Summary: What happens when someone comes looking for revenge?
Rated: K+ (17,610 words)
A Kind Of Wild Justice
Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.
FRANCIS BACON ‘Of Revenge’ 1625
“I’m sorry I can’t help you Mister Bennett,” Ben Cartwright said to the tall, dark haired man who stood in the doorway of the ranch. “But we’re not hiring anyone at present.”
“It was worth a try anyway,” disappointment evident on his face, Bennett turned to leave then glanced back. “If you do find yourself in need of any extra hands, you can contact me at Mrs. Morison’s in Virginia City.”
“I don’t think I’ll be needing anyone for some time,” Ben told him. “But I’ll keep you in mind if anything does come up.”
Bidding farewell to the man, Ben watched as he mounted his horse and rode away. ‘Must be pretty desperate for a job’, he thought. ‘Making the long trip out here from Virginia City to see if the Ponderosa was in need of any extra help. It’s a shame to turn away someone eager to work, and he seems a well-educated man, but the ranch has plenty of hands at the moment and I really can’t justify taking on any more.’
Closing the door firmly, he returned to his bookkeeping, dismissing Bennett from his thoughts.
“Hey Joe,” Adam Cartwright called across to his younger brother. “Time for lunch.”
Putting down the spade he had been using to dig holes for the fence posts in the sun baked ground, Joe straightened up and stretched, then ambled across to join Adam in the shade. Flinging himself down beside his eldest brother he reached for a sandwich. “Sure is hot today,” he observed, aware of his shirt clinging uncomfortably to his sweat soaked back. “I’ll be glad to get finished with this and head for home.”
“I think we should be done in an hour or so,” Adam drank deeply from his canteen. The water was tepid from the heat of the day, and he grimaced at its unpleasant taste, but at least it slaked his thirst.
“Going into town tonight?” Joe took a bite of the food and chewed appreciatively. Hop Sing’s fresh baked bread and spiced beef made a tasty meal. “There’s supposed to be a big poker game on at the Silver Dollar.”
“I was planning on staying home,” Adam told him as he finished the last morsel of his sandwich and decided it was just too hot to eat any more. “I’ve got to make an early start in the morning remember?”
Joe picked up his own canteen and twisted off the lid, pouring a little of the water into his hand and rubbing his face with it, in a futile attempt to cool off. “I’d forgotten about that trip to Hawthorne.”
“I’d advise you to forget about the poker game as well. You’re still in trouble with Pa for losing all that money last time you played.”
“It was my money” Joe said heatedly. “I still say I should be able to do what I like with it.”
“It’s far too hot for arguing Joe,” Adam lay back on the dusty grass and closed his eyes wearily. “If you want to get yourself in more trouble then that’s up to you,” he reached up and pulled his hat down over his face. “Wake me up when you finish lunch.”
Joe finished his sandwich and unwrapped the apple pie that Hop Sing had packed. He settled back against the rough bark of the tree and ate in silence, his thoughts on the poker game. He hadn’t really intended to play, still recalling only too well the long lecture he had received from his father last month, when he lost almost his entire wages on the game.
Joe still felt a slight resentment at Ben’s attitude. After all, as he had just pointed out to Adam, it was his own money he had gambled with, and he was eighteen, surely old enough to decide how to spend it. A movement in the distance caught his attention. A rider was approaching and, idly wondering who it was, Joe crammed the last of the pastry into his mouth. Immediately, he felt a movement against his tongue – there must have been an insect on the piece of pie. Frantically, he tried to get the creature out but when he felt the sharp sting right at the back of his throat he knew it was too late.
“Adam!” the panic in his younger brother’s voice brought Adam instantly awake. He pushed his hat off his face and looked up at Joe, seeing the fear in the young man’s eyes.
“What happened?” Adam sat up quickly.
“A bee, it stung the back of my throat,” Joe’s hands circled his neck. He could feel the delicate tissue at the back of his mouth beginning to swell. Breathing already becoming difficult.
“Keep calm,” Adam instructed, reaching for the canteen. “And drink this,” his heart began to thump painfully, his mouth grew dry with fear. He could see Joe’s struggle for breath as the swelling began to obstruct his airway.
“Adam, can’t…breathe…I can’t…” choking, terror apparent in his eyes, Joe’s head began to swim as he desperately tried to draw air into his lungs. The world around him grew black as he lost consciousness, falling against his brother, who lowered him gently to the ground.
“What’s happened?” Adam swung round at the sound of the strange voice, a horse had reined in behind him, its rider dismounting rapidly.
“Bee stung him in his throat,”
“Then there’s no time to lose, if we want to save his life,” The man knelt at Joe’s side. “I’ll need to operate on him. You have a knife?”
Adam nodded and handed it over hesitantly. He watched as the man reached into his pocket and withdrew a small flask. Undoing it he liberally doused the blade.
“Whisky,” he explained, Adam nodded, knowing the alcohol would clean the knife.
“If I don’t do this he’ll die,” the stranger spoke urgently, seeing the suspicion in Adam’s dark eyes as he saw the blade poised over Joe’s slender neck. “There’s no choice.”
Adam hesitated momentarily; his gaze fixed on the man. “Go ahead,” he said at last, turning aside as the knife cut deep into his brother.
“Right,” the man grunted moments later, finishing his task. “He can breathe again now. I’ve bypassed the blockage. After a few hours the swelling in his throat will subside and the wound can be closed up. Right now you need to get him home and get a doctor to him.”
Thankfully Adam saw that Joe was breathing. Looking down at his young brother he winced at the raw wound in his throat, which formed a hole into his windpipe enabling air to pass through into his lungs.
“A tracheotomy,” Adam said softly. “Of course. I’ve read about such an operation.”
“One that’s been known since ancient times,” the man wiped the blade of Adam’s knife in a fine linen handkerchief he took from his pocket. “Just lucky I was passing. The boy will start to come round shortly. You must try to keep him calm. I’ll ride to the Ponderosa and get a wagon. I assume you are from the Ponderosa?”
Adam nodded, his attention on Joe. “Perhaps I should get the wagon,” he suggested. “I know the way.”
“As it happens I’ve just come from there, and anyway I think the boy might react better if he sees a familiar face when he wakes.” Standing, the man walked across to his horse and swung easily into the saddle. “He won’t be able to speak when he comes round,” he called back to Adam. “Just reassure him that he’ll be all right, I’ll be as quick as I can.”
Ben was sitting on the porch with a pot of coffee in front of him, relaxing in the shade. Bookwork finished for the day, he was taking a few moments to unwind before he rode into Virginia City to pick up the payroll from the bank. He had just poured himself a cup of coffee when he heard the sound of hooves and looked up to see the man he had met that morning come galloping into the yard and rein his horse to an abrupt stop.
“Mr Cartwright,” Bennett called across as he dismounted. “I need a wagon. One of your hands has had an accident.”
Rising hastily Ben crossed over to the barn, motioning for Bennett to follow.
“What happened?” he asked as he quickly hitched the horses to the wagon.
“Young fellow got stung in the throat by a bee,” Bennett told him. “It was just lucky for him that I happened to be passing. I had to perform an emergency tracheotomy. I think he’ll be all right but you need to get a doctor out to him as soon as possible.”
“Lucky indeed,” Ben said in amazement. “There’s not many ranch hands would know how to do something like that.”
“I’ve had some medical training,” Bennett told him shortly, tying his own horse to the back of the wagon, and climbing aboard. Ben clambered up beside him and took the reins. Stopping at the corral, he despatched one of the hands to fetch Doctor Martin from Virginia City.
“Over to the east,” Bennett directed, as they continued on. “Toward that line of trees.”
As he turned in the direction indicated Ben felt a stirring of fear. They were headed for the fence line that Adam and Joe were meant to be repairing.
“The young man you helped, describe him,” he said abruptly, urging the horses forward.
“Just a young cowboy,” Bennett glanced at him in surprise. “Dark, curly hair. Slim build,” he shrugged his shoulders. “That’s all I noticed. There’s another of your hands with him, bit older, dressed in black.”
“Those are my sons,” Ben told him shakily, urging the horses ever faster, desperate now to get to Joe and Adam.
“Your sons,” Bennett repeated, holding on tightly as the wagon jolted over the rough ground. If Ben had been looking at the man he would have seen a strange expression cross his face as he said the words.
Beneath the trees, Adam looked up in relief as he heard the noise of the approaching wagon.
“Here they come now,” his voice was calm, reassuring, intended to keep his brother from panicking. Joe had come round soon after the stranger had left for the Ponderosa and it had taken all of Adam’s strength to keep him still as panic overtook him. He had patiently explained what had happened, warning Joe not to attempt to speak. But his brother was obviously in considerable pain and Adam could see how scared he was. “Soon be home,” he said soothingly as the wagon drew nearer.
Pulling the horses to a halt, Ben leapt down and ran to his sons. “Joseph,” he breathed, dropping to his knees beside his youngest, eyes narrowing slightly as he took in the deep cut in Joe’s neck, the strange sound of his breathing.
“He can’t talk,” Bennett said coming up behind them. “Not till the wound is closed up.”
“You’ll be fine Joe, just fine,” Ben reached for his son’s hand. The sound of his father’s deep, strong voice and the conviction it carried made the fear ebb a little in Joe. Closing his fingers around Ben’s he held on tightly as the men lifted him carefully into the wagon.
“Well Mr. Bennett, that’s as neat a job as I’ve ever seen,” Doctor Martin said as he came down the stairs. “Mr. Cartwright said you’d had some medical training, it looks to me like you had a fair amount.”
“I was going to be a doctor,” Bennett told him, looking up from his seat on the couch. “But due to some family trouble I was unfortunately unable to finish my training.”
“I’m just thankful you arrived when you did,” Adam came in from the kitchen carrying a pot of coffee. “How is Joe?” he asked, turning to the doctor.
“He’ll be fine,” Paul Martin reassured him. “The swelling in his throat has already gone down considerably. Hopefully I’ll be able to close up the tracheotomy in a few hours and then he’ll be back to normal in a couple of weeks,” he crossed to the couch and sat down next to Bennett, stretching his legs out before him. “I wouldn’t mind a cup of that coffee, Adam.”
“Of course,” Adam put the pot on the table and reached for a cup. “How about you Mr. Bennett?”
“Call me John,” Bennett replied. “And I’d be glad of a cup before I head off.”
“I think my father would like to speak with you before you go,” Adam told him, handing over the coffee. “If you could stay a little longer?”
Dusk had fallen and a pleasant, cooling breeze had sprung up, Ben and John Bennett were talking on the porch, both glad of the respite from the day’s cloying heat.
“I can’t thank you enough for what you did for Joe,” Ben told Bennett gratefully.
