What’s in a Name (by Territell)

Summary:  The family dynamics are changing, and events from the past come to threaten the life of one of the Cartwrights.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  23,025


 

It was a beautiful sun drenched morning on the Ponderosa. The boys happily went about the first chores of the day as Ben sat at his desk pondering over the working schedule for the rest of the week. Looking out of the window, he speculated how nice it would be to take a break and enjoy such a glorious day, but the fact of the matter was the ranch and its mining interests, not to mention the lumber camp, had never been busier.

Adam was the first to finish and he entered the house in a flourish leaving the door wide open behind him. Ben smiled up at his handsome eldest son and marveled yet again at the man before him. Where had all the years gone? Adam had recently celebrated his 29th birthday and yet it seemed like only yesterday Ben was holding him in his arms for the first time. That long ago day had brought about such mixed emotions. His beautiful wife, Elizabeth, died in childbirth and he had been heartbroken, but his heart had swelled with love as he had looked at the tiny infant gazing back at him. Shaking his head and chasing away his foolish thoughts, Ben came back to the present. What was it about days like these that always sent him back into the past?

“Everything okay, Pa? You look miles away.”

“Yes son, everything’s fine.” Ben replied dreamily, before changing to a businesslike tone and adding. “Now let’s get this day started. I want you and Hoss to go into town and see Matt McVitie. Matt has agreed to transport the supplies out to the lumber camp for us. We just don’t have that amount of resource at our disposal and I know Matt will do a good job.”

“Yeah, sure Pa.”

“But Adam, much as I like Matt, don’t let him charge you top dollar. He may be a friend but he’s also a very shrewd businessman.”

Adam smiled. “I’ll watch out for him, Pa. I’m a pretty shrewd businessman myself.”

Hoss and Joe had entered the house at the start of the conversation.

“Do I need to go, Pa?” asked Hoss half-heartedly, but really delighted at the prospect. “There’s plenty of work to be done round here.”

“Well Hoss, I figured the two of you together could pick up the supplies, collect the mail, sort out the transport and be back here in double-quick time.”

“W-w-what about me, Pa?” Little Joe asked hopefully, stepping out from behind the bulk of his middle brother.

Ben’s eyes twinkled as he looked at his youngest son.

“You, Joseph…well, I figure there’s still a few horses to break, fences to fix and hay to….”

“Okay Pa, I get the message,” Joe responded forlornly. Little Joe hadn’t been into town all week and his expression reflected his disappointment at the thought of continuing the chores while his older brothers, as he saw it, had all the fun.

Joe’s sullen look was fleeting as he slyly glanced over in Hoss’ direction.

“I think Hoss really wants to tag along so that he can visit with Mr. McVitie’s niece. Though I’m not sure whether it’s her or her apple pie he’s sweet on.”

Hoss blushed immediately and in doing so confirmed Joe’s suspicions. Ever since Matt McVitie’s niece, Clara, had come to live with him, Hoss had found more and more reasons to go into town. Matt’s wife Martha had died earlier that year and Clara had come to live with him to keep house, and much to Hoss’ delight, was an excellent cook and very pretty to boot.

The truth of the matter was Ben encouraged the friendship between Hoss and Clara, for in Ben’s eyes they were a perfect match and he knew Matt McVitie felt the same. Hoss was rather reticent in such matters and the two senior gents had conspired together to give him a helping hand.

*****

On arriving at the McVitie’s residence, Adam and Matt moved into the study to discuss business while Hoss and Clara sat on the porch, eating cookies and drinking fresh lemonade.

Unlike the middle Cartwright brother, Clara did not suffer from shyness and she had been awaiting just such an opportunity to get Hoss on his own. “Have another cookie, Hoss; they are fresh out of the oven.”

“Thanks, Miss Clara” replied Hoss, shoving another warm cookie into his mouth so that he wouldn’t have to make further conversation.

Seeing that Hoss was not going to be forthcoming, Clara took the bull by the horns. “Hoss, there is going to be a dance in town on Saturday night. I was wondering if you might escort me?”

Hoss almost choked and he quickly took a large gulp of lemonade to wash the rest of the cookie down. He had been trying all morning to think of a way to ask Clara to the dance, but had thought she would turn him down flat, so when she asked him, the wind was completely taken out of his sails.

“Well?” asked Clara, becoming impatient at his lack of response.

Clearing his throat, Hoss stammered, “I w-w-would love to take you, Miss Clara, if you’re sure you would like to go with me.”

Clara laughed at his bashfulness. “Yes of course I’m sure. Why would I ask you otherwise?”

“In that case,” Hoss replied, “I will pick you up in the buggy at 8pm.”

Once that was settled, the atmosphere between them visibly relaxed and Hoss found himself enjoying her company.

“I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I’ve been thinking that ‘Hoss’ is a rather strange name. Is it maybe a nickname because I haven’t come across it before?”

“Well Miss Clara, I was actually given the name Eric when I was born, but my Mama was Swedish and Hoss actually means something about being big, strong and friendly. I know this is hard to believe,” he grinned “but by all accounts I was quite some size as a baby and so that was the name I was called. It’s also a family name; my Uncle Gunnar had the middle name of Hoss.”

Clara thought for a moment. “Do you mind if I call you Eric? I rather like the name Eric and it would be nice to call you something no one else does.”

Hoss agreed readily. He never really cared for the name Eric, but he was flattered Clara liked him enough that she wanted to have something special between them.

When Adam concluded his business and rejoined Hoss on the porch, he noticed at once the change in atmosphere from the one he had left. Clara and Hoss constantly looked at each other and smiled and the chemistry between them was transparent for all to see.

Hoss was on a high for the rest of day and no amount of teasing from his brothers could dampen his spirits.

That evening at dinner, Ben couldn’t help but notice the beaming face of his middle son across the table.

“Everything all right, son?” Ben asked with mock concern.

“Couldn’t be better, Pa,” Hoss responded before filling his mouth with potato once more.

Adam fluttered his eyelids in Joe’s direction and Joe dissolved into a fit of giggles. It was most unlike Adam to join in with Joe’s antics, but even he was feeling the good vibes of Hoss’ happiness, and for once, was more than willing to join in the banter.

Hoss took his brothers’ teasing in his stride; it was nice to be on the receiving end for a change, as usually it was he and Adam winding up Joe about his latest love.

*****

The night of the dance found the Cartwright household a hive of activity. Everyone, including Ben, had a date for the dance — all except Little Joe. It wasn’t that Joe hadn’t had the opportunity to ask several young ladies to the dance, because he had, but he had decided he didn’t want to be tied down to one girl for the whole evening.

“I need to spread myself around,” Joe declared puffing out his chest. “Don’t want to disappoint the girls by denying any one of them a dance.”

Ben shook his head and raised a warning eyebrow in Joe’s direction at his cockiness. Sometimes his youngest son was a little too full of himself. There was no denying he was a very handsome lad and it couldn’t be refuted that he seemed to have the capability to charm most of the female population! Ben just worried the attention the girls showered on him may turn his head and he might just forget some of the morals he had been taught by his Pa and brothers. Young girls were full of romantic nonsense and Joe was certainly at the age when a young man was anxious to sow a few wild oats. Ben could only pray that those wild oats were not sown in the wrong field.

The evening was a great success and Hoss was proud and honored to have Clara at his side. Usually Hoss was a reluctant dancer but Clara did not make him feel like a bull in a china shop and if anything he was light footed and glided across the dance floor under her guidance.

Joe had never formally met Clara before and he was pleasantly surprised at how pretty and outgoing she was. He was so happy for his brother. Clara wasn’t a raving beauty, but then Hoss wouldn’t want that. She was maybe a few years older than Hoss, quite tall and maybe a little overweight. At first glance she looked homely, but when she smiled, her whole face lit up and her laughter was throaty and made those around her want to laugh too.

Taking a well-earned breather, Hoss handed Clara a glass of punch. They both watched as Joe passed by with yet another girl in his arms.

“Joe is sure having a good time,” commented Hoss, smiling in his little brother’s direction.

“He’s certainly very popular with the young girls,” Clara remarked.

“All the girls love Little Joe,” stated Hoss without a trace of jealousy.

“Well, I like my men with a little more meat on their bones,” responded Clara, linking her arm through Hoss’. “What’s the point of me being such a good cook if I haven’t got a man that can do my meals’ justice?”

“Oh, you have no need to worry on that account, Clara. Believe me, I’d be happy for you to put as much meat on my bones as you possibly can.”

All too soon the evening came to an end and the Cartwright men gathered on the porch preparing to escort their respective dates home. As Hoss brought the buggy to the front of the building, Clara bid the family goodnight before turning to Hoss.

“Let’s hurry, Eric; I think it may be about to rain.”

Ben, Adam and Joe looked at each other in surprise.

“Eric?” said Adam screwing up his face.

Joe strode forward and cupping his hands together across his chest he called out to the departing buggy, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!”

Ben and Adam guffawed with laughter. Stepping forward, Adam slapped his younger brother on the back. “You’re a real dark horse, Joe! I have been thinking of you as a literary barbarian all these years and all the time you have been harboring a love of Shakespeare.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Joe asked in all seriousness, “Was that Shakespeare?”

As Adam walked away shaking his head, he began to chuckle to himself at the realization that his first assumption of his brother had been the right one all along.

*****

From that day forward, things moved quickly for Hoss. Every spare moment he spent with Clara, and his family watched in amazement at the subtle changes that were taking place.

When Hoss wasn’t working, he slicked down his hair, donned a tie, and made his way to Clara’s house – they were becoming inseparable. Clara was quite cultured and often spent evenings reading to Hoss as they sat on the swing out on the porch at her uncle’s house. Never one for schooling, Hoss now found that he enjoyed the poems and literature he had failed to understand at school. Clara made the stories interesting and the poems romantic, her expressive voice touching a part of Hoss none of his teachers had been able to reach. He found himself looking forward to the lessons that were now being taught to him in such a way that he drank in every word.

It was the Sunday picnic after church, and Clara and her uncle joined the Cartwrights down at the river. Little Joe was enjoying the fact that the whole family were together once more. It had seemed like weeks since they spent any leisure time together as a family as every spare moment Hoss had was spent with Clara.

“Hey Hoss, how about a spot of fishing?” Joe asked with just a hint of pleading.

“Sure Joe,” Hoss answered, rising from the blanket he was sitting on and preparing to join his brother.

“Oh Eric!” cried Clara smiling up at him, “I thought we might go for a walk; it’s such a lovely day.”

Hoss looked at his brother for understanding and Joe shrugged his shoulders. “That’s okay, Hoss; probably too hot for just sitting in the sun anyway. Think I might just find me a girl and go for a walk myself.”

Hoss failed to notice the hurt behind Joe’s eyes or hear the note of disappointment in his voice, for he only had eyes and ears for Clara. They had been walking together for almost thirty minutes when Hoss caught sight of his youngest brother sitting alone on the embankment, throwing stones into the fast flowing water.

Hoss stopped and looked over to where his brother sat. “Hope Little Joe is okay?” he said wistfully.

“Of course he’s all right, Eric. He’s just sitting there alone in the hope that someone will feel sorry for him and ask him to join them,” replied Clara sarcastically.

“Don’t you like Little Joe?” Hoss asked incredulously as they resumed their walk.

Clara laughed. “Of course I like Little Joe. What’s not to like? But I do think you allow him to take advantage of your good nature. You, Adam and your father spoil him. Little Joe runs wild. What he needs is a firm hand.”

Hoss laughed out loud. “Believe me, Clara, that boy has been feeling a firm hand for most of his life! When it wasn’t Pa’s, it was Adam’s and even mine on occasions.”

Clara had to laugh with him. “Well it can’t have been hard enough, because he still gets into plenty of mischief. I have three younger brothers of my own and believe me, Papa was strict, but it took Mama and I to keep them on a tight leash, otherwise who knows how they would have turned out.”

“Well, maybe that’s the difference,” Hoss said with just a touch of sadness, “Joe ain’t never had a woman around to curb some of his wild ways and being raised by a bunch of men, well, it ain’t the same I suppose.”

“What about Joe’s mother? Surely she had some influence?”

“Of course she did,” replied Hoss regretfully. “Marie was with us nigh on seven years, but Little Joe was still only a little thing, not quite five, when she died and he don’t rightly remember her.”

Clara frowned. “Maybe that’s just as well! From what Uncle Matt says Joe’s mother was, well, how can I put it? From what he recalls, she was rather flighty.”

Hoss stopped dead in his tracks. “What does he mean by that? Joe’s mother was wonderful! She was the only mother I knew and I loved her,” he cried rather sharply.

Clara was taken aback by Hoss’ outburst, but was quick to placate, “I’m sorry, Eric. It was just something Uncle Matt said, and remember you were looking at Joe’s mother through a little boy’s eyes. You wouldn’t necessarily see things the way they really were.”

