The Fastest (by Judy)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,450


 

Little Joe Cartwright, youngest son of Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa, was going to be late getting home from Virginia City to pick up the mail—-again.  It was well past five P.M., and Joe should have been home hours ago.  Instead, he was in the Bucket of Blood saloon, playing poker.  To make things even worse, he had forgotten to PICK UP the mail and the post office closed at 3:30 p. m.  These things might have made Joe a little worried, considering the fact that his father was always on his case about being more responsible.  His Father said he seemed to have a knack for getting into trouble.  Joe thought that he only got into trouble because his Father was too strict on him and he would get into trouble for things that his older brothers, Adam and Hoss, would be allowed to do.  Still, being late again might have made Little Joe a little bit worried, but the honest fact was—he hadn’t even thought of that yet.  He hadn’t intended to forget the mail or to play poker—he just came into the saloon for a beer to wash down the dust from the trip to Virginia City from the Ponderosa.  But when he came into the saloon, a group of his friends was playing poker and one of them asked Joe to take his spot because he had to leave.  Although he at first said no, he was soon persuaded by his friends.  These friends were all older than Joe, closer to his brother’s age, and being included in their activities made Joe feel good.  Of course, they used this to their advantage sometimes.  They knew that all they had to do to get him to change his mind was to ask him if he was afraid his Pa would get mad at him for playing poker.  Joe was very sensitive about being teased about being the youngest and he would do anything to convince others and himself that he was grown up.  He was 17 last month and his family still treated him like a baby, in his opinion.   So, four hours and several pints of beer later, Joe was still playing poker.  He was feeling particularly good because he was winning.  Of course, he was spending the money as fast as he won it, buying drinks for all his friends and the barmaids, who were enthusiastically cheering Joe’s success.  Little Joe liked to have a good time and he wanted everyone else to have a good time, too.  Most people found it hard to resist his infectious sense of humor and playfulness.  Women found it harder to resist that smile and those gorgeous hazel eyes.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, Ben Cartwright was waiting for his three sons to come home from their day’s tasks.  Hoss, the middle son was the first to come in, which was not unusual.  Hoss, a big man, was seldom late for meals, and he was anxious for dinner that night since Hop Sing had promised to make fried chicken, his favorite food.  Adam, the oldest son was next, right on time.  Hoss tried to sneak a piece of fried chicken out of the kitchen, setting off a tirade by Hop Sing in Chinese.  Unsuccessful in snatching a sample, Hoss joined Adam and Ben as they were talking at Ben’s desk.  They were reviewing the ongoing projects of the ranch while they waited for Little Joe to return to have dinner.   They were all used to waiting for Little Joe at mealtimes—he just never could seem to make it on time.  However, as the minutes passed by, Ben became increasingly exasperated with his youngest son’s tardiness.  Hop Sing announced dinner was ready, and Ben told him they were waiting for Little Joe.  This set Hop Sing off with another round of Chinese, with the only recognizable words being “Little Joe”.  Finally after 4 warnings from Hop Sing, Ben decided they would start without him.

It was just as well that the other Cartwrights decided to eat—Joe was still playing poker.  He was on his last hand and by all indications, it was a good one.  He was relaxed, smiling, flirting with two barmaids, at the same time he was arranging his cards in a particular order.  There were just two players left now, and the other player, George Hanes, a ranch hand from the Bar X, had to fold or call.  To call Joe’s hand would wipe him out and he was trying to make up his mind about risking it.

“Come on, George, make up your mind. What’s it going to be?”

George looked at his cards, looked at all the money in the pot, and then looked at Little Joe’s face.  He folded.  Little Joe started to collect his winnings from the center of the table.  George, dismayed at losing so much money, asked Little Joe to see his hand.

Little Joe said, “Well, George, if you insist,” and turned his cards over.  He had a pair of queens and the rest of his hand amounted to nothing.

“Dad burn you, Little Joe, I had 2 kings!  I thought you must have had a full house. You are either the luckiest man alive or the trickiest!”

“Aw, come on George, I’ll buy you a drink, in fact, I will buy everybody a drink.  I recently came into a little money.”  That put even George in a better mood and they flocked around Joe for the better part of an hour, until a few at a time, they started leaving.

Finally, after his friends were gone, Little Joe started thinking about why he came in there in the first place.  He paid his tab, stuffed the remainder of his winnings into his pocket, and headed over to the general store, where the post office was located.  When he got to the door, he saw the CLOSED sign; then, and only then he realized the time.  Joe considered the consequences of going home— late, and without the mail.  He decided that was too horrible to even consider, so he decided to do what he had done so many times before in the same circumstances—find Mrs. Trumbell and ask her to open the post office to give him the mail.  Mrs. Trumbell was the postmistress who lived just a few houses away from the post office.  She had a motherly fondness for Little Joe Cartwright.  She had saved him from his father’s wrath several times, and as luck would have it, she was home.  Although she gave Joe a hard time and made him work to convince her to open the post office, she eventually did, as both of them knew she would.  “All right, Little Joe, but I am warning you, this is the absolute last time that I am going to do this for you. You will just have to learn your lesson the hard way next time.”  Joe gallantly kissed her hand and gave her a great big smile to express his appreciation.  As he was leaving, Mrs. Trumbell was thinking, “if I were just 20 years younger and he was just 20 years older.”

