Written for the Missing Man Challenge – Add Adam into any Season 7-14 episode as if he never left.
Summary: My story is based on Kingdom of Fear – Season 12. Ben, Hoss, Joe and Candy are captured and illegally found guilty of trespassing so they can be used as slave labour in a gold mine. There is no hope of escape and no hope of parole.
Word Count: 9621
In the original episode – after the cattle drive is completed, Ben, Hoss and Joe are heading home with Candy and Billy when they decide to take a short cut through the high country. They are arrested for trespassing, Billy is murdered in the saddle and they are found guilty by the Judge. All four of them are then sentenced to hard labour in the man’s gold mine.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Fear No Evil
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. That fateful decision to ride home through the high country had seemed like such a good idea all those weeks ago. He had lost track of just how many days it had been. It was always that moment that came back to haunt his dreams each night as Ben tried to find a comfortable spot on the bare dirt. It was closely followed by the sight of young Billy, lying sprawled on the ground as his lifeblood soaked into another patch of bare dirt. He should have stayed on the road they had first come on and all of them would be safely home by now.
Ben found his thoughts wandering dangerously as he stared at his hands on the edge of the ore cart. He could have sworn those same hands had blood on them. Billy’s death was on his head. One day, he vowed he would make it back to Virginia City to tell his lovely young fiancé that her man had not gotten cold feet and run off. He had been so eager to get home to her that it had cost him his life.
He couldn’t tell Sally that part. He could not cast guilt anywhere, but where it belonged, squarely on his shoulders.
“Pa, you doin’ alright there?”
Ben jolted at the sound of Hoss’ voice close to his ear and he realised his son was taking the bulk of the weight on the cart.
“Fine. Just fine, Son.”
“Well them guards is lookin’ right at us.”
Ben caught the warning in his son’s words and he straightened a little and pushed harder against the cart. It wouldn’t do to draw any more attention than they already had. His son’s size already attracted enough interest as the guards delighted in belittling Hoss at every opportunity. Ben was thankful for his son’s reserved nature or he could have drawn far more trouble to them. Of course, that one time where the Judge had allowed Hoss to have at it with one of his men had served as a warning too. Even in leg irons and manacles, Hoss had bested the man and then been merciful where he could have snapped the man’s back. It was that same mercy that caused the guards to continue to taunt him even now. Of course, they did it from behind the safety of their rifles like the cowards he knew them to be.
As they pushed the loaded ore cart towards the tipping point, Ben dared take a guarded look around to see where Joe was. They had passed Candy only a moment ago as he was chained to a section of men who were chipping away at the rock wall behind them. Ben felt panic rising in his chest as he realised he couldn’t see his youngest son anywhere and hadn’t laid eyes on him for quite some time. As if reading his father’s anxious thoughts, Hoss lifted a single finger to point to his left.
“Joe’s down there, Pa.”
Ben let out a slow breath as he turned to look where Hoss was pointing. Joe was further down the ledge than he had been earlier, but he could tell by the way his sledgehammer was swinging that his son was just fine.
Well … as fine as an unlawfully detained prisoner in chains could be when he had no hope of reprieve or rescue.
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. That decision to ride home via his friend’s ranch had seemed like such a good idea all those weeks ago.
He’d been all too eager to take his father up on his offer of a couple of days to himself after the long cattle drive. The hands had been given three days leave and he assumed most of their hard-earned pay would soon be spent in the local saloons on watered down whiskey, pretty girls and poker games. It wasn’t that long ago that Joe would have been bucking to be allowed to stay with them, but he had other reasons for wanting to head home. A certain little redhead would be looking for someone else to escort her to Saturday night’s dance if his brother didn’t appear pretty soon.
Adam had smiled indulgently as Billy had expressed his own wish to get home as quickly as possible. He just didn’t have the same sense of urgency, given he didn’t have a pretty little thing waiting for him to make an honest woman out of her. Instead, as they’d sat by the campfire, he’d mentioned that it was only a half a day out of the way for him to call in and see his old friend on the way home. He didn’t see the need to drag his family along with him or to delay Billy’s reunion, so he’d said his goodbyes at the junction and ridden off alone.
Adam felt his jaw tighten as he rode into the empty yard again. Almost before he dismounted, Hop Sing came scurrying out onto the porch. The short-lived look of hope was quickly replaced by a scowl. Adam couldn’t blame him. He felt the same way. He thought he’d found a lead into his family’s disappearance and it had turned out to be another dead end.
“I’m sorry, Hop Sing. That sheriff had the wrong people. It could have been them … but it wasn’t.” His voice dropped along with his head as he turned to walk his horse towards the barn. The fatigue he felt had settled into his bones weeks ago and he had become so accustomed to it that he barely noticed.
Hop Sing hadn’t missed it though. The one Cartwright he could currently do anything for was dead on his feet. Weeks of riding back and forth over old ground had produced nothing new. Even though it seemed his family had vanished into thin air, Hop Sing knew that Adam would not quit until he found them or died trying. That was the part that worried him the most.
