The Meadow (by Doreen)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  21,300


The end of September was warmer than had been known for many years, true Indian summer weather, as the lone horse made its way along the side of the lake which bordered one edge of the Ponderosa. The rider on the pinto was in no hurry. Joe Cartwright was happy with his life and it showed as he grinned with contentment.

For the past four days he had been to the furthest reaches of the Ponderosa, checking and replenishing the line shacks before the onset of winter. An arduous task, monotonous and repetitive, but a task that needed to be done. These small shacks, way up in the high meadow country where the snow rarely lifted, were a lifeline for the cowboys caught out in the harsh Nevada snow storms, a welcome refuge from the bitter winds.

For four days Joe had drunk in the beauty of Mother Nature. The sights and sounds of the vast expanse of Lake Tahoe, the timbered shoreline, and the rising majestic mountains of the Sierras. This was truly nature at its most magnificent and Joe had appreciated it more keenly than he had ever done before. However, his work was now done, so the young man decided to take a slow ride home, enjoying the clear blue sky, the warm September sun and the peace.

Oh the peace! No brothers nagging him, no father chastising him. Just the sound of the birds, the distant murmur of the herds of cattle beyond the next ridge, and the wind as it sighed through the uppermost branches of the Ponderosa pines.

When the subject of who was to check the line shacks that year was broached at the breakfast table the week before, three pairs of eyes looked in amazement when the youngest Cartwright brightly told his family he would volunteer for the job. Adam and Hoss viewed their younger brother, surprised at what he had said.

Joe was the kind of man who liked to seek the companionship of others at all times. Not for him the endless days alone, his only companion his horse. However, that morning there had been a change. He couldn’t explain the desire to his family because he didn’t understand it himself. He had just woken up that morning and looked at the endless blue sky, had felt the warm breeze through his bedroom window, and had wanted to be by himself for a while.

This young man, devilishly handsome with green eyes and wavy brown hair, had suddenly felt a somberness within himself, a maturity. He just wanted to ride out alone and keep his own counsel away from his family, enjoying the richness of the land on his own. Although he would never have believed it, he was becoming more like his brother Adam in that respect.

Ben, sitting at the breakfast table, inwardly smiled. Joseph never failed to amaze him. Mercurial, ever grinning, impish, sometimes impulsive, and so unpredictable at times.

“You think our little brother is up to something Adam? Or maybe he is ill?” said Hoss, as he looked towards Joe, who was piling scrambled eggs onto his plate.

Hoss — his name described him perfectly. Big, physically powerful, yet as gentle as a kitten. He was a shy and sensitive man, good natured and tolerant, and the middle son of Ben Cartwright. He also adored his younger brother.

Joe looked up, his face all innocent. “What do you mean?” he said as he began to fork the egg into his mouth.

“What brother Hoss means, little brother, is that you never volunteer for checking the line shacks. So why would you want to do it now, without being ordered or bribed?” replied Adam, half smiling at the young man who was obviously relishing the breakfast he was eating.

The eldest Cartwright son was dark haired, tall and handsome. Extremely intelligent, he was an honest and dependable man. He also loved his baby brother with a vengeance, even though there were times when the two men had clashed in heated debates, even coming to blows.

Joe stopped eating and placed his fork on his plate. Shaking his head he rolled his eyes. “Can’t a man actually volunteer for a job around here without there being a third degree into his motives? I just thought I would do something for this family without being forced so my older brothers could rest their weary bones!”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other, not knowing whether Joe was being serious or not.

Ben chuckled. “Guess we had just better give Joe the benefit of the doubt about his motives. If he wants to do it, then he can. I don’t see either of you two wanting the job?”

Ben looked at his two eldest sons, noting they shook their heads in unison.

Joe gave his father a grateful smile, and looked again at his brothers. “There you are! Pa says I can go, so that’s that.”

Breakfast then resumed, Adam and Hoss still unsure as to why Joe had decided he wanted to do the much hated chore that year. However, for once they were grateful to their little brother as it was a job neither had relished.

A couple of days later, shortly after breakfast, Joe set out on his journey. His saddlebags were full of food to replenish the line shacks and to sustain him for his four days away. As he led his horse out of the barn, tying him to the hitching rail, his father came out of the house, cup of coffee in his hand. Ben sipped the liquid as he watched his youngest check he had everything required.

A few weeks previously, Joe had celebrated his 24th birthday. He had grown into a handsome young man, and a competent cowboy. His prowess with a gun was undeniable and his horsemanship legendary. For the past three years, he had been in charge of the horse side of the Ponderosa, rearing, breaking and subsequently selling on horses to the Army, all for a substantial profit. He felt he could do more though — increase the turnover — and was forever looking out for opportunities to expand. As he vaulted in his easy manner onto his horse, he looked over to his father. “See you in four days, Pa. And yes! I will be careful!”

Ben smiled, knowing Joe had anticipated what he was about to say. His son knew him better than he realized sometimes. As Joe began to move away, Ben called after him, feeling slightly uneasy that his youngest was about to leave, albeit for only a few days. Although Joe was now a grown man capable of looking after himself, he still worried for his son, and his safe return. “Good bye, Joe, and have a safe trip.”

Joe turned his body round in the saddle and smiled at his father as he left him with a wave.

Ben stood still as Joe disappeared behind the barn. Four days without Joe around. Oh, the peace!

He knew Adam would appreciate the quiet evenings, would be able to read his books without continual interruptions from his baby brother. Hoss would be a little lost — no one to beat him at checkers — but would no doubt enjoy not being the butt of one of Joe’s jokes. As for Ben, well, Ben would just miss him.

He hated the peace and quiet and was only content when his three sons were under one roof. He turned and walked into the ranch house, closing the door behind him.

*****

The lake in the distance bounced the sun rays on its surface, shimmering in the noonday heat. The green of the timber and the beauty of the distant mountains was viewed with pleasure as Joe slowly walked his horse, his job done. Sometimes work on the ranch had been so busy the scenery was a continuous blur but for the last few days he seemed to see every detail with a clear eye. He never thought he could appreciate nature the way his brother Hoss could, but today he was pretty close. He would be home by nightfall, returning safely to his family and back to the usual routine of the ranch. He had enjoyed the last four days, still not understanding the desire within himself to be alone.

As he came to the boundary of the Ponderosa and the Henderson ranch, he stopped. In front of him was Henderson land, or should he say, had been Henderson land. Matt Henderson had died the month before of a heart attack, alone at his small ranch.

Joe had only met him a few times when their paths had crossed in Virginia City. Each time the old man had looked at Joe in such a way that it left Joe feeling uneasy, a little unnerved. Not that any unpleasant words were ever said. Just a formal greeting and then he would go on his way. But the initial stare, as if he were waiting for Joe to say something, something important, always gave Joe a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Now his ranch was up for sale.

From what Joe had heard Matt Henderson had not left a will. The lawyers had traced his only living relative, a nephew who lived in Kansas, and notified him that he had inherited the ranch. The nephew had indicated his desire for the ranch to be sold quickly. From what Joe had been able to glean from the conversation in the Silver Dollar, there were a few hundred acres of pines, a meadow, and a herd of cattle.

Matt Henderson had been a loner, content to stay on his small ranch most of the time. Joe had never visited him. Whenever his father or brothers had wanted to see Matt for any reason, Joe had always been left at home, to do some mundane chores. At the time he had never thought much about it, but as he sat looking at the boundary fence, he suddenly thought how strange it was. In all his 24 years, he had never been on this land so close to the Ponderosa.

He now had time on his hands, and with Henderson dead and the land unoccupied, he felt a boyish need to explore. After all, it could do no harm. Looking up and down, he eventually found a gap in the fence then slowly rode across the boundary and onto the Henderson property.

For the first couple of miles, he followed the shoreline, then as he turned sharply away from the lake and around a bend, his eyes met a beautiful sight. A luscious green meadow, stretching for acres in a horseshoe shape, surrounded by a small ridge of Ponderosa pines. The meadow had not been savaged by cattle or nature that year, the grass still fresh and healthy even though it was late September. Joe looked in amazement. Why had he never known this place existed before? This would be ideal land for increasing his horse program. The business potential was enormous and Joe knew it.

As he walked Cochise, he smelt the grass and looked closely at the surroundings. In a far corner stood a huge lone oak tree which looked out of place in the landscape. Joe looked at it quickly, then turning his horses around, made his way back the way he had come. As he left the meadow, he looked back, still not believing what he was seeing. He resumed his route back to the Ponderosa, thinking deeply about how he could expand his herd of horses with this extra grass. Now he only had to persuade his father.

Night was slowly drawing in when Joe finally turned into the yard of the ranch. The welcoming familiar smell of the pine smoke from the huge ever-burning stone hearth greeted him. Joe was feeling tired but elated at the trip. He had re-supplied the line shacks, and had found a grassy goldmine! He fed and watered Cochise, then made his way into the ranch house.

As he opened the door, he could smell roast chicken, his favorite. Good old Hop Sing, he thought. His family was sat in front of the open fire, Adam reading, and Hoss and Ben playing checkers. They all looked up at Joe as he removed his hat, gunbelt and coat, Ben greeting him, a look of relief on his face.

“Good to see you son. No problems?” the father asked, eyeing the son, making sure there were no signs of trauma.

Joe smiled at his father, knowing the concern he would have felt at his absence. “No Pa, everything went OK. Most the shacks were in fine order so I had quite an easy time of it.” He walked over to where his family sat.

Adam placed a bookmark in his novel, and closed the book. He viewed his brother, unwilling to admit, but relieved he was home in one piece. Trouble usually found Joe in one guise or another, so having him home unscathed was a blessing. “You had a good time, little brother? Enjoy your short holiday away from the home hearth?” his voice in semi-mocking tone.

Joe ignored the dig, and gave him a stare of contempt. However, although different in so many ways, the two brothers deeply respected and loved each other, though were loathed to admit it.

“Glad your back, Shortshanks,” added Hoss. “About time you got back to share in the chores.” His toothy grin indicating he was joshing. Joe smiled back at his big brother, always happy to see the big man.

As Joe sunk into the settee in front of the fire, he stifled a yawn and stretched out his arms and legs, the stiffness of the many hours riding beginning to show itself in his strained muscles. Placing his boots onto the large wooden coffee table — his father looked sternly at him but said nothing. Joe, however, saw the look and promptly withdrew his feet.

“Some things never change.” Joe thought, still glad to be home amongst his family.

“Hop Sing said dinner will be ready in about 10 minutes. Why don’t you go and freshen up before its ready?” said Ben,

“Sure, Pa; guess I could do with a wash and a shave,” Joe answered as he stood up and made his way to the stairs rubbing the stubble on his chin. A thought struck him as he put his foot on the first step, and he turned around. “Hey Pa. You going to show any interest in the Henderson spread, now it’s for sale?”

Ben, looked up at Joe, and shook his head. “No Joe. There’s not enough timber land on it to make it worth our while.” He could see Joe’s face was serious. “Why do you ask, son?”

“Was riding past today and decided to have a look see. After all, no one is living on there at the moment so I didn’t see any harm done. Found me the sweetest little meadow there Pa. Green luscious grass. Never knew it existed before. Sure would help me to build up the herd of horses I’m planning for the Army.”

Joe turned back towards the stairs, and went up, deciding to continue the conversation during dinner.

Downstairs, the three Cartwrights looked at each other in silence.

*****

Joe bounded down the stairs and made his way to the large dining table where his family were already sat and eating. As he started to help himself to the chicken and vegetables, Joe repeated his question of a few minutes ago.

“How about that meadow then, Pa? Sure would help me. Could increase the stock levels by fifty percent! Just think of the increase in turnover that would bring in!”

Ben looked towards his son, not knowing what to say. “Er, um, I don’t know Joe. I hadn’t really thought about it.

From what I hear that meadow can get pretty well bogged down at times. Would be a lot of work draining it.” He continued eating, hoping the subject would now be closed. He did not realize how determined Joe was however.

“Oh, come on Pa! That meadow hasn’t been flooded for years by the look of it. It is just what I have been looking for. Borders right onto the Ponderosa and I just know it will be perfect.”

