To Become a Man (by Territell)

Summary:  The final story in the Boy to Man Series.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:   12,300


 

The stagecoach journey back to Virginia City was not the pleasant trip that Ben had envisaged. He had been so relieved and happy to be taking his youngest son home after the ordeal he had suffered at the hands of Frank Carter and his gang. Ben had steered the conversation away from the events of the last few weeks for most of the journey, but as their destination was nearing its end he knew he could not put off the inevitable any longer. He had to inform Little Joe that Adam would not be returning to the Ponderosa. Adam had been so incensed at the cruelty that Carter had shown towards his youngest brother, he had made a promise to himself that he would not rest until Carter was dead or behind bars, waiting to be hung for the terrible crimes he had committed. There was no way his little brother would live in fear of that man ever again.

“And so Adam has decided to join Ron Shepherd and his men in tracking the gang down,” Ben finished.

The look of disgust and undisguised anger that appeared on Joe’s face was reflected in his eyes. Ben had forbidden Joe to accompany Ron Shepherd and now he was telling him that Adam had gone in his place.

“How come Adam got to go Pa?” Joe said through clenched teeth “Oh I know don’t tell me, it’s because Adam’s a grown up, and me, well I’m just a little boy in your eyes aren’t I Pa?”

Ben sighed, there was certainly more than a grain of truth in what Joe was saying, but to say that to a young man on the brink of manhood was just asking for trouble. If Ben had his way Adam would not have gone either, but at thirty years of age, Adam was well beyond being told by his father what he could or could not do.

“Joe” began Ben soothingly “you’ve still not fully recovered from the beating you received at the hands of that maniac. What kind of father would I be to let you go chasing after him in your present state?”

“That’s just an excuse Pa. I’m perfectly well and you know it,” shouted Joe.

“Joseph” said Ben in a voice that he was straining hard to keep calm but not quite succeeding “I suggest you keep a civil tongue in your head. I’m making allowances for the fact that you’re upset, but I will not have you raise your voice to me. Is that understood?”

Even through his anger Joe knew he had pushed his father too far, and with a deep intake of breath he struggled to contain his emotions and bite back the retort that had threatened to spring from his mouth.

“Is that clear, Joseph?”

“Yes Sir” replied Joe, biting on his lower lip in order to prevent himself from adding to his statement. With an air of defeat he slouched back into his seat and turned to look out of the window, staring outside but seeing nothing. For once the beauty of the rugged landscape was lost on him; the anger and disappointment at not been allowed to go was also compacted by the worry he felt for his older brother’s safety.

Ben picked up his paper once more and made a pretence of reading, but all the time he was really looking at the young man opposite. Joe was almost eighteen and in many ways a man, but as Ben gazed at his son through hooded eyes all he could see was a little boy. Joe was huddled in the corner of the coach with a look on his face that had amused yet irritated Ben for most of the boy’s life. His pouty mouth and expressive eyes, that always glistened with unshed tears when he was upset, mirrored his feelings for the world to see. Adam had always declared that the look was contrived and displayed to save Joe from an inevitable tanning, but he too was not immune to its power when directed at him.

Joe sulked the rest of the journey, and Ben in many ways was relieved to have a respite from the boy’s constant chatter. Just over a week ago he was desperately worried about his young son and how his recent ordeal would affect him, but the journey home had just proved to Ben, once again, how resilient his youngest child was at bouncing back from whatever life threw at him.

By the time they arrived back at the Ponderosa Ben and Joe were glad to be able to get respite from each other’s company. Joe’s temper was still smoldering and Ben’s patience was about to run out. He didn’t want to argue with Joe but the boy was beginning to push the boundary too far; his sulking demeanor and discourteous manner were bordering on insolence and Ben would not allow that from any of his sons no matter how old they were.

The following day a very tired Hoss finally rode into the yard, and as he dismounted he handed his horse over to one of the ranch hands. Hoss was not one to pass on his responsibilities to another, but on this occasion he was more than willing. His body ached from long hours sitting in the saddle, and the thought of a soak in a hot tub followed by one of Hop Sing’s delicious meals was the only thing that had kept him going for the last leg of his journey. On entering the house he removed his hat and gunbelt and placed them on the credenza before looking round the room with a satisfied air; he was home at last.

Ben stood up from his chair and made his way over to greet him, “Welcome home son.”

“Hi Pa,” he replied. “Where’s Little Joe?” he added scanning the room for his youngest brother.

Ben inclined his head towards the stairs and shrugged his shoulders.

“Taken it bad about Adam going off without him I suppose?”

“Afraid so, I think it’s going to be a rough couple of weeks for all of us.”

“Let’s just hope that’s all it takes,” said Hoss. “From what I gather, Frank Carter didn’t leave much of a trail behind him.” Picking up an apple and taking a large bite out of it Hoss set off in search of Hop Sing. He would speak to Joe later, but at this moment in time he needed food for he couldn’t function properly on an empty stomach.

*****

Over the next couple of weeks there were several letters from Adam informing them of his progress. There was not much to report; the odd supposed sighting but nothing definite. Adam was careful to avoid mentioning the route that the posse was taking and Little Joe was well aware that this was done on purpose. Adam feared that Joe would try to follow them, probably with good reason.

Beneath the hurt and anger that Joe was feeling there was also a deep worry that something might happen to Adam. He of all people knew the depths to which Frank Carter would go in order to seek revenge on the Cartwright family, and just the thought of Adam falling into the hands of that madman was enough to give him nightmares.

It was the eve of Joe’s 18th birthday and for once it was a very somber affair. With Adam away from home, Joe was adamant that he did not want a party, and Ben and Hoss were acquiescent. If the family was not together there was little enthusiasm for a celebration.

That night Joe turned in early as he had done almost every night for the last few weeks. Just as Ben was preparing to retire himself he heard a noise in the yard and so he made his way to the front door, picking his gun up from the credenza before venturing out into the night. His look of anxiety turned to one of joy when he saw the man before him dressed all in black dismounting from his horse.

“Adam” said Ben rushing out into the yard, “Good to see you son. Here let me take your horse, you look done in.”

Adam tried to protest but Ben wouldn’t hear of it, so he handed the reins to his father and with a tired “Thank you” made his way into the house. Ben hurried to take care of Sport, quickly feeding and bedding down the horse, then rushed back indoors to give his eldest son the welcome he deserved.

Ben walked over to the settee and was a little disappointed, although not surprised, to see his son sprawled out fast asleep. He was still wearing his gun and hat, had at least three days growth on his face and his clothes looked as if they hadn’t been changed in a long time. Deciding to let Adam sleep for as long as he wished, Ben made his way into the kitchen to prepare his son something to eat; Adam certainly looked as if he could do with a good meal.