Doctor Martin had just departed for Virginia City after closing over the wound in Joe’s throat. Joe was sleeping now, Hoss beside him. The middle Cartwright had arrived home just as the doctor began his operation and had been horrified to learn what had happened to his little brother.
“I’m glad that I could be of help. And there is something you could do to thank me sir, if you would?”
“Name it. If it’s in my power, I’ll do it.”
“As I told you this morning, I’m in need of a job,” Bennett told him earnestly. “I’ve been down on my luck of late and I really need the work. I’ve been employed on ranches before,” he added. “Just give me a chance Mr. Cartwright.”
“We really don’t need any more hands,” Ben began slowly, but he thought of Joe and what could have happened to him before continuing. “Though considering what you’ve done for this family today, I don’t see how I can very well refuse your request. Very well John, consider yourself hired. Welcome to the Ponderosa.”
“I’ll leave you in Will’s capable hands, and thank you once again,” Ben shook Bennett’s hand warmly before heading back to the ranch house.
“You eaten?” at the enquiry Bennett turned to look at Will, the Ponderosa foreman and the man who was now his boss. A short, grizzled man, well past middle age, he had worked for Ben for many years.
“I had supper with the Cartwrights. Nice family.”
“They’re good people,” Will agreed, leading the way across the large room to the narrow bunk that he had allotted Bennett. “I heard that you saved Little Joe’s life. His Pa and brothers must be mighty grateful.”
“Just lucky I was passing,” Bennett told him dismissively, throwing his saddlebags down on the bunk Will indicated. “I was surprised to find the Cartwrights working their own land,” he continued. “Rich family like that, I thought they’d employ enough men to do all the work for them.”
“Ben Cartwright don’t believe in idleness,” Will told him. “All the Cartwrights do their share of the work around here.”
As Will headed off to eat supper with the other hands, Bennett lay down on his bunk, put his arms behind his head, and looked around him. He’d been in worse places he decided, and in the end all this roughing it would be worth it. Closing his eyes he began to plan his next move.
Ben opened the door to Joe’s room and smiled to himself as he saw Hoss in the chair beside the bed, keeping watch over his sleeping brother. Adam had managed to persuade Hoss to join the rest of the family and John Bennett for supper earlier, but as soon as the meal was over he’d headed back to Joe’s bedside.
“I’ll sit with him now son,” Ben whispered, putting a gentle hand on the big man’s shoulder. “Go and get some sleep, you’ve had a long, hard day.”
“I was hoping he’d have woken by now,” Hoss got reluctantly to his feet, looking down at Joe with concern. “But I guess I’d better get some shut eye, I’m plumb tuckered out.”
“I think he’ll sleep for a while yet,” Ben sat down in the chair Hoss had just vacated. “Doc Martin gave him a pretty powerful sedative.”
Stretching and yawning, Hoss bade his father good night, then with a last glance at Joe, headed for his bed.
Lamp turned low, Ben settled down in the chair. He watched the even rise and fall of his son’s chest, acutely aware that if it hadn’t been for the timely arrival of John Bennett the Ponderosa would have been a house in mourning tonight. Gently he felt Joe’s forehead, brushing his hand through the young man’s soft dark curls, ostensibly checking for signs of fever, in reality just needing to reassure himself that his son was all right.
“How’s he doing?” Ben turned at the quiet voice from behind him.
“He’s fine Adam. You on your way to bed?”
Adam nodded, eyes on his brother. “I’m supposed to be going to Hawthorne tomorrow,” he said uncertainly. “But with Joe’s accident…”
“I’m sure Joe will survive without you for a week. But see how he is in the morning if you like, before you decide whether to go or not.”
As Adam went off to bed, Ben couldn’t help a feeling of pride in his sons. Despite the fact that the three were half-brothers they were closer than most full brothers that he knew, and though his eldest and youngest often disagreed, Ben knew that deep down they cared very deeply for each other.
“Pa,” Joe’s soft whisper brought Ben awake. He must have dozed off, he realised. By the glimmer of grey light shining through the window it was already dawn. He shifted uncomfortably, aware of various aches and pains that came from sleeping in the chair.
“Good morning, Joe,” he smiled down at his son, and was glad to see Joe return the smile. “How are you feeling?”
“My throat’s real sore and it hurts some where the doc sewed me up but otherwise, I’m fine,” Joe told him hoarsely.
Carefully removing the bandage around Joe’s neck Ben examined the wound and was relieved to find no sign of weeping or infection. His son’s skin felt cool to his touch, no trace of fever.
A soft knock at the door heralded the arrival of Adam, fully dressed and ready to leave for Hawthorne.
“Just thought I’d see how you were before I went,” he told his brother, pleased to see Joe awake and alert. “Obviously you’re just fine. I’ll be back in a week’s time, think you can keep out of any more trouble till then?”
“I’ll do my best,” Joe grinned widely, though his words came out as little more than a hoarse whisper. “And I’ll try to keep well away from any bees. See you next week Adam, have a good journey.”
“How’s your brother this morning?” startled by the soft voice from behind him, Adam turned and saw John Bennett at the stable door.
“He seems all right. Thankfully Joe seems to bounce back from most things pretty quickly. You’re up and around early, John.”
“It was too hot to sleep,” Bennett walked over to join Adam, watching as he finished saddling Sport. “You going on a trip?”
“I’ve business to take care of in Hawthorne,” Adam led the horse out of the stable into the early morning sunlight. He could already feel the heat building and wasn’t looking forward to the long ride ahead. “I’ll be gone for a week. See you when I get back.”
“Sure will,” Bennett smiled, the smile changing to a very different expression as he watched Adam ride away.
“Ironic that we end up doing the job your brothers were working on yesterday,” John Bennett remarked as he finished tamping the earth around the fence post.
Hoss shrugged his powerful shoulders, “Somebody’s gotta do it. We sure don’t need any more strays to round up.”
“It’s an impressive place, the Ponderosa,” Bennett wiped an arm across his sweaty brow and reached for his canteen. The afternoon was even hotter than yesterday, and getting the fence posts into the ground was hard, thirsty work. Drinking his fill, he wiped the top of the container, and offered it to Hoss, who accepted gratefully.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying this,” Bennett looked at Hoss as he drank deeply from the canteen and then handed it back. “But you don’t look much like your two brothers.”
“We’re actually half-brothers,” Hoss explained. “See my Pa had three wives, Adam’s, mine and Joe’s. They all died.”
“I see. That’ll be why there’s a big difference in ages as well then.”
Hoss turned to look curiously at Bennett. “Why the interest?”
“Oh, no real reason,” he said hastily. “Just struck me as strange when I met you all.” Turning back to the fence he changed the subject, asking Hoss about the delights of life in Virginia City.
“Pa, honest I’m fine, but it’s so hot in here I feel like I’m about to melt. Couldn’t I please just go sit outside for a while?”
Ben regarded his youngest son with understanding. Joe’s bedroom was stiflingly hot and dusk was falling outside, bringing with it a cool breeze from the mountains. Still he was hesitant, Doctor Martin had advised at least two days in bed and then another few days of taking it easy.
“Please?” Joe asked again softly, seeing his father wavering. Ben saw the beseeching look in his son’s eyes and gave way with a resigned sigh.
“All right. But you’re to sit in the chair on the porch and rest there, understand?”
Joe nodded, eager to be out of the house, even if it was only as far as the porch. Reluctantly, he accepted his father’s help to get downstairs, surprised to find how weak he felt.
“Joe!” Hoss exclaimed with delight, coming up to the house from the stable where he had been settling Chub for the night. “How are you?”
“Better,” Joe grinned, pleased to see his brother. “Just bored is all,” he threw a quick glance over his shoulder before continuing. “Pa’s been out here at least six times in the past hour to make sure I’m all right.”
“You know how Pa is,” Hoss smiled as Joe nodded resignedly. “I’ll just go wash up, then I’ll come and keep you company for a while.”
As Hoss headed into the house, Joe caught sight of John Bennett coming across the yard towards him.
“Evening, Mr Cartwright,” Bennett stopped in front of Joe. “I just thought I’d come over and see how you are?”
“I’m alive, Mr Bennett,” Joe said soberly. “And I have you to thank for that.”
“The name’s John, and I’m just glad I was there,”
“Sit down,” Joe invited, indicating the chair beside him. He watched as Bennett seated himself. The man was about Adam’s age, Joe reckoned, tall and well built. But he certainly didn’t have the look of a cowboy about him. For a start his skin was very pale, not tanned by constant exposure to the elements, and his hands, Joe noticed as Bennett pulled out the chair, were soft enough that today’s work had left them red and blistered.
“Big house you have,” Bennett remarked, settling down in the chair with obvious relief. “Just for the four of you.”
“Five of us if you count Hop Sing, our cook,” Joe watched as the other man yawned widely. “My father said you’d worked as a ranch hand before?”
Bennett nodded. “Yup, all over the west.”
Joe frowned slightly. There was no way this man had done ranch work in the recent past. The fencing job he had tackled with Hoss this afternoon was hard, physical labour all right but a ranch hand should be able to accomplish it without becoming as exhausted as John Bennett obviously was.
“Joseph,” Ben stepped out of the house, distracting his son’s thoughts. “Supper’s just about ready,” he walked over to aid Joe into the house, catching sight of Bennett as he did so. “Evening, John,” he smiled. “How was your first day’s work? Hoss tells me you got that fencing finished.”
“Sure did Mr Cartwright,” Bennett stood up as Ben approached. “I think I’m going to like working here.”
“Glad to hear it,” Ben told him distractedly, his attention on Joe. Bennett watched the two Cartwrights head into the house then, rubbing his aching arms, he trudged slowly off to the bunkhouse looking forward to a good night’s rest.
Adam was not in the best of moods as he finally reached home. It had been a long, hot, dusty ride from Hawthorne and his dealings there had not gone as well as he had hoped.
After almost a week of intensive bargaining he had still been forced to settle for a far lower price for Ponderosa lumber than he had anticipated. Putting up Sport he headed for the house, looking forward to a long soak in the bathtub and a cool drink.
Entering the ranch house he wasn’t surprised to find no one there to greet him – his father and brothers’ horses had not been in the stable. A quick glance into the kitchen revealed Hop Sing to be missing as well, probably gone into town. Wearily, he ascended the stairs, intending to fetch clean clothes and towels before drawing the water for a bath.
Joe rode into the yard and dismounted. He led Cochise across to the stable, noting that Sport was in his stall so Adam must be back from Hawthorne. Joe had just returned from taking a mare, that his father had sold, to her new owner. An easy task, as Ben insisted that Joe undertake only light duties on the ranch for a few more days. He had passed a pleasant hour with the rancher, accepting gratefully the cool homemade lemonade that the man’s wife offered, it being another scorcher of a day. Joe had just begun to unsaddle Cochise when he was startled by the sound of a gunshot from inside the house. Grabbing his gun from its holster Joe sprinted for the door. He entered warily, alert for trouble, then spotted Adam walking down the stairs, gun in hand.
