Inner Conflict (by Judy)

Summary:  Joe meets Billy the Kid.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count: 20,500


 

 

Chapter 1

 

Ben Cartwright stood in the shadow of the barn watching his youngest son ride a big, bucking black stallion around the corral. He watched with mixed trepidation and admiration. Joe was a natural horseman and at just 17, was the best bronc-buster on the Ponderosa. He had an easy rhythm and style that seemed to make him one with the horse, his movements graceful and rhythmical. On the other hand, he was also a risk-taker and sometimes took chances that made the ranch hands applaud, and his father and brothers cringe. Ben shook his head and swallowed with relief as he saw that the horse was wearing down and beginning to take direction from the rider, rather than continuing his attempts to dislodge him.

Joe carefully rode the horse around the corral several more times, then slowed the horse to a stop, then urged the horse forward and backwards several times. When he was sure that he had control of the horse, he rode up to the fence where the hands were waiting, jumped off the horse, and handed the reins to one of the men. He patted the horse and talked to him to calm him down.

“Give him a good rubdown and plenty of oats tonight. He’s earned ’em.” The Calvary can finish up his training. Looks like we finished a day early, Charlie, I do believe that is the last one.”

“That was some riding, ya done Joe. Four of those brutes in one day. My hat’s off to ya!”

Laughing, Joe said, “I don’t need your hat, Charlie, but some of that horse liniment might come in handy.” As he said this, he pretended to limp away from the fence. Just as he did this, he saw his father and saw the swift look of concern cross his face. He laughed out loud and said, “Hey, Pa. I’m fine. I was just joshin’ Charlie.”

“Well that was some ridin’ you did Little Joe. Mighty good riding, though I do wish you wouldn’t take so darned many chances.” When he said this, he noticed the almost instantaneous expression change on Joe’s face. Joe was just about to protest but his father held up both hands. “Never mind that, now Son. You’ve done a great job and way ahead of when the Lieutenant said they’d be back for them. I’m proud of you!”

As suddenly as his expression had turned stormy, it changed back to its natural good humor. Ben relaxed when he saw that the anger was past. He told himself again how much Joe took after his mother.

“You proud enough of me to give me tomorrow off, Pa?” Joe laughed as he said this.

“Why you little……..”

Before he could continue, they heard the sound of a bunch of horses and looked up to see the ranch hands and Adam and Hoss returning from their jobs for the day.

“Hey, wouldn’t ya know they’d get back just as I get finished!”

Hoss and Adam rode up to where Joe and Ben were leaning against the corral fence. Ben’s and Joe’s expressions changed when they saw the tired expressions on Hoss’ and Adam’s faces.

“What’s wrong?” Ben asked.

Adam and Hoss dismounted and one of the hands appeared to take their mounts for them.

“Ah, nothing that two more days of hard work won’t fix.” Hoss answered disgustedly. “We thought we was all done, Pa. We had over 200 head rounded up, they was all fat and sassy and we were getting ready to call it done, then one of the hands rode up and said he’d seen a whole bunch of cattle over in Three Rocks canyon.” Hoss said.

“Three rocks canyon! Why with all the places to hide in that canyon, it might take us three days to scare those strays out of there.” Adam added.

“In fact, if it weren’t so darned bare up there in the winter, I’d say just leave ’em there.” Hoss said, knowing that there was no way he’d do that really, but it made him feel better just to say it, to show his disgust with the change in the situation.

“Well we can’t do that—they’d never survive the first snow storm.” Adam and Ben said at the same time.

“Well, why don’t you three get cleaned up and we’ll have dinner and talk about it.”

“Now that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day” Hoss said.

“Hey, little brother, how come you didn’t come up there and help us? You ain’t gonna try and say you still got horses to break, are you?”

Before Joe could answer, Ben said, “As a matter of fact, Hoss, Joseph finished his job not only on time, but ahead of schedule. He’s earned himself a day off.”

He gave Hoss and Adam a momentary stern look, which caused Hoss to pause, then he and Joe broke into laughter, followed by Adam and Hoss.

*****

Chapter 2

 

While his sons cleaned up for dinner, Ben enjoyed a few minutes of peace and quiet before the fire in the giant fireplace. One of the best things about living near Lake Tahoe was that even in the summer times, the air would be cool and crisp in the evenings. To his thinking, that was the way it should be—a man needed to be able to sit in front of the fire at night with his family. For him that meant his three sons. He was happiest when they were all home, safe and sound. He knew that eventually they would marry and start families of their own, so he savored this time. At times like this, when they were at home so that he wasn’t worried about them, yet they weren’t in the room with him, he found himself thinking about what it would be like when they did marry. His hope was that they would choose to stay on the Ponderosa and work with him and that there would be Cartwrights on the Ponderosa for generations to come. He smiled as he thought of future little Cartwrights, wondering what they would be like.

“Pa! Wake up, Pa.”

Ben opened his eyes and saw Hoss standing over him, his blue eyes shining and his face enveloped in a wide grin.

“I wasn’t asleep, Son. What’s the emergency?” He knew that the “emergency” was that Hop Tseng had just called that dinner was ready. To Hoss—that qualified as an emergency of the highest order.

“Well I don’t want to make Hop Tseng mad, Pa. I smell fried chicken and I saw him bring out a baker of hot biscuits. Ummm. Just smell it, Pa.”

“Hoss, you better not to eat too many of those biscuits. You remember what I told ya about foundering Chub, don’t ya?”

“Little brother, just ’cause you’re horse is a mite on the puny side, don’t mean Chub is. Chub ain’t in no danger—-unless he gets between me ‘n them biscuits. And that goes for you too, Shortshanks.” As Hoss said this, he put his arm around Little Joe’s neck and pulled him toward him in a make-believe chokehold.

“All right, all right, but don’t say I didn’t warn ya.” Joe laughed as Hoss pulled him toward the dining room table.

Adam came down the stairs in time to hear the hi-jinks of his two younger brothers and looked at Ben and they both grinned.

“I see that Hoss has recovered his good humor.” Adam said laughing.

“Yeah, doesn’t take long for him to get over a bad humor, does it?”

“Nope. Too bad you can’t say the same thing for your youngest son” Adam said with one eyebrow arched.

Ben started to protest, then thinking better of it, he said, “He does have his moments.”

Conversation at the dinner table was fast while the men filled their plates, then the conversation slowed down as they were eating. After they had worn the edge off their hunger, the conversation picked up again. At least for Ben, Adam, and Little Joe. Hoss continued to devote the majority of his attention to the steadily shrinking mound of fried chicken, the mashed potatoes and brown gravy, and the light, browned buttermilk biscuits.

“Pa, did you remember that we have to submit the bid for that timber in Carson City tomorrow?” Adam asked during a lull in the conversation.

“Yes, I put the finishing touches on it today while you boys were out and it was quiet enough to think.”

“I just wish I had gotten it done sooner; I hate to have to take the whole day to go to Carson City tomorrow, because I need to finalize the bill for those horses Joe broke for the army. But you or Hoss can’t go because you have to finish the round-up.”

“Well I might be able to get one of the ranch hands to help Hoss, though we are kind of short-handed right now.”

Neither of them spoke for a few minutes as they pondered the situation. Neither of them noticed that Little Joe was staring at them, his face tensed, his eyes flashing angrily. He didn’t say a word, but his face revealed his anger.

“No, I guess I’ll have…..”

“Did either of you even once consider that I could take the bid to Carson City?” Joe blurted out angrily.

Ben and Adam looked at him, startled. Truthfully, neither of them had even thought that he could do it.

“Joe, you can’t go all the way to Carson City with a bid….”

“Why not, Adam?” Joe’s face was taut, and his eyes were bright with anger and indignation.

“Well, Son, what Adam meant was…..”

“Oh I know what Adam meant, Pa. You too. You think I’m still a boy and can’t do anything without you or one of my big brothers to watch me like a hawk.”

“Now Shortshanks, Adam didn’t mean no harm……”

“You stay out of this, Hoss. You’re just as bad as they are.”

Joe pushed his plate away from the table, threw his napkin down, and started away from the table.

“Joseph! That is enough of that. Sit down, young man.

No matter how angry Joe was, he recognized that tone of voice and sat down, but his eyes were still blazing and he stared into his father’s face, his face white with anger.

“Joseph, your brother and I were merely discussing the issue. We didn’t mean to insult you; it hadn’t occurred to us that you would want to take the bid to Carson City.”

“That’s just the problem, Pa. You all still think of me as a kid and I’m tired of it.”

“Joseph, I think you and I need to discuss this privately. Adam……”

“Sure, Pa. Come on, Hoss let’s get the barn chores started.”

“Sure” Hoss said, grabbing the last golden biscuit off the plate as he got up from the table. He walked around and patted Joe on the arm and winked at him, in an effort to defuse the situation. Despite his anger, Joe half-grinned at him in return. He wasn’t really mad with Hoss anyway.

Ben waited until Adam and Hoss had gone out the door, then he turned his full attention toward his youngest son. As he did, he saw an image of his mother when she was angry and he almost smiled. Fortunately he was able to suppress the smile from his face. That would have really ignited the short fuse of his son’s temper.

“Joseph, those outbursts of yours do not do anything to make your case that you are not a kid.” Ben eyed him sternly as he said this. He held Joe’s eyes until he saw the defiance ebb and remorse take its place. Then he softened his look and smiled at his son.

Joe took a deep breath, then relaxed a little, “I’m sorry Pa. I didn’t mean to lose my temper, it’s just that…”

“Joe most people don’t ‘mean’ to lose their temper. You don’t get anywhere by losing your temper—you lose all control of a situation when you blow your stack like that. People learn to control their temper most times.”

“But Pa…”

“And you Joseph, have an even bigger responsibility to do that.”

“What does that mean?” Joe asked, his anger rising again.

“See? There you go again, Son.” Ben said calmly.

“What I mean is that since you have such a volatile temper—you have to work twice as hard to control it as other people.”

“Pa, I do try but sometimes I don’t have time to think about it—it just happens.”

“Son, what do you think would happen if your brother Hoss let every little thing rile him?”

Joe grinned easily at that, “Why’d he’d have clobbered over half Storey County by now. Probably half of Nevada.”

Ben laughed along with Joe and then said, “I suspect he’d have clobbered you more times than you can count, Joe.”

Joe laughed out loud and said, “Yeah I reckon so, Pa. Good thing he doesn’t have my temper.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, imagining the consequences if the big, strong Hoss had the quick volatile temper of his younger brother.

“But Pa, back to the timber bid. You said I could have the day off tomorrow and I could take that bid for you. You wouldn’t give a second thought to Hoss taking it. Why don’t you trust me to take it?”

“Joseph, I do trust you son…”

“Well then, it’s settled, I’ll take it….”

HOWEVER, Joseph, that does not mean that I don’t have concerns. Carson City is a long way off and despite your assertions to the contrary, you are mighty young for a trip like that…” Joe tried to interrupt, but Ben held his hands up, motioning him to wait, “And son, you have certainly gotten yourself into some dangerous situations under similar circumstances.”

“Pa, I can do it. I’ll be careful. I’ll even come home tomorrow night if ya are worried ’bout me being in Carson City over night.” Joe, all anger aside now, was using his most persuasive voice on his father. His father was not easily fooled.

“Oh no you don’t Joseph, I won’t have you coming home at night. No tellin’ what you could get into.”

“Fine. It’s settled. I’ll take the bid and stay over night in Carson City!” Joe said definitively.

“Right!” Ben said, fooled.

After this exchange, neither of them spoke for several minutes. Joe was contemplating what kind of adventure he would find in Carson City after he delivered the contract. Ben was trying to figure out how he had gotten into this particular position. How they went from discussing whether or not Joe would go to Carson City, to when he would return.

Finally he sighed and said, “Well Joseph, now that you have once again bamboozled me into the decision you wanted me to make, why don’t you go help your brothers?”

He looked into his son’s eyes and saw the merriment there.

“You little whippersnapper, you. Get on out of here.” He made an exaggerated motion with his hands, waving Joe away from him.

With that, they both laughed and Joe jumped up energetically and moved towards the barn, the twinkle back in his eyes and the grin back on his face. As soon as Joe was turned away from him, Ben shook his head and shrugged his shoulders and laughed. Once again that youngest son had wrapped him all the way around his finger, and he didn’t even know how he did it.

