SINS OF THE FATHER
By Lori Henry
“See ya later, Pa....,” called Little Joe as he came bounding down the stairs, taking them two at a time. With only three more steps to go, Joe let loose a spirited “yee haaaw” and launched himself into the air. The sound of his boots smacking on the hardwood floor made Ben and Adam jump. Joe took three more steps then, like a thoroughbred jumper taking a fence, he gathered himself at the last moment and flew over Adam’s outstretched legs. Adam jerked his feet off the coffee table and dropped his book, nearly having a heart attack when Joe sailed over his legs.
Equally startled, Ben Cartwright looked up from the newspaper he had been reading in time to see a blur that resembled his seventeen-year-old son streak past him.
Joe continued his wild dash, heading straight for the dining room. Calculating his speed and momentum, Joe expertly stepped into position, setting himself up for a slide that would carry him around the dining room wall and into the kitchen. By the time Little Joe saw his brother Hoss coming toward him, it was too late. Joe’s eyes grew as wide as saucers and he gasped as he tried to prevent the imminent collision. Unfortunately, the laws of physics triumphed once again. When Joe slammed into Hoss, he felt all the air forcibly expelled from his lungs. The impact propelled him backward onto the floor, hitting his head on the leg of the dining room table.
Holding the handle of a wicker picnic basket in one hand and a sandwich of substantial proportions in the other, Hoss looked down at his little brother lying on the floor, writhing and gasping for air.
Hoss grinned at Joe and cocked his head to one side. “Whatcha doin’ there on the floor, little brother?”
Unable to speak, Little Joe flashed Hoss a scornful look.
Hoss set the picnic basket down on the dining room table and offered his hand to his little brother.
Little Joe grudgingly accepted and allowed his brother to pull him to his feet. He winced, gingerly rubbing the newly formed lump on back of his head. “Oooooohhh, Hoss,” whined Joe. Why’d you have to go and run me over like a herd of wild mustangs?”
Hoss let loose a boisterous laugh and replied, “That’s not the way I saw it, little brother. You plum stampeded right into me......didn’t he Adam?”
Adam looked up from the book he was reading and forcefully replied, “You two leave me out of this! The last time I got into the middle of one of you and Joe’s arguments, I ended up with a black eye and a sprained wrist!”
Ben laughed to himself, recalling the incident in question. His merriment was suddenly cut short when Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s oriental cook, came storming into the dining room, spouting angry words at Hoss in Chinese.
Bewildered, Hoss looked around the room, first at Hop Sing then at Little Joe who had joined Hop Sing in the verbal assault.
No longer able to tolerate the noise and confusion, Ben decided to put an end to the absurd scene being played out in his dining room. He looked at Adam, seeking an ally in his cause.
Adam’s eyes grew wide and he vehemently shook his head. “Oh, no....leave me out of this!”
Ben forcefully slapped his rolled newspaper on the arm of his chair then marched into the battle zone.
“JOSEPH!” bellowed Ben in a voice that shook the rafters. “What in tarnation is going on here?” There was a brief moment of silence as Hoss, Joe and Hop Sing waited for the ringing in their ears to stop. Before Ben could say anything else, three voices rang out at the same time, all fighting to be heard as each man pointed an accusing finger at the other.
Standing with his hands on his hips, Ben looked over Joe’s head and saw Adam laughing. Momentarily flustered, Ben scowled at Adam then turned his attention back to the three combatants. He gave Joe a stern and forbidding glare. Recognizing the look of displeasure in his father’s eyes, Little Joe prudently beat a hasty retreat to the living room and hid behind Adam.
Barely controlling his temper, Ben demanded, “Now would somebody please tell me what’s going on here?”
Hoss, Little Joe and Hop Sing all opened their mouths and again three voices blended into a cacophony of incomprehensible accusations. Ben growled and shouted, “One at a time, please! Hop Sing....you first!”
Hop Sing gave Hoss the evil eye. “Mista Hoss steal Littow Joe’s picnic basket!”
Scowling, Ben rubbed his hand over his chin then turned to his youngest son. “Joseph....would you care to tell me where you were going in such a hurry and why you need a picnic basket?”
Joe hesitantly looked at Adam then at his pa. “I asked Sarah Anderson if she would accompany me on a picnic this afternoon after church.” Joe turned around and glanced at the large grandfather clock standing against the wall by the front door. “Gosh darnit, Pa,” complained Joe, firing an accusatory look Hoss. “Now I’m gonna be late picking up Sarah and it’s all Hoss’s fault!”
Hoss growled and pushed his father aside. He was headed straight for Little Joe. “That’s it, little brother! I’m gonna pound you good!”
Hoss reminded Joe of an enraged bull, preparing to charge. Fearing for his life, Little Joe lithely leaped over Adam and the back of the couch, putting the piece of furniture and his older brother between himself and his furious brother.
Hoss swatted Adam out of the way as he reached over the couch for his impertinent little brother.
Joe jumped backward and held his hands out in front of him in a defensive gesture. He nervously hopped and danced around the couch, desperate to stay out of Hoss’s reach. “OH NO.....Hoss! Just....just....simmer down there, big brother,” stuttered Joe. “N..n..no need to be getting all riled up.”
Little Joe awkwardly circled the couch one more time, attempting to work his way toward the front door and the safety of the outdoors. Being much smaller and agile than Hoss, Joe knew his best chance of escape lay in outrunning his large brother. Neither Hoss nor Adam had ever succeeded in catching their little brother; he was just too fast and agile.
Little Joe began to edge his way toward the front door when suddenly he remembered his picnic basket. “Doggone it,” he whispered to himself.
Keeping his eyes locked on Hoss, Joe smiled impishly. In a lightning fast move, he snatched the black statue of a horse off the table behind the couch, tossed it high into the air and yelled, “Hoss....catch!”
“Joseph! No....,” shouted Ben.
Hoss gasped and lunged forward, losing his balance at he tried to catch the valuable piece of artwork. Adam didn’t have time to get out of the way before Hoss came crashing down on top of him.
Adam grunted and gasped for air as he tried to push Hoss off of him. Hoss quickly stood up holding the statue while Adam berated him with a string of cuss words that turned the air blue.
Joe’s unique laugh, a sound that resembled a blue jay crossed with a grey squirrel, filled the air. With a pixie grin dancing around the corners of his eyes, Joe sprinted for the dining room,
grabbed his picnic basket then made his escape through the kitchen then out the side door.
Luckily Cochise was still tethered to the hitch post near the kitchen. The picnic basket in his right hand, Joe grabbed hold of the saddle horn with his left and in one fluid motion, swung gracefully up into the saddle. He touched his heels to the black and white pinto’s flanks, urging him into a run. The last thing Joe heard as Cochise galloped past the barn was the impressive sound of his father’s voice shouting “JOSEPH!”
Little Joe knew he was liable to get a tanning for deliberately ignoring his pa, but for some reason he didn’t care. All that mattered to him right now was spending the afternoon with Sarah Anderson.
It had taken Joe months to get up the courage to ask Sarah to accompany him on a Sunday picnic. Every Sunday morning at church, he would sit and stare at Sarah, memorizing every detail of her angelic face. No other girl could compare to Sarah’s beauty. He would lay awake at night imagining what it felt like to hold her hand and caress her long wavy chestnut colored hair.
Two days ago, while he and Hoss were in Virginia City, they had bumped into Sarah as they were walking into the Mercantile.
Hoss, who knew his little brother had been pining over Sarah for quite some time, had given Joe a quick jab to the ribs and a sly wink. “I’ll leave you two alone,” he had chuckled as he gently pushed Joe closer to Sarah.
Joe had stood on the boardwalk, nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot and twisting his hat in his hands as he searched for the right words to say. He was so afraid that if he said anything, the most beautiful girl in the world would laugh at him. He was about to turn and leave when Sarah had reached out and touched his hand. Suddenly, the feel of her soft hand on his gave him the courage to speak. Feeling more relaxed, he found his voice as well as the courage he needed to ask Sarah if she would go on a picnic with him this coming Sunday after church. Joe thought for sure he had been dreaming when the object of his affection smiled shyly and had answered, “yes.”
Ever since Sarah had agreed to go out with him, Joe felt like he was walking on clouds. He had been hesitant to tell his brothers about his upcoming date for fear of having to endure two days of teasing and needling from his older brothers. Having already raised two boys, Ben suspected that a girl was the reason for the silly grin on Joe’s face and his sudden clumsiness and bouts of day-dreaming.
Little Joe felt a light fluttering sensation in his stomach as he neared Sarah’s house. When he arrived at the Anderson ranch, Sarah was waiting for him on the porch swing with her father. She was wearing a dark green split riding skirt and a matching jacket over a lacy white blouse. Sarah usually wore her hair loose but today she was wearing it in a single thick braid secured by a matching green ribbon. Sarah’s father had often remarked how much she resembled her late mother. Their height and body shapes were identical: both tall, finely contoured with near perfect proportions. Sarah’s long wavy chestnut hair framed a strong face with high cheekbones, sculptured lips and a perfect nose.
Enraptured, Joe stood on the porch and stared at Sarah as she introduced him to her father. Jake Anderson shook hands with Joe then asked him a few questions about where he was taking Sarah and when he would have her home. Little Joe assured Mr. Anderson his intentions were honorable and he promised to have his daughter home well before sunset.
Joe helped Sarah mount her horse then checked to make sure the picnic basket was still securely fastened behind his saddle. He smiled at Sarah as he patted Cochise on the neck then effortlessly swung up into the saddle. The young couple turned to wave at Sarah’s father then blissfully cantered off down the road.
For the first few miles, Little Joe and Sarah rode together in silence. The fresh scent of her perfume and the sparkle in her blue eyes left Joe speechless. Although he was well on his way to becoming a ladies’s man, Joe still felt nervous and unsure of himself. In a few more years, his boyish charm and devastatingly good looks would make him the most sought after bachelor on the Comstock.
Unknown to Joe, Sarah shared some of her escort’s feelings of nervousness. For her to be riding beside such a handsome young man was like a dream come true. During the five years she and her father had lived in the Nevada Territory, Sarah had her eye on Little Joe. She had secretly hoped and prayed that someday he would notice her and ask her out and today, her dream was about to come true.
The light summer breeze and the warm afternoon sun helped to ease the tension and relax the young couple. Soon they were chatting like old friends. Joe was impressed with Sarah’s riding skills and her knowledge of the local history. Sarah loved the sound of Joe’s easy laugh and the way he smiled at her.
As they neared the lake where Joe had planned to enjoy their picnic, Sarah challenged him to a race. Before he could reply, Sarah spurred her mount forward, leaving Joe in a cloud of dust. Cochise snorted then reared and lunged forward, nearly throwing his young master to the ground. Joe could hear Sarah’s laughter carried on the wind as he and Cochise swiftly closed the gap then pulled forward by one length. At the last second, Little Joe reined in Cochise, slowing him down and allowing Sarah to win the race. Sarah leaped off her horse before he had come to a complete stop and joyfully proclaimed herself the winner. Joe smiled at the little daredevil and graciously admitted defeat.
Cochise was thoroughly annoyed at losing the race. He whipped his head around and glared at his master. To further emphasize his displeasure, Cochise stomped and snorted then swung his head at Little Joe, striking him and knocking him off balance. Joe laughed and patted the horse’s neck. “Take it easy there, boy.”
Joe tethered his horse to a tree then spread a blanket on the ground beneath the lush canopy of a weeping willow tree. “Wow,” exclaimed Sarah. “This place is so beautiful.”
“And so are you,” thought Little Joe.
The bright summer sun sparkled and danced on the still surface of the small lake. A light wind blew through the tall grass that framed the little lake, gently bending the thick green blades.
Everywhere Sarah looked she was greeted by a horizon undulating with pine covered mountains.
Sarah told Joe on the ride to the lake that she had instantly fallen in love with this part of the country the moment she saw it. Nothing in Savannah, Georgia, where she had lived most of her life, could compare to the majestic breath-taking beauty of the Sierras. Sarah said she and her father had moved west shortly after her mother had died. They had chosen to live here, near Lake Tahoe, because this was where her father had been born.
For Joe and Sarah, the next few hours were a delightful time of sharing and getting to know one another. They laughed and told one another stories as they ate the picnic lunch that Hop Sing had so carefully prepared. After they had polished off the last of the fresh baked apple pie, Joe suggested they go for a walk. Besides showing Sarah more of the Ponderosa, he wanted a chance to hold her hand. Joe led Sarah through the trees along a narrow path that eventually opened up onto a sea of wild flowers; a meadow of startling color and greenery framed between two stands of sweet smelling pines. A small trickle of snow water from the high country ran down the left side of the meadow and fed into the small lake where Joe and Sarah had enjoyed their picnic lunch. When they finally stopped to rest, Little Joe reached out and gently took hold of Sarah’s gloved hand. He could feel the warmth of her skin through the thin leather. Sarah smiled shyly, thinking about how good Joe’s hand felt in hers.
“Oh, Joe....I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” exclaimed Sarah. “The flowers seem to stretch all the way to the horizon.”
Little Joe suddenly felt an overwhelming burst of energy. Still holding Sarah’s hand, he flashed the beautiful girl beside him a mischievous grin then took off running, pulling her behind him. Childish laughter filled the air as the young couple leaped and danced through the flowers, sending bees and other insects into wild and angry flight.
Joe and Sarah surged forward, totally unaware of the dark cloud that was about to darken their lives. Happy and winded, they collapsed together in the fragrant embrace of the tall flowers. Both lay on their backs with the warm summer sun caressing their faces, giggling and trying to catch their breath.
Three pairs of eyes, hidden in the shadows beyond the tree line, watched the young couple, waiting patiently for the right moment.
When the sun began to drop below the trees, Joe and Sarah slowly made their way back to their picnic site. The three men hiding in the trees discreetly followed. Little Joe was happy the day had turned out so wonderful, his only regret was that it was ending too soon.
Sarah helped Joe pack up the blanket and dishes then followed him over to where he had tethered his horse. She stood close enough to him to feel the warmth from his body while he secured the picnic basket behind his saddle. With her heart beating in her throat, Sarah reached out and touched the sleeve of Joe’s white cotton shirt and said, “Thank you for a wonderful day. I hope we can do this again.” She suddenly leaned forward and kissed Little Joe softly on the lips. His heart almost skipped a beat as Sarah’s lips pressed themselves firmly against his. Joe’s knees felt weak. He almost fell over, so delightful was the touch of her lips.
Suddenly, Joe felt himself violently lifted off the ground and thrown backward. He heard Sarah’s terrified scream a split second before he hit the ground. He landed heavily on his left side; the wind knocked out of him for the second time that day.
Little Joe scrambled to his feet and turned in time to see two rough, dirty cowboys struggling to maintain their hold on Sarah. A third man was bent over, gasping and holding onto the front of his pants, cursing up a storm as he struggled to breathe. Sarah twisted and kicked as the two men dragged her over to one of their horses.
“Watch out for her feet!” choked Jack, the man who had been on the receiving end of Sarah’s vicious kick. “She kicks harder’n a mule!”
Little Joe’s left hand instinctively reached for his side arm. His heart skipped a beat when he realized he wasn’t wearing his gun belt. In his haste to get out of the house before Hoss pulverized him, he had forgotten to take his gun belt along.
The three men were so preoccupied with getting Sarah onto a horse, they didn’t see Little Joe charge up behind them. Fury and determination made up for the difference in size and numbers. Joe peeled a man named Morgan off of Sarah. He clenched his left fist and delivered a hard left roundhouse swing to the man’s cheekbone. Morgan spun around and tumbled to the ground.
The leader of the group, a large man, tall and wide through the shoulders, snarled and stalked over to where Joe stood. Little Joe crouched low and charged, head butting the man in the belly. Joe’s momentum drove them both backward, landing in a tangled heap on the ground. Seth effortlessly pushed Joe off then rolled to his feet. Still feeling a surge of adrenaline, Joe jumped to his feet and swung at the man. Seth skillfully ducked beneath Joe’s punch then came back up and rewarded Little Joe with a hard right roundhouse to the head and a solid left smash to the mouth that split open Joe’s lip and sent him spinning face first into the ground. Little Joe lay motionless, trying to clear the fog from his rattled brain and shake the ringing sound from his ears. Seth watched while Joe struggled to push himself up onto his hands and knees. Still dizzy, Joe gave one last push then, legs shaking like a newborn colt, lost his balance and fell back onto the ground.
“Hey, Seth....that kid won’t stay down,” hollered Morgan.
Malicious laughter filled the warm summer air as Joe tried once more to regain his feet. His head was reeling and the ground seemed to be rocking and tipping. Suddenly, Joe felt the toe of Seth’s boot crash into his ribs. The blow momentarily paralyzed him. He lay on the ground, choking and gasping for air. Joe fought off the darkness that threatened to overwhelm him and willed himself to crawl over to his horse to get his rifle. Joe grabbed one stirrup and tried to pull himself erect. Between gasps for breath, he heard a sadistic laugh behind him. Seth had no intention of letting up. Joe felt a smashing blow on the back of his head that stunned him and dropped him facedown onto the ground again. He lay motionless as Seth stomped him on the small of his back. A paralyzing pain exploded throughout Joe’s entire body. A savage smile snaked across Seth’s hardened face as he reached down, grabbed a handful of Joe’s hair and yanked him to his feet. Joe cried out in pain.
Jack glanced around nervously then yelled, “Quit playing with him, and let’s get out of here!”
Seth growled and dropped Joe’s limp form back onto the ground. He kicked Joe in the ribs one last time then turned and marched back to retrieve his horse from Morgan. Seth snatched the reins and swung up into the saddle.
Sarah continued to fight and struggle, causing the horse she shared with Jack to become frightened and edgy. Jack and Morgan were too busy cursing and trying to control their horses and hold onto Sarah that neither noticed Little Joe stand up and pull his rifle from the saddle boot. As the three men turned their horse’s heads and started to leave, they heard Little Joe’s voice explode behind them. “Let her go!”
Jack, Morgan and Seth all turned around at the same time and saw Joe swaying unsteadily on his feet, pointing a rifle at them. Trembling with pain and fury, Joe limped toward them. .
Seth looked at Morgan. “Kill him!” he ordered.
Horrified, Sarah watched as Morgan deftly drew his revolver, aimed it at Little Joe then pulled the trigger. “Nooooooo!” she shrieked.
Little Joe’s head violently snapped to the side, spinning him around as his legs buckled beneath him.
As they rode away, Sarah turned in the saddle for one last look at Joe who lay sprawled motionless on the ground. Convinced he was dead, she bowed her head and silently whispered a prayer for Little Joe and his family.
For a long time, Little Joe was aware of nothing and then he felt the pain. He lay on his back, his teeth clenched in agony, looking up at the star-studded sky, a searing pain shooting through his entire body. Confused and moaning softly, Joe tried to remember where he was and why he was hurting so badly. Suddenly, the image of three men kidnaping Sarah materialized in his throbbing head. The last thing he remembered before the bullet struck his temple, plunging him into darkness, was his failed attempt to save her.
Joe gasped and cried out from a stabbing pain in his ribs and lower back as he rolled over onto his stomach. He lay there moaning and trembling for several minutes until the pain in his broken ribs lessened. Hesitantly, he got his hands and knees under him and very carefully pushed himself up. When he was on his knees, he lifted a hand to the wound in his head. As he gazed at the dark sticky blood on his hand, he was hit with a wave of nausea that brought his lunch gushing forth onto the ground. The heaving motion as he poured out the contents of his stomach was pure agony on his broken ribs.
When there was nothing left in Joe’s stomach, he shakily got to his feet and glanced around, searching for his horse. His head throbbed and his vision was blurred. He heard the fitful jingle of the fittings on Cochise’s bridle and followed the sound until he spotted his horse. The black and white pinto had spent the long hours that Joe had lain unconscious on the ground waiting patiently for his master to wake up.
Joe grabbed the saddle horn and hung on until the next wave of nausea passed. Cochise turned his head and eye-balled Joe suspiciously. The scent of blood mixed with the scent of his master confused him and made him nervous. Joe stood with his face pressed against the saddle, crying softly as he struggled to find the strength to pull himself up. Weakness flooded him when he placed his left foot in the stirrup. Joe’s hands slipped from the saddle horn and he staggered and fell backward. He lay writhing on the ground, fighting back the darkness that was slowly creeping in around the edge of his vision.
Cochise turned his head around and looked at his young master lying on the ground. Twice he nudged Joe with his velvety nose before Joe finally managed to stagger to his feet. Finally hauling himself up into the saddle, Little Joe took a death grip on the horn and pommel to keep from pitching headfirst onto the ground.
Slumped forward, Joe whispered in a weak voice, “Take me home, Cochise.”
It was well past sunset when Ben Cartwright heard an insistent pounding on the front door. For the last two hours he had been pacing the floor and grumbling about why his youngest son had not come home yet. Thinking Little Joe had lost his key, Ben stormed over to the door, ripped it open and shouted, “Well, you finally decided to come home!”
Ben swallowed the rest of his angry words when he saw Jake Anderson standing in the doorway.
Jake pushed past Ben and stomped into the house. “What has YOUR son done with my daughter?” demanded another angry father.
Momentarily stunned, Ben shook his head and asked, “What are you talking about, Jake?”
“You know darn well what I’m talking about, Cartwright! Your “no-good son” took my daughter on a picnic this afternoon. He promised to have her back by supper time but she never came home! I swear.....when I get my hands on that boy, I’m gonna skin him alive!”
Ben couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Little Joe was not the kind of boy who would deliberately hurt or take advantage of a girl.
“Just simmer down, Jake. Little Joe never made it home either. I was just about to go out looking for him when you started pounding on my door.”
Curious as to what all the commotion was about, Hoss and Adam came downstairs to investigate.
Hoss yawned and asked, “What’s going on, Pa?”
“Good evening, Mr. Anderson,” said Adam, reaching out to shake Jake’s hand. Adam looked around the room and asked, “Where’s Joe? Isn’t he home yet?”
“No, Adam,” answered Ben. “Jake was just telling me that Sarah never came home this evening, either.”
“Your no-good scoundrel son had better not have harmed my Sarah!” shouted Jake.
Jake’s accusations and harsh words stunned Adam and Hoss.
Trying to control his temper, Ben said, “I suggest we don’t jump to conclusions. Anything could have happened. One of their horses could have thrown a shoe or gone lame.”
Ben didn’t like the look on Jake’s face. He was afraid that in Jake’s present frame of mind, he might shoot Little Joe when they found him then ask questions later.
Taking command of the situation, Ben said, “Get dressed and saddle the horses, boys. We’re going out to help find Sarah and Little Joe.”
While the Cartwrights were getting ready, Cochise slowly ambled into the yard. His young rider seemed oblivious to his actions so he took advantage of the situation and decided to nibble some of the sweet tender grass that grew near the kitchen. Suddenly, he felt the weight on his back shift to the right and fall to the ground. He snorted and watched his young master moan and struggle to his feet.
Little Joe held onto the side of the house, struggling to clear the haze in his throbbing head. Slowly and awkwardly, he made his way to the front door. “Just a few more feet,” thought Joe as he fought the overwhelming desire to go to sleep. Summoning what little strength he had left, Joe opened the front door and collapsed on the floor at his father’s feet.
“Joe!” yelled Ben, dropping to his knees.
Adam and Hoss came rushing to their father’s side. Ben gently rolled Joe over onto his back and immediately noticed the ugly gash on the left side of his son’s head. Ben scooped up Joe’s limp body and carried him to the couch. Little Joe started to moan and whimper when his father gently lowered him onto the cushions.
“Easy there, son,” whispered Ben, a look of worry etched on his handsome face.
Joe struggled to raise himself up into a sitting position but the dizziness and the sharp pain in his head and chest convinced him to lie back down. Through the fog, Joe thought he heard Hoss say, “My God, Pa....Joe’s an awful mess.”
Little Joe could only imagine what he must look like, lying there all bloody and bruised.
“Hoss,” commanded Ben. Send one of the ranch hands into Virginia City to fetch Doc Martin.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Hoss as he hurried out the door.
“Hop Sing!” yelled Ben. “Bring me some hot water, alcohol rub and some towels!”
Adam frowned as he reached down and gently took Joe’s chin in his hand. He slowly turned his little brother’s head to the side to get a better look at the gash on Joe’s head.
“Pa.....it looks like someone tried to kill Little Joe,” said Adam. “This wound looks like a bullet crease.”
Ben took the basin of water from Hop Sing and gently began to wipe the dried blood and dirt from Joe’s face and hair.
“What happen to Littow Joe?” asked Hop Sing.
“We don’t know yet,” answered Ben, his voice tight with worry and concern.
Yelling and cursing , Jake came storming back into the house. He rudely pushed past Hoss and stomped over to the couch. Before Ben could stop him, he reached down with both hands and grabbed the front of Joe’s bloody shirt, yanking him up off the couch and shaking him violently. “Where’s Sarah? What have you done with my daughter? You better tell me right now!”
Little Joe gasped and cried out.
Ben grabbed Jake’s hands and pried them loose. “Stop it!” he shouted. “My son is badly hurt, you’re going to hurt him worse.”
“If he doesn’t tell me what he did with Sarah, I’ll hurt him a whole lot more!!” countered Jake.
Ben flashed Jake a look he usually reserved for his sons when they had pushed him too far and growled, “You’ll do no such thing!”
Ben turned back to Little Joe who was holding his chest, his breathing labored.
Suspecting Joe had some broken ribs, Ben quickly unbuttoned Joe’s shirt to get a look at his son’s chest. He grimaced when he saw the dark purple and blue bruise that covered the left side of Joe’s chest.
Ben smoothed back the curls from his son’s face and asked, “Joe, can you tell us what happened? Where’s Sarah?”
Tears streamed down Joe’s smooth cheeks. He reached out and took his father’s hand. “I’m sorry, Pa! I tried to stop them from taking her.... but I couldn’t.”
Ben frowned and asked, “Who took Sarah?”
Little Joe moaned and shifted restlessly on the couch. “It was three men. They must have been following us. Just as we were getting ready to come home, one of them grabbed me and threw me on the ground.”
“What did they do to Sarah?” asked Jake impatiently.