The following morning Ben and Hoss were already sat at the breakfast table when Little Joe sleepily made his way down the stairs to join them. Ben gave his youngest son a broad smile.

“Happy birthday Joe” he said, and handed him a small parcel. Joe unwrapped the gift and found inside a beautiful gold pocket watch. He was delighted but not surprised at the contents. Ben had presented both Adam and Hoss with a similar gift on their eighteenth birthdays.

“Thanks Pa. It’s really beautiful.”

“Glad you like it son” said Ben, and then wagging his finger he added “now you will have no excuse whatsoever for being late to supper.”

“Guess you didn’t need to buy Hoss a watch to ensure that Pa” smirked Little Joe, looking over at Hoss. Hoss stood up from the table and playfully reached out to grab his younger brother by the neck. Joe ducked down and ran from the outstretched hand and as he did so he bumped straight into the bulk of his eldest brother.

“Want me to hold him while you pound him Hoss?”

“A-A-Adam, where did you come from?” stuttered Joe.

“Just got in last night Joe, couldn’t be away from home when my little brother became a man, now could I? Happy birthday” and with that he playfully swatted his youngest sibling across the head.

Joe’s birthday was complete. He was overjoyed to see his eldest brother and bombarded him with questions as to what had happened since their last meeting. Adam didn’t have much to tell. They had followed the trail of Frank Carter from the time he left San Francisco, but in the passage of time it had gone cold and Adam had decided to return to the Ponderosa for a short while before rejoining Ron and the posse.

Two days later a rejuvenated Adam received a telegram from Ron Shepherd. He kept the contents from his family until they were seated round the fire that evening. Joe instinctively knew without being told what Adam was about to divulge.

“When you planning on leaving Adam?” asked Joe tentatively.

Adam looked at his father before replying, “I’ll be going in the morning Little Joe. Ron wants me to meet him in Placerville as soon as possible. There’s been reports of a gang working that region over the last few weeks and we thought we would check it out.”

“I’m going with you Adam,” stated Joe firmly.

“This isn’t open for debate Little Joe. You’re staying here,” said Adam in a voice that, if Joe closed his eyes, he could mistake for his fathers.

Joe did not argue. He simply stood up, said goodnight to his family and went to bed.

The following morning Adam was early to rise and have breakfast. He had half expected to see his youngest brother sitting waiting for him and was surprised to find himself alone. Less than thirty minutes later he was stood in the barn almost ready to leave when he turned to find Joe standing beside him. Cochise was saddled and Joe’s saddlebags bulged with supplies. Just beyond Joe, Hoss stood to one side. Adam looked to him for help but Hoss just shrugged his shoulders. Joe’s mind was made up and Hoss felt powerless to intervene; he just knew that if Joe was going he was going too.

“I thought I made it very clear last night Little Joe. You are not going with me.” said Adam, fixing his eyes firmly back on the boy in front of him.

“You can’t stop me Adam. As you said I’m a man now and I can look after myself.”

Looking at his youngest sibling with an air of superiority Adam’s lips twitched upwards as he said “From what I remember little brother, you didn’t make a very good job of it last time.”

That was all it took. The red mist came down and Joe lunged at his brother. Adam almost smiled; his younger sibling had never been a match for him and he had no reason to believe today would be any different. That was his first mistake. He was totally unprepared for the ferocity of Joe’s attack, and the punch that landed squarely on his jaw was not only powerful but right on target. Adam only just managed to stay on his feet long enough to retaliate with a jab at Joe’s head before Hoss decided that things were getting well out of hand, and placed his large bulk between the two warring factions. Grasping his smallest brother by the shoulders in an effort to calm things down, Hoss was rewarded for his troubles by a vicious kick to the shins. Yelling with pain, he released his charge and proceeded to hop round the barn on one foot.

It didn’t take long before the fracas drew Ben’s attention and his eyebrows knitted together in a frown as he made his way across the yard. No one had to draw him a picture about what was going on; this scenario had played out several times over recent years between his eldest and youngest son. As he entered the barn the scene before him may have made him laugh under different circumstances. Adam was still looking dazed, Joe was psyching himself up for the next round, and Hoss continued to run round in a circle looking very like one of the chickens from the hen house. As Joe’s clenched fist was drawn back in readiness, Ben stepped up behind him and reached forward to grip Joe’s bicep in a vicelike hold. Speaking calmly but firmly Ben’s voice eventually cut through the red mist and Joe struggled momentarily to regain control before allowing his arms to fall to his sides.

“Well, what’s it about this time?” barked Ben. Joe continued to glare at his elder brother.

The left side of his face was beginning to sting, but he didn’t feel as if he had enough control over his mouth to reply to Ben at this juncture; he was too afraid of what might come out and he pulled his lower lip between his teeth and tried counting to ten.

“I’m waiting for an answer,” said Ben, looking from one son to another and finally resting his gaze on Adam.

Glancing at each of his brothers Adam knew that he could expect no help, so with a deep breath he accepted his fate as the sacrificial offering once more.

“I just told your baby son here that he couldn’t come with me that’s all, and he threw a tantrum like he always does when he doesn’t get his own way,” he said, as he turned back to his father.

Joe’s nostrils began to flare once more in anger, the sparks almost flying from his eyes; he was prepared to take up where he left off. Hoss, ever ready to protect his little brother, stopped rubbing his shin long enough to jump to his defence.

“Hold it right there Adam, that’s not quite as it happened and you know it. If Joe hadn’t planted you one, I might of being tempted to do it myself!”

“Now isn’t that just like you Hoss,” said Adam turning his sarcasm onto his middle sibling “little brother can do no wrong. I suppose you kicked your own shin into the bargain.”

Ben was not prepared to let the situation deteriorate.

“Joseph go to the house, I will be in to discuss your behavior shortly. Hoss get on with your chores.”

Adam sighed, somehow he knew he would be the one to bear the brunt of his father’s wrath. As the other two departed, Ben gave his full attention to the eldest.

“Right Adam. Would you care to explain just what has been happening here?”

“I already told you Pa, Joe wanted to come with me, I said no and he took a swing at me.”

“Adam, I’ve seen you at work before. You always know exactly what you are doing when you wind up your younger brother. I’m quite sure if you had wanted you could have defused the situation before it began. You have an extensive vocabulary Adam, why don’t you put it into practice now and again.”

“That’s not fair Pa. It’s about time Joe learned to control that temper of his. You can’t go on babying him all his life.”

Ben had heard this before and wondered, not for the first time, if he did baby Joe too much or was Adam just using it as an excuse for provoking his younger brother?

“Do you really think I treat Little Joe any differently to you or Hoss?” Ben’s asked. He was hurt at the suggestion and Adam relented.

“I’m sorry Pa, it’s just, well it’s just I can’t bear to think of Little Joe within a hundred miles of that maniac.”

