment.
Joe felt the tears slip from his eyes and roll slowly down his cheeks. “Pa,” whispered Joe quietly, “please hurry, I need you. I’m scared, please Pa ya gotta find me.”
Joe closed his eyes and though he didn’t think it possible, soon he had slipped into a troublesome sleep where the faces of his family danced before him. First he saw his father, Ben was calling him to supper and in his wearisome dream, Joe rushed to the table that seemed to strain under the pile of bounty from Hop Sing’s kitchen. Joe ate his fill, groaning that he had eaten as much as his larger brother, Hoss and Hoss teasing him that if he kept eating at the rate in which he just had, soon Joe would be bigger than he.
Joe woke momentarily, the sound of his own voice crying out, waking him from his fitful slumber. Just as quickly Joe’s eyes closed once again and his nightmare resumed. Adam was angry; Joe drew back but not fast enough for Adam’s hand stung his face as his older brother slapped out at him. Joe’s own hand quickly touched the burning mark, the tears searing their way down his rapidly bruising cheek as he turned and ran from the house.
Joe could hear his father’s voice as he called after him but Joe refused to stop and return to the house. His brother hated him, his father was angry and Joe had no desire to face the pair. Why had he shouted out at his older brother as he had, why had he cursed the mother that Adam had never known, and why had he wanted to hurt the brother whom he had adored all of his life. It didn’t make any sense; Joe couldn’t even remember what had started the argument that had hammered a wedge between oldest and youngest. He only knew that he was sorry, he hadn’t meant to hurt his sibling in such a manner or in any other manner, he had just been angry and had forgotten an important rule that his father had tried repeatedly to instill into him and that was to think first and speak later.
Adam, the oldest, the wisest, silent and reserved had let the mask slip, however briefly, but Joe had seen. He had been witness to the well of unshed tears that had boiled up into the dark eyes of his brother at the words he had so heartlessly screamed out in anger. He, Joe, had hurt Adam more than any one of them had ever hurt him before. Joe’s dream opened his heart to the fact and with just cause, his eyes popped opened.
Joe swiped the sweat from his brow, the slightest movement causing the cage to swing slightly. “I’m sorry Adam, forgive me, please,” wept Joe, ashamed of his actions and praying with all of his heart that he might have the chance to tell his brother so.
It was well after dark by the time Adam spotted the glow of the campfire. Using caution, Adam approached slowly and was relieved to find that the camp was his father’s. “Hello in the camp,” he called out the usual greeting when approaching a camp after nightfall.
“Pa, it’s me, Adam,” he announced as he slid from the saddle and walked the short distance into the light of the fire.
Ben had stood to his feet at the first sound of an approaching horse, for both he and Hoss had heard the sound of twigs snapping and leaves rustling even before Adam had called his greeting.
“Adam, I’m glad you changed your mind, son,” greeted Ben giving his oldest a pat on the shoulder.
“Where’s Hoss?” asked Adam looking around.
“I’m right here, big brother,” said Hoss as he rounded a large boulder where he had silently slipped when first alerted to unknown visitors. Hoss smiled his greeting and replaced his pistol into his holster.
Adam smiled at his brother, “Guess I made enough noise. Good thing it was your camp and not the fellas we are looking for.” Adam moved to the fire where he extended out his hands and held them over the heat from the flames in order to warm them. Ben and Hoss joined him and Hoss settled himself back against his saddle that he was using as a cushion to rest his head.
Ben watched Adam. He noted a change in his son’s disposition and silently wondered what had happened to bring an end to the anger that had been so apparent just hours earlier. Ben could see the hurt was still there but the antipathy was gone now, and Adam seemed an anxious as he and Hoss to find the missing boy.
“Adam, are you alright now, son?” Ben could not keep from asking and he watched his son’s movements, his body language, even his facial expressions, anything that would clue him in on whether or not Adam was ready to make amends with his younger brother.
Adam knew that his father, in his own way was quizzing him and he smiled at Ben. “I’m fine Pa, honest. I just want to find the little scamp and tell him I’m sorry. You were right, as usual.”
Ben sipped his coffee, “Right, son? About what?”
A tiny smile creased Adam’s face and he lowered his head slightly. “About being ashamed of myself. I am, just so you know, I am very much ashamed of what I did. Joe is young, I realize that and we both know how impulsive he can be. I was the one that made him mad, I knew he would strike out, he always does and I know I pushed him too hard. It’s my fault, I admit that Pa. I don’t like what he said, it hurt but you were right, I don’t think Joe meant it the way I took it, about my mother I mean. I’m sure the kid just said the first thing that popped into his mind.”
Ben nodded his head in agreement. “I’m glad son that you see it that way. But just the same, when I get that boy home, I may still wash his mouth out the a bar of Hop Sing’s lye soap!”
“Aw Pa, that stuff tastes awful, ya wouldn’t really do Short Shanks like that would ya?” Hoss scrunched up his face at the idea of the nasty tasting soap being used in the mouth.
“I would indeed,” stated Ben firmly, “I do not endorse the use of such profanity and you know it.”
Adam and Hoss exchanged knowing looks, each remembering at least once in their own lives when the lye soap had been used as mouthwash. “Yes sir,” agreed the brothers and each returned to their bedrolls where they soon dropped off to sleep.
“Haul’em up Jaz,” instructed Hal as he helped his brother yank on the pulley that was slowly bringing Joe’s swinging cage to the surface of the deep ravine. “I think it’s about time for some fun,” snickered the older of the two.
The two brothers had spent the afternoon nursing a whiskey bottle and by this time, both were well on their way to being totally inebriated. Hal in his drunken state had worked himself into a frenzy of hatred for the eldest Cartwright son and deemed now the time to release some of his wrath on his young victim.
“What we gonna do to’em?” sneered Jaz. Jaz continued to yank on the ropes until the cage had reached the opening of the crevice.
Joe lay huddled within the wooden bars not sure what was fixing to happen to him but knowing by the way the brothers staggered around that he was in for something unpleasant.
Hal had a long stick held in his hand and used it to poke at Joe through the bars. Joe squirmed about in his enclosure trying in vain to avoid the probing rod that poked at various parts of his body. Hal stopped when the cage had rotated enough that he could look into the frightened eyes of his captive and he laughed, unnerving the scared boy.
“Hey kid,” taunted Hal, “Bet you’re wondering if that brother of yours is even caring where his kid brother is by now. But I got news fer ya, he could care less where ya are,” Hal, unaware of the riff between Joe and Adam, winked at his own brother.
“I told him I had ya all caged up nice and purty like and if’n he wanted ya back, he’d have to pay to get ya,” Hal jabbed the long stick between the bars and poked at Joe’s mid-section. Joe pushed at the stick with his hands until he had removed the weapon from his cage. The action caused the cage to swing around until Joe could no longer see the two brothers, but he winced when he felt the end of the stick jabbing into his exposed back.
“Wanna know what ole’ brother Adam said about ya?” Hal laughed and the sound of the evil ringing in his voice made the caged boy shudder. “Your own brother said he weren’t interested in what happened to ya. Said he wouldn’t give a plug nickel to have ya back, said he ain’t never had much use for ya anyhow and I could do with ya what I pleased.”
Hal heard the intake of breath that his victim had made and knew he had touched on a nerve. Now he was ready to play it for all it was worth. “Say Jaz, what’ca think we otta do with him?” Hal jabbed the stick into the cage a third time, this time striking Joe in the ribs. Joe cried out in pain as Hal repeated the action and snickered when he saw his victim fighting to control his tears.
“Hurts don’t it kid? My ole man used to do this to Jaz and me when we were about your age and we had pissed him off. That’s where I got the idy for this here cage. Our ole man would cage us up like this for days some times. Sure as hell is hard on a weary body, being all cramped up like ya are and all.”
Hal dropped the stick and placed both hands on the top of the cage. Joe turned his head slightly in order to better see the face of the man who towered over him. Suddenly and without warning, Hal began spinning the cage around and around until the rope was twisted tightly.
“Let’em down,” he ordered. Jaz released the pulley and the cage began spinning out of control as it plummeted to the ground below.
Joe screamed in terror as the cage continued to fall, unaware that his tormentors had fashioned the rope in such a way that it would stop the cage’s descent just feet from the ground at the bottom of the deep hole and preventing it from being broken apart and injuring the boy being held inside.
Joe could hear the evil laughter of the men above him while he held tightly to the wooden bars falling to what he believed to be a sure death. His brother’s face flashed before his eyes and Joe screamed again, this time calling out for Adam. Abruptly the cage jerked to an unexpected halt. Joe heard the hissing of the rope as it slipped through the pulley and the sudden jolt tossed him about unmercifully.
Joe felt the bile in his stomach begin to churn and within minutes he found himself pressing his face into the bars of his prison in order to allow the hot boiling liquid to spill onto the ground below him as he retched. When he was finally able to catch his breath, Joe leaned his head against the side of his cage and wept.
