A Change Of Direction (by Doreen)

Summary:  A WHN for The Code – I have borrowed a few of the characters from that episode.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:  16,000


Previously:   Joe Cartwright had gone ahead against his father’s wishes and had a showdown with gunslinger Dan Taggert after being goaded into a gunfight. Bets had been laid that Joe would or would not show and that he could take the gunslinger. He does outdraw Taggert, shooting him in the arm. The majority of Virginia City had placed bets on Joe and when he is handed the money to pay the winners, he throws it on the floor in disgust. He then rides away, meeting his father and brother and they head back to the Ponderosa.

*****

The ride back to the Ponderosa seemed longer than it had ever done before for the three men. There was silence between Joe and his father and brother, each deep in their own thoughts.

Hoss, always the rock that Joe could rely on, usually on his side, was for once visibly shaken. He tried to remember the time when he had consciously made the decision to watch out for his baby brother. From his first tottering steps of infancy to adulthood, Joe had always known Adam and Hoss were there, ready to help, guide and rescue him, should the situation arise. This was an unspoken code of unselfish love between the three brothers. It was something Joe had always relied on, taken for granted. This morning however, he had ventured alone, unable to share his burden, doing what he felt he had to do, by himself.

Since Adam was no longer around, no longer able to share the load, Hoss had taken on exclusively the mantle of guardian angel. That morning he had come close to failing in his task and the thought troubled him greatly. He felt he should have done more, been more aware of Joe’s temperament and at times, his erratic behavior. Last night the two brothers had talked about the situation while Joe lay on his bed. Hoss had listened to his brother, tried to persuade Joe not to go through with the gunfight, thought he had got through to him, made him see sense. Then he had left him alone, the last words from his brother now echoing in his mind.

“Thanks. For being my brother.”

Such a short sentence, but what an epitaph that could have been had events turned out so differently that morning. He now knew Joe’s mind had been made up and Hoss had been powerless to change it. The thought made Hoss shiver, the big man feeling for once weak and useless.

Ben rode, his mind in turmoil, feeling a sickening anger within his stomach. How close had he been to bringing a coffin home to the Ponderosa that day? Too close! Too close to contemplate! He had been so afraid for his son, yet so impotent. Maybe he should have been more rational when he had talked to Joe the night before. Instead of bounding into his room, laying down the law with a rod of iron, maybe he should have stood back, talked to Joe man to man, instead of father to son.

His youngest was no longer the boy, sent to his room for a misdemeanor. He was now a man, a strong willed and at times defiant one. Still a young man, but old beyond his years from the experiences of life on the Ponderosa. He had held his own from his late teens with the use of a gun and his fists.

Ben thought hard. When did Joe turn the corner into adulthood and become the man he now was? The realization that he was not now the powerful father figure, always to be adhered to, obeyed, shook him. Could Ben hold back his anger long enough for him to talk to his son before things got out of hand?

Riding a short distance ahead, Joe could feel the tension in the silence, knew his father and brother were staring at him. Thoughts raced through his mind.

“What’s Pa thinking? Why didn’t I listen to Hoss? What have I let myself in for now?”

His neck tingled as sweat began to drip down his back. He knew he had come close to death that morning. The hard life of the west, the unwritten rules that were adhered to, had been part of his being since he was born. Death had come courting many times in his life, each time he had managed to escape its leash. How many more times would he be so lucky?

He was scared of the thought of dying, though was always prepared for it, knew it was lurking around any corner. However, he felt more fear for his father. Knew should he die, the effect on his family, especially Ben would be devastating. That morning his pride and stubbornness had come close to breaking the heart of the man he loved beyond belief.

“Maybe I should say something now? Clear the air.”

However, exhausted, he just kept riding, eyes nearly closed, weary, relying on Cochise to take him home, back to the ranch that he had left so early that morning.

*****

Joe had spent the past evening and night mulling over which course of action he should take. His father had shouted and forbidden him to leave the ranch, told him to ‘act his age’. That had been like a red rag to a bull for Joe. A proud and obstinate man at times he knew what the reaction to his actions would be should he not show up. To be branded a coward by his friends and the citizens of Virginia City was something he could not bear.

After a sleepless night, he tried to write a note to his father, explaining why he had to disobey, but the words just would not come. So he had left by first light before anyone had stirred on the Ponderosa, and arrived in Virginia City at 6.30am to go through with the gunfight, regardless of the consequences.

He was now to realize what these consequences would be and the thought troubled him.

Eventually the three Cartwrights arrived back at the ranch, not a word having been spoken the whole journey. With a deep sigh Joe dismounted and tied the reins of Cochise to the hitching rail. Without glancing towards his father or brother he walked into the ranch house, removing his coat, gunbelt and hat, and leaving them on the credenza by the front door. He was tired! Dog tired! His head hurt from lack of sleep and the strain of the morning’s events.

He made his way upstairs to his bedroom. If his father was going to give him a lecture, then he would have to come to his room and he could suffer the consequences there! Lying on the bed he could hear the murmur of voices downstairs. Hoss and Ben obviously discussing the events of the morning, he thought. Pa would be telling Hoss what he was going to say to his little brother in no uncertain terms! Hoss would be trying to calm down his father, be the middleman in the family, once again. Joe lay there, listening for familiar footsteps on the stairs, waiting for his father to give him the ‘talking too’ that was so obviously imminent.

*****

Ben walked into his son’s bedroom, not bothering to knock. His face was like thunder and he was angry! It was the anger of a father who had worried about his son, knowing how he could have been being killed that morning. It was the anger of a father who had given his son an order and that order had been disobeyed.

Joe looked up, tempted to mention to his father that he should have knocked before entering. After all, he was an adult now, not a young child. Noting Ben’s expression, however, he decided against.

Ben stood before the bed of his son, who was lying, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. He could not help but notice how tired Joe’s face looked. A handsome face, so tired and so young. Maybe he should leave this conversation until later? Wait until his temper had calmed down. However, he found himself speaking before he realized what was happening.

“Joseph, why? Oh, why do you test me all the time? You were told not to leave the ranch, not to go through with that ridiculous gunfight! Didn’t I tell you to turn and walk away from it – that there would be no dishonor in that. Don’t you realize you could have been killed?”

Ben’s voice rose increasingly, shouting though his son was only a matter of feet away.

Joe answered, raising his body and sitting on the side of the bed.

“Of course I knew what might happen, but Pa, you don’t understand! I had to do it. I had no other choice! Otherwise, I would have lost face, been called a coward. Could you of coped with that, a son who was branded a coward?”

“Rather a coward than a corpse!” shouted Ben, his anger still evident in his voice. “Don’t you have any sense at all? I thought I’d brought up my sons to be sensible and well-adjusted. This kind of behavior from you just beggars belief!”

Joe shouted back, his voice also rising in volume,

“Well, I couldn’t have lived with it! I couldn’t have stayed in Virginia City knowing everyone was pointing at me as if I had a yellow line down my back. Don’t you understand Pa? I just couldn’t turn and walk away! Not even for you!”

He stood up and faced the window, looking out over the ranch towards the distant mountains of the Sierra Nevada. A beautiful sight that Joe had looked upon since he was a small child. However, at this moment to Joe there was nothing of beauty. It was just a blur; he could not focus on anything. There was silence as Joe turned towards Ben.

Father and son glared at each other, as if daring the other to say more. Both men more alike than they would have ever admitted – stubborn, proud and resolute. However the younger man was something else: impetuous. A trait that may be the death of him, thought his father, as Ben looked at him, coldly.

“I am so disappointed in you Joseph. Never thought I’d see the day a son of mine would behave like a cheap gunslinger, allowing his life to be ruled by the opinions of others! I just don’t know what to say to you anymore. Your conduct has disgraced the name of Cartwright. Thank heavens Adam and Hoss would never have done anything so stupid! They at least would have never got themselves into such a situation in the first place.”

He continued, hands in his pockets, as Joe and he faced each other, inches apart.

“Hoss is very upset at your stupidity this morning, just can’t believe you went ahead especially after the talk you had last night. As for Adam, I can just imagine what he would have had to say about all this! Your older brother would have never allowed you to skulk away this morning and end up doing what you did!”

Joe winced as he heard the words of his father. “I did not skulk away! As for Adam! What’s Adam got to do with anything? He’s been gone over 2 years! He left the Ponderosa and went east so he could live out his life his way. Left us here, never thinking about us, how we would cope without him!”

The emotion in Joe’s voice betraying the fact that Adam leaving had in truth broken his heart. It was something he had never spoken of, never told anyone of his anguish when his older brother had left. Had just wished him well, waved him goodbye with a smile on his face, while inside he had wept. Bitterness and pain now filled the void left by his brother’s departure. “I reckon that forfeits any rights my older brother has to go telling me what I should or should not do!”

