Summary: A wayward sailor returns home to find unwanted changes and a daunting challenge.
Rating: K Word Count: 8474
The weary traveler climbed down from the rickety stagecoach and brushed the dust from his clothes. He watched as the driver dropped his bag unceremoniously at his feet before shouting for the team to pull away. What happened to the kindness and wishing of good will that usually ended the journey to these parts, he thought to himself.
He had spent several days riding the dusty roads back to the place he left behind four years ago. The sailor wondered what was more uncomfortable for him: the creaking, swaying stagecoach or the clipper ship that rolled incessantly on the ocean waves.
Now, he faced a major dilemma in his life. A challenge of his own making. How would walk back into the lives of the three men he abandoned years ago? How would he be received after such an abrupt departure from the family he knew loved him dearly? To this day, their faces still haunt his memories like a repetitive nightmare from which there was no waking. The tears and confusion on his youngest brother’s face and the disappointment in the blue eyes of the other made him shudder with remorse. His father’s look of confusion, dismay, then resignation, still remained in his memory, refusing to fade with time. Would they forgive him or did they chose to forget his place in the family? He would soon find out.
Adam Cartwright could not control the thing that drew him home again. A persistent, uneasy feeling of urgency plagued him day and night for weeks until he decided to make the journey. The night before he left, Adam’s dream disturbed his sleep and left him with heightened feelings of concern for Joe. It only took him a few hours to gather his belongings and board a stagecoach headed in the general direction of Virginia City and home the next morning. Something was wrong on the Ponderosa; his heart repeatedly shouted that truth.
It was the nightmare that forced his rapid decision and departure. But, whatever the catalyst, he was at home now, in Virginia City. The ranch was a mere two hours away by horse and he thrilled at the thought of entering the sprawling home he left behind years ago.
The town seemed to bustle with much more energy than when he left. Carriages, wagons, and horses filled the main street that ran the entire length of town. Unfamiliar people nodded at him as he passed on the sidewalk. But even though things had changed so dramatically, one thing remained the same. Tied to the hitching post in front of the bank was the familiar black and white pinto he was accustomed to seeing. His little brother was in town. Adam would encounter the most emotionally unpredictable of the Cartwright clan first and it would be in a few minutes. How would he approach Joe? What would he say? All the plans and conversations he rehearsed on his way from San Francisco felt extraordinarily inadequate now that the time for the inevitable confrontation with this brother was at hand. Adam decided that he would play it by ear and let the discussion take its own path.
The eldest Cartwright son stood across the street from the bank and had made his decision to wait for his brother to leave town before approaching. As Little Joe opened the door, Adam stood straight, waiting until Joe said his farewells. His little brother was no longer the lean kid he left four years ago. He was still the handsome youngster that made women swoon in his wake but there was a seriousness in his demeanor that Adam had not seen often. Joe’s eyes scanned the street around him as though he was searching for something or someone. The typical ease and self-confidence were replaced by tension and alertness. The older brother watched as Joe’s left hand hovered over the gun at his hip, a true sign of danger.
Joe’s saddlebags were full and he carried them close to his side as he walked cautiously to Cochise. Adam watched and wondered what was wrong. Where was the exuberant, active young man he expected to find? The one who would call to friends and neighbors across the street. The last time he saw this Joe Cartwright was when Cochise was stolen two years before he left. This Little Joe was wound as tight as a cougar stalking prey after going hungry for many days.
This was the stance that Adam recognized as dangerous, edgy, and more apt to shoot a man than ask questions. Adam knew he would have to approach his brother in a manner that would keep him from drawing the lethal weapon he wore slung low across narrow hips. He had witnessed the skill and deadly accuracy on many occasions and as tight as Joe was right now, he could very easily take the life of someone who made the mistake of startling him. Adam knew this Joe; the one he did not want to cross. The one with the solid left hook that could lay a man out in one blow.
Adam thought he knew him, but did not comprehend his lack of knowledge about this version of his brother. This Joe, at twenty-two years old, is the one with a quicksilver temper, fast on the draw, sharp with the tongue, and stronger than his slim, boyish appearance presented. This Joe, with the hat pulled low, wearing visible tension and tight shoulders, was only seen when there were major troubles with the family. This one, Adam Cartwright did not know as Joe grew to be a strong, confident man in the absence of his oldest brother.
Adam continued to watch the young man from across the street. Joe did not use his usual swing mount, but a more serious, slow slide into the saddle. The black and white pinto responded to his master’s directions quickly but also showed the agitation that Joe telegraphed. Cochise danced around a bit, taking two side steps before settling down; his animalistic response to his rider’s emotional state.
Adam watched quietly as horse and rider took the customary way out of town and toward the ranch. He strode quickly to the livery where he’d find a horse to take him to the home he had known for many years. In a manner of minutes, Adam was following Joe down the road that led to the Ponderosa.
