Be There a Stranger Among Us (by DebbieB)

Summary:  When Little Joe returns from a horse sale in Carson City that did not go well for him, his family notices a difference in his personality. Not sure why Joe acts the way he does, his family struggles to understand before Joe winds up destroying himself and his family’s good name.

Rated: PG (20,400 words)

 

 

                      Be There a Stranger Among Us

 

“Joseph, I mean what I say…ya better back off, don’t make me hurt ya!” shouted Hoss to his younger brother.

Joe jumped to his feet from where he had fallen in the dirt after Hoss shoved him backwards. His eyes were dark with anger as he leapt at the larger man who stood in front of him. Hoss quickly stepped aside, allowing Joe to fall a second time on his face in the dirt.

Joe twisted his head around and growled angrily at Hoss, “damn you,” he yelled, once again getting to his feet.

“Aw Joe, cut it out, boy. I didn’t mean what I said, I was just funnin’ ya, that’s all,” complained the bigger of the two brothers.

Joe dusted the dirt from his trousers and flashed a menacing look at Hoss. “I don’t like being called lazy!”

“I didn’t really mean it…but ya hav’ta admit, ya sure ain’t been pullin’ your weight around here. Ya been shuckin’ your duties ever since ya got back from Carson City. And ya ain’t been yourself either; ya been snappin’ and growlin’ like some ole mama bear. What’s ailing ya, Short Shanks?” Hoss ventured to inquire of his brother.

Joe cast angry eyes up at Hoss. “Ain’t nothing ailing me, why don’t you mind your own business?”

Joe turned in a huff, and walked to the barn. He jerked the door opened and entered the dimly lit interior, breathing a sigh of relief that the big oaf had not hit him. The angry young man grabbed his saddle and blanket and quickly saddled his horse. He swung himself up into the leather seat and giving a swift kick to Cochise’s sides, tore out into the bright sunlight, barely missing his oldest brother who was just about to enter the barn.

Adam jumped out of the way, startled by the sudden motion he pressed his back against the nearest post to the door. “Hey, slow down!” he snapped, seeing that it was Joe who raced passed him.

“Get out of the way if ya don’t wanna get mowed down,” barked Joe, kicking hard at his horse.

Joe was gone in a flash, leaving Adam sucking in large gulps of air to fill his lungs. Ben, who had just made his way into the yard as Joe was leaving, joined Hoss at Adam’s side.

“What in blazes was that all about?” demanded Ben.

“That boy!” grumbled Adam. “Nearly knocked me down coming out of the barn. You would have thought the devil was after him, he knows better than to ride an animal like that!” Adam was furious, his dark eyes grew darker and Ben noted the deep scowl on his oldest son’s face that distorted the usual handsome features.

“Yeah Pa, and Joe sure has been outta sorts since he came home. I was just funnin’ him a little while ago and he turned on me somethin’ quick like. Ya got any idey what’s eatin’ at’em?” asked Hoss.

Ben seemed deep in thought and it was several moments before he raised his eyes and looked into the faces of his sons. “No…” Ben scratched his head and followed Hoss and Adam into the barn. “He hasn’t said much to me at all come to think of it. He wasn’t pleased that things didn’t go too well at the sale, but other than that, he’s been unnaturally quiet.”

“And jumpy,” added Adam.

“How so?” Ben questioned as he slung his saddle over Buck’s broad back.

“When I went in to wake him this morning. He was already up and dressed. That in itself was strange, but anyway, he had his back to me, and when I called out to him, he drew down on me…”

Ben’s head shot up, his eyes wide, “HE WHAT?” stammered the surprised father.

Adam led Sport from his stall. “Sure did, surprised the hell out of me, too. When I asked him what he was doing, he got all mad like and told me I’d better not ever sneak up on him like that again. I was surprised that he had his gun in his room with him but I didn’t question him about that, I just tried to explain that I wasn’t sneaking up on him, but he just pushed his way past me and went on downstairs.”

Adam followed Hoss and his father from the barn and turned to mount up. “I just let it drop. I know Joe well enough to know when to back off. It’s like he’s been itching for a fight since the night he came home.”

Adam placed his foot into the stirrup and swung his long leg across his horse’s back. “You might need to have a talk with the boy, Pa, before he pushes me or Hoss too far. I’ll only take so much, even if he is my brother.” Adam kicked gently at Sport’s ribs and tipped his hat to his father. “I’ll see you tonight, Pa.”

“Same goes for me Pa. I don’t wanna hurt the kid, but enough is enough.” Hoss smiled slightly and bid his father bye and followed after Adam.

Ben led his mount to the hitching post and slipped the reins over the railing. His thoughts were on his younger son as he retraced his steps into the house. Adam and Hoss had both been correct, Joe had not been his usual jovial self since returning home from the horse sale over in Carson City. Joe had not gotten the amount he had hoped for from the sale of his mustangs, but it had happened before and was not something that usually pulled the boy down into a state of depression, as such seemed the case. Ben glanced at the clock, noting the hour and decided to follow along after his youngest son in hopes of getting a chance to speak with Joe in private about whatever it was that seemed to be troubling him.

Ben gazed at the horizon, his eyes hungrily searching the meadow for his son. He had ridden from one end of the grassy lowland to the far side and still had not located the boy. Ben’s heart had begun to fill with worry that something might have happened to his youngest and thus the reason for Joe not to be where he had been instructed to work for the day. The cattle below grazed lazily on the spring grasses that covered the meadow in many different hues of greens and yellows. Ben’s eyes racked across the heads of the small herd, catching a movement in the trees on the far opposite side. His heart, beat in relief when he spied Joe mounted on his pinto enter the clearing from the woods. He was just about ready to shout to his son when two more riders joined Joe. Ben quickly refrained from yelling and watched, unobserved by the trio on the other side of the field.

Ben watched silently as he tried to put names to the faces of the two unfamiliar looking men. Ben did not recognize either of them, but thought perhaps that they were new hands, hired by one or the other of his sons. Ben watched as the stranger smiled at his son and then turned, speaking to his partner. A minute later, the two tipped their hats at Joe, turned and rode back into the thick forest behind them.

Ben was puzzled at the exchange but waited, giving the two strangers time to distance themselves from his son, before riding out to speak with Joe. Buck stepped forward but Ben pulled suddenly back on the reins, stopping his horse from taking another step into the clearing. Joe turned his horse away from the herd and rode off in the direction of home. Ben pushed his hat back on his forehead, wondering why Joe chose that direction instead of riding on ahead to make his count of the beef grazing below.

As Ben rode into the yard, he was surprised to see Slim, one of the hands, splashing water from the trough, over his head. Slim turned just as Ben dismounted, catching his boss off guard by the bruises on his face.

“Slim,” Ben asked in an anxious voice, “what in thunder happened to you?” Ben moved in closer to the man’s face to better examine the minor wounds. “Who did this to you?”

Slim glanced sideways at his boss, not sure how to explain to Ben the bruises on his face. The ranch hand hem-hawed around before finding his voice.

“Well?” insisted Ben, helping his hired man into the tack room where first aid medications were kept for such emergencies.

“Hmm…Mr. Cartwright…I don’t rightly know how to tell ya this,” began Slim nervously. “I mean…I suppose it was my fault…not the boy’s…”

Ben stopped dabbing at the cut above the man’s right brow and looked straight into the gray eyes that suddenly could not meet his.

“Slim, I want to know who did this? What boy?” asked Ben. Surely not, Ben reasoned silently, as fear that Joseph might have been the cause for this man’s bloody face.

“Your boy, Mr. Cartwright…Little Joe,” stammered Slim.

“WHAT?” shouted Ben, angrily.

“I didn’t mean to make’em so mad, sir, but he just turned on me like I was nuthin’ and began hittin’ me. He was crazy like, Mr. Cartwright…I…I didn’t do nuthin’ to him, why I didn’t even try to hit’em back, honest,” explained Slim. “And then he fired me…”

“HE WHAT?” stammered Ben, not fully grasping the idea that Joe would have actually done what this man was claiming.

“I’ll be agoin’ now, Mr. Cartwright…if’n ya give me my due pay, sir,” Slim moved Ben’s hands away from his head and watched as the dark cloud of anger worked it’s way into the darker eyes of his boss.

Ben’s head shot upward. “You’re not going anywhere!” he growled.

“But…the boy…he…fired me…”

“The boy…you just wait until I get my hands on ‘the boy’! Who does he think he is?” demanded Ben though he didn’t really expect an answer from his hired help.

“I’m sorry…Mr. Cartwright…”

“Slim, what made Joe so mad? I mean, did you say anything, or do anything…not that I’m blaming you, you understand. I just need to know what set him off?” Ben had taken several deep breaths to bring his anger under control. He had noted the harried look on the workman’s face and feared that the gentleman might think that he held him responsible for his own beating.

“He came ridin’ in here like a madman. Demanded that I take his horse, when I took longer than I reckon he thought was proper, he started shoutin’ at me that if’n I couldn’t do as told, I could get my things and get out.” Slim rubbed his aching jaw and shuffled his feet in the dirt, stirring up a small cloud of dust.

“I suppose I shouldn’t of called him a smart aleck snot nosed kid, ya reckon?” said Slim, giving his boss a crooked little grin.

Ben couldn’t help but smile, “knowing Joseph, probably not, but that still doesn’t give him the right to do this to you. I’m sorry Slim; I’ll have a talk with the boy when he gets back. Did he happen to say where he was headed?”

“He mumbled somethin’ ‘bout goin’ to town. I thought it kinda strange for the boy to take off like he did, what with it being a workday and all…but hey, I wasn’t ‘bout to question the kid, hell no, I was still on the ground,” Slim stated, laughing lightly to himself.

Ben placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, and smiled, “You rest for awhile Slim, then, when you’re up to it, you can get back to work.” Ben turned and started toward the door, anger and worry written all over his face. “I’m sorry about this…”

Ben mounted his horse and headed straight into town. He had to find his son and talk to the boy. Something was very much wrong and Ben was determined to get to the bottom of it before young Joseph managed to get himself into any more trouble. He had managed to anger both of his brothers plus one of the ranch hands and now, even had his father angry with him.

Ben heard the ruckus even before he reached the doors of the Bucket of Blood saloon. He hurried to the front entrance, only to be shoved aside by Nate Barker as the angry man flung wide the double swinging doors.

“Dadburn fool kid!” he bellowed to anyone who would listen. Spying Ben, Nate turned his full attention to the senior Cartwright. “Dadburn fool kid,” he repeated, “Lookit what he dun to me!” shouted the angry man.

Ben had no need to be told to look; anyone within eyesight could see the swelling that was forming around the man’s right eye. It was obviously that the man had been cuffed and good too.

“Hold on a minute Nate, are you saying that Joseph did this to your face?” questioned Ben, puzzled.

“Ya dang tooten he did. Ain’t had no call to cuff me like this either!” grumbled the other man, rubbing the side of his face. “I’ve a good mind to go see Sheriff Coffee and have that brat of yours tossed into the jail!” Nate stuck his finger in Ben’s face, shaking it vigorously, “if’n the boy were mine, a trip to the woodshed would do him a world of good!” Nate turned his back on Ben and hurried on across the street, mumbling under his breath.

Ben shook his head, it seemed that Joseph was on a mission, and that mission was to destroy himself. Angered, Ben pushed opened one side of the twin doors and entered the saloon. His eyes opened wide at the destruction that had taken place inside the establishment. Tables were over turned, chairs rested upside down as well, a few were even missing much needed legs and broken glass lay scattered about mingling with the splinters of wood from the broken furniture.

“Well howdy, Ben,” smirked the barkeeper. “How nice of you to drop by!”

Ben didn’t much like the tone of voice the barkeep had taken toward him, but decided that if his son had done this much damage to his place of business, Ben could hardly blame the man for being upset.

“Did Joseph do all of this?” Ben waved his arm in the air, indicating the destruction that had been done.

“Yap, and the way I figure it, it should cost about two-hundred dollars to fix the place.”

Ben glanced at the owner’s hand, which was outstretched, and then into the man’s face.

“That much?” scuffed Ben.

“Yap, that much,” the barkeep met Ben’s angry glare and smiled.

