TEN

oooooooooo

He had expected Marcus Burnell, but the smug voice belonged to Adley Smythe. Adam watched his little brother's body go rigid. Joe had bristled at the insult just as Adley knew he would and would have said something provocative if not for his terse warning whisper.

"Joe. No."

Adley was standing, looming over them. He held his rifle loosely in his left hand.

"Oh, that's right," he said. "I remember the last time we spoke, you told me you had to protect the little brat or your pa'd disown you."

Adam held his breath. He didn't look at Joe, but he willed his younger brother to recognize a lie that was meant to hurt him.

"We talked about choices, Adley. Looks like you've made a few poor ones lately."

"I've made my choice. I'm a man now." Adley jabbed the thumb of his free hand into his chest. "I'm looking out number one. Not my brothers and not my pa. Me."

"I see. You're a man now because you've joined up with a villain who would kidnap a child and threaten a woman." He tried to control it, but his face twitched. "Obviously I am mistaken in my idea of what it takes to make a man. Somehow I would have put those down as the acts of a coward."

The black-haired man braced himself as a fire of unrighteous indignation lit Adley's eyes. He knew there would be a pay-back.

He just hadn't expected it to be directed at Joe.

His brother screamed as Adley took hold of Little Joe's broken left arm and hauled him roughly to his feet. Joe began to pant hard and tears streamed down his cheeks as he fought to keep his footing.

"Is this how you show you're a man?" Adam demanded as tears kissed his own eyes. He was bound and - damn it - helpless! "Untie me! Take me on!"

His one-time friend snorted and then glanced over his shoulder at the tent. Adam followed his gaze and saw Marcus Burnell emerge shoving Dora Drummond before him. Joe's teacher was disheveled and obviously in distress. She looked their way and a sob escaped her just before she was forced onto the back of a horse.

This was not good.

Joe was still dangling from Adley's grip. He was pale as a palomino's winter coat and lathered as one pressed too hard in the summer. Even so, there was still fire in him - and he didn't mean the fever. Joe had become agitated when he saw the way Dora was being treated and had begun to struggle to escape.

"Joe. No! Calm down," he ordered. "Calm down now!"

Adley had a good grip on Joe's injured arm. Just about where the break was. He was sure the blond man was going to snap it in half. Instead his former friend swung his rifle up in an arc and took Joe in the back of the head and dropped his kid brother to the ground.

Joe fell without a sound and lay still.

It was at that moment that Marcus Burnell chose to approach them. He paused briefly by Joe's silent form and toed him with his boot, and then came to stand over him.

"What do I have to do for you to leave Joe alone?" Adam asked without preamble.

"I suppose I could give you time with Dora to try to persuade her to tell me what I want to know, but it would be pointless." He glanced at Joe. "The only leverage I have is the boy. He goes with us."

"How is my brother 'leverage'?"

Marcus knelt before him. "Dora has something I want. She wants the boy alive. In order to keep him that way, she needs to give it to me. I have told her she has until midnight."

Adam licked his lips. God. That meant Joe had - maybe - nine hours.

"Can I get it for you? Or can I give you something in its place? Money? Land? I have both."

The villain's lips curled with a sneer. "Would your father take land or money for a son? I think not."

"A son?"

"My child. Dora took him from me and she will tell me where he is or she will watch her precious Joseph torn apart in front of her."

Adam swallowed hard over a rising fear. "You'd do that to a thirteen-year-old boy?"

"I would do it to anyone who stood in my way," Marcus replied as he rose to his feet. "Adley, pick up the boy. Bring him!"

Joe stirred and groaned as Adley lifted him. For a moment his brother's eyes opened and his lips moved. They'd done it many times in the semi-dark. He knew what his brother said without sound.

'It's okay, Adam. It's worth it.'

He had never been so proud.

Or so terrified.

Halbert Carton had come to Adley's side. At Burnell's command, he took Joe from him and headed for the red wagon Dora's horse was tethered to. Adley remained behind, staring daggers at him as if, somehow, he represented everything he hated in a man.

In other words, everything he wasn't.

Adley kicked the bottom of his boot. "What do I do with the high and mighty Adam Cartwright?"

Marcus glanced over his shoulder at him and dismissed him as if he were nothing.

"Kill him."

oooooooooo

They were close.