He silently laid supper out on the table and watched as Adam slid into the chair. His actions seemed almost detached from his thoughts as he reached for the potatoes. It was sheer stubbornness that made him eat as he knew he needed to keep up his strength, but nothing tasted right. Hop Sing knew he didn’t need to make a separate plate of each thing as he usually did for the whole family, but he could not put the habit aside. He would not indulge the fear that said he would never again lay a table for his family. He paused, as if checking to make sure that Adam actually would eat and not just stare at the plate. He was surprised when Adam waved at the chair across from him.
“Please … sit down and share some of this food with me.”
Hop Sing was about to object that he had already eaten when he suddenly understood what wasn’t being said. Even though he knew that Mistah Ben’s eldest boy was normally quite content with solitude, he was not all right with this. He could see the ache in the tired eyes that watched as he hesitated. He nodded as he slipped into the kitchen to collect another plate and cutlery before settling himself across the table. Neither of them spoke much as they ate the meal, but each felt grateful to have the other there nonetheless. It somehow made the silence a little more bearable.
Ben watched as Hoss sat back on his haunches and shook his head. “He’s gettin’ worse, Pa.”
For three days, Candy had gotten progressively sicker with some kind of fever. He’d tried telling them he was fine and could still work just as well as any of them, but they all knew better. He should have been resting, lying in the shade and drinking cool water. Instead he was swinging a rock pick and sweating out more than he was taking in. The alternative meant a possible flogging from the Judge’s guards. Candy was shaking as he lay propped up against a log and he tried to wrap his arms around himself, but the shackles stopped him from doing so. His eyes had slipped closed as Hoss stepped away from him and beckoned his father and brother towards him.
“He can’t take much more of this. We gotta do somethin’ to get him to a doctor.”
Joe frowned as he looked around his brother towards his friend. Candy was one of the toughest men he’d ever worked with and he could take most things in his stride. He was an army brat who’d had to grow up as a little kid and be a man well before his body got there. There was nothing soft or weak about him, so if Hoss said he was in trouble, he wasn’t stretching things.
“My plan could still work.” The urgency in his voice wasn’t lost on either of them. They’d had this discussion already, several times. Each time, Ben had vetoed the plan as being too dangerous. Each time, he had assured them that Adam would have raised every rider in the West to get out looking for them and he would come soon enough. All they had to do was bide their time and wait.
Except they had apparently run out of time.
Joe pointed towards his friend and lowered his voice. “I’m not going to sit here and watch Candy die!”
Ben opened his mouth to object and promptly closed it again. His son was right. He looked across at Hoss, who was torn between caring for his friend and placing his brother in danger.
“I can do this, Pa! You know I can.”
Ben frowned as he felt his son’s hand on his forearm. Reluctantly, he agreed.
“We need some help if this is going to work. Spread the word.”
Joe would have grinned at him under other circumstances as his father gave in to his idea. The solemn nod he got instead was enough to tell him what he didn’t want to know. Joe wasn’t half as confident as he said he was.
The next morning dawned grey as steady rain fell on the camp. The men were all so exhausted from the gruelling physical labour that many of them had slept right through it. The flimsy shelter that barely kept the sun off did little to keep the rain off and each of them was soaked before their day even started. Joe helped Candy to his feet and noted his friend’s grip on his arm. The skin felt warm to the touch, but Candy forced himself to hold out his plate as the guard came along and slopped something onto it.
As the man moved down the line, Joe nudged at Candy’s side. “I’m gettin’ you out of here today, buddy. Last time you’ll have to eat this.”
Candy turned towards him as Joe’s eyes lit up. They’d discussed the plan over and over and refined the details for days, but he’d been unsure if they were ever going to be ready to put it into action. He knew the plan hinged on Joe’s ability to outrun the Judge’s dogs and guards. That and the fact that his father still balked at letting Joe put himself in such danger.
Something had changed and he wasn’t sure what that was.
The same chilling rain was running down the back of Adam’s slicker as he pulled his horse into the yard of his friend’s ranch. The guilt still rose up to greet him as he knew he should have been with his family instead of visiting a friend. Maybe if he’d been with them, he could have done something. It was an accusation that swirled in his thoughts each night as he tried to sleep.
As he tied his horse off to the hitching post, he heard the door unlatch and boots on the wooden porch.
“Any news yet?” The worry in James’ voice matched his own thoughts and he looked up to see his friend watching him intently.
“Nothing! It’s like the ground opened up and swallowed them.”
“Well, I might have something that could help. Come on in and get dried off. Nessie has some coffee on the stove and she’ll rustle up some grub for you.”
Adam soon found his hands clenched around the coffee mug as James relayed what he had discovered since they had last seen each other.
“After the last time you rode through looking for them, we got to thinking. If your family didn’t ride back the way they came, then maybe they took the high country pass. It’s about four or five days faster, but it’s rough country. Most folks don’t go that way since you’d never get a loaded wagon up there and it takes a sturdy rider to pick their way through.”
Adam had already stopped there once as he backtracked, looking for his family. He’d since sent through a couple of telegrams, but nothing had turned up. Sheriff Coffee had sent out wires everywhere he could and Adam had sent hands out looking as well. Everything had drawn a blank and nobody had seen anyone matching the descriptions he’d sent out, until that sheriff had wired back saying he’d had a possible sighting. Adam had ridden there as fast as he dared push his horse only to find another dead end. He felt hope rising for the first time in weeks as James suggested an idea that finally made sense.