The scenery was the same. Tall, majestic ponderosa pines lined the road as though providing a protective shelter for any traveler. Adam remembered the days he, Hoss and his father cleared the road to make it easier to reach town. He paused a moment to take in the beauty of this place and reminiscence about the good old days. Adam’s mind took him back over the years to days when he’d follow silently behind Joe to make sure he was safe. He and Hoss traversed this road days and nights, in silence or brotherly conversations. To placate their anxious father. How he missed those days.
Suddenly, Adam Cartwright realized that he was excited to be back in the place he knew so well. The place that held so many pleasant memories. “What on earth was I looking for that I couldn’t find right here?” he thought silently to himself. Adam’s solitary musing was disturbed by the click of the hammer and he could only shake his head and smile to himself. Joe had learned well.
“O.K. mister, you’ve been tailing me since I left town. Drop you gun with your left hand and get off that horse,” Joe said as he held his gun on the strange man. “No false moves and I promise not to send you to meet your maker.”
Adam quickly raised his hands to indicate submission. “I don’t want any trouble partner. I’m just trying to get home,” Adam said as he attempted to disguise his voice to surprise his brother when he turned around.
“Well sir, you’re just plain outta luck because no one lives on this ranch but my pa, my brother, and me. Turn around, now!” Joe’s anxiety level was extremely high at this point. He was not trusting this stranger who followed him from town. He was not going to let him go any further.
“I’m going to do as you say. So be careful with that sidearm you’re holding on me. We don’t want any accidents,” Adam said knowing that Joe was extremely tense and would fire the gun with deadly accuracy.
He slowly turned around and faced his youngest brother. “O.K. little buddy, you got the drop on me this time,” he said smiling widely.
Joe just stared. He did not move or say anything, he just stared. The pearl-handled revolver shook slightly as uncontrollable tremors made their presence known.
“Well, aren’t you going to say something?” Adam asked, not sure if his brother recognized him. It was at this point that Adam really looked closely at the young man in front of him. Joe was thin, pale, and dark circles that indicated a lack of sleep were prominent around his eyes.
“Adam, is that really you?” Joe asked refusing to believe that his brother was home. “Why are you here? Where did you come from? How did you know I needed you so badly?” Joe asked as he slowly lowered the gun. He nearly collapsed save for Adam’s quick movement.
“Hey, hey. What’s the matter now? I’m here, Joe. What’s wrong?” Adam asked as he leaned his brother against a boulder near the road. The midsummer afternoon was warm, therefore, the shuddering Adam felt coursing through Joe’s arms were not from being cold. Beneath the confidence the young man displayed, rested a nervousness that affected him completely. Adam knew that something was terribly wrong and he was anxious to find out what was going on. He waited quietly for Joe to say something to explain his current condition.
The young man just looked at his brother again and Adam recognized the same eyes he saw when this one was but a lad. The eyes that usually screamed for comfort and reassurance when things were amiss, told a different story this time. Those eyes now screamed “I’m exhausted, I am worried and afraid, but I can’t surrender to weakness.” Adam knew that first he had to get Joe to ease up a bit, then find out what was going on.
“Joe,” Adam whispered then embraced his brother. Joe stiffened as his brother hugged him closely and drew away. Looking around cautiously, Joe nodded his acceptance of his Adam’s affection and turned in the direction of the ranch house.
“Let’s go home and then you can tell me what’s going on here,” Adam said as he released his hold on his brother. “Where’d you leave Cochise?”
“He’s right here,” Little Joe gave a quick whistle and the pinto came immediately.
“Still the most obedient animal I have ever seen. It has always amazed me how you trained this horse,” Adam replied as he watched the pinto lay his head over Joe’s shoulder.
“We need to get home as soon as we can,” Joe responded. Again, Adam noticed the nervous glances and the hand hovering near the sidearm.
“Let’s go, then,” Adam said.
The brothers rode quickly toward home without exchanging another word. Adam was lost in thought again as his heart felt the joy of being in the saddle and on his way to the ranch that he loved so much. He watched as the sun descended and began to settle behind the trees signaling that nightfall was not far off.
Joe was very wary of his surroundings and responded to nearly every rustle in the grass beside the road or jerked his head up when birds flew from the trees. Adam could not wait to get to the ranch house so he forced his mount into a gallop, hoping that Joe would follow suit. He did and the brothers arrived at the barn as the sun set in a blaze of golds and reds.
Joe cautiously opened the barn door, stood aside, listened, and waited. Adam watched, puzzled, as his brother drew his weapon before entering the darkened building. He observed Joe’s visual sweep of the barn before he finally returned the revolver to his holster with a spinning flourish.
Lighting the lantern that remained in its usual place, Adam observed the shadows that danced in the corners, giving everyday objects a startling appearance, including two empty stalls. Gone was the familiar: two horses were missing from their typical location.