“I suppose that was one of your stupid pranks!” Adam shouted, seeing his young brother in the doorway. “Of all the idiotic, hare-brained kids…”
“I didn’t do anything,” Joe interrupted angrily. “What are you talking about? What was that shot?”
“You didn’t put a rattlesnake in my room?” Adam asked, though seeing the hurt look that flickered across his brother’s face at his words, immediately replaced by anger, he realised he was wrong.
“Of course I didn’t!” Joe snapped, temper flaring. “You really think I’d do something like that?”
“I’m sorry,” Adam apologised quickly. “I’m hot and tired and I guess I jumped to the wrong conclusion. I just went in to my room to get some clean clothes before I took a bath, heard a noise and there was a snake. Good thing I’d taken my gun up with me to clean later. Beats me how it could have got there.”
“Well it wasn’t me,” Joe was still smarting from his brother’s accusation though his tone was calmer. “I’m not out to kill you off,” he cast a glance towards the stairs. “It is odd though,” he conceded. “Far as I know your door hasn’t been opened since you left. Tell you what,” he offered, seeing how weary his older brother looked. “You go on and get your bath, I’ll see to Cochise then I’ll get rid of the snake and make you some coffee.”
“Thanks, Joe,” Adam said gratefully. “I’d appreciate that. Though perhaps you could make that lemonade instead of coffee,” his eyes went to the bandage still in place on Joe’s neck. “How are you anyway?”
“I’m fine,” Joe grinned at him, anger forgotten. “Just taking advantage of all these simple jobs Pa keeps giving me. You know me, anything for an easy life.”
By the time Adam emerged, refreshed and revitalised from his bath, Ben and Hoss had returned. Joe, as promised, had cleaned away the remains of the snake and was just telling his father about it as Adam entered.
“I think someone must have put it in Adam’s room,” he was saying. “I don’t see any other way it could have got there. And it’s not like we get rattlesnakes up here, they’re desert creatures.”
“Well who in tarnation would do something like that?” Hoss asked. “The darn thing could have killed Adam.”
Adam crossed to the couch and sat down, reaching for the glass of lemonade that Joe held out to him. “Joe’s told you all about the snake then?”
“There must be an explanation for it,” Ben said, settling down in his chair and reaching for his pipe. “I can’t imagine any one would have put the thing in your room on purpose. It has been extremely hot and dry the past few weeks so perhaps the snake found its own way up here, but as to how it got upstairs…”
“The house has been empty all day,” Joe put in, shooting a sideways look at Adam. “Perhaps older brother has some enemy he’s not told us about who got in here.”
“I don’t have any enemies that I know of. I don’t know how it got in there and I guess it’s going to have to remain a mystery. Now if you two would excuse us,” he changed the subject firmly. “Pa and I have some business we need to discuss.”
Thus dismissed, Hoss and Joe went off to begin the evening chores while Adam told his father the disappointing outcome of his visit to Hawthorne.
On his way back from Virginia City the following afternoon after taking some papers into the bank for his father, Joe decided to take a detour up to the north pasture where Hoss and Adam had been heading to check on the herd. ‘Light duties around the ranch are all well and good for a while,’ Joe thought, ‘but I’m getting pretty bored.’ Hewas surprised to realise that he was actuallylooking forward to getting back to his usual work around the place.
Joe was pleased to spot both his brothers with a couple of ranch hands riding among the cattle, checking the brands to make sure no stragglers from neighbouring herds had got amongst the Ponderosa beeves.
“Hey there, Joe,” Hoss greeted his younger brother as Joe rode up to join them, Cochise wending his way easily through the steers. “What are you doin’ out here?”
“Just thought I’d stop by and give you fellows a hand,”
“Now isn’t that just like our little brother to offer to help when the work’s all finished,” Adam called over. “We were just about to head for home.”
“Just don’t say I never offered older brother,” Joe laughed. At a signal from Adam the ranch hands rode over to join the Cartwrights and the five men set out together for the Ponderosa.
Riding with his brothers, the two ranch hands some distance behind them, Joe grew impatient at the slow pace.
“C’mon,” he challenged. “I’ll race you back.”
Adam sat forward in the saddle. “I’ll have a long, cool drink waiting for you at home when you get there, seeing I’m bound to be back first,” he urged Sport forward, Cochise in hot pursuit.
“We’ll just take it nice and easy, old feller,” Hoss bent and patted Chubb’s neck. “Far too hot to go racing around.”
Hearing a shout of alarm from one of the men behind him, Hoss straightened up, and looking ahead, saw Adam lying on the ground, obviously fallen from Sport. Joe was just dismounting beside him. Concerned, Hoss headed quickly towards his brothers.
“I’m not hurt,” Adam sat up cautiously and checked himself for injuries as Joe reached his side. “At least I don’t think I’ve damaged anything, though I may have a few bruises by tomorrow.”
“What happened?” Joe held out a hand to assist his brother to his feet. “Did Sport stumble on something?”
“No,” Adam brushed dust off his shirt and pants and bent to retrieve his hat from where it had fallen. “Just take a look.”
Turning to look at Adam’s horse Joe saw that the saddle had come loose and was twisted around on Sport’s back.
“You all right Adam?” Hoss called anxiously, catching up with them.
“I’m fine,” Adam walked across to Sport and bent down to examine the cinch on the saddle, Joe and Hoss joining him.
“It’s almost broken in two,” Adam held out the leather strap to show his brothers. “Yet I’m sure it was fine when I saddled Sport back at the ranch.”
“I don’t think it just broke,” Joe ran his finger along the edge of the break. “It’s way too smooth, Adam. I think someone’s cut it with a knife part way across and the pressure on it when you were riding pulled it further apart.”
“Now who’d do something like that?” Adam said, taking a closer look at the cinch. “I did leave Sport unattended while I went back in the house to speak to Pa this morning, but I’m sure that there wasn’t anyone around.”
“First the snake and now this,” Hoss regarded his brother with concern. “Dadburnit Adam, could be Little Joe was right ‘bout you having an enemy.”
Talk in the bunkhouse that evening, as the hands settled down for their evening meal, centred on speculation about who could have tampered with Sport’s saddle.
“Lucky he weren’t hurt bad,” Will said, looking up from his plate of stew. “And it ain’t the only thing that’s happened either. Little Joe told me that there was a rattler in Adam’s room when he got home from Hawthorne yesterday.”
“Who do they reckon did it then?” asked the man to Will’s right. “Nobody round here has got any grudge against Adam Cartwright, and I haven’t seen any strangers round the place.”
At the far end of the table John Bennett listened to the conversation with interest. It didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that he was very much a stranger round here. It seemed the fact that he had saved the Cartwright boy’s life had automatically put him above suspicion.
“I don’t think they got any idea,” Will said. “But if someone is out to get Adam they’ll have to go through the rest of them,” he smiled wryly, “I ain’t never known a family as close as the Cartwrights.”
“Best people I ever worked for,” the middle-aged man seated next to Bennett put in. “I sure can’t think of anyone on this ranch who’d want to harm Adam Cartwright.”
Seated around the table in the ranch house, the Cartwright family was having much the same discussion.
“As far as I know I have no enemy out to get me,” Adam said, helping himself to bread. “I can’t think of anyone around here who I’ve upset in any way lately,” he smiled across at Joe. “With the exception of my little brother of course.”
“When I decide to get even brother,” Joe laughed. “You’ll know about it.”
“There is that John Bennett,” Hoss put in. “He’s new around the place.”
“And I don’t think he’s exactly told us the truth about himself either,” Joe looked over at Ben. “He told you he’d worked at ranches across the west Pa, but he’s way too pale to have been doing outside work recently.”
Meal finished, Adam pushed his plate aside and stood up. “One big problem with that theory. I’d never met the man before he helped Joe. Now if you’d all excuse me, I’m going up to my room to read for a while.”
Ben watched as Adam climbed the stairs, and then turned back to his two younger sons. “It could be that Bennett worked inside,” he said. “Could have done bookkeeping perhaps, he’s a well educated man. Or possibly he just told me he’d worked on other ranches because he thought I wouldn’t hire him if I knew he had no experience. He’s certainly been pulling his weight, I’ve had no complaints about him.”
Joe shrugged. “I guess you’re right. And I know I owe the guy,” he touched the dressing that still covered the wound on his neck. “But even so I think I’ll keep a close watch on our Mr. Bennett for a while.”
Several times over the next few days John Bennett would glance up from his work to find Joe Cartwright watching him. Reluctantly he concluded that even if the Ponderosa hands thought him above suspicion, it appeared that at least one of the Cartwrights wasn’t so sure.
This would mean changing his plans. Bennett’s original idea had been to get a job on the Ponderosa then set about scaring Adam before ultimately killing him. That plan had nearly come to nothing when it turned out that Ben Cartwright needed no extra hands. Finding out that the young man he had assisted was the youngest Cartwright, though galling, had been a stroke of luck, making Ben too indebted to turn down his request for a job.
It had soon become apparent that Adam wasn’t easily scared, however. Neither the snake in his room, or the cutting of the saddle strap, had appeared to have any effect whatsoever on the oldest of Ben Cartwright’s sons. Thinking back to the conversation in the bunkhouse the other night Bennett decided that he’d have to tackle this from a different angle.
Perhaps he wouldn’t kill Adam straight out, perhaps there was a much better way to get revenge.
For the next few weeks’ life progressed as normal on the Ponderosa. High summer gave way to early fall, the days becoming shorter and the air turning cooler with the first hints of the long, cold winter ahead. Joe had the dressing removed from his throat, the wound having healed well and left barely a scar. No further incidents occurred, and even Joe began to consider that they might have made a mistake in thinking anyone was after Adam.
It was just possible, though unlikely, that the snake had found its own way into the house, it was also feasible that the saddle strap had broken on its own. John Bennett seemed to have settled down well, the other hands found him a likeable, easy-going man with a good sense of humour. He asked a lot of questions about the Cartwrights, but no one seemed to find that strange, just putting it down to idle curiosity.
Perched atop the corral fence, hair blowing wildly in the stiff October breeze, Joe watched as Adam examined the new horses.
“Well?” he demanded as his older brother approached. “What do you think?”
“Seem like sound enough animals,” Adam let himself out of the corral and walked round to join Joe, leaning his elbows on the top rung of the fence. “When do you start working them?”
