Seasons (by Doreen)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,250


Autumn to Winter, Winter to Spring,

Spring to Summer, Summer into fall,

So rolls the changing year, and so we change,

Motion so swift, we know not that we move.

*****

SPRING

The clock in the corner struck 8am as Ben and his two eldest sons sat around the breakfast table, their meal finished. With clear instructions as to the day’s itinerary Adam and Hoss were just about to leave when, as if on cue, Joe could be heard upstairs as he slammed closed his bedroom door and rushed downstairs, taking the steps two at a time, his boots clattering on the wooden floor.

“Sorry Pa, slept in again I guess,” Joe said while slipping into his chair and pouring out a cup of lukewarm coffee.

Adam and Hoss viewed their younger brother, noting his disheveled hair and unbuttoned shirt with amusement.

“Joseph, I do wish you would dress before you came to the table!” said Ben, as he looked at his youngest with a disapproving glare.

“Oh! Sorry Pa,” said Joe, as he began to help himself to scrambled eggs. Putting down his fork he buttoned up the shirt and slicked down his hair.

“Late night again Joe?” inquired Adam with a knowing wink, though he already knew the answer.

Joe nodded over to his brother and gave him a beaming smile. “Had a wonderful evening Adam. Just talked and talked.” he said, wistfully.

“I don’t know how you got the strength little brother,” added Hoss. “Out every night, back in the early hours, then doing a full days work.”

Joe smiled over at Hoss. “Just call it youthful exuberance Hoss.” He chuckled loudly, “Something you are sadly missing big brother!”

Ben shook his head at the resilience of youth and inwardly smiled.

Taking a final gulp of coffee from his cup, Adam rose, followed by Hoss.

“We’ll be up on the north meadow, Joe, when you have a moment to join us that is,” said Adam, as he turned and made his way to the front door.

Hoss chuckled, following his elder brother. “That’s right Joe. Don’t you hurry now. Wouldn’t want you to wear out that youthful exuberance before the day is out.”

Both brothers walked out of the room, chortling as they closed the door, unaware of the tongue that poked out at them as they left!

“Joseph! That’s enough of that at the table,” said Ben, glaring at his son over his coffee cup.

“Yes sir,” replied Joe, who still could not suppress a huge grin on his face as he dug into his breakfast.

As Joe continued to eat, silence ensued, but it was a comfortable silence. Ben drank his coffee, watching his son out of the corner of his eye. It was good to see his youngest so happy and he was well aware of the reason for his good mood and relaxed air.

Katie Phillips, 21 years old, a pretty and petite young woman, had arrived in Virginia City just over two months before on her way to San Francisco. A spirited young woman, a romantic, she had always yearned for adventure, the chance to see different horizons and hopefully meet her prince charming. She had been living in southern Arizona with her aged parents until they had both died of the fever within weeks of each other. Leaving their only child with a small amount of money, Katie decided to fulfill her wish and take a change of direction and discover a new life on the west coast.

While in Virginia City for two days awaiting the stage connection to her destination, she had literally bumped into Joe on the main street and been sent flying onto the dusty road. Joe had apologized profusely as he helped her up, immediately smitten by the smiling face, golden hair and deep blue eyes that had looked into his.

Gallant as ever, he invited her to the local barn dance taking place that evening. She had accepted his invitation, enjoying a wonderful night with her handsome companion. As they stood outside her hotel at the end of the evening, both realized there was a special attraction drawing them together. Offering to show her the next day the beautiful countryside located on the Ponderosa, Katie had accepted the invitation without question or hesitation. As Joe kissed her goodnight on the cheek then vaulted onto Cochise waving goodbye, she straightaway knew she had found her prince!

The following day, throwing caution to the wind, Katie cancelled her stage ticket. Taking directions from the local hotel, she took a room at the local boarding house for single ladies, then found employment with the aged local seamstress Miss Tanner, who was happy to employ the pleasant dexterous young lady with nimble fingers.

From that day on, there had hardly been a night when Joe did not return to the Ponderosa after everyone else had retired. However, his evenings were not taken up drinking or gambling to excess in the saloons of Virginia City.

Joe was spending his time supping tea at Widow Hawkins Boarding House, the widow tactfully sitting by the kitchen fire, leaving Joe to visit Katie in the front parlor talking, holding hands, and sharing warm tender kisses. Katie also visited the Ponderosa, instantly endearing herself to Ben, Adam and Hoss and she in turn grew to hold a deep affection for the Cartwright family.

To everyone who saw them together it was obvious Joe and Katie were falling in love.

His meal finished, and with something serious on his mind, Joe looked over at his father. Ben had finished his coffee and was now studying a report which dealt with the viability of a new mine that was soon to be opened. Ben was engrossed in the facts and figures laid out in the letter and Joe began to squirm a little in his seat, growing more nervous by the minute. Oblivious at first to his son’s discomfort, Ben continued to study the article, until he felt a slight tap on his arm. He looked up and noticed straightaway the nervous looking face that stared at him. “Joe? Something wrong, son?”

Joe half smiled and shook his head. “Erm, no Pa, well yes Pa, I mean well, no.”

“Joseph, if you have something to say, please say it. You are making me dizzy!”

“Yes sir.” Joe bit his lip nervously and turned his chair so he was facing his father. “Pa, can I ask you something?”

“Of course, Joe.” Ben answered, folding the report and placing it down on the table, sensing the serious tone of his son’s voice. “What do you want to know?”

“Remember when I turned 18?”

“Of course I do, Joe,” answered Ben, a shadow of a smile appearing on his face.

“Do you remember what you said about my mother, and what you had in safe keeping for me?”

Puzzled Ben looked blankly for a moment. “You mean her ring, Joe? Her engagement ring?” he asked, slightly bewildered.

Joe nodded. “Yes. Her ring, Pa. You said you would keep it safe til the day came when I needed it.”

Ben smiled again as he remembered back four years to his son’s 18th birthday party. Marie would have been so proud of Joe that day in his blue suit, handsome, self-assured, a mischievous glint never too far away in his eyes.

Joe coughed nervously and Ben was shaken from his reverie as he looked at his son. Realization suddenly hit him.

“Katie? Do you mean you and Katie?” Ben asked, his eyes widening with surprise.

Joe swallowed hard as he stared into his father’s eyes. “Yes Pa. I love her so much, and I want to ask her to marry me.”

Ben took hold of Joe’s hands, and stared into his sparkling eyes. “You sure, son, really sure?” he asked, his voice rising with delight.

“Oh yes Pa. I love her so much I sometimes think I’ll burst. You do approve, don’t you, Pa?” his voice suddenly becoming slightly worried.

Ben beamed. “Joe, I couldn’t be more happy. Katie is a wonderful girl, and I couldn’t be more delighted for you. I’m just surprised it took you so long!”

Both men rose and hugged with joy.

Pulling apart, Ben indicated for Joe to follow him. They walked over to the safe in the far corner of the room and Ben opened it retrieving a small box from the back. He removed the lid, then stared at the beautiful ring that he had placed on his wife’s finger over 24 years before. With a smile, he handed the box over to Joe. Father and son stood for a moment, each in reflective mood as they thought of the woman who had last worn it.

“She would have been very proud of you, Joseph,” said Ben, as he gazed at the handsome young man who reminded him so much of his darling Marie.

Joe returned the smile and nodded as he took out the ring and held it in his hands. The diamonds and sapphires glinted in the morning sunlight that shone through the window behind them. “Katie is the one, Pa. I just know Ma would have loved her too.”

“You sure it is going to fit her, Joe?” asked Ben.

“Oh yes, Pa. I just know its going to be perfect. She was meant to have it,” he stated.

Both men sniffed back the tears of sentimental joy that threatened to flow. Joe replaced the ring into its box and carefully placed it in his top pocket. “I know its not Sunday, Pa, but could I go see Katie? I don’t want to wait another day before asking her. I’ll make it up to Adam and Hoss, I promise.”

Placing his hand on Joe’s shoulder Ben nodded. “Of course, Joe! Don’t you go worrying about your brothers. I’m sure they will forgive you under the circumstances.”

“Thanks Pa. For everything,” he replied, then hastily rushed to the door, grabbing his coat and hat. There was now no time to lose. Joseph Cartwright was ecstatically happy, in love and in a hurry! “Wish me luck!” he yelled as he raced out of the door, slamming it behind him.

Ben took a deep breath as he stood silently, feeling a glow of happiness envelop him. He looked down at one of the three silver picture frames on his desk. The smiling face of Joe’s mother looked back at him.

“Our boy may soon be a married man, Marie. A very happy married man,” he whispered as he brushed away a tear.

Returning to the dining table Ben sat back down, a beaming smile that he could not remove filling his face. Joe was not the only happy Cartwright that morning!

*****

Katie breathed in the fresh springtime air as she stood be the lake, the water gently rippling by her feet. While Joe had been securing the horses, she had stood gazing over the landscape. How she loved this ranch, the majestic mountains rising on the horizon, the green meadows stretching for miles and miles, the feel of the warm spring wind as it blew through her hair. Such a difference from the desert lands she had grown up in.

Usually it was a Sunday treat, a ride around the Ponderosa, followed by lunch with Joe’s family. So, she had been more than pleasantly surprised when Joe had turned up that morning and asked her to accompany him. Although she should have been working, Miss Tanner has graciously given her a few hours off, and the young couple slowly made their way through the beautiful land of the Ponderosa, till they eventually stopped by the large expanse of water in a secluded knoll by the lake side.

During the drive, Katie had noticed an unfamiliar lack of conversation from Joe. He had seemed tense and preoccupied, giving her nervous smiles and she sensed there was something serious on his mind. Though she loved him with all her heart and thought he felt the same about her, a feeling of apprehension and insecurity began to wash over her.

Had she been too eager to lose her heart to her prince charming? Was he about to tell her it was over between them?

She fought back the tears that threatened to flow, and as Joe coughed, seeking to attract her attention, Katie steeled herself for what was coming. She turned to face him, her eyes suddenly widening with surprise. Her prince charming was in front of her on one knee, his hat lying on the ground, and he was gazing up into her face with a loving smile. Gently he took her left hand in his.

“Katie, with all my heart, I love you. Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?” Joe asked in a nervous voice, his heart beating so loud he could swear it could be heard in Virginia City.

Katie stood, opened mouthed, in absolute astonishment. A warm glow seemed to wrap around her body as she looked down at the beautiful ring that Joe held in his hand. Her eyes began to moisten as she stared at him, hardly able to contain her joy.

“Oh Joe! Yes! Yes, I will marry you,” she cried, as Joe gently slipped the ring onto her finger. It fitted perfectly. “Joe, it’s so beautiful. How did you know it would fit my finger?” she asked in an excited voice.

“Oh, I just knew,” he answered as he rose and gently cupped her face in his hands. “I love you Katie, with all my heart.”

She stared into Joe’s deep green eyes that shone with love. “And I love you, my darling Joe,” she answered.