Little Joe got home about 9 P.M., which he didn’t consider to really be late.  Ben Cartwright had a different interpretation, however.  “Where have you been young man?  You should have been home by 2 P.M. at the latest.”  Joe started to explain, but Ben wasn’t through talking yet.  “This is the third time this week that you have gone into Virginia City and wound up in that Bucket of Blood saloon.  Don’t think I don’t know about it.  What do you have to say for yourself?”  Joe again started to say something, but Ben still wasn’t through talking yet.  “Don’t you realize how inconsiderate it is when you are late?  How was I supposed to know that you weren’t hurt or something?”  Well?”

Joe waited to speak, expecting his father to continue.  “Well, young man, I am waiting!” Ben said, with his arms crossed.  Joe sighed and explained that he just got tied up, careful not to mention what he was doing, and couldn’t get there any sooner.  He apologized for being late and handed his father the mail, mentioning that there was mail from the accountants in San Francisco.  This was always an effective strategy because the mail was an important event at the Ponderosa and the mail from San Francisco was doubly important.  The San Francisco accounting firm handled all the ranch accounts and prepared monthly detailed reports on the Cartwright’s many holdings.  As usual, the diversion strategy Joe used worked this time, too.  Ben said, “Well, don’t let it happen again, Joseph.”  With that said, Ben went over to his desk to read the mail.  Joe decided to go see about getting something to eat.

As he walked by, Hoss, sitting in the living room cleaning a rifle, said “Little Joe, I don’t see how you do that.  Pa has been steaming for three hours over your being late and you get home and within 5 minutes he has forgotten it.”  Joe just winked at Hoss and went on into the kitchen.

 Adam, who was reading a book, said to Hoss, “It is because Pa is not really mad at Little Joe for being late, he was worried about him and when he gets home safely, he is so relieved, he forgets why he was so worried.”

“Yeah, I guess you are right, Adam”.

“I know I am right about that” said Adam.  “Yes, that kid has Pa wrapped around his little finger, and as a matter of fact, you, too,” said Adam.”

Hoss started to protest, but then with a teasing look on his face, said, “Didn’t I notice you doing Little Joe’s chores tonight, Adam?”

Sheepishly, Adam laughed and said “Yes, he has us all wrapped around his little finger, doesn’t he?”

In the kitchen, Hop Sing was letting Joe have it in Chinese for missing dinner and Little Joe was giving it right back to him in mock Chinese.  Joe was the only one with nerve enough to do this to Hop Sing.  Yet, even during his tirade, Hop Sing was fixing him a plate of food.   Little Joe returned from the kitchen with a plate of cold fried chicken, freshly sliced homemade bread, and a huge piece of chocolate cake, and joined his brothers in the living room.  Adam and Hoss were still laughing and when Joe walked in with his plate of food, Hoss said, “Would you look at that?  Hop Sing wouldn’t let me cut that cake, said it was for tomorrow! “  Then he said,  “Hop Sing, too, Adam!” and they laughed again.

Little Joe said “what about Hop Sing?”, but Adam and Hoss just laughed and wouldn’t tell him what they were talking about.  Little Joe, not one to worry unnecessarily, made a face, indicating that his brothers had taken leave of their senses, and let it go.

Soon Ben joined his sons around the fire and updated them on the financial reports from San Francisco and the other items from the mail that they would be interested in.  During the middle of this amicable conversation, Ben asked Joe “Well, how much money did you win in that poker game?”  Little Joe, surprised, said “ About $100.00” before he realized that his father had tricked him into confessing.  When he realized he had been tricked, he laughed and the others joined in.  This was a typical day for the Cartwrights.

*****

The next morning as was their custom; the Cartwrights began their day by sharing breakfast.  Of course, also as usual, Hoss had to go in several times to wake Little Joe up.  Little Joe, definitely not a morning person, knew that he could get away with ignoring the first three calls, but he knew that the 4th one, no matter who delivered it, meant that Ben was behind it and he had better get up.

When Joe joined the rest of the family at the breakfast table, Ben smiled, then remembered Joe was late and tried to change the smile into a frown.  “Well, I am glad you finally decided to join us, Joseph”, he said.

Little Joe, however, knew that his father wasn’t really upset, and gave him one of his frequent million dollar smiles.  Joe was in a good mood, since when he finally counted his money that morning, he realized that he still had close to $200 left over from that poker game, so he must have won about $250.00 in all.   The money wasn’t all that important to him, but winning and having his friends respect him, were very important to him.  However, he did have his eyes on a fancy new gun in the Virginia City Gun shop and the money would enable him to buy it much sooner than he had expected.  In fact, by taking all the money out of his savings account, he could just about swing it.  He was in a good mood indeed.

After his sons left to begin their work for the day, Ben lingered over coffee.  He was also in a good mood.  The financial reports had all been very favorable, things on the ranch were right on schedule, and there was a sense of harmony in the house.  Adam had been home from college for two years and hadn’t given any indication that he was unhappy with being back on the ranch.  Ben had really been worried that he would not be satisfied with being a rancher after getting degrees in architecture and engineering.  Ben had given Adam more and more responsibility for running the ranch and relied on his advice and suggestions for many decisions.  Adam was Ben’s right-hand man.  Although Adam kept his emotions under check at all times, Ben knew that he cared about the Ponderosa and his family deeply.  He and Ben could discuss most matters and reach a logical solution or compromise, if necessary.  Adam was able to put his university skills to work in the mining, timber, and financial management of the Ponderosa.  Ben felt that he could probably stop worrying about Adam leaving at this point.

