Summary: A brief stop to do some fishing on the way home from a business trip could be potentially deadly for Hoss.
Rating: T Word Count: 8039
Once spring arrived in earnest, Hoss arranged a trip to Placerville to meet with a prominent rancher in that area about some new breeding stock. To celebrate his successful negotiations for the purchase of a grand bull, he decided to stop by one of his favorite fishing spots, a creek not far from Taylors Landing at the south end of Lake Tahoe. After retrieving the small pouch that held fishing line and hooks, Hoss cut a sapling to use as a pole, and positioned himself on a rocky outcropping that stuck out into the water. His time was well spent and soon he was rewarded for his effort.
“Hmm, hmmm, hmmm! Aren’t ya a fine lookin’ buncha trout! Hop Sing is gonna fry ya up real crispy like and iffen Adam, Joe, and Pa asks real nice I might jest let ’em have a little piece!”
Hoss chuckled heartily as he held up eight good-sized fish that gleamed in the bright April sun. He reached around behind him on the rocky ledge for his canvas bag to put the fish into for transporting them to the ranch. He heard the tell-tale rattle and instantly felt searing pain in his lower arm. Chubb whinnied from afar hearing his owner’s painful groan. Hoss’ lovely catch slipped down the rocky embankment into the water as he grabbed the rattler. Ripping it from his flesh, he flung it out into the creek.
“Uhh, ow, dammit!”
Reflex brought his meaty hand over to cover the bite. Immediately his mind kicked into action. Hoss tried to keep his left arm still while he worked quickly to unbuckle his gun belt and then pull the belt from his pants. He wrapped his large forearm with his belt just above the fang marks that were now oozing blood and pulled it tight. He sucked his arm at the sight of the wound in an attempt to remove some of the venom and forcefully spit deadly fluid to the side. He did this several times hoping to keep at least some of the poison from moving further into his bloodstream. Grabbing his canteen, Hoss took a drink and rinsed his mouth. Repeating this process a few times, he finally took a long draw before replacing the lid.
Hoss panted nervously trying to keep his wits about him. He shielded his eyes as he looked up toward the sun. He judged it to be a couple of hours before noon. Though he knew that moving about was risky and would probably advance the effects of the poison, he was alone and also needed to find shelter. He had not seen another soul in the time he had been fishing. He picked up his gun belt and canteen and moved with purpose to where his horse was picketed in the shade a short distance from the water.
“Chubb, ole buddy, I done got myself in a real mess here.” His horse nickered as Hoss leaned hard into Chubb’s head.
The big man dug into his saddlebag and pulled out a small flask of whiskey and a roll of cloth. He poured some of the amber liquid over his arm, wincing as it hit the open wounds. He took a swig and returned the bottle to the leather bag. He bandaged the area and prepared to mount up. Pausing briefly, he had the presence of mind to leave a marker of some broken branches for his family to follow if by chance they were able to find him. Hoss grimaced as he hoisted himself into the saddle. His arm was throbbing and he was already beginning to see red swelling on both sides of the dressing. Still hours from home and a doctor, he opted to follow a path he had seen leading away from the creek and nudged Chubb toward the trail.
The motion of his horse caused his stomach to churn as the poison began to affect his vision. He held tightly to the saddle horn to keep himself upright. A few minutes later the nausea got the best of him. He leaned over to try to keep from spewing the contents of his stomach down his leg and onto his horse. Only partially successful, Hoss swiped a hand across his face, barely keeping himself in the saddle, and urged Chubb on. Visions of his father and brothers passed before his eyes. He had no sense of time. A faint silly smile came to his face when Hoss thought that his family had found him, but it was all a hallucination.
“Pa? Pa my arm…I got myself bit by a rattler..Pa?” He mumbled with slurred speech.
Hoss swayed to and fro. His left arm and hand were swelling rapidly and becoming no use for steadying himself. Chubb plodded slowly forward, sensing his master was in dire straights.
Sometime later, though Hoss had no idea whether it was hours or days, he momentarily showed signs of coming out of the murky fog of his poison induced stupor. His vision was blurry and he had no sense of where he was, except that he was in a bed and it was dark. The face of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman glowed with an ethereal aura as she leaned over him mopping his brow with a cool cloth.
“Mama? Did I go ta be with ya? Mama”, he croaked out in a faint whisper. Hoss tried to reach up toward the woman’s face, but his arm fell back to the bed with a thud. Sapping all his strength, he slipped back into blackness.
“You take good care of him, understand-” an authoritative voice called from the shadows, “-a big clod like that can move a lot of rock if he survives and gets his strength back.”
Not even daring to look his way, the young woman nodded obediently. “Yes, sir. I will, sir.”