Joe turned to Adam. “What do you think, big brother? You can see the potential in that money-making brain of yours, can’t you?”

Adam looked at his father then back at Joe. “Well, if it is as good as you say, it would certainly be useful.”

Joe turned again towards his father. “See Pa, even Adam thinks it has potential. How about it?” He looked at his father, waiting for a sign of support.

Ben stared at his plate, not knowing what to say.

Hoss could see his father was at a loss, so he added his opinion. “You know, Pa, maybe Joe could check up on it at the lawyers. Find out about it before you make a decision.”

Ben nodded, giving his assent. Joe smiled and began to eat with gusto, not noticing how the other three men looked nervously between them. All his thoughts were on the meadow he had seen that day for the first time.

*****

It was a week later that Joe rode into Virginia City to collect the mail and order the weekly supplies. Having completed his tasks, he began walking towards the saloon for a well deserved beer. Passing the lawyer’s office, he paused, nodded to himself and resolutely walked inside. He knew the local lawyer, Mr. Friedman; he had often been employed by the Cartwrights. After shaking his hand, Joe requested a five minute chat. Mr. Friedman nodded and the two men walked to his desk and sat down.

“What can I do for you then, Joseph?” Friedman asked, curious at what the young Cartwright would want.

“Well Mr. Friedman, just needed to know about the Henderson sale.”

“Your father thinking of buying then, Joe?”

Joe shook his head. “Not exactly, but I am trying to persuade him. Sure am interested in that there meadow of Henderson’s. Any idea what kind of price it’s going for, and if there’s been much interest?”

The lawyer nodded. “I shouldn’t be saying this, Joe; this is really confidential information. But seeing as I know you and your family, I will just tell you this. My client is keen to sell quickly. He just wants the lots sold without fuss. From what I have worked out, that meadow land is going to be worth around $5000. My client has indicated that if a fair price is offered, I am to accept. As yet I have not been approached by anyone. Does that answer your question?”

“Sure does; thanks, Mr. Friedman”, said Joe. He stood up and shook the hand of the lawyer. “I hope I will be back to see you soon. That meadow is just what I need.”

The lawyer stood up and showed Joe to the outer door. “Good luck then, Joe; hope you’re successful.”

Joe smiled and nodded. “Going to do my best to persuade my Pa!”

With that, he left the lawyers office. Looking towards the Silver Dollar saloon, he licked his lips in anticipation. That beer was sure needed now!

Joe left Virginia City, anxious to pass on the information about the meadow to his father. As he made his way back towards home, he decided to revisit, check his first impressions, make sure everything was as good as he remembered.

Turning the corner into the horseshoe-shaped meadow, the smell of the healthy grass hit him again. He cantered Cochise around checking that the ground was firm, not wet and boggy. It was perfect.

Riding towards the far end, he looked more closely at the huge oak that he had barely noticed before. He could see the huge tree had a massive frame which stretched upwards for nearly eighty feet and its lower branches hung low, some nearly touching the ground. Its deciduous leaves were covering it completely, but Joe knew that within the next few weeks they would be gone, blown away by the cold winds of winter.

Without warning, he suddenly felt the first drops of rain. He had been so busy looking at the grass he had not noticed the grey clouds that had suddenly appeared, and the rain that was making its way towards his position. If he did not find shelter, he was soon going to be soaked. As the rain began to fall more steadily, Joe dismounted and tied Cochise’s reins to a branch. He then moved closer to the tree, bending under branches and finally sitting down with his back resting on the huge trunk.

As the rain poured, the leaves of the trees protected him from the steady downpour, just a few drops hitting him and running down his back. The rain continued for a few minutes, then as suddenly as it had arrived it left, the sun once again shining in a blue sky. The freshness of the air was nearly suffocating as the rainwater soaked into the ground.

The loud call of a mountain bluebird could be heard from the uppermost branches of the oak. Instinctively Joe looked up, hoping to see the bird. However, what he saw was not a bird. About 6 feet above his head, hidden by the leaves, but secure in the numerous branches, was a wooden structure. Curious to see what was in the branches, he carefully stood up. He now could see what it was. A small, well made tree house.

Joe studied the structure, amazed. Why on earth would someone build a tree house in such an isolated position? As far as Joe knew, Henderson had never married. It was a mystery!

It was small, obviously only big enough to accommodate a couple of children and the only entrance was a hole in the base of the house. Joe stretched his arms and pulled his head and chest through the hole and rested his elbows on the lip of the entrance. He looked around.

The wooden planks had been fixed together, the branches of the tree supporting them. The four walls had no windows but through a few cracks light filtered in and the roof was sound and rigid. Joe smiled as he looked around. How much fun it would have been to play in, hidden away from prying eyes.

He was about to lever himself down when he spotted markings on the wall, so he brushed away the dust and moss that had accumulated with his hand. The markings were carved initials. He tried to make out the letters, the poor light not helping. As he fingered the crudely made impressions in the wood, he made out the name.

Pike

Not a name Joe knew. No, he had never heard of anyone called Pike, especially around the Virginia City area. Must have been someone from years before, he thought.

He was about to jump down, when out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of more roughly carved initials on the opposite side. He looked again, clearing the wood slats. His heart stopped a beat in amazement. He looked again. No mistake! The letters, though wobbly and of different sizes, were as clear as the day they had been made.

Cartwright

He stared for a minute not moving. How could his name be in a hidden tree house? A place he had never been before! He finally jumped down, looking up at the small opening, mystified.

Making his way back to Cochise, he unfastened the reins and walked a few yards away from the tree. Turning around, he looked again at the oak, and again the tree house was totally invisible to all. Joe vaulted onto his horse, and turning slowly cantered away, heading back to the Ponderosa.

*****

Joe found himself the last to arrive for dinner. His meeting in town and visit to the meadow had taken longer than he had anticipated, and as he handed over the mail to his father, he thought through what he was going to say. “I went to see the lawyer today, Pa.”

Ben looked at his son with curiosity. “Why did you do that, Joe? You in trouble?”

Joe smiled at his father. “Course not, Pa. I went to see about the Henderson meadow. Friedman reckons it is going to go for about $5000 and there hasn’t been much interest yet. Must be more than most can afford. I also had another look at that meadow. It’s even better than I had thought. Just what I need to expand.”

Ben looked at his son with solemn eyes. “You went back to the meadow today, Joe?”

“Yes, Pa. I just know it’s the right land for us. I had to check it out again.”

There were times when Joe could be as obstinate and mule headed as his father, and this was one instance.

Adam and Hoss listened in silence.

“Everything was alright up there then, Joe?” Ben stood before his youngest, staring into his bright green eyes.

Joe looked back, and nodded, noticing his father was looking a little pale and drawn. “You all right, Pa? You don’t look too good.” The concern showed in his voice.

Ben nodded and smiled. “It’s nothing, just a bit of indigestion.”

Joe nodded and continued “How about it then, Pa? Can we buy the meadow?” His face was serious.

Ben looked towards Adam and Hoss. His two sons shrugged their shoulders, leaving the decision with Ben.

“OK, Joe. I daresay we could afford $5000. But not a dollar more, you hear!”

A smiling Joe looked at his father, his joy evident. “Thanks, Pa. I’ll go and see Friedman tomorrow.”

At this juncture, Hop Sing proceeded to dish out the dinner, so the four men moved over to the dining table and sat down.

Joe suddenly remembered his mysterious find in the meadow. “Hey Pa. You’ll never guess what I found in that meadow today? Right in the middle of a huge oak tree, there is the most wonderful tree house. Who do you reckon it belonged to? Old man Henderson was never married. Any ideas?” Joe looked at his family as they stared at him in silence.

“What?” he asked. “You think I’m making this up?” He grinned, as he spooned potatoes onto his plate.

“A tree house, Joe? Strange thing to be finding and that’s for sure,” said Hoss, as he looked towards Adam. Adam continued to stare at Joe.

“Must have been there a long time, I reckon,” continued Joe, “but you’ll never guess the strangest thing.” Joe looked around the table, noticing how pale his father’s face still was.

No one said a word, waiting for Joe to continue.

“Someone had carved their name inside, T. Pike. Ever heard of a family called Pike around here, Pa?”

Ben shook his head.

“What’s even weirder, though, someone had carved my name on the wall. J Cartwright, large as life. Why would someone do that, Pa? Put my name on a wall like that. Pretty strange thing to do, don’t you think?” He directed his question to his family, who were still silent.

Adam cleared his throat. “Yes, Joe. That’s a pretty strange thing I must admit. Maybe someone was just pulling a joke on somebody.”

Joe shook his head. “Seems a darn stupid joke, if you ask me.” He continued to eat his meal.

Adam and Hoss shared a troubled look between them, while Ben looked at Joe, thinking about what he had just said. He began to eat his dinner, even though his appetite had suddenly disappeared.

Throughout the meal, Joe had an uneasy feeling there was some tension in the atmosphere, but was unable to make sense of why. When he had finished, he excused himself, deciding he needed an early night.

He left his family drinking coffee as he went upstairs to bed.

*****

Adam cursed under his breath, his father and brother catching his words. They stared at him. Adam looked at them, his face like thunder. “Damn that Henderson! He said he was going to pull that tree house down. He promised. Why, oh why, didn’t he do it? I should have checked – made sure he did it.”

Ben looked at his son, alarmed at the ferocity of his words. “Don’t blame yourself, Adam. If anyone is to blame, it’s me. I should have checked up with Matt and made sure it was destroyed. Heaven knows why he would keep it in one piece after all these years!”

“Always thought he was an odd fellow, never quite all there, if you know what I mean,” interjected Hoss, as he stood up. Moving away from the dining table, he walked over to the hearth and stood staring into the fire. He banged his fist on the brickwork in frustration. “Dagburnit, Pa! I know I was only 12 when it happened, but it still like it was only yesterday. What’s going to happen if Joe ever finds out?” The big man was near to tears. His felt his fathers arm around his shoulders as Ben joined him.

“Steady there, Hoss. No one is going to tell Joe anything. He has visited the meadow, found the tree house, seen the names. So far, it means nothing to him. Let’s just pray it stays that way.” He squeezed his big son’s neck, and moved over to his favorite leather chair, looking up at the ceiling, as though he could see through the plaster and wood, and view his youngest, alone in his bedroom.

Hoss composed himself, and sat on the settee while Adam walked over and sat on the opposite chair. Silence reigned.

“What we going to do, Pa? You really gonna let Joe buy that meadow?” Hoss looked at his father, worried lines on his face.

Ben sat staring towards the stairs, then nodded his head. “I can’t think of a blessed good reason to stop him, so it looks like it. Besides, he is right. That grassland is just what we need for the extra horses Joe wants to buy in. And you know your brother. Once he has that determined look, nothing is going to change his mind!”

“Maybe it won’t be so bad, Pa. After all he has been there and as you said, nothing seems to have come back to him.” Adam looked at his father as he spoke, trying to sound convincing.

“Thanks, Adam; maybe we are jumping the gun here and looking for problems that may not arise. If Joe wants this meadow that badly, then we had better let him get on with it and buy it.”

With that, the three men finished their coffee, each thinking about the meadow and Joe and an autumn day nearly 18 years before.

*****

Joe came bounding down the stairs the next morning, excited at the prospect of buying new land, now that his father had agreed. His family, as ever, were already seated, and as he sat down on his chair, greeted them all with a cheery grin.

“You’re cheerful for this early in the morning, Joe,” said Hoss, as he sipped his coffee.

Joe glanced at him and nodded. “Going into Virginia City today to buy that meadow. That’s still OK, ain’t it Pa?” He looked at his father nervously.

Ben nodded but said nothing, though his stomach was in knots.

“Just remember, Joe, no more that $5000.” was all Ben added, as he left the table.

That day he and Hoss were visiting the silver mine on the Ponderosa so would be gone until late evening. Hoss followed his father, and they both went to credenza to dress for the cold outdoors. The warm sun of September had now disappeared, and there was a chilly wind of autumn blowing outside. Winter would not be far away and already the trees were losing their leaves. Joe’s visit to the line shacks had been just in time, as the first winter snows were only a matter of days away. The two men went outside, closing the heavy front door behind them.