*****

Chapter 3

 

The Cartwrights were at breakfast the next morning as usual. Hoss was first at the table, followed shortly by Ben and Adam. They were surprised to see Little Joe coming downstairs fully dressed, if not fully awake, right after they sat down. It usually took second effort to get him up, but today he was anxious to be off to Carson City. He figured the sooner he got there and delivered the contract, the more fun he could have before he had to come home. As he walked down the stairs, however, he was yawning and stretching, evidence that he was not accustomed to such an early departure from bed.

During breakfast they discussed their jobs for the day, but most of the conversation centered on Little Joe’s trip to Carson City. He was anxious to be off and tired of the never-ending instructions given to him by Ben. Adam chimed in several times with instructions as well. Hoss tried to prevent Joe from getting riled up by kidding him about his motives for the trip. Ironically, as they were finally finished with breakfast and Joe was getting ready to go, it was Hoss who gave into his doubts about Joe going off to Carson City by himself.

“Hey, Pa, you know now that Joe got those horses finished, Charlie and his crew could help me out with roundin’ up them strays. We’d have enough help ‘thout Adam and he could ride with Joe to Carson City.”

Joe gave Hoss a killer look and spoke up quickly, “Nope, Hoss. Charlie and that crew have to keep workin’ those horses. I just broke ’em; I didn’t train ’em. You know that.”

“Yeah, Joe is right, Hoss. Adam’s gonna have to help you. Joe’ll be fine.” His words were meant to reassure Hoss but also to reassure himself. He was wondering why he hadn’t thought of that sooner. If he’d just thought of that last night, it might have worked. He knew that Hoss was worried about Joe, so he patted him on the arm and said, “You boys better get on out there, you’re burning daylight!”

Hoss sighed and said, “All right Pa. But Joe you be careful now, ya hear? I won’t be there to back you up if you call somebody a cheat at cards or steal somebody’s girlfriend.”

Adam sensed that Ben wanted to talk to Joe alone before he left, so he slapped Joe on the back, almost knocking him down, and said, “Stay out of jail, little brother. We got enough to do without you winding up on a wanted poster in the Sheriff’s office.” With that, he gently pushed Hoss out the door and said, “Let’s go round up them doggies, little brother.”

“Joseph, this is the bid. All you have to do is get it to the Carson City office of the Seattle Shipping Company by 4 PM today. Make sure you give it to the bonded agent of the company and get a receipt. You think you can handle that?”

“Sure Pa. Stop worryin’. I’ll be fine. The bid is as good as there, already. You can count on me, Pa.”

“I am counting on you Son. I’m counting on you for two things.”

Joe looked at him, a puzzled expression on his face.

“1. Get the bid in on time, to the right people.”

“I will Pa. I understand it is important. What’s number 2?”

“Ah, number 2 is the MOST important, young man.”

“The receipt?”

“Nope, that is part of number 1. Number 2 is that you get home before dark tomorrow, safe and sound. That’s most important of all.”

They were standing at the door by the credenza. Joe put on his gunbelt and buckled it on. Ben took the green corduroy jacket down from the peg by the door and handed it to him. Joe quickly shrugged into the jacket, grabbed his hat, and said, “Adios, Pa.”

Ben reached over and hugged him, quickly before Joe could get away. “Adios to you, Son. See you tomorrow.” Then to hide the tears that were almost on the surface, he said, “Now get along with you. I’ve got work to do.” Joe laughed and bounded out the door and vaulted onto Cochise. Hoss had saddled him and left him at the rail by the porch for him. With one quick look back at his Pa, he was off. Off to Carson City for the first time without his father or brothers!

*****

Chapter 4

 

The sun was just coming up behind the mountains, burning the mist off and giving a irridescent glow to the forests and to the lake. He made a short stop at the lake, getting off Cochise and walking to the grave where his mother was buried. He kneeled down at the grave and removed a tiny weed that had grown since the last time that either he or Pa had been there. He then looked at the lake for a few seconds, drinking in the view as the sun rose higher in the sky, making the lake turn first pink, then orange, then as the sun reached beyond the horizon, a bright blue. Smiling then, he jumped on Cochise and headed to Carson City.

Joe set a steady pace for his ride to Carson City, resisting the urge to let Cochise have rein and run. As much as he enjoyed riding fast, he didn’t want to tire Cochise out this early in the trip. He laughed to himself as he recalled his conversation with Hoss yesterday about Chub and how Hoss had called Cochise “puny”. Cochise was everything but puny. He was a sleek black and white pinto, strong, muscular, and sleek. Pa had given him to him on his 12th birthday and Joe cherished the horse. He spent long hours training him to respond to his commands, but the horse actually seemed to anticipate his actions now. Any strangers passing by would have appreciated the picture of the horse and rider. However, they didn’t meet a single other soul on the way to Carson City.

After a few hours Joe stopped and dismounted to allow horse and rider to rest. He poured water into his hands from his canteen, allowing Cochise to drink his fill before he drank. First he looked all around the site where he had stopped, and listened for any untoward noises. Then he sat down, pushed his hat over his face and rested against a tree, enjoying the pleasant breeze and sunshine. He kept his hands on his gun and resisted the urge to go to sleep, however, thinking that it would not be safe.

“All I need is to be bushwhacked on my first real trip without my keepers” he thought to himself. After about 15 minutes, he remounted and continued the journey to Carson City. After a couple more hours of riding, he crossed the boundary of the Ponderosa.

“Hey Coch, guess what? We ain’t on the Ponderosa and it is just you and me—on our own. How about that boy? No Pa or big brothers to boss us around.” Soon the road took a turn and he began to see signs that he was approaching the town. Farms and small ranches dotted the countryside and he saw farmers in fields and passed several riders and some buggies. One buggy had been of particular interest to him. The occupants were a young man, about Joe’s age, a young boy of about 12, and the prettiest girl Little Joe had ever seen. Joe had tipped his hat to them, and caught the eye of the girl. She had dark shiny black hair that fell around her face in soft curls. Her eyes were blue and she had on a blue dress and bonnet. Joe was hoping he’d see her again while he was visiting Carson City. After the buggy had gone by, Joe stopped Cochise and turned around to watch it, and as he did, the girl turned around and waved at him. “Yes, sir, Cochise, I’m beginning to like this place already.” With that, he gave a gentle prod to Cochise with his left foot, causing him to rear up on command. The girl watched fascinated, as he then turned Cochise smartly and continued down the road into Carson City at a lively pace. He reached down and rubbed the horse, “You sure know how to turn a girl’s head, Coch!”.

Within 15 minutes of arrival in Carson City, Joe had accomplished his mission. The first building he saw as he rode into town was the Seattle Company’s temporary office. He reined Cochise over, jumped off, looped her reins around the hitching rail and dug into the saddle bag and extracted the sealed bid.

“Well would you look at that? Little Joe Cartwright? Is that you?” Joe turned around to see someone vaguely familiar to him, he just couldn’t quite place him. He was a tall, big man with gray hair and a neat, well-trimmed mustache. Joe stared at him for a minute and then it came back to him.

“Mr. Hubert. How do you do?”

“Your Pa or Adam not with you, son?”

“No sir, they were tied up at the ranch. Pa asked me to bring the bid today.”

As he said this, he personally handed the Ponderosa timber bid to the President of the Seattle Company.

“Well you sure have changed since the last time I saw you, Little Joe.” In fact, do you remember the last time I saw you?”

Joe tried to remember, but he really only had a faint recollection of the man.

“No, Mr. Hubert, I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly. I’m sure it has been several years though.”

“Well, Little Joe how old are you now?”

“Seventeen.” He said, trying to figure out what that had to do with it.

“Well then it was 5 years ago, Joe. On your 12th birthday—the day your father gave you that pinto pony” as he said this he was pointing at Cochise. “Is that the same one, Joe?”

Joe reached over and patted Cochise on the side of the neck and said,

“He sure is, Mr. Hubert. Cochise is the best horse in Nevada; in fact, he says he’s the best horse period.” Mr. Hubert looked at Joe, a mixture of disbelief and confusion on his face, until he saw the twinkle in Joe’s eyes. Then he laughed and said, “Well who are we to argue with the horse himself?”

He then clapped Joe on the back and said

“Let me get someone to make you out a receipt for that bid, so your Pa will know you got it here on time.”

Joe went inside with Mr. Hubert and collected the receipt for the bid. When Mr. Hubert found out that Joe was spending the night in town, he insisted that Joe join his family for dinner that evening at the hotel dining room. Joe really preferred to spend the evening in the saloon or in the company of some other young woman, but he couldn’t be rude to his father’s friend.

After leaving Mr. Hubert’s he went directly to the livery stable to make arrangements for Cochise’s stabling. He paused when he passed a saloon and heard music and laughter coming from inside, but he kept going. “I’ll get you fixed up first, Coch. Hey maybe there will be nice filly in the livery, boy.” The horse snorted and curled his lips as if to say, “Exactly my thoughts.”

“Give him a good rubdown and then give him a pail of oats and some fresh hay—none of that ol’ moldy stuff either,” Joe instructed the livery stable boy. Joe went about rinsing out and refilling the water bucket. He always made sure that Cochise didn’t have to drink water from a bucket that another horse had already drunk out of. The owner of the livery stable watched him and just shook his head, knowing that the horse couldn’t care less. He’d seen that boy in there with his father and brothers and every time he insisted that paint pony be treated special. But he was a fine horse and he appreciated seeing owners look after their horses, so he said nothing and always obliged the boy.

*****

Chapter 5

 

Joe left the livery stable with just one thought on his mind—getting a nice cold beer. He went into the saloon where he had heard all the music and laughter, grinning when he got inside. Although it was only about 3:00, the saloon was pretty busy. There was a card game going on at one table, a few men sitting at the other tables and a younger man at the bar. As he walked up to the bar, he recognized the bar tender from previous trips with his family. He was relieved because although he wouldn’t admit it to anyone, especially himself, he’d been afraid they would think he was too young to even order a beer.

He was surprised when he got to the bar, because that was exactly what was being discussed by the bar tender and the young man at the bar.

“Listen, Son, you sure you’re old enough to be in a saloon, much less ordering whiskey?” the bartender asked the skinny, dark-haired man.

“I done asked ye politely, Mister. The next time I ask ya, it ain’t gonna be so polite. Now are ya gonna give me that whisky or ain’t ya?”

The bartender picked up the bottle and poured a shot of whiskey in the glass, shaking his head as he did so.

“Hey, I’ll have a beer.” Joe said. The bartender didn’t say a word; he retrieved a glass from behind the counter, wiped it off with the cloth in his hands, and drew a beer with a foam on it and handed it to Joe.

“Ain’t no skin off my nose. Iff’n your folks don’t care, why should I get shot for it.” He muttered to himself as he stepped to the other side of the bar. This tickled Little Joe, since he had no intention of shooting the barkeep if he hadn’t gotten his beer.

“You owe me fer that beer, fella. I done softened ‘im up fer ye.” The other boy at the bar said. Joe looked at him and smiled, “Yeah, I’ll tell you what, your next round is on me.” Joe stuck out his hand and said, “Cartwright, Joe Cartwright.”

“He…Bonney, William Bonney.” The man said, with a grin. Joe noticed a slight stutter, but thought nothing of it.

They eventually moved over to a table. Joe did buy his new friend another whiskey and he had one more beer, while they swapped histories. Joe felt instant liking for the man when he found out that he had two older brothers too. Joe had often wondered what it would be like to be the oldest instead of the youngest in the family. He was sure that it had to be easier to be the oldest than to be the youngest, at least in his family anyway.

“So where are you headed now, William? When you leave here, I mean?” Joe asked after William had told him of his travels from the family home in Kansas.

“I’m gonna go over to that hotel and have me a bath and then I’m gonna get me one decent night’s sleep, that’s what.”

Joe laughed and said, “Yeah I’m gonna do that too, but I mean after you leave Carson City, not after you leave the saloon.”

“Oh, Joe, I don’t make plans that far in advance. I’ll have to tell you that when I get to it.”

“Hey, while you’re making up your mind about where you want to go, what say you come back with me to the Ponderosa?”

