Never Say Never (by Doreen)

Summary:  Sequel to “Playing Soldiers”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  21,000


Ben Cartwright sank back in his favorite armchair, contentment and happiness flooding through his body as the old grandfather clock by the front door began to chime and strike 1 am. The excitement of the previous day’s events raced around his mind as the dying embers of the fire cast a long shadow throughout the large downstairs sitting room.

Could it be only a few hours ago he had returned home early from Sacramento to find his youngest son returned safe within the fold of the Ponderosa after a traumatic year away. Ben shook his head, the memory of their meeting still causing him to shudder with remorse for striking Joe on the face with much anger in his heart. Once told the true circumstances involving Joe’s disappearance all those months ago, he had been left reeling, ashamed and distraught. However, his misery was short lived for with his memory returned, the youngest Cartwright willingly and unconditionally forgave his father, the two men bonding as close as ever.

For Ben the following hours continued in a pleasurable blur, hardly believing his son was in front of him again, laughing and smiling. Although unwilling to divulge full details of his participation in the Civil War that still raged relentlessly and bloody in the East, Joe had jokingly described his transformation into the soldier of his childhood dreams and the life he had readily accepted without question. It had been interesting and informative and as Ben listened intently he came to realize just how close he had been to never knowing the true fate of his youngest son.

Reaching up to the top of the mantelpiece, Ben felt for his pipe and tobacco then settled down, filling and then lighting the clay bowl, drawing in the smoke. As the aromatic smell slowly wafted upwards, he looked through emotionally watery eyes, still hardly believing all three sons were once again safely ensconced on the Ponderosa, reliving the moment an hour before when they had joked together before climbing up the staircase to bed.

Saying a silent prayer of thanks, Ben puffed on his pipe contentedly, allowed himself to totally relax, thoroughly at peace with the world for the first time in over a year. It was then he heard faint footsteps slowly making their way down the stairs and a figure appeared in the dim light of the flickering fire. Joe, dressed in a long nightshirt, hair tousled and bare footed, yawned as he sat down on the edge of the large hearth.

“What’s wrong, son? Can’t you sleep?” asked Ben, the usually unpredictable Joe predictably joining his father in the dead of night, as he had done on countless occasions since early childhood. His pipe now cold, Ben laid it aside and gently ruffled his son’s thick curly hair, stifling an urge to request an early visit to the barber’s chair for his youngest. That could wait for another day!

“Was going to ask you the same question, Pa!” Joe replied, appreciating the comforting feel of his father’s hand on his head as he rested his arms on Ben’s knee. “I was lying there, waiting to hear you come to bed and got worried.”

Ben smiled, knowing it was just an excuse for his son to join him for the first time in over a year. “I was just relaxing, Joe, thinking about what happened yesterday.”

“You aren’t still feeling bad about hitting me, are you?” asked Joe, absently stroking his cheek though it no longer throbbed or ached. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Ben squeezed his son’s arm affectionately. “No, Joe. Just thinking how good it is to have my three sons back together. Something I dreamed and prayed for every night after you disappeared.” Joe dropped his eyes and looked guiltily onto the floor.

“Joe? What’s the matter?” Ben asked, immediately noticing his son’s downcast look.

“It just never occurred to me there would be family worrying about where I had gone. It sounds pretty selfish now I say it out loud but I came pretty close to never returning to the ranch. If it wasn’t for Sergeant Miller insisting I returned, I may well have stayed where I was. Can you forgive me?”

Ben smiled kindly as he rubbed his son’s back in methodic, comforting circles. “Of course I forgive you. It must have been very confusing, finding out you weren’t Angus Borden after taking his name and living his life for a year, and not remembering your own past. At least you came back…and thank heavens your memory returned!”

“You can say that again, Pa! Makes me shudder to think I might have ended up leaving you again.”

Ben sighed deeply. “I don’t know how I would have coped, Joe, if you had returned to the Army. The one thing I’ll always be grateful and thankful to the Good Lord for are my sons, and I hope you realize just how special you are to me….will always be.”

“We’re the ones who should be grateful and thankful,” Joe said quietly. “No sons could wish for a better father.”

Ben sniffed away a tear. “Thank you, Joe.”

“No. Thank you, Pa. And you can be rest assured about one thing,” added Joe with a quick grin. “I’ll not be leaving again….not now, not never!”

“Never say never Joe! It might come back to haunt you!” Ben teased, picking up his pipe and relighting it before sinking back into his chair. “I spent many nights, falling asleep down here while you were away…for a while I was adamant I would never sleep in my own bed again until you came back!” Ben confessed, suddenly feeling a need and desire to bare his soul to his youngest. “Refused to go upstairs…wouldn’t go outside the house for days. I have a feeling your brothers were close to having me committed for a while!”

Joe sat up sharply. “I would have liked to see them try that, Pa,” he said, grinning. “Somehow I can’t see Ben Cartwright allowing that to happen.”

“Maybe not, Joe, but I was very depressed, feeling so sorry for myself. Just couldn’t believe or understand why you had left the way you did,” Ben admitted with a sad sigh. “I failed to see how my actions affected your brothers. They were hurting just as much as me but I wasn’t there for them when they needed comforting. I regret that…regret it a lot.”

“I’m sure Adam and Hoss understand, Pa. They were both very sympathetic when they described what you went through.”

Ben sat back, reflectively. How could one man be blessed with finer sons, he mused.

It had been hard, very hard over several months for Adam and Hoss as they coerced, bullied and finally persuaded him to take an interest in the Ponderosa and start living his life again following Joe’s disappearance. Ben remembered back to early one morning as he sat alone in this very chair, his Colt .45 held tightly in his hand, the decanter of brandy empty by his side, dejected and inconsolable, brushing the barrel against his temple. So close! What had he been thinking? The memory brought out a subconscious pained sigh as he brushed away a tear of shame. His sons must never know how the father they loved, respected and admired had come close to taking the easy option. Come close to committing the unforgivable sin.

“Pa!”

Ben blinked, wiping his moist eye as his heart pounded guiltily and so loudly in his chest he wondered if his son could hear it. “Yes, Joe?”

“You were miles away there, Pa. Somewhere nice I hope?” Joe chuckled as he tried hard to stifle a yawn.

“Oh, somewhere I don’t intend to visit again,” replied Ben somberly, noting the puzzled look that fleetingly passed over his son’s face. “Don’t worry, Joe. Just the musings of a tired old man,” Ben said quietly. “And as for you, Joseph, definitely time you went back to bed. I promise I will be up in a few minutes.”

Shivering slightly Joe stood up, giving his father a loving stare through tired eyes. “It’s been good, chatting again like this, Pa. Just like old times.”

Ben stood up, placing his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Yes! Just like old times,” he answered. “And long may they continue. Good night son.”

“Goodnight, Pa,” answered Joe as he pulled away and disappeared up the stairs, Ben standing stock still as he listened to the soft padding of his son’s footsteps, and heard the quiet closing of a bedroom door. Refilling his pipe, Ben once again settled down for another five minutes, contemplating a happy future on the Ponderosa for the Cartwright family, now complete and together again.

*****

Joe pushed his way into the Silver Dollar, looking around keenly as he made his way to the bar, now eager to renew old friendships. This was his first visit back to Virginia City since the day he arrived on the stage from Fort Laramie. For the past three weeks he had remained on the Ponderosa, slowly finding his feet and savoring the sights and sounds of the ranch he loved so much, appreciating the mountains and pine forests that had been a part of his being since birth.

His initial glance in the saloon picked up three men playing cards in a corner around a circular table, and immediately recognizing two of them he ordered a beer and sauntered over, pulling up the fourth chair as Seth and Dave gave him a welcoming smile.

“Hi, Joe. Good to see you again. I hear you’ve got your memory back,” stated Seth, as Joe took a long gulp of his drink, gratefully accepting the coolness as it trickled its way down his throat.

“Yep,” Joe replied eventually, placing the now empty glass on the table and acknowledging his old friend with a smile. “And don’t think I haven’t forgotten you still owe me 5 dollars from our last poker game,” he teased, playfully pushing Seth’s hat over his eyes.

“Was going to pay you back the next pay day, Joe…not my fault you got yourself carried away by the Army!” Set explained good-naturedly.

“You’ll have to tell us about your time away, Joe,” added Dave. “Hardly recognized you in the Union uniform when you arrived back.”

The third man looked over his cards and gave his companions a steely glare. “For God’s sake…are we going to play cards or reminisce?” he cried, his losing streak evident from the black look on his face and the lack of funds in front of him.

Joe stared over at the bearded man, noting immediately the left sleeve was tied at the elbow, his forearm and hand clearly missing. He looked a few years older than Joe and wore a dirty and worn shirt, his hair unkempt and streaked with grey. Their eyes locked together, Joe’s deep green staring into bright and intense blue. “Sorry to interrupt,” said Joe, smiling and extending his arm over. “I’m Joe Cartwright.”

The man shrugged his shoulders, ignoring the outstretched hand as he studied Joe closely, his stare penetrating and malicious. “So you’re the hero, returned from the war! Been the talk of your buddies here for days, Yankee boy!” he hissed, glancing between Dave and Seth, his deep Texan drawl clearly noticeable as the last word was spat out and emphasized with bitterness.

“Come on, Max! You can’t blame Joe for what happened to you,” remarked Seth, giving his old friend an embarrassed glance.

Joe sat back, momentarily stung by the venomous greeting. “I’m no hero, mister,” he said quietly, holding back his temper. “I only ended up fighting for the North through no fault of my own.”

“Fighting under the Union flag? I did hear you favored the South…was quite the southern sympathizer! How easy it is for some to change allegiance!” Max said, suddenly kicking the table away, beer glass, cards and coins falling to the floor. “I don’t sit with the likes of a Benedict Arnold!” he spat, storming out of the saloon and leaving the three friends to stare after him in stunned silence.

“Who the hell was he?” Joe asked finally as Dave and Seth lifted up the fallen table. “And just what have you two been telling him about me?”

Dave cleared his throat apologetically. “Didn’t mean no harm, Joe. Guess you just came up in conversation, seeing as you’re quite the celebrity hero around here at the moment. Max turned up here a couple of weeks ago and he’s been staying with his uncle on the Devlin ranch.”

“He’s Mitch’s cousin?” Joe asked, raising his eyebrows in disbelief. “Never knew he existed!”

Seth nodded. “His father was Jake Devlin’s older brother, but they hadn’t seen each other for over thirty years. Jake isn’t too well these days and he accepts any help that comes his way since Mitch left. Not that Max does much…spends most of his time hanging around the saloons playing poker and usually losing!”

Joe looked over astonished. “Mitch has left? No one told me….when did he go…where did he go?” he asked, confused as to why his family had failed to tell him about his oldest friend since his return to the ranch.

Mitch and Joe lost their mothers within weeks of each other at the age of five, Mitch’s mother dying of the fever, and Joe’s mother from a horrendous fall from her horse. Their common bond of grief had brought them together, becoming the closest of friends throughout childhood, teenage years and into manhood.

Seth cast a sideways glance at Dave, shifting in his seat uncomfortably as he nervously bit his lip. “Your Pa did ask us to not mention anything about Mitch. Said he would tell you in his own time.”

Joe gave his friend a skeptical glance and frowned. “My Pa?”

“And Adam,” added Dave in a rush. “I have a feeling they both thought you might be tempted to follow Mitch once you knew he had gone.”

His two friends looked sheepishly at each other as Joe sat back in his chair, a sudden feeling of anger washing over him. “Well now you’ve started, you might as well tell me the whole story,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’ll square it with Pa…and Adam, don’t worry.”

“Mitch quit the ranch just after you disappeared, Joe. He figured if a new life was all right for you, then he would have his fair share of adventure as well. From what Max told us, they met up in Texas and decided to join up together with a bunch of Texan farmers and cowboys, all of them showing allegiance to the South. Ended up fighting for the Confederacy but Max lost his arm during a skirmish and was discharged. Not much use for a one-armed rifleman in any Army!”

“What happened to Mitch?” Joe pressed as Seth finished his story.

“Max arrived here carrying a heavy load of hatred on his back, only saying he thought Mitch headed north. Other than that, he hasn’t said a word about what happened to the pair of them.”

“If Max has lost his arm fighting against the Union, it’s no wonder he hates me!”

“He hates everybody, Joe,” responded Seth. “He’s from Texas, born and bred. Guess that’s why his loyalty lies with the South…and he was willing to fight for it.”

