Aftermath Of A Hanging (by Doreen)

Summary:  A What Happened Instead for the episode “The Gamble.”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  37,400


 

Summary: Set up by the local Sheriff and two other men, Ben Cartwright and his three sons are falsely accused of murder and bank robbery in the town of Alkali. After a hastily arranged trial in the saloon they are pronounced guilty as charged and as the Judge sentences them to hang the next morning a fight ensues and Joe throws himself through a window, steals a horse and manages to escape. A posse is sent after him but by a spot of trick riding he fools his pursuers and gets away, racing at breakneck speed towards Virginia City to find help . . .

 

April 1862

Bent down low over his horse’s neck, Joe kept looking back anxiously to check the law hadn’t seen through his deception and were following him with all guns blazing. But to his intense relief, each time the trail was empty for as far as he could see and the only sound was the clattering of hooves echoing dully beneath him on the hard dirt track.

After running high on adrenaline since escaping from Alkali, Joe suddenly became aware of a vaguely familiar painful sensation, one he’d experienced a couple of years before when he was shot by a murderous member of a gang led by Hoss’ Uncle Gunnar. He looked down, and as the tell-tale sign of a warm flow of blood ran down his arm and soaked into the leather pommel of the saddle and mane of his mount, he realized he must have been hit by one of the posse.

But just hoping the injury wasn’t too serious, Joe urged his horse even faster until he approached a fork in the road where he knew the left trail meandered for miles across vast flat meadowlands towards Virginia City and beyond. It was a route he’d often taken when herding Ponderosa cattle with his brothers, but with every second counting, he ignored the safer but longer option and instead turned in the opposite direction towards home.

Within minutes, the land tilted in an unforgiving climb, the road narrowing crazily with a deep forming gorge falling away to one side. It was a trail once popularized by hopeful prospectors during the gold rush of ’49 and used in an attempt to take miles and days off their journey towards the promised land of the Californian gold fields. But with many wagons, mules and men slipping and sliding and ending up smashed and dead at the bottom of the ravine, the route had soon been abandoned and wisely left unused for several years.

Knowing its history and had there been no urgency in his flight, Joe would have reined in to a more cautious gait at this point or even turned back. But for once without any thought of safety, he continued along the shortcut at an alarming rate and what happened next was totally unexpected and fatefully left him with no chance of reacting.

Failing to notice the sky growing ominously dark as he caught up with the tail end of a localized storm, all of a sudden, without warning, a rogue lightning bolt zigzagged through the air and a loud ear-splitting rumble of thunder echoed in its wake. Made wild by the frenzied dash and unexpected sight and sound from above, the horse squealed out in fear and shied suddenly to the side, pitching its unprepared and weakened rider unceremoniously over the edge of the steep sided ravine.

Terrified but unharmed, the animal bolted back along the trail the way it had come, leaving Joe to tumble helplessly head over heels in an avalanche of shale and mud before crashing to a stop. But with no hat for protection when his head slammed hard on the sharp edge of a small boulder, a red hot pain shot into his brain and darkness settled around him.

A short while later as he woke in a daze Joe tried to work out what had just happened. He vaguely recalled falling and abrasions to his face and hands stung like hell but lacking any sense of purpose or urgency, he closed his eyes again in an attempt to sleep away an unusually pulsating throbbing in his arm and head and the unsettling desire to throw up.

But then the memory came back, clear and sharp, and Joe jerked awake from the peaceful pain-free haven he longed to visit as the terrifying image of his father and brothers hanging by the neck appeared in his mind’s eye. He let out a cry of anguished panic. They’d be depending on him to fetch help! But he had no horse…no idea which way to go…so little time!

Barely aware of the blood trickling down his arm, Joe pushed up on unsteady legs, and with no sense of direction, he began staggering along a faint animal trail which followed the course of a fast flowing stream. It was a nightmare to keep moving, and at times he’d stop, gasping for breath, disorientated and confused. But then the fuzziness would clear, and as he remembered the fate of his family lay in his hands, with a fresh surge of determination he’d force himself to continue on.

However, as the sun began slowly sinking out of sight, Joe finally fell to the ground, unable to find the strength to take another step. Lost in a world that was neither conscious nor fully unconscious, he lay unmoving for several minutes then heard a faint rustle in the undergrowth and in the distance the murmur of faraway voices, the sound of gunshots and the thud of bullets in the ground near his feet.

A single thought flashed into his befuddled mind. The posse! They must have followed him after all and were closing in to finish him off!

Tensing at the sound of footsteps running through the brushwood towards him, Joe tried to push himself up in an attempt to get away, but with a feverish perspiration clinging to his face combined with bone-deep fatigue and loss of blood, he sank back down, going nowhere fast.

The realization his father and brothers would be dead by next sunup and it would be his fault for not finding help was more than Joe could live with — better he breathed his last where he lay. And with his head now pounding like a drum and once more unable to make sense of where he was or why, Joe pitched for a second time into a black abyss of guilt-ridden yet merciful unconsciousness.

*****

The sun was still low in an eastern sky and the pungent smell of wood smoke from a campfire was the first thing Joe recognized when he eventually came round. He could see he was lying by the side of an old prairie schooner and warmed by a couple of coarse woolen blankets covering him from head to toe. A number of hobbled mules were grazing a few yards away and he struggled to sit up, only to fall back dizzily with a groan.

“Hey, Daniel, come on over here! Looks like all your doctoring worked!” a deep voice called out.

There was the sound of speedy movement and before Joe realized what was going on three dark-haired strangers crowded around, gazing down curiously at him. Joe stared back groggily with panic-filled apprehension. At first glance, he could see they were men in their early thirties, muscular in appearance with bristly unshaven faces and clothes grimy, all carrying long barreled revolvers in the belts of their faded and mud splattered pants.

As his imagination raced apace, fear crawled up Joe’s spine and he instinctively went for his gun, only to find his left hip was bare.

One of the men who seemed to be the unofficial spokesman of the group noted his unease and squatted down by his side. “Easy young, fella; we don’t mean you any harm. If we’d wanted to hurt you, we could have done it long since. My name’s Daniel and these good for nothings are old friends of mine, Henry and Sam.”

Two weather-beaten but friendly faces beamed good-naturedly over Daniel’s shoulder and Joe let out a long apologetic sigh as he realized his first impression of the men had been undeserving. “Sorry. I…I’ve got me a throbbing headache and can’t seem to think straight at the moment.”

Daniel nodded understandingly and leaned forward to press a hand to Joe’s forehead. “Well, you’re not fevered up any more so that’s a good sign,” he confirmed then straightened and walked towards the campfire. “Reckon you could do with a stiff drink to clear out the cobwebs but seeing as we’re clean out of whiskey, it’ll have to be black coffee. Will that do?”

Now feeling no threat, Joe bobbed his head slightly. He was helped to a sitting position and with one of the blankets folded and placed against the wagon wheel his back was rested on it. Daniel returned and pressed a tin mug in his slightly trembling hand and three pairs of eyes watched patiently as Joe drank his fill.

“We’ve got leftovers from last night’s supper heating on the fire. Do you think your stomach can take any?”

As if on cue, Joe heard an inner grumbling. “I…I guess I could risk some,” he agreed hesitatingly, and again within moments, he was using a small ladle to spoon surprisingly tasty rabbit broth into his mouth. It didn’t take long to demolish what had been placed in front of him and Henry took the empty bowl from his hands.

“How do you feel now?” Daniel asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee then sat down by the fire.

With his insides pleasantly warmed and filled, Joe managed a grateful nod. “Much better thanks and my headache seems to be easing already.”

Sam dropped down to sit crossed legged beside him and rolled out a cigarette. “Want one?” he offered.

Shaking his head, Joe looked around at the sprawling unfamiliar terrain and a confused frown which puckered his forehead didn’t go unnoticed.

“If you’re wondering where you are and why you’re stuck with us, ain’t no big mystery,” Sam said as he struck a match on the heel of his boot and lit up then stared at the young man by his side through a haze of smoke. “You see those hills in the distance?”

Following his gaze, Joe nodded as Sam paused for a moment to take a long drag of tobacco. “That’s the Utah border and Henry found you a couple of days back while he was hunting game for supper. You’d been shot but luckily the slug had gone clean through your arm so Daniel set out straightaway to stem the bleeding and you’ve been travelling with us ever since, just sleeping a feverish sleep till a few moments ago.”

“Shot?” Joe’s face reflected surprise and puzzlement at this news and suddenly aware of tightness around his arm he turned his head to look. Sure enough, a length of unbleached calico was bound securely above his right elbow and a thin layer of encrusted blood covered a small hole in the sleeve of his jacket.

“Your shirt was too messed up to keep but Henry donated his Sunday best for you to wear,” Daniel told him with an apologetic grin. “And there was a swelling on the side of your head the size of a goose egg but it’s been slowly going down and I’m guessing it could well be the reason for any headache you suffer.”

Still looking slightly bewildered Joe tentatively fingered a raised bump in his hair which was tender to the touch. “Reckon you’re right,” he agreed with a slight grimace. “I’m much obliged to you all for what you’ve done.”

Daniel took a long swallow from his mug. “If you think you’re up to it, you mind telling us how you managed to get yourself in such a state?”

Joe was about to answer when a chill crept up the nape of his neck and his expression suddenly changed to one of alarm and confusion.

Daniel exchanged a worried glance with Sam. “What’s wrong, mister? You feel the need to puke after Henry’s stew?”

Willing himself to stay calm Joe shook his head. “Truth is, I don’t remember what happened to me.”

“You saying you can’t bring to mind how you got shot or banged your head?”

Joe met Sam’s slightly skeptical gaze, stifling the urge to scream out in frustration and panic. “It’s worse than that. Feels more like there’s a heavy curtain in my head, blanking out everything from before I woke up. Any family, home, friends….don’t remember nothing.” He paused and took a deep swallow. “Hell! I can’t even tell you my own name!”

But then without warning, one memory seemed to unexpectedly leap from the depths of Joe’s brain. “There’s one thing…I think…I’m sure at some point I was being chased….”

Leaning casually against the wagon, Henry suddenly stiffened and began stroking the butt of his pistol in a menacing fashion. “By Indians?” he interrupted as his eyes narrowed to vengeance-hungry slits. “You reckon you could have been trying to outrun a bunch of no-good, scalp-loving Indians?”

Almost immediately his personality had changed; no longer amiable and quietly spoken but a man filled with hate and Joe threw a worried glance towards Daniel.

“Henry’s ma, pa and kid brother were killed in front of him by an Apache raiding party when he was just twelve years old,” Daniel told Joe by way of explanation. “Henry was left for dead and he’s always itching for an excuse to settle the score. But even though I keep telling him there ain’t any Apaches this far north, he won’t listen.”

Joe looked over at Henry uncomprehendingly. “You still want revenge after all these years?”

“Wouldn’t you?” Henry answered quietly as he pulled a well-worn bandana from around his neck to reveal a faded but unmistakable scar left after a knife had been slashed across his throat from ear to ear. Joe sucked in a sharp breath at the gruesome and unexpected sight.

There was a brief uncomfortable silence as Henry wrapped the kerchief back around his neck, then Joe let out a despondent sigh. “Like I said, I honestly don’t remember who was after me.”

Sam’s eyes glinted mischievously. “Reckon it must have been a posse. Bet you held up a bank and got away with wads of banknotes stuffed in your jacket pocket!”

“And just how could he have stolen from a bank, seeing as he didn’t have a gun or a horse when we found him?” Daniel asked as he gave a sideways glance towards Joe. “Besides there weren’t any money on him…I already checked.”

Joe smiled briefly at the exchange but his grin soon faded as the seriousness of the situation hit him again. “But what if the law was after me? There could be a reward out for all you know!”

Daniel studied the young man, then shook his head, smiling. “You ain’t got the look of no criminal, so don’t reckon you’re on any wanted poster.”

Joe’s shoulders slumped. “Thanks for the vote of confidence but let’s face it, neither of us knows for sure. I could be anybody, done anything.” He heaved another heavy sigh. “Why can’t I remember? What the hell has happened to me?”

Daniel stared into the embers of the campfire for a few moments, scratching thoughtfully at the stubble on his jaw. “I might be able to help you there,” he answered as he looked back towards Joe. “Reckon you’ve got a serious case of selective amnesia. Read about it in a medical journal I came across once.”

Joe looked at him uncomprehendingly. “What the heck is that?”

“Fancy name for loss of memory when some things from the past come to mind yet other memories are completely forgot. It can happen after a serious bang to the head, and let’s face it, you certainly had a humdinger and no mistake!”

“But it’s only temporary, right?”

Daniel cleared his throat. “Hard to say,” he answered with a frown. “From what I read, most folk start recollecting everything again within a short while without any problem but…” He paused for a moment and straightened his shoulders. “But there’ve been rare cases when nothing of any significance ever comes back at all.”

Joe stared at him in disbelief. “Are you telling me there’s a chance I might never know who I am or where I’ve come from?”

Hardly able to comprehend how Joe was feeling and finding no words to make the situation better, Daniel just nodded grimly then took another long swig of his coffee.

“Don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I think saving my life might just have condemned me to a living hell,” Joe murmured dejectedly.

Always the optimist, Sam shook his head. “No point thinking that way, mister. You might be one of the lucky ones and get your memory back in a short while.”

Though wanting to believe him, Joe let out a loud sigh of frustration. “And if not, what do I do till it decides to return?”

Daniel turned his gaze to stare out across the vast empty countryside which stretched from horizon to horizon. “Well, one thing’s for sure, you can’t stay out here in the middle of nowhere on your own, memory or no memory. And without any notion of where you belong, figuring out where you came from in this god-forsaken wilderness would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

Reluctantly, Joe was inclined to agree. “So what do you suggest?”

Daniel thought for a moment as he emptied the dregs from his mug onto the fire. “Reckon you’ve got a couple of choices. We’re heading for a small town a few days travelling time from here. Once there, you could stick around until you manage some remembering then make your way back to where you came from, if you’ve a mind to.”

Joe churned over the suggestion for a few moments. “And my second option?”

“You’re welcome to continue on with us, though I won’t lie to you, it’ll be over a thousand difficult and backbreaking miles before we get to our final destination. And I can’t even guarantee we’ll all get there in one piece!”

Daniel paused and looked between his two friends. “But truth be known, we could do with an extra pair of hands, if nothing else to help care for them ornery mules. I’ve stopped counting the number of times one of them critters has come close to doing us some permanent injury.”

As if to substantiate his statement, Daniel rubbed at his leg in a soothing fashion.

“And it wouldn’t do any harm to have an additional gun should we get bushwhacked by any damn Apaches,” Henry stated quietly as a faint glint of hatred once more flickered in his eyes.

Joe arched his eyebrows. “And that’s supposed to convince me to go with you all? The prospect of being kicked or shot to death?” he asked with a cynical smile.

Daniel chuckled. “Must admit, the way you said it don’t make it sound like such a good deal.”

Then as a thought came to him, Joe frowned curiously. “Just where is it you’re heading?”

“Kansas.”

“Kansas! Why? Is that where you’re all from?”

“Hell no mister, we ain’t ever been there before,” Sam admitted as he rolled and lit a second cigarette. “All three of us were born and raised around a small town in the New Mexico Territory. Only other time we’d left the area was when we decided to escape the drudgery of farm life a few years back and travelled south together looking for a little adventure. Got involved in the overthrow of Santa Anna, then stayed on for a while, sowing a few wild oats with the local senoritas, if you know what I mean.”

He gave a heavy wink at the inference before continuing.

“Then we heard gold had been found along the Gila River, so ready for a change of scene we headed back in ‘58 and settled west of Yuma. Wasn’t much of a place but we managed to pan enough to suit our needs until the Colorado burst its banks a few months back. Everywhere for miles was covered within hours, animals drowned, crops washed away, town flooded and destroyed.”

“Is that why you left?”

Sam took another long drag and shook his head. “We did figure on sticking around until the land drained dry and then start panning again. But we heard several columns of Confederate soldiers were heading in our direction and be arriving within the week. And being known supporters of the Union, we decided it would be a good idea to do a tactical withdrawal at that point, so we bought ourselves a team of mules and a wagon, filled it with supplies and headed north.”

“But why go to Kansas?”

Sam pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and carefully unfolded it. “Found this nailed up on a wall in Yuma,” he said as he passed it over for Joe to read.

The multi-creased poster announced the Kansas Militia based at Fort Leavenworth was recruiting Union volunteers to be eventually deployed to major battle zones in the east after a short period of training.

“There’d been rumors the war wasn’t going too well for Mr. Lincoln and that the Confederates were planning on conscripting men at any time to boost their numbers. So we reckoned fate had decreed by way of the flooding it was time for a change in career and take up arms against the South.”

Joe stared between the three in disbelief. “You mean you’re going all that way just to enlist and then maybe get yourselves killed? What kind of a fool idea do you call that?”

Sam shrugged nonchalantly. “Won’t be the first time we’ve courted death over the years. Besides, as we’ve all gotta die someday, we might as well go together for a cause we believe in than not.”

Half admiring and half thinking them mad for their fatalistic stance, Joe scrutinized the poster again then handed it back without further comment and Sam returned it to his pocket. “You do understand the North has been at war against the Confederate States for the past year, don’t you? Or is that something else you can’t remember?”

Joe’s eyes glazed over thoughtfully for a moment. “Most of the details seem pretty sketchy and jumbled up in my head but I can just about recall reading about it. Wasn’t there a fight at a fort somewhere what started it all and the Confederates won?”

Daniel nodded. “Fort Sumter. Well at least you’ve managed to remember something.”

“I can think of better memories I’d like to have than the beginning of a war!” Joe shot back a little bitterly. “This is just too crazy! I can quote facts from a year ago but can’t remember where I was last week!”

Hearing a sense of frustration and fear in his voice, there was an awkward silence for a few moments, all three men feeling genuine pity for Joe’s situation.

Daniel finally broke the stillness between them. “Can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m sure if I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t want to be alone at a time like this. So tell you what. You come with us to Kansas but if your memory returns at any time, the first town we get to we’ll give you enough money to buy a stage ticket straight back to where you came from. How does that sound?”

Joe shifted uncomfortably. “Considering you know nothing about me, reckon it’s more than generous, but if we get all the way to Fort Leavenworth and I still haven’t remembered anything what then?”

Daniel pushed back his hat and ran a hand through his thick black hair, considering. “Well, as a last resort you could always enlist with us.”

Joe widened his eyes and stared at him, stunned. “What? And maybe get myself killed as well? I may have lost my memory but I ain’t lost my mind!”

“Guess that is the one main downside to my suggestion,” Daniel admitted with a wry grin. “But at least you’d be paid regular and clothed and fed till the time came to maybe meet your maker. So what do you say? You feel up to joining us for a little adventure?”

Joe chewed at his lip for a few seconds. It was like trying to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea! But he had to admit the thought of travelling half way across the country with his new found companions was far more appealing than sitting around a strange town on his own, just waiting and praying for his memory to return, if ever. “Though something tells me I might regret this, it looks like you’ve got an extra passenger for the duration of your trip, or at least until I remember who I am,” he finally declared with a sigh.

Daniel nodded. “Good decision,” he agreed, then pulled out a pocket-watch and checked the time. “We need to make a move if we aim to hit the border by sundown. You feeling fit enough to travel?” he asked, looking back down at Joe.

“Sure, I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, mister, then just stay put till we’re ready to go. Daresay it’ll be a while before you’re steady on your feet after all you’ve been through.”

Joe agreed without protestation as Sam’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully towards him. “Well, seeing as you might be with us for a time, you need to have a proper name until you remember your own. We can’t just keep calling you mister, so any ideas what you’d like to be called?”

Before Joe could answer, Henry stepped forward. “How about Jack seeing as it was a jack rabbit I was shooting at when I found him?”

Joe took just a brief moment to consider his response. “Jack sounds good. I’ll go with that.”

“Then Jack it is,” Daniel agreed as he walked over to the dying fire and doused it with the remaining liquid from inside a battered looking coffee pot.

Bedrolls were stuffed into canvas bags and cooking utensils swilled clean then everything placed in the wagon. Soon the campsite was cleared, and for the next few minutes, Joe forgot his troubles and watched with amusement as the three men struggled and cursed as they tried to hitch up the six unruly mules into place. It was obviously a battle fought daily, but at last after much braying and protesting, the team was secured in their harness and the party was ready to move off.

Flushed with exertion, Henry made his way back to Joe. “I’ve been thinking. It’s only right and proper you have a last name as well.”

“Got an idea for that one?”

Suddenly Henry looked a little sheepish as he helped Joe to a standing position. “Well I did think…how’d you feel about going by my surname, McFarlane?” He paused for a moment and swallowed hard. “Be good to share my name for a while. Be like having a little brother again.”

For a brief second, Joe thought moisture glistened in Henry’s eyes, the loss of his sibling all those years ago still a festering wound which refused to heal. He mustered a gentle smile of compassion. “It’d be an honor to take on your name Henry. Thanks.”

’Be like having a little brother again…little brother’.

Joe frowned as Henry’s words rang in his ears. There was something familiar about what he’d said that was now pulling at his memory. He strained his brain to try and remember, then swayed dizzily.

“Hey Jack, you ain’t gonna pass out on me, are you?”

With his thoughts instantly forgotten, Joe held onto Henry’s arm for support and managed a faint smile of reassurance. “Legs just feel a little weak.”

With a nod of sympathy and all the while giving over a close scrutiny of friendly concern, Henry helped Joe into the back of the wagon, and after making sure he was comfortable, returned to climb up alongside his two friends on the front seat.

