Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold (by Laura Brodie)

Summary:  Joe dances with the devil as he comes up against a man who is nothing but  evil. Joe fights crossing over to the dark-side in order to best the man at his own game.

Rating  R  WC 149,000

 

                                                                        Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold           

 ADAM CARTWRIGHT TO TESTIFY AGAINST CYRUS BAXTER

 Adam Cartwright, son of local cattle baron Ben Cartwright, almost single-handedly brought down the empire of Mr. Cyrus Baxter.  Baxter, originally a Pennsylvania strip-mining mogul, has substantial holdings in the Nevada territory and throughout the West.  In this news story it is learned that Adam Cartwright is due to testify sometime this month regarding Baxter.  Cartwright has made allegations that Baxter has stolen money from the investors of his Lone Pine Mine by falsifying ore reports and producing salted samples.  Rumor has it Mr. Cartwright, a local investor in mining, set up the mining legend for a fall and was able to show the investors and the public that Mr. Baxter had taken them for fools.  Mr. Cartwright will be scheduled for a full day’s testimony and seating will be limited.  It is suggested that those wishing to attend arrive early.  It should prove to be interesting.  Can a man from the local ruling family take down a man from a well-known empire?  Watch and read.

 

 

Joe Cartwright sat at the Reno livery, reading the lead story to an old Virginia City Press Enterprise he had found laying around, waiting for a shoe to be replaced on his horse.  The past few weeks had been full of tension for the Cartwrights, as Joe’s brother Adam prepared to testify against one of the most ruthless men in the West.  No one had been able to touch the corrupt businessman until Adam became wise to one of his schemes, set the man up for a fall, and in turn, possible prison time.  Adam also had known the man would not go to prison willingly, and there was significant danger to him in testifying.  In fact, several others who initially agreed to testify against the man had backed out of their obligation to the prosecution so much of the case now rested on Adam’s shoulders.

 

Knowing of the danger, the prosecution, Sheriff Roy Coffee, and the Cartwrights had all worked together to hide Adam, so he would be safe until after he testified.  There had been rumors that Baxter had placed a price on Adam’s head, and in a place such as the Nevada Territory, it would not take much for men to attempt to gain the blood money.

 

Joe had been sent to Reno by his reluctant father to sign the annual timber contracts.  This was normally Adam’s responsibility, but it was far too dangerous for Adam to be out in the open until after the trial.  The Ponderosa had to have the timber contracts in order to meet financial obligations elsewhere, or Ben would have simply let the contracts lapse.  Even with the financial need of the ranch, it had taken quite a bit of persuasion on Joe’s part to talk his father into allowing him to sneak away from where they were hiding and ride to Reno.

 

Joe completed the transaction easily enough.  He enjoyed getting to experience the feel of being a businessman on behalf of the Ponderosa.  He had negotiated horse contracts in the past, but those felt old, with the prices rarely varying.  The timber contract required negotiations and bluffing.  Joe had watched and learned from both his father and Adam and believed he had gotten them the best contract possible.  He had wished his father and Adam had been there to see how well he had done, and he looked forward to telling them once he saw them again.

 

Joe had tied up his business a day earlier than expected.  Usually contract negotiations were as much a social affair as a business deal, with meals being served, and time spent discussing politics and current events.  However, the man with whom Joe was meeting had pressing business elsewhere and had asked that he and Joe hammer out the details in one day, rather than doing it over a period of days.  Joe easily agreed, having been rather nervous about discussing politics and current events with the man.  He saw this area as something his older brother and father excelled at and knew he had more to learn as far as pulling off smooth social talk with men.  Joe socialized primarily with cowboys and girls and had no problem pulling off interesting conversation with them, but he tended to get quiet and blend into the background when the social talk was with businessmen.

 

Joe realized he would be returning earlier than his father expected and thought to himself,  “Hey now there’s a switch, me being early for a change.”  He had briefly entertained the idea of staying in Reno and playing the extra day, but he wanted to get back to help guard his brother to make sure Adam was safe.  Joe saw the blacksmith was no where ready to replace the shoe on Cochise, as he had several other horses waiting ahead of the black and white pinto.  He decided that he would take a look around town briefly, rather than reread the paper he had just finished.  He stood and told the blacksmith he would be back in an hour and then headed off to explore.

 

 

While walking down the wooden sidewalk, Joe looked into the storefronts.  He also enjoyed himself by looking at the ladies he passed, every so often turning totally around to watch them walk by.  He tipped his hat in true gentleman fashion and smiled brightly.  He would wink at the ones he viewed as the most pretty and chuckled to himself at how fun it was to be in Reno.

 

Eventually, Joe walked into a saloon and stood at the bar.  He ordered a beer and had just taken his first sip when he felt something jab him in the ribs.  He heard a man’s voice say in a low tone,  “Don’t move, Cartwright.  Don’t even breathe.  I want you to walk slowly out of this place, turn to your left, and go down the alley.”

 

Joe tried to look around him to see if he could easily get away.  When the man spoke, he thought he recognized the voice, and if he was right, he knew he was in trouble – big trouble. He started to walk forward slowly, as he caught a glimpse of the man behind him in the saloon mirror.  It was a man he had known only as Doyle, and he knew things had suddenly gotten very dangerous.  Doyle was one of Baxter’s lieutenants and followed orders well.

 

Both men walked slowly out of the saloon and around the corner into the alley.  There stood two other men, one Joe recognized as a man named Wells, and the other he did not know.  The man he did not recognize spoke; his voice deep and heavy,  “Mr. Cartwright, you need to come with us quietly if you wish to live.  If you don’t, then make a sound, and my friend with the gun will kill you.”

 

Joe scanned the area looking for some escape.  The alley was narrow and the two men in front of him were standing in such a way as to block movement forward.  There was also the man behind him, the gun securely in his ribs.  He knew he had no choice at the moment, but told himself he would look for some way to escape at the first opportunity.

 

The Stranger walked towards Joe, looked him in the eye, and took Joe’s gun from his gun belt.  Joe felt a cold shiver go down his spine, as he saw no life in the eyes that stared back.  They were hard and cold and seemed to look right through him.  He wanted to panic, but told himself to keep calm and try to keep the fear from his eyes.  The man smiled an evil smile.  “This is gonna be fun.”

 

Joe’s heart jumped, but he said nothing.  The man behind him shoved him forward, and they steered him to a cellar entrance at the side of the saloon.  Wells opened the double doors and stepped aside.  The Stranger spoke,  “I’ll take it from here.”  As he put the gun to Joe’s ribs and cocked it.

 

“Go ahead Pretty Boy, walk down the steps.”  The man ordered.

 

As Joe looked to where the man wanted him to walk, he could see nothing but a wall of darkness.  He realized he would be at a great disadvantage if he were taken out of public view and his only chance would be to somehow not allow himself to be taken down into the cellar.  He prayed someone would soon pass by who could help him, but doubted it would occur.  He also knew there was a gun in his side that, if fired, could easily kill him if he tried to resist.  He had a choice to make.

 

Moving quickly, Joe shoved the man with the gun away and dove to the ground to be out of the line of fire.  He rolled away and kicked the feet out from under Doyle, who was standing next to him.  Doyle fell, dropping his gun.  Joe reached for it but suddenly felt a strong kick to the stomach.  He lost his breath and then a face was in front of him.

 

“Cute maneuver there, Pretty Boy, and now you’ll die.”  The man put the barrel of the pistol between Joe’s eyes and cocked it.  Joe tensed, waiting for the trigger to be pulled.  He maintained eye contact with the Stranger, although it was very difficult, given the fear he felt.  He told himself if he was going to die, then he would go bravely.  The two stared at each other, neither with expression then the Stranger pulled away the gun and stood looking down on Joe.  He kicked Joe again in the stomach. “I still want to have some fun with you boy, so on your feet.”

 

Joe had just breathed a sigh of relief when he felt the second kick.  The pain radiated through him.  He was trying to stand, but apparently was moving too slow for the Stranger.  The man grabbed him roughly by the arm.  “I said stand, boy!  When I tell you to do something, I expect you to do it that instant!”

 

Joe scrambled to get his feet under him.  “Go to hell!”

 

The Stranger broke out laughing.  “Well, well, seems to me like you got some spunk to ya.  That’ll be good.  I was told you were a cocky one, and I’m glad to hear it’s true.  Will make for much more interesting, uh, shall I say, conversation?  I do hate it so when they just roll over and die so easily, not at all fun for me.  You know though, you really should watch your mouth.  It ain’t polite to swear, and so I’ll just help teach you a little lesson.  Now before I do this, I want you to remember one thing.  I have your life in my hands, and whether you live or die is totally up to me.  Now I expect you to treat me accordingly, and we will get along just fine.”

 

 

As Joe looked at the man talking to him, the coldness surrounding him was eerie, as it seemed to suck at the warmth around.  Joe tried to keep himself from shaking or showing any other form of fear.  He instinctively knew the man would enjoy seeing it and he knew he did not want to please the man.  He did nothing to acknowledge the Stranger.

 

The Stranger very calmly walked Joe to the top of the stairs and said in a tone of voice that was almost pleasant,  “Let this be a lesson.  When you are told what to do, you do it, and don’t talk back.”  With that the man pushed Joe down the stairs.

 

The stairs were steep, and Joe had no way to protect himself from the impact as he fell down them.  He rolled and pitched, being flung around each time a part of him made impact with the wood of the stairs.  He came to rest at the bottom of the stairs conscious, but dazed.  It took a moment to register what had happened to him, as he tried to clear the stars from his eyes.  He tried to stand, as the pain wracked his body.  He felt nauseous, as his head began to pound.  He reached up and touched the blood coming from his scalp.  There was more pain coming from his legs where his knee had hit the wooden stairs hard, and the pain was intense.  He found a post to pull himself up and made it to his feet.  He then leaned against it, trying to help his throbbing head.

 

Everything hurt, as he attempted to gather himself together.  He heard the Stranger laugh as he descended the stairs followed by Wells and Doyle.  “That looked like it hurt.  Did it?”

 

Joe looked at the man but did not answer.  The man immediately backhanded Joe across the face.  “You’re a slow learner, Pretty Boy.  I asked you a question, and I want an answer.  Tell me, did it hurt?”

 

The slap sent Joe’s head reeling, and the nausea increased.  He said quietly,  “No.”

 

The man laughed again and then kicked Joe in the groin.  “Don’t lie to me boy.  Tell me true.”

 

Joe doubled over and threw up.  The pain was enormous, and he was unsure if he would pass out.

 

“Now that was disgusting, Pretty Boy.  You wanna answer me, or you want another nudge?”

 

Joe moaned and said through gritted teeth,  “It… hurt.”

 

“See boys, he learns!  He’s just slow.”  The Stranger walked to Joe and pulled him by the hair, so he stood straight.  It was hard for Joe to breathe, and his stomach churned.  He took short breaths trying to keep the pain at bay.

 

“Awe, keep breathing.  It’ll pass.”  The Stranger said, offering false sympathy.

 

“What… do… you… want… with… me?”

 

“I was gonna get to that eventually.  I understand you have a brother.  Name’s Adam, I believe.  I want you to tell me where your brother is held up.”

 

“There’s no way… I’m gonna tell you.”  Joe tried to sound strong, stronger than he felt.

 

The Stranger laughed again, a deeply wicked laugh.  “They all say that at first.  They all end up telling.  You’ll be no different.”

 

Joe looked at the Stranger and gathered all of his resolve.  “I won’t tell you.  You can do what you want to me, but you’ll never get it from me.  I’ll die first.”

 

“That just may be, but I’ll give it a try first.  You’ll be amazed at what you’ll say to stop from hurting.  You may think you’re strong, but you really aren’t.  I can see it in you.  You’ll break.  Okay, time to limit our friend’s freedom.  We don’t need to have him wandering around.”

 

The Stranger shoved Joe towards the two men.  Wells and Doyle grabbed him, and he immediately started to struggle.  He had gotten his breath back and was more coherent.  He knew he was going to be in a worse predicament if he allowed them to tie him up, so he stomped hard on Wells’ foot, and Wells let go.  He then pivoted around and punched Doyle in the face.  The Stranger moved towards him, and Joe kicked him hard.  The kick did little to deter the Stranger, as he continued to advance.  The Stranger punched Joe in the face, and that, combined with the head injury from the fall, was more than Joe could take.  He collapsed onto the floor unconscious.

