Summary: An accidental shooting, a mindless threat muttered in a moment of anger and a family of men all result in a lesson well learned by two Cartwright brothers.
Word Count: 14,100
“Put the gun down, now Joseph!”
The angry young man was unaware that behind him, his older brother had crept silently. Only when Adam Cartwright reached out and wrapped his arms about his youngest brother’s entire body, did Joe Cartwright become aware of his older sibling.
“LET GO OF ME!” ranted Joe as he twisted and squirmed, trying to break free of the strong arms that held him prisoner.
“NO…GET THE GUN, HOSS,” shouted Adam.
Adam was fighting to maintain his grip. Joe’s arms were pinned to his sides, yet he still clung to the pistol in his left hand. Hoss moved in, reaching to take hold of Joe’s left wrist and remove the pistol, which was loaded and the hammer cocked.
“Give me the gun, Joe,” ordered Hoss as he fought with the younger man.
Adam spaced his feet wide apart, bracing himself against the squirming body of his brother who fought to free himself of both, Adam’s hold and Hoss’ advance.
Hoss and Joe wrestled; arms and hands entangled themselves as each man became more determined to take control.
“Let go of me, you big ox!”
“Joseph, give me that…gun,” grunted Hoss.
“WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH THE THREE OF YOU? STOP THAT…RIGHT NOW, BEFORE SOMEONE GETS HURT!” bellowed a deep voice from behind.
Adam’s arms immediately dropped from around his younger brother’s body. Hoss released his hands from Joe’s just as Joe jerked free and spun around. The loaded gun, made a loud blasting sound just as Joe raised his arm. The older man’s eyes widened in shock, his hand gripped his right side as his huge frame staggered forward and then slumped slowly to the ground.
The three brothers watched in total disbelief as their father crumbled to the soil at their feet. Adam turned dark, blazing eyes toward the younger, of the three. His lips formed a snarl; his arm drew back as his fingers folded into a tight fist.
“Now look what you’ve done, you little fool…you’ve shot your own father!”
Joe, his eyes rounded in enormous hazel balls and clouded with instant tears, could only stand and watch, dumbfounded. Seconds later, Adam’s strong fist sent the smaller man toppling over backwards and into the dirt. The now discharged pistol, flew from Joe’s hand. Joe’s body rolled over twice before coming to a stop. The startled boy laid face down, slowly turning to look over his shoulder at his two brothers who were now bent over the prone figure of his father. Joe was unable to move as the pair carefully lifted the one man whom Joe cared most about and watched as his brothers carried Ben, unconscious and bleeding, toward the house.
Adam paused at the door and turned back to the boy who had just pulled himself to his feet. Joe had taken a few staggering steps toward the porch, but stopped instantly when Adam raised one hand and pointed a long slender finger in his direction.
“If Pa dies, you’d better be a thousand miles away from here…cause I’m coming for you Joe…and I promise you this…I’ll make you pay…with your life if need be, for what you’ve done!”
With that, the front door slammed shut. Joe stood, frozen, as if in a daze, unable to move, unable to think straight. The few last moments of his life seemed more like a dream, his mind was in a haze as he moved slowly with feet dragging, toward his horse, mounted up and rode off, into the night.
“He’s going to be fine, Adam. The bullet only grazed his side. It’s a nasty cut but it should heal without any problems, baring any infection and I really don’t think that will be a cause of worry,” explained the doctor as he rose from the bed and faced the two worried young men who stood hovering over either side of the bed.
Paul Martin turned to the China basin and quickly washed and dried his hands, turning back to Adam as he began to roll down his shirtsleeves.
“He’ll probably sleep most of the night, I gave him something for the pain, so don’t expect much out of him until the morning. Then just see to it that he stays in bed for a week at least and takes it easy. I left some extra powders with Hop Sing, just in case he needs them to help him sleep…see that he takes them,” smiled the family physician.
“Your father is almost as bad as Little Joe when it comes to being restricted to the bed…say…where is the lad?”
Adam, who had been studying his father’s face, glanced up, surprised as he glanced around the room as if looking for the one in question.
“I don’t know…I haven’t seen him since Pa got shot, I suppose he’s…Oh my God…” muttered Adam, rising suddenly from the bedside.
He looked at his middle brother and, unable to meet the piercing blue eyes, quickly lowered his head, turning away and moving to the window, his breathing became gasps as realization hit him right in the face, moving downward and piercing his heart like an arrow.
Adam pulled back the drapes, gazing blindly out at the darkness. He raised his head just slightly, catching his own reflection staring back at him in the glass.
“You bastard,” he mumbled softly, looking eye to eye at himself.
When the young man moved his hand, the heavy drapes fell back into place. Slowly Adam turned and forced himself to look at his brother, aware that the doctor was also studying his reaction.
“Take care of Pa, Hoss…I have to go after Joe,” stammered Adam, rushing from the room without a backward glance at either man.
The next morning, Hoss stood in the doorway, watching as his older brother rode slowly into the yard. Hoss glanced over his shoulder, toward the top of the staircase and seeing no one, stepped outside, pulling the heavy oak door closed behind him.
Hurrying, Hoss rushed over to Adam, waiting until his brother dismounted and turned around to face him.
Adam looked beat, his face was drawn tight; dark rings circled his bloodshot eyes and dust covered the man’s clothing from the top of his hat to the tip of his boots.
“Does it look like I’ve found him?” he spit at Hoss.
Hoss lowered his head, willing himself not to strike back at his brother with words that might hurt. Enough harsh words, spoken in a moment of anger, had already split his family and Hoss did not want to add fuel to the smoldering fire that he knew brewed beneath the surface of his elder sibling’s expression.
Adam, who had leaned his head wearily against his saddle, looked up and saw the hurt expression in the blue eyes that studied his face.
“I’m sorry, Hoss…it’s been a long night and I’m tired. I shouldn’t have snapped at you, but to answer your question, no, I didn’t find Joe. I’ve looked everywhere that I thought he might be…I even rode into town and talked to the fellas in the saloon; nobody’s seen him.”
“Dadburnitall, Adam. What’cha gonna tell Pa? He’s been askin’ where ya two were,” grumbled Hoss.
The rotund face bore a worried expression.
“What did you tell him?” Adam asked.
“I ain’t told’em nothin’…I kept changin’ the subject until he got so dang wore out that he fell asleep.”
“Good. What’s he doin’ now?”
Hoss scrunched up his face and shook his head. “Tryin’ to get outta bed, but Hop Sing’s taken over…he knows how to keep Pa from gettin’ up.”
Hoss smiled slightly. “He’s had enough experience keepin’ Little Joe in bed.”
The smile faded and Hoss became serious once again.
“Say Adam,” he said, following Adam to the house. “Wonder where Joe got to?”
The pair stopped outside the door. Adam shook his head.
“I don’t know, Hoss, it’s like the boy’s vanished into thin air.”
“What are we gonna do, Adam?”
“I don’t know, Hoss. I suppose I’ll eat, get some rest and go out again looking for him.”
Adam’s hand rested on the latch, his expression was grim.
“I wish to God I’d kept my mouth shut.”
He looked into Hoss’ blue eyes and the gentle giant noted that the mask his older brother usually wore to hide his inner most feelings had been misplaced.
“I hurt him, Hoss, badly…he’ll never forgive me…and I can’t say that I’d blame him,” Adam said in a thick voice. “I’m a jerk…a low-life jerk…that’s all I am…and to think of the times I’ve cursed that boy for not keeping his mouth shut!”
Adam made a mournful grunt and then opened the door, disappearing inside.
“What do you mean, you don’t know where he is?” demanded Ben.
He lay amid an array of pillows, propped up with his back to the headboard of his wide bed. A tray with his untouched meal straddled his lap. Steam from the cup where Hop Sing had just poured coffee spiraled lightly into the air, unnoticed.
“I mean…I don’t know where Joe is…” stammered Adam who stood at the foot of the bed, trying to avoid the dark angry eyes that he felt boring into him.
“Why? What happened, Adam…after the gun went off?” Ben asked in a lesser manner.
He refused to say ‘after he had been shot’, for he knew his being hit had been an accident, his son had not meant to shoot him, of that, Ben was positive.
“I don’t remember anything until I woke up this morning.”
Adam chanced a quick glance in Hoss’ direction, noting that his middle brother’s head was bent low and that Hoss was fidgeting with a string on his shirt. The gesture did not go unnoticed by his father.
“Don’t look at him, young man…look at me when I ask you a question!”
Adam’s head jerked upward; he was appalled that he had been spoken to in such a tone that made him feel like a little boy standing before his father accused of doing something wrong. His angry expression died as quickly as it had been born and Adam felt his body shutter. Hadn’t he done something wrong? Isn’t that why he stood, shamed, before his father and wasn’t that the reason he was being forced to give an account for his actions?
