Between Heaven and Earth: The Aftermath (by Susan)

Synopsis:  A WHN for the episode, Between Heaven and Earth.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  5,480


 

As he stopped his horse in front of the Silver Dollar Saloon, Joe Cartwright swallowed hard, gulping down a knot of nervousness as well as a good deal of pride. He had made his peace with his father and brother, explaining his unreasonable fear of climbing to the top of Eagle’s Nest and apologizing for his strange behavior. Now Joe had to face Mitch Devlin, and he knew fixing things with Mitch wouldn’t be nearly as easy as patching up his relationship with his family.

After dismounting and tying the reins of his horse to the hitching post, Joe stood in front of the saloon, staring at the swinging doors as he bit his lip a bit. He had no idea what he could say to Mitch to repair their friendship, but he knew he had to try. Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then walked through the doors.

Entering the saloon, Joe saw it was crowded as usual on a Friday night. Almost all the ranch hands in the area had received their weekly pay earlier in the day, and many of them had come to town to spend some money. A large number of cowboys were crowded together at the wooden bar, laughing and talking loudly as they drank from their mugs of beer or glasses of whiskey. Several tables were surrounded by sitting men who were playing poker or being entertained by the hostesses, or both.

For several minutes, Joe stood by the end of the bar, unnoticed in the crowd of people. His eyes surveyed the saloon, looking for a familiar face. He finally spotted Mitch Devlin sitting by himself at table in the far corner.

“Can I get you something, Joe?” shouted Bruno, the bartender, trying to make himself heard over the din of the saloon.

“Yeah, Bruno, two beers,” answered Joe, giving a quick nod.

After throwing some coins onto the wooden bar, Joe picked up the two glasses of foaming beer that Bruno had placed in front of him. Once more, he took a deep breath, then headed across the saloon.

“Hey, Mitch,” Joe greeted his friend with a too bright smile and a too cheerful voice. He sat in a chair across the table from Mitch. “I bought you a beer.”

Mitch’s head barely moved as he lifted his eyes from staring at the table to look at Joe. “Already got a beer,” replied Devlin gruffly as his eyes returned to gazing at the table. He slowly moved the half-empty mug in front of him in small circles.

“Well, have another one,” encouraged Joe a bit too enthusiastically. “You can never have too many beers.”

Ignoring Joe’s offer, Mitch continued to stare at the table and move his glass around slowly.

Nervously taking a large drink from his own beer mug, Joe waited for some type of response from his friend. After what seemed like an hour to Joe, Mitch finally lifted his eyes and looked across the table. “What do you want, Joe?” asked Devlin pointedly.

“Look, Mitch, I want to say I’m sorry about what happened last week,” answered Joe earnestly. “I know how much that arm wrestling title meant to you. I should have never challenged you.”

“Then why did you?” Devlin asked bluntly.

“I don’t know,” Joe replied, shaking his head. He hesitated; he wanted to tell the truth but even now he couldn’t bring himself to explain about his unreasonable fear of Eagle’s Nest and the self-loathing that fear had caused. “I was feeling bad about myself and I guess I was looking for something to make me feel better. It was stupid. I didn’t even think about what it meant to you. All I was worried about what making me feel like a big man.”

“Feel like a big man?” said Devlin in surprise. “You already are a big man, Joe. You can outride me and outshoot me. Hell, you can even outfight me. The only thing I could do better than you was arm wrestle. And now I can’t even do that. You’re the big man, Joe. I’m just nothing.”

“That’s not true, Mitch,” insisted Joe earnestly.

“It is true, Joe.” Devlin shook his head sadly. “Why’d you have to do it?”

“I was just being stupid,” Joe repeated. He took another sip of beer, trying to think of what to say next. “Look, Mitch, we’ve been friends for too long to let this ruin things between us. Let me make it up to you. How about we have another arm wrestling contest?”

“And you let me win?” asked Devlin in a flat voice.