“They were all on horseback with just one pack horse. No wagons. Billy was in a surefire hurry to get back for his wedding and Pa might have considered this high country trail. It’s worth checking out!”
“Now just hold your horses there. There’s more.”
Adam frowned as James’ voice took on a serious tone. He recognised the warning for what it was, but had no idea why until James began to explain. His wild tale of the number of folks who had gone missing in recent times in the high country seemed like some kind of precursor to one of Hoss or Joe’s ridiculous campfire stories. He would have dismissed it as local gossip, if not for the fact it suddenly rang true.
“Now as I’ve been asking around, there’s a bunch of wild theories with everything from a man-eating bear to a rustlers’ hideout up there. So whatever’s going on up there in them hills, you’re gonna need another gun with you.”
Adam watched as James’ wife, Nessie, had gone as still as a rock and almost burned the eggs she was cooking. She was just barely showing, but they’d told him about the baby when he first came to visit. Nessie needed her husband right there and not traipsing through the hills looking for man-eating bears. Or worse. He watched helplessly as she slid a plate of well-cooked eggs towards him and quickly turned back to the stove, refusing to make eye contact with him.
“Thanks,” he commented to her back as Nessie continued to clean up as if they weren’t there.
‘I can’t ask you to come with me, James. You’ve got responsibilities here.”
“You don’t need to ask. I’m offering. Besides, I should have done this the first time you rode in here looking for them.”
“I figured then they’d just run into some trouble and I’d find them soon enough. I didn’t think that … that it would be this long.”
James watched as his friend slumped a little lower in the chair. He knew how close Adam was to his family and almost two months of no news would be killing him.
“Nessie’s gonna put together some travel rations for us and we’ll be heading off as soon as you’ve had some sleep.” He stood up as he spoke and kissed the top of his wife’s head, as if making peace with her.
Adam was about to object when James pointed towards the bedroom.
“Sleep! I ain’t gonna catch you when you fall right out that saddle and a few more hours ain’t gonna matter much.”
For some reason he couldn’t define, Adam almost shuddered at the thought that maybe a few hours would matter. He rose from the table and followed his friend across the room. Sleep would be good.
The end of the day couldn’t come soon enough for any of them. Joe patted at his pocket once again to ensure his reed was still where he’d put it. The whole plan hinged on him being able to breathe long enough under that pile of dirt so the guards would walk past him and one flimsy little reed was all he had. Candy needed him to make it work. They all did, but Candy was going south too fast and needed him the most to get the job done.
The rain had continued on and off all day and he felt his shirt sticking to his skin. As the signal for the end of the shift came, Joe glanced across to where Hoss was. His brother’s head barely moved to indicate he was ready and Joe stepped slowly closer, ever wary of where the guards were. Candy and Farley had the cart in place to let it go as Joe slung the chain over the rail and waited for it to roll past. He hoped they hadn’t misjudged things, but it was too late as the ore cart came barrelling towards him. He felt the chain link snap and his feet pulled apart for the first time in months. Hoss had his cart of dirt ready as Joe dived for the hole they’d been secretly digging all day.
Joe felt the dirt and rock raining down on him and he held his breath as the hole closed around him. It felt something like being buried in his own grave and he prayed he’d live to see the next day. Discovery now would mean a bullet between the eyes for all of them.
Candy found himself flying through the air as he took a wild swing at Farley. He couldn’t see straight, but it didn’t matter. He just needed to keep up the ruse long enough to give Joe time to get hidden away. Guards rushed towards him, rifles pointing at his chest as he staggered to his feet. His ears were ringing and he couldn’t really hear what they were shouting. This part of the plan had been laid out well before he got sick and Hoss had tried to trade places with him, but Joe needed Hoss right where he was. Candy’s groan of pain along with his slowness to get to his feet was no act. He didn’t dare turn around, but he was relieved when he felt Ben’s hand on his shoulder. So far, so good.
It seemed like barely ten minutes had passed before somebody noticed something was wrong and raised the alarm. They tried to stall, but the guards knew the family and quickly realised that one of them was missing. Candy felt himself stagger up the incline with Ben and Hoss as they each hoped and prayed that Joe really was a fast as he boasted he was.
Joe had been running almost since he could first walk. He was nine when he found he could finally outrun Hoss and not much older when he learned he could outstrip Adam’s longer legs, if only for a certain distance. It had come in handy as he ran from them after pulling a stunt that had earned their wrath. It had saved Tuck and Lucy’s lives as he ran from Sharp Tongue and his friends. He prayed as he ran this time that his body would have the strength to keep going for as long as he needed it to.
His filthy shirt that had been soaked in the earlier rain was now covered in dust from the hole he’d been buried in. It was also drenched in sweat as he strained to keep going. Candy was depending on him to keep going. It only took a momentary lapse of concentration for him to miss seeing the rabbit hole until his foot snagged in it and he found himself tumbling sideways down a rocky slope.
Joe grasped at his ankle and groaned as he tried to contain the pain and make himself stand up again. He didn’t have time to spare sitting on the ground. He knew that his absence would have been discovered by now and he tried not to think how that might play out against his family. Would the Judge take retribution against them? There was no predicting what the man would do, except to be sure he was capable of anything.