The disgust in his voice was clear as he continued, “Older brother deserts the family home without a second glance, yet he is still the one who can do no wrong! I stay, working hard to keep the ranch going and I’m treated like a 10 year old! What did you say yesterday Pa? Oh yes, ‘act your age’. Well I did act my age, doing what I wanted to do, my way. Not Adams!”

Ben glared at Joe, whose sarcastic words about Adam hurt him to the core. He too had been heartbroken when his eldest son had left, wishing to follow his dream away from the Ponderosa. Ben knew he could not stop him. The Ponderosa had been the dream of Ben Cartwright. Adam had to find his own destiny, wherever it may be. So Ben had let him leave, with no recriminations, no arguments, no bitter words.

Still acting as protector to the memory of his eldest, Ben retorted, glaring at his youngest, “At least he knew right from wrong! Would act with some sense! At least my eldest son would not have made such a fool of himself getting involved in a pointless gunfight with an aged gunfighter! He knew the Code of the West, but would never have gone as far as nearly dying for it!”

Joe’s features hardened, as words spilt out without thought, rhyme or reason. “Well maybe this son of yours is better suited to being a cheap gunslinger – seems I have a talent for it!” He suddenly walked towards the door, not even glancing back at Ben.

“Joseph! Where do you think you are going? I haven’t finished talking to you yet!”

Joe stood still in the door way, his back to Ben. “I think we have said enough, don’t you Pa? Seems I’m a big disappointment to you so I had better just get out of your sight!”

He walked downstairs and made his way to the front door. Ben followed him, his anger not dissipating. As Joe started to buckle on his gunbelt, Ben continued in his angry tone.

“Joseph! Don’t you dare leave until this discussion is over. “

“Discussion? Come on Pa, this ain’t no discussion; it’s a one sided rip-roaring debate about me being a disappointment to this family!”

Joe picked up his coat and put it on, then took hold of his hat. He could see his father was still angry, his face stern and his eyes dark. He had not seen him like this before, and it unnerved him. However, the die was now cast – there was no way he was going to back down, no way he was going to lose face with his own family. “Sometimes I have to do what I think is right for me, regardless of what you think your ‘son’ should do. I’m a grown man and I did what I did because it’s the way I am. If you can’t live with that, then too bad. Maybe you ought to wire Adam, the sensible one, and get the perfect son back to take over from his disappointing little brother!”

Ben exhaled heavily, moving forward towards Joe. “You just wait a minute, young man; no son of mine walks out of this ranch house in that frame of mind!”

Joe turned slowly, his hand on the door handle. He spoke with a coolness he had never felt before. “Maybe I had just better stop being your son then!” Placing his hat on his head, he opened the door and walked out, banging the door behind him.

Ben stood, transfixed. The argument had become so much more than it should have. A son was leaving in anger, harsh words had been spoken. He had to talk to Joe, smooth over what had been said. He moved to open the door but was stopped by a sudden pain in his chest which took his breath away. He held onto the credenza, doubled up and fighting for breath.

Outside, Joe stopped, taking a deep breath as he stood by the rocking chair on the verandah, willing his father to come after him. This argument had gone too far, it needed to be stopped before it was too late. The door remained closed, no sign of Ben. No rebuilding the loving relationship between father and son this time. This time the words said were too hurtful, painful, and truthful.

Joe made his way to Cochise, still willing the door to open, but it stayed firmly closed. He jumped onto his horse, taking a last look at the familiar barn, ranch house, corral, and with a kick of his heels, disappeared in a cloud of dust towards Virginia City.

*****

Joe arrived in Virginia City and made his way to the bar of the Silver Dollar. His anger, frustration and pain at the exchanges with his father had boiled in a cauldron of self pity. He needed a drink, any drink and badly! Sam the bartender walked over to him, greeting him warmly. He had made a few extra dollars that day, betting on Joe and the outcome of the gunfight.

“What you drinking, Joe? It’s on me!” said Sam.

Joe looked at Sam, surprised at his generosity. It suddenly dawned on him the reason for the bartender’s good humor. He shook his head sadly. Even old Sam had bet on his life or death. He felt too exhausted to comment, so he just nodded and ordered a whisky.

“Whisky? Sure thing, Joe.” Sam proceeded to pour out a measure into a glass, baffled by the sudden change in drinking habits of the young man.

Joe took the glass, and drunk it in one gulp. He didn’t really like whisky, but the way he was currently feeling, that fact escaped him. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and taking out a dollar, ordered a bottle. He needed more than one drink to try and make sense of the days events. Sam obliged, still puzzled, handing the bottle to Joe.

Two men were sat at a table and they looked at Joe as he uncorked the whisky and poured a measure into his glass. Joe Cartwright drinking a bottle of whisky during the day was not a sight that had been seen before, and the two men watched him with curiosity. Pete and Win, both the same age as Joe, had been the first to place money bets on Joe’s life in the gunfight challenge. They had bet their months wages, and had even goaded Joe into turning up, warning him that to not do so would invite the town to call him ‘chicken’ and ‘coward’. The morning’s events had given them both substantial easy money.

“Hey, Joe, come and join us” they called, a little warily. Joe turned towards the two men, who he had viewed with distain that morning. However, things had now altered so he walked over to their table and pulled up a chair. He eased himself down, placing the bottle of whisky in front of him then emptied his glass in one clean swallow.

“You OK, Joe?” said Pete, who could see Joe was acting out of character.

Joe half smiled. “Yep!” he said, as he poured another drink from the bottle. “Never better.”

The table’s two occupants looked at Joe, wondering what circumstances had changed for their friend since last meeting him that morning.

“You OK about that bet, Joe? Seemed you were a little mad at us this morning, what with you throwing down the money all over the yard.”

Joe paused from pouring his drink, and looked towards the men. “Maybe at the time I was a mite angry. You see, fellers, that was a different Joe Cartwright to the one who sits before you now! That Joe Cartwright was a responsible, respectable son of Ben Cartwright. This here…” He paused, taking his hat from his head, and placing it on the table, then prodding his chest with his forefinger. “This here is the new Joe Cartwright, the irresponsible, disreputable son of Ben Cartwright! Seems my Pa now thinks me a disappointment. So maybe I should try a new line of work.” He drew out his gun and stroked it. “Any work round here for a gunslinger?” he continued, chuckling as the whisky began to take hold of him. He put the gun back in its holster, and poured out another drink.

Win and Pete stared in amazement. Joe Cartwright was born and bred on the Ponderosa; nothing would take him away from the ranch. Everybody knew that. He and his Pa were close – closer than any father and son in Nevada. What had gone wrong so quickly?

“Come on Joe, it can’t be that bad! You’ve just had a little disagreement. You know you and your Pa always make up in the end.”

Another drink was downed by Joe, as he listened to his companions. He shook his head slowly, his shoulders slumping down. “Not anymore boys. Seems I just disinherited myself! Have really blown it now! Guess I am not the wonderful indispensable son that I thought I was!” he said softly. As he began pouring another whisky, silence reigned at the table.

“What you going to do now, Joe?” said Win, feeling pity for his friend.

Joe shook his head and emptied the contents of the bottle into his glass. “Guess I had better start by ordering another bottle. This one seems to be empty!” he slurred, and scraping back the legs on his chair moved over to the bar.

“Another bottle of your best whisky,” he called to Sam, who, picking up a bottle from the back shelf, placed it in front of Joe, taking a dollar piece from the young man. Yesterday a relaxed Joe had stated he was not much of a whisky drinker, and had only drunk beer. Today his mood had inexplicable changed. This was a man who looked like he was on the edge of a precipice, and contemplating whether to jump or not. Concern for his young customer showed on his face.

“You sure you should be drinking so much so quickly Joe?” Sam asked, as Joe turned to walk back to Pete and Win. Looking back at him, his eyes glazed and sad, Joe just nodded, taking hold of the bottle, and swaying, made his way back to the table.

Pouring out another drink Joe sat in silence, contemplating all that had happened to him during the past few hours. Pete and Win could see Joe was now past coherent conversation. His eyes were far away, staring into space, his companions forgotten. Whatever had happened to change the demeanor of Joe Cartwright in such a short time must have been pretty serious. Unable to make sense of it and having no answers, they shook their heads perplexed. Excusing themselves they left the young Cartwright to sit by himself, drink by himself, think by himself. Alone!

As the little scenario had been unfolding, a man had been watching from the back of the room, unseen by Joe and his comrades. Fitts, the City Slicker from St. Louis, who had set up the whole betting scam the day before, had been watching the developments.