Hoss was perplexed. Why would Matt McVitie make scathing comments about Marie? His father could be rather evasive when Joe tried to find out about his mother’s past before Ben met her, but he never really paid it much heed. Hoss decided it was best to drop the subject, for he didn’t want to fall out with Clara. After all, she was only repeating something that her uncle had said, but more importantly, he didn’t want to risk Joe or his Pa hearing such remarks.

On the return journey home, both Little Joe and Hoss were very quiet and Ben and Adam exchanged worried glances, thinking that the pair had fallen out. But this was not the case. The problem was the two brothers were no longer in tune with each other; their thoughts and plans for the future were now very different.

Hoss’ thoughts were all on Clara and how much of a difference she had made to his life. He no longer felt the odd one out with his brothers where women were concerned. His relationship with Clara had brought about a new confidence in him and he was beginning to realize that he couldn’t live without her. That afternoon he had asked her to be his wife and she had accepted, but they decided not to announce the happy news to their respective families until they were ready.

Little Joe’s thoughts were very different. He knew he was being selfish and that he should be pleased for Hoss, but in truth, he was jealous. Since Clara had come into his life, Hoss didn’t have time for him anymore and he felt excluded and left out. He always knew that a time would come when he and Hoss would find partners, but he had hoped that it would not change the special bond that they had shared all of their lives. At first he had liked Clara enormously, and he grudgingly had to admit she made Hoss happy, but lately he found her looking at him in a strange way, a way he didn’t understand and which made him feel uncomfortable. Joe had come to the conclusion that Clara didn’t like him very much and he didn’t know why.

At supper that evening, Hoss was back to his normal self, but Joe still appeared very quiet. The meal was half over and Joe hadn’t joined in any of the usual banter. His father viewed him with concern. “You okay Little Joe?”

“Sure Pa, just a bit tired, that’s all.”

“He’s just sulking cause no one paid him any attention today,” laughed Hoss, echoing Clara’s words, but not really meaning any harm. The others joined in with the fun, but Joe was not amused and without another word stood up from the table and left the room. Not only was he hurt by Hoss’ words but also slightly embarrassed, for he inwardly had to admit, they were true.

*****

A couple of days later, Adam and Ben made preparations to leave on a trip to San Francisco on mining business. Before leaving the house, Ben called Hoss and Little Joe to him.

“Hoss I’ll be leaving you in charge while I’m gone, so just keep on top of things, son; you know what needs to be done.” Then turning to Joe, he added, “Little Joe you still have those horses to get ready for the army before the end of the month so you have plenty to keep you busy.” Pointing a finger in Joe’s direction, he warned, “Mind your brother’s orders, Joseph, and stay out of mischief.”

“Yes Sir,” Joe replied with the cocky grin that always made Ben worry.

“Now mind me, Joseph; I want to come home to hear you have been on your best behavior. Do you understand?”

“Sure, Pa,” Joe again reiterated as he walked towards the door and Ben couldn’t help himself as he landed a heavy swat on Joe’s rear as he passed. Joe jumped in surprise and as he turned back to his father, Ben chuckled.

“That’s just a little taste of what’s to come if you don’t stay out of trouble, Joseph. Do you get the message?”

“Loud and clear, Pa,” Little Joe called as he exited the door rubbing his stinging behind.

Later that afternoon, Hoss and Joe made their way home, after a hard days work. Tired and weary, Joe entered the barn just as Hoss was leaving to go into the house.

“Hey, Hoss who’s going to do the cooking tonight? You haven’t forgotten that Hop Sing is away for the week as well, have you?”

Hoss visibly squirmed and couldn’t look Joe in the eye. “Well, actually Clara is making dinner Little Joe.”

“That’s great!” Joe replied delightedly, oblivious to Hoss’ meaning. “If there’s one thing Clara can certainly do well, it’s cook. Are we going to the McVitie house or is she coming here?”

Hoss looked embarrassed. “Well actually Joe, it’s just Clara and me. You understand, don’t you little brother? Clara thought it would be nice if we spent some time on our own.”

Joe shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “No problem, Hoss. I wasn’t that hungry anyway, but I am dead beat. I think I’ll just grab a sandwich and head up to bed.” With that, Joe turned his back on his brother and set about tending to his horse.

Hoss stood motionless for a few seconds, not knowing what else to say. Walking slowly back to the house, he wished things could have been different, but when he had suggested to Clara that maybe Joe could join them, she had been quick to dismiss the idea.

“Look Hoss, I really like your family, but it’s not them I plan to spend the rest of my life with; it’s you. When we are married, I want you all to myself; I don’t plan to share you with anyone.”

Put like that, Hoss was so flattered he had to agree to her request, and much as he hated upsetting his little brother, Hoss knew she was right. The family would just have to accept that Clara was now his life and everyone else would take second place to that love! That’s what happened when a man took a family of his own and Little Joe would just have to grow up a little and accept that everything didn’t revolve around him anymore.

By the third night, Little Joe was fed up. He hated being in the house each evening on his own. He was lonely and wanted company. Even though it was a Wednesday, Joe decided to go into town and have a few drinks and maybe spend a little time with one of the saloon girls. He was well aware of what his father or brothers would have to say if they found out, but there was no reason why they should. Hoss was arriving home later and later each evening, and even when he did get home, he just went straight to bed, assuming that Joe would be asleep long ago.

The first night went without a hitch as Joe had a couple of drinks, a game of poker and a few kisses with his favorite saloon girl. Riding home late that evening, he felt happy and content and decided maybe Hoss visiting with Clara each evening could be a blessing in disguise. He could have fun without Hoss doing the big brother act and calling a halt to his escapades. Yes, things were certainly looking up!

On the third night of Joe’s little escapades, his luck came to an end. Two drifters in the saloon took exception to the good-looking kid with the easy smile that charmed the women around him. When Joe won his fourth game of poker and Bessie plonked herself on his knee and smothered his handsome face with kisses, one of the drifters turned nasty. Yanking the startled saloon girl from Joe’s embrace, he unceremoniously dropped her on the floor before grabbing hold of the boy by the shirtfront and pulling him to his feet.

“You can’t be that lucky kid. You’re cheating,” he snarled.

“I ain’t no cheat!” Joe replied indignantly, sticking out his chin in defiance.

“Well I say you are. So what you gonna do about it?”

Joe didn’t bother replying; he just drew back his arm and landed his fist square in the face of the troublemaker. After that, total pandemonium broke out. The drifter was quick to get to his feet and while his mate held Joe’s arms behind him, he landed a couple of quick punches to the boy’s body. A number of Joe’s friends decided the odds were unequal and came to Joe’s defense. At least eight other men had joined in the melee and when Sheriff Coffee finally arrived, the saloon was a complete shambles. Roy ordered his deputies to throw them all in jail and he would sort out the rights and wrongs later.

When Roy ultimately made his way over to the jail to survey the sorry individuals now occupying his cells, he was angry but not surprised to see Little Joe amongst them. He had been aware that the boy had been in town the past few nights and wherever Little Joe went, there was usually trouble. The young Cartwright didn’t necessarily go looking for it, but find it he did.

“Your Pa’s gonna be mighty upset when he finds out about this Little Joe,” he began, ignoring the laughter from the other men in the cells at Joe’s predicament. With the exception of the two drifters, the other men were familiar with Joe and his antics and were also well aware how his father was likely to deal with his errant offspring.

“Oh boy!” smirked Greg Crossley, nipping his bleeding nose between two fingers. “Your Pa still warming your pants, Little Joe?”

“I ain’t no kid!” Joe spat back at him. “I can handle my Pa.” As he turned from the laughing faces, Joe hoped that that was true. Granted it had been a long time since his father had resorted to physical punishment, but Ben always reminded Joe that it was still an option if the occasion warranted it.

With the realization that his Pa and Adam were due to return to Virginia City on the morning stage, Joe was anxious to be home before they arrived.

“Hey Sheriff Coffee,” he called after Roy’s departing back. “Hoss is at Matt McVitie’s house this evening. I’m sure if you speak to him, he’ll pay for my part in any damage done, until I can pay him back.” Roy faltered and was obviously considering the suggestion. After all the cells were overflowing and if he could get rid of one of them now, it would be one less to deal with during the night. “I ain’t drunk and you know I’ll not cause anymore trouble; there’s no need to keep me here!” Joe pleaded once more.

“We’ll see,” Roy replied, not wanting to commit himself. Maybe it would be more of a deterrent to keep the boy in overnight, but at the same time, he didn’t want to be around when Ben Cartwright arrived in the morning. It would be easier for them all if that eruption was back at the Ponderosa and not here at the jail.

Going through into his office, Sheriff Coffee shouted to Clem. “Seems Hoss Cartwright is at Matt McVitie’s house. Why don’t you go and tell him about Little Joe and get him to come and take him home? We could do with one less mouth to feed in the morning.”

Clem duly arrived at the McVitie house to find Clara and Hoss sitting out on the porch enjoying the cool night air.

“Howdy, Clem,” Hoss called as the deputy climbed from his horse and tilted his hat at Clara. “What brings you here?”

“It’s Little Joe, Hoss” Clem began. “There’s been a bit of trouble in town and Roy has got him locked up. If you want to drop by and pick him up, we’d be happy to release him into your keeping, just so long as you take him home and he doesn’t get into any more mischief.”

“What kind of trouble, Clem?” Hoss asked, a worried frown settling on his face.

“Oh you know, Hoss, the usual. Fight at the saloon. Seems Little Joe threw the first punch and the whole thing got out of hand.” Clem smiled. “You know what that brother of yours is like when he gets his temper up.”

“He ain’t hurt, is he?”

“No, he’s fine. A bloody nose and a black eye if he’s lucky, but other than that he’ll live”

Hoss sighed and turned to Clara. “Sorry Clara, I’ll need to go and sort this out. I’ll drop by and see you tomorrow.”

Clara stood with hands on her hips and looked determinedly at Hoss. “This is just the sort of thing I mean, Eric. Joe thinks he can charm his way out of anything. Not only do you and your family run about after him, but even the sheriff and his deputy try and protect him.”

“What can I do, Clara? Pa’s back in the morning and I need to get Joe home before Pa gets off that stage; otherwise, all hell will break loose.”

“It’s time Joe faced up to the trouble he causes. I think you should leave him where he is and let your father deal with him. We have our own lives to lead, Eric. You won’t always be there to pick up the pieces; it’s time Joe stood on his own two feet.”

Hoss was in a dilemma. He didn’t want to upset Clara but at the same time he wanted to protect his little brother. “He’s just a kid, Clara. He don’t mean to get into trouble. Sometimes he just don’t think.”

Clara was becoming exasperated. “He’s seventeen, almost a grown man. It’s about time he started acting like it. If you keep getting him out of every scrape he gets into, how’s he ever going to grow up?”

Hoss gave up. When it came to arguments, he was no match for Clara and at the end of the day, she was right. In a few short months he would be married and leading his own life, so maybe it was best for Little Joe not to depend on him as much as he did.

“Well what’s it to be….Eric?” smiled Clem, trying hard not to laugh.

“Leave him where he is, Clem,” Hoss said looking at Clara. “Pa can deal with him when he gets back.”

Clara was delighted and flung her arms round Hoss’ neck. “It’s for the best, Eric, really it is. He’ll thank you for it in the long run.”

Looking over the top of Clara’s head, Hoss grimaced and bit his lip. Somehow he didn’t think Little Joe was going to forgive him for this one, at least not for a long time.

*****

Joe was stunned to say the least when Clem returned without Hoss. He put on a brave face but he dreaded the morning and his father’s displeasure, but more than that he was hurt and disappointed that Hoss had chosen to leave him there. Sleep evaded him that night as he tried to think of what would be the worst punishment his Pa could come up with.

As it was, he heard his father’s booming voice before he saw him. Roy had met him from the coach and Joe inwardly cringed when the door to the jail was almost bounced off its hinges as his Pa entered. The other men in the cells were more than a little amused as the boy visibly squirmed in front of them.

Ben glared at the disheveled state of his youngest son. “What have you got to say for yourself?” he growled. All eyes turned to Joe as the color drained from his face.

“S-s-sorry Pa” was all Joe could mumble, trying hard to keep the quiver from his voice. Gone now was the cocky youth of the night before. Adam stood to one side, his arms folded in front of him, an eyebrow raised in amusement. Joe glanced at his brother and would dearly have liked the opportunity to wipe the smirk from his face, but he had other more pressing problems at the moment. First of which was to get out of the jail and home with as much dignity as he possibly could.

Roy unlocked the cell door and allowed Joe to exit. Ben pointed to the door and bellowed, “On your horse now and ride. I’ll deal with you when we get home.”

As he scooted past his father, Joe was not quick enough to miss the heavy hand that made contact with his rear on his way out, and it was anyone’s guess which of his cheeks was the redder!!

Joe rode quickly home and into the barn. Hoss was already there doing the morning chores and he looked at his little brother guardedly as he entered, not knowing what Little Joe’s reaction was going to be.

As it was, Joe hardly glanced at his brother. He took care of his horse and then quickly made his way into the house to await his father’s punishment.

