Protective Custody (by Rona)

Summary:  Joe witnesses a bank robbery, but he is treated more like a suspect than a witness. Can Adam and Hoss get to the bottom of what is going on before it costs Joe his life?

Rated:  T    (9,455 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.

 

Protective Custody

 

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Adam asked, concerned. “It’s not like you to want to go to bed early.”

“I’m fine,” Joe answered impatiently. “But I’m tired, Adam, and I would like to get some sleep. You and Hoss stay here, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

“If you’re sure,” Adam said, doubtfully. It wasn’t like Joe to admit he was tired, especially when they were at the end of a cattle drive, in a strange town with some money to spend. Adam couldn’t help wondering if Joe was sickening for something.

However, as the younger man left, Adam glanced around. It was a deadly dull saloon, he had to admit, and the town, Cooperstown, wasn’t much more interesting. Adam and his two brothers, Hoss and Joe, had delivered a small herd to a client who had visited the Ponderosa, the boys’ home, the previous month. It hadn’t been an arduous drive by any means, but still, a week sleeping on the ground took it out of you. They had originally jumped at the chance of a night in a town, but now that they were here, there really wasn’t much to do.

Moving down the bar to where the middle brother leaned, Adam said, “I’m ready to call it a night, too. How about you?”

“Sure thing, Adam,” Hoss said, agreeably. “I’m plumb tuckered out. Hey, where’d Joe go? He ain’t tired, surely?”

“That’s what he said,” Adam confirmed as they crossed to the swing doors.

“He sickenin’ for somethin’?” Hoss asked, as they went into the street.

“Sure seems like it to me,” Adam agreed. “Joe’s never tired.”

“’Exceptin’ when you’re a-tryin’ to git him up in the morning’,” Hoss jested, heavily.

“You’ve got that in one,” Adam said, smiling. The next moment, he stiffened as several shots were fired.

Both brothers drew their guns, and ran towards where the shots had come from. They saw three figures on horses galloping out of town. Another person lay in the middle of the road, and then they saw Joe running over to him.

Following quickly, Adam laid his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Are you all right?” he demanded.

Glancing up, Joe said, “I’m fine, Adam. But this fellow ain’t. We need a doctor.”

Help was coming, and Adam and Hoss stayed with Joe as a man clutching a doctor’s bag pushed Joe aside. A crowd was growing and at last the sheriff appeared, pushing his way through. He bent over to talk briefly to the doctor, then glanced around. “What happened here?” he asked, loudly.

Stepping forward, Joe said, “Three men robbed the bank, and shot this man as they left and he tried to stop them.”

The sheriff’s gaze sharpened on Joe’s face. “And who are you?” he asked.

“Joe Cartwright,” Joe answered and the man gave him an appraising look.

“Would you recognize these men?”

“Yes,” Joe responded readily. I got a good look at them.”

“What were you doing here?” the sheriff went on.

“I was on the way back to my hotel,” Joe answered, stiffening slightly. Adam put a warning, calming hand on his shoulder and Joe subsided. “I heard the shots and turned round to look, and saw them shoot down this man and ride off.”

“Can anyone vouch for this?” the sheriff asked, looking round.

“We can,” Adam said. “I’m Adam Cartwright, Joe’s brother, and this is our other brother, Hoss. Joe left the saloon a few moments before us, to go back to the hotel.”

“Why are you in Cooperstown?” the sheriff asked.

“We’re just passing through on our way home to our ranch near Virginia City,” Adam went on. There was something about this sheriff’s manner that Adam didn’t like, but he kept his voice calm.

“All right,” the sheriff said. “Do you think the bank robbers know you saw them?”

Shrugging, Joe said, “I don’t know. Perhaps. I wasn’t trying to hide.”

“In that case, I must take you into protective custody,” the sheriff said. He took hold of Joe’s arm and tugged.

“Wait a minute,” Joe protested, at almost the same moment as Adam.

“Standard procedure in this town,” the sheriff went on. “Eye witnesses must be held in protective custody until the trial, for their own safety.”

“Trial?” Joe said, still baulking. “You haven’t caught anybody!”

“Sheriff, our home is near Virginia City. I’m sure Joe would be safe there until the trial,” Adam interjected. He could sense how panicky Joe was becoming, and couldn’t altogether blame the boy. However, he just hoped that Joe’s notoriously hot temper could be kept under control until this situation was sorted out.

“Can’t do that, Mr. Cartwright,” the sheriff said. “Not without the judge’s say-so.”

“Well, get it,” Adam said, impatiently.

“Can’t do that till morning,” the sheriff went on. “Come along, Mr. Cartwright.” He pulled on Joe’s arm, and Joe yanked his arm free.

“I’m not going, and you can’t make me,” he said, dangerously.

Before either Adam or Hoss could say anything, the sheriff grabbed Joe’s arm and twisted, and the next instant, Joe’s arm was twisted up his back, and the sheriff was handcuffing him. “What was that you said, boy?” he purred in Joe’s ear. “We’re gonna have fun, you and I.” He turned to shoot a look at Adam and Hoss. “Now, this is the law in this town. Your brother, here, will be in protective custody until the judge says otherwise. If you try and get him out, I’ll be forced to arrest you.”

“Adam, help me,” Joe said, as he was dragged away, but as Adam stepped forward, a deputy came out of the crowd and drew his gun. Adam froze.

“Don’t worry, Joe, we’ll get you out come morning.” He was forced to watch helplessly as Joe was dragged off to jail – for being an eyewitness.

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

The jail was on the outskirts of town, a much more substantial looking building than its equivalent in Virginia City. The sheriff, whose name Joe still didn’t know, pushed him roughly inside and locked the door behind him. Joe bit his lip, trying to fight down the panic he felt.

“Over here,” the man said, dragging Joe over to the cells. He opened one door and gave Joe another push. Joe stumbled into the cell and was horrified when the door was immediately locked behind him. “Aren’t you going to take these off?” he demanded, his temper momentarily coming to the fore.

