Summary: This is a sequel to my story “The Return”.
Word count: 12,000
It had been only two weeks since the posse had returned to Virginia City with Ned Tucker and his gang. This had also marked the return of the youngest member of the Cartwright family. Little Joe had been kidnapped at the age of 12 by Tucker and now at 15 had been returned to his family. Ben had arranged through his lawyer for one of the gang members, a man named Stump, to be given his freedom in exchange for telling Little Joe the truth about what happened to him. The confession had worked to convince the boy that Ned wasn’t his father, and he was now trying to fit in with his family and friends.
Breakfast the morning after Stump’s visit found the three elder Cartwrights sitting alone waiting for the arrival of the youngest.
“Hoss, why don’t you go up and bring the little scamp down. He’ll sleep all day if not,” Ben stated.
“Sure Pa,” Hoss replied walking across to the stairs. “Some things never change.”
“Think the kid’s going to be alright with all of this?” Adam asked sipping his coffee. He has witnessed the scene the night before, but also thought he’d seen the look of anger in the young boy’s eyes.
“It’s going to take some time, but we’ll all get through this.”
“Pa?” his middle son called as he walked down the stairs.
“He’s gone,” Hoss stated, walking to the front door. “I’ll check to see if Cooch is gone.”
“That boy. He’d better hope he’s out there,” Ben said standing and walking to the open front door, followed by Adam.
“Cooch is gone.”
“Saddle up boys and let’s go get that boy and bring him back home,” Ben said, the anger growing in his eyes. “And when I get him home…”
‘You’ll look into those big green eyes and melt.’ Adam thought to himself as Ben left the threat unfinished.
Joe had awakened before the others and decided he had to go and see Stump off. It could be the last time he’d ever see him again. The man was important to him, like an uncle. And to his thinking, it was only the right thing to do. Hitching his horse in front of the stage office, he dismounted and walked inside.
Stump looked up when the boy entered the building and smiled. “Joey, what are ya doing here boy?”
“I had to see ya off. You’ve been good to me and it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t,” Joe said sitting next to the man on the bench.
“Your folks know your here, Little Joe?” Clem asked. He had been waiting with Stump to be sure the man left. He felt certain of the reply, before the young man offered one.
Dropping his head he quietly said, “No sir.”
“Joey, when ya gonna learn, boy? You shouldn’t have snuck out like that,” Stump scolded. “Damn, always said ya needed a leash.”
“I’m sorry, but I just had to come, and I wasn’t sure they’d let me. Don’t be mad at me.”
“I ain’t mad at ya, boy. But ya know they’ll come looking for ya.”
“I know, but I just wanted to say good-bye, and thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” Joe said looking into the eyes of his friend.
The stage arrived and Joe watched as Stump walked away. Turning to face the boy he held his arms out and was rewarded with a big hug. “You take care and mind what your Pa says.”
“I will, and you take care and write me,” Joe said pulling back.
Ben and the boys rode into town as Joe and Stump were saying good bye. Hitching their horses beside Cochise they walked over to where the others stood.
“Joseph, would you care to tell me just what you think you’re doing?” Ben asked causing the boy to jump.
“I…I’m sorry sir, but I wanted to tell Stump, good-bye,” Joe said chancing a glance at his father to gauge his anger.
“Then why didn’t you just ask? We would have come if you wanted.”
“I needed to do this alone, sir. It was like the final chapter of a book, ya just have to see it through, to finish the story,” Joe stated.
Hoss smiled at what he believed was his brother being sincere, as Adam rolled his eyes. He could see what the boy was doing even if the others couldn’t. The kid was playing on his families emotions, and doing a good job of it, it would seem.
“Mr. Cartwright, please don’t be too hard on the boy. Me and him have been through a lot together. I know he done wrong by sneaking off, but couldn’t ya just overlook it this one time?” Stump asked. He couldn’t stand the idea the boy would get into trouble on a count of him.
Ben sighed deeply and looked at the worried face of his youngest. “I think I can overlook it this one time, but you understand young man, this is the only time I will. If you sneak out again, you and I will be having a little talk in the barn.”
Swallowing hard, Joe nodded and simply replied, “Yes sir.”
All the Cartwrights watched as the stage pulled out of town and disappeared. “You boys hungry? I’m buying,” Ben said clapping Little Joe on the back.
“I’m starving; didn’t get no breakfast cause of little brother here,” Hoss said with a smile.
“You’re always hungry,” Joe said smiling back at his biggest brother, causing a shocked look on each of their faces. “Yes, I’m starting to remember things.
“That’s great son,” Ben smiled pulling the boy into at hug.
“So just what all have you remembered?” Adam asked as they stepped off the boardwalk toward the diner.
A mischievous smile tugging at his lips, Little Joe turned and continued to walk backwards, “Well, I remember that Hoss is always hungry, Hop Sing makes the best food this side of the San Francisco, Pa always keeps his promises whether ya want him to or not, and that you are about the bossiest, most stiff necked, nosiest big brother a guy can have, you Yankee granite head,” he concluded taking off at a run.
“Why you little…” Adam yelled running after him.
Ben and Hoss stood in the street laughing as the elder brother closed in on the youngest.
“Pa! Save me!” Joe called as he ducked behind Ben, laughing.
“Your hide is safe for now little brother, but you just wait,” Adam said, stopping in front of his father.
“Hey, ain’t that Mitch and Seth?” Joe asked, thinking he recognized the boys from before.
“Yes it is. You still don’t remember them?” Ben asked.
“No sir,” Joe sighed.
“Why don’t you run over and invite them to breakfast with us.”
“Think the kid will ever be the same?” Adam asked watching the boy walk to where his friends stood.
“No, because he was a twelve-year-old kid when he was taken, and now he’s a young man. One that has run wild for a long time. He’s going to have his moments,” Ben replied.
“Hi ya Little Joe,” Mitch said as the boy walked up.
“Hi guys. Listen, I just wanna say sorry for the way I treated ya’ll. I still don’t remember you, but I know now that we musta been really good friends before. Maybe we could try being friends now.”
“Sounds good to me. How bout you, Seth?” Mitch asked.
“Sure, why not,” Seth smiled.
“Hey, Pa wanted me to invite you guys for breakfast, his treat. And it’ll keep me from sitting around with all these old guys. How bout it?” The boys exchanged looks and nodded.
Ned and Tex stood in the window of the cell they shared watching the scene on the street. They had seen how the boy reacted to Stump and to his family.
“Looks like Stump turned tail on us, Ned.”
“Should have know he would; he never was too keen on taking the kid.”
“Ned, ya figured out how we’re gonna handle all this? I mean, if the kid testifies, we’re gonna be locked away for a long time,” Tex questioned, making himself comfortable on the cot.
“Let’s look at this situation. They have nothing on us except for kidnapping. Stump won’t be here to testify, and even if they took his statement, it won’t account for much. I think I can handle Joey. If I could only get him to talk to me. I know I can convince him to say nothing.”
“Old man Cartwright ain’t gonna let ya nowhere near Joey.”