His partner of the past months, Dan Taggert, had been shot by Joe that morning. The gunman had walked out of the yard clutching his bloodied arm, deliberately dropping his gun onto the floor, leaving it where it lay. Supported by a pretty saloon girl, an old flame, he had left, his gunfighting days well and truly over. The partnership between Fitts and Taggert was dissolved there and then.

Fitts had therefore been watching Joe and listening to what had been said between the three cowboys with interest. He could see a business opportunity here, so he remained gazing at the young man who was staring at the half empty whisky bottle, slumped in his chair, oblivious to all in the saloon.

*****

For a full half hour, Joe sat in silence, drinking the whisky, glass after glass. Another bottle was then empty. Joe just sat alone, staring at the bottle, knowing he had drunk such a vast amount of alcohol, but feeling very sober. He scarcely noticed that a man had pulled up a chair and was sitting at the table opposite him. It was only when the man coughed, that Joe seemed to wake from a trance, and look across. It was Fitts.

“May I join you Cartwright?” said Fitts, though he had already sat down.

Joe looked at him in disgust, but said nothing.

“You know you cost me a lot of money this morning, Cartwright. I really thought I was on a winner! Never expected you to show, never expected you to outdraw Taggert. You really surprised me.”

Joe narrowed his eyes. “If you think I am going to feel sorry for you, you’ll be a long time waiting,” he retorted,

Fitts laughed softly. “You know, Cartwright, I have a feeling you and I could do business together, seeing as you kind of indisposed my last partner!”

Joe looked at him in amazement. This little man certainly had a nerve. “I don’t do business with someone like you Fitts. If I had known earlier you and Taggert had been working together, you’d have found the end of my fist in your face!”

Fitts was a coward at heart and he flinched at the venom in Joe’s voice. However he would not be deterred. He changed chairs, sitting next to Joe, looking into his face. “Come on Cartwright! Just think of it. You could be the talk of the west. The fastest gunslinger around. You’re faster than Taggert ever was. You and me could make a fortune taking the money off those stupid enough to bet against you. You saw how it works; you and me could make a great team!”

Joe laughed out loud. The very idea! Joe Cartwright, gunfighter, gunslinger, conman! The very type of man that he had fought against that morning and viewed with such disgust. “I don’t think so, Fitts. I ain’t aiming to put my life on the line just so you can make a small fortune. Now, why don’t you just leave me alone.” Joe stared at the man, his eyes dark and flashing contempt.

Fitts was not a man to give up easily though. He could see a big money winner with this young cowboy, and he wasn’t about to let it slip through his grasp without a fight. “Come on, Cartwright! I heard what you said to you friends. You ain’t got a life here anymore. What else you gonna do? Crawl back to your Pa, asking for forgiveness, hoping he’ll let you keep working on that ranch of his! Is that what you want?”

These words struck at Joe’s heart, the truth of the statement making him wince.

“Is that what I want?” thought Joe. “What do I want? Do I really want to go back to the life I had? Treated like some juvenile not capable of making his own decisions. Never being treated like an adult, and always walking in the shadow of an older brother. Always being compared to Adam!”

Joe stared at Fitts, thinking hard, his face expressionless.

The silence that followed indicated to Fitts that he had struck a cord – had found Joe’s Achilles heel. He continued, like a terrier gnawing at a bone, relentless. “Don’t you see, Cartwright? Here’s the chance of a lifetime! Here’s the perfect opportunity for you to have a change of direction in your life. Do something you are really good at. Just think of the adulation. Men will look at you and say, there goes the fastest gun I’ve ever seen. You will be the talk of every town we visit.”

Joe closed his eyes, thinking hard about what Fitts had said. His life could be changed so easily. He could make his own destiny. Leave the Ponderosa forever. All he had to do was board the stage tomorrow. Just like Adam. Adam! The thought of his older brother brought a smile to his lips.

“If only Adam could see me now! Hear this conversation! What would he of had to say about it?” thought Joe, knowing in his heart what the answer was.

Older brother would have been at his side, dragging him out of the saloon, taking him home, lecturing him all the way about how immature he was. They may have even come to blows! Even so, he would have taken him back to the Ponderosa, whether Joe liked it or not. Though different in so many ways, the two brothers had sometimes laughed together, sometimes fought each other, but above all, they were always family.

But Adam was not there to guide him, argue with him, persuade him. Adam was 2000 miles away, and Joe was on his own. This would be a decision only he would make.

“Tell you what, Cartwright, you think over what I’ve said. I was thinking of going to San Francisco, but if you’re ‘in’ then meet me at the stage depot at 10am, and we’ll head out of this town. Make us some easy money!”

Fitts stood up, staring at Joe. He could not see in his expression what his decision would be, but he had planted a seed. A seed that may well sprout into a worthwhile partnership, earning him a fair amount of cash. Without another word, he left Joe alone, and returned to his hotel for the night.

*****

Joe thought long and hard about this change of direction. From ranch cowboy to gunfighter! He laughed bitterly at the comparison. How his father would hate him now for even thinking of it!

Hoss! Joe’s stomach churned with the thought of what his beloved brother would say. They had always been so close, the older man had always been there when Joe had needed him. He knew his brother would be heartbroken. When Adam had left, Hoss had grieved inside, the cheery smile becoming a rare sight for weeks. Could he leave the Ponderosa, knowing this would cause the same pain again for his brother? The dilemma of his situation pulsated in his brain.

He waited during the evening, hoping against all hope that his father or brother or both would come to Virginia City. Come to talk some sense into his thick skull. He waited, sitting in the saloon, watching for the doors to swing open and his big brother to stride in, looking for him, to take him home. But no-one came.

Fitts had left the saloon, knowing the young man was in turmoil, thinking through his options. To stay in Virginia City or leave. Would the call of the home hearth be stronger than the desire to fulfill his own destiny, his way?

Eventually it was midnight. Time to close down the saloon for another day. All the customers had departed, leaving just one, sat alone, an empty whisky bottle in front of him. Knowing something was desperately wrong with Joe, Sam had left him, closing the front door and disappearing to his own bed upstairs. He allowed Joe to sit in the bar, knowing he could be trusted not to help himself to the drink. Drink was the furthest thing from Joe’s mind. As the night turned into morning, the young man dozed in the chair, still undecided.

When Sam walked downstairs to start another day of business, he could see that Joe had not moved during the night.

“Morning, Joe. You manage to get some shut eye?” called the bartender, who began to collect the dirty glasses from the various tables.

Joe opened his eyes and looked towards the bartender. “Guess so Sam, and thanks for letting me stay in here. Just didn’t feel like going home last night.” Home, thought Joe to himself. Will I ever go back there again?

“No problem Joe, anytime” answered the barman before disappearing into the back of the saloon.

Feeling stiff and hungry, Joe stretched his arms, stood up and walked out into the main street of Virginia City. He felt rough, and probably looked it, he thought, dragging his fingers through his hair, and placing his hat on his head. He looked up and down the street, hoping against hope that two familiar figures would come riding down, looking for their wayward son and brother, just as they had done only 24 hours before. The street was deserted though, except for the tradesmen who were opening up for another day’s business.

He felt his stomach gurgle with emptiness, and his head ached from the lack of nourishment, so he walked over to a small restaurant that was just opening up and ordered breakfast. It was a basic meal, such a different fare to what Hop Sing would have prepared, but it was enough for Joe.

He ate all put before him, drunk the black coffee, then, feeling slightly better, paid for his meal and wandering onto the street. Again he looked up and down, hoping to see familiar figures. Again, he was disappointed.

As he stood there, the early morning sun shining on his face, he tried to talk sense to himself, reason out his actions. Should he ride back to the Ponderosa, apologize, eat a large portion of humble pie, and then fall back into the familiar and safe life that he had always known? Playing second fiddle to a phantom brother long gone. Could he really contemplate doing that again? His heart said YES. Return, apologize. His brain said NO. Leave, change direction, while you have the chance.

At the cross-roads of his life, Joe Cartwright stood still, not hearing or seeing anything or anyone, his thoughts racing. Which way should he go? What should he do? He slowly nodded to himself. It was his life to lead as he saw fit, fulfill his own potential, step away from the shadow. He now knew!

He walked across the street over to Cochise, who was still tied in front of the Silver Dollar, giving the horse a welcome pat. “Sorry, old boy, didn’t mean to desert you for such a long time”.

Joe felt a rush of guilt at leaving his beloved horse overnight, neglected. Not something he had done before, and the thought did nothing to help the situation.

Cochise pushed his nose into Joe’s chest, enjoying the attention of his master. Tears mounted as Joe realized what he had to do. Untying the reins, he led his horse over to the livery stable. The owner, Jeb, was there already, mucking out and feeding the horses in his care.