 

The Stranger turned to Doyle and Wells,  “You two are more a hindrance than a help.  Get him secured, and don’t just gag him.  Shove a rag in his mouth.  When he screams, I don’t want him heard.  I’ll be back shortly.  And if you mess this up, I’ll do to you what I have in mind to do to him.”  With that The Stranger walked into the darkness and left the room.

 

Both Wells and Doyle were intimidated by the Stranger’s handling of their young hostage.  Mr. Baxter had told them he had hired the Stranger to get certain information from the youngest Cartwright and was giving the Stranger free rein to do as he pleased with their prisoner.  They were beginning to wonder what else lay ahead for their charge and thanked their lucky stars it was Joe and not them that was at the mercy of the Stranger.

 

The Stranger had given the men handcuffs to restrain their prisoner, and they cuffed Joe’s hands behind his back and tied his feet.  They opened Joe’s mouth, shoved a rag into it, and gagged him.  After rechecking the restraints they left their prisoner, and walked off in the same direction as the Stranger.

 

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

 

The situation in which the Cartwrights found themselves with Adam made them opt to chose a location for hiding him that was secluded and remote.  There was a mining shack to the north of the ranch house that had often been used by line riders.  It seemed an ideal location to keep Adam safe.  The only problem was the shack was small and between the four Cartwrights, some loyal ranch hands, and some of Roy Coffee’s men, the atmosphere was tense, as individuals could find little privacy.

 

The claustrophobic environment was particularly getting to Adam who tended towards being a very private person.  Having others around him constantly was agitating, but he continued to tell himself they were there to protect him, and the real source of his irritation was Cyrus Baxter.  Adam had not thought twice of going up against the amoral businessman, but he was feeling guilt that he had placed his family in possible peril and had put the Ponderosa operations behind schedule.  Adam and his father shared several long and heated discussions regarding the practicality of all four Cartwrights stopping work to protect him.  He had simply wanted to stay at the ranch and keep a low profile, but Ben would not hear of it.  Ben believed the Ponderosa house was too difficult to guard effectively, and it would prove easier to hold up in a secret location.  He would not risk his son’s life.

 

Because of the need for secrecy, no one traveled out of the cabin except at night, and only then when it was absolutely needed.  Roy remained in town, but kept a close ear out for rumors and gossip pertaining to Adam’s location, or for individuals who appeared to be strangers in Virginia City.

 

The group had been successful in keeping Adam hidden for over a week when their luck ran out.  Joe had left the previous day for Reno when the guards around the area became aware of a lone rider passing close to the shack.  One of the guards approached the rider attempting to make it appear as if he was merely working on fences, and the sole occupant of the shack.  However, the rouse was not successful, as that evening shots began to be fired.  The men positioned around the shack were able to easily kill the man who had found their location, but it was soon agreed that the location had been compromised, and they would have to move.

 

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

 

Joe moaned several times before he woke.  His arms were behind him, and there was something in his mouth.  His head felt as if it would explode, and he felt nausea.  He tried to look around, but it was extremely dark, and he saw very little.  He heard the tinny music of the saloon above him, as well as the talk of people as they enjoyed their time gambling and drinking.  It was hard to think clearly through the pain in his head, but he knew he was in terrible trouble.  His father would not miss him for at least another day or two, so there was no one who would come for him.  He thought over what the man had said and done to him, and he had to admit he was scared.  The man seemed devoid of emotion and looked at him as if he were a speck of dust.  He knew the Stranger was taking pleasure in his pain.

 

Joe began thinking over what they wanted from him.  He knew where Adam was and also knew he would never willingly tell them anything regarding his brother’s whereabouts.  He told himself he would hold fast and endure what ever it was that the man could do to him.  He would never betray his brother.  He knew that about himself.  He realized he might have to die for his loyalty.

 

As Joe lay on the floor, he felt something scurry over him, and he shuddered.  He hated dark places since he was little, and where he was currently being held made his childhood fears emerge.  He continued to tell himself he was eighteen and was not a little boy any longer.  It was just darkness, nothing more.  He felt his breathing increase and continued to talk to himself.  “Stop it.  You’ve been in worse.  You can handle this.”

 

Just then, Joe saw the flicker of a lamp come around the corner.  He welcomed the light and felt his spirits lift until he saw the Stranger was the one who was transporting it.  “You’re back amongst the living I see.”  The Stranger sat the lamp down on an overturned crate, pulled the gag off and then pulled the rag from Joe’s mouth.

 

Joe did not answer, as he looked at the man.  He knew he was expected to answer, but he could not make himself do it.  There was something in him that kept him defiant, not wanting to bend at all to the man.  He wanted to hold strong.  The man walked over and looked him in the eye.  “You truly are gonna be fun.  I like your spunk, but I’ll break it.  You need to know that one.  Listen, you don’t have to be so brave.  I’ll just tell Baxter I got the information somehow, and you can go about your merry way.  Kid, you can’t win up against me.  You won’t win.”

 

“I will.  I’ll win or die.  You won’t make me tell you.”  Joe said, holding fast.

 

The Stranger tipped his hat.  “You got guts, kid.  I’ll give you that.  I’ll make you talk though.  You’ll say anything I want before it’s over.  You ever felt a bullwhip, kid?  I’m told it is quite painful.  I’ve seen what it reduces a man twice your size to.  You won’t hold up.”

 

As the man spoke, he produced the black snake-like instrument, making sure Joe’s eyes caught sight of it.  The Stranger laughed.  “What’s wrong kid?  You look ill.”

 

Joe saw the whip and knew it caused pain.  He also knew he would endure that pain because the man’s face showed him he would if he held out on Adam’s location.  He was filled with terror but did not allow himself to entertain the idea of revealing his brother’s location.  He knew he would let himself die for Adam.  He responded,  “Nothing’s wrong.  Do what you have to do.”

 

“Oh, I do like your spunk.  I think you and I could be friends if things were different.  But, since we play the cards we’re dealt, I’ll just have to finish my job.  I’m gonna ask you real nice.  Where are they keeping your brother?”

 

Joe looked at the man and then looked away.  He did not respond.

 

“Thought you’d be that way.”  The man roughly lifted Joe to where he was standing; his balance off due to his ankles being tied.  The man then pulled back and punched Joe in the stomach, resulting in Joe quickly losing his balance and falling to the ground.  The man again asked the question, and Joe’s response was the same.  He was punched again on his body and fell to the ground.  He tried not to let any noise come from him, as he endured the blows.  He prayed the man would tire of him and stop the beating.  He had no idea the type of man he was dealing with.

 

The abuse continued for several more minutes and then it stopped, just as quickly as it had started.  Joe was lying on his side his legs pulled up to protect himself.  He tasted blood in his mouth and wanted to spit it out, but did not want to do it in front of the man.  He knew it would show weakness.

 

The man looked down on Joe and shook his head.  “Oh Pretty Boy, you’re not looking so pretty.  It’d be a shame to get you all messed up.  I hear tell you’re quite the ladies’ man around town.  Now, I know you’d hate it if you were so messed up the ladies screamed when they saw you.  That’d just be down right awful, I guess.  You’d have to settle with two dollar whores for your fun then.”

 

Joe continued to hold his gaze on the man, as he spoke.  He was trying to focus on anything he could in order not to think of his pain or the power the man held over him.  He briefly wondered how the situation he was in would end, but he then became despondent and afraid.  He made himself move his thoughts back to fighting against the Stranger’s demands.

 

“Not feeling like talking, Pretty Boy?  You know I was thinking.  It sure is right cowardly of your brother to hide out rather than holdin’ his head up like a real man.  I bet he’s been shaking in his boots all hid away begging to be protected.”

 

Joe could not resist responding to the man’s insults of Adam.  “My brother’s no coward.  He’s gonna walk into court, tell the truth and put Baxter away.  He’s much more of a man than you. You’re such a man to tie me up, and then hit me?  What kind of man is that?”

 

The man laughed at Joe’s words and then pulled back and kicked Joe hard.  Joe rolled away and closed his eyes tight, waiting for the pain to lessen.  The man then said,  “I told you about being respectful.  You need to know every time you decide to disrespect me you will feel pain.  You need to learn that I’m in complete control.  You’re defending a brother who’s not here, and it’s costing you to do it.  He isn’t here to hear it, and I just find it tiresome, so save it.”

 

The man bent down so he was next to Joe’s head.  He saw Joe was in pain, and it made him smile.  He was impressed with the young man’s spirit and knew that if he could get him to talk at all he was going to have to completely break him down.  To do that would mean he would have to escort Joe right up to death’s door, and with a little luck, keep him there long enough to get his answer.  He sighed loudly,  “Do you understand?”

 

“Go to hell!”  Joe said through gritted teeth.

 

“All right.  Up ‘til now I’ve been nice.  Well, no longer, on your feet.  You’re a bit too comfortable lying there.  I wish you didn’t have to make me do this, but I have no choice.  You’re the one who isn’t playing by the rules.  Just remember that.  You brought this on yourself.”

 

The man pulled Joe to his feet by the handcuffs.  He produced a knife from his pocket and cut the rope that had tied his feet together, allowing Joe to stand easier.  The man then pulled out Joe’s gun and pointed it at him.

 

“Now walk.”  He shoved Joe back into the darkness.  The man held the light he had brought with him, but it did little to illuminate the dark cellar.  Joe had no idea where he was going and tripped over things as he went.  Each time he went to fall, the man jerked violently back on the handcuffs, pulling Joe upright.  Finally the man spoke once more,  “Stop.”  He jerked Joe back to him.  Joe saw he was standing in an open room with several posts around and beams above his head.  The man produced the key.  “Kiddo, you don’t want to move if you know what is good for you when I take off the cuffs.  You want to stand right there and do nothing.  You move one inch, and you will regret it.  I promise.”

 

The man undid the cuffs, and Joe instinctively brought his hands around to the front.  Just then, the man punched him hard in the back.  Joe pitched forward and fell.  He tried to stand, and the man kicked him again.  He finally lay on the ground, not moving.  The man finally said in a calm voice,  “What did I tell you?  I said don’t move.  You don’t listen.  Now say you’re sorry.”

 

Joe knew the man was toying with him.  He tried to get his breathing under control and to think of the smartest way to handle the situation.  He wanted to tell the man how sick he thought he was, but knew he would endure more pain for an outburst.  He was not sure he could hold up to another kick without passing out.  “I’m sorry.”  He whispered.

 

“What?  I didn’t hear you.”

 

“I said I was sorry!”  Joe snapped.

 

“Now don’t take that tone with me.  I expect you to be courteous.”  The man dragged Joe to a standing position once more.  As soon as Joe was standing, the man slapped him hard across the face.

 

“I would appreciate it if you watched your tone next time.  Now say, yes sir.”

 

“Yes sir.”  Joe said quietly.

 

“Much better.  Now reach up and grab that beam above you.”

 

Joe looked at the man but hesitated.  A bad feeling came over him, as he realized what the man wanted him to do.  His pause resulted in him being slapped again, and his face burned.  He slowly lifted his arms and grabbed hold of the beam.  Every impulse in him wanted to fight, but knew he had to simply give in.  He felt despair.

 

The man quickly handcuffed Joe’s hands to the beam above him.  He had enough room to be able to slightly bend his arms at the elbow, while his feet remained free.  The man then took the light and walked away.  He stood hoping the man was actually leaving, but he hoped wrong.

 

Joe listened carefully to the sounds around him.  The music upstairs went on, as did the laughter.  He tried to make himself think of another place, another time.  His mind did as it always did when he wished to feel safe. It took him to the Ponderosa and to Lake Tahoe.  He was thinking of riding around the lake on Cochise when he heard the man return and saw the bullwhip in his hand.  His heart began to race.

 

“Okay son.  I’ll ask you again.  Where are they keeping your brother?”

 

“And I told you, I’m not gonna tell you.”  Joe said with more courage than he felt.

 

“So be it.”  The man walked behind Joe, roughly grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled down hard.  The buttons gave way and the shirt tore, exposing Joe’s back to the man.

