A Walk in the Desert


Karen F.

A Bonanza/Lancer story

"Lord, it's hot!" Joe Cartwright uncapped his canteen and took a long, slow swallow of the tepid water. It tasted heavenly. He handed the canteen to his older brother, Adam, who also swallowed appreciatively.

"You said it, Little Brother!" Adam agreed. "I can't wait to get to Daggett, so that I can wash this trail dust off." Daggett was a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, but they would at least have a hotel, and a saloon.

Joe grinned his agreement, and took the canteen back from his brother. He swept his hat from his head and poured some water into it for his pinto, Cochise. The black and white horse drank gratefully, as Joe smiled in delight. When the horse finished, Joe replaced the hat onto his head, and gave Cochise a friendly rub on the nose. The horse nickered, and rubbed his head on Joe's shoulder.

"Well, brother, we'd better mount up. We've still got a long way to go today." Adam chided gently. He smiled as he watched his brother's interaction with the black and white horse. Adam sometimes thought that Cochise was Little Joe's best friend as well as his horse. He stretched , tried to ease the kinks out of his back, and then swung into the leather saddle.

Little Joe pulled his hat down low over his eyes, and gave his brother a cheeky grin. "Anything you say, Big Brother." he said mockingly, and vaulted into his saddle.

Joe, too was eager to get moving. He and Adam had been traveling from Arizona, heading in the direction of San Francisco. Their goal had been to negotiate contracts with cattle buyers along their route. The job was almost complete, but the brothers had been traveling for well over a month now, and both were heartily sick of trail life. The negotiations had been successful and it looked like the Ponderosa was going to have yet another good year, if their luck held. The brothers urged their horses to a faster pace, eager to reach civilization after many miles of camping beside the trail with only each other for company.


Dusk was falling as the weary brothers rode down the single street of the dusty little desert town of Daggett. With one mind they headed for the dilapidated little building that proudly proclaimed itself "The Daggett Palace". Swinging down from the saddle, Adam looked over at his brother. "You find the livery and stable the horses, Joe, I'll go in and get us some rooms, okay."

Joe nodded, too tired to even open his mouth for a response. He grabbed the lead reins of the two horses and headed for the livery stable several buildings down from the hotel. Adam entered the lobby of the Palace, and tapped on a rusty bell that sat on the ramshackle table that served as the front desk.

In response to the summons, a rotund man, wearing an apron liberally splotched with stains, entered, an ingratiating smile on his face. "May I help you, stranger?" he asked, as he pushed aside a strand of lank, greasy hair that had fallen over his forehead.

"Two rooms, please." Adam responded. He signed his name in the register, on the line pointed out to him, and slapped some coins on the counter.

The desk clerk handed over a couple of keys and pointed towards the stairs. "Upstairs and to your right, Mister... Cartwright." he said as he looked at the signature in his book. "Can I help you with anything else?"

"Yeah, send my little brother up when he gets here, will you?" Adam replied. He looked back at the entrance to the little hotel. "And can you tell me if there's a decent place to eat in this town?" The expression on Adam's face showed clearly that he wasn't expecting an affirmative reply.

"Well, Mrs. Brown runs a café, just down the street, or there's the Tin Bucket Saloon." The clerk was almost hyperventilating to please the tall stranger, clothed entirely in black. Something in Adam's bearing and manner had impressed on the little man that he wasn't someone to take lightly.

Adam smiled his thanks and slowly ascended the stairs. Quickly locating the two rooms assigned to him and his brother, he chose one and entered. Several minutes later a light rap sounded on the door, and Little Joe entered without waiting for a response.

"The horses are all taken care of, Adam," Joe said with a sigh. He took his hat off and rubbed a tired hand over his face. "What do you want first, bath or a meal?" Joe took the saddlebags he carried off his shoulder and threw them to the floor.

"Bath." Adam put a world of longing into the single word, causing Joe to grin. Adam's fastidious habits were a family joke, although Joe loved to look his best as well. There had never been any doubt in Joe's mind which option Adam would choose.

"Let's go then, brother." Joe said playfully, punching at Adam's shoulder. "I'll race you for the first bath."

He was rewarded by a lighthearted grin from his brother, and the two men set off to explore the little one-horse town of Daggett.


Hours later, the Cartwrights sat relaxing in the saloon. A player piano tinkled in the corner, and several tables were filled with typical cowboys, and saloon women. A couple of games of poker were in progress, and Joe was starting to get that speculative gleam in his eye, when the swinging doors opened and two men entered.

Adam and Joe looked up casually, but returned to their conversation quickly. They didn't know the men entering. One was tall, lean, and somewhat more refined looking than his companion. He was a shorter, dark-haired man, dressed in a vaguely Mexican style. He wore his gun low on his hip and walked with a casual stride. The tall man looked around the room, his eye lighting on Adam and Little Joe. When he caught sight of them, he nudged his companion's shoulder, and the two men made their way over to the Cartwright's table.

"Mr. Cartwright?" The tall, blond man spoke. His grey-blue eyes were direct, but friendly.

Adam and Joe looked at each other in surprise, and Adam responded with a slight narrowing of his eyes. "Yes." he replied quietly. "I'm Adam Cartwright, and this is my brother, Joe." He looked questioningly at the two men before him.

"I'm Scott Lancer, and this is my brother, Johnny." Again it was the taller of the two men who spoke. His brother stood, an easy half-smile on his lips, his eyes, a startling blue were creased at the corners, but friendly enough. "We've come to ask a favor of you, Mr. Cartwright."

Adam again looked at Joe, but received nothing but a shrug of the shoulders in response from his brother. Joe tipped his chair back and eyed the two men in a frankly appraising manner. His action drew a wider smile from the younger Lancer. "How can we help you, Mr. Lancer?" Adam queried.

"Call me Scott. My brother and I are passing through town, on our way home to our ranch in Morro Coyo. When we tried to check in at the hotel they said that all the rooms were booked." A snort from Johnny Lancer caused Scott to lay his hand on his brother's arm in a calming gesture. "The desk clerk said that you and your brother had booked two rooms. We were wondering if we could persuade you to share a room with your brother, so that I could share the other room with mine." Scott Lancer's voice was calm, a hint of a Boston accent in his speech.

The Cartwrights conferred silently with a glance, Adam nodded pleasantly, and said "Certainly, Mr. L...Scott. Joe and I would be happy to share so that you and your brother had a room as well." He dug in his pocket, and handed over a room key. "Why don't you fellas take this one, and we'll take the other."

Johnny Lancer spoke for the first time. His voice was lower pitched, and sleepier than his brother's. "That's mighty nice of you boys. Can we buy you a drink in payment?"

"Sure, why don't you pull up some chairs." Joe responded eagerly. He was a sociable boy and loved to talk to people. Joe made friends much more quickly than his more serious minded older brother. He was happy to have a chance to talk to someone other than Adam for a change.

The Lancer brothers pulled up a couple of chairs, and Johnny signaled for the bartender. When he had the man's attention he called out. "Tequila, por favor." He turned to the three other men at the table, "What'll you have, fellas? Scott?"

The Cartwrights and Scott Lancer ordered beer, bringing a mocking smile to Johnny's face. "Afraid of a little tequila, Boston?" he teased his brother.

"Yeah, Johnny, I am." Scott replied with a smile. "The last time I tried that stuff with you I couldn't remember my name for three days." He shrugged his shoulders and took an appreciative sip of his beer. "I'll just stick with this for now."

It was obvious to the Cartwrights that Scott and Johnny Lancer had a very comfortable relationship and appeared to genuinely enjoy each other's company. The two brothers looked as different from each other as Adam and Little Joe Cartwright did, Scott was about 25 while Johnny appeared to be the same age as Little Joe.

The Lancers were appraising the Cartwrights in return. They could see the teasing present in the relationship between Adam and Little Joe, in spite of the marked difference in their ages. The men swapped stories about ranch life in Nevada and California. They discovered that they had a lot in common. They were especially astonished to find out that both sets of brothers lived with a father, and had mothers who had died very young.

Johnny Lancer and Little Joe Cartwright spent some time exchanging view on breaking horses and discovered an equal interest in pretty women and cards, while Scott and Adam spent time discussing life in Boston. It was turning into a very pleasant evening.

Finally Adam pulled a watch from his pocket and whistled. "It's getting late, we've got to turn in, Joe, if we're going to get an early start in the morning." He rose and began putting on his hat.

Little Joe frowned. "It's not that late, Adam. Johnny and I were going to go join that poker game over there." His face was rebellious.

"Oh, no you're not, Little Brother." Adam spoke seriously. "I know you too well. If you sit down at that game, you'll never leave. I'll come back here and find you tomorrow morning still playing, but with no money in your pockets." He placed a hand on his brother's arm and tugged. "Come on, Joe."

Johnny and Scott exchanged amused grins. "We'll walk over to the hotel with you, Joe." Johnny said easily, putting on his own hat. "It's time we turned in too."

Seeing that his new friend was calling it a night made it easier for Joe to give in gracefully. The four men left the saloon together, talking casually. None of them noticed the two men at the bar who had been watching them all evening. They got up from their seats in the corner and followed the two sets of brothers into the street. As unobtrusively as they could, the men followed the Cartwrights and Lancers to the hotel. They took up stations across the street, and settled in to wait out what remained of the night.

As Scott Lancer held the door for the rest of the men to enter the hotel an idea struck him. "Adam, we're going to be riding out in the morning, as well. Would you mind if we traveled together?" He grabbed Johnny and threw his arm around his brother's shoulders. "Johnny and I have been on the trail alone for a while and it would be nice to have somebody else to talk to. Right, Brother?"

Johnny joined in eagerly, "Hey, that's a great idea, Scott. I sure am tired of looking at your face every day." He turned to the Cartwrights. "Why don't you ride along with us?"

Adam smiled, and nodded his agreement but before he could respond his younger brother interrupted him.

Joe spoke excitedly. "That would be great." he exclaimed. "It would be fun to ride together. It'll give us more of a chance to talk. We'll meet you in the morning then."

They had reached the hotel room door, and exchanged good nights. The Cartwrights entered their room, and the Lancers followed suit, and retired to the other.


In the morning, four men staggered from their respective rooms, and met for breakfast and a cup of coffee at Mrs. Brown's café. Joe sat bleary-eyed and rubbing a hand through his tousled curls. Johnny looked at him and laughed. "Not a morning person, are you Joe?"

Adam snickered. "How did you ever guess?" He tipped his coffee cup at Little Joe. "My youngest brother here is definitely not an early riser if he can help it."

Joe glared at them all in mock anger, and then a grin spread across his face. "Laugh now, Older Brother." he joked. "You'll see, this afternoon, I'll still be raring to go, but you'll be falling out of the saddle, since you're so much older than me." He ducked as Adam threw a napkin at him.

The Lancers joined in the general laughter, and then they all tucked into the generous breakfast that was placed on the table. An hour later, they were saddled up and ready to leave on the next leg of their journey.

Each man had two canteens looped over their saddle horns, as they were due to ride through some rough desert terrain. The next town was a couple of days ride ahead, and neither pair of brothers had been looking forward to the trip. The prospect of company was appealing to Little Joe, and he felt his spirits lift as they cantered out of town.

If he had looked behind him, he would have seen that the two men who had watched them in the saloon the night before were now following them out of town. The men had been joined by several others, bringing their number up to six. They all looked serious, grim expressions marking their faces. It was apparent that they were not going on a pleasure trip.