“But Mitch? Why would he want to go fight? He was born here! Never mentioned wanting to turn soldier!”

“Would seem the Civil War has turned many men strange. I certainly have no intention of getting myself blown to bits, for the North or the South,” replied Seth vehemently. “Sarah would never allow it anyway,” he stated, the girl he had been courting for a year never too far from his mind.

Dave gave Seth a knowing smile then turned back to Joe. “Your family was pretty vague about where you had gone so I guess Mitch thought you’d disappeared to go fight for the South, just like you threatened that time when Kyle was around. Remember?”

Joe swore under his breath, fighting hard to keep his composure. “That was over two years ago! Surely he knew I put all that talk behind me then…it wasn’t worth the risk of dividing my family against each other. What was he thinking?”

“You know Mitch….always followed your lead and copied what you did since we were in school together. Don’t go taking any heed of Max Devlin, though. He just wants to vent his anger against someone, and you seem to fit the bill at the moment.”

Joe grunted, his evening now ruined as he sank back into his chair.

“You want another beer, Joe?” asked Dave as he began to pick up the loose coins and dollar bills from the floor.

Joe shook his head. “No thanks. Evening has turned a mite sour. Think I’ll head off home.”

With a quick farewell, Joe rose and headed out of the saloon. The darkness of the night now enveloped the near empty street as Joe walked deep in thought towards the livery where he had left Cochise, wondering where his old friend Mitch could be. He also felt a slight resentment towards his father and Adam for thinking he would want to leave the ranch again. ‘Oh ye of little faith!’ he mused silently as he arrived in the ill-lit stable, suddenly startled by a voice calling to him from the shadows.

“Running home, Yankee?” snarled Max, emerging slowly towards Joe, his right fist clenched in a tight ball above his holster.

“I don’t want any trouble, Devlin. I’m sorry to hear how you lost your arm but I’m not going to get into a fight with you, despite your name calling. It just isn’t worth it,” he replied, feeling a slight sense of sympathy for the disabled man.

Max gave a cold, impersonal smile. “Maybe not, Cartwright…but after hearing nothing but good things about you from your friends, there’s something I need to say.”

“Go on then, what’s on your mind?” Joe asked, suddenly tensing, his left hand swaying above his gun warily. Max saw the movement and a muscle twitched across his cheek.

“It’s about my cousin Mitch. You do remember him don’t you?” he asked in a menacing tone.

“Of course I remember him. We practically grew up together.”

“Yeah, that’s what I heard from your two cronies in the saloon, and my uncle. Mitch used to talk a lot about you as well. How you was almost like brothers…that’s what he told me. Mitch Devlin and Joe Cartwright, more like brothers than some brothers he used to say! Told me a lot about you, Cartwright. Mother coming from New Orleans…you and your southern sympathy for the cause. Told me all about the time that man Kyle visited Virginia City. Seems ironic he and me got something in common now.”

Max paused, gently stroking his upper left arm. “Don’t think cousin Mitch would have thought of joining up with me if it hadn’t been for you, and what you once believed in. He had some fool notion he would actually meet up with you and you’d be together, playing soldiers like you did when you were kids!”

“That was a long time ago. Things change…people change, we grew up,” responded Joe, the air of tension growing steadily between the two men.

“Your two friends tell you how we fought for the Confederates?”

Joe nodded. “They did, but didn’t say where you fought.”

“That’s ’cause I ain’t told no one. Seems like folk around here are biased towards the Union so I decided to keep that to myself after I heard about you.”

Looking mystified Joe edged towards Cochise, absently stroking the warm muzzle. “What you getting at?” he asked impatiently as the pinto nuzzled into Joe’s chest.

“Sibley’s Texan Brigade. Heard of them have you Cartwright?”

Joe hesitated, the name sending a cold shiver down his back. He chewed on his lower lip for a moment then nodded. “Yes. I’ve heard of them,” he said finally.

“Me and Mitch ended up fighting in Sibley’s Texan Brigade…the Confederate enemy, your enemy! Both of us at Glorietta Pass…that’s where I lost my arm by the way!”

“Mitch and you were there? At Glorietta Pass?” Joe interrupted, now viewing the one armed man with horror.

Max Devlin nodded. “Heard tell you ended up fighting against Sibley’s men at the Pass. That’s right, isn’t it?”

Joe looked over, more than a little taken aback. “Who told you that?”

“Your big brother, the one the size of an ox, was spouting off about your adventures last week in the saloon to your two friends. Got quite an audience as well…made it sound like you had a great time down in New Mexico and was quite the hero! You were there, weren’t you?”

“Yes, I was there. But what about Mitch? What happened to him?”

“There ain’t been sight or sound of my cousin since I was taken to the field hospital wagon and carted away after we retreated. Missing in Action! That’s the fancy term they use these days. Seems to me there is a good chance you could have killed my cousin….your best friend Mitch. How does that make you feel? Union lover!”

“Mitch dead? Why do you think he could be dead? I thought he’d headed north.”

“Well you’re wrong! Mitch was by my side when I lost my arm in that first wave of Union cavalry as they galloped towards our position, bayonets slashing at everything in their path. That was the last time I saw him….last time I saw any of my friends!”

Joe looked at him with a grief-stricken face.

“I see you remember, Cartwright. Did you notice the fear in the eyes of the men you were butchering, think about the carnage your cavalry left behind? Did you hear the screams of agony? Maybe it was you that took off my arm….maybe you heard my screams! And maybe it was you who killed Mitch!”

“No! I didn’t kill him…I just couldn’t have killed him…!”

“But there’s no proof you didn’t! After all, you had lost your memory. You could have stared Mitch in the face and not known it was him! I wonder what Mitch would have been thinking as he saw his oldest friend bearing down on him? How you going to feel not knowing…never knowing if it wasn’t your sword that was thrust into him, or your bullet that ripped into his body.”

Joe groaned, burying his face into Cochise’s neck, the memory of the charge, the horrified faces looking up at him, the blood, the screaming of men and horses, the smell of death and decay in the days that followed flooding his brain. It was a memory he had strived to forget and had buried away deep, never wishing to bring it to the surface again.

“What about Jake Devlin? What have you told him?” Joe almost whispered after a few moments silence, Mitch’s father having been a much loved and respected surrogate uncle to Joe over the years, a patient confidante during his rebellious teens when neither his father nor brothers seemed to be able to understand his moods and frustrations. Jake’s ranch had become like a second home to the young Cartwright, with Jake, Mitch and Joe spending many enjoyable and happy days together.

Max shook his head. “My uncle isn’t too well these days so I just told him we’d been separated and Mitch had headed north. Told your friends the same. Didn’t figure Jake would want to know how his son really died…unless you want to tell him? Would you want to kill off father and son in one fell swoop, eh?” he asked sarcastically.

Joe shot him a look of contempt, fighting hard to stop his whole body from shaking uncontrollably as he leant heavily onto Cochise. “Then why are you telling me now?”

“Mitch said he thought you’d gone away to fight for the Confederacy, was real proud of his old friend! But when I got here and heard you’d been in the Union Cavalry, heard where you’d been…how the hero was really a turncoat! Well, I decided to bide my time for the right moment. Been hanging around your friends, hoping you would put in an appearance!”

Max indicated his missing arm. “Just wanted to get my own back in some small way for what happened to me….what happened to Mitch.”

“Get your own back? I don’t understand what you’re talking about! Are you going to try and kill me?” Joe asked incredulously, his fingers frozen above his holster.

“Kill you? Oh no, I’m not going to do that!” Max denied vehemently. “No! My revenge is going to be much sweeter. The two of us will have this little secret and we’ll see how long you can live with your conscience! A living hell! Think you can do that after what you might have done?”

Joe turned towards Cochise, untying his horse’s reins. “I’m not staying here to listen to this…you don’t know what you’re talking about!”

There was an eerie silence for a few moments as Max studied Joe, a gleam coming into his eyes as he chortled maliciously.

“If you think you can go home and put all that happened out of your mind, then you’re very much mistaken!” he shouted over gleefully. “There will be nightmares every night! You’ll see Mitch’s face over and over again, and never escape the noise, the screams of men dying in agony. No matter what you do, it will always be there in your head, all day, every day! I just wonder how long you can stand it….until!”

“Until what?” asked Joe, swallowing hard as he felt Max’s eyes burning into his back.

“Until you can’t take no more and it drives you mad, not being able to forget! How long, Yankee lover, before you put a bullet through your brain?”

Joe trembled as he took hold of Cochise’s saddle and held on to steady himself.

“You’re crazy. I would never do that!”

Max eyed him scornfully. “Maybe…maybe not. But I reckon you deserve some sort of punishment for what you’ve probably done,” he said with a malicious laugh as he turned heel and wandered to the door, glancing behind him into the gloom of the livery.

“You know, it would be a real shame if your Pa found out what happened to Mitch. Don’t think he would be too proud of his ‘soldier son’ then, do you? Don’t think your friends in Virginia City would be too impressed either.”

“What are you getting at?”

“I just would hate to accidentally blab out to Uncle Jake what really happened to his son.”

“Are you threatening me?” Joe cried. Max gave an evil chuckle.

“Threatening you? Oh no. But I am running short of funds at the moment. Seem to have got myself a losing streak in the Silver Dollar. Would appreciate some assistance in that department.”

“So it’s blackmail then, is it?”

“Wouldn’t call it blackmail. Just a little financial agreement between the two of us to keep our little secret.”

“What makes you think I’d pay you anything?”

“’Cause you’re from one of the most upstanding and righteous families in Nevada! Bet it would break your Pa’s heart if the Cartwright name was sullied in such a terrible fashion. I mean, I can just see it…poor Jake Devlin, sent to an early grave by the hand of Joe Cartwright! I think you’d be willing to pay to keep my uncle alive, seeing as how you were always so close to the old boy. Am I right?”

Joe nodded slowly. “Yes, I’ll pay,” he replied, his voice quiet and subdued.

“I’ll be in touch then, Yankee,” said Max, his laughter echoing in the empty street as he disappeared into the darkness.

Joe could feel his fingernails cutting into his palms as he clenched his fists tightly in nervous tension at his secret pact with Max. There was also sadness in his eyes and a deep feeling of guilt in his gut. For what seemed an age Joe rested on his saddle, shaking relentlessly though not with the cold of night but the shocked realization that everything Max had said could indeed be true. He could well have killed Mitch!

Wearily and with a heavy heart, he mounted Cochise and returned slowly in the direction of the Ponderosa, his conversation with Max Devlin echoing over and over in his head. Not now the returning hero, but the soldier who may well have killed, possibly murdered, probably butchered his oldest friend!

Joe pulled up Cochise, catching his breath as his heart pounded in his chest. His stomach churned as he reeled with nausea and felt the urge to vomit, falling to the floor and retching violently. As the cavalry soldier Angus Borden, he had carried out orders from his superiors without a second thought. But now, through the eyes of Joe Cartwright, civilian, each heave produced a vivid guilt filled, heart-wrenching memory from Glorietta Pass that tore at his conscience. Scared and bloodied faces that stared at him as he galloped into the Confederate midst, his saber pulled from its sheath and flashing in his hand, thrusting downwards, repeatedly hitting bone, sinew and flesh.

Eventually the heaving ceased, but the memories remained as Joe pulled himself up, taking down his canteen with shaking hands and swilling out his mouth, the overwhelming feeling of guilt continuing to churn his empty stomach.

Still trembling and unsteady, Joe remounted and made his way home, deliberately taking time to settle Cochise in his stall, giving him a gentle rubdown and extra feed. He walked across the yard slowly, hanging back for a few minutes as he tried hard to compose himself. The evening’s events had left him numb with shock, not desiring company, only craving the sanctuary of his own room as he quietly opened the front door and heard the laughter of his brother as Hoss shared a joke with his father.

Hanging up his hat and gun belt, he barely glanced at the three men sat by the fire, murmuring good night as he walked towards the stairs.

“You haven’t been long in town, Joe?” stated Ben, thankful his son was home early. “Not that I’m complaining! It’s good to have you all together in the evenings.”

“Wasn’t in the mood for socializing, Pa,” replied Joe, placing his foot on the first step. “Thought I’d have an early night if you don’t mind.”

Hoss grinned over towards his youngest brother. “You fancy a game of checkers? I sure missed playing against you over the past year and feel like my lucky streak is now about to start!”

