The two riders rode silently into town, each man scanning the scene for a glimpse of their elusive quarry. They didn’t have to look far before they set eyes upon the familiar horse. Each man looked at the other and nodded a silent confirmation; their search was over. The general hustle and bustle of the town seemed to part like the Red Sea to let the riders walk through.
Coming to the hitching post just outside the local saloon, both men dismounted. The larger of the two held up a hand. "It ain’t gonna do no good if we both go in there and gang up on him. He’ll only get his hackles up. We gotta do this fast and with as little bloodshed as possible."
The second man nodded. "I guess we can catch more flies with honey, but make it quick."
Soon a ruckus was heard within the saloon, and a figure was flung out the swinging doors. The tall man waiting outside hefted the body up on his feet. They each caught the other’s glare. Pure anger burned in both.
"What’s wrong with you two! I was in the middle of the best game of poker I’ve ever played in my life!" he exploded, wiping the dust off of his favorite green jacket. He was once again grabbed and shoved towards his horse.
His captors were not in the mood to discuss his poker hand.
"Get on that horse and start heading towards the north pasture. We’ve wasted enough time. As for your winning streak, it’s too bad it never occurs on a Friday night. Speaking of which, do you know what day it is?"
"Yes," the prisoner stated. "It’s Wednesday."
"Right. Wednesday. It’s a work day, and from the looks of it, that isn’t what you were doing. Now come on. We’ve wasted enough time playing nursemaid to you already. That fence line has to be done before the steers can graze." The man in black raised his hand up to stop the younger man, forestalling his protest. "Before you argue with me, let me remind you of someone who will be less than pleased to know that you were in town gambling rather than getting the mail. I can also guarantee you that he won’t be nearly as pleasant about this as we are."
It was useless to argue, they had a point. He figured it was good enough he made it out with the pot. Joe nudged Cochise forward, flanked on either side by his two older brothers. The three of them rode out of town.
He had to go back to his camp where his brothers were waiting and explain to them what happened. Slowly he got up from the table. He gulped the last of his beer and went out into the bright sunlight. Mounting his horse, he headed out.
The camp was lacking in many things, but it was well hidden, a great place to hole up while waiting out a posse. It was protected on three sides; nobody could sneak up. An outlaw couldn’t ask for much more. Well, except to get away with whatever crime they had committed.
Jones rode easily into the camp. His two cohorts both sound asleep by the small fire. He shook his head at the sight. He coughed loudly to wake them, no reaction. Dismounting, he booted the nearest man with his foot. The man woke with a start and went for his gun. Seeing it was his brother, he slumped back down.
"Geesh, Jones. You darn near scared my life right out of me," Willie said, trying to calm his racing heart.
"If I was from a posse I woulda taken yer life!" Jones yelled. "Wake Cal, will ya? That boy could sleep through a stampede."
Willie shook the other man awake. Cal looked up with one eye still closed against the sunlight, regarding Jones. "What did you find out in town? Have they joined up in the posse? Is there any talk about our gang?"
"I wouldn’t hardly call us a gang," Jones said as he helped himself to the coffee sitting on the fire. "Now the Wagner bunch, they were a gang. Doin’ real crimes, robbing banks and trains, none of this penny ante general store in the middle of nowhere stuff. I didn’t hear nothing about nothing in Virginia City."
Relieved, Cal sat up and stretched. There was nothing like a mid-afternoon nap. He could see Jones had something mighty on his mind. He was afraid to ask, but curiosity got the best of him.
"Somethin’ happen while you were in town?"
Jones looked at his brother with a half smile. "Maybe one little thing, but it ain’t my fault."
"Out with it then..."
"I lost the money," Jones said, suddenly finding the dirt on the ground very interesting.
Cal and Willie both jumped to their feet exclaiming in unison, "YOU WHAT?"
"Now, it wasn’t my fault! This kid named Cartwright and I were playin’ poker. I tell ya that kid was on fire, couldn’t lose for nothing, that is until the last hand. I had him beat, I was gonna win all our money plus the kid’s money as well. I had a royal flush. There was no way he was gonna beat that. But just before the kid showed his hand, this HUGE guy came in and had a few words with the Cartwright fella, and before I knew it cards were flyin’ everywhere and the kid grabbed his winnings and was pushed out the door. So you see, it ain’t my fault."
Cal and Willie now had Jones backed up against the rockface, if he hadn’t been family, they both would have plugged him. “You gotta plan, right? You better have a plan to get our money back,” Willie growled.
Jones pushed past them, adjusting his vest haughtily. “Of course I do,” he said, desperately searching his brain for a plan. He strutted around the fire, deep in thought. Pausing, he snapped his fingers. “I know, I could go to town and win the money back.”
“NO!” Cal and Willie protested. “You ain’t losing no more of our money.”
“Yeah, you better come up with a better plan,” Cal hissed.
“Okay, okay. Say, the kid’s a Cartwright. Don’t they have some big ranch around here? What’s the name again?” Jones pondered some more.
“Appaloosa?” Cal volunteered, still upset over the money.
“Naw, that ain’t it. Appaloosa’s a horse. Close, though. It was some tree name, I think.”
“Coniferous?” was Willie’s suggestion.
Jones rolled his eyes. “Idiots. You two are idiots. Nobody names their ranch Coniferous.”
“You said it was a tree name,” Willie sulked.
“The name of the ranch don’t matter,” Jones continued, ignoring his brother. “They gotta be loaded. Whata ya say we grab the kid and hold him for ransom? That way, not only do we get our money back, but maybe some extra.”
“Ain’t kidnapping a hanging offense?” Cal asked, worried.
“Naw, it ain’t like we’re taking cows or horses,” Jones explained patiently. “Besides, the old man’s gotta couple sons. I doubt he’d get too upset over just one of them. We’ll let him go when we get the money.”
“I don’t know,” Willie said hesitantly.
“Come on! This will put us in the big leagues, right next to the Wagner bunch or Butch Cassidy and his gang. Our names could be in every sheriff’s office in the territory.” Jones tried his best to convince his companions to go along with the idea.
“Ponderosa!” Willie said suddenly.
“The name of the ranch; it’s the Ponderosa. That’s a tree name.”
“Shut up about the name already! How we gonna know the kid? We didn’t see him,” Cal asked seriously, scratching the dirt under his ragged hat.
