To Kill A Brother (by Doreen)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  17, 150


The hour was late and there was a bite of early winter in the night air as the full moon cast an eerie glow across the autumnal Nevada landscape. Away in the distance, within the vast forest of pine, an old male timber wolf howled mournfully towards its pack; the sorrowful howl caused a lone horseman to shiver involuntarily at the sound as he walked his mount slowly into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch.

Trail-weary and saddle-sore after a month away, Joe Cartwright sighed with muted elation to be home at last.

With several experienced wranglers, he’d driven a large herd of horses south to Arizona and made a handsome profit on the sale of prime saddle-broke horseflesh to the southwestern-based U.S. Army. He and the ranch hands had then made good time on the return journey, arriving back much earlier than anticipated after their long arduous trek across mountains and desert. As the outskirts of Virginia City loomed into view, Joe had been sorely tempted to immediately start drinking away some of his hard earned wages by way of a raucous nights’ celebration of return in the infamous Bucket of Blood saloon.

But on reflection, Joe shook his head and decided against the idea. In truth, he was tired in body and mind, and for once in no hurry for a beer, a game of poker or female companionship. Instead, after seemingly endless nights of sleeping on the hard cold ground with just a single blanket for warmth, the lure of his soft bed for the first time in a long time proved too much for him. So Joe parted ways with a wave of thanks towards his men, watching them as they disappeared whooping and hollering with excited anticipation of the entertainment to come. Then under the pale glimmer of moonlight, he turned and moved off alone in the direction of home.

With the recognizable outline of the house before him, Joe reined to a stop and gave his stalwart mount a grateful pat, more than thankful for Cochise’s surefootedness on the past weeks grueling journey. “You did a good job, old friend,” he crooned quietly, leaning over to lovingly stroke the black and white neck. “I’ll make sure you get a well-earned break.”

The horse tossed his mane and quivered a response, seemingly as relieved as his master to be back to the familiar safe haven he knew so well as Joe dismounted and led him past several dozing horses in the corral. Then once in the barn, the pinto nickered a friendly greeting towards a napping Buck, Sport and Chubb, who lifted their heads and viewed the late arrival with equine curiosity for a few moments before closing their eyes once again.

Joe guided his mount into its stall and, removing the tack, quickly saw to his horses’ needs. Once finished, he slapped a week’s worth of trail dust from his clothes as he made his way across the yard, then paused for a moment as he was about to open the front door, feeling a slight degree of trepidation at the reception he may well receive inside. Joe winced at the thought. After all, his parting words to his brothers had not been ones to be proud of, he inwardly mused with a regretful sigh.

Throughout most of his twenty-four years, the youngest Cartwright had always felt an illogical need to prove his worth on the ranch as he followed in Adam and Hoss’ well-defined footsteps. Time and time again there was some kind of conflict between them when Joe thought he was being babied unnecessarily by his siblings, often mistaking good-intentioned help for interference when he’d been set many a task.

And even though his brothers could always be relied on to help when needed, the lessons learned over time were somehow forgotten again when Joe secured the lucrative deal with the Army and took on sole responsibility to plan and make the journey to Tucson.

Life on the Ponderosa had become fraught with nervous tension for days as once again Joe gave short shrift to any well-meaning suggestions and concerns from his elder brothers about the trip, always assuming the looks between them was silent criticism of every decision he’d made.

Even the last few words of advice from Adam and Hoss had been met with cynical suspicion and Joe’s only response a string of colorful expletives whispered through clenched teeth but still audible to all standing in the yard — his father included — as he rode away.

Although this time there’d been no unforeseen crisis or setback with his plans, Joe inwardly cringed at the memory of his unnecessary foul language and ungracious manner towards his brothers as he quietly entered the house, cautiously taking a moment to gaze around. Apart from the ticking of the grandfather clock, the room was silent and seemingly deserted. It was obvious everyone was in bed and Joe blew out his cheeks with relief. There’d be no confrontation that night!

However, there was the welcoming light of a single lamp on a side table and the glowing embers from a dying fire that continued to throw out some degree of heat. So after hanging up his jacket on a spare peg and placing his hat and gun belt on the credenza, Joe walked over to the hearth. Thankfully warming his hands until hardly able to stay upright any longer, he sank down wearily onto the settee and stretched out his legs before planting his boots firmly on the coffee table.

Although he was not looking forward to facing Adam and Hoss, it still felt good to be home again, Joe mused, imagining the look of relief and surprise on his father’s face when he found him returned a few days ahead of schedule. Knowing the absence of any one of his sons from the ranch for any length of time was always a continual worry, for a moment Joe was tempted to head straight upstairs and wake his Pa up to put his mind at ease. But now comfortable and settled, Joe decided against the idea, instead happy to wait until breakfast before announcing his arrival back within the family fold.

The clock suddenly began striking midnight, and as Joe stretched and yawned, across the room in a darkened corner a figure sitting in a high backed armchair was stirred from slumber by the noise of the chimes.

Ben Cartwright rubbed his face with his hands and then his brown eyes misted slightly with unashamed joy as he took in the sight of his tousled-haired and sweat -stained youngest for a few moments before noiselessly rising from his chair. “Joseph! It’s good to have you back son,” he smiled warmly, making no effort to hide the fact he was thrilled to see him once again.

Visibly surprised, Joe jumped in his seat, quickly whipping his feet off the table and turning to give his father a wide eyed stare. “Pa? You scared me half to death! What on earth are you doing up at this hour? I thought you’d have been in bed hours ago!”

Fighting an inner urge to smother Joe in a bear hug as he used to do when his son was a young child, Ben restrained himself. Instead, easing down and ignoring the wrinkled shirt and stubbly chin, Ben’s voice lowered emotionally and he just gave Joe’s leg a gentle pat. “I had a feeling you’d be coming back tonight so I thought I’d wait up to welcome you home. Did you have a good trip?”

Beaming a self-satisfied grin, Joe nodded his head. “I don’t know why I’d been so worried beforehand as everything went much better than I’d expected.” He raised a questioning eyebrow. “But why on earth would you think I’d be returning tonight, Pa? None of us expected to get back for at least another four days and it was only because of fair weather we managed it at all.”

“Let’s just say I had a hunch you’d be turning up earlier than you said. It’s a feeling I’ve had about my boys a few times over the years and it’s never failed me yet!”

Joe chuckled. “I might have known you’d have one of your premonitions,” he answered. His father’s supposed intuitiveness as far as his sons were concerned had been a standing joke amongst the Cartwright brothers for as long as he could remember.

Joe pointed upwards where a very familiar snoring could be heard emanating loudly above their heads from behind a bedroom door. “By the sounds of it, someone didn’t believe in your gut feeling and think it worth staying up to greet his little brother tonight.”

Ben shook his head in a genial way. “Hoss tried hard to convince me there was no point waiting up as you couldn’t possibly get back from Tucson before the end of the week. He even laid a bet with me on that very fact. And I must admit, the later it got tonight, the more I thought he was right! Though I’m glad I stayed up as you’re truly a sight for sore eyes…if not a slightly dirty-faced one. By the looks of it, you’ve eaten more than your fair share of trail dust lately!”

Joe grinned as he brushed a hand across his grubby cheeks as though in an attempt to clean them. However, his effort didn’t make much difference.

“Never mind, son, you’ll soon wash up clean,” Ben chuckled. “And at least you’ve got back before the weather changes. There’s been a real chill in the air over the past few days and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t get some early snow.”

Joe’s face fell. “Guess that means we’ll have to think about bringing the beef stock down from the top meadows before the month is out. And just when I thought I’d finished with herding livestock for a long while,” he grumbled and gave an involuntary shudder at the thought.

“Don’t worry about the cattle, Joe. Your brothers brought them down a few days ago, so that’s one round up you’re not going to have to worry about.”

A smile of appreciation flickered across Joe’s face; then his expression noticeably changed and he eyed his father hesitatingly. “After the way I behaved towards them before I left, I reckon Adam and Hoss won’t be too glad to see me back. They didn’t deserve me ranting and raving at them for no good reason but it’s like there’s something inside me, always pushing to prove to you all that I can.…”

Ben held up a hand to interrupt, more than aware of Joe’s apprehension and anxiety to complete the drive successfully on his own. “None of us have ever doubted your ability for one minute, no matter how you may have thought different,” he answered softly. “And as for your brothers, their only intention was to try and help.”

“After all those hours on the trail with nothing much to think about, I managed to work that out for myself pretty quick,” Joe said. He took a deep breath as he warily held his father’s gaze. “Any chance they’ve forgiven me yet?”

Behind Joe’s hazel eyes was a definite haze of troubled remorse. Many wouldn’t have seen it, but the astute father did. Ben’s weathered face gave a soft smile and he placed his arm affectionately around his shoulder. He could feel the tension in his son’s muscles as he gave a gentle squeeze. “There was nothing to forgive, Joe. They understood the stress you were under and what was said between the three of you has been long forgotten by them both. So let’s not say another word about it.”

Joe’s body visibly relaxed at the news. Ben paused and studied his son’s tired-lined face more closely with slight concern. It was obvious the strain he’d been under and his heart went out to him. “You look dead beat, son.”

Joe sniffed a little self-consciously and raised his head. “To be truthful, I feel dead beat, Pa,” he admitted with a weak smile. “Reckon I’m getting too old for all this ranch work.”

Ben smiled and leaned back in his seat as Joe moved forwards as if to stand. “After eating nothing but beans and dried jerky for the past few days, I’ve been looking forward to some of Hop Sing’s cooking,” Joe announced. “I’m just hoping Hoss left something from supper for once.”

Keen to wait on his son, Ben gently pushed an obviously exhausted Joe back down. “You stay put. I’m sure I can find some tiny morsels your brother missed.”

Within a few minutes, Ben returned with a tray containing a mug of steaming coffee, a plate full of cold chicken, potatoes, and slices of fresh bread. He placed it on the dining table and pulled out his chair, then sat down. Joe eased up, and on the way to the kitchen to wash his hands, he passed over a piece of paper from his shirt pocket.

