First Notch (by Doreen)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  22,300


It was the last Monday of the month, and as the grandfather clock struck seven, Hoss and Little Joe left the house, closing the front door behind them and leaving Ben Cartwright sitting alone at the dining table and sipping the last dregs of his coffee.

Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen and began to clear away the breakfast dishes. Handing the Chinese cook his empty cup with a thankful smile, Ben then rose and went over to his desk where the ranch accounts awaited their monthly scrutiny.

It was a task Ben had always disliked and so was usually carried out by his more methodical and arithmetically competent eldest son, but for once Adam wasn’t around, so the tiresome yet necessary chore had been left for Ben to complete. However, instead of immediately opening the large ledger, he pushed it aside, staring absently into space for a few moments as thoughts and memories of old friends suddenly flashed into his mind.

Sheriff Roy Coffee and his wife Mary had been the first people Ben had met when arriving in the small mining town of Virginia City with seven year old Adam and Hoss still a babe in arms over twenty years ago. From the onset, they became firm friends; Mary was more than willing to help Ben look after his sons as he struggled to build them somewhere to live before the onset of their first winter in Nevada. She’d even insisted on taking charge of the two boys when Ben was called away to New Orleans a couple of years later. No one was happier for Ben when he eventually returned with a new wife to share his home and life on the Ponderosa.

But a few months ago, as spring turned into summer, Mary had contracted some kind of lung fever. Though at first no one suspected the seriousness of her condition, it soon became clear she was never going to recover. As she grew weaker by the day, Roy spent more and more time at his wife’s side until eventually Mary’s poor body could take no more, and without strength or will to hold on any longer, she passed away.

After her funeral, Roy had been distraught, for he and Mary, though never blessed with children, had been the most devoted of couples. However, Roy was also a very conscientious man and returned to policing Virginia City within the week. But though he tried hard, it soon became obvious the heart-broken sheriff was continually distracted with grief and shock and was in no fit state to carry out his duties as before. So it came as no surprise and some relief to the townsfolk when Roy suddenly announced he was going to visit his brother in Iowa for a while and then hopefully return to carry on in the job he loved in a better frame of mind.

But then the question was asked. Who would take on the role of Virginia City’s Sheriff in Roy’s absence?

To Ben’s surprise and consternation, Adam immediately volunteered. Though he was secretly against the idea from the start, when Ben saw the set of his son’s jaw as Adam patiently tried to convince his father over a couple of days that he was not only able to take care of himself but the ranch could run perfectly well until his return, Ben knew there was no way he could dissuade him from his decision. So with his father’s reluctant blessing, Adam left the Ponderosa to take on the mantle of acting sheriff while, to Ben’s relief, both Hoss and Joe took on the extra workload left by their brother’s departure without a word of complaint between them.

That had been over a month ago. With still no sign of Roy returning from his self-imposed exile, in the quiet of the living room Ben focused his gaze on the silver framed image of his first wife, Elizabeth, his loyalties painfully divided. He gave a sad sigh. Knowing from first-hand the anguish Roy must be feeling in his bereavement, he didn’t want his old friend returning too soon. But he also missed Adam’s company greatly, never feeling totally at ease or complete until he had all three of his sons safe under one roof.

Suddenly, the peace and quiet of Ben’s private reverie was shattered when the sound of familiar voices outside filtered into the house. Glad of the diversion, he pushed back his chair and glanced through the small window behind him. A smile appeared on Ben’s face as he watched Joe and Hoss leaving the bunkhouse and laughing together as they made their way slowly across the yard. Hoss was placing his left arm affectionately across his little brother’s shoulder and giving him a gentle hug as they disappeared into the barn to carry out more of their morning chores.

The obvious loving, brotherly bond sent a flush of contentment and pride rushing across Ben’s chest. But then his grin faded to be replaced by a more worried expression as once again; the sight of a pistol hung low on his youngest son’s left hip left him unsettled with fatherly concern.

Kill or be killed — that was the unrecognized rule of the land. Since leaving the Eastern Seaboard nearly thirty years before to travel and subsequently settle in the West, Ben sadly acknowledged the inevitable use of a firearm to protect all he loved and possessed was an occasional necessity; to this end, the taking of another life only used as a last resort.

However, the cold almost casual acceptance of death by way of a bullet when used only to build up a fast-draw reputation and add a further invisible notch to a man’s gun always sickened and disgusted Ben. It was for this reason he’d imparted the code of behavior he expected his sons to follow from an early age, explaining that owning and using any kind of firearm came with a whole load of responsibilities and obligations. Until he’d thought them mature enough to follow his teaching, they were only allowed to use a rifle or handgun under their father’s direct supervision and guidance.

Although the same rule had applied to Joe, unlike his brothers, it had soon become clear as Joe practiced his fast draw and shot at targets with accurate precision under his father’s watchful eye, he had what Ben silently acknowledged was an aptitude for such things. Joe’s natural dexterity and speed with a gun indicating he’d be more than able to look after himself should ever the need occur.

But even so, when Ben presented his youngest son with his first very own leather holstered side-arm on his last birthday a few weeks before, he hadn’t been able to shrug off a slight sense of unease ever since, the feeling of anxiety something he’d never experienced with either Adam or Hoss. For after being shielded and protected by his family for his first seventeen years from most of the worst violence and bloodshed the vast, untamed country had to offer, Ben couldn’t help but agonize how the impulsive and volatile Joe would respond should he ever be goaded to use his lightning-fast reaction against another man. Though he continually prayed to God that day would never dawn, Ben realized with certainty it most surely would.

The thought sent a shiver running down his spine; taking a deep calming breath to force his worries to the back of his mind for a while, Ben rubbed his hands over his face as if attempting to also magically wipe away any signs of anxiety he felt. Then concentrating his attention back to the matter in hand and with a deep sigh, he pulled the much hated ledger towards him, once more wishing Adam were at home picked up his pen and turned to the first page.

*****

A few hours had passed, and with his accounts now up to date, Ben left the comfort of the ranch house in a far better mood as he made his way slowly across the yard, inhaling deeply as he took in the clear fresh Nevada air.

Entering the barn, to Ben’s surprise, he could see his middle son sat on a bale of straw. He stood unobserved as he watched Hoss whittle away on a piece of wood, totally oblivious to all around him and seemingly in a world of his own.

It was well accepted within the family since early childhood that the process of whittling was Hoss’ way of thinking through any worries or concerns he had. The pile of slivered wood lying at his feet was a sure-fire indication he’d been sat there a while in deep contemplation, with something serious on his mind.

With a sigh, Hoss adjusted the small knife in his hand. Suddenly sensing another’s presence, he looked up quickly and gave a small smile of embarrassment. “Hey Pa? How long you been standin’ there?”

Ben smiled and shook his head. “Not long, son. Surprised to see you still here, though. Thought you’d have gone for the supplies hours ago.”

Setting aside the knife, Hoss chewed thoughtfully at his lip for a few moments. “Truth is, Pa, since Joe headed up to the South Pasture to check on the herd, I’ve been doin’ me a whole load of thinkin’,” he replied while brushing away the shavings from his lap. “Decided I weren’t goin’ to go into town today.”

Ben instinctively frowned with concern. “What’s the matter? Aren’t you feeling well?”

Hoss cleared his throat. “Oh I’m feeling fine, Pa. It’s just that I reckon it’s time little brother should go, seein’ as I went last week…and the week before…and the week before that….”

As his voice trailed away, Ben was left bewildered. There was something in his son’s tone that implied there was more to his decision than met the eye. “Just what are you trying to tell me Hoss?” he asked perceptively.

“Well, the fact is, and I don’t mean any disrespect,” Hoss began as he shuffled on his seat. “But… but, well, the fact is, I’ve finally figured out why I’ve been the one sent to town over and over, and not Little Joe. And I’m telling you now, Pa, it’s got to stop before things get out of hand.”

Hoss looked down to the floor with a slight feeling of apprehension. It wasn’t often he used such a firm or commanding tone with anyone, least of all against his own Pa. As he waited for a reaction, Hoss scraped a boot almost child-like back and forth across the dirt floor.

Ben moved forwards and stood directly in front of his son; both hands were pushed deep in his pockets as he swayed back and forth on his heels in an imposing fashion. “Out of hand, you say?” he finally responded.

Hoss lifted his gaze and eyed his father unflinchingly. “Yes sir. But I understand you only done what you done for the right reasons,” he hastily added.

Ben nodded thoughtfully for a few moments and, noting his son’s resolute posture, knew whatever was bothering the usually placid mannered Hoss was of some importance. Sitting down by his side, he gently patted Hoss’ knee. “Why don’t you tell me what this is all about, son?”

Hoss straightaway complied. “It’s like this, Pa,” he began determinedly. “Ever since you presented Joe with that fancy pearl-handled gun on his birthday, I’ve noticed you sometimes lookin’ at him differently somehow. Couldn’t work out what it was I was seein’ at first. But it suddenly came to me this mornin’ when you was givin’ us a list of chores for the day and you said I was to collect the supplies again, even though Joe had offered to go instead of me.”

Ben inclined his head slightly with a slight feeling of apprehension. “Go on. What did you see Hoss?”

Hoss took a deep swallow. “Fear, Pa! I saw fear in your eyes and I now know why,” he replied, his eyes fixed rigid on his father’s face. “It’s ‘cause you’re scared for Joe. Scared that now that he’s wearing his six-gun all the time, some day he might just get himself involved in one of them there pointless gunfights and maybe shoot someone dead…or worse, get shot dead himself.”

Without contradicting, Ben remained silent, just pursing his lips tight as he stared directly in front of him.

“Dadburn it, Pa, don’t you think I haven’t worried about that self same thing?” Hoss continued in a slightly raised voice. “But you can’t keep little brother wrapped up in cotton wool and tied to the Ponderosa all the time just ‘cause you’re afraid of what might happen to him some day. I know he’s still a boy in your eyes, but givin’ Little Joe that gun on his birthday was your way of sayin’ you believed him adult enough to be accountable for all that comes with wearin’ a firearm. So you’ve gotta step back and let him get on with his life and just hope he’ll remember everything you’ve taught him, and trust he proves you right in the end. You do understand what I’m tryin’ to say, don’t you Pa?”

Ben nodded his head solemnly. “Yes, son, I know exactly what you’re saying,” he replied then let out a deep sigh. “Has Joseph any idea about this?”

Hoss shook his head resolutely. “I don’t reckon so, ‘cause he ain’t mentioned anythin’ to me. Guess with us bein’ so busy since Adam went, it ain’t occurred to him why you’ve never sent him into town. But if things don’t change, it ain’t gonna be long before he puts two and two together, and after he does…well, knowin’ how that temper gets the better of him at times when he thinks he’s being babied unnecessarily, let’s just say I don’t want to be around when little brother figures out why!”

As his son’s words sunk in, Ben leaned forwards, resting his head in his hands for a moment. “You’re right of course, Hoss. I’ve just found it hard to accept Joe’s finally grown, and for the sake of peace of mind, I’ve been putting off the inevitable.” He turned and gave a small smile. “Can you forgive your father for being such a stupid old fool?”

With his features softening, Hoss looked over sheepishly. “Ah shucks….you ain’t that old, Pa,” he replied with a faint twinkle of amusement in his eyes.

Ben chucked as they shared the humor of the moment, father and son sitting in companionable silence for a few minutes, both deep in thought until Hoss finally broke the silence between them. “So what you gonna do about Little Joe?”

With his forehead furrowed in thought, Ben rubbed one hand over his chin. Taking a deep breath, he slowly let it out, all the while sensing Hoss’ vivid blue eyes bearing into him expectantly as his son awaited his answer. But just as Ben was about to speak, horses’ hooves were heard and a pinto suddenly galloped into view before being expertly pulled to a stop inches from the corral.

Joe dismounted and tied up Cochise, and was about to head towards the house when an all too familiar voice boomed out from the shadows of the barn. “Joseph! How many times do I have to tell you not to race into the yard like you had the whole Sioux nation on your tail?”

Joe rolled his eyes, and swallowing hard, turned to face his father, who was now stood in the doorway of the barn. “Sorry Pa,” he apologized, giving him his most winning smile as he took a tentative step forward. “I’ll remember next time.”

Shaking his head despairingly, Ben wondered how many times he heard that excuse from his youngest! Then as another figure stepped out into the light, Joe’s face took on a bemused expression. “What you still doing here, Hoss? Thought you were heading off for town hours ago?”

Ben fixed his son with a narrow eyed gaze. “Actually, Joseph, Hoss and I were waiting for you.”

Joe stared at him blankly. “Me, Pa?” he asked with youthful innocence. “What did I do wrong this time?”

“Nothing for once,” Ben responded with a smile. “It’s just Hoss suggested, and I’ve agreed, to let you go into town to collect the supplies.”

Joe’s eyes widened with surprise as he stared open-mouthed towards his father. “Really? You…you want me to go to town today? On…on my own?” he stammered.

“That’s right. You got a problem with that, little brother? I mean, if you don’t want to drag yourself away from the ranch, I could always go again, couldn’t I Pa?” Hoss teased as he leaned his big frame in the doorway and winked over at his father.

