Doing the Right Thing (by Hazelmom)

Summary:  Word reaches the Ponderosa that Hoss was legally hung, setting off a chain of events that sets the law against justice when it comes down to doing the right thing.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:  11,000


 

They didn’t miss him. After all, it was only a week and a half since he left, and he was Hoss. Most likely he got waylaid by someone needing just a little of the kind of help that only he could offer: Hoss help. He could encourage and support a guy down on his luck better than anyone who ever crossed the Sierras; he didn’t even need to know him. Hoss was a magnet for people who the rest of the world would call ‘misfits’. He understood them; felt like one of them.

So Ben Cartwright wasn’t worried. In fact, he mentally built in a couple of days to every one of Hoss’ trips. It was easier. Otherwise, it would be agony every time he let the big man out of his sight. On either side of him rode his other sons: the handsome ones. Mrs. Grady from the general stored liked to say that his oldest and youngest were the prettiest boys in the Nevada territory. Ben reckoned they probably were; they each looked a lot like their mothers while Hoss favored Inger’s father. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to point out Joe and Adam, and then leave out Hoss. Most folks didn’t know what to say about a fellow his size; face as big and round and soft as a baby’s. Handsome or not, the two boys riding with him right now were wearing scowls, and Ben found that the best conversation at times like this was no conversation.

Hoss might not be pretty, and his naked faith in the goodness of people often got him pegged as simple, but the boy could work. He doctored the animals, knew every inch of the Ponderosa, was the favorite Cartwright among the ranch hands, and could track man or animal like a Shoshone warrior. He could put a dent into a pile of chores like nobody else, and it was widely debated as to whether he did the work of two or three men on an average day. Adam and Joe worked just as hard, but they weren’t as single-minded about it. The fact was that Hoss liked nothing better than a good hard day’s labor; he thrived on it. Being gone a week put a lot of extra work on his brother’s plates. Being three days late was just adding insult to injury. The last words any of them had spoken in the last half hour was Ben telling Joe to pipe down about Hoss and his tardiness.

All of his boys were special to Ben Cartwright. Adam was the oldest and brightest, and the closest thing Ben had to a confidant in the family. Joe was the youngest, and had such fire in his soul that it brought Ben to memories of his own youth. With Hoss, it was about his goodness. Ben was often touched by his giant son’s belief in his fellow man. Hoss was always pulling for some poor soul the rest of the world had forgotten, and it tugged at the humanitarian in Ben himself. He couldn’t seem to help but encourage Hoss’ gentle and giving ways. Everyone always said he was too easy on Hoss, always letting him take in strays and hire on fellows that had no business doing ranch work. It was probably true but Ben couldn’t help himself; all of his sons were remarkable but Hoss was unique, and as such, he needed special handling. Grumble though they might, Joe and Adam knew this as well, and made allowances for Hoss they would never make for anyone else, including each other.

It was no surprise then when they neared the ranch, and Little Joe recognized Hoss’ horse, Chubby, tethered to the hitching post in the front yard of the house, he shouted, “Hoss!” and dug his heels into Cochise’s sides. The paint pony ran, and Joe thundered off ahead of his father and brother.

Adam shook his head and grinned. “I predict this will start out well, but by the time we get there, Hoss will be dunking Joe head first into the trough for saying something smart.”

Ben smiled. Joe and Hoss were like a pair of puppies, even as grown men. They were inseparable most of the time; fighting laughing, clowning or hatching some plan to turn granite into gold or any other number of get rich quick schemes. Adam was probably right about what they’d find when they got to the yard. Those two boys would probably be dirt brown from rolling around the ground especially if Joe decided to say something about Hoss being gone too long. By all rights, Ben should be annoyed that his two younger sons couldn’t show a little bit of common sense and decorum, but it just felt good to know that all of his sons would be sitting around the dinner table tonight. It always felt good to have them near.

Adam squinted. “Looks like there are maybe two, three more horses there that aren’t ours. Wonder who’s with him?”

Ben sighed. With Hoss, there was no knowing. It could be folks he picked up along the way, ready to install in guest rooms as if the Ponderosa was some kind of hotel. Still, it didn’t matter; he couldn’t muster up anything but relief that Hoss was home again.

“That’s Roy Coffee’s horse,” Adam said as he dug a heel into Sport’s side and broke into a gallop. Ben frowned and urged Buck into a run as well.

Joseph was in the middle of the yard, when they rode up, hands on his hips. He looked up at his pa. “Hoss ain’t with them, Pa.”

Ben stifled reaction. His mind was going to a thousand wrong places, and he couldn’t allow it. He stepped down off Buck and strode over to Roy Coffee, shaking hands. Roy was an old friend, and the look on his face was enough to send a shiver through Ben. He looked away for a moment in an effort to stay composed.

Adam came up beside him, putting a hand lightly on his father’s arm. “Hi Roy, how’d you come upon Chubby?”

Roy sighed. “I think we better talk inside.”

Joe couldn’t contain his anxiety. “Who’s this guy?” He pointed boldly at a scrawny man standing next to Clem on the porch.

The scrawny man leaned forward, “I’m here all legal like. Got a job to perform. Just bringing back a man’s effects.”

Clem grabbed him by the arm and shook him some. Roy frowned at him, “I’m doing the talking here, remember?”

Adam could feel Ben stiffen in his grasp. He pulled in front of his father. “Roy, we can tell it’s something bad. Better just get it out.”

Roy sighed and pointed a thumb over his shoulder at the scrawny man. “This here feller says his name is Winkler. He says…he says he’s here on behalf of Sheriff Tompkins out of Larkspur.” Roy shook his head.

Ben shrugged off his son and stepped up to his old friend. “What happened to my son?”

Roy cleared his throat loudly. “Winkler here says he’s bringing personal effects back. He says that Hoss was hung in Larkspur no more than three days ago. Says Hoss was caught robbing a bank.”

“No,” Ben Cartwright said softly.

“That’s a lie!” Joe exploded. Adam turned to him, but he only caught a blur of his brother out of the corner of his eye. The next thing he knew Joe was on top of Winkler, pounding away. Clem was struggling to get in between the two men. Adam had to physically pick up his youngest brother off Winkler. There was shouting and then Clem was dragging Winkler off the porch and pushing him onto a horse. Adam threw an arm across Joe’s chest and held him tight; both men breathing hard. A red-faced Roy Coffee was yelling for his deputy to take Winkler back into town and hold him until he got there. And Ben Cartwright stood frozen through all of this staring off into the distance.

