Unwilling Accomplice (by Rona)

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Summary:  Joe walks into a bank robbery and is taken hostage. To his horror, he is forced to go along on other robberies.

Rated:  T    (12,154 words)

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.

 

Unwilling Accomplice

 

“I’ll get the mail after I’ve been to the bank, Pa,” Joe Cartwright said, pulling his horse to a stop beside the buckboard. “I’ll meet you back here.”

“All right, Joe,” Ben said, as he slid down from the seat. “But don’t stay all day at the bank with Mary Wilson, you hear? I’d like to get home again tonight.”

“Me, too, Pa,” Hoss commented from the other side of the buckboard.

Giving his family a grin, Joe rode off down the street. Ben watched him go. It seemed odd not to see Joe on his pinto, Cochise, but today Joe was riding Dusk, a black gelding that he had recently broken to saddle. The horse needed the work, and Joe had opted to ride him into town, where he could get used to the different sights and sounds. So far, the horse was proving quite reliable.

“Joe sure is keen on that Mary Wilson, Pa,” Hoss commented, as they went into the general store. “Reckon it’s serious?”

“Serious?” Ben scoffed. “Joe? Hardly!” They laughed together as Ben went to greet the storekeeper.

************

Trotting Dusk gently down the street, Joe nodded to a few people he knew, and stopped outside the bank. Mary was the bank president’s daughter, and Joe had been walking out with her for a few weeks now. There was a dance on Saturday night at the hotel, and Joe hoped Mary would go with him. She was a pretty girl, with silky dark hair, and brown eyes.

Tethering the horse securely, Joe stroked his velvet nose for a moment to reassure him, and then headed towards the bank. The door was closed, which was a little unusual, given that it was a nice day, but Joe thought nothing of it. He turned the handle and walked briskly in. Someone came up beside him from behind the door, and Joe glanced with surprise at Pete Scott. The cowboy seldom had any money, and finding him in the bank was a surprise.

“Hi, Pete,” Joe said, and was astounded when Pete stuck a gun into his ribs, and removed his gun from its holster, all in one smooth movement. Warily, Joe raised his hands.

Looking round, Joe saw what had escaped his notice at first. The bank was being robbed, and the men he had thought were customers were actually holding the place up. Joe guessed that Pete was meant to be guarding the door, and keeping people out, but had become distracted – a trait of his – and so Joe had managed to get in.

The bank staff, including Mary and her father, were being held in a group at the back of the bank. The vault was open, and one man was putting money into a bag. Another man held a gun on them from the main part of the bank. “Who’s he?” he asked Pete, in a rough voice.

“Little Joe Cartwright,” Pete answered, nervously. This man, Joe deduced, was in charge.

“Cartwright?” the man repeated, sharply. “As in the Ponderosa Cartwrights?”

“Yeah,” Pete agreed.

“Well, he can stay here with the others,” said the man. “Hurry up, there,” he ordered the man who was emptying the vault.

“Got it,” the other responded, and turned back.

The leader went to the window and glanced out. “It looks quiet,” he announced. “Let’s get going.” He motioned for Joe to walk over to the rest of the hostages.

Reluctantly, Joe took a step, and as soon as he moved, Pete’s attention wavered. Joe whirled, and lashed out at Pete, catching him a glancing blow on the chin. Pete staggered, but before Joe could do anything else, the leader stepped forward and hit Joe down the cheek with his gun butt. Joe fell to his knees, pain rocketing down his face. Mary screamed as she saw the blood.

The scream had attracted attention from outside. People were hurrying towards the bank looking anxious. The leader cursed, and dragged Joe to his feet. He twisted Joe’s arm up behind his back, and dug his gun under Joe’s chin, forcing his head up painfully. “This is your fault, sonny,” he whispered menacingly. “So you’re gonna come with us. That your nag outside?” When Joe refused to answer, he dug the barrel of the gun even harder into Joe’s flesh and clicked the safety off. “Well?”

“Yes,” Joe grated.

“All right, men, let’s go,” the leader said. “Keep behind me an’ the kid, an’ keep your guns ready.”

A collective gasp rose from the crowd outside the bank as the door opened and Joe was forced through it. His face was grazed and bleeding where he had been struck, and the gun was still angled into his chin. Untold, the crowd moved back.

Luck was on the robbers’ side, for Sheriff Coffee was nowhere to be seen. They kept the people backing off, as they mounted their horses. The leader kept Joe covered until one of his men was mounted, and took Joe’s rein, keeping his gun on him, then the leader mounted and they began to ride slowly away.

Attracted by the crowd, Hoss peered down the street. “Pa, look at that,” he said, as Ben came out of the store, carrying a bag of grain. “There’s trouble o’ some kind down at the bank.”

“Joe,” Ben said, and dropped the sack as he started to run. Hoss followed him.

It took only moments for them to cover the distance between store and bank, and they clearly recognized Joe’s green jacket and tan hat. “Joe!” Ben called, and his son turned his head. Ben caught his breath. Joe sent him one look of entreaty, before the outlaws spurred the horses to greater speed, and fled the city.

*************

The town was in an uproar. Roy was taking statements from everyone who had been in the bank. Paul Martin, the doctor, was treating one or two ladies for shock. Privately, he thought the person who needed most treatment was Ben Cartwright, but, typically, the patriarch of the Ponderosa was scorning such thoughts. He was far more concerned for the safety of his youngest son. He listened anxiously as Mary Wilson told of how Joe had entered the bank unawares, and called one robber ‘Pete’. Then she explained how Joe had tried to either make a break for freedom, or take out as many outlaws as he could, and the resulting injury he had sustained.

He patted Mary’s hand, and followed Roy over to the far side of the bank. “What are you going to do, Roy?” he asked.

“Get a posse together,” Roy answered. “I’ll telegraph the other sheriffs round about, and warn them about this. I guess you and Hoss will want to come with us?”

“Hoss is hiring horses from the livery right now,” Ben said. “Someone is taking a message out to Adam at the ranch. I’ve asked him to stay put in case they release Joe, and he makes his own way home.”

“Good,” Roy agreed. “I’m sure Joe will be all right.”

“I hope so,” Ben said, fervently. “I hope so.”

************

They rode at a gallop for sometime before finally slowing, and turning off the main road. Pete was lagging behind to brush out the tracks, and Joe’s heart sank. He had hoped he would be abandoned by the roadside, probably knocked out, and his horse stolen, but he hadn’t figured on them keeping him with them. His face throbbed painfully, a reminder not to cross the gang leader.

They finally rode into a box canyon, and Joe could see at once that it was easily defensible, and had only one way in. He later discovered that there was a track leading out the back that could be traversed on foot. It was apparent that they had been there for several days, as there was a small fire burning in a fire pit, several bags and a picket line.

“Get off your horse,” the leader said, and Joe did as he was told. He didn’t need a gun to tell him to behave. He was helpless.

“That was a very foolish thing you did back there, Mr. Joe Cartwright,” the leader said, as he bound Joe’s hands behind him. “I hadn’t planned on bringing you along, but your stupid action made me change my mind. But you could be quite useful. You’re well known round these parts, an’ I‘m sure the bank cashiers in the smaller towns won’t want to get you killed, so they’ll hand over the money just to keep you alive.”

“You’re scum,” Joe said, angrily. He was disgusted to think he would be made an unwilling accomplice in this man’s scheming.

