Summary: A call for help and a stagecoach ride into trouble, brings danger for the Cartwright brothers.
Rated: T WC 17,185
Story Notes: A summer 2019 Round Robin Challenge. Bonanza Brand writers were invited to submit an opening chapter that would leave the reader wanting to know more. Members voted on their favorite submission and the top three openings were selected for completion. Over the summer, six to eight authors participated in finishing the story, including working through developmental and line edits and re-writes as needed.
The participants in this story were (in alphabetical order): BakerJ, Cheaux, ForeverFree, JFClover, MicheleBE, Puchi Ann, SJR Cartwright, and sklamb.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
Hoss grunted as a particularly rough bump in the road slammed his little brother’s body, inert and uncontrollable with sleep, into his shoulder. That it had happened at least six times along this rocky stretch of barren road made it no surprise but didn’t improve his attitude toward it. It had been a long trip, which made him ask, as he had more than once, what had taken his older brother to an out-of-the-way place like Franklinville to begin with. It wasn’t where he’d said he was going when he left home. But Franklinville was where that mysterious telegram had come from:
Come to Franklinville (Stop)
Bring money for bail (Stop)
Adam (Full Stop)
The fact that the telegram was addressed to him, and only him, told Hoss clear as day that Adam had wanted him alone to know about his trouble. By a stroke of good fortune, Pa hadn’t been home when the wire arrived; to counterbalance that with fortune of exactly the opposite kind, Little Joe had been. Predictably, the price of his silence had been coming along on the trip.
“After all,” Little Joe had pointed out, “ain’t often older brother finds himself penniless—probably gambled it all away—and in trouble with the law. This has all the earmarks of prime blackmail material, brother, and I’m the best one to take full advantage.”
No arguing with that obvious truth or the equally obvious one that Little Joe was also the best person to wheedle permission for the trip out of Pa without letting on the real reason behind it. It was a wonder how that young’un could wrap Pa around his little finger, because there was no way under heaven Hoss could’ve gotten away with saying that they missed Adam so much they just had to ride out and meet him on his way home.
That Pa had actually seen through the transparent reason and chosen to turn a blind eye in the interest of brotherly bonding never occurred to the guileless middle brother.
Little Joe awoke abruptly, assuming at first that the jolting of the stagecoach had caused it. Then the female passenger’s screams and a succession of gunshots pierced his quickening consciousness. “Wh-who’s shootin’?” he asked, shaking his head to clear his still-blurred senses.
Hoss fired off another round through the window. “Besides me, you mean? Those three robbers chasin’ us, I reckon.”
“Who’d bother robbing’ a stage for the puny pickin’s we got?” Little Joe sputtered. Nonetheless, he drew his own revolver and moved to the opposite window.
“Anyone who knows what we’re carrying,” the other male passenger scoffed, “and that’s just about anyone within a hundred miles.”
Hoss asked, “What we carryin’, Mr. Welby? We ain’t from around these parts.”
“Weekly payroll for the Franklin mine,” Tobias Welby replied.
“That’s right; you said you was some kind of mine manager, didn’t you?” Hoss fired off another shot.
“Regional manager,” Welby stated proudly. “Frankinville’s payroll is small by the standards of other mines in my district, but still several thousand dollars. Please control yourself, Mrs. Sanders! If need be, we’ll just give these assailants the money.”
“Several thousand, huh? That would do it,” Little Joe muttered. “Wish we’d known.” He squeezed off a shot and thought he’d hit one of the pursuing bandits.
“Wouldn’t’ve mattered,” Hoss said. “We’d’ve took the first stage out, anyway, ‘cause of Adam needin’ help.”
“Yeah, I reckon.”
Conversation dropped then, the two Cartwrights occupied with the oncoming threat, while Welby, apparently unarmed, had his hands full, trying to calm down the still-shrieking Mrs. Sanders.
As Little Joe sat on the floor of the rocking coach to reload his gun, the stage began to careen from side to side of the narrow road between the high embankment to their right and the steep canyon, dotted with spindly pines to their left. Unexpectedly, he jumped up and flung open the door.
“Don’t be a fool, boy!” Welby protested. “Stop your brother, Mr. Cartwright! He’ll be killed!” From the intensity of his concern, one might have thought Little Joe was his own kin, instead of a man he’d only met after boarding the stage in Virginia City.
Joe stretched for the handgrip above him. “I think the driver’s hit.”
“Joe!” Hoss called. “Be careful, boy!” He didn’t like the risk his brother was taking, but someone had to do it, and Joe was probably the best choice they had on board.
“Always am!” Joe hollered back and began to climb atop the weaving vehicle.
“Yeah,” Hoss muttered to himself, “and Lake Tahoe drains dry every summer.”
Clambering up onto the roof, Little Joe saw at once that their predicament was worse than he’d feared. The driver was shot, slumped to one side, blood seeping from his back, but what Joe hadn’t suspected, though maybe he should have from the way the coach was lurching, was that the team had broken loose, and gravity and momentum alone were propelling them down the steep road. The driver was being tossed every which way with the movement of the coach, so he was probably dead, but Joe had to check. Keeping low, he crawled toward the man, but never reached him. With nothing guiding it, the stagecoach missed the curve in the road and headed straight for the gorge below. As it began to plunge downward, Little Joe grabbed the iron luggage rack. He held on briefly but moments later was flung off, falling freely through the air toward the rock-strewn side of the canyon below him.
Seeing his brother’s dangling boots, Hoss made a desperate grab, but watched in horror as Joe flashed past his outstretched fingers. He had time only to pull his arm back in before he, along with the other passengers, bounced around the interior of the coach as it tumbled down the hill, spilling off the driver’s dead body and bits and pieces of the luggage along the way. The hanging side door broke off as it collided with one of the larger pines, and Hoss fell through the opening, his head striking a small boulder as he hit the ground. The coach arched over him and continued to roll downhill. As he lay among the luggage and debris, his last conscious thought was of his brothers: Adam, who wasn’t going to get his bail money anytime soon and Little Joe, who was somewhere on this barren hillside, probably in an even worse pickle.
He paced the boardwalk like an impatient child. Except for the crushing sound of a stamp mill, his bootheels made the only other noise in the sleepy, little mining town of Franklinville. The sheriff had set bail, and Adam would pay the outrageous fine, but he would replace his father’s money out of his own account as soon as he returned home.
Without question, Hoss would do his bidding, and Adam had come to meet the four o’clock stage, but patience wasn’t his strong suit and by a quarter to five, he felt more like his hotheaded youngest brother than a grown man who knew coaches rarely arrived on time. He took a seat on the wooden bench, but his eyes were drawn to the east and the dust cloud that would fill the narrow street as soon as the coach arrived.
He wasn’t ready to explain the situation to his father and hoped Ben hadn’t intercepted the wire. Worse, though, would be Joe getting hold of the telegram and heading to Franklinville alone with a pocketful of cash. Hoss had been his only option, and if that damn stage didn’t arrive soon with the right brother and the right amount of cash …
He stepped up to the window and asked the clerk a question he couldn’t answer. “Any word on the incoming stage from Virginia City?”
“You know as much as I do, fella.”
“Is it usually late?”
“More often than not.”
“Thanks. You’ve been a big help.”
The past couple of days had been a whirlwind of exasperation and determination to set things right. Adam wanted answers but he’d have to tread carefully. One misplaced word or phrase could end things before they began and bring the world crashing down around them.
Franklinville, a town he’d nearly bypassed, had provided a chance meeting at the local saloon. Recognition was a funny thing. Once the mind processed, it couldn’t be dismissed, and that’s why the desperate wire to Hoss had been sent. But that was only part of the problem. Once he paid the bail, what revelations would come next?
The saloon brawl he’d witnessed two days prior had been ugly. Three against one were never good odds and the outcome had been predictable. With rifle in hand, the town sheriff stood and watched but did nothing to end the fight. An outsider had been put in his place. The battle had been won and drinks throughout the saloon were raised in a victory toast.
Leaving his unfinished beer on the table, Adam had elbowed several drunken miners from his path and knelt down beside the unconscious man. His features were strikingly familiar. Dark hair, tanned face, and pearl-white teeth. The fancy coat and tie and clean, starched shirt was a dead giveaway.
“He needs a doctor.” Adam’s deep baritone silenced the celebration. Someone give me a hand.”
His outcry was met with laughter. Lifting deadweight was next to impossible and without a man like Hoss to lend support, he was on his own. When a familiar set of eyes began to flutter, Adam felt hopeful and slipped his hand under the fallen man’s shoulders.
“Hold on there,” the sheriff barked. Adam turned his gaze upward. “This man ain’t going nowhere except to jail.”
“Jail? For what?”
“Causing’ a disturbance.”
“What about the other three, the men who beat him senseless?”
“They’re just protecting their own.”
With the toe of his boot, the sheriff nudged at ribs that might already be broken. Adam’s eyes narrowed in disgust as he slid his hand farther under wide, sturdy shoulders and hauled the man to his feet. “I have you. Just hang on.”
With the injured man’s arm draped over his shoulder and a rifle aimed at his back, Adam made his way across the dusty street to the sheriff’s jail. The cell door was unlocked, and he slipped through the iron bars to the narrow cot. “He needs a doctor.”
The sheriff stepped up behind him. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong that time won’t cure.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Who’s this guy to you anyhow?”
Adam took a minute before answering. The man lying on the cot wasn’t a stranger, but what was he exactly? Family? A caustic whirlwind? A cause for disappointment? How would he address such a simple question?
“A man’s in trouble. He needs medical attention. It doesn’t matter whether I know him or not; it’s the humane thing to do.”
The sheriff couldn’t have cared less about his prisoner’s condition, and Adam had no other choice but to take charge. Head wounds were tricky. He’d learned that the hard way and summoned the doctor immediately. But he was a stranger in town and Doctor Josiah Hall, dressed in a nightshirt and cap and not overjoyed by his late-night caller, hesitated to follow Adam back to the jail.
“If this is an emergency, why didn’t the sheriff come for me?”
“He stayed with the prisoner. I came in his stead.”
“Very well.” When the front door closed in his face, Adam remained on the stoop. He didn’t dare leave without the good doctor in tow.
Sporting a worn suit of clothes and carrying his medical bag, Dr. Hall headed toward the jail. Adam followed and stood outside the cell while the patient was examined. He checked the eyes first then ran his fingers down the torso, feeling for broken bones. He glanced over his shoulder at the sheriff.
“Good thing you sent for me, Hector. This bottle cut on his head is deep and will need stitches, plus the man is concussed. He shouldn’t be moved for a day or two.”