Ben sighed deeply as he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a wad of bills and began counting them out, placing them carefully into the man’s opened hand. When the exact amount had been paid, Ben folded the remainder up and shoved the bills into his pocket.

“Any idea where Joe might have gone?” he asked humbly.

“Nope, he didn’t take time to tell me, and I sure didn’t take the time to ask. Look, Mr. Cartwright, it ain’t none of my business…but…”

Ben glared at the man, he was furious with his youngest offspring and took his anger out on the man before him. “You’re right!” shouted Ben at the top of his lungs; “it ain’t none of your business!”

Ben turned on his heels and stomped out of the saloon. He looked up and down the street, hoping to see Joe’s horse about. Ben glanced at the sun, guessing that it was near suppertime and quickly grabbed Buck’s reins and mounted up. He had decided to go home where he hoped his youngest son had decided to go, and besides, he told himself, he was hungry.

Adam and Hoss reined in their mounts and dismounting led the horses to the barn. Hoss, stopping in his tracks, allowed the air in his lungs to expel in exasperation. “Adam, will ya lookit this?” grumbled Hoss.

Adam moved in next to Hoss and stopped. He whistled softly, “What the hell is wrong with that kid?” snapped Adam, disgusted with what he was seeing. “Joe knows better than to leave his horse standing in a sweat like this.”

Hoss led Chubb into his stall and quickly unsaddled his horse. He then turned to Cochise and ran his hands down the front shoulder of his brother’s horse. “Lookit, poor animal is lathered.”

“Damn fool kid.” Adam slung his saddle over the railing and turned to Hoss. “Take care of Sport for me, will you Hoss, I’ll be right back.”

Hoss never got the chance to reply; Adam took off at a run for the house, throwing the door open wide as he entered. “JOSEPH!” shouted Adam at the top of his voice. “GET YOUR BUTT DOWN HERE NOW!”

Joe finally appeared at the top of the steps, standing only in his trousers and boots, his shirttail free from his pants and unbuttoned. “What do you want?” Joe snapped, angry for having been disturbed.

Adam, his anger plainly showing on his face, stomped over to the bottom of the steps. “Get down here, now,” he said through gritted teeth.

Joe swallowed, noted the look in his brother’s eyes and slowly descended the stairs. “What’s ailing you?” he asked, somewhat meekly.

Adam placed his hand on Joe’s slim shoulder and squeezed, making Joe scrunch up his face. “Hey!” he stammered and tried to pull away.

“Hey nothing…just tell me why you left a lathered horse standing unattended in the barn? You know better than that, you little fool,” growled Adam, his dark ebony eyes dancing with unleashed fury.

“Who you calling a fool?” barked Joe as he wrenched free from his brother’s grasp and walked away, turning his back to his older brother.

Adam grabbed Joe by the arm and spun him around, “you best listen up little boy. If Pa comes home and sees how you’ve treated that horse you were always so proud of, he might not think twice about tanning your butt, I don’t care if you are nineteen years old. Now get to the barn and take care of that animal,” ordered Adam leading Joe to the opened door and not too gently shoving him outside.

Joe turned the second that he felt his brother loosen his grip on his arm. He was about to open his mouth and make a smart retort, but seeing the dangerous look in the dark eyes, changed his mind.

“Okay, okay…sorry…I’ll take care of him.” Joe stomped off toward the barn before Adam had another chance to grumble at him.

Hoss had removed Joe’s saddle and was wiping the sweaty animal down by the time that Joe entered the barn. Hoss glanced up; his eyes were dark with anger and seemed to be shooting daggers at the boy.

Joe glanced at the ground, unable to find words for his brother. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll finish,” he stammered.

Hoss stood to his feet and propped his elbow along the lower part of Cochise’s neck. “Tell me somethin’ Joseph, what the blazes has gotten into ya?” Hoss pointed at the pinto. “You’ve always been crazy about this here animal, why ya doin’ him this way now? Don’t ya know ya could make him sick, leavin’ him standin’ like ya did, without so much as takin’ ya saddle of’em?”

Joe grabbed the blanket from his brother’s large hands and began rubbing the animal where Hoss had left off. “Aw, I was planning on coming back out and tending to him. I just needed to do a couple of things first, that’s all.”

Hoss stepped out of the way and placed his hands on his hips. “You know what Pa says…” he began.

Joe jerked his head up and glared at his brother. “No, what does the old man say?”

Hoss’ blue eyes went black with anger. He stepped to within inches of his younger brother’s face and pointed his finger at Joe, shaking it under Joe’s nose. “Joseph, if’n I were you, I’d be careful about how I spoke about our father. Your just about this far from havin’ that jaw of yours broken!”

Joe tossed the blanket to the ground and balled his hands into tight fists. “Come on big man, you don’t scare me!”

Hoss’ anger at his defiant little brother had passed the boiling point. Before Joe could even bat an eye, Hoss’ massive fist connected with the smaller man’s jaw. Joe was knocked into the wall; his head instantly began to throb but though dazed, threw himself at his brother. Hoss caught Joe in his arms and shoved him backward, just enough to deliver a second punch to the other side of Joe’s face. Joe crumbled to the ground, groaning, but refused to stay down.

“You oversized ox,” he spat at Hoss as he lowered his head and charged into Hoss’ mid-section.

Hoss wavered slightly as Joe pushed his weight into his brother’s stomach. “Dadburnit, Little Joe, will ya stop!”

“WHAT’S THE MEANING OF THIS! STOP IT THIS MINUTE!”

There was no denying the man behind the deep roaring voice. Both Hoss and Joe stopped fighting immediately as Ben moved to stand between his two sons. He glared first at Hoss and then turned to face Little Joe.

“Hoss,” Ben said, never taking his eyes off his youngest son.

“Yes sir?” Hoss replied in a small voice.

“Will you kindly explain what is going on here?” Ben turned back to Hoss. Joe moved to walk away, but his father grabbed his arm. “You stay right where you are, young man,” ordered Ben, tightening his grip on Joe’s upper arm.

“Sit!” he ordered his youngest as he pointed to a box.

“Hoss, I’m waiting,” snapped Ben.

“Hmm…well…Pa…me and Adam came home a little while ago and…well…Cochise was standin’ here all sweaty like…and…”

“And I went to the house and made Joe get his lazy butt out here to care for his horse,” finished Adam who had come in as Hoss was explaining about the condition of Joe’s pinto.

Ben turned dark angry eyes at his youngest son. He could barely trust his voice enough to speak. “Go to your room, Joseph, NOW!” bellowed Ben. “I will be up shortly.”

Joe stood to his feet, his own anger surfacing rapidly. “Go to my room? You gotta be kidding?” he growled.

Hoss’ eyes bugged out; Adam’s lower jaw went slack. He could hardly believe his ears; Joe defying their father in such a rude manner was unheard of.

Ben stepped face to face with Joe, his body quivering with pent-up rage. In a voice so deep that it seemed non-existent, he spoke slowly, “do I look like I’m joking?”

Joe’s gaze never waived from his father’s, which surprised both of his older brothers. Joe opened his mouth to speak, but saw the way in which Ben’s lips pressed tighter together and thought better of it.

Without uttering a word, Joe stepped around his father and headed toward the house. Adam swapped concerned looks with Hoss and then moved to stand beside of his father.

“Are you all right, Pa?” he asked softly.

Ben glanced up at Adam then Hoss, turning to look over his shoulder. “JOSEPH!” he shouted, running for the barn door and surprising the two brothers who scrambled to get out of their father’s way.

Joe, mounted on a roan mare that one of the hands had just tied to the hitching post, rounded the corner of the barn just as Ben stepped from it. Dust was floating down from the small cloud stirred up by the charging hooves that flew past him.

Ben could hardly control his shaking, never in all of his life had his youngest son made him so furious. Ben was just about ready to explode, his fists were drawn up into tight knots, his breathing was labored and when he turned, his other two sons could see the anger that billowed up just beneath the surface of their father’s caliginous eyes.

“Pa,” Adam said quickly, “just let him go. He’ll be back home later. By then all of us would have had time to cool off.”

Ben shook his head in disgust and gave Adam a doubtful look. He turned, unable to voice his thoughts and marched to the house. Adam turned to face Hoss and noted the distressed expression on his larger brother’s face. He could not refrain from placing a reassuring hand on the big fella’s shoulder.

“Try not to worry Hoss, everything will work out, in time,” offered Adam, hoping to take some of the worry from his brother’s expression.

Hoss shook his head, digging his toe into the dirt, he glanced toward the house. “I don’t know Adam, I ain’t ever seen our Pa look so broken. He’s worried sick, that’s for sure…and Little Joe…why Adam, somethin’s bad wrong with’em, the way he’s actin’ and all. If I didn’t know no better, I’d think maybe…naw…forget it,” mused Hoss.

“Hey big guy, whatever is eating at our little brother, he better get worked out pretty soon. Pa is not going to tolerate his insolence much longer. Can you believe his nerve? I always said that, that boy had more guts than most men,” Adam brushed his fingers through his hair and gave Hoss a small crooked smile. “Joe sure isn’t short on nerve, is he?”

“Naw, but that short fuse of his’n has already started a blaze, did ya see the look in Pa’s eyes when Joe asked him if he were kiddin’? I dang near had a heart attack when he said that…Adam…” Hoss hesitated briefly, “I’m worried about Little Joe…I mean…this ain’t funny, what’s he adoin’”

“I know that Hoss, and I’m worried too. Joe isn’t his self that’s for sure. I sure would like to know what happened at that sell,” Adam stated, moving to close the barn door before going to the house.

Ben paced the floor; his anger had lessened somewhat since the early evening when Joe had ridden out of the yard. He pulled back the curtain that covered the window behind his desk, knowing full well that he could see nothing due to the darkness that had over taken the last rays of evening light. Ben heard himself sigh; he was worried, about Joseph.

It was late when Joe rode into the yard. The moon lit the night giving Joe just the right amount of light needed to see his way to the barn. He quietly eased opened the heavy barn door and led his mount inside. Cochise nickered softly as Joe paused to scratch at the velvety softness of his pinto’s nose. Sudden guilt washed over the young man and he hung his head in shame.

“I’m sorry Cochise, I didn’t mean to neglect you like I did.” Joe gently ran his hands down the horse’s long silky neck and leaned his head against the softness. “You are a beautiful animal, I promise you, it won’t happen again.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

Joe whirled around, pivoting on his toes until he stood face to face with his father. As he glanced up he noted that the raging anger that he had seen earlier in his father’s eyes, was now gone, replaced by what could be recognized as worry.

At a loss for words, Joe moved past Cochise and led the roan into the vacant stall and began removing the saddle.

“Joseph,” began Ben, willing his voice to remain steady though inside of himself, he could feel the tremors that begged for release.

“Pa, look…I’m sorry…about everything.” Joe turned to face his father. “I shouldn’t have done what I did, I know that…and I’m sorry. Do we have to talk about this tonight? I’m tired and I all I want now is to go to bed.”

“You’re sorry? Joseph, do you think that just by saying ‘I’m sorry’, everything will be all right? Do you realize what all you have managed to do today? You have wreaked havoc from here to Virginia City. Please tell me what has been going through your mind!” Ben stood facing his son, Joe’s features barely visible in the dim glow that the moon still cast in to the doorway of the barn.

Joe pushed his way past his father avoiding looking into the dark eyes that followed his every move. “I don’t know…okay? I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? What kind of an answer is that, young man?” snapped Ben, feeling his anger begin to surface. Perhaps his son had been right, maybe they needn’t talk about this tonight, some things might better be settled after a night’s rest.

Ben stepped close to Joe, who had turned his back to his father, and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Son, you’re right, we’ll talk about this in the morning. Why don’t you go on in and get some rest. I’ll finish taking care of things in here for you.”

Ben felt the tension that had hardened the muscles across Joe’s shoulder blade and gently applied pressure. He was surprised when Joe moved away from the tender touch and without another word or glance in his father’s direction, walked out of the barn.

Ben allowed his hand to fall heavily to his side and sighed deeply. His youngest son’s behavior was still a mystery and though he had hoped to get to the bottom of whatever was causing the boy such inner turmoil, nothing had been settled this night. Ben turned to the care of the horse that Joe had ridden and quickly finished tending to the animal.