“I saw him, and I’ll tell ya what he looked like,” Jones replied. He sat down to pick some of the dried mud off his boots. At least, he hoped it was mud.
“Tell us? Ain’t you goin’ with us?” Cal looked surprise.
“Naw, someone’s gotta stay at camp.”
”What for? We ain’t got no money, thanks to you.”
“Just cause. Don’t argue with me, I’m the leader of this gang and I could boot you out if I wanted to, brother or no brother,” Jones said menacingly. “The kid rides a pinto horse; saw him come into town. Real flashy like.” His brow furrowed, deep in thought. “Maybe had a green or blue jacket or something. I dunno. It wasn’t too bright in the saloon.”
“Ain’t too bright in your head, neither,” Cal muttered.
“What’s that?” Jones asked him sharply, suspicious.
“Nothin’.” Cal looked innocent.
“So, we supposed to just ride around looking for a pinto horse?” Willie questioned, a skeptical look creeping across his grimy face.
“I heard him arguing with the big fella outside. Mentioned something about the north pasture. That shouldn’t be too hard to find, even for you. Now, get going.” He stood up, crossed his arms over his chest and glared.
Grumbling mightily, Cal and Willie reluctantly saddled their horses and mounted, casting one last appeal to Jones. “You sure this will work?”
“I’m sure. But you gotta get the kid first. Make sure he has our money with him!”
The three brothers rode out to the north pasture in silence. Joe furious that Hoss and Adam had broken up his poker game just so he could work; Hoss and Adam mad that they had to go break up a poker game in order to get Joe to work. To top it off, Sport threw a shoe halfway there. Cursing under his breath, Adam dismounted. The ground here was too rocky to risk riding the horse. “You go ahead,” he said, plainly upset at the delay. “I’ll catch up.”
“Okay,” Hoss and Joe agreed, and continued on.
When the two brothers reached the vacant north pasture, Hoss groaned. “Rusty musta forgot to bring the wagon of supplies!” The fallen fencing was clearly visible, but there was nothing to fix it with. “I told him to meet us here.”
Joe sat silent. This was where he was supposed to volunteer to ride back home and fetch the wagon. But frankly, he didn’t want to have to explain to Pa why they were getting such a late start. Hoss gave a great sigh; neither did he. “Looks like one of us has to go, little brother,” he said.
Quickly jumping off his horse, Joe started pulling timber and wire out of the way. “You go. I’ll get to work on this.”
Hoss glared at him while Joe made a great display of working industriously. “You make sure you keep at it while I’m gone,” he threatened. “Adam’ll be here soon.”
“I know, I know,” Joe said, waving him away. As soon as Hoss disappeared, however, Joe shucked his shirt and jacket, stretching out on the soft grass. Pillowing his head on his arms, he stared upwards at the brilliant blue sky, a slight smile on his lips. His thoughts centered on the large amount of money he’d won earlier, and all the delightful ways he could spend it. Visions of expensive rifles and hand tooled saddles danced in his head as the warm breezes lulled him to sleep.
It was the boot in the ribs that woke him up. “What are you doing?” a furious voice exploded from above as the sun was suddenly blocked out.
Joe opened his eyes to the sight of his irate brother looming over him. Scrambling to his feet, he pulled on his shirt. “It’s about time you got here,” he said.
Adam stared at him, incredulous. “About time I got here? Just what have you been doing? All I see is that same pile of wood that was here this morning.”
“Yeah, well, that pile of wood used to be over there,” Joe said huffily, pointing in the general direction of the fenceline. “I’ve been quite busy.”
“I can tell,” Adam commented dryly. He looked around. “Where’s Hoss?”
“Rusty wasn’t here with the supplies so he went to fetch them,” Joe said. He made himself busy picking up wood and dropping it down again.
“At least do something productive,” Adam growled, jerking a piece of timber out of his brother’s hands. “Pieces that can be reused go over here, the other stuff over there.” He dropped what he had in the appropriate pile.
The two worked silently a few minutes until the sound of an approaching wagon was heard. Joe let go of the wire he was carefully coiling and raced to meet Hoss. The big man didn’t look very happy. “Pa was in a fine mood when he found out we hadn’t even started yet,” he complained when Joe hopped up beside him. “I had to listen to a lecture before I could leave.” At Joe’s worried look he smiled sourly. “Don’t worry little brother, I didn’t say a thing about your poker game.”
“Thanks, Hoss,” Joe replied in a cheery voice. “I knew I could count on you.” He rummaged around a bit and came up with a packet of food he knew would be there. Tearing it open, he eagerly bit into an apple.
“That’s my lunch yer eatin’ there,” Hoss said, not too happy.
“Your lunch? What about me?” Joe asked as Hoss grabbed the food away from him.
“You go back to the house and fetch your own if you’re so hungry.”
“Never mind,” Joe grumbled, jumping down when the wagon stopped.
Running around to the back, Joe starting sorting through all the materials piled up. “Where’re the nails?” he asked after a few minute of intense searching.
Hoss snapped his fingers. “Oh yeah, forgot about them. There weren’t anymore.” He turned to glare at Joe. “Someone used the last of them to make jumps for their horse and didn’t replace them.”
Joe was unabashed. “There’s a jumping contest at the fair next month; don’t you want me and Cochise to win?”
“That’s just great,” Adam commented, wiping his brow and came over to the wagon. “How are we supposed to repair the fence without nails?” He had taken off his shirt to work in the hot sun and his lean body was shiny with sweat.
“Pa said one of us would have to go to town and get some more,” Hoss said, leaning back in the seat as he unwrapped a thick roast beef sandwich.
“I’ll go!” Joe eagerly volunteered. His mind already plotting how to get back into a poker game while his luck was running so good.
He went for his jacket when Adam reached out and caught his arm in a vise-like grip. “I don’t think so, little brother,” Adam said in a low voice. “No more cards for you today. I’m going.”
Joe watched, incredulous, as Adam slipped back on his shirt. “But you can’t ride Sport,” he protested. “Remember he threw a shoe?”
”How could I forget?” Adam retorted. “That’s why I’m taking your horse.” He grabbed the reins of the pinto and vaulted into the saddle before Joe could stop him. He dug his heels in and the pony took off like a shot across the pasture.
“Hey!” was all Joe got out before they disappeared in the trees. He slumped down, defeated, and looked at Hoss. “Can he do that?”
