Forgive Me (by Lobo C.)

 

Summary:    Joe Cartwright thought, ‘How could things have gone this wrong in a matter of hours?’  The events of those hours would take two years to be resolved.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  32,327


 

 

Joe Cartwright sat looking out over Lake Tahoe. He was sixteen and fresh out of school, but on this particular day he wished that he’d gone back to school this year as his Pa and brother Adam had wanted him to. Joe sighed and thought, ‘How could things have gone this wrong in a matter of hours?’

Four hours earlier he’d woken up, it was five and fairly early for him, so he’d gone out and done his and his brother’s chores. When he got back inside his Pa and brother’s were just sitting down to the table, and that’s when this mess started.

*****

Ben looked up as his son walked in and was surprised to see Joe already dressed. “Joseph you’re up early.”

“Yeah Pa I just…” Joe started.

“What you’re just getting back from your midnight ride little brother?” Adam asked.

Joe was surprised he didn’t think anyone had heard him last night when he’d ridden out to Lake Tahoe. “No I just…”

“What!?!?” Ben’s voice thundered interrupting Joe once more. “What were you doing riding around in the middle of the night?”

“Pa, I can explain…” Joe started once more but was interrupted by Hoss this time.

“Joe you know better than to do that…” Hoss stated shocked by this revelation from his older brother.

“It’s not what you…” Joe tried again.

Ben was mad at his youngest as he spoke his next words, “Joseph, go to your room and we’ll talk in a few minutes.” As Joe turned away, Ben could clearly see that Joe’s clothes were covered in dirt and grass stains.

*****

Up in his room, Joe sat on his bed stunned by his reception at the table a few minutes ago. He thought that his family would be happy that he was up early and had done all the chores before breakfast. He hadn’t realized that anybody had heard him when he’d ridden out last night; he hadn’t been able to sleep so he’d ridden out to Lake Tahoe and his mother’s grave. He’d only been gone about two hours so he thought that his midnight ride had been undetected.

The more Joe thought about what had transpired at the table a few minutes ago the madder he became. They hadn’t even let him explain why he’d gone on the ride. They hadn’t even let him tell them that he’d done their chores; they hadn’t even told him Good morning. That’s when Joe decided that he wanted to get out of the house for at least a few hours, but before he had a chance to sneak out Ben walked up the stairs and into his room.

Ben walked in and saw Joe spin away from the window. “Joseph I’m very disappointed in you, your brother has just informed me that you went out last night, to who knows where, and were gone for two hours. Now what do you have to say for yourself?”

“I didn’t do anything Pa, honest. I couldn’t sleep last night so I went out for a ride to see if I could relax,” Joe stated it honestly, but looking in his Pa’s eyes he could see that Ben didn’t believe him.

“Joseph, I hate to say it but I must; I don’t believe you, son. Your clothes tell an entirely different story. Now turn around,” Ben said.

Joe wanted to explain but knew that if he tried he might get worse, but he still tried. “Pa it’s not what you think…”

“I’ve had enough of your excuses; now turn around,” Ben all but shouted as he pulled Joe around and bent him over his lap.

Joe tried not to cry out or move as his Pa administered the worst tanning that he’d ever got to date. Joe tried to keep track of how many times his Pa’s hand landed on his butt, but he lost count at about twenty, the tanning went on for at least another three minutes before Ben stood his youngest son up. Joe had tears streaming down his face but not once had he uttered a sound.

“Joseph…” Ben started but was interrupted by an insistent pounding on the door, “Stay here I’ll be back,” Ben told his youngest son.

“BEN!! BEN!!” A voice shouted from below as Ben rushed down the stairs.

Ben just got to the door when it burst open to reveal Roy Coffee. “Ben, come quick there’s been an accident in one of the mines in town and we need all the hands we can get.”

Ben was shocked but he got over it quick. “Hop Sing!” Ben yelled as he raced towards the kitchen. “Get everything that we might need.” Ben told Hop Sing. Hop Sing nodded and raced back into the kitchen. “JOE!” When Joe came out of his room in answer to his Pa’s call, Ben yelled, “Stay in your room; we’ll talk when I get home.”

With that, Ben ran out the door and gathered as many hands as he could find. Roy and Hop Sing were right behind him and they got on their horses and in the buckboard and drove off to town.

Joe watched them leave from his bedroom window and felt his shoulders slump; he’d hoped that he could talk to his Pa but that wasn’t going to happen. Joe turned back to his bed where he’d been interrupted in the packing of his saddlebags. Joe once again picked them up and thought about what he might need. He’d already packed shirts and pants, Joe contemplated what else he might need as he turned and picked up the pictures of his mother and Pa and brothers. Joe decided that was everything he needed from his room as he walked towards the door to his room.

*****

Out in the hall Joe paused then turned toward his father and brothers rooms. The first room Joe went to was his oldest brother Adam’s room; he walked in and sat briefly on the bed then went over to the desk and picked up a pencil and a piece of paper he then started writing.

Dear Adam,

          I’m sorry that I can’t tell you goodbye in person. You were right to tell Pa that you heard me last night and I know that you meant well. I don’t know when you will find this note, maybe soon, maybe never. Adam, I’ll miss you just like when you were at college. I love you, older brother, and I want you to know that I’ve never and will never blame you for something that I did wrong. Would you take care of Pa and Hoss? Take good care of the Ponderosa, older brother, for I don’t know when or if I’ll ever be back.

Love from always and forever your,

Little Buddy.

P.S. I’m going to borrow a couple of books from you. I’ll try to get them back to you.

 

Joe left the note where it lay and walked toward the bookshelf where he picked up three of his favorite books; The Three Musketeers, Moby Dick, and The Last of the Mohicans.

*****

Joe then exited the room and went across the hall to Hoss’ room. Once again he sat briefly on the bed then walked over to the desk standing in the corner of the room. Joe once again sat down at the desk and picked up a pencil and piece of paper and started writing.

Dear Hoss,

           I would have told you goodbye in person but you’re busy and besides I know you’d try to keep me here. I know you’ll probably be mad that I left and I don’t blame you. Do you remember that conversation we had when I first started school? The one that you told me that I could tell you anything and you’d keep it a secret? I haven’t forgotten it and I hope you never will. Hoss my dear brother, I’m releasing you from that promise, and if you see fit, you can tell Pa and Adam anything you want, any of my secrets. Hoss, I don’t know when I’ll return and I don’t want you to feel guilty if I don’t ever come back. Older brother, I’m asking you to take care of Pa and Adam for me. Take good care of the Ponderosa. I’ll miss you, older brother, and don’t you ever forget that I love you.

Love from your,

Shortshanks

 P.S. I’m going to borrow a couple of your carvings. I’ll get them back to you someday.

 

Just like he’d done with Adam’s note, he left it on the desk. Joe then walked across the room where Hoss had his carving displayed and he picked his three favorites: The Horse, the Buffalo, and the Buck.

 *****

 In the hall once again Joe turned toward his father’s room; he hesitated before opening the door and walking in. Joe looked around the room but instead of going and sitting on the bed, Joe went over to the desk first. Joe sat down and looked around the room before grabbing a pencil and a piece of paper.

 Dear Pa,

           Our parting wasn’t the best but at least I got to say goodbye in a way that you’ll remember for awhile at least. You’re probably going to come hunting for me as soon as you find that I’m gone. I also know that there is going to be no way that I can tell you not to look for me. Pa, I wish that you had let me explain what I did last night, but it is not to be; unless you find me in the next six-months, you will never know the truth. Pa, do you remember when you left after mama died? And when you came back? You told me when you came back that you would never leave me again, yet now I’m leaving you. Ironic isn’t it? Pa, I don’t know if you’ll find me and if you don’t, when I’ll return to you and the Ponderosa. Take care of Adam and Hoss for me, Pa, and take care of the Ponderosa as well. I love you, Pa, and I don’t blame you for anything. I’ll miss you and think about you often .Oh and Pa, please keep Adam from feeling guilty about this.

 Love,

Joseph

P.S. I’m going to be taking a couple things from your room. I’m sure you’ll find out what they are soon enough.

 

Joe then did what he’d done with the last two notes left it where he wrote it. He then walked over to his Pa’s dresser and got three things: a bracelet that belonged to Adam’s mother, a shawl that had belonged to Hoss’ ma, and a ring that belonged to his mama. He then turned at sat down on the bed, but only briefly before he got up and moved to the door.

*****

Once again in the hall Joe went to the stairs he climbed down them slowly and walked across the living room at the same speed. He went into the kitchen and strait to Hop Sing’s living quarters. He once again sat down this time at a little table in the room and started writing.

Dear Hop Sing,

           I’m sorry that this is the way I must say goodbye to you. You’ve been good to me since Mama died and I want to thank you. I want to tell you that I will be forever grateful to you for everything that you’ve ever done. I’m asking if you’ll take care of my family and don’t let them sink too low in the days after I leave. Feed them well, my friend. Keep them healthy and in a good mood if you can. I’d better get going if I want to get a good head start on you. I love you and I’ll miss you.

Love,

Lil’ Joe

P.S. I’m going to be taking some of those herbs that you love so much, hope you can get more.

 

Joe again left the note where it lay, just as he had the others. He then walked over to where Hop Sing kept his favorite spices; he took one of each package there.

Joe then walked into the kitchen and went to the cupboard and got some jerky and leftover biscuits to take with him. Joe grabbed two canteens from where they hung on the wall.

He then walked back into the living room and went to the gun rack. He knew where his Pa hid the key so it didn’t take him to long to get his rifle and the pistol that Pa had gotten him for his last birthday. Joe then got about 100 rounds of ammunition for both the rifle and pistol. After Joe was done in the cabinet, he put a different rifle in place of his, in hopes that they wouldn’t notice that his was gone. Joe looked around the room one last time before he walked to the door and grabbed his hat and coat.

*****

Joe went to the barn and quickly saddled Cochise. He’d had her for less than a year but there was already a connection between them. Joe then went into the tack room and got a couple bedrolls and a twenty-pound sack of oats. Joe did his best to disguise his flight and since he’d let Cochise out in the pasture this morning; he hoped that it wouldn’t be immediately noticed.

Joe looked around the yard one more time and he suddenly felt like he wanted to cry, but he held it in until he turned at the edge of the barn and looked at the yard one last time. That’s when the tears started to make tracks down his face.

A few minutes later Joe found himself sitting at his mother’s grave and telling her goodbye, but wondering at the same time how things could go so wrong in a couple of hours.

*****

Joe took one last look at the lake before getting up and dusting himself off. “I’ll be back, Mama. I don’t know when, but I’ll be back, I promise.” With that, Joe went over and mounted his horse. Joe reined around toward the northwest and the mountains that he knew he could lose himself in until he so chose to come out.

*****

It was about ten o’clock that night by the time Ben, Hop Sing, Adam, and Hoss got home. Ben was so tired that he figured he’d go to bed and talk to Joe in the morning. It didn’t occur to him that Joe had been without food all day, and he didn’t have enough energy to open the door and check on his son. Ben didn’t know that Joe had left almost twelve hours earlier, and that there would be no talking to him in the morning.

Both Adam and Hoss walked into their rooms and fell on their beds; neither noticed the missing objects from their shelves or the pieces of paper sitting in the middle of their desks.

Downstairs Hop Sing had just about the same energy as the three Cartwrights. It had been a long day of digging men out of the collapsed mine and then tending to their needs, and Hop Sing thought he might not even make it to his bed. Just like the Cartwrights, Hop Sing took no notice of the note on his table.

*****

Joe shivered in the night. It sure was cold out here; he wished he’d brought more blankets, but there was no going back unless his family found him. Joe had ridden until it was dark then he’d found a likely spot to camp and settled in for the night. It was early in the spring but here in the mountains the night still felt like winter, which is why Joe was wishing for more blankets.

Joe looked up at the stars as he wondered if his family even knew he was gone yet. He’d tried his best to cover his tracks, as he still didn’t want to be caught, especially not this soon after leaving home. Joe sighed as he lay back in his bedroll and continued to stare at the stars. All he had to do was ride home and get in bed as if he never left but it was with these thoughts that pride reared its ugly head. He’d be darned if he went back this early in the game; after all, it was his Pa and brothers that had got the ball rolling. He’d just kept it going; it was up to them to see what would happen next. Joe closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep with pictures of his family in his head.

*****

It was ten in the morning before Hop Sing woke up and started getting brunch ready. He was mad at himself because he’d slept so long, so he didn’t even notice the note on his table as he walked into the kitchen. It was Hop Sing’s banging and clattering pans that brought Adam awake, but he didn’t feel like getting up at that particular moment. Hoss came awake when he smelled food cooking in the kitchen, and he got up and wandered downstairs to sit on the settee and wait until the food was ready. Last to get up was Ben; he’d fallen into bed last night so tired that he hadn’t even changed into his nightgown. Now he got up and walked over to his dresser to get some clean clothes. As he changed, Ben didn’t notice the note or his missing possessions.

*****

When Joe woke up, he was quite surprised to see the sun floating above him. He’d planned on leaving this place before dawn but obviously his body had other plans. Joe decided to skip breakfast this morning; little did he know it would become natural to him in the next few months. Joe cleaned the campsite quickly, not leaving any trace that he’d even been in the clearing. Joe rode out quickly and quietly headed once more towards the west and deeper into the mountains. He never once looked back as he rode away.

*****

Adam was the second one down the stairs and he went and sat down next to Hoss. “Hey Hoss, I was wondering, since this is our day off, if you want to go fishing with me?”

Hoss was startled, Adam never asked anyone to go fishing with him, but since his brother was asking… “Sure, Adam, why not.”

Just then Ben walked down the stairs. “Good morning, boys.”

“Morning, Pa,” the answers came together.

Ben had just sat down in his favorite chair when Hop Sing came out of the kitchen with what was obviously their brunch.

“You eat now,” Hop Sing said as he set the platter down.

“Well boys, we mustn’t keep Hop Sing waiting,” Ben said, “Hoss, go get Joe will you?”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss said as he turned to go up the stairs. As Hoss walked up the stairs, Ben and Adam sat down to eat.

“PA!” Hoss yelled from the top of the stairs.

“What is it, Hoss?”

“Joe’s not in his room.”

Ben got up and almost ran to the stairs. “Is there any note any clue that he…he ran away?”

Hoss is standing next to the bed. “I don’t see anything out of place Pa. Maybe he just went out for another midnight ride and never got back.”

“No after the tanning I gave him; he wouldn’t do that not this early anyway. Boys, go search the barn and fields see if Cochise is still here.”

“What about you, Pa?” Adam asked from where he stood in the doorway.

“I’m going to look around and see if your little brother left a note.”

*****

Ben started looking in his desk, then he went up to Joe’s room; no note in either of those places. Ben was getting worried that Joe might have been kidnapped but there was no sign of a struggle or anything else. Could it be that his youngest had just gone to work early? Ben doubted that.

“PA?” Adam’s voice rang through the house.

“Adam!” Ben ran to the stairs, “Did you find him?”

“No Pa, but Cochise is gone, as well as Joe’s tack and gear.”

“Where could he have gone?” Ben wondered aloud, “Did you ask the hands…”

Hoss walked in and answered his question before he even finished. “Pa, I just talked to the hands, and they said they hadn’t seen Joe at all today. Though Charlie did say he saw Joe yesterday after we’d all gone to help in town; he said Joe was saddling his horse.”

“Why didn’t he tell us when we got home last night?” Adam asked.

“He said he thought Joe was doing something you’d told him to do,” Hoss said he knew that Pa was getting mad now.

“Well, which direction did Joe go?” Ben was getting frustrated now that he knew that Joe had disobeyed a direct order.

Hoss scratched his head. “Charlie said that Joe was headed west towards the mountains.”

“Well, then boys go get the horses saddled and lets go find your brother.” Ben then turned around and went to the kitchen and asked Hop Sing to fix them some food for the trip.

*****

Three hours later Hoss told his Pa that he’d lost his brother’s trail and couldn’t track him any farther. Ben shook his head. “We’ll just have to keep going,” he said.

It was nearing dark and they still hadn’t found the tracks, or any sign of Joe what so ever. Ben finally admitted that they needed to stop for the night. For the rest of the night, Ben thought about how he could have handled things better the day before. He could have let Joe explain what he’d been doing, he could have used less force when administering the tanning, and the list went on and on. Finally Ben closed his eyes and tried to sleep all the while begging, in his head, for his son to forgive him.

*****

The next day they got up early and rode out once again, searching for a sign any sign that they were going in the right direction, but it was not to be. They rode all that day and the next without any sign of Joe. Finally after a week of riding and searching in every place they could think of, they rode back home downtrodden and very sad that they had not found Joe.

Hop Sing had been ripping the house apart while they were out searching, and the day before they got back, he finally found the note Joe had left for him. Hop Sing cried as he read the note; he then went and looked in the Cartwright’s rooms and, sure enough, just as he thought, they all had their own personal letter from Joe.

When the three Cartwright’s rode into the yard, Hop Sing came rushing out at them, holding the letter’s in his hands. He gave each of them to the one they were addressed to; each Cartwright took his letter and sat down in a different part of the living room.

By the time Ben finished his letter, he had tears running down his face. Joe didn’t blame him for this; he didn’t want his father to feel guilty over this; he wanted his father to keep on going with his life no matter the cost. Ben wondered what things that Joe had taken, but decided to wait until he talked to his older sons first. Ben silently vowed to find his son in the allotted six months if it killed him.

Hoss also had tears in his eyes when he finished reading his letter; his little brother had just told him he could break the promise that he held most sacred in this world — he’d just given him permission to tell his darkest secrets. Hoss vowed to do what his little brother had asked him and that was to take care of his Pa and brother. Hoss did wonder which carvings Joe had taken but he decided to wait.

Adam looked up from his letter to stare off into space. His little brother didn’t blame him as he thought he would; tears suddenly came to his eyes as he thought about the time he was in college, all the letters from his Pa that had told him that Joe was heartbroken, that he wasn’t eating properly and that he thought Adam had gone to be with his Mama. Adam desperately hoped that Joe would take care of himself until they found him. Adam wondered which books Joe had taken but figured that by the look on his Pa’s face it was going to be awhile.