“I’ll find a way. He’s my son now, no matter what they tell him. He’ll be around and I’ll get a chance to talk to him. Just a matter of timing.”
“Sounds like ya been thinking on this for a while now.”
“I have, and after I finish with the boy, he’ll come back to me and the Cartwrights won’t mean a thing to him.”
“Thanks for breakfast, Mr. Cartwright,” Seth said as they all finished.
“Yeah, thanks, sir,” Mitch added.
“Anytime boys. Is everyone ready to go?” Ben asked. It was Saturday and he knew his older boys had plans for the evening and needed to get things at the ranch squared away first.
“We were wondering if Little Joe had to work today. If not, Seth and I were planning on going riding and we’d like for him to come with us if he wants,” Mitch said looking first at Ben then to Joe.
“I think I can spare him for the day. Would you like that Little Joe?”
Shrugging his shoulder, Joe looked at his friends and nodded. “Yeah, I guess.” He still wasn’t sure how he felt about his new old friends, but the thought of not having to stay on the ranch under is father and brothers watchful eyes appealed to the youngster.
Adam watched his little brother vault onto his horse. He had a feeling that his father was jumping the gun on letting the boy go off without one of them. He was worried that Little Joe would get it into his head to take off. It was then he made himself a promise to keep a close eye on him until things had settled down. “Pa, you sure it’s not a little soon for this?”
“For what son?” Ben asked tightening his cinch.
“Letting the kid go off on his own like that. What if he gets into his head to take off?”
“Yeah, Pa. I agree with Adam. I ain’t so sure he’s settled enough with all of this just yet,” Hoss added.
“I know how you feel, but I don’t want to drive him even further away. In fact, I’m not so sure I handled things the right way with him the other morning. Maybe I was too hard on him.”
“Pa, you wasn’t that hard on the boy. He got what he deserved for what he did. If nothing else, a kid his age shouldn’t be toting a gun around town. Especially one that can shoot like he can. It’s asking for trouble.”
“I know your right, but I just don’t want to push him away. He’s been through so much. He tries to act as if he’s at ease around us, but I can tell each time I touch him that he still isn’t.”
“Pa, you want me and Adam to stick around town and keep and eye on him?” Hoss asked.
“No, let’s just head on home and take care of what has to be done. Last I heard the two of you had dates for the evening.”
The three boys rode for the better part of two hours before stopping at the lake. Dismounting they made there way down to the sandy shores of Lake Tahoe.
“Hey Little Joe, are you glad ya home again?” Mitch asked, skipping a stone over the water.
“Guess so. Everything is real different from what I’m used to. I’m finding out that it’s harder to adjust than I thought it would be,” Joe replied.
“So, how’s it going with your family?” Seth questioned.
“There fine. I mean Hoss seems really good, but Pa and Adam are awful strict about things. I’m not used to having the reigns pulled in so hard. Seems I can’t do anything to please either one of them,” Joe answered, as he sent his own rock skipping across the surface.
“You done been in trouble, already?”
“Yeah, you could say so Mitch. Snuck out the other night and got drunk. Pa took my gun away, then…” Joe stopped, not sure he wanted to admit to his father tanning him at his age.
“Let me guess. Got ya britches warmed, huh?” Seth finished his statement.
“Yeah, how’d ya know?”
Laughing, his friends said together, “We know ya Pa; he’s just like ours.” causing Little Joe to join in. It felt good to him to laugh. It had seem such a long time since he had anything to laugh about, and now he was feeling more at ease with his friends.
“Say, you two up to a little fun?” Joe asked.
“Always, what got up ya sleeve?” Mitch asked.
Walking over to Cochise, Little Joe took a bottle of brandy he had taken from Ben’s cabinet out of his saddlebag. Joining his friends, he pulled the top and took a long swig. “Damn, that’s good. Here,” he said handing the bottle to Mitch.
“This your Pa’s brandy, Little Joe?” Mitch asked.
“Yep…don’t worry, he won’t ever notice. Drink up.”
It didn’t take long for the trio to polish off the bottle of the expensive liquor. Feeling the effects had made Mitch and Seth a little braver than normal, so it hadn’t taken much convincing on Joe’s part to get them to go to the saloon in town. None of the boys were allowed there without a family member, but tonight they didn’t care. Joe was in his element, having been in and out of them the entire time he was missing. Even though Tucker hadn’t approved of him being in a saloon alone, he had often snuck out to engage in drinking and poker playing, and had become quite good at the card game. The boys entered the ‘Bucket Of Blood’, Mitch and Seth following closely behind Little Joe, who acted as if he owned the place. Sitting at a table in the back Joe motioned to the bartender to bring three beers.
Ben paced in front of the stone fireplace, his anger long past leading into worry. Adam and Hoss should be home any minute, but his youngest should have been home hours ago. His thoughts going back to the conversation he had earlier in the day with his older sons, replaying in his mind. ‘They were right. I should never have let the boy go off on his own like that. What if he’s taken off? I should have sent one of the boys with him…’ His thoughts were disturbed by the sound of approaching horses. Opening the door, he saw Charlie Devlin and George Pruitt coming in from one side of the yard as Adam and Hoss entered from the other.
“Pa, what’s wrong?” Adam asked, as they all dismounted.
“Ben, have you seen Mitch or Seth today? They both left early this morning and haven’t been home since,” Charlie stated.
“Let’s go inside,” Ben offered. After making themselves comfortable, Ben continued, “We all had breakfast in town this morning and the boys asked for Little Joe to join them for the day. I agreed to it, but now I wish I hadn’t. Joseph should have been home hours ago too.”
“So, now what?” George asked.
“Let’s ride to town and see if they’re there. I have a feeling they are more than likely in the saloon,” Ben growled. His thoughts of the boy leaving had been altered upon finding out his friends’ sons were also missing.
Little Joe looked at the table where his two friends sat, passed out, their heads propped on the table. Snickering, he returned his attention to the poker hand he held. The pair of two’s was all he had. Folding and turning his beer up, he looked up as Ben and the others walked in. ‘Great, just what I need.’ Making his way to where his friends were he sat down and waited.
“JOSEPH FRANCIS CARTWRIGHT!” He heard bellowed from his father as the group approached. “Just what in thunderation are you doing here?”
Taking in the expressions of each member of the group, then looking down at the beer held in his hand, he replied. “Drinking,” and drained the glass.
“Yes, I can see that. Here it is midnight and my young son isn’t home. And where do I find him? In a saloon that he knows he’s not allowed to be in. You know when you’re required to be home. Didn’t it occur to you that I would be worried? That Charlie and George would be worried? Just how much have they had to drink?” Ben asked, as he watched the other fathers attempting to awaken their sons.
Looking over at his friends, Joe snickered, “Too much, it looks like.” The whiskey and beer had dulled his senses and apparently his thinking.
“George, Charlie, let’s get these boys home. Why don’t all of you come over tomorrow afternoon, and we’ll sit down and talk,” Ben offered.
“We’ll be there, Ben. But I’m not sure Mitchell will want to be sitting by then.”