Joe watched his father and brother leave, frowning. It was as if no one wanted him to succeed, to improve, to expand. He felt deflated, his bright mood of a few minutes ago slowly diminishing. As he ate his breakfast, Adam studied his brother’s face, wondering what he was thinking about. “Something wrong Joe?”

Joe looked at Adam, and shook his head. “Is it just my imagination Adam, or is there something troubling, Pa? Seems he ain’t half as pleased at me buying that land than I thought he would be.”

The look on Joe’s face was enough for Adam to realize his little brother was feeling troubled. “Ah, you know, Pa. Always worried about the cost of things.”

“Maybe you’re right, Adam.” With that, Joe resumed his meal, then left the table. He made his way to the credenza, and as he put on his gunbelt and coat, he shouted over to Adam. “See you when I get back. And wish me luck!”

Joe opened the door and went outside, placing his hat securely on his head. One Cartwright was left alone in the large room.

Adam continued to sit at the table, his coffee turning cold in the cup as he stared at the empty chair vacated by Joe minutes before. Deep in troubled thought, he closed his eyes. His brother meant the world to him, and he would do anything to keep him safe, yet he felt as though he was powerless to intervene as fate weaved a cruel spell around the family.

“Dear God,” he thought “Spare Joe.” With a deep sigh, he put down his cold coffee and went to the desk to finish the accounts, relieved he did not have to go out into the cold autumnal morning.

*****

Joe made good time into Virginia City, his excitement rising. He pulled up outside Friedman’s office and tied Cochise outside. The cold wind was blowing dust around the main street, and Joe felt the chill of autumn throughout his body. He hurried into the lawyer’s office, relieved to see he was the only visitor.

Mr. Friedman looked up and smiled at Joe. “Morning, Joe. Quite a chill in the air this morning!”

“Sure is, Mr. Friedman. Should have put my winter coat on today,” said Joe as he shivered and warmed his hands at the stove in the corner of the room.

“You here about the Henderson meadow, Joe?”

“Sure am. Pa says I can buy it. You ain’t had any other offers yet, have you?” A worried look crossing his face.

The lawyer shook his head. “No, Joe. No one else seems to want it.” He walked over to a cabinet and pulled out the relevant paperwork. He looked closely at the papers, and slowly walked over to his desk, sitting down. Joe walked over and sat opposite, rubbing his hands to put more warmth into them. Taking the relevant paper, the lawyer passed it over to Joe for him to read. This Joe did, looking at the rough sketch of the Henderson land, noting with interest where his meadow was.

The small ranch house was about a half mile from the meadow, far enough away, and when sold separately, would not interfere with his increased herd. The timber was on the other side of the house, so this again would not bother his horses. Yes, this meadow was just in the right place!

“What you offering then, Joe?” The lawyer studied the young man who was reading the papers with a serious frown.

Joe looked up.” You said before $5000. So, that’s what I’m offering. Take it or leave it” His voice did not betray the nervousness he was feeling.

The lawyer smiled at Joe. “I can definitely accept that, Joe. My client is adamant he wants a quick sale. The timber land, ranch house and cattle herd have already been bought. That meadow is the last to go. I guess $5000 was a little steep for most folk, but not to the Cartwrights!” He chuckled as he put out his hand. Joe shook it, smiling, relieved.

“I’ll go over to the bank now and get a draft made out.” Joe stood up and, replacing his hat, walked to the door. Suddenly a thought came to him, so he returned to the desk. “Better have the name of your client for the bank draft, Mr. Friedman”

“Oh, of course. Silly me, Joe. His name is David Pike.”

“David Pike,” repeated Joe. Where had he heard that name before? He turned to leave when it suddenly came to him. The initials in the tree house. T. Pike. Surely not a coincidence. Henderson’s nephew was David Pike. The initials in the tree house T. Pike.

“Mr. Friedman?” Joe asked, as the lawyer looked at him. “Any idea who T. Pike is? Any relation to this David Pike?”

The lawyer shook his head. “Sorry, Joe. Never heard any other name but David Pike. Who is this T. Pike?”

Joe shook his head also. “Don’t really know. Just a name I came across. Not a common surname around these parts, is it?”

The lawyer agreed. “Can’t say I know any Pikes around here, Joe.”

Joe nodded. “Thanks, Mr. Friedman. Anyway, I’ll get over to the bank now, and get that draft made out. Thanks again.”

Joe left the office and made his way to the bank. The draft was soon made out to Mr. David Pike, and Joe took it back to the lawyer’s office. The contract of sale was drawn up, the draft paid over, the sale signed for. Henderson’s meadow was now Cartwright meadow. Joe at last could breathe a sigh of relief. He had what he wanted; now he could expand his work on the Ponderosa.

Shaking the lawyer’s hand, he carefully put the deeds of sale in his inside pocket, and securing his hat firmly on his head, walked out into the busy main street. The cold wind was still blowing as he made his way home. Regardless of the chill in the air, he felt himself drawn to his new property so he made a detour.

Arriving at the meadow, he looked around, still happy at what he saw. Away in the far corner stood the oak tree, the wind blowing through its branches. The leaves were beginning to fall, blowing away in the gusting breeze.

Through the branches, Joe could just see the dull outline of the tree house, more visible now. He still wondered. Who had built it, why and when?

Shivering involuntarily, Joe pulled up his collar on his jacket, and then turning Cochise around, rode out of the meadow, back to the Ponderosa.

*****

Joe and Adam ate alone, knowing Ben and Hoss would be late back that day. Joe told Adam about securing the deal for the price agreed by Ben. He also mentioned the name of Henderson’s nephew, David Pike.

“You ever heard of that name, Adam?” Joe asked while they were sat at the table, eating their meal.

Adam looked at his brother. “Can’t say I have, Joe. No Pikes living around here as far as I know.”

Joe nodded his assent. He was still perplexed, though. “Seems so strange, having my name in that tree house. Just can’t understand it.”

“Well, little brother, don’t strain that brain of yours too much trying to work out an answer. Seems to me with that meadow now in our hands, you’re going to have to do a lot of work buying in the extra stock. Thought about where you’re going to get them from?”

Adam inwardly crossed his fingers that his changing of the subject would give Joe a new focus. His tactics seemed to work as Joe began to give a detailed explanation of what he was planning. Adam was more than impressed. His brother had thought out and planned every minute detail for the extra stock, had worked out every contingency.

Joe and Adam talked over the plans for a good hour, taking their discussion away from the table when they had finished their meal, resuming in front of the large fire that blazed, its heat radiating warmth throughout the large house.

There was a sudden blast of cold air as Hoss and Ben opened the front door and walked in. Both men were cold from the biting wind that blew outside, and were weary from the long haul up to the mine and back. Joe stood up, glad to see his father and brother, and keen to give him the news.

“Hi Pa, Hoss. Pretty cold out there, ain’t it.”

Hoss walked over to the fire, placing his large bulk in front of it. He turned and proceeded to warm his backside, rubbing his hands. “Sure hope Hop Sing has left us something. Could eat myself a whole pig! Never felt so hungry.”

Joe laughed at his brother, knowing he always had a good appetite. “Don’t worry, Hoss. Me and Adam have left you half a pig at least, if you don’t mind sharing with Pa, that is?” he teased.

The two men, warming up by the minute sat at the dining table, and Hop Sing brought out their food. As they tucked into their meal, Joe sat opposite.

“Well, I bought the meadow, Pa. $5000. Not a problem at all. It’s all signed, sealed and paid for.” The grin on Joe’s face enough to show Ben he was pleased with himself.

Smiling Ben nodded at Joe. “Good work, son. Now it’s the hard part, getting the stock together.”

“That’s all in hand, Pa. Me and Adam been discussing what’s to be done.”

Adam walked over to the table, sitting down and pouring himself a fresh cup of coffee. “To be fair, Pa, Joe has worked out all the details and has done a good job too.”

Ben nodded, knowing that praise from Adam was praise indeed.

Adam looked at his father, staring into his eyes as he spoke. “Joe found out something strange as well, Pa.”

Ben looked at Adam, noting the warning look.

“Seems Henderson’s nephew is called Pike. Just like that name in the tree house.”

Ben swallowed hard, and looked back at Joe who had moved to sit in front of the fire. “Is that so? Still, there are more important things to worry about now, what with the weather getting worse, and we still have cattle in the east section that need bringing down before they get snowed in.”

Joe looked back at his father, knowing the conversation had turned so suddenly away from the tree house, yet not knowing why. He just shrugged his shoulders and proceeded to drink his coffee, unaware of the three men who looked at each other.

*****

Work at the ranch continued over the next few weeks in the usual hectic manner. It was always the same at the end of the year. Before the snows arrived, stock had to be brought down from the high country meadows of the Ponderosa to the lower slopes, and winter feed had to be stored in secure barns near enough to the stock for easy distribution. All who could work did their share, from first light to sunset, as the dark winter nights began to draw in.

It was yet another cold and windy day when Joe left the ranch to visit Virginia City. That day he was ordering and bringing back extra provisions needed to see through the long winter days and nights. He had forsaken his well-loved green jacket for a thick winter coat, the collar turned up against the chill wind, but still shivered as he drove the wagon down the main street and pulled up outside the mercantile store. Jumping down he went inside, handing over the list. The store keeper, Pete Jenkins, was well known to the Cartwrights and he looked it over.

“Seems I have most of this, Joe. Should take about half an hour to load up if you give me a hand?”

Joe nodded, pleased he would not be waiting around

As Joe stood by the door ready to begin to load, Mr. Friedman walked past, greeting the young man. “Good morning, Joe. Looks like winter’s nearly closing in.” The lawyer wrapped his woolen scarf around his neck.

Joe nodded his agreement. “Your Mr., Pike happy at you selling his uncles ranch in such good time?”

Mr. Friedman smiled. “Sure is Joe. Got a nice little commission for that sale going through without a hitch. In fact, when I told him your Pa had bought the land, he wired back he would visit Virginia City on his way to San Francisco, and he made it clear he was keen to meet you and visit that meadow.”

“Seems a long way to come just to see what he don’t own anymore,” said Joe as he pulled his hat more securely onto his head.

The lawyer went on his way, leaving Joe and Pete to load the supplies. Once fully laden, Joe said his goodbyes and jumping onto the wagon seat took up the reins. With a quick slap, the two horses moved off, returning in the cold chilly wind to the Ponderosa.

A thought came to Joe as he traveled on the familiar road. If David Pike had decided to visit Virginia City, then maybe he would know of T. Pike, the name in the tree house, and why his own name was there in the same place.

He pulled into the yard just as Hoss emerged from the barn. Joe gave him a wave, indicating he needed help with his load. The quicker the job was done, the sooner they could both settle in for the night in front of the large blazing fire. For thirty minutes, the two men worked together, unloading and storing the much needed supplies. The chore completed Hoss went into the house while Joe took the tired horses into the barn for a well deserved feed. Then it was his turn to return to the warmth of the house.

Once inside, Joe removed his thick coat, then quickly moved over to the fire, standing in front of it as he warmed his hands. Hoss was in the kitchen, hurrying Hop Sing to have dinner ready. However, the high pitched yell of the cook, and the hasty retreat of Hoss, limping, signaled the fact he was not welcome in the Chinese cook’s domain. Dinner would be ready with Hop Sing was ready and not a minute more.

“Just accept it, Hoss; you’re going to have to starve a while longer,” Joe chuckled as his big brother sat down dejectedly.

“Dadburn it, Joe, that little fellow can’t half kick forcefully when he’s a mind to!” The big man rubbed his ankle in obvious pain.

The two brothers were then joined by Ben and Adam who had been seated at the large desk in the far corner of the room. Monthly accounts had to be finalized that week, and it was a job neither man enjoyed. However, they tackled it together, father and first born son enjoying precious time in each other’s company.

They too had heard the commotion from the kitchen and knew it was no good trying to hurry up Hop Sing. Would Hoss never learn? Sitting around the huge hearth, feeling the warmth of fire and togetherness, the three brothers chatted, Ben silently watching. How proud of them he was, all different in so many ways, yet so similar. Their love for each other, of him and the Ponderosa was what made each brother so special and the family so strong.