Thoughts of Adam and what the Morgan brothers had told him of what his own brother had said about him crushed the core of his heart. He knew Adam had been furious with him and he knew that he had hurt Adam deeply but he had not given a thought to the idea that his own brother would care less about what these two depraved men would do to him. Joe made no attempt to stop his tears, his heart was broken and he had lost all hope that Adam would ever forgive him now, if and when he might find a way to escape and return home.
Joe was so lost in his own self-pity that he was unaware that the Morgans had raised his cage to its previous spot, mid-way of the crevice. His only thoughts now rested with his father and Hoss, whom he prayed would be at this very minute, out searching for him.
By noon of the second day, Ben raised his hand in the air and motioned for his sons to stop. Once Ben had removed his hat from his head and wiped away the sweat that had beaded on his brow, he turned and faced his boys.
“I think we’re going to have to have some help in finding Joe. That trail Hoss found is too hard to follow in all of these rocks. Hoss, I want you to ride back to the ranch and gather some of the men, tell them to plan on being gone for several days. I’m going to ride into town and talk to Roy and see if I can get some more help there. Adam, why don’t you poke around up here some more, maybe you might get lucky and pick up on some more tracks?” Ben placed his hat back on his head and reached for his canteen and pulled out the cork taking a long drink from the contents.
“Yes sir,” replied Hoss doing the same with his own canteen. “Where and when do ya want us to meet back up with ya?”
“I should be back by nightfall and we’ll meet at the top of that ridge,” Ben pointed into the distance where the crest of Sun Mountain peeked. “Adam, if you find anything at all, hold off as long as you can until we both get back. I don’t want to take a chance on those men hurting Little Joe, they may be panicky and try to kill him if you rush them.”
“Don’t worry Pa, I’ll be careful. If I see anything at all, I’ll wait for you or Hoss before making my move. I’m not about to put that boy in any more danger than what he’s in, I have a few things I need to say to him, I don’t plan on getting him hurt.” Adam smiled at his father, for the first time in two days he felt better about had happened between Joe and himself and Adam had set his mind to putting things back as they should be between the two of them.
“Ok boys, I’ll see you this evening, at the crest of the mountain, please be careful, both of you,” Ben bid his sons farewell and kicking gently at Buck’s side rode off toward Virginia City.
“Adam, ya take care now, ya hear? And be careful,” cautioned Hoss as he headed Chubb in the direction of home.
“You do the same little brother,” Adam called out as he cut Sport around toward Sun Mountain.
Adam urged his horse up the incline. The path was nothing more than a rabbit trail and the going was slow. The horse slipped several times and small stones rolled down the hill as the animal continued the upward climb. After several times of having to change directions in order to keep the horse and himself from sliding, Adam reached the crest of the mountain. Adam pulled Sport to a halt, leaned over to pat the neck of his gelding and whispered words of praise to his horse. The man and horse remained where they were for several minutes as Adam scanned the horizon for anything that might prove interesting. There was nothing and finally Adam urged his mount to continue on. He had ridden for several miles along the ridge when he heard the sounds of voices coming to him from the small creek that lay to his right. Being cautious, Adam dismounted and led his horse through the tangle of scrub brush until he spotted the two men who had their backs to him, bent over the creek drinking or washing, he couldn’t be sure.
At the sound of his approach, both Morgans turned. The look of shock that they wore on their faces at seeing Adam Cartwright was not missed on the elder Cartwright son and Adam briefly wondered why the pair should look as if they had just been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
“Howdy Hal, Jaz,” greeted Adam, acting nonchalantly so as not to rouse the suspicion of the two brothers.
“Adam, ere, Mr. Cartwright,” Hal said. Jaz nodded his head in greeting and looked anxiously at his brother.
“What brings you up this way?” Hal questioned, not really caring for a new plan had suddenly struck him and he tossed Jaz a knowing smile. Jaz’s brows raised slightly but he knew enough to keep his mouth shut for he knew his brother well enough to know that something was in the making. All he had to do was to remain silent and wait for his brother’s signal.
“Oh, I was just looking around for cougars, how about you boys?” Adam’s hand slid down to his sidearm and he slipped the tiny strap that held the gun in place from the trigger. Adam had seen the exchange between the two brothers and knew to use extra caution for he sensed he was now in danger.
“Ain’t seen no cougars, you Jaz?” Hal replied, moving slightly away from his brother so that he and Jaz was on either side of Adam and making it more difficult for the Cartwright to keep his eyes on both of them.
Adam took a couple of steps back, widening the range of his vision. “Seen anything at all that I might be interested in?” Adam asked the pair and watched as the brothers glanced at each other. Adam had watched Hal’s movement when the man had replaced his hat and had recognized Joe’s hatband as now being on Hal’s hat and knew instantly that the pair of mismatched brothers had something to do with his own brother’s sudden disappearance and he knew why. The Morgan’s were using Little Joe to get back at him for firing them.
“Might have. I know ya ain’t stupid Cartwright, so don’t go tryin’ nuthin’, that is if ya ever hope to see the kid again.” Hal saw Adam’s slight hesitation and pulled his gun from his holster. “Just drop that sidearm, toss it over here,” Hal pointed to the ground in front of his brother.
Adam did as instructed realizing too late that he had let the pair get the upper hand on him. Adam pulled his pistol slowly from his holster and tossed it over in front of Jaz never taking his eyes from Hal’s face.
“Get his gun Jaz, move away Cartwright, I want you right here,” Hal waved his gun in the air, signaling for Adam to put distance between himself and his brother.
Jaz picked up Adam’s gun and slipped it into his waistband. Hal kept his pistol pointed at Adam as he dug into his saddlebag and withdrew a length of rawhide and tossed it to his brother.
“Tie his hands, make sure they’re nice and tight, don’t want him to get away,” ordered Hal and waited as Jaz did as instructed. “Now, get up on your horse Cartwright, we have some ridin’ to do.”
Once Adam was mounted on Sport’s back, Jaz took a second piece of rawhide and tied Adam’s hand to the saddle horn to prevent him falling or from getting away. Hal mounted his own horse and picked up Sport’s reins and headed back to their hide out.
It took the better part of an hour for the three men to reach the hideout. Adam had kept alert, remembering all he could about the direction and location of where he was being taken. When the trio rounded the last rock formations that revealed the Morgan’s hideout, Adam was astonished to see the opening of the cave for he had had no idea that the cave had been in existence and was more surprised to find that with the lay out of the rocks and trees, the cave was virtually unnoticeable to the naked eye.
Jaz untied the strip of rawhide that held Adam’s hands bound to the saddle horn and pulled Adam from the saddle. Hal had dismounted as well and with a shove, pushed Adam through the opening. With Jaz following closely behind, the brothers led and pushed Adam toward the hidden room deep within the walls of the cave.
Got somethin’ to show ya Cartwright, might be of interest to ya,” laughed Hal. “Pull it up Jaz,” ordered Hal, keeping his pistol pointed at Adam.
Jaz hauled the cage containing the youngest Cartwright to the opening in the ground. Both Jaz and Hal heard the sudden intake of Adam’s breath when his eyes fell on the prone figure lying unconscious within the narrow space of the wooden crate.
“Why you dirty…” started Adam as he whirled around to face Hal. Hal saw Adam’s sudden movement and reacted quickly by raising his gun hand high into the air. When Adam stood face to face with him, Hal dropped his hand, holding tightly to his pistol, down across the side of Adam’s head. Adam never knew what hit him; he dropped to the ground in a heap, lost to the blackness that had suddenly swallowed him up.
“Way to go, brother,” jeered Jaz, giving Adam a hard kick to his ribcage to be sure that the big man was out cold. “Now what? We ain’t got another cage.”
“Let’s drape his body over the top of this here cage and we’ll lower it down. You stand along side of it and when it gets near the bottom, just push Cartwright off and I’ll pull ya back up,” decided Hal.
Jaz laughed, “Boy Hal, you sure ‘nough is smarter than most.”
It took Jaz and Hal just minutes to load Adam’s body onto the top of Joe’s cage. Joe who had succumbed to his weakness due to his injuries and his lack of proper nourishment had also slipped from the present world into the world of darkness. Once the obnoxious brothers had Adam spread across the cage, Hal let off on the pulley and allowed the cage and it’s riders to lower to the ground. Jaz did as his brother had instructed and pushed the unconscious man from the top of the cage to the cold damp ground at the bottom of the thirty-foot crevice. Giving a shout up to his brother, Jaz rode back to the top where he jumped to safety and turning, helped Hal lower Joe to his designated spot, mid-way.
Hoss was waiting with a small group of men for his father. He had hoped that Adam would have returned but there was no sign of his older brother and after looking around Hoss saw no indication that Adam had been back since having parted company earlier in the day.
It was a short time later that Ben arrived with Roy Coffee and another small group of men who had volunteered to help in the manhunt.
“Any sign of Adam?” Ben asked Hoss.