“One of the men grabbed her and tried to put her on a horse but she fought like a demon.”
A small gleam appeared in Joe’s eyes and he added, “She even managed to kick one of the men in a spot he’s not soon to forget.”
Ben wiped the blood from Joe’s face and neck. “Then what happened,” he asked.
Joe flinched and groaned from the stinging pain, then continued. “I tried to stop them but I didn’t have my gun with me; I accidentally left it here this afternoon. All I had to fight with were my fists. I tried to stop them but one of the men....I think his name was Seth, beat me senseless.”
At the mention of name “Seth,” Jake staggered backward and dropped heavily into a chair. All the color drained from his face as three ghosts from his past suddenly came back to haunt him.
Ben saw the horrified look on Jake’s face and asked, “Jake, are you alright?”
Ben turned to Hoss and said, “Bring Mr. Anderson a glass of brandy.”
Jake gratefully accepted the glass of brandy from Hoss and downed the contents in one gulp. Ben watched Jake slump forward in the chair and run his fingers through his hair; he suddenly looked older than his thirty-nine years.
“No, no....it can’t be!” Jake moaned. His heart felt an indescribable heaviness as he realized that Sarah’s life was in dire jeopardy, and it was all his fault.
Adam walked over and put a hand on Jake’s shoulder. “What is it, Mr. Anderson? Are you alright?”
“Oh, my God! They’ve found me!” muttered Jake. “After all these years, they’ve finally found me!”
With a look of consternation, Ben stood and handed the bloody towel to Hoss. “Hoss, would you please tend to Little Joe while I talk to Jake?”
Joe moaned softly while Hoss finished cleaning his head wound. “Just hold still, Short shanks. I’m almost finished.”
Ben walked over and sat down on the edge of the coffee table, facing Jake. His voice stern, Ben demanded, “Is there something we should know? What is it you’re not telling us?”
Jake buried his face in his hands, fighting back the panic that threatened to consume him. “I know who the men are that kidnaped Sarah and I’m pretty sure I know what they want!”
“Go on,” urged Ben.
Jake swallowed the lump in his throat. “First of all, I have a confession to make. My name is not Jake Anderson. It’s Zachary Langford. The men who kidnaped my daughter and beat up your son, Ben, are my former partners....former outlaw partners to be exact. I never thought they’d ever find me after all these years.”
Intrigued, Adam sat down on the edge of the fireplace, eager to hear what Jake was about to tell them.
Jake glanced over at Little Joe, who was struggling to remain conscious, then back at Ben.
He heaved a heavy sigh and began to relate to the Cartwrights the secret he had kept for most of his life.
He never could have imagined what a vast relief it was simply to talk: the lifting of a burden that had been with him so long he’d forgotten it was there. “Twenty-two years ago, when I was about Little Joe’s age,” said Jake, “I joined up with three outlaws. One day, the four of us decided to rob the bank in Leadville, Colorado. Being as I was just a kid, I was to act as the look out and hold the horses while the other three robbed the bank. I never actually took part in the robbery itself. It went off as planned and we got away with a little over $3,000 in gold and currency.”
Jake paused, rubbed his chin then continued with his story. “We were pursued relentlessly for four days. The posse had one hell of a good tracker because just when we thought we had lost them, they would show up again. Finally, our horses were as exhausted as we were so we made a pact that if we got caught, three of us would hold the posse down with gunfire while the fourth man escaped with the money and hid it in a prearranged spot.....a place that only the four of us knew about. The money and gold was to remain hidden until the other surviving members of the hold-up got out of prison; at which time, we would divide up the loot. I was chosen to be that man because I was the only one the other three trusted to actually hide the money and not run off with it. The last I saw of my three partners, they were holed up in some rocks, exchanging gunfire with the posse.”
Ben asked, “What happened after that?”
“I was terrified. I rode like Lucifer himself was on my tail. During those long hours in the saddle, running for my life, I had time to think about the path I had chosen. I was tired of hustling and picking pockets just to stay alive. Here was my chance....a chance to live the good life. I knew it was wrong but I also knew if I continued as a criminal, I would be dead before my twentieth birthday. So, instead of hiding the money as I had promised, I kept it all for myself and set a new course for my life.
“I kept riding west until I reached San Francisco. There, I booked passage under a false name on a ship headed for New Orleans. When I reached New Orleans, I bought a horse and started drifting with no destination in mind. I was careful to remain honest and walk the straight and narrow and I never stayed in one place for too long for fear that someone would eventually find me.”
Jake closed his eyes and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He was silent for a moment then continued with his story. “Three years after I stole the money, I met Sarah’s mother in Savannah, Georgia. I fell hopelessly in love with her and decided it was time to stop running and settle down. By that time, I was going by the name Jake Anderson. Sarah’s mother never knew the truth about me. I told her my parents had left me a handsome inheritance when they died a few years ago. I also told her I was the last of my family, that I had no other living relatives, which was the truth because I was an only child; my parents died when I was twelve years old. We lived comfortably but not ostentatiously; I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I ran my own business for several years until Sarah’s mother passed away from an outbreak of influenza; she died never knowing my secret. A year after we buried her, I decided I couldn’t stand living in a big city anymore. I longed for the wide open spaces of the west, where I had been born. My dream had always been to own my own ranch so Sarah and I packed up and headed west. We bought the old Davis ranch and the rest, you already know.”
“That’s quite a story,” said Ben, rubbing his chin.
Adam tented his fingers beneath his chin and asked, “Do you think these men are planning to exchange Sarah for the money you stole from them twenty-two years ago?”
“I can’t think of any other reason why they would grab my daughter,” answered Jake.
Adam thought for a moment then asked, “Do you remember the names of your former partners?” “You don’t tend to forget something like that,” said Jake with a rueful smile. “Their names are Seth McKenzie, Jack Shepherd and Morgan Nash.”
Jake got up and walked over to where Little Joe was lying on the couch, an ice pack on his head and one arm draped over his eyes. Jake patted Joe on the leg and said, “Son, I’m sorry for thinking and saying all those terrible things about you. I trust you and I know you wouldn’t do anything to deliberately harm or compromise my daughter.”
Little Joe was still feeling dizzy and nauseous from the head wound. He peeked out from under his arm and tried to smile.
“What do we do now, Pa?” asked Hoss.
Ben stood and stared at the dancing flames in the fireplace. “At this point, all we can do is wait for the kidnappers to contact Jake with their demands.”
Feeling anxious and distraught, Jake paced the length of the room then headed for the front door. “I can’t just wait around for these men to contact me. I have to do something! I have to go back to where they grabbed Sarah and follow their tracks!”
Ben stepped in front of Jake, blocking the front door. “What you need to do is pull yourself together and go home; the kidnappers are expecting you to be there. Once they have made their demands clear, then we can formulate a plan of action.”
Jake felt a tightening in his chest. All he wanted right now was to get his hands on the scoundrels that had taken his daughter.
Adam stood and offered a suggestion. “Why don’t I go home with Mr. Anderson and keep him company while he waits.”
“Good idea, son,” said Ben, going back to sit by Little Joe. “Ride back here as soon as you find out what they want.”
Adam quickly returned to his room to get his jacket and rifle. On his way back down to the living room, he passed Hoss and his father on the stairs. Hoss had Little Joe cradled in his arms.
Little Joe’s body felt light in Hoss’s arms as he gently carried him into his room and lay him on the bed. Ben leaned over Joe and looked into his son’s glazed eyes. Joe was barely conscious as Ben undressed him and tucked him under the covers.
“Pa,” Joe moaned softly, pushing back the quilt from his shoulders. “I have to find Sarah....I have to get her back.”
Ben gently stroked Joe’s hair and whispered, “Shhhh....just go to sleep, boy.”
It wasn’t long before Joe surrendered to a deep and dreamless sleep.
Before Ben left the room, he instructed Hoss to stay with Joe while he went downstairs to talk with Adam and Jake before they left.
“Don’t worry, Pa,” assured Hoss. “I’ll stay close to him.”
The Anderson ranch house looked dark and menacing when Jake and Adam rode up. Jake went inside the house to light a lamp while Adam put the horses in the barn. As Adam turned to leave the barn, the horses began to snort and whinny nervously.
Adam quickly drew his revolver and glanced around suspiciously. The horses continued to stomp and snort making it difficult for him to hear any noises that might be out of the ordinary. He quickly extinguished the lantern then stepped outside into the heavy darkness. Hidden in the shadows, Adam silently glided around the barn like a ghost. When he stepped around the southeast corner of the barn, he spotted a dark silhouette dart between the wagon and the corral.
He ran toward the wagon and shouted, “Hey, you....stop!”
The sound of gunfire shattered the cool night air. Bullets tore into the wagon’s frame, splintering the sunbaked wood. Adam flinched and ducked as he slid to a halt behind the wagon, kicking up a cloud of dust. He clenched his teeth and glanced around apprehensively, his heart pounding in his chest. Adam crouched with his shoulder pressed against the wood, listening as the sound of running feet fade into the night. He slowly poked his head around the corner of the wagon, peering into the darkness and searching for any sign of movement.
Suddenly, the door to the house opened and Jake dashed off the porch, running toward Adam, rifle in hand. Alarmed, Jake cried, “Adam, are you alright? What happened?”
Edgy from being shot at, Adam pressed his hand against Jake’s back, firmly urging him back into the house. Whoever was out there was probably still watching the house and Adam didn’t want to make an easy target.
Once they were inside the house, Adam closed all the shutters on the windows, making it impossible for anyone outside to see inside the dimly lit interior.
Jake asked, “What’s going on, Adam....what happened out there?”
Adam’s breathing was already returning to normal as adrenaline drained from his bloodstream.
“I heard someone sneaking around the barn so I went outside to see who was out there,” he said, pacing back and forth across the living room. “That’s when I saw someone running between your wagon and corral. I yelled at whoever it was to halt but he shot at me and kept on running. I’ll bet it was one of the three men who kidnaped Sarah.”
Jake opened one shutter just a crack and peeked outside. “Do you think he’s still out there?”
Adam pushed the shutter closed. “I’m sure he’s out there right now, watching this house.”
Jake ran his hands through his hair. “What are we going to do, Adam?”
“First of all,” said Adam, “I think we should look around the house to see if they left any kind of message or ransom note.”
Adam lit another lamp and began searching the kitchen and dining room area of the house while Jake checked out the living room and bedrooms.
Adam was walking back toward the front door when he heard Jake call his name. He rushed into Sarah’s bedroom and saw Jake standing by his daughter’s bed, holding a piece of paper. Jake’s face was as white as the walls and his hand was shaking as he handed the paper to Adam.
“I was right, Adam,” moaned Jake. “It’s those men I robbed the bank with over 20 years ago that have my daughter. They want the $3,000 I stole from them or else they’re going to kill her.”
Adam quickly read the note. He could see Jake’s entire body trembling.
Everything Jake had said was right. The only thing Jake had failed to mention was the last part of the note were the men promised they would defile Sarah before they killed her if Jake didn’t give them the money.
Adam couldn’t even begin to imagine what Jake must be feeling right now. “Don’t worry,” he said, “we’ll get her back.”
Jake jumped to his feet and shouted, “How? I don’t have $3,000 just lying around here or in the bank. All my money is wrapped up in livestock and investments. How the hell am I supposed to come up with that much money in two days?”
Adam could see a wild look of desperation in Jake’s eyes. The man was beyond all reason. He had to get him calmed down and thinking rationally before they could form a plan of action.
Morgan lay with his chest pressed against the hard ground, watching the man who had chased him around the barn escort Zachary into the house. Silently he cursed himself for staying inside the house so long. Fortunately, he’d been near a window when he heard the front door open. Just his luck, there would be another man in the barn when he tried to get to the corral to steal one of Zachary’s horses. Seth would have been furious with him if he had been caught.
Morgan grunted and shifted himself into a more comfortable position. Seth had instructed him to remain hidden and watch the house to see what Zachary Langford was going to do after he found the ransom note. Morgan didn’t have long to wait. He had just got himself comfortable when the front door opened and both men hurried to the barn, mounted their horses then disappeared into the darkness. Morgan jumped to his feet and ran back to where he had left his horse tethered to some low scrub brush. He quickly swung up into the saddle and followed Adam and Jake back to the Ponderosa.
Ben was walking the doctor out to his buggy when Adam and Jake rode up to the house. Adam leaped off his horse and rushed over to his father. “How’s Little Joe?” There was a note of urgency in his voice.
“He’s asleep right now,” answered Ben. “Doc Martin says he’ll survive. We just need to keep a close eye on him for the next couple of days and make sure he stays in bed and gets plenty of rest.”
Adam smiled inwardly at the thought of keeping Little Joe in bed. That was going to be an impossible task at best.
Ben looked over at Jake who was peering nervously into the darkness that lay beyond the house and the barn. Ben wondered what he was looking for but then dismissed the thought and bid the doctor farewell. Ben was anxious to hear what Jake and Adam had to say so he suggested they all go back inside the house and discuss what they had found.
As soon as they were all seated, Adam said, “I think we were followed back here by one of the men that kidnaped Sarah.” A dark cloud settled on Adam’s face as he described how someone took a shot at him while they were at the Anderson ranch.
Ben clenched his fists, angry at the thought of someone trying to kill another one of his sons. He jumped to his feet and stalked over to the fireplace. He stood before the crackling pine logs; the faint scent of wood smoke filling the air. Even though the fire felt warm, Ben felt a cold chill wrap itself around him. These men no longer had just Jake to deal with. They now had the entire Cartwright clan to contend with as well. Jake’s fight was now their fight too.
Adam walked over and stood by his father. He handed him the ransom note they found in Sarah’s room and waited while he read it.
Zachary Langford, I think you know why we took your daughter today. Twenty-two years ago you stole something from us and we mean to get it back!
We were none too happy to find no money and gold when we finally got out of prison. You thieving sidewinder! You double-crossed us and now it’s payback time!
If you ever want to see your daughter alive again, bring $3,000 to Devil’s Slide and hide it in the crack of the boulder where the lone pinion tree grows. And come alone! If we hear or see anyone else with you then we’ll kill your daughter for sure. And before we kill her, we’ll each have our way with her. And that’s a promise!
Ben closed his eyes and rubbed one calloused hand across the back of his neck. He stood as silent and still as one of the venerable Ponderosa pines that his ranch was named for. His face was unreadable.
His anxiety becoming unbearable, Jake leaped to his feet and snatched the note from Ben’s hand. A thousand horrible thoughts about what these men might be doing to Sarah were racing through his mind. “What am I going to do?” he cried. “I have to get my daughter back now!”
“Take it easy, Jake,” answered Ben. “The first thing we have to do is figure out how we are going to get our hands on $3,000.”
Jake couldn’t believe what he had just heard. He gasped and asked, “You mean you’re going to help me?”
“Of course we are, Jake,” said Ben. “You’re our friend and our neighbor.”
Trying to lighten the mood, Adam added, “Not to mention the father of the girl that our little brother is smitten with.”
Jake smiled briefly then heaved a heavy sigh of relief. “I have around $500 in cash locked in the safe in my house. I’m expecting another $1,200 from the sale of two of my stallions and three brood mares. The men who purchased them are going to pay me and pick up the horses tomorrow.”
Ben paced the length of the room, deep in thought. “That leaves $1,300 that we need to come up with.”
“What about the money that Jasper Drummond still owes you, Pa?” asked Adam.
Ben looked at Adam. “That’s right, I had forgotten all about that. He still owes me $400 for the timber we supplied for his mine.”
“I’ll ride over tomorrow and collect the money,” said Adam.
“That only gives us $2,100,” said Jake. “What about the remaining $900?”
“I have around $300 in my safe,” answered Ben. “The rest you or I can try to secure as a loan from the bank.”
Ben glanced at the large grandfather clock that stood by the front door and said, “The sun will be up in a few hours. There’s not much more we can do until daylight so I suggest we all get some sleep.”
Ben saw Jake heading for the front door and stopped him. “No sense you going home tonight, Jake. Help yourself to one of the empty guest rooms upstairs.”
Jake was grateful for the offer. “Thank you, Ben, I appreciate your hospitality.” He nodded at Ben then with a heavy heart, started up the stairs.
Adam yawned and fell in step behind Jake.
“Adam,” called Ben. “Stay here...I want to talk to you for a moment.”
Ben picked up the ransom note and read it again. He put his arm around Adam’s shoulders and together they walked into the small alcove that served as Ben’s office.
“After you pick up the money from Jasper,” said Ben, “I want you to ride back to where those men grabbed Sarah and I’d like for you to follow their tracks. See if you can find out where they are holed up. Be very careful they don’t see you....and whatever you do, don’t let Jake know where you’re going. He’s not thinking clearly and I’m afraid he might do something stupid and jeopardize his daughter’s life.”
“I’ll be careful,” Adam promised.
Ben watched Adam climb the stairs then turned and blew out the oil lamp on his desk. Before going upstairs to sit with his youngest son, Ben stepped outside to see if he could spot anyone prowling around the house. The horses in the corral were dozing contentedly, a sure sign that no danger was lurking in the shadows so Ben went back inside and locked the door before going upstairs to be with Joe.
Ben sat by Little Joe’s bedside the rest of the night, silently keeping watch over his son. In the warm flickering glow from the oil lamp, Ben couldn’t help but notice how much Joe resembled his mother. He smiled inwardly, reflecting on the few precious years he had with Marie. A deep and familiar ache touched Ben briefly as he felt that blending of sadness and joy that are the ingredients of memory.
Sarah and her captors rode fast and hard, putting as much distance between themselves and the lake. Tears of sorrow and fear clouded Sarah’s vision. She bit her lower lip, trying to quell the trembling in her body. She wanted to scream, she wanted to cry but most of all she wanted to kill these men for what they had done to Joe Cartwright. Each time Sarah closed her eyes all she could see was Little Joe lying on the ground, a bloody gash visible beneath his soft brown curls. The three men had added fuel to her burning anger by laughing and making crude remarks about killing Little Joe. Sarah fought against the terror and confusion that threatened to overwhelm her. She knew if she was going to survive, she had to stay calm and keep her wits about her. She had to forget about Little Joe, he was no longer able to help her. She was on her own.
Sarah began to make mental note of the familiar landmarks they passed. When they entered unfamiliar territory, she carefully registered the direction they were riding and any outstanding features in the landscape. This information would prove vital should she manage to escape.
She clung precariously to the saddle horn as the three horses maintained their brutal pace. The only rest she got was when Seth called a brief halt to tie a rope around her wrists. Sarah’s body ached from the brutal pounding from the horse and she felt nauseous from the overpowering stench emanating from the man mounted on the horse behind her. The feel of his foul sweaty body pressed against her back made her cringe and shudder.
So far, the three men had not felt it necessary to tell Sarah why she had been abducted. Each time she tried to ask, all she received was a crude order to keep her mouth shut. Several times, she overheard the big man named Seth, make reference to someone by the name of Zachary Langford. Each time this man’s name came up in conversation, Sarah noticed all three of her captors would glance her way. From what she could gather, this man Zachary Langford was somehow involved in her abduction.
The hours flew by and soon the sky was awash with a brilliant pink and orange glow. Sarah could see Lake Tahoe sparkling in the distance, surrounded by a battalion of mountains and trees standing guard over the rare jewel of the Sierras. She watched the shadows lengthen and deepen beneath the ancient pines as the night descended.
The light breeze blowing off of Lake Tahoe quickly cooled the four riders. Sarah was thankful the wind was blowing towards her for it gave her a welcomed respite from nauseating stench that had assaulted her nose the entire ride. Sarah had a fairly good idea where they were when they finally stopped for the night. Jack Shepherd slid backwards over his horse’s rump then grabbed Sarah by her arm and yanked her down from the saddle. She cried out and stumbled, her legs felt weak and sore from the long torturous ride. Still seething from Joe’s murder and the brutal treatment she had received, Sarah flashed Jack a murderous look then drove the heel of her boot hard into his instep. Jack let out a yelp of pain and surprise then raised his arm to slap her. Sarah instinctively closed her eyes and recoiled, preparing herself for the stinging blow she knew she was about to receive. When nothing happened she opened her eyes and saw Seth’s large hand holding back Jack’s arm in an iron grip.
There was a deadly edge in his voice as he growled, “Don’t you dare lay a hand on her!”
Jack struggled to wrench his arm free. “But she stomped on my foot!”
Further tightening his grip, Seth stepped closer to Jack and hissed, “I don’t care what she does to you! You and Morgan are not to harm her! You understand? She’s mine and I don’t want a mark on her!”
“This is the second time today she’s hurt me,” challenged Jack. “I say this little wildcat needs to be taught a lesson in manners! Nobody hurts Jack Shepherd and gets away with it!”
One corner of Seth’s lip raised in a menacing scowl. He balled up his fist and fired a brutal jab to Jack’s nose. The short, wicked punch sent a spray of blood onto Sarah’s blouse and knocked Jack unconscious. Stunned, Sarah watched Seth casually step over Jack’s prone body and walk away. The callous attitude these men took with one another made Sarah tremble with fear. For the first time all day she began to fear for her life.
Sarah watched as Seth and Morgan went about setting up camp for the night. No fire was lit for fear of announcing their presence to anyone who might have followed. Dinner consisted of a few strips of beef jerky and some stale bread. Sarah tried to eat it but her stomach was still too upset.
She pushed the plate aside and pulled her knees up to her chest, trying to keep warm. Warily, she watched Seth and Morgan move about in the darkness. She could hear Seth speaking to Morgan in a low voice. Morgan nodded then walked back over to where Sarah sat. He paused and licked his lips, a lustful look in his eyes. Sarah turned, and even in the dark she could feel his stare. She shivered from fear as well as the chilly night air. Morgan grunted and threw her a blanket then mounted his horse and disappeared into the darkness.
Sarah covered herself with the blanket then pulled up the collar of her thin jacket and made herself as comfortable as possible against the cold hard boulders. No one seemed to pay attention as she laid her head in her hands and cried for Little Joe. Her silent tears turned to racking sobs that shook her whole body. She slumped to the ground, pressing herself against the hard jagged rocks as wave after wave of sorrow swept over her.
Finally, the gentle sound of water lapping against moss covered rocks and the rhythmic chirping of crickets combined to make Sarah drowsy, and she finally drifted off into a fitful sleep.
A thin stream of sunlight crept up Ben Cartwright’s arm, slowly warming him. He began to stir when the morning light settled on his face. Ben yawned and rubbed his bloodshot eyes, listening to the familiar sounds of bird chirping and chickens clucking that drifted into the room on the soft summer breeze.
Ben groaned as he eased his aching body from the chair where he had spent the entire night. He stood beside Joe’s bed, rubbing his neck. The boy had slept fitfully; waking several times during the night confused and sick to his stomach. Ben was relieved to see that Little Joe seemed to be resting easy now. Although the room would be warm soon, Ben reached down and drew the covers over Joe’s shoulders and tucked them around his still form. Ben sat down in the chair again, pulled on his boots then sighed heavily as he stood and walked quietly out of the room. The rest of the house was slowly coming awake. Ben could hear Hoss’s heavy footsteps on the wooden floorboards as well as the sound of a door opening farther down the hall. The smell of fresh coffee and bacon drifted up to the second floor. The familiar smells and sounds of the household lulled Ben into a false sense of well-being; the fear and anxiety of the night before momentarily forgotten. The sight of Jake Anderson standing at the top of the stairs shattered the illusion and once again Ben felt the heavy weight of their predicament. Judging from the haggard expression on Jake’s face and the dark circles beneath his eyes, Ben suspected the man hadn’t slept all night.
Ben closed his eyes, heaved a heavy sigh then squared his shoulders and approached Jake. He clapped a hand on Jake’s shoulder and gently squeezed; a gesture meant to offer some comfort. Jake felt some strength in the heavy warmth of Ben’s touch. He gave Ben a half-hearted smile then turned and together they descended the stairs.
Ben and Jake were both finishing their first cup of coffee when Adam came down the stairs followed by Hoss. Adam chuckled when his rather large younger brother pushed past him in his haste to get to the breakfast table.
Ben watched in amazement as Hoss piled his plate with a mountain size serving of eggs and an equally large portion of bacon. It never failed to amaze him the amount of food his second son could consume. Sometimes he swore Hoss had two hollow legs.
Hoss poured himself a cup of coffee and asked, “How’s Little Joe this morning?”
Ben yawned and put down his fork. “He seems to be resting comfortably. He tossed and moaned most of the night. He finally settled down right before sunrise.”
“I’ll bet Joe wakes up with a whoppin’ headache,” said Hoss, reaching for the salt and pepper.
Adam stood with his hands on the back the chair where he usually sat and said, “Pa, I’m going to riding over to see Jasper Drummond about the money he owes us and after that, I have a few other errands to take care of. I won’t be back until later this afternoon.”
Ben exchanged a knowing glance with his son then nodded. He was concerned about Adam being alone while he tracked the kidnappers, but he knew his son well enough to know he would exercise extreme caution.
Jake, who had remained silent throughout breakfast, hurriedly drank the last of his coffee then stood and said, “I want to thank you, Ben, for your hospitality and your offer to help me get Sarah back. I truly am sorry that I got Little Joe and your family mixed up in my affairs and I feel really awful that Joe almost got himself killed on my account. This is all my fault! I should never have taken that money. I always knew my actions would someday come back to haunt me.”
Jake rubbed his hands through his thick brown hair and continued, “I didn’t get much sleep last night. I kept thinking about what I did and what I should have done a long time ago. When this is over, I’m going to turn myself in. I have to make amends for what I did. I only pray that I don’t have to spend too much time in prison. I don’t know what’s going to become of Sarah while I’m locked up.”
Ben smiled warmly at Jake and said, “Let’s not talk about that right now. We’ll worry about it when the time comes. Right now we have more important things to think about.”
Ben stood, turned to Hoss who was working on his third helping of bacon and eggs and said, Hoss, I am going to ride into Virginia City and see about getting a loan from the bank. I’d like you to keep an eye on Little Joe while I’m gone. You know how stubborn he can be....whatever you do, don’t let him get out of bed. Doctor’s orders.”
Hoss wasn’t too happy about having to babysit his little brother. “What if he won’t follow the doc’s orders and tries to get up?” asked Hoss.