“Hmm I don’t know about that Joe. I ain’t used to being with nobody. I don’t like answering to nobody but myself.”

“Well look you could give it a try. I’m sure my Pa would hire you, William.”

There was a momentary pause in the conversation as a saloon girl came down the stairs and walked to a back room behind the bar. Both boys followed her with their eyes all the way down the stairs, until she disappeared into the door. Then they took up their conversation right where they left off, without saying a word about what they had just seen.

“Naw, Joe, I ain’t no ranch hand and I sure ain’t no wrangler.” That just wouldn’t work. But I ‘preciate the offer, just the same.”

“Well if you don’t want to work on the Ponderosa, you could ride with me to Virginia City, it’s just as good as Carson City and we got lots of pretty girls in Virginia City. I could even introduce ya to some. And I know you like pretty girls!”

“Well I tell ya what, ask me again tomorrow and I’ll let you know.”

“It’s a deal!” Joe said. He looked at the clock on the wall and said, “Well, I’d better get over to the hotel and see about a room and that bath. I have to meet someone for dinner, but maybe after that, we could see what else there is to see in Carson City. There’s got to be more where that one came from.” William didn’t need an explanation of what Joe was talking about and Joe didn’t expect him to.

*****

Chapter 6

 

Joe was thinking of excuses he could use to get out of this dinner as early as possible as he walked down the stairs. He was dressed in a clean white shirt and black string tie, thanks to Hop Tseng, who had insisted that he should bring it “just in case”. His hair, still slightly damp from his bath was curling a little on the ends of his collar; he nervously raked his fingers through his hair again as he walked into the dining room. He saw Mr. Hubert rise and beckon to him as he entered the room. Mr. Hubert made the introductions as he was being seated.

“Joseph, allow me to introduce my wife, Sarah, my sons, Brendan and John, and my daughter, Amanda.”

Joe gave each of them a warm and friendly smile as he acknowledged the introductions. However when he got to the last introduction, his smile was positively beaming. It was the girl from the buggy. She was wearing a lighter blue dress, and her hair was hanging in soft curls down her back, but he would have recognized that face and smile and blue eyes anywhere.

“Pleased to meet you all.” Joe said, but it was obvious to all around whom he was MOST pleased to meet.

“Hey you’re the guy ridin’ that pretty black and white horse, ain’t ya?” John asked.

“John, please use some of the grammar you learned in school!” his mother scolded.

Joe laughed and said, “I sure am, John. That is Cochise and he is handsome, John, not pretty!”

“I thought he was awesome, too, Joseph” Amanda said.

“Please call me Joe.” He said, smiling and his eyes sparkling .

Conversation at the dinner table that night was friendly and exciting. Joe and Brendan chatted easily, although each was certain that the other one was wasting their life. Brendan, two years older than Joe was going East to go to college next month. Joe couldn’t believe anyone besides his brother Adam wanting to go to college, and Brendan couldn’t understand why someone as obviously bright as Joe was would choose to just be a rancher. But they were both too polite to voice their opinions. Joe couldn’t believe his good luck. And he was awe-struck when he found out that it was getting better and better.

“Joe, I saw a sign that there is a dance at the town hall tonight. We thought we’d check it out. We’d be happy for you to accompany us.” Mr. Hubert said.

“Oh please do, Joe. Then it’ll be fun!” Amanda blurted out.

Her mother gave her a warning look and she blushed. Her father and brother Brendan, who had caught the warning look and the following blush, both laughed, but they declined to say what they were laughing at. Joe was so excited to have an opportunity to go to a dance with the prettiest girl he’d ever seen didn’t seem to notice. However, when her family finally resumed their conversation, he caught her eye and winked, causing her to blush again. But she smiled at him the entire time she was blushing.

Joe and Amanda had a wonderful time at the dance. They danced every dance together, and only sat out a few dances to get something to drink or to talk. Other girls tried to get Joe’s attention and several boys tried to get Amanda’s attention, but they only had eyes for each other that night. Mr. and Mrs. Hubert watched them with amusement. “I think perhaps it is time for us to pay a visit to the Ponderosa, Sarah, don’t you?” Mr. Hubert asked. “Why you know, I’d love to see the Ponderosa. I’ve heard you talk about Ben Cartwright so much. Perhaps after Brendan goes off to college, we should pay a visit. I am sure that John and Amanda wouldn’t mind.” “Yep and I bet the Cartwrights might even consider visiting Seattle sometime in the near future—at least the youngest Cartwright, anway.” They laughed and then joined the other dancers on the floor doing a Virginia reel. The only person who wasn’t having such a great time was John, who was tired of all those sissy girls who kept looking at him and giggling. Brendan and Joe both heard him muttering about those “silly ol’ girls” and shared another laugh. “Just you wait, John, before long you want think of ’em as silly.” “Oh yes, I will!” he said emphatically.

*****

Chapter 7

 

After the dance ended, Joe had walked Amanda back to the hotel, following as far behind her parents and brothers as they could possibly manage. When they got to the hotel door, Brendan took John on inside, and Mr. and Mrs. Hubert stopped to tell Joe goodnight. “You tell your Pa, that he can expect some visitors in the near future, Joe. I have a strong premonition that Amanda is going to want to see some more of the West before we return to Seattle.”

“Hot diggety!” Joe said and he beamed at the Hubert’s.

“Amanda, we’re going to go on up to our room. You can say goodnight to Joseph, but come right upstairs then.” Mrs. Hubert said, looking pointedly at Amanda.

“Well goodnight, young man. Give my regards to your father. Amanda, 5 minutes.” He said firmly.

After kissing Amanda good night and making some plans for guaranteeing that the Huberts’ would be visiting the Ponderosa before their return to Seattle, Joe escorted her to her room. When she was safely inside, he went whistling to his own room, earning him a yelled “Quiet out there!” from a hotel guest. He went to his room and changed clothes, putting on his regular pants and shirt, and decided to go see if he could find his new friend William for a beer or a hand of poker.

He went to several saloons, but didn’t see his new friend. The last saloon he went to was empty and the place had been wrecked. Joe noticed that the barkeeper was scrubbing the floor in front of the bar.

“Whoa, this place must have been hoppin’ earlier. Looks like I’m too late for the party.”

“Warn’t no party, sonny. What it was was a killin’. Be glad you wasn’t here. You mighta wound up like that other man did.”

Joe’s eyes widened in surprise. “Who was killed and who killed him?”

“Aw it was one of the local ranch hands. He accused some drifter of cheatin’ at cards and afore I knew it—we done had us a dead ‘un. That drifter was one of them quick draw gunmen.”

Joe, ever curious, asked “Well did the sheriff charge the man?”

“Sheriff didn’t have no chance. He high-tailed it outta here before the smoke cleared. He’s probably in the next county by now.”

Joe would have liked to hear more but decided he was going to have to go somewhere else if he wanted that beer before he went back to the hotel, so he said good night to the bartender and crossed the street, to go to the one saloon he hadn’t been in yet. This saloon was a little rowdier than the other one, but he didn’t see William. He ordered his beer, which arrived warm. He wound up drinking only a few swallows before he decided that he’d just head back to the hotel and try to find William in the morning.

He slept soundly that night and woke up later than he’d planned to. He knew he would have to leave right away so that he would get home soon enough that his father wouldn’t come looking for him. He was determined to give his father no ammunition to use against him the next time he had an opportunity to do something on his own. He got up and dressed quickly and went downstairs. He opted to forego breakfast and just go ahead and head home. When he was checking out, he asked the clerk if he could leave a message for Mr. Bonney.

“Mr. Bonney? We ain’t got no one registered under that name, Mr. Cartwright.”

“You sure?” Joe asked, incredulously.

The clerk looked at the register and then turned it around on the desk for Joe to see for himself. He quickly scanned the names of guests in the past week. He Evans, Johnson, Hubert, and McCarty, but no Bonney. “Hmm. Guess I just misunderstood him then or else he changed his mind.” Joe paid the clerk and quickly left the hotel for the livery stable.

“Hey Coch, how ya doin’? Did you find something to entertain yourself last night?” Joe talked to the horse as he quickly and skillfully saddled him and readied him for the trip, carefully checking to make sure that the horse was in top shape for the journey. He paid the livery stable owner and enthusiastically mounted Cochise for the ride home. They rode for a couple of hours, then Joe decided to stop and make a pot of coffee and get Cochise some fresh water at the stream they’d passed yesterday.

Joe went about making a small fire and putting on a pot of coffee. After giving Cochise fresh water using his hat for him to drink from, he sat down and leaned back against a rock, waiting for the coffee to boil. He appeared to be completely relaxed. Suddenly however, his gun was in his hand and he said, “You want to come out where I can see ya, or do you just want me to start firing into that bush, you’re hiding behind?” Laughter emerged first from behind the bush, then slowly William Bonney emerged, a grin on his face.

“Cartwright, you ain’t as dumb as I thought you were.”

“Well now and you aren’t as smart as you think you are, either, so that makes us about even, I guess.” Joe laughed and pointed to the coffee.

“You got a cup on that horse you got hid over there?”

William laughed and went over behind the brush and was back immediately with a tin cup. Joe took the cup and poured them both a mug of hot coffee. William took the first swallow and opened his eyes wide and shook his head, “What are you trying to do, Cartwright, poison me?” Joe laughed as he took a swallow himself and said, “My Pa always told me drinking strong coffee would put hair on my chest.” He was quiet for a minute and then laughed again, “Hasn’t worked so far though.”

“You still serious ’bout wanting some company to Virginia City?” William asked.

“Dead serious. I’d be happy for the company. Sure you don’t want to try working at the Ponderosa? My Pa is fair.”

“Trust me on this Joe. It wouldn’t work out. It’s better if we just see how it goes in Virginia City. I don’t tend to stay in one place too long.”

“Well suit yourself then. Finish up that coffee and let’s get going. I want to get home early. Hop Tseng’ll have something special for dinner tonight. Hey now that’s an idea—you can have dinner with us before you go to Virginia City. In fact you can sleep there tonight and go on to Virginia City tomorrow.”

William started to protest but Joe said “Now I’m not taking no for an answer. You’re staying for dinner and that’s final.”

“Cartwright you are as stubborn a cuss as I’ve ever met. If you promise to quit harping at me, I’ll stay for dinner and then go on to Virginia City.”

“Deal!” said Joe. Joe got up and took what was left of his second cup of the strong chicory-flavored coffee and poured it in his hands and held it out for Cochise, who drank it up in no time flat. When he turned around, William was staring at him with something close to astonishment on his face. Joe looked at him, winked and said, “He’s a real bear ’til he gets his cup of coffee in the mornin’!”

“Cartwright, you do beat all.” William said and both of the young men laughed.

The rest of the ride to the Ponderosa was uneventful; they stopped briefly several times to allow the horses to rest or to drink and graze. Joe had noticed that William’s horse was not as sturdy and strong as Cochise, so he didn’t want to wear him out. Around about 2 o’clock, William said, “Joe when are we ever gonna get to this Ponderosa you keep talkin’ about?”

“We’ve been on the Ponderosa since right before I stopped to make the coffee” Joe answered. William’s eyebrows raised, but he didn’t say anything. “We’ll be to the ranch house in about an hour.” Joe said. By this time, they were both tired and a bit saddle sore, so their conversation was minimal, each lost in his own thoughts. Joe’s thoughts were of Amanda and her family’s pending visit. He and Amanda had strategized several different ways that Amanda could make sure that the visit would happen. She had assured him that she could handle her father. He had no doubt that she was right.

William’s thoughts were less pleasant; he thought of the events of the past few weeks and wondered what would be in store for him in Virginia City. But with the resiliency of youth, he determined to let tomorrow take care of itself. Right now he had a good friend, the promise of a hot meal, and open country all around him—what more could a boy from Kansas want?

*****

Chapter 8

 

Shortly before 3:00, Ben Cartwright heard horses riding into the yard. He forced himself to remain seated at his desk, resisting the urge to rush to the door to see if it were Joseph. He had spent a very restless night and day, worrying about his youngest son. He went over and over scenarios of what could happen to someone as young and impulsive and hot-tempered as Joseph without the calming influence of him or his brothers. But he also knew that Joseph was getting older and that he wouldn’t be able to protect him forever; Joseph had to learn to handle himself on his own. He just hoped it was not at a price that would be too costly to pay.