“No, I don’t think so,” the sheriff replied. “Or not until my deputy gets back. You’ve got a temper, boy, and I ain’t takin’ any chances with it.” He laughed at the look on Joe’s face, and left. He shut the door between the cells and the office and Joe was left alone.

One jail cell is much like another, and Joe sat down on the edge of the hard cot and wondered how long it would be until the deputy got back. His hands were knotted into the small of his back, and it was desperately uncomfortable. Joe still wasn’t sure how he came to be in this predicament; it seemed crazy to him that he was being locked up for his own safety when nobody had made any effort to catch the bank robbers. He leant back on the wall and tried to relax. He was dog-tired, and wanted nothing more than to sleep, but the discomfort of his position and the thoughts swirling through his head made sleep impossible.

At last, the door opened, and the sheriff and deputy came in. They entered the cell together, and Joe felt a pang of unease. He was being treated as though he was dangerous, and he didn’t understand why. He stayed where he was, sitting on the edge of the cot, trying to look as unthreatening as he knew how.

“How d’you want to handle this, Sheriff Brown?” the deputy asked. He gave Joe a hard look.

“You cover him and I’ll take the cuffs off,” Brown replied. He glared at Joe. “Get down on the floor, boy.”

“What?” Joe said.

“On the floor,” Brown repeated, his tone dangerous now. He yanked Joe off the cot and forced him to lie face down on the floor. Seething, Joe made no move that could be interpreted as threatening, although he wanted to hit the man.

Exchanging grins with his deputy over the young man’s head, Brown knelt on Joe’s calves, causing him to yelp in pain. “Keep still!” he said, sternly, and slowly removed the handcuffs. Keeping hold of Joe’s hands, he said, “You behave, or these go back on again. Don’t move until we’re out of the cell. My job is to keep you safe, and I’ll do that, boy. But if you think you can threaten me, you’re wrong! I won’t stand for it! Clear?”

Fuming, but helpless, Joe nodded. “Clear,” he muttered, sulkily. He lay still until he heard the cell door close, then painfully drew his arms from behind his back and levered to his feet. Gently massaging his wrists, Joe glared at the now closed door to the office. He vowed to be careful what he said and did until Adam was able to get him out of there.

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

As the Cartwrights arrived at the jail that morning, the sheriff was just arriving back.  His clothes were dusty and he looked tired and unshaven. The rest of the posse were heading off for their individual homes. Glancing uninterestedly at the Cartwrights, Brown hitched his sweaty horse to the rail and went to rap on the jail door. “It’s me,” he said, and they could clearly hear the bolt being drawn back.

“Sheriff, there’s a reply from the circuit judge,” the deputy said, before either Adam or Hoss could say anything. He handed the sheriff a piece of paper, which he read silently.

“Does that mean Joe gets out of here today?” Adam asked.

“No,” Brown replied. “It means your brother stays here for now. I’ve been told to keep him here.”

“Why?” Hoss protested. “You ain’t caught them robbers, and they don’t know Joe from Adam.” In his distress, he didn’t even see the funny side of what he had just said. “He’d be safe at home.”

“Can’t do it,” the sheriff responded, not sounding in the least regretful. “The judge says he’s gotta be here, so that’s an end to it.” He shrugged. “Nothin’ to do with me.”

“Can we at least see him?” Adam demanded, angrily.

“Only one at a time,” Brown answered. He put his hand out. “And give me your weapon. Can’t take a risk like that.”

“He’s my brother,” Adam responded stiffly. “What do you think I’m going to do?”

“Can’t take a chance,” the man replied. “I’ve known other fellas shoot their brother.”

Flushing, for Adam had accidentally shot Joe once, he handed over his gun without another word. “You stay here,” he said to Hoss. The big man nodded, but he still looked unhappy.

“Hi, Joe,” Adam said, as soon as he was let into the jail. “Are you all right?”

“Aside from being tired and hungry, I’m fine,” Joe responded. He crossed to the bars and produced a smile for Adam. He was more than glad to see his brother, but could sense that Adam wasn’t going to bring him any news that he wanted to hear. “Tell me I’m getting out of here?”

“I’m sorry, Joe, but the judge has said you’ve got to stay here.” Usually shy of demonstrative behavior out with the family home, Adam nevertheless reached through the bars and squeezed his youngest brother’s shoulder.

“Why?” Joe cried. “What have I done wrong?”

“Nothing, you haven’t done anything wrong,” Adam assured him, but the words would have had more weight if Joe hadn’t been locked behind bars. “This is just the way they do things here, Joe. I’ll wire Pa and let him know what’s happening, and see if he can help us out.” He frowned. “Did you say you’re hungry? Didn’t you eat your breakfast?”

“What breakfast?” Joe returned, petulantly. “I haven’t even got any water, Adam.” He looked at Adam, concern in his eyes. “They treat me like I’m dangerous.” He thrust his hands at his brother. “I wore those handcuffs for hours last night. They made me lie on the floor while they took them off. Adam, I saw the bank being robbed! Do they think I was part of the gang?”

Sure enough, Joe’s wrists had a faint shadow of bruising on them. Adam was disturbed by Joe’s story. He didn’t doubt it for a single second. Joe wasn’t a good enough liar to make up something like that. Why was the sheriff treating Joe like this?

“I’ll get to the bottom of this, buddy,” he promised Joe. “And first off, I’ll make sure you get some food!”

“Thanks, Adam,” Joe said, gratefully. “Where’s Hoss?” He was trying desperately not to think of how long he might be kept in jail.

“He’s out there,” Adam said, gesturing to the door. “They wouldn’t let us both in.” His voice was grim. This situation was making him very uncomfortable. The sooner he wired Pa the better he would feel. “Keep calm, Joe. We’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise.”

Biting his lip, Joe nodded. “I’ll try,” he promised. “Just hurry, huh?”