“Week after next,” Joe studied the horses as they milled around, coats gleaming in the sunlight, manes and tails tossed by the wind. “Winter’s nearly here so Pa wants me to ride out and check on the line shacks with John Bennett next week, show the guy where everything is so he can do the job himself next time.”
Adam turned to look up at his younger brother, squinting as the afternoon sun caught his eyes. “You given up that notion about Bennett being out to get me?”
“I guess,” Joe smoothed a hand through his wayward curls and jumped down to stand next to his brother. “Even I get it wrong sometimes.”
“Not often I hear you admit it though,” Adam grinned wryly, ducking aside as Joe feinted a blow in his direction.
As the Cartwright family headed for Church the following morning, John Bennett saddled up his horse and prepared for a long, hard ride. It was his day off and, as far as the other hands knew, he was off to Virginia City for some relaxation in the form of a few drinks and possibly a visit to one of the notorious ‘houses’ that he was known to visit from time to time.
Today however, Bennett had other plans. When Will had informed him that his job for the following week would be to accompany Joe Cartwright on a tour of the line shacks, Bennett had been delighted. This would give him just the chance he wanted to finally exact his revenge upon Adam. Checking he had all the equipment necessary to bring his scheme to fruition he mounted up and rode out.
Monday morning dawned bright and blustery, the wind gusting from the north. Breakfast over, Joe went out to help Bennett make ready the packhorses, loading the animals with all the supplies needed for the journey ahead.
Horses ready, Joe saddled up Cochise, fetched his gunbelt and rifle from the house and prepared to leave.
Watching as Joe mounted up, Ben felt the frisson of anxiety that always went through him when any of his sons went away from home, no matter how old they got. “I’ll see you in five days,” he said, reaching up to grasp Joe’s hand in a farewell handshake. “And be careful.”
“Aren’t I always?” Joe smiled. He raised his hand to his hat in a parting gesture to Adam and Hoss who had come outside to see him off. “Don’t worry Pa,” he continued softly, knowing his father would do just that until he was home again. “I’ll be fine.”
Bennett’s horse fell in beside Cochise and the two men headed away. Ben remained on the porch until they were out of sight then turned and went inside.
Half a day’s ride brought Joe and Bennett close by the boundary of the Ponderosa. Deciding to stop for a while and have something to eat, Joe brought Cochise to a halt.
“We’ll stop here,” he called back to Bennett who had reined in his horse behind him.
As the two men gathered wood for a fire, Joe glanced across at Bennett. The man had been very quiet today, hardly uttering a word since they left the ranch.
Aware of Joe’s scrutiny, Bennett finished collecting wood and began to build the fire. He knew that Joe was wondering about his silence. The truth was his thoughts had been occupied solely with the carrying out of his plan. He had gone over and over it in his mind, making sure he had covered every angle. The thought of what lay ahead for Adam had given him a certain amount of pleasure, though he did feel a twinge of guilt at involving Joe in the scheme. But, from all he now knew about the Cartwright’s the surest way to get to Adam was through his family.
Fire burning, Joe set about preparing coffee while Bennett fetched the package of sandwiches that Hop Sing had prepared.
“Here you go,” Bennett held out the food to Joe, settling himself down beside the fire. He accepted the cup Joe passed over to him. “Much further to go?”
“About another hours ride,” Joe sipped his coffee gratefully. The temperature up here in the high meadows was cooler than at home, and the heat of the drink was welcome. It wouldn’t be long before the first winter snows covered this area. Watching Bennett munching moodily on his sandwich, apparently lost in thought, Joe grinned wryly to himself. Looked like he was in for a boring few days. His thoughts strayed to the horses back in the corral, he would far rather be working with them this week than stuck out here with John Bennett.
Closer to two hours had passed by the time Joe dismounted from Cochise and tethered the pinto to the hitching post at the front of the line shack, John Bennett following suit.
“Let’s get the stove fired up,” Joe pulled his bedroll from Cochise’s back and headed for the door. “Take the chill off the place so we’ll be more comfortable tonight.”
Wordlessly, Bennett followed Joe into the shack, a small, sturdy, wooden cabin, built to withstand the severe storms that howled across this area of the Ponderosa each winter.
Depositing his bedroll on one of the cots that stood against the wall of the shack Joe crossed to the stove. Wood was piled beside it, cut and ready for use. Kindling kept in the box next to that. A shelf on one side held a few basic utensils, cooking pans, cups and plates.
Tossing his hat on the table that, together with two uncomfortable looking chairs, made up the rest of the cabin’s furniture, Joe bent to his task, opening the door of the stove. Engrossed in what he was doing, Joe was unheeding of Bennett who rapidly took advantage of this opportunity. Taking his gun from its holster he held it by the barrel, then walked up quickly behind Joe, raised the weapon high and brought it down savagely on the back of the young man’s head.
As Joe crumpled to the ground Bennett was surprised at the feeling of remorse that swept over him. For years now he had thought of very little beside finding Adam Cartwright and making him pay for what had happened, but the truth was that John Bennett had never before in his life hurt another human being, and hitting Joe, a boy of eighteen, had been harder than he thought. Determinedly, he thrust the feelings aside and concentrated on his plan, letting the hatred he felt for Adam, a hatred nurtured through the years, come to the fore.
Moving hastily, in case Joe should start to come round, Bennett took the young man’s gun and knife. He pulled one of the beds away from the wall, revealing the iron ring he had attached securely to the cabin, bolting it right through the wood. There had been no need for the question he had asked Joe earlier, Bennett had known exactly how far it was to the line shack, he had ridden up here the previous day.
Lifting the unconscious youth, Bennett deposited him unceremoniously on the thin mattress, then, reaching beneath the other bed, he withdrew a canvas bag, which contained a chain and handcuffs. Working rapidly, Bennett cuffed Joe, then attached one end of the chain to the handcuffs, the other end to the iron ring on the wall. Satisfied that the young man was securely shackled he pushed the bed back against the wall and stood up. Throwing a blanket over Joe’s prone body, he left a canteen within easy reach. Then, taking a last look at the unconscious youth he headed for the door. Outside he took Joe’s rifle from its scabbard on Cochise’s saddle, unhitched his horse and mounted up, turning back toward the ranch.
Joe awoke to greyness and pain. He lay still for a while, feeling sick and bewildered. Turning his head to one side, and trying his best to ignore the burst of intense agony the movement caused, he was able to see the window of the cabin, pearlescent grey light shining through it. Uncertain whether it was dusk or dawn outside, Joe felt totally confused. The last thing he remembered was going to light the stove. Rolling over, he attempted to sit up. It was then that he discovered the metal cuff around his right wrist.
“What the…” feeling around in the deepening gloom, Joe traced the chain to its end. He tried to think. He had obviously been unconscious for some time. The cabin was growing darker, so it must be nightfall. Raising his left hand to the back of his head, he could feel the lump there, and the stickiness of not quite dry blood. “John Bennett,” Joe whispered into the darkness. “But why?”
Almost immediately the answer suggested itself. He had been right all along, someone was after Adam. That someone was John Bennett and Joe was to be the bait that brought his brother here.
Early morning found Bennett waiting where he could observe the comings and goings at the Ponderosa. Somehow he had to get Adam alone. As the sky lightened the big ranch began to come to life. Hands left the bunkhouse, heading for the corral to get their horses. Will trudged across to the ranch house, on his way to get the work rosters from Ben, coming out again ten minutes later and walking off to join his men at the corral.
Bennett watched it all from his vantage point, anxious for a sighting of Adam. He was trying to keep his thoughts concentrated on Adam, on what lay ahead. But, try as he might, visions of Joe lying unconscious on the cabin floor kept intruding. He shook his head angrily, trying to clear the pictures from his mind, he didn’t want to feel remorse. He had to keep the hatred alive. He owed it to his brother.
His attention was drawn back to the house as Hoss and Adam finally came through the door. They were talking and laughing together, and Bennett’s heart sank. If the two brothers were going to be working together, his plan would have to be delayed. The pair disappeared into the stable, and some five minutes later Hoss led his horse out into the yard, mounted and rode away. Relieved, Bennett tensed expectantly, waiting for Adam to emerge.
Adam finished saddling Sport and led the animal out of the stable and across to the water pump, where he filled his canteen, ready for the day ahead. Sport bent to drink from the trough and Adam patted the big horse absently, his mind on his youngest brother. It was a chilly morning, a keen wind blowing, and he found himself wondering what the weather was like up in the high country where Joe and John Bennett were working. It had been quiet at the breakfast table that morning, without his brother there. Adam wouldn’t have admitted it to the youth, but he missed Joe’s exuberant presence when he wasn’t around.
Mounting up, Adam headed away from the ranch, intending to ride out and check on the progress of the lumber cutting for the contract he had secured in Hawthorne. As he rode away he became aware of an odd feeling, as though he was being watched, he looked around him, but saw no sign of anyone. Shrugging, he dismissed the sensation and settled down to enjoy the ride.
Behind him, John Bennett breathed a sigh of relief. ‘That was a close call’. He had seen Adam slow his horse slightly and scan the landscape. He had been lucky not to be seen, just managing to get out of sight in time. As his quarry rode on, Bennett dropped further back, not wanting to take the chance of being discovered before he was ready.
Joe pulled the blanket tightly around him. It felt scratchy where it touched the skin on the back of his neck and was too thin to offer much warmth. It was cold in the shack, a damp chill that seemed to penetrate to his very bones. Irritated at his helplessness, he yanked hard at the chain that restrained him, even though he knew from trying it before that there was no way he could get free. The chain was far too strong.
Unable to sleep much through the long, cold, dark night Joe had lain wondering exactly what Bennett had in mind for himself and Adam. Was he going to bring Adam here on some pretext? If he did, what then? Kill them both? And why? Adam had said that he’d never seen the man before, so what possible reason could Bennett have for wanting to harm him?
The questions turned themselves over and over in Joe’s mind all night, till daybreak found him tired, cold, and very angry. As daylight crept slowly in through the window, Joe took stock of his surroundings, looking for anything within reach that could help him escape. He had already found the canteen, though the small amount of water it contained wouldn’t last him very long.
Eyes searching the room, Joe saw just the familiar furnishings of the line shack, nothing that could be useful to him. Totally frustrated he gave vent to his feelings with a few well-chosen profanities, that his father would have severely reprimanded him for if he’d heard him, and then unable to do anything else, he settled back to wait.
Riding back from the lumber camp, Adam was deep in thought. He hadn’t been able to get the price he’d wanted for the timber, and now, to make matters worse, the cutting was falling behind schedule. He was trying to decide whether it would be economically viable to hire extra men for the job, when, rounding a bend on the trail, he came across John Bennett. The man appeared relaxed and at ease, sitting there astride his horse, but with a jolt of surprise Adam saw a gun in Bennett’s hand, aimed straight at him.