He heard the footsteps of two people and let out a disappointed sigh. It’s probably Adam and Hoss coming to see if Little Joe were back yet, he thought. He was immensely relieved when the door slammed open and he heard Little Joe shouting, “Pa!” before he even looked into the room. “Joseph, for goodness sakes, is all that yelling necessary?” Ben said as he rushed forward to meet him. Now that he knew Joe was home safe, he didn’t want to reveal how worried he’d been.

“Pa, this is my friend William Bonney. He rode back from Carson City with me and I invited him to dinner. William, this is my father, Ben Cartwright.”

“Hello, William, nice to meet you. Do come in and have a seat. I’ll ask Hop Tseng….”

“Little Joe! Come inside and sit down. Hop Tseng bring cool drink. You eat lunch, Little Joe?” Before Joe could answer, Hop Tseng looked around and saw William. “You sit down. Hop Tseng bring refreshment.”

“Great, Hop Tseng.” Joe saw the look on William’s face and with a deadpan expression on his face, said “he worries about me,” and laughed again. Ben smiled too. It was no secret that Hop Tseng felt a special closeness for Little Joe, probably because he had loved Marie so much.

Joe reached into his jacket pocket and handed the receipt to his father. “Here you go, Pa. Signed by Mr. Hubert himself.” “Mark Hubert was there?” Ben asked in surprise, “I haven’t seen him since…”. “My 12th birthday, yeah I know.” Joe said. “But, Pa, Mr. Hubert said he would love to have a look at the Ponderosa again and see that timber and I invited them to come for a visit before they go back to Seattle.” Joe said, in a rush.

“Well that is fine, Joseph. You know that, but who is “they”?”

“Well his wife and children, Pa.”

“Oh yes, I recall that he had a daughter just about your age, Joseph. Was she in Carson City with her father, by any chance?” Joe looked at Pa with a wounded look on his face and then broke out laughing, “Yeah Pa and she sure is pretty.”

“Well I see, little brother that you managed to find a young lady to fall under your charms even in Carson City for just one night.” A voice interrupted. Hoss and Adam had come in the door quietly while the conversation was going on. “Hey Hoss, Adam. Meet my friend, William Bonney.” Routine pleasantries were made and no one except William Bonney noticed the expression on Adam’s face change when his name was mentioned. And it happened so fast, that he wasn’t sure that he saw it himself. “Be careful.” He warned himself.

*****

Chapter 9

 

Just as the introductions were made, Hop Tseng came in bearing a tray with coffee and sandwiches and cookies. Joe grabbed a sandwich and then offered the plate to William who also took a sandwich.

“William, if you think you’re gonna want another one, best get it now. Hoss has that hungry look in his eyes”.

“Well, dadburn it little brother, I haven’t had nothin’ to eat for two hours. I worked up an appetite doin’ your chores for you this morning.”

“William, where are you from?” Adam asked as the others watched Hoss wolf down a sandwich before they had even started theirs.

“Well, I guess you could say I was from Kansas; but I been travelin’ quite a bit in the last year or two.” William said cautiously.

“William, you look awfully young to be on your own for so long. Don’t you have any kinfolks?” Ben asked kindly.

“No, sir. My folks is dead. But I ain’t as young as you might think.” William answered. Ben could hear a hint of defensiveness so he didn’t press any more.

After an awkward silence of a few seconds, Joe said jokingly, “Don’t pay any attention to ’em, William. They treat me like a kid, too.”

“Well, Joseph, at the risk of treating you like a kid, may I recommend that you and William get cleaned up and then after you rest a bit, perhaps you could help Adam and Hoss do your chores. And by the way, Joseph, get your feet off the furniture.” Hoss, Ben, Adam, and even William laughed as Joe quickly got his feet off the table.

After they finished the sandwiches, Joe told Ben he’d take him up on the cleaning up part at least. Hop Tseng came through just at that time and announced, “Bath water ready for Mr. Little Joe now. Mr. William want take bath?”

William would not agree to clean up in the house, he preferred the bunkhouse. Hoss showed him the way and tried to make friendly conversation as they walked behind the barn to the bunkhouse.

“Why do you keep going around, William. Didja ever think about settlin’ down in one place?”

“Yeah I’ve thought about it, just never works out that way.” The expression on his face showed Hoss that this was as much as he was going to get out of Joe’s new friend.

Dinner that night was a bountiful feast prepared by Hop Tseng in honor of Joe’s safe return. “Hey Joe, I think we need you to go off more often, this is the best meal I have eaten since…….”

“Lunch” Adam interjected, to a round of laughter from the Cartwrights.

“What kind of work do you do, William?” Adam asked when everyone’s plates had been filled.

“Oh I do all sorts of things if I put my mind to it.” William answered evasively.

“What kind of things?” Adam asked.

“Hey William, we can always use a ranch hand or a wrangler on the Ponderosa” Joe said, “why not give it a try?”

“What was your last job, William?” Adam asked again.

William Bonney knew at that moment that Adam Cartwright was not asking random questions and he felt that tingling sensation on the back of his neck and down his arm that he always got before…

“Adam, good grief, what are you trying to do here? You sound like some lawyer asking questions or something. He said he’d done lots of things” Joe said, his facial expression tight and his jaws clenched slightly.

Ben saw the tension rising between his oldest and youngest son and started to intervene; Hoss, however, did it for him.

“Hey William, you’d better have some more of this roast beef and potatoes–finest beef in Nevada.” With this he passed the platter of meat to William, then looking at Adam he said, “Adam, would you quit hogging all them sweet potatoes and pass ’em down this way. Why Ihaven’t had but two or three of ’em yet.”

The remainder of the meal passed uneventfully. Adam didn’t ask any more questions, but he listened intently to the conversation. He realized as his brothers didn’t, that William asked a lot about them, the Ponderosa, Virginia City, etc, but he revealed nothing about himself. He determined to investigate his suspicions tomorrow, but he knew he would have to get facts before trying to talk to Little Joe, who was obviously blind to the inconsistencies of his new friend’s story. Hoss seemed to be just as taken with the mysterious “William Bonney” as Little Joe.

*****

Chapter 10

 

“Pa, I have to go into Virginia City to check on something this morning.” Adam said as he and his father sat down at the breakfast table. Hoss and Joe were still finishing morning chores in the barn. Hoss had stayed to help Joe finish his chores, since as usual, he’d slept later than the rest of them.

“Fine, Son, but didn’t you go to Virginia City yesterday?”

“Yes, Pa, but I need to go again. I want to do some checking on…”

The front door slamming announced the arrival of the two younger Cartwright boys and Hoss and Joe quickly came over to the dining table.

“Hmm Hmm. I do believe I smell flapjacks! Hop Tseng! You better start firing up that griddle, I believe I can all these here in one swallow.” Hoss said heartily, helping his plate as he talked. Just at that time, Hop Tseng came into the dining room bringing a tray of piping hot flapjacks and bacon and placing it on the table in front of the family. He stood back and watched, his eyes pleased as he saw the Cartwright family dig in. Perhaps he had a particular fondness for Little Joe, but Hoss’ appetite was a great compliment to his culinary skills and satisfaction.

Adam’s comment was forgotten in the spirited conversation and hearty eating of breakfast. Soon they finished breakfast and started out to their day’s work.

“Pa, I won’t be home for dinner tonight; I’m going into Virginia City and I’ll get something there.” Joe said as he was buckling up his holster. Ben half-frowned but didn’t refrained from saying what he wanted to say. Instead he said, “well don’t be late, Joe, we have a lot of work to get done and you are hard enough to get out of bed these days.” He managed a light-hearted manner which made Joe grin. “Who me, Pa?” “Yes, specifically you, Joseph.”

Joe went to do a little bit more work with the horses that he had broken, wanted to make sure that they hadn’t backslidden since he’d ridden them. Hoss and Adam went to over-see the final count for the round-up. After they got there and got things well in hand, Adam rode over and grinned at Hoss. “Hey Hoss, would you mind finishing up here on your own? I have some errands to run in town.”

“No Adam go ahead. Nothin’ much left to do here but sign the tally sheet anyhow. I thought I’d go watch our little brother work with those horses some. He sure is a sight to see.” Adam raised his eyebrows at Hoss’ comment and then grinned, “I’ll see ya, tonight, Hoss. Thanks.”

“No problem, Adam.” Hoss said, then as Adam was riding away, Hoss looked back at him and said, “Hey Adam, what’s her name?” Adam, puzzled by the question, asked “whose name, Hoss?”

“Your ‘errand’s name, big brother. You don’t expect me to believe you ain’t going to see a girl, are you?”

Adam laughed, waved, and urged Sport forward, thinking to himself that it was no use in trying to explain to Hoss what his mission was. Besides, he thought, I just may have time to see Roberta Johnson while he was in town.

When Adam got into Virginia City he went straight to Sheriff Coffee’s office to talk to the Sheriff about his suspicions. Roy was not in the office at the moment and he didn’t want to talk to the deputy, because he was new and Adam didn’t know if he could be trusted or not. Adam was a cautious person and he didn’t “accept” people on faith–he always waited and let the person show their true colors before he trusted someone. Hoss and Joe on the other hand, were just the opposite. Hoss trusted everybody, which sometimes led to disappointment. Joe generally either accepted someone or formed an almost instant distrust for a person. Unfortunately, Adam thought, he seemed to trust William Bonney instantly. And Adam knew he had seen that name before and he was determined to get to the bottom of it.

“Where can I find Roy?” he asked the Deputy.

“He’s over at the livery stable seeing about getting the horse’s re-shod.” The deputy told him, as he leaned his chair back against the wall, flipping through wanted posters. “Hey let me have a look at that one” Adam said, reaching over to pick up a particular poster.

*****

Chapter 11

 

Joe spent most of the day riding each of the horses they were selling to the army, making sure that the roughness was out of them and that they were ready for intensive training. He skipped lunch, much to Hop Tseng’s dismay; though Hoss made up for it by eating double portions. When he had ridden all of the horses and assured himself they were ready, he headed to the ranch house to get cleaned up. He bathed, shaved, and even put on some of his bay rum. When he came downstairs Hoss whistled and said “you sure do look purty, Little Joe and you smell purty too.” “Why don’t you come to town with me, Hoss? It’ll be good for your reputation to be out on the town with me” Joe teased his brother.

“I think perhaps your staying home with Hoss would be good for your reputation, Joseph.”

“Oh, Hi, Pa. I didn’t know you were here” Joe said with a sheepish grin on his face as his father came out of the kitchen with a fresh cup of coffee.

“I gathered that, son.” Ben smiled at his son. “Hoss is right, Joe, you do smell and look purty.” Joe, in a good mood laughed with them.

“You coming, Hoss?”

“Heck no, Joseph. I don’t know what Hop Tseng’s cooking, but it smells even better than you do. Besides, with you skipping lunch and dinner at home, his feelings is gonna be terribly hurt, Joseph. It’s my duty to stay here and make sure he’s appreciated. I’m doing it for all our sakes.”

Joe put his arm on Hoss’ shoulder and looked him seriously in the eyes. “I appreciate the sacrifice you’re making for us all, big brother. I won’t forget you for this.” Then with a grin and a wink, he grabbed his hat and hurried out the door, saying “Good night, Hoss. Good night, Pa. Don’t wait up!” With that, he went out and swung up onto Cochise and headed into Virginia City.

About a mile from the house, he ran into Adam who was coming home. “Hey big brother. Where’d you get off to today?” Joe said jovially.

“I had some errands to run in town, Joe.” Adam said, no teasing in his tone of voice.

“Yep, well I got some errands of my own and I’d better get a move on.” Joe said, not noticing the somber expression on Adam’s face. He started to move Cochise forward, but Adam put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, “Joe there is something I need to talk to you about.” He started.

Joe looked at him, his mind clearly already in Virginia City, and said, “Oh what is it Adam?” Adam could tell that his brother would not pay attention to him and perhaps he should talk to his Pa first anyway. Joe was always so difficult to know how to talk to, he thought again. “Oh, never mind, it’ll keep. Go on and have fun.”