Realizing this would be the ideal opportunity to meet up with his friends and have a few beers for the first time without being under his family’s continual watchful gaze, Joe shook his head so vigorously his black hat flew off onto the floor. “No! You don’t need to do that, Hoss,” he flustered while retrieving his Stetson and planting it back on top of his mop of dark brown hair. “It’s no problem…really!”

“Good to hear it, Joseph. But I don’t want you getting yourself into any trouble,” Ben told him as if reading his son’s mind. “So once you’ve loaded the supplies and run a few errands, I want you to make your way straight home. Understand?”

As Joe’s heart sank, a look of dismay covered his face as his plans for the day suddenly began to disintegrate before his very eyes. “But what if Mitch and the gang are in town? Can’t I visit the saloon and have a few drinks with them, Pa? ‘Cause you got to admit it sure is thirsty work loading up a wagon; at least, that’s what big brother here keeps telling me. Ain’t that right, Hoss?”

Ignoring his plea, Ben gave his son a stony stare. “No, Joseph. I’m not having you ending up rolling around drunk and Adam having to haul you off to jail. He has enough on his hands as Sheriff without his own brother adding to his problems. Do you hear what I’m saying?”

Resigned to the fact he’d lost the battle with his father, Joe lowered his gaze with disappointment and sighed heavily. “Yes sir. No beer. Straight home,” he agreed dutifully and without further argument.

Running a hand through his thick grey hair, Ben eyed his youngest affectionately for a few moments, the corner of his mouth twitching as he suppressed a chuckle at Joe’s crestfallen expression. “Tell you what, son,” he said at last in a consolatory tone. “Should you meet up with your friends, then I think it will be acceptable for you to have maybe one…no, let’s say, two beers in the Silver Dollar. But that’s the limit; then you come back to the Ponderosa. Agreed?”

As Joe’s head jerked up, a smile of appreciation formed on his lips. Something told him that second beer was going to take a long time to drink down! “It’s a deal, Pa. Two beers only…I promise.”

Hoss moved forwards with a big grin across his broad face. “Come on, little brother. I’ll give you a hand hitching up the wagon if you want,” he offered good-naturedly; pleased by the peaceful compromise settled between them both.

With his enthusiasm now reignited, Joe gave out a loud whoop of joy. “Thanks Hoss. Virginia City here I come!” he cried, and quickly untying his horse, led Cochise into the stable.

With the smile on his face fading, Ben watched him go. But though he’d managed to hide his feelings of trepidation from the unsuspecting Joe, his more perceptive son wasn’t so easily fooled. Hoss placed a large but gentle hand on his father’s shoulder. “Don’t you worry any, Pa. Everything is gonna be just fine,” he told Ben reassuringly then turned on his heel and followed Joe into the barn.

For a few moments, Ben remained frozen to the spot as he listened to the light-hearted banter going back and forth between his two sons. “Dear God, I hope you’re right, Hoss,” he muttered miserably to himself before slowly walking back towards the house with his shoulders slumped and his stomach churning uneasily.

**********

Miles away in Virginia City, Adam Cartwright had been sitting at his desk since early morning, totally absorbed as he worked through the backlog of tedious but necessary paperwork Roy had neglected during the time of his wife’s illness.

Pulling out his pocket watch and checking the time, Adam noted it was well past noon and realized the usually punctual Hoss was running several hours late. His brother always called in for a morning chat when he was collecting the supplies on the first day of each week. It had been a welcoming distraction for both men as they exchanged news and weekly anecdotes. He heaved a loud sigh of disappointment on realizing there’d probably be no such visit today. Adam threw down his pen and stretched out his long legs; not for the first time over the past weeks, his mind drifted miles away to the Ponderosa.

At first he’d relished the thought of doing something different, a change of pace from ranch work and a chance to take on fresh responsibilities for a while. But it hadn’t taken long before Adam regretted his impulsive decision to replace Roy and inwardly acknowledged he’d been wrong. The weeks away from home opened his eyes to another side to his new found independence – loneliness.

A few days had hardly gone by before it struck him forcibly how much he missed his family, longed for the reassuring counsel from his father during their late night conversations, and the ever-calming influence and sense of security he felt as his big brother worked by his side. As for Little Joe…well, though loath to admit it as Adam’s thoughts centered on his kid brother, for some strange reason he regretted being apart from him the most.

With twelve years between them, Adam willingly conceded their age difference and his time away at college meant, since his return to the ranch, he’d never had the same brotherly connection with Joe that his little brother obviously shared with Hoss.

For this reason, the eldest and youngest Cartwright had occasionally clashed over the years, Adam finding Joe unnecessarily reckless and argumentative and Joe thinking his elder brother excessively overbearing and far too serious for his own good.

But over the past months, Joe had started to change into a hard working and level-headed young man, and whether by chance or because of it, Adam too had mellowed somewhat, now showing a good-humored and approachable side. At long last, the two brothers began to share a more harmonious existence and closeness, at least most of the time.

Adam now enjoyed his brother’s company more than ever, for with Joe around, no day was ever dull or boring. As he looked around the rather drab, empty and silent jail, his home for the past weeks, Adam gave a wry smile. No wonder I miss him, he conceded with a chuckle.

Suddenly, Adam’s private musings were cut short as his stomach grumbled angrily with hunger. Realizing the last time he’d eaten had been a while ago, he decided to allow himself an hour’s respite and have a well deserved late lunch. So pushing his chair away from the desk, Adam stood up and quickly threw on his jacket and Stetson before leaving the warmth and quiet of the Sheriff’s office.

Closing the jail door behind him, Adam stood for a few moments just stretching out his arms and breathing in the welcoming aroma of steak pie and corn fritters that assailed his nostrils from the restaurant across the street. But as he glanced up and down the busy main thoroughfare of Virginia City in preparation for crossing the road, Adam suddenly frowned in puzzlement as he caught the faint but unmistakable sound of sporadic gunfire in the distance.

He muttered a few colorful expletives under his breath, the oaths ones his father would have frowned at and his brothers would have been impressed with. For whatever was happening at the far end of town needed urgent investigation and it was at times like these Adam wished he had someone he could trust to cover his back.

So far, though working alone, he’d coped well with the usual nightly ruckus at one or other of the town’s saloons, the occasional drunk needing a night’s sleep to sober up in the cells of the jail. Even the three drifters who’d appeared in town a few days before hadn’t caused him any trouble, instead spending their evenings playing poker in the Bucket of Blood and sleeping away their whiskey-induced hangovers during daylight hours.

But now, with no idea of what he was about to face, Adam acknowledged there was a good chance his luck was about to run out. Tensing with uneasiness, he quickly checked his gun before making his way towards the large mercantile store that stood alone at the far end of the street.

In an area around the back, to his surprise, Adam found a large gathering was standing three men deep. With his face set grim with apprehension and his hand hovering around his sidearm, he warily pushed himself through to get a better view of what was going on.

But then Adam blew out his cheeks with relief. For all he saw before him was an impromptu fast-draw shooting-contest, a popular distraction from the humdrum of everyday routine for the citizens of Virginia City and beyond, and this one obviously was organized in haste.

As Adam surveyed the scene, a buzz of anticipation rose from the spectators as they watched a young boy quickly brush away broken glass from the previous challenge onto the floor before placing two empty bottles a few feet apart on the top of a couple of empty crates.

The youngster scurried out of sight; then the two contenders — eighteen year old Mitch Devlin and a man Adam had never seen before — moved forwards and took their places ten yards from where the bottles were stood. Both had their eyes fixed in front of them as they concentrated on the improvised targets.

Adam frowned quizzically, for although he knew Mitch well, he didn’t recognize the deeply tanned stranger who looked to be around his own age. Yet, to the keen-eyed Cartwright, there was something vaguely familiar about the tall heavily built figure with unkempt tufts of jet black hair curling under his hat, the sharp features with a downward turn of a thin cruel mouth, the piercing grey eyes.

Screams of encouragement rained out for Mitch from his supporters; then suddenly the crowd went quiet. Moments later, a piercing yell of Fire! broke the silence. At that point, both men went to draw their weapons, but before Mitch had even grabbed at the butt of his, one bottle had disintegrated from a single bullet fired by his opponent.

The victor smiled, nonchalantly dropping his gun back in its holster and flexing his fingers as Mitch and most of the crowd stared at him in silent awe; the stranger’s superiority without question. He’d won every round so far; no one was able to match his speed and accuracy throughout the morning’s contest, though there’d been no lack of hopefuls wanting to try.

A few groans of disappointment and mutterings of disquiet rose from those who’d been foolish enough to bet money against the new arrival winning once again. But as a figure stepped away from the crowd to stand a pace’s length from the sharpshooter, the mutterings grew silent and the stranger’s smile vanished when he suddenly found himself staring directly into the face of a man who was wearing a tin star on his jacket and with his arms folded was scrutinizing him closely.

Unable to stop a contemptuous look flittering across his face, a wicked gleam of arrogance filled the man’s eyes as he raised his hand in mock salute. “Hey Sheriff! I didn’t realize you were in the audience. You thinking of laying a little bet and trying your luck at beating me to the draw?” he inquired mockingly as he held Adam’s unwavering gaze.

Taking an instant dislike, Adam ignored the taunt in his voice and shook his head at the suggestion. “I’ve got better things to do with my money,” he commented, all the while keeping his eyes focused on the newcomer’s face. “But I don’t recall ever seeing you around town before. I’m guessing you’re new to these parts.”

“That’s right, Sheriff. Arrived late yesterday and was planning on riding out first thing this morning.”

Adam gave a slight nod then pointedly tipped his hat forward to keep the afternoon sun from glaring into his eyes. “Well, it’s way past noon and you’re still here, so what changed your mind?”

The man glanced around the crowd, who were all listening attentively to the exchange. “After drinking with a few of these good citizens in the saloon last night, I thought I’d organize me a shooting match,” he said, tapping a hand on his holstered gun. “They were quite eager to gamble away their money, thinking they could out-draw me. And what better way to make a few extra dollars than by proving them wrong.”

“Have you ever lost?”

Curling his lip with obvious contempt at the idea, the stranger shook his head. “No, I’ve never lost Sheriff…and don’t reckon I ever will,” he sneered.

Remaining silent, Adam raised a cynical eyebrow, clearly unimpressed by such a boastful claim.

Cold grey eyes flashed warningly towards him. “I’m telling you, Sheriff, there ain’t a man born who’ll ever beat me to the draw!”

However, if the stranger was expecting his arrogant assertion to have any effect on the Sheriff, he was sadly mistaken. Adam once again refrained from comment, his face impassive while eyeing the tall man thoughtfully. He’d met others like him before, men with such dangerously oversized egos that trouble became their middle name. And trouble was something he could do without. Deciding not to argue the point further, he quickly changed the subject. “Mind telling me who you are and where you come from?”

Inwardly incensed by the apparent indifference to him, the stranger glared into the expressionless face of the Sheriff for a few moments before answering. “Elliot…Elliot Simms. Born and raised near Tucson.”

“Elliot Simms….Tucson,” Adam repeated thoughtfully, his expression hardening somewhat at the sound of the name. “You any kin to Porter Simms?”

There was a gasp of recognition from the crowd as the townsfolk now appraised the newcomer with fresh concern. Psychopathic killer Porter Simms had been the scourge of the territory and the southwest for many years, renowned for his unlawful exploits and speed of hand with a gun. He and his gang of three had robbed untold number of banks and Wells Fargo Stages, and in the process, killed more than a dozen men in cold blood. Then, after having their faces plastered on wanted posters from Nevada to New Mexico, the Simms Gang had finally been caught after a legendary shootout with a troop of Texas Rangers two years before, finally paying the ultimate price for their sins courtesy of a hangman’s noose.

Elliot Simms did not answer immediately, secretly enjoying the look of fear that passed over the faces of the crowd at the mention of the outlaw’s name. Then he fixed his eyes once more on Adam. “If you must know, he was my Pa, though you could say he was more like an absent father, seein’ as me and my Ma barely set eyes on him after I reached ten years old. And just in case you’re wondering, I ain’t nothing like him…not one bit.”

Totally unconvinced by his declaration, Adam couldn’t help but think ‘like father like son’. He could sense when bad begat bad, and by the looks of Elliot Simms, he was no exception to the rule. “I thought you seemed somewhat familiar,” he finally responded. “Your Pa’s wanted poster was up on the jail house wall for a lot of years, though thankfully no one around here had the pleasure of meeting him…face to face.”

The irony of his statement caused the faintest glimmer of amusement to stir in Elliot’s eyes but he remained silent as Adam continued. “I did hear in his prime Porter Simms claimed to be the fastest draw this side of the Missouri. I can see you’re pretty handy with a gun so must be where you inherited your skill from.”

“Reckon you could say it’s the only useful gift Pa ever gave me,” Elliot acknowledged as he fingered the butt of his revolver. Then the coldness in his eyes seemed to harden. “But unlike my Pa, I’ve never broken the letter of the law. Only time I’ve killed has been in self-defense against a man who drew on me first, and they can’t hang you for that now, can they, Sheriff.”

Giving out an evil sounding chuckle and showing no remorse whatsoever for those unfortunates who’d lost their lives at his hand in a gunfight, Elliot looked around. Never happier than when he had an audience, he took his time gazing at the spectators with a conceit and swagger that caused many a face to drain of all color for their own safety.