“I wouldn’t try anything,” Bennett had seen Adam’s hand go towards his own gun. “I’ll kill you before you can draw.”
Recognising the truth of Bennett’s statement Adam moved his hand back to his horse’s reins. ‘So my little brother was right,’ he thought ‘Bennett was out to get me’. That realisation was immediately superseded by alarm.
“Where’s Joe?” Adam’s voice was taut with apprehension and he waited anxiously for the man’s reply.
“Let’s say he’s a little tied up at the moment. But he’s alive,” Bennett saw the relief on Adam’s face and knew he had been right. What he intended to do to Adam now would hurt the man as he had been hurt. Vengeance would be done. “Use your left hand to get your gun and throw it on the ground,” he instructed. “Then I’ll take you to your brother.”
Joe had finished the water hours before, throwing the empty canteen against the wall in frustration. Hunger and thirst were now adding to his torment. His head ached from Bennett’s blow and he was miserably cold. Judging from the amount of light coming through the window it was almost dusk. It looked like he would be spending another night alone. He wondered where Bennett was, and if he had found Adam. Joe was feeling angry with himself. He had let his guard down where Bennett was concerned. Despite his earlier suspicions of the man, he had trusted him enough to turn his back on him.
He almost drifted off to sleep, tired despite the inactivity of his day, the wretchedness of his situation. A distant noise brought him fully awake and listening intently. He could just make out the sound of hoof beats, muffled at first but carrying clearly in the still air. As the noise drew closer, Joe realised there were two horses approaching and tensed in anticipation, wondering what lay ahead.
Adam dismounted from Sport and tied the horse to the hitching post beside Cochise, aware all the time of Bennett’s gun on him. Bennett dismounted himself, a little awkwardly in order to keep Adam in his sights, and motioned towards the shack.
Opening the door of the building, Adam walked in and stopped abruptly. Coming from the pale light of the early evening into the dark building, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness.
“Adam,” he heard his brother’s voice and turned, just making out the young man sitting rigidly on one of the two beds against the wall.
“You all right, Joe?” Adam was thankful to find the youth alive and well. All afternoon, as he rode ahead of Bennett, he had been worrying that perhaps the man had lied to him, that he had already disposed of Joe before coming to find him. If that were the case, Adam had vowed silently to himself, then he would find some way to get away from Bennett, some way to bring the man to justice.
“I’m j-just a bit cold and hungry, apart from that I’m fine,” the catch in his brother’s voice betrayed the deep emotion Joe was feeling. Adam could hear the anger underlying the words.
“He hasn’t hurt you?” Adam could see Joe more clearly now, growing accustomed to the gloom.
“No, just chained me up like some damn dog,” Joe said bitterly, holding up his right arm as far as he could so Adam could see the handcuff and chain. “I’m sorry, Adam. I should have been more careful, I shouldn’t have trusted him.”
The sight of the chain had caused a vicious anger to rise in Adam. “There’s no reason for you to be sorry,” he reassured Joe. “I trusted him as well.” He turned to face Bennett who was standing in the doorway watching them. “What’s this all about?” he demanded furiously.
Bennett came inside the shack, his gun still fixed on Adam. “Why don’t you light the lamp, get that stove going?” he suggested calmly. “Then we can talk about it in comfort.”
“I’m not moving until I hear some kind of explanation,” Adam stared at Bennett defiantly.
“Then I’ll kill you,” the words were spoken quietly. Adam heard Joe catch his breath sharply, and Bennett must have caught the sound too, for he smiled slightly, teeth showing white in the deepening darkness. “And then I’ll kill your brother.”
Adam stood uncertainly for a moment, his eyes on the weapon trained on him. Realising he hadn’t a chance of getting to Bennett before the man pulled the trigger, he finally complied and went across to light the lamp.
As Adam turned away from him, Bennett closed his eyes for a second in relief, his hand trembling slightly on the gun. For an instant there it had seemed Cartwright was going to call his bluff, and he wasn’t sure what he would have done. He was still determined to make Adam suffer, but his resolve to kill the man was wavering, and he definitely wasn’t about to hurt Joe any more.
As the light from the lamp flooded the room with its amber glow, Bennett moved nearer to Joe. He wanted to be in a position where he could keep a close watch on both Cartwrights.
For the third time in an hour, Ben crossed to the window and peered out into the dark night. “He probably just went to Virginia City,” Hoss spoke from behind his father. He too was getting a little concerned about his older brother. Ben had specifically requested that Adam be home for dinner tonight. James Davis, the newly appointed manager of the Virginia City bank, was to be the Cartwrights guest and there was a lot of Ponderosa business to discuss after the meal. Knowing how important this evening was to his father, it wasn’t like Adam to be so late.
“Maybe,” Ben turned and walked across to their guest. “I’m sorry about this Jim.” He apologised. “I’m afraid something must have happened to delay Adam.”
“At least I got a good meal out of it,” Davis smiled, getting up from the couch where he had been sitting and going over to fetch his hat from the hook by the front door. “We’ll just have to leave the business talk for another time, he looked over at his host, seeing Ben’s distracted expression, “Don’t worry, I’m sure Adam will be all right, he’s well able to take care of himself.”
‘Perhaps so’, Ben thought as he bid goodnight to Davis. But he knew that if Adam hadn’t returned by daybreak, he and Hoss would be going out to look for him.
“Well, Bennett?” Adam straightened up, the stove alight and beginning to send out faint fingers of warmth into the chill air. “Do we get to know what you want now?”
Bennett leant back against the wall, hatred beginning to rise as he finally got what he had wanted for so long. A confrontation with the man he believed had caused the death of his brother. “To begin with, Cartwright. My name isn’t Bennett, its Barnes-Jackson. John Barnes-Jackson. You no doubt remember my brother Harvey from your time at college?”
‘So that’s it,’ Adam thought. The sordid story of Harvey Barnes-Jackson. He wondered exactly what Bennett knew about Harvey and his time at college. Memories of the tall, aristocratic youth flickered across his mind. Harvey had thought himself a cut above Adam Cartwright, he came from an old, established Boston family and the boy from a western ranch was just not on the same social scale.
“It’s your fault he died,” Bennett spat out venomously. “You as good as killed him!”
Joe, listening attentively to the exchange, expected Adam to deny Bennett’s accusation and was surprised when his elder brother didn’t respond.
Adam’s silence incensed Bennett. It had been ten years since his brother had died, ten long years in which his hatred for Adam Cartwright had grown, until at last he had left his home and come looking for the man he blamed for all his troubles.
“I’ve come a long way to find you,” his finger tightened almost imperceptibly on the gun’s trigger as fury shook him. “And I’ve waited many years for this moment. I’ve been biding my time, working for your father, talking to your hired hands. They all seem to think a lot of you and your family, good people, honourable people, they say. They wouldn’t think so much of Adam Cartwright if they knew the damnable lie you told about my brother, would they? And it was a lie wasn’t it?”
Adam sighed deeply. He had been against lying in the first place, in his experience the truth usually came out eventually. But there had been others involved, and unwillingly he had finally agreed with what was planned. “Yes,” he told Bennett softly. “I lied about your brother.” Looking up he caught Joe’s gaze on him, shock in his young brother’s hazel-green eyes.
Anger surged through Bennett, when Adam made no attempt to prevaricate; that he openly admitted his lie incensed him. With a hand trembling with fury he raised his gun, finger tightening on the trigger.
“No!” Joe’s cry rang through the cabin and for a split second distracted Bennett. As the man half turned towards Joe, Adam seized his chance and leaped at his captor.
From his position on the bed, Joe held his breath as he watched the two men struggle together. Adam had thrust Bennett back against the wall of the cabin and was holding him in place with one arm while desperately trying to wrestle the gun from the man. For a while it seemed that Adam’s superior strength would prevail, as he grasped Bennett’s wrist and hit it repeatedly against the wall, trying to get the man’s grip to loosen. But then Bennett managed to push at Adam, who moved back slightly, his foot catching on the discarded canteen. Caught unawares by the obstacle Adam stumbled backwards, easing his hold on Bennett. Immediately Bennett raised the gun and as Adam recovered his footing and moved towards him again, he squeezed the trigger.
“ADAM!” Joe’s agonised cry hung on the air as the sound of the shots faded away, the acrid smell of gun smoke filling the cabin.
Adam lay on his back, arms flung out, blood beginning to soak his shirtfront and the sleeve of his jacket.
“Oh my Lord…” Bennett stood motionless, staring in dismay at the gun in his hand. “What have I done?”
“Adam!” Joe yelled frantically, pulling frenziedly at the chain that held him. Hoping against hope to see some response from his brother “Adam!”
Bennett’s mind was in turmoil, he had been planning this for so long, but now it was done he felt not elation or satisfaction, as he had expected, but regret and guilt. A muffled groan from Adam brought a sigh of relief from Joe and drew Bennett’s attention back to his erstwhile enemy.
“If he dies you’ll pay, Bennett,” Joe’s voice was frigid, angry. “Believe me you’ll pay.”
Slowly, Bennett slid down the wall until he was in a crouching position, burying his head in his hands as he tried to collect his thoughts. Terrible feelings of guilt assailed him as he heard Adam groan again.
“For pity’s sake Bennett, let me help my brother,” there was desperation in Joe’s voice now, and Bennett winced. ‘What good does killing Cartwright do anyway?’ he thought ‘It doesn’t bring back Harvey, it doesn’t bring me the peace of mind I thought it would’.
Adam moved slightly and groaned once more. Raising his head, Bennett looked over at him, then made his decision. Getting to his feet he crossed to the fallen man and, long ago training seeming to take over, knelt at his side, quickly assessing his injuries.
“He’s hurt badly but I think I can save him,” he told Joe tersely. “And if I’m to do it, I’ll need your help.” Reaching into his jacket pocket, he extracted the key for the handcuffs.
“You think I’m going to let you near my brother?” Joe asked in angry amazement. “After you just shot him!”
Bennett bent to insert the key into the handcuffs, freeing Joe. “I know how you feel,” he said softly. “And I’m sorrier about what I just did than you’ll ever know. I thought it was what I wanted, to see Adam dead, but I was wrong. It changes nothing.”
The young man just stared at him, his eyes hard with hatred, hands forming fists, ready to take Bennett on. The man sighed. “Well the way I see it,” he said evenly. “You have two choices, Joe. You either help me save your brother’s life or you fight me while he bleeds to death.”
Pulling his hand free from the cuffs, Joe swiftly reached Adam’s side. His brother was unconscious now, his breathing shallow and rapid. Blood beginning to pool beneath his outstretched arm.