Silently, Ben sat on the edge of his bed and pulled his boots from his feet, rubbing away the soreness from the bottom of his soles. His mind allowed his thoughts to wander and immediately he recalled the scene in the meadow where Joe had met with the two unknown riders. Ben wondered how the strangers played into Joe’s misconduct and irritating mood swings. He would question Adam in the morning about the odd characters to see if perhaps he might have hired the men and forgotten to tell him that they had been added to the payroll. The payroll! There was another thing to worry about, sighed Ben as sleep fought to claim him.

“Morning, Boss,” greeted Slim, looking none the worse for wear. “I dun got your horse saddled for you.”

“Thank you Slim. How is that head of yours this morning?” Ben questioned as he gathered Buck’s reins into his hand.

Slim nodded his head, giving Ben a crooked smile. “Aw, tweren’t nothing Mr. Cartwright. It didn’t hurt much, ‘sides, it’d take a lot more’n that young buck’s fist to put me down and keep me down. Don’t ya worry yourself none about me.”

Ben swung into his saddle and turned Buck. “Well, just see that you take it easy today. By the way, have you seen that young buck this morning?”

“Sure ‘nough. He was up and gone bright and early…stopped by to tell me that he was sorry about yesterday too, he did,” smiled Slim as he moved away from Ben’s horse.

“He did?” Ben was surprised to hear the news, though he shouldn’t have been. Joe was a man who, once realizing his mistakes, always took the time to try to make things right.

“Yes siree, he did,” beamed the ranch hand. “Well, boss, I got work to do, don’t wanna get fired again today,” he laughed softly as he moved into the tack room and began straightening things up.

“Pa! Wait up,” Adam shouted, rushing from the house.

Ben had just started to nudge his horse forward when the sound of his son’s deep voice reached his ears. “What’s wrong, Adam?”

“Nothing’s wrong, I was just wondering if you were going into town to talk to Roy about that payroll shipment that’s coming in on tomorrow’s stage. We need extra men to ride guard once it’s taken off the stage,” replied Adam.

“That’s where I was headed. I plan on using some of our own men to help guard it while it’s being transported out here. I’ll feel better about it with our own people riding with us.”

“That’s a good thought, Pa. Tell Roy I said hello.” Adam gave his father a flashing smile and stepped back from the horse. “Be careful,” he added.

“I plan to…oh, Adam, by the way. You didn’t happen to hire a couple of new men to help out with the herd in the north pasture did you?” Ben questioned.

“New men? No sir, I haven’t hired anyone is several weeks. Didn’t see any need to. Why, is something wrong Pa?” Adam noted the uncertain expression that had embedded itself into his father’s features.

“Wrong?” muttered Ben, disturbed by the images of his son as he conversed with the two strangers the day before. “No, nothing’s wrong, I was just wondering, that’s all.”

No sense in worrying Adam about his doubts until he could speak with Joe and find out first hand who the strangers were and what they had been up too.

“I’ll be back by noon, son. Will you tell Hoss to have some men ready to stand guard when that payroll gets here?”

“Done, did that,” beamed Hoss as he joined Adam to bid their father goodbye.

Ben smiled down at his two oldest sons. He could always rely on these two, he thought to himself, comforted by their silent strength and loyalty. Suddenly the reassuring feeling vanished as Joe’s face fluttered in front of his mind’s eye. ‘Joseph’, his heart cried.

Ben had spent the morning searching the north meadow for his youngest son. When his search ended up with finding nothing other than droppings, showing that a horse had passed that way, Ben turned his horse away from the small herd that grazed leisurely. Following the tracks that led in the opposite direction, Ben crept slowly along, inspecting every inch of the ground until he spied what he had been looking for. Quickly pulling his horse to a stop, Ben dismounted and surveyed the ground, being careful not to destroy the signs. It was as he suspected; Joe’s horse had stopped here and had been joined by another. Ben could see where the two individuals had dismounted and moved around, leaving booted footprints in the dirt. When the tracks seemed to move clear of the area, Ben followed along on foot. Suddenly he stopped for sprawled face down in the tall grasses, nearly hidden from view lay a man.

Ben dropped the reins and rushed to the man’s still form. Gently he turned the man over. It was plain to see that the man had been shot in the chest at close range. Blood seeped from the deep hole just above the man’s heart where it covered the entire front of the faded shirt that the man wore.

Ben placed his fingers to the man’s neck, seeking a pulse. Much to his relief, his fingers felt the weak beating action that he had hoped to find. Ben raised the man’s head just enough to rest it on his lap. The wounded man moaned in pain and slowly opened his eyes, finding the face of the man who held him tenderly.

Ben watched as the man tried to speak his voice sounding weak and full of pain.

“Shh…take it easy mister. Can you tell me your name?” Ben asked as he removed his neck scarf with his free hand and stuffed it into the gashing hole that had ripped apart the man’s flesh.

“B…Bart…oh…it hurts…” whined the man.

“I know, just try to hang on.” Ben glanced around him, hoping to find someone who could help him. Bart groaned and Ben felt the man’s body arch slightly as pain coursed through him. When Ben glanced again into the man’s face, Bart had closed his eyes, his breathing had become shallow and Ben knew that the man’s time was soon to come.

“Bart…Bart…” urged Ben.

Bart’s eye lashes fluttered as he struggled to open his eyes.

“Can you tell me who did this to you? Who shot you?” Ben had lowered his head. Bart had begun to mumble and his voice was so low that it was almost impossible for Ben to hear the man’s words.

“Who Bart? Who shot you?”

“The…boy…” stammered the dying man, his eyes closing slightly.

“What boy?” Ben pushed the man for an answer, knowing that the man would die, he needed information to take back to town with him. Something for the sheriff to go on, a name.

“Bart, listen to me…I have to know who shot you…so that the sheriff can arrest him. Try Bart…try,” encouraged Ben.

Bart raised his hand slowly over his head and seemed to be pointing at something in the distance. His eyes had found Ben’s and Ben noted the frightened look that swallowed away the color from the irises.

“J…Joe…Cart…wri…t.”

His hand fell limply to the ground. Bart took his last breath, his voice faded and his head fell against the chest of the startled man who held him within his arms.

The color drained from Ben’s face. His breathing became labored as he tried to absorb the man’s last words. His dark chocolate eyes stared out at nothing, while his mind brought a picture of the face of his youngest son before his blinded eyes.

Joseph? Had he heard correctly? Had the man’s dying words named his son as killer?

‘NO!’ screamed Ben’s heart. ‘It can’t be true…not Little Joe…not his sweet, green eyed little impish son that he had nurtured all of his life and loved more than life itself,’ wept the disheartened father.

Ben sucked in large gulps of air to fill his lungs and steady his trembling. Ben glanced down at the dead man and wondered who he had been and why had he named his youngest son as the man who had fired the shot that had ended a life. Getting slowly to his feet, Ben placed the man’s head on the ground and grabbed his bedroll. Within minutes, Ben had the body securely wrapped and laid across his saddle. Ben mounted behind the corpse and turned his horse toward Virginia City. Before he had ridden less than half a mile, Ben changed directions and went instead, back to the ranch. He had to talk to Adam and Hoss, they had to find Joe and figure out what was going on.

As Ben rode into the yard and guided his horse to the hitching rail, Hoss and Adam came from the barn and quickly made their way to Ben’s side.

“Who’s this?” asked Hoss as he pulled the corner of the blanket up to see the man’s face.

“Bart somebody…he didn’t get time to tell me his last name,” replied Ben as he stared at his two sons. “Either of you ever see him before?”

“No sir,” answered Hoss moving to allow Adam room to look at the man.

“Me neither. How’d he die?”

“Shot at close range, bullet hit him just above the heart. Either of you seen Little Joe?” Ben asked, his voice deep with foreboding.

Adam glanced at Hoss and then back at his father. “No. Why, something wrong?”

“This man claims that it was your brother who shot him and left him for dead,” Ben stated flatly with no emotion. “Take care of the body for me, will you please. I need a drink.”

Both young men stared at their father’s broad back as he walked slumped shouldered, toward the house. Adam grabbed Buck’s reins from around the post and glared at Hoss.

“I’d like to know what in the hell is going on around here,” he muttered as he led his father’s horse to the barn.

The three Cartwrights rode their horses down the middle of Virginia City’s main street toward the sheriff’s office. A horse bearing the body of the dead man followed behind the last horse. Ben stopped in front of the building and started to dismount just as Roy was coming from his office.

“Well howdy there, Ben. Who do you have with you?” questioned Roy, walking slowly over to the corpse that stretched across the back of the horse. He slowly lifted the blanket and studied the man’s face. “Don’t believe I know this one. Got and idey who he is?”

“Said his name was Bart. He died before he was able to tell me his last name.” Ben had dismounted and stood to Roy’s right.

“What happened to him?”

“Gun shot to the chest, at close range,” explained Ben then glanced up at his sons who had remained on their horses.

“Any idey who kilt him?” Roy let the blanket down to cover the dead man’s head and turned to his deputy. “Take care of this for me, will ya Clem?”

Ben shuffled his feet in the dirt, hesitating to give out the information. He cut his eyes up at Adam and suddenly felt the pit of his stomach churn. Ben was forced to close his eyes, forcing the picture of his youngest son’s face from his mind.

“Ben, you all right?” asked Roy, seeing the strange expression that washed the color from his friend’s face.

“The man claimed that Joe shot him and left him for dead,” stammered Ben.

“What!” Roy practically shouted. “Ya don’t mean Little Joe?”

Hoss swung his long leg across his saddle and stepped up to Roy and his father. “That’s right Roy, he said Little Joe, but the man was alyin’, I know, I jist know he was. Little Joe wouldn’t go around shootin’ somebody and jist leave’em to die like that.”

The sheriff turned to Ben, noting the haggard look on Ben’s tired face. “Let’s go into my office.” Roy opened the door and allowed Ben and his son’s to enter first and then followed, shutting the door firmly behind him.

“Now, Ben, let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this. Where is Little Joe and what does he have to say about how this happened?” Roy seated himself at his desk as the others found seats in front of the desk.

Ben took a deep breath and slowly began from the beginning, starting with the day that Joe returned from the sale of his horses in Carson City. Joe had seemed irritated from the first day. Things hadn’t gone as expected for him, he had not gotten the price he had hoped for, for the mustangs that he had worked so hard to round up and then break to saddle. He had argued with his brothers, constantly and had been short tempered with his father. Ben explained to the sheriff about Joe’s meeting with the strange men when he should have been working the herd in the north pasture. Roy had been aware of the fight that had cost Ben a large sum of money to restore the saloon down the street. Ben explained that Joe had gotten angry with one of the new ranch hands and had even fought with the man, leaving the man’s face bloody and bruised. He did inform Roy that Joe had, however, apologized to the man the next morning. Roy’s dark brows drew downward when Hoss told him how Joe had mistreated his horse, leaving the animal standing in a sweat in the barn. His eyes turned dark as Adam explained about the morning that he had stepped into Joe’s bedroom to wake him and Joe drew his pistol on his brother.

Several moments passed before Roy found his voice. He stood to his feet and strolled to the window, peeking out at the people moving about on the street. Finally, he turned to Ben.

“Ben, ya say ya don’t have any idey where Little Joe is now?” he asked, turning back to face the worried father.

Ben shook his head. “No Roy, but I wish I had.”

The man’s attention was drawn from the matter at hand by a ruckus down the street. Clem burst into the office, his face a mixture of excitement and anger rolled into one.

“Ya better get out here Roy, that payroll that was supposed to come in on tomorrow’s stage came in on today’s. What’s left of it,” he added, stepping aside as Ben and his sons hurried to follow Roy from the office.

Each man took off running down the street toward the stage depot. Jake was climbing down from the front. His face was dusty and dirty, his shirt had been ripped and blood oozed from a wound in his left arm.

Adam jerked opened the stage door and peered inside. Three men, the ones assigned to guard the shipment lay sprawled about on the seats. One man was dead, another was just about to join his comrade and the third was moaning loudly.