“Looks like he just did,” Hoss commented, wiping his hands off and taking a pull on the canteen. “Let’s get started on the fence. We can at least dig the post holes.”
“Hot diggity,” Joe muttered sarcastically under his breath as he reluctantly picked up a shovel and started to work.
"Did Jones say the guy was wearin’ a jacket?"
"Yeah, I think he did."
"And he’s riding a pinto, right?"
"Yup." Willie wondered where this line of questioning was going.
Cal stopped his horse. He studied an object in the trees below. Something moving caught his eye; a horse and rider. "Well I’ll be! We ain’t gonna have to go looking for that pony, it’s gonna find us," he said as he pointed to the dust cloud coming closer.
Both men looked at each
other and smiled, this would be easier than taking candy from a baby. They
spurred their horses forward. All they had to do is get to the bottom of
the gully and snag their unsuspecting prey.
Adam was beyond angry at the amount of time wasted, he should have listened to his first instincts when lying in bed. But no; he felt the pull of the responsibilities of life on a ranch and, like a good son, he got up and headed out. Now here he was, going to town for the second time today. He could just imagine the argument that was going to ensue from him taking his brother’s horse, which in Joe’s book amounted to a cardinal sin.
Rustling in the bushes brought Adam out of his thoughts. Dismounting from his horse, he went to investigate. Poachers occasionally would set traps on the borders of the Ponderosa and more than once someone would have to free or shoot an animal they found struggling in one of the traps.
He found something all right, a disheveled redhead kid, no older than Joe, pointing a gun right at him. Instinctively Adam went for his own weapon, but the sound of a second gun being cocked right behind his ear caused him to raise his hands slowly into the air. He felt his revolver being lifted out of his holster and then heard Joe’s rifle being removed from the scabbard.
"Can I help you?" Adam asked coolly.
"You got something of ours we want back," Cal said as he took a few lengths of rope out of his saddle bags. He always made sure he carried some for just such an occasion.
"Really? And what would that be?" Adam could feel his temper start to rise and tried valiantly to push it back down. It wouldn’t do him any good to upset either one of these men, at least not right now.
Cal started to tie Adam’s hands together in front of him. "Jest you don’t go worrying about that yet. We’re gonna take a ride, then have ourselves a little meeting back at the camp." He checked the knots one last time, then gave Adam a short shove towards Cochise. "Now get on yer horse and we’ll head outta here."
Adam gave each man a sideways glance and let out a long sigh.
Willie responded by shoving the barrel of his pistol in to Adam’s side. "You heard Cal. Git on the horse."
This time he did as he was told. Grabbing the saddle horn with his tied hands he hoisted himself up. Cal snatched the reins from Adam; he didn’t want to take any chances of their prisoner escaping before getting back to Jones. Adam could do nothing but resign himself to the situation until something else came along.
"This day just keeps getting better and better," Adam muttered.
"How’s that?" Willie asked him.
"I said, this day just keeps getting better and better."
Willie looked up to the bright blue sky overhead and smiled. "You know you’re right. I thought it was gonna rain earlier, but it does keep getting better and better."
Adam smiled inwardly. Maybe things would swing to his favor sooner than he thought.
Jones was surprised to hear hoofbeats so soon, his two brothers hadn’t been gone for more than an hour or so. A sudden fear gripped him. What if it was a posse? Here he was all alone with only one firearm. He looked nervously around for someplace to hide. The only thing he could find was an old dead piece of wood that looked suspiciously like a hangin’ tree. He shuddered at the thought.
It was too his great relief when he saw Willie come barreling into the short pass.
“We got ‘im Jones! Was easier than we ever imagined, he practically walked right up to us and gave himself up.” He was so pleased that for once everything seemed to be going like planned. “Cal’s bringing him in now.”
As if on cue Cal came riding up with the pinto and the rider trailing right behind him. Jones expression of joy was quickly replaced with confusion. “Who’s that?” he asked, his voice rising in irritation.
“That’s the Cartwright kid,” Willie said a smile of triumph on his face.
Jones paused for a long moment. The prisoner gave him a slight nod. He beckoned his siblings to come forward. Both men walked cautiously toward their brother. They could see that he was not nearly as pleased with the results of their journey as they had expected. Jones put his arms around Cal and Willie and turned them to see the tall dark man sitting on the horse. “Look closely. Does that look like a kid to you? And what color jacket is that MAN wearing?”
Cal and Willie squinted to get a better look. Adam smiled wryly and lifted his tied hands in a greeting. “Well, you said he was riding a pinto,” Cal whined.
Willie came quickly to his brother’s defense. “Yeah, how many people do you think ride a flashy horse like that around here? And anyway, he could have changed jackets before we caught up with him.”
Jones stomped off past his brothers. He took the pinto’s reins and addressed the rider. “I’m sorry, but there seems to have been a slight mix up. We were looking for a Cartwright, can’t think of his name off the top off my head, but he was wearing a green jacket. You wouldn’t happen to know where we could find him would you?”
For one brief moment Adam toyed with the idea of giving his pain-in-the-neck brother over to these bumbling idiots. Deciding against it, he shrugged his shoulders noncommittally. “May I get down off my horse now?” Adam asked in the most pleasant voice he could muster.
“Oh, certainly, be my guest.” Jones stepped out of the way to let him dismount.
The four men stood looking at one another. It was obvious to Adam that his capture had put a serious crimp in their plans, whatever they might be. He looked over each man to try to find some weakness. A laugh escaped from his lips; these men seemed wrought with weaknesses.
Jones heard the small chuckle. “What’s so funny? I wouldn’t think someone in your position would think anything would be funny. Maybe you got some trick up your sleeve? Or another gun, heh? Did you two search him ‘afor you brought him here?”
“No, Jones. We just took the two weapons we saw and tied his hands right quick.”
Jones was incredulous. “Apparently I have to do everything around here,” he complained. He began to pat Adam down, looking for some hidden weapon. Searching the inside pockets of his jacket, he came upon a black billfold. Adam gave a weak smile back; he knew what the man was going to find.
“Well, well. Look what we have here,” Jones said as he pulled some bills out. “Maybe we’re not completely out of luck.”
A folded scrap of paper floating to the ground, Cal bent down to pick it up. Reading it, a twinkle danced in his eye. “You said the kid’s name was Cartwright, right?” Cal asked, handing the paper over to Jones who snatched it from him. The two men started to laugh.