Swinging Joe around, the leader buried his fist in the youth’s stomach. Joe doubled over, gasping. “I’d be careful if I were you,” he warned. “You might not be so pretty by the time I’m finished with you, boy.” He pushed Joe over to the rock wall, and made him sit down. With casual efficiency, he tied Joe’s feet. “You do as you’re told, an’ I might let you go. Eventually.”

Watching the leader walking away, Joe was annoyed that he had tried to make a break for it. It was another prime example of what Adam termed his ‘act first, think after’ policy of life, and look where it had got him. He tried the ropes, but there was no give in them. With an exasperated sigh, Joe leaned on the rock wall behind him, and waited to see what would happen.

**************

When he got the message from his father, Adam’s first reaction was to shoot the messenger, even though it wasn’t his fault. However, his calm reasonableness prevailed before he could do more than just think of shooting the poor lad from the stable, and he simply thanked the boy and gave him a dollar for his trouble. Going back into the house, Adam closed the door and leant on it. It was always Joe who got into trouble, and they often joked that sending him to the bank was almost tantamount to it being robbed. But this was serious.

Crossing to stand by the fire, Adam re-read the note.

 

 

Joe kidnapped by bank robbers. He isn’t hurt badly. Please stay at the house in case he is released and makes his own way home. Hoss and I are going with the posse. More news when we get it. Pa.

The part that troubled Adam the most was the second sentence. ‘He isn’t hurt badly.’ What did that mean? Did it mean that Joe had been shot or knocked out? What? How Adam wished that Hoss was the one who’d been left at home that morning. Hoss had the better temperament for waiting.

After a moment, Adam realized that Hop Sing was standing there looking at him expectantly. “I’m sorry, did you say something?” Adam asked.

“Something bad happen,” Hop Sing said, with certainty. “Lil Joe hurt?”

“I don’t know,” Adam answered, and showed the cook the note. Hop Sing read it, his face grave.

“Father knows what best,” he assured Adam. “He bring home Number Three son.”

“Yes, I know he will,” Adam replied, and smiled at the small man. “Thanks, Hop Sing.”

Muttering something in Cantonese, Hop Sing went back to the kitchen. Adam stared into the fire again. He wondered how one earth he would fill his time until Joe came home, or he got some news.

**************

The tracks led off the road, and disappeared. Hoss dismounted and began to scout around, hoping to pick them up again. One of the deputies went with him. Ben sat on his hired horse and looked round. Several hours had passed since Joe had been kidnapped, and his anxiety was spiraling out of sight. With every minute that passed with no sign of Joe, Ben knew that the chances of his son being released were getting smaller and smaller. They would soon lose the light, and be forced to return empty-handed.

It was knowing who held Joe that made Ben even more uncomfortable than he had been. Mary and her father had picked out the man from the wanted posters. The gang leader was called Luke Henry, and he was wanted in many territories and states for robbery and murder. He had killed at least 4 men in the course of his many robberies, and now he had Joe.

The other men had been identified as part of Henry’s gang, and the cowboy that Joe recognized as Pete Scott. Scott had once been an employee of the Ponderosa, but he had the attention span of a gnat, and he hadn’t lasted long. Ben wondered how long he would last under Henry’s brutal regime. It was well known amongst lawmen that Henry would shoot anyone who crossed him, and his gang changed with frightening regularity.

By now, most of the men were off their horses and scouting carefully for tracks. Ben looked up at the sky, and estimated that they had perhaps an hour of daylight left. Roy would soon call it a day, and they would turn for home, without Joe. Ben knew that they couldn’t look at night, for the lanterns they’d need would give away their position to the gang. Still the thought of going home empty handed was a dismal one.

The men searched until the light was too poor to see by. Reluctantly, they mounted up, and rode back to town. “We’ll leave at dawn,” Roy called, as they all departed homewards. “Ben, are you stayin’ the night at the hotel?”

“No, we’ll go home and tell Adam the news,” Ben said. “We’ll be back here for dawn, Roy, don’t worry.” He rode his horse back to the livery, where he and Hoss collected the buckboard, still loaded with supplies, and headed for home.

*************

Adam greeted them at the door. The expectant look on his face faded as he saw that Joe wasn’t with them. He summoned hands to unload the supplies and tend to the horses, and followed his father and brother inside. “What happened?” he asked.

Sitting wearily at the table, Ben looked with distaste at the plate in front of him. He knew he had to eat, but his appetite was gone. “Joe went to the bank to ask Mary to the dance,” Ben said. “He walked in on a robbery. The gang is led by a Luke Henry, and Pete Scott is part of it. Scott was apparently supposed to be watching the door, but you know how long he can concentrate on things, and he wasn’t paying any attention to the door when Joe simply walked in.” Ben sighed. “It seems that they were just going to leave Joe with the bank staff, but he threw a punch at Scott, and Henry decided to take him along as a hostage.”

“You said in the note that he wasn’t hurt bad. What’s wrong with him?” Adam asked, deeply concerned.

“When Joe went after Scott, Henry hit him in the face with his gun. Joe’s face was bleeding when we saw him riding off with the gang.” Ben’s stomach contracted as he remembered the moment he had seen Joe’s face. “It’s difficult to say how bad it is, son. I couldn’t get close enough.”

There was silence as they all picked at their meal. “So does Roy know about this man Henry?” Adam asked.

Quietly, Ben recounted all his crimes. Adam’s eyes stayed locked on Ben. “That’s bad,” he said. “And Roy has notified the sheriffs round about. Well, at least Cochise is easy to identify.”

“Joe ain’t ridin’ Cochise,” Hoss said. “He took Dusk into town.”

Dismayed, Adam couldn’t find anything to say. The job of locating Joe had just become a whole lot harder.

***********

At dawn next day, all three Cartwrights were waiting for the posse. They were all hollow eyed from lack of sleep, but they had to be with the posse. Hop Sing was waiting at home on the remote chance that Joe either was released, or broke free. None of them believed that either of these options was likely.

They began looking again at the point where they had been forced to call a halt the night before. The men dismounted and began to comb the undergrowth, looking for tracks. At noon, they broke for lunch, and after a short rest, began looking again.

It was well into the afternoon when Hoss gave a shout. Everyone converged on his position, and he held up a broken branch that had clearly been used to brush out the tracks. They spread out again, looking for tracks, but there weren’t any to be seen. The ground was too rocky.

“We’ll split into groups, and spread out to see what we can find,” Roy ordered. “We’ll meet back here in an hour.”

They mounted up and set off, but after an hour fruitless searching, they met up to report no finds. Ben was bitterly disappointed, and wanted to keep on looking, but the sky had been clouding over steadily for the past while, and even as they sat there, the first drops of heavy rain began to fall. Soon, any tracks there might have been would be obliterated.

Once more, the Cartwrights had to ride home without Joe.

**************

The rain was just the final straw in what had been a very uncomfortable day for Joe. He had spent a cold night sleeping on the ground, still bound hand and foot, and morning had brought no relief. Grudgingly, Henry had allowed Joe to be fed, but the youth was ignored apart from that. Joe had sat and observed the gang, and what he had seen didn’t reassure him any. All the gang watched Henry at all times. They jumped the moment he spoke, and Joe had already seen signs of an almost uncontrollable temper in some of the things Henry had become angry at.

As the rain started, Joe hunched up his shoulders in a vain attempt to keep the water from running under his collar. The outlaws all donned rain gear, and sat huddled by the hissing fire. The rain was heavy, with some thunder and lightning, and Joe was soon soaked to the skin. He shivered as the wind whipped over the rock wall at his back. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been so downright miserable.

“Aw, poor Little Joe’s all wet,” said a sneering voice, and Joe turned his head to give Scott a dark look.