When Ben saw that his sons were done with their letters, he caught their eyes and cleared his throat. “Well boys, it seems that your brother has indeed run away.”

“What are we going to do, Pa? If I couldn’t track him, I don’t think anyone could except maybe Indians,” Hoss said, but there was a strong emotion in his voice.

“I’ll start by putting missing posters in every town within two hundred miles of here; I’ll offer a reward to anyone who can give me information concerning the whereabouts of Joseph,” Ben said.

Adam looked first at his father who was showing determination, then to his brother who had showed fear when Pa had mentioned the missing posters and reward. Adam knew why Hoss was scared by the idea; he himself was scared by it. There were people out there who could and would hurt Joe to bring him back just for the reward.

“Pa I think that the posters are a good idea but I also recommend that we hire detectives to try and find Joe as well,” Adam said coolly as he watched his father.

“You’re right, Adam; we should hire someone to find your brother. How would we find one that is reliable though?” Ben said.

“To be honest, Pa, I don’t know but I’m sure we’ll find someone.” As Adam said this, he stood up and walked to his father and put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll find him, Pa. I promise we will.”

*****

Joe grinned; he had gone all the way into the mountains and hidden himself from his family. Joe had watched them as they passed below him time and time again; he once got so close to them he could hear what they were saying. Joe was mentally thanking his brothers, Pa, and Indian friends for the many lessons in how to hide well. Joe watched his family for four days before he decided to ride on but now, instead of heading west, he headed north along the mountains; he didn’t leave the mountains once as he traveled along. As he got more accustomed to living in the outdoors and by himself, he got better at hiding himself and his horse and he got better at hunting and tracking. Finally Joe stopped about a fifty miles south of the Oregon border and about seventy-five miles east of the California border. The hunting was good here and the Indians were friendly, so it seemed logic enough.

*****

It had been a month and a half since Joe had left and Ben had finally found a detective he could trust. The man’s name was Roscoe Dayrin; he had been a detective for twenty years and was the best at finding those he was sent to find.

The first time Ben met Roscoe he wasn’t that sure about hiring the man, but after seeing his record, Ben hired him. Roscoe wanted to know everything about Joe that he could find out. He wanted to know old friends, old haunts, places he went to be alone; Roscoe wanted to figure out what made this young man he was tracking tick.

*****

Joe looked up from the tracks he’d been following and saw a sight that surprised him. A man, a white man at that. Joe hadn’t seen too many people in the two months since he’d been gone, and all of those had been Indians. Joe watched the man warily. He was pretty sure the man didn’t see him yet, but you never knew.

Joe watched the man as he walked his horse down the trail unaware of the fact he was being watched. Joe took the time to study the man as he rode. The man had the bearing of a soldier yet he wasn’t wearing a uniform, but that wasn’t too strange to see. The man had graying hair and a thick mustache, he wore old clothes, but from the look they were expensive. He rode a light brown, almost dun, horse with long legs that told Joe this horse could run fast if need be. As the man got closer, Joe could see his weaponry; he had a colt .45 in a holster that hung on his hips and a Sharps .50 in the scabbard.

Joe sank farther back in the trees as the man got closer to his position. Joe was caught in indecision. Should he step out and maybe get himself shot or should he stay put? The man’s horse answered his question for him; it snorted as it came close to his position.

Bret Kade was a man used to listening to his horse; it had saved him on more than one occasion and now his horse was telling him that someone was nearby. Bret was an observant man and not one to miss anything but he hadn’t seen anything; then again Gladiator had never lied to him.

“Whoever’s in there you best come out now,” Bret said, putting his hand on his gun.

“Easy mister,” Joe said, coming out not more than a foot in front of Bret’s horse. “I ain’t gonna hurt you or your horse.”

“Then what were you doing hiding in the bushes like some common bandit?” Even as Bret asked, he knew what this man said was true and he’d already figured out why Joe was hiding there.

Joe looked the man up and down before answering. “Well thing is, I ain’t seen another man in almost two weeks and they was only Indians. So I didn’t know how to act when I saw a white man and I just hid.”

Bret smiled; well, at least the man was honest. “What’s a nice young man like you doin’ up here all alone? You can’t be more than fourteen. Where’s your folks?”

Joe shied back from the man when he asked where his folks were, but even so he defended his age. “I’m sixteen, mister, and don’t you forget it.” With that, he turned and stalked back towards where he last saw the tracks of his prey.

Bret was stunned by the kid’s response and the way he walked away like that. Bret turned his horse and followed Joe. “Now see here, young man. I don’t cotton to somebody talking to me in that tone of voice. Now answer my question.”

Joe had been thinking this whole time about what his answer would be; he figured this man just wouldn’t let it slide so he had to come up with something. “Look mister, my folks died ’bout two months ago, and I been on my own ever since.” ‘Well,’ Joe thought, ‘it was semi-true.’ “As for why I’m up here alone, this is the first place that came to mind so I could get away for awhile.”

Bret nodded sadly; the entire reason he was up here was because he was traveling home after his father’s funeral. “I understand, kid. I understand,” was all he could think of to say.

Bret got of his horse and walked over to Joe.

“Look what do you want?” Joe asked as Bret approached him.

Bret looked at Joe and said, “Look kid, I know the pain you’re going through right now and all I’m saying is you could use a friend. Besides, I’m gonna have to know where to camp tonight so I’m out of the wind and I figured that after being out here so long, you’d know where that is.”

Joe looked at the man that stood before him and realized that what the man said was true. Then again maybe the man might know of a good job somewhere. “Sure, I guess that can be arranged, on one condition.”

“Sure kid, what’s that?”

“That you let me get back to my hunting.” Joe said this with a smile but he was clearly serious.

Bret smiled. “Alright kid, why don’t you tell me what we’re hunting and I’ll help.”

“I was trying to hunt my dinner when you showed up. It’s probably miles away by now. Guess I’ll have to find something else to hunt.”

“Just for curiosities sake what were you hunting, kid?”

Joe smiled. “Cougar.”

Bret stepped back stunned only the very experienced or the very dumb would try to track a cougar. “You are gutsy, aren’t you?”

Joe chuckled. “Something like that. So what do you say we go find ourselves some deer instead?”

“Sure kid but first what’s your name?”

Joe hesitated then said, “Joe, Joe DeMarigny. How ’bout you?

Bret had the feeling that Joe was lying but decided not to push it. “It’s Bret Kade.”

The two walked out into the woods where Joe grabbed Cochise from where he left him tied and they bagged a deer. After that, they settled down for the night in a cave.

*****

Roscoe Dayrin had been looking for Joe in the low country for about three weeks when he decided to start looking around in the mountains. Roscoe found evidence of Joe by asking the local Indians if they’d seen him. The Indians gladly told him about the boy that they had started calling ‘Black Storm Over Mountains’ if he gave them firewater.

The Indians told him that the boy he sought wandered through the mountains like a ‘Black Storm’ just waiting to let loose with the fury of a mountain storm. The Indians also told him that the boy took unnecessary risks while hunting; instead of hunting deer and goats, he hunted cougar and bear. They told him that the boy was friendly with them but they still kept their distance. When he asked where the boy was at this moment, the Indians said that they didn’t know. Roscoe had the strong suspicion that they were lying but he wasn’t going to push them for the information. When he left the Indian camp, Roscoe decided to go back and tell the Cartwright’s what he’d learned so far.

*****

As they sat by the fire that night, Bret studied the young man sitting across from him. The young man was muscular and he had a deep tan from being out in the sun so much. The most noticeable features were his chestnut hair and his emerald green eyes that held a hint of despair in them, but that was to be expected from someone who’d just lost his family. Bret saw that the kid’s clothes, however worn, were expensive and of the best materials; his guns were the latest model and the stock of the rifle looked to be made of tiger wood. Bret wondered where Joe came from but decided not to push it tonight.

Joe watched his companion in silence; there was so much he wanted to ask the man, but decided against it because it would be opening the door for the man to question him. Joe could already see the question’s dancing just below the surface of the man’s eyes. Joe sighed as he realized when those questions were asked, he’d either have to lie some more, tell the truth, or try to put it off.

Bret smiled as he watched the young man; it was obvious that he was making the boy nervous, so he decided to start talking first. “So kid, what’s the land like around here?” ‘Easy question,’ Bret thought, ‘It’s not personal enough to put his guard up.’

Joe smiled. “It’s a little piece of heaven on earth; you can see for hundreds of miles on a clear morning from the top of that ridge up there,” Joe said pointing to the ridge that towered over them.

“Do you like living in the mountains, kid?” Bret asked as he turned to look at the ridge that stood behind him.

“Yeah,” Joe said. “I’ve lived by them my whole life so it’s not much different than when I was living at home.”

“Where is home, kid?” Bret figured it was a safe question; after all Joe had been the one to mention it.

The color drained from Joe’s face when the question came; he’d known it would be coming after his little slip up and he had to think fast before replying. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Bret saw the raw hurt in Joe’s eyes and figured it was because the deaths of his folks was to fresh in his mind, not that it was because Joe was still hurting over the beating his Pa had given him.

“Alright, kid,” Bret said quietly before adding, “I can see you’re dying to ask me a few questions so go ahead and ask kid.”

Joe didn’t know why but he liked it when this guy called him kid. “Why are you up here?” was his first question out of his mouth.

Bret’s face turned grim but he answered, “I was headed back to California after my father’s death.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said in a small voice.

“Hey it’s okay kid, my father had a long healthy life and who can blame a ninety year old man for dying.” Bret said in a lighthearted tone. “And besides I’m the one who opened the conversation, ain’t I?”

“Yeah,” Joe said nervously.

“So I made it so you could ask me anything and I wouldn’t get mad when I opened the conversation. So ask anything you want, kid,” Bret tried to reassure Joe.

Joe looked at Bret and smiled. “So I can ask you anything I want?”

“Anything within reason.”

“So what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a rancher over in California but I have some land in Nevada.”

“What do you raise cows or horses?”

“I raise a little of both but mostly cows.”

Joe nodded and looked thoughtful. “Are you married?”

Bret smiled as he reached in his pocket. “Yep, and ‘fore you ask, I have two kids.” Bret handed the picture he’d brought out to Joe.

Joe gazed at the picture and in his mind he pictured his own family as stared into the faces of the woman and two kids. “What are their names? How old are they?” The questions came in quick secession

Bret chuckled, “My wife’s name is Lydia, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me tell you her age.” Bret chuckled at this thought and saw Joe smile, out of the corner of his eye. “Then there’s my oldest Rosalie; she’s ten and has the prettiest smile I’ve ever seen except her mother’s, of course.” Bret’s eyes took on a faraway look as he spoke of her. “Then there’s Justin, my youngest; he’s seven now but he’ll be eight in a month.”

Joe swallowed a lump in his throat and tried to push the memories of his own family out as he listened to Bret ramble on about his family, but it was getting harder and harder to do.

“Joe?” Bret asked suddenly realizing that Joe wasn’t listening to him.

“Huh?” Joe was startled when Bret called his name, “Oh sorry I um…guess I wasn’t paying attention.”

Bret smiled at Joe. “I’ll say you weren’t, kid. So any more questions for me before we turn in?”

“Just one,” Joe said wondering how he was going to phrase this. “Do you need any um…help on your ranch?”

Bret looked at Joe, not surprised that he had asked. “Yes I could use some help. Are you saying you’d like to come work for me?”

“No…I mean yes…I mean only if you want me to.”

“Kid, look why don’t I sleep on it and I’ll tell you in the morning,” Bret said as he watched the warring emotions on Joe’s face.

Joe looked at the man and blinked, “Okay, Bret. ‘Night.”

“‘Night kid.” Bret said as he pulled the covers over his head.

Joe sat awake for the rest of the night listening to the sounds of the night; at about one o’clock in the morning, he got up grabbed his bedroll and walked out into the clearing laid down and fell asleep. About two hours later a light rain started to come down and soak the thirsty ground, but Joe never even stirred as its cold drops touched him.

*****

When Roscoe got back to the Ponderosa the round-up was in full swing; the other Cartwright’s had done as Joe asked and had kept the Ponderosa going, but only after a month of searching for Joe and hoping that he’d come back. When Roscoe reported his findings to Ben and the boys, he saw them literally crumble and then pick themselves back up and put the pieces together again.

“Mr. Dayrin, are you sure that the boy the Indians were talking about was Joe?” Ben asked as calmly as he could.

“I can’t be certain, Mr. Cartwright, but given what you’ve told me, it sounds like it may be your son.” Roscoe was honestly sorry he had to bring this news to the three men before him.

“I say you’re wrong, mister; Joe would never take risks like that, never!!” Hoss said hotly.

“Easy, Hoss;” Adam said calmly then he turned to Roscoe. “Until you are certain that, that boy is Joe, we won’t quit searching elsewhere.”

“I wouldn’t have expected any less, young Mr. Cartwright. I will continue on my search in the mountains then. Good day, sirs.” Roscoe hated this part of his job. To see the hope fill the faces of the family members only to be crushed time and time again, it almost broke his heart every time.

*****

“Ah man,” Bret said when he looked around the cave and couldn’t find Joe. He then looked outside and found where Joe had slept the night before as it was the only patch of dry ground. “He slept out here in the rain?” Bret asked himself.

“Yes I did,” the answer came from behind him and Bret spun to find Joe standing behind him. Joe was coated in blood but it didn’t seem to faze him as he dropped the carcass of a cougar on the ground in front of him.

“Wh…Wh…?” Bret tried to speak but found the words wouldn’t come.

“When did I go out hunting again?” Joe asked with a bemused look on his face. Bret nodded. “At about five this morning, he tried to attack our horses so I went hunting for him.”

“Well then I guess it’s a good thing that you slept out here then,” Bret stated.

“Yep,” Joe said quietly as he turned and walked toward the creek.

“You can’t be thinking of taking a bath in there; that water is freezing after the rain last night.” Bret said as he followed Joe down to the creek.

“And what would you have me do? Walk around all day covered in blood?” Joe asked even though he was already taking off his clothes.

Bret saw the sense in what Joe said so he let him dive into the water. Joe came up sputtering for breath and shivering. “Told you it would be cold,” Bret said with a grin on his face.

“Sh…Shut u…up an…and h…hand m…me the so…soap,” Joe said through chattering teeth.

Bret laughed as he tossed Joe the bar of soap that Joe had left on the bank. “Thought I’d let you know that I’ve decided to hire you.”

Joe stopped scrubbing for a second and then started again as he nodded his head. “Thanks.”

Ten minutes later, Joe was out of the water and sparkly clean. By this time Bret had the cougar skinned and cooking. “Well I was planning on heading back home today but since we can’t let all this meat go to waste, so I guess we’ll stay here ’til it’s cured.”

Joe looked at Bret. “You don’t have to stay I’ll stay an’ then follow when it’s done.”

Bret smiled at the offer. “No, I want to make sure you make it to my place, kid. And besides my wife would kill me if I let you come home in those clothes.”

“Why what’s wrong with my clothes?” Joe asked defensively.

“Nothing’s wrong with them, but anyone can see their about two sizes too short for you.” Bret said, somehow knowing that he had to be careful with what he said.

Joe looked down at himself realizing for the first time that he had grown about three inches taller since coming to the mountains. “I…I guess I do need some new clothes,” he said as he looked back at Bret.

“Do you have any money to buy clothes?” Bret asked.

“I have a little but it really isn’t enough to pay for more than one shirt.” Money was the one thing he’d forgotten about when he’d left home.

“That’s alright I’ll pay for some clothes and it looks like you could use a holster for that pistol of yours.”

“But…” Joe started.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be taking it out of your pay when you start working,” Bret smiled as he realized that this young man’s pride wouldn’t let him take it as charity.

Joe relaxed when Bret said this. “Fine then; I guess we’ll go buy some clothes.”

Joe got up from where he sat and walked out of camp. Bret didn’t know where Joe went but a half hour later Joe returned with his horse in tow and his saddlebags on the horse. It was funny that Bret hadn’t realized until now that Joe hadn’t had any saddlebags.

“Where were you storing those?” Bret asked.

“You don’t need to know all my secrets do you?” Joe said with a smile.

“No I guess not,” Bret said with a laugh.

“So when are we leaving?” Joe asked.

“As soon as this meat is cured, which should be in about an hour,” Bret said as he flipped a piece of meat.

“Fine,” Joe said. He was nervous wondering which part of Nevada his new-found friend had his land in, if his father did business with him, and if he would fit in to this new life.

Two hours later the two men were on the trail. Bret talked to Joe telling him stories about his kids and telling him about the ranch that Joe was going to be working on. When Joe heard that the land that Bret had in Nevada was only about ten miles from their current position, he was relieved.

Joe was about to ask if Bret did any business with Ben Cartwright but decided that it would be giving too much of himself away. So he decided on a different tactic. “Do you do any business with bigger ranches?”

“Not really; we mainly sell to the miners and such sometimes we take our stock down to Stockton or ‘Frisco, but that’s about it,” Bret said as he looked over at Joe curiously.

Joe let out a breath unaware, until that moment, he’d been holding it. Joe looked over at Bret. “So how well do you do in your horse business?”

Bret had noticed that Joe had let out a breath as if he’d been holding it, and wondered at the reason why Joe had been nervous. But instead of questioning Joe, he answered the question. “Oh, not as good as most and we don’t have any big deals with anybody, though I do want to expand that part of the ranch.”

“I’m a pretty good hand with horses; maybe I could help with them instead of the cows.” Joe said.

“I’ll think about it,” Bret said as he contemplated Joe proposal.

They rode for the next two hours in silence until Bret said, “That’s the town up there. It ain’t much but it’s got what we need.”

*****

Roscoe was once again on Joe’s trail and didn’t like what he was hearing from the Indians. They kept telling him that the boy he believed to be Joe was taking even greater risks and that he seemed to have no concern whatsoever about his own well being.

One night about three months after Roscoe had started to search for Joe, he sat at his campfire wondering about the boy he was trying to find. Roscoe wondered what had made the boy run so far, so fast, and hide so well. He had to admit, to himself at least, that this search was turning out to be the hardest of his career. Sure he’d tracked people before, but they always turned up after about a month of searching.