The man leered at his prisoners with satisfaction. In his current state, Hoss had no knowledge or any sensation of the shackles that bound his ankles and were secured with heavy chains to metal rings in the floor of the house where he laid.
Hoss had wired his family before leaving Placerville; so Ben was not overly concerned when Hoss failed to arrive at the ranch in time for dinner that evening. Ben realized that his son might have had to spend the last night in one of the Ponderosa line shacks depending on how the trip had gone. Yet as a loving father, he always felt uncomfortable when there was even the slightest possibility that something had gone awry and prevented one of his sons from getting home in a timely fashion. However when Hoss still had not arrived by supper the following day, Ben grew antsy and anxious, pushing his food around his plate and not participating in dinner time conversation.
“Pa, Hoss probably just decided to spend a couple days fishing. You know how much he loves that area just beyond the borders of the ranch,” Adam offered as reassurance.
Ben looked up from his plate and grumbled. “Yes, but how many fish can one man bring back on a horse?”
“On Chubb, a couple of barrels full,” Joe winked at Adam and snickered.
“Right!” Ben growled. “Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving early just to make sure nothing has happened to him.” He forked a bit of meat and forced himself to eat it, though he had no appetite for it.
Adam and Joe looked at each other in resignation. They knew from experience that there would be no changing their father’s mind and that he would get little sleep until Hoss was located. The next morning Ben was not entirely surprised to find Adam and Joe standing at the hitching rail with their horses and Buck who was also saddled and ready to go.
“So you boys don’t have any work to do this morning?” Ben asked tongue in cheek.
“Nothing that won’t keep,” Adam said, unable to hide his smirk.
Joe shrugged and mounted Cochise. It was too early for him to make an attempt at something humorous to say.
Ben gave his sons a sympathetic smile. “Let’s go find your brother.”
The plan was to ride toward the line shack that sat near Lake Tahoe at the southwest border of the Ponderosa and check some of Hoss’ favorite haunts along the way. They reached the shack around noon, but there were no signs that Hoss had passed that way or spent a night in the line shack. Ben decided to push on through to Taylors Landing even though it would be getting dark by the time they arrived. There were raucous voices coming from the East Bay Saloon as the threesome tied their horses to the rail.
“Give us three beers,” Adam asked the husky bartender who proceeded to pour three mugs in short order. “Any chance we can get something to eat?”
The rough-cut man looked at Adam like he was half crazy. “What do you think this is, some fancy hotel or somethin’?”
Ben gave the gruff man a conciliatory look. “Most other places are closed up for the evening, but if you’ve got anything edible, we’ll take it. We’ve been riding hard all day.”
The bartender huffed and dried his hands on his towel. “I’ll go see if the cook left anything on the stove.”
Joe gave the bartender a questionable look when he returned with three plates of stew. “That’ll be three bucks. Take it or leave it.”
Adam reached into his pocket to retrieve three coins. “We’ll take it. Thanks for your trouble.” The bartender’s expression softened a bit. Adam used the opening to try to get some information. “By the way, would you happen to have seen a great big fella wearing a tall white hat in the the past few days?”
The bartender shrugged. “Nope, can’t say that I have. You can ask around, but good luck findin’ someone in any condition to give ya a straight answer!”
The Cartwrights scanned the room for an open table and came to the same conclusion as the bartender. They found some seats and began eating the unappealing stew that they had been given.
When finished, Joe covered his mouth with his fist and belched uncomfortably. “Man I sure hope that stays down. Wishing now I had just waited for breakfast.” He pounded his chest hoping to settle his food.
Ben arched a brow at his youngest and pushed back his plate. “So where do we go from here, boys?”
Adam chewed his last bite and set down his fork. “I’m pretty sure that little creek Hoss likes to fish is not far from here. I say we head that direction and see what we can find.”
“Alright then. Let’s grab an early breakfast and head out to this fishing spot. I hope and pray we find your brother sitting on a rock surrounded by a pile of fish!” Ben’s voice grew louder with each word he spoke.
Adam and Joe recognized their father’s frustrated humor as his way of covering for his ever increasing concern for Hoss. They, too, were beginning to wonder what had delayed their brother and hoped for the best.
Hoss mumbled incoherently and thrashed about in the bed from the pain in his arm and his inability to change position due to the shackles. He had a sense that someone in the room kept fussing with the bandage on his arm. He moaned and called out for his family in his delirium.