Ben looked down at the bank draft made out in his name for a few seconds and gave a quiet whistle of appreciation. “This is far more than we’d expected. You must have driven a hard bargain with the US Cavalry!”

Joe grunted with satisfaction as he returned to the table and sat down. “After Major Williams said they were the best quality horses he’d seen in years, I knew I could set my own price. And he didn’t quibble. Even wants us to supply him with more next fall.”

Ben nodded, clearly impressed, then folded the draft carefully and placed it on the sideboard behind him. “Now get that food eaten and you can tell me all about your journey once you’ve finished.”

With a thankful smile, Joe began to eat. There was a companionable silence between father and son until, minutes later, after swallowing down the last dregs in his mug and pushing his empty plate aside, Joe gave a deep sigh of contentment. “That sure was worth giving up a night in town for.”

Ben remained seated and let out a loud involuntary yawn as Joe moved back to the settee and made himself comfortable again. Turning his head towards his father, Joe smiled. “Why don’t you turn in, Pa? We can talk in the morning when we’ve both had a good night’s sleep.”

Ben eyed him with an appreciative nod as he rose from his chair. “Good idea son. But aren’t you aiming on going to bed yet?”

Joe shook his head and raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Think I’ll stay up a while and work out what I can do to make amends with Adam and Hoss before they try to kill me,” he joked. “If nothing else, they deserve some sort of apology, even if it’s only a free beer!”

“I’m sure they’d appreciate any little gesture, though to be safe, I’d make it two,” Ben advised, his brown eyes twinkling with amusement as he stood in front of his son. “And don’t feel obliged to get up early in the morning. Stay in bed for as long as you want.”

Joe met his father’s gaze and his mouth dropped open in shock. “Really, Pa? You’re not going to let Hoss throw water over me to get me up for breakfast?”

The corner of Ben’s mouth twitched. “No Joe, not this time. Don’t want to risk another broken window.”

Joe smiled at the memory of the many panes of glass that had been ordered and broken over and over for various reasons during the course of a few days several months before.

“Besides,” Ben continued, “I think you deserve a late morning after all your hard work these past weeks. Don’t you?”

Joe grinned in delight at the unexpected treat. “Sure do. Thanks Pa.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Ben said and moved away as if to bed. But he’d only taken a couple of paces when he abruptly stopped and turned as a thought came to him. “You’ve had some mail, Joe,” he announced, pointing over towards a small white envelope which was propped up in a rack on his desk. “It arrived here a couple of days ago.”

“A letter for me?” Joe followed his father’s gaze and let out a loud disinterested yawn. “Well, I’m not expecting anything important but whatever it is will have to wait until the morning before I read it. I can barely keep my eyes open at the moment.”

Ben’s face softened with affection and he gave a slight nod of understanding. “Don’t be too long before you come up. You don’t want to be falling asleep down here on your first night back.”

The young man smiled. “I won’t. I’ve been looking forward to sleeping in my own bed since the day I left, so even wild horses won’t keep me from it tonight.”

Ben nodded, his eyes tender. “It’s good to have you home, Joe. Good night.”

Joe gave a heartfelt sigh of agreement. “It’s good to be back home, Pa,” he acknowledged and watched until Ben disappeared from view. Moments later, an upstairs door quietly opened and closed.

Minutes passed as Joe continued to sit and stare almost hypnotically at the dying embers, his thoughts on his brothers and what a jerk he’d been. His eyes grew heavier and heavier within their sockets until they closed, overtaken by fatigue. His chin drooped to rest on his chest until suddenly he raised his head up with a start.

Knowing if he didn’t move right at that moment he would be fast asleep where he sat, Joe slowly pushed up from the settee. In the pale flickering light given off from the fire and lamp, he made his way towards the stairs. But as his foot rested on the first step, Joe turned his head and his tired eyes focused on the correspondence lying over on the desk. His curiosity had finally got the better of him.

Stretching out his arms and arching out the kinked muscles in his shoulders and back as he walked across the room, Joe picked up the envelope, and with the tip of his thumb nail, slit it open and pulled out the contents.

If Ben had been watching as his son focused on the single sheet of paper, he’d have seen him frown then visibly pale as he began to read. Tiredness now forgotten, Joe re-read every word of the letter again.

Emotional scars that were buried deep a few years ago quickly surfaced in a rush, and with pain in his eyes Joe shuddered at the memories. He raked a hand through his hair as his mind raced frantically, trying to fathom out what he should do next. His loyalties were now painfully divided, but deep-down in his heart, Joe knew he had no choice. So with his decision made, he placed the letter back into the envelope and stuffed it into his shirt pocket.

Taking a moment to open the safe, Joe helped himself to several twenty dollar bills. Then he pulled out a piece of paper from a drawer, picked up a pencil and began to write. Once his note was finished, Joe laid the sheet out on top of the desk and sighed despairingly, hoping his father would understand. But that was something to worry about in the future….if he had a future.

With his thoughts still in turmoil and his conscience at leaving in such an underhand way plaguing him, Joe made his way to the credenza and strapped on his gun belt. He turned and looked back into the room and up the stairs. “Sorry, Pa,” he whispered in a choked voice. Then collecting up his jacket and hat, he opened the door before disappearing into the night.

*****

Ben was pouring out his first cup of coffee of the day as Hoss meandered down the stairs, whistling a happy though nondescript tune.

“Morning Pa,” Hoss called, obviously in a good mood as he pulled out a chair and sat down. “Was that Adam I heard going out through the front door a few minutes ago?”

Ben nodded. “He went out to feed the stock just as I was coming down the stairs. You know how he likes to get that chore done before he starts on his breakfast.”

Hoss shook his head and frowned in puzzlement. “Never could see the sense of that. There’s no way I could concentrate on anything first thing in the morning till I’ve filled my stomach.”

Ben chuckled as he watched Hoss help himself to several slices of ham then began to devour them two at a time. “We’ve noticed, son,” he smiled. “By the way, you owe me some money.”

Swallowing down the contents in his mouth, Hoss cocked his head and raised an eyebrow quizzically. “I do? How come?”

Ben looked pointedly up the stairs and beamed a grin as he held out a hand. “Your little brother came home late last night just as I told you he would. And I seem to remember you betting me five dollars he wouldn’t, so come on, son – pay up!”

Hoss frowned, perplexed. “Joe? I don’t understand, Pa. If he’s back, where is he?”

“What do you mean where is he? He’s up in his bed and no waking him up. I told Joe he could sleep late this morning without being disturbed.”

Shaking his head, Hoss continued to look over in confusion. “Sorry but there ain’t no sign of Joe in his room, Pa. I made a point of looking in and nothing has been touched and his bed definitely ain’t been slept in. You sure you’ve not been dreamin’?”

Ben looked over indignantly. “No, I haven’t been dreaming. I was talking to your brother at this very table last night, just as I am with you now!”

He could see from his face Hoss wasn’t convinced, so Ben leaned over and picked up the Army bank draft he’d left on the sideboard several hours before. He passed it over for him to read. “Now do you believe me?” he queried as he watched his son’s eyes widen in surprise. “How else would I have this if Joe hadn’t handed it to me in person?”

Pursing his lips tight, Hoss nodded. “I agree, but that don’t answer the question. If Joe ain’t in his bed, where is he? Can’t imagine my little brother volunteering to start work early after being away for all these weeks, can you?”

Before Ben could answer, the front door slammed shut and Adam appeared. “Hey, Pa,” he said as he made his way to the table, “I see Joe got back but it also looks like we’ve had us a one-horse horse thief in the night. That sorrel mare has gone from the corral.”

“Well, it ain’t the only thing that’s been misplaced,” Hoss remarked with a puzzled frown. “Little brother has disappeared as well. Ain’t any sight or sound of him anywhere!”

“But Cochise is in the barn so he can’t have gone far.” Adam then turned his head towards the door. “Mind you, there’s no sign of his coat and hat. You reckon Joe’s gone off somewhere and taken the missing horse?”

Ben rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Seems the logical conclusion, Adam, but when Joe got back last night, he made no mention of going anywhere when I was talking to him. In fact, he was looking forward to sleeping late.”

“So what could have happened to change his mind?” Hoss queried, though not to anyone in particular.

Adam intuitively looked across the room. “I see the letter Joe received is missing from the letter rack, so he must have read it. But there’s something else on your desk, Pa. Maybe it’s a note explaining what’s going on.” He walked over, and after a quick glance at the familiar handwriting, handed the single sheet straight to his father.

Ben quickly read the contents, and as he placed the paper down on the table, his expression took on a fearful look.

Hoss stared at him, bewildered. “What’s wrong, Pa? What does the note say?”

Ben passed it over. Adam stood behind his brother as they both read the scrawled out message.

Pa.

I’m sorry to leave like this but something important has come up and I’ve got to go away. I’ve borrowed some money from the safe as I’m aiming to catch the stage to Wyoming at first light. I’ll take one of the horses from the corral and leave it at the livery in Carson. Can’t tell you how long I’m going to be but please don’t worry.

Joe

Hoss’ eyes narrowed with confusion and flashed worriedly between father and elder brother. “Wyoming? Why the heck is Joe going several hundred miles to Wyoming in such a hurry?”

Ben buried his face in his hands as a great feeling of intuitive foreboding flooded though his body. Dear God, he thought, this can’t be happening. Not the one thing I’ve been dreading after all this time.

Feeling a hand on his shoulder, Ben looked up to see Adam eyeing him questioningly.

“I’m sensing you know the reason why he’s gone,” Adam said softly.

Ben let out a deep sigh. “Yes Adam, I reckon I do,” he finally answered in a despairing tone. “And it’s not so much why but who he’s gone to.”

Hoss exchanged a worrying glance with Adam then looked back at his father, his expression grim. “I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

Ben clenched his fists tight in an effort to control his emotions. “Clay. Joe must have gone to meet Clay.”

There was a few moments stunned silence. “Clay? You reckon that letter was from Clay Stafford?”