“I agree, Seth may have to stand for this conversation,” George added.
Grabbing Little Joe by the upper arm, Ben pulled him from the chair. “Get on that pony and head home. Hoss, go with him please.”
Jerking his arm from his fathers grasp, Joe staggered out the door, followed closely by Hoss.”
“George, Charlie, why don’t you wait on that until tomorrow after we all talk. We can present a united front against these young men,” Ben said as his friends each tossed their sons over there shoulders. Receiving their approval they all left.
Little Joe awoke knowing what faced him that day. He had heard his father telling the others to come over and had spent much of the night coming up with what he wanted to say. Knowing that if he used his best wheedling skills, he’d developed while dealing with the other gang members, he could get them all off the hook. There was no way he was going to allow his father to take a belt to him again. Using his time of isolation to his best ability, he dressed and waited until he heard the others arrive.
“Little Joe? Pa wants ya to come on down,” Hoss called, peeking in the door.
“On my way,” was his reply, as he took a deep breath and put on his most contrite face. Time for the play to begin.
Walking over, he joined Mitch and Seth on the settee. He noticed how nervous his friends seemed, and wondered if he’d be able to pull it off without one of them messing his story up. Figuring he might as well give it a try, he stood. “Pa, can I say something sir?”
“Yes, Joseph.” Ben replied, stunned at hearing his son speak.
Turning to face the three fathers, he began, “First off, I’d like to apologize to Mitch and Seth. They wouldn’t be in this trouble if it wasn’t for me. Mr. Devlin, Mr. Pruitt, Pa, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone to the saloon. I knew better, but Mitch and Seth only went because I wouldn’t listen to them. They tried to stop me, but I was hard headed and went anyways. They tried to talk me out of it the whole way there and the whole way inside, but I went anyway. I got to teasing them about not drinking…that’s the only reason they did. Believe me, they didn’t have more than a few. Guess it just hit ’em wrong. So, that said, I’m willing to take their punishment. I let them down, and I really feel bad about it. They both have tried so hard to help me since I’ve been back,” Joe concluded. He added, “Not much of a friend am I?” just above a whisper as he returned to his seat.
Adam wasn’t sure, but he could have sworn he had seen a smirk cross his brother’s lips as he sat down with his friends. Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned back and watched the play preformed before him. He wondered if his Pa and the others were really going to fall for it. He had to hand it to his baby brother; he was most definitely a good actor.
“Yes sir?” Joe said softly, looking up at the men with his most innocent expression, and just the hint of tears forming in his eyes.
Clearing his throat, Ben walked over and sat in front of his son on the low table. “Son, that was very mature of you to tell us what happened and to take the blame like that, but it still doesn’t make what you did right.”
“I know, Pa,” Joe said, sniffing and blinking back the tears. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed in me. I’m trying to fit back in, but it’s so hard to do the complete opposite of what you’ve been taught for so long. I made a mistake and I promise I won’t do it again. And if Mr. Devlin and Mr. Pruitt will allow it, I still want to be Mitch and Seth’s friend.”
“Little Joe, son, of course you can be friends with them. Why you three always were thicker than thieves,” Charlie smiled.
“That’s right. We won’t let one little oversight break up this friendship,” George agreed.
Smiling up at them, with watery eyes, Joe replied, “Thank you sirs. I won’t let ya down again.”
“I know you won’t, son. Ben, why don’t we just let it go this time. The boy is sorry for it, and I’m sure they won’t be going back there again,” George said.
“I agree Ben,” Charlie added.
Nodding his head, Ben looked at the hopeful eyes of his youngest. “Alright, this time, but there will not be a next time.”
“No sir,” all three boys said.
“Pa, can I take Mitch and Seth down to the corral to see the new horses? I need a little air.”
“That’ll be fine. We’ll all have a brandy while you’re gone,” Ben added, and watched as Mitch and Seth took off out the door covering their mouths.
The boys waited until well away from the house before any of them spoke. Leaning against the corral, Mitch turned to face Joe, noticing the smirk that played on his lips. “Ya know, I’ve seen ya pull some good ones in the past, but that one was the best.”
“Yeah, I gotta hand it to ya Little Joe. And to offer to take our punishment, just too good. Thanks pal.”
“What’s friends for,” Joe smiled. “But I ain’t to sure ol’ Adam bought it. I think he caught me smiling when I sat down.”
“Naw, he’d said something if he had,” Mitch said.
“Guess ya right. So what you guys wanna do today?” Joe asked, hopping up on the fence.
“Doubt they’ll let us go off together today,” Seth stated.
“What no faith in me? That hurts,” Joe laughed. “Come on and watch.”
Joe pushed the door open and walked just inside. “Pa?”
“Yes son, what is it?” Ben asked, as he and the others stopped laughing.
“Would it be alright? I mean, can the guys stay for supper? Mr. Devlin and Mr. Pruitt also?” Joe asked, quietly, almost sounding as if he were scared to ask for such a favor.
“Of course they can, in fact I’ve already asked them.”
Smiling Joe replied, “Thanks Pa…oh, would it be alright if maybe we went fishing? Fish would be really good for supper.”
“Well, Hop Sing is already preparing steaks for everyone, but you three can go up to the lake if you want to.”
“That’d be great, thanks!” Joe called. Closing the door behind him, he looked into the bewildered faces of his friends. “What, doubting me again? You boys have got to learn to trust me.”
Adam watched quietly, his youngest brother and his friends, during dinner. He could see the way his Pa and the other boys’ fathers smiled at the friendly banter between the younger boys. Glancing over at Hoss and catching his eye, they agreed without speaking that something was up.
“Pa?” Joe ventured.
“Yes, son?” Ben replied, smiling at his baby boy.
“I hate to ask, especially after all the trouble I caused…” Little Joe began softly, his head lowered.
Laying his hand over that of his son’s, Ben said, “Little Joe, son, that has all been forgiven; time you forgave yourself. Now what’s on your mind?”
“I was kinda hoping that, if Mr. Devlin and Mr. Pruitt didn’t mind, that Mitch, Seth and I could go campin’ this weekend,” the boy finished looking at Ben with a hopeful face.
Turning to the other fathers, Ben asked, “Charlie, George what do you think? Believe we can trust these three mischief makers alone in the woods for a couple of days?”
“Oh, I think so,” Charlie stated with a grin.
“I agree,” replied George.
“Ok, then you boys can leave Friday after morning chores. But we will expect to see you back home by supper Sunday. Understood?”
“Yes sir, thanks Pa. Can we be excused to work out the plans?”
Before Ben had a chance to answer, Adam stood, “Excuse me please I have chores to attend in the barn…coming, Hoss?”
“Sure are. Excuse me,” Hoss replied, then receiving a nod from their father all the young men left the table.
“You never cease to amaze me.” Mitch said, shaking his head as they entered Little Joe’s bedroom.
“Yep, you ain’t changed that much, pal; ya always was able to talk ya way into or out of anything,” Seth added.
Laying down on the bed and linking his hands behind his head, the boy smiled at his friends. “So whadda ya wanna do this weekend?”