Adam walked inside the cell. “What about his ribs?”
“Don’t seem broke, but there could be bruising or cracks. I’ll need help strapping him up.”
Adam studied the helpless man lying prone on the jailhouse bed. Without an advocate, anything could’ve taken place even another beating, but how many times had this happened? Was it a common occurrence? A man alone in the world had to fend for himself. No one had his back. No one fussed or cared whether he lived or died.
Maybe it was wrong to care, but Adam couldn’t walk away. Whether he agreed or disagreed with the man’s lifestyle or was reminded of the turmoil he’d put his young brother through, he wouldn’t leave him alone. We take care of our own. He might not have the Cartwright name, but he’s my brother’s brother. Like it or not, Clay Stafford was part of the family.
Joe’s leg took the first blow. His shoulder hit next when he slammed against the rocky slope. As he came to, he lay face down between two boulders. Resting his cheek against the hard rock, he forced his brain to clear. His leg burned like a raging fire and his arm hung useless at this side. The pain kept him immobile, and that was no good. He was in big trouble.
After dragging himself upright, he reached for his gun, but his holster was empty. He remembered the robbers and climbing out the window to find the driver shot and slumped in the seat. The broken hitch. The coach rolling from one side to the other and then nothing. Nothing but pain.
He cried out. “Anyone there?” He sagged between the two boulders. “Anyone?” His effort was fruitless. No one called back. No one came to his rescue.
Hoss … where was his brother? Thoughts flickered like bolts of lightning through his head. The woman named Sanders. The man who rode with them . . . what was his name? Tobias Welby? Were they all dead?
Below him, a carpetbag had split open. The woman’s clothing lay scattered over rocks and brush and not far beyond was Hoss, unmoving. He tried to focus and blinked repeatedly. “Hoss!”
A man dressed in a fancy suit coat stood up right next to the wrecked stage at the bottom of the ravine. Thank God. Not one of the robbers. Welby maybe. “Up here,” Joe yelled. “I need help.”
Though he didn’t seem in a hurry, the man started to climb the steep slope. Stopping next to Hoss, he knelt down and felt for a pulse before proceeding toward Joe.
“Is my brother alive?”
“He is indeed. Unconscious, though, so let’s get you fixed up first. Then we’ll deal with him.”
“What about the woman?”
Welby glanced around and shook his head. “Didn’t see her. So what’ve we got here?”
“My left leg and shoulder.” Joe studied the man who could help him. Barely a scratch. No broken bones. How had he been so lucky? “Hurry. I need to check my brother.”
“Don’t worry about him. He’s not going anywhere.”
Joe didn’t like the man’s tone, but he’d have to play nice or he could leave both of them to die on a hillside a few miles out of Franklinville where they’d never be found. Hoss carried the bail funds in a money belt around his middle, funds which put three lives in danger if they didn’t get to town soon and spring Adam from jail.
Welby disappeared behind him. He couldn’t turn; he couldn’t see around the damn boulder. When he returned, his savior carried two sticks and what looked to be some of the woman’s lace underclothes.
“We’ll use these to splint the leg. Then, we’ll work on your shoulder.”
Joe tried to hold steady as Welby gave a good yank on his leg. Tears formed in his eyes, but he didn’t cry out. Swallowing the lump in his throat, his breathing became rough when the splints were tied in place.
“You okay, Son?”
“The arm will hurt worse, you know.”
Joe sagged against the rock. “Just get it over with.”
“You’ll have to lay flat.”
“You done this before?”
“Just lie down.”
Welby raised Joe’s left arm and fixed the sole of his boot against Joe’s ribs. “Ready?” Not waiting for a response, he aligned Joe’s arm with his shoulder and pulled until they both heard a click. “Don’t move yet. You’ll need a sling till the muscles heal.”
“You some kind of doc?”
“No. Just trying to help.”
When Welby tore a square of lace petticoat and secured his left arm, Joe didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. If his friends could see him now, he’d be the laughingstock of Virginia City.
“Help me down to my brother.”
Welby pulled Joe to his feet and wrapped his good arm over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
As Joe dropped next to his brother, Welby said “I’ll go look for Mrs. Sanders.”
Joe nodded. “Okay,” and began tapping his brother’s cheek. “Hoss? Wake up. Don’t you dare leave me. Do you hear me? Please wake up, Hoss.”
A desperate moan escaped first followed by unclear murmuring.
The big man’s head fell to one side. Dried blood caked his cheek; his jaw fell slack. He moaned again. “Help me, Joe.”
“Hoss, I’m here. Hang on. I’ll help you.”
Check for breathing, bleeding, and shock. Keep the victim warm. Adam had better be right about his life-saving lessons. Though he felt sick and wanted to throw up, when a man came up from behind and put a hand over his mouth, the nausea faded, and a sense of fear took hold.
Where was Welby? If he could get a jump on the robbers, they had a prayer of living one more day, but the man was nowhere to be seen. With Hoss suffering from a concussion and who knew what else, Joe couldn’t act alone; he needed Welby to take charge.
“I have a gun pointed at your spine. Get up and start moving.”
“I can’t! I have a broken leg for God’s sake.” The plea meant nothing and when the man grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked his head back, Joe pushed up to his feet.
The petticoat sling flapped in the wind and the man started laughing. “What the hell happened to you?”
Joe recognized the plaid shirt of the robber he thought he’d winged. “You should know. You ran the stage off the road.” He was rewarded with a balled fist to the face. A warm trickle of blood dripped from his lip.
“Just what I need. A smart mouth. I could kill you here and now, you know. Bring the horse over here, Jake.”
“Sure thing, Judd.”
“Go ahead and shoot,” Joe said. Shadowed by fatigue, his breathing increased and turned shallow. His field of vision began to flicker. He didn’t have the strength for this, didn’t want this.
Judd pushed Joe back against a spindly tree and pressed the gun’s muzzle against Joe’s neck.
“Not so fast. Jake will kill sleeping beauty first,” Judd said. Joe looked toward Hoss to see another of the robbers holding a gun to his brother’s head. “Then, I’ll kill you. Unless,” he said and paused so Joe would fully understand, “you help us with a little favor. Someone you know owes me money, and you’re our best chance of getting it back.”
Joe closed his eyes. They might have had a chance with Welby on their side. Now there was Jake and Blake to contend with in addition to Judd. The odds of an escape had shifted from hopeful to hopeless. Pa’s oft spoken words echoed in his mind. Where there is life, there is hope. “I don’t have the money. The other passenger, I think his name’s Welby, talked about the mine payroll. My brother and I have nothing to do with any money.”
“That’s not what we’re after. We want your brother.”
Again, Joe glanced at Hoss. “Are you deaf? My brother has nothing to do with this, and I’m not leaving him here to die.”
“Not that brother. Get on the horse, damn you!”
Pushed from behind, Joe fell to the ground and cried out as a wave of pain seared through his leg, his shoulder, and engulfed his entire body and mind.
Hearing the kid’s agony was like music to Judd’s ears, almost as lovely as the sound of coins slipping through his fingers after a night of poker, whiskey, and a couple of females to entertain him. He snickered at the thought.
He grabbed the brown curls again and whispered in his victim’s ear. “I want you to help me find your conniving, drunken brother and save him from a very painful death. Get! On! The! Horse!”
Covered in sweat, Joe’s eyes glazed with pain and his attempt to mount the tall chestnut failed.
“Listen here, Joe Cartwright. You’re coming with me or Clay Stafford’s death will be more miserable than his life.”
Clay? Had he heard the man right or was this some kind of bizarre dream that made no sense at all? “Clay?”
“Stafford is not particular about whether he lives or dies, but he has one Achilles’ heel: his little brother. And you will persuade him to give us what we want. If he doesn’t, the price will be your life.”
Jake still stood over Hoss ready to pull the trigger if Judd ordered him to. Joe tried to think fast but his mind was cluttered with thoughts of so many brothers in danger. “You want me to sacrifice one brother to save another?”
Judd spat. The plan started out simple and had become a farce of broken bodies and a smart-mouthed kid he hadn’t planned to argue with. “Fine. We’ll take that big fat brother of yours with us. There’s a doctor in Franklinville.” Judd looked at his pathetic captives. “Blake! Cut some branches and make two travois for our ‘guests.’” Then turned back to Joe. “Think about it, Kid. You can save three brothers and your own life too.”
“Three? Adam’s with Clay? Is that what this is all about?”
“You sweet-talk Clay into giving us what we want, or we’ll kill him and that dark-haired brother of yours who thinks he can protect him. Then, sleeping beauty. And then the grand prize. You.”
Jumbled thoughts ran through Joe’s mind. What would Pa think if he knew Clay had put all his sons in danger. Adam needs bail. Clay needs money. As always, Big Brother is an unwilling Good Samaritan. How do we get to Franklinville?
In answer to his questions, a shot rang out. Joe looked around frantically to pinpoint the source. Had help arrived? Please God, let that be.
Clay had fallen asleep as soon as the doctor left and didn’t rouse again until near dawn. He blinked up at Adam and mumbled in a sleep-thickened voice, “Not the face I was expecting to see.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you,” Adam said lightly.
“What is it with you Cartwrights? I can see Hoss going along with whatever Joe wants, but why should you bother with me? I’ve no blood of yours.”
“You’re as much Joe’s brother as I am. Far as I’m concerned, that makes you kin. Maybe not close-as-a-brother to me, but probably closer than my cousin Will.”
“You may change your mind soon,” Clay grunted. “Things were messy enough before you poked your nose in. With you here, I’ve got more than my own skin to look after, and I’m not used to that. May not be much good at that, either.” He pushed himself up to a half-sitting position and gave Adam an accusing frown. “Worst thing is you’ve got me pinned down here now. Not that I was planning to go anywhere before, but I liked having the others wondering if I would, or when I might.”
“Those miners seemed pretty clear you weren’t leaving any time soon—except maybe in a coffin.”
“Oh, the miners will be fine once they get paid—at least for four-five days, anyway. Then they’ll get worried about the next payday. Some of them would rather try winning money off me at poker than asking for a loan against work they haven’t done yet. Mostly I let them win a little; makes for better feelings all around. Trouble is I get paid the same time they do, and last night I was running short myself.”
Adam’s eyebrows had come together as he listened. “Who’s paying you?”
“Oh, I’ve become a respectable man, Cartwright. I keep the books and oversee operations at the Franklin mine. Something to tell Joe if I ever wrote him a letter … except I never found the time.” Beneath the easy drawl lurked a momentary discomfort. “Respectability hasn’t been all that relaxing for me.”
“You don’t look much like an accountant,” Adam conceded.