“May this never change,” he thought to himself as he sat contented with his sons.

Joe told them of his visit to Virginia City. “I met Mr. Friedman today, Pa.”

Ben looked at Joe, nodding silently.

“He told me that David Pike is coming to Virginia City soon. Seems he wants to visit the ranch he just sold and meet me. Long way to come just to look around a small ranch he no longer owns, but at least it will give me the chance to ask him if can solve the mystery of the names in the tree house.”

Ben gripped the side of his chair, his knuckles turning white. His face suddenly looked old and drawn, and he could feel his heart beating faster and faster. Adam and Hoss stared at their father, they too feeling their hearts beating loud, the blood rushing, their stomachs churning. Not at the lack of food, but at what the implications of Joe’s statement meant.

Joe looked at them, knowing something was wrong, something he had no comprehension about. “What’s the matter? Why have you all gone quiet and look like death?”

Adam involuntarily gasped, and put his hands together, as if in prayer. Hoss just stared ahead.

With no answer to his question, Joe stood up and placed himself by his father’s side. He bent down, putting his hand on Ben’s arm. Ben and Joe looked into each others eyes. Joe could see his father was troubled and he squeezed Ben’s arm. “Pa, what is it? What’s the matter?”

Ben closed his eyes and shook his head. Joe was more perplexed, the whole situation was getting stranger by the minute. “Pa. Please! Tell me what’s wrong?” His voice becoming agitated as he continued to look at his father’s face.

Ben cleared his throat but the words would not come. He looked towards Adam who could see the look of despair, the uncertainty of what he should do next. For once the father needed the guidance of the son.

“Pa! We can’t keep silent no longer. If David Pike is coming to town, it sure ain’t for a quick handshake! He’s bound to say something!”

Joe looked at his brother, completely bewildered. He rose up and glared at his family.

“For Gods sake! Will someone tell me what’s going on round here!” His hands were on his hips, and his voice was rising angrily.

“Joe, please, you don’t know what you’re asking,” Hoss answered his voice breaking, and tears forming in his eyes.

This did nothing to dissipate Joe’s anger, who turned on his brother. “Hoss, I don’t know what is going on here, but I sure as hell am going to find out one way or the other. Now will someone tell me what’s wrong?”

Adam went over to his father and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. Ben looked up.

“Pa. We have to tell Joe. We can’t wait for David to arrive. He must not be the one to tell him!”

“Tell me what!” Joe yelled, feeling anger yet also a fear of the unknown.

Sensing the anguish that his father was keeping to himself, Adam looked over to Joe, then walking behind his father’s chair placed a hand on Joe’s arm. “Joe, you’ve got to understand something. We never wanted you to find out about this.”

Adam returned to his chair, sitting forward, waiting for his father to speak.

Joe shook his head, absolutely confused by his family, their words, their actions. With a forced smile, he looked again at his father. “Well Pa! You gonna tell me what’s going on?” His voice was now pleading.

“I just don’t know where to start, Joe.” Ben’s voice was flat, low.

Again Joe sat by his fathers side, hand on his arm. “Why don’t you just start at the beginning, Pa? Just at the beginning will be fine.”

Adam and Hoss nodded to their father.

The time had finally arrived that Ben had dreaded for the past 18 years. Sitting back in his chair, he beckoned Joe to sit on the settee next to Hoss.

“This is going to be a long night, Joseph. Just keep this thought in your head. No matter what I tell you, we love you. Always have, always will. You remember that now.”

The earnest look and sound of his voice shook Joe slightly. He felt dread at what was coming, but was unable to stop it now. ‘Truth Will Out’, he thought as he nodded to his father and made himself comfortable.

“You better tell Hop Sing, supper will be delayed, Hoss,” said Ben, as he silently said a prayer, hoping he would find the right words. Hoss returned from the kitchen, his hunger suddenly forgotten. As Ben started his narrative, Adam closed his eyes, listening to his father and re-living the events of many years ago.

*****

Ben and Marie Cartwright were deep in conversation at the dinner table when Adam returned from Virginia City, having collected the mail and ordered supplies for the week ahead. He was warmly greeted by his father and step-mother, and sat down with them, thankful for the cup of coffee poured by Marie.

“Something wrong, Pa?” Adam asked, wondering at the thoughtful looks on Ben and Marie’s faces.

Ben shook his head. “No Adam. We are just trying to figure out who to invite to Joe’s birthday party. There don’t seem to be many boys of Joe’s age around here – we can only think of six who are under ten years old.”

“We could always ask a few girls, my darling” suggested Marie, as she looked down at the list of names.

With a chuckle, Adam said, “I don’t think Joe would appreciate girls at his birthday party. You know what he feels about them. In his opinion, all they are good for is pulling pigtails, and placing frogs in their bonnets!”

Marie laughed, remembering the pranks her son had gotten up to at the church social only weeks before. He was certainly a little boy with his own ideas of mischief, and it was the fair sex who generally felt the butt of his jokes.

Adam had a thought. “Hey Pa, just remembered something. I was chatting to Doc Martin this morning and he told me Matt Henderson has just had his nephews sent to live with him from Idaho. Apparently their mother died in childbirth with the youngest, and their father had been bringing them up. Seems he died a couple of months ago of the fever so the poor boys have been sent to live with their nearest relative, Matt.”

Marie cried out softly at the tragic news. “Poor things. No father or mother.”

Adam continued, “From what I hear, the youngest is Joe’s age, just had his fourth birthday. The eldest is the same age as Hoss. Would be a great way to introduce them to some of the boys of Virginia City if we invite them to Joe’s party.”

“Great idea, Adam. Poor Matt won’t know what’s hit him with two boys to look after. I’ll go and see him tomorrow and invite him and the boys over for the party.”

It was therefore on the following Sunday, Matt Henderson introduced his two nephews at the fourth birthday party of Joseph Cartwright.

David Pike, the eldest, was a quiet, green eyed, ginger haired boy who had taken after his father in looks and coloring. He rarely smiled, and stayed by his uncle’s side, just watching the other boys as they chased around the yard of the Ponderosa. Hoss tried to make friends with him, as they were the same age, but eventually gave up. David Pike was not a child who wanted companionship or friendship from other children. He just wanted to be by himself or with his uncle, and he seemed to view the other children with contempt.

Timothy Pike on the other hand was completely different. Looking like his late mother, Matt Henderson’s sister, he was an angelic looking boy, tall for his age, with blond hair and bright blue eyes. Forever laughing and playing the games set by the adults, he soon became accepted by his new friends. He and Joe hit it off straight away, the two boys making a contrasting sight. One tall and blond, one shorter and dark, but obviously both of the same mischievous nature. The party was a great success, and Joe found himself a ‘best friend’.

From then on Joe and Tim were inseparable. Still too young to attend school, they would play together all day, keeping each other company. Marie would take Joe to the Henderson ranch and leave him there, and other days, Tim would come over to the Ponderosa. David, however, never seemed to fit in, unwilling to play with his brother and Joe, just glaring at him when he visited the ranch. He was much happier hunting game and helping his uncle with the chores.

For a year, this happy arrangement continued. One evening, Joe was sat on the verandah after waving goodbye to his best friend who had been staying over for the weekend. He looked very preoccupied for a ‘soon to be five’ child, and Adam looked at his little brother with amusement.

“What’s the matter, Little Joe? You look very serious.”

Joe looked up. Adam was so clever; he could probably help him he thought.

“Adam I really want to get something nice for Tim’s birthday next week, but I just don’t know what to buy him. I only got 50cents saved, and that ain’t gonna buy much from the store.” His little face looked down at his boots as he swung his legs under his chair.

Adam inwardly smiled. He sat down next to Joe on the rocking chair, slowly rocking, his mind thinking hard. What on earth do you buy a five year old with only 50 cents? Suddenly he had a brainwave. “Well Joe, I think I know what you can get Tim, and it won’t cost you a cent.”

Joe’s face lit up. He knew his big brother would have a good idea. “What is it, Adam? What can I buy him?”

“Actually Joe, you don’t buy him anything. I will make him something.”

Joe looked confused, and stared at his brother. “What do you mean, Adam? What you gonna make?”

With a laugh, Adam stood up and grabbed his brother by the hand, pulling him onto his shoulders.

“Well Joe, how about if I secretly build Tim a real fancy tree house in that big old oak in Henderson meadow? You and Tim can then play in it when you are at the Henderson ranch. Just somewhere for the two of you to go to. Does that seem a good idea?”

The whoop of joy from Adams shoulders indicated Joe’s joy at the suggestion. “Gee Adam, you’re the greatest brother ever. Tim is going to really love it. We’ll be able to play in it all the time. Thank you so much. I love you, Adam.”

Adam lifted his brother off his shoulders and kissed his head. “And I love you too, little brother.”

*****

True to his word, Adam, with the help of Hoss, built a tree house in the old oak. He built it so the two boys could enter from the base, and it was big enough for the two of them to play in. Securely nailed to the large branches, it was watertight, the wooden planks fitting well together.

On Tim’s birthday, he and Joe walked to the meadow from the Henderson ranch house. When Tim saw the tree house, he was overwhelmed and tears of joy flowed down his cheeks. With a squeal of delight, he ran to the lowest branch and climbed inside, quickly followed by Joe. As Adam rode up, he could hear the high pitched laughter of the two boys. He smiled contentedly that his idea had been such a success.

The tree house became an important place for Tim and Joe. They would play in it for hours, their imagination turning it into a fort surrounded by Indians, or a castle with a moat. It was a place of untold adventures, battles and sieges. A little boy’s paradise!

Joe’s fifth birthday arrived a few weeks later. His party was well organized and enjoyed by all. This time girls were allowed to attend the party, at the request of the five year old and his best friend. Little Joe was growing up!

*****

It was two weeks later that tragedy struck the Ponderosa. For once, Joe and Tim were playing in the barn at the Ponderosa, helping Hoss groom his horse and Joe’s pony. Adam and Ben were in the house, working on plans for a new mine to be opened. Marie Cartwright had taken the opportunity to ride out on her horse, enjoying the late summer weather. As usual she rode back into the yard, faster than was ever deemed safe. However for once her sure footed little mare stumbled, falling over and sending Marie into the air then crashing in a heap onto the hard mud floor.

Her scream was heard by all in the barn and the house, everyone running out into the yard. Joe stopped short, the sight of his mother lying at such an unusual angle scaring him. He saw his father gently lift his wife to his chest and then begin to cry. This was something Joe had never thought possible. How could his father, the strong man who Joe looked up to in awe at times, have tears flowing down his face?

He could see Adam and Hoss were as upset as their father. Why were they crying? Surely his mother would get up in a minute, slightly shaken, but unharmed. He crept closer, his eyes fixed on his mother’s body that hung lifeless in the arms of her husband. For a minute no-one seemed to realize the small five year old was stood at his mother’s side, gently stroking her hair, and quietly murmuring. “Wake up, mamma, its time to wake up now.”

Suddenly Adam heard the plaintive little voice of Joe. He gently put his arms around his brother and lifted him, then walked with him into the house. Tim, badly shaken at the scene, meekly followed Adam, wanting to be by the side of his best friend. As Adam carried Joe through the front door, the last thing Joe saw was his mother lying still and quiet in the arms of his father. It would be the last sight of her he ever had.

The severe emotional shock of seeing his mother lying dead traumatized Joe for weeks. The funeral and aftermath of her death all compounded to leave him with recurring dreams. Dreams of a horse galloping fast, falling, and a woman screaming.

As the older Cartwrights coped with their grief in their own way, Joe seemed to withdraw into himself, not wanting to do anything or go anywhere. Tim Pike was a true friend however, and would visit Joe daily, talking to him or just sitting with him in his bedroom. Sometimes no words were necessary between the two boys, and it was just having his friend around that helped Joe come to terms with his loss. Eventually, at Tim’s insistence, Joe allowed Adam to take him over to the meadow and play in the tree house.