The young blonde meticulously tended Hoss’ snakebite, changing the herbal poultice on his arm every few hours. She had a feeling about this big man. Even in his debilitated condition she sensed goodness and sincerity in him. She had pity on him when he called out for his family, but it was his calling for his mother that tore at her heart. Misfortune had landed her at this abandoned farmstead over a year ago. Her own family had come west for a new start and occupied the farm, but, when sickness took her parents and siblings, she was forced to hire herself out as an indentured servant to a man named Josiah Bolton. Beaten into submission for even the slightest infraction, she was now carrying his child, and though she was not bed-bound like Hoss, she felt poisoned by Bolton and had grown to hate him. Yet when she ran her hand over her ever expanding belly, she could not help but have feelings for a child that was half hers. Sally began praying that this giant of a man that she was caring for would somehow help her get out of her deplorable situation.
The following morning, the Cartwright men rode southeast from Taylors Landing and picked up a creek not far from town. The grasses and brush were lush and green along the babbling waters making it an obvious place where Hoss would enjoy spending time. Joe crossed to the opposite side as they rode along checking for sign.
Joe whistled and waved for Adam and his father to cross over. “Hey, there’s a path leading away from the water and it looks like a horse might have been tied up here.”
They dismounted to get a better look at the area.
Adam pointed to the rocky shelf nearby. “Those rocks would be a great place to sit and fish. I’m going to go have a look.” He returned in minutes with a sapling pole and Hoss’ leather pouch of hooks and line. “There’s no doubt now that Hoss was here. This is his pouch with his mark.”
Ben was not sure whether to be relieved or more concerned.
Adam now examined the trees intently. “There! See those. He left us a marker. We better see where that trail leads.”
Within seconds, they were back in the saddle and following the worn path with renewed hope.
Ben and his sons followed the narrow path away from the creek. They rode about a quarter of a mile and saw a clearing ahead. There was movement in the tall brush on the left which they chose not to acknowledge to one another, but it verified that someone was watching their approach. Almost in unison, each Cartwright freed his revolver from its safety loop, just in case it would be necessary. They soon reached a small, ramshackle homestead and barn. A tall man with a shotgun resting in the crook of his elbow came out onto the porch before they could even get dismounted. He was better dressed than his surroundings would have suggested he should be which immediately drew suspicions in the minds of Ben and the boys.
Josiah Bolton was cautiously congenial in his greeting. “Mornin’. You’re kind of off the beaten path. Something I can do for you?”
“My name is Ben Cartwright and these are my sons. We have reason to believe that my middle son has been in this area. He should have returned home a few days ago and we are trying to locate him.”
“My name’s Bolton…Cartwright, you, say? Don’t you own a big spread not far from here?” Bolton attempted to make some small talk without seeming pushy.
Ben straightened himself in the saddle resting his gloved hands on the horn. “Yes the Ponderosa. Northeast of here. My son Hoss was returning from Placerville.”
“I don’t get away from the farm much. Haven’t seen anyone I wouldn’t recognize as local for a long time. Did you check in town?”
“Yes, we were there last night.”
“What does he look like?…Just in case he would happen to turn up here?”
Inside, Hoss stirred at the sound of voices. “Pa? Pa,” he murmured.
Sally looked at Hoss with surprise. She wracked her brain trying to think of some way to make Hoss’ presence known to his family without drawing the attention of the guard standing behind the door.
“Keep him quiet,” the guard hissed at her.
“I’ll get him a drink,” she whispered moved to a stand by the window..
Just that moment, a horse began to whinny from behind the barn. Bolton took note when Joe turned in the direction of the sound. What Bolton could not see was the curtain moving in the window behind him, something that both Adam and Ben did notice but did not let on.
“Get away from that window or I’ll knock you flat,” was the guard’s hoarse whisper to Sally.
Adam pushed the discussion forward outside hoping to distract Bolton. “He’s tall, like yourself, only larger in build. He wears big white hat and rides a good-sized, dark gelding, fifteen hands, with a white blaze.”
Bolton ignored the noisy horse, and continued on. “Big horse for a big man, I guess. I’ll keep a eye out for your son and tell him you’re looking for him, if in the outside chance I’d happen to see him. Hope you find him soon. Have a good day.” Bolton nodded to them in dismissal.
“Thanks for you help. Good day.” Ben touched the brim of hat and the three Cartwrights turned to follow the path back to the creek.
Sally had a cup of water and cloth in her hands trying to moisten Hoss’ lips when Bolton entered the house.
“Your gal just about gave us away!” The guard related angrily to his boss.
Bolton moved quickly across the room and slapped Sally with the back of his hand knocking her off her chair and sending the cup she held flying. “I don’t need you so much that you might not end up in the ground right beside your folks, you hear me!”
Sally covered her stinging face with her hand as the tears rolled down her cheeks. “Yes sir, it was an accident, sir. I was just trying to get him a drink.”
She knew from experience that no excuse would save her from Bolton’s wrath. She cringed in preparation for the next blow as Bolton raised his hand again.