Adam and Joe exchanged small talk with the Lancers as they rode, details of their lives emerging with every mile. It wasn't long before they knew about Scott's mother, dying on the long road back to Boston, and Johnny's mother, running off with her two year old son. Adam and Joe filled the Lancers in on their life at the Ponderosa, explaining about Ben's three wives, and three sons was less confusing than usual in the light of Johnny and Scott's similar circumstances.

The one piece of personal history that raised both Adam and Joe's eyebrow's was the revelation that they were traveling with the ex-gunfighter, Johnny Madrid. This led to Joe and Johnny egging each on to contests with their gun. The two younger men were laughing, and pulling their guns with ever more blinding speed. While Joe was fast, Johnny was always just a little faster. Adam and Scott watched the antics of their younger brothers with smiles on their faces.

The four men decided to stop just before dusk, selecting the hollow of a natural rock formation as the backdrop for their impromptu campsite. They set to work establishing camp, and within a short while, night had fallen and the four men were sprawled around a cheerful blaze, passing a bottle of whiskey from hand to hand. The latter had been contributed by Little Joe, who had picked it up in the Tin Bucket Saloon without Adam's knowledge. As the night passed, the conversation died down, and the four men rolled themselves into their bedrolls for the night.

The crack of a twig brought Johnny awake in an instant. He rolled quickly and reached for the gun that was never far from his side. He groped frantically in the dark, but couldn't find what he was looking for. "Hold it right there, stranger." A cold voice brought him up short.

Johnny looked around to see the little campsite had been surrounded by six men, all wearing that hard eyed look, gunbelts low, the guns themselves held with cold confidence in their hands. The part of him that was Johnny Madrid moved to the forefront, and he stared at the group with cold, narrow eyes. "What do you boys want?" he drawled easily.

Around him, Scott and the Cartwrights stirred and sat up, aware of the tension rippling through the air. "He asked you a question. What do you want with us?" Adam Cartwright demanded. He moved to stand, and was roughly shoved down by one of the men.

Little Joe tensed to spring when he saw his brother manhandled, his green eyes flashed, glittering like emeralds in the moonlight. Another of the men casually clubbed him over the head with the butt of his gun. Little Joe fell, sprawling in the dirt, a slow trickle of blood starting to seep down his neck.

"Joe!" Adam exclaimed, and instinctively moved for his brother. He was held back by the man standing closest to him.

"I don't want nobody to move!" snarled the man who had spoken initially. He was a tall man, easily topping six feet, with a rangy build, and a shock of straight dark hair. His eyes were the color of cold steel.

Adam froze, but he cast a despairing look at his brother, who still hadn't moved.

Scott Lancer spoke, his cultured voice sounding hushed in the moonlight. "We aren't getting any answers from you, stranger. You mind telling us what you want with us, or are you just going to make us guess."

Johnny grinned at his brother, but the smile never quite reached his eyes. His hand twitched nervously by his side, instinct telling him to reach for the gun that wasn't there.

The big man, obviously the leader of this pack of wolves spoke again. "We've taken your gun, mister, so spare yourself the trouble of looking for it. We're also going to take your horses, and all your money, so start emptying your pockets." He gestured with his gun, and the five men stationed around the little campsite moved forward towards their prisoners.

Johnny and Scott began to empty their pockets under the prodding of the gunman and Adam did the same. Suddenly Adam tensed. One of the men had started towards Little Joe, and had roughly rolled him over onto his back. Adam lunged forward, only to be grabbed by Scott. "You can't help him right now." Scott hissed. "It won't do him any good if you get hurt too."

Adam took a deep breath, but the anger surged through him, leaving his eyes burning with rage. He watched helplessly as his brother was searched and his pockets roughly emptied. He sighed with relief when the men turned their attention toward the saddlebags, dumping their contents on the ground and searching through them. He kept his eyes on his stricken brother throughout the search. Scott kept a sympathetic, yet restraining hand on his arm as they waited.

The leader of the band of outlaws snarled roughly, "Have you found it yet?" He strode over to the pile of belongings strewn about from the dumped saddle bags and began to rummage through it. His men shook their heads negatively and continued to search as well. The big man walked back towards the Lancers. "Where is it?" he cried, his face set into a threatening scowl.

"Well, maybe if I knew what "it" was I could tell you where "it" is." Johnny replied in a mocking tone. "Where do you think "it" is, Scott?" he asked, rolling his eyes at his brother.

"I don't, know, brother, I think I must have dropped 'it'." Scott replied, his voice so deadpan that the sarcasm could have been missed.

The big man erupted in fury, shaking his fist in Johnny's face. "I want that bank draft that you picked up before you left Daggett. I watched you go to the bank and get it, so don't try to tell me that you don't have it."

The Lancer brothers exchanged glances. Scott opened his mouth to make a reply, when one of the men searching the saddle bags let out a whoop. All eyes turned to him as he started to wave a piece of paper around. "Lookee, here, boys!" he shouted. "I found it."

The big man snatched the paper from the other's hand. Rapidly scanning the paper, a strange look crossed his face. "This isn't the bank draft we were looking for." he said bemusedly. "This one is made out to Adam Cartwright. The bank teller told me that these men are named Lancer." he turned to his prisoners as he spoke, a slow smile breaking across his face. "I think we've hit the jackpot, boys." he said confidently. "There must be two bank drafts. These other boys were carrying one, too."

A pained expression crossed Adam's face as he watched the man handle the paper. That bank draft represented the balance owed to the Ponderosa for 500 head of cattle that had been delivered to a ranch in Arizona. It was written for a substantial amount of money. Money that the Cartwrights needed to keep the ranch in operation until other contracts were completed and paid for. The loss of that bank draft could handicap the ranch operations. But Adam also knew that his father would rather lose the money involved than one of his sons. Adam was resigned to going home without the bank draft, as long as he and his brother were allowed to go home safely.

The outlaw moved towards Scott Lancer. He placed his gun against Scott's temple, and held it firmly in place. "I want the bank draft you picked up in Daggett." he said, looking fiercely at Johnny. "Or I put a bullet in your brother's brain."

A cold hatred burned in Johnny's eyes, but he slowly reached inside his shirt and pulled out an envelope that had been nestled against his skin. He handed it to the outlaw. "It won't do you any good, mister. It has to be cashed by the person it's been issued to. It's just a worthless piece of paper otherwise." Johnny's voice was soft, but the tone sent a trail of goosebumps up Adam's spine. Suddenly he could see the Johnny Madrid who had earned such a fierce reputation.

The big outlaw spoke with condescension dripping from his words. "You think I don't know that, you fool. That's why I intend to take you with me to cash it." He waved both bank drafts in the air. "I didn't expect this other little bonus. It looks like our lucky night."

Turning to his men he began issuing orders. "Billy, tie these boys up. Make sure the ropes are tight, I don't want no one getting away in the night. Frank, you bed down the horses. We're gonna be staying here for the rest of the night." The men scattered to do his bidding.

Adam pulled away from Scott's hand and headed for his brother. He reached Little Joe and knelt down beside him before he felt a rough hand on his shoulder. He turned to find one of the outlaws attempting to pull him to his feet. Adam knocked the man's hand from his shoulder and turned to the leader of the gang. "I'm going to check on my brother before you tie me up. He needs to have that head wound looked at right now." He quickly turned back to Joe, and began to gently examine the gash on the back of his brother's head.

"What's going on, Billy, I thought I told you to tie him up." The gang leader appeared at Adam's shoulder. "You get back where you were."

"He says he needs to look at his brother's wound, Burton." Billy whined nervously. "I thought..." his voice trailed off into an indistinct mumble.

Burton's hand cracked Billy savagely across the face. "That's what you get for thinking, Billy." He gestured to Scott and Johnny, who were watching the proceedings. "Get those two tied up, right now." He turned back to Adam, who was holding his kerchief to the back of Joe's head in an effort to stop the bleeding. "Get away from him, now." he ordered.

Adam sat back on his heels and looked Burton straight in the eye. "If my little brother doesn't have help right now he's going to die. He needs to have that wound bandaged, and I need to wake him up." Adam's dark eyes bored into Burton's, and he gestured to his fallen brother. "Now, you let me help him, or you kill me, here and now. But I'll warn you. If you kill me, that bank draft becomes useless. It's made out to Adam Cartwright. That's me. If I don't cash it, it's no good, and you might as well throw it away. Make your choice, Burton."

Burton's eyes fell away from Adam's. "You've got five minutes, Cartwright." he snarled, trying to regain the upper hand. "I'm gonna tie you up, personally, in five minutes." He turned, and stalked back towards his gang, the anger in his eyes causing them to flinch away from him in fear.

Billy had already secured Scott and Johnny's hands behind their backs, making sure that the ropes were pulled tight. He herded them back against the rock face, and forced them to a sitting position. The Lancer's kept their expressions impassive, but they watched Adam and Joe with concern.

Adam soaked his kerchief in water from a canteen, and gently held it to Joe's head. Ripping the tail from his own shirt he secured the bandage, as tightly as he could. Placing a gentle hand under the wounded head he patted Joe's cheek softly. "Little Joe." he murmured. "Joe, wake up, buddy."

At first there was no response from the younger Cartwright, but just as Adam was beginning to feel a deep sense of panic, he saw his brother's eyelids flicker, and then open. A soft moan sounded from Joe's lips, and Adam cradled his brother's head gently in his lap. "That's good, Joe, wake up now." he crooned.

Little Joe opened his eyes, and struggled to focus. The worried face of his older brother swam in his field of vision. His head throbbed, and Joe struggled to reach his hand to the wound. Adam caught the groping hand in his own, and held it gently. "It's okay, Joe. Lie still." he whispered.

"A-Adam, .." the word ended in a gasp as Joe felt a blinding pain sear through his skull. "Are you all right?" Joe whispered in a shaky voice. "Those men..."

"Are right here, Little Brother." Adam replied quietly. "Lie still, Joe." he repeated, and he held a canteen to Joe's lips.

Joe took a small swallow of the water, but stopped when nausea threatened to overwhelm him. "No more, Adam." he choked out, and tried to push the canteen away.

Adam was about to try again, when a rough hand grabbed his shoulder, and wrenched the canteen from his hand. "Time's up, Cartwright." Burton growled menacingly. "You and your brother move over to those rocks. You're going to join your friends."

Anger burned in Adam's dark eyes. "My brother shouldn't be moved." he said forcefully.

"Too bad, Cartwright." was Burton's cold reply. "Now, you can help him up, or I'll have one of my men drag him over to that rock." He gestured with his gun.

Adam didn't bother to respond. He slipped his arm underneath Joe's shoulders and eased him to a sitting position. Little Joe cried out, as the movement sent a wave of pain through him. Adam helped Joe to a stand, and half-dragged, half-carried him to the rocks. He gently eased Joe to the ground, and helped him lean against the rock. Joe's face had gone white, and he was gasping for breath. Scott and Johnny looked on in concern, as Burton approached the Cartwrights.

Burton took great delight in yanking Adam's hands behind his back, and knotting the ropes tightly around his wrists. He shoved Adam back against the rock, but Adam simply glared at him, determined not to give the man the satisfaction of hearing him cry out. But Adam couldn't hold still when he saw the man turn on Joe.

"Leave him alone, Burton. He's got a severe concussion, you don't need to tie him up." Adam snarled, when he saw Burton pulling out another length of rope.

"I ain't taking any chances, Cartwright." Burton sneered, and he roughly pulled Joe forward. Joe gasped in shock, and slumped forward as unconsciousness claimed him. He didn't feel anything when his hands too, were bound behind his back. Burton finally left him slumped against Adam's shoulder.