He turned round when hearing the sound of a horse entering the stable. Seeing Joe, he smiled, knowing that a Cartwright was always good for trade. “Can I help you, Joe? Need me to look after your horse?”

Joe looked at the old man, and nodded, hardly able to speak. He was about to leave the horse he loved so much, and the thought tore at his heart.

“Give him a feed and a good grooming, Jeb; he deserves it,” said Joe, as he lead him into an empty stall.

Joe tied up the horse, and removed the saddle, placing it on the dividing wall. He buried his face in his horse’s mane, stroking his head, tears welling in his eyes.

“Goodbye old friend, goodbye,” Joe whispered, as the tears fell down his cheeks. He wiped his eyes, giving the horse another pat, then turned to Jeb, who had watched the exchange unable to make sense of it. Joe took out a 5 dollar bill, and gave it to the stable owner.

“Keep him for a couple of days Jeb, then do me a favor.” Joe looked back at his horse.

Could he go through with this? He forced himself to turn his eyes away, and continued, “Take him up to the lake on the Ponderosa, up by the meadow. There’s a herd of Ponderosa horses up there. Just let him go with them, let him loose. He deserves to run free same as me.”

Jeb nodded, not understanding the reasons for the request, but happy to oblige for the 5 dollar bill in his hand. “Sure thing Joe, anything you say, you can count on me.” With that Jeb walked over to Cochise and began to feed and water the horse.

Joe left, without looking back. Leaving his horse behind had left him feeling so desolate, so empty. However, the decision was now made. He was leaving Virginia City and there was no going back now. He opened his wallet. There was enough money to last a month or two, so he would leave with nothing else except the clothes on his back and the gun by his side.

Walking slowly along the sidewalk, he headed in the direction of the stage depot. One other passenger was waiting at the depot. It was Fitts, sitting on a chair, valise by his side.

Fitts greeted Joe, relieved that the young man had decided to take him up on his offer of a partnership.

“You really coming with me then, Cartwright?” said Fitts, noting the bleak look on the face of the young man.

Joe stared, finding it difficult to speak, but eventually found his voice. “Yeah, I’m coming,” he said with disgust, though whether it was disgust at Fitts and all he represented, or whether it was disgust at himself, he did not know.

For five minutes, the two men waited, no one speaking as Joe continually looked down the street in the direction of the Ponderosa. There was the sound of horses’ hooves, and then the stage came into view pulling up alongside the depot. The two passengers boarded the stage, facing each other on the hard unyielding seats. The stage moved off.

There was no family to say goodbye, to wave farewell. As the stage moved out of the town, Joe scanned the street, still looking, still hoping for familiar faces. There were none. His destiny was now well and truly in his own hands.

*****

The stagecoach was uncomfortable and hot, the two men sitting opposite each other in silence. For hours they trundled on, venturing further and further away from Virginia City and the Ponderosa, onward towards California. Where the journey would end was of no consequence to Joe. He did not really care. Distance between him and the Ponderosa was all that he thought about.

During the long day, Fitts and Joe would doze, hardly taking the time to converse. For a brief five minutes the two men chatted, as Fitts explained the part Joe had in the forthcoming partnership, the part he had to play, just as Taggert had done. Joe listened, and nodded his understanding at the plan.

His mind then returned to the Ponderosa, still with his father and brother and their last moments together.

“Will they know where I’ve gone? Will they care?” the same question repeating itself in Joe’s mind again and again, until exhausted he fell asleep.

Fitts stared at the young man opposite, wondering if the two of them would get along, and for how long? Fitts was a greedy and selfish man, and the welfare of his new partner was the furthest thing on his mind. Just how much money he could accumulate before someone, one day, would get the better of Joe was all he cared about.

Following a full day of traveling they arrived at a way station for the night. After eating a substantial meal provided by the owner, an old man called Evans, Joe and Fitts moved outside and sat on chairs placed on the verandah of the old shack. While Evans and the stagecoach driver chatted indoors, outside the conversation for most of the evening between Joe and Fitts was monosyllabic – yes, no, maybe. Joe was not in the mood for idle chit-chat, especially with a man who had bet on his life the day before. He may be his partner now, but that did not mean Joe had to be sociable towards him. He eventually excused himself from Fitts and made his way to the room allocated for visiting passengers. As soon as his head touched the pillow on his bed, he fell asleep.

He awoke the next morning to the smell of bacon frying and black coffee steaming. Fitts was still snoring, fast asleep in the opposite corner of the room. Joe made his way outside, the cool morning air refreshing him. He could see the stagecoach driver watering the horses before hitching them once more to the stage. Returning to the shack, he accepted a cup of coffee from Evans, and sat at the table awaiting Fitts to emerge. This he did, and within an hour, having eaten breakfast, Joe, Fitts and the stagecoach driver were on their way, another day’s travel in store.

This same pattern of travel and rest went on for two more days, until at long last they arrived at a small California town named Yuba. It was a busy little town, originally used as a supply town for the gold miners of the ’49 gold rush. Such a different town to the Virginia City Joe had grown up in. Different sort of town, same sort of citizens.

The two traveling companions emerged from the stagecoach, stiff and hot. Both men knew their roles in this new partnership, so they made their way to different hotels, not acknowledging each other, Joe’s hotel room was small and dirty, but he was not in a state to care or observe. He just removed his hat and gunbelt and laid on the bed, closing his eyes.

Thoughts swirled around. What he had done. What he had to do. Could he really do what Taggert had done to him? Was he really capable of shooting another man in a gunfight, laying his life on the line again and again, just for money? What if he wasn’t as fast as he thought?

“Oh God, Joe, what have you gotten yourself into this time?” he thought as tears began to form in his eyes. Before he realized what was happening, he had fallen asleep.

The next morning Joe awoke late, his stomach aching with hunger. He rose off the bed and opening the small bedroom window, looked out. It was a dusty town, noisy, full of young cowboys heading in and out of the saloons that dotted the main street. He noticed the familiar figure of Fitts slowly walking towards a group of young men who were standing across the street. This was Fitts, the city slicker, busy at his work, acting the city dude, fascinated by the ways of the West. His part of the partnership was to encourage the young men to show their prowess at shooting, assess which man would be the worthy target. Have them lay their bets.

Joe felt his stomach churn. Only a few days ago it had been Joe on the receiving end of the deception. Now it was Joe’s turn to goad his ‘victim’ into the gunfight, start a fight and make sure his victim was aware of the ‘Code of the West’. The code they all lived by. Never be judged a coward. Always accept the challenge of a gunfight when laid down by another. Pride and the opinions of their peers would always make them show up and face their opponent.

Joe quickly washed in the bowl of water supplied in his hotel room, and drying his face, looked into the cracked mirror on the wall. The haggard face that looked back at him with haunting eyes made him shudder. “May God save my soul,” thought Joe, as he buckled on his gunbelt and put on his hat.

He left the room and made his way downstairs, following the sound of shooting behind the general store on the main street. He heard the young cowboys laughing before he saw them. As he rounded the corner he saw Fitts, talking to the young men, giving them the familiar line. Who is the best shot? The most accurate? Flattering, encouraging them. Joe stood a distance away, watching the men as they each shot at bottles stood on a wall. Fitts noticed Joe at the corner and looked at his partner but made no acknowledgement.

Finally, a young man, dark haired and dressed in a black shirt and wearing a pair of fancy pearl handled guns, had a chance to show off his ability. Joe could see the other men were watching with interest, as he drew his gun and shot quickly. One, Two Three. The bottles exploded as the bullets hit them in quick succession. This man was good, and he knew it. His comrades patted him on the back, complementing him on his accurate and fast draw. Here was the champion of the target show. Fitts was playing his part, congratulating, fawning over the young cowboy, offering to buy drinks in the local saloon.

Joe looked as the scene, staring at the black shirted man, seeing a distant familiarity with an older brother, long gone. Would he have a father and brother who would worry, try to dissuade from turning up for the challenge? He now knew his target so he left the yard and made his way to a small restaurant that provided a meager breakfast, feeling the need for nourishment.

His meal digested, Joe walked back out into the street. The sound of the gunfire had stopped in the mercantile yard, so Joe went in search of Fitts and the young black shirted cowboy. There were a number of saloons placed on either side of the street, all noisy with the clamor of young men’s voices and too much drink. Joe made his way towards the first, looking in through the swinging doors, seeking out Fitts and his victim. It was in the third saloon that Joe saw Fitts sitting at a table, chatting to a group of young men. Drinking at the bar was another group, the black shirted cowboy among them. Joe took a deep breath and entered the noisy room, looking at Fitts, who glared back at him, saying nothing.