Roscoe wondered what made this boy so different, why he felt as if he and the boy had met before and had known each other quite well. Roscoe pulled out the picture of Joe that the Cartwright’s had given him. Roscoe studied the boy and searched his mental database for one weakness in the boy, but he couldn’t find any. Roscoe soon gave up and went to bed still pondering on the subject.

*****

Joe looked around the small store he found himself in; surprisingly it had a large selection of goods for such a small place. There were quite a few different shirts and pants, Joe had looked them all over and he surprised himself by finding most of his attention on the black and darker material clothes. He chose one black shirt and a pair of black pants and turned to Bret. “I’m ready,” he said.

Bret looked at the two articles of clothing Joe held in his hands and shook his head, “Go get about three more shirts and four more pants,” he ordered, pointing back at the shelf. Joe sent his new boss a glare before going back to the self.

The storeowner laughed. “You know, Bret, if looks could kill, you’d be dead.”

Bret smiled along with his friend. “I know, Mark; it’s not the first time he’s looked at me like that.”

“I think you’re in over your head with this one, Bret,” Mark said with a grin as he watched the young man going through the clothes. He and Bret had gone to school together and everyone knew that Bret had a weakness for strays. “He looks dangerous to me. Are you sure about him Bret?” Mark asked as he watched the boy pick up another black shirt.

“He’s just lost; he told me that his folks died a few months back so his wearing of black is justified,” Bret said as he too watched the boy. “Now let’s give the boy some privacy; I have another question to ask you.”

“Fire away,” Mark said.

“Do you know if that leather worker is still in town,” Bret asked.

“Yeah, he’s still in town and he’ll be here until the end of the week,” Mark replied, “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason,” Bret said deciding not to tell Mark his plans for getting Joe a gun belt. Bret then turned and walked over to Joe. “Why don’t you get another color?” Bret said seeing all the clothes that Joe had in his hands were black.

“Okay,” Joe said and picked up a dark green shirt. “I’m ready now.”

Bret smiled, “Okay go put it on the counter.” Joe walked over and did as he was told. “How much is it Mark?” Bret asked.

“That’ll be $20.00 Bret,” Mark said as he bagged the clothes.

Bret put a twenty dollar gold piece on the counter. “See you next time I’m in town, Mark,” he said as he walked out the door.

“Be seeing you Bret and you be careful out there,” Mark said, his meaning known only to Bret who sent him a glare. Mark shrugged, “Tell Lydia and the kids hi for me.”

Joe had noted the way that Bret had glared at Mark and wondered what it meant, but decided against asking as he followed Bret down the road to the hotel. “Why are we here? I thought you said that we could get to your house before night fall?” Joe asked Bret.

“Well I told you that I was going to get you a gun belt, didn’t I?” When Joe nodded, Bret continued, “The man that I’m going to have make your belt is staying here. Now wait here for a few minutes.” With that, Bret went into the hotel.

He came out about five minutes later with a thin, ragged looking man, “Joe I’d like you to meet Robert Trawler; he’s the man that is going to be making your gun belt. Rob, this is the boy I was telling you about, Joe DeMarigny.”

The thin man appraised Joe before he held out his hand and said, “Howdy there, Joe, it is alright if I call you Joe?” Joe nodded, “Good, good. Why don’t you come inside and have some diner and answer a few questions for me.”

Joe followed the man in stunned silence; everyone knew who Robert Trawler was and just what he made. The Trawler as the rig was called was a rig that was made to fit the person who wore it. Robert Trawler was very picky who he made the rigs for and Joe didn’t know if he’d live up to Trawler’s expectations.

Joe hung back a bit he was wearing his new clothes but he still felt out of place especially in black, Joe had rarely worn the color before, but now…now he didn’t know what made him want to wear it.

Trawler, seeing that Joe was hanging back, motioned the boy forward. “Don’t be scared, son; I just want to get to know you a bit before I consent to make you the rig.”

Joe moved forward and sat down opposite of Trawler.

Bret chuckled as he watched Joe; he was obviously nervous and he was about to make him more so. “Well I’d love to stay and talk with you two but I need to go down to the livery; I think that my horse might have picked up a stone.” With that, Bret left.

*****

For about a half hour after Bret left, Trawler said nothing, just studied the boy that sat before him, Trawler could see that this boy had obviously come from a well to do family and a very strict family if he didn’t miss his guess. Trawler was a good judge of men; he had to be if he wanted his rigs to go to the right people. His rigs were built for speed and he didn’t want them going on people that would use them for wrong.

The first thing Trawler said after he was done studying Joe was, “Give me your gun.”

Joe hesitated for a second then replied, “I was taught never to give my gun to anyone.”

Trawler grinned; though he didn’t know it, Joe had just passed the first test, “Alright then I’ll ask you the questions first. Have you ever lied?”

“Yes,” Joe replied.

Trawler nodded, “Have you ever killed anyone?”

“No.”

“If let’s say someone had killed your family and you had the opportunity to kill him and avenge them but the only shot you could take was to his back, would you take the shot?”

“No!”

Trawler nodded solemnly, “If someone said that they had just been robbed then pointed toward some random person, would you shoot first and ask questions later?”

“No.”

“If you were down on your luck and had a choice between robbing a bank and getting a job that worked you long and paid you little, what would you do?”

“I’d get the job.”

“Have you ever been drunk?”

“No.”

“Okay now for the easier questions, do you have a nickname?”

Joe thought about that, if he told him little Joe then he might laugh, not to mention he didn’t want to be saddled with that name any more. It was after this thought that Joe remembered what the few Indians he’d ran into in the mountains had called him. “Well, some Indians that I’ve met have called me ‘Black Storm Over the Mountains.'”

Trawler looked thoughtful at these words, “That’s a good name, but let’s shorten it some shall we how about just ‘Black Storm’?”

For some reason Joe liked that name. “I like it,” he said.

Trawler grinned. “Alright then, how good a shot are you?”

“To tell you the truth, I’ve never judged how good a shot I am but I almost always hit what I’m aiming at,” Joe said.

“So that means you’re a pretty good shot,” Trawler said as he thought about it, “Well boy, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve decided to make you the rig, but you still need to do one more thing for me.”

“What,” Joe asked eagerly.

“I still need to see that gun of yours or I can’t make it fit perfectly into the rig.”

Joe grinned sheepishly as he handed the gun to Trawler.

“You know Joe, this is a pretty fancy gun but it could use some improvement. Would you let me take it and change a few things?” Trawler said as he studied the gun,noting the letter’s J. C. in gold on the butt of the gun, and wondering what they stood for since this young man’s last name didn’t start with C it started with D.

Joe hesitated for a second. His Pa had given him that gun, but he then thought of how mad he was at Pa so in a way it would be cutting just one more tie with his past. “Sure, but what will I do for a gun ’til then?”

“Well I just happen to have a spare you can use ’til I’m done with it,” Trawler said walking over to his trunk and bringing out a pistol, and handing it to Joe. “It’s not near as fancy as this one but it shoots strait.”

“Thanks Mr. Trawler!” Joe said the excitement in his voice evident.

Trawler chuckled, “Just call me Rob, and you’re welcome.”

“Mr.…I mean Rob, when will my gun and belt be ready?”

“It should be ready in about a week.”

Just then Bret walked in. “So how did it go?”

“Well Bret, I have to say that’s a pretty honest young man you’ve got working for you,” Rob said with a grin, “I’d say he’s even more honest then you.”

“Why you…” Bret started then burst into laughter; both men were laughing so hard that neither man noticed the troubled look on Joe’s face.

*****

After Bret and Joe left the hotel, they went to the livery stable to pick up Bret’s horse; they then rode out of town. Bret had noticed that Joe had been quite since they had left the hotel but didn’t know why, and he wasn’t about to ask.

Joe had been troubled by what Rob had said about him being honest. He’d been lying the entire time he’d been with Bret, but he didn’t know any other way to hide from his Pa. Joe didn’t know if he would be able to pull this hiding and lying off without giving himself away.

“Joe?” Bret asked breaking through Joe’s thoughts.

“What?” Joe asked as he looked over at Bret.

“Is there something you want to talk about?”

“No, I’m just thinking about…It’s nothing,” Joe said stopping himself before he said something he’d regret.

“It’s okay, Joe, I understand,” Bret said with such understanding in his voice that Joe winced.

They rode for another ten miles in silence before Bret pulled his horse to a stop.

“Why are we stopping?” Joe asked as he pulled Cochise to halt beside Bret.

“In another mile, we’ll be at my house. I just thought I’d let you know that my wife will probably chew me out, since I was supposed to be home last week,” Bret said this with a smile.

“I hope she beats you for worrying her so,” Joe teased.

Bret laughed as he kicked Gladiator to a trot. “Just you wait, Joe; one day you’ll have someone worrying about you like that,” Bret threw back over his shoulder.

Joe stopped Cooch for a second then moved after Bret thinking, ‘I already had someone who does that, but not anymore.’

When they rode into the yard, Joe heard a child’s voice yell, “Ma, Pa’s back and he brought someone with him!!” The voice stopped yelling as he rushed up to Bret and Bret swept him up in a hug.

“Justin!!” Bret smiled as he hugged his son close to him.

Joe had to turn away when Bret picked his son up and hugged close. Joe was starting to feel guilty about what he might be doing to his Pa.

“Papa!!” another voice cried as a little girl came rushing out of the house to throw herself at her father.

A tear slipped down Joe’s face as he heard their happy cries.

Then something else happened; he heard a voice so sweet and melodious that he had to turn around to see the bearer of that voice. She was beautiful, and for a second in time, Joe was jealous of his new-found friend.

“Bret, you’re late,” The sweet voice turned angry after the initial greeting.

“I’m sorry, love,” Bret said as he let his son down. “I was held up at father’s funeral and then on the way over I ran into the young man over there.” Bret pointed at Joe and the woman turned towards him immediately.

She walked up to him but as she did she could sense the sadness and hurt hidden just beneath the surface. “Hello I’m Lydia, Bret’s wife, and you are…”

Joe swallowed he had the impulse to tell this woman who seemed so kind his real name but he didn’t, “Joe DeMarigny.” It was said with a soft voice that wouldn’t give away his feeling.

Lydia smiled, “That’s a fine name. French isn’t it?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Well don’t sit there all day, Joe. Bret, show this young man where to put his horse; I’ll be in the house making dinner. Rosalie, why don’t you come help me make dinner? Justin, help your pa and Joe with the horses.” Lydia ordered them around like she was a general on a battlefield. Joe was hard pressed not to grin as they all, even him, went to do as she ordered.

*****

Joe had been with the family for only five days but it felt as if he belonged and had lived there his whole life. The kids loved and adored their newfound “Uncle Joe” and Lydia spoiled him as if he were part of the family. Since there wasn’t a bunkhouse on the ranch, Joe had opted to sleep in the barn but Lydia wouldn’t hear of such a thing and insisted he sleep in the guestroom.

A message came for Bret and asked him to go to town so he did and Robert Trawler met him there.

“Hello Bret m’ boy,” Rob called when Bret came into the hotel.

“Howdy Rob. You wanted to see me about something?” Bret asked.

“Yep. You see, I’m done with the kid’s belt and gun, but before I gave it to him I wanted to tell you somethin’,” Rob looked decidedly nervous as he spoke.

“What is it, Rob?” Bret was getting irritated.

“Well, you see when I was remodeling the gun I come across some initials on its butt.”

“Yes?”

“Well, they wasn’t JD like you would expect; they was JC,” Rob said and waited for comprehension to dawn on Bret’s face.

“Maybe it’s his middle name, or someone gave it to him with the wrong initials,” Bret said when he realized what Rob had said.

“That’s what I was thinking or else he’s lying about his name.”

“Well I think I’ll ask him about it when I get home,” Bret said as he turned to go.

“I’ll ride along with you and give the lad his guns and belt,” Rob said as he grabbed his horse and mounted him.

The two men rode back to Bret’s ranch in silence.

*****

Joe was somewhat surprised when he saw Bret and Rob riding up together. He’d been out working with some horses in the corral when they rode up, so he walked over to them.

“Howdy Bret, Rob.”

“Well howdy Joe,” Rob said cheerfully as he dismounted.

Bret nodded at Joe as he too dismounted.

Joe wondered what was wrong with Bret but decided not to worry about it. “So Rob, what brings you out here?”

“Well Joe I got your gun and belt done early and I thought I’d bring it out to you.”

Joe smiled as Rob took out a package and handed it to him, “Thanks, Rob,” Joe nearly shouted as he started to open the package.

The contents of the package were more than Joe had ever expected. The belt was made out of black leather and it had white buckskin stitching around the top and bottom of it. The holsters — yes two of them, one on the right; the other on the left — had the words ‘Black Storm’ stitched in red and they also had a Ponderosa brand below the lettering. The brand is what surprised Joe and he looked up at Rob.

The question must have been in his eyes for Rob answered him, “I noticed the brand on your horse and thought it was your brand so I added it, but if you want it removed, it wouldn’t take that long.”

Joe shook his head. “No I like it just the way it is.” He then dug back into the package and came out with a pistol.

“That one’s the one I remade for you.” Rob explained.

Joe nodded numbly. It was so different than the one he’d given to Rob. Instead of ivory grips it was made of what substance was that? Rock? That was it, obsidian the black rock, but it seemed so light and easy to handle. Carved into the grips was a skull and crossbones with a lightning bolt carved so it looked like it was behind it. Joe was stunned by the detail in the carving and then he saw it. His initials that he’d hoped Rob would have taken off, but they were there seeming to glare at him and tell him he was the worst of all liars.

Slowly Joe put that pistol down and once again put his hand in the package and came out with a gun that was identical to the other one with one exception there were no initials on this one. When Joe was about to walk away with his ‘prizes’, Rob stopped him.

“There’s more in there,” he said quietly as he indicated the package.

Joe looked at him quizzically before he dug his hand in once more and came out with a shoulder holster, something he’d only ever read about. The harness and holster were made of the same material that his belt was made of. The gun that came with the holster looked like the two other’s that he had and Joe was truly stunned by it all. He had never expected two guns, let alone three and a shoulder holster.

“Th…Thanks, Rob. What do I owe you?”

“You don’t owe me a thing, Joe, or should I call you Black Storm?” The teasing tone that was in his voice made Joe smile and Bret grin.

Joe’s smile suddenly turned serious, “Why don’t you call me Storm?” He asked and both men standing there knew instantly that he was serious.

“Sure Joe,” Rob said as he turned to Bret with this question in his eyes, ‘Did I just do something we’ll both regret?’

Bret just shrugged as he turned to Joe, “Joe, I do have a question for you.”

Joe was instantly on guard somehow knowing what this question was about. “Sure Bret.”

“The initials on your gun are J. C. but you said that your last name starts with a D what do the initials stand for?”

Joe had to think fast if he was going to keep up this charade.

“The gun used to belong to my grandpa and those where his initials,” After he said that, he hung his head so they wouldn’t see the truth in his eyes. After all, it wasn’t really a lie; those were his grandpa’s initials, just not the grandpa they would think it was.

“I’m sorry I brought it up Joe,” Bret said as he looked over at Rob regret showing in his eyes.

“It’s okay Bret, you didn’t know,” Joe said quietly.

Rob shook his head and then said, “Well I better get going I need to pack and head off again.”

“Where you going this time, Rob?” Bret asked as they turned away.

Joe barely caught the next few words as they walked away but they still drove the air out of his lungs.

“Oh I think I’m going to head to Carson City and after that I’ll head to Virginia City.”

*****

The work at the Ponderosa had been done, but that was all you could say about it. There was no longer a love of the work and the land that had once been in their work. Hoss spent most his days in town waiting for some sort of word from Joe or about Joe. Ben spent most of his time in Joe’s room pondering what he could have done different. Adam, well, Adam spent most of his time out at Lake Tahoe blaming himself for his little brother running away. All in all, the ranch hands were the ones getting the work done, and though it wasn’t detailed and full of life, it at least kept the ranch going.

One night the Cartwrights were all sitting at the table, more pushing around their food then eating it, when Hop Sing stormed into the room, he was getting tired of preparing food and it not being eaten.

“Why you not eat?” Hop Sing ranted. “You know that #3 son not want you to do this; he want you to live as if he were still here.”

“How can we, Hop Sing?” Hoss said sullenly. “I just miss him so much.”

“I do too,” Hop Sing stated. “That not mean I quit living; I just’ wait for him to come home when he want.”

Ben suddenly saw the logic in what Hop Sing was saying. “Boys, I think Hop Sing is right; we can’t just quit living we all made some decisions that we regret. What do you two say?”

“You know Pa, I think you and Hop Sing are right and you know what else?” Hoss asked a light coming into his eye that hadn’t been there in awhile.

“What, Hoss>” Adam took the bait as he too got a light in his eye that said he was starting to live again as well.

“I’ve got my appetite back!”

Adam rolled his eyes as he too started eating again. “Pa,” he said after a few minutes.

“Yes Adam,” Ben said.

“Well I was wondering if you’d heard anything from Roscoe lately.”

“I haven’t heard from him for two weeks,” Ben said trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice but failing miserably.

Adam shook his head before going back to eating.

*****

Joe had worked and lived at the Kades’ ranch for two months before he decided to contact his family. He was going out of town for a few days to do some business for Bret, and he decided it would be an opportune time to send a letter to them. The letter read as follows;

Dear Pa, Adam, Hoss, and Hop Sing,

          It’s been almost five months since I left home, and I am sorry that I haven’t written sooner. I’ve found work at a ranch and am quite happy here, though I miss you all so much. I still don’t feel that I can forgive you yet and I ask you to quit looking for me, though I know you won’t. I often wonder what might have happened if I stayed home, but that is in the past. I miss you all so much and with this letter I am sending back your books, Adam.

 Joe

 

With the end of the letter, Joe sealed the envelope and put it and the books in a box addressed to Ponderosa Ranch, Virginia City, Nevada. After he sent the box, Joe went to the saloon and sat down.

