Summary: This is the FINAL Book of the series. Delivering new mounts to the major doesn’t go as planned.
Rated: K+ WC: 8400
The Farm Series:
The Farm – Book 1 – Taken
The Farm – Book 2 – The Return
The Farm – Book 3 – Taking Flight
The Farm – Book 4 – The Horse Operation
The Farm – Book 5 – The Wedding
The Farm – Book 6 – The Major’s Daughter
The Major’s Daughter
Doors open wide, and I’m thrust inside. I’m dragged across dirt and stray bits of straw and dropped on the ground facedown. The coppery stench of blood is overwhelming, and I beg the almighty for strength where there’s none. I’ve been beaten and tossed between three large men, and when I try to open my eyes, my lids feel like leaden weights. Fighting my captors is no longer an option. I’m spent and fear the worst.
Blood seeps from a cut above my left eye yet I don’t have the strength to wipe it clean. Fresh blood means hope. I’m not dead yet though I feel every painful blow they inflicted. I try to form a conscious thought, but I’m tired, so very tired.
Like vultures hovering their prey, the sound of laughter rings out like a cruel and vicious refrain. Although confusing at first, I finally make sense of my surroundings.
The barn has seen better days. Wind and sun have taken their toll and left the structure a step up from kindling. The stench of spoiled straw and rusting tools doesn’t distract me from the main problem. Why have I been captured, and am I being disposed of?
As I lie motionless on the ground, I wonder if the ordeal is over, and I’ll be set free. Instead, my boots are removed and my wrists and ankles are tied. My arms are pulled over my head and chained to an old wooden rafter, and I’m hoisted in the air like a deer made ready for skinning.
“We’re leaving now, Pa,” I said when I stepped back inside the house and reached for my gunbelt. The supplies were loaded, and my wranglers were ready to travel, to deliver new mounts to Morrison’s camp just west of Placerville.
Pa stood from his desk and questioned me again. “Are you sure you don’t need Hoss or Candy? They’re glad to help.”
“We’re fine, Pa. Two days there, a day with Andy and Marianne, and two days home. The three of us can handle the string.”
“I know you can.”
“But, you’ll worry.”
Pa smiled at my remark. “No, I won’t worry.”
My father had turned into a skillful liar. Ten years after being rescued from the farm, he still grew concerned when I stepped foot off the Ponderosa.
After delivering eighteen new mounts to Major Morrison, Marcus and Jimmy and I were eager for a cold beer. I paid them the extra wages I promised but held back the usual amount. My men weren’t aware, but I’d opened bank accounts in both their names nearly ten years ago. At the end of every month, I deposited ten dollars in each. Neither would walk away rich men, but they couldn’t spend all their earnings on booze or women or gambling either. They’d have a small stake in the future when they were ready to move on.
“Come with me, Joseph.” After the horses were corralled and the major was pleased with the delivery, I allowed Morrison a few minutes of my time. My wranglers knew the routine and were happy to ride down to Placerville to one of the local saloons and meet up with me later in the evening. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“I’ll be retiring soon, and I want you to meet Captain John Henry. He’ll stand in until someone is assigned permanently. Thirty years is enough for any man.”
“Do you have plans? I mean … what happens now?”
“For one, I’ll get to see more of my family.”
Morrison took me by surprise. “I didn’t know you had family.”
“There’s a lot about me you don’t know, Joe.”
Morrison had asked questions over the years, and I offered what I could, but I never delved into the major’s private affairs, which was my fault for not caring enough to ask. I’d never given thought to whether he was a family man or not.
His cabin was long and narrow. Two easy chairs and a writing table filled most of the front room he used as an office. His living quarters were located behind the reception area and out of sight. Two windows let in enough light that a lantern wasn’t necessary during daylight hours, but the sun angled low in the sky and Morrison lit the fancy, china lamp on his desk.
“Have a seat, Joseph. Captain Henry will join us shortly.”
After removing my hat, I raked my fingers through my hair before taking a seat in one of the upholstered chairs. When the door leading to the major’s quarters opened and a young woman stepped into the front office, I stood immediately. “Is that you, Father?”
“Cookie,” he said. “I’d like you to meet a good friend.”
Lamplight caught her blonde hair and highlighted her green eyes.
Slim and petite, I liked what I saw until I realized how young she was, maybe still in her teens.
“I’d like to introduce my little girl, Carol Ann Morrison.” Wrapping his arm around his daughter’s slim waist, he continued. “Her mother and I call her Cookie, and she’s come all this way to take me home to Carson City.”
“Oh, Papa. Really.”
“This is Joseph Cartwright, Sweetheart. He’s the horse trader I’ve told you about.”
“A pleasure, Mr. Cartwright.” Cookie held out her hand. “My father’s been singing your praises for years.”
“That’s very kind of him, Miss Morrison, but the pleasure is all mine.”
I wished I could’ve cleaned up. Two days’ worth of trail dust didn’t bode well for pleasantries with a young woman I’d never met before. “I hope you’ll excuse my appearance, Miss.”
“There’s nothing wrong with hard work, Mr. Cartwright. Maybe you’ll join us for supper tomorrow night. Is that all right with you, Father?”