Ben’s face softened, he was well aware that Adam often used sarcasm to hide behind so that he did not have to reveal what he was really feeling.

“Did you tell your brother that Adam? You know for a very intelligent man you can sometimes be very stupid. Your younger brother is not a child anymore.”

“Yeh I noticed” said Adam rubbing his chin.

“Well maybe its time you started talking with him and not at him Adam.”

Adam pondered his father’s words; in lots of ways he knew he was right. If he had been dealing with Hoss he would have simply told him what was on his mind, but when it came to Joe the relationship became complex. He found it difficult to acknowledge his feelings for fear of getting them thrown back at him, and in many ways he knew that Joe had the same problem in reverse.

“Boys!” thought Ben shaking his head as he walked away “maybe it would have been easier bringing up girls, at least they wouldn’t be trying to knock each other’s head off every time you turned your back.”

Ben took a deep breath before entering the house; after dealing with the analytical, thinking member of the family it was now time to deal with his over emotional youngest. Before he took two steps inside the door Joe’s voice rang out,

“I’m still going Pa, there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

Joe stood there, hands on his hips, in a very Ben like pose, and as Ben looked at him he knew he was right. He could always forbid Joe to leave, and if needs be, he was still physically capable of preventing him from doing so, but where would that get him. Joe would still leave the first chance he got, and after all he had to practice what he preached. He couldn’t ask Adam to treat Joe like an adult if he continued to treat him like a child.

“OK Joseph” he said with a resigned sigh, “you’d better call Charlie in here.”

“Why Charlie Pa, I don’t understand?” replied a puzzled Joe.

“Well if you and I are to join those brothers of yours in looking for Frank Carter, someone is going to have to make sure this ranch is running smoothly, and the only person I can rely on to do that is Charlie.”

Joe let out a very ungrown-up holler before rushing from the room; he did not want to give his Pa a chance to change his mind.

*****

In less that two hours the whole family were ready to depart and Adam and Joe made an effort to put their recent disagreement to one side and at least be civil to one another. They would be using Heness Pass to reach their destination. The journey was likely to take them several days, and it would be especially important to look out for each other when traveling across such rough terrain.

By that evening when they stopped to make camp the brothers were once again in harmonious accord and Ben and Hoss looked at each and smiled; the family unit was together once more.

As they opened their provisions they were all pleased, but not surprised, to see that Hop Sing had packed them a very appetizing supper, which was a rare treat when they were on the trail. Once they had eaten it didn’t take them long to settle down to sleep. It had been a long day, in more ways than one, and each of them was feeling the effects of the emotional and physical upheaval of the last twelve hours.

The following day was equally long and uneventful, and as evening drew closer they decided to make camp early next to the river. As they sat looking out over the water watching the sun go down on the horizon, Hoss jokingly wished he had brought his fishing gear with him, “Now what would finish the day off right is a nice big trout or two, with some of Hop Sing’s freshly baked bread. Now wouldn’t that go down a treat?”

“Don’t you think of anything other than your belly Hoss?” said Joe laughingly, stretching his legs out in front of him and lying back looking at the sky.

“Well little brother with me it’s food, with you it’s girls and with big brother over there it’s books.”

“That’s a pretty astute observation Hoss,” said Ben joining in the banter.

“Well I’ll have you know Hoss, that’s where you’re wrong, because I think of food, girls and books but not necessarily in that order,” chipped in Adam with a wink to his Pa.

“On that note I think it’s time to turn in boys, sweet dreams, whatever they may be.”

Ben and Hoss moved over to their bedrolls, but Joe hung back. Adam intuitively knew his youngest brother had something on his mind so he also stayed put. Joe continued to look at the water and the silence between them was deafening for several minutes before Joe cleared his throat.

“Adam I just want to apologies for yesterday. I threw the first punch and I’m sorry.”

“Not half as sorry as I was Little Joe, I’m beginning to regret teaching you to fight,” laughed Adam as he rubbed his jaw. The tension between them was broken and Adam became serious once more, “I’m sorry too Joe, I had no call to say what I did and frankly I think I had that punch coming.”

Looking over at his brother and trying to make out the expression on his face in the dimming light Joe added,

“I won’t let you down Adam, it’s just, well, I need to see this through. Until Carter’s dead or behind bars I can’t move on with my life. I spend my time scrutinizing every stranger that comes into town and I’m constantly looking over my shoulder, even when riding on the Ponderosa.”

Feeling Joe’s anguish Adam moved closer to him.

“We’ll find him Joe, I promise you that. And as for letting me down, I never thought for one moment that you would. This is not about letting me down Joe,” and then he added in almost a whisper, “this is about keeping you safe.”

Joe looked over at his brother and smiled, it was very rare that Adam let his guard down and revealed his inner feelings. Adam’s need to keep his emotions in check was completely in contrast to Joe’s ‘heart on the sleeve’ approach to life, but in oh so many other ways they were very very much alike.

“Now let’s get some shut eye little brother, before Pa comes back and starts ranting.”

*****

It was almost lunchtime the following day when they finally arrived in Placerville. Joe and Hoss made their way to the livery stable to see to the horses, while Ben and Adam went over to the hotel to arrange rooms and a bath in order to wash off the last couple of days trail dust.

They had only just checked in and gone to their room when there was a knock at the door. Adam opened it to find Ron Shepherd stood in the doorway. The men renewed their acquaintance and when the pleasantries were over Ben asked him what news he had of Frank Carter.

“I suggest you get freshened up and meet me over at the sheriff’s office in about an hour and I’ll bring you up to date with what I’ve found out,” said Ron, leaving the men to ponder over what developments had taken place.

Joe was the first to bathe and by the time the others were washed and dressed he had fallen asleep on the bed.

“I’m tempted to leave him there” said Ben “but somehow I think he’ll never forgive us if we do.”

Hoss had to shake his youngest brother’s shoulder several times before Joe showed signs of awakening. He looked round the room uncomprehending for a few moments before smiling up at his father and saying,

“Must have dropped off for a second. Boy I feel like I could eat a whole cow I’m so hungry.”

“Is this the right son?” laughed Ben placing a hand on Joe’s forehead to check for a temperature.

In a jovial mood the family then made their way to the Sheriff’s office to meet Ron.

The sheriff welcomed the men into his office and Ron made the introductions before telling them of the happenings that had taken place over the last six weeks or so. A number of ranches had been ransacked while the occupants were out working and on several occasions people had been bushwhacked and left for dead.

Ron and the sheriff believed that the Carter gang was responsible and over the last week they had received information to suggest that the gang were holed up at a derelict farmhouse some way out of town.

After a quick discussion it was decided that Ron and his posse of five men, together with the Cartwrights would be more than enough to go out after the gang and hopefully apprehend them and bring them to justice.