Joe turned, holding on tight to the banister rail and giving his brother a dark glare. He couldn’t cope with kindness or generosity of spirit from his family, neither deserving nor feeling capable of accepting it…not now!

“No thanks. And do me a favor, Hoss,” he said icily, unable to stop himself from firing a quick retort. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t go blabbing my private affairs to everyone in town.”

Hoss frowned in puzzlement. “Joe? What you talking about?”

“I’m talking about you telling everyone what I did while I was away. It’s my business and no one else’s, and I’d appreciate you keeping your big mouth shut in future!” Joe snapped as a hurt look crossed Hoss’ face.

“Joseph!” Ben cried. “That was unnecessary! Apologize to your brother!”

Joe held his father’s gaze, for once no sign of an instant apology on the young man’s lips as he ignored his father’s request. “I would also like to know when one of you was going to tell me about Mitch? Or had that little piece of news just escaped your memory?” he yelled, scanning the three faces that stared over at him.

Adam put down the book he was reading, his brother’s raised voice startling him momentarily. “So you’ve heard? Who told you? Seth? Dave?”

“Doesn’t matter who, but I would of appreciated my own family telling me first. Or was there some specific reason you didn’t want me to know?” Joe asked bitterly, glancing between his father and elder brother. “You worried I would desert you all again and go running off like Mitch?”

Ben stared at his son. “Don’t you raise your voice to me, Joseph,” he said quietly.

“Well?” Joe took a deep breath, the anger on his face still clearly visible. “It’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes I feel I was trusted more while in the Army than I am by my own family!”

Turning his back he ran up the stairs without a backward glance, unwilling for his family to see the tears forming in his eyes as he disappeared into his bedroom.

Sometimes there was no reasoning with his youngest son, and this was quite obviously one of those times, as downstairs Ben remained still and quiet, his eyes closed tightly and his mouth whitened into a straight line as the stinging words rang in his head. Stinging words that Ben shamefully had to admit held a morsel of truth. He had been fearful Joe would decide to follow his old friend’s lead and leave, maybe even make his way back to the battle front, wherever it was. More so, he was convinced his son would disappear, never to return, leaving him once again distraught and inconsolable.

‘Its not that I don’t trust you, Joseph,’ Ben thought mournfully to himself, ‘I don’t trust myself anymore.’

Hoss sat back, visibly stunned by Joe’s outburst. “Well, that must have been a good evening in town to leave little brother in such a good mood!” he quipped as Adam laid down his book on the table, aware of the hurt look on his father’s face. “You okay, Pa?”

Ben, shaken from his private thoughts, glanced over and gave his eldest son a weak smile as he nodded. “I deserved that. I did put off telling Joe about Mitch…and in a way he was right. I was worried he might want to leave us again. Even maybe try and find Mitch.”

“Well if it’s any consolation, I thought the same,” added Adam.

“I shouldn’t worry too much,” responded Hoss. “It’s probably a storm in a teacup. Little brother will be back to his jovial self by tomorrow…just you wait and see.”

“I hope so, Hoss, I really do,” answered Ben, though inside he felt his stomach churn with doubt.

*****

After slamming the door behind him, Joe sat on the edge of his bed, hoping his angry words would make them hate him as much as he hated himself at that moment. He held his head in his hands, the revived memories of the horror at Glorietta Pass racing around and around in his head. He couldn’t forget, would never forget. His living nightmare had truly begun.

Joe found sleep elusive that night as he began to live the hell predicted by the vile Max…a bloody faced Mitch Devlin staring at him whenever he closed his eyes, and the sound of screams filling his head continually without respite. He rose as the sun broke through on the eastern horizon, drinking black coffee while his family slept, all blissfully unaware of the turmoil going through the young man’s head. Unable to force down the portion of scrambled eggs brought to him by Hop Sing, Joe pushed back his chair and made his way to the front door, putting on his jacket, buckling on his gun belt and slamming his hat down hard on his head.

His hands began to shake and he bit his lip hard, feeling sad and pathetic as tears welled up in his eyes, feeling a need for something to help him cope with his guilt, anything that would help disguise the shame he felt. He looked around the room and on impulse walked to the sideboard by the dining table, looking down at the bottles arranged neatly on a silver tray. Staring at them, Joe made a decision and picking up an unopened bottle of whisky, slipped it into the inside pocket of his jacket, looking up furtively as he heard the sound of footsteps. Moving quickly, he returned to the front door, eager to avoid his father and brothers, the previous evenings events leaving him emotionally drained as he disappeared just as Ben walked down the stairs.

After riding aimlessly for hours on the Ponderosa, Joe eventually pulled up by a group of boulders at the waters edge of Lake Tahoe, allowing his tired horse to drink its fill. Sitting by the lake, weary and depressed from the endless screams and visions he had endured hour after hour, he felt confused in his mind and despairing in his heart as his conscience now demanded punishment for what he had done at Glorietta Pass.

Craving peace and internal silence, he pulled out the bottle from his pocket and began to drink, the whisky burning its way down his throat. Eventually, the once full bottle now empty, eyes blurred and glazed and with no sense of time, he sat as if transfixed, his Colt held tightly in his hand, Max Devlin’s prophetic words haunting him as he stroked the barrel against his temple.

Suddenly words of wisdom he had once heard rushed into his whisky sodden head…‘a suicide dies once…those left behind die a 1000 deaths trying to understand why!’

Joe shook himself from his reverie, that one millisecond contemplating the unforgivable sin leaving him shaking with shame. Replacing his gun carefully in its holster, Joe stared at the rippling waves, shaking his head and sighing deeply as he looked around the land that was the mighty Ponderosa, loving every inch of it, the mountains, the lake, the meadows. It was home… his home and that of his beloved father and brothers…a home he once promised to his father he would never leave.

To his befuddled, guilt ridden and whisky soaked mind, he could think of no harsher punishment than to forsake this place and abandon those he cared for the most, taking his guilt and shame away with him, never to return.

But how could he do this without causing heartbreak and reducing his family to despair, as had happened the year before?

As he plotted, the afternoon melted into early evening until at last Joe nodded to himself, his plan worked out. He would depart, but as an estranged son and brother, his behavior from now on contrived to alienate himself from his family, to turn them against him, to want him to go and leave them in peace. He stood up, then staggering slightly he returned to Cochise and hauled himself into the saddle, showing the faintest of humorless smiles as he turned his horse towards home.

From that day on Ben, Adam and Hoss noticed a change in the behavior of the youngest Cartwright, a subtle shift in his personality that left them perplexed and bewildered. The ever smiling and confident young man who arrived back from the Army quickly disappeared, to be replaced by a bad tempered and insular individual, now prone to frightening and repetitive nightmares. He snapped at his father, was insolent to his brothers, a smile never now on his face. It was obvious to all something was bothering him, something serious, but Joe’s constant denial anything was wrong still left Ben with a deep feeling of unease.

*****

Canon fire resonated loudly, bursting the eardrums of those within a hundred yards as horses and men screamed with fear, the strong smell of gunpowder hanging thickly in the air. The battle continued with rifle and pistol fire from both sides as death took its pick of the young soldiers, the lucky ones dying instantly, the unfortunates lingering agonizingly long and painfully on the bloody battle ground.

Joe Cartwright, gun in hand, fired continually at the grey uniformed enemy as one by one his friends and fellow combatants fell, leaving him the last to stand alone, his bullets spent. A dozen hostile troopers encircled him, walking slowly towards the hapless young soldier, their bayonets held high, glinting in the sunlight and blinding him momentarily as he tensed, perspiration pouring down his back. Joe stared over terrified as the bloodied figure of the nearest Confederate came closer and closer towards him, Mitch Devlin yelling continually with hatred in his blue eyes. Recognizing his attacker, the young Cartwright screamed in agony as his old friend thrust his sword deep into Joe’s body, the rattled sound of death piercing and blood curdling as it echoed throughout the battle field….

Again a scream shattered the silence of night as Joe jumped up in his bed, sweat pouring from his face, his eyes wide with fear and his throat dry. Suddenly a door opened and a figure walked into Joe’s bedroom, lamp in his hand as he made his way to the bed.

“Joe? Are you okay?” asked Adam, giving his brother an anxious look as Joe slowly wiped his hand across his eyes, breathing heavily. “Have you had another nightmare?”

Swallowing hard, Joe ran his tongue over dry lips. “I would think that was obvious!” he snapped, inwardly regretting his outburst. “Sorry, Adam,” he muttered silently, as another figure came into view, blocking out the landing light in the doorway.

Ben sat down on the edge of his bed, wiping away the beads of sweat that covered his son’s face with a towel. “Another nightmare I take it? Sounded like a pretty bad one!” Ben said, concern for his youngest son clearly visible on his weathered face in the flickering lamp light.

Joe slumped back onto his pillow, his nightshirt saturated as it clung onto his muscular frame. “You’ll never know how bad,” Joe thought miserably to himself as he nodded over, embarrassed he had awoken his father and brother.

“Want to talk about it, Joe?” asked Adam, his voice full of concern. Joe’s nightmares since the death of his mother were legendary within the family, Adam more than once soothing the trembling little brother in the middle of the night over the years.

Sighing deeply Joe looked up. “No point. I can’t remember anything, Adam,” lied Joe as he stared up at the two tired faces that looked down at him.

The traumatic memory of Glorietta Pass haunted him constantly but Joe could not bring himself to share details of his nightmare, the same nightmare that visited him night after night since he first heard about Mitch six weeks before. “Sorry to wake you.”

Stifling a yawn, Ben gazed with loving eyes at his son. “Don’t you worry about that, Joe; I’m more concerned about you. These nightmares have been going on for weeks without a sign of ceasing. Would you like me to make you a hot drink of milk…seem to remember it used to help you sleep when you were a little boy.”

Silently Joe inwardly groaned. When would his father recognize he was now a grown man and not a small child! Milk for heavens sake! he cried angrily to himself, knowing it was more than milk he needed as he diverted his eyes towards the dressing table, grateful for the dimness in the room as he shook his head. “No thanks, Pa, I’ll be okay now,” he replied a little too icily. “You and Adam get back to bed; I’ve kept you awake long enough as it is.”

Choosing not to comment on Joe’s unpleasant tone of voice, Ben rose from the bed and gave him a comforting squeeze on the arm. “See you in the morning then. Pleasant dreams, son,” he said, walking over to the open door as Adam followed, glancing back in the darkness.

“Good night, Joe,” Adam called quietly, returning to his room as Ben lingered for a moment, the flickering lamp held tightly in his hand.

“You sure you’ll be all right?” asked Ben.

Joe nodded, pulling the bed sheet over his chest. “I’ll be fine, Pa. I’m not a little boy anymore,” he said coldly while he snuggled deep into the feather pillows.

Ben sighed deeply as he closed the door behind him, hurt and confused by Joe’s continual truculent behavior over the past weeks. He failed to notice his son’s half closed eyes full of misery and sorrow, or hearing the choked sob leaving his throat as Joe lay still for a moment, the strain of his secret about Mitch, and his necessary charade towards those who cared for him so much tearing him apart.

A full moon shone through his window and Joe looked out into the darkness, hearing the boom of the clock downstairs as it struck 3 am, confident he would not sleep again that night. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d played out this same scenario, as with a resigned sigh he rose, pulling his blanket around his shoulders and sitting down in the chair by his dresser, his still damp nightshirt sending cold shivers throughout his body.

In the eerie glow of moonlight, Joe opened the top drawer and pulled out a bottle of whisky, biting off the cork stopper in one concentrated and well practiced action. The initial smell always made him reel with nausea but steeling himself he took a swallow, the amber liquid burning as it trickled down the back of his parched throat.

Cringing, he wondered what his father would say if he saw him drinking alone in the early hours of each morning. He looked keenly at the whisky, his new silent best friend, ashamed at his actions but unable to stop himself. At first it had been one bottle, taken on impulse to help douse the painful memories of the horrific battle and Mitch…just as Max had predicted. After all, how could a few drinks hurt? But one bottle had progressed to another and then another, the whisky providing solace through the day, companionship through the night.

With a slight tremor of his hand, Joe took another long drink, now gratefully accepting the taste as he felt the whisky warm his stomach. He knew he would suffer a headache in the morning, but another bottled friend secreted in his saddle bag helped ease his throbbing head and shaking hands during the day. Learning to cleverly disguise the effects of the whisky, he deceived both family and friends as he attended to the duties and chores around the ranch. But at night, in the privacy of his own room, there was no one to fool as his golden-colored companion comforted him for a few precious hours while he awaited the dawn and the first rays of sun in the sky.