“I wouldn’t let you win,” replied Joe.

“Oh no? Well, that’s what people would say,” Devlin stated. “Poor Mitch Devlin. His friend Joe Cartwright felt so sorry for him that he let him win at an arm wrestling match.” Devlin shook his head. “No thanks, Joe. I’ve got my pride and I want to keep it, at least the little of it that you left me.”

A look of dismay crossed Joe’s face. He knew Mitch was right, just as he knew the importance of pride to a man. Hadn’t he rejected his family’s concern and thrown away a friendship for the sake of his own foolish pride? “Mitch, I don’t want bad feelings between us,” Joe said. “What can I say or do to make things right?”

“I don’t know, Joe,” admitted Devlin honestly. “I just don’t know.” He took a quick gulp from his almost empty beer glass and pushed back from the table. “Thanks for the beer,” mumbled Devlin as he walked away from the table.

With a look of misery on his face, Joe stared at the untouched beer sitting in the middle of the table.

*****

Sighing with relief, Hoss Cartwright sat back against the old oak tree. “I’m so tired I can barely move,” he complained. “I must have ridden around half the state of Nevada this morning, and all I found was six strays.”

“You’re tired?” retorted his brother Adam, who was crouching a few feet away near a small fire. “What about your horse? He had to cover the same distance and on top of that, he had to carry you all the way.”

“Ol’ Chubb don’t mind carrying me as long as he just has to walk,” replied Hoss with a grin. “He’ll walk all day. It’s running he don’t like much.”

“Just like the person on his back,” Adam commented dryly.

Reaching into the leather saddlebag laying next to him, Hoss pulled out an apple and took a big bite out of it. As he chewed noisily, he turned to his right and looked at the young man sitting in the grass nearby. “Hey, Joe, you want an apple? There’s one left. Actually, it’s the only thing left out of that lunch Hop Sing packed for us.”

“No thanks,” answered Joe with a distracted air. He picked up an acorn from the grass and idly played with it in his hands, then fixed his gaze on some unseen object in the distance.

Looking back to Adam, Hoss raised his eyebrows in a quizzical expression and jerked his head a bit toward Joe. Adam merely shrugged in response as he reached to pour himself a cup of coffee from the pot sitting on the edge of the fire.

“Joe,” said Hoss, turning back to his younger brother, “are you still worried about me being mad at you? ‘Cause if that’s what’s bothering you, forget it. I already done told you I was over it, and I meant it.”

Adam raised his head quickly as he listened to Hoss. “You and Joe had a fight while I was gone? What happened?”

A few feet away, Joe silently groaned. Adam had been at the railhead when Joe was dealing with his fear of Eagle’s Nest and then subsequently making things up with Pa and Hoss. The oldest Cartwright brother had returned only yesterday, and so far, no one had seen it necessary to mention Joe’s abnormal fit of behavior to him. Joe had hoped he could get by without having to explain the whole thing to Adam, not only because it was embarrassing but also because it would force him to relive his terror.

“Aw, Adam, it was nothing” said Hoss quickly, before Joe could reply. “Me and Joe just had a disagreement about how to break a horse, and things got a little out of hand. But, like I said, it’s over.” He turned to Joe and gave his youngest brother a meaningful look. He smiled a bit at the relief on Joe’s face, and acknowledged it with a brief nod.

“Then what’s bothering you, Joe?” persisted Adam. “You haven’t said two words since breakfast, and you volunteered to ride all the way up to the ridge looking for strays. Silence and wanting to be far away from us usually means something is wrong.”

For a moment, Joe didn’t answer, then he sighed. “You’re right, Adam, something is bothering me,” he admitted. “I had a falling out with Mitch Devlin, and when I tried to patch things up, he wasn’t interested. I’m just not sure what to do about it.”

“You had a fight with Hoss and a falling out with Mitch?” commented Adam. “Sounds like you were your usual pleasant self while I was gone. What happened?”