They kissed, gently at first, a soft sweet kiss that seemed to go on forever. Then slowly Joe began to tremble, his passion and longing beginning to consume his every thought. His kiss became harder, his body pressing tighter on Katie. Katie too could sense the longing in Joe and she moaned softly, as her naivety clashed with the passion that overwhelmed her.

Suddenly Joe pulled away, slightly embarrassed at the feelings building up inside him.

In his late teens, he had been introduced to the delights of the fairer sex, but he knew Katie had led a sheltered life. She was still inexperienced in such matters and he realized the need to calm down and control himself. Marriage was the proper time for such thoughts and actions.

“Phew! Think I should get myself a cold drink,” he joked, trying to ease the tension as he stepped back, breathless, looking into Katie’s flushed face.

Feeling her heart would burst, Katie took Joe’s hand and pulled him towards her. She could sense his reluctance, knew the inner decent man was thinking of her innocence in such matters and her reputation. However, Katie now felt something had changed between them, and the girl disappeared as the woman pledged herself to Joe, heart, body and soul.

“Joe, I want you to love me, now,” she said, as she ran her fingers through his hair and then put her arms around his neck.

Joe felt her passion, her longing, but drew away. “Oh Katie. I can’t do it. I respect you too much,” he cried, as he fought against the desire to kiss her again.

“Joe, at this moment I don’t want your respect,” she said softly and in a determined voice. “I want your love.”

Joe fixed his stare on her, captivated by the sincerity that shone from her blue eyes.

“Are you really sure?” he whispered.

Katie moved forward and molded herself into Joe’s body. They stood enveloped in each others arms, the desire growing with each second.

“Oh yes Joe. I am sure,” Katie answered as she pulled his head down and their lips met.

In the warm late April sunshine, the two lovers slowly sank onto the grassy floor, oblivious to all sights and sounds, only aware of each other and the love that they shared.

*****

SUMMER

Joe Cartwright slowly turned down the main street of Virginia City. He was a man in love and he couldn’t suppress the smile that seemed to permanently cover his face. It had been three months since he had proposed to Katie, and now, with only one week to go before their wedding day, he was blissfully happy and content. Yesterday he had thought his life could not get much better, but after seeing his beloved Katie, hearing her news, he now knew different. His chest felt like it would burst with the love that consumed him.

He steered Cochise in front of the mercantile, dismounting and looking around him, his eyes automatically focused on the small seamstress shop on the opposite side of the street. He knew his wife-to-be would be sat there, just as excited as he, wishing away each hour until their special day arrived.

Joe took a deep breath then began to complete the chores carefully listed by his father. Supplies to be ordered, letters to post, mail to be collected, bills to be paid. Two hours later all was done. Joe looked over at the Silver Dollar, wetting his lips. A cool beer sure would go down well, he mused. As he stepped off the sidewalk, he heard a familiar voice call to him softly.

“Joe.”

Smiling Joe turned and looked back. Katie stood yards away, her fair hair shining in the summer sunlight, looking radiant and happy. The saloon and beer instantly forgotten, Joe walked over, taking her hands in his and gently kissed her.

“I saw you earlier on and guessed you were here on business. Have you finished now?” Katie asked, as she lovingly looked up into her fiancée’s eyes.

“Yes, all done,” answered Joe. “I can’t stay in town long though. Pa is waiting for the mail.”

“I know Joe, just wanted to tell you, I love you,” she said, as the two of them stood together, staring into each others eyes.

“Oh, I love you, my sweet princess,” answered Joe, a feeling of excruciating longing flooding through his body. He lovingly caressed her cheek, savoring every touch, every word that passed between them.

“Here, let me walk you back,” he finally said, taking hold of her hand and brushing it against his lips. Smiling happily at each other they strolled slowly arm in arm, making their way down the street.

All of a sudden the muffled sounds of gunfire and yelling could be heard. Rising to a crescendo, the thundering sound of horses hooves grew nearer, and Joe and Katie looked around, unsure and uncertain what was happening.

Down the main street appeared three horsemen. Having just robbed the local bank they were all firing indiscriminately at anyone in an attempt to clear the way for their escape.

Joe pulled Katie behind him and pushed her onto the sidewalk as he instinctively went to draw his gun. The first horseman, a young blonde man with a scar on his cheek, was practically on top of Joe, his hand stretched out ready to shoot. For a brief millisecond both men looked at each other, the gunman’s face forever etched in Joe’s memory.

However, before Joe could even raise his weapon, the gunman had fired and a bullet hit Joe in the thigh. As he yelled out in agony, the impact sent him sprawling into the dusty street, his hat flying from his head. Another bullet ricocheted and grazed him on the temple, the blood rushing out and rendering him unconscious immediately.

As Katie screamed at the sight of Joe lying wounded and bloody she ran out to him without thought for her own safety. The third gunman galloped by, still shooting at the dispersing townsfolk who were running for shelter in any available doorway or alley. Seeing a flash of color seemingly in his path, the armed man fired without thinking, his bullet hitting Katie. As he galloped on without a backward glance, Katie, already kneeling at Joe’s side, moaned slightly, then collapsed, her body next to Joe and her arm falling onto his chest, a deep red stain appearing on her back.

The three gunmen continued to shoot their way out of Virginia City, escaping and heading for the foothills. The posse that was quickly formed chased after them, but to no avail as they seemed to vanish into thin air. It had taken all of five minutes to turn a pleasant summer’s day into a bloodbath that Virginia City would remember for years to come.

A crowd soon raced to help the injured and remove the dead, Doc Martin being one of the first to arrive. Those who viewed the young couple would forever remember the poignancy of the scene. It was a sight that caused even the hardest of men to wipe away a tear. Joe Cartwright unconscious and seriously injured lying on the dusty ground, while his fiancée lay, her arm around his chest, as though asleep together, a diamond ring on her finger sparkling in the July sunshine.

Three innocent people died that day and five were injured, including Joe. News traveled fast to the Ponderosa, and soon Ben, Adam and Hoss were at Doc Martin’s surgery waiting for news of Joe as he lay fighting for his life. The bullet had shattered bone and sinew in Joe’s thigh, and the head wound was deep and caused much concern as it bled profusely.

Doc Martin spent the following 24 hours without sleep while he treated Joe and the other four wounded townsfolk. He used every inch of his skill to remove the bullet in Joe’s leg and repair the damage it had caused, knowing all the while there was a chance Joe would never walk properly again. The head wound was deep and left Joe in a coma-like state for days. In a way it was a blessing for it gave his leg time to heal as he lay unmoving. Once again the doctor was able to skillfully stitch the gaping head wound, leaving only a small scar, barely visible in the thick wavy hairline of his young patient.

For nearly two weeks Joe lay weak as he slipped in and out of consciousness, blissfully unaware of the tragedy he had survived. As his life hung in the balance, Ben, Adam and Hoss took turns to sit by his bedside, praying and willing him to awaken.

Eventually their prayers were answered.

It was late evening when Joe finally opened his eyes. In the glow of a single lamp, he could see he was not in his own bedroom and feeling slightly disorientated he slowly studied his surroundings. He felt uncomfortable, stiff and chilled even though a blanket was pulled up to his neck. After a few minutes, as his mind cleared, he realized he was in the back room of Doc Martin’s office.

In the corner he could see his father slumped in a chair and dozing. It was a comforting thought that whenever he was sick or injured his father would be there at his side, keeping guard, waiting for him to recover. He coughed slightly, the sound stirring Ben who opened his eyes and saw his son looking at him with a slight smile on his face. Rushing over he looked tenderly into his son’s eyes.

“Joe! Good to have you back with us, son,” he said quietly, relief washing over him.

“How do you feel?”

“Thirsty Pa, very thirsty,” Joe answered, his voice barely above a whisper, as he shivered slightly. There was a vile taste in his mouth and his throat felt sore and dry.

Ben leaned over and picked up a glass of water. He gently lifted Joe’s head and supported him while Joe sipped the cool liquid.

The glass was soon emptied, and Joe let his head fall back on the pillow, grimacing as he did so.

“You in pain, Joe?” asked Ben.

Joe nodded. “Head aches and my leg feels like hell.” He squirmed slightly on the unfamiliar mattress.

“What happened, Pa?” he croaked. “I don’t seem to remember anything.”

Ben pulled up a chair and sat by the bed, holding onto Joe’s hand. “There was a robbery, Joe, and you were shot. You’ve been lying here for two weeks, very ill. We really thought we were going to lose you for a while.”

Joe tentatively felt the bandage on his head as he looked at Ben questioningly.

“Bullet grazed your head Joe. Another half an inch and it would of killed you.”

Joe silently nodded. He carefully pulled over his blanket and looked down at his leg covered in a splint from ankle to hip. Ben could see Joe studying it. “Got a bullet in the thigh too, Joe. Made a mess but Doc says there’s a good chance it has knit together. You’ll be walking in no time.”

Again Joe nodded, feeling confused and weak as Ben re-covered his leg and tucked the blanket under the mattress.

As his head began to feel fuzzy Joe closed his eyes, swallowing hard.

“Can you remember anything, Joe?” asked Ben.

Joe rubbed his forehead as he shook his head from side to side. “I don’t think so, Pa,” he said, quietly, as he opened his eyes, frowning as he willed himself to remember something, anything!

Then his face changed.

There was a half remembered memory, still a blur that appeared, images flashing in his head. Horses galloping! Bullets flying! A scarred face! Excruciating pain! A scream! His eyes widened as he realized what his father had said. Two weeks! He should be married now!

“Katie! Where’s Katie?” he whispered. “I’ve let her down, missed our wedding!”

Ben’s voice faltered slightly as he fixed his eyes on Joe. “I’m so sorry, son. She was shot as well. She didn’t make it.”

Joe gazed at Ben in bewilderment, unwilling to believe the news.

“Dead! She’s dead?” Joe’s eyes opened wide with shock and horror.

Ben nodded as he squeezed Joe’s hand tighter. “It was instant Joe. She didn’t feel any pain.”

The ache in his leg and head was nothing compared to the sudden feeling of utter desolation that swept over Joe’s body.

“She’s been laid to rest, Joe. Made sure everything was the best for her.”

“She’s buried?” asked Joe, “Already?”

“We had to, Joe. For a time we didn’t even think you would pull through. I’m so sorry, son, so very sorry.”

Joe stared ahead blankly, grief and sorrow etched on every inch of his pale face. “Dead!” he whispered, again and again as he began to shake, his body reacting to the shocking news. “ Katie, Katie.” His voice was silent but his lips moved as he repeated her name over and over.

Ben continued to sit by the bedside, his head bent over, unwilling to watch his son’s suffering. Then he heard Joe take a deep breath as his whole body suddenly seemed to stiffen and lie unmoving.

“Would you mind leaving me for a while, Pa? I’d like to be alone,” said Joe, quietly, almost pleading as he closed his eyes.