Ben was extremely angry with Joe, but he was also puzzled when told that Hoss had refused to bail his brother out. For years Ben had berated Hoss for protecting his sibling’s butt, but secretly he was pleased that the brothers looked out for one another. It was just something that brothers did. What had changed?

Entering the barn, Ben noticed Hoss’ forlorn face and decided to speak to his middle son before dealing with his youngest. “What happened last night, Hoss?”

“I don’t know, Pa. I was with Clara and I guess Joe sneaked out and went into town. I didn’t know anything about it until Clem came for me at Mr. McVitie’s house.”

Ben digested the information. He didn’t want to pry too much but he couldn’t help stating. “It’s not like you to leave your brother to stew, Hoss. Not that I condone you always protecting him, you understand. But what’s happened? Have you two fallen out?”

“No, it’s not that, Pa. Although I doubt that Little Joe will be feeling very friendly towards me at the moment. It’s just….. well, like Clara says, it’s time Joe grew up and started taking responsibility for the scrapes he gets in. We can’t always be there to bail him out.”

Ben smiled sadly. It was just as he thought. Clara was coming between them. It was inevitable, he supposed, for it was all part of growing up and moving on, but at the same time he felt a little sorry for Joe. He would no doubt be taking it hard; after all, Hoss was his best friend, and he wasn’t used to having to share him.

Ben laid a comforting hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “You did the right thing, son. It’s about time that young man got his comeuppance.”

“Pa, you weren’t thinking about, you know, well he’s getting a bit big now Pa.”

Ben tried hard not to smile. “Well, that will depend on Joseph. If he behaves like a child, he will be treated like one.” And with that he made his way to the house and his errant youngest.

Joe stood up quickly as his father came into the room. Ben walked over to where he stood and looked at him with disapproval for a long time before he spoke. “I seem to remember having a conversation with you before I left, Joseph. What did I expressly say?

With eyes fixed firmly on the floor, Joe replied, “Not to get into trouble, Pa.”

“Not to get into trouble, Pa,” Ben repeated slowly. “And what have you done, Joseph?”

“I got into trouble,” Joe stated simply, unable to judge which way the conversation was going. His father’s voice had not yet started to rise and he didn’t want to say anything to antagonize him even further.

“Now that I’ve ascertained that you remembered exactly my instructions before I left we can move on. Right Joseph, knowing my wishes, what possessed you to go into town each evening for the last three days?”

Joe sneaked a quick glance at his father’s face, trying to figure out the best answer to give, but decided honesty was the best policy. “I was bored, Pa.”

Joe knew he had made a grave error of judgment. Ben’s voice began to get louder with each word spoken. “You were bored. Well, let me tell you, young man, you won’t have time to get bored in future. I’ll keep you so busy you’ll be praying for boredom.” And so the tirade went on. By the time his father had finished, Joe was a quaking wreck and would do just about anything to escape his father’s fury.

When he thought he had got his message over as strongly as he could, Ben dismissed Joe from his presence. Joe almost ran from the room in his haste to get away; sometimes he thought it would be better to get a tanning than be subjected to one of his father’s lectures.

Adam arrived moments later and looked questioningly as his father. “Well, what reason did he give this time?”

Ben sighed heavily before replying. “He said he was bored. It seems Hoss has spent each evening with Clara and what with us and Hop Sing away, I think he was probably more lonely than bored.”

Adam nodded in understanding. “He never was one for his own company. So what’s the verdict?”

“Oh, lonely or not, he’s guilty as charged. He’ll be cleaning out the tack room and the stables until they gleam for the next few weeks. I can guarantee you he won’t be complaining about being bored for a long time to come.”

“So his butt’s safe then?” Adam smiled.

Ben returned his smile. “Well, I may not admit it to him, but he is a bit too big to be bending over these days. Just don’t let on. I think that threat may still keep him from going off the deep end altogether for a few months yet to come.”

*****

Over the next couple of weeks, Hoss tried on several occasions to make it up to his little brother, but Joe still remained cool towards him. Clara reassured Hoss that he had done the right thing and even though Hoss missed the camaraderie and fun he usually shared with his sibling, his relationship with Clara more than filled the void.

When they announced to their families that they were to marry, everyone was delighted, with the exception of Joe. He said the right things, slapped his brother on the back and kissed Clara on the cheek, but inside his heart was breaking, for he knew he had lost what he once had with his brother forever. Deep inside, Joe knew he was being selfish and should be happy for his brother, but he couldn’t help himself.

While everyone laughed and made plans and Ben poured a glass of wine to celebrate, Joe slipped from the house and made his way over to the corral. Tears stung the back of his eyes as he thought about Hoss leaving him. He was so deep in thought he never heard the footsteps approach and he almost jumped out of his skin when the deep baritone voice of his eldest brother sounded next to him.

“It’s a bit hot in there tonight. Thought I’d get a bit of fresh air.”

Joe sniffed and quickly wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Yeah, it is hot,” he acknowledged.

Adam could barely make out Joe’s face in the dark, for there wasn’t a star in the sky and the moon was hidden behind a cloud, but he knew Joe was hurting and for once he didn’t know how to help his little brother. It was inevitable that they would all move on one day, but it was obvious that Joe was not yet ready to make the transition.

“Good news about Hoss and Clara, isn’t it?” Adam asked tentatively.

“Ummm,” Joe replied without commitment, confirming Adam’s suspicions.

“You know, Joe, Clara makes Hoss really happy, and that’s what we want for him, isn’t it?”

A few seconds passed before Joe replied. His voice was low, barely above a whisper, and Adam had to strain to hear him.

“I want Hoss to be happy, Adam, more than anything I want that for him. It’s just I didn’t expect things to be like this. I always knew things would change when one of us got hitched, but I still expected us to be close, to do things together.”

Adam moved over and placed a comforting arm over Joe’s shoulder. “You still will, Joe; just give it time. Hoss is in the first flush of love; they want to spend every moment together, that’s to be expected. Just give it a little time and he’ll be knocking you out of bed on a Sunday morning to go fishing.”

“But she doesn’t like me, Adam! Sometimes I see her looking at me all strange like, and I can feel my skin crawl. She won’t allow Hoss and me to be friends once they marry, I just know she won’t. Anyway, he’s not Hoss anymore, he’s Eric, and I don’t care much for Eric.”

With that, Joe shrugged off his brother’s arm and walked back to the house, being sure to go in through the back door so he could make it to the sanctity of his bedroom without seeing anyone.

Adam was left speechless. Was his little brother imagining Clara’s dislike, or had he and his father failed to pick up on it? Clara certainly felt that Joe needed more discipline, but he supposed that was what came of being the eldest of four. If anything, he felt the same way himself on many occasions! Joe was certainly right about Hoss becoming Eric. He never thought he would see the day his middle brother slicked down his hair and donned a tie before sitting down for dinner each night. Again, he thought this was a novelty and once Hoss was married and routine set in, he would probably revert back to being the old Hoss they remembered and loved. Either way, Adam made a mental note to observe Clara’s interaction with his youngest brother, for much as he would never hurt Hoss, he didn’t wish for Joe to be hurt either. Then with a shrug of resignation, Adam walked slowly back to the house deep in thought. What if Clara didn’t like his little brother? She wasn’t marrying Joe; she was marrying Hoss, and liking all of his family was not one of the marriage vows. Joe would just have to live with it.

As the days passed, the whole family was caught up in the wedding preparations, and even Joe put aside his own misgivings to help with the arrangements.

The subject of ‘best man’ arose and Hoss was torn. He had two brothers, both of whom he loved dearly and he didn’t want to shun either of them. Adam had been there for him the whole of his life, caring for him after his mother died, and generally looking out for him and being the best friend a brother could have. On the other hand, he had done the same for Joe, and had always protected and cared for his much smaller sibling from the moment he was born, and the friendship they had shared, until recently, had been as close as any two brothers could have.

Hoss churned the dilemma over in his mind, wondering how could he come up with a solution that would please all. If he asked Adam to be his best man, he had no doubt that Joe would see that as another nail in the coffin of their friendship, whereas if he asked Joe, he knew that if he spoke to Adam about it, Adam would understand and give it his blessing.

Once he had made up his mind he informed Clara of his decision.

“But you can’t do that, Eric. Adam is your elder brother; it is only right that he should be the one to choose.”

“But Adam will understand Clara. Joe has been feeling left out lately; I’m sure this will help heal the rift,” Hoss placated.

Once again Hoss was no match for Clara once her mind was made up and by the end of the evening, he returned home to ask Adam to be his best man. Adam graciously accepted and shook Hoss’ hand, but out of the corner of his eye, he registered once again the hurt and disappointment reflected in his little brother’s face. He hated being caught up in the middle between them, but what could he do? He couldn’t refuse Hoss, but he had hoped his brother would ask Joe and he suspected even Hoss felt the same, but had been overruled once again by his intended.

*****

With only two weeks to go before the wedding, Ben was at the end of his tether. Clara had been spending most evenings at the Ponderosa and the atmosphere between her and Joe could be cut with a knife. It was obvious his youngest son resented her presence, and even though Ben had resorted to threatening Joe to behave before she arrived, Joe was still often rude and petulant towards her. Clara in return took every opportunity to make Joe appear young and foolish and no matter how hard the others tried, there was no way they could heal the developing rift between them.

Ben decided that it would be best if Joe was absent for a few days, giving him time to think about his behavior and hopefully returning with a different attitude. Every other week Adam would make a trip to the logging camp for a few days, where he would check on progress, handle any problems and report back to his father what needed to be done. Ben decided this was a golden opportunity not to be missed and he would send Little Joe instead. The extra responsibility would do him good and the added bonus would be that they would all get a respite from his fiery temper and black mood.

In the meantime, Hoss was becoming more acquainted with his uncle in-law to be. He had never spent a lot of time with Matt McVitie in the past, regarding him more as his father’s friend, but since they were to be related, he felt it necessary to make more of an effort.

Mr. McVitie had always liked Hoss and thought him an ideal partner for Clara. He was also happy to see his niece marry someone from such a wealthy background; she would never have to want for anything. Matt and his wife had been friends with Ben when he first arrived in Nevada with his two small sons. His wife had often babysat for the single father in the early years. But that was before Marie arrived.

When Ben had first returned from New Orleans with his new bride, the good citizens of Virginia City had been quite shocked. Marie was so different to the other women in the Western area. Her style of dress and French accent, not to mention her rare beauty, caused a lot of jealousy amongst the female population. On the other hand, the men were spellbound the moment they laid eyes on her. Matt McVitie was one of those men and the normally happily married man became obsessed with the wife of his close friend. He started to visit the Ponderosa at every opportunity just to try and spend time alone with Marie. Finally he had been able to contain himself no longer and when he was sure that Ben was away from the ranch for a few days and the other members of the household were otherwise occupied, he had paid a visit to the Ponderosa. On a flimsy pretext, he had tricked Marie into inviting him into the house. It didn’t take McVitie long to make his move and when Marie rejected his advances, his mood turned nasty.

As McVitie had forced himself onto the poor woman, her screams had awoken the sleeping tot upstairs. Little Joe had ran down the stairs and bravely gone to his mother’s rescue. McVitie had forgotten about the smallest Cartwright and was angry at having his plans thwarted. Swatting the child away from him as he would a fly, he almost spat at Marie as he said, “We have unfinished business. Don’t think you can lead a man on and get away with it. Next time we meet make sure, you don’t have that brat with you.”

A sobbing Marie grabbed her toddler son to her before replying to the man, “My husband will kill you for this.”

McVitie just laughed in her face. “I don’t think so. Mention one word of this and I will tell everyone how you have been flirting and coming on to me and before this week is out, your name will be dirt in this town and you won’t be able to show your face anywhere. So keep your mouth shut.” Then pointing at the child in her arms he added, “And if you know what’s good for him, you’d better make sure he keeps quiet as well.”

McVitie need never have worried. Marie never got the chance to tell her husband what happened. Two days later Ben returned to the ranch house to find that Marie had gone into town, leaving Little Joe in the care of Hop Sing. Later that afternoon Marie had ridden back to the house at a speed that was far from safe, as she was in so much of a hurry to see her husband. Just as she had ridden into the yard, her horse had stumbled and as she was thrown to the ground, her neck was broken.

McVitie’s nasty secret was safe.

Over the years, McVitie and his wife had continued to be friends with the bereaved father. McVitie had been a shoulder for Ben to cry on and the unsuspecting father had no clue whatsoever as to the true nature of his supposed friend. The only fly in the ointment as far as McVitie was concerned was Little Joe. At first he had been afraid that the little boy would retell the scene he had witnessed to his father, but as the weeks went by, it became apparent to McVitie that the shock of losing his mother had put the incident out of the little boy’s mind. That didn’t stop McVitie from building up a deep resentment and hatred of the child as he grew into a man.

*****

Joe looked forward to his time away from the family. He was beginning to think that everyone was against him. Why did they think it was all his fault? Clara made no attempt to get on with him; if anything, she was worse than Adam for being able to hone in on the things that would annoy him the most.