Convinced Sam was right and his amnesia may well be short-lived and a temporary affair, Joe heaved an optimistic sigh as he pulled a blanket tight around his shoulders. And blissfully unaware of his father and brothers standing on a scaffold in the pale mist of morning days before as they prepared to die, he heard Daniel kick off the brake, slap the reins, and with a sudden creaking, the wagon set off.

*****

Any hopes Joe had about his memory quickly returning were cruelly dashed, for he still didn’t know who he was or where he came from when they eventually arrived at a newly-founded settlement in Utah several days later.

Daniel pulled the team to a halt outside the only mercantile in town, and as Henry tethered the lead mules to a hitching rail, Joe jumped down from the back of the wagon.

Now stronger and in better health, he looked around and wiped a hand through his sweat-matted hair. After suffering a blazing sun and eating mouthfuls of dust for miles, the sight of a sprinkling of drinkers wandering into the saloon next door made Joe lick his lips. What he wouldn’t give for a cool beer that instant.

However, they weren’t staying in town for long and there was something else he needed to do before they left. As if reading his mind, Daniel looked over and indicated towards his right arm now in a protective sling. “You’re not going to be much help loading the wagon, so why don’t you go for a walk and see if anything looks familiar or someone recognizes you before we move on,” he suggested before following Henry and Sam inside the store.

With a nod of agreement, Joe walked up and down the sidewalk for the next half hour, sweeping his gaze towards any townsfolk as they passed by, full of hope someone would be bound to show him a flicker of recognition and greet him by name. But to Joe’s intense disappointment, no one paid him any heed. He even studied a notice board outside the Sheriff’s office in case there was a wanted poster showing a description of someone like him. But there was nothing that even came close.

Finally, he sat down despondently on a wooden bench in front of the saloon. An old man was already seated, smoking a clay pipe and reading a newspaper. He glanced over at Joe with disinterest then returned to his read…

‘Men hanged for murder and bank-robbery in Alkali.’

Joe sighed, barely taking in the story heading on the front page. He’d been so sure someone would have picked him out and he’d know who he really was by the end of the day. So much for praying for a miracle he thought as he closed his eyes, disheartened and disillusioned.

“You okay, Jack? Anybody know you? Anything trigger your memory?”

The sound of Henry’s voice brought Joe back to the here and now and he looked over, noting the provisions had been loaded and his travelling companions were already seated on the front of the wagon watching him keenly. They could see the disappointment on his face as Joe shook his head and as he made towards them he glanced in the mercantile window.

It was then Joe stopped in his tracks as he noticed his reflection. He took a deep steadying breath. For he didn’t recognize the slim-built, gaunt faced young man who looked back at him; it was akin to staring at a stranger. And if he didn’t know himself, what hope was there of anything else ever being able to jog his memory?

So with a heavy heart, Joe hauled himself onto the tailgate, and with Sam taking charge of the reins, the wagon trundled slowly out of town in an easterly direction.

Hours later, just as the sun was going down, the four men set up camp.

It was a pleasant and peaceful location, and as they sat around a blazing fire, their stomachs filled with beans and bacon and half the contents of a newly bought bottle of whiskey, Henry disappeared into the wagon for a few moments. When he returned, he dropped a wide brimmed hat and leather gun belt into Joe’s hands. “We bought these for you today, Jack. They ain’t brand new but as good as.”

With a look of surprise, Joe stroked the flat brim and stared at the holster containing a Colt.44 revolver. Then he shook his head and frowned. “But I haven’t got any money to give you.”

“Who said we wanted paying back?” Henry replied as he sat down again.

“I’d rather not get into too much debt if I can help it,” Joe answered a little too sharply, then realizing he sounded ungrateful gave an apologetic sigh. “Look, I’m sorry but…but you’ve all done enough…given me enough as it is. I can’t take your charity as well!”

Daniel shook his head with a smile. “It’s not charity, Jack. They’re gifts, necessary gifts for a friend. You need some protection from the sun, and as for the gun, a man isn’t dressed without one. Ain’t that right, boys?”

Henry and Sam let out a far from sober chorus of agreement, and deeply touched by their thoughtfulness, Joe’s expression changed to one of appreciation and thanks. “Very well, but I swear as soon as I get the chance, I’m going to pay you back and that’s a promise.”

Daniel nodded and reaching into a bag by his side passed over a box of shells. “Let’s see if that weapon feels right for you.”

Joe stood up and slipped his arm out of the sling before placing a bullet into each chamber of the Colt. Then he strapped the gun belt low on his hips and for a few moments played with the revolver, twirling it around on a finger then slamming it back into the holster over and over, faster and faster with ease.

The three men sucked in breaths of admiration at the sight. “At least you haven’t forgotten how to use a firearm and you sure are a natural and no mistake. Lucky that storekeeper had one left-handed holster to sell. Told me its last owner had it made special but only got to wear it a short while before he didn’t need it no more,” Daniel admitted without further explanation.

Joe sheathed his gun and looked over curiously. “How’d you know I was left-handed?”

“We noticed you favoring it ever since we met so it seemed to make sense,” Henry replied. “And it’ll be a comfort to know there’s someone with such a skill watching our backs if we ever gets into any serious fighting.”

Flashing a smile at his companions Joe’s mouth began to twitch and then he burst out in a full-blown chortle of high-pitched laughter, his hazel eyes twinkling with amusement. It was the last thing the three men had expected to hear or see; Joe’s understandable melancholy having been obvious that day.

“What’s so funny?”

Joe tried hard to regain composure at he stared over towards Henry but failed for several seconds. “It just occurred to me,” he finally answered with a grin as he sat down by his side. “What if my memory returns and I realize my allegiance is to the South! Would you be quite so happy to have a Johnny Reb watching your backs then?”

The three older men exchanged confused drunken glances before slowly they started to chuckle and soon tears of mirth were running down their cheeks.

“That’s a good one,” Henry declared after he’d calmed, slapping Joe hard on the back. “I ain’t laughed so much since…well, since I don’t know when!”

That seemed to set the tone for the rest of the evening. With Joe in a much better mood, they chatted and joked together, the older men once more spinning yarns and reminiscing about their days in Mexico until a second bottle of whiskey was emptied and it was time to turn in.

As he made himself comfortable, Henry looked over and focused on Joe with a mighty effort, his eyes blurry and glazed. “I know you want your memory back but I’ve got to tell you — and don’t take this the wrong way — but we’ve all got to hoping you never do any remembering if it means you’ll end up sticking around with us. You’ve fitted in like family, Jack, you truly have.”

Without waiting for a reply or comment, Henry flopped down into his bedroll, and like Daniel and Sam, fell instantly asleep; a chorus of whiskey-induced snoring echoing within moments around the camp site.

Though also reeking of liquor, sleep didn’t come so easily for Joe. With plenty on his mind, he was suddenly made sober, so he silently rose to leave the warmth of the fire and walk a short distance away, slumping down by the stump of a lightning-ravaged juniper tree with his jacket pulled tight around him.

Many minutes passed as he mulled over what Henry had said, for truth be known he’d also been thinking if his amnesia turned out to be permanent, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, giving him the perfect excuse to stick around with the three companions he’d grown so close to.

However, it was a shameful thought and the fact he’d even contemplated the idea filled Joe with an overwhelming sense of guilt and disgust. He might well have kin of his own somewhere; a frantic father searching and a loving mother grieving and weeping for a son lost. Surely he should keep his thoughts focused towards trying to remember them? Isn’t that what any other sane and decent man would want to do?

But Daniel had been right in his appraisal. He could handle a gun like he was born to it, so what if he hadn’t been a decent man? Maybe he’d just been trouble all his life; a loner, a no-good bum who didn’t fit in, the sort of man who’d kill on a whim, then when shot himself, was left to die alone like a crazed demented dog.

The idea of having such a desperate past made Joe feel sick inside but he had to know the truth. Shutting his eyes tight and focusing hard, he prayed for memories of something or someone would flood back, any tiny scrap of a recollection that he could grasp then drag from the depths of his mind – a name, location, a face, a smile. But for all his concentrated effort, there was just a vast void of nothingness.

He’d lost the first twenty-odd years of his life and had no idea how to get them back –- might well never get them back. And as he hugged his knees against his chest, Joe silently screamed. ‘Dear God, will this nightmare ever end?’

*****

For the next few weeks with no sign of warring Indians and good weather on their side, Daniel refused to push the team of mules unnecessarily as the four men travelled across the high plains and mountains of Utah and Colorado. Instead, they just went at a steady pace for several hundred trouble-free miles, occasionally collecting fresh provisions from a few small settlements and homesteads they passed through along the way.

There were minor incidents during their journey, of course; the occasional bruised shins from well-aimed hoofs, an unintentional dunking as they crossed the fast flowing Arkansas River, the uninvited visit from a curious grizzly late one night. But as they hit the vast flat prairie land of Kansas and spent a further month of uninterrupted safe travelling, the small party eventually arrived in one piece at Fort Leavenworth on an unseasonably hot and humid day near the end of July.

The weariness and relief after finishing the long trek showed on all their faces as Daniel pulled the team to a halt in front of a livery stable on the edge of the quickly expanding garrison town.

Alighting from the wagon, they all stretched aching arms and backs then looked down the main street where the full length of road was a river of dark blue uniformed activity with cavalry, foot soldiers, artillery and several supply wagons forming a seemingly never-ending line as far as the eye could see.

A mix of townsfolk and newly arrived volunteers for the Kansas Militia stood on the sidewalk cheering wildly towards the troops when suddenly above the clatter and commotion, they heard the sound of a loud bugle call. Almost at once, the procession began to move; a prancing stallion ridden by a stiff-backed Yankee colonel leading the way as the column slowly wound its way out of town to a destination unknown, leaving a great cloud of choking dust in its wake.

“That could be us in a few weeks,” Daniel said somberly after watching in silence for a full ten minutes until the last wagon was out of sight. Then his gaze wandered towards an impressive-looking brick built building across the street.

A large sign above the door announced rooms and food available and he gave a brief jerky nod in its direction. “I’m gonna see how much I can get for the mules and wagon, so why don’t you head over there and order us the best meal they’ve got to offer. Reckon we deserve it before going down to the recruiting station.”

There was no argument at his suggestion, and several minutes later, sitting in their dirt encrusted clothes the three men stuck out like sore thumbs amongst better-dressed clientele as they stared around at their unusually luxurious surroundings.

To make it the most prominent and successful hotel west of the Mississippi, the owner of the lavishly decorated restaurant had spared no expense; the room conveying its pretence of grandeur with top grade wood paneling on the walls, velvet curtains at the windows and imported crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

“Never been in anywhere like this before,” Sam admitted nervously as he inadvertently brushed a splatter of dried mud from his pants onto the highly polished floor and tried to hide it with his boot.

“Nor me,” seconded Henry, feeling equally out of place and awkward in such opulent surroundings.

“Sort of reminds me of Julia’s Palace. Now that sure was a fancy place upstairs and down,” Joe admitted distractedly as he flashed a smile towards an attractive looking blond-haired waitress who’d just taken their order.

The young woman blushed wildly as she rushed into the kitchen, and with the pleasant diversion, no one picked up on the fact a rare memory from the past had suddenly resurfaced from the depths of Joe’s mind as he’d recalled Julia Bulette’s infamous saloon in Virginia City.

Daniel suddenly appeared, the fine décor bringing a raised eyebrow of appreciation as he pulled up a chair and sat down. “This is some expensive looking eatery! Reckon the meal’s gonna be top-price as well, so good job I got a great deal from the livery,” he informed with a grin as he immediately proceeded to share out a large quantity of dollar bills into four equal portions. Then he placed one of the piles in front of Joe.

“Since you ain’t done any remembering, we don’t want you to feel obliged to join up with us, so we’d like you to accept this. It’s by way of thanks for all your help and good company over the past three months and should be enough to get you back to Nevada if you’ve a mind to head in that direction.”

Acutely aware of their eyes on him, Joe stared down at the money for several seconds. There was indeed more than enough to enable him to return to where he’d come from and seek out his past but he made no attempt to reach out and take it. For he’d resigned himself long since to the fact his amnesia was permanent and had no intention of being cast adrift now to make his own way in the world alone and so leave the men who’d become more like brothers than friends.

He pushed the money back. “Thanks, but no thanks. I need to earn some of that Army pay, as I still owe you for my gun and hat,” he said, his face breaking into a boyish grin. “Besides, reckon someone’s got to watch your aging backs.”

With her cheeks still flushed red, the waitress suddenly appeared, carrying a large tray and placed a plate of steak, corn fritters and potato in front of them all. And taking no notice of the expression of surprised delight on his friend’s faces, Joe gave the pretty female a wink, picked up his fork and knife, and without another word, began to eat.

*****

Darkness was falling, and near the end of training, Joe was sat on his bunk, cleaning and oiling his Army issue rifle as the door to the barracks flew open and Sam rushed in.

“Hey, you’ll never guess what the Sergeant just told me!”

Daniel and Henry looked up from the game of cards they were playing as Sam caught his breath. “Confederate forces have taken Independence!”

Henry pursed his lips in a soundless whistle. “Independence? Why that’s less than 50 miles from here!”

Sam nodded. “And Quantrill was with them.”

A collective low murmur of unease reverberated around the room from the dozen or so volunteers housed in the same block as they digested Sam’s unexpected news. Quantrill and his band of around two hundred had become notorious over the past year for their guerrilla style warfare against the Union, and no one who opposed their way of thinking was safe from their murderous retribution and cold blooded killing, civilian or Army.

“Did we lose many men?”

A fresh-faced young man by the name of Johnson nervously asked the question and Sam looked solemnly towards him. “Too many, Seth; some of them shot down in their beds, by all accounts. And that ain’t all. Sergeant also told me we’ve got new orders. Instead of heading east next week, we’re patrolling the Missouri border till October, in case any damn Gray-backs try to sneak across and claim Kansas for the Confederacy.”

However, before anyone could comment on this revelation, the broadest of smiles appeared on Sam’s face. “But I’ve also got us some good news! We’re getting paid in the morning, and starting then, we’ve all been given 3 days leave! You realize what that means don’t you?”

It took a few moments before his words sank in. Since they’d joined up, no recruit had been allowed out of the garrison to fraternize with the civilian population; training and drills all they’d had to concentrate on from morning till night. So as realization dawned the thought of being able to spend a few hours on drinking and whores brought up a loud cheer in response, and all of a sudden to a man, Army life didn’t seem so bad.

*****

The next day, as soon as he’d signed for his wages, Joe paid back his debt for his hat and gun as promised. Daniel was about to argue, but seeing the look of resolve on Joe’s face decided against it and accepted the payment with a gracious nod. Then before leaving the confines of the fort, the four men hurriedly planned out their schedule to the minute detail.

They’d have a few drinks first, grab another succulent steak and then find themselves a quality bordello to spend a few hours and maybe even stay the night, if their money held out.

There were no raised objections to this timetable. All were determined to enjoy their short leave to the fullest, for they accepted it might well be the last time they’d have such an opportunity for a long while, if not ever.

However, the first saloon they came to was already filled to capacity as several dance-hall girls pirouetted provocatively on a stage in front of an innumerable haze of cheering and leering dark blue uniforms. The noise was deafening and the tune played on an out of tune piano could be barely heard above the din.

Desiring a quieter atmosphere, they wandered on until eventually coming across a suitable watering hole devoid of military personnel and female distraction. It was a drab looking place, with paint peeling off the walls and the smell of stale liquor in the air, but it suited their needs and Henry was just about to push his way through the swing doors when they were alerted to a loud buzz of excitement emanating from around the next corner.

With their curiosity aroused, the friends followed the sound and were immediately met with the sight of a large crowd looking over towards a hastily built scaffold. Three men were stood on it, their hands tied behind their backs and each with a noose around their hooded heads.

Queasiness settled in Joe’s stomach at the sight, and then without warning a sharp pain radiated on the side of his head and he pushed back his forage cap and began massaging the area. He turned to his nearest neighbor. “Who are they? What have they done?”

Waiting expectantly for a raised hand of the sheriff to drop, an old-timer with a toothless smile glanced quickly at the Yankee private next to him. “It’s Matt Ballantine and his two eldest boys,” he spat then turned his gaze back. “They’ve been heading a gang of no-goods round these parts for years. Father and sons raped and murdered a couple of women on a homestead not far from here a week ago, then got caught red-handed trying to burn the place down after they’d finished.”

Suddenly at the sheriff’s signal, a trapdoor was released and now deprived of their footing, the three men kicked out and for several seconds lunged crazily as if in a wild uncontrollable dance with the devil. Then as bones separated in each neck, and to the sound of a loud cheer, the figures gave a final twitch and almost as one stilled in death.

The spectacle had been sickening, but now over and with justice seemed to be done, the crowd began to disperse. The Ballantines were cut down and hurriedly placed in the back of a wagon, their final destination an unmarked grave on the outskirts of town.

As they also turned to leave Henry noticed, Joe hadn’t moved but was froze rigid, staring transfixed towards the empty gallows. His face had visibly paled, and thinking he was about to collapse, Henry went to take a steadying hold, only for Joe to shake him off then stagger towards a narrow alley where he promptly began to throw up.

“Reckon that must have been the first time he’s seen a hanging,” Henry deduced as they followed and waited for him to finish. “Ain’t anything to be ashamed of though, Jack. Sight always leaves me feeling a mite squeamish as well, but them Ballantines deserved it for what they’d done.”

For several seconds, Joe remained slumped to his knees, clutching at his stomach until slowly he raised his gaze and looked from one to the other; his heart slamming so hard against his ribs he felt faint.

“You don’t understand…the hanging…it’s brought it all back,” he murmured hesitatingly, the dam to his past having finally cracked open and memories of home and family now sweeping over him in a powerful flow. “I know who I am now. I’ve just remembered everything.”

Almost immediately feeling a hand on his arm guiding him, Joe allowed himself to be propelled towards the near-deserted saloon they’d been about to enter a short while before. The only other customers were several elderly townsfolk playing cards who gave the small group of soldiers a passing glance then returned to their game.

Throwing over a coin to a sleepy eyed bartender lounging at the far end of the bar, Sam collected a bottle and glasses then set them down on a table, and removing the cork with his teeth, poured out four generous measures of whiskey and placed one in Joe’s shaking hand. Although burning his throat, Joe’s shot was downed in an instant.

“Want another?”

Joe nodded and within moments had repeated the action.

Daniel took a sip of his drink and studied Joe over the rim of his glass; his young friend clearly troubled and far from being thankful his amnesia had cleared at last. “Something tells me you’ve stirred memories awake from your past you don’t care to be reminded of.”

Joe’s face drained of what little color was left. “You don’t know the half of it. I’m beginning to wish you’d left me to die on the trail. It’s no less than I deserve.”

Sam leaned back in his chair, curious to the turmoil churning his friend’s insides. “That’s some admission, Jack. Care to explain?”

There was no immediate reply as Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It’s a long story. I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Sam gave a narrow-lipped smile, his voice now quiet and patient as if talking to a child. “Well we’ve got all day, so let’s begin with your real name.”

Joe felt a shiver pass through him and took a deep swallow to ease the tightness in his throat. “It’s Cartwright, Joseph Cartwright. Friends and family called me Li…..” He paused and took a breath. “Joe. They called me Joe.”

Henry pondered his reply for a moment. “Joe. Name suits you. So you got kinfolk somewhere, Joe?”

With his face lined with sadness, Joe took a deep swallow. “Mother died when I was small but…but I had a father and two elder brothers. We worked a ranch near Virginia City until…”

As Joe’s voice trailed, a perplexed frown appeared on Henry’s brow as he picked up on the past tense. “Until what, Joe? What happened to them?”

Although fighting with all his strength to keep his emotions in check, Joe felt tears stinging in his eyes and wiped a hand across his face. “They were to be hanged by the neck the day after you found me,” he said, drawing in a shuddery breath. “Only unlike them Ballantines, they were innocent of any crime and it’s my fault they’re dead, just as sure as if I’d placed that noose around their necks myself.”

Momentarily taken aback, the revelation was met with stunned silence by the three men. Daniel shook his head incredulously. “You’re not making any sense, Joe,” he finally responded. “Why don’t you just start from the beginning and tell us what happened?”

Joe remained silent for several long seconds, then with tears unashamedly blurring his vision, he nodded and allowed his mind to flash back in time. “It all started after my Pa, brothers and me finished a cattle drive and arrived late one night at a town called Alkali…”

Some time later the story had been told.

“I’m real sorry, Joe,” Henry said quietly, genuinely saddened and his eyes filled with pity. “Sorry about what happened to your kin. But from where, I’m sitting don’t reckon you’ve got anything to blame yourself for. You falling and losing your memory was just an accident, a cruel twist of fate, no more, no less.”

As Daniel and Sam nodded in agreement, Joe stared down dejectedly. “Easy for you to say, considering it weren’t your Pa and brothers who were strung up because you failed to fetch help.”

Daniel’s face softened. “Were you a close family?” he asked, probing gently.

As images of his Pa, Adam and Hoss flashed through his min, Joe nodded. “Close as you can get I reckon. Just wish I’d…” His voice faltered. “Just wish I’d told each of them more often how much they meant to me. But now it’s too late and they’ll never know.”

Sam gave a sad sigh, not sure what to say that could lessen the burden of misery Joe now bore. He lit up a cigarette and aimed a cloud of smoke at the ceiling. “So what you gonna do about it?”

Joe didn’t answer immediately, and there were a few moments of edgy silence as his thoughts seemed to drift away. The shock of knowing he’d never have his father’s comforting arms around him again, never enjoy the reassuring presence of his brothers at his side caused a tremor of pain to explode within him; their deaths leaving a void in his heart that could never be filled.