From that day, there was a marked improvement in Joe. The two youngsters now bonded more fully than ever before. Now they had something in common – both had no mother – and this fact seemed to help in the healing process. So close did the two boys become that Hoss commented they must be joined at the hip. One day, while in the tree house, Tim pulled out from his trouser pocket a small sharp knife. It belonged to his uncle, and he had smuggled it out with him that day.

Joe looked at the knife, wondering what was on his friend’s mind. “What you going to do with that, Tim?” he asked eyeing the sharp blade cautiously.

“Thought we’d put our name on this here tree house, Joe, so all knows it belongs to us.” With that, he began to carve his name in the planking, his letters slowly taking shape in a childlike form. Once he had finished he gave the knife to Joe.

“Now it’s your turn, Joe. Put your name on the other side.”

Taking the knife, Joe carefully started to carve his name. He took a while, his name slowly appearing in an unrefined way. When he had finished, he looked at it proudly. He had spelt his name, and spelt it correctly, just the way his mamma had taught him. The thought of his mother suddenly brought tears to his eyes and he began to sob. Tim saw the tears of his friend and realized he was thinking of his mother again.

“Joe, I got another idea.”

Joe looked up, wiping the tears with his shirt sleeve.

“Pass me the knife, Joe,” said Tim, as he put out his hand.

Joe passed over the knife.

“Remember how Adam told us stories about the Indians. Told us how two of them would cut each others arms and then rub them together so their blood would mingle together. Then they would call each other blood brothers. Let’s do it, Joe; let’s be blood brothers. David never wants anything to do with me, and I’d much rather have you as my brother than him.”

Joe nodded, feeling extreme pleasure that Tim wanted him to be his brother, but was not so keen on cutting his arm.

“OK Tim, but I don’t want you to cut my arm. Let’s just cut our thumbs and rub them together.”

Tim agreed. Taking the old knife, he grabbed hold of Joe’s left hand and cut his thumb. He then handed the knife over to Joe who did the same to Tim’s left thumb. Both boys looked in fascination as the blood formed small droplets. They then held their thumbs together and let the blood mingle.

“Now we are ‘Blood Brothers’, Joe. Blood brothers forever! When you cry for your mamma, I’m gonna cry too. We will do everything together, brother Joe.”

Joe smiled and nodded at his friend.

“You bet, brother Tim”.

Now he had three brothers, Adam, Hoss and Tim. When Adam came to collect Joe that day, he was again the chatty and happy little boy that Adam remembered from only a few weeks ago.

“Guess what, Adam? Me and Tim are blood brothers, just like those Indians you told us about.”

With a concerned face, Adam checked Joe’s arms. He sighed with relief.

“What you been up to then, little buddy?”

Joe showed him his left thumb which still had a small globule of congealed blood on it.

“Me and Tim cut each others thumb and became blood brothers.”

Adam was about to admonish Joe about using a knife unsupervised, but seeing the look of happiness on his face, he decided to say nothing. He just smiled. “That’s great Joe. Now you’ve got three older brothers to tell you what to do!”

A worried Joe looked at Adam, and realized his brother was just joking with him. He laughed his high pitched laugh that had not been heard for so long, making Adam smile. How good it was to have the old Little Joe back.

*****

The months passed quickly, brother Tim and brother Joe constantly at each others side. Tim and Joe celebrated their sixth birthdays and as September came to a close, the leaves on the old oak began to fall, leaving the tree house more visible to those who would know it was there.

It was on a clear but chilly day that Joe and Tim went to play in the tree house again. Matt Henderson had gone to Virginia City to collect supplies, leaving David to tend to the chores at the ranch house. David had never bothered much with his brother and Joe, and was more content to go hunting rabbits with his pride and joy, his home made bow and arrow. He kept it under his bed and his younger brother was not allowed to play with it. David was good with his aim too, the lethal weapon bringing home supper on more than one occasion.

It was mid-afternoon when Adam arrived at the meadow to pick up Joe and take him home. As he looked towards the tree house the sight that greeted him would haunt him for years to come. In the grass lay the body of a boy lying still. Tim Pike lay face up, a crudely made arrow sticking out of his chest. Ten feet away sat Joe, the bow by his side. He was weeping, his sobs resonating around the meadow.

Quickly Adam dismounted and knelt by the body of the fair-haired boy. Adam could see he was dead and so he looked towards his brother. Standing up, he walked towards Joe sitting by his side and cradling him in his arms. Joe’s sobs muffled as he pressed his face into his brother’s chest.

Adam tearfully tried to assess the situation. He surmised that somehow, the boys must have snuck out of the ranch, taking David’s home- made bow and arrow. They both knew they should not play with it, but the lure of playing their favorite game of cowboys and Indians with a real weapon must have been too much for them. This time the game had become deadly. Joe must have somehow let off the arrow and Tim must have got in the way at the wrong time.

At this point Matt Henderson came along, his eyes showing pain and heartbreak as he viewed the scene. He could see it was David’s bow on the floor, and as he gently picked up Tim, he pulled out the home-made arrow. Adam explained that the boys must have been playing with the bow and arrow and tragically Tim had somehow jumped in the way at the wrong moment.

Henderson nodded his agreement. He carried his nephew home, while Adam lifted the still sobbing Joe onto his horse and took him to the Ponderosa.

The sheriff was notified, but it was deemed an accident, an innocent game that had gone tragically wrong between two small boys. Joe was far too young to be prosecuted and moreover, Matt Henderson accepted the evidence and did not blame Joe in any way. However, he did deem it appropriate to send David to live in Kansas with an old friend and his wife who needed help on their small farm. He obviously thought David would deal with the death of his brother much better hundreds of miles away, away from Joe.

Joe again became traumatized. He said nothing and would just want to be alone, his sleep being disturbed and the nightmares would affect the whole family every night. Even his father could not comfort him in any way. He made no mention of the accident, just spent the days staring into space, and the nights crying in his bed.

After three weeks, Doc Martin came to call at the Ponderosa to check on Joe. His lack of sleep and appetite were of some concern to his family. As the doctor and Ben went into Joe’s room where he was dozing, Joe suddenly awoke and sat up.

He looked in amazement at the doctor. “Hello, Doc Martin. What you doing here?” he asked.

Doc Martin looked at his young patient. “Just come to check up on you, Joe. You ain’t been yourself since the accident with Tim.”

Joe looked at him with all the innocence of the child he was. “Accident with Tim? Tim who, Doc Martin?”

Thereafter, Joe had no recollection or memory of the recent events. As Doc Martin explained, seeing the death of his mother and then the accident with Tim had traumatized him too much. The six years old child could not cope with the pain and grief and his mind just erased all the memories of his best friend, David, the meadow and the tree house. He would probably never remember, would never know what had happened that day.

*****

With a deep sigh Ben Cartwright became silent. He looked at Joe who had been sitting still and quiet, taking in every word his father had said. Shaking his head in amazed shock, he looked down at his left hand. There on the tip of his thumb was a small white scar. He had always taken it for granted, accepting its presence without knowing from where it had come. He gently rubbed it with his right hand as if unsure it was really there. Tears formed in his eyes.

He could hardly believe all his father had told him. Surely he must be talking about someone else, not him. But believe him he must. His father would not lie about this. The enormity of what he now knew suddenly hit him and with a cry of anguish he rushed upstairs. Hoss and Adam stood up, keen to follow.

“No Adam, Hoss. Let him be. Give him time to take it all in.” Ben’s eyes stared at the stairs. The three men sat in silence, not knowing what to say or do, all appetites gone.

Upstairs Joe lay on his bed. Could it be really true? Had he killed his best friend all those years ago? Why could he not remember? Why could he not see the face of this young boy who had been such an important person in his life? He beat his fists on the bed in frustration. All these years his family had known. How it must have pained them, knowing their youngest son and brother had killed another child. What must Adam of thought, finding the body of Tim, knowing what his little brother had done, looking at his brother knowing he was a killer!

How could he feel remorse for something he had no recollection of? All these thoughts swirled around his mind, leaving him exhausted, until he finally succumbed to a fitful sleep.

The next morning the three older Cartwrights were sat down to breakfast when an exhausted looking Joe slowly walked downstairs. As Joe sat at the table, Ben studied him, noticing the tired eyes and features. His son had obviously had a bad night’s sleep.

“Morning, Joe,” Ben said, as Joe poured himself a coffee.

Without looking up, Joe mumbled a response, his eyes not leaving the table top. He began to drink, his hands shaking. Putting the cup down to stop the liquid spilling, he sat silent, still staring down. Adam and Hoss saw the shake in his hands, but did not comment.

Ben looked at his son, frowning. “How you feeling, son?” he asked kindly.

Joe shrugged not answering. What could he say?

“You going to eat anything, Joe? You didn’t eat last night. You need something to keep you going.”

Joe shook his head. “Coffee is fine,” he mumbled.

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances. Joe looked up at his two brothers, seeing their concerned faces. What could he say to them now the secret of the past 18 years had come out?

Adam sensed his younger brother needed to talk but was feeling at a loss as to where to start. “Come on Hoss, we got chores to do,” he said, nudging his big brother, who wiped his mouth with his napkin and pushed back his chair. He instinctively knew Joe wanted to talk alone with his father.

The two brothers left father and son together, and made their way outside, closing the big oak door behind them. Joe knew his brothers had diplomatically departed for his benefit. How well they knew him, he thought.

Ben sat silently, waiting for his son to speak. Joe had always carried his emotions on his sleeve, and could never hide his feelings for long.

Joe nervously cleared his throat. “You know what’s the worst thing about this, Pa? It’s not remembering. I can remember Mamma, see her face when I close my eyes. But Tim. There’s nothing! How can I grieve, Pa? How can I feel remorse when I don’t remember?”

Ben could only shake his head. For once he had no answer.

“Could you tell me something, Pa?” Joe asked, looking towards his father. Ben nodded. “Who else knows about me and Tim and what happened?” Tears again formed in his eyes, and he bit his lip as he stared again at the table top.

Ben could see his distress, so he stood up and walked behind his son, placing his hands on Joe’s shoulders. Usually physical contact from his father gave him a great sense of comfort, but this time Joe felt panic.

Ben could feel the tension in his muscles, so he pulled up the chair next to Joe and sat down, his hands gently massaging Joe’s neck. “Sheriff Coffee knows, Joe. Doc Martin too. Reverend Johnson held the service at the funeral, but he died over ten years ago. There was no need for anyone else to know. It was a terrible accident, but that’s all. In fact, it was Matt who insisted we did not tell anyone about the true facts. Just say it was a bad fall from the old oak tree, he said. Sheriff Coffee agreed so that’s what we did.”

“So they have known all these years. Known I did what I did, yet never mentioned it.”

Ben nodded. “They have been good friends to us Joe. You have to realize it was an accident; they knew that, so they just let it rest.”

Joe sat for a while, taking in all his father had said, the strong hands rubbing his neck, easing out the tension he felt. A thought came to him making him look round at his father. “What about David? He knew what happened. Must be why he is so determined to meet me. What do I say to him, Pa? How can I say sorry I killed your brother?”

“If that’s what he needs you to say, then you say it. It’s been so many years, Joe, I am sure he is over it now. After all, if it weren’t for him selling Matt’s ranch, he would have never returned to Virginia City.”

Ben paused, studying his son, trying to judge what was going through his mind. “You don’t have to meet him, Joe. I could see him for you.”

“No Pa. It’s something I have to do by myself. I owe David that much for what I did.”

Joe pushed back his chair and walked over to the settee, staring into the fire. Pouring himself another drink, Ben then moved over to his favorite leather chair. As he settled down, the silence of the room was only broken by the sound of Ben sipping his coffee.

Joe sighed deeply, then slipped his hands down to his knees and collapsed against the back of the couch closing his eyes. “Could you tell me about Tim, Pa? What he was like?”

“Tim? Oh Tim was a lovely boy, Joe. Blonde hair and blue eyes, always happy and laughing. An extremely caring young boy, too. You and he made a great pair of mischievous young imps!”

Ben watched Joe, saw his young grief stricken face. How long would it take Joe to come to terms with what had happened? What more could he do to help? He felt he needed to say so much more, but what? He put down his coffee on the low table, and sat forward, taking Joe’s hand in his. His son opened his eyes and looked at his father.