It was almost a days ride away so they arranged to set off at first light the following morning. Hopefully, if all went to plan they would surprise the gang as they were bedding down for the night.

During dinner that evening Joe talked incessantly; his excitement over the events that were about to unfold annoying Adam.

“This is not a game Joe; those men are cold blooded killers” Adam snapped at his younger brother.

Joe stopped in mid sentence, throwing his napkin down on his plate, and looked at Adam with a hurt expression “I don’t think you of all people need to remind me of that Adam.” he replied.

Realizing his poor choice of words Adam started to say “Joe, look I’m sorry, I didn’t mean….” but Joe had already stood and left the room.

Hoss looked at Adam and shook his head

“To think you always tell Joe off for opening his mouth without thinking” whereupon Hoss also stood and followed his younger sibling.

Ben said nothing and Ron felt uncomfortable. The tension of the situation was already beginning to show.

By the following morning a truce had been called once more and it was a very serious group of men who rode out of town in silence. As they arrived about half a mile from the farmhouse in the early evening, Ron indicated for them all to dismount.

“Okay this is what I think we should do” he began. “Four of us will head in from the front. I want one man at each side to warn us of anyone else approaching and Ben I would like you and the boys to cover the back if that’s alright with you.” Everyone nodded their agreement.

“I will give everyone enough time to be in position before we make a move. Good luck.”

It was about twenty minutes later that Ron and his men were finally approaching the farmhouse from the front. There was smoke coming from the chimney and seven horses tethered to the post outside. Did that mean there was only seven of them inside? Ron had been hoping for nine, as that was the reported number of men riding with the gang including Carter.

Ron whispered to one of his men to move forward and release the horses. Moving with all the stealth of a cat the man crept forward almost on all fours. Even though he moved without a sound the animals were immediately aware of his presence and began to neigh softly and jostle each other for position.

He speedily cut the ropes tethering them to the post before slapping one of them hard on the rump, which sent them all running in separate directions. As the silence of the night was disturbed, and repercussions were bound to follow, he quickly dived for cover behind the nearest rock. Seconds later the door to the house burst open and several men in a state of undress ran forward with guns blasting. Ron and his men were ready for them and returned fire immediately. Two of the men were shot dead and a third was wounded. The four men still inside decided they were better off staying put and they opened fire from the relative safety of the house.

As the outlaws were kept busy returning fire against Ron and his men, Ben and his sons made their way towards the back entrance. Adam was first at the house. Indicating to the others to keep back, he kicked open the back door before jumping away from any returning gunfire. Taking up positions nearby, the Cartwrights opened fire. The men inside were now unsure what to do as gunfire reigned down on them from both sides. When one was shot dead and another wounded the two remaining outlaws decided to give themselves up.

And so it was that the posse, with not a man hurt, and the four remaining outlaws secured, stood outside the farmhouse congratulating themselves on a job well done. What happened next took everyone by surprise. Without warning Joe fell to the ground, drew his gun, rolled over and fired three shots, all in one swift movement. Looking in the direction of Joe’s line of fire, they were all stunned to see two men staring down on them with rifles in their hands. One of the men fell dead while the other could be seen making a quick getaway; though too far away to be followed. Joe’s quick reactions saved the day; the posse had been sitting ducks.

Ron whistled in appreciation, “Son, I just can’t believe you did that. Never in all these years have I seen anyone so fast. Just don’t take to a life of crime boy. I would hate to pick up the pieces.” The others came forward and patted Joe on the back.

Joe preened in the praise being showered on him and his family were happy for him to have his moment of glory; they were all returning safely and that was all that mattered. Well not quite! Where was Frank Carter? He was not amongst the men, living or dead. Was he the one that got away?

It was decided to stay at the farmhouse for the night in order to bury the dead, attend to the wounded and start back fresh the following morning. As the evening drew in Ben and Hoss set about preparing food for everyone as Ron organized the sleeping arrangements and assigned each of the men their watch duties for throughout the night.

Joe could not take his eyes off the prisoners. These were the men that had beaten him unconscious only a few short weeks ago and now they were sat in front of him, tied up and about to be taken back to town to stand trial. Obviously he felt relieved but the elation he should have felt was dampened by the fact that Frank Carter was not one of them.

As they were eating their supper Ron began to question the outlaws about the robberies that had taken place over the last few months. The men were none committal, but when asked about Frank Carter, one of them quipped,

“Oh old Frank has moved on didn’t you know. These days he’s hanging out with the Lord.” At this point they all broke into laughter which left Ron and the others totally baffled.

As the evening wore on Joe felt the atmosphere in the house to be very oppressive. Even though the prisoners were tied up Joe could feel their eyes looking at him and every time his gaze fell in their direction they appeared to be laughing at him. Unable to stand it any longer he quietly stepped outside and made his way over to his horse.

With his arms wrapped round Cochise’s neck, Joe was deep in thought and only at the last minute did he hear the footsteps behind him. Instinctively he reached for his gun and turned in one swift movement.

Ben put up his hands in mock surrender “Don’t shoot son,” he called.

Joe replaced the gun and waited for his father to join him. “You know you could get yourself killed creeping up on a man like that Pa.”

“And you could get yourself killed just as easily by sneaking outside on your own. We all have to be careful son. Why don’t you come back inside?”

Joe still seemed inclined to stay put.

“What’s wrong Joe? Is it Carter? We’ll get him son, maybe not today, but we will get him,” said Ben.

Joe looked at his father and tried to explain,

“It’s not just that Pa, though don’t get me wrong, I wish more than anything that Carter had been caught. It’s them inside” he said gesticulating towards the house, “I can’t bear to be in the same room as those men. I just keep remembering them kicking me when I was on the ground and their laughter as they chained me under that bridge. I have nightmares about the water coming over my nose and not been able to breath.”

Joe buried his head once again in the comforting mane of his horse. Ben stepped up behind him and reaching forward he placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders and began easing the tension from the taught muscles. Joe visibly relaxed as his father’s loving hands worked their magic. After what seemed an eternity, but in actual fact was only a few minutes, Joe turned to face the man who always knew what he wanted, even if he didn’t know himself. Ben smiled at him in understanding and without a word pulled the slender body into the comfort of his embrace. Joe had always been a very tactile person, needing far more physical contact than his brothers, and so he allowed himself to be hugged for a few seconds more and then, as if remembering where he was, he disengaged himself from his father’s arms.

“Guess we better get back inside Pa, don’t want them to come looking for us.”

As they entered the house Adam glanced anxiously in their direction trying to get some indication of what was wrong. Ben smiled at him in reassurance but Adam wasn’t easily put off and he raised an eyebrow and indicated his head towards Joe. Looking up and seeing the silent message, Joe allowed his eyes to meet those of his brother and they both gained strength from the look that passed between them.