Adam eyed him warily. “What are your plans now?”

Elliot concentrated his gaze back on the Sheriff and shrugged his shoulders. “Thought I’d stick around a few days, just in case there’s someone else fool enough to want to take their chances against me before I move on.”

Looking about for a few moments, Adam remained thoughtful as he viewed the many familiar faces of friends and neighbors who were staring back at him in expectation. It was his duty as the only law enforcement officer in the area to keep the citizens under his care protected the best way he could, and not wishing such a potential troublemaker hang about town any longer than was necessary, he gave a slow shake of the head. “I reckon it’s in everyone’s best interest you think about moving on right now,” he advised quietly. “There’ll be no more contests around here so I’ll give you until sundown to get out of town.”

Elliot let out a contemptuous laugh. “Don’t see why I should have to leave, Sheriff. I ain’t caused no trouble or done nothing wrong.”

“That’s a matter of opinion,” Adam replied, looking towards the numerous townsfolk who continued to mill around, watching and listening to the confrontation between their Sheriff and the over-confident gunman with a great deal of interest.

“Seeing as you didn’t apply for a license to put on this shooting match, I have the right to arrest you for causing an obstruction in a public place,” Adam bluffed. At the same time, he pushed back the folds of his jacket and patted the gun on his right hip with his hand. “So you either clear out of town or I lock you up in jail for a couple of months. The choice is yours.”

A titter of laughter at his put-down filtered from the crowd as Elliot’s smirk faded and his eyes hardened with fury as he and Adam glared at each other. Stunned, he could hardly believe the ultimatum or the underlying threat given, for no one had ever dared speak down to him like that and lived, lawman or no lawman.

Never had Elliot wanted to kill a man more for humiliating and embarrassing him within the public’s gaze. A muscle twitched at the side of his mouth, curling his lip into an ugly sneer, and for a brief moment Adam actually thought he was about to go for his gun. But if nothing else, Simms was no fool and somehow he managed to contain his outrage, for he knew there’d be another time better suited to his purpose and not in the full glare of so many witnesses. All it would need would be one bullet in the back during the darkness of night and then a quick getaway.

Quickly composing himself, he smiled cockily, all the while his murderous eyes fixed on Adam’s poker face. “You made yourself very clear Sheriff. I’ll be gone before tonight and I can guarantee after today you won’t have any more trouble from me in the future. I promise you that!” He suddenly started to laugh and, for the first time, a gleam of madness could be seen flittering across his face as he turned to the crowd. “The Sheriff’s given me my orders so it looks like that’s all the fun you’ll be having for a while folks. Been nice doing business with you all.”

Although his announcement sent a low murmur through the crowd, no one moved, so Adam raised his arms and motioned for them to leave. “That’s right, everyone. Show’s over. It’s time to go home.”

Finally accepting their Sheriff’s instruction, the townsfolk slowly began to disperse. But as they drifted back towards the main street, Adam hesitated from following them straightaway. He watched Elliot crouch down and pick up his saddlebag, which lay at the rear wall of the mercantile. Something warned Adam he hadn’t heard or seen the last of the gunslinger. Giving Simms a final, piercing glare, he then turned on his heel and, without looking back strode purposefully away, Sheriff Cartwright’s suspicion lingered and his appetite was now all but gone.

Elliot watched Adam’s disappearing back with a disdainful grin before starting to count out his winnings. Then after stuffing a large wad of dollar bills into his wallet, he glanced over to where a group of three dejected cowpokes were stood together talking in a huddle in front of the mercantile building. He walked past them, giving them all a look of indifference as he headed off in the direction of the livery stable. He instinctively knew, as they stared after him and all went quiet, that he’d been the subject of their conversation.

“Who’d have thought he was Porter Simms’ son,” Dave Morgan said once the gunslinger was out of earshot. “Don’t you fancy having another go at outdrawing him now, Mitch?”

Mitch Devlin shook his head. “I know when I’ve met my match, Dave. And since he’s beat just about everyone who is capable of shooting a firearm in Virginia City, I don’t figure any of them would want to try again either knowing his pedigree!”

Dave nodded despondently. “Suppose you’re right, but I’ve lost a month’s wages this morning betting someone would be able to wipe that smug smile off his face, and I need a chance to win it back! Surely there’s someone around these parts who’d be a safe bet to take on Simms before he heads out of town?”

Mitch blew out his cheeks thoughtfully. “Well, I can’t think of anyone good enough who we could persuade to try.”

A spark of hope suddenly flashed in Seth Pruitt’s eyes. “There’s still Joe Cartwright! I’d stake anything on Little Joe beating Simms if we asked him.”

“You reckon?”

“Sure I do,” Seth declared enthusiastically. “He’s always been the quickest and best shot out the four of us and he’s never turned down a challenge or a dare since the day we started school together. Ain’t that right, Mitch?”

Nodding his head in agreement about his oldest friend, Mitch sighed long and loud. “Trouble is, I ain’t seen Joe around town for weeks…not since his birthday.”

A smile then twitched at the corner of Dave’s mouth as he concentrated his gaze on a familiar grey jacketed figure seated on a wagon who was heading down the main street. “Well, it looks like our prayers have just been answered, boys. Here comes Little Joe now!”

*****

Joe pulled the team to a halt; the smile of greeting on his face faded as he viewed his oldest friends who were standing together and looking at him in a strange way. “What?” he asked, raising a questioning eyebrow as he jumped down in front of them. “Ain’t grown two heads since you last saw me, have I?”

Mitch smiled and stepped forward, pumping his hand warmly in welcome. “No Joe…sorry. It’s good to see you.”

“Yeah…sorry, Joe,” added Seth. “It’s just you caught us by surprise as we’d only been talkin’ about you a minute ago.”

Knowing them all too well, Joe narrowed his gaze with suspicion as he looked at each face in turn. “Something tells me I don’t want to know what you’ve been saying.”

Dave quickly shook his head. “Oh no, Joe. It ain’t anything bad. It’s just that….”

Joe waited. “It’s just what?” he finally demanded.

Dave looked at Seth who in turn looked over at Mitch. “You tell him, Mitch.”

There was a moments silence as Mitch shifted uncomfortably under his best friend’s questioning gaze. “Well, it’s like this, Joe….”

Minutes later Mitch had described in as much detail as possible the morning’s events.

“You mean this Simms fella is Porter Simms’ son?” Joe asked in amazement, knowing well the history of the infamous outlaw. “Wish I’d been here to watch him beat you all to the draw and see how Adam saw him off.”

“Trouble is, I’ve lost a month’s wages I can’t really afford betting Simms could be beat,” piped up Dave gloomily. “And Mitch and Seth ain’t fared much better.”

Seth nodded sadly. “Don’t know what Sarah’s gonna say when she finds out. I promised her a nice present for her birthday with that money I’d saved.”

Joe frowned. Sarah had been a good friend since childhood and it pained him to think she was going to be disappointed. “Sorry to hear that, Seth, but if it’s a loan you’re all after, forget it. I’m just about flat broke myself until pay day…”

“Oh no…we don’t want no loan, Joe,” interrupted Seth as he exchanged glances with both Mitch and Dave. “But we were wondering….”

Again there was a long pause. Joe shook his head. “Look fellas, I can’t hang around here all day. Not only have I got a wagon to load with supplies and run a few errands for Pa, I’ve then got an appointment with some thirst quenching beer before I head off back to the ranch. You gonna spit out what’s on your mind or what?”

Dave waved a hand towards Mitch and Seth. “Well, the thing is, Joe…that is, we all thought maybe you’d take on Simms so we could have a chance to win our money back.”

There was a stunned silence. “Me?” croaked Joe incredulously. “What makes you think I’d stand a chance against him?”

“Well, you were always the best shot when we used to practice shooting at them tin cans on the Ponderosa,” cried Seth. “And even when doing all those fancy moves, I seem to remember none of us ever managed to draw faster than you.”

Joe turned his head and eyed Seth with bemusement. “But that was different! We were just having some fun together,” he reminded him. “And I weren’t under pressure against no dead killer’s son.”

“But you’d be a certainty to beat him Joe!”

Joe rolled his eyes and fixed his gaze on his friend. “Yeah, sure Mitch. Just like you thought you were a certainty when you challenged him,” he commented with a wry smile.

“No, Joe…I think you could really do it,” Mitch continued persuasively.

Joe shook his head but then something occurred to him. “Okay….if I did take this Simms fella on, and I’m only saying if,” he warned. “Just how do the three of you intend to lay a bet if you’ve already lost all your money?”

There was a moment’s silence. “Still got our horses,” Dave suggested. “They’ve got to be worth more than sufficient collateral.”

Knowing how much each of his friend’s mounts meant to them, Joe widened his eyes with surprise. “Boy…you really are serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Like we said Joe, we need to get our money back,” stated Mitch gloomily. “Besides, this Simms could do with bringing down a peg or two. I ain’t ever met such a big-headed or nasty individual in all my life.”

Joe gave a deep sigh of indecision. He had sympathy for his friends and wanted to help out, but knowing his tight schedule for the afternoon, he wasn’t convinced the diversion would fit in with his plans. “I’m not sure, fellas…it’s getting late. I really don’t have time for….”

“It ain’t gonna take more than a few minutes to organize,” Dave interrupted, and seeing how Joe was staring over towards his wagon, a thought struck him. “And win or lose, we’d help you load the supplies. Ain’t that right, boys?”

Mitch and Seth nodded in agreement. “So what do you say, Joe? Will you do it?”

Realizing with their assistance he’d have a lot longer time to spend in town, a spark of interest now lit up in Joe’s eyes. “You sure you’re willing to take the risk? Don’t want the three of you ganging up on me if I get beat.”

Mitch shook his head. “We wouldn’t do that, Joe. You’re our friend…always have been, always will be, whatever the outcome.”

“Please Joe,” Seth cut in. “Just say you’ll do it…if not for me, for Sarah’s sake!” he pleaded as his thoughts once more centered on the latest love of his life.

Joe hooked both thumbs into the back of his pants and pursed his lips hard as he struck a thoughtful pose. The idea of having a little harmless fun and the chance to show off his shooting skills with his brand new shooter secretly appealed to him, though he knew with certainty his father would never approve or condone such irresponsible showing-off in front of his friends. Nevertheless, it was worth the risk and Pa need never know, Joe silently convinced himself. A smile slowly appeared on his face as he nodded, unable to resist the challenge. “Very well…I’ll do it.”

Three faces suddenly brightened as Joe then looked about him. “So where is this sharp-shooter? You sure he ain’t left town already after the warning Adam gave him?”

Dave shook his head and stared across the street. “Saw him going into the livery a short while ago and he ain’t come out yet.”

All eyes focused on the stable and, as if on cue, Simms suddenly appeared, leading out his horse. His plan was to head out of town as ordered in daylight then double back during the night to take his revenge on the Virginia City’s lawman. But as he noticed four young men staring towards him, he paused and fixed them with an amused grin. “Something I can do for you?” he asked contemptuously, immediately recognizing three of the faces that stared at him with apprehension.

Licking his lips that had suddenly gone dry, Mitch nodded, pointing over towards his friend. “Joe here just got into town and wants to try his luck against you and give us a chance to win our money back.”

Simms stared with disdain at the fresh-faced young man standing by the wagon who looked even younger than his seventeen years. “This little runt? Why he’s no more than a child!” he laughed. Dipping his fingers into a pocket, he pulled out a coin and threw the penny down at Joe’s feet. “Here, boy…go buy yourself a lollipop…that’s more your style!”

Totally ignoring the gesture, Joe tensed as his temper stirred and he fought hard to contain his rage. “I ain’t no boy in knee britches, mister,” he said evenly, though barely managing to keep his anger in check as he folded his arms in front of him. “Just give me a chance to prove it.”

Simms grin faded at Joe’s resolute stance. “You’ve heard about me and how fast I am with a gun?”

Joe nodded. “I’ve heard, and know who your Pa is,” he replied quietly but with no sign of unease as he held the gunman’s ice-cold gaze. “And my challenge still stands.”

Simms viewed Joe thoughtfully for a brief moment. There was something about his fearlessness and steely-eyed expression that fleetingly stirred a memory of another within the gunman’s mind. But too impatient to give it much thought, he just flapped his hand dismissively. “Well, much as I’d like to give you an opportunity to make a fool of yourself, kid, I’m not interested,” he sneered. “Seem to recall your friends here complaining they’d lost all their money this morning betting against me, so there ain’t much point.”

Seth nervously cleared his throat and pointed over towards the hitching post in front of the mercantile. “We’re willing to put up our horses as security,” he said, looking towards Mitch and Dave who nodded in agreement. “Between them, they’ve got to be worth more than enough.”

As his eyes drifted towards the three animals standing together, Simms shook his head mockingly. “Those nags?” he cried, giving out a disparaging cackle. “I don’t think so. I only deal in hard cash. Besides, you heard what the Sheriff said about shooting matches. I ain’t risking being put in jail for sixty days just for your benefit!”

Giving them all a look of contempt, Simms then began to mount his horse, inwardly pleased to have such reliable witnesses to his leaving town. But as he placed his boot in the stirrup, Joe’s voice rang out.