“No sir, cain’t see that he’s even back. Wonder where in thunderation he is, he told us he’d be back by the time we got here.” Hoss was anxious to be on his way, he had been worried sick about his baby brother and as time seemed to slip passed them, the worry continued to grow.
“Well, we can’t wait much longer. We will split up into small groups. If any of you find anything, send word to either Hoss or I before taking any action. I want whoever these men are, alive. They could be holding Joe anywhere in these rocks and if they aren’t taken alive, we may never be able to find my son. Is that understood?” Ben was livid with his instructions and the group of men who had offered their services knew Ben Cartwright well enough to know not to cross the worried father.
“Ok, Hoss you take some of the men and head off up to the crest, Roy, you take your men and work your way around to the south, my men and I will work around to the north. It should take us at least two hours before any of us reach the top. Hoss, wait for us there and if you see any thing of Adam, have him wait with you. Be careful men, and remember, I want those two men alive.” Ben took his men and headed off in search of his son, while the others divided up and did the same.
Joe stirred slightly, the ache in his body nearly unbearable. A strange sound from beneath him caught his undivided attention and Joe wondered what the Morgans had been up to since he had blacked out. Joe tried to press his face against the bars of his cell hoping to get a peek at what creature was making the piteous sounds down below but could not see to the bottom of the dark crevice. Joe held his breath as the sound reached his ears again and again.
“Hello,” he whispered loud enough that he hoped whatever or whoever might hear him but softly enough as not to draw the attention of his captors.
“Is anyone down there?” Joe waited with baited breath for a reply but heard nothing more, even the moaning sounds had stopped. Time slipped by but Joe had no idea how long he waited or what time it might be. He knew not whether it be day or night only that his stomach had growled from lack of food. Joe attempted to rearrange his body but only succeeded in causing his cage to begin to spin. The rotating motion left him feeling dizzy and Joe feared he might faint from weakness once more.
Joe covered his face with his hands, trying to stop the rocking of the cage by remaining absolutely motionless. He was sick, hungry, thirsty, and scared. Joe’s thoughts turned to his father and to Hoss, he refused to allow himself to think about Adam. He was mad and hurt that his oldest brother would hold against him the words that he had slung at him in a moment of anger and not care whether or not he lived or died. Joe wanted his father, he needed the security that his father’s strong arms about him had always given to him and he wanted and needed to see Hoss’ face for his middle brother had always been quick to forgive him his misdeeds. Joe needed his family’s love and comfort, and he wanted more than anything to go home.
The Morgans had continued to taunt him about his oldest brother. They had told him that his sole reason for being held prisoner was because of their hatred of Adam Cartwright. The pair had made it plain to him that his suffering was Adam’s part, because they were brothers and because Adam cared nothing for his youngest sibling. They even took the opportunity to dig the knife in a little deeper by telling the heartbroken boy that his oldest brother was working out a plan that would also turn the rest of his family against him. Soon, they said, Joe would have nothing; everything that he had once had or known would be forever lost to him. Then he would beg the brothers to end his life for he would have nothing left in his world that mattered to him or cared anything about him. He was doomed to die, the brothers had laughed, and Joe had hung his head in defeat and wept for the brother who had so callously tossed him away as if he had been a bone to a dog.
Hours later, Adam struggled to open his eyes. When he had at last managed it was only to be left in total darkness. He rubbed his eyes and felt the spot on the side of his head where it ached the most. Adam could feel the sticky blood where it had begun to dry and congeal on the side of his head.
“Oh,” groaned the wounded Adam, the pain intense and throbbing in his temples as he struggled to a sitting position and leaned against the cold rock wall. Adam glanced around the close confines trying to see where he was but the dark had all but blackened the space where he sat. Taking a deep breath, Adam squeezed his eyes shut and tried to remember what had happened to him before being struck on the head by one of the Morgan brothers.
‘Joe’, thought Adam and jerked his head upward, forgetting the pain. Adam’s vision blurred for a brief moment and he was forced to close his eyes once again. When the feeling past, Adam pushed with his hands against the rock wall and forced himself to stand up.
“Joe?” he called out softly, suddenly remembering having seen his brother caged like an animal. Adam listened for several minutes hoping that Joe would respond to his call.
“Joe!” Adam called a little louder and again waited, praying that his younger brother was not still unconscious. Adam had seen the blood that had smeared and dried on Joe’s face and wondered at the abuse the boy had had to suffer because of him.
Up above, Joe forced himself not to cry out to Adam. He had heard his brother calling his name and had recognized the voice as being Adam’s. Joe had mixed feelings about whether he should or even if he wanted to respond to Adam’s calling out his name. The things that the Morgans had told him about what Adam had said about him, still hurt and Joe was lost as to what he should do. He wanted to call out, he wanted Adam to know he was okay but his pride stood in his way though he longed for the comfort that he knew being with his brother would give to him.
“Joe, are you alright little buddy?” ‘Come on little brother answer me,’ pleaded Adam to himself worried because the injured boy had not answered him and it left Adam with a worry like he had never had before regarding his youngest sibling.
The tears rolled silently down his cheeks. Joe’s pride crumbled at the enduring words and just as he opened his mouth to call out to his brother below, a bright light filled the darkness above him and his attention was reverted to the warm glow that all but blinded him.
“Hey Cartwright! You awake down there?” shouted Hal, holding the lantern out as far as he could over the opening in the ground.
“Yeah, I’m awake Morgan.” Joe could hear the hatred in his brother’s voice but still he said nothing.
“I got your kid brother right here, just look up,” laughed Hal and nudged Jaz with his elbow. Jaz joined in the laughter and pushed on the rope that held the cage in mid air and watched as Joe’s face took on a frightened expression. In the glow of the lantern light, the boy’s face appeared more grotesque than it actually was and the sight caused even more laughter from the two Morgan brothers.
“Hey Cartwright, your kid brother here is scared. Did you know the kid is scared of heights? Watch this,” Jaz yanked on the pulley and the cage began to rise. After the cage carrying Joe inside had raised about six feet upward, Jaz released the pulley and the cage began falling downward at a startling rate of speed.
“JOE!” screamed Adam as he watched in horror the cage plummeting downward but his own voice was drowned out by the screams of the frightened youth. There was nothing that Adam could do for his brother, he knew Joe would surely die when the wooden crate like cage hit the hard rock on which he stood and broke apart.
With a sudden jerk the cage stopped just feet above his head and in the dim light Adam made eye contact with Joe who huddled, terrified behind the strong wooden bars of the cage.
Joe managed to slip his arm through the narrow space between two bars and extend his arm out and downward. Adam reached up and just as Hal and Jaz started the pulley to haul Joe back up, Adam’s fingertips brushed those of his brother’s and the eyes of each locked with the others.
“I’ll get you out of here, buddy, I promise,” whispered Adam to Joe as the cage moved out of his reach.
Joe dropped his head onto his arms and fought to control his tears. Fear pumped through his veins and his heart was beating at an alarming rate of speed. Nausea caused his stomach to react and he groaned with the spasms that pierced through his abdomen.
“Hey kid,” shouted Hal when the cage stopped. “I got a surprise for ya.”
Adam jerked his head upward and tried to peer around the cage but the wooden structure blocked most of his view and he was unable to see anything more than that Hal was holding a small box in his hands. He had not liked the sound of the crazed man’s tone of voice and he feared that the pair were about to do something more to his brother.
“Morgan,” called out Adam, “can you hear me?”
“I can hear, Cartwright, what’ca want?” answered Hal.
“Why not let the boy go, he hasn’t done anything to you. It’s me you want, let my brother go, I promise I won’t try to escape,” offered Adam, hoping that the Morgan brothers would release Joe.
The laughter that echoed within the cave walls gave Adam his answer.
“My God, he’s just a kid, what could he possibly do to you?” shouted Adam, anger beginning to show on his face as well as sound in his voice.
“It ain’t the kid Cartwright, it’s you. The kid’s only sin is being your brother. He’s gonna hav’ta pay for that and your gonna hav’ta watch.” Hal moved away from the opening in the cave’s floor momentarily taking the light with him. The room filled with darkness and Adam listened for the brothers to return.
“Joe,” he called.
“Yeah Adam?” whispered Joe trying to keep his voice from quivering.
“Are you hurt?” asked Adam.
“Some, but not too bad. I’m more hungry than hurt,” Joe replied and tried to look between the bars hoping to get a glimpse of his brother.
“Well, I promise you, when we get outta here, I’ll take you into town and buy you the biggest steak you can eat, how’s that?” promised Adam.
“Adam,” Joe’s voice betrayed him and Adam heard the underlying fear that caused his brother’s voice to tremble.
“Are we gonna make it out of here?” the sob caught in Joe’s throat as he spoke but he no longer cared that the others knew of his fear and he cared even less that they had heard him cry.