Joe looked at himself in the mirror and for a second he didn’t know who he was. He hadn’t looked in a mirror since he left home and was surprised by the way he looked. It also answered why everybody avoided him. His hair had grown longer till it was hanging on his shoulders, his eyes had grown hard and cold and showed no emotion at all. The way he dressed in black gave him an appearance of danger, and his guns said that he was a professional gunfighter, hard as nails and twice as mean. Also he was suddenly aware that his time spent working on Bret’s ranch had filled him out so that he was no longer the skinny teen that had left home; instead he was big and buff. Joe had never intended to look this way when he’d started wearing black, but it somehow worked to his advantage, making him seem older than he was making it so no one questioned him in any way shape or form.

Joe got up from where he sat and walked toward the door; it was as if the Red Sea had parted and people were scrambling over each other to get out of his way. It didn’t matter to him that the instant he walked out the door, a brawl started, or the fact that the brawl had started because of him. Joe had decided to get Bret’s business sorted out for him first and then get a room and maybe relax a bit.

*****

When Joe walked into the lawyer’s office, everybody in sight froze and stared at him. Had Joe not seen his reflection in the mirror just a few minutes before that, he would have wondered why, as it was he just grinned a devilish grin that made the ladies in the room want to faint and the men jealous. Joe walked swiftly up to the first desk he saw and said, “I’d like to speak to Charles Taylor, please.” He was polite but there was a power in his voice that had never been there before.

The man behind the desk trembled; he’d seen a lot of hard people in his time but none that seemed to wield power with nothing but his presence and voice like this man seemed to. “I-I…” He stuttered.

“I’m Charles Taylor,” a voice said from behind him and Joe turned to look at the man, he was a big man not as big as Hoss but almost. He had thin sandy hair and a smile on his face that said he was happy most of the time.

Joe smiled a cool smile that, had Joe seen it, he would have been stunned by the way he looked so dangerous. Charles was taken aback by the way this man looked and wondered briefly what he wanted. “Can we talk in private?”

“Yes of course right this way,” Charles said as he led the way to an office that was off to the side.

When the door was closed and Charles had sat down motioning for Joe to do the same Joe finally spoke again, “My boss is Bret Kade and he told me that I had to come pick something for him.”

“Ah, you must be the Joe he told me about in his letter, though I expected you to be a lot younger by the way he described you.”

Joe smiled before saying, “Looks can be deceiving.”

Charles nodded his head slightly, “I guess they can.”

“Bret told me that I could trust you and that you were discreet. Now is that true?”

“Yes I’d say that is true.”

“Good ’cause what I’m about to say I don’t want to leave this room and if it does, I’ll come back and beat you to within an inch of your life.” ‘Tough words for a kid whose never been in a real fight just scraps with boys my age and brothers,’ Joe mused.

But Charles believed him, “Y-yes.”

So Joe told him about running away from home and how he had lied to Bret to gain his confidence, Charles was stunned into silence when he learned that Joe was only sixteen and a half. Joe finished by saying, “I want to make sure that if I die before I get back home that my family will know about it and will be able to get my body.”

“Son, do you realize how hard that could be?”

“I don’t care; I just want them to know,” In the last few hours Joe had been transformed from the hard, cold young man that had entered into the young teen that had left home, and it nearly broke Charles’ heart.

“Alright son I’ll see what I can do.”

*****

Ben had to travel to California to attend a Cattlemen’s conference and he was seated at a table with a man named Bret Kade. He was cordial at first but then Bret started talking about his wife, kids, and the new hand that had just come to his ranch. Ben was lost in the way Bret talked about all of them, even the hand, with love. When Bret described the hand Ben’s heart raced; he sounded so much like Joe minus a couple of facts. Like Joe never wore black, he never wore guns, and many other things. After talking to Bret for the duration of the conference, Ben came away feeling as if they had a connection.

When Bret got home the next week, he found that Joe had gone to the lawyer for him just as he’d asked him too. Bret also discovered that Joe had been quieter than normal since he got back. Lydia was worried about him so Bret went out to the corral, where Joe was working with the horses, to talk to him.

“Joe, Lydia tells me you’ve been real quiet since you got back. What happened?”

Joe looked into the eyes of his boss and his new best friend and wanted to cry at the concern he saw there. Joe knew he could not lie about what had happened after he had left the lawyers office.

“I went to the lawyers like you asked but after I left…” Joe had to wipe the tears from his eyes. “Bret, have you ever killed anyone?”

Bret was taken aback by the question, but answered anyway, “I’ve killed some Indians in some battles when I was a soldier. Why, Joe?”

Joe hung his head and said in a slightly muffled voice, “I-I killed a man Bret, not an Indian either — a white man.”

Bret closed his eyes and tried to block the sounds of Joe’s sobbing out as he tried to think of something to say to comfort the boy. “Start at the beginning and tell me what happened.”

Joe nodded mutely before he started his tale.

*****

Joe had just exited the lawyer’s office and he felt drained. He started to walk down the street when he bumped into someone, “Sorry,” His voice was gruff and he turned back to keep walking when a hand grabbed his arm and spun him around.

“I don’ ‘preciate gittin’ bumped inta strangah,” The voice was cold and it sent a shiver down Joe’s back.

Joe’s eyes met the coldest eyes he’d ever seen and he wasn’t aware that his eyes held a strange unnatural light that the stranger recognized as a dangerous look, “And I don’t appreciate being held onto,” Joe’s voice was as cold or colder than his challenger’s had been.

The man was suddenly uncertain about what he was about to do, but he’d be darned if he backed down now, “I challenge you ta a gunfight in the street right now,” he said before he walked to the middle of the street and waited.

Joe was aware of the sudden change in the atmosphere around him, and he didn’t like what he was about to do but he did it anyway. He stepped to the middle of the street and met his challenger’s gaze. By looking at him, you wouldn’t have guessed it to be his first time in a street facing a man in a gunfight. To look at him, you’d think he was a veteran of many gunfights, but inside Joe was scared and he wondered if he was fast enough.

Joe studied the man that stood in the street in front of him. He was young maybe eighteen or nineteen; then again Joe was only sixteen. The young man had cold brown eyes and his hair was so dark a brown that it looked black. He wore the clothes of an everyday cowhand — a blue and white checked shirt and a pair of faded brown pants.

Before he could study the young man any more, he saw something flash in his eyes and he knew in that instant that he was going to draw his gun. Joe hesitated and in that split second the man got his gun half way out of his holster. Joe drew, knowing that if he didn’t he’d be dead, and all the time it took for him to get his gun out of his holster cocked and fired was the time it took the other man to finish drawing his weapon. Then he was down in the street clutching his chest and staring at the man that had killed him, his eyes asking how this could have happened.

Joe slowly lowered his gun staring at the man that lay in his own blood in the street in front of him. His eyes, which seconds before had showed no emotion, showed shock. His face, which seconds before had been full of color, was ghostly white. He barely registered the man that had checked to see if the other was alive yell “He’s dead.” He scarcely realized that he had been approached and was now being led away by a man with a star on his chest.

Then he snapped out of his daze and asked one question, “What was his name,” His voice was scarcely recognizable as his own as he asked it.

The sheriff looked at him, sympathy filling his eyes as he realized that this man was not a hardened gunfighter like he’d been led to believe by his clothes and guns, “His name was Matthew Mardeen, and to tell you the truth, I’m grateful that you shot him and saved me the trouble of arresting him and hanging him.” The sheriff looked at the young man and then diverted his direction away from the jail, “I think it’s a good idea that we go see the doc before I question you about the shooting.”

Joe didn’t even resist as the sheriff led him into a nicely furnished room and a tall man came out of one of the back rooms, “Where’s this one shot, Dean?” he asked as he took over for the sheriff in holding Joe up and led him back to a back room and sat him down on a bed.

“He’s not shot,” the sheriff Dean Summers said as he walked into the room. “I think he’s in shock.”

“From killing a man?” The doctor was skeptical.

“Yes, I have a feeling that this is the first time he’s killed someone. I know he may not look like he hasn’t, but looks can be deceiving,” Dean watched the young man on the bed for a second. “You look at him, just look at him, Darten.”

Dr. Darten Laster turned and looked at his patient real hard then nodded his agreement, “You’re right, Dean,” he said, “Looks can be deceiving. Now would you excuse me while I examine my patient?”

The sheriff nodded and left the room.

“Now young man, please tell me your name.” The doctor said as he started his examination.

“Joe Ca…Joe DeMarigny, but call me Storm.” Joe was starting to get back into his mind as the doctor continued his examination.

“Alright Storm. How old are you?”

“Old enough,” Joe’s voice was a bit harsh.

The doctor shook his head, “I need to know how old you are. Now tell me.”

Joe hesitated then said, “16 and 3 / 4.”

The doctor stopped what he was doing to turn and stare at Joe and Joe flinched under the scrutiny. “You’re just 16?”

“And 3 / 4,” Joe mumbled under his breath.

The doctor closed his eyes. ‘The gunfighters certainly were getting younger,’ he thought before he went back to what he’d been doing.

“You don’t need to examine me,” Joe said as he started to get up.

“Son.” The doctor had no idea how much he sounded like Ben at that moment. “How many men have you killed?”

Joe swallowed and blinked hard before muttering. “Just one.”

“Then I need to examine you just in case and I need to observe you for at least twelve hours.” The doctor was calm as he explained then went on with the examination.

For the first time in his life, Joe didn’t object further, and he let the doctor finish his examination. When the doctor was done, he had Joe get in bed and then he went out to talk to the sheriff.

“Dean, that boy in there is only sixteen,” Darten nearly shouted as he walked out into the waiting room.

“They get younger everyday don’t they?” Dean asked as he got up from the chair he was sitting in.

“Yes they do,” Darten, said after a minute, “This is his first kill.”

“Then what in the world is he walking around dressed as a gunfighter for? Is he looking for a reputation? ‘Cause if he is, I’ll…” Darten suddenly cut off Dean’s tirade.

“No he’s not looking for a reputation so you can relax about that. As for your other question, he’s in mourning; from what I got out of him, his folks just died.” The blood drained from Dean’s face and he swore under his breath. “And the guns from what he told me were given to him by a friend.”

Dean processed this quickly then said, “What’s his name?”

Darten smiled he knew that Dean would get around to it, “From what he tells me, his name is Joe DeMarigny, but I don’t believe him since when he first started his name he started to say something that starts with Ca. Oh and Dean.” Dean turned to look at him. “He likes to be called Storm.” Dean raised an eyebrow but kept walking towards the back room.

*****

Roscoe Dayrin had ridden into the town of Olevo, Oregon about the same time that Joe had gunned down his first man. He stopped to watch the sheriff lead an obviously unsteady young man into the doctor’s office. Roscoe had studied the young man, but decided that he wasn’t the boy he was looking for. Roscoe searched for and soon found the livery stable he dismounted and led his horse inside; once inside, he studied all the horses and one in particular caught his eye. It was a big, black and white mustang, it was obviously an Indian pony and Roscoe had been told to look out for a horse such as this. He walked over and tried to get close enough to read the brand but every time he got within five feet of the beast, its eyes blazed and he kicked out with his front feet or he’d turn his head and try to bite him.

After another few minutes of trying but failing to get close enough to the beast, a voice said from behind him. “Give it up mister. That horse only let’s one person near him an’ he’s over at the Doc’s.”

Roscoe turned around to find a boy of about fifteen standing there. “I was just wondering if this horse was the horse of a man I know, the brand on the horse is a Ponderosa brand.”

The boy’s eyes lit up and he grinned. “Yep that’s the brand on the horse alright. I got a real good look at it when he rode in.”

Roscoe was excited but then he thought about what the boy had said before, “Why is he at the doctors?”

“The best that I can figure is he got wounded in the gunfight he was just in.”

Roscoe’s face drained of color, “Can you tell me the name of the man that owns this horse?”

“Sure,” the boy was chipper, “He told me that his name was Black Storm. Funny name, don’t you think? I mean who would name their kid that; not me that’s for sure. Hey mister, are you alright? You don’t look too good. The last time my Pa looked like that he passed out. Hey mister, where you goin’?”

Roscoe was out the door of the livery and half way to the nearest saloon before he realized where he was going. Roscoe went into the saloon, “Rye.” He ordered, when the bartender put it in front of him he looked up. “There was a gunfight a few minutes ago who were the men?”

The bartender looked at the man standing in front of him. “Well it was between a local boy Matt Mardeen, and some gunfighter I think he said his name was Black Storm. If you’re thinkin’ ‘bout goin’ up against him, I wouldn’t. I’ve never seen any one half as fast as that boy was and I’ve seen some pretty fast draws.”

“No I don’t think I will,” Roscoe said as he turned to go. He hated what he had to do next; he had to go see the Cartwright’s and tell them that they’d lost their best lead because Joe had sold his horse to a man that was danger personified.

*****

Joe lay in the bed staring up at the ceiling and wondering what would happen to him next when the sheriff walked into the room.

“Hello Joe, or do you want me to call you Storm?” The sheriff said as he came to sit next to Joe.

“Please call me Storm.” Joe said as he tried to block out his thoughts that this man sounded just like his Pa.

“Alrighty then, Storm, I need you to answer a few questions. You think you’re up to it?”

Joe nodded mutely.

So the sheriff asked him about how the fight got started, and what he’d been doing in town, and a few other things.

Joe answered as truthfully as he could without revealing who he really was. After the sheriff was done questioning him and the doctor had released him, Joe went back to the Kades’ ranch.

*****

“Well it’s obvious to me that you were only defending yourself,” Bret said as he put his hand on Joe shaking shoulder.

“Then why do I feel so bad?” Joe asked as he tried to get himself under control.

“I’ll tell you a secret, Joe. The first battle I was in, I was scared and afterward I felt terrible about the men that I’d killed. When my commanding officer found me crying later that night, he told me that I was right to feel bad. He told me that when I stopped feeling sorry for the men I’d killed that I should die because it was then and only then I was a cold blooded killer.” Bret raised Joe’s chin and looked him in the eyes. “If killing ever gets easier, then you tell me and I’ll see what I can do to help.”

“Even if it means killing me?” Joe whispered.

Bret blinked the tears from his eyes; “I hope it never comes to that, but yes Joe, even if it means killing you.”

Joe nodded silently then he smiled, “Thanks Bret. I needed that.”

“So kid what do you say we get back to work before Lydia comes out and yells at us for loafing?”

Joe laughed as he grabbed hold of his rope and ducked in the corral to get a horse.

Lydia sighed as she turned away; neither man had known of her presence, and for that she was grateful. She wiped the tears from her eyes as she walked back to the house to start supper.

*****

Life had gone on, on the Ponderosa; it had gotten better after they’d had their talk about living life again, but it still wasn’t the same as it had been. Hoss and Adam had finally gone on their fishing trip and Ben was learning to forgive himself for that day that was irrevocable but forgivable. Hop Sing had finally gotten as he wished and the family was eating again.

It had been a month and a half since they’d had their talk and two weeks since Ben had gotten back from the Cattlemen’s conference when the package came. It was wrapped in brown paper and had these simple words on top, Ponderosa Ranch, Virginia City, Nevada. The writing was in Joe’s hand and the package was postmarked, Olevo, Oregon.

Hoss bounded into the house yelling, “We got a package from Joe.”

Ben and Adam both shot up out of their chairs and Hop Sing almost ran around the corner. “Where was it sent from Hoss?” Adam asked excitedly.

“Olevo, Oregon. What do you think he sent us?”

“Calm down Hoss we’ll have to open it to find out,” Ben said as calm as he could even though just like his sons he was bursting to know what was in the package. Just as Ben was about to open it up, there was a knock at the door.

Ben was disappointed until Hop Sing opened the door, “Roscoe!! Have you found him?”

Roscoe shook his head sadly; “I have some bad news for you Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben shuddered, “What is it?”

So Roscoe told them about Cochise being sold to a gunfighter.

The breath had been driven out of Ben’s lungs when Roscoe had started talking. Joe had sold his horse. It hit Ben then Joe was cutting all ties to his past; he was changing the rules on the game. What Ben didn’t realize was that Joe hadn’t changed the rules; Roscoe had misinterpreted them. By the time Roscoe left, the package had been forgotten as had dinner, and all the Cartwright’s went to bed, though no one slept.

In the morning, the three Cartwright’s trudged drearily down the stairs; they didn’t look at each other and they barely picked at their food. Then Ben was struck by a sudden thought and he rushed over to his desk where he picked up the package and cradled it like a child as he walked the settee and sat down. Adam and Hoss had moved away from the table and gathered around the coffee table, Hop Sing was in the background as they all waited with baited breath for Ben to open the package up.

Ben slowly unwrapped the plain brown paper that encased the box and before he opened the box he read the letter out loud. They were all in tears by the time Ben had finished and Adam gently took the box and opened it revealing his books and nothing else.

Ben spent the rest of the day in a daze and his sons could only watch helplessly as their Pa, who had slowly been forgiving himself, started beating himself up again. By the time the day was over, Ben had decided that his son hadn’t really meant to hurt him with the words in the letter; he was just trying to be truthful. So once again Ben set out on the long slow road to forgiving himself.

*****

Two months had passed since Joe had killed his first man and Joe had started to come to terms with what people thought he was by looking at him. Joe had been in two more gunfights and each time, he’d only winged his opponent in the arm.

Bret had ridden into town that morning and got the mail there were two things for Joe — one from Charles Taylor, the other from Dean Summers, sheriff of Olevo.

Joe took them to his room and opened the one from Taylor first it said;

Dear Joe,

          I have discovered a way for me to contact your family if you die. I will put your wishes into effect immediately so you don’t have to worry about a thing let me handle it.

Charles Taylor

 

The other one floored Joe it said:

Dear Storm, 

          I have found out something on Matt Mardeen that you should know. He may have been born and raised here in Olevo but he is wanted, for various crimes, in ten other states and territories — each place has a wanted poster out for him for the amount of one thousand dollars. I took the liberty of enclosing a bank draft for the amount of ten thousand dollars. 

Dean Summers,
Sheriff Olevo, Oregon

 

Joe tried to catch his breath then he smiled. ‘What a birthday present,’ he thought as he took note of the date. He walked out of his room and up to the Kades.

“You won’t believe what I just got in the mail,” Joe said as he handed the letter to Bret.

Bret read it out loud and both their mouths dropped open, “This is amazing, Joe.”