That was all Joe wanted to hear, he looked at Adam and gave him a full smile, winked and laughed and said, “See ya, Adam.” And nudged Cochise to get going again. Adam sat there on Sport watching his brother for several minutes, wishing his suspicions had been groundless, but knowing that they were not.

*****

Chapter 12

 

When Joe rode into Virginia City, he went straight to the Bucket of Blood, one of his favorite saloons. It was noisier and livelier than the Silver Dollar and he enjoyed the charged atmosphere and besides, they had the best looking saloon girls in town. He tied Cochise to the hitching rail, making sure he could reach the water trough and then quickly walked into the saloon and went up to the bar. The bartender, Pete, had drawn off a beer when he saw him at the door, and set it in front of him as he reached the bar. Joe smiled and took a long swallow, then wiped the foam off his mouth onto his green jacket sleeve. “That hits the spot, Pete.”

“Yeah, Joe there’s nothing better’n a cold beer to wash trail dust outta ya gullet.”

“Yeah, have ya got a cold beer?” Pete looked confused momentarily and then getting the joke, laughed with Joe.

Joe talked to several girls and the ranch hands who were playing poker for the next 30 minutes or hour. Then he began to think he should see if he could find William. “Hey Pete, has someone come in here by the name of William Bonney?” he asked. “Nope. Not that I know of anyhow, Joe.” Pete quickly disappeared into the room behind the bar before Joe could ask any more questions. Joe asked the men playing poker the same question; they seemed to get nervous, but he attributed it to a bad hand at the current poker game.

One of the girls overheard him ask and volunteered, “he was in here earlier today, but he ain’t been back since the fight broke out.” “Fight? Did the Bar B and the Lazy O boys get into it again?” Joe asked smiling. “No, Joe, Mr. Bonney started the fight, called someone a cheat at cards. He’d have killed ‘im too if the Sheriff and your brother hadn’t come in here and carted him off to jail.” Joe’s smile faded and was replaced by a tense look. “Whatta mean the Sheriff and my brother carted him off to jail?” “I don’t know Joe, ask your brother or the Sheriff. Just leave me out of it, all right?”

Joe put his half-full beer glass on the bar, dropped some coins on the counter, and turned to leave the saloon as quickly as he had come in. He untied Cochise and mounted him for the short ride to the Sheriff’s office.

Joe practically jumped off Cochise before he stopped and hurriedly hitched him to the rail in front of the Sheriff’s office. In two steps he was at the door and with no hesitation pushed the door open. Roy Coffee was pouring a cup of coffee when he barged in. “Hey, Joe, how ya doing?”

“Where is he? Have you got him in jail, Roy?” Joe said, his eyes narrowed as he looked from Roy to the door leading to the cells.

“Well good evening to you, too, Little Joe.” Roy said with just enough sarcasm to make Joe back down a little bit.

“Sorry, Sheriff. But they said you took William Bonney to jail just for callin’ someone a card cheater” he said, his temper rising again.

“Joe in answer to your question, the only person I got in my jail right now is Luke Taylor sleepin’ off a binge.”

“But they told me you…”

“Hold your horses, Son. I did bring Mr. Bonney over to the jail to ask ‘im some questions, that’s all. Now why is that any of your business?”

“They said Adam was with you, Roy.”

“Well as a matter of fact he was, but I don’t see that makes it yore business, Little Joe.”

“William’s a friend of mine and that makes it my business, Sheriff.”

“How long ya been knowin’ this so-called friend of yor’n Joe?”

“What difference does that make, Sheriff? He’s a friend now. What did you question him about?”

“Well now, Joe seein’ as how yore Pa is a friend o’ mine and I’ve been knowin’ you since you was a young ‘un, I’ll tell you.”

Joe stared at him without saying a word.

“Adam had some questions and suspicions about the identity of your friend and when he tol’ me about ’em, I agreed with him.”

“Well there’s been some talk about a young-lookin’ gun-slinger that fits the description of your friend Mr. Bonney.”

“Gunslinger?! Just because he got into a fight over a crooked game of cards don’t make him a gun-slinger, Roy.”

“Yeah that’s right, Little Joe and that I ain’t what I said neither. Now look all I did was ask your friend a few questions about his whereabouts for the last couple of weeks and then I let ‘im go.”

This statement defused Joe’s anger. “Well why didn’t you say so Roy?”

“On account of you was too busy leaping to conclusions, Joe, that’s why.”

“Well I’m glad that you are satisfied. Did he say where he was headed?”

“No, Joe he didn’t. But Joe, I still aint so certain he was tellin’ me the truth. I sent a few wires around to confirm his story and if it don’t wash, I’ll be talkin’ to him agin. I advise you to be careful getting involved with that feller, Joe. He has a bad smell to him iff’n ya ask me.”

When Joe left the Sheriff’s office he visited several saloons before he found William Bonney at one of the rowdier saloons in town. But once he went inside, he had no trouble finding William; he was the center of attention. He was at the bar telling stories and buyin’ drinks. “Hey, Cartwright, come on and I’ll buy ya a drink” he said when he saw Joe. Joe laughed and said, “You sure there’s any left?” referring to William’s obvious inebriation. “Heck ya, plenty enough left to drink with my friends.”

Joe accepted a beer and sipped it and listened to his friend continue telling tales to entertain the other patrons of the saloon and the women servin’ the drinks. William had a way with women and with words, Joe discovered. And as long as his money held out, he’d have lots of both, he reasoned.

“Mr. Bonney…”

“Why not just call me Billy?” William smiled at her and pulled the dark-haired girl close in an embrace, which she didn’t resist. From then on in the saloon, everyone called him Billy. Eventually Billy grew tired of entertaining his many friends, so he said loudly, “All right, the party’s over. Me and my friend Cartwright got lots to talk about. Come on, Joe, let’s move over there to a table where it’s quieter.”

Joe was halfway sorry to leave the merry crowd, but also wanted to find out what William had to say about his visit by the Sheriff.

“William, I’m sorry ’bout what Adam did.” He started, still steamed at Adam for trying to make trouble for his friend.

“Don’t worry bout it Cartwright. You’re big brother was just looking out for his kid brother the way I see it. And you know he was right.”

“Right? What do ya mean he was right?”

“I ain’t good company for ya Joe. He just wanted me to stay away from his little brother. That’s what he told me and he was right—I ain’t fit comp’ny for ya, Joe.”

“I’ll decide who my friends are, William.”

“Call me Billy, I’m tired of bein’ William–sounds too fancy. Aw, just forget about it, Joe. It don’t matter. I’m used to it.” And after that, no matter how Joe tried to bring the subject up again, Billy wouldn’t talk about it. Joe and Billy drank too much and as the night went on, their friendship strengthened.

*****

Chapter 13

 

Ben and Adam and Hoss were having breakfast when Joe came downstairs. From the looks of him, they knew that he had stayed out too late and drank too much. Ben frowned, but didn’t say anything. He generally preferred to talk privately to his sons when he felt they needed counsel. Joe came and slid into his place and without speaking, poured himself a cup of coffee. Hoss passed a platter with crisp bacon and fried eggs; Joe took the plate, looked at it, frowned, and set it back down on the table.

“Well good morning Joseph.” Ben finally said as he realized Joe was not going to speak on his own.

“Mornin'” Joe mumbled and continued to keep his eyes turned from his father and to concentrate only on his mug of steaming coffee. Ben’s lips set in a tight grimace, and he stared at his youngest son. Soon Joe looked up at his father as if he had felt the look from his father. He halfway shrugged and said, “I’m sorry I was late to breakfast, Pa.”

“Joseph perhaps if you hadn’t been so late coming home last night, you wouldn’t have been late for breakfast.” Ben said tersely. Joe didn’t answer, just kept drinking his coffee, hoping it would make the pounding in his head decrease.

Ben sighed and got up from the table, “Joseph I’d like to talk to you this evening before dinner. Please be sure to be here. I’m going over to see Hank Naughton this morning, boys. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

“Hey Pa, wait up and I’ll ride with you. I’m going over to check that herd over near the dry ridge.” Hoss said, pushing back from the table and throwing the large checkered red and white napkin on the table. When he got up, he patted Joe on the shoulder and said, “See ya later, Shortshanks!” and laughed heartily when Joe groaned.

As soon as Ben and Hoss left the house, Joe turned to Adam and said, “Why’d ya try to make trouble for William, Adam?”

“Joe, I wasn’t tryin’ to make trouble for him, but I was trying to keep you out of trouble.” After he said it, he knew that the wrong thing to say to his volatile brother, but it was too late—the damage was done.

“What makes you think that I need you to keep me out of trouble, Adam?” Joe said heatedly, despite the pounding in his head.

Adam replied calmly, “Look Joe all I meant was that William Bonney’s name and face seemed familiar to me—seemed like I’d seen a wanted poster on him when I was in Denver, and I just wanted Roy to check it out. And if he was wanted, you didn’t need to be hanging around with him!.” By this time Adam’s patience was wearing thin too. After all, he had only tried to help Little Joe and despite Joe’s protestations–he was just a kid.

“Well I hope you’re satisfied now that the Sheriff let him go. I guess you were wrong about him, Adam. So how about leaving him alone. And while you’re at it—keep your nose out of my business too.” His voice was loud and harsh.

Adam took a deep breath and let out an exasperated sigh, “You are too stubborn for your own good, little brother and one day someone is gonna pound it out of you.”

“Do you wanta try Adam?” Joe said, looking fiercely at his brother, his dark eyes snapping with hostility.

“No, Little Joe. Not today; it wouldn’t be a fair fight.”

With that he turned and headed out the door, leaving Little Joe sitting at the table alone. When he got to the end of the dining room, he turned back and said, “And I still think there is more to your new friend than you think and if he is who I think he is—you oughta stay away from him.” He turned and grabbing his hat and gunbelt, he went out the door, slamming it as he did. When the door slammed, Joe held his head and grimaced. He was thinking that if his head didn’t already hurt so bad, he’d go teach Adam a lesson. But that would have to wait.

*****

Chapter 14

 

Life on the Ponderosa went on pretty much as usual over the next two weeks. They were very busy on the ranch and none of the Cartwrights had much time to think about other things. Adam kept his distance from Little Joe, preferring to let him be as long as he wasn’t hanging out with that Bonney kid anyway. He did share his concerns with Ben and he agreed with him that it was wiser for Little Joe to stay away from him.

“Maybe we’ll be lucky Adam and the boy will be gone on by the time Little Joe can get off the ranch. I’ll do my best to keep him busy.”

Finally after the army came and picked up the horses and the herd was off on the trail drive and all the work was caught up, Joe figured he was due a night out. He came downstairs just as the others sat down to eat. Rather than coming over to the table, he headed to the door. He stopped and said, “Pa, I’m goin’ to Virginia City. I’ll eat something there.” Adam and Ben shared a look of concern, and it was not unnoticed by Joe.

“Joseph, I guess you are entitled to a trip into Virginia City, but please be careful.” Ben said, giving Joe a serious look.

“Careful about what Pa? Crossing the street? Getting run over by a wagon? Just what do you want me to be careful about Pa?” It was not unusual for Ben to tell Joe to be careful, he almost always said it when any of them went out. But Joe had seen the look between Adam and Ben and knew that Adam had been telling his tales to Pa and that irritated him to no end.

“Joseph! I mean for you to use common sense and good judgement tonight in everything you do—from how much you drink, to whom you drink with, and to when you get home! Is that clear enough for you?”

“Oh yes, sir, Pa. That’s good and clear. I can see Adam’s been stickin’ his nose in my business again.”

“Well somebody has to look out for you, you sure don’t do such a good job of it yourself” Adam interjected.

Hoss, the peacemaker interrupted at this point and kept the situation from escalating to a full battle between his older and younger brothers.

“Hey you two, you’re just edgy from all the hard work we’ve been doing for the past few weeks. Just settle down. Joe, I’m coming into Virginia City after supper, I’ll look for ya to buy me a beer. “

Hoss’s comment gave Ben time to regain his composure, settled Adam down, and gave Little Joe time to rein in his own temper some.
“Perhaps Hoss is right; we’ve all been working too hard lately. Joe, go on into town and have fun, Son.”

Joe said, “All right Pa. Sorry for losing my temper.”