Clay snorted. “I’ve always been good with numbers, and better still with money. That’s not why I’m here, though.” He dropped his chin into his hands, took a deep breath, and met Adam’s eyes again. “Look here, do you know a man named Alfred Grayson?”
As it happened, Adam did; for a moment he wondered if he should admit that, then realized he’d already betrayed the truth to anyone who played poker as well as Clay. “I’ve done business with him in Sacramento,” he said cautiously.
“He wasn’t always such a—respectable fellow. Our paths crossed, a time or three. You couldn’t call us friends, but … well, last time I was in Sacramento he tracked me down. Said he had a job I might find interesting. It was. Running a mine’s a lot simpler than a poker game, you know; the ore goes out, the money comes back. Only at the Franklin the two don’t quite match up. Grayson’s on their Board; he needed to know why—especially once the site manager suddenly died. So he sent me here to find out.”
“And the miners caught you out?”
Clay shook his head carefully. “Nah, all this—” he gestured to include his bandaged head and strapped ribs—”I reckon it’s a misunderstanding. They’re a rough lot, but they’re honest enough. Wish I could say the same for the payroll coming in. And seeing as I’m management, guess who gets the blame?”
A clatter of dishware from the next room announced the sheriff arriving with breakfast—his own and his prisoner’s, at least—and a strong suggestion that Adam find a place to stay other than the town jail. Despite the man’s unfriendly tone, Adam noted that he’d brought the same food for Clay as himself and handled the injured man gently enough. There didn’t seem much point in arguing.
They were changing shifts at the mine, and the main street was crowded with men headed towards or away from it. More than a few of them paused to glance at Adam with narrowed eyes, and one even muttered, “Heard Stafford got hisself a guard dog last night.” Someone else gave a short, harsh laugh as the group moved on.
A sense of being watched remained with Adam as he paid a quick visit to the telegraph office and another to Franklinville’s lone hotel. Somehow, the bellhop’s query, “Planning a long stay, sir?” sounded more inquisitorial than friendly; Adam only shrugged in reply and didn’t mention he expected company in a day or two.
The hotel restaurant was still serving breakfast, filling the ground floor with the smell of good coffee and frying bacon. Adam had planned to catch a few hours’ sleep but settled on a splash of cold water and a quick shave before going back downstairs. He was pleased to see that the only person waiting tables was a girl pretty enough Clay would surely have flirted with her, if only out of habit.
She’d been happy to chat with Adam, at least until the bellhop beckoned her over to whisper something. After that she was all business except for murmuring, as she was clearing his place, “Thanks for getting Clay somewhere safe.”
“What do you mean, safe?” he’d asked in surprise, but she’d only stared wide-eyed at him as if she’d never spoken. Her innocence seemed false, but her fear very real.
Back at the jail, the sheriff was shooing away a clump of scruffy-looking men, one or two with hefty pickaxes they handled with ominous ease. “No one sees Stafford unless he’s a lawyer.” Swinging around to face Adam, he went on, “That goes for you too, less you got his bail. This here’s a jail, not a flophouse.”
Franklinville Jail, Sheriff Hector Martins, the sign on the nail-studded door read. Remembering the doctor’s casual “Hector,” Adam trudged back down the main street again, just in time to catch Dr. Hall locking his office door.
“Martins is a good enough man, just not fond of strangers. What sheriff is?” the doctor said gruffly. “Your friend’s safe enough. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have my rounds to make.”
That was something Adam couldn’t argue with. He gave up and went back to the hotel for some sleep.
Stagecoaches ran only so often, and only so fast; Adam knew Hoss couldn’t get to him in less than a couple of days. He wondered briefly when the payroll everyone seemed to be waiting for would arrive but decided against trying to find out. The sense of being watched never left him, even alone in his room … and yet, nothing happened. It was as if the whole tiny town was holding its breath.
By the time he figured Hoss should be getting into town—always assuming he’d even gotten the telegram—Adam’s nerves were beginning to fray. It took real strength to keep from yelling at the insolent clerk at the stagecoach office. For what felt like the thousandth time, he made his way back to the squat little jail with its thick adobe walls and heavy slate roof. Adam had seen army forts that looked less defensible.
To his surprise, the door opened as he approached. Sheriff Martins had a shotgun in his free hand, and another lying on his desk along with an open box of cartridges. The door to the cells was open; Adam caught a glimpse of Clay sitting up on his cot, looking considerably more focused than when he’d last seen him. It was Clay who called out, “Stagecoach not here yet?” He sounded downright anxious.
He doesn’t know Hoss should be on it, Adam thought, and finally made the connection. As he spun back towards the sheriff, Martins slapped the shotgun into his hands and reached for a rifle on the wall. Automatically Adam checked to see the gun was loaded, even as he burst out, “Look, I know you’re not on my brother’s side. So are you with the miners, or the thieves?”
Martins dropped a heavy iron bar across the door before answering. “What on earth makes you think it’s as simple as that?”
“What the hell are you doing?” Judd asked.
Blake holstered his gun and turned to face his boss. “I could only reach three branches, so I shot down the fourth.”
“Idiots. I have idiots in my employ,” he muttered. “Finish making the travois and then go find them stage horses. They gotta be somewhere nearby since they’s still in harness. And bring the tack, too,” he yelled over his shoulder as he made his way down the hill to Joe.
“Look what I found, Judd,” Jake said, holding Welby by the arm.
“What have we here?”
“Found him sneakin’ around Cartwright.”
“I’m Tobias Welby. Unhand me!”
Judd raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Did you search him?” he asked Jake.
“Yep, no weapons.”
A loud scream penetrated the air. It was the woman who had been in the stagecoach. “Help! Somebody!”
Joe said, “That’s Mrs. Sanders. You need to find her!”
Judd grumbled but sent Tobias and Jake to investigate. They found the woman lying face down, her skirt pinned under a heavy piece of the shattered stagecoach. Jake yelled at her, “Quit yer catterwallin’! We gotta cut yer skirt off or we won’t be able to free ya!”
The woman nodded her assent. She was left with her blouse, corset and pantaloons. Tobias helped her stand and each man took an elbow to haul her up the hill.
“Why did we even bother?” Jake said. “You ain’t even pretty! Yer fat, too! You ain’t worth a plug nickel!”
Horrified, the woman began another round of shrieking.
Judd was furious. Getting Joe Cartwright loaded onto the first travois and strapped in had been easy, but it took himself, Jake and Welby to carry the unconscious Hoss up the hill to the second travois. By the time they had secured him in place, Judd, who reeked on a good day, was drenched in sour sweat that made everyone near him gag, including himself.
One stage horse was hitched to each travois, leaving the other two for the woman and Welby. Everyone had mounted and was ready to head out on a side trail that would take them to the outskirts of Franklinville. Everyone, that is, except Blake.
“Jake! Where’s that worthless brother of yours?”
“Went to find the payroll that young Cartwright said was on the stage.”
“Of all the blasted . . . we don’t have time for this! Come on. Help me find him.”
“What about the prisoners?”
“Nobody’s goin’ anywhere, ain’t that right,” Judd pointed his gun at the woman and Welby, before turning his horse back towards the main road.
“As if we could,” Joe muttered to himself.
“They’ll be back, won’t they?” the woman asked, fearful they would but terrified to be left with two wounded men.
“Maybe, maybe not. It depends on if they find the payroll money and how much is there. The box could have broken open and the cash scattered around,” Welby said.
This was the chance Joe had prayed for. “We need to go. Now!”
Adam shifted his grip on the shotgun, his eyes flicking to the barred window.
They didn’t have to wait long before the mob appeared. The crowd of miners strode down the street toward the jail. About twenty of them, getting louder as they approached and worked themselves up. Adam glanced over his shoulder, checking the door to Clay’s cell was safely bolted.
As the miners drew level with the jail, the sheriff opened the window and eased his rifle through, pointing it right into the middle of the group.
“Hold it right there!”
“We ain’t got no quarrel with you sheriff. We jest want Stafford.”
“Come ahead,” the Sheriff invited. “The first man who steps foot on the boardwalk gets the first bullet.”
Sideways looks were nervously exchanged. Pickaxe handles shifted as the men sized up the odds.
“C’mon sheriff, we jest wanna know what’s happened to our pay an’ we ain’t goin’ ‘till we do.”
Martins looked back at the cell as if he could see the man inside. He was a man of the law first and foremost, but these miners were the town and Stafford? Well, Stafford was an unknown quantity. He reached over to remove the bar.
“I understand these men, I’m gonna talk to them,” he replied, in answer to Adam’s worried look.
Opening the door, he stepped outside.
“You men know me. I follow the law. Stafford’s in jail for disturbing the peace and that’s where he’s gonna stay until his lawyer sees him or he posts bail. I aim to keep things peaceable, but I’ve never let a man get taken out of my jail yet, and I ain’t planning to start now.”
Adam decided it was time to be seen and moved through the door.
Faced with two determined men, the crowd wavered. Martins took a step forward to reinforce the point.
“Now y’all go about your business!”
Adam relaxed slightly as the group began to drift. A voice from the middle tightened it up again.
“We don’t have to take that! Stafford’s up to somethin’. We gotta right to ask him!”
The speaker whipped up the men as he pushed to the front. Adam’s keen eyes narrowed. There was something off about him. The others were worked up on angry words and drink, but that wasn’t the case with this loudmouth. His sixth sense pricking him, Adam moved the shotgun and hooked it under his left arm, leaving his right hand free to drift over his pistol.
Turning to the man, Martins snapped, “You know better than that. You’re their foreman, you should be talking these men down, not encouraging them to break the law.”
“Talkin’ ain’t breakin’ no laws. These men gotta right to their pay. We want to know what Stafford’s really doing with it!”
Egged on, the group surged forward. Adam saw the loudmouth pull a gun from under his vest and with one swift movement, he drew and fired.
Everyone leapt back at the shot. The gun dropped from the man’s grazed hand.
Martins snarled, turning his rifle directly on the injured man. “I ought to chuck you in the hoosegow along with Stafford, but somehow I think you might want that. Now git! All of you!”
Rattled, the miners broke up. After casting Adam a venomous look, the loudmouth followed.
“You’re mighty handy with that shootin’ iron, Cartwright.”
Laying the shotgun back down on the sheriff’s desk, Adam shrugged. “I know how to use it if I have to.”
The sheriff glanced through the bars at Clay’s drawn face. “You’d better hope that payroll gets here soon, Stafford.” Turning to Adam, the sheriff cocked an eyebrow. “You stayin’?”
Adam drew up a chair. “Yep.”
Joe could see the uncertainty in their eyes. But he had to convince them.