“Sure thing,” Adam responded. At that moment, Joe looked very young and vulnerable and Adam’s heart went out to him.

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

It was a long and frustrating day. Adam sent a wire off to Ben and hoped fervently that his father would receive it quickly and somehow manage to help. He and Hoss spent as much time as they could at the jail, but Sheriff Brown wasn’t at all willing to have them hang around all the time.

It didn’t seem as though he was doing very much to find the bank robbers. Joe had been shown the recent wanted posters, but none of the men on them had been involved the previous night. He had given descriptions, and Brown had written them down, but said they fitted half the population of America. Joe was frustrated. He knew that, but hoped perhaps the descriptions might just fit someone known locally.

The only plus was that he was now getting food and water regularly. Adam had complained to Brown, who had just nodded. “I’ll feed him when I get the chance,” he muttered. Dissatisfied, Adam had asked if Brown minded if Adam got food sent in. When the sheriff had shaken his head, Adam had sent off at once to the café where he and Hoss had eaten that morning, and paid them to deliver three decent meals a day for Joe.

Come nightfall, they had had no word from Ben, and Brown banned them from spending the evening with Joe. Joe was going stir crazy in the jail, and was finding his resolve to be careful of what he said and did to be severely tried. Brown seemed to delight in winding him up and Joe was edgy enough to react most times. He finally lay down on the thin, smelly mattress and tried to sleep.

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

“There’s an eye witness,” the leader of the bank robbers reported to his comrades.

“What?” demanded a fair-haired man, known as Jack Dixon. He sat up and looked at the leader. “Who?”

“Some kid from out o’ town,” the other returned. He went by the name of Victor. “He’s locked up in the jail.”

“Jail?” said the third gang member, Peter Elliot. “Why?”

Victor gave a wolfish grin. “Well, the sheriff banged him up so’s he could keep an eye on him. Told the kid’s brothers that all eyewitnesses were locked up in protective custody for their own safety.” He laughed. “Now, Jim Johnston just died of his injuries, so the only person who can identify us is the kid.”

“So what are we gonna do, Victor?” Dixon asked. He glanced at Elliot.

“We’re gonna take a shot at the kid in the jail,” Victor replied. “It’s all set up. The kid’s alone, the deputy is out lookin’ for us, and we all know the sheriff is gonna look the other way.” He laughed. “An’ if this don’t work, we’ll get another chance later on.” He picked up his gun belt and began to strap it on. “Let’s go.”

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

No matter how hard he tried, Joe just couldn’t drop off to sleep. The thin mattress on the cot was stained and smelly, and the blanket was moth-eaten. The temperature outside had dropped; a reminder that although the days were still warm, fall was on its way. Shivering, Joe shrugged his jacket back on. During the day, the cord jacket had been too warm, but now, it wasn’t warm enough.

After another fruitless attempt to sleep, Joe threw the blanket off and rose to his feet to pace the small cell once more. Joe was always this way when cooped up. He couldn’t sit still.  Back and forth he paced, until the movement warmed him slightly, and he stopped to lean against the wall.

The light on the opposite wall still burned brightly, and Joe suspected it would burn all night, as it had done the previous night. The brightness didn’t help him sleep, either. Joe glared at the light, as though this were all its fault. He knew it was childish, but he had to have a safety valve for his feelings, even if it was just glaring at the light!

Straightening, Joe stretched, flexing his arms back, resting his hands on his shoulders. From outside his cell, there was a shot, and a bullet slammed into the back of Joe’s left shoulder. Joe was knocked off his feet, hitting his head against the wall, and falling into unconsciousness.

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

“Let me past!” Adam demanded, and people moved out of his way, allowing him and Hoss to make their way into the jail. They hurried through to the cells, where the doctor and deputy were hovering over Joe, who lay on the cot. “Joe?” Adam said, alarm thumping through his gut.

“Who are you?” the doctor said, glaring at them as Joe tried to sit up. The movement caused the youngest Cartwright to catch his breath in a manner that was all too familiar to his siblings.

“His family,” Hoss said bluntly. He pushed past the deputy and bent over Joe, one large hand going to touch his brother’s tousled curls. However, the gesture froze, and as Adam crowded in closer, he saw why. Blood was drying on Joe’s head and Hoss didn’t want to inadvertently hurt his brother. “It’s all right, Punkin; we’re here now.” He looked at the doctor. “How is he?”

At the deputy’s nod, the doctor said, “He’s been shot in the back of the shoulder. Then there’s the knock on the head. He’s not quite coherent yet.”

“Are you going to have to operate to get the bullet out?” Adam asked. He gently took his brother’s hand.

“Yes,” the doctor replied, reluctantly. “I was just about to start when you came in.”

“We’re staying,” Adam stated, and nobody thought to argue with him.

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

It was over and Joe was resting comfortably, his left arm bound up across his chest, his hand resting on his opposite shoulder. A sling supported his elbow and there was a bandage around the injury on his head.

“He’ll be all right, as long as infection doesn’t set in,” the doctor said, packing away the last of his instruments. “Better keep an eye on him.”

“We will,” Hoss said. He knelt on the cold stone floor by Joe’s head, while Adam now perched on the edge of the cot, a spot only recently vacated by the doctor.

“Thank you,” Adam added, softly, his eyes scanning the beloved face before him. Joe’s eyes were still closed, and Adam knew it would be some time before Joe came out of the anesthetic the doctor had given him. But he couldn’t take his eyes from Joe’s face. He felt he had failed. When Pa wasn’t there, Adam took on the role of Joe’s chief protector, and this time, he hadn’t been able to keep Joe safe. So much for protective custody, he thought, cynically.

A short time later, Joe stirred and opened bleary eyes. He winced as the light struck him, suddenly aware of his throbbing headache. As he tried to move to a more comfortable position, his shoulder set up a new song of pain, and the injured youth couldn’t contain a groan. At once, familiar, warm hands were holding him, steadying him as he sought for his equilibrium. Yet Joe knew that the person he wanted above all others wasn’t there, and he didn’t ask for ‘Pa’.