Joe quickly took care of Cochise, as usual, brushing the animal and giving him the necessary feed and water. Adam watched as his brother worked quietly then lifted the saddlebag that he had lain in the stall.
“Let’s go, Adam. We need to get this inside,” Joe said taking his brother by the arm. He hurried across the yard to the house, unlocking the door from the outside. Again, the heightened level of concern was punctuated by the locked door.
The house was dark and cold. The warm lights that normally lit the windows in the late evening were not burning. Adam was not greeted by the wood pile that usually stood on the porch, only a small pile of kindling. At this hour, Hop Sing should be bustling about the kitchen and the odor of a wonderful meal should permeate the air. But, gone was the familiar, replaced by an atmosphere so foreign to this home that Adam began to understand the depth of the problem with which Joe wrestled. What has happened to everyone? Has Joe been living alone? Adam recognized that Joe was fending for himself and that may explain the lack of sleep and restlessness he saw in his brother’s demeanor.
As soon as the door closed, and Joe turned up a light, Adam pulled his brother to him. “O.K., this house is completely empty and cold. Where is everyone? I want you to tell me now.”
“Oh, you just walk back into my life after leaving me for four years and you’re already giving me orders! I, big brother, learned a lot since you’ve been gone. I’ve learned that I can take care of myself and I manage quite well. I also learned that I don’t need anyone to stay around and baby me so don’t you start,” Joe replied angrily. “This is what we’re going to do. First we light the lamps in here so that we can see each other. Then I’m going to find something edible. After I finish eating, then I’ll tell you what’s going on.” Joe replied pulling his arm away.
Adam just stood staring at the young man before him, looking like a smaller version of his father; someone in control of a difficult situation. He stood in awe of the man who had become self-reliant, self-sufficient, and self-assured.
“I’m sorry. You’re right, Joe. It’s just that I see that you are alone here and I don’t understand how or why Pa, Hoss, and Hop Sing have all left you. I’m confused because I see you in control one minute, upset and shivering the next, and then angry and demanding. I just need to know what is going on and where everybody has gone,” Adam said raising his hands in a submissive gesture. “I have had nightmares about you for the past three weeks and I need answers.”
“Big Brother, I am tired and hungry. And before I take care of what you need to know, I’m going to take care of my belly. If you got off the stage this afternoon, your belly ain’t too full either. Let’s go to the kitchen,” Joe shot over his shoulder as he headed for Hop Sing’s workspace. Adam followed quietly.
Joe quickly prepared a meal of bacon, eggs, and beans. The older brother watched the younger when he was not looking and noted the exhaustion etched on his face. The eyelids that were closing even as he finished his meal told Adam that he needed to get Joe talking before he fell asleep.
“Joe, are you ready to explain to me what’s going on? You’re kinda worrying me, little buddy.”
“First, stop it with the little buddy. Yes, I guess now is just as good a time as any,” Joe responded. He closed his eyes and dropped his head in his hands and the memories can quickly to mind. The images of his father and brother bound and gagged still haunted him in his sleep, causing nightmares that no one heard or saw.
“Six weeks ago, Pa, Hoss, and I were ambushed on our way home from Carson City. Eight men followed us and before we knew what was happening, they had us surrounded. We fought as hard as we could. There were three men on Hoss and two each on Pa and me. God, how we fought. The last thing I remember was seeing Hoss and Pa tied and yelling for me to run. I couldn’t run, Adam. I couldn’t breathe; every inch of my body hurt. I didn’t think they would ever stop kicking me and then I guess I blacked out,” Joe said.
Adam watched his face change as Joe remembered the beating he suffered. The fear for his pa and brother played out across his features and ended with Joe standing abruptly and leaving the table.
Joe walked slowly to the living room and began pacing the floor in front of the fireplace, recalling that Pa would have a roaring fire going by now. He sat down on the settee and continued with his story. “When I came to it was dark and stormy. Rain was coming down in sheets and my head throbbed to my heartbeat. Lightning flashed so bright, I could see the whole forest every time. I didn’t know where Pa and Hoss were, those fellas had run Cochise off, I was hurting all over, blood mixed with rain ran in my eyes, the storm raged all around me and I had no way home. Adam, I don’t even know how or when I got here. I just woke up face down in the front yard with rain pounding on my back. One of the hands found me and got me inside. The doctor and Sheriff Coffee came and a posse went out searching, but they didn’t find anything. My injuries kept me in bed for two weeks while the trail grew cold. The posse searched for a few days, then went home. Paul threatened to tie me to the bed if I tried to get up and go search myself. I was hurt pretty bad with a concussion, four fractured ribs and bruises all over me.”
Adam could only sit quietly and listen as Joe told the story in a disjointed rambling fashion. He knew that any minute now Little Joe would shut down and cease talking. His brother had a knack for holding everything inside until he could hold it no longer and it would come rushing forth in a stream of ceaseless nightmares, tension, and displays of temper. So he sat and listened, watching this man who was once a young lad full of vim and vigor. Now, he stood before his older brother explaining what must be the most excruciating time in his life.