He just couldn’t see that both he and Clara were really feeling the same way. He was jealous of the relationship she had with Hoss and Clara, on the other hand, was behaving like most young women in love: she was jealous of everything and everybody that competed for Hoss’ time and affection. Maybe if Joe had been older and a little wiser, he would have backed off and left the young lovebirds to themselves, but as it was, he was petulant and bad tempered, which left all those around him exasperated by his behavior.

Jamie, the headman at the logging camp, was quite pleased to see the youngest Cartwright. The lumberjacks who worked there were a hard and uncouth bunch of men who enjoyed life to its extremes and ever since Joe was a child, he had relished the opportunity of spending time in their company. The bawdy jokes and hard drinking of the loggers had made the cowboys on the ranch appear angelic by comparison and Joe loved the ‘education’ he had received at the end of a long day with a glass of beer and a hand of poker.

“Am I surprised to see you, Little Joe! After the last time, I felt for sure your Pa wouldn’t let you here again until you were at least 21,” smiled Jamie, patting Joe on the back.

Joe returned Jamie’s smile as he remembered the incident that Jamie was referring to.

On the last occasion Joe had visited the camp, almost a year ago when he was barely sixteen, Joe had drank so much beer that when his father arrived the following day, it had taken Joe almost twenty-four hours to sober up. That wasn’t the worst part. In his drunken stupor, when Ben had called for him to get up out of bed, he had replied angrily, unaware that it was his father talking. “Damn you! Just go away; my head hurts like hell!”

That was the first and only time Joe ever cussed his father and it was also the last time he sat down comfortably for almost a week!

“Oh he knows I’ve learned my lesson, Jamie. I won’t be getting drunk this time, not if I value my hide anyway.”

Joe downed a few bottles of beer that night, enjoyed a couple of hands of poker and shared a few jokes, but he made sure he was up bright and early the next morning and ready to start work. The men were impressed at how much he had grown up over the last year and were anxious to help him complete the work required of him successfully. They felt a little guilty at the amount of trouble Joe had gotten into on his last visit and wanted to make sure that Ben Cartwright would not be disappointed in his son this time.

Towards the end of the day, a wagon arrived from McVitie’s place with necessary supplies. It was only when the wagon came to a standstill that Joe recognized the two drifters he had fought with in Virginia City.

“Well, well, well,” said the first man, “if it isn’t the little boy from the saloon. You know the one, Jed, the one that cheats at cards.”

Before Joe had time to reply, Jamie stepped forward and squared up to the man in front of him. “You better watch your mouth, mister, if you know what’s good for you.”

Confronted by the larger man, the drifter backed off. “I was only having a bit fun with the boy; I didn’t mean no harm.”

Then turning to Joe, he extended his hand. “No hard feelings, Joe? I’m sorry about that incident in town; just had a couple too many, that’s all.”

Joe was not a person to hold grudges and he swallowed his pride and returned the man’s handshake.

The two drifters, Mike and Jed, decided to stay at the logging camp overnight and they made a big effort to make a friend of Joe. By the time they bedded down that evening, the three men were laughing together like old friends.

The following morning Joe had one last errand to complete for his father before returning home. Ben had asked Joe to drop off important papers at the legal office in Genoa, together with information Joe had gleaned from the logging camp.

Mike and Jed also claimed that they were off to Genoa, collecting supplies for Mr. McVitie and as it was a day’s journey away, it would mean them staying in Genoa overnight.

“What do you say, Joe?” asked Jed winking at Mike “We could have ourselves a grand old time in the Stag’s Head Saloon. I’ve been told they have the prettiest gals in the whole Nevada area.”

Joe smiled back at the two men; he wasn’t familiar with Genoa and it would be good to have company for the day and evening. He mentally promised himself not to get into any trouble. He would not cause his Pa any worries on that score, but what was the harm in having a little fun! After all he had had precious little of it lately.

*****

At 5 pm that evening, three very tired men rode into Genoa. Joe quickly rushed to the lawyer’s office before it closed to give Mr. Brown his father’s papers. Once his duties were complete, he headed over to the Paradise Hotel to sort out a room for the night. The Paradise Hotel was anything but ‘heaven’ and Joe wondered at the sense of humor of the person who had named it. His room was small, dark and depressing, but at least it was clean, or appeared clean, for it was certainly difficult to tell in the fading light. There wasn’t space to swing a cat and after depositing his belongings on the bed, he set off to find somewhere to have a bath, shave and change his clothes.

In less than an hour, Joe was washed and fed and decided to have a few hours sleep so he was fresh to enjoy the night ahead. As he returned to his room, he met up with his friends who also had freshened up after their long ride.

“Where you off to?” Joe asked as they passed him on the stairs.

“Can’t waste good drinking time, boy; we’re off to the saloon across the street!”

Joe pondered joining them for a second but fatigue took over. “I’ll join you later,” he shouted to their retreating backs. “Just want to get my head down for a couple of hours first.”

“You young’uns can’t take the pace,” Jed jibed back at him, but softened the words with a friendly wink. “See you later, kid.”

Joe had no reason to suspect; but Jed and Mike were up to no good. McVitie had paid them handsomely not to let him down, for unbeknown to Joe it was not by accident the two men had turned up at the logging camp. All they had to do was formulate a plan to get Little Joe out of the way for good. Matt McVitie must not be implicated in any way, but at the same time they were anxious that they too did not face the hangman’s noose.

Matt McVitie had never got over being spurned by Marie Cartwright and he blamed Joe for the fact that he had never had the chance to possess her. He had once been a happily married man, but the moment he had laid eyes on the southern beauty, he had been lost under her spell. Even after her death, his lust for Marie had never diminished; he couldn’t get her out of his head during the day, and at night, his loins ached with a need that would never be fulfilled. The only release he got from his torment was to focus his hatred on the one constant reminder he had of his unrequited love – Joe Cartwright. His hatred was such that he kept away from the Cartwright boy as much as he could as he was growing up; just the sight of the curly hair, green eyes and beautiful face was like a knife being turned inside of him. It was a constant reminder of what he could never have. But all that had changed when Clara came to live with him and had fallen in love with Hoss.

McVitie was very fond of his niece and wanted her happiness. He liked the older Cartwright boys and Hoss was a particular favorite. In the months since Hoss and Clara had been going out together, McVitie found he was more and more in the company of the Cartwrights. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to hide his hatred of Joe from those around him. On many occasions, he looked up and found the boy looking at him and at those times he could not help the revulsion showing in his eyes as he looked back at the boy’s confused face. Something had to be done; the situation would need to be resolved before Clara and Hoss were married.

The disdain and dislike that McVitie had for Joe had rubbed off on his niece and it hadn’t been too long before her view of the youngest Cartwright had been colored by her uncle’s opinion of him. When Clara complained to her uncle how Joe was marring her relationship with Hoss, he knew he had to act to rid them of the boy once and for all.

*****

Jed and Mike surveyed their surroundings and noted the pretty young saloon girl in the corner. She was just what they were looking for. The girl was in her mid-twenties and would tempt any man, let alone an inexperienced boy of 17. Sidling over to where the girl was sitting, they ordered a bottle of whisky and sat down to join her. They quickly brought the conversation round to that of their ‘young friend’.

“Well you see,” Jed began, “the kid’s a real innocent. There’s no way he’s ever gonna get laid if we don’t give him a helping hand. So what we thought was, if you keep the boy talking, we’ll slip something in his drink and when he’s out cold, we can carry him up to your room.”

Seeing the skeptical look on the girl’s face, he continued. “Look it’s only a bit of fun. If, when he wakes up, he takes the initiative, that’s fine; if he doesn’t, well, at least we tried. We’ll certainly make it worth your while and no harm done.” Jed shrugged as if it was no big deal — she either went for it or she didn’t. Mike fumbled in his jacket pocket and came out with a handful of bills and placed them on the table in front of her.

The girl looked at the money on the table and was tempted. “So I get the money whether the kid gets laid or not?” she asked.

“Sure,” Jed replied, “that’s up to him.”

“Okay, I’ll go along with it. But what do you intend to put in his drink? I don’t want to be party to someone getting hurt.”

“Don’t worry, it’s just a sedative,” Mike laughed. “When he wakes up, he’ll be right as rain and raring to go. Well, I would be,” he added with a saucy smile and a wink.

Joe entered the bar that evening looking refreshed and devilishly handsome. When the two men indicated to her that the young man entering the bar was the kid they had been talking about, she was more than surprised. She had expected a gawky, spotty faced, shy kid, and not the Adonis in front of her. “Hey!” she thought “those men could have kept the money in their pockets. Educating this kid would be a pleasure.”

Joe ordered three beers and joined his friends. The saloon girl, Josie, carried the tray of beers over to the men and placed them on the table.

“Why don’t you join us, miss?” asked Jed. Josie graciously accepted and sat down next to Joe, pulling her chair closer so she was almost touching him. The beers were soon gone and Mike shouted to the bartender to bring another bottle of whisky and four glasses.

Joe bit on his bottom lip as his conscience pricked him. “No whisky for me, thanks Mike. I promised my Pa I would stay out of trouble on this trip and I don’t aim to break my promise.”

Josie placed her hand on Joe’s knee and rubbed it up and down his leg. “One whisky won’t hurt, Joe.” Then she added with a knowing smile, “I won’t let you get in any trouble. Least, none that you don’t want to.”

Joe was not quite the innocent that Josie was led to believe and the twinkling in his eyes as he looked back at her was anything but bashful. She leaned forward, kissing him full on the mouth, giving the men time to put the powder in the boy’s drink.

When they drew apart, Mike handed the glass of whisky to Joe. “Go on, kid, straight down the hatch. After that, you can go back to your beer.”

Joe took the glass and downed the drink in one, grimacing slightly as the bitter tasting liquid hit the back of his throat. If Joe had been a seasoned whisky drinker, he may have realized that there was something amiss, but as it was, he didn’t give it another thought until his head started to feel funny and the girl in front of his eyes became two.

Struggling to stand up, Joe pushed the table away from him and headed towards the door. He had only taken a couple of steps when the blackness came and his knees buckled underneath him.

Jed and Mike caught him before he hit the floor and between the two of them they carried the unconscious boy up the stairs and into Josie’s room. Once inside, they quickly stripped Joe of his clothing and placed the naked boy under the covers.

Turning to Josie, Jed instructed. “Go back downstairs and carry on as normal. Don’t let anyone know the boy is here. He’ll sleep until the early hours, but just be sure you’re here when he wakes up. If anyone asks, and I mean anyone, tell them Joe joined you about midnight.”

Josie was confused; there was something they weren’t telling her. As they left the room, Mike added menacingly, “And Josie, if you know what’s good for you, be sure to stick to the story. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to that pretty face of yours.”

*****

So far so good. Jed and Mike were sure the girl wouldn’t say anything. Girls like her were ten a penny and would do almost anything for money. If that didn’t work, the threat of having her face carved up would do the trick.

Later that night the local store was broken into and ransacked. The day’s takings, kept in a box hidden under the counter, were taken and a man’s livelihood was ruined. As they left the building, a smile spread across Mike’s face and he lit a match and threw it back into the room igniting the papers strewn across the floor.

With several items from the store and the money in their pockets, Jed and Mike made their way back to the saloon and entered through the back door. Making their way to Josie’s room, they stuffed the money and articles into Joe’s pockets then left the still sleeping boy alone.

The men entered the saloon room once more and seeing Josie standing next to the bar, they indicated that she should now go upstairs and join Joe. As she went to pass them by, Mike pulled her to him and stuffing several bills down the front of her dress, he bent forward and kissed her. As he pulled away, he whispered. “Remember Josie, if anyone asks, Joe has only just got here and asked you to go upstairs.”

The girl glared at the man for a few seconds but seeing the sadistic look in his eyes she quickly nodded her head and disappeared in the direction of her room.

*****

Joe slept unaware that the night sky in Genoa was ablaze with light. The fire was at the far end of town, and in his drug induced sleep, he had no knowledge of the events that had unfolded during the evening.

It took many hours to bring the fire under control and the sheriff would have been none the wiser as to its cause if a local man hadn’t stepped forward and said that he had witnessed a kid leaving the store just before midnight and running up the street towards the Stag’s Head Saloon. The man had been well paid by Jed for his lies and didn’t care who suffered as a consequence of them.

The sheriff and his two deputies arrived at the saloon as quickly as they could. It was now 3am in the morning and there were very few people around. Going over to the two men who sat dozing at one of the tables, the sheriff asked, “Have any of you men seen a kid come running in here about midnight?”

Jed and Mike looked at each other then back at the sheriff. “Now you come to mention it sheriff, there was a kid came in here about that time. He went upstairs with the saloon girl – Josie, I think her name was.”

Shortly before the sheriff’s arrival, Joe had started to stir. When he struggled back to consciousness and opened his eyes he was confused to find himself naked in bed with the saloon girl laid next to him.