“What happened Jake?” Hoss asked, helping the man down from his perch. “They come’d outta nowhere. There were four of them; they surprised us just north of the cut off to Virginia City. We didn’t have a chance, Mr. Cartwright. I’m…sorry about your money,” stammered the weakened man.

Ben gently placed his hand on the man’s arm. “It’s all right Jake, you did the best you could.” Turning, he called out. “Somebody get this man to the doctor’s.” Several hands reached around the wounded stage driver and started to help take him to the doctor’s office.

“Jake,” Roy called out. “Which way did they go?”

“North, up toward the canyon,” he managed to say before passing out.

Adam turned to his father, pulling him off to the side. “Pa, how did they know that we switched days for the delivery of that payroll?”

Ben seemed to suddenly snap to attention. “That’s right son, how did they know.”

“Sounds to me like someone tipped them off,” whispered Hoss who had joined his father and brother on the boardwalk.

“But who?” Adam puzzled and then turned to stare into his father’s anxious face. “Pa, do you think that the man you brought in today, might have had something to do this holdup?”

“And where’s Little Joe, Pa…ya don’t reckon he might have found out somehow what was going to happen and tried to stop it do you? Could be why he shot that man,” reasoned Hoss, taking every opportunity available to exonerate his brother.

Ben brushed the back of his hand against Hoss’ arm, “That might be so. Come on, we need to find Joseph. I found Bart up near that canyon that Jake was talking about, that means that Joe must have been in the same area. Come on, let’s ride.”

Ben turned to mount his horse but stopped when he felt the pressure of a hand on his arm. “Are you and your boys riding with me, Ben? I’m forming a posse,” asked Roy.

Ben glanced into the faces of his sons and saw that they agreed. “You can count on us Roy. But we’ll join you at the mouth of the canyon; I need to see if I can find Joe first. I have an idea that he’s involved in all this mess somehow.”

“All right Ben, I’ll meet the three of you in about two hours at the canyon. Good luck,” Roy added. “Okay, men, let’s mount up.”

Ben waited until the group of men moved clear away from them before turning to Adam and Hoss who had already mounted their horses. “What are we gonna do, Pa?” inquired Hoss.

“We’re going to find your brother.” Ben swung into the saddle and turned Buck. “Let’s ride.”

The posse rode quickly to the spot where the stage had been stopped. Roy and another man in the group dismounted and searched the area for any clues that might tell them who the men were. It didn’t take long to figure out which direction the bandits had taken, tracks were everywhere and the posse rushed onward, following more carefully this time so as not to lose the trail.

Further along the path, Ben and his sons had picked up the bandit’s trail as well. They had started out looking for Joe, but when they happened upon the tracks of the robbers they chose to follow, thinking that somehow their missing family member might have stumbled into trouble. They rode steadily, pushing their horses only slightly, always keeping their eyes open for signs that would tell them when the outlaws had varied from the trail.

Hoss led the group; his keen eyes and natural tracking instinct automatically qualified him for the job. Ben followed behind his middle son and Adam brought up the rear, keeping a sharp lookout over his shoulder.

Hoss pulled his mount to a stop, raising his hand to signal for the others to remain silent. Quickly, Hoss slipped from his horse and crouched on the ground. He glanced back at his father and brother and motioned for them to join him.

Ben squatted down next to Hoss and peered through the thick bushes at the band of men who stood around in a small clearing. The group of the men seemed to be arguing with the others. It was evident to the three men who watched that a fight was just about ready to break out.

“Pa!” Hoss nearly shouted as he pointed to a man who moved out from behind some large boulders and joined the group.

“Am I seein’ things, or is that Little Joe?” he whispered in a hoarse voice, his blue eyes wide in wonder as they stared at the back of his younger brother. There was no denying the fact that the young man who had his back to them was indeed Joe, Hoss gulped and glanced at his father.

Ben’s face went white, the color drained instantly and Adam noted that his father’s hands had begun to tremble.

Adam knelt beside of this father, resting a hand on Ben’s shoulder. He shook his head slowly and whispered; his voice deep with concern by what his eyes were seeing. “Pa, what in the world is Joe doing with this band of no-goods?”

Ben turned to stare into his son’s face, shaking his head as well. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” Ben stated and then turned to watch as voices began to grow in volume.

“I say we divide the money now and go our separate ways,” one man shouted.

“I agree with Mat, let’s divide the money, split up. It’ll make it harder for the posse to track us if we go in different directions,” another man yelled.

“Pa…ain’t that Slim?” whispered Hoss, pointing to the man who worked for them and who had claimed to have fought with Joe.

“Sure is, wonder how he is tied into this mess,” Ben replied.

“Pa, we better do something, look, they’re counting out the money,” muttered Adam.

Ben made a few movements with his hands, directing his sons to move to different spots where they could make a circle of sorts around the four men who were arguing amongst themselves.

“Be careful, Joe is in the middle of this,” warned Ben as Adam and Hoss moved away from him to take their places among the bushes. “I’ll give the signal.”

“What about you Cartwright, you gonna take your share?” Slim asked Joe.

Joe glanced around at the men, “Yeah, I want what’s due me,” he smirked.

The man, who had been referred to as Mat, stepped forward, glaring angrily at Joe.

“Cartwright here don’t get a share,” he said in a voice that rang with venom. “The kid here tried to double cross us.”

The others stopped arguing and turned to hear what their partner had to say. Mat glanced around at his audience as his hand slipped unseen to his side resting lightly on his gun.

An evil grin spread across Mat’s face. “I’ll give you what’s due you. You tried to cheat us, remember the other day in the meadow, you were supposed to give us the time change, you lied Cartwright. If’n it hadn’t of been for Slim overhearing your old man and that high and mighty brother of yours talking about the switch, we’d have never known that the stage was carrying the payroll a day early. You thought you were smart enough to fool us, well, this is what ya got comin’ to ya.”

Mat pulled his gun from his holster and before Joe had time to react, fired two shots into his mid-section. Joe’s eyes widened in horror as the bullets pierced his flesh. Bright red spots quickly soaked into his shirt as Joe tumbled to the ground.

Ben began shooting. From the opposite side he could hear Hoss’ gun and Adam’s joined in. Ben’s eyes remained on his fallen son, frightened beyond reason that his son lay dead. Several more shots where fired, from behind them, Ben heard loud shouting that told him that the posse had found them and were moving in on the band of men.

The fight was over almost as soon as it had begun. Two of the outlaws lay face down on the cold ground, Slim clutched his shoulder where a bullet had ripped open a gaping hole.

From the sidelines, Ben quickly made his way to his wounded son’s side, stumbling in his haste to reach his son.

“JOSEPH!” wept Ben as he gathered Joe into his arms. “Oh son,” cried Ben, his eyes filling with tears as he stared in shock at the ashen face.

Adam and Hoss rushed to their father’s side. Adam groaned as he pulled opened Joe’s jacket and then the shirt beneath it, spying the blood that seeped from the two holes in the middle of his brother’s stomach. Adam glanced up at his father, noting the anguish in the dark, tear filled eyes.

“How bad is it?” asked Hoss, kneeling down next to Adam.

Adam shook his head sadly, and glanced at Hoss.

“Pa?…Is that you?” the desperate plea was barely audible.

“Joseph…why son? Why?” cried Ben as he cradled his son in his arms.

Ben fought to control his tears, willing himself not to cry in front of his dying son. He had seen the two huge holes, the flesh ripped and torn, bleeding profusely. Ben knew that having been shot at such close range, into the gut, nothing could save his beloved son now.

Joe’s eyes fluttered as he struggled to maintain contact with his father. His hand searched for a handhold as it groped the air. Ben grabbed for the flailing hand and held it clutched tightly within his.

“Why, son?” begged Ben. He had to know why his son had deemed it necessary to steal from his own father, why he had left a wounded man to die, and why, oh why had he betrayed his family.

“Mo…ney…I needed…the…m…” Joe’s voice faded. His eyelids flickered slightly, the bloodied body arched as the life slipped from Ben’s youngest son.

“JOE!” Hoss yelled as he shook the body of his brother.

“NO!” screamed Ben from the top of his voice, his head tossed backward as he voiced his agony. “NO! NOT MY BABY!” he welled and then his upper body moved downward, covering the lifeless body of his youngest son.

Huge teardrops slid slowly down Hoss’ cheeks as he watched his father weeping. His huge shoulders heaved as Hoss’ grief overtook him. Adam’s face was buried in the palm of his hand as he willed himself to remain strong and steadfast for his family.

Roy motioned for Clem to gather the other bodies and the bandit who was left standing and transport them to the Virginia City jail. He stood silently, his heart beating rapidly as he watched his best friend, slowly slide his arms under his son’s body and stand to his feet, Joe held lovingly within the folds of his father’s arms.

Adam placed a hand on Hoss’ shoulder, bringing his brother’s tear stained face upward to meet his. “Let’s go Hoss. Pa needs us,” he muttered, helping his distraught brother to his feet.

Ben had moved to his horse and had carefully laid Joe’s body on the ground. He was removing his bedroll as his two older sons joined him.

“Pa, let me do it for you,” Adam softly said, trying to remove the blanket from his father’s hands, which still trembled.

Ben shook his head and glanced down at the still form. “I will take care of him, he’s my son.” Ben turned from Adam and spread the blanket opened next to the lifeless form. He squatted down, lovingly brushing back the dark curls from Joe’s forehead.

Adam and Hoss stood in respectful silence as they watched their father caress the face of his youngest son. A sob caught in Hoss’ throat as he looked into the solemn face of his grieving parent.

“Pa?” whispered Hoss as he started to kneel down.

Ben’s hand brushed at the air behind him, halting Hoss’ movements. Hoss cast anxious eyes back at Adam who slowly shook his head at his brother.

Ben gently moved Joe’s body onto the blanket, being as careful as he could. He reached slowly for first one side of the blanket and brought it across the chest, then repeated the process with the other side. Ben’s tears dripped from his chin as he worked the rope around the corpse and formed neat knots that would ensure the blanket to remain in place during the long ride home.

Ben brushed the tears from his eyes and motioned for Adam and Hoss to help him place the body across his son’s saddle. Roy had found Joe’s horse tied among the bushes where the thieves had tied theirs and he stood in remorseful silence as Adam and Hoss affixed their brother’s body to the horse.

“Ya want me to take him for ya?” he asked Adam softly.

Adam shook his head no as he took the reins from the sheriff’s hand. “No, we’ll take him home where he belongs.”

Roy heard the catch in Adam’s voice as the oldest son struggled with his emotions.

“Roy, when you get back to town, will you have Doc Martin come out?” Adam glanced at his father who sat like a statue on his horse. “I think Pa’s going to need some help getting through this,” Adam glanced at his middle brother, Hoss had his head buried in Chubb’s neck and was weeping. “Probably Hoss too, Roy,” Adam said sadly.

The house was full of people; they were friends of the Cartwrights. Some were old friends that had known the family for many years; others were friends that had only just met the family of men who were now grieving for their lost loved one. Though the house was crowded with folks who milled around in silent tribute to Ben’s loss, the big house was strangely quiet. An almost eerie gloom had engulfed the home, which just days before had been filled with happiness and the infectious sounds of laughter. Now Ben sat alone in the upstairs bedroom, alone with the body of his beloved son, which had been readied for burial. Ben had refused to allow anyone other than his two oldest sons and his faithful family servant, Hop Sing, to enter the room where Joe’s body lay upon his father’s bed.

Ben had unlocked the door minutes before to allow his family to join him. Hop Sing moved quietly about the room; large tears seeped from his swollen, red rimmed eyes as he handed Ben a cup of hot coffee. Ben moved his head ever so slightly to gaze into the face of his housekeeper; his eyes clouded with misery, and slowly shook his head, refusing to accept the steaming brew.

Ben’s eyes moved to the face of his son. His fingers gently toyed with the curls that adorned his youngest son’s head. “So soft,” he whispered to himself. “Always was so soft, and unruly,” he laughed softly.

Adam watched his father’s movement, heard the soft laughter that held no joy or happiness until the sight of the broken hearted man tore at his own heart and he was forced to turn away.

“He needs a hair cut, don’t you think, Adam?” muttered Ben, looking at but never seeing his oldest son.

Adam moved to the chair next to his father and placed his hand tenderly on his father’s arm. “Yeah Pa, Little Joe needed a hair cut.”