*****

The return journey to Placerville the following morning passed without incident. The prisoners were taken directly to jail and the doctor was sent for to attend to the wounded. As they prepared to leave the sheriff came forward and asked them to come with him to the undertakers.

Entering the building the sheriff pointed over to a body laid out under a sheet, the stench of death filling the room.

“You are never going to believe this” he began, “but two fellows came into town yesterday with that body. It’s in quite a mess, looks as if the guys been dead for a good few weeks. But the interesting thing is, his saddlebags and possessions all point to it being Frank Carter. Obviously we can’t identify him, but from the description we have of Carter, I would put money on that it’s him.”

Joe was completely stunned, it didn’t seem possible, Adam had been chasing after Carter for weeks and all the time he had been dead. Adam’s voice cut through his thoughts,

“I wonder if that’s what was meant when he said, “he’s hanging out with the Lord.”

“Well it won’t be the Lord he’ll be hanging out with, that’s for sure,” Hoss added.

The rest of the evening passed in a blur for Little Joe, he couldn’t sort out the feelings he was having. On one hand he was relieved to be told that Frank Carter was dead and he could finally get on with his life. But on the other hand he would like to have seen Carter brought to justice; that way the whole situation would seem more real.

Later that evening discussion about the day’s events continued over dinner.

“What happens now?” asked Joe looking at the faces of the men round the table.

“Well there has to be trial Joe; and unfortunately you are the only witness.”

“What do you mean Ron, how come Joe is the only witness?” questioned Ben.

“Seems he is the only one who has had dealings with the gang and lived to tell the tale. Without Joe those men might just walk free, even though they fired on a posse.”

Joe was stunned; so it wasn’t over yet, there was still a trial to face.

Ron explained that the trial would take place early the following week and until then Joe would have to remain in Placerville.

“Well in that case brothers, I suggest we make the most of it. There is a dance here tomorrow night and I think it’s time for the Cartwrights to put on clean white shirts and show these folk how to have a good time,” said Adam trying desperately to lighten the mood.

*****

The following evening Ben looked on proudly as his sons dressed and were ready to leave for the dance.

“Why don’t you come with us Pa?” asked Hoss.

“No son, you and your brothers go and have a good time. All this excitement over the last few days has worn me out. I think I will have a quiet drink and then have an early night. You boys enjoy yourselves.”

As the music from the dance hall sang out through the night the brothers relaxed for the first time in days. Adam and Hoss watched in amusement, as their younger brother danced none stop with a stream of pretty girls.

“Little Joe’s sure having a good time, ain’t he Adam?”

Before Adam had time to reply he felt a tap on his shoulder and he turned to be confronted by a young lady. Shock registered on Adam’s face and Hoss’s eyes quickly sought out those of his youngest brother; this was definitely of his making. Little Joe’s eyes positively shone with mischief and laughter; the girl stood in front of Adam could very well have been Abigail Jones’s sister they were so much alike. Abigail Jones was the schoolmarm in Virginia City and she had spent many years trying to find a way of enticing Adam Cartwright to take her out. The woman had scared Adam half to death and he avoided her at all costs.

Once Adam had recovered from the initial shock he smiled at the young lady before him. She may have looked like Abigail Jones but that is where the resemblance ended; maybe his brother had done him a favor after all. She returned his smile.

“Hello! My name is Jane. This may seem a bit forward but your brother over there said that you would like to dance with me, but were too shy to ask.”

Adam’s eyes passed over the girl and registered the cheeky face of Little Joe who was now stood right behind her, not wanting to miss out on the fun. Much as he pretended, Adam couldn’t find it in him to be angry with Joe, and turned back to the girl.

“Thank you so much Miss Jane, I would love to have the next dance,” he gallantly said, whereupon he took hold of her hand and led her onto the dance floor.

Unable to control his laughter any longer, Joe made his way to the punch bowl. He was having a good time and the ‘Abigail Jones look-a-like’ would have him chuckling for a long time to come. As he approached the table a very attractive girl moved towards him and handed him a glass of punch.

“Hello handsome” she said, “where did you spring from?”

Joe smiled in appreciation as his eyes traveled the length of her body. He took the glass from her outstretched hand, downed half the drink in one gulp, and then circling her tiny waist he pulled her towards the dance floor.

“Life is too short to spend drinking, when there’s a pretty girl in one’s arms and music playing.”

The girl tried to resist for a second, but seeing how persistent he was she smiled and allowed herself to be swept along.

Ten minutes later Adam and Jane were getting their breath back, after a particularly fast reel, when Jane turned to Adam and said,

“Your young brother certainly likes to play with fire.”

“What do you mean?” asked Adam looking round the room and allowing his eyes to fall on his youngest brother dancing with a particularly pretty young lady.

“That girl he is dancing with. The new preacher has been courting her for the last few weeks. Wouldn’t want to be your brother if he has a word with the Boss.”

“The Boss” asked Adam in puzzlement.

“You know, the man upstairs.” Jane laughed and looked upwards and finally the penny dropped.

“Oh I see,” said Adam. “Well I think maybe she looks a little bit old for Little Joe, he is only eighteen after all, so really the Preacher doesn’t have anything to worry about; Joe just likes to dance I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything.”

Adam continued to watch Joe for a few minutes and hoped that he was right. Age was not something that would deter Joe. If anything Adam had noticed that he had quite an attraction for older women. Not wanting any trouble with the residents of the town, least of all the new preacher, he made up his mind to forcibly remove Joe if he showed any signs of getting too amorous with the preacher’s gal.

As the evening wore on Adam became aware that Joe was no longer in the room. He moved over towards Hoss.

“Hoss have you seen Joe?”

Hoss made a show of looking round the room before replying,

“Not seen him for quite a while Adam. You don’t think he would be stupid enough to go sneaking off with that little gal do you?”

“With Joe anything’s possible. We’d better find him and quick. That ‘little gal’ just happens to be walking out with the new preacher and we don’t want any trouble brewing before we leave here.”

Just as they were about to make their way to the door, that same young lady came back into the room and walked towards them. Adam stopped her, as she was about to pass, and asked the whereabouts of his younger brother.

“I’m sorry,” she said “I haven’t seen your brother since we had that dance together.”

Making their way outside Adam and Hoss scoured the street in anticipation.

“You don’t think he’s gone back to the hotel, do you Adam?”

“Not without saying something first. It’s not like Little Joe to leave a dance before it’s finished; usually we have to drag him out. Maybe we should look around; you know how that kid attracts trouble.”

Ten minutes later as they were passing the back of the building where the dance was held, Adam put up his hand to stop Hoss.

“What’s that noise? Did you here that?”

The most terrible retching sound was coming from off to their right. They could not see anything in the darkness that had descended on the moonless night, but were easily drawn to the subject of the noise by the pitiful sounds being made.