“Of course. How about it, Joe?”
“I’d be delighted.”
“Tomorrow night at seven?”
“Thank you, Sir.”
A knock on the front door caught everyone’s attention, and the major called out, “It’s open.” A young man in uniform clicked his bootheels and saluted his superior. “Captain Henry. Someone here I’d like you to meet.”
I offered my hand. “Joe Cartwright, Captain.”
“Aw, the horse trader.” Henry shook my hand, his grip firmer than I expected.
“Fine string out there in the corral, Mr. Cartwright.”
The captain nodded his head at Miss Morrison. “Carol Ann.”
Since they were on a first-name basis, I wondered if they were an item. I wasn’t sure how far formalities went when it came to army protocol or the family of army superiors. They appeared to be more than just friends, though, and the captain seemed more her age so it made sense that they might have found common ground. A budding relationship was only natural.
“The major tells me you’ll be standing in for him when he retires. I’m sure he’ll give you all my information should you need another string of mounts.”
“That’s correct, Mr. Cartwright.”
“I’ll be on my way, then.” I glanced at Carol Ann and smiled softly. “Nice meeting you, Miss Morrison.”
“Until tomorrow,” she replied.
When I left Morrison’s quarters, I rode down the hill to Placerville and found my wrangler’s horses outside one of the saloons. After tying Cochise, I strolled inside to find two very inebriated cowhands. My boys worked hard, and they partied hard when the job was done. I would’ve joined them if I hadn’t stayed so long at the major’s, but my mood didn’t warrant a night of carousing. Other things filled my mind.
Carol Ann Morrison sparked a flash of loneliness that had become my way of life. Sure, I’d courted girls over the years, but no one had stirred the emotions I felt when I first laid eyes on her. She was different, special in a way I couldn’t quite describe.
“Hey, fella’s,” I said. Jimmy and Marcus sat at a table loaded with water rings from previous mugs of beer. They were so far ahead of me, I’d never catch up nor did I want to. “I’m beat. Think I’d head over to the hotel.”
“Aw, come on, Joe. Take a load off.”
“No, I’ll catch you guys in the morning.” I palmed my hands on the table and garnered a serious look. “Don’t end up in the sheriff’s jail unless you have enough cash to bail yourselves out.”
I’d been there before, and I knew what could happen after too much to drink. Everyone enjoyed a good bar fight, but my wranglers were out-of-towners and that never bode well with the locals.
After a decent night’s sleep, I realized I’d have to dress for supper with the major and his daughter, but I hadn’t brought enough cash for a new suit of clothes. A white shirt and string tie would have to do. I hoped they’d understand.
I sent my wranglers home. “Tell Pa that Morrison is retiring, and I’ll be staying an extra day to fill Captain Henry in on the details of the operation.” It wasn’t a big lie, just a little white lie in case things went well during supper.
“Jimmy and me, don’t mind hanging around, Joe.”
“No need. You go on back. Take a couple of days off before it’s time to round up the next string.”
“Whatever you say, Boss.”
“Good. Stay safe, and I’ll see you when I get home.”
Once my boys rode off, I had the rest of the day to kick around and meet up with Marianne and Andy but after collecting Cochise; I decided to ride west of town where I’d spent three years of my life. Though the house was gone, and the barn was in shambles, the location had never left my mind; even my horse seemed to know the way.
As I came up over the final hill, I studied the lay of the land. What used to be row after row of corn was no longer since the fire took nearly everything. Andy and I had seen the burned-out shell of the house and the barren landscape a few years back, and I pushed my mount forward. There was nothing more to see.
I felt a slight pang of hunger and wished I’d taken time for breakfast.
The sun crested high in the sky when I reached the far ridge, and I was surprised to see three riders approaching. Dressed in army gear, I reined Cochise and waited for them to make contact.
Captain Henry raised his gloved hand and his men stopped behind him.
“What brings you out this way?”
“Just killing time.”
The captain adjusted himself in the saddle and leaned forward. “You might want to stick closer to town. We’ve had Indian trouble over the last few weeks, and I wouldn’t want you to get caught up in the middle.”
“Indian trouble? I hadn’t heard.”
“The Army is keeping a low profile. Best turn around and head back to town.”
“Whatever you say.”
I turned Cochise back toward Placerville but found it strange that Morrison hadn’t mentioned a renegade problem. The time of Indian uprisings had passed, but a few young braves who refused to accept their new way of life would often make trouble. Who could blame them? The tribes had been resettled and everything they knew had been taken away, but it was still odd that I hadn’t been informed of the current situation.
It was time to pay Andy and Marianne a visit and maybe grab a sandwich that would hold me over until supper with the Morrison’s. Though we didn’t keep in touch regularly, I’d sent a wire saying I’d be in town on the 21st of the month. After dismounting and tying Cooch to the rail, I brushed the dust from my jacket and pants just as Andy came bounding out the hotel door. Dressed in his finest attire, his generous smile warmed my heart.
“Look at you,” I said.
“Joe! If you aren’t a sight for sore eyes?”
We both laughed and shook hands. “Long time no see, my friend.”