 

“I’ll give you one more chance.  Where is he?”

 

“Go to hell.”  Joe closed his eyes and bracing himself for what would come next.

 

The man cracked the whip several times next to Joe, and the sound made him shudder.  He thought, just get it over with, as he stayed braced.

 

The whip then connected with his body.  His legs buckled, his head flew back, and he pulled down hard on the cuffs.  It was a cutting, tearing pain that seemed to go down to his very soul.

 

“You want to tell me now?”

 

Joe momentarily could not breathe.  His eyes were watering, as he tried to get the pain under control.  His lack of response was noticed.  “I’ll take that as a no?”  The man pulled back again with the whip.

 

The lash burned as it cut, and Joe screamed out.  “Oh God!”

 

“Sorry kid.  He can’t help you right now.  Only I can.  All you need to do is tell me where you brother is, and it will all stop.  I promise.”

 

“I… uh… I…” Joe tried to speak, but the pain was intense.

 

“You what?  Come on tell me.  Tell me, and it stops.”

 

“I… wo … won’t.”  Joe said breathlessly.

 

“Suit yourself.”  The man said shaking his head and striking Joe once more with the whip.

 

As the whip connected, Joe’s mind could take no more.  He felt the impact and passed out.

 

***********

 

Joe noticed pain before he became fully awake.  He realized he had passed out as he slowly opened his eyes.  The gag was back in his mouth, and the room was dark.  His back stung and burned if he made any movement, and it throbbed constantly.  He realized he was hanging by his arms and could not feel his hands.  As he stood to relieve the pressure, he felt the blood move back.  He let out a moan as the pain moved through him.

 

Breathing was difficult, and Joe knew he had broken ribs.  He hurt so badly, as he stood in the dark.  He tried to think of other things once more to distract himself, but his mind turned to his family, and he found himself begging for them to know something was wrong.  “Pa, I need you.  Oh Pa, please!  Hoss, Adam, come get me, please!  I need you!  I don’t know if I can hang on!  It hurts so bad!”

 

Joe knew his pleading would not be heard, and he felt desperation.  Every move he made caused more pain.  He listened to the music drifting down from upstairs and tried to hear the conversations.  Nothing was clear, and he felt very alone.  The tears started to roll down his face as he felt his body’s pain, and then his own fear as the thought of the man returning to continue to hurt him filled his mind.  He knew he would die with the Stranger the only one to be with him as he took his final breath.

 

As he stood in the darkness, Joe was unaware of the passing of time.  He had no idea how long he had been in the cellar, but prayed time would pass quickly.  He heard a door open and saw a light approach.  He thought,  “Oh no!  God no!  Please!  I can’t!  Please just make him go away!”  The tears were falling, and he tried to make them stop.  He could not let the man see him crying.  He rubbed his face on his arm, but the tears remained.

 

He looked to see it was Wells and Doyle standing looking at him.  They had a look of shock on their faces as they saw the condition Joe was in.  They moved towards him and Doyle spoke to Wells.  “Oh boy, that looks like it hurts!  I knew he was gonna get hurt, but ouch!  That looks bad.  Awe, look Wells, he’s cryin’!  The brave man is cryin’!”

 

“Ain’t that somethin’!  Poor baby!  Want your mama?”  Wells continued the taunting.

 

Both men laughed, as Joe stood looking at them.  He felt the despair leave and anger return.  He knew the two in front of him were not as dangerous to him as the Stranger, and he calmed.  As he relaxed once more, he experienced his body’s pain and closed his eyes.  He listened to Doyle.  “You know?  I owe you one for making me look bad in front of everyone.  I didn’t appreciate that at all!”

 

Joe opened his eyes just in time to see Doyle pull back and kick him in the groin.  Joe coiled in and felt nausea.  He choked it down, knowing he could not be sick with the gag in his mouth.  The pain hit hard, and he wanted to scream.  He tried to keep breathing through the hurt, but it was difficult.  His ribs protested with bolts of pain.

 

Wells laughed loudly as he watched Doyle.  “Oh geez!  You know how to hurt a guy, Doyle.  Here, let me have a go at it!”

 

 

Joe knew he would not let himself be kicked again.  He waited for the man to approach, and once he was within range, Joe kicked hard.  The man crumpled.  Wells rolled around on the floor, as Joe looked down on him silently happy he had been able to at least fight back a little.

 

Doyle laughed at his friend,  “Oh boy!  He got you!  Hey, Wells!  I bet you’ll be glad when that stops hurtin’!  Hey kid, you’re gonna pay for that one, I’m sure.”

 

Joe knew he would pay in pain for what he had done, but it felt good for the moment, and he told himself he could tolerate any pain these men could inflict upon him.  He kept watching the two before him to make sure he knew what they were doing and where the blows would come from.  He wanted to brace himself and prepare for the attack he knew would come.

 

Eventually Wells stood.  He looked at Joe and sneered.  “You think you’re clever don’t you.  Well, we’ll see who’s so clever.  We’ll see who can really handle the pain.”

 

As Well’s started to walk around him, Joe kept a close watch.  Wells stayed a distance from Joe as he moved to avoid another kick.  He ended up behind Joe.  “Hey Doyle, look here.  You see the kid’s back.  Oh that looks painful!  Kid he really did a number on you.  Does it hurt?”

 

Joe tried to move so he could position himself between the man and his back, but he was unable to turn around and knew he was exposed and weak which would make what was coming very painful.  “Kid, you’re really messed up back here.  I bet it would hurt if I did this.”  Wells reached up and slapped Joe hard on the back.  Joe pitched forward and held back a scream.  The pain was excruciating as he felt his body explode.  His eyes watered as he tried to focus.

 

The men laughed together as Doyle joined his friend behind Joe.  Joe became more nervous, knowing the men had found his greatest vulnerability.  He knew they would capitalize on their knowledge, and he would feel pain.  He prayed it would pass quickly.  Doyle and Wells took turns hurting Joe as he remained helpless, unable to retaliate.  He was fading back into unconsciousness when he heard a voice.  It was the Stranger.  Upon hearing the voice he felt himself lose all hope and prayed for death to come quickly.

 

“What the hell do you two think you’re doing?” The Stranger’s voice boomed and Joe realized it was the first time he had heard anger from the man.“We were helpin’ s’all.”  Doyle explained.

“I told you two imbeciles to check and see if he was awake.  That’s all I asked you to do.  Get away from him.”

Joe breathed a sigh of relief.  He could not believe the Stranger had saved him from pain.  Although he soon was in despair once more as he heard the Stranger.  “You two are fools, and you’ve delayed me.  I use the pain to make him talk you idiots.  You wasted an opportunity for me to get what I need.  Now I’ll have to wait ‘til he comes around again.”

It was surreal as Joe listened to the Stranger speak.  He had been thankful the Stranger had made them stop, but now heard the reason the man had done so was to do the hurting himself.  Joe felt woozy, and his body screamed.  As he drifted again into unconsciousness, he prayed never to wake.

 **********

Joe felt his face slapped several times as he returned back to consciousness – back to hell.  If he had not been gagged, the Stranger would have heard the moan he released.  His shoulders throbbed from his own weight, and he felt every inch of his body.  The pain was beyond words, as he felt it take his mind and consume him. As the gag was removed from his mouth, he struggled to breathe.  It was getting harder to fill his lungs as the time passed, and his body became more hurt, more broken.  He found himself having to pull hard on his hands to take a deep breath, but his desire to live was strong, and he would feel the pain in his hands before he would stop breathing.  He would fight until it was over.

“You ready to talk?  You want to tell me where your brother is?”  The Stranger calmly asked.

 “I… won’t!” Joe said defiantly.

 The Stranger punched Joe in the face several times.  His head flew back with each blow, but he made a point to return to look the Stranger in the eye after each hit.  He spoke through the pain with gritted teeth,  “You… know… you’ll have… to… uh, kill me… If you… don’t… I’ll find…you.  I’ll… kill… you.”

 The Stranger saw the young man’s resolve, and he admired the kid’s strength.  He knew the kid would not talk, and he would die.  He shook his head but proceeded.  “Pretty Boy, you won’t survive unless you talk.  You know that.  Just tell me what I want to know, and you live.”

 

“No!”  Joe managed to yell.  “My brother… he’d die… for… me… I know… he would.”

 “Are you so sure?  Everyone is in it for himself in the end.”

 “Not… Adam… Not… any… of… ‘em … I’ll… die… but… they’ll… be… okay  And… you’ll… be… with… out… your… answer.”  Joe struggled to speak.

 The bullwhip emerged once more by the man’s side.  Joe’s words unnerved the Stranger.  The manner in which the young man had held fast was admirable.  It would be disappointing to kill the kid, but he would.  He had killed before.  “Well, I really wish there was someone here who cared about what you said – all that noble stuff.  I know it took a lot of energy to do it.  It’s hard to breathe isn’t it?  Looks to me like you’re fading away, Pretty Boy.  You gonna die for your brother?  You gonna do it?”

 “Uh… yeah… Adam… he’d do… it … for me.”  Joe spoke his words in gasps.

“Would he take this kid?  Would he?”  The Stranger struck Joe’s back yet again with the bullwhip.

Joe felt the lash, as he recoiled in pain.  He knew Adam would never give him up, and he would remain faithful.  Joe spoke through clinched teeth,  “Go… to… hell!”

“Kid, you don’t have to do this.  You can live if you want to.  Just tell me.”

“NO!”  Joe screamed with his remaining energy.  It was hard to breathe as his lungs struggled over the weight of his own body.  His arms were out of socket, as he felt the pain in so many ways.  He longed for a gun to shoot the man dead, to keep shooting him until it was all gone-the man and the pain.  He hated more than he ever had before, and he told himself he would remember everything if he lived.  He would make the man pay.  As the Stranger slashed him yet again with the painful whip, he passed out, but his mind became set on revenge.

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

He was awake, but things were fuzzy and distant.  His breaths came in gasps, as he hung in the dark.  It took all of his energy to remain focused on breathing.  He thought of his family and the last time he had seen them.  Adam had given him last minute advice on the contracts for which Joe had acted outwardly as if he was annoyed, but had been secretly grateful.  Hoss had asked him to pick up some sweetening in Reno.  His father had looked at him with concern, giving him the look his father always seemed to give him when he was going to be away for a few days.  Joe had casually replied,  “Awe Pa, I’ll be fine.  It’s Reno you should worry about.”  And with that he had hopped on his horse and was away.

 As he hung in the darkness, Joe tried to recall his ride to Reno as a way of keeping going.  He made his mind take him on the ride and time passed.  He was far off in his head when he thought he heard a loud noise.  It made no sense.  He then heard the door open and felt terror.  The Stranger was back, and he would now die.  He knew he would not survive much longer.  His lungs were weak, and he was not able to take in much air.  He could no longer see out of one eye, so as the figure approached him, it was fuzzy and in shadows.  The figure grabbed him and was talking to him, but it made no sense.  Being touched was excruciating, and Joe felt himself gasping a scream in his head, “Just… kill… me!”

 He tried to move, but his body stayed frozen.  He waited for the whip again, as he waited to let go of his life.  He had no idea how much time had passed when he heard a noise above him.  Something was happening that did not make sense.  The handcuffs suddenly gave way, and Joe collapsed into the figure’s arms.

 As he felt the pain of being held, Joe screamed.  He wanted to struggle and fight to get away, but he was far too weak.  He felt the gag taken from his mouth, and he said through gasps,  “You… won’t… win.”

“Joe!  Little Joe!  It’s me, Hoss!  Joe, it’s me!  I’m here now buddy!  You’re gonna be okay.”

“No… no… don’t… hurt… more.”

Hoss held Joe and continued to speak,  “Joe, it’s me.  You’re safe.  I’m not gonna let anyone hurt you.  Joe listen, it’s Hoss!”

In a whisper, Joe asked,  “Hoss?”

 

“That’s right Joe.  It’s Hoss.  Let’s get you outta here now.”  With that, Hoss lifted Joe into his arms.  Joe screamed as he was moved.  “Sorry, little buddy!  I have to do it.”

