Transgressions (by Debbie L)

Summary: “WHI” for “Vengeance”. What if Adam did not stop Joe from killing Red Twilight? Joe’s quest for vengeance has devastating consequences for his family.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:  21,180



When he woke up, there was pain and a lot of it. He could feel every bone. He swallowed, and there was blood in his mouth; he had bitten his tongue when he’d fallen. When his eyes finally opened, there was sunlight threaded through the trunks of the pines, and it was rising. The woods were bathed in the golden glow of morning that lit up the world, almost like he had fallen into some kind of dream.

He felt twigs and pine needles etching patterns onto the side of his face, but there was more than that. Something he didn’t understand until he smelled the metallic tang of it and felt it tacky against his skin. He started to push himself up, but his arm wouldn’t work right, and it collapsed in a bloom of pain that was astonishing, and he fell back to the ground. He had forgotten how to breathe. With effort, he forced air into his lungs and let it out again. Struggling to sit up again, this time he tried to avoid putting pressure on the damaged arm. His vision darkened and narrowed, before the world came back into focus.

He was sitting in a clearing in the woods. Ground squirrels chittered past him, as if he was not there, and chickadees fluttered and squabbled in the branches overhead. A light breeze ruffled through the pine needles, and a cone fell from a branch and tumbled to rest near his knee. He looked over his shoulder and saw his horse a distance away, carelessly tethered to a low branch. Familiarity was settling in, and he realized he was still on the Ponderosa and not far off the main road.

What had happened to him? How had he gotten there? He shook his head as if to set his thinking in place. His thoughts were whirling in his head, and he couldn’t make sense of them through the pain he’d woken up to. Bracing himself with his good arm, he looked at the ground around him. What he saw there made him gasp, and it wasn’t from pain this time.

Blood pooled on the ground before him and all across the clearing, seeping through the needles and the duff. It was red against the brown fecundity of the earth. Around the edges, it was already drying. This time he recognized the smell. It was the scent that lingered in the air in the aftermath of a deadly stampede, after brutal Indian raids on family homesteads. It was the smell that settled in a bedroom after a long, bitter battle with disease. It was the smell of death, and it had not come into the woods naturally.

He began to panic. The world began spinning in his panic, until he caught hold of his own emotions and held them steady. He tried to focus on the scene before him, but his thoughts and his breathing were all tangled together. The rise and fall of his chest was ragged and uneven, and his mind cast wildly about for answers but didn’t come up with any.

All that blood could not be coming from his body. Frantically, he took a good look at his right arm. His own clothes were sticky with blood. The sleeve of his jacket and shirt were torn. Blood still drizzled out of a wound under the ripped cloth, but that didn’t explain the amount of it that had soaked across the clearing

He began shivering, and it was not just from the chill of the morning. Trying hard to remember what he had done, he shook his head and the pain of it made him think that something else was wrong. He reached back carefully and touched the side of his head. His hand came away with a smearing of blood across his fingers. There was a sharp outcrop of a rock, close to where his head had been resting. It was webbed with blood. He must have hit his head when he had fallen. With a detachment that he did not understand, he noted the interesting pattern on the rock. A round splatter of red in the center where his head hit hard and then spidery tendrils snaking down.

No memory of what had happened to him came to mind, so he cast his memory back further. It skidded about randomly until it settled on a memory that could not be refused. So vividly, he saw his brother, lying backshot and unconscious on his own bed. This was something he would never forget. He remembered the last time he had seen his brother. He remembered the gray pallor of his skin, the rattle in the giant man’s chest, and the raggedness of his breathing, each breath taken less willingly than the one before it. He remembered, and the memory hurt worse than any pain his body could cause him. Hoss was dying. He was probably already dead.

And Joe Cartwright remembered his promise. He remembered crouching next to Hoss’ bed in the flickering half-light cast by his oil lamp, remembered the fever burning through the damp cloth he pressed against his forehead. It was probably the last time he would see Hoss alive. He knew it then, and he knew it now. He had gazed fervently at the features of his gentle brother’s face and tried to commit them to memory. The image of that face would have to last a lifetime, however short that life might end up being. His promise echoed in his mind.

“Hoss I promise you,” he had whispered to his sleeping brother. “I’m going to find the man who did this to you. I’m going to find him, and I’m going to kill him. Before I kill him, I’m going to make him know why. I promise I’m going to make him know why.”

He left Hoss’ bedroom, carrying the lamp with him. He would need its grainy light while packing his belongings. There was so much he needed to get ready to be out of the house before morning. When Joe turned back to look at his brother, the room was already shrouded in shadow.

Now in the clearing, fear began to well up inside his chest, until he didn’t think he could stand it. He had to find out what happened. In his mind, his father’s face came before him, lined with worry and grief. Joe pushed it aside. There was no time for that now. There would be plenty of opportunity to think about it later. He had to get up and start looking for what he had done. He had made his own choice, even though he didn’t remember it. He couldn’t bear the idea of his father bearing the cost of his own transgressions.

Joe pushed himself to stand, and the earth trembled under his feet, but then it held steady. Clenching his teeth, he forced himself to start walking. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, following the blood that blotched across the clearing. There was so much of it. The sight repulsed him, and he fought the sickness that stirred inside.

“Keep walking,” he told himself and was surprised to hear his thoughts spoken out loud. “Stop thinking.”

He obeyed his own order and continued walking. He followed a bend in the woods, taking him up almost to the main road. The road to Virginia City. Is that where he’d been heading? Then, just before he climbed the bank to the road, Joe saw him. Propped against the trunk of a tree, as if the man refused to take his demise lying down. Joe’s disordered memory had no problem attaching a name to the man he saw in front of him, although he didn’t remember ever seeing his face before.

Red Twilight, the man whose brother Hoss had accidentally killed, sat gutshot and dead in front of him.

Joe didn’t need to check Red’s pulse to know that he was dead, had probably been dead for some time already. The man was already stiff from the violence of his death, and overhead the scavengers had begun circling.

Red Twilight almost seemed to be smiling, as if his bloodlust had finally been satisfied. His eyes were open, and they appeared to stare at Joe, like he was looking right into his soul. After all, they had so much in common. Both were men who sought and found vengeance. The smile on the dead man’s face seemed to say they were brothers in deed, if not in blood.

Joe recoiled at the sight, his heart and mind revolting. His stomach rebelled as well, and he doubled over, retching with dry heaves until he thought he might do himself some damage. The memory of his own longing for revenge now appalled him. It tasted like gall in the back of his throat. It tasted a lot like sin. For the first time in his life, Joe wished he’d never been born. He had crossed a line his father had drawn for him, since he was a child. He could never be sorry enough to make things right again.

Without fully understanding what he was doing, he turned away from the body and ran. The trees slashed across his path, as if they were determined to slow him down. He found his way back to Cochise, who was grazing nonchalantly, as if the world had not come tumbling down. With his good arm, he pulled himself onto his saddle. Suddenly in panic, he remembered his gun and sighed in relief when his fingers fumbled over it in its holster. He must have put it back without thinking about it. It was one of many things he didn’t remember doing.

Joe didn’t know where he was heading until he got there. Through the blur of the trees, he could begin to make out the familiar slant of the roof. He had ridden back to the house after all, but he was not sure what he had come for. Cochise had taken him around the back way, as if the horse knew they couldn’t really go home again. He dismounted and tethered the pinto to a tree, a short distance away from the main house. He crept along the creek that trailed the back of the house. When he reached the back corner, he heard voices and froze for only a moment. He had used this route to sneak into the house more times than he could remember, after coming home from a late night in Virginia City.

Joe sidled around the corner, until he was close to the front porch. Abruptly, voices broke into his concentration. He realized that Pa and Adam were talking. They were still inside the entryway, but he could hear them clearly with the front door open. The early morning breeze had died out, and the air outside had grown so still and quiet, he could hear every word they said.

“One boy in trouble is enough,” his father was saying. “Find him. Bring him back here, before he does something he’ll regret for the rest of his life.”

The grief and the pain in his father’s voice were palpable. How could Joe tell him it was already too late? It was too late to be thinking about the rest of his life. He had intended to go home to say goodbye, before turning himself in to the sheriff. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t bear the devastation he knew he would find on his pa’s face, when he told him what he had done. He couldn’t subject him to the sight of his youngest son, the baby of the family, swinging from a noose, after a trial that would surely be open and shut.

Suddenly, Joe realized that if he went and told his father he’d taken his revenge on Red Twilight, it might near kill him. Two sons as good as dead and buried in the span of a single week was something he would never get over. Whether it gave out now or in years to come, Ben’s heart would never contain the sorrow that Joe had brought to his family.

Joe Cartwright could never face his father again.

Joe crouched in the shadows of the house, until he was certain Adam was gone. He knew his older brother would first head to Virginia City to look for him. Joe waited until the front door closed, and he skulked along the backside of the house, pausing only when he stood under Hoss’ bedroom window. How tempted he was to climb the roof to that window and say goodbye to the brother who had protected him throughout his life. But he couldn’t risk it. He had brought all this upon himself, and he had to bear it alone. He wasn’t about to bring his guilt to Hoss’ deathbed.

“Goodbye,” he whispered to the house he had been born in.

Steeling himself, Joe made his way back to his horse. His saddlebags and bedroll were already secured from the night before. Late night games of poker had been good to him lately, and he had multiplied his wages over the last couple months. He had squirreled away every cent of his winnings. Only Hoss knew about his gambling and had teased him about it. Asked what he was saving for with all that money, Joe hadn’t known how to answer at the time. There were times in his life he could hardly think a week ahead, let alone plan how to account for his future. He was eighteen, for heaven’s sake! He wasn’t married and already saddled with responsibilities, like some of his boyhood friends. He had all the time in the world to consider where his life might lead him. So when he packed his bags, he had plenty of money stashed away to help him get by. He had packed all of it. When heading out to find Red Twilight, he had thought of everything, it seemed.

He had thought of everything, except what vengeance would cost him. What it would cost his family.

Before mounting, he pulled off his blue jacket and appraised it. Clearly, it was beyond repair. Besides, anyone searching for him would know him by his standard attire. He knew that once Adam found Red Twilight’s body, there’d be a posse searching for him before dusk. Joe didn’t begrudge Adam his moral principles. After all, it was what they’d been taught all of their lives. Right was right, and wrong was wrong. There was a line, and you just didn’t cross it. For the life of him, Joe couldn’t understand what had possessed him to cross that line and forget everything that his father had taught him.

Using his teeth and his good arm, he tore off a strip of the cleanest section of the jacket he could find. In the same way, he struggled to tie it around his arm. Although he had more on his mind than his own wounds, the injury on his arm had not stopped bleeding. He had taken enough of a look at it to know it was caused by a bullet and there were two holes. The bullet had passed clean through. At some point, he would show it to a doctor, if he could find one on the path he was taking. As long as he cleaned it out, any infection it caused was unlikely to kill him. Even if it did, Joe reckoned, he’d be far enough away that it wouldn’t bring more grief to his family.

Joe took the long way around the lake, riding away from Virginia City. At the furthest edge of the Ponderosa, he took one last look back. He looked at the miles of forests that climbed upwards towards the peaks, still glazed with the last winter’s snow. He had known that sight all his life, and it never failed to stir him. Then he turned away and looked towards the mountain pass ahead of him. He had given up the right to his name and its birthright, and the loneliness to come was only what he deserved.

The West had always offered a haven for desperate folks on the run from every kind of sin. There was still plenty of room for a man to lose himself in. They said in the open spaces of the wild, a man could turn into himself and disappear.