An oil lamp was turned down low on the table beside the bed and Josie was propped up on one arm watching him. As their eyes met in the half light, Josie was surprised to see that Joe was looking back at her with an intrigued expression on his face, her first summation of him had been right; this kid was anything but innocent. Leaning forward she kissed the boy lightly on the lips. Joe’s reaction was instant and he wrapped his arms round the girl’s slim waist and drew her into a passionate embrace.

Much to Joe’s annoyance, their encounter was over before it began. The door to the bedroom was flung open and three men walked in. With a gun pointed at Joe’s head, the sheriff barked. “Okay boy put your hands above your head and don’t make any sudden moves.” Turning to the girl he ordered, “You get dressed and out of here.”

Josie scrambled out of the bed and grabbed her clothes, much to the amusement of the two deputies who took the opportunity to view her ample charms. Pulling the clothes from the bed, the sheriff looked at the boy in front of him for a few seconds before saying, “Get your pants on Romeo. You’re under arrest.”

Joe had no idea what was going on, but when there were three men in the room pointing guns in his direction, and he had no clothes on, he felt at a distinct disadvantage and was not about to argue. His Pa would have been amazed how quickly he could get out of bed and dressed when the motivation was right.

Once decent, Joe turned to the Sheriff and said, “Look here there has to be some mistake, I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Save it for the Judge, son,” the Sheriff replied, as one of the deputies turned Joe round and handcuffed his hands behind him. As they made to leave the room, the other deputy grabbed Joe’s jacket from the chair by the door. The money and other store items tumbled to the floor.

The Sheriff picked up the money and turning to Joe he said through gritted teeth, “Don’t look to me like we made any mistake, boy.”

As Joe made to protest his innocence once more, the deputy standing closest to him slapped him hard across the face with the back of his hand. “We don’t want to hear anything you got to say, so shut it.”

Joe was then dragged from the room and outside. That’s when things turned ugly. There was an angry crowd outside the saloon; word had spread as to who the culprit was. The store and adjacent buildings had burnt to the ground and many of the townsfolk were angry that a drunken, out of control, youth had deliberately caused so much damage. They didn’t want justice, they wanted revenge. Several punches landed on Joe’s body before he reached the jailhouse and by the time the Sheriff locked him in his cell, blood was streaming from his nose.

Joe tried to recollect his thoughts from the night before. Try as he might he couldn’t remember anything after taking the drink of whisky in the saloon until he woke up in the girl’s bed a short while ago. There was no doubt in Joe’s mind that he had been drugged, but why?

After that, everything happened very quickly. A stranger was led into the jailhouse and over to the cell. “Is this the boy you saw running away from the store?” the Sheriff asked.

The man hardly looked at Joe before replying, “That’s him, Sheriff, that’s the kid. Saw him run out of the store about midnight and over to the saloon.”

Joe was on his feet, “He’s lying. I’ve never been near any store since I got here. As far as I remember, I was at the saloon all night from about 8 o’clock.”

“Well that’s not what the girl says. She claims you ran into the saloon just after midnight and paid her to go upstairs,” the Sheriff stated.

“She’s lying!” Joe shouted.

“Seems to me the only one lying around here is you.” With that, the Sheriff and the stranger walked away leaving Joe to try to make sense of what was happening to him.

Before the day was out, Joe was taken to a makeshift court, tried and convicted for theft and arson. Passing sentence, the Judge ordered Joe to be detained at Nevada State Prison for the next ten years.

Joe was finding the whole situation totally surreal. He hadn’t had a proper trial; there was no one to defend him and he had been condemned on the evidence of people he knew were lying. He was told that the very next morning the prison wagon would arrive from Nevada Jail and escort him to his place of sentence.

Meanwhile, Josie was having pangs of guilt. She had gone along with the deception at first because she had thought it was a bit of fun; well, maybe the money did have something to do with it as well. But it had never been her intention that an innocent man would go to jail. When the Judge sentenced Joe to ten years, she wanted to shout out to everyone it was a lie and Joe was not guilty, but Mike and Jed were close by and she was terrified they would carry out their earlier threats.

When Joe had stated his full name in the ‘kangaroo’ court, Josie had begun to wonder. Could this be Adam Cartwright’s brother? She and Adam had been friends for a few years, and when he visited the saloon, he had sometimes referred to a ‘Little Joe’ when regaling stories about his two brothers.

It didn’t take much investigation for Josie to find out that Joe was indeed part of the wealthy Cartwright family. There may be a way out of this after all, if only she could get word to Adam.

*****

Life on the Ponderosa had been quiet for the last four days. No arguments, no black moods and no tantrums. With Joe not around, Clara had felt more inclined to spend time with the family of which she was soon to become part of. Hoss felt moments of guilt but he was enjoying the respite of not being ‘piggy in the middle’ between his fiancé and brother.

The serenity was soon to be broken. Ben was in a foul mood when he got out of bed that morning. He had spent a restless night worrying about his youngest son. Joe had been due back at the Ponderosa the day before and had failed to make an appearance. Ben’s initial anger was now turning to worry and he felt sure something was wrong.

Adam and Hoss had tried to allay his fears but Ben was sure that Joe would not have disregarded his instructions and he was all for riding to Genoa that day and searching for his errant son.

The three men stayed close to home that morning, each unwilling to admit that they were worried, and it was early afternoon when a rider from town entered the yard. The three of them all moved at once to greet him.

“Telegram for Adam Cartwright,” the man stated, handing over the envelope without even dismounting from his horse.

Adam glanced worriedly at his father before taking the letter and ripping it apart. The corners of his mouth turned down in a frown. “It’s from a saloon girl named Josie. She works at the Stag’s Head in Genoa.”

“Well what is it about?” Ben asked impatiently. Intuitively he was certain it would have something to do with Little Joe.

Adam shrugged his shoulders, “She doesn’t really give much information Pa,” Adam said handing the note to his father. “Just ‘your brother is in trouble, come at once’.”

Hoss read the note over his father’s shoulder. “Little Joe probably just got himself in another fight, Pa. That kid just don’t know how to stay away from trouble.”

Ben wasn’t convinced. “What do you think, Adam? How well do you know this girl?”

Adam was evasive. “She’s a saloon girl Pa, I’ve spent time with her occasionally when stopping over in Genoa.”

“Well you certainly seem to have made an impression, big brother,” Hoss added, teasing his eldest sibling for a change.

Adam glared at him before adding, “I really think it must be something serious; if Joe had only been locked up for the night, she wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of sending a telegram.”

Just at that moment Matt McVitie and his niece rode into the yard. Hoss immediately went forward and lifted Clara from the buggy. Looking round at the worried faces of the Cartwrights, she asked, “What’s happened?”

Adam tried to make light of the situation. It had become apparent to him lately the McVities did not like Little Joe and he didn’t want to be the one to give them cause for further disapproval.

“Seems Little Joe had been detained in Genoa. Hoss and I need to go and meet up with him. We might be away for a couple of days but that should be all.”

Clara looked long and hard at Adam before turning to Hoss, “Why do you have to go, Eric? There are still so many wedding arrangements to be finalized. I really need you here.”

It was happening again, thought Hoss. He was been torn between Clara and his little brother. Why couldn’t relationships be simpler? He just wanted a quiet life. Seeing his brother’s dilemma, Adam came to his rescue.

“I’m sorry, Clara; I hope you don’t mind but I could really do with Hoss’ help.”

Faced with Adam’s request, Clara didn’t feel as if she could make a fuss, “I suppose a couple of days won’t make much difference.” Then turning to Hoss she added, “Only eight more days, then we can start living our own lives.”

Ben and Adam exchanged a knowing glance; it didn’t take much imagination to know who would be wearing the pants in that household. Much as they had thought initially that Clara was good for Hoss, they were now harboring doubts; day by day, Hoss was losing his identity and becoming Eric.

During the exchange, Matt McVitie had remained impassive. Although curious to know just what happened to Little Joe, he was not in a position to ask, for when he paid the two drifters to get rid of the youngest Cartwright, he had left the method of execution up to them entirely.

An hour later, Hoss and Adam had their saddlebags packed, horses saddled and were ready to go. While Hoss said goodbye to Clara, Adam reassured his father that they wouldn’t return without Little Joe.

However, little did Adam know that he was too late, for that morning while they were having breakfast Joe had been handcuffed and bungled into the prison wagon to begin his journey to incarceration.

*****

Joe had spent a restless night. He had tried to be brave and positive about his future but before the sun had risen, he had shed more than a few tears. Never before in his life had he felt so alone. Being grown up wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and Joe wanted his Pa to come and take charge and sort things out. If his father were there, no one would get away with framing him for something he hadn’t done; Pa would never allow it.

Joe’s world was turning into a living nightmare. Try as he might, he couldn’t believe what had transpired in just over a day. The more he thought about it, the more he was sure Jed and Mike were at the bottom of it. Why they would do such a thing, he couldn’t imagine. True they had been locked up overnight after their fight at the Bucket and Blood saloon in Virginia City, but that was not reason enough to do this. There must be more to it, thought Joe, but he couldn’t come up with a half reasonable explanation.

When the Sheriff entered his cell that morning and announced that the wagon had arrived to transport him to prison, Joe felt a moment of panic. “Sheriff, I need to send a telegram to my Pa to let him know what’s happened.”

“Sorry, son, but you ain’t due any privileges.”

“B-b-but my family need to know where I am.”

The Sheriff shrugged his shoulders. “Should have thought of that before you robbed and set fire to the store boy.”

Joe could see he was wasting his time and he was beginning to believe that they were all in it together — the Sheriff, his deputies, the Judge and the saloon girl. It was with a sense of despondency that he climbed into the wagon and allowed the men to handcuff his hands in front of him. Little did Joe know that the reason for his quick trial and conviction didn’t have anything to do with guilt or innocence. The prison wagon only made its rounds once a month and the Sheriff was not willing to have his young prisoner in his cells for all that time. So after a quick word with the judge, and with a sense of urgency, rough justice was dispensed to the hapless Joe.

*****

It was late evening when Adam and Hoss rode into town and made their way over to the saloon. Adam ordered two beers and surveyed the room hoping to catch sight of Josie. As his eyes fell upon her, she inclined her head, indicating that he meet her out back.

Finishing their drinks, the brothers unobtrusively left and in the shadow of darkness they made their way to the back of the building. Josie was waiting for them.

There was no time for pleasantries. “Okay Josie” Adam began. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on? Where is Little Joe?”

Josie haltingly began to tell her tale. She described the two men who paid her to dupe Joe and what they had expected of her. “So you see, Adam, I thought they wanted me to give the boy an education. I never dreamt for one minute that they meant him any harm.”

“So what happened after they drugged him?” Hoss interrupted.

Josie finished her tale, which ended with Joe being taken by the prison wagon to the Nevada penitentiary.

“How come you didn’t tell the truth to the Sheriff and the Judge, once you knew what was going on?” Adam asked.

Josie hung her head in shame. “They threatened me, Adam. They said if I told anyone about what happened, they would come back and cut me up.”

“Well, what made you change your mind?” Hoss asked trying to keep the anger from his voice.

“As soon as I knew who Little Joe was, you know, that he was a Cartwright. I thought if I told Adam, he would sort it out and he wouldn’t let those men hurt me.”

Hoss looked at his brother and rolled his eyes. The girl certainly had a lot of faith in his elder brother; Adam must have gotten to know her quite well during his visits to Genoa. “Guess it’s time to pay the Sheriff a visit, don’t you think?” Hoss asked.

“Just one thing before we go,” Adam enquired, looking at Josie with a hint of a smile on his lips. “I’m curious. If nothing else, did Little Joe get his education?”

Hoss blushed and looked at the ground, but Josie just smiled slyly and answered, “There wasn’t time, Adam, but it doesn’t matter anyway, because if my instincts are right, someone already beat me to it.”

“Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” Adam stated, chuckling at Hoss’ embarrassment.

A red-faced Hoss led the way to the Sheriff’s office, Adam’s quiet chuckling ringing in his ears.

The visit to the Sheriff turned out to be a waste of time. He listened to Josie’s version of events but was not prepared to intervene on Joe’s behalf. As far as he was concerned, Josie had been coerced by the ‘high and mighty’ Cartwrights to change her story, probably with the enticement of a large sum of money. After all, Josie was not the only witness and as far as he could see, justice had been done.

A frustrated trio left the office and started walking back towards the saloon. “What now?” Hoss asked, looking to his older sibling for direction.

“Guess we need to get in touch with Pa. I’m sure if he contacts the circuit judge, we can get a retrial for Joe, based on the new evidence.”

“But what about Little Joe?” Josie asked with concern. “Surely you’re not going to allow him to go to prison?”

Adam sighed before replying. “Not much we can do about that, Josie. We have to find those two men who started this in the first place and that might take awhile. Joe will just have to wait it out. He’s a tough kid and a few days in a cell won’t hurt him.”