“Can you believe it’s been almost a year?” Andy turned back to the hotel. “Come say hello to Marianne. She’s been cooking all day just for you.”
Though I hated to disappoint, I’d have to tell my friends I had another engagement and wouldn’t be able to stay for supper. If I’d thought things through, I never would’ve accepted Miss Morrison’s invitation.
Steam rose from a pot on the stove, and the smell of beef roasting filled the hotel kitchen. Marianne stood with her back to me. I crept up behind and circled her waist with both hands. “Why’s my favorite lady standing over a hot stove?”
She turned to the sound of my voice. “Joseph. It’s so good to see you.”
I turned back to Andy. “Just as beautiful as the day I met her.”
Marianne blushed at the untrue comment. She was no beauty, not anymore. A knife across her cheek had taken that away and I was well aware, but she was grateful to be alive, and she pulled me into a tight hug.
“Hey, you two. Let’s not get carried away.”
Marianne inched back and swept fallen tendrils of hair from her face.
She’d been in the kitchen all day and supposed she looked a mess. “You’ll excuse my appearance, Joseph. I’ll try to straighten myself out by suppertime.”
I dipped his head. “I hate to say this, but I’ve accepted an invitation to dine with Major Morrison and his daughter tonight.” Her face fell slack with disappointment. “I’m sorry, Marianne. I wish I’d known you’d gone to all the trouble—”
“Don’t think a thing about it, Joseph.”
Andy stepped toward his wife and slid his arm across her shoulder.
“That’s right,” she said. “There’s always next time.”
Even though my stomach growled, I didn’t dare ask for a sandwich after I’d made such a mess of things. “Do you have time to sit and talk?”
“I was just heading down to the Post Office,” Andy said. “Walk with me?”
“Sure. Be glad to.”
I kissed Marianne on the cheek. “So good to see you. I’m sorry about tonight.”
I read the disappointment in her eyes and felt like a heel, but I couldn’t break my engagement with the major. I’d said all I could and turned to leave with Andy. The Post Office wasn’t far, and it didn’t take long before my best friend and I were chatting and laughing like we’d seen each other only yesterday.
After Andy thumbed through the packet of mail, I questioned him.
“What’s this I hear about an Indian uprising?”
Andy chuckled. “A what?”
“The Indian uprising.”
“Have you been drinking, Joe?”
“No, but I was informed this morning by an army patrol riding out by the old farm that there’d been Indian trouble.”
“It’s news to me. What were you doing out there anyway?”
“I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.”
“I’m surprised no one ever bought that land or homesteaded.”
Andy lost interest in the packet of mail and turned toward me. “Yeah. No one wants it, I guess. I don’t know why you’d ride out there anyway, Joe. Those days are long gone.”
I grabbed my friend’s arm. The mood of the conversation had changed from light banter to anger and what those days of captivity still meant to Andy. “I didn’t mean anything. I was just curious. That’s all.”
Andy’s head dropped. “I’m sorry, but I’ve put that whole mess behind me. My wife and the hotel are the only things that matter, and I don’t need old memories weighing me down.”
“I’m sorry I said anything. I swear I’ll never mention that place again.”
Marianne begged me to come to supper the following night, and I assured her that nothing would stand in my way. I’d also made a promise to Andy I vowed never to break. The farm would never be talked about again.
After bathing and dressing for dinner, I rode out to Morrison’s quarters.
I was still bothered by Captain Henry’s comment about the Indians and couldn’t get his urgent request off my mind. Was the Indian uprising worth bringing up during a social event? I wasn’t sure. If I could speak to the major alone …
I tied Cochise to the hitch rail and raked my fingers through still-damp hair before knocking on the front door. From the entryway, the major’s quarters looked more like a line shack than an office or home, but the structure also resembled the same log pattern my father had used when building the Ponderosa. Tall pines lined the path to the barn and the small front porch made the cabin appear more welcoming.
Dressed in an elegant green gown, Carol Ann opened the door and welcomed me inside. “Good evening, Mr. Cartwright.”
“I’d feel more comfortable if you called me Carol Ann.”
I stepped inside the major’s office. “Only if you call me Joe.”
“I’d be delighted, Joe. Come. Father’s waiting in the parlor.”
I followed her into their private quarters and was overwhelmed by all the flowery touches throughout the room. This wasn’t a man’s parlor as I’d expected, and I wondered if Carol Ann might’ve had a hand in the more formal décor. The major stood from his chair and welcomed me, but my eyes were pulled to the unexpected supper guest: Captain John Henry.
“I’m glad you could join us, Joseph. You know Captain Henry but tonight we’re all on a first-name basis. John,” he said pointing to the captain, “Carol Ann, and Joseph.”
I knew the major’s first name was Gerald, but I’d always kept formal protocol when dealing with the army. Switching gears at this point would take some getting used to.
“I’m happy to be here, Sir.”
“Will you serve our guests, Cookie?”
“Of course. What will you have, Joe?”
“I’ll have what everyone else is having.”
“Father won’t drink anything else, and John has recently acquired a taste for Papa’s favorite libation.”