*****

Adam could not remember riding any faster. The road to Virginia City had certainly never seemed any longer. It was a bitter ride he was facing, and his own words flew back at him, along with the dust kicked up by his horse.

“He’ll get over it,” he remembered saying the night before, tapping his father on the stomach with his folded newspaper. “You know how he is.”

They all knew how Joe was, but Adam had hardly believed his own words, and he didn’t think he convinced his father one bit. Everyone knew how the boy felt about Hoss. Seeing Hoss lying face down in the dirt with a bullet hole in his back had awakened a rage in Joe that Adam hadn’t seen in his kid brother before. He honestly didn’t know what Joe would do with all that anger.

Earlier that morning, his stomach had lurched when he looked into Joe’s empty bedroom after his father asked him to wake the boy up for breakfast. The room looked like it had been stripped, the bed obviously not slept in, his nightshirt unworn and hung over the back of the chair. Adam steeled himself against his sense of foreboding, chiding himself that Joe was simply up early to get a start on the day.

When Adam strode out to the barn and swung open the door, his unease quickly turned to panic. The morning was just dawning, but already the light fell brittle across the empty stall and cast the barn into shadows. He and his father could tell each other stories all day long, but they’d be kidding themselves. Joe and his horse were long gone, and there was no doubt where the boy was heading. Joe had gone to hunt down and kill Red Twilight. He had gone off looking for vengeance for his brother. And Adam clamped down on his fear. He had to go back into the house, and he owed it to his father to at least sound calm when he told him that Little Joe was gone. But this time he did not take his time making his way back inside. He ran.

It was this same fear that pushed Adam into riding much harder than his common sense would normally allow. But his horse was already getting tired. He sighed and pulled back on the reins. There was no point in getting the animal winded at such a distance from Virginia City. He wouldn’t be helping his brother by causing a good horse to founder. Adam reminded himself to think clearly and to slow things down.

At a steadier pace, he could afford to take a look around at the woods that lined the road. It was a perfect fall morning, bracing and cool, with a soft breeze that hummed through the pine needles. He allowed himself to take a look around, at the ripples of trees leaning aslant in the breeze.

In a windstorm, he had seen those same pines bow dramatically, sometimes all the way to the ground. You could stand in a windstorm and be astonished at the currents of light and shadow and sound that would transform the forest, the wind speeding through the bending pines from hill to hill. Adam had never seen a tree snap in such a storm, but occasionally it happened. Sometimes, a tree was diseased at the core, the evidence of it insidious and undetectable in its outward appearance. Such a tree would always snap under tremendous pressure. There was no way to save it. Nature seemed to know this as well, and used its storms to ensure that only healthy specimens would survive, only those trees that could endure their trial without breaking.

For now, the wind was light and gentle, and it stirred up the scent of cedar and pine. Adam looked across the woods, at the light glancing off the tips of the trees and rippling aslant between their branches. Then from the road, he saw something move, and he wasn’t sure what it was.

Adam reined his horse to a stop at the side of the road and looked more intently between the trees. He knew he had seen something. He waited a moment, willed his horse to stay still, before he saw it again. He saw a saddled bay, weaving in and out of the pines, looking a patch of grass for better grazing. Adam swung down and approached the animal cautiously, but the horse seemed nonplussed by his presence. With saddlebags and a bedroll still tied to the saddle, the horse looked like he had been geared up for a full day’s ride. Adam had to ask himself the question. Where was the rider?

The bay allowed him to come along side and he ran his hand along the animal’s withers. It had been some time since he had been ridden. Adam tied the gelding’s reins to a tree near a patch of grass and turned to consider the forest. With the horse meandering so close to the side of the road, it was most likely that the rider was nearby as well. His gaze rested on the saddlebags, securely tied and fastened, and he wondered if he should take a look through them. He had no right to look through another man’s belongings, but Adam rationalized to himself that someone out there might need help. He ruffled through the first saddlebag, careful not to disturb its contents. He fingered past a tan shirt, some tobacco, and a folded bundle of jerky. Then his hands brushed a piece of paper, and he pulled it out and unfolded it.

When Adam considered the piece of paper he was holding, he knew right away what it was. Knew the disaster it had brought upon his family, and his hands began shaking. A standard missive from any telegraph office, this one was from Virginia City, and it was addressed to Red Twilight. Adam didn’t need to read it to know what it said. He knew that he was holding the telegram from Roy Coffee written to Red Twilight, informing the man of his brother’s death. It was the piece of paper that sent the man on a quest to avenge his brother’s death.

Willie Twilight’s funeral came back to him in every grim detail. He would never forget the melancholy service, Willie’s girl Mary sobbing into her handkerchief, the Reverend’s attempt to instill meaning into a life over too soon. More than anything, Adam would remember his brother Hoss, standing over the coffin, his massive shoulders bent with grief and guilt that none of them had found a way to assuage.

Hoss was a good man, the best man that Adam had been privileged to know. Adam was proud to call that good man his brother. Yet it was his very goodness that proved his undoing, left his heart open to self-loathing and condemnation. How quick he was to blame himself for Willie’s death! Once convinced, it was impossible to dissuade him. Hoss’ guilt ate away at him, drove him further and further away from his family, until it culminated in that one long night when he didn’t come home at all.

Adam spent a sleepless night in his room, lying on his bed and listening for the steady gait of Hoss’ giant horse loping into the barn. But Hoss never came home, and Adam rose early, determined to go find his brother. His father had ordered that they leave Hoss be, give him time to get over his own guilt, in his own way. Adam had no problem ignoring that order. At this stage in his life, he only deferred to his father’s authority when it suited him to do so. He let his father believe otherwise, but it had been many, many years since he had felt any guilt over defying his father. After all, they were both grown men. Even Ben Cartwright was only human and made his share of mistakes. Adam was sure that he was doing the right thing. Hoss needed someone to knock some sense in him, to pull him out from underneath the burden of guilt he had laid on his own shoulders.

So he did not try to be all that quiet as he saddled his horse, in the earliest hours of the morning. He was ready to ride when Joe crept into the barn, nervously glancing over his shoulder to ensure he had not been followed. Adam smiled, despite himself. Joe was still so young, still subject to his father’s authority. Even at eighteen, he still felt compelled to sneak off when disobeying his father. When Adam came up behind him, the hostility rolled off the boy in waves. He fully expected Adam to tell their father what he was heading off to do.

Then Adam stepped forward with his saddled horse and told him, “He’s my brother too. Come on.”

Joe’s expression immediately shifted from hostility to pleasure, his grin lighting up his face. Adam found his brother’s reaction unexpectedly gratifying. It was Joe at his best, enthusiastic and full of passion. It was impossible not to smile back at him. Joe had lived a charmed life, that was for certain. It was no wonder that the pretty girls in town became so distracted when his little brother passed by. The kid lived his life in a way that was hard to ignore.

Adam could have easily grown up resenting his youngest brother. Joe’s boyhood had been so different from his own difficult childhood, as he made his way out west with his father. Joe had never known hunger, had never faced the uncertainty of going without his basic needs being met. Life and all its joys had come easily to the boy, and Joe had thrown himself at it with unbridled passion. It was hard to hold it against him, however; it was just the way he was. His moods in a single day could span every range of emotion. His loves were fierce and his rages even fiercer. Adam tried to moderate Joe’s wild moods and often failed miserably. His father took a sterner approach, coming alongside of his youngest and most volatile son to try and rein him in. Often, he was successful. However, there was only so much a father could do. There came a time when even the most dutiful son had to make up his own mind about the path he was going to follow.

Adam clenched his teeth and told himself again to stop thinking about what was already done. He couldn’t do anything about the past; he needed to find Joe, before he got himself into something that his family couldn’t get him out of.

Adam walked further into the woods. He didn’t know what he was looking for, just that he had to keep looking. Everything was as it always was. The Ponderosa was so beautiful in the cusp of autumn. A man could breathe in its loveliness like it was air. It was almost enough to live on.

He pushed through a bramble of manzanita and almost stumbled into a clearing. Immediately, the loveliness of the forest was completely forgotten.

For a long moment that felt more like an eternity, Adam Cartwright forgot how to breathe. The air seemed to pool in his lungs, as if it were trapped there. Vertigo passed over him in a dizzying wave, and he held onto a branch just to remain standing. He didn’t know if he could speak and when he tried, the word that emerged was only a whisper.

“Joe,” he said so quietly, he wasn’t sure a living soul could hear it. Yet just looking at the ground let him know that any souls around were not likely among the living. Adam found his voice and with it, he began running.

“Joe,” he shouted as loudly as his wheezing lungs would allow. “Little Joe! Joe! Can you hear me?”

He ran awkwardly, off kilter, like a man who had been in the saddle for weeks, instead of hours. The forest no longer seemed lovely. It was malevolent, even in the morning, lurking with shadows and omens. And there was blood. Blood everywhere. Adam continued running, not knowing where the blood might take him.

The blood led him toward a grouping of trees near the main road, just a short distance away from where he had tethered his horse. He had been so close by but could easily have ridden by without seeing it. The body. A man, shot in the stomach, so close to Willie Twilight in appearance that Adam didn’t need any identification to tell him that the man was Willie’s brother.

Adam took off his hat, not out of respect for the dead, but out of deference for the desperate turn their lives had taken. He looked at the dead man only a moment. He’d seen fatal gunshots before. He knew the bullet had been lethal and the man’s life had run out quickly. When he looked at the dead man’s body, he knew it for sure. That bullet had ruined more than one life.

Adam turned around and started running back to his horse. He didn’t stop to decide where he was heading. Later, he would realize that he should have gone to the sheriff to file a report. But he just couldn’t do it. His brother’s smiling face kept coming before him, and Adam didn’t have the heart to push the image aside.

For just a moment, when Adam first looked at the body, the thought came to mind to just get rid of it. He could drag it deep into the forest and bury it there. He could put an end to the bitter legacy of the Twilight family once and for all. But he just couldn’t do it. Not even for Little Joe. Not even for his father, whose reaction to all this, Adam could hardly bear to think about. He tried to think of what his father would do, what his father would have him do. Adam was Ben Cartwright’s son, a man after his father’s heart. He needed to tell his father what he saw. Couldn’t let him hear it from anyone else. So he returned to the ranch.

He rode back at a fast gallop. This time, his horse was hardly winded by the pace he had set. Making good time, he reached the clearing outside the ranch house, and it did not surprise him that his father was waiting on the front porch for his return. Adam dismounted and approached, gingerly, reluctantly. He would have asked how Hoss was doing, but he couldn’t get the words out. There was only so much bad news a man could handle. He could hardly look into his father’s face.

“Son,” Ben said and grasped Adam’s shoulders. There was a question in the word, and he didn’t know how to begin to answer. Right then, Adam didn’t feel much like a man at all. He felt like a boy and wanted to collapse into his father’s arms and disappear. Forget about what he had seen and what needed to be done.

“Oh Pa,” Adam managed and cursed at the catch in his voice. It told more than he had intended to give away.

“Tell me,” Ben commanded, his own voice holding steady. “Little Joe?”

So Adam told him. Told him everything he saw, even though he knew what the words cost both of them. When he was done, Adam watched helplessly as his father seemed to age before him, his shoulders collapsing inward. Then, Ben took a deep breath and seemed to settle on some sort of resolution. Watching his father, Adam had no idea where he found his strength. As for himself, he felt adrift in the world, adrift in that terrible morning.

After bowing his head for just a moment, Ben looked up and stared directly into Adam’s eyes.