Ben gave a forlorn sigh. “I’m afraid I do, Adam. Can’t think of anyone else Joe would rush off to see at a moment’s notice without letting us know in case we tried to stop him. After all, Clay is his brother and….”

With anger clearly showing on his face, Hoss banged his fist down hard on the table. “Dadburn it, we’re his brothers too, Pa! Joe should be here with us and not trailing off to Wyoming!” he spat bitterly, cutting short what he father was about to say. “No one has heard a word from Stafford since he left, so why write now after all the trouble he caused that last time? It took months for Joe to get over him leaving, and I ain’t talking about those bruises and cracked ribs he suffered when he was beat up either!”

Ben leaned back in his chair as the memory of his inconsolable youngest crying in his arms the day Stafford left the ranch for good flashed into his mind.

“Well if you’re right, Pa, whatever Stafford wrote in that letter was enough to get Joe to leave without a second thought about us,” Adam added with a hint of resentment. “So what shall we do now? Go after him?”

Adam’s brusque query brought Ben out of his private reverie. He shook his head. “Much as I hate saying it, there’s nothing we can do. Joe’s a grown man and must have his reasons to leave the way he did. We’ve just got to respect his decision. Besides, there isn’t another stage going east until late next week, and by the time we arrived in Wyoming, we’d have no way of knowing which way he’d gone.”

Ben took a deep swallow. “I’m afraid we’re just going to have to trust Joseph to find his way home when he’s ready.”

“You don’t think Joe’s gonna stay with Stafford and head off for Mexico like he’d threatened the last time? He is gonna come home, ain’t he, Pa?” Hoss asked in a worried tone.

The sob of emotion in Hoss’ voice was clear to all, and Ben stared at the fear-filled expression on his broad face for several long moments. “I don’t know, son,” he finally answered, acute misery filling his being. “I wish to God I did, but I really don’t know.”

*****

After several days uncomfortable travel on the Overland Stage, Joe finally arrived at Fort Bridger, a bustling settlement situated on the southwestern corner of Wyoming Territory.

Straightaway he found his way to the nearest store, deciding to buy a new shirt. For he willingly conceded, after wearing the same one for so long, he was sure it would soon crawl off his back under its own steam. He also treated himself to a quick bath and shave at one of the municipal bathhouses. Feeling reasonably human once again, Joe followed the mouth-watering aroma of fried bacon and ended up at a small café where he ate his fill.

Eager to continue on his journey and knowing the next scheduled stage wasn’t due to leave for another three days, Joe walked down to the end of the main street where one of the town’s livery stables were located. He checked out several horses and negotiated a deal with the whisky-smelling owner on a white faced chestnut which caught his eye, plus tack. Paying over the amount agreed, he asked for directions. It wasn’t long before Joe was in the saddle again and heading on the last leg of his journey.

Although a bitterly cold wind continually whipped up around him, Joe’s mount ate up the miles at a steady pace as he followed the course of the Bear River. Eventually the light of day faded and night descended. Then suddenly a town which bore the river’s name could just be seen in the distance. But instead of riding on, Joe followed the instructions in the letter and veered to ride along a wagon-rutted track for a couple of miles until he reined to a stop.

Set in a clearing at the side of the road was a small cabin which clearly had seen better days. One window had been boarded up and paint on the walls was flaking off in large chunks. It was a far cry from the Ponderosa ranch house, and if it wasn’t for smoke drifting out of a chimney, he’d have thought the place deserted.

Apprehensively and not a little nervously, Joe called out a greeting. There were a few moments of dragging silence, then the front door creaked open.

Even in the gloom, Joe could see a rifle barrel pointing out towards him and his left hand instinctively went to grab at his own gun. However, he was immediately stilled by instruction from within the cabin. “Keep your hands clear of your sidearm or I’ll shoot you dead. Now state your business.”

Straightaway Joe knew it wasn’t an idle threat, but even though years had passed, the muffled voice was instantly recognizable and he inwardly sighed. Thank God, he wasn’t too late. His brother was still alive.

“Clay, it’s me. Joe. Joe Cartwright.”

A rusty hinge creaked as the door opened wider and a figure silhouetted by the light of a lamp inside appeared in the doorway, though the rifle still trained out in a menacing fashion. “Joe? Is…is that really you?” The tone was faltering and incredulous.

“Yes it’s really me,” Joe answered, a faint smile on his lips. “Now are you going to let me dismount or is it your intention to shoot me off my horse?”

Suddenly the rifle was propped up inside and Clay Stafford emerged from the shadows, looking at Joe in complete amazement. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Dismounting and tying his horse to a hitching pole, Joe turned and closed the gap between them. “I was expecting a slightly warmer reception from my brother after all this time,” he said with a smile as he stared at his mother’s first born, noting apart from a few graying hairs Clay hadn’t changed at all.

Beaming a warm, affectionate and brotherly smile back, Clay placed both hands on Joe’s shoulders, studying his face keenly as if still unable to believe who stood before him. “It’s good to see you again, Joe. But how did you know where to find me?”

Joe gave a huff of incredulity at the question. “How do you think? I followed the directions in your letter.”

A sudden look of bewilderment flashed across Clay’s face as he backed away a pace. “What letter? I don’t know what you’re talking about, Joe. I haven’t sent you any letter.”

“No, but I did.”

A female voice sounded out from within the cabin and a pretty woman in her late twenties suddenly came into view. “I wrote the letter and signed it in your name, Clay,” she admitted in a fearless tone as she pushed away a stray wisp of honey-blonde hair from her cheek. “I had to. You’ve been so bull-headed about refusing to move on, I had to get someone here. The one person I hoped might be able to talk some sense into that thick skull of yours.”

Clay shook his head and swore under his breath. “Of all people, I didn’t want my brother involved in any of this,” he murmured, his face now clouded angrily. “And you know the reason why I’m not running away from Brennan. Haven’t I explained it enough?”

The sound of the name caused a brief flash of panic to creep into the woman’s eyes, then, as quickly, it vanished. “You’ve explained but I still don’t understand,” she fired back. Without another word, she turned her gaze on Joe. She stared at him for a moment, genuine delight at seeing him lighting up her face as she extended a hand. “Hello, Mr. Cartwright. I’m Hannah and you don’t know how glad I am to meet you at last. I’ve heard such a lot about you from Clay.”

Joe politely took hold of the slightly callused fingers, warming to Hannah immediately as he held her welcoming blue eyed gaze. “Not all bad, I hope. And please, just call me Joe.”

Hannah gave a faint smile. “No. Not all bad, Joe. But won’t you come in? You must be cold and hungry after your long ride. And I have to apologize for Clay’s initial greeting with the rifle. We don’t get visitors out here and my husband has to be very cautious these days, with all that’s going on.”

“Husband?” Joe squeaked in astonishment as he stared over at his brother questioningly. “You got married?”

However, before Clay could answer, Joe felt a hand around his arm and he was hustled inside. Immediately given a seat at a small table, Joe took off his hat and quickly looked about him. The cabin was sparse but clean — a couple of fireside chairs in front of a blazing fire, a kitchen in a side alcove and one bedroom curtained off at the rear.

Clay followed and bolted the door before sitting in one of the chairs by the hearth. A bowl was stew was set in front of Joe and a spoon pushed into his hand. “Eat,” Hannah instructed firmly but with a kindly smile. “It’s freshly caught rabbit.”

Although his mind was filled with unanswered questions, after ten hours in the saddle, Joe was too ravenous to argue, so without a word of protest he complied.

Hannah poured out mugs of coffee for everyone, then sat down opposite her husband. They sipped at their drinks; there was an uncomfortable and tense silence until Joe swallowed down the last spoonful of meat and potatoes. He gave a satisfying sigh. “Thank you. I’ve never tasted better,” he said, giving Hannah an appreciative smile as she moved towards him and cleared away the empty bowl.

“May I see the letter now? Joe?” Clay then asked. Straightaway, Joe pulled out the badly- creased envelope from his pocket and passed it over.

Clay sighed, the corner of his mouth curving into a smile as he read the words written in his name. “One thing about my wife,” he admitted with no trace of condemnation in his voice as he gave her a tender look of affection. “She never holds back on the truth.”

Hannah returned her husband’s gaze but remained silent as she sat back down in her chair.

“So the situation is just as Hanna wrote?” Joe asked. “This Brennan fella is coming with several hired guns to kill you?”

With no show of emotion on his face, Clay nodded.

“Good job I got here in time to help you then.”

Returning the letter into his hand, Clay purposely ignored Joe’s comment and just gave him a thoughtful stare as he watched him re-fold the paper and place it back in the envelope. “I can’t believe Ben gave you his blessing to meet up with me, especially knowing about Brennan and what he intends to do.”

Joe shrugged nonchalantly as he stuffed the letter back in his shirt. “The letter said your life was in danger, so how could I not come?” Slumping back into his chair, he then gave a wry smile. “Besides, to be honest, Pa doesn’t know the half of it. He has no idea I was meeting up with you. I just left a note saying I had to leave straightaway and head for Wyoming. Even went in the middle of the night before he had a chance to try and stop me.”

Clay stared at him, mortified. “Why on earth did you have to go and do a foolhardy stunt like that, Joe? All your family is going to be worried sick about you if they don’t know where you are!”

Joe’s smile quickly faded. “I know,” he replied regretfully. “But it’s too late to worry about that now. I’m here and will just have to face the consequences later.”

Clay sighed and shook his head, then reached over onto the mantelpiece and picked up a small item which lay on the top. “Remember this?” he asked as he handed it over.

It was a silver framed photograph of Marie, the one Joe had given his brother when they’d parted ways. Joe looked at the beautiful smiling face of their mother for a few moments then handed it back. “I’m glad you kept it.”

Clay nodded. “I owe Ben a lot after all he did for her and the way he, Adam and Hoss welcomed me to the family. That’s why you’re leaving at first light and going straight back to the Ponderosa. I’m sorry you’ve come all this way for nothing, Joe, but that’s the way it’s got to be. I don’t aim to risk anything happening to you, for your family’s sake as much as your own.”