Scott kept a wary eye on the outlaw band and Burton in particular. He leaned close to Adam's ear and whispered, "How is he?"

Adam, his face marked with lines of concern, whispered back. "He's got a severe concussion. He needs a doctor, and soon."

Scott looked at his own brother, who sat with his back against the rock, his face a blank mask. Only his eyes expressed his rage, they followed Burton's movements unceasingly. "I'll make him pay, Adam. Don't you worry about him." Johnny said, his voice quiet, but brimming with his suppressed rage.

Adam smiled grimly, "No, Johnny." he whispered back. "He's mine."

Scott looked at the two men and shook his head. "Gentlemen, we need to think about getting out of here, not about revenge." he counseled, knowing that neither man would listen to him.

"You got a plan, brother?" Johnny asked quietly.

"Not yet, but I'll think about it." Scott replied laconically. He leaned back against the rock, and surveyed the scene through slitted eyes. Johnny did the same, while Adam turned his attention to his younger brother.

"Joe," he whispered. "Joe, wake up, buddy." He moved his shoulder gently, trying to stir Little Joe, without making him fall. He was rewarded by a soft moan from his brother.

Little Joe felt like his head was going to explode. He moved slightly, and immediately regretted the action. His eyes flickered open, and a blurred scene swam into view. Their tormentors were sprawled in front of the fire, and to Joe's confused mind they looked large and menacing. He tried to sit up and found that his arms had been pulled tightly behind his back. His cheek was resting against something warm, and when he turned his head slightly, gasping at the movement, he saw his brother's concerned eyes looking down at him.

"Welcome back." Adam said quietly, relief apparent in his voice. "How are you feeling, Joe?"

"Like I'm going to be sick." Joe gasped out. He leaned closer to Adam, seeking the comfort of his brother's presence instinctively. "What's going on, Adam?" he asked.

"Burton found the bank draft. He's also got one that belongs to Scott and Johnny." Adam shifted slightly, seeking a more comfortable position. "I think he's going to try to get us to cash them for him."

Joe grimaced. "You can't let him do that, Adam. Pa's counting on that money." He attempted to pull himself up, but quickly changed his mind when the pain in his head intensified.

Adam looked at his brother in sympathy. "Pa's counting on us to come home safely, Little Joe. That's what we need to concentrate on, not losing that money."

Johnny and Scott exchanged glances as they listened to this exchange. Although Joe was the same age as Johnny he seemed so young and full of life, it made them feel old in comparison. Scott could sympathize with Adam. He too felt the weight of responsibility. He didn't think he could face Murdoch if he came home without Johnny. They had so recently become a family, to have any one of them threatened would be doubly heartbreaking. As silence descended on the campsite, the four prisoners tried to sleep.


Morning dawned quickly in the desert. The sun rose on the horizon, sending out heat filled rays, giving promise of the scorching day to come. The Cartwrights and the Lancers had spent an uncomfortable night against the rock. The heat from the fire hadn't reached them, and the chill desert air had soaked into their bones. Little Joe had suffered the most, his concussion making his head ache painfully. He had shivered uncontrollably throughout the night, in spite of Adam huddling close to offer him the warmth of his own body heat. None of the men had slept deeply, mostly drifting in and out of a light doze. As they watched the band of outlaws stirring, they couldn't help but wonder what the new day would bring.

Burton rose and stretched. He walked around the remains of the campfire and booted one of the still sleeping men in the ribs. The man grunted in pain, but sat up quickly. Burton began barking orders, and the men scattered quickly to follow them. They hastily cooked and ate a meager breakfast, swilling down coffee and cold beans with little relish. No one offered the prisoners anything at all.

Adam looked in concern at his feverish brother, who obviously needed medical treatment quickly. Joe's shivering continued unabated, even with the rising heat of the day. Adam could feel the heat of a fever radiating through his shirt sleeve, where his brother's cheek rested against him. Finally Adam could stand it no longer. "Burton." he called out, his eyes commanding the big man's presence.

Burton swaggered over casually, sipping from a tin cup as he came. "Whaddya' want Cartwright?" he asked in an unconcerned voice.

"My brother needs water. He's got a fever, and is burning up." Adam's eyes were hard. "I'll do whatever you want, but please give him something to drink." It was obvious that it was hard for Adam to ask for anything from the outlaw, but for his precious little brother he would sacrifice his pride.

Burton laughed, a loud guffaw that drew the attention of his men. They began to drift over to watch the fun. "So, you'll do anything I want, eh, Cartwright?" He strolled closer to the prisoners. "What if I told you I expect you to do what I want, even if I don't give your brother any water?" he paused dramatically. "You really aren't in any position to be asking for anything, you know."

Johnny Lancer looked at Burton calmly. "Give him some water, Burton. Or there'll come a time when you wished you had." The threat was evident in the cool words.

Scott joined in the conversation for the first time. "It would certainly be a lot easier if you had cooperative prisoners, Burton. It would help if you let us take care of our friend."

Burton's glance faltered in the face of the implacable hatred that radiated from the three healthy prisoners. Little Joe, the center of the little drama, lay in a fog, not really comprehending what was happening around him. Burton gave a half-hearted chuckle in an attempt to save face with his watching men. Abruptly tiring of the game, he hooked a thumb at Billy. "Get a canteen, and give it to them, Billy." He walked off in disgust, turning his back on the prisoners.

The show over, the rest of the men drifted off and began dismantling the little camp. Billy came over with a canteen. He hesitated, not knowing what to do with it. His prisoners arms were all bound behind their backs, but Burton hadn't ordered him to release them. Finally, he pulled a knife and quickly cut through Adam's bonds. He tossed the canteen on the ground and turned to join his comrades.

Adam winced as the circulation started returning to his numb fingers and hands. He quickly flexed his hands several times, and then scooped up the canteen, almost afraid it would be snatched away before he could use it. Holding it to Joe's lips, he whispered softly. "Joe, take a drink, quickly now."

Little Joe eagerly drank from the canteen. The cool water sliding down his throat felt wonderful. He could feel the relief immediately, as his body eagerly took in the life-giving liquid. Adam wet his kerchief, and placed it gently on Joe's forehead. His brother taken care of, he turned to Johnny and Scott. He held the canteen up to each one of them in turn, letting them drink their fill. He then made sure that he had a long drink as well, before turning back and insisting that Joe take another drink. None of them knew how much longer they would be allowed to have the canteen. Adam had just finished giving Scott and Johnny another drink when he felt the canteen snatched from his hands. Burton had come up behind him, and taken the container before Adam was aware he was there.

"That's enough, Cartwright." he snarled. "Billy, tie him up again." He walked off, taking the canteen with him.

Billy scurried over and roughly hauled Adam's hands behind his back again. When the ropes were secure he moved back to help with the dismantling of the camp.

Adam turned his back to the rock, and eased himself against it. He eyed his brother closely, and was gratified to see that Joe's color looked better. "How're you doing, Buddy?" he asked.

"I'm fine, Adam, don't worry about me." replied Joe. Adam smiled, Joe would have given him the same answer if one of his arms had been torn off.

Before the brothers had a chance to talk further, Burton reappeared. "On your feet, Cartwright." He looked at Adam with a baleful glare, watching as he struggled to his feet. He turned to Johnny and repeated his command. Johnny and Scott traded glances, and Johnny slowly drew himself upright.

"You two are coming with us. We're going to ride to the next town and cash those bank drafts. If you cooperate, I'll let you go. If you don't, I'll kill you." Burton smiled at them smugly. His was the face of a man who held all the cards.

"I'm not leaving my brother." Adam's tone was deadly. His face remained impassive, but the rage emanating from him was palpable.

"Me either," Johnny chimed in. "We all go, or you don't get that bank draft cashed, Burton." Johnny's drawl was icy cold.

"You boys don't have much choice in the matter." Burton replied. "You see, I'm leaving Frank to keep an eye on your brothers. If we don't come back in a reasonable amount of time, Frank has orders to kill them, but if you get difficult with me, I'll just kill them now." Burton grinned, his eyes reflecting his arrogance. "It's your choice, boys. You can cooperate, or you can bury these two fellas." he pointed to Scott and Little Joe, who watched the proceedings from the ground.

Scott flashed Johnny a grin, and turned to look at Adam. "I'll take care of Joe, Adam. You keep an eye on Johnny for me." Scott's smile faded as he looked at Burton. "My brother better come back in one piece, Burton. You'd better not do anything you're going to regret. I'm not quite as civilized as I look."

Joe struggled to a sitting position, his face paling at the effort. "I'll be okay, Adam. You stay out of trouble." he said reassuringly.

"Aww, this is all very touching, but we gotta get a move on." Burton sneered. "You two, help these boys get mounted. I've got to give Frank his instructions."

With a last glance back at their brothers, Adam and Johnny were escorted to their horses, and thrown up in the saddles. Burton finished his quiet talk with Frank and mounted his own horse. With a smile on his lips he gave the order to ride, leaving three men sitting in the hot desert sun.


An hour after Burton and the gang had left, Scott noticed Frank pacing by the remains of the campfire. He narrowed his blue-grey eyes and speculated on the man's actions. Frank had seemed nervous since Burton had left, but now the pacing had intensified. He was apparently building up to some action that he wasn't too happy about. Scott looked at Little Joe. The younger man was propped against the large rock, sleeping restlessly. His face was pale, and Scott could see the lines of pain etched across his face. He nudged Joe gently.

"Joe. Joe, wake up." he whispered, trying not to attract Frank's attention. Scott was rewarded by seeing Little Joe's eyes flicker open.

Little Joe gazed uncomprehendingly at the scene before him, his thoughts confused and unfocused. "Adam?" he called out.

"Shhh, Joe. It's Scott, Adam's not here remember?" Scott spoke urgently, trying to keep the tension from his voice.

Joe turned to look at the man beside him, and recognition dawned in his eyes. Joe's head still hurt, making his thoughts feel sluggish. "Scott, where's Adam?"

Scott's eyes clouded, and he hesitated momentarily. "Don't you remember, Joe? He's with Johnny and Burton." Scott's heart went out to the younger man as he watched a look of fear cross Joe's face.

"I've got to get Adam. They'll kill him." Joe struggled to rise, but fell back at Scott's next words.

"No, Joe. We can't get to him now." Scott tried to sound soothing, but some of his own sense of urgency showed. "Sit quiet for a minute, we've got to try to come up with a plan."

Without warning Frank swung to peer back at the prisoners. Seeing them awake and talking, he crossed the ground quickly, and crouched in front of them. "All right, boys, listen up." he said. "I'm riding out of here now, I've got to catch up with Burton and the boys. You two are gonna stay right here."

Scott's voice was sharp with anger. "You can't ride off and leave us here. We've got no food, water or horses. Joe's got a concussion. That's murder."

Frank laughed uncomfortably. "You think I don't know that, buddy." he shifted a little nervously. "Burton says to leave you, so I leave you. I don't cross Burton."

Understanding dawned in Scott's blue eyes. "He just wanted to keep Adam and Johnny quiet until they cashed those bank drafts. He never intended to come back for us, did he?"

At Scott's side, Little Joe drew in a sharp breath. "At least untie us." he commanded. "If you're going to leave us here to die, give us a fighting chance."

Frank shook his head. "Nope." he drawled laconically. "I've got my orders. Good luck, boys." he turned and rapidly walked to his horse. Once mounted he turned back to the two men. "I hope you don't take too long to die. This desert can be real mean." His spurred his horse, and the animal took off at a rapid pace, soon the man and beast were a speck on the horizon.

Scott looked at Little Joe in despair. "Joe, we've got to work on these ropes. See what you can do with mine, and then I'll give yours a try."