Ben’s eyes sought his son’s face. He held Adam’s gaze for several moments before he broke. “Oh Adam…he’s gone…he’s really gone…Oh GOD!” welled Ben, “How will I ever live without him?”

Adam squeezed his father’s arm; his free hand moved up and down the middle of Ben’s back. “I don’t know Pa, but we’ve got to try, Little Joe wouldn’t want us to grieve our lives away, you know that. Come on Pa, pull yourself together, for his sake, please,” pleaded Adam fighting back his own tears.

“Adam’s right Pa, we gotta let them take his body to bury,” Hoss choked out. “It’s hot Pa, we’re gonna have to take him up to the lake to be with his mama soon,” Hoss continued.

“Boys right Mr. Cart’lite…Lil’til Joe need to go be with his mother now. No longer able to keep boy’s body here, please boss, let us bury the boy,” Hop Sing pleaded, his tears rolling freely down his rosy cheeks.

Ben brushed away the hands that had been trying to comfort him and stood to his feet. “Get out…all of you!” he shouted, his deep voice ringing with deeper sorrow.

“Pa…”

“Out I said, get out of here and leave me alone with him!” Ben grabbed the door handle and jerked opened the door, “GET OUT!”

Adam nodded his head at Hoss and Hop Sing, motioning for them to leave. As they proceeded from the room, Adam stopped in front of his father. Ben’s glare was angry, undercoated with his grief and sorrow as he waited to be left alone.

“Pa,” started Adam, but stopped when he saw the tears build behind the chocolate coloring of his father’s eyes.

“Just give me a few more minutes alone with him, please son, please.” Ben’s tears rolled past the rims, unable to hold back any longer before they made their way to the sides of Ben’s face. “Please,” Ben said one last time.

Adam gripped Ben’s arm, more to steady himself than to comfort his father. “Okay, Pa, but in a few minutes I’ll be back and we’ll take Joe to the lake. Okay?”

Unable to speak, Ben nodded his head in agreement.

As Adam pulled the door closed to join Hoss and Hop Sing in the hallway, he glanced back at his father. Ben had moved to the side of the bed and had gathered the lifeless body of his brother into his arms. Ben began rocking slowly, back and forth, and Adam thought of the many times he had seen his father comfort his younger brother in this manner. As he shut the door, his father’s deep voice could be heard singing softly, an old tune that Joe had always loved for his father to sing. Adam remembered the tune; My Sons, My Sons, and Adam’s heart skipped a beat.

Ben stood between his two sons. Adam had made sure that he and Hoss stood on each side of their father, in case Ben needed help in remaining on his feet. Ben stood straight and tall, his mind seemed miles from where he stood, and his silence since allowing them to remove Joe’s body from his bedroom, frightened both of Ben’s surviving sons.

The minister had finished, the mourners were passing by, dropping small handfuls of dirt down into the grave; some dropped snips from brightly colored flowers. Friends and acquaintances stopped to offer their condolences to Ben and his sons, and shaking their hands in passing.

Roy and Paul Martin waited a short distance behind where Ben stood between Adam and Hoss. Paul had slipped a powder into Ben’s drink before coming to the graveside for the burial. Ben had not been himself, which was understandable, and Paul had feared that the despondent father might collapse before the end of the long service.

At long last, Ben turned from the opened grave. As he passed by Marie’s headstone, his fingers gently brushed the cold stone, stopping Ben in his tracks. Ben cast sad eyes down to peer at the writing on the marker, a tear slipped unnoticed from the corner of his eye, as he muttered. “Take care of him for me, Marie. I loved him, so very, very much.”

“Where ya headed Pa?” Hoss asked as he entered the barn and found his father saddling his horse. “Pa? I asked where ya was headed?” Hoss repeated when he received no answer.

Hoss watched his father work, worry for his parent caused his brow to furrow as he waited until Ben forced Buck to back out of his stall.

“I’m going for a ride, I’ll be back later,” Ben said softly, leading his horse into the warm sunshine.

“Want me to go along and keep ya company?” Hoss asked hopefully.

It had been two days since they had buried Joe and Ben had hardly said a word to either Adam or Hoss and both brothers were growing apprehensive that Ben was slowly withdrawing into himself.

“NO!” shouted Ben. He placed his booted foot into the stirrup and paused, turning back to Hoss, unaware of the sadness that lay embedded deeply within the blue depths of his son’s eyes.

“I’m sorry Hoss, I didn’t mean to shout at you. But I am perfectly capable of taking a ride by myself.” Ben swung the other leg over Buck’s back. “I’ll be fine.” Without another word to Hoss or an acknowledgment to Adam who had joined Hoss, Ben rode from the yard.

“Going for another ride?” questioned Adam.

“Yeah, that’s what he said,” Hoss replied turning for face Adam. “Ya reckon he rides up to the lake?”

“Probably does Hoss. Something’s not right, though,” Adam said as he walked with Hoss back to the house.

“I’m well aware of that, nothin’s right anymore, not with…not without Joe,” stammered Hoss sadly.

“That’s not what I meant big brother. Pa’s acting strangely…” he held up his hand to stop Hoss’ forthcoming comment.

“I have seen him grieve before Hoss. Maybe because he’s older now, but Pa isn’t acting right, I mean, he told me at breakfast, while you were out in the barn, that it wasn’t Joe.”

Hoss spun around from the hearth where he had been standing after entering the house and faced Adam. “What in blazes are you talkin’ about?”

“Pa came down to breakfast, he had a strange look on his face when he sat down and he just looked straight into my face and said, ‘Adam, the boy wasn’t Joe’,” explained Adam.

Hoss scrunched up his face and scratched his head.

“I asked him what he meant, and he got mad at me, nearly bit my head off and said, ‘I said, the boy wasn’t Joe’”.

“What’s he meanin’ Adam, that Little Joe wasn’t the one we buried? Who’d he think it was for gosh sakes?” pondered Hoss as he sat down in his father’s red chair.

“I don’t know,” Adam paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. “Last night I heard him moving around in his room. A short time later, I heard him in Joe’s room. When I went into Joe’s room to see what he was doing, he was standing in front of the window, staring out at nothing. I asked him if he was all right, but he didn’t answer me, just stood there like I didn’t exist. I decided to leave him alone and as I was closing the door, he started mumbling.”

“What’d he say?” Hoss wanted to know. His concern for his father’s physical health had been a growing issue with both brothers but now it seemed that they might have another worry to contend with, Ben’s mental health.

“He was mumbling something about it not being Joe he kept repeating it over and over. Hoss,” Adam stood to his feet, “I think I’d better ride into town and have a talk with the doctor. I’m worried about Pa.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Hoss pivoting on his heels as he followed Adam to the door.

“No, please, you stay here in case Pa comes back. If he does, try to get him to lay down for a while, it might help to clear his mind. I know he hasn’t slept in several nights.” Adam strapped on his sidearm and reached for his hat. His expression changed when he saw the misery on his brother’s face.

“It’s going to be okay Hoss,” Adam said, placing his hand on his brother’s broad shoulder. “We’ll get through this, somehow…I promise,” he smiled weakly.

“Yeah, I know we will big brother, you go do what ya gotta, I’ll wait on Pa,” smiled Hoss.

By the time that Ben returned home late that evening, Adam and Hoss had all but worn themselves out pacing the floor. Their heads swiveled around at the sound of the door opening and each breathed a long sigh of relief.

“Pa,” said Adam, trying to control the tremors in his voice. “Did you have a nice ride?” he asked, hoping that the worry he had experienced did not show on his face. He sat calmly down in his blue chair and picked up his book, giving the impression that he had been doing just that.

Ben removed his hat and placed it on the peg behind the door. He undid his gunbelt and laid it on the credenza next to Adam’s. He smiled slightly at his sons, surprising both young men.

Hoss swapped glances with Adam and then moved his attention back to his father. Ben seemed lost in thought as he settled himself into his chair.

“Pa, could we talk to you for a minute?” Adam asked at last.

Ben glanced up at Adam, noting the worried expression and the look that had come into Hoss’ face. “Is something wrong?” he asked looking from one son to the other.

“That’s what we were wondering, Pa,” Adam asked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, son?” Ben seemed truly puzzled by his son’s question, which only added to the on growing fears of his two sons.

Adam moved from his blue chair to sit in front of his father on the wide boarded table. Taking a deep breath and casting anxious eyes at Hoss, Adam faced his father once more and placed his hand on his father’s knee.

“Pa, about Little Joe…” he began.

Ben quickly pushed Adam’s hand away and stood to his feet. “I don’t want to talk about Joseph,” he stated and moved away.

Adam turned his head, his eyes following his father’s movements. “Pa…”

“NO! I will not discuss him or anything about what he was up to,” shouted Ben, turning to glare at Hoss and Adam. “What difference does it make now? He’s gone isn’t he? That’s what both of you would like me to think, isn’t it? Well, I’m telling you, that boy was not my son!”

“Pa, it was! You have to face the truth; Joe is dead…do you understand that? Joe is DEAD!” Adam shouted in return. “Face it Pa, he gone, he’s never coming back, and it was Joe that we buried!”

Hoss swiped the sleeve of his shirt across his nose. “Adam, take it easy, boy.”

Ben’s dark eyes clouded with tears as he continued to glare at his oldest son. His shoulders slumped and finally Ben dropped his head in surrender. “I’m sorry son,” he wept.

Adam placed his hand on his father’s arm. “Pa, it’s okay. Hoss and I understand, we loved him too, but he’s gone.”

Ben raised his head. The haunted look in his face and the deep furrows that made him look much older than his years, tore at his son’s heart.

Ben swallowed the lump that choked him. “I know you think I’ve lost my mind. I know that he’s dead, he’s gone, that he’s never coming home, but tell that to my heart. It doesn’t believe it when I’ve said it. My heart tells me that Joe is coming home, that Joe’s hurting and he needs me. At night when I place my head on my pillow and close my eyes, my heart hears his pleas, my eyes see his face, and I can feel his touch on my arm. I can smell him, Adam, my nose picks up his scent, and my ears hear his crying. Tell my heart that he’s dead, Adam, convince it that I’m wrong and you’re right. Can you do that, can you?” Ben muttered as he opened the door and stepped into the fresh air.

Ben took several deep breaths to still his pounding heart. He knew that his sons thought he had slipped from reality into a realm where he refused to face the truth. He knew they worried about him, and for that Ben was sorry. They were grief stricken; losing their baby brother had all but destroyed them, especially Hoss, for they had been closer than Adam and Joe. Though Adam and Joe had not always seen eye to eye on most issues, they had remained devoted to each other and had always managed to work out what problems they had with one another. Ben sighed; his heart refused to acknowledge the fact that his youngest son was lost to him forever.

Ben returned to the house. Adam and Hoss had already retired for the night. Ben slowly made his way to his room and once there dropped wearily onto his bed. He never bothered to remove his boots, he instead, laid down on top of the covers and closed his eyes.

Tiny droplets of water eased their way slowly down the sides of his face. Ben’s heart tried to draw him back into time, to the last few days before his son’s death. Oh, how he ached to reach out and touch his son, to embrace the boy within the folds of his arms. His heart thumped rapidly as the ache increased to the point of forcing Ben from his bed. He moved slowly to the window and drew back the heavy drapes so that he could gaze out into the blackness of night. Ben sighed, “It wasn’t my son,” he muttered to his reflection in the window. “It wasn’t my son.”

“That’s about it Ben. Slim said that the idea to rob the stage and take your payroll was Joe’s idea. He said Joe told them that he needed money, but wouldn’t tell them why. Slim seemed to think that perhaps Joe might have owed someone for a gambling debt. In fact, he said he remembered the man you found shot having been in Carson City about the time that Joe took his horses over there. According to Slim, Clint was there with Joe, seems like Joe met up with the man in the saloon. From what I can make of the mess, that Bart fella that told you Joe shot him was coming to see Joe about some money Joe owed him,” explained Roy.

“But so much money Roy? It doesn’t make sense, why would Joe owe that much?” questioned Adam as Ben listened with a sick heart.

“This here IOU paper,” Roy handed Ben the note, “says that Joe owed Bart Timbers, that was the dead man’s name that you found, Ben, about fifty thousand dollars.”