“Take me,” he said.

“Pa, let me handle it,” Adam protested. “I can go to the sheriff.”

“Take me now, Adam,” his father said.

“Look Pa, someone needs to stay with Hoss.”

But Ben Cartwright had made up his mind. “Hop Sing can stay with Hoss. He’s doing much better this morning. He’ll be all right until we return. Adam, I need to go see… I need to see for myself what my boy has done…”

There was nothing left to say. Ben saddled his horse, with the stoicism of a man facing his imminent execution. Adam fed and watered his own horse, preparing the animal for another grim sojourn. They rode away from the ranch house together in silence.

When they arrived at the spot where Adam found the body, he was astounded to see two horses and a wagon, tied by the side of the road. Immediately he recognized the sheriff’s horse along with a couple other horses that weren’t familiar. He traded an alarmed look with his father and dismounted, only to be met by Roy Coffee who had just climbed up the embankment. He was followed by his deputy and by a woman that Adam recognized immediately as Willie Twilight’s girl.

“Ben!” the lawman exclaimed, as though it was the most natural thing in the world for them to be greeting each other this early in the morning, on the side of the road, next to a scene of carnage. “I was just coming to see you. Little Joe all right? Are you sending for a doctor?”

Ben and Adam were speechless for a moment.

Then Ben managed, “Roy, I don’t know what you’re talking about. We were coming to see…”

“Not much to see here,” Roy gestured casually into the woods. “Red Twilight’s dead. From the looks of things, he’s been dead for a while. And from what Mary tells me, it was pretty much cut and dried. A clear case of self-defense. With an eyewitness, I don’t imagine Little Joe will have much trouble clearing his name. He did what anyone would have done. Having an eyewitness saves us the trouble of a trial, anyhow. But how’s the boy’s arm, Ben? Mary here tells me that Little Joe was unconscious, when she left him. She rode all the way to Virginia City to get help.”

His father stared at his old friend in utter confusion, so Adam spoke up instead.

“Roy,” he said. “We haven’t seen Little Joe since last night. Perhaps, you better fill us in on what you’re talking about.”

“Well,” the sheriff drawled. “I imagine Mary here would do a better job at that than I would. After all, she saw the whole thing. Mary, you know the Cartwrights…”

And Mary began her story. She had been up before sunrise, on her way to see Hoss and to tell him the truth about Willie. About the fact that Willie had a ruined heart and that he couldn’t see his own death come too quickly. She wanted to tell Hoss that he was not guilty in Willie’s death. It had taken her some time, but he had wanted to let Hoss know the truth. And to warn him about Red…

By the side of the road, Red was waiting. Mary did not know if he was waiting for her or someone else. He forced his horse in front of her wagon, sending it almost off the road. Pulling her off the seat of her rig, he dragged her into the woods. She screamed and did what she could to fight him off, but alone in the woods, her struggle did little to stop him. He seemed to know where she was heading, and he intended to stop her from talking. As his hand tightened its grasp around her throat, she felt her life slipping away and prepared to die. Neither she nor Red heard the footsteps walking through the forest.

“Let go of her.” The voice was soft but full of venom.

Red let go of Mary, and she collapsed to the ground. Lying on the duff of fallen needles and bark, Mary lifted her head to see Joe Cartwright, standing at the edge of the clearing, his gun drawn.

“Now lay down your gun,” Joe said.

It occurred to Mary then that she had never thought of the youngest Cartwright boy as being particularly dangerous. He always seemed to be walking down the streets of Virginia City with an easy smile and a pretty girl on his arm. Even though she was desperately relieved to see him, something in his eyes scared her. Red Twilight must have sensed the same thing. With alacrity that made her scream, Red reached for his gun and aimed it at the boy. But Joe was faster, had always been fast, ever since he learned how to use a gun. And his gun was already drawn.

His bullet hit Red right in the center of the man’s gut. Although Mary had been in the line of fire, she knew she was in no danger. Joe was a remarkably good shot. But as he slowly dropped to the ground, Red’s finger found the trigger of his own gun. Mary screamed and buried her face, as the gun recoiled and the smell of gunpowder wafted through the air. When she dared to lift her head, Red Twilight was crawling across the clearing toward the main road. There was blood everywhere. It was streaming out of the man’s wound, soaking into the ground. She watched Red disappear into the trees. And then she saw him.

Joe Cartwright lay in front of her, his gun in his hand, blood flowing freely from his head and his arm.

Mary tried to wake him. Nothing seemed to do any good. She needed to bring back help. On her way to the road, she passed Red Twilight, already dead. She tried not to look into his death-stare. There was something in his open eyes that shook her deeply. It would revisit her in nightmares, for many years to come. In death, the little man looked satisfied, as if he had gotten all the revenge anyone could want in one lifetime.

When she finished her story, she looked up into the faces of two very quiet men. Adam could barely make sense of her story. It was as if the entire world had fallen apart and been put back together, in the span of a single morning. He just couldn’t shake the feeling it had been put back together wrong.

He tried to rouse himself out of his stupor, and he looked at his father. Ben also seemed lost in the woman’s revelation.

Adam rested his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Pa, there was no sign of Little Joe or his horse. He had to have left, on his own. If he’s hurt, we’ve got to find him.”

Ben seemed to come back to himself, and he stared at his oldest son with dawning understanding. Relief and dread warred in his eyes and neither seemed to achieve dominance. There was hope after all, but it was still so confusing. He shook off Adam’s hand and slid and staggered down the bank, into the forest. Adam followed. Neither spared a glance for Red Twilight’s stiffening body. The man had brought more than enough grief to their family.

Adam came alongside and gestured towards the clearing. They fought their way into it, through the tangled mass of undergrowth. The dirt of the clearing was still desecrated with blood, which was quickly darkening. Ben looked at the ground; some of that blood belonged to his son. He cupped his hands around his mouth. Adam resisted the temptation to put his hands over his ears. He wanted to escape the pain in his father’s voice, yet there was no escaping from it.

“Joseph,” Ben shouted, and his voice echoed in the forest. “Little Joe! Where are you? You can come out! We’re here!”

Overhead, a squirrel sputtered and leapt to a higher branch. His flash of motion was inconsequential to the two men below and their worries, yet they could not help glancing up, all the same. The tiny animal perched above them, crouched over his plunder of nuts and seeds. He peered down at the father and son on the ground, seemingly with pity, before chattering away to branches above to secure his bounty for the winter that was surely coming.

*****

The horse threw him before he could brace for it. He fell hard onto the churned up mud of the corral. Off to the side, he could see a couple of ranch hands hooting and hollering and waving their hats in the air.

Joe managed a rueful smile and reached for his own hat, which had flown off in the fall. He should have known better than to have taken on that last horse. He had already broken many horses since the start of the morning, and his body had taken about as much punishment as it would put up with. He was aching in places he’d never thought of. Not that it mattered much. He wanted to wear his body out past exhaustion. A tired body meant he could sink into a dreamless sleep that kept all his demons at a safe distance.

When he dreamed, he was running through the woods and the ground was bleeding and Red Twilight’s face stared at him until it was laughing. The face would fade away and be replaced by the face of his middle brother. On Hoss’ face, he could make out disappointment so profound, Joe would wake up gasping. So it was that an exhausted body was a blessing. These days, all he asked out of life was that it let him sleep through until morning.

A ranch hand reached out to help him over the fence, but he didn’t need any assistance. The other men meant well, called him “kid” in the friendliest way, and continued to invite him to the consolation of cards and whiskey in the bunkhouse after supper. But Joe wasn’t interested in making friends. Even after almost three months of working at the ranch, he could have passed them by in town, without recognizing their faces.

The past month had brought nothing but rain falling without abatement. The winter had turned into an overcast and grey series of storms that turned the brown hills green and the ground below into a warm sludge of mud. He knew snow would be falling over the mountain passes in the Sierras. The newest string of horses still needed to be broken, a job made more hazardous by the rain. But Joe didn’t mind the additional risk. What did he have to lose anyway? Everything he could possibly lose was lost to him already.

When Joe rode away from the Ponderosa over three months earlier, he planned to make his way to San Francisco, to board a ship when he arrived, and to set sail from there to anywhere else. It was the least he could do for his family, he told himself. His pa and Adam would have a lifetime of grief as it was, and he was lost to them anyway. Joe figured he was just sparing them the agony of a trial. His arm had healed nicely without the help of a doctor, just as he suspected it would. In his eighteen years of life, he had seen enough gunshot wounds to know that this injury would not prove much of a problem to him. He had always healed quickly.

He had ridden over the miles of mountains and foothills, taking the familiar route through Sacramento, and ferrying across the delta. As he passed the familiar terrain, the memories of past trips haunted him. It brought an ache to the back of his eyes that was almost unendurable. He had ridden the ferry with his family many times on route to San Francisco. The memories assailed him. With every bend the steamboat followed through the winding paths of the delta, a new memory came to take a hold of his mind.

It seemed like just yesterday, when Hoss had leaned over the railing and pointed out a particularly attractive patch of shoreline in between the rippling reeds and grasses.

“One of these days Little Joe,” Hoss had told him. “You and me’s going to come back here, when we’re not in such a dadburn hurry. We’re gonna find our way right back to that pretty little spot, and we’re gonna catch us a mess of crawdads that I reckon we could live off for a week.”

Hoss slapped his hand against the railing of the ferry and looked so pleased with the notion that Joe had to laugh.

“Hoss,” he said and leaned over to pull his brother’s hat down over his eyes. “You don’t even like crawdads! How are you fixing to live off them for a week?”

“Where’s your spirit of adventure, Joseph?” Hoss had admonished, tilting back his hat and staring across the swamp, with a pleased smile wide across his face. “You and me could have a fine time, without those two always hurrying us along.”

Hoss gestured toward Pa and Adam, who were huddled over their ledgers with their backs to the sun and weren’t paying them any mind. The two grinned at each other. One thing that was for certain, Hoss and Little Joe Cartwright knew how to have a good time.

There was a time when Joe would have smiled over that memory. Yet, it was like he had been a boy for all of his eighteen years, and overnight he had grown up into the wrong kind of man. Losing Hoss wasn’t something he would ever get over. All the rage he’d experienced when his brother was shot had faded away. Taking his revenge on Red Twilight had accomplished nothing. It had not brought him a moment’s peace or satisfaction. His nightmares made it clear that his act of vengeance was the last thing that Hoss would have ever wanted carried out in his name.

By the time Joe arrived at the port of Martinez, he had decided to change his plans. He needed to head somewhere that held no memory of his family. He mounted Cochise and considered where he should go. In the distance, he saw the looming mass of Mount Diablo, glowing pink from the sun setting in the west. It couldn’t compete with the dramatic mountain ranges of the Sierras, but here the mountain dominated the valley. The sight triggered a memory from the previous year. He remembered Adam reading an article in the newspaper about the recent discovery of coal in the small town of Clayton. In his head, his brother’s voice narrated the discovery with fine baritone detail. Joe almost smiled to hear it again. Adam would have never dreamed his younger brother had actually been listening.

Nestled in the base of the foothills that surrounded the peak of Mount Diablo, the first mining operations had hoped to find silver and gold and had been sorely disappointed. Finding coal instead had given the little town new life. When Adam read the article, Joe had little reason to be interested about the resurgence of life in Clayton. After all, the news didn’t affect him, and Joe liked news he had a stake in.

Mounted on his horse, trying to figure which direction to head, Joe decided the clamor of a new mining town could provide just the place to disappear until the winter had passed and he could decide where to head next. So he made his way southeast, towards the newly teeming town of Clayton.