Finally, clenching his fists tightly, he took a deep calming breath to steady himself and slowly his eyes began glinting coldly and his expression took on one of a willing executioner. “I’m going straight back to Alkali to settle a few scores the only way Sheriff Gains and his two deputies deserve, with a bullet between the eyes.”

“But what if they’ve already left Alkali?” Sam asked. “Ten thousand dollars can take a man a hell of a long way.”

“Then I’ll just have to go after them, to the ends of the earth, if I need to. I owe it to my Pa and brothers, so don’t try and stop me.”

Henry gave a shake of the head and gestured helplessly. “Hell Joe, the mood you’re in, we wouldn’t dare, but just take a minute to think this through,” he begged. “If you go shooting dead three lawmen, no matter what their crime, you’d be a wanted man with a price on your head! Do you want to be looking over your shoulder morning, noon and night for the rest of your life? For your own sake, why not leave it to the law to see justice is done?”

Joe glared over. “What price is justice when it was lawmen who murdered my Pa and brothers? And truth be told, without them around anymore, I don’t much care what happens to me once I’ve done what I aim to do. This vendetta is personal and you of all people should understand what I’m talking about Henry.”

As their eyes locked, Henry reluctantly nodded as he involuntarily fingered the kerchief around his neck before exchanging a glance with Sam and Daniel. As one mind they accepted Joe’s hatred and yearning for revenge was truly justified.

But Daniel could also see Joe’s desire for vengeance was clouding all reasonable judgment and realizing all rationality had gone, he leaned over and gripped his fingers tightly around Joe’s wrist. “Has it slipped your mind you signed up for the Militia?”

Joe frowned questioningly. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

Daniel glanced around as if to check their conversation wasn’t being overheard. But he needn’t have worried. The other customers were so engrossed playing cards none of them turned a head in their direction.

“You suddenly run off and you’ll be classed as a deserter and probably hunted down before you get out of the territory. And I for one don’t relish the prospect of being assigned firing squad duties and looking at you down the barrel of a rifle!”

“But I’ll explain the reasons I have to go.”

Daniel sighed in frustration as he sat back. “You think the Colonel up at the fort is gonna wave you off with his blessing just so you can go on a personal killing spree?”

Joe’s eyes flashed and narrowed with fury. “Are you saying I have to wait until the war is over before those low-life killers get what’s coming to them? ‘Cause if you are, forget it!” he spat back in response as both hands noticeably clenched once more into fists.

Unused to seeing such rage from their young friend, Sam laid a hand on his arm. “Easy, Joe, we’re on your side, remember?” he said in a consolatory tone as Daniel’s mind whirled frantically, trying to fathom a way out of the dilemma and his brow furrowed in thought. Then slowly the corner of his mouth curled. “Don’t suppose you read the small print at the Recruiting Station when you enlisted did you?”

Now slumped in his chair Joe looked at him blankly and could only shake his head.

“Thought not,” Daniel said with a faint smile. “Well, it stated minimum length of service for any volunteer who signed up for the Militia was three months. Seeing as we’ve already done near on thirty days, you reckon you could hold off on your departure till you’ve finished a further sixty?”

“That’s right, Joe, you listen to Daniel,” Henry encouraged. “You know what he says makes sense.”

Joe exchanged a quick glance with them all then chewed at his lip thoughtfully for a few moments. As much as he hated to admit it, he could see the wisdom of the suggestion and finally gave a slight nod of agreement. “Okay, you got a deal. I’ll stick around till I get my ninety day discharge papers but then I’m definitely heading west.”

“Not just you, Joe. Us.”

“Us?” Joe repeated the word. “What do you mean us?”

Daniel shrugged his shoulders. “Well, you don’t think we’re gonna let you go on your own, do you?”

Joe shook his head emphatically. “I’m going alone,” he replied tersely. “This is my problem and mine only. I owe you more than enough as it is and don’t aim to get you involved and probably invited to a neck-tie party over something that doesn’t concern you. And I swear to God, I’ll steal me a horse this very minute and start back regardless of the consequences if you don’t agree to what I’m saying.”

With his jaw set determinedly, it was clear this was no idle threat.

Daniel let out a sigh of defeat. “Very well, we’ll do it your way,” he agreed, then adding without malice. “You sure can be an obstinate cuss at times, Joseph Cartwright!”

Joe tried to smile but the muscles in his face failed to cooperate. “That’s just what my big brother used to tell me as well. Guess some things never change.”

At that moment, their conversation was interrupted when a group of unruly cowpokes pushed through the batwing doors and began hammering loud on the bar for service.

Sam dropped the stub of his cigarette onto the floor and ground it to pulp with his heel. “Never could stand noise and crowds at the same time when I’m drinking,” he said with a groan as the clamor intensified. “Reckon it’s time we got out of here.”

Without any argument, the men downed their whiskey and left the saloon, and with no further conversation between them, wandered down the street until they stood in front of the hotel they’d visited on their first day in town.

Henry placed a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Do you feel like grabbing some food?”

Not wishing to spoil the rest of their day as he knew his mood would affect them unfairly, Joe shook his head. “Wouldn’t be the best of company and haven’t got much of an appetite anyways. Reckon I’ll head back to the barracks. Need some time alone as I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.”

“You gonna be alright?”

Joe gave a deep sigh. “Don’t reckon I’m ever gonna be alright again, Henry,” he said, a lingering sadness in his voice.

The three men continued to watch him as he walked away, Joe seemingly deaf to all that was going on around him, deep in grief-driven thought and his head bent low. Tired beyond a physical weariness, he was so focused on his own misery he failed to hear the unmistakable sound of gunfire ripping through the air. It was only when a man with fear in his eyes ran directly into him that Joe raised his gaze.

Their collision was brief but as Joe wheeled around, he saw to his dismay a group of armed horsemen looming up in front of him, all yelling and shooting indiscriminately at anyone who moved within range.

Several prone figures were already laid along the road and it took an instant for Joe to realize what was happening and what danger he was in. Instinctively, he went for his Army pistol only to suddenly recall all recruits venturing into town had been ordered to leave their weapons in the armory until they returned to the fort.

Uttering a curse, Joe turned to find protective shelter but it was already too late as an explosion suddenly rocked his upper body and a needle sharp pain tore across his head, the likes of which he’d never experienced before.

The gunmen swept past, the sound of hoof beats swiftly fading as they galloped out of town, leaving Joe slumped on the ground in a heap, crumpled and still. And with his scalp flowing crimson at an unhealthy rate and blood trickling down the inside of his shirt, Joe’s last lucid thought before the world turned a sinister shade of black, hell of a way to die!

*****

After floating in a bottomless pit of nightmarish dreams, Joe sensed hands adjusting a disheveled blanket covering him. “Pa? Is that you?” he asked in a sleepy whisper.

There was a quiet chuckle. “No, it’s not your, Pa Joe. It’s me… Henry.”

“Henry?” Joe’s mind was sluggishly confused at the sound of his friend’s voice. “What you doing here?” he croaked.

“Waiting for you to wake up and rejoin the land of the living at last.”

“So I’m not dead?” Joe murmured with a faint hint of surprise.

Henry heaved a sigh of relief. “No, you ain’t dead, Joe, but you came damn close,” he said as he slumped down heavily on a straight-backed rocker at the side of the bed. “Are you hurting anywhere?”

There was no immediate reply as Joe slowly drifted back to full reality and considered. Every muscle seemed to ache and he felt a bandage strapped tight around his chest and a second about his head, covering his eyes and blocking his vision.

It was then the memory of crazed gunfire and the searing heat from bullets hitting his upper body and skimming across his skull suddenly flooded back. “Apart from being dry mouthed and feeling like every inch of me has been kicked by a team of mules, reckon not.”

With a smile, Henry pushed back his chair, and within moments Joe was propped up with a pillow behind his back and the rim of a glass placed at his mouth. He took a few long swallows, savoring the cool water, and though finding the liquid to have a slightly bitter taste he was too thirsty to care.

Soon the glass was empty and Henry returned it to a small washstand in the corner of the room. Feeling strength slowly returning to his body, Joe raised an arm and tentatively fingered the bandage across his eyes. “This feels real weird. Can’t you take it off so I can see what’s going on? I didn’t mind being in the dark when I was a little kid, but having the whole world black sure is scary now.”

Henry sat back down by his side. “Patience, Joseph,” he admonished with a grin. “Doctor’s orders; it’s got to stay till the wound on your head heals, but at least you have an excuse not to stare at my ugly face.”

Joe gave a feeble attempt at a smile and took stock of his surroundings; conscious of a strange quietness, the unusual comfort of his mattress and the warmth of a feather-filled bedcover. “Where am I? Sure ain’t at the barracks lying on an Army cot in the infirmary.”

“It’s Doc Levitt’s place on the edge of town,” Henry informed. “Morgan, that’s the doc’s name, had us bring you here after you got shot. Considering the amount of blood you’d lost, he reckoned he couldn’t waste time sending you up to the Army surgeon at the fort since you needed operating on immediately.”

“I was that close to dying?”

“Hell, Joe, we saw everything and thought you must be a goner. But the doc managed a mighty fine job patching you up and I was stood right behind him all the time, checking what he did.”

“Watching my back, huh?”

Henry chuckled as Joe asked. “Any idea who did the shooting and why?”

The smile on Henry’s face immediately hardened. “Sure do. Remember Matt Ballantine?”

Joe nodded and shuddered at the recollection. “But what’s he got to do with anything? He’s dead.”

Henry leaned back in his chair. “Dead but not forgotten,” he sneered disdainfully. “Appears the last surviving Ballantine didn’t take kindly to his Pa and brothers being hung, so he and the rest of the gang decided to settle the score in the only way they knew how by shooting up the town. Last seen heading towards Missouri at a fast gallop, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t end up joining Quantrill as well, seeing as they’re of the same murderous ilk.”

For a moment Joe’s thoughts turned inward as he found himself strangely empathizing with the youngest Ballantine and could understand the reasons he’d sought retribution for the loss of his family. Vengeance sure came in many bloody guises, Joe silently reflected then let out a groan and grimaced as he shifted his weight around on the bed.

“Doc left me with plenty of laudanum if you need it,” Henry offered as he eyed him worriedly.

“Thanks but I’ll be fine. Just feel stiff after lying on my backside too long I guess,” Joe responded with a sleepy sigh. “Is the doc around? Reckon I need to thank him for his hospitality and keeping me amongst the living.”

Henry shook his head. “Nope, he’s out meeting his cousin off the afternoon stage. After her husband died in a fire a while back, she felt the need to move away from Wisconsin, and with no other family, wrote to ask Morgan if she could stay with him for a while and help run his house.”

“How come? Hasn’t the doc got a wife to do that kind of thing?”

“According to Morgan, he’s married to his work so has been rattling around here on his own since he moved to the area years ago.” Henry paused and looked about him; Joe’s room simply decorated yet homely, as was the rest of the house. “Sure is a fine place, though. I’ve really enjoyed the home comforts and sleeping in a proper bed over the past days.”

“You’ve been here since I was shot?”

Henry smiled gently. “With you unconscious, Morgan needed someone to keep an eye on you while he was out tending to his other patients. So I volunteered.”

“And the Lieutenant was happy for you to do that?” Joe’s voice was disbelieving.

Henry let out a snort of amusement. “He was real insistent I help out on compassionate grounds once I put in my request. Seems he had this crazy notion you and me were brothers, seeing as we signed on at the same time with the same surname. Hadn’t the heart to tell him different.”

Joe couldn’t help but chuckle and lifted a hand to scratch at his chin but stopped when he realized his face was clear of several days’ growth of whiskers. “How’d I manage to get shaved?”

Henry grinned proudly. “I’m a man of many talents and didn’t do a bad job if I say so myself.”

“Thanks again. Seems all I ever do is end up owing you.”

Henry patted his arm. “Don’t owe me a thing. I’m only doing what any good friend or kin would do in such circumstances.”

Joe remained silent, grateful the bandage hid the sting of indebted tears in his eyes as Henry continued. “Those up at the fort still have you down as Jack McFarlane, but I told Morgan your real handle and how you’d suffered that amnesia, though I didn’t tell him much more about your past. And at least with his cousin arriving, there’ll be someone else here to nurse you from now on.”

“Does that mean you’re going back to the barracks? You’re leaving me here alone?”

Picking up on his anxious tone, Henry sighed apologetically. “Wish I could stay but the Regiment’s due to leave tomorrow. Don’t you remember? We had our orders day before you got shot. But don’t you worry any, as Morgan’s a real gentleman and a fine medical man and you couldn’t be in better hands.”

Henry then looked at him with a long considered stare. “Don’t suppose you’ve changed your mind about returning to Alkali, have you?”

Almost immediately, pain more acute than any physical injury welled up inside Joe once again, twisting his insides as the thought of what happened in that town returned to haunt him. “Not a chance. Nothing and nobody is gonna stop me doing what I aim to do.”

“But ain’t you worried what might happen afterwards?”

“You mean being strung up for my trouble?” Joe answered, unable to disguise a nervous tremor in his voice.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean.”

As a sliver of fear knotted in the pit of his stomach, Joe heaved a sigh. “To be honest, Henry ,I’m scared witless. But I won’t rest ‘til I’ve seen them three murderers dead by my hand, and after that, I don’t much care what happens to me.”

Henry shook his head sadly. He wanted Joe to have a future, not end his days hanging from the end of a rope. But knowing his resolute determination to carry his plan through to the bitter end on his own, Henry pushed back his chair and walked over to the window, looking into the distance for a few moments. “Can I ask you something, Joe?”

“Sure.”

“What do you reckon your family would have made of you planning revenge on their behalf?”

Joe felt a flush of remorse as a bleak reflective smile touched his lips. “Reckon none of them would approve or forgive me for it. Pa never believed in an eye for an eye and brought us all up to respect and abide by the law. It’d probably break his heart to know what I aim to do but this time he isn’t around to talk some sense into me like he’s done in the past.”

With a sad look of remembrance, Henry nodded as he fingered the scar on his neck. “Reckon my Pa would have felt just the same about me,” he agreed as he returned to sit down on the rocker just as they heard the sound of footsteps.

The door swung open and a big bull of a man in his early forties with thinning hair, a finely waxed moustache and wearing horn-rimmed glasses entered the room and looked between the two occupants.

By his massive appearance, most would have thought him threatening but in fact, Morgan Levitt was a gentle, kind and conscientious doctor; all his patients, bar none, respected his straight, no nonsense approach. “Knew I’d find you here, Henry, and by the looks of it, our patient has come round at last and just at the right time! Met the sergeant in town and he told me to remind you to report back before sundown.”

“I know, hadn’t forgotten,” Henry replied with no enthusiasm at the thought. “But I told you it’ll take more than a couple of bullets to kill Joe off! He’s far too stubborn to die.”

With a smile, the doctor made his way to the bed and introduced himself. Joe turned his head in the direction of the gravelly but friendly voice. “Thanks for all you’ve done for me. Henry tells me I wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for you.”

Morgan shook his head modestly. “Just doing my job, though I have to say, lady luck was on your side, young man. If the bullet had gone a couple of inches lower in your chest. I don’t think even my skills would have saved you.”

He grasped Joe’s wrist and took his pulse. “Well, that’s normal at last, but you lost a lot of blood from both wounds so will need to lie quiet for a few days yet.”

With no strength to argue, Joe just gave a faint nod of compliance.

“Has your cousin arrived safe Morgan?”

The doctor turned his gaze from his patient and nodded. “Yes. Henry and I would introduce you both but it’s been a long journey from the family home and I insisted Kathryn take a nap straightaway.”

“How long since you last saw her?”

Morgan looked thoughtful for a few moments. “Oh, must be near on twenty years since I left Madison to train as a doctor. Kathryn was just a small child then, barely three years old. But she hasn’t had it easy since she was born, losing both parents last year and married and made a widow so tragically within the space of a few months. Well, fortune hasn’t been on her side and that’s a fact.”

As his face reflected sympathy, Morgan suddenly clicked his fingers as if remembering something and walked over to a dresser where he pulled out a small brass bell then returned to press it in Joe’s hand. “With Henry leaving, you’ll need something to grab our attention till you’re up and about. And as you’ve suffered more than your fair share of trauma, it’ll save you wasting energy shouting.”

Before Joe could thank him, Henry butted in. “He ain’t gonna be ringing that bell too much tonight, Morgan. I put some of that powder in his drinking water like you instructed me to.”

“What powder?” Joe asked in puzzlement as a slight ripple of panic went through him.

“Nothing to worry about,” Morgan told him reassuringly. “It’s just a little something to make sure you continue to rest. Sleep’s the best thing to help nature’s healing process on the road to recovery.”

The doctor then looked over towards Henry. “Well, I’d better go see what I can rustle up for supper, though it won’t be anything like your tasty stew. Sure am going to miss it and our late night chats as well. Just make sure you come visiting once you get back from your patrolling.”

Henry nodded with a smile as the two men shook hands, then the sound of the doctor’s heavy footsteps quickly faded as he headed towards the kitchen.

Almost reluctantly, Henry rose from his chair and began buttoning up his jacket. “Looks like I’m surplus to requirements around here now, so reckon I’ll get back to the barracks. Don’t want to risk the sergeant sending out a search party.”

Sad to have him leave, Joe nodded unhappily and Henry could see by the look on his face he seemed troubled. “Something wrong, Joe?”

A deep sigh of regret sounded from the bed. “Feel like I’ve let the three of you down. I should be heading out with you all tomorrow, like we’d planned. Trust me to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

With his voice showing no trace of censure, Henry reached out a hand and touched Joe’s arm in a show of sympathy. “You ain’t let no one down, Joe. Weren’t your fault, was just a quirk of fate like when you fell and lost your memory.”

“Suppose so, but it doesn’t make it any easier to be the one left behind. Just make sure if the three of you get mixed up in any fighting, you all watch your backs.”

Noting the urgent tone of concern in his voice, Henry’s eyes softened. “Don’t worry too much about us. There’s a rumor going round Confederates forces have been seen heading towards the Mississippi so don’t reckon our paths will cross over the next few weeks. But understand this, Joe. We’re due to return before your date of discharge so if you change your mind between now and then, my offer to go back and help find them killers still stands, and that goes for Daniel and Sam as well.”

Feeling a wave of tiredness sweeping over him, Joe slowly and almost reluctantly shook his head. “Thanks, Henry; believe me, I really appreciate the offer but….but as long as I’m able, this is something I just have to do by myself and that’s an end to it.”

Though frustrated at Joe’s inflexibility, Henry gave his bare shoulder a gentle affectionate squeeze before walking across the hall to his room where he busied himself for a few minutes by packing away the few belongings he’d brought down from the fort into a bag.

Once finished, as he returned to say his farewells, a thought suddenly came to him. “Just out of interest, with your memory back, care to tell me if you are somewhat of a Southern sympathizer, Joe? It’ll be just between the two of us…our secret.”

There was no movement or response, and from where he stood, Henry could now see the figure on the bed was fast asleep. “Never mind, it’ll keep till next time. Sweet dreams, little brother,” he whispered and taking hold of the handle quietly closed the door.

*****

Joe had no idea how long he slept but the sound of muffled voices in conversation outside his room eventually stirred him. For a few moments, he imagined himself back on the Ponderosa, the voices he heard those of Adam and Hoss as they made their way downstairs for breakfast. He sniffed the air expectantly; hoping to savor a waft of Hop Sing’s freshly made bread, fried bacon and coffee.

But as he became more aware and went to wipe a hand across his eyes, Joe felt the bandage and was brought back to reality with a painful thud. His lower lip trembled as he remembered his father was dead, his brothers were dead; they were gone and he’d never see them again. At least not in this world Joe brooded bitterly and banged his hands down hard on the mattress in frustration.

There was a dull clunking sound as a metal object fell to the floor and almost immediately Joe heard one set of footsteps go down the stairs and turned his head as the bedroom door creaked opened.

“Ah, good to see you’ve woken at last, young man,” Doctor Levitt said as his eyes focused on the brass bell now lying by the side of the bed. He picked it up and placed it by Joe’s hand. “I was beginning to wonder if Henry had given you a double dose seeing as you’ve nearly slept the clock around.”

“Is it that late?”

“Well past noon,” Morgan answered as he went to the window and opened it slightly. “How do you feel today?”

Ignoring a dull ache in his chest but visibly agitated as he shifted on the bed, Joe’s cheeks reddened slightly. “Much better thanks…but, well, truth is I really want to…you know, go.”

Morgan flicked a glance at his patient and gave a knowing smile. “Of course,” he acknowledged and turned to pull out a weighty ceramic bedpan from under the washstand. And a short while later with nature’s call tended to the doctor returned the cleaned out pan to its allotted shelf.

Clearly embarrassed by the procedure, Joe gave a sigh as he adjusted his long johns beneath the bedcover. “I hate being like this, unable to shave or even pee without someone’s help,” he murmured miserably. “You sure that bullet crease ain’t healed by now so I can be rid of this damn bandage around my head?”

“Sorry Joe but it’s up to Mother Nature to set you right and she isn’t one for being rushed and nor am I.”

Though the words were not what he wanted to hear, Joe sighed resignedly and knew there was no point arguing further. “That’s just what my Pa used to tell me as well,” he murmured as the image of his father’s worried face staring down at him on many occasions came to mind.

Morgan nodded distractedly as he opened his medical bag which was set down on a small table and rummaged in it for several seconds. Finally he took out a pair of scissors. “Right, Joe, now that you’ve got some strength back it’s time to check on your other injury,” he said and with large but gentle hands helped him sit forward then snipped at the binding around his chest.