He’d been so sure he could make it to Glacier Lake without being caught. He’d promised his father he would do it. Joe forced himself onto his feet and clenched his jaw as pain shot up his leg from his ankle. He didn’t think it was broken, but it hurt like hell as he limped forward again. The fear that his family would pay for his failure was the thing that drove him forward, even as tears of pain welled in his eyes. He scrubbed at them angrily as he stumbled onward towards freedom and help.
Failure was not an option. Not if he wanted a share of that gold that was sitting up in the Judge’s cabin. As Jenson ran, he knew he had to find Cartwright or not bother going back. Failure was not an option.
Somewhere behind him, he knew that Hatch would have the dogs coming after them. He shuddered as he’d seen the Judge turn those dogs on one of their own and knew the man was capable of doing it again. He ran out of obedience, but he also ran out of fear. He was almost at the end of his strength when he found himself walking through a scrubby area. It was the perfect hiding place and he had no intention of being caught out. He held his rifle close as he stalked the area, but he wasn’t aware as hands reached over his head and he found his arms pinned by a length of chain. He struggled against his captor, but Joe’s desperation was stronger than his and the rifle dropped to the ground.
Joe twisted himself free of the other man and lunged for the rifle on the ground before Jenson could reach for it again. He shoved the rifle towards the guard and nodded towards him.
“Take off your shirt.”
Jenson looked at him as he tried not to flinch from the rifle. Joe shoved the rifle closer and Jenson quickly complied. He had no wish to die at the hands of the man in front of him and every minute he could keep him from shooting, was another chance to get away. It soon became apparent that Cartwright intended to swap shirts with him and barely held back a grin. That wasn’t going to work as he could simply strip the shirt again after Cartwright ran away.
That wasn’t at all what he’d expected as he found himself being nudged forward with the muzzle of the rifle. He turned and began walking across the open ground that the prisoner was pointing to. They were both out of breath and he hoped he could stall long enough for Hatch to catch up to them. He didn’t count on the man’s stubbornness as he shoved him forward again.
Joe loped along behind the guard as his ankle screamed at him in protest. He knew they only had a certain amount of time before the dogs appeared and he had no wish to still be with Jenson when they did.
It was almost another mile before Joe called a halt to their trek and Jenson spun back towards his captor, wondering why they were stopping in an open field.
“Take off my shirt.”
“Take off my shirt!”
Jenson fumbled with the buttons as he felt the hairs on his neck stand up. It was quickly becoming apparent what was happening and he searched desperately for a way out. As he handed Joe the shirt, he was horrified to see it flung to the ground.
It was a one-way ticket to certain death and Jenson froze on the spot. He knew the dogs were coming and his scent was all over that shirt lying between them. Cartwright was clearly smarter than he’d given him credit for.
Joe glared at the man as he waved the rifle closer.
The instruction was cold and crystal clear and Jenson turned and started running for the tree line. It was his only hope to get to Glacier Lake and lose the dogs by taking a swim. He gulped in a deep breath and sprinted for all he was worth.
Joe only waited a few seconds before turning and hobbling off at another angle to where he’d sent Jenson. He had no idea of where he was or where he might find help. He just knew those dogs were coming and he also had no idea if his ruse with Jenson’s shirt would work.
Hatch smirked as he watched the Judge stroll down the line of men who sat huddled under the shade. He’d seen the dogs pick up the smell and tear away from them and he knew it was inevitable that Cartwright was a dead man. If he’d hoped to evade them by throwing away his shirt, it wasn’t going to work. The dogs had simply picked up his scent from the shirt and gone after their victim. And they never failed. He’d waited for over an hour for them to return and the telltale bloodstains around their mouths and down their front legs told him everything he needed to know. Yessir – those dogs never failed. He hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Jenson, but figured maybe Cartwright scored one point on his way down.
The Judge stopped just short of where Ben sat. He recognised his son’s shirt even before it unfurled onto the ground. His heart almost ceased beating in his chest as fear gripped at him. Joe had faced down his share of dangers, but he was no match for two dogs that were bred to kill, especially being completely unarmed and hampered by shackled hands. The words coming out of the man’s mouth were barely registering as he envisaged his son being torn to shreds. He closed his eyes and just prayed that it had been quick. Beside him, Hoss’ head dropped as he considered the loss of his brother. It seemed so unreal that he could not bring himself to believe it. Joe was the fast one. After all, he’d promised his father that nobody could catch Little Joe on foot. He barely contained a groan as he closed his eyes against the pain.
Adam took a deep drink from his canteen and he stared around the area as he carefully stowed it once again on his saddle horn. He had followed James’ lead into the hills, but so far they had found nothing. There was no trace of his family or even a hint of tracks to follow. He was beginning to wonder if the stories of men disappearing were nothing more than local legend that somebody had made up to keep people away. Maybe somebody had some reason to spook potential travellers. Maybe there really were rustlers holed up somewhere. Maybe there were bank robbers hiding in the caves.
Maybes were driving him crazy!
He huffed in frustration as he nudged his horse forward again. Maybes wouldn’t find his family. James had given up trying to engage his friend in conversation as they rode along. Instead, he was content to keep scouting the hillside for anything that might give them some kind of clue. So far, they had found nothing and he was running out of ideas of where to try next. The hill country wasn’t that well known to him and he’d only suggested it because it seemed like a logical option when other ideas had proven fruitless. He was beginning to second-guess his own wisdom as they trudged further into the high country.
