NINE

ooooooooo

Joe opened his eyes on a world that was a watercolor blur. It took a moment for it to settle into something resembling reality and, when it did, there was a face in the mix with a pair of wide green eyes. They were watching him with worry.

A hand touched his cheek.

"Little Joe, can you hear me?" the woman asked.

Joe blinked. He swallowed and tried, and then tried again before he could . "Sure…."

The woman looked away and back. "Keep your voice down. Hopefully they'll think you're still asleep."

She was becoming clearer now - a beautiful young woman with a heart-shaped face and wide green eyes surrounded by a halo of golden-blonde hair.

Joe reached up to touch a curl. "Mama?"

The woman winced, as if she had been struck. Her hand caught his. "No, Joseph…Little Joe. It's Dora, just as before. Dora Drummond."

And with that it all came back - Marcus Burnell or Drummond, Halbert Carton…Hoss…the gun going off….

His brother's blood on the floor!

Joe shot up like a ball coming out of a cannon.

"Hoss!"

Dora caught him and pressed him back down. He realized then that his head was in her lap. Her hand moved to his chest and she whispered, fiercely, "Be quiet! You don't want -"

"Is he awake?" a gruff voice demanded.

"No! I told you he's feverish. He cried out is all."

A rough hand took hold of his good arm and shook him. Fortunately, he'd been smart enough to clamp his eyes shut when Dora scolded him.

"How do I know he isn't playing possum?" The man paused. "It's not like I can trust you to be honest with me, my dear."

He'd heard that voice before.

It was Marcus…whoever.

Dora's hand tightened on his chest. "Marcus, if you know anything about me, you know this one thing - I would die to protect this child or any other from you!"

The man crouched beside them. It about drove him nuts, but Joe managed to keep his eyes shut and his breathing rapid and uneven.

That last part wasn't much of an effort.

Marcus reached across him. He supposed he had taken hold of Dora's chin.

"And if you know one thing about me, my dear, it is that I keep my promises. You will lead me to our son or I will kill this boy - and I will make you watch!"

"I thought you wanted to extort his father!" Dora snapped back, her voice trembling. "You'll get nothing if you kill him!"

Marcus laughed as he rose to his feet. "Money isn't everything," he tossed over his shoulder as he walked away.

There was a moment of silence and then Dora said, "I am so sorry I brought this trouble on your house."

Joe opened one eye. Marcus was on the other side of the camp and no one was paying attention to them, so he opened the other one too. "Who is he?" he asked, and then added softly, "and who are you - really?"

She started at that and then sighed. "I guess I deserve that, though the truth is not so far from what you've been told."

"Is your name Drummond?"

She nodded. "Yes. Sadly. I was born Pandora Jennings and that was my name until I made the mistake of marrying that horrible man!"

Joe twisted to look, wincing as he did at the pain that shot through his broken arm. Marcus was seated by the wagon, eating.

"How'd you meet?"

Dora shifted a bit so she held him a little less tightly. "I really am a teacher. What I told your father is the truth. I was born in England and came to America when young. I first taught in a small school house in Maine. After I received my certificate, I moved to one of the bigger cities and that was my mistake." She looked toward the fire. "It was where I met Marcus."

"He seems kind of old for you," Joe said lazily and then realized what he had said. "Sorry."

She laughed softly. "It's all right. I have always been attracted to older men."

"Like Pa?"

That was another 'oops'.

Dora looked again to make sure no one was watching them. "Yes, like your father. He's the kind of man I thought I had married - strong, capable, a bit forceful perhaps, and protective." She shuddered. "How wrong I was."

"Pa's like that," Joe said. "He's great."

"I'm sure he is." Dora paused. "Marcus was protective, but protective of his own interests. All too soon I found out what he was up to. He'd been in trouble in other states and was in hiding. It didn't take him too long to pick up where he left off. By the time we'd been married three years he was swindling his clients again. I found out about it and left him."

"And took your little boy with you?"

Pain tightened her jaw and creased her forehead. She nodded but said nothing.

"What's his name?"

Dora drew in a breath and let the name out with it. "Josiah."

Joe smiled. "That's a good name."

"Yes, it is."

"Where is he?"

The beautiful woman stiffened at that and glanced again toward the fire. After a moment she answered, "I don't know."

Joe blinked. "Really?"