Ben looked up at him, his pale face blending into the white bandage around his head.

“Alright, Joe. I’ll be outside if you need anything.”

Joe heard the closing of the door and turned his head. His whole body felt numb yet his pain was unbearable. He clenched his fists and banged them onto the mattress as tears welled up inside him. She was gone! He had lived and Katie had died, leaving Joe feeling a guilt that tore him apart. The dream was shattered and as tears rolled down Joe’s cheeks and sobs racked his body he buried his face in the pillow and cried his heart out.

Ben went out into the connecting office where Adam and Hoss were sitting in silence, each staring at the blank wall and thinking of their youngest sibling. They both looked up as Ben closed the door behind him, studying his pale and weary face.

“Joe is conscious,” said Ben trembling as he sat down opposite them.

“Can we see him, Pa?” asked Hoss anxiously as he looked towards the closed door, eager to see his brother.

Shaking his head Ben sighed wearily. “I’ve told him about Katie,” replied Ben, as he felt his eyes moisten. “He wants a few minutes on his own.”

Together they sat in silence, the father feeling as though his own heart was breaking into a thousand pieces; two brothers knowing they were powerless to ease their brother’s suffering; the three men acutely aware of the muffled sobs that could be heard through the door.

*****

AUTUMN

Ben, Adam and Hoss were silent as they each supped hot coffee, their evening meal finished, and watched Joe begin the slow and painful walk away from the dining table and up the stairs of the Ponderosa ranch house.

It had become a familiar pattern in the Cartwright household over the past two months since Joe had been fit enough to leave Doc Martin’s back room and return to the Ponderosa.

Dinner would have been a muted affair as usual, and once completed, his meal hardly touched, Joe would excuse himself in a quiet voice, then shuffle upstairs, dragging his left leg painfully behind him. His once strong and sturdy shoulders would be stooped, and his head hung low onto his chest. Always pale, his eyes dull and sad, his face bore a haunted look, making him look much older than the 23 years he was.

Slow footsteps, one on the step followed by the dragging of the other to follow it, continued for a minute until the sound of his bedroom door closing would echo around the large airy room. As he disappeared early each evening, the uncomfortable silence that had hung around the dinner table slowly faded and there would be a noticeable sigh of relief from the three occupants left downstairs. It was a routine that was slowly beginning to tell on the physical and mental state of all the family.

Tearing his eyes away from the stairs Ben sighed deeply. He remembered, not so many months ago, how Joe would have run up the stairs, two at a time, laughing as he was chased by Adam or Hoss. What he wouldn’t give to see that again.

When Joe had been well enough to return to the Ponderosa and walk unaided, the family had been constantly on edge, wondering if he would leave the ranch and seek vengeance on the gang responsible. There had been a constant tense atmosphere, no one sure if Joe’s volatile temper would erupt at any moment. But no! Although the events of that terrible July day had slowly come back to him in vivid images, when told the men had disappeared from the area without trace, he had just slipped into his state of self inflicted depression and never mentioned them again.

Last week had been Joe’s birthday. In the past it had been celebrated with gusto, but this time, at his insistence, there had been nothing arranged. Grudgingly mumbling a thank you as Ben and his brothers wished him happy birthday, he just shrugged his shoulders then slowly dragged himself to the barn to groom his horse. It was as far as he would trust himself to go, reluctant and unwilling to venture into town as the memories were still too fresh and painful.

He could see how his behavior was affecting his family and inwardly knew why he could not shift his mantle of melancholy. It needed to be discussed with his father but for some reason the words were hidden and locked away inside him unable to escape.

Over the past weeks, Ben had wanted to talk to Joe about his loss but had been hesitant to intrude on Joe’s grief until his son was ready. They never had difficulty in the past talking to each other, Joe always the first to open up with his problems. However, this time it was different. Joe had resisted all attempts at conversation, just walking away or sitting without comment, his eyes dull and lacking interest in all around him.

Unable to comfort or help, Ben felt as though he had failed his son when he was needed the most. The strain was telling on everyone, making tempers short and frayed. The happiness and laughter that had radiated from the Ponderosa for so many years had disappeared leaving a sad and empty void.

“How long is this gonna go on for, Pa?” said Hoss shaking his head. “I know he’s got a right to mourn, but there just don’t seem to be any desire in him to face the future, get on with life.”

Ben didn’t reply as he stared into his coffee cup, not knowing what to say. It was the same question every night. There just didn’t seem to be an answer.

“If only he would show some emotion, start yelling, just acting like my little brother again. I could live with that, but not this silence. It just ain’t natural, Pa!” cried Hoss, sighing heavily, his big hands shaking, spilling hot coffee onto the table top.

As he continued to drink, Adam looked over the rim of his cup at Hoss. “I saw Doc Martin today in town. Appears he called here last week while we were with the herd.”

“Joe never said! And?” asked Hoss, a perplexed frown appearing on his face.

Taking another sip, Adam put down his cup. “He told me something about Joe,” he said gravely.

Ben and Hoss stared over at Adam, whose voice hardened as he continued. “He checked Joe over and couldn’t find a thing wrong with Joe’s leg. He should be walking as good as new.” Adam’s voice suddenly softened. “But he isn’t, is he?”

“You sure, Adam? Was the Doc that sure?” asked Ben, his face etched with worry.

Adam nodded. Silence ensued as the three men thought back to minutes ago, the vision of Joe, limping and dragging his leg behind him still vivid in their minds.

“Then why, Adam? Why ain’t he walking right? Surely he’d want to be up and running as soon as possible?” asked Hoss in astonishment.

Adam sat back in his chair. “The way I see it, Hoss, I reckon he feels guilty that he somehow survived and she didn’t. Joe’s body is fully recovered but his mind won’t allow him to admit his leg is better.” He sighed and folded his hands across his chest, shaking his head slightly. “I also know my little brother and I’m sure there’s something else. Something else that’s tearing him apart that we don’t know about.”

Adam looked over at his father, his stare locked on his face. “I can tell you this,” he said, his voice filled with a deep sadness. “If something doesn’t change soon we are going to lose him.”

Ben stared back, unable to immediately grasp the implications of Adam’s statement. “What do you mean Adam? Lose him?” He didn’t hide the alarm in his voice.

“Oh come on Pa! You’ve got to have noticed.” Adam’s voice suddenly rose in volume. “Joe is just spiraling down into this state of depression and there isn’t a single thing we can do about it.”

Ben’s face paled. “What do you mean? Adam?”

Taking a deep breath Adam sat forward and stared into his father’s worried eyes. “Pa. I know we’ve all been skirting around this, walking around on eggshells. But it’s got to be said. Joe is getting to that state of mind…well, I can see him taking his gun and ending up in the barn with a bullet in his head!”

There it was said! The unmentionable, the unthinkable, but the probable! Joe Cartwright was on the rocky slide to suicide, and his family, though unwilling to admit it to themselves, knew it.

Ben covered his eyes with his hands and felt his eyes watering. Not his Joseph! He could hardly believe it, but deep down he knew it could well be true. Hoss put his hand on his father’s shoulder and squeezed it gently, while he looked over at Adam. He shook his head, not knowing how else to help his father in his darkest hours.

“Surely it ain’t that bad, Adam?” Hoss glanced at his father and then back to Adam.

“No way would Joe do that.”

Adam stood up and walked slowly over to the large fire, standing with his hand on the hearth, staring into the flickering flames. An expression of worry flashed over his face.

“You think not, Hoss?” he answered sadly. “Joe never speaks unless spoken to, never leaves his room unless we force him. Hardly eats. Shows no interest in anything and lies and stares up at the ceiling day after day. He just has the look of someone who hasn’t anything to live for.”

Adam banged his fist into the palm of his hand in exasperation, his voice growing in volume and intensity. “Damn it, Hoss! He shows absolutely no interest in going after the gang who murdered Katie! Is that our Joe? Of course it isn’t! What else does he have to do to convince you?”

Adam took a deep breath, noting how his father and Hoss stared at him uneasily. “Okay, maybe I’m wrong. Could be I’m reading too much into the way he is. But have you looked into his eyes lately?” he asked quietly.

Ben and Hoss shook their heads.

Adam stood for a moment in silence before replying in a soft and resigned voice. “There’s nothing! No life, no sparkle, nothing!”

“You really think it’s that bad, Adam?” Ben cried, formerly unwilling to acknowledge the truth.

Adam rushed over to his father, pulling up his chair then taking hold of Ben’s arm. “Pa, I’m sorry to be so blunt, but it had to be said. For everyone’s sake!”

Ben chewed on his lip as he thought through Adam’s words and he sank lower into his chair. He sighed. “I know you are right, Adam. I was willing to give him time to mourn, for his heart to start to heal. I just kept hoping Joe would find his own way back to us, but it would seem I was just fooling myself.”

“What can we do, Pa?” Hoss asked finally, as his eyes met those of his father. “We have got to do something before it’s too late.”

“I know, son, I know. But right at this minute I have no answer. I wish to God I did.”

Ben stood up slowly, pushing back his chair and walked over to the hearth. He stared into the fire for a moment while his two sons watched him in silence. “Have either of you two tried to talk to Joe lately?” he asked quietly.

“We’ve tried Pa, and he nods and sits quiet but I don’t even think he actually hears a word we say,” answered Adam, while Hoss nodded in agreement.

“There is something I have noticed though, something strange.” said Adam.

Ben turned and looked at Adam, waiting.

“Never once, while we’ve been around him, talking, has he cried a tear. Not once!” Adam looked over a Hoss. “You must have noticed, Hoss? If there’s one thing about our little brother you could bet on, it’s his emotions getting the better of him. But this time, nothing.”

Hoss nodded. “Yeah, not since that day you told him the news, Pa. Ain’t seen a tear in his eye. It just ain’t natural. Just ain’t…….Joe!”

“Maybe it’s the shock of it all, but I’m sure that’s only part of the problem,” stated Adam, “There seems to be a wall built up between him and his emotions, and somehow he just can’t get through.”

“There’s something else, Pa,” continued Adam, as he took a deep breath, feeling slightly guilty at what he was about to say.

Something in Adam’s tone made Ben feel uneasy. “Yes Adam?” he asked.

“I used to see him stare at you, Pa, and I could swear there was a look of anger on his face. Only momentarily, then it would be gone. But it happened more than once, and I just don’t know what to make of it.”

Ben shook his head, and took a deep breath. “Anger? Why anger, and why me? I don’t understand. You sure, Adam?”

The eldest Cartwright nodded, aware his father had flinched as though he had been physically hit. The thought that Joe held anger against him tore through Ben’s heart. He was perplexed and confused. What on earth had happened to cause such a feeling in Joe?

Adam and Hoss continued to look at their father and noticed his nervousness as he ran his fingers through his hair. Both shook their heads and inwardly smiled. Joe always did the very same thing. How alike father and youngest were in so many small ways they both mused.