It was another ten minutes before he saw them. Birds circled above the treeline and he knew it meant one certainty. Death. James had seen them too and with unspoken agreement, they pushed the horses towards the trees. It took a bit of work to pick through the dense trees until they came out into a clearing. The squabbling of carrion birds reached them first before either of them set eyes on their prey.
Adam almost gagged as he slid down from his horse and worked his way towards the bloodied body. He held a hand over his mouth as he regarded the poor unfortunate man before them. His shirt was missing and his pants were half torn from his body. Deep gouges covered the body and blood had dried on every limb. Adam was glad the body lay face down as he didn’t think he could bring himself to look at what the face may look like. Something had torn the man to pieces and suddenly the rumours of man-eating bears didn’t seem so ridiculous after all. Carrion birds had begun their job and he wanted to pull out his rifle and shoot them all.
It took them the better part of two hours to dig a hole and bury the man and Adam had barely spoken the entire time. James watched his face as he climbed back into the saddle. He didn’t need to speak his thoughts because it was clear his friend was thinking the same thing. Had the same fate befallen his family?
Joe had heard the screams rip through the air. His mind reeled as he heard a man dying in a manner that nobody in their right mind would wish on another. He’d hoped to put more distance between them, but his ankle was giving out and his body was protesting the punishment he’d put it through. He had used the rifle as a crutch for as long as he could, but eventually he had been forced to stop and rest. He leaned up against a rock and felt himself falling into a hole. Somewhere in that hole, there was no pain. And no fear. He just needed a few minutes in the hole and he’d be ready to try again.
Hoss nudged at Candy’s arm and tried to wake his friend. It was time to get up and face another day. Candy’s fever was still rising and it took both Ben and Hoss to haul him to his feet. Hoss tried dipping his sleeve into his water ration and wiping Candy’s face with it. He barely seemed to notice. As the food ration came past, Ben held out three plates. He stared at the slop on the plates and tried to contain the rage welling up inside him. Only the day before, Joe had promised it would be last time Candy would have to eat it. He forced himself to focus on the son beside him and the foreman he counted as a surrogate son. There would be time to mourn the dead later. For now, he needed to help the living.
“C’mon, Candy. We need to get this here grub inta you, buddy.”
Hoss was busy spooning the inedible slop into his friend’s mouth as Candy barely moved. Ben felt himself struggling to breathe. He’d always relied on his faith to bring him through the tough times, but the only words that came to mind brought no comfort as they were meant to.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
They were in the high country, but it felt like the deepest valley. There was a shadow of death over all of them. He knew David had penned those words in a dark moment and they had always brought comfort before. So why not now?
Ben struggled to make himself walk up the hill towards the mine. He helped carry Candy between him and Hoss and prayed that the man would find the strength to make it through another day. If sheer stubbornness counted for anything, it was possible. The only person he counted as more stubborn than Candy was …
Ben felt like a knife had gone through his gut and he blindly pushed forward towards another day without his youngest son.
James poured a cup of coffee and held out the pot towards Adam. Neither of them had slept well after seeing that mangled body each time they closed their eyes. Adam held out his mug for a refill. He had no idea what he was still running on beyond sheer force of will. Stubbornness was a word he usually associated more with his youngest brother. The ache he had been trying so hard to ignore threatened to rear up and choke him and he tossed the coffee aside before pushing to his feet.
“You alright, buddy?”
Adam grabbed at his bedroll and quickly tied it to the back of his saddle as James tipped the rest of the coffee over the fire and kicked dirt on top of it. They’d moved clear of the wretched man’s grave they had dug the day before and with the new morning light, had planned to look for any kind of tracks that might tell them where he had come from. It was the first sign they had seen of any other person in the area since they had begun their climb into the high country.
For almost two hours they combed the ground for signs and Adam found himself more than once wishing that Hoss was with him. If anybody could find tracks in the soft, muddy ground, he could. Soon enough they discovered wolf tracks and it finally became obvious just what had killed the man they had buried the day before. A rabid wolf could certainly do that kind of damage and both of them were suddenly alert to a danger that could come at them from anywhere.
Eventually they came to a point on the flat ground where another set of tracks appeared. It was clear something had happened as there were signs of a scuffle in the muddy ground and boot prints going everywhere.
“Over here!” James called out as he waved Adam towards him. “Look. Someone went that way.” He pointed to his left as prints meandered away from them.
Adam stared at the boot prints and began to follow them away from the direction they had come. Finally he saw the imprint of something round every so often. “Whoever this is, they’re injured. Leaning on something. See?”
James agreed as he followed the tracks a ways up the hill. He turned in the saddle and waited to see what Adam was going to do.
Joe grasped at the branch nearest him and hauled himself up the rocks. His ankle felt like it had swollen inside his boot and putting any weight on it was like a branding iron against his skin. He continued to pull against the tree that grew overhanging the rocky incline until he got himself over the top edge. His hands were shaking and sweat dribbled down the side of his face as he slumped down onto the ground. He looked up towards the sky, trying to gauge the time of day. By his reckoning, it had been nearly two and a half days since he’d made it out of hell, but his mind was beginning to play tricks on him. The lack of food he could deal with, but the small dribbles he’d managed to suck out of dips in the rocks, left there by the rain, were nowhere near enough. His vision was beginning to blur over as he lay back against the grass and flung an arm over his face to shield it from the glare of the sun.