“We’ve got to go. If we can get back to the main road we stand a chance. We might run into help there.”
He saw Mrs. Sanders glance at Mr. Welby for guidance.
Joe pressed his argument, “The only chance we have is to get to Franklinville.”
Welby interrupted, “Wait a minute; is that a good idea? They might come back at any moment and catch us. What will they do if they see us trying to escape?”
Mrs. Sanders eyes widened. She nodded, agreeing with Welby.
Tamping down his irritation, Joe explained, “They must have a sheriff in Franklinville. ‘Sides, that’s where my older brother, Adam, is. We’ll be safe with him.” When they still failed to move, he pleaded, “Please, my brother needs a doctor bad.”
Joe could see Mrs. Sanders wavering, but Welby shook his head.
“We ought to think about this.”
“Mr. Welby, there’s no time. We have to go.”
“I think he’s right.”
Joe sighed, “Thank you, ma’am. Mr. Welby?”
The man thought for a moment, Joe bit his lip. Finally, he nodded, “All right.”
Joe let out a breath.
“We need to move quick. Mr. Welby, tie one of the lead ropes to Mrs. Sanders’ saddle. You take the other and get the horses moving fast.
Mrs. Sanders gasped, “But your leg…”
“Never mind me. I’ll be fine, getting away from here is more important.”
Joe gritted his teeth and shut his eyes as the travois began to move. He prayed it wasn’t far to Franklinville.
A lurch alerted him to the fact they stopped. Focusing on the road behind them, he saw one man approach at a gallop while the other two trailed behind.
“What the hell is this?” demanded Judd as he skidded to a halt and dismounted.
Joe shifted nervously. Now angry, Judd looked meaner than ever. Mrs. Sanders was dragged roughly off her horse and tossed to the ground. Welby slid from his saddle without being told. Judd hunkered down next to Joe, a nasty smirk contorting his face.
“Where do you think you were goin’, Cartwright? I told ya, me and my friends need you.” Grinning, he glanced across at Hoss, “How’s fatso doin’?”
“Shut your mouth.”
It was a mistake; Joe knew it before he felt the back of Judd’s hand strike him. Fresh blood trickled from the cut on his lip.
“You gotta learn to take yer own advice, boy.”
When the other men pulled up, Joe saw a tin box hanging from Blake’s saddle. It seemed they’d been successful in finding the payroll.
Dismounting, Blake was taken by surprise by a backhanded blow across the face from Judd.
“You idiot, this is your fault! What if they’d gotten away? You’d risk the whole operation for a few thousand dollars?”
Joe frowned. Operation? Weren’t they after money they’d lost betting on Clay in a poker game? What the hell was going on here?
“Sorry, Judd, I jest thought, as it were there, we might as well take it.”
Pushing him away, scorn dripped from Judd’s mouth, “You ain’t capable of thinking. Get on your horse.”
Judd stalked over to Mrs. Sanders and pulled her to him.
“Don’t touch me! Let me go! Let me go!” she screamed, slapping and kicking.
Joe twisted on his travois, desperate to help the woman. To Joe’s surprise, Welby stepped forward and grabbed Judd’s arm. “The woman’s hysterical, you have to do something.”
Judd shook off the hand and slapped her in the face which only served to escalate her screaming.
Joe cried out to her, “Mrs. Sanders it’ll be all right.” Then to Judd he pleaded, “We can’t just leave her here.”
Judd turned to Joe. The coldness in the man’s eyes filled him with dread. Judd drew his gun and cocked it. “Don’t worry, Cartwright, I don’t plan on leaving no witnesses behind.”
Horror coursed through Joe. His chest heaved as two shots rang out. He saw Welby, white-faced, stagger back, the back of his hand across his mouth in shock.
Struggling to hold down the bile, Welby watched Judd callously push the body of Mrs. Sanders into the bushes with his foot.
Joe glared at the man. “You son of a bitch. You murdered her.”
“That’s right, boy. Now you jest think on that. What am I likely to do to you and that fat brother of yourn if we don’t get what we want?”
Judd motioned for Welby to mount up when he did and the cavalcade began to move.
Joe collapsed back. What had Clay gotten into? Fear flickered in his heart for Adam. Was he all right?
The itch like a million ants biting his skin grew as every minute passed. Finally, Adam could take no more.
“The stage is three hours overdue; something must’ve happened.”
“Maybe, maybe not. The stage is often late. ‘Sides, ain’t nothing’ I can do. Can’t leave my prisoner alone.”
Frustration coursed through Adam. He was right. If he left, those men would be right back. But Hoss was on the same damn stage that was carrying the payroll. The sheriff might be stubborn and have no liking for Clay, but at least he seemed honest, and Clay was safe in the cell. Could he leave them alone and go look for the stage and his brother? He cast a look at Clay, unsure what to do. For once, Adam’s face gave him away.
Lifting one side of his mouth in a smile, Clay told him, “Go find your brother. I’ll be fine here.”
Adam wasted no more time.
Joe was lapsing in and out of consciousness by the time the horses were drawn to a halt. Overwhelming relief flowed over him that the agonizing movement had stopped. The road they’d taken had been rarely used, judging by the bumps and bouncing Joe had endured.
He blinked sweat away from his eyes to look about him. In the gathering dusk, he could see they had stopped in front of a barn. Opposite, a house stood in darkness. Joe watched Judd enter, and windows began to glow as lamps were lit.
Joe turned, anxious to see Hoss. He could make out the rise and fall of his chest; for now, that was good enough.
Being manhandled off the travois almost sent Joe over the edge into unconsciousness. He bit back the scream that rose in his throat as he was dragged inside, through to a bedroom and dumped onto a bed. His back arched when he hit the mattress at the agony that pulsed through his leg.
Grunting noises told him the men were carrying Hoss in. Joe winced, seeing Hoss’ shoulder crash into the doorframe. The exhausted men dropped Hoss on the bed to the left of Joe, who twisted around to see him better.
Seeing the men start to leave, he called out, “I need to take care of my brother.” Joe’s eyes held Judd’s; he didn’t want to beg, but for Hoss, he’d do anything. “Please, let me have some water, so I can take care of him?”
Judd grunted and left. In a moment Blake returned with a cup of water, which he placed on the table next to the bed. Joe stiffened and gritted his teeth as the man pulled out a knife and cut off a piece of his torn pant leg. Sneering, Blake left with his prize.
Ignoring the excruciating pain, Joe pulled himself up the bed to bring himself level with Hoss’ head. With his right hand, he grabbed the cup and held it to Hoss’ lips.
“Hoss, drink this, it’s water.”
He almost dropped the cup from relief when Hoss responded and sipped down the liquid. Even though Welby had popped back his shoulder, moving his left arm was torture. But he managed to hold the cup with it, leaving his right hand free to drag his handkerchief from his pocket and wet it in the water. Tenderly, he wiped Hoss’ face and head, which was how he found the gash.
His hand froze when he spotted the matted, congealed blood. Moving Hoss’ hair, he gasped at the ugly wound underneath. It had stopped bleeding, but it looked deep. Tucking the handkerchief under Hoss’ head to catch the spillage, Joe poured the rest of the water over the wound to clean it as best he could. By the time he’d finished Joe was shaking like a leaf.
One thing Joe now knew, if it hadn’t been for him, Hoss wouldn’t be lying here injured. If he hadn’t insisted on coming along these men would’ve had no reason to stop the stage.
“I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault.”
As if the words pricked the big man’s consciousness, his eyes shifted beneath his lids and slowly opened.
Every part of Hoss seemed to hurt. He could barely think through the hammer that was pounding his skull, but he could feel Joe’s hand on him and how it was quivering. “Joe, you all right?”
Swallowing back the lump that had risen in his throat, Joe gave a shaky laugh, “Yeah I’m fine. What about you?”
“Hurts … head.”
When he started to rise, Joe’s hand pressed him down.
“Don’t move, you’ve hurt your head remember?”
Joe dropped his head to Hoss’ shoulder and dragged in a breath to steady himself. Why did I have to come along? “Yes, you did.”
“You … okay?”
Hoss sighed. He knew he should ask questions, take charge, but the tiredness dragged him down. Giving in, he drifted off again.
A disturbance behind the door pulled Joe’s attention away from his brother. He heard Mr. Welby begging for mercy. Two shots rang out. Then silence.
Panic gripped him. “What’s going on?”
The door opened. A hideous smile on his face, Judd leaned against the frame, gun in hand.
“Ain’t nothin’ to fret about, Cartwright. I jest killed me another witness is all.”
In terror, Joe instinctively covered Hoss with his arm. Laughing at the protective gesture and the anguish in Joe’s face, Judd shut the door.
Joe trembled uncontrollably. The shock, pain and anxiety washed over him, dragging him into unconsciousness once again.
The place where the wheels left the road wasn’t hard to find. Seeing the overturned stage at the bottom of the ravine sent Adam down the side of the hill shouting Hoss’s name. Finding no sign of his brother, he began frantically searching while making his way back to the top foot by foot.
Hoss’ hat was unmistakable. Now he knew for sure he had to have been there. The absence of the team made him wonder if they’d been used to travel on, but if that was the case why hadn’t they arrived in town, or he’d passed them on the road?
The oncoming dark was making his search almost impossible. It tore him apart to admit it, but he’d have to give up for tonight and come out again the next day with help. The toe of his boot catching something hard had him reaching down to pick it up.
He stared down at the pearl handled revolver. The breath caught in his throat when he turned it to see the familiar initials scratched into the surface, JFC – Joseph Francis Cartwright. Dear Lord, Joe had come too. Now he was missing two brothers.
Smirking, Judd walked back into the parlor with a swagger.
Worked like a charm. The kid’s so terrified I’ll kill his brother he’ll do anythin’ I say.”
Judd’s smirk spread into a grin at the man opposite. Tobias Welby sat with one leg crossed over the other, elbows resting on the arms of his chair, fingertips steepled together. Over the top of them, his eyes glittered as he watched his grinning employee.
“For a dead man, you sure look fine, Boss.”
Welby sped across the room, striking a blow that sent Judd slamming back against the wall.
Judd spluttered, “What the hell…?” He froze, feeling the derringer pressed hard under his chin.
At the table the two brothers stared, unsure what to do.
“What the hell were you doing attacking the stagecoach?”
“We … we were gonna hold it up and take Cartwright off, using the payroll as cover.”
“That wasn’t my instruction.”
Judd swallowed. “I thought this was a better plan.”
“A better plan? You almost killed me you fool!”
Judd scanned his employer’s angry face, and admitted, “It weren’t meant to crash. That was an accident.”