*****

“It’s not that unusual, I suppose,” Roy Coffee said slowly. He stared down at the brandy Adam poured for him. “In these smaller towns, the law just ain’t professional. The sheriff is just some wrangler between jobs. Judge probably don’t come through more than once every couple of months. Feelings run high, and a sheriff can’t control it all. Probably didn’t even give him a trial. Probably just kept him a couple of days ‘til the crowds got big enough and then hung him.”

Adam wheeled his direction. “You make it sound like a reasonable thing to do.”

Roy looked up at him. “It ain’t, boy. Make no mistake. I just know how small town justice works out here in the territory.”

Joe stood at the window, unwilling to face anyone. Adam could hear his attempts to hold back tears. In an unsteady voice, Joe mumbled loudly, “Why are we taking this man at his word?”

“Clem and I had him in my office for four hours before we headed out here. We questioned him ever which way. I can’t think of another reason why he’d show up with Hoss’ horse, his gun, and his money belt intact. It’s common practice to send a man’s effects back to his home after…Well, I just can’t figure it any other way. If he robbed Hoss, why’d he bring all his things back here? He’s an ornery cuss, but I don’t figure him for being smart enough for anything other than honesty. I think they pure and simple made a mistake, and hung Hoss for something he didn’t do.”

Adam threw back his head and laughed. “A mistake, pure and simple. That’s all. They took my brother’s life, nothing pure and simple about that, Roy. I can tell you that.”

Roy just shook his head and returned his attention to his brandy.

Ben Cartwright leaned forward and spoke to Roy. “They didn’t bury him proper, did they, Roy?”

“As a criminal? No, they probably buried him in a pine box with no service.”

Ben blinked hard. “Well, we can’t have that, Roy. That’s no good. My boy deserves better than that, much better.”

“I was thinking on that, Ben. I figured I could go out there and see about getting him back here. We’d do it up right in Virginia City. We’ll have the biggest funeral this territory has ever seen. I don’t think there’s a man around who knows, er, knew Hoss that doesn’t think he’s one of the best fellows to ever walk in Nevada territory.”

Ben nodded. “We’ll go tomorrow, you and I.”

Roy shook his head. “I don’t think you oughta’ come, Ben. I don’t want any trouble. Just need to keep this a simple sort of thing.”

Adam stopped his pacing. “We’re all going, Roy. We’re all going to bring my brother back here.”

Ben started to shake his head, but Adam would have none of it. “We’re all going, Pa. We’re men, all of us, and we’re going to face this together.”

“I don’t want trouble,” Roy said, getting to his feet.

“They killed Hoss!” Joe turned away from the window, his eyes red and wet. “I’m not going with my tail between my legs. I’m going and I’m loaded for bear.”

“Enough!” Ben was on his feet, dark eyes blazing. “We’ll all go, but be clear. We’re going to bring Hoss back here. That’s all. As wrong as they were, as criminal as it was, we have no right to punish the law.”

“Pa’s right, Joe. We go to bring back Hoss. That’s all. The town of Larkspur has to answer for this, but we’re not going to be the ones to hold them accountable.” Adam’s tone was smooth as he stared down his younger brother. “We’re not above the law. You understand that, Joe?”

Joe stood silently, head down. Finally he lifted his head. “I’ll go for Hoss and for Hoss only. I won’t make trouble. I just want to bring him home.”

Adam nodded. He looked at his father, but saw nothing but pain in his eyes. In that moment, Adam knew that he would have to be the one to keep a clear head now. He was going to shelf his own pain for the time being. Joe wouldn’t be able to mask his pain, and his father was in a world all his own. It was unsettling to see the unstoppable Ben Cartwright look vulnerable but not surprising. His entire heart was invested in his sons, always had been. Adam knew he would give up every bit of land and every dollar he ever earned just to get any one of them out of trouble. And he knew it was his job to make sure Hoss was the only son Ben Cartwright would lose in this tragedy.

*****

It took two days of hard riding to get to the bluff above Larkspur. Adam sat back in the saddle and looked down on the town. It was just a quiet little frontier town; nothing like what he’d pictured as the place where his brother was wrongly executed. Beside him, he could feel Joe’s anger radiating off him. Adam stiffened. It had been the longest two days he could ever remember experiencing. It had been a silent ride. Joe rode at least quarter mile ahead of everyone else; his emotions too naked to share with others. His Pa rode behind everyone else, looking drained more than anything else. Sheriff Coffee rode alongside him never saying a single word. Adam looked at Roy Coffee, and waited for the sheriff to give him the signal. Coffee nodded, and then led the Cartwrights down the trail to the town.

*****

Larkspur was small enough so that there was only one saloon. The stagecoach didn’t even stop in town. A person who wants to go to Larkspur gets dropped off in Round Lake, and then rents a rig to go the five miles to Larkspur. There was no church in town. Adam noticed that the dining hall had a cross on it, and he figured it doubled for Sunday worship. The jail was squeezed in between the mercantile and the bank. It was dingy, and gray; didn’t look much like it got much upkeep. The front door swung open in the wind. Sheriff Coffee slid of his mount, and walked up the porch and looked in. Then he turned around and shook his head. They all got down, and followed Roy to the only other place a man could be found in the middle of the day. As expected, there were men in the saloon playing cards and drinking beer. Everything stopped when the Cartwrights followed Coffee inside. A portly man at the back of the room stood up, a sheriff’s badge catching what little light there was in the room. He made his way between the tables until he was face to face with Roy Coffee. He put his hand on his holster and said, “Deputy Winkler sent me a telegram. Told me to expect you folks.”

The cock being pulled back on a gun was heard all around the room. Joe reached for his, but Adam put a hand over his and shook his head slightly. Roy cocked his head, “You Sheriff Tompkins?”

The large man nodded.

Roy said, “We ain’t here for any kind of trouble.”

“We did what we had to in order to keep the peace around here, and I ain’t apologizing for it.” The stench of stale beer wafted from his mouth.

Roy couldn’t mask the annoyance on his face. “I ain’t asking you to apologize for nothin’. What’s done is done. But you oughta’ know is that you hung an innocent man, and we’re here to take him home and give him a proper burial.”

The sheriff took his hat off and scratched at a greasy mop of hair. “He wasn’t innocent, Sheriff. We caught him dead to rights. Wasn’t no need for a trial.”

Joe stiffened but Adam held him back. Ben stepped around Roy and stood in front of the small town Sheriff. His voice was low and steady. “Sheriff, my son Hoss never committed a crime in his life.”