Adam muttered under his breath as they moved onto rockier ground and the trail they had been following began to peter out. It wouldn’t be long before the rocks swallowed up the trail altogether and then they would be forced to follow on instinct and luck. The afternoon shadows were growing longer as they picked their way up the hill. He glanced up to see the same carrion birds from the day before circling overhead and he looked across to see James had noted them too. After the previous day’s horrendous surprise, both men were on edge as they moved forward. The birds ignored their approach and continued to circle well above them. As Adam pulled his horse over the edge of a ridge, he was horrified to see another body lying several feet in front of him. He quickly dismounted and edged forward, half expecting to see the same kind of mauling as the day before.
This body wasn’t injured at all and he hurried over to see if the man was still alive. He paused for a moment as he saw the manacles and broken leg irons and figured they had caught some runaway prisoner from a chain gang. If this were one of the rumoured outlaws roaming the hills then that could certainly explain why people were disappearing. Adam felt his hand slide to his gun and he reached out with his other hand and grabbed at the man’s arm to uncover his face. He almost stopped breathing as he took in the gaunt, unshaven face of one of his missing brothers.
“Joe! Joe, can you hear me?” He shook the lifeless body urgently, but got no response. He laid a hand alongside his brother’s face and felt the breath against his palm and almost wept with relief. Before he could ask for it, James handed him a canteen and he lifted Joe against his leg to dribble some water into his mouth. It took a moment before Joe’s lips began to work of their own accord and he sucked in the moisture.
“Joe? Come on, buddy. Open your eyes!”
A small groan was the only answer he got, but it was enough.
It was another few minutes before the water seemed to do its job and Joe’s eyes flickered open. He almost laughed at the mirage staring down at him until he felt the grip of his brother’s hand around his shoulder and realised he was actually there.
“Yeah, Joe, it’s me. Think you can sit up?”
Joe tried to pull himself upright, but found he had no strength to do so and he reluctantly allowed his brother to tug him into a sitting position.
“This is James.” Adam nodded towards the other man crouched down beside them and Joe tried to acknowledge him. Suddenly he grasped at Adam’s wrist.
“Candy! You gotta help Candy!”
“Easy now, Joe. Just take another …” Adam tried to offer the canteen again and Joe shoved it aside.
“No! You don’t understand!” He grabbed at his brother’s shirt and twisted the front of it in his fingers. “He’s real sick. They’ll shoot him if he can’t work!”
“Who? What are you talking about?”
Joe tried to push himself up off the ground and failed miserably as Adam grabbed at his shoulders.
“They’ve got Candy and Pa and Hoss and a bunch of other men working up there at the gold mine. All of us were arrested for trespassing and sentenced without a trial. They shoot prisoners who can’t work and Candy’s got a fever. It’s why Pa let me try my plan and ….” Adam was acutely aware of the desperation in his brother’s eyes and he reached a hand up to the back of Joe’s head.
“Take it easy, little brother. Let’s get you sorted first and we’ll work out how to get to the others.”
Joe pointed towards the two horses grazing beside them. “We need to ride! Now!”
“Joe, you’re in no condition to ride anywhere. We’ll get you fixed up and then we’ll …”
“No! Don’t you hear me, Adam? It was the day before yesterday that I got away from them. Candy could be dead already! I’m not sitting here while you nursemaid me.”
James had kept his thoughts to himself as he’d taken in Joe’s story. He had never met the younger brother of his friend, but he’d heard Adam talk enough about him. The kid was stubborn enough to get up and start walking back himself if they didn’t do something soon.
“How many guards has this mine got?”
Joe swung towards the man, relieved that somebody was taking action.
“They only have two on at night. The men are all chained and nobody can get away, ‘cause of the dogs.”
“Dogs?” Adam and James looked at each other and Joe understood almost immediately.
“I’m guessin’ you saw Jenson. Woulda been me if I hadn’t gotten him to trade shirts with me.”
Adam stared at his brother as the horror of that image registered.
“All right. We head towards this camp and do some scouting and then we wait ‘til nightfall.”
Joe nodded in agreement as finally his brother was talking sense.
“And you ain’t leavin’ me here!”
Adam patted his brother’s shoulder as he reluctantly agreed. Before long, the trio were headed back the way Joe had hobbled the day before, sticking within the treeline and keeping a sharp eye for the Judge’s lookouts. As they rode along, Joe filled them in on what had befallen their group, including the cold-blooded murder of Billy. Adam held the reins in his clenched fists as he listened and more than once he found himself glancing down at his brother’s hands wrapped around his waist. Joe leaned into his back as they rode and Adam knew it was nothing short of sheer cussedness that was keeping him in the saddle. He’d barely mentioned his ankle, but both men had seen the grimace as Joe tried to put weight on it. Joe might have succeeded in getting Adam to take him along, but he was carefully searching for somewhere he could drop his brother and make him wait. That argument would come soon enough and in the meantime, Adam was grateful to have at least one of his family so close after so long apart.