Welby glared at Judd, who held his breath. Finally, Welby stepped back. “You idiots have really messed things up. It should’ve been a nice, clean, quiet affair.”
Judd glanced at his two cohorts, a sullen look on his face. Still bemused at finding out the fourth passenger was in fact their boss, Jake and Blake could only gawk.
Judd looked back at Welby and grumbled, “You don’t have to worry about witnesses. The driver’s dead and you saw what happened to the woman.”
Welby cast him a look of disgust. Kicking open the door to another bedroom, he told them, “I’m going to get some sleep.”
“But that’s my…”
Judd shut his mouth tight at the look that was fired at him.
Welby repeated, “I’m gonna get some sleep. Meanwhile, send one of those blockheads into town with the note for Stafford.” Welby paused, thinking about his inside man at the mine. “Find Olson and tell him what’s happened. Then fetch the doctor for the Cartwrights. I’ll stay in here out of sight.”
Blake snorted, “A doctor, what fer?”
Between clenched teeth, Welby replied, “Because, you fool, we don’t want the boy to die before we can use him to get Stafford to tell us what we want, and if the big one dies, there’s no way he’ll cooperate.”
Joe woke with a jolt, instantly aware of cold and pain. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he lurched away from it, hissing as he jarred his leg.
“Joe, it’s okay; it’s just me.” Joe groped in the dark to grip his brother’s arm. He could hear the worry permeating Hoss’ voice, “You’re burning up. What’s wrong?”
“L… leg broke.”
“Dagnabbit, Little Joe. Why didn’t ya tell me? You need a doctor.”
Trying to sit up, Hoss stopped as the world spun. The hammering in his head told him movement was not a good idea. Shutting his eyes to block the sparks before them didn’t work either.
Joe’s hand pulled feebly at his brother’s shirt. “H…Hoss, you’ve hurt your head. Be careful.”
Careful be damned. His brother needed help, and nothing was gonna stop him from getting it. Just as he was building up his resolve, the door opened.
“In here, Doc.”
Doctor Hall entered the room telling Judd to bring in another lamp and put it on the table. Each man on the bed promptly begged him to take care of the other first.
“Yes, yes, don’t worry.” The doctor assured them. Turning back to Judd he requested hot water and towels.
Blake returned carrying the requested item and then went to stand just outside the door where the doctor could see him listening.
After a cursory glance at both of his patients, the doctor removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and went to Joe.
“No, no, Doc. Take care of Hoss, his head … hurt bad.”
“Son, I’m the doctor here, let me decide that.” When he examined Joe’s leg, whatever grip on consciousness his patient had, vanished. Seeing the anxious blue eyes of the other man on, the doctor told him, “It’s for the best.”
Hoss watched; his face scrunched in distress as the doctor went about his work. Looking through a fog, Hoss fought an overwhelming desire to sleep. Seeing the pale face of his younger brother, he poured his heart and soul into focusing on Joe. He had to make sure he was all right.
When it was his turn, he bit his lip hard while his wound was cleaned and stitched but didn’t take his eyes off Joe. He had to stay focused.
“Doc … how is he?”
Jumping at the question, the doctor moved away, “Your brother’s leg will mend. There was some infection. That’s why he’s feverish. His shoulder no doubt hurts like hell, but he’ll be fine. Here are some packets of medicine for the pain. Give one to your brother when he wakes.” To Blake, the doctor said, “I’m finished.”
Pain was becoming a little too familiar for Joe’s liking. As he regained consciousness, he could hear Judd’s unwelcome voice.
“They gonna live, Doc?”
“Yes, they’ll be fine with rest and care.”
Joe forced open his eyes hearing the scuffle. He didn’t need to see the gun to know there was one stuck right in the doctor’s belly.
“You tell anyone about this, Doc, and you know what you’ll get.”
Joe saw the whites of the man’s eyes as he agreed before fleeing.
Grinning, Judd ambled over to the bed. “Now you’re all fixed up we’d better tie you up. Can’t have you tryin’ to escape now, can we?”
He bound Hoss first and then moved around the bed to Joe.
“You don’t have to tie him, not with a broken leg and a busted-up shoulder.”
Smirking, Judd pulled the rope a little tighter.
His eyes still on Joe, Hoss could see the pain radiating from the tension in his face.
Hoss pleaded. “Those packets are pain medicine, he’s ‘posed to have one.” He watched hopefully as Judd went to the dresser and picked up the packets the doctor had left. Seeing them crushed in the man’s hand, Hoss hissed, “Mister, you crawl lower than a snake.”
The smirk hardened on Judd’s face. The door slammed shut.
The anxiety raging in his chest pressed Adam to run his horse hard back to Franklinville. Marching into the sheriff’s office, he began pouring out news of the stage.
“I couldn’t find any sign of the passengers.” Turning to Clay sitting in his cell, he told him, “and it wasn’t just Hoss on the stage. Joe was on it too.”
Stony-faced, Clay said, “I know.”
“What? How do you know?”
The sheriff handed Adam a piece of paper. “It was shoved under the door about a half-hour ago.”
Adam unfolded the letter and read.
We’ve got your brother Joe Cartwright.
You know what we want.
To see him and Hoss Cartwright again, come to Fisher Flats at dawn and tells us where it is.
We’ll let them go once we have it.
“This came with it.”
Adam’s throat tightened as he took the item. He’d know it anywhere. It was a piece of pants leg of the same material his youngest brother wore, soaked in blood.
The sheriff’s rules be damned He was going back to talk to the prisoner. Just let the sheriff try and stop him. He didn’t.
Standing over Clay, he demanded, “You need to tell me what’s really going on.”
“Sit down. I figured out that someone’s been skimming—diverting bags of ore from each wagon exiting the mine. I found where they stashed it, so I hid it someplace else.”
As he leaned against the outer door listening, Martins whistled. “Boy, talk about poking the bear. What did you expect to happen when you did that?”
“I was hoping to flush out who did it. But then all this happened and I figured they wouldn’t kill me until they got it back.”
“No,” Adam broke in harshly, “instead, they took something they could use against you. That stage wasn’t stopped for the payroll. They were after Little Joe. They grabbed him and got Hoss as a bonus!”
The color drained from Clay’s face, but his answer was defiant. “Like I said, I didn’t ask you to poke your nose in, or send for Joe and Hoss.”
Adam bit his lip. He hadn’t, but he should have expected his little brother to wheedle his way along. “Why didn’t you tell me about the hidden wagon earlier?”
Clay’s eyes flicked to Adam’s then away again, “I didn’t know if I could trust you.”
Adam stared. After all that he’d done, it came down to that. He wasn’t trusted. Watching Clay shift nervously on his bunk Adam realized it must always be that way with him. For Adam, who had his family to rely on his whole life, he couldn’t imagine being so totally alone. But when Clay had the chance to become a member of their family, he had walked away from them. Maybe that was the problem? When you’ve spent your whole life trusting only yourself, giving that up was too hard.
Adam pinched his nose. “So, they want the ore back?” He drew a breath. “You know as soon as you tell them they’ll probably kill them both.”
Clay snarled, “Yeah.”
Fisher Flats turned out to be a good place for such a meeting … for the kidnappers. The area provided plenty of cover where the gang was waiting, but only a small clump of flat boulders for Adam and Clay.
In the early morning light, Adam’s eyes caught the glint of five rifles.
A man with a bandana over his face and hat pulled low appeared. “Stafford, tell us where the wagon is.”
“Where’s my brother and Hoss Cartwright?”
At the jerk of his head, two more masked men stepped out. Hoisted between them Adam could see the familiar form of his youngest brother. Air hissed between his teeth when he saw Joe’s splinted leg and injured arm.
“Here’s your brother. Now tell us what we want to know. Once we get it, we’ll let the young fella and the other one go.”
Clay laughed, harsh and cynical. “D’ya think I’m an idiot. Once you get it, you’ll kill them. There’s only one way you’re getting’ the ore, and that’s with a straight up trade.”
Judd turned to Joe. “You better convince him to tell us, or your other brother’s a dead man.”
Fire burned in the green eyes that stared back defiantly. Joe hadn’t forgotten the fate of the others. “Clay’s right, you’ll kill us if he tells you.”
Judd pressed the hard tip of his gun into Joe’s temple, painfully arching his neck.
“Stafford, you tell me now, or I blow his brains out right here!”
“Do that, and you’ll never see the ore. I’m offering a trade.”
Not seeing any sign of his middle brother, Adam called out, “Joe, how’s Hoss?”
“His head’s hurt!”
The breath left Joe’s body as Judd’s fist slammed into his stomach. “Shut yer mouth.”
Seeing the punch, Adam flinched. His own fists clenched as he longed to get his hands on the villain.
Incensed, Clay yelled, “Lay off him! You’ll get your wagon when we get Joe and Hoss. We meet here at six o’clock tonight.”
The air hung thick with tension as everyone waited. Adam’s eyes fixed anxiously on Joe’s slumped frame.
“You better not be late, Stafford.”
The kidnappers departed, dragging Joe away. Clay and Adam mounted their horses and headed back to town.
The three sat around the sheriff’s office, eating the breakfast he’d made for them.
“What you fellas gonna do? When you turn up with that wagon, they’ll most likely kill you and everyone else. They can’t afford to leave you alive knowing what you know.”
Adam dropped his half-eaten plate on the desk. “We know that. What choice do we have?”
Clay heaved a shoulder. “I can at least send a telegram to Grayson and let him know what’s happening.”
“I don’t think it’d get through. This goes deeper than you or Grayson guessed. Think about it. Who have you told that you have a brother, and his name is Joe Cartwright? And how did they know he was even on that stagecoach? Someone must have known I telegraphed Hoss and then found out who got on the stage. No, the telegraph’s out.”
Clay’s face darkened as the implication of Adam’s words sank in, and his stomach did a flip. Only Grayson knew about Joe. Could he be behind the thefts after all? Clay gave himself a mental shake and dismissed the idea. His mind went to Tobias Welby. Apart from Grayson, he was the only other person who knew his real purpose here. He oversaw all the Nevada mines for the Franklin Mining Company, including the one in Franklinville. Clay knew the man had carried out background checks on him. Could he have found out about Joe? He hadn’t much liked the man, but would he be involved in this? After all, he already had money and status. For some men though greed was a monster that could never be satisfied, and he was unquestionably in a position to organize an operation like this. Adam words pulled him from his thoughts.
“Could you ask the miners to help?”
The sheriff snorted, “With them not being paid? More likely to beat Stafford up again than help him.”
