To Become a Man (by Lynnette)

Summary:   An old friend of Joe’s is accused of murder.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6116


 

Ben Cartwright looked up from the table from which he was working, on the front porch, at the sound of horses riding up to the house. It was his sons riding in from town no doubt and he wondered what news they would bring him of Laura Peterson’s death……Actually it had been murder.

Laura, a long time friend of the Cartwrights and a childhood friend of Joe’s, had been found shot, murdered, in her own home, just twenty four hours prior. She’d lived on her own, not far outside of Virginia City, ever since her husband of barely more than a year had died in a mining accident.

Her house had been robbed of all its valuables including what little money she had stashed away. How the murderer had known where to find the money had not yet been determined.

The first to find Laura had been Joe and thankfully, because he had been in town and had talked to Clem at the time established to have been when she was killed, he hadn’t been questioned as a suspect in her murder.

Joe had rode into town to see Roy early this morning to see if he’d turned up any new information, and Ben had been grateful that both Adam and Hoss had gone along with him. Joe tended to act on impulse, Ben knew, and it put his mind at ease to know that Joe’s brothers were with him to keep him from doing anything in the heat of anger.

The sight of his sons riding in brought Ben back out of thought and he stood up and walked towards them as they dismounted. “Did you find out anything in town, boys?” he asked. He knew the answer couldn’t be good when all three of his sons gave him solemn looks at this question.

“Yes we did.” Adam was the first to speak.

“Roy thinks he knows who the murderer is…” Hoss began but Adam broke in.

“Well, actually he doesn’t just think…. he knows who it is,” declared Adam.

Silence followed for the next several moments as Ben allowed his gaze to rest first on Hoss, then Adam, then Joe, who was clearly the most upset of the three.

“Well, who is it?” Ben finally asked ending the silence.

“It’s Danny Morris, Pa,” Joe said quietly. His brothers looked at him knowing how difficult it was for Joe to have to tell their father such a thing. Danny and Joe had become very close friends over the past year as Danny worked at breaking horses on the Ponderosa. It had been Joe, in fact, who had taught Danny how to handle a gun.

“Danny?” Ben questioned. “Is Roy sure?”

“He’s sure,” Adam stated solemnly. “He’s got eye witnesses who saw Danny riding not far from Laura’s just moments after the crime. He’s also got Jake Price, one of Danny’s friends, who confessed early this morning that Danny had tried to get him in on his plan to take Laura’s money. But Jake hadn’t been willing to take the risk and he told Danny he was on his own, but being his friend, he would keep the plan a secret. He couldn’t take the guilt and confessed everything to the sheriff.”

When Adam became quiet, Hoss picked up on the rest of the story. “It’s been no secret that Danny and Laura have been seeing each other for the last couple of months and she’d only allowed Danny and little Joe to know where she had a stash of money. She trusted them two more than anyone else in this town; I guess her trust in Danny turned out to be terribly wrong.” Hoss finished.

“Danny was last seen heading north of here so Roy is gathering together a posse in town,” Adam said as the look on Ben’s face told him that he clearly didn’t want any of them going.

Joe stepped forward. “I’m going with the posse, Pa.”

“You’re what?” Ben asked.

Joe dropped his gaze to the ground, his hands holding onto the back of his gun belt, at his father’s obvious disapproval. He hated to upset his father but a friend he’d grown up with was now dead and a friend he’d taught to handle a gun had killed her.

Guilt had been eating away at Joe ever since he’d discovered Danny to be the murderer and he couldn’t help but feel that it was now his responsibility to help bring Danny in. If only his father could understand that.

Joe’s gaze returned upward as his eyes stared searchingly into his father’s. He wanted to talk to his father as a man, but standing there under the disapproving look of his father, he couldn’t’ help but feel like a child. He turned his gaze towards the barn. “I have to saddle a fresh horse,” he said walking towards it, the right words seeming to desert him when he needed them most.

Ben took a step in the direction towards his youngest son but Adam stopped him.

“You have to let him go, Pa,” Adam said quietly but firmly, his gaze locking with his father’s.