They'd followed Adam's trail on foot to an area where it was obvious that some sort of altercation had taken place. From that point three men had ridden off in two different directions - two going on and one going alone toward the Ponderosa. John had volunteered to follow that one while he and Roy set off after the pair. One of their horses was overburdened, as if it carried either one very large man or two seated together. Ben had thought it out and come to two possible conclusions. If Adam was all right and had found his brother, then the heavy horse must be bearing the pair of them - even though it was going in the wrong direction. If - Heaven forfend - Adam had been overtaken and injured, then he was most likely the extra burden the horse bore. Either way he felt compelled to follow the trail of the two horses, wherever it took him. Roy had scratched his head when he informed him of his choice. He supposed it only made sense to follow the horse that was headed for his ranch, but that intuition he had - that 'gut feeling' - told him otherwise.

"I don't think they're all that far off, Ben," the lawman said as he approached.

"Oh? Why?"

Roy winked. "You ain't the only one what's got an intuition about these things."

Ben chuckled. "I suppose you're right."

"What's yours telling you right now?"

The rancher looked to the west, the way the two horses had gone. The sun was beginning to set. Darkness would be upon them soon. "That we're running out of time."

His friend sobered. "I'm feeling it too, Ben. I think we'd best get a move on. There's no telling what -"

They'd both heard it. A gun shot.

And not all that far away.

They waited, listening for another one. When it didn't come, Roy said, "I think we'd best go see who's doin' the shootin'."

He agreed, though fear rooted him to the spot.

"Ben, we don't know as it's got anythin' to do with your boys."

That was true. But there was no reason to believe it didn't either.

Roy was halfway to his horse. "You comin'?" he called over his shoulder.

He was coming. He had to.

No matter what he found.

It was tough going through the trees. The branches stung them as they passed. Ben supposed they should have used more care, but the sound of that shot ringing in his ears made him throw all caution to the wind. Somehow he knew it had to do with his missing sons - with one or the other or both. They had been following the trail of the men who took Joseph when they crossed Adam's path. The boy would not desert his brother. Either Little Joe and Adam were together or Adam was on Joe's trail and that meant both of them were in peril. Unbidden Ben's thoughts returned to the Ponderosa and his middle son. He had no way of knowing if Hoss was better or worse, or even alive. Infection could have set it. Fever could have taken him. The same went for Joseph with his broken arm. If something had happened to reinjure it…. Ben closed his eyes and sought his center. All he could do was pray and trust - and continue to pray. The rancher did it as his horse cut through the dense undergrowth of the woodland, his lips moving constantly

His last words as ever 'Thy will be done'.

It was some twenty minutes later when they broke through the trees and entered a clearing. At first, he could see nothing. The angle of the dying sun cast long black shadows on the earth. Then, Roy noted the wagon tracks and the footprint left by a tent hastily raised and removed. There was a fire nearby, burned out, as well as a few pans and other items scattered around it.

And a body bound to the trunk of a tree.

Roy saw Adam first and let out a startled cry. Ben did the same as he raced to the tree and the black and wine-clad form slumped beneath it. Just shy of it, he halted, petrified. This was Elizabeth's baby boy; his firstborn; the son he had cherished and loved for twenty-five years. He couldn't be….

A groan. Eyelids fluttering.

He wasn't!

Ben fell to his knees beside his son's crumpled figure. He reached out to touch his face. "Adam?"

The boy's hazel eyes opened. There was confusion in them, but clarity as well.

"Pa?" He wet his lips. "Is it…really you?"

Relief washed over him, nearly unmanning him. "Yes, son. It's me." As he spoke, Ben began to run his hands over the boy's form. He stopped when he encountered something wet near his waist.

"Are you shot?"

Adam nodded slowly. "…why?" he asked.

Why had he been shot?

"I don't know, son. You'll have to tell me why."

"No." The boy arched backward so his side was stretched, revealing a gaping hole in his wine-colored shirt. "Why…didn't he kill me?" Adam looked straight at him. "He could have…killed me, Pa."

"Who, son? Who was it?"

If possible, the boy looked to be in even more pain. His eyes flicked to Roy who had come to crouch at their side and was - as he should have been - undoing the ropes that held Adam bound to the tree.

"It was Adley Smythe, wasn't it, boy?" the lawman asked. At his frown, he added, "I recognized the print of the horse that John followed, Ben. I imagine he did too. It was Darby's."

Adley's brother.

Dear Lord, was there to be no end to tragedy today?

Adam was nodding. "Said he was going to…kill me…but shot to the side. Hit me, but…missed. Marcus…."

"Marcus Drummond?"

Adam looked confused. "Burnell. He…took…he took Joe. Pa," the boy sucked in air as Roy began to probe his side, "Little Joe's…hurt."

"The bullet ain't in there, Ben. It's a clean wound. I'll go get some water and bandages."