Ben thought hard. He would be the first to admit he was scared. Scared for his son, scared for them all. If what Adam said was true there was something going on in Joe’s head, and if nothing was done about it soon, it might be too late.

“It’s time I had another talk with Joe and this time we need to sort out everything, whether he wants to or not. I’ve put it off long enough.” Ben said quietly.

Adam and Hoss stood, ready to accompany him. Ben gently smiled and waved his hand down. “No boys, this is something I have to do alone,” he said, though his voice showed his thanks for their concern.

Adam and Hoss watched their father disappear up the stairs, listening to his footsteps as he walked along the landing stopping in front of Joe’s bedroom door. With a feeling of trepidation, Ben knocked on the door and waited.

Nothing. No response.

He gently knocked again, feeling his stomach churn with anticipation. From inside came a quiet voice which sounded detached, just responding automatically.

“Come in.”

Ben opened the door and stepped into the bedroom, the bright moon that shone through the window the only illumination. Closing the door he walked over to Joe who lay fully clothed, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling.

“May I have a word, Joe?” asked Ben, as he sat down, nervously smoothing the rumpled quilt that covered Joe’s bed.

Suddenly conscious of someone intruding into his privacy, Joe sat up and stared at his father. “Oh! Sure, Pa. I was just thinking. Didn’t realize anyone had come in.”

Ben took his son’s hand and gently stroked his fingers. He felt Joe tense slightly as though unwilling to accept his father’s touch. “How are you feeling, Joe? Does the leg still hurt?” he asked, trying to see the reaction to his question in the gloom of the darkened room.

“Yes, it still hurts,” answered Joe quietly, though inside he felt an angry panic building.

His Pa didn’t think there was anything wrong with his leg anymore! He could sense it in his father’s voice.

Last week Doc Martin had told him his leg was fully healed, there was no scarring, the tissue had repaired itself, and it was whole again. But the words just bounced off Joe. Whatever the Doc said, he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe him. His leg still hurt, still ached, was not getting better, and nothing the Doc said would convince Joe any different!

He was not whole again, and never would be!

“Joe,” said Ben, as he stared into his son’s pale and gaunt looking face, trying to detect the anger Adam had spoken of. “We need to talk.”

“Sure Pa, if that’s what you want,” said Joe quietly in a resigned voice. “What about?”

Ben took a deep breath and swallowed hard. Never had he found it so difficult to talk to his son.

“I think we need to talk about you, Katie, and what you are feeling. Your brothers have tried, but failed to get you to open up, and I haven’t pushed you to tell me. But I reckon there’s something you need to get off your chest, once and for all. Something you have been keeping to yourself. Am I right?”

Joe suddenly tensed, and he began to shake his head. “No! I just can’t! Don’t make me!” he choked, and he turned and lay with his back to Ben.

Gently, Ben pulled Joe back to face him. He could see him staring, white eyed, afraid. “Joe, please! Don’t you realize that’s what’s keeping you from recovering?”

Joe continued to stare and Ben could see panic on his face as globules of sweat began to form, running down his forehead and onto his cheeks.

“Son, you do want to get better, don’t you?” he asked, watching the young man whose handsome face was molded into a mask of pain and misery.

Joe looked at his father, and even in the gloom of the moonlight that shone through the window, could see love, concern and worry, all etched on his weathered face. He nodded, though only slightly, and in the gloom Ben nearly missed the movement.

“You know you have to talk, don’t you, Joe? Tell me what’s eating away at you?”

Joe closed his eyes tightly, biting on his lip. He could feel his chest constricting, and he could hardly get his breath as he nodded again.

“You’re angry, aren’t you, Joe? Angry at me! I need to know why, Joe?” Ben cried. “What have I done? You know I would never do anything to hurt you!”

Joe hung his head, then slowly lifted his face, opening his dull green eyes to view Ben.

“Pa. I’m sorry! Yes, I was angry at you for a time,” he said quietly, shaking his head slowly. “But I was being unfair, Pa. I realize that now. You didn’t deserve it. Its just…..” His voice trailed into silence.

A tear rolled down Joe’s cheek, and he brushed it away with his free hand. A chink of light in the wall of silence and emotion that had been bricked up inside him suddenly appeared. His throat was dry but he felt more relaxed that he had done for months as he savored the reassuring touch of his father’s hand on his own.

Ben squeezed his hand. “I love you, son,” he said, “You know that, don’t you?”

Joe smiled slightly and nodded. Taking a deep breath, he forced out the words that had been sealed inside him for too long. “How was it for you, Pa? When they died. Ma, Inger and Elizabeth. Was it like hell on earth?”

Ben nodded and sighed deeply. “Yes, Joe, it was. Even now, there is a part of me that grieves for them all, each day.”

“Then you know how I feel, don’t you, Pa? You’ve been through it three times after all.”

“Yes Joe, I know how you feel. But I got over it. I had to, for your sake, and Adam and Hoss’s sake. You all needed me, so I forced myself to live again. And it was worth it,” he replied, his voice full of sincerity.

“The funerals, Pa. It would have helped you wouldn’t it? You would be able to say goodbye each time then walk away knowing you’d done your best for them.” Joe’s voice began to falter slightly.

Ben nodded silently in the gloom, his mind instantly taken back to those three sad events, each so different in time, location and circumstance but so alike in pain and heartache.

Joe swung his legs off the bed and limped over to the dresser under the window, staring out into the dark October night. The moonlight shone through onto a small box and for the first time since his return to the ranch, Joe forced himself to pick it up. Swallowing hard, he opened it, knowing full well what lay inside. Glittering and sparkling in the moonlight was the ring he had given Katie. Tears formed stinging his eyes, as he took out the ring and gently lifted it to his lips. He fleetingly wondered if his father had done the very same thing when his mother had died.

Ben gazed at Joe in silence, watching and waiting. Carefully replacing the ring in its box Joe returned to stare out of the window. “By the time I was well enough, Katie was buried. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye the way I wanted,” said Joe softly, without turning round.

“Oh Joe!” Ben gasped. “I never thought! You were so ill, still unconscious and we were so worried about you. It just seemed the right thing to do at the time.”

“It was all wrong!” said Joe, quietly. “Katie should have been buried on the Ponderosa, with Ma. Not alone in that cemetery in Virginia City! How could you Pa!” he asked, his voice full of sadness.

Ben flinched. “What can I say Joe? We just thought we were doing the best for you.”

A muffled sob came from Joe. “It wasn’t just Katie, Pa!” he said, as though suddenly drained of all strength, and he returned to sit on the edge of the bed next to Ben.

“What do you mean, son?” asked Ben softly, as he felt his son’s body shiver involuntarily.

In a pained voice, barely audible, he turned his head and looked Ben in the eye. “She was pregnant, Pa. Katie was having my baby and I couldn’t even say goodbye to my own child!”

Ben sat, surprised and horrified.

An awkward silence ensued. Joe put his face in his hands and sat unmoving, unwilling to view the look of disapproval and disappointment he assumed was on Ben’s face.

However, Joe couldn’t be more wrong. Although surprised, Ben felt no disappointment with his son. Joe and Katie were a pair matched in heaven, and he felt no reason to doubt that their love would have been genuine, sincere and everlasting.

In the silence the sudden realization that Joe had also been grieving for an unborn son or daughter, and that he had lost a grandchild that day hit Ben.

“Oh no Joe!” Ben cried. “Joe, son! I am so sorry.”

With his secret now out and shared, Joe felt a sudden rush of emotions that had been locked inside him for far too long.

Flinging himself into Ben’s arms, he sobbed, his whole body heaving. Ben tightened his grip and held Joe close, his own eyes flowing with tears as he hung onto his youngest son.

Both had lost something precious that day, and they cried together in their grief.

*****

WINTER

Ben closed the book he had been reading and glanced over at the clock by the door. It was nearly 9:30pm and he stifled a yawn. The room was quiet, too quiet for Ben’s liking. Outside he could hear the winter wind blowing, screeching in a high pitched tone as it whistled around the chimney. He was alone, and though sometimes appreciative of solitude and peace, for once he yearned for companionship, wished his sons were with him.

However, days before Adam and Hoss had departed for San Francisco to negotiate a new timber contract. Adam had sent a wire to tell him all had gone well, the contract was signed and he and Hoss would stay on for a while to appreciate the sights and sounds of the fast growing city. Ben was happy with Adam’s decision. The past few months had been a strain on all the family and Ben was all too glad to let his two oldest sons relax away from the ranch, and hopefully enjoy their time away. However, he still missed them terribly, and looked forward to their return.

After taking a sip of brandy, Ben rested his head back, his thoughts returning to his youngest. Since that night, two months ago, when Joe had at last opened up and cried with Ben, there had been a slow improvement in his condition. His limp had become less pronounced, and eventually disappeared. The gunmen who shot him were never mentioned and he began to show an interest in the ranch, taking on again chores and responsibilities, working hard each day from dawn to dusk. His familiar laugh was heard occasionally, and the friendly banter between all three brothers returned, causing Ben to inwardly sigh with relief. To all around him Joe seemed to be his old self, had picked up the pieces, and was eager to live life to the full again.

However, Ben’s relief was short lived. The day Adam and Hoss departed on the stage for San Francisco, Ben had waved them off and then turned to see his old friend, Sheriff Coffee walking towards him. They had shaken hands and Roy invited Ben back to his office to have a drink and a chat. Welcoming the chance to talk with his old friend, Ben had nodded thankfully, and the two men returned to the jail, grateful to sit in the warm office out of the chilling wind.

The pleasantries over, Roy had asked Ben how Joe was getting along.

“Oh he is doing real well, Roy. Working hard, up to some of his mischievous tricks. Yes, he seems to be getting on with his life – has put that awful tragedy behind him.”

Roy had been silent for a minute, a frown covering his face. Ben noticed it. “What is it, Roy? Something wrong?”

Roy shook his head as he looked over at his old friend. “I wouldn’t mention it normally Ben, but I think you ought to know something.” He coughed nervously as he pointed over to a large pile of wanted posters. “You see these, Ben? Get a new batch every other day. Always seems to grow.”

Ben looked over and could see the crude drawings of wanted men staring up at him. “Yes, Roy. What about them?”

“Well, for the past three weeks, Joe has been in here two, three times a week. Each time he comes in and goes through these posters, staring at the pictures, reading all the descriptions. He’s trying to find out who those three men were Ben, and I can see his face each time he finds nothing. It’s a look of sheer anger and desperation.”

Ben sat, silently taking in every word Roy had said.

“The truth is, Ben, no one knows who those gunmen were. We only had the barest of descriptions, nothing to really go on. My guess is they came up from another state, hit our bank, and then returned home, as quickly as possible. Nothing has been seen or heard of them again. It’s like they just disappeared off the face of the earth.”

“So, Joe may never find their faces on a wanted poster, is that what you’re getting at Roy?” asked Ben.