Adam crossed his arms. “What if they knew those men have their payroll? I checked that wreck pretty good, and I didn’t find any sign of it. I reckon the kidnappers decided to help themselves, seeing as it was just lying there.”
The sheriff scratched his chin. “It’s one thing to take on Stafford and another to go up against a bunch of armed men in a place where they’ve got all the cover and advantage.”
Adam’s eyes pinned the sheriff. “What about you?”
Welby stood in the parlor, looking out of the window. Finally, his plans were getting back on track. He’d put too much into this operation to see it fail.
Franklinville had been a natural choice for his scam. A small mine in a small out-of-the-way town. Finding an inside man didn’t take too long. Greedy and easily corrupted, Mark Olson was the perfect candidate and, as mine foreman, he was perfectly placed to sidetrack ore out to Judd and his cohorts.
His eyes darted around the room to the other three men in his employ. He was beginning to wonder if he’d been right to hire these dolts, but he needed men like Judd. Men prepared to do whatever they were told, even killing. Although the murder of the woman had shaken him. It was one thing to order, another to see. Like the dead Site Manager.
Welby silently cursed the man. Finding out the blasted fellow had gone over his head direct to Grayson with his concerns over the tallies had infuriated him. If only he’d known that before he’d ordered him disposed of.
After the bags of ore they’d accumulated went missing, he’d decided to take charge firsthand. The money he’d lavished at the telegraph office in Franklinville had been well spent. Judd’s wire was waiting when he reached Virginia City and he couldn’t believe his luck when seeing who else was on the passenger list for the stage. It didn’t take a moment to wire Judd back with instructions for Olson to grab Joe.
Olson! Welby seethed, another brainless fool! He was sure that whichever of those dimwitted brothers spoke to him last night, tipped him off that he was angry. Olson had kept well away from him that morning and skedaddled back to the mine as soon as they’d left Fisher Flats.
Absently, he rubbed his arm, still painful from being thrown around in the stage. Well, if the numbskull thinks he’d gotten away with it, he’ll find out his mistake!
Bringing his mind back to the meeting later, he smiled. Once they got the ore back everyone else could be dealt with. No one need ever know of his involvement.
Dr. Hall stared down at his breakfast and realized he couldn’t eat it. He’d endured a sleepless night. All he could think about were those two young men in that room. The way they’d begged him to tend the other first haunted him. He knew what was going to happen. He’d patched them up long enough for Judd to use them, then they’d both be killed.
He watched his wife as she busied about the stove. He owed her so much. She’d stuck by him even though she’d seen his fear and cowardice.
The image of Joe and Hoss hit him again. He clenched his fists into balls. He was sick of being frightened. Terrorized by Judd and those he worked for. Tired of keeping quiet. Two more lives weren’t going to be lost because he was too scared to do anything.
Getting up he went to the door, plucked his hat off the hook and bag from the credenza.
“Josiah, you going out? What about your breakfast?”
Smiling, he replied, “Keep it warm for me, Beth. I’ll be able to eat when I get back.”
As he stepped out the door, her heart skipped a beat. He hadn’t looked her in the eye or held his shoulders straight like that in a long time.
“Hoss,” Joe whispered. When there was no response, he nudged his big brother with his elbow. “Hoss, you’ve got to stay awake.” No response. “Hoss! Wake up ya big galoot!”
“Lemme be, Joe. My head hurts.”
“That’s why you have to stay awake. You’ve got a concussion.”
His brother didn’t move. He didn’t snore either, a bad sign as far as Joe was concerned. “Hoss!” A sharp jab to the ribs produced the desired result.
“Can’t. My head is killing me.”
“I know it is, but that’s the reason you can’t sleep. Talk to me. Do you remember what happened?”
“Only so much. Need your help to piece it together.” In fact, Joe remembered it all, but he had to keep Hoss awake. Despite the doctor’s assertion that his brother was fine Joe knew from personal experience that you shouldn’t sleep following a severe concussion. “I went up top to help the driver. Next thing I knew the coach was rolling downhill. What happened then?”
“Tried to grab you. Missed.”
“I found you halfway to the bottom. Lucky that boulder stopped you.”
“If you say so,” Hoss mumbled.
“We were both a sorry mess. I cleaned you up some and Welby—the man on the stage with us—splinted my leg.” There was no point in telling Hoss about the woman, may she rest in peace. “Doctor stitched your head.”
“Because Adam’s the one with the granite head—not you!”
“Don’t get testy with me, boy.”
In spite of the pain in his leg, Joe smiled. That’s it, brother, keep talking.
“Where are we?”
“Franklinville, I think, but I can’t be sure.”
“You hurt any?”
Adam scraped the breakfast leavings onto one plate and set it outside the jailhouse door for one of the stray dogs he had seen wandering around. Despite a producing mine, this was not a thriving town and it appeared any wealth generated did not trickle down to its citizens. Was Grayson a part of the scam? His dealings with the man had been on the right side of legal, but that was some time ago. Still, Clay trusted him and that was saying something.
Clay was back in his cell drinking coffee when Adam closed the door. The sheriff sat on the edge of his desk one elbow resting on his leg, the other holding a mug. Adam turned a chair around backwards and positioned himself in the opening between the office and the cells.
“Been meaning to thank you, Sheriff, for taking a chance on letting Clay out of jail last night,” Adam said.
“After the way you handled yourself with the crowd, I figured I could trust you to bring the prisoner back. Besides, the ransom note put a different spin on things, kidnapping being a mite more serious than bustin’ up a saloon.”
“Where’s the nearest town with a telegraph?
“Turnerville . . . about 20 miles due south. A bit tricky if you intend to be here for the exchange.”
“I was thinking of sending someone else.”
Clay snorted. “Who do you know in this town that we can trust?”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Might there be a sweet young thing at the hotel restaurant that would do you a favor?”
“Miranda Olson?” Clay’s voice rose in surprise. After blinking a few times, his eyes shifted back and forth while he calculated the risk. “Maybe. She’s a good rider; adventurous sort,” he added, smiling. “If she can get away from her father, she could do it.”
“One of the miners from last night,” Martins said. “The one you shot.”
“Actually, he’s her stepfather and there is no love lost between them. She’ll do it.”
Adam dropped his chin to his chest. “Of course. Just like Joe.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Clay asked in all earnestness.
“Leave it to you—both of you—to find the prettiest girl in town with family problems.” Adam shook his head and then began to ponder whom to notify and what to say. In the end, he decided they’d send two telegrams: one to Grayson, which Clay wrote out, and one to Tom Beaudry, a longtime friend of the Cartwrights who owned the Bar B in nearby Coloma. Adam was confident Beaudry would grant his request for men and guns would be granted without question.
Josiah Hall drew himself up to his full height, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door of the ramshackle one-story house on the outskirts of Franklinville.
Judd Parker was about the meanest man the doctor had ever met but at least he never pretended otherwise. What you saw was what you got. The man hadn’t bathed in six months, if that, and reeked of tobacco juice from the ever-present wad of chaw he kept tucked in his cheek. Judd opened the door and spat, then said, “Whaddaya want, sawbones?”
“I came to check on my patients.”
“No one asked you to.”
“Both men are injured and if you want them to live long enough for your purposes—whatever those might be—you’ll let me in.”
Judd spit again and then opened the door wider. “You know where they’re at. And no talking.”
Josiah held his breath as he entered and hurried down the hall to the bedroom. What he found did not please him.
“Who trussed these men up?” he yelled.
“Whaddya bellyaching about, Doc?” said Blake Reynolds, one of Judd’s underlings who was guarding the prisoners. He and his brother Jake were as stupid as the day was long. The doctor figured Judd kept them around so he’d look smart.
“Untie these ropes now!”
“Can’t do that, Doc. They’s dangerous.”
The doctor pointed at Joe. “This man has a compound fracture and a fever. You could knock him over with a feather. And this man,” he pointed at Hoss, “his skull is likely fractured. I doubt he can remember his own name, much less where he’s from or how to get there. Neither are going anywhere. Now untie them!”
“Aw right, aw right. Quit your bitchin’.” Blake loosened the knots on the ropes binding the Cartwright brothers. Neither appeared to stir, but the doctor caught the eye of the younger one and shook his head cautioning silence.
“Now, fetch me some hot water and make sure the basin is clean!”
Blake grumbled but headed to the kitchen as he was told. He wasn’t too good at thinking, but he could follow orders.
“Doc,” Joe whispered. “I tried to keep him awake, but he fell asleep anyway. Is his skull really busted?”
“No, son. It’s just a concussion—a severe one, but nothing fractured. Now, let’s take a look at your leg.”
Joe grimaced as the doctor poked and prodded the wound. What had started out as simple fracture had turned into a compound one with the rough treatment he’d received. The stitches were pulled apart, and infection had reasserted itself.
“Good thing I came back to look at this. I’m going to have to open the incision and clean it out. When was the last time you had one of those powder packets?”
“Never did, Doc. That stinky guy threw them away.”
“What!” The doctor shuddered. “I’ll give you a shot of morphine for the pain.”
“No. Gotta take care of Hoss. Can’t be doped up.”
“It’s going to hurt like hell.”
Judd entered the room. “I said no talking! What are you doin’?”
“I’m going to clean out this wound. I told him it was going to hurt without morphine.”
“Here’s ya water, Doc,” Blake said as he put the basin on the table.
“Thank you. Now let me proceed, please.”
Judd scowled. “Hurry up about it.
Judd spit in the corner and left taking Blake with him.
“Thank goodness he didn’t notice the ropes,” the doc whispered to Joe. “I’m going to leave you this in case he ties you up again. Be careful. It’s not new, but it’s still sharp.”
Joe nodded and slipped the scalpel up his right sleeve.
“Here we go.” With another instrument, the doctor deftly slit open the incision as Joe’s eyes rolled up in his head.
Perspiration soaked through Doctor Hall’s shirt and coat, not from the heat of the day which was tolerable for the time of year, but from anxiety and stress associated with his unaccustomed bravado in facing Judd and his cronies.
On the way home for that meal he promised his wife he’d eat, he made a few stops to look in on patients. The visits were designed to throw off anyone who might be following him. He remembered all too well the pistol in the belly and threats of the day before. His last stop was the jail to check on the prisoner.
Sheriff Martins looked up when the doctor entered his office looking pale and flushed at the same time.
“Anything wrong, Doc?”
“No. No. I just need some water.”
“Sure thing. Have a seat. I’ll get some fresh from the pump.”
The doctor picked up a wanted poster off the desk with which to fan himself. It was then he noticed Adam leaning against the door frame leading into the cells. Flustered, he began to back away and stumbled.