After a few hours ride, he found himself on Clayton’s bustling main street. It was easy to find the town’s only saloon. A steady stream of prospectors, cowhands, and settlers flowed in and out of its swinging doors. A shot rang out from around the corner, and he could hear raucous laughter.

A drunken miner stumbled by and said “Good day,” to him, with slurred courtliness. Joe sighed, tipped his hat to the man, and dismounted. It reminded him of the birth of Virginia City. The early years of a mining town were never boring.

The little saloon turned out to have more to offer than Joe had anticipated. The beer wasn’t too warm, the girls were prettier than could be expected, and the other occupants knew how to mind their own business. After a few friendly inquiries were met by Joe’s icy stare, anyone paying attention knew to back off and let well enough alone. The kid looked innocent enough, but there was also something about him that looked like trouble, and it was easy enough in this life to find trouble without going looking for it.

On his third beer, Joe overheard that the Miller ranch was looking for men who could handle a rifle to shoot mountain lions that prowled the foothills. It seemed the lions preyed on the cattle herds during the cold months. Winter was on its way. Pay wasn’t bad, one man insisted, thirty-five dollars a month for the right man, along with food and lodging. Joe tossed his money on the bar and headed out the swinging doors. He still had money left from his poker winnings, but it wouldn’t last forever. He wasn’t interested in bunking with a bunch of cowhands, but he did need to eat, and he was a good shot. Good as anyone, some might say.

Joe ran a hand over his eyes. Being a good shot had helped lead him down his broken road, but all the same, it was an asset, and Joe wasn’t afraid to use it.

In short order, he found his way to the Miller ranch, easily the biggest spread east of San Francisco. He proved his shooting prowess with several cans balanced on a split rail fence and when that proved too easy, a bottle thrown in the air and hit before it reached the ground told the ranch foreman everything he needed to know. Joe was hired, on the spot, and when he refused the offer of lodging, the foreman hardly raised an eyebrow.

“Have it your way, kid,” he had said. “Hotel’s on Oak Street if you’re wanting to live high on the hog. It’s your paycheck, I reckon. Say, what did you say your last name was, anyway?”

“I didn’t say,” Joe replied, tightening the cinch of his saddle, as he prepared for the ride back to town.

“Iffen a man works here, he’s got to have two names,” the man replied evenly.

“Then I don’t work here,” Joe said. He checked his canteens for water and aimed a cool gaze at the man. “My name’s Joe. If that ain’t good enough, I figure there are other ranches that’ll hire me. It’s all the same to me.”

“All right kid,” the man replied, taking off his hat and running his fingers through graying hair. “No need to get riled up. I reckon one name will do.”

And it was settled. Joe started work the next morning, rising at dawn to ride across the foothills that surrounded the mountain. Autumn was slipping away, and a chill made the air brittle against his exposed face and hands, but he didn’t mind the work. It was lonely and beautiful, riding through the drying grasses of rolling hills and valleys, spotted with live oaks. From a distance, it looked like the hills were made of spun gold and not coal.

He earned his keep. He proved a good shot, his aim was true, and he didn’t have to talk to anyone all day if he didn’t want to. Little Joe Cartwright, who had rarely kept a thought to himself, was turning into a quiet man.

His predilection for solitude was interrupted a month into his stay. It ended the day he watched a young cowhand mistreat a nervous palamino, who had resisted many efforts to break him. Joe had finished his day’s work and had felt satisfied after managing to shoot an especially wily mountain lion that had been picking off the herd by Mount Diablo Creek. He rode back to the ranch to turn in his rifle for the day and stood off to the side, watching the young fool ruin a horse that had so much promise.

Joe did not realize that his hands were clenched into fists, as he watched the cowhand thrash at the beautiful animal. It made him so angry, the unnecessary use of violence as a tool, the needless destruction of all that potential. He knew he could handle the wildness in the gelding, had seen many others just like him back on the Ponderosa. Just thinking of his home made the back of his throat feel tight, but he pushed that feeling away, along with all the others. He had had his chance at living the life that was intended for him, and he had thrown it all away. He tried not to think of his pa and Adam at home, going through the motions of attending to the ranch. The pain of Hoss’ death and the pain he had caused them would be a heartache that would not wear away.

“You think you can do better?” The voice was quiet by his side. Joe had not heard anyone approach and was startled. He glanced sharply at the old wrangler who stood next to him. Jake Collins had been described to him as a legend in his time, when he worked at spreads between Sacramento and Stockton. A miracle worker with a horse, they said, he used to ride like an angel while sitting a saddle. No one was better at working with horses. Now Joe appraised him, unimpressed. The old man’s hands had long been gnarled into uselessness, and his back was bent and arthritic. The time had long since passed, Joe figured, since Jake Collins was good for much of anything other than passing along his own opinion. Yet the foreman of the ranch seemed to have confidence in him; the ranch had employed Collins for nearly five years to do just that.

“I reckon I could do better,” Joe replied, turning back to the horse, barely able to suppress his own indignation at the travesty inside the coral. “That kid has no business being near a horse.”

“That horse is a handful,” Collins told him, scratching the uneven gray and silver bristles that protruded from his chin. “Three of our best riders already had a go at him. Need to break him. Otherwise he’s not worth his feed. You seem to think you could do better? Tell me son. What gives you such a high opinion of yourself anyhow?”

Joe looked over at the wrangler and hooked his thumbs over his gun belt.

“Experience,” he replied. “That and maybe some talent. Something that fool over there is lacking on all accounts.”

“Son, you look too young to me to have much experience or talent. You want to try your hand… well son, your mount’s waiting. How old are you anyhow?”

“Older than I look,” Joe said and straddled the fence without waiting for a second invitation. More than he cared to admit, he wanted to have a go at that horse.

Collins gestured for the other cowhand to leave the corral. The young man spit on the ground and regarded the old wrangler with such a look of rancor that Joe was somewhat taken aback. Later, he would think of the man’s squinty face, the pinched look about the corners of his lips, so out of place in a fellow so young. There was something about the man that was unsettling, but Joe pushed the worry away. After all, a fine horse was waiting.

Joe regarded the horse inside the corral. He was tired and achy from his long day in the saddle. When riding back to the ranch, he had looked forward to getting back to town, having a beer and a bowl of hash, and going upstairs to the tiny room he couldn’t bring himself to call home. Breaking a horse was the last thing on his mind. But Joe knew he had little choice. His father had always taught him to do the right thing despite any inconvenience to himself. He had broken his father’s most serious commandment. Joe figured the least he could do was to get the little things right.

The palomino was blowing and stomping nervously. Joe knew that the horse was not completely wild; he had already been broken to a saddle, although none too successfully. Joe had never been intimidated by the prospect of gentling a difficult horse. Adam always said that it took a wild thing to know one, but Joe tried to pay his brother’s voice no mind. Lately, he seemed to hear Adam talking in his head, and his words were often laden with accusations. Adam had always felt the need to be Joe’s conscience. Joe resented it at the time, but now desperately wished his oldest brother had caught him the night he set out to hunt for Red Twilight. He shook the thought out of his head. Joe couldn’t think about Adam right now. He needed to focus on the horse.

Joe approached the gelding slowly, with his shoulders drawn forward and his head tilted to one side, careful not to make eye contact with the frightened animal. When he was close enough, he held out his hand and brushed it against the horse’s neck. To his gratification, the horse seemed to quiet under his touch. Hoss always said that it was a miracle that with all Joe’s jumpiness, there was just no one better at gentling a horse. Hoss said his little brother was born to it. A natural, Hoss always said. Joe shook his head. There was something about the inside of that corral that was bringing the Ponderosa back into his head.

Joe took the reins and led the horse to stand against the fence, where he could mount without the palomino spooking away from him. No swing mount, this time. In one fluid movement, Joe mounted the gelding swiftly, so the animal would not have the chance to bolt away. Joe tried to sit deep in the saddle, to sit quiet, to let the horse know he meant him no harm.

The horse’s reaction was less violent than anyone watching would have expected. Sure, he pitched and began to spin, but didn’t seem to have the heart to throw off his rider. With one last lurch and plunge, the horse seemed to settle underneath him. He quieted down, and Joe dismounted, rubbing his hand up and down the gelding’s neck.

“There now,” he murmured, aware that he had a stunned audience straddling the fence. He tried not to think back to all the times his brothers watched him work a horse, cheering him on and hooting gleefully when he landed on his face in the dust. “That wasn’t so bad. You just needed to be with someone who knew what you were up to.”

Joe handed the reins over to a waiting cowhand and swung over the fence to stand next to the old wrangler. Collins had been watching his ride, with a thoughtful expression coming to light over his leathered features.

The old man was quiet for a spell and then finally said, “You got yourself a job, son.”

Joe worked at hooking his gun belt back around his hips and did not look up.

“Don’t need one. I got a job that suits me fine.”

“Oh I don’t think so,” Collins drawled and waited, until Joe met his eyes. “I reckon you’re more suited to settling wild things down than killing them.”

“What I’m suited for might surprise you,” Joe snapped and tugged his hat low over his eyes. He didn’t like the tone the old man had taken. It was almost like he knew some things about Joe that he shouldn’t. But there was no use in arguing. They had watched him ride and, it had already been decided for him. He would take the job. Joe preferred to work alone and had enjoyed his time riding the foothills, but some things, it seemed, were meant to happen.

So Joe stayed on, breaking horses and getting paid handsomely for it. As the months passed, some small part of him allowed himself a small amount of pride that he had finally established a reputation for himself that had nothing to do with the name that he’d been born to. Proving himself apart from his family was something he had always wanted. But he missed that name. Missed being a Cartwright so badly sometimes the longing seemed to be its own form of justice. When he was a boy, his father used to say that he always prayed his sons would get caught in their infractions. Although he had avoided the gallows, he was well aware that he hadn’t gotten away with much of anything. Justice demanded restitution, and Joe was still paying the price.

Autumn passed into winter, and Christmas approached without Joe referring to it by name. However, on Christmas Eve, he stood outside the telegraph office, longing to send a wire to let his father know he was all right. For the past few weeks, it had taken all the self-control he could muster to stay away from that office. But he knew that a telegram would set his father up with a terrible dilemma. If he wired his family, even from a nearby town, the telegram would lead them right to him. Would Ben Cartwright be able to let his son get away with killing a man or would he wire the local authorities and turn him in? Joe could not bear to force his father into making that sort of decision. He turned away from the telegraph office and returned to his room to spend Christmas alone.

January passed in much the same way. It was a rare sunny afternoon, when Joe found himself lying in the mud of the corral, after being thrown from the last horse of the day. The month had brought days of rain and a grey sky that hung low over the mountain. Dripping with mud, he realized he should probably clean up before heading back to town. He eyed the water pump and started toward it but then gazed off in the distance towards Mitchell creek. The winter air was bracing, but the sun was bright, and washing at the creek would be a fine end for his day.

The ranch had been built close to the creek, and Joe was familiar with its meanderings. Although it couldn’t compare to the spectacular vistas of the Ponderosa, Joe had grown fond of the pretty terrain that surrounded Mount Diablo, the valleys of rolling hills and gorges, dotted with ancient oaks. The brown grass of summer had already greened, seemingly overnight, and a single day of sunshine did wonders to diminish the standing water that had pooled in every ridge and rut. Joe rode down the slope that was already flush with upstart grass, past the wide-branching oaks that lined the creek. He dismounted at his favorite spot, under an especially majestic tree. He ducked under a low branch and climbed down until he reached his favorite place to sit and think. After taking off his shirt and splashing water over his face and arms, he sat on a flat rock at the edge and watched the creek, which was running higher and faster than usual from all the recent rain.