Joe chewed at his lip for a moment then picked up his drink. “Clay, I reckon you’re getting to be as bossy as my other elder brother,” he finally observed after taking a long swallow. “And I don’t take much notice of him either. I’m not going and leaving you to face this Brennan alone, no matter what you say. I’d have thought you’d learned by now no Cartwright turns his back on another, regardless of the danger to life or limb.”

Clay’s voice suddenly grew louder and more insistent. “Will you listen to me, Joe? I don’t want you here!” he shot back. “It’s my problem and something I’ve got to sort by myself!”

Tears brimmed in Hannah’s eyes. “But why, Clay?” she cried. “If you’re so determined to stay here, why won’t you at least accept help from Joe? I don’t understand your stupid pride. Don’t you want to stay alive long enough to see your child born?”

Joe’s eyes widened. “There’s a baby on the way?”

Swallowing back a sob, Hannah nodded as she absently rubbed a hand across the middle of her brown patterned dress. “I’m four months gone.”

Joe looked between them and couldn’t help but give a faint but genuine congratulatory smile. “Well, that clinches the deal. If I’m gonna be an uncle, there’s no way I’m leaving now, at least not until you’ve explained what’s going on. Then I’ll judge for myself whether to go or stay.”

Clay’s eyes flashed irately but he reluctantly nodded. “Very well, if you insist, Joe, but I don’t aim to change my mind. You’re still leaving tomorrow!”

Although sensing his brother’s temper rising, Joe shook his head. “Reckon I’ll decide that for myself,” he answered back quickly. “You’re not gonna find it quite so easy to get rid of me this time.”

Brother stared at brother for a few moments, evenly matched, equally inflexible as the memory of their final, painful parting over three years ago filled their minds. The tension between them was palpable.

Hannah didn’t profess to understand what had suddenly caused the change in atmosphere between the two men, but anxious to act as mediator, she reached over and took her husband’s hands in her own. “Maybe it would be a good start if I told Joe how we first met?” she suggested.

Her work-worn fingers tightened in a loving squeeze, and with a sigh, Clay gave his wife a somber nod as his anger ebbed away.

Joe removed his jacket, then sank down into his chair as Hannah began.

“My mother died when I was born and I was brought up as an only child by my father in Chicago. He was a doctor with his own practice and one of the most conscientious and kindly men I’ve ever met. Then one day a couple of years ago, we were out together taking a walk when Pa collapsed right in front of me. There was nothing anyone could have done. He was dead before he hit the ground. His heart had given out on him.”

As she paused for a moment in sad reflection, Joe nodded sympathetically. “I’m sorry. It must have been a big shock for you.”

Hannah nodded as she brushed a hand across her grief stricken eyes. “I was devastated and just remember screaming and crying, not knowing what to do next. After all, I’d just lost the only family I had. Then I felt someone pull me up and hold me tight, trying to comfort me. It was Clay. He calmed me down, took me home, then made all the arrangements for the funeral. He even stood by my side when I buried my father and called on me nearly every day for the next few weeks to make sure I was coping. Before we knew it, we’d fallen in love, and within a couple of months, we were married.”

Joe turned his eyes towards his brother. “I thought you were heading south to Mexico after you left the Ponderosa. What changed your mind?”

“It didn’t seem such an exciting prospect without you tagging along,” Clay admitted with a faint smile. “So I decided to head towards Canada, and met up with an old friend from New Orleans who owned a chain of gaming saloons on the Michigan waterfront. He asked if I’d be willing to manage his business while he took a trip to Europe, and as I had nothing better to do, I said yes.”

“So how come you’ve ended up here and not still living in Illinois?”

Clay remained silent, so Hannah answered. “Clay’s colleague eventually returned to take over the running of his business again. I just couldn’t settle to living in Chicago anymore with memories of my father at every street corner. So I suggested we head west and make us a new life somewhere else. I’d always wanted to travel and see more of the country, and as there were no ties to keep us, Clay agreed. I sold my father’s house and we packed up a few things, bought ourselves a wagon and set off.”

There was a moment’s pause as Hannah appraised her husband. Clay was sitting with his eyes closed, obviously taking in every word she’d said. “Why don’t you tell Joe what happened next,” she tentatively asked.

Opening his eyes, Clay glanced at his wife and nodded.

“We eventually arrived at a small town in the southeast of Iowa. It seemed a good place to rest up for a while but we’d only been there a couple of days when I made up the numbers in a game of poker. One of the other players was a loud-mouthed, hot-headed kid who took me for some green-horn novice at cards. He was barely out of his teens, but someone who obviously had plenty of funds at his disposal and plenty of time on his hands. He won the first few games; then my luck changed, and within a short while, I had a stack of money – around $500 – in front of me. I decided to quit while I was ahead, especially as the kid had been getting more irritable and irate at every losing hand. It was pretty obvious he was used to being the top-dog at poker, and no one had dared to win against him for a very long time.”

“He grew angry and I could see from his expression he was about to explode any moment. So I picked up my winnings and left. It was only as I was walking across the street that I heard him shout my name. I turned to look at him and he started yelling and cursing, accusing me of cheating and challenged me to a shoot out.”

“I was thinking of talking my way out of trouble when without warning he went for his gun. Somehow l managed to get off one shot of my own – instinct, I guess. And as I felt his bullet crease the skin of my arm, he jerked back onto the sidewalk and slid to the ground – dead.”

Unconsciously, Clay stroked at his right forearm as if reliving the pain of the event. He took a long swallow and continued.

“It was obvious to anyone who’d watched what had happened. It was self-defense. The kid had drawn first and would have killed me if I hadn’t shot back. But soon a large crowd gathered around, baying for blood…my blood. A couple of men took hold of me and started yelling for someone to bring them a rope, and it became clear I’d be lying in a grave with burns around my neck pretty soon.”

“Fortunately a marshal from Missouri who was just passing through witnessed everything. He quickly pulled me to safety, showing everyone his badge and telling the crowd to leave me alone or he’d have the lot of them on trial for murder. Realizing he meant it, the crowd quickly disappeared. But the lawman admitted that, because he wasn’t from the area, he was way outside his jurisdiction. He advised me to leave town as he couldn’t guarantee my safety for too long, especially because of the kid I’d shot.”

“He explained he recognized him to be Tom Brennan, the only son of a local man well known throughout the state to have bullied, pressured, blackmailed and even murdered his way to owning not only most of the land around but just about all the town’s inhabitants and the Sheriff’s office. But Ralph Brennan was also a clever man and there’d never been any proof of his crimes, only heavy suspicion. And as the law can only act on facts, he’d somehow managed to evade prosecution over the years, much to the marshal’s disgust.”

“Taking his advice, I collected Hannah from the hotel and we headed out of town within the hour. Luckily, we weren’t followed and I thought all our troubles were behind us. Then purely by coincidence, some while later we met up with the same lawman again. He told us he’d heard rumors the deranged Brennan had offered a large sum of money to anyone who could tell him of my whereabouts. Seems he’d vowed he’d never rest until I was shot to death in front of his eyes as an act of retribution for what I’d done to his son.”

“We kept on going, finally arriving in Bear River a couple of months ago. I was really beginning to think we’d escaped Brennan’s clutches and safe at last, so decided to stay here for the winter and let Hannah rest until the baby was born.”

“I rented this place, mainly because it was cheap and out of sight of prying eyes. Then one day I spotted one of Brennan’s henchmen who’d been eager to string me up in Iowa coming out of the saloon in town. I couldn’t fail to recognize him as he had a deep scar down one cheek and half an ear missing. I wasn’t sure if he’d seen me but he must have and sent a wire, ‘cause a couple of days late, a note was tied around a rock and thrown through the window, telling me Ralph Brennan was on his way with several hired gunmen.”

Reeling from the shock of Clay’s revelation, Joe’s face hardened incredulously as he sat forward in his seat. “So why didn’t you just pack up and get away while you had the chance instead of hanging around waiting?”

Hannah nodded her head emphatically. “I told Clay we should do that exact thing, Joe. He won’t stand a chance on his own, but for some reason, he’s been so stubborn and refused to leave. That’s why I wrote to you, hoping as his brother you’d get him to see sense and persuade him to move on before it was too late.”

Clay pushed himself up, his temper rising yet again as he paced around the cabin. He stared back at his wife. “Hannah, I’ve told you enough times why I’m staying put. I’m sick to my stomach of continually running away like some yellow-livered coward, and I refuse to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life wondering if there’s a bullet aimed at my back. Brennan’s the kind of man who won’t quit until I’m dead, so regardless of how many men he brings with him, I’m going to make a stand here. It’s as good a place as any to die.”

“It’s a hell of a place to die for no good reason,” Joe observed and narrowed his eyes, frowning thoughtfully. Something didn’t quite sit right. Clay had been a gambler for most of his life and knew not to continue in any game when the odds were not set in his favor. So why stay? Joe couldn’t believe it was just Louisiana pride.

Leaning back again, his chair creaking under his weight Joe eyed his brother intuitively. “The way I figure it, that isn’t the complete truth you’ve just spouted out, Clay. I don’t know why you’re in such a hurry to meet your maker but I reckon there’s something you haven’t told us.”

Clay stared opened his mouth as if to deny the charge, then closed it hastily. He walked towards a small window in the kitchen, staring blindly out, his face drawn. Hannah stared suspiciously after him. “Clay? Is there something you’ve kept from me?”

Clay didn’t answer for several seconds then he looked over at his wife and heaved a heavy sigh. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell you, but there was more in that note Brennan sent than I let on.”

“Is that why you threw it in the fire before I could read it?”

Clay nodded and moved closer, kneeling by Hannah’s side and taking her hands in his own. “Brennan made it clear if I stayed around, you wouldn’t be harmed in any way. But he also said if I tried to run, he’d have me followed, and no matter how long it took, he’d eventually hunt me down. Only once he found me, not only would I be shot to death but he’d make sure my wife suffered the same fate, regardless of her condition, though only after he and his men had finished with her.”

Hannah gave out a little cry as Joe’s face paled with disgust; the inference of what would happen to her sent a wave of revulsion flooding through his body. He couldn’t believe how anyone could descend to such depravity.