“Thought we was goin’ campin’?” Mitch questioned.
“Well, I had other plans, but maybe we’d better. I do believe my older brothers are beginning to suspect something.”
“I get the same feeling, and if it’s true, ya better be careful. You can probably get by on Hoss, but Adam’ll tan ya hide quicker than ya Pa would,” Mitch noted as he watched Joe’s brothers leaving the barn.
Adam and Hoss walked over to the corral and leaned against the fence, taking in the cool night breeze that ruffled their hair, and sent the slightest of shivers over there skin.
“What’s up, older brother?” Hoss asked, though he knew the answer to the question.
Turning to face his big little brother, Adam tilted his head. “Did you believe any of that little performance our young brother put on today?”
“Aw, Adam, I don’t know. Maybe the kid was feeling bad about it. Would it be so hard to believe?”
“I might have believed it if it weren’t for the fact I saw him smiling as he sat back down. I think our little brother learned quite a bit while he was away from the home hearth.”
“Yeah, I kinda get the same feelin’. So ya got anything in mind?” Hoss questioned.
“I had thought I’d talk to Pa tonight, see what he feels about it. But that boy has him wrapped around his little finger, and Pa’s scared he’ll push him too far,” Adam stated, turning to watch the horses milling around the corral. “Hey Hoss, how would you feel about a little trip this weekend?”
“Whatcha got on ya mind older brother?”
“Oh, maybe a little tracking. See if we can’t catch a few little wolf cubs playing around where they don’t belong.”
“And just how ya gonna go about that? Ya know Pa ain’t gonna like it.”
“So we just don’t tell him where we’re going. We give them a couple hours head start then follow them.”
“You don’t think there gonna go campin’ do ya?” Hoss asked.
“Nope, my guess is they’ll go to Carson, and hit the saloons there.”
“Alright, I’m in. Now we just have to come up with an excuse for Pa.”
Ned bid his time waiting for the right opportunity to put his plan into action. He had spent the better part of the week coming up with a way to see Joey, hoping to convince the boy not to testify against him. Finally the thought struck him like a lightning bolt; he could shame the boy into helping him and Tex break out. After all, he had raised the boy for three years, and to that he felt he was owed something in return. The past two days Roy Coffee had left the jail at night, having the young Simmons boy to stay with the prisoners. This was the key to his plan, knowing there was no way that the sheriff would deliver the message.
“What ya thinking about Ned?” Tex asked, as he watched his boss.
“Tonight is the night we put the plan to action.”
“Ya think it’ll work? I mean, think the kid will take the message to Joey?”
“I think I can convince him; after all I deserve the right to apologize to the boy, now don’t I?” Ned replied, smirking at his partner.
“Why of course ya do; hell, it’d be downright un-Christian like of him not to,” Tex joined in the laugh.
“Yeah, tomorrow is Friday. The good sheriff will be busy all over town. That’d be the best time for the boy to come here.”
“Shh, here he comes.”
“Ok, you two, back against the wall,” Jasper Simmons said coming through the door to where the cells were. In his hands was two trays containing the prisoners supper.
“Aw, time for grub already,” Tex stated.
“Yes sir,” responded the eighteen-year-old. He had been working with Roy for the past six months, hoping to one day be a sheriff himself.
“You know, son, you seem like a good kid. Always so polite, and all,” Ned stated.
“Well, I try. The way I see it is this. You may have made a mistake, but that don’t mean you don’t deserve to be treated kindly.”
“Like I said, a good kid,” Ned repeated, sighing deeply.
“What’s wrong?” Jasper asked, now finished sliding the two trays through the slot in the door.
“Aw, I don’t wanna bother you with our troubles.”
“Never know, it might help, and I don’t mind listening. Shoot, ain’t like I don’t have all night,” the boy smiled.
“It’s just that you remind me of my boy, Joey. I miss the kid so much.”
“You mean, Joe Cartwright?”
“Well, that’s what they tell him, but the kid is mine. See, the way I hear it is that Cartwright lost a son a few years ago and the kid’s body was found, but the old man just can’t accept it, so they took Joey from me. Thing is, now they done convinced the kid it’s true.”
“Ya mean to tell me that Little Joe is really your son. He ain’t a Cartwright?”
“That’s what I’m telling you, son. If I could just see the boy one more time, just see his face, talk to him. I think I could convince him of the truth.”
“Shame ya can’t see him,” Jasper, commented.
“Maybe I could if I could get a message to him. Maybe he’d come to see me. I hate to ask, but would you take one to him?”
Jasper looked at the men sitting behind the bars. He had heard the whole story from the sheriff, and had been warned not to get to close to them. Besides that, he had been fifteen when Little Joe had been kidnapped and was inside the school that day. He knew for a fact the boy brought back was Little Joe. ‘They must think I’m just plain stupid, or something.’
“I just can’t help ya with that, Mr. Tucker. See I happened to have been inside the school house when ya took Little Joe. That means I know ya lying to me. Nice try, though,” Jasper said, turning to leave the area.
Seeing his chance slipping by, Tex reached out between the bars and snagged Jasper around the neck. Struggling to hold onto the boy, Tex watched as Ned, first lifted the large ring of keys off the young man’s side, before hitting him over the head. Opening the door, Ned and Tex moved the young lawman inside the cell and locked the door. Moments later they made their escape out the side door of the jail.
“So son, you ready for the weekend?” Ben asked Little Joe as they sat at the table eating breakfast.
“Yes sir. Got almost everything ready. We figure we’ll go into Virginia City and pick up a few more supplies, then head off toward the lake,” Joe said taking a bite of the blueberry flapjacks Hop Sing had prepared.
“Just what kind of supplies you need from town, little buddy?” Adam asked. His guess was a bottle of rotgut.
‘Gotta make it good; older brother is gettin’ just way to smart for his own good. Keep it together, now.’ “Well, I don’t have but one set of longjohns if ya must know, and it does get kinda cold at night. Thought I’d pick up a pair, plus I got me a hankering for some sourballs,” Joe smiled.
Hoss looked over and grinned at Adam. He knew what his brother had been trying to do, and it had backfired on him, making the boy across from him look that much more innocent in his father’s eyes.
“That’s a good idea, son; it does get cold at night. I’m glad you’re thinking ahead. In fact, come see me before you go, and I’ll give you the money to get what you need,” Ben smiled at his son.
“Thanks Pa, but you don’t have ta do that. I got a little money.”
“And you will keep that money. I’m your father, and it’s my place to get you what you need, young man.”
“Yes sir. Thank you,” Joe said, flashing his winning smile. ‘Fine by me, leaves me more for that bottle I want to buy.’
Before he could leave with his friends, Little Joe had to complete his morning chores, as usual. Busy mucking out the stalls, he didn’t hear his brothers when they entered. They listened as the boy talked to Cochise about the upcoming trip.