“Yeah it is,” Joe said then without thinking he let something slip, “What a birthday this turned out to be.”

“It’s your birthday!?” Lydia asked.

Joe winced then nodded an affirmative.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Bret asked his voice sounded hurt.

Joe shrugged, “I didn’t think it was important.” was the only thing he could think of to say.

“Well it is important,” Lydia said as she got swiftly to her feet, “Bret, go round up the kids and go to town and get presents.”

“You don’t…” Joe started but Lydia cut him off.

“Yes we do, and no working for you today; now get out of the kitchen so I can make a cake.” Lydia looked thoughtful for a moment then asked, “What’s your favorite meal?”

Joe smiled knowing there was no way he was going to win this argument. “Fried chicken with mashed potatoes.”

“Alright then Bret before you leave kill a chicken.” Lydia then turned and smiled at Joe. “You go do whatever you want to.”

“But ma’am I’m just the hired help,” Joe said.

Lydia scowled at him, “You are no more hired help then Bret is. Now will you get out of my kitchen.”

Joe was stunned by her words; they considered him family and he was lying to them. Joe decided that he should go think about it so he went out to a small pond that he’d found; somehow that place reminded him of the Ponderosa. Joe sat out there contemplating if he should tell the Kades who he really was or if he should just let things go as they were.

Joe had sat there for the better part of an hour contemplating telling them who he really was then his mind wandered to his family. Joe tried to picture his father in his mind and was stunned to realize that he couldn’t picture his Pa’s face in his mind sure he had the pictures but being able to see his Pa without a picture was something he’d always found comfort in before. Joe turned his mind towards his brother’s and realized that they too were just fuzzy images. Joe leaned forward and put his head in his hands and wanted to cry but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Joe wondered how his family was feeling on this day and realized that they were probably feeling worse than he was. Joe got up and slowly walked back to the house still undecided as to what to do. Without even realizing it Joe was starting to forgive his Pa, it would be a long hard road with many setbacks but it was a start.

*****

Later that night, the Kades gave him a party and the kids decorated their “Uncle” Joe with shredded newspaper, leaves and whatever else they could find to throw around. Lydia served fried chicken that rivaled Hop Sing’s for taste, and Bret played his guitar so they could dance. After they had all eaten and danced and laughed, the kids insisted that Joe open presents. Justin got Joe two neckerchiefs one red and the other green. Rosalie gave him two black shirts. Lydia gave him four leather-bound books: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby Dick, The Three Musketeers, and The Deerslayer. And Bret gave him a brand new guitar, saying as he handed it over, “That comes with lessons.”

Joe was speechless they had spent a lot of money on him and he didn’t know how to repay them. “I-I don’t know what to say; you guys didn’t have to do any of this, but you did. Why?”

Bret smiled, “What Lydia said earlier is true, Joe, and it won’t ever change. You are now part of this family, whether you want to be or not. Now I think it’s time we all got to bed. Night, Joe.” Bret said as he shooed the kids inside.

“Night Uncle Joe!!” The two kids chorused.

“Good night kids,” Joe replied a smile on his face.

“Sleep well Joe,” Lydia said as she too walked inside.

Joe stood in the yard for a minute before he spoke again, “What am I going to do?” It was barley a whisper as Joe watched the lights in the house go out one by one before he walked inside to his bed.

*****

When Joe’s birthday rolled around, Ben wanted to cry; he missed his son and wanted him to come back home. Ben rode out to Lake Tahoe and just sat in Joe’s favorite spot by his mama’s grave watching the lake. Ben wondered if Joe was celebrating his birthday or if he was just letting it slip by without acknowledging it. Ben hoped his son was safe and that he would come home soon.

After a few hours Adam and Hoss joined him, bringing Joe’s favorite food so that they could celebrate his birthday even though Joe wasn’t with them. They all sat there, each with his own thoughts about Joe. Ben felt like he was mourning for his son, Adam hoped his brother would come home soon and still be the same boy that had left, and Hoss just wanted to go back in time and actually pipe up and state his opinion on the day this all started.

“Well boys, it’s time to go home,” Ben said quietly after they had watched the sun set with a brilliance that was only found in the mountains.

“Yeah we got a long day ahead of us tomorrow,” Hoss said as he too got up.

“I think I’ll stay here a bit longer,” Adam said.

The two that were standing looked at each other then silently nodded and walked away.

Adam watched his Pa and brother walk away then turned his eyes towards the lake. Why had he told his Pa what he’d heard that night? Why hadn’t he stopped his Pa from going up to talk to Joe while he was still mad? Why hadn’t he checked on his little brother when they got home that night? All these thoughts and more were rolling through Adam’s mind as he sat there.

“Come home soon, little buddy. We miss you,” Adam spoke into the night knowing his brother couldn’t hear him, but wishing he could.

*****

The weather was getting cold and Joe was wondering if he should go home for Christmas. It had been a month since his birthday and he had almost told the Kades who he really was many times, but he could never do it. Joe watched as Justin rode his new horse around the corral and grinned when Justin waved at him.

Bret silently approached Joe and saw the look on his face that said he was sad. Bret knew that this time of year would be hard on Joe, he just didn’t know how hard. “Joe?”

Joe was startled by the voice so close to him but he didn’t show it. Over the last several months Joe had learned not to show his emotions freely. “Hey Bret.”

Bret was amazed every time that Joe didn’t show a reaction to something that must have startled him, “You miss your folks don’t you?”

Joe nodded slowly, silently saying to himself, ‘You don’t know the half of it.’ “Yeah Bret, I do.”

“Well Joe, me and Lydia were talking and we’re all going to go into town tomorrow to buy Christmas presents, and we were wondering if you wanted to join us.” Bret figured Joe would say no seeing as he’d tried to hide his birthday from them.

“Sure why not,” Joe said as he straitened and turned to walk away. “I got some fences to mend so I won’t be back ‘til tonight.”

Bret grinned, “Okay Joe, I’ll tell Lydia and she’ll fix something for you to take with you.” With that, Bert rushed off towards the house.

Joe walked over to the barn and started to saddle Cochise all the while thinking about what he was going to do for Christmas. He knew that he would send his family presents but maybe, just maybe, he could get Bret to let him go home to put those presents under the tree. Going directly from here to the Ponderosa was only a four-day ride, that included stopping for the night.

Joe trotted Cooch up to the house and waited ‘til Lydia came out of the house and handed him a sack of food saying, “You be careful I don’t want you getting hurt out there.”

“Yes ma’am,” Joe said with a grin and a wink. “I’ll do my best not to get hurt but no guarantees.”

 “You better come back in one piece or I’m docking your pay,” Bret said coming out of the house and putting an arm around his wife.

Joe laughed, “Now I wouldn’t know what to do if you did that.” Joe turned Cochise to leave.

“Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe!!” Rosalie yelled as she suddenly burst out of the house scaring Cochise.

“Rosalie, don’t run around horses!!” Bret, Joe, and Lydia yelled in unison as Joe fought to get Cooch under control.

Rosalie slowed to a walk. “Sorry Papa, sorry Mama, sorry Uncle Joe.”

Joe smiled and leaned out of the saddle to pick her up and put her in front of him, “Now what is it that you wanted, Little Angel?” Joe asked.

“Uncle Joe, I was wondering if you would find me a nest while you’re gone.” The little girl had been obsessed with nests since Joe had brought her a fully intact bird’s nest two weeks before.

“I’m afraid I’ll be too busy to look for one, Little Angel, but if I see one, I promise to bring it back for you. Okay?”

Rosalie looked disappointed but said, “Okay, but you’ll have to play with me if you don’t find one.”

Joe laughed as he planted a big wet kiss on her cheek. “I wouldn’t want that to happen now, would I.” As Joe said this, he winked at Lydia and she giggled. “Now if you don’t mind I have to go do what your dad says or I won’t be able to play with you.”

As Joe gently placed her on the ground, Rosalie looked up at him and said, “I love you, Uncle Joe.” Then she scampered off back into the house.

Joe felt a cold hand tighten around his heart but he shook it off as he smiled once more and rode out of the yard.

*****

Ben watched his sons ride into the yard they had gone to town to buy presents. Ben wondered if there was any news about Joe but seeing Adam’s barely discernible shake of his head, Ben knew there wasn’t any news. Ben had hoped Joe would come home when the weather turned cold but obviously he hadn’t.

Ben hung his head and turned to go back inside when he heard another horse approaching, it was Roscoe. Ben smiled.

“Roscoe do you…?” Ben’s words were cut off by a shake of Roscoe’s head. “Then what do you want?”

Roscoe looked at Ben and felt guilty about what he was about to do, “Mr. Cartwright with all due respect, I would like to resign from your services. You see, sir, I think that until young Joe wants to be found, there will be no finding him.”

Ben was at first confused then angry, “You mean you think that no one will be able to find my son?” He asked heatedly.

Roscoe nodded. “That’s what I’m saying sir. I have been unable to find anything more concerning your son since I found his horse in the possession of that gunfighter. Sir, your son is very good at hiding and staying hidden. I promise to keep my eyes open and if I see him, I’ll tell you know but I won’t continue to search for him.”

Ben hung his head he knew what Roscoe said was right but he didn’t want to stop looking. “Alright then; come inside and I’ll pay you.”

Roscoe slowly dismounted his horse and followed Ben inside. Ben counted out a hundred dollars and handed it to him.

Roscoe walked to the door and hesitated there, “Mr. Cartwright?” When Ben looked at him he continued. “I hope he comes home for the holidays.” With that Roscoe left.

*****

As Joe fixed the fence, his thoughts were on Rosalie and Justin and what they meant to him. He loved them both as if he really were their uncle. He didn’t know what he would do when he finally had to go home and wondered if by that time he really would have nieces and nephews. Joe was so distracted that he never saw the snake and by the time he heard the rattle, it was already too late. Joe drew at the same time the rattler struck he felt a searing pain in his leg and pulled the trigger hit the rattler enough that it recoiled back and bit itself killing it instantly.

Joe’s look was pain filled as he wondered what a snake was doing out this time of year. But the pain crashed into him before he could complete his thought and he knew that he had to get help quick or it would be too late. Joe forced himself to calm down knowing the faster his blood pumped the quicker the poison would kill him.

Joe looked over to see Cochise grazing in the field behind him and knew that if he could just get his lips wet enough he’d be able to call his horse over to him and get to help. Joe tried and tried but he just couldn’t whistle loud enough to get Cooch’s attention. Joe felt himself fading and knew that if he passed out before he got on his horse he would die.

Joe finally got enough saliva to wet his lips and whistled. Almost instantly Cochise was at his side. “Down, Cooch, down, boy.” Joe coaxed his horse ‘til he was lying down next to him. Joe got his hand wrapped in the mane and got himself draped over his horse’s back. Joe just dropped the reins across the cantle of his saddle trusting his horse to take him to help.

*****

Ben had become listless after Roscoe quit. Adam and Hoss didn’t know what to do and Hop Sing was at a loss as well. Ben was thinking about what Roscoe had said, that he didn’t think that anyone would be able to find Joe until Joe wanted to be found.

Ben was finally starting to agree with Roscoe. Maybe he should just quit searching and Joe would come home in his own time. Ben prayed about it and after he was done praying he felt at peace with his decision, all he had to do now was tell his sons.

Ben brought it up at the table that night. “Boys, I’ve decided to stop searching for Joe.” It was a statement.

Adam spit his food out and Hoss started choking.

Adam recovered first, “What? What do you mean that you’re going to quit searching for him?”

Hoss came next, “Have you given up, Pa?”

Ben knew that his sons would react like this. “No boys,” he replied calmly, “It’s just something Roscoe told me. That no one would find Joe until he wanted to be found.”

Hoss got a thoughtful look on his face and Adam leaned back in his chair and looked at his father.

After awhile Adam spook up. “I think he might be right, Pa.”

Hoss nodded in agreement.

Ben smiled. “Now that that’s settled, let’s pray that your little brother will come home soon.”

*****

Joe didn’t know when he reached the Kades; he didn’t hear Lydia’s panicked call for Bret to fetch the doctor, he didn’t hear the children’s sobbing as Lydia and Bret carried him in the house. He didn’t wake up when the doctor came in and gave him medicine, saying even as he did so that he wouldn’t make it through the night. Three days after he’d come in draped over Cochise’s neck, he finally woke up.

“Wa…” his voice trailed off as he heard a cry.

“Mama!! Mama Uncle Joe just made a sound!!!!!!!!” It was Rosalie’s high-pitched cry and Joe winced.

Lydia rushed in the room closely followed by Bret and the doctor.

“Joe you’re awake,” Lydia cried when she saw Joe’s eyes open.

“Step aside Lydia; I need to take a look at my patient,” the doctor said gruffly. Lydia stepped aside and the doctor came into Joe’s view.

He was an older man and he looked strongly like Lydia. He was broad in the shoulders and his jaw had the same powerful set to it that Lydia’s got when she was being stubborn. His hair had once been strawberry-blonde from the stray piece here and there that wasn’t gray. His hands were gentle as he took Joe’s wrist and read his pulse.

“Good, very good. I bet you’re thirsty, aren’t you, young man?”

Before Joe could even nod, the doctor had a glass in front of his mouth and Joe was gulping down water until the doctor pulled it away.

“Thank you,” Joe said hoarsely.

The doctor smiled, “That’s quite alright, young man; now you’re probably wondering who I am.”

Joe nodded.

The doctor smiled, “My name is Dr. Steven Miller and I’m Lydia’s father.”

Joe grinned then said, “I could tell you…look alike.”

The doctor and Bret roared in laughter and Lydia feigned being mad at him. “Why Joseph DeMarigny, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Her father laughed even louder and Justin’s voice cut in, “Mama, why are you mad at Uncle Joe?” After that Bret’s laughter rose in intensity and Lydia joined in.

Between the three adults surrounding him, Joe saw Justin look at Rosalie a question in his eyes and Rosalie shrugged and brought her hand to her head and spun it in a circle to signify that adults in general were crazy. After seeing that, Joe joined in with the merriment and the two kids left the room both of them totally confused.

*****

It had been one week since the snake had bitten Joe. They had gone to town to get presents; Joe had gotten Adam a couple books and he’d found a harmonica that he got for Hoss. He’d already gotten his Pa a present in Olevo; that was before he’d killed his first man. Joe had gotten Bret a wild stallion that wasn’t even broke yet and to go with the stallion, he’d gotten him a bridle and saddle. He’d gotten Lydia a set of new pans and he was going to give her some spices and recipes that he’d gotten from Hop Sing. He’d gotten the kids both three carved horses to play with. Joe had gotten Steven a braided leather harness for his buggy.

Joe finally decided to talk to Bret and Lydia and tell them that he was going to go away and be gone through Christmas so he went in the house that night and sat down next to them in the chair they had decided was his. Steven and the kids had gone to bed about a half hour ago and it was just the three of them.

“Well Joe, I can tell by the look on your face that you want to say something so speak up.” Bret said breaking the silence.

Joe sighed, “I’d like to go… to go home for Christmas and it will take me awhile to get there and back.”

Lydia looked at Joe with sympathy as she thought she knew how he was feeling, “That will be quite alright Joe you can go…home if you want.”

“But you were planning a party for Christmas and I won’t be here for it,” Joe said feeling guilty for his deception.

“It will just have to wait ‘til you get back then,” Bret chimed in.

“Yes we can celebrate both Christmas and New Years on the same day,” Lydia said clapping her hands together.

Joe smiled. “Then I’ll leave in two days and try to be back by the 29th or 30th.”

“Alright it’s settled then. Goodnight Joe,” Bret said as he stood up and walked out of the room.

“Sleep tight and I’ll see you in the morning,” Lydia said with a smile.

After they left, Joe was once again over come with guilt and wanted to barge into their room and tell them the truth but instead he blew out the lamp and went to bed.

*****

It was almost Christmas and Ben and the boys had almost decided to skip it this year, but Hop Sing reminded them that Joe might come home. So they went and chopped down a tree and put a few decorations on it.

They had been invited to a party in town on Christmas Eve and they all went even Hop Sing. They had no idea that while they were gone Joe slipped into the house and put the presents he got them under the tree as far back as they would go. Joe then surveyed the room around him and noticed the lack of stockings on the fireplace. Joe shook his head went upstairs and got four stockings out of the rooms. In each one he put candy and all sorts of goodies he’d brought with him just in case. On each one he put a piece of paper with a name.

Joe then went up to his room and placed a letter that he’d written on his bed, sure that someone would find it. The letter read as follows:

Dear Pa, Adam, Hoss, and Hop Sing

           Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you all. I miss you and the Ponderosa very much, but I’ve found a place where I belong and it’s outside of this land that I’ve called home for my whole life. I hope you aren’t mad at me for saying that. Pa I know I told you that I wouldn’t tell you the truth behind that night, but I’ve changed my mind. You see, Pa, that night I couldn’t sleep so I went out to my mama’s grave to see if it would help. It did help. After that I came home and did all the chores. After that, well you know about that. I love you all don’t worry about me. I’ll be careful and I’ve got a mother hen looking after me where I am at.

Joe

 

Just as Joe was about to set the letter on the bed and take the stockings down and hang them, he heard his family ride up. Joe quickly ducked under his bed taking everything with him. He waited with baited breath as he heard the door downstairs open and could hear their conversation coming through the boards beneath him.

“Well that was fun don’t you think so, Pa?” He heard Adam ask.

“Yes Adam that was entertaining. Goodnight boys.” With that Joe heard his father start up the stairs Ben stopped at Joe’s door, hesitated a second then walked in the room.

*****

When Ben opened the door he didn’t know what he’d expected but an empty bed wasn’t it. Ben sighed as he sat down on the bed and looked around the room nothing had been touched since Joe had left and Ben wondered how long he’d keep it this way. Ben answered his own question by saying out loud.

“Until he comes home. Ohh, Joseph where are you tonight? Are you out in the cold and by yourself? Or are you in somebody else’s home?”

Joe had to stop himself from answering his father and to keep himself from making a sound.

Ben continued, “Wherever you are tonight Joe, I hope you’re safe.” With that, Ben got up and walked out of the room.