Turning back to back, the two men struggled with fingers that were numb with lack of circulation. Joe was additionally hampered by the concussion, and the spikes of pain that kept his thoughts a little confused. Time passed slowly, while the sun rose ever higher in the sky. Scott thought longingly of water, and tried to turn his mind elsewhere. Water was a long way off, and they needed to concentrate on their bonds before anything else. He spared a thought for Johnny, and hoped that he was keeping his temper under control. Burton was a hard man, and he wouldn't hesitate to take whatever steps he felt were necessary to keep Johnny under control. Scott's anger returned full force, and he used it to spur on his efforts with the ropes around Little Joe's hands.

After hours of effort Scott was rewarded by a perceptible loosening in the ropes that bound Little Joe's wrists together. He shouted triumphantly, surprised when he heard no response from Joe. Turning quickly to look at his companion he realized that Joe was leaning against the rock, his head lolling to the side, unconsciousness claiming him again. Scott cursed and redoubled his efforts with the ropes.

"We did it, Joe." he cried when he felt the ropes part at last. He turned, and called to the unconscious man, "Joe, wake up! Come on, Little Joe, Adam needs you, wake up." Scott was rewarded by the flicker of Joe's eyelashes, and a pair of green eyes peering at him vaguely.

"Scott?" Joe's voice was questioning, his gaze troubled. "Where's Adam?" he asked nervously, looking around for his brother.

"He's not here, Joe, remember?" Scott replied urgently. Joe's confused thoughts were an indication that his concussion was still severe. "Your hands are free now, Little Joe. Can you untie mine?"

Joe blinked several times and made a visible effort to clear his head. He stared at Scott in consternation, and then looked at his hands trying to decipher what he could of Scott's words. Remembrance flooded his brain, and he gasped, jerking his head up, causing him to sway with renewed dizziness. "Adam!" he cried out. "We've got to go after my brother!"

"You've got to untie my hands first." Scott spoke soothingly, trying to calm Joe's obvious agitation. "Come on, Joe, you can do it. Untie me, okay?" Scott turned his back on Joe, and presented his bound hands to the younger man.

Joe nodded as understanding dawned in his aching head. He fumbled with the knots that held Scott's wrists so tightly, his numbed fingers shaking with the effort. It seemed to take forever, but at last the ropes loosened, and finally fell to the ground allowing the blood to return to Scott's fingers. Scott winced with the pain that accompanied the returning circulation. "You did it, Joe." he exclaimed. "Good job! Now let's stop and think about what we're going to do to get out of here."

He looked searchingly around the area where they had camped, but the outlaws had been thorough. They had left behind nothing that would be of any use to two men walking across the desert. Scott took rapid stock of the situation. He and Joe were several days walk away from the nearest town, with no food, no water and no weapons of any kind. Johnny was the expert on desert travel in the Lancer family, and Scott wasted a few minutes wishing for some of his brother's knowledge. Added to their lack of supplies, was the fact that Little Joe was injured, which would make any kind of trek across the desert even more grueling. And yet, Scott knew that they couldn't just sit and wait. No rescue would be forthcoming in time to save their lives. Scott sighed. It was time to start walking.


Adam glanced at the dark haired man riding silently beside him, arms still bound tightly behind his back. It was clear that Johnny Lancer was not a happy man, the deadly anger that radiated from him made even Adam a little wary of the ex-gunfighter. Adam understood the rage all too well. The thought of Little Joe facing an unknown fate, already suffering from a concussion had left Adam's stomach tied in knots. He knew that if he got the chance he would kill Burton. They had been riding for several hours, stopping to rest for a few minutes every hour or so to allow the men and horses to drink from the canteens. Adam had been surprised when Burton had offered water to his prisoners, but then he realized that Burton needed them alive, and fairly healthy to pull off the cashing of the bank drafts. Burton would take no chances with them until he had the money in his hands.

A drumming of hooves coming from behind them made all the men in the party turn around in their saddles. Several of the outlaws surreptitiously checked their guns, preparing to pull them quickly if necessary. As the rider drew closer Adam recognized him as Frank, the man who had been left to guard Scott and Little Joe. Horror flooded through him as he realized the significance of the man's presence. Sharing a look of disbelief with Johnny, Adam rounded on Burton.

"Why is he here?" Adam demanded. "What's he done with my brother!"

Johnny's eyes bored into Burton. "You better answer him quick, Burton." he drawled, his voice deceptively gentle. "I want to know what's going on."

Burton laughed, his steel gray eyes shining with malicious glee. "Well, boys," he said when his laughter had subsided. "I gave Frank orders to join us after waiting an hour with your brothers. I decided that I couldn't spare a man to take care of them for the amount of time it's going to take us to get this job done."

"Did you kill my brother?" Adam faced Frank with flashing eyes, and a snarl on his lips.

Johnny sat quietly, waiting for the answer. He had already determined that he had a personal score to settle with Burton, he just needed to know if he should add Frank to that list.

Frank quailed a little in the face of the rage that roiled in the atmosphere. "I didn't kill them, I swear. They were alive when I left them." He moved his horse farther away from the two prisoners.

"Whaddya mean, 'you left them'. Left them where?" Johnny asked, still speaking in the voice he reserved for soon-to-be-dead men.

Burton interjected. "He left them right where they were. On my orders! I told you I wasn't going to kill them, and I didn't. They're gonna be a mite hungry and thirsty, but they should still be alive, for now at least." A look of triumph spread across his face. "They won't last long though, and if I were you, I'd pray they go quick. Dying in the desert can be a pretty horrible thing."

Adam spoke in a fury. "You had this man ride off and leave two men alone, on foot in the desert, knowing that one of them was wounded. I'll kill you for this, Burton." He moved towards the big man. The sound of a bullet entering the chamber of a rifle pulled him up short. He looked over his shoulder to see Billy aiming a rifle directly at him. Adam stopped moving, his face clearly displaying his anger.

Burton was clearly enjoying Adam's torment. "Oh they weren't on foot. Frank had specific orders to leave them tied up, and sitting by that rock. I don't think they're walking anywhere."

Johnny Lancer's eyes glittered with hatred and his voice sounded like it had been carved from ice. "I hope you've made peace with your maker, Burton, cause you're gonna be joining him soon."


The sun continued it's long journey across the sky, leaving a scorching heat in it's wake. As evening approached the heat remained unabated, but Scott knew that with the advent of darkness the air would cool rapidly. The two men staggered through the desert scrub, moving at a snail's pace. Stopping every fifteen minutes to rest helped, but didn't alleviate their suffering. Scott was bearing the brunt of the trek, as he was supporting Little Joe's faltering steps. Sweat poured off the two men, creating tracks in the dirt crusted faces. Scott felt his lips burning and cracking and could see the effect the sun was having on Little Joe's skin and lips. Ahead Scott spied a small cluster of cactus, and a few scattered rocks. He headed in that direction, step by agonizing step, Little Joe's arm draped over his shoulder, with Scott grasping him tightly around the waist. Finally he reached the meager shade afforded by the natural desert fauna, and deposited his burden gently on the ground. A pair of intense green eyes opened and gazed at him intently.

"Just leave me here, Scott." Little Joe gasped out. "I'm slowing you down. You could go ahead and find help, then come back for me." Joe wiped a shaking hand across his dripping forehead, leaving a smear of dirt in it's place.

Scott shook his head. "You've got to be kidding, Joe. I can't leave you out here. I promised Adam that I would take care of you. How could I face him if I left you here in the middle of the desert." Scott took a long look around at their surroundings. It was a depressing sight. "I'm afraid you're stuck with me, friend."

Joe smiled briefly, only to then grimace at the pain the movement caused to his sunburned skin. "Thanks, Scott, you've turned out to be a real friend. I'm glad we ran into you." He too looked around at the arid desert, stretching as far as the eye could see. "We've got to find some water." he said through gritted teeth.

"I haven't seen any signs of water for miles." Scott said, shaking his head in despair. "If Johnny were here, he'd be able to figure something out. I'm sorry Joe, you're traveling with the wrong Lancer."

Joe reached out and clasped a firm hand on Scott's arm. "I'm not complaining about who I'm with, Scott. I couldn't have asked for a better friend the last couple of days." He looked at the cactus growing near them. "It's too bad we don't have a knife. I've heard you can drink from a cactus if you're desperate."

Scott began walking around their resting place, scouting the ground with intent eyes. Joe looked at him in puzzlement, wondering if the heat had gotten to his friend. "What are you doing?" he called, his bewilderment reflected in his voice.

"You gave me an idea about the cactus." Scott replied abstractedly, continuing his pacing. "I'm looking for a sharp stone to help us cut into that thing." He scuffled through the sandy grit, kicking aside the sparse undergrowth. A cry escaped his lips when he spotted what he was looking for. A sharp stone was revealed, lying partially concealed by some scrub. Scott hastily palmed the rock, and tested it's edge. It wasn't perfect but it would have to do.

Joe looked on with intense interest as Scott approached the large cactus and began hacking at it with the stone. At first he made little headway against the tough skin of the large plant, but his persistence finally paid off, as he managed to slice into it. Scott pulled out a chunk of the cactus and carried it back to Little Joe. They eyed the mass dubiously.

"Which part of this are we supposed to drink from?" Scott asked warily. He handed the cactus to Joe, who examined it curiously.

"I think I remember my brother Hoss telling me that you aren't supposed to swallow this stuff," Joe replied slowly. "You're supposed to chew it or suck on it, but never swallow it." He hesitated, but thirst won out and he took a tentative bite out of the mass. A grimace crossed his face at the taste, but the stuff did slake his thirst. He held the remaining piece out to Scott. "It's better than nothing," he murmured.

Scott took the cactus and gave Joe as much of a smile as his sunburn would allow. "Well, here goes nothing." he said with a devil-may-care attitude, taking a large bite.

Joe laughed at the sight of Scott's face. "We must look like quite a pair," he giggled, letting loose that distinctive cackle.

Scott couldn't help laughing in response. "You Cartwrights are quite a family," he said in between chuckles. "It's a pleasure traveling with you, Joe." He laid an affectionate hand on Joe's shoulder.

Joe's answering smile was quickly dimmed. "I just wish we knew what was happening with Adam and Johnny. They must know by now that Burton had us left out here. Adam's not going to sit still for that." He spat out the cactus pith that he was chewing on, and took another piece. "I'm afraid Adam's going to get himself killed," he whispered.

Scott stared into the rapidly growing gloom of twilight. "I know what you mean." he answered grimly. "Johnny's got such a hair trigger temper, he's going to be spoiling for a fight." He shook himself out of his reverie, knowing that he was upsetting the young man beside him. "I'm sure they're okay, Joe. Burton needs them alive, for now. He's not going to jeopardize that."

Scott stood and surveyed the surrounding terrain, realizing that dark was falling fast. He turned back to Joe, and smiled. "Looks like this is home for the night, Joe. We might as well get settled."

Joe gave him a sad smile, but nodded his agreement. The two men leaned against a tall rock, and prepared to spend he night in the cold desert air. Neither man could banish the picture of his brother from his mind. It was going to be a long night.


Many miles away a different pair of brothers had also been settled in for the night. Adam and Johnny had been placed back to back and tied together. The bonds were so tight that trying to free themselves was impossible. They were leaning against a rock overhang where the gang had stopped to make camp. Johnny never stopped following Burton's movements through his slitted eyes. His anger had died from a fierce inferno to a smouldering inner rage. Burton was a dead man, he just hadn't discovered it yet. Johnny Madrid would avenge his brother's death, for in his heart Johnny believed that Scott couldn't survive a trek through the desert. If he wasn't dead already, he would be soon. "I'll make him pay, Boston." Johnny thought, his rage flaring anew. Behind him he felt Adam stir.