“You don’t need to worry about the Sheriff arresting you. He’s my brother.”

Simms stiffened and returned his foot back on the ground. He now realized why Joe had appeared to be vaguely familiar and the chance to humiliate the Sheriff’s brother seemed too good an opportunity to miss. However, keen not to show too much enthusiasm, he shrugged his shoulders with false disinterest. “So?”

Joe gave a thin lipped smile. “So I’ll make sure Adam doesn’t do anything to you if he finds out,” he told him with certainty. “And forget about those horses being used as security. My Pa gave me money for the supplies before I left the ranch, so I’ll raise the stake to a hundred dollars…cash!”

Joe took out his wallet and flashed the dollar bills towards Simms, the currency given to him before he left the Ponderosa to be used as payment to the Mercantile and any remainder to be deposited in the bank.

Quickly Mitch took hold of Joe’s arm and turned him away from the glaring gaze of Simms. “Hey Joe, your Pa is going to be real mad if he finds out you’ve placed his money on a bet,” he told him anxiously.

Seth smiled bleakly. “Yeah, and he’s gonna be even madder if he finds you’ve lost it!”

Although knowing full well the consequences of his rash offer, Joe stubbornly refused to back down. “Then I’ll just have to make sure he don’t find out and I don’t lose,” he said, though inwardly cursing his impetuous nature and the fact he always did act before letting his brain get into gear.

“But Joe, you can’t go through with this. I wouldn’t have asked if I thought you’d get into a whole load of trouble with your Pa because of us.”

“Mitch is right, Joe,” added Dave. “Let’s call if off now before it’s too late. After all, we got ourselves into this mess….it’s got nothing to do with you.”

Joe shook his head decisively. “Maybe not….but I’ve made it my business so don’t you worry about me. I’ll deal with Pa if and when I have to.” Then he turned and his gaze fixed once more on the gunslinger. “So what about it, Simms? You willing to take me up on my challenge?”

The gunman smiled. This was like taking candy from a baby. “Gonna be the easiest hundred dollars I ever made,” he smirked, and without further comment, tethered his horse and walked towards the rear of the mercantile; four pairs of eyes watching him closely.

Knowing Joe’s mind was made up, Mitch shook his head as he looked back at his friend. “You’re just plumb crazy, Cartwright. You know that, don’t you?”

Joe shrugged. “So what’s new?” he quipped nonchalantly. “But let’s get off the street before we draw too much attention to ourselves. Can’t risk elder brother seeing us and interfering until I’ve had the chance to win you your money back. And if I beat Simms, I don’t want the Ponderosa getting wind of what I’ve done, so you say nothing to no one. Okay?”

Three heads nodded. “Sure, Joe. But what if you lose?” asked Dave.

“If I lose?” Joe paused for a moment as he stared up the street towards the Sheriff’s office and thought on its sole occupant. “If I lose and end up being one hundred dollars short for the supplies, I figure they’ll find out soon enough.” He gave a slight shudder at the thought, then, forcing out a smile, led his friends out of sight of the main thoroughfare to where Simms was waiting with a look of superior contempt flittering across his face.

Dave immediately picked up two empty bottles from the floor and placed them a couple of feet apart on top of the crates, just as had been done for every shooting contest that morning. Knowing the procedure, the two contestants lined up opposite their respective targets as Mitch moved to the side. He eyed them both carefully for a few moments till they’d settled. “You ready? I’m gonna count to three.”

Joe and Elliot nodded, both standing motionless, the only thing moving the muscular twitch at the side of the older man’s mouth.

“One. Two. Three…Fire!”

Both drew their guns simultaneously before the sound of Mitch’s command had died away. Once again, Elliot performed with the same deadly speed and accuracy he’d shown all morning as he sent a single bullet slamming into his designated bottle within the blinking of an eye.

However, to his amazement and enragement, even the over-confident gunman couldn’t help but realize his opponent’s target had already disintegrated into a myriad pieces a millisecond earlier, the fraction of time making all the difference between victor and vanquished.

As Joe let his gun slip back for a brief moment, there was a deathly hush then a loud whoop. “You did it, Joe! You’ve only gone and beat him!” Seth cried out excitedly.

In total disbelief, Simms eyed them all as his face flushed with rage. “You must have pulled out your gun too early,” he insisted angrily as he slammed his own weapon down hard into its holster. “I want a rematch.”

Ignoring the false accusation and careful not to antagonize him unnecessarily, Joe’s face displayed no sign of triumph. “I won fair and square so just give me my winnings and then we’ll be on our way.”

Elliot’s eyes glazed with fury. “I’m telling you I demand another shoot out, kid!” he yelled irately. “No one beats me….no one! I’ll even raise the stake another hundred dollars.”

Again, Joe shook his head, still keeping his face impassive as he held out his hand. “No rematch. I won. You lost. End of story. So just give me my money, Simms, as agreed.”

The atmosphere was suddenly electric as a twitch appeared again in the corner of Elliot’s mouth, curling his lip into an uncontrolled sneer; his hand lowered towards his holster as though about to draw out his gun. But in an instant, Mitch pulled out his pistol and pointed it towards him. “Easy, Simms, we don’t want any bloodshed.”

“That’s right, Simms. Just pay up,” Dave ordered as his gun also appeared in his hand. “And then get out of town. Otherwise we may just have to let everyone know your precious reputation as the fastest gun ain’t as accurate as you claim!”

As Dave’s words sank home, Elliot stood frozen with his fingers inches from the butt of his gun. Then slowly realizing he was outnumbered and had no choice, he raised his hand and dug out his wallet from the inside of his jacket.

Counting out the amount owed, Elliot threw the dollar bills onto the ground in front of Joe’s feet. “You ain’t heard the last of this, kid,” he spat, and then turning sharply on his heels, pushed his way between Dave and Seth. Moments later, the gunman could be seen galloping his horse hard down the main street and out of town.

There was a loud combined sigh of relief as Dave and Mitch re-holstered their guns. “Better watch your back, Joe. That fella’s the type to bear a grudge, and looks like you just made yourself an enemy!”

Although feeling a little weak in the knees, Joe picked up the money and shook his head reassuringly. “Don’t think we’ll see Simms again, Mitch. He won’t want to risk being exposed as a loser, and with any luck, he’ll be halfway to Carson City before he draws breath.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Joe gave him a friendly slap on the back. “Stop worrying, Mitch; he’s long gone,” he stated again with new found confidence. Then flashing the dollar bills in his hand, he beamed a smile to his three friends. “Now how much did you all lose?”

**********

Afternoon had begun to melt into early evening, and after been given the promised help to load the supplies and then carrying out all his chores, Joe had a fair amount of time to kill before he was due to return to the ranch. Whistling contentedly to himself, he sauntered down the main street to meet up with his friends as arranged, eventually arriving at the Silver Dollar where the sound of raucous laughter and a tinkling piano filtered from within.

Eager to have the beer he’d promised himself plus a couple of hands of poker now made feasible by the cash left over from Simms’ bet, Joe placed his hand on the batwing door and was just about to enter the saloon when his eyes fixed on a building across the street. He paused for a moment and a soft smile flittered across his face; without a backward glance, he turned and struck out in the direction of the Virginia City jailhouse instead.

Not bothering to knock, Joe pushed open the door, and to his surprise, was greeted with the sight of a much loved figure sitting behind the desk and the lethal eye of a six-gun pointing directly towards him. “Whoa. Sheriff!” he exclaimed, feigning fear as he raised his arms in mock surrender. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! I’ll give myself up without a fight!”

Grim-faced and obviously on edge, Adam’s relief was obvious as he breathed out heavily and eased his Colt back into its holster. “Sorry Joe, but you gave me a start barging in like that,” he admitted then grinned, genuinely happy and delighted by the appearance of his brother. “Hey but it’s good to see you, buddy. What you doing in town today?”

Joe closed the door behind him and plonked down heavily in a chair at the side of the desk, dropping his Stetson onto the floor by his feet. “Came in to collect the supplies,” he replied as he ran a hand through his hair and an equally warm expression flashed across his face. “And seeing as you ain’t been to visit us since you moved in here, I thought I’d come see you before I forgot what you looked like. You know, same as that Mohammed fella visiting the mountain ‘cause the mountain wouldn’t visit him tale you used to spout when I was little.”

Adam widened his eyes with mock surprise. “And there I was thinking you never listened to a word I said.”

Joe reacted as Adam expected, making a face towards him before taking in his surroundings. He gave out a long whistle. “You certainly know how to live in luxury, don’t you, brother,” he chuckled a little mischievously as he stared around the sparsely furnished office. “Guess the Ponderosa doesn’t hold a candle to this little palace and we’re going to have trouble prying you away from here once Roy gets back.”

Adam followed his gaze and shook his head with a sigh. “Maybe I’m getting old but believe me, Joe, the sooner I return to the ranch the better. There’s more draft holes and leaks in this building than a ten-year-old line cabin, and as for having a good night’s rest in one of those cells….well, let’s just say I’ve slept better when camping out on the trail,” he admitted, surprised by the note of bitterness in his voice.

Joe smiled at his weary looking brother for a few moments, deriving some childish pleasure at his pitiful plight. “Well, nobody twisted your arm to take on this job of Sheriff, so as that saying goes, you’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”

Although accepting the truth of his words, uncharacteristically Adam suddenly poked out his tongue like a petulant five year old. At the sight, Joe immediately burst out laughing, his contagious giggle soon drawing Adam in to such an extent that, although they weren’t really sure what they were laughing at, neither were able to stop as each felt their ribs ache from the effort and tears of mirth ran down their cheeks.

Eventually after several minutes, the pair managed to calm down. Adam wiped a sleeve across his eyes. “Sure have missed having you around, little brother. I haven’t laughed so much in a long time.”

Joe grinned. “Me neither. And not that I want you to feel pressured into leaving these lavish and impressive surroundings,” he added with a touch of irony. “but is there any sign of Roy returning soon?”

Adam reached into a drawer and pulled out a telegram. “This arrived about an hour ago,” he said with a smile as he passed it over.

Joe quickly scanned the message from Iowa. “So Roy’s hoping to be back by the end of this week? Pa sure will be mighty pleased to hear that. And it’s about time you came home to do some honest work for a change,” he joked, inwardly elated about Adam’s imminent return as he passed it back. For despite his overbearing manner being the cause of conflict between them both at times, Joe had missed his elder brother more than he ever thought possible, though he sure as hell wasn’t going to admit it to him or anyone else!

Once again in a contented and relaxed mood, Adam clasped his hands behind his head, and in the silence that settled between them, watched happily as Joe began to flick his way through a pile of wanted posters that were stacked neatly in front of him.

But after a few seconds, Joe glanced up; his cheerful demeanor suddenly more serious. “Couldn’t help but notice you were a bit on edge when I came in, Adam. Got anything to do with Elliot Simms?” he asked, already guessing the answer.

Nodding his head, Adam raised a questioning eyebrow. “How’d you know about Simms?”

“Oh…I bumped into Mitch and the gang and they told me you’d had a run in with him,” Joe answered, purposefully failing to disclose details of his own meeting with the gunslinger.

Adam stood up and moved towards a lighted stove set in the corner of the room. “I told Simms to get out of town before nightfall but I don’t trust him an inch,” he admitted as he poured out two drinks from a coffee pot and offered one to his brother. “He’s a natural born killer and I could tell he wasn’t the type of man to take orders, no matter who gave them. I fully expect him to come bursting in here at any moment all guns blazing.”

Accepting his drink, Joe gave a grateful nod and cradled his mug as a smile of reassurance formed on his face. “Well, you can breathe easy now, Adam. We saw Simms leave town a couple of hours ago and he’s bound to be miles away by now.”

Adam’s relief was obvious as he returned to his seat but still he frowned in puzzlement as he inhaled the coffee’s dark aroma then sipped at the hot liquid. His eyes narrowed in concentration as he stared thoughtfully at his drink. “Funny but I thought he’d put up more of a fuss before he left. He’s as evil-natured as his father ever was and trouble…big trouble, Joe. I’m just thankful you weren’t stupid enough to be drawn into one of his shooting matches like Mitch and half the citizens of Virginia City.”

Doing his best to act casual as his raised mug suddenly halted in mid-air, Joe said nothing, just thankful Adam’s gaze was elsewhere as he felt his face reddening with a slight degree of discomfit. He then took a long swallow of his drink and returned to scanning the wanted posters.

“So, little brother, how come you’re collecting the supplies today?” Adam finally asked as he looked back towards him. “Not that I’m not pleased to see you but I was expecting to see Hoss again. There’s nothing wrong with him, is there?”

Glad of the change of subject, Joe pushed the posters aside. “No he’s fine and still eating like a winter-starved grizzly.”

Adam smiled. “Some things never change.”

Joe nodded in agreement.

“And what about Pa? Is he managing to keep you and big brother under some sort of control in my absence?”

“Pa’s fine as well, though he sure was missing you this morning when he suddenly realized he’d have to sit down and start on those monthly accounts,” Joe chuckled at the memory. “Was like a bear with a sore head all through breakfast.”

A smile flickered at the corner of Adam’s mouth. “That definitely sounds like his reaction when it comes to anything to do with bookkeeping. And everything else is okay? No problems on the ranch?”