Before him, the creek sprayed over an outcropping of rocks and boulders, the water reflecting the mottled lattice of light shining through the leaves. The sight stirred something in him, brought him back to the pleasure that he always had for quiet places. Hoss would love this spot, he reflected and the thought of his brother drew tears from his eyes. Joe swiped them away with the back of his hand in disgust. He was absolutely alone in the world, and it was high time he got used the idea of it.

Lost in his thoughts and listening to the gurgle and spray of the creek, he did not hear Jake Collins ride up behind him. He did not hear the old man’s uneven footsteps as he made his way down to the water.

“Come springtime, that creek’ll be running with salmon so thick, all a fellow needs to do is reach in and pull one out.”

Joe almost jumped out of his skin. His hand flew for his gun, before he got hold of himself and put it away. Without comment, the old wrangler came alongside Joe and sat beside him on the rock. Breathing hard, Joe gave the man an exasperated scowl.

“If you value your life, you might give a fellow some warning,” he said.

“No salmon right now,” Collins continued, as if Joe hadn’t spoken. “But plenty of other fish with all this rain. What do you say you and me go fishing come Sunday? I figured you might have some time. You don’t strike me as a church-going man.”

Joe snorted despite himself, thinking of all of the Sunday mornings his brothers had dragged him out of bed at the stern admonition of his father. He had attended church nearly every Sunday of his life. However, he had not set foot in a church, since leaving the Ponderosa and had no intention of doing so.

“I don’t fish,” Joe said at last, trying not to think of Hoss and how his brother would have loved to go fishing at this creek. He picked up a pebble and tossed it, watching it bounce against a rock before it tumbled in.

“You don’t fish?” the wrangler asked, slapping his hand against his knee in disbelief. “Now that strikes me as mighty strange. Most folks around here learn to hold a fishing pole before they can walk. Now what kind of people you come from that they never taught you to fish?”

“Good people,” Joe answered immediately, frowning at the question. “They taught me everything I needed to know. I didn’t always listen…”

“I’d imagine that’s truth, I surely do,” Jake said, plucking a blade of grass and chewing on its tip. “I reckoned you had family behind you. A boy like you doesn’t just leak out of the landscape.”

“What do you mean?” Joe asked, despite himself. He should have just let the old man’s comment slide by, but his natural curiosity got the best of him.

“You just strike me as the sort who comes from good people, that’s all.”

“For all the good I did with it,” Joe muttered.

“What do you mean by that, son?” Collins picked up a pebble and skipped it, whistling when it bounced a few times before disappearing into the swirling water.

“I mean I’ve made a real mess of things,” Joe replied and shook his head at his lack of discretion. He’d already said more than he intended, but once he’d started talking, he didn’t seem to be able to stop. “I’ve done things that I can’t take back. Things that can’t be forgiven.”

The old wrangler was quiet for a while, before he spoke again. When he did, his voice was barely audible over the rush of the water. Joe had to strain to hear him.

“You know son, I’ve lived a long time. My cinch is getting mighty frayed, you could say. But one thing I’ve learned from all that living. There’s a lot more to a man than the worst thing he’s ever done.”

Joe stared at the man intently. Jake Collins’ words dug deep into a part of his heart he didn’t want to expose. Yet there was something about the man’s last statement that confused him, that seemed to fly in the face of what he’d been taught before.

After giving it some thought, Joe said, “My pa always taught me that a man’s life could be judged by the sum of his actions. That he had to make the right choices, to live up to his name.”

“Well I’d expect your pa’s right, up to a point,” the wrangler said. “But every man has his share of sins. You so special you come up with any new ones?”

Joe smiled at that but then remembered his particular transgression.

“You don’t have any idea what I’ve done,” he said.

“Oh I expect I do,” Collins replied. “I reckon you turned left when you should have turned right.”

Joe looked at the old wrangler with genuine curiosity, but the man had already turned away. What the man said grabbed hold of him. It wasn’t like the man’s words were anything he hadn’t heard before. It was just that they had slipped his mind.

He took a pebble and skipped it across the water, just the way Adam had taught him. It bounced several times and seemed to float on the surface for a breath-holding moment. Then it stalled and vanished in the shadowed water.

*****

Ben stared out the window, at snow falling upon snow, and wondered if he had lost his faith.

The bleak light of winter was strangely satisfying to him. Normally, he was a man who longed to be outdoors, who thrilled to the prospect of a fine, sunny day. Even at his age, his body was muscled and strong, better suited to moving through wide-open spaces than to be sitting inside and waiting. Winter had always made him uneasy, a fact that he had never admitted to his sons. Ben had always harbored an irrational fear that once snow started falling it would never stop again. He was a man of action. He had never been good at waiting.

And the snow kept falling. The darkening days on either side of the winter solstice matched the state of Ben’s soul, like a glove. Winter had never been his season, but this year he didn’t know if there would be an end to it.

During the first terrible days after Joe went missing, the weather was cloudless and lovely, as if mocking all of them for their trivial concerns. How could anyone know despair on such a beautiful day?

Of course, there had been blessings, even during those first days. Ben was not such an old fool that he could forget what he had to be thankful for. Willie’s girl Mary had come to the Ponderosa the morning Joe disappeared and told Hoss the truth about Willie’s death. Although his gentle-hearted son barely roused in his bed while she spoke, later that night he awakened and seemed to understand what she had tried to tell him.

“Pa,” Hoss whispered and accepted a sip of water. “What she said… Was she telling the truth Pa?”

“She was telling the truth son,” Ben said, with a smile of relief. Hoss already looked so much better. The doctor had been by that evening and confirmed that by all indications, Hoss had turned a corner and would fully recover.

“Pa…” Hoss said, his eyes barely open. He was already slipping back into sleep. “Something else bothers me. Don’t let Little Joe…”

Hoss’ voice faded into sleep, but his father knew exactly what he wanted to say. And Ben Cartwright’s heart broke again. He kept vigil at Hoss’ side for rest of that night and watched his middle son sleep. He had learned long ago that it took more than a heart breaking to kill you.

So he kept on living, as they all did.

Adam was gone for the rest of that terrible day and the one after that as well. He rode into Virginia City with Roy Coffee and wired every nearby town to be on the lookout for a boy with a wounded arm who was riding a pinto. Sheriff Coffee even sent authorization to hold Joe in jail until help arrived. He didn’t specify what Joe was being charged with. As far as the law was concerned, the boy wasn’t guilty of anything. Adam rode to Carson City and then all the way to Truckee. The answer was the same. No one had seen his brother. That afternoon, Hop Sing found the remains of Joe’s jacket on the trail behind the house. Blood splattered the sleeve, and a strip had been torn from it. It was clear that Joe had been by the house after he was shot. Where he was headed and why he ran, no one could say.

When Hoss recovered enough to be left alone with Hop Sing, Ben and Adam left the Ponderosa to search through towns that Joe had been familiar with. They searched for weeks until the bright snap of autumn turned downright brittle, and clouds gathered and darkened over the mountains. Winter was coming their way, and neither could afford to be away from home when it came.

Whatever it takes, the two men told each other when they started to search, but in the end it wasn’t enough. Joe had disappeared into the dust of the earth, as if he’d never been born. When winter arrived early that year, it came at them with a vengeance that Ben took personally. The mountain passes were covered with snow after the first storm. No more searching would be feasible until spring.

And Ben Cartwright was an angry man. Sometimes, he directed his anger at Joseph, sometimes at God. Some days, he was mad at everyone, and every hand on the Ponderosa knew on those days to steer clear of him.

If the truth be known, his anger was born of confusion. The boundaries Ben had always set for his life had always been so well defined. He was a moral man, a good man; few who knew him would disagree. He had always instructed his sons that there was a right way and a wrong way to everything. He couldn’t comprehend how his youngest son had gotten it so wrong. Why had he run? After all, the boy had acted in self-defense, would never be charged with any crime. Hoss had never needed his younger brother more desperately. How could the boy have turned his back on his family?

Joe’s disappearance hit Hoss hard, slowed his recovery, even the doctor had to admit it. Although he finally understood he had not caused Willie’s death, Hoss felt he was somehow responsible for causing Joe to run away. None of them could make sense of it, but they all knew that Joe had believed he had reason to run and keep running.

Raising Joe had not been an easy task. Ben had sometimes joked that his youngest son had been born as God’s way of teaching him humility. But the roughest roads seemed to be behind them. Emerging from his somewhat wild boyhood, Joe had matured into a charming, hard-working young man. Although he was a bit freer with the ladies than a father would have liked, everything seemed to indicate that he was Ben Cartwright’s son and was growing into the sort of man who put the needs of others before his own.

If he was being honest, Ben could not say who had disappointed him the most, himself or his son. He couldn’t understand how it had all fallen apart. All his hopes and dreams for each of his boys. Their future together on the Ponderosa. Their closeness was what distinguished them as a family, not their wealth or their land. But with one member missing, the others seemed at loose ends. The endless snowbound days gave each of them too much time to think about what had gone wrong.

Even Adam, the only son not physically injured by Red Twilight, was nursing his own wounds. Adam concealed his pain well, as he always had since he was a boy, but there were some hurts that couldn’t stay hidden.

One night at dinner, when Hoss was finally recovered enough to join them at the table, the three remaining Cartwrights ate the dinner Hop Sing had prepared for them. They briefly discussed the condition of the fences in the south pasture and considered buying a stallion that could improve the bloodlines from an especially promising mare. With the business of the Ponderosa accounted for, they ate in silence, each man keeping his own counsel. Suddenly the whole table shook, as Adam pounded his fist against it.

“What the hell was I thinking?” Adam asked, ignoring the shocked glances of his father and brother. “I fell asleep that night! How could I have fallen asleep with Hoss in such bad shape and Joe in the state he was in? I knew how upset Joe was. I should have stayed up and listened for him. I should have known he’d go after Red Twilight!”

Hoss put down his fork, his appetite gone. Ben looked at his two sons; he saw the toll the past months had taken on his family. How long had it been since the house had known any laughter? Joe had made the decision to leave, but they were all paying for it dearly. Ben felt determination to set things right rising in his chest, pooling there until he felt that it might overflow if he didn’t speak his peace. He reached across and placed one hand over Adam’s and one over Hoss’ as well.

“Now you listen to me,” he said to his older sons. “Your brother made his own choice. He chose to leave this house and go after that man. He chose to leave the Ponderosa. I don’t know why. If I know your younger brother at all, he must have felt he had his reasons. But it was his choice. We can’t blame ourselves for the choices he made. We can only pray that he comes to his senses and makes the choice to come home. He’s a grown man, and none of us bear the blame for his decisions.”

Ben Cartwright spoke the words confidently and sounded like he believed them. If nothing else, they seemed to provide comfort to his oldest sons. Yet he didn’t absolve himself so easily. The nagging suspicion that he had failed as a father had taken hold of his heart.

When Christmas arrived, Ben’s melancholy reached fruition. Until the holiday passed without a word, he hadn’t fully realized that he had been setting his hopes on the possibility of the sound of familiar hoof beats riding hard from the main road or at the very least, a telegram arriving from town. When the day ended as it began, Ben began to seriously question whether he would see his youngest son again.