“Can you give me one reason why I have to let him go?” his father asked angrily. Adam understood his concern and he knew that his father’s anger was just out of worry for Joe’s safety.

“He feels responsible,” Adam answered his father’s question.

At this response, Ben’s face softened. “Responsible?”

“Joe’s the one that taught Danny how to shoot a gun,” Hoss reminded him and suddenly Ben understood.

“He’s a man now, Pa. Let’s give him room to be one,” Adam said gently. He understood how his brother felt.

“Yeah, I guess I was treating him like a child,” Ben admitted. “I guess I am very concerned for Joe’s safety. I mean, if Danny Morris thought nothing of shooting a girl he supposedly cared for…..” Ben trailed off.

“Don’t’ worry, Pa,” Adam comforted his father. “If you don’t need us, Hoss and I will go along with Joe if it would make you feel better,” he offered.

Ben placed his hand on his oldest son’s shoulder. “Thanks, Adam. I think that sure would take a load off my mind.”

“We’ll be leaving in a few minutes then,” Adam said as he and Hoss headed towards the barn to saddle a couple of fresh horses of their own.

*****

It wasn’t long before Adam, Hoss, and Joe rode into Virginia City. Both Adam and Hoss had been surprised that their younger brother had seemed almost glad that they were coming along with him. Adam had been unsure of how Joe would react at the fact that once again his older brothers would be trailing along with him, but Joe hadn’t reacted to it in that way at all. Adam was relieved that there at least wouldn’t be any tension between the three of them.

The Cartwright brothers met up with the rest of the posse at Roy’s office and they were soon on their way northeast of Virginia City.

Joe glanced at his brothers as they rode. It hadn’t been hard to guess why they had come along but surprisingly, their worry hadn’t bothered him. Lately, it seemed as though he was looking at things a lot differently. Just weeks ago, he might have looked at his brothers’ actions as treating him like a child but now he looked at their coming along as simply out of worry and concern for his safety as any older brother….or father…might feel.

Actually, Joe had been relieved when Adam and Hoss had told him they were coming along. The posse, made up of many friends of Laura and her late husband, were in an angry mood and although Joe wanted to see Danny Morris brought to justice as much as the rest, that didn’t mean he wanted a lynching.

Guilt once again overtook Joe at the thought of Danny. He couldn’t help but wonder how he could have been so stupid in not seeing Danny for what he really was.

The posse soon picked up a trail and it was clear that Danny Morris hadn’t seemed to worry all that much about covering his tracks.

It wasn’t long, though, before Roy Coffee pulled his horse to a halt. The others did the same. Adam knew before Roy even had to say. They’d reached that line, the end of his jurisdiction. Just a few feet ahead, Roy had no authority as sheriff and it would now be useless for him to go after Danny.

“Looks like all I can do now is ride back to Virginia City and try and wire all of the sheriffs in the towns Danny might go through,” Roy broke into Adam’s thoughts. Everyone surprisingly nodded in agreement.

“Adam, Hoss, and I will split off and take a shortcut back to the ranch,” Joe told Roy.

“We have to see someone about a lumber contract before we head for home anyway,” Adam stated.

Roy Coffee nodded in agreement. “See you in town sometime, boys. I’ll make sure to give you any news I might here.”

The Cartwright brothers watched for a moment as Roy and the posse headed back towards Virginia City.

“So where exactly is this shortcut you were talking about, Joe?” Adam asked, a trace of a smile on his face. All three of them knew very well that there was no shortcut back to the ranch from there.

“I don’t know about either of you, but I intend on seeing Danny Morris brought to justice. I’m riding on,” Joe replied, turning his horse toward their unsearched territory. Then he smiled. “I don’t seem to recall a lumber contract we have to see someone about either.”

“Yeah, well maybe I just had the same idea as you,” Adam feigned irritation but both brothers couldn’t help but smile at each other.

Hoss was glad his younger and older brother were getting along so well. It had been quite awhile since he’d seen them like this and he knew it was due to change on both their parts. In just the last few weeks, Joe had seemed to mature so quickly and Adam seemed to strive to gain a better relationship with his youngest brother. Now Adam and Joe were enjoying each other’s company so much more than before.