“Well, I guess a man doesn’t always know that much about his sons. I figure your son was having some money problems, and thought this was the quickest way to solve them.”

“My son has over $10,000 of his own in the Virginia City bank. He would have no need for other people’s money.”

A murmur rose up around them at that. Sheriff Tompkins looked around him and glared. “I caught him with the money. I don’t have to know why he did it.”

“We’re here to take him home.” Ben was unwavering in his focus on the sheriff.

Tompkins shook his head. “The criminal got what he deserved. Ain’t nothing to take home.”

Ben drew in breath. “What does that mean, Sheriff?”

Tompkins shifted uncomfortably. There were standards, and even condemned men deserved a decent burial. The room got quiet. He chewed at his lip for a moment and then said, “Let’s go to my office.” Without another word, he walked past them and out the door. It was all Adam could do to restrain Joe. As he was pulling Joe out the door, a young cowboy brushed past him, whispering, “Meet me behind the mercantile after dark.” Adam turned to acknowledge the man but he had slipped out the door, and Joe required his entire attention.

*****

The sheriff seemed uncomfortable at his desk, and the dust in the room suggested he didn’t spend a lot of time there. There was only room for the rest of them to stand against the wall. “I don’t have to answer to you.”

Roy leaned into him, eyes narrowed. “Where did you bury the boy?’

“How’d you like it somebody comes into your town and starts telling you right from wrong?” Tompkins glared back at him.

“I ain’t asking for an accounting. I just want the boy buried proper. He deserves it.”

“He was nothing but a dirty thief.”

Joe pushed past his father and Adam. He was nose to nose with the man. “You ain’t nothing but wrong, Tompkins, and I’m going to prove it.” Before anyone could grab him, he backed up and headed out onto the street.

“Tell me that you buried the boy decent, Tompkins. Just tell me.” Roy glared at him.

Tompkins stood up and yelled, “Get out!”

Ben pushed Coffee aside. “We’re not leaving town without my boy.”

“I didn’t bury him!”

Ben stood back in shock. “Where is he?”

Tompkins shook his head. “We didn’t have a coffin. I paid a couple of the wranglers to go and bury him somewhere. I just don’t know where.”

“You’re kidding me?” Ben Cartwright pushed past Coffee, and grabbed Tompkins by the collar. “Tell me, you didn’t just leave him in a ditch.”

The two men were nose to nose. Neither Roy nor Adam made a single move to stop him. There was a long moment when nobody moved. Then Ben pushed him hard against the wall, and strode out of the office. Adam and Roy followed. Ben Cartwright mounted Buck and galloped away. Roy headed for his horse. Adam stopped him. “Let him go. He needs space.”

Tompkins tumbled out of his office mumbling threats of jail time, but Roy and Adam ignored him.

Adam leaned against the hitching post. The responsibilities were beginning to overwhelm him. He would let his father go because Ben Cartwright would never do anything foolish as long as he had two other sons to protect. Joe was another matter. He needed to find his little brother. The fact that his own head was pounding with the enormity of the situation would have to wait. “Roy, the best thing we can do right now is to find Little Joe and make sure he’s not in trouble.”

They both headed for the saloon.

*****

Joe held a whiskey bottle with one hand and a shot glass in the other. Adam didn’t try to slow him at all; Joe had a right to drown his sorrows as he saw fit. He sat across from him with a beer. Coffee was drinking whiskey too, but at the rate of one to every three that Joe drank. Roy and Adam seemed to know that there was no room for them to let go. Joe had taken to threatening anyone who came near so the rest of the saloon gave them a wide berth. Adam got up occasionally to order more drinks for the table. He leaned toward his oldest brother. “I feel a hole in my heart like never before. I couldn’t have felt this when my mother died, I never would have made it.”

Adam didn’t have words for him. He’d survived the loss of three mothers, and as a result, developed a reserve that left him a little less easygoing than his brothers. Joe was trying to take him to a place he wouldn’t allow himself to go. His only recourse was to listen and nod as actually using words seemed dangerous.

Joe grabbed his arm. “Hoss was just there always for me. You were too, but you went to school out east. You were a man when I was a boy. It’s just that Hoss was there. I could always count on him. He was my best friend. He kept me out of trouble…well, most of the time. I don’t know what to do without him.”

Adam felt a pang deep in his gut. He had his own memories of a blonde haired blue eyed boy who was bigger than all the other boys, and grew a smile on his face as easily as water ran downstream. He remembered a young man who wore no arrogance despite the success of his family. Adam had a soft spot for that overgrown boy that knew no bounds. To everyone else, he was the confident, brilliant, serious oldest son of the Ponderosa dynasty. But it was with Hoss that he could be easy and fun. He could joke with Hoss because the boy never held anything against him. In fact, he rather worshipped his older brother, often telling others quite seriously that “Adam knew best.” Hoss was the good natured foil who served as counterbalance to the more intense personalities of his brothers.

“Why don’t you say anything, Adam? This has got to be painful for you too.” This woke Adam from his memories, and his regarded his youngest brother. Joe was strikingly handsome and smart and charming. He was also passionate and impulsive, everything Adam fought in himself. It was for this reason that he was often at odds with Little Joe.

Adam pulled away from Joe. “This isn’t easy for me, Joe, but I gotta’ keep my head right now.”

Joe grunted and sat back. “It’s always that way with you, Adam. You’re always logical and calm. Do you feel this? Do you feel what I feel?”

Roy shook his head.

For a moment, Adam sat stunned. Was his pain that oblivious to his brother? He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Instead, he pushed away from the table and walked away. Joe reached for his brother, but Roy Coffee held him back. “Leave him be, Joe. You know your brother. He feels; he just doesn’t show it.”

Joe slumped in his chair and reached for the bottle of whiskey.

*****

Ben Cartwright sat in the cool, night air, and looked at the stars in the sky. It was here that he could feel closest to his middle son. Hoss had a relationship with the land which was very spiritual. He loved the Ponderosa in the same whole body and soul way that Ben did. He loved bringing Hoss to a new ridge he’d discovered where the view was somehow new and more breathtaking than ever before. To Hoss, it wasn’t just another perspective on trees and landscape; it was the art of nature. Both men could feel the beauty deep inside themselves. It wasn’t the one thing that connected him to his middle son, but it was the one he could be close to tonight. The other parts; the kindness, the easygoing nature, the sweetness of Hoss was more than he could handle right now; it ached to remember the many times he stood up for someone the rest of the world had abandoned. He knew his other sons needed him, but he could see the resolve in Adam’s eyes, and knew that they could allow him this night to mourn for the loss of his special middle child. The idea that he wouldn’t have a body to bring home felt like more than he could bear. He needed this night by himself to gather the strength to be with his other sons again.