Willie stared at his brothers,
confused as to what was so funny. Adam saw the look on the poor man’s eyes
and took pity on him, letting Willie in on the joke. “Right name, wrong
Hoss and Joe dug all the new postholes, sorted and stacked the timber, and measured out the new wire, all the time wondering why Adam hadn’t returned from his errand.
“Think he got mad at us and stayed in town?” Joe asked, panting a little after his exertions.
“He didn’t get mad, he was mad,” Hoss replied, wiping the sweat from his own brow. “Reckon he went home first.” He looked around. “We can’t go any further without the nails, so we might as well go home too and see what’s keeping him.”
”Now you’re talking!” Joe agreed enthusiastically. Moving quicker than he had all day, Joe pulled back on his shirt and jumped up into the wagon. “Let’s go!”
“Oh, no you don’t, little brother,” Hoss said seriously. “You have to walk Sport home.”
“What?? Why can’t we tie him to the back of the wagon?”
Hoss shook his head. “Road’s too rough for his foot. You’ll have to take him by the meadows; keep him on the grass.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Joe said, a hopeful tone rising in his voice. One look at Hoss’ face, however, confirmed the worst. He’d have to walk.
With a long-suffering sigh, Joe wearily climbed down and picked up the reins to his brother’s horse. “I don’t see why I have to do it,” he grumbled.
”Think ‘poker’,” Hoss said cheerfully, as with a slap of the reins he set the team in motion and the wagon moved off. “See ya later! I’ll tell Hop Sing to save a plate for you.”
“Yeah, you do that,” Joe yelled after him. Hop Sing was never too happy to keep food waiting for anyone; if you weren’t at the table when it was served, it was too bad as far the cook was concerned.
The slow pace of the horse kept him from returning home until after dark, and after supper. Hungry and foot-sore, he tied the animal to the hitching post and headed to the house. As soon as his boots hit the wood porch, the door opened and Ben looked out. When he saw who it was, his face fell. “Oh, it’s you, Joseph.”
“Good to see you too, Pa,” Joe responded, a little put out by the ‘warm’ welcome.
“Ah, son, I didn’t mean it that way,” Ben said as Joe brushed by him on his way to the kitchen. “Adam hasn’t returned yet, and I’m a little concerned. Thought you might have been him.”
Joe stopped. “Adam’s still not home?”
“No,” said Hoss from the easy chair by the fire. He was holding a steaming mug of coffee and a plate of cookies, his feet perched comfortably on a stool. “Shoulda been back hours ago.”
At the sight of the food, Joe’s stomach grumbled, but he turned reluctantly back into the living room. “Where do you think he is?” he asked, eyeing Hoss’ plate.
“Mad as he was? I think he got a better offer and stayed in town,” Hoss replied.
“Maybe we should go look for him,” Joe said.
“I think Hoss is right,” Ben answered after a moment. “What could happen to him between the north pasture and town? Why don’t we all go to bed, and if he’s not back by morning, then one of us can go to town and find him.”
“But Pa, I’m hungry!” Joe said. “I didn’t have lunch or dinner.”
“Well, when you and Adam didn’t show up for dinner, I’m afraid Hop Sing threw what was left away. Sorry, son.”
“Doggone. Isn’t there anything left?” Joe was very disappointed at that news.
“Not anymore,” Hoss said as he popped the last cookie into his mouth. He stretched and stood up. “I am plum tuckered out, Pa. I think I will go to bed.”
“Night, son,” Ben said absently, still worried.
With a heavy sigh, Joe
headed for the stairs as well. “You coming, Pa?”
Adam’s night was far from easy. The outlaw brothers kept him tied so tightly it was difficult to eat. Not that he really wanted the mushy, overcooked stew with questionable meat that Willie had prepared. The other men dug in eagerly, but Adam could only manage a few bites before politely declining. He did accept a cup of coffee, and listened quietly while the men sat around the fire and told tall tales of their daring exploits. Adam doubted if any of it was true. They didn’t seem capable of half of what they claimed.
When it came time to sleep, the brothers bickered awhile over who would keep first watch, the lot finally falling to Cal. Jones pushed Adam into the back of the camp, to where the rocks formed a small, natural depression in the wall, almost a cave. There was only one way in, and Cal sat conspicuously at the entrance, rifle across his lap as he glared at Adam, daring him to make one false move. Adam leaned back, content to spend the night there and get some much needed rest. He could make his escape in the morning; he didn’t think it would be too difficult.
Cal continued to stare at him, and that made him uncomfortable. Finally, he sat up. “How much you asking for?” he said as way of conversation.
“Asking for?” Cal repeated, confused.
“Yes, in the ransom note. How much do you plan on asking for me?”
“Why do you want to know?” he asked, suspicious. He also had a sick feeling in his stomach. No one had thought to write a ransom note.
“A man likes to think he’s worth a certain amount of money. I just want to know how much you think I’m good for.”
“How much you thinkin’?” Cal said, hoping he could one-up Jones by having such important information.
“Ah-ah! No fair. I asked you first,” Adam replied.
Cal fumbled around. “I don’t rightly know. You ain’t got no business asking questions like that anyhow.”
“Sorry,” Adam said. “I just thought a well organized gang like this one might have some sort of fee schedule set up, that’s all.”
“We ain’t never done this before. Not a kidnapping, I mean.”
“Really? I would have never guessed.”
“Jones, though, he’s got big plans,” Cal mused thoughtfully. “We’re gonna be famous someday.”
“Famous? Like Jesse James or the Wagner Bunch?”
”Yeah, ‘cept we could be known as the Jones Brothers,” Cal said, dreaming of their names on wanted posters.
Adam looked at his captor questioningly. “I thought his name was Jones,” he asked tilting his head in the direction of the sleeping form on the ground by the fire.
“It is. Well, that’s all our names. It’s our last name. We only call him Jones cause if we all went by Jones it would get confusing.”
“I see,” was about all
Adam could say to the young man’s logic. It was going to be a very long
None of the Cartwrights slept well that night, but Joe least of all. It wasn’t like Adam to shirk his duties, especially if it involved making more work for his brothers. Plus, he was riding Joe’s horse, and Joe didn’t want to think about the possibility of anything happening to Cochise.