Dora nodded again. "Really. I feared Marcus would find me and force the location out of me. I had one of my sisters in England arrange for an adoptive family." His teacher looked down at him. "Joe, it isn't that I won't - I can't tell Marcus what he wants to know."

Which meant he was dead.

Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Dora looked so lost, so forlorn - and so beautiful that Joe felt something stirring within him. It wasn't those feelings he knew his older brothers were worried about. Oh, he'd had them for his pretty young teacher when he first met her. These were deeper feelings; feelings of grief for a loss he could not understand and of gladness for this new chance. Feelings that rocked him to his core and told him that, no matter what, this woman would survive and she would be reunited with her child.

If he was gonna die anyhow, he was sure-as-shootin' gonna make it count for something!

"Joe, close your eyes."

Dora's hand returned to his forehead as a man spoke. "Marcus sent some water over for the kid," a voice he recognized as Halbert Carton's said.

"I didn't know he cared!" Dora huffed as she took it.

"He don't. Marcus just don't want the kid to die before he kills him," he sneered.

Drops of water struck his face. Dora was shaking.

"It's okay," he whispered as the man walked away.

After a moment, his teacher responded, "Here, take a bit of this."

For some reason, he didn't want to. "Nah," he said.

A second later he was startled as Dora's lips brushed his forehead. She made a funny little noise and then lifted his head. "That's an order, young man," she said sternly.

He wrinkled his nose a bit, but did as he was told. Surprisingly, the water felt cold as it went down.

"I wasn't lying," she said.

"About what?" Joe asked, thinking she meant her husband.

"You have a fever. It's not too high now, but you need to keep drinking."

"I just broke my arm," he said as he licked his lips. "I'm not sick."

"You let me decide that, young man," she said in her best school teacher voice. Then, she blessed him with a smile. "Your father will chide me if he finds you in less than the best condition when he rescues us."

That was right.

Pa.

Pa was coming.

Maybe he would live to see another day.

ooooooooo

The new day had dawned. After traveling for several hours, they'd stopped to rest the horses and take a bite of food, though Ben was chomping at the bit as surely as the pack mule they'd brought with them to get moving again. The rancher ran a hand over his face and then drew in a breath and let it out to calm himself. The sturdy animal's worth was found in the work it did.

His was in his sons.

At least Adam was safe. His eldest would be at the campsite, preparing for the drive and waiting on him to show. The preparations would keep him busy enough that the boy should stay put. Ben turned and looked back toward home. He'd hated to leave Hoss. It gave him some peace to know that Paul said he would stay until he was sure the boy was out of danger. The operation had gone well and Hoss had been resting peacefully when they left, but there was always the threat of infection and that worried him.

Though he was the most worried about Little Joe.

From what Roy had told him of Marcus Drummond, or whatever his real name was, the man had started off as a high-class criminal who kept his hands clean, but had descended of late into a hands-on thief who enjoyed killing. Who knew what changed a man? Perhaps it was thwarted ambitions, unreached dreams, or perhaps, it was simply a sinful nature that nurtured instead of fought its natural tendencies. Every man wanted what every man wanted - his own way. Each sinful heart longed for comfort and ease when the Lord's Word promised a man would have to struggle - to work hard and pull his worth from the land. He was no different. Given no restraint he would take what he desired and not care who was hurt in the process. Such men were Marcus Drummond and Halbert Carton.

And they had his son.

"We'll find him, Ben. I promise you that."

The rancher started. He turned with a laugh. "Roy, you startled me."

"Quietest boots in the West," his friend said. "You thinkin' about Little Joe?"

"That, and other things," he admitted.

"Drummond?"

They called him that, though they really had no idea what his name was. "Yes, and what makes a man into a monster."

"Not gettin' what he wants and thinkin' it's okay to take it," the lawman said, putting it succinctly.

"Is it so simple?"

"Pretty much. You know, Ben, bein' a lawman you spend most of your time lookin' at the underside of the rock. It ain't pretty." Roy paused. "But then there's men like you - and John over there - who keep my faith in man goin' in spite of what I find there."

Ben nodded. "What caused you to choose to be a lawman, Roy?"

The other man looked away for a moment. It was as if his eyes were fixed on some unseen goal. "To right wrongs, I suppose," he said at last. A moment later Roy turned back and added with a wry grin, "To make sure them men who think about nothin' and no one but themselves don't get what they want."