*****

Adam remembered to go to the back of the mercantile almost as an afterthought. He had nothing else to do but hit the sheets at the only hotel in town, but sleeping was not something he could do just yet. He leaned against the back of the store, figuring on no more than 30 minutes before he pushed sleep on himself. Almost immediately the slim boy from the saloon stepped out of the shadows. Adam tipped his hat back and waited. It was the boy’s show and he wasn’t about to upstage him.

“Sheriff Tompkins was wrong.”

Adam waited. The boy had yet to say anything he didn’t already know.

“He did catch the robbers after the bank hold-up, and the money was truly ours, but there were problems.”

“Tell me more,” was all Adam said.

“There were two of them; one small and the other one a big fella’ like your brother. The small one got away. The big one was easy to catch as he’d taken a bullet in his thigh.”

Adam nodded and watched as the boy shifted from one foot to the other. “You see, Mr. Cartwright, there’s a problem. See, we were expecting a couple of robber fella’s. They sent out a picture of two men; one big and one small. Their names are Roland Stark and Mickey Burke. Burke was the big one. In the picture, he had a beard and dark eyes.”

Adam tensed. “Did the sheriff recognize the difference between his sketch and the man he caught? My brother was a big man, but he had the bluest eyes you can imagine and he was clean shaven.”

The boy shrugged. “That’s the thing. The man we hung looked just like the sketch. Had eyes dark like your Pa’s and a beard. He might’ve been Burke, but everything on him said Cartwright. It didn’t matter. We caught him with the money. So it didn’t seem much use to wait for a trial.”

Adam’s breath caught in his throat. “So it’s possible my brother wasn’t hanged here.”

The boy nodded. “I think we hung Mickey Burke, but nobody’s trying to listen to me.”

“Burke and his partner, Stark, must’ve robbed Hoss.”

The boy kicked up some dirt. “Doesn’t sound like it went well for your brother either way. I doubt those two would’ve robbed him and left him alive. Wanted poster says they got a string of murders to answer for in addition to the robberies.”

“Thank you for telling me all this. I am curious though as to what…”

The boy chuckled. “My name is Rory Tompkins. I’m the sheriff’s son. My pa was a good man before the booze took over. He ain’t dishonest so much as he’s afraid to face himself and see what he’s become.”

“Still it’s kind of you.”

“Twas nothing. Doing right shouldn’t be a special thing; it should be expected. I’m hoping to be the sheriff here some day soon. I think Larkspur can be saved; it just needs a return to law and order.”

Adam extended his hand. ‘I’m mighty grateful.”

The boy reddened a bit. “I’m sorry about your brother. Not sure this news really helps you or not.” The boy tipped his hat and disappeared back into the shadows.

Adam ran his hand against the stubble growing on his chin. The boy was right. It didn’t leave them in a position different than where they were already. Still, it felt different. If his brother died at least it wasn’t at the end of a rope. Adam thanked the boy and walked down the darkened main street. He didn’t stop at the hotel. Instead, he walked onward trying to reason through the information the boy gave him. He pondered telling his father and brother about the mix-up. It would give them some comfort, but he wished he could be more certain than he was. Hope was a fragile thing. He didn’t want to give only to have it snatched away again. They were already dealing with so much. An idea hit, and he trotted back into town, searching the few businesses on Main Street before he found what he was looking for. He started pounding on the door to the office. Chances were the telegraph operator slept in the back room.

*****

Joe woke at the sensation of a pounding headache. He groaned and pulled the covers over his head, but sleep was lost to him now. The pain had to be addressed. He managed to pull himself into an upright position and surveyed the room. The light at the window told him that dawn was only a distant memory to this day. The feeling in his head and in his stomach told him that he needed a pitcher of water, two sunny-side-up eggs, biscuits and more than a few strips of bacon. Getting upright meant riding waves of nausea. It was beginning to feel like the pitcher of water needed to precede the food by at least an hour or two.

*****

Adam dropped a handful of telegrams on the table in front of Roy. Coffee looked up from his ham and eggs, and then reached for the nearest ones. “You really think that boy was telling you the truth?”

Adam sank into the chair across from him. “It’s in three of them.”

Roy picked up the top one. “Says here that they found this Mickey Burke in Cannon Falls.”

“Two others say the same thing.”

Roy scratched his ear. “I don’t get it. I thought you sent out all those telegrams to prove that Mickey Burke wasn’t somewhere else; that he was the one they hung here. This only proves that he couldn’t have been the guy they hung here in Larkspur.”

Adam pointed at the telegrams. “What if they think they have Mickey Burke, but they have Hoss in Cannon Falls?”

Roy shook his head. “Aw, come on, Adam. I’m surprised at you.”

“I don’t care. I want to see him. I want to know for sure that they don’t have Hoss up there in Cannon Falls.”

“What are you going to tell your Pa and Little Joe? You really want to get their hopes up over some crazy ideas a kid gave you behind the mercantile in the middle of the night?”

Adam sighed. “I don’t know. Pa can spot a lie a mile away.”

“Yeah, in the end it’s never worth it.” Roy and Adam looked up to see Little Joe standing there, blurry-eyed, but firmly on his feet.

“Didn’t see you there, Little Brother.”

Joe reached for one of the telegrams on the table. Adam tried to sweep them up, but Joe was too quick and pulled one out of the pile. “Don’t Joe!”

Joe read it and a frown grew on his face. He turned to Adam, “What is this all about?”

“Nothing, Joe. It’s nothing.”

Joe grabbed a chair and pulled it next to Adam. He looked at his older brother. “Tell me about it, Adam.”

Adam stared at the pile of paper in his hands. He had no lies to give the boy.

*****

Ben Cartwright rode slowly back into Larkspur. His anger was deep, and joy felt like nothing more than a distant memory he might never know again. The town turned his stomach, and he wondered if this is what hate felt like. He almost waited at the edge of town for his sons, but his anger told him that nobody would restrain his access. Still, it was with a sense of relief that he spotted Adam, Joe, and Roy Coffee riding toward him. Adam pulled alongside him and looked at him for a long moment. “Pa, we’re going to Cannon Falls.”

Ben furrowed his brow at his son.