It took an effort, but Joe clenched his teeth, and kept back the retort that wanted to spring to his lips. He looked away. Scott took exception to this, and grabbed Joe’s shoulder, pulling him to his feet, where Joe swayed, balanced uneasily on his bound feet.

“Don’t look down your nose at me, Cartwright!” Scott shouted. He drew his gun and pointed it in Joe’s face. “I’m in charge here. You’ve gotta do what I tell you!”

“Leave him alone, Pete,” Henry said, from the fire, where he had been watching.

“Aw, Luke, he still thinks he’s so great,” Scott whined. “I just wanted to teach him a lesson.”

“Leave him alone!” Henry repeated, and he sounded angry. His long-term gang members looked uneasy.

“Don’t rile him, Pete,” Joe said, quietly. “He’s dangerous.”

“Don’t tell me what to do!” Scott shouted. “I don’t have to do what you Cartwrights say anymore! How’d you like that?” he demanded, and punched Joe in the stomach.

As Joe feel, a gun went off, and Pete toppled to the ground beside Joe. Gasping for breath, Joe saw with horror that Pete was dead. He swallowed against the sickness that rose in this throat. Footsteps approached and Henry crouched beside Joe. The smoking gun was still in his hand.

“He shouldn’t have riled me,” he said, casually. “Hope he didn’t hurt you too much. I need ya tomorrow when we rob the bank at Mormon Flats.” Straightening, Henry beckoned to one of the gang. “Get rid of the body,” he ordered. “It makes the place look untidy.” He laughed, as though he had said something funny, and walked away.

Lying on his side, Joe watched as Pete’s body was dragged away. He knew that his life depended on the whim of the man who held him, and there was no telling what might get him killed. Joe shivered from more than just the cold and damp.

*********

It was a relief to have his hands free, Joe thought as they rode into Mormon Flats. Henry wasn’t taking any chances, and hadn’t freed him until they were right at the edge of town. The man’s self-confidence was staggering, and Joe hoped it would be his downfall, but things seldom worked out that neatly in real life, he had discovered.

He was still hoping to make a break for freedom, but Joe wasn’t too sanguine about his chances. Henry rode close by his side, and although there wasn’t a gun in sight, Joe knew how quickly the man could draw. All Joe could do was hope that Sheriff Kincaid was around as they arrived, but there was no sign of the lawman.

Dismounting outside the bank, Joe felt Henry’s gun digging into his ribs. He walked carefully into the bank, and as soon as the door was closed, Henry grabbed Joe’s left wrist, and twisted his arm up behind his back. Joe couldn’t keep back a wince. His muscles were stiff and sore after 24 hours tied in one position.

“Mr. Cartwright?” said the clerk, in surprise.

“Glad you recognized him,” Henry drawled, pointing the gun at the clerk. ”’Cos if you don’t empty the safe into this bag, I’m going to kill your friend here.” To give emphasis to his words, Henry twisted Joe’s arm a little harder, and once more, Joe couldn’t bite back a wince of pain.

The stunned clerk did as he was told, shooting anxious little glances at Joe throughout. Joe felt sick. He hated that this man seemed to have the drop on all the lawmen, and now had his unwilling help. He wanted to protest, and tell the clerk not to do it, but he didn’t want to die, nor did he want the clerk to get shot. He flexed his arm slightly, testing out the grip on it, and was rewarded with yet another vicious twist which made a burning pain race through his shoulder.

“Don’t even think it,” Henry warned, and Joe subsided. He knew that Henry was quite capable of breaking his arm.

The clerk finally filled the bag, and Henry began to back towards the door. He still had his gun appointed at the clerk, and as they reached the door, Joe suddenly knew that he was going to shoot the clerk. As the thought crossed his mind, Henry cocked his gun, and Joe threw his weight against the outlaw. The shot went wide.

“Damn you, Cartwright!” Henry cursed, and wrenched Joe’s arm. The pain was appalling. He yanked his captive out of the door, and looked round. People were appearing from round about, drawn by the shot, and Henry forced Joe onto his horse, and they rode off at a gallop. Several shots were fired, and Joe recognized Sheriff Kincaid’s voice.

The pain from his abused arm came in waves, and Joe swayed in the saddle. Instantly a hand reached out and grabbed him, preventing him from falling to the road. Joe groaned. It had crossed his mind to take his chances among the flying hooves of the horses, but Henry’s men were alert to his every move.

It didn’t take them long to shake their lone pursuer.

**************

The knock on the ranch house door was followed immediately by the door opening, and Roy Coffee strode in, unasked. Ben, who had risen to answer the knock, looked surprised. “Hello, Roy,” he said.

“Ben,” Roy said, “Henry’s gang robbed the bank at Mormon Flats this morning. Joe was with them.”

“Joe?” Ben said, blankly. “Why was Joe with them?” His heart rose to his mouth.

“Henry is using him as a hostage, and threatened to kill him if the clerk didn’t hand over the money.” Roy saw the implication sink in. Adam and Hoss drew near and stood by Ben, unconsciously lending him support. “The clerk said that Henry made to shoot him as he left, and Joe stopped him.”

“Is Joe all right?” Ben asked, harshly.

“The clerk said he had a bruised gash down one cheek, and Henry had his arm twisted up his back, and Joe seemed to be in some discomfort from it.”

Rising, Ben began to pace. “So that’s his plan. Use Joe to get the money by threatening him.”

“There’s more,” Roy said, and Ben swung round to face him.

“What?”

“We found Pete Scott’s body,” Roy said.

“Where?” Adam demanded.

“On the outskirts of town,” answered the sheriff. “He’d been shot. There weren’t any tracks that we could follow.” Drawing in a deep breath, Roy gave them the rest of the bad news. “He was killed by a .45, like the one Henry carries.”

“You think it was Henry’s gun?” Adam asked.

“It could be, Adam,” Roy said, reluctantly. “We know that he’s killed members of his gang before, and Mr. Wilson seemed to think that the rest of the gang carried .38s.”

Adam turned away. Hoss simply stood where he was, looking at Roy, and Ben leaned against the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. There wasn’t anything else to say. They all understood the implications. Henry was a known killer, and it appeared that he had just killed again.

And Joe was his captive.

**************

The beating that Joe had just received hadn’t been as severe as he had feared, but it had been plenty bad enough. Lying face down, Joe groaned as his arms were wrenched behind his back and tied there. The rope looped round his ankles, and then he was left alone.

It was too much effort to try to roll over and sit up. Joe’s ribs ached, and he suspected his left wrist was sprained. Blood trickled from his nose and mouth, and he could feel the bruises stiffening all over his body. Joe had indeed learned the lesson Henry intended him too. It didn’t pay to cross Luke Henry. All the same, Joe took what comfort he could from knowing that he had stopped the clerk from being killed needlessly.

The cold and damp seeped into Joe’s clothes and he shivered. He hadn’t been really warm since the rain began the previous day. He didn’t care. Joe knew what was in store for him from now on. He was to be used to help rob banks until his usefulness ran out, and then he would be killed. Any more attempts at preventing Henry from killing clerks would no doubt end his own life. And Henry would be alert to any moves he might make.

All night long, Joe lay unmoving on his stomach. He must have slept, for he was surprised to see the sky lightening, but he felt exhausted. He was running a slight temperature as a result of the mild exposure he was suffering. One of the gang came over and dragged him into a sitting position, and he was force fed some beans. Then, the horses were prepared, and Joe realized, with a sinking heart, that they were going to rob another bank that day.