“Joe, I…”

“Pa, please,” Joe said, “I know you mean well, but I can’t take much more.”

“Joe,” Ben said, squeezing his hand and looking intently into his eyes. “I am trying to tell you that we all love you and believe in you.”

Joe looked at him. “Even after what I did, Pa? How can you believe in a son who did what I did?”

“Joe, nothing has changed. Even though you now know, you are still the son I am so proud of.”

For a brief second Joe’s eyes lit up, and a small smile crossed his mouth. “Thanks. Thanks, Pa.”

The smile disappeared as quickly as it had come, and the handsome face again showed the anguish Joe felt. “Pa. Where is Tim buried?”

“He is in the Virginia City graveyard. He has a fine headstone, Joe.”

“Did I go to the funeral, Pa?”

There was an awkward silence. “No, Joe. You stayed here with Hop Sing.”

That seemed to be a signal to Joe to make a move. Standing up he walked towards the credenza.

“I’ve got to go visit it, Pa.” he said, not even looking towards his father, not wanting to see his reaction. “Please don’t try and stop me from going to his grave.”

Ben also stood up, walking up behind his son as he put on his jacket and gun. He picked up Joe’s hat, and handed it to him. “I would never do that, Joe. I know its something you have to do. Just don’t do anything to make me worry, will you, son?”

Taking the hat and placing it on his head, Joe looked at his father. He shook his head. “No, Pa.”

“You want me to come with you?”

Joe just shook his head, opening the door and shivering as the cold air hit him. “I need to do this alone. Bye, Pa.”

“Goodbye, Joseph.”

With that Joe went outside, closing the door behind him, his father listening to his footsteps as he made his way on the verandah towards the barn. After all that had happened, Ben knew he had to trust Joe to sort it out in his own mind. He wished he could have gone with him, held his hand as though he were still the small boy who needed the reassuring warmth and strength of his fathers hand in his. However, Joe was now a man who had to come to terms with his past in his own way.

Ben sighed and rubbed his brow. He stood still for a couple of minutes until he heard the canter of a lone horse leaving the yard. With a slight sense of panic for the safe return of his son, he walked back to the table and sat down. For once, the caring father could do nothing except wait.

*****

On a small clearing behind Virginia City was the town’s graveyard. It was a place Joe had visited a few times when attending the funerals of friends and acquaintances. As he walked up and down the rows of crosses and headstones, he stopped at names he knew, people he had known who were now resting in this bleak place.

In a far corner, tucked away on its own, he found the headstone he had been seeking. He had never even noticed it before. The color and texture of the stone was instantly recognizable to Joe. The stone at his mother’s grave was identical. Kneeling by the side of the small grave, he looked at the words etched on the white stone.

Timothy Pike
1842-1848
Rest in Peace

That was all. No one would have known why he had died, where he died. Just a name on a gravestone. The simplicity of the stone and its wording made Joe close his eyes and sob. Tim deserved much more as a memorial, he vowed to himself.

Here was a boy he had known, had called brother, and had killed! Grief overwhelmed him, making his shoulders heave with the despair he felt. He cried for a name without a face to focus on, for events he could not recall. The cold wind wrapped itself around the young man, dragging out any warmth he felt in his thick winter jacket and he shivered but he did not move.

Colder and colder he became, but he could not drag himself away for this final resting place of Timothy Pike. He knew he needed to stay and perform a self-inflicted penance for his sin, no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable. Kneeling with head bowed, he stayed, until the weak winter sun disappeared behind the distant mountains.

He recalled all that his father had told him about Tim, and thought of the young boy buried so many years ago. He wondered at the life he would have had, the kind of man the child would have become. Would they of still been friends, still called each other brother? Or would the childhood fantasies have been forgotten as they grew into manhood.

These were questions Joe could not answer but could only surmise. He prayed for forgiveness from the Lord Almighty and from his childhood friend. The words of his father came back to him.

“It was a terrible childhood accident, that’s all.”

Nodding to himself, he realized he could now accept that the death of his friend was an accident, nothing more, nothing less. He began to talk quietly at the graveside of the boy he had forgotten. His one sided conversation seemed to release the pain in his heart.

Standing up, he could feel the cold in his aching muscles, and as he placed his left thumb on the finely chiseled letters of the headstone, he said a silent farewell. He walked slowly out of the graveyard.

As he made his way back home to the Ponderosa there was only one thought in his head: David Pike. What could he say to this man after all these years?

He arrived back at the ranch as darkness was finally closing in. Giving his horse a well earned rubdown and feed, he walked back to the house, still cold but feeling an inner warmth. He felt he could face his family, look them in the eye once again without feeling the shame he had felt the night before.

Entering the house, he closed the door, and could hear his family talking at the large dining table. As they heard the door close, there was silence. Joe smiled to himself.

His Pa would have told his brothers where he had gone that day, and they would have been worried about him.

“That you, Joe?” called his father, his voice, showing signs of anxiety.

As he removed his coat and hat he answered “Yes Pa.” He shivered as he walked round to where his family was sitting. Dinner was being served, and the delicious smell of the roast pork made Joe realize just how hungry he was. He sat down, knowing his family was looking at him, trying to judge his mood.

“Everything alright, son?” Ben said finally, noting Joe was helping himself to the meat and potatoes. Joe eating was certainly a good sign.

Joe nodded and smiled at his father. “I went to his grave, Pa. Stayed and talked to him, just like I do with Mamma. Even though I can’t remember him, I figure I can now live with what I did.” His plate full, he began to eat.

His two brothers gave sighs of relief and said a silent prayer of thanks. Ben nodded, grateful that the son he was so proud of was back with them.

“Guess there’s just one problem to overcome.” Joe said as he finished his first mouthful.

“Still got to face David.”

“I can go with you Joe, if you want company?” said Adam.

Hoss nodded, “Me too, little brother.”

Just smiling his thanks, Joe shook his head. “This is something I have to do alone. Thanks anyway.”

An uneasy silence then ensued as the Cartwrights ate their meal, each one mulling over the events of the past. Joe looked up at Adam. “Did you really build that tree house, Adam?”

“Sure did, Joe, with Hoss’s help,” Adam answered, relieved to at last be able to talk over the events of so long ago.

“You certainly did a fine job!” said Joe with a smile of appreciation on his face.

“Our pleasure,” replied Hoss, the big man smiling and nodding as he put a spoonful of potato onto his plate. “I guess that’s what brothers are for,” he added, then suddenly realized Joe had stiffened by his side.

Joe bent his head forward, as tears brimmed in his eyes. The word ‘brother’ suddenly brought back a dull ache in his heart, his appetite disappearing in an instant. His father noticed his distress, and was about to say a word of comfort when Joe interjected, “I just don’t know what to say to you all anymore. You all suffered so much because of me,” he whispered quietly.

“You don’t have to say anything, Joe. All you need to do is get on with your life and try to forget it ever happened,” Ben said, as he put his hand on his son’s arm.

Joe pulled his arm away, not feeling he deserved comfort or affection. “Please Pa. I wish I could just forget everything you said, but it keeps coming back.” With that, he pushed back his chair and slowly began to walk upstairs to his room. “Just give me time to sort it out in my own mind.”

“Joseph, you’ve got to stop punishing yourself. It was an accident!”

Joe turned around, three pairs of eyes viewing him with such concern. He shook his head. “Sorry Pa. I just don’t feel I deserve your compassion at the moment.” With that, he hung down his head and made his way up the stairs.

Ben sighed deeply. The patriarch of the vast acres of the Ponderosa felt helpless, not knowing what to say or what to do. For once he could not help his youngest. Joe would have to mend his aching heart and conscience on his own in his own way.

*****

For the next four days, life and work on the Ponderosa went as normal with Joe doing his fair share. He was quiet, not adding much to the conversation at meal times, just watching and listening. He would excuse himself after supper, making his way to his bedroom, his family left to sit downstairs.

While lying on his bed, he would visualize their faces, looking for signs of shame, hate, disgust. All he could see, though, was sympathy, understanding and love. If anything, that made him feel worse. If there had been anger, he could have coped better with his volatile temper. But there was no anger from his family, so he just lay staring at the ceiling, trying to remember, but the black void in his memory refused to release a chink of light.

It was on the fifth day that a message came from Mr. Friedman. It was in the form of a short note, delivered by a young messenger boy. Joe was in the barn when he had heard the sound of hooves on the earth, and the jingle of a bridle. Walking outside, he greeted the young boy of about 15 years of age. Joe read the note.

David Pike had arrived in town and was hoping to get the chance to visit the Henderson ranch and see Joe before he left on the next stage to San Francisco. If he was able, would Joe meet him at the meadow the next day, around noon?

Joe looked down at the note from the lawyer, knowing what had to be done, but still dreading it. He would indeed be in the meadow the next day at noon. Taking out a coin, he handed it to the young lad, who left to deliver the reply to the lawyer’s office. Joe stood in the yard, staring towards the ranch house, knowing tomorrow was to be a difficult time.

He went into the house, his father and Adam looking up from the desk where they were still deliberating over the accounts. As it was one of the most unpleasant chores required to be done, both men were glad of a small diversion as they poured over the ledgers.

“Who was that who just rode in, Joe?” asked Adam.

Turning to face them both Joe answered with a voice of resignation. “Message from town. David Pike is here, wants to meet me tomorrow at the meadow.” With that, he disappeared into the kitchen, not waiting to see the reaction from his father or brother.

Both Adam and Ben looked at each other, knowing how Joe must be feeling but powerless to intercede.

Joe then emerged with a cup of coffee in his hand, and came over to the desk. As he sipped his coffee, he looked at the map on the wall behind his fathers head. The large shape of the Ponderosa dominated, and he could see a small area, not outlined, where he knew the Henderson ranch had been and the meadow that had been the scene of such a tragic event.

With a nervous cough and gathering as much strength as he could, he looked down at his father. “Pa,” he said, “I’m sorry I have been such a misery over the last few days.”

As Joe looked into his father’s eyes, Ben’s heart nearly broke at the sight of the unhappiness in his son’s face. “It alright, Joe, we understand.” he said tenderly.

A small smile appeared on Joe’s face. “Well,” he said, sighing deeply, “Tomorrow I have to face David.” His face was sad as he looked between his father and brother. “Maybe then I can put this behind me. Once I have faced him, maybe this feeling of guilt will slip away and I can forgive myself.” With that, he turned tail and returned to the outside, leaving his half full coffee cup on the credenza.

*****

The next day came quickly enough. Unable to eat breakfast, Joe just drank coffee, while his family watched him concerned.

“You want us to come with you, Joe?” asked Hoss, wanting to help his brother in any way.

“No thanks, Hoss. This is something I have got to face alone. I’ll be alright; just want to get it over with.”

With that, Joe stood up, and made his way to the front door. As he buckled on his gun, put on his thick winter coat and placed his hat on his head, he looked back at the table where the family was still sat. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back as soon as I have seen him.” With that, he opened the thick wooden door and went out, closing it behind him.

“You think he’ll be alright, Pa?”

Ben looked at Hoss, and as he heaved a sigh, nodded. “He knows what he has to do, son; he will be fine. I only hope David will understand.”

Finishing their breakfast, the three men went about their chores, each one unable to concentrate, their thoughts in a distant meadow with their son and brother.

*****

Joe steadily walked Cochise to the meadow. The wind had failed to arrive that day, but the air was still cold, snow glistening on the far peaks of the Sierras.

As he passed over the old boundary line of the Henderson ranch from the Ponderosa, Joe could see in the distance a small hired buggy and the figure of a man sitting still, looking into the meadow towards the old oak tree. As the man heard the sound of Joe’s horse on the hard earth he turned round. David Pike was a well built man, his bright ginger hair showing under his hat. His green eyes narrowed as he looked at Joe, a thin smile appearing on his face. Joe pulled up and stared at him.

“Little Joe Cartwright! You certainly have grown up some. Used to be a little scrawny kid,” David said, with a forced chuckle. “Guess I should thank you for buying this meadow. Got a fine price for it too!”

Joe nodded. “David,” he said nervously, “You’ve got to excuse me. I don’t remember you at all.”