“How’s he doing?” It was a pointless question as it was obvious that Candy was seriously ill. Ben had to ask anyway and he wished he hadn’t as Hoss looked up at him.
“I don’t know if he can take much more of this. Today just about done him in.” Hoss poured water onto a rag and wiped at his friend’s face once again as Candy dozed against the lean-to. He’d barely managed to stay ahead of the guards as Hoss and Ben had covered for him as best as they could.
Ben hunkered down on the ground beside his son and handed him a plate of slop. Grief threatened to swamp him, but he pushed it down and began to eat instead. He had another son who needed him to keep in control and a foreman who may soon follow his boy into the afterlife. He almost smiled at the sudden image that arose in his mind of Joe and Candy wreaking havoc up there together.
“What’s so funny, Pa?” Hoss shovelled a spoonful of whatever it was they were eating into his mouth as he watched his father almost laugh. There was nothing to laugh at that he could see.
“I was just thinking … about some of the stunts that Joe and Candy pulled together.” The smile slid off his face as Ben barely choked off a sob.
“I reckon God might figure he’d have his hands too full with both of them and leave Candy right here!”
Ben looked up to see tears glistening in his son’s eyes.
“I reckon you might just be right.”
That comment played over and over in Ben’s mind as he tried to get to sleep later. Why did God need to take his son so soon anyway? Couldn’t he have had just a few more years with him? It was a futile exercise and he knew it so he rolled over and tried to find a more comfortable position. He almost shouted aloud as he felt a hand slide across his mouth and another hand grasp at his arm.
“Quiet, Pa! It’s me.” Ben felt himself go limp as he heard his son’s voice in his ear.
As Adam slipped his hand away, Ben grabbed at it and squeezed his fingers around his son’s hand.
“Adam? Oh, thank God!”
Right beside him, Hoss shifted and turned towards them as James clamped a hand across his mouth.
“Take it easy. We’re here to help you.”
Hoss shrugged off the hand as he recognised Adam crouched nearby.
“Adam? How’d you ever find us?”
“Never mind that now. You need to let these other men know we are here.”
“Son, the guards! There are men patrolling the perimeter.”
Not anymore.” Ben could barely make out his son’s face in the moonlight and could have sworn he saw a momentary grin. “We took care of them. Guess they didn’t figure on anybody coming at them out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“No, they’re more concerned with keeping us all here than any external threat.” Ben held up his shackled hands and this time his son really did grin at him.
“I guess you’ll be needing these?”
Ben almost laughed with relief as Adam handed over a key. He quickly went to work unlocking the chains that had bound him for far too long before turning towards Hoss.
“You get the men loose and we’ll take care of the rest. Now, how many more are there up in that cabin, Pa?”
“The Judge and Hatch at least. Maybe a couple of others?”
Candy was oblivious as the murmur ran through the group of men huddled beneath the flimsy shelter. He was unaware as Hoss patted him on the shoulder and told him he would be going home soon. He had no idea that he was free as the chains slipped off his wrists.
Joe had been told in no uncertain terms to stay put. He’d tried arguing the point, but as always, Adam and logic overrode his passionate argument. He gripped the rifle tightly as he tried desperately to make out movement below them. He’d tried calculating how long it should have taken them to make it down to the camp and dispatch the guards on watch. He’d second-guessed himself a hundred times over as to whether or not he’d gotten the guard count right. It was hard to tell from under the lean-to just how many men patrolled each night, but he’d tried his best to give Adam and James enough information to stay safe.
His thoughts were taking an ugly turn as he suddenly heard shouts and multiple shots rang out through the night air. More shouts followed and then suddenly a roar rolled up the valley as the camp seemed to come to life. He knew what Adam had said, but danged if he was going to sit on the hillside and watch. His ankle protested loudly as he stumbled down the slope towards the noise, but he ignored it. His whole world was down there in that fight.
It felt like hours before he staggered to the bottom and somehow there were men milling around everywhere. It took a while to register that they were walking free and not bound and chained.
“Adam!” He cupped a hand to his mouth and shouted over the melee of voices that swirled around him. “Adam!”
When no answer came, he stumbled further into the group and tried to push his way through. Someone saw the raised rifle in his hand and before he knew it, a fist came at him from his right and he was too slow to block it. He felt himself drop to the ground and he tried to push himself upright again, but the rifle butt slammed into his head as he cried out in protest.
Hoss found himself torn between helping his brother and making sure that Candy was protected. Adam solved his dilemma for him by insisting he stay put and assuring him that they had enough men and guard’s rifles to storm one little cabin. Candy had barely stirred as the men had passed around the keys to their shackles. He tried to sit up as shots carried through the still night air, but Hoss pushed him back towards the ground.
“It’s gonna be just fine, buddy. Ol’ Adam’s here and we’re gonna be free real soon. Just you take it easy down there.”
“Joe made it through?”
Hoss winced at Candy’s comment and tried to hold himself in check.
“I knew he could.”
“Yeah. He done real good.” Hoss clapped a hand on Candy’s shoulder as he decided the man didn’t need to be reminded of the fact just yet that his best friend was dead. There were some benefits to fever-induced delirium after all. If only he could forget as well.