Joe let out a sigh of relief as he relaxed a little. Joe didn’t move again until he’d heard everyone go to bed and it had been at least an hour since he’d heard the last one stir. Joe gently got up from his spot on the floor and put the letter on the bed thinking, ‘If only you knew how close you were to finding me, Pa.’

Joe slowly went out of the room and silently hung the stockings above the fireplace. He then went back to his room and with a sudden thought laid his black bandanna beneath the letter. Joe then opened his window and slipped out to the roof. Joe turned and gently shut it. He then went to the edge of the roof and shimmied down the lattice. Joe jogged into the woods beside the house where he’d hidden Cochise.

He mounted up and turned the horse toward Lake Tahoe. Joe rode up to his mother’s grave and dismounted not even bothering to tie Cochise he walked up the her grave and laid a dried rose on her grave he put a rock on it so it wouldn’t blow away. With the rose he put a bag full of rose bulbs beneath the rock.

Joe stood up and said, “I’m sorry Mama but I can’t stay that long. I got to get to town before the storm hits. I miss you Mama and I hope you like the flowers. Bye, Mama, and Merry Christmas.”

With that, Joe grabbed his horse and took off toward town.

*****

Joe sat looking out the window at the falling snow. ‘Nine months, that’s right,’ he told himself. ‘It’s been nine months since I left home.’

The now seventeen-year-old knocked back another shot as he thought of what he’d be doing now if he was still at home. If he’d never taken the midnight ride that had ended his world as he knew it.

Joe smiled a small almost invisible smile that he normally wore when he was facing a man in the street. But this time the smile wasn’t a taunt to the other man; it was a taunt to himself. Here it was Christmas Eve and he didn’t have anyone to give presents to and no one to give presents to him. The bartender was his only companion and by the look on his face Joe knew that he wouldn’t be staying long.

Joe’s smile broadened but it was bitter. In the nine months since he’d been gone he’d gotten a different name. He was now known as the Black Storm. Joe had been many places since he’d left home, but mostly he stayed at the Kades ranch so as not to get caught. Joe didn’t want the game to end before the year was up, for that’s what he thought of this cat and mouse thing he had going with his Pa it was a game.

Joe had not been heartless this Christmas he’d taken his family presents. He’d gotten Adam three books to make up for the months he’d kept the other three, Joe didn’t know their title’s he hadn’t even looked when he’d wrapped them to give to Adam. Hoss, Joe had gotten a harmonica that was made of real gold and silver. Ben, Joe had had a little more trouble finding him a present finally he decided on a pipe that he’d found in a curiosity shop in Olevo.

Joe once more turned his gaze out the window and threw back another shot before he got up from where he sat. ‘Time to bed down for the night,’ he thought. ‘Got to get an early start in the morning if I want to get back to the Kades by the 29th like I promised.’

*****

When Ben and the boys woke up on Christmas morning they wandered downstairs, they were surprised when they saw stockings hanging above the fireplace. Hop Sing suddenly bustled out of the kitchen carrying a tray and said, “Come eat ‘fore get cold.”

The men smiled at each other sure that they found the answer to the puzzle of the stockings. After they ate, they went over to the living room and sat down. First Ben got up and passed his gifts around. He gave Adam a new gun, Hoss got a new horse blanket, and Hop Sing got a new set of pans.

Next was Adam’s turn’ he got up and passed out his gifts. He got Ben a new saddle, Hoss got a bag of Miss Cindy’s cookies, and Hop Sing got a new bone china.

Next was Hoss’ turn; he got up passed his presents around. He got Ben a new rifle, Adam a new holster custom made by Trawler the best know holster and saddle maker around, and Hop Sing got a cook book written in Chinese.

Hop Sing smiled as he got up grabbed his presents and passed them out. He gave Ben a marble carving of a horse, Adam got a painting of the street where his Grandfather lived in Boston, and Hoss, a new set of carving knives.

Then Ben got up and got the stockings off the fireplace and nearly dropped them when he saw the familiar slant of Joe’s writing. Ben handed the stockings to each one there and when they saw the slips of paper with their names on them they almost dropped their stockings. Then Hoss saw something under the tree, he reached under and pulled out four more gifts, each one had a tag on it saying a name, each name was written in the same handwriting.

When they opened their presents, they all wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Adam did laugh out loud as he read the titles of the books; A Description of the Human Mind, How To Tell a Criminal From a Non-Criminal, and A Book of Human Anatomy.

Suddenly a thought struck Ben and he ran up the stairs and threw Joe’s door open. There was nobody in the bed but there was a black bandanna on the bed with a note on top of it. When Ben picked the letter up and read it, the tears flowed freely down his face. Joe had found another place where he felt safe; it wasn’t at home with his family but that didn’t matter to Ben his son was safe and that was all that mattered.

Ben was mad at himself for not listening to Joe before he punished him and lost him. Ben wondered where his son was that he felt so safe, and he wondered how close he was to seeing his son last night. Ben turned around when he heard a shuffling in the door; Adam, Hoss, and Hop Sing came in the door.

Ben smiled at his sons through the tears as he read the note out loud to the three of them. Adam hung his head in shame at what his Pa read asking himself what would’ve happened if he’d waited and confronted Joe while they were alone. Hoss wiped the tears from his eyes, thinking that his little brother had come home even though it was only for a few hours.

“He was home, boys,” Ben said, “And it was sometime in the middle of the night. He came home,” Ben repeated as the tears ran freely from his eyes.

A sudden thought hit Adam, “What if he’s still in town or somewhere close by?”

Hoss grinned as he rushed out the door and to the barn. The snow was at least six inches deeper than the night before so Hoss knew that it had stormed. As Hoss reached the door to the barn, he felt Adam and Ben behind him. They all went to their horses and saddled them. Once they were mounted Ben looked at his sons.

“I’ll go to his mother’s grave; you boys go and check in town if you can get through.”

Adam and Hoss nodded as they took off towards town as Ben rode towards his third wife’s grave.

*****

When Joe woke up on Christmas morning he was shivering. Instead of taking the chance that someone would recognize him he bedded down in the livery with his horse. It was five in the morning and 40° below when he crawled out of the pile of straw in the back of Cochise’s stall. Joe shivered as he started to get Cochise ready for the journey back to the Kades; as he threw the saddle over Cooch’s back, then the door to the livery opened and Doc Martin walked in mumbling.

“Why is it that every holiday that I get called out at ungodly hours of the day,” Doc mumbled as he walked to where his horse stood in his stall. Since he wasn’t really looking where he was going he bumped into Joe. “Oh I’m sorr…Joe!!?? You’re home!”

Joe cursed himself for not jumping back into the stall and hiding until Doc was gone, “Hi Doc. Yeah I’m home but I’m leaving today.”

“Leaving but why? You just got here.” Doc asked.

“No I got here about one last night and I’m leaving because I can’t forgive my pa yet.” Joe stated simply as he went about saddling his horse.

Doc was awestruck Joe had come home only to leave again, Mrs. Wilder having her baby was completely forgotten as he watched Joe prepared to break his Pa’s heart yet again. “Joe, you just can’t leave again,” Doc argued.

Joe sighed. “Didn’t you have some medical emergency that got you up this morning?” he asked calmly as he mounted up.

Doc was shook out of his revive by Joe saying that and turning his horse and riding out of the livery. Doc then remembered what had gotten him out of bed in the first place and rushed to hook up his sled as he made a mental note to talk to Ben later.

*****

Joe sighed once he was out of the livery cursing his luck at being seen by Doc. The instant Joe hit the frigid winter air he kicked Cochise into a gallop and kept him there until they were at least a mile out of town. Joe hoped that his family would like their gifts and that they would see the sense in staying home, but knowing Pa and Hoss and even Adam the way he did. He knew they would be out searching for him until they exhausted their resources.

Joe pulled his duster close to himself, thanking God that he remembered to put the sheepskin liner on underneath. He had a feeling by looking at the sky that it would be storming later. He hoped that he could make it over the mountains in this weather but he knew that the mountains were unpredictable so he didn’t put his hopes up.

As he rode along, Joe had plenty of time to think about what he was doing to his family and realized that he was being cruel. He knew that his Pa was hurt by what he’d done to Joe and that he was hurt by what Joe was doing. Joe remembered his Pa’s words only last night as he hid under his own bed.

“Ohh, Joseph, where are you tonight? Are you out in the cold and by yourself? Or are you in somebody else’s home? Wherever you are tonight Joe I hope you’re safe.” 

Pa was worried about him. Joe hung his head as he tried to hold back the tears, but they fell anyway. He’d caught a glimpse of Hoss earlier in the day and had seen the look of weariness and worry on his face then Adam had walked up and Joe had had to keep himself from crying out at the look of guilt on his oldest brother’s face.

Without realizing it, he turned onto a trail that was a shortcut back to the Ponderosa. The shortcut was rarely used and Joe had only used it once and that was about three years ago with Hoss, but despite that, Joe found his way down the rough trail and suddenly he was on a hill overlooking Lake Tahoe. Joe was startled when he looked out and saw the vast expanse of the lake in front of him. He looked toward where his mother’s grave was and saw the familiar figure of his father bending over the grave.

Joe choked back more tears as he saw his Pa and the way he was bent over so wearily. Suddenly Joe cried out, but his voice was carried away by the wind that was picking up speed and starting to blow the snow around. There was a man coming up behind Ben and he had a knife in his hand. Without thinking, Joe grabbed his rifle and brought it up in one swift motion; without even aiming, he fired and watched as a puff of dust and snow came up off the man’s shirt right where his heart should be. Joe watched as the bullet came out the man’s back in a brilliant display of color against the backdrop of the snow and trees.

Joe watched as his Pa spun around seeing the dead man; Joe saw his Pa look towards him. Joe don’t know what made him do it — he could have gone home in that split second of time — but instead he turned his horse back down the trail and kicked him into a canter as the snow started falling harder.

*****

Ben leaned over his wife’s grave and wondered where his son was at this moment. With all the snow that had fallen since last night, it was impossible to tell if Joe had come here or not.

“Oh Marie,” he started when he suddenly heard a shot and heard a man cry out in pain. Ben spun and saw Travis Johnson with a knife lying close to his hand, dead on the ground. Ben immediately looked to where he thought the shot had come from, what he saw made his heart quicken.

There on the ridge overlooking Lake Tahoe was a familiar paint horse and an even more familiar figure atop the horse was lowering a gun. Ben watched as Joe slammed the gun back down into the boot and picked up his reins. For a second or two, Ben thought that Joe was going to ride down the ridge towards him, but instead Joe spun Cochise around and kicked him into a canter just as the wind picked up and the snow started falling obscuring Joe from view.

Ben’s heart, which had been soaring with hope when he saw Joe, went plummeting down to the deepest part of Lake Tahoe. Ben had the sudden urge to jump on Buck and ride after his son but the wind and snow were blowing too hard for him to even attempt it. Instead he went back to the dead man. Travis had been insanely jealous of Ben after he’d lost everything; his wife, his son, his land, and his sanity. For weeks, Travis had said that he was going to kill Ben Cartwright someday; everybody had ignored him, thinking he didn’t mean it. Travis had been making the same threats for years even before he’d lost everything.

Ben shook his head as he grabbed the man and hoisted him up long enough to sling him over Buck’s back. Ben decided he wouldn’t get far by walking in this weather so he mounted up behind the dead man. Ben gave Buck his head and let him take the safest path home.

By the time Ben got home, the blizzard was in full swing and he couldn’t see more than two feet in front of him. That’s why it surprised him when Buck stopped. Ben nearly fell off Buck as in a lull in the storm he caught a glimpse of the barn. Ben led Buck inside the barn and took the dead man off his back, laying him in an empty stall; he then led Buck to his stall and bedded him down for the night. Seeing his sons stalls empty, Ben hoped they had stayed in town.

Ben found the rope that was always tied from the barn to the house in the wintertime and found his way to the house using that as a guide to him. When Ben reached the house, he found that there was a big fire burning in the hearth and Hop Sing was busy sweeping.

When Hop Sing saw Ben, he instantly got to work and gathered blankets and sat Ben down in front of the fire to warm up. “Boys not with you?” Hop Sing asked after he got Ben comfortable.

“No,” Ben said as he shivered. “I hope that they stayed in town I don’t want them out in weather like this.” Even as Ben spoke, Adam and Hoss stumbled into the room. Both were nearly frozen and Hop Sing got them comfortable as well.

“A-any lu-luck P-pa,” Adam got out as he shivered in his chair.

“I saw him,” Ben’s words hit them all hard.

“What!!!?????” The cold was forgotten as Adam jumped out of the chair leaving him in nothing but his birthday suit. Hop Sing just pushed him back in his chair and helped him buddle up once more.

“Just that, son,” Ben said, “He saved my life.”

“How’d he do that Pa?” Hoss asked.

“You know Travis Johnson?” When Ben saw the nods, he continued. “Well Travis was going to kill me when I was at Marie’s grave and suddenly I heard a shot. I didn’t know that Travis was behind me, so I turned, and when I saw him dead, I looked to where I thought the shot had come from and there was your brother on that ridge that overlooks the lake. I was too shocked to do anything but watch him ride away. I would have gone after him but that was about the time that the wind picked up and the snow started falling harder. So what about you boys did you find anything out? Was he in town?”

“Yeah he was, according to Tom at the Crazy Bronc; Joe was there drinking until sometime after two. Tom said he would have had Joe leave sooner but there was something about him that made Tom scared.” Hoss said.

“What?” Ben said.

“Tom said he couldn’t explain it, but he said that Joe wasn’t the same boy that used to sneak in there to try and get a sip of beer. What did he call him, Adam?”

“He said that Joe acted experienced,” Adam looked at his father, “Doc Martin also saw him sometime early this morning. He said that Joe was different, that he had an air of danger surrounding him. Doc compared it to the few times he’s had in encountering an outlaw or a gunfighter.”

Ben absorbed this all in silence. He then looked up at his sons and said, “I think we should all go to bed.”

With that, Ben got up and walked up the stairs. Adam looked at Hoss and Hoss looked back at him; finally Adam shrugged and followed his Pa’s lead. Hoss sat and looked into the fire for a few more minutes before he said, “I don’t know what’s happened to you in the time you’ve been gone, Joe, but you need to come home so we can help you.” With that, Hoss walked up the stairs laid down in bed, but didn’t go to sleep.

*****

Joe shivered in the saddle. It had been two days since he had saved his Pa’s life and he had yet to figure out what had made him ride away.

The snow had fallen hard and fast for the first three hours of riding, but then it slowed down so that Joe could see, somewhat, in front of him. When night fell, Joe didn’t stop; he just kept going, instinctively knowing that if he stopped now he’d never make it through the mountains before the passes were snowed in.

Finally Joe realized why he rode away from his Pa. He needed to go back and tell the Kades who he really was; he needed to let them know that he wasn’t who they thought he was.

It took Joe three more days to get through the mountains and on his way to the Kades. He arrived on the thirtieth and just as he rode into the yard, Cochise spooked, rearing. Joe hadn’t been expecting Cooch to do that so he wound up on the ground. His head hit a rock and he was unconscious almost instantly.

*****

Joe moaned and Lydia moved to comfort him. “Easy, Joe, you’re okay,” she soothed. Joe had ridden into the yard yesterday and Rosalie had shrieked with joy. Well, obviously it had spooked Cochise and Joe had wound up on the ground unconscious. Her father had said that Joe would wake up in time but to keep a close eye on him in the mean time.

Joe felt like he was floating. Where was he? Better question who was he? Joe sat bolt upright panting heavily. Who was he? He didn’t remember.

“Easy, Joe,” Lydia said as she laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Who am I?” Joe panted out panic overtaking him.

Lydia gasped in shock. “Daddy!!!!!!”

Steven rushed into the room. “What is it, Lydia? Oh hello Joe, how are you feeling?”

“Is that my name? I can’t remember. Who are you people?” Joe’s voice was full of confusion.

“It’s okay, son; this sometimes happens when you hit your head,” Steven said calmly. “I’m Dr. Steven Miller. This is my daughter Lydia Kade; you’ve been working for her and her husband Bret for quite awhile now. When you rode into the yard the other day, your horse got spooked and threw you. You hit your head on a rock and now it seems you have amnesia. Don’t worry; hopefully it’s only temporary.”

“But who am I?”

“Your name is Joe DeMarigny,” Lydia said. “Your family all died somehow; you never did tell us what really happened.”

Minutes later Joe was asleep once more and Lydia and Steven went out and told Bret and the kids that Joe had lost his memory.

*****

It took Joe three months to remember even the little things about himself. He couldn’t remember his family or how they might have died, but he started remembering the time he’d spent with the Kades and the time he’d spent in the mountains. Joe remembered that he had killed more than one man in that time and he was surprised when he didn’t feel a thing for them.

The Kades had noticed a change in Joe. He seemed more confident, he smiled less, and he seemed to look right through you when he actually looked at you, which wasn’t often. Steven said it was because Joe was confused and hurt that he’d forgotten the family that had obviously meant so much to him.

As spring started to come to the mountains, Joe re-learned his love for horses and his zest for life. He started to smile more and at night he was starting to dream about his family. He kept seeing these three men sitting across a fire from him. Then he’d see a beautiful woman riding a horse into a large yard; he’d see the horse rear up and the woman was suddenly on the ground. Joe would wake up screaming from these dreams and he often found Lydia by his side trying to comfort him.

It was the first day of May when Joe remembered that his Pa and brothers were still alive. He couldn’t remember why he’d told the Kades that his family was dead, but he didn’t care at the time. It was two days later when he remembered that Adam’s birthday was on the eighteenth. Joe decided to go to Olevo to get Adam a few books and send them to him for his birthday.

On the ride to Olevo, Joe remembered everything else that had happened, everything, that is, except the fact that he’d been planning on telling the Kades who he really was.

*****

Time passed slowly on the Ponderosa. Ben became depressed, Hoss paid more attention to the animals, and Adam delved into his books with a vengeance.

As the weeks and months passed by, things on the Ponderosa improved until one day Adam asked Hoss if he would like to go with him to Oregon to check out some stock. Hoss agreed and they told their Pa where they were going.

“Alright boys,” Ben said a smile on his face, “You be careful and make it back in one piece.