David Pike jumped down off the buggy and walked over to Joe putting his hand on Cochise’s rein. “My Uncle Matt told me you never remembered what had happened to Tim. Is that right?”

Joe nodded again. “I never knew anything about you til about a week ago when my family thought I ought to know, seeing as you were visiting. They didn’t think I should hear the story from you.”

David seemed to digest this information carefully, thinking thoughtfully for a couple of minutes. He gently patted Cochise on the nose, as Joe dismounted. The two men stood together, eyeing each other.

“You know about Tim then?” David asked, his face looking wary.

“I do now. What I did to Tim must have been heartbreaking for you, and yet all I can say is sorry. But I truly am. Just wish I could take back that day. What more can I say except it was a tragic accident.”

“So that’s what your family told you, is it, Joe? An accident?” David said, as he chuckled deep in his throat.

Joe looked at him, feeling uneasy. His instinctively did not like this man.

Releasing Cochise’s rein, David turned round not saying another word. The tree house was now visible within the branches of the oak. He began to walk towards the tree and Joe followed, leaving his horse tied to the buggy.

“You’re really sorry, are you, Joe?” said David. Joe nodded, unable to find more words to add. “You know Joe, I’m gonna tell you a little story about that day. Something no-one ever knew.” He stopped in front of the oak tree and looked at Joe

“That day Tim took my bow and arrows without asking. I realized it was missing so I came down here to get it back. As I got nearer all I heard was the pair of you yelling and hollering at each other. I was up on that ridge,” he pointed behind the tree. “Seems you had the bow and wouldn’t let Tim have a go.” He paused, then turned his face towards the tree, aware he had Joe’s attention.

“Tim was shouting, telling you he didn’t want to be friends anymore, didn’t want you near the tree house. He wanted you to leave the meadow, leave him alone. He just stood there, yelling at you. Then you shouted back. Told him if you couldn’t play in the tree house then he never would. You know what you did then, Joe?”

Joe took a deep breath, then shook his head.

“Well Joe, you took hold of my bow and arrow, and you fired at Tim. Deliberately, calculated and with murderous intent! You just shot him down. You murdered him Joe! You killed my little brother. That temper of yours got the better of you that day.”

The shock of his words galvanized Joe who stepped forward gripping the front of David’s shirt. “You’re a liar! I would never do something like that deliberate!” His voice was shaking.

“Am I? How do you know?” David’s voice was calm. “That’s just what Uncle Matt said your family would say.”

Joe relaxed his grasp on David’s shirt, and took a step back “Dear God,” Joe gasped, “I couldn’t have done it. It was an accident. Adam said it was an accident.” His face crumpled in pain.

A menacing smile came over David. “No Joe. You murdered him. A six year old murderer! How does that feel, eh?”

Joe stared, his whole body shaking. He shook his head again. “No! I don’t believe it. It’s just not possible!”

“I saw it, Joe. You killed him and then you started laughing. Laughed til your sides hurt. Then I reckon you realized what you had done, and how much trouble you were going to get into, so you started crying. I ran back to get Uncle Matt. Told him what you had done and he came down straightaway. Adam had arrived by then and had already decided what must have happened. It was an accident, nothing more, a tragic accident, he said. Uncle Matt accepted it. Didn’t want to upset the high and mighty Cartwrights. But I knew, Joe. That’s why I ended up in Kansas. Uncle Matt was worried I would tell someone what I had seen. Didn’t want to upset his neighbors.”

Joe stood still, his eyes glistening. Could this be the reason Matt Henderson had looked at him so strangely when they had met in town?

David Pike walked around the old oak, looking through the branches at the tree house, glancing over at Joe. He smiled as he noted the anguish in his face. “Never did get to play in this here tree house. Your brother certainly did a good job building it.” He returned to Joe, and put his hand in his pocket, pulling out a large bottle of whiskey. Taking out the cork with his teeth, he took a mouthful. He offered the bottle to Joe. “You want a drink Joe? Looks like you could do with one.”

Joe took the bottle without thinking, the smell making him reel. He brought the bottle to his lips and swallowed, the liquid burning his insides, warming the pain in his heart.

David walked around him, eyeing him up and down. “You certainly grew into a fine young man. More than my poor Tim could,” he added, noting with glee the pain that shot across Joe’s face.

Joe took another swig, the whiskey slowly dousing his mental agony.

“Don’t worry, Joe. Ain’t gonna tell anyone. After all, it’s nearly 20 years now. Who’s gonna believe me against a Cartwright and besides, I’m off to San Francisco day after tomorrow. Got Uncle Matt’s inheritance to make a new start with, seeing as I don’t have to share it with Tim. I guess I should thank you for that, Joe.” Turning heel, he walked back to the buggy, a malicious grin on his face.

Joe slowly followed, his mind in turmoil. This day had turned out so much worse than he had ever thought possible.

Seating himself in the buggy, David took hold of the reins then stared at Joe who was standing by his horse. “It’s been a pleasure seeing you, Little Joe. You watch that temper of yours now!”

With that final cutting remark, David left, his cruel and loud laugh echoing around the meadow as Joe stood watching him, the whiskey bottle in his hand. His laugh sent shivers down Joe’s spine, such a wicked sounding laugh, almost inhuman.

With one hand holding the reins, Joe took another swig of whiskey. He had come to terms with the death of Tim, knew it was a childish game gone horribly wrong. Now, according to David, his temper had made him commit the ultimate sin. Could a six year old be capable of deliberate murder? Why would David lie? He had nothing to gain so it must be true.

As for Joe, he could not remember anything so would never know for certain. Accidental death or deliberate murder? As he drunk the contents of the bottle, he hoped it would help ease the burden he felt. It did not, though. The guilt stayed within his soul, gnawing away all traces of the confident and happy young man of a few weeks ago.

The buggy had long gone when Joe slowly mounted and turned Cochise towards the Ponderosa. Through his drunken haze, he decided he had to leave the Ponderosa for a while. If he could kill one brother in a fit of temper, who’s to say it couldn’t happen again?

The ranch house came into view and as his horse stopped by the hitching rail, Joe slid off the saddle, his legs nearly buckling. Without even tying up his horse, he staggered towards the large front door, his head pounding. Unsteadily he walked in, swaying slightly. Three pairs of eyes looked round.

“Joe!” Ben’s voice yelled, as the young man stumbled forward, his hands taking hold of the back of the settee. The smell of whiskey was obvious to all.

“Joe,” Ben rushed forward and grabbed him by the shoulders. “What’s wrong?”

Joe shook his head and brushed off his fathers’ hands. He staggered again, this time making it to the bottom of the stairs, holding onto the banister rail before unceremoniously sliding onto the floor.

Hoss rushed over, ready to pick up his brother but Joe waved him away.

“Stop right there. Hoss!” Joe yelled, “I can stand up on my own!” He slowly pulled himself up, regaining his footing.

“Joe, why are you so drunk? Did you see David?” said Ben quietly.

Joe spun round, staring at his father. “Oh yes Pa! I saw David. Had all the words ready to say sorry. Sorry I accidentally killed your brother.” Joe began to sway again then stumbled, sitting down on the stairs.

Joe could see the concerned looks on the faces of the three men. “He had something to tell me, though, Pa. Seems it weren’t the accident Adam thought it was. He was there and saw what happened. You want to know what really happened. Pa?” Joe’s voice became louder. “Seems I killed Tim deliberately! I did it deliberate, Pa. Me and my temper! Aimed and fired deliberate, he said! I didn’t just kill him – I murdered him! What do you think of that then?”

Joe stood up and oblivious to the stunned looks on his family’s faces, climbed up the stairs, swaying. No one moved as they heard the foot steps on the top landing and the slamming of a bedroom door.

In stunned silence the three men looked at each other, unable to comprehend what Joe had just said.

“What’s he mean. Pa? Done it deliberate! Joe would never have done nothing like that deliberate!” Hoss cried, his face pale.

Ben looked at his son, shaking his head. Adam was also confused. He remembered what he had seen that day. It had been an accident. He had never thought it could be anything but an accident.

“Why would David tell him it was deliberate? It’s not true,” said Adam, his voice barely above a whisper.

Suddenly there was the sound of a door opening upstairs, and unsteady footsteps. Joe appeared at the top, his bag in his hand. He walked down slowly, the drink still making him stagger but his head clearing.

“What are you doing, Joseph? Where you going?” asked Ben as Joe reached the bottom of the stairs.

“I’m leaving Pa. Got to get away. Sort myself out.” Joe answered, walking towards the front door.

“But Joe, you don’t have to leave. Talk to us, tell us what happened!”

Joe turned round, his eyes now showing anger. “You still don’t get it do you, Pa! I murdered Tim Pike! I may have only been 6 years old, but I committed murder. If it had happened 10 years later, I would have been hung, Pa! What now the son you believe in?”

“No, Joe! I won’t believe it. You would never do that,” yelled his father as he stood in front of his son, Adam and Hoss one pace behind.

“Joe, you can’t leave!” said Ben, grabbing his hand. “This is your home. Whatever happened in the past your place is here!”

Shaking his head, Joe stood his ground. “No, Pa. I don’t deserve to live here. I murdered Tim. How can I be the son you believe in, knowing I did that? How can you still love your little brother, Hoss, knowing what I did?” He looked over to Hoss, whose eyes were filled with sorrow.

He then turned to face his brother Adam. “Knowing what you now know, I bet you wish your bullet and that wolf had finished me off last year at Montpelier Gorge!”* he said, his voice trembling.

Adam stared at his brother, the sudden mention of that terrible day bringing back such painful memories. Before he realized what had happened, he struck Joe on his left cheek with his right palm. Joe stared at his brother, the stinging in his cheek was nothing to the pain he felt in his heart.

“Does that answer your question, Joe?” said Adam, his voice shaky.

Joe stepped back, realizing the hurt and misery he had caused the brother he looked up to and had adored all his life. He turned again towards the door, opening it as his father took him by the arm.

“Joe. Whatever happened in the past, its over. You are my son, my honest, decent and caring son. I still believe in you, Joe, always will; you’ve got to believe that.”

“No, Pa,” said Joe, quietly, “that son has disappeared. I need time to try and find him again.”

Joe walked through the door, closing it behind him. Still feeling nauseous from the whiskey, Joe tied his bag to his saddle, then mounted Cochise, riding away into the cold winters evening.

“Pa, we gotta stop him,” yelled Hoss, his voice full of anguish.

Looking towards the closed door, Ben shook his head. “No Hoss. In that mood, no one could stop him from leaving. What do you suggest? We tie him to his bed, lock the door? No son, give him time to sort himself out. He will only come home when he knows it’s where he wants to be,” Ben said, walking back towards the hearth, his eyes filling with tears.

*****

As soon as he had started to ride away, Joe knew he had made a terrible mistake. It was nearly dark, it was cold and he had no idea where he should go. As usual, his impetuous nature had got the better of him, made the situation worse. Slowing Cochise to a walk, he realized he should not have left home. He should be with his family now, not running away.

He needed to lie down, think out what had been said, what he had done. Again he found himself at the meadow. The full moon cast an eerie glow around making the shadows of the old oak look like arms of a giant stretching after a long sleep.

Riding towards the tree, he dismounted tying Cochise to a branch of the oak. Ducking his head he made his way into the tree house through the hole in the floor, pulling himself inside. It was a tight squeeze, but Joe, being slight and agile, managed to lie full length, his head resting on the far wall. Closing his eyes, he tried to visualize playing in this small space with a boy he had called brother. He shivered in the cold of the night air, his teeth chattering, glad he was wearing his thick winter jacket. The whiskey in his system drugged his senses, and he was soon asleep, exhausted, both in mind and body.

Waking up as the first rays of a weak winter sun filtered through the branches of the oak, Joe felt cold, and his body was stiff from the uncomfortable position he had adopted during the night. His head pounded from the alcohol, his eyes refusing to open to greet the light of the day. In his head, he heard laughter, cruel, continuous and malicious laughter. He shook his head, knowing he was alone. Still the noise continued. He could not understand what was happening. He knew he was awake, was not dreaming, but the laughter continued. He put his hands to his ears but that did nothing to stop the noise, which continued unabated.