“I don’t care if you have to sit on him! Just make sure he stays in bed while I’m gone!”
Hoss chuckled to himself and thought, “Trying to keep Joe is bed is gonna be worse than wrestling a polecat.”
Hoss knew that Little Joe hated nothing worse than being confined to his bed. He just hoped his little brother felt awful enough to want to stay in bed. Maybe if he read to him he would cooperate. Little Joe and the rest of the family used to love it when Joe’s mother Marie would read to them.
Jake followed Ben to the front door and said, “I’d best be getting back to my ranch and collect the money from my safe then wait for the men who bought my horses.”
Jake shifted nervously from foot to foot then added, “Ben, I don’t know how I’m ever going to repay you.”
Ben didn’t answer, he just finished strapping on his gun belt then held the door open for Jake. The two men walked silently to the barn, saddled their horses then rode off in opposite directions.
Little Joe was moaning softly and rubbing his eyes when Hoss entered his room. His long eyelashes fluttered open then slammed shut. Joe flinched and turned his head away from the morning sunlight that was streaming through the window. A sharp jab of pain shot through his head and broken ribs. He gasped and let out a high pitched yelp of pain followed by a whimper and a plea for Hoss to draw the curtains over the window.
Hoss quickly pulled the heavy curtains closed. “Easy there, Short shanks.”
With the offending light now banished, Joe was able to open his eyes enough to see his brother standing by his bed. He tried to speak but his mouth felt dry and his clouded mind refused to form a coherent thought. He felt a wave of panic building inside of him. He had this nagging feeling there was something important he should be doing but he couldn’t remember what it was. Suddenly, the nightmarish events of the day before broke through the thick haze in his mind. “Sarah!” gasped Joe. “I’ve got to find Sarah!”
Joe threw back the bed covers and tried to sit up. All the color drained from his face and his head began to throb in time with his pulse. A wave of nausea convinced him to lie back down again. As the nausea and the pain began to fade, Joe’s labored breathing slowly settled back into a normal rhythm.
Hoss wiped the cold sweat from his little brothers face then gently tucked him back into bed.
“I wouldn’t be goin’ and tryin’ that again, little brother,” reprimanded Hoss. “Doc Martin said you were to stay in bed all day!”
Undaunted, Joe glared at Hoss then grabbed a handful of the bed clothes and whipped them back a second time. Grunting from the effort, he struggled to pushed himself up with his elbows into a sitting position. Every muscle in his body screamed out in painful protest. Again his effort was met by a wave of dizziness and a hot, sharp pain that flared in his head and chest.
Hoss planted his hands on his hips and scolded his little brother. “Joe, I told you to stay put! If you don’t settle down and rest you’re gonna end up hurtin’ yourself even worse!”
Joe pinched his eyes closed and dug his fingers into the edge of the mattress. “What about Sarah? I have to find Sarah!”
“Don’t you go frettin’ about that. Pa, Adam and Mr. Anderson will bring her home.”
Joe gently touched the bandage on his head, a miserable look on his face. “It’s all my fault, Hoss,” he cried. “I was responsible for Sarah’s safety. She trusted me to protect her and I failed her! I couldn’t stop those men....I tried......I really did!”
Hoss sat down on the bed beside Joe and put his arm around his little brother’s shoulders.
“Nobody blames you, Joe,” reassured Hoss. “Ain’t no way you could’ve stopped those men from taking Sarah....no one could. You were just lucky they didn’t kill you.”
Little Joe wiped the tears from his eyes with the sleeve of his nightshirt. “I wish I hadn’t forgot my gun. If I’d had it with me, I could have stopped them,” said Joe, feeling his anger beginning to rise.
Hoss could see the frustration building in his baby brother. “You don’t know that for certain.”
“I have to find her,” Joe cried. “I can’t stay here and do nothing!”
“What do you think you’re going to do, Joe? You’re as weak as a baby and your hurtin’ somethin’ awful. Why you can’t even get out of bed without falling flat on your face. What makes you think you’re gonna be able to sit a horse? Why, I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t get past the barn before you passed out and fell off.”
Driven by anger and determination, Joe forced himself to stand up. Suddenly the room began to spin and a feathery darkness crept in around the corners of his vision. Joe began to weave and his knees suddenly collapsed.
Hoss caught Little Joe before he hit the floor. He scooped his little brother up into his arms and gently placed him in the center of his bed. He straightened the blankets and pulled them up to Joe’s chin. “Dadburnit, Joseph! You’ve got a stubborn streak a mile wide and twice as long. Don’t make me have to knock some sense into that thick skull of yours.”
Exhausted and disheartened from his failed effort, Joe gingerly rolled over so he faced the wall. Hoss could see his little brother’s shoulders shaking as he surrendered to his feelings of guilt and despair.
Hoss wished there was something he could do to make Joe feel better. He sat down on the edge of the bed and placed one large hand on Joe’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Hoss’s presence and the warmth from his hand comforted Joe and helped to ease the worry and fear he felt for Sarah.
It wasn’t long before a heavy dreamless sleep claimed Little Joe and the sound of his slow rhythmic breathing filled the room.
Sarah woke up when Seth kicked the bottom of her boots. He snatched the blanket off her body and rudely growled, “Get up, we’re leaving!”
Sarah was about to give Seth a scathing look then thought better of it. She slowly rose to her feet, her entire body felt stiff and sore from spending the night wedged between two hard boulders. Stretching her sore muscles, Sarah turned to face Lake Tahoe. The morning mist was clearing and the sun was beginning to sparkle on the water, casting dappled and shimmering light across the slime-coated rocks.
With a note of trepidation, Sarah noticed that Jack and Morgan had reappeared sometime during the night. Her anger instantly came boiling to the surface when Morgan winked at her and made an obscene gesture. She shot the man who had killed Little Joe a venomous look then quickly spun on her heel. She picked up the blanket Morgan had given her, angrily wadded it up and forcefully thrust it into his chest as she stomped past him.
Morgan felt a warm stirring in his loins as he laughed at her fiery display of indignation. He couldn’t wait to have his way with the arrogant girl.
No breakfast was offered to Sarah as the men were in a hurry. She felt a deep and gnawing ache in her stomach. She didn’t know if it was from hunger or from her fear and her grief over Little Joe’s death.
The three men spoke in hushed and guarded voices as they saddled the horses and prepared for the day’s ride. Sarah thought she heard one of the men mention the name Zachary Langford again. Who was this man, she thought and what role did he play in her abduction.
Several times, the men cast furtive glances at Sarah. Seth and Jack made her nervous but Morgan was the one who made her blood turn cold. She made a mental note to steer clear of him as best she could.
Sarah smoothed her hands over her hair as she waited to see which man she would be riding with today. She let out an audible sigh of relief when Seth approached her, grabbed her by the waist and lifted her up onto his horse. Seth settled himself behind her then spurred his horse forward, taking the lead.
Adam rode straight over to the Silver Slipper mine and collected the remainder of the balance Jasper owed his pa for the timber they supplied for his mine.
With the $400 tucked safely into his shirt pocket, Adam turned Sport’s head to the east and rode at an easy gallop to the small lake where Little Joe and Sarah had encountered the three men from Jake’s past.
The bright summer sun warmed Adam’s back and shoulders as he neared the top of a small ridge. Below, he could see Sarah’s horse grazing peacefully down by the edge of the lake. When he reached the lake, Adam dismounted and tethered his horse to a small tree. Slowly and methodically he searched the area, taking care not to disturb any evidence or tracks that might tell him where the men had taken Sarah.
The area beneath the tree where Sarah and Joe had their picnic was blanketed by a thick carpet of trampled grass that yielded no clues. Further out, Adam found a pool of dried blood that he assumed was from Little Joe’s head wound. He shuddered then continued his search.
Slowly Adam expanded his search in an ever-widening circle until he reached an area not far from where Joe had been shot. Here there was less grass and he could make out the hoof prints of several horses in the damp, fragrant soil. The trail here was easy to follow. The men appeared to be in a hurry and didn’t bother to hide their tracks. Adam followed the tracks west for several miles then lost them as they neared the eastern shoreline of Lake Tahoe. Frustrated, he wasted an hour searching the area until finally he picked up the trail again. The tracks turned north and followed the western boundary of the Ponderosa then abruptly turned east again back onto Ponderosa property. Puzzled, Adam reined in his mount.
Sport pranced nervously and tossed his head while Adam pondered on their reasons for turning back. He patted his horse on the neck and said to the sorrel, “What are these men up too?”
Adam removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve then with a light touch of his heels, he spurred Sport forward into a canter.
Adam heard the sound of voices long before he saw the small cabin hidden in a thick copse of pine trees. He tethered Sport a safe distance from the cabin then eased his way forward through a sea of wildflowers and tall grass. He had forgotten about this particular cabin. It had once served as storage for winter feed as well as a line shack.
Adam could see two men leaning on the rails of a dilapidated corral. They appeared to be talking. He assumed the third man was inside the cabin with Sarah. Adam sat hunched down, hidden in the thick grass and flowers. He carefully studied all the details, committing the scene before him to his memory. No detail was too small or insignificant. If they were to be successful in rescuing Sarah it was vital that he remember it all as accurately as possible.
Small honeybees busily buzzed from flower to flower, unconcerned by the intruder in their midst. Several times, one or more of the bees would become curious, coming in for a closer look. Adam smiled as he gently swatted the inquisitive insects away. He wished he could get close enough to have a look inside the cabin so he could be sure that Sarah was okay. He knew Mr. Anderson would want to know if the men had harmed his daughter. Adam sighed and shook his head. For now they would have to be content with the knowledge of the kidnappers whereabouts.
Careful not to make a sound, Adam slowly crept back to where he had left his horse. He quickly mounted Sport and headed back to the Ponderosa.
Although his head was still pounding and his ribs felt like they were on fire, Little Joe was bored and restless. He couldn’t think of anything worse than being confined to his bed. Besides feeling restless, Joe was plagued by fear and an urge for vengeance. His fists clenched, he pounded the mattress in impotent rage.
Joe’s distress and anxiety were becoming unbearable; he had to do something. He couldn’t lie in bed and do nothing. Little Joe grabbed a handful of blankets and threw them aside. He swung his legs over the edge of the mattress and gingerly pushed himself up until he was standing on the floor. Instantly, his vision blurred and the room began to spin. He broke out in a cold sweat and felt himself begin to fall. Joe reached out and grabbed the bedpost with both hands and held on tight, waiting for the dizziness and nausea to pass.
Through sheer will and determination, Joe managed to dress himself. He left his shirt unbuttoned and untucked, a small amount of the white bandage around his chest showing through.
Joe was exhausted from the effort so he closed his eyes and waited a few minutes before leaving his room. When he felt his strength returning, Joe slowly padded down the hall, his slippers making hardly a sound. He paused to listen for Hoss or his pa. He knew he would receive a severe tongue-lashing if his father caught him out of bed.
Joe was out of breath and feeling sick to his stomach when he reached the top of the staircase.
He pressed his clammy face against the wall and willed himself not to be sick.
Joe listened as voices from the living room drifted up to the second floor. He thought he heard Mr. Anderson’s voice as well as his father and Adam. Joe leaned against the timbered wall and eavesdropped on their conversation.
“I found the three men holed up in the old line shack in Buckhorn Canyon,” said Adam.
“What about Sarah, did you see her?” asked Jake, his voice explosive and demanding. “Is she alright?”
“No sir,” replied Adam. “All I saw were two men outside standing by the corral. I assume the third man was inside the cabin with Sarah. I couldn’t get close enough to get a look inside the cabin. They would have seen me.”
“You did the best you could, Adam,” said Ben. “At least now we know where they are hiding.”
“Any ideas what we should do now, Pa?” asked Adam.
Ben ran a hand through his hair before answering his son. “We give them the money in exchange for Sarah.”
Joe heard a deep growling sound followed by a burst of anger from Jake. “I say we ride in there right now and shoot the bastards!”
Overwhelmed by the stupidity of Jake’s plan, Ben flung out his arms and shouted, “And risk getting ourselves killed as well as your daughter? Oh, that really makes sense!”
Ben’s deep booming voice sent a wave of vibrations through Joe’s battered body.
Ben clenched his jaw and glared at Jake.
Jake knew Ben was right but all he could think about was vengeance. They were running out of time and he was running out of patience.
Feeling his own frustration building, Ben said, “Jake, you yourself said these men were cold ruthless killers. My God! Look at what they did to Joe!”
Jake shuddered at the mention of Joe’s near brush with death. Little Joe was lucky the man’s aim had been off.
Two sets of impatient footsteps pacing the length of the living room were the only sound Joe heard before Adam spoke again. “Please, Mr. Anderson......sit down and listen to what I have to say. You too, Pa.” Adam’s mind was already racing toward the task at hand.
Ben flashed his eldest son a look of disapproval then reluctantly sat down on the edge of the coffee table.
Adam rose and said, “I realize that nerves are frayed and the stress of the situation is taking its toll....but all this shouting is a waste of time and is getting us nowhere. I propose we think about this logically.” He walked over to his father’s desk, picked up a piece of paper and a pen then sat down at the drum table near the foot of the stairs.
With the precise and practiced hand of an architect, Adam sketched the cabin, corral and surrounding trees that covered the cabin where the outlaws were holding Sarah.
Curious what Adam was drawing, Ben and Jake walked over and stood behind him, looking over his shoulder.
Adam set down the pen and said, “There is enough cover from the trees and the surrounding foliage to make it easy for us to sneak up on the cabin and take up positions on the side and the front. Jake and I will draw their attention from the front porch then Pa, you can go in the side window and grab Sarah.”
Ben rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Good plan, Adam. We’ll have to be sure to check to see if they’ve posted a guard out front. If there is then one of us will have to take him out, quietly.”
Adam did not relish what he may be forced to do but sometimes it was necessary.
“So it’s settled,” Ben said, clapping Adam on the shoulder. “Tonight the three of us will bring Sarah home.”
Hoss had remained silent throughout the entire conversation. He now spoke up. “What about me, Pa? What do you need for me to do?”
“I need you here to look after Little Joe while we’re gone.” Ben felt bad about telling Hoss he couldn’t come with them. They certainly could have used him..
“Dadburnit!” complained Hoss. “Why can’t Hop Sing stay here and take care of Joe?”
Ben frowned at Hoss. “Because you’re bigger than Hop Sing. If Joe tries to get out of bed, all you have to do is sit on him.”
The thought of Hoss sitting on Joe made Adam laugh. He covered his mouth, trying to stifle the sound of his laughter.
“So, they’re planning a surprise raid to rescue Sarah tonight,” thought Joe, beginning to feel light-headed again. The pain was also making it difficult to think so he slipped back into his room for a few hours sleep. He needed to get as much rest as possible if he were to have enough strength to sneak out of the house and follow his father and brother tonight. Joe knew his pa would be furious with him but this was something he had to do. It was his fault that Sarah had been kidnaped. He had been given a second chance to rescue Sarah, to be her hero, and he was not going to fail this time.
To avoid the painful process of having to dress himself again later, Joe slipped his nightshirt on over his clothes then rolled up his pants so they wouldn’t show beneath his nightshirt. Gingerly, he eased his battered body back under the covers. It would be several hours before they would ride out to rescue Sarah so Little Joe allowed himself the luxury of a few hours of sleep.
Hoss had to wake up Joe when he brought up his brother’s dinner on a tray. Hoss helped Joe into a sitting position then placed the tray on his lap.
“Mmmmm....this sure smells good,” said Joe, rubbing his eyes.
Hoss smiled. “Good to hear you have an appetite, Short shanks. Pa will be glad to know you’re feeling better.”
“I’d feel a lot better if I didn’t have to stay in bed the rest of the evening,” grumbled Joe.
“Sorry, little brother. The doctor said you had to stay in bed for a couple of days.”
“Ah, Hoss! I’m going stir-crazy staring at the same four walls. I think a change of scenery would do me good.”
Hoss pulled up a chair and sat down. He gave Joe a good-natured scowl and said. “Quit yer complainin’ and eat yer supper.”
Little Joe gave Hoss his best “sad-eyed puppy” look and continued to plead for a temporary release from his bed. “I promise I’ll stay on the couch. I won’t walk around, I’ll just sit there. Please, Hoss....please!”
The indecisive look on Hoss’s face told Joe he was wearing his brother down.
Hoss hemmed and hawed for a few seconds then finally succumbed. “You can come downstairs for a little while after Pa, Adam and Mr. Anderson leave, but you gotta promise me you won’t tell Pa. I don’t want him hollerin’ at me.”
“I promise,” said Joe, a bit too eagerly. He felt a twinge of guilt for deceiving his own brother.
Little Joe picked up the fork and began eating. “Where’s Pa, Adam and Mr. Anderson going tonight?”
“Never you mind, Short Shanks....just eat your dinner,” scolded Hoss.
Joe finished his supper then sank down into the pillows to rest. He was still feeling weak and woozy. He was thankful the pounding in his head had lessened but his back and ribs were still causing him a lot of pain.
Joe was dozing when he heard Hoss enter his room. He opened his eyes and peeked over the edge of the blankets. He still felt really miserable.
“Pa, Adam and Mr. Anderson just left,” said Hoss. “I’m only going to let you sit down in the living room for a short while then its back to bed for you.”
Joe slowly sat up and paused on the edge of the bed to catch his breath and wait for the room to stop spinning. He clutched his chest and groaned softly.
Hoss frowned. He looked like he was beginning to have second thoughts.
His voice guarded, Joe asked, “What about Hop Sing? He might tell Pa you let me out of bed.”
“Hop Sing promised me he wouldn’t say a word about it.”
Joe glanced down at his bare feet. “Uh, oh,” he thought. This was one part of the plan he hadn’t thought about. He couldn’t very well leave the house without his boots.
Tentatively, Joe asked, “Would you get me my boots, please.”
Hoss gave Joe a suspicious look. “Why do you want to wear your boots? You won’t need them for just sitting downstairs.”
“Ummm....uhhh....well....,” stuttered Joe, trying to think of a plausible reason for wanting to wear his boots.
Sure he was about to be caught, Joe suddenly had an inspiration. “My feet are cold. That’s why I want to wear them.”
Joe breathed a sigh of relief when the suspicious look on his brother’s face melted away and was replaced by an easy trusting smile.
Hoss chuckled. “We can’t let your feet get cold, Short shanks.”
Joe closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. “That was too close,” he thought.
Hoss picked up Joe’s boots and put them on the bed. “Do you want me to help you put them on?”
“NO!” answered Joe, a little too quickly. He didn’t want Hoss to see he was wearing his pants beneath his nightshirt.
Leery of Joe’s suspicious behavior, Hoss frowned and crossed his arms across his broad chest. He watched Joe nervously shift around on the side of the bed. The fact that Little Joe couldn’t look him in the eye should have alerted him that his little brother was up to something, but instead, he decided to give his little brother the benefit of the doubt. Hoss relaxed and smiled amiably. Whatever shenanigans Joe had planned, he would soon find out and quickly put a stop to it.
Hoss winced as he watched Joe pull on his boots. From the look of pain on his brother’s face, he wished Joe would let him help. As soon as Little Joe’s boots were on, Hoss helped him into his robe. When Joe was ready, Hoss helped support his little brother as they slowly made their way down the stairs to the living room.
Little Joe gasped and groaned as Hoss eased him into the blue velvet wing chair near the gun cabinet. Joe’s face was pale and covered in a fine layer of moisture. Although Joe tried to hide it, Hoss could see the muscles in Joe’s jaw and along the side of his neck tighten as his little brother tried to hide the fact he was still in a lot of pain.
Hoss began to feel a bit uneasy. He was having second thoughts about allowing Joe to come downstairs tonight.
Watching Joe wilt before his eyes, Hoss said, “You don’t look too good, Short shanks. I’m beginning to think this wasn’t such a good idea. Let’s get you back up to bed.”
His teeth clenched, Joe answered, “I’ll be alright, Hoss. I just need to catch my breath.”
Hoss shifted anxiously from foot to foot and glanced back up the stairs. He now thoroughly regretted allowing Joe to come downstairs while his father and brother were away.
Hoss nervously glanced around the room then pulled over an ottoman and helped Joe prop up his feet. “Don’t you move, Short shanks. I’m going upstairs to get you a blanket to keep you warm. If you catch a cold, I’ll have a devil of a time explaining it to Pa.”
Joe suddenly had a devilishly clever thought. He needed as much time as possible to make it outside and to the barn before Hoss discovered he was gone. What better way to do that than to send Hoss on a wild goose chase.
In a small voice doleful voice, Joe asked, “Hoss? Would get me my favorite blanket? It’ll make me feel much better.”
Hoss took the bait. “Sure, Joe. Where is it?”
“I think its at the bottom of the trunk in my closet. You might have trouble getting the latch to open, it sticks sometimes. And if its not in there, try the linen closet down the hall.”
Joe waited until he heard Hoss open the door to his closet then gingerly shrugged out of his robe and nightshirt, tossing them both onto the floor near the fireplace. He grinned impishly at the heavy scraping sound as Hoss wrestled with his old steamer trunk.
“Now to get to the door and out to the barn without passing out,” thought Joe. He took as deep a breath as his broken ribs would permit then steeled himself for the painful task ahead. He prayed he would be strong enough to mount Cochise and disappear into the darkness before Hoss noticed he was missing.
Joe groaned and forced himself to stand up. He was immediately assaulted by a wave of nausea followed by an intense throbbing pain in his temple. He closed his eyes and pressed his hand against the side of his head where the soft padding of the bandage covered the crease in his temple. A small shrill sound escaped his lips, the pain dropping him to his knees.
The throbbing pain in his head and chest were an awful reminder of his failure to help Sarah.
Besides pain, Little Joe was filled with a dangerous and anxious sort of energy. Anger and frustration boiled to the surface, giving Joe the strength he needed to make it out the door and into the barn.
His movements slow and stiff, Joe pressed his arms against his chest as he walked to the barn.
Cochise snorted and whinnied when he saw Joe approaching him. “Shhhhhh....,” Joe hissed angrily. “It’s just me! Now calm down and be quiet!”
Joe glanced over at his saddle and groaned. “Oh, no!” he thought. In his weakened condition, there was no way he was going to be able to saddle his horse by himself.
Little Joe looked at Cochise and said, “Looks like I’m gonna have to ride you bareback tonight. I just hope I don’t end up falling off.”
Fearful that Hoss would discover him missing any moment now, Joe hurriedly slipped a bridle on his horse then pulled a crate over to help him mount the gelding.
Joe grabbed a handful of mane in one hand and held the reins in the other. He moaned and leaned forward, steeling himself for what he knew was going be a very painful experience. He patted the black and white pinto’s neck then touched his heels to the horse’s flanks, urging the animal out the barn door.
Sundown was an hour away and already the light was diffused, ruddy and deeply shadowed. Joe was glad he wouldn’t have to try to follow the trail left by his father, Adam and Mr. Anderson. He was as familiar with the Ponderosa ranch as was his father and brothers. He knew exactly where he was going and he was confident he would have no trouble finding his way there in the dark.
Through the darkness, Adam could barely discern the outline of the cabin. The land surrounding it had once been cleared but since the cabin had been abandoned, mother nature had quickly reclaimed what was hers. It now lay partially hidden beneath a thick canopy of trees and surrounded by wild grass.
When they came within fifty yards of the structure, Adam raised his arm to signal a halt.
Ben, Jake and Adam silently dismounted then huddled close to go over the plan one more time. Adam would approach the cabin from the side and take up a position on the front porch. Jake would quickly follow and station himself near the other window beside the door. If need be, Adam would silence or kill whoever was standing guard out front. Ben’s part in the rescue would be to approach the cabin from the north, easily snaking his way between the thick growth of pine trees and cover the only side window.
While Adam and Jake distracted the kidnappers by busting in the front door, Ben would break the window, enter the cabin and pull Sarah out. Adam was counting on the element of surprise to throw the odds in their favor.
All three men nodded, then dissolved like ghosts into the darkness. Adam waited until his eyes had completely adjusted to the dark, then crouching low, ran between the edge of the tree line and the corral. Hidden in the shadows by the corral, he could see no movement on the front porch. Adam listened carefully for any sound that someone was nearby before he dashed to the side of the cabin, blending into the velvety darkness. He laid himself out prone and inched his body below the window until he reached the other side and could stand and step toward the front door. He heard voices in the cabin, angry and low. Two of the men appeared to be involved in a heated argument. “So much the better,” thought Adam. “They aren’t expecting anyone to come barging in.”
With his back pressed against the rough weathered logs of the exterior, Adam peered into the darkness, waiting for Jake to join him on the front porch. He didn’t have to wait long. Jake had moved so stealthily that it surprised Adam when he materialized out of the murky gloom. Adam nervously caressed the handle of his gun while he silently counted to sixty. He wanted to give his pa an additional minute to get into position.
Adam could feel his heart wildly pounding in his chest as another burst of adrenaline exploded into his bloodstream. He glanced one more time at Jake who stood a few feet from the window, holding a barrel over his head, ready to send it smashing through the fragile glass that separated him from his daughter.
Adam’s lips tightened and he whispered to Jake, “On the count of three. One, two....”
Adam stopped, choking on the word “three.” His heart skipped a beat then leaped up into his throat when he heard his little brother’s voice behind him, calling his name. He whipped around and lost his balance, knocking over a pile of firewood. Adam’s hazel eyes widened in stunned surprise when he saw Little Joe step out of the shadows.
Frantic and uncertain as to what to do next, Adam gasped, “Oh my God, Joe!”
Adam was so shocked at seeing his little brother standing before him he didn’t realize he had lost the element of surprise until it was too late. In less time that it took for Adam’s heart to beat once, the flimsy door of the cabin suddenly exploded in a burst of hot lead and fragmented wood splinters. Sarah’s high-pitched scream followed the deafening blast from the shotgun.
Adam crouched low and yelled at Little Joe to get down just as Seth’s crouched form appeared in the doorway, a gun in each hand, firing wildly into the night.
The light streaming from the interior of the cabin faintly illuminated Adam. Seth locked eyes with Adam and he snarled, a sound that sent shivers down Adam’s spine. Seth brought his guns up level, aiming at Adam’s midsection.