Seconds later they came upon Joe on all fours, unable to pause for breath as another bout of sickness came over him. Hoss shook his head in disbelief and bending forward to put a comforting hand on his brother’s back said,

“How much you had to drink boy.”

Gasping for breath Joe replied, “Didn’t even have two drinks.”

Adam squatted down next to them.

“He’s right Hoss, Joe was up dancing all night, I never even saw him take a drink.”

“Then what’s wrong” Hoss asked, his brow furrowing with concern.

“I don’t know, but I think we better get Joe back to the hotel and maybe send for a doctor.”

Joe begged to be left where he was, but his brothers insisted on standing him up and with them supporting him on either side they half dragged him back down the street. Several times they needed to stop in order to let Joe be ill. His clothes were now covered in his own vomit and his face was completely drained of color.

When they entered the hotel the desk clerk was very reluctant to allow Joe inside, thinking he was drunk.

Adam took charge and in a voice that made it very clear he would brook no argument he said,

“My brother is ill. We are taking him to his room and I would like a doctor as soon as possible.”

“Yes sir” said the little man as he scurried off to do his bidding.

By the time they entered their bedroom Joe was moaning audibly. Ben roused from his sleep, rushed over to see what was happening. For one second he too thought Joe was drunk, but on closer inspection of his son’s condition, he could tell instinctively that Joe was indeed ill.

“What happened Adam?”

“I don’t know Pa, we found him like this just a couple of minutes ago. I’ve sent for a doctor.”

While waiting for the doctor they tried to help Joe as best they could. Stripping his clothes from him they tried to wash him down, as he continued to vomit until only bile came from his mouth. At long last, as he retched and retched until there was nothing left for him to bring up, he collapsed, exhausted.

His condition deteriorated rapidly and he became confused and cried out at the pain in his head. Ben, Adam and Hoss exchanged worried glances and then looked on in horror as Joe’s body began to convulse. What was happening to him? Hoss hurried from the room in search of the doctor who seemed to be delayed much too long.

As he rushed down the stairs he bumped into the hotel clerk obviously on his way up to see them, “Where’s the doctor?” he barked.

“He said he’ll be along when the dance finishes,” said the nervous man.

Hoss didn’t bother replying, he took the clerk by the arm and almost dragged him from the building and back towards the dance.

“You just point him out to me” said Hoss “I’ll do the talking.”

On entering the dance hall the clerk pointed to a middle aged man with glasses. Hoss walked up to him and said, “My little brother is real sick sir, and he needs a doctor NOW.”

The doctor took one look at the huge man in front of him and decided it was best not to argue. Picking up his bag, he almost had to run in order to keep up with Hoss as they made their way back to the hotel.

When they entered the bedroom Hoss was shocked at the sight of his little brother. He now appeared to be unconscious and his breathing was shallow and labored. The pallor of his skin was accentuated by the whiteness of the pillow and already dark circles formed round his eyes.

The doctor asked them to leave the room while he made his examination. Hoss and Adam decided to wait downstairs but Ben insisted on staying.

After what seemed an eternity, Ben and the doctor joined them in the foyer.

“Well” said Adam looking from one face to another.

“In my opinion your brother has been poisoned” the doctor began. “He’s a very sick boy. I have no way of knowing just how much poison he has taken and I’m afraid only time will tell if he survives and if there is any permanent damage.”

“What can we do?” asked Hoss concern etched in his voice.

“I know it may not seem much but I have these charcoal tablets, which I want you to make sure he takes. They are believed to be an antidote against poisonings of this nature and I have heard reports of great success. But I’m sorry other than that there’s nothing more I can do. Keep him as comfortable as possible and get as much water in him as you can to try and flush out the toxins. I’ll come by in the morning to see how things have gone.”

It was a long night. Joe’s temperature started to rise and he thrashed around the bed moaning in his delirium. Ben suggested that his sons get some sleep, but they shook their heads. There was no way any of them would sleep while Joe was so ill.

Over and over again they asked the same question, “Where had the poison come from?” None of them could come up with an answer.

In his confused state Joe constantly called out for his Pa. Ben tried to reassure him that he was there, but Joe was oblivious to his presence. Then the pains started.

Adam was the first to notice that Joe was drawing his legs up to his body and hugging his sides but they were all shocked when Joe let out an agonizing cry and wrapped his arms around his middle as the sweat poured down his face.

“What is it Joe?” asked a worried Ben.

The intensity of the pain cleared Joe’s mind momentarily and as the tears began to fall from his eyes he looked into Ben’s face.

“Oh God Pa, the pain in my stomach, I can’t bear it Pa, it’s just so…” his words were cut off as the excruciating pain swept over him once more and he cried out and clung to his father for support.

Ben felt helpless, he could do nothing more than hold his son until the wave of pain had passed. The respite did not last long and far into the night Little Joe’s cries echoed round the room as the sickness took hold of him.

As the first rays of light peeked through the window in the early hours of the following morning, Joe was finally sleeping. Ben and Hoss had taken the opportunity to go for a well-deserved break and had promised to bring refreshments back for Adam.

Joe’s temperature was still worryingly high and as Adam gently washed the sweat soaked body of his young brother he was reminded of the times when he had been called upon to bathe his brother in much the same way as now. Little Joe had always been a hyperactive child, he never seemed to stay still for a minute, but the family were always amused at how, when his energy finally did run out, he fell asleep in an instant and could not be roused. Many were the times that Adam had carried the sleeping tot over his shoulder and up to bed. He had undressed the small child and washed him from head to toe before putting him in his nightshirt, and all the while Little Joe had slept on oblivious of his brother’s care.

As Adam pulled the covers over Joe’s body once more, he mused at how it was probably just as well that his brother was unaware of his latest administrations. Joe would be extremely embarrassed to think that his brother had attended to his needs and not his father. Well what Joe didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him and he would not be the one to tell him.

Adam sat next to the bed once more and just as his father would have done, he began to stroke Joe’s head and brow, pushing errant curls away from his eyes. Joe felt the comforting hand on his face and began to stir. With eyes still closed he said “Pa”.

“No Joe it’s me, Pa won’t be long. Here let me get you a drink.”

Raising Joe’s head he helped him take a long drink of water before lowering him onto the pillow once more. “How are you feeling?”

Joe pondered a moment before replying, “Pretty awful I guess. What happened?”

Adam knew that Joe had to be feeling “Pretty awful” because normally Joe’s standard answer to any question about his health was “I’m Fine”.

“We’re not sure Joe, the doctor seems to think you have been poisoned.”

“Poisoned” said Joe incredulously “How can I have been poisoned?”