He turned his thoughts to his other two sons.  Ben had never imagined that Hoss would ever want to leave the Ponderosa.  Even in his wildest dreams he couldn’t imagine Hoss being satisfied anywhere EXCEPT the Ponderosa.  Adam had more education and book smarts than Hoss, but Hoss had a real love of the land and common sense about ranching, mining, timber, and water management that was invaluable to the Ponderosa.  Hoss was the self-appointed peacemaker in the family.  Whether it was between Ben and Adam or Ben and Joe, or Joe and Adam—Hoss was always the one to try to reason with both sides in an attempt to re-establish peace.  Hoss was gentle and not easy to take offense.  Because of his size, Hoss had developed an easy-going manner to prevent him from hurting other people.  Though if provoked, he was a fierce opponent, at 6’4” and 300 pounds.  His biggest fault, if it could be called a fault, was that he was sometimes too gullible.  This sometimes got Hoss into trouble, and usually it was Joseph behind it.  Joseph could talk Hoss into anything; in fact, he could talk most people into anything, Ben realized—even himself at times.

With Adam’s book sense and Hoss’s common sense the Ponderosa was in good hands.  But what about Joseph? Ben wondered.  Joseph Frances Cartwright, affectionately known as Little Joe, was a mystery even to himself, Ben realized.  If Ben tried to assign a kind of sense to Joseph, nonsense was the first to come to mind.  Joseph was lively, energetic, tireless, enthusiastic, and goal-driven—if he got to pick the goals.  He was less than enthusiastic if he weren’t interested in the current project, however.  There were deep feelings inside Joseph that Ben knew he didn’t understand or comprehend.  He was impulsive, hot-tempered, and obstinate, characteristics that Joe inherited from his mother, Ben realized. Yet, there were deeper feelings inside Joe too, that Ben knew that Joe tried to hide.  Joe had also inherited his mother’s physical characteristics, deep brown, curly hair, hazel eyes, dark complexion and small, slender size.  It was hard to explain but Ben felt that Joe was far more vulnerable than his older brothers had been—vulnerable to being hurt, both physically and emotionally.  This led to a natural instinct that he, (Adam and Hoss, too for that matter) had—to protect Joe from the world and from himself.

That instinct had been put to good use through Joe’s life.  Little Joe had been mischievous all his life.  As soon as he learned to walk, he was straining against authority, taking risks, pushing limits, and getting into all kinds of dangerous situations.  Since his mother had died when he was just a baby, Adam, and Hoss had shared the responsibility for raising him with Ben.  Ben knew that Adam and Hoss felt some of the same kind of paternal feelings for Joe that he did, in addition to fraternal feelings.  This had made raising Joe easier for him, because Joe’s inclination to mischief was more than one person could handle, especially one busy running the Ponderosa.  Hardly a week went by that Joe didn’t get into some kind of mischief.  Ben had had to make frequent visits to discuss Joe’s behavior with his schoolteachers and Adam and Hoss had made similar trips.  Mostly the offenses were just pranks, like setting off firecrackers in the schoolroom or not paying attention to the lessons.  Every teacher he had ever had always compared Joe unfavorably to Adam, which probably made Joe even more determined not to try.  His teachers would say that he was just as capable of excelling as Adam did, but he just wouldn’t try.  There had been a few incidents more serious, too, and although they had been instigated by others, Joe had gone along with them.  Just when Ben thought Little Joe was finally maturing, he would pull something else.

Ben knew that it was hard for Joe sometimes, because he essentially had 3 “parents” to be accountable to.  This was a fact that Joe openly rebelled against.  He wanted to be treated exactly the same as Adam or Hoss had been at his age.  Then of course there was Hop Sing who had been with the family since Joe’s birth and felt he, too, was responsible for Joe.  Ben believed that some of Joe’s trouble making was in response to the excessive control he felt others had over him.  But mostly Ben felt that it was just high spirits and enthusiasm that led Joe to make impulsive decisions that almost always got him into trouble.  Yes, thought Ben, it isn’t really willful disobedience on Joe’s part, it is just his nature.  And despite his objections, he still needs his brothers and me to protect him until he gets a little older and a lot wiser.  Ben made a mental note to re-evaluate this policy as Joe matured.  Then he got up and went out to begin his day’s work.

Later, after finishing up the jobs he had set for himself to do that day, he went out to check on the progress of the new sawmill being built on one of the larger virgin timber stands of the Ponderosa.  Adam was in charge of this project, and had actually designed the sawmill and drew up the plans.  The sawmill crew was obviously making good progress.  Ben stopped and discussed the project with Adam.  Adam estimated that they should be finished well in advance of the original projected time. Adam said that he was actually going to start marking timber for cutting within the week.  One of Ben’s steadfast rules was that he or Adam or Hoss had to personally mark every timber for cutting, to make sure that the forest was not over-logged.  Then after cutting, the Cartwrights always planted one tree for every tree they logged, thus preserving the forests of the Ponderosa.  They always made a celebration out of this event, inviting all the Ponderosa hands and their families to a barbecue.  Ben was hoping that others would adopt this policy of good stewardship towards the land, so that the forests would survive the march of progress.

After leaving Adam, Ben headed over to where Joe was breaking horses.  Joe was the natural horseman of the family.  He had trained his pinto, Cochise, and they made a great team.  Cochise was a one-man horse, he wouldn’t let anyone else ride him and Joe had taught him lots of fancy tricks.  He could ride and tame horses that others wouldn’t even attempt.  Part of it was his small size and his natural agility, but probably more important was his refusal to give up.  He was just too darned stubborn to let a horse get the better of him, Ben thought.  However, when Ben got to the corral, all he saw were the crew, Joe was nowhere in sight.  “Johnson, where is Little Joe?” Ben asked one of the men assigned to help with the horse breaking.

