Summary: Twelve-year-old Little Joe is late for supper. Hop Sing is hopping mad and Adam is none too pleased. When he heads for the stable to look for his brother, Adam expects an argument – what he gets is something else entirely. Something that begins in terror and rolls on toward tragedy. Will the Cartwrights ever be the same?
Rated PG-13 (92,480 words) Rating assigned for typical standard episodic TV Western violence and brutality.
Blood and Bread Series:
Blood and Bread
“Where that boy go now?! Little Joe!” There was a pause. “Father be angry if you no come out!” Another pause. “Little Joe!”
Twenty-four year old Adam Cartwright stretched and yawned. He’d been sitting at his father’s desk working over the numbers when fatigue had overcome him. He’d scooted down in the big chair, propped his head on the back of it, and fallen asleep.
Hop Sing’s strident call wakened him.
“What has that kid done now?” Adam grumbled as he unfolded himself and rose to his feet. He loved his little brother but, in the years since he’d come home from college, found his tolerance for the exuberant child lacked, well, length. Little Joe was like the land his father had chosen to call home – wild and untamed. Or at least so it seemed to him after four years in Boston. His father doted on the twelve-year-old and seemed to have forgotten the basic principal of parenting.
The parent is the one in charge.
With a sigh Adam walked to the front door and opened it. Stepping outside, he looked for Hop Sing. He finally found their Chinese cook coming out of the barn.
“No luck?” he asked.
“What Hop Sing do with boy?” the man from China asked with a shake of his queue. “Boy no listen! Tell Little Joe to wash face and hands and get ready for supper. He tell Hop Sing he has something to do! Mister Ben be home soon from city and not be happy. Hop Sing tell boy to chop chop!”
“Ah, well, that’s where you made your mistake.”
Their cook frowned.
Adam shrugged. “Little Joe distinctly told me last night that no one was allowed to tell him what to do.”
It had been quite a confrontation. He had to give the little scamp his due. He’d told Joe to go upstairs to bed. Their father was due home and hadn’t arrived yet. Joe had gone toe to toe with him and told him Pa had said he could stay up until he got home and that he’d have to carry him kicking and screaming up the stairs and tie him to the bed if he wanted him to stay up there.
It had been tempting.
Adam sighed. He’d begun to understand shortly after he returned home that Little Joe was a boy with a problem. He regretted to this day that his departure for college had coincided with Marie’s death. The Little Joe he had known when he left for school was not the Joe he returned to. Oh, his littlest brother had always been a handful – willful, stubborn, and more determined than any full grown man he had ever met. But at the same time Joe was, well, sweet. He was an absolute charmer with that head of dark brown curls, those enormous green eyes, and that grin. Oh dear, that grin! But there was something underlying all of that. It shone from the boy’s eyes at times and, to tell the truth, it frightened him. Whatever it was kept Joe on the brink. Laughing and snorting one moment. Angry and crying his heart out in the next.
He wasn’t sure what it was, but he thought it had to do with their Pa.
Hop Sing was staring at him.
That’s what he got for waxing poetic about a twelve-year-old.
“Have you checked the stable yet?” he asked.
The Chinese man shook his head.
As Pa was away again and he’d been left in charge for the day, Adam offered, “I’ll go do that.” He’d taken a few steps toward the stable – it was one of Joe’s favorite places to disappear into when the urge to be obstinate struck him – when he had a thought. Turning back, he asked, “Did you check with Hoss?”
“Mistah Hoss out with other men. Work fences.”
That was right. He kept forgetting. Though Hoss was still shy of nineteen he was as big, if not bigger, than most of the men they hired and he worked a man’s job. His middle brother had changed too in the years he’d been away, growing from an awkward adolescent into a sensible, secure, and sincere young man. You could always count on Hoss.
Adam eyed the stable. Of course, you could always count on Little Joe too.
You could count on him to get into trouble.
“What we do with boy?” Hop Sing sighed. “Much anger in him. Much fear.”
That stopped him.
“Fear? Joe?” he snorted. “That boy doesn’t have the sense to be afraid.”
“Mister Adam not here. He not see.” Hop Sing’s black eyes fastened on his. “Boy too young to lose mother. Afraid he lose father too. And maybe brothers. All the time afraid. All the time angry. ”
Adam frowned. Yes, he could see that. “Angry at Pa, you mean?”
Their cook shook his head. “Angry at God.”
His own mother had died as he was born. He’d never known her. He had known Hoss’ mother and he vaguely remembered his own childish anger at a wise and loving Creator who would allow such a thing; one who would allow such a beautiful and loving woman to die so senselessly. By the time Marie came along he had hardened himself, he supposed. Her death had seemed to him almost inevitable.
“Well,” he said, with a wry smile, “if Joe’s mad at God, little brother has bitten off more than he can chew. He’s not going to win this one.”