“Adam?” he whispered. “Hoss?” He slit his eyes open once more, and saw both his brothers’ faces swim into focus. “What happened?”

“Somebody shot at you, Joe,” Adam replied.

“Feels like they hit me, too,” Joe joked, then saw by the look on Hoss’ face that they had hit him. “Who was it?”

“We don’t know,” Adam admitted, as Hoss helped Joe to drink. “Possibly the bank robbers. We don’t know.” Adam wondered if Joe knew that the only other possible eyewitness had died that day. It wasn’t the time to tell him, though.

Closing his eyes to bear the thumping headache better, Joe muttered, “So much for protective custody.”

“That’s exactly what I thought,” commented Adam, a hint of laughter in his voice.

“Me, too,” agreed Hoss, and the brothers shared a moment of amusement.

It was only a moment, though. Sheriff Brown appeared in the doorway and looked at the three brothers in the cell. “I hear there’s been an attempt on your life, Mr. Cartwright,” he said. He looked at Adam and Hoss. “What are you two doing here?”

“Taking care of our injured brother,” Adam replied, coolly. “Surely you don’t have a problem with that? The doctor said he should be kept an eye on, and that’s exactly what we intend to do. You and the deputy should be out looking for whoever did the shooting.”

“This wouldn’t a happened if’n you’d let us take Joe home,” Hoss said. “We’d a kept him safe.” He gently ruffled the curls on the top of Joe’s head, making sure he kept well clear of the bump and gash.

Recognizing both an irresistible force and an immovable object when he met them, Brown made no further protest at the brothers spending the night with Joe. However, he did annoy them both by insisting on locking them into the cell, in case they took it into their heads to take Joe to more comfortable quarters. It might not have annoyed them quite so much if they hadn’t been planning that very thing, Adam thought. Then he dismissed that; he would’ve been annoyed anyway. Joe was being treated like a criminal.

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

“You missed,” Brown said, going into the room. He glanced at the three men lounging around. “Cartwright is still alive.”

“If I missed,” Victor said, dangerously, “how come you needed the doc?” He glared at Brown.

“You only winged him,” Brown replied, ignoring the other’s glare. “You’ll have to do better than that.”

“We had an agreement,” Victor said, standing. He was several inches the taller of the two. “If we didn’t succeed, you’d bring him to us. Are you gonna back out on that?”

“No, but it might be more difficult that I thought. His two brothers are there all the time.” He looked disgusted and made a frustrated movement. “They’re all three locked in the jail right now.”

“They don’t suspect anythin’, do they?” Dixon asked, anxiously. “They believe the story about protective custody?”

“Course they believe it,” Brown said, impatiently. “Ain’t nobody in the town gonna tell them any different. Not after I spread the word that the youngest one might be involved in the robbery. The clerk at the hotel is keepin’ an eye on the other two for me.”

“An’ what about the wire they sent?” Elliot asked.

“No problem,” Brown replied and pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. “Mr. Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa Ranch, near Virginia City, won’t find out about all this until too late.” He laughed.

Smiling, Victor clapped Brown approvingly on the shoulder. “Well done, little brother,” he commended. “Well done indeed.”

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

“How’re you doing?” Adam asked, quietly. Hoss was stretched out on the floor asleep, the steady rhythm of his snoring robbing Adam of sleep. He offered Joe some more water.

“I’m cold,” Joe replied, shivering slightly and catching his breath at the pain the movement set off. “It hurts, Adam.”

“I know, buddy,” Adam soothed, slipping out of his custard-colored coat and laying it over the top of Joe. “Perhaps this will help warm you up.”

“It’s your coat,” Joe protested, weakly. “You need it. It’s cold in here.” He could feel the warmth of the coat penetrating the thin blanket that covered him and the faint smell of Adam’s bay rum comforted him.

“I’ll be all right,” Adam said, sliding his knuckles down’s Joe’s cheek. “But we need to keep you warm, Joe. You’re cold because of the blood loss.” He could see that’s Joe’s shivering had subsided already. “You try and get some sleep, you need that, too.”

“When will Pa get here?” Joe asked, snuggling deeper under the coat. He hadn’t meant to ask that, and regretted the words the instant they were out of his mouth. He didn’t want Adam to think he was doing a bad job of looking after him. He looked up at Adam. “I didn’t mean…”

“I know what you meant, buddy,” Adam responded. “I want Pa around when I’m ill, too.”

“Do you?” Joe asked, sounding very young. He blinked, the warmth of the coat already making him sleepy.

“Sure,” Adam replied. “Hoss does, too.” He glanced up at the barred window and saw that there was a faint light in the sky. Dawn was approaching. “My friends tell me they want their mothers when they aren’t well. Since none of us has ever had a mother for any length of time, I suppose it’s natural that we want Pa.” He smiled. “Go to sleep, Joe. We’ll still be here when you wake.”

“Promise?” Joe asked, his eyes drifting shut.

“Promise,” Adam repeated, noting Joe’s smile when he heard the word. A few minutes later, his even breathing told Adam he slept. Shivering, for the cell was indeed very cold, Adam tucked his hands under his armpits to try and keep them warm, and hoped dawn would come soon, and bring Pa along with it, although Adam thought it might be yet another day before Ben appeared.

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

“Look, I don’t understand why you’re making such a drama out of this,” Adam said, heatedly. “Even the doctor says that Joe needs somewhere warm to rest. What’s wrong with the hotel?”

Leaning back on his desk, arms folded across his chest, Brown eyed Adam with dislike. “I can’t guarantee his safety there,” he repeated, enjoying the look of frustration that crept across Adam’s face.

“You cain’t guarantee his safety here, neither, it seems to me,” Hoss said, stingingly. Adam glanced at him, for it was rare for his middle brother to be so sharp to anyone. “We’ll look after him.”

“I’m sure you would,” Brown said, his own tone quite cutting. “Look after him right out of town, I’d bet.”