"NO!" Adam shouted, startling them both. "No! You…have to go…after Joe." The boy's eyelids fluttered as his eyes rolled up. "Marcus said…kill Joe…midnight," he whispered just before he passed out.

Ben looked up to the sky. It was, perhaps, six hours until midnight.

He had six hours left to save his son.

"You suppose Mrs. Drummond is with Little Joe?" Roy asked as he rose to his feet.

He was sure she was. Everything that had happened was centered on that young woman, as surely as the sun was the center of the universe. Ben rose and looked to the west. She was there…with his son.

It was his solemn duty to save them both.

ooooooooo

"Marcus, I'm telling you the truth! I don't know where the boy is!"

Joe slowly woke to what was going on around him. He was in the back of the red wagon. Dora was standing beside it, pleading with Marcus Drummond.

The bad man sneered. "I certainly hope your memory improves in the next few hours, my dear, otherwise young Mister Cartwright will pay the price."

"Joe has nothing to do with this. Please, Marcus, let him go!"

"On the contrary, he has everything to do with this. After all, if you had your way, you'd be the boy's new mother."

There was anger in his tone. Real anger.

"Whatever gave you that idea?" Dora asked, her voice trembling.

"I asked around in the settlement. You made your feelings quite clear, especially to the lady running the pie shop. Beth, I think it was?"

Beth Riley was a bit of a gossip, or so Pa said. He liked her real well, but Pa said she liked to 'spread tales' from time to time.

"Marcus, I…."

He came closer to Dora, until he loomed over her smaller form. "Don't you for one minute think I have forgotten Ohio. You sought a protector there and look what happened."

Dora gasped. "That was you?!"

"Accidents happen - and they can happen again."

"You leave Ben alone!"

"I will - when you tell me where Josiah is."

His teacher stood her ground for a few seconds and then dropped her head. Her tone, when she spoke, was pleading. "Marcus, I am telling you the truth. I can't tell you where the boy is because I don't know! I left it to my sister to find a suitable home for him. He could be anywhere. I have no idea!"

Marcus looked his way. "Well, that's too bad for young Joseph then, isn't it? Due to your selfishness, I would say he has about five hours to live."

"My selfishness?!"

"I told you when you spoke of leaving that, if you did, I would make your life a living hell. I gave you everything you needed - a fine home, elegant clothing, expensive things…."

"Everything but love."

"I love you!"

"Marcus," Dora said, tears in her voice and eyes, "you don't know the meaning of the word."

Joe was drifting in and out as he listened to them talk. He felt hot and cold all at one and the same time, but there was something else he felt as he lay there - determined to make an end to Marcus Drummond. Pa had taught them that to kill wasn't right, but he'd also had to admit there were times when it was the only way, like when David slew Goliath. As he lay there, Joe began to mouth the words he had heard in Sunday school.

'In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me.'

Joe sucked in strength and girded himself with the belief that he could make a difference.

And then he looked for a time to act.

oooooooooo

Ben glanced at the mountains to the west. The sun was setting behind them and he was running out of time. According to Adam, Marcus Drummond had given Dora until midnight to tell him where she had hidden their child or he would kill Joseph. His eldest son had been left, tethered to that tree as the villain drove away with his brother. Adam had heard Dora pleading with Marcus, telling him she had no idea where the boy was. He hoped it was a lie.

Otherwise, Joseph was doomed.

He was astride Buck, heading though the trees; his direction chosen by his father's intuition and powered by his faith in the goodness of God. Didn't it say in Joshua, 'Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go'? Ben believed that as surely as he believed the next breath would keep him alive. God would not desert him.

Just as God would not allow his youngest son to die at the hands of a madman.

oooooooooo

"Boy, now you just lean back. You ain't goin' nowhere in the condition you're in."

Adam didn't care what 'condition' he was in - Pa needed him.

Little Joe needed him.

"Get…out of my…way," he pronounced as he fought against the lawman's grip.

"Now, son, you ain't thinkin' clearly," Roy Coffee said. "Your Pa's already worried enough about Hoss back home and that little brother of yours. He don't need to worry about you too!"

He knew it was true. Just as he knew there was nothing he could do to stop himself.

"Roy, I have to…go."

"And do what? Get yourself killed?"

"Help," he gasped. "Have to…help Joe."

"Son, your brother's life is out of our hands. We done all we can and it ain't been enough." At his look, Roy went on. "I don't like to admit it, boy, but there are times when a man - no matter how determined he is - just ain't enough." The lawman looked to the west. "No matter how much you want to, son, you cain't stop the sun from sinkin'. Adam, there just ain't any time left."