 

 

Joe tried to grab hold of Hoss’s shirt but was only able to pull on it with his fingers.  Hoss could see his little brother wanted to tell him something and heard Joe whisper,  “Hoss… tell… tell… Adam… I… didn’t… tell.”

 

The words were painful for Hoss to hear, as he realized his little brother was more concerned about protecting his family than his own life.  He saw the amount of pain his brother was in and how difficult it was to talk or move.  Hoss knew that from the shape Joe was in, things were very dire.  Joe’s breathing was raspy, and he could tell his brother had been suffering for quite a while.  The body he held felt very cold, and he knew that was a bad sign.  Hoss started to pray.

 

Hoss walked through the saloon from where he had entered and was quickly outside.  People passing by on the street gasped at the large man with what appeared to be a dead man in his arms.  “The doctor!  Where’s the doctor!”  Hoss screamed.

 

A man pointed the way across the street.  Hoss ran with his brother to the doctor’s office, nearly braking the door down as he entered.  “Doc!  Doc!  Ya gotta help me!”  Hoss yelled into an empty room.

 

A distinguished looking man appeared, about to chastise the owner of the yelling voice, when he saw a large man with a smaller one in his arms.  He saw that the smaller man was very badly injured.  “Here, bring him in here.”

 

Hoss carried Joe into the room and reluctantly laid him on the table.  He wanted to keep holding his little brother – his desire to somehow give him all of his strength.  The doctor came along side of Hoss and was taken aback by what he saw.  “My God what happen to this boy?  Who did this to him?”

 

“It’s a long story, Doc.  You just gotta help him.  He’s gonna be okay huh, Doc?”  Hoss prayed to hear Joe would be fine.

 

“Let me look at him.  Step aside.”

 

Joe spoke again in a whisper,  “Hoss… Hoss… I’m… I… gotta… see… Pa… Adam…  Don’t… wanna… go… with… out… seein’…”

 

“Doc, do somethin’!”  Hoss felt his tears, as he feared the worst.  Joe was dying.  “Joe, buddy, hang on.  You gotta hang on!”

 

 

Joe felt very weak and speaking took so much of his energy,  “Hoss… take… me…”

 

“Mister, this boy cannot be moved.  It would kill him.  You cannot take him anywhere.”

 

“Can you save him?  Please Doc, do somethin’!”

 

“If you got family you want to see him, I suggest you get them here.  I’ll do what I can.”

 

“I can’t leave him!  He’ll be all alone!  Joe, buddy, I’ll stay with ya!”

 

“Hoss… go… I… need…” Was all Joe was able to emit.  It took too much from him to say more.

 

The thought of Joe dying alone tore at Hoss, but Joe wanted his family, and Hoss knew he would have to try and bring them.  “I’m gonna go get ‘em.  You don’t leave me, Joe!  You don’t go, buddy!  Hang on!  Pa and Adam’ll be here soon.  I promise ya, Joe!  Now you be here for us!”

 

Joe asked very quietly,  “Where… would… I… go?”

 

Hoss rubbed Joe’s head and looked down on him the tears flowing.  “Joe, you promise me?  Promise me you’ll be here?  You won’t… die?”

 

Joe gathered his strength.  “Go… I’ll… be… here.”

 

Hoss reluctantly left his brother at the doctor’s office, but did not leave Reno before stopping to see the Sheriff to apprise the lawman of the situation he had found his little brother in.  He demanded guards for Joe and his brother protection.  The Sheriff himself went to the doctor’s office with three of his best men.  He had been aware of the upcoming trial of Cyrus Baxter, as well as the Cartwrights involvement in bringing down the businessman.  He would do his job well.

 

Hoss rode Chub hard to the camp that held the Cartwrights and at least a dozen guards.  He was careful to hide his tracks and doubled back on himself several times.  He had two brothers in danger and wanted them both safe and alive.  He cursed Cyrus Baxter, and the peril his family faced due to the man.  He prayed he was careful in not putting one brother in danger for another.  He loved them both and needed them equally.

 

Hoss dismounted and was quickly through the door.  He was inside and speaking before anyone had a chance to react.  “Pa, Adam, its Joe.  He’s hurt real bad, real bad.  Pa, he’s askin’ for you and Adam.”

 

Ben and Adam were shocked to see Hoss standing before them, looking pale with tears falling down his face. Both quickly ran to Hoss, as Ben asked,  “Son, what’s wrong with Joe?  Where is he?”

 

“He’s been beat.  He’s been worse than beat.  He’s real bad.  It was Baxter’s doin’ for sure.  He don’t even look like him.  He’s back in Reno.  Pa, the Doc said we’d better get there quick.”

 

“Let’s go.”  Adam was the first to the door.

 

“Adam!  You can’t!  It’s far too dangerous!  This could be some kind of a trap!”  Ben felt himself full of fear and concern.  He had two sons in trouble, and he needed to protect them both.  One had already been harmed, and he did not want to have the other hurt as well.

 

“Pa, we’re not even gonna discuss this one!  Joe is… he’s wantin’ me there, and I’m gonna be there.  Now lets go.”  Adam’s tone indicated there would be no more discussion.

 

“Well at least lets be sensible.”  Ben quickly formed a plan.  “You shouldn’t ride Sport, and here, trade clothes with one of the hands.  We’ll have a group of us ride to Reno.  Adam, I want you in the middle.  Joe wouldn’t want you taking unnecessary risks.  He needs you, but he needs you alive.”

 

“We’re wasting time here.  I’ll do as you ask, but lets go.”  Adam was anxious to get to Joe.

 

The men were quickly away, riding to Reno.  The new location had been an hour’s ride from the city, and the men pushed their horses fast.  As they rode, Hoss told how he found Joe…

 

Ben became concerned about notifying his youngest after they had to move Adam to another location.  He decided to send Hoss to Reno to intercept Joe on his way home and bring him to the new location.  Hoss was more than happy to retrieve his little brother and rode fast to Reno.  He expected to meet his brother on the trail and was surprised when he made it all the way to the city without seeing him.  Hoss rode to the livery with the intent of stabling his horse.  He looked over to an adjoining stall and saw a paint pony blissfully tearing off hay from a pile.  He walked over, checked the brand to be sure his assumption was correct, and confirmed it was Cochise.  He looked at a pile of things next to the stall and saw Joe’s saddle, saddlebag, and jacket.

 

The liveryman saw Hoss looking at the pinto.  “You know where the guy who owns that horse is?  He was here the day ‘fore yesterday waitin’ for a shoe for that pony.  He told me he’d be back in an hour but never showed.  He owes me money for the board and the shoe.”

 

Hoss immediately felt uneasy.  Joe would not go off without tending Cochise, nor would he leave things such as his saddlebag lying around in the livery stable.  It was obvious something was wrong.  His gut warned him.  Joe was in trouble.  Hoss paid for Cochise’s care, as well as for Chub, and then headed out onto the street to try and find his little brother.

 

He decided to try the hotel they always stayed at while in Reno on the off chance Joe was still there.  The desk clerk informed him that Joe had checked out two days prior after having settled his bill and leaving a generous tip.  Hoss now was passed worry.  His brother was missing.

 

The big man walked the streets of Reno hunting for any clue that would lead him to Joe.  He had no idea where to look, and as the hours ticked away, he grew more concerned.  If Joe had disappeared soon after he had left the livery, then he had been gone for days.  He knew that kind of time would give someone quite a lead on him, and Joe could have been taken anywhere.  He was about to go to the sheriff when he spotted a man that he recognized from Virginia City.  The man worked for Baxter, and Hoss knew he was trouble.  He held back and followed the man he knew as Wells from a distance.  Wells went into the Mercantile and then re-emerged.  He then walked to a café and sat and ate a meal.  Hoss resisted the urge to go up to him and confront him regarding Joe.  He had no idea if it was mere coincidence the man was in Reno, or if he was somehow involved in Joe’s disappearance.

 

Wells finished his meal, and Hoss remained in pursuit.  Wells strolled down the street, but eventually came to stop at a saloon.  As he walked, Hoss held back.  He saw Wells walk to the back of the saloon, look around to see if anyone noticed him, and then opened a door and disappeared.  Wells’ behavior appeared suspicious, and Hoss began to believe he might have stumbled on something.  Hoss entered the saloon and walked to the same door he had seen Wells enter.  He put his hand on the door and pushed it.  He breathed a sigh of relief when he realized it was not bolted.  Hoss slowly pushed the door open after having drawn his gun.  He was tense and ready for anything.

 

The door opened to a blind corridor.  The hallway turned; the end not visible.  Hoss heard men talking as he sneaked closer and listened to the conversation.

 

“Boy, you see how that kid looks?  Not such a high and mighty Cartwright no more.  I don’t think he’s gonna last much longer.  You think he’s gonna spill it?”  Voice number one asked.

 

“Geez, he’s all torn up.  It’d probably be better if he just up and died.  I’ll bet ya five dollars, he croaks soon.  I don’t think he’ll say nothin’ though.”  Voice number two answered.

 

“How soon’s, soon?  I think he’ll stay ‘live ‘til we know his brother’s location one way or ‘nother, then he’ll croak, or we’ll just kill ‘em.  I’ll take that bet.  I say we gotta put a bullet in his head.”

 

The two voices laughed, and then voice number one said,  “I’m just glad it’s that stupid kid and not me.  Boy, oh boy he’s bad off.  Wouldn’t ‘cha just love to see his family when they get a look at him.  I think ol’ Adam Cartwright may just find out he crossed the wrong man.  Hey, after we finish up here, you wanna go to Frisco for a while?  I wanna spend that money we earned livin’ a little high on the hog.”

 

Hoss was livid.  He knew they had his little brother and were betting on his life.  He rounded the corner to see the two sitting on crates playing a card game.  He had been able to surprise them, catching both unaware.  Both men went to stand, as Wells reached for his gun.  Hoss fired one shot, hitting Wells squarely in the chest.  Doyle dropped his gun, while watching his colleague fall.  Hoss quickly aimed his gun at Doyle,  “Where is he!  Where’s my brother!”

 

“Hey look.  I didn’t have nothin’ to do with any of this ‘cept to guard the door.  Just put the gun down, and we can talk.”

 

“I ain’t in no mood to talk!  Where’s Joseph!”

 

“Now, now.  Calm down.  I didn’t hurt your brother.  I didn’t do it.”

 

Hoss exploded, punching the man in the face.  “Where is he!  I’m warnin’ you!  I’ll kill you with my bare hands!”

 

Doyle was recovering none too quickly from the punch.  He knew the big man would indeed kill him if he tried to hold out.  He sheepishly pointed to the door that the men had been sitting in front of.  Hoss then punched the man once more, and the man lay flattened on the floor.  He immediately jumped over the body and opened the door to find stairs that lead down to darkness, and he knew he needed a lantern.  He saw one sitting by the crates, picked it up, and lit it.  He hurried down the stairs hoping to find his little brother.

 

The image Hoss saw before him would be forever burned into his mind.  The room was cold and damp, the only light coming from the lantern, as he stood momentarily unable to move.  He heard the saloon above him so festive and gay, but he knew at that moment he was standing firmly in hell.  He saw a man, hanging from his hands, his legs bent and useless.  From the manner in which the man hung, it was obvious he was very weak, if not already dead.  The man was covered in dirt and blood, and it was hard to make out any identifying feature.  Hoss let out a moan, as he looked upon the man hanging so battered and bruised.  He was finally able to move, as the shock passed him, and he rushed to his baby brother.  “Joe!  Oh God, Joe!  Be alive!  Please be alive!  Joe, buddy!  You gotta be alive!  You just gotta!”  As Hoss begged, he heard a muffled moan come from Joe.  Hoss knew had to get his brother out of there and quickly.  He looked up and saw the handcuffs knowing they would pose a problem.  “Joe, buddy, I’ll be right back.  Hold on, buddy!”

 

Hoss then ran up the steps and picked up a semi-conscious Doyle.  “The key!  Where’s the key to the cuffs!   Tell me, or I’ll snap your neck!”

 

“I don’t have a key.”  Doyle groaned.

 

Hoss ran out to the saloon and yelled to no one in particular.  “Someone get the sheriff or a deputy or someone.  Get a handcuff key.  A man’s dying here!”