Walking up to the bar Joe ordered a beer, making sure he was next to the black shirted cowboy. With the full glass in his hand he spilt his drink, pretending his arm had been deliberately jolted, reacting swiftly, calling the young cowboy an obscenity,

How easy it was to feign anger, to goad the young man, to step back and finger his gun as if wanting a gunfight, there and then. How easy it was for Fitts to jump up, go between the two men. Tell them the saloon was too crowded for a gunfight, and to arrange a meeting outside for the next day. How easy it was for Joe to agree. He would meet the young man the next morning at 7am behind the mercantile. The Code of the West! A gunfight challenge! How easy it was for Joe to walk out of the saloon and leave Fitts to complete his work. Make sure the young man’s friends would place bets, bets on whether he would turn up, would be fast enough.

It went as it had in Virginia City, money changing hands at a quick pace, the whole town eventually becoming involved. Betting on the lives of two men, pawns in this dangerous game.

Joe walked back to his room, feeling sick to the stomach. Was this how Taggert had felt when he had challenged Joe? Would the young man in the black shirt be feeling like he had? Joe lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling, until a knock was heard. He rose and opened the door. Fitts stood there, smiling.

“Can I come in then, partner?” Fitts smirked, as he pushed past Joe and walked in, pulling up a chair and sitting down. Joe closed the door, and returned to the bed.

“You did well, Cartwright. I know a sure thing when I see it. Bets are now in place and there’s going to be quite a profit from today’s little business. Seems that young man is thought pretty fast around these parts so there’s a lot of money riding on him showing up and outgunning you.”

Joe closed his eyes, speaking quietly, “What’s his name? The one involved in the shootout.”

Fitts looked confused. He shook his head at the irrelevance of the question. “Um, oh I think they called him John, John Frasier. Seemed very sure of himself. He’ll show up for certain so just make sure you’re faster than him in the morning. Stay off the drink. You’ll need to be at your best from what I saw”

Fitts rose and made his way to the door. For the first time, his voice showing concern at his partners’ demeanor. “You gonna be OK, Cartwright? Ain’t gonna walk out on me now are you?”

Joe looked at Fitts, could see the cowardly man was worried. “I’ll be there, and I’ll be fast,” said Joe, who then turned over onto his side, his back to Fitts. Fitts opened the door and left his partner alone.

*****

For the rest of the day, Joe stayed in his room, only venturing out when the sun had sunk behind the distant hills. He thought of John Frasier, the kind of man he was. Would he turn up at his room, like Joe had done with Taggert, to apologize, clear the air? What would he do if he knocked at his door? Refuse the apology? Send him away as Taggert had done to him? He really did not know. However, the problem never arose. Frasier did not appear.

With his stomach craving food, Joe left the hotel room and quickly located a small restaurant, its only client an old prospector who was eating his supper. Ordering a small meal, Joe ate in silence while he listened to the hustle and bustle of the night life in Yuba. He wondered where Fitts was, whether to seek him out, but decided against. He knew what he was required to do the next morning, and the thought of it made him feel sick.

The old prospector studied the young man who sat silent, alone and in obvious turmoil picking at his meal. He knew who he was – this was the man involved in a gunfight in the morning. The whole town was talking about it, laying bets. This young man looked nothing like a gunfighter. Looked too young, his face handsome, his demeanor too civilized for such a role. He thought about chatting to the young man who seemed to him to be a decent individual. Joe sensed the old man wanted to socialize and converse but this was something he could not face. So before the old man could say a word, Joe stood up and paid for his meal, leaving the Prospector alone again.

Joe returned to his hotel room, feeling mentally exhausted and worn out. He laid on his bed, staring at the walls with their torn wallpaper, the broken mirror, the dirty carpet on the floor. Such a difference from his room on the Ponderosa.

“How the mighty have fallen,” he thought as he glanced around. “All alone, no friends, no family, maybe no future! Tomorrow may well be my last day on earth, and for once I don’t care one way or another.”

With that thought in his head, he fell asleep, accepting what the future was to bring, good or bad.

*****

The morning sun shone through the window as Joe stirred. Feeling the heat from the rays, he rose from his bed and looked down onto the street below. He pulled out his time-piece from his jacket pocket and noted the time. 6:30 am. Half an hour to go. Moving to the water basin he dunked in his face, allowing the water to soak his hair and neck. Drying himself, he then sat on the bed and checked his gun. The minutes ticked away.

The sound of many voices could be heard from outside. People walking and running towards the back of the mercantile, waiting for the gunfight, hoping to make money on the lives of the two protagonists. Two minutes to seven. Joe buckled his holster, checked his gun again. Picking up his hat, Joe placed it securely on his head, took a deep breath, and opened the door. It was now up to him – to live or die. All in his own hands.

The yard behind the mercantile was full of people, young and old, all curious and eager to watch the early morning’s event. As he turned the corner from the street, Joe could see Fitts in the far corner, and the black shirted cowboy talking and laughing with a group of young men. He had shown up. Shown up for a gunfight challenge that was noble, honorable, and stupid! John Frasier saw Joe as he approached and with arrogance in his stature, faced Joe, whose face was darkened with stubble. They stood facing each other, yards apart. There was a hush from the crowd. He was only a year or two younger than Joe, and as he stared at Joe, gave the impression he was fearless. Only his eyes betrayed a fear, a fear Joe knew only too well!

“I wonder if he slept last night? Wonder if he had wanted to back down?” thought Joe, as he viewed his opposition in the gunfight.

The two men stood, silent and still, each watching the other, knowing the way to play this deadly game. People parted, made sure they would not be in the line of fire. No one made a sound, all waited for the first movement.

All who watched the enfolding scene waited for an unknown signal. The first sign was Frasier’s hand that flashed to the butt of his Colt. He began to withdraw his gun from its holster in a quick motion. Joe then moved. A movement so quick, so precise, so practiced, his left hand was around his gun butt and firing before Walsh had raised his arm. Joe’s gun shattered the quiet stillness in a deafening roar as he hit his opponent in the right shoulder, causing the young man to drop his gun in agony, and crumble to the floor. Clutching his arm, he rested on his knees, moaning quietly.

The victor viewed his opponent, could see he was incapacitated, so he replaced his gun in its holster and turned his back, walking the way he had come, returning to his hotel. The Code had been played out.

Behind him he heard the crowd as voices called for a doctor and friends tended the injured man. Money changed hands, some laughing at their good fortune, some desolate at their loss. Fitts was in the thick of it, collecting what he had won, continuing with his pretence of being a city slicker, soaking in the Code of the West.

The new partnership had worked out fine.

Later, Fitts made his way to Joe’s hotel and went to his room. Joe opened the door when Fitts knocked, and the partners viewed each other.

“What did I tell you, Cartwright? You’re a natural! We make a great team! Just look at our profit!” said Fitts as he walked in, closing the door behind him.

Joe watched as Fitts emptied his pocket, dividing the dollar bills onto the bed, his face smiling with glee.

“Here’s your share. Not bad for a mornings work!”

Joe looked at the money that Fitts thrust into his hand. Blood money! How his father would despise him now, knowing what he had become.

Without saying a word, Joe took the money and placed it in his jacket pocket.

“There’s a stage leaving at noon, heading north. We had better be on it. Don’t want the locals trying to get their own back,” said Fitts as he looked at his partner.

Joe just nodded. Words failed to come. Fitts left the room, leaving Joe sat on the bed, staring into space, thoughts racing through his mind. Today he had been lucky, he had survived. Could he do this again? He felt sick to the stomach, knowing it was not from hunger. Lying back on the bed, he closed his eyes, thinking of better days and times from the past. A past he could never return to – he had made his choice in life.

*****

At 12 noon the stage left Yuba, carrying two passengers. Fitts and Joe had boarded without incident, though Joe had noticed looks from the citizens – looks of fear, hatred and disgust. “Where was the adulation now?” he thought grimly.

Fitts was feeling happy. His new partner had helped make him a tidy sum of money, and he could see there would be much more to come. The conversation was as ever sparse, and after a few miles Joe slunk down into his seat, pulling his hat over his face and dozed. He had not even asked Fitts where they were going. Not that it mattered. One town was much like another, the people similar, the ‘Code’ always the same. Fitts sat looking out over the bleak country. How he hated the West. Once his new partner had made enough for him, he was returning east – to the civilized world as he saw it.

The stage rolled on and on. At night they stopped off again, taking in the hospitality of the way station. The next day they continued with their journey, eventually arriving at their next destination, a town called Chico. Another small town, filled with saloons and young cowboys eager to show off their prowess with the deadly six-gun. As before in Yuba, Fitts and Joe went about their business. As in Yuba, one young cowboy was better than the rest. As in Yuba, he was challenged by Joe, bets were made, and the gunfight was arranged. As in Yuba, the shoot-out was the same. Joe was fastest. His opponent was shot in the arm, the money was paid out, and the partners retreated, boarding the next departing stage. The destination of no consequence to the two men.