“Easy,” Adam said, guiding the doctor by the elbow into the chair.
“Here’s that water, Josiah. How about a shot of whiskey with it? You look like you could use one,” the sheriff said.
The doctor gulped the water down and asked for a refill. “Don’t mind if I do, Hector. There’s something I have to tell you.” His eyes darted towards Adam.
“I’ll be in with Clay.” Adam turned and entered the cell area closing the double doors behind him.
A few minutes later the sheriff opened the doors and escorted the doctor inside.
“You’ve got to hear this,” he said. “But first let me close up.” The sheriff locked the front door and drew the shades before returning to the cells. He brought a chair for the doctor. “Doc, reckon you know your patient, Clay Stafford, paymaster at the Franklin Mine. And this man you met the other night is Adam Cartwright, Clay’s stepbrother. His two other brothers were on the missing stagecoach. We have reason to believe the stage was held up and the brothers taken as hostages.” The Sheriff showed the doctor the ransom note, and the bloody cloth.
“Would one of them be a big guy, the other of shorter stature, slim, wearing a green jacket?” asked the doctor.
“They would,” said Adam. “Have you seen them?”
“Yes. That’s what I came here to tell Hector. They are being held at the old Matthews place outside town. Both of them are hurt.”
Clay jumped up and both he and Adam asked, “How bad?”
“The bigger man—”
“Hoss,” Adam said.
“Hoss. He had a deep laceration on his scalp which required stitches. Also a severe concussion with some memory loss according to the younger man.”
“Hoss’ll be all right, but he should remain in bed for a week.”
“What about Joe,” Clay asked.
“Dislocated shoulder which was attended to on site. The more serious injury is his leg; compound fracture through the skin, I’m afraid. I’ve cleaned it out twice, but he’s running a fever and he wouldn’t take any pain medication.”
“Of course not,” said Adam slamming his right fist into his left palm.
“He was afraid drugs would impede his ability to care for his brother. They seem quite devoted to each other, if I may say so.”
“Oh, that’s putting it mildly,” Adam said. He locked eyes with Clay. “We’re a very close family.”
“Neither of them should be moved right now, but I take it from this ransom note that an exchange has been arranged.”
“Yes. Tonight at 6 p.m. at Fisher Flats. Their lives for a wagon full of gold ore,” said Clay.
“Gold?!” exclaimed the doctor. He turned to Clay.
“Alfred Grayson hired me to look into some discrepancies at the Franklin Mine. It was all very discreet, hence my undercover role in payroll. It gave me the opportunity to talk with everyone in the mining operation regardless of position, no questions.”
The Sheriff stepped in. “The miners took exception to events at the poker table a few nights ago and decided to wipe the saloon floor with Stafford.”
Adam took up the narrative. “I was passing through. Hadn’t seen Clay in years and had no idea it was him at the bottom of the dogpile until I tried to help. I wired Hoss for bail money and told him to come alone. No one knew that he would be on that stage . . . except the telegraph operator. And I didn’t know Joe would tag along.”
“Correction,” Sheriff Martins said, “the telegraph operator only knew you had made a request. As you pointed out earlier, someone in Virginia City must have confirmed the presence of both brothers on the stage and knew enough that Joe Cartwright is Clay Stafford’s half-brother.”
Everyone turned to look at Clay. “The only person in the area who knew I was related to Joe was the regional manager of all the Franklin Mines—Tobias Welby.
“You idiot!” Welby slapped the face of Mark Olson with the back of his ring-laden hand, leaving a red welt that began weeping immediately. “I asked you and your men to handle one simple thing: bring me Joe Cartwright. All you had to do was wait until he checked into the hotel and then grab him. Now we’ve got him and his lug of brother to transport, and two other brothers to deal with. Egad, man! Can you do nothing right?”
“No, sir. I mean yes, sir. I suggested to the miners that Stafford was skimming the payroll. They’re pretty pissed. They almost hauled him out of jail the other night until that other Cartwright shot me!”
“You fool! I had Stafford set up to take the fall for the ore scam. The payroll is nothing by comparison! If he gets lynched before I find that missing wagon, we’re all dead! I need Stafford alive for my plan to work.”
As prearranged, Adam rode out in the early afternoon to the bluff above Fisher Flats. Tom Beaudry and 15 of his ramrods were there outfitted with pistols, repeating rifles, and plenty of ammunition. The men dismounted. Adam sketched the layout of the flats. They made plans for gun placement and contingencies.
“Tom,” Adam said, grabbing the man’s forearm. “All of you. Thank you for coming.”
“You’d do the same for the Bar B. When is Ben expected?”
“He doesn’t know. There wasn’t time.”
“Well, he does now; I sent him a wire confirming what you told me and that the Bar B was assisting.”
Adam felt sick. It was bad enough he hadn’t notified Pa as soon as he knew Joe and Hoss were missing, let alone hurt. Of course, if everything went as planned, it wouldn’t matter. On the other hand, if it went badly, he’d never be forgiven. “Thanks. I couldn’t trust the telegraph in Franklinville.”
“Uh huh.” Tom knew. “Tough call to make son. Let’s make sure it comes out all right. Can’t disappoint my daughter.”
“She’s got her wedding to Joe all planned.”
“And got her heart set. I’m not going to be the one to tell her Joe’s dead.”
From your mouth to God’s ears, Adam thought has he circled back to Franklinville.
“Sheriff, is there any chance we can get them out of the Matthews’ place without risking lives?” Adam had to ask. As happy as he was to have Tom and the Bar B boys on their side at the Flats, the risk of crossfire was too great, especially since neither Hoss nor Joe could move on their own, let alone fast.
“I don’t see how. The house backs up to a hill, entry only from the front. Barn facing the porch.”
“Doc, how many men are in there?” Clay asked.
“This morning there was Judd—he’s in charge; then Blake and Jake Reynolds. They’re dumber than dirt but will do anything Judd asks of them. And there were at least two more. I heard voices, but I couldn’t distinguish them.”
“So three, possibly five, guns. There were five rifles this morning.”
Adam wanted an easy rescue. He wasn’t going to get it.
At five o’clock, a wagon emerged from the barn and pulled up to the front door. Five men carried Hoss out and grunted as they struggled to lift him into the bed of the wagon. His feet and hands were bound. He didn’t move.
A few minutes later Joe emerged hopping on one foot, one arm in a sling. Two men got on either side and lifted him under the armpits. They were none too gentle going down the steps and they tossed him into the back of the wagon with no regard for his injuries. His scream echoed through the canyon as they lashed the canvas tarp down over the bed of the wagon.
Clay shook with rage at the treatment of his brothers. He put down his binoculars and wiped his eyes. After several deep breaths, he got on his horse and rode to the rendezvous point.
Joe shook his right arm and felt the scalpel slide into his palm. Carefully rotating it, he began slicing through the rope that bound Hoss’s feet, leaving just enough hemp intact to have it appear the rope was still tied. A good tug and Hoss would be able to break the bond. When he was finished, he inched his way up as far as he could go with the splint on his leg and dealt with the ropes binding Hoss’s hands in the same manner.
Hoss whispered, “You okay?”
“Piece of cake.”
“Don’t mention cake.”
“Stop right there, Cartwright,” a disembodied voice from behind a boulder bellowed. “Get off your horse and toss your gun over here. Then put your hands up.”
Adam complied, all the while searching the rocks for a sign of where the voice was coming from.
“Shoo your horse away.”
Adam slapped Sport on the rump and the horse took off. “Where are my brothers?”
“They’re coming. Where’s Stafford?”
“Well then, we’re just gonna have ourselves a little waiting game.”
Fifteen minutes passed. The sun was merciless, and Adam’s shirt was soaked through by the time he heard the faint creak of the wheels on an ore wagon. Thank God! Ashamed of himself for considering even a moment that Clay wouldn’t appear, he was nonetheless grateful when he did.
Clay stopped the wagon just out of rifle range and stood up. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “This is as far as I come until I see my brothers.”
“I give the orders here, Stafford.”
Clay picked up the reins and started to turn the wagon.
Adam held his breath. They had planned this strategy together, but it was a risky move and both brothers knew it.
“Wait! They’re coming.”
The rumble of a freight wagon grew louder as it approached and stopped twenty feet from Adam.
“All right, Stafford, come forward next to my wagon, and climb down. My man will check your load first. Then Cartwright can check on your brothers. Then we switch teamsters and drive away. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” both Adam and Clay said.
“Okay, my man first.”
Judd climbed down from the freight wagon and ran to the ore wagon. He opened a couple of random bags to be sure of the contents, then signaled okay.
“All right, now you Cartwright.”
With racing heart, Adam approached the freight wagon, lifted the canvas and stared at an empty bed.
“What kind of trick is this?” he shouted. “Where are my brothers?”
“What are you talking about?” answered Welby.
“They’re not here. The wagon’s empty. Come see for yourself.”
While all eyes were on Welby as he exited from the rocks and pulled the canvas back, Clay sprinted to the ore wagon with his pistol in hand.
“Get down now!” he ordered.
When Judd made a play for his gun Clay shot him in the arm, pulled him off the seat into the sand, and climbed aboard. Gunfire erupted around the wagon as he drove out of range.
Stunned at the turn of events, Welby dropped his weapon and surrendered. Jake and Blake Reynolds, unsure of what to do, emerged from the rocks with their hands in the air.
Sheriff Martins cuffed the men and put them in the back of the empty freight wagon, but not before firing three shots in the air.
Adam couldn’t breathe. Where the hell are my brothers? Lightheaded, he bent over with his hands on his knees, gasping for air.
“Looking for these?”
Adam looked up to see Tom Beaudry smiling from the high seat of a Bar B buckboard with its distinctive black and yellow wheels. In the bed were Hoss and Joe.
After a night in a far-from-comfortable bed, Ben Cartwright pulled back the frayed curtains framing his window in the hotel and gazed at the street below, the false fronts opposite forming a slim silhouette against the pale light of the rising sun. The Franklin House offered nothing so commodious as the suites offered by any quality hotel in Sacramento, San Francisco, or even Virginia City. A sitting area they could all have shared, complete with settee, armchairs and writing desk, would have been welcome, especially for restless nights like this had been, but he had cobbled together a set of rooms that served as the best approximation of a suite one could find in the rough mining hamlet of Franklinville. Adjoining rooms could be linked together by unlocking a door between them, so he had rented two such sets, to the everlasting appreciation of the proprietor. Across the hall Adam had a room joining the one where Hoss now so contentedly snored, while Ben purportedly had the same easy access to his youngest son.