Clutching the whisky bottle tightly to his chest, Joe fought hard to suppress them, but tears soon formed in his eyes, running down his cheeks as he shook his head in despair at the mess his life was in, once again sobbing quietly as his head sunk deep into his chest.

*****

Hoss had just poured out his first cup of coffee of the day when Ben and Adam walked down the stairs, both men unable to contain loud yawns as they made their way to the dining table.

“Morning, Pa, Adam. You two look like as though you could do with another hour in bed!” Hoss said, father and brother sitting down and acknowledging the big man as they started on their breakfast. “You had trouble sleeping?”

Ben gave his son a half smile. “I never have trouble sleeping, Hoss. Unfortunately, Joe suffered another bad nightmare and woke us up in the middle of the night.”

“Another one?” responded Hoss with surprise. “I never heard a thing!”

“That doesn’t surprise me! Your snores were loud enough to drown out all other sounds!” replied Adam light heartedly as he smiled over, but quickly put his hand to his mouth as another yawn forced itself out from him.

Hoss looked over at the tired eyes of his father as he placed a slice of bacon onto his plate. “Well I hope the pair of you are in a better mood than younger brother. He nearly bit my head off again this morning…and not for the first time either!”

Ben looked over in surprise. “Joe is up already again and had breakfast?”

Hoss raised his eyebrows and nodded slightly. “Well, he was drinking black coffee but don’t think he ate anything. The mood he was in, I didn’t ask any questions regarding his appetite!”

“I don’t think we’ve actually all sat down to breakfast together for weeks,” added Adam thoughtfully. “Joe always seems to be first up and out these days, no matter how much sleep he loses during the night. I know he’s keen to make up for the time he lost away from here, but it’s a wonder to me how he stays awake all day at times.”

“I know, son. I don’t understand how he manages it either,” replied Ben, pouring out a coffee as he looked over at his second son. “You said he was in a mood, Hoss. He was pretty frosty with me last night. Any idea what’s wrong?”

Hoss shook his head. “No, Pa. But I do know something’s not quite right and I’ve hardly had a civil word out of him for I don’t know how long. It’s as if he doesn’t want us to like him anymore! And if I didn’t know better, I’d of thought he had a hangover this morning!”

Ben smiled softly. “Well, a hangover is out of the question as Joe went to bed before us all last night, and didn’t have a drink the whole evening. As for acting strangely, maybe he’s just overtired after all these disturbed nights.”

Hoss nodded over though not totally convinced, frowning slightly. “These nightmares, Pa. Any idea why he has so many nowadays? Told me when he first arrived back he’d had a couple after the battle in New Mexico and after that never had any more.”

“Not really, son. Does he talk about it much to you?”

Adam shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “He doesn’t seem to want to talk about anything these days, least of all the Army. Just becomes argumentative all the time.”

Hoss nodded in agreement. “Come to think of it, Adam, he acts the same way with me as well. His mind certainly seems to be somewhere else.”

“Well, maybe that’s the problem,” said Ben cautiously. “I should get him to talk. Bottling up what happened to him is probably causing these nightmares.”

“You can try, Pa, but I don’t hold on you having much success. Anytime you try to engage him in some sort of conversation he just tightens up like a clam,” responded Hoss, returning his attention to the food on his plate.

“Must agree with Hoss there, Pa,” said Adam. “Something is going on in Joe’s head but I just can’t put my finger on what’s wrong. He has definitely been in a foul mood over the past weeks, and just shows no sign of shrugging off what is bothering him!”

Nodding in agreement Ben gave his son a thoughtful look. “Do you think he regrets staying here after all, Adam?” he asked, his heart suddenly sinking with fear. “Do you think he wants to go his own way, just like Mitch, even though he keeps denying it?”

Adam leaned back with a sigh. “Only Joe could tell you that, Pa. I honestly don’t know if his problem has anything to do with hearing about Mitch leaving. In fact, he never says a word about Mitch these days, and hasn’t even been over to visit Jake. Would have thought that’s one of the first places he’d want to revisit since coming back.”

Ben shot a tired glance at his son as he sipped his coffee, thinking back to when Joe had returned from his one and only evening out in Virginia City, upset and angry. From then on, Ben noticed a detrimental change in Joe’s behavior, the once gregarious son now retiring early and continually causing an undercurrent of bad feeling between himself and his family, his lack of appetite and interrupted sleep soon giving him a gaunt look of permanent exhaustion.

It was a complete turn around from his first three weeks on the Ponderosa, leaving his father and brothers totally bewildered, unable to understand what was going on. Without realizing why, Ben could sense his son was becoming detached and estranged, the father unable to communicate with his youngest, the situation showing no sign of improving as the weeks passed by.

Much as Ben wanted to talk through Joe’s problem, in a way he was reluctant to force the issue, for in the back of his mind he couldn’t help but fear his son could not forgive the father who failed to trust and have faith in him. Or even worse, still yearned for a life away from the ranch, like his old friend, Mitch Devlin.

*****

Two weeks later Ben and Adam rode into Virginia City, both men inwardly relieved Joe had declined their offer to accompany them. He still had a few horses to gentle and break in and wanted to continue so the Army order could be completed and finished without a penalty clause. For once Ben did not crave or hanker for his youngest son’s company on the long ride into town, Joe continuing to be surly and bad tempered towards his family, leaving his father shaking his head in despair more than once.

The two men stopped outside the bank, Ben arriving exactly on time for his appointment with the manager, William Stockton. The meeting was to obtain a loan for a new lumber flume to be built high amongst the Ponderosa Pines that would send timber down the Carson River to the mills several miles down stream. It was an ambitious project, but by Adam’s calculations, the initial cost would soon be swallowed up by the savings made, a healthy profit margin being obtained within a couple of years.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come in with me, Adam? After all, you did all the hard work calculating these figures and drawing up the plans for the flume.”

“Thanks, Pa, but I think William would rather deal one to one with the ‘old man’ of the Ponderosa!” Adam said, grinning cheekily at his father.

Ben shook his head and laughed as he dismounted. “Not so much the ‘old’, my boy!” he cried as he disappeared through the large wooden doors into the building.

Continuing on alone, Adam rode to the mercantile, the order for the following month’s supplies in his pocket. Entering, he noticed one other customer who stood alone at the front of the store, a bearded stranger with one arm who grumbled under his breath at the prices of the goods displayed. The blue-eyed man glanced at Adam with indifference then looked away as Adam stood by his side, smiling over at Sam Watkins.

The owner of the busy store was stood behind the counter, a pair of glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose as he greeted his prized customer. “Good morning, Adam. Have you brought your monthly order for the Ponderosa?”

Max Devlin looked over with narrowed eyes, the identity of the man by his side now apparent to him.

“Morning, Sam,” Adam said, handing over a long list of supplies. “Yep. Here it is again. I’ll pick it up tomorrow about midday if that’s okay?”

“Of course, Adam. No problem at all,” Sam answered, looking down the list quickly.

Adam pulled out his wallet. “Guess I had better pay you for the last delivery. Have you got the invoice ready?” he asked, quickly checking to make sure there were enough dollar notes to pay off the account.

“Sure have, Adam,” said Sam, pulling out a large book from under his desk and scanning through the pages. “Here we are… Cartwright. You better check you were sent everything listed…just in case there was a mistake.”

Adam nodded, holding the book and glancing down at the long penciled list as Sam waited patiently. “Looks okay to me, Sam, except for this,” he said, handing back the ledger as Sam stared down at the item indicated by Adam’s fore-finger. “I don’t remember ordering whisky.”

Giving an apologetic smile Sam nodded. “Sorry, Adam. You’re quite right. Joe ordered and paid for these when he collected them. I’ll just deduct it from the total.”

Adam looked puzzled, frowning, his deep brown eyes quizzing the storekeeper. “You mean Joe ordered these? Ten bottles? When was this?”

Sam gave a nod. “Sure did…he ordered them all a few weeks ago,” he answered, subtracting the already paid-for whisky from the total. “I never realized the Ponderosa had such a liking for it. Sorry about the mistake.”

Overhearing the conversation, Max smirked as he turned towards Adam. “Are you one of the Cartwright boys?” he asked abruptly, though in truth he knew the answer.

Adam smarted momentarily, the term boy hardly seeming appropriate as he was now in his mid thirties. “Yes. I’m Adam Cartwright. How can I help you?” he asked, moving slightly away from the menacing figure as he handed Sam four crisp $10 bills.

“Just pass on my good wishes to your brother, Joe. Tell him we need to meet tomorrow!”

Adam shot him a puzzled look but made no comment as Max walked out of the store without a backward glance.

Adam stared over at the storekeeper. “Any idea who that was?” he asked as Sam handed him back the paid invoice and a dollar of change.

“Unfortunately yes Adam. He’s Jake Devlin’s nephew, Max Devlin. Turned up here a few weeks ago without a good word to say to anyone. From what I hear, he was with Mitch for a while, fighting with the Confederates in Texas ‘til he lost his arm. Lucky to be alive…though he doesn’t seem to think so.”

Adam carefully folded the invoice and replaced it in his wallet, dropping the dollar coin into his shirt pocket. “Mitch Devlin in Texas? Fighting? Did he say what happened to him?”

Sam shook his head. “Nope. Just said they went their separate ways after he was wounded. Not a nice man at all, Adam…I wouldn’t trust him an inch. Supposed to be giving his uncle some help on the ranch, but he spends most of his time in town playing poker. I’d love to know where he gets his money from. Seems to me he’s got one mighty big chip on his shoulder and heaven help any man who gets on his wrong side!”

Saying his farewells to Sam, Adam walked slowly outside, stroking Sport on the neck as he looked up and down the main street, a thoughtful expression on his face. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed the familiar figure of Walt Ryan, one of the Ponderosa’s long serving ranch hands, and now foreman, disappearing into the distance.

Ben and his eldest son had helped Walt recover from the alcoholic depression he had fallen into when his leg became badly deformed after a fall during a cattle drive many years before. Although he still carried the scars and limped heavily, Walt had become a valued member of the Ponderosa workforce and Adam gave him a friendly pat on the back as he walked up behind the middle aged man.

“Hi Walt. What are you up to today?”

Walt liked and respected all the Cartwrights, having a deep sense of loyalty to his employers and acknowledged Adam with a friendly grin. “Oh, morning, Boss. Joe gave me the rest of the day off so thought I’d have a relaxing few hours in the Silver Dollar playing poker, seeing as it’s payday as well. You want to join me for a drink? I’m buying!” he asked with a smile as both men continued to walk down the sidewalk.

“Thanks, but not today Walt,” answered Adam. “Meeting my father then we’re joining Roy Coffee for lunch. You have a good time though, and try not to spend all your wages at once!” he added with a chuckle.

“I won’t, Adam. Only have a couple of beers these days. It’s as much as I dare,” replied Walt as he went to push through the swinging doors of the saloon, suddenly stopping, his face growing somber as a thought came to him. Adam looked back, immediately sensing the foreman had something on his mind. Choosing his words carefully the old cowboy’s voice lowered in tone as he stepped back and stood by his employer.

“By the way, Adam, I don’t want to cause no trouble, but I think it’s only fair I tell you.” Walt stopped, nervously looking around him as he continued. “I’ve been working with Joe over the past few weeks breaking in those Army horses, and noticed something that’s been worrying me.”

Adam raised his eyebrows with curiosity.

Taking Adam by the arm Walt walked around the corner of the building into the shadows of the alley, leaning on the wooden wall as he looked around, surreptitiously making sure no one else could eavesdrop on their conversation.

“Well, I know you never allow the men drinking while they’re working, but…”

“But what?” Adam asked, frowning at the serious look on Walt’s face.

“When Joe thinks no one’s looking, I’ve seen him taking quite a few swigs from a bottle in his saddlebag during the day. By the smell of it, I’d say it was whisky, and though it’s not stopped him doing his work…he always was the best bronco buster on the Ponderosa, even after being away for a year…drinking and horse breaking just don’t mix!”

“Whisky? I can’t believe that…not Joe!” interrupted Adam, visibly shocked but discreetly keeping his voice quiet.

“I’m sorry, Adam, but I just had to say something. You don’t mind me telling you, do you?”

“Of course not, Walt. I’ll check it out, have a chat with Joe. But I’d appreciate it if you kept this to yourself for now and don’t mention it to Pa. I’d like to try and sort it out first, rather than worrying him.”