He knew Roy was right and yet, to admit it, was to admit defeat. Joe was out of time.

It was nearly midnight.

"Your Pa will find him," Roy said with a confidence he didn't feel.

"How can you be sure?" he demanded.

Roy rose to his feet. He pointed toward the mountains. "Them," he said softly, "from whence comes my help."

oooooooooo

Adley had come to the wagon and lifted him from it. It didn't take much acting, but Joe pretended he was unable to raise his head as he was lowered to the ground. His body was tired - so tired he wanted to give up. But he couldn't.

Not until Dora was safe to go back to her son.

Only half-faking it, Joe leaned his head against the side of the wagon and panted as if he was on his last legs. He would have just let Marcus kill him if he'd thought that would do any good. He knew it wouldn't. So long as the bad man had Dora in his power, he would use her to get to his son. Dora had to get away.

He had to give her the opportunity to get away.

As he clung there, swinging, Joe's thoughts turned to his brother. He had no idea if Adam was alive or dead. He'd gone out like a light when Adley hit him and when he woke up, Adam was nowhere to be found. He hoped Marcus had left him tied under the tree for their pa to find, but he had his doubts. So this was for Adam too,

He'd be damned if he didn't make both their deaths count.

"The time is up, my dear," Marcus pronounced as he drew his pistol. "Midnight is upon us. You have one final chance to tell me what I want to know."

Marcus-whoever was standing, pointing the weapon at Dora. He was flanked on one side by Adley Smythe and on the other, by Hal Carton. Carton looked like he was having a grand time. On the other hand, Adley looked about as sick as he felt.

"Maybe she can't, Marcus," Adley dared to suggest. "Maybe, after all, she's telling the truth."

"Are you losing your nerve?" the bad man shot back. "If so, maybe I should dispatch you as well."

"I just don't see how killing a kid is going to do any good," Wilson's brother protested as his gaze moved to him. "Little Joe will be…dead and you still won't have your son."

Marcus' eyes were on Dora. She was crying.

"What I will have is satisfaction."

"You'll have…what you want in spite of what it costs," Adley stated, his voice flat as a farmer's field. "Is that what you're saying?"

"Yes."

Joe flinched as the bad man's pistol pivoted toward him.

"And in the end, that is all that counts."

Ben could hear voices in the trees before him. He halted Buck and slid from his horse's back in one swift movement. All thoughts of Adam and Hoss, Roy, and even Dora Drummond were gone. He had only one focus and that was his youngest son. With the swiftness and sureness of an avenging angel, the rancher began to run. He could hear Marcus Drummond prattling on. There was another man talking. It might have been Adley Smythe. He was shouting something. Dora was there too, shouting out a name.

Shouting out, "Joe! Joe!"

Ben increased his pace. His courageous young son was doing something brave, he knew. Something brave and stupid that could end his life. He'd brought them up well, his sons. He'd instilled in them a sense of nobility; an understanding of sacrifice.

He was a fool.

Suddenly, there were three shots. One. Two. Three.

Then, silence.

Ben halted. He drew his own weapon and began to run.

As he broke through the trees he was confronted by a sight he'd hoped never to see - a young woman screaming for all she was worth, surrounded by a sea of men's bodies.

One of them was Little Joe's.

oooooooooo

Adam Cartwright was not a man who normally knew fear, but he was afraid to open his eyes. Half-conscious, he had listened to Roy Coffee's gasp of surprise and to his father's low-voiced reply. The older man's tone was laced with grief.

His little brother was dead. He knew it.

And it was his fault.

If he hadn't made Joe angry, baby brother would never have taken off on his own. If Joe hadn't taken off alone, he would never have encountered Marcus Drummond in the woods. Drummond wouldn't have found out that his wife was a guest at the Ponderosa and the madman would never have come after her, shooting Hoss and kidnapping and murdering Joe. Adam winced. Halbert Carton had taunted him about shooting Hoss and left it open-ended as to whether or not middle brother had survived.

He wouldn't survive.

Not without the two of them.

A touch on his shoulder sought to rouse him. He fought it. Fought it hard.

"Son, it's time to wake up."

It was Pa. How could Pa sound so…normal?

"…no…."

For a moment, Pa said nothing. Then, "Why don't you try?"

A hand touched his face. It was hot.

"Hey, older brother. You'd do just about…anything to get out of a…cattle drive, wouldn't you?"

It couldn't be.

Could it?

"Joe?"

The hot hand gripped his fingers. "Yeah, it's me. We…both made it."