Once removed the doctor looked closely at his handiwork and gave a silent nod of satisfaction, and minutes later with fresh padding and bandage secured Joe sank slowly back on his pillow.

“Just as I expected, all is mending nicely,” Morgan informed. “You may have a little discomfort for a short while yet, but it will gradually ease. And as long as you continue to rest, at this rate of progress, you’ll be up and about in no time and I’ll be able to sign you medically fit to return to barracks well before your fellow volunteers return.”

“So they’ve gone?”

Morgan clicked his bag shut and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Yes, I heard them leave a few hours ago. But Henry dropped off all your gear before he left as he didn’t want to risk it going missing with the barracks being left empty. I’ll bring the knapsack up later and store it under your bed.”

Joe felt a deep pang of disappointment to have missed him. “He’s been a real good friend, along with Sam and Daniel. Did you know they saved my life a few months back?”

Morgan nodded. “Yes. Henry explained how you met and then travelled to Fort Leavenworth together to enlist. Though he did tell me since your memory returned, you’re intending on applying for discharge and leaving the area come October. Is that right?”

Joe felt his body tense as thoughts centered again on the reason for his return. He nodded. “I remembered I’ve got me some unfinished business in Nevada I need to deal with.”

“Well, if it’s made you decide to leave your friends and the military behind, it must be pretty serious.”

“It is,” Joe replied and there was an awkward silence for a few moments.

Morgan could see he wasn’t going to get any more out of him so he took off his spectacles and began to polish them with a linen handkerchief. “Oh, before I forget, I put the cash that was in the pocket of your Army shirt under your mattress, just in case you wonder where it went.”

Joe smiled gratefully. “It never crossed my mind but thanks,” he said, appreciating the doctor’s honesty. Then his expression turned serious as a thought came to him. “With all you’ve had to do for me, reckon I must have sized up quite a bill so you better help yourself to what’s owed.”

“Don’t worry about the finances, Joe. I usually charge the military up at the fort once I’ve finished treating any of their men for sickness or injury, but in your case, all medical expenses have already been paid in full.”

Mystified Joe frowned with bewilderment. “They have?”

Morgan replaced his glasses. “When Henry came round this morning, he left more than enough money to cover your care, saying he insisted on paying for all the doctoring I’d done. I tried to explain it wasn’t necessary but he was adamant and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Joe’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “But why’d he want to do that?”

Morgan gave a knowing smile. “Henry once told me you were the nearest thing to kid brother he’d had in over twenty years. So reckon it was something he wanted to do, just as he would have done for his own kin.”

Genuinely touched by Henry’s action Joe nodded. “Told you he was a good friend,” he said and then heaved a pitiful sigh. “Reckon he’s the nearest thing to a brother I’ll ever have now as well.”

Slightly taken aback at his sorrowful tone Morgan gazed at Joe thoughtfully for a few moments, curious to know the underlying reasons for his obvious sadness but intuitively sensing any explanations would be a long time coming.

He took out a pocket watch from his waistcoat and looked at the time. “Well, I’m going to have to leave you for a couple of hours while I check on my other patients, but I’ll get Kathryn to rustle you up a light snack and she can sit with you if you feel up to some company.”

Though he wasn’t in an overly chatty mood, Joe nodded out of politeness. “Thanks, Doctor Levitt. That’ll be real nice.”

“Please Joe, call me Morgan. I like to keep things informal around my own home,” the doctor said, and after smoothing the rumpled bed cover, he picked up his bag and made towards the door. “And by the way, when I’m not around, Kathryn is in charge so if you need anything — and I mean anything — just ring that bell. She had to take care of her parents before they died so she knows exactly what to do.”

Turning his head towards the sound of the bedroom door closing, Joe suddenly realized what had been implied when he needed to use the bedpan again. With a groan, he sank down onto the pillow. Thank heavens the bandage around his head would be removed soon; then at least he’d be able to see again to his own personal needs, and as far as he was concerned, that time couldn’t come quick enough!

**********

Over the next few days of enforced darkness, Joe grew increasingly grumpy and irritable; the fate of his family continually casting a shadow of melancholy within him. But as the midday sun shone through the window and he strummed his fingers on the bedcover in rhythmic frustration and boredom, for a few moments his thoughts centered for once on Kathryn.

He’d liked her from their first meeting, and though unable to see her face, imagined it pretty, as yet unmarked by age with a sweet and friendly smile. Though never mentioning the loss of her husband, they chatted at times like old friends, Kathryn quietly tolerant of his petulant and tetchy behavior and putting Joe instantly at ease while helping out with his daily ablutions as if sensing the humiliation he felt.

With a flash of shame, Joe suddenly realized words of thanks for what she did for him hadn’t come often as he’d concentrated on his own troubles. If only they’d met under different circumstances, in happier times, they might have had a future together.

Joe sighed, having no desire to dwell on what might have been. For after he’d done what he had to do, he knew with frightening certainty he’d have no future.

Footsteps echoed on the stairs and a soft spoken voice sounded in the doorway.

“I’ve made my special chicken soup for lunch. Can you manage or do you want some help?”

“I keep telling you I’m more than capable of putting food in my own mouth,” Joe answered curtly as a tray was laid on his lap. But immediately he regretted his outburst. “I’m sorry. There I go again, whining like a little kid.”

Kathryn’s mouth twitched good-naturedly towards the handsome young soldier on the bed. “I understand,” she smiled as she placed a spoon in one hand and a napkin in the other then stepped back. “Mind, it’s hot.”

Joe nodded a response at the warning and Kathryn settled down by the window, tapping her foot on the pine planked floor as she swayed backwards and forwards in the rocking chair watching him.

.

She’d accepted from the beginning Joe’s bad temper was probably fuelled by his embarrassment at having to be treated like a helpless baby while in her care. However, after observing closely for the past week, Kathryn decided Morgan was right in what he’d said and there was another, more serious underlying reason for Joe’s surly behavior, something from his past that was playing on his mind but which he refused to discuss with either of them.

Kathryn gave a sigh, seeing much irony in the fact there were some things from her past she couldn’t bring herself to discuss with Joe as well. Only Morgan knew what happened in Wisconsin but what had been done was done so what use now to rake it all up for the sake of conversation? Yet for a short while, Kathryn barely noticed the motion of the rocker as she wished the heartbreaking memories which had re-emerged uninvited from the depths of her brain would just fade away.

“Thank you, that was delicious,” Joe conceded as he dropped the spoon into the empty bowl then dabbed the napkin at his mouth. “Sure beats what was dished up at the fort.”

Shaken from her unhappy reverie, Kathryn looked over with a forced cheeriness. “I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” she sighed in mock relief. “I made enough to feed the army and didn’t like the thought of having to force-feed you for the foreseeable future to get rid of it.”

Joe began to chuckle just as footsteps were heard coming up the stairs and Morgan’s great bulk suddenly filled the doorway. He stood without speaking for a moment, staring over at the figure on the bed with a thoughtful gaze. “Well, by the sounds of it, you’re in a better mood for once, Joe.”

With his expression returning sullen, Joe pointed towards the binding around his head. “I’ll be in an even better mood once this is gone. And I swear if I have to lie on this mattress much longer, I’ll sprout roots!”

Well used to his fiery responses, Morgan gave a loud chortle. “Very well, if it’s the only way to keep you off my back, I’ll remove the bandage today and then we’ll see about getting you out of bed to sit outside on the porch for a short while.”

“Really? You mean it?”

“Yes, Joe, I mean it. From what I saw yesterday, the wound on your chest is well healed and fresh air will do you the world of good after being confined indoors.”

Joe beamed a rare smile at the welcomed news.

“But Morgan, are you sure that’s wise?” Kathryn asked as she exchanged a pleading glance with him. “Shouldn’t you wait a couple of more days at least?”

Morgan shook his head decisively; however, his facial expression showed sympathy and understanding as he gave her a perceptive look. “I’ve been overly cautious as it is, Kathryn, and there’s no point putting it off any longer. We can hardly keep Joe in darkness forever now, can we?”

Kathryn stared at him for a brief instant then gave a faint nod of agreement. “No of course not, you’re quite right,” she answered, pushing from her seat and picking up the tray off Joe’s lap. “I’ll bring up some coffee in a few minutes.”

As she walked out of the room Morgan gazed after her with a sympathetic paternal shake of the head. Poor Kathryn. She knew Joe would be rid of the bandage one day. But knowing something and having to face the reality of it was two entirely different things.

“Sorry I’ve been such a pain lately. Never have been the most patient of patients since I was a little kid. Hard habit to break, I guess.”

Hearing the apology directed towards him, Morgan shook thoughts of his cousin away and closed the door. “Don’t worry about it, Joe. I’ve grown used to dealing with all manner of cantankerous individuals over the years, and believe me, you’re not the worst…though you’ve come close,” he joked with a chuckle. “Now let’s see about removing that dressing so you can view the world once more.”

*****

With trembling hands Kathryn set down the tray on the kitchen table. From upstairs, she heard muffled voices, imagined Morgan removing the bandage around Joe’s eyes and felt a rising sense of panic inside her.

“Stop it,” she told herself sharply. “Stop being so stupid! Morgan told you this day would come so you’ll just have to accept the outcome, whatever it may be.”

The personal reprimand concentrated her thoughts and getting on with the job at hand she began washing up a collection of dirty pots and dishes. But once finished, Kathryn’s eyes were drawn to a small shaving mirror fixed above the sink. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to take a long hard look at her reflection, to see herself as others saw her. The sight was the same as always. It was like looking at two different women.

The left side of her face was smooth and unblemished with a creamy complexion which complemented her dark brown hair and deep green eyes. Anyone would be hard pressed to describe her as nothing short of beautiful.

However the other half was as far removed from a mirror image as could be imagined, the right side showing disfigurement to a point of ugliness as a raised birthmark of mottled skin stretched down from her hairline, covering cheek and chin before disappearing from sight under the high necked collar of her blouse.

Kathryn sighed and wiping damp hands dry on the sides of her apron she sank down on a chair. In no rush to return upstairs, she stared absently into space, allowing her thoughts to drift.

Born late in their marriage, she’d been blessed with loving parents who tried to protect their daughter as best they could from those ignorant enough to view her appearance as a freak of nature, someone to be mocked or feared. But when she lost her mother due to a bout of influenza and then shortly afterwards her father with the same, Kathryn had been left to face the world and its cruel intolerance alone.

Finding herself ridiculed by drunken cowboys and insolent undisciplined children who openly made fun of her appearance and gave cruel taunts as she passed by, she soon learned to keep herself to herself, resigned to only having a long life of loneliness in front of her. So it was hardly surprising she’d been swept off her feet by a charismatic and smooth-talking young man hired to work on the family farm a short while before her father died.

A couple of years older than Kathryn, Patrick Royce provided compassion and a sympathetic shoulder to cry on as she dealt with her grief and loss. And showing moments of tender affection, he eventually declared he loved her; when he asked her to be his wife, Kathryn had unhesitatingly and naively said yes.

But any dreams of happy-ever-after only lasted a brief while when Patrick made it plain after taking away her innocence he’d only married her to get his hands on any inheritance and mockingly laughing only a blind man would ever want her for herself looking the way she did.

Broken-hearted and with her self-esteem at an all time low, Kathryn then had to endure anguish of a different hue when over the next few months Patrick took advantage of the law, and as her husband, he spent the money left her with wild abandon, as if it were his own. Ignoring the farm, gambling became the major part of his daily routine then returning home drunk and usually with a fist of greeting before he forced himself on his unwilling wife as well.

Running a hand down her arm where purple bruises had once covered every inch of skin, Kathryn winced at the memory of an unusually vicious attack which caused her to lose their unborn child, Patrick’s death a day later coming as both a blessing and relief to the far from grieving widow.

Kathryn shuddered, recollections of that day still vivid –- the glow of flames from the barn, the smell of burning hay and wood, screams from her drunken husband as the blaze consumed him. And after such a bittersweet tragedy, it was hardly surprising she’d sold up, keen to get away from the once loving home which now held such unhappy memories of humiliation, abuse and death.

Morgan had been very supportive and reassuring when he’d found out the full extent of suffering she’d gone through, telling her Patrick was a one-off to treat her that way. But knowing within a few minutes Joe would be able to see her face for the first time, suddenly her dead husband’s spiteful words repeated once more in her head.

No sane man would ever give you the time of day looking the way you do.

After striking up a friendly and comfortable rapport with Joe, Kathryn’s insides churned at the thought of their easygoing relationship being shattered. Would he now view her in the same way as Patrick, with his lip curled in revulsion and his eyes narrowed with disgust at her facial deformity?

Or would it be too much to hope his reaction to be completely different and he’d only notice the gentle caring woman hidden beneath the cruelly flawed and imperfect skin instead?

Kathryn shivered and with a tremendous effort got to her feet and made towards the stove. “Well if he doesn’t, it won’t matter,”she muttered to herself as she lifted up a large copper kettle and poured boiling water into a coffee pot. Though with the sound of Patrick’s contemptuous laughter ringing in her ears, Kathryn knew it would matter, matter a whole lot more than she’d care to admit.

*****

Walking slowly up the stairs, Kathryn paused at the bedroom door for a brief moment, bracing herself for what was to come before putting on her bravest smile and pushing it open. However the sight that greeted her was far from what she’d expected as both men were so absorbed in their own thoughts neither seemed to hear or notice her enter the room.

Morgan was sat by the window staring into space while Joe lay on the bed, still propped up on crumpled pillows and his bandage-free face set as if in stone.

With a feeling of apprehension, Kathryn placed the tray of steaming hot coffee on the table then looked between them both. “What’s happened?”

Silence was her only answer for several seconds, and frowning in confusion, Kathryn turned to her cousin for explanation. “Morgan?”

With a deep sigh, he returned her gaze. “I didn’t realize at the time but the bullet that creased Joe’s skull must have gone deeper than I thought and cut through the optic nerve. Such damage almost always results in loss of vision.”

“But surely there’s something that can be done?”

Morgan leaned back in his chair. ‘Not by me. I can work wonders sometimes but can’t do miracles,’ he silently thought as he shook his head. “I’ve read of a few instances when the nerve endings have inexplicably knit back together for no apparent reason and sight has been restored. But such cases are very rare and only happen to the lucky few and I wouldn’t like to give Joe false hope.”

Kathryn looked back towards the bed. For her own selfish reasons, she’d hoped to delay the moment when Joe saw her but never in a million years would she wish such a devastating condition on him. She laid a comforting hand on his arm and gave a gentle squeeze then with tear-filled eyes left the room without another word.

Scarcely aware of her leaving as the doctor’s diagnosis reverberated around and around in his brain, the thought of being in a permanent state of total darkness suddenly hit Joe with the abruptness of an unexpected punch in the gut. He exhaled loudly. “Well Morgan, you’ve got one hell of a bedside manner. Do you always tell it like it is?”

Morgan pushed up from his seat. “From experience, I’ve found it best to be honest with my patients,” he admitted as he looked down at the cooling black coffee for a few moments. But ignoring it, he pulled out a bottle from a cupboard above the washstand instead. If ever a drink were needed, it’s now. And not just one, several, he thought as he poured out the contents into a couple of glasses before placing one in Joe’s hand.

“What’s this? More powder to make me sleep?”

Morgan gave a faint smile. “Not this time, Joe. Reckon we both deserve a different sort of medication today,” he replied and gulped down a large measure of brandy.

Without hesitation, Joe followed suit, the golden colored liquid warming the back of his mouth as it slipped smoothly all the way down his throat. He gave a gasp of appreciation.

Morgan replenished both glasses and pulled his chair closer to the bed. He sipped at his drink as he figured out what to do next then took a final long swallow when a decision was made. “I’ll go see the Colonel first thing tomorrow and he can sort out the paperwork regarding your medical discharge. And of course you can stay here for as long as you want, so don’t worry on that score.”

Draining his glass, Joe hardly took in a word what was said as the cold stark realization he was now blind swirled in his head. But only one thought was on his mind; without his sight, how the hell could he manage to find then exact his revenge on those three men from Alkali now? His thoughts raced frantically then suddenly an idea formed in his mind and the answer came to him in a flash. Of course!

“Joe? Did you hear what I just told you?”

The sound of a worried voice jerked Joe out of his jumbled thoughts. “Sorry, I was miles away.”

Morgan studied Joe with slight disquiet. He’d expected a show of anger…fear…even tears but for someone who’d just been given such devastating news, he seemed to be taking it all overly calmly. Maybe he hadn’t considered the many restrictions and problems he’d now have to deal with for the rest of his life, so leaning forward in his chair he laid a hand on Joe’s arm.

“I realize this has been a big shock and a lot to take in at once but I don’t want you to be fearful about your future. I’ll make sure those up at the fort know what’s happened and you can live here for as long as you need. It will take a while to get used to being without sight, but I’m sure with some training, you’ll soon be capable of doing most things for yourself. Did you know there’s even been a system called Braille invented where the blind can be taught to read and write?”

There was a brief lapse of silence as Joe let a faint disbelieving smile at the thought play at the corner of his mouth. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“No, it’s the truth. I have a very old friend who is helping to run a school for the blind with his wife. He sent me papers about it. They’re gathering dust in my office somewhere but I’ll hunt them out and I’m sure with Kathryn’s help you’ll master the technique within a few months.”

Joe shook his head. “Thanks but I don’t reckon I’ll bother. Never was one for reading or letter writing even when I could see.” He then gave a wan smile as a past memory suddenly flooded back. “My brother Adam was the book lover in our family; any chance he got he’d have his nose buried in some novel or other. I remember once…”

With Morgan staring thoughtfully at him, Joe stopped abruptly and swallowed hard, the recollection too painful to go on. He shook his head again. “Like I said, won’t have the need as I’m only sticking around till mid-October, then I’ll be heading for Nevada.”

“Nevada?” Morgan now looked at him as if he were mad. “Joe hasn’t the fact you’re now blind managed to penetrate into that thick skull of yours yet? The idea is just plumb crazy!”

There was a hollow laugh at the doctor’s bluntness. “You certainly pull no punches and that’s a fact! But nothing and nobody is going to stop me going back.”

With a sigh of exasperation, Morgan refused to be fobbed off so easily. “You can’t go travelling half way across the country on your own, Joe. You’d be a target for any unscrupulous thief or worse!”

Joe gave an appreciative smile. “Thanks for your concern but you don’t need to worry about me as I won’t be alone. I’ll have three good friends for company all the way.”

Morgan stared at him with a frown. “You mean Henry, Daniel and Sam?”

Joe gave a confident nod. “They offered to come back with me one time and they won’t let me down now. Just need them to finish their ninety days service with the Militia then reckon if we take the overland stage we should be back in Nevada well before winter sets in.”

“But what’s the rush?”

Unexpectedly unseeing eyes hardened determinedly. “Like I once told you, there’s some unfinished business, family business, if you must know, that needs my personal attention. And until it’s sorted I can’t, won’t rest.”

Morgan arched an eyebrow. Joe had been strangely reticent and unwilling to talk about anything from his past, though once fleetingly mentioning a ranch near Virginia City where he was brought up and a father and brothers now passed away before clamming up as a look of indefinable anguish flittered across his face.

Could that be the reason he was drawn back to Nevada? Had it something to do with his kin now supposedly dead? But Morgan knew from experience there was no point trying to pry any further information out of him.

Henry once said Joe was stubborn. The doctor heaved a heavy sigh. Add to that an enigma and never had truer words been said!

*****

Six weeks later, while sitting in the kitchen a look of shock rippled across Kathryn’s face as she handed a hastily scrawled letter back to her cousin, who folded it carefully and placed it in his pocket. “Are you going to tell him now or wait until the morning?”

Visibly worn out after attending a difficult birth for most of the day and only returning home when he was sure mother and baby were going to be fine, Morgan looked at her across the table as he stifled a yawn. All he really wanted to do was lay his head on a pillow and sleep. “Do you think there’s any point at this hour, Kathryn? It is nearly midnight after all.”

“Well, he told me he spends most of the night awake waiting for the dawn to break. Too much going around in his mind as he thinks about his journey, I suppose.”

Morgan nodded, having noticed the tell-tale signs of dark circles forming under tired hazel colored eyes. He removed his spectacles and ran a hand over his face. “Ah well, no point putting it off then. Whether tonight or tomorrow, it won’t make any difference to what has to be told.”

Kathryn sighed. “How do you think he’ll take the news?”

Knowing full well the implications, Morgan pondered reflectively for a moment as he replaced his glasses and heaved himself to his feet. “Badly,” he finally answered, and with his broad shoulders slumped and suddenly looking a whole lot older, he picked up an oil lamp and slowly made his way into the hall and up the stairs.

As his body ached for sleep, not for the first time, Joe’s brooding thoughts after retiring to bed concentrated on the fate of his Pa and brothers. And with an irrational conviction their deaths were in no small part due to his failure to fetch help, the feeling of guilt always came alive in the quiet of night and swirled his insides until he felt nauseous and sick to the stomach.

It added to the store of hatred building up inside him towards the men in Alkali; Joe’s only solace that kept him sane in his world of black the thought of seeking his revenge in the near future. For now officially discharged from the Militia and the Regiment due back within days, he’d had plenty of time to think and plan.

All Henry, Sam and Daniel needed to do when they’d arrived back in Nevada was help him hunt down his prey wherever they may be, then set up the all important shots of premeditated retribution. For though he wouldn’t be able to see the look of terror in the eyes of his victims as they stared down the barrel of his gun, at least Joe would have the satisfaction of hearing their screams for mercy before he squeezed the trigger and sent them on their final journey to Hell.