“He said he had an errand to do in Virginia City and would be back in a couple of hours, Mr. Cartwright”.  He could see Ben was getting mad, so he added, “Mr. Cartwright, Joe already broke 3 horses today that the boys and I couldn’t even get a saddle on yesterday”, hoping to prevent Ben from getting angry at Joe for leaving early.  His attempts to cover for Little Joe wound up really making Ben angry.

Breaking three stubborn horses was a good day’s work for most men and Joe probably felt justified in leaving.  However, if he HAD broken 3 stubborn horses in one day, that meant he did it without taking normal safety precautions.  When horses were difficult to break, the normal practice was to take it slow and easy, first just sitting on the horse, then sitting on the horse with his eyes covered, with two other people holding on to the horse and guiding him around the corral.  This kind of breaking was slow and time-consuming, and not for the impatient.

Joe’s preferred method was a lot faster and much more dangerous.  It was quite simple—get on the horse, let him go, hold on for dear life with one hand, trying to use the other hand for balance, and try to stay on the horse until he was too tired to resist.  If the rider got thrown off, he just got back on and did it all over again.  The problem with this method was that the rider generally got thrown off several times and there was always a danger that the horse would trample the fallen rider.  Joe had suffered many minor injuries and a few serious injuries over the years because of this.  Ben repeatedly told Joe not to use that method, but repeatedly, Joe ignored his advice every time he thought he could get away with it.  Ben was especially opposed to Little Joe doing this because his mother, Marie, had been thrown from a horse and killed when Joe was just a baby.  Every time he saw Joe riding a bucking horse, he remembered Marie and his feelings of love and loss made it impossible for him to be objective about this issue with Joe.  “Johnson, when my son gets back here, you tell him I am looking for him”, Ben said and rode off.  Johnson and the other crew members passed a look, they knew Little Joe was in trouble again.  “Poor kid, he just can’t stay out of trouble, can he?” asked one of the wranglers.  Johnson, said, “Well, let’s just get back to work; there is nothing we can do to keep Little Joe Cartwright out of hot water—he is used to it by now, I suspect.”

On his way back to the Ponderosa, Ben stopped to see Hoss, since he hadn’t seen him at noon.  Hoss was supervising repair of the fence on the eastern border of the Ponderosa.  When Ben rode up, he noticed that everyone was just standing there, staring at something in the distance.  He could see Hoss holding his arm out, pointing to something.  He followed Hoss’ pointed arm and saw a doe and fawn, drinking from a mountain stream.  Leave it to Hoss to hold up workers so as not to disturb a deer family.  Ben smiled to himself, it sure was a pretty sight though.

“Hi, Pa,” said Hoss when he saw his Father.

“Hoss, how is the job coming, when you let the men work, I mean?” said Ben.

Hoss laughed, “wasn’t that a pretty sight, Pa?”

“Yes, son, it sure was.”

“We will be finished here in about another half-hour and this is the last section, Pa”, Hoss said in answer to his father’s question.  “I thought I would start on that roundup of the calves in Bear Meadow tomorrow.”

“That sounds like a fine plan to me, Son. Speaking of sons, do you have any idea where your brother got off to this afternoon?”  Hoss looked a little uncomfortable, which indicated to Ben that he did know where Little Joe was but didn’t want to get him in trouble.  It also struck Ben that Hoss naturally assumed he was speaking of Little Joe, since Adam and Hoss were almost always where they were supposed to be.  “Out with it, Hoss, where is Little Joe?” prompted Ben.

“He said he had to go into Virginia City”.

“For what reason? He was just there for half a day and night yesterday! Ben exclaimed.”

“He had to go to pick up something, Pa”, Hoss replied.  Ben didn’t know why Hoss always tried to give as little information as possible, making Ben ask him every question directly.  “Hoss, what did he have to go pick up?”, Ben asked in a no-nonsense, better-tell-me-all voice.

“Dadburn it, Pa, he went and ordered one of those fancy six shooters and holsters and he won enough money to finish paying for it in that poker game yesterday.”

“How fancy, Hoss?”

Hoss looked mighty uncomfortable now, like he would rather be anywhere but there.  “Pa, he ordered one of those new revolvers with trigger-action that is supposed to be real fast and has a special holster to make it easy to get out”.

Upon hearing that, Ben felt a cold chill run along his spine.  “Guns like that are for gunfighters, not ranchers!” exclaimed Ben.

“Pa, you know how Joe is always practicing his shooting, he just likes to be the fastest. He doesn’t have any intention of being a gunfighter” said Hoss.

“Yes, Hoss, you know that, and I know that, but will the gunfighters know that? Thanks for the information, I am always the last to know what that boy is up to these days. I will have to handle this tonight.  I will see you back at the ranch at dinner.”  Hoss followed Ben with his eyes long after he rode away.  Hoss was just as worried about Little Joe having that kind of a gun as Pa was.  Joe’s hot temper and a hair-triggered gun could only mean trouble, as he and Pa both knew.