For months this became the way of life for Fitts and Joe. They left California and headed into Oregon. The towns of Oregon were full of the immigrants who had traveled the ‘Oregon Trail’ in countless wagons from Missouri. The immigrants were unfamiliar yet excited with the role of the gunslinger in the West, so the pickings were rich.

There was always a willing opponent wishing to show off his abilities with a gun. Always a young man braver than he should be ready to face the young handsome gunslinger. Always men willing to bet hard earned money on the outcome of a gunfight, played out in the early morning, a matter of life and death to the two men participating.

Slowly the partnership began to take on a different form. Joe was now well versed in his role. He decided when he would play the ‘Code’. Some times the two men would visit a town and just take in its delights, whether it be drink, poker or a pretty girl at the saloon. Fitts realized he was now playing second fiddle in this partnership, but acquiesced as the money flowed in fast and plentiful.

Joe discarded his old green jacket and bought a long black coat and black hat, looking much more like the gunfighter he was than the cowboy he had been. He had inwardly laughed when he had first seen himself in his new garb. His brother Adam had always worn a black shirt, trousers and hat. He had always looked so distinctive and distinguished.

“Wonder what big brother would think if he saw me dressed like this?” thought Joe as he eyed his new persona.

The young Cartwright from the Ponderosa slowly melted away, as he turned into the cool, methodical gunfighter, who answered to no-one, his dark green eyes always alert, scanning the crowds and watching his back.

However, some nights when he sat alone in his hotel room, the cold-hearted gunfighter would unashamedly revert to his former self, privately reminiscing about his family, so far away, Pa and Hoss. Their names brought a pain in his head and chest, while his eyes watered. He wondered if they had let Adam know of the younger brother who had left the Ponderosa, not knowing where he had gone. Would he know the circumstances and reasons for his departure? Would Adam worry or even care?

There were times when Joe felt his heart aching so much at his loneliness, regretting his life change of direction, and he would find solace in the whisky bottle, the liquid calming his rapidly beating heart and soothing his troubled head. Other times, usually the night before a gunfight, the whisky would have to wait, so he would seek out a willing saloon girl, and enjoy the pleasures of a lady’s smooth skin and fragrant perfume.

Many towns were visited by Fitts and Joe, and when the ‘Code’ was played out, Joe was the winner, always the fastest. Each time his victim was shot in the arm. Never killed, only injured. Sometimes their loss of pride gave the losing player in the gunfight more pain than the actual bullet wound. They would always remember the young handsome gunslinger, who never smiled, never drew first, who never shot to kill.

The months turned into a year. From Oregon to Idaho. Idaho to Utah. Joe and Fitts continued playing their roles, always one step ahead so no one knew of the ‘game’ they played. Both men eyed the other with a little distain and suspicion, could never call themselves friends. However, they stayed together, knowing their success depended on each other.

The money kept rolling in, the bets becoming larger. Joe was always the winner in the gunfights, his aim sure and true. He only drew his gun when his opponent had started to draw – could never be accused of shooting first and always remained within the law. He made sure he only disabled his opponent, whether it be their shoulder or arm. He may be a gunslinger, a gunfighter, but he would never be a murderer!

*****

For two years this partnership continued, their wallets bulging with the dollars obtained by Joe and his fast draw and the bets laid against his opponents. Fitts could now retire with enough money to live comfortably in the east, amongst his own civilized kind. Joe was not sure what he would do. Maybe go to New Orleans, his mother’s place of birth. He had always wanted to visit the south, seek out the lifestyle of a Louisiana Gambler! The more he thought of it the more the idea grew and grew.

Lady luck had been generous to them both, and so they decided the next town would be their last. They would end their partnership and go their separate ways, dissolving the link between them both. Fitts had been grateful at his luck in finding Joe Cartwright that day in Virginia City. He never thought the young man would last so long, be so fast and accurate, and survive as long as he had.

Joe was also surprised at his good fortune. There were times when he thought he would not survive the outcome of another gunfight, always amazed he had not come up against someone else faster and more deadly than he was.

With each month away from the Ponderosa, the yearning and longing for his former life had diminished. The change of direction taken those many months previous had provided him with a life of his own choosing, and he had been successful. However, he realized one dark fact. His father and brothers would have been disgusted and disappointed in him. The thought still sent a cold shiver through his body.

On a cool September morning the two men arrived on the stage at Calico Junction, a newly formed but busy mining centre in the south of California. Both men were now well versed in their charade. Everything went well, the practiced patter of Fitts, the goading of a young cowboy, the fixing up of an early morning gunfight.

One by one the pieces fell into place, just as it had done countless times before. This was a rich little town, so money flowed in abundance from the citizens, eager to place bets, make a ‘killing’. These citizens knew the challenger well, and were more than confident in his ability to take the stranger who had suddenly appeared in their midst. It was well worth taking a chance with their money and the dollar notes passed eagerly between all.

Wes Reed was a man the same age as Joe. He had survived his life in the west, using his gun both in anger and self-defense. He was also well accustomed to the ‘Code’. Never back down, and always face your man. Honor and pride before anything else.

The appointed time arrived that morning, the cool of the air making both men shiver involuntarily. The crowd was plentiful, eager to view the gunplay, bet on the outcome. Easy money to be sure!

Joe and his opponent viewed each other. Each man moving his fingers to keep them supple and ready for the signal to draw and shoot. Stillness again fell around the area, the audience pulling back out of the line of fire. Both men, standing erect and still, watching for the unknown signal that would start the deadly play. The drama began.

As if an unseen hand had risen then fallen, both men drew their guns and fired, the sound deafening in the early morning quiet. For a second nothing moved, then as if they had practiced the motion, both men fell in unison and in silence. For the first time in two years Joe Cartwright felt the hot sear of pain as the bullet entered his body. His left hand instinctively replaced his gun in its holster, as he sat on his knees, his right hand clutching his stomach. His opponent was also on the floor, but he did not move. For once, Joe had shot and killed.

There was a morbid silence as the audience viewed the two men. Then movement. Those who had won money collected their winnings. The body of Wes Reed was unceremoniously taken away to the undertakers by his comrades. The unexpected outcome had left Fitts in a state of confusion. His winnings were thrust into his hand as he stood staring at Joe, who was still clutching his stomach, the pain in his face plain for all to see. Fitts stood his ground, unmoving, as helpful strangers put their arms around Joe, and pulled him up, half carrying him over the short distance to Doc Johnson’s office.

The Doctor had been aware of the planned gunfight and was waiting, ready to treat the loser of the morning’s conflict. However, this loser was also the winner! Joe had won the contest, but at what cost?

Fitts walked over to the doctors, looking through the open doorway. He could see Joe, who was laid out on the couch, sweat pouring from his forehead, blood oozing out onto his shirt. Joe was by now unconscious. To Fitts, the young man looked like he was dead or close to dying. Their last job together, and Joe was paying the ultimate price.

“How ironic!” thought Fitts, feeling sorrow much to his surprise.

He had actually got to like Joe Cartwright. No point staying around though. Giving Joe a final look, he turned from the doorway and made his way to his hotel room, collecting his valise. There was a stage leaving within the hour heading east, and Fitts would be on it. His fortune made, the ‘Code of the West’ had served its purpose for him.

Alone, Joe lay unconscious that day, unaware of Doc Johnson’s attempt to save his life. The bullet had gone in deep and hid in his stomach. Though he tried his best, used ever inch of his limited surgical skill, there was no way the bullet could be removed. With a resigned sigh, the doctor stitched up the gaping hole. He cared for his patient as best he could, surprised that the next day Joe was still alive. In fact, he was conscious.

The doctor sat by the young gunman, knowing he had a sad task to perform. Joe was pale, his stomach covered by a large bandage, his hair soaked with perspiration. He could see the doctor was looking uncomfortable as he sat by his bed. The doctor cleared his throat.

“Whets your name son?” he asked,

“Joe, Joe Cartwright,” answered his patient in a whisper.

“Well Joe, I done the best I could for you. Operated on you within the hour of that gunfight, but that there bullet is still in you, and no way of getting it out. I’m real sorry”

The doctor could see the confusion in Joe’s eyes. What did he mean? He elaborated, “When I opened you up, I could see that bullet had done too much damage in your gut and stomach. Had I probed around and tried to get the bullet out you would have died there and then on my operating table. As it is, at least you got a few weeks left. I’ve stitched the hole up, though you’ll be a mite sore for a few days there.”