“Nothing for your old head to worry about,” Joe answered, but that didn’t stop the two brothers chatting away convivially for several more minutes as they exchanged news about the Ponderosa and Virginia City.

Finally, after draining the last of his third cup of coffee, Joe placed his empty cup down. “Sorry Adam but I’m going to have to make a move,” he reluctantly told his brother. “I arranged to meet up with Mitch and the gang for a couple of beers before I head off back to the ranch.”

Although disappointed to be losing his company, with a nod of understanding Adam scraped back his chair and walked around the desk where he leaned down and picked up Joe’s hat, brushing off the trail dust before handing it over. “Just make sure it is only a couple,” he advised with concern as Joe pushed the Stetson down onto his head with a thankful smile. “I don’t want to have to arrest my own brother for disturbing the peace.”

“Guess you must be getting old, Adam. You’re sounding more like Pa than Pa,” Joe responded with a laugh as he walked towards the door.

Adam chuckled as he followed, playfully swatting his brother on the backside. “Now you have depressed me….but seriously, Joe….just watch yourself and stay out of trouble.”

“Don’t you worry, Sheriff, I’ve already been given that lecture,” Joe told him with a grin as they went outside. After gazing up into the darkening sky of dusk for a few moments, he gave Adam a quick glance. “I didn’t realize it was this late so I reckon those beers will have to wait for another day. Pa will only worry if I don’t get home in time for dinner.”

Suddenly struck by his remark, Adam looked over incredulously. “This is my little brother talking, and not some imposter?” he queried with a smile. “Since when have you worried about Pa worrying about you?”

As Joe’s grin faded, he eyed Adam hesitatingly for a moment as though not sure whether to confide in him. But as his brother continued to stare at him expectantly Joe knew he had no choice. “Since he gave me this,” he admitted quietly as he tapped a finger pointedly on the butt of his holstered pistol. “I’m sure Pa still thinks of me as a kid and don’t trust me to reach 18 now he’s allowed me to carry a gun. Reckon he expects I’m gonna get called out and drawn into a meaningless gunfight on main street at the first opportunity. Why else do you think he’s always found an excuse to send Hoss in for the supplies instead of me over the past weeks?”

“But that’s nonsense, Joe. We all know you’d never use your gun in such a senseless way. ‘Sides, Pa’s let you come into town today, hasn’t he?”

Joe gave a humph of doubt as he shot his brother a frustrated glance. “Yeah…but I reckon it’s only ‘cause Hoss somehow managed to persuade him to let me have a change of scene for once,” he grumbled, shifting his feet tensely. “I bet Pa’s been on tenterhooks ever since I left the ranch wondering what bother I’ve got myself in. That’s why I don’t want to be in his bad books by being late and giving him an excuse not to let me out of his sight again.”

Adam eyed him sympathetically. “But you can’t blame Pa for being over cautious and protective of you, Joe. Remember how he tried to stop me when I told him I wanted to take on this job? He manages to see danger on every corner when it comes to you, me and Hoss, no matter what age we are. That’s just the way he’s always been and always will be. That’s why Pa is…well, Pa!”

Joe’s eyes softened as his thoughts lingered on his father. “I suppose so,” he said without hesitation then gave a wistful sigh. “But I sure wish he’d….”

Knowing patience was not a virtue his little brother had in fistfuls, Adam gave a kindly smile as he interrupted. “Just give Pa time to get used to the idea his baby is a grown man and can be trusted to behave as such,” he advised knowingly. “He’ll come round eventually.”

Joe’s face took on a hopeful cast. “You really think so, Adam?”

Adam nodded, his reply reassuring. “I guarantee it.”

Taking a deep breath, Joe let the air out slowly. “Well, at least I haven’t thrown a hissy fit lately so that might help persuade Pa I can be let out on my own without him worrying.”

As his heart went out to him, Adam suddenly saw Joe in a totally different light. “You know, little brother, something tells me you’ve developed a new found maturity and have grown up a pace since I’ve been away,” he acknowledged as he reached over and placed a hand around Joe’s neck and gave an affectionate squeeze. “Tell you what. If Pa’s still showing no sign of easing up on you after I get back, I’ll talk him round for as long as it takes to see reason. That’s a promise.”

After giving a silent nod of gratitude, Joe lowered his gaze, unable to look Adam in the eye any longer as his thoughts returned to the secretively arranged shooting match with Simms and his recklessness with the Ponderosa’s money. Hardly the behavior of a mature grown-up, Joe silently pondered, suddenly feeling shame at his irresponsible action and undeserving of his brother’s compliment and compassion.

He’d been taught from an early age that honesty within the family was everything, and unable to keep the lie to himself any longer, Joe knew what he had to do. He swallowed hard in preparation for coming clean about the afternoon’s events even though he knew the details would soon get back to the Ponderosa and be all the justification his father needed to keep him tied to the ranch indefinitely. “Adam….there’s something you need to….”

The words had barely left Joe’s lips when a loud scream made the brothers turn their heads in unison towards the unmistakable clatter of furniture being thrown around in the Silver Dollar saloon. Two men suddenly tumbled out through the swing doors, and in front of an audience of cheering miners who’d followed them out to watch, they began to have a heated fist fight in the street.

Adam let out a long sigh. “Sorry, Joe….duty calls,” he said, giving over an apologetic grin at the interruption. “Whatever you were going to tell me, can it wait a few days till I get back to the ranch?”

Joe reluctantly nodded. “Yeah, sure. It can wait.”

Although not entirely convinced by his reply, Adam didn’t have time to dispute it as he gently brushed a hand across Joe’s arm. “Good, then you better head off home and I’ll see you at the end of the week. Just be sure to tell Hop Sing to get the fatter calf prepared for the Prodigal Son’s return.”

Joe forced over a grin of cheerfulness at his joke. “I’ll do that, Adam. And I’ll make sure Hoss doesn’t start without you,” he added. “Otherwise, all you’ll be chewing is sinew and bone!”

With a laugh, Adam gave a farewell wave. For a few moments, Joe watched with admiration and awe as the Virginia City Sheriff, showing no fear, pulled the brawling miners apart, and acting as peacekeeper, with diplomatic ease ushered them and the small crowd of onlookers back into the saloon and disappeared from sight.

With quiet once more restored, Joe re-set his hat then reluctantly walked in the direction of the mercantile where the supplies awaited his collection. He climbed aboard the wagon deep in thought, unable to believe how immature and stupid he’d been as he recalled his impulsive rashness to show-off his shooting skills against a known gunman and risking the Ponderosa’s money on a bet.

Time I grow’d up and quick, he decided, and slowly his face lightened as a great determination swelled within him. Why wait for Adam’s return to admit his foolhardy behavior? Instead he’d face his father like a man and get it over and done with the minute he got home.

Yet Joe couldn’t stop his thoughts lingering on the Silver Dollar saloon and other less salubrious establishments he’d heard about, all situated in the back streets of Virginia City. He groaned aloud, knowing once his Pa heard his confession it would probably be a very long time before he’d be allowed back into town again and given the chance to sample their hidden delights.

But though his stomach churned nervously at what he had to do unexpectedly, Joe’s boyishly handsome face suddenly relaxed as a thought came to him. If ever I needed a couple of beers, it’s tonight….and not just a couple….several, he murmured to himself with a wry chuckle. Slapping the reins of the two horse team, he headed out of town in the direction of the Ponderosa, the young man resigned to his fate.

**********

Ben Cartwright not only felt worried but looked worried as he stared over the top of his newspaper towards the clock for the umpteenth time and shook his head. Only five minutes had passed since the last time he’d checked, but it felt more like five hours.

Why was he so late? He’d expected Joe back well before dinner, would have even excused him arriving during dinner, but several hours after dinner? Ben frowned for a moment, straining to hear the familiar sound of a wagon being pulled into the yard. But to his disappointment, there was nothing except the thud of footsteps coming from the direction of the kitchen.

“Pa? You want somethin’ to eat?” Hoss asked as he appeared with a piece of apple pie on a plate. “There’s still a couple of slices left.”

Ben just shook his head as Hoss settled himself on the settee and began to devour his supper, though all the time glancing covertly towards his father who had buried his head again behind his newspaper. Hoss could see he looked anxious and knew exactly the reason why. The same reason he’d had a worried look on his face most of the day. Joe!

There was silence for a while, then scraping the last morsel noisily from his plate onto his spoon, Hoss swallowed it down. “That sure was tasty. Good to know Hop Sing ain’t lost his touch,” he proclaimed with a contented sigh, trying to lighten the tense atmosphere.

Suddenly Ben stared over towards the front door. “What was that? Did you hear something Hoss?”

“Like what, Pa?”

“Oh, I thought I heard horses and a wagon,” Ben admitted, and as a fresh sense of foreboding filled him, he threw the paper down onto the coffee table in a jumbled heap. “Where in tarnation is your brother, Hoss? I should never have agreed to let him go to town alone. I just knew something would happen!”

Hoss placed his plate down. “Now Pa, calm down. You’ve got no proof anythin’s happened to Joe. No proof at all.”

“Well then where is he? That boy is going to be the death of me and no mistake!” Ben cried, the troubled lines on his forehead testament to the anxiety he was feeling. “I specifically remember telling him to be back before dark.”

Hoss’ mind raced as he frantically tried to find a plausible explanation to appease his father. “Well Pa, to be honest, you didn’t actually say Joe had to be back before dark,” he finally answered. “All you told him was he could have two beers only at the saloon once he’d loaded the wagon. And knowin’ how little brother tends to turn instructions round at times to suit his own needs…well, I reckon he’s just let those two beers last a whole lot longer than we’d have thought possible.”

Ben eyed Hoss thoughtfully, realizing he had a valid point which hadn’t occurred to him. “You really think that’s what’s happened?”

Hoss nodded his head reassuringly. “I’m positive. ‘Sides, don’t you think if anythin’ bad had gone on in town we’d have known by now? I can guarantee Adam would have sent us a message straightaway.”

Ben eased himself back into his chair. “Of course; I’d forgotten about Adam. He’d be around to keep an eye on Joe…take care of him…” he muttered distractedly.

“And you know how Little Joe likes to talk the hind legs off a donkey when the fit takes him,” Hoss cut in. “I wouldn’t be surprised if them two brothers of mine didn’t end up together chatting all night in that there jailhouse, considerin’ they ain’t seen each other for over a month.”

Ben heaved a sigh as a look of relief finally began to appear on his face. “Yes, you’re right, Hoss. Why didn’t I think of that?”

However Ben’s expression still showed one of mild annoyance, the look all three Cartwright boys had grown to recognize over the years. “But it doesn’t mean Joseph won’t be getting a piece of my mind when he returns tomorrow. In fact, I’ve a good mind to go into town first thing and drag that boy back by his ear if necessary.”

Hoss’ face lit up as he beamed a broad smile. “Wouldn’t expect nothin’ less from you, Pa,” he chuckled. “And I can assure you I’ll be by your side to put in my two cents worth as well seeing as I had to do double amount of chores tonight!”

Suddenly the clock began to chime, and with the lateness of the hour, Hoss stretched out his arms before giving his face a gentle rub. “Its way past bedtime, so if we’re fixin’ on making an early start, I think I’ll head upstairs now if it’s all right with you, Pa.”

Ben’s eyes filled with tenderness towards the big man. “Of course, son….you get yourself off. I won’t be long following.”

Hoss nodded and quickly disappeared towards his room. As the sound of his bedroom door closing wafted down to him, Ben sat for a few moments, taking himself to task for being over-protective and worrying over nothing about his youngest son. But still he couldn’t shake off a slight niggling worry, and with a deep sigh, pushed himself up off his chair. After turning down the oil lamps which illuminated the large living room, he retired to bed.

*****

At the same time as his father made his way up the stairs, Adam was carrying out his last duty of the day as he patrolled the near deserted streets of Virginia City.

All was quiet in the town, and eventually nearing the end of his rounds, he paused in front of the silent Silver Dollar saloon, taking a moment to stare up at a beautiful star splattered sky as he gave a loud yawn. Shivering in the cold air of night, Adam glanced up and down the road swathed in the silvery glare of a full moon; only the occasional yap of a dog in the distance broke the eerie silence.

Just another four nights to go, he thought happily to himself as he imagined sitting again in front of a blazing fire on the Ponderosa, sipping a glass of his Pa’s best brandy after consuming one of Hop Sing’s delicious dinners. How he’d missed such simple pleasures over the past weeks.

Finally deciding to call it a night, he began to walk across the street towards his temporary home, but as he reached the jailhouse, Adam stopped still, thinking he heard the faint creak of a floorboard under heavy pressure. With the fingers on his right hand unconsciously flexing above his holster, he peered into the darkness for a few moments. But with no further sign or indication of another’s presence, he silently kicked himself for being paranoid and over-cautious as he opened the office door.

The room was dark when he entered, so straightway Adam made for an oil lamp on the desk. Pulling out a match from his pocket, he was just about to strike it when there was a sudden rush of movement from outside. He began to turn towards the noise but before he had chance to react, the butt of a six-gun came down hard across the flat crown of his hat. As his Stetson fell away and with barely a moan escaping from his lips, Adam was unconscious before his body hit the floor

*****

Dawn was breaking, and as the sun peeped above the high ridges of the Sierra’s, consciousness finally returned to the Virginia City Sheriff.