“What did you say to Little Joe?”
“What makes you think I said anything?”
“Because I saw the look on your face, Adam…and I know you, now answer me…what did you say to your brother?”
Adam’s lips stretched taunt across his face. Unable to bear looking at his father, he lowered his head.
“I told the boy that if you died…I’d make him pay…with his life,” Adam said, slowly raising his head and peering at his father from beneath thick lashes.
Adam saw his father inhale sharply and saw the fire that burned in his dark eyes. Swallowing, Adam straightened to his full height and forced himself to meet the angry glare of his father.
“You threatened to kill him?”
“No, not in so many words…but yes, if you had died, I suppose that was what I meant at the time…I’m sorry Pa, I didn’t mean it, not really.”
Ben spoke slowly, his voice control.
“Is that all you said to him?”
Adam let the air rush from his lungs.
“I called him a fool and then I hit him.”
Ben closed his eyes, shaking his head gently from side to side. When the moment of anger passed, he looked squarely at his son.
“I hope you realize son, that what happened out there was an accident…Joe didn’t mean to shoot me…”
“I know that!” snapped Adam, taking a deep breath to replenish his air supply. “Now…I knew it then, too…but I was stunned and angry at his carelessness. I said things I shouldn’t have…I know that and…I’m sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean them. But when I saw you fall, the blood…I…I guess…I just…lost it.”
It was Ben’s turn to let the air rush from his lungs, and he did so. When he spoke, his voice was calmer, for the anger had suddenly vanished.
Adam blinked and raised his head again.
“I want you to find your brother and apologize to him…bring him home…”
“I will, Pa…I promise,” Adam said in a remorseful tone. “I honestly didn’t mean what I said to him, I hope you know that.”
“I do…I know you would never intentionally hurt your brother…physically or verbally, but son…sometimes, words cut far more deeply than the sharpest knife. And I can assure you, Joe is hurting, he’s frightened by what’s happened and I know the boy well enough to know that he holds himself at blame for that bullet striking me. Poor boy, he probably believes he killed his own father!”
Hoss flinched at the words. Adam shuddered, lowering his head in remorse for having spoken in such a cruel manner to the young man whom he had helped to raise. In his heart, Adam knew that no matter what Joe might have done in the past, this most recent incident was an accident and he’d have to find the boy soon, before Joe let himself believe the worst. Adam knew his brother’s deep feelings for their father and he knew Joe well enough to know that if the boy believed he was responsible for his own father’s death, Joe might do something…no, thought Adam, I won’t let that happen, this is my fault, not Little Joe’s…and I have to tell him so. I have to find him and make him understand that I didn’t really mean what I said.
“I’ll leave right away, Pa,” Adam said after a long pause.
“Thank you son, I know you’ll find him and work things out. Tell him for me, when you do find him, that I’m alright…and I’m not angry with him, I know it was an accident. Please tell him to come home, where he belongs.”
“Yes sir, I will,” Adam promised.
It was still dark when Adam entered the barn and began to saddle his horse. The sun had not yet risen over the tops of the mountains and would not make an appearance for at least another hour, determined Adam. Once Sport was saddle, Adam led his mount from the barn, walking slowly across the yard to the side porch where he had set aside his bedroll and the small amount of supplies he would take with him.
As he tied his bedroll to the back of his saddle, he became aware of a presence behind him. He turned, surprised to see his father standing there, coffee cup in hand and looking a bit too pale for his liking.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed, Pa,” Adam said as he finished tying the little leather straps that held his gear in place behind the saddle.
“I heard you moving about…”
Adam turned to face his father. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I was already awake, in fact, I’ve been awake most of the night,” said Ben, taking a sip of his coffee.
“So have I,” Adam said with a solemn look.
Ben’s lips twitched slightly. “I know.”
Adam, his head low, raised up enough to be able to see into his father’s eyes.
“I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to bother you…it’s just that…”Adam sighed deeply, his eyes took on a distant look as he turned his head away to gaze at the surrounding darkness.
“Seems like I’m saying ‘I’m sorry’ a lot lately,” he muttered.
“Two little words, and sometimes they are about as hard to say as ‘I love you’,” Ben said softly.
Adam turned back, studying his father’s face intently.
“I suppose you’re right, Pa…I haven’t said those words in a long time either.”
Ben downed the last of his coffee and smiled warmly at his son. As any concerned father would, he slipped his arm about the young man’s shoulders; his tone was gentle and reassuring, yet firm and full of implication.
“Adam, when you find your brother…tell him both,” Ben said in a near whispered voice.
“Excuse me,” mumbled the drunken young man as he staggered along the boarded walkway, bumping into first one person and then the next.
The persons passing by either stepped aside or risked being bumped by the distasteful man. Several stepped clear into the gutter to keep from making contact while others just stopped and stared. The women snarled up their noses and turned their heads to avoid even looking at the dirty, unshaven man that tottered along.
Across the street, an older man watched with disapproval as he arranged supplies in the back of his buckboard. Moments later he was joined by another man who looked like a younger version of himself.
“Disgusting, isn’t it, Pa?” the young man asked, watching the drunk trying to get on his horse but not having much luck.
“I suppose,” the man said, climbing into the seat and taking the reins and waiting until his son had joined him.
“I have learned though, Thor, not to make snap judgments…one never knows what the underlying causes are that make a man to do the things he does. Giddy up…”
The father and son duo had hardly moved down the street then they were forced to stop suddenly. The young drunk’s horse spooked and bolted, tossing his rider into the dirt.
Buck Reilly pulled back hard on the reins, stopping his team of bays minutes before trampling the downed rider. Quickly Buck jumped from the wagon and elbowed his way through the crowd of men and women who had gathered around the motionless figure.
Buck kneeled down, gently turning the man over. He gasped softly, glancing up at his son who knelt on the opposite side.
“Is he dead?” Thor asked.
Carefully Buck ran his hands along the man’s sides, his legs and then he smiled in relief.
“Nothing’s broke. Help me get him into the back of the wagon…”
“Wagon! Pa…what are you going to do?” Thor said in a whisper as he glanced around to see if anyone had heard his father’s request.
Buck raised the man upright and with little effort, gathered the unconscious figure into his arms and started toward the wagon.
“Look at him, son…he’s only a boy…I’m taking him with us…now go get that pinto; tie him to the back and let’s get home,” Buck said firmly.
Thor shook his head, but did as his father had instructed and went after the man’s horse.
Buck had made the stranger as comfortable as he could amid the supplies that claimed most of the space in the back. When his son finished tying the pinto to the wagon, Buck took the blanket from the boy’s bedroll and covered him with it.
“You know, Pa…sometimes I can’t figure you out,” Thor said after the pair had ridden for a while in silence. He glanced back at the young stranger, who had yet to awaken.
“And why is that?” grinned the father, doing the same checking on the boy as his son had just done.
“I don’t understand…you don’t even know that kid, yet you gather him up and take him home with you like he was one of us…why?” asked Thor, studying his father’s profile as they rode along.
“Well, I’ll tell you Thor…he’s some man’s son, that’s why. And if that were you back there instead of him, I’d could only hope that some gentleman would do the same for you.”
“Ha…I’ve never been that drunk before…he’s completely stoned.”
“Perhaps you didn’t have the reasons to be stoned…that he apparently does,” explained the father.
“Maybe, but then maybe he just likes the bottle,” Thor answered.
“No…something’s made him want to get drunk…there’s something that he’s trying to forget…”
“Oh Pa, come on…how do you know that?”
“Well, look at him, son…he isn’t just a run of the mill kid. Take a good look at his clothes…”
“They’re expensive…and look at his horse and gear…whomever he is, the boy’s certainly not a street urchin, that’s for sure…”
Thor turned around and studied the young man’s face, his soiled clothing and then looked back at the pinto that trotted along behind.
“You got all that, just from looking at him?”
Buck laughed. “I was a lawman for too many years, son. In my line of work, it pays to be observant.”
“We’ll keep our eyes opened, Adam, good luck.”
“Thank you Charlie, see you, Mitch,” Adam said.
Adam turned his mount around and rode off, leaving Charlie Devlin and his son, Mitch, standing in the doorway of their barn.
“Are you sure, son, you have no idea where Little Joe might have taken off to?”
“No sir, Pa…I ain’t seen Joe in over a week. But I can tell you this much,” Mitch said, turning back to his chores.
“What’s that?” his father asked as he followed his son into the barn.
Mitch turned to look up at his father; his expression was one of bewilderment.
“It ain’t like Joe to run off…especially if he thought his father was hurt, regardless of the fact it was his fault…no, something else caused Little Joe to leave.”
Charlie stopped to ponder his son’s words.
“Wonder what on earth drove him off?” he said aloud.