I smiled at her casualness. She was nothing like her father and his army ways, and it was quite refreshing. She seemed older, more mature than a girl in her teens. Maybe I’d miscalculated earlier in the day. Not to mention how attractive she was and how she handled herself with such ease around a group of men.
We all took seats and the major began praising me for the quality of the stock I’d provided throughout the years. “I’ll miss this part of my job,” he said. “There’s nothing like seeing prize-winning horses for the first time.”
“I agree,” John said. “They’re the finest mounts in the territory.”
I blushed at the comments. It was fine for the major to gush over my stock, but I felt uneasy when Captain Henry agreed with his superior. Maybe it came natural to approve no matter what the circumstance and decided to take it in stride.
“Thank you both, but the wild horses of Nevada will have to take most of the credit. I just round them up.”
“Aren’t you being a bit modest, Joe?”
Miss Morrison didn’t miss a beat, and I let the question slide. There was no way to answer without digging a deeper hole or making a fool of myself. The major stood from his chair. He was well aware of my discomfort. “Let’s eat before our guest makes a beeline for the front door. Shall we?”
Relieved, I stood, as did John. When the captain took Carol Ann’s arm and guided her toward the small dining area, I realized they could be more than just friends. They might even be a couple.
The conversation during supper shifted to the major’s retirement and the move to Carson City where he had a house built and brought his family out from St. Joseph, Missouri. Two younger sisters were mentioned, and he sang praises for his wife who’d put up with his escapades for the last thirty years.
“Not many women will stay with a man she sees once or twice a year, but Martha is a gem, and now we can finally be together.”
“She’ll probably hand you walking papers, Papa. She’s not used to having a man around the house.”
The major looked straight at me. “How can a beautiful young lady act so crass with her own father?”
“Oh, Papa. You know I’m joking. Mama’s been planning this day forever.”
The more I saw and listened to Carol Ann, the more I appreciated her straightforward attitude, her lack of fear to speak what was on her mind whether it was truthful or just in fun.
Captain Henry was a different sort. He rarely spoke, and most of his attention centered on Carol Ann although he seemed to be eying me more than necessary. One could assume he looked uncomfortable, and I was proven right when the major’s daughter asked him if anything was wrong.
He seemed startled by the remark but gave a quick reply. “No. A bit of a headache is all.”
I wanted to speak with Morrison alone about the uprising, but I never had a chance with the captain in the room. Andy had laughed when questioned about the Indians, which either made Captain Henry a liar or Andy oblivious to anything but his wife and hotel. Army logic didn’t always sit right with me, but a bald-faced lie made little sense.
When supper was finished, we all took seats in the parlor for after-dinner drinks. After cooking a helluva meal, Carol Ann continued to play hostess before sitting next to the captain on the settee. Morrison and I sat in high-backed chairs across from the couple and passed the time chatting mostly about the major’s new home in Carson.
“Just think, Major. No more fighting Indians and taming the west. All those battles are behind you now.”
The major fisted his hand over his mouth to keep from laughing. “Those days are long gone, Joseph. The Indians were put in their place years ago.”
I hazard a glance at Captain Henry who said nothing to contradict the major’s statement although he pushed up from the settee and reached for the bottle of brandy. “Who needs a refill?”
“I should be on my way,” I said to the major and turned my attention to Carol Ann. “Dinner was beyond my expectation. I see why your father’s ready to retire. With meals like that instead of army provisions, I expect he’ll have trouble buckling his belt.”
Morrison patted his full stomach. “You might be right, Joseph.”
Carol Ann stood and moved toward me. “It was my pleasure. Anytime you’re in Carson, please call on father and me. We’d love to see you again.”
“I’ll do just that.” I picked up my hat and jacket and fastened my gunbelt, which I’d left by the front door, and bid the lady goodnight. She’d accompanied me out of the parlor and said something I wasn’t expecting to hear.
“Whatever you might think about the captain and me, you’re wrong. His intentions aren’t anything more than an attempt to impress my father.”
I chuckled at her latest quip. “Thanks again for having me in your home.”
As I rode down the hill to the hotel, I couldn’t get her last comment off my mind. Was that a polite gesture or an invitation to come calling? I’d been left with too many questions, and I wasn’t sure what to think. As far as I could tell, Carol Ann Morrison might be worth pursuing. She was bright and pretty and down to earth. What more could a fella ask for?
I slept little that night. My thoughts of the lovely Carol Ann had been suppressed by visions of the farm, and two desperate young boys who struggled to survive all those years ago. Nightmares had plagued me for weeks after I’d returned home, but my family had seen me through, and I’d left all the inhumanity behind until now.
The heady smell of breakfast cooking in the hotel restaurant rose to greet me when I stepped out of my room and into the hall. After last night’s feast and a sleepless night, I wasn’t hungry, but a fresh cup of coffee was high on my list. Marianne was the first to greet me as I descended the stairs toward the lobby.
“You look a little rough, Joseph.”
“How about coffee. Would that help?”
“You bet it would.” Marianne was that kind of person, caring and giving and a joy to be around. Even when she knew there was a story worth hearing, she didn’t ask questions but made herself available to listen. Andy was a lucky man. A woman like her was a rare find. “Where’s that husband of yours?”