As he started to disappear from view, Ben said, “Joe?”

“Yes Pa?”

“Be careful, Son.”

Joe chuckled, “All right, Pa”, and went out the door. Shortly they heard him riding off at a gallop.

*****

Chapter 15

 

Joe was surprised at the lack of activity on a Friday night in Virginia City. There were only a few horses tied in front of the usually crowded saloons. He stopped at the Bucket of Blood, the one that looked the most active and went inside. There were far more saloon girls in the saloon than there were patrons. When they saw Little Joe, several of them said, “Hey Little Joe, you’re a sight for sore eyes. Come on and have a drink with us. We’re dying of boredom here.”

“What’s goin’ on in town? Where is everybody?” Joe said, accepting the proffered beer in one hand and sliding his arm around the waist of the girl who brought it.

“Well ever since that killin’ in here yesterday, business has been slow as molasses on a cold day.”

“What killin’?” Joe asked.

“Oh that boy they call Billy the Kid killed a man here yesterday. He claims it was self defense and I guess it was since the Sheriff let ‘im go.”

“Billy the Kid? Do you mean Billy Bonney?” Joe asked, a knot in his throat.

“Yeah that’s him, Joe. He seemed like a real nice feller too. He bought me a present even. But they say it don’t pay to cross him.”

Joe paid for the beer and despite the protests of the saloon girl he had his arm around, he said he had to go take care of something.

He went to the last place he had talked to Billy and sure enough, he was there. The drinks were flowing and the jokes and stories were rolling. Everyone was having a good time.

“Hey, Joe, buddy, come on in and have a beer on me.” Billy called out when he saw Joe.

“Hey Billy, how’re doing?” Joe said, watching his friend, looking for signs of —what he wasn’t sure. But surely if his friend were a gunslinger, there’d be something different in him. He saw nothing but a warm smile and laid back wit.

“Whatsa matter, Joe, you look plum’ troubled.” Billy said when he got a good look at Joe’s face.

“Can I talk to you Billy? Privately?”

“Sure, come on, let’s take our usual table.” He motioned to the bartender and he sent two whiskeys over to the table.

“Now what’s troubling you, Joe?” Billy said, looking genuinely concerned.

“Billy they said you killed a man yesterday. Is it true?”

Billy laughed and said, “Is that all that’s got ya upset? Yeah I did, Joe, but it was a fair fight and he drawed on me. I had to defend myself.” Suddenly, his eyes appearing more interested, he asked, “Is someone saying something different?”

“No, Billy, no one’s saying different.” Joe said, feeling somewhat better. After all, a man has to defend himself. That’s the law of the West.

“Sorry, Billy. I guess I just made too much of it. Tell me what you been up to while I’ve been working so hard. See, if you’d taken a job on the Ponderosa, maybe I’d get to come to town and court that dark-haired girl you seem to be so fond of over there.” Joe pointed to the same girl that Billy had been with the last time Joe was here. “Yeah aint she a purty thing, Joe?”

Hoss and Adam rode into Virginia City and went to the Silver Dollar, hoping Joe would be there waiting for Hoss. They knew it was a long shot, Joe generally went to the Bucket of Blood instead. They didn’t see Cochise but sometimes Joe took him to the livery, not liking to leave him on the street too long. Joe was a fool about that horse, they both thought.

“Hey Hoss, Adam. Haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays. What’ll it be?” Sam the bartender asked.
“Two beers, Sam. Have you seen Little Joe?”

“No, I aint seen Little Joe in two months of Sundays” Sam said.

Hoss looked around and commented on the lack of people in the saloon. “Man, Sam did somebody die or somethin’?”

“Well they’s been a few killin’s all right and they’ve got some people mighty scared as a matter o’ fact, boys.”

“Killings? You mean murder?” Hoss asked incredulously.

Sam quickly spoke up to correct Hoss’ assumption, “Oh no Hoss I didn’t say ‘murder”, I said ‘killings’. There’s a big difference. These were all shoot-outs and the dead men all drew first. Problem is they all drew down on the same person and he’s the one still walkin’ around.”

Adam spoke up, “I don’t suppose the fellow doin’ the killing would be a boy named William Bonney, now would it?”

“Well they ain’t callin’ him William, they call him Billy; but I guess that’d be the same man. He’s a young lookin’ feller; looks as young as Little Joe, come to think of it. They call him ‘Billy the Kid’, ‘cept not to his face. Most folks are afraid to talk to him outright.”

“Hoss, let’s go talk to Sheriff Coffee.” Adam said, throwing some coins down on the counter. “Thanks for the beer and the information, Sam.” He said as he hurried out the door with Hoss right behind him.

*****

Chapter 16

 

Roy Coffee was coming out of the telegraph office as Hoss and Adam passed by.

“Hey Roy, we were just coming to see you.” Adam said.

“Hey, Adam, Hoss. Good to see you. Adam, looks like you were right ’bout that boy. Seems like he’s left several dead people in ever’ town he’s been in as far back as they can track ‘im.”

“Well Roy how come no one has put him in jail?” Hoss asked.

“Because he’s always got witnesses saying it’s self defense. Always a gunfight and the other person draws first. But more’n likely, he goads the other man into a fight.”

“What are you gonna do, Roy?”

“Not much I can do, but I can let him know that I’ll be keepin’ an eye on him and hopefully encourage him to move on. And how about doin’ me a favor—keep Little Joe away from him. I don’t want him getting’ involved in this. You know how he is.”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other and Hoss said, “Yeah, Roy, we know how he is and you know it aint gonna be easy. He thinks this Billy is his friend and well, you know.”

Hoss and Adam split up and went to all the local saloons looking for Little Joe. Unfortunately, Adam was the first to spot Cochise, hitched in front of one of the bawdier establishments where the liquor was watered down and the women were cheap. Adam reined in next to Cochise and went slowly into the saloon. He didn’t have to look long before finding his little brother. Little Joe and Billy were seated at a table with two saloon girls sitting in their laps. Billy was telling some funny story and the others were listening raptly, laughing frequently. Every now and then Joe would interrupt and add some embellishment to the tale.

Adam walked over toward the table and as he walked by, the noise of the saloon died down, as people watched to see what he wanted. He had never been in this particular saloon before and he looked very much out of place there. When he reached the table, he walked up right behind Little Joe and clapsed his hand tightly on Joe’s shoulder. “There you are, little brother. You about ready to come home? Hoss and I’ve been looking all over for you.” He tried to keep his voice light, but his grip was firm enough to convey to Joe that this was not a polite request.

“Adam whatta you doing here?” Joe asked, his hazel eyes blazing and his face tightly set. Adam could tell that once again, Joe had imbibed too much and although not drunk, was not completely sober.

“Like I said, Little Joe, Hoss and I thought you’d want to ride home with us and we been looking all over for you.” He tried to keep his voice level and even, but the tension was evident to others as they began to back away, not sure what was going to happen.

“Well you and Hoss wasted your time. I’m not ready to go home yet and I don’t want to ride home with ya.” Joe said, meeting Adam’s gaze. He reached up and tried to dislodge Adam’s hand from his shoulder, but rather than loosen his grip, Adam clenched tighter.

Adam’s voice got lower, steadier, and slower, “Joe, don’t do this the hard way. Come on out of here with me now.”

“Now, Adam, I believe my friend, Joe here made it clear he aint interested in goin’ with ya, so why don’t ya just get on outta here?” Billy said. His eyes were locked onto Adam’s and there was no trace of the humor or warmth present before, there was a coldness instead. Adam kept his grip on Joe, and stared at Billy, “Why don’t you mind your own business, Billy. This is my little brother and he’s goin’ home with me.” Adam’s eyes were determined and did not waiver.

About that time, a new voice joined in, “Joseph, there you are. I see you found ‘im, Adam. Now come on both of you, we got to make tracks and get home before that rain starts.” As he said this, he firmly took hold of Adam’s arm, which was still gripping Joe’s shoulder and began to pull them both away from the table. Joe by this time knew that if he stayed, it would cause a worse scene than had already happened, so he stood up, looked at Billy and said, “I’ll see ya tomorrow, Billy. I may as well go on home with these two. They won’t give me any peace ’til I do.” With that, he bent over and gave the girl he’d been keeping company with a swift kiss on the mouth, grabbed his hat and headed out the door. He jumped on Cochise and headed towards the Ponderosa, not waiting for Hoss and Adam. By the time Adam and Hoss got home, Joe had already bedded down Cochise and gone to his room, so Adam and Hoss could not talk to him that night.

*****

Chapter 17

 

The next morning presented with dark gray skies, thunder and lightning, and a cool nip to the wind. The skies seemed to promise more where that came from, with no chance of it letting up. Ben declared the day a stay-at-home day, so all they had to do was routine barn chores. Joseph did not come to breakfast, sending a message through Hop Tseng that he wasn’t hungry. Adam and Hoss took that opportunity and described what happened in Virginia City the night before, sparing no details, including the recommendation from Roy Coffee. Another man might have been offended by the Sheriff’s admonition about keeping Little Joe from becoming involved, but Ben Cartwright knew and respected Roy Coffee and knew that the message was well-intended—and right on target.

When Joe came downstairs a little later, Ben was waiting for him.

“Joe, we need to talk. Your brothers have been telling me what happened last night in Virginia City.”

Joe was immediately defensive, “Yeah and just what have they been telling you?” he asked, giving Adam a dark stare.

“Joseph, please watch that temper, young man. I’ve had just about all of it I am going to take!” Ben said forcefully. Joe bit his lip, but didn’t say anything.

“Now sit down and listen for once in your life. Do you realize that your brother couldn’t have gotten killed last night? Or had to kill Billy?” Ben asked.

“What? That’s crazy, Pa. What are you talking about?” Joe looked blankly at Hoss. “What’s he talkin’ about Hoss?”

“Joe your friend Billy is known as Billy the Kid now, but he has several other aliases too. And everywhere he goes people have a bad habit of winding up dead if they cross ‘im.” Hoss said.

“You mean that man in the saloon? That was self-defense, that’s all. The man drew on him, Pa. He had to shoot to defend himself.”

“Yes, Joe, but your friend apparently makes a habit of having to defend himself. Roy got answers to wires he sent and he’s been killing people everywhere he’s been—all the same, in self-defense.”

“Ah Adam, that’s ridiculous, he’s not like that. He’s funny and a little wild maybe, but that don’t make him a cold-blooded killer!” Joe was stubbornly defending his friend, refusing to believe that he could be wrong.

“Joseph, whether or not he does it on purpose or not, I can’t say. Only he knows what is in his heart. But I do know this; he could stop it by walking away or not wearing a gun.”

“Pa….”

“Just a moment, Joseph, I’m not finished. I know one more thing. I do not want you hanging around with him. Roy said you and he were getting to be a regular at that Mexican saloon in Virginia City and I want that stopped right now. I do not want you to go back there, Joe. Is that understood?”

Joe stood there, his jaws clenched, his hands balled in fists at his side, his eyes blazing with anger. He said nothing.

“Joseph, I asked you a question. Do you understand?” Ben said firmly in a tone of voice that demanded an answer.

Joe stared for a few seconds longer, then swallowed hard.

“I understand all right Pa.”

“Good. Then let this be the end of it. William Bonney or whatever name he goes by now will move on in a few days and be out of our lives. You just stay on the Ponderosa ’til that happens.”

With that, Ben ended the discussion, hoping that he had handled it right. Joseph was so stubborn and so hard to deal with when there were conflicts over what they thought was right. After Joe had gone back upstairs and Hoss and Adam had wandered off to see if Hop Tseng had fresh coffee brewing, Ben sat at his desk, staring at the picture of Marie. “Oh Marie, how would you have handled this?” he asked the smiling woman in the silver picture frame, not for the first time.

*****

Chapter 18

 

Joe stayed in his room, pretending to read for most of the morning. He was actually trying to come to a resolution about what he was going to do about the afternoon. He went over and over the events of the evening before in his mind, recalling all the doubts he’d had when he’d first heard about the shooting in the saloon and what Billy had said when he’d asked him about it. He also went over what had transpired when Adam had come into the saloon to find him. Adam had told Pa that he thought he was going to have to have a gun fight with Billy if Hoss hadn’t showed up! Could that have been true? He wished he’d not had so much liquor so he could remember better. But the events were pretty fuzzy to him. All he could really remember was how mad he was at Adam for treating him like a little boy in front of Billy and the girl, Rosalita. He’d not paid any attention to Billy’s behavior at the time. But he did remember Billy saying something, but what was it? Adam must have been mistaken, that’s all it could be. Adam was just a worry wart, that’s all, Joe decided.