Clay turned his head towards his brother. “He wasn’t bluffing, Joe, Brennan’s threat was real. He hasn’t an ounce of honor or respect in his body. Now do you understand why I can’t leave? Why I have to face Brennan on his own terms? I tried to persuade Hannah to leave, take the stage to safety but….”

“But I refused to go alone,” Hannah cut in apologetically, tears in her eyes. “I was so sure I could get Joe to change your mind as I thought it was just your male ego making you stay. Yet all the time it’s because of me.”

Clenching his fists in an effort to control his anger, Joe stared over, his eyes cold. “But I’m here now. We could make a stand together against Brennan and his men, just like we did in Virginia City that time?”

Clay shook his head. “That was two against several miners wielding pieces of wood, not two against trained fast draw killers. Those odds don’t give me much optimism about the outcome.”

Joe jumped up from his seat. “But it’ll be nothing short of murder!”

Clay looked up into hazel eyes filled with anger. “I know. But with the nearest law over thirty miles away, I expect Brennan will make sure no one testifies to that fact. He’s had enough practice over the years.”

Making no effort to conceal his contempt, Joe’s mouth twisted with bitterness. “Brennan can’t be allowed to get away with this. Someone has to put a bullet in his head now. Put him out of his misery like the mad piece of scum he is,” he spat venomously.

“But not you, Joe,” Clay said with a knowing sigh. “You’re no killer. One day Brennan will deal his own losing hand. His time will come.”

“But it’ll be too late for you then! Surely there must be something I can do?”

Clay nodded resignedly. “Now that you’re here, yes, there is, Joe. Take Hannah with you when you go back to the Ponderosa. By my calculations, Brennan could well be arriving here within the week and I can’t risk him not keeping his word about leaving Hannah alone once I’m dead.”

Hannah shook her head and looked over in horror at his suggestion. “I’m not leaving without you, Clay!” she cried. “I won’t go!”

Clay leaned forwards. “Hannah, please think with your head and not with your heart for once,” he implored, taking hold of her hand and tightening his grip. “Leaving with Joe makes perfect sense, so just do as I ask. At least when Brennan gets here, I can face him knowing you and our child will be safe.”

Hannah blinked hard, her strained face pale. “This is madness; there’s got to be another way,” she murmured.

“I think we both know there isn’t,” Clay whispered back. “Please say you’ll do as I ask.”

Unable to speak, Hannah stared over mutely for a few moments then her resolve crumpled and she buried her face in her hands. Clay moved forwards and cradled her in his arms, feeling the convulsive sobs as they shook her body.

Joe sat down and stared at the floor. Never had he felt so impotent or useless.

Eventually Hannah quieted in her husband’s embrace, her eyes red and face flushed as she blinked hard to keep the tears at bay. “I’d better get a few things together,” she said and moved towards the bedroom.

Clay watched her for a few moments, a bleak sad smile playing on his face. He turned his gaze back to his brother. “I’ll stable your horse in the barn, Joe,” he said as he stood up and moved towards him. “Then I reckon we should get some shut-eye. You’ve both got an early start in the morning.”

Not waiting for a response, Clay unbolted the door and disappeared into the darkness, leaving Joe staring broodingly after him.

“Could you help me move this please?” Hannah asked, pointing under the bed and shaking Joe from his private reverie.

Heaving out a large empty trunk, Joe then watched as Hanna took a leather bag from the bottom drawer of a dresser. “I must take this, it’s the only thing I saved of my fathers,” she admitted, tracing her fingers across the finely etched initials on the side before opening it. “My mother bought it for him the day he qualified as a doctor. Maybe if I have a boy, he’ll want to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps one day and make use of it.”

Joe kneeled down and glanced inside at a varied collection of strange looking surgical instruments and implements he’d never seen before. However several small glass vials with cork caps were instantly recognizable; similar vials had been used to measure out medicine in the correct dosage for the youngest Cartwright over the years.

Hannah snapped the bag closed and placed it in the trunk just as Clay returned, his own eyes glazed and unusually moist.

“As you can see, Joe, we’re a bit tight on space in here but there’s plenty of fresh straw in the barn to make a mattress. I’ve left a lamp on and a couple of blankets out so you should be warm enough to have a good night’s rest.”

Joe heaved a vast audible sigh. “Thanks, but I don’t think I’ll be doing much sleeping,” he answered. With sudden boyishness, he impulsively leaned forward and kissed Hannah’s cheek. “I’m sorry I haven’t been much use.”

Hannah smiled in spite of her fears and misery. “But you came, that’s the most important thing to me.”

Joe turned to face his brother. “I’ll take good care of them both. I promise you that.”

Staring thoughtfully at him, Clay didn’t answer straightaway. Then he laid a hand on his shoulder and nodded. “I know you will. I wouldn’t trust them with anyone else.”

Pursing his lips tight and giving them both a final glassy-eyed stare, Joe picked up his jacket and hat and made his way outside. He heard the bolt go across the door, and as he walked towards the barn, the faint sound of Hannah crying again wafted out into the dark night.

Joe lay down on the straw bed feeling sick to his stomach as an image flashed over and over in his mind. His brother lying dead on the ground, his body riddled with lead. He shut his eyes tight, as if trying to make the image go away. But it didn’t. Brennan would never rest until Clay was dead and there was nothing he could do to stop it happening.

Or was there?

Suddenly Joe sat up. He swallowed hard then smiled, but there was no humor in his curled up lip as the faintest glimmer of an idea stirred within him. The sort of laughable, foolish, absurd scheme the youngest Cartwright was well known for usually involved Hoss back home. It was risky, a long shot, a crazy plan, just as they always were. But it was all he had and worth a try.

Rushing back to the cabin, Joe banged hard on the door, and moments later, Clay unbolted it and he flew inside. “I’ve just thought of a way to save your sorry butt, brother!”

Shaking his head somberly, Clay heaved a heavy sigh and raised a skeptical eyebrow. “We both know there isn’t, so stop tormenting yourself, Joe.”

Joe beamed a smile. “But there is! I have a plan….”

*****

It was around noon the next day when an unshaven young man wearing a green jacket pushed open the bat-wing doors of the Bear River saloon and entered. Even at that time of day the air was thick with the smell of tobacco smoke as it drifted high in the air; a mix of customers stood around drinking while others were seated at tables, playing cards.

Joe walked over towards the bar where a short man with grey hair and an unruly growth of beard of the same color eyed the newcomer with a gappy smile. “Welcome to Drake’s Place, mister. What can I get you?”

“Beer,” Joe answered as he cast an eye over the drab interior. A glass was slid along towards him, and pulling out a coin, Joe flicked it over to an awaiting grimy hand.

“Ain’t seen you around before. You from these parts?” the bartender asked as he wiped a dirty cloth over splashes of spilt liquid on the bar top.

Joe shook his head as he took a sip of his drink. “Nope.”

“You stayin’ long in town?”

Taking a second longer swallow of his beer, Joe looked into his glass for a few moments before answering. “Nope.”

The bartender persevered doggedly with his friendly questioning. “Got business in the area?”

Joe heaved an irritable sigh and narrowed his eyes coldly. “Nope,” he said, then suddenly pulled his gun from its holster, and with his thumb hooked over the hammer, pressed the end of the barrel hard into the bartender’s neck.

A sudden hush settled over the place as all eyes focused on the two men at the bar.

“Are you the Drake of Drake’s Place?” Joe asked in a clear and intimidating tone, his voice carrying to all in the silence.

The older man bobbed his head up and down, his eyes bulging with fear as he heard a distinctive click from the cylinder. “Well, Mr. Drake, one thing I can’t abide is being given the third degree, especially when I’m drinking my beer. I’ve shot men for less. Do I make myself clear?”

Taking a deep gulp of air, the bartender nodded nervously.

“Good. Now why don’t you get on with your work and leave me be.”

Obediently, Drake skulked to the end of the bar, rubbing the muzzle’s indentation on his throat as Joe swept the rest of the occupants of the saloon with a glance of cold menace before returning his gun to its holster.

Conversation slowly started up again and Joe leaned on the bar nursing his beer as he watched a table where a number of middle-aged men were playing poker and exchanging friendly banter.

After a short while, one of them threw his cards down in disgust, cursing he had a lousy hand again as he pushed back his chair and stormed out into the street without a backward glance.

The remaining players laughed; subsequent comments indicated they were known to each other and had no sympathy for their unlucky companion. Joe emptied his glass in one long swallow and banged it hard down onto the bar before casually walking over to the vacant chair. “Mind if I join you for a while?”

The men glanced anxiously at each other. After what had happened at the bar, they knew this was not a young man to be crossed or antagonized unnecessarily. “We ain’t playing for high stakes, mister. Just passing the time away and having a bit of fun,” a gaunt-faced individual to Joe’s left confirmed.

“Fine by me,” Joe replied and sat himself down, eyeing each of them in turn with a steely glare as the man to his right shuffled the pack for several seconds then dealt out the cards.

An hour went by, then the batwing door creaked and Clay entered the saloon, fingering his thin, carefully-trimmed moustache for a few moments. His arrival passed mostly unnoticed and provoked little curiosity from those within.

Clay walked towards the bar and Drake gave him a nod of recognition. He knew his customer well since renting out his old cabin to him and his wife when they’d first arrived in town. “What’ll it be, Mister Stafford?”

“Whiskey. A large one.”

Quickly taking hold of a bottle from a shelf and pouring out a double measure, the bartender handed over the ordered drink.

At that moment there was a whoop of triumph as Joe produced another winning hand, raking in a few notes and coins and adding them to a small stack of monies in front of him. A second player pulled a timepiece from his pocket, and deciding he was running late, pushed up from his chair.

Clay’s eyes focused intently on the poker table and Drake followed his fixed gaze. “You thinkin’ of trying to ruin that young fella’s winning streak?”

There was a reflective silence for a few moments. “Could be, Mr. Drake. My wife is ordering stores from the Mercantile and won’t be hurried, so I’ve got time to spare.”