“Adam Cartwright probably,” Mitch said, with a grunt.
“What on earth do you mean by that, boy?” Charlie demanded.
He was surprised to hear his son speak ill of his friend’s oldest son, he had always regarded Adam Cartwright with great respect.
“Ah…nothing, Pa…ya just gotta know Adam to understand…”
“But you make it sound as if it was his fault Joe’s disappeared.”
“Most likely it was…look Pa…everyone knows how Adam treats Joe…he always acts like he’s better’n Little Joe. He…”
Charlie’s eyes rounded as he stepped closer to his son, placing his hand on the rake that Mitch held.
“You wait just a minute, young man. Adam Cartwright is a fine man…he is not such a prideful man that he’d place himself above anyone, let alone his family. And…I happen to know that he cares very much for his brothers. True, he and Joe have had their moments, but remember, there’s nearly twelve years difference in their ages, why…Adam’s more like a father to Joe than an older brother…”
“Yes…and that’s been part of the problems between them…he treats Joe like he was kid instead of a grown man…”
“Well, for heaven’s sake Mitch, he’s barely nineteen…to Adam who is over thirty, that is a kid,” declared Charlie.
“Maybe to you and Mr. Cartwright, and even Adam, but not to Little Joe…and Pa, sometimes Adam says things to Joe…things that hurt, cut to the core…things he says in anger that should never be said…”
“Like your brothers used to say to you. Yes, I suppose that could happen, especially in a case where someone gets hurt…like Joe’s gun going off and Ben getting shot. But Mitch, Adam didn’t mean those things…if he said anything that is…and he is the one out looking for the boy…”
“Which means that Adam is the main reason why Joe…doesn’t want to be found,” concluded Mitch.
The wagon hit another rut in the road and this time the young man in the back moaned softly. Both Buck and his son, Thor, turned around to look.
“He’s coming around,” Buck said, pulling the team to a stop.
“Why are you stopping?” Thor questioned.
“You’ll see,” grinned the knowing father.
“Oh…oh…my stomach,” groaned the man in the back as he tried to rise up. “Help me,” he grumbled, holding his stomach, “I’m gonna be…Aww…”
Joe Cartwright had barely made it off the pile of supplies before loosing what little was in his stomach. Again and again the boy gagged, spewing the hot bile onto the ground.
“Hand me the canteen, son,” Buck said to his son, holding out his hand while watching the stranger heave repeatedly.
Once Joe had finished, he straightened up, wiping the residue off his lips with the sleeve of his shirt. He leaned weakly against the back of the wagon and slowly raised his head enough so that he saw the older man and the younger man watching him.
“Here,” Buck said, offering the canteen to Joe. “Don’t drink any, unless you want to be sick again, just swish it around in your mouth and then spit it out,” he advised.
“Thanks,” muttered Joe, eyeing the pair slightly before taking the proffered water receptacle.
Joe did as instructed and filled his mouth, swishing the water about for several seconds and then, turning his head, spit it out.
“Thanks,” he said again.
“Feeling better?” the older man smiled.
Joe scrunched up his face and barely shook his head.
He gazed around at his surroundings and then again at the father and son team.
“Where am I?” Joe asked.
The older man laughed softly.
“Don’t you know?”
“No sir…can’t say that I do…I…don’t remember much of the last couple of weeks,” Joe said and then turned away to avoid looking at the man.
Something about the way the gentleman looked at him, something in the man’s dark eyes, his mannerisms and the deep sound of his voice reminded Joe too much of the man he had loved with all his heart and whom…he had so recklessly killed.
“My name’s Buck Reilly, this here is my son, Thor,” Buck said, introducing himself and his son.
Joe looked at the younger man.
“Thor?” he mumbled.
“Short for Thornton…it was my mother’s maiden name,” the younger man smiled.
“And you are?” Buck tempted.
Joe swallowed and looked away again. “Joe…Car…ter,” he lied.
“Well now, Joe Carter, you look as if you could do with a good hot meal. When was the last time that you ate?” Buck asked.
Joe looked to be thinking. He could barely recall the last decent meal he’d had. It must have been lunch…almost two weeks ago. He remembered now, it was the afternoon before…before…
Joe glanced at the man who was waiting for an answer and who watched him closely.
“It’s been a while,” confessed Joe.
Buck smiled warmly, patted Joe on the shoulder and nodded toward the back of the wagon.
“Get in, you’re going home with us,” he ordered gently as he climbed into the seat once again.
“I…don’t want to put you out none, sir…I’ll be alright. Just let me get my horse and I’ll be on my way…”
“Oh no you don’t son, I said you’re going home with my son and I and I meant it. And as for putting me out…don’t worry, with all the boys running around my house, one more sure won’t matter, will it Thor?” laughed the kind hearted man.
“No, it won’t matter, Pa. Just get in Joe, it ain’t no use arguing with my Pa…he knows how to control boys, he’s only got five…”
“Five?” Joe stammered. “You have four brothers?” he questioned as he climbed into the back of the wagon.
“That’s right,” Thor laughed. “And I’m the youngest…I just turned twenty last week.”
“How do you stand it?” Joe said in amazement.
“Stand what?” Thor asked.
“All those men bossing you around all the time, telling you what to do…”
“Oh, its not so bad…most of the time, I just ignore them…except for my oldest brother, Chad…that’s short for Chadwick…that was my grandmother’s maiden name,” laughed the young man. “Chad is second in command, after Pa that is…so what he says is law, unless Pa says different. He’s a lot older than I am…he’s thirty,” laughed Thor and then continued, “But with Tuck, he’s next to me…we’re real close, he’s my best friend…Tuck is twenty-two.”
Joe’s mind began to wander. He had a best friend too, Hoss…Golly how he missed the big man.
“…Simon and Sam…they’re both twenty-six, twins…so when it comes to the chores, we just naturally all pair off; me and Tuck, Pa and Chad, and Si and Sam, so it makes for pretty good working conditions.”
“What about your mother…where does she fit in?” asked Joe, curious about this family of men and the woman that tended to their daily needs.
There was a long moment of silence when neither the father nor the son spoke.
“I’m sorry,” muttered Joe, “I…didn’t mean to pry…”
“No…you’re not prying, son. You had no way of knowing…my wife is dead. She passed about four years ago, when Thor here was about sixteen.”
“No need to be, death is something that we all will have to face someday. No call to dwell on the fact, it’s guaranteed,” the man said with certainty. “What about you, Joe…you got any family?”
“Family?” Joe repeated the word to himself.
His expression left one thinking that perhaps the young man had lost his best friend…which according to Joe, he’d lost everyone who had meant the most to him.
“None to speak of,” he said in a trembling voice.
Buck glanced back at the young man who had lain down on top of the supplies and closed his eyes. He noted the tiny droplets of sweat that had beaded on the boy’s brow and the way in which Joe’s hands trembled slightly. He knew the handsome young stranger was lying, but he had no clue as to the reasons why the boy would deny his family.
“That’s too bad, Joe,” Thor said. “As much as my brothers aggravate me at times, I’d not take anything for them. They’re a great bunch of men…I’m proud of my family…besides, when the chips are down…I have four brothers who stick up for me…there’s nothing like a brother’s love.”
Buck, touched by his son’s words, smiled softly to himself as he glanced over his shoulder. Joe had folded his arm over his eyes, blinding out the sun’s rays, but Buck noted the quivering chin; a pang of sadness for the boy washed over him at the sight.
“Pa…please…I’m tired, I haven’t been out of my saddle for more than a few minutes at a time in over two weeks,” Adam complained as he tossed his hat on the credenza and turned around to face his father. “I’ve been to Dayton, Carson City, Reno, I went into Sparks and over to Fallon and back to Silver City…no one has seen him…I’m sorry Pa, I just don’t know where else to look.”
Adam lowered his body into the chair and allowed his head to rest against the back. He sighed deeply, watching his father poke at the dying embers of the fire.
At last Ben turned and faced his son. A look of hopelessness, that Adam had not noticed before, shown in the dark chocolate eyes.
“He has to be somewhere,” Ben said quietly.
“Yeah Pa, but where?” Hoss asked.
Hoss had joined his father and brother in the great room after hearing Adam’s voice. He nodded to Adam.
“You look beat, big brother.”
“I am Hoss…I’m bone weary.”
Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly, smiling at last.
“I didn’t even welcome you home son, I’m sorry,” Ben said, sitting on the corner of the table.
“That’s alright, Pa, I know how worried you’ve been. How are you feeling?”
“Much better, thank you. I’ll be ready to ride out with you once you’ve rested. With two of us searching for Little Joe, we can cover twice as much ground as one man…”
“Two of you? What about me…I’m going too,” Hoss said firmly.
Adam and Ben both looked up at Hoss who stood over them.