“WHAT!” shouted Ben, finally coming to his senses. “That’s ludicrous,” he yelled.

Adam took the paper from his father’s hand and scanned over it. “It’s right Pa, says right here that Joe owed the man fifty thousand dollars. And it sure looks like Joe’s signature.” Adam handed the note back to Ben and watched as Ben’s eyes scanned the words for a second time.

“I don’t understand, why would Joseph gamble away that kind of money? I know he gambled…but fifty thousand dollars? It couldn’t have been Joe, it just couldn’t have,” stammered Ben, lowering himself into the chair.

“After the men robbed the stage and got the money, they met back up with Joe, that’s where you found them, Ben.” Roy went on to explain. “Slim swore that no one was supposed to get killed, he said that they agreed to help Joe steal the money, for a share. But then when the guards started shooting at them, they fired back. After they took the money, they got more concerned about getting hung for murder than they were about getting hauled off to jail for robbery. They got mad, Slim said that Mat told them that Joe had killed the man he owed money too, and that he didn’t deserve a share of the loot since he didn’t have to pay off his debt. That’s when everything started to turn ugly, the men were not only wanted for murder but for armed robbery as well, so they turned on Joe,” Roy finished with a deep breath. “I’m sorry Ben, real sorry about Little Joe. I wouldn’t have thought he’d do something like that, least ways steal from his own father and then kill a man to cover up a gambling debt.”

Ben stuffed the IOU into his pocket. “Thanks for coming out Roy,” he said, making his way to the door.

Roy exchanged looks with Adam and Hoss and then picked up his hat, confused by his friend’s behavior. “Ben,” he began but then changed his mind.

“I’ll see ya later,” he nodded his head slightly at Hoss and Adam and had barely stepped free of the door before Ben closed it.

“It wasn’t Joe,” insisted Ben, giving his sons a defiant look.

Adam had taken about all he could take, his normally strong reserve shattered, along with his heart.

“Pa, you have to stop saying that…of course it was Joe. I don’t know why he did what he did, we may never know the truth, but it was Joe!” ranted Adam.

“No,” Ben said in a calm voice that surprised his sons. “It wasn’t, it couldn’t be, Joe would never do the things that Roy claims he did.”

“But he did them Pa. He gambled away a small fortune; he shot a man for whatever reasons and left that man to die. He robbed his own father and he…” Adam suddenly stopped. He looked at his father. Ben was staring at him, silently without uttering a word and the strange expression on his father’s face unnerved him.

“I know it doesn’t make any sense Pa, but what other explanation could there be?” he asked hopefully.

“Adam, Hoss,” Ben said calmly. “Did you hear yourselves? Did either of you listen to what was being said? Do you both believe your brother capable of those things?” he questioned.

Hoss shook his head sadly. “I wouldn’t have guessed him to do it, but Pa, they kilt him for it. We buried him…”

Ben smiled slightly as he moved toward the stairs. “Good night,” he said, stopping on the landing and facing his two sons. “Adam, I am his father. Don’t you think that I would know if my son were dead or alive? At first I believed he was dead, I was in shock but now…”

“Pa, STOP IT!” roared Adam. “He’s gone Pa…gone, God, why can’t you accept it?”

“Adam’s right Pa. As much as I would love to have that kid here with me, even I have to face the fact that Joe is dead. It hurts Pa,” Hoss’ voice began to tremble, “but it’s God’s truth, Joe’s never comin’ back to us, please Pa…ya gotta own up to it!”

Ben’s vision began to cloud as he watched the misery and pain that showed on his middle son’s face. His heart felt as if it were being ripped from his chest as he watched Hoss struggle to pull himself together. Why wouldn’t they believe him, his mind dared to ask. They really thought him mentally unable to accept the fact the Joe was lost forever to them. Well, proclaimed his heart, he would never give in to the sorrow and he vowed never to say aloud to anyone, that Joe was…dead…never, he repeated to himself as he ambled up the stairs.

Ten days had passed since Joe’s body had been laid to rest. It had been a long and tiring time for both Adam and Hoss. They had watched, as their father’s health seemed to deteriorate daily right before their eyes. Ben had still refused to accept the fact that Joe was gone. Paul Martin had been sent for and after much discussion with Ben’s sons, had started Ben on sleeping powders to help him rest. Paul had tried to assure the worried duo that time was the best medicine for their father and that hopefully Ben would return to something of his former self. Paul had to be honest with the boys when he explained that in all likelihood, Ben would never fully recover from his loss. Ben’s heart had taken all the sorrow that it was capable of dealing with in a lifetime, what with the death of three wives, and now his youngest son. It was hard, even for a man of Ben’s inner strength and determination. Some hurts never went away. Paul had explained to Adam and Hoss that some pain was rooted in a man’s bones, glued to the remnants of a shattered heart. Ben was in denial, and might never see his way clear to fully face his loss. In Ben’s heart, Joe lived on, and nothing that any of them could say or do would convince Ben’s heart otherwise.

Ben sipped his coffee. He had joined Hoss and Adam on the side porch for breakfast and he sat facing them. Both of his sons had taken to watching his every move, and though Ben tried to ignore them most of the time, it grated on his nerves. This morning though, Ben seemed rested, more at ease and he smiled giving each a warm greeting.

“Looks like it’s going to be another nice day,” he said.

Hoss glanced upward at the sky and then smiled at his father. “Sure ‘nough does, Pa.”

Adam and Hoss sat facing Ben, their backs to the yard and nibbled slowly on the fresh baked biscuits that Hop Sing had made.

“I’m going to move the herd down from the north pasture today, Pa, would you like to come along?” questioned Adam, wiping the peach preserves from the corner of his mouth with his napkin.

“No thank you, son, I think I’ll take a ride up to the lake this morning and see…” Ben paused, “Joseph,” he whispered the name so softly that both Adam and Hoss stopped chewing and looked at their father.

“Joseph,” Ben stammered again.

Hoss exchanged looks with his brother and then scooted back his chair as Ben stood to his feet. The color had drained from his father’s cheeks, leaving Ben looking pale and sickly. His dark eyes deepened in color as they stared straight ahead, unblinking.

Adam and Hoss watched the change sweep over their father and Adam reached across the table and touched his father’s arm. “Pa?”

Ben’s eyes never moved. Adam noticed how large they had become and instantly he feared that his father had taken ill and might be suffering a heart attack or stroke. “Pa!” Adam shook his father’s arm.

Ben pulled his arm back, lifted it slightly and pointed. “Joseph,” he cried and pushed his way past Hoss who scrambled to get out of his father’s way.

Both pair of eyes followed their father’s movements as Ben rushed forward. It was then that they spied the filthy, dirt covered man who stood unmoving in front of the barn. His shirt was brown the color of the earth and lay in tatters about the man’s shoulders. The mass of dark hair was littered with twigs and bits of leaves. The man’s chest was cut and bruised, the ribs protruded from his sides as if he had been without food for several days. Boots were missing from the feet of the stranger and socks the color of mud covered the battered soles of the man’s feet.

The man wore chains around his waist and his wrists where clamped tightly in shackles that prevented his arms from moving away from his sides. More shackles chained his ankles together with only a short chain between them. The man was forced to walk with tiny, short steps and he staggered slightly as he stood rooted to the spot, unable to will his body into taking another step.

Suddenly, just as Ben approached the man, the filth covered stranger dropped to his knees. Before Ben could reach out to break his fall, the man slumped forward as his face fell into the dust.

Adam and Hoss rushed to their father’s side. Ben gently gathered the tattered man into his arms, turning him carefully so that he might see the man’s face. “Joseph,” Hoss and Adam heard their father say.

Hoss glanced down at the face that was coated with dirt and dark bruises. There was a gash over one eye that still seeped blood. Ben’s gentle hand brushed at the dust and tiny particles of dirt that had attached themselves to the blood coated face.

“Quick, get me some water,” ordered Ben, his eyes never venturing from the man’s features.

Hoss handed his father the dipper of water and as Ben held the man’s head in a more upright position, Hoss helped to place the dipper to the parched lips. Slowly the lips parted and Hoss was able to allow a small amount of water to enter the man’s mouth.

“Joseph, can you hear me?” Ben beseeched, his hand gently patting the man’s cheek.

Adam watched his father’s face, amazed at the sudden change it had taken. He touched his father’s shoulder, and was surprised when Ben raised his head and gave him a small smile.

“Pa…”

“Yes, I’m here son,” soothed Ben, smiling as he glanced from one face to the other.

“It’s really him, Adam,” Hoss choked out, his voice full of emotion. “Pa was right.” Hoss grabbed Adam by the arm; “Pa was right, Adam!” he smiled happily.

“Pa…help…me…” Joe cried weakly. His hand flailed about at his side imprisoned by the chain that kept him from seeking a touch that was familiar to him. Quickly Ben grasped his son’s hand into his own and held it tightly.

“I’m here sweetheart, just lie still while we get something to get these chains off of you,” Ben whispered.

“Adam…” Ben started.

“I’m on my way.” Adam quickly jumped to his feet and rushed into the barn. He was back in seconds with the tools needed to free his brother of the chains that held him prisoner.

It took several minutes for both Hoss and Adam to remove the constraints. When Joe was free at last, Ben pulled his son into his arms and held him against his chest.

Joe moaned softly and then began to weep. “Shh…it’s okay, Joseph, you’re home and you’re safe now.” Ben pressed Joe’s head deeper into the softness of his leather vest. Joe’s hand clung tightly, with what strength he could muster, on to his father’s hand.

“Hun…gry,” he uttered at last. “Eat…please.”

“He looks like he ain’t had nuthin’ to eat in days, Pa. Let me carry him inside, for you,” offered Hoss as he started to take his brother from his father’s arms.

“No! I’ll carry him,” Ben snapped as he raised Joe into his own arms.

Joe seemed to weigh nothing at all as Ben carried him into the house. Joe’s eyes had seemed to fix themselves on his father’s face. Ben could see the accumulations of tears that collected in the hazel depths, as Ben tenderly placed Joe on his bed. He had started to lay Joseph on the settee but thought better of it. He did not want to risk causing his son any more discomfort than absolutely necessary and Ben felt that if he had to move Joe a second time, it might prove too much for his weakened condition.

The tears made their escape as Joe was placed onto the bed. Ben quickly wiped away their dampness as he knelt beside of his son.

“Sh…it’s okay Joe, we’re going to get you something to eat, and get you cleaned up,” whispered Ben.

“Pa…I…” Joe’s voice faded.

“Want me to go for the doctor?” asked Hoss.

“Yes, please hurry Hoss, Joe’s hurting, though it could be from lack of food. There’s no telling how long it’s been since he’s eaten,” urged Ben.

“I won’t be long. Ya hold on Short Shakes,” whispered Hoss, giving his brother a wide grin.

Joe forced his lips into a smile and closed his eyes. “Tired…” he muttered.

It was as if Hop Sing could read minds. Shortly after Ben had placed Joe in his bed, Hop Sing announced that a hot steamy bath water was being brought up. His miracle cure broth was warming on the stove in the kitchen and Hop Sing promised that by the time Ben and Adam finished with bathing Joe, the broth would be ready.

Ben glanced down at his sleeping son and flashed Adam a smile that reflected his happiness in his dark eyes. Ben began to remove the remnants of Joe’s shirt as Adam gently pulled the soil-crusted socks from his brother’s feet.

Joe moaned softly as together, Ben and Adam gently raised Joe’s upper body so that Ben could completely remove the shirt. His long lashes fluttered and for just a moment, his eyes opened and he smiled at his father.

“Pa…” Joe smiled as his fingers gently brushed against his father’s chin.

Ben took the dirty hand into his own and kissed Joe’s fingertips. “Rest Joseph…your brother and I are going to get you cleaned up so you’ll feel better,” Ben said softly as he watched Joe close his eyes.

“So…tired…hungry,” muttered Joe in a weak voice.

“I know, Hop Sing is fixing you something…” Ben’s voice dwindled away as he watched his son’s expression soften in sleep.

“He’s exhausted Adam. Let’s get him bathed so that he can rest better. When he wakes up again, we can feed him,” whispered Ben.