“We’ll be careful Pa,” Adam said with a grin on his face as the two brothers rode out of the yard.

*****

Adam and Hoss made good time as they rode on toward Oregon.

“I think at the rate we’re moving we should be there by tomorrow,” Adam said as he settled down that night.

“Uh, Adam, where exactly is there?” Hoss asked.

“I didn’t tell you?” Adam asked surprise showed on his face.

“No, all you said was Oregon.”

“Well, we’re going to Olevo.”

“Hey Adam, ain’t that where that detective last had word of Joe?”

Silence reigned for all of a second before Adam swore under his breath. “You’re right, Hoss; that’s also where the last package we got from Joe came from. That means Joe could be somewhere in the area.”

Hoss couldn’t help but grin. Maybe just maybe they could get their little brother back. “We can look for him while we’re here.”

“Yes we can,” Adam said as he sat back, “Well, I think I’m going to turn in. Night, Hoss.”

“Night Adam,” Hoss said as he too curled up in his bedroll. ‘Lord, please help us find Joe. It would make Pa so happy if we did. Amen.’ Hoss prayed silently as he started at the night sky above him.

*****

Joe jerked awake as the memories once again came flooding back. Joe had watched in slow motion as the man tried to stab his Pa. The man had been familiar to Joe but he hadn’t been able to place him. Joe now knew what he’d been planning on doing when he got back from his little adventure back home.

Joe was halfway to Olevo so he decided that he’d wait until he’d mailed the package and got back to the Kades to tell them.

The next day Joe rode into Olevo, stopped at the post office, sent the package out and then headed for the saloon, but before Joe could go very far he heard a voice yell.

“I’m calling you out, Storm.” The voice was cold and Joe felt himself go dead inside like the times before now.

“You talking to me?” Joe said as he turned around only to see a kid not even old enough to shave standing behind him.

“Yeah I’m talking to you. I don’t know of any other Storms, do you?”

“Go home, kid.” Joe’s voice was soft as he recognized something in the boy before him, something that reminded him of himself. “You don’t want to do this.”

“Oh but I do. You see you killed my older brother Ray and I aim to kill you.” The boy’s voice quivered for all of a second then he seemed to gain strength as he straightened. “I’ll be waiting in the street.” And he turned and walked into the middle of the street and just stood there.

Joe closed his eyes and tried to remember shooting someone named Ray, but he couldn’t; some things were still hazy in his mind and that was one of them. Joe took a deep breath before he opened his eyes and stepped into the street.

People started to gather around to watch when two riders came into town.

*****

“What do you suppose is going on over there, Adam?” Hoss asked when he saw the throng of people.

“I don’t know, Hoss,” Adam said, then he suddenly called to a man. “Hey you, what’s going on over there?” he asked with a motion of his head.

The man stopped and studied Adam. “Well, Little Jim Kender called out the Black Storm is what’s going on.” The man shook his head and he muttered, “Fool boy; just ‘cause Ray was shot by the man doesn’t mean he can call him out. He’s going to get his fool head blown off is what’s going to happen.” The man continued to mutter as he once more raced along the boardwalk toward the gathering.

Adam and Hoss exchanged a look before they turned their horses in the direction of the crowd intending to see what they could. When they got close enough, they saw the boy standing in the middle of the street.

“Gee Adam, he don’t even look old enough to shave,” Hoss said.

“He must be this Little Jim Kender,” Adam said as he scanned the crowd searching for the other player. Suddenly his eyes widened as he caught sight of a man in black; there was something in the way the man carried himself that screamed at Adam telling him that this man was Joe.

The way the man carried himself, the way he walked, and the way he looked all screamed that this was Joe. Hoss saw the same thing as Adam. The two brothers looked at each other briefly before turning their attention to the drama before them.

*****

Joe looked over the faces of the crowd and his heart suddenly skipped a beat for there was Adam and Hoss sitting on their horses just outside the crowd. Joe didn’t have time to worry about the consequences of why they were here; the kid was talking to him.

“I’m going to kill you, Storm.” The kid’s voice was strong but Joe saw the slight tremor in his hands as he stood before him.

“Go home kid.” Joe’s voice was even, his eyes showed no emotion, and his hand was steady and relaxed as it hung by his side. “You don’t know what killing me would do to the rest of your life. Look, I’m sorry I killed Ray; there was no other way at the time. Just go home where you belong.”

“NO!!!” And Little Jim went for his gun.

Joe saw it in his eyes the second before Jim’s hand hit the butt of his gun. Joe hesitated before he too went for his gun. Joe brought his gun to bear just as Jim was getting his out of his holster. Joe pulled the trigger and watched as Jim jerked but not before Jim got his own shot off. Joe felt the bullet sear along his side, knowing it wasn’t bad despite the pain it caused him.

“Everyone move aside.” Joe heard the voice of the doctor, Darten Laster, coming through the crowd. When Darten finally got through the crowd, he saw Joe. “You just can’t stay out of trouble, now can you?”

Joe grinned as he struggled to stand. “Nope Doc I can’t…is he alive?” Joe asked indicating the boy.

The doctor bent down and checked the boy. “He should be fine with a little rest.” The doctor waved to two men in the crowd. “Rick, Bill, come carry him to the clinic for me.” The two men moved and gently picked the boy up. The doctor then turned to Joe. “Now let’s see what wrong with you.”

Joe started to back up. “I’m fine Doc; he didn’t get me.”

The doctor rolled his eyes. “Yes and I’m George Washington.”

Joe had forgotten that his brother’s were there until he felt Hoss’ solid chest and spun to see both brother’s standing there. “Adam, Hoss.” Joe’s words were a mere whisper.

“Joe.” Adam’s voice was calm but his eyes held tears as he looked at his brother with compassion.

Hoss couldn’t speak ‘cause when he looked down at where Joe had bumped him, he saw that his shirt was covered in blood.

The doctor saw the blood too. “He didn’t get you any? Well, from that, he got you.”

Joe blanched when he saw the blood then turned and tried to run, but Adam caught him and asked, “Where’s your clinic doctor?”

Darten smiled. “Well since I couldn’t very well wrestle him to the clinic all by myself, I’m grateful stranger. Now if you would follow me.”

Suddenly the sheriff’s voice cut through the air. “When will he be available for questioning, Darten?”

The doctor smiled. “The same as usual, Dean.”

The sheriff laughed. “Kid, when are you going to stay out of trouble?”

Joe grinned. “When people stop looking for it. How you been, Dean? How’re the wife and kids?”

“You always manage to change the subject, don’t you?” Dean said with a grin. “But I’m not going to let you do that when I finally get the chance to talk to you. See you in about an hour, Storm.”

“See you, Dean. Oh, could you bring some of your wife’s famous chicken soup when you come?” Joe’s eyes were filled with laughter as Adam kept a hold of him.

Dean laughed and shook his head. “Incorrigible. Let’s see you stay in the clinic for more than three hours; I think she might just have a bowl for you.”

Joe groaned. “You mean I have to stay that long? Just for a bowl of soup?”

“Well, you stay ‘til tomorrow you can have a whole pot.”

Joe grinned. “Now that might be worth it.”

“You’ll be staying there until the doctor says you can get out, Little Buddy,” Adam said.

Joe nearly jumped; he’d been having so much fun arguing with Dean like they always did he’d forgotten that Adam and Hoss were there. “What makes you think that, Adam?”

“Because if you don’t, short shanks, I’ll have to tie you down,” Hoss said.

“Oh howdy, Hoss,” Joe said as Adam once again started to drag him towards the clinic. “See you in an hour, Dean.”

Dean watched the two men dragging Joe follow the doctor; there was something about them that screamed that the three of them were brothers. Dean shook his head; Storm had said that his family was dead so they must just be good friends.

*****

When they reached the clinic, Joe told the doctor, “You best see to Jim, Darten. I’ll last while you help him.”

Darten smiled at Joe. “Storm, there’s a reason I enjoy your company whenever you get hurt. It’s your sense of chivalry.”

Joe grinned. “Who said that chivalry was dead? You go on now, Darten.” After the doc had left, Joe turned to his brothers, “Adam, Hoss what brings you to Olevo?”

“We came to look at some stock, but instead we found you,” Adam said as the tears started to flow from his eyes. “Joe, we’ve missed you so much.”

“Yeah, short shanks, we’ve all missed you a lot, and you’re going to be coming home with us,” Hoss added.

Joe smiled slightly. “I’d love to, fellas, but you see, everyone here thinks I’m an orphan. There’s only one man that knows the truth and he’s been sworn to secrecy.” Joe could see that both Adam and Hoss were hurt by his words. “I don’t mean anything by it; it’s just Pa hurt me. He hurt me bad when he didn’t listen to me that day, and I just haven’t been able to completely forgive him yet. It doesn’t help that until two months ago I couldn’t remember who I was, let alone what had happened.”

Adam was stunned, “You couldn’t remember who you were?”

“No, Adam, I had amnesia. You see, I work for this wonderful family, and on my way home at Christmas, I sorta fell off Cooch and hit my head.” Joe shrugged and instantly regretted it when his side started to pound. “I’ve got most of my memory back now, but stuff like today…I don’t remember shooting anybody named Ray, but deep inside, I know that I have shot someone by that name.”

“Joe, are you a gunfighter?” Hoss asked his voice full of worry.

Joe thought for a moment then nodded. “According to Olevo, I am. I’ve killed…” Joe bit his lip. “I think I’ve killed twelve men and wounded another six within its borders. Thirteen of those men were wanted; each had a reward of at least one thousand out for them so I’ve done some favors to the citizens.”

Hoss sat back in his chair; he’d hoped even with what he’d seen today that Joe wasn’t a gunfighter, but evidently he was. Hoss closed his eye. “Joe, will you come home with us?”

Joe’s answer surprised them both. “Yeah I think I might, but first I have to tell Bret, Lydia, and the kids the truth. They deserve that much.”

Just then the doctor walked in the room. “Well Joe, since Jim is now resting, I guess it’s your turn. You two gentlemen can wait out here.” With that, the doctor helped Joe into the back room.

*****

Once Joe was sitting on the examination table in the back, Doc asked him the question that had been burning in his mind since the men had offered to help with Joe. “Joe who are those men out there?”

Joe sighed. “I have to admit, Darten, I lied to your when we first met. You see, my family didn’t die. I ran away from home and those two out there are my brother’s.”

“I see,” Darten said. “And answer this: what is your real name?”

“Joe Cartwright; you’ve probably heard of my Pa, Ben Cartwright, the owner of the Ponderosa.”

Darten froze. “I don’t really know how to…”

“Respond? Yeah, I sorta expected that.”

“Tell me why did you leave? I mean, your Pa is the richest man in Nevada, California, and Oregon.”

So Joe told Darten the story of that fateful day and what had happened after it. “I just don’t know what to do, Darten. I haven’t forgiven my Pa yet, but my brothers want me to go home with them.”

Darten contemplated Joe’s words as he stitched the wound shut. “Well, Joe, what you could do is tell your brothers that you aren’t quite ready yet, but when you are, you’ll come home. Or you could go tell Bret the truth, then go home and, over time, you will start to heal. It’s solely your choice.”

“What would you do?”

“I’d do the first one, but then again, I’m not nearly as brave as you are.”

“Thanks Doc, I guess I needed this talk. So where do you want me?” Joe grinned.

Doc laughed, “Where I normally put you, first room on the left.”

*****

When Dean walked into the clinic, Darten was just walking out of the back. “How is he ‘Ten?” Dean asked.

“He’s had worse and lived through it, so he should be fine.”

“How long you going to try to keep him here this time?”

Darten sighed. “I know that he’ll only stay long enough to get that bowl of ‘Tilda’s soup you promised him, but I figure when he gets back to the K-10, Lydia will make sure to spoil him.”

Neither men had as yet noticed that Adam and Hoss were still sitting in the room, listening to every word they said, and learning more about Joe’s life in the past year than they ever expected.

Dean smiled. “You’re right about that, ‘Ten; between Lydia, Bret, Rosalie, and Justin, I doubt that Storm will be getting out of bed for a week. Not to mention I heard that Steven Martin was staying out there.”

Darten grinned. “Ol’ Steve never did let anything slip past him as far as someone in pain was concerned.”

Adam had finally had enough and cleared him throat loudly.

The two men stopped talking and turned to look at the two younger men that were sitting there.

“I am so sorry I didn’t realize that you were sitting there. I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced. I’m Darten Laster,” he said holding out his hand.

Adam shook his hand. Then Dean spoke up. “I’m Dean Summers, and you are?”

“I’m Adam Cartwright and this is my brother Hoss,” Adam replied as he shook Dean’s hand.

“Of the Nevada Cartwright’s?” Dean asked.

“Yes.”

“As in you own the Ponderosa,” Dean could not believe it.

Adam sighed. “Our Pa owns the Ponderosa.”

“Dean enough ogling them,” Darten said.

“What? Oh right.”

“How is Joe, doctor?” Hoss asked.

“He’s doing just fine I have no doubt that by tomorrow morning he will want out of here just like always.” Darten said with a smile.

“Wait, how do you two know Storm?” Dean asked.

“Oh forgive me Dean; you see, Storm just told me that these young men are his brothers,” Darten said.

“His brot… Wait you’re telling me that Storm is a Cartwright? You have got to be kidding me, ‘Ten.”

“He’s not, Sheriff Summers. Joe is our brother and he ran away nearly a year ago,” Adam said.

“So Storm’s been lying to us for months?” Dean asked.

“Yes and I’d prefer you don’t call him Storm; I don’t even know where he got that name but it scares me that my little brother has been using it for a year,” Adam said.

“Oh, Dean you can go back and talk to Jim now,” Darten said.

“Okay,” Dean said as he walked toward the back. “Is Sto…I mean Joe in his regular room so I can talk to him after I finish with Jim?”

“Yeah, he’s in his regular room.”

Neither man noticed the twin looks of horror on the brother’s faces when they heard the term ‘regular room’.

*****

When Dean walked into Joe’s room, he smiled. Joe was sprawled across the bed and relaxed as he looked up from the book in his hand.

“Took you long enough,” Joe said with a smile. “’Ten told me that you were coming to see me about an hour ago.”

Dean chuckled. “Sorry, Storm, I was busy talking to Jim.”

Joe’s face lost its smile. “How is he?”

“He’ll live and I think he realized that Ray died because he was on the wrong side of the law and not because you wanted to kill him.”

“That’s good, Dean; I hope that kid gets on with his life after this.”

“Well let’s put it this way, his mother showed up about the time I was leaving and I have a feeling she won’t be letting him out of her sight for a long time to come.”

“How old is he anyway?”

“He’s thirteen, and the only reason he attacked you was because he was mad that you could walk so freely around town after killing his brother. So what’s your side of the story?”

“I came out of the post office and I was headed toward the saloon when he challenged me. After that, I tried to talk him out of it but he wouldn’t; when he went for his gun, I didn’t go for mine until I was sure he was going to go through with it. I shot to hurt him, not to kill him.” Joe frowned. “Then ‘Ten was there and we came here.”

“That’s about the same as everyone else. Now you need to rest, and when morning comes, I’ll bring you a big ol’ pot of ‘Tilda’s soup to tide you over ‘til you get to the K-10.”

“Dean, could you stay? I need to talk to you,” Joe asked as Dean got up to leave.

“I’ll stay for a few minutes or until ‘Ten kicks me out,” Dean said as he sat back down.

“Thanks, Dean. I need to ask you a question, but first I need to tell you the back story.” So Joe explained about how he’d wound up being a gunfighter and why he’d left home. “So what do you think I should do? Do you think I should go home and try to forgive my Pa? Or should I go back to the K-10 and go home when I have forgiven him?”

Dean thought about everything that Joe had told him, and he said, “Well, Joe, from what you’ve told me, I think that you should go back and see if letting him forgive you helps. If he doesn’t, you’ve got your answer and you at least gave it a try before you completely wrote off your family.”

“Do you think that I should tell Bret and Lydia the truth before or after I go back?”

“I think you should tell them before you go and then go and get it over with.” Dean said.

“I agree with Dean, Storm.” Darten said walking into the room. “And I say you need to rest a week before you even think of riding as far as Virginia City. Now Dean, Storm’s brothers would like to see him and you should get home.”

“Right,” Dean said with a sheepish smile. “You get better, Storm, and don’t you forget to tell us how things turn out.”

“See you, Dean, and don’t you forget that you promised me a pot of ‘Tilda’s soup,” Joe called after his friend.

Dean laughed as he and Darten walked out, and Adam and Hoss walked in.

*****

Joe looked up at his brother’s and smiled. “Sit down,” he said gesturing to the two chairs one on each side of the bed.

“Thanks, short shanks,” Hoss said as he sat down.

“So, Little Joe, what are you planning on doing?” Adam said as he sat down.

“About what?” Joe said as he leaned back, wincing as he pulled the stitches in his side.

“You know what. Are you going to go home willingly or will we have to hog-tie you?” Adam asked.

Joe grinned. “I’ll go home, Adam, but there’s something I got to do first, and I don’t really want you two going with me so do what you came up here to do while I go back to the K-10…”

“The K-10? What’s that?” Hoss asked.

“It’s where I’ve been working for all but the first two months that I’ve been gone. Anyway, I have to go back and tell them who I really am and tell them that I might not be back.”

“Why do you say ‘might’?” Adam asked.

“Because I might be going back if I can’t forgive Pa,” Joe said calmly. “Now I’m getting tired; I think you guys should go and get what you need to get done. I’ll be home in a few weeks.”

The two brothers looked at each other as Joe closed his eyes and started to snore softly only minutes later. Neither man wanted to leave their brother to his own devices but they both knew if they didn’t, Joe may never come home.

Both men got up and walked out the door, intending to find a good hotel then inquire about the stock that they’d originally come for.

*****

The next day Joe waited only until he’d gotten his soup and then left to ride home to the K-10. It took Joe two days to get there, and when he arrived, Lydia was out front sweeping the porch.

“Howdy Lydia,” Joe called as he rode in.

“Joe, where have you been!? You were supposed to be back yesterday!” Lydia shouted as Joe came to a stop.