Hoss knew that this change hadn’t escaped the eyes of their father, and although Ben never mentioned it, Hoss had noticed that he never appeared so lighthearted.

“Well, I don’t know about you two, but I’m ready to get going,” Hoss finally broke the silence. All three of them spurred their horses to a quick pace at Hoss’ words and they were soon well on their way to the next town.

Tensions became present, though, by the time several towns had been traveled through. It had now been close to a week since their departure from Virginia City and Danny Morris’s trail seemed to be an endless one.

They knew they were on the right track, though, when questioning of town’s people told them that Danny had passed that way but in each town, it seemed that Danny was one step ahead of them.

When close to a week had passed, Adam became concerned that Ben might be very worried that his sons had not yet arrived back home. At the first town they’d come to, he’d sent a telegraph to their father informing him of their whereabouts and, knowing Ben, he’d be sick with worry by the time they got home even if they headed back immediately.

Joe seemed intent on continuing on, though, despite the amount of days they’d been traveling at a grueling pace. It was his intent and Adam’s reluctance that set the stage for a brewing argument.

That night, while Joe and Adam were unpacking their bedrolls for yet another uncomfortable night of sleep on the cold, hard ground and Hoss was off collecting decent wood to build a fire, it was Adam who first reluctantly spoke.

“Joe, maybe we should just give this endless chase up and go back to Virginia City.” Adam tried to say it gently, though his strong feelings on the matter showed through. “Roy said he’d send out those telegraphs, I’m sure it won’t be long until we hear word that Danny’s been arrested.”

Adam’s words seemed to have little effect on his youngest brother’s strong determination. “We’ve been through this before, Adam. I’m not stopping until I find him, that’s all there is to it.”

The argument continued for a few more minutes.

“Why do you want to keep pushing yourself on like this?” Adam finally demanded.

“Because it’s my responsibility,” Joe replied angrily.

His brother’s answer caused Adam to soften a bit. “Listen to reason, Joe. Laura’s death wasn’t any more your fault than it was mine,” Adam argued. “If you go back home, no one’s going to hold you responsible and they’re certainly going to know that you did all you could to bring Danny in.”

“Come on, Adam. For just once, speak to me not as your younger brother but as a man.” Joe’s request was met with silence for a few moments as Joe turned to stare into the eyes of his oldest brother. “What would you do if you were me?” he quietly asked.

The sincerity of the question caused Adam to remain silent for a moment. He pondered it for only a moment. The answer was clear. “I wouldn’t stop until I saw him brought to justice.”

The next day, the brothers were once again up early. Thought they’d argued the night before, it seemed only to strengthen the relationship between Adam and Joe. Adam now fully understood his younger brother’s feelings and it had taken until the night before for him to realize that if he were in Joe’s position, he would be doing the same thing.

Soon he and his brothers were on their way. In just a couple of hours, they’d reach the small town of Winnemucca. Their pace was slower today but as Adam and Hoss chatted on the way, Joe remained quiet. He had so much to think about. His oldest brother didn’t know it, but his words from the night before had had more of an effect on Joe than it appeared.

As much as he hated to admit it to himself, Joe knew that he couldn’t keep searching like this forever. Not only for his brothers’ sakes but his father’s.

These thoughts filling his mind, Joe continued to ride in silence until they reached Winnemucca. The town wasn’t all that big, consisting of only a general store, trading post, stable, small hotel, sheriff’s office, saloon, and a few small other buildings. The three of them pulled their horses to a halt in front of the sheriff’s office and dismounted.

“Adam?” Joe finally spoke as his older brother turned to face him. “Last town,” Joe promised him. Adam nodded in reply, relieved that they would finally be heading home soon.

A talk with the sheriff proved to be of no help. They were told that no one fitting Danny’s description had come through town and so, feeling defeated, Joe stepped back outside followed by his brothers.

Hoss sensed Joe’s solemn mood. “Hey, what do you say we all get a drink before we head for home?” he offered.

“Sounds good to me,” Adam replied. “We should send a wire to pa and let him know we’re on our way. It would probably be a good idea for us to stay here overnight and rest up. I don’t know about you two, but I’m beat.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Hoss answered enthusiastically. “How about it, Joe?”