“Joe, where’s Hop Sing? Who’s been cooking for you?” Adam asked not really wanting to hear the answer.
“I sent him with the cattle drive. The cook backed out and I figured the hands would need him worse than I would. At least I could get to town and find a meal or two.”
“From the way you look right now, you haven’t been eating much at all.”
“I spent most of my time looking for my family. Food was the last thing on my mind. Adam, Pa sent me this note from the kidnappers. It’s written in Pa’s hand and it demands $50,000 for their release. It was tacked to the fence post at the corral three days ago. I’ve read it over and over again, because I think there’s more here. I think Pa is trying to tell me where they are.”
Joe handed Adam the note and he looked longingly at the familiar hand. He did see Joe’s point, the language used was not as his pa would have said it. “Joe, do you think Pa is saying that they’re being held in the draw on the west end of the ranch?”
“Exactly! So you saw it, too!” Joe exclaimed as he looked proudly at his brother. “Now that you’re here, I have someone I can trust to be careful. The note says that I’m to bring the money to the clearing east of the draw. Adam, if you could wait somewhere in the west, you may be able to follow him back and get more information. We may be able to find out exactly where Pa and Hoss are and how many men are holding them,” Joe said in one breath. “We can start out early in the morning. You leave before the sun is up to keep from running into one of them. If you take the north pass, it will drop you off right where Pa and Hoss may be,” Joe said explaining his idea for rescuing his family members.
“It seems to me that you’ve been doing quite a bit of planning, Joe. If we’re going to pull this off at the crack of dawn tomorrow, I suggest we get some sleep. The ride from San Francisco was a difficult one and now this drama. I really could use some rest.”
“Adam, you go on up. I’ll secure things around here then I’ll follow,” Joe said with a yawn that indicated his level of exhaustion.
“No, you go to bed, Joe. You’ve looked like you were tuckered out since I laid eyes on you in town. You go to sleep now and I’ll lock up.”
Joe did not argue the point further. The stress and strain of the past few days began to take its toll on him. Running the ranch without Hoss or Pa to help was a difficult chore to say the least. Healing from his injuries, nightmares, and not knowing about his family had made resting impossible. Now with Adam home he could feel every twinge of exhaustion that coursed through his body. Joe looked silently in his brother’s eyes as if searing that image into his brain.
“Is there something wrong, Joe?” Adam asked as he stepped nearer to the exhausted young man before him. He wanted to reach out and draw his little brother closer, but restrained himself, not knowing what the reaction would be.
“I’m just trying to make sure you’re real and that I’m not just dreaming,” Joe answered and leaned against the settee. How did you know I needed . . . .” he said before the tears began.
Adam understood the clues from years ago, when this young man was just a boy, needing the touch and reassurance of his family. With two quick steps, Adam closed the distance between them and carefully pulled his brother into his arms where Joe leaned into his brother for support. All the pain and fear that he had been enduring alone in this huge house weighed heavy on his shoulder and Joe readily gave Adam some of the tension.
“I’m here and together we’ll work this all out. We’ll have Pa and Hoss home soon and everything will be fine,” Adam whispered. All was quiet in the house save the soft whispering of the older brother to the younger who so needed the support he was receiving.
Joe inhaled deeply as he regained control of the emotions he had held at bay for weeks. He looked shyly at Adam, not knowing what he would find in the dark eyes that usually held tight rein on his emotions. All he found there was love, compassion, and understanding. His big brother knew the pain Joe was feeling and with his eyes, let the younger man know that it was okay to release what he held in check.
“I think I’d better turn in now. We’ll want a good start in the morning. Good night Adam, and welcome home,” Joe said turning toward the stairs. He dropped his head low and rubbed the remaining tears from his eyes. “I don’t know what brought you home, but I’m glad you’re here.”
“Good night, Joe,” Adam responded quietly. He watched the too slim figure take the stairs to his room as he did so many years ago; then a boy, now a man.
Adam turned down the lamps in the room and stood looking at the familiar sight. He strolled slowly across the room to his father’s desk and slowly lifted each of the gold-framed images of the Cartwright mothers. He lingered over the image of Elizabeth, brushing a thumb across the picture he knew so well.
“I’m home, Mama,” Adam whispered. “I should have never left here. I need my family more than I thought. I’ll never leave again.” Adam sat the framed picture on the corner of the desk and took the stairs to his room.
Joe’s room was at the end of the hall, nearest the window. Adam smiled as he remembered the times he watched Joe climb deftly out the window or back in when he returned late in the evening. Adam opened the door to his room, finding it exactly as he left it. Moving inside, he slide his fingers across the aged desk, touched his pencils and instruments and the chair where he had spent meaning snowy, winter evenings. Forcing the tears away, Adam shed his clothes and reclined on the bed that felt as if he had slept there last night. With a deep sigh, he gave in to the rest his body needed.