Adam knew Joe was on the verge of hysteria. Joe hated the darkness and he was more afraid of heights but the two mixed together was enough to send his brother over the edge. Adam realized that he had only seconds to instill calm into the frightened boy.
“Joe, listen to me. Pa and Hoss are looking for us this very minute. You just have to be brave a little longer pal, I promise, they will find us, trust me.” Adam could see the glow from the lantern growing brighter and he knew that the Morgan’s were returning.
Joe noticed the light as well and fear gripped his heart. “Adam, I’m sorry. I just want you to know before it’s too late, I didn’t mean what I said, honest I didn’t.”
“I know that Joe. And I’m…..
“Hey kid, ya ready for your surprise?” shouted Jaz. “Look what we got fer ya.”
Joe was able to turn his head just enough to see the pair standing on the edge of the crevice. “ADAM!” screamed Joe as the color drained from his face.
“JOE, what’s wrong?” shouted Adam moving around to try to get a better look at what the brothers were doing to Joe.
The wicked laughter rang in Joe’s ears making his head throb and his heart beat double time. Joe tried to kick at the bars of his cage in hopes of freeing himself but it was useless, the Morgans had built the cage to be indestructible.
“What’s wrong kid, don’t ya like spiders? This here is just a little ole tarantula.” Jaz held the large hairy spider by the leg and moved it in front of the lantern so that Joe could see it. “I have two more for you in this here little ole box. Wanna see’em?” asked Jaz, his eyes seemingly to appear fiery red in the glow from the flame as he placed the tarantula back into the box with the others.
“Here you go!” Jaz turned the box upside and dumped the three spiders into Joe’s cage.
Joe lost what little courage that remained and he screamed out in terror. His arms frayed about in the space that was available and he kicked repeatedly all the while screaming at the top of his lungs in total terror of the large hairy spiders.
“JOE! JOE!” screamed Adam, “DAMN you Morgan, I’ll kill you for that,” he shouted.
The brothers were doubled up in laughter and Hal called out something to Adam but Joe’s pathetic wailing drowned the message out. Joe’s screaming pierced Adam’s ears and the older brother’s heart broke at the sounds, knowing that the large spiders were the cause of Joe’s panic and Adam felt helpless to do anything to protect his brother.
Joe was still kicking and fraying his arms about wildly and the caged rocked and spun about banging against the hard rock walls on both sides of the crevice. Suddenly Adam saw one of the spiders falling from the cage and when he saw it land at his feet, he stomped the creature until he was sure that the spider was dead.
Hal and Jaz continued with their laughing, finding Joe’s panic an amusement for them. Adam stooped to inspect what remained of the spider and when he picked it up, Hal and Jaz heard him curse.
“DAMN YOU MORGAN!” vented Adam. “JOE, JOE, LISTEN TO ME! THEY AREN’T SPIDERS…JOE, THEY ARE NOT SPIDERS, THEY ARE JUST PIECES OF RABBIT FUR…”
Joe was so lost in his world of terror that he paid his brother no heed screaming louder it seemed than before. Hal jerked on the pulley and the cage began to lower, when it rested no less than ten feet above Adam’s head, Hal pulled hard on a second rope and suddenly the wooden bottom of the cage gave way and Joe tumbled out and landed with a thud on the rock floor. Quickly the brothers hauled the cage to the top, leaving behind a raving manic and his older brother.
Adam dropped to the ground and fighting to grab Joe’s arms that flung wildly about attempted to calm his hysterical brother. “Joe, Joe, calm down, buddy, it’s me, Adam.”
“Get’em off, get’em off,” wailed Joe fighting against Adam’s efforts and his strong hands that held his arms tightly.
“Joe, they’re gone, they weren’t even spiders. Look Joe, it’s just pieces of rabbit fur,” Adam held one of the pieces up hoping that Joe would recognize it for what it was and calm down.
Through his struggles, Adam managed to pull Joe into his lap and cradle him securely in his arms. All the while that Adam held the terrified boy, he spoke in a deep but calm manner trying to bring Joe back to the present day world. It took more than an hour to reach into Joe’s forbidden world but at last the walls came tumbling down. Along with it came the flood of tears and as the older brother held the youngest in his comforting embrace, Joe wept.
“Shh…It’s okay now Joe, big brother Adam’s got you. You’re safe Joe, for now,” cooed Adam as he brushed back the dark sweat soaked curls. “Shh…”
Adam was livid with anger. Joe had in his panic, clawed his face and arms with his fingernails. The skin was ripped and torn, blood oozed from the scratches and dripped, leaving its trail down the sides of his face and down his arms to his hands and fingers. Adam picked up Joe’s left hand and inspected it; under the nails, small pieces of skin appeared and Adam had to fight the urged to scream out his fury at the men above him.
It was far into the night or so he thought for he could not be sure, but at last Joe slipped into a weary slumber, held safely by the strong arms of his older brother. Joe did not sleep long, nightmares awakened him and once again he wept, his tears seeping into the leather of Adam’s vest and leaving tiny water spots on the front of the soft worn material.
“I’ll kill them for doing this to you,” whispered Adam to the sleeping form. “It’s all my fault, this happened to you just because you are my kid brother!” Adam took a deep breath to steady him self but the tears rolled unannounced from the corners of his eyes as he battled with himself and the turmoil that had reduced him to tears.
“Adam,” whispered Joe in a voice so low that at first Adam thought he had imagined it. “Adam,” Joe said a second time.
Adam could feel the tremors that passed through Joe’s body and he tightened his hold. The added pressure gave Joe a measure of comfort and he snuggled in closer to his brother’s chest.
“What is it buddy?” Adam leaned his head down so that Joe could better hear him.
“I’m sorry Adam, I didn’t mean to hurt you…I was just mad,” cried Joe glancing into the face that could barely be seen in the dark.
“I know Joe. I’m sorry too; I shouldn’t have been so bossy. I didn’t mean to make you mad and I certainly didn’t mean for Pa to jump all over you like he did. I’m sorry, squirt, I promise I won’t let that happen again.”
Joe sniffed his nose and rested his head against Adam’s chest. “They said you told them that you didn’t care what happened to me. They lied to me didn’t they, you didn’t really say that, did you?”
“No Joe, I didn’t say anything like that. They lied to you, they wanted to hurt you, and I guess they thought they were getting back at me by doing all of this to you. Well, it worked, seems we both got hurt. I’m sorry about all of this Joe, when I fired them, I had no idea that something like this would happen, especially to you.” Adam confessed.
Joe glanced up at his brother. Joe’s chin was quivering, “Adam, I’ve always believed in us as a family and I believe in truth among friends but most of all, I believe in the power of love. I’m sorry I doubted you Adam, I should have known better than to believe them.”
“Joe, Pa taught us all those things, to believe in each other, how important the truth always was and to believe in the power of love. If I didn’t love you little buddy, I wouldn’t be here now. Let’s say we forget what happened between us and start fresh?” Adam gave Joe one of his famous smiles and Joe returned the gesture as he leaned his head back against Adam’s heart.
“Are you scared?” Joe wanted to know and Adam felt his brother’s body shudder as he waited for his answer. He sought his brother’s eyes in the dark and when he found them he would not allow his own eyes to venture from Adam’s.
Adam took a minute to think about how to answer Joe. He really wasn’t scare of the Morgans. The only way that the cantankerous pair could possibly hurt him now was to hurt Joe and Adam had already sworn an oath to himself that he would not let that happen again, even if it meant giving up his life to save his younger brother.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t scared, at least a little, why Joe, are you scared?” asked Adam though he already knew the answer and he couldn’t blame his brother, he had already endured more than what most grown men might have been able to endure.
“Yeah, I’m scared…a little,” he added. “I wish Pa and Hoss would hurry, I wanna go home.”
Adam heard Joe sniffle and knew the boy was on the verge of tears again. “Joe, I’ll get you out of this, somehow, someway, I promise. Besides, Pa and Hoss will find us soon. Now please, close your eyes and try to get some rest, I have an idea that you will need your strength come day light.”
Adam rested his hand against the side of Joe’s head and gently pressed it to his chest. Joe let his head remain where Adam placed it and closed his eyes. Minutes later, Adam’s hand could be felt gently caressing the back of Joe’s neck giving further comfort to the troubled boy. It did not take long for Joe to relax this time and within minutes Joe had fallen to sleep, secured in his brother’s loving arms.
Adam dozed off and on during the long night. Joe tossed about, moaning, Adam knew, from both his injuries and his hunger. Adam hadn’t been a bit surprised when the Morgans had refused to allow them something more to eat than the meager piece of half cooked meat that they had tossed down to them. The meat had barely been enough for one man let alone two and Adam had begun to think that perhaps the Morgans were planning on starving them to death. For sure it had been at least two days since Joe had had anything that even came close to being called a meal. What little there had been of the meat had been mostly gristle and bone and the tiny bite or two that he had insisted that Joe take had made the boy deathly sick. Minutes later Joe had started retching until Adam had begun to think the sick boy was never going to be able to catch his breath. Luckily the Morgan brothers had seen fit to drop a canteen half filled with tepid water down to them and Adam had been able to use his neck scarf soaked in water to cool and wash the face of his brother. By that time the younger boy had been totally exhausted and had fallen into a troubled sleep, his head resting in his older brother’s lap.