Jake knew Adam would be dead in a second if he didn’t do something fast. In a desperate attempt to divert Seth’s attention away from Ben’s oldest son, Jake hurled the barrel he had been holding at his former partner then he drew his own gun. The force of the barrel as it struck Seth surprised him and knocked him off balance. He quickly regained his footing then instinctively dropped into a crouch and fired both guns at Jake. One bullet passed through the fleshy part of Jake’s upper arm and the other bullet harmlessly whizzed past his head.
The force of the bullet passing through his arm spun Jake around, somersaulting him head first over the porch railing. During his short painful fall to the ground, Jake managed to fire off one shot at Seth. He only prayed that the bullet hadn’t struck Adam.
During the ensuing confusion, Adam yelled at Joe to take cover then clenched his teeth and pounced on Seth, taking him by surprise. Adam slamming into Seth and knocking him down did nothing more than elicit a hoarse gasp of pain from the man. Seth recovered almost instantly and struck Adam with both hands clenched together in a sledgehammer punch that forced an explosive gasp of breath and knocked Adam backward into the loose weathered railing which teetered back and forth under his weight then collapsed, dropping him hard onto his back.
Adam came to his knees, heaving to put air into his lungs, in time to see Seth pick up his guns and jump off the porch. Seth raised one gun and pointed it right at Adam.
Just as Seth’s finger began to tighten on the trigger, Ben came dashing around the side of the house. Heedless of the gunfire that continued to erupt from the cabin, Ben shouted at Seth to drop his guns. Seth turned his head to the side, searching for whomever was commanding him to drop his weapons. Ben hoped and prayed the distraction would give Adam enough time to get out of the line of fire and find some cover. It was not to be.
Adam had barely managed to scramble to his feet when he looked over his shoulder and saw Seth aiming his gun at him again. Seth flashed Ben an evil grin then pulled the trigger.
Ben watched helplessly as Seth’s bullet tore into the back of Adam’s right thigh, dropping his son like a tree under an ax. Adam lay on his side gasping and moaning as he clutched at his thigh, his fingers already slick with blood.
Ben raised his gun, intending to fire it at Seth when suddenly he saw a wraith-like apparition, calling to Adam, dart out from under the porch. Ben’s blood turned cold as he recognized the voice as that of his youngest son, Little Joe. Overwhelmed by the nightmare unfolding before his eyes, Ben stood paralyzed by fear while Seth turned and ran back toward the entrance of the cabin.
Seth had just reached the bottom of the stairs when he suddenly recognized Little Joe. For a second, he thought he was seeing a ghost but then the white bandage wrapped around Joe’s head quickly put that notion to rest.
Unaware of Seth’s presence, Little Joe half limped and half ran toward his fallen brother. Joe never saw Seth’s beefy hand reach out and violently seize him by the arm. His momentum abruptly stopped, Joe spun around in an awkward pirouette that wrenched the muscles in his right shoulder, producing an explosion of pain in his chest. Seth held Joe’s arm in a steel grip as he roughly dragged him up the stairs, hiding behind the boy as he beat a hasty retreat into the darkened cabin.
Sarah was standing near the cook stove when she heard the noise on the front porch. Startled, she watched Seth raise his hand to silence Morgan and Jack. He grabbed his shotgun, aimed it at the door and fired one deafening round of shrapnel into the weathered and well seasoned wood. Sarah screamed and dropped to the floor as the door exploded in a spectacular display of splinters, sparks and lead.
Morgan and Jack did not need to be told what to do. Each blew out a lantern, grabbed their rifle and took up a position by one of the two windows. Both men tore away the window coverings then gleefully returned gunfire with the unknown men outside.
Through the noise and confusion, Sarah thought she heard her father call her name. Fear and relief swept over her as she dared to hope her ordeal was almost over. Not one to cower in fear and do nothing to facilitate her rescue, Sarah reached up and grabbed the handle of a heavy cast iron frying pan. She clutched it close to her chest as she slowly inched up behind Jack, mindful to stay clear of the windows for fear of being struck by a stray bullet. Jack didn’t hear her sneaking up on him; the sound of gunfire drowned out all the other noises. Gripping the handle with both hands, Sarah hoisted the heavy pan over her head then brought it down will all her might onto the back of Jack’s skull. BRANG! The pan made a nauseating hollow sound as it effectively dropped the unsuspecting man to the floor. Morgan heard the mysterious sound and turned in time to see Sarah standing triumphantly over the motionless form of Jack Shepherd, a frying pan held loosely by her side. A string of cuss words spewed from his mouth as he shook his head in disbelief.
“I should kill you right here and now for doin’ that!” shouted Morgan, waving his gun at Sarah.
Morgan might have carried through with his threat at that moment if Seth hadn’t come bolting back into the cabin. Sarah heard a loud crash and a thud as something alive and moaning landed heavily at her feet.
Sensing they were safe for the moment, Ben took advantage of the lull in gunfire to dash out into the open and drag Adam into the protective cover of the trees. Suddenly, a dark figure suddenly materialized out of the gloom. Ben drew his gun, ready to fire, then immediately recognized the silhouette as that of Jake Anderson. Ben knelt by his son’s wounded right leg while Jake kneeled behind Adam, helping to hold young Cartwright on his side. Ben pulled out his pocket knife and quickly enlarged the hole in Adam’s pant leg. Adam closed his eyes and locked his lips against the pain as Ben gingerly pulled free some of the shredded and bloody cloth that was imbedded in the ragged hole in the back of his son’s thigh.
Disturbed by the steady stream of blood oozing from the wound, Ben quickly shrugged out of his jacket, ripped off one sleeve of his shirt then tore it into strips. He worked feverishly to apply and tighten a makeshift tourniquet on Adam’s thigh. As he gave the tourniquet one final twist, Adam arched his back and let out a sharp gasp followed by a long drawn out moan. Watching his son suffering, Ben felt as if someone were tightening a tourniquet around his heart.
“Easy there, son,” said Ben, trying to mask the fear in his voice. “I’m sorry I had to hurt you but we need to stop this bleeding.” Ben’s worry and anxiety for both of his sons was increasing by the minute.
Trembling from the pain and shock, Adam struggled to raise himself up onto his elbows. “Pa! Joe’s here. I saw him.”
Jake grasped Adam by the shoulders and with gentle pressure eased him back onto the ground. “Yes, Adam....I know,” said Ben. “I saw him right after you were shot.”
Frantic, Adam reached out and grabbed his father’s wrist. “Where is he, Pa? I don’t see him! Where’s Joe?”
“Joe is inside the cabin. The man who shot you grabbed him when he ran out into the open to try to help you.”
Distraught, Adam shouted, “We have to get him back, Pa! Help me get up!”
Before Ben could stop him, Adam pushed himself to his feet. A searing hot pain exploded in his right leg. He cried out and fell back onto the ground, his body heaving and his breaths coming rapid and hoarse.
Ben’s face was dark with worry, heavy with fine lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth. “Please don’t try to move Adam! Lie still!” pleaded Ben. “You’re going make the wound worse.”
Ben looked into Jake’s worried eyes and continued, “Jake, you stay here with Adam while I try to reason with these men.”
Jake jumped to his feet and shouted, “No, Cartwright! I’m going with you! It’s all my fault Adam got shot! It’s me they’re angry at! I’m the one they really want!”
Suddenly, Ben saw Jake stagger and begin to sag at the knees. He suddenly noticed the odd way Jake held his left arm against his body as well as the dark wet spot on the upper part of his jacket sleeve.
“Jake, you’re wounded too!” exclaimed Ben. “Sit down here beside Adam and let me have a look at your arm.”
Jake grunted from the pain and gratefully lowered himself to the ground. Ben helped him out of his jacket and ripped open the small burnt hole the bullet had made in his shirt sleeve. A modest amount of blood still leaked from the entry wound as well as the exit wound.
“How does it look?” asked Jake through gritted teeth.
“The bullet passed through your arm,” said Ben. “The bleeding has slowed down quite a bit. I’m pretty sure you’ll live.”
Jake didn’t answer.
“Now I have two wounded men to worry about as well as Little Joe and Sarah,” thought Ben as he expertly bound up the wound in Jake’s arm. Finished doctoring Jake, Ben moved closer to Adam. “How are you feeling son?”
Adam moaned softly. “My leg feels like someone’s poking me with a hot branding iron.”
Ben checked the tourniquet Adam’s leg again to make sure he had adequately stemmed the blood loss while still maintaining a trickle of circulation. “Just hold on a little longer, son. We’ll get you to a doctor soon.”
“But Pa.....we can’t leave Joe and Sarah here!” cried Adam, his anxiety mounting. “We have to get them back now! Joe’s hurt and who knows what those men will do to him and Sarah!”
Ben stood and removed his gun belt. “C’mon Jake. Let’s go and try to reason with these men.”
“No Pa!” cried Adam. “They’ll kill you!”
Ben knelt beside Adam once more. “Please, Adam....lie still. All this thrashing around isn’t doing you any good. Jake will be with me and I don’t believe they will shoot an unarmed man.”
Before he stood up again, Ben reached out and touched Adam’s face. He was as pale as a winter moon and his skin was covered in a fine layer of moisture. Ben could see his son was shivering from shock and from the cool evening air so he gently covered him with his jacket.
Adam watched his father and Jake disappear into the darkness. He stared up at the starry sky, struggling to remain conscious and focused in case his father and Jake needed his help.
The interior of the cabin was drenched in darkness. Sarah couldn’t see who was lying at her feet. She gasped and cried out when she felt a hand weakly grab hold of her booted ankle. Seth gave the groaning lump on the floor a swift kick then stepped over it to see what had happened to Jack. The pitiful yelp and moan that came from the heap on the floor broke Sarah’s heart. Sensing that whomever it was needed comfort and help, Sarah bravely whispered, “Lie still, I’ll take care of you.”
Through the darkness Sarah could see what looked like a white cloth encircling the head of a young man. Suddenly, a voice choked by pain whispered her name. “Sarah....help me, please!”
Sarah’s eyes widened in shock as the familiar voice continued to plead for help. “No....it can’t be!” she thought. “It can’t be Little Joe! I saw Morgan kill him.”
A wave of joy and excitement swept over Sarah like an avalanche. She dropped to her knees and cried, “Little Joe, is that really you? I thought you were dead!”
Joe was sprawled on his back, with one knee drawn up. His voice faint, he whispered, “Uh, huh.”
Sarah laid one hand on Joe’s head and her other hand on his chest. She could feel his heart beating steadily against her palm. The warmth from his body and the rhythm of his heart assured her that he was indeed alive. Uncertain as to what would happen next, Sarah sat beside Joe, holding him in a loose, gentle embrace. She glanced over to where Jack lay unconscious, and watched with mingled triumph and fear as Seth tried to rouse the injured man.
Seth’s shouts and curses grew louder as he tried unsuccessfully to get Jack to wake up. Suddenly Jack’s moans joined Little Joe’s whimpers and groans in a ludicrous off-key chorus. Seth grabbed the groggy man by the collar, jerked him to his feet then thrust a gun in his hand and shoved him back into position beneath the window. Still dazed and confused, Jack tentatively explored the massive goose egg forming on the back of his head. Color surged into his face and his jaw grew rigid when his eyes focused on the frying pan resting on the floor beside Sarah.
“That’s it!” bellowed Jack. “I’m gonna teach that girl a lesson right here and now!”
Jack covered the distance between himself and Sarah in three strides. Sarah trembled and cowered in fear. Panic swept through her and she felt her heart pounding in her throat. Little Joe struggled to pull himself upright so he could protect Sarah.
Seth suddenly stepped in front of Jack, blocking him from his objective. “Just simmer down!”
Undaunted, Jack pushed Seth out of the way and reached for Sarah. She recoiled in horror when Jack’s fingers closed around her arm. Seth wheeled around and struck Jack with a vicious blow to the mouth, knocking the enraged man to the floor. Jack struggled to his feet and locked eyes with Seth. A tense moment passed while the two men stood facing one another in silence. Suddenly, the deadly stand off was interrupted by the sound of Ben Cartwright’s voice calling into the cabin. “Seth McKenzie! I want to talk to you!”
Keeping his eyes on Jack, Seth called out, “Who are you and what do you want?”
“My name is Ben Cartwright and that’s my son you have in there along with the girl.”
“So this wounded whelp belongs to you,” laughed Seth derisively. He sadistically added, “Your kid must be a cat cuz we tried to kill him once and..... hell, he’s still alive.”
“I know....,” Seth continued, “why don’t I shoot him again so I can see if he really does have nine lives?”
“NO!” shouted Ben. “Don’t kill him!”
Ben felt his heart skip a beat. His face turned red with anger. Now he knew the character of the man he was dealing with. Fear gripped his heart as he waited in abject horror for the sound of a gun firing, signaling the death of his youngest son. Ben earnestly prayed that Seth would not carry through with his threat.
Inside the cabin, Joe’s eyes widened in terror at Seth’s words. Enjoying the look of fear in Little Joe’s eyes, Seth eased back the hammer on his gun and slowly aimed it at the boy. Joe broke out in a cold sweat; he could feel his heart hammering in his throat. Terrified, Joe stood frozen to the spot, his fists clenched by his side, his breaths coming in fast ragged gasps. He closed his eyes and steeled himself for the brutal pain that he knew would come when the slug tore into his flesh. Seth laughed at the sight of the frightened boy and yelled “BANG!”
Little Joe involuntarily jumped backward and fell to the floor; his body shaking from pure terror. Sarah ran to Joe, dropped to her knees and protectively wrapped her arms around him. Joe suddenly lurched forward coughing and gasping, his body racked with violent spasms brought on by his near brush with death. As the spasms became less frequent and his body began to relax, Sarah gently held Joe’s bandaged head against her chest, stroking his hair as she whispered soft soothing words into his ear.
Seth’s sadistic laughter filled the cabin at he watched Joe suffering. He twirled his gun a few times then reholstered it as he stepped toward the doorway. “Hey, Cartwright!” Seth yelled. “Is that Zachary Langford out there with you? I thought I put a bullet in his arm.”
Jake called out from the darkness. “Yes, I’m here, you bastard!”
Thrilled at the sound of her father’s voice, Sarah grabbed and squeezed Joe’s hand. She knew her father and Mr. Cartwright would rescue them from these awful men.
In her excitement, Sarah failed make the connection between the name Zachary Langford and her father responding to that name.
“We want to talk to you,” called Ben, again.
Seth cautiously stepped to the edge of the doorway and answered, “Come out here where I can see you.”
“Don’t shoot, we’re unarmed,” Ben shouted. Holding up his hands, Ben hesitantly inched his way toward the front porch, Jake following two paces behind him and off to his left.
“That’s close enough!” yelled Seth. He warily stepped out onto the porch, one gun pointed at Ben and the other at Jake. “Where’s the dark-haired fellow; the one I shot in the leg?” Seth asked nonchalantly. “If he ain’t dead already then I’ll bet he’s hurtin’ somethin’ awful.”
Ben felt his blood pressure rising and his hands begin to tremble. This man’s cold indifference and callousness were more than he could take. Right now, he would have loved nothing more than to wrap his hands around Seth’s throat and strangle him.
Sensing Ben’s anger, Jake took a step forward and placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. He locked eyes with Ben and saw the same look of desperation he had seen in his own eyes the night Sarah had disappeared. Jake nodded imperceptibly then turned his attention back to Seth. “The man you shot is still alive.”
Seth nodded and looked around as if searching for where Adam was hiding. “He better not be hiding out there, aiming a gun at me right now!” Seth yelled, a sneer on his face. “If he has any notion of killing me then Jack and Morgan will cut the girl’s and the boy’s throat!”
Ben truly believed that Seth would make good on his threat.
Making no effort to hide the anger and contempt in his voice, Jake replied, “No one is hiding in the shadows waiting to kill you. Lord knows, I want to save that pleasure for myself!”
Jake continued to inch his way toward the cabin. His gaze, as cold as creek water running beneath winter ice, was fixed on Seth, a man he hadn’t seen in over twenty years.
“Well, well...,” mocked Seth. “If it ain’t the sneaky little double-crossing thief who ran off with our money. Have you thought about me and the boys at all over the last twenty years, Zachary.....or should I call you Jake?”
Jake shuddered. It felt strange hearing his birth name again, a name he hadn’t heard or spoken in over two decades. Through gritted teeth he replied, “I don’t care what you call me, I just want my daughter back....right now!”
Seth’s eyes narrowed to tiny slits. “Don’t rush me, Langford! You don’t know how long I’ve waited for this moment!”
Keeping his eyes on Jake, Seth sauntered across the porch. “I got this awful urge to blow your head off right here and now, Langford, but that wouldn’t accomplish much now would it?”
Seth raised his right arm to shoulder level, meticulously sighting down the barrel of his gun. He aimed it right between Jake’s tired eyes. “Let me tell you.....not a day went by that we didn’t think about you and all that money just waitin’ for us when we got out of prison. That’s what kept us going.....dreaming about what we were gonna do when we each got our share of the money.”
Seth paused and fixed Jake with a deadly stare. “You can imagine what we felt when the three of us finally got out of prison and found out you had disappeared with all that money and gold.”
Inside the darkened cabin Sarah listened carefully to what Seth was saying to her father. The fear on her face suddenly transformed into a look of confusion. A thousand questions were tumbling through her mind. Suddenly, she jumped to her feet and sprinted for the open doorway. Joe reached out to stop her but missed. “Sarah, no! Come back!” he cried. Joe cursed under his breath then forced himself to his feet and staggered toward the cabin entrance.
Sarah made it past Morgan before he could stop her but he did react quick enough to grab Little Joe by the arm. He dug his fingers into Joe’s arm and shoved the barrel of his gun into his temple. “Hold it kid or I pull the trigger! And this time I guarantee I ain’t gonna miss!”
Angry and scared, Joe struggled against the strong arm that held him. “Let me go!” he cried.
Morgan increased the pressure of his gun barrel against the bullet crease in Joe’s temple. Joe tensed and cried out from the sharp pain.
Morgan sneered at Joe then roughly shoved him across the room. “Now sit down and shut up!”
Sarah startled Seth when she came dashing out the door crying, “Daddy!”
Seth quickly recovered his wits and reached behind him, lassoing Sarah around the waist with his left arm. He roughly yanked her backward and held her firmly against his hip and chest. “Hey,
Zachary.....your daughter is quite the little tiger.”
Jake’s eyes blazed. “Take your filthy hands off of her!”
“And if I don’t, what are you gonna do?” taunted Seth.
Sarah continued to kick and buck like a wild horse. Horrified, Jake and Ben watched Seth drive the barrel of his gun deep into the soft flesh beneath Sarah’s chin, painfully forcing her head and chin upward. Sarah gasped and her body stiffened. Fearing Seth might accidentally shoot his daughter, Jake begged her to be still.
Through her tears, Sarah pleaded, “Daddy, what’s going on? Please tell me what this man is talking about? Who is Zachary Langford?”
Jake and Sarah’s gaze met and held. Tears formed in the corner’s of Jake’s eyes. “I’m sorry Sarah, I’m so sorry! This is all my fault!”
A glimmer of amusement flashed in Seth’s cruel eyes. So Zachary never told his daughter about his past, he thought.
When Jake finally spoke, his voice sounded hesitant and resigned. “Sarah, I did something a very long time ago that I am deeply ashamed of. I’ve kept it a secret from you all these years; a secret I never even told your mother.”
His tone of voice mocking, Seth called to Jake, “Shall I tell her what your real name is?”
“Shut up, Seth!” yelled Jake, the look on his face distorted and ferocious.
Jake glared at his former partner then turned his attention back to his daughter. “My name isn’t really Jake Anderson......its Zachary Langford.”
Sarah felt a tightness in her throat. She opened her mouth to speak but no words came out.
Jake gave Ben a sidelong glance then continued. “When I was about Little Joe’s age, I helped three men rob a bank. If you haven’t already guessed by now, Seth, Jack and Morgan are those men. They entrusted me to hide the money until we could regroup and divide it up but my partners were caught by the posse and sent to prison. I was the only one who got away.”
Jake paused briefly, his eyes narrowed by exhaustion as well as the pain in his arm. “Instead of hiding the money like we agreed, I decided to keep it all for myself. It was my chance to escape a life of poverty and the certainty of an early grave. I now had the means to start a new life for myself. But to do this, I had to change my name. The law would be searching for Zachary Langford, not any of the other names I used until I met your mother. It was then I finally decided to stop running and settle down.”
Guilt and remorse were deeply etched on Jake’s pale face. “I can’t excuse what I did. I knew it was wrong but I was just a very poor and frightened kid back then. I never thought of the consequences of my actions or the possibility that my partners would ever find me.”
Sarah felt a huge knot in her stomach. In that brief moment, her world as she knew it came crashing down around her. Everything she had believed about herself and her family was now all a lie. Overwhelmed by what her father had just revealed to her, all Sarah could do was stare at her father. She finally understood the reason for her abduction.
An uneasy silence descended on the tense standoff. Ben stepped forward until he was standing beside Jake, his fists clenched at his sides and a storm raging in his eyes. Although he knew these men would not surrender Sarah he couldn’t leave without making a plea for Little Joe’s release.
“Seth,” called Ben. “Let me take the boy out of here! He’s hurt bad. He’s just a boy......he’s no threat to you!”
Seth laughed derisively. “I don’t think so, Cartwright! That boy, as you call him, is not as helpless as you think. Even after I beat him senseless the other day, he still had the strength and courage to pull a rifle on me and my boys.”
Seth smiled coldly. “The only way you’re gonna get your daughter and the boy back is to bring the ransom money to Devil’s Slide like I told you before.”
Looking smug, Seth added, “And I don’t think I need to remind you of what I’ll do to the boy and the girl if you don’t do as I say!”
“You sonovabitch!” screamed Jake. “I’m gonna kill you with my bare hands!”
Seth ignored Jake’s threat. “No more tricks and no more games! And if I so much as suspect another surprise ambush, I swear to you I won’t hesitate to blow the boy’s head off!”
Ben flashed Seth a look that would make an icicle feel feverish. “You lay a hand on Joseph or Sarah, so help me, I’ll find you and kill you even if I have to follow you all the way to hell!”
Ben’s warning rolled off Seth like water on a duck. Seth knew there was nothing Ben could do to him. He held all the cards. Seth narrowed his eyes and slowly inched his way backward until his shoulders touched the shattered door frame. “Jack!” he yelled. “Get out here and take the girl! And this time make sure she stays put!”
“Daddy!” cried Sarah as Jack yanked her back into the darkened cabin.
A tremor went through Jake. He fought off the urge to charge the cabin head on, kill the three men inside and take his daughter back.
Ben’s mouth went dry. He knew they were temporarily beaten. Seth had no intention of letting Little Joe go home with them. He took one more step forward and called to Seth. “As you know, my other son is badly wounded. I’m asking you and your men to hold your fire while we move him out of here.”
Seth let down the hammers of both revolvers. “Alright....but you better get him out of here quick before I change my mind!”
Ben grabbed hold of Jake’s jacket, motioning him to follow. Both father’s backed up slowly, hands open and held away from their bodies until they were swallowed by the heavy darkness that lurked beyond the tree line. Ben bit back a curse then rushed back to the spot where they had left Adam.
Adam’s eyes were closed and he was moaning softly. Ben frowned when he saw the trickle of blood that had seeped out from under the hastily applied bandage. He motioned for Jake to fetch the horses then bent down, grabbed Adam under the arms and gently lifted him to his feet. “C’mon Adam, we have to get you out of here.”
Adam steadied himself then tried placing his weight on his injured leg. He winced, his eyes squeezed tight with pain. Ben draped Adam’s right arm over his shoulder and wrapped his other arm around his son’s waist. Weak from shock and loss of blood, Adam was more than willing to allow his father to half drag, half carry him to his horse.
Watching Adam mount his horse was a grim experience. Ben helped to steady his son while Adam hauled himself into the saddle. Ben assessed his son with solemn eyes. Adam’s face was pale and drawn. Ben was beginning to have his doubts about Adam staying in the saddle on the long ride home. He patted Sport’s rump as he made his way to the right side of the horse. Adam’s injured leg hung limply against the saddle, the blood stain on his thigh barely visible in the pre-dawn darkness. Before mounting his own horse, Ben glanced over at Sarah’s father who didn’t look much better than Adam. Jake sat rather unsteadily in the saddle, his injured arm resting in a sling made from his shirt. Ben shook his head and sighed. Getting two wounded men back to the Ponderosa safely was going to be quite an ordeal.
Seth waited on the edge of the porch, his lean body tense and coiled for action. His white teeth, barred in a venomous smile, shone brightly in the starlight. He didn’t trust Cartwright or Zachary, so as soon as they disappeared into the darkness he slithered off the porch and followed. Seth was a dark shadow as he crept through the trees. Tucked deeply in the shadows, he silently watched the elder Cartwright assist his wounded son up into the saddle. Seth remained motionless, his body pressed tightly against the rough bark of a Ponderosa pine until the sounds of man and beast dissolved into the darkness. Satisfied it wasn’t another trick, Seth casually strolled back to the cabin, gleefully whistling a funeral dirge.
Ben, Adam and Jake rode away from the cabin at a slow pace, traveling some distance in silence. Ben knew Adam was hurting something fierce, that, in fact, he was only partially conscious a good part of the way home. Jake wasn’t doing so well either. They were maybe an hour from the Ponderosa when the first rays of dawn began to bathe the eastern mountains in a soft violet and yellow glow. In a sidelong glance, Ben saw Adam’s eyes roll back in his head. He reached out and caught hold of his son’s arm just before he would have tumbled from the saddle. Jake quickly brought his own horse alongside Sport and helped to steady Adam while Ben slid off his own horse and climbed into the saddle behind his son. Ben grasped the reins in one hand and wrapped his other arm around his son, holding his precious cargo close against his chest.
The sun was just lifting over the far horizon, but still the brighter stars could be seen against the deep blue sky. Hoss was dozing in the leather wing back chair near the fireplace when he was suddenly awakened by the sound of riders approaching. He shook his head and listened intently, not sure if he had heard correctly or if he had been dreaming. When he heard the familiar sound of his father’s voice shouting that he needed some help, he raced outside.