“Joe’s not well enough to endure the journey home,” Adam said, “even if we did think that.” He shook his head. “Do you still think he had something to do with the robbery?”

“I can’t say, not till I catch them robbers,” Brown returned. “He might, he might not.”

“Well, let’s get one thing straight,” Adam said, taking a hold on his temper. “I’m not going to leave Joe here for one minute longer, so if you have a better idea of a safe, warm place for him, you’d better tell me now.”

“Don’t threaten me, Cartwright!” Brown said, straightening. The deputy put his hand onto his gun. “There’s more than one cell through there.”

“I’m not threatening you,” Adam said, through gritted teeth. “But I need to know where you’re going to take Joe.”

“Brotherly love,” scoffed Brown. He nodded. “All right, Cartwright, I’ll tell you. Your brother is going to my house.”

“Where’s that?” Hoss wanted to know. He glanced through the open door to where Joe lay restlessly on the cot in his cell. Joe was running a slight temperature and was shivering uncontrollably again, despite now having Hoss’ coat, too.

“Not too far away, on the outskirts of town,” brown told him. “He’ll be safe there.”

“Are you sure?” Adam asked.

“Reasonably sure,” Brown said. “I’ll be there to keep an eye on him, and it’s got stout walls. I gotta sometimes have protection, too, you know.”

“How are we going to get him there unseen?” Adam asked. He wasn’t too sure he was happy about this arrangement.

“You two are going to go back to the hotel, and tell everyone that your brother isn’t doin’ too good,” brown said. “Tell them the doc said you had to rest, as you might be needed later. The news will spread like wildfire. While you have something to eat, I reckon most of the town will want to gawp at you while you’re eatin’. While that’s happenin’, I’ll move your brother to my house.”

It wasn’t the best plan Adam had ever heard, but he hadn’t had enough time – or enough sleep – to think of a more suitable one. He nodded, frowning slightly.

Anticipating Adam’s next question, Brown said, “Clyde here will stay with him.” Adam saw the deputy nod, and realized that was the first time he had heard the man’s name, and he wasn’t sure if it was his first or last name. However, that didn’t matter. Adam glanced at Clyde, who nodded again.

“All right,” Adam allowed. “We’ll do it your way. I’ll just go and tell Joe.” He went back into the cell and sat down beside Joe. “Joe?” His brother opened weary eyes. “You’re going to be moved to the sheriff’s house. We’ll be back later, all right?”

“All right,” Joe replied, but he felt so miserable he really didn’t care where he was going to go. “When will Pa get here?”

“It’ll probably be tomorrow,” Adam said, and saw Joe wince. “We’ll be back as soon as we can. Perhaps there’ll be a telegraph from Pa telling us when he thinks he’ll be here.” He ruffled Joe’s hair. “Be good.”

“No promises,” Joe responded, and Adam took heart from that. Joe might be feeling desperately ill, but he wasn’t anywhere near dying if he could crack jokes, even feeble ones.

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

Shuffling wearily, Joe leaned on the supporting arm of Clyde and made it out to the waiting buggy under his own steam. The warm sun felt good on his face, and Joe lifted his head to enjoy it more. “I’ll be along when I can, Clyde,” Brown said, and stood watching as the buggy began its slow journey towards the outskirts of town. After a moment, he mounted up, and rode off in the opposite direction.

It seemed to Joe that Cooperstown had the stoniest, bumpiest roads in the West. Clyde didn’t try very hard to avoid the ruts, but when Joe took a closer look, he realized that the roads were in a poor condition, and it would be impossible to avoid the ruts. He resigned himself to being painfully jolted about until they arrived at their destination.

As they cleared the last of the town buildings, there was a thunder of hooves and Clyde suddenly looked up, and shook up the buggy horse. He was too late, though. Moments later, a masked man had grabbed the reins and pulled the horse to a stop. He and the other two masked men all had their guns drawn.

“If you wanna live, do jist as you’re told,” one of the men said. He pointed his gun at Clyde. “Get out of the buggy.”

Slowly, Clyde did as he was told. The other man dismounted and callously pistol-whipped him. Clyde crumpled to the ground soundlessly. Joe could do nothing to help him, and hoped the other man wasn’t too badly injured. He swallowed and tried to concentrate his thoughts.

“Get out of the buggy, boy,” the man ordered Joe, and concentrating like mad, Joe managed to get himself onto the ground without falling. He stood there, swaying slightly. His legs felt shaky and he wondered what they intended to do to him.

He soon found out. The man on the ground took a length of rope from his saddlebags, and, despite Joe’s left arm being in a sling, tied his hands together. He led Joe over to his horse and forced the injured youth to mount. He jumped up behind Joe and blindfolded him. “Let’s go,” he said, and they rode off, leaving Clyde lying unconscious on the ground.

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

They didn’t ride far, but it was more than far enough for Joe. He was reeling in the saddle by the time they reached their destination, and had to be pulled down. Sheer pig-headed stubbornness kept him on his feet until he was inside the building they had arrived at. He was taken into a room, made to sit down on what felt like a bed and his hands were untied.

Immediately, Joe made a grab for the blindfold, but his captor anticipated the move and cuffed Joe heavily around the head. “Oh, no, boy, you’re not doing that!” He gave Joe a shove, and Joe fell onto the bed. Next moment, he felt something metallic fasten round his right wrist, then his arm was dragged over his head, and the other half of the handcuffs was attached to the head of the bed.

Joe struggled furiously, and earned himself another thump, this time in the stomach. He half-curled over, trying not to groan out loud. He failed. He heard laughter as his captor moved away, and then a door shut and he heard a lock click.

He was a prisoner.

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

“Mr. Cartwright! Mr. Cartwright!” The voice cut through the noise in the saloon part of the hotel. Adam raised his head, frowning, wondering who would be calling for either he or Hoss. The next moment, he saw Clyde stumbling towards him, his head bloody where he had been struck. “Mr. Cartwright, we were ambushed! They’ve got your brother!”