Adam brushed back the damp curls from the side of his brother’s face and gently shook the boy. “Joe, wake up. Joe, come on little buddy, you’re having another bad dream.”
“Get’em off…ADAM! Help me…they’re everywhere….” Joe began to thrash about and it was all Adam could do to hold on to Joe’s fevered body.
“Joe, Joe, open your eyes,” Adam repeated again and again until at last his words penetrated his brother’s dark world and Joe’s movements slowed and finally stopped completely.
“Adam,” Joe whispered in a hoarse voice. “I’m dying Adam, I just know I’m dying.”
“No, don’t talk like that Joe. You’re not dying you’re very sick, but you’re not dying nor are you going to. Do you hear me?” Adam was scared, he wouldn’t let his brother know but he was scared. He wasn’t sure just how much longer the boy could hold out if he didn’t have medical help and soon.
Joe reached up and clutched the sleeve of Adam’s shirt. It was just light enough in the dark space that Adam could make out the tears that shined in his brother’s eyes.
“Tell Pa and Hoss…I love them…please Adam…tell them for me,” Joe’s voice drifted away and when his eyes closed, Adam’s heart leapt into his throat in fear that his brother had done as he had predicated.
“JOE”, Adam shouted and shook the prone body harder than he knew he should have. Relief flooded through his entire body when Joe groaned and moved his head trying to open his eyes, but the effort was too much and Joe stopped trying and allowed his body to go limp.
Adam had been so absorbed in making sure that Joe was alive and breathing that he had failed to notice the light overhead or the sound of Hal and Jaz’s evil laughter.
“What’s wrong Cartwright? The kid dead?” taunted Jaz.
Adam stood to his feet and watched the pair above him. He wanted nothing more than to get his hands on both of them and wring their necks. Swallowing several times to keep from cursing out at them, Adam took a deep breath, “What are you going to prove by starving us to death?”
“Prove?” sneered Hal, “that money can’t buy everything. It can’t buy your freedom and it won’t buy the boy’s life. I dun told ya, the boy is gonna die and it’s your fault, you just remember that when the time comes. You think you’re so high and mighty, well let’s just see how uppity you get before the kid kicks the bucket. Remember, his only sin is being your brother, and for that he has to die.”
Adam was fuming and if the Morgan brothers had been able to see the dark fire burning in the eldest Cartwright son’s eyes, they might have found themselves trembling in fear, for the look spoke of death, theirs.
“That’s ridicules. Why kill the boy if it’s me you want? Let the boy go and you can do anything you want with me,” Adam tried to persuade the pair to release Joe before it was too late.
“No…Adam…” whispered Joe from the spot where he lay. “I won’t go…not without you…”
“Be quiet Joe, you’ll do as I say,” whispered Adam in return and turned his attention back to the Morgans. “Tell me what you want, anything, just name it.”
Hal and Jaz traded looks and Hal smiled. Turning his attention back to the man in the dark hole he called out. “Anything?” he asked.
Adam gave Joe a tight smile knowing that he had the dubious pair’s attention.
“No…Adam. Don’t do it…I said I won’t go…” pleaded Joe as he forced himself to stand next to his older brother.
Adam reached out to support Joe who staggered slightly from weakness. “I have to get you out of here buddy. Now be quiet, if I can get them to agree to let you go, you can get help to get me away from here.”
Joe seemed to be thinking about what Adam had planned and started to reply but was cut short. “Joe, I’m stronger than you are right now,” he whispered low so that only Joe could hear him. “You need help, but I can still manage for a couple more days without food and water if that’s the game they want to play but you can’t. I will have to depend on you to go for Pa and Hoss. Do you understand?”
Joe nodded his head yes and with Adam’s help was forced to sit back down where he propped his back against the cool rock wall. “I don’t want to leave you…but you’re right, if one of us don’t get out of here, we’ll both die.”
Adam squatted down to face Joe, “then you’ll go along with it?” he asked.
Joe gave his brother a weak smile, “do I have a choice?”
Adam cupped the side of Joe’s face, the corner of his lips turning upward, “No.”
“I didn’t think so, big brother.”
“Well Cartwright? What’s your deal?” shouted Hal who was getting impatient with his prisoners.
“Morgan, you give my brother enough food and water to make it back to the Ponderosa, and my horse,” he added as an afterthought. “That’s all I ask. You do that and I promise I’ll stay here. You can do what you want with me.”
Adam could barely make out the two men’s silhouettes in the light but it was enough to tell him that the two were discussing his request. It took only a couple of minutes before Hal looked down the hole.
“What’s to keep the kid from coming back with help to save your ornery hide?” Hal asked Adam.
“I’ll give you my word, he won’t come back.” Adam heard Joe start to protest and motioned for him to be silent. Joe obeyed Adam’s command thinking that perhaps his brother had something else in mind.
“I don’t know Cartwright, I don’t like the odds…but tell ya what…I’ll give the kid your horse, but that’s all, no food and no water. As weak as he is he might not even make it, but then again he just might. Those are my terms, the horse, his freedom and you’re ours,” gleamed Hal and Adam heard him snickering along with his obnoxious brother.
Adam cut his eyes around to Joe and saw the worry in his hazel eyes. He couldn’t help but to see how weak his brother was and wondered if he was doing the right thing. He knew his father and Hoss was out there somewhere, hopefully close enough that Joe could find them and he also knew that if he didn’t get Joe out of their dungeon soon, the boy would sure enough die. At least out there Joe would have better than a fifty-fifty chance of finding their father and brother and water.
“Morgan,” called Adam, bending down in front of Joe where he placed the back of his hand to his brother’s brow to check for fever. He frowned at the heat that radiated from Joe’s face and then made his decision. “Morgan,” he shouted once more.
“What?” came the reply.
“It’s a deal, Joe’s freedom and my horse, with the promise that he will not come back.” Adam leaned closer to Joe and in a low voice whispered. “You don’t come back here, boy, do you hear me?”
“Shh…that’s part of the plan, all you need to do Joe is send Pa and Hoss and whomever they have with them. You stay away. If they think you betrayed them they will kill you and me should they get their hands on you a second time. Do I make myself clear?”
Joe nodded his head yes. “Okay Adam, I’ll do as you say.”
Adam caressed the bruised face with the back of his, “I knew I could depend on you, kid.”
Joe reached up and grasped his brother’s arm, feeling the muscles that trembled beneath his hand. “I promise you brother, I won’t let you down. I’ll get help, or die trying.”
Adam ruffled the dark curls, “Will you please stop saying that?” teased Adam though in his heart he feared that Joe might not be able to make good on his promise for Adam was aware of the way in which Joe was trying to conceal his discomfort, and his weakness.
“Okay Cartwright. It’s a deal, I’ll lower the cage, make the kid ride up on the top. When he gets to the top, we’ll let him go,” ordered Hal. He turned then and gave the word to Jaz to start the pulley and within minutes Joe was on his way to the top where Hal and Jaz waited for him.
Once the spinning cage stopped, Hal grabbed Joe by the shoulder and hauled him from the top of the cage. While he had a tight grip on Joe’s shirt he spun the weakened boy around to face him and put his face nearly into Joe’s.
“You double cross me kid and come back here, your brother dies a slow and painful death, you got that?” sneered Hal.
“Yeah, I got that,” whispered Joe fearing that his legs might give out on him before he was even able to make his escape.
Hal shoved him toward the cave’s opening and forced him to walk the long distance to the front. Joe staggered and nearly fell several times but with determination finally make it to the top where he could see daylight for the first time in nearly three days, or was it four he asked himself.
The sun was so bright that Joe had to shield his eyes with his arm in order to be able to make his way to where the horses were tied. Jaz untied Sport and led Adam’s horse over to where Hal waited with Joe.
“You remember, don’t come back here. I have something to give you before you go,” Hal grabbed Joe by the hair and jerked his head upward. “Tell ya ole man that if he brings me half a million dollars, I’ll give him whatever is left of his son’s body.”
Joe’s eyes opened wide in shock, “Why you low down…”
Hal balled up his fist and drove it into Joe’s stomach. Joe dropped to his knees, his body folded in half as the pain consumed him.
“Here’s your horse. You have until tomorrow this same time to have ole man Cartwright deliver the money or your brother dies, and his death will be on your hands, kid, remember that. Now get outta here.”
Hal and Jaz left Joe where he dropped and walked back inside the cave. Joe took several minutes to catch his breath before trying to stand to his feet. Sport stood to the side eying the boy from the corner of his own eye and when Joe reached out to grab at the stirrup, Sport nickered nervously and moved a short distance away.