“Ya ain’t leavin’ here without me,” he declared.
“Hoss,” began Ben, “someone has to stay here and look after the ranch…”
“Then you stay! I mean…umm…I just meant, ya really ain’t feeling as good as ya’d like Adam to think ya are, and I think ya should stay here and let me and Adam go find Joe…” Hoss stammered.
“I’ll do no such a thing…” Ben retorted. “He’s my son, and the boy thinks I’m probably dead by now…there’s no telling what’s running through that head of his…no, I’m going…”
“Pa, Hoss is right, I can see you aren’t completely well yet. Why don’t you let Hoss and I go…besides, what if Joe decides to come home…and you’re not here? Don’t you want to be here, just in case?” Adam tempted.
“Good, then it’s settled,” Adam said quickly, rising. “I’m going to bed, Hoss, we’ll leave first thing in the morning. Right now I want one good night’s rest in my own bed before I go another mile.”
Adam smiled sheepishly at his brother and then nodded to his father.
“Good night, Pa…you made the right decision.”
With that, Adam bounded up the stairs, fringing more energy than he actually felt.
Ben looked somewhat perturbed and his expression made Hoss snicker.
“Well, young man…I’m not sure how you and your brother managed to sucker me, but I’ll have you know…I haven’t agreed to anything…”
“Hold on a minute…you were right, son, I’m not feeling as spry as I’d like and the fact that Joe just might come home…is reason enough for me to want to be here when he does,” smiled Ben.
The smiled died seconds later and the sadness was more evident.
“I’m worried sick about him, Hoss…and I miss the boy something fierce.”
Hoss puckered up his lips and with a gentleness that was surprising for a man of his size, Hoss pulled his father into a hug.
“I know ya do, Pa…so do I, but we gotta keep believin’ that he’ll come home. And if Adam and I have any luck findin’ the boy, he will, I promise ya…we won’t come back without him.”
“Thank you son…I look forward to that day when I see him ride right up to the front door,” Ben said softly.
Joe raised his head and peered over the top of the wagon the second it stopped.
“We’re here,” called Thor as he jumped from the wagon.
Joe sat up and scooted to the end of the wagon, where he sat and watched as young men of various ages came from every building on the place and began circling the wagon, all staring at him.
Buck had moved to the back as well and smiled a greeting at each one of his sons.
“Boys,” he said in a loud voice, “this here is Joe Carter…he’s gonna be having supper with us tonight…so, who’s ever turn it is to set the table, add another plate.”
Buck turned back to Joe, smiling. “Don’t let them get to you, son, I know you’re not feeling up to snuff right now,” Buck said with a knowing wink. They’ll introduce themselves and then Thor can show you where to put your things. You can stable your horse in the barn.”
“Thank you,” Joe said, glancing around at the men who had gathered to meet the stranger.
One by one, the young men stepped up to Joe and quickly shook hands with him, telling him their names and then, just as quickly, excused themselves to carry off the supplies and to finish their chores. When the last young man stepped forward, Joe glanced up, hesitating briefly when he peered into the hazel eyes of Thor’s oldest brother.
“I’m Chad…guess you figured out by now, I’m the oldest,” Chad said in a deep voice than instantly jolted a memory from the back of Joe’s mind. The man eyed Joe suspiciously and in a way that made Joe feel uneasy.
“Nice to meet you,” muttered Joe.
“Where’re you from?” Chad asked, stepping back and folding his long arms across the middle of his chest. Another memory was stirred.
Joe swallowed. “Around…here and there…”
“So, you’re a bum…”
Joe felt himself bristle at the comment but before he could make a retort, Chad continued on.
“What do you know about ranching…can you…”
“Plenty…and yes, I can ride, rope and brand anything on four feet…”
“Ride…it doesn’t take much to ride a horse…but how are you at riding a wild horse…ever…”
“As good as you…maybe even better,” Joe said, his ire beginning to show.
“Well, maybe when you’re sober enough…I’ll let you prove it,” sneered Chad.
Joe’s eyes turned dark, his anger was evident now as he jumped off the end of the wagon and straightened to his full height.
“I’m not so drunk I can’t still sit a horse…I’ll show you right now…if you have a wild one that needs busting…”
“Oh, we have plenty of wild mustangs, Carter, but now isn’t the time.”
For the first time, Chad smiled and surprised Joe by offering his hand.
“I like you kid…you’ve got spunk…and around here, you’re gonna need plenty of it…friends?” grinned Chad.
Caught off guard by the man’s change in attitude, Joe glanced at Thor who was grinning from ear to ear.
“Take it, Joe…Chad’s always testing people…he don’t mean nothing by it, honest.”
Joe pinched his lips tightly and eyeballed the second man for several seconds and then took the offered hand into his.
Chad grinned, surprised at the strength he felt in the slender fingers of the stranger. Perhaps, Chad concluded, there was more to the boy than what was showing in the unshaven, unclean appearance and slightly inebriated condition of the newcomer.
“Thor, why don’t you show your new friend where he can clean up,” Chad ordered in a friendly manner. “Supper will be ready in about half an hour…hope you don’t mind beef stew and cornbread, Joe…”
“No…sounds good,” answered Joe as he untied Cochise’s reins from the back of the wagon and moved to follow Thor toward the barn.
“Joe,” whispered Thor with a sly smile, “when you sit down to eat, brag a little on Chad’s cooking…beef stew and cornbread is about all he knows how to make…and tonight it’s his turn to do the cooking…and if we don’t brag, he gets his feelings hurt.”
Joe glanced back at the man who stood on the front porch watching Thor and himself. Joe turned to his new friend.
“He doesn’t strike me as the type to get his feelings hurt very easily.”
“Well, not in most things, but when it comes to cooking…seems like Chad was the only one of us men folk who doesn’t have the gift…”
“Yeah, we’re all pretty fair cooks, even Pa…but not Chad…so…just tell him the stew’s good,” Thor warned with a laugh.
“I’ll do that…but how did he know I was…hung over?” Joe asked as he followed his friend into the spacious barn and led his mount to the empty stall that Thor indicated.
“Put your things in that back room, there’s a cot and everything except fresh water…we’ll get that later. And as for Chad…he’s been hung over a few times himself, Joe…and he’s nursed the rest of us through our share of hangovers.”
Joe peered over the top of his horse’s back at Chad.
“I guess that’s typical of an older brother…”
“Yep, Chad’s always been around when one of us needed him. He’s more like a second father to me and Tuck…Si and Sam are just sort of stuck in the middle. But Chad…well, he can be a pretty tough taskmaster at times, he’s a lot like our pa, but he’s fair and he’s good to have around when you need someone to talk to,” Thor explained. “I couldn’t ask for a better older brother, not saying that there’s anything wrong with Si and Sam…but, well, you wouldn’t know what I mean, not having any brothers of your own…but you’ll learn, if you stay around here for a spell.”
Joe turned his head, unable to meet his friend’s dark eyes. His thoughts flew home…home…where he longed to be, home…where he could never go again. Joe swallowed the knot that had developed in his throat and hurried to finish so that he could wash up and eat. His stomach had been gurgling for the past hour, reminding him that it was long over due for a meal.
“Sit here Joe,” Buck said, pointing to the place on his right, at the end of the table. “Since you’re left handed, you won’t be jabbing the man next to you,” he said, smiling at his guest.
“Thanks,” Joe said as he sat down and glanced around the table at each man present.
He waited until everyone was seated and when each man present bowed their heads, Joe did the same. Buck Reilly’s prayer was simple; he blessed the goodness of the Lord, his family and the bounty spread out on the table…and he thanked the Man upstairs for their new found friend and asked that Joe be made to feel at home.
Joe raised his eyes just barely, so that he could scan the group. His eyes briefly met Chad’s and instantly Joe lowered his head, a bit unnerved to know that Mr. Reilly’s oldest son had been watching him.
What was it about Chad that made him feel slightly uncomfortable, pondered Joe? What was it about this entire family that left him feeling…empty…that was it, thought Joe…empty, as if he had no one in the entire world and these six men, even though they were father and sons and brothers…had everything, they had each other. Joe sighed deeply, catching the attention of the elder Reilly.
“Are you feeling alright, Joe?” Buck asked.
“I’m fine…my stomach is a little queasy, that’s all,” Joe replied.
“Try eating something…but eat slow, son…your stomach won’t be able to handle a lot,” Buck warned. “I’ve been in the same shape myself a few times…I learned the hard way,” he smiled.
“Thanks for the warning, I’ll take your advice,” Joe answered and then held his bowl up for Buck to spoon some of the stew into it.
“So…where are you from?” Si, who sat across from Joe, asked.
“Yeah…you can’t be from around here, or we’d know it,” laughed Sam, Si’s twin.
“I’m not,” Joe said, looking down into his bowl.