"I'm ready to go, Ben," John Smythe said as he joined them.

Ben wondered if John had heard what Roy said. Sadly, it seemed his eldest was heading down the same path as Drummond and Carton.

"I appreciate you coming along, John."

"It's the least I could do." John paused. "Darby told me about the incident with Little Joe at the stream. I can't tell you how sorry I am my boys were involved in that."

Some would say, 'boys will be boys', but he didn't believe that. Ben's jaw went tight. He nodded.

John was looking past him. "I hate to think of your boy out there, Ben. It's bad enough those men took him, but with a broken arm…."

As with Hoss, the rancher knew his son's danger lay in infection, though the break had not torn the skin, thank the Lord! Ben winced as he remembered Hoss' description of how Halbert Carton had roughly handled his sick boy, twisting his arm and making Joseph pass out.

Ben growled.

If he ever got hold of that man, Carton would understand what rough handling was!

A hand caught his shoulder. "Now, Ben, don't you be thinkin' about takin' the law into your own hands."

Law? No. He wasn't thinking about the law.

He was thinking about justice.

ooooooooo

Joe woke again. This time he was laying on the ground. He was also alone. Puzzled, he used his right hand to prop his aching arm and shifted slightly so he could look toward the fire.

There was no one in sight.

With a twist of his lips and a shift of his thick brows, Joe turned over onto his back and laid there staring up at the leaves above his head and the sun blazing above them. He supposed by the angle that it was a couple of hours 'til noon. It was a hot day and he was sweating, which made it seem kind of strange that he was also cold.

Really cold. In fact, his teeth were chattering.

"Damn," Joe breathed and then looked around just in case his pa had chosen that moment to rescue him.

He did have a fever.

It took about everything that was in him, but Joe worked and worked until he was upright and leaning against the trunk of the tree. Since no one was around, he figured it didn't matter anymore whether he was asleep or not. Once he was in place he began to pluck at his shirt sleeve. Since Hal had manhandled him, he hadn't looked at his arm. He was sure he remembered hearing a 'snap!' right before he passed out and the way it was hurting, he was thinkin' something had happened when he did. The first thing his fingers encountered was a thin crust of something and then, the tip of a bone.

No wonder the thing hurt like hell!

Joe sat there a moment and then began to panic. This was his dominant arm, as Doc Martin called it. The one he would have to use the rest of his life. If it got worse…if it didn't heal right…. The curly-haired boy swallowed over his fear. He couldn't imagine having to learn to do everything over again with his right hand, even peein'.

Which reminded him, he really had to go.

Joe glanced down at his feet. They were unbound, as were his hands. Dora must have done a good job of convincing the bad men that he was sick as a dog and couldn't run away. Of course, he couldn't run away since he didn't know where she was and he wasn't about to leave her alone with a man who was willing to use killing him as leverage to get his own son back. Talk about a dog.

No, that wasn't fair to the dog….

Joe rose to his feet and stumbled back into the trees where he did his business. Once in the nest of darkness, the impulse to run became almost overwhelming. Since Dora didn't know where her boy was she couldn't tell Drummond, and that pretty much was the same thing as puttin' him up against a wall and lettin' the soldiers go at it. Still, he couldn't leave her. His pa had taught him better. A man had certain duties to perform and one of the highest was making sure that no harm came to a woman, even at the cost of his own life. Besides that, she looked like his mama.

He couldn't let her die again.

As Joe stood there in the darkness thinking, he heard sounds in the camp. It had only been a few minutes, so he figured it was Drummond coming back. The impulse struck him again to run, but then he heard Dora crying and he knew he couldn't do it.

Quick as he could, Joe slipped back under the tree and laid down and pretended to sleep.

"I should kill him right now!" Marcus snarled. "It would serve you right!"

"Marcus, no! No! I'm sorry. I won't do it again."

Joe heard the crack of a hand on a cheek, so loud it made him start. "You had better not or I will blow the boy's brains out in front of you," Marcus said. "I can live without his father's money."

Joe wondered what Dora'd been thinking. Obviously she had tried to run.

She was sobbing. Her next words were hard to catch. "…God. What…I done?" Joe opened an eye to see that she was clawing at the bad man's shoulder, reaching back the way they had come. "Let…go! I won't run. I…help!"