“Who’s got Joe?” Hoss demanded, and Adam wondered vaguely when either of them had risen to their feet. He had no memory of doing so.

“The bank robbers,” Clyde panted, sinking into a seat. “They held us up and knocked me out. When I came round, the buggy was empty and your brother was gone.”

“Show me!” Adam demanded.

“Hey, easy,” Hoss protested. “He’s bin hurt, Adam. Take it easy.”

“Where did this happen?” Adam said, recognizing the wisdom in Hoss’ words.

Haltingly, Clyde gave them directions. Hoss sent an on-looker for the doctor, organized the bartender to keep an eye on the unfortunate deputy, and then he and Adam left.

“What do we do?” Hoss asked.

“Get the horses, and see if we can pick up a trail,” Adam answered. “I’ll go and see if there’s a reply from Pa. We’ll have to stop and see if the sheriff is back, too.” He grimaced. “There’s something about that man I just don’t like.”

“Me, either,” Hoss agreed, and hurried off to saddle their horses while Adam went to the telegraph office.

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

The only thing in the favor of his new prison was that it was warm, Joe thought. He had slept deeply, his body craving the rest it needed to heal itself, and when he wakened, he found that he had squirmed around enough to get partly under the covers of the bed he was lying on. The other plus was that his blindfold had come adrift while he slept and with a little more wriggling, he managed to get it off altogether. He also managed to remove the bandage around his head at the same time, and felt a bit better for it.

Looking round, Joe was perplexed. He was in a bedroom in someone’s home, that much was clear. The room was filled with huge pieces of furniture – large wardrobes and chests – far too much stuff for the size of the room. A sulky fire burned low in the hearth, and the heavy velvet drapes were pulled across the window. Joe had no idea if it was day or night. The only light came from the fire.

Awkwardly, he elbowed himself up into a sitting position. He had a raging thirst, and a glass with water sitting on a table by the bed was tantalizingly out of reach. Joe even tried to use his injured arm to get it, but the pain when he moved his shoulder was enough to make his head swim uncomfortably, and so he gave up on the idea. Of course, he thought, frustrated, it was on the opposite side to where he was handcuffed, so he couldn’t even slide off the bed and drink doggy-fashion!

He thought he must have slept again, for a sound roused him. He had slipped down the bed once more and craned his neck to see what was going on. Any residual light from the fire had gone, and the room was virtually pitch black.

The door swung open and Joe winced as the light from a lamp struck his eyes. He shut them for a moment, and next moment a hand clamped itself down on his eyes; despite his struggles, he found himself blindfolded again in a moment.

“Thought you might be hungry, kid,” said a voice, a different one to the man who had brought him here, Joe thought. “Open up.”

It went against the grain to be fed, but Joe had no choice. He sat up a bit again, and allowed the man to spoon watery soup into his mouth. It was thin and tasteless, but it was wet. Joe ate everything he was given. He didn’t know why he was still alive, as he guessed these men were the bank robbers. They fitted the general size and shape of the men he remembered. He didn’t understand at all.

Suddenly, there was a thunderous knocking on a door outside the room. “Sheriff!” a familiar voice shouted. “Sheriff! Are you there?”

“Adam!” Joe bellowed, but his cry never got past his lips. A cloth was shoved into his mouth, and a hand clamped down on top of it.

Choking, Joe struggled to get free, terrified that the cloth would go down his throat. He kicked frantically at the man holding him, but most of his blows missed. He twisted his head, and tried once more to use his injured arm, but by then the knocking had stopped, and Joe guessed that Adam had gone away.

For many minutes, the man stayed where he was, his hand clamped over Joe’s mouth. Joe lay still, suddenly weary, discouraged by the fact Adam had gone away. Then, the man holding him relaxed and removed his hand. Joe tried to spit the gag out and was relieved when it was pulled from his mouth. He dragged in a deep draught of air.

“That was close,” said a voice near by and Joe flinched, for he hadn’t heard anyone approaching. “Quick thinking there.”

“It’s my skin, too,” said the first man. Joe wished intensely that he could see them. He started to rub his head on the pillow, to remove the blindfold, but one of them realized what he was up to and grabbed a handful of hair. “Think we ought to gag him?”

“Can’t hurt,” answered the other. “Cartwright’ll likely be back. When he realizes the sheriff ain’t around, he’ll be back, I guarantee.”

“No,” Joe gasped, before he could stop himself. He had taken all the restriction he could cope with, and the thought of a gag was too much for him. Worn out, injured, a prisoner, helpless, Joe had understandably less self-control than usual. He began to fight his bonds, too distraught to stop himself.

The men found it funny. They stood and laughed as Joe twisted and writhed on the bed. Dixon eyed Victor, wondering what he meant to do. Victor was crazy; he’d always known that. He had grown up in Coopersville with the Brown brothers, and knew them very well.

“Come on,” Victor said, his laughter finally stilled. “Let’s gag the brat, and then we can relax.”

Desperately, Joe kicked out once more, and this time hit a target. His heel crunched into Victor’s groin, and the big man crumpled, groaning in agony.

“That does it!” he swore, as he regained his breath. He cradled his injured member in his hands, panting to control the pain. “I’m through bein’ nice to you, boy!” He pulled Joe up by the front of his shirt, and backhanded him viciously across the mouth. Joe subsided, dazed.

As he came back to reality, he realized that someone was stripping off his boots. The next instant, a rope was looped round his ankles and pulled tight. His feet were tied to the end of the bed, and Joe discovered that he couldn’t pull himself upright any more. But Victor wasn’t through yet. He forced a gag into Joe’s mouth, knotting it tightly at the back of the youth’s head. Then to Joe’s total horror, he slipped a rope round Joe’s neck and tied it to the top of the bed.