Both Adam and Hoss looked at their brother who had remained silent until that point.

“Sounds great.” Joe managed a smile. He knew his brothers were trying their best to cheer him up. “I’ll take the horses over to the stable,” he continued, “then I’ll meet you over at the saloon.” He knew he needed a little time to himself, even if only for a few minutes. The three of them split up and Joe headed for the stable.

None of them noticed the sheriff quietly leaving his office and heading towards a worn-down boarding house.

Danny Morris drew his gun at the sound of a knock at the door. He crossed the room keeping it aimed at the door. “Who is it?” he demanded.

“It’s the sheriff,” came the reply.

Danny cautiously opened the door, his gun still aimed and ready until he was sure it was indeed Sheriff Frank Casey.

“What is it, Casey?” Danny asked gruffly.

“Some fellows are in town…they’re looking for you,” Casey answered, ignoring Danny’s rotten mood. He and Danny went back a long way and, though they were friends, Casey felt a certain measure of fear around him. Maybe it was because he knew what Danny could do when provoked.

“Did they say who they were?” Danny enquired impatiently.

At this, Casey displayed a look of deep thought. “I think they said their name was Cartwright,” he finally said. The fear that Casey sometimes felt around Danny suddenly returned at the deviate look on the latter’s face.

“You know em’?” Casey asked, though he already knew the answer.

“How many of them were there?” Danny ignored the previous question.

“There were three of them,” Casey answered. “I think they said they were brothers.”

“Well, what did they look like? Was one of them wearing a green jacket?” Danny demanded impatiently.

“Yeah, the younger one was wearin’ a green jacket, if I remember right. Just before I left, I saw him headin’ for the stable. The other two went towards the saloon.”

A slight smile flashed across Danny’s face as a plan began to form in his mind. He hated Joe Cartwright more than anyone else. For months he’d been forced to disguise his feelings, working on the Cartwright ranch and becoming friends with Joe, all in order to court Laura Peterson and ultimately take her money. He’d even had to act as though he’d never known how to fire a gun, so no one would have any reason to believe he had a criminal background.

It wasn’t the first time he’d lured a widow with his charms in order to gain more cash in his pocket, and it certainly wasn’t the first who’d met such an ending as Laura in the process.

His hate for Joe Cartwright grew by the minute. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Joe possessed all that he lacked — money, family, a home….character. He seemed to have an endless amount of friends and countless female admirers. In Danny’s mind, Joe Cartwright had everything handed to him while he had to crawl for what little he had.

Now, Danny couldn’t believe his good luck. Joe was right here in town. There was only one way to get rid of this consuming hatred that was eating away at him and that was with a gun.

Before traveling to Virginia City, Danny Morris had lived in Winnemucca for sometime and he had no shortage of friends that would be willing to help him. “Casey, get a few men together,” he suddenly ordered. “It looks like we’re going to be spending the afternoon in town.”

It wasn’t long before Joe met back up with his brothers. They’d decided to just head for the restaurant in the hotel where they could get a decent meal in them. Despite Adam and Hoss’s repeated attempts at striking up conversation with him, Joe remained mostly silent.

When they had all finished, Joe offered to send the telegraph to their father while Adam and Hoss registered for the room and got settled.

Adam and Hoss got the room then made their way upstairs to room number six. They hadn’t been there long, when a knock sounded at the door. Hoss answered, a look of surprise crossed his face at the man who stood before him, a gun aimed in his direction.

It was Danny Morris.

*****

Joe’s mind worked on overtime as he made his way back to the hotel after having sent the telegraph. He just couldn’t understand how Danny Morris could have virtually disappeared. The sheriff had claimed that Danny hadn’t been through Winnemucca, yet his trail led and ended there.

It definitely didn’t add up as far as Joe was concerned and, for a moment, he thought to question folks around town the following morning. He remembered his promise to Adam, though, and he knew it was time to head for home. Their father would be worried sick.

Joe looked up at the sun and judged it to be well into the afternoon. The clerk at the telegraph office had been overly talkative, so he’d taken longer than expected.