Bah! he grunted as he moved away from the window. If only he actually did have that access, but his place was being usurped by an unexpected and not particularly welcome intruder. Clay Stafford, who had his own quarters in Franklinville, had, instead, taken up residence in his brother’s room, as attentive a nursemaid as any mother—or father—hen should have been and, sadly, Joseph seemed content to have it so. Ben couldn’t deny his battered boy that comfort, but he couldn’t forget that night when Little Joe had fallen, weeping, into his arms, shattered by his newfound brother’s insistence on leaving the Ponderosa, heedless of the wreckage he’d left behind. At least, he’d be here, only steps away, when it, inevitably, happened again.
Ben was thoroughly put out with all his sons, the three of his own flesh, as well as the one who should have been his by adoption, for dear Marie’s sake. His greatest ire, however, fell on the hapless head of his eldest. It was, after all, Adam’s decision, to send surreptitiously for Hoss, and while he understood the boy’s commendable desire to shield Little Joe, that was a father’s prerogative! Sometimes that oldest boy of his seemed to forget just who the parent was in this family.
The ever-compliant Hoss, of course, had only done what he was asked, and Ben could hardly task him for trusting his older brother, however much he might wish to; nor could he bring himself to berate a boy whose concussion had rendered recollection of recent events hazy at best. As for Joseph, he had simply acted true to nature, ever-ready for reckless adventure, ever-heedless of potential danger. Once he was fully recovered, his father would have a few choice words to say about the need to curb that tendency, but for now Joseph was safe from so much as a harsh word. Well, he might as well admit it given his physical injuries and the impending damage to his tender heart, Joseph was likely to go scot free for his part in this fracas.
That left Adam as a convenient scapegoat, but it was hard to stay angry with him when, in the end, he’d brought all Ben’s boys, both flesh and adopted, through safely and, if not in one piece, at least in pieces that could be put back together. And in all fairness, Clay deserved a measure of credit for that, as well, so there wasn’t much point in harboring ill will toward him, either. That left him no one to yell at, and frankly, he needed an outlet for the frustration he felt about the whole, mystifying situation. Ben quietly pushed open the slightly ajar door to his youngest son’s room and moved to the side of the bed. He laid his hand lightly across the boy’s forehead and frowned.
A voice came from the dark corner on the other side of the bed. “He’s still running a fever,” Clay said, “but I think it’s down some.”
Ben nodded his confirmation. “How’s he been?”
Clay moved side to side, unkinking muscles tightened by a night in a hard chair. “Restless, early on, but I gave him another dose of laudanum and he settled down. Been sleepin’ good since.” In answer to Ben’s arched eyebrow, he added defensively, “It was time, Mr. Cartwright. I know better’n to give a man too much.”
Smiling wryly, Ben lowered the eyebrow. With Joe, it was usually a case of too little painkiller, rather than too much, but neither Dr. Hall nor Ben nor, apparently, Clay had brooked any argument. One thing evoked concern: once Little Joe had realized that Hoss was safe and receiving care, there hadn’t been much argument about medication, and that indicated a high level of unacknowledged pain. “Look, you’ve been with him all night,” Ben said. “Why don’t you take my bed, get some rest?” And leave this room—and everything in it—to me. He had the grace to leave the thought unspoken, as well as its companion conclusion that Adam was not the only Cartwright—or quasi Cartwright, in this case—who had forgotten who the parent was here.
Clay stood up, further working the stiffness from his muscles. “Thanks, but Mr. Grayson’s coming in on the morning stage. I’m goin’ down to my place, get washed up and change clothes before I meet him.” His nose wrinkled. “These are gettin’ ripe.”
“Sure,” Ben said, the words carrying no emotion. For Joe’s sake—and Marie’s—he was determined to treat Stafford like family, but he was just as happy to be alone with his boy at last. With a final brush of the rampant chestnut curls, he settled into the chair Clay had just vacated and tried, once again, to make sense of the hash that had been served up as explanation for his sons’ latest escapade.
In a way it had been heartening to learn that Clay, while still pursuing gambling as a livelihood, had, at least, established a more stable source of income, as well. True to form, however, he’d found one fraught with danger. True to form, indeed, he thought with a glance at the son sleeping beside him and decided, with a certain degree of satisfaction, that while Little Joe came by his tendency toward recklessness honestly, it did not come from the Cartwright side of the family. Cartwrights frequently managed to find trouble, too, but it was usually other people’s, as Adam had stumbled into Clay’s in this affair.
Hard as it was to follow the assorted players in this latest drama, it was, at least, gratifying that all his sons had held true to the Cartwright traditions of love, loyalty and each putting the others before his own interests. Adam had even extended those traditions to a brother not his own. As he had privately put it to Ben, “The brother of my brother is family, too.” Ben could not have been prouder, and in that moment of realization, his eldest son lost his status as designated scapegoat. He’d done just as he should; so had they all, even Clay.
And that was how they’d survived: love, loyalty and putting others first, the final example of that being his two younger sons’ escape. Once Little Joe had sliced through the ropes holding his brother captive, in hushed tones he’d urged his big brother to leave him behind. Despite his muddled thinking, Hoss had seen through that act of sacrifice, and with a firm, but silent shake of his head, he’d lifted his little brother and carried him to a hiding place in the barn. Because their captors were still nearby, Little Joe had been forced to keep quiet and accept what he wanted desperately to refuse. Thankfully, no one had thought to check either the interior of the wagon or the outbuilding, and once the outlaws left, Hoss had ignored Little Joe’s protests about slowing him down and carried him away, though his sense of direction was so distorted he ended up going around in circles. By the grace of God, Tom Beaudry had come across them and brought them straight to Adam.
Little Joe grinned as Clay came into the bedroom. “Hey, brother,” he said. “How’d it go? Pa said you had a meeting with your boss. Guess you had a lot of explainin’ to do, huh?”
“Yeah, but it went fine,” Clay said. He frowned slightly. “Where’s your pa?”
“Across the hall, seein’ to Hoss,” Joe replied.
“Oh, sure.” It figured. Seein’ to each other was what Cartwrights did. “How you doin’?”
“Fine,” Little Joe replied, although his wince as he shifted his weight on the bed belied the time-honored response.
“Uh-huh. I can see that.” Clay turned the wooden chair around and straddled it, facing his younger brother.
“I’m doin’ fine,” Little Joe insisted. “Doc says so. Even said we could head for home in a couple of days, so long as we take it easy.”
“Oh, well, that’s good,” Clay said, though he sounded disappointed. “Well, it’s been good seein’ you, Joe, even if the circumstances were a tad less than ideal.”
“Just a tad!” Joe laughed. Then he sobered. “Sure wish you’d come with us, Clay. You know you’ve always got a place at the Ponderosa.”
Clay’s tongue gave his lips a nervous lick. “I can’t give you what you want, Joe. Wish I could, but I just can’t.”
“Nothing’s stopping’ you,” Joe pressed.
“Not so,” Clay said. “I got a job here.”
“But it’s over, ain’t it?” Joe asked. “You found out who was stealing the ore, so you’re out of a job again, aren’t you, brother?”
“I’m still payroll manager,” Clay said with a grin.
Little Joe snorted. “Like that’s gonna satisfy you.”
“Yeah, I think it will, for a while, at least,” Clay said, chuckling at the look of surprise on his brother’s face. “Like I told Adam, I’ve become respectable, and I’m kind of liking the feel of it. So, yeah, it’ll satisfy me for now.”
“And later?” Little Joe couldn’t hide the hope in his voice.
Clay shook his head. “Not cut out to herd cows, little brother. Too day-in, day-out for me.” Then he grinned. “Kind of liked playing detective, though. Maybe I’ll hire out with the Pinkertons someday!”
Little Joe grinned back. “Maybe I’ll join you then. I’ve done a speck of detecting myself, you know.”
“I’m afraid to ask,” Clay said with a shake of his head, secretly planning to hit Hoss up for the details later.
Little Joe pursed his lips. “So, it’s not that far from Franklinville to the Ponderosa, Clay. Maybe we could see each other from time to time?”
Clay’s smile this time was softer, warmer. “I’d like that, brother, but maybe you could come here, at least some. Your boss might be a mite more understanding than mine about time off.”
Little Joe laughed. “Maybe a mite, but not more. Hey, it’s only a few months ‘til Christmas, so how about it? Home for Christmas?”
The Ponderosa wasn’t home to Clay, and he doubted it ever would be, but the light in his brother’s eyes was like a home fire, beckoning him. “Home for Christmas,” he promised, staring straight into that fire.
The three Cartwrights not party to that bargain were not professional gamblers, but they’d each have laid odds that Clay’s promise would be unkept and that they’d be left to pick up the pieces, come Christmas. Little Joe was the only one willing to gamble on Clay, with his heart as the stakes, and as the day approached, he frolicked around with all the eagerness of a frisky puppy, while the others braced themselves for a holiday catastrophe.
At midday on the eve of Christmas, a knock at the door interrupted their decorating of the ceiling-scraping tree. Little Joe, high up the ladder when it was heard, almost toppled from the top rung. Hoss steadied him just in time to avoid another broken leg, while Adam opened the door and stood there, struck silent at the sight of the brother of his brother.
“Well, you gonna let me in?” Clay asked dryly. “It’s kind of cold out here, you know.”
“Of course. Come in,” Adam said, opening wide the door, while Little Joe scrambled down the ladder to engulf his mother’s other son in a bear hug.
“I knew it!” Joe cried. “I knew you’d come.”
“Said I would,” Clay reminded him, amused by both his little brother’s enthusiasm and the astounded looks on the faces of the rest of the family. Soon he was surrounded by Cartwrights and nearly floored by Hoss’s hearty clap on the back. It was the beginning of a holiday celebration unlike any he’d ever experienced.
As he always did, Ben took a few private moments as the new year began to mull over the events of the past year and his hopes for the next. His thoughts lingered on the member of the family—yes, family!—who had left for Franklinville just that morning. Recalling the incident that had brought Clay Stafford back into their lives, he reflected on the conclusions he’d drawn then about what had brought them through the critical situation: love, loyalty and placing the needs of another above one’s own. That was what had brought Clay to the Ponderosa for Christmas, his willingness to set aside his own desires for those of his brother, Ben’s beloved son.
Clay had not grown up with the Cartwright traditions; he had, instead, been raised by one of the most selfish women Ben had ever met. Yet in his brief time with Ben and his three sons, he had apparently absorbed some of their values and learned a little of what it meant to be part of a family. His name was Stafford, but as far as Ben was concerned, Marie’s other boy was on his way to becoming a true, not a quasi, Cartwright. And who knew? Maybe one day he’d even be willing to carry the name, as she would have wanted.
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