“I went into town about a week or so ago, and I beat Mitch at arm wrestling,” Joe answered.

“That’s it? You beat him arm wrestling?” said Adam, clearly confused. “Mitch is upset because you beat him at arm wrestling?”

“You don’t understand, Adam,” Joe explained. “See, Mitch was kind of the unofficial champion arm wrestler in Virginia City. Every Friday, the hands from all the ranches would come to the Silver Dollar and challenge him. Mitch beat them all, and he was really proud of it.”

“Until you came along and beat him,” Adam stated, showing his understanding with a nod. “Why did you challenge him, Joe? You and Mitch are such good friends I would have thought you’d be happy to let him be the champ.”

Joe looked away as he tried to figure out how to answer Adam without giving away too much. “I don’t know why I did it,” sighed Joe, “I really don’t. I was feeling kind of low after the fight with Hoss and…well, some other stuff that didn’t go the way I planned. And when I got to town, there was Mitch, crowing about how he beat everyone again. I guess I just figured I’d feel better by taking Mitch down a notch and showing everyone I was better than he was.”

“Did it work?” asked Adam quietly.

“No,” replied Joe, shaking his head. “After I beat him, Mitch was so upset it just made me feel worse.” He shook his head again. “It was a stupid thing to do.”

“Yeah, it was,” agreed Adam. “And pretty selfish, too.”

Joe winced at Adam’s words but acknowledged the truth of them with a slow nod.

“Did you try talking to Mitch?” Hoss asked, trying to help. “He’s a good fellow. Maybe if you explained things to him, he’d understand.”

“I already tried that,” Joe answered. “I rode into town last Friday and tried to explain things to Mitch. I told him I’d do anything to make up for what I did, but he said there was nothing I could do.”

“Why don’t you fellows have another match?” suggested Hoss. “He might win this time.”

“I offered to do that too,” Joe said. “But Mitch wasn’t interested. He figured if he won, people would say I let him win. It would sort of add insult to injury.”

“Well, it sounds like Mitch’s pride has been hurt,” remarked Adam. “It can take a man awhile to get over that. Maybe you just need to give him some time.”

“Maybe,” replied Joe doubtfully.

“I think Adam’s right; give Mitch some time. He’ll come around,” Hoss assured his younger brother. “He don’t strike me as the kind of fellow drops a friend just because of one mistake. And if he is, then you don’t need that kind of friend.”

“Nobody is perfect, Joe,” added Adam with a wry smile. “Especially you. We all make mistakes, or do stupid things we regret later. Sometimes feelings get hurt. But a true friend will forgive and forget. Just give Mitch some time to get over his hurt feelings.”

“I hope you’re right,” Joe said with a sigh. “But I think there’s more to this than just hurt feelings.”

“Like what?” asked Adam.

“That’s just it — I don’t know exactly,” admitted Joe. He shook his head. “I need to think about this some more. Maybe if I can figure out what’s really bothering Mitch, I can fix things between us.”

“Well, maybe you’re right,” said Adam as he got to his feet. His tone of voice clearly indicated that he considered the discussion over. He poured the coffee from the pot on the fire, dousing the flames, and then kicked dirt over the wet wood to make sure the fire was out. “Lunch is over,” he announced. “We’ve got strays to find.”

Following his brother’s example, Hoss got to his feet also. “Come on, little brother, time to get back to work,” he ordered as he hitched up his pants a bit. “Why don’t you ride down toward the lake and see if there are any strays there.”

“That’s a good five miles,” Joe protested. “It’ll take me the rest of the day to cover that ground.”

“Yeah, I guess it might,” agreed Hoss with a grin. “But just think of all the time you’ll have to do your thinking.”