After he’d worked that out in his mind, he went on to the next problem. He hadn’t told Pa or his brothers, but he’d agreed to meet Billy up on Lender’s creek today. Billy said he wanted to find a place to get away from people and think for a while and Joe’d told him about the old prospector’s deserted cabin there. He’d planned to meet him at the creek and show him around. Billy said he just wanted some place to think and work out some problems in his mind. Joe certainly could understand that; he often had to do the same thing, though he generally went to visit his Mama’s grave to do his thinking.

He realized that since there was no way he could let William, or Billy or whatever his name was, know that he couldn’t meet him, without meeting him, that he would have to meet him. He knew he’d get in trouble if he got caught though; despite the fact that Pa hadn’t exactly told him not to see Billy. What he’d actually said was that he shouldn’t go back to that Mexican saloon and that he should just stay on the Ponderosa. Well that cabin was on the Ponderosa and he wasn’t going back to that saloon. A technicality, yes, but sometimes technicalities were the best you could get.

With his mind made up, Joe went downstairs at lunch and acted as if everything was okay. He wasn’t overly talkative, but he didn’t ignore Adam as he had been doing. He had found that when he changed his attitude too much at one time with no reason, that made his father even more suspicious. He had a lot of experience of dealing with his father on issues where his thinking and his Pa’s thinking did not mesh.

After lunch, the rain had stopped so Joe had no trouble getting out of the house. As he was saddling up, Hoss came out and asked where he was going and if he’d like some company. Joe knew that Hoss was looking for an invitation to go with him and ordinarily that would have been just fine. But he didn’t want to get Hoss involved if Pa found out about his meeting with Billy.

“Um, Hoss I’m going to go ride for a while to think a few things through. I think I’d better go alone.” Hoss’ momentary disappointment was replaced rapidly by understanding and he said, “All right Shortshanks, just don’t stay out there and brood all afternoon, ya hear?”

Joe grinned at his big brother, “Thanks, Hoss. I won’t. And I’ll beat you in a game of checkers when I get back.”

“All right, little brother, maybe I’ll practice while you’re gone so I can beat you for a change. Which way you headed, anyhow?”

Joe briefly considered lying, but he hated to tell an outright lie, especially to Hoss, so he just told the truth, “Gonna ride over to the creek and up to that ol’ prospector’s cabin. I’ll be back before dark.” With that, he swung into the saddle and with a wave to Hoss, headed toward Lender’s creek at a fast trot.

*****

Chapter 19

 

When Joe reached the agreed-upon meeting place, he didn’t see Billy. Cochise was acting funny; however, giving Joe a clue that someone was hiding there.

“Billy? Is that you?”

Billy walked out from behind the shadow behind a rock, “Hey Cartwright, I was about to give up on ya. Figgered that high and mighty brother of yours wouldn’t let you come without him along as a chaperone.”

Billy’s words had the desired effect, Joe bristled at the thought of Adam telling him what to do. “Nope, Billy, I’m alone. You ready to ride?”

“Yep shore am. Let’s hit it.”

As they rode, Joe noticed Billy’s looking around nervously as if he thought they were being followed. Joe, reading Billy’s nervousness as being wary of highwaymen, reassured him “Billy, no one ever uses this place, ain’t no need to act so nervous—won’t be anyone around to rob you.”

“You never can tell, Joe. You never can tell. Don’t know who you can trust, ya know. Can’t trust friends or relatives.”

Joe ignored his friend’s gloomy philosophy and kept riding. Billy, however was in a talkative mood. “In fact, Cartwright, ya know the only people you can trust besides yourself?”

Joe just looked at him, thinking he must have been drinking all ready to be that talkative.

“The person you can trust more’n anybody else—that’s yore worst enemy.”

Joe looked at Billy, raised his eyebrows and made a disbelieving expression.

“Nah, Cartwright, think about it. You know an enemy is gonna be against you—always. No matter what happens, you can count on that. But a friend or family or somebody ya don’t even know—why they’s liable to act any such way. Can’t depend on ’em and you can’t trust ’em neither. Yep, that’s why I don’t trust nobody but my enemies. You understand that Joe?”

“I understand that you’ve been hitting the bottle awful early in the day, Billy” Joe said smiling ruefully at his friend.
“Come on, see there’s the cabin, right beside that little willow tree. I’ll check on the supplies to make sure ya won’t starve to death before you come to your senses and come on down to the Ponderosa and get a real job.”

With that, he reined Cochise to a halt, and loosely tied the reins to an sturdy bush, in the shade of an elm tree. He stood up straight, and stretched his back and then began unloading the supplies he’d brought for Billy.

“I didn’t bring too much stuff, Billy, ’cause I didn’t want to have to explain what I was getting ’em for.” He said as he unpacked flour, coffee, beans, and bacon. “You You can go down to Virginia City or come by the Ponderosa when ya run out.”

By this time, Billy had looked around the cabin and checked the doors and windows and commented that there was only one way inside the cabin and that way was a clear view from the cabin. Joe remarked “Yeah I think that ol’ prospector was always afraid someone would jump his claim. Pa never had the heart to tell him he was on the Ponderosa anyhow. He finally found himself enough gold that he retired. We hear from him every now and then. He bought a house right in San Francisco.”

“Hey Billy, why don’t we go fishin’ and I’ll show ya where ya can always get a fish for supper? I got some fishin’ tackle over here.”

“Fishin’? I aint been fishin’ since my Pa died…”

“Well come on, let’s see if you got what it takes to be a fisherman” Joe challenged.

“You’re sure it’s safe up here, Joe? You didn’t tell no one I was coming here?”

“Of course not, Billy. Holy Toledo, what ya want? A vow of silence. It ain’t as though you’re wanted for murder or bank robbery or somethin’.”

Billy was behind Joe when he said that. Joe didn’t see the surprise and then the amused look on Billy’s face.

*****

Chapter 20

 

A couple of hours after Joe had left the Ponderosa, Sheriff Roy Coffee and a posse rode into the Ponderosa ranch courtyard. Ben heard the horses and came out the front door to see who it was. Adam had been in the barn and he also came out to see what was up, Sport in tow.

“Roy, what’s up? Did you come to arrest one of my sons?” Ben asked jovially.

“Ben, I need to talk to Little Joe. Is he here?”

“No, Roy, he rode off a little while ago. Why do you want to see Little Joe?” Ben asked, his voice betraying his nervousness. A sheriff’s posse wanting to talk to his youngest son was disconcerting.

“Well I got me a warrant for the arrest of that kid Joe’s been hanging around with. He robbed the bank last night and shot poor ol’ Mr. Chastain, the guard.”

Adam spoke up, “is he dead?”

“Nah, Doc says he’ll make it, Adam. The kid didn’t aim to shoot ‘im from I heard, sounds like Mr. Chastain tried to wrestle the gun away from him. Why that man must be nearly 90, you’d think he’d know better.”

“Why do you want to see Little Joe, Roy? You don’t think Joseph had anything to do with this, do you?” Ben asked, his voice higher than normal.

“No, Ben, but I was hopin’ Joe might have an idee where he might head. Cause of the rain, we don’t have a single track to follow, you see.”

“Adam, you don’t know where Joe went, do you?” Ben looked at his son.

“No, Pa, but I did see Hoss talking to him right before he rode off. I’ll go see if Hoss knows. He’s out at the back corral. Sport is saddled, I’ll go ask him.”

Adam rode briskly down the path that led behind the barn, past the meadow, and to the back corral. Hoss was watching some of the men teaching the younger hands how to lasso a young steer. He always enjoyed this, cause the green cowhands made it seem like it was an impossible task, where an experienced hand could do it in two shakes of a bob’s tail. He smiled when he saw Adam coming.

“Hey Adam, watch that ‘un over there in the blue shirt. He ain’t caught one yet.” Hoss said laughing, his blue eyes twinkling with mirth.

“Hoss do you know where Joe is? The Sheriff is looking for him.”

“Roy’s looking for Joe? What for, Adam?” Hoss said defensively. As always, he was getting ready to defend his younger brother.

“He’s got a posse looking for that Billy the Kid, they say he robbed the bank and shot Mr. Chastain last night. Roy thought Joe might know where he’d be headin'”

A look of comprehension came across Hoss’ face, “Adam, Joe said he was goin’ to ride out to Lender’s Creek to that prospector’s cabin. You don’t reckon he was goin’ to meet Billy there, do ya?” Hoss had a look of fear and disbelief on his face.

“I reckon he did, Hoss.” Then seeing the look on Hoss’ face, he said, “But I’m sure Joe knows nothing about the robbery. I’ll go back and tell Pa and the Sheriff. You catch up with us as soon as you get saddled up.”

Adam rode back to the ranch and told Ben and the Sheriff what Hoss had told him. Ben’s face grew pale as he realized that his youngest son was more than likely out there now with a fugitive and be in danger.

“I’ll get saddled and we’ll go find him.” Ben said grimly.

“Pa, the posse and I can go ahead and get started and you and Hoss catch up with us. We need to get there before Little Joe gets himself in more trouble than he can get out of by himself.”

“Go ahead, Adam. You’re right. But Son, be careful up there.”

Adam led the posse toward the prospector’s cabin by the most direct route, which was a little bit faster than the way Joe would have gone, since he didn’t like to take risks riding Cochise on the rocky, steep terrain.

“That’s one thing in our favor, Roy. Joe never would have brought Cochise this way. Not the way he pampers that horse.”

When they came to the last rise before they got to the cabin, Adam held up his hand and motioned for the men to stop.

“Roy, if all of us go riding in there, that kid is liable to panic and start shooting at anything or anybody in sight and my little brother is in there with him. See, there’s Cochise, right over there.” He pointed to the spot where Joe had tied Cochise earlier.

“Yeah you’re probably right Adam. I’ll ride in alone and see if I can talk ‘im out.”

“No, Roy, there’s better chance if I go first.”

“Now, Adam, that kid is armed and dangerous and I’m paid to face ‘im. You ain’t.”

“But that’s my kid brother in there, Roy. I’m going down first.” With that, he began to urge Sport forward towards the cabin.

*****

After an hour of fishing, the two boys had a mess of fish, more than enough for a meal for one person. Joe was more than ready to go home, because Billy had been poor company all afternoon. Instead of the light and carefree friend that Joe was used to, he was morose, nervous, and spoke in riddles. His constant looking around and jumping at every little sound was enough to get on Joe’s nerves. The two headed back for the cabin. Joe carried the fish and the tackle, Billy walked behind them, his hand on his gun.

“Well, Billy, I guess I’d better be getting’ on home. Ya sure you’re gonna be all right up here?”

“Yeah, Joe, I’ll be fine. Thanks for helpin’ me. Just be sure not to tell nobody that I’m here. Will you promise me that Joe?”

“All right, all right for the 10th time, I promise. Goodness you’re getting as bad as Pa, telling me to be careful.”

Just as they got inside the cabin, they heard the horse.

“You told somebody, didn’t ya?” Billy yelled, reaching for his gun.

“No, Billy, I told ya, I didn’t tell nobody. What are you crazy? Put that gun down before someone gets hurt.” Joe said, alarmed at Billy’s behavior.

“Wait a minute, let’s just see who it is and what he wants. Probably just want to water his horse or somethin'” Joe said.

He looked out the window and said, “Put that gun away, Billy. It’s my brother, Adam.”

“Is he alone?”

“Yep. It’s just Adam. Probably checkin’ up on me as usual” Joe said, a little perturbed. Then he turned to face Billy who still had his gun drawn.

“Billy for the last time, put that gun down. I told ya, it’s my brother!”

By this time Adam had reached the clearing. He got down off his horse and keeping his horse in front of him, he yelled out, “Little Joe, are you in there?”

Joe swallowed, not sure of what was going on. “Yeah Adam. What are you doing here?”