Hoss stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Adam slumped in the saddle, his leg soaked in blood. He felt a tightening in his gut as he frantically glanced around for Little Joe. When he didn’t see his little brother, Hoss’s feeling of dread deepened. “Pa, what happened to Adam? And where’s Joe? Isn’t he with you?”
Ben frowned at Hoss and dismounted. His voice a bit harsh, he said, “We’ll talk about that later. Right now I need you to help me get Adam up to his room.”
Hoss reached up and gently eased Adam down from the saddle. Cradling his wounded big brother in his strong arms, Hoss quickly followed his father into the house and up to Adam’s room.
Without saying a word, Jake eased his aching body from the saddle and unobtrusively limped into the house. He closed the door behind him and collapsed on the couch.
Adam began to moan softly when Hoss placed him on the bed. Blood continued to slowly seep through the already soaked bandage, staining Adam’s crisp white sheets.
Ben tossed his hat onto the drafting table near the window, grabbed a washbasin and filled it with water. He sat down on the edge of Adam’s bed and submerged a towel in the cool water. After he wrung it out, he placed in on his son’s hot forehead. Adam’s breathing was labored and he began to shift and toss about in response to the fever and the pain.
“Hoss,” said Ben. “Send one of the ranch hands into Virginia City to fetch Doc Martin!”
Hoss nodded then disappeared down the hall.
Ben had just begun to undress Adam when Hoss returned. Although he appeared to be unconscious, Adam continued to moan while his father and brother finished removing his clothing. Ben wiped the dirt and sweat from Adam’s face, pulled the blankets up to his shoulders then collapsed in the chair beside the bed.
Hoss silently stared at his father who appeared to be exhausted, lines of worry etched deeply in his weathered face. He swallowed hard then said, “Pa.....I’m sorry. Little Joe pulled a fast one on me and sneaked out of the house last night. Dadburnit! I should’ve known better than to let him out of my sight. I’m pretty sure he was headed out to the cabin to help you rescue Sarah.”
Ben looked up into Hoss’s blue eyes and replied, “You’re right. He showed up quite unexpectedly last night.”
Hoss looked down at the floor, feeling uneasy and uncertain what to say next.
“Don’t worry, Hoss.....I’m not angry at you,” said Ben, trying to ease some of Hoss’s feelings of guilt. “Don’t blame yourself for what Little Joe did. I should have known your little brother would try something like this.” Ben smiled and added, “I sincerely believe that wild horses couldn’t have kept Joe from following us.” Ben briefly felt a twinge of anger for his youngest son’s reckless and impulsive behavior.
Hoss looked up and smiled at his pa who sat slumped in the armchair, leaning his elbow on the armrest, his hand supporting his head.
Hoss breathed an audible sigh of relief, feeling like a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. “If I had known what he was up to, Pa, I would’ve tied him to his bed and sat on him.”
Ben smiled again as a humorous image of Hoss sitting on Joe took shape in his exhausted mind.
Fearful of the answers to his next questions, Hoss asked them anyway. “Where is Little Joe? He didn’t ride in with you? Is he alright?”
His heart heavy with fear and guilt, Ben rubbed his chin then slowly spoke the words he didn’t want to have to say. “He’s still back at the cabin with Sarah. We had to leave him there.”
Not believing what he had just heard, Hoss fired back, “What? You left him there? Why, Pa?
Rubbing his eyes, Ben replied, “Take it easy, son....I know how you feel. God knows I didn’t want to have to leave him there! I pleaded with Seth to let your brother go but he refused. He even threatened to shoot Joe if we don’t deliver the ransom money this time.”
His face a mask of anger and confusion, Hoss stood silent, waiting for his father to tell him the rest of the story.
Ben stood and moved closer to Adam. He gingerly lifted the blankets to get another look at Adam’s injured leg. He didn’t have to lift the bandage and peer inside; he could see the wound was still bleeding. Ben shook his head then told Hoss what happened at the cabin after Little Joe showed up.
“Because of Joe, we lost the element of surprise,” Ben explained.
Hoss felt the color drain from his face, imagining how Adam must have felt staring down the barrel of Seth’s gun, knowing he was about to die.
Ben rubbed his eyes, trying to erase from his mind the horrifying image of Seth shooting Adam. “And what made it even worse was the smug look on Seth’s face.... the bastard actually smiled at me right before he pulled the trigger.”
Hoss shuddered, unable to imagine how anyone could be that cold-blooded. “What kind of a man enjoys killing another man, Pa?”
Ben leaned back in the chair and tented his fingers below his chin. “I get the impression Seth McKenzie is the kind of man who enjoys hurting other people. He’s just like a cat toying with his prey, taking pleasure in watching it suffer before delivering the fatal blow. If I hadn’t arrived when I did, I’m certain Seth would have killed Adam instead of just wounding him.”
Hoss swallowed hard. “What happened after that?”
“Right before Seth ran back into the cabin, he grabbed Joe as he was running to Adam’s side.”
Hoss was shocked by what his father had just told him. He stood at the foot of Adam’s bed and said, “We’ve got to go back there Pa! Right now! We can’t leave Joe and Sarah with those men! Who knows what they’ll do to them!”
Hoss paced the length of the room then whirled around, his blue eyes flashing. “I say its time we get Sheriff Coffee to help us!”
Ben rubbed his eyes. “Seth warned us not to bring the law into this. He threatened to kill Joe and Sarah if he sees anyone else other than Jake and myself.”
Feeling frustrated and powerless to do anything to help Adam or Little Joe, Hoss picked up a pencil off of Adam’s drafting table and snapped it in two.
Ben could see Hoss needed something to do to take his mind off of worrying about Adam and Joe so he suggested Hoss go out and get some work done. “No need for both of us to sit here with Adam and wait for the doctor,” said Ben. “With Adam laid up now, I need you to take over some of his responsibilities in running this ranch. Downstairs on my desk you’ll find a list of things that need to be done.”
Hoss reluctantly nodded then turned to leave. He didn’t want Adam’s job. He just wanted his big brother back on his feet, bossing him and Joe around again.
Before disappearing around the door frame, Hoss stuck his head back in the room. “I’ll be back later this afternoon to see how Adam is doing.”
Ben nodded and gave Hoss a smile meant to reassure him that everything would be alright. Before allowing himself to close his eyes and rest, Ben checked on Adam one more time. He placed another cold compress on his son’s forehead then settled back into the chair to try to get some rest before the doctor arrived.
Hoss rode up to the house just as Doc Martin was leaving. Ben was shaking the doctor’s hand when Hoss dismounted and approached the front porch.
“Thanks Paul,” said Ben, the worry lines on his face not so pronounced.
“Adam is going to be just fine,” said Paul with a smile. “I want him to stay off that leg for at least a week. He lost quite a bit of blood so I want you to keep him in bed for the next two or three days; after that, he can move around the house and yard using crutches. I’ll be back to check on him tomorrow.” The doctor paused and then added, “Oh, and get some rest yourself Ben.”
“Howdy, Doc....how’s Adam?” asked Hoss, a solemn expression on his face.
“Hello Hoss,” greeted the doctor, reaching out to shake Hoss’s hand. “I was just telling your pa that Adam is going to be just fine. He came through the surgery with no complications. He’s resting comfortably right now though I expect he’s going to be in a lot of pain when the morphine I gave him wears off.”
“What about the fever?” asked Ben.
“He’s still running a fever but that’s to be expected. Now that the bullet is gone, his temperature should begin to drop. Keep on with the cold compresses; that should help to bring it down.”
After he had finished removing the bullet from Adam’s leg, Dr. Martin had asked Ben how Adam and Jake got shot. Ben had given him a rather vague story about how Adam and Jake had tried to stop some cattle rustlers. Paul didn’t believe it for a moment. From the guarded look in Ben’s eyes, Paul knew something was terribly wrong. His suspicions were further confirmed by the absence of Little Joe. He had wanted to check on Little Joe before he left but Ben had said Joe was fine as he was hastily ushered down the stairs and out the front door.
Paul knew better than to stick his nose into other people’s affairs but he couldn’t help but worry about his friends.
Ben and Hoss both thanked the doctor then stood side by side at the hitch rail, each man alone with his thoughts, watching the doctor’s buggy as it disappeared around the corner of the barn.
Physically and emotionally exhausted, father and son walked back into the house. With Adam out of danger, Ben felt like one burden had been lifted from his shoulders. Now he could devote his full attention on figuring out how to get Sarah and Joe back home safely.
When Hoss and Ben entered the house, Jake was sitting on the edge of the fireplace, the upper portion of his left arm wrapped in a thick bandage. Ben noted the murderous look in Jake’s eyes as he repetitively thumbed back the hammer on his revolver and then released it. Ben stared at him hard. “Put that thing away!”
Angry and overwrought, Jake snapped, “I’m gonna kill him, Ben! I’m gonna kill that sonovabitch right now!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ben shouted. “Seth will kill you for sure and then Sarah and Little Joe!”
Hoss frowned and took a seat on the couch while his father prowled the great room with long, restless strides, massaging his temples.
Ben stopped and turned to face Jake. “The only way we’re going to get Sarah and Joe back alive is to do exactly as Seth says. It’s time we comply with his demands. Let’s give him the money.”
No longer able to hold his temper in check, Jake jumped to his feet and shouted, “Seth doesn’t want the money! He only wants one thing......revenge for what I did to him!”
An oppressive silence settled over the room as Jake continued, “He hates me Ben! He’s just using my daughter to get revenge on me for running off with his money. Seth wants to kill me but before he does, he wants to see me suffer like he did during all those years he spent in prison. Believe me Ben, Seth has no intention of letting Sarah and Little Joe leave there alive!”
Ben’s jaw tightened and all the color drained from his face. Jake’s words frightened him. He felt the same heavy veil of hopelessness and resignation that shrouded Jake threatening to suffocate him too. He was determined not to let that happen to him.
The fragile threads of Joe and Sarah’s life were intricately woven in the hands of both fathers. One wrong move or hastily made decision could cause those threads to snap, instantly sentencing both youngsters to instant death.
Emotionally drained, Jake dropped heavily onto the settee and buried his face in his hands. “I know him, Ben. I rode with him for over a year and during that time I watched him murder and maim folks just for the sheer fun of it. Seth won’t be happy until he’s killed me and my daughter!”
Jake clenched the fist on his good arm, his knuckles turning white. “This whole damn mess is all my fault! Sarah and Joe shouldn’t be paying for my sins!”
His frustration building, Ben harshly replied, “So what you’re saying is you’ve given up all hope, you’re going to accept the hand that fate has dealt you, sacrifice yourself as well as Sarah and Little Joe.......is that right?”
“No, Ben...that’s not what I’m saying!”
“Well, the way I see it.....by riding in there alone, hell bent on killing those men, you’ll be signing Sarah’s and Joe’s death warrants for sure!”
“Don’t you see its a no win situation, Ben?” Jake pushed forward, his voice raised to a strident pitch. “No matter what we do, our children are going to die!”
Giving himself up to despair, Jake cried, “Its too late for me Ben! I would rather die fighting for my daughter’s life than give Seth the money and then wait around for someone to tell me he murdered my daughter anyway!”
Ben stormed over to where Jake sat, grabbed the front of his shirt and roughly jerked him to his feet. His manner harsh and abrupt, Ben growled, “If you still want to go out and get yourself killed after this is all over, it’s none of my business! But right now I have a major stake in this matter and I’m not about to let you gamble away my son’s life!”
The strain of standing by and listening to Mr. Anderson and his father argue was more than Hoss could abide. He rushed over to where his father stood nose to nose with Jake. “Pa, Mr. Anderson.....please stop it! Fighting over what we should do next is getting us nowhere.”
An uneasy silence descended on the room. Ben and Jake stiffened, suddenly tense, and there was a moment of silence as the two men stared at one another. Hoss watched his father’s hands slowly relax, releasing his hold on Jake’s shirt. Hoss breathed an audible sigh of relief when he saw his pa’s and Jake’s defensive postures began to relax.
Trying not to take sides, Hoss said, “That’s better. Now let’s all sit down and talk about this without getting all riled up.”
Hoss motioned for both men to take a seat then continued. “Mr. Anderson....I believe my pa is right. It’s time we gave those men what they want.”
Ben looked at his son and silently nodded in agreement. Hoss glanced at his father and added, “I also believe that Mr. Anderson is right, Pa. From everything he’s told us, I’m betting Seth has no intention of letting Sarah and Little Joe leave that cabin alive.”
Hoss’s eyes strayed to the top of the stairs. “And judging by what he did to Adam, I’d say this man Seth is meaner’n a rattlesnake on a hot skillet.”
Ben shifted his weight in his chair and asked, “So what are you proposing we do, son?”
Hoss grinned, leaned forward while motioning for Jake and his father to come closer. “Here’s what I think we should do.”
Hoss slowly explained his plan to Mr. Anderson and his pa. When he finished, Ben sat lost in thought for a moment then smiled and nodded at Jake. “You know, I think this just might work.”
An uneasy smile crept over Jake’s worried face. Not totally convinced Hoss’s plan would succeed, Jake finally acquiesced. “I’m willing to give it a try if you are.”
Ben slowly unfolded himself from his chair and stood. “You made the right choice, Jake. This time we’re going to bring our children home.”
As Ben turned to go upstairs to check on Adam, he clamped a confident hand on Hoss’s shoulder and smiled as he gently gave it a squeeze. No words were needed to convey to his son just how proud he was of him for coming up with such a simple and clever solution.
Moonlight framed the imposing outline of Seth, standing in the doorway. He slipped into the cabin and disappeared into the menacing gloom. He glanced toward the back of the cabin where Sarah and Joe were huddled together in the corner by the cook stove. He couldn’t see Sarah’s face because the Joe was crouched protectively in front of her. He paused to study the Cartwright kid for a moment. The look of pure hatred and defiance on the boy’s face amused him but also set off warning bells in his head. “This boy is not to be underestimated,” thought Seth. “He’s definitely going to be a force to be reckoned with before this is over.”
Seth whipped around when he heard a loud crash followed by the sounds of a scuffle. Jack and Morgan were at it again. Their angry voices filled the air.
Seth stepped up behind Jack and stopped, the muscles in his jaw twitching. He glowered at both men, his eyes smokey with rage as he looked first at Jack, then Morgan. His features contorted, Seth grabbed Jack by the shoulder, spun him around and punched him hard in the face. There was a low crunching noise as Jack’s sinuses gave way with a splatter of mucus and hot, thick blood. Jack moaned and went limp, and Seth relaxed his grip.
“Quitch’yer arguin’ and one of you get outside and stand guard!” Seth yelled, a murderous gleam in his eye. Morgan stood there speechless, staring down at the groaning lump at his feet. He whispered a curse under his breath then reached down and roughly jerked Jack to his feet. He was thankful he hadn’t been the one standing near Seth when he had lashed out at them.
Holding his left hand over his broken and bloody nose, Jack stiffened and dropped his right hand to the six shooter strapped to his leg. There was a moment of silence as Seth and Jack stared at one another. Jack was sick and fed up with the brutal, sadistic treatment he had received since the three of them had been released from prison. He no longer cared about his share of the ransom money; right now he wanted nothing more than to send Seth McKenzie hopping over coals in hell. The idea was tempting but fear and common sense stayed his trembling hand. Jack knew Seth was an experienced gun fighter and wouldn’t hesitate to kill him.
Instead of drawing his gun, Jack shot a stream of bloody spit on the floor at Seth’s feet. His features contorted, Jack backed off a step. Seth and Morgan exchanged a derisive look as Jack snatched his rifle off the floor and staggered out into the night. As an afterthought, Seth added, “And if you see anyone coming near this cabin, blow their heads off!”
Seth turned away, secretly massaging his right fist. He winced once as he popped a dislocated knuckle back into place, but the pain didn’t break his stride.
Seth’s ruthless brutality shocked and frightened Sarah. Her lower lip began to tremble as she felt her resolve beginning to weaken. Her eyes glassy with unshed tears, she inched closer to Little Joe and grabbed his arm. “I’m scared, Joe!” she cried. “I’m afraid those men are going to kill us.”
Joe groaned softly as he gathered Sarah in his arms, holding her trembling body close to his while stroking her hair. “Hush now, don’t you worry,” he whispered. “Everything is going to be alright. My pa and your pa will get us out of this mess.”
A few minutes passed as Sarah recovered, her sobs easing into silence. When she calmed, Little Joe held her at arm’s length so that he could look into her eyes. “Those men didn’t hurt you, did they?” Sarah shook her head, and he hugged her again, relief making him clutch her tightly. Joe brushed his lips lightly against Sarah’s soft auburn hair and proclaimed, “I promise I won’t let them hurt you!” Little Joe was just as frightened as Sarah but he wasn’t about to show it. He would not give in to his own fear, not now, and not in front of these men.
Sensing Sarah was shivering from fear as well as the cold that had begun to creep into the cabin, Joe gingerly shrugged out of his gray waist length corduroy jacket and wrapped it around Sarah’s narrow shoulders. The dark color of the jacket helped to hide Sarah from the prying eyes of the two anxious men who remained in the cabin. Joe didn’t like the lewd hungry gleam in Morgan’s eyes when he looked at Sarah. No man should ever look at a woman that way. Joe swallowed the lump in his throat and silently vowed he would die fighting rather than allow Morgan to force himself on Sarah.
Sarah saw the faraway look in Joe’s eyes. She gently reached up and swept away one wayward brown curl that had escaped from beneath the dirty bandage that encircled his head. “What’s the matter Joe....are you all right?”
Joe gave Sarah a gentle reassuring squeeze. He didn’t feel he should tell her about his fears for her concerning Morgan so he told Sarah the second thing that was weighting heavy on his mind. “I was thinking about my brother Adam. He took a bullet in the leg tonight and I’m afraid it was all my fault.”
“No, Little Joe. I’m sure it was just an accident.”
Joe pounded one fist on his thigh. It was a stupid accident that should never have happened. Its all my fault! I knew Adam and our pa’s were coming here tonight to rescue you. I knew they were planning a surprise attack. I didn’t stop to think that I might cause something to go wrong.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Joe. I’m sure Adam doesn’t blame you.” Sarah reached over and squeezed Joe’s hand reassuringly. “You were worried about me. I’m touched that you care so much about me that you wanted to help.”
Sarah’s cheeks turned red in the darkness as she looked down at her torn, dusty riding skirt. She self-consciously arranged the folds, brushing away some dirt. Shyly she continued, “I would have done the same thing if I were you.”
Little Joe bit his quivering lip, wiping away his tears with the sleeve of his shirt. “I was responsible for your safety; I promised your pa I would take care of you. I felt like I had failed you when I couldn’t stop those men from taking you.” Joe shot both Seth and Morgan a murderous glare. If looks could kill, both men would have instantly dropped dead on the floor.
His voice laced with anger and passion, Joe said, “I couldn’t just sit around at home and wait. I had to do something, I had to be here and help with your rescue!”
Tears welled up in Joe’s eyes. “I should have listened to my pa and stayed in bed like he told me. If I had obeyed him, you would’ve been home by now and Adam wouldn’t have got hurt.”
“I’m sure your family knows you meant well,” said Sarah. “You didn’t disrupt their plans intentionally.”
Joe knew Sarah was right but it would be a very long time before he would stop chastising himself for his impulsive actions. He knew he was responsible for the debacle that had occurred this evening. He only hoped his family - especially Adam - would forgive him for his recklessness and for endangering their lives.
Exhausted from their ordeal, Sarah and Joe curled up together and tried to get some rest. Sarah lay on her side with her head resting on Joe’s outstretched legs. The floor was cold and thoroughly uncomfortable but Sarah did manage to drift off to sleep. Little Joe sat with his back resting against the cabin wall, gently stroking Sarah’s long tresses while humming a lullaby that his mother used to sing to him when he was a baby. The familiar song comforted him and helped to ease the fear that had begun to creep into his mind.
A heavy ominous tension permeated the night air as Joe struggled to keep his eyes open. He desperately wanted to go to sleep so he could escape the throbbing pain in his head and ribs but he thought it would be best if he kept a close watch on Seth and Morgan. He wasn’t too worried about the third man, Jack. After what Seth had done to him, Joe was fairly certain they wouldn’t be seeing him again until sometime in the morning.
Dawn arrived slowly, silvering the sky in a pearly half light that only hinted at the coming of the new day. Sarah stirred beneath the comforting weight of Little Joe’s arm that lay draped intimately over her shoulders, his hand resting innocently against her breasts. In order to keep himself and Sarah warm during the night, Little Joe had held Sarah against his chest while spooning her from behind.
The whisper soft caress of Joe’s shallow breathing against her neck told Sarah that Joe had finally surrendered to his exhaustion and fallen asleep. Mindful not to hurt or wake him, Sarah carefully wriggled out from under Joe’s arm. With his only source of warmth gone Little Joe moaned softly and began to shiver. Sarah peeled off Joe’s jacket and draped it over his body. Her gloved hand lingered on Joe’s muscular shoulder then drifted up to stroke his wavy hair.
Little Joe’s long eyelashes gently resting on his smooth cheeks reminded Sarah of the delicate wings of a butterfly. Even with his clothes dirty and torn and his head heavily bandaged, Joe Cartwright was still the most handsome boy she had ever seen. For a brief blissful moment, Sarah smiled and enjoyed the warmth that spread through her as she gazed upon the gorgeous angel that lay sleeping beside her. Without thinking, Sarah leaned over the slumbering Cartwright and gently deposited a tender kiss on his cheek.
Joe’s eyes slowly fluttered open, taking in his surroundings. Suddenly, he bolted upright, panic and terror reflected in his emerald green eyes. Sarah’s hands shot out and caught Joe’s wrist. “Little Joe,” she cried, tightening her grip on Joe’s arm as he struggled to pull away from her. Little Joe had a glazed faraway look in his eyes and his face a mask of pain, fear and confusion.
Sarah anxiously glanced around the room, expecting to see Seth and Morgan jump to their feet.
“Shhhhh......its just me, Joe!” she cried. “It’s me, Sarah!”
Little Joe continued to fearfully examine the girl who was holding his arm. “Please, Little Joe, don’t look at me like that, you’re scaring me!” Sarah pleaded.
Finally, Sarah’s tearful voice broke through the heavy fog in Joe’s throbbing head. Slowly, she released her grip on Joe’s arm.
Little Joe gave Sarah a weak smile then scrubbed his face with his hands, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. By the light spilling through the windows, he realized it was early morning. To clear the heavy clouds in his head, Joe took in a deep breath. The air was sharp, scented with pine and the pungent odor of damp soil.
Her heart still racing, Sarah’s eyes fixed and held on the two snoring lumps that lay sprawled on the floor. Little Joe opened his mouth to say something but before he could make a sound, Sarah placed one finger against her lips and motioned for Joe to be silent. She held her breath and listened to the steady snoring coming from the other side of the room. Grateful that neither Seth or Morgan had stirred, Sarah let out a soft sigh of relief. She was hoping for a few quiet uninterrupted minutes with Little Joe.
Joe shivered and inched closer to Sarah. “I’m sorry if I scared you,” he whispered. The slight movement sent a lightening bolt of pain through his chest and head. Joe pinched his eyes closed and wrapped his arms around his ribs. A soft cry of pain broke the early morning silence. Sarah felt her heart skip a beat as she reached out and draped one arm around Little Joe’s shoulders, wishing she could take away his pain.
“Oh, Little Joe,” cried Sarah, offering soothing words as she tried to comfort the young man in her arms. “I’m here, Joe. I’ll take care of you, I promise.”
Sarah frowned. Little Joe felt feverish. She pulled off a glove and rested her hand on Joe’s forehead. “Are you alright, Joe?” she asked.
As the sharp pain began to fade, Joe looked into Sarah’s blue tear-filled eyes and lied, “I’m fine.” He really felt terrible. Besides the pounding in his head, every inch of his body ached something fierce. Sarah knew that Joe wasn’t telling her the truth; he couldn’t hide the pain she saw reflected in his weary eyes.
Sarah cast a furtive glance at the two men sleeping on the floor. “Those men are going to be awake soon. I was hoping I could talk to you privately about what my father said last night.”
Joe moaned as he made a futile effort to shift himself into a more comfortable position. He finally gave up and leaned back against the wall of the cabin. Sarah snuggled up next to him, folding her legs beneath her. She could feel the faint vibrations from Little Joe’s stomach, expressing its displeasure at missing a couple of meals.
The sun began to stream in through the filthy curtains that barely covered the broken window panes. Joe cautioned Sarah to talk fast because Seth and Morgan would be awake soon.
Sarah shivered with both fear and cold. Her father’s shocking revelation still heavy on her mind, she turned to Joe and said, “All last night I kept thinking about what my pa said.” Sarah paused while she nervously toyed with the buttons on Joe’s shirt. “I feel like I don’t know my father anymore. I thought I knew him but now I come to find out the man I call my father is really a complete stranger.”
Joe tried to take a deep breath, feeling the pain all through him. “Just because your father’s name isn’t what you thought it was, he’s still the same man who loves you with all his heart.”
Sarah fell silent and Joe waited patiently. Then she began to speak again. “But Joe, my pa lied to me and my mother. She died never knowing the truth.”
Sarah grew thoughtful and fussed with a large rip in her skirt. She looked up and stared out the door as though lost in her own sadness.
Dark clouds had begun to darken the sky, whipping the branches of the pine trees that enveloped the cabin. There was a distant roll of thunder.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust him again,” said the troubled girl. “I can’t help but wonder what else he has lied to me about.”
Little Joe thought on this for a long time without replying. “Your pa lied to you and your mother about his past because he loves you and wants to protect you. Your pa has spent his entire life looking over his shoulder, afraid those men would find him and try to hurt his family.”
“He should have told us, Joe. He should have known it wouldn’t have made any difference in how we felt about him.”
Joe frowned and asked, “Has it made any difference how you feel about him? Do you love him any less now that you know the truth?”
Sarah began to cry. “No, Joe....I still love him the same as before.”
As painful as it was, Joe held Sarah tightly against his chest. He could feel her tears soaking through the thin fabric of his shirt, warming his skin.