The night was shattered by a scream from Joe’s room. Adam, not accustomed to fearful voices in the night responded quickly, hurrying to his brother’s room. It was all too familiar and he had no trouble finding his way there in the dark. He found his brother, sweating profusely, engaged in battle with an unseen enemy. Joe cried out for his pa in the darkness and Adam knew that he was reliving the day his father and brother were taken.
“Joe, come on buddy, wake up,” Adam said as he took his younger brother by the shoulders. “You’re home and everything is going to be fine.”
Joe continued to struggle against his brother, still under the control of the nightmare that had plagued his mind since the abduction. His cries for his pa were heartrending and Adam could only call Joe’s name as he tried to break through the darkness that currently controlled his brother’s mind.
Finally, hazel eyes opened but were unfocused and confused. Joe continue to fight, swatting Adam’s face and shoulders with errant punches that held little power. He then fell exhausted on the pillows and lay as if asleep. Adam, watched the scene before him, quietly gathered his brother in his arms as he had done so many years ago. Joe, finally aware of what was happening, stiffened and lay back on the pillows. Adam sat staring at the face of a child attached to a man’s body. He rubbed the sore spots on his arms where he took the beating from his brother and wondered if Joe experienced this same nightmare when no one was here for him.
“My God, what have you been through, little buddy. All alone in this, with no one to even cook for you?” Adam said as he looked down at his brother.
“It has been hell, Adam,” Joe said quietly. “It’s been pure hell.”
Dawn found the two Cartwright brothers attempting to finish a hastily prepared breakfast that Adam worked up in the kitchen. It was meager fare, as both men were wound tightly as they prepared to pay to ransom their father and middle brother.
“I think its time that you go, Adam. I’ll take the money to the drop and you be ready to follow,” Joe said as headed for the credenza to get his gun belt, jacket, and hat. “I’ll go saddle the horses and be ready as quickly as I can,” Joe said as he opened the door. There, tied to the hitching post near the front porch, were Sport and Concho.
“I took care of that a while ago. I thought I could let you get a couple hours of sleep before we took off. I also took the liberty of selecting a mount that you could conceal easier that Cochise,” Adam said as he cinched his holster to his right knee. “I’ll leave now and you follow when you feel the time is right,” Adam whispered as he rubbed Joe’s back. “Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine. We’ll get through this together.”
Adam watched as Joe’s hand danced above the Colt secured in the leather holster and realized how important his presence was right now. Had he not returned home, Joe would have to deal with this alone, possibly walking into a trap that could cost him his life. He handed Joe his hat and left the house quietly. Walking Sport slowly across the yard, he mounted up just beyond the barn and rode off into the waning darkness.
Standing in the yard alone, Joe solidified the idea in his mind that he would be bring Pa and Hoss home tonight. This would end in a few hours and he could reunite his family. One final piece of the plan required the hastily scribbled note in his pocket. Going to the barn, Joe attached the envelope to the saddle of the horse Adam rode home from town last night. Before he turned off the rode to head west, he would release the animal, who would head to town and the stable where he lived. The note would alert Roy Coffee and Dr. Martin, informing them of where the posse would find his family. The note requested help to prepare the house for their return. Joe would not accept failure.
Distracted by the pine trees soaring above him, Adam continued on his way as memories rushed through his mind. The forest had changed in many ways over the four years he was away, but it was still the same. The fragrance of pine and damp earth returned him to nights beneath the stars and dew covered blankets in the morning. The sounds of the creatures returning from their nightly forage or waking to begin their day’s activities were pleasant reminders of why he so loved this place.
But, today, he was about very serious business that would force him to put his memories to rest. For now, he had to get settled in an undetectable spot to wait for Joe and the kidnapper to arrive. Adam swung gently from his horse, tethered Sport within a copse of trees and continued on foot. His training from years ago quickly came back to him as he walked gingerly through the brush without disturbing the forest floor. He did not want to leave any indication that humans had been in the area to avoid alerting the recipient of that large sum of money. Finally reaching his location, he settled into an area concealed by heavy brush and began his wait.
Joe held Concho to a slow trot as he approached the road to Virginia City. Slapping the extra horse on the rump, he watched as the animal thundered his way to town, delivering the message. Joe turned Concho west and headed to the drop.
The saddlebags were heavy as they lay across his lap, as heavy as the burden he carried in his heart. Joe was not sure if Pa and Hoss were even alive at this point as the kidnappers did not bring evidence one way or the other. He did not feel the massive sense of loss that he knew would come should his family members be killed, so Little Joe believed that they were still alive.