He felt his stomach begin to churn.
“How old are you, Joe?” Tuck inquired. “You don’t look more’n seventeen or eighteen,” he laughed.
“How long ya been on your own? Man, I’ve always wanted to travel around, see the world…what places have ya seen?”
“Ya got a girlfriend, Joe?”
“What happened to your family? Don’t you have anyone, not even a brother or a sister or what about your ma? Is she dead too?”
“How’d they die, Indians?”
“That sure is a nice pinto you ride…you raise him?’
“How’s come you were drunk when Pa and Thor found you?”
Joe’s head had begun to pound and his stomach was churning and gurgling something fierce and he felt that if he took another bite, he’d be sick, right here in front of all these men. And he wished to God that they’d stop asking him so many noisy questions, and why on earth did they want to know so much about him and just how was he going to ever be able to explain why his father was dead and why his older brother hated him and planned on killing him and didn’t they know that it tore his heart out, seeing his father lying on the ground, covered in blood and the hurt and pain in Hoss’ sad, frightened eyes…
The world in front of him began to spin out of control, the pounding in his head was unbearable and the noise level had reached a near screeching pitch…Joe dropped his spoon and grabbed his head with both hands.
“SHUT UP! ALL OF YOU!” shouted Joe, shoving back his chair and standing to his feet.
He backed up, clinging to his head as if in excruciating pain. Silence filled the room as all eyes turned to stare in shock at the young man. Buck pushed back his own chair and moved around the corner of the table, placing his hand gently on Joe’s arm.
“LEAVE ME ALONE!” shouted Joe.
He lowered his hands, staring, with wild eyes, at the man before him. It was then that Joe realized…Buck Reilly reminded him of his father! The same deep voice…the dark eyes…the gentle touch. A sob caught in the back of Joe’s throat.
Buck instantly noted the wild, frightened and painful expression and the heavy sadness in the hazel depths of his guest’s eyes.
Joe was breathing rapidly, gasping. His brow was dotted with beads of moisture and Buck saw how the boy’s hands trembled.
“I’m sorry,” sobbed Joe, fighting back the tears.
He took a long deep breath and let it out slowly, turning to glance quickly around the table. He told himself that he had to get out…leave…get away from this family of men who only deepened his desire for his own…
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, turning to face his host. “I’ll get my things out of the barn and…go,” he said in broken words.
Joe turned and hurried out the door, leaving the six men staring at his back.
“Dang,” muttered Sam.
“What was that all about?” Si asked, not sure what had actually happened to cause the scene that their guest had just made.
“Boys…Joe…obviously is sick…and he’s hurting. Something has hurt that boy a great deal. And what he needs right now is a friend…or maybe six friends. Should we let him ride off…or ask him to stay?” Buck questioned.
“Stay…I like him,” Thor said without hesitation.
“Me too,” seconded Tuck.
“He does seem to be in some kind of emotional distress…why don’t you offer him a job. I’d like to see what he can do on ole Thunderbolt, once the kid’s feeling himself again,” smiled Chad.
Everyone else agreed, as he knew they would, and when Buck smiled and went out the door, the five younger men followed their father to the barn.
Buck entered first, seeing Joe putting the saddle across his horse’s back. Joe looked up briefly as the man approached. The boys lingered outside, listening.
“I’ll be out of here in ten minutes,” Joe mumbled.
Buck moved until he was standing on the opposite side of Cochise and could look Joe in the eye.
Joe raised his head; his eyes were dark.
“Stop calling me that…I’m not your son…I’m…no body’s son.”
“You weren’t always no man’s son…”
Joe’s eyes flashed red.
“Well, I am now!” he declared, pushing his horse out of the stall.
“I don’t know what’s eating at you…Joe…but I’d like to help you, if you’d let me.”
Joe paused just long enough to study the man’s face for a fraction of a second.
“Why? I’m nothing to you…or to anyone…”
“Because…I like you…we all like you…”
“No you don’t…you just feel sorry for me.”
Joe finished tying his bedroll onto the back of his saddle. He leaned his arms across the back of his horse and glared at the man.
“Don’t…don’t waste your time feeling sorry for me…I don’t need your pity,” he snarled as he grabbed the reins and began leading his horse out into the yard.
“I won’t, Joe…you seem to have enough self-pity of your own…”
Joe stopped instantly and turned around. The words struck a cord within his heart. The man sounded just like his father…even his methods were the same as his own father’s. He swallowed hard, lowering his head.
“Listen, son…I’d like for you to stay…all of us would. They’re standing outside…you can ask them. We need another good man around here…there’s always plenty to do…now tell me you don’t need a job or any money?”
Joe was silent for a long moment, aware that Buck Reilly’s five sons had moved into the barn and stood behind him.
“You’re offering me a job?” he asked.
“Yes…if you’re interested,” smiled Buck.
“You can start working the mustangs, just as soon as you’re feeling up to it,” offered Chad, making a crooked little smile.
Joe noted for the first time, the dimples in the man’s cheek…the image jarred lose another memory. Barely about to speak, Joe nodded his head.
“Alright…I could use a few dollars, but only on one condition?” he said softly.
“What might that be, Joe?” Buck ventured to ask.
Joe straightened up, swallowed and quickly glanced at all the men around him.
“No more questions…please?”
“Alright son, you’re entitled to your privacy…we’ll let you do the telling, when you’re ready, but you have to answer one question for me…and you have to be completely honest, understand?”
“Are you a wanted man…are you running from the law?”
Everyone in the barn with Joe was quiet, waiting to hear what Joe’s answer would be.
“No…I’m not running from the law…and…as far as I know…I’m not wanted anywhere, except maybe…here,” Joe said.
It was the truth, as far as he knew, reasoned Joe. With Pa dead…Adam would be looking for him…he promised, but hopefully, he wouldn’t be easy to find…this far from home, at least for a while. He’d work for this man who had taken him under his wing…long enough to save up some traveling money, and then he’d head…somewhere…far away, a thousand miles away Adam had said, so that he could try to forget what he had done.
“Then it’s a deal…you work for me as long as you like, or until you get ready to move on. When I’m not here, you report to Chad…he’s second in command…and Joe…I want you rested and in good health before you start breaking horses, so until I say when, you will do light work, understand?”
Joe’s eyes brightened slightly, but he still did not smile…smiling was a thing of the past…something he didn’t do anymore.
“Yes sir…I understand.”
“Good, now, come back inside…supper’s getting cold and I want you to eat something nourishing…you’re too puny…a good strong wind could blow you away in one puff!” teased Buck.
“Tuck, you and Sam get in here and put this boy’s things up…Chad, go heat up that stew…the rest of you, get back to the table!”
Men scattered in all directions, laughing and teasing each other as they hurried to do their father’s bidding. A pang of homesickness swept over Joe leaving him feeling as if he were all alone, even amid half a dozen men.
The next couple of days, Joe spent working around the barn. He cleaned all the stalls and tidied the tack room, repaired a harness and a bridle that he had found lying on a table in the tack room, and he stacked some hay that had been left on the back of the flat bed wagon. Buck had found other odd chores to keep him busy and to keep his mind off his troubles, for which Joe was most grateful. By evening, he was usually too tired to do anything other than eat and then go straight to bed.
“Good night, Joe,” Buck called as Joe bid the family good night.
“Night, sir,” Joe answered. “See you fellows in the morning,” he called to the Reilly boys who were scattered about the main room doing different things.
“Night, Joe,” they all called at once.
When the door closed, Buck turned back to his family. On his face he wore a slight frown.
“What’s wrong, Pa?” Chad asked.
Buck sat down in his chair and picked up his paper.
Chad laughed softly. “Now Pa…I know you better than that…it’s Joe isn’t it?”
Buck lowered his paper, aware that all five of his sons was watching him and waiting for an answer.
“Why don’t you boys go on to bed…your brother and I have some things we need to discuss?” Buck ordered gently.
The boys stood up, bid their father and older brother good night and headed off in different directions. Only Thor remained in the room with Buck and Chad.
“Did you want something, son?” Buck asked.
“Yes sir…if you have something to say about Joe…I’d like to hear it. I have a couple of things I’d like to discuss with you concerning Joe, myself,” Thor said.
“Alright then, son, sit down.”
Buck waited until Thor was settled and then urged him to speak up.
“Well, Pa…I was just wondering about something. Have you noticed that Joe never laughs…he doesn’t even smile…and…he doesn’t carry a side arm…”
Chad and Buck swapped knowing looks.
“Yes, I’ve noticed that. I have no clue about why the boy doesn’t carry a gun, but as for not laughing or smiling…I contribute that to his deep sadness.”
“Wonder what happened to him…to make him so sad?” Thor pondered aloud.
“Could be several things,” Chad said.
“Could, but I think his sadness has something to do with his family…or his lack of…”
“Why Pa, what makes you say that?”