He was just about to round the bend to reach the front of the hotel when he suddenly moved back out of view. Sheriff Casey and another man, unknown to Joe, were standing outside, both packing rifles. The look of this shouldn’t have been any cause of suspicion to Joe but for some reason he felt uneasy.

Moving as close to the edge of the building as he could, Joe strained to hear Casey and the other man, who were talking in low voices.

“Make sure you keep an eye out for Cartwright, Colter,” Casey was telling the other man. “And remember, Danny Morris wants him alive.”

The realization of what was taking place hit Joe and he was suddenly overcome with worry for Hoss and Adam.

Joe peered around the side of the building and watched as Casey reentered the hotel; Colter walked to the other side of the building, opposite of Joe. He realized that if he was ever going to get in and help his brothers, he would have to come up with an idea fast.

A shudder went through him for a moment at the fact that Danny was lying in wait for him. Sheriff Casey was obviously in with Danny and everything was suddenly all very clear to Joe.

A plan forming in his mind, Joe made his way around to the back of the building and peered around to the other side to see the other man, several feet ahead, facing the street, obviously watching for him. Joe cocked his gun and kicked at the ground, causing gravel to scatter in all directions and also succeeding in attracting Colter’s attention.

Colter rushed over and, as he turned the corner to the back of the building, Joe lunged at him before he even had time to think. Both of their guns slid several feet out of reach. Joe got to his feet in only a moment; the other man did the same, pulling a knife as he did so.

They circled around each other. Colter suddenly lunged at Joe, slashing his knife at him. Joe caught Colter’s arm and a brief fight for the knife ensued. Joe finally managed to use one arm to punch Colter in the stomach twice, causing Colter to weaken for a moment, and giving Joe the upper hand. Joe then punched Colter in the face, sending the latter flying back and onto his stomach.

Joe took a moment to regain his breath before rolling Colter onto his back. He was shocked to realize that Colter was dead, having fallen on his own knife.

It would soon be discovered that Colter was missing and Joe knew that he had no time to spare. Grabbing the rifle and his gun, Joe quietly made his way along the side of the building and to the front. He slowly and carefully crept up to the door and peered in. He could see no one inside, not even the clerk.

Realizing that he was getting nowhere just standing there, he decided that the clerk’s desk inside looked like a good place for cover if he had to do any shooting inside.

Mustering up the courage, Joe quietly but quickly made a dash for the desk as rapid gunfire sounded from upstairs. Joe returned fire and the man slumped to the ground. Behind the desk with the stairs just around the corner, Joe stood up against the wall, sweat now covering his face. Two down and only God knew how many more to go.

Joe peered around the corner just as someone fired, spraying splinters of wood when the bullet hit the wall, just barely missing Joe. Joe aimlessly fired back.

Danny Morris made his way from room six and down the hall towards the stairs but he kept himself a safe distance away from them so as not to get shot. “Give it up, Joe,” he yelled.

A chill went through Joe at the familiar voice of Danny Morris. He brushed his sleeve across his face to wipe away the sweat, and then cocked his gun.

“It isn’t worth it, Cartwright,” Danny continued. “We’ve got your brothers and I’ll kill them if you don’t throw away your guns and give yourself up.” Silence followed for a moment. “You heard me, Joe. It’s you or your brothers. What’ll it be?” Danny sneered.

For a moment, Joe wondered if he should try and drag things out. With the sound of the gunshots, some townspeople were bound to get there and maybe be of help.

“Don’t think that any help will be coming, Joe!” Danny shouted as if he’d read Joe’s mind. “The people in this town are all cowards. Casey and I control this town. You’ve got five seconds to make up your mind or I start shooting!” Danny threatened

There was no doubt in Joe’s mind that Danny would carry out that threat and, fearing for the lives of his brothers, he knew that there was nothing he could do but comply.

Throwing his gun and rifle away, Joe slowly stepped out into the open, his hands in the air.

Pason, one of Danny’s men who had been firing at Joe from the top of the stairs, stepped forward, his rifle aimed at Joe. “Don’t even breathe hard, Cartwright,” he ordered, a smirk on his face. Cliff Pason was easily as cold and stone-hearted as Danny Morris. He had a record a mile long which included murder, and he found that he was enjoying every minute of what was happening even if he, himself, had never even known Joe Cartwright.