Adam shook his head. “We don’t have a lot of time Pa. I need you to just trust me on this.”

Ben looked at Roy and Joe. Joe’s face was strangely flushed. There was something so single-minded in the boy’s eyes that he turned without a word and followed them.

*****

It was a day and a half to Cannon Falls, and if the trip to Larkspur seemed quiet, this felt a thousand times quieter. They were all afraid that any conversation might introduce some hope, and none of them could afford it. Adam wanted them to wait at the edge of town. He wanted to go in himself. He wanted to have control over the situation, and he didn’t know if his father and brother could handle it. He would have pressed the issue, but the steely look in his father’s eyes told him that they were all going in together.

Unlike Larkspur, Cannon Falls looked like a town with a future. Businesses looked healthy, and they passed no less than three saloons on their way to the sheriff’s office. They heard pounding and looked down the street to the left. The scaffolding was going up for a hanging. Just seeing that brought a chill down Ben’s spine. Images of what had happened to his son haunted him constantly. He wondered if it would ever feel differently.

Cowboys were loitering out in front of the sheriff’s office. Adam led them up the stairs. Cowboys parted for them, and several mumbled comments about staying in town for the hanging. Adam ignored them and pushed through the door to the office. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to Roy Coffee who made it clear without words that this was his territory. Adam allowed him to take the lead. The first sight as they opened the door was the barrel of a shotgun. Two deputies appeared and demanded their weapons. Adam didn’t hesitate. There was nothing going to stand in the way of him seeing their prisoner. Behind him, Little Joe and Ben gave up theirs easily as well.

This sheriff sat behind a neat desk and had a sharp look about him. Roy approached. “I’m Sheriff Coffee out of Virginia City.”

Sheriff stood up and nodded. He extended a hand. “I’ve heard of you, Coffee. My name is Russell. What can I do for you?”

“We want to see your prisoner.”

The sheriff chuckled. “Sorry about whatever he done in your neck of the woods, but we got him and we’re keeping him.”

Roy shook his head. “I ain’t trying to take him. Just want a look at him. These fellows with me are looking for their kin.”

“Mickey Burke is your kin?” The sheriff frowned at the Cartwrights. Adam felt the deputies behind him stiffen.

Ben stepped forward. “I’m looking for my son. He’s been mistaken for Mickey Burke, and I’m praying that he’s here.”

The sheriff sighed. “Mickey Burke or not, this son was caught with a stolen horse and money form the bank robbery. He’s had a trial. Judge was through a few days ago. Trial lasted two hours. He’s hanging tomorrow. My advice to you is to turn around and go home. Either way, this man is facing a rope tomorrow.”

“We need to see him.”

Russell looked at Coffee and saw much of the same determination. Finally he nodded and grabbed the cell door keys. He opened the door to the cells, and they literally pushed past him into the entry. There were three cells but only one man. He was sitting on his cot with his head in his hands. He was wearing a black shirt and boots they didn’t recognize. Adam felt his heart sink, but then the man lifted his head, and he saw a round face with blue eyes that he knew better than his own.

He looked tired, even dejected, but he was every inch the oversized gentle giant they loved so much. Joe got to the bars of his cell first, whooping and yelling as he reached for his brother. Ben was there as well, letting tears fall freely. Adam stayed back. He still feared the naked emotion of the moment, and suspected that getting Hoss out of this situation wasn’t going to be any easier than anything else had been in the last week.

Sheriff Russell looked nervous about it, but Roy convinced him to let them inside his cell. Hoss let Joe tackle him, and together they landed on his cot. He rolled Joe off him, and jumped up to pull Ben into a hug. He spotted Adam, and trapped him in the corner of the cell, hugging him until Adam gasped from the pressure. Roy laughed as if watching a good comedy show. There was something about the big man’s energy that they had all missed terribly, and for a moment, everything was as it should be.

His eyes wet with emotion and laughing, Hoss dropped back onto his cot, a smile spreading across his big face. “Dadburnit, I didn’t know if you would ever get here in time. I just got the telegram off two days ago. This is quite a pickle I’m in, and you fellers are a sight for sore eyes. You must’ve thought I already got the rope the way you’re going on so.”

Ben sat down next to him. “Son, it’s a long story, but we didn’t believe we were ever going to see you again.”

Hoss nodded at Sheriff Russell standing outside the cell. “Sheriff here is pretty sure he’s got the right guy. And I gotta’ admit I don’t blame him what with the evidence they got.”

“What happened, Hoss?”

“I got bushwhacked. Couple of fellers caught me; one of them was almost as big as I am. They took my things, and left me with the big man’s things. They hit me on the head good. It took me a day to even figure out what happened. I had no idea I was riding a stolen horse or paying with stolen money. I was just trying to get to town and get a wire off to you fellers. I can’t quite figure out why they would take my hat and my horse, and then leave me with their stuff. It was the oddest thing ever.”

Adam stepped forward. “They were setting you up, Hoss. Probably wanted folks to think that you were Burke. It’d take the pressure off for them. Confuse folks about who was who.”

“So this Burke is on the run somewhere while I’m sitting here for his crime.”

“Well, Hoss, I think it’s safe to say that Burke is done robbing banks.” The room got silent.

“I don’t understand, Adam. These folks think I’m Burke.”

Sheriff Russell came up to the bars. “What you are fellers talking about?”

“Mickey Burke was hung in Larkspur about a week ago. They thought it was Hoss. Sent his things to the Ponderosa including Chubby.”

“Thank goodness Old Chub got home safe.” Then he frowned as he pondered the situation again. “I still don’t understand.”

“Burke took your identity, Hoss, but he got caught robbing a bank in Larkspur. They hung him, and then they told us you were dead.”

Hoss closed his eyes for a moment. “You all been thinking that I died in Larkspur.”

“We got some information that told us different, and then took a hunch that you were the Mickey Burke they were trying to hang up here in Cannon Falls.”

Hoss stood up and walked to the door. “Did you hear all that, Sheriff? I ain’t Mickey Burke.”

The sheriff shook his head. “There’s nothing I can do. The judge gave orders. I can’t just take justice into my own hands. You’ve been lawfully convicted and I got a hanging to do.”

“Where’s the judge?” Roy asked.

“He’s on the circuit. No telling where he is about now.”

Hoss threw up his hands. “So we just…do nothing. You’re going to string me up having doubts like you do. And don’t tell me you don’t, I can see it on your face.”

Joe was at his brother’s side. “We ain’t saying good-bye to you again. We’ll do what it takes, Hoss. You’re getting out of here alive.”