He knew the mountain roads were impassable from the latest series of storms, but that had never stopped Joseph before. That boy of his would do anything he set his mind to. Calling a task impossible only made it more likely he’d give it a try. He smiled a bit when he thought of the boy’s stubbornness. Having survived many run-ins with that willfulness, Ben felt uniquely qualified to testify to Joe’s implacability in the face of a challenge. Sometimes, Ben felt he had indulged that stubbornness more than he should.
Perhaps he should have been more severe with Joe. He remembered that after Marie’s death, the scolds in Virginia City whispered that Ben Cartwright was letting his youngest son run wild. Over the years, Adam had said the same thing, but at least he had the decency to say it to his face. He supposed they were all right in a way, and yet Ben still didn’t know if he’d do it differently, even with what he knew now.

He remembered the many times he had watched his boy race his pinto. The father’s stomach would lurch as he watched youth, abandon, and a fast horse twine together and send the boy flying across meadows and ravines. He should have stopped him, should have told him not to take so many chances, but it was so wonderful when the boy smiled that Ben hadn’t the heart to slow him down.

Ben stood at the window. He looked at the snow falling aslant over the world, his world, the one he had built as a legacy. He had done everything possible to build a kingdom that would stand, but it was easy to forget that he was a father and not a king. A father could only do so much. There were limits to his authority. His sons were grown men and were entitled to their own mistakes. Joseph had always made more than his share, it was true, but maybe the lessons simply took longer to take hold.

Ben had always told his boys not to waste suffering when it came to them, to pay attention to the lessons that sorrow and pain could teach a man. With typical stubbornness, he had neglected to heed his own advice.

So he stayed by the window and waited and tried to pray. He resolved not to waste his own suffering. And it seemed to him that the answers would lie in the waiting.

*****

Joe dismounted and followed Jake Collins into the saloon. It was already late, but the room clamored with the high spirits of men who had a week’s pay burning holes in their pockets. It had been a long day, that was for sure, but he had almost finished breaking the newest string of horses. His hard work would bring a decent profit to the ranch. Despite himself, Joe felt a peculiar satisfaction over the role he had played in that venture. The foreman had protested that the horses were too high-strung to justify their purchase, but Joe had argued his point succinctly, had won Collins to his side, and in the end managed to prove that even the most ill-tempered horse could be broken, with the right handling.

“A beer for my friend and some tarantula juice for myself,” Collins was telling the barkeep.

Joe raised an eyebrow at the man, but the old wrangler just laughed.

“A boy without a last name ain’t old enough for anything stronger than a beer,” he needled Joe. “You tell me your full name, and I’ll buy you that whiskey.”

“And why in tarnation do you need to know my name?” Joe asked.

“I reckon,” Collins said. “A man can leave home in such a hurry he forgets to take his right name with him …”

His good mood somewhat soured, Joe rolled his eyes and took a sip of his beer. He studied the dullness of the scratched glass he was holding. He had always been easy to provoke, a fact his brothers often used to their advantage. However, Joe was determined not to let Collins get a rise out of him. Despite his irritation, the beer went down easy, and he felt himself relaxing into his evening.

He looked around the saloon that had become so familiar over the past several months. Sally, a girl he had passed time with, looked up from a table of new prospectors and gave him a wink and a smile. He smiled back and then quickly looked away. He was becoming comfortable in this new life, and that bothered him. His transgressions had not been forgotten. Joe had been raised to believe in justice and knew that wrongs would be made right in the end. His day of judgment just hadn’t come yet.

The time he had set for himself to leave Clayton had already come and gone. The rain was easing up, and waves of mustard, lupine and poppies were blooming in the valleys. The snow on the mountain passes would be melting soon.

All the same, he couldn’t bring himself to move on. He still kept a good distance from the other men, but lately he had taken to sitting with Collins at the end of the week, over a few drinks and an occasional game of cards. Joe didn’t know why he felt so comfortable around him. Didn’t understand what distinguished this one old man from all the others. It wasn’t like Joe had been giving his secrets away to anyone. But somehow, it was like Collins already knew what Joe had done. It was like Joe had already repented, confessed, and been forgiven.

Late into the night, they’d taken to talking. It didn’t add up to much. Just easy talk really, about horses and poker and women. As the evening wore on and they’d been through a few rounds, they’d talk about life and what it had cost them. Sometimes, they didn’t talk at all. In this way, the man reminded him of Hoss and the comfortable silence that could settle between them.

After a stretch of this kind of silence, Joe decided to voice his thoughts. “I’ll be moving on soon.”

“You going home.” It really wasn’t a question, but Joe treated it like it was.

“No,” he said. “I reckon there’s places left that I’ve been meaning to see. Been saving my money. I figure I can get a ways on what I’ve earned so far. I don’t need much to get by, and besides I don’t eat much.”

“Well, if that ain’t the truth,” Collins chortled, and they both laughed. Joe’s lack of appetite had already been noted at the ranch. For a young man who put in such a hard day’s work, he sure didn’t need much food to keep him going. Joe couldn’t tell anyone, that after losing Hoss and his family, food didn’t taste like it used to.

Then a serious look passed over Collin’s face, and he leaned forward on his elbows. His mouth flattened into a line, the creases around his eyes becoming pronounced and determined. Immediately, Joe felt a tickle at the back of his throat and tried to swallow. He had a bad feeling that the conversation was heading down a road he wasn’t prepared to follow.

Collins took in the expression on his young friend’s face, and he laughed. “Now don’t you start worrying. I ain’t about to start lecturing you. That’s not my way. I believe every man has the right to live his own life. I just want you to think on one thing. I’ve been watching you since you came, and I’ve never met anyone who took things harder than you. You’re always looking over your shoulder, like you’re half-expecting someone to be coming after you. I reckon you’ve got some things to make right, before you move on. A man that looks over his shoulder at every piece of straight road ain’t been living a straight life. It’s never too late to do what you know you ought to.”

“Now you sound like my pa,” Joe said, almost to himself. He took a long draw from his beer and smiled.

“Then your pa’s a man that should be listened to,” Collins replied. He smiled back and rubbed his eyes, red-rimmed and crinkling from years riding under the sun.

“And just so you know, that was a lecture,” Joe said and set down his glass. “Trust me, I’ve been at the receiving end of enough lectures to know one when I hear it.”

They both laughed. And Collins paid for the last round of drinks and headed out the door to retrieve their horses from the livery. A few weeks earlier, Joe had moved out of his paid room in town and into the bunkhouse. He justified the move by telling himself that he needed to save every cent for the next stretch of his journey.

Joe waited in front of the saloon for a while, buttoning his coat against the bite of the wind that swept down from the mountain. Spring was on its way, but as Collins had been saying for weeks, it was likely to take its own sweet time in arriving. In the valley around the mountain, a chill could linger in the air until early summer. Joe wondered what was taking his friend so long. It was late, he felt the day’s work as heaviness in his bones, and he was ready to get home. He was so impatient in the waiting that he didn’t realize he had started to think of the ranch as home.

Fighting back a yawn, he set after his friend. Like all mining towns, the main street was more alive during the night than the day. Drunken miners hung out of second story windows, laughing and haranguing their friends down on the street. The lilt of a piano player tinkled merrily from behind the saloon doors. And beyond the town, the mountain loomed, ghostly and glowing under the moon. The street and the slants of the rough framed buildings were robed in moonlight, and the stars paraded across the whole of the sky. It was beautiful. Joe stopped a moment and closed his eyes, trying to remember the last time when a beautiful sight made him feel so settled inside.

He was still standing there in the street, when the shot was fired. At first Joe figured the gunshot for some drunken cowboys having fun. Miners and cowhands from the outlying ranches often fired their guns in the air, often late into the night. But something wasn’t right. He only heard one shot, and it wasn’t followed by laughter. An uneasy feeling came over him, and he started towards the alley behind the livery.

Rounding the corner, Joe half collided with another man who ran from the other direction. At first, the man’s face was obscured in the murk of the alley, but as he tried to shove past Joe, a swathe of moonlight slashed across his face. As if the heavens themselves were determined to reveal the man, Joe got a good look at his face. He immediately recognized the face of the ranch hand that had thrashed that poor horse so many months earlier, before Joe had stepped in. Joe hadn’t seen the man in months, because Collins had fired him the following day. The old wrangler had said that the man was incompetent and had a bad attitude to boot. Joe had reckoned that the young man would have found a new spread with a fresh supply of good horses to ruin by this time.

As if suspended in mutual recognition, the two stared at each other for a long spell, although it was probably only a few seconds. Startled, Joe realized the ranch hand was probably the same age as he was. What Joe had mistaken for youth and inexperience was something else entirely. The young man knew exactly what he had been doing to that horse, and he just didn’t care.

The man stared at Joe with his lidded eyes and smiled. The smile struck Joe as vaguely reptilian; he had seen a similar smile before. A previously forgotten memory came upon him. He remembered Red Twilight’s face as he reached for his gun, smiling even as he pulled the trigger. Joe had not known that a smile could be so hateful until then.

Joe blinked in confusion. Up to that moment, he had remembered nothing of what had happened in the clearing, only the terrible awakening to that nightmare of blood. He shook his head, as if to clear it, and Red’s face faded, and the face of the ranch hand reappeared in its place.

The man smirked, tipped his hat to Joe, and disappeared around the bend into the waiting darkness. For a moment, Joe considered giving chase, but a groan carried around the corner. A familiar smell carried with it. He wondered that he didn’t notice it before. The vestiges of gunpowder wafted in the air, along with something else, something he had tried to forget.

More images clouded his mind. He saw his brother Hoss lying in the dirt. He remembered the rush of his anger, so visceral it was more a thing than a feeling. It had form; it had substance. He could wrap his fingers around it. His anger had a life of its own.

He remembered Red Twilight’s face, a smile in the shadows between the trees. He remembered the bullet’s violence surprising him with pain, racing down his arm. He saw Red Twilight falling to the ground, blood pouring out of his gut. He remembered the pine trees veiled in red haze, as if blood had changed the color of the landscape. He remembered falling, his own blood spilling onto the ground. He remembered the memories with all of his senses, but they didn’t make any sense. It was as if they belonged to someone else, and he shook his head to try to free himself from them.

And then he remembered where he was. And he started to run.

It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for. Joe tore around the corner and immediately fell over a figure writhing on the ground. Joe reached out frantically, feeling the dirt sticky underneath his hands. He knew what he was feeling, before his eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he felt the life breath of the man fading away, felt the warm tide of blood ebbing and flowing under his fingers.

“Jake,” Joe whispered, trying to find the source of the blood, in the dark. “I’m here. You’ll be all right.”

“Gutshot,” the old wrangler gasped, as if every word cost him. “Ain’t nothing to be done. It’s over, boy.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, reaching for the man’s hand. His own hands were covered with blood, but there was no stopping it. And he was so sorry. The old man had always seemed to understand Joe’s need for absolution.

Collins whispered, “It ain’t never too late to do the right thing. Tell me you’ll do it…”

“I’ll do it,” Joe said, not fully understanding his promise, but he had been taught to take his promises seriously. It was a promise to his brother that had led him down this road. Collins’ breathing began to gurgle in the dark. Joe knew what that meant. He had heard that sound before. His friend was drowning in his own blood.

Jake Collins choked and gasped for another breath, and Joe felt the man’s heart stop beating beneath his hands.

Joe cried for just a minute, before he felt the grief seep away. Immediately, rage surged in to take its place. He felt it fount out of the darkness inside of his soul that he had believed was long gone. Then Joe knew the truth, and the certainty was his accuser, made him feel ill and trembling inside.