The commotion brought Hoss fully into reality and he raised himself up on his elbows. “Don’t you hit her! What kinda man are you that would do somethin’ like that to a woman?”
If looks could kill, Bolton would have been dead, but instead Hoss found a shotgun pressed to his chest. It was then that he realized his feet were chained and that he was in no position or condition to help the young woman. That, however, did not change his expression.
“Well, well. So you are going to survive that snakebite after all.” Bolton gave Hoss an evil grin. “You needn’t worry about Miss Sally. You’re going to be working in the mine in a matter of days at the rate you’re recovering. Should’ve guessed it would take more than just a run-of-the-mill rattlesnake to kill a man your size.” Bolton laughed. “You’ll soon be thankful just to be alive and have some food in your belly. What happens to this little gal will be the least of your worries!” He turned to the guard. “You stay here and keep a close eye on them, Mac. I’m going to the mine for a while. I think I’ll have Jolley saddle up and follow those Cartwrights just to make sure they’re not getting suspicious and hanging around.”
Josiah Bolton patted his pocket, making sure that he had the key to the shackles on him and walked out the door. Hoss kept quiet, but he had a feeling that his father and brothers would be back. At least, he hoped and prayed that was the case.
At the creek, Ben, Adam, and Joe stopped to water the horses and discuss what had just transpired.
“That was Chubb, Pa, I know it was!” Joe pitched a stone into the creek in his frustration.
“Yes, I believe you are right, Joe, but the problem is we have no idea what we are up against.” Adam pulled a long stem of grass to chew on. “I think someone in the house wanted us to know they were there, whether it was Hoss or who knows who.”
A rider came trotting toward them on the path and waved in a nonchalant manner as he turned and headed in the direction of Taylors Landing.
Ben sighed and patted Buck’s rump more to comfort himself than the horse. “Well, we know now for sure that Bolton wasn’t the only man on the premises.”
“For all we know that man rode this way just to see what we were up to.” Adam pulled the stalk of grass from his mouth to point toward the man in question. “I don’t think we have any choice but to make it appear as if we are headed back toward town. In fact, maybe we should push the issue and see what he does.”
“Alright, but if we are planning to come back tonight, we can’t get too far away.” Ben scowled. He was concerned that Adam’s plan might set events in motion that they were not prepared to handle, but he also knew his son had good instincts about such things. Ben had a feeling that one way or another, they would have some answers soon.
Sally got up off the floor after Bolton left. She picked up the metal cup from the other side of the room. Mac smirked at her with disdain, feeling that she had gotten what she deserved from his boss.
Sally had become hardened to Mac’s ways and ignored his looks as she moved back to stand beside the bed. “Would you like more to drink?”
“That would be nice. I’m kinda dry.” Hoss gave her a sad, sympathetic smile, unable to keep himself from focusing on the bright red blotch on her face where Bolton had struck her. “How long have I been here?”
Mac laughed in derision and jumped into the conversation without invitation. “You rode in, if that’s what you call it, two days ago, weak as a baby, and practically fell off your horse in front of the porch.”
Sally nodded to Hoss in confirmation and went to pour some more water for him. He pushed himself up enough to take a drink when she offered him the cup.
She was relieved to see this big, friendly man take several sips of water. “Do you think you could eat a little bit?”
“Maybe, but not much and please keep it light.”
Mac choked out another laugh. “Well now, aren’t you two just the sweetest thing I ever did see, talkin’ all polite to each other and all. Big man, you best not be gettin’ any designs on Sally there. We have ways of takin’ care of men who get outta line, even big ones like you! And if you think what he did to her was bad, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Sally immediately left the room to go to the kitchen. She knew that Mac was no physical threat to her, but just as he had done only minutes before, he would not hesitate to inform Bolton if he felt is was necessary.
The Cartwrights followed Jolley at a safe distance. After a while, Adam could see they were coming to a copse of trees where the creek took a sharp turn. With low voices, a plan was devised for Adam to cut off as he determined it to be the most likely place for Jolley to double-back. Ben and Joe were to continue on, closing the gap a bit more. If Jolley disappeared from sight, they were to keep riding toward toward town while Adam attempted to sneak up from behind and take him by surprise before he realized Adam was missing.
When he felt he was in the best position, Adam left the creek side and took off into the trees. He went a short distance and dismounted leaving Sport behind to move more quietly on foot. Jolley peeked over his shoulder once he thought he was out of view of the riders behind him. He sat for a few minutes out of sight waiting for them to pass by. Just as he realized there were only two riders he heard the click of a revolver behind him.
“Drop your gun and then your rifle. Nice and easy. Don’t give me an excuse to put a bullet in you. I guarantee I won’t miss from this distance.” Adam ordered.