“Yeah, Ben, but that ain’t gonna stop him looking. Trouble is, the longer it takes, the more frustrated Joe will become. It‘s just gonna dominate his life Ben, if something ain’t done about it. When he leaves this office, he’s got a look on him Ben, a look that might well destroy him eventually.”

The old clock struck 10:00pm and Ben shook himself from his daydreaming. What Roy told him had been at the back of his mind constantly, leaving him worried and feeling permanently uneasy. Joe had never mentioned the visits to Roy’s office, appearing to have forgotten about the men who had shot him and killed Katie.

Was Roy imagining it?

Ben needed to know what was going on in his son’s mind and he decided tonight was the night to settle the matter. Taking another sip of brandy, Ben turned his head as he heard the sound of footsteps on the outside verandah.

The front door opened sending a blast of cold January air into the large room. It quickly slammed shut, and the familiar figure of Joe appeared as he removed his thick winter coat and hung up his hat and gunbelt on the pegs by the door. Over the past few weeks, he had forced himself to meet up with his friends in the evening, wasting away the hours at the local saloons in a vain attempt to return to normality.

Shivering as he rubbed his hands together, Joe turned to make his way to the fire. He felt weary after countless nights of fitful and broken sleep, yet tired as he was, his face had the haunted look of a man obsessed and possessed with the thought of vengeance.

Suddenly he noticed Ben was sitting by the fire and he quickly lifted his shoulders and smiled, instantly hiding his true feelings. Too late, though! In that moment Ben had seen the true Joe as described by Roy, and Ben’s stomach churned in despair. As Joe walked over, looking at his father in the flickering firelight, Ben’s face suddenly seemed to look very old.

“You okay, Pa? You look very tired.” Joe asked as he stood in front of the fire, warming himself. “Thought you’d have gone to bed by now. You didn’t fall asleep did you?”

Ben shook his head. “No, son. Just been thinking.”

Joe studied Ben’s face, noted the pensive look.

“Have a good evening, Joe?” said Ben thoughtfully, as he watched his son

“Had a few beers with the boys, hand of poker. Didn’t get into one fight, Pa! You’d have been proud of me,” he joked as he picked up a small log and carefully placed it on the glowing embers. “Sure is cold out there, that wind nearly cuts you in two!”

“Joe?” Ben said in a quiet voice. “I’d like a word with you.”

Joe looked down at his father, instinctively wondering what he had done wrong this time. How old habits die hard he thought silently to himself. “Sure, Pa,” he said frowning. “What’s wrong?”

Ben motioned Joe to sit down by his side and father and son looked across at each other.

“I’m proud of the way you are getting your life back together, son. I know it hasn’t been easy.”

Joe nodded, closing his eyes for a second as he felt his stomach muscles tighten.

“You are putting it all behind you, aren’t you, Joe?”

Ben’s questioning and piercing stare left Joe feeling uneasy. He turned his eyes away and stared at the fire slowly nodding.

“Sure, Pa. Some days are harder than others but other times…well, I cope better. Manage to get through without thinking about it all. Get on with life. You must know what I mean, Pa?” Joe asked, well aware of his father’s past heartaches.

“Yes, I know, Joe,” said Ben as he put down the brandy glass by the side of the chair, his voice suddenly becoming stern. “Joe, I think its time you stopped this pretence. I know exactly what is going through your mind.”

Joe stiffened and sat back, clenching his fists, his mood instantly somber. “What would that be then, Pa? You a mind reader all of a sudden?” he asked sarcastically, his voice sounding cold and hard.

“You know all too well, Joe. I’ve been talking with Roy, and you haven’t put it all behind you, have you? You want revenge!” he stated.

Joe jumped up, his volatile temper showing in an instant. Too late now to hide his true feelings. “What if I do, Pa? Ain’t I got the right?” he yelled, as he stood above his father, his eyes flashing with an anger Ben had never seen in his son before.

Ben stood up, father and son facing each other inches apart. “No, Joe! Much as it grieves me to say it, you haven’t got the right. It’s up to the law to bring those men to justice, not you on a personal vendetta!” cried Ben

Joe continued to stand, clenched fists at his side, as he stared into his father’s eyes.

“I ain’t no kid, Pa! Don’t give me any of that Sunday school nonsense about leaving it to the Lord to make sure sinners will burn forever in the fires of hell! I won’t accept that. Not now!” he snapped. “I should have been a father!” A sob of pain left his throat as he shook with rage. “I owe it to Katie and my child. I’m going after those men, however long it takes and while I have breath in my body, and nothing you say or do is going to stop me!” He started to turn away, tears in his eyes, as Ben caught him by the arm and swung him round.

“Please, Joe, listen to me. Just sit down, let me talk to you,” said Ben, keen to calm his son’s outburst.

Joe felt his heart pounding fast as he gritted his teeth, and stood unmoving, his fathers hand still on his arm. The veil of anger in his watered eyes failed to lift as he continued to stare at Ben but shrugging his fathers hand from his arm, he sat back down, unwilling and unable to look back at his father’s face.

“I’m not going to preach to you on the words of the Bible, Joe. Just remember this. If we are to remain civilized human beings, we can’t take the law into our own hands, no matter what the reason. You’ve got to understand that, Joe!” Ben said, almost pleading. “I truly understand your anger, Joe, but without the law, there is no justice. I can’t bear the thought of you wasting your life looking at every wanted poster, willing those men to be on, waiting to ride off and become your own judge, jury and executioner!”

Ben could feel his voice breaking with emotion as he looked at Joe who continued to stare blankly into the fire. “I can’t live my life continually wondering if some day you are going to just disappear without a word of goodbye, wondering……..knowing you could end up lying dead in some alley or grass verge, never knowing what had happened to you. It’s tearing me apart, Joe, and heaven knows how it will affect Adam and Hoss.”

Ben fell back down onto his chair drained, while he eyes never left his son’s face.

Joe stood up, not wanting to see reason and unwilling to listen to his father’s heartfelt words. Still feeling a fury burning within him he turned away from Ben and walked towards the stairs in silence. Then, as he placed his foot on the first step he stopped, taking hold of the banister rail with both hands. With a deep sigh, he placed his head on his hands, frozen like a statue unable to move forward or back. Suddenly he felt very tired. Tired of his hate, his anger, his misery, his failure. Tired of living a lie.

“Joe, please!” Ben begged as he watched his son, still and silent.

Joe heard his father’s faltering voice and looked over. Ben’s face was contorted in sorrow and anguish, leaving Joe with an intense feeling of guilt at his last words which had been so harsh, so unrepentant. Unable to see beyond his own despair, he had ignored and forgotten just how much distress his actions could cause his family. As quickly as it had arrived, the anger in him evaporated and he turned towards his father walking over and sitting on the coffee table in front of Ben. “I’m really sorry, Pa. I’ve been so full of my own selfish misery, I didn’t even consider how it would affect you, Adam or Hoss,” he said, his voice full or remorse and his eyes glistening as tears filled them.

“That’s okay, Joe. At least you are aware of it now,” Ben answered quietly, struck by his son’s look of shame and regret. “I know it’s hard, Joe. It will be the hardest thing you do, wiping the thought of vengeance from your heart, but for all our sakes, you have to. You wouldn’t be a son of mine if I didn’t think you knew I was right, deep within yourself.”

Joe nodded wearily, wiping his eyes then running his hand through his hair and rubbing the back of his neck as he took in a deep breath and sighed. “I do know it, Pa. Always known it, deep down. It was just…….well….I felt I owed it to Katie. Didn’t want her death to go unpunished, felt I had failed her somehow. I should have protected her, saved her, but I didn’t. It just tears me apart Pa, thinking about it. You do understand, don’t you?”

“Oh yes, I do understand, son,” answered Ben.

“You really do believe it, don’t you, Pa? No matter what, you believe you must stay within the law.”

“Yes, Joe, I do. As God is my witness, may I be struck down if that isn’t what I truly believe in my heart.”

Seconds past and Joe gave his father a loving smile as he tried to lighten the moment.

“Well Pa. You’re still here! Looks like you’re telling the truth!” he said, with a slight chuckle. Ben smiled back, keen to savor this moment between them.

Joe looked over at the fire, staring for a moment into the flickering flames. “I want revenge with every fiber in my body Pa. That’s something I can’t deny,” said Joe finally.

“But I’ll leave it for the law to find those men and bring them to justice.” He sighed deeply, then with a resigned voice he stared into his father’s eyes. “I won’t go after those men, Pa. I promise.”

Ben searched his eyes, saw his honestly shining through. He breathed a deep sigh of relief. “Thank you, son. Thank you,” he responded.

“Am I really worth all this worry, Pa?” asked Joe unsmiling, as he stared at Ben.

Looking at Joe with tenderness and affection Ben leaned over, placing his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “Absolutely, Joe! Always!”

The fire crackled loudly, sparks shooting up the chimney as father and son sat together for a minute, each content to sit in silence.

Finally Joe drew away, looking over at the clock. “It’s nearly 11.00 o’clock,” he said wearily, stretching out his arms as he slowly stood up, a feeling of exhaustion sweeping over him as he yawned. “You coming up?” he asked, noticing how Ben remained seated.

“In a minute, Joe, I won’t be long,” Ben answered with a gentle smile.

“Okay, Pa. Goodnight,” said Joe as he walked towards the stairs, intuitively knowing he would have a good nights sleep for the first time in a long time.

Ben watched him disappear around the corner then he looked over at his desk, his eyes fixed on the portrait of Joe’s mother.

“Looks like we’ve got our boy back at last, Marie,” he said, smiling in the empty room.

*****

Three days later, a weak winter sun shone down as Joe rode into the yard of the Ponderosa. It was noon, and Joe had been out since first light, checking the stock and the fencing in the bottom meadow. He led Cochise into the barn, then walked towards the house, noticing a familiar horse tied to the hitching post. As he entered, he saw his father and Sheriff Coffee sitting by the fire, drinking coffee. Ben smiled over at Joe as he hung up his coat and walked towards the two men.

“Hello Roy. Long way to come for a visit. Nothing wrong is there?” Joe asked.

“No, Joe,” Roy replied as he took a sip from his cup. “I’ve just been having a long chat with your Pa here. He tells me you’ve seen sense and put all these thoughts of revenge behind you.”

Joe looked at his father giving him a warm smile. “Yes, Roy. Pa managed to talk me round. You won’t find me looking through wanted posters anymore,” he replied, slightly embarrassed.

As he wandered over to the dining table Joe noticed Roy and his father exchange glances.

Roy coughed clearing his throat. “I have a problem, Joe, and was hoping you could help me out?”

A cautious smile appeared on Joe’s face. “Sure, Roy, what can I do for you?” he said as he poured himself a coffee, and sat down opposite his father.

Roy looked over at Ben as though waiting for permission to speak, uncertainty written on his face.

“It’s okay, Roy. Ask him.”

Joe looked between the two men, confused.