“Hey Cooch, not long now. Ya lookin’ forward to it?” Joe asked the pinto, laughing as he tossed his head up and down, answering his master. “Yeah, me too. It’s nice here, but I feel too confined. We just need to get out and run wild a little, don’t we boy? Hey, I know what ya thinking, but maybe the others won’t be too much trouble. They seem nice enough, but damn they’re just too straight-laced. But hey, who knows, maybe we can change all that, or maybe they’ll change me. What do you think? Think we can change? I know it’d make Pa happy, just don’t know if it’ll make me happy.”
Deciding to ease out of the barn and re-enter, Adam and Hoss slipped out. “What ya make of that?” Hoss asked.
“I think the kid is struggling more than any of us have known,” Adam said quietly, as he watched his youngest brother brushing his horse.
“What can we do to help him?”
“Just be here for him, and treat him as normally as possible. Come on.”
Walking inside the dimly lit barn, Adam and Hoss walked over to their brother. “Hey, little buddy, bout ready to go?” Hoss asked.
“Almost. Why?” Joe asked, looking into the eyes of the gentle giant.
“Well, we’re caught up and thought you might want a little help to get done.”
“Naw, this is the last of it. Thanks anyways.”
“Little Joe, where do you guys think you’ll camp?” Adam asked.
Turning to look straight into the face of his eldest brother, Little Joe shook his head, slightly. “Why ya wanna know big brother? So you can just show up? Don’t ya think we can even manage a couple of nights on the trail?”
“That’s not at all what I meant, kid. I was just wondering, because it’s always good to let someone know where you’ll be. Anything could happen and we might need to get in contact with you,” Adam explained, crossing his arms over his chest.
Little Joe could understand his brothers logic, but on the other hand, he didn’t want his family knowing where he and his friends would be. The whole point in the trip was to assert their independence. His freedom was the main thing he missed coming back home. Smiling at his eldest brother, he lied, “The southside of the Lake, older brother. I take it, that’s an appropriate place?”
“Sounds like an ideal spot, little brother. Just keep in mind the time you were told to be home.”
“Adam? Did I miss something?” Joe asked, coming out of the stall and facing his brother. Cocking his head to one side, he asked, “I could have sworn that I was told that BEN Cartwright was my Pa, not ADAM. Was I wrong?”
“NO, you heard correctly, he is your father. But what you don’t seem to get is the fact that I am your eldest brother by twelve years, and with that goes the respect you owe me. And right now, your not sounding very respectful, baby brother,” Adam responded.
Hoss seeing where the situation was going, once again stepped in. “Now listen up you two. Ain’t no sense in ya’ll goin’ at one another like this. Adam, back off the young’un. He does have the right to pick his campin’ area.” Turning to face his now smug looking little brother, he continued. “And as for you shortshanks, you best straighten yourself up and start respecting your elders. Pa wouldn’t be too happy to hear the way ya done talked to Adam.”
“Fine, but the both of you need to understand that I don’t need a keeper. I’ve been takin’ care of myself since I was twelve. I can out ride, out shoot, and out talk either one of you. So just back off,” Joe said, through clenched teeth.
“Oh, you can most surely out talk anyone I know. That little performance you pull the other day proved that,” Adam commented.
Smiling a half smile, Joe adjusted his hat. “Why older brother, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” With that he left the barn.
“That boy needs takin’ down a size or two.”
Clapping the bigger man on the back, Adam nodded, “And I’m just the man for the job.”
Ned and Tex traveled through the night, after their escape. The destination was the Ponderosa. A smart man would have headed back to Texas or anywhere else in the world, other than there. The one thing that kept him headed in his chosen direction was his desire to destroy the Cartwright family and regain who he believed to be his son.
“Ned, you sure you know what you’re doin’?” Tex asked as they eased up to the tree line above the ranch house.
“I aim to get my kid back. I spent too much time training the boy the way I want him, and I’ll be damned if I let Cartwright ruin it for me,” Ned vowed.
“Look, Ned, I like the kid too, but he ain’t really yours. Is it worth gettin’ caught for?”
Looking at his partner, Ned frowned. “If you ain’t gonna help me get my son back, then get the hell out of here. That boy is mine and I aim to get him. You in or not?”
“I’m in. I ain’t ever let ya down have I?” Tex concluded. He knew how dangerous the man could be, and didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of his gun. “What’s the plan?”
“We waltz right in there and take the boy.”
“The two of us are gonna take on the five of them? Ain’t good odds, Ned.”
“We don’t have to worry about Joey; he won’t cause any trouble.”
“Hope ya right, the boy seemed to be fitting right in with them the other day in town.”
“He learned from the best. The boy had to make the best of the situation he’s in,” Ned concluded. “Trust me, when we go in there and Joey sees that I came for him, he’ll be more than willing to go. This ain’t the place for him. Not enough excitement, and you can tell the boy is missing it.”
Adam and Hoss entered the house to find their little brother standing with Pa at the desk in the study. They watched as Ben handed the boy some money, and asked if it was enough. Putting his arm around the boy’s shoulders, they walked over to the settee and relaxed.
“Well, Pa, all the chores are done, so, Hoss and I were thinking about going into town for awhile,” Adam commented, noticing the scowl on his younger brother’s face.
“That’s fine, son; maybe the two of you can ride in with Little Joe and keep him company,” Ben offered.
“Look Adam, can’t ya get it through your head that I don’t need a keeper? The only reason you two are going to town is to keep an eye on me,” Joe snapped, jumping up from his seat and facing his brothers.
“Aw, come on big shorty, why’d we wanna keep an eye on you fer?” Hoss asked.
“Cause big brother there thinks I’m goin’ to town to get into trouble or somethin’ and has to stick his nose in where it don’t belong.”
“That is enough out of all three of you. Joseph, your brothers are not going to town to watch your every move. And further more, it IS their business what you do and what happens to you, the same as it is mine. Now, I suggest you loose this attitude, or you won’t be going anywhere, young man.” Ben said, looking down at his young son.
“Pa, I know ya mean well, but you have to understand something. I ain’t no little kid that can’t take care of himself. It’s getting really old havin’ to explain everything I do, or everywhere I go, to all of you. I ain’t lived that way for the last three years of my life,” the boy said. All the frustration that had been building up in him since his return, coming to the surface. He had tried, but now he was feeling like a caged animal.
“Son, I know you had a rough go of it while you were hostage to those men, but…”
“That’s just it, Pa. I wasn’t a hostage,” Joe shouted, running his fingers through his hair. “I was one of them. Ned Tucker was my Pa for those three years. I know that you are my Pa, but during the time I was gone, I didn’t know that. I listened to what he told me and to what he taught me. You don’t understand what all I have done. I’ve done everything short of murder, and now you expect me to just come home and act the good boy. With all the ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ and ‘sirs’ and ‘ma’ams’. I have tried, Pa, but I can’t do it. You want me to work all week, then church on Sundays, with the occasional dance or social. You want to tuck your little boy in every night at the bedtime you pick for me. It’s too much Pa, I wanna hit the saloon and have a few, play a little poker, flirt with the girls, maybe shoot up the place, or something, go to bed when the hell I decide I’m ready. Anything exciting. I’m sorry Pa, but I don’t think I can live your way of life,” Joe said, before running up the stairs and into his room.