"We've got to get out of here somehow." Adam whispered. "I've got to get back to Little Joe." He pulled fruitlessly at the ropes that bound them. "Can you reach the knots?" he asked Johnny desperately.

Johnny gave a sarcastic snort. "If I could reach the knots do you think I'd still be sitting here?" he flashed angrily. Just as quickly remorse followed rage, and he added, "I'm sorry Adam, I know you're just as worried as I am. I didn't mean to take it out on you." He tugged experimentally on the ropes, knowing it was futile.

Adam watched the outlaws sprawled around the campfire, his worry for Joe tying his stomach into knots. Adam was desperate to free himself, feeling his need to find his brother almost overpowering. He refused to allow himself to believe that Joe was dead. Not his cheerful, lighthearted, and here Adam had to smile to himself, stubborn, hardheaded little brother. Adam knew that his brother's determination to live would keep him fighting long after another man might give up. No, Joe was out in that desert someplace, and Adam was going to go get him.

As Adam's eyes searched the campsite, he leaned harder against the rock face. He felt the sharp edge digging into his shoulder and welcomed the pain as a diversion from his worries. A thought flashed through his mind like lightening. He turned his head and eyed the sharp edge jutting from the rock face. "Johnny," he whispered, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. "There's a pretty sharp edge here. If you can push back toward me, just a bit, we can rub the rope against it. It might take some doing, but I think we can cut through these things."

Johnny turned his head casually, trying to disguise the movement from anyone who might be watching them. He could just see the edge of rock that Adam was referring to. Without speaking he nodded his head slowly. It just might work. He pushed backwards a fraction, while Adam moved with him. Working together as one, they began to abrade the rope against the rock, masking their movements with their bodies as much as they could. Neither Adam nor Johnny would sleep at all that night.

Burton had made a terrible mistake when he had ordered Little Joe and Scott left alone in the desert. He had failed to comprehend the depth of feeling that existed between the two sets of brothers. As he had never loved anyone in his life, it hadn't occurred to him that Adam and Johnny would continue to risk their own necks in order to try to save the lives of their brothers. He mistakenly thought that the two men would place their own welfare ahead of anyone else's, including that of their brothers, because that is what he would have done. Burton had fatally underestimated his opponents.


The night passed slowly for Scott and Little Joe. Joe's head still throbbed, and they were both starving. The charms of sucking on a cactus palled quickly. The two men huddled together to conserve their body heat, but still they shivered in the night air. With bleary eyes they watched the first faint colors tinge the sky. As the light poured over the edge of the distant horizon, Little Joe pulled himself to his feet. He swayed a little as a wave of dizziness caught him unawares. Scott hastily stood up and grabbed his shoulder to prevent him from falling.

"Are you okay, Joe?" he asked with concern. "Sit back down, we don't need to go anywhere right now." He tried to pull Little Joe back into the shelter of the rocks and was surprised at the resistance he received.

"We've got to get moving," Joe said urgently. "We don't have time to waste sitting here." He looked at Scott in exasperation. "Come on, Scott, let's go."

Adam Cartwright would have recognized that impatient look anywhere, but Scott Lancer was unfamiliar with it. "Joe," he said urgently. "It doesn't make sense to travel in the heat of the day. We've got shelter here, and the cactus if we need it. Let's stay here until nightfall, and then we can travel without having to contend with the heat."

Joe gave him a look of pure disgust. "That's my brother out there, Scott. I'm not going to sit around here and hope that Burton and his men don't kill him. I'm going to go after him. If you're not interested in saving your brother, you can stay here in the shade." Joe stood with his arms folded across his chest, his stance belligerent.

Scott laughed gently and laid his hand on Joe's tense arm. "I care just as much for my brother as you do for yours, Joe." he remonstrated gently. "I just don't think it's wise for us to get ourselves killed out in the desert sun while looking for them." He paced slowly back and forth. "We know that Burton will be heading for the next town, and we know that he needs Adam and Johnny alive. That means their chances for survival are much better than ours are right now."

Joe's jaw tightened stubbornly. "I'm going after my brother." he said scowling. "If you want to come with me, you can."

Scott sighed in frustration. "Okay, okay, you win." he said ruefully. "Let's take some of this cactus with us before we go, though. It may not taste very good, but it'll help keep us alive." He reached for his sharp stone and headed for the cactus, reflecting that younger brothers were not very easy to reason with no matter who's younger brother it was. A sharp stab of fear for Johnny caught him unawares. He closed his eyes, and tried to starve off the mental picture of Johnny in danger. Suddenly he felt much more eagerness to begin the trek across the desert.


Johnny and Adam had spent the night sawing at the ropes that held them together, pausing only when one of the outlaws moved through the campsite. The men worked silently, fear for their brothers driving them on. It was about an hour before sunrise when they felt the ropes part. With a searching look around the camp, Johnny tossed the ropes aside. It appeared that most of the outlaws were sleeping, sprawled in heaps around the dying embers of the fire. He briskly rubbed at his arms and hands trying to encourage the return of circulation. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Adam doing the same. They hadn't exchanged a word in hours, both feeling the need for silence. Now Adam turned to Johnny and whispered. "We've got to get a couple of horses. You go to the east, and I'll circle around the other way."

Adam was jolted by surprise when Johnny simply shook his head. "Nope," he drawled in a whisper, that still managed to convey his deadly intentions. "I've got me a date with our friend, Mr. Burton." he looked straight into Adam's dark eyes. "You go on and find us those horses, Adam. I'll see you over there as soon as I can."

Adam's hand snaked out and he grabbed Johnny by the arm. "We can't take the chance of waking these men up, Johnny." he said in a fierce whisper. "Leave Burton for now. Once we've found Joe and Scott we can come after these men." A murderous look crossed his face. "But when we come back, you leave Burton for me to deal with. I told you he was mine."

Johnny's face showed his surprise. For some reason he hadn't expected the bloodthirsty streak to be so strong in Adam Cartwright. He appeared to be such an urbane, sophisticated man, in spite of his black jeans, and dusty black shirt. Adam's eyes, however, showed a completely different side of his character to the startled man standing next to him. "Well, well, well." Johnny shook his head, a ghost of laugh sneaking from his lips. "You sure are somethin' Adam. Looks like we're going to have to fight for the privilege of killing that bastard."

Adam's grin echoed Johnny's. "But first we need to find Scott and Joe." He tugged at Johnny's arm. "If you stop to take out Burton, we may never get back to them."

Johnny hesitated briefly, his desire for vengeance warring with his need to find Scott. He was touched by Adam's faith that their brothers were alive, it somehow sparked his own hope. His blue eyes softened, and he nodded slightly. "Okay, Chief," he said in a whisper. "We'll play by your rules for now. But don't get your hopes up about me leaving Burton for you. That's a fight we'll have a little later." The two men melted into the shadows and headed for the horses.

When they reached the simple picket line where the horses were tied they split off from each other. The outlaws had stationed two guards around the perimeter of the camp, Adam and Johnny had surreptitiously watched them patrolling all night long. Now they found one man lounging by the horses while taking deep drags from a bottle of whiskey. Adam came up behind the man and hit him as hard as he could over the head with a large rock that he had palmed from the ground. The man dropped like a stone, sprawled in an ungainly heap at Adam's feet. He quickly turned to the horses, and untied both his horse, Sport and Johnny's palomino from the line.

Leading the two horses into the darkness away from the campsite, he kept a constant watch for his new found friend. Even with his senses heightened to full alert, he was taken by surprise when Johnny suddenly appeared before him in the darkness. Adam had to bite off the yell that sprang involuntarily to his lips. Johnny gave him a wicked grin, and snagged Barranca's lead rein from Adam's hand.

"Did you find the other sentry?" Adam hissed.

Johnny merely nodded, but there was a satisfied look playing about his face. "He won't be bothering us none." was his simple reply.

The two men walked a little farther, before they deemed it safe enough to mount the horses. As they set off in the direction they hoped would take them to their brothers, Adam hazarded a look at his new friend. "Would it be too much to hope that you were able to pick up a gun from the guy you met up with?" he asked in his most casual manner, a slight smile puckering the edges of his mouth.

In answer Johnny held up a pistol. A smile showed his gleaming teeth in the moonlight. "How 'bout you?" he asked.

Adam's smile widened, and he also held up his prize. The two men exchanged knowing glances and spurred the horses to a faster pace. It wouldn't be long before the rest of the outlaws began stirring and found their prisoners missing. They needed to cover a lot of territory before the sun rose and added it's heat to the day.


It didn't take long for Scott to realize his error in allowing Joe to talk him into walking across the desert during the daylight hours. Under the grueling glare from the bright orb that rode the skies, his skin turning crispy on both face and hands, he forced himself to keep moving forward. Little Joe was in worse shape than Scott. In spite of the relief offered by the cactus, the men were dehydrating quickly, moisture being pulled from their bodies by that unforgiving heat. Although Joe had started out feeling better, his head began to ache within an hour of beginning their march. He said nothing to his companion, however, not wanting Scott to call a halt to their progress. He staggered now, leaning heavily on Scott's arm, which was wrapped around his waist.

"We've got to rest for a while, Joe." Scott gasped out. He searched the terrain through eyes that burned from the glare. No sign of shelter appeared in sight. Finally Scott just stopped, easing his burden to the ground.

Joe sat where Scott had placed him, feeling the heat radiating up from the desert floor. He could tell the temperature of the ground was a good deal hotter than the upper air had been, suddenly remembering his brother Hoss advising him never to sit in the heat of the desert, unless he was in the shade. He looked at his surroundings in disgust. It wasn't as if they had a choice of resting spots. Joe felt himself fading, black spots swirling in front of his eyes.

Scott saw Joe pale, the blood draining from his friend's face rapidly. He watched Joe sway, and moved quickly to grab him and hold him upright. "You hang on, Joe Cartwright." Scott hissed, anger in his voice. "Don't you give up on me now." He shook the younger man gently.

Joe placed his head in his hands, and gave vent to a soft moan. "I'm sorry, Scott. I haven't been much help to you." he said in despair.

Scott quickly unwrapped the remains of their breakfast from the torn strip of shirt that he had wrapped it in. It looked even more unappetizing now than it had that morning. He offered it to Joe, holding it insistently under the boy's nose. "Suck on this, Joe." he commanded, in a tone that brooked no refusal. "It'll do you good."

Joe gazed at the mound being offered and felt his stomach heave, but he took it knowing that it was necessary to stay alive. After biting off a bit, and starting to chew on it, he held the rest out to Scott. "You, too, friend." he said with a ghost of a smile. "I'm not going to deny you the pleasure of this wonderful meal."

Scott laughed, but stopped quickly when the skin of his face was pulled taut, the sunburn hurt like hell. "Thanks a lot, Joe." he said sarcastically. "Always thinking of me, aren't you?"

The two men sat in silence for several minutes, the heat rising from the ground enveloping them. It seemed to sap the strength from their bodies and caused their minds to slow. Scott realized that he was sinking into a dangerous lethargy, but wasn't sure what to do about it. He glanced at Joe and was shocked to see that his friend had slumped over and was curled on his side in the sand. Scott sank to his knees and quickly shook Joe's shoulder. "Joe, wake up." he called frantically.

Joe stirred weakly and opened his eyes. "I'm so tired, Scott." he murmured. "Can't we just rest a little while?" His eyes began to close again.