“Your father is hurting every bit as much as you are,” said Joe. “He loves you more than you know. Why, the other night he was ready to skin me alive, thinking I had done something terrible to you.”
Sarah giggled and wiped her tears. The image of Joe’s hide hanging on the side of a barn made her smile.
Joe glanced down at Sarah and gave her a look of mock indignation. “You think that’s funny, huh? Well I don’t find it the least bit amusing, and I don’t think my pa and brothers would think it was funny either!”
Sarah wiped her tears and tried to look contrite. Joe gently tilted her chin upward and said, “There now, that’s much better. I’d much rather see you smile.”
“You’re right Joe. Nothing has really changed between my father and me. I still love him the same and I hope he knows it and that nothing he could ever do would ever change the way I feel about him.”
“Are you feeling better now?” asked Joe. He could feel what little energy he had left rapidly draining.
Before she realized what she was doing, Sarah leaned forward and kissed Little Joe. Whether it was love she felt or a terrible foreboding of what was yet to come, when her eyes met and held Joe’s, she could not resist kissing him, pressing herself against his warm body, wrapping her arms around him. It could be the last embrace either one would ever experience, and they made it special, something beyond fear and beyond physical touch.
Suddenly Jack’s mocking voice pierced the stillness. “Now ain’t that just sweet!” he said, the sarcasm in his voice stronger than the whiskey on his breath.
The drunken man staggered into the cabin, weaving and wobbling toward Sarah and Little Joe.
Sarah’s heart quickened and she screamed. Suddenly, a loud peal of thunder shook the cabin. Jack reached out a filthy hand and grabbed Sarah by the arm, twisting it painfully as he jerked her to her feet. His mouth forming an obscene pucker, Jack pulled the frightened girl toward him.
Sarah recoiled in horror, desperate to keep Jack’s lips from touching hers.
“I wanna taste that sweet mouth of yers too!” said Jack, his words slurred.
His pain forgotten, Little Joe shot off the floor like a bolt of lightning. Before he even knew what he was doing, Joe felt his hands around Jack’s neck, squeezing with all his might.
Jack’s eyes widened in surprise as he gasped for air. With his airway suddenly constricted, the drunken man began to panic. He instinctively let go of Sarah’s arm and clawed at Joe’s hands, trying to get the boy to let go.
Even though his body was exploding with pain, Joe somehow managed to maintain steady pressure on Jack’s neck. Sarah watched with trepidation as Jack wildly lashed out at Little Joe, striking Joe in the ribs. Little Joe let go and dropped to the floor, gasping and writhing in pain. Sarah ran to Joe and draped herself protectively over his body as Jack staggered backward a few paces, cursing and massaging his neck.
Sarah’s terrified scream had instantly brought Seth and Morgan to their feet. Both men were wide awake and ready for action. When Seth saw Joe strangling Jack, he stood by and waited to see what Jack and Joe would do to one another. He actually hoped the boy would kill Jack for him because the moron was becoming a liability. It would save him from having to do it himself, not that he really cared; he was planning on killing Jack anyway right after they got the money.
Oblivious of Seth and Morgan, Jack stormed over to Sarah, intending to finish what he had started.
Seth drew his gun and fired a bullet into the ceiling. “Get your hands off of her!” he yelled. “I already told you she’s mine!”
Jack froze in his tracks. His courage fueled by alcohol and anger, Jack whipped around and bellowed at Seth, “I’m sick and tired of you always tellin’ me what to do!” Jack puffed out his chest and wiped his broken nose on his grimy sleeve. “You ain’t the boss around here no more! From now on.....I’m in charge!”
Seth’s eyes were filled with contempt as he laughed at the drunken buffoon.
Morgan watched Seth closely, waiting for a cue. His moods were mercurial and he never knew for certain what Seth’s laughter meant.
The air inside the cabin was quickly becoming humid and stifling. A sizzling bolt of lightning electrified the air, adding to the tension, followed by a cacophonous clap of thunder that seemed to echo forever as it rolled across the Sierras.
Seth held his Colt .45 by his side as he slowly made his way over to where Joe lay on the floor. “You, know Jack....I’m just as sick of you as you are of me. I’m really growing tired of you always whining and complaining and questioning my orders.” Seth nodded over his shoulder toward Morgan. “You don’t see Morgan givin’ me any grief now, do ya?”
Jack swayed unsteadily on his feet. Alarm bells were going off like crazy in his head but he was still to drunk to fully grasp their meaning. He swallowed nervously as he continued to watch Seth prowl around the room, playing with his gun.
Seth looked over his shoulder at Morgan. His tone mocking, he asked, “What do you think I should do, Morgan? You think Jack should be the man in charge?”
An evil grin snaked its way across Morgan’s face. He grinned and rubbed the dark stubble on his chin. “Hell no, Seth! I say we put him to bed with a pick and a shovel.”
By the time Jack figured out what Morgan meant it was too late. Jack’s eyes widened in surprise as a bullet tore through his gut, severing his spinal cord before exiting out his back. The force of the bullet lifted Jack off his feet and flung him back against the wall. Jack’s corpse painted an ugly red stripe on the wall as he slowly slipped to the floor, his dead eyes fixed on the smoking gun in Seth’s hand.
Sarah stared in shock at the dead man sitting slumped against the wall. She shut her eyes tight and hunched over Little Joe’s prone form, clutching Joe’s jacket and burying her face in the fabric. A high-pitched keening sound issued from her throat as she tried to erase the nightmarish scene from her mind.
Seth reached down and grabbed the bloody corpse by the ankles and dragged it outside, leaving it for the scavengers to feed on. Neither he nor Morgan felt Jack deserved a decent burial.
When Seth returned, the air was thick with the scent of rain. A bank of low rain clouds had settled above the tree tops, obscuring the sun and enveloping the cabin and the towering forest beyond in a misty shroud.
While Seth and Morgan discussed their plans to collect the ransom money, Sarah helped Little Joe crawl back into the corner then did her best to make him comfortable. The throbbing in Joe’s head was worse and his ribs felt like someone was beating on his chest with a sledge hammer. Sarah feared Jack’s punches to Joe’s ribs had done some additional damage to Joe’s already broken ribs because every breath he took brought forth an intense explosion of pain.
Because both men spoke in hushed tones, Sarah and Joe were unable to discern where the ransom drop would take place and what their fate would be once Seth and Morgan got their hands on the money. Both Sarah and Joe prayed their lives would be spared.
A few glasses of whiskey had finally persuaded Jake to lie down on the bed in the downstairs guest room and try to get some sleep. Tomorrow evening he would be riding out with Ben and Hoss to deliver the ransom money and if all went as planned, Sarah and Joe would be coming home, safe and sound.
Still worried about Adam, Ben spent part of the night sitting beside his oldest son’s bed.
Adam slept soundly until sunrise, his breathing deep and even, his color improving with each passing hour. Just as daylight began to lighten the room, Adam’s hazel eyes slowly fluttered open. He took his time glancing around at the familiar surroundings, his eyes finally coming to rest on the haggard-looking figure of his pa, sleeping in the chair beside him.
His voice a bit hoarse, Adam called, “Pa?”
Ben bolted upright, instantly awake. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Ben replied, “Yes, son....I’m here. How are you feeling?”
Adam groaned softly and tried to shift himself into a more comfortable position. “I feel really thirsty and my leg is hurting pretty bad.”
Ben reached for the water pitcher beside the bed and poured Adam a drink. “Doc Martin gave you some medicine that should help ease the pain. He said you were to stay in bed for at least two days then after that, he just might allow you to get around using crutches.”
Adam gratefully accepted the glass of water and drained the entire contents. He sighed then lay back down against the pillows.
His face deeply etched with concern, Ben raised the blankets on the bed so he could check Adam’s leg. The thick white bandage wrapped around Adam’s right thigh showed no sign of bleeding. Ben gently lowered the blanket, sat down on the edge of the bed and placed his hand on Adam’s forehead. He was pleased to see his son wasn’t as feverish as before.
“For awhile there, you gave me quite a scare, son,” said Ben, allowing a fleeting smile to touch his lips.
Adam’s voice was tight with pain. “I’m sorry, Pa. I sure as heck didn’t do this on purpose.”
Ben noted that Adam looked gaunt, and there were dark circles under his eyes.
Warily, Adam asked, “Little Joe didn’t come home with us last night....did he? I don’t remember seeing him on the ride home.”
Ben took his time answering. Finally, he shook his head and said, “No, son....Joe didn’t come home with us. He’s still back at the cabin with Sarah.”
Adam moaned softly and asked, “What are we going to do now?”
Ben gave Adam a reproachful look. “YOU are going to stay in bed like the doctor ordered! One wounded son running around is more than enough for me. I don’t need you giving me any more gray hairs. Joe is doing a fine job of that all by himself!”
Adam’s jaw tightened and he frowned. Being confined to his bed, unable to help his father and little brother, was unbearable.
Ben could see that Adam was having a difficult time keeping his eyes open. He stood and patted his son on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you alone so you can get some sleep. I’ll be back to check on you later.”
Ben paused in the doorway and turned around. “Try not to worry about Little Joe and Sarah. We’ll have your brother home soon.. Hoss came up with a pretty good plan on how we can get them back.”
Adam wanted to hear what they had planned but the need to sleep was stronger. He was sound asleep before his father made it back downstairs to the living room.
Throughout the night, the heavy rain clouds continued to linger over the high Sierras, maintaining a steady downpour that had begun to saturate the soil. The morning was cool and damp when Ben stepped outside to give the Ponderosa foreman his instructions for the day. Ben stood near the corral, his arms resting on the top rail as he stared up at the rain clouds obscuring the high mountains. The words “flash flood” suddenly popped into his mind, making him feel a bit uneasy.
He’d seen more than his share of torrential rainstorms and the devastating flash floods that were born of such storms.
Ben shook the thought from his mind, he had more pressing matters to consider. He and Jake needed to get all the ransom money together as well as prepare the second set of saddlebags that was a crucial part of Hoss’s plan.
Later that afternoon, after all the money was safely packed into one set of saddlebags, Ben went upstairs to check on his oldest son.
Adam appeared to be resting comfortably, the pain medicine left by Doc Martin seemed to be working. Ben turned around and was about to leave when he heard Adam moan softly and call his name. He sat down on the edge of the bed. “Yes, son....I’m here.”
Feeling a bit groggy from the medicine, Adam blinked his eyes and tried to push himself up into a sitting position.
“No, son.....lie back and rest,” urged Ben. “You’re not ready to get up just yet. You and your leg still need a lot more rest.”
“Pa, I’m fine,” protested Adam. “I want to go with you tonight!” Adam closed his eyes for a moment and locked his teeth against the burning pain in his thigh.
Ben frowned and shook his head. “You’re in no shape to get out of bed.....let alone ride a horse. Now lie back and do as the doctor ordered!”
“But, Pa.......,” groaned Adam through gritted teeth.
“No buts,” admonished Ben. He took hold of Adam’s shoulders and gently but firmly pushed him back down onto the pillows. As he smoothed and straightened Adam’s blankets, Ben grumbled, “All you boys seem to have inherited the Cartwright stubborn streak! Now stay put....and no more arguing!”
Frustrated, Adam replied, “Yes, sir.”
One side of Ben’s lip turned up in a smile. “I’ll send up Hop Sing with your supper on a tray.”
Adam yawned and conceded, “Thanks, Pa.”
It was a rare thing when Adam Cartwright succumbed to illness or suffered an injury, but when it did happen, he never had much patience with himself while waiting to recover.
Adam sighed deeply, frustrated and angry that he couldn’t ride out tonight and help bring Joe and Sarah home.
Ben, Hoss and Jake ate their supper in silence, each man alone with his thoughts and fears. Jake toyed with his food, anxious for the nightmare to be over. Never could he have imagined the profound effect one foolhardy decision, made by a frightened young man over twenty years ago, would have on his life as well as the lives of another family. Jake tried to convince himself that in a few more hours this would all be over. Sarah and Little Joe would be home safe and he could finally stop looking over his shoulder, wondering when his past would finally catch up with him. The burden of that one sin had become intolerable. He was ready to face up to what he had done and accept whatever punishment the law deemed appropriate.
The roar of thunder, as it crept ever closer to the ranch house, reminded Jake of the unavoidable confrontation that was only hours away. Unlike Ben, he was sure Seth would not allow Joe and Sarah to live as he had promised when the ransom was paid. Before attempting to disappear with the money, Jake firmly believed Seth McKenzie would kill his daughter and Little Joe. He had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that before this night was over, somebody was going to die.
When dinner was over, everyone got ready to leave. Jake tossed aside the sling Doc Martin had given him to support his injured arm and struggled into his raincoat.
The wind had picked up and the light drizzle had turned into a steady downpour when Ben, Hoss and Jake rode away from the ranch house. The gray sky was crawling with clouds as mean and restless as ghosts on the prowl. Thirty minutes later, all three men were soaked to the skin, their hats and slickers poor protection against the relentless wind-driven rain.
Ben reined in Buck when they reached the point where the three of them would split up. Buck and Chubb tossed their heads, turning in nervous circles while Jake’s horse snorted and tried to rear each time a bolt of lightening slashed the angry sky. All three riders cursed the weather as they tried to calm their nervous mounts.
“Keep an eye out for flash flooding,” cautioned Ben over the roar of the thunder and driving rain. “I’m sure you remember what happened to those foolish settlers who built their cabins too close to the Truckee River.”
Hoss shuddered, remembering the grotesquely swollen bodies and all the debris that had been swept downstream for several miles.
“I will, Pa,” nodded Hoss in affirmation. He quickly wheeled Chubb around then motioned for Jake to follow. Both men galloped down the narrow trail, mud splashing up onto their horse’s bellies.
Ben pulled up the collar on his rain coat then settled his hat lower over his eyes. Buck, who was as wet as his master, snorted then tensed all his muscles and gave his body a good shake. Ben’s saddle creaked and groaned as his horse tried to rid himself of some of the rain.
Ben chuckled and patted the buckskin gelding on the neck. “I know, boy....I don’t like being out here in this storm any more than you do.”
Before turning Buck’s head to the west and riding back to Buckhorn Canyon, Ben looked up at the ominous looking sky and silently said a prayer that all would go well tonight, that his son and Jake’s daughter would be allowed to come back home safe and sound.
Seth was looking forward to killing that lousy back-stabbing thievin’ jackal of a former partner as he gathered his gear together and got ready to go meet Zachary at Devil’s Slide. Before he headed out into the downpour to saddle his horse, he instructed Morgan to wait for him and keep an eye on the boy and the girl.
Morgan stiffened, suddenly tense, a look of distrust in his dark eyes. “You ARE planning on coming back, ain’t ya?” he asked.
There was a moment of silence as the two men stared at one another then Seth turned away. “Of course I’m coming back. You and me....we’re partners,” Seth lied.
Morgan didn’t like the way Seth refused to look him in the eye when he said he’d be coming back. “Sonovabitch!” thought Morgan, playing with the gun strapped to his thigh. “He better not take off with all that money or so help me......when I catch up with him, I’ll kill him real slow!”
Seth ignored Morgan, his mind filled with delicious thoughts of what he was going to do with all that money when he got to Mexico. Morgan was right - he wasn’t planning on coming back. Right from the beginning, his plan had been to kill both Jack and Morgan then disappear with all the money the same way Zachary had done twenty-two years ago. Killing Jack had been easy, but killing Morgan, who was as skilled with a gun as he was - maybe even better - was a risk he wasn’t willing to take.
Seth gave Morgan a lecherous grin and winked at him. “Why don’t you entertain yourself with the girl while I’m gone. You can do whatever you want with the boy; just make sure you kill him before we leave.”
Horror lit Sarah’s eyes, the thought of what was about to happen to her and Joe rendering her speechless.
A chill shot up Joe’s spine in a single, icy arrow. He felt the muscles of his gut tighten involuntarily. When Joe spoke, his voice was a white fury, his eyes glazed with hatred. “You so much as lay a hand on Sarah....I swear I’ll kill you!”
Morgan gave a short laugh. “And just how do you plan on doing that.... seein’ as how you’re unarmed?”
“Dammit,” Joe cursed under his breath. His jaw and fists tightening, Joe didn’t care whether or not he had a weapon. He swore he would protect Sarah or die trying.
Without saying another word, Seth turned and disappeared into the cold wet night, leaving Joe and Sarah alone with Morgan.
Swords of lightning pierced the sky, stabbing menacingly at the ground, creating brief bursts of day out of night. The air inside the cabin was humid and stifling. Joe could feel his heart pounding a furious tattoo as Morgan slowly approached Sarah like a wolf stalking it’s prey. Enraged, Joe took a step toward Morgan, who swiftly drew his gun and shoved the muzzle against Joe’s chest. In the lantern light, Morgan’s forbidding face was colder than the features on a stone statue. “You want to die now or later, boy?” he hissed. “It really don’t matter much to me when I kill ya.”
A muscle twitched in Joe’s cheek as he measured the man. He gave Morgan a savage smile then, in a lightning fast maneuver, shoved the muzzle of Morgan’s gun to the side. The weapon discharged then fell from Morgan’s hand. The slug barely missed Joe’s chest but it did pass through the sleeve of his jacket, burning his flesh as it creased his upper arm.
The air reeked of cordite as Joe drove his fist into Morgan’s gut then followed with a vicious uppercut that knocked his opponent off balance. Morgan cursed as he staggered backward and fell onto an old rickety table that collapsed beneath his weight. Horror lit Joe’s eyes as Morgan fixed him in a deadly stare. Morgan jumped to his feet and growled an ugly threat as he charged Joe.
All the color drained from Little Joe’s features. His head reeling, he spun awkwardly to avoid Morgan’s attack. Anticipating just such a counter move, Morgan reached out and caught a handful of Joe’s jacket then whipped him around like a rag doll. He smashed Joe hard in the mouth then threw him against the far wall where he crumpled to a heap on the floor. Sarah’s terrified shriek seemed to echo inside Little Joe’s head as the light inside the cabin dissipated into a thick, pounding gloom. Anger, fear and rage boiled in Joe’s mind but the emotions and sensations were being driven back by darkness.
Sarah ran to where Joe lay on the floor and pleaded with him to get up. Morgan swore as he reached down and roughly peeled Sarah off of Little Joe. Sarah gasped then looked up and found herself staring into Morgan’s icy features. Desperately stalling for every second of life, Sarah whispered fearfully, “Please don’t hurt him anymore. I’ll give you whatever you want, just don’t kill us.”
Morgan reached out one rough calloused hand and cupped Sarah’s jaw, tilting her head slightly back. A cruel laugh burst from his lips. Sarah swallowed down the bile she felt rising in her throat; the feel of Morgan’s hand on her flesh was revolting.
“I want you, sweet thing,” he answered in a deep, quiet voice, his hands freely roaming over her hips.
“No, please.....please don’t hurt me,” Sarah pleaded. She felt panic stab her and started to back away from him. Morgan moved toward her, his lips widening in a malevolent grin. Reflected in his eyes was the smug gleam of an animal who has his quarry trapped and helpless, plus something else: the man was going to kill her.
Sarah’s panic turned to terror, her heart began to pound, her breath to come in gasps. Her legs felt weak and they tottered beneath her. Her long auburn hair streaked across her face, and the tears involuntary began to flow.
Morgan reached out, his hands like claws, and clutched Sarah’s shoulders. She screamed, a high shrill cry that reverberated off the walls of the small cabin. She tore out of his grasp and spun around. It was as if he deliberately let her go so he could play with her as a cat toys with a mouse before devouring it. Her breaths coming in ragged gasps, Sarah stumbled through the cabin, frantically searching for anything she could use as a weapon. Morgan laughed at the frightened girl, feeding on her fear. Horrified, Sarah watched as Morgan unbuckled his belt and dropped it on the floor.
While Morgan toyed with Sarah, Little Joe rose to his knees then his feet, slowly, carefully, fighting to quell the pounding in his head. Through his blurred vision, he saw Morgan slide his belt off and fumble with the buttons on his pants. Joe knew he had to do something fast. He spied an old square-mouth shovel, covered with rust, lying on the floor a few inches from his feet. He reached down with a trembling hand to retrieve it. His legs threatening to fold at the knees, Joe wobbled and weaved until he stood behind Morgan. The man was too occupied with satisfying his lust that he didn’t hear Joe sneak up behind him. The muscles in Joe’s arms quivered as he raised the shovel over his head. A feral cry escaped Joe’s lips as he brought the shovel down hard, smashing Morgan between the shoulder blades with the metal end of the tool. Joe had been aiming for Morgan’s skull but the pain and dizziness combined to throw off his aim.
Morgan uttered a ghastly howl and convulsively wrenched to one side, catching Joe in the mouth with a clenched fist before knocking him to the floor. Sarah’s attacker uttered a string of obscenities that would peel the hide off a Gila monster as he leaped to his feet. A loud crash of thunder reverberated throughout the cabin as Morgan stormed over to where Joe lay groaning and writhing on the floor. Morgan was loaded to the muzzle with rage as he knelt down beside Joe and jerked the boy’s head back cruelly by the hair. “I’ve had just about enough of you, kid! I’m gonna kill you right now!”
Blood poured from a gash in Joe’s lip and he wiped it with the back of one hand before firing a vicious kick at Morgan’s knee. Morgan screamed and fell over backward onto the floor. Joe tried to leap to his feet but instead, his legs collapsed beneath him, his entire body overcome with blinding pain and utter exhaustion. Sarah let loose a shrill cry and pounced on Morgan, wildly pummeling him with her fists. Morgan used one arm to ward off Sarah’s savage blows while grasping his injured knee with the other. Sarah grabbed a large hunk of firewood and continued to bash the hapless man. “Don’t you hurt him!” she screamed.
Morgan howled and cursed as he tried to protect himself from the stinging blows. A pitiful groan from Little Joe momentarily distracted Sarah from her furious assault, giving Morgan the brief window of opportunity he had been waiting for. Before Sarah even knew what had happened, Morgan bucked her off and rolled to his feet. He stormed over to where Sarah lay on the floor.
Just then he heard a deep voice behind him. “Step away from the girl!” There was a flinty edge to Ben’s voice.
Morgan spun around in a movement as quick as a cat’s. A shadowy figure was standing in the open doorway, his face dark and silhouetted by the flickering light from the porch lantern.
In one fluid motion, Morgan dove to the side and retrieved his revolver from the floor and fired.
In a violent corkscrew motion, Ben twisted out of the doorway into the room as Morgan’s bullet imbedded itself in the door frame, missing his head by an inch. Ben hit the floor rolling as more bullets sliced the air around him. Instinctively, Morgan glanced at the open door to make sure that Ben was alone and had no help. When no one else exploded through the door, Morgan turned his attention back to Ben, wildly cursing as he filled the air with hot lead.
Going like a cat with its tail on fire, Ben scrambled toward a large heavy table, knocked it over and held his breath as a furious fusillade shredded the table’s surface.
The sound of gunfire penetrated the heavy fog in Joe’s mind. He pulled a great draught of cool air into his lungs, trying to clear his head. Joe rolled over in time to see his father lying on the floor behind what was left of a table that looked like it had been attacked by a grizzly bear. Out of the corner of his eye he spied Sarah out in the open. Joe’s voice was tight with pain as he yelled at her to get down.
Suddenly, Morgan lunged toward the table where Ben was hiding. A chill shot up Joe’s spine as he realized his father wouldn’t see Morgan until it was too late. His jaw locked in determination as well as against the pain, Little Joe rolled toward the man intent on murdering his father.
Morgan’s momentum caught him off balance and carried him over and beyond Little Joe, tripping on his body and crashing in a heap on the wooden floor. Morgan’s gun fell from his hand and slid across the floor.
Ben was instantly on Morgan. He pressed the muzzle of his gun against the man’s head as he dropped his full weight onto his knees and drove them hard and deep into Morgan’s spine.
“Don’t move!” ordered Ben, fighting back the urge to pull the trigger.
Morgan lay still and silent on the floor, his arms extended out from his sides in a gesture of surrender. He knew it would be foolish to try for his gun. Cartwright could blow his brains out long before he reached his weapon.
With a look of consternation, Ben glanced at his youngest son, lying motionless on the floor near Morgan’s feet. His fatherly instinct was pulling him toward his injured son, but first he needed to make sure Morgan was no longer a threat. Without taking his eyes off of Morgan, Ben asked Sarah to quickly fetch him some rope. A few minutes later, Ben had Morgan bound and gagged quicker than a flea hopping out of danger. As soon as Ben finished securing the gag around Morgan’s mouth, Sarah ran to Little Joe’s father, buried her face in his shoulder and clung to him for a moment. Then, somewhat restored, she stepped back. Tears stung her eyes. “Mr. Cartwright.....” Sarah’s voice broke for a moment, “Little Joe.....he’s hurt pretty bad!”
Ben gently moved the grateful girl to the side and rushed to his son. The worry lines on his face spoke a thousand words.
Little Joe was barely conscious and appeared to be in a lot of pain. Ben reached down and touched his son’s face. “Easy Joe, I’m here now.”
Little Joe’s eyes had a glazed, distant look as he slowly rolled his head from side to side. “Pa?” Joe’s voice was tight with pain as he slowly regained his senses.
Ben inched closer and took his youngest son into his arms. He exhaled deeply, all his anxiety and fear slipping away, replaced by joy and relief.
Joe sobbed quietly, his face pressed against his father’s chest. Ben ran a hand gently over Little Joe’s hair, softly whispering words of comfort. Every bump and bruise on Joe’s body throbbed in time with the thud of his heart.
“Sarah?” choked Joe. “Where is Sarah? Is she alright?”
Sarah knelt down beside Ben and Little Joe. “I’m right here, Joe,” she said. Smiling, she reached for Joe’s hand. “Don’t worry about, me.....thanks to you and your pa, I’m just fine.”
Joe gingerly turned his head toward Sarah’s voice. He squeezed her hand as he blinked a couple of times, trying to clear the haze from his eyes.
Ben looked around at the wrecked interior of the cabin and asked, “What happened here?”
Sarah’s voice was shaking as she told Ben what had happened - about how Little Joe had fought Morgan to keep him from assaulting her. Ben smiled to himself, knowing that was exactly what he would have done had he been in Joe’s shoes. He was very proud of his son.