Jolley’s hands went out from his sides and he gingerly dropped his revolver and rifle to the forest floor.
“Now get down.” Adam was prepared to put a bullet in Jolley’s leg if need be.
Jolley moved with care to get down from his horse and turned toward Adam. Within moments Ben and Joe rode up to see Adam with his gun trained on Jolley. Joe practically launched himself off of Cochise to be by his brother’s side, thrilled that the plan had worked to perfection.
Ben dismounted and moved more deliberately toward the man standing before his sons. Ben’s dark eyes burned with anger. “We need some answers to some questions and we need them now! If my son is being held against his will, there are going to be serious consequences for all involved. And if you are party to any illegal activities, things will go much better for you if you cooperate.”
Jolley looked away and spit on the ground as if to say he was not a pushover and would not relinquish any information.
“Like my father said, we can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way.” Adam’s steely gaze bore down on Jolley. “We would prefer to solve this with words, but if you insist, my little brother, here, would be more than happy to help me get the answers we need!”
Adam and Joe began to move toward Jolley. Joe rubbed his gloved left fist just itching to exact retribution for any part Jolley might have played in Hoss’ disappearance. Jolley stepped backward and seriously considered running even if it meant he would take a bullet, Then at least he could say that Adam had shot an unarmed man. He rapidly tried to process his options, none of which were looking good, including having to lie to Bolton if somehow he did manage to get away.
“You promise you’ll protect me from Bolton and the others and that I won’t hang?” Jolley pleaded with his captors.
Ben and Joe exchanged worried glances while Adam remained focused on their prisoner.
Adam’s jaw tightened. “So that does mean that Bolton is holding my brother?” Jolley nodded keeping his eyes downcast. “Then I promise if you help us take down Bolton, we will do our level best to protect you and see to it that you get a reduced sentence if you are convicted of any crimes. Agreed?”
Seeing no way out, Jolley nodded again, this time in total defeat and ready to cooperate.
“Alright, then, we want to hear it ALL! Every last detail!” Ben growled.
When Josiah Bolton took on Sally as his servant, he gained the property that her family had been homesteading. By appearances the house and barn were nothing much, but she told Bolton early on that her brothers used to play in a cave a little way from the house. In actuality, the cave had been mined by someone years ago. Upon further investigation, Bolton unearthed a new vein of gold. After hiring some men to work as his thugs, he gathered the down-and-outs from Taylors Landing with the promise of employment only to turn them into his slaves. Some of them had died due to the harsh conditions and lack of proper medical care. In his weakened state, Hoss had become Bolton’s most recent victim. There was a problem, though, if Jolley did not show up back at the farm and report to his boss that the Cartwrights had moved on. And as far as Jolley knew, Hoss was still quite ill and he was not certain that Hoss would pull through. Time was of the essence as Ben, Adam, and Joe worked to prepare to take on Josiah Bolton and his henchmen.
Sally offered Hoss some thin porridge as a start to getting him back on his feet again. He had heard stories about people who had been bitten by rattlers. Some had barely been affected by the poison, some had been sick for weeks, and others had died within hours or days. He was very thankful to apparently be one of the lucky ones. The porridge seemed to sit well and he ate a second bowl with a short break in between the two. Though Mac said nothing, Hoss was very aware that the guard was watching him closely. Hoss would have liked to ask Sally many questions, but he did not want to put her in a position to receive any more punishment from Bolton.
As the day went on, Hoss grew increasingly uncomfortable. Nature was calling loudly since he was back to eating and drinking. Yet he was trying to hold out as long as possible. He had a feeling that his family would be back when it got dark. His worry was that Bolton would return from the mine soon. For the moment Mac was the only one guarding him. Not having been on his feet for two days, Hoss was not sure how he would feel once upright. He prayed that even with shackles on his feet he might be able to catch Mac by surprise and overpower the smaller man, possibly during the trip out to the “necessary” or back.
As Hoss contemplated his plan, his father and brothers were at work laying out their own plan while questioning Jolley about how many men Bolton had working for him and their routines.
“Yeah, six of us rotate work as Bolton’s goffer, that’s me today, a sentry along the trail to the farm, three in the mine making sure the work gets done, and one on night duty in the barn keeping watch over the workers. I think we got ’bout fifteen workin’ the mine right now. That big ‘un of yours, he had stay in the house cuz it woulda taken all us ta move him ta the barn. ‘Sides he’s been right sick from that snakebite he got. Of course Bolton always gets ta sleep in the house at night with Sally.”
Heads shot up. Ben looked at Jolley in disbelief, suddenly moving toward him, but then grabbing his hat and smacking his leg as he turned around. Adam had been worried about Joe taking out his frustration on Jolley, however for a moment he thought it was going to be his father that he would have to restrain.