*****

As he started to undress and prepare to go to bed, Ben Cartwright was a bit surprised to hear the sound of footsteps passing by the bedroom door which he had left ajar. He had stayed downstairs in the great room for quite awhile after his sons had gone to bed, reading the last chapters of the latest Dickens novel, and thought that Adam, Hoss, and Joe would have been in a deep sleep by now. He was mildly curious why Adam or Joe was roaming the hallway at this hour. He knew it was Adam or Joe; Ben could hear the faint rumble of Hoss’ engine-like snoring from down the hall.

As he continued to get ready for bed, Ben half-listened for the sound of one his sons returning to his own bedroom. His curiosity grew when the minutes passed and only silence filled the hallway. Ben knew there were a dozen mundane reasons why Adam or Joe could have found it hard to sleep and decided to go downstairs for awhile, that it was silly to check on a grown man who probably had decided he wanted something to eat or wanted to read for a bit. Nevertheless, Ben gave into his paternal instinct; he slipped on his robe and headed for the bedroom door.

The clock was striking midnight when Ben reached the top of the stairs. He descended three steps, then stopped to look down into the room below. He was only somewhat surprised to see Joe, clad in a pair of pants and a shirt that hung open, sitting on the low table in front of the fireplace, staring into the flames. Ben knew his youngest son was the most likely candidate to find sleep hard to come by when something was troubling him, and over the past few weeks, Joe had had a lot on his mind. Walking quietly, Ben descended the stairs and stopped a few feet from the bottom.

“Did you have another nightmare?” Ben asked softly.

Startled by the voice, Joe jumped a bit. He had been deep in thought and hadn’t realized anyone else was in the room. As he turned toward his father, Joe felt the same sense of only slight surprise that Ben had experienced earlier. Somehow, he thought, Pa always knew when something was bothering him. He should have expected his father to come down to check on him.

“No, I didn’t have another nightmare,” answered Joe, then he smiled. “I haven’t had a nightmare since you tricked me into going to the top of Eagle’s Nest.”

“I didn’t trick you,” Ben protested mildly as he walked toward his son. “I simply took your mind off your fear of falling. You did the rest.”

“Well, whatever you did, it worked,” said Joe. “I haven’t had a nightmare since I came down off that mountain.”

“Do you want to talk about whatever it is that is bothering you?” Ben asked.

For a minute, Joe didn’t answer. He turned to stare into the flames of the fire, biting his lip with uncertainty. Ben waited patiently, moving to sit in the worn blue chair nearby and making himself comfortable.

“It’s this thing with Mitch,” Joe finally blurted out. “I hate it that he doesn’t seem to want to be friends anymore. We’ve had our disagreements in the past, but we’ve always got over them. This time, though, I don’t know if he’s going to get over this.”

“His friendship means a lot to you, doesn’t it,” stated Ben.

“Yeah, it does,” Joe acknowledged. “We’ve been friends almost as long as I can remember. I hate the thought of losing that.”

“Have you talked to him?” Ben asked.

“I tried,” answered Joe. “But he didn’t want to talk. Adam and Hoss suggested that I just give it some time. They said he’ll get over being mad at me eventually. But I don’t know. Somehow, I think there’s more to it than just being mad.” He shook his head ruefully. “I don’t know exactly what’s bothering Mitch, or how to fix things between us.”

This time it was Ben who sat quietly for a minute, as he mulled over Joe’s dilemma and tried to find the right way to help his son.

“I think you’re right,” Ben said finally. “I think there’s more to the situation than Mitch feeling mad or hurt. I think he feels betrayed.”

“Betrayed?” replied Joe in surprise.

“Deep down, Mitch had to know that he was going to lose a match some day, that someone would come along who was stronger or quicker than he is,” explained Ben. “No one goes unbeaten forever, no matter if its arm wrestling or anything else. But I think that Mitch felt that when that day came, you’d be there to commiserate with him, to – I don’t know – slap him on the back, buy him a beer and tell him how great he was despite the fact he lost.”

“And instead, I’m the one who beat him,” said Joe, nodding in understanding.