Ben silently offered a prayer of thanks that he had arrived when he did. Lord only knows what might have happened if he hadn’t been there. He had just begun to approach the cabin when suddenly he had heard Sarah scream. Forgetting Hoss’s plan, he had rushed onto the cabin porch, his gun drawn. When he heard Morgan threaten to kill Little Joe, his heart had leaped up into his throat.
A loud crash of thunder accompanied by a round of enraged howls from Morgan brought Ben back to the present. He glanced first at Morgan, who was thrashing about on the floor like a very angry fish out of water, then back to Joe. “Do you think you can stand, son?”
Little Joe nodded gingerly. “I think so, Pa.”
Joe fought back a wave of nausea as his father and Sarah helped him to his feet. He clung tightly to his pa while he waited for the room to stop spinning. Ben watched with consternation as all the color drained from his youngest son’s face. He quickly scooped Joe up into his arms and carried him outside onto the porch. The cool damp air helped to revive Joe and soon he was able to sit on the porch without any help while his pa saddled a horse for Sarah.
While they waited for Ben to return with the horses, Sarah shrugged out of her jacket and tore off one sleeve of her blouse to use as a bandage for the bullet crease in Joe’s arm. When she was finished, Little Joe rewarded Sarah’s effort at doctoring with a shy smile and a gentle kiss.
When Ben returned with the two horses, Sarah asked, “Mr. Cartwright, where’s my pa?”
Ben peeled off his wet rain slicker and carefully put it on Little Joe. “Your pa and Hoss went to deliver the ransom money.” Puzzled, Ben looked around then asked, “I thought there were two other men besides Seth. Where’s the third man? Did he go with Seth to get the money or do I need to worry about him?”
Suddenly, the gruesome image of Seth blowing a hole in Jack’s chest came flooding back into Sarah’s mind. She shuddered and said, “Seth killed Jack this morning. They argued and Seth killed him in cold blood.”
Joe coughed and groaned then added, “His body is out here somewhere.”
Ben felt a cold chill race down his spine as he glanced out into the stormy darkness. He was half expecting to see Jack’s ghost come walking out of the trees at any moment. After learning that Seth had shot Jack in cold-blood, Ben was all the more thankful he had arrived when he did. Jake’s assessment of Seth’s character had been correct. After what he had heard and witnessed here tonight, Ben was certain that Morgan and Seth never intended to let Sarah and Joe leave the cabin alive.
Before heading home, Ben searched the cabin for something to help keep the rain off of Sarah on the ride home. Morgan glowered at Ben, his eyes smoky with rage and his features contorted as he struggled to free himself from the ropes that bound his wrists and ankles.
Ben kneeled down beside Morgan and checked the rope he had used to bind the man’s hands behind his back. Before they left, he wanted to make sure Morgan hadn’t managed to work the rope loose. Ben thought it best to leave Morgan at the cabin while he took Joe and Sarah home. He would send a couple of his ranch hands back to fetch Morgan later and take him into town to the sheriff.
Satisfied that Morgan wouldn’t be going anywhere in the near future, Ben quickly rummaged through Morgan’s gear looking for another slicker. When he couldn’t find one, he offered Sarah his jacket and an apology. “I’m sorry it’s not much, but it might help to keep you warm on the ride home.”
Sarah gratefully accepted Ben’s jacket then wrapped her arms around Joe’s pa and said, “I don’t care if I get wet, I’m just thankful that Joe and I are going home.” She wiped a tear from her eye and added, “I don’t know how I can ever thank you for saving our lives, Mr. Cartwright.”
Ben’s eyes twinkled as he smiled at the grateful girl. “You just did.”
Ben glanced at Little Joe and frowned. His son appeared to be weakening. He moved over to Sarah’s horse and gave her a leg up into the saddle. He glanced up at the turbulent sky and said, “We better get on home quick. This storm doesn’t look like its going to let up or move on out of here any time soon.” He didn’t want to frighten Sarah or Joe so he kept thoughts of mud slides and flooding to himself. This was one of the worst summer storms he had seen in quite some time.
Lightening continued to viciously slash the heavens as Ben helped Little Joe pull himself up into Buck’s saddle. The brief physical exertion required to mount the horse sapped Joe of what little strength he had left. He sat hunched forward in the saddle and groaned as multiple streams of water cascaded off his hat and shoulders, his breathing rapid and uneven.
Worried, Ben studied Little Joe for a moment. He laid his hand on Joe’s thigh, gave it a gentle squeeze and peeked up under the brim of Joe’s hat. The boy’s face was drawn and pale. “C’mon....son, let’s get you home,” said Ben as he climbed up into the saddle behind his injured son. Desperately weary, Joe leaned back against his father. Ben wrapped his arms around Joe just like he had done with Adam so he could steady and comfort him on the long ride back home to the Ponderosa.
Sarah, Joe, Ben and their mounts were soaked to the skin shortly after they left Morgan all trussed up and howling like a banshee. Sarah and Little Joe were not too concerned with the cold and the rain. They were just glad to be alive and going home.
Hoss scowled as he glanced up at the angry sky. He quickly adjusted the collar on his rain slicker and pulled his hat lower over his eyes. “Dadburnit!” he cussed, his irritation at their situation as well as the inclement weather obvious in his voice and posture.
The unseasonably cold summer rain beat out a steady rhythm on Hoss’s hat and broad shoulders, a monotonous sound that served to heighten the tension and anxiety he felt as he waited for someone to come for the ransom money. Hoss did his best to stand still and remain out of sight but the unrelenting rain and his cramped quarters made it feel like torture. Another round of “Dadburnits!” escaped Hoss’s lips as he felt his boots sink deeper into the mud. With considerable effort, he extracted his boots one at a time from the sucking mud then carefully readjusted his feet as he cast an uneasy glance up the steep slope behind him at the army of ancient Ponderosa pines that stood shoulder to shoulder. He hoped and prayed their roots had a firm grip on the mountainside. The thought of being swept away and buried beneath an avalanche of mud, rocks and timber didn’t set too well with him. He swallowed hard then glanced down at his feet. The small rivers of mud coming down the steep slope behind him seemed to be multiplying and growing right before his eyes, further compounding his feelings of anxiety and distrust. Hoss sure hoped someone would show up soon.
Hoss was cussing and pulling his boots out of the mud for what felt like the hundredth time when he heard the sound of approaching hooves. He quickly glanced over at Jake who sat huddled - all wet and miserable - against one of the many giant boulders that had been scattered haphazardly across this section of land by an ancient glacier. Hoss whistled at Jake to get his attention then motioned with his hand toward the east. Jake grunted as he slowly heaved himself to his feet. The muscles in his injured arm had stiffened up during the long wait and the pain was getting worse.
Hoss watched as Jake staggered over to his equally wet and miserable horse and pulled off the saddlebags. Before checking to see who was coming, Jake cocked the pistol he had hidden beneath his rain slicker.
Frowning, Jake strained his eyes to see which of the three ghosts from his past was coming for the money. He had been hoping and praying that all three of them would come together, but instead only one rider materialized out of the heavy mist. The man wore a dark colored rain slicker and his hat was pulled low over his eyes, making it difficult to discern his features. It wasn’t until the horse stood almost nose to nose with Jake that he could finally see who it was. Seth looked down at him - quiet and dangerous. The expression on Seth’s face was cruel and hard and he had an unholy gleam in his eyes that would have made the devil himself shiver with fear.
Hoss held his breath and carefully sighted down his rifle, drawing a bead on the man perched in the saddle. He was as disappointed as Jake to see that only one of the outlaws had come for the money. He was so sure all three of them would have come because men of that caliber wouldn’t trust one another to return for the others.
“Where’s the money, Zachary?” demanded Seth, his voice low and menacing.
Jake’s attention was focused on Seth, every nerve alert to the man’s slightest movement or change of expression. He kept his thumb hooked over the hammer of his Colt as he slowly raised the saddlebags so Seth could see them. “Here’s your stinkin’ money!”
“Ah, good!” replied Seth. “I see you made the right decision.......this time.”
Jake anxiously glanced around, expecting Jack and Morgan to suddenly appear out of nowhere. The fact that they weren’t with Seth was making him extremely uneasy. Over another explosive round of thunder, Jake shouted, “Where’s Jack and Morgan?”
When Seth spoke, his voice was a white fury, his eyes glazed with hatred. “Jack’s dead! I shot the worthless sonovabitch!”
Seth’s sudden rage ended as quickly as it had begun, and he was calm again. His eyes narrowed as he casually rested one elbow on his saddle horn, the reins of his horse held loosely in his hand. An evil sneer slithered across his face. “And if you’re wondering where Morgan is, I left him alone with your daughter and the boy. He sure took a liking to that purdy little girl of yours. He even told me what he has planned for her.”
Hoss’s eyes narrowed in concentration as he tried to hear what was being said.
Horror lit Jake’s eyes. He could hear his heart pounding in the eerie gloom. He wanted to kill Seth right here, right now, and he would have if Seth hadn’t suddenly spurred his horse forward. Jake had started to raise his pistol when Seth’s horse suddenly struck him in his wounded arm. Pain abruptly blossomed in his arm and shoulder and he cried out in pain as Seth leaned down and snatched the saddlebags from Jake’s hand then galloped off into the trees.
Jake quickly staggered to his feet, his legs weak, nearly giving way under him. “Hoss, quick....we have to get back to the cabin! Seth left Morgan alone with my daughter and I’m afraid he’s going to hurt her then kill her!”
Jake’s words had the same effect on Hoss as if someone had plowed a sledgehammer into his chest. For a moment, he stood stunned and speechless, paralyzed by shock as horrible images of what Morgan might be doing to Sarah raced through his mind. A close lightning strike followed by a cacophonous round of thunder erased the appalling thoughts from his mind. Slipping and sliding, Hoss hurriedly made his way down through the rain-soaked earth to where Sarah’s father was weaving and stumbling, frantically trying to get to his horse. Hoss reached out and caught Jake before he fell to the ground. All the color had drained from Jake’s features. His head reeling, Jake spun away from Hoss and ran for his horse. The animal, already nervous and skittish from all the noise and the rain, balked and whinnied fearfully as Jake tripped and fell. The mare’s eyes were wide with fear as she reared up and pawed the air. Her metal shoes flashed as another streak of lightening sliced through the tempestuous sky.
Hoss caught Jake and yanked him away from the terrified horse before her hooves came slamming down on his skull. “Dadburnit, Mr. Anderson!” cursed Hoss, his heart pounding in his throat. “What in the devil are you trying to do....get yourself killed?”
Hoss didn’t wait for Jake to answer. With a firm hand, he quickly sat him down beside a tree then turned his attention to the frightened horse. He needed to calm it down fast before it spooked his own mount who was already beginning to behave in a restless fashion.
Ben had always said Hoss had a way with animals like no one he’d ever known; they instinctively knew they could trust him. It wasn’t long before Hoss had the mare settled down and under control. Just to be safe, he told Jake it would be best if he rode Chubb and he would ride the mare in case she spooked again.
Hoss held Chubb’s reins of while Jake mounted. Even though he hadn’t spoken since Seth took off with the money, Hoss knew there was more to Jake’s deathly silence than fighting off pain and fatigue.
Hoss and Jake’s horses were lathered and blowing hard when they finally reached the cabin. Both men dismounted and rushed toward the darkened doorway. Hoss reached the porch first and burst through the shadowy entrance, teeth clenched and gun drawn; Jake wasn’t far behind. Hoss peered into the murky gloom, searching for any sign of life.
His injured arm dangling limp by his side, Jake pushed past Hoss and shouted, “Sarah? Little Joe? Where are you?” Jake paused and listened, his voice echoing through the cold empty room. Cries of anguish mixed with cuss words strong enough to make a bullwhacker hide his head in shame reverberated off the walls as Jake recklessly flung himself into the darkness, tearing the place apart like an enraged bull. “Oh my God! Sarah.....my baby, where are you?” he cried in impotent rage.
While Jake continued to blame himself for the loss of Joe and his daughter, Hoss reached into his pocket and pulled out a match. He was about to strike the match when suddenly something hard smashed him upside the head with a mushy thunk. Hoss staggered backward, then folded at the knees. Dazed, he groaned and rolled over, searching for his attacker.
Hoss’s cry of pain followed by what sounded like an animal growling brought Jake back to reality.
He rushed over to Hoss to see what had happened.
When Jake saw Morgan standing over Hoss, he froze. Remembering Seth’s words concerning Morgan’s plans for Sarah, he fixed the man with a deadly stare. “Where’s my daughter? he yelled, his voice raised to a strident pitch. “What have you done with her?”
Morgan froze then spun around. He stood there, quiet and dangerous. His eyes cold, he glowered at Jake then abruptly threw himself to the floor. His movements lithe and fluid, he pulled Hoss’s gun from the holster then rolled to his knees. He never had a chance to pull the trigger.
When Jake saw Morgan go for Hoss’s gun he drew his own pistol and emptied the cylinder into Morgan’s chest. Multiple fountains of blood erupted from Morgan’s chest as the bullets shredded his flesh and drove him backward.
Hoss’s head swam as he moaned and hauled himself to his feet. He swayed and almost fainted but he managed to stay upright. He winced, his eyes squeezed tight with pain. His head throbbing from Morgan’s blow.
The air was thick with the scent of gunpowder and blood. Hoss coughed and gagged then looked around the room, his eyes coming to rest on Jake who stood motionless, staring at something on the floor with his gun in his hand and his arm hanging limp by his side. Hoss continued to watch as Jake’s gun dropped from his hand and made a heavy hollow sound as it struck the floor.
Puzzled, Hoss looked down on the floor behind him to see what Jake was staring at. A faint shaft of moonlight illuminated the grizzly scene on floor. Morgan’s bloody corpse lay dead on the floor, his eyes staring at the ceiling, seeing nothing.
Hoss instinctively turned away and closed his eyes, his jaw clenched. No matter how many times he’d seen a man killed violently, he swore he’d never get used to it.
Anger, fear and rage boiled up in Jake and he cried out, “Oh my God, Hoss....what have I done?
I didn’t mean to kill him, I was just trying to stop him from hurting you! Now we’ll never know what happened to Sarah and Little Joe!”
Tears of rage and frustration poured from Jake’s eyes as he struggled with his emotions. “I don’t know what happened....I couldn’t stop myself!”
Jake staggered backward and collapsed against the wall, anxiety and regret burning inside of him as he went limp and slowly slid down to the floor. He silently stared at Morgan’s body, his expression far away.
Even though Hoss knew he was dead, he knelt down beside Morgan and felt for a pulse.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Hoss shook his head then gently cupped his hand over Morgan’s sightless eyes and closed them.
Jake felt a sudden sense of dislocation, almost as if he was pulling away from the world around him, into a remote and shrouded distance. A dark cloud settled over his features as the harsh truth struck him once again - the suffering and possible deaths of his only child and Joe Cartwright was all his fault. Feeling like he was drowning beneath an avalanche of despair, Jake asked, “What do we do now, Hoss? How are we ever going to find them?”
Holding his hand over the lump forming on the back of his head and breathing heavily, Hoss slowly walked over to where Jake sat and gingerly eased himself down on the floor beside him.
“I don’t know Mr. Anderson, I just don’t know,” answered Hoss, his voice morose. With Morgan dead, they had no way of knowing what had happened to Sarah and Little Joe. Assuming the worse, Hoss thought of his little brother, remembering his contagious laugh and his impish smile. He desperately didn’t want to accept the fact that he might be dead. No longer able to quell his own fears and anxiety over the loss of his little brother, Hoss covered his face with his hands and gave vent to his emotions.
Both men were so deeply lost in their own hopelessness and despair that neither heard the sound of horses approaching.
The furious downpour that had lasted most of the night had finally stopped, leaving the earth and trees heavy with water. Even the slightest breeze brought another shower falling to the earth. When Ben saw Chubb and Jake’s horse milling around outside the cabin, he reined in his horse in front of the cabin and handed the reins to Sarah. He dismounted and landed in the mud. Ben struggled to free his boots from the thick mud then gently patted Joe on the leg. “Will you be alright for moment, son?” he asked softly.
Little Joe winced and groaned then allowed a fleeting smile to touch his lips. Cold sweat pearled on his brow and a deep shiver stole over him. “Yeah, Pa.....I think so.”
Ben hesitated for a moment then turned to Sarah. The girl smiled at Ben then maneuvered her horse close to Buck and Little Joe. “Don’t worry, Mr. Cartwright.....I’ll look after him.”
Ben smiled and nodded his thanks then sprinted onto the porch and stepped inside the darkened cabin. Frowning, he strained his eyes to peer into the heavy darkness. “Hoss, Jake.....are you in here?”
There was a short chilly silence then Ben heard Hoss’s frantic reply. “Pa! Joe and Sarah are dead!”
Ben cocked his head to the side, looking puzzled. “Just simmer down, son. Sarah and your little brother are alive. Joe is a little worse for wear but he’ll recover. They’re waiting for me outside.”
Hoss stared at his father, stunned. His eyes gleamed with joy as he whipped his hat off and tossed it up in the air. A spirited “yee haw” filled the humid night air, expelling the somber mood that had previously filled the cabin.
Ben grinned at his exuberant son and laughed as Hoss raced past him, calling out to Joe and Sarah.
Jake’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Oh blessed Lord, my daughter....she’s here? Sarah’s not dead? She’s really alive?”
Ben quickly located Jake in the darkness and offered him his hand. He pulled Sarah’s father to his feet and said, “Its all over now, Jake. Our children are alive and safe.”
Jake felt a huge wave of relief wash over him. He grabbed Ben and threw his arms around him and lifted him off the floor in a huge bear hug. Ben gasped for air when Jake finally set him back down.
Jake offered up a heartfelt prayer of thanks then rushed out the door, loudly calling his daughter’s name. Ben’s boisterous laugh caused him to wince and rub his sore ribs. It was good to see Jake so happy after the last few days.
Ben turned around, searching for Morgan when suddenly he stopped. On the floor, a few feet away he could see Morgan lying motionless on the floor, his hands untied. He pulled his gun from the holster and cautiously approached. Besides Morgan’s hands and feet being untied, there was something else unusual about the man. In the faint moonlight Ben could see several dark wet stains on the front of Morgan’s shirt as well as on the floor boards beneath him. Suddenly, Ben’s nose recognized the heavy sent in the air. Blood, he thought. He knelt down beside Morgan and confirmed his suspicions. Morgan must have escaped his bonds and ambushed Jake and Hoss. One of them must have killed him in self-defense.
There was a distant flash, then a roll of thunder far off to the south as Ben slowly stood up and slipped his weapon back into its holster. He turned around in a slow circle, searching for something with which to wrap Morgan’s body.
Sarah and Hoss were fussing over Little Joe when Jake came limping out of the cabin. When Sarah saw him and heard him calling to her, she cried, “Daddy!”
Jake awkwardly ran to his daughter. “Oh my God, Sarah, my baby.....are you alright?” he cried. Jake didn’t wait for Sarah to answer. He pulled her off her horse and took her in his arms. “Oh Sarah....I thought I’d lost you! I thought Morgan had killed you!” Jake held his daughter so tightly against him that he could feel her heart pounding as she sobbed, deep, ragged sobs full of blessed relief. Tears poured down Sarah’s face like falling rain. “Oh Daddy, it was awful. That man Morgan...” Sarah suddenly stopped, she couldn’t continue.
Jake held Sarah as tightly as he could, whispering, “Shhhhhh.....you’re safe, it’s all over now, Morgan’s dead, he can’t hurt you anymore.”
Sarah stopped crying and looked at her father, a questioning look in her eyes. “What happened to him? He was still alive when we left here.”
Jake held Sarah tighter and bit his lower lip then told her how Morgan had must have worked his ropes loose and was waiting inside to ambush them when he and Hoss arrived.
Jake glanced over at Hoss who was standing beside his little brother, helping to steady him. “I’m sure Morgan would have killed Hoss if I hadn’t stopped him,” said Jake, reliving the nightmare. “I killed him in self-defense.”
Jake sobered, frowning now. He gently cupped Sarah’s tear-streaked face in his hands. There was immense love in his eyes as brushed back the few strands of wet hair that clung to her face.
“Its all over now, I don’t want to talk about it anymore. All that matters to me is that you and Joe are safe.”
The comforting warmth of her father’s embrace calmed Sarah. She wiped her eyes and smiled for the first time in days. “I love you Daddy!”
He leaned forward and placed a tender kiss on her forehead. “I love you too. I just hope you understand and forgive me for what I have done.”
Jake fell into silence, his gaze resting vaguely in the middle distance. He roused himself and said, “Sarah.....I never should have kept that secret from my past from you and your mother. I should have been honest with you both right from the start.”
Jake sighed and looked down at the ground. “I loved your mother from the moment I set eyes on her and I was afraid if she knew about my past, she wouldn’t marry me. I felt it was safer for everyone if I didn’t tell her my real name. I didn’t want to risk the chance that Seth and his gang would someday find me and take revenge on your momma for what I did to them.”
Hoss suddenly felt uncomfortable. He had been standing next to Joe, helping to keep his little brother from falling off his father’s horse, while Jake was talking to his daughter. To hide his uneasiness, he fussed with his father’s saddle on the pretense of making sure it was still tightly cinched.
His heart heavy with shame and guilt, Jake glanced over at Little Joe who sat silently hunched forward in the saddle, his eyes closed. He reached out and rested his hand on Joe’s leg. “How are you doing, son?”
Joe raised his head with agonizing slowness. He tried to answer but pain quickly seared through his head and ribs, and he gasped. He was too miserable to say anything.
Worry and concern blended together in Jake’s eyes. “We better be getting you and Sarah on home and into bed. Especially you, Joe. I better go see what’s keeping your pa.
Jake started back toward the cabin then suddenly he stopped. He gritted his teeth and groaned as a sharp pain shot through his wounded arm. Sarah saw the pinched expression on her father’s face and rushed to his side. “Daddy, what’s the matter? Are you alright?”
Jake patted Sarah’s arm and tried to assure her that he was fine. Sarah’s eyes widened in surprise when she saw the thick white bandage on her father’s arm and the bloodstain on the sleeve of his jacket. “Daddy, you’re wounded! What happened?”
“Its nothing to be worried about. Seth shot me in the arm the other night. Doc Martin did a good job of patching me up and he said I’ll be alright. My arm just needs some time to heal.”
Sarah was not convinced. “You sit down right here with Hoss and Little Joe. I’ll go see what’s keeping Mr. Cartwright.”
“But...but....,” Jake stammered.
Sarah firmly planted her hands on her hips and gave her father a no-nonsense look. “No back-talk, Daddy....you hear?”
For good measure Sarah added, “And don’t make me have to ask Hoss to make sure you stay put!”
Hoss chuckled as Jake gave Sarah a good-natured scowl. “You sound just like your mother!”
Sarah cocked her head and gave her father a stern look that quickly dissolved into a big grin. “I heard that!” She quickly spun around on her heel and headed toward the cabin.
Before Sarah reached the porch saw Ben exit the cabin backward, dragging Morgan’s body which he had wrapped in a blanket.
After he made sure Joe wasn’t going to fall out of the saddle, Hoss raced forward to help his pa.
Ben was going to ask had happened to Morgan then thought better of it. There would be plenty of time to talk about that later. Right now they needed to get Sarah and Little Joe home.
While Hoss went back to the corral to saddle another horse, Ben went over to check on Jake and Little Joe. Joe looked like he was ready to pass out from exhaustion and Jake’s arm was bleeding a little. Just like Joe, Jake needed to spend some time resting in bed.
When Hoss returned, he was leading Cochise as well as Morgan’s iron grey gelding. “Pa, I found Cochise wandering around out behind the barn,” he said. Hoss grinned at his little brother and added, “If I know Little Joe, he’d be awful upset if we left his horse here.”
“Thanks Hoss. Little Joe’s horse is the reason why we came back here.” Ben shook his head and laughed. “I can’t believe your little brother is more concerned about that darn horse than he is about himself.”
Hoss grinned. “That’s Joe for you.”
Hoss was silent for a moment while he finished tightening the cinch on Morgan’s saddle. “Well, I’m just glad ya did come back,” he said. “Jake and I were real worried about Sarah and Joe after what Seth told us tonight so we rode back here quicker’n hell can scorch a feather. We weren’t sure if we’d find you here or not.”
“I’m sorry Hoss,” said Ben. “We probably should have waited here for you and Jake but I was worried about your little brother. Morgan attempted to molest Sarah and Joe tried to stop him. Morgan gave your little brother a terrible beating. I was anxious get him home and have Doc Martin look at him again.”
Weary, Ben rested his forearms on the iron grey gelding’s saddle and lowered his head, his forehead resting on the side of the saddle. He sighed deeply. “I’ve been so preoccupied with what’s going on here that I forgot to ask you what happened at Devil’s Slide.”
Hoss was as anxious as his pa to get home so he gave his father a brief description of the events of the evening. He ended with an apology for allowing Seth to get away.
“That’s alright son,” said Ben, looking no more worried about the loss of the money than Hoss or Jake.
Hoss helped his father with the unpleasant task of securing Morgan’s body to the outlaw’s saddle then took the reins and mounted his own horse.
Joe moaned softly as his pa climbed into the saddle behind him. Ben gently wrapped one arm around his son and gave the order to head on home. He was anxious to get Little Joe home and into bed where he belonged.
As far as Jack Shepherd was concerned, Ben made a mental note to send a couple of his ranch hands back to Buckhorn Canyon to collect the corpse and deliver it to the undertaker for a proper burial.
Seth clutched the saddlebags close to his chest as he viciously kicked and whipped his horse, forcing the tired animal to maintain a dangerous pace. The ground beneath the horse’s feet was heavily saturated with water, frequently causing the animal to lose it’s footing, slipping and sliding in the thick mud as it navigated its way through a maze of towering Ponderosa pines.
Just before daybreak, Seth’s horse drew up short and refused to go any further. Seth peered into the pre-dawn light and cursed. Ahead of him, blocking his path, a muddy swollen river raced past at a frightening speed. Broken tree branches and unrecognizable debris rushed past, rolling and tumbling in frothy whitecaps that looked like ghosts dancing on the water’s surface. The sound from the river as it raced past was deafening. Seth tried to force the reluctant animal down the slope and into the boiling water. The horse screamed in protest. Seth brutally whipped and beat the animal for its stubborn refusal to obey him.