“Whoa boy,” Joe called softly and pushed himself to his feet. His right arm was crossed over his mid-section where Hal had punched him and in his weakened condition, Joe walked sideways toward his brother’s horse. This time Joe was able to catch hold of the reins that dangled from the horse’s bridle.
Now that he had the reins in his hands, Joe struggled to pull himself up into the saddle. Adam’s big gelding snorted and each time that Joe tried to put his foot into the stirrup, Sport side stepped until Joe was forced to lead the horse to a large rock where he was finally able to use the rock to stand on in order to mount. Joe turned the horse in the direction he thought would take him home.
“Okay Cartwright, I’m tossin’ ya down these here chains, make sure ya put’em on tight. Ya got that?” ordered Hal tossing the shackles down to Adam who had to press his back against the wall in order to keep from being hit by the chains as they fell from up above.
Adam gulped and took a deep breath, worried now about what the pair of brothers had planned for him but glad that Joe had finally managed to get away from these evil men.
“Is my brother gone?” Adam called up to Hal before bending and picking up the shackles that were to be fastened about his wrists.
“He’s gone, he wasn’t in too good of shape when we left him, but he’s gone,” snorted Hal and Adam could hear Jaz laughing.
“What did you do to him?” Adam’s anger was beginning to get stirred up once more as he thought about what the pair might have done to his younger brother before letting him go.
“I didn’t do nuthin’ to him,” Hal snickered, “just helped him get on his horse is all,” he lied.
“Now put those chains on like I dun told ya to do, I got plans for ya,” the dirty man swiped the back of his hand across his mouth to clean away his own spittle and glanced at his brother. “Ya got the pole ready?”
Jaz smiled and rubbed his hands together, “Yeah, it’s ready, so’s the fire.”
“Good, I want the poker bright red. Come on Cartwright, hurry it up!” shouted Hal becoming impatient with his prisoner.
Adam attached the cuffs around his wrists and silently prayed that Joe would find help before the Morgan’s got too involved with their sick games. “They’re on,” Adam announced.
“About time, now hook this rope around the middle, better make sure it’s tight, wouldn’t want ya to fall once we start hoistin’ ya up,” laughed Hal as he watched from above.
Adam fastened the rope around the middle of the chain, yanking hard to set the knot, just in case, for now he knew that for the time being, he was going to be hauled to the top by the chains and rope that he had been forced to wear.
“Ok Morgan, let’s get on with it,” Adam told his captor and then stumbled when Hal jerked on the pulley and set the rope into motion.
His feet flew out from under him and it was just minutes before he found himself dangling in mid air. The weight of his body pulled against the shackles on his wrists and at first Adam thought his hands would be pulled from his arms. He had to fight the urge to cry out and refused to allow himself to show his weakness to these despicable pair of thugs.
The pulley stopped suddenly and Adam’s body spun around several times as he dangled nearly twenty feet in the air. Up above he could hear the laughter and low voices of the Morgans and he strained his head to look upward.
“Morgan,” Adam called in a subdued voice for the pressure on his body was beginning to cause excruciating pain in his shoulders and arms.
Jaz stepped to the edge of the deep crevice and looked down. “What now Cartwright? You ain’t in pain already are ya? I thought you was tuffer’n that.”
“I was just wondering if this was the best you had?” mocked Adam impulsively, letting his anger override his common sense.
Jaz bent over laughing and Adam saw him twirl around to face his brother, “Hal, ya hear that? Cartwright wants more, what’ca say, should we give him what he wants?”
“Why not? He thinks he’s so damn brave, let’s see what he does with these.” Hal moved out of Adam’s range of vision but returned within minutes.
From where he hung, Adam could see the brothers huddled together and though he could not make out what they were whispering about, he could see that they were up to no good. Adam swallowed and tried to calm his nerves, he was hoping that by this time, Joe was well on his way back to the ranch for help. Adam figured that in his condition it might take as long as all night for Joe to reach their father and then another whole day for Ben to bring help for him. ‘I’m depending on you Little Buddy. I know you can do it,’ muttered Adam, willing his younger brother to hear his plea.
Adam felt a tug on the rope and glancing up, saw that Hal and Jaz had started the pulley again. As his body was hauled upward, Adam tried to reach out with his legs to the sides of the crevice walls but the distance was too far. When he tried swinging the weight of his body toward one side or the other, one of the brothers overhead would stop the pulley and push it into reverse, sending his body plummeting downward, stopping any thoughts he might have had in regards to bracing himself against the wall and being able to pull himself to the top.
“Hurts don’t it Cartwright,” Hal taunted when he heard Adam moaning softly. “Keep that up and ya won’t ever be able to use those hands of yours again. I’ll make sure they break nice and proper like. Then if’n ya live, you’ll hav’ta fire that fancy shootin’ iron with ya toes!”
Adam wanted nothing more than be able to use his shootin’ iron, as Hal had called it. ‘I’d love to be able to blow you away,’ cursed Adam silently.
The pulley started once again and again Adam’s body was hauled nearly to the top before it stopped. Jaz grabbed the rope that was attached to the chain, stopping Adam from spinning around. The upper half of Adam’s body was above the opening and he thought briefly about attempting to pull his legs up in order to place them on the same ground where Hal and Jaz stood but before he could make his attempt, Hal kicked out at him, striking him in his abdomen.
Adam grunted and tried to push his body away from the center of the crevice but was stopped by Jaz who still held the rope. Hal kicked him again, this time in the middle of his back and Adam heard the pair laugh as his body hunched forward in pain in an involuntary attempt to get away from the offending kicks.
Adam’s eyes closed to the pain, and he was only slightly aware of Jaz pulling the rope closer to the edge and Adam barely could force his eyes to open part way when he felt hands on his body. Hal pulled opened Adam’s shirt, ripping the top two buttons from the material and when he felt the cold substance on his chest, Adam’s eyes popped wider. Before he could react, Hal spun the rope around and yanked on the collar of his shirt and again he felt the cold substance.
“What the…” began Adam and felt the first bite on his stomach.
Suddenly his body dropped downward and when it came to a stop, Adam was spinning around in circles, the ants that Hal had dumped down the front and back of his shirt, eating away at his flesh. Adam heard his own voice screaming in agony above the boisterous laughter of his tormentors. Minutes later Adam slipped from his dark world deep inside the crevice where he still hung by his wrists into a deeper and darker world where the pain ceased to be.
Ben and Hoss pulled their mounts to a stop high on the ridge of Sun Mountain and scanned the horizon in all directions looking for any signs that might lead them to their missing family members.
“I don’t see a thing, Pa,” stated Hoss, brushing the sweat from his brow. “I’m plum worried about those two, first Little Joe disappears, then Adam. It ain’t like Adam to go off like this and not tell us. He said he’d meet up with us, but shucks, Pa, somethin’ must’va happened to him too.”
Ben replaced the cork on his canteen and hung it from his saddle horn. “I don’t know Hoss. Maybe Adam found something and thought he’d do better alone than with a posse of twenty men. Wish he’d of let us know something though.” Ben nudged Buck forward and crossed over the crest to the downward side. The rocks were bigger and he used caution to keep his big buckskin from sliding down.
Suddenly he yanked back on Buck’s reins, “Hoss,” he called excitedly, “look.” Ben pointed his finger out and Hoss moved Chubb up next to his father’s horse and squinted his eyes.
“Pa, that sure ‘nough looks like Sport. But that ain’t Adam riding him, the man’s too small,” observed Hoss.
“Hoss, something’s wrong with whoever that is, see the way the rider is slumped over the saddle? Come on, we better see who’s riding Adam’s horse.” Ben kicked at his mount’s sides at the same time that Hoss kicked at Chubb’s and together, father and son rode along the crest, then turned their mounts downward, working at an angle to prevent slipping.
By the time that they reached the halfway point, the rider who had been mounted on Sport slipped from the saddle falling with a thud to the hard rocky surface beneath him.
Joe lay in a heap, his body bone weary and aching from head to toe. His strength had been drained, his hunger gone now for his system had accustomed its self to the lack of nourishment and Joe groaned, straining to pull himself to his feet. But the effort took more than the boy could give and he crumbled again to the ground, just as Ben and Hoss both jumped from their horses.
“Joe,” shouted Ben as he rushed to his son’s side and knelt down next to the now unconscious body of his son.
Gently Ben turned the boy onto his back and seeing the appearance of his son’s face, he whenced in agony for his son’s injuries. “My God,” exclaimed the angered father, “Who in heaven’s name could have done this?”
Hoss who was on his knees, brushed away the dirt from his brother’s face and looked into the troubled eyes of his father’s. Ben noted the tears that had welled in the blue eyes that seemed to be pleading with him to make things better for his injured brother. Hoss could not force the words from his mouth but only shook his head from side to side.
Ben reached across Joe and placed his hand on Hoss’ shoulder offering comfort, “He’ll be all right son, just as soon as we get him home. Fetch me the canteen, will you?”