“But this isn’t jail at the Sheriff’s office, Adam. This is Nevada State Prison. Have you thought what will happen to a boy like Joe in a place like that?” Josie laughed but there was no mirth in her laughter. “He’ll get an education all right, but if he was my kid brother, that’s one lesson I wouldn’t want him to have.”

The full meaning of her words hung in the air and shocked the brothers into silence. Eventually Hoss spoke, his voice faltering as he tried to keep calm, “Josie’s right, Adam. We can’t let that happen to Little Joe. I’ve heard about what they do to boys in places like that.”

Adam chewed on his bottom lip as he tried frantically to think of what to do. Josie broke into his thoughts, “He’s a real pretty boy, Adam; they’ll pass him around like a piece of meat.”

The bile rose in Adam’s throat; he couldn’t bear the thought of his baby brother being defiled like that. Panic began to fill his brain, “But they took Joe this morning. Won’t he be at the prison by now?”

Josie shook her head. “The prison wagon only does the rounds once a month. It calls in at all the neighboring towns picking up prisoners before returning to the prison. Genoa is one of its first ports of call. It usually takes a couple of days, so they won’t be at the prison until tomorrow evening.”

Adam paced up and down. He took off his hat and ran his hand through his hair several times before walking the floor once more. He was obviously struggling with some inner turmoil and Hoss and Josie could do no more than stand by and watch while he came to a difficult decision.

“What you thinking, Adam?” Hoss asked tentatively, almost afraid to interrupt his brother’s thoughts.

Adam stopped his pacing and looked at Hoss for several seconds before replying, “I think Pa’s gonna be fit to bust when he finds out what we’ve done.”

Alarm bells rang in Hoss’ ears, “What we done Adam?”

“Well not so much what we’ve done as what we are about to do!”

“Forget the riddles Adam, just tell me.” Hoss was becoming exasperated by his brother’s evasiveness.

“Well brother,” Adam began, stretching up to drape his arm over Hoss’ shoulder, “Tonight you and I are going to find that prison wagon and rescue our little brother!!!”

*****

There wasn’t a moment to be lost and for once luck was on their side. Two of the girls from the saloon had arranged to meet the guards that very night before the prisoners were taken on the final leg of their journey to prison, and therefore Josie was privy as to where the men would camp for the night.

“So you see, Adam, if the girls are as good as I know they are,” Josie said with a knowing smile, “those guards will have plenty to keep them occupied throughout the night without spending too much time watching your little brother.”

“Let’s just hope you are right, Josie,” Adam replied soberly. “Joe’s future may depend upon it.”

It didn’t take the brothers long to find out where Joe’s horse was stabled. Paying the young lad in charge, Hoss quickly saddled Cochise and tied him up alongside Sport and Chubb.

“What now?” Hoss asked anxiously. Much as he wanted to rescue Joe, his conscience was bothering him; he just wished there was another way for them to help his brother without breaking the law. What would Clara think when she found out what they had done? Somehow Hoss didn’t think she would understand and he knew she wouldn’t approve.

“Now we find Joe,” Adam replied with a shrug of his shoulders. They had gone over their plans for the last time; now action was called for. Josie had changed into riding clothes and just as they were mounting their horses and preparing to leave, she joined them at the back of the saloon on a borrowed horse.

A couple of hours later, Josie signaled for the brothers to dismount. After tethering their horses to the nearest tree, Josie pointed out to Hoss and Adam the direction they should take. Proceeding cautiously, the two Cartwrights made their way stealthily forward towards the encampment. All was quiet except for an occasional hacking cough coming from one of the inhabitants. Adam took his time to survey the scene and try and work out just where everyone was. The dying embers from the fire did not give off much light, but he was able to make out several men tied and bound to various trees around the camp. An empty bottle of whisky lay broken and discarded next to the fire.

Hoss tapped his brother on the shoulder and pointed to a place at the far side of the camp. Adam nodded his head in acknowledgement. The two bedrolls spaced some discreet distance apart, were obviously those of the guards together with their female visitors.

Crawling on his hands and knees, Adam got as close to the captive men as he could. Scanning the area his eyes finally fell on his youngest brother. Joe was half sitting up, his head dropped forward on his chest as he tried to sleep. As Adam watched, Joe stirred numerous times and adjusted his position in a vain attempt to get comfortable.

Pulling his knife from its sheath, Adam made his way over to his sleeping brother. Placing his hand over Joe’s mouth to stifle any unwanted cries, Adam quickly cut through the binds that secured Joe to the tree. Rudely awakened and gagged, Joe at first struggled against the hands that held him, until his eyes met with those of his rescuer and recognition registered.

Keeping close to Adam’s side, Joe gratefully followed his brother back to where Hoss was waiting. Without one word being spoken, all three brothers scrambled through the trees and back to Josie and the horses.

Joe was dazed at the turn of events and upon seeing Josie he cried out, “Adam what’s going on? That girl helped get me in this mess in the first place!”

“No time for talking, Joe; just get on your horse and ride,” Adam barked.

Joe’s hands were still cuffed in front of him, but he was able to swing mount onto Cochise and ride away with his brothers.

They had only been riding for about twenty minutes when Joe pulled his horse to a standstill. The rest of the party quickly came to a stop and rode back to where Joe had now dismounted.

“What you playing at Joe?” Adam asked in annoyance. “Get back on your horse before those guards realize you have gone.”

“I want to know what’s going on, Adam?” Joe demanded, with a stubborn look on his face.

“Look Joe, we know you didn’t rob and set fire to the store,” Hoss interjected. “Josie here told us the truth and we just need to hide you out at one of the line shacks until we can catch up with them fellows that drugged you. Once we have them, believe me, we won’t let them go until we can prove your innocence.”

Joe tried to take in the logic of what Hoss was saying. “But if you know I’m innocent, why didn’t you just go about proving it and then get me out of prison. Now we are all in trouble. I will look even more guilty with you two staging this heroic rescue of yours.”

Adam was fast losing patience. “It could have taken a while to prove your innocence Joe and that could have meant you spending quite a time in the penitentiary.”

“I’m a big boy now, Adam, or haven’t you noticed. Much as I appreciate your sentiments and I certainly didn’t want to go to prison, a week or two isn’t the end of the world. I always knew that you, Pa and Hoss would come looking for me and wouldn’t rest until the guilty parties were found. But this, well, this has just made matters worse. I think it best if I return to where you found me and just hope those guards are still sleeping it off. I can’t let you and Hoss get into trouble over me.”

“No, Joe, you can’t do that. You don’t know what prison’s like,” Hoss almost shouted.

Joe rolled his eyes to the back of his head. “When are you two gonna get it in your heads, I’m not a kid anymore. I can hold my own with the best of them.”

Adam and Hoss looked silently at each other. Joe thought he was very grown up and in many ways he was, but he was still ignorant about some of the seedier aspects of life and his elder brothers had hoped to keep him that way for a while longer.

Josie was the first to speak. “One of you is going to have to explain things to him; otherwise, we could be here all night.”

With a heavy sigh, Adam put his arm round his youngest brother’s shoulder and led him far enough away as to be out of earshot of the other two. As Josie and Hoss tried not to look, Adam began the difficult task of shattering the last semblance of his brother’s innocence. As the meaning of what his brother was telling him began to filter into Joe’s brain, a look of horror and disgust crossed his face. His skin took on a deathly pallor and at one point he looked as if he was about to be sick.

As soon as Adam stopped speaking, Joe almost ran to his horse and jumped on. Riding as if the devil was on his tail he took off at full gallop towards the Ponderosa and safety. The other three were left to follow in his wake.

*****

The sun had risen several hours before when the four riders entered the boundary of the Ponderosa. They were hungry, dusty and more than a little tired. Raising his hand and calling for the others to stop, Adam dismounted from his horse. They all followed suit and stood waiting for Adam to speak. Going over to his youngest brother, Adam placed his hands on his shoulders. “Time for us to separate, buddy. I am going to head back to the ranch with Josie and I want you and Hoss to continue on to the line shack at the furthest point west. No one will ever find you there.”

“What’s going to happen, Adam?” Joe asked hesitantly as he tried to hide the anxiety in his voice.

“Don’t you worry, Joe; we’ll find those men and before you know it you will be home again and safe in your own bed.”

“But what if you don’t?” Joe whispered. “They’ll come and take me to prison.” Joe shivered involuntarily.

Adam gathered his brother into his arms. Hugging him close he promised, “No matter what, Joe, I swear I won’t let them take you to jail.” Placing a hand at the back of Joe’s neck and giving a slight squeeze, Adam asked, “You okay?”

Joe nodded at his brother’s question but didn’t trust himself to answer. Thoughts of their earlier conversation were still fresh in his mind and he was having difficulty coming to terms with the fate that was nearly his.

Releasing Joe, Adam turned to face Hoss. “Once you get Joe settled, you’d best head back home as soon as you can.”

Adam turned to go but Joe stood unmoving, a worried expression on his face. “Something else worrying you, Joe?”

“I was just wondering, Adam. D-d-do you really need to tell Pa all that happened?”

Adam had an inkling to what Joe was referring. “Which part did you want me to miss out, buddy?”

Joe gave a swift glance in Josie’s direction. “Does he have to know where the Sheriff found me? I mean, I could have been on my own; he doesn’t have to know I had company.”

Adam couldn’t help smiling, “Joseph Francis Cartwright, you wouldn’t want me to lie to our Pa, would you?” Joe shrugged his shoulders and resigned himself to the fact he would be facing another little talk with his father about the facts of life and the dangers of spending time in saloons, drinking whisky with women of questionable virtue.

All four remounted their horses and headed off in separate directions. It took Hoss and Joe nearly two hours more to reach their destination. Hoss’ first task was to free his little brother from the handcuffs he still wore and he was glad to find the necessary tools available. Both brothers were thankful for their father’s insistence that the line shacks were kept well stocked with supplies. There was plenty food, blankets and firewood stored inside and it wasn’t long before Hoss had a fire going and a meal well underway.

When they at last sat down to eat, it occurred to both brothers that this was the first time in weeks that they had been alone together. The awkward silence was finally broken by Joe. “Thanks for coming to find me, Hoss.”

Hoss looked up from his plate and smiled at his younger sibling. “No need to thank me, Joe; you’re my brother. Brothers are meant to be there for each other.”

The words were simple but reinforced a feeling in both of them that recently had been missing. Over the past few months, some of the teachings their father had instilled in them about family had been lost and it took a crisis such as this to remind them about what was really important in life.

Joe looked at Hoss’ open, honest face and returned his smile. He would try in future to get along with Clara and not be jealous. His brother’s happiness was more important than his hurt feelings. Likewise, Hoss was berating himself for his neglect of Little Joe. Joe was still a kid, and as Hoss looked at the young face in front of him with the expressive green eyes that mirrored his feelings for the world to see, he mentally promised to spend more time with his brother.

For the next couple of hours, they laughed and joked together like old times and it was with more than a little reluctance that Hoss came to take his leave. As they stood outside the shack and Hoss was about to mount his horse, he turned to see the frightened look on his brother’s young face. Without warning, Joe felt himself pulled into a bear-like hug that almost squeezed the breath out of him.

“Don’t worry, Shortshanks, everything’s gonna be just fine. Ol’ Hoss won’t let anything happen to you.”

As they pulled apart, both of them had unshed tears glistening in their eyes but a renewed warm feeling in their hearts. Things were right between them once more.

Hoss mounted his horse and started to move away. “Hoss,” called Joe to his retreating back, “Get Pa to come and see me, please!”

Recognizing the desperate plea in his brother’s voice, Hoss called back reassuringly, “You and I know, Little Joe, wild horses wouldn’t keep him away.”

*****

When Adam and Josie had arrived at the Ponderosa, Ben rushed out to meet them, anxious for news of Little Joe. After introducing Ben to the girl, Adam took his father into the house and brought him up to date with the events of the last few hours.

At first Ben had been furious with Adam and Hoss for taking the law into their own hands. He felt that their intervention would only make matters worse for Joe as well as landing themselves in hot water. Adam took a deep breath and decided he must make clear to his father the reason for their irresponsibility.

“Have you stopped to think what would have happened to a young boy like Joe in Nevada Prison, Pa?” he asked, quietly.

Ben’s blood ran cold and Adam watched as the color drained from his father’s face as enlightenment dawned. With a nod of his head, Ben acknowledged that his sons had done the right thing after all.

Later than morning, Hoss arrived at the Ponderosa and Ben outlined what they must do. “First off we are going into Virginia City to speak to Roy Coffee.” Adam started to protest but Ben held up his hand for silence. “Once we explain the situation to Roy, he will understand. He may be a lawman but he knows Little Joe as well as anyone and he wouldn’t want any harm to happen to the boy. Now I suspect he will want us to bring Little Joe into town and have him locked up there, but at least he will be safe until we can sort this mess out.”

Hoss nodded his head, at least that way they would be back within the law, but Adam had reservations. “What if Roy feels he needs to lock us up as well? How will we ever find those men?”