Finally he gave up the pretense and slid out of bed. Quietly drawing on his clothes, he snuck out of his room. The house was silent and still; well, maybe not so silent, Joe thought as Hoss’ snores followed him down the stairs. Grabbing his gunbelt and jacket, Joe eased open the front door and crept outside.
He hastened to the barn.
To his disappointment, Cochise’s stall was empty. Adam was still
gone. Now more than a little worried, he saddled a horse and mounted.
He thought to start in the north pasture and follow Adam’s route to town.
If Adam made it, great. If not, well, he should be able to pick up some
clues along the way. Tapping the animal’s side, he galloped out of
Cal and Willie lit out of the camp as fast as they could after breakfast, though neither one had a clear idea of where they were headed. Jones had been furious over Cal’s conversation with Adam. He still wanted them to find the kid and bring him back to camp. Jones had a score to settle with him.
“How we gonna find the kid now? There must be hundreds of people who wear green jackets,” Cal exploded in frustration as they trotted down to the road.
“Jones said he’d probably be coming from the ranch house, so check out that road first,” Willie said patiently. He scanned the horizon, hoping for another miracle and the Cartwright kid would just walk right into them like his brother had.
To his amazement, there was a figure coming toward them, fast, on a horse. Could luck be with them twice? Nudging his brother, they both stared intently, watching the rider come closer. “He looks young, and he’s wearin’ a green jacket,” Willie said.
“Can’t be him. He ain’t ridin’ a pinto,” Cal pointed out glumly.
“Course he ain’t ridin’ a pinto!” Willie exclaimed, smacking him on the arm. “His brother was ridin’ it, remember?”
“Oh, yeah,” Cal said, his expression tightening in anticipation of ambushing the kid as he came by. “Let’s get ‘im.”
“Boy,” Willie chuckled. “Them Cartwrights ain’t too bright! Twice in two days one of ‘em’s just walked right up to us, beggin’ to be kidnapped.”
“I know,” Cal replied. “Ain’t life grand?”
As soon as Joe entered the little stand of trees, Cal and Willie pushed their horses on the trail in front of him, guns drawn. “That’s far enough,” Willie growled menacingly.
Joe reined his horse and stared at them, astonished. Slowly he put his hands up. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“We’ll be asking the questions,” Willie said, motioning for Cal to go get Joe’s guns and rifle. “Is your name Cartwright?”
Not sure the best way to answer that, Joe just nodded.
Willie and Cal exchanged
triumphant glances. “Good,” Cal replied, tying Joe’s hands together
with rope. Taking the horse’s reins, they turned and headed back
to the camp, their next captive in tow.
Adam sat glumly in the little cave, staring at Jones who was looking right back at him. Apparently the conversation he had with his younger brother had set him off something fierce; Adam could hear the yelling earlier this morning as if he was standing next to them. His hope was for Jones would go or send a brother out to deliver a ransom note. If they were dumb enough to go right up to the house, someone would see them, or at very least would be able to follow the tracks. He tried at the ropes one more time.
"All yer gonna do, if'n you keep tryin' those ropes, is give yourself a nice burn. Those things aren't comin' undone fer nobody’s business."
Adam looked at his wrists and could see where the ropes had started to rub his skin raw. "I say one thing about that brother of yours, he sure can tie a good knot." Give credit where credit is due, he thought to himself.
"Yup, our Pa taught us
well. He always used to say, ‘Boys find yerself something
yer real good at and make it your own.’ Willie is good with a gun and I'm the natural born leader."
“Ah, yes. I can see that," Adam interjected.
Jones could hear the sarcasm in his voice. He scowled some and lifted the rifle from his lap just to show who was boss, then continued with his train of thought. "Cal, well, you see, he's the youngest. He's kinda got somethin' to prove so he's appointed himself the thug. He does all the heavy handed work, you know, knockin' someone around, tying them up if need be, stuff like that. He takes pride in his work....well, we all do."
"Of course you do."
Before Jones could show his displeasure towards Adam's constant underlying sarcasm, something caught his attention, much to Adam's chagrin. He had been hoping to rattle Jones enough to get him to come at him. He knew that none of his captors had it in them to actually kill a man, but they would have no qualms about beating a prisoner. Adam knew he could take the guy even with his hands tied. Jones would have to put down that rifle to go after him, and the playing field would be even. But what ever it was that got Jones' attention took away any hope of him dropping that rifle, if anything, he had a tighter grip on it.
Jones turned his back towards Adam, listening intently to the hoof beats that were coming closer. Taking the opportunity to get a drop on the man holding a gun on him, Adam rose up slowly, soundlessly. As he was getting ready to punch, Jones shot back around and leveled his gun right at Adam's gut. “Just you have yourself a seat there Cartwright. I wouldn't wanna have to put a hole in you."
Adam settled himself back down, "I thought you said Willie was the gunman in your family."
"I said he was the best with a gun, but I'm no slouch myself."
"I'll take your word for it," Adam said.
Jones went back to watching for the horses he heard coming, "Well, I'll be," he said to himself as he watched his brothers come in with a third rider wearing a green jacket. He could tell it was the kid even from a distance.
Jones was blocking Adam's
view, and he was curious to see what got the man all fired up. Jones started
out toward the riders, but not before giving Adam a warning he knew he
would be wise to heed. "Just you stay put, Cartwright. I may be stepping
off post here for a moment, but don't think I couldn't plug you from 100
yards away if you take one step out of this here cave."
“It must be raining Cartwrights,” Jones said as he met his brothers by the campfire.
"Yeah, this one was almost as easy as the first," Willie answered as he helped Joe down off his horse.
"The first?" Joe asked. He knew the answer; this is where his brother had been all night. He saw his pinto grazing happily on dried up scrub grass. A little stab of guilt shot through him when he let out a sigh of relief upon seeing his horse unhurt. He highly doubted Fric and Frac could do any serious damage to anyone. The way those two bickered back to the camp it was a wonder they got it together enough to do anything.
Willie shoved their latest captive toward his oldest brother. From the look on his face, he knew they had gotten their man. Things were only going to get better from here on out. Now, if only he could stop his youngest brother from whining.
“Whata we gonna do now?” Cal whined worriedly. “Now we got two of ‘em. Don’t think the old guy’s gonna care for that too much.”
”Don’t worry about it,” Jones growled in frustration. He didn’t know either. “Two is just one more than one.”