Suddenly the crowd of men seemed to surge before him as a guard appeared out of the darkness waving a rifle at them. Hoss was on his feet before he stopped to think and he rushed towards the man. Somehow, Adam and James must have missed one of them. He saw the man go down as somebody took a swing at him. The fool tried to get back up until another man grabbed his rifle off him and slammed it into his head. In the moonlight, he could barely see it was Simmons who had the rifle and he watched as the man swung it around and took aim at the guard’s head.
Simmons looked up as Hoss rushed towards him.
“You ain’t no murderer!”
Simmons pointed the rifle again and would have fired if Hoss hadn’t charged at him. The smaller man was no match for him and he crashed backwards onto the ground. Hoss was about to take a swing at him when he took in the body lying in front of him. He sagged to his knees and grasped at Joe’s shoulders.
“Joe? What are you …? Joe!”
Several more men gathered in as they came to see who it was and murmurs took off around the group like wildfire. Someone stepped forward with a canteen and Hoss poured out a handful of water before dribbling it onto Joe’s face.
“C’mon, little brother. Time to wake up.”
Joe looked up to see Hoss grinning at him as tears dripped down his cheeks.
“You’re leaking.” Joe tried to smile as he raised a hand to his brother’s face.
“Dadburnit, Little Joe. Don’t you ever do nothin’ like that to me again! You hear me?’
“Sure thing. Next time you outrun them dogs, okay?”
Before he could do anything more than offer him another drink, he heard a commotion from behind them and he twisted back to see what was happening. The Judge and Hatch along with a couple of other men were marching down from the cabin with their hands clasped together on their heads.
“Somebody get some shackles for this lot!”
“Hey, Judge!” Hoss waved an arm at him as the man stalked past. “Looks like your dogs don’t always get their man.”
The Judge paused in front of him and stared at the man who was trying to sit up. There was no way he’d outrun their dogs. Suddenly he understood how young Cartwright had tricked them and he spat onto the ground.
“I’ll see you all in Hell one day.”
“Already been there. Now I’m leavin’.” Joe stared at him defiantly as somebody shoved from behind and his former tormentor was shackled to a post. He could barely hold himself upright and would have sagged to the ground if he hadn’t felt strong arms wrap around him from behind. His father’s hand grasped at his and he felt himself sink back into safety as his body gave out once more.
“Joseph. How is this possible?” Ben felt his son’s weight against his chest and he bowed his head so his cheek rested against filthy curls. Every desperate prayer he had prayed for days suddenly rose up in his mind and he lifted his eyes to the heavens in silent gratitude.
Somebody was speaking to him again and finally Ben looked around to see who it was.
“Pa … we gotta get Candy outta here … tonight.”
Ben was reluctant to release his grip on his son, having just gotten him back from the dead. The urgency in his middle son’s voice began to register with him and he could hear other voices. Men milled around, almost at a loss now that they had finally achieved their freedom. The mine was a long way from anywhere and it wasn’t exactly like they were on the stagecoach route.
By the time somebody managed to get Hatch’s wagon down to where they were, a heated argument had broken out. There were only about fifteen horses in the Judge’s remuda and more than forty men. Nobody wanted to risk being left behind and forgotten about. Finally Adam fired a warning shot into the air and the voices suddenly dropped off.
“Now listen up! We’ve got two men here who need medical attention. Here’s what’s going to happen. We’re taking them in that wagon and we’ll take as many of you as can ride and keep up. Whoever owns one of those horses up there, stake your claim. My family will be leaving as soon as we are loaded. We’ll send help back for the rest of you along with the law to take care of these men.”
Scattered murmurings were enough for Adam to raise his voice again.
“I know what you’d like to do with them, but these men will stand trial. I promise you that justice will be done here.”
Ben sat in his familiar safe chair and stared into the fire without seeing the flames. It had been almost a month since they had been rescued from their nightmare in the high country. There were still nights where he jolted awake and couldn’t stop himself from making the short trek down the hall to his son’s room. Just to check. If Joseph knew about his father’s nocturnal visits, he never let on.
The journey back to the nearest town had seemed interminable and the doctor who had seen to them had quietly mentioned that Candy was closer to the edge than any of them had dared admit. His foreman was as stubborn as his youngest son and they both had complained loudly at being forced to stay put in bed in the hotel. If it hadn’t been for the trial, he thought the two of them may have hatched a plan to ride for home instead. Then again, a trial and several hangings were worth waiting around for.
Ben smiled to himself as he recalled the men divvying up the gold that had been hoarded in the cabin. He’d been offered a share, but declined. There were men whose lives had been torn from them and a bit of gold to get them on their way was nowhere near enough. No, he didn’t need a share. He had all that he needed sleeping under his roof.
When they got home, Ben had called Paul out to see for himself that Joe’s foot was healing as it should. He still carried a pronounced limp and Paul assured him that it would go, with time. He had thought he’d run out of time, but God had seen fit to grant him some more.
The brandy glass was empty and Ben gently set it back on the table. His hand was once again steady. The book sitting on the arm of his chair was worn smooth from years of service. He didn’t need to open it to hear the verse once again in his thoughts.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
For a time, fear had him in a death grip. Fear had screamed at him that his son was dead and soon the rest of them would follow.
Fear was a liar.
* Psalm 23:4 (King James Version)