Joe looked at the doctor, shocked, not really believing what he was hearing. “You mean I only got a few weeks to live? I’m going to die?” his voice quiet.

Johnson nodded, and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, giving him a gently squeeze. “That bullet did a lot of damage to your gut. There’s just nothing that can be done in those circumstances.” The Doctor could see the distress on his patients face, the pain at his words.

Joe just lay, staring ahead through glassy eyes. The shock of the situation slowly sinking in. Lady Luck had finally deserted him, and the leash of death had finally caught its prey. “What’s gonna happen to me?” he asked, his voice becoming like a whisper.

The doctor looked at his patient, wondering how much he should tell him. He decided on total honesty. “Can’t say for sure. All these injuries bring on different symptoms but you can expect a lot of stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite. There’s no nice way to say this: you’re gonna get pretty sick and suffer, right up to the end.”

There was silence as the words sunk in. The doctor could see his patient was in much distress, both mental and physical. Maybe it would have been better if he had died quickly, like Wes Reed.

“You got kin you can go to?” asked Johnson.

Joe just stared, uncomprehending, confused. After all these years of laying his life on the line, this was how his final moments would be played out.

Johnson asked the question again. “Anyone you can go to, who can take care of you?”

Joe looked up, slowly understanding, not really knowing how to answer. He shook his head. A question suddenly came into his head, something he needed to know. “The other fella, the one I shot. How is he?”

The doctor answered, looking at Joe, “Didn’t make it. Sorry.”

Joe bit his lip, everything had gone wrong. His last gunfight, and he had killed for the first time since he had begun his new career those many months ago. Fate had certainly dealt a bitter blow at last.

There was silence for a few minutes. As his mind began to clear, Joe remembered Fitts. He had to know what had become of him.

“You seen anything of the city slicker who was taking bets on the gunfight?” said Joe, feeling so very alone.

The doctor paused, trying to recollect the man in question. He remembered seeing him in the doorway, when Joe had been carried in and left lying unconscious on his couch. “Saw him leaving on the stage yesterday afternoon. The hotel manager brought your things over from the hotel though. Including this wallet you left in his safe.” the man indicating Joe’s valise laying on the floor in the corner and his wallet lying on the table. A wallet full of money. Blood money!

What good were his ill-gotten gains now? So Fitts had left him for dead thought Joe. He was going to die alone. For some reason a line from the Bible came to him. His father had often said it, and Joe could almost imagine his voice as he quoted the words, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.”

How apt, thought Joe, thinking of his father for the first time in weeks. In truth death did not scare him. Not half as much as the thought of dying alone in a hotel room, and being buried in an unmarked grave. The pain in his stomach was nothing now to the pain in his heart. He was dying, and he was alone.

Doc Johnson looked at Joe, and could see he was deliberating, thinking things through.

“Will I be able to move, travel?” said Joe, watching Johnson’s face.

The doctor answered, not realizing the implications of his patient’s question. “A couple of days, and I’ll get you moved over to the hotel. Looks like you can afford to get someone to see to your needs, till your time comes,” the doctor said, looking at the wallet, obviously full with dollar bills. “I’ll give you plenty of laudanum, help keep the pain to a minimum.”

Joe closed his eyes, his mind fuzzy with the pain, and the realization of his predicament. “Thanks Doc, but I can’t stay here. If I’m gonna die, then no way am I lying in some hotel room, waiting to meet my maker. No way I’m gonna end up in an unmarked grave on Boot Hill.”

He may be dying, but the resolution in the voice of his patient made the doctor pause, and take stock. “What you aiming to do then? Where do you think your going to go to, in your state?”

Clutching at his stomach while a wave of nausea washed over him, Joe thought through what the doctor had said. A few weeks! Not long, but long enough to go home. Home! A word Joe hadn’t thought of or mentioned in a long time. However, now it was the most important word he could think of. He was going to return to the Ponderosa, one way or another. He wanted to die with his family around him, if they’d let him. He wanted to be buried next to his beloved mother, in the familiar surroundings of his childhood and youth.

“Can you give me enough of that there painkiller so see me through to the end Doc?”

Doc Johnson nodded, knowing he would be paid well for his medicine by this dying gunman.

“Then, I’m gonna be leaving this town and heading north. I’ll get me a horse, and try and make it back home to my family.”

It would be a painful journey, one he may not complete, but Joe was determined. After all, what had he to lose now! Only his life! Through his pain he chuckled at his own joke. He was dying to see his family now, one way or the other.

With that Joe closed his eyes, and with the thought flowing through his brain, he fell asleep. The doctor looked at him. What a shame! This young man didn’t deserve to die this way, no one did. He sighed deeply, wondering at the unfairness of life sometimes. Taking a damp towel, he gently dabbed Joe’s forehead, cooling the forehead that was hot and perspiring.

*****

Within a few days Joe was well enough to head out of the town, his horse bought, and his saddle bags filled with enough painkiller to last him through on his journey. Saying a grateful thank you to Doc Johnson, he painfully mounted his horse then slowly moved off, his left hand holding the reins while his right hand clutched at his bandaged stomach.

The doctor watched his patient as he disappeared down the street, stooped in the saddle. Whether he would ever reach his destination would be in the lap of the gods, thought the man who had cared for Joe over the past few days. He silently wished him God speed, then went into his office, closing the door.

The journey for Joe was slow, the pain endless and at times excruciating. But with his painkillers Joe kept going, the miles between him and the Ponderosa slowly decreasing.

At times he wondered if he could go on, the pain getting worse by the day, his face covered in sweat. He was constantly sick, and at times even mounting his horse made him feel exhausted. His arms and legs ached as he cried out in agony on his lonely journey. How could one small bullet cause such anguish, such suffering?

As he traveled on he thought back to when he had started his life as a gunslinger. If only he had done what his father had said and stayed at home, not left the Ponderosa that day. That would have taken more courage than the direction he ultimately took. Mile after mile he continued, his body racked with the constant throbbing of his injury, the symptoms continuous. It took all his skill and determination to stay on his horse, but stay on he did, until one day he looked around and found himself on familiar land. The Ponderosa!

Two weeks had passed. How many had he left? Through his agony he pondered what he was going to say to his father, his brother. He prayed to God that they would forgive him, let him die in peace in his old home, his old bed, and be buried with his mother.

Finding the road he knew so well, he walked his horse slowly, and as the sun was setting in the evening sky, Joe Cartwright arrived at the Ponderosa ranch. He was home! The Prodigal Son had returned!

*****

Slowly the horse walked into the yard of the Ponderosa, its rider lying almost horizontal on the saddle. The horse stopped as Joe slowly sat up and looked around. Nothing was different; everything was as it had been on the day he left. Clutching at the mane of his horse, Joe swung down, nearly collapsing onto the floor, just managing to keep standing by keeping a tight grip on the saddle horn. He stood there, his long black coat hiding the thin body, racked with pain. He staggered towards the main house, pausing at the rocking chair that still stood on the verandah. He thought back to the last time he had touched it, the day he had left. On he walked, slowly, until he came to the door. Should he just open it, or should he stop and knock?

The pain in his body began to throb, so he took out two painkilling tablets, and swallowed them, waiting for a minute for the pain to settle to a dull ache. He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. He knocked at the door. A few seconds later the door opened, and the face of Hoss appeared in front of Joe. The two brothers stared at each other, Hoss visibly shaken at the sight before him.

“Hoss! It’s been a long time,” was all Joe could say before he collapsed into his brothers arms.

*****

When Joe opened his eyes, he was lying on the couch in the main room, the faces of his brother and father staring at him. Faces that showed love, concern, disbelief!

“Joe, oh Joseph!” was all Ben could say as he looked down on the pale, haggard, sickly face.

“Pa! It’s good to see you. You too Hoss,” Joe whispered, not knowing what else to say. He slowly lifted himself and sat up, looking into the face of his father.

The two men stared at each other, unable to put into words what they silently communicated. Explanations were needed, so Joe took a deep breath and swallowed, his voice weak and quiet. “I never really wanted to leave that day Pa. I waited for you to open the door, follow me out, so I could apologize. But you never did. Why Pa? Why?” His eyes streamed with tears.

Ben gazed at his youngest, aghast, “I couldn’t Joe. As you shut the door, I collapsed. A minor heart attack. I couldn’t move. By the time I had recovered enough, you had gone. Left Virginia City. We didn’t know where you were, or what had happened to you.”

There was silence in the big room of the Ponderosa.

Hoss looked at his brother, concern showing on his face. “It’s been so long Joe, so long! You look all dun in. What’s made you return now, after such a time?”