His capacity for violence was not dead; it had simply been lying in wait and biding its time.

Joe’s heart pounded in his chest, and he felt his hand brush against the handle of his gun, even before he knew what he was thinking about doing. It was all coming back to him, the torrent of grief, the rising desperation, and the hunger for vengeance. He remembered Hoss lying face down in the dirt, the life pulsing out the wound with every beat of his heart. The shooter so close at hand and getting away, his impotent fury as he rode for a doctor, instead of tracking him down like he had wanted. Pa and Adam’s infuriating composure, in the face of his brother’s impending death.

But your brother’s not dead,a voice inside him said. The voice sounded so much like Jake Collins that Joe had to touch the body lying in front of him to be certain the man was really dead. For a moment, he considered the words, before pushing them away as hope talking. His friend was dead, and his brother had most likely been dead for several months now. In his eighteen years of life, Joe had seen enough death to be glutted with it. But he had made a promise. He didn’t know where he was heading.

Joe walked back across the town. Oddly, he wasn’t in a hurry. Adam would have said he was in shock, but Joe was thinking quite clearly. He’d always been good when it came to tracking things down. He walked past an old pepper tree that stood in front of the hotel. The branches above shivered and rattled in the breeze. He could hear the fallen peppercorns crunching under his boots. They had fallen off too early. Against the dim flicker of an oil lamp, he could see the outlines of bats flitting and fluttering out of the eaves of the mercantile. Even with the moonlight, it was such a dark night.

Joe walked until he found him. Found the fool tightening the cinch of his saddle in front of the tavern, as if he had all the time in the world. Joe stared from the shadows and watched him.

That’s what killers have in common, he thought, they just don’t think ahead. If you’re going to murder a man, you should at least think about how you’re going to get away with it.

His thoughts seemed to rise out of a different part of his mind, a way of thinking he didn’t fully recognize.

Silently, Joe drew his gun. He had always been fast. Folks used to say he was the fastest draw in Virginia City. A natural, born to it, they said. He held the gun steady and waited. He wondered what he would do. The answer, it seemed, would lie in the waiting.

As he waited, he heard his father’s voice out of the darkness, calling him to come home. He couldn’t understand what his father was trying to tell him, but he knew it was time to listen. A man’s life could be judged by the sum of his actions, but he was worth more than the worst thing he had ever done. It was time to consider his choices. It was time to decide what kind of man he would become.

Joe’s voice, once he found it, was quiet and strong.

Without wavering, he said, “Turn around, and put down your gun.”

The young man turned quickly and smiled, when he saw Joe’s aimed gun.

“I wondered when you’d show up,” he said. “You’re probably upset right now. I expect you and old man Collins got right close, while I was gone.”

“I’m taking you to the sheriff,” Joe said.

“I’d have thought you’d be wanting to settle things between us,” the young man hissed. “You don’t strike me as the sort that puts too much stock in the law.”

“I’m taking you in.” Joe heard doors swinging open, was aware of men and women gathering at the edge of the road. For the size of the audience that was growing, the night was absolutely still. An owl hooted from the eaves of the livery, the only creature that dared upset the silence. Everyone was intent on watching the show unfold.

The young man moved so fast Joe barely had time to react, but of course he did. The bullet that was fired bit into the ground at Joe’s feet. Dust and gravel sprayed into his face, making his eyes sting, and the smell of gunpowder once again filled the air. The young man had been faster than he looked, but he wasn’t as fast as Joe. He sunk to his knees, stared at Joe in disbelief, and collapsed, dead before he hit the ground.

The onlookers had scattered when the shots were fired, and Joe found himself alone on the street. He looked at the gun warming his hand, and considered that justice had chased him down, after all. He was tired of holding a gun in his hand, tired of being the reason for so much blood. It was time to put an end to it. He was late to learn what his family had tried to teach him, but it was never too late to do the right thing.

With resolution, he walked towards the jail down the main street. The sheriff was already stumbling out the door, his shirt half-buttoned and his gun drawn. Joe stood before him and thought to himself that he had a kind face; he was the good sort of man who had become a lawmaker because he believed in the difference between right and wrong. It was good to surrender to such a man. The sheriff frowned, as Joe held out his gun.

“What’s this all about?” the sheriff asked, taking the proffered weapon, while keeping his own steady. “What was all that shooting?”

“I’m here to turn myself in,” Joe said. A sense of peace washed over him, made him feel glad inside. It was time to stop running. Time to hold fast to his right name. “I’m guilty.”

The sheriff’s forehead furrowed in confusion. He looked at the young man, a kid really, standing before him with his bloodied hands raised up. He had a strange, sad smile across his face.

“Young fellow, can you tell me your name?” he asked. “Tell me who you are, before we talk about whether or not you’re guilty.”

Joe only had to consider his answer for a minute. Jake Collin’s words still echoed in his head.

A man can leave home in such a hurry he forgets to take his right name with him …

“I’m Ben Cartwright’s son,” he said.

*****
Hoss stood next to the woodpile, his axe poised to strike a piece of kindling when he heard the geese flying overhead. He lowered the axe to the ground and watched in amazement, as they flew low over the house. With a single-minded sense of purpose, their calls rang through the air. They flew so low he could hear their wings flapping like a windstorm in the forest. With breathtaking speed, they angled in formation and dove down past the tree line and out of sight. Hoss knew they were heading back to the lake, but it made no sense. The snow still sloshed brown and grey on the ground. It was too early to call it spring. He had never known the flock to return so early. He crinkled his nose and shrugged. It was time to give his attention to the task at hand.

Hoss lifted the axe and winced at the ache in his back. The pain from the bullet had faded over the past couple months. It bothered him mostly in the morning, when he pulled himself out of bed, after sleeping on it all night. Then if felt crabby and hot, as if the wound was resurrecting itself. But even that was fading. Doc Martin said the human body had a mind of its own and would heal when it was good and ready. Hoss always had a great deal of faith in doctors and took the doctor’s words as truth.

He knew his body would heal in time, but there were other kinds of pain that showed no signs of getting better. The pain from the bullet wound was nothing compared to the pain of finding out his little brother had disappeared. For the first few weeks, guilt welled up all over again and even threatened his recovery, until he realized it was his own guilt that set off the whole tragic set of events in the first place.

Hoss Cartwright was a humble man, and he believed that things happened for purposes that he couldn’t understand. When all was said and done, Hoss couldn’t bring himself to believe that he alone was responsible for the decisions of other men. It was a bitter pill to take, but some things were simply beyond his control.

He hadn’t healed enough along to ride with his pa and Adam while they searched for Joe across the territory. They didn’t return to the Ponderosa until the snow made searching right near impossible. So Hoss stayed home through the remainder of fall and the winter. He worked around the ranch, and he healed, and he waited. They all waited, with varying degrees of patience.

Even after a series of winter blizzards made riding dangerous, Adam rigged up the sleigh and continued his forays into Virginia City. He wired the sheriffs in town after town, but he received few replies. Nobody had seen a brown-haired boy with a slight build, wearing a left-handed holster low on his hips, who rode a pinto fast when he should have gone slow. Besides, the law had better ways to spend its time than keeping an eye out for some rich man’s kid.

His pa and Adam were still convinced they would find him, as soon as the snow melted enough to make traveling easier. However, Hoss had few illusions. Little Joe had thrown himself into the open spaces of the West. Hoss knew his little brother. It made him sad to think about it, but he knew Little Joe would come home only if he was ready. If he wasn’t already dead…

Hoss was blessed with a temperament that allowed him to tolerate waiting easier than the rest of his family. They were all men who far preferred taking action over waiting around to see what life would bring to their doorstep. Hoss wanted to find Joe just as bad as they did, but there was little any of them could do. Besides, the Ponderosa demanded its fair share of attention and would not be put off indefinitely. With solemn hearts, the three remaining Cartwrights returned to the work of running the ranch. And they waited.

Hoss lifted the axe and split the wood in two. Each half fell apart in perfect symmetry and he was admiring his neat handiwork, when he first heard it. He heard a sound that sounded like far away thunder, but there weren’t any clouds over the lake. The sky was blue and brilliant, a jewel of a day. The sun glinted against the snow and made it sparkle like it was freshly fallen. Hoss tried to love all the seasons equally, but he had always set a special place in his heart for early spring.

The sound was getting louder, and Hoss set down his axe. It almost sounded like hoof-fall, but nobody rode his horse like that. A feeling came over him then, and before he could push it away, it took root and flowered in his mind. He was so sure of his newfound conviction he’d stake his life on it coming to pass.

Hoss was all finished with waiting. As it turned out, he wasn’t that patient after all.

“Pa! Adam!” he yelled as loud as he could. But he wasn’t waiting for either of them to come out of the house. Hoss was running up the main road as fast as he knew how to meet up with his little brother.

*****

Joe had been riding hard and fast. When he reached the turn-off that led to the house, he reined to a stop and caught his breath. Joe sat quiet in the saddle and surveyed the Ponderosa. From his vantage point near the crest of the hill, he could see across the arc of mountains covered with snow, the miles of forested ridges impossibly bright underneath the full sun. For the first time in months, he felt like he could breathe deeply. The air was full of perfume. It smelled like his boyhood, like warm summer afternoons tromping through the woods after his brothers. The scent of the pine forests filled his lungs, and he felt drunk with it. If he could just hold on to the moment, he was sure it would be enough to sustain him for the rest of his life, no matter how short that life might be. He was glad he had returned home to say goodbye.

It would take a measure of strength he wasn’t sure he had, but Joe was determined to see his pa and Adam one last time before he turned himself into Sheriff Coffee. His attempt to surrender to Clayton’s sheriff had not gone as he planned. Each eyewitness to the shooting insisted that Joe had fired in self-defense. His protests that he was in fact guilty had pretty much been ignored.

Joe tried to explain to the sheriff that he was wanted in Virginia City for killing a man. Insisted the lawman search through his records and see for himself what he was accused of. With a bemused expression, the man had sorted through stacks of posters and telegrams, with Joe looking over his shoulder impatiently.

Finally, the sheriff rested his hands flat on his desk and said, “I can’t find anything that tells me you’re wanted for anything in Virginia City or anywhere else! It’s not for lack of trying neither! I’ve looked through my records for the past year and can’t find a thing. You say you killed a man, and you’re on the run. You don’t look like the kind of boy that would lie about a thing like that, but I’m afraid I can’t arrest you without someone telling me you’re accused of something. You want to turn yourself in, I expect you’d better go back to Virginia City and surrender to the folks who are looking for you.”

Joe had grabbed his hat off the chair and fumed out the door. Once outside, he threw it to the ground in disgust and wondered what he should do. As he stared down the street, his gaze fell upon the doctor’s office where he had brought Jake Collins’ body. It wasn’t like the doctor could do anything for the man. Joe figured he owed it to his friend, not to leave him lying in the alley.

He had tried to do the right thing, had tried to turn himself in, but it seemed that the town of Clayton was not interested in demanding justice from him. He knew what he had to do, although it killed him inside to do it. He needed to go home to the Ponderosa to seek forgiveness for what he had done. After that, Roy Coffee’s jail and the gallows would be waiting for him in Virginia City.

Once he made his decision, he left the town quickly, returning to Miller Ranch long enough to collect his pay and his few belongings. He would need his coat for the long ride home, through the treacherous mountain passes.