Roy turned and looked over at Joe. “I had a wire yesterday, Joe, from my son-in-law, Billy. Seems Beth has finally had that baby of hers, a son, and I would like to go see them for a few days.”

Joe nodded, smiling. “Your first grandchild, Roy. Congratulations! Do give my love to Beth. But what’s that to do with me?”

Roy sighed. “Well Joe, usually Clem would take care of things while I am gone. However yesterday he managed to fall off his horse and break his leg. He ain’t going far for a while.”

Joe stared with uncertainty at Roy. “So, you won’t be able to go visiting, Roy? That’s a shame,” he said as he raised his cup to his lips. “What do you need me for?” he asked as he began to sip his coffee.

“Well Joe, I’d like to swear you in as a Deputy Sheriff and have you take over my job while I am away.”

Joe spluttered in astonishment, nearly choking on his drink. As he stared at Roy he swallowed hard and placed his cup on the table. “You want me to be the Sheriff?” he asked, his voice high pitched and incredulous. “Why me?”

“Well Joe, I seem to remember you had a short spell in Rubicon a couple of years ago, and managed to take care of things there to everyone’s satisfaction. I need someone I can trust, who I know would do the job proper. You’re the man I need.”

Joe sat speechless, looking over at his father. “What do you say, Pa? You willing?”

Ben nodded. “There’s not much to do round here, and Adam and Hoss will be back by the end of the week. As Roy says, you’re the man for the job.”

Joe shook his head still unconvinced. “I don’t know, Pa. Virginia City is a lot bigger than Rubicon.”

“It will only be for a week, Joe,” added Roy. “You can always ask Clem to help with the paperwork, and it’s been really quiet in town since the winter set in.”

Joe swallowed hard, looking from Roy to Ben, thinking hard. Though feeling slightly nervous he found himself nodding. “Okay, Roy. I’ll do it, if you really think I’m up to it. When do I start?”

Roy stood up and walked over to Joe putting out his hand. Joe shook the outstretched hand warmly. “Thank you Joe. Being able to visit my Beth and knowing I can leave Virginia City in capable hands is a weight off my mind. The stage leaves tomorrow morning, so you get to my office first thing then I can swear you in.”

“Sure will, Roy,” Joe answered, his mind still reeling.

“Right, I’ll get back then,” said Roy turning towards the door. “I’ll see you first thing, Joe.”

Ben stood up and walked the lawman to the door. Roy picked up his hat from the credenza and shook Ben’s hand. “Bye Ben,” he said as he opened the door. “And thanks.”

“You just have a good trip and give our best to Beth,” said Ben as he watched Roy walk to his horse, waving goodbye then closing the door.

Ben returned to his chair. Joe was thoughtful as he looked over at his father.

“Are you sure about this, Pa?” Joe asked, a frown covering his face. “You think I can do the job after all the problems I’ve caused you over the past months?”

Ben smiled reassuringly. “Joe, I wouldn’t of suggested your name to Roy if I didn’t think you could do it.”

“You suggested me to Roy? After all that talk of revenge and vengeance!” Joe asked in astonishment.

“Yes Joe. I’ve got faith in you, son.”

Joe’s face lit up as he smiled over, his eyes filled with sincerity. “Thanks, Pa. I won’t let you down.”

Suddenly Joe started to chuckle, his high pitched laugh reverberating around the room. Ben looked on bemused, but happy to see the old Joe back with his infectious laugh.

“What’s the joke Joe?” asked Ben, unable to stop himself from smiling at the sight of his youngest who was laughing wildly.

“I was just imagining Adam and Hoss’ faces when they get back and see I am the Sheriff of Virginia City,” Joe chuckled. “They will never believe their eyes!”

*****

The winter wind had died down but it was still bitterly cold in Virginia City as Deputy Sheriff Joe Cartwright finished his morning rounds. He gratefully slipped into the warm office, carefully placing another log onto the stove that stood in a corner of the room. Removing his coat and hat he walked over to the large desk at the far end and sat down, glancing at the large pile of wanted posters that were spread out in front of him.

He could hardly believe he had once been obsessed with reading every last one, willing them to give him a name, a face, a place. He looked down at the badge on his chest, hearing his father’s words again and again in his head. ‘I have faith in you, son’ he had said. Faith!

With a deep sigh Joe shuffled the posters into a neat pile and opening a drawer placed them inside. Out of sight out of mind, he thought to himself.

He wondered why he had felt such dread at this job. This was his third day in charge and the town had never been so quiet, the citizens all cooperating with their new deputy, the young cowboys remaining well behaved and relatively sober. All who knew Joe were well aware of his lightening fast draw and hard fist, and he was shown the respect he duly deserved.

Joe looked over at the clock hanging on the wall. It was nearly 11am and he scratched his head, yawning with boredom. The cells of the jail were empty, his round was completed, the town was peaceful and the paperwork was up to date.

In the distance he heard the sound of the stage from Placerville rolling in, the driver shouting at the six horses to slow down and eventually stop outside the stage depot at the far end of the town. He glanced over at the clock, noting the time. The stage was only 3 minutes late, not bad for this time of year, he mused. Sitting back in his chair he closed his eyes, his mind wandering back over the months and to all that had happened to him. Katie appeared in his minds eye and he felt a sudden pain grip his insides. The heartache was still there and at times he wondered if it would ever leave him.

He continued to sit, eyes closed, his mind far, far away, when suddenly the gruff voice of a man could be heard outside. Joe opened his eyes and stood up just as his office door opened and two men walked in, the first in handcuffs, his hat low over his face, followed by a large man wearing the badge of a US Marshall on his coat.

“Good day, Marshall. Can I help you?” Joe said as he moved forward.

The Marshall studied Joe for a moment, noticed the deputy badge on his chest. “Where’s Sheriff Coffee?” he asked as he looked around the office.

“Sheriff Coffee is out of town for a week. I am temporarily in charge. The name’s Joe Cartwright.”

“Jake Bowers. Just got in from Placerville on the stage,” said the Marshall, shaking Joe’s hand, then looking towards the three empty cells. With a rough push, he escorted the handcuffed man to the nearest, locking the door as Joe stood watching in silence.

“Sorry to do this to you, Joe,” said Jake as he walked back into the office and handed over the key. “I need you to take care of this prisoner til the circuit judge arrives next week. I have all the paperwork here.” He put his hand into his inside pocket, pulling out a large bundle, and handed them over to Joe.

“What’s the charge?” asked Joe, who looked over the papers, noting the name of his prisoner, Tyler Anderson.

“Bank robbery and murder and there are plenty of witnesses.”

Joe looked up quickly, giving a short whistle. He walked over to the stove and poured out a cup of coffee. “Where did this happen?”

Jake pulled up a chair and sat down, thankfully taking the drink offered by Joe.

“Little town called Belmont, way over the other side of Placerville. Three of them in the gang, robbed the bank and shot up the town about a week ago. The other two got clean away but Anderson’s horse stumbled and he was thrown in the middle of the street. Sheriff captured him and passed him on to me to bring here. There’s no Judge visiting Placerville for a couple of months and I reckon this fellow needs to go on trial pretty quick.”

Suddenly a voice could be heard from the cells. “Hey Marshall! You gonna undo these handcuffs and give me a drink?”

Jake shook his head as he looked at Joe, and pulled out a key from his jacket pocket.

“Would you mind, Joe?” he said, handing Joe the key to the handcuffs.

Joe nodded as something began to nag at him. Something familiar about what the Marshal had said. He walked to the cell, calling to the prisoner. “Just put your hands out, nice and slow,” he said as he walked towards the bars.

As his prisoner threw his hat onto his bed and walked over, Joe suddenly stopped, his face turning to stone. The blond haired man stared at Joe, a large scar falling from his eye and down his cheek. In an instant Joe knew this man. The months of anguish and suffering flooded back, tearing at his heart as he stared into the cell. His eyes narrowed and he backed away, the key still in his hand, his eyes never leaving the face of the prisoner.

Joe returned to the desk. “I know this man,” he said quietly. “He and two others robbed the Virginia City bank then killed and injured several of the townsfolk last July.”

The Marshall’s brow furrowed. “I remember hearing about that. Horrible business. You sure it’s the same gang, Joe?”

Joe nodded. “Oh yes. I’m sure. Mr. Anderson left me a little souvenir.” he answered, as he rubbed his left thigh.

“Looks like our prisoner will be on a double count of robbery and murder,” said Jake thoughtfully.

“You say the other two escaped?” asked Joe, as the pain of the past year returned.

Jake nodded. “Sure did, but I have a feeling they may try and free their partner here. You better be on your guard Joe.”

“Hey Sheriff, what about these handcuffs?” shouted a voice in the back.

Standing up slowly, Joe made his way to the connecting door. He stared at his prisoner, the old familiar feelings of hate and anger swelling up inside him. “You can wait,” he shouted bitterly. “Til I’m good and ready.” He closed the door with a bang and returned to sit with the Marshall.

Jake could see how Joe’s countenance had changed but made no comment. He looked over at the clock, finished his coffee and stood, placing his hat back on his head. “Well Joe, I had better be off. The coach leaves in 5 minutes and I need to be on it. Have a trial to make down in Sacramento by early next week.” He shook Joe’s hand, and made his way to the door. “You’ll be alright, won’t you, Joe? Be able to manage your prisoner till Roy gets back?”

“Oh yes, Marshall. Don’t you worry on that score; I’ll take good care of him,” Joe answered, his voice showing a hardness not before heard.

“Good luck! Nice to meet you, Joe” Jake opened the door, taking a last look at the young deputy stood by the desk, then walked out closing the door behind him, oblivious to the venomous voice that whispered in the office.

“I’ll take real good care of him.”

*****

It was 10am the next morning when Ben arrived in Virginia City. Making his way to the telegraph office, he stepped inside and then minutes later emerged, a large smile across his face. He quickly walked over to the Sheriff’s office, keen to visit Joe and see how he was coping in his new role. As Ben opened the door, he was surprised to see his son sat at the desk, gun in hand, pointing it at him.

“Bit jumpy, aren’t you, Joe?”

Joe chose to ignore the remark as he replaced his gun in its holster. “What you doing in town, Pa?” he asked giving his father a weak smile.

“Just wanted to see how you are getting on, son,” answered Ben, noticing a fleeting look of unease on Joe’s face.

Ben walked over to the desk and sat down. “Adam just wired to say they will be back tomorrow.”

“Good,” said Joe, a little distractedly, as he walked to the stove and poured out two cups of coffee. Handing one over to Ben he sat back down, and began to drink.

Ben could see Joe looked tired and was unshaven. “You look as though you need some sleep, Joe. Something wrong?” he asked anxiously as he sipped his coffee.

Lifting his tired eyes Joe nodded over to the cells. Ben stood up and walked over, noticing the single occupant who was laid on the bed. His eyes were swollen and bruised, his lip was bleeding and there were cuts on his face. Hearing footsteps Tyler looked up nervously, noticed Ben and rushed to the cell bars gripping them tightly, his knuckles showing white.