Drawing a deep, ragged breath Joe looked up at Bennett. “All right,” His voice trembled slightly, betraying his fear for Adam. “What do I do?”
“Take his jacket off,” Bennett instructed, removing his own jacket as he spoke, and rolling up his sleeves. “We need to stop the bleeding from that arm first. See the colour of the blood, bright red, means it’s arterial, from the brachial artery.”
As Joe pulled Adam’s jacket and shirt off Bennett came to kneel beside him. “I’m going to put pressure on the artery,” he told Joe. “Try to slow the bleeding enough for clotting to begin. Lift his arm up for me and keep it there.”
Doing as he was told and raising the injured arm, Joe watched as Bennett slid his fingers between the muscles of Adam’s upper arm and pressed down against the bone. Within moments the flow of blood began to slow.
“Right, I’ll take over now,” Bennett took the weight of Adam’s arm from Joe. “You try and find something to make bandages from, preferably something clean. Not the blanket,” he warned, seeing Joe glance over at the bed. “The fibres will get stuck in the wound.”
“I’ve got a clean shirt in my saddlebag,” Joe headed for the door. “I’ll get that.”
Bennett nodded, not looking up as Joe opened the door and slipped out into the cold night. Cochise still stood at the hitching rail, where Joe had left him the day before. He stroked the horse gently, noting with annoyance that his rifle was gone from its scabbard. He reached into the saddlebag for the shirt. Pulling the garment out, he delved deeper finally locating the knife he kept there. “I don’t trust that guy,” he whispered to Cochise, bending down to conceal the weapon in his boot. “I’ve got to go along with him for now, he’s the only one that can help Adam. But he won’t catch me out again.” Giving the horse a final pat Joe hurried back into the shack, tearing the shirt into strips as he went.
“Make a wad of fabric and press it onto the wound in his shoulder,” Bennett ordered as he saw Joe return. “It’s a clean wound, the bullet’s just nicked it, and the bleeding’s already stopping. I’m more worried about this arm. I can only keep the pressure on a little while longer without causing irreparable damage.”
Joe bent to his task, applying the makeshift bandage to the bullet wound in his brother’s shoulder. He watched Bennett as the man carefully released the pressure on the artery in Adam’s arm, giving a sigh of relief when there was no sign of further bleeding.
“Tear me off a couple more strips of that shirt,” Bennett still held his patient’s arm in the air. “I’ll get this bandaged and then we can see about making him more comfortable.”
Getting to his feet, Joe felt a wave of giddiness crash over him. He made a grab for the table, steadying himself against it.
Bennett had seen Joe sway and watched him anxiously, seeing the pallor of his face. “Sit down,” he instructed.
“I’m all right,” Joe began to protest, pushing himself upright, determined to help Adam.
“Do as I say,” Bennett snapped. “You’ve had nothing to eat today and you’re obviously exhausted. I don’t need another casualty on my hands. Now sit down, tear those strips of cloth up and pass them over here.”
“You sure sound like a doctor,” Joe lowered himself onto the hard wooden chair gratefully. “Just as bossy as old Doc Martin.”
Bennett smiled faintly. Despite the guilt he was feeling over Adam’s injuries, Joe’s words gave him a feeling of pleasure. For the first time in years he actually felt like a doctor.
Adroitly Bennett tied the strip of cloth around Adam’s arm, making sure that it was tight enough to control the bleeding without impeding the circulation.
“Feel well enough to help me get him on to the bed?” he asked, looking up at Joe who was sitting watching him.
“I’m fine,” Joe got to his feet and came over to assist. Bennett gave the young man a searching glance as he put his arms under Adam’s legs and helped lift him up. Joe was still pale, his skin appearing almost waxen in the lamplight, but he seemed steady enough.
“He will be all right now, won’t he?” Joe questioned Bennett anxiously as they settled Adam on the bed. He was very worried about his brother’s condition. Adam still hadn’t come round and he seemed cold, almost clammy to the touch, his breathing shallow.
“I don’t know,” Bennett confessed. “He’s lost a lot of blood and his body is in shock. Plus there’s the added danger of infection. I think the best thing is to get some food into you. Then, as soon as morning comes, you can go and fetch help from the Ponderosa.”
Joe adjusted the blanket over his brother. There was no way that he was going to ride off and leave Adam alone with Bennett. The man seemed genuinely sorry about the shooting, and he had certainly worked hard at keeping Adam alive. But how could he trust him? He had shot Adam, threatened to kill both of them. But there was also no denying that they needed help. Joe found himself longing for his father’s calm, reassuring presence. Somehow things never seemed so bad when Ben was there to take charge.
“There’s some smoked bacon in my saddlebag,” Bennett reached for his jacket and shrugged it on. “And water in my canteen. I’ll just go and fetch them.”
“I’ll go,” Joe made for the door quickly, before Bennett could protest. Outside the night air was icy, frost forming on the grass. The sky was clear, pale moonlight lighting the way as Joe approached Cochise. Pulling the bandana from around his neck, he tied it to Cochise’s bridle then swiftly untied the pinto. “Fetch help, Cooch,” he told the horse softly. “Go home and fetch help.” Slapping the animal smartly on the rump, he watched him head away from the cabin, into the night.
“Here,” Joe deposited Bennett’s saddlebag and canteen on the table, and then returned to his brother’s bedside. Laying a hand gently on Adam’s forehead, he frowned, the skin beneath his finger’s still felt clammy to the touch.
“You let your horse go,” Bennett stated, pouring water from his canteen into a pan and putting it on the stove to heat. “You think he’ll go back to the Ponderosa?”
“I think so,” Joe turned to watch as Bennett roughly cut the bacon and threw it into another pan, placing that on the stove alongside the water. Almost immediately the smell of the meat cooking filled the shack, making Joe realise just how hungry he was.
Reaching for cups and plates, Bennett served up the bacon and made coffee. “Come and eat,” he told Joe, pushing one of the chairs towards him. “Your brother’s all right for the moment.”
Seating himself at the table, Joe attacked the food ravenously. The bacon was salty, but together with the hot, strong coffee Bennett placed before him, it made him feel a lot better. The slight queasiness he’d been feeling since the giddy spell finally disappearing.
“I’ll check your brother now,” Bennett pushed his empty plate away and stood up. Joe did the same, following Bennett over to Adam, keeping a close watch on everything the man did.
“He feels a bit warmer,” Bennett reached for Adam’s wrist. “And his pulse is stronger. As long as there’s no infection I think he’ll make it.”
Joe let out a sigh of relief, tension draining from his body at Bennett’s verdict. He had been scared his brother was going to die, and he felt responsible for his injuries, he had been foolish enough to get caught by Bennett. He looked down at the man, watching him check the dressings on Adam’s wounds. “What exactly did you intend to do with us?” he asked curiously. “Were you going to kill us both?”
Bennett was silent for a while. He pulled the blanket back around Adam, straightened up and returned to his place at the table before he spoke.
“I wanted to kill your brother,” he said at last, as Joe joined him. “It was never my intention to kill you, but I did intend to use you to hurt him. Everyone told me how much Adam cares for his family, more than he cares for the ranch or even himself.”
“And what was it all about? This lie you accused Adam of, what was it about, how did it cause your brother’s death?”
“I think that’s a question for you to ask Adam yourself, don’t you? Whatever I tell you about it, you’re not going to believe me. Ask him the truth of it some day – see if you still feel the same way about him after you hear what he did.” An edge of bitterness crept back into Bennett’s voice as he spoke.
“So what happens now?”
“Now?” Bennett stood up. “Now, I need to get away from here. I’ve done all I can for your brother, if you’re right about your horse then help will be here soon. I don’t intend to be here then. I don’t intend to go to jail.”
Still seated, Joe’s hand strayed towards the top of his boot, and the knife concealed there. He wasn’t about to just let Bennett leave, the man should face some kind of punishment for shooting Adam. He couldn’t just let him walk away, could he?
Dawn was breaking, the shimmering scarlet orb of the sun beginning to rise above the horizon, streaking the sky with ribbons of crimson and apricot.
First light brought Ben and Hoss wearily downstairs. Neither of them had slept, keeping alert for any sign of Adam returning home. Hop Sing scurried out from the kitchen, a plate piled high with bacon in his hands.
“You eat,” he ordered, placing the plate on the table next to the coffee pot. “Need food in stomach before you go find Mister Adam.”
“He’s right, Pa,” Hoss knew his father didn’t feel much like eating, but it would be foolish to ride out without some sustenance. He was heading for the table when the sound of a horse in the yard outside stopped him in his tracks.
Flinging open the door, Ben and Hoss were surprised to see not Adam on Sport as they had expected, but a riderless Cochise. The pinto snorted and tossed his head as the two Cartwrights approached him. Hoss reached out and patted the animal, catching the trailing reins as he did so.
“Joe’s bandana,” Ben reached up to untie the cloth from the horse’s bridle. “Something’s wrong, Hoss.”
“So what do we do?
Ben hesitated, torn by indecision. Adam was still missing, and now it seemed that Joe was in some kind of trouble. Both of his sons could be in danger.
“How about I take a couple of hands with me and ride out to the lumber camp?” Hoss suggested, seeing his father’s dilemma. “You take Will and get up to that line shack. If I find anything I’ll send word, if not I’ll come join you.”
As Ben reluctantly agreed to this plan Hop Sing came bustling out of the house behind them, laden down with flasks of coffee and packs of sandwiches. “If you not eat now, you take food with you,” he muttered, handing everything over to Hoss. “Go find Mister Adam and Mister Little Joe.”
Dark, pain filled eyes regarded Joe as Adam came slowly back to consciousness.
“Hey there, brother,” greatly relieved at Adam’s awakening, Joe smiled down at him.
“Joe,” Adam turned his head, looking beyond his brother to the empty shack. “What happened? Where’s John Bennett?”
“He’s gone,” Joe’s voice was quiet. “Never mind about him now, Adam. How are you feeling?”
“Kind of like someone shot me,” Adam tried to sit up, and was gently, but firmly pushed back by Joe. “Where’s he gone Joe? What happened?”
“I couldn’t stop him,” Joe looked away from Adam. “He had guns, I had a knife…”
“So he got away.”
“I’m sorry,” Joe came to sit on the edge of the bed. Adam saw how tired his brother looked. The late morning sunlight that filled the small room intensified the pallor of the young man’s complexion, the dark shadows beneath his weary eyes.
Adam shifted slightly in the bed, trying to get more comfortable. In doing so, he became aware of the bandages on his arm and shoulder. “Did Bennett do this?” he asked, lifting his arm a little and wincing at the pain it caused him.