Adam placed the china bowl of warm, soapy water on the bed where he and his father could both reach it. Ben wet the cloth and gently began removing the dirt and grime from the sleeping boy’s face. He took his time, cleaning carefully around the gash over Joe’s eye. After wiping away most of the dirt, the cut was not as bad as first thought and Ben sighed in relief.

Moving from his face and neck, after being sure he had washed behind Joe’s ears, Ben washed Joe’s arms and chest. With Adam’s help, they raised Joe and washed the grime from his back. Where Ben washed, Adam followed with a soft towel, being sure to dry his brother’s skin with care so as to avoid Joe getting chilled.

“Look at his ribs, Pa,” Adam said in a low voice as he towel dried Joe. “It must have been days since he’s had something to eat.” Adam could hardly bring himself to look at Joe’s body and the way in which it had deteriorated in just a matter of a few days. Adam knew how Joe had worked to keep his body in shape and now as he gazed at the shrunken form, he could feel nothing but pity for his brother.

“Joe must have suffered something terrible,” he half muttered to himself. Adam brushed the thoughts and images of his brother’s misery from his mind, there were more important things to tend to right now. That suffering was now in the past, what Adam hoped now was to work on the future and help his brother get well, regardless of the time and cost it might take. They were lucky just to have him back, to know that he would be with them again and hopefully soon would be back to pestering all of them as before.

Ben traced the outline of his son’s ribcage. A look of misery crossed his face momentarily and then disappeared as Joe shivered from the sensation.

“Better hurry with this bath, he’s getting cold,” urged Ben, the expression on his face relaxing somewhat.

Ben moved the warm rag to Joe’s lower extremities and carefully continued with Joe’s bath.

“Pa,” said Adam as his hands followed his father’s with the drying towel.

Ben looked up briefly but kept working. “Something on your mind, son?”

“Yeah…I’m sorry…I owe you an apology,” Adam said, glancing at his father.

Ben stopped, his hands dipping into the washbasin and looked at his oldest son. “Don’t worry about it son, I understand.” Ben returned to his task.

“I know but…I shouldn’t have doubted you, Pa…I mean…I thought you were…” Adam hesitated.

Ben smiled, “I know what you thought son, and it’s okay…I think I was beginning to have my own doubts about myself.”

Adam dropped his head slightly, “Thanks Pa.”

“Hey…”

Adam and Ben’s eyes darted to Joe’s face, surprised to find his eyes opened and watching them.

“Well…hello,” smiled Ben.

“I’m freezing…and I’m…starving…” smiled Joe, weakly.

“Cover boy up…Hop Sing have soup ready…move out of way…please boss, I feed favorite number three son,” ordered Hop Sing as he gently elbowed his way to the side of the bed.

Adam and Ben laughed and quickly moved the basin of water and covered Joe with the warm blankets and fluffed his pillows. Ben brushed his hand along the side of Joe’s cheek and smiled.

“Welcome back, son.”

Hop Sing moved from the side of the bed and placed the tray on the night table, smiling in satisfaction. As he turned, he smiled up at his boss; his dark almond shaped eyes misted with unshed tears as he glanced back at his favorite son that had fallen asleep.

“Boy rest now. Much tired,” he muttered softly to Ben.

“Yes, he is much tired,” Ben returned the smile. “Thank you, Hop Sing.”

“No problem, Hop Sing glad to have boy home. Heart no longer broken, no more hurt in chest,” he whispered to Ben. “Lil’til Joe get better now, eat good, sleep much, be old self soon. I go now, make more soup for boy.” Hop Sing bowed graciously to Ben and padded quietly from the room, carrying the tray with him as he went out.

Ben made himself comfortable in the chair next to the bed. He would remain by his son’s side while he slept and would be there when Hoss returned with the doctor. Ben had carefully checked Joe’s body for broken or cracked bones but there appeared not to have been any. He and Adam had only found the small cut over Joe’s eye, several scrapes and a multitude of bruises in a variety of shapes, sizes and coloring. Some of the discoloration was several days old; others were fresher, probably happening when Joe had made his way home.

Ben wondered where his son had been held prisoner, he estimated the days to number close to two weeks, and from what he could tell of Joe’s body, Joe had not had much to eat in those days. Ben knew that it would take a long period of time for Joe’s body to return to the healthy state that it had been in before Joe had come up missing.

Glancing at Joe who had begun to toss and turn in his sleep, Ben could only wonder about his unanswered questions. Joe moaned softly as Ben leaned down against the edge of the bed. His fingers gently caressed his son’s arm, and when he took his son’s hand in his and gently squeezed, Joe instantly stopped his thrashing about.

“Shh…relax, Joseph,” Ben whispered softly, brushing the hair back from the boy’s brow.

Adam smiled; it had always been like that between his father and his younger brother. For Joe it was either the tender touch of his father’s hand, or the soft comforting sound of his father’s voice that worked like magic to still Joe’s ceaseless murmuring. For Ben, it was the sound of Joe’s voice calling out to him or the infectious ringing of Joe’s laughter that brought peace and reassurance to Ben’s soul when it was troubled. Love held their world entwined as one, for one without the other was only half of the whole. Adam had seen with his own eyes, how his father’s half had crumbled without Joe’s half. Adam felt his body shudder as the thoughts of what would have become of his father, had Joe not somehow miraculously been given a second chance at life.

A soft tapping on the door wrestled Adam free from his thoughts. He quickly set his book aside and glanced at his father, Ben was dozing in the chair. The door pushed opened slowly as Adam moved to welcome the doctor and Hoss who had just returned.

“Adam, how is he?” greeted Paul Martin. Instantly his eyes traveled to the bed where Joe laid buried beneath the thick pile of blankets. He moved to Ben’s chair and lightly placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Ben,” he said softly.

Ben instantly woke from his nap and jumped to his feet. “Paul, hello. Thank you for coming,” whispered Ben, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “I must have fallen to sleep,” he grinned sheepishly.

“That’s fine, I’m sure you could use some rest. How’s our boy? Anything broken this time that you know of?” the doctor inquired as he sat on the bed next to Joe.

“No, we couldn’t find anything, just a cut above the eye, there,” Ben informed the physician.

Paul pressed the back of his hand to Joe’s forehead, nodding. “Good, no fever. Has he been awake at all, Hoss said he was out cold by the time that you brought him upstairs.”

“Yes, he talked to us, just a few words. He was tired and hungry more than anything else,” Ben supplied the needed information.

“And dirty,” added Adam.

“Yes, he was filthy. He looked like he hadn’t had a drop of water on him in several days. Oh, he was chained when he got here, he has some bad chafing around his wrists and ankles,” Ben finished.

Hoss and Adam had stood silently in the back ground, watching the doctor as he made his examination of their brother. His hands moved in expertise fashion as they traveled over Joe’s body, stopping to gently run his fingers about Joe’s ribcage. Ben watched the physician’s expression as Paul shook his head and sighed deeply, knowing that the good doctor was not pleased with the amount of weight that his young patient had lost.

Paul’s hands continued their downward exploration of his patient until he had managed to work his way from Joe’s head to the bottom of Joe’s feet. Once or twice Joe’s body arched slightly as if in pain, but Paul could find nothing seriously wrong other than the bruises that appeared to blemish Joe’s body.

“Ben, I’d say you have one lucky boy here,” he smiled as he placed Joe’s arms under the blankets. “Normally, most men would not have survived this long without proper nourishment. But then we are talking about Joe Cartwright, aren’t we?” he laughed softly.

“Pa…”

“I’m here son,” said Ben, quickly moving to his son’s side. “The doctor just finished looking you over. He said…” Ben turned back to Paul, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, “what did you say?”

Paul moved back to the side of the bed. “I was just about to say that Joe needs to stay in the bed…”

“Aw…” groaned Joe.

“Joseph,” Ben gently chided.

“Joe, as always, you amaze me. I don’t know how you do it, but you have beaten the odds again. Now you listen to me. I want you to stay in this bed, until I tell you, you can get out of it. I want you to eat what Hop Sing brings in here. I know, at first you won’t feel like you’re able to eat a lot, I don’t expect you to. But I do expect you to eat something, each time it is offered to you. The more nourishment you take in Joe, and the more rest you get, the sooner we’ll have you out of this bed and on your feet again. Do you understand me?” Paul instructed as he waited for his answer.

“Sure doc, anything you say,” Joe grinned. “I’m too tired right now to argue with you.”

“Good, then go to sleep,” laughed the doctor. Paul turned to Ben. “I’m going to leave you some powders to help him sleep. I mean it Ben, he needs plenty of rest and good food.” Paul closed up his black bag. “I’m leaving some of this medicated salve to put around his wrists and ankles. You should see some improvement in a day or two. Make him follow my orders, Papa. I’ll be back in a day or two.”

Adam walked to the door with Paul, thanking him for coming out when they needed him.

“Adam, I wasn’t kidding when I said that Joe was lucky to be alive. Just by looking at him, it’s easy to see that he’s had to struggle hard. His eyes are sunken in; there are black circles beneath them. His skin is dry from not having enough liquids in his system. Honestly, I don’t know how the boy made it home.” Paul reached for his hat and stood aside as Adam opened the door for him.

“Doc, I don’t know how he did it either, I’m just glad that he did. I can’t believe that I didn’t know that other guy wasn’t my brother. I would have never known, I mean, I would always have thought that Pa’s mind was unable to believe what I claimed to be fact. Even Hoss didn’t know, but Pa…well…I suppose he must have sensed it after a few days. I mean at first, even he believed it to be Joe that we watched get shot and then die. He died in Pa’s arms, and Paul, whoever he was, called our father, Pa. What were we suppose to think?” Adam rambled as he walked to the buggy with the physician.

“You thought what you had to, Adam. We all thought it was Joe and we all assumed that Ben had…well…that his mind had slipped, even Roy.” Paul pulled himself up into the seat of the surrey. “Do you have any idea who the kid was?”

Adam shook his head. “I don’t, Pa might, but he hasn’t asked Joe about it. Joe’s been sleeping most of the day, since we got him home. He’s just too weak to tell us anything right now. I’m sure Pa will ask him all kinds of questions once Joe’s feeling better.”

“Well, good luck. I’ll be out…hmm…I think I’ll ride out late tomorrow. You be sure that scamp does like I ordered!” laughed Paul.

“Don’t worry, I have a suspicion that Pa won’t be far from Joe’s bedside,” said Adam with a slight grin.

Adam’s assumption of his father had been correct. For several days, Ben remained faithful to his duty of caring for his son. Slowly as the days passed, Joe began to regain his strength and with each day, his naps became shorter and shorter. His appetite improved and he had obeyed the doctor’s orders to eat at least a few bites each time that Hop Sing brought him a tray.

“When can I get outta this bed, Pa?” pleaded Joe, his back propped against an assortment of pillows. “I can’t take this much longer…please…just let me go downstairs for a little while. I promise I won’t…”

“No Joseph, I’ve already told you, you have to wait until Paul gives you the okay. Now that’s final,” scolded Ben gently as he made himself comfortable in the chair.

It was getting harder and harder with each passing day to keep his son restrained to the bed. Joe was normally a very active young man and to be confined to a sick bed for days at a time, often led to the boy becoming bored and with boredom came a restlessness that forced the boy to be short-tempered and ill with everyone that came near him.

“Pa…come on…just for a…” he squirmed around, trying to bring his legs to the side of the bed.

His father sprang to his feet, lifting the covers and pushing Joe’s legs back onto the bed. “Joseph, that will be enough, now get back in that bed!” Ben scolded more harshly this time.

“Son, the doctor will be here in just a little while. I promise you, if he says you can get up, I will let you go downstairs, but please, be patient until he gets here.” Ben fumbled with the blankets and seeing Joe press his back into the pillows once again, returned to his seat near the bed.

“Joe, why don’t you tell me how you happened to end up in chains? Who was the man I buried? Do you have any idea?” questioned Ben.

He had been wanting to have answers to his questions for several days, but until now had felt that it might put Joe into too much distress. He and Adam had talked a lot about who they suspected, even Hoss had his own ideas who the man could have been, but even with the three of them, they were not able to draw a solid conclusion.