“Of course, Adam. I know I can rely on you. Just thought if Joe had a particular problem, his family would want to try and help him. Never got an answer from a bottle…however much of a friend you think it is at the time. I should know; I nearly lost myself that way. If it wasn’t for you and your father giving me a second chance and helping me to dry out, I don’t know what would have become of me.” Adam nodded, remembering well those turbulent weeks shortly after he had returned from college.

“I think a lot of Joe and don’t want to see him getting hurt,” added Walt

“I know, Walt. Thanks, and I appreciate your concern and your candor.”

Giving Adam a short nod of farewell, Walt returned to the main street and entered the noise and hubbub of the ever popular Silver Dollar, leaving Adam to walk slowly in front of the saloon. He thought back over the past weeks and to the change in Joe’s behavior. Whisky? Adam sighed deeply.

He was physically tired from the disturbed sleep of the past weeks, Joe’s nightmares having continued unabated. He was also emotionally tired, his brother’s dark looks and volatile temper wearing down his family, still at a loss to know the reason. Maybe this was the reason, mused Adam. Drink? But why? What was going on in his little brother’s head?

“Are you planning on loitering here all day?” a voice at his elbow said, as Adam turned quickly, startled. His father’s face peered at him, kind and concerned eyes concentrated intently on his son’s face. “You were miles away there, son. Something wrong?”

A half-smile touched Adam’s lips. “Sorry, Pa. Just thinking. Finished at the bank?”

Ben nodded. “Yes, everything is done. We have the loan so can start getting that flume built. Your figures were correct, down to the last cent by the way! William was very impressed,” said Ben, giving his son a look of pride. “Let’s collect Roy and get over to the hotel for that celebratory lunch,” he added, as the two men walked back down the street towards the sheriff’s office.

“Actually, Pa, would you mind if I didn’t join the pair of you? Joe has given Walt the day off so I thought I’d go see how he’s getting on, maybe give him a hand.”

Ben looked over with surprise. “What brought this on? I thought being near Joe today would be the furthest thing from your mind, knowing the mood he was in…again…this morning!”

“I know, Pa! Like Daniel into the lion’s den! But I just feel I’d like to give him some company…maybe offering to help him will give us a chance to talk together, without him starting an argument like he usually does these days. Besides, you know you love talking to Roy about your ‘boys’…this younger generation who don’t know how lucky they are, who don’t listen, and how it was so different in the good old days!” laughed Adam, his father giving him a friendly punch on the arm.

“Very funny!” chuckled Ben, nodding in agreement at his son’s comments. “If that’s what you want to do, off you go, and good luck!” His face suddenly clouded slightly.

“Maybe you could ask Joe why his account is nearly overdrawn. William was slightly embarrassed when he told me and asked if I would pass on the message. I can’t think what he’s been spending his money on as he doesn’t go out much these days,” he added, as his son stopped in front of the mercantile and took hold of Sport’s reins and mounted.

Adam looked down at his father in surprise. “No. Neither can I, Pa,” he said, tugging at his hat in farewell as Ben gave a quick wave of the hand and wandered further down the street towards Roy Coffee’s office.

Walking his horse slowly in the opposite direction, good humored yelling blasted out through the swing doors of the Silver Dollar as Adam rode by; he failed to notice Max Devlin who stood by the Overland Stage Office, the one-armed man following the eldest Cartwright brother with narrowed eyes as he disappeared into the distance.

*****

Joe stood alone, the high spirited bay staring at him through the wooden bars of the corral. Giving the men in his charge the afternoon off, Joe had left this horse until last, nervously knowing he had a true fight on his hands. Joe had already tried to break in the horse, and when thrown to the ground within seconds, had stared at it, wondering just how much he wanted to win this battle of wills.

The horse whinnied loudly, trotting around and around, eager to rejoin its companions who stood contentedly in the distant corral, their wills broken as they now accepted the feel of man on their backs. It stopped still, snorting and pawing a front hoof into the hard ground and locking eyes with the man stood feet away. Continuing to watch Joe warily, the horse shook its head back and forth, sensing the fear and hesitation of the man watching him

Joe was dizzy with hunger and parched with thirst, craving for the bottle in his saddlebag, but well aware it would have to wait…just a while longer…until his concentration deserted him and familiar screams echoed around his head, and a face stared at him whenever his eyes closed.

He ran his hand over his chin, feeling the stubble from two days growth. He wondered if his father noticed his son had not shaved as Joe sipped his black coffee and sat silent at the breakfast table, half listening to the conversation, his thoughts miles away as usual. If he had, no mention had been made of the fact. Pa probably wanted a quiet start to the morning, Joe thought ruefully, recalling his deliberate black moods, his intentional unkind words over the past weeks that were all part of his carefully orchestrated plan worked out that day at the lake.

His eyes were tired from lack of sleep, and they stung in the bright sunlight of afternoon as he took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He continued to gaze at the horse, intuitively talking to it for a few minutes in a quiet voice, attempting to calm the skittish animal.

“Is this the new method of breaking in horses? Boring them to death in conversation?” asked a voice from behind, cutting through the silence of the afternoon. Joe shot round in surprise, his left hand instinctively going to his holster, only to find nothing on his hip.

“What the hell you sneaking up on me like that for?” he yelled, slightly embarrassed he had failed to hear his brother arrive, forgetting his gun belt was hanging from Cochise’s saddle. “Might have got your head blown off!”

“I doubt that,” said Adam calmly as he dismounted. “What were you aiming to shoot me with…your fingers! Bang! Bang!” he cried with a chuckle, pointing his hand drawn into the shape of a gun towards his brother.

Joe gave Adam a look of disdain then turned back, his elder brother ignoring Joe’s sullen face and joining him, resting his arms on the top of the corral fencing. “Mighty fine animal. Looks like he’s the best and last to be rode and he knows it!”

Joe nodded. “He’s certainly the pick of the bunch. Just giving him a while alone to calm down till I get around to him.”

Joe turned and faced his brother. “Long way to come to look at a horse, Adam. Pa still worried I might try and escape from the ranch and disappear again?”

“That’s a little below the belt, Joe. Pa is worried about you, but more about your health and the way you’ve been acting lately. In fact, we have all been worried.”

Shamefully Joe momentarily held his brother’s gaze then dropped his eyes. “So, what you doing here? Thought you were in town having a celebration lunch with Pa? Didn’t he get the money for the flume after all?”

Adam raised his eyebrows in surprise. “So you do listen to what we talk about sometimes,” he said, giving Joe a sidelong look. “Yes, Pa did get the loan. I just left him to chat with Roy. You know what those two are like when they get together, always going on about how it was in their day! They make me feel like a five year old sometimes once they start…I just thought I’d see if you needed any help.”

For the first time in an age, Joe actually broke into a grin, the thought of his elder brother sitting meekly and silently between his father and Roy causing him to chuckle, for once sounding like the little brother of old.

“Would have expected you to stay well clear of me, the mood I’ve been in lately,” Joe stated quietly.

“You’ve been in a mood? Hardly noticed Joe,” answered Adam, watching his brother closely. Joe shot him a half hearted smile before the dark mask once again fell over his face.

“I saw Walt in town today. He says you haven’t lost your flair for the horse breaking, even after being away so long.”

“Really?” replied Joe, sitting down on the floor, his back resting on the fencing as he stretched out his aching arms and flexed his fingers.

“He did think you lost your concentration a few times and has been worried you’d get hurt!”

“Don’t need to worry on my account. I’m still here, aren’t I? Still able to talk to you!” replied Joe, his voice edged with sarcasm.

“Yes. But he was still worried,” stated Adam, a little more sharply than he intended, his good humor quickly evaporating. “I also paid the mercantile today.”

“Mmm,” said Joe, yawning, not really taking an interest in Adam’s conversation, his eyes wandering over to his saddlebag and its contents as he licked his lips in anticipation.

“Sam made a mistake in the bill. Nearly had me paying for ten bottles of whisky I never ordered.”

There was no response as Joe sat in silence, gazing far into the distance as all too familiar sounds began to scream in his head.

Adam sighed, lowering himself down to sit by his brother. “He said you bought them. Ten bottles of whisky, Joe! What’s going on?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. “Nothing is going on, Adam. I don’t see why I have to account for everything I buy with my own money. Or is elder brother telling me otherwise?”

“I’m not telling you what you can or cannot buy, Joe. I am just concerned, especially after what Walt told me.”

Joe shot a dark look at his brother. “Yes? And just what else has Walt been saying?”

“He’s seen you drinking whisky during the day, while you’re working the horses. He’s just worried something could happen to you! I’ve never known you to drink during the day Joe. Especially whisky! What’s got into you?”

“Why shouldn’t I drink alone during the day? Why shouldn’t I take my gun and blow my damned brains out, if I wanted to?” responded Joe, his voice suddenly growing angry. “Seems like there’s a lot of worried folk around at the moment trying to run my life. And you know something, Adam….I’m just about sick to death of it!”

Standing up quickly, too quickly, Joe felt himself falling over and quickly took hold of the corral fence.

Adam shot up, grabbing his brother’s arm to steady him. “You okay?”

Joe closed his eyes for a moment. “Just dizzy,” he mumbled. “Nothing a drink won’t cure,” he added, shrugging off Adam’s helping hand and walking over to his pinto.

“We know about your account at the bank, Joe. Like to explain where all your money has gone?”

Joe gave Adam a contemptuous look. “Nope!” he replied, shouting back. “That’s my business!” He began to tighten his horse’s girth as Adam stood silently by the fence, irritation with his brother etched on his face.

Taking out a bottle from his saddlebag, Joe showed it to Adam. “Join me, brother…this is what you wanted to see, isn’t it? Little brother drinking in the middle of the day. Tut, tut…what would Pa say if he knew. I take it you haven’t said anything…yet! Otherwise Pa would be here now, giving me grief!”

“No. I haven’t told him. And I won’t mention it as long as you stop and tell me why you feel the need to drink whisky…far too much whisky for your own good!” Adam cried, his voice full of concern.

Joe pulled out the cork stopper and took a mouthful, appreciating the familiar warm glow as it trickled down his throat. He replaced the cork and gave his brother an insolent smile as he dropped the bottle back into his saddlebag.

“I’m drinking ‘cause I want to and I like it…nothing more,” Joe stated as he buckled on his gun belt. “You should really try it, Adam! Would do you the world of good to calm you down, takes away the stress of living!”

“Don’t give me that, Joe. You’re drinking for a reason and I want to know why!” shouted Adam, walking over to stand directly in front of Cochise.

Without answering, Joe sighed deeply. “Just leave me be, Adam. Please!” he pleaded, hauling himself onto his horse’s back, eager to depart as a bloody vision of Mitch Devlin appeared in his thoughts.

“I saw Max Devlin in town today. Did you know he and Mitch had been together in Texas? Even ended up fighting for the South for a while.”

Joe stiffened, his heart pounding loud in his chest. “Yes, I heard,” he answered nervously. “You met Max?”

“He was in the mercantile. He gave me a message to pass over to you.”

Joe looked down, a cautious expression in his eyes. “What…what did he say?” he asked in a hesitating voice.

“Said he wanted to see you tomorrow. I didn’t even know you knew him! He doesn’t look like the type of man who wants to socialize with anybody!”

Joe swallowed hard, biting on his lip. “No…he doesn’t. Guess I’m just plain lucky,” he answered in a shaky voice.

Adam’s face became somber, not quite sure he had heard correctly. “What do you mean?”

“Just thinking aloud, brother!” Joe answered as he gathered in the reins and began to move away.

“Where are you going now?”

“Got an appointment with an old friend,” answered Joe in a harsh dry voice, slapping his saddlebag with his hand defiantly.

“Joe! Is that really necessary? What do I tell, Pa?”

Joe pulled Cochise to a halt and looked back. “Tell him…” Joe took a deep breath, a faint grin touching his stubble face as he gazed into his brother’s dark and piercing brown eyes. “Think of something, Adam….you’re the clever one!” he sighed, a tinge of sadness in his voice as he kicked his horse away, leaving his elder brother to stare after him, bemused and puzzled.

*****

Joe rode at a steady pace, his route taking him from the vast green meadow and through the deep shade of pine forest until he eventually glimpsed a familiar expanse of shimmering water in the distance. Walking into the open sunlight, he stopped by a familiar outcrop of boulders by the side of Lake Tahoe, a place that now held a dark memory for the young man.