Sheriff Russell pulled out his gun. “That’s enough. We run a lawful town here. I ain’t letting emotion overtake the law. You fellers need to step out of there now. I think this little reunion’s gone on long enough.”

Roy walked toward him. “Russell, we don’t mean no harm. The Cartwrights here are real law-abiding people. You gotta’ understand. It’s a little hard to go through what they been through, find a miracle, and then hear it’s going to be snatched away.”

“Don’t matter, Coffee. I got a job to do and I aim to do it. Now ease out of there, fellas.”

Ben looked at Joe and Adam and nodded. The three of them followed Roy out of the cell. All the joy seemed to drain from Hoss’ face when the sheriff shut the door hard.

Ben walked up to the sheriff. “We need to talk.”

Russell ushered them back into his office. Joe looked back at Hoss and nodded with a wink. It wasn’t much of a gesture, but it was all he had at his disposal to comfort his older brother. Russell closed the door to the cells and turned around. “I ain’t no monster. I’ll do what I can, but my hands are tied.”

Adam shook his head. “What does that mean?”

Russell looked down at his boots for a moment and sighed. “Well, for starters, we can telegraph Larkspur. If Tompkins will confirm that it was Burke he hung, it’ll be enough to hold your boy until the judge comes again.”

Adam looked up at the ceiling. “Tompkins isn’t going to help us. He doesn’t want people to know that he screwed up even if he did hang the right man.”

Russell nodded. “Yeah, I figured. I know Tompkins. He’s an old drunk and a blowhard.”

“There has to be another way.” Joe couldn’t stand still.

“We need the judge.”

“So if we find the judge and get him here, you’ll stop the hanging.”

“Yeah, I will, but we ain’t got much time. Hanging is scheduled for 6 a.m. tomorrow morning.” Russell put up his hands. “I know that’s not enough time. Best I can do is hold off on it until 6 p.m.”

“We need a couple of days at least,” Ben said.

Russell shook his head. “Can’t do that for you.”

“Why?” Joe was only inches from the sheriff’s face.

Russell backed up, his hand on his holster. “I let Coffee explain it to you.”

Roy sighed. “I hate to agree with him, but twelve hours is probably the best he can do. You saw it out there. Crowds are forming. They left their farms and ranches just for this. They’ll have to lose another day’s worth of work just waiting, and they are not going to be happy people.”

“A man’s life is at stake: my brother’s life.” Adam put a firm hand on his arm and started to pull his younger brother away from the sheriff.

“Listen, Joe, as a sheriff, I know what’s going to happen. These crowds are going to be ornery already ‘cause it’s put back 12 hours. Then they’re going to get resentful about the fact that a bunch of strangers came into town and changed justice. At 6 p.m. tomorrow, if there ain’t a hanging, about 50 men are going to storm and take care of it for us. Russell ain’t going to be able to control them. And that’ll be the end for Russell as a sheriff and for law and order in this town. I can’t say I’d do any different in his shoes.”

The room got silent. Everyone knew there was a lot of truth in what Roy was saying. Another 24 hours was going to be the best they could do.

“How are we going to find the judge?” Ben knew that arguing had no place in this conversation anymore.

Russell shrugged. “He doesn’t keep an exacting schedule. There are about five towns where he could be right now.”

“What are they? We don’t have time.”

Adam stepped forward. “Pa, we don’t even know the territory in these parts. We don’t have a chance.”

An eyebrow rose on Ben’s expressive face. “I have a plan. Sheriff, please point me to the busiest saloon you have in town.”

*****

Ben stood up on a chair in the saloon. It was full of men drinking, and slowly they noticed the imposing man on the chair. He waited until all eyes were on him, and then he talked in the commanding voice that had always brought men to attention. “Gentlemen, my name is Ben Cartwright. I have come to town to find my son. I have found my son. He has been mistakenly identified as the criminal, Mickey Burke. In fact, his name is Eric Cartwright, but we call him Hoss.” A low murmur of discontent rose around the room. Ben put up his hand. “Please listen. I have found my son, but I know that it is not a matter of just releasing him. We need to do this legally. I know you are all here to see justice done, and I want that to happen. I have a proposal for you.”

Around him, the noise settled. “We need to find the judge who sentenced my son. Sheriff Russell here says that he should be in one of five towns. My sons and I do not know this area. I am looking for ten men to go to these five towns and find the judge and bring him back here by 6 p.m. tomorrow.”

A man stood up and pointed at the sheriff. “Do you mean to tell me that you’re putting off this hanging?”

Other men stood up and started yelling about missed chores and animals that needed feeding. Ben used his booming baritone to quiet the crowd. “Please, please, it’s important that justice be served. You don’t want to hang an innocent man.”

“He’s not innocent! He was convicted!’ A man yelled. Joe started, but Adam held him back.

Ben started shouting above the noise. “I will pay $500 each to ten men if they will check these towns and bring back the judge. The man or men who succeed will each be given $2000 each.” He only had to say it once. The room grew silent.

“You serious?” Said a man at the bar.

Ben nodded. “Very serious. Sheriff Russell will choose ten men from volunteers to take on this task. There will be $2000 available for every man responsible for getting the judge here before 6 p.m. tomorrow evening.”

The shouting began and men converged on Sheriff Russell. He hopped on a table, and began picking out the ten men from the crowd.

Adam leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. He wanted to believe that it was almost over and that he and both of his brothers would ride out of town tomorrow with their Pa, and chalk this up to nothing more than a bad memory, but he could feel in his gut that it wasn’t going to be as simple as that. A nagging pain in his temples was growing, and he couldn’t quite remember the last night he actually slept for more than a couple of hours. He was a strong man, and he knew he could stay together for the next 24 hours, but he worried how he would be able to hold it together if his younger brother actually had to face the rope.

*****

Russell gave them quite a bit of latitude. Joe slept on a cot in the cell next to Hoss’. Adam sat in the cot in the cell on the other side, dozing occasionally. Roy sat outside the cells in a chair tipped back against the wall. He was snoring deeply, the only one of them getting real sleep. Ben sat with Hoss; the two men unable to sleep at all. There was a lot to talk about, but neither man was willing to have a conversation about never seeing one another again. Instead Hoss kept taking his Pa through the years. It was bittersweet to the point where Ben had to struggle to stay composed. “Pa, remember the time when I was twelve, and Adam went off to school. Remember how upset I was. Couldn’t eat nothing for a week. I was sure I would never see him again. Do you remember that?”