 

Hoss turned and ran back downstairs.  He saw Joe’s eyes were closed, but he was still breathing.  He heard someone call from above; a deputy was there with a handcuff key.  An unknown man appeared at the top of the stairs, and Hoss ran to him, grabbed the key and was down the stairs to Joe in an instant.  As he un-cuffed Joe’s hands and his little brother collapsed in his arms, Hoss thanked God he had found Joe and prayed he would live…

 

Hoss completed telling of the events in the cellar and what he had found, as the men reached the doctor’s office.  All three ran into the office and were quickly looking around.  Hoss knew where Joe was and took the lead.  He stopped at the closed door, but turned to Adam and his father before they could enter,  “Pa, Adam, I wanna tell you, he don’t look like him.  He’s all… he’s, just be ready ‘cause it’s bad.”  Hoss did not want to add, and “be ready if he’s already gone.”

 

Hoss opened the door, and all three entered the room.  They heard Joe’s gasps before they saw him.  The doctor was working over his patient, and the men had to move around to where they could see Joe more clearly.  There was nothing Hoss could have said that would have prepared them for what they saw.  Adam moaned, “Oh God no!  No, little buddy!”  And was immediately by Joe’s bedside.  As he went to take his brother’s hand, he saw the deep cuts around Joe’s wrists.  He closed his eyes and said,  “Joe, I’m so sorry.”

 

Ben stood back in utter shock.  He was looking at his son, but the only way he knew it was the color of his child’s hair, and the shape and size of the individual on the table.  He eventually was able to move towards Joe and knelt beside Adam.  “Joe, we’re here.  We’re all right here.  You’ll be okay, son.”

 

Joe heard his father and brother’s voices.  He felt himself calm some but found most of his focus had to remain on his breathing.  “Pa…Where’s… Adam… Need… talk… Adam.”

 

“Son, he’s right here, but keep your strength.  You don’t need to talk.”

 

Joe ignored his father and continued to gasp out the words,  “Adam… I… I didn’t… tell.”

 

“Joe,” Adam started to speak, as he felt tears on his face.  “Joe, I know what you did for me.”

 

“I… would…n’t.”

 

“I know.  You did an incredible thing, but now you have to be quiet, buddy.  You gotta get better.”

 

Joe’s breathing was disturbing to listen to, and as the men watched, they saw how difficult every breath was. Hoss had been standing back, away from the scene, praying hard for his brother.  He anxiously watched his brother breathe, so afraid Joe would stop and then be gone.

 

 

The doctor looked up at the men as they entered.  He had been spending the time since the young man had been brought to him, trying to keep him alive and breathing.  The constant hanging Joe had experienced had caused his lungs to become weakened, and he was unable to take much of a breath.  The doctor had propped up his head, but doing so put pressure on Joe’s back.  The pain he was experiencing was excruciating.  The doctor tried to give him a painkiller early on in tending to him and Joe had as adamantly as he could, refused the relief telling the doctor he needed to wait.

 

“Excuse me, but I need to speak with you all outside for a moment.”  The doctor finally spoke.

 

“Oh, uh, yes.”  Ben said.   “But I don’t want my boy alone.”

 

“Pa, I’m with him.  You go.”  Adam was not about to leave Joe’s side.

 

Ben walked out of the room, and Hoss followed behind.  Adam was soon alone with his little brother, “Joe, Pa’s just gone to talk to the doctor, and he’ll be right back.  You gotta be okay, Joe.  You gotta make it.  I promise you buddy, I’ll make Baxter pay.  I just need you to be okay.”

 

“Adam…”

 

“No, Joe.  Don’t talk.  That’s an order from your big brother.  Now I know how much you hate listening to me order you around, but this one you better do, or you’ll have me to deal with.”

 

It was hard to tell any expression on Joe’s face given how swollen and battered he was, but Adam thought he saw a smile.  He hoped that was what he saw.

 

Ben and Hoss stood next to the doctor as he spoke to them.  “I’m not going to lie to you gentlemen, he’s in grave condition.  The biggest thing he’s up against is the damage he has experienced to his lungs.  He’s struggling to breathe, and there’s very little I can do to help him with it.  Propping him up helps some.  He needs to stay quiet and not talk.  He was in shock when he was brought in, and we need to get plenty of fluids into him and keep him warm.  The rest, well once we see if he… if he pulls through and calms, then we can clean him up more.  Mr. uh?  I’m sorry in all the chaos I didn’t get any names.”

 

 

 

“It’s Cartwright, Ben Cartwright.  This is my son, Hoss, and my other son Adam is in there with Joseph.  Joseph’s a fighter.  He’s very tough.”  Ben said his words to himself as much as to the doctor.  He was trying to remain positive regarding Joe’s ability to survive, but he was so very afraid.

 

“I’m Peter Green.”  The doctor extended his hand, and the men shook. “Mr. Cartwright, your son has been tortured, and it’s obvious whomever did this wanted him in extreme pain.  Now what I don’t understand is why your son is refusing any pain medication.  Can you help me get him medicated?  It can help him breathe easier.”

 

Ben thought for a minute and thought he knew why Joe had refused the medication.  “Certainly, let me go talk to him, and you get it ready.”  Ben was immediately back through the door to Adam and Joe.  Adam was softly talking to Joe, but quieted when his father approached.  “Adam, let me get there a minute.  I need to talk to Joe.”

 

Adam moved out of the way, and Ben took his place,  “Joseph, listen to me son.  I want you to take the medicine that the doctor wants to give you.  It’ll help you breathe.  We’re here now.  It’s okay.  You don’t have to wait for us.”

 

“Bu… no… don’t…”

 

“Son, listen.  It’s okay.  I’ll make sure it is.  I promise. We’re all here now, and you can let yourself not feel the pain. Now I want you to do this.  We’re here now.”  Ben reached out to the doctor and took the medicine.  “Here son, now I want you to take all of this.”

 

Joe looked into his father’s eyes and knew to trust.  He took the medicine slowly and lay back, waiting to feel the relief.  Adam moved back to where Joe lay and began talking to him once more.  The men held vigil as they listened to Joe breathe.  Eventually, his breathing came a little easier, and he quieted some.

 

The doctor spoke,  “That medicine needs to get in him real good before we do what we have to do for him.  I want him to not have to feel much due to the shock and all, but we need to get his clothes off and check him over real good.  I didn’t see any wounds that were needing immediate attention, and with him so beaten I wanted to wait ‘til he could be more comfortable.”

 

Eventually the doctor determined Joe was heavily medicated and began to continue to treat him.  He pulled back the blankets, and they undressed Joe.  As they worked, the men saw some of the price Joe had paid for his silence, and a collective gasp passed between them.

 

“Oh dear God!  Joseph!”  Ben was beside himself with horror.  He could not believe what had been done to his child.

 

Hoss looked away, unable to remain focused on what he saw.  He felt rage building and was grateful he had killed one of the men who had done this to his little brother.  Hoss looked to Adam and saw his older brother’s jaw tightly clenched and his hands in fists.  He knew he was not alone in his rage.  It was obvious the suffering Joe had endured.  Both of Joe’s shoulders were out of socket, as his arms lay in an awkward fashion.  His body was purple where fists and feet had connected.

 

The doctor spoke softly, knowing the men were seeing a loved one in a shape one would hope no one would ever have to endure.  “We need to turn him over.  I need to look at his back.”  The doctor did not know if the family was aware that Joe had been whipped and prepared for their reactions.

 

The doctor and Ben slowly rolled Joe over on his side.  Joe moaned and his breathing became more labored.  Ben started to speak,  “It’s oh…” But he stopped.  He closed his eyes, as he saw his youngest son’s back.  “Joseph!  My boy!” Ben’s hands too went to fists, as he felt so helpless to see his son had endured such agony.

 

Adam had been standing on the other side of his father, so when Joe was rolled, he did not see his back.  He saw his father trying to maintain his composure as a look of great pain clouded his face.  Adam rushed around to where he could see what his father was looking at.  There was so much blood, both fresh and dried, and it was obvious what Joe had endured.  Adam saw his brother had been whipped.  Rage overtook him, and he screamed “HE’LL DIE FOR THIS!  I’LL MAKE SURE OF IT!”

 

Hoss could not bring himself to look at his brother’s back.  He had felt it as he had carried Joe to the doctor’s office and knew it was very bad.  He looked at his brother so small and realized his bravery.  He thought of Joe alone during those countless hours that he had endured so much pain.  He felt the rage that had begun to infect them all.

 

Even with the medication, Joe was moaning in pain.  He felt every touch, every breath.  Things were foggy, but the pain was ever present as his body was moved.  He was confused as to where he was and associated the pain with the Stranger.  “Nuh… no… go… way… no… tell… die… no… no…”

 

Everyone in the room heard Joe’s pleas.  It was so painful to see him, and then the pleas became almost more than any of them could bear as they took on a tone of desperation and despair.  “Joseph, listen it’s Pa.  You’re okay.  No one’s gonna hurt you, son, never again.  Never.”  Ben was reduced sobs.

 

Adam stepped in to talk to his little brother,  “Joe, its Adam.  I’ll never let this happen again.  You’re gonna be safe, Joe.  Pa’s here and Hoss is here, and I’m here.  We’ll keep you safe, Joe.”

 

Joe was unable to associate anything or anyone else with the pain other than the Stranger.  He was back in the cellar, and it was starting again.  Joe moaned a low and long “no” as the tears fell from his eyes.  His breathing became raspier, and he tried to do as he had done in the cellar, to pull on his hands to breathe.  It did not make sense to him how he was now positioned, but he continued to try what had worked before when the pain was at it’s worst.

 

“Try to keep talking to him.”  The doctor ordered.

 

“Joe, you’re safe.  We’re all here.  Hoss, come here.  See Joe, Hoss is here too.”  Ben was trying desperately to get Joe away from his fear and away from the torture.

 

“Joe?  Short Shanks?  It’s Hoss.  Calm down now.  ‘Member I got you away from that place?  You’re with all a us, and no one’s gonna hurt you.”

 

Joe continued to fight.  He would not give in to the pain or the Stranger.  He remained in the cellar and in the nightmare.  Eventually the doctor conceded they could do nothing more to help him than to relieve the pain, or they would lose Joe to his own panic.   The doctor stepped away from his patient and told them to roll Joe onto his back.  They quickly responded, and then the doctor moved Joe to an almost seated position to help him breathe.

 

As breathing became somewhat easier, Joe quieted.  Everyone remained focused on every breath Joe took and saw as he calmed, he breathed more evenly.  The doctor watched his patient for a while and then said,  “Gentlemen, we have a big problem.  Joseph is at great risk for infection if we can’t get him cleaned up, but he cannot tolerate the pain in order for me to properly clean those wounds.  I’m cautious to give him more painkillers, because it can make it harder for him to breathe.  I can give him a bit more chloral hydrate and see if we can get him calm.  It is really up to you.”

 

“Doctor, I want my boy out of pain, but I won’t risk his life to do it.”  Ben was frustrated.  He did not know this doctor, and he had to trust someone who did not know the real value of sons to him.  He prayed the doctor truly knew what was best.

 

“Let me see if we can give him a little more of the chloral hydrate and see if we can’t keep him calm.”  The doctor suggested.

 

“Doc,” Ben said, grabbing the doctor’s arm.  “He’s my boy.  He’s gotta be okay.  We need him to be okay.”

 

The doctor looked at the man before him and saw the worry and pain of a father.  “Mr. Cartwright, I will take the very best care of your son.”

 

The doctor walked to the cabinet and then returned to Joe.  He went to give Joe the medicine, but Adam intervened.  “Here doctor, mind if I do it?”

 

“Certainly, just talk to him and let him know what’s going on.”  The doctor instructed.

 

Adam did as he was told, and Joe took the medicine with little resistance.  The men sat back and waited.  Adam had stayed next to Joe’s head after he had given Joe the liquid.  He had an idea.  He began humming very quietly a lullaby he knew Marie had sung to Joe when his little brother was a baby.  It was old and French, and Adam had forgotten many of the words, but he knew the tune, and he knew his little brother did as well.