“And one less than three,” Joe offered helpfully, just before he was unceremoniously tossed to the back of the shallow cave where he tumbled to the ground next to Adam.
Adam, leaning up against the back wall, looked down at his brother sprawled in the dirt. “Hello.”
“Uh, hi,” Joe said, wiggling up to a sitting position.
“So, this is your idea of a rescue?” Adam said with a smirk.
“Well, yeah, I guess so. How do you like it so far?” Joe pushed his hat back on his head and surveyed their surroundings.
“It’s not quite what I anticipated.”
“I can see how you might have expected something different.”
“True, I did.” Adam sighed.
“Sorry.” Joe closely inspected the knots tying his wrists together.
“No problem. Anything else planned?”
“Not right now.”
Adam idly ran his boot through the loose dirt on the ground. “How are things at home?” he asked after a moment.
“They’re okay. Pa’s worried about you, of course.”
“Of course.” Rubbing his face, Adam glanced sideways at his brother. “Any chance he knows where you are?”
“No, I’m afraid not.” After testing the rope again, Joe found it was still holding quite securely.
“Too bad. It would have helped.” Adam mused.
“No doubt about that.”
Another short silence while they contemplated their predicament. “Any idea of what to do now?” Joe asked.
“But I’m working on it.”
“Good,” came Joe’s reply as he settled back against the rock, confident to let Adam handle the details.
Hoss woke at the sound of the front door closing. Rubbing his eyes sleepily, he almost rolled back over. But the distinct sound of hoofbeats got him out of bed. Figuring Joe was up to no good, Hoss wearily pulled on some clothes and checked his younger brother’s room. Empty. Now he’d have two brothers to find. “Why does he always do this before any decent person ought to be up,” Hoss mumbled to himself as he went down the stairs. Grabbing a few day-old biscuits, Hoss scribbled a note to their father letting him know what was going on, and left.
The trail was easy to pick up in the early morning dew. Joe was headed for the north pasture, no doubt to retrace Adam’s route to town to see if anything happened to him along the way. A few lone cattle raised their heads to watch him ride by, but other than that it was just a silent, chilly morning. The pile of lumber scraps and wire lay untouched where it had been left the night before.
Turning Chub down the slope from the pasture, Hoss entered the trees where Adam had last been seen. The tracks led in a straight line until about half way down, then they jumbled together before finally taking a right turn into the bushes. The only thing to do was to keep following. He pushed his way through the dense underbrush. After a few minutes he could hear voices. Drawing his gun, he crept closer to the sound. The damp fallen leaves cushioned his approach, and he was able walk close up before anyone noticed. “What are you doing here?” he asked loudly.
The two men by the small fire jumped, startled. They both whirled to look at Hoss. Jones immediately punched Willie in the arm. “Some lookout you turned out to be!” he snarled. “You let him walk right into our camp.”
“Me?” Willie retaliated. “It was your turn to be on watch. I was up half the night with that firecracker in there, listening to him jaw and recite poetry and stuff. Likely about wore my ear off.”
They were about to go into it again when Hoss stepped forward. “I said, what are you doing here?” He waved the gun around a bit to show he was serious.
Behind Hoss’ back, Jones could see Cal sneaking up on him, and he recognized this guy as the one who had pulled the Cartwright kid out of the poker game. He wouldn’t mind settling a few things with him as well. “We’re starting a collection,” he said.
“Huh?” Hoss questioned. That wasn’t the answer he expected. Still, they might be rustlers. “A collection of what?”
“A collection of Cartwrights,” Jones said as Cal came up behind Hoss and jammed his gun into his back.
With a sick grin, Hoss dropped his gun to the ground. Cal peered from around his massive shoulders. “You mean this is another one?” Cal asked, astonished. “Just how many of them are there?”
Jones picked up the fallen weapon. “Don’t rightly know. Think the old geezer only had three sons. Hard to tell with all them people that keep comin’ and goin’.” Holding the gun on Hoss, he motioned for him to go back in the little cave with the others.
“What about the ransom note?” Willie whispered loudly. “If we got all three, that old man’s bound to notice they’re gone. What if he brings a posse out?”
“I told ya before, don’t worry about it. It’s three times the money now!” Jones tipped his hat back a little to scratch his head over the run they've been having. "Capturin' a Cartwright is like shooting fish in a barrel,” he mused. “Wouldn’t mind gettin’ my hands another two or three, iffen they were all this easy.”
Ducking his head, Hoss stumbled to where his brothers sat. Adam gave his second brother a quick nudge with his boot. If he could get his hands free he would have loved to knock together some heads. "Hoss, how did you manage this?"
"I don't know, Adam, same way you did I guess."
Hoss had unknowingly touched
a sore spot with Adam. He wasn't so keen to confess that he basically walked
up to the kidnappers and shook their hands. "With brothers like you,
who needs enemies?" Adam muttered under his breath.
“What are we gonna do?” Cal whined again.
Jones was ready to slap him. He struggled to get himself under control. “Willie’s gonna do the note ‘cause he’s got the best writin’. Then one of you is gonna take it to the old guy and tell him if we don’t have the money by noon, we start shootin’.”
”Start with the smartass one,” Willie mumbled under his breath. He reached out to stir the gray lumpy stew in the pot. “Breakfast is ready.”
Joe sat up at that. He’d never been so hungry in his life. “Can I have some?” he asked plaintively, before Adam could warn him. Hoss looked interested as well.
Jones poked his head into the cave. “Guess it would be okay,” he said. Keeping his gun pointed at them, he stepped aside for them to come out.
Soon all three were sitting
around the fire, bowls of mystery stew on their laps. Joe eyed it
hungrily; he hadn’t had anything since yesterday morning. Hoss missed
breakfast this morning and that was enough for him. Adam passed,
accepting only coffee and an old biscuit. Nothing could induce him to eat
that food, no matter how hungry he was. He did notice, however, that
Hoss’ hands weren’t tied, and that gave him an idea.
Jones looked around at his prisoners with satisfaction. Finally things were going pretty good. “Let’s see about that ransom note,” he said with a smug smile. “Give me some paper.”
Cal stared back at him blankly. “We ain’t got no paper,” Cal said. “And I thought Willie was gonna write it.”
“Oh Lord,” Jones sighed. “How did I ever get hooked up with these two? Of course Willie’s gonna write it. But I gotta tell him what to say.”