“I’m not takin’ any chances with you, Cartwright,” Henry said, crossing to gaze down on his captive. Joe eyed him, but said nothing. “I’m keepin’ your hands tied this time. Any funny moves and you get it.” Crouching, he untied Joe’s hands, only to retie them in front of him. Joe eyed his swollen discolored wrist with detachment. The pain was bad, but he didn’t feel any great outrage any more. His feet were untied, and Henry yanked Joe to his feet. He took another rope from one of the gang, and looped it round Joe’s neck.

That woke Joe from his indifference. The rope round his neck was on a slipknot, and one tug from Henry, and Joe would be choking. Slowly, Henry tightened the rope. Joe stood frozen, his eyes fastened on Henry’s hand. The rope got tighter and tighter, until Joe could hardly breathe. Then, Henry stopped tightening, and Joe raised his eyes to look at the gang leader.

“Just so we understand each other, Cartwright,” he said, softly. He nodded with satisfaction as Joe failed to repress a shudder. “Let’s go.”

************

“The way I see it, we’ve got a choice to make,” Roy said. “We can carry on looking for their hideout until we’re old and grey, or we can go to the towns within riding distance of where we lost the trail, and hope they pick one of those to rob.”

“It was Mormon Flats yesterday,” Adam said, peering at the map laid out on Roy’s desk. “Where do you think they’ll strike next?”

“Here,” Roy said, pointing to the small town of Freshwater. “The town ain’t very big, but you folks are known there, ain’t ya?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “If this is what you think is best, Roy.”

“It is,” Roy replied. “Let’s go.” They went outside, and Roy told the rest of the posse the plan. The numbers riding with them had shrunk, until they were down to a bare half dozen. Ben couldn’t blame them. The men all had families to keep, and it was his son that was missing, not theirs.

They rode at a ground-covering lope, and reached Freshwater about 2 pm. Roy headed towards the jail, but as they rode onto the main street, they saw a crowd gathered outside the bank. With sinking hearts, they knew that they were too late, and the gang had already struck.

Hurrying down the street, Roy spotted the sheriff of Freshwater, Jim Harvey, and hailed him. “Jim! What happened?”

Roy and Ben dismounted and clustered round the sheriff. He looked angry, as well he might. “Someone robbed the bank and shot the clerk,” he said. He shot a look at Ben. “Your youngest son was with them, Mr. Cartwright,” he said, accusingly and Ben blanched.

“Not willingly,” he protested.

“No,” Harvey allowed, grudgingly. “The clerk said that his hands were tied, and there was a rope round his neck. He seemed pretty beat up.”

While Ben digested this news, Roy said, “How is the clerk?”

“He just died,” replied Harvey, shortly. “Do you know who they are, Roy?”

“Luke Henry and his gang,” Roy answered. “They hit Virginia City 3 days ago, and took young Joe Cartwright hostage. One gang member we found dead yesterday. He’d been shot, and from what we can piece together, he was the one who allowed Joe into the bank in the first place.”

“And Henry isn’t renown for tolerating mistakes, is he?” Harvey said.

Turning away, Ben went back to Adam and Hoss, who had dismounted and were waiting for him by his horse. They looked almost as grim as Ben, even without hearing the news. Harvey’s body language had spoken volumes.

“Was it Henry?” Adam asked, calmly. He didn’t know that his pinched nostrils gave away his struggle to keep control of his emotions.

“Yes,” Ben replied, and told them what Harvey had said. There really wasn’t anything they could say to give each other comfort, although Hoss did try.

“Little Joe’s a tough kid, Pa,” he offered. “He’ll be all right.”

Ben patted Hoss’ shoulder, knowing that his brother’s absence was as hard on him as it was on any of them. “Sure he is,” he agreed.

A sudden clatter of hooves made them all look round. Harvey’s deputy came racing into town, and several of the citizens had to retreat to the boardwalk with undignified haste to avoid being mown down. “Sheriff!” he called. “Sheriff!”

“What is it?” Harvey inquired, testily.

“I seen them, sheriff! I know which direction they was headed!” The deputy was panting from his wild ride, but the big grin that split his face told them that perhaps they now had a chance of finding this gang.

“Get a fresh horse!” Harvey ordered. “Everyone get mounted! We’re leaving!”

Within ten minutes, they were heading out after the gang.

*************

It was another uncomfortable night for Joe. He had been unable to prevent Henry shooting the bank clerk, and he felt absolutely wretched. He was still shivery from exposure and the various hurts he had suffered seemed to take it in turns to claim his attention. The worst pain was in his wrist. It was still swelling, and the ropes were cutting into it painfully.

Despite this, Joe was watching the activity in the camp with great interest. It seemed to him that Henry was making preparations to pack up and leave. He felt his breath shorten, as he wondered what Henry would do with him. He had little doubt that he would be killed. Henry had no regard for life, he had learned. With this thought in mind, Joe barely slept, although he did doze on and off.

When daylight came, he was even more convinced that Henry was preparing to leave. He wasn’t offered food of any kind, and he felt a twinge of fear as the outlaw walked across to where he sat.

“I been thinking, Cartwright,” Henry said, looming over his prisoner. “That’s a nice piece of horse flesh you got there. What would a mount like that cost me?”

“He’s not for sale,” Joe rasped. He didn’t have the affection for Dusk that he had for Cochise, but Dusk had behaved beyond Joe’s expectations over the last few days, and he hated the thought of Henry riding him. It hadn’t escaped Joe’s notice that Henry was a heavy-handed rider.

“Now, that ain’t very neighborly,” Henry chided. “I’m offering you a fair price. $100?”

“Not for a million dollars!” Joe grated. “He’s not for sale.”

Leaning over Joe, Henry no longer looked jovial. “You are asking to be killed, Cartwright! I’m offering you a fair price for that horse. I could just take him, you know.”

“$100 of stolen money?” Joe sneered. “Sure, I’m going to take that!”

As Henry drew back his fist to strike Joe, there was a shout from the lookout. “Men coming!”

Instantly, the men dived for rifles and bullets. Joe’s heart leaped as hope bloomed. It must be a posse! He tried to sit up a bit straighter, craning his neck to try and see.

Without missing a beat, Henry pulled his knife and reached down to cut the rope binding Joe’s feet. He yanked the bandanna from round his neck, and forced it into Joe’s mouth, and hauled him to his feet. “Come on,” he snarled, and pushed Joe in front of him, further into the canyon.

Stumbling on loose rocks, Joe wondered where on earth they were going. Any thoughts of baulking were effectively stopped by the knife pricking through his jacket. Every few steps, Henry gave Joe a vicious shove in the back, and it was all the youngest Cartwright could do to keep his feet.

Behind them, shots were being exchanged, and Joe could hear shouting, although he couldn’t make out the words, for his breath was panting in his ears, as he struggled to get in enough oxygen. He knew that he wouldn’t have the stamina for a prolonged chase on foot, and fear curled in his belly.

“Up here,” Henry grated, and put his knife away. Grabbing Joe’s arm, he took the lead, and drew his gun. He half pulled Joe up a steep track. Once or twice, he fired back into the canyon, and a couple of bullets bit into the rock wall beside them.

“Hold it!” a voice called, and Henry swung Joe round in front of him. Through the sweat dripping into his eyes, Joe saw several familiar figures in the canyon below.

“Don’t come any closer!” Henry shouted. “Or I’ll kill Cartwright!”

“Its over, Henry!” Roy Coffee shouted. “Let the boy go, and it’ll go easier on you.”