“An odd thing happened, Joe,” she said as she poured two cups of coffee.
“Captain Henry sent Andy a message to meet him out by Surrey Ridge at ten this morning. He didn’t say why but—”
“You said Captain Henry?”
“Yeah. Seems Major Morrison plans to retire at the end of the month and—”
“I know all that. I didn’t know that Henry and Andy were friends.”
“I wouldn’t call them friends exactly. More like acquaintances.” Marianne handed me the steaming mug. “Cream, right? Joe?”
My mind whirled with odd scenarios as to why the captain wanted to see Andy. Maybe I was making a big deal out of nothing. I didn’t know what their relationship entailed, and it wasn’t my place to ask. If Marianne wanted to expand on the subject, she’s would’ve by now. She didn’t seem worried so why should I?
“Say when … Joe?”
“Oh!” I chuckled. “When.”
Marianne held back a laugh. “What’s wrong with you this morning? You’re here but you’re not.”
“I don’t know.”
“I beg to differ.”
Her eyes showed concern, and the last thing I needed was to make her uncomfortable. “It’s just a feeling I have.”
“It’s not a good feeling, is it?”
“Aw, not to worry,” I said and forced a smile. “Andy’s a big boy.”
“He’s my husband, Joe. He’s all I have in this world.”
I set my cup on the table and placed both hands on her shoulders.
“Andy would have my hide if I followed him out there.”
I couldn’t let it go now. I’d said the wrong thing and had Marianne in such a state, there was nothing else to do than ride out to Surrey Ridge and see that Andy and the captain were just having a friendly little talk. “I’ll go.” Her arms enveloped me in a huge bear hug. Had she been Hoss, I’d been lifted off the ground, but this was Marianne, petite and sobering, and I would do her bidding.
“You’re a good friend, Joseph.”
“Make sure you’re still on my side when Andy rakes me over the coals for acting like an old mother hen.”
Within a half-hour, I saddled Cooch and headed toward Surrey Ridge. It wasn’t a long ride, but it was adjacent to the farm, something Andy tried to leave behind but left me curious. Three horses stood idly on top of the ridge. Hoping to see the men chatting and not have to interfere had been my first choice, but I couldn’t see anyone from a distance and started up the steep slope.
When I spotted only one man standing next to a large-trunked tree, I was caught off guard. Only Captain Henry was visible as I approached. He didn’t move a muscle. His glaring eyes bore into mine, and he offered up a smile as though I was expected.
“Hello, Mr. Cartwright.”
I stayed in the saddle so I could look down on the man. “Where’s Andy?”
“His wife told me you summoned him for a meeting.”
“I thought I told you yesterday to stay out of the area.”
My patience grew paper-thin. “Where’s my friend?”
“Drop your gun, Mr. Cartwright.”
I stared at the man who was used to giving orders. “What?”
“You heard me. Drop the pistol.”
“What’s this all about?” A noise caught my attention, and Cochise sidestepped. With rifles in hand, two men appeared from the far side of the ridge “Is this some kind of joke?”
“No joke, Mr. Cartwright.” As the men approached from behind, I turned just in time to have the larger of the two pull me from the saddle and rip the gun from my holster. “You’ll be coming with us.”
The big man, a private, took hold of my arm and hauled me to my feet, but that wasn’t humiliating enough. He dragged me toward the captain before handing his rifle to his companion and pulling a length of rope from his back pocket.
If I let the charade go farther, I was a dead man and rammed my elbow deep in his gut. I whirled on the bluecoat, clasped my hands, and came down hard on the back of his neck. He went down for the count, but his cohort came charging like an un-caged bull, and I couldn’t dodge the attack. He hit me midsection and when I flew back, my head snapped against the trunk of the tree and left me sprawled on the ground.
Though dazed, I was coherent enough to know who the victors were, and that I’d lost my only chance at freedom. Memories of the same ridge and the same forceful tactics flooded my mind. Fear of the unknown left a man defenseless and exposed. Pulling me to my feet, Captain Henry ordered his man to tie my hands to Cooch’s saddle, and all I had left was to wonder why.
“Pa! Hey, Pa,” Hoss hollered as he walked through the front door. “You got a wire from Placerville.”
Only later would Ben realize the niggling feeling at the back of his neck had been trying to tell him something wasn’t as it should be. He ripped the missive open and read the distraught words of Joe’s friend begging him to come.
Ben Cartwright. Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada
Ben turned to Hoss. “There’s trouble in Placerville.”
“Trouble? What kind of trouble.”
“Your brother’s missing.”
Ben shoved the wire in Hoss’ hand and hurried to the kitchen to gather two-days supplies. Hoss dropped the paper on Ben’s desk and raced out the door to saddle the horses. By noontime, they left the Ponderosa, but father and son would have to ride hard if they were to make Placerville by the following evening.
“I told Charlie we’d grab Candy on the way,” Hoss said. Their foreman was checking the herd, which was only a mile or two out of their way and if Ben groused at the idea, which Hoss knew was possible, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. “He’s a good man, Pa, and we might need his help.”
Ben opened his mouth to complain but thought better of it. Hoss was right. Whatever had happened to Joseph, there was power in numbers.