“Well, Chad, have you ever watched him when we’re all together? It’s like the boy is standing at a window, looking in at us. His eyes take on a far away look, as if he is remembering a time, perhaps not so long ago. And he especially watches you, yet he doesn’t want you to see him doing so. It’s almost as if…he likes you, but holds you at arms length. I think you remind him of someone,” Buck explained.
“I’ve not noticed him watching me, except once, that first night at supper, when you were saying the blessing. But I have seen him watching you, Pa…perhaps you remind him of his father?” suggested Chad.
“Could be. Has he said anything to you, Thor, about his family?” Buck asked his son.
“No…not a word, but then I haven’t asked him either. I’m almost afraid to even hint about his past, especially after he asked us not to question him. I get the feeling that whatever is eating at him, he’d just as soon forget.”
“Yes…so do I,” agreed Buck. “Well, boys, I’m off to bed, I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow. Chad, I think if Joe feels up to it, you can let him try his luck at Thunderbolt,” smiled Buck. “Just don’t let him over do it…I certainly don’t want to see him get hurt.”
“I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear that, Pa. I caught him watching the stallion earlier today and he said he could hardly wait to give him a workout. I think the kid likes horses best of all…and for sure, he knows a lot about them, being so young, it surprised me. But someone taught him…and taught him well. I did ask him where he learned so much about horses but he just said he picked it up here and there,” Chad told them.
“Well, let him have a try, it might make him happy enough that he might even crack a smile…and I’d like to see him do that. He’s a nice kid, I like him…and I’d give fifty dollars if I knew what he was running away from,” Buck said.
“What makes you think he’s running away from something, Pa?” Thor asked.
“Intuition, son, too many years as a sheriff. I can usually tell when someone has something to hide, and your friend is certainly a man who is hiding a secret.”
“Then, shouldn’t you ask him?” Chad asked.
“No…not yet. Whatever it is, I think it’s something that he’s done…probably by accident, I don’t think there is a mean bone in his body enough so that he would do something bad to someone on purpose. I think whatever is eating at him was an accident, but we’ll wait and see. Now, I would suggest that we turn in for the night…”
“Alright, Pa…good night. Good night Chad,” said Thor.
“Night kid…sleep tight,” Chad smiled.
When Thor left to go to bed, Chad started to do the same, but his father held him back.
“Hold on a minute, Chad…I have something I want you to see,” his father said as he moved to his desk and opened a drawer from which he pulled out a paper.
“Look at this,” Buck said, handing the folded paper to his son.
“What is it?” the young man asked, glancing down at the print.
“It’s a paper that I picked up in town the other day…it’s from Virginia City, read the article on the second page.”
Chad turned the newspaper to the page and quickly scanned the articles.
“Whew…it says here they’re offering a thousand dollars reward for information leading to the whereabouts of one, Joseph Cartwright, age nineteen, hazel eyes, curly chestnut hair, missing since September 21st. It goes on to say that the young Cartwright is left handed and rides a…black and white pinto…”
Chad, his eyes wide, stared at his father. “That sounds like our new friend, Joe Carter…”
“…and, it plainly states that he has family in Virginia City…then if he has family…why did he tell us he didn’t have any?”
“He didn’t really say he didn’t have family, son, he only said, none worth mentioning.”
“Pa…even I’ve heard of Ben Cartwright…he’s a very wealthy man, he has the biggest spread in the Nevada Territory…and once he was even thinking of running for governor…why would Joe…run away?”
“I suppose only Joseph Cartwright or Joe Carter could answer that question for us,” Buck commented, taking the paper from his son and folding it back up, placing it in the drawer of his desk, that he locked.
“Are you going to ask him?” Chad wanted to know.
“No…not right away. I don’t want you to mention the article to him either, or ask any questions. For right now, we know he’s safe and well cared for. If he suspects we know about him, he’ll take off and if he does that, it will be that much harder for his family to find him.”
“But they don’t have any idea where he’s at…unless you sent his father a wire?” Chad said and then smiled at the gleam in his father’s eye.
Joe spun around when he heard the door open softly. He was surprised to see Chad standing in the doorway.
“I knocked, but I guess you didn’t hear me,” offered Chad, moving into the little room that had become Joe’s bedroom.
Joe swiped his hand across his face, drying the telltale signs of his unhappiness, from the other man.
“I was…busy,” stammered Joe. “What do you want?”
“Here,” Chad said, holding out a folded blanket.
“What’s that for?”
“You…I thought you might need an extra blanket, it’s suppose to get colder tonight and you have to admit,” he said, glancing around at the room, “this isn’t exactly the Palace Hotel,” he said with a smile.
Joe’s eyes scanned the room and then he took the offered blanket.
“Thanks,” he muttered, turning his back to Chad and then spreading the blanket out, across his bed.
“You don’t like me much, do you kid?” Chad dared to ask.
Joe spun around, surprised by the remark.
“What makes you say that?”
“Just a lucky guess, I suppose,” Chad said, sounding very much like another older brother that Joe would just as soon forget.
“Don’t call me that!” snapped Joe angrily. “I’m not a boy…”
“Don’t call me that either!”
“Alright, Joe…have it your way…”
Damn, thought Joe, does he have to use the very same words as his own brother? The man and his family were beginning to drive him nuts and he suddenly wished that he had not agreed to stay here.
“Pa said to tell you, if you feel up to it in the morning, you can have a chance at Thunderbolt…”
It was the first expression of joy that Chad had seen on the young man’s face since coming to the ranch.
“Sure…he said to take it easy though, and not over do it…he doesn’t want to be responsible for you getting hurt…”
“I’ll be fine…honest,” Joe said.
“Alright then…see you in the morning,” Chad said with a kindhearted smile. “Sleep tight.”
“Good night…” Joe called as Chad shut the door.
Joe jerked the door opened and called after the other man.
“Yeah Joe?” Chad responded, letting the boy think his slip of the tongue had gone unnoticed.
“I don’t really dislike you…its just that you…remind me of someone…that’s all. Oh,” said Joe, turning back, “thanks for the extra blanket…good night.”
For several moments, Chad stood in the doorway wondering about the unknown man, Adam…who was he, how did fit into Joe Carter’s life? Chad’s thoughts lingered on the strange young man who had somehow managed to work his way into all their hearts…for it was certain that everyone, including…or especially his father, was taken with the young man. What was it about Joe Carter, or Cartwright, whichever one his name really was…that had appealed to all of them? Was it because he was so young and vulnerable…or was it because they all knew he was hurting over something or someone in his life? Who could that someone have been…could it have been this man, Adam, and if so, what was it that had put such gloom into one so young? He could only guess for he would do as his father wished, and not ask any questions.
“RIDE ‘EM JOE!”
“STAY WITH HIM!”
Every man on the fence was cheering the young rider on. For Joe, it was the first time in weeks that he could completely forget all the horrid things that were wrong with his life. On the back of the wild stallion, clinging tightly, Joe could think of nothing else but hanging on for dear life. The stallion was large, strong and full of determination, just like his young rider. It was a contest of power and wills…will the horse succeed in throwing the willful rider, just as determined to stay in the saddle as the horse was of removing him? Or would the boy suffice and ride the stallion to the end?
“OHHH!” shouted several of the men as they watched Joe fly through the air and then land with a thud onto the hard packed earth.
Seconds later, Joe was on his feet, grinning from ear to ear as he approached the fence where the entire Reilly family waited for him.
“Look at that, Pa,” whispered Thor as he watched Joe dust the dirt from his chaps. “He’s actually smiling!”
“He sure is…shh…great job, Joe!” Buck said as Joe hopped across the fence.
“It was nothing,” he said cheerfully. “That was the best ride I’ve ever had…golly, I sure wish Hoss could have seen me!” Joe chirped, unaware of the name he had just let slip.
“Hoss…is that a who, or a what?” laughed Sam.
“Huh?” Joe said, his smile beginning to fade.
“You said you wished Hoss could have seen you make that ride…who is Hoss?” Sam repeated the name.
The others stood around Joe in a circle, each straining to hear the young rider’s response.
Joe’s eyes had grown dark and his smile died completely. He dusted off his hat with his hand and then plopped it back down on his head.
“None of your business!” he barked at the group and then elbowed his way through the circle, hurrying to get away from the gawking group of busybodies.
“Well…excuse me,” muttered Sam. “I reckon that boy needs a lesson in manners…and I’ve half a mind to teach him one,” mouthed Sam, his own eyes narrowed with anger. “Just who the hell does he think he is, anyway?” he continued as he headed toward the barn.
Chad reached out his arm and placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“Leave the boy alone, Sam…”
“No! He’s done nothing but whine around and bark at all of us since the first day here…and I’m tired of it,” snapped Sam, jerking away from Chad and marching on, toward the barn.