“Not only did you beat him, but you weren’t there to console him for his loss,” Ben replied. “I think he feels you betrayed his friendship by not only showing him up, but by abandoning him, so to speak, after you did it.”

“I told him I was sorry,” insisted Joe. “I told him that after the match and the other day in town. Mitch wasn’t interested in hearing it.”

“This isn’t about being sorry, Joe,” Ben advised his son. “This is about trust. Mitch trusted you not to try to beat him, and to be his friend when he did lose. I think he feels that you betrayed that trust he had in you.”

Sitting quietly, Joe thought over what his father had said. “You’re right,” he said slowly, the sadness he felt about what he had done evident in his voice. “I always told Mitch that there was no need for me to challenge him. Then, one day, out of the blue, I sit down and not only challenge him but beat him.” Joe shook his head. “It was such stupid, stupid thing to do.”

“Yes it was,” agreed Ben in a quiet voice. “You wanted to make yourself feel better, even if it was at Mitch’s expense. You traded your friendship with Mitch for a few moments of self-gratification.”

“Yeah,” Joe acknowledged, turning to face his father. “I did a lot of stupid things, hurt a lot of people, just because I didn’t want anyone to know I was afraid.”

Seeing the misery in his son’s face, Ben tried to comfort Joe. “Son, we all make mistakes. It’s hard sometimes to admit it, but none of us is perfect. “

“Well, I think we can pretty much agree that I’m not perfect,” Joe said, giving his father a shaky smile. “Adam and Hoss made that point clear to me this afternoon.”

“Yes, I think we can agree on that,” Ben concurred with a grin.

Joe’s face sobered. “But I still don’t know how to fix things with Mitch. How do I get him to trust me again, to want to be friends again?”

“That’s not going to be easy, Joe,” acknowledged Ben with a shake of his head. “Trust isn’t something you can demand. It has to be earned.”

“And how do I earn Mitch’s trust again?” persisted Joe. “He won’t even talk to me.”

“Well, all I can suggest is that you show him that you can be trusted, that you’ll back him up without being asked,” advised Ben. “Show him that he can rely on you to be there when he needs you.”

“That’s easier said than done,” countered Joe. “It’s hard for me to back up Mitch when all he does is push me away.”

“Then don’t let him push you away,” Ben suggested. “Keep coming back. Don’t give up on Mitch, Joe, not if you really want him for a friend.”

“Yeah.” Joe blew out a breath of air. “I really messed things up. It’s going to be hard to get Mitch’s trust again.”

“All you can do is try, son,” said Ben. He rose from the chair and stretched a bit. “I’m ready for bed. How about you?”

Nodding, Joe got to his feet also. “I think I can sleep now. I haven’t really solved things, but at least I have an idea of what the problem is.”

*****

The Cartwright brothers weren’t surprised to see the Silver Dollar saloon was only about half full on the Saturday night they entered the bar. Most cowboys thought Friday night was the time for drinking and brawling; Saturday night was the time for courting and wooing if they could find a girl who would give them some time and attention. None of the Cartwrights currently had a girl with whom there was a mutual interest, so they joined the rest of the unattached males in Virginia City looking for a drink and maybe a little fun at the Silver Dollar.

“Three beers, Bruno,” called Adam as he and his brothers stepped up to the bar.

“Gee, Adam,” said Hoss in mock despair as he patted his vest, “I think I left my money at home. Guess you’re going to have to buy.”

“Well, then you’d better enjoy that beer and make it last,” retorted Adam, throwing some coins down. “Because that’s the only one I’m buying for you.”

“Now is that any way to act toward your brother?” asked Hoss, looking as innocent as possible. “Don’t you think Adam is being awfully mean, Joe?”

“Yeah, sure,” replied Joe, sounding distracted. He wasn’t really listening to his brothers’ jibes. His eyes were fixed on a table in the middle of the saloon where five men were playing poker. Joe recognized two of the men as hands from the Bar B, but two of the others at the table were strangers. The fifth man was Mitch Devlin – and there was an empty chair at the table right next to him.