The new nightmare was ghoulish and so farfetched that I woke in a state of panic. Only dead animals were hung from rafters, beef to cure, and deer or antelope to skin. For one human to hang another was cause for distress. To be hung from my wrists with only my toes touching the ground would become unbearable.
No candles or lanterns burned. My world was clothed in darkness, and the stench of feces and wet straw permeated the air. Everything hurt. My jaw and my cheekbones thrummed in time with my heartbeat, and my gut was so tender and sore that levering myself to relieve the pain in my shoulders couldn’t be done.
The blood seeping into my eye painted a picture of the insanity I’d endured. The beating that did me in and the men who laughed at my expense were forefront in my mind. Could I be in the same barn as that fourteen-year-old kid? The same darkness? The same stench and same inhuman behavior?
When I pulled on the chain that hoisted me in the air, it only cut my wrists deeper, and as my mind wandered back almost thirteen years, those feelings of inadequacy and despair came rushing back, the times I fought, and the times I lost. Andy saved my life more than once, but Andy had a new life although where was he now? Had the captain killed him to get to me? Had Marianne been widowed before her time? My heart ached for my friends.
Johansson had died, and the farmhouse had burned to the ground. This wasn’t a repeat performance. It wasn’t a dream; I’d seen the house with my own eyes, and I’d heard the sheriff’s own words. Johansson is dead, but when light illuminated the barn, I diverted my eyes and grabbed the chain as if I could escape my imprisonment and run for my life.
“I see you’re alive and well.”
“No thanks to you.” After hours of darkness, I couldn’t see Henry’s face, but I knew the voice. “What’s this all about, Captain?”
“Don’t you know?”
I shook my head but as pain shot up my spine, I realized taunting a man who held all the cards wasn’t in my best interest. It wouldn’t take much effort to raise the chain an inch and be done with me. No one would be the wiser. No one would be charged with my murder.
Had the Indian uprising been a lie? Why it was told, and why Henry didn’t want me roaming the countryside was a mystery, but he was up to something unsavory and he wanted me out of the way. Had he initiated a conflict with a group of young braves in order to gain fame for terminating the crisis? Was he career hungry? Thoughts raced through my head until Henry’s voice caught me off guard.
“Your father’s a rancher, Mr. Cartwright. My father was a scientist. He’s dead now, but I’ve decided to carry on his work.”
“Fine. What’s that have to do with me?”
“Everything, Mr. Cartwright.” Henry moved behind me and out of sight. A breeze from the open barn doors made me shiver, and I heard him chuckle. “May I call you Joe or Joseph?”
“You’re mad, Henry. What’s this all about?”
He continued his dialogue as though my comment went right passed him. “I prefer Joseph. Formal yet more intimate in nature. Don’t you agree?”
Henry had a plan, and I’d find out soon enough. My wrists were raw enough without trying to move or waste energy talking to a man that had secrets he wouldn’t share until he was ready. Okay, fine. I could play the game too, at least for a while.
“The army prides itself on soldiers with the highest endurance. I’m surprised you never joined up, Joseph. Then again, I don’t suppose rich boys like you go looking for a different life. Everything’s laid out from birth, isn’t it? Food on the table. A soft bed every night. No need to leave home, is there, Joseph?”
“What’s your point, Captain?
When Henry nudged me from behind, my footing gave way and the strain on my shoulders became unbearable. By the time I got my feet back under me, my breath came in wheezing gasps that my captor found to his liking and moved back in front of me.
“The point is, Joseph, there are the haves and the have-nots. My father worked tirelessly, but his work didn’t include my mother and me. We were more of a hindrance than a gift.”
“Fine. What’s that got to do with me?”
“Everything, you son of a bitch!” Spittle flew. I closed my eyes and turned my head until Henry grabbed my chin and forced me to meet his eyes. The rant continued. “My father kept journals. Daily, year after year he noted his findings, but did he take time to contact my mother and me? Did he find it in his heart to care if we were dead or alive? No! That never entered his realm of thought. Only scientific facts. That’s what drove him. That’s what made him tick, and that’s what killed him.”
Henry never left my line of sight. As his anger rose and he raged about a father who’d deserted him, short, staccato steps and finger-pointing were part of the performance. Even though I didn’t speak or try to break loose, I’d been positioned like this for hours, and breathing had become more difficult.
“You still don’t get it, do you, Joseph? You still don’t get my meaning, do you?”
What did he expect? Sympathy? A shoulder to cry on? His gloved hand flashed across my cheek like a bullwhip—sharp and painful—and I gasped for air. “What do you want of me, Henry? Why the dramatics?”
His eyes flashed with anger as one-two-three punches to my belly sent me spinning in place. “You worthless piece of crap. You ruined my life, Cartwright. My father doted on you. You were his pet project, and I was nothing. Page after page of his journal was devoted to a fourteen-year-old boy who had the strength and courage of a grown man.”
My eyes met Henry’s. His message became clear, and it all fell into place, but every ounce of strength had left my body, and I could no longer hold myself in place. My legs went slack; my weight shifted to my wrists and drew my shoulders tight. All hope was gone, and my chin fell to my chest. I couldn’t fight a son who thought I stole his father.