After that his friends could disappear with his blessing, leaving him to face his fate alone. For as far as Joe was concerned, once his job was done, the devil could take him for all he cared.

Just then a quiet tap sounded on the door and shaken from his thoughts, Joe turned his head as he heard it creak open.

“Still awake?”

Slightly surprised at his late night visitor, Joe nodded and Morgan placed the lamp on the dressing table then looked down at the recumbent figure with a somber gaze.

Having warmed to the young man over the past weeks, Morgan conceded Joe had come a long way since the bandage around his eyes had been removed and he’d been made aware of his life-changing disability. For, as his strength was restored, he seemed to quickly come to terms with his blindness, showing no signs of self-pity or despair at his situation and refusing to spend the days moping in bed.

Instead he’d soon regained some semblance of independence, managing to dress himself and find his way around the house and to the outhouse by way of touch and a walking stick held in front of him. He’d even learned to shave under Kathryn’s close instruction, though as Morgan noticed Joe’s slightly scarred chin, he couldn’t help but think he’d need a whole lot more practice before left on his own to complete that chore.

Morgan was in no doubt Joe’s determination to head back to Nevada had spurred him on in his pursuit of self-reliance but still the reason for returning was a mystery –- a well-kept secret he’d refused to divulge. Taking a deep breath he steeled himself for the task now before him. “How are you feeling?”

Bemused at his questioning seeing as they’d breakfasted together and chatted on the same subject hours before, Joe pushed up further on the pillow. “Same as the last time you asked. Other than not able to see, never felt better,” he replied wryly, sarcasm unmistakable though immediately he felt a pang of regret for saying it. After all he’d done for him, Morgan deserved better.

However, ignoring the gibe, Morgan eased down on the edge of the bed and cleared his throat. “Joe, I had some correspondence from a Private Johnson waiting for me when I got home tonight. Do you remember him?” he asked as he pulled out a single sheet of paper from his pocket and unfolded it.

With a quizzical frown, Joe nodded. “Yeah, I remember Seth…skinny kid, always looked as if he were scared of his own shadow. But how come he wrote to you?”

“Truth is the letter was addressed to you up at the barracks, but the postal orderly knew you were staying here, so had it redirected to me. Hope you don’t mind but I took the liberty of opening it.”

Joe shrugged but shifted uneasily. “Well, it’s not as though I could read it myself. So what did Johnson have to say?”

The answer was a long time coming; Morgan strangely reticent as he continued to stare down at the note for several seconds. “Fact is, as he knew Daniel and Sam were good friends of yours and was under the impression Henry and you were closely related..” He paused for a brief moment. “Well, he thought it only right you’d want to know…”

Joe shuddered with apprehension. “I’d want to know what?” he interrupted.

Morgan sighed. “There’s no easy way to tell you this, Joe. Your Regiment came up against a couple of units of Confederates on the southern Missouri border around the end of September. There was a direct hit on one of the Union gun emplacements from enemy cannon during the attack. I’m afraid the men manning it didn’t stand a chance.”

There was a brief tense silence. “You mean Daniel, Sam and…and Henry?” Joe eventually asked in a whisper. “Is that what you’re trying to tell me? They’re all dead?”

Knowing the significance of what he was about to say, Morgan laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Yes. I’m sorry, Joe. They’re gone.”

The doctor looked back down at the paper and continued. “According to Johnson…”

Suddenly Morgan froze and snapped his mouth shut as he realized he’d just been about to give out the harrowing account of the final minutes of suffering endured by the severely injured men as they lay dying on the field of battle. Even his stomach had churned when he’d read Johnson’s letter, the young soldier reporting every gruesome detail as if to try and lessen the horror of it all in his own mind.

Morgan glanced back at Joe, his empty eyes glistening wet with sorrow in the lamplight. So seeing no point in adding to his misery and with no qualms of guilt, the doctor added a lie. “According to Johnson, he wanted you to know they wouldn’t have felt a thing. He saw what happened and death was instant.”

Morgan stuffed the paper back in his pocket and Joe wiped a hand across a suspiciously damp face as the realization they weren’t coming back hit him. “I should have been there, might have made a difference. Instead I’m lying here on my butt like some cowardly invalid. After all they did for me, some friend I’ve turned out to be,” he said, his voice breaking with the misery of it all.

Sensing he was assuming some sort of foolish culpability, Morgan looked at him steadily. “No point blaming yourself, Joe. They signed up to fight knowing the risks, and chances are if you’d been with them, you’d have probably died as well.”

However, there was no response as Joe closed his eyes and became clearly absorbed in new miserable thoughts of his own.

Over the past weeks, he’d been driven by one concentrated purpose: vengeance. But suddenly all his plans were in tatters, for without the help of his friends, he’d never be able to take his personal murderous revenge on those who’d robbed him of his Pa and brothers.

The realization was too much, and to Morgan’s surprise, for the first time Joe unleashed a show of bitterness at his condition, banging his fists down by his side over and over again in a white-hot rage of anger, cursing his blindness and the fact he was still alive when all those he cared for were dead.

Morgan heaved a heavy sigh, knowing Joe’s physical wounds may have healed but now he’d been struck down by something much harder to treat — inconsolable grief. He pushed up from the bed and moments later he placed a glass of water containing a sleeping draught into his hand. “Here, Joe, drink this. After the shock you’ve had, it should help you settle for the night.”

“Don’t want…” Joe began and then stopped abruptly as he felt strong yet gentle fingers squeezing his shoulder. He sighed resigned, and without further protestation, he swallowed down the liquid, barely aware of the unpleasant taste as it flowed down his throat. The glass was then taken from his grasp.

“Now try and get some sleep,” Morgan softly ordered as he picked up the lamp, knowing the double dose of powder would soon have the desired effect and send him into a deep, drug induced slumber. “We’ll talk more tomorrow.”

Joe gave the faintest of nods and with a final uneasy gaze towards him Morgan closed the door.

*****

The clock in the hallway ticked the seconds away as Joe sat at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee cradled in his hands. The sleeping powder may have worked its magic for several hours but he still felt drained, his head thumping painfully and his mind tortured.

Before he fell asleep, he’d prayed not to wake and felt unashamed remorse when he did, for it was a cold reminder he was still alive, unlike the ill-fated souls who’d visited him in his nightmarish dreams — three ghostly shapes mangled and bleeding on the battlefield, three eerie figures hanging by the neck from a rope, eyes bulging, tongues swollen purple.

How long would he have to suffer the same guilt-induced visions each time he slept? A week, a month, a year? Joe suppressed a shiver at the thought. Once was more than enough.

With her eyes staring at him with tender affection, Kathryn swallowed nervously. Joe hadn’t said a word since making his way into the kitchen, his unshaven face gaunt and showing a haunted expression. He was clearly struggling to come to terms with the death of his friends and Kathryn’s heart went out to him, but finally the unnerving stillness between them became too much to bear. “You sure I can’t fix you some breakfast, Joe? It won’t be any bother.”

With his brooding thoughts interrupted, Joe shook his head before draining his cup dry, barely noticing the contents were stone cold. Then his sad expression became even sadder as he gently fingered the sleeve of his shirt in a poignant way and found his voice for the first time that morning. “This was Henry’s. All I’ve got to remember him by.”

Kathryn’s expression showed sympathy. “But from what you told me of your time together, I’m sure you must have some good and happy memories you can keep forever.”

She paused for a moment, but though there was no reaction, went on in an attempt to give him something positive to hold onto. “I realize your friends won’t be able to keep you company on the journey, but if you still want to go back to Nevada, I’m sure Morgan will think of a way once he gets back from town. You still want to go back, don’t you, Joe?”

The question hung in the air between them for several seconds.

Joe had never told Kathryn or Morgan why he was so intent on returning, the details too painful to disclose. But after all that had happened, there didn’t seem any point in keeping it a secret any longer. “I was only returning to get me some personal cold-blooded vigilante justice when I got there,” he admitted with no sign of remorse. “You reckon Morgan would be willing to help me knowing that?”

With a gasp, Kathryn’s eyes widened in disbelief. “You were planning on killing someone?”

“Damn right I was,” Joe hissed and there was a moment of weighed silence before he continued. “Three men had my Pa and brothers strung up for a crime they didn’t commit. Planned on getting even, and after losing my sight figured on Henry, Sam and Daniel’s help, but then they…”

At the thought of his friends now dead, Joe swallowed hard, unable to continue.

“Oh Joe, I’m so sorry, that’s terrible,” Kathryn whispered, truly appalled by his disclosure. Then a sickening thought suddenly came to her. “You…you didn’t see your family hung, did you?”

Joe heard her hesitation and shook his head. “But I can’t stop picturing it again and again in my mind,” he admitted despondently and wiped a hand across stinging eyes. “I failed my Pa and brothers. Couldn’t save them and now I can’t settle the score on their behalf. Let them down, like I let Henry Sam and Daniel down. Getting to think I deserve to be dead instead of being the only one left living.”

Hearing his hopelessness suddenly reopened an old wound in Kathryn’s heart as she recollected when she’d been at her lowest during those violent months with Patrick. “I know a little of what you’re going through, Joe. There was a time when I didn’t think I could face another day. But no matter how you’re feeling now, things will get better, the bad memories will fade, the pain will ease. Believe me, life does go on.”

Slumped in his chair, Joe lowered his head as if in silent prayer. “Yeah, but maybe this life doesn’t want to.”

Kathryn saw his lips move but didn’t quite catch the murmured words. A silence settled, heavy and uncomfortable until eventually Joe raised his head and straightened. “Reckon I’ll go upstairs.”

“Is something wrong?”

Hearing Kathryn’s worried tone, unseeing hazel eyes once filled with zest and humor but now dulled and lifeless stared over in her direction. “Just feel a little tired but I’ll be fine in a short while so please, don’t worry,” he said as he felt for his cane.

“If you like, I’ll bring you up another coffee. Don’t think you even tasted the last one.”

Joe shook his head slowly. “No, don’t bother. I just want some time alone.” He pushed to his feet and moved out of the kitchen with dragging resigned steps as though in a daze, the familiar rhythmic tapping of a walking stick the only sound as he made his way up the stairs to his room.

Kathryn sighed as she watched him leave; the heart-wrenching and violent deaths of both his family and friends obviously hitting him hard. She sat thinking about him for a few minutes but then felt an ominous shiver as she remembered something Morgan had told her last night. A grief stricken mind is a fragile and unpredictable thing. It wouldn’t take much to tip towards self-destruction.

With her stomach taking a sickening dip, Kathryn covered her face with her hands as a heart-stopping realization hit her.

Surely not, she thought, suddenly frightened, not Joe.

So moments later, after quietly knocking at his bedroom door but receiving no answer, she turned the handle and with a slight feeling of trepidation peered in.

The sight which greeted Kathryn was her worst fear. On the floor lay a canvas bag, its meager contents of spilled out in a disheveled heap. And oblivious to her presence, Joe was sat on the edge of the bed, sweat running down the side of his face and the Colt.44 he’d been presented with by his friends’ months before held tightly in his hand.

As he fondled the cold metal close to his chest, in his world of darkness Joe’s thoughts were disturbing yet inviting. How easy it would be to squeeze the trigger and end his pain at last. Who would mourn his passing? There was no one anymore, and a sense of desperate loneliness swept over him, more keenly than it had ever done as the nightmare image of his Pa and brothers rotting in an unmarked grave returned to haunt him.

With his whole body tensing and silent tears now streaming down over his cheeks, Joe raised his left arm, his hand trembling so much he needed the right to steady it as he pressed the muzzle hard against the side of his head.

How long he held that position Kathryn couldn’t guess as she stared transfixed and saddened at the sight. With her heart pounding fearfully, it felt like a lifetime but was barely several seconds when Joe suddenly let out a heavy guilt-ridden sigh and with a sob returned the firearm to his lap.

Feeling a mix of pity and relief, Kathryn walked towards him. “If you’d really wanted to kill yourself, you wouldn’t still be thinking about it, and I’m sure in your heart you know it’s not the answer.”

Though visibly startled by her presence, there was no response, Joe’s indecision and silence proof enough she was right in her assumption. “Besides, Morgan unloaded the gun last night while you were sleeping. He sensed you might attempt something like this the state you were in.”

Kathryn took the empty firearm from his unresisting grasp and quickly tidied it back under the bed with the rest of his belongings then sank down by his side.

Dry mouthed and shaking, Joe wiped his face dry with the back of his hand. “Don’t feel the need to live, yet too much of a spineless coward to blow my brains out; just another failure to add to my long list of failures, I guess. Pa would be so proud,” he murmured with bitter irony.

“I see no reason for you to think yourself a coward, Joe. After all you’ve been through, the family and friends you’ve lost, your Pa would think more of you for having the guts to keep on living than putting a bullet in your head. And I’m sure in time you’ll realize I’m right.”

“Thanks, but I don’t feel any better knowing that. I mean, you’ve been through plenty of grief but didn’t end up trying to…” Joe stopped; the notion Kathryn would think of resorting to suicide too absurd to contemplate.

Kathryn fidgeted with her sleeve. So far she’d kept details of her last months in Wisconsin from Joe but she knew to help ease his pain it was time to bare her soul. “You’re not the only one to consider taking the easy way out. I went pretty close while I was married to Patrick, and if he hadn’t died, I’m sure I might have gone through with it.”

With his own misery temporarily forgotten, Joe’s brow frowned in surprised puzzlement. “I don’t understand. I thought you were happy together.”

“Happy!” Kathryn shuddered and made a sound suspiciously like a word no self-respecting lady should know. “I couldn’t have been less happy,” she sniffed. “I…I hated him. Guess you could say the one good deed Patrick managed in life was dying when he did.”

Sensing she was near to crying, Joe felt for her hand in order to comfort. “Do you want to talk about it?”

For a brief moment Kathryn agonized at the prospect of reliving the painful memories once more. But feeling the warmth of Joe’s fingers curled around her own gave her courage, and so in a trembling voice, she told him the harrowing account of those wretched months of marriage. However, she failed to mention her birthmark, deciding as he’d never see her, why not let Joe imagine her pretty? Better that than only picturing her with disgust for the rest of his days.

Finally all went quiet. Kathryn’s revelation had stunned him and Joe felt nothing but admiration for her managing to cope with such heartbreak all alone. She was obviously a lot tougher than he’d ever imagined. “I’m so sorry,” he sympathized then frowned slightly as he played with a smooth band on her third finger. “But you still wear this.”

“It was my mother’s wedding ring. Although Patrick placed it there, I just couldn’t bring myself to take it off.” She gave a deep sigh as she wiped a tear away with the corner of her apron. “But Patrick is in the past now, so best forget and leave him there where he belongs.”

“If only I could do the same,” Joe murmured with feeling. The past, his past, was not so easily forgotten or put behind him. Silence settled and his expression turned somber as he contemplated what Kathryn had told him.

Thinking he was suffering a fresh bout of miserable anguish, Kathryn’s heart plummeted and she gripped his arm anxiously. “Joe, promise me you’re not thinking of doing something stupid again.”

There was fear in her voice and Joe inwardly cursed with regret to have been the cause.

He gave a soft reassuring smile, determined by her example to restore reason into his world of black where grief-induced insanity had briefly reigned. “You can stop worrying. There won’t be a repeat of such foolishness. I have more important things on my mind now.”

With a slight frown of puzzlement, Kathryn offered up a question, though having already guessed the answer. “You’re going to settle your account with those men in Alkali. I can see it in your face.”

Unlike the disconsolate man of minutes ago, Joe’s expression was now unwavering with resolve. “Just because I can’t shoot them dead like I’d once intended don’t mean they’re going to get away with murder.”

“So have you another plan?”

Joe nodded. “Reckon so. Sheriff Coffee’s been the law in Virginia City since I was a little kid. He and the whole town know my Pa and brothers were the most honest and law-abiding men in the territory. So as soon as I explain all that happened, I know he’ll make sure Alkali’s sheriff and its two deputies are tracked down and put on trial and then…”

As he paused Joe’s lip curled and he smiled, a cold, vengeful smile. “And then when they’re found guilty, I’ll make sure I’m the one to place the noose around their necks then listen to them squeal as they drop.”

Kathryn shuddered at the image. “It means a lot to you, doesn’t it? Having these men pay for what they’ve done.”

“It means everything,” Joe admitted. “I can’t bring my Pa and brothers back but they deserve a decent burial on the Ponderosa as innocent men. It’s the least I can do to make up for the injustice they’ve suffered and give me some peace of mind.”

“Looks like the pair of you are having a pretty serious conversation this morning,” a familiar gruff voice in the doorway suddenly commented.

Kathryn jerked her head with surprise. “Morgan! I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Hardly surprising seeing you’re huddled together so close,” Morgan smiled, then with a doctor’s practiced eye, studied Joe as he eased down on the rocking chair.

“Everything all right?” he asked now looking pointedly towards Kathryn for confirmation any fears he might have had about Joe’s mental state were unfounded.

He received a nod of reassurance, Kathryn’s eyes meeting his in a confident knowing gaze. “Everything’s fine. Joe was just saying he needs to get back to Nevada so he can deal with those three men.”

“Which three men are these?”

Remembering he knew nothing of what happened in Alkali, Joe’s mouth tightened grimly. “Three men who need to die,” he said, and for the second time that day told his heart-breaking story, sparing no painful details, telling him all.

Morgan shook his head in sad disbelief once he’d finished. “I thought something serious must have happened but I never expected anything as tragic as this, Joe. Let’s hope they get the punishment they truly deserve.”

“You can count on it as soon as I get back,” Joe said as his stubble covered jaw tightened determinedly.

Morgan nodded, believing him. “Well, in that case you’re going to need someone’s company for your journey.”

He paused, twiddling his moustache thoughtfully for a moment. “You know something, I reckon I know just the person,” he said as he looked across at Kathryn. “I’ve had a wire from John and he says there’s a position and lodgings available for you whenever you want to join them.”

Kathryn beamed excitedly and jumped up, wrapping her arms around her cousin’s neck. “I just wish I didn’t have to go so far away from you. I’m going to miss you so much.”

“And I’m going to be more than sorry to see you go,” Morgan admitted truthfully as he ran a finger down the right side of her face. “Just as long as you’re not doing it so you can hide away from the world, because there’s truly no need.”

Smiling at his concern, Kathryn shook her head. “No, Morgan, honestly I really feel the work is something I’ve been born to do.”

“In that case, if your heart is set, I won’t try and dissuade you. Just make sure you write often.”

Listening in to the exchange, Joe frowned. “You’re leaving? Why didn’t you say?”

“Didn’t seem much point until I knew for certain,” Kathryn admitted as she sat back down by his side. “I’ve decided to work at a blind school, the one Morgan once told you about. As soon as I’d read through those papers and realized what they did, I knew I wanted to go and help the children in the same way I’ve been helping you.”

“So where is this school?”

“San Francisco. Have you been there?”

Giving a slow nod, a nostalgic memory from the past resurfaced. “I visited a couple of years ago with my Pa and brother. Pa warned us to keep out of trouble but instead he got shanghaied and we had to rescue him. Neither Hoss nor me allowed him to forget it for months after.” Joe paused and gave a quiet chuckle at the recollection. “It’s a mighty fine place, though. I’m sure you’ll settle down there fine.”

“I hope you’re right,” Kathryn answered then began gnawing her lip worriedly. “Though I must admit, I’m now feeling quite nervous at the prospect of going all that way on my own and not knowing anyone when I get there.”

Morgan gave her a confident smile. “You don’t need to feel anxious. John and Ester will take good care of you. And as for your journey to California, you won’t be alone. The pair of you can travel together as far as Nevada at least, that’s unless you’ve got any objection, Joe?”

“Can’t think of a one,” Joe smiled, inwardly relieved to know he’d have her company for a few weeks longer. “So when do you think we’ll be able to leave?”

Morgan pushed his glasses back off the bridge of his nose and pondered thoughtfully for a few moments. “Confederate forces have been disrupting travel on the southern trail, so your best option is to take the Central Overland Route. From what I remember, there’s a stage leaving every other day so I’ll go over and see if I can book you a couple of seats on the first available one out. Will that do?”

Joe gave a thankful nod. “It’ll do fine.”

Morgan looked at him thoughtfully. “Have you given any consideration to the future once all this business is finished, Joe?” he inquired, having never heard him mention any plans for the years ahead.

Joe was honest as a feeling of nervousness suddenly gripped him. “All I’ve had on my mind since my memory came back is revenge. The future, well I….I hadn’t really given it much thought. Somehow I can’t imagine having much of one, though, not as a worthless blind man anyways.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Kathryn reprimanded, refusing to give him an excuse to sink back into melancholia. “Just because you can’t see doesn’t mean you’re worthless or won’t have a future. Once those men have been brought to justice, you’ll be able to make a good life for yourself on your ranch.”

With a sigh, Joe shook his head. “I couldn’t live on the Ponderosa again, not when every inch reminds me of Pa, Adam and Hoss. Without them around, it’s no home anymore, not by myself, with only ghosts for company.”

“But where else would you go? What would you do?”

Unable to ignore a feeling of emptiness and loneliness the years ahead now promised. Joe tried to keep the fear out of his voice. “I don’t know. I wish I did, but I really don’t know.”

Morgan fingered his moustache thoughtfully. “May I offer a suggestion?”

There was a faint nod.

“Go to the blind school in San Francisco. Learn how to use Braille and then…”

Joe lifted his head, his expression now one of disbelief. “What good would that do me?” he interrupted. “Wanting to read or write isn’t exactly on my list of priorities.”

“But John is crying out for staff, and once you’d mastered the skill, you could pass on everything you know to the pupils there. They’d be inspired to learn when they realize their tutor is as blind as them.”