Feeling fearful, not knowing what was happening to him, he cautiously opened his eyes, squinting as the rays of light shone through the cracks in the wooden walls of the tree house. Turning his head he found he could see through one particular crack into the meadow, his view unobstructed by branches.

He could see a small boy with blond hair, running in wild abandon amongst the green grass of the meadow, laughing happily. Then the child stopped, his voice silent. He turned and looked at another boy who came into view carrying a bow and arrow. He was laughing, a mean, cruel laugh. He placed the arrow in the bow, and slowly aimed, firing directly at the blond haired boy, who was standing, transfixed. The arrow found its mark, the boy fell, and the marksman stood laughing. An insane laugh without repentance, unworried of any repercussions.

It had taken 18 years but Joe Cartwright had finally filled the black void in his memory. Now he knew Tim Pike had been killed, no, murdered, by his own brother, David! Joe remembered – not everything – but enough. He remembered that day, the games, the happiness, and then the death of his best friend, Tim Pike.

He did not understand why it had suddenly flashed back into his subconscious, though. Was it the effects of the drink, the meeting up with David and his laughter as he had left him in the meadow the day before, or his view from the crack in the wooden wall of the tree house? Maybe it was all of these factors, but remembered he did, every painful and traumatic minute of that day.

He had been in the tree house, had looked through the crack, had seen David kill his brother, then drop the bow, running away, laughing as he did so. Joe had jumped down, walked slowly towards the body of his friend, and stood by the dropped bow. He had seen his dead mother lying on the ground, and now it was his best friend. The trauma was too much. He had started to cry, unable to move, his mind unable to take in all he had seen. He just wanted to forget what he had witnessed.

Then he had felt comforting strong arms holding him, murmuring reassuring words, stroking his hair. His brother Adam had arrived, and so he had buried his face into his thick coat knowing he was now safe. Now he could forget. Adam would look after him, make the pain go away.

Joe suddenly felt sick, his head pounding with the realization of what he now knew. He was neither an accidental nor a deliberate killer. Slowly, he slipped out of the tree house and slid to the ground. His confined sleeping quarters had left his body aching and stiff, and he staggered towards his horse, slowly flexing his arms and legs.

Leaning on Cochise, he looked towards the distant mountains, wondering what he should do now. He took his canteen and drunk the water, spitting out a mouthful to clear the stale taste in his mouth. Emptying water into his hat to give to his faithful horse, he watched as Cochise drank his fill. Replacing his hat on his head, he took a final look up at the tree house, the memories now vivid and clear.

With some feeling of trepidation, he mounted and slowly walked out of the meadow in the direction of Virginia City.

*****

By the time he arrived in Virginia City, Joe could feel the anger within himself ready to explode. Walking into the foyer of the hotel, he quickly looked at the register, noted the number of David Pike’s bedroom, and ran upstairs, the clerk behind the desk watching him silently. Without knocking, Joe opened the door, meeting the startled look of David Pike as he was packing his small case.

“Why Little Joe, come to say goodbye?” David said, regaining his composure.

Joe stepped forward, hatred showing on his face. David looked at him, slightly confused at his stance.

“I know David! I finally know what you did that day. You killed Tim.”

“What you talking about? I told you what happened. It was you!”

Joe shook his head. “No use lying. I finally remembered this morning. Saw it all, just as it took place. You fired that arrow, on purpose, deliberate. Why? Why kill your own brother?”

Dave smirked cruelly, sitting down on his bed. “So you finally remembered, eh? Now you remember me and my little brother. You want to know why? I’ll tell you why! I hated him! HATED HIM!”

David’s voice rose, and then he began to laugh, the malicious, cruel laugh Joe remembered from so long ago, only this time it was edged with madness.

“What do you mean? How could you hate your own brother that much?”

The cruel smile on David’s face continued as he went on. “I hated him because he killed my mother. The only person I ever loved and he killed her. I heard the doctor talking to my Pa. Told him my Ma would never survive having this baby. And she didn’t. She died, and he lived. I never forgave him for that. Just bided my time waiting for the right moment.”

Shaking his head in disbelief, Joe stared at the man in front of him. “You’re mad! That wouldn’t have been Tim’s fault.”

“No! He killed her, and I killed him back. Uncle Matt saw what I did, though, and it was your brother Adam gave me the perfect alibi! He told him it must have been a tragic accident while you and Tim were playing.”

Joe clenched his fists, as he realized he was listening to a mad man.

“That’s why I went to Kansas. In case you remembered. He didn’t want his nephew being tried for murdering his own brother, so he just sent me away. Probably scared in case I would try and kill you too!”

At last Joe understood why Henderson would look at him so oddly when they had met. He was forever worried Joe would remember who the real killer had been.

David stood up, his mad laugh echoing around the room. As David started to repack his bag, Joe pulled out his gun and pointed it at him. David looked at the gun, and then up at the face of Joe which was twisted with grief and anger at what he had just heard.

“You wanted me to think I had killed Tim deliberate. Why, David? What made you do that? If you had said nothing, I would never have remembered the truth!”

“Never did like the way you and Tim got on so well together. The brother I hated and his ‘blood brother’. Just wanted you to be as miserable as I had been after my mother had died.”

David shut his bag shut, ignoring the gun pointing at him. “What you gonna do, Joe? Kill me? Guess the sheriff wouldn’t think it was an accident, seeing as I don’t wear a gun.” With that, David opened up his coat. True enough, there was no firearm hanging from his hips.

“You deserve to be punished for what you did. I owe that much to Tim,” said Joe as he pursed his lips in disgust at the man, his gun still pointed at him, his finger itching to pull the trigger.

“You think so? What you gonna do then? Report it to the sheriff? Something that happened nearly 20 years ago! I was barely 12 years old. Think I would have to stand trial now? With no witnesses, who would believe that I would want to kill my own little brother? Who would really care?”

“I would care,” whispered Joe, as he felt his fingers tightening.

David threw back his head and chuckled menacingly. “Seems to me it would be your word against mine.” The sarcastic tone of his voice was not lost on Joe.

Joe slowly replaced his gun in its holster. He wanted to avenge the death of Tim, but he could not stoop to the level of this madman who was stood in front of him.

David took his bag and walked over to the door, watching Joe who stood by the bed. “It was fun while it lasted Joe, but now is the time for me to catch the stage, leave this place and make a new start in California. Let’s hope our paths never cross again. Good bye, Little Joe.”

David walked out of the room, his mad, cruel and inhuman laugh resonating down the stairs and out into the street.

Joe sat on the bed, knowing what David had said was true. There was nothing he could do to stop him. Though he now knew he was innocent of any crime, accidental or deliberate, he felt sick to the stomach and utterly wretched.

Outside he heard the rumble of horses and the sound of wheels as the stagecoach arrived in town. Walking over to the window, the figure of David Pike could be seen climbing onto the stage, the only passenger that day. After a few minutes the stage left, Joe watching as it disappeared around a corner and out of sight.

Taking a deep breath he left the room and made his way outside into the busy street. The temptation to follow the stage was strong, but Joe knew he had a more important place to go. Home!

After his outburst the night before, his father and brothers would be worried, not knowing where he had gone. There was much to tell them, and apologies to make. With this thought in his mind, he mounted Cochise and rode towards the Ponderosa.

*****

Joe returned home ready to apologize for his behavior the night before, but his family were so relieved to have him back safely, they would not let him say a word. His news about David’s confession was heard with surprise, his family completely dumfounded. Happy and relieved that Joe was innocent of any crime, life on the Ponderosa settled down into a peaceful routine once again.

A week later, a quietly contemplating Joe Cartwright could be found sitting on his horse, looking across the meadow. Late November had produced a small covering of snow during the night which still lay undisturbed on the ground. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful, a far cry from the tragic playground of two small boys. Still coming to terms with his rediscovered memories, he had been remembering snatches of the past, of two small boys playing happily here in the meadow. Recalling Tim’s death on that fateful day saddened him deeply, but he felt the ache in his heart slowly lessening.

Joe had been out since first light, leaving the Ponderosa before his family had come down for breakfast. As he stared towards the old oak, he heard the sound of hooves in the snow behind him. He looked round and a familiar horse and rider came into view.

Adam pulled up alongside the pinto.

Joe felt slightly nervous. This was the first time he had been alone with his brother since his return the week before. His outburst at Adam had never been mentioned but Joe knew he had hurt his brother deeply.

Joe met Adam’s eyes then looked away.

“Where you been all day, Joe? Not like you to be the first up and out,” Adam asked as he too looked towards the oak tree. “Pa has been worried about you.”

Joe smiled gently. Ever since he had told his family about David’s confession, he knew his father and brothers had been worried. Worried he would set out on a trail of vengeance and try to find and kill David.

“Just Pa, Adam? Or are the three of you thinking I am going to high-tail it over to California and get even with David?”

“Well, it’s the kind of impetuous thing you have been known to do, you know.” Adam answered.

Joe chuckled. “Maybe once I might have, but not this time.” His voice was quiet. Smiling at his brother, he looked again at the tree. “I had some business in Virginia City.” he added. “Then I went to see Sheriff Coffee. Decided to tell him about David, and his confession. At least he now knows I didn’t do anything.”

Adam nodded, staring at the stark beauty of the landscape, remembering his own sad memories of the meadow.

Joe broke the silence. “Do you believe in divine intervention, Adam?”

Adam looked across at his brother, surprised at such a question. “Well Joe, can’t say I’ve thought much about it. Why?”

With a deep sigh, Joe continued. “After I told Sheriff Coffee about David and what he had done, he asked me if David had caught the San Francisco stage last week. I said yes. He then gave me a wire he had just received. There had been a bad rock fall up through the high pass. Stagecoach was caught up in it. Driver managed to scramble clear, and the horses escaped. The one fatality was the single male passenger who was carried to his death down a ravine by the rocks. His body was never recovered but they found his name on a letter from the Virginia City bank in his bag. That’s why Sheriff Coffee was informed in case there was next of kin living here.”

“David?” said Adam

“Yeah. David,” answered Joe. There was silence for a moment. “He escaped justice in a court of law for what he did to Tim, but it looks like the Lord Almighty decided he wasn’t going to escape heavenly punishment.”

Adam nodded in silence, inwardly relieved. There would be no thought of vengeance now. “This is going to be a fine meadow for those new horses Joe.” he said, looking around.

Joe nodded.

“You going to pull down the tree house?” asked Adam, as he viewed its dim outline through the snow-covered branches.

Shaking his head, Joe smiled. “No way, older brother! That’s gonna stay there as a fitting testament to one hell of a tree house architect and builder!”

Adam looked at him and smiled back. “Thanks, Joe.”

“No, Adam. Thank you,” answered Joe as his voice became serious. “I can remember little things now from the time I knew Tim. Not everything we did, but some of the fun things. I can vaguely put a face to a name.” He put his hand across and took hold of his brother’s arm. “One thing I do remember though is my older brother who took care of me, soothed and comforted me when I needed him. I got a lot to thank you for, Adam, and you didn’t deserve what I said to you last week, about when I got shot last year. For that, I am deeply sorry.”

Adam put his free hand on Joe’s hand and squeezed it. “I know, Joe. It was just the whiskey talking. I’m sorry I slapped you. Guess we’re even, eh?”

Joe smiled at his brother knowing their relationship was again as solid as ever.

With a deep sigh, Adam shivered. “Well little brother, you coming home for some warm food, or were you thinking of sitting here all day?”

“Oh, I’m ready to go home, big brother.” Joe said. He turned around and with a mischievous grin yelled, “Last one home does the other’s chores!” With that, he kicked Cochise on, galloping back towards the Ponderosa ranch, yelling with laughter as he disappeared into the distance. “Come on Adam! You gonna race me?”

Laughing loudly Adam took up his reins, and kicked on his horse following in the younger man’s tracks. Two brothers going home!

*****

Anyone who visited the Virginia City Cemetery would notice a newly replaced headstone at the head of a small child’s grave. Its inscription read:

Timothy Pike
1842-1848
Brother Forever to Little Joe Cartwright
Rest in Peace

***The End***

* Action taken from “My Brothers Keeper”

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