Adam breathed a brief sigh or relief, at least his brother was all right.

“Ask him what he wants, Joe.” Billy directed, his gun still drawn. Joe stared at him in the face and finally said, “What’d ya do, Billy?”

Billy laughed. “I tried to tell ya, that ya can’t trust nobody, Joe. I had a little trouble making a bank withdrawal last night.”

“You robbed the bank, Billy?” Joe asked, feeling sick at his stomach.

“Yeah, Joe and get that surprised look off your face, ’cause to tell the truth, it ain’t the first time. Though it was the first time that Billy the Kid robbed one; them others was done by William Henry McCarty.” Billy’s laugh was now cold and cruel.

“Why, Billy?”

“Why not? I ain’t had such a good life as I’ve had in the past year. I just ain’t cut out for workin’ hard, Joe. But I’m real good at shooting and bank robbing.”

“You tell your brother to get back on his horse and ride on out of here if you want to keep him alive.”

“Adam. I didn’t ask you to come with me, because I didn’t want ya around. Can’t you understand that? Now you get on out of here.”

“Joe, I know you’re in there with Billy, even after Pa told ya to stay away from ‘im, and you are gonna have to face Pa sooner or later. So come out and come on home with me right now.” Adam said, trying to pretend ignorance to Billy’s intentions.

“Adam, go on home and I’ll be home when I feel like it.” Joe said, desperately trying to get Adam out of danger. But Adam knew he was not going without Joe.

Adam began to walk quickly toward the cabin. Joe heard Billy’s trigger click and reacted instantly. He yelled “NO!” and lunged for Billy. The bullet intended for Adam, hit Joe solidly in the chest. Joe looked up at Billy, his eyes full of disappointment and disbelief.

“Sorry, Joe. I enjoyed your company; it ain’t nothin’ personal.” And as he said this, he jumped out the window on the side of the cabin and got onto his horse that he had hidden there, even before he’d met Joe there today. He’d found the cabin earlier, but wanted to get some grub before he left, since he’d had no time to do it last night. Since he’d not counted on anyone following Joe, he’d thought to have a little rest and time to think about where he’d head–no time for that now. However, one thing he’d learned was to always have an escape plan. His horse was saddled and ready, the money from the bank’s safe safely in the saddlebags. Although the bullet had been meant for Adam, the effect would be the same. Now Adam’d be too busy trying to save his brother’s life to chase him. With no remorse and not even a look back, Billy the Kid headed up the mountain pass, never to return to Virginia City.

Adam reached Joe in time to see Billy mount the horse and ride off up the mountain. He barely gave Billy a look as he knelt down beside his little brother. He saw that Joe was conscious but was losing blood. His priority was to get the bleeding stopped and then get him home and get the doctor to the Ponderosa. When he heard the posse come down he yelled for Roy.

“Roy I need some help in here. Joe’s been shot!”

*****

Chapter 21

 

The Cartwrights waited impatiently in the big living room for Doctor Martin or Hop Tseng to come downstairs. As they waited, Adam had filled the others in on what had transpired at the cabin. Sheriff Coffee had sent some of the posse to get the doc and some to help Adam get Joe home, but he and the rest had gone off after Billy. Sheriff Coffee had left the telegram he had received from the Sheriff in Carson City that said that “William Bonney aka Billy the Kid” was wanted for murder and robbery the night that Joe had met him. That was probably why he’d decided to ride out with Joe in the first place.

“If Doc Martin don’t come down here in the next 5 minutes, I’m goin’ up there.” Hoss said defiantly, as if he wanted someone to argue with him. Ben looked at him and sighed, “Maybe I’ll go with you Hoss.”

Before time for Hoss to follow through with his threat, Doc Martin came down the stairs. All three Cartwrights stood up immediately, then when Dr. Martin sat down, they sat down again.

“He’ll be fine, Ben. The bullet missed his lungs and heart—went right beside the heart, but missed it by less than a half-inch.”

The Cartwrights breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“Can we see him, Paul?”

“Yeah, give Hop Tseng a few more minutes to get him cleaned up and comfortable. He’ll probably go right back to sleep; I had to drug him pretty heavy to keep him still. Fool boy kept sayin’ he had to go after Billy.”

The other three Cartwrights looked at each other and shared a look that was half grin and half amazement.

Horse’s hooves into the courtyard were rapidly followed by a heavy knock on the door. Hoss got up to see who it was and let Sheriff Coffee in. “Roy, I’d thought you’d still be on the trail. You don’t caught him?” Hoss asked.

“‘Fraid not, Hoss. That boy is a lot smarter’n he looks. He went up through Breaker’s pass and then set a fire after ‘im. By the time we got the fire out, him and any tracks he woulda left were gone. I sent a wire to the towns below, that’s all I can do. How’s Joe?”

“Come in, Roy. Doc says he’ll be fine. Hoss would you see about making a fresh pot of coffee?”

Just as he said that, Hop Tseng appeared at his elbow. “You go see Mister Little Joe. Hop Tseng make coffee. Stay out of Hop Tseng’s kitchen.”

“Well, Ben, I’ll be out again in the morning to check on him. Just keep that young fellow in bed would you please?”

“Doc, I’ll just ride on back to Virginia City with you. I expect Joe’ll have enough company tonight.” Roy’s eyes twinkled as he made this comment, knowing that there would not be a single minute that Joe was left alone in that room tonight.

Ben shook Paul’s hand and escorted him to the door. “Thanks, Paul, for everything.” His look of appreciation conveyed more than his words. “Roy, let us know if you hear anything else.”

“Well boys, lets go see that younger brother of yours.”

The three Cartwrights trooped upstairs and then carefully opened the door to Joe’s room. His eyes were closed when they entered. He was a little pale and his chest was covered in bandages, but he looked much better than he had when Adam brought him home. Ben went over and pulled a chair up close to the bed; Adam and Hoss leaned against the dresser. No one said a word in fear of waking him up. However, within a few seconds, he opened his eyes, blinked a few times, then said, irritably, “What are ya staring at?”

Ben smiled, “How you feeling, Son?”

“Fine, Pa.” Then he added, “If you three’d stop starin’ at me, I’d feel better.”

Ben laughed and said, “All right son, we’ll promise to stop starin’ at you, if you’re sure you’re feeling okay. Do ya need anything? How about some water?”

Joe licked his lips and said, “Yeah.”

Adam poured a glass of water and handed it to Ben, who helped Joe sit up enough to take a sip of water. Ben could see the effort it was taking Joe to stay awake so he said, “Boys, why don’t you go downstairs and find out what is taking Hop Tseng so long with that coffee and bring me a cup? I’ll sit here with Joseph for a while.”

“Sure thing, Pa.”

Hoss walked over the bed and leaned down close so that Joe could see him, “You get some rest, Short Shanks. I’ll be back to see ya later.” Joe nodded at him and attempted to smile.

“Yeah, little buddy, you take it easy. I’ll be back later too.” Adam said. Joe nodded, then said, “Adam, I…”

“You can talk later, Joseph. Right now you need to get some rest.” He motioned for Adam and Hoss to go on out. They went to the door and stopped in the doorway and stood for a minute, watching Joe as he dozed off to sleep.

*****

Chapter 22

 

The next time Joe woke up, Adam was seated in a chair next to the bed, reading a book of Shakespeare. Joe watched him quietly for a few seconds, before Adam realized he was awake.

“Adam?”

“Well, good morning, Joe. How are you feeling?”

“Okay, I guess. Adam, I’m sorry.”

Adam looked at him quietly for a minute, weighing his words before he spoke.

“Joe, I’m sorry that I was right about Billy. There was just somethin’ about him that bothered me about him from the minute I laid eyes on him. I can’t explain it, but it was there.”

“I know Adam and I should have listened to you. Instead I make a fool out of myself again and almost got you killed. I guess I’m not much good as a judge of character. Guess all I’m good at is getting in trouble. Just like you said.” He gave a grunt, which deepened as he attempted to turn over at the same time and pulled on the gunshot injury.

Adam stood up and helped Joe turn over and moved his pillow to help position him more comfortably on his side. He poured a glass of water and helped him take a few sips before either of them said anything.

“Joe, this time I was right and you were wrong; next time it could be the opposite. But Joe once you knew about Billy, you tried to get me out of danger—you stepped in and took a bullet that was meant for me, Joe. I can’t imagine anyone being any braver than that.”

Joe sighed and said, “But Adam, I thought he was like me. We laughed at the same jokes, we liked the same girls, we had so much in common. I just can’t understand. How could he be a bank-robber and a murderer and be so likeable at the same time?”

“Joe your Ma used to say that inside everybody must have a little bit of good in ’em and if you look hard enough, you might find it. I think you just found the good inside Billy while the rest of us just saw the bad.”

Ben had been standing at the door of Joe’s room for the most of this conversation, and he stepped into the room. He walked over to the bed and leaned over and took Joe’s hand in both his own.

“Joseph, Adam’s right, Son. You saw the Billy that the rest of us didn’t see. You can’t blame yourself for that; maybe if other people had seen it earlier, he wouldn’t have gotten to be the man he is now. Just put it out of your mind for now, Son. We’ll talk more about it later. In about 2 minutes, Hoss is coming upstairs with a breakfast tray for you. Let’s get you comfortable and see if you can eat something.” Seeing the reluctance on Joe’s face, he said, “Unless of course you’d prefer to tell Hop Tseng why you aren’t eating the breakfast he made especially for you.” Joe smiled and said, “No, Pa. I think it’d be easier to just eat the breakfast than to face Hop Tseng’s wrath.

*****

Over the next few weeks, Joe healed rapidly and was begging to go back to work, long before the doctor or his father was willing. In the end, as always, Joe won out and was up and out of bed in two weeks, although confined to the house and yard.

A couple of weeks later, Joe and Hoss were playing checkers on the porch when Sheriff Coffee rode into the courtyard. “Hey Hoss, Little Joe. Joe, you look like you’re ready to go back to bustin’ broncos—or at least ready to go back to bustin’ up Virginia City saloons.” He said, laughing.

“Yep, Roy I think a night in Virginia City is just what the doctor ordered.” Joe replied in good humor.

Ben who walked out of the front door, overheard that comment and said, “Oh I doubt that Joseph. I think going to Virginia City is the last thing you need to do young man.” He and Roy and Hoss found this amusing, though Joe failed to see the humor in it.

“What brings you out here, Roy?”

“Well I thought you’d want to know about this.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Ben. Ben read it carefully then glanced at Little Joe, concern in his face.

“What is it, Pa?”

Hoss reached over and took the paper from Ben’s hand, read it and then he too, looked at Little Joe.

“What? Is that a wanted poster for me or something? I have an alibi.” Joe said, trying to ease the tension, for somehow he knew what that piece of paper said.

Ben swallowed and said, “Joe, this paper says that Billy was killed in a shoot-out with a lawmen, by the name of Pat Garrett.”

“When, Pa?”

“July 14 (1881).”

“That was just a month after he left here.”

“Yes, Son.”

“I just think I shoulda helped him, Pa.” Joe’s eyes were misty and bright with regret.

“Joe, I think by the time you met Billy, by the time we all met Billy—it was too late. His destiny had already been written—by him, Son.”

“I know….but…I still wished I coulda done somethin’!”

“Yes, Son, we all do. And that is what separates you from the Billys of the world–you want to help people.” Ben reached over and ruffled Joe’s hair and said, “That is what makes the human race worth saving, Joe.”

“Now, then, Roy, come on in and let’s get Hop Tseng to round us up some coffee. Joe you’ve been outside long enough, anyway. Hoss, go tell Adam to come in and have some coffee.”

Ben reached over and took hold of Joe’s arm and helped him rise from the chair, then he put his arm around his son and said, “Come on inside, Son and we’ll talk about the possibility of a foray into Virginia City before long.”

Joe hesitated just a moment, before looking at Ben, then he looked at him and said, “umm, how about Saturday night, Pa? I hear there’s a big barn dance planned.” Ben shook his head at Joe and said, “We’ll talk about it later, Joseph!”

*****

EPILOGUE:

Joe and Emma had wonderful time at the dance, despite Ben, Hoss, and Adam hovering over Joe, making sure he didn’t overdo it.

***The End***

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