 

Ben heard the song and remembered a time long ago and smiled.  Adam briefly looked to his father, all the while continuing to hum the song.  Then Ben and Adam’s eyes locked, and both men shared the memory and a hope.  A hope that Joe would hear and be comforted.  It seemed to work as Joe breathed easier, and his body relaxed.  Adam reached out and took Joe’s hand in his.  He knew how fragile the hand was, given the deep cuts to Joe’s wrists, but he wanted his brother to know how appreciative he was of the price he had paid.  He also wanted his little brother to know he was not alone any longer, nor was he in further danger.

 

Joe calmed considerably and the doctor decided to try and get Joe’s wounds cleaned and sutured if needed.  He saw the interaction between brothers and said,  “Adam, you need to just keep doing what you’re doing.  Mr. Cartwright and Hoss is it?  I may need you to help me with Joseph.”

 

Each man set about with his own task to help Joe overcome the suffering he had endured.  The eye Joe had not lost to swelling was open but unfocused, and he looked around the room as if he were lost.  Adam made a point to be where Joe could see him if possible and continued the soft humming.  He held Joe’s hand until the doctor requested it to sew up the deep cut the handcuff had made.  Adam immediately took Joe’s hand back as soon as it was bandaged.  He took it carefully in order to not cause pain to his brother and he held it firmly, but gently.

 

The most painful parts for Joe were still to come, and all of the men held their breath at the thought of what Joe was yet to endure.  The doctor instructed yet again,  “His shoulders can wait, but I have to tend to his back.  We are risking infection that could kill him if we don’t get it cleaned.  It’s obvious that some of the wounds are older than others are, and he’s already taken on a redness and swelling.  Now even if he can tolerate this and be able to continue to keep breathing evenly, he will still feel it.  Talk to him and get him through it.  Keep up the humming, anything to distract some for him.  It will help him, and to be honest, it will help me.”

 

Once more they rolled Joe onto his side.  Adam hummed louder, as he heard his brother’s discomfort increase.  Ben spoke softly,  “Joe, I’m here, son.  We’ll do it.  All of us will do it together.  Joe be strong, son.  Hold on to us, and we’ll get you through.”

 

The doctor took a deep breath and then began to clean the wounds on Joe’s back.  Although he was very weak, Joe screamed loudly when the doctor began the painful process.  Hoss, Adam, and Ben worked harder to keep their loved one focused on them and their love of him.  Joe was openly crying as the doctor worked, but was medicated to the point where panic stayed at bay.  He tried to grab hold of those closest, but grasping caused pain and he screamed once more.  The doctor tried to work quickly, but it took time and his patient felt it.  It was so hard for Joe to talk, and the words remained in his head as he begged and pleaded for all the suffering to end.

 

Ben joined Adam by his son’s head, and he took his youngest’s hand from Adam.  Ben looked at the hand of his child and remembered when he had seen them for the first time.  He had counted fingers just as Marie had, and delighted that his son had a strong grip.  Ben had thought at that time it was a sure sign of a Cartwright.  He returned to the present and looked at his boy’s hands.  He saw the bandages and felt his son pulling against the pain.  He hurt for his child and knew there was pain Joe had endured he would have yet to hear about and help his son overcome.

 

The doctor worked to clean the wounds out but it seemed to take too much time. Ben finally snapped as he watched his child cry and scream in pain.  “How much more!  He can’t keep this up forever!”

 

“Mr. Cartwright, hold on.  I’m doing what has to be done.  It’s very bad, and we have to make sure he is properly cared for.”

 

“Hurry!”  Ben said, returning his attention to Joe.  He looked at the bandages around his child’s wrists and felt anger.  Someone had restrained his child and deliberately hurt him.  Ben felt as if he could kill in that instant.  Someone had pitted one of his boys against the other.  He knew his boys would die for each other, and this was the price being asked of his youngest.  “No!”  Ben Cartwright thought.  “I will not allow the person responsible make one of my children pay that price.  I’ll see to it that the one responsible pays.”  He prayed he would not lose his boy in the process.  But if he did, Ben knew he would kill Cyrus Baxter with his bare hands.  He would do it for Joseph, and he would take whatever the punishment.  He loved his boys, and no one would harm them and get away.  Ben vowed that a long time before Cyrus Baxter.  He prayed to keep Joe with him, but he vowed revenge if he lost him.  His boy deserved it.

 

The doctor finally finished cleaning Joe’s back, and the group gave a collective sigh of relief.  Ben moved his son back to lying on his back, as Joe moaned.  He comforted his child and stroked his hair.  Joe continued to breathe shallow gasps, and looked aimlessly around the room.  He was aware his family was with him, but he felt as if there was a lurking presence; any time the door could open, and he would be once again with the Stranger.  He was not thinking clearly as he felt a strong need to protect himself.  He was groggy, but the pain kept him from sleeping – that and his fear.

 

“Pa…” Joe whispered.

 

Ben found it painful to hear his son try and talk.  “Hush Joe.  Don’t try and talk.”

 

“Pa… need… I… need…” It took great strength for Joe to speak, and the words were slow in coming.

 

“What son?  Tell me.”

 

“Gun… need… gun.”

 

“No son.  You don’t need a gun.  We’re all here, and we’ll protect you.  Just rest.”

 

“No… no… gun… need… gun”

 

“Joseph, you don’t need one son.  I promise.”

 

Several minutes passed with Joe not speaking.  He felt the terror, as he remembered the cellar and what had happened.  He believed the Stranger could return at any moment to end his life.  He wanted to be ready and to make the man stop.

 

The doctor interrupted the silence in the room,  “Here, we need to get this into him.  We’ve got to keep giving him fluids.  He needs them to battle the shock.”

 

Ben took the liquid and tried to give it to Joe.  His child was very weak, so he could do little to protest, but what he could do, he did.  He looked at his father and clinched his jaw.  Ben finally said,  “Come on Joe.  You’ve got to drink this.”

 

Joe continued to look at his father.  “Gun.”

 

Hoss and Adam looked at each other and could not resist a smile and a shake of their heads.  They had seen the battle of wills between their father and Joe many times, and it was amazing how long each could hold out on giving in to the other. Hoss commented quietly,  “Stubborn little cuss, ain’t he?”

 

“That’s the truth.”  Adam said and pulled his pistol from his holster.  He turned away from Joe’s view and quietly unloaded the gun.  He looked to make sure the gun was truly empty of ammunition, and then he turned back.  “Pa, here.  Give it to him.  If it keeps him calm what does it hurt?”

 

Ben looked at his oldest in surprise.  Adam motioned with his eyes for his father to look at his hand.  Ben saw six bullets and knew what Adam had done.  “Okay fine.  Here Joseph, you win this one.  Now you drink all of this, and I don’t want any more foolishness out of you.”  With that Ben placed the gun under Joe’s left hand.  He realized in Joe’s condition he was so weak and hurt he could not even lift it if he wanted.  He said more for his son’s benefit,  “But son, I don’t want you waving that around.  Someone may think you’re aiming at him.  Just keep it there.”

 

“’Kay…” Joe felt some of the terror leave, as he felt the weight of the gun on him.  He would be ready for the Stranger, and when he showed, he would kill him.

 

As Joe lay calming the pain, both mental and physical, Ben motioned to Adam to step outside with him.  The two men gathered in the hallway, and Ben spoke,  “Adam, we still have your safety to worry about.  I’m sure Baxter knows where you are now.  Thank God the room where Joe is has no windows, but we could be taken pretty easily here.”

 

“Pa, after what that man has done to Joe, let them come!  I’d love nothing more than to have a go at his henchmen!”  Adam again thought of what his brother had endured as he spoke and he felt the anger rise.  He soon felt rage.

 

“Adam, I know exactly how you feel, but we have to be smart in this.  We have to keep our heads.  Believe me, if Little Joe… if Joe… if he doesn’t make it, I’ll kill the man myself.  Right now we need to get you another weapon.”  Ben smiled momentarily as he said,  “Thank you for doing that for him.”

 

“Pa, I can’t stop thinking about what he went through.  Joe held out for me.”  Adam spoke and his anger rose.  He was soon yelling.  “What kind of man tortures another like that!  And a kid!  What did Joe see and go through with those monsters!  I have never felt what I’m feeling before, Pa!  I want blood!  I could ride into Virginia City tonight and kill Baxter!”  Adam yelled to the man he knew could understand more than anyone else.

 

Ben saw the amount of anger in Adam, and he knew his son was struggling.  Adam had always preferred to be reserved and logical in his encounters.  What Ben saw in his son was something more base and primal – his son was fighting to maintain control of rage.  “Adam we’re all angry, but it won’t help Joe or even you right now.  We have to make sure we’re all safe here, all of us.  Now, I’m gonna make sure guards are posted and we’ll get you a pistol.  I want you to stay in that room with Joe and not show yourself to anyone.”

 

“Pa, please don’t worry about me.  I’m fine, really.”

 

“Adam, I need you safe, son.  I need all of you boys safe.”

 

Adam suddenly saw his father looking older than he had ever seen him.  He saw that the ordeal was weighing heavily on the man who had raised him, and he knew he had to comply with his father’s requests.  “I’ll make sure I’m safe, Pa.  Listen, I’ll go sit with Joe, and you and Hoss can make sure the place is secure.  But Pa, you don’t take any chances either.  You and Hoss stay down and let the men do their job.”

 

Ben smiled at his son and placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder.  He knew they were all in danger and would have to be very careful until Baxter was behind bars.  “I will son.  We’ll all come through this together.”

 

Adam and Hoss traded places, and Adam sat by Joe’s bedside.  He found himself listening to his brother breathe, and the rage quickly returned.  He saw his gun on his brother’s stomach and knew Joe had to have been so afraid of what had happened to him.  He knew his little brother was brave, he had seen it before, but he had also seen his brother very scared.  He hated that it was because of him that Joe had been hurt so badly.  As he sat watching Joe, he was unable to tell if he was asleep or awake.  He found himself wanting to tell his brother some things he had been feeling, but he was unsure if he could or would.

 

As the minutes passed, it soon was time once more for Joe to drink the liquid the doctor had concocted.  Without speaking, Adam reached over and touched Joe to lift his head off of the pillow.  Joe startled and let out a “no”.  Adam saw his brother’s hand try to grab the gun, but Joe had no strength, and he could not grab hold.  “Joe, it’s me, Adam.  You’re okay.  I’m right here.  I was the one who touched you. ”

 

“No… no… hurt…” Joe moaned, and Adam knew Joe was somewhere else.

 

“Buddy, you’re okay.  It’s me Adam.”

 

“No… hurt”

 

“Joe, listen it’s Adam.  I won’t let it hurt again like it did.”

 

“Ad… am?”  Joe asked, as he realized his brother was there.

 

“Yeah Joe, it’s me.”

 

“Ad… am… I… did… n’t… tell… I…”

 

“Joe, buddy, I know that.  I know.”

 

“No… lis…ten… Ad… am… I… not… do… it… I… need… know… I… would…n’t”

 

“I know that buddy.  I know” Adam said, as he felt tears form.

 

“No… no… Ad… am”

 

“Joe, stop now!  Stop and rest!”  Adam was feeling the hurt and rage so strong.

 

“Ad… am… you… would… n’t… me… you… you… my…” Joe’s speaking required so much of him physically.  He wanted to tell Adam what was in his heart, but he was exhausted.

 

“Joe, stop now buddy.  You’re so tired.  Take this.  Here drink it, all of it and then you sleep.  Remember Joe?  You slept with Hoss or me when you got scared?  That’s just what we’re doin’ now.  You’re in my bed, and you’re safe, buddy.  Remember?”  Joe’s hurt was tearing at Adam.

 

“Need… be… here…. Pa… Hoss.”

 

“Joe, they’re just outside.  Go to sleep, now.”

 

“No…” Joe was getting more and more agitated.  Joe knew he wanted those around him who were safe and who loved him.  He was so frustrated he could not talk, and frustration lead to tears.

 

Adam saw what was happening to Joe and knew to call his father.  He rose from his position and made it to the door, he opened it and called.  “Pa, Joe needs you.  I think he wants Hoss too.  I tried to calm him, but he just got more upset.”

 

Ben and Hoss ran in and were quick to talk with Joe.  Joe calmed as he heard from each member of his family.  He wanted them close, as he was scared and did not want to be alone.  Their voices made the Stranger move away from him, and he was then able to settle down and once more focus on breathing.