“It’s not over!” Henry yelled. He fired into the group below him, and they scattered. Henry dragged Joe with him up the track. Joe tried everything he could to slow Henry down, but the man was stronger, and Joe was forced up the track, away from his rescuers.

“Stop!” came his father’s voice, and Joe saw Ben starting up the track. His heart contracted painfully, for Ben was an easy target for Henry. He deliberately stumbled and went down on one knee, hoping to spoil the outlaw’s aim, but it was no good. Joe saw Ben jerk as the bullet struck him, and then he was dragged round a rocky outcropping, and Ben was lost from sight.

Hot tears burned Joe’s eyes as he was forced into a run. He vowed that he would find a way to bring this man to justice.

************

“Pa!” Adam cried, as he scrambled up the slope to where his father lay. Hoss was right on his heels, with Roy just a step behind.

To his immense relief, Adam saw Ben was trying to sit up, and as he gently assisted him, he saw that Ben’s injury wasn’t life threatening. Ben had been hit in the arm, and it was bleeding heavily. “I’m all right,” Ben said, unsteadily.

Ignoring that, Adam slit his father’s shirtsleeve, and examined the wound. “The bullet’s still in there,” he said. “You need to get to the doctor, Pa.”

“I’m all right,” Ben objected. Adam briefly wondered if he knew how like Joe he sounded, saying that. “We’ve got to get after Joe.”

“We will,” Adam said, sternly. “But you’re not fit to go on. Pa, if you don’t get that arm tended to soon, infection will set in, and what good will it do Joe if you’re ill?”

“Adam’s right, Ben,” Roy said, peering over Hoss’ shoulder.

“Come on, Pa,” Hoss said, reaching out to help him to his feet. “I’ll go back with you, an’ Roy an’ Adam will go after Joe.”

“Hoss is right,” Adam said, before Ben could say anything. “We’ll get Joe back, don’t worry.”

“All right,” Ben capitulated. “But I’ll still worry, if you don’t mind. It’s my right as a father. Be careful, Adam.”

“I will, Pa,” Adam assured him. “I’ll bring Joe back.”

They helped Ben back to his horse, and Adam, Roy and Harvey took guns, bullets and canteens with them, and headed back to the track. The rest of the posse, with Ben and Hoss, headed back to Virginia City. Ben’s arm throbbed painfully, but not as painfully as his heart. He had tried, and failed, to rescue Joe, and he feared for his son’s life more now than he had at any time since Joe was kidnapped. Going tamely home was the most difficult thing he had ever done.

*******************

Stumbling once more, Joe fell to one knee, and wondered if he would be able to get up again. The abuse of the last few days had taken their toll on his stamina, and Joe was near the end of his endurance. He knew he would have to rest, and he guessed that Henry would shoot him if he was incapable of going on.

“Come on, Cartwright,” Henry snarled, hooking his hand under Joe’s left arm, and tugging. Pain rocketed up Joe’s arm, and he groaned into the greasy bandanna that was still tied around his mouth. “We ain’t ready to stop yet!”

Back on his feet, Joe drew in several deep breaths, hoping that more oxygen would give him the energy to go on. Henry was looking back over his shoulder, and Joe wondered if there was anyone following them. A great hatred for this man suddenly burned through Joe’s soul, and he decided that this was as good a place as any for the showdown he intended.

Summoning the last of his energy, Joe threw himself at Henry, his head thumping the outlaw firmly in the stomach, and knocking him over. Joe tumbled his full length on top of his captor, but although Henry had been caught off guard, he didn’t appear too fazed by the attack. He threw Joe off with very little effort, and Joe tumbled over the rough ground.

Lying on his side, Joe gasped for breath as he watched the outlaw approaching him. He tensed his muscles, and as Henry came within range, he swung his legs round in a vicious kick, and had the fleeting satisfaction of seeing Henry crash to the ground once more.

But it was very fleeting satisfaction. Henry didn’t bother trying to regain his feet; he simply scrambled over to Joe and grabbed his jacket front, preparing to beat the living daylights out of him. Joe tried to prepare himself for what was to come, and it took a second for him to realize that Henry wasn’t hitting him.

A shot whistled over their heads, and Henry forgot about pulping Joe, and dragged him over to cover instead. Joe fought him all the way, but all he managed was to slow Henry slightly. Ducking down behind an outcropping, Henry gave Joe a vicious kick in the side as he flung him to the ground.

“Give it up, Henry!” shouted a voice that Joe didn’t know.

“No way!” Henry returned. “Back off, or Cartwright gets it!”

“You’re not going to kill him,” came Roy Coffee’s voice. “It’ll go easier for you if you give him up.”

In response, Henry fired at them. He ducked as several shots came whistling back at him. Giving Joe another kick to keep him down, Henry fired once more. The gunfight went on, with Henry repeatedly kicking Joe to prevent a repeat of the earlier attack. Joe did his best to avoid the kicks, but he was in no position to move very far.

“Henry, give up!” Roy shouted.

“I got one bullet left,” Henry shouted. “And it’s for the kid here!”

“Henry!” Roy shouted, and Joe heard the desperation in his voice.

Joe tried to back away, but he seemed to be frozen in place. He could hear his breath coming in ragged gasps, and closed his eyes, so he didn’t have to see the killing madness in the eyes of the man who was about to claim his life.

“Hold it!” said a familiar voice from behind Joe.

Snapping open his eyes, Joe saw Henry glance up and change his stance to fire at Adam standing above him. Joe wanted to scream a warning to his brother, but there was a shot, and Henry fell to his knees, the gun tumbling from nerveless fingers. For an instant, their gazes locked, then Henry fell to the ground.

After a second, Adam jumped down beside Joe, and gently pulled the gag from his mouth. “Joe! Thank goodness.” He dragged his brother into a rough embrace.

Roy Coffee and another sheriff Joe didn’t recognize appeared, and Joe realized that it was all over, and relaxed. He began to shake uncontrollably, and Adam cradled his brother tightly in his arms until the trembling stopped. “Easy, Joe, easy,” he murmured. “Its over. You’re safe.”

“Joe, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” Roy said, gruffly.

Leaning against Adam, Joe tried to smile. “So are you,” he croaked, and Roy smiled and nodded.

Still supporting Joe, Adam cut away the rope binding his wrists, and Joe groaned as he brought his arms forward. The muscles across his shoulders ached, and he instinctively cradled his injured wrist. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than to lean on Adam’s chest and sleep.

“How’s Pa?” he croaked, through the desert that passed for his mouth. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a drink.

“He’ll be fine, Joe,” Adam assured him, gesturing to Roy to give him a canteen. “It’s not serious.” He uncapped the canteen and held it to Joe’s mouth. “Here drink a little. Not too fast.” When Joe had drunk some, Adam took the canteen away, and examined his brother more closely. “What hurts?” he asked.

Closing his eyes wearily, Joe snorted slightly. “What doesn’t?” he countered.

“Can you walk?” Adam asked. He looked at the graze down’s Joe’s cheek, which was at its maximum discoloration, and the other bruises on his face. Carefully, he probed Joe’s ribs, and got several sharp winces in response. There didn’t appear to be any broken bones, although he wasn’t too sure about Joe’s wrist. The rope burns on Joe’s wrists gave mute testimony to his attempts to escape.

“I can walk,” Joe said, in a voice that betrayed his exhaustion all too clearly.

Seeing that Roy and Harvey were almost ready to set out with Henry, who was still alive, and looked likely to stay that way, Adam gave Joe some more water, then helped the younger man to his feet. For a moment, Joe swayed, but Adam kept his grip on his arm until Joe was steady on his feet. He nodded to Roy and they set off back towards the canyon.