Hoss needed no further urging as he jumped to his feet and hurried to get the canteen filled with cool water and returned to place it in his father’s out strectched hand. Ben gently laid Joe’s head on Hoss’ bedroll that he had grabbed from his horse, and pulled the cork from the top of the water container. Hoss gently lifted his brother’s head slightly and held it as Ben placed the opening of the canteen to Joe’s chapped and cracked lips.
“Joseph, take a drink son,” Ben encouraged. Instead of doing as his father instructed, Joe began trashing his head wildly from side to side in an attempt to move away from the canteen.
“GET’EM OFF…GET’EM OFF,” screamed out Joe, startling both his father and brother.
“Easy Joe, there’s nuthin’ on ya punkin, it’s just ole Hoss and Pa,” Hoss held firmly to Joe, taking him in his arms to stop his fraying about and the possibility of causing himself further injuries.
“Joe, open your eyes son,” Ben spoke softly, brushing the hair from Joe’s face.
“Adam…Adam…gotta get the…money…” Joe cried out mournfully.
Ben and Hoss exchanged puzzling glances and then looked back down at Joe. “Joseph, do you know where Adam is?” Ben asked hopefully.
“Money…gotta get…money…they are going…to kill…him if…Pa don’t…” muttered Joe, still not coherent enough to realize that his father and brother were by his side.
“Hoss, we need to get him home, he has to have a doctor soon,” Ben looked into the worried eyes of his middle son. “I’ll get him home, can you manage to keep looking for Adam? He can’t be too far, Joe was riding his horse and in Joe’s condition, the boy couldn’t have covered very much distance.”
Hoss glanced back down at his brother; worry for both his younger brother and his older brother making him hesitate. “Pa…”
“Hoss, Joe will be all right, son. Adam needs you, Joe seems to think he’s in trouble and I tend to think the boy is right. I can’t be in two places at once as much as I wish I could, it’s impossible. Joe needs care, Adam may well be okay, but just the same, we can’t take the chance, please Hoss,” Ben encouraged.
Hoss pursed his lips together tightly and nodded his head. “Okay Pa, you take Joe home, I’ll find Adam one way or another, don’t’cha worry none.” Hoss slapped Ben gently on the back of the shoulder, as he turned to retrieve the horses.
Ben gathered the semi-unconscious boy into his arms and waited with his bundle until Hoss had the horses ready. Hoss took Joe from his father and when Ben had mounted up, handed the still form of his brother up to his father’s waiting arms.
“Be careful Pa, I mean, we don’t know who these varmints are. Watch ya back,” Hoss stepped back from Ben’s horse as Ben turned toward his ranch.
“Hoss, you do the same boy, don’t trust anyone other than Roy if you run into him.” Joe moaned softly and Ben tightened his arms about his son who sat backwards in the saddle where he rested his head against his father’s chest. Ben caressed the side of Joe’s face then glanced down at Hoss. “I’d better get this boy home, son. I’ll see you in a couple of days, please Hoss, and be careful. I’ve lost two-thirds of my family as it stands, and it’s not sitting very well with me.”
“I will Pa, I promise. I’ll find Adam if’n it’s the last thing I do.” Hoss tipped his big hat at his father and watched as Ben rode off, Joe securely held within the folds of his father’s strong and loving arms.
“Come on Chubb, we got work to do,” Hoss climbed aboard the back of his horse that seemed to have picked up on his masters impatience as he dance about in a circle. Giving a firm kick to the animal’s side, Hoss headed in the direction in which he and Ben had seen Joe coming from. Hopefully he thought he would be able to back track Sport’s trail and with just a little luck, find his missing brother. “You too Sport, let’s ride,” said Hoss, leading Adam’s big gelding behind him.
“Ben, he needs lots of rest and plenty of Hop Sing’s good cooking. Those cuts and scratches will heal in time. I left you some salve to apply to them at least twice a day. Now that I have those ribs bound and he’s full of laudanum, he should sleep for several hours.” Doctor Martin pulled the blankets up around Joe’s chin and gently tucked them in.
“Ben, another day without food and water and I dare say Little Joe might not have made it. I instructed Hop Sing to keep a strong broth brewing and every time that this boy even opens his eyes, I want some of that broth fed to him.” Paul began placing his instruments into his bag and stopped to watch as Ben moved to the side of the bed and gently sat down next to his sleeping son.
Paul could see the unshed tears that well in his friend’s eyes and though he had known this family for many years, the love that each one shared with the others never ceased to amaze him.
Paul placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder and feeling the slight pressure, Ben glanced up at the family physician. “He’ll be fine Ben, try not to worry,” comforted Paul.
Ben’s lips were pressed tightly together and he swallowed the lump that was in his throat, nodding his head up and down. “I know Paul, it’s just hard for me to see Joseph like this, so still and silent. It’s not like him at all, he’s so full of energy and life, and this breaks my heart.” Ben stood and walked to the door with the doctor.
“Don’t bother yourself Ben, I can see myself out. Send word if you need me otherwise, I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
“Thanks Paul, for everything. Hopefully by then Hoss will have word about Adam, I’m worried sick about him as well,” said Ben and turned his attention back to the boy in the bed when Joe moaned and began calling out for Adam.
“Adam…Adam…Get’em off…no…I won’t go…Adam…I won’t leave…you,” whispered Joe through his drug-induced slumber.
Ben pulled his chair up to the bed and sat down, taking Joe’s hand into his own. “Joseph, can you hear me son?” Ben pushed back at the dark curls and leaned closer to Joe’s face.
“Can you tell papa where Adam is, son?” Ben felt as if he were begging for answers so desperate was he to have his family all together and under one roof again.
Joe tossed his head, reached outward with his free arm and tried to open his eyes. “Money…gotta…get the…money.”
“What money son, who wants the money?” whispered Ben.
“Morgans…Adam…money…by…kill Adam…” mumbled Joe who struggled with his sleep-laden eyes that suddenly had eyelids that seemed to weigh a ton.
Ben jerked back in his seat…the Morgans. Ben forced his weary mind into action, trying to recall where he had heard the name before. Rising from his chair, Ben began to pace the room, moving slowly from one side to the other, his mind racing through the last several days for he knew it had not been long ago that the name of Morgan had come up. Ben pushed aside the drapes and watched as a small group of hired men gather at the corral fence as they settled their mounts for the evening.
MORGAN! Ben nearly shouted the name, it was the name of the two brothers that Adam had found drinking on the job and had fired two weeks earlier. Ben thought about what Joe had been trying to tell him and putting two and two together, realized that the Morgans had been the one responsible for his younger son’s injuries and now for Adam’s disappearance.
“They must be demanding a large sum of money in exchange for Adam’s life,” said Ben out loud.
“Pa,” the sound of his name being called in the silent room startled Ben and he spun around to face the boy in the bed. Seeing Joe’s eyes searching for him, he rushed to the bedside and gathered Joe’s bandaged hand into his own.
“I’m here son. Take it easy,” Ben said in a soothing voice as Joe’s eyes sought his father’s face.
“Pa…Adam…needs help,” Joe’s voice was weak as he struggled to get his words out, Ben noted the tears that slipped from the corners of his eyes and he dabbed at them.
“Don’t cry son, Hoss will find your brother,” Ben smiled trying to assure his troubled son who seemed anxious to tell him more.
Joe reached out his hand and gathered the sleeve of Ben’s shirt into his palm and tried to pull himself up.
“No son lay still,” Ben gently forced Joe back into the mattress. Joe was too weak to put up a struggle and remained where he was. “Just try to remember where Adam is son. Can you tell me?”
“Pa…the cave…on Sun Mountain…” Joe’s voice dropped in volume, making it hard for Ben to hear his son’s words. “Behind the…flat tabletop…got him in…crevice, Pa…Pa?” Joe’s voice suddenly rose and Ben noted the anxiety that had crept into the tone he used.
“What…day…is this?” Joe’s eyes closed momentarily and Ben feared that his son had slipped again into unconsciousness but the driving force that was the norm for his son gave him the strength to open them again.
“Friday, why Joseph?”
Joe tossed his head wildly on the pillow and struggled to get up. “No son. You have to stay in bed.” Ben was surprised at the strength that had suddenly taken over Joe’s body and he had to wrap both arms about Joe’s upper torso to keep him from climbing out of the bed.
“No…NO!” screamed Joe, his body suddenly going limp in his father’s arms. Ben laid Joe back and looked into the tear filled eyes and wondered what had been the sudden cause for the outburst.
“What is it son, what’s wrong?” Ben pleaded with Joe.
“Pa…the money, I didn’t…get it to…them. OH GOD! ADAM! I killed…him!” Joe turned his face away from his father and cried into his pillow until the medicine claimed him once more.
Ben raced to the window and pulled it open. “JAKE!” he shouted. “COME UP HERE PLEASE AND HURRY,” he called out to his foreman.