Struggling back to his senses and lying face down on the ground with his throat dry, Adam tasted dust clinging to the insides of his mouth. As he spit out the dirt, he suddenly realized tight bindings secured his wrists and feet. Confused as to why he was in such a position for a brief moment, Adam wondered if he was in the middle of an elaborate dream, or more likely, a nightmare. But slowly as his mind cleared, he remembered all too well what had happened; he’d been about to light a lamp…had heard a noise….then everything went black.

Adam turned his head sideways in an attempt to make sense of his surroundings and could see he was lying at the edge of a large clearing, and making out a recognizable outcrop of rocks in the far distance, worked out immediately he was a mile or so off the main road from Virginia City towards the Ponderosa ranch. He frowned, wondering why he’d been brought to this location and by whom, though he had a good idea. So when he turned his head in the other direction and focused his gaze, he was not truly surprised to be greeted by the sound of an unwelcomed yet familiar mocking voice taunting him.

“’Bout time you came round, Sheriff. Began to wonder if I’d hit you too hard.”

Adam’s stared at a man sipping coffee by a small campfire a few yards away. “I thought I’d seen the last of you, Simms,” he murmured, angry at himself for allowing the gunman to take him captive so easily. “Looks like I was wrong.”

Throwing the remainder of his drink to douse the flames, Elliot Simms dropped his cup then walked over and pushed a boot hard under Adam’s chest, turning him onto his back and staring down at him with the cruelest of smiles across his face. “Yep, you’re wrong, Sheriff. See I’ve got a score to settle with you. Don’t take kindly to being humiliated in public by no man…not even a lawman.”

Simms squatted down, and with an evil-looking grin, took hold of the sheriff’s badge on Adam’s jacket and pulled it off. “Always wanted one of these as a souvenir and seeing as you’re not gonna miss it after today…” He chuckled ominously as he pinned it on his chest.

“What’s your game, Simms?” Adam asked, swallowing down the bile of trepidation that drifted upwards in his throat. “If you’re so intent on killing me, you could have done it last night in town. Why risk being seen and drag me all the way out here?”

“Oh I thought I’d have me a little fun first before I left the area and sent you to your maker. Reckon you owe me that much, Sheriff,” he said as his strong arms closed about Adam’s upper body and hauled him into a sitting position. Simms allowed his prisoner’s back to rest on a large flat-sided boulder. “Comfortable?” he then sneered. “Wouldn’t want you to miss out on a good view of proceedings.” He began to laugh and as he strode over to the far side of the clearing, Adam watched Simms squat down again in front of another figure secured by a length of rope to the wheel of a wagon, a kerchief tied tight across his mouth and another covering his eyes.

Recognizing him immediately, Adam swore under his breath. He was the last person he’d expected to see as Simms removed the gag and blindfold from around his little brother’s head with a brutal yank. “Our audience has woken up at last, kid, so you better be ready to put on a show once I’ve saddled up. Don’t aim to stick around any longer than I have to once I’ve finished.”

Without waiting for an answer, the gunman walked over to his horse which stood tethered several yards away alongside the Ponderosa’s harness team. Joe slowly opened his eyes, blinking painfully in the bright light of morning and staring about uneasily in an obvious daze of bewilderment and pain.

Adam suddenly felt physically sick at the sight of his brother; the bruises and cuts covering Joe’s face, dried blood rimming his mouth and down the front of his jacket and shirt a sure indication of the fight he’d put up against Simms’ sheer brute force while being overwhelmed and subsequently beaten up by the gunman.

Unclear as to the reasons why he’d been taken hostage and treated in such a callous way, a feeling of foreboding churned Adam’s insides. Joe focused his gaze and looked over with bleary, red-rimmed eyes, suddenly noticing him and his expression of uncertainty quickly replaced by a brief smile of relief. “Adam? Am I glad to see you, but how’d you get here?”

“Simms jumped me in town…knocked me out cold. Guessing he hog-tied me to his horse and brought me here last night.” Adam then paused worriedly. “But are you all right, Joe? You sure don’t look it.”

With his battered face seamed with strain, Joe put on a brave front. “I’m fine. Just a little tender in places,” he said, wincing slightly from the beating he’d taken and deliberately trying to keep from coughing; knowing the pain it would cause as he felt the soreness from his aching ribs.

“You up to telling me what happened?”

Joe grimaced slightly and licked his dry lips. “Got ambushed up on the high road just after I’d left town, and Simms forced me to drive the wagon to this spot,” he answered a little shakily, his eyes flashing with a mix of anger and fear at the recollection. “I tried to fight him off and get away but got pistol-whipped and beaten up for my trouble. Must have lost consciousness ‘cause the next thing I remember is waking up and finding myself tied up like a trussed up chicken.”

Adam’s lips twisted momentarily into a wry grin. “It would seem our Mr. Simms has had a busy night,” he concluded with grim humor. Then in an attempt to provide encouragement and hope, he continued. “But don’t worry too much little brother. Everything’s going to work out just fine.”

There was a distinct silence for a moment as Adam was met with a stony eyed stare; the look on Joe’s face clearly indicating he didn’t believe him and knew exactly the dire situation they were both in. “Damn it, Adam, I’m not stupid and you don’t have to make up a story just to make me feel better like you used to do. It’s pretty obvious the position we’re in and everything’s far from fine.”

A flicker of a rueful smile played at the corner of Adam’s mouth. “Sorry Joe…old habit, I guess.”

Accepting his apology with a quick nod, Joe turned his head to stare rather fixedly in the gunman’s direction. “So what do we do now, Adam?” he asked in a quieter tone as he watched Simms continue to water and saddle his horse without giving his captives a backward glance; seemingly secure in the knowledge they weren’t going anywhere fast.

With his head still aching from the hard blow he’d received, Adam took a few deep breaths to clear his mind further and think on any options available. As eldest, he’d always been the one guaranteed and expected to come up with a solution to any problem on the ranch, but this time he feared he’d have to admit he didn’t have an answer. However, never one to give up easy, he started to try to break free by pulling and straining again at the leather thong stretched taut around his wrists and the rope which secured his arms around his back.

Joe saw what he was doing and immediately followed his lead, but after a short while of struggling, it was obvious to both of them the knots were far too tight and they reluctantly gave up with a combined groan of defeat.

Joe emitted a heartfelt sigh of inevitability. “You reckon Simms is gonna kill us both, Adam?”

Adam said nothing, the grim expression on his face enough to give Joe his answer.

Simms came back into view, grinning widely as he checked his gun before thrusting it back into its holster. Grasping the chance to reason with the half-crazed gunman for his brother’s sake if nothing else, Adam stared pointedly at him. “Why don’t you let Joe go free before things get out of hand,” he pleaded, moderating his tone in order to try and make Simms see the sense of his request. “He’s done nothing to you. Your fight is with me, not him.”

The gunman widened his cold grey eyes. “Done nothing to me, Sheriff?” he answered, his voice laced with an undeniable deadly undertone. “You mean you don’t know about the little encounter me and your brother here had yesterday?”

Adam shook his head warily. As far as he knew, Joe hadn’t met Simms and had only seen him when he was leaving town. “Joe? What’s he talking about?”

Joe gnawed nervously at his lower lip as Adam stared over at the bruised and battered face again. “I took him on in a shooting match when I first arrived in town, before I came to see you,” Joe admitted guardedly. “And….”

As he paused for a moment, Adam continued to look over in mounting confusion. “And what?”

Joe’s eyes flickered to the gunman and then back before he answered. “I beat him, Adam. I’m sorry…I was gonna tell you but there just wasn’t time.”

Simms noticed a look of surprise flash across the elder Cartwright’s face. “Yeah Sheriff, you heard right! Your little brother beat me, humiliated me in front of his friends and then cleared me of a hundred dollars,” he admitted, his voice now filled with pure hatred as he bent down and took hold of a handful of Joe’s hair and pulled hard. “But he was just lucky yesterday, and today’s his luck is about to run out, ‘cause it’s time to get even. Ain’t that right, kid?”

As his brother’s head jerked back sharply and Joe’s face contorted with a fresh wave of pain, Adam felt his body go cold. “Simms, this is madness!” he shouted by way of distracting him, disbelief now written all over his face. “I can understand you wanting to kill me, but surely a little bruised ego can’t be reason enough for you to go to all this trouble just to see which of you can shoot at a bottle the fastest?”

Simms released his hold. “Oh, this ain’t gonna be nothing like yesterday’s shooting match,” he threatened as he stood up and regarded his two captives through eyes that glinted insanely. “This time it’s gonna be much more entertaining.”

Leaving the brothers to exchange uneasy glances, Simms turned away without another word of explanation then walked over to the burnt out fire. He bent down and picked up a pearl-handled Colt, examining it closely for a short while. “Mighty nice shooter,” he finally admitted menacingly as he looked towards its owner. “You ever shot anyone with this, kid?”

Under the gunman’s demented gaze, Joe stared at his prized pistol, and unable to find his voice, just shook his head.

“I notched up my first kill when I was just sixteen,” Simms proudly admitted with a cruel laugh and totally without emotion as he lovingly stroked the cold steel barrel. “Just because I’d been fooling around with his sister, some fool called me out onto the street in full view of the townsfolk and went for his gun first. He was dead before he hit dirt but shooting in self-defense in front of all those witnesses meant the law was on my side and I ran no danger of being hung. And that’s the way I’ve played it ever since…well, most the time anyways.”

Simms gave a sinister chuckle then turned his attention back towards Joe. “Got my first taste of pleasure at killing a man that day,” he told him as he rose up and straightened his back. “And today….well, today I’m gonna have myself that self same pleasure again, kid. Forty paces between us then we shoot to the death. You reckon you’ll be able to outdraw me this time?”

Joe’s eyes flashed with shock at the implication and he instinctively looked back towards his brother with fearful bemusement.

Adam met his gaze with the same expression of puzzlement before returning to stare over at the gunman. “This is just crazy, Simms. Why run the risk of Joe shooting you?” he asked with a quizzical stare of incredulity at such a bizarre idea. “It just doesn’t make sense, even for a madman like you.”

Ignoring the jibe, Simms allowed himself the faintest of smiles. “Oh, I don’t aim to run any unnecessary risk, Sheriff. I reckon the odds are stacked well in my favor,” he said with certainty as he opened the breech of Joe’s gun and extracted all but one of the bullets and allowed the excess to fall to the ground at his feet. “I’m only gonna give the kid here one chance to hit me, and although he’s pretty good with a gun. I’m sure you’re well aware there’s a big difference between shooting at a fixed target and when there’s a gun pointing at you and it’s your own life at stake. A mighty big difference. You know what I mean?”

Having seen gunfights as a spectator over the years, Adam knew exactly what he meant. It took more than just speed and accuracy to shoot and kill another man. It took coolness and nerve when the slightest hesitation meant the difference between life and death as a bullet whined towards you. It was undeniably a skill never tested by just playfully aiming at a glass bottle or tin can, and certainly not a talent many inexperienced seventeen-year-olds possessed.

Adam regarded Simms with contempt. “But Joe hasn’t been in a gunfight before. He won’t have a chance against you, especially with just one bullet and you know it. It’ll be more like murder!”

Ignoring his angry protestation, a hard glint came into the gunman’s eye as he fixed Adam with a cold impersonal stare. “Murder? It ain’t murder if I let your brother go for his gun first before I shoot him dead. It’ll be a fair fight. And you can’t complain at that now, can you Sheriff.”

Adam glared over; his face now strained pale with rage. “A fair fight? Who you kidding, Simms?” he cried disgustedly. “But if you’re so intent on proving how fast you are, spare my brother then I’ll stand against you instead. And I give you my solemn word no charges will be made against you, whatever the outcome.”

Joe looked over in dismay at the suggestion. “No, Adam! You can’t. It’s not your fight,” he shouted. But ignoring him, Adam persisted. “Come on, Simms. What do you say? It would be more of a challenge than against some fresh-faced kid who’s still wet behind the ears.”

Simms regarded Adam thoughtfully for a moment with a penetrating gaze. “Your solemn word eh?” he said with a serious frown of concentration, then slowly shook his head and passed over a fiendish grin. “Although I’m sorely tempted to take you up on your offer, I don’t think so, Sheriff. I’ve got different plans for you,” he admitted with a sardonic lift of the eyebrow. “You see I’ve never notched up killing a lawman in cold blood before….until today that is.”

Smiling maliciously and seemingly sealing Adam’s fate with a look, Simms then walked behind Joe, loosening the ropes around him and stepping back before throwing the pearl handled Colt to the ground at his feet. “Stand up, slow and easy and don’t try anything stupid,” he instructed as his own pistol appeared in his hand. “Time to get some dying done so I can put a lot of miles between you and me before someone comes across you both.”

Realizing immediately Simms was referring to their dead bodies, Joe remained frozen to the spot; the seventeen-year-old seemingly hypnotized with horror as his eyes fixed on his firearm as though it belonged to the devil himself. He just couldn’t comprehend what was happening or the reason for Simms’ bloodthirsty lust, and once more looked over towards his brother for direction. “Adam?”