***********

By the time they got back to the canyon, it was late afternoon. Darkness would soon be falling. Joe was all but out on his feet, keeping going simply because Adam was there to support him. For Joe’s sake, Adam would have preferred to spend the night at the camp, but Roy and Harvey were keen to get back to Virginia City and get Henry locked up. Adam’s suggestion that he and Joe stay behind was vetoed by Roy.

“You’ve got eyes, Adam,” Roy said, in a low voice. “That boy is suffering from exposure. Another night outside wouldn’t do him any favors. Let’s get him back to town, and hand him over to the doc. Besides, your pa would be out here in an instant!”

“I guess you’re right,” Adam admitted reluctantly. He took his bedroll from his saddle and wrapped the blanket round Joe, who was shivering. “I’m just going to saddle Dusk for you, Joe,” he said. “We’re going to go back to town tonight.”

“All right,” Joe agreed, and his eyes drooped closed.

He roused easily enough when they were ready to set out on horseback. “How’d you get here so quickly this morning?” Joe asked, blinking the sleep from his eyes. He wasn’t very successful. He still had the blanket tightly round his shoulders. Henry’s malevolent glare burned an itchy spot between his shoulder blades.

“We camped out last night,” Adam explained. “And we don’t want to have to do that again tonight. One night sleeping on the ground is enough for me.”

“You’re getting old, big brother,” Joe joked. Adam smiled. He was relieved that Joe felt like joking.

They rode slowly on. Adam was never more than a few feet from Joe’s side. He had seen Joe fall asleep in the saddle before, and wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again. The ground was rough and uneven, and Adam feared that Dusk would trip and throw Joe. However, they reached the road without either thing happening.

The pace picked up, and Joe seemed more alert. However, they were all relaxing slightly and Henry had been waiting for just that moment. He suddenly spurred his horse and rode straight at Adam.

Sport shied, and Adam found himself fighting the chestnut for control. Roy whipped up his horse, but Henry was expecting it. He drove his horse at Roy, and the sheriff’s horse decided that discretion was the better part of velour and veered away. It was what Henry had been hoping. He set his heel to his mount and they galloped along the road. Harvey drew his gun and fired wildly but his horse was infected by the panic of the other two, and its dancing around spoiled his aim.

Of them all, Joe was the one who reacted fastest. He put his heel to Dusk’s side, and the horse, novice or not, responded far more calmly than its compatriots, and galloped after Henry. Dusk was by far the better-bred mount, and it soon closed the distance between the horses.

Glancing over his shoulder, Henry was surprised to see Joe chasing him. He veered his horse from the road, hoping that in the uncertain footing the young gelding would stumble, but Dusk was sure footed. Straining every sinew, Joe was determined hat Henry wasn’t going to get away. He guided his young mount with a sure, steady hand, and the horse trusted him implicitly.

As Joe drew close enough to grab the outlaw’s rein, Henry swerved his horse again. Joe gathered himself, and sprang from the saddle, and hit Henry around the waist, knocking them both to the ground. They landed in a tangled heap, and Joe’s injured wrist was trapped beneath the outlaw’s weight. He cried out in pain, and Henry, although winded, grinned.

Keeping his advantage, he rolled on Joe’s arm, and began to pummel the younger man, paying him for the earlier fight, and the fact he’d been captured. Joe was in far too much pain to do more than defend himself, and he didn’t make a very good job of that. Henry’s fists broke through his defense every time.

But Joe wasn’t alone. Adam had quelled Sport’s panic, and raced after his brother, leaving the two sheriffs to sort themselves out. He flung himself from the saddle and dived to Joe’s defense. He grabbed Henry and threw two punches at the outlaw’s face. Luckily for Henry, at that point, Roy arrived, and he soon had the bank robber under control again.

Kneeling by Joe, Adam could see that he had a split lip, and his nose was bleeding. “Joe?” he said, for his brother’s eyes were closed, and Adam wasn’t sure if he had been knocked out or not.

“Ngm?” Joe murmured. He opened his eyes. “What?” he asked, sounding slightly drunk. “You all right?”

“I’m fine,” Adam laughed. “Can you stand?”

With an audible sigh, Joe allowed Adam to get him upright once more. His wrist was sending stabs of pain along his arm, and he cradled it protectively against his chest as Adam helped him over to Dusk once more. “Adam, I wanna go home,” he said, plaintively, once he was settled in the saddle again.

“Soon,” Adam soothed. “We’ve got to collect Pa from the doc’s first.”

“All right,” Joe capitulated, and they rode on, but now, Roy and Harvey were taking no chances with Henry.

********************

“Where are they?” Ben fretted. He shifted his shoulders uneasily in the big chair he was resting in the lobby of the hotel. Hoss would have preferred if Ben had gone to lie down, but his father was having none of it, and Hoss had given in. They had expected Adam and Roy back hours ago, and worry was gnawing at them both.

“They’ll be here, Pa,” Hoss said, although his assurances were beginning to sound very hollow, even to his own ears.

“I should’ve stayed,” Ben said, rising to pace the length of the lobby and back.

“Aw, Pa,” Hoss protested. “You know you had ta get back to the doc’s. Adam an’ Roy ain’t gonna let anythin’ happen to Little Joe.”

Over by the door once more, Ben froze, peering into the darkness. “Its them, they’re here!” he exclaimed, and hurried outside, Hoss at his heels.

The procession of 5 mounted men rode slowly down the street, and Ben rushed out to greet them. They pulled up outside the doctor’s office, and Ben hurried to catch up. “Adam!” He called, and his oldest son tipped a wave to him before going over to help Joe dismount. Ben arrived just in time to hear his youngest son catch his breath as his feet hit the ground. “Joe! Are you all right?” He hovered over his son, unsure if it was safe to touch him anywhere.

“Shouldn’t I ask you that?” Joe joked, but his voice sounded weak to Ben. “I’m all right, Pa.”

“Come on, hero,” Adam said, supporting Joe. Hoss moved up to help.

“I’m glad to see ya, Shortshanks,” he mumbled, almost on the verge of tears with relief.

“Me, too,” Joe said, simply, and allowed his brothers to help him into the doctor’s office. Now that his journey was finally over, Joe’s body was rebelling, and his legs would barely support his weight. He collapsed onto a seat, and groaned.

Sitting by Joe, Ben wasn’t paying any heed to anything else happening in the office. He was barely aware of Henry’s presence, until Joe stiffened suddenly. Ben looked up, following his son’s gaze, and saw the outlaw standing there, glaring at Joe. Instinctively, he put his arm across Joe to protect him.

“This ain’t over, sonny,” Henry growled. “No, this ain’t over.”

“Get in there,” Roy said, and gave Henry a shove.

“It’s all right, Joe,” Ben said, softly, stroking his son’s head. “We’re here now. He won’t get you. Roy has him secure.”

“But it’s not over,” Joe said, almost inaudibly. “And it won’t be over until he’s dead.” Joe shut his eyes and shuddered. Ben gestured to Hoss to bring across another blanket, and tucked it around Joe’s legs. Joe leant his head against Ben’s shoulder. He sighed. “When can I go home?” he asked.

“Soon,” Ben said, soothingly, stroking Joe’s head. His worried gaze met Adam’s across the room. Unbidden, they both glanced at the door which Henry was behind.