“Now listen to me, sonny,” he said, breathing heavily in Joe’s ear. “If you move to try and get that gag or blindfold off, you’ll choke to death. Understand?” He squeezed Joe’s injured shoulder, and Joe couldn’t hold back a whimper of pain. “Doesn’t bother me none, sonny. I’m gonna kill you anyway.”

With another squeeze to the injured shoulder, Victor left. Dixon stood for a moment, looking down on the helpless youth and then followed.

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

“Well, if Brown is in his house, he’s either a prisoner or dead,” Adam said. He leant against Sport, taking comfort from his horse’s nearness. “There’s nothing from Pa, so I would guess that our wire never got sent.”

“What you reckon it all means, Adam?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know for sure,” Adam responded, sighing, “but I think there’s something else going on here. When have you ever heard of a witness being locked up until a trial, when the perpetrators haven’t been caught?”

“I heard o’ protective custody,” Hoss said, unsure what ‘perpetrators’ meant. “But it does sound funny the way you put it.”

“I could be wrong,” Adam admitted. “Every time we’ve tried to get near Joe, Brown has stopped us. Last night, seeing that we were there and weren’t going anywhere, he locked us all up. He’s been treating Joe like a criminal, and perhaps has planted doubts about us, too.” Adam pinched the bridge of his nose, a favorite pose when he was thinking hard. “Brown’s attitude has been wrong all along. Let’s go and do a little questioning of Clyde, and see what we find out.”

“What about Little Joe?” Hoss protested.

“We don’t know where to look,” Adam said, although it galled him to admit it. “Until we find out what’s going on, we have no chance of finding Joe.” He clapped Hoss on the shoulder. “Come on, little brother, let’s get busy.”

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

“Why are we keeping the kid alive?” Elliot demanded. “He saw us that night! Let’s just kill him and be done with it.”

“I’ve bin doin’ some findin’ out about our boy in there,” Brown said. “His Pa owns about the biggest spread in Nevada. He’s rich, and would pay us well to get his boy back.”

“We already got the money form the bank,” Dixon said, weakly. “It’s too risky.”

“The kid ain’t goin’ anywheres,” Victor said, laughing. He pictured again the helpless youth in the other room. Victor had quite a sadistic streak in him and enjoyed seeing his prisoner squirm. “We can have a bit o’ fun with him and then kill him, if that’s what you want.”

“I think we should divvy up the money and split, jist like we intended,” Elliot stated, firmly. “We lifted $40,000 from the bank, thanks to our sheriff here tipping us off about the bullion being stored there for the night.”

“I ain’t intendin’ to hang around,” Brown said. “Them other Cartwrights is still out there, and’ I don’t think they’ll be leavin’ any time soon. What happens when they get Clyde to talk?”

“Clyde won’t talk,” Victor said, with heavy assurance. “He’s not that dumb.”

“He’s a good lawman,” Brown said, reluctantly, for he quite liked Clyde. “He might put this all together.”

“Well, I’m takin’ my share and leavin’,” Elliot said. “What do you mean to do with the kid?”

“I’m gonna kill him, slowly an; surely,” Victor replied. “If’n you’re too lily-livered to watch, then go and be damned. But I mean to enjoy makin’ him squirm.”

Eyeing victor with distaste, Elliot nodded. “I’ll wait a short while,” he said, too wary of Victor’s temper to make an out-right stand. “But I won’t wait forever.”

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

In the bedroom, Joe lay frozen, too scared to move. The rope round his neck seemed to grow to mammoth proportions in his mind. Each time he swallowed, it dragged over his Adam’s apple, and his mouth was becoming increasingly dry from the cloth stuffed into it. His shoulder burned mercilessly, and Joe simply wanted this all to end. He didn’t care at that moment if the end was death. He just wanted an end.

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

Shame-faced, Clyde ducked his head. “Yeah, Sheriff Brown ordered that Jimmy sent no wires for you, in case you were part of the gang, too. I was surprised that the wire from the circuit judge came so soon, but I reckon it were a fake too.” He finally raised his head and made eye contact. “I’m real sorry,” he said. “I know that’s not enough, but I never really guessed what was going on.”

“Can you guess now?” Adam asked.

“Yeah,” Clyde said. “I jist saw those men for a few moments, but I think I know who they are. I have to look at your brother’s descriptions again, and then I’ll know for sure.” He rose, and went over to rummage through the drawer in Brown’s desk. He finally found the paper he was looking for, closely covered with Joe’s distinctive handwriting. He read it through twice, and then nodded decisively. “I don know them,” he said. “ Jack Dixon, Peter Elliot and” he paused. “Victor Brown.”

“Brown?” Hoss repeated. “Like Brown the sheriff?”

“His brother,” Clyde said. He rummaged through the desk some more, and finally found the object he sought – Brown’s sheriff’s badge. “Looks like our sheriff had more to do with this than I thought,” he concluded, miserably.

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

There were many things to be done, and done quickly. New wires were sent; one to the federal marshal for the area, and another to Ben Cartwright, appraising him of the situation. The townspeople were called together and questioned thoroughly. What the Cartwrights and Clyde discovered was very disturbing. Brown had done his job well. He had made enough veiled suggestions to implicate the Cartwright brothers in the bank robbery, and most of the town thought they were hardened criminals.

It took some hard talking to convince them otherwise, but Clyde succeeded. Then he began to ask about Brown’s movements, and they soon discovered that he had been seen riding off towards his big house on the outskirts of town sometime after Clyde had been attacked.

With nowhere else to look, that was where they started. Clyde deputized a couple of other men, and they went quietly out of town.

A good distance from the house, they dismounted and crept stealthily through the bushes and undergrowth until they were close to the house. Clyde, who had once been in the house, led the way, and soon they were pressed close against the side of the building, listening to Victor making plans to kill Joe.

It took all their self-control for Adam and Hoss not to break in there and smash Victor to the ground, but they knew that they had to find Joe first. Knowing this, Clyde led them round to where the entrance to the cellar was. “If you go in there, you come up in the kitchen,” he whispered. “We’ll distract them, after you’ve had a chance to get into the house. Find your brother.”