Ben swallowed his emotion. “Yeah, I do. I remember that Little Joe followed you everywhere, he was so worried. When he couldn’t get your attention, he ran off. Do you remember that?”

“Aw, he didn’t run off ‘cause of me. That boy was always getting into something he shouldn’t have.”

“No, he ran off because he couldn’t reach you. Remember he was suffering too, and the person who always took care of him was you. He was pretty crushed when you were hurting too bad to see him.”

Hoss pondered this for a moment. “I remember that I searched all day and into the evening before I caught that rascal’s footprints going into Bear Canyon. I would’ve whupped him too when I caught up with him, but I was so darned relieved, I couldn’t do nothing but pick him up and squeeze him hard.”

Ben smiled. “The two of you were really inseparable after that.”

Hoss glanced over at Adam dozing in the next cell. “Do you reckon that was hard for Adam when he got back?”

Ben shook his head. “Not really. Adam always needs a little distance. He’s…independent, you know.”

“Why is that, Pa?”

“He went through too much as a boy. I still wonder if there wasn’t something I could’ve done to shield him better from all the losses. I was hurting myself, and I know I wasn’t there for him like I should’ve been; sort of like you with Joe after Adam went to school. The truth is Adam had to grow up too fast.”

Hoss nodded. “I reckon I always sort of saw him as my other Pa. I always did what he told me. I wonder if he ever knew how much he meant to me growing up.”

Ben sighed. “I always thought everything would be okay as long as I loved you all hard enough, but life doesn’t work that way.”

Hoss put a big arm around his father. “I always felt lucky, Pa. I had you and two brothers, and I couldn’t have felt more loved or cared for. I know things was tough sometimes, but you always taught us right from wrong, and I always knew where I belonged. It’s been a good life.”

Ben closed his eyes against the hurt welling up in his gut. He couldn’t bear to lose his big, kind middle son. Hoss seemed to sense his pain. He cleared his throat, “Well, Pa, I think I’m going to lay back here and close my eyes for a bit. Wouldn’t hurt to get a little rest.” He leaned back and rested his head against the wall, giving his pa space to sort out the emotions at war inside him.

In the next cell, Adam opened one eye slowly. He saw his brother pretending to sleep, and his father sitting beside him, his head in his hands. None of the conversation had escaped him. A big part of him wanted to jump up and tell them how much they meant to him too. But he didn’t; that was something the biggest man in Virginia City could do, but that wasn’t him. He pulled himself to his feet, his tired muscles groaning, and headed for the door. It was early, but he figured he’d get some breakfast for them, and then he’d head to the telegraph office to send a wire to Tompkins. It wouldn’t do them any good, but sitting around doing nothing wasn’t good either.

*****

By noon, three of the ten riders had returned, but there was no judge with them. Ben swallowed his fear, and did his best to keep up a calm demeanor. Joe brought some checkers into Hoss’ cell, and he was studiously letting Hoss win each and every game. Hoss had gotten quiet, but he hung in there with Joe, knowing how important it was to stay normal as long as possible.

*****

The ninth rider came in at 4:30 saying there was a rumor the judge had been called to San Francisco. He said that the last rider had gone on to Circuit Office in Carson City to confirm the rumor. Joe’s tenuous hold on patience snapped, and he flung the checker board against the wall. Ben moved to quiet him, but Hoss put up a hand. He pulled his brother down next to him, and talked to him in a quiet voice for several minutes. Ben could hear Joe’s attempts to protest, but Hoss’ tone was insistent and the boy finally started to calm. Hoss gripped Joe tightly by the arm, and demanded that he promise to stay peaceful. It was another hard few minutes before Joe reluctantly agreed. When he let go, Joe jumped to his feet, disappearing out the sheriff’s office, his eyes angry and wet. Adam started to follow, but Ben grabbed his arm and shook his head. Then he quietly walked into Hoss’ cell, and the father and son sat together talking quietly.

*****

Russell felt like he had aged ten years in the last 24 hours. He’d had a chance to watch the Cartwrights together, and was no more inclined to hang Hoss than he would any of the townspeople of Cannon Falls. The weight on his shoulders was heavy, but his mandate was clear. He knew he should just take Coffee’s word that Hoss was not the man who did the crime, but he’d already told the town they were waiting for outside confirmation. They weren’t going to let him change the rules at this point. Men outside his office already made it clear they were going to make sure the hanging happened just as the judge decreed it should. Coffee had spent much of the day with Russell patrolling the town. He felt a kinship to the man as he knew the older sheriff understood his dilemma. With each new rider, a little bit of hope drained away, and he wondered whatever had him thinking that law enforcement was anything other than a real headache.

*****

Joe came back at a 5:45, and started pacing outside Hoss’ cell. The pounding in Adam’s head was such that he wanted to scream at the boy to sit down, but like everything else, he held this in check too. Ben was quieting reading bible passages to Hoss when Coffee burst in. “The last feller is back!”

All but Hoss clamored out the door to the street. The man and horse were both breathing hard. The fact that they were alone should’ve told Ben what he needed to know, but he reached for the man anyway. With help, the man slid off the horse. A deputy ran out with a cup of water and the man drank. He looked up at Ben. “I’m sorry Mr. Cartwright, but it’s confirmed. The judge left for San Francisco two days ago. There’s no way to reach him.”

Shouting rose in the crowds gathered. A large man with a rifle approached. “Okay, sheriff, we waited like you asked. But it’s over, and it’s time for justice to finally get its turn.” Behind him the shouting increased. Russell swallowed hard and for a moment, he did nothing but stare at the gallows beyond the crowd. Finally he nodded and walked back into his office. Ben grabbed Roy’s arm, “You gotta’ do something!”

“It’s too late, Ben. You can see these people. If we don’t follow through, there’ll be more than a Cartwright boy in a coffin come sun-up. We gotta’ remember the greater good here. We got no other choice. I’m going to help him make this as humane a process as possible.” Roy could barely look Ben in the eye. He didn’t want his old friend to see that he too had wet eyes. He shook his head, pulled away from Ben, and followed Russell back into his office.

Inside, Joe was holding onto Hoss’ bars tightly, staring at his brother. Adam approached and started to put a hand on his youngest brother’s shoulder, but he looked in at Hoss’ face and something in him snapped. A sound rose from his throat, and tears that had denied for an entire week sprang forth. It was Joe who reached to hold him up. Hoss came up and reached through the bars, patting him on the face. “It’s okay, big brother. You done a good job taking care of everybody. Now it’s your turn to get a little caring.”