The others followed; all wanted to see what Sam was going to say to the new wrangler, and half hoping to see a good fight.
“Pa…you can’t let Sam do this…Joe is just now beginning to come around…a fight could send him packing…”
“I know that, but maybe…”
A ruckus in the barn broke out immediately and by the time that Chad and his father had made it to the door, Joe and Sam were going at each other like two, ole red roosters in a cockfight. Thor and the others had formed a circle around the two men, making any hope of a retreat, impossible.
Sam had just hit Joe square on the jaw and sent the younger man tumbling backwards, into the arms of the man behind him. Si, grabbed Joe, held him upright and then shoved the staggering boy back into the ring where he received another wallop, this time, the men in the outer ring stepped back and let Joe fall to the ground.
Dazed, Joe stayed where he had fallen, refusing to get up. The young men watched for a second longer and then converged on their brother as Sam marched out the door. Buck and Chad lingered behind.
Joe moaned and then pushed himself upright, surprised to see Mr. Reilly and his son still there. Chad was the first to make an offer.
“Let me help you, Joe…”
“Just leave me alone…”
Chad glanced at his father and when Buck nodded his head toward the door, he left, reluctantly.
Joe got to his feet, brushing off his trousers and then wiping his sleeve across his busted lip.
“I’ll get something to put on that cut,” Buck offered, going to a cabinet and getting some medical supplies. “Sit,” he ordered, pointing to an empty crate.
“Sit,” Buck ordered again, this time a bit sterner.
Disgusted, Joe did as instructed and sat down, allowing Buck to tend to the cut over his eye and to his bleeding lip.
“Ouch…” complained Joe.
“That can’t hurt too badly, can it…not compared to how you’re hurting inside…”
“My insides aren’t hurting, my head and my mouth are…not to mention the rest of me…from getting thrown so many times…”
“Ouch…that does hurt…”
“Tell me something…Joe…what’s eating at you…I mean really? You know…I’m a good bit older than you, and certainly a lot wiser in most things…I just might be able to help…”
Joe jumped to his feet and spun around, running his hand over his mouth.
“I don’t need your help, or anyone else’s…I don’t want help…understand?” he snarled at the man, knowing that he’d give his life to undo what he believed he had done.
Despite his brave attempt, Joe’s chin began to quiver and he was forced to turn away from the kind-hearted man. The events of recent weeks had magnified to unbearable proportions, weighing heavily on the slender shoulders and were just now ready to break the young man’s reserve.
“Why don’t you just go away…and leave me alone…?”
“I can’t do that, Joe…”
Joe turned to look back over his shoulder at the man.
“Why not…I’m nothing to you…you don’t even know me…you have no idea what I’ve done…”
“No…I don’t know you…not really, Joe…but I feel like I do. I sense in you…a goodness…a certain amount of integrity, a loyalty…”
Buck saw Joe swallow hard and look away.
“I don’t know what you’ve done, or what you think you’ve done…it doesn’t matter, Joe…I’d still like to help you…you can trust me, son…”
“Oh GOD!” stammered Joe, walking away.
He spun around, tears had filled his eyes and when he blinked, a lone droplet rolled down the front of his battered face.
“You sound just like my pa!” Joe shouted. “He was always saying that, ‘you can trust me, son, let me help you!’”
The tears dripped slowly downward; Joe moved away from the man and then turned around.
“Trouble was…he couldn’t trust me! I made sure of that!”
Buck gave the young man time to collect himself and then moved closer, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Joe stood with his head bent low. Buck could feel the tremors that surged through the young man’s body.
“Joe…what happened to break that trust?” Buck whispered softly.
Joe slowly raised his head and looked into the compassionate eyes of the man whom he had come to respect. He swallowed the knot in his throat and opened his mouth to speak, but the words seemed to be stuck in the back of his throat.
Joe shook his head slightly, looking off.
“I…killed him…my own father…I killed him,” he said in a troubled, whispered voice that had been drained of all emotions.
A sob caught in Joe’s throat as the distraught youngster turned, leaning his head against a post and began to sob.
“Dear God,” murmured Buck. “How, Joe…how did you…kill him?”
“It was an accident…honest,” he said. “I didn’t mean to…I didn’t even know he was there…but the gun went off…I was…fighting with…my brothers…and…the gun went off…”
Buck listened intently to the broken words, giving Joe time to rid himself of the burden he had been carrying around on his shoulders for weeks now.
“We…were arguing…Adam, Hoss and I…I can’t even remember what we were fighting about…all I can remember is seeing my father’s face…his eyes…he was looking right at me…he knew…” sobbed Joe. “My father knew that I shot him…but what he doesn’t know…” Joe turned at last and faced the man behind him.
Buck could see a multitude of grief and remorse on the young face.
“Is that I didn’t mean it,” cried Joe. “And my brother…Adam…he promised to hunt me down…and kill me himself if…if…pa died…”
The sobs became too much, and Joe was forced to turn away again. He moved into the stall where Cochise munched on his bucket of oats, and began saddling his horse.
“Where are you going?” Buck asked, anxiously.
“I’m leaving…you don’t really think that I could stay here…not after what I just told you…”
“I most certainly do, young man…now get that saddle off that horse, you’re not going anywhere…I won’t allow you to run away…again,” ordered Buck, grabbing the saddle from the horse’s back and flinging it across the stand.
“You can’t stop me!”
“I wouldn’t want to bet on that,” Buck dared, taking Joe by the arm and trying to force him to follow along.
“Let go of me,” shouted Joe, shoving Buck backwards.
Buck stumbled back, tripping over the crate that he had used to sit on, minutes before. Joe heard the man’s head crack against the wooden box and cringed inwardly.
“Mr. Reilly!” shouted Joe, moving quickly to the man’s side.
Gently, Joe lifted Buck’s head. His fingers felt the warm blood that oozed from the gash in the back of the man’s head. Joe’s heart thumped hard, deep within his chest, fearing that the man was dead.
“Dear God…not again…please!” sobbed Joe.
“What the hell…what’s going on in here?”
Joe lowered the man’s head, spinning around. Chad ran to his father, shoving Joe out of the way. Joe rose to his feet and backed up. Sam and Si, Thor and Tuck rushed into the barn, circling their father.
“What happened?” Sam demanded.
“I don’t know…Chad declared, looking back over his shoulder at Joe and the others.”
Sam spun around glaring at Joe.
“You did this!” he declared, pronouncing judgment on the young man.
Joe, still somewhat in shock, shook his head.
“No…it was an accident…honest…he fell…and hit his head…”
“I ought to kill you!” Sam bellowed, drawing his pistol and pointing it at Joe.
“NO! SAM, DON’T…” Chad yelled. “Lock him in the cellar…until we can get to the bottom of this. Thor…ride for the doctor, bring back the sheriff…Si, you and Tuck help me get Pa inside…we’ll deal with Cartwright later…”
“Cartwright?” stammered Sam, glancing at Joe and then back at his brother.
“Who’s Cartwright?” Thor demanded, glaring at Joe.
“Him,” Chad said with a nod of his head toward Joe. “Get him out of here Sam and then make sure he doesn’t get away…”
Joe was too weary, both physically and mentally to put up a fight against the band of angry brothers. He wondered only briefly how Chad had known his real name. Defeated, Joe led the way to the cellar, at the other end of the barn and waited while Sam kicked aside the hay that was strewn about the ground.
“Open it,” ordered Sam, jabbing his pistol into the middle of Joe’s back.
Joe obliged the man, bending down and pulling on the short rope that was attached to the hidden door in the floor. When the door was raised, Joe stood, looking down into the darkened hole.
“Go on, there’s a ladder there, climb down,” issued Sam.
Joe made a quick glance around at the others, seeing Chad and his brothers carrying their father out of the barn.
“MOVE IT!” shouted Sam.
Joe began climbing slowly down the ladder, into the darkened hole. His stomach was churning and rambling, as nausea washed over him. Once he was down, Sam pulled the ladder from the hole.
Joe could barely make out the man’s shadow standing over him. He heard Sam laugh in a disheartening manner and then the door over his head slammed shut. Joe’s world had turned pitch black. He refused to move, his senses were dulled by the events of the last several weeks. He felt rejected and all alone…and the one man whom he had always loved above anyone else, was dead…and the other man, Adam, whom he had always depended, though he was just now realizing exactly how much…hated him and was planning on killing him. But Joe didn’t care, not any more…death was better than living with the guilt that ate away at his heart…he wasn’t afraid of dying…only of being alone and in the dark. At last, Joe sat down in the middle of the room and began the long wait…sure that even here in the darkness that surrounded him, death would find him.
It was almost two days before the door in the floor was opened again. A thin ray of light filtered down from above, casting an eerie shadow on the crumpled form of the man who lay motionless in the deep cellar.