Simms shot Joe an angry glance to silence him. “Kid, you ain’t been listening. I ain’t got all day and his shoot-out’s not open to negotiation with the Sheriff here,” he snapped, and moving forwards, slapped him hard across the face. “It’s time for your brother to see just who the fastest draw around here is. So I’m calling you out….now!”

With blood showing at the corner of his mouth and in a daze of confusion and pain, Joe accepted he hadn’t any choice in the matter. He began to push himself up and was one heartbeat from complying with the gunman’s crazy demand when all of a sudden a voice rang out clearly in the quiet morning air. “No, Joe. Don’t move. Don’t do it.”

The sound of Adam’s calm and unruffled order seemed to draw Joe out of his trance-like state. He stared over with a puzzled frown; his brother was returning his look with a fearless expression.

“Don’t give Simms the satisfaction, Joe. He isn’t worth it.”

Joe returned his nervous gaze towards the evil-eyed gunman then slowly a look of understanding began to dawn on his bruised and bloodied face. He now saw what his brother had also worked out. The gunman’s obsession with a shoot-out was more a desperate need to prove to himself rather than anyone else that his precious reputation at being the fastest gun was still sound and without question; his desire to be the quickest draw and a legend in his own lifetime like his father before him was spurring him on in his murderous quest.

A fresh trickle of blood ran out from Joe’s cut lip, and as he slowly wiped his bleeding mouth dry on the back of his hand, it was then a vision of his own father, staring down at the lifeless bodies of his eldest and youngest appeared in his mind’s eye.

Joe knew it would be hard for Ben to come to terms with the unexpected tragic loss of his two sons together, but he wasn’t prepared to compound his suffering by allowing himself to be killed in the exact way his father had privately feared since presenting him with his much prized birthday gift. If nothing else, Joe would spare his Pa that agony and thus go to his Maker with his own conscience clear.

So with a fresh sense of purpose and resolve he didn’t realize he possessed, Joe took a deep breath and gave the faintest of smiles. “If you think I’m going to play your silly game, Simms, think again,” he finally replied; surprising himself by his defiant tone. “I don’t intend to give you the pleasure of killing me in a pointless shoot out….my Pa would never forgive me. Ain’t that right, Adam?”

Giving a quiet chuckle to hide his anxiety and fear, Joe then purposefully ignored the agitation and fury etched on the gunman’s face and steadying his gaze with an effort, looked over towards his brother again, as if for confirmation he was doing the right thing.

They locked stares and Adam nodded approvingly, exchanging an affectionate and tender brotherly smile with his youngest sibling.

The look between them wasn’t lost on Simms as Joe turned his gaze back towards him, disguising the fear which knotted his stomach behind an insolent grin. “I heard it said once it ain’t when a man dies but the way he dies what counts in the eyes of God. So if you’re going to murder the pair of us, do it now so we can make our way to them Pearly Gates before dying of boredom. Don’t expect we’ll ever meet you there, though…they say Satan looks after his own.”

Simms looked at Joe strangely, appearing genuinely confused and unprepared for such doggedness and insolent stance from one so young. He rushed over and aimed his gun menacingly inches away from Joe’s chest, flicking back the hammer in an intimidating manner. “Damn you, kid,” he hissed with a blistering irate glare as his lip curled menacingly. “I ain’t one for jokes and that weren’t funny.”

“It wasn’t meant to be and there’s no point threatening me anymore, Simms,” Joe quickly responded with his eyes flashing resolutely and without wavering. “I’m ready to die right now alongside my brother, especially if it means you’ll have to go to your own grave never having the satisfaction of knowing if you could have beaten me to the draw again.”

Frustrated, Simms was silent for a long moment; his carefully conceived insane plan was falling apart around his ears as he wondered what he could say to force the kid to pick up his gun and do as he wanted. His eyes flicked between the two brothers again then an idea came to him.

With Joe continually in his sights, Simms walked back across the clearing, smiling a little as he bent down and thrust the muzzle of his gun hard into the soft tissue behind Adam’s right ear. Flinching as he felt the cold steel grind into his skull, Adam unconsciously held his breath as he waited for the sound that would signal him being sent to oblivion.

Simms gave a cruel laugh. “So you want to go together. Ain’t that touching. But what if I make you watch me shoot your brother’s brains out then decide not to kill you after all, kid?” he asked gloatingly as he stared over at the expression now covering Joe’s distraught face. “Or maybe I’ll just shoot him in the guts. Heard tell there ain’t no shock or pain like getting a bullet in the guts. It can take a long time for a man to die. Think you could sit here staring at your brother for hours as he writhed in agony and his life blood drained away? Think you’d ever lose the sight from your mind and be able to sleep nights again? Now that’s what I call a joke!”

Picking up on the significance of his threat, Joe shouted out a few blasphemous words, but ignoring the tirade against him Simms continued. “Must say I’m sorely surprised you won’t take up my offer, kid. After all, there is the slimmest of chances you might even get to kill me and save your brother’s life. But if that’s the way you want to play it, so be it….”

As his voice trailed, the gunman shoved the gun hard into Adam’s stomach and his finger tightened on the trigger; the double click of a well-oiled hammer sounded out in the quiet of morning.

With his mouth dried and his brain paralyzed with terror for a brief moment, Joe was unable to speak. “No wait! I’ll do what you want!” he finally managed to yell, glaring over at the unstable Simms with a confidence he didn’t feel, hearing his own voice as if it belonged to someone else. “Just back off and leave Adam alone.”

Smiling a little, Simms did as requested, inwardly delighted to have correctly guessed that, though willing to die with his brother, Joe was not prepared to live without him, especially if he was to be killed in front of his eyes in such a violent and sadistic way. “Reckon the Sheriff can have another five minutes of life seeing you’ve seen sense,” he smirked, pointing the gun again towards Joe. “Now get up, kid, real easy like.”

With sweat trickling down his face and still in some discomfort from his beating, Joe did his best to oblige, rising to his feet slowly and holding onto the wagon for a moment as he waited for the muscles in his legs to stop protesting after being immobile for so long.

“Say goodbye to the Sheriff. You won’t be seeing him again, at least not on this earth,” Simms quipped, laughing at his ill-placed witticism. And without giving Adam a further glance, he backed away from them both, roughly measuring out forty paces and all the time his gun focused on his opponent.

Joe was scared, more scared than he imagined possible as he let his gaze fall, battling to keep his composure as he tried to find his voice. So much to tell him….so little time. “Adam. I’m sorry. I….”

The anguish and trepidation in his eyes went through Adam like a knife and he silenced him with a perceptive calming smile. “I know, little brother. I understand. You don’t have any choice…and I love you too.”

With his eyes now noticeably moist with fear. Joe gave an appreciative nod before looking back towards Simms, who’d stopped and was shouting over to him. “Pick up your gun nice and easy, kid, and get away from the wagon. Need to have my sights clear when I’m aiming at you.”

Joe did as he’d ordered and watched as Simms snapped his own gun quickly back into its holster. “You ready to die like a man, kid?” he then queried, grinning deridingly as Joe fought hard to control his emotions and stop his whole body from shaking

“Die like a man?”

The words resonated around Joe’s head. “Die more like a coward,” he inwardly accepted. “A scared trembling coward.”

Allowing his left hand to dangle loosely above the butt of his gun, Joe swallowed hard as a fresh sense of unparalleled dread gripped at his insides. For the first time in his life, he felt utterly alone and could hardly believe what was happening. He tried to convince himself it was all a terrifying dream and he’d wake up at any moment in his own bed, safe and sound.

But he didn’t wake and Simms continued to stare at him with a thin, almost imperceptible smile on his lips as though relishing the thought of the killing spree that was about to begin. His experience of fast draw shoot-outs to the death was more than apparent as his eyes narrowed with concentration and his body visibly tensed like a coiled cougar in readiness for the kill.

Joe was more than aware his odds against beating Simms at his own game were less than nil. Sighing in weary resignation a vision of his Pa and Hoss standing together, both alive but dead inside as they buried those they loved, filled Joe’s mind. And as he flicked his gaze quickly back on his brother for the last time, Joe felt the burden of knowing Adam’s fate now lay in his hands and his hands only resting heavy on his slender shoulders.

What they needed was a miracle, and fast, Joe conceded. Then, without warning, a favorite saying of Hoss’ unexpectedly repeated over and over in his head. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat little brother.”

Suddenly Joe’s insides stilled and his despairing thoughts cleared to be replaced by hope. Maybe there was a way to survive the day. All he’d need do was hold his nerve and wait for the moment he sensed Simms making his play. So taking a deep breath, Joe waited.

Adam watched with desperate, morbid fascination, unable to tear his eyes away as his brother and Simms stood facing each other; an expression of victory already lighting up the gunman’s eyes. A muscular twitch again curled Simms’ lip, then almost together the pair went for their guns, Joe drawing his followed a split second later by Simms, as he’d predicted and promised.

Two gunshots seemed to blend into one and punctured the early morning silence.

But the result of Simms’ fast draw for once didn’t culminate in the penetration of soft flesh or bone as he’d expected, and there was no dead or dying cowboy he could claim to have killed again in self-defense. To the gunman’s shocked surprise, his shot just disappeared harmlessly into the ether of the morning; his fixed target had moved.

For when Joe was clearing his own gun from its holster, he’d simultaneously thrown his body sideward out of the sharpshooter’s line of fire; the impetus of his motion had sent him rolling across the ground with his left arm straight as he fired. But unlike Simms, when Joe’s bullet sped home, it found what his sharp-eyed vision had focused on as it gleamed and reflected the rays of the early morning sun – the sheriff’s badge, still pinned securely on the gunman’s chest.

Simms suddenly staggered and looked down to stare with puzzlement at a growing crimson stain that began spreading across the left side of his shirt. He felt no pain, just a numbing as a veil of shocked realization he’d been hit passed over his eyes. He raised his gaze and shouted a curse, then with more murderous intent, steadied his aim again towards Joe now staring helplessly towards him.

At such short range, there was no way Simms could miss and a fresh gleam of triumph covered his face as he eagerly pulled the trigger. But before he could see if his shot had gone home, the gunman’s eyes began to glaze over and he could sense himself growing weaker than a day-old kitten. Slowly, with his gun in his hand, he toppled backwards onto the ground, blood seeping from his mouth as he ended his fall with a resounding thud. He twitched briefly from the impact and his lips began to move together as though trying to say something but the words couldn’t get out. As the legend that never was squirmed around for a moment like a demon possessed, Simms gave a last defiant shudder then drew his final breath.

It was all over in seconds. A horse whinnied in panic then stilled; birdsong filled the air. But Joe heard nothing as he slowly rose to his feet and the rush of adrenaline that had sustained him for the past few minutes faded away. His own gun slipped through his fingers onto the ground and he walked as though in a haze of bewilderment towards the motionless body.

Joe had seen little violence or brutality during his seventeen years, hadn’t given much thought to ever killing a man until that day. So as he looked down at the hated face now staring up at the sky with unseeing eyes, the gaping hole his bullet had made and the blood now completely saturating the front of the gunman’s shirt, Joe just felt a kind of numbness within him, a detached coldness he couldn’t explain.

But then the thought he’d just notched up his first kill, regardless of the reason why, filled him with revulsion and sent a wave of nausea rushing up from the pit of his stomach like a fast-flowing mountain stream. He felt himself tremble with the realization of what he’d done, and with a groan, collapsed onto his knees and began to heave, retching violently and doubling up in a spasm of pain until his belly emptied and ached from the effort.

Weakened and in somewhat of a shocked daze, Joe lay back, his eyes half open, teeth chattering and his heart beating hard and fast until eventually he heard a voice, at first seemingly far away, but persistently growing louder in his ears as it called to him.

“Joe? Joe? Talk to me buddy! Are you all right?”

Like a man in a stupor, Joe pushed himself up and stared over with a somewhat vacant expression towards his brother for a few seconds before wiping the residue of vomit from his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket and nodding feebly.

“You’re bleeding, Joe…your head,” Adam shouted over.

Noticeably frowning in confusion Joe was suddenly aware of sticky wetness running down his face, and tentatively placed a hand in the hair above his right temple. He stared down in disbelief at his fingers covered in blood. He’d never had such an injury before, and to Adam’s amazement, began to laugh a little hysterically. “Hey Adam, I’ve been shot!”

Praying his wound wasn’t life-threatening and unsure if he wouldn’t pass out at any moment, Adam nodded reassuringly in an attempt to calm him. “Yes Joe, but don’t expect it’s too serious. I’ll take a look at it but first I need you to untie me. Think you can do that buddy?”

Joe quieted, and under Adam’s concerned gaze, staggered over and sank to his knees, his shaky fingers fumbling to undo the tight bindings around his brother’s hands and arms. It took longer than expected as Joe continually had to wipe a hand across his face to clear his eyes; the dripping blood splattering and soon showing up as a dark stain on both brothers’ jackets until eventually Adam was freed.

Joe sank back down and closed his eyes, breathing now in short and shallow panicking pants as Adam quickly undid the rope around his own feet then made his way across to Simms’ horse and retrieved a full canteen hanging from the saddle. Picking up a couple of kerchiefs by the wagon, Adam returned and poured water over one of them. “This might sting a little.”