The three men that remained in the greatroom of the Ponderosa, stood looking at each other, each shocked by the words they had heard.
“Pa, Adam and me didn’t mean to make the young’un feel like that,” Hoss said, softly. His biggest fear was of loosing the boy again.
“I know that, son, but he’s right. Maybe I have expected too much out of him too soon. Ours is a whole different life than he’s used to living.” Ben said, as he returned to his favorite chair.
“Pa, I understand what you’re saying, but what can we do? Do we just turn the other way and let him run wild?” Adam offered, knowing it would bring his father back to reality. “Do you really want to take on the responsibility of what all the kid could get up to?”
“What? Of course we don’t let the boy run wild. But we do need to be more sensitive to what he’s feeling and going through.”
“I know you don’t want to hear this, but I think that was another little act of baby brother’s,” Adam commented. Taking in the scowl on his fathers face, he continued, “Stop and look at it. Seems to me, every time he thinks he’s getting a little too deep in hot water with you, he pulls out his ace in the hole. It’s always the same, ‘Pa, I’m trying to fit in, but it’s so hard. I can’t do it Pa, not after the last three years’,” Adam said, gauging his father’s reaction before continuing. “Pa, one thing for sure the kid learned, was the art of manipulation. The only question left is how long are you going to let him get away with it?”
“Adam, what do you expect me to do? He’s been through so much, and I don’t want him to run off. Besides, what makes you think it’s all an act? Maybe he really feels this way.”
“What you do is your decision; he’s your son. But I think they’ll be more chance of him taking off if you don’t pull the reins in some. And I know that there is more chance of him getting in more serious trouble later on. Look at it this way, Pa. Would you let him get away with the stuff he has lately, if it weren’t for what happened?”
Ben thought back on all the trouble the boy had been in. He mentally ticked off all the times he caught the boy, drinking, smoking, sneaking out, not to mention the two times he was escorted home by Sheriff Coffee. Adam was right; he was being way too easy on his son. The boy thought he could get away with everything. Shaking his head, he looked into the faces of his older sons, “You’re exactly right, son. I’ve failed Little Joe. It’s my place to see to it that he is raised the right way. There is no reason he can’t grow into a fine man, despite those three years of hell. Well no more. From this day on, he will do what is expected of him,” Ben vowed, as he stood.
The knock at the door stopped Ben from proceeding up the stairs to deal with his son. Walking over and opening it, he wasn’t prepared for what stood on the other side.
“Inside Cartwright,” Ned growled, leveling his gun at Ben.
Stepping back as Ned and Tex entered, Ben questioned. “What are you doing here?”
Adam and Hoss joined their father, flanking him on either side. They all watched as the men entered the house and closed the door behind them.
“Get over there and sit down,” Ned ordered, waving the gun toward the settee.
“What do you want, Tucker?” Adam asked, sitting in his blue chair.
“My kid…where is he?”
“Joseph isn’t yours, and you know it,” Ben growled. “Why don’t you get out of here while you still can?”
“You shut your damn mouth. I came to get my son, and I ain’t leaving without him. Now where is he?”
Silence was all that met his demands. Turning toward the stairs, he smiled. “JOEY!! Come on down here boy.”
The moment he entered his room, Little Joe threw himself down on the bed. The last thing he’d wanted was to show too much emotion in front of the others. He wanted to show them he was fitting in, that he was trying. But no matter what, he knew the truth, and the truth wasn’t something he was proud of. The things he’d done while with Tucker were haunting him. In the short time he’d been back with his Pa and brothers, he’d grown to love them deeply. He felt as if he wasn’t good enough to be a part of his own family. Under no circumstances did he want them to know what he had taken part in during those three years. He wanted to be Ben’s little boy, and Adam and Hoss’ little brother, but the life he’d led had forced him to grow up faster than he would have. Was there a way to get that back, to turn back the hands of time, to erase all the bad, and hold only the good in you heart and head? No, he answered himself, there was no going back. It was then he made the decision to leave.
Upon hearing his name called out from downstairs, Little Joe realized instantly who had yelled. ‘Tucker, what’s he doing here? I can’t let him hurt my family. This much I can do for them.’ With a grim determination of what he had to do, the boy left his room.
Ned looked up, hearing the door being closed, and watched as the boy came into view. “Joey, boy, it’s good to see ya son. Well, come on down here and tell ya Pa hello.”
Joe walked down the stairs and stood in front of the man he once called Pa. All the past events came rushing back to him. He remembered a little boy standing in the school room surrounded by his friends, as men busted into the building and took him. Not men, a man, this man. He remembered a man beating him badly the time he ran off to go home. Not a man, this man. He remembered all the shootings, the robberies, the strong arm techniques he was involved in. All the threats made against another person’s life, all the threats he made. All of this because of a man. Not a man, this man. Pasting on a fake smile, he began the play. “How’d ya get out?”
“Oh, convinced a certain young deputy that we’d be better off on the other side of the bars,” Tex smugged.
Turning and catching the site of the other man in the room, Joe smiled at him, “Good to see ya again, Tex. Be careful where ya pointin’ that gun,” he added, seeing the pistol aimed at his fathers chest.
“Now don’t tell me ya done gone and got soft on me, boy,” Tex asked, looking at the youngster.
“I wouldn’t call it soft. They been good to me, while I was here. I don’t want them hurt,” Joe stated calmly, as he stepped between Ben and Tex.
“Joseph, move son. Please, I don’t want you hurt.” Ben said, fearing for his son.
“No, Mr. Cartwright. You just sit tight’ no one here is gonna get hurt. Tex, pa and me are gonna walk out of here. You three should be able to get loose after awhile, but by then, we’ll be long gone,” Joe said. Turning to face his family, he added, “Don’t come after me. Let me go. I don’t belong here, with you all. I’m not good enough for this family.”
“Joseph, listen to me. I don’t know what has happened to make you feel this way, but you are my son, you’re a Cartwright. There is no way I’m letting you go.”
Shutting his eyes tightly, the boy willed away the tears he felt burning his eyes. He didn’t want to show weakness; he had to stand firm with his decision. His family deserved to lead normal, respectful lives. He felt he was not cut out to live this way’ he would only bring trouble to the men he loved so dearly. No, he had to go. Whirling around, he faced the man sitting in the red chair, his Pa. “Look, I done told ya once today, that I ain’t cut out for this kinda life. I want to live under the stars, live by my wits, not stuck inside playing at being the rich kid, the boss’ son. It ain’t for me.”
“You mean, you want to live by your gun, don’t you?” Adam asked, looking at his baby brother. ‘Dear God, please let this be one of the kid’s acts. We can’t lose him again. It would kill Pa and Hoss. Hell, it’d kill me too.’
“If that’s what it takes to make it, yes, by my gun. Speaking of which, just where did ya lock up my gun, sir?” Joe asked.
“Your gun? Don’t tell me, you let him take your gun away?” Ned asked, looking at the boy with a frown.