Scott shook him again, not as gently this time. "No, you've got to wake up now, Joe." he insisted forcefully. "Come on, sit up."

Joe groggily opened his eyes, and felt the renewed pounding of his head. Scott's face swam in his field of vision and Joe had to blink several times to bring it into focus. "Okay, I'm awake." he said tiredly, struggling to sit up.

"We've got to keep walking, my friend." Scott said gently. "We can't rest until we find some sort of shade. This sun is burning us alive." He hoisted Joe to his feet, and once again wrapped his arm around the younger man's waist. "Come on, let's go."

The two men resumed their slow walk across the desert.


Johnny and Adam rode as fast as they dared in the desert heat. Adam had thought to grab a canteen from one of the outlaw's horses, but they were trying to ration the water. There was no telling when they would be able to find more. As they rode the two men kept their eyes in constant motion, searching for any sign of pursuit from the Burton and his gang, or for their missing brothers. It was an hour before dusk when they spotted an outcropping of tall rocks in the distance, standing up from the surrounding desert like a beacon. With one mind, they headed for the shelter the rocks would provide.

Johnny was in the lead as they approached the rocks, and he smiled appreciatively when he saw the deep pool of shade that huddled at the base of the structure. Suddenly his eyes widened as he saw something move in the shadows. He urged Barranca forward, swinging off the horse as he approached the base of the rocks, Adam following closely behind. A startled cry burst from Johnny's throat and he threw himself forward. "Scott!" His voice was exultant.

Adam reined in sharply and threw himself from his horse as well. He too had seen the two figures sprawled in the shade, and he ran to the smaller of the two men, gathering his brother into his arms. "Oh, Joe," he murmured, looking at the young man before him.

Joe's skin was so burned it was almost purple. His eyes were closed and he lay unmoving in Adam's arms. He glanced over and saw another reunion taking place. Scott didn't look much better than Joe. He too had been roasted by the sun, and he sat half-sprawled against the rocks. He hadn't acknowledged his brother's presence, appearing to be either asleep or unconscious.

Adam reluctantly let go of Little Joe long enough to grab a canteen from Sport's saddle. He held it to Joe's lips, all the while encouraging his brother to wake up. A trickle of water spilled onto Joe's lips, and rolled to the ground. At first there was no response, but after a few moments, Little Joe ran his tongue over his cracked and burned lips. The taste of the water seemed to revive him, and he frantically gulped for more. Adam quickly moved the canteen away, and handed it to Johnny, who repeated the procedure on Scott.

Adam's attention remained focused on Little Joe, who squinted up at him through slitted eyes. "Who's there?" Joe demanded weakly, reaching with a searching hand.

"It's me, Joe." Adam said softly. "Easy, brother, everything's all right now. We've come to get you." He grabbed the questing hand and enfolded it in his own.

Adam, my eyes hurt" Joe said, his voice full of panic. "I can only open my eyes a little, and when I do, I can't see you very well."

Adam looked at his brother in concern, "That's just the sun, Joe. It's burned your eyes, as well as your skin. They'll get better as soon as we get you home." He exchanged a glance with Johnny, who had been ministering to Scott. "How's Scott?" Adam asked gravely.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders ruefully. "He'll be okay. He's just exhausted." He forced the canteen to Scott's lips again, and was rewarded by his brother's eager grab at the canteen. "Hey, now, brother, go easy on that. Too much will make you sick." Johnny said softly. Johnny put an arm under Scott's shoulders and eased him to a more upright position. He watched as Adam did the same for Joe, and then he jerked his head, indicating a need to talk to Adam privately. The two men moved back by the horses, keeping a concerned eye on the others as they talked.

"Burton'll be along soon, Adam." Johnny said softly. "We've got to get Scott and Joe out of here, right now." His eyes maintained a constant scan of the horizon, revealing the depth of his worry.

"I don't think they're in any condition to go back out into that desert." Adam replied in frustration. "We've got to stay here until nightfall. Joe's just about done in." He winced as he looked at his brother's still figure.

"Joe isn't going to feel better with Burton's bullet in him, Adam." Johnny said forcefully. "We don't have the guns to take on that whole gang. Joe and Scott will be all right, we need to get them back to Daggett and to a doctor." Johnny's face was set, and his stance suggested that he wasn't going to be argued with.

Adam looked at him and shook his head slowly. Johnny's concern for his brother was obviously as great as Adam's was for Joe, but Adam couldn't help but feel that neither of the two men could cope with more desert travel. He groaned in frustration. Johnny's point about Burton catching up with them was valid, in fact, Adam was a little surprised that they hadn't seen any signs of the outlaw gang. He was fully aware that their time was running out. Adam peered out at the distant horizon. As he turned back to the waiting men, he came to a decision. "You're right, Johnny." he conceded. "It'll be dark within the hour, and so far we haven't seen any signs of Burton's men. I think we're going to have to risk moving Joe and Scott or those men will catch us here. We'd be pinned down like sitting ducks."

Adam slipped to his knees and placed his arm underneath Joe's shoulders. He gently urged his brother to stand, taking most of Joe's weight upon himself as he helped the younger man to rise. He walked with Joe to the horses, and watched as Johnny helped Scott up. As Adam began to help Joe mount Sport he felt something whistle past his shoulder, then heard a ricochet on the rocks. He watched as Johnny swung with lightening speed, leaving Scott leaning against Barranca's flank. Johnny's gun was in his hand almost before Adam saw his arm move.

"Get back to the rocks," Johnny yelled over his shoulder, as he grabbed Scott again and began to propel him back towards the shelter of the rocks.

Adam, burdened by Joe's dead weight, struggled back towards the welcoming darkness of the rocks. Another bullet whined past him, and he flinched instinctively. With a final rush he reached the safety of the shadows and gently eased his brother down. Crouching low, keeping his body between Joe and their attackers, Adam maneuvered himself toward Johnny. Johnny had also deposited his brother by the rocks, in as sheltered a position as possible. Scott, feeling somewhat revived by the water and the presence of his brother, tried to stand and join the fight, only to be pushed back down by the protective hand of his younger brother.

"Stay down, Boston." Johnny commanded. "You don't have a gun, I do. Let me handle this one." Johnny's look was fierce, but when Scott smiled at him, his expression lightened a little.

"You're getting a bit bossy, aren't you brother?" Scott questioned, his eyebrows drawn upwards in a teasing expression.

"Only when I have to be, brother." Johnny replied, his mood heartened by his brother's lighthearted teasing. "Now stay down, where I'll know you're safe." Johnny's smile flashed, his white teeth gleaming in the gathering darkness, as dusk fell.

Adam snaked across the ground toward them, gun in hand. "Any sign of them?" he asked grimly. "I couldn't tell where the shots were coming from."

"Me either," Johnny said quietly. "I think we're going to have to dig in here, and wait to see what happens. They may try to rush us."

Adam nodded his agreement, and with a quick glance back at Little Joe, he moved to the concealment of another small cluster of boulders. Perching behind them, so that he had a clear view of anyone approaching, he crouched down, keeping his gun drawn and ready.

Johnny moved off in the opposite direction, positioning himself so that he could keep watch on the other side of their impromptu fortress. Scott heard a low moan, and keeping himself as low as he could, he moved towards Little Joe's crumpled figure. A wince of sympathy creased his features when he looked at the face of his friend. Little Joe was in obvious pain from the exposure to the sun, as well as the lingering effects of the concussion. Another soft moan could be heard, as Joe stirred uncomfortably.

"Easy, Joe." Scott said softly, laying a gentle hand on Joe's shoulder. "It's okay, stay down." he urged as Joe's eyes opened and he struggled to rise.

"Adam," Joe gasped. "I thought I heard Adam.." his voice trailed off in confusion and he looked frantically around in an effort to find his brother.

"He's right over there, Little Joe." Scott said keeping his hand on Joe's shirt sleeve, in an effort to keep the younger man still. "We've got some company right now, and Adam's a little busy. It would be a big help to him if you just stayed right where you are."

Joe's eyes followed Scott's pointing finger, and his expression eased when he saw Adam crouched behind the boulder, his figure blending into the darkness. "He's okay?" Joe asked, his voice cracked and hoarse from the dehydration.

"He's fine." Scott reassured him, patting him gently on the shoulder. He located the canteen and held it to Joe's lips. "Here, Joe, take some more of this. It'll help."

Joe drank deeply, his parched throat gratefully accepting the cool water. The canteen was withdrawn too soon, and he reached for it in disappointment. Scott shook his head slightly. "Not too much all at once, my friend. It'll make you sick." He laid a hand on Joe's hot forehead, frowning slightly at the evidence of a fever. "How do you feel?"

"I feel fine, now that Adam's back." Joe responded. He shook Scott's hand from his forehead, his green eyes glaring with suppressed impatience. "Really, Scott. I'm fine." he insisted.

"Forgive me if I don't believe you, Mr. Cartwright." Scott replied with a smile. "But somehow I don't think I'm going to get any other answer out of you." A sudden barrage of bullets pinging into the rocks caused Scott to throw himself down in front of Little Joe, while Adam and Johnny fired off a round in return.

A voice could be heard calling into the sudden silence that followed the hail of bullets. "Give it up! You boys are trapped in there. We don't want to kill you, so throw down your guns and come on out."

Adam made a sound of derision and called back. "We're not coming out, Burton." his voice was calm, but still held the ring of steel. "You're going to have to come in after us, and I guarantee you that you'll lose some of your men in the process."

Johnny grinned wickedly and called over to Adam. "I still say Burton's mine, Adam." He pitched his voice just loud enough to be heard by the outlaws who surrounded them. His words caused a murmur to run through the group.

Burton's heavy voice stilled the rustle of sound that had sprung up around him. "You've got a wounded man in there, Cartwright. I'll take your brother to a doctor, if you just surrender yourselves and come with us to cash those bank drafts."

Adam's laughter was harsh. "You left my brother to die once already, Burton. You lost any chance of my cooperation when you did that. We aren't coming out."

Burton swore violently, causing a smile to crinkle the corners of Johnny's eyes. He could see the confrontation coming, and he was glad. Johnny's rage over the treatment of his brother continued to burn, and he badly wanted his revenge. He cocked his gun and waited for his chance to take on the man who had left Scott in the desert to die.

The minutes ticked by slowly, agonizingly as the outlaws weighed their options. Adam's nerves stretched taut, and he glanced back at Johnny. The other man appeared calm, his weapon held in a loose, relaxed way, and yet Adam could tell that Johnny was ready for whatever happened. There was a subtle sense of power rippling behind that gunfighter's easy-going facade. The waiting men could hear Burton issuing low-voiced commands and knew that he was ready to make his move. Scott crouched nearer to Little Joe, who pulled himself upright, and tensed.

The rush when it came was fierce, a blur of motion erupting all around the waiting Cartwrights and Lancers. The attack came from three sides, the outlaws rushing in with guns blazing. Johnny saw two men approaching from his side of the encampment, their guns firing repeatedly. Bullets were ricocheting off the rocks around him when his gun spoke twice. One of the men went down, a bullet penetrating his heart. He never felt the impact when his body hit the ground. The second man continued his advance, but it was halted when Johnny's second bullet ripped into his shoulder. The man sank to his knees, clutching the injured shoulder, blood streaming from between his grasping fingers, his weapon dropping from suddenly nerveless fingers. Johnny watched the man fall, and he ran quickly towards him, catching the man with a swift uppercut to the jaw, scooping up the man's fallen weapon as a continuation of the action. He turned just in time to watch Adam defending himself from the flying fists of a cornered gunman.