The bartender markedly rubbed a hand across his bruised throat. “Well, just be careful. He’s trouble of the gun- fighting kind. I can sense it.”

Clay gave a short nod of thanks for the warning and, carrying his drink, approached the table.

“Gentlemen, you seem a player short. May I?”

Without looking up, Joe nodded. “Sure, mister,” he drawled on behalf of the table’s occupants. “Pull up a chair.”

Joe began to deal a fresh hand and Clay took the seat opposite, then stared directly at him over the rim of his glass. “Looks like you’ve had lady luck on your side today. Longer than most would deem healthy.”

There was a sudden surge of uneasiness around the table. The inference of some sort of dishonest play was clear to all, and as Joe stilled, the murderous look on his face was enough to send a chill up the spine of anyone watching. “What do you mean by that?” he asked tersely.

With his face impassive, Clay shrugged. “Nothing,” he said softly with a wry smile. “Just making an observation.”

Pursing his lips tight, Joe stared over coldly without further comment then continued to deal as a murmur ran through the crowd that had quickly gathered around, all sensing a dangerous tension developing between the two.

Within a short while, it soon became clear Joe’s luck had run out and he’d met his match, as Clay played a winning hand over and over again. Each win provoking a darkened scowl to crease Joe’s face as his opponent scooped up his spoils.

It was now Clay’s turn to deal the cards, and as three of the players folded one after the other, Joe upped his final bet. For the first time in a while, he couldn’t help but smile with triumph. However, within moments, his hopes were dashed when, after placing his full house down for all to see, the dealer laid out four jacks and a nine in front of him.

Seemingly incensed to have lost yet again, Joe stared at the cards incredulously with angry eyes. “That ain’t possible. There’s no way you could have that hand unless….”

With a smirk of arrogance on his lips, Clay asked the question. “Unless what?”

“Unless you cheated,” Joe spat heatedly.

Clay eyed him defiantly with a wide-eyed innocent gaze. “You think I’ve cheated? That’s some claim coming from someone whose been doing it for the past couple of hours.”

The atmosphere in the room was suddenly electric as Joe jumped up from his chair with such force it flew across the floor with a loud clatter. His left hand hovered about his pearl-handled Colt and he stepped back a few paces until he almost touched the wall behind him, his eyes blazing furiously. “You better hope you’re as good with a gun as you are at cards ‘cause I aim to make you pay for saying that!”

Clearly unaffected or troubled by the threat, Clay coolly rose from his seat, oozing with the confidence of someone who’d been in the same situation before. He pushed back his coat to reveal his own sidearm as he moved to stand in front of the batwing doors.

Well used to such confrontations between card-sharps and gunslingers, there was a flurry of activity as men jostled to safety, making sure they were out of the line of fire but unable to resist watching the showdown.

There wasn’t a sound or movement for several seconds until, to those watching, it seemed the two men drew their guns almost simultaneously, but not quite. For though their shots blended into one, it was still apparent the man by the door had drawn first as a lamp hanging inches above Joe’s head splintered into a myriad pieces. However, the second shot a millisecond later was more deadly and aimed truer, the impact sending Clay lurching sideways to slam hard into the side of the door frame like a staggering drunk.

His gun fell from his grasp and Clay fleetingly stared down with a look of confused bewilderment as a deep crimson stain appeared on the front of his shirt. It quickly grew wider, and with a groan, he crashed through the swinging doors, fell against a couple of standing horses, then rebounded to land motionless; blood soaking hungrily onto the hard dirt ground.

As the echo of gunshot faded away, a woman began screaming, yelling out her husbands’ name as she raced across the street from the direction of the Mercantile. With her blonde hair loosened in flight, Hannah flung herself onto the prostrate body with a cry of anguish.

Several men rushed out from the saloon and stared down, shaking their heads at the heartbreaking scene, the suddenness of death still managing to shock them into silence.

Then someone yelled out to send for the doctor, but bushing tears from her stinging eyes, Hannah looked up and shook her head. “It’s too late,” she hissed, staring questioningly at all those gathered around and looking wildly at each of them in turn. “Who was it? Which one of you murdered my husband?”

There was a sudden movement as Joe pushed his way through the throng. He was holding Clay’s discarded gun, and with no sign of apology on his face, gave a scornful laugh. “Guess that’d be me, ma’am. But it weren’t murder. It was self-defense, pure and simple. Your man drew first.”

Joe looked around the crowd as if for confirmation. There was no dissent.

“But why?” Hannah almost pleaded.

“Don’t take kindly to being labeled a cheat, especially when the fella doing the accusing is one himself,” Joe sneered.

“You mean you killed him because of some stupid name calling?”

Joe gave his most disarming smile. “Around here, that’s good enough reason for most folks.”

There was a sharp intake of female breath, then with a shriek of fury Hannah pushed herself up and lurched forward like a woman possessed, her eyes blazing fiercely. Joe suddenly felt the sharp hard slap of a hand on his face, and as he grabbed her arm, his mouth twisted into an unamused smile. “Lucky for you I’m in a good mood, ma’am; otherwise I might have forgotten you were a lady.”

Pushing her away Joe threw the gun to the floor and gave Hannah a final contemptuous glance. Then he turned heel, disappearing into the saloon along with most of the crowd; the shoot-out and its outcome provided instant conversation once they’d made their way back inside.

Dipping his head in resignation at what had happened, Drake appeared with a moth-eaten blanket and threw it over the body as Hannah dropped onto her knees as if in silent prayer, tears once again trickled over her cheeks.

The bartender scratched his bearded chin as he looked down at the pitiful sight. Though well used to witnessing such senseless killings over the years, his gaze grew increasingly sympathetic as he saw a shudder pass down the woman’s frame. “I’m real sorry for your loss, ma’am. I could sense that young fella was a natural-born killer and nothing but trouble,” he admitted in an apologetic tone as he laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

Hannah looked up. “I….I….” She could find no words but Drake exchanged an understanding gaze.

“Don’t you worry, Mrs. Stafford. I’ll make all the arrangements for the burial. Bear River doesn’t have a reverend but I organize most of the undertaking when needed and can have you a grave dug ready for first thing in the morning. I’ve got a box your husband can be laid out in as well and you can even leave him in a room at the back of the doc’s office ’til the time comes to bury him, if you like.”

Hannah swallowed back a sob. “Thank you, Mr. Drake but I’d rather take Clay back to the cabin until tomorrow,” she replied through her grief. “I don’t like the thought of leaving him alone in a strange place tonight.”

With a kindly nod, the bartender disappeared down a passageway at the side of the saloon for a couple of minutes then returned with another man, a crudely made pine box carried between them. Being as respectful as they could, they picked up the blanket-covered body and laid it gently down inside.

Drake bent down and took hold of Clay’s gun. “A man’s firearm belongs with him, even at a time like this,” he said, handing it over to the visibly distressed widow. Hannah said nothing, just staring at it for a few moments before placing the Colt by the side of her husband. Numbed and clearly in shock, she then watched as Drake screwed the lid down, and with three others aiding him, loaded the coffin into the back of her waiting wagon alongside various assortments of much-needed supplies.

Assisted onto the driving seat, Hannah took hold of the reins, and giving a tearful nod of thanks, urged the two horses forward. She walked them slowly towards the end of town, leaving the bartender watching her with concern and compassion until she turned a corner and disappeared from view.

When Drake re-entered the saloon, he couldn’t help but notice Joe had sat back at the poker table with the same men as before, counting out the monies Clay had accumulated and dividing it out between them all. Stuffing his share into his jacket pocket, Joe looked up towards him, clearly unabashed at what he’d just done. “Did I hear right? You do the burying around here?”

Drake nodded and made his way back to the bar just as the doors swung open and a man carrying more pounds around his belly than most rushed in. Sweating profusely as though he’d run for some distance, he looked around those in the saloon as if trying to locate someone. Soon his eyes focused on the bartender. “Hear tell a man by the name of Clay Stafford has just been shot dead.”

Drake indicated towards Joe. “It was self defense but that young fella did the killing. Fancy shooting as well. Single shot to the heart by looks of it.”

A weasel-like face, made ugly by a long scar from eye to mouth and disfigured ear, jerked around to stare over at the card table. Although they’d never met, Joe recognized him immediately. It was Brennan’s man.

Joe pushed back his chair and narrowed his eyes unflinchingly, giving away no sign of recognition as his left hand dropped down inches away from his sidearm. “News certainly travels fast around here. Who are you? A friend of Stafford?”

Although he noticed Joe’s movement, the man smirked, showing broken and yellowing teeth, and gave an evil chuckle as he wiped his face dry with a dirty kerchief. “The names Hammond, and no, he weren’t no friend of mine. But a man by the name of Brennan is on his way from Iowa to finish off some long overdue business with him.”

Relaxing his stance, Joe gave a wry smile. “Well, Mr. Stafford will be six foot under in the morning and won’t be in a position to do business with anyone anymore. So it looks like your Mr. Brennan is going to be travelling a long way for nothing.”

Hammond pursed his lips and frowned as the implications hit him. “Reckon you’re right there, mister, and Brennan sure is gonna be as mad as hell if he gets here and finds out he’s had a wasted journey.”

Joe shrugged nonchalantly. “Can’t you get in touch with him and tell him not to bother?” he suggested.

Removing his hat, Hammond scratched a balding head; then suddenly cruel eyes lit up. “Of course! I can send a wire to Fort Laramie. He weren’t aiming to leave until tomorrow at the earliest!”

Deciding not to waste another minute, he gave Joe a quick nod of thanks and hurriedly left the saloon, the batwing doors swinging wildly behind him. Joe’s gaze followed his departing back, and with his mouth twitching in a half smile, he watched Hammond quickly cross over the street and enter the telegraph office.

At that moment, two elderly, retired miners appeared from the sidewalk and pushed passed Joe as they entered the saloon. Straightaway, Drake noticed them and pulled out a couple of spades secured behind the bar. “I’ve got a quick job for you, boys,” he instructed towards the aged duo as they came closer and he handed the implements over. “Go get me a hole dug in the cemetery ready for tomorrow and you’ll have yourselves free drinks for the next week.”