Joe knew the area well and arrived there without trouble. The small clearing was concealed from the well-traveled road by tall pine trees. He listened attentively for signs of movement. Animals scurrying about, the gentle sway of trees and underbrush were comforting to him. Finding a seat beneath a towering pine, Joe allowed his mind to play out different ways the day would end. He wondered if the courier would arrive alone or would he be surrounded by the men who now held his father and brother. This major uncertainty left him feeling vulnerable, even though he knew Adam was somewhere watching the events unfold.
A rustle behind him alerted Joe to the arrival of the man who would take the money. Joe immediately touched the gun secured to his thigh and received a loud admonishment for his actions.
“Don’t reach for that gun, Cartwright, or the crows will have what’s left of ya,” said the courier.
Joe did not recognize the voice but began focusing on where the sound came from. He raised his hands slightly. “I’m not interested in shooting you right now. That’ll have to wait. I just want my Pa and brother returned to me.”
“Well, give me the money you’re supposed to bring and we’ll just see about that,” came the reply.
“Come on, now. I’ve done everything you asked me. Now hold up your side of the deal and let my family go,” Joe said as the sound of irritation and frustration found their way into his voice. He was speaking through clenched teeth in an attempt to control the anger that was building inside of him.
”You gotta remember, boy. That you and your rich pa ain’t in control of this situation. Me and my boys are. We got you high and mighty Cartwrights right where we want you. How does it feel to grovel, to beg for what rightfully belongs to you? Huh, boy!” With that, he slapped Joe across the face, splitting his lip and causing blood to slowly roll down his chin. Joe inhaled sharply and waited for the next blow.
“I could just give you the lickin’ I’d like to right now, but I ain’t got the time. You’ll get your pa and brother back tomorrow as soon as I’m ready.”
“No, you promised that you’d let them go if I got you the money!” Joe shouted. He knew all along that this would happen and he had to convince this man that he was afraid and unsure of himself to avoid revealing the threat he represented. Joe could not let on that Adam was nearby, watching and waiting.
The man walked up to Joe and gut punched him without warning. Joe’s knees buckled under the assault. When he went down the man continued to batter his body with one kick after the other. “See if you can follow me now, Little Joe.” He spat as he stepped over the injured man and went to his horse. Joe just lay there, feeling every blow he received from the man holding his family.
Adam watched from the forest as the scene played out in front of him. He could not go to Joe’s rescue without jeopardizing the plan. All he could do was watch the man beat his brother senseless. Adam could feel each blow Joe received. It was like so many years ago when Joe was younger, smaller, and much more vulnerable to assault and injury. Adam was angered by each bruise, cut, or scrape someone inflicted upon this man whom he had protected for years. It’s the same now, the anger, the mental vow of revenge and the desire to destroy anything that caused harm to his brother. Adam held it all at bay to find the answers to his family’s whereabouts. But he would make this man who injured Joe pay for every blow, every bruise on his face, and every kick he received. “I’ll wait,” Adam thought. “I’ll wait until the time is right and you will pay.” Leaning quietly in the shade of the shrubbery native to the area, Adam watched and developed a plan of action.
Adam waited until he was sure the man had left the area and ran to Joe’s side. “Joe, come on buddy. Speak to me, I need for you to wake up.” Adam said gently shaking Joe’s head.
The sound of Adam’s voice pulled Joe from the darkness into a world of pain. “Ummmm, . . . “ Joe bit his lip to control the discomfort that surged through his body. He could feel the bruises that were forming on his chest and belly. He knew he could not surrender; his pa and brother’s lives depended on his actions.
“Let’s go, Adam. If we hurry, we can catch them.”
“No, brother. You need to stay right here,” Adam said gently pushing Joe’s shoulders down. “You’re not going anywhere. Just lay here and catch your breath and I’ll go track these guys down.”
“You’ll need help, Adam. There’s more than one of them and who knows how many are with Pa and Hoss,” Joe said biting back the pain that coursed through his belly and chest.
“Help me up, I can ride.”
Joe began pushing himself off the ground and Adam realized that he couldn’t very well leave his brother lying here, alone and injured, so he helped Joe to his feet. Wrapping his arm around his brother’s thin waist, Adam led him to Concho and began helping Joe mount the horse. The pain of movement was too much for Joe and he lost the meager breakfast he ate before leaving the ranch house earlier. Adam could only watch Joe wretch and held out a canteen when he was finished.
Reaching for the saddle horn, Joe held on so that he could convince Adam that he could travel. He painfully managed to pull himself into the saddle and turned Concho to leave the clearing. The brothers quietly moved their animals through the forest and tracked the courier for over an hour. Looking over his shoulder, Adam could see Joe sitting straighter in the saddle, indicating that he had gotten a handle on the pain.
“Adam, look!” Joe said pointing to smoke in the distance. “Do you think it’s a cabin?”
“I don’t know, Joe. It could be. Can you walk?”