“Hey mister. You gotta help me!” he cried. “That Deputy has gone mad. Sat all night pointing his gun at me, staring at me without a word. He even beat me up and refuses to take these cuffs off.”

As if to prove his point, Tyler Anderson pushed his arms through the cell bars showing his wrists still tied tight together.

Ben turned, confused. “Joe? What’s all this about?” he asked, not willing to believe what his eyes told him.

Joe walked over to the cell and stared at his prisoner. “May I introduce Tyler Anderson, Pa. Brought in from Placerville by a US Marshall yesterday. Bank robber, murderer, and the cause of some of my suffering!” he sneered, again rubbing his left leg.

Ben stared at Joe then back at Tyler. “You mean he is one of that gang, Joe?” he asked in astonishment.

Tyler sat back on his bed, cowering tightly against the wall. His eyes flashed between Ben and Joe, watching them through his swollen eyes.

Joe nodded silently then walked back to the office, Ben following, closing the door behind him. He turned on Joe instantly. “His face! You did that?” he cried in horror.

Joe ran his fingers through his hair as he sat down. “Prisoner decided to act a mite violent. Had to protect myself Pa!” he said, sitting back in his chair and rubbing his fist that was slightly swollen and bruised. “I nearly died because of him, or have you forgotten?” His voice showed a deep seeded hatred.

“Of course I haven’t forgotten, Joe, and I realize this must be a big shock for you, him turning up like this. But you can’t just start beating him up for your own personal satisfaction. He’s your prisoner in your safe-keeping!” shouted Ben, in disbelief at his son’s action.

“I told you, Pa! He got violent. End of story,” cried Joe, defiantly, willing his father to try and prove it otherwise.

Ben took a deep breath. “What about the other two men, Joe? Are they dead?” he asked.

Joe’s eyes suddenly darkened as he slowly took out his gun. “No! They’re still out there. Marshall said there’s a good chance they will even try to free Anderson while he is here,” Joe lovingly caressed his gun as he spoke, his voice growing harder. “I hope so, ‘cause I’ll be ready for them. Ready to shoot them dead if I get the chance! There are plenty of eye witnesses who saw one of those two men shoot Katie down in cold blood, so why waste time and money on a trial?” he said quietly, the voice of hate sending a chill down Ben’s back.

“Joe! Every man deserves a fair trial, and it’s up to a court of law to give judgment regardless of his crime! Killing for the sake of killing isn’t part of your job. Don’t you remember what you promised me?”

“I know exactly what I said, Pa!” Joe snapped. He looked down at the badge on his chest. “I should thank you, Pa, for giving me this badge and hopefully allowing me to achieve my aim. All within the law, Pa! All within the law!” he said, mockingly.

“Joseph. I cannot believe what I am hearing! If I had thought for one minute this is how you would react, I would never have put your name forward. I really thought all this talk of seeking retribution was behind you!” cried Ben as disappointment showed on his face.

With a shrug of his shoulders, Joe stood and turned away as he went to the rifle cabinet.

“I guess that old saying is true then, Pa! A leopard can’t change its spots!” he said coldly, as he pulled down a rifle and started to clean it.

Ben stood silently for a moment staring at his son’s back. “Joe, you can’t be so cold blooded about this. It’s not up to you to turn vigilante and ….” Ben got no further. Joe swung round, the rifle in his hand, nearly knocking Ben over.

“Pa! You said you had faith in me!” Joe shouted. “Well, prove it by just leaving me to do my job, the way I see fit!”

Unprepared for such a verbal assault from his son, Ben jumped back in alarm, causing Joe to feel a small pang of remorse for his curt and angry behavior. As Ben looked towards the cells with a nervous glance, Joe took hold of his father’s arm. “I’m sorry, Pa. Don’t you worry about my prisoner.” he said giving Ben a tight smile. “I’ll take good care of him and keep him safe. He has an appointment with a Judge and hangman that I don’t want him to miss.”

Father and son stood for a moment, their eyes locked together.

With a deep sigh Ben turned away. “Please! Don’t do anything hasty Joe,” Ben begged as he made his way to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow when I pick up Adam and Hoss.”

Joe stood, steely eyed, alone in the office. He screwed his eyes tight and bit his lip. What kind of man had he turned into? What kind of son? he mused. With a shake of his head he resumed cleaning the rifle, resigned to whatever fate had in store for him.

*****

True to his word, Joe left his prisoner alone after Ben’s departure, only visiting when he slid a tray of food and coffee under the cell bars. He had stared at Anderson but said nothing as he studied the man who had caused him so much pain. He was about the same age, his face scarred and weathered, leaving him looking mean and menacing. Anderson had stared back, hatred now in his eyes as he viewed the man responsible for his aching face.

The next morning, after a few hours sleep, Joe arose, tired and stiff. He glanced out of the window for any signs of strangers arriving and acting suspiciously, but all was quiet, so he turned back into the office, looking over at the clock. It was 7:30am. Stoking up the stove, he began to make breakfast for himself and his prisoner.

By 8am it was prepared, and Joe placed a plate of food on a tray and took it through, glancing at the man who still lay prone on the bunk, a blanket pulled up over his head. With a clatter on the cell bars, Joe slid the tray under and watched as his prisoner stirred and opened his eyes, viewing his guard. No words were said as Joe left the room, but he heard the sound of the tray being dragged into the cell as he closed the door behind him.

Sitting at his desk, Joe’s mind wandered as he thought back to yesterday, and his altercation with Ben. He knew he had been in the wrong beating up his prisoner, wished it had never happened, but it was too late now. He sighed deeply, relieved to think Roy would be returning in the next couple of days.

Joe glanced up at the clock. 9am. A worried frown raced across his face. The stage from Sacramento was due in at 8.30am, supposedly carrying Adam and Hoss, but it had so far failed to make an appearance.

Suddenly in the distance he heard the all too familiar sound of a group of horses galloping, pulling the stage behind them and Joe sighed with relief. However, instead of racing past to the far end of town, the horses were pulled up early, snorting nervously outside Joe’s office. Curious, but not alarmed, Joe stood up, ready to welcome home his brothers, when a man’s voice suddenly boomed from outside.

“Hey Sheriff! Come on out here! We got something to show you!”

Feeling a sense of apprehension, Joe picked up a rifle from the cabinet, holding his finger tight on the trigger as he unlocked the door and stepped outside.

A few townsfolk, curious as to what was going on had ventured out onto the street, but soon withdrew to safety, carefully watching the proceedings through windows and half opened doors.

As he stood in the doorway Joe quickly took in the scene before him. The stage was in the middle of the road, the driver lying either dead or unconscious on its roof. Three horses were tied to the back of the carriage, and two dark haired, unshaven and evil looking men stood by its open door, guns in their hands.

On the dirt street, hands behind their backs and gags in their mouths, knelt two men, hatless and both with bruises on their faces. As they looked over at the doorway and recognized Joe, their eyes widened with surprise and shock. Their baby brother, badge on his chest, standing resolutely with a rifle in his hand stared back, willing himself to keep calm, as he viewed Adam and Hoss.

The two gunmen glanced nervously at each other. This was not the aged Sheriff they thought was in charge in Virginia City. This young man, with a Deputy badge pinned on his shirt and a gun hung low on his left hip, was more than they had bargained for.

The bigger and elder of the two men, stepped forward, his eyes never leaving Joe or the rifle in his hand. “You know who we are, Deputy?” he asked in a sneering tone.

Joe nodded. “Yeah, I got a good idea. You paid us a visit last year, didn’t you? I was warned you might come calling.”

Joe looked at the two men, his heart filling with rage and anger. Here, within a few feet of him was the murderer of his darling Katie, and countless other unfortunate, hapless individuals. Two men who now held the fate of his two brothers in their hands.

With an evil chuckle, the man nodded. “Sure did. You know why we’re here then?”

Again Joe nodded. “You think I’m just going to hand him over to you?” asked Joe, as he stoically fought hard to disguise his nervousness.

“Well Deputy, that’s why we held up the stage just outside town and got ourselves a couple of hostages. Seems a fair exchange, two for one, don’t you think?” he said menacingly, kicking Adam roughly in the back with his boot.

Joe looked over at Adam and Hoss, both brothers mystified and bewildered by the events unfolding in front of them. It was only when they saw the look of hatred on Joe’s face did they finally grasp the truth. These were Katie’s killers!

“You see, Deputy, your prisoner is our younger brother, and I reckon I could easily kill me a couple of hostages on the way to getting him freed. You know what I mean?” he said, a mean smile spreading across his face, showing blackened and broken teeth.

Brothers! Two brothers trying to free their youngest, and there was he, the youngest Cartwright, committed to the same task with his own brothers! How ironic thought Joe, as his finger tightened on the rifle.

“Hey Mort!” shouted the second man, “Maybe the Deputy don’t think we are serious!” as he pressed his gun hard onto Hoss’s head, the big man screwing his eyes together with the pain.

“Now, don’t be hasty, Danny!” said Mort with a laugh, as he knelt down by Adam’s side. “We’ve got to give the Deputy time to assess the situation. After all, it’s a big responsibility, knowing you could be the cause of so much bloodshed.” With a wicked grin, he placed his gun under Adam’s chin, forcing his head back as the muzzle dug deep into his skin.

With both his brothers in obvious distress and discomfort, Joe knew he had to act quickly. Taking a step forward, his rifle still pointing towards the gunmen, he shouted over to them, glaring at them with narrowed eyes. “What’s to stop me shooting you dead right now?”

The two Anderson brothers quickly glanced at each other, then looked back at Joe. “Nothing I guess Deputy. But are you sure you’re prepared to have two of your citizens killed in cold blood, right in front of you? ‘Cause I can guarantee they’ll be dead before you manage to shoot the pair of us!” shouted Danny, in a strong Texas drawl.

Mort laughed mercilessly. “Seems we’ve got ourselves a two-way stand off!”

Joe could see the man had spoken the truth. Maybe he could shoot one gunman, but the other would have ample time to kill their two hostages, and that was something Joe was not prepared to risk. He slowly eased his finger off the trigger, lowering his rifle slightly, but keeping vigilant, keenly watching every movement from the two gunmen.

Sweat formed on Joe’s forehead, trickling down his face, as he stood staring at the men who had never been far from his thoughts for the past 6 months.

“My prisoner is not going anywhere!” said Joe resolutely.

Mort and Danny exchanged glances, then Mort suddenly yelled loudly in the direction of the jail.

“Hey, Tyler, you okay in there?” his voice echoing in the quiet street.

A muffled answer could be heard through the thick jail walls. “Sure am, brother!”

Mort and Danny nodded at each other.

With an evil laugh, Mort then put his arm around Adam’s throat, pushing his gun hard into his back.

“I’m sure these two gentlemen would be all too willing to trade places with our Tyler, wouldn’t you?” said Mort. Joe could see Adam grimacing in pain as he was repeatedly prodded and poked.