“I got paper!” Willie announced triumphantly, holding a crumpled sheet and a well-worn pencil nub. “You know my motto – always be prepared.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jones said, waving his brother away. “Now, how much you think we oughta ask? One thousand dollars?”
“One thousand dollars!” Joe yelled, outraged. “Is that all?” He stood up and sent his bowl flying, the greasy contents spilling across Adam’s boots.
Jones looked at him askance. “A piece?” he amended, watching the youngest Cartwright for his reaction to the higher figure.
“Our father owns the biggest ranch in the Nevada territory and that’s all you’re going to ask for ransom?” Joe continued, ignoring his brothers’ frantic attempts to get him to sit down. He was highly insulted.
“You think we should ask for more?” Cal questioned eagerly. They were new to this kidnapping stuff, and didn’t mind getting a few pointers.
“Joe, would you sit down and SHUT UP!” Hoss said urgently. He grabbed hold of Joe’s shirt and bodily pulled him back to the ground.
“Our Pa would pay ten times that amount, each, to have us back,” Joe grumbled as he landed hard in the dirt. “We’re his only sons!”
“He’s about to have one less son if you don’t shut your mouth right now,” Hoss growled in his ear. He’d had about all he could take of Joe this morning.
Jones was very interested in what Joe had to say. “Really? The old man would pay that much?” He didn’t quite believe it, but if the young Cartwright thought so, then maybe it was true. He paused to give this more thought.
Staring down at the dark
liquid in his cup, Adam shook his head. “Of all the hair-brained, foolish
things you’ve ever done, little brother, this takes the cake. Why
don’t you just tell them the combination to the safe while you’re at it?”
he muttered just loud enough for Joe to hear.
"One more word from you, Adam, and so help me you’ll be wearing this slop," Joe scowled. His day wasn’t going any better than Adam’s so he didn’t see why he was taking it all out on him.
“I believe I already am,” he said, grinning slyly while flicking bits of meat off his boots in Joe’s direction. He mumbled something again under his breath.
"What was that, Adam?" Joe asked daring his brother to say the words he thought he heard.
"I said, if you hadn’t been shirking your responsibilities...." Calmly he continued wiping off the rest of the stew.
“So this is my fault?" he asked, as he raised his arms up to show his bound hands.
"Well now, Joe," Hoss started. “If you had just done what Pa asked…”
Joe was astounded. "You too, Hoss?"
Willie and Cal watched anxiously as the discussion between the three brothers got louder. They looked to Jones to see if they should do something about it. He shook his head ‘no’, what could they do their hands tied?
"What in the world possessed you to go off looking for your stupid donkey without telling Pa or Hoss? I swear I’ll have bruises for a week from riding him," Adam complained, shifting uncomfortably on the ground.
That was it. Adam could insult him all he liked but once he started messing with his horse, he had crossed the line. Joe threw his full body weight into his oldest brother. Adam saw him coming a mile away and easily sidestepped, and Joe dove head first into the sandy ground.
He laughed as Joe struggled to get up. Adam took Joe’s arm, trying to hoist him up, only to be surprised as Joe’s hands clenched together, hitting him full force under his chin. He stumbled back and hit the ground. Adam swiped at his mouth, he could taste the blood from where he had bit his lip. Wiping it off on his shirtsleeve, he got up and took after his baby brother. Joe was ready for him and they started again, exchanging punches when they could.
Cal was now worried. He didn’t really relish the thought of breaking up the brothers, but someone had to before they hurt each other. They looked like two tomcats fighting over the same kill. Glancing down, he saw Hoss calmly eating his food. "Aren’t you gonna stop them from brawlin’ like that?"
Hoss shifted his gaze up for a moment. "Naw, I’m sick of playin’ peacemaker between those two. They can kill each other for all I care."
"Well, now, that ain’t very brotherly," Cal said as he headed towards the fighting Cartwrights. "Willie, git over here and help me with these two. Too bad they can’t get along as well as we do."
By now Joe and Adam had gotten the attention of Jones, and he came to help break up the battle. Cal stepped up behind Joe and grabbed his arms to wrench him away from his brother. Just as he was about to pull him away, Adam rammed into Joe with his shoulder. Joe and Cal flew back, landing square in Hoss’ lap. Joe tumbled to the ground next to the bowl of stew Hoss had been eating, now nothing more than mud on the ground. He winced at the look of anger on his brother’s face.
"Okay, that’s it!" Hoss yelled. His breakfast was ruined and somebody was going to pay.
Grabbing Cal, he punched him square in the mouth. The man hit the ground hard and did not get up again. The exchange between Cal and Hoss diverted Willie’s attention, and Adam slipped behind him, quickly taking Willie’s gun from his holster before he knew what had happened. Adam cocked the pistol in his ear. Willie turned as pale as a ghost.
Jones roughly picked Joe up from the ground. It may be two against three now but he still held the upper hand; he and Willie had guns and their hands were free. "Okay you three. Playtimes over, let’s get back in the cave."
"Think again, Jones," Adam said.
Jones turned to yell at Adam; and stopped short. Adam was holding a gun on his middle brother. "Willie! How could you let him get the drop on you?"
Willie hung his head, shrugging his shoulders.
"I did it and it’s done. Now if you would be so kind as to let my little brother go," Adam said.
“You let go of my little brother,” Jones retorted, keeping his grip on Joe.
“I asked you first,” Adam said sarcastically.
Jones glanced at Joe. He only had one chance to make it work and he reached quickly for his gun. “I asked you second,” he sneered as a diversion.
"I wouldn’t do that, mister," Hoss growled from behind. The sound of a second pistol being cocked rang through Jones’ ear. He grudgingly dropped his hold on Joe and stood meekly by the fire.
The two Cartwrights quickly exchanged ropes with the Jones brothers. "Let’s get these fellas to the sheriff," Hoss said.
"Yeah, we should do that, then head out to the north pasture. That fence still isn’t fixed,” Adam said as he roused the prisoners to their feet.
"Aw Adam, quit with the fence all ready! Don’t you think it’s gonna be a little late to start work on it today, after we go to the sheriff?” Joe complained. There just might be a good poker game going on at the saloon, and he might have time to get in on the action.
"What do you think happened Roy? The north pasture has some how turned in to the Bermuda Triangle of the Ponderosa!" Ben roared at his friend Sheriff Coffee.