“Excuse me,” Joe mumbled to his brothers as he walked toward the poker table, carrying his beer. When he reached the table, Joe hesitated, then asked, “Mind if I join in?”

Looking up over his shoulder, Mitch’s face showed a bit of shock before quickly reforming into a neutral look. “It’s a free country,” Devlin said with a shrug, turning back to look at the cards in his hands.

For an hour, Joe sat next to Mitch with neither of them saying a word to each other except to ask for cards when one of them was dealing. Joe won a few hands but that paled in comparison to the winning streak of the man sitting next to him. Mitch won several hands in a row, lost a few, then won again. Between the two of them, Joe and Mitch were taking all of the money from the other men at the table. Joe couldn’t help but smile when Mitch beat the two pair proudly shown by one of the Bar B hands with three aces.

“Hey, what’s going on here?” demanded the cowhand heatedly. “Ever since Cartwright sat down, nobody’s won a hand but you two.”

“You accusing me something?” Devlin asked with a frown.

Sensing trouble brewing, Joe studied the two men across the table. He knew the cowboy who was giving Mitch a hard time was named Johnson – a big man with a reportedly short temper. Mitch had beaten him arm wrestling at least twice. The other hand from the Bar B was known to Joe only as Billy, and even though he was smaller than Johnson, Billy was known to throw a mean punch. Joe noted the faces of the other two men at the table showed more confusion than anger, so he kept his eyes focused on the two Bar B hands.

“What I’m saying is that you and Cartwright are friends,” Johnson continued angrily. “He sits down next to you and suddenly you’re winning every hand.”

“Are you accusing me of cheating?” Devlin said in a flat voice. “Because if you are, I’d like to know how you think I’m doing it.”

“I don’t know how,” Johnson admitted. “But something’s going on. Maybe you two are passing cards under the table, or Cartwright’s setting you up somehow. All I know is something funny is going on.”

“Joe doesn’t cheat and neither do I,” stated Devlin, his voice reflecting his anger. “I think maybe I’ve had enough of playing cards with you.” With that, Mitch pushed his chair back from the table.

“Hey, you ain’t leaving here with my money,” yelled Johnson as Mitch stood up. He rose to his feet also, as did his friend Billy. Joe quickly got to his feet and stood next to Mitch.

“I think you two better be the ones who leave,” Joe said in a voice so low that it was almost a growl.

For a moment, the four men simply stared at each other across the table. Then Johnson licked his lips a bit and started to walk around the table, followed by his friend. Joe relaxed, thinking that the confrontation was over. He didn’t expect Johnson to suddenly wheel around and punched Mitch in the jaw.

Mitch staggered back a step and Joe caught him with his hands. The two exchanged a look for only a second, but that was enough. Both men started forward toward the Bar B hands, and the fight was on. Mitch threw a punch at Billy, who was closest to him, while Joe flung himself forward at Johnson. All four men were swinging wildly, landing only about half their blows. One of the men would be knocked to the floor and the combatant would scramble to his feet to attack his foe once more. The table was knocked over and the other two players quickly hurried to the back of the bar.

Hearing the noise from the middle of the bar, Hoss got up from the table where he had been trading hunting stories with two trappers. Adam also rose from the poker game he was involved in. Both of the older Cartwright brothers walked toward the middle of the bar and then stopped.

“Think we should help?” asked Hoss casually as he watched Mitch and Joe trading blows with the two cowboys from the Bar B.

“Looks pretty even to me,” replied Adam. He winced a bit as Johnson knocked Joe to the floor. “I’d put my money on the big guy.”

“Aw, Joe’ll take him,” Hoss told his brother as he watched Joe get up and throw a punch into Johnson’s stomach.