*****

Little Joe was ecstatic over his new gun—it was a real beauty.  It was just the right weight and the grip was perfect for his hand.  The holster was just right, too.  It sure felt better than that holster Pa had given him when he first let him start wearing a gun just a year ago.  Of course Joe had already learned how to shoot, long before Pa let him start wearing a gun.  He practiced every chance he got and was always getting Adam or Hoss to let him shoot with theirs.  Within a month of getting his own gun, he could outdraw Adam and Hoss without a problem.   But he had seen a fancy gun show in Carson City a few months ago and the tricks that the man could do with the gun fascinated him.  He had been attempting to imitate the same tricks with his revolver, but it was too heavy and clumsy to do justice to the fancy moves he wanted to do.  That was when he made up his mind to get a new gun of his own choosing and one of those special holsters, too.  He had been saving his money for that purpose and the poker game was a blessing. In fact, the way he looked at it, it was a sign that he was meant to have that gun, otherwise, George would have called his bluff and he wouldn’t have won.  Now that he had had a little bit of time to try the gun out, he knew he had made a good choice.  He had already started practicing the two-handed technique like that fancy gunman had used, this did make it much quicker.  The new gun and holster would really improve his speed, and he could also then do some of the tricks like twirling the gun around before putting it back in the holster.  He was already doing that some, but the new gun and holster would really make it easier.

There was one other gun that he had liked more, that was the same model, but had real pearl handles and more intricate detailing.  Unfortunately, it also cost $300 more and he didn’t want to wait another 3 months to buy a gun. Pa would have a fit if he knew how much this gun and holster cost, thought Joe.  So he bought the plain model this time.  If my luck at poker holds out, maybe I can get the pearl one soon, thought Joe.  In the meantime, he would be practicing with this gun every chance he got until he had perfected his draw.  Ever the optimist, Joe hoped that Ben wouldn’t notice the new gun for a few days, at least.  Since he spent so much time practicing and trying out the new gun, he never made it back to the corral, so he didn’t even get the warning that would have let him get prepared for his Pa’s discussion that night.

Ben had been thinking about how to handle the situation with Little Joe ever since he left Hoss.  He knew that he had to handle the situation carefully.  He had known of Joe’s interest in that fancy gun, but had hoped if he kept him busy enough he would forget about it.  He also never expected him to be able to actually save enough money to pay for it either; it cost over a $1000.  Just his luck that Joe had gotten so lucky with poker recently.  He considered, briefly, not making an issue of it and letting Joe keep the gun.  But he knew that was too dangerous. Just last week Joe had gotten into a fight with men older and three times his size, just because they teased him about being called “LITTLE Joe”.  If he had had that fancy gun then, what would have happened?  Plus wearing a gun like that makes a statement that gunfighters seem to be attracted to. It was just a walking invitation to challenge someone to a test to see who was the fastest.  Joe probably wouldn’t start the conflict, but he is too stubborn and too impetuous to walk away from it, thought Ben.  Joe had been involved in too many incidents where all it took to provoke him was some reference to him being a “coward” or “just a kid” or someone emphasizing the “Little” in his name to draw him into the situation.  “No”, thought Ben, “I can’t allow him to wear that gun—it is just too risky.”  I’ll just have to take it away from him, then after he has calmed down some; perhaps he will listen to reason, Ben decided.  By the time Adam, Hoss, and Joe came home, his mind was made up.  Ben decided, however, to put the discussion off until after supper.  Since the Cartwrights always took their guns off at the front door, he knew he could let it go until then and that would allow them to have a peaceful and enjoyable meal before the battle.  And Ben knew this would be no small battle.

The mealtime was especially lighthearted and enjoyable. No one mentioned Joe’s new purchase.  Hoss had forewarned Adam not to mention the gun and Ben had determined to wait until after dinner to discuss it.  This made Joe think he had pulled one off on his Pa, so he was in especially good spirits and he entertained the three of them with tales of some of his recent adventures with the females of Virginia City.  Ben participated in the light banter and joking, knowing that the mood was going to change abruptly as soon as he broached the subject of the gun with Little Joe.

As soon as dinner was over, Adam and Hoss found something they had to do outside.  Little Joe teased Hoss about leaving after eating only one piece of apple pie—“what’s your rush, Hoss?”  Joe was getting up to go outside, too, when Ben asked him to come over to the study for a minute. This caused Joe a small amount of consternation, but he still had no idea that his father knew about the gun.  Joe had been careful to hang his green jacket over the gun and holster when he took them off.

“Yes, Pa?”  Joe asked.

Ben looked at Joe with a serious look on his face and motioned for him to sit down.  Joe, always trying to figure out Ben’s thoughts, was trying to decide if Ben looked angry.  He was a little confused, because his father didn’t look exactly angry, but he couldn’t figure out exactly what his father looked like.  Then Joe had a revelation—“Pa, did Hoss tell you about that little fall from that stallion today?”

“No, Joseph, but why don’t you tell me about it?” Ben said.

Now Joe was thoroughly confused, and as usual, his mouth had gotten him in more trouble.  “Oh, it was nothing, Pa, just a little fall from a high-spirited horse, but he settled down soon enough” Joe said.

“Well, let us leave that topic for another conversation, Joseph, I have something important to discuss with you now.”

“Sure” said Joe, eager to change the subject.  “What is on your mind, Pa?”

Ben took a deep breath and plunged ahead, “Joseph, I understand you bought a new gun today.”  During the span of a few seconds, as he realized what his Father wanted to talk about, Joe’s facial expression had changed from confusion to anger.

“Yes, I did Pa, I bought it with my own money”, he replied in a deliberate attempt to control his emotions.

“May I see it please?” asked Ben.

“Okay”, Joe said and went and took the shiny new gun out of the holster.