He remembered with shame the day, weeks before, when he had fleetingly contemplated ending his life by these shores. From that day forth he knew of no harsher punishment for what he may have done to Mitch at Glorietta Pass than to leave this heaven on earth forever.

Joe’s thoughts flashed back to Sergeant Miller, the man who had persuaded him to return to the Ponderosa, wondering what the Sergeant would think of him now as he pulled out a bottle of whisky from his saddle bag. The once confident Corporal who drank excessively each day, a man who sold his soul to the devil…Max Devlin. Joe shook his head ruefully, any self-respect he had now lost.

He instinctively bit out the stopper when he froze, the thought of the liquid turning his stomach and making him gag with nausea. But he needed it to block out the horrific images that refused to leave him, so he took a long swallow, immediately regretting but unable to stop himself.

Sitting down with his back resting on one of the huge stones, hours passed by as one mouthful followed another, then another, until the bottle was empty and he flung it with disgust into the deep water of the lake. The whisky certainly dulled his brain but it didn’t change anything. The haunting memories were still there as Joe lay down, tears pricking at the back of his eyes. But the tears just wouldn’t come, and with his head on his arms he fell into an exhausted alcoholic sleep until the sun had sunk in the western sky and he awoke, cold and shivering in the darkness.

Slowly standing, his cold muscles aching, Joe moved over to Cochise, the warmth of his horse’s body taking the chill from his own. He stared with awe at the towering majesty of the darkened mountains in the distance that continually took his breath away, then slowly hauling himself into the saddle, turned Cochise away from the vast expanse of water and slowly made his way home in the darkness, the full moon lighting his path with a silver shimmer.

Arriving back at the ranch, Joe stabled Cochise then walked back slowly towards the house. Opening the heavy oak front door he entered, removing his gun belt and hat, looking around slightly mystified. The room was empty and quiet, illuminated by a single lamp on the sideboard, the embers of the fire glowing in the hearth. There would be no confrontation tonight he thought, sighing with disappointment. Adam must have kept quiet about the whisky, for there was no irate father awaiting him, no brothers staring at him with unsympathetic eyes as they viewed their drunken youngest sibling.

Unwilling to drag himself up the stairs to his own bed, Joe lay down full length on the settee, dozing fitfully until the light slowly deepened as dawn arrived, and the clock chimed 6 am. He sat up, bone weary, slowly rubbing his stiff neck and then holding his head in his hands, the after effects of the whisky leaving him dry mouthed and hung-over. Upstairs he could hear the muffled footsteps of his father and brothers on creaking floorboards as they walked around their bedrooms, opening drawers and cupboards.

Joe slowly rose to his feet, catching the side of the coffee table with his leg as dizziness overwhelmed him. Cursing under his breath, he steadied himself, making his way into the kitchen for water to feed his quenching thirst, then pumped more into a bowl, splashing his face and feeling the growth of bristles on his chin. A mirror hung on the wall and his pale face, with red-rimmed eyes and darkened chin stared back at him…such a far cry from the clean shaven and sparkling eyed young man of a few weeks ago.

Hop Sing entered the kitchen from the yard, watching Joe from the doorway, the old Chinaman shaking his head sadly as he gazed at his much cherished number three son.

Joe heard the opening of the door and looked round, noticing the stare thrown his way and he gave him a weak smile. “I’m sorry, Hop Sing. Not feeling too well,” he murmured, as he bowed his head and held onto the sides of the sink, fighting hard to keep himself from emptying the contents of his near empty stomach. Slowly the feeling of nausea passed and he took a deep breath as he straightened his aching back and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Don’t worry, old friend,” said Joe, his voice husky and barely above a whisper. “Number three son will soon be out of everyone’s way.”

Hop Sing frowned. “What you mean? You leave?” he asked staring intently into Joe’s eyes, noticing immediately the unhappy gaze that stared back at him. Joe nodded.

“You not leave! Little Joe break father’s heart like last time….cause much pain!”

Joe smiled softly at the sound of his childhood name from their faithful cook. “Little Joe break father’s heart more if he stay,” he responded. “Little Joe not worthy to live in same house as honorable father, or honorable cook,” he added with an exaggerated bow, his impish nature pushed to the fore for the first time in weeks.

Suddenly the sound of voices could be heard from the upstairs landing and Joe’s face darkened again, his stomach lurching with anticipation at the charade he now had to play out. A charade that he vowed must soon end. Returning to the sitting room he slumped down onto a dining chair as Hop Sing followed him and poured out cups of coffee from a freshly made pot. Both men locked eyes for a moment, the cook passing over a look of sympathy before disappearing back into the kitchen.

Ben and Adam walked down the stairs chatting light-heartedly and looked over at Joe in surprise.

“Joe? Didn’t hear you get up!” said Ben, his keen eyes taking in Joe’s unshaven appearance and pale pallor as he pulled up a chair at the head of the table. “By the look of you, it must have been a late night in town!”

“Town? I haven’t been to town!”

“But Adam said you had!”

Joe looked over quizzically as his brother joined him and sat down.

“I thought you’d decided to go into town for an evening out with the boys, Joe,” said Adam quickly.

“Really! How nice of you to think about my social life, brother,” answered Joe sarcastically. “Why would the brains of the Ponderosa think I went to town?”

Adam stiffened slightly and narrowed his eyes. “You deserve an evening to relax now that you only have one horse left from the Army contract to break in. I just assumed that’s where you’d of gone!”

“Well I didn’t!” replied Joe as he gave his brother a dark stare then looked away. Ben frowned slightly, aware of a tension growing between the two brothers as an uneasy silence gripped the table.

“So, just one horse left? Good work, son,” Ben said at last, changing the subject. “Once they are off our hands, you will be able to start the next project without any interruption.”

Joe glanced up, feeling Adam’s eyes burning into him but refusing to look his brother in the eye, afraid he would see through the pretence as his stomach continued to churn nervously. “What project?”

“We had a long discussion last night and have decided you’re the one to be in charge of building the new flume.”

“Me?” Joe asked, his tired eyes widening slightly in surprise.

“Yes you, Joe!” replied Ben confidently. “This should prove just how much we trust you to do a good job.”

Joe put down his cup, slowly shaking his head. “I won’t do it, Pa. Adam should be in charge, not me,” he answered, nodding over towards his brother.

Adam frowned, taken aback by his brother’s outright refusal. “You would have a free rein to organize the labor, materials, and build it. It would be quite a challenge. I would have thought you’d jump at the chance to be in charge of such an important project!”

“Did you, brother? Just shows how wrong you can be…again!” Joe stated coolly, Adam sensing the provocation thrown his way by Joe but unwilling to accept the bait.

“And I have complete faith in you, son,” pressed Ben, smiling encouragingly.

“Well maybe you shouldn’t, Pa,” responded Joe, suddenly standing up and pushing his chair away. “I don’t need your faith, trust or challenges! Not any more. I don’t deserve it and I certainly don’t want it!” he yelled, moving quickly to the sideboard and buckling on his holster. “I can think of better things I want to do with my life than stay on the Ponderosa and build stupid flumes!”

At last Ben’s patience snapped and he pushed back his chair which scraped noisily on the wooden floor, catching up with his son and swinging him round by the arm, feeling a tension between Joe and himself he had never known before. “Joseph! I’ve been patient with you over the past weeks….put up with your black moods and bad temper. But this is just about as much as I can take. You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what is bothering you so much!”

“Or what? You going to hit me again, Pa?” Joe stared at his father defiantly as Ben flinched, hurt beyond belief, Joe’s face remaining impassive and hard, his eyes showing an emptiness of emotion.

“I’ve got nothing to tell you,” Joe said, his voice suddenly low and flat as he banged on his stetson. “If that’s all, I’ve got a horse to break in,” he added, opening the door and leaving his father to stare after him, shocked into silence.

Adam walked up behind his father, placing a strong and comforting hand on his shoulder.

“You know, Pa, I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I am beginning to wish Joe had never returned to the Ponderosa.”

Ben looked at his son in surprised astonishment. “Adam! What are you saying?”

“Come on, Pa! Don’t tell me some part of you isn’t sick and tired of the way he has been behaving lately? It seems to me he clearly doesn’t want to be here anymore, and is making our lives a misery to make up for the fact.”

“You really think he wants to leave? Is that what all this bad behavior is about?”

Adam nodded as he walked back to the dining table, his father following. “He just as much admitted it five minutes ago. He can think of better things he wants to do than be here on the Ponderosa. Well if that’s what he wants, let him go Pa, before I say something I may regret later!”

Ben gave his son a startled look. “But Adam! He’s my son! I love him! I don’t want him to go!”

“Pa! He is my brother and I love him, and would hate him to leave us again. But the way he’s been behaving lately, I can honestly say I don’t like him, don’t like him at all, and if he wants to go off and make a life for himself somewhere else, then let him Pa. For heavens sake, tell him he can go and give him your blessing!”

Heavy footsteps were suddenly heard running down the stairs.

“What the heck is going on? Raised voices and I ain’t even had breakfast yet!” cried Hoss, as he wandered over to join his father and brother. He looked at them, noting their serious expressions. “What’s wrong?”

“Little brother has just about pushed me to the end of my tether,” replied Adam coldly.

“And Pa, by the look of it!” added Hoss, noting his father’s gloomy expression. “Someone going to tell me what’s going on?” he inquired as he poured out a cup of coffee.

“Adam thinks Joe wants to leave the ranch and that’s why he has been behaving so badly,” replied Ben in a choked voice.

“Well, I must agree, he isn’t the same brother I used to know these days. In fact, there are times when I don’t even like him very much.”

“You too, Hoss?” asked Ben, noting the exchange of glances between his two sons.

“Yes Pa. Much as I hate to say it, sometimes I dread the thought of being in his company. He’s always in such a bad mood and really been testing my patience at times!” Hoss exclaimed. “I’ve had to count to ten on more than once occasion when he’s riled me, and I don’t want to end up coming to blows, but I can see it happening soon if things don’t change.”

Adam sat back in his chair and gave a deep sigh. “I think I ought to tell you something else,” he said quietly as Ben and Hoss stared over at him. “I checked over the invoice for last months supplies with Sam when I was at the mercantile yesterday. Seems Joe had been buying whisky, quite a few bottles of whisky over the past weeks.”

Hoss expelled his breath. “Whisky?”

“That’s not all. I also met Walt Ryan in town. He told me Joe had been drinking it through the day while they’ve been working the horses. I challenged Joe yesterday, but he refused to explain his reasons.”

Hoss shook his head in disbelief. “Drinking whisky while working? Doesn’t he realize he could get himself killed?”

Ben’s whole body slumped down in his chair, showing signs of a broken hearted and concerned father. “I should have talked to him weeks ago, tried to find out what was wrong. I just kept putting if off, again and again.”

Adam gave his father a sympathetic gaze. “The way Joe’s been behaving over the past weeks, I couldn’t see him talking to anyone in a civilized manner, even you Pa. It’s as if he’s driving a wedge between himself and the rest of us all the time.”

Ben hesitated for a moment, closing his eyes tightly as he visualized his youngest son, now clearly seeing the signs of a hard drinker in his every action over the past weeks.

With his appetite gone, he cupped his hands around another cup of coffee.

“If he’s drinking whisky, it must be for a good reason and if what you say it right Adam, and he doesn’t want to be here, then that seems reason enough to me.”

“But you can’t let Little Joe go, Pa!” cried Hoss as the big man stared at his father in disbelief. “Aren’t you going to tell him he has to stay?”

Ben gazed back at his son, also sensing Adam’s eyes fixed on him, awaiting a response. He sighed deeply, the silence in the room noticeably tense. “He’s not a child any more, Hoss. He’s a grown man,” he began, his voice noticeably shaky. “I’ve always vowed I would never put this ranch before the happiness of my sons, and as much as I never thought I would say this…can hardly believe I am saying it now, if Joe wants to leave us then I…we…have no right to keep him here.”

With his eyes widening with shock, scarcely believing his ears, Hoss stared over at Ben, concerned not only about the possible departure of his little brother but for his father’s welfare. “But if Joe goes, what about you Pa? The thought of you getting all depressed and sick again breaks my heart! I don’t think I could go through it again!”

Ben looked into Hoss’ trusting blue eyes as he lowered his cup, gently putting his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Don’t you worry, son. I won’t be going down that road again….that’s a promise.”