Joe still couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “The whole idea is crazy, Morgan. I’m no teacher!” he exclaimed then suddenly felt a hand hold his own.

“You could be, Joe, and a good one I bet, if you gave yourself the chance,” Kathryn encouraged.

“But…but I only know about ranching,” Joe protested.

Morgan noted the sound of indecision in his voice. “Don’t reckon there’s much call for blind ranch hands these days, especially those who can’t read nor write.”

Knowing no offence was intended, Joe smiled at the gentle quip. “Just telling it like it is again, eh, Morgan?”

There was the sound of a chuckle from the rocking chair and Kathryn squeezed his hand even tighter. “Please say yes. I hated the thought of having to say goodbye then leave you on your own.”

“But what if it doesn’t work out? I might not be able to grasp this Braille or be useless at teaching.”

“You’re just thinking up negative excuses,” Kathryn softly scolded. “Unless you try, you’ll never know, and a fresh start might help focus your mind away from those you’ve lost, the life you’ve left behind.”

Joe fell silent, his mind teeming with thoughts. Though it seemed both considered him more than capable, he knew this might well turn out to be the hardest challenge of his life.

Yet what was the alternative? Live out his days alone in a world of black, drinking his life away in the corner of some flea-ridden saloon? He immediately felt afraid, the thought terrifying him.

At least with Kathryn, he’d have a friend he could trust, someone he had a deep fondness for and who seemed to care about him. All of a sudden, the allure of her companionship was overwhelming and the fear of loneliness too much.

“Well, if you’re so sure the blind can lead the blind, looks like you’ve talked me into it,” he finally conceded with a wry grin. “Just wish Pa and my brothers could see me now, planning to go back to school. Considering how they had to drag me there when I was a kid, they wouldn’t believe it.”

“They might not believe it, Joe, but I’m sure they’d be real proud,” Kathryn said, tears not far away as she stared towards him with an affectionate smile.

A few days later, with dawn barely broken, Kathryn was already on the stage as words of thanks and gratitude flowed easily and sincerely when Joe said his final farewells to Morgan. “I won’t ever forget what you’ve done for me. Just wish there was some way I could repay you.”

Morgan gave him a paternal hug. “Just make sure the life I saved turns out to be a good one; then any debt will have been met in full,” he said and helped him onto his seat and closed the door.

A whip cracked, harness jingled and horses strained, then after a yell of encouragement from the driver the coach moved slowly away. Morgan smiled as he watched them go, but as soon as the coach disappeared from sight, the smile fell away. With a heavy heart at the thought of living alone once again, the doctor walked slowly towards his office in readiness for another day.

*****

The journey west proved to be uncomfortable and wearisome and a far cry from the leisurely trek Joe had taken in the opposite direction months before. The bone-shaking coach was usually cramped to capacity throughout; meager meals eaten hastily in relay stations while teams were changed, then nights spent in draughty unheated way stations with a single blanket to fend off the cold.

In all, the conditions were harsh, but despite the discomfort, with Kathryn’s help and companionship, the journey wasn’t half as bad as Joe had feared it might be. After nearly 1600 miles of travel, they finally arrived in Virginia City on a damp and dreary November afternoon.

Having decided to go straight over to see the sheriff, Kathryn arranged for their bags to be left in the stage depot while Joe waited on the sidewalk, grateful for the warmth of a thickly woven overcoat he’d been persuaded to buy in Fort Leavenworth as the chill of Nevada’s autumnal air hit him.

He pulled the collar up and tugged his hat down further as he leaned against the wall and listened to the noise from the town he’d known since his birth. No one seemed to recognize him as they hurried by. Maybe that was a good thing. He was in no mood to accept their pity and explain his time away.

Also well wrapped up and a scarf tied tight securing her veiled bonnet, Kathryn suddenly appeared by his side. “All done,” she told him in a quiet reassuring manner. Joe nodded and slipped his hand in the crook of her arm and with the cane held in front of him they made their way across the street.

Warmth from a stove in the corner of the room welcomed them, and as they closed the door, a man at the desk with thinning grey hair who was writing a report briefly looked up then looked down again.

“Be right with you both,” he told them as he once more put pen to paper.

“Sheriff Coffee?”

At the sound of the vaguely familiar voice, the sheriff paused in mid-sentence and looked up with a frown, adjusting his glasses as he stared more closely towards the young man with a walking stick in one hand and hat in the other.

The face was drawn, pale and unshaven, the hair longer and slightly unkempt and the eyes were the eyes of a sightless man but Roy Coffee still recognized him in an instant. With an expression of astonishment, he threw his pen down and rose from his seat. “Little Joe Cartwright? Is that really you?”

Hearing the old gravelly voice say his childhood nickname once again, Joe flicked a brief smile. “Yes…it’s me.”

Joe heard footsteps then two hands gripped his arms tight. “Dear Lord, Little Joe, we all thought you were dead!”

“Guess you’re real surprised to see me then.”

There was no mistaking his genuineness or sincerity of fondness as Roy smiled towards him. “Surprised don’t come close to describing it, son. Where the heck have you been all this time?”

“I’ve been living in Kansas, just arrived back on the stage.”

“Kansas!” Roy’s tone was now high pitched and incredulous. “What in tarnation were you doing in Kansas?”

Joe sighed wearily. “It’s a long story,” he admitted, then with a trusting expression turned his head and introduced Kathryn as the travelling companion who’d been his eyes for the journey.

Roy greeted the young woman with a courteous smile and shook her hand then pulled up a couple of chairs. Kathryn guided Joe to his seat while Roy sat back behind his desk. “So what’s been going on with you, Little Joe?” he asked, staring sympathetically into the empty eyes.

Joe dropped his hat on the floor and began fingering the cane absently. “I promise I’ll explain everything later, but first there’s something, I have to tell you about Pa, Adam and Hoss.”

Roy noted his serious forlorn expression. “Why? What’s wrong with them?”

Unable to see the look of puzzlement etched on the old sheriff’s face, Joe immediately began telling him about what happened in Alkali, the flow of words unstoppable and spilling out so fast and furious Roy was left with no opportunity to make him pause in his tale.

Once he’d finished, Roy stared pityingly towards him without saying a word as he ran a fingertip along a thin moustache. It was as if he didn’t know how to respond so Kathryn broke her silence. “But now you can understand why we’ve come all this way, Sheriff Coffee. With Joe blind, he’s relying on you to bring those men to justice.”

Roy looked towards her understandingly, yet slowly shook his head. “Sorry ma’am, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Failing to understand why an old friend of his fathers’ seemed to show no great concern at his untimely death in such dire circumstances, Joe jumped to his feet and his whole demeanor now one of fury. “Nothing? What do you mean nothing? My Pa and brothers are dead because of a corrupt sheriff and his deputies! Of all people I thought you’d be the first to set too and do something about it!”

There was then a brief silence so tense you could almost cut the air with a knife.

As he felt Kathryn place a calming hand on his arm, Joe sat back down, his sightless eyes dancing with anger, while Roy’s expression softened, ignoring the outburst. “Little Joe, I can’t do nothing for one simple reason. Your Pa ain’t dead. Neither is Adam, nor Hoss. In fact, I was having Sunday dinner with them all only yesterday.”

Kathryn gasped, eyes wide, while a look of complete bewilderment covered Joe’s face. “But they must be dead…they were due to be hanged. I heard the Judge sentence them just before I got away.”

Roy nodded and began to explain. “The way Ben told me, they were brought out that morning and the noose placed round their necks, expecting to die within the minute. But at the last moment, Sheriff Gains’ conscience must have got the better of him, ‘cause he confessed there and then to the part he’d played in the bank robbery along with Arte and Sam Mace. He told how Arte had been the one to shoot the teller dead, and that’s when Arte pulled a gun and killed Gains right in front of everyone. But before he could get away, he was arrested along with Mace. They were put on trial and hung within a couple of days.”

For a few moments, the shock of it all left Joe speechless as tears glistened in his eyes, though for once not tears of sorrow. “They’re still alive,” he repeated again and again as if to convince himself it wasn’t a dream. The gnawing pain of grief that had lived in his heart for what seemed a lifetime began to ease and finally slipped away.

Feeling his own eyes mist, Roy took off his glasses and wiped a kerchief across his face.

“Sheriff Coffee, did Pa…”

At the uneasy tone of his voice, Roy reset his spectacles, frowning at the transformation as Joe’s face, now looked deeply troubled and any trace of happiness in his expression disappeared. “Come on, son, spit it out.”

Joe took a deep breath and started again. “When Pa got back from Alkali, did he think I’d run out on them and left them to die just to save my own skin?”

Roy shook his head as though he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What a fool crazy idea, Little Joe. Your Pa would never think that of you!”

“But what else would he… I mean, where did he think I’d gone?”

Roy leaned forward and clasping his hands together stared towards him with a caring smile. “The horse you escaped on returned to Alkali covered in blood the morning your Pa was due to be hanged. It was assumed you’d been shot by the posse, so as soon as they could Ben, Adam, Hoss and every ranch hand from the Ponderosa plus half of Virginia City went looking for you.

“Over two weeks later, with no sight nor sign Ben realized there wasn’t any chance of you still being alive. Don’t reckon he knew himself how much he loved you till he acknowledged you were really gone and had to give his blessing for the main search to be called off. He was truly devastated. But he and your brothers carried on looking, though resigned now to only finding a corpse.”

Roy paused to take a breath.

“They must have spent another month at least scouring every trail, practically turning over every blade of grass between here and Alkali, determined to find a body to bury. But the strain and stress was telling on the three of them, your Pa in particular, and Doc Martin told Ben in no uncertain terms the way he was wearing himself to a frazzle, he couldn’t guarantee he’d see another winter out if he didn’t stop. It took a whole load of persuading to make Ben finally see sense, though, but reckon the feeling of guilt for giving up the search is still eating him away from the inside out.”

Emotionally drained and physically spent, Joe bent forward and buried his head in his hands, swallowing back a feeling of shock-based nausea that threatened to overwhelm him as he imagined the torment his Pa and brothers had gone through because of him.

Kathryn stroked his back in a comforting way, then shifting her caring gaze, she stared back towards the desk, her voice now resolute and commanding. “Sheriff Coffee, if you don’t mind me asking, have you a buggy we could borrow? I’d like to take Joe home.”

**********

Once their baggage was loaded and directions given, the single horse carriage went at a good clip after leaving Virginia City behind, Kathryn steering it like an expert as they following a well furrowed trail on course for the Ponderosa.

During the ride, Joe would occasionally ask her to describe the landscape. As Kathryn gave her description, he would offer a short anecdote about their location as he pictured the scenery in his mind. But mostly they travelled in silence, each with their own thoughts, until in the dimness of early evening, they pulled up in front of an imposingly built but welcoming building, certainly more grand than Kathryn ever imagined and a far cry from the small farmhouse where she’d been born.

Aching with weariness and cold, she took hold of Joe’s hand. “We’re here.”

There was a barely perceivable nod but no attempt at movement.

“What’s the matter?” Kathryn asked, immediately sensing a tension within him.

Joe drew in a shaky breath. There’d been a time when he’d been fearful about a future alone without his father and brothers around him. But now back on the Ponderosa, suddenly he was more anxious about his future with them as his unseeing eyes stared out blankly. “I just got to thinking what if Pa grows to hate me when he starts to realize how much of a liability he’s been saddled with for the rest of his days.”

Kathryn stared at him with disbelief. “Don’t talk such rubbish, Joe. From everything I’ve heard about your father, he would love you unconditionally no matter what. Take it from me, there’s no way he’d ever imagine you as a millstone around his neck.”

“But how can you be so sure?”

Kathryn’s eyes softened. “I know his son,” she said quietly and kissed his cheek.

Joe allowed himself a flickering smile, the affectionate and comforting gesture meaning a great deal to him. “Thanks. Guess I’m just feeling a little edgy.”

Kathryn grinned sheepishly. “Well, for what it’s worth, that makes two of us. Now come on before we both freeze to death out here.”

With cane in hand, Joe slowly climbed down from his seat, and taking hold of Kathryn’s arm, they crossed the yard. However, being a stranger, she couldn’t bring herself to walk straight in, so reaching for the knocker banged it hard on the heavy oak door.

There was a brief silent pause then the sound of footsteps from within, a latch clicked and the door swung inward.

A well-built man was now stood before her, looking down from all of six foot with a full head of iron grey hair swept back from a face which now looked more haggard and aged than it should.

Kathryn relaxed a little at the sight of him; he reminded her of her father. “Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben’s brow furrowed towards his unexpected visitor. “Yes ma’am. How can I help you?”

Kathryn stepped aside and gently pulled a figure from the shadows.

There was a momentary hesitation, a catch of breath, a mouth gaped wide as though seeing a ghost. “Joseph?”

The name came out hushed and unsure. It couldn’t be. Joe was dead, gone, in all probability a pile of bones in some old wolf’s lair.

Joe felt a lump swell in his throat, stepped hesitatingly towards the sound of the voice, whispered a response. “Yes, Pa.”

Dulled brown eyes widened from disbelief to joyous amazement and a cane clattered to the floor as Ben gathered his son into his arms. With eyes brimmed full, he repeated his son’s name over and over, and all the time, Joe’s own tears soaked wetness into his father’s shirt, held so close into the broad chest he thought his ribs would snap.

There was the sound of scraping chairs and two men rushed into view, both staring over in shocked wonder. As one Hoss and Adam became a blur of movement, arms circling, more tears falling and Joe lost in the embrace of a family once left devastated but now finally reunited and made whole again.

For a few moments, Kathryn stared with a teary smile at the poignant scene before quickly picking up and placing Joe’s fallen hat and cane on a credenza by the door. She glanced around the spacious room and noticed a tall grandfather clock and a comfortable looking armchair beside it, and as hunger and exhaustion finally began to take its toll, she sank down on the welcoming upholstered seat with a thankful sigh.

For Ben, Adam and Hoss, it was almost too much to take in or understand when they finally pulled apart. With questions on their lips, none of them were able to imagine anything that could shatter the happiness they now felt. But as they noticed tear-filled hazel eyes seeming to stare right through them without focus, a shocking realization dawned. In mute understanding, they exchanged glances and silence settled as they digested the truth.

Kathryn could see Adam and Hoss clearly, noting immediately in appearance they were as different as chalk and cheese and just as Joe described. But now one thing was exactly the same; their faces showing identical heartbreaking sorrow as they stared toward their brother with a caring and anxious gaze.

Fighting to keep himself together, Ben gently smoothed fingers around a thin faint unfamiliar scar which ran from Joe’s temple to disappear into his hair. “What…what happened to your sight, son?” he asked though couldn’t conceal the break in his voice as empty eyes stared back at him.

“Guess I didn’t duck away from a bullet as fast as I should one time, Pa,” Joe answered, making light of his injury as he wiped his face dry on the sleeve of his coat.

“Are you sure there’s nothing that can be done to get it back?”

Joe shrugged helplessly. “I’m guessing nothing short of a miracle.”

“In that case, that’s what we’ll be praying for, Joseph.”

Joe nodded and managed a broken smile. “But I’ve had a real good teacher and she’s taught me to do a load of things for myself. I can even manage the outhouse on my own, so shouldn’t be much of a burden around the place.”

His attempt at humor fell flat as tears pricked Ben’s eyes once more and he pulled the slender frame into a second embrace. “There’ll never be a day dawn when any son of mine is a burden to me,” he assured softly, his voice thick with emotion.

Although feeling awkward to be an observer of such a personal show of fatherly tenderness, Kathryn steadied herself to her feet, keen to allay any fears in his mind. “Excuse me, Mr. Cartwright, but Joe’s right in what he says. He’s been such a quick learner and can manage many tasks by himself. Even some of our fellow passengers on the stage didn’t even realize he was blind until it was pointed out to them.”

At the sound of a nervous voice, three heads turned as if suddenly realizing she was there.

Despite still reeling from shock, a faint welcoming smile formed on Ben’s lips as his grip grudgingly loosened on his son. “A pleasure to meet you…”

“Mrs. Royce, but I’m a widow, so Kathryn will do.”

Ben shook her hand. It was a firm handshake and his moistened eyes were kind, filled with gratitude. “Well, Kathryn, something tells me I’m forever in your debt for bringing Joseph home. Thank you.”

Not sure how to respond Kathryn just flicked a smile then watched Hoss slip off Joe’s coat and Adam take hold of his arm and steer him towards a settee; three heads then suddenly close and in hushed brotherly conversation.

Ben followed her gaze, hardly able to believe the sight of his sons together again. He swallowed and blinked hard then returned his attention to his guest. “May I take your coat and bonnet?”

Kathryn handed them over, a knot of apprehension in her stomach tightening now she was without the veil to hide behind. But when Ben returned, he showed no sign of revulsion, only seeing a face drawn with fatigue. He indicated for her to sit back down. “You mentioned the stage. Have you travelled far?”

As she made herself comfortable again Kathryn nodded. “Kansas. We just arrived in Virginia City this afternoon.”

For the second time that day, the name brought out an astonished response. “Kansas! Joe’s been living in Kansas?”

“It’s a very long story and I’m sure he’ll explain everything soon. But I’m sorry for turning up like this without any prior warning. I know it must have been a big shock for you,” Kathryn apologized with a knowing sigh. “It’s just that when Sheriff Coffee told us you were all still alive, I knew I had to bring Joe straight home.”

Ben stared at her incredulously. “Are you telling me Joe was under the impression we were dead?”

“He was sure you’d been hung in Alkali, and it was only when we were talking to the sheriff we learned the truth of what happened there.” Kathryn paused, her voice now low. “There was a time he barely had the will to go on living because he thought you’d all died yet he was still alive.”

Ben rested a hand on the wall for a moment, sadness and anguish deeply etched on his lined face at the revelation. He knew full well from experience how his son must have suffered, every waking minute and nights of fretful sleep filled with heartbreaking memories of those he loved who he thought were gone forever.

“I hope I wasn’t speaking out of turn, but coupled with losing his sight, I thought it only right you know, just so you understand how much he’s gone through over the past months.”

Taking a deep breath, Ben nodded. “I’m glad you told me…thank you, Kathryn,” he said quietly and mentally shaking himself gathered his thoughts. “Time I showed some manners, my dear. Have you eaten?”

“We haven’t had anything since breakfast and that was only dry biscuits and coffee.”

Ben regarded her sympathetically. “In that case, I’ll make sure Hop Sing knows he has two extra for dinner and I’ll get Adam to bring in your bags. Would you like to freshen up before you eat?”

There was an emphatic nod. “Yes please, and thank you Mr. Cartwright. I really appreciate your hospitality.”

Ben looked at her kindly. “It’s no less than you deserve.”

Within minutes, Adam had collected the luggage and escorted Kathryn to an upstairs guest room. But then knowing instinctively his father and younger brother needed a little time together alone, he indicated for Hoss to follow him and the pair made a tactful withdrawal and went outside to take care of the sheriff’s horse and buggy.

Sitting by Joe’s side on the settee, Ben’s brow knitted together with fatherly concern. He could see Joe was thinner in the face and his stubbly jaw made him look older than twenty-two. Did he realize he’d gained a year during his long journey westward? Ben sighed as he curved his arm around his shoulder and squeezed it gently. “Kathryn said you thought we’d been hung in Alkali.”

Joe bobbed his head, and even with sightless eyes, Ben couldn’t miss the heartache lying behind them. “Like I told Adam and Hoss, if I’d known different, I’d have made sure you knew I was still alive instead of leaving you thinking…”

His voice trailed into an awkward silence, Ben sensing his distress and could see he was trying to hold it all inside. But as the trauma and strain of the past months finally bubbled up and overwhelmed him, Joe was unable to swallow down the sobs that had gathered in his throat. His shoulders began to heave and instinctively Ben pulled him into his arms.

“It’s all right, Joseph, let it out,” Ben soothed, hugging him more fiercely than he’d ever done for several minutes in a sheltering embrace till the physical contact between father and son that had been missing for so long eventually calmed the younger Cartwright and the heart wrenching weeping ceased. “Feel better now?”

There was a faint nod. “Thanks Pa. Guess you never expected such a cry baby to return home, even a blind cry baby.”

Ben swallowed hard as he felt his chest tighten. “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears,” he said softly.

Feeling more secure and relaxed than he’d done in a long time, Joe couldn’t help but smile. “What’s that, the law according to Ben Cartwright?”

“No, son, the law according to Charles Dickens. It’s from his latest book and that little phrase stuck with me for some reason. You should read it sometime.”

Suddenly realizing what he’d said, Ben sighed long and hard. “I’m sorry Joe…I wasn’t thinking,” he admitted apologetically just as Adam suddenly reappeared as if by magic from the direction of the kitchen. Hearing his father’s remorseful tone, he raised a questioning eyebrow towards him.

“I was just telling Joseph about the Dickens novel you had sent over last month but stupidly suggested he read it.”

“It’s alright, Pa. Don’t worry about it,” Joe said as Adam gave a sympathetic nod then eased down into his chair. Though he noticed his brother’s eyes were strangely more puffy and bloodshot than when he’d left him, he didn’t mention it.

“Hop Sing reckons dinner should be ready in about ten minutes, Pa,” Hoss advised as he made his way into the room and with a gentle hand affectionately ruffled Joe’s hair. “How about telling us where you’ve been these past months, little brother. It’ll fill in the time while we wait.”

“Guess you are owed an explanation,” Joe confessed and for a moment was seemingly lost in thought. “But where do I start?” he murmured thinking out loud.

“From experience, I think the beginning is as good a place as any. Always works well for me,” Adam suggested, his tone one of gentle teasing.