 

None of the men wanted to risk upsetting Joe again by leaving, so each found a place to try and make them comfortable.  All three of the men focused on Joe’s breathing and they each found themselves breathing along with him.  If there was a way to will someone healthy, then the Cartwrights could do it.

 

*******

 

The knock on the door stirred the men from their thoughts.  Ben drew his gun as he asked,  “Who is it?”

 

“Sheriff Baker.”  The voice behind the door responded.

 

Ben had met the sheriff when he and Hoss had gone out to check the security of their location, and he recognized the voice.  Ben opened the door, but kept his hand on his pistol.  He did not know the lawman personally, and given what had happened to Joe and the contract on Adam, Ben trusted few.

 

“’S’cuse me, Mr. Cartwright.  I don’t mean to bother you good folks, but I wanted to introduce myself and to offer you all something to eat.  I’m havin’ one of my men bring you all some food from the best place in Reno.  Mr. Cartwright, I’m sorry this happened in my town.  I know you folks are good people, and your boy went through hell.  I wired your sheriff in Virginia City about the problems you folks are having here.  I got a wire back, and I know Roy Coffee from way back.  He told me to take the best care of you people.  I plan to do just that.  I also know you folks should be wary of me, and I’m just fine with that.  I’d do the same if it were my boy layin’ there.  Mr. Cartwright, we’re good folks here, and the people of Reno will do what we can to help.  We don’t like what happened to your boy, and we’ll help your family.”

 

Ben remained leery, but optimistic by what he had heard from the sheriff.  He was encouraged that maybe he would get some help from those around them, and the family would not have to protect themselves alone.  “I thank you for any help you can give us.  My boys and I’ll be staying here with Joseph.”

 

“I completely understand.  I have a boy about his age, and I’d be doin’ the same thing myself.  I’ll make sure you folks are made to be comfortable, and I have my men all around you folks to make sure you’re safe.  You all need anything else?”

 

Ben looked at his boys and Adam and Hoss shook their heads no.  He looked at Joe and wished he could see his youngest doing what he did so often.  Joe usually claimed he was fine and would minimize any need for help.  What he saw instead was his youngest son struggling to live and desperately needing help.  “Thank you for the help.  I want my boys to stay right here, so any help you can give would be appreciated.”

 

“Well Mr. Cartwright, you ask for it, and we’ll get it for you.”  The Sheriff offered.  “Please let me or one of my men know if you need anything.  And, uh, I want you to know too, I’m prayin’ for your boy.”

 

Before Ben could answer, the doctor was next to the sheriff and moving him out of the way.  “’S’cuse me Dan, I wanna get by you, and to my patient.  And Mr. Cartwright, Dan’s been our sheriff for goin’ on fifteen years.  You and your boys are very safe with him in charge.  He’ll make sure of it, won’t you Dan?”

 

“Sure will.  You folks take care.” The sheriff said as he left the doorway.

 

The doctor walked into the room and over to Joe.  He looked at his patient and decided he could not postpone the next step in tending Joe any longer.  “Gentleman, Joseph looks like he’s breathing a little better, and I think he’s holding his own.  Now, we need to get his arms back in place.  I wanted to wait a while, but I don’t want him in any more pain than necessary.  He’ll be heavily sedated for this, and then we’ll set them.  He’s gonna feel it, believe me.”  With that the doctor walked over and mixed some powder in water.  He then turned and looked at the Cartwrights.  “He’ll probably take this best from one of you.  It’ll help knock him out.”  The doctor instructed.

 

Ben took the medicine from the doctor and leaned over his son.  He spoke softly,  “Joseph, come on now and take this son.”

 

Joe heard his father and looked at him with trust.  He obeyed the request as he took the medicine, all the while holding his father’s eye.  Ben laid his son’s head back on the pillow and felt concern regarding what was awaiting his child.  He prayed the medicine would block the pain, and his boy would not feel what they were going to do.

 

The men sat back and watched Joe be overcome by the sedative. Once it was evident that Joe was fully under the influence of the medication, Ben, Adam and Hoss took hold of him.  Each looked at the other with a look of dread, as they knew Joe would once more endure pain and hurt.  The doctor watched closely and eventually said,  “Let’s get it over with.  He seems to be out of it.”

 

Hoss spoke abruptly,  ‘Pa, do we have to?  It’s gonna be bad.”

 

“It’s okay Hoss, we gotta do this.  You just hold on for Joe.  He needs you.”  Ben comforted his middle child.

 

The doctor spoke up,  “Okay, we need to do this while he’s medicated.  Joe, I don’t know how much you can understand of what I’m saying, or if you even hear it, but I’m going to set your arms.  Now I need one of you three to get back behind him and hold him.”

 

“Okay Doc, tell me what to do.”  Adam immediately volunteered and moved towards Joe.

 

Ben and Hoss looked at Adam and knew he needed to do this for his little brother.  They could see he was struggling due to his own feelings of being responsible for Joe’s condition.  They let him do as he needed.

 

“Okay, Adam, sit him up and get behind him.  Put your arms around his chest and hold on tight to him.  Mr. Cartwright, you and Hoss may want to just help hang on to his legs ‘cause he is going to want to come off the table.”  The doctor instructed.

 

Adam spoke to Joe the entire time he was near him.  He first took the gun from under his brother’s hand and placed it next them on a side table.  Then he gently moved behind Joe and propped him up.  He heard his little brother moan and cry out, as he took the gun and then moved him.  Adam closed his eyes as he heard the pain.  He then laid Joe slowly back on him as he propped himself against the wall.  He winced, as he knew his brother’s back would be so very painful for him to lay back on, and he continued to talk softly about the ranch and the things they would do once they returned home.

 

Hoss and Ben grabbed Joe’s legs gently and waited for the doctor to proceed.  “Adam, you ready?”

 

He wanted to say no, he would never be ready for it, but Adam shook his head yes, as he braced himself for the pull.

 

With Adam’s response, the doctor put his leg on Joe’s chest for counter-pressure. He then instructed, “Hang on to him.  It’s going to be a jolt.  Okay, on three, one, two,  three.”  The doctor had Joe’s right arm in his hands and pulled it out and towards him with a jerk until the arm popped back in.  Ben, Hoss and Adam watched the doctor work and each felt the need to cringe.

 

As soon as the doctor pulled, Joe screamed.  “NO!”  It was obvious Joe was in agony.  He was trying to move, but each held tight to him and waited for Joe’s screaming to quiet.

 

The pain took Joe immediately back to the cellar and to the Stranger.  He believed the Stranger had once again returned, and he would die.  “DIE… JUST… DIE!” Joe screamed.

 

Adam leaned down where his mouth was next to Joe’s ear,  “Listen buddy, its Adam.  You’ll make it.  I got a hold of you, and you’re gonna be just fine.  We gotta do this for you.  We’re all here and it’s gonna stop soon.  I promise you, Joe.  It’ll be over soon.”  Adam had felt ill at what he had to watch his brother endure.  As he looked around to Joe’s face he saw tears, and he wiped them away.  He looked up to see both his father and brother suffering as well.  He wondered how much more Joe could take.

 

“NO… PLEA…SE…” Joe could see the Stranger before him in his mind and could not get away from the man.  The pain was unrelenting as Joe struggled unaware that his family was trying to help him.  Adam held on to his brother and felt him struggling to breathe and moaning loudly.

 

The doctor sighed as he walked over to Joe’s left. “I hate to do this, but we’ve got one more to do.”

 

Ben spoke,  “Wait, let me talk to him a minute.  Hoss you can hold his legs yourself.”  Ben moved close to Joe’s head, making sure his son could see him.  “Son, its Pa.  You gotta hold on and be real strong.  It’s going to be over soon and you can sleep.”  He saw Joe recognize him, and then Ben motioned for the doctor to continue.

 

Ben and Adam kept speaking to Joe as they saw the doctor place his leg on Joe’s chest once more.  They heard the doctor count, “One, two, three.  Now.”  The doctor performed the same maneuver he had previously, and Joe’s left shoulder was once again in place.

 

Joe continued to scream,  “PA… NO… HURT…OH… GOD…” Joe was writhing in pain as his brothers held on.

 

Ben was praying the pain in his son would leave soon.  “Joe, it’s over.  We’re all done now.  It’s over.  It’s all over.”

 

“NO… NO… OH GOD… STOP”

 

“Doc, do somethin’!”  Hoss ordered and tried not to grab hold of the doctor.

 

“I’ve given him what I can give him for pain.  I know it’s hard to see, but anything else could compromise his breathing too much.  I’m sorry.”

 

“He can’t stay like this!  It ain’t right!”  Hoss was unsure to whom he was speaking, but he could not stand to see his little brother in agony.

 

“Ssh, Joe it’s okay.”  Adam spoke quietly.  He had not released Joe after the doctor had replaced Joe’s arm and could feel the tension in his brother’s body.  Adam again began humming the lullaby hoping to break through to Joe.  He also motioned for the gun back and made sure it was again placed under Joe’s left hand.

 

It was more exhaustion that stopped Joe from moving than relief from the pain.  He could move no more and lay back against Adam.  He was sweating heavily, and his breathing was raspy and shallow.  He held his jaw clenched and waited for any relief.  As he was unable to move around, the pain dulled slowly and the sedative gained power.  Joe tried to listen to the humming and focus solely on it.  He eventually allowed himself to relax his jaw and slowly he faded into a restless and light sleep.

 

The doctor put his hand on Ben’s shoulder and squeezed.  He spoke quietly as to not disturb his patient,  “Gentlemen, I’m guessing there’s dinner here for you, and I’ll make sure it is brought in, and you’re all made comfortable.  Joseph should be kept warm and quiet in the meanwhile.  He needs to remain propped up, and I’ll have some more fluids for him soon.  I don’t want anything to disturb him for a while, so lets just let him sleep.  He has to be exhausted.”

 

Ben saw how compassionate the doctor was with his son and with his whole family.  “Thank you for what you’re doing for him doctor.”

 

“Please, call me Peter.  We’ve been through too much for formalities.”  The doctor smiled at Ben.

 

“Thank you Peter, and please call me Ben.  We’re so thankful to you and what you’re doing for Joe.  We love him so much and this is really a very difficult time for all of us.”

 

“I know it’s a hard time, and like the sheriff said, please tell us if there’s anything you need.  Now let me go check on your supper and you folks keep him quiet.”

 

“We’ll take care of him.”  Ben said, walking the doctor to the door.  He then turned back and looked at his three boys.  They had their share of differences Ben knew, but he also knew they had always pulled together in a crisis and would do anything for each other if it were required.  He had never visualized the types of crises his family had undergone in their lives, but he remained proud of his family’s strength and their love.

 

Ben moved back over to the table where Joe lay.  “Adam, you want help in moving him off of you?”

 

“I’m just going to stay here.”  Adam whispered.  “He needs to sleep, and I don’t want to disturb him anymore.  I’m okay the way I am, and I want him to know he’s not alone.”

 

Ben nodded to Adam and looked at his youngest.  Joe was asleep and out of pain for the time being, and Ben felt some relief.  His mind returned over and over to what he wanted to do to the man responsible for the pain.  He watched Joe have such difficulty simply breathing and wanted the one responsible to pay.  He felt rage and the need for his child to be avenged.  He knew he would struggle with the feelings inside of him.  He also knew he would act on them if he had to bury his boy.

 

Hoss stood looking at his brothers, seeing one physically broken and struggling to take each breath, and the other, emotionally in such pain, feeling guilty and responsible for his brother’s condition.  Hoss knew who was really to blame for the pain in his family, and he wanted revenge.  He wanted his youngest brother to be alive and healthy, and his oldest brother to know he was not to blame.  He wanted both to know they had done their family proud.

 

Adam lay with Joe in his lap holding his brother lightly.  He realized he felt relief with every breath his brother took.  He was enraged as he thought of the torture that Joe had endured as he felt his brother’s gasps to simply breathe.  Joe had offered to die for him.  It filled him with love for his brother, but guilt for what he had undergone.  Adam vowed to be there for Joe for whatever he needed, and vowed to make them pay for harming him.