With a resigned sigh, Ben pushed back his chair and slowly walked to his desk, his hands hooked in his belt as he looked through a small window, his eyes brimming with tears and his heart aching as a much loved familiar figure climbed onto his pinto and disappeared from view.

*****

In the barn Joe saddled Cochise in a daze with an unutterable ache in his heart, his eyes swimming with tears as he visualized the hurt and shocked look on his father’s face. Walking his horse out of the barn, he looked over towards the house, wishing he could turn the clock back to when he had nothing to feel guilty about. What he wouldn’t do to have those days back again….but what was done was done. Within a couple of days he would be leaving…that decision he made there and then. Surely his family would have had enough of him now!

Accepting his days on the Ponderosa were now numbered he mounted, gratefully breathing in the penetrating fragrance of pine and spruce, absorbing keenly the sight of the distant Sierra Nevada and the snow that glistened on the peaks in the morning sunlight. As never before it was proof that his home was indeed the place he loved beyond measure, and thus his self-imposed exile would be punishment indeed, as once more a bloody apparition of Mitch Devlin flashed through his mind.

Wincing at the painful memory, he felt his saddlebag. ‘Damn’ he thought, realizing there was no bottle ensconced there, nothing to cloud the vision. With a deep sigh, he cantered out of the yard, unaware of a pair of moistened eyes that followed him as he disappeared from view.

With a concentrated effort, Joe rode the last of the Army horses that morning, the bay finally accepting the feel and orders of the man on its back. Dismounting, he handed over the reins of the exhausted horse to one of the ranch hands then climbed over the corral fencing, taking his canteen from Cochise’s saddle and drinking the cool water in a long swallow.

“Good ride,” admitted Walt Ryan, as he slowly walked over towards Joe, pulling his twisted leg behind him. The two men eyed each other for a moment, both feeling uneasy in each other’s company.

“Thanks,” replied Joe at last. “And not a whisky bottle in sight!”

“Look Joe, I only told Adam ‘cause I was worried about you.”

Joe sighed deeply. “I know, Walt, I know. But don’t worry any more. I’ll be gone within a few days.”

“Gone? Gone where?” he asked in a surprised voice.

“Somewhere…anywhere. Just far away from the Ponderosa.”

Walt stared at Joe, shaking his head in confusion. “I don’t understand. You only just arrived back here and now you’re leaving…just like Mitch Devlin? Why?”

Joe nodded, tensing at the sound of his friend’s name. “I have to, Walt. Me and my conscience need to move away from here,” he said as he walked slowly towards Cochise and mounted, turning his horse in the direction of Virginia City and leaving the foreman to stare after him in bewilderment.

Within the hour Adam arrived at the corral with a two horse team pulling a wagon. “Joe finished the last horse Walt?” he asked, glancing into the empty corral.

“Yes Adam. Took a lot of work on Joe’s part, but he managed it in the end. All those Army horses are now together, ready for collection.”

“Any idea where he’s gone?” asked Adam, noting the absence of a pinto amongst the horses tied under a large tree which provided some shelter from the heat of the sun. He had hoped to have a chance to talk to his brother, confront him about his behavior towards their father that morning.

“Didn’t say nothing, but it looked like he was heading towards town.” Nodding Adam gathered up the reins, about to move off. “Is it true Joe is leaving the ranch?” Walt asked. “He said he would be going within a few days.”

Adam stared down, startled and perplexed. “Leaving?”

“Yes. Hasn’t he said anything to you?”

Adam shook his head. “No. We had an inkling it was on his mind but he hasn’t mentioned anything definite.”

Frowning, Adam jumped down from the wagon. “These days I don’t know what’s going on in my brother’s head, and that’s a fact.” He stood for a minute in deep thought and then looked back towards the wagon. “Do me a favor, Walt. Take this wagon into town and collect the supplies from the mercantile. I think I need to talk to my brother pretty quickly. Can I borrow your horse?”

“Sure Adam, no problem,” replied Walt, taking the reins from Adam and pulling himself up onto the wooden seat.

With a nod of the head, Adam unhitched Walt’s horse from the corral fencing and mounted, quickly following the trail taken earlier by Joe towards Virginia City.

Arriving in town, Adam pulled up outside the bank and dismounted. Looking up and down the main street, his eyes soon fixed on a familiar horse that stood outside the Silver Dollar. He walked towards the saloon and went inside, surprised to see no sign of his brother, though a friendly face nodded greetings in his direction.

“Hi, Adam. You looking for Joe?” asked Dave as he moved down the bar.

Adam nodded over. “Yes, Dave. Thought he would be in here as Cochise is tied outside.”

“He was here, but Max Devlin came in and wanted to talk to him, private like, so the pair of them left about five minutes ago.”

“Thanks Dave,” said Adam, retreating through the swinging doors, his searching glance finally picking up his brother and Max on the opposite side of the street, talking by the barbershop. As Joe passed over an envelope and turned heel, disappearing around the street corner, Max, with a malicious smile on his face placed the envelope in his coat pocket and crossed over the busy thoroughfare into the Overland Stage Office, furtively looking behind him as he did so.

Adam moved forward, keeping out of sight, watching through a window as Max took out $5 from the bulging envelope and purchased a ticket from the clerk. Retrieving a small case from behind the Clerk’s desk, Max reappeared through the door, standing with the valise held tightly in his right hand. Moving to a small alley by the side of the office he stepped into the shadows, unaware of Adam who had walked quietly behind him.

Suddenly Max stiffened as the muzzle of a gun was jammed with force into the small of his back. Adam pushed Max further into the shadows of the alley, pinning his right hand behind him, the valise falling noisily to the floor as his face pressed hard onto the wall.

“Don’t move, Devlin,” Adam’s voice ordered quietly as he yanked Max’s Colt from its holster and threw it into the shadows as he continued to prod his gun into his back.

“Hey Cartwright! What’s your game?” exclaimed Max recognizing the man standing behind him immediately.

“Just want a quiet word,” said Adam through clenched teeth as he continued to push Max hard into the wall of the building. “Going somewhere?” he asked as he kicked away the valise with his boot.

“Just catching the next stage to ‘Frisco. Don’t intend on coming back here either. Not a crime is it?” Max spat out as Adam turned him around, his gun still pointed towards the one armed man.

“Guess not. Does Joe know you’re leaving?”

Max hesitated for a moment. “No. He doesn’t.”

“Well then, maybe you’d better tell me why he just gave you a wad of money?”

“Why should I?” cried Max, as a cold ruthlessness shone in his eyes. “We had a private business arrangement. Nothing to do with you, Cartwright!”

“Really? Well I got news for you. I’m making it my business,” hissed Adam as he took hold of Max’s right elbow and jerked it up behind his back.

Pain was etched on the bearded man’s face as he cried out in agony. “Stop it Cartwright! Surely you ain’t going to beat up a one armed man!”

“Devlin, the way I feel, I’d gladly break the other arm off if I don’t have some answers quick,” cried Adam, his face growing red with anger as he stared furiously at the hapless Max. “Now I suggest you start telling me what’s been going on…the truth…and make it quick. Would hate to accidentally do you an injury and make you miss your stage!”

Max shrugged his shoulders in defeat and began to tremble slightly, his cowardly personality now clear. “Just give me your word you’ll let me catch that stage and don’t tell your brother where I’ve gone.”

Adam frowned, his grip tightening even more as he stared at the cowering Devlin. “I’m not promising anything. Just start talking!” he said scornfully as Max emitted a cry of pain and sweat poured from his forehead.

“All right!” he cried as his concentration was momentarily centered on the agony of his twisted arm. “I’ll tell you everything!”

*****

Hours later, as the sun began to disappear below the western horizon Joe walked Cochise into the yard. After his meeting with Max Devlin, he had left Virginia City to spend the day on the Ponderosa, just visiting his favorite haunts, taking in the smells and sounds that were so familiar and would soon be a long gone memory.

The thought of returning to the house filled him with trepidation, his morning’s outburst against his father still churning his stomach with regret, but after stabling his horse he walked steadfastly across the yard, knowing this final evening would be the catalyst that would change his life forever. As he opened the heavy wooden door and walked inside, the conversation in the room suddenly stopped and Joe felt three pairs of eyes staring at him as he removed his hat and gun belt.

“Joseph!”

Joe turned to the sound of his father’s voice. “Yes?” he said, swallowing hard to hide his nervousness as he looked over.

“I hear you told Walt you’ve decided to leave the Ponderosa. Is this true?”

Joe remained silent, biting his lip as he considered refusing to answer, then decided it would serve no good purpose. “Yes! I should think it’s been obvious I’m not happy here,” he answered brusquely.

“Is this why you’ve been drinking so much? Because you’ve been wishing you weren’t here anymore?” asked Ben, his eyes never wavering from his son’s haggard and unshaven face.

Joe shot a glance over at Adam, his brother catching his look.

“I told Pa about the whisky. At the time it seemed to explain some of the reasons for your behavior.”

“I suppose it would,” Joe said, forcing out a look of nonchalance. He continued to walk towards the stairs as Ben rose from his chair.

“Joseph! Why don’t we drop this pretence,” Ben urged, his voice strained. “Just tell the truth!”

Joe stopped still, his knuckles white as he held tightly onto the banister rail. “What about?”

“Don’t play coy with me, son,” Ben answered, his voice soft and caring. “We now know exactly why you have been behaving so abominably over the past weeks.”

Joe looked over his shoulder, surprise etched on his face. “You do?”

Adam stood up, viewing his brother with a concerned eye. “I saw Max Devlin today, Joe. He told me everything!”

Joe turned on his brother as he spun round. “Why would he tell you anything?”

Adam gave a lop-sided grin. “He did need some persuasion, but I managed to get the truth out of him, eventually! He told me about your so-called agreement.”

“He told you about Mitch? About what I might have done?”

Adam nodded.

“But why, Adam? Why did you have to spoil everything? I didn’t want any of you to know what had happened in New Mexico. Why couldn’t you keep your nose out of my business!” Joe cried, his eyes flashing with anger.

“Joe, when I saw you handing over your hard earned wages to some low life like Max Devlin, I knew something was wrong. I wanted to find out what hold he had on you. That’s what big brothers are for…pushing their noses into their little brother’s affairs!”

“I see,” said Joe, feeling the angry heat in his face slowly ebb away, knowing their eyes were on him, that they were awaiting an explanation. “Well, it doesn’t change anything. In fact you can now understand why I can’t possible stay here, that I don’t deserve to stay here,” he said, surprising himself with the note of bitterness in his voice. “It will be punishment enough for what I’ve done, for the shame I’ve brought this family.”

“Punished? Why should you be punished? What shame? You haven’t done anything to feel ashamed of!”

“Adam! Max must have told you what happened in New Mexico! I could have taken off his arm with my saber! I could of…might have killed Mitch! Isn’t that reason enough?” he cried, as a half-formed bloody image lingered in his minds eye.

Suddenly the strain and exhaustion of the past weeks flooded over him, his head began to buzz and somewhere in the distance he heard a concerned voice call out his name as he staggered and then fell back onto the stairs in a dizzying fall. “Joe!” came a cry of concern as he felt hands holding him and gently carrying him to the settee. Three faces stared down in a blurred haze as his near empty stomach lurched and then he blacked out altogether.

Minutes later a cool compress lay across Joe’s forehead as he slowly regained consciousness. “Joe? How do you feel?” asked a concerned father as Ben gazed into his son’s less than sparkling eyes.

Joe shook his head and tried to rise but fell back in an exhausted heap. “Feel pretty weak Pa.”

“Its hardly surprising son, considering how little you’ve been eating lately.”

Adam’s face loomed over his father’s shoulder and Joe gave his brother a nervous smile. “Sorry Adam. I shouldn’t have yelled at you….I just feel so guilty about Mitch…” The sadness in his eyes remained as his voice trailed off, the self reproach in his voice impossible to miss.

“Joe, you haven’t done anything wrong,” said Adam, sliding down onto the coffee table in front of the settee as Hoss leant against the hearth. “You didn’t kill Mitch, and you definitely didn’t take off Max Devlin’s arm!”

Joe shot Adam a resigned look. “Adam, don’t try and make me feel better. We all know the truth now.”

“No Joe. We know the truth. You don’t!” The look of utter perplexity and confusion on Joe’s face was almost too much for Ben as he helped Joe sit up and sat by his side, his arm around his shoulder.