Danny ordered Casey to check outside as Pason cautiously moved down the steps towards Joe. Reaching the bottom, he stooped down to retrieve the guns Joe had thrown aside, all the while keeping his eyes and rifle on Joe.

“All right Cartwright, get moving up those steps,” Pason said gruffly As Joe started up the steps, he felt the barrel of Pason’s rifle against his back.

When they reached the room, Pason roughly shoved Joe inside to face Danny Morris.

Joe glanced over at his brothers, who were sitting on chairs with their hands tied behind their backs. Though another of Danny’s men, Williams, had his gun aimed at them, Joe was at least relieved to see that they were all right. Joe silently tallied in his head that there were four in all left, including Danny.

Casey came through the door just then, closing it behind him. “I found Colter dead outside and Gannon dead down the hall.”

Anger coursed through Danny at this announcement. “I see you’ve been busy,” he said through clenched teeth, taking a step towards Joe. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this, Cartwright.” he said devoutly and he slammed his fist into Joe’s stomach, causing him to double over in pain.

Danny grabbed Joe by the collar and slammed him against the wall, shoving his cocked gun under Joe’s chin. Both Hoss and Adam made moves to stand up but Williams kept his rifle aimed at them. “If either of you makes one move, you’re both dead men,” he threatened.

“I ought to kill you now, Joe,” Danny fumed. “But I think I feel like having a little fun first.”

The cold look on Danny’s face sent chills through Joe but he somehow managed to show no fear, staring directly at the man he’d once thought to be his friend, now his worst enemy. Joe’s firm gaze, without fear, angered Danny further and he punched his fist into Joe’s face, sending him to the ground. Pason and Casey roughly pulled Joe back to his feet as they each held back one of his arms.

It was then that Joe locked gazes with Adam. Anger now coursed through Adam at the horrific treatment of his youngest brother. Danny and his men had their full attentions on Joe, completely unaware that Adam was starting to work his hands free of the rope that bound them.

When Danny sent his fist into Joe’s stomach again, Adam watched as Hoss flinched again. He knew how Hoss felt, having to just sit there and watch.

Williams had caught Hoss’ movement and he held his gun at Hoss’ chest. “I thought I told you not to move, Cartwright. You know, you just might be easier to take care of dead,” he gruffly stated.

But Patterson spoke up. “Don’t kill him just yet Williams,” he said with a smirk on his face. “This might be a little fun.” Williams looked at Pason with question at the latter’s words. “Let’s just see what kind of a man this Joe Cartwright is.” Patterson continued snidely. “Let’s continue to settle our differences with Cartwright and if he begs for mercy or even so much as makes a sound, we kill his brother.”

The blank look that was once on Williams’ face was now replaced by a look of pure evil and even Danny seemed to be pleased by the idea.

“Any man doesn’t want to die,” Casey sneered. “It won’t be long before he’s had enough.”

Joe felt suddenly weak at Pason’s suggestion. The one thought that now consumed his mind was that he couldn’t let anything happen to his brothers.

Adam began to furiously work at getting his hands free. He knew that Joe’s life, as well as his and Hoss’, hung in the balance.

Williams kept his rifle cocked and ready at Hoss’s chest as Danny now holstered his own gun and took Casey’s rifle. Adam cringed as Danny slammed the butt of it into Joe’s stomach repeatedly. Pason and Casey still held his arms pinned back to keep him from moving.

Finally, they dropped him to the ground. Despite the pain that ravaged his body, Joe forced himself to stay conscious. His breath caught in his throat when Danny kicked him in the side, but he never breathed a sound. This angered Danny more than anything and he suddenly looked at Williams.

For a moment there was silence and, as Joe lay on the floor in absolute pain, his gaze settled first on Hoss then on Adam. Adam moved slightly as he finally broke free of the ropes. This movement had escaped the eyes of Danny and his men but not the eyes of his youngest brother.