“Little Joe not know how to not win,” Hop Sing said solemnly.
Truer words had never been spoken.
As Adam turned back to the stable, he called over his shoulder. “You go ahead and finish cooking. I’ll find Joe. I promise he’ll be spit and polish clean and ready for eating before you can say Jack Robinson.”
The way he said it, it sounded like he was going to serve Joe up for supper.
There were days….
It was late autumn and the days were growing shorter. The sun’s light penetrated the interior of the stable as he entered, but it was fading fast. His little brother had one or two favorite hiding places in the building and he started with those. There was the feed bin where the dog liked to hide her pups, and the area where they kept extra hay and other stored items. When he didn’t find the kid in either of those locations, Adam paused in the middle of the stable with his hands on his hips and considered his alternatives. There was the office yet and the stalls themselves, though Joe should know well enough not to go into them and chance being trampled by the massive near ton-weight animals. Deciding he would try the loft next, Adam had just reached for the rung of the ladder when he heard a noise.
A small strangled noise.
He’d been annoyed when he started out to search for Joe and then grown irritated – perhaps even mad – as his brother continued to elude him.
For the first time Adam Cartwright knew fear.
“Joe? Little Joe? Is that you?”
What he’d heard wasn’t repeated, but there was another sound. It could have been a man cursing.
Adam reached toward his hip, then remembered he hadn’t worn his gun. There’d been no need. For goodness sake, all he was doing was trying to track down one wayward kid! He thought the sound had come from one of the stalls – probably the one farthest back – and so he headed for it. On his way there Adam palmed a rake and turned it so the sharpened tines were facing out.
“Who’s there? Joe? Is that you?” he called as he walked.
Two things happened. There was a yelp and then a sharp cry.
“Adam! Adam! Help me! Help –”
Terrified, Adam strode toward the back of the stable. Just as he came alongside the last stall, a large dark form stepped out of it. The light had faded enough that he couldn’t see the man well, but he was taller than Hoss and powerfully built. Whoever it was, was dressed in janes and wore a heavy navy-blue pea coat. He had a stocking cap on his head and a bandana tied around his mouth and nose. Above the colorful cloth, Adam could see the man’s eyes. They were cold as the fear that gripped him.
Anchored under one arm was Little Joe’s silent form.
“What have you done to my brother?” Adam demanded, wielding the rake.
“Nothing compared to what I will do to him if you don’t put that rake down, boy,” the man growled, “and put it down now.”
It was then Adam noticed the gun in the man’s other hand. The tip of it was anchored in Little Joe’s curly brown hair.
Adam didn’t hesitate. As the rake hit the stable floor, he pleaded, “Let my brother go. Please. He’s only a boy.”
Those cold eyes narrowed. “Ain’t that a shame. You tell your Pa when you see him that’s a shame. Ain’t nothin’ quite like someone takin’ a boy from you.”
Panic twisted his insides. “Don’t hurt him. If it’s a hostage you want, take me.”
The man looked him up and down. “Ain’t right. Don’t even the score,” he said enigmatically.
Adam’s eyes went to his little brother’s limp form. Dear God! He had to get Joe away from this madman!
“If it’s money you want, Pa will – ”
“Money. Pshaw! What’d I want with money? Ain’t no good to the likes of me.”
His mind was flying faster than a herd of wild mustangs. Who was this man? He obviously had a grudge against their father. What could it be? What could be so bad that he would threaten the life of an twelve-year-old boy?
He was almost afraid to ask.
“Then what do you want?”
The man stepped forward. “I got a message for your old man. You deliver it, boy. You tell him Wade Bosh paid him a visit today. You tell him I’m takin’ my due.” As Bosh hesitated, Adam’s eyes went to the limp form dangling from the man’s right arm. Joe was blinking, fighting toward consciousness. “I’m just takin’ what he owes me.”
“You can’t have my brother,” Adam countered sharply, his jaw tight. “I won’t let you take him.”
Those cold eyes locked on his.
There was a click.
“Fine with me to leave the boy here, but you’ll get to clean up the mess.” Bosh nodded toward the stall, which he had just exited. “Now, you just get yourself back there where I can tie you up.”
Adam hesitated only a second. With his eyes on Joe, he moved past the man. He had only gone a few feet when he pivoted on his heel. Knowing it might be the only chance he had to save his brother, Adam caught hold of the man’s arm and pulled it up, and then slammed his full weight into the kidnapper’s massive form.
There was a grunt.
A second of silence.
And then the sound of a shot.
As his knees hit the dirt, Adam had one thought. ‘I’ve killed him. I’ve killed Little Joe’.
It was only as he lay on the floor watching the man carry his struggling brother out of the stable that Adam realized he was wrong.
If he’d killed anyone, it was himself.
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