**********

Sunlight entered the room and spilled across the sleeping man’s face. He moved slightly and brushed a hand across his face, but the disturbance didn’t go away, and a few minutes later, he blearily opened his eyes. The room wasn’t immediately familiar, and Joe looked round for several seconds before remembering that they had stayed the night at the hotel last night, rather than ride home. From the looks of the light outside, Joe had slept well into the morning.

He snuggled down under the blankets again, but the desire to sleep was gone. He sighed, and pushed to a sitting position, noticing that he still ached in several places. Throwing back the covers, Joe looked down at his naked body, and saw the bruises that decorated almost every inch of flesh. Small wonder he hurt, then, he thought wryly. He raised the bandage and splint on his left wrist, and wondered if Paul was going to insist on plastering it when the swelling went down. It seemed there was a breakage in the wrist, but with the amount of swelling there was, Paul was reluctant to put on a cast.

As Joe looked across the room at his filthy clothes, and tried to make up his mind to put them on, the door opened and his family came in. Ben was carrying a brown paper package. He smiled as he saw that Joe was awake. “Well, it’s about time you woke up, young man. I was beginning to think you were turning into Rip Van Winkle!”

Laughing, Joe asked, “What time is it?”

“Almost 10.30,” Adam responded. “We got tired of watching you sleep, so we went shopping.”

“Bought you some clean duds,” Hoss said. “Them ones you had on was so dirty, we reckoned even you wouldn’t want to wear ‘em!”

“You’ve got that right, brother,” Joe agreed, fervently.

Unwrapping the package, Ben spread the new clothes out, and opened all the buttons for Joe. “We’ll leave you to get dressed, and meet you in the dining room,” he said. “All right? Can you manage?”

“I might be a while, but I can mange, thanks, pa,” Joe said. The family left, and Joe slowly got himself out of bed and began to dress.

***************

Over breakfast, Joe learned that Roy wanted him to go down to the jail to make a statement. “Roy has applied to the circuit court to change their schedule and come here in the next few days, so we can get Henry into prison, or hanged, whichever the court decides.” Adam was quite matter of fact about it, but Joe was uncomfortable. He ducked his head over his plate, and a moment later, his father’s hand was on his arm, lending strength and reassurance.

“It’s over, Joe,” he said. “Henry can’t get you now.”

“I hope you’re right, Pa,” Joe said, looking up. “But I’ve been with that man for the last few days, and I know what he’s like. He’s merciless, Pa. He won’t stop at anything to get what he wants.”

Troubled, but unable to refute what Joe was saying, Ben kept silent. Neither Adam nor Hoss had anything to say either. After a moment, Joe resumed eating, but it was clear his appetite was gone. He ate a few more bites, downed the end of his coffee and pushed his chair back. “Let’s get it over with,” he said, softly.

The walk down the street allowed Joe to loosen a few stiff muscles and he was feeling a little more like himself when he entered the sheriff’s office. Roy was, as usual, sitting at his desk, going over reports. He glanced up as the door opened. “Mornin’, Ben, boys,” he said.

“Roy,” Joe responded. He deliberately kept his face turned away from the cells, even though there was a door between them. It was standing open. He sat down on the edge of the desk, suddenly unsure if his legs would hold him up. “You wanted a statement?” He watched as the sheriff got a piece of paper, and in a low voice, he dictated his statement. As he catalogued the abuse he’d suffered, his voice sometimes shook, but he kept going. Ben stood beside Joe, and rested his hand on his shoulder. His face grew grimmer as he learned exactly what his youngest son had been subjected to. Whatever he had imagined, the reality was worse.

As Joe finished, laughter echoed through from the cells. Joe blanched, and Ben had thought he was pretty pale to start off with. “Got to you, didn’t I, Cartwright?” Henry shouted. “Its not over, boy! Just remember that!”

“Shut up, Henry!” Roy shouted back. “Sign this, little Joe.” He proffered the papers, and Joe signed them with difficulty. Taking them back, Roy said, “I got a reply from the circuit judge. He’s gonna be here day after tomorrow, Ben. Trail starts the day after at 10 am.”

“We’ll be here,” Joe said, grimly, and rose from the desk. His knees shook, but Joe walked out of the office without the family realizing how he felt. Outside, Joe leaned up against the wall and drew in several deep breaths.

The family clustered around Joe to shield him from casual observers and allow him to regain his equilibrium. “All right, son?” Ben asked, worriedly.

“I’m all right, Pa,” Joe said, raising a pale, sweaty face to his father. “I just felt a bit sick. But I’m okay, honest.”

“Let’s go to see Paul then we can go home,” Ben said.

“That sounds good to me,” Joe said, valiantly. He straightened up determinedly and walked with his family out into the street, heading towards the doctor’s office. From the window of the cell, he could feel Henry’s gaze on him. He didn’t look back.

******************

It was so good to be home. Joe slid from Dusk’s back and looked around appreciatively. Joe had always deeply loved the Ponderosa, but he had a fresh appreciation for it now. “I’ll take yer horse, Shortshanks,” Hoss offered, and Joe accepted gratefully. The cast that Paul Martin had put on his wrist was awkward, and the arm was now in a sling.

“How does it feel to be home?” Ben asked, quietly, coming to walk with Joe to the house.

“It feels good,” Joe replied. He had regained some of his usual color on the ride home, and although he looked tired, he looked more relaxed, too. “It seems along time since I left.”

Going into the house, Hop Sing came form the kitchen to greet him, chattering away in his native language. Joe understood some of it, and smiled. “I’m pleased to be back, too,” he said, and sat down wearily on the settee. Within a minute, Hop Sing had brought coffee and cookies for them all.

“All you have to do for the next few days is relax, Joe,” Ben said, sipping his coffee.

“Sounds good to me,” Joe responded. He ate a cookie, and smiled as Hoss moved in on the plate. “Hold on there, big brother,” he said, reaching for another. “These were made for me.”

“You ain’t so mean that you won’t share your cookies, are ya, Joe?” Hoss complained. “I done share mine with you every birthday!”

“Share?” Joe kidded. “You let me have one! Is that sharing?”

“It is for Hoss,” Adam joined in, grabbing two cookies before Hoss had even got one. “He could eat the whole plate, and never notice.”

Smiling, Ben sat back in his chair and watched his sons tease one another. He thought that this was probably the best possible thing for Joe; a return to the routine of life, and the love of his family. The trial would unpleasant, and it was as well if Joe didn’t think about it too much. Ben moved his injured arm slightly and thought that they had really come out of the situation remarkably well. He and Joe had been hurt, but none of the injuries was life threatening. It could have Ben so much worse.

Reaching over, he took another cookie, triggering another spate of protests from Hoss.

**************

The morning of the trial saw Joe at the breakfast table at first calling, pale, but in control. He had become used to the plaster cast over the last few days, and apart from still wearing the sling, was doing many day-to-day chores unaided, including dressing himself. Today, however, Adam was elected to knot Joe’s tie, for Ben was having enough problems knotting his own.

The horses were saddled and waiting for them, and they mounted up and rode off to town. The journey was essentially silent. Several times, Ben or Adam or Hoss tried to start a conversation, and each attempt was met with a monosyllabic grunt by Joe. Finally, they decided to leave him alone with his thoughts.

The thoughts were fairly harrowing. Joe had wakened during the night from a nightmare, and found himself stifling his screams in the covers. He lay awake for the rest of the night, remembering those dreadful days as Henry’s prisoner. He was convinced that Henry would somehow make him pay for testifying. He didn’t know how, but a cold dread lay over his heart.