Joe nodded, sighing deeply. “He saved your life,” he told Adam softly. “He could have left after he shot you, got clean away. But he seemed to have a change of heart. He stopped the bleeding, bandaged you up, even made me a meal,” he laughed harshly at the memory, and then sobered. “I’m sorry Adam, I really am. This is all my fault. How I could have been stupid enough to let him take me like that in the first place I’ll never know.”
Adam closed his eyes again, grimacing slightly at the pain from his injured shoulder and arm. ‘Hardly Joe’s fault’. he thought tiredly. ‘My own fault if anyone’s. I should have insisted that the law be brought in all those years ago, should never have lied’. His thoughts became disjointed as sleep began to claim him, but one image remained firmly in his mind. The look he had seen in Joe’s eyes when he had admitted his lie. ‘I was wrong,’ he thought to himself. ‘Too easily influenced… thought it was for the best…I was wrong…’ “Not your fault Joe,” he mumbled as sleep claimed him. “Not your fault.”
Joe heard Adam mutter something softly just before he drifted off to sleep, but the words were too quiet for him to make out. Gently adjusting the blanket around his sleeping brother, Joe looked to the window. Bright sunlight shone through the dusty glass, by the position of the sun he reckoned it must be almost noon. Surely if Cochise had made it home all right, help would be with them soon. “Come on Pa,” he whispered under his breath. “Please hurry.”
Ben was surprised to see Sport tethered to the hitching post outside the line shack as he rode up to the building. He didn’t have long to wonder how his eldest son came to be here though; Joe had heard the horses approach and was quickly at the door of the cabin, relieved beyond measure to see his father.
“Joseph, are you all right?” Ben saw the exhaustion etched on his son’s face as Joe came forward to meet him.
“I’m fine, but Adam…he’s been shot, Pa.”
“Shot!” Ben exclaimed in horror, heading rapidly for the cabin. “What happened?”
“He’s going to be all right,” Joe told his father as he followed him in to Adam. “Bennett saved his life.”
Woken by the sound of their voices, Adam turned towards his father and Joe as they approached the narrow bed.
“How are you, son?” Ben asked anxiously, thankful to see that his eldest was conscious and apparently not too badly hurt.
“I’m all right, Pa. Just a bit sore.”
“What exactly happened here?” Ben looked from oldest to youngest son in puzzlement.
“It all started with Bennett…” Joe began, then stopped, as once again a wave of dizziness swept him. Seeing the boy stagger and the blood drain from his already pale face, Ben reacted quickly, reaching out to grab Joe around the waist, supporting him.
“Sorry,” Joe apologised, leaning heavily against his father as Ben led him over to the room’s other bed and lay him down on it. “I’ll be all right, it’s just that I’m so darn tired.”
“I can see that,” Ben smiled fondly down at his youngest, trying not to let his anxiety show. Joe looked really ill, white as a sheet. “You can tell me about it later, try and get some sleep now, by the time you wake up we’ll have a wagon up here to get you and your brother home.”
Joe never even heard the end of the sentence. Worn out by two nights without rest he drifted into sleep almost as soon as he closed his eyes.
“Good morning little brother, time to get up and face the day,” Hoss announced brightly, pulling the drapes back and allowing the daylight to stream into the room.
“Huh, what?” Joe came awake reluctantly, stretching languorously in the warmth of the bedclothes. “What time is it?”
“Past noon. Pa said to let you sleep, you were real tired last night.”
Joe yawned and sat up slowly, running his hands through sleep tousled hair. He had only vague recollections of getting home the day before. His father had woken him and helped him to get into the wagon alongside Adam. He had a hazy memory of Hoss being there and some of the hands, but sleep had soon claimed him again. The only other thing he could recall was climbing the stairs of the ranch house and falling gratefully into his own bed. Reluctantly he pushed the bedclothes aside, and swung his legs to the floor. “How’s Adam?” he asked as he walked over to the washstand and picked up the ewer of water.
“He’s…um…he’s not so good Joe. Kinda took a turn for the worse in the night. Doc Martin’s with him now.”
Even before Hoss finished speaking Joe was out of his room and heading along the landing towards Adam’s. He was almost there when Adam’s door opened and Ben came out, stopping short in surprise at the sight of his youngest son coming toward him, barefoot and clad only in a thin, cotton nightshirt, Hoss behind him.
“What’s happened to Adam?” Joe burst out anxiously. “Is it something Bennett did to him? Is he going to be all right?”
“Joseph, calm down,” Ben put his hands on his son’s slim shoulders and looked at him searchingly. He smiled in satisfaction at what he saw, the dark shadows had disappeared from beneath Joe’s eyes, the colour was back in his face. “It has nothing to do with Bennett. Doctor Martin tells me that if it wasn’t for him, Adam would have died within minutes of being shot.”
“Then what happened? He seemed fine last night.”
“The wound in his shoulder is infected,” Ben drew Joe away from Adam’s room. “He has a high fever and I’m afraid he’s not very well at all at the moment.”
“I want to see him,” Joe twisted away from his father’s hands and started back to his brother’s room.
“No, Joseph,” It was a command, and grudgingly Joe halted. “The doctor’s with him at the moment. You go and get dressed, have some lunch and then we’ll see. Hoss,” Ben looked over at his middle son who was standing watching. “Make sure your brother eats something please. Now go on…get,” he pushed Joe gently but firmly towards his own room.
“He’ll eat,” Hoss assured his father, catching hold of Joe’s arm as they headed away from Ben. Joe scowled blackly at his brother but realised he had no alternative but to do as he was bid.
By the time Joe had managed to force down enough food to satisfy Hoss, who had sat watching his every mouthful, and got back up to Adam’s room, Doc Martin was just about to leave.
“Keep a close eye on his temperature, Ben,” he was saying as Joe quietly entered the room. “Let me know if there’s any change.”
“I will, thank you Paul,” Ben motioned his youngest son to one side as he walked to the door with the doctor. “You’ll be back later?”
“As soon as I can,” The doctor paused on his way out and smiled at Joe. “Well you’re certainly looking better this morning. Worried your father last night, you know. You were so tired we could scarcely rouse you. Could well have been a mild concussion from that bump on your head, my advice is to try and take it easy today. I’ll see you all later.”
Joe looked after the doctor’s retreating back in surprise, he didn’t even remember seeing him the night before.
“The fever’s dropped a little,” Ben’s voice brought Joe’s attention back to the present. “As long as it stays down, Adam will be all right. Now, Joe,” he put an arm around his son’s shoulders and for a moment Joe relaxed in the embrace, feeling the security of his father’s love. “Do you think you could tell me exactly what happened? I understand John Bennett shot your brother, but he also saved him. I just don’t understand why?”
“Didn’t Adam tell you?”
“No, he went to sleep about the same time that you did and by the time we got him back here he was starting to feel ill, so I didn’t like to bother him with too many questions.”
Joe pulled away, and walked over to his brother’s bed. Adam was asleep, blankets drawn up to his neck. He looked pale, though the bright flush of fever burned high on his cheekbones. “Bennett said Adam was responsible for his brother’s death. Said if I wanted to know more I’d have to ask Adam, but I never got the chance.”
“So, why did he save him?”
“I don’t know,” Joe shrugged. “He just said that he’d been wrong. Shooting Adam had changed nothing. I’m sorry, Pa, this is all my fault.”
“Oh. How do you work that out?” Ben came to stand beside Joe. Reaching out he felt Adam’s forehead, checking for fever, relieved to find that the skin was no hotter to his touch than it had been half an hour previously. “I’m the one that took Bennett on here, and we all came to trust him.”
“But I let him capture me!” Joe said angrily. “I let him knock me out, chain me up and lure Adam up to that line shack. He only came because of me. Me, Pa…it’s down to me. If I hadn’t been so stupid Adam wouldn’t have been hurt.”
“Joe, if Bennett was that set on hurting Adam he’d have found some way to do it, whether it involved you or not. You weren’t to blame son,” Ben squeezed his son’s arm consolingly.
‘But you haven’t heard the worst yet, Pa.’ Joe thought, moving away from his father’s touch. ‘How are you going to feel when you hear that I let Bennett go’?
Adam found the room almost dark when he woke. The drapes were still open, letting in what little light remained, and silhouetting the figure of his youngest brother who stood gazing out at the encroaching night.
“Joe?” Adam’s soft enquiry brought his brother swiftly to his side.
“How are you feeling?” Joe reached for matches to light the lamp on the bedside table, only just able to make them out in the gloom. Lost in his thoughts he hadn’t realised how dark the room had become.
“I’m a bit sore,” Adam shut his eyes against the sudden flare of brightness as Joe lit the lamp. “Shoulder aches, and my mouth feels as dry as the desert.”
“I can fix the dry mouth,” Joe told him, reaching for the jug of water and the drinking glass that stood beside the lamp. Pouring a little of the water into the glass he set the jug down, then perching on the edge of the bed, he assisted his brother into a sitting position and handed him the drink. “And I think Doc Martin left some painkiller stuff with Pa.”
Adam drank gratefully, handing the empty glass back to Joe. “How long have I been asleep?”
“All day,” Joe lowered his brother back down on the pillow. “Your fever’s nearly gone though. Doc Martin was out here an hour ago, said you’ll be fine. You want me to get Pa?”
“Not just yet. I want to tell you something first. About what Bennett said, about the lie.”
“You don’t need to explain anything to me,” Joe got quickly to his feet. “Or at least wait till you’re stronger,” he backed toward the door. “I’d better tell Pa you’re awake, he’s been real worried.”
Adam sighed deeply as Joe left the room. The look in his brother’s eyes when he had admitted the lie that had led to Harvey Barnes-Jenkins death was still fresh in Adam’s memory. All Joe’s life Adam had drummed into the boy how important it was to tell the truth, how lying was wrong. What must he be thinking of his older brother now?
“Hey, Pa,” he greeted his father as Ben arrived in the room, alerted by Joe that Adam was awake.
“Hey, yourself,” Ben came over to his son’s bedside. “How are you feeling? The doctor left some painkiller if you need it.”
“No, it’s not that bad,” Adam smiled up at his father; he could see the strain of the last two days on Ben’s face and deliberately brightened his voice attempting to reassure him. “I can manage without the painkiller.”
“Do you think you’re up to telling me what this is all about?” Ben sat down on the side of the bed wearily. “Joe tells me Bennett shot you but then saved you. He also told me that Bennett wasn’t really his name. I was going to ask Roy to get a posse out after the man but if he really saved your life…”
“His name is Barnes-Jenkins,” Adam attempted to pull himself a little higher in the bed. Ben reached to help his son, settling him into a sitting position, pillows plumped up behind him. “I was at college in Boston with his brother Harvey, a real unpleasant young man.”
“Harvey is the one he accused you of lying about?”