Just then Ben and Hoss returned and were delighted to see that Joe was awake and comprehending. Ben felt his head and looked at his eyes. Joe still had a temperature, but his eyes no longer had the glazed expression that they had adopted during the night and he began to feel optimistic about his son’s recovery.

They could not offer Joe an explanation as to where the poison had come from, just as he could not give any indication to his family how it had happened. It was a mystery, but one they did not dwell on. Joe’s recovery was what they needed to focus on for the moment.

When the doctor arrived later that morning he was pleasantly surprised at just how much better his patient appeared to be.

“I can only think that you have had a very small dose of whatever it was that made you so ill. If I’m truthful I was not expecting to see you this morning, let alone sitting up and taking note.”

“What now doctor?” asked Ben.

“Well I think he should certainly take it easy for the rest of today then we’ll see how it goes.” Turning to Joe he added, “Stay in bed and take plenty of fluids young man and I’ll be back in to see you later.”

*****

The following day Joe insisted on being allowed out of bed and he shakily made his way downstairs to the breakfast table. He was still unable to eat a proper meal, but the color had returned to his cheeks and he was smiling once more.

“What’s happening today then?” he asked.

“Well you young man are going to take it nice and easy,” said Ben with a look on his face that made Joe bite back his original answer and reply.

“Yes sir.”

Adam hid his amused smile behind his hand. You could never knock that kid down for long; Pa was going to have his work cut out keeping Joe inside all day.

“Hoss and I will be off then Pa.”

Joe’s head shot up, “Where are you going?”

“Well Joe, Ron Shepherd has asked if Hoss and I can ride out and meet the circuit judge and escort him into town. There is still one of the gang that rode away remember. We don’t want anything to go wrong. We should be back by tomorrow lunchtime and then hopefully we can get this whole sorry business over with and finally return home.”

Joe opened his mouth to insist that he go too, but as he glanced in his father’s direction he thought better of it and remained silent.

The day dragged for Joe. Ben had insisted that he return to his bed after breakfast and even though his father had condescended to purchase a couple of dime novels to keep Joe amused in the long hours, he was still bored. As he lay on the bed he started to think of all that had taken place over the last week and as he lay there thinking a realization came to him. The more he thought about it the more it made sense. There was nothing else for it, he knew his father would be angry but he had to find Ron Shepherd.

*****

Adam and Hoss were quite relaxed as they left town and headed out to meet the judge, Joe was on the mend and Frank Carter was dead. Adam felt the cloud that had been hanging over him for the last couple of months begin to lift; he no longer had to worry about the safety of his youngest brother.

The serenity was short lived; the further they traveled from Placerville the more anxious Adam began to feel. Something wasn’t right, he just couldn’t put his finger on what it was. He began to go over everything that had happened over the last week.
Hoss looked over at his brother.

“What’s up Adam? You looked like the cat that got the cream this morning, now you look as if you have the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

“I don’t know Hoss. There’s something not right, I know there is, but for the life of me I can’t think what it is.”

They had stopped for coffee and were sitting in companionable silence when Adam suddenly jumped up.

“Hoss, get packed up we’re going back to Placerville.”

Hoss looked at his brother in disbelief, “What’s going on Adam?”

“I’ll explain on the way, let’s just hope we’re in time.”

The words “Hanging out with the Lord” repeated themselves inside Adam’s head. “Oh God” he thought, “How can I have been so stupid?”

*****

Meanwhile back in town Joe was stood in front of Ron Shepherd with a look on his face that, if the situation hadn’t been so serious, would have made Ron laugh.

“Look Little Joe, your Pa will never agree to this and you know it.”

“We’re not telling my Pa, Ron. If he gets wind of this he will have me locked in a cell with half a dozens guards round to stop anyone getting in. We can’t let him get away Ron, you know it and I know it.”

“Okay Joe. I don’t like this, and if I think things are getting out of hand, we are out of there. I mean it Little Joe, you will do as I say.”

Joe looked at Ron and nodded, but Ron could see the determination in the youngster’s face and he questioned if he was doing the right thing. If it didn’t go to plan and Joe was hurt he would have the rest of the Cartwrights down on him and with good reason. Why was he allowing himself to be talked into this?

*****

The following morning Joe made an excuse to his father and left the hotel. He had walked up and down the street several times before she approached him; as he knew she would.

“Hi Joe” she said, “are you feeling better? Your brothers said you had been ill.”

“Yes, I’m much better thank you,” replied Joe, wondering what her next move would be.

“I was wondering Joe, maybe you could help me if you have time. I need to take some things over to the preacher’s house. We are having a picnic this weekend and I promised to give a hand.”

“Sure, no problem,” Joe replied. He pondered as to how long she had hung around the hotel waiting for just this opportunity.

As he passed the mercantile store Joe was aware of someone watching him, but he was not concerned. Ron and his men were positioned at various points around the town and the fact that he was being watched did not worry Joe but, on the contrary, gave him reassurance.

The girl smiled at Joe as she led the way and as Joe returned her smile he thanked the Lord that he was fond of dancing – that might be what saved his life. He was convinced she had administered the poison in the glass of punch, and he shuddered at the thought of what might have happened had he chosen to drink the whole glass that evening.

They stopped briefly at her home to pick up baskets of goods for the picnic, which were all conveniently packed, and waiting. The girl talked incessantly, making Joe’s headache and for once he could sympathize with his father when he complained about Joe’s constant chatter. She was noticeably nervous and Joe speculated to himself what her part in all this was; she had obviously been willing to kill, so Joe knew he had to be careful and not be taken in by her pretty face.

As they made their way to the preacher’s home on the outskirts of town, Joe took his time, stopping to look in shop windows and asking about various things along the way. He was obviously making her jittery, but Joe had to be sure that Ron and his men were in position before he put himself in so much danger. He only hoped his suspicions were right, otherwise he would have an awful lot of explaining to do.

As they entered the preacher’s home through the back door, Joe was grabbed from behind. His gun was removed from its holster and he was pushed roughly forward.

“Very nice of you to come and visit Little Joe. I thought for one moment I was going to have to come and get you.”

Little Joe turned to face the man whose face had haunted his nightmares for the last two years. Even though he tried not to react his face flinched at the sight of the man in front of him.

Frank Carter laughed and said, “You don’t look too pleased to see me Little Joe. Can’t believe how hard it has been to get rid of one measly kid. You have the luck of the devil boy, but this time your luck just ran out.”

Carter was enjoying himself and now that he had started talking he couldn’t stop.

“Hey kid how did those brothers of yours get you out from under that bridge. Thought you were a gonna for sure that time. When I heard you were okay, I couldn’t believe it.”

When Joe still didn’t respond he continued.

“And take Betsy here” he said gesturing towards the girl, “she goes out of her way to prepare you a really nice drink with plenty of punch in it, and you decide you would rather dance. You know kid you still got a lot of growing up to do, cause when I have a girl like Betsy in my arms the last thing I think about is dancing.” Carter began to laugh out loud.