Joe gave a faint smile. It was good to know his elder brother still retained his solid and dependable way of getting straight to the point. So, although hesitant at times, Joe told his story as concisely as he could, from the time he lost his memory on his flight from Alkali all the way through to the stage coach journey back to Virginia City, the conversational tone of his voice unable to mask the anguish he’d been through.

There had been no interruptions throughout his story, and after a thoughtful silence as they digested everything they’d been told, Adam was the first one to speak. “What about the men who found you on the trail? Are they still in the Militia?”

Joe contemplated his brother’s question for a moment. Though picturing their faces was becoming more and more difficult each day, the thought of reopening the wound of loss for Daniel, Sam and Henry that had only just begun to heal in his heart was almost too much. But he knew their fate had to be told as he swallowed back his grief. “They came up against Confederate forces while on patrol and never made it back.”

The inference was clear, and as he heard the pain in his son’s voice, Ben laid a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry to hear that, Joe; they sound like they were fine men.”

“The best,” Joe murmured just as a highly excited Hop Sing scurried in holding the first of several serving dishes in his hands.

The family cook looked over at his much loved number three son and offered over a few words in Chinese. Joe forced out a quick smile and chuckle as he replied in the same language. Hilarity in any form had been sadly lacking around the house over the past months, and at the sound of Joe’s quiet laughter, there was no need for Ben or his two eldest to put into words what each felt.

“I’ll go fetch, Kathryn,” Adam suddenly offered, his usually stoic eyes showing extra brightness as he quickly jumped up and left the room.

Within a few minutes, they were all seated, Ben in his usual chair at the top of the table with Joe and Kathryn to his left and Adam and Hoss to the right. The food was served, and Ben noticed Joe made no move to eat until Kathryn murmured something quietly in his ear. With a nod of understanding he felt for his knife and fork.

Conscious of Ben’s curious gaze towards her, Kathryn explained. “It’s something I read about, Mr. Cartwright. Think of the plate as a clock then describe where the food is, meat at 11, potato at 4, vegetables at 7. It helps Joe to locate each portion.”

“Don’t that beat all,” Hoss acknowledged, obviously impressed, though his blue eyes didn’t have their usual sparkle. “I’ll be sure to remember that trick, little brother, when you need me to tell you the time at dinner.”

Sensing all eyes on him, Joe just shrugged. He hated being the centre of attention and now felt like a prime exhibit in a freak show as he speared a potato straight into his mouth, fully expecting a round of applause.

The rest of the meal was a quiet affair, both Kathryn and Joe more interested in eating every morsel on their plates than chatting. It was only when appetites were satisfied and they sat in front of the blazing fire with their coffee that conversation freely flowed.

Kathryn spoke a little about her early life in Wisconsin then Adam and Hoss told Joe all the local gossip from the past six months in an effort to put him in the picture again. At first he’d listened intently while sipping his drink, giving a quiet chuckle, a comment or nod of the head at the appropriate time.

However when talk fell on the Ponderosa timber cut down and replanted, the prime beef driven to the rail head during the summer, the horse breaking just completed for the Army, Joe struggled to keep his mind on what he was hearing or his eyes open. “If it’s all right with you, Pa, I’d like to turn in. I sure am dead beat,” he admitted truthfully after letting out an involuntary yawn.

Ben looked at him, his expression immediately softening. “Of course, son, go ahead.”

Kathryn rested a hand on his arm. “Sweet dreams, Joe. I hope you sleep well.”

“Considering some of the places I’ve had to bed down in over the past weeks, I’m sure I will,” Joe responded with a tender smile in her direction.

“Just so I know, I’m hoping my room is still as it was?” Joe asked to no one in particular as he stood up and with the aid of his cane in front of him made his way to the bottom of the stairs.

Ben and his two eldest exchanged knowing looks. Since Alkali, Joe’s room hadn’t been touched, none of them willing or capable of changing a single thing.

“Yep, Joe, everything is just as you left it but here, let me help you up there,” Hoss insisted as he took hold of his arm.

Joe suddenly stiffened and shrugged off his brother’s hold. “I may be blind but I’m more than capable of putting myself to bed!” he snapped, then silently cursed at his unwarranted rudeness.

Half expecting a father’s reprimand, Joe waited but there was nothing. He sighed and rubbed a hand across his forehead. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I know you mean well…it’s just that…”

“Don’t worry about it, little brother,” Hoss interrupted, recognizing his desire to demonstrate some sort of independence. “I understand.”

With a silent nod and one hand on the banister, Joe began to climb but straightaway misjudged the height of the step and fell to his knees. Immediately a pair of strong arms picked him up and steadied him on his feet. “You okay?”

Feeling foolish at his ineptness, it took a few moments before Joe could bring himself to speak. “Yes I’m fine…thanks, Hoss.” He tentatively felt for the rail once more.

Ben looked at him unconvinced. “Why don’t you let your brother help you, Joseph?” he suggested with an anxious gaze. “No point risking hurting yourself again for the sake of pride.”

Joe shook his head. “I’d rather try and manage on my own, Pa. Can’t expect to be hand-held for the rest of my life,” he answered stubbornly and continued slowly up the stairs again, the cane tapping his way and this time without further incident.

As they heard a bedroom door close, Hoss sank back down on the space left vacant on the settee. “Well, good to know some things ain’t ever gonna change around here. Joe’s still as hot-tempered and mule-headed as he’s always been,” he observed with loving exasperation.

Kathryn patted his hand. “And I bet you wouldn’t have him any other way, would you?”

Hoss shook his head and smiled. “No ma’am. Wouldn’t change a thing.”

Adam leaned back in his armchair with hands clasped behind his head. “Hope you don’t mind me asking, Kathryn, but considering the distances and hardship involved, why did you come all this way with Joe? It can’t have been the easiest of journeys to take, especially for a woman.”

Even with his penetrating gaze on her, Kathryn felt completely at ease; Adam’s dark eyes reflected nothing but friendliness towards her. “It all started by chance when I read about the work done at the San Francisco School for the Blind. I knew straightaway it was something I wanted to become involved in, and as the director of the school is an old friend of Morgan’s, he arranged for me to take up a position there. Joe was already determined to return to Virginia City; therefore it made sense for us to travel together.”

“So you’ll be moving on?” Ben asked, watching her thoughtfully.

“It was always my intention and Joe was going to come with me and try his hand at teaching the children once he’d made sure those men in Alkali were brought to justice. But of course, all plans changed when Sheriff Coffee told us you were still alive.”

Hoss chuckled. “Little brother was going back to school? That’s hard to believe considering how much he hated it and we had to drag him there most days!”

“That’s just what Joe said,” Kathryn acknowledged with a laugh, then noticed a puzzled look flash across Adam’s face as he leaned forwards in his chair.

“I don’t understand? Are you saying Joe didn’t intend returning to the Ponderosa?”

Kathryn shook her head slowly. “You’ve got to remember, as far as Joe was concerned, you were all dead. He couldn’t contemplate living here alone for the rest of his life, especially without his sight. But I know the thought of leaving it behind forever broke his heart.”

With a frown on their faces, the three men considered what she’d said. The notion of Joe living anywhere but on the ranch seemed inconceivable and they could well imagine what an agonizing decision it must have been for him to make.

Kathryn looked between them, and noting their pensive expressions, remained silent for a few moments before offering up a query. “Does anyone know if there’ll be a stage leaving for San Francisco in the near future?”

Shaken back from his thoughts. Hoss answered. “Next one out should be leaving Saturday, but can’t you stick around a while longer? Sure is a real pleasure having such charming female company around here for a change.”

Kathryn looked into the broad, honest face and smiled. Like his father and brother before him, he put her totally at ease, staring at her with genuine warmth and her birthmark ignored. “Thank you, Hoss, but I think it best I continue my journey as soon as possible. Besides, I have a feeling the longer I stay the less I’ll want to go after you’ve made me feel so at home and welcomed.”

“Joe is going to miss you,” Ben added perceptively.

Unable to hide a look of sadness, Kathryn nodded. “And I’m going to miss Joe,” she admitted, meeting his gaze briefly with a faint smile then turning to stare over at the grandfather clock, the lateness of the hour surprising her. “Well, if you’ll all excuse me, I really think I should retire; otherwise, I may well fall asleep where I sit.”

She got to her feet, the three men courteously following suit, then wishing them good night headed upstairs, Hoss staring thoughtfully after her until she disappeared from sight. “Kathryn’s a mighty fine woman. Shame she ain’t going to settle down around here,” he sighed as he sank his heavy frame down on the arm of the settee.

Adam nodded in agreement. “She’s certainly done a fine job helping Joe. She’ll make an excellent teacher, I’m sure of it.” He stretched out his stiff muscles and gave a yawn. “Well, Hoss, reckon the pair of us had better head up as well seeing as it’s an early start in the morning.”

Ben frowned momentarily. “Of course, you’re bringing the herd down to winter pasture. I’d forgotten all about it.”

“It’s hardly surprising after all that’s gone on tonight. Just wish we could stick around now that Joe’s returned,” Adam admitted in a sincere tone. “But we’re way behind schedule as it is.”

“When do you think you’ll be back?”

With the mask of impassiveness and practicality returned, Adam pondered for a moment as he began to make his way slowly up the stairs. “If the weather holds, Friday at the latest, Pa. Then I’ll start planning out a way of making the house more Joe-friendly. We should also consider trying to get him to move to the downstairs bedroom so he won’t need to tackle the stairs and risk injury.”

“Good thinking, but knowing what an obstinate cuss our little brother can be. I’ll leave you to do the persuading,” Hoss replied jokingly as he followed him. He turned his head back towards his father. “Are you coming up, Pa?”

Ben’s first impulse was to say yes, but with all that had happened in the past few hours swirling in his mind, he knew sleep would be a long time coming. So after a moment’s deliberation, he shook his head. “Reckon I’ll just sit down here a while and have a nightcap to settle me down.”

With a sigh of understanding, Hoss’ blue eyes suddenly shined moist in the lamplight. “Why of all people did Joe have to lose his sight? I’d give my right arm for him to see again,” he admitted in a quiet emotion filled voice. “But don’t you go worrying yourself, Pa. At least he’s back and we’ll take good care of him from now on. You know that, don’t you?”

Ben swallowed hard, his own eyes filled with tenderness towards him as he nodded a response.

With a silent wave of farewell, Hoss followed in his elder brother’s wake and now alone Ben poured out a generous measure of brandy and sank back down into the welcoming embrace of his leather armchair.

His gaze settled towards the hearth and on the flickering flames with all thoughts on his youngest, though one thing Kathryn said kept repeating in his head…he barely had the will to go on living.

Although she hadn’t elaborated, Ben knew exactly what she’d meant; at some point, Joe had contemplated ending his own life. But what had lifted his son from such depths of despair? Whatever it was, Ben was thankful for it. And it also struck him three men had to die on a scaffold in order for Joe to remember who he was and set the wheels of fate in motion; otherwise, he may well have gone marching off to war with his friends, never to return.

Feeling himself shake at the thought, Ben swallowed down his drink in one mouthful. For the next few minutes, the only sound to be heard in the room was a heavy tick from the grandfather clock, the crackle of embers in a dying fire and a father’s heartfelt muffled sobs for a much-loved son returned home.

*****

The next morning when he woke, Joe straightaway heard a distant chime striking nine and smiled contented. Unable to recall when he’d last slept so long or so soundly, for the first time ever he felt no sense of fear in his world of darkness, instead just feeling at home as he pushed away the blanket and quilt and swung his legs to the side of the bed.

Wearing his old nightshirt which had been thoughtfully left on his pillow by Adam when he’d brought up the luggage, and in no great rush, Joe took a few moments to visualize the location of all the furniture upstairs and down in the house, hoping nothing much had been altered during his time away. He felt for the bag containing everything he’d brought back from Kansas which rested on the floor by his feet. With outstretched arm, he cautiously made his way towards the wash stand and water jug and his first challenge of the day.

Sometime later, fully dressed and with hair combed into place, Joe opened his bedroom door, and again with the aid of his cane and one hand on the wall, felt his way along until half way down the stairs he stopped as the room below seemed unusually quiet. “Anyone around?”

At the sound of his voice, Ben looked up from the newspaper he was reading. His heart skipped a beat of happiness, hardly daring to believe it was really his youngest standing there. “I’m sitting at the dining table, Joe,” he answered, his first thought to rush across and take hold of his arm. But remembering his son’s reaction to being fussed over, he held back.

Joe slowly descended the last few steps, then from memory tapped his way carefully around the various furnishings. After locating a chair by his father’s side, he hooked his cane over the back and slid down onto it.

Comforted by the way Joe seemed unfazed and coping with his life-changing disorder, Ben folded his paper away and smiled warmly towards him. “Did you sleep well?”

“Like a log, Pa,” Joe told him and smoothed a hand down his shirt. “Even found clean clothes hanging in the wardrobe.”

“That’ll be Hop Sing. He insisted everything was washed and tidied away, even though no one thought…”

“I’d ever come home,” Joe interrupted quietly, his lips curved very slightly in a sad half smile.

Ben closed his eyes and fought back the rising flood of emotion that he feared would overwhelm him. “You’ve got to believe me, Joseph; if I’d had the slightest notion you were still alive, I’d have never stopped searching…never.”

At the sound of his father’s trembling voice, Joe groped for his hand and held it in a firm grip, his gaze vacant but his face showing total belief. “I know it, Pa. I truly do.”

There were no further words spoken, just a comfortable silence until Joe released his hold, sensing the need for a change of subject. “So where is everybody? I can’t believe I’m the first one up.”

Ben took a deep calming breath then cleared his throat. “Kathryn’s in the kitchen chatting with Hop Sing. And as for your brothers, they left at dawn to bring the herd down from the high country,” he told him as he filled a cup with coffee and placed it within his son’s grasp.

Joe smiled his thanks. “Left it late this year, haven’t they? I thought you always liked to have the cattle settled on the winter pasture well before the end of October.”

“Normally yes, but this year we’ve been put a little behind schedule, being short-handed on most things.”

Joe’s face clouded momentarily as he sipped at his drink, realizing full well his absence was the cause of the delay. “So how long are those brothers of mine going to be away?”

“As long as the weather holds fair, Adam reckoned Friday at the latest,” Ben answered. Then looking more closely, he noticed stubbly whiskers were gone, and apart from a couple of small nicks, Joe looked more like the smooth-faced young man of months ago. “Did you shave yourself, son?” he asked with a raised eyebrow of incredulity as he ran a finger around his chin.

Joe put down his cup. “Not bad for a blind man, eh, Pa. Amazing what you can do if you’ve got a mind to…”

“Or have a good teacher,” Kathryn interrupted cheerily as she appeared and placed a platter on the table. “Good morning, Joe. Would you like some scrambled egg? Hop Sing made quite a batch and I’m sure he must be trying to fatten the pair of us up.”

Joe greeted her warmly and nodded. “Hop Sing’s been trying to put weight on me for years, but reckon it always finds its way to Hoss every time.”

Kathryn laughed as she scooped a large portion onto both their plates then sat down beside him. “There you go, all done,” she advised, carefully making sure the fork was where Joe could find it. “I’ve never eaten so well. I just wish I could stay longer and sample more of Hop Sing’s cooking,” she said as she started on her own breakfast.

“So you’re still heading for San Francisco?”

“Yes, Joe. There’s a stage due out on Saturday so I might as well take it.”

Joe swallowed hard; his insides churning as a look of anguish suddenly crossed his face at the thought of her leaving. “It’s going to feel strange not having you around to keep me out of trouble,” he admitted quietly, hoping he sounded more relaxed than he felt. “We’ve been a great team together.”

“Yes we have. You’ll just have to keep your brothers on their toes instead.”

Joe forced out a wry chuckle. “Reckon I’ve been doing that for so long they won’t notice any difference,” he said. Then picking up his fork, he began to eat.

How true, Ben thought as he pushed back his chair. “Well, I’m going to have to excuse myself for a while as I need to make a start on the accounts and a heap of paperwork. I promised Adam I’d try and catch up on the backlog that’s been mounting up for far too long and have a feeling it’s going to keep me occupied for a couple of days at least.”

Remembering well the calculations involved in the yearly chore, Joe was just about to offer his assistance then silently cursed at his stupidity as he recalled something Morgan once said in jest. Not much call for a blind ranch hand. Especially a blind ranch hand who couldn’t even manage to add up figures in a column. Suddenly a depressing thought came to him. If he couldn’t do such a menial task as that, what else could he do?

Unaware of Joe’s inner turmoil, Kathryn looked over towards Ben. “I don’t suppose you have any writing paper spare do you, Mr. Cartwright?” she asked. “I really need to let Morgan know I’m well as he’ll have been worrying about me. I also need to tell him about you still being alive. He’ll be so happy to hear that news.”

Ben nodded a reply. “When you’re ready, come and help yourself,” he told her. Then picking up a pipe and tobacco from the side of the hearth, he disappeared around the corner of the room towards his desk.

With her plate now empty, Kathryn wiped her mouth with a napkin. “I’ll be sure to write to you often and tell you how I’m getting on, Joe,” she said. Then a thought came. “If I send you the details about Braille, would you consider learning it? Then you’d be able to let me know everything you’re getting up to around the ranch as well.”

“Reckon I will,” Joe said but inwardly reflected that with the amount of work he’d be able to do on the Ponderosa, he’d be hard pressed to find more than a single sheet of interest to put in a letter.

**********

Ben made a flourishing gesture as he closed the last ledger shut then leaned back in his chair, gently massaging the muscles around his neck with his fingertips. After nearly three full days, his work was done.

Kathryn looked up from a book she was reading and smiled. “Something tells me you’ve finished at last.”

Ben nodded. “Thankfully, yes, though it’s taken longer than I expected. I’m ashamed to say I lost all interest in a lot of things after Alkali, but at least all is done now, though you must forgive me for not being the best of hosts during your stay.”

“Please there’s no need to apologize. I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to just relax and read; it’s made the time pass really quickly. Adam certainly has great taste in literature.”

“That’s something he definitely got from his mother,” Ben confessed as he stood up and checked the time on his pocket watch. “I didn’t realize it was this late. Where’s Joe? Is he upstairs?”

“Yes…or at least I think so,” Kathryn answered with a creased brow of uncertainty. “To be honest, I’ve been so absorbed with this novel I didn’t notice where he went. Shall I check?”

“No, it’s all right Kathryn, I’ll go.”

Ben made his way up the stairs and knocked quietly on Joe’s bedroom door. There was no response and he opened it, only seeing a roughly made bed and the room empty.

Slightly confused, Ben returned to Kathryn’s side. “If he went upstairs, he’s not there now,” he told her with a frown. “Maybe he’s in the kitchen.”

Kathryn shook her head. “Hop Sing just came in to say dinner was nearly ready and he hasn’t seen Joe since lunch.”

“Well, he can’t have gone far,” Ben assured her. With his brow knit in thought, he suddenly gave an intuitive sigh. “Sometimes I think that boy of mine is going to be the death of me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think I know where Joe is,” he answered with a smile. “I won’t be long.” Trying his best to appear unconcerned, Ben headed out of the front door towards the barn.

Realizing his hunch was correct as he made towards a hushed murmuring, Ben stood in silence for a few moments as he watched Joe brushing the black and white neck of an Indian pony in long rhythmic strokes. All the while, as he talked softly in a soothing and gentle tone, the pinto stood quiet and listened intently to the human voice he’d known since a colt, giving out an occasional snort as though adding to the discussion.

Ben couldn’t help but smile at the closeness that still existed between the two even after being parted for several months. “I’ve been looking for you, Joe. Why didn’t you tell me where you were going?”

Joe paused at the sound of his father’s voice for a brief moment then continued brushing. “Do I have to ask your permission to leave the house now, Pa?”

Ben leaned against the end of the stall and folded his arms. “Of course you don’t but what were you thinking coming here on your own without someone to guide you? Anything could have happened.”

“Can’t a man, even a blind man, go out to groom his horse without somebody jumping all over him about it? For heaven’s sake, Pa, I’m not a child you have to keep constant watch over any more and I’m more than capable of finding my way across the yard.”

Joe’s raised tone brought a silent response for a few moments, then when he did speak, Ben was unrepentant and caring. “I’m more than aware of your capabilities, Joseph, but I was concerned for your safety, that’s all,” he said, looking around and, with a fatherly eye, spotting potential hazards and dangers for his sightless son in every corner of the building.

Releasing a long breath, Joe dropped his hand to his side. “I’m sorry. It’s just that after being cooped indoors for the past few days, I needed to get out of the house for a while or I reckon I’d have gone cabin crazy.”

Ben’s brow furrowed slightly. “I’m the one who should apologize, son. I’ve been so intent on finishing the paperwork it didn’t occur to me how boring it must be for you sitting around with nothing to do.”

“It’s something I’ve got to get used to, I suppose,” Joe sighed. “But at least I’ve managed to visit and talk with old Cooch.”

“I hope the pair of you had an interesting conversation.”

“We tried, but I think I might have lost a lot in translation,” Joe joked, forcing out a half-hearted grin.

Ben gave a faint chuckle. “Anyway, you just about finished, son? Dinner is all but ready and you know how Hop Sing doesn’t like to be kept waiting when he’s ready to dish up.”

With a nod, Joe gave his horse a final pat and felt for his cane which was hanging on the end of the stall. Ben took the brush from his grasp and placed it on the top of the rail and walking together they made their way back to the house.

*****

Hop Sing’s stew and dumplings was delicious, though after the first couple of mouthfuls, Joe just stirred listlessly at his food with his fork.

Ben glanced at his half-empty plate. “You’ve hardly touched a thing, Joe. Don’t you feel well?”