Suddenly, the ground gave way, sending Seth and his horse tumbling down into the treacherous current. Man and beast were instantly swept away.
Seth doggedly clung to the saddlebags, choking and gasping for air as the fierce current tried to drag him under. All around him, large chunks of debris and dead animals slammed into him, cracking his ribs and further weakening him. He tried to swim for the shore using only one arm but was unsuccessful. The river was moving so fast he could barely keep his head above the water. He quickly began to panic. In a final act of self-preservation, Seth let go of the saddlebags and this time, using both arms, tried to swim for the shore. His arms felt heavy and slow, the muscles aching and burning. Seth felt like the river was alive. It was a swirling muddy monster that was hell bent on killing him. Suddenly, up ahead, he spotted a twisted mass of broken tree branches firmly embedded in the middle of the river. As he was swept past, Seth reached out and grabbed hold of one of the branches. His hands and face were ripped by thorns and barbed wire as he hung on for dear life.
Fighting to fill his lungs with air instead of water, Seth didn’t see the dead steer come barreling down the river, straight toward him, until it was too late. His eyes went wide with shock and he opened his mouth to scream as the jagged horns on the dead animal impaled him in the abdomen. A thick spray of blood erupted from his mouth and his body went limp as his eyes rolled back in his head. Seth’s lifeless body slipped free of the tangled branches and was swept down the river.
The Cartwrights and the Anderson’s rode home together in silence. Everybody was too weary or hurting too much to want to talk. There would be plenty of time later to discuss what had happened and what the future held.
The morning sun had finally chased away the last of the rain clouds when the Cartwrights and the Andersons went their separate ways. Jake and Sarah thanked Ben and Hoss again for all their help. Both father and daughter were anxious to get back to their ranch for some much deserved rest. As they waved goodbye, Jake and Sarah promised to join the Cartwright family at the Ponderosa the next day; there were still a lot of loose ends left to tie up.
Hoss wanted to accompany his father and brother home, but Ben insisted he take Morgan’s body into town like they had planned. He reminded Hoss to tell Sheriff Coffee that he would come see him later in the afternoon and press charges as well as fill him in on Sarah’s kidnapping and about Seth McKenzie escaping with the ransom money.
The Ponderosa ranch house was a welcoming sight to Ben and Little Joe. Both were extremely grateful to be back home. Ben handed Cochise’s reins to one of the ranch hands then slid off of Buck. Little Joe was so exhausted he was unable to walk into the house so, bundling him like a child, Ben carried Joe up to his room then helped him out of his dirty clothes and into a clean nightshirt.
Ben wanted to send for the doctor but Little Joe sleepily assured his anxious father that he was alright. His voice shaky and his eyes heavy with sleep Joe asked, “How’s Adam, Pa? Was he hurt real bad?”
Ben gave Joe a reassuring smile. “Your brother was hurt pretty bad. He lost a lot of blood but Doc Martin said he’ll be as good as new in no time.”
“That’s good to hear,” said Joe, a weak smile on his face.
Ben watched Joe’s expression change; he looked sad, even agitated. “What’s the matter son?” Ben asked, tenderly squeezing his son’s arm.
A deep shiver stole over Joe and tears came up in his eyes. He took a deep breath, feeling the pain all through him. “Its all my fault that Adam got hurt, Pa! I feel so awful! Because of me, he could have been killed.” Joe wiped the tears from his face with the sleeve of his nightshirt. “I’ll bet he’s real sore at me right now.....probably even hates me.”
“I’m sure your brother doesn’t blame you. He might be a bit angry at you but I know for certain he doesn’t hate you. Actually, he’s been worried sick about you ever since we got him home. In fact, he was so adamant about coming back to the cabin with us to help rescue you and Sarah, it was all I could do to convince him that he was too sick to get out of bed.”
Joe gazed into his father’s dark eyes, so full of wisdom and insight. “Really?” he asked hesitantly.
Ben nodded and softly said, “Yes, son.”
Joe gave his father a faint, sad smile then closed his eyes.
Ben patted Joe on the leg. “You get some sleep now, son. Rest is the best thing for you.”
With his youngest son safely tucked into bed, Ben paused outside Joe’s room, leaning heavily against the wall. He sighed and massaged his temples then closed his weary eyes and let his head fall back against the wall. All the stress and worry from the last few days suddenly fell away, leaving him feeling drained and exhausted. With heavy feet, he trudged down the hall to check on Adam before retiring to his room for a few hours of well deserved rest.
Ben quietly poked his head into Adam’s room and found his oldest son asleep, snoring softly. He quietly closed the door and staggered down the hall to his own room where he collapsed onto the bed. Ben was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
Later that day, the pain in Little Joe’s head and ribs awakened him. The angle of the sunlight streaming through his bedroom window told him it was late afternoon. He had been asleep for ten hours and he still felt wrung out. Joe tried to move and groaned. His ribs ached something fierce and his head felt heavy and dull on his shoulders. Gingerly, he pushed himself into a sitting position and swung his bare legs over the edge of the bed. He waited for a few minutes for the sharp stabbing pain in his side to subside then tried to stand up. His legs were weak, nearly giving way under him as he got to his feet. Each step achingly painful, his movements slow and unsure, Joe padded down the hall to Adam’s room.
Adam was reading a book when he heard the soft knocking sound on his door. A hint of pain in his voice, he called, “Come in.”
Clad only in his nightshirt, Little Joe shyly opened the door and peeked into the room.
Adam managed a sympathetic smile. “Hey, little brother....how are you feeling?” He closed his book and set it down on the bed. “Come on in and talk to me. Pa told me about what happened last night.”
Joe carefully eased himself down onto Adam’s bed then crossed his legs Indian style. He felt nervous and ill at ease as he tried to get up the courage to speak what was on his mind. He wanted to apologize for what happened to Adam but he was still nervous and fearful that his big brother wouldn’t forgive him.
“I’m still feeling pretty rotten,” answered Joe, his eyes downcast. “How’s your leg?”
“It still hurts but I’ll be fine.” Adam studied the forlorn expression on Little Joe’s face. He knew something was bothering Joe because his little brother wouldn’t make eye contact with him.
Little Joe swallowed the lump in his throat. Finally he looked up into Adam’s hazel eyes. “It was my fault you got shot, Adam,” he admitted, with remarkable courage. “I should have stayed home and waited like Pa told me. I’m responsible for you getting hurt. I wouldn’t blame you if you hated me and never spoke to me again.”
Little Joe looked at Adam sadly, his tears staining his face. He cast his eyes downward then looked up and watched as Adam’s eyebrows knit together in a strange little frown.
Adam paused to think for a moment, choosing his words carefully. “Joe....first of all, I want you to know that I don’t blame you and I don’t hate you. You’re my brother and I love you. I admit that was a foolish thing you did, sneaking out of the house and showing up at the cabin but I understand why you did it.”
Adam knew Joe was thinking about what had happened, his eyes focused, yet somehow far away.
He saw that Joe’s face was glistening with tears. “I admit I was angry when I first saw you then I was worried about your safety.” One corner of Adam’s mouth turned up in a grin and a sparkle shown in his eyes. “I don’t know what it is about you Joe......but you have lousy timing.”
Little Joe smiled. Just a little. It was faint but it was a start.
Adam watched his little brother twist and fuss with the hem of his nightshirt. He knew Joe was mulling over what he had said. To distract him, Adam asked, “How’s Sarah? I heard she’s a pretty feisty gal, even got in a few good licks on her kidnappers.”
If his head hadn’t hurt quite so badly, Joe would have laughed. “Yeah, she sure is a spunky girl. She managed to hurt Jack pretty good a couple of times before Seth killed him.”
“Pa told me about that. I’m sorry you and Sarah had to see that.”
“Me too, Adam,” answered Joe, his voice solemn. “I sure hope it doesn’t give Sarah nightmares.”
“If she is as strong as you say she is,” said Adam, “then I’m sure she’ll be alright.”
“Sarah is a pretty special girl Adam. I’ve never met another girl like her. I hope after all this she still wants to see me.”
Little Joe fell silent again and Adam waited patiently. He could see a hint of red beginning to blossom in Joe’s cheeks. He leaned forward, trying to get a better look at his brother’s face. Suddenly it dawned on him. “You kind of like her, don’t you?” teased Adam.
Joe looked up at his big brother and grinned sheepishly. “Dadburnit, Adam, I never was good at hiding anything from you. You’re as bad as Pa!”
For the first time, Joe felt like smiling, and so he did, a big smile that was filled with hope.
Adam grinned at his little brother. “It’s good to see a smile on your face, Short shanks.”
“It’s good to have something to be able to smile about,” replied Joe.
Adam could see he had put Joe’s mind as ease and his baby brother no longer blamed himself for what happened back at the cabin. He winked at Joe and said, “Now, how about we both get some more rest before Pa comes up here and scolds us for not following the doctor’s orders. The more rest we get the sooner we’ll get better and be back to working this ranch again.”
“Speak for yourself, big brother,” joked Joe, a look of mischief in his green eyes. “I sure as heck ain’t in no hurry to get back to doing my chores. It may take me quite a while to recuperate.”
Adam laughed at his little brother’s remark. That was so like Little Joe.
As Joe gingerly stood up to leave, Adam picked up his book and pretended to swat his baby brother on his rear. Before he left the room, Joe turned around and said, “Thanks, Adam.” There was immense love in his eyes.
Later that evening, Roy Coffee rode out to the Ponderosa to get a statement from Ben concerning Sarah’s kidnaping plus he wanted to read Ben the riot act for not enlisting his aid.
After Roy finished with his ranting and raving, Ben offered his good friend a glass of brandy. Roy gratefully accepted then took a seat on the couch to enjoy the Cartwright’s hospitality. His job as sheriff of Virginia City constantly kept him busy. He was rarely afforded a chance like this to just sit back, relax and enjoying spending some time with his good friends.
Roy emptied his glass, set it on the coffee table then asked, “How’s Adam and Little Joe?”
Ben settled back in his chair and smiled. “Their both doing fine. Doc Martin said Little Joe and Adam will be back on their feet in no time.”
“That’s good to hear,” said Roy, smiling.
Ben took Roy’s glass and refilled it.
Roy thanked Ben as he accepted the glass again then asked. “How’s Sarah and Jake doing? I haven’t had the chance to ride out the Anderson ranch and speak with them as of yet.”
“Sarah appears to be just fine but Jake took a bullet in the arm,” said Ben. “Doc Martin took care of him but I imagine he’s still in some pain.”
Roy took a sip of the amber liquid, enjoying the flavor as it slid down his throat and warmed his insides. “Hoss told me all about Jake’s past and about the bank robbery he took a part in over there in Colorado.” Roy’s eyebrows knitted in a deep frown. “He also told me about the two other men who took part in the kidnaping. Beside the one Hoss brought into town, he said there was another one of ‘em dead back at the cabin and the third man, Seth....he got away with the money.”
“That’s right, Roy,” piped in Hoss, a mischievous gleam in his blue eyes. “Seth got away with some money but not all the money.”
Looking a bit confused, Roy glanced at Ben then at Hoss. “What? You told me he got away with the ransom money.”
Hoss’s grin exploded into a full blown smile followed by a round of laughter. “I guess I forgot to tell you Roy, we had two sets of saddlebags with us. The saddlebags on my horse had the real money and one on Jake’s horse had bundles of paper cut to the shape of money and on the outside of each bundle was a real bill.
“We were counting on the fact that Seth, or whoever came for the money would be in a big hurry to get the heck outta there and they wouldn’t look too closely if they took the time to open the saddlebags. Just in case we were found out, we brought the real money along with us too.”
Ben saw the look of displeasure in Roy’s eyes and stepped up to Hoss’s defense. “I admit Hoss’s plan was risky and Jake might have been killed but we did take that into account. Hoss went with Jake and hid up in the trees, ready to shoot whoever came for the money if it looked like Jake was in danger.”
His manner brusque, Roy said, “You were just lucky things turned out the way they did.”
Roy fixed both Ben and Hoss with a stern look, making both Cartwrights feel a bit uneasy. Roy’s frown quickly melted away, replaced by a grin. He shook his head in disbelief. “You Cartwrights are the luckiest durn fools that ever lived.”
“And don’t forget Jake and Sarah,” added Hoss, looking proud of himself. “They’re pretty lucky too.”
We’ll just have to wait and see if Jake is as lucky as we think,” Roy said. “This afternoon, I sent a wire to the sheriff of Leadville, Colorado, asking him if there was an outstanding warrant for the arrest of one Zachary Langford in connection with that bank robbery that happened over twenty years ago.”
Now it was Ben’s turn to look puzzled. “Roy, you planning on arresting Jake?”
“If I have to, Ben....then yes. He broke the law when he helped those men rob that bank.”
Roy watched Ben’s eyes grow dark and pensive. “Ben, don’t get me wrong,” said Roy, “I like Jake just as much as you and I sure as heck don’t want to see him go to prison. But I can’t let my personal feelings interfere with my job.”
Ben’s frustration was growing. “C’mon Roy, Jake said he didn’t actually rob the bank. He was a scared desperate kid who did nothing more than hold the horses while the other three stole the money.”
Roy shook his head. “I’m sorry but that still makes him an accomplice to a crime.”
“But that was over twenty years ago,” said Hoss.
“It don’t make no difference when it happened,” Roy said. “The fact that Jake or Zachary......” Flustered, Roy paused then continued, “I don’t know what to call that man now! Well, the fact of the manner is, he chose to keep the money and that makes him a criminal, and as such, he can still be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Ben slowly unfolded from his chair and stood, positioning himself in front of the fireplace. “Roy is right,” said Ben, staring into the flames. He stood there for a few minutes, lost in thought, then turned to face Roy. “Jake said he was planning on coming into Virginia City tomorrow to confess to you and turn himself in.”
Roy looked up at Ben and replied, “No need for that just yet. At least not until I receive an answer to my wire. You tell him to stay home and spend time with his daughter.”
“Thanks Roy, I’ll be sure to tell him,” said Ben. “Before coming to see you he was planning on stopping over here first.”
Roy was about to ask Ben a question concerning Seth when Hop Sing came into the living room carrying a tray with coffee and slices of hot fresh blueberry pie.
Hoss’s eyes grew as wide as saucers. “Mmmmmm.....that sure smells good,” he said, eagerly reaching for a slice of pie before Hop Sing had a chance to serve their guest.
Hop Sing slapped Hoss’s hand and gave him a thorough scolding in Chinese for his bad manners.
Both Roy and Ben burst out laughing.
Roy waited until he finished his slice of pie and asked for seconds, before telling Ben he had sent out some deputies to see if they could pick up Seth’s trail. He didn’t think his deputies would have much luck due to the heavy rain and all the flooding.”
Roy wiped his mouth with his napkin then picked up his cup of coffee and said, “I’d sure love to be there to see Seth’s face when he empties out those saddlebags and finds out he’s been tricked. That man is gonna be maddern’ a rained on rooster.”
Hoss and Ben both smiled as they tried to imagine the look of shock and anger on Seth’s face.
Roy drank the rest of his coffee. “First thing in the morning, I’ll get some wanted posters printed up and sent out so as folks can be on the lookout for Seth.” He stood up and stared wistfully at the blueberry-stained china desert plates. Roy sighed then said, “Well, I guess its time for me to be headin’ back to town. Please tell Hop Sing that was the best blueberry pie I ever had the pleasure to sink my teeth into.”
Ben chuckled. “I’ll be sure to tell him, Roy,” he said as he walked his good friend out onto the front porch.
“Goodnight Ben, goodnight Hoss,” called Roy.
Sheriff Coffee untied his horse from the hitching post and mounted up. Before he rode off, he said, “I’m sure glad to know Sarah and Little Joe are safe and back home again. I’ll be back here in a few days to let Jake and you know what I find out from the sheriff in Leadville.”
Ben nodded and waved goodbye then walked back into the house.
Two days later, Roy received an answer to his telegram. He was about to head on out to the Anderson ranch and after that the Ponderosa, when Avery Colter came riding into town, leading a horse with a body slung over the saddle.
Roy waited on the raised boardwalk outside his office, watching as a crowd of curious onlookers followed Avery over to his office.
“Whatcha got there, Avery?” called Roy. He was just as curious as everyone else to see what Avery had found.
Avery dismounted and secured the reins of both horses to the hitch post then ducked under the wood rail and stood beside the corpse. He reached down and grabbed the dead man by the hair and raised his head. “This poor fella musta got hisself caught in that flash flood. This mornin’ I found him washed up near the middle fork of the Cascade river.” Avery removed his hat and scratched his head. “I’m not sure if he died from drownin’ or from gettin’ poked in the belly by a steer.”
Roy stepped up close to the bloated body and pulled a face when he got a whiff of it. Seth’s corpse was so discolored and grotesquely swollen from the river that Roy was unable to discern his features.
The crowd of Virginia City citizens had grown and were now pressing in on Avery and the sheriff, forcing Roy closer to the putrid corpse. It was all Roy could do to keep his breakfast from reappearing as he elbowed his way through the crowd in an attempt to escape the stench. As he hurried down the street to fetch the undertaker, Roy wondered how Avery’s horse had made it all the way into Virginia City with that awful smelling load on its back.
While Roy was waiting for the doctor to examine the body, he decided to ride out to the Anderson ranch. When he arrived no one was there so he presumed Jake and his daughter must be over at the Ponderosa.
When Roy rode up to the Cartwright’s house, he found Little Joe and Sarah Anderson sitting on the front porch drinking lemonade and playing checkers. Both were laughing and seemed to be enjoying themselves. Roy could see that Joe still had a bandage wrapped around his head and he sported several ugly looking bruises on his face.
When Little Joe saw Roy approach the house, he pressed one hand against his broken ribs and gingerly rose to his feet to greet the sheriff. “Good morning, Roy,” he called.
“Hello Joe, hello Sarah,” greeted Roy with a smile. “Say Joe, is your pa and Mr. Anderson around? I’d like to talk to both of them.”
Little Joe glanced over his shoulder at the house and replied, “They’re in the house talking.”
Roy dismounted, handed the reins of his horse to one of the ranch hands. “How’s Adam feelin’, Joe?”
Little Joe gave Roy an impish grin. “C’mon inside and you can ask him yourself.”
Ben, Adam, Hoss and Jake looked up when they heard the front door open. Ben set down his cup of coffee and rose to his feet. “Hello Roy....come on in. We were just talking about you.”
“Howdy,” said Roy, smiling at Jake and the Cartwrights. His gaze settled on the oldest Cartwright son. He nodded and asked, “How’s that leg of yours comin’ along?”
Adam remained seated in the blue velvet chair by the stairs, his right leg propped up on an ottoman. He reached out to shake Roy’s hand. “My leg is feeling much better, thank you. The doc said it shouldn’t be too much longer before I can go back to work.”
Hoss grinned and added, “Yeah, and I hope that day comes real soon seein’ as how I’m doin’ both Adam’s and Little Joe’s chores.”
Ben smiled at his good-natured son, a gleam in his eyes. “Don’t worry, Hoss,” he said. There’ll be plenty of work for both Adam and Joe once they’re feeeling better.”
The everyday casual conversation Jake been enjoying with Ben, Adam and Hoss had helped distract him and temporarily ease his tension and anxiety while he waited for word from Sheriff Coffee. But now that Roy was here, his anxiety returned tenfold. The expression on Roy’s face was neutral, giving Jake no clue as to the nature of his visit.
Jake licked his lips which were suddenly dry and nodded at Roy as he reached out to shake the sheriff’s hand.
During the last couple of days, Jake had quite a bit of time to reflect on what he had done and come to grips with what the future held for him and his daughter. It was a grim picture at best. Jake figured he’d have to sell his ranch so he could repay the money that he kept from the Colorado bank robbery. Jake was ready to face the consequences of his actions; he only regretted that his daughter would suffer for his sins as well. What would become of her? Who would look after Sarah, love her and care for her? Sarah’s safety and well-being meant more to him than any other thing in the whole world. He had no relatives he could send her to live with and the thought of her having to fend for herself terrified him more than the thought of going to prison.
Part of the reason Jake had come over to the Ponderosa today was to ask Ben if he would look after Sarah until he got out of prison. He liked Little Joe and he trusted Ben Cartwright to take care of his daughter and treat her like one of his own children. He was about to ask Ben this enormous favor when Sarah and Joe had walked into the house with the sheriff.
While his family exchanged pleasantries with Roy, Joe took Sarah’s hand and headed for the door.
“Sarah and I are going back out on the porch so I can beat her at checkers again.”called Little Joe over his shoulder.
Sarah suddenly stopped and planted her hands on her hips and declared in mock indignation,
“That’s what you think, Little Joe Cartwright! You haven’t won a single game yet!”
A hearty round of male laughter filled the room. Adam had an amused look on his face as he said, “I’m glad to see someone put my little brother in his place.”
Roy reached out and took Sarah by the hand, gently guiding her over to the couch so she could take a seat by her father. “What I have to say involves Sarah so I’d like her to stay and listen.”
At that moment, Jake swore his heart stopped. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, preparing himself for the worse.
Sarah reached out and took her father’s hand. Jake squeezed his daughter’s hand and felt her gentle response. Sarah looked close to tears though she tried to hide it, moisture glistened in the corners of her eyes. Shortly after they had returned home, Jake told Sarah the whole story again. When he was finished with his confession, Sarah watched as tears of shame and regret poured out of her father with the same intensity as the previous night’s storm.
A heavy silence descended on the Cartwright living room.. Jake swore everyone could hear his heart pounding in his chest. All eyes were glued to the sheriff as he reached inside his vest pocket and removed the telegram from the sheriff in Leadville, Colorado.
Roy paused to glance around the room at all the solemn faces. “Why does everyone look like they’re going to a funeral?” he asked.
Bewildered, Jake stared at Roy. “Huh, what are you talking about, Roy? Aren’t you here to arrest me?”
“No, Jake. I’m here to tell you that the courthouse in Leadville burned down ten years ago. Besides destroying half the town, the fire destroyed all written records and out-standing arrest warrants, including the warrant that was issued for your arrest.”
Roy handed the telegram to Ben who read it then passed it over to Jake. Incredulous, Jake sat back on the couch, the paper trembling in his hand, hardly knowing what to say, his thoughts were all a brew.
Adam arched one eyebrow in question. “Does this mean what I think it means, Roy?”
“Yep, it sure does, Adam,” said Roy, looking pleased with himself. “This means there’s no documented proof that Zachary Langford is guilty of robbin’ a bank. And without an arrest warrant or any tangible proof that Zachary Langford took part in that bank robbery, there ain’t no reason for me to be haulin’ him off to jail.”
Jake jumped to his feet, his brow deeply furrowed. This was too good to be true. He rubbed the back of his neck with his good arm and paced the length of the room. He still couldn’t believe what he had just heard. He stopped and looked back at Roy. Jake found himself frozen into immobility by the shock of this most unexpected turn of events. He had no idea what to do or say. His tongue was as thoroughly paralyzed as the rest of him.
Sarah ran to her father and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, her eyes filled with tears. “Oh Daddy, Daddy!” cried the exuberant girl. “This is wonderful news! You don’t have to go away to prison.....we can stay here and still be a family!” Sarah was laughing and gasping, weeping and kissing her father, all at the same time.
“Oh Sarah,” sobbed Jake, holding his daughter tight. “I’m never going to leave you and that’s a promise!” Tears of joy and relief streamed down Jake’s and Sarah’s faces.
Ben discreetly wiped a small tear from his cheek and said, “I say this calls for a celebration.”
In a voice that resembled a cannon, Ben hollered, “Hop Sing, break out a bottle of champagne!”
Hop Sing’s voice, scolding in Chinese then in English, could be heard all the way from the kitchen. “Yell, yell, yell....all Mr. Cartwright do is yell! You keep yelling....Hop Sing go back to China!”
When Ben explained the reason for all the shouting and cheering, Hop Sing smiled and offered Jake and Sarah his wishes for a happy future then hurried back to the kitchen for the champagne and glasses.
Jake stood mute and dumbfounded as everyone shook his hand and offered him a hearty round of congratulations. When he was finally able to think clearly, Jake smiled then turned to Ben and Roy. He felt a lump forming in his throat as he said, “Ben. Roy. I feel I owe you for my newfound happiness and my life. If it weren’t for you and your boys, Ben, I might never have seen my daughter alive again.”
Ben ran a hand across the back of his neck. He was feeling very proud of his sons as well as a bit overwhelmed by Jake’s words. His sense of honor, friendship and modesty prevailing, Ben simply replied, “That’s what friends are for.”
Ben glanced at his three sons and knew they felt the same way as he did. The Cartwrights nodded and smiled and something silent passed between them.
Jake turned to Sheriff Coffee, “And Roy, I truly appreciate you trusting me to not run off as well as taking the time to wire the authorities in Leadville concerning my participation in that bank robbery. With Sarah safely returned to me and my name now cleared, I feel like I’ve been given a second chance.”
Roy gave the group of happy people a smile and a wink. “Well, if there ain’t no more questions, I’ll just consider this matter closed. I’d love to stick around and enjoy the festivities but some people around here gotta work.”
Hoss looked at Jake and cocked his head to one side. “I just have one question. What do we call you now? Zachary Langford or Jake Anderson.”
A thoughtful frown creased Roy’s forehead as he looked at Jake. “Yeah, what should we be callin’ you?”
Jake rubbed both hands on his cheeks and thought for a moment. “I’d just as soon prefer that everyone continues to call me Jake Anderson. I’ve been answering to that name for so long now that if you called me Zachary, I’d probably ignore you.”
Everyone in the room smiled and laughed then nodded in approval.
Jake’s steady blue eyes passed gently over his daughter and his friends. “As far as I’m concerned, Zachary Langford died a long time ago. Let’s just let him rest in peace.”
Ben waited until Hop Sing had finished handing out glasses of champagne to everyone in the room then he turned and smiled at the group of happy faces. His gaze finally coming to rest on Jake and Sarah, Ben raised his glass high and offered a toast. “To new beginnings......”