In some ways, Joe found the returning more trying than the leaving. The days stretched out in front of him as he rode across mile after mile of snow-covered mountains so steep he was sure his horse would lose his footing. There were days he didn’t know if he would make it home. He had barely packed enough food for the trip, and the trails were slushy and treacherous in the melting snow. But he couldn’t bring himself to make any more stops than were absolutely necessary. Once he had his heart set on home, Joe determined that nothing was going to stop him. He was stubborn that way. Pa always said so.

When the trails were easier and his mind was freed to think about more than surviving, he started to worry about what he would say once he got back to the Ponderosa. As he rode over the final ridge that separated him from the lake, whispers and accusations began to crowd into his mind. He remembered the last time he had ridden through the pines. He still could remember only bits and pieces of the morning he shot Red Twilight. It was like an especially complicated dream, with images that had been run through a sieve. He could feel the blood on his hands, see Red Twilight’s smiling face, but after that the vision fractured, and he could barely make sense of it.

Joe forced his breathing to steady and hoped his thoughts would sort themselves out as well. He tried to smooth his wild hair under his hat and straighten out the folds of his coat. He was hardly presentable, and he wondered if he was already too ruined to stand before his father one last time.

In his mind, he rehearsed his apology. It was always the same. Nothing came to mind that could justify what he had done. He tried to find a way to say it that his father would understand, some way to ask for forgiveness for transgressions that couldn’t be forgiven. During the whole of the long ride, he searched for eloquence and never found it. Instead the same simple words rose up again and again in his mind.

“I’m sorry, Pa. Thank you for being my father. I’m sorry I let you down.”

It wasn’t much, but it was all he had. Usually, when Joe felt troubled, he tried to think ahead to the future, to the plans and the dreams he set store by. He would imagine a pretty girl he would meet someday and marry, a house built by a creek in the center of a flowered valley. Children running wild through fields and forests, just like he had done when he was young. He’d spend his evenings teaching his own children what his father had tried to teach him. But now his future held nothing but regrets. Joe’s hope lay in seeking forgiveness and then stepping forward to make right what he’d done.

At the end of his journey, he waited on the crest of the hill that led to the house. He couldn’t be any closer, without being in sight of the house. All his reservations seemed to sift away, like chaff in the wind. He didn’t know what was in store. He just wanted to be home again.

Joe flicked the reins and started to ride forward. As he did, an apparition seemed to come roaring out of the landscape at him with such force Joe almost fell out of the saddle. As it was, he only stayed sitting by holding onto the neck of his horse. He didn’t trust his eyes; they were aching from the journey and the brightness of the snow, and he didn’t think they were working right. He rubbed at them roughly to be certain. The apparition was yelling and hollering and raising such a ruckus that Joe couldn’t hardly believe could come from a spirit. The size and the voice and the hat were all like he remembered. They tricked through his disordered mind and teased it into believing this ghost was real. Joe slid down from his horse, his legs feeling boneless and wobbly like a newborn colt. He heard his name being shouted, but he could hardly make sense of it.

When Hoss reached for him, Joe stuck his hand out first, almost expecting it to pass through vapors. He almost expected Hoss’ body to turn into flickering fog and wishful thinking. But his hand reached out and bumped into a shoulder that felt all too real. Like a man groping in the dark, Joe couldn’t stop himself, touching and feeling for muscle and joints and skin.

Then Hoss was yelling and throwing his hat off his head and lifting Joe and swinging him around, until Joe’s hat flew into the air. So strong. Joe had forgotten that Hoss was so strong. He was the only man Joe knew who could lift him like it was nothing. They stood in the road taking each other in. Joe couldn’t trust himself to speak. He would gladly turn himself in to Sheriff Coffee. His brother was alive, and he’d been given the chance to see him. It was so much more than he had allowed himself to hope for, certainly more than he’d ever deserved.

Finally, he got the words out. They did not come easily.

“You’re alive,” Joe said, barely trusting his voice to assert itself. “Hoss, I was sure you were dead.”

Hoss laughed and cuffed him on the arm. “Nah. It takes more than a little ol’ bullet to kill me. Besides, I couldn’t die with you gone who knows where, scaring everybody to death.”

His voice grew suddenly serious and he asked, “Why’d you go, Little Joe? We’ve been awfully worried.”

Joe had started to open his mouth to answer, when a shout and a flurry of commotion rose up behind him. He had just turned around, when he was pulled almost off his feet into familiar, strong arms. And his father was hugging the breath out him, holding him like he couldn’t get close enough to believe his son was alive. Joe knew enough about ghosts to reassure his father.

“It’s me, Pa,” he mumbled, inhaling the familiar blend of leather and pipe tobacco that always accompanied his father. He didn’t want to pull away, but he needed to meet his pa’s eyes. “I came back. I made it home.”

Joe looked and through his own tears, it almost looked like his father was crying. Ben Cartwright never cried. Joe wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand and looked again. He tried to bring the world back into focus.

“Thank God,” Ben was saying. “Thank you God. Thank God.”

Then he held his youngest son at arm’s length, keeping a hand anchored on his shoulder, as if he needed to keep touching Joe to ensure he wouldn’t disappear again.

“Let’s get a look at you,” he said.

Joe knew what his father was seeing. He knew his unkempt hair curled over his collar, he had a week’s growth unshaved from his chin, and he knew that he looked too thin for a father’s critical eye. Yet the real changes that had taken place over the past several months couldn’t be seen so easily. His father couldn’t see the muscles that had developed from putting in long days at the ranch. His youngest son was growing into his man’s body at last. His father couldn’t see the stillness that had settled within him, the result of months spent living quietly on his own. But most of all, his father couldn’t know that he had changed inside, that the anger inside him still lived, but he had learned to live with it. He would no longer cover himself with violence. He had learned to live up to his name.

Joe covered his pa’s hand with his own.

“I’m fine, Pa,” he said. “Just fine.”

Ben cleared his throat. “You must be tired. Let’s get you into the house.”

He started to pull Joe along with him, but Joe grabbed his arm and held it.

“No Pa,” he said. “I can’t go back with you. I can’t go into the house. I just came back to… to tell you I was sorry… to ask for forgiveness. Oh Pa, I’m so sorry. I just came back to say goodbye. I’m going to turn myself in to Sheriff Coffee.”

And Joe was crying all over again. He could remain standing only because his father had taken hold of his shoulders and then the sides of his face. Gently, Ben lifted his son’s face until he had no choice but to meet his eyes.

“Son,” Ben said. “Little Joe. Won’t you tell me what it is you think you’ve done?”

“Pa, I killed a man,” Joe whispered and tried to stop crying. Struggled to confess like the man he was trying to be. “I went after Willie Twilight’s brother, and I killed him.”

“Joseph, listen to me. I need you to stop crying and listen. Can you do that, boy?” Ben’s voice was soft but firm, and Joe had no choice but to defer to it. He had forgotten how much he missed his father’s authority. It made sense out of the world, made it seem like things could never really fall apart.

Joe nodded and said, “I’ll try, Pa.”

Ben kept one hand cupped against Joe’s face and tucked back his son’s curls with the other. “Now Joseph, I don’t know what it is that you’re thinking or why you went away. I don’t know where you’ve been. We can talk about that later. Let’s get right to the heart of it. You did kill Red Twilight. But you killed him in self-defense. Willie’s friend Mary was there when it happened. She told us the whole thing. You were protecting her, son. Willie drew first. You had no choice but to shoot him.”

Joe stared into his pa’s eyes, his chest throbbing, wanting desperately to believe what he said. It seemed too wonderful to be true, and yet Ben Cartwright had never lied to him. He looked from his father back to Hoss, and it was too much to take in. His mind couldn’t make its peace with it. It was as though he had passed from death to life, in the blink of an eye.

Finally, Joe told them, “I couldn’t remember what happened. I woke up, and I was bleeding, and I found his body. I couldn’t remember anything, except that I’d gone looking for him that night.”

“You went looking for him to kill him.”

The voice surprised him, but it wasn’t unexpected. Joe turned, and there was Adam. He had walked down the road, stealthy as a cat, and was watching the scene unfolding with a wariness that Joe recognized right away. Adam’s comment wasn’t a question, but Joe chose to answer it that way. He could see the accusation bright in his oldest brother’s eyes.

“Yes,” he said. “I went looking for Red Twilight to kill him.”

Joe stared evenly at his family. He figured each of them must have known it, but hearing it put plain like that was a hard kind of truth. It wouldn’t go down easy. They all looked older and wearier than he had remembered. His sojourn had cost his family dearly, in ways he couldn’t begin to understand.

“And then you ran?” Adam continued. “You thought you murdered a man and you ran away? You ran without telling us where you were going?”

Joe didn’t shirk from his testimony. It was hard to admit what he had done, but it needed to be said. It was never too late to make a wrong right again.

“I ran. I knew it would hurt you, but I ran anyways. I thought it would save Pa from… from a trial and what would come from it…. The truth is I just couldn’t face you cause of what I’d done. I can’t blame you if you can’t forgive me. I don’t deserve it. I needed to come home to tell you what I’d done. To say I was sorry. I just wanted to see all of you, one more time.”

Joe stood back away from them and waited. He didn’t know exactly what was being decided, just that it was his family’s decision to make.

Finally his father stepped forward and rested his hand on the back of Joe’s neck.

“Son, it takes a special sort of man to admit he was wrong. It took a lot of courage to come back here and confess to it, knowing what it could cost you.”

Hoss leaned forward and cuffed Joe on the arm. Joe noted that his brother’s eyes were watering, like he’d been staring at the snow too long. “Besides, we couldn’t let you go to jail looking like that. You’re nothing but skin and bones. There wouldn’t be enough of you left to hang.”

Joe smiled at Hoss, still hardly believing that he was alive, and then he turned to look at Adam. His brother still stood at a distance, his arms folded tightly against his chest. Joe understood then how badly Adam had been hurt by the events that Joe had set in place. He couldn’t imagine how he would ever begin to atone for the pain he had caused his family.

At last Adam smiled. It wasn’t much of a smile, just a slight quirk of his lips, but Joe latched on to it gratefully and met his brother’s eyes.

Adam said, “Well, as always, you have impeccable timing. Hop Sing just sent me to say dinner was ready. The way I hear it, he’s preparing the fatted calf as we speak.”

Joe wrinkled his forehead in confusion, before a smile spread slowly across his face. The memory of the old Biblical story of the prodigal son and his father came back to him then, and he grinned at his brother with rueful understanding. Adam leaned forward and ruffled his prodigal brother’s hair.

“Hop Sing says to come home right now. He says dinner’s getting cold.”

Adam smiled, easier this time, and took the reins of Joe’s horse to lead him back to the barn. Joe looked at his oldest brother’s back before he disappeared over the hill and then at his pa and Hoss. It wasn’t over. What he had squandered wouldn’t be restored that easily. But he was forgiven and he was home. The rest would fall into place, given enough time. That’s how it was with a family like theirs. Everything they had belonged to each other, including forgiveness.

“Come on Joseph,” Ben said, placing his hand on Joe’s back. “Hoss is right. You don’t look like you’ve eaten in a week. Let’s go have that dinner. Everything else will wait.”

As they crested the hill, Hoss slung an arm over Joe’s shoulders and said, “Little brother, you missed a mighty long winter. When all this snow melts, you and me are gonna go and do some fishing. I hear the trout are so big and dumb this year you could just pull them out of the water…”

For a wistful moment, Joe remembered the last time he heard that sort of claim. Then he pulled himself away from it, laughed, and replied, “The way I hear it older brother, there ain’t nothing that makes a fish bigger than almost getting caught.”

They were still laughing at each other, as they disappeared over the hill and down the road that led to home.

***The End***

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