Adam gave Jolley a hard look and kicked a rock by his foot. “Why didn’t you tell us this before? This complicates things even more.”
“All you asked about was what Bolton was doin’ and how many men he has workin’ for him. Why would a little ole gal matter anyways. She ain’t gonna stop you. She hates Bolton cuz she’s carryin’ his baby. Oh she don’t say much, cuz he would beat the livin’ daylights outta her, but I’ve seen the look on her face when Bolton’s not lookin’. She’d probably do whatever she could ta help ya. Too bad for her, cuz I think she was probly a nice gal up until Bolton got ahold of her.”
The Cartwrights exchanged glances before Adam pressed Jolley for clarification. “So just for the record, are there any other women or children on the property?”
“Naw. We had an old woman cookin’ for us for a while, but she got sick and kicked off.”
Ben shook his head in disgust and turned to walk away.
Jolley’s face flashed with contempt at Ben’s reaction and he yelled after the eldest Cartwright. “Ya know ya may get Arlo, but if you’re plannin’ on waltzin’ up ta Bolton with me and him as your hostages, you can just forget about that. Bolton don’t care about anybody but hisself. He’d gladly put a bullet in anyone of us if it got him more gold or it saved his greedy hide.”
Though the situation appeared dire, Adam called his father back to discuss how they would take out the sentry. Provided they were successful, it would bring the odds a little closer in their favor with three Cartwrights against Bolton and the remaining four hired guns. Still, there were so many variables to consider with Hoss sick, a pregnant woman in the house, and fifteen, give or take, innocent people to worry about getting caught in the potential crossfire.
Now late afternoon back at the farmhouse, Hoss could wait no longer. “Hey, there. I gotta use the necessary.”
Mac who was half snoozing in a chair and lifted his hat. I ain’t got the key; so you’re jest gonna hafta hold it or wet yurself.” Mac grinned in condescension.
Sally heard Mac’s comment from the kitchen and brought a small crock and blanket to hold up.
As she handed the crock to Hoss, it suddenly dawned on Mac that she might have hidden a knife it. “Hey, hold it. Let me see that.”
Thinking it was probably his only opportunity, Hoss smacked Mac on the side of the head with the crock. It didn’t knock the man out, but it gave Hoss an advantage to wrench the rifle from the guard’s hand.
Sally used the confusion of the scuffle to grab Mac’s revolver and now stood a few feet from the bed holding it with shaky hands. “Back off, Mac!”
Hoss cocked the rifle and took aim.
Mac threw his hands up and laughed a mirthless laugh. “You two are crazy! Even with guns, you’re never gonna get outta here! The mine is less than a quarter mile from here and Arlo’s no more than that up the trail. You start shootin’ at me or those chains and you’re gonna draw a crowd!”
“Shut up and drag that chair to the far corner over there and sit down!” Hoss kept the rifle aimed at the chatty guard.” Mac scowled, but did as he was told. “Sally give me that pistol and go to the kitchen and get a long skinny knife. I’m gonna need ya ta get this lock off before somebody shows up back here at the house.”
The young woman looked at Hoss with uncertainty. “But I’ve never done anything like that before.”
Hoss didn’t turn her way but reached out to take the handgun from her. “It’s ok, I’ll tell ya what ta do.” Sally returned quickly with the knife Hoss requested. “Ok now ya need ta put the end of the knife in the keyhole and turn but don’t force it and break the tip off.”
“Hoss, I don’t know if I can do it! What if Mr. Bolton comes!” Sally was going into a panic from the pressure of being the one now responsible for freeing Hoss.
Mac laughed heartily thoroughly enjoying the scene and doing his best to rattle Sally even more.
“You shut up over there or I’ll give you a reason ta make some noise.” The look on Hoss’ face convinced Mac to keep his mouth shut. “Ok, now Miss Sally, just take a deep breath. Think ’bout how the key would turn in the lock and give it a try.” Sally did as Hoss instructed, but nothing happened. “It’s ok, Sally, just keep tryin’.” Beads of perspiration trickled down the sides of Hoss’ face.
Sally pulled the knife out and used a different angle. After a few attempts, they finally heard a click.
“That’s it! Yank on the lock!”
The lock opened when Sally pulled on it. She fed the chain through the rings on the shackles, and gave Hoss a big smile. It was the first time she had really smiled in a very long time.
“We ain’t gonna take the time ta mess with the bands right now. At least I’ll be able ta walk.
Hoss swung his legs over the side of the bed and flexed his muscles before trying to stand. For the moment, he was running on adrenalin. He had no idea how long his energy would hold out. He took a few tentative steps with only a minimal amount of wobbling.
“Sally I’m gonna need ya ta go ta the barn and find some rope ta tie him up and a towel for his mouth.”