Obviously well used to the arrangement, the men nodded without complaint and began to shuffle back outside. But as they went by him, Joe dug into his pocket and pulled out a couple of silver dollar coins and placed one in each of their hands. “Make sure you dig that grave deep and proper. The deceased deserves a decent burial and I don’t want to risk no half-starved dog digging up the body one day.”

With their eyes popping in surprise and delight, the old men thrust their unexpected windfall deep inside their pants. “Sure will, mister,” one of them answered, his head nodding excitedly. “We’ll have that coffin so deep it’ll be half way to China. I promise you that!”

Joe chuckled after the men, then suddenly sensed he was being watched. He turned to see Drake looking at him curiously.

“Not often a man has his grave dug and paid for by the fella what killed him,” observed Drake.

Joe shrugged as he ran a hand across his cheek. “Reckon not, but every man, even a card cheat, deserves a decent burial. Besides, that widow woman sure is a fine spirited female and I’ve always been a sucker for a pretty face,” he admitted with a wink as he pushed through the swinging doors and disappeared from sight into the early shadows of dusk.

*****

Joe spent that night in a rented room, neither caring nor bothering to complain about the flea-ridden mattress or smell of damp. The last twenty-four hours of nervous tension had left him too weary to even think about his surroundings and he’d just lain down and closed his eyes, dozing fitfully until morning.

After he’d surfaced, Joe made his way to a small but half-decent eatery located near the edge of town. He still felt exhausted but this didn’t stop his stomach from grumbled loudly for sustenance, so he placed an order for ham and eggs with a stout woman at the front counter. It was then he noticed a recognizable figure, drinking coffee at a table by the window and with his saddlebags slung over a chair.

Apprehension churning at his insides, Joe wandered over. “Leaving?” he asked as he pulled out a seat opposite.

Hammond’s scarred face split into a grin as he recognized the newcomer and his head nodded. “Brennan sent word he ain’t coming here now Stafford’s dead so there’s no point me hanging around.”

He then dug out a folded newspaper from his inside coat pocket and pointed to the bottom of the back page. “Take a look at this.”

Joe took hold and read the article, his outward expression remaining impassive

Hot off the press and the ink barely dry, a short column in the town’s weekly broadsheet recorded the death of Mr. Clay Stafford by the hand of an unidentified gunslinger in Drake’s Place. It went on to say how Mr. Stafford had arrived in the area a few weeks before with his wife, and though killed in a saloon shoot-out, witness’ had agreed he’d drawn first, so no further action would be taken about the matter. A final note confirmed his burial was taking place that morning under the direction of the local undertaker, Mr. R. Drake.

“If I’d know killing him would only make the back page, I wouldn’t have bothered,” Joe remarked sarcastically as he handed the paper back.

Hammond chortled as he returned it to his pocket. “Well, I’m obliged to you, mister, ‘cause this little piece of writing is exactly what I need to earn me a hefty reward when I get back to Iowa. And it means I can leave this godforsaken town earlier than I was expecting as well.”

Slurping up the last dregs of his drink, a contemptuous look then appeared on Hammond’s face as he noticed Hannah driving slowly past, a black laced veil over her face and a long wooden box carried in the back of the wagon. He kept his eyes fixed on her until several seconds later she pulled to a standstill outside the cemetery gates and waiting hands lifted the coffin down.

Continuing to stare cruelly at the sight with no sign of sympathy in his expression, Hammond gave Joe a quick nod of farewell, then picked up his belongings and went outside. Taking another lingering look towards the hastily arranged funeral and apparently satisfied at what he saw, he untied his horse and climbed in the saddle, then kicking his heels into his mount’s side, soon disappeared from view as he headed due east without looking back.

Joe drew in a deep breath of relief as he watched him go. But still on edge, he could only pick at his breakfast after it was placed in front of him, mainly playing with his food as he kept glancing anxiously down the street.

At long last a wagon came into view again but this time it was empty, the grieving widow’s face still hidden under the veil as she drove through town. Several minutes later, Drake and his two gravediggers walked past on foot from the same direction, and as they came to the saloon, pushed their way back through the batwing doors.

Paying for his half-eaten meal, Joe left the relative warmth of the café and made his way towards the Bear River graveyard.

Standing alone, he looked down and read the words painted out on a plain wooden cross which served as a marker for a freshly filled-in grave. In time, the letters of the simple inscription would fade away but they were a good enough indication who’d been laid to rest for now.

Clay Stafford

Died November 1865

Suppressing a shiver, Joe pulled his jacket tight about him. He could hardly believe the nightmare was nearly over, but before he could relax completely, there was something he still needed to do.

Joe collected his horse from the livery and walked the chestnut slowly down the street until he came to a stop outside Drake’s Saloon. The owner was standing by the door smoking a clay pipe, and as he noticed Joe, he squinted warily at him as though expecting more trouble.

Joe could sense his unease as he dismounted. “Don’t worry, Mr. Drake. I’m not stopping long,” he said with a wry smile. “I just wanted to say sorry for roughing you up yesterday. Don’t make a habit of threatening innocent folk or shooting up saloons.”

The genuine regret in his voice was impossible to miss and Drake frowned in confusion as he removed the pipe’s stem from between the gap in his teeth. He could hardly believe this was the same cold-eyed killer of the day before. He gulped. “Sure…sure, mister. I take it you’re leaving town?”

Joe nodded, weariness clearly showing on his face. “Time I headed back home. I’ve been gone long enough.”

“Home you say? Hey, you never did let on where you came from or mention your name for that matter.”

Joe shook his head. “No, guess I never did,” he smiled as he remounted, pulling his Stetson low on his head and turning up his collar against the chilling wind.

He looked around him for a final time; Joe’s expression was one of a man whose intention was never to set eyes on the place again. Then without another word, he touched the brim of his hat in farewell. With the open-mouthed bartender staring after him, Joe kneed his horse to a gentle canter and rode away.

*****

As storm clouds threatened in the far distance, Joe made his way back to the isolated cabin he’d only left the day before, though it felt more like a year. As he pulled his horse to a halt, he swung down stiffly from the saddle just as Hannah appeared in the door way. No longer wearing the black veil, her blonde hair fell loose across her shoulders as her blue eyes narrowed nervously towards him.

“Joe, is everything all right? Did your plan work?” she asked tentatively.

In that instant, Joe could see the fear, the strain, the uncertainty of the past weeks etched on every inch of her face. He heaved a hefty sigh as if bringing bad news, then with a mischievous grin, nodded his head. “Yep, it worked. Brennan isn’t coming after Clay, and his man has left town and won’t be coming back. It’s over.”

Hannah froze and stared at him for several long seconds; then, with a loud cry, rushed forwards, flinging herself into Joe’s waiting arms and burying her head in his chest. Tears of joy soaked into his jacket as Joe comforted and reassured until she pulled away from his grasp, her eyes sparkling tenderly towards him.

“I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done, Joe,” she smiled, raising her hand gently stroked his bristly cheek. “I must have really hurt you when I slapped your face. Sorry. I guess I got carried away with the moment.”

Joe chuckled as he recollected the stinging sensation on his cheek. “You certainly left a mark but I’ve felt worse over the years,” he confessed with a laugh as he took hold of her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Though I’ve got to admit, you acted the part of the grieving widow to perfection. You should be on the stage!”

A man emerged from the barn carrying bags of potatoes and corn meal, and for a moment stood still, just watching the pair. “I take it from your happy faces that I’m officially dead?”

Joe jerked his head and beamed over at his brother. “Dead, buried and your demise even reported in the local paper. Though it only managed the back page,” he added with a laugh. “If only Brennan’s man had known that coffin was weighted down with rocks and not you, he wouldn’t have left town in such a hurry to get his reward!”

Clay placed the last supplies in the back of the wagon alongside the rest of their belongings then shook his head incredulously at the news. “I just can’t believe we pulled it off, Joe. Are you sure no one suspected anything, not even our fake shoot-out?”

Hannah slid her hand through her husband’s arm and leaned into his embrace as Joe shook his head reassuringly. “Why would they? You did such a convincing job of dying; when I saw all that blood on your shirt, even I thought you might have been shot for real!” he admitted with a grin. “It wasn’t until it suddenly dawned on me I’d only got blanks in my gun that I was able to breathe easy!”

Clay winced at the memory of the sticky liquid trickling across his chest. Not only did the rabbit’s blood irritatingly tickle but it also reeked unpleasantly in the darkened confinement of the pine coffin. “I never realized those glass vials could hold so much but at least they shattered real easy when I hit that wall!”

He then paused for a moment and eyed his brother sheepishly. “I’ll be honest with you, Joe. It was such a crazy idea I never really thought it would work.”

Joe blew out his cheeks and shook his head. “To be honest with you, I didn’t either,” he admitted, his earnest confession making Clay chuckle. Then suddenly they all burst out laughing, something none of them could remember doing for a long while. The release of pent-up nervous tension took several minutes to subside until with their ribs aching from the effort they eventually calmed.

Clay took a deep breath. “So it’s really all over. I now have a future.” His voice was barely a whisper, and for the first time, Joe noticed how his hands were shaking but made no comment.

Feeling the trembling, Hannah tightened her grip on her husband in a comforting gesture. “We all have a future,” she told him with a smile as she patted her stomach and looked up with her eyes moist.

Then turning her head towards the cabin, Hannah gave a sigh. “With us rushing to pack, I’d better check we haven’t left anything behind.”

Clay nodded, and with a healthy flush now showing on her cheeks, Hannah let go of her husband’s arm and walked away.

“She’s quite a woman,” Joe admitted admiringly as Hannah disappeared inside. “Not many could have pulled off what she did in town. She must really love you, brother.”

Clay’s eyes softened. “Yes, she does. But not as much as I love her.” His voice trembled slightly, and finding his eyes suddenly moisten, made himself busy by inspecting the reattached canvas top on the prairie wagon to make sure it was securely fixed down.