Ben also had misgivings but felt he could persuade Roy to do the right thing and, if necessary, he was sure that Roy would square it so that Hoss and Adam would be allowed out on bail.

As they rode into town, Hoss asked to take his leave. “I just want to call off and see Clara, Pa. I’ll explain to her what’s been happening. She’s bound to be worried.”

“Okay, Hoss,” Ben said with a resigned smile, “we’ll meet you down at the Sheriff’s office.”

Ben, Adam and Josie were soon sat in front of Roy Coffee bringing him up to date with all that had happened. Half way through the tale, Hoss and Clara walked through the door and joined them.

The whole situation put Roy Coffee in a very difficult position. Much as he wanted to help his friends, first and foremost, he was Sheriff and paid by the good people of Virginia City to uphold the law. After much argument, he agreed to a compromise with Ben. If they brought Little Joe into town, he would keep him locked up in one of his cells, while Adam and Hoss tried to find the real culprits.

“But see here, Ben, this state of affairs can’t go on forever. Hoss and Adam have one week to bring those men in. If they don’t, I will have no alternative; Joe will have to go to prison and Adam and Hoss will be tried for obstructing the law.”

Ben nodded his head agreeing to Roy’s terms; what choice did he have? Roy looked at the sea of worried faces in front of him and wished he could do things differently. He had no doubt that Little Joe was innocent; the boy could be mischievous and downright ornery on occasions, but he didn’t have a bad bone in his body; there was no way he would rob and set fire to a building. As for ending up in bed with a saloon girl, well, that was different, he may have been drugged on this occasion, but Roy had no doubt that the young scallywag would have gone willingly given the chance. Joe may have been an unwilling accomplice on this occasion, but unwilling or not, Roy was sure that Ben would have plenty to say to him about the situation when they next met. With a slight chuckle to himself, Roy turned to Ben.

“I think before we do anything else, we need to send a message to the Sheriff in Genoa to let him know what’s going on. He’s probably sent out a posse to look for the boys by now.”

The small party of four men and two women exited the jailhouse and began to walk towards the telegraph office. Across the street two men were entering the saloon and Josie stopped in her tracks. Grabbing Adam by the arm, she pulled him to a standstill.

“Adam,” she cried in alarm.

“What is it?” Adam asked, scouring their surroundings, looking to see what had frightened her.

Everyone stopped walking and looked at Josie’s shocked face.

“It’s them, those two men, Mike and Jed. They’re here. They just walked in the saloon, bold as brass. I don’t believe it.”

Grabbing hold of her arm none too gently, Adam dragged the girl off in the direction of the saloon. Ben and Roy drew their guns from their holsters and followed quickly behind. Hoss was anxious to play his part, but his first priority was to ensure that Clara was safe before rushing off to catch up to his Pa.

Pushing open the saloon doors, Adam hissed, “Point them out to me.”

The bar was full but Josie quickly scanned the room and pointed her finger over to the poker table where two men were getting ready to sit down and join the game. Pushing the girl behind him out of harm’s way, Adam and the others advanced on the unsuspecting pair.

Roy was the first to speak. “Okay boys, hands up, nice and easy. You’re under arrest.”

The two men could see they were well outnumbered and didn’t put up any fight. Their hands were cuffed behind them and they were led to the Sheriff’s office.

Over the next couple of hours, the truth was finally told. At first the men stuck to their story and denied any involvement with Little Joe. They called Josie a liar and refuted her claims that they had planned it all. But the one thing they couldn’t explain was the large amount of money in their possession and eventually they broke down and admitted their guilt. What no one could understand was why they had returned to Virginia City?

“We wanted the rest of our money,” Jed said with a shrug of the shoulders. “We got half the money before we set up the kid, but we couldn’t collect the second half until he was taken care of.”

“Who would want to get rid of Little Joe?” Ben asked incredulously.

“Matt McVitie, of course” the other man said with a small laugh. “He hates the kid. If it had been left up to him, he would have had us kill the boy, but I wasn’t going to put my neck in a noose for the likes of him.”

The shocked silence pervaded the room and was only broken by the sickening cry that came from Clara. Bursting into tears, she shrieked at the men, “You’re lying; Uncle Matt would never do such a thing.” Looking into Hoss’ distressed face, she beseeched, “Hoss, believe me, it’s not true; he just wouldn’t, I just know he wouldn’t.”

Clara fell into Hoss’ open arms and he tried his best to comfort her. Looking over her shoulder, alarm spread across his face as a sudden realization came to him.

“Pa, I told Mr. McVitie what had happened. He knows where Joe is!”

*****

Little Joe was deep in sleep when Matt McVitie rode up to the line shack. The last few days had taken their toll and Joe never heard the approaching horse or the footsteps at the door as the man entered.

Looking over at the sleeping boy, Matt McVitie smiled wickedly to himself; the pent up hate and frustration he had felt all these years would finally be unleashed. The first blow to Joe’s body took the boy completely by surprise; he awoke to a sea of pain as he struggled to get his breath.

Dragging the boy to his feet, McVitie drew back his fist and hit him square in the face. Joe fell heavily backwards, hitting his head on the floor as he fell. Blood streamed from his nose and mouth and he shook his head in an effort to clear his thoughts. His eyes turned upwards and he looked into the deranged face of the man looming over him.

“Mr. McVitie?” Joe said in shocked amazement. “What’s going on?”

McVitie only laughed and pulled the boy to his feet. As the larger man made to strike out once more, Joe’s natural instinct for self preservation stepped in and he swung his body to the side so that McVitie’s fist hit mid air. As the man was caught off balance, Joe took the opportunity to land a hard punch to the man’s midriff with his left hand. McVitie doubled over in pain as Joe brought up his right fist to connect heavily with his opponent’s jaw. Falling to the ground, McVitie groaned with pain.

Joe breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the fight was over. He didn’t know what was going on, but he assumed there had been some sort of misunderstanding. Going over to the basin of water he had left on the table earlier, Joe dipped in a clean cloth and brought it to his face in order to stem the flow of blood from his nose.

Unfortunately, Joe’s optimism was short lived, for many people looking at Matt McVitie may have dismissed him as an old man, but looks can be deceptive. As Joe’s back was turned, McVitie rose quickly to his feet and, taking his gun from its holster, he brought it down hard on the back of the unsuspecting boy’s head. Joe lost consciousness immediately.

As his victim lay bleeding and hurt, Matt McVitie gave vent to his hatred, drawing back his foot, again and again, he kicked out at the helpless boy, moving Joe about the floor like a sack of grain.

Finally the tirade stopped and McVitie’s blurred vision cleared enough for him to look down on the bloody mass at his feet. As he pulled Joe’s battered body from the floor and laid him on the bed, he showed no remorse for his actions, only a deep sense of satisfaction.

McVitie then sat down to wait for Joe to open his eyes. Before he pulled the trigger that would end the boy’s life, he wanted him to know why he was to die and more importantly he wanted to tell him what sort of woman his mother was.

There was a long wait but eventually there was movement behind Joe’s eyelids and McVitie was forewarned that his victim was coming round. Joe groaned out his distress as the first wave of agony swept over his body. He tried hard to remember what had happened, but the pain was all encompassing and he struggled just to draw breath.

McVitie was now impatient to draw a conclusion to the situation. He was past caring about what would happen to him when he was found; all he could focus on was the revenge he had been harboring inside him for the past twelve years. Picking up the bowl from the table he poured the dirty blood stained water over Joe’s face. As Joe registered the shock of the unsuspected soaking, his brain began to clear and, with eyes that were no more than slits in his battered and bruised face, he looked up at his tormentor. Joe was too weak to speak but his mouth formed a single word, “Why?”

McVitie just laughed at Joe’s confusion. Sitting down next to the bed he began to tell Joe all about his secret love and obsession with Marie. To hear it from McVitie’s point of view, Marie had encouraged his love and wanted him as much as he had wanted her. When he got to the part in the story where he had visited Marie, thinking she was alone at the Ponderosa, a faint flicker of remembrance crossed Joe’s mind.

As McVitie continued to talk, Joe struggled to picture the forgotten scene. He had a fleeting image of his mother screaming and crying, the front of her dress ripped and torn, exposing her naked body beneath. He closed his eyes and tried hard to remember the face of his mother’s attacker. The man had struck him in the face as he had bravely ran to his mother’s aid and, even when Marie had picked up her small son and held him to her, the man had continued to shout out his abuse and rage at having his plan thwarted.

Joe’s breathing became labored as the pain of the old memories was brought to mind once more. How could he have forgotten what this evil man had done? Why had his father remained friends with him? Surely his Mother would not have kept such a terrible secret to herself?

Joe’s questions were soon answered, when McVitie then recalled Marie’s untimely death the day his father had returned home. Choking back a sob, Joe couldn’t bear to think that all these years this man had befriended his father, while all the time harboring such thoughts about his mother and a hatred of Joe himself.

When Joe opened his eyes once more, McVitie was standing over him with a gun in his hand. “You are just like her,” he spat, “always flirting, always showing off. Well, not any more. If you hadn’t been there that day, she would have been mine. And once she had been with me, she never would have returned to your Pa.” McVitie smirked confidently. “But you, you had to come and spoil things. Always have to be centre of attention don’t you, Joe, always have to be the one.”

Joe’s body began to shake with fear; the man in front of him was completely deranged. “Well, you’re not going to spoil it for Clara,” McVitie continued. “You’ve been trying to break up her and Hoss and I can’t let that happen.” With that McVitie placed the gun to Joe’s head and prepared to pull the trigger.

*****

Roy Coffee and the Cartwrights’ rode as if their very lives depended on it for the line shack, each dreading what he may find. Why would Matt McVitie have such a hatred of Little Joe was the burning question in each of their minds. Try as they might none of them could come up with a feasible explanation and Clara had been too distressed to answer any questions.

On the approach, they urged their horses even faster when they spied McVitie’s steed tied up outside. Ben was the first to arrive and hardly giving his horse time to stop, he swung his leg over the saddle and dropping to the ground he rushed towards the door, gun drawn and ready.

Without thought for his own safety, Ben rushed inside, only stopping dead in his tracks when faced with the deadly scene before him. McVitie was startled by the sudden intrusion and half turned to meet the unwelcome visitor. With a sickly smile on his face, he turned back away from Ben and pointed his gun once more at Little Joe. “No Matt, don’t do it” Ben cried in alarm as the madman prepared to pull the trigger, but McVitie was beyond reason. Without hesitation Ben pointed his own gun and fired, hitting McVitie in the back. Ben had been quick, but not quick enough, for as McVitie slumped to the floor mortally wounded, his own gun went off and a bullet hit Little Joe in the chest.

Rushing over to the bed, Ben choked back a sob as he placed his hands over the hole in Joe’s chest and tried unsuccessfully to stem the flow of blood. The other men had by now entered the room and were quick to take in the situation before them. Adam grabbed hold of whatever cloths he could and, pushing Ben to one side, he replaced his father’s hands with his own and pressed the cloths firmly against his brother’s wound. Under Adam’s urgent instructions, Hoss pulled the sheets from the bed and tore them into strips for bandages.

Ben stood by looking on in shock, hardly able to believe that the battered and bruised body laid out on the bed was that of his youngest son. Roy was equally distressed at the sight before him, but knew that they had to act fast if Little Joe was to stand any chance of survival. “Ben,” he called softly, but on receiving no response, he raised his voice sharply, “Ben, snap out of it. We need to get help and quickly.”

As the urgency of his friend’s voice penetrated his subconscious, Ben came back to the present and took charge once more. It was obvious Joe needed urgent medical attention, but it would take hours for them to ride back to town and fetch the doctor. It was quickly decided that Joe’s best chance for survival was to get him to the Ponderosa as quickly as possible, while someone rode into town and asked Doctor Martin to meet them at the ranch.

Adam set off immediately as he was without doubt the fastest rider amongst them. No sooner had he left than the others prepared Joe for his perilous journey. With his chest now completely swathed in makeshift bandages, Joe was wrapped in blankets and carried outside. Ben mounted his horse and, with not a moment to waste, Hoss reached up and placed his young brother into his father’s outstretched arms. They had considered making up a travois, but it would take too much time, and they didn’t have much of that to waste.

Progress back to the Ponderosa was slow. Much as they wanted to hurry, they had no choice but to set a leisurely pace, as any violent movement was likely to open Joe’s wound and set off the bleeding once more. When the weight of the boy became too much for Ben and he began to lose feeling in his arms, he was forced to stop and pass his precious cargo to his second son. Hoss was more than willing to take up the burden and held his little brother to him as gently as he would a small child.

When they finally arrived at the ranch, Doctor Martin and Adam were already there and waiting for them. As always, Hop Sing was prepared in advance and had water boiling and a bed stripped and ready for the operation that would be needed to remove the bullet from Joe’s chest.

Joe was very weak and hardly breathing when he was carried into the house and up to his room. Doctor Martin called Hop Sing to him for help and instructed Hoss and Adam to take their father downstairs to wait. Ben protested, but the doctor didn’t have time to placate him; Joe was his first priority.