Sally grinned at Hoss again. “Don’t need to go to the barn. I’ve got some right out back for hanging up clothes. I’ll be right back.”
Hoss tied Mac up while Sally kept the pistol aimed at the surly man. The energy Hoss expended while performing that task was already taking a toll on him.
“We gotta get ta the barn and get a coupla horses saddled. I sure hope ya can ride in your condition and all.”
“Don’t worry about me. I can ride.”
Hoss was puffing by the time they reached the barn. “You go on in, MIss Sally. ‘Fraid I gotta take care a business.”
The young blonde nodded and ducked into the barn while Hoss relieved himself. Just then a riderless horse came running up to the barn. Hoss grabbed the reins figuring it would be one less horse he would have to saddle.
“Sally! Miss Sally! Come here!” Sally reappeared in response to his call. “Do ya recognize this horse?”
“I think it looks like one our horses but I’m not sure.”
“Well I’m thinkin’ it’s my Pa and brothers’ way a tellin’ me they caught the man who was by the trail and they’re out there not far off. Let’s get you up in the saddle.” Hoss helped her up. “Are ya ok?” Sally nodded. “Here take this.” Hoss pulled Mac’s revolver from the waistband of his pants and handed it to her. “You go on, now. Head ta town. My Pa and brothers will find ya! I’ll catch up real soon.”
“No time for that, Sally, Go!” Hoss smacked the horse’s rump and it took off down the trail.
True to Hoss’ intuition, Joe intercepted Sally’s horse about a quarter of a mile down the trail. The frightened young woman was so relieved to be away from Bolton that she threw herself into Joe’s arms and burst into tears when he brought her down from the horse. Joe guided her off the trail to where Ben and Adam had Arlo and Jolley tied up by a big tree.
Sally managed to speak between sobs. “Thank you…Thank you all…Hoss should be…coming soon.”
Ben held out his hand to her and pulled her into his arms. “That’s good news young lady, really good news.” It broke his heart to think what this young woman must have gone through these past months. “You’re safe now.”
The words were no more than out of Ben’s mouth when two shots could be heard coming from the area of the farmstead.
Adam and Joe were mounted within seconds. Ben handed Sally back the pistol she had been carrying when she rode up.
Ben’s eyes reflected the gravity of the situation as he spoke to the woman in the twilight. He placed his hand on her shoulder as he spoke. “You stay put. You’re safe here, these men can’t hurt you. If by some remote chance none of us are back by daybreak, you head for town! Understand?!”
Tears were building in Sally’s eyes as she nodded. Ben gently touched her chin before climbing up on Buck.
In the barn, Hoss let the cinch on Chubb’s saddle fall and grabbed the halter of his jumpy horse when two bullets bounced nearby.
“I should kill you!” Bolton snarled. “Get away from that horse!”
Hoss turned around to face Bolton with steely gray eyes. It was then he saw that Mac was free and standing beside his boss. “But ya won’t kill me cuz I”m too valuable to ya.”
“I said, get away from that horse.” Bolton shouted.
Hoss stepped away from Chubb. His strength was fading fast and the rifle he had taken from Mac in the house was sitting too far from his reach to be of help. He had no choice but to comply.
“Move! Through that door!” Bolton pointed with his rifle to another section of the barn.
A stench hit Hoss’ nostrils as soon as he opened the door. The small room was filled with putrid straw, obviously the quarters for Bolton’s prisoners that worked the mine.
“Chain him up, Mac!”
Hoss refused to sit down; so Mac hit the big man in the gut with the butt of his rifle. Hoss helplessly crumpled to the floor and was again bound in chains. Soon he was joined by fourteen of the most horrendous and pitiful looking men he had ever seen.
“Where’s Lonny?” Bolton asked the two guards who were bringing the prisoners in.
One prisoner laughed hysterically, “Had to bury another one! Why don’tcha just kill us all now! We’ve heard ’bout that big one. Someone’s comin’ for ‘im! Ya need to cover yur tracks and get outta here!” The man’s crazed laughter eerily filled the room.
“Shut up! Shut up, I say, or I just may oblige you!” Bolton yelled over the din. “Mac you get out there and keep watch. You let that Cartwright get the drop on you! It’s your fault we’re in this mess!”
Mac gave his boss a hard look before storming out of the barn and heading toward where the trail met the farmstead. He did not relish the thought of being put on the front line should the Cartwrights show up, which now was looking quite likely.
There was only a faint glow of light in the sky by the time Ben and his sons were almost to the open area in front of the house and barn. Cochise sniffed the air. Smelling his stable mate nearby, he called loudly to Chubb. Bullets whizzed by as the Cartwrights dismounted and sent the horses into the brush behind them. They ducked low to the ground and waited. They could hear someone running away from them. In the faint light coming from the house, they saw a man rush inside. Adam directed his father and Joe to approach the house with caution.