“Adam is right, son. Max Devlin told you a pack of lies. Mitch was never in Sibley’s Brigade, and he never ended up at Glorietta Pass. Neither did Max.”

“Mitch wasn’t there? I don’t understand?” gasped Joe incredulously.

Adam gazed at Joe for a moment before answering him. “Max gambled you would be willing to pay to keep him quiet. And he was right, wasn’t he?”

Joe swallowed hard and nodded. “I couldn’t let Jake know what might have happened to Mitch. How I might have been the one who….” Joe paused momentarily with the shock of Adam’s disclosure. “Where is Mitch? What happened to Max?”

“Mitch left Max after a few weeks and decided to head up towards Canada, and is alive and well. As for Max, he was knifed during a drunken brawl, just after Mitch left him. Lost his arm then.”

“Mitch is alive!” Joe whispered in a choked voice, relief flowing through his veins as he closed his eyes and sank back onto the settee. Ben could feel his son’s body relax as his guilt began to slip away, and as he opened his eyes his gaze bounced between his father and brothers before returning to question Adam. “But Max described everything that happened at the Pass so clearly! How did he know?”

“I would guess he heard about the battle while he was still in Texas. Then he heard Hoss describe what had happened to you that day he was talking to Dave and Seth in the Silver Dollar. He just elaborated, guessed the rest. Hoped you wouldn’t question him too much on all the details. And he was right, wasn’t he?”

Joe nodded. “It was something I didn’t want to remember too clearly. Thinking I might of killed Mitch was bad enough.”

Ben reached over and gently brushed a stray curl out of his son’s eyes. “Joe, whatever you did, you did as a soldier. It was your duty and you were at war! You have nothing to reproach yourself for…not for obeying orders and putting your own life on the line. You must realize that!”

“As a soldier, yes, I accepted it Pa. The enemy was just nameless faces. But when I thought Mitch had been there, it just seemed so barbaric, so wrong, especially when folk were making me sound like some kind of hero – like a knight in shining armor from one of my childhood books. It was then I knew I had to leave…you didn’t deserve a son who could have murdered his oldest friend.”

Ben’s face grew somber. “And the whisky, Joe? Why did you need the whisky?”

“It helped me at first when I kept seeing Mitch’s face, kept hearing the screams of battle. Helped me to forget.”

“It was that bad?” asked Hoss sympathetically, moving over to sit on the end of the settee and giving his brother a gentle squeeze on his shoulder.

Joe nodded, appreciating the concern in his brother’s voice, and the gentle touch of his big hand. “Then I guess it just became a habit…something to help me survive through another day, another night.”

Ben nodded in understanding as Joe’s gaze returned to his elder brother.

“I still don’t understand why Max admitted all this to you, Adam. Surely he would have wanted as much money out of me as he could get?”

“Well Joe, Max decided he had to depart urgently. In fact he took the stage this morning. He has gone for good.”

“Gone? But why? Did you force him to go?”

“No! But I did make sure he was on the stage. He had to leave because of a letter that arrived a couple of days ago for Jake.”

“A letter? I don’t understand.”

“Jake had a letter from Mitch to tell him he was coming home…with a new bride! Seems Mitch’s adventure away has been fruitful! Max knew once you got wind of Mitch returning, and realized he had been lying to you, he would be in deep trouble. So after you left him, he bought himself a one way ticket, took his bag that he had hidden in the Overland office, and waited for the stage. He couldn’t get away quick enough.”

“I ought to kill him for what he’s put me through. All this time, thinking what I might have done to Mitch.”

“Don’t worry, Joe. He knows exactly what will happen to him if he comes within a hundred miles of the Ponderosa again.”

“Tell me, Joe? These bad moods, arguments. What was all that about?” asked a bemused Hoss.

Joe gave a deep sigh of regret. “I’m real sorry Hoss. I just felt it right that I leave as a punishment but I didn’t want you grieving for a disappearing son and brother again. Not like the last time”

“You mean, you never wanted to leave the ranch?”

“Of course not, Hoss! I just wanted you all to hate me as much as I hated myself…turn you all against me and wish I was far away from here. I owe you all an apology for the way I acted, you especially Pa.”

Ben gave his son a reassuring squeeze on his shoulder. “Apology accepted, Joe.”

“Well you certainly got close to a tanning from me a few times!” Hoss grinned over at his brother, the big man’s smile becoming infectious as Joe caught his brother’s twinkling eyes and slowly grinned back, knowing instinctively he was forgiven.

“I’ve been a fool. A stupid fool.”

“Not a fool, son. Just deceived by a very devious man, who prayed on your good nature and conscience.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Pa! If Joe thinks he’s a fool, who are we to argue against my little brother on that point?” stated Adam with a loving grin.

Joe smiled back wearily. “I’m real grateful to you, Adam, for what you did. I might well have left here before Mitch returned and would never have known the real truth.”

“Just taking care of my little brother,” replied Adam in all seriousness as he stared directly into Joe’s moistening green eyes. “You’re worth the hard work…sometimes!”

Joe’s face visible reddened as he held his brothers gaze. “I am?” Adam nodded, the stoic brother showing a tender side he usually kept hidden from all around him, including his family.

For a moment there was quiet in the room, the four men appreciating each other’s company as each thought over the evening’s events. Suddenly a clanging of pots could be heard from the kitchen and the spell of silence was broken. “Sounds like Hop Sing is nearly ready to feed us,” said Adam as he tapped Joe on the knee.

“I’ll go check how long dinner is going to be. I’m starving!” cried Hoss as he moved towards the kitchen.

“I’ll second that, Hoss,” echoed Adam. “You hungry, Joe?” he asked, looking at his brother who continued to sit on the settee, his father by his side.

Joe nodded. “For the first time in weeks, I feel like I could eat a horse!”

“Better not let Cochise hear you say that!” chuckled Adam as he stood up. “Oh! You better have this,” he said, putting his hand in his shirt pocket and throwing an envelope nonchalantly onto his brother’s lap. “It’s all there, apart from $5.”

Joe picked it up, giving Adam a surprised look. “You took it from Max? Didn’t he try and stop you?”

“Oh, don’t think Max realized at the time,” said Adam with a mischievous grin. “He was too busy worrying where my gun was pointing!”

*****

The clock struck midnight as Ben puffed contentedly on his pipe, his eyes growing heavy. His three sons had retired to bed, leaving Ben a few minutes of peace and quiet contemplation before he too would make his way upstairs.

As he ran through the days traumatic events, he closed his eyes, reliving every moment, from the mornings fierce altercation with his youngest son, Adam’s revelations about Max Devlin when he had returned from Virginia City, and the final evenings confrontation with Joe. He smiled to himself as he remembered the look of thanks on Joe’s face when Adam had insisted his little brother take on the responsibility of building the new flume, refusing to take no for an answer.

From above Ben heard the opening of a door and footsteps slowly making their way downstairs and he looked up, not unduly surprised to see the figure of his youngest son suddenly coming into view. However, his heart momentarily lurched as he noticed a bottle of whisky was held tightly in his hand.

“Joe? Is something wrong?” asked Ben as his son joined him, still full dressed, unaware of his father’s temporary disquiet.

Looking a little nervous Joe shook his head. “No Pa. Just been lying on my bed for a while, thinking. Decided I should bring this down to where it belongs.” He walked over to the sideboard and replaced the unopened bottle on the tray with its companions.

Returning to his father’s side, Joe sank back onto the settee, speaking simply from the heart as he recalled the haunting dreams of the past weeks. “I don’t know if I’ll still have those nightmares Pa, but at least they shouldn’t be as bad now I know Mitch is alive. One thing’s for sure, though. I won’t be drinking whisky in the early hours again. If I can’t sleep, I can always get myself some hot milk. Seem to remember it worked well when I was a kid.”

Ben chuckled softly as Joe gave him a quick smile. “It certainly did, son. Never failed!”

Joe looked around the room, shaking his head morosely. “To think I nearly left all this because I believed Max Devlin. How could I be so gullible?”

“He was just an evil, cowardly man who played on your emotions. What you did you did because you thought you were doing it for the best. I’m proud of you, son.”

“Thanks Pa. But I feel sure you would have never been taken in so easily. You’re much more sensible than I will ever be.”

With no sign of returning to his bed, Ben studied the pale and gaunt looking face that now stared absently into the fire, the unmistakable sign something was on his mind showing clearly on Joe’s face.

All was quiet for a few minutes as father and son sat in silence, content to be in each other’s company as Joe chewed on his under lip and Ben puffed his pipe, patiently waiting. His patience was finally rewarded when Joe cast his father a sideways glance and gave him a nervous smile.

“Pa, I need to tell you something. But you’re not going to like it. Just promise me you’ll try and understand.”

Nodding, Ben frowned, slightly mystified.

Suddenly rising Joe walked over to the hearth, his back to his father as he stared into the dying embers, his shoulders hunched over in a weary fashion.

Ben placed his pipe on the table and moved to stand behind his son, placing his hand on Joe’s shoulder and giving him an affectionate squeeze. “Come on, Joe. What’s this all about?” he pressed.

Turning around, Joe looked his father straight in the eye, for a moment seemingly lost in thought, trying to find the right words before shaking himself from his reverie.

“Once day I was drinking, up by the lake. Just drinking, feeling as low as it’s possible to feel. For one moment, one stupid moment, I…” Joe’s voice hesitated as he lowered his eyes, unable to now look his father in the face.

“Go on.”

“I came close Pa, so close to taking the easy option…nearly ending my life,” he whispered, as the old grief washed over him, joining with a fresh sense of anguish.

Ben could feel his own eyes watering as the full implications of Joe’s admission hit him. “You nearly killed yourself?” he asked bluntly in a grim voice.

Joe nodded slowly, still unable to raise his eyes, feeling a sob of shame at the back of his throat. “Found myself with my gun on my temple, not wanting to go on living for what I thought I’d done, but couldn’t finish the job,” he answered in a broken voice. “Guess I was a coward…not the hero after all.”

“Oh Joseph!” cried Ben, taking his son into his arms. “Thank God you saw sense. Thank God.”

Joe visibly relaxed in his embrace, enjoying the comforting and solid strength of his father’s arms. “I’m so sorry, Pa. I know I must be a great disappointment to you…certainly not the son you can be proud of. But I had to tell you…I can’t live a lie.”

Ben pulled away from Joe and their eyes met, Joe seeing something in his father’s eyes he hadn’t expected. A look of awkwardness, shame and guilt he had seen in his own so many times. He wondered why as Ben sat back down in his chair, visibly shaking.

“Pa?”

“Sit down, Joe,” requested Ben, his face suddenly looking tired. Joe complied, shooting his father a puzzled look as Ben smiled sadly towards him, his eyes filling with tears. “It is said confession is good for the soul. So I have something to confess to you son. Something I never wanted to admit to anyone.”

Joe sat forward, taking his father’s hands in his own, feeling slightly uncomfortable. “Pa. You don’t have to confess anything to me. Not if it’s going to upset you so much.”

“Thank you, Joe. But it’s got to be said,” Ben answered, feeling himself stiffen as the memories flooded back of that dark night, many months before. “I just hope I will still be the father you can be proud of!” Joe started to speak but Ben held up his hand, silencing his son.

“One night, after you had left and when I was at my lowest ebb, I was sat here alone late one night in this chair, drinking, just like you had done at the lake. I found my gun in my hand as I stroked its muzzle across my forehead, contemplating the easy option. I drew back, the coward in me unable to pull the trigger. So you see, Joe…like father, like son. More alike than we ever knew. Your father, who you put on a pedestal, is just as frail, just as weak as yourself. Not the sensible one after all, eh son?” Ben cleared his throat as he awaited a response.

Loving eyes stared back, his father’s honesty filling Joe’s heart with pride. “Like father…like son. Guess we’ve both been a little foolish, haven’t we?” he said in almost a whisper. “But you’re still on that pedestal, Pa. I’m proud of you and always will be!”

Ben shook his head, bewildered. “I don’t deserve such an accolade, son. I really don’t.”

“Yes you do, Pa. After a life time of wisdom, I think I can allow you one second of stupidity, don’t you?” Joe said as he took his father’s hands in his own, feeling tears forming in the back of his eyes. “I promise you this. I’m never going to leave the Ponderosa. Not now.”

Ben smiled. “Never Joe?”

Joe chuckled, remember back all those weeks ago, to their conversation on his first evening back with his father. “I know…never say never! Well, this time I mean it, Pa. Never!”

***The End***

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