“I’m fine. I just haven’t got much of an appetite tonight.”

Ben raised a thoughtful eyebrow then turned to his left. “I’m collecting the supplies from town tomorrow, Kathryn, so I’ll post your letter and book you a seat on Saturday’s stage while I’m there. But I insist on paying for your ticket; it’s the least I can do.”

The gratitude in Kathryn’s eyes was tinged with sadness at the thought of saying goodbye but before she could thank him, Joe spoke up.

“Would you make that two tickets Pa?” Joe paused and swallowed nervously, hoping his father wouldn’t notice the slight tremor in his voice. “I’ve decided to go to San Francisco as well.”

Although his statement was completely unexpected, Ben’s reaction was strangely placid at the news. “I realize you’d like to keep Kathryn company on the journey but you’ve got to think of afterwards, Joe. Returning home on your own could be quite dangerous and I’m not prepared to allow you to take such a risk.”

“No…you don’t understand. I won’t be coming back,” Joe announced in a more resolute tone. “I’m going to stay and try and make a new life for myself as a teacher at the blind school.”

With Kathryn staring at him open mouthed, Ben leaned forwards in disbelief. “You want to leave the Ponderosa?”

“I don’t want to, but it’s for the best,” Joe replied with a resigned sigh. “It doesn’t take a genius to work out I’m not going to be any use herding cattle, breaking horses or cutting down timber around the ranch. There ain’t even much point carrying a gun anymore, so I might as well make a fresh start and try something that I could be good at instead.”

“But it’s early days Joe. Once your brothers get back, we’ll figure out some work for you to do,” Ben told him reassuringly.

“Like what? I’ve been racking my brains for three days but I can’t come up with anything that’d be worth being paid a wage for.”

Ben laid a hand on his shoulder and patted it gently. “You’ve no need to worry about money, Joe. I’ll make sure you always have everything you need.”

Joe shook his head. “I have no intention of living on charity for the rest of my life,” he stated quietly. “So please don’t deny me the chance of earning some self-respect by making my own way in the world in the best way I can.”

Cold fear suddenly began to clutch at Ben’s heart at the realization he was serious in his determination to go. “But I’ve only just found you, son. I don’t want to lose you again so soon.”

“You haven’t lost me,” Joe assured with a faint smile. “I’ll only be a few days travel time away and it’ll be easy enough for you to come visit.”

There was a brief tense silence. “Please don’t fight me over this, Pa,” Joe all but begged. “This is something I need to do if only to make you proud.”

“You’ve no need to prove yourself to me, Joseph. I’ve been proud of you since the day you were born,” Ben said, his voice shaking. For a few moments, he sat back and looked at him intently. “Are you really sure this is what you want to do?”

Joe nodded, his resolute expression saying it all.

Ben leaned over and grasped his hand, staring deeply into unsighted eyes and relieved they couldn’t see his own now looking suspiciously moist. “Very well, son, as you wish. You’re a grown man now and I won’t try and stop you. But just promise me you’ll never forget this will always be your home.”

“I promise, Pa,” Joe replied in a choked response. “And thanks.”

With the life seeming to go out of him, Ben abruptly pushed back his chair from the table. “If you’ll excuse me, I…I just need to check the livestock,” he suddenly announced, his gaze remaining on his son for a brief moment and his stricken expression making Kathryn want to weep before he quickly made his way outside.

The front door slammed shut.

“Your father is more upset than he’s letting on,” Kathryn commented after remaining diplomatically silent up till then. “It’s quite obvious he doesn’t want you to go.”

“I know,” Joe responded and heaved a deep sigh. “But I can’t just sit around day after day twiddling my thumbs while everyone else is working themselves to an early grave. Besides, if I stick around here, Pa will only worry himself sick every time I step outside the house in case I hurt myself.”

“And you really think being in San Francisco will make him worry less?”

Joe shrugged, pretending ignorance but knew the answer. His heart broke as he placed his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands.

*****

Normal conversation over breakfast the next morning proved to be as strained and forced as the previous evening, so it was with some relief when Ben left for town, leaving Kathryn and Joe together in a more relaxed atmosphere at the dining table.

“By the looks of him, your father didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Joe sagged back in his chair, clearly tired and grumpy. “Well, that makes two of us,” he grumbled.

As she put down her coffee cup, Kathryn laid a hand on his arm. “Please Joe, I hate seeing the pair of you so miserable. Why don’t you reconsider and stay? It won’t matter to your family if you can’t do the work you used to do around here.”

“It matters to me,” Joe answered, his jaw tightening doggedly. “Pa might never consider me a burden but that’s just how I’ll feel, knowing I can never pull my weight around the ranch as an equal. And I sure as hell can’t settle for anything less.”

Kathryn let out a heavy sigh. “You really are infuriatingly pig-headed at times, Joseph Cartwright.”

Joe shrugged. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” he replied with a wry smile then pushed to his feet and felt his way towards the window where he pressed his fingers against it. “What’s the weather like?”

Kathryn peered out and could see for the first time since they’d arrived at the ranch there was more blue sky than grey. “By the looks of it, it’s going to be a fine day for a change.”

Joe nodded, his mind miles away with his brothers. “That should put Adam and Hoss in a good mood. There’s nothing they hate worst than herding cows in the pouring rain. I just hope they make it back so we can have one last evening together before I leave.”

“You don’t have to go.”

There was a brief silence. “Yes I do,” Joe murmured in reply.

Shaking her head at his stubbornness, Kathryn refilled her cup as an idea to pass the time away suddenly formed. “Seeing as it’s our last day here, what do you say about taking me on a tour of the ranch? Though it’s been a while since I’ve ridden, I’m sure I can manage Sheriff Coffee’s horse as long as we take it steady.”

Turning with a puzzled frown, it was as if Joe’s brain couldn’t understand what she was proposing. “Me…go riding?” he asked, hesitant at the suggestion. Without his sight, he’d never even considered it possible.

“I don’t see why not. Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you can’t sit on a horse without falling off, does it?” she teased.

“But you know how Pa worries. He wouldn’t allow it.”

Kathryn chuckled impishly. “Your Pa isn’t here to say no.”

As he took in her words, Joe’s expression quickly transformed to one of boyish delight as he felt his way back towards her. “Kathryn, you’re wonderful! So what are we waiting for?”

With a smile at his enthusiastic impatience, Kathryn slapped him playfully on the chest and laughed. “For me to finish my coffee!”

*****

Between them, it didn’t take long to saddle up. Joe almost felt like his old self, apart from the absence of his gun belt, once he’d eased up onto Cochise’s back and took control of the reins.

Though at first the pinto fought for his head in an attempt to go on a galloping run, Joe’s horsemanship was still apparent even without sight as he skillfully held him back. The two horses soon settled side by side in an easy lope as they travelled along a well-used dirt road rutted by countless wagons over the years.

Knowing the ranch like the back of his hand, Joe had no problem passing on directions to the watering hole where Adam first taught him to swim, following the trail through a dark green forest of Ponderosa pine destined eventually for the timber mills, and then stopping for a few moments by a quiet and well cared-for knoll where a small stand of oak trees cast dappled shade over Marie Cartwright’s grave.

The sun was still shining with unseasonal warmth when they veered towards a lesser used track, and for a short while, walked their mounts higher and higher up a curving slope which finally leveled off at a large clearing. Here the only feature was an unusual drum-shaped outcrop of jumbled rocks sitting somewhat precariously on top of each other and rising to thirty feet above the huge circular base.

Kathryn secured the horses to a solitary gorse bush, then cupping Joe’s elbow, they walked towards the side of the outcrop and sat down. “Here,” she said, taking out two slightly squashed packages from her coat pocket and placing one in his hand.

“What’s this?”

“Lunch, courtesy of Hop Sing. When I told him what we were going to do, he insisted on making a sandwich each and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He’s determined to put weight on the pair of us.”

Joe chuckled and a comfortable silence settled between them as they ate. Kathryn looked out from the vantage point, enthralled by the majesty of what lay before her. Gentle rolling grassland and the deceptively peaceful shimmering of a large lake in the far distance along with snow-dusted mountaintops was a truly breathtakingly beautiful sight.

“This view is amazing,” Kathryn admitted once she’d finished and brushed away breadcrumbs from her skirt. “Thank you for bringing me here.”

Knowing the scene was lost to him forever, Joe’s voice grew heavy with feeling, emotion tightening his throat. “This was one my mother’s favorite places on the ranch. My last memory of her was when she brought me up here a few days before she died, and ever since, I always felt closer to her when visiting this spot than anywhere else.”

“I can understand how you would,” Kathryn agreed sympathetically. “And is it all Cartwright land down there?”

Joe nodded. “You can see even more from the top of this,” he replied, slapping a hand against the towering giant of grey granite by his side. “I’ve managed to climb it since I was a little kid without coming to grief, so you shouldn’t have any bother if you feel up to it.”

Kathryn threw a quick glance upwards and shuddered slightly. “No thank you. I like to keep my feet firmly on the ground when I can.”

Without pressing her any further, Joe hugged his knees up close to his chest, resting his chin on them as an idea formed. Though momentarily questioning his sanity, he quickly pushed any good sense to the back of his mind. “As I won’t get the chance again, reckon I might make my way up there, just for old time’s sake.”

Kathryn looked over with a feeling of apprehension as she realized what he was proposing. “Considering you can’t see a hand in front of you, that’s got to be one of the most stupid ideas I’ve ever heard.”

Joe smiled roguishly. “Believe me, I’ve come up with worst schemes over the years. Just ask Hoss!”

“But you might injure yourself.”

“Now you’re starting to sound like Pa,” he returned light-heartedly.

“Joe, you can’t!”

‘Can’t’ was not a word Joe wanted to hear as he rose to his feet. “Don’t worry. I’ve managed to ride here without breaking my neck so reckon climbing this oversized boulder will be child’s play in comparison.”

As he quickly took off his hat and dropped it to the ground, Kathryn could only watch nervously, realizing there was no reasoning with him. Joe turned to feel for a suitable hold on the outcrop, then taking a deep breath, began to cautiously scramble upwards.

Relying on memory as well as the sense of touch, fingers grasped into suitable crevices. With growing confidence, Joe continued on his climb until finally there was no place else to go. Heaving himself onto the wind-weathered summit, he collapsed with a grunt of relief.

Without his sight, the climb had been more demanding and frightening than he cared to admit, but oblivious to the sweat pouring down his face, for Joe, the sense of satisfaction was complete. Riding his horse and scaling the outcrop. Not bad for a blind man, he inwardly congratulated himself, having never felt quite the same sense of accomplishment and pride for anything he’d ever done.

“Please, Joe, come back down now.”

Joe raised a hand in response to the anxious voice below him, and with a surge of new energy and self-belief, he pushed his legs over the rim and began to clamber his way to the ground.

However, the orderly descent was soon cut short when his ankle turned awkwardly under him. For a heart-stopping moment, he tried to keep his balance but without success. In the blink of an eye, with arms flailing wildly, Joe plunged downward for several feet, his fall only ending when he slammed into the unforgiving earth with a dull and sickening thud.

“Joe!” With a fearful cry, Kathryn rushed over and sank down by his side. “Can you hear me? Are you hurt?” she asked frantically.

Clearly dazed and with the breath knocked out of him after coming to such a shuddering halt, Joe couldn’t get out as much as a croak for a few moments until tentatively he shifted around a little and realized there were no bones broken. “I…I’m okay except maybe for a little bruising and one heck of a sore head.”

Kathryn gave a sigh of relief. “Hardly surprising the way you came down so hard on it.”

“Believe me I know how hard I landed,” Joe admitted with a groan as he began massaging his throbbing skull.

It was on the tip of Kathryn’s tongue to say I told you so but she decided against it; no point making him feel worse than he already was. So without commenting, she helped Joe sit up. Feeling a little shaky, he bowed his head between his knees for a few moments.

The pounding behind his eyes slowly faded away but when Joe straightened up again, he suddenly needed to narrow his eyes against a blast of brightness that without warning hit him. Immediately, all thoughts of aches and pains from the fall were erased from his mind as his expression changed to one of utter bewilderment.

Kathryn glanced over with concern. There was something different about him, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “What’s wrong? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

Joe heard her voice but was unable to answer at first. It defied logic but as he squinted through half-opened eyes, his world of darkness was now replaced by one of crystal clarity which had color, shape and substance. “I…I can see.”

His voice was little more than a whisper but Kathryn caught the words and stared at him in total astonishment. “You can see?” she echoed.

Still looking utterly stunned that his nightmare months of darkness were ended, Joe could only nod dumbly as he eased up to a standing position and raised his eyes to the sky then gazed towards the horizon, staring hungrily at everything and anything within sight.

Cochise shook his mane and gave out a loud whinny as if in greeting to his master. Joe looked over, and without the need of a cane or hand on his arm to guide him, walked straight to the pinto and lovingly stroked his silky smooth muzzle. “Been a while but good to see you again, old fella,” he murmured, blinking back tears as the paint pushed his face into his chest.

Joe then rested a hand on the horn of his saddle and his head against his horse’s neck, shaking with joyous relief that he vision was well and truly restored. There was a rustle of fabric, a faint familiar aroma of lavender behind him then he felt fingers lightly touch his arm. “Are you alright?”

Without looking round, Joe nodded, though still in bemused shock. There were a few moments of silence before he spoke. “Reckon I must be one of the lucky few Morgan was talking about but I can’t for the life of me work out what just happened.”

“Maybe that jolt to the head when you hit the ground joined up what was broken,” Kathryn offered as a plausible explanation. “But whatever the reason, I just thank God for it.”

“Amen to that,” Joe sighed, and in need of a drink, he unhooked his canteen and washed away the dryness in his throat with a long cooling swallow then capped the cork back.

The fact he was no longer sightless and was able to complete such a simple chore without assistance was enough to make Kathryn’s voice choke with emotion. “I’m so happy for you, Joe…so very happy,” she sniffed, moved to tears as she leaned into him and hugging his arm tightly.

Joe took a deep calming breath then turned his head to study the teary-eyed woman by his side more closely for the first time.

There weren’t enough words to express the gratitude he felt towards her, and though the birthmark briefly caught his attention, it was immediately ignored. “Since the day we met, I’ve pictured you pretty. It’s good to know I wasn’t wrong.”

Bareheaded and her long hair tied back with a velvet bow, Kathryn let go of him and met his gaze full on. “You don’t have to be polite or kind, Joe. I know exactly what I look like,” she quietly admitted. Without waiting for a response, she made her way towards the outcrop and sat down.

Sensing her unease and knowing the reason for it, Joe gave a sigh and followed. “In that case, you must know I only see a sweet, generous and beautiful woman to whom I owe so much and who means the world to me,” he said as he sank down beside her.

A shadow of apprehension clouded Kathryn’s face as she now stared at him and searched for any flicker of deceit or repulsion hidden in his expression. But all she saw was honesty and affection. “You mean it, don’t you?”

Smiling a gentle smile, Joe gave a nod. “Every word,” he confirmed, his voice now oddly husky. “I’m not like Patrick.”

Kathryn gave a slight shudder at the mention of her dead husband’s name. “No, you could never be like Patrick,” she agreed, wiping her face dry.

As though neither knew what else to say, a silence fell gently between them for several minutes as they rested their backs against the cold granite of the outcrop and stared out at the magnificent scenery together.

“Tell me I’m not dreaming, Kathryn. I’m not going to wake and still be blind, am I?” Joe finally asked, still hardly able to take it all in.

“It’s no dream, Joe,” she confirmed with feeling. “You’ve got your sight back and now you can stay on the ranch. Just wish I could bottle this beautiful view up and take it with me when I leave tomorrow.”

With his eyes reflecting a new depth of emotion within them, Joe turned to look at her. “Don’t go to San Francisco. Stay, please.”

“But I’ve got no reason to stay, Joe. And I’d like to get to the school before winter sets in, so the sooner I start my journey, the better.”

Joe took her hands, closing his own around them. “You’ve been long-suffering, caring, so understanding of me over the past months.” He paused, swallowed nervously, continued. “What if I built you the house of your dreams on this very spot so we could share the view every day of our lives? Would that change your mind?”

Not taking him seriously, Kathryn chuckled. “Is this some sort of marriage proposal by way of thanks for putting up with you?”

A brief smile flitted across Joe’s face. “It has nothing to do with gratitude,” he said, his tone soft and low. “Somewhere between Kansas and Virginia City, I fell in love with you Kathryn and you can’t imagine the number of times I’ve dreamt of us having a life together.”

There was a gasp of shock. Of all things, Kathryn had never expected this. “Then why…why didn’t you tell me before?”

“I didn’t have the nerve. I mean, you deserved better than a blind man who couldn’t even find the food on his plate without help. But now that everything’s changed, I can take care of you the way a man takes care of the woman he loves.”

“Oh, Joe…I don’t know what to say.”

Joe tightened his grip, his expression earnest and tender. “Then just say yes.”

It took a moment for Kathryn to gather her composure after his heartfelt plea. She had to admit she felt a deep affection towards him, but with a wistful expression, she slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry Joe but there’s no way we can be married.”

Joe’s face fell, heartbreaking pain flashing through his eyes.

Kathryn swallowed hard. What had she done? Hating herself for hurting him, she quickly went on. “It’s not that I don’t have feelings for you because I have,” she hurriedly assured in a trembling voice. “But you can only be the brother I never had, a cherished and dearly loved brother and that’s all.”

Joe stared at her, frowning. “I…I don’t understand.”

As a painful memory returned, there was a long agonizing silence before Kathryn spoke. “Remember I told you about the baby I lost when Patrick attacked me that last time?” Her voice though quiet was laced with bitterness.

Joe silently nodded.

“What I didn’t tell you was the beating he gave me also left me unable to carry another.” She paused, her eyes stinging with tears. “That’s why I can’t marry you. I could never give you a child.”

Understanding her misery, Joe’s eyes immediately softened with compassion. He slid a comforting arm around her and held her snugly to him. “Oh Kathryn, I’m sorry…so very sorry,” he whispered, his words muffled as he buried his face into her hair. “But it wouldn’t matter to me if we couldn’t have children, as long as we had each other.”

Kathryn sighed at his genuine sincerity as she slowly pulled away from his comforting hold. “I’m sure you think that now, Joe,” she said softly. “But your father has worked hard to build up the Ponderosa and give you and your brothers a legacy worth having. Denying him grandchildren and you the chance to have a family of your own, and so pass on that legacy, would in time tear us apart and I think too much of you to let it happen.”

“But…”

Kathryn placed the tips of her fingers on his lips to silence him. “No buts, Joe. Please don’t fight me over this,” she pleaded, purposely repeating the very words he’d said to his father at the dinner table the night before. “I’m not the one for you. Your future is now here, while mine is at the blind school where the children there can be the family I’ll never have and nothing you say will change my mind.”

With her expression conveying fixed determination, there was silence between them for an overly long time as Joe simply looked at her. He opened his mouth as if to argue, then closed it again. Finally heaving a sigh of defeat, he gave a faint nod. “I love and respect you too much to fight with you, Kathryn,” he conceded, a sad smile lifting one corner of his mouth. “I give up…you win.”

A single tear escaped to slide down her cheek. “But I don’t want you to hate me, Joe. Can we go on just like we have been? The best of friends?”

“Always,” Joe promised as he tenderly brushed away a loose tendril of hair which clung to her damp face just as a distant clap of thunder echoed in the valley below. He turned his head to study a darkening sky. “There’s a bank of rain clouds over the peaks heading our way.”

Kathryn followed his gaze. “In that case, we’d better go or we might get caught in a downpour.”

With a nod of agreement, Joe pushed himself up and helped her to her feet. But before Kathryn could turn away, he reached out, and cupping fingers under her chin, pressed his lips gently and softly on hers.

The idea of pulling away didn’t cross Kathryn’s mind and time seemed to stand still; the sweet and tender kiss between them making her feel cherished and truly beautiful for the very first time.

At last, Joe drew away, those few precious moments ended. “Thank you…for everything,” he murmured softly as his arms wrapped around her. With no sense of awkwardness at the intimacy just shared, they held each other in a tight and tender embrace.

Joe heaved a deep sigh at what might have been but was never to be when eventually they pulled apart. “We’d better go before I forget I’m a gentleman,” he lovingly joked. Taking hold of her hand, they walked over towards the horses.

Once he was sure she was settled safely on her mount, Joe scooped up his hat from the ground and swung himself onto Cochise’s back. “I’m still coming with you to San Francisco to make sure you get there safe and sound,” he stated decisively as he moved the pinto to her side. “Now I can see my way back on my own, there’s no reason for Pa to object.”

Kathryn nodded, comforted by the thought of his company on the last leg of her journey. “I wonder how your father will react when he realizes you’re not blind anymore.”

“Considering he was praying for a miracle, I reckon I have a pretty good idea,” Joe said quietly, feeling a sudden and urgent hankering to see the handsomely weathered face once again as he watched Kathryn move off down the trail.

Now sitting high in the saddle, Joe stared once more towards the vast Ponderosa landscape he’d never expected to view again, the land that had fed and nurtured him all his life and where he knew he truly belonged.

And he then realized Kathryn was right in what she’d said. No matter how much he loved her, in time the fact he’d be unable to pass on this birthright to future generations would have come between them. For there were some things even love couldn’t survive. For having that foresight alone, he owed her more than money could buy.

Joe gathered up the reins and pulled the brim of his hat down low onto his brow. Though there was a dull ache in his heart for a precious love now lost to him, happy anticipation of his future now secured on the ranch reflected in his eyes as he touched the flanks of his horse and followed Kathryn in the direction of home.

***The End***

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