As the minutes crawled by, Sally felt increasingly guilty that Hoss had not escaped from Bolton. Finally she could stand it no longer and contrary to Ben’s orders, mounted her horse and rode toward the farmstead.
Positioned at the house the Cartwrights could hear agitated voices. Peeking in the window, Joe saw four men; Bolton seated and three others standing. This increased the likelihood that the fifth man was in the barn. Hoss was nowhere to be seen. A plan was formed that would send Adam and Joe rushing through the door as Ben moved to cover the back of the house. When the door slammed open, Adam yelled for the men to drop their weapons. Bolton grabbed a rifle and slid behind the others and out the back door. Ben fired a shot that grazed Bolton’s arm, but it did not slow him down and he disappeared around the corner of the house and ran toward the barn. By the time Ben got inside, Adam and Joe had the three guards disarmed and seated in a corner of the main room.
Looking at the three men seated on the floor, Ben knew it was Bolton that had escaped. Ben cursed under his breath.
Adam handed his father a rifle. “Pa you keep an eye on these three. Come on, Joe. We’ve got to find Hoss!”
It just about killed Ben to remain behind, but he knew that his sons would have a much better chance of getting the upper hand if the battle came down to a fist fight. “Be careful, boys!” Ben called after them.
Adam and Joe could see dim light coming from the barn door being open a crack. Bolton and another man were struggling to get Hoss on his feet.
“Hold it!” Adam yelled, flinging the door open. The two brothers rushed inside.
“Come in, gentlemen, come in.” Bolton stood leering at them with his pistol against Hoss’ temple and a chain tightly constricting the big man’s neck. “Get their guns, Lonny. I don’t think the Cartwright boys want to see their brother’s brains splattered all over the barn, or do you?” Bolton jammed his gun hard into Hoss’ head.
Adam and Joe winced at the sight and dropped their guns while moving further into the barn. Bolton began backing his way toward the door using Hoss as a shield. A gunshot rang out. A shocked, painful look came onto Bolton’s face just before fell backwards to the barn floor with Hoss landing on top of him with a loud groan. Joe dove at Lonny throwing him off his feet and knocked him out cold. Barely visible in the doorway, Sally’s blonde hair glowed around her expressionless face. The pistol slid from her hands as she collapsed to the ground.
Adam rushed to Hoss and loosened the chain from his neck. “Hoss are you ok?”
The big man coughed and rolled off of Bolton. “Yeah, I am now, older brother.” Adam helped his brother to his feet while Joe went to help Sally.
Joe took her hands to bring her up. “That was a mighty brave thing you just did Sally. Don’t know how we can ever thank you for saving our brother’s life.”
Sally moved quickly to Hoss and buried her face in his huge chest. He engulfed the young woman in his arms and held her as she sobbed uncontrollably.
“Thank ya, Sally.” Hoss whispered and placed a light kiss in her blonde hair.
Adam and Joe delivered Bolton’s henchmen to the authorities in Taylors Landing. At six months into her pregnancy, Ben encouraged Sally to remain at the farm until everyone left. In truth, she had no relatives in the West; so she happily agreed to wait and travel back to the Ponderosa and stay with the Cartwrights until proper arrangements for her could be worked out. She displayed amazing resilience given the emotional trauma she had experienced and what she would soon be facing as an unwed mother. She thanked Hoss and his family at every reasonable opportunity for their help in removing her from a horrible life of pain and misery.
Hoss was still in need of some time to regain his strength in order to withstand the trip home. Adam, Joe, and a hired driver each drove a buckboard back to the farm loaded with food and clothing for the people who had been forced to work in the mine for Bolton. It took a few days to get everyone into traveling condition. Bolton’s stash of gold was retrieved from its hiding place and divided among the laborers and Sally.
Days later, best wishes and goodbyes were said as the Cartwright family headed east toward the Ponderosa. Hoss was almost back to full strength and drove the buggy for Sally with Chubb tied on the back. Ben wondered what the future would hold for Sally and her little one as he rode slowly alongside the buggy and watched his big son and the young blonde woman passing the time in a continuous stream of pleasant conversation. A tenuous smile crossed Ben’s face as he thought about his middle son’s uncanny ability to see the good in almost every situation. With Hoss the past is past and the future is what you make it, despite the physical and emotional poison one may have encountered along the way. Just like his mother, nothing seemed to give Hoss greater satisfaction or more joy than to help make another person’s life better. The happy, relaxed expressions on Hoss’ and Sally’s faces proved Ben’s thoughts to be true.
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