From the corner of his eye, Joe saw Mitch punch Billy hard in the jaw. The smaller man crumpled to the floor and Mitch stood over him, breathing heavily. Joe threw another punch into Johnson’s midsection and knew that one more would probably finish off the big man. He hesitated, though, as Mitch moved into his line of vision, standing only a foot or so away from the big cowboy. Joe saw Johnson aiming a fist toward his face. Making an instant decision, Joe dropped his hands. Johnson’s punch knocked him backwards, over a table and onto the floor. Joe laid still for a moment, stunned.

But Joe wasn’t too stunned to see Mitch hurry to block Johnson’s advance toward Joe. Mitch threw two quick punches into Johnson’s midsection, and the big man bent over. Mitch’s fist then hit the cowboy on the jaw, and Johnson fell to the floor.

Joe sat up and started rubbing his jaw slowly.

“Hey, Joe, are you all right?” asked Devlin with concern as he came over to Joe. Mitch extended his hand and helped Joe to his feet.

“Yeah, I’m all right,” answered Joe. “Thanks for taking care of that cowboy for me, though.”

Mitch looked down at Johnson sprawled on the floor, then glanced back at Joe. He rubbed his hand for minute, almost as if he didn’t believe it belonged to him; then a look of inordinate pride came across Mitch’s face. “You ought to leave those tough ones to those of us who know how to fight,” he said with a grin.

“Yeah, I guess I should,” agreed Joe. He looked around the saloon. Considering the amount of punches that had been thrown, the fight hadn’t caused much damage. Two tables had been turned over and there was money and chips scattered on the floor. Joe scooped up the bills and coins, then got to his feet. “I think this belongs to you, Mitch.”

“Thanks,” Devlin replied, taking the money from Joe. As he slowly stuffed the money into his shirt pocket, Mitch seemed to be studying Joe. “Hey, Joe, you coming to town next Friday?” he asked suddenly.

“Probably,” Joe answered. “Why?”

“I thought I might buy you a beer,” Devlin offered. “Maybe we can find ourselves a poker game to join.” A wide grin broke out on Mitch’s face. “I promise I’ll protect you if there’s a fight.”

“You’ll protect me?” said Joe incredulously. Then he grinned also. “Well, maybe we can protect each other.”

“Kind of like we did tonight,” Devlin commented with a nod. He looked down at his hand and shook his head, almost in wonder. As he raised his eyes, a small smile crossed Mitch’s face. “I’ll see you Friday, Joe.” Turning on his heels, Mitch walked out of the saloon.

“Hey, Bruno, give me a beer,” called Joe as he walked to the bar.

Behind him, men were righting the tables and returning to their own drinking and card playing. The two Bar B hands were slowly getting to their feet, both holding their heads as they did so.

“Joe, I was sure you were going to take that fellow,” Hoss remarked as he and Adam came up to the bar and stood next to Joe.

“He got in a lucky punch,” answered Joe with a shrug.

“You know, it looked almost like you dropped your guard at the end there,” Adam commented. “It was almost like you wanted him to knock you down.”

“Now why would I do that?” asked Joe, gazing evenly at his oldest brother.

“I don’t know,” Adam said reflectively.

“It looks like you and ol’ Mitch are back to being friends,” Hoss added.

“Yeah, I think we are,” agreed Joe. He quickly drained his beer. “I think it’s time we headed for home.”

“You want to leave? You’re the one who is telling us it’s time to go?” said Adam with astonishment. “That fight must have knocked you around harder than I thought.”

“We told Pa we’d be home early,” Joe stated firmly. “He’s trusting us to keep our word. I don’t want to disappoint him.”

“Well, all right,” Adam agreed, still sounding a bit shocked. “Let’s go.”

As he trailed his brothers out of the saloon, Joe suddenly stopped and looked back to where the now empty poker table sat. He rubbed his jaw lightly, then grinned. Nodding with satisfaction, Joe turned and left the saloon.

*****End*****

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