It took several minutes for Adam and Hoss to pick their way across the dark cellar, and up the stairs to the kitchen. There only sounds in the house came from the room where the outlaws were gathered. Adam indicated to Hoss they ought to split up, and so they did, each moving slowly and carefully across the floor, testing each board to make sure it didn’t squeak.

The strain on their nerves was appalling. Hoss wiped his sweaty palms on his pants legs, hoping he would find Joe before the outlaws realized they were there. And this distraction caused Hoss to miss his step, and he bumped bruisingly into the wall.

For an instant, the entire house seemed to hold its breath, then there was a shout, and Hoss knew they were discovered. The door flew open, and Hoss dived sideways as Victor stormed out, gun in his hand. His shot went wide, and missed Hoss cleanly. However, he didn’t hang around to make a follow-up shot. He dived across the hallway into the room where Joe lay.

The sound of the door opening caused Joe to start, and he lay there, his breath catching in his throat as he awaited his fate. Were they going to kill him now? Was this another sadistic game? He heard the click of a gun cocking and knew then what was going to happen. He suddenly, fiercely, didn’t want to die.

The gun fired, and Joe froze, waiting for the pain to start, and surprised when it didn’t. He sagged down in relief and the rope round his neck tightened slightly. Every instinct told Joe to struggle, but he fought himself to remain still. He had no idea what was going on outside the room, but there were shots being fired all around. But Joe’s survival depended on him concentrating solely on himself, so that’s what he did.

Then the cacophony stopped and Joe was aware of the sound of rushing footsteps coming into the room. He tensed, waiting for whatever was going to happen, and hoping his courage didn’t desert him at the last.

“Joe!” The voice was most welcome, if not the one Joe most longed to hear. It was Adam. A moment later, and the rope around his neck was cut through, then the gag and blindfold were removed, and by then, Joe was almost crying with relief.

Other hands were working on the rest of his bonds, and Joe recognized them as Hoss’ from their gentleness. He blinked furiously to clear his vision, and was never so glad to see anyone, as he was to see his brothers. He tried to speak, but his mouth felt like a desert. Adam swiftly realized what was wrong, and helped Joe to drink.

“Are you all right?” he asked, urgently.

“I’m all right,” Joe assured him, but reaction was setting in and Joe began to shiver. Adam swiftly wrapped him in a blanket. “I’m sure glad to see you, though,” he added.

“Not as glad as we are to see you, Shortshanks,” Hoss said, moved almost to tears by his brother’s emotion. He unlocked the handcuff from around Joe’s wrist, and gently began to rub the circulation back into his brother’s hand and arm.

“Let’s get you out of here,” Adam said, and Hoss knelt to help Joe slip his boots back on. As he did so, Joe realized his feet were cold, and he was glad of the added warmth from his boots. He nodded to Adam, and the older brother helped the younger one to rise, supporting him as he found his feet once more.

They left without a backward glance.

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

It was the scandal of the territory. Before Ben even arrived in Cooperstown, the story was all over Nevada territory, and soon even mentioned in papers further a field. Joe was hailed as a hero, the innocent eyewitness who had almost died to tell his story. Joe himself was indifferent to the newspaper stories, as he was still unwell and running an intermittent temperature. He had caught a slight cold, so felt really miserable, and slept as much as he could.

On his arrival, Ben went straight to the hotel, where he found his two oldest boys sitting on the veranda watching the world go by. “Hi, Pa,” Adam offered, laconically, knowing it would infuriate his father.

“Where’s Joe?” Ben demanded. He was tired and dirty, and in no mood for Adam’s little games.

“He’s asleep,” Hoss offered. “He’s all right, Pa, honest.”

“Show me!” Ben demanded, and handed his reins to Adam. Buck was as tired and dirty as his rider, and Adam grimaced. Well, that served him right, he thought, ruefully, as he led Buck to the livery stable for a feed and a rubdown.

Cracking open the door, Ben saw that Joe was awake. Green eyes turned to the noise, and Ben saw the wariness in them replaced by joy as he recognized Ben. “Pa!” he said, and pushed himself to a sitting position. “I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m pretty glad to see you, too, son,” Ben returned, sitting down on the edge of the bed to return Joe’s hug. He was pleased to notice that there was no fever present, and that Joe looked quite well, considering. “How are you?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” Joe responded, and laughed at the look on Ben’s face. “No, honestly, Pa, I am.” He shrugged as Ben continued to eye him closely. “Well, I will be soon,” he hedged. “As soon as they allow me to get out of this bed! I can’t sleep 24 hours a day.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Ben answered, and they laughed together.

When Adam came back, Ben caught up on the story. Brown had been using his position as sheriff to help his brother and friends in their outlawry. Most of the things they had done had been minor, compared to the bank robbery, and Brown was the only person the banker had told about the shipment of bullion that was being stored overnight in his safe. That was when the plans had been hatched, and Joe’s presence had been just what they needed; an eyewitness, upon whom they could cast suspicion.

Of the gang, only Brown and Dixon were alive to face trial. Victor and Elliot had been killed in the shoot-out with Clyde and his new deputies. The bullion had been recovered intact.

“Do you have to stay here?” Ben asked, stroking Joe’s arm tenderly. Joe was leaning ever so slightly into that warm touch.

“No,” Adam replied. “Joe’s free to go whenever the doctor says he can travel.  The marshal took his testimony, but they won’t need it. Half the town can testify to what Brown was doing. It all makes sense to them now.”

“I want to go home,” Joe said.

“The doc says he can travel at the end o’ the week,” Hoss said, helpfully. “Meantime, he’s to rest up good.”

At that, Joe sighed and rolled his eyes. “I thought Brown’s protective custody was onerous,” he joked. “But Pa, these two beat him all hollow!”

Laughing, Ben knew at that moment that whatever had befallen him, Joe was going to be all right.

*****End*****

 

 

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Author: Rona

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

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