When the outlaws had advanced on the camp, Adam had felt the impact of multiple bullets tearing into the rocks on either side of him. He crouched low, holding his fire until he had a target in his sights, not wanting to waste bullets by firing into the dark. He didn't have long to wait before the bullets were followed by a man, who launched himself toward Adam, his gun never ceasing it's firing. Adam shot quickly, and was gratified to see the gun fly from the man's hand, as his bullet pinged off the weapon. He quickly moved toward the unarmed man, and allowed his fists to vent some of the rage he had felt on seeing his brother's battered body.

The outlaw put up a fight, but the sheer power of Adam's anger allowed him to quickly reduce the man to an unconscious heap on the ground. He glanced up in time to see Johnny smiling grimly at him. The two men exchanged looks of deep satisfaction, which were just as quickly wiped off their faces by the scene that met their eyes. Burton stood grinning wickedly at them, Scott unconscious at his feet, a gun held to Little Joe's head.

When the rush started, Scott and Little Joe looked at each other in nervous anticipation. Neither man held a weapon, and it made them feel naked and vulnerable. They crouched together, sheltering by the rocks, waiting for the inevitable flurry of bullets. They didn't have long to wait, watching helplessly as Adam and Johnny fought off the men attacking from both sides. A bullet plowed into the ground in front of Scott's feet and he instinctively moved backwards, closer toward Little Joe, swinging his fists up in a protective movement. Burton advanced on the two unarmed men, a savage grin on his face. Scott surged upright and positioned himself in front of the younger man. Little Joe began the struggle to stand upright, forcing himself backward against the rock and using it for leverage.

Burton laughed at the sight and holstered his gun contemptuously. He advanced on Scott and let loose with a flying punch. Scott's head rocked back, but he recovered quickly, and swung out with his fist, connecting with a satisfying thud on Burton's jaw. His satisfaction was short-lived as Burton responded in a fury, his fists flying like lead weights. Scott held his own for a brief time, but his fight with the desert sun had left him in a weakened condition. A hard hit to the jaw sent him plummeting into darkness.

Little Joe watched his friend fall and he moved to enter the fray. Burton grabbed him, pinioning his arms quickly with a great bear hug, drawing his gun and holding it snugly against Little Joe's curls. "I wouldn't try anything," Burton hissed venomously. "I wouldn't mind killing you right now."

Little Joe had a ringside seat for the ensuing action, and he watched with his heart in his throat. He felt grim satisfaction as he saw Adam and Johnny take out their opponents, but knew that the trouble was far from over. He struggled against the iron arm that held him clamped to Burton's side, not wanting to be the cause of Adam and Johnny's defeat.

Now the four men stood in a standoff. Adam's face was murderous, and his fists were clenched in rage. "Let him go, Burton." he snarled, his voice quivering with rage.

Burton laughed and casually rammed the gun a little tighter against Joe's head, making him wince with pain. "Not a chance, Cartwright." he replied. "He's my ace in the hole. Now, drop your guns, gentleman, or I kill the kid."

"No, Adam, shoot him!" Joe cried frantically, crying out in pain as Burton viciously jabbed him with the gun in an effort to quiet him.

Adam growled low in his throat, but his gun arm wavered. His indecision caused Burton to chuckle in satisfaction, convinced his plan was succeeding. Adam looked at Johnny standing quietly beside him, the gun still held in the gunfighter's grasp. Johnny shook his head slightly, indicating that this was Adam's decision. Johnny wouldn't take a chance on jeopardizing Adam's brother's life.

"Adam!" Joe's voice was strident. "Kill him! Shoot!" Joe gasped in shock, as he felt the gun strike his head viciously. Blackness swirled and the scene wavered in front of his eyes, as Joe struggled to remain conscious.

Adam's jaw tightened at the rough treatment of his wounded brother. He made a movement as if to drop the gun, watching with sickening rage as a look of gloating satisfaction crossed Burton's face. At the last second Adam fired, the shot taking Burton in the exposed shoulder.

Burton gasped in pain, and he started to fall, dragging Joe down with him, his gun firing as his finger moved reflexively. Adam cried out in terror and rushed towards the two men lying in a tangled heap. "Joe" he sobbed out, as he reached the unmoving men.

Johnny also moved forward, reaching to help as Adam frantically rolled Burton's body off of Joe. Burton's eyes were open, but he was in shock, and offered no resistance as Johnny relieved him of his gun and roughly yanked him aside, blood still pouring from the vicious wound in his shoulder. Johnny watched, sympathy shining in his eyes, as Adam cradled the limp form of his little brother.

"Joe, answer me. Are you all right?" Adam whispered desperately, shaking his brother gently. "Please, Joe, open your eyes." He wiped away the blood that was trickling from a bullet wound grazing the side of Joe's head. Burton's bullet had not entered Joe's skull, his fall had deflected his aim, but the bullet had plowed a furrow across Joe's scalp, and he was bleeding profusely.

Johnny quickly pulled his shirt free from his trousers and ripped off a wide strip. "Here, Adam," he said urgently, trying to break through Adam's guilt and grief. "Use this, let's get that bleeding stopped." When Johnny saw Adam responding to his command, he turned his attention to his own brother, gently patting Scott's face, and calling to him.

Scott moaned and his eyes fluttered open. He looked up at the concerned face of his brother, and a tiny smile flickered at his swollen, sunburned lips. "Good to see you, brother." he said softly. "Is everyone all right?" He attempted to sit up, but Johnny's gentle hands held him down.

"Hey, Boston, lie still, you hear?" Johnny ordered firmly. "I'm going to get you some water." He moved quickly for the canteen, and held it to Scott's lips, carefully avoiding Scott's questioning eyes. When he saw Scott drink eagerly, he smiled in satisfaction. Only when he felt Scott had had enough, did he allow his brother to sit up.

Scott's smile faded as he saw Adam working on his unconscious brother. "Oh God, Johnny," he whispered. "Is Joe bad?"

Johnny's eyes were worried. "I don't know, brother. Adam hasn't let me near him long enough to find out." The Lancers watched the scene with concern, praying that their newfound friend would survive this latest ordeal. Johnny moved quietly to grab a coil of rope and began making the rounds of the fallen outlaws, tying up the ones still living, starting with Burton.

As Adam labored over Joe, his thoughts were in a turmoil. Why hadn't he just dropped his gun when Burton had ordered him too? How could he have endangered Joe's life even further. Adam's guilt became a crushing burden on his mind, and he almost sobbed with frustration when he couldn't get Joe to respond to his pleas to open his eyes. A hand on his shoulder made Adam jerk with surprise. He looked up to see two pairs of eyes gazing at him with concern.

"How is he?" Scott asked, his voice soft with concern. He knelt next to Joe's prone form, and examined the wound. "It's just grazed him," he said in relief, as he probed in Joe's thick, curly hair.

Johnny crouched next to Scott, and looked at Adam compassionately. "He's going to need a doctor, Adam. Do you want to try to move him?"

Adam's face reflected his inner turmoil. He was having trouble thinking clearly, still torn with guilt at causing the shooting. "I don't know," he said finally. "Joe isn't in any shape to cross the desert, and yet he can't stay here. I'm not sure what we should do." The admission was forced through stiff lips, as Adam tried to clamp down on his despair.

"Tell you what," Johnny said helpfully. "I'll ride back to Daggett and get the sheriff and a doctor. You and Scott can stay here and take care of Little Joe, and keep an eye on Burton and his men."

Adam looked at Johnny in relief. "Thanks, Johnny. I'd really be in your debt. I don't think Joe could make it back to Daggett on a horse. If you went for a wagon it would be safer for him."

"No problem," Johnny said simply. He moved to the horses and mounted one quickly. Looking down from the saddle he motioned to Scott, who rose and joined him. "Keep an eye on them, Scott. If anything happens to Joe, Adam's going to be in bad shape."

Scott nodded his agreement. A shadow crossed his face at the thought of the happy-go-lucky young man losing his life. "We'll be okay, Johnny. I'm going to go round up Burton's horses. Hopefully there'll be canteens on them, so that we'll have plenty of water. If we're really lucky, he'll have some food in his saddlebags." Scott was already moving off, glad to have something constructive to do. He gave a last wave to his brother, and watched the golden horse moving off, disappearing rapidly in the darkness of the desert.

When Scott returned from his quest to find the outlaws' horses, he found Adam still working over Joe's prone body. He dumped several canteens on the ground next to the wounded man and sat back on his heels, giving Adam a concerned look. "Has he woken up yet, Adam?" Scott asked hopefully.

Adam shook his head, his eyes heavy with grief. "No, not yet. I'm afraid he's not going to." The admission slipped out quietly, and Adam hung his head as if ashamed he had voiced his doubts aloud.

Scott put a sympathetic hand on Adam's arm, and then turned to look at Little Joe. The boy's face was swollen with the burns inflicted by the raging sun, and the long furrow left by the bullet had caused black and blue bruises to begin on the right side of his face. Adam had fashioned a rough bandage out of strips torn from his shirt, and he gratefully accepted the canteen that Scott held out to him. Using another strip of shirt, he moistened it and began wiping Joe's forehead with it. Adam then held the canteen to Joe's lips and poured a small stream of water on them, hoping to rouse his brother.

Joe's head moved slightly to one side, and then his lips parted and he coughed a little as he choked on the water. Adam hastily set aside the canteen and patting his brother's cheek lightly, cried out, "Wake up, Joe. It's time to wake up."

Joe's eyes opened and he surveyed the scene around him. At first he saw nothing but a vague nightmarish blur, but finally his vision sharpened and Joe saw the face of his brother come into focus. He weakly reached out a shaking hand, and touched Adam's face. "Adam?" he asked in confusion. "Are you okay?"

Adam laughed shakily. "I'm fine now that you're awake, Little Joe. Don't ever scare me like that again." He gathered his brother into his arms and held him tightly. "I thought you were dead, Joe." he whispered brokenly.

Joe struggled to put his arms around Adam's shaking shoulders. "I was afraid that Burton was going to kill you, Big Brother." Joe gasped in remembrance, looking around wildly. "Burton, where is he?" he said urgently.

"He's over by the fire, tied up with the rest of his men," Scott replied, joining the conversation for the first time. His smile was tinged by the same relief that was spreading through Adam. "We don't have to worry about him anymore."

Adam gently laid Joe back on the ground, and held the canteen for him again. This time Joe drank greedily from the container, and Adam had to pull it away, afraid that his brother would choke. "Whoa, go slow, little brother." he said chuckling. "I don't want you getting sick on top of everything else."

Joe smiled back up at him and then closed his eyes tiredly. "I think I'm going back to sleep, Adam." he said drowsily. "Wake me when room service gets here." Joe's voice trailed off, and he never heard his brother's answering chuckle.


A week later, Ben Cartwright and his son Hoss rode rapidly towards the large stone gates emblazoned with a single word: Lancer. As they passed under the great stone arch and rode towards the large hacienda they exchanged worried looks. They could see that this was the household of a prosperous landholder, but worry over Little Joe overrode their curiosity. As they rode up to the front of the house and dismounted the door opened and a beautiful young girl ran towards them.

"You must be Mr. Cartwright and Hoss." she cried happily. "Adam will be so happy to see you." She reached out to shake Ben's outstretched hand, and nodded to Hoss, who smiled back bashfully. "Oh, forgive me, I'm Teresa O'Brien, Adam's waiting inside for you. He didn't want to leave Joe." She turned to lead the way into the house.