“JOE!” shouted a man from the rim of the opening.
“Bring me that ladder!” ordered the man holding open the door.
Thor hurried to do the man’s bidding and quickly slid the ladder down into the hole so that man could climb down.
“Hold this light!”
Thor held the lantern as directed, high over his head so the man could see to descend. When the man was completely down, Thor passed the lantern to his father and climbed down into the dark cellar.
“BRING ME THE LAMP!”
“Joe…Joe…come on boy…wake up!”
The man held Joe’s head in his lap, tenderly patting the dirty face with his opened hand.
“That’s it…come on buddy, wake up.”
Joe’s eyelids fluttered and then his eyes opened, forming thin, narrow slits. The glow of the lamp caused him to scrunch up his face, preventing him from seeing the face of the man who held him so tenderly.
“Joe…it’s alright now…”
The deep voice was so familiar…Joe strained his eyes, trying to make out the face behind the voice.
“Adam?” stammered Joe, trying to bring his eyes into focus. “No…no…it can’t be,” cried Joe in a weak voice that rang with indifference.
He struggled to escape the arms that cradled him so compassionately. Joe had thought he had wanted to die, but now…with death holding him in his arms, his spirit had begun to fight against his demise.
“It’s alright, buddy, I’ve come to take you home…”
“Kill me…kill me…that’s what…you’re here to do…”
“No Joe…that’s not true…I didn’t mean those awful things I said to you…I’m going to take you home…to Pa…”
“Pa?” cried Joe, calming slightly as he turned his head and gazed into his brother’s face.
“Pa’s dead…” sobbed Joe weakly, “I killed him…”
“No…don’t you understand, Joe…Pa’s not dead…he didn’t die…he was only wounded, he’s fine now,” whispered Adam, pulling Joe’s body tight against his own.
“But…why didn’t he…come…”
“Shh…because I wanted to be the one to find you, Joe…and I wanted to be the one to say I’m sorry…and that I was a cad for treating you like I did…I wanted to be the one to ask you…to beg you, if need be…to come home.”
Adam, his voice thick with emotion, sighed deeply as he leaned down close so that he could whisper and the two men with him could not hear what he had to say.
“I…love you…kid…come home with me, Joe…I’m asking you…please, come home.”
Adam helped Joe into a sitting position. The boy was weak from hunger and thirst and drank eagerly of the canteen that was offered to him. When he had satisfied his thirst, he turned, seeing Buck Reilly for the first time.
“Mr. Reilly,” stammered Joe, “you’re alive…”
“Yes, and so are you, thank God. I’m sorry about this Joe…I was out for several hours and just a short time ago woke up. The boys told me they had you locked up down here. They thought you hit me from behind or something…I couldn’t believe it…I’m horribly sorry, son.”
“We thought you had attacked him,” Thor explained.
“I set them straight right away though, didn’t I young man?” Buck said, glaring at his son. “Let’s get this boy out of here and into the house…he’s probably starving to death too,” the man grumbled as he helped Adam get Joe on his feet.
“Easy now, buddy,” Adam cautioned as he wrapped Joe’s arm about his shoulders so that he could half carry his brother up the ladder.
That night, Adam and Joe shared a bed together in Buck Reilly’s own private quarters. Joe rested beneath the thick pile of covers as Adam sat nearby in an overstuffed chair.
“Are you sure Pa’s alright, Adam? And he knows it was an accident…he doesn’t hate me?” asked Joe for the umpteenth time.
Adam’s soft laughter was a welcomed sound to the drowsy young man who fought against going to sleep.
“Joe, Pa is fit as a fiddle, or should be by now…and yes, he knew right away that it was an accident, he’s never been mad at you…only me…”
“You…why was he mad at you?”
Adam looked remorsefully at his brother.
“I said some pretty nasty things to you, Joe…things that should have never been said. I’d give just about anything to be able to take them back. Pa knows about those things…and he was furious with me, as he should have been. But he knew that deep down inside of me…I didn’t mean them…” Adam made a dull little laugh and then continued. “I could never…kill you…Joe…I can’t even believe I said such a thing…it was a stupid thing to say; about the dumbest thing I’ve ever said really,” Adam said a grunt.
“Anyway…I honestly wasn’t aware that I had even uttered anything so foolish, until Doc Martin asked where you were and I turned around and right then, I realized what I’d done. Needless to say, little buddy, I felt like an absolute fool…I left right then to find you…”
“How did you find me?”
“Believe it or not…Pa wired me at the hotel I was staying at in Wellington, saying that he had gotten a wire from a man in Hawthorne claiming that you were working for him, on his ranch. So I left right away and came here.”
“Mr. Reilly…but how did he know to wire Pa?”
Adam laughed softly. “Pa ran an ad in the Enterprise, posting a thousand dollar reward for information on your whereabouts. Mr. Reilly said he picked the paper up in town…”
“All the way down here?”
“Someone must have left it behind…who knows…but it served its purpose, Joe. I’m glad I found you…my butt was getting numb from having to ride so much…”
“Hey…I thought you said you loved me!”
“Yeah…well, we all have our moments of weakness, you know,” laughed Adam.
Adam had stood up and moved to the window. His back was to his brother; that gave him time to collect himself. Joe didn’t know just how much he was loved or missed or just how deeply his oldest brother hated himself for driving a wedge between them as he had. It would take a long time to repair the damage, Adam was certain. He wondered if his kid brother would ever fully trust him again, and the not knowing for sure was something that cut him to the core and something that he would have to learn to live with.
Adam turned around to look at Joe, but Joe had fallen to sleep. The sight made Adam smile.
“Tomorrow, little buddy, I’m taking you home…and in the morning…I’m going to start proving to you, that you can trust me again…I’ll go to the ends of the earth, if need be, to make you trust me,” whispered Adam.
Adam blew the flame out in the lamp. The room was covered in darkness as he slipped off his boots and then his trousers and crawled into the bed next to his brother. He could hear the gentle sound of Joe’s breathing as he laid his head on the pillow and stared up at the ceiling. He couldn’t really see anything in the dense darkness when he turned his head toward Joe, but he could picture the boy’s face in his mind and he smiled anyway, Joe was snoring softly.
“Good night, Little Joe…sleep well…”
A week later, the pair rode up to the front of the ranch house that had been home to both for years. When the door opened and Ben walked out into the sunlight, his face was aglow with happiness as he approached his sons.
He turned to Joe first, beaming with joy.
“Welcome home, Joseph,” he muttered in a voice, thick with emotion.
“It’s good to be home, Pa,” Joe said as he stepped into the opened arms that waited for him.
Ben encased his son tightly against his breast and held Joe for several long moments, cherishing the happy reunion.
When he at last released the boy, his eyes were dancing with wet tears.
“You look beat…both of you…welcome home Adam,” Ben smiled.
Adam offered his father his hand and when Ben placed his into his son’s, he pulled Adam into a hug as well.
“We are tired, it was a long ride.”
“Yes…yes, I’m sure it was…come on inside, Hop Sing’s just put supper on the table. I know you both must be starving…”
“Well, if’n they ain’t, I sure am,” laughed Hoss, grabbing Joe in a hug and spinning him around in a circle.
When he put Joe down, they walked together toward the house. Ben held back slightly to have a private word with his eldest son.
“How did it go?”
“It went fine, Pa…Joe was in pretty bad shape when I got to him, but…I’ll explain all that later…”
“I mean between the two of you, son…”
“I can’t explain the relief I felt, Pa…when I found Joe…I was overcome with emotion. He thought I was there to kill him…he believed that you were dead. Pa…I’ll never be able to forget the look on his face…he was actually afraid of me. It took some doing to convince him otherwise…”
“Obviously you did…”
“Yeah…I did…I told him I was sorry…and…” Adam hesitated briefly.
“I was sure that he wouldn’t believe me…especially after the things I said, but I took your advice and told him that…I loved him.”
“I’m sure he believed you son, if you spoke sincerely…there’s nothing like a brother’s love, Adam, and I’m sure Joe felt what was in your heart…”
“Hey, you two…hurry up!” shouted Joe from the doorway. “We’re starving!”
Ben laughed and turned to Adam.
“Isn’t it odd, Adam, some things never seem to change!”
“How well I’m beginning to understand that…but I know one thing that I hope never does change…”
“Oh…and what might that be?”
“Little Joe…I hope he stays just like he is, right now…full of spirit, full of vitality and happiness…laughter…mischief…it keeps you and I young Pa…don’t you agree?”
“Young? Take a good look at his hair Adam, do I look young to you?” laughed Ben.
“It’s not what’s on your head Pa, it’s what’s in your heart…”
“Then I hope your brother never changes either, Adam…”
“We’re coming, we’re coming!”