All three of his boys had turned up missing one by one, with only an ambiguous note from Hoss as to where they could be. He searched the pastures, the lake and now the town. His last stop was the sheriff’s office and Roy was not offering any help, only asking him if he had looked in the pastures, the lake and town.
As they were hitching up their horses, Joe, Adam and Hoss had heard the distinct bellow of their father. All three winced at the thought of what waited for them on the other side of the door.
"From the sounds of the mood he's in, I got the feeling what we just went through was a cake walk."
"All the more reason to get in there, drop off these fools and get out to the pasture," Adam said.
"Hey, who are you callin' fools?" Jones said from his horse. "We weren't the ones that walked into our captors hands."
"I've had just about enough of you, Jones," Adam said as he pulled the man from his horse. All the time wasted dealing with one thing or another had really taken a toll on his patience.
"Now, Ben," Roy raised his hand up to stop any further yelling from his old friend. "I’m sure the boys are following some herd somewheres. You know that spread you got is pretty large. I doubt you got yerself a, what do you call it? A Bermuda what?"
"A Bermuda Triangle," Adam said as he walked into the front door of the sheriff’s office. Right behind him was Jones, Cal, and Willie, followed by his own two brothers. “It’s a mysterious place where things go in and don’t ever come back out.”
“Just like Jones’ head,” Cal muttered to Willie.
“I heard that,” Jones snarled at his brothers, lunging after them. Hoss held him back easily.
“Too bad these boys can’t get along as well as we do, eh?” Hoss said with a grin.
"Who are these men?" Roy asked above the general noise. None of them looked familiar.
"Oh, them these here are the Jones Boys, a notorious gang from south of here aways," Adam said sarcastically.
"Jones Boys eh? Never heard of ‘em"
"You ain't heard of us? Well, gee, we pulled some purty fine holdups just south of you, at Coat Springs, and a few in the Carson Valley. Thought fer sure there would be a posse out after us," Willie volunteered. For his trouble he received a smack upside the head from his oldest brother. "Ow! Whatcha' gotta go and do a thing like that for?" he asked, rubbing the spot.
"The three of them are a real brain trust," Joe said sitting down on the edge of Roy's desk. Ben got up to inspect the bruises on his youngest son’s face.
"Did those men do this to you?"
"Uh, no Pa, that would be Adam," Joe stated matter of factly.
"He did that to you?!"
"Thanks, Joe," Adam said.
"Why on earth would you do this to your bother?"
Adam turned to Hoss as if to say, does he not see the fat lip and the marks on my face? "Pa, It’s not what you think," Adam said trying to forestall the lecture about fighting with his brother.
"It’s not, eh?" Ben said he caught a glimpse of his largest son shifting his weight. Trying to make himself smaller no doubt, he thought, but Ben wasn't going to let him off that easy. "And you," Ben said pointing at Hoss.
"Why in the world would you let your two brothers fight like that?"
Hoss hung his head and glanced over at Adam, hoping for some support.
"Now, Pa let me explain, it was all part of a plan, get Joe arguing with me, to divert the Jones' attention a bit. How was I to know the bait was going work too well and Joe was going come after me for real?"
Ben thought on the words for a moment. "Still, you didn't need to be so rough with him." He took out his handkerchief and wiped some of the dirt off Joe’s face.
Adam threw his hands up in disgust; his father wasn't hearing a word he said. Hoss and Adam caught the smug expression on Joe's face simultaneously. Joe was sitting back, watching his two brothers get yelled at for a change, and it served them right. If they hadn't pulled him out of the saloon yesterday none of this would have happened. Joe watched in horror as sly smiles grew on his older brothers’ faces.
"Poker," Adam and Hoss said in unison.
Ben looked at his two grown sons. "Poker? What does that have to do with anything?"
Adam crossed his arms and glared at his baby brother. "Ask Joe."
"Now, Pa, Adam is right. If we hadn't gotten into the fight we would still be held hostage and you would be reading a ransom note now," Joe said frantically trying to get his father's mind off poker.
“Hostage? Ransom note? What’s all this about?” Ben asked, successfully diverted. “Were those men holding Joe hostage?”
Sheriff Coffee walked out into the office. He had lingered in the back to stay out of the way of Ben's wrath and to get a confession out of the three brothers. "Okay, boys. I think we are about done here. Why don't I come out to your place later today and get yer statement." The faster he got the Cartwrights out of here, the farther away he would be from the lecture that was inevitable.
"Sure thing," Hoss said as he headed for the door. The other two followed closely on his heels.
"We got some work to do on the north pasture but we should be home in plenty of time," Joe said, scurrying out quickly so Pa couldn’t ask any more questions.
Adam tipped his hat to the sheriff and closed the door behind him.
"See, Ben? I told you your boys were fine, maybe a little worse for the wear..."
Ben gave out a slight chuckle he was relieved to see his boys safe. "You’re right Roy. Thanks again. For what, I don't know, but thanks." He let himself out.
He watched for a moment as his three sons mounted their horses, each one bickering with the other over whose fault the whole thing was. With a weary sigh he climbed astride his own horse. "Hey boys, I think I'll give you a hand out there in the north pasture. I wouldn’t want the three of you to get lost again."
Not a word was spoken from his sons, but each one knew what was really going to happen in the north pasture...A lecture with a view, and that was about it.
Ben watched his three boys each hang their heads; he was relieved to have them back safely and knew somehow he was never going to hear the whole story. A smile played across his face when for a brief moment he saw them not as the grown men they had become, but as the young boys they once were, playing and kidding and protecting each other.
Looking out the jail cell window, Cal Willie and Jones watched as the four men rode out of town. Jones let out a laugh and settled down on the cot. "There goes our hostages and all our money right along with them. Whose fool idea was it anyway to pick up those Cartwright boys?"
Willie and Cal looked at their oldest brother. "It was yours!" they yelled in unison.
"T’was no such thing!"
Sheriff Coffee rolled his chair to the cell room doors, pushing them closed with a slam. First it was the three Cartwright boys each trying outtalk each other, now the Jones boys going at it. With his luck they would probably still be at it two weeks from now when the circuit judge came through town.
Listening to the distinct
sound of a brawl beginning behind the door, the sheriff went back to his
desk and took out his calendar. Right about now would be a good time for
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