Joe leaned on the flanks of one of the horses as Clay checked each wheel and the brake shoe carefully. “How come you’re leaving so quickly?”

Clay stopped what he was doing and glanced over. “I don’t want to risk anyone turning up to offer tea and sympathy to the new widow then find me here, just in case the news gets back to Brennan.”

Joe could see the sense of his decision. “But won’t they wonder where Hannah’s disappeared to?”

At this point, Hannah pulled the cabin door shut, now wearing a bonnet and wrapping a woolen shawl tight around her shoulders. She made towards them. “I’ve left a note to say with my husband gone, I intended to head back east to Chicago,” she interrupted, having heard their conversation. “Mr. Drake and a few others in town knew that was where we came from so it shouldn’t raise too much suspicion.”

“So where are you heading? Still going west?” Joe inquired.

Clay shook his head. “When I thought my days were numbered, I told Hannah how much I regretted never having the chance to show her where I was brought up. So we decided last night, if your plan was successful, we’d head to Louisiana and settle there. I’ve still got friends in New Orleans and connections using my grandfather’s name, so I should have no problem finding work.”

“New Orleans. I’ve always wanted to visit and see where our mother came from.”

Hearing his brother’s wistful tone, Clay nodded with understanding and a thought suddenly crossed his mind. “Why don’t you travel down with us now, Joe? Come to New Orleans and you may find you like the place enough to stay.”

Hannah nodded her head excitedly in silent agreement.

Joe gaped at them both. Clay’s suggestion was something that had never occurred to him, and for a moment, he was far too stunned to answer.

Watching his brother’s surprised reaction, Clay was certain a spark of interest lit his eyes. He pressed on. “I’m sure the Ponderosa will continue to run successfully without you around, Joe. After all, you were once more than happy to make plans about going with me to Mexico, so what’s so different now?”

Joe stared at him blankly. Clay was right. There’d been a time when they’d first met that the idea of leaving the ranch and sharing untold adventures with his new-found brother had consumed his every thought. And to his shame, how his decision would have affected his father, Adam and Hoss had never crossed his mind.

“So what do you say Joe?”

The question shook Joe out of his trance. He heaved a sigh of regret. “I won’t deny a few years ago I’d have taken up your offer without a second thought,” he confessed truthfully as he held his brother’s gaze. Then his voice lowered apologetically. “But things are different now. I’m different. It’s taken long enough to realize but the Ponderosa is where I want to be, where I belong, where I want to stay. Does the make sense?”

Clay smiled wanly and nodded. He laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Makes perfect sense, Joe. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come visit us some day, does it?”

Joe smiled back with forced brightness. “Try and stop me.”

Suddenly there was a distant roll of thunder and Clay stared up towards the darkening clouds. “Looks like there’s a storm brewing so we better get going. We need to put as many miles as we can between us and Bear River before tonight.”

Hannah nodded, and wrapping her arms around Joe, hugged him tight. Eventually she relaxed her hold and gazed warmly up at him, her eyes filled with tears. “Thank you, Joe…for everything.”

Her voice was barely a whisper but the sincerity of her tone was unmistakable.

“You’re more than worth it, sister,” Joe answered softly. He brought his head down close and kissed her lightly on the forehead. It was little more than a gentle touching but forged a bond between them. Then with a half smile curving his mouth and a twinkle in his eye, Joe leaned in closer and murmured softly in her ear. “If you ever get tired of that brother of mine, send me a wire and I’ll come running.”

Hannah gave him a playful whack on the arm. “Joe, you’re incorrigible,” she whispered back with a giggle. “But you’ve got a deal.”

Clay shook his head in bemusement, his inquiring look at what had been said between them ignored by his wife as Hannah allowed herself to be assisted onto the wagon’s bench seat. She smiled back towards them both, then watched as Clay’s expression turned more serious.

“We never seem to have long enough together before I’m leaving you behind,” Clay said, his voice thick with emotion as he faced his brother. “What are you going to do now?”

.

Joe shrugged. “Back to Fort Bridger, I guess, and send a wire to Pa. Then I’ll trade in my horse for a stage ticket to Carson City.”

“Are you sure I can’t change your mind about coming with us?”

Taking a deep breath, Joe shook his head. Clay studied his brother’s face for several long moments as if making a mental image to remember for all time. He then blinked hard, his eyes unashamedly glistening. “You’ve given me my life back, and saying thanks just doesn’t seem adequate enough somehow.”

Swallowing hard, Joe tried to make light of what happened. “Isn’t that what brothers are for?” His voice was choked and quiet.

Clay extended his hand and Joe took it in a firm grasp. Then as one, the two men hugged each other in an unrestrained way that only loving brothers can.

“I’m going to miss you, Joe. Take care of yourself, little brother,” Clay said softly once they’d pulled apart. Giving Joe a final sad-filled glance, he quickly climbed up to join a teary-eyed Hannah on the bench seat.

Joe tried to smile back. “Don’t worry about me. Just take care of that wife of yours. She’s carrying precious cargo.”

Clay gave an understanding nod, and taking a deep breath, kicked off the brake and slapped the reins. Slowly the two-horse team leant into their harness and took the strain. The wagon began to move.

“If we have a boy, we’re naming him after his uncle Joseph,” Hannah cried as she threw Joe a farewell kiss.

A grin of surprised delight instinctively formed on his face as Joe waved a goodbye and watched as Clay maneuvered the wagon skillfully along the rutted road. .

As though rooted to the spot, Joe stood alone in the clearing and watched as it grew smaller and then disappeared out of sight around a bend. A blast of cold November wind whistled around him as Joe closed his eyes for a few moments, allowing some of the wound-up tension of the past days to flow out of him.

Would he ever see Clay again? Visit New Orleans? Perhaps meet a nephew named after him? Joe sighed. Maybe one day, but not today.

He untied his horse and slowly climbed into the saddle. Pointing his mount in the opposite direction to the wagon, Joe kneed the chestnut towards Fort Bridger and considered his more imminent future.

After leaving the Ponderosa without a word of goodbye, he shuddered at the thought of his Pa’s reaction to his spur-of-the-moment departure, and the reasons for it when he’d explained all that had gone on. He’d kill him for being so foolhardy!

Joe heaved a tired sigh but couldn’t stop a smile of resignation forming on his face. What the hell…he had to die someday.

*****

Chubb and Sport stood together at the hitching rail; seated on the buckboard, Ben looked across the street, his heart hammering hard as the stage pulled up on the opposite side of the main thoroughfare of Carson City.

Even though Joe’s telegram from Fort Bridger had said he’d been with Clay but everything had worked out fine and he was coming home, Ben hadn’t been able to rest easy. A part of him, albeit a small part, was convinced Joe would change his mind at the last minute and stay with his mother’s firstborn.

Ben tensed and watched keenly as the passengers began disembarking, all stiff and exhausted by their long and uncomfortable ride of the past few days.

Then suddenly Joe appeared, staring around him like a little boy lost, only to be immediately gripped by a massive hand and spun around. With his blue eyes glistening with emotion, Hoss flung his arms around his brother, while Adam, with his mouth twitching into a smile of welcome, clapped a hand affectionately on Joe’s back.

Relief flooded through Ben at the sight, and taking a deep calming breath, he climbed down and walked across the street towards them. He waited a moment and just watched as his three sons joked and laughed together; all their faces wreathed in smiles.

“Joseph.”

At the sound of his father’s voice, Joe turned his head and took a deep breath, anticipating the angry lecture he was about to receive. However, all he saw was a loving face; Ben’s expression was more one of unparalleled relief and delight to have him returned safe and sound.

With a smile, Ben wrapped his arms around his youngest and hugged him fiercely in a tight embrace. “It’s good to have you back, son. I’ve missed you.”

Joe relaxed at his father’s whispered greeting. How he’d missed the warmth of this man, the affection, the love.

Slowly they pulled apart, and for a moment, there was silence between them.

“I don’t blame you if you’re mad at me for disappearing like I did, Pa. But after I read Clay’s letter, I guess I just wasn’t thinking straight. He was in a lot of trouble and I had to go. You do understand, don’t you?”

Ben just smiled. “I’m not mad at you, Joe. I understand completely. Clay’s your brother and needed your help so…” His voice faltered. “But at least you’ve come home.”

“And not a day too soon,” Adam added with a wry smile as he sniffed the slightly pungent air. “Someone definitely needs a bath!”

For once ignoring his brother’s jibe, Joe just smiled back at him in agreement as Ben looked worriedly at his gaunt features and tired eyes. “By the looks of it, you’ve had a tough time, young man. We better get you back to the Ponderosa so you can have a good rest.”

Joe sighed and nodded. “Feel like I could sleep for a week.”

Ben smiled knowingly. “Good job I brought the buckboard then. Don’t want you dozing in the saddle and falling off your horse.”

Placing an arm across his shoulder and with Ben and Adam following, Hoss guided his little brother across the street and half pushed him onto the buckboard seat.

Ben hauled himself up, sat by Joe’s side and took up the reins. The horses began to move, and after a few minutes, they were on the edge of town. Ben looked over as Joe stretched out his legs and gave a loud yawn. “We’ve got a long journey back to the ranch, but if you can keep your eyes open, I’d like to hear a little about what’s been going on in Wyoming. I’m guessing its’ going to be quite a tale!”

Joe blew out his cheeks. “Reckon you won’t believe half of what’s happened, Pa. I can hardly believe it myself!” He paused for a moment as if working out where to start. “Remember that story in the Bible about that Lazarus fella who rose from the dead.”

Ben nodded with a puzzled frown.

“Well, in a way, you could say that’s what happened to Clay.”

Hoss and Adam, who’d been riding at either side of the buckboard, looked over at each other and raised brows in disbelief. Hoss leaned closer in his saddle. “Are you sayin’ Clay somehow died and then came back to life?”

With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Joe chuckled as he cast his eyes to each in turn and noted the bewildered looks on all their faces.

“Yes, that’s just what I’m saying, Hoss. Only it was me what did the wicked deed. I was the one who killed my brother!”

***The End***

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