“Would you bring the holster, too, Joseph?” Ben said, in a loud, this-is-not-a-request voice.  Little Joe brought the gun and holster and laid them on his father’s desk, without saying anything.  His eyes showed his anger, though.  He continued standing, watching his Father.  “Sit down, Joe”, Ben said, motioning him to sit in a chair nearest the desk.  Joe moved to the other chair, a little further away from the desk and sat down, still watching his father.

Ben stared at the gun and holster without saying anything for several minutes.  During that time, Little Joe stared at his Father, trying to figure out what his father would do.  Finally, Ben asked, “Joe, do you remember what I have taught you about firearms?”

“Sure, Pa, I know how to handle a gun.  I am much faster than Hoss or Adam and my aim is better, too, Pa,” Joe replied.

That was the wrong answer.  Ben said, “Joseph, speed and accuracy are not as important as knowing when to use a gun.  That is what I was talking about.”

“Pa, I know when to use a gun.  I am not going to go around shooting people, if that is what you are worried about”.

“But what if those people are shooting at you, Joe?  Then what will you do?”

“Well, Pa, I would have to defend myself, wouldn’t I?”

“Yes, Joe, you would have to defend yourself”, said Ben.

“Well, I don’t understand what the problem is then, Pa.”

“The problem is that the minute you strap on this gun, every cowboy you meet with a gun is going to want to know who is faster, you or them.”

“Well, Pa, I would just tell them it wasn’t a contest, I wouldn’t draw on them” said Joe.

Ben thought to himself, he really means that.  “Joseph, I believe you really mean that.  But what if they then asked if you were yellow, or called you LITTLE Joe, or any one of a dozen things you have told me people called you as a justification for getting into a fight?”, Ben asked.

Joe was not happy with the way this “discussion” was going at all.  For one thing, his Father didn’t seem to be angry with him.  That was not a good sign, as far as Joe could tell.  If his father were angry, Joe had a chance of calming him down and stating his case strongly enough to change his mind.  He didn’t say anything to his father’s last remark; he just stared at him, with his jaw set.

Ben, on the other hand, recognized the jaw set as a sign that Joe was not going to be rational.  Well, he thought to himself, this is getting us nowhere. I may as well just tell him my decision and get it over with.  “Joseph, I can not allow you to wear that gun.  It would be an open invitation for trouble and I don’t think you are ready for the responsibility that comes with a fancy gunfighter’s gun.”  Joe’s eyes had gotten bigger and his face now had a cold, hard set to it that almost broke Ben’s heart.  He could see that Joe was close to tears, but too angry to let them come.  “I am going to take this gun and holster for safekeeping.  You can have them back when you are old enough to handle that kind of responsibility”, Ben said.  “I know you are disappointed and I am sorry, but I really think this is the only thing I can do.”

“And that is it?  You decide and that is it?” Joe asked loudly.

“Yes, Joseph, when it comes to your safety, I decide and that is it”, Ben said.  “Then I guess we don’t have anything else to talk about”, Joe said.  He turned around and headed up the stairs without saying anything else.  “Joseph, come back here” Ben said.  Joseph kept going and went to his room and slammed the door.  Ben sighed, “That is what I get for thinking about how well things were going yesterday.”

Adam and Hoss came inside as soon as they heard the door slam to Joe’s room.  They had been hanging out on the front porch to see if they could tell how it was going.   Hoss asked, “Pa, how hard did he take it?”

“About as hard as I thought he would take it,” said Ben.

Adam picked up the gun from the desk and looked it over.  “You have to admit, Pa, it has a good feel to it.  He picked out a good one,” he said, trying to smooth the situation over.

“Yes, but it is not this gun I am worried about, it is the other guns that this one will attract” said Ben.

“You are right, Pa, Joe is not old enough or mature enough to walk away from a gunfight and you know that every gunfighter wannabe trying to build a reputation for himself, would be trying to challenge him” Adam remarked.

“That doesn’t help your Brother’s feelings any, though” said Ben.  Ben took the gun and holster and locked it in the one drawer in his desk that his sons did not have access to.

Hoss asked, “Do you think it would help if I go and try to talk to him, Pa?”  “Hoss, I don’t think so, in fact, right now, I would advise against it. He is madder than I have ever seen him and he certainly figured out you told me about the gun, so he would probably say something he didn’t mean.”

“Better just to let him calm down some, Son”.

“I think Pa is right, better give him some time to think it through first”, said Adam.

“Both of you try to tread lightly with Joe until he gets over this.  We don’t want to do anything to make a volatile situation any worse,” Ben cautioned Adam and Hoss.

“We will Pa”, Hoss answered and Adam nodded his agreement.

After Adam and Hoss had gone upstairs, Ben sat in the semi-darkness, considering his decision.  Did he make the right decision?  Unconsciously, Ben had picked up the silver-framed picture of Marie, Joe’s mother, and was looking as if he expected her to answer him.  How would Marie have handled this?  “Marie, I need your help with our son. I feel inadequate to deal with his emotional needs at times like this.   It was a cruel fate that took you from us, when we needed you so much.”  Ben’s eyes had filled with tears as he was holding her picture.  “You would have known how to handle that hot temper of his, after all, you gave it to him, didn’t you?”  At this thought, Ben smiled.  “Well, you will just have to look out for him from Heaven, as you have always done, my Love.”  Ben sat there for several more minutes; finally, he sighed and turned off the lamp and climbed the stairs.  He couldn’t resist peaking in Little Joe’s room as he passed.  Joe was lying on the bed, fully clothed.  Ben could tell that he had been crying and had fallen asleep with the lamp on. It made his heart ache to see that–he looked so small and so vulnerable. He had to stop himself from brushing his hands through Joe’s thick curly brown hair that was falling across his face, as he had done so many times before.  Joe wouldn’t have liked that now, under any circumstances, but tonight, it would have been unconscionable.  Ah, adolescence, Ben thought.  Ben softly turned off the light and quietly closed the door.