“Yea, I can make it if you help me down,” came the reply from Joe. He gritted his teeth as the fractured ribs made contact. Joe’s face blanched white as the pain rolled across his chest and the ground tilted upward.
“Easy now. Just stand here for a minute to get your balance and we’ll see what’s here,” Adam said leaning Joe against the big, sturdy quarter horse. He watched as Joe’s breathing slowed to normal and he was no longer grimacing in pain. Flashes of color returned to his cheeks as his breathing evened out and became steady.
“I’m ready, let’s go,” Joe said after resting for a few minutes. “I want Pa and Hoss home tonight.”
“Yea, little brother, me too.”
Adam led the way through the thicket and brush until they could see a small cabin in the clearing. In front, tied to the hitching post, was the courier’s horse, along with three others.
“How many did you say attacked you?” Adam asked in a hushed voice.
“I counted about eight. With only four horses here, the others may be out somewhere,” Joe said as he held an arm over the throbbing pain in his belly. Adam silently took note of Joe’s movement, cataloging his injuries in his head.
“You stay put, I’m going to move around and see what’s happening.”
Joe watched his brother creep silently to the side of the cabin. He peered into the window, then slide along the wall to the rear of the building. With Adam out of sight, all Joe could do was sit and wait for him to return with a plan.
A sound behind him caused Joe to turn abruptly and reach for his gun. Too late. The courier and another man were on him before Joe pulled his gun from the holster. The battle ensued as Joe tried to defend himself against his attackers.
Adam saw the commotion, but continued his movement toward the cabin’s front door. Two men were with Joe, leaving only two for him to handle. Kicking the door open, Adam recoiled as gun shots rang out from within the room. Rolling on the floor, Adam fired two shots in succession, injuring one man. He continued advancing into the room while bullets sang over his head. Adam recognized the sound of an empty gun and turned and fire again, killing the second man.
From behind him, Adam watched as a door exploded into the room and his brother Hoss barreled through the shattered opening. Hoss’ blue eyes were squinted, revealing pure anger as he advanced.
“Now, I’ve had about enough of this. Me and my pa are leaving here right now and you’d best step aside. I think my little brother’s out there in them woods and I aim to go to him.”
“Let’s go then, Hoss. Joe needs our help,” Adam said grabbing his brother by the arm.
“Adam is that you?” Hoss asked.
“Yes, it’s me. We’ll talk later. Pa,” Adam said nodding at his father.
“Let’s get to Joe. The last time I saw him he was fighting two men,” Adam said.
Two shots rang out in the distance and Ben and Hoss followed Adam to where he last saw Joe. They watched as one man stumbled from the stand of trees to their left.
“Joe, you all right?” Adam shouted. The three men ran to the copse of trees in front of the cabin, in search of their youngest.
“Joseph?” Ben shouted as he entered the area. They found Joe leaning against a tree, his silver handled revolver emitting a trail of smoke and a dead man at his feet.
“Pa, is that you?” Joe asked breathlessly. “You’re all right. Where’s Hoss?”
“I’m here, Joe and Pa’s fine. We both are. You take it easy and we’ll get us outta here,” Hoss answered. “Pa, I’ve had about enough of this and now with Joe here needing a doctor, I’m about to end this,” he said. Hoss picked up an unneeded gun and prepared to leave the protective shelter of trees.
“Hoss, take it easy and let’s find a way out of here. We have Joe now and we know he’s all right. We can’t afford another injured man,” Ben answered his son.
“He’s here, Pa. He’s out there to . . . .” Joe said, not realizing Adam was within arm’s reach. His comments were interrupted by a barrage of gun fire that sounded just beyond the stand of trees. Bullets pinged off the branches and sliced through the underbrush surrounding the four men. Ben laid down across his injured son, preventing Joe from rising and shielding him from further injury.
Muffled screams of pain sounded as gunfire came from another area. Ben knew that their captors were being killed or injured one at a time by someone. And then, silence. Gone was the repetitious sound of gunfire, screams, and swearing, replaced by the noise of horses’ hooves pounding on the hard, packed soil.
“Ben, are you and the boys all right?” came the familiar voice of Roy Coffee. Ben pulled his youngest into his arms and held him close.
“We’re fine, Roy. Joe’s a little banged up, but he’s fine,” Ben said clinging to the son he was told was dead.
“Let’s go, Pa. Let me have Joe,” Hoss said.
“No, little brother. Let me have him,” Adam said.
“Adam, I don’t know where you came from or why, but I’m glad to see you.” Hoss said. He could not believe that this brother who left years ago was here at the time the family needed him most.
“Pa, you look worn out,” he added with an uncomfortable smile. He was still not sure of how he would be received, but at this point he didn’t care. “You’ve had a pretty rough go of it, I see.”
“Adam, where did you come from?” Ben said pulling his eldest into his arms. He pushed Adam away and took a long look. “Help me with your brother, son,” Ben said.