“Kill him,” Danny suddenly ordered Williams, his nod indicating he was to shoot Hoss. As Williams’ finger tightened on the trigger, Adam and Joe’s gazes locked. The slight nod that Joe gave him was enough for Adam to know that they had to make their move now.

Adam suddenly threw himself at Williams as Joe managed to pull himself up and lunge at Danny. Casey scrambled to help Williams but was stopped in his tracks when Hoss, using his own weight, shoved him up against the wall.

Using every ounce of his strength…or what was left of it…to fight Danny, Joe found himself weakening by the moment. He felt Pason grab him from behind and the sudden slam of a fist in his face knocked him to the ground. He looked up at the feeling of something next to his hand—- Casey’s rifle, which Danny had dropped in the scuffle.

Pason came menacingly towards Joe. He was finally going to end this once and for all by seeing Joe Cartwright to his grave. Joe grabbed the rifle; he cocked and fired it quickly in Pason’s direction. The bullet hit its target and Pason slumped to the floor.

Glancing over worriedly at the sound of a gunshot, Hoss hadn’t even a moment to look as Casey had regained his footing and had drawn a derringer, aiming it at Hoss. The sound of another gunshot emanated through the room and Hoss was surprised to realize it had come not from Casey, who now fell to the ground, but from the opposite direction.

Hoss turned to see Adam with Williams’ smoking rifle in his hand. Williams himself lay a few feet away, unconscious. Williams had been so shocked by the sudden attack, it hadn’t taken Adam a whole lot of fighting to knock him unconscious.

As all this happened between Adam and Hoss, Danny had regained his footing and pulled his own gun. Joe got the first shot off with Casey’s rifle but as Danny fell to the ground, in a last moment of hatred, he’d managed to get a shot off before slumping to the ground dead. His bullet, wildly off target, missed Joe by several feet.

Both Hoss and Adam exchanged looks of concern but relief soon flooded over them when they realized it was Danny who had been shot.

Joe laid his head back against the ground, his strength spent. Adam hurriedly untied Hoss’ hands and they both rushed to their brother’s side.

“I’ll get the doc,” Hoss offered and he hurried out of the room

“Thank God, you and Hoss are all right,” Joe whispered under his breath. Adam looked at his youngest brother in a mixture of awe and renewed respect at the fact that he was grateful for not his own safety but that of both his brothers.

As Adam knelt there next to his brother, the week’s journey ran through his mind. All of the conversations and even the argument that he and Joe had had seemed so different to him than any others they’d had over the years. Joe had even been willing to stop searching for Danny despite the fact that he had felt responsible.

At that moment Adam knew why things had been so different; as he looked at Joe, he knew he wasn’t just looking at his youngest brother, the baby of the family….he was looking at a man.

*****

After a few days rest, the Cartwright brothers were finally ready to head for home. After an examination by the doc had told them that a couple of Joe’s ribs were cracked, Adam had decided to send another telegram to Ben telling him they’d be late. Adam had wanted Joe to rest even a few days longer but Joe was anxious to get home and so they’d decided to leave after four days.

The three of them mounted there horses and turned them in the direction to leave Winnemucca. The sun was just rising, casting beautiful shades of pink and orange across the horizon, and though it was late in summer, it was relatively cool with the faintest smell of autumn in the air. The three of them sat there a moment, taking it all in.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Hoss asked quietly.

“It sure is,” Joe replied. “I just wish Laura were here to see it,” he added, barely more then a whisper.

Adam glanced over at his brother, concern etched on his face. “Danny deceived all of us, Joe. He and I got along pretty well. You couldn’t have known what kind of a man he really was,” he said quietly, then he placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Laura’s death was never your fault.”

Joe turned his gaze to the ground a moment as he fought with his emotions and feelings. He couldn’t help but feel responsible over the last week but deep down inside, he knew his oldest brother was right.

Adam watched as Joe fought with the guilt he’d felt since last week and he was relieved to see that the battle had been won when his youngest brother looked at him, emotion written all over his face.

“You’re right,” Joe finally managed to reply. “Let’s go home.”

That was all Adam and Hoss needed to hear as the three of them kicked their horses to a gallop towards home.

***End***

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