*****

The next morning, Ben and Adam and Hoss were sitting at the breakfast table.  Joe wasn’t there yet.  “Hoss, would you go remind Joe to come to breakfast? Ben asked.

Hop Sing, serving coffee, said, “Mister Little Joe no eat breakfast, he been gone for one hour”.  Ben and Adam and Hoss shared a look of concern.

“Hop Sing, what kind of mood was Joe in?” Ben asked.

“He not talk much, say he had to get to work early today.” Said Hop Sing.

Hoss asked, “Do you want me to go check on him, Pa?”

“No, Hoss, you finish your breakfast and then get on over to Bear Creek for those calves.  I will ride by and check on Joe.” said Ben.

“Pa, you don’t think he ran off or anything crazy like that, do you?” asked Adam.

Ben answered, “ I just don’t know, Adam, but I will go find out right now.  If so, I will come back to get both of you to help me find him.”  Ben hurriedly finished his cup of coffee, and then went to the horsebreaking corral.

Ben breathed a sigh of relief when he got near the corral, he could see Cochise and he knew that Joseph would not go anywhere without taking Cochise.  He rode up to the corral and dismounted and watched the men work.  Joe was riding a very wild and strong horse, which was trying his very best to throw Joe off.  Ben started to tell the other men to stop the horse, but thought better of it.  He continued to watch with his jaws clenched and his heart in his throat, until the horse seemed to settle down and Joe finally rode him around the corral, as gentle as you please.  After a few minutes, Joe dismounted and gave the reins to one of the men and walked over to get ready for the next horse.  “Joseph, come over here a minute, will you?”  Ben asked.

Joe came over and one look at his face told Ben that Joe was still very angry.  Joe walked over and stood facing Ben without saying anything.  Ben said, “Joe, we missed you at breakfast this morning.”

“I wasn’t hungry” was all Joe said.

Ben tried to think of something to say to Joe to smooth things over, but couldn’t think of anything to say to make this situation any less painful for either of them.  Finally, he said simply, “Joe, this is not the end of the world.”

In response, Joe said, “If there is nothing else I need to get back to work.”  With that, he walked over to the horse the men had gotten ready for him and mounted the horse and said “All right, turn her loose.”

“Not the end of the world” thought Joe.  Not to him, maybe, but he gets to make all the rules.  Adam and Hoss both had their choice of pistols by now.  And if Hoss had just kept his mouth shut, Pa might not have even noticed.  Either he told Pa or he told Adam who told Pa.  Both of them should mind their own business.  They all just think I am a baby and they will never change—no matter how old I get, I will always be “Little” Joe to them.  Well something has to change because I can not tolerate this situation any more.  There is no reason I shouldn’t have that gun—I paid for it.  And I can use it a darned sight better than any of the three of them.  But I have to think about it before I decide what to do.  If I just run off, I know they would just follow me and drag me home again—saying that proved that I was just a kid.  No, running away from home is not the answer.  But I will think of something and soon.  In the meantime, let ‘em stew about it for awhile, serve ‘em right.

And that is how the next week at the Ponderosa went by.  Joe, careful to avoid as much contact with the others as possible.  Arising early and leaving the house before they came to breakfast.  Eating lunch with the hands, purposefully being late for supper or talking Hop Sing into making him a sandwich before supper, and then going to his room after supper.   Ben, Hoss, and even Adam tried to talk to Little Joe, tried to make him forget his anger just for a little while, but Joe’s stubbornness came in very handy.  He wouldn’t budge.

This was really eating at Hoss, who couldn’t stand to see his little brother so sullen.  “Pa, ain’t there nothing we can do to cheer Joe up?” Hoss asked on the third night.

“Hoss, I think your brother is engaged in a battle of wills—trying to see if we will crack”, Ben said.  “I think he thinks that if he holds out long enough, I will give in and give him back the gun,” said Ben.   “And if I do that, what will he have learned? Ben sighed.

“Pa is right, Hoss, he can’t give in,” added Adam.

“But, Pa, I don’t think Joe is pretending to be mad or just pouting.  I think he is still so angry that he can’t even look at us without getting mad” said Adam.

“Still, time is the only remedy for that.” Ben answered.

“Well if this goes on too much longer, Hop Sing may take matters into his own hands” said Hoss.  “He was fussing up a blue streak today about having to have two meal times now instead of one” Hoss said.

“Yes, Son,” I heard that too.  At least we know that Joe isn’t going to starve as long as Hop Sing feeds him.”  They shared a rare laugh over that.