"Excuse me, Miss Teresa," Ben caught her arm urgently. "Little Joe, how is he? The telegram said he was in pretty bad shape."

Teresa smiled happily. "Oh, he's doing much better, Mr. Cartwright. Please come in and see for yourself. I know he's going to be so happy to see you." She tugged on his arm, causing Ben to smile at her enthusiasm.

They walked into the house to be greeted by a tall, silver-haired man, who matched Ben for a sense of towering strength. The man rose and shook hands with the visitors, saying "Mr. Cartwright? I'm Murdoch Lancer, welcome to our ranch."

Ben exchanged pleasantries with the man, but his thoughts were clearly elsewhere. Murdoch noticed his abstraction and took pity on his guest. "You must be worried about your sons, please come with me, and I'll take you up to Little Joe's room. Adam hasn't left his side since he got here, so you'll find them both in one place."

Ben smiled in relief and was soon being shown into a spacious room, where he was greeted by the welcome sight of Adam, who embraced him with a smile. "Pa, you made good time, I wasn't expecting to see you so soon." he cried.

"We rode through most of the nights as well as the days, so that we could get here quicker." Ben replied. His eyes locked onto the sleeping form in the bed, and he drank in the sight of his youngest son as if he couldn't get enough. "How is he, Adam." he whispered, not wanting to wake Joe up.

"He's better, Pa." Adam replied, a shadow crossing his face. "I think he's going to be fine. It was touch and go for a few days, but the doctor sounds encouraging now."

"What happened, Adam." Hoss said angrily, looking at the battered state of Little Joe's face. His hands clenched and unclenched at the thought of a threat to his younger brother.

Adam drew the men into the hallway and spent some time filling them in on the details of their interaction with Burton and his men. Murdoch Lancer had withdrawn discreetly, allowing the Cartwrights some much needed time alone together. Hoss was visibly upset at Adam's story, and he had a murderous look in his eye. He paced up and down the hallway as he listened, until Ben reached out a firm hand and stopped him. Finally he could stand it no longer, and he thrust open the bedroom door, and went to sit by Little Joe's side. He reached out and smoothed back a stray curl from Joe's forehead, and then took the smaller hand into his huge one. Little Joe woke up to be greeted by the sight of his brother's worried blue eyes boring into his face. Joe smiled, and then winced as the half healed burns were tugged by the movement. Hoss' eyes clouded when he saw the small expression of pain.

"Hey, Little Brother." he said with false cheerfulness. "What are you doing lying up here in bed. Why aren't you out riding around this pretty countryside with that nice Miss Teresa I just met." Hoss' hand trembled a bit and he held onto Joe, the thought that he had almost lost his little brother too much for him to bear.

"Hey, yourself, Older Brother," Joe responded happily. "It's good to see you." He looked past Hoss an expression of joy coming onto his face when his eyes found the one he was searching for. "Hi, Pa." he whispered.

Ben Cartwright crossed the room in two strides, and he hung over the bed to place a kiss on his son's forehead. "How are you, Joe?" he asked in concern.

"I'm fine, Pa," Joe responded and then looked confused when his father and brothers burst out laughing. "What did I say?" he questioned bemusedly.

"Son, you would say you were fine if you had both legs removed." Ben answered, a broad smile on his face. "In this case, though, I think you might mean it."

Ben and Hoss settled in for a long talk with the youngest Cartwright, and no one noticed that Adam slipped silently from the room.


At dinner that night, Ben and Hoss were introduced to Johnny and Scott. They were enthusiastic in their thanks for the Lancer brothers' help in the rescue from the desert. Adam sat silently through dinner, earning several speculative looks from his father, as well as Johnny and Scott. The Lancers exchanged looks, and a slight nod, some silent communication passing between them. After dinner, Adam left the group and headed outside through the veranda doors, disappearing into the darkness. With another look at Scott, Johnny quietly followed their guest out the door. He finally spotted Adam leaning on the corral fence, watching the horses move around in the darkness. Coming to stand beside the man in black, Johnny too propped himself up against the fence.

"Want to talk about it?" he queried quietly, his hands drumming quietly on the wood of the fence.

Adam smiled a little at the sight of those drumming fingers. He had learned in the short time of knowing the Lancers, that Johnny was very like Joe in the fact that he couldn't seem to keep still for any length of time. "Talk about what?" he finally responded, taking care to keep the challenge from his tone.

"Why you haven't been up to Joe's room since your old man got here, when you wouldn't leave his side before." Johnny drawled. "Scott and I both noticed that you're actin' a little funny."

"I'm not acting "funny" as you put it," Adam said defensively. "I spent a lot of time with Joe before Pa and Hoss got here, and I wanted to give them a chance to see him." He turned his head to look into the distance, trying to avoid Johnny's blue eyes.

"You're sure that's it?" The question was simple, but Adam drew in a sharp breath.

"Is it so obvious that there's something wrong?" he challenged the younger man.

"Only to someone who knows you pretty well, I'd say." Johnny answered seriously. "And I think I've come to know you pretty well, Adam. What's eating at you?"

Adam hesitated, something in him wanting to walk away, but common sense telling him that he needed to get his feelings out before they ripped him apart. "I could have gotten my brother killed." he forced out. "I should have dropped my gun when Burton wanted me too. I didn't and Joe could have died." He laid his head on his arms, and took a deep breath. "I don't see how I'm ever going to be able to face Joe again. I've sat with him for a week now, pretending that everything is fine, and he's been pretending right back at me. But Johnny, he must hate me for what I did."

Adam's words poured out of him in a torrent, and he couldn't have stopped them if he wanted to. The guilt had been tearing him up for too long now, and he wasn't sure he could live with it any more.

"Have you asked Joe how he feels?" Johnny spoke quietly, almost absently, trying to give Adam the space he needed to work out his problems. "I don't get the feeling he blames you for anything."

"Of course he wouldn't say anything to you." Adam spat out angrily. "You're not family. He's probably in there right now telling Pa how he never wants to see me again for what I did."

Adam turned and started to walk away, but Johnny reached out and grabbed his arm, spinning the older man around. "Why are you selling Joe short, Adam? What's he done to deserve that?" Johnny gazed at Adam in sympathy. "I know something about putting my family in danger, and I've had to find a way to live with that. Give Joe a chance to talk to you, Adam. You owe him that." Johnny's hand dropped from Adam's arm, and he smiled gently . "He might just surprise you."

Johnny walked back toward the house leaving Adam alone in the darkness. Adam turned back toward the corral and leaned his arms against the top rail. With a groan he buried his head in his arms trying to work his way through the turmoil of his thoughts. He stood like that for a long time.


The morning sun sparkled brightly, shining into the room through the broad casement windows. It illuminated Little Joe's face, adding to the sparkle in his lively green eyes. He looked up as he heard the door open, and smiled when he saw Adam enter the room. "Where have you been, Adam, I've been asking for you?" Joe cried happily. "I've been telling Pa and Hoss all about Scott and Johnny. He says we can invite them out to the Ponderosa for a visit."

Adam couldn't help smile at Joe's enthusiasm. "That'll be great, Joe. I'm sure we'll all enjoy a visit from the Lancers. Maybe you can persuade them to bring Miss Teresa along with them." Adam sat back to enjoy the added animation that crossed Joe's face at the mention of Teresa.

"She sure is pretty, isn't she, Older Brother?" Joe asked eagerly.

"Yeah, and she's got two protective "big brothers" in Johnny and Scott, so watch your step, Little Joe." Adam chided jokingly.

Ben Cartwright smiled at the scene before him, happy to see his three sons safe and together in the same room. He had noticed Adam's tension of the day before, and his avoidance of Little Joe. He realized that Adam needed some time with Joe. "Well, Murdoch asked me to come look at some of his breeding stock, so as long as you're going to be here Adam, I think I'll go find our host." he said, preparing to depart. "Oh, and Hoss, I think I heard Miss Teresa say that she had baked an apple pie just for you."

Hoss eyes took on a twinkle. "I thought I could smell something good. I'd better go find that pie before someone else does." He turned to his younger brother. "You okay, Joe?"

Joe laughed. "I'm fine, Hoss. Go find Teresa's pie, just save a piece for me, will ya?" He stretched and yawned. "I might just take a little nap while you're gone." He watched as his father and brother left the room, turning to take in his oldest brother's unsmiling countenance. The sparkle left Joe's eyes, and his face clouded with worry. He reached out for Adam's hand, grabbing it with both his own. "What's wrong, Adam? What have I done now?"

Adam looked at Joe in surprise. "What do you mean, Joe? You haven't done anything?" he asked in bemusement.

"You look like a thundercloud, Big Brother, and you wouldn't come near me all day yesterday." Joe replied quietly, a worried look on his face. "I thought I had done something to upset you."

Adam shook his head seriously. "You haven't done anything, Little Joe." he said firmly. "I've come to ask your forgiveness." He gripped Joe's hands tightly, a look of fear lurking on his face.

"Forgiveness." Joe's voice came out almost a squeak. "Why on earth are you asking for my forgiveness, Adam." He struggled to sit up, and Adam instinctively moved to assist him, placing pillows behind Joe's back, so that he could lean against the headboard.

"I shouldn't have fired on Burton. I'm sorry. I could have gotten you killed, Joe." Adam forced out, afraid that if he didn't do it now he would never be able to discuss the situation with Joe. "I should have dropped my gun like he wanted me too. I would never have been able to live with myself if you had died." Adam's eyes dropped from Joe's luminous green orbs, afraid of what he would see in them.

Joe shook his head in bewilderment. "But Adam, you saved my life." he cried in frustration. "I begged you to shoot Burton. If you hadn't we were right back where we started from. Burton was desperate. He would have killed all of us as soon as you dropped that gun. You did the only thing you could have done." Joe reached for Adam, but he avoided his little brother's hands stepping back as if he was going to leave the room.

"Adam, please!" Joe cried again. "You've got to believe me. I don't blame you for what happened. It wasn't your fault." He swung his legs from beneath the covers preparing to leave his bed to go after his retreating brother.

Adam saw his brother's movement and he swung back quickly. " No, Joe, you're not supposed to be up yet. Get back in bed," he commanded.

"Not if you won't listen to me, Adam" Joe said angrily. "I'm not going to let you beat yourself up about Burton. You did what you had to do, what I wanted you to do. Don't you dare blame yourself for what happened, you Yankee granite head."

Adam looked at his feisty little brother, and laughed in spite of himself. He moved back towards the bed and forced Joe back beneath the covers. "Are you sure, Little Brother," he said when he had settled the younger boy in. "I wouldn't blame you if you hated me for what happened."

Little Joe rolled his eyes. "And people say I'm stubborn," he lamented. "You're the stubborn one, Adam Cartwright, not me. I don't want to hear any more about you feeling guilty." Joe settled back against the pillows. "Yankee granite head." he muttered under his breath, but his eyes were warm, and his smile sent a shaft of sunlight into Adam's heart.

"You want me to read to you to help you fall asleep?" Adam asked fondly, his dark eyes were warm, and a smile played about his lips. "Unless you'd rather I didn't sit with you?"

Joe's eyes locked onto Adam's and he said fiercely. "Don't you dare leave me, Adam. Don't you ever leave me. Life wouldn't be the same without you, you know." He grinned. "Now, why don't you read to me, and then maybe you could persuade that pretty Teresa to come up here and play nurse with me."

Adam gave a snort of laughter. He leaned over and gave Joe a brief embrace. "Sure thing, Little Brother." he said happily. He picked up a book and started to read, his mellow voice filling Little Joe with contentment, as his eyes closed and he drifted off to sleep.

The End

January 2001

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