“Yes sir, he don’t think I’m old enough to carry item” Joe said, reluctantly. He knew the man’s feeling on the subject.
Nodding his head, Ned took a deep breath, before slapping the youth across the face. “I thought you learned that lesson along time ago. You never, and I mean NEVER let anyone take your gun. Losing your gun could mean your death.”
Little Joe could taste the blood in his mouth; he remembered all the other times he’d been slapped by this man. Calming himself, he looked up at Ned, then back to the floor. “I’m sorry, sir, I know I shouldn’t have let him take the gun, but I didn’t know what else to do. He is my father, sir.”
“I’m your father, boy, and don’t you forget it. Or do you need a more painful reminder of the fact?” he asked, hooking his thumb into his belt.
“No sir. It don’t matter. I aim to go with ya anyhow. I ain’t good enough for this place. I belong out there with you, sir. That is if you’ll still have me.”
“Joe, don’t do this. You belong here with us, boy,” Hoss said, pulling at the ropes that bound his wrists.
“Come on Little Joe, you can’t be serious. You can’t go with them,” Adam added.
“Yes I can, and I will. You can’t stop me.”
“Why are you doing this, Tucker?” Ben asked. He too was trying to loosen the ties on his wrists.
“He’s my boy now, whether by blood or not. He’s been trained, and I need him out there with me. You have no clue what this boy was doing with us, do you?” Ned asked the group, as he sat down on the settee.
“He’s a Cartwright, and that’s all that matters,” Hoss summed up.
“Oh, but I think it does matter. It matters to Joey, here, don’t it boy?”
“I would rather not discuss it, not in front of them,” Joe said, quietly.
“Why? I mean, maybe if they knew what you’d done, they wouldn’t be so all fired in a hurry to come after ya. Or we could kill them.”
“NO! You can’t hurt them. Tell ’em what ya want, but don’t hurt them.”
“Fine, son, let’s see, where to start?” Ned said pulling on his bottom lip. “Oh yeah, there was all the stage robberies, where you were the one that held the gun on the passengers, or you took their money, watches and things. There was all of those people that wouldn’t pay up that you beat, some within an inch of their lives. Then there was the banks that we held up. Remember the one down in Arizona?” Ned laughed. “The one, where you were the only one that could fit in the hole we blowed in the safe. You went in, and got all the money and handed it out to us.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Joe said, looking into the flames that burned brightly in the fireplace. “I remember you making me practice til my arms felt like they’d fall off. For hours, I would stand out in all kinds of weather, shooting at the targets you set up for me. By the time I was thirteen, I could shoot the whiskers off a cat without disturbing his sleep…..Oh yes, I remember.”
“Then you understand why you have to come with us now? You don’t belong here,” Ned said standing behind the boy.
“He’s not going anywhere. He belongs here with his family,” Ben stated, taking in the stricken look on the boys face.
Joe walked over and knelt in front of his father. Looking into his eyes, he gave him a little smile. “No, please try to understand. I have to go. You deserve a son like Adam, or Hoss, not me. I can never be anything but a disappointment to you. I can’t change the past. I wish I could, I wish I could be the kind of son you want. Bye sir.”
“Joseph, I love you, boy. You are my son, and no matter what has happened in the past, you still belong here with us.”
“Pa’s right shortshanks, this is your home,” Hoss added to his father’s words.
Looking over to his older brothers, Little Joe felt the pride he had for them building. He walked over had hugged Hoss. “Love ya, brother.”
“Don’t go, Joe, boy. Ya gonna break ya Pa’s heart.”
Shaking his head, he walked over to Adam. Hugging his eldest brother against him, he whispered, “You knew each and ever lie I told didn’t ya?”
“Yeah, little buddy, I did,” Adam quietly answered back. “Don’t do this, kid; we need you here.”
Tightening his hold, Joe sighed. “I gotta do this, older brother. I love ya’ll too much not to.”
Walking back to where his father was seated, Joe knelt and put his arms around the man, “Forgive me Pa. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be what you wanted from a son. I love you.”
“Joseph, son. Don’t leave.”
Little Joe couldn’t take any more. He wanted to leave, to run as far away as it took to leave his memories behind. Ned saw the play of emotions on the boys face. He stood and walked over to stand in front of him. “What’s this? All of this hugging and stuff. Don’t tell me you let them get to you? I thought I raised ya better than this. You know what’s wrong with you, kid? You haven’t killed a man yet. Yes, that’s what you need to do, because, you see, until you do that — kill a man I mean — you’ll continue to wonder where you belong. Once you have, there’ll be no doubt. You backed out on the test the last time, and I chalked it up to your age. This time, you won’t have a choice, either YOU will do the killing or I will.”
“I don’t understand; who do you want me to kill? I thought we’d just get on out of here,” Joe said, confused at the man’s tone.
“You decide, son. You pick which one of this fine family dies by your gun, or I kill them all,” Ned stated. He was furious that the boy felt the way he did for the men he held captive. The options were good, he thought. If the boy killed one of them, he’d never be able to come back again. If not, he’d make sure there was no one for the boy to come back to.
“You’re not serious? You can’t be?” Joe pleaded.
“Come on, Ned, let’s go. You got the kid, now let’s get outta here before someone shows up,” Tex stated, as he became wary of the man’s attitude.
Pulling his gun from his holster, Ned leveled it at Adam’s head. “I’m dead serious, kid. Now get to deciding. Who lives, and who dies.”
Closing his eyes, the boy prayed for guidance. ‘Dear Lord, please forgive me.’ Opening them again, he look straight into the eyes of what he knew now was a madman. Never flinching, he said, “Fine, but I do it my way. I’ll kill one of them, but not in here, not in front of the others. I can’t do that. And, I do it alone. I at least have the right to a few minutes alone with the one I choose.”
Scratching his head, Ned smiled. “Fine, kid, but keep in mind that I will check to make sure ya did the job. If you didn’t, I will come in back in here and kill all of them. You get only one chance.”
“Understood, sir,” Joe said looking around at his family for the first time, since this discussion started. He saw the shock and disappointment on their faces. All the faces but one. He hoped he was right and that once again his big brother had seen through the lies he’d just told. Refraining from eye contact with Ben or Hoss, he walked straight to where Adam sat bound in the blue chair.
“Joseph, no,” Ben said, his heart breaking at the knowledge of what his baby son had been through, and was now going through. His arms ached to hold his eldest, as he had when the young man was a small child. Here was this evil being placing brother against brother. No, this couldn’t be happening. My son is not a killer; he couldn’t kill anyone, let alone his own brother. He had seen the love in the boy’s eyes when he looked at his big brother; he could only hope the boy had a good plan.
“Stay out of this. I don’t need one of your lectures. One life to save two, not a bad sacrifice. Think about it — you and Hoss live, but only if Adam dies,” Joe said in a matter of fact voice. Putting his hand around Adam’s upper arm, he pulled him to his feet. “Come on, older brother, let’s take a walk to the barn.”
“JOSEPH!!!!…………COME BACK, SON!!!!!!…… ADAAAAM!” Ben called, hoping to look as if he believed what was happening.