Jake wasted no time in answering the call and without bothering to knock, burst though the front door and raced up the stairs taking them two at a time.
Ben was waiting at the door for him. “Jake, I need you to do something for me. Here’s what I want you to do…”
Adam groaned, never in his wildest imagination had he ever guessed that such pain could exist. The ants had ravished his skin, the bites on both is chest and back itched as if he had rolled around in poison oak or ivy and he was helpless to do anything to alleviate the itching but instead was left hanging alone and in pain to endure the uncomfortable feeling. The tiny creatures had begun to crawl up his arms and even his neck. A couple of them had ventured onto his cheek but he was able to brush them off by swiping his face against his arms. A few of the ants had somehow managed to work their way under his belt and into his pants furthering any unpleasant feelings he had above the waist line. And his arms and shoulders, the pain in them had hurt to the point that he felt numb to all feeling up to his fingers, which seemed to be non-existent. He groaned, moving his head to look up at the opening, willing himself to see his father or his brother come to rescue him.
“Please Joe, hurry buddy,” Adam whispered aloud, though no one was around to hear him.
Much later Adam felt the pulley hauling him to the top. The upward motion and the weight that his aching arms pulled forced Adam to cry out in pain. The sound, being music to the ears of his tormentors caused them to start laughing and the sound they made added anger to build within the injured man’s heart.
“What about it Cartwright? Bet ya ain’t feelin’ too perky now are ya?” smirked Hal, stopping the pulley before it completely reached the top of the opening.
Adam strained to look up, “Go to hell, you bastard,” he cursed.
Jaz and Hal burst into loud obnoxious laughter, “Well, somethin’ sure put him in a bad mood, reckon?” Hal sneered to Jaz.
“Yeah, reckon so. Hey Hal, should we tell him about his brother?”
Adam forced himself to look up, his tormentor’s words catching and holding his attention. “What about my brother?” he demanded of the pair.
“Worried Cartwright? Ya should be, the boy’s buzzard bait. I rode out earlier, just to keep an eye on him, saw him fall from his horse. He’s dead Cartwright, and it’s your fault,” laughed the brothers.
“Your lying!” shouted Adam loudly, not wanting to believe that Joe had not made it home or at least had not been able to find help for himself.
“New, we ain’t lying Mister Big Britches, ya daddy’s only got two sons now,” taunted Jaz jerking the rope and making Adam to spin around.
“Hey Hal, since we ain’t gonna get no money, can we have some fun with him now, afore we kill’em?” Jaz grinned his crooked grin and rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“Sure brother, what’ca wanna do to him?” asked Hal, getting caught up in his brother’s excitement.
“Let’s brand him. I got that branding iron good and red, ya know, the one I stolt from ole man Cartwright. Wonder how the ole buzzard would like to see his own brand on one of his sons?” snickered Jaz wickedly.
“I’ll pull’em up, you go get the iron,” ordered Hal and watched while Jaz went to retrieve the hot branding iron that bore the pinetree brand that labeled anything it touched as being owned by the Cartwright’s of the Ponderosa.
Adam dangled above the opening of the dark dreary crevice that had been his prison for the last couple of days. His feet were high enough off the ground that he could not touch the earth with even the tip of his boots. Once, he tried kicking out, but Hal had seen the surprise attack and awarded Adam with a sharp hard jab to his lower stomach. Before Adam could recover, Hal had found a piece of rawhide and bound together Adam’s ankles, drove a spike into the hard rock with a sledge hammer and pulled the rawhide down taunt to stop any further movement by his prisoner.
“I’ll kill you for this, and for what you have done to my kid brother, so help me God,” threatened Adam, promising himself if he ever managed to get away from this pair of misfits, he would make good his promise should he find that the duo had been telling him the truth and Joe had actually given up his life trying to save his older brother.
“Yeah right Cartwright. Ya don’t look to me to be in any position to be makin’ threats,” bragged Hal.
Adam caught a movement from the corner of his eye and what he saw surprised him. Looking down at Hal who stood beneath him, he knew that the man was unaware of the danger that approached him. Adam smiled to himself.
“Hurry up with that branding iron, Jaz,” Hal called over his shoulder. Hal was bent down checking the rawhide strip that held Adam’s legs pinned to the ground.
“You lookin’ for this?”
Hal spun around at the sound of the strange voice, his eyes wide with surprise. He immediately went for his gun but Hoss who held the hot iron in his hand, swung, striking Hal across the left shoulder. Hal screamed in pain as the bone shattered in his arm and as he took a step, he stumbled and fell to his death into the deep crevice below.
Quickly Hoss called out over his shoulder and suddenly the entire area within the cave was filled with men. “Help me get him down, Jake,” ordered Hoss as he wrapped his arms about Adam’s body to keep him from falling as one man cut away the rawhide and Jake lowered the pulley.
Before Adam could even gather his senses enough to ask how his brother had found him, the rope holding his shackled arms and even the shackles themselves had been remove. Hoss gently carried his brother from the cave and placed him tenderly on the ground. Once outside in the bright sun, Adam could see more men. He spotted Roy Coffee; the sheriff was putting handcuffs on Jaz and shoving him toward his horse.
“My shirt, Hoss, get it off,” moaned Adam who had quickly grown nauseous. “Rip it!”
Hoss yanked on the dirty material and gasped when he saw the number of ant bites that covered both the front and back of Adam’s body. Using his hand, Hoss brushed away the ants and when Jake handed him a rag soaked in cool water, Hoss cleaned what he could of the festered flesh.
“Gosh dangit big brother, looks like they was havin’ a picnic,” Hoss smiled down at Adam and helped him into a sitting position.
Adam grabbed for his brother arm, “Hoss, Little Joe…is he…”
“Don’t worry about our little brother, he’s home and he’s fine. If it tweren’t for him, we’d a never found ya. He saved ya life, big brother.” When Hoss grinned, the gap between his front teeth could be seen. Others might think the sight was unattractive, but Adam thought that his brother, Hoss, was the prettiest thing he had seen in days and he reached his aching arms up just enough to rub the balding head of his middle brother.
“Take me home, will ya, you big ox?” Adam closed his eyes but the smile remained on his face.
“How long has he been asleep, Pa?” questioned Adam taking the chair that Ben vacated and offered to him.
“Seems like days, but only a few hours this time,” Ben answered and moved to the opposite side of the bed where he sat down next to his sleeping son.
Adam had been unconscious at the time that Hoss and Jake along with the other men from the ranch had gotten him home. Paul had tended to his wounds and given him medication that had kept him sleeping for several hours. From the moment he had awakened, it had taken all of Ben’s time and know-how to keep his eldest son in bed. Only after a promise from said son that he would return to his bed and remain after being allowed to visit his youngest brother, would Ben relent and allow his stubborn son time with his younger brother.
Adam reached up and brushed at the wayward curls with his bandaged hand. “He needs a hair cut Pa, look at this mop.”
“No I don’t!” whispered Joe softly.
Adam laughed; surprised to see Joe’s eyes had opened Adam ruffled the mass of dark curls. “Hey little buddy, how are you feeling?”
“Adam, I thought you were…I mean…how?” Joe felt his throat grow tight and feared that he might cry. “I didn’t make it back in time…they said they’d kill you if I…”
“Well, apparently that didn’t happen now did it, squirt?” Adam took Joe’s hand in his and smiled at his brother. “You saved my life, kid. Thank you.”
Ben motioned for Hoss and together they eased out of the room, giving Adam and Joe the time they needed to mend their fences. Ben gave one last glance over his shoulder and smiled, his two boys were deep in conversation and though he would never know what words were said, he knew that from this day forward, things would be different between his youngest son and his oldest son.
“I’m sorry Adam, for everything, what I called you, what I thought about you, for letting you down, for….”
“Wait a minute Joe, what do you mean for letting me down? You didn’t let me down, you saved my life, I’ve already told you that,” Adam was confused by his brother’s words.
Joe opened his mouth to explain, but Adam stopped him, “Listen to me Joe, you promised you would get help, you did. That’s all that matters, that and the fact that you’re okay. I was scared, I was afraid that you might not make it, not that I cared whether or not I lived or died; I just wanted to make sure you didn’t die as well. Joe, I want you to know how much you mean to me, I love you kid, do you know that? I never doubted you for a second, you made me a promise and I knew you would keep it.”
The tears slipped slowly down from the hazel eyes that stared at his brother’s face, seeing for the first time in many years, tears slipping from his brother’s eyes as well. Joe reached out his arms and wrapped them about his brother’s neck, Adam folding his own arms about Joe’s smaller frame.
“I love you too Adam, always have, always will. We’re family, no matter what and that means everything to me, that and love,” cried Joe.
“Me too kid, to hell with the rest of the world, I have all I need and all I care about right here on the Ponderosa.” Adam shut his eyes tightly as the pressure of his brother’s arms assured him he was correct and silently he thanked God for his family, their faith in him and in each other and mostly for the love that each of them held in their hearts for the others.
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