Oblivious to the family connection between Joe and their two prisoners, Mort continued, leaving Adam fighting for breath as the gunman’s arm tightened. Joe could no longer stand to see his brother in such agony so he forced out a laugh as he stared over at the two gunmen.

“Expendable!” Joe stated dryly, a quick flicker of a smile appearing in the corner of his mouth. “You picked the wrong two hostages. These two bums are the lowest cardsharps and drunks from around these parts. Certainly not worth giving up my prisoner for!”

Adam and Hoss’s eyes widened in surprise, and had the situation been different, Joe would have laughed uproariously at the expression on their faces as they stared over at him.

“No good trying to trade those two with me. The only way you’re going to get my prisoner is over my dead body,” Joe said coldly.

The Andersons stood up, silent for a moment as they studied Joe. This deputy was not the easy push-over they had hoped for. Realizing their hostages were now of no use to them, they angrily pushed Adam and Hoss face down onto the cold dirt floor.

“Don’t move a muscle or there’ll be a bullet in your back,” Mort hissed at his prisoners, as he and Danny moved slowly to stand a few feet from the stage, their guns still trained on the two Cartwright brothers.

“You sure you want to die for the sake of one prisoner, Deputy? Seems a big price to pay for a dollar a day!” snarled Mort Anderson.

“No! I don’t want to die,” said Joe in a dead calm and quiet voice. “But while I wear this badge I’m gonna do my best to see to it you two pay for your crimes.”

“Well said, Deputy! The Sheriff would be proud of your good intentions, but don’t expect me and Danny to come quietly, will you?” said Mort mockingly.

Danny then shouted out in the direction of his younger brother. “This deputy reckons he’s gonna get me and Mort. Any other lawmen in there with you, Tyler?”

“No Danny! That deputy is all on his own,” came the muffled reply.

“Two against one, Deputy. You happy with those odds?” sneered Danny.

Joe nodded, walking slowly onto the road, passing directly in front of the prone bodies of his two brothers.

He was scared, very scared, and did not want to die but he knew he could not back down. There was more at stake now than settling a score on Katie’s behalf. He was the only law in Virginia City, and his brother’s lives depended on him upholding it.

The Andersons spread out, several feet apart, the distance giving them a distinct advantage as they continued to stare over at their opponent. Joe quickly glanced down at Adam and Hoss as he passed them. Adam was looking up at him. Their eyes met and Joe gave him a fleeting reassuring smile then moved on, leaving as much room between the line of fire and his two brothers that he could.

As the three men eyed each other, both Andersons slowly replaced their guns in their holsters.

“This is your final chance, Deputy! You ready to die for the sake of the law?” snarled Mort, as his hand hovered over his gun.

Danny stood, his right hand opening and closing inches from his holstered weapon.

Joe nodded as he dropped the rifle and flexed his fingers on his left hand, knowing all too well he was staring death in the face.

They waited, two pairs of eyes trained onto the young lawman. Suddenly one hand moved, and in the morning air, the only sound that could be heard was the rapid noise of firing handguns, and the scream of pain as bullets found their mark.

*****

It had been a long and restless night for Ben Cartwright. Worrying about Joe, the possible arrival of two killers and his son’s determination to seek retribution, no matter what, haunted Ben hour after hour, until eventually he had dozed off. Waking later than planned, Ben’s journey was half an hour behind schedule when he finally arrived on the outskirts of Virginia City in the buckboard, keen to meet and bring home his two eldest sons. It was then he heard the ominous sound of gunfire from the direction of the Sheriff’s Office.

Ben tore round the corner, pulling up as he viewed the sight in front of him. Townsfolk were running from their places of safety into the main street. The stagecoach from Sacramento stood in the centre, the six horses growing restless and nervous in their harnesses. A body on the roof of the stagecoach was stirring, and helping hands were carefully lifting down the semi-conscious driver. On the dirt floor lay two men, motionless, blood staining through their shirts and coats.

In all the noise and pandemonium no one heard the plaintive cry of a muffled voice as Tyler Anderson called out for his brothers. He received no answer.

Ben looked around frantically, knowing all his sons were somewhere in the mayhem. He suddenly caught sight of Adam and Hoss as helping hands were undoing their tied hands and removing the gags from their mouths. Although looking bruised and battered they appeared otherwise unhurt, and catching sight of Ben they walked over to him, shaking his trembling hand.

“Adam, Hoss,” asked the concerned father as he scanned their cut faces, “are you both okay.”

“Sure Pa. Nothing broken, just a bit bruised,” answered Hoss, giving his Pa a toothy grin.

“Just a bit sore, Pa,” answered Adam as he began to rub his back.

Ben sighed with relief, then began to scan the scene again. Suddenly he saw Joe slumped against a post, his left arm hanging limp, still holding onto his gun. He was staring, shock etched on his face, unwilling or unable to move.

“Joe! Joe!” Ben cried softly as he joined his son, watching Joe’s eyes begin to focus. Slowly Joe returned to the present.

“Pa?” Joe’s eyes lowered and he looked shamefully at the floor. “I’m truly sorry, Pa. I had to do it. Not for vengeance, not for revenge, but for Adam and Hoss’s sake. Please believe that if nothing else,” Joe cried, almost apologetically, as he slowly replaced his gun in its holster.

Ben nodded, placing his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “I told you, son,” said Ben softly. “I have faith in you.”

Joe’s eyes moistened as he looked up at the forgiving face of Ben.

“You okay Joe?” asked the Doctor, as he walked over and looked the young deputy up and down.

Joe nodded, wiping his eyes and taking a deep breath. “I’ll be fine, Doc. Just give me a couple of minutes to get my breath.”

“Those two gunmen need bullets removing, but their wounds are not life-threatening. You did a good job there, Joe. Or should I say Deputy?”

Joe stared at the Doctor, a confused frown crossing his face as he stared hard towards the downed men.

“You mean, they aren’t dead?” he asked, incredulously.

Doctor Martin shook his head solemnly. “No, Joe. Just got hit in the shoulders. They will be able to stand trial, no problem.”

“These men here will take them down to my office,” continued Doc Martin, pointing to half a dozen men who were hauling the Andersons towards the surgery.

“I thought I had killed them,” Joe said shaking his head as he looked towards Ben. “All these months of wanting revenge, and now I’m relieved I didn’t kill them. Does that make sense, Pa?”

His father nodded and smiled. “You’re not a born killer, Joe. You did your job within the law. Can’t ask much more of a man.”

With a grateful look at Ben, Joe took a deep breath then resumed his role as Deputy Sheriff of Virginia City, looking over at the Doctor. “I’ll make sure they have an armed guard until they can be moved back to the jail. Is that okay with you, Doc?” said Joe.

The Doctor nodded his agreement, then began to walk back to his office.

Adam and Hoss appeared, and Joe looked at his brothers, noting their battered faces. “Are you two okay?” he asked, concerned.

Hoss smiled as he studied his younger sibling. “Sure am Joe, but confused though, especially when you came out of the Sheriff’s office wearing that badge,” he laughed, slapping his baby brother on the back. “You did a great job there, Joe. Thanks, little brother.”

Joe smiled at Hoss, relieved to see the big man reasonably unscathed.

Adam continued to stand stock still, staring at Joe, his eyes flying between Joe’s face and the badge on his chest, a bewildered look on his face. “I figure I didn’t have a hit on the head, so I’m not hallucinating, am I?” he said, smiling, as he prodded his finger on the badge on Joe’s chest.

Joe began to chuckle, watching the confused and perplexed expression that flashed across his eldest brother’s face.

“No you’re not hallucinating, Adam,” said Ben proudly.

Suddenly Adam’s eyes darkened, his smile disappearing in an instant as a thought hit him. Stepping forward he wrapped his arm around Joe’s neck, squeezing it, as he feigned anger. “Expendable, Deputy? We were expendable?”

“I’m sorry, Adam! It was just the first word that came into my head,” Joe cried, as he squirmed in his brother’s arm.

“Pa! Help!” cried Joe as Adam squeezed his arm tighter around his brother’s neck.

With a yell, Hoss also joined in the feigned assault. “Just who is the cardsharp and who the drunk then, Joe?” he asked in a hurt voice, his large arm wrapping itself around Joe’s waist.

Ben began to laugh, watching the good tempered play between his sons as the two eldest slowly dragged their younger brother towards a nearby water trough, and with a cry of glee, unceremoniously dumped Joe, laughing hysterically as the young lawman of Virginia City, spluttered and splashed in the cold water.

When he returned to Virginia City two days later, Roy Coffee had been amazed at the events that had taken place in the one week he had been absent. Truly impressed at the way Joe had handled the situation, he chose to ignore the protests from the youngest Anderson about Joe’s brutality, just relieved his temporary Deputy had survived without injury.

The aged Sheriff thought long and hard about the situation thrust upon Joe that morning. He realized, deep in his heart, had he been confronted with the two gunmen the outcome would have probably been completely different, and more tragic.

Ten days later the Circuit Judge arrived and the Anderson brothers were put on trial and found guilty of murder and robbery in a court of law. Sentence was passed and a day later they inhabited a far corner in the local cemetery, away from the law abiding folk of Virginia City.

*****

SPRING

The year had gone full circle. Winter was now a distant memory as the fertile earth on the Ponderosa warmed under the spring sunshine, the meadows returning to their luscious green, calves appearing among the herds of cattle.

Nine months had passed since Katie had died. In the first week of April, with Ben’s blessing, her remains were brought up to the family burial plot and she had been laid to rest a few yards away from the grave of Marie. It had been a short and simple service, attended only by the minister and the four Cartwrights.

When he felt the reassuring touch of his father’s arm around his shoulders, Joe had buried his face into Ben’s chest and wept unashamedly, the sympathetic hands of both Adam and Hoss gently resting on his back. He finally said goodbye, and that simple ceremony was the cataclysm that saw Joe on the road to recovery. His grieving heart began to mend.

It was now late April and Joe returned to the revered site alone. For several minutes he stood, silent and still, a gentle breeze blowing around his bare head as he stared down on Katie’s grave, remembering.

It was a year to the day since he had asked Katie to marry him. A day so fresh and vivid in his mind he could recall every precious word, touch and sensation as their love had been consummated for the first and only time. It was a memory he would treasure forever.

It had been twelve months full of every conceivable emotion. Happiness, love, sorrow, depression, hate, fear and finally remorse had all contributed towards Joe’s year. Then, after the Anderson brothers had been hung, another emotion enveloped Joe. Acceptance! Acceptance of what had happened, acceptance of his loss, acceptance that fate can deal both good and bad hands.

Wiping away tears he finally stepped back, his silent prayers at an end. Replacing his hat he returned to Cochise, mounted, and looked back once more towards the graves of the two women he had loved with all his heart.

“God bless you both,” he said with a loving smile, then turned, slowly making his way back to his family and home.

***The End***

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