Hoss looked after his brothers, hoping he would see both again, alive and healthy. He too, knew there was no way his younger brother could commit such a callus act as was being demanded of him.
Not a word was spoken as Little Joe led Adam to the barn. Entering the dimly lit building, Joe turned Adam to face him. Looking deep into his brothers eyes, he smiled. “Kinda thought it’d be you taking me to the barn, not the other way around, older brother.”
“Yeah well, my choice of weapons would be different,” Adam said looking down the barrel of his little brothers Colt. “So, ya gonna shoot me or untie me?”
Scrunching up his face as if debating on the idea, Joe looked at Adam and smiled, “I’ll make a deal with ya.”
“And that would be?”
“If I untie ya, will ya talk to Pa for me? I mean I kinda figured out that he was on his way up to do some damage to my backside when Tucker showed up.”
“And just how would you know that, unless you were eavesdropping, little boy?”
“He don’t have to know that either, does he?” Joe asked, flashing a grin at the older man.
“Ok, kid, I’ll try. I can’t promise anything.”
“Look Adam, I have to make this look like I did the job. Once I fire the gun and go back to the house, one of them will come to make sure I did it. That one’s yours, big brother.” Joe said walking over to the pile of feed sacks that were stacked in the corner. “This is something else Pa don’t need to know about,” the boy said pulling out another Colt, and handing it to Adam.
“Boy, it’ll take a miracle to keep your hide intact now. But, we’ll figure out something,” Adam smiled.
“Listen, Tex ain’t as bad as Ned, but neither one will hesitate to kill ya, so do what ya have ta.”
“I will, kid. You be careful. Are you gonna be able to do what has to be done, in there?”
“I have to. I can’t let them hurt Pa or Hoss…..or you. Be careful,” Joe said as he turned and fired his gun into the far wall of the barn.
Ben turned quickly at the sound of the shot. Looking over at Hoss, he prayed that both his sons were alright. Tucker watched the play of emotions on the faces of the men. Laughing, he walked over to the fireplace. “Ya know Cartwright, I knew I picked the right kid. Joey is a natural.”
The sound of the door opening and closing caught the attention of all the men that sat in the greatroom. Ben searched the face of his youngest, and found nothing. There was no emotion on the boys face to give away the events that had just taken place, beyond that closed door.
“Job done, boy?” Ned asked. He too couldn’t figure out the boy that stood in front of him.
Slowly, a smile crept across the young boys face. A deep laugh built from inside him, startling the others. “I never figured killin’ someone could make ya feel like this. That was better than the feeling ya get off a bottle of whiskey. Why didn’t ya tell me it felt this good?”
“I knew ya had it in ya, kid. I knew the training would pay off,” Ned bragged.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t like him no how. Too damn bossy,” Joe lied, as he worked his way over and set down on the settee. “Ya know what, Ned?”
“JOEY, you know what to call me, and it ain’t by my given name boy,” Ned scolded.
“BOY?! Hell, I ain’t a boy, now. A boy don’t kill a man, Pa.”
“You’re right, son…. now what did ya want to say?”
“Mr. College was trying his damnedest to talk me out of it. Ya know I even had him beggin?”
Ben looked over at his son, wishing with all his might that he and Hoss hadn’t been gagged after their earlier outburst. He wanted to say something, anything that would put an end to the madness that had intruded into their lives. He stared at the boy on the settee, hoping to catch his eye. He was startled at the sound of the voice that came from behind him.
“I have to see this. Tex, you keep them covered. Joey, wanna come with me?”
“Nah, think I’ll get some coffee. Want some?”
“Yeah, have me a cup waiting. I want to get a good look at my boy’s first kill.” Ned said, pulling the door closed behind him.
Joe looked over at Tex for a moment, before going toward the kitchen. Stopping in front of the man, he looked him square in the eye. “Wanna help me with the coffee?”
“I better stay here and keep an eye on them,” Tex said turning around to glance at Ben and Hoss.
Joe waited until the man had turned his back to him before raising the black horse statue that sat alone on table behind the settee. Quickly he slammed the object against the man’s head, rendering him unconscious. Joe looked over at his father and brother and saw the look of relief on their faces. Raising his finger to his lips, he signaled them to be quite and wait. Slipping his arms underneath Tex, he dragged him into the kitchen and tied his wrists and ankles firmly. Making sure the kitchen door was locked, he slipped back into the other room.
Adam, lay completely motionless on the floor of the barn. He listened to the sound of the front door opening and closing. The sound of footsteps approaching caused him to tense slightly, grasping tightly the gun he held underneath his body. He heard the footfall stop beside him. Moments later, Adam felt the person grab his shoulder and start to turn him. The next few seconds seem to be in slow motion. Adam felt his body roll over, his eyes meeting the unsuspecting eyes of Ned Tucker. He watched as Tucker went for his gun; it was then Adam squeezed the trigger, and saw the other man fall.
Joe ran from the house, hoping the plan had worked, and that his brother was alive. Easing up to the door of the barn, he paused. “Adam?”
“It’s over, Joe,” he heard his brother say, causing him to exhale deeply. Walking inside the barn, his eyes went from the fallen man, to the eyes of his brother. “It’s over…. It’s really over?” his voice shook.
Pulling the boy into a tight embrace, Adam softly whispered, “It’s really over, little buddy.”
“Guess we might oughta go and untie Pa and Hoss, huh?” Joe said.
“You left them tied?” Adam said shaking his head. “You really do have a death wish, kid.”
The day had finally wound down for the family, as they sat together at the table eating their supper. Mitch and Seth had come and gone with the promise of a camping trip the following weekend. Roy had come and taken statements from everyone, then took the body of Tucker, along with Tex back to town.
“Joe, you look tired, son,” Ben said laying his hand over that of the boy to his right.
“I am, a little,” Joe answered, pushing his food around.
“Joe, are you alright? Do you want to talk about all of this?” Ben questioned.
“Pa, there are things in my past that I don’t want to remember, and I especially don’t want to talk about them. I still think that it would be better if I left. I don’t deserve to live here…”
“Joseph, that is enough. I don’t want to here that kind of talk again. You are my son, and their brother,” he said pointing at Adam and Hoss, then continuing. “Son, I know you’ve been through a lot, and I know you want to put it behind you, but you can’t do that if you run away from the problem. What you need is to let yourself be a part of this family. Allow yourself to be a boy for a few more years. Let us help you, Little Joe.”
Joe looked around the table at the caring faces of his family. He felt the tears building as he took in the love they each held for him. Taking a deep breath, he turned to face his father once more. “You’re right, Pa. I need to stay here; I need to be with my family.”
Smiling Ben tosseled his son’s curls, “Good, now that that is settled, eat your supper young man.”
“Yes sir,” Joe smiled.
“Adam, I’ve been meaning to ask you. Where did you get the gun you had in the barn?” Ben asked.
Adam looked over at his little brother’s pale face. Smiling he said, “Well ya see Pa…. it’s a long sad story.