The courtroom was packed. Joe was more than conscious of the stares directed at him. He knew he didn’t look anything like his best. The graze on his cheek was almost healed, but he hadn’t been able to shave since he was kidnapped, and for all that his brothers teased him that he would never grow a beard, he felt shaggy and untidy. His face was still bruised and his arm was in a sling. His jacket wouldn’t fit over the cast, and so was hung over his shoulder. It didn’t help Joe’s confidence.

Henry was brought from the jail, and Joe felt a shudder run down his spine as Henry turned his gaze on him. That look took him right back to the canyon, with his hands and feet tied, feeling helpless, knowing his life depended on this man’s whim. It wasn’t an easy feeling to shake.

It didn’t take long. The case was laid before the court, and the witnesses were called. Joe was last, and his testimony was the longest of them all. He repeated his story for them as calmly as he could, but he could feel the sweat beading on his forehead, and fought to keep from wiping his sweaty palm on his pants leg. He could feel the pity radiating from the people watching, and heard the murmurs as he catalogued it all again. Joe hated it. But he kept talking, and finally it was over. He made an effort to walk calmly back to his seat by his father, and to sit up straight, when all he wanted was to slump down and close his eyes. Henry’s eyes were on him all the time.

The verdict wasn’t a surprise. The defendant was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. Joe swallowed dryly as the sentence was pronounced. He wouldn’t rest easy until it was all over, and Henry was dead. Henry was to die at sunset that very day.

The courtroom emptied quickly, but Joe still sat in his seat. Now that Henry was gone, he slumped as he had wanted to earlier, and heard his father’s concerned voice asking if he was all right. Briefly, Joe nodded, but he couldn’t have spoken if his life depended on it. The world grew distant, and for a time, Joe didn’t know where he was.

A pungent spirit was forced into his mouth, and Joe choked on it. He opened his eyes, and saw Ben bending over him, a glass of brandy in his hand. Adam was leaning in close, and Joe belatedly realized that his head was cradled on Hoss’ lap. “What happened?” he asked, trying to sit up.

“You fainted,” Ben answered, helping him sit up a bit. Hoss moved to support him again while Joe drank the last of the brandy.

“I fainted?” Joe repeated. He sounded stunned.

“It’s just the strain,” Ben assured him. “We’re going over to the hotel, and you are going to eat some lunch then lie down for a while before we go back to the ranch. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Joe said, meekly. He recognized an immovable object when he met one. He was helped to his feet, and was amazed when his head swam slightly. A lie down sounded good at that moment.

***************

It was late in the afternoon when Joe woke. He had eaten more at lunch than anyone expected, and then he lay down obediently. After his almost sleepless night, and the strain of the morning, Joe fell asleep almost at once. The family left him undisturbed. They had twice heard of the abuse Joe had suffered, and it disturbed them all.

It hardly seemed worth waiting supper till they got home, so they ate at the hotel again. The town was buzzing, and Ben was anxious to get home. If he hadn’t been so concerned about Joe’s fainting, he would have waited for supper, but he felt his youngest had to eat before facing the ride home.

But the hotel was busy and when they left, they discovered that the hanging was imminent. The streets were choked with people, and trying to get to the livery was impossible. “I vote we go back to the hotel,” Adam said, but they were already into the crowd and being carried along.

It seemed that everyone assumed that the Cartwrights wanted a front row view of the hanging. No matter how they resisted, they were shoved to the front, and soon found there was no one between them and the gallows. Glancing around, Ben realized that there was no avenue of easy retreat to be found. He looked at Joe, and saw the paleness of the young mans’ face. “Joe,” he started, but Joe wasn’t listening.

The only way to get away from this, in Joe’s mind, was to walk past the gallows and head off towards the jail. So, with the single mindedness for which he was well known, he did just that. He walked steadily towards the only open space to be seen, and Henry emerged from the jail just at that very moment.

“Joe!” Ben shouted, and made a move forward.

Henry’s eye had fallen on Joe and he shrugged off Roy Coffee as though he wasn’t there. With unexpected speed, he threw himself off the boardwalk and launched himself at Joe. Joe was caught unawares, and went crashing to the ground.

A collective gasp was ripped from the throats of the citizens of Virginia City. It wasn’t all horror, Adam thought, in that small corner of his mind that saw the scene analytically. Some of it was plain titillation! He rushed towards Joe, somehow terrified that Henry could make good his threat.

They were fighting manically. Joe threw punches with his right hand, but he was more hampered by the cast and sling than Henry was by the handcuffs he wore. Joe was getting the worst of it by far. Then the impossible happened. From inside his shirt, Henry pulled a knife!

He had no compunction; no hesitation. He plunged the knife into Joe’s abdomen, and jumped to his feet. At his feet, Joe lay still, his eyes glazing as blood pumped out of his body. “I won, Cartwright!” Henry shouted. “I won!”

But Henry was wrong. Roy had recovered, and he and Clem recaptured the prisoner, and he was forced onto the gallows as the Cartwrights clustered round Joe. There was the hollow sound of the trapdoor opening, and the gasps of the crowd. But the Cartwrights didn’t hear any of it. They cradled their injured brother and son, and when Paul came, reluctantly relinquished him to the physician’s care. They didn’t think Joe would long out live his captor.

*****************

“If Joe hadn’t had that belt on, he would have died,” Paul said. “But as it is, he’ll be fine in a while. There was plenty blood, but nothing vital was damaged, and the knife didn’t go in that far. Give him 6 weeks or so, and he probably won’t know that anything ever happened.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Paul wished he hadn’t said that. Joe would never forget this!

“When can we take him home?” Ben asked.

“In a day or two,” Paul answered. “Once he’s made good some of the blood loss. He’s awake, you can see him.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Ben said, and went into the inner room where Joe lay on the bed, as white as the sheets covering him. Ben sat beside him and tenderly stroked his hair. Joe smiled up weakly.

“Henry?” he asked, and Ben smiled reassuringly.

“He’s dead, Joe,” he answered. “It is over, son, and he didn’t win. You did.”

For a moment, tears hovered on the youth’s lashes, but they didn’t fall. “Where did the knife come from?” Joe wanted to know.

“Roy surmises that Henry had it hidden in his boots. He had transferred it to his shirt before Roy went for him, and used it when he thought he saw his chance.” Ben had had a few choice words to say to Roy about the thoroughness of searches that were conducted on prisoners.

“I can hardly believe its over,” Joe said. “Henry seemed to be invincible, Pa. He ruled his gang with a rod of iron, and I can hardly believe he’s dead.”

“Well, he is,” Ben said. “And a lot of people are going to rest easier in their beds, knowing that he’d gone. And I don’t mean just you!”

Joe sighed. “When can I go home?” he asked, after a time. “I seem to have been away a lot just lately.”

“Soon, Joe, soon,” Ben assured him.

He sat there for along time after Joe had fallen asleep, giving thanks to the Almighty for the deliverance of his son. He was fairly sure that, although Joe would never forget his experience, he had come to terms with it, and would be able to put it behind him, given time. His family circle was still unbroken.

The door opened and Adam and Hoss came in quietly. They looked down at Joe, and Ben reached to include them in his embrace. He knew that both his older sons would help their younger sibling with any problems that might arise from this, and he was more than thankful for the love that they all shared. He smiled as a thought crossed his mind. Joe had been Henry’s unwilling accomplice, but the same couldn’t be said of the family. They were totally willing accomplices in Joe’s healing process.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

*****End*****

 

 

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Author: Rona

The redheaded half of the Giggly Sisters, she lives in the Scottish Borders.

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