“Every page of his damn journal details the life of Joseph Cartwright.
“The young man’s guts. The young man’s will to live. The young man’s spirit. Need I go on? What about me? What about his only son?” Malignant laughter broke through. “No mention of the son back home. No mention of the wife he left behind, the woman who prostituted herself to put food on the table. No! None of that mattered. Only Joe Cartwright and the power you had over my father.”
Agitated and irritated, the pacing began again. “Stand up, Man. Show me those guts. Show me those survival skills my father found so commendable.”
Henry’s words shook me, and I did as he asked. By forcing my legs in a locked position, my shoulders were relieved of the pressure, and my fingers tingled as blood flowed back through my hands. I whispered a non-essential statement. “You changed your name.”
“Ha! Not me, Joseph. My father changed his. Johansson and his toe-headed sons. A good disguise, don’t you think? The townsfolk never questioned a father who was lucky to have strong, healthy boys to help run the farm.”
I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry, but I did neither. I couldn’t predict my fate thirteen years ago, and I couldn’t predict whether I had a future or if this was the end. Some would call it ironic. I thought the ordeal was sick and demented, but the son of my tormentor held my life in his hands, and I had no control of his next move. Carol Ann flashed before my eyes, and I wondered what might have been.
Would I have sought her out after the major retired, and would we have courted and found that we were good together? Would we have married and had a passel of kids? Pa would be so proud. He’s always wanted the Cartwright name to continue, and I could’ve been the first to make that dream come true. But Carol Ann wasn’t just a flash, and I blinked repeatedly. Was I too far gone to grasp the difference between fantasy and reality?
“Hold it right there, Henry.”
The voice sounded deep and commanding, and I tried to focus. A rifle had been leveled at my captor, and Henry turned his attention to the man who’d invaded his isolated world. “Major?”
“On your knees, Captain.”
“You don’t understand,” he cried. “I had no other choice.”
The major’s voice was firm. “Now, Captain.” John Henry dropped to his knees. He buried his head in his hands and rocked back and forth like an infant. “Toss the weapon aside.”
Henry reached for his pistol and flung it across the barn floor. “You have to hear me out, Major.”
“Save it, Henry. Save your story for a judge.” After the captain was unarmed, I tried to warn the major about the other two men, but my mouth was too dry. I couldn’t utter a word.
Morrison wasn’t alone. Carol Ann stood beside him, and he handed her his rifle. “Watch him,” he said before moving across the barn floor and lowering the chain that had suspended me for … I don’t know how long, and I didn’t much care. The ordeal was over. The major had saved me, and the girl of my dreams held a gun on the man who’d made my life a living hell.
Two peas in a pod. I nearly laughed at my analogy. A father who barely knew his son existed had somehow passed his demeaning tactics down.
Maybe it was in their blood. Maybe that’s how it was between fathers and sons.
I tried to smile at the major as he loosened the chain and untied my swollen hands. “We’ll have you back in shape in no time, Joe. I’m sorry something like this was even possible.”
I reached for my throat and tried to croak out an answer, but the major understood and rushed out the barn doors. He returned with a full canteen and supported my back while I drank. “Thanks,” I muttered. “How … ”
“After telling my daughter a story about a young boy and how he and his friend survived a three-year stint under the watchful eye of a madman, she wanted to see where it all happened. I told her there wasn’t much left, but she insisted.”
I glanced at Carol Ann. “Then I have her to thank.”
“That about sums it up. Think you can walk?”
“Yeah. Just get me to my feet.”
With a tight hold, Morrison lifted me from the barn floor and helped me outside. I overheard Carol Ann tell Henry to move his sorry ass before she filled him with buckshot. The major rolled his eyes, but I chuckled. The slip of a girl had more spunk than any other woman I’d known. I also knew she was the right gal for me. Adam always kidded me that I’d walk away from death’s door with a girl on my arm and this time, I hoped to prove him right.
Sunlight spilled through an open window, and I woke with a start. I couldn’t place my surroundings, the bed, or the nightshirt sized to fit a man like Hoss more than me, but I couldn’t complain. The nightmare was behind me, and the sun filtering across my legs told me not to waste time lying around. A new day was dawning, and Captain Henry was behind bars.
The major insisted I stay in his quarters rather than at the hotel. I asked that he send word to Andy and Marianne since I missed my supper date and figured they’d worried. When he sent a man for Doc Hershey, the message had been relayed, but I found out something else. A wire had been sent to Pa. I assumed he and Hoss were riding fast, and I’d have to eat my words. My father had every right to worry.
The doc came yesterday. Besides a few cuts and bruises, I would heal. No permanent damage to my shoulders, but the torn flesh on my wrists was cleaned and bandaged to stave off infection.
No one had a clue about Captain John Henry’s obsession, but Doc took the news harder than anybody. He even tried to apologize for Henry’s actions, but I assured him he wasn’t to blame. Names had been changed and years had passed. No one could’ve predicted the captain’s pent-up rage. No one could’ve known they were father and son.