Joe turned to face his brother, noting the concerned look, a few extra worry lines surrounding his face. How Hoss must have suffered over the past couple of years. The thought tore at Joe’s heart. “Don’t worry Hoss. I’m not on no wanted poster, or being followed by a posse. It’s not what you think”

Joe looked at his brother then his father. He slowly stood up, grimacing, as he unbuttoned his coat, letting it fall on the floor. Ben and Hoss could see the thin body, once so muscular, so fit. They gasped in unison. Joe slowly walked over to the fireplace, and with his back to his family looked into the fire as he spoke.

“You want to know why I’ve come back?” Joe slowly turned and faced the two men. “There’s no easy way of saying this, Pa. You see, I’m dying! Got myself a bullet in my gut, that can’t be removed. So I’ve come back to die, here on the Ponderosa, in my own bed if you’ll let me? I just want to be buried next to Mama, have some company for eternity. That’s why I’ve returned.”

With that, his legs gave way, and as he sunk down, blackness enveloped him.

*****

Joe Cartwright lay in his bed, his window open, the cool breeze gently moving the curtains. He had been lying there since the day he had returned. There was no strength now in his body. All he could do was take the laudanum, and wait to die. His father and brother had been shocked and had despaired at the condition of Joe. Both had however cared for him, soothed him in his agony, and comforted him.

He was nearing the end, an end that he hoped would come quickly. He was worn out with the constant pain. He was ready to die, content in the knowledge he was back home, back with his family, ready to be reunited with his mother. Slowly the life blood of Joe Cartwright slipped away, as his father sat by his side, stroking his hair, cooling his brow with a damp cloth. Joe fell asleep, his breathing growing shallower, quieter, until after one slow draw of breath, Joe Cartwright died, the last sound he heard being the voice of his father, calling to him.

“Joe. Joe. Joseph!”

*****

“Joe. Joe. Joseph!”

Ben’s voice boomed out, louder than he had intended. His son, lying on the bed, opened his eyes in confused amazement. Unable to focus, he put his hands on his eyes and wiped them harshly. He opened them again, and saw the face of his father in front of him. The room was in semi-darkness, the sun slowly sinking through the open window, the breeze gently blowing the curtains. Joe looked about him, bewildered.

“Pa? Pa, what’s happening, I don’t understand?”

Ben sat on the bed by his son, looking at him with concern. “It’s OK, Joe. Hoss and I decided to let you sleep for a few hours, seeing as you probably didn’t get any last night. Am I right?”

Joe nodded as he still looked around the room perplexed. “Sleep? You mean I’ve been asleep since this morning? Since we got back from Virginia City?”

Ben nodded his affirmative. He saw Joe was looking pale, uneasy. He put his hand on his forehead. “Well, you’re not starting a fever, but there’s obviously something wrong with you son. What is it?”

Joe focused his eyes on his fathers face. “I must have been dreaming, but Pa, it was so real, so vivid. It was as if I could smell it, taste it, feel it.”

“Remember what it was about, Joe?” Ben asked, concern still on his face.

Joe lay back on his pillow, and looked out of the window. He nodded. He remembered every painful detail, everything. “I left the ranch, had a big row with you. You had a heart attack Pa. I became a gunfighter like Taggert. Only returned when I was dying of a gunshot wound. I died Pa, right in this bed with you holding my hand. It was so real, so very real”.

Tears were actually forming in Joe’s eyes as he spoke, and Ben could see he was upset. Joe and dreams were a common occurrence on the Ponderosa. After the death of his mother, a young Joe had woken up the household on countless nights, crying out for the comforting warmth of his father, or at times even his oldest brother. Dreams usually forgotten in the morning, but recurring at intervals.

Even in his adulthood, there had been dreams and nightmares that would wake the Cartwright household. There had been the time he had been falling from Eagles Nest, when he had to face his fear of heights. Then when his friend Seth had killed his father in law to be in a supposed mercy killing. Vivid recollections to Joe that had left him sweating and unable to sleep, having to sit the rest of the night wide awake in his chair.

Ben was all too aware of the misery these dreams had caused. Today’s dream was going to be no exception. He chose his words carefully, wanting to reassure his son. “Joe, don’t get too upset. It was just a dream. What with the lack of sleep and all that went on this morning, your mind was obviously full of images, unable to rest. So dreaming was the only way your brain could get it out of your system.”

Joe nodded, slowly realizing the truth of his father’s words. All that had occurred during his sleep had been frightening. Every experience and situation unpleasant. This nightmare had given him vivid images of what might have happened had he decided to change direction in his life, for whatever reason.

He rubbed the back of his neck, thinking hard, grasping every image of his nightmare as it slowly began to disperse. Could he of ever argued with his father as he had done in the dream, left the Ponderosa, become what he had become? He tried to make sense of it all, as the realities of his life slowly came flowing back, and the memories of his nightmare shrunk away into the deep folds of his brain.

Slowly, Joe showed signs of fully awakening, while his father cleared his throat.

Ben needed to say more, to clear the air. “About this morning, Joe, the gunfight.”

This grabbed Joe’s attention. He bit his lip, knowing the lecture that was about to come. The consequences of his actions were now about to be felt. How similar to the dream he’d had would his fathers lecture be?

“I’m real sorry Pa, didn’t…” Joe stopped mid sentence as his father shook his head and silenced his son with a wave of his hand.

Ben stood up and walked towards the window, looking out over the mountains in the far distance. What he was about to say was going to be hard to admit, but his son had to know. “I need to apologize to you Joe. I’m truly sorry for what I said last night. I had no right, no right at all.” He paused, and looked around to see Joe staring at him in amazement. This was something Joe had not expected to hear, as he sat on his bed, his eyes wide. “You see Joe, there comes a time when a father has to admit to himself that his sons don’t need him like they used to. I now realize you are not the little boy who used to be sent to his room waiting for my slipper when he misbehaved. I guess I still miss having that youngster around, keeping me on my toes all the time. I have tended to forget that little boy is now a grown man.”

Joe smiled at the recollections, the many times he and the slipper had felt contact.

“You’re old enough to make your own decisions, find your own way in life. I had no right to interfere the way I did. Truth be told Joe, had it been me in your shoes 30 years ago, I would of probably done just the same thing. Acted the same as you. Guess were more alike than either of us would like to admit. Just let’s say I was behaving like a concerned father.”

Ben could see his words were having a positive effect as his son smiled up at him.

“You mean you would have taken up the challenge of the gunfighter, Pa?” asked Joe, his face looking incredulous.

“Yes, I probably would,” answered Ben, wondering where this conversation was now going.

“And I suppose you would have been the fastest draw as well, eh, Pa?” Joe laughing as he finished the sentence.

“I don’t see why not?” said Ben feigning mock anger. “Why should you be the only one in this family who can use a gun?”

“Oh, I believe you, Pa! Ben Cartwright, the fastest gun in the state of Nevada!” Joe sat back, as his high pitched laugh echoed around the room.

Ben grinned. “Just try not to get involved in another gunfight, eh? I don’t think your brother and I could take another morning like today!”

Joe chuckled. “Don’t worry Pa. No way am I going through that again.”

The two men smiled, happy in the knowledge that peace had been made between them.

“Well, I think you had better freshen up. Your brother Hoss has been doing your chores today, so I reckon you had better get up and give him a hand finishing them. Right?” Ben moved towards the door as he spoke, giving Joe a final glance.

“Yes Pa, I’ll be right down. Guess I need to do a bit of apologizing of my own to big brother. Should have taken more heed of his advice last night.”

Ben opened the bedroom door, and was about to leave when Joe spoke. “Pa. Pa, would you answer me a question? Honestly?”

Ben turned around, surprised at his son’s request. “I always thought I’d been honest with you Joe? Of course I will,” his voice quiet.

Joe looked at the man in front of him and taking a deep breath, said what was on his mind. “Have I ever been a disappointment to you, Pa?” his voice emotional.

Ben stared at his son, wondering. “A disappointment? Oh Joe, you have never been a disappointment to me. Never! A challenge at times, but never a disappointment.”

Joe slowly smiled, as he realized what his father had said.

Ben smiled back, not realizing the importance of his answer to Joe.

“Thanks Pa. Thanks”, said Joe, as his father turned and resumed his walk down the hall, and downstairs.

Joe stood up and walked to the window. He looked at the scenery through the window, still marveling at its beauty. “Thank God for this reality” he mused as the memory of his nightmare finally slipped away into the far reaches of his mind. He was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do, with a family he loved and who loved him. Life felt real good!

Joe freshened his face with the water on his dresser, combed his hair, then made his way downstairs. He had chores to do, bridges to rebuild with his brother, and he never felt happier at having to do them.

***The End***

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