“I got into a little shootout in town and got shot so ‘Ten had me stay an extra day,” Joe said as he dismounted and started to lead Cochise into the barn.

“SHOT!!” Lydia cried as she rushed for Joe. “Where were you shot? Tell me this instant or so help me I’ll…I’ll take all your riding privileges away for a month and you know I can do it.”

Joe winced at Lydia’s words. “Yes Ma. I was shot in the side.”

Lydia huffed. “Well, open up your shirt so I can make sure no infection set in from you riding so soon after being shot.”

Joe sighed. “Let me put Cooch away first, then I’ll join you in the house so you and Steve can examine it.”

You will do no such thing. You will march yourself into that house, you will take off your shirt and you will sit down and stay there until I can see the damage you’ve done!!” Lydia said. “I’ll have Bret take care of Cochise.  BBRRRREEEEEEEEETTTTT!!!!!!!! GIT YOUR BUTT OUT HERE AND TAKE CARE OF COCHISE!!!”

Bret ambled out of the barn. “Where’d you get shot this time, Storm?” he said with a grin.

Joe snorted, then thought better of it when his side started to hurt. “Just in the side.”

“You get in the house like I told you,” Lydia said shaking her finger in Joe’s face. Then she turned to Bret. “And you take care of Cochise.”

“Yes Ma’am,” both said with a salute. Lydia just rolled her eyes as she followed Joe in the house.

Steven was sitting on the settee reading when Joe opened the door and walked in. “I heard the yelling. Where’d you get shot this time and how long did you stay at Darten’s?” Steve asked with a grin as he stood up.

Joe chuckled. “I got shot in the side and I stayed for about twelve hours.”

“Then I’d say Lydia’s justified in getting angry. When will you learn you can’t get shot and then ride twelve hours later? No, don’t answer that; I already know the answer.”

Joe just grinned as he took off his shirt and sat down. Joe hissed as Steve started to undo the bandages and revealed his side. Steve shook his head as he saw the damage Joe had done.

“Wait right here I need to get my bag,” Steve said as Lydia finally walked into the house.

“Well, what did he do this time?” Lydia asked as she came into the living room.

“Enough damage for me to want to keep him in bed for a month,” Steve grumbled.

“A month!!!” Joe shouted.

Steve chuckled. “Don’t worry, Storm; I would never do that but it will be at least a week before I’m going to let you out of bed and another two weeks before I’m going to let you ride.”

Joe groaned as he leaned back into the couch and Lydia came and started to wash his side with warm water. Joe hissed as Lydia applied a little pressure to his wound. “Well, don’t get shot next time you go into town and I won’t have to do this,” Lydia said as she continued to wash his side.

Joe gritted his teeth and muttered, “I think you enjoy this too much.”

“No, I don’t enjoy this, even if it does give me a chance to spoil you rotten for a little while. It breaks my heart every time I have to wash you off and patch you up,” Lydia said sternly as Steve walked in the room carrying his bag.

“Listen to her, Storm,” Steve said as he sat his bag down and started to rummage through it. “She really does feel that way, and whatever hurts my little girl hurts me.”

Joe smiled at Lydia, “You know I never mean to hurt you.”

“Of course, Joe but you do every time you come back to soon after getting shot,” Lydia said as she went to get the water off the stove.

“Yes, but I know that if I did wait as long as ‘Ten wants me to, you’d get even more worried and hurt,” Joe said calmly.

“Yes, I would but that doesn’t matter one of these times you may never make it back to the ranch. You could get attacked by outlaws and you’d be too weak to even fight back and defend yourself,” Lydia said even as she wiped a tear from her eye.

“I’ll be fine Lydia,” Joe said. “You need to quit thinking the worst about this situation. I got here just fine and I’ll try to force myself to stay next time.”

“Even though we know that’ll never happen,” Bret said from the door. “Have you been upsetting my wife again, Storm?” Bret said trying to keep a straight face and failing miserably.

“You know me, Bret; I just love upsetting Lydia,” Joe said also trying to keep a straight face.

“Put up your hands and fight you scurvy dog,” Bret said.

“Bret Thomas Kade you stop it this instant; can’t you tell Joe’s in pain,” Lydia said hitting her husband on the arm.

“It’s okay, honey; me and Storm were just teasing each other.”

“Well you two can just knock it off. How’s it going, daddy?”

“Just about done,” Steven said as he finished wrapping the bandage around Joe’s middle. “There done. Now let’s get you to your room,” Steven said as he helped Joe up and he and Bret helped Joe to his room.

“Hey where are the kids?” Joe asked as they helped him get comfortable in his bed.

“They’re over at the Carson’s; they’re going to be spending the night over there too,” Lydia said, “Now you get some rest.”

“Wait I…I have to tell you all something,” Joe said as he licked his lips nervously.

“Whatever it is it can wait until you are rested up,” Lydia said as she shooed Bret and Steven out of the room and quickly followed them shutting the door behind her.

Joe closed his eyes and spoke aloud into the empty room. “I hope I still have the courage to tell you later.”

*****

Ben sighed; the boys had been gone for two weeks and he was starting to miss them. Hop Sing tried his best to keep Ben from becoming depressed as more and more time passed without his sons.

Suddenly Ben heard hoof beat’s outside he got up and rushed to the door just in time to see Adam and Hoss pull up in front of the corral; each were leading two horses of the best quality Ben had ever seen.

“Boys, you’re home,” Ben boomed as he rushed out to the barn.

“Hey Pa,” Hoss said as he put his two horses in the corral and started to lead Chubb to the barn.

“Hi Pa,” Adam said as he too put his two horses in the corral and turned to lead Sport into the barn. “How have you been?”

“A little sad with all my boys gone but now that you’re back, I’m feeling much better,” Ben said.

Adam and Hoss exchanged looks both silently saying, ‘Just you wait, Pa, just you wait.

*****

Joe had slept for the rest of the day and when he woke up Lydia fed him. After he was done eating, he asked her to go get Bret and Steve.

“I don’t really know how to explain this to you guys so I’ll start by saying my name isn’t Joe DeMarigny; it’s Joe Cartwright, and before you ask, yes, I’m the son of Ben Cartwright.”

Bret, Lydia, and Steve didn’t know what to say to these words so they remained silent and Joe continued.

“I think I’ll start at how I came to be in the mountains. Two months before we met I had gone out riding in the middle of the night; I wasn’t aware that my older brother had heard me…” Joe told his whole story to the three before him and finished with.

“When I was in that gunfight in town, I saw my brothers in the crowd and I was happy and scared at the same time. After the gunfight, they took me to the doctor’s office and we had a little talk while we were there and I promised them that I’d come home to see if I could forgive my Pa. I hope that you can forgive me for lying to you, and if you never want to speak to me again, I’ll understand.”

For a minute, no one spoke, then Bret broke the silence. “Joe, you could tell us that you’re an escaped convict and we would still forgive you. We’ve said it so many times; you are a part of this family no matter what you do or have done. We forgive you, Joe; I just wish you had told us sooner.”

“I was going to but then I lost my memory so I didn’t,” Joe said.

“Oh Joe,” Lydia said as she wiped tears from her eyes, “I forgive you and I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?” Joe asked.

“I’m sorry that you felt compelled to run from your family.”

“Well I don’t care what your excuse is; you’re not going to ride for a month,” Steve said with a smile. “After all, I can’t have them thinking that I didn’t take care of you.”

Joe burst out laughing and the other’s soon joined him.

*****

True to his word Steve didn’t let him ride a month and it was another two weeks before Joe felt well enough to travel to the Ponderosa.

The day before Joe left, the Kades threw him a party, for that day was also the one year anniversary of Joe working for the Kades. Everyone danced and had a good time, and at the end of the party, Bret handed Joe his pay for that month and they all went to bed.

The next morning was hard on everyone. Bret didn’t want to lose Joe as a worker and a member of the family, Lydia didn’t want Joe to leave because she’d miss spoiling him, Steve didn’t want Joe to leave because his leaving was hurting Lydia, and the kids didn’t want Joe to leave because they’d miss “Uncle” Joe.

Joe didn’t want to leave his new found family either. “I’m gonna miss you guys.” Joe said as he tried to hold back the tears that he could feel in his eyes. He squatted down to the kid’s level. “You be good for your Ma and Pa, you hear?” When two little heads nodded in unison, he continued, “I’ll be back and when I come back, I’m going to bring you both something real special.”

Both kids smiled and Joe stood back up and shook hands with Bret. “Bret, I’m grateful that you found me and took me in. If you hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be alive today. You take real good care of this family, got that?” Bret smiled through the tears rolling down his cheeks.

Joe turned to Steve and shook his hand. “You take care of them, Steve, and don’t forget to take care of yourself. Who knows when I might need you?”

“You take care of yourself out there on the trail, Joe. Don’t go getting hurt before you get home now,” Steve said before he smiled and led the kids back inside.

Lydia was next and before Joe could speak she handed him an extra pair of saddle-bags. “This is food for you while you’re out; there take care not to waste any. Be careful, watch for wild animals. Don’t ride in the rain…” And she would have continued on if not for Joe hugging her and picking her off the ground while doing so.

“Yes, ma,” Joe said as the tears started to flow. “I’ll ‘keep a weather eye on the horizon’ as the sailors say. Don’t worry, Lydia, I’ll keep in touch.” With that, Joe set her down and turned and mounted his horse. He turned smiled weakly and then with a wave of his hand rode off.

“I hope he can forgive his father,” Lydia said as she wiped at the tears in her eyes, “It’s not right for him to be living with so much anger and hurt.”

“I have a feeling that he’ll forgive his Pa in time,” Bret said as he put his arm around his wife. “Come on, dear, let’s go get the day started.”

*****

It had been more than two months since Adam and Hoss had met Joe in Olevo; they were both starting to doubt whether or not Joe was coming. Then the next morning, just as they were sitting down to breakfast, a horse was heard in the yard.

“I wonder who that could be at this time of morning,” Ben asked as he started to push up from the table.

“I don’t know, Pa,” Hoss said.

“Maybe it’s one of the hands,” Adam suggested.

“Well I guess we’ll have to go see then shall we?” Ben said as he walked toward the door.

*****

Joe sighed as he rode down the road to the Ponderosa. He was nervous and unsure of himself as he looked at the familiar yet unfamiliar landscape around him. He wanted to turn and run his horse as far and as fast as he could, yet he didn’t want to break his promise to his brothers.

Cochise had picked up on his nervousness and had started to high step as they went. It was a jerky motion but it somehow comforted Joe. Cochise hadn’t been on the Ponderosa long enough for him to recognize it as home. He had still been half wild when Joe took off from home, and he still was half wild but he liked Joe enough that he allowed him to do what he wanted.

Joe pulled Cochise to a stop about a half-mile before the house. Joe was caught in indecision. It was only three in the morning and his family would still be asleep for at least three more hours. Should he go home get in bed and go to sleep or should he go visit Mama’s grave first?

Joe decided to go to Mama’s grave and await the rising of the sun Joe rode as fast as he could with his limited sight in the dark that was even darker as he passed through the woods. Finally they broke through the cover of the trees and spread out before him reflecting the moonlight was Lake Tahoe. Joe grinned; he had missed the lake a lot. Joe rode up to his mother’s grave; got off Cooch and dropped the reins to the ground as he knelt before the headstone.

Joe noticed on the side of her grave where he’d put the rose bulbs was a small rose bush starting to shoot up through the ground. He smiled; at least he knew Mama’s present was growing. Joe leaned his back against the headstone and he felt himself drift off.

When he woke again, it was close to six in the morning, and he got up, stretched then got on Cochise and rode toward the house. He bit his lip as he rode into the yard; he hoped they were home.

*****

When Ben walked out the door, he nearly fainted, for right there in front of him sitting on his horse was his youngest son.

Joe looked at his Pa as he came out the door; he looked older then he had at Christmas. Joe slowly dismounted and merely dropped the reins as he studied his Pa and Ben did likewise.

Ben’s heart almost broke when he saw Joe up close for the first time in nearly a year and a half. Joe looked older, more mature. He also looked very dangerous, being dressed in black with a long black duster that Joe had unconsciously hooked behind his left hand gun. Ben was unaware of the fact that Joe had a right hand gun but when he saw his son’s gun, his eyes went wide. The black butt of the gun had only one hint of color and that was gold. Ben suddenly realized that the gun on his son’s hip was the same one that he had given Joe.

Adam and Hoss had stepped out after their Pa and the grins that broke out on their faces when they saw Joe would have dazzled anyone within a mile. Joe had finally come home was the thought that went through their minds.

Suddenly Joe broke the silence. “Howdy Pa.” His voice was lower than it had been when he left but strangely the same, and it broke Ben out of his shock.

“Joe,” Ben rasped as he took a step forward. “My son you’re home.” With that, Ben embraced Joe, and after a second of indecision, Joe put his arms around Ben and hugged him back.

Adam had to turn away from the scene or he had a feeling he would burst out in tears at seeing that. Hoss watched unashamed as tears ran unchecked down his cheeks. It had taken so long to finally get to this moment and now that it was here it was incredible to behold.

As his Pa hugged him, Joe felt himself forgiving his pa and asking himself why he’d put his Pa through this. Joe smiled when he saw both his brothers standing behind his Pa; he saw Adam turn away and then turn back with tears in his eyes and he mouthed, “Thank you.” Both brother’s grins broadened and they nodded.

Suddenly Joe heard from inside. “Where Cartlights go!!??” Hop Sing suddenly appeared in the door. “Lil’ Joe?” Hop Sing’s voice broke.

Ben released his son when he heard Hop Sing and suddenly Hop Sing was where he’d been mere seconds before. hugging Joe yet at the same time yelling at him in Cantonese. Joe just laughed as he said, “I missed you too, Hop Sing. Especially your cooking, speaking of which, what’s for breakfast?” Joe laughed as Hop Sing hmpfed and hit him aside the head, then walked back inside.

Joe then turned to his brothers. “Sorry it took me so long to get here.”

“That don’t matter, Joe, just so long as you got home,” Hoss said as he came forward and enveloped Joe in a hug.

Adam chuckled. “At least this time you aren’t bleeding all over him,” he said as he walked forward to hug Joe.

“This time…? Adam what are you talking about this time?” Ben asked.

Adam turned to his Pa. “We’ll explain over breakfast Pa. Let’s go in.”

The three older Cartwright’s didn’t move; they kept their eyes on Joe. Joe sighed, “Guess that means I get to go inside first. Well, hold on a second.” With that, Joe walked over and picked the reins up off the ground and draped them over Cochise’s neck. “Behave, big boy,” Joe whispered as he moved away and toward the house.

“Don’t you want to put him away?” Ben asked.

“Nah, he’ll wait ‘til after breakfast; now let’s go,” With that, Joe walked inside.

Ben, Adam and Hoss followed him in and when Joe didn’t take off his duster, Adam cleared his throat. “Joe, why don’t you take off your coat?”

“Oh,” Joe said and smiled. “I guess I’m used to Lydia letting me wear whatever I want to the table.” Joe shrugged out of his duster and heard the sharp intake of breath from his Pa and it was then that it hit him…He was wearing his shoulder holster. Not something that normally bothered him but his Pa hadn’t known about it and it had taken him by surprise. “Sorry, I guess I’ve gotten into the habit of wearing my guns indoors too,” he said as he took his holsters off and set them on the side table.

Ben’s mind raced when he saw the shoulder holster. Only gamblers and eastern lawmen wore those contraptions. The other thing that struck Ben was Joe’s use of the name Lydia. Who was that and what role did she play in Joe’s life for the past year? Ben just smiled at his son and said, “Let’s eat.”

Joe dug into the food like a staving man, and when he had finished, he wiped his mouth and explained to his Pa that Adam and Hoss had found him in Olevo two and a half months before. He then explained the promise that he made to his brothers.

Ben was stunned as he turned towards his oldest sons. They had both known where Joe was for the last two months and they had never told him.

Adam was the first to speak. “We’re sorry Pa, but we wanted you to be surprised when he showed up.”

“Surprised?! I was surprised alright and what is this that I heard out in the yard about bleeding?” Ben said, his voice rising with each word.

“Pa, calm down,” Joe said with a sigh. “When they found me, I was involved in a gunfight and I was shot in the side.” Ben went white. “So when I bumped into Hoss, I got him all bloody and that’s that.”

“What was this gunfight about?” Ben asked in a breathless voice.

“Maybe we should go sit in the living room and get you a brandy, Pa,” Joe said calmly. As he stood up, he ducked his head in the kitchen and said, “You might as well come out too, Hop Sing; I only plan on telling you all this once and I might as well start at the beginning.” With that, Joe walked over and sat on the fireplace, waiting for everyone to get settled. He noticed that Pa had the whole decanter of brandy sitting next to him. Joe smiled grimly as he thought, ‘I’ll tell them the truth and if they don’t want anything to do with me, so be it.’

“Well Joseph, we’re waiting,” Ben said as he sat in his seat, trembling at the thought of just what his son had done that he thought he’d need brandy.

“When I left here, I had no idea what I was going to do but on my way to Mama’s grave to say goodbye, it hit me I should go to the mountains and lose myself within them. I did just that; I went up there and I lost myself. I started to hunt animals that the Indians only hunt when they are desperate. I hunted bear, cougar, and wolves. I didn’t really need to hunt them; I had plenty to eat and there were hundreds of deer just waiting to be shot, but these were more of a challenge. After I had been there for two months, I met a white man his name was Bret Kade…” And Joe continued on, telling almost everything that he had done in the year and a half that he had been gone. By the time, Joe was done the decanter that had started out full was almost empty and his family all had tear stains on their cheeks.

After a minute of silence, Ben asked the question that had been weighing on his mind. “Joe, are you going to stay here or go back?”

Joe was silent for a moment. “I’m going to stay here for now but I will be going back to visit them sometimes.”

Ben stood up and crossed the room to his son and threw his arms around him. “I’m so sorry that I drove you away like that. Please forgive me?”

“Pa, how could I not forgive you?” Joe asked, realizing that it had always been that way. He had just needed to admit it to himself.

“Welcome home, Joe,” Adam said as he laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder.

“I’m glad you’re home, shortshanks,” Hoss said as he laid his hand on Joe’s other shoulder.

***The End***

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