Was she calling for help, or did she want to help someone?

A moment later Joe got his answer. Adley Smythe and Halbert Carton emerged from the trees. They were dragging someone between them.

Joe sucked in a breath and cursed again.

It was Adam.

oooooooooo

They'd found his son's horse. It was tethered in a small glade just off the side of the road. Adam's belongings were still there. Even his hat.

Ben was still shaking.

"Now, Ben, don't you go thinkin' the worst. The boy might just be off huntin'."

Boy. Adam was twenty-five, but Roy was right. He was a boy.

His boy.

"No," he said as calmly as he could. "Adam was due at the drive camp. He wouldn't have taken off hunting." That was something Joseph would have done, and maybe pulled his middle brother into the scheme along with him. But not Adam. Not sturdy, sensible, reliable Adam. Ben's eyes went to the black hat where it lay upright on the grass. "Something has happened."

John Smythe was kneeling, looking at the ground. John was a civilized man, but he had lived in the West long enough to learn what it took to stay alive. "If it did, it didn't happen here. There are no signs of a struggle," he said.

Thank God for that!

"Can you tell which way he went?" Ben asked as he joined him.

John nodded. "Through the trees. He wasn't taking care to not leave signs. You can take some comfort in that."

Ben bent to examine the trail. The other man was right. It looked like Adam had simply risen and decided to take a walk in the trees - without his gear.

"Ain't no weapon here," Roy said as he came from Sport's side. "So he's armed."

The only thing he could imagine was that Adam had seen - or heard - something that had made him leave his camp and enter the woodland.

Was it too much to hope that it had to do with Joseph?

They'd been following Marcus Drummond's trail. A short ways back it had veered off into the trees. He'd thought they should continue to follow it, but Roy had decided that it would be better to come around the bend and approach from the other side in order to take the villain unawares.

As he always told his sons - there was a reason and a purpose for everything.

"Might be Adam saw somethin' had to do with Little Joe and Mrs. Drummond," Roy said, confirming his thoughts. "That's good."

Was it? If so, all three of his sons were in danger.

Roy gave him 'that' look. "Now, Ben, that oldest boy of yours, he can take care of himself. I ain't never seen anyone can think a thing through like Adam and figger out the end before actin'.

That was usually the case. But if Joseph was threatened….

"So, what do we do now?" he asked, feeling at a bit of a loss. "If Adam is following Drummond and we storm in, that could put him in danger."

Or worse if he had been taken.

"I say we go slow, but we go," Roy replied. "We can't help your boys - either of them - standin' here by the road jawin' about it."

Ben looked ahead. "So, first we need to discover what drew Adam into the trees, and then what he did about it."

"That's right."

John had risen and was looking into those trees. "I pray my son has no part in this," he said, his tone hushed.

"Adley's a good boy," Roy replied. "He's just young and young'uns think they know best." The lawman grinned. "They just ain't lived long enough to learn better."

Ben's gaze followed the other man's. He knew what John was thinking.

They both just prayed their sons lived long enough to learn.

oooooooooo

Joe held his breath as his older brother was dragged over to where he lay and dropped on the ground like a sack of potatoes. Adam didn't make a sound as he hit. He was still pretending to be out himself, so he couldn't turn to look, but he thought there was blood on the side of his brother's head. Actually, turning at all was becoming a problem. Since he had pulled his shirt away and discovered the bone sticking through the skin, he'd felt pretty sick. Maybe it was just his thinking, but it seemed to him that his arm hurt more now than ever. He knew his fever was hovering near high though, for the moment, it was more of an inconvenience than anything else. His thinking was clear at least.

He knew they were in a lot of trouble.

The curly-haired boy shifted slightly and looked to his right. After Adam had been hauled into the clearing, Dora had been hauled out of it. Marcus had a tent pitched and he'd seen him drag her into it. For a while they'd been shouting and then it had gone quiet.

Real quiet.

He was afraid for his teacher even more than he was afraid for Adam or himself. He was just a kid. If he died his family would be sad, but they'd go on without him almost like he'd never been. After all any chores a thirteen-year-old did could be done by just about anybody. Joe's gaze flicked to his brother. Adam was a little different. Pa needed older brother more than him. Still, there were plenty of ranch hands that could do Adam's job too.