I let Carol Ann nursemaid me to her heart’s content. We became closely acquainted during the process, which suited me just fine. After she gave me a look into her life in St. Jo, I embellished the story of my life on the Ponderosa. We laughed and joked about silly things. We took our meals together when Doc insisted I stay in bed.
This was a new day, though, and I couldn’t lie around any longer. My shirt and pants had been washed and folded and sat on a nearby chair. Even though my wrists were bandaged, my hands worked fine. I slipped on my clothes and boots and made my way to the parlor to find Carol Ann and the major enjoying a cup of coffee.
“Joseph. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
“I’m fine, Major. I can’t lay around forever.”
“If you’re sure.”
Carol Ann stood and smiled. “Coffee?”
“You bet.” Had I been too informal with my answer? I didn’t want the major to think poorly of me, and I rounded out my statement with, “Thank you, Miss Morrison.”
“First names, Joseph,” he said. “We’re way past formalities in this house.”
I sat on the sofa with the major. It seemed safe enough, and when I caught Carol Ann’s eye, her hidden smile made me more uncomfortable than ever. I wasn’t fooling anyone.
“Maybe after breakfast,” she said, “We could take a walk outside. The fresh air will do you good.”
“I’d like that.”
We walked hand-in-hand. She was right. The sun felt good on my face, and I gained strength in my legs as we strolled farther away from the cabin.
“When I saw you in that rat trap of a barn,” she said, “I thought you might be dead.” I wasn’t sure what to say or how to react. I didn’t want her to think that introducing Henry to me had anything to do with his warped sense of punishment. “It frightened me so,” she continued, “I still can’t get the sight of you hanging by your wrists from my mind.”
“Hey. Let it go. I have.”
“It’s past tense. Over and done with.”
“How can you say that? John wanted you dead.”
I stopped in my tracks and turned Carol Ann toward me. “But I’m not.”
When she pressed her head to my chest, I wrapped my arms around and pulled her even closer. The feel of her body next to mine nearly brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to know her better. I wanted us to be a couple. I wanted more out of life than breaking mounts for the army and doing chores around the ranch. I needed Carol Ann to love me.
When her head left my chest, I tilted her chin upward and leaned in for our first kiss. She didn’t pull away. She filled a longing for something solid, something beautiful and joyous, and just as I was hoping for a repeat performance, we both turned our attention to the pounding sound of hoofbeats.
As she pushed away, I followed suit when I saw Pa and Hoss and Candy riding our way. Nothing could be done about their untimely arrival, and I let Carol Ann in on my laughter by naming our visitors. I took her hand and when Pa dismounted, I introduced her to my father.
“Joseph,” he said.
He snatched my free hand and studied the bandage on my wrist. “Are you all right, Son? I got word you were missing.”
“I was but … Pa, I’d like to introduce Carol Ann Morrison. She and her father … it’s a long story, but they found me, and I’m fine.”
“Miss Morrison.” Pa tipped his hat. “I don’t understand.”
Hoss and Candy dismounted, and they both looked confused. I couldn’t blame them. They probably rode hard and when they found me hand-in-hand with a young lady, they became nearly speechless.
“We thought you was in trouble, Joseph.”
“I was, Hoss, but I’m not anymore.”
“That’s plain to see,” Candy smirked.
I needed to change the subject. “Did you just get in?”
“No,” Pa said. “Andy sent the wire three days ago, and we stopped at the hotel first. He told us you were staying with the Morrison’s and insisted we stay the night. I must be direct, though, Joseph. I’ll need more of an explanation than Andy wanted to give.”
“I understand, and I’ll tell you the whole story, Pa.”
Carol Ann squeezed my hand. “Let’s go back to the house, and I’ll fix us something cool to drink. You must be beside yourself, Mr. Cartwright, but I assure you, your son is just fine.”
Pa dropped my hand. His inspection of my bandages didn’t seem so important now, but I could tell he was upset. Andy did the right thing although I wish things could’ve been different. I hoped Pa would understand the trouble was over, that I survived, and had more important things on my mind.
I’d need to return to Placerville in ten days to testify. The major and Carol Ann would stay on and then be off to their new home in Carson City. We’d discussed the potential outcome of the trial while I’d been laid up, and I’d have to relay all the points of interest to Pa. If I dwelled more on the trial than the actual time I’d been strung up, maybe I could soften the blow. If not, Pa would never let me out of his sight again.
Sometimes things happen for a reason; at least, that’s what I told myself.
I had a good chance with Carol Ann. Would we have become close if Henry hadn’t discovered his father’s journals? Was it God’s will? Providence? I’ll never know the reason but in an instant; my life had changed.
No telling what the future held, but I was optimistic and eager to find out. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself, and I’d wait until after the trial before making plans to visit the major’s daughter. She might not realize it yet, but the woman standing beside me would eventually become Mrs. Joseph Cartwright.
4 – 2020
Other Stories by this Author
- The Farm – Book 4 – The Horse Operation (by jfclover)
- The Farm – Book 5 – The Wedding
- The Farm – Book 3 – Taking Flight (by jfclover)
- The Farm – Book 2 – The Return (by jfclover)
- The Farm – Book 1 – Taken (by jfclover)