“I don’t need to be carried anywhere. Just get me outta here,” Joe said. “Give me a hand and I’ll be fine.” The youngest Cartwright gained his feet, with the help of his brothers. Leaving the secluded grove of trees, Joe noticed that death had claimed three of the eight men while three would soon follow. Turning his head away, Joe leaned heavily on Hoss’ arm and received the support he needed.
“Let’s get you home, Punkin. All this nonsense is over,” Hoss said. “And Adam’s home to boot.”
“He is home for now at least,” Joe said wearily.
“I am home forever. I will never leave here again. I don’t know why I left to start with,” Adam said quietly and squeezed Joe’s slim waist. “What I need is here and I’ve roamed the world trying to find something I already had.”
“I’m glad to hear that, son. Now, let’s get home. We all need a hot bath, a warm meal, and a soft bed,” Ben said as he squeezed Adam’s shoulder tightly. “I’m pleased that you’ve found the truth you sought.”
“Then, I’m welcome to come home? Is it that easy?” Adam asked. He felt the weight of his brother lifted from his arm as Hoss took full charge of Joe. He turned to face his father, finding peace and solace in the dark brown eyes.
“Yes, Adam. Why did you think it would be difficult? This is your home. What, did you think you would not be welcomed with open arms?” Ben asked incredulously.
“I thought it would be more difficult than this. Thank you, Pa. I’m glad to be home.”
Ben and his sons took their time riding home. Joe was injured and the extent of the damage revealed itself with every mile they covered. Low moans became constant and louder the longer they travelled. Joe’s head finally slumped forward, placing all his weight on his father’s arms. He gave in to the darkness that danced around the edges of his vision.
Finally, the ranch house appeared in the distance. Lights shone unexpectedly from the windows, including Joe’s room in the upstairs. Someone was there awaiting their return. The glow from the house was a welcoming sight and Adam Cartwright paused to drink in the view, while his family continued down the path that led them to the peace and safety of home.
Entering the house, Adam found Dr. Paul Martin assisting with his youngest brother. He listened and smiled as Joe insisted that he was fine and did not need to see the doctor. Things had changed quite a bit while he was away but somethings would never change, Adam thought.
He watched as Hoss came back down the stairs, each step groaning under the weight of the big man, but remaining strong and steadfast.
“Pa will stay with Joe and get him settled after doc is done. Where did you come from, Adam? Don’t get me wrong, I am sure glad to see ya.”
“I got here yesterday when Joe was picking up the ransom money. He told me what was going on and he had already thought through a plan to rescue the two of you. It worked, except Joe getting pounded. Somehow, Roy and a posse found out where we were and gave us a helping hand.”
“Paul said Joe sent a note to the livery on the horse you rented. Roy rounded up a posse and sent Doc out this way to wait for us to come home.”
“Great idea on his part,” Adam said smiling at Joe’s thoughtfulness. “Conniving little rascal.”
“So, are you home for good this time? I’m not about to let you play with Joe’s emotions. Your leaving four years ago nearly destroyed him and it ain’t happenin’ again. Me and Pa had a hard time piecing him back together that first year. You’re either here to stay or I expect you to be gone before sunset tomorrow,” Hoss said as he folded his arms across his chest.
“I’m not going anywhere. I was a fool to leave when I did. Roaming the world looking for what I left behind.”
“That’s what I thought, too. You being all educated and all.”
I think you may want to hit the tub before Pa comes downstairs, Hoss. I know he’s gonna want a good long soak as soon as he can get one,” Adam said. “And you’re really in need of that tub, little brother.”
“All right. I’m glad you’re home, Adam. Things just weren’t the same without you around here,” Hoss said drawing Adam into a brief embrace. “I’ll get to my bath now.”
“Hoss, is it that easy? Returning home after leaving like I did. Joe and Pa were . . . . I mean, it’s a lot less painful than I thought.”
“What did you think, Adam? That I would pound you the next time I saw you? I can do that you if you want me to. I still got enough left in me to do a pretty good job,” Hoss said pushing up his sleeves.
“No, you big galoot. Thank you for making it easy for me. I thought it would hurt more than this,” Adam said. “I was prepared for the anger, the pain, the lack of trust.”
“Adam, we cried that all out the first year you were gone. Pa, Joe and me, worked it out and just waited for you to come to your senses. Let me get cleaned up.”
The eldest Cartwright son walked slowly to the blue, high-backed chair and took a seat. His feet automatically found purchase on the heavy wood table in front of the settee. Leaning back, Adam listened to the crackling fire and settled into the familiar comfort of his chair. He felt as if he’d never left home. As he began to relax and drift off to sleep, a familiar voice boomed through the room, startling him to full wakefulness.
“Adam, take your feet off the table!” Ben said smiling.
“Yes sir, Pa. Yes, sir. It is good to be home,” Adam said smiling. “It is good to be home.”
Tags: Angst, Family, kidnap
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