“Do you feel up to talking about it, son?” asked Ben, watching Joe’s face for any signs that Joe might be too tired or stressed out to discuss the situation.

“Hey little brother,” called Hoss before Joe had a chance to respond to this father’s question.

“Hi Hoss, hey Adam, come for a visit?” smiled Joe, glad for the added company.

“Just for a few minutes, we have chores to do,” smiled Adam, “which happens to take longer now that we have to do yours as well,” he teased.

“Sorry,” smiled Joe. “I’ll make it up to you when the warden over here let’s me get out of bed,” giggled Joe, giving his father a quick glance to check for a reaction.

“I’ll have you riding fence soon enough Joseph, and then you’ll be begging me to let you sleep,” teased Ben in return.

Ben motioned for Adam and Hoss to sit down. “I think Joe was just about ready to tell me about how he ended up in chains.”

“Yeah, how did ya Little Joe? Who was that kid? And why was he ausin’ your name? And….” began Hoss.

“Hold on, hold on, give him time to answer the first question,” reprimanded Adam gently, smiling at his middle brother. “Start from the beginning Joe, from the time you left here with your horses.”

“Okay, but some of it is kinda scratchy…some I don’t remember at all,” he said as he looked around the room at his family.

“Just tell us what you do remember, son. Take your time,” urged Ben giving Joe a reassuring pat on the arm.

Joe took a deep breath. “I left here with my horses headed for Carson City. Somewhere along the way, I was jumped by two men; I heard them call themselves Clint and Mat. I fought with them for a few minutes but then one of them hit me with something and I blacked out. I don’t know how long I was out, but it must have been a good while, cause when I came to, I was wearing chains and someone had taken my clothes and left me the rags I wore home. I didn’t know where I was, only that it was cold and damp. It took me some time to collect my senses and by the time I could think straight, I realized that I was in an old abandoned mining shaft somewhere. They had chained my wrists to my waist and then shackled my ankles.”

Joe gulped and dropped his head, the memory still fresh in his mind. He felt his body begin to tremble and glanced at his father for comfort.

“Take your time, son.” Ben had seen the look in his son’s eyes and knew that Joe was reliving his experience in the darkened tunnel.

“Well, after that things get sorta jumbled up. I knew that new man Slim that Adam hired last month was in on it. He was sent to spy on us Pa, he told them every move that one of us made. He came to the hideout one day to have a meeting with his cohorts; that was how I found out what was going on. They thought I was asleep. Slim let it slip that Angus Borden was using my name all over Carson City. Angus wouldn’t let his men call him by his real name, he threatened to kill the man who didn’t refer to him as Joe Cartwright.” Joe stopped to collect his thoughts.

“Seems like he sold my horses, and used that money to start gambling with some man named Bart Timbers. Angus lost big time to the man, but since Timbers claimed that he knew the Cartwright name and reputation, he agreed to let Angus sign an IOU, using my name. I heard Slim telling Clint and Mat that Angus lost over fifty thousand dollars to Timbers. I guess somehow Timbers found out that Angus wasn’t who he claimed he was and then went looking for him. Clint waited until Angus went to meet the man, supposedly to pay him off with your payroll money that Clint, Mat, and Slim stole from the stage. But instead of paying him, Angus got greedy and decided to kill the man instead, that’s when he shot Timbers.”

“Whew…” blew Hoss.

“Angus Borden…I thought he was dead, I mean after we had that trouble over at Ft. Meade, I just figured he stood before the firing squad. He must have escaped,” Ben laughed softly, “I should have said, he escaped.”

“Pa, one thing I don’t understand,” Joe said hesitantly.

Ben leaned forward and put his hand on his son’s arm. “Joseph, I know what you’re going to ask. You want to know why I couldn’t tell Angus and you apart.”

Joe glanced up, worries written on his face and nodded his head at his father.

“First off son, Angus had changed during the last year. He cleaned himself up, shaved his mustache and learned to use his left hand. He even learned to talk more like you. The only thing that baffled me, well, all of us really, was his behavior when he came back, supposedly from the sale and was so angry all of the time. As for his looks, I didn’t catch on to anything, and neither did Hoss,” Ben explained.

“He’s right Joe, didn’t you see him at all? He looked like it was you right here with us,” Hoss explained. He hung his head; “I’m sorry Short Shanks…I should’ve known better.”

“I didn’t see him, I only know what they said about him. It’s okay Hoss, really.” Joe turned to his father. “Pa…I was scared…I mean when I found out it was Angus Borden…I knew he was up to no good, but I couldn’t do anything to warn you.”

“Joe, it wasn’t your fault, we were all fooled. Especially Hoss and I, as for your older brother, Adam had never seen him before, so naturally he wouldn’t have reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary, other than his behavior,” Ben went on to add.

“Go on Joe, how did you get loose from the chains?” Adam questioned.

“The day they left to rob the stage and take the payroll, they laughed at me. Clint and Mat said that they didn’t trust Angus, so they were planning on killing him. They couldn’t leave me around to tell the truth so they decided to kill me as well. Problem was, they were half afraid to actually shoot a Cartwright, so they decided to leave me there to starve to death.”

Joe began to tremble. He had dropped his head again, unable to meet his family’s faces. Ben saw Joe gulp and wipe away unshed tears before continuing.

“They left me down in that dark hole, with nothing, no food, no water, no light. I…I…”

Joe swallowed and looked around at the anxious faces that watched him.

“I got so hungry and thirsty…I thought I was going to die. They had my chains chained to the tracks so that I couldn’t get away. Lucky for me they picked a spot where the tracks had rusted and had about separated from the ground. I was finally able to get the chain free and then had to make my way out of the tunnel. It wasn’t easy, with the shackles and all. I knew in order to live, I would have to walk home or try to find help, and food. I found berries but couldn’t pick them very well with my wrists chained to my waist, so I had to drop them on the ground and eat them like a dog…when I finally found a water hole, I had to lie on the ground and drink.”

Ben moved to sit on the bed beside his son whose voice had begun to quiver. “Joe, you don’t have to go on son…we get the gist of things,” soothed Ben as he slipped his arm about the trembling body and gently pushed Joe’s head onto his shoulder.

“I found Timbers shortly after Angus shot him. He was still alive but died minutes later in my arms. I was able to ask him who shot him and he told me Joe Cartwright. You should have seen my face, I must have looked as white as a ghost. He died before being able to tell me anything more. I brought him home first and then the three of us took his body into town to the sheriff’s, it was then that the stage pulled in and told us it had been robbed. I couldn’t figure out at first how they knew we had changed the day of delivery, but now I suppose Slim must have told them. How else would they have known?”

Ben glanced at Adam and then Hoss. “He must have overheard us talking, it was our faults for not being more discreet. It won’t happen again, not after nearly loosing my son.” Ben gently squeezed Joe and Joe returned the gesture with a warm smile.

“It must have been a shock to you, to think I was dead,” muttered Joe.

“Joseph, when I saw that man shoot you, I…well I cannot tell you what raced through my heart. Then when you died in my arms, I was beside myself…I thought I was going to die. Son…” Ben choked up, his emotions overwhelming him to the point of prohibiting him from being able to speak.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” whispered Joe.

“You have nothing to be sorry for, son. I’m the one who thought you dead…well at first. Later, your brothers thought I had lost my mind, they believed you died, and justly so. They had no idea, no hints of anything that would convince them otherwise. They almost had me convinced as well, but my heart kept telling me that is wasn’t so. By all reasoning, there was nothing to contradict what they were telling me, except one thing…”

“And that was?” asked Adam softly.

“The fact that I never believed Joe capable of doing those things that everyone claimed he was doing. Mind you now, I couldn’t explain to anyone, why you would have been doing them Joseph, only that I didn’t think it probable.”

“Yeah Joe, Adam and I thought that Pa had lost his mind, I mean, he was always goin’ around muttering that it wasn’t his son. He even had the doctor thinking he was goin’ crazy,” said Hoss gloomily as he cast his eyes at his father.

Ben laughed, “I suppose it did seem as if I were crazy, but that’s over now. We have Joseph back, all in one piece and now everything can get back to normal,” smiled Ben.

“We have one thing left to do, Pa,” Adam remarked.

“And that is?”

“We have to exhume Borden’s body and remove the headstone. That is, unless Joe wants to leave it there?” he said in mock seriousness.

“No way! Do you think I want to ride up there and see that thing everyday for the rest of my life? Take it down…please Pa…please!” Joe moaned, giving his father a pitiful look.

Ben, Adam and Hoss started to laugh at the expression on the youngest Cartwright’s face.

“Joe, of course we will take it down, in fact…I think Adam can have that job, since he brought the matter up,” smiled Ben.

“Ha! Serves ya right, big brother,” Hoss snickered.

“And you Hoss,” Ben continued, “Can help the undertaker dig up Angus!”

“Aw shucks, Pa…it’s so hot, why I’ll probably fade away into nothin’,” Hoss complained in good sportsmanship.

Joe started giggling. Ben glanced down at his son, happy to hear once again the merry sound of his son’s laughter. Hoss looked beseechingly at his older brother and then at his father who still sat beside Joe.

“What are ya goin’ to do, Pa?” he questioned hopefully.

“Me? I’m going to ride into town and send a wire to Sgt. O’Rourke and tell him to come get his prisoner.” Ben rose from the bed, smiling at his sons.

“You, young man,” he pointed his finger at Joe, his smile reflecting the joy he felt in his heart and soul.

“Yeah, Pa? What can I do?” Joe asked eagerly, already beginning to push back the covers.

Ben placed his hand over Joe’s, stopping him from tossing back the blankets. “You can take a nap, now lie down,” Ben ordered, gently forcing Joe back against the pillows.

“Aw…come on Pa, a nap?” complained Joe.

“Enjoy it little brother, in a few days, I have to go to San Francisco on business, and you have to be able to do my chores for a whole week.” Adam turned on his heels and walked to the door. “Sweet dreams, Little Joe.”

Joe groaned and grabbed his pillow, slinging it at Adam’s back. Adam’s deep laughter could be heard all the way down the hall.

Ben couldn’t help but laugh again. He picked up the pillow and placed it back on the bed. “Let’s go Hoss, we have work to do. Joe, Hop Sing will be right here if you need anything. Must I remind you that you are forbidden to get out of that bed?” He narrowed his eyes, giving emphasis to his verbal warning.

Hoss snickered as he inched toward the door in front of his father.

“No sir. I won’t get up, I promise,” Joe muttered, his head down to hide the smile that toyed at his lips.

“See that you don’t,” Ben said as he reached the door.

Ben stopped, placing his hand on the heavy oak door and smiled back at his son. Joe was staring at him, a strange look on his face that quickly wiped Ben’s smile from his face.

“Is something wrong, son?” he asked.

Joe shook his head slightly and dropped his head again. “Don’t be too long…okay Pa?” he asked, glancing up. “I mean…I…”

“Would you rather I not go? I could send Charlie in with a written message,” suggested Ben.

“Would you mind? I…I think I could nap better…knowing you were somewhere in the house…with me,” Joe said softly.

“I wouldn’t mind, I’ll write out the message and give it to Charlie. How about if I come sit with you for awhile…just until you fall asleep?” smiled Ben.

“Thanks Pa.”

Ben slipped from the room. It was then that he understood his son’s reluctance to be left alone. Joe had been frightened by his experience, frightened by being chained and left all alone to die a horrible death. He had suffered from nightmares since coming home, but they, as with his other injuries were at last beginning to fade away. Yet the fear of being left still tugged at his inner most self, and Ben knew that it would take time for Joe to feel completely safe once more.

Ben hurried to write out his message and after giving Charlie instructions about who and where to send it, returned to the house. As he eased opened Joe’s bedroom door, he smiled. Joe lay curled beneath his blankets, looking much as he had when he had been but a small boy. Ben’s heart skipped a beat as he brushed back the curls from Joe’s face. His son was home, living and breathing and Ben whispered a prayerful thank you that he would have many more years to enjoy his youngest son.

Ben made himself comfortable in the chair and leaned his head against the back the cushion. Glancing again at Joe, Ben sighed and began to hum…my sons, my sons, your heartbeat is mine, my sons, my sons…your heartbeat…is mine!

 

The End

January 2003

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