“Pity, but you won’t get the chance to do any more growing little boy, cause I personally will make sure that this time you are well and truly dead. Then me and my boys will ride out of here, cause without your testimony they can’t hold em.”

“What happened to the real preacher Carter?” This was the first time that Joe had spoken. He tried hard to keep the tremor from his voice, but now that this madman confronted him once more he could almost feel his knees knocking together. Please let Ron and the others be ready he prayed silently to himself.

“Oh him. Well I asked him nicely to get down off his horse and give me his clothes and such, but you know for a preacher he had a nasty mouth on him. Some of the words he used shouldn’t be spoken by a man of God. So I put my hands round his throat and made him eat those dirty words.” Carter began to laugh once more.

“Heard he didn’t look much like a preacher when they found him.”

“What I can’t believe is how anyone would think you were a preacher,” said Joe “you just have to look in your eyes to see how evil you are.”

Frank was not offended by the words, if anything he seemed pleased.

“Well you wouldn’t believe how good I have got at this preacher stuff Joe. It’s real easy to fool the townsfolk, tell them you’re a preacher and you can walk on water. In fact I’ll show you some of what I know. Wouldn’t want you to meet your maker unprepared.”

With the gun still trained on Joe’s head he moved towards a cupboard and removed a bottle of oil. Making his way to Joe he insisted that the boy get down on his knees.

Tipping the oil bottle up with one hand he allowed the oil to run through his fingers. To Joe’s confusement he began anointing Joe’s temples at the same time reciting the words,

“Through this holy anointing and His most loving mercy, may the Lord assist you by the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that, freed from your sins, He may save you and in His goodness raise you up.”

Joe looked at him with disgust and said, “You really are sick Carter.”

“What’s the matter boy, I’m only preparing you before you meet your maker.”

As Carter laughed at his own joke, he was unaware of the door quietly opening behind him. Betsy cried out a warning and lunged at Ron Shepherd knocking his gun from his hand.

Carter spun round and pointed his gun at Ron. He momentarily forgot about Joe who leapt at the man before him, knocking the gun to one side, just before the bullet was released. Grabbing hold of Carter’s arm the two of them fell to the ground. Ron Shepherd quickly recovered and retrieved his gun from the floor. Three other men rushed into the room and all four of them watched as Joe and Carter wrestled on the ground with the gun held between them. Before any of them could intervene the gun went off and all four men held their breath as they waited to see the outcome.

Carter looked into Joe’s eyes and smiled, and just for a split second Ron thought the whole scenario had gone horribly wrong, but in the next moment Carter’s body slumped forward and fell dead into Joe’s arms.

Ron quickly stepped forward and pulled Carter from Joe’s body and hauled the shocked boy to his feet. Joe’s eyes were not fixed on Carter but on the body of Betsy who was slumped face down on the floor. In the confusion no one had realized that Carter’s stray bullet had struck the girl in the chest killing her instantly.

Seeing the boy’s shocked face, Ron put an arm around him,

“Couldn’t be helped Little Joe, don’t forget she tried to kill you.”

“I know,” said Joe softly “but it just don’t seem right.”

Leaving his men to clear up the scene of death in the kitchen, Ron and Joe walked back out into the sunshine. It was still early in the morning, but Joe felt as if he had lived a lifetime in the last hour.

*****

Adam and Hoss had arrived in town and went straight to the hotel. Taking the stairs two at a time Adam burst into the bedroom and seeing that only his father was there, he demanded,

“Where’s Little Joe?”

“He went out about an hour ago. Why what’s wrong?” asked Ben, panic registering in his voice. He didn’t need to ask why Adam was back so soon; Adam’s whole demeanor told him that he had cause to be worried.

Adam did not wait to reply, he ran back down the stairs and into the street, closely followed by Ben and Hoss.

The three men raced to the edge of town and were just in time to see Ron and Joe emerge from the preacher’s house.

Joe was covered in blood and Ben let out a cry of anguish as he ran towards him.

Allowing his father to encircle him in his arms Joe struggled to speak,

“It’s okay Pa, honestly I’m okay. The blood’s Carter’s not mine.”

Ron tried quickly to explain what had happened,

“Joe worked out that the new preacher was really Carter. Frank killed the real preacher and took his place. Joe did real good Ben, kept his cool and saved my life into the bargain.”

After his father had released him from his arms, Joe looked over at his eldest brother and locked eyes. He held his breath waiting for the tirade that would surely follow. No doubt Adam would have plenty to say about the folly of Joe going after Frank Carter alone.

Adam gazed at his brother for a moment and then said quietly, “Well done Joe.”

Joe let out his breath and smiled. To others standing around it would seem rather a bland statement and not what you would expect from someone who’s brother had just escaped death, but to Joe it meant everything.

Adam didn’t say, “Well done kid” or “Well done little brother” or even “Well done Little Joe”. What he said was “Well done Joe” and in those three words Joe knew that Adam was not only acknowledging him as a man, but also as an equal.

The corners of Adam’s mouth turned up and he returned Joe’s smile. Joe simply said “Thanks Adam” and then before he could say another word he was gathered up in an enormous bear hug as Hoss physically lifted him from the ground and swept him off his feet.

*****

The trial went off without a hitch. With Joe’s testimony each of the men were found guilty and sentenced to hang. The Cartwright’s did not wish to wait around for the punishment to be administered, they had seen men hung before and it was not something any of them would wish to see again.

Joe felt quite emotional saying goodbye to Ron Shepherd, their lives had been interwoven for so long and now there would be no need for them ever to keep in touch. The link between them had been broken with the death of Frank Carter, but even if they never met again each of them knew that their lives had been changed forever by the joint experiences they had shared.

Two days later they were finally back on the Ponderosa. As they approached home, Joe stopped and looked at his Pa and brothers.

“I just want to go and pay a visit, I’ll be home shortly.”

They didn’t need to ask Joe what he meant; they knew he intended to visit his mother’s grave. Joe always visited Marie whenever he had spent anytime away from the Ponderosa, it was a ritual he had began when he was a small child and now it just seemed natural.

Sitting at his mother’s grave, gazing out at the lake, Joe felt very much at peace. He was home, his family was safe, and the future looked bright once more. Joe was oblivious to the passing of time and would probably have sat there all night if his father hadn’t come to find him.

The night was beginning to draw in and the stars were shining bright in a clear sky. Ben walked behind Joe and putting a hand on his shoulder, he first looked at the grave and then up at the brightest star and said,

“Aren’t you proud Marie, our boy’s finally grown-up and he’s turned into a fine man.”

***The End***

The Boy to Man Series:

Boy to Man to Boy
The Best Days of our Lives
To Become a Man

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