Joe didn’t recover consciousness throughout the entire operation. Surprisingly, the bullet was removed with little difficulty, but he had lost a lot of blood and the severe beating he had taken at the hands of Matt McVitie had already weakened his body. Even after the major operation had been completed, it still took Paul Martin several hours to deal with Joe’s many other injuries. When his job was finally done he stood back and surveyed the battered body of the boy in front of him. With a heavy sigh, Paul turned and thanked Hop Sing for his help, before preparing to descend the stairs and give his friends the news they were eagerly awaiting. Shaking his weary head, the good doctor turned and walked out of the door, once again despairing of life when he was faced with man’s inhumanity to man.

Ben was pacing the floor below, a glass of brandy in his hand, when the doctor made his way down to the great room. The family all rushed forward to meet him at once and with a heavy heart the doctor delivered the words he had had no time to prepare, “I’m sorry, Ben, I’ve done all I can, but he’s in God’s hands now.”

“What are his chances, Paul?” Adam asked the words his father could not bear to speak.

Paul just shook his head; he saw no point in giving them false hope. Joe’s condition was very grave and over the next few days, it would no doubt deteriorate before it got better.

*****

As predicted the next few days were ones of great stress for the family. Joe developed a fever that left him sweating and delirious for most of the time and it took all of them every waking hour to tend to his needs. Taking it in turns to sit next to his bed, they continuously doused his fevered body with cold water in an attempt to lower his temperature, but it was almost four days later before his fever peaked and his body started to cool once more. During all that time, Joe never completely recovered consciousness. He muttered and shouted on numerous occasions but his mumblings were incomprehensible and made no sense to them at all.

On the morning that Joe’s fever broke, he slowly drifted back to consciousness to find his father sitting by his bed. When he tentatively opened his eyes, he was heartened to find himself in familiar surroundings with the person he loved most in the world gazing lovingly back at him. Ben leaned forward and felt Joe’s brow, reassuring himself that the fever was in fact gone. Smiling with relief, he pushed Joe’s hair back off his face and said, “About time you woke up, young man; you gave us all quite a scare.”

Ben went to the bedroom door and called out to Adam and Hoss. Footsteps echoed on the stairs as the brothers’ ran swiftly to the room. Not knowing what to expect, Adam and Hoss rushed over to the bed and positively beamed on finding their young brother finally awake and taking notice. Joe didn’t stay awake for long but his father was able to get a drink and a little broth into him before he fell back asleep. As they watched Joe’s chest rise and fall in quiet slumber, Ben felt the energy drain from him. The last few days had taken their toll on the worried father and his body cried out for rest.

Taking his father by the arm, Adam insisted that he go back to his own room and lie down. He would stay with Joe and would call Ben if there was anything to worry about. Then turning to Hoss, Adam said, “Why don’t you take some time out to go and see Clara; she’s had quite a time of it as well.”

During the four days, Joe had laid desperately ill, Matt McVitie was buried with only his niece, the parson and the Sheriff in attendance. Clara was finding it hard to come to terms with the terrible things her uncle had done and up to now she hadn’t seen Hoss and his family.

When Hoss arrived at the McVitie house a couple of hours later, Clara fell into his open arms and sobbed her heart out. Leading her into the parlor, Hoss sat down on the settee and pulled her next to him, all the time rubbing her back and trying to get her to calm down.

“Oh Eric,” she finally said. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you come to me?”

“You know why, Clara” Hoss tried to explain. “Little Joe has been at death’s door these past few days. I just couldn’t leave him.”

“But Little Joe had your Pa and Adam; I had no one,” Clara persisted.

Hoss recognized the old familiar jealousy creeping into her voice. “You’re not being fair, Clara,” Hoss declared, “Little Joe almost died. He’s still not out of the woods yet.”

Sensing the hurt in Hoss’, voice, Clara tried to retract her statement. “I’m sorry, Eric; of course Little Joe must come first.”

Hoss felt a stab to his heart. Clara’s words sounded insincere and when he thought about it, she hadn’t even asked how Little Joe was doing. It was at that moment Hoss came to the decision he knew he had been avoiding, but once he made his mind up, he knew it was the right one.

Clara finally stopped crying and looked at Hoss. For once she could not make out what he was thinking, he looked strange, different. The final nail in her coffin was when she said, “If Little Joe is out of danger, there is no reason why we shouldn’t go ahead with the wedding on Saturday.”

Pushing her slightly away from him, Hoss stated, “I’m sorry Clara, but there’s not going to be any wedding.”

Misinterpreting his meaning, Clara responded angrily, “Everything’s arranged, Eric; there’s no need to postpone anything. Surely Hop Sing can stay and look after Joe; it wouldn’t be the first time and it’s only for one day!”

Shaking his head, Hoss tried hard to find the right words. “There’s not going to be a wedding at all, Clara. Not on Saturday, not ever.”

Clara’s face registered the shock she was feeling. Once again she dissolved into tears and clung to Hoss as if her life depended on it. Hoss felt like a complete cad; he never wanted to hurt her, but he knew now they weren’t right for each other.

“Why Eric, what have I done? Don’t you love me anymore? Is it because of what Uncle Matt did? We’ll get over that, really we will.” Clara continued to sob against his chest and Hoss struggled to make her understand.

“I don’t know what to say, Clara; you know I ain’t good with words. It’s just, well we just ain’t right for each other. I do love you and I guess I always will, but it takes more than that to make a marriage work. At the end of the day, we want different things out of life.”

“I thought we wanted the same things, Eric. We talked about our future together, we made plans. What’s changed?”

“I guess I have,” Hoss stated. “Well no, that’s not strictly true. I changed when I met you; I became Eric, but now I’m Hoss again, and Hoss doesn’t want the same things out of life as Eric.”

Clara tried to make sense of what Hoss was saying, but her head was swimming with confusion.

“You see, Clara, you talk about us getting married and forming our own family. As far as you are concerned, we will become this little family unit on our own.”

“But obviously there will only be the two of us at first, Eric, but when we start having children of our own, then they will be our family as well.”

Hoss shook his head once more. “But that’s what I’m getting at, Clara. We already have a family. I have my Pa and brothers and you have your parents and brothers. When I marry, I don’t want to be thinking that this new family wipes out all the feelings I had for my old one. Pa taught me all there is to know about family and loyalty. I just think I drifted away for a while.”

Clara still couldn’t see what he was getting at. “But surely you don’t think your Pa and brothers should come before me, Hoss? That’s not the way it is meant to be when you fall in love.”

Hoss struggled for a way to make her understand. “But don’t you see, Clara, family is not about substituting one person for another. When I marry I want that person to become part of my family, my extended family. I want my family to grow, all of us, helping and needing each other. I don’t want to worry that by spending time with one, I am neglecting the other. Love doesn’t have to be exclusive to one person. Don’t get me wrong; I want that one person in my life to be special, but my family is special too. The person I marry will need to understand that, just as I would expect her family to be special to her and hopefully to me as time goes on.”

Clara could see she had lost him. She would probably never understand what he was trying to say and that lack of understanding was what had broken them up in the long run.

With a single kiss they parted, and Hoss headed back to the Ponderosa and the family he loved.

*****

By the end of the week Joe had improved enormously and it wasn’t long before he was well enough to give them the answers they had all been waiting for. With his father and brothers sat at his bedside, he began haltingly to explain to them the reason for Matt McVitie’s hatred of him.

As Joe described to them the attack on Marie, Ben bowed his head and placed his hands over his eyes. He couldn’t bear to imagine his beautiful young wife being mauled by that monster, and also to think his baby son had witnessed his mother’s distress. Not trying to hide his tears, Ben started to apologize. “Can you ever forgive me?” he asked of Little Joe.

“But Pa, there’s nothing to forgive.”

“I should have protected her. I should have protected you. You were both in my care and I left you alone to face that degenerate. How could I not have known? And to think I have made that man a friend all these years. How could he sink so low?”

Joe took hold of his father’s hand. “You had no way of knowing, Pa. How could you?” Ben gathered his son to him and they both wept for what had gone before.

Hoss and Adam were also distraught. They had treated Matt McVitie as a friend all these years, never knowing the harm he had done to their beloved Marie and the hatred he had harbored towards their young brother.

*****

As the days went by and Joe began to regain his strength, he was becoming restless and irritable with his forced confinement. On one particular trying evening, Adam bit back an angry retort as he left Joe’s bedside with an almost untouched supper tray in his hand. Hoss was just entering the bedroom door and quickly relieved Adam of the almost full plate of dinner.

“Be a shame to waste good food,” Hoss argued as he sat down next to the bed and took a bite out of the meat pie.

“You’re welcome to it…..and him” Adam said through clenched teeth. Joe just scowled and grimaced in Adam’s direction.

Trying to think of a way to relieve the tension, Hoss looked over at Adam and winked. “Do you suppose Joe here is ready for that little talk with Pa yet?”

Joe immediately looked up at Hoss, concern showing in his eyes. “What does Pa want to talk to me about Hoss?”

Adam caught on straight away and answered for his brother. “You mean the one about whisky drinking and loose women Hoss?”

“Yeah that’s the one,” Hoss confirmed.

Joe’s pallor visibly whitened and he looked at Adam with a sick smile spreading across his face.

“Don’t worry little brother, Josie put him right. She said there was no need to give you the birds and bees talk as she was pretty sure you already had all the facts,” Adam said with a shrug of his shoulders. Then unable to help himself he added with glee, “both in theory and in practice.”

Hoss started to chuckle, “Guess you’ve got nothing to worry about then, Joe.”

“Yeah nothing to worry about,” Joe repeated dolefully.

“But he may still want to know where you got your education in the first place,” Adam cackled, unable to keep the amusement from his voice any longer.

Joe picked up his pillow and threw it at Adam’s head, but Adam had already ducked out of the door, his laughter echoing throughout the house.

Looking sheepishly over at Hoss, Joe admitted, “Suppose I asked for that?”

Hoss nodded his head “Well, you have been kinda prickly lately.”

The door opened again and Joe picked up his other pillow, getting ready to take aim.

“Oh sorry, Pa,” Joe apologized, putting his arm back down as his father entered the room.

Ben raised his eyebrows, but didn’t comment. Picking up the first pillow from the floor, he made his way over to the bed and straightened up Joe’s bedclothes.

“You need to rest young man,” Ben said, indicating to Hoss that it was time he left.

“I just need a few minutes with Joe, Pa. I won’t be long,” Hoss pleaded.

Ben agreed. “Only a few minutes, Hoss; it’s getting late and Dr Martin insisted that we don’t tire Joe out.”

Once they were alone, Hoss sat down on the bed next to Joe and once again, in a short space of time, tried to find the right words.

Joe looked at his brother’s somber face and tried to lighten the mood once more. “Hey, Hoss, would you mind sitting on a chair? Your weight on the bed is going to tip me out.”

Hoss quickly got to his feet and straightened the crumpled bedcovers round his little brother. “Sorry, Joe, I just wasn’t thinking.”

“Well I guess you do have a lot on your mind; it’s not everyday a guy gets hitched. Have you set a new date yet?”

Hoss sat back down in the chair next to the bed. “That’s what I got to tell you, Joe; there ain’t gonna be no wedding.”

Joe’s smile froze on his face. Trying to sit up he cried, “No wedding. Why? Not because of me, Hoss. Don’t tell me Clara’s called it off because of what happened?”

Hoss placed a restraining hand on Joe’s shoulder and gently pushed him back down onto the bed. “Don’t fret, Joe. Pa will be in here shouting any minute if he thinks I upset ya. Just lie still and listen.”

Once Hoss was assured that Joe had calmed and was lying down once more, he continued. “Clara didn’t call off the wedding. I did.”

“But why?” Joe asked. “You were made for each other.”

“I thought so at first, Joe, but I was wrong. In the last week or so, I have come to a different conclusion. The day I rode to Genoa with Adam and then the morning I spent with you at the line shack, well, I know we had problems, but I felt like me again.”

“What do you mean, ‘felt like you again’? You’re not making sense, Hoss.”

“Don’t you see, Joe, Clara was in love with Eric and Eric was her creation. During that time with you and Adam, I was Hoss and I liked being Hoss again. I can’t marry Clara, Joe; I can’t go on pretending to be Eric.”

Joe had mixed emotions. He was glad to have his brother back again, but also sad that things hadn’t worked out for him.

Seeing that Joe was beginning to look tired and drained once more, Hoss pulled the covers up over Joe’s chest and said, “You had better get some rest; otherwise, I’ll be in big trouble.”

As Hoss went to leave, a sleepy Joe snuggled under the covers, muttering softly, “You know, Hoss, that fellow Shakespeare wrote: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Bending forward and giving his brother an unexpected kiss on the brow, Hoss whispered in his ear. “Don’t go telling Adam I said this, but that Shakespeare fellow don’t know what he’s talking about, ’cause he’s dead wrong.”

***The End***

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