Adam struggled to speak but was choked by emotion. Hoss’ low, gentle voice comforted him. “There, there, brother. Ain’t nothing you need to say. I know how important family is to you. I know you care. And you know I love you. Sometimes life just hits you hard, and you got no choice but to roll with the punches. I don’t want you going through life thinking about this. I want you to remember all our good years together like how I refused to sit next to the little ones in school. I parked myself right next to you and wouldn’t budge. It didn’t matter what that old schoolmaster said. Remember that?”

A chortle mixed with a sob escaped his throat and he nodded helplessly. Hoss nodded and turned to Joe. “You two fellers are going to have to watch out for another now, more than before. There ain’t going to be Old Hoss around to keep you from scrappin’ and quarrelling. Understand?”

Joe nodded, tears running down his cheeks.

Hoss saw the sheriff behind them and nodded at him. Russell opened the cell and Hoss walked out. Then he turned to his brothers. “I don’t want you anywhere near this.” He looked at the sheriff, and Russell herded his brothers in the cell and locked the door. He refused to look back at them. He just followed the sheriff out into his office. He saw his father, and was glad for another opportunity to tell him he loved him. As he moved toward him, Ben Cartwright surprised them all by grabbing a piece out of the deputy’s holder. There was chaos for a moment while Ben kicked the deputy away and pointed the gun at the sheriff. “I can’t let you do this. This goes against everything I believe but I can’t let you do this.”

Around the room there were three other deputies with guns cocked at Ben. Still he stayed steady on the sheriff. “It’s wrong, sheriff. You know that. My boy is innocent.”

Roy tried to approach. “Ben, this ain’t going to work. Those people out there ain’t going to let you leave alive. You gotta’ know that.”

Ben looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “Stay out of this, Roy.” Then he looked at Hoss. “Grab the sheriff’s gun, Hoss, and then go unlock your brothers.”

The young man stared at his father, and then slowly shook his head. “I ain’t going to do it, Pa. Roy’s right. None of us would make it out of town alive.”

“Do what I say, Boy!”

Tears fell down Hoss’ cheeks. No Pa. Only one Cartwright dies today.”

The gun in Ben’s hand started to shake.

Hoss walked toward him. “This ain’t right. A man’s life is worth doing the right thing. Didn’t you always tell me that? I can’t let you do this. Adam and Joe need you.”

Ben looked around the room at the many guns pointed at him.

Hoss closed his hand over the gun. “I got enough to do walking to those gallows. Don’t give me the extra burden of seeing you on the ground full of bullets. Give me the gun.”

Ben let go of the gun, and his son helped him sit on a chair. Hoss looked into his face. “A man can feel proud when he does the right thing, isn’t that right, Pa?”

Ben nodded slowly.

“This is the only thing I can do to keep you safe and bring peace to this town. It’s the right thing.”

Ben closed his eyes and reached for his son, but the guards were already pulling him out the door. A deputy handcuffed him to the desk. Ben looked to Roy. “Please. Go be with him.”

*****

Hoss was glad his family wasn’t going to see this. A hanging was a hard thing to watch. Hoss could never understand why people were so eager to see one. He never attended a hanging if he could help it. The crowd quieted upon seeing, and was watching him intently. Hoss was used to be stared at, but then realized that folks weren’t fascinated by his size, but by the fact that he was in the final moments of his life. A shiver ran down his spine.

Roy walked up to him and put a hand on his arm. Hoss felt comforted by his presence. Roy Coffee was a good man and a good friend. The guards pushed him toward the stairs, and Hoss wished they would stop doing that. He wasn’t going to fight them; he just needed a little dignity to get where he needed to go under his own speed. He was about to mount the steps when a kid came running down the street yelling for the sheriff. The boy was waving a piece of paper. “Sheriff! Sheriff! There’s a telegram for you. Says it’s from a Sheriff Tompkins. Says its urgent!”

Roy let go of Hoss and trotted after Russell. The sheriff grabbed the telegram out of the boy’s hands and ripped it open. He turned to the crowd. “Listen to this, people. Be advised. The man you have in custody is not Mickey Burke. Mickey Burke was hanged in Larkspur seven days ago. Identity has been confirmed. Man you have in custody is innocent. Signed Sheriff Rory Tompkins. That’s it, Folks. There ain’t going to be a hanging today. This man was framed. He’s innocent!”

The crowd was surprisingly docile in its disappointment. It turned out the sport of hanging came in second to seeing justice done. Quietly, they disbursed, and within a few minutes Coffee, Russell, and Hoss were alone on the street. Hoss felt weak in his knees, but he stayed quiet hoping that strength would come to him again. Russell shook his head as he looked at the telegram. “I could’ve swore that Tompkins first name was Lawrence.”

*****

Adam sat on the front porch of the ranch house, and watched his two brothers arguing over whose turn it was to clean the barn. Joe started to walk away when Hoss picked him up and dropped him in the horse’s trough. Joe rose up, sputtering water out of his mouth and dived at Hoss’ legs. Soon the two of them were rolling around in the dirt, water turning to mud on their clothes. Adam saw Pa riding in, and he threw back his head and laughed. Sure enough, his two younger brothers were soon standing side by side, mud in clumps all over their clothes while their father pointed a large finger in their faces and lectured them. As usual, Hoss shuffled his feet as he always did when Pa was mad at him. Joe tried a look of defiance, but that merely got him more personal attention with the wagging finger.

It had been a few weeks since their heartbreaking experience in Larkspur and in Cannon Falls. Things were back to normal in a sense. Joe and Hoss still tussled at the slightest provocation. Pa still worked them as hard as ever, and Adam still kept an intellectual face on the world. But the truth was that their experience had changed them all. Hoss was a little older now; he had times when he just needed to go off by himself for a couple of days. Pa had become almost fanatic about churchgoing these days never letting slide an opportunity to thank the good Lord for what they had. Joe was a little quieter as well. He was staying a little closer to home these days; less likely to need rescuing from a poker game or a barroom brawl. As for himself, he found it a little easier to laugh these days. He even let himself think about his childhood, rather than hiding his emotions so much. It was painful sometimes, but he found that he was becoming more relaxed and less serious, and this was a good thing. The first thing he did when they got home was to send a telegram to Larkspur confirming that Rory Tompkins was indeed the new sheriff. He was, and Adam often wondered how the slight-looking boy had managed it all. However, it happened he was grateful that the boy had done the right thing.

***The End***

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