Dora was a mother. Somewhere out there she had a child that needed her. From the sound of it her son had been just about the age he was when his mama died when she gave him up. Dora didn't die, but to that little boy, he guessed it was just about the same thing. If he could give his life up to put them back together, he'd do it.

Pa'd be mad and a little bit sad, but he'd forgive him in time.

A slight moan turned his attention back to his brother. Adam was stirring. He'd shifted a bit and his fingers were digging into the ground. Thankful as he was that older brother was alive, Joe was also scared about what the bad men would do to him when they realized it.

"Adam. Shh. Keep still," he whispered.

His brother blinked again as if confused. Still, it seemed he understood. After that, the only thing that moved was his eyes. When they lit on him Joe saw something he seldom saw.

Tears.

"Joe…thank God…" he breathed.

"I'm happy to see you too," he whispered back.

"Dora?"

Joe looked toward the tent. "Here. She's with Marcus."

"Adley?"

Joe frowned. He'd been pretty sure that was who he'd seen draggin' Adam in with Hal Carton. "Standing guard."

"Idiot," Adam growled as he shifted a bit to free his hand. It was bound by the wrist to the other and trapped under him. He was probably losing circulation. Big brother's feet were tied as well.

Apparently Marcus reallydidn't think he was a threat.

"Help me sit up, Joe."

"Are you sure?" he whispered back. "They'll know we're awake."

"We have to…wake up…sometime. My hands…."

They were a funny color.

Joe let out a sigh as he shifted - gingerly - and levered himself up using only his right arm. He stopped for a second, waiting for the stars to vanish, and then reached out to brace Adam as his older brother sat up and placed his back against the tree.

"Thanks."

"No problem."

Adam was staring at him. "Really? You don't look so good."

Joe started to snap back that he could say the same thing about him, but then he realized that would have been stupid. He'd been tossed into a gulley, broken his arm, been manhandled and had his arm broken a second time; then been made to sleep on the ground and manhandled again.

He was sure he looked awful.

"I bet I wouldn't have to worry about Cora Carrington wanting to kiss me now," he quipped.

"Oh, I don't know, Joe. Women have this thing about wounded men. I've never understood it. They think it's..well…attractive somehow."

Chalk up another reason to avoid the fairer sex.

"I'll just break Cora's arm in two places and see how she likes it," he replied with a sigh.

"Two places?"

Oops.

He was in for it now.

"Hal kind of…broke it again…when I tried to get away."

"Bad as the first time?"

Adam was pinning him with his hazel stare.

Joe shrugged. "Kind of…worse. The bone's exposed."

His brother looked him up and down. "No wonder you're shivering. Come in closer. Lean against me. If they won't give us blankets, at least you can absorb some of my warmth."

Shivering? He hadn't realized until that moment that he was.

Maybe that's why he felt sick.

Joe hesitated, and then - like the little boy he had been - snuggled into his brother's side. Immediately it hit him how cold he'd been feeling.

"This is like when I was a kid, isn't it?"

Adam snorted and lifted one eyebrow. "Except I can't put my arm around you and you can't lock me in a stranglehold."

Joe laughed as he leaned his head on his brother's shoulder. "Yeah, I did that, didn't I? Near choked you to death a couple of times to hear Pa tell it." Joe paused. A longing filled his heart and entered his voice as he dropped it in pitch. "Adam, is Pa coming?"

"I'm sure he is. We parted at the fork and Pa went home while I headed for the camp. He had one of his 'feelings'."

None of them understood it. Pa seemed to know when they were in trouble and needed him.

And boy, did they need him!

Adam was looking toward the tent. "Joe, I need you to make me a promise."

Somehow he knew he wasn't going to like this. "What?"

"If the opportunity arises, I want you to run."

"And leave you, older brother? No way."

"Joe, look, I can take care of myself."

"You've obviously done a good job so far," he snapped back.

"If you aren't the orneriest, most aggravating -"

"Keep the compliments comin'."

"Joe, they hit me on the head. That's all. You…." Adam grimaced. "You need to take care of that arm. You don't want to be lamed for life."

Dread coursed through him as surely as the chills he was feeling. "I…I can't leave Dora."

"I'll take care of Dora. You take care of your -"

Adam stopped. Someone had kicked his boot.

"Now, isn't this cozy? The Cartwright brothers all snug in each other's arms."

ooooooooo

To be continued….