 

Joe slept lightly, so aware of his body and the pain.  He had grown more secure as he laid back and felt a loving presence.  He believed it would keep the Stranger away, and he could rest for a while.  The pain would continually intrude on the peace, and he struggled to fall into deep sleep.  As the Stranger moved away and sleep overtook, he felt himself able to protect himself, but when the pain returned, as it did often, he was again so very afraid and felt too vulnerable.  He wanted the Stranger and the pain gone from him.  He would do what it took to make it happen.

 

The doctor returned with a meal along with bedding and other comforts as the family held a watchful eye over their loved one.  The men settled in for a long wait and each was in his head, thinking of their fear, their concern and their rage.

 

Evening turned to night and each settled into sleep.  Throughout the night the doctor faithfully returned to his patient to treat and evaluate his progress.  Every time the doctor entered, the sleeping family woke to assist, and Joe was lovingly tended.  Each would quietly talk to Joe as they helped him, as Joe was easily startled and quick to panic.  As Joe slept, he fought his battle with the pain and the Stranger.  He dreamed of dark places and shadowed people standing out of sight not touching him, but always there and always lurking.  He felt trapped in the darkness, but unable to cry out or move until he was awaken and told to drink.

 

Adam had fallen asleep with his little brother still in his lap.  By doing thus, he hoped Joe would feel as if he was little again and sleeping with his big brother.  Adam fell asleep remembering Joe as a little boy asking him all kinds of questions at bedtime regarding the presence of monsters and things that could get little boys in their sleep.  Adam would patiently listen to the questions and reassure his brother that there were no such things as monsters.  As Adam thought of his brother’s questions of the reality of monsters, he realized he was wrong in what he had told him and there were indeed monsters.  Not the type of monsters little boy fears create, but more foreboding, unidentifiable and real monsters.  It was this type that had held and harmed his little brother.  Adam whispered softly to Joe,  “I’m sorry about the monsters, Joe.  I’d never have gone after Baxter if I’d known this would’ve happened to you.  I love you little buddy, and I’ll help you any way I can.  I’ll be here for you.”  After speaking quietly to his brother, Adam slept.

 

Sometime in the early morning hours, Adam woke to pain in his legs from them having fallen asleep and was feeling uncomfortable.  As he tried to move, Joe stirred and moaned loudly but was not brought out of his dark dreams as he continued to wrestle inside his mind.  Adam remembered where he was and what had happened as he fully woke.  He patted his brother and spoke softly to him.  Joe quieted.  Adam laid there a while longer enduring his legs asleep as long as he could and then knew he had to get up.  He tried to slowly lift Joe but as he tried to move him, Joe immediately was awake and screaming.

 

The screaming woke up Ben and Hoss who were up, out of bed, and to Joe and Adam immediately.  Adam had known the movements had scared Joe and had started trying to comfort him.  “Hush, now Joe.  It’s okay.”  Adam tried to explain as he saw Hoss and his father.  “Sorry.  I moved him, and I guess it scared and hurt him.  I was trying to get up.  Can’t feel my legs.”

 

“Here Adam, we’ll help.”  Ben said.  As Hoss lit a lantern and helped Adam, Ben talked to Joe.  “Joseph, I’m gonna pull you forward and let Adam move around some.  You’re just fine.  You go back to sleep.  I want you to sleep now.”

 

“Pa?”

 

“Yes son, its Pa.  Now you need to sleep.  You’re so tired, and I want you to rest now.  It’s not time to get up.  I’ll let you know when it is.  You close your eyes and rest.  You do as I say now, Joe.”  Ben was moving his son as he spoke.  This had been something he had done so many times over the years with his youngest.  As a child, Joe would fall deeply asleep in his father’s arms after having spent time talking with his father in the evening or in various places such as a buggy on a ride home, on the sofa, or in Ben’s room, trying to fight sleep.  He eventually would need to be moved to his own bed.  Ben had found with practice he could talk to Joe while he was moving him and was able to keep him asleep if he spoke quietly to him, telling him the same words he was saying this night and so many others prior.

 

“It’s… ‘kay?”  Joe asked very quietly, already drifting away.

 

“Yes, son.  Adam just needs to move.  You sleep now, and I’ll wake you in the morning.”  By the time Ben had spoken the words, Adam was free, and Joe was again lost to sleep.

 

“Sorry to wake you both.  I just had to move.  I hated to bother him.  Any movement is just so painful for him.”  Adam said, the concern showing as he looked at his little brother.

 

“He’s okay now, Adam.  Here come over here and lie down.  You’ve got to be pretty tired yourself.”  Ben gestured towards a cot next to his own.

 

Adam moved over, and sat.  It was obvious he was deep in thought and wide-awake.  Ben asked,  “Need to talk?”

 

“You can always tell.”  Adam said as he looked at his father.  “Can I talk to you and Hoss?  I’ve got a lot on my mind and maybe you two can help me sort it out.”

 

 

Hoss and Ben sat ready to listen.  Adam took a deep breath and began.  “Pa, Hoss, I know we’re all feeling something very similar, and I feel responsible…”

 

“No son, I’m proud of you for what you want to do.”  Ben tried to ease his child’s guilt.

 

“Pa, listen please.  I just need to do this.  I knew when we were all in the shack I had put a lot on all of you regarding the running of the ranch.  I also knew Baxter needed to be brought down and made to pay for what he had done to all those people.  I never in my wildest dreams, thought he would do what he has done to us.  We could have easily lost Joe in that cellar.  It’s still so much a possibility.  That’s on my shoulders.”  The anger began to build again as he spoke and heard the words he had been thinking.  “Joe was tortured.  He was tortured!  As many times as I tell myself that, it’s still just so unreal.  As we talk here, all of us so comfortable, listen to him breathe!  Listen!  He’s fighting for something I’ve taken for granted!  I want to go into that courtroom and kill Baxter!  There, I said it.  I want him to suffer and hurt and beg and plead like Joe was made to do.  That’s what I really want.  I want to do to him what he did to Joe.  Pa, Hoss you both know what I’m sayin’, don’t you?”

 

“Adam, I want him dead too.”  Hoss commiserated.  “I think of what I saw in that cellar.  Our Joe there so scared and hurt.  I know Joe’s tough, and he’s been through it, more than we probably know, but I just want to protect him.  I know what your sayin’ Adam, but I want you to know too, I’m proud of you and what you’re doin’.  A lot of good people lost money ‘cause of what Baxter did to ‘em.”

 

“But Hoss, money isn’t worth Joe’s life!  How much would we pay for him?  You see, Baxter deals in dollars, we deal in something more substantive.  He knew that, and he used it.  I have to look at Joe and know that he went through hell for money?  For people’s savings?”  Adam shook his head at the thought.

 

“No Adam.  Son, you’re making Joe’s sacrifice something it wasn’t.  Joe did it because of his brother.  He did it because of you, Adam.  He loves you.  He told you and he told Hoss he didn’t tell where you were to the people hurting him.  It’s you he loves, and you he wanted to protect.  He wasn’t doing it for the lost money, he was doing it for our family and for you, Adam.”

 

“But Pa, I’m supposed to do that for him!  I’m older, and I want to watch for him.  I’m so angry that they asked him to do what he did!  He’s so young and… uh… Pa, what will this do to him?  Let’s be honest and ask it, right? What will it do if he makes it!”  Adam asked, hoping his father saw the future, and knowing he did not.

 

“I don’t know son.  I’ve asked myself that, but your brother’s so unpredictable, but he’s also resilient.  The one thing I do know for sure is we’ve got to be here for him, all of us.  He needs us, and he has got to be afraid.  We didn’t go through what he did, and I’m worried for him, but Adam, I’m concerned about you too.  Tell me what you’re doing to yourself.”

 

“Pa, I have to testify, I’ve known that, but now I want the man dead.  I know it’s not my place to do it, but I want it, and I know when I have to look at him and say what I have to say, I’ll do it not only for those faceless investors anymore.  Joe’s there now.  He’s the first and foremost I will testify for.  I want Baxter to die and with what I know the man is charged with, he’ll not die.  I want him dead!”

 

“Adam we all do, but we have to believe in the law.  You’ve even told me that before when I was running off half cocked demanding to take the law into my own hands.”  Ben reminded his oldest.

 

“Pa, somehow it is different when your little brother lies a few feet away trying simply to breathe!  Pa, Joe did nothing!  He’s a boy!  He gets a thrill out of pretty girls and making us proud of him!  He had nothing to do with this!  They tortured him!”  Adam was furious each time he returned to his brother’s pain.

 

“Adam, I know!  I saw Joe’s body!  I saw what he endured!  I saw my youngest son battered and bruised!  I see him trying to breathe!”  Ben said, meeting his oldest’s intensity.  “You have to ask yourself why he did it, and what you are to do with it!  You have always wanted to teach Joe about life.  Okay, teach him!  Teach him what you want him to learn, Adam!  Do it!  He’s a boy who risked his life for his brother!  Show him why he did it!  Show Joseph the right way to do it, cause if you do anything else Adam, Joe did it for nothing!  You have told him over and over that he needs to know the right way!  He only knows what he sees!”

 

“Pa, that’s not fair!  What I started out to do in this case is GONE!  It left when Baxter decided to torture my baby brother!  He made the rules, and now all bets are off!”  Adam was so very angry as he spoke to his father.

 

“No Adam!  You decided all bets were off!  A while back, you and I sat by my desk and you told me what you thought was going on regarding Baxter.  At that time you said you would pursue it to the end and see justice served.  You didn’t make it conditional.  You said you’d do it.  Joseph needs that lesson!  If Joe lives…” Ben paused at the thought, then continued.  “He has to know he did it all for a reason!  If he doesn’t live Adam, it is out of your hands.  I will take care of it.  I’m the father, and no one will take one of my boys without me having justice!  I’ll take Baxter’s life as a father!  I saw Joseph born, and if he leaves us, the one who does it pays!  I vowed that a long time ago and would do it for any of you!  Joe will not have to pay the ultimate price without me stepping in!  My boy will not die without vengeance!  Anything else son, you have control of!  Joseph needs you as his brother, and he needs you to make it through this just as he does!  Damn it, Adam!  Don’t you see!  You have such a chance!  You and Joseph!  You make your own rules!  You decide the scenario before it is played!  You’re the leader Adam, and you already have your brother dead, and Baxter having gotten away with it!  I’ve always taught you that you do what you can.  You put him away and in that way you tell Joe what is right.”

 

“Pa, you know I want to do what is right, but look at him!  Look at Joe!  He’s so torn up I can’t see passed it!”  Adam looked upon his brother and felt such rage.

 

“Adam, he’s my son, and I’m asking something of you no father wants to ask!  To turn away from it for their hurt child!  Believe me, I could kill!  But, I don’t want to lose Joe, and I don’t want to lose you!  Adam, you could do things that are un-fixable, unchangeable!  I want all three of my boys happy and safe!  I won’t lose any of you.  If you do what you want to do, then you pay a price that is too high!  I won’t have you hung for that man!  I won’t let you do it, and Joe can’t have you do it!  He’d never be able to handle that!”

 

Adam continued to look at his brother as Ben spoke.  He wanted revenge more than he had ever wanted in his life.  He heard his father and believed that logically everything he had said was true.  He also knew that this would be an enormous challenge for him, and he was uncertain that he could hold in the rage to do what he knew was right.

 

“I’ll not promise you anything but to think about what you said.  I do know there is a place in hell for Cyrus Baxter, and I’d love to help him get there.”

 

“Adam,” Hoss spoke after having quietly listened to the exchange.  “I’m also askin’ you.  Don’t do nothin’ to make us lose you.  You heard it would hurt Pa and Joe, but it would hurt me too.  I don’t wanna lose either you or Joe.  You have to know that.  We all need each other.”

 

Adam looked at Hoss and tried to smile.  “I hear you.  I just need to think about it.  You two get some sleep.  I’ll be fine.”

 

 

The three sat a while longer, then Ben and Hoss turned in for the remainder of the night.  Adam laid awake listening to Joe breathe, thinking of the previous conversation.  He felt heavily conflicted between what he knew was the right thing to do and what he wanted to do.  He realized that no more sleep would come that night and he lay listening and waiting for morning.

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