It took effort - and a fair amount of willpower - to open his eyes, but he did it and found his little brother grinning at him. Either Joe was telling the truth or they were both in Heaven.

But then, if that was the case, Pa was there too!

"…how?" he asked.

Joe turned to look at Pa. It was Pa who answered.

"Adley. Son, it was Adley. Without that boy…."

He sensed something in his father's voice. "He's…dead…isn't he?"

Pa cleared his throat. "Your brother," he glanced at Joe, who ducked his head, "decided to rush Marcus Drummond. It was his intention to make a way for Dora to escape. Marcus' gun went off and took your brother in the forehead."

He could see it now - the lightly stained bandage corralling Joe's mutinous curls.

"When I came upon the scene," Pa said, drawing in a breath, "I thought your brother was dead. I thought everyone was dead except Dora…."

"Marcus was gonna finish me off," Joe said. "Adley shot him before he could."

"And then Marcus shot Adley?"

Joe nodded. He looked sick.

Pa didn't miss it. "Young man, it's time for you to go back to your own bed."

Bed? He hadn't noticed. Adam's gaze strayed about the familiar room He was in his own bed.

They were home.

"Hoss?" he asked.

"Recovering nicely," a familiar voice answered. Paul Martin shook his head as he came to the end of the bed and looked down at him. "Tough and tenacious as a desert dog, all of you."

"And blessed," he added softly.

"Three times blessed," his pa agreed as he took hold of Little Joe's shoulders, lifted him from the chair, and directed him toward the door. As he passed through it, Pa said, "I'll be back as soon as I have this young scamp settled."

Adam was silent a moment and then he asked the physician. "What about Dora?"

"She's here. She's traumatized to say the least." The older man thought a moment. "I don't think the truth has dawned on her yet."

"The truth?"

Paul smiled. "That she's free."

oooooooooo

It was after midnight - most likely nearer three - when Ben came down the stairs. A full day had passed since that horrific moment when he thought he had lost his youngest son. He'd checked on his boys and then come downstairs for a snack but found, after all, that he didn't have the stomach for it. So, instead, he made his way toward his leather chair; his steps dogged by 'what ifs' and 'what could have beens'. It was only as he sat down that he realized he wasn't alone.

"Who is she?" a soft voice asked. It came from the alcove where his desk was - where three silver frames sat as shrines to his former life and wives.

Rising, Ben crossed over to the desk. Silver moonlight spilled in through the open window. It struck the young woman, turning Dora Drummond's blonde hair to weathered bronze.

He took the photo from her. "Marie. Joseph's mother."

"She's beautiful," she said.

"I know," he replied as he replaced the frame. "So are you."

"I'd like to believe you mean that."

He reached out and caught her hand in his. It was so small, so fragile.

So like Marie's.

"I do. What can I do to prove it to you?"

Dora hesitated and then she leaned in, resting her forehead on his chest. "It seems to me we can never be certain. Is it me you love, or the memory of her?"

He felt the need to be honest. Lies would get him nowhere. She was a perceptive woman. "Would it be so bad if it was both?"

Dora remained where she was for a moment and then pushed away. She glanced at the frames on the desk and then at the open window.

"I'm not certain that I know what love is," she began. "I had a young girl's fancy, but that died when Marcus…changed. In the beginning he was kind, but he grew cruel." She hesitated. "There was another man. I didn't know. Marcus…killed him."

"Good Lord!"

"He was a lot like you, Ben. He was strong and kind and gentle with me. I think I loved him." She lifted her head and looked at him. "Like I think I love you."

"But you're not sure."

She smiled…briefly. "I'm not sure why I love you. Because you are strong and kind and gentle, and that is what I need, or because that is what you are." She hesitated. "Because I love you…or I love your sons."

"Can't you love us all?" he asked with a frown.

"I do. I do love you all." Dora laughed. "But I think I love Little Joe most of all."

"It's hard not to love that little scamp," he admitted.

"And he almost…died because of me. That's something I cannot forgive myself."

"But Little Joe didn't." He approached her. "Joseph's alive. You're alive. I'm alive. God has given us all a second chance."

Her eyes welled with tears and she turned away.

"You are thinking of your own son."

She nodded. "He must hate me."

"He longs for you as Joseph longs for his mother. He doesn't hate you."

"Can you be so sure?" she snapped.

Ben studied her a moment. "You need to find him. You need to go."

She nodded. Then she took his hands in her own. "I have to. Once I have found him…."

He hesitated, and then drew her in close. As his hand caressed her silken soft hair, he asked, "Will you come back?"

"I will," she promised.

He knew it was a promise she would break.

oooooooooo

To be continued…..