“I did lie about him,” Adam told him softly. “I think I must have mentioned a Bob Dawes in my letters home?” Ben nodded, he vaguely remembered the name. “Well, Bob had an older sister, Juliet. One night there was a party at Bob’s parents house. Harvey showed up. He’d had a few too many to drink but no one wanted to cause a scene by throwing him out. To cut a long, sordid story short Harvey got even drunker, found his way into Juliet’s room and…er…took advantage of her.”
He saw the shock in his father’s dark brown eyes and took a deep breath before continuing. “Mr. Dawes reported it to the college and they decided to send Harvey home, remove him from the college. But the Dawes family didn’t want anyone to know what had happened, to protect Juliet’s reputation. So, with the cooperation of the college, they decided to make out that Harvey had cheated at an examination.”
“That was the lie?”
“Yes, that was the lie. Bob begged me to go along with it. I became the ‘witness’ to Harvey’s cheating and he was sent home. I wasn’t sure about it, thought the law ought to be brought in, but…”
“You decided to go along with it for Bob and Juliet’s sake. I can understand that son. I don’t condone lying, but I see the reason for it in this case.”
“Thing is Pa, Harvey killed himself six months later. I heard he couldn’t live with the shame of being thought a cheat. That’s why his brother came after me, he blamed me for his death.”
“And do you blame yourself?”
“For Harvey’s death? No,” Adam shook his head emphatically. “I’ve always assumed that he couldn’t live with the real reason for his disgrace, not my lie. I do feel guilty about lying though, that was wrong. If the law had been brought in at the time, everyone would have known the truth. Harvey would have been sent to prison and his brother would never have spent all these years plotting revenge. Because of that lie, however justified it seemed at the time, Joe’s life was put at risk, I was nearly killed and…”
“And?” Ben repeated as Adam stopped talking and shifted uncomfortably in his bed.
“I told Bennett that I’d lied. Admitted it, but I never got to tell him why. You should have seen the look on Joe’s face, Pa. Bet the kid thinks I’m a real hypocrite right now.”
“The ‘kid’, as you call him, has spent all afternoon and evening up here watching over you. He feels guilty for letting his guard down over Bennett, he thinks it’s his fault you were shot.”
“But I told him he wasn’t to blame, that it wasn’t his fault…at least I think I did.”
“I think you two need to sort this out,” Ben said, getting to his feet and straightening the blanket where he had been sitting. “But not right now. You need to rest, get yourself a good night’s sleep. I’ll talk to Little Joe.”
Glad to hand the problem over; Adam smiled wearily at his father and closed his eyes.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with that little brother of mine, but he’s working himself into a real fret over something.”
Looking up from his desk as his middle son approached, Ben sighed. “I know he is.” he agreed. “And I just wish I knew what it was. It’s obviously to do with the John Bennett thing, but every time I try to talk to him about it he changes the subject.”
“Did the same with me, Pa. In fact good as told me to mind my own business.”
“Yesterday when I told him the full story about Bennett he seemed to be fine with it,” Ben said worriedly. “And Adam seemed pretty sure that they’d sorted it out between them. Joe told him he understood his reasons for lying about Bennett’s brother when he saw him yesterday morning, but since then Joe seems to be avoiding Adam.”
“He did bolt out of here pretty quick when Hop Sing asked if someone would take Adam’s lunch upstairs,” Hoss agreed, wandering across to the window. Looking out he could see his younger brother where he had just left him, standing leaning on the hitching post apparently deep in thought. “Has Adam said anything?”
“No,” Ben stood up and came to stand alongside Hoss. “But he’s been sleeping a lot so hasn’t really noticed who’s been in to see him.”
“I think I’ll go up and see if he’s awake now,” Hoss turned from the window. “You gonna have a word with Little Joe?”
“I suppose I’d better try,” Ben sighed again as he left his place by the window, and headed for the door. He didn’t think talking to Joe would get him far, his youngest son had already declared that there was “nothing wrong” even though it was patently obvious that there was. Pausing with his hand on the door handle, Ben glanced round at Hoss who was just starting up the stairs to Adam’s room. “Wait a minute, son,” he called. “I’ve got an idea that just might work.”
Joe wasn’t the least bit surprised to see his father emerge from the house and make his way across the yard towards him. Since his angry exchange with Hoss minutes before, he had been expecting Ben’s arrival. “I might have guessed he’d come complaining to you,” he said defensively as his father reached his side.
“Hoss didn’t ‘come complaining’. He’s worried about you, we both are,” Ben put an arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Something’s on your mind son and it’s obviously upsetting you.”
“Nothing is upsetting me,” Joe flared, shrugging off Ben’s arm and turning to glare at him. “I keep telling you I’m fine. Why don’t you just let me be?”
“Very well,” Ben shrugged, raising his hands in front of him in a gesture of defeat. “I won’t say another word on the subject.”
“Well…good,” Joe frowned, faintly puzzled; he hadn’t expected his father to give up the interrogation that easily. “I… er…I was just about to go and make a start on breaking those horses. It’s about time I got started.”
“That’s fine Joseph, but first I’d like you to go up and see Adam for a moment.”
“Why?” Alarm flickered across Joe’s face. “He’s not worse is he?”
“No, he’s not. He’d just like to see you that’s all.”
“Can’t it wait, Pa? I’ve got work to do. I can go see Adam later.”
“Joe,” Ben looked searchingly at his son. The boy dropped his gaze obviously unwilling to meet his father’s eyes. “You don’t blame Adam for this thing with Bennett do you?”
“Blame Adam!” Joe was incredulous. “Of course not, I told him that.”
“Then go and see him son – please.”
Joe heaved a sigh of exasperation, managing to convey just how inconvenient it was to visit his brother right now, but he did at least head into the house. With a small smile playing on his lips, Ben watched him go. He just hoped that his idea worked.
“Hey there, Joe,” Adam looked up from the book he was reading to see his youngest brother standing uncertainly in the doorway. “Come on in.”
“You sure you’re up to visitors?” Joe asked, advancing slowly towards the bed. “You probably need to rest. I can come back later.”
“I’ve done plenty of resting,” Adam closed his book firmly and laid it down on the bedside table. “I want to hear what’s going on with you. Hoss tells me you’re still fretting about Bennett.”
“I’m not fretting over anything,” Joe denied quickly. “I’m just fine. I can’t stop long, got a lot of work to do – going to make a start with the horse breaking.”
Adam watched his brother. Joe was obviously eager to get away, shuffling his feet impatiently as he stood beside the bed. “Sit down,” he invited, indicating the chair on the other side of the bed. “And tell me what the problem is.”
“There…is…no…problem!” Joe enunciated the words slowly and clearly, only just holding his temper. “Why do you all keep insisting there is?”
“Because anyone with eyes can see you’re upset over something. You don’t exactly hide it well.”
“I’m going to work,” Joe turned away angrily. “I’ve got better things to do than listen to this.”
Before Joe could reach the door Hoss stepped in to the room and barred the way. Joe moved to duck around him but Hoss planted himself firmly in the doorway, arms folded across his chest.
“What is this?” Joe was fuming now. “Get out of the way!”
“Not till you talk to Adam,” Hoss was implacable. “And I can stand here all day if necessary.”
For a moment it looked as if Joe was about to fight his way out of the room, as jaw set, he pulled his arm back, fist clenching. As Hoss watched unmoving, a flicker of misery flashed in the boy’s eyes and he dropped his arm.
“I let him go,” Joe’s voice was barely above a whisper. “I…I…let him go.”
“Bennett?” Adam asked from the bed.
Joe turned to face his oldest brother, guilt etched deeply on his face. He nodded desolately. “I’m sorry Adam,”
“But you said…”
“I said he had guns and I had a knife, which was true. I said I couldn’t stop him which was true, I just couldn’t,”
“I see,” Adam nodded in understanding. “And that’s what has been gnawing at you?”
“When he shot you, I hated him,” Joe said softly, sitting down on the edge of Adam’s bed. “I wanted to kill him. Then I saw what he did, he worked on you for ages, he saved your life. Even so I wanted him to pay for hurting you, bring him to justice. I was just waiting for an opportunity to jump him.”
“But you didn’t?”
“No,” Joe shook his head. “He just seemed so genuinely sorry. He said he had been wrong, that he should never have shot you. That he knew now that what he really wanted was to save lives, not take them.”
“And you believed him?”
“Yes,” Joe stated simply. “I did.”
“And now you feel guilty about letting him go?”
“I shouldn’t have done it,” Joe said softly, looking up to meet Adam’s eyes. “It shouldn’t have been my decision to let him off. That should have been down to a court of law.”
“I think it was the right decision, Joe. Bennett did wrong sure, but he also put right his wrong. You were right to let him go.”
Joe felt tears of relief well up at Adam’s words and blinked them away rapidly. The feelings of guilt he had been carrying lifted away and he smiled happily at his brother, glad things were back to normal. Behind him Hoss slipped quietly away from his position by the door and headed downstairs to let Ben know that, for a while at least, Adam and Joe were friends again.
The seasons had come and gone, fall was once again showing its colours on the Ponderosa. Returning from Virginia City one brisk October afternoon Adam found his father and youngest brother relaxing in the great room of the ranch house.
“Picked up the mail, Pa,” Adam handed a sheaf of letters to his father. “And a friend of mine from New York sent me something which might interest you, Joe.”
Joe looked up in surprise as Adam reached out to hand him an item obviously clipped from a New York newspaper.
“It says that an underground railway system has been opened in London,” Joe read. “Trains running right beneath the sidewalks,” puzzled, he looked up at his brother. “I guess that’s pretty fascinating all right Adam.”
“It’s an amazing feat of engineering,” Adam smiled. “But the article I thought might be of interest to you is on the other side.”
Turning the paper over Joe scanned the newsprint, his eyes widening in surprise at what he read. “So, that’s where he went,”
“Who went?” Ben asked, looking up from his letters.
“It’s just a small piece, Pa,” Adam said, taking the paper from Joe and handing it to his father. “About students who graduated from the School of Medicine at Columbia University this year.”
Ben frowned as he took the paper and began to read. Half way through the list of graduates he stopped. There, plainly printed, for all to see was the name of a new doctor of medicine. John Barnes-Jenkins of Boston.
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Family, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, revenge
6 thoughts on “A Kind Of Wild Justice (by KateP)”
Loved this story!!! The brotherly bond between Adam and Joe was well done, great job!!
I liked this! I agree with Marla – Redem I thought is good for the soul. It’s sad that the author has left us.
Good story with a great ending. thanks
This reminded me of a Little House episode with the bad buy repenting and being forgiven. Enjoyed it!
I read this story ages ago. Just popping in for a reread, Kate. Nicely done!
Ah nice ending to an exciting story ?