Joe opened his eyes to find his brother leaning over him and gave a feeble nod, then noticeably flinched as Adam began dabbing the wetted cloth in his hair to clear away the excess blood. He wetted the second and held it there to staunch the flow for what seemed an age until able to see the extent of Joe’s injury.

Adam gave a sigh of relief. “Thank God, it’s just a crease,” he said, squeezing a hand reassuringly on Joe’s shoulder. “The bullet just nicked the skin and the bleedings all but stopped now, though another hair’s width and you wouldn’t have been so lucky.”

Joe shuddered with understanding as Adam gently wiped his brother’s bloodstained face clean before passing over the water for him to drink. Managing to sit up, and with his hands trembling, Joe raised the canteen to his lips, first allowing a mouthful of water to swill around his mouth before spitting it out and ridding him of the vile aftertaste that lingered. Taking another swig, he swallowed the refreshing liquid down and with a grateful nod passed the canteen back.

For a few moments, Adam took care of his own thirst then noted how pale his brother looked. “Still feeling queasy?”

Joe gave a faint, exhausted nod. “A little. Got me one hell of a headache too.”

Adam smiled knowingly. “You’ll soon be fine,” he reassured in a gentle voice. “Just lie back and try to rest for a while.”

Without argument, Joe lay back down on the ground but found no solace or peace as he dragged a sleeve across his closed eyes and prayed for sleep, powerless to stop his thoughts from darting back to relive the last few traumatic hours over and over again as the unmistakable stench of death and vomit assaulted his nostrils.

Resting his back again on the flat surface of the rock, Adam watched Joe carefully for a short while, guessing what was going through his mind as Joe unconsciously traced a finger along the painful weal in his hair. Intuitively, he sensed his little brother would only feel the physical sign of Simms’ hatred for a short while, but mentally? Well, mentally it could well be a scar he’d carry for a lifetime.

What Joe needed was a diversion to help cover up and take away the painful memory for a few short hours. Hell! After what they’d gone through, they could both do with one, Adam silently acknowledged.

Heaving a heavy sigh, Adam turned his gaze to the fully laden wagon and eyed it for a few moments. A thought suddenly came to him, and after pushing himself up and taking a few moments to stretch away the stiffness in his legs, he walked over to start rummaging through the supplies. After several seconds, he gave a snort of success and returned holding a bottle tightly in his hand. “I thought Pa would have one of these on order and I don’t think he’d mind us opening it up considering. Reckon we could both do with a proper drink,” he said as he sat back down and gently tapped his brother on the leg to gain his attention.

With returning awareness, Joe focused back to the here and now, and pulled himself up by Adam’s side. He watched as Adam unscrewed the top then took a mouthful of the finest and their father’s most prized European brandy before handing it over.

Having only been allowed the smallest of tastes on special occasions and not used to such volume all at once, Joe sipped cautiously at first, wondering what effect it would have on his empty stomach. But thankfully there was no violent reaction as he felt the liquids warming sensation settle down his throat. In fact, it tasted good, calming, relaxing, so he raised the bottle to his lips again and took a couple more large gulps.

Then Joe gave a deep shuddery breath as he stared unblinkingly on the corpse yards away. “Never thought what it would feel like to actually kill someone,” he muttered miserably, his voice so low Adam had to strain to hear it. “But after this, I don’t intend to shoot another man for as long as I live.”

Adam looked over tenderly. “I know it’s hard for you to accept, Joe, but sometimes circumstances arise and a man has to take that step whether he wants to or not. There’s no other way.”

“But I don’t want to feel the way I feel now, Adam,” Joe protested tearfully. “Not ever again.”

“And just how do you feel?”

“I feel…” Joe paused, searching for the right words. “Sickened and disgusted for doing the killing, even though I had no choice. And as for Simms, I did hate him but now…now I just feel sad and a great pity for the waste of his life. Does that make sense?”

Adam nodded knowingly. “Yes. It makes complete sense to me,” he said quietly, pausing for a moment as he looked towards the distance as if at a far-away regretful memory of his own. He shifted his gaze back and smiled sadly. “It’s good to know you feel that way, Joe. Otherwise, there’d be no difference between you and the likes of Simms, and all Pa’s teachings would have been for nothing.”

Joe took another drink as though he hadn’t heard as fresh tears brimmed in his eyes. “I’ve been such a fool and this is all my fault,” he whispered with a sniff. “If I hadn’t been so keen to show off in front of Mitch and the gang, none of this would have happened. Pa’s never going to be able to forgive me when I tell him what I’ve done. Don’t think I’ll be able to ever forgive me.”

Joe gazed blankly at the bottle in his hand then took another mouthful of brandy down.

“Of course Pa will forgive you, and don’t be so hard on yourself, Joe,” Adam said, staring at the dejected expression on his face. “You’ve got nothing to blame yourself for. You may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but you know, little brother, sometimes fate has a funny way of working out for the best.”

Joe wiped a hand across his eyes and frowned quizzically. “How’d you mean?”

Adam exhaled. “Hasn’t it occurred to you that, if you hadn’t got involved, I would probably be lying dead in the jailhouse with a bullet in my back right now and Simms would have made a clean getaway? But I’m alive and I’ve got you to thank for that, because of your sheer guts and nerve when it counted the most. You did good, little brother, and should be proud of yourself.”

For a brief moment, Joe seemed to cheer up but then his shoulders sagged and he heaved a plaintive sigh. “What’s to be proud of?” he questioned in a trembling voice and hiccupped a sob. “It wasn’t guts that kept me going, just fear…one hundred percent fear.”

There was no response straight away from his brother, and glancing out the corner of his eye Joe expected to see disappointment at least in Adam’s face. However, Adam just stared towards the inert body already drawing the interest of a few flies, and then looked back at him with understanding and compassion in his eyes. “You’re not the only one who was scared today, Joe,” he admitted, giving over a soft smile of comfort as he took the bottle out of his hand. “I’ve felt fear many times over the years….too many times to count. But today, well today, as God is my witness, I’ve never been so frightened in all my life.”

As Adam took a long swallow, Joe stared at him with an incredulous expression. “But you didn’t show it, Adam! I’ve never known you show it! You’re always so calm and never give anything away.”

Adam shrugged as he wiped a sleeve across his mouth. “Just because I don’t always tremble on the outside doesn’t mean I’m not shaking on the inside,” he smiled. “So you see, little brother, you’re in good company.”

Hardly able to believe him, Joe shook his head wonderingly as Adam offered the bottle back. He eagerly gulped down the silky smooth liquid again, having obviously grown to like the taste. The young man inwardly hoped one day he’d be able to act like his brother, should a future crisis occur.

Adam watched him for a moment then gave a small smile. “That sure was a fancy shift of pace you did there in the shoot out, little brother,” he admitted, trying to focus Joe’s mind to the positive. “How’d you know to move when you did?”

Joe frowned for a moment in slight confusion as to what Adam meant then it suddenly dawned on him. “Oh I’d noticed Simms’ lip always seemed to curl up just before he intended going for his gun so I waited for it. Was the only thing I could come up with and just hoped it would give me the edge.”

Adam nodded, clearly impressed. “Well, Simms never saw that coming, and to be honest, neither did I. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Joe allowed himself the faintest of smiles. “Just something I used to practice with the gang,” he admitted modestly. “Though Mitch reckoned it was a waste of time and I’d never find a use for hitting a tin can with a shoot and roll.”

“Well, I’ll have great pleasure in telling Mitch Devlin he was wrong,” Adam said, and then added as an afterthought. “Maybe I ought to practice it myself?”

Now feeling more lightheaded and quite giddy from the effects of the alcohol, Joe gave a hoot of disbelief. “What with your bad back and creaking bones? Do me a favor, elder brother!”

Adam gave out a light-hearted chuckle as Joe passed back the bottle.

“How long we gonna sit here drinking Pa’s best brandy, Adam?” Joe then asked in a slurring voice, feeling more inebriated than he’d ever felt before. “One of these usually lasts him months, and he’s gonna have a hissy fit towards the pair of us when he finds out we’ve drunk most of it away.”

Adam considered for a brief moment as he studied the bottle. “Till it’s all gone,” he decided impulsively then took another swig before continuing in a far less confident tone. “And contrary to popular belief, I ain’t afraid of Pa.”

Joe began to giggle, and with a newborn respect for each other and without the need for further conversation, both brothers continued to take turns to drink the pricy brandy away until eventually, after a longer silence than usual, Adam noticed the empty bottle drop to the floor and felt a weight slowly pushing towards him.

Without looking at his face as he heard his deep, regular breathing, Adam knew immediately Joe was sound asleep, curled up against his shoulder. The combined effect from the brandy and the events over the past hours finally had taken its toll on the youngest Cartwright.

Sliding his arm around and careful not to wake, Adam drew Joe gently towards him, cradling his head on his chest as though he were still a small child, and without fighting against the desire to sleep himself, allowed his eyes to close.

Only a short nap before we clear camp, Adam told himself, suddenly feeling more than weary as thoughts of his own mortality and how close he’d come to death flittered around in his mind.

He didn’t know how long he slept…could have been hours…but in reality it was only minutes when suddenly Adam heard his name called and a hand gently squeezing his shoulder.

“Adam? Son?”

Stirring, Adam raised his head, slightly confused as he opened his eyes and focused his gaze on two worried and concerned faces he knew so well. “Pa? Hoss? What you doing here?” he asked huskily, giving them both a brief welcoming smile.

Ben eased down by his side; sighing with relief. “We were heading over to town and heard gunshots, then Hoss saw fresh wagon tracks coming down this track so we followed,” he answered quickly, tearing his gaze fleetingly towards Simms. “We got to the clearing and saw that fella there obviously dead, then the pair of you sat here so still…for a moment I really thought…expected you were….”

As his voice trailed, Adam nodded with understanding as Ben stared down at Joe’s bruised face, his brown eyes clinging to the sight of dried blood on the grey jacket and a few streaks still evident in the thick mop of hair.

With his face now draining of all color, Ben’s voice was barely audible and cracked with emotion and despair. “Joe….he’s not….?”

Adam quickly shook his head. “No Pa. He’s not dead,” he happily confirmed. “He’s just had a tough few hours.”

Ben took a deep swallow then his eyes fell on the empty brandy bottle and his face hardened a little. “Has he been drinking?”

Adam allowed the faintest of smiles. “Only for purely medicinal reasons, Pa. Thought he needed something to help him sleep considering all he’s gone through and I can assure you I had my fair share.”

Frowning with confusion and apprehension as he noticed dried blood stains covering his jacket, Hoss quickly scanned his elder brother up and down for injury. “Are you okay, Adam? You hurt anywhere?”

Grateful for his concern, Adam shook his head. “No, I’m okay Hoss. But believe me, I nearly got to look a lot worse,” he said without elaborating.

Satisfied both siblings were going to be fine, Hoss looked about and spotted a familiar looking object lying on the ground and walked over to it. With Adam and Ben watching, he picked up a pearl handled gun then went over to the dead body and squatted down for a few moments before turning his head in bewilderment. “Looks like this stranger’s been shot through the heart but he’s wearin’ a Virginia City Sheriff’s badge. What’s goin’ on, Adam?”

“It’s a long story, Hoss, but I can assure you he’s no lawman. Far from it,” he answered wearily. “I’ll explain later.”

“Well by the looks of things, I’d say it’s a tale worth waiting for,” Hoss commented, exchanging a knowing look with his father as he pushed himself up. “I’ll go hitch up the wagon and then we’ll get you back to the house. Reckon a hot bath and a few hours sleep in your own bed is what the pair of you need.”

Adam’s response was silence and a tired, exhausted smile of thanks.

Hoss made his way across to the team of horses, leaving Ben staring at his sleeping youngest, pointedly gazing at the raised ridge of reddened swelling in his hair. “Looks like Joe had a close shave today. I just knew something was going to….”

Ben paused and gave a sigh, then turned his attention back on his eldest. “Thank you, Adam. I knew I could rely on you to take care of your brother when he needed it.” Ben gave the sort of thankful look only a caring father could pass over to a much loved son. Then to his surprise, Adam slowly shook his head, and with no sign of embarrassment, the eyes of the usually stoic and unflappable Cartwright suddenly moistening.

“No Pa. You’ve got it all wrong,” he whispered croakily as he grabbed at his father’s arm with his free hand and held on tightly. “It wasn’t me who took care of Joe. It was Joe who took care of me. He’s a son to be proud of and did what he had to do to save my life. Just remember that when you find out what happened today. Promise me, please.”

Raising his brow in slight puzzlement, Ben nodded and gave a gentle smile. “I’ll remember, Adam… and I promise.”

Adam let go his tight grip and sank back down, wiping his hand across his eyes to dry them. Ben watched him carefully for a few moments and could only wonder what had gone on that morning to make his eldest son act so out of character. But not wishing to push him for further details until he was ready he reached over to the canteen and offered it. “Do you want a drink of water, Adam? Your throat sounds might dry.”

Adam shook his head with a thanking smile. “No, thanks Pa. Had just about my fill of liquid today. I just want to go home,” he said, then looked down as Joe cuddled closer to the safety of his brother’s comforting hold. “Just want us all to go home.”

***The End***

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