Adam was right; Joe wasn’t just pouting or pretending to be mad.  Joe couldn’t stop thinking about the gun and he felt that he was being treated unfairly and that went against his deep sense of justice.  Further, he was deeply hurt that his father and brothers didn’t trust him.  That was such a big blow to his self-esteem.  He had always had to convince others that he was not a wimp, because he was the smallest boy his age and had always been.  Once the other kids got to know him, he was the leader, but he had had to fight to get their attention many times.  He knew that he had gotten into lots of scrapes, but he had always thought that deep down, his family trusted him and respected him. But to him, this proved that they didn’t trust him and that they just thought of him as a little kid, too.  This was just more than he could stand.  This feeling made him unhappier than he could ever remember.  And when Little Joe was unhappy, he tended to spread that feeling, too. He got into more fights in Virginia City than he had ever before.  He didn’t set out deliberately to cause trouble.  He just had a very short fuse and his anger was always so near the surface that it boiled over with little provocation.  Ben tried to not make too much of an issue about it, because he was still trying to make peace with Joe over the gun.  However when Sheriff Roy Coffee brought Little Joe home one day after breaking up yet another fight, he told Ben to keep Little Joe at home until his temper cooled off because the damages to city property were getting to be ridiculous.

Ben lost all patience with Joe at that point and forbade him to leave the Ponderosa.  Joe divided his spare time in two ways: target shooting with his old pistol and visiting his mother’s grave.  He had always found it peaceful there. He knew that his mother would have accepted him as a man and it gave him comfort to be there at her grave, overlooking the beautiful Lake Tahoe shore.   It was one of the most beautiful sites on the whole Ponderosa and had become Joe’s refuge when he was a little boy.  What Joe didn’t know was that Ben spent an equal amount of time there, doing the same thing.  Ben, too, found the grave-site to be comforting and peaceful and made him feel closer to Marie, and thus closer to their son.  They were so close, yet so far apart.

*****

After 10 days, the battle of wills between Ben and Joe was becoming unbearable for Hoss.  He decided to try to negotiate a peace settlement between the two warring parties.   Hoss got up early one morning, so he could catch Joe before he left the house.  When Little Joe came downstairs that morning, Hoss stopped him, “Little Joe, how long do you plan to carry this grudge you got going on?”

“Until Pa and you and Adam stop treating me like a baby, Big Brother Hoss”, Joe answered, sarcastically.

“Well, in order for us to do that, you need to stop acting like a spoiled child who didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas, Joe” Hoss replied.

“Is that what you think, Hoss? Joe asked, surprised.  He really didn’t realize that was what Hoss thought.

“Yes, Joe, I do, what else can we think?”

“Hoss, all I know is I am not a kid and since that is what you and Pa and Adam think of me, that is how you are going to treat me.  I just think it is better for all of us, if I stay away from you as much as possible” That is all I am trying to do,” said Joe.

“But, Joe, we miss you, it’s like you aren’t even here anymore” said Hoss.

“Hoss, I am sorry, but right now I just need to be alone.”  With that, Joe went outside and got on Cochise and rode away.

Hoss was still sitting there when Ben walked downstairs.  “I heard you talking to Little Joe, Hoss, I know this is hard on you, too”, he said.

“Dadburn it Pa, I have never seen Little Joe like this before.  Seems like his spirit is broke or something.”

“Yes, and it seems like the heart has gone right out of this family doesn’t it?”

“Yes, Pa, it sure does.”

“Can’t we do something about this before it goes any further, Pa?”   Said Adam, who had walked in and heard the conversation.

“Well, why don’t we talk about it while we have breakfast?” Ben said.  While Ben, Adam, and Hoss ate breakfast and tried to arrive at a plan that would be a satisfactory solution to the dilemma, outside events were occurring that would have an impact on the Cartwright family.

After leaving Hoss, Little Joe was feeling very bad.  He wound up at his mother’s gravesite again, without even thinking about where he was going.  He realized that Hoss was right.  If Pa hadn’t thought he was mature enough to handle a fancy gun before, he sure wasn’t going to change his mind by avoiding the family and sure not by getting into trouble in Virginia City.  Joe then thought back to when his Father first taught him how to handle a gun—what was it that Pa had said was the most important thing about firearms?  He closed his eyes and thought about it.  Since he had been getting up so early in order to avoid having to have breakfast with the family, Joe had not been getting enough sleep.  He still didn’t like getting up early, so now in that peaceful place and with some of the anger gone out of him, he drifted off to sleep.

He dreamed about that first time when Ben had taught him how to shoot a pistol.  “Son, the most important thing to remember about a gun is that you can never change your mind after you have shot someone or something. Don’t ever point a gun at a man unless you feel that you are doing it to save your life or the life of someone else. Guns are not toys. Guns are made with one purpose in mind—to kill people. That is a heavy responsibility for a man to take on himself.  You should use a gun only if there is no other possible solution to a problem, Son. Because once you pull the trigger, it is too late, you can’t take it back and saying I’m sorry won’t make it better. “Do you understand that Joseph?”

“I understand, Pa” Joe answered, except he wasn’t dreaming anymore.  Joe was fully awake now.  And he had just one thing on his mind—he had to get back to the Ponderosa and apologize to his Father and to his brothers.  If Pa didn’t think he was ready, then he would just have to work harder to earn his Father’s respect and trust.  For the first time since he had bought the gun, Joe was smiling and looking forward to seeing his family again.

*****

Ben and Hoss and Adam were finishing up breakfast and their strategy.  They decided that Joe had had long enough to think about the decision to not let him have that gun yet.  He had had plenty of time to mope and brood about it and it was time for them to confront him as a family and get it all out in the open.  They decided that they needed to let him know that it was okay for him to be mad at them and to disagree with Pa’s decision, but that he was still an integral part of the family and this family worked things out together.  They planned to confront him that night—all three of them—and not let him leave until peace had been restored.   Although Ben was still adamant that Joe was not yet ready for that fancy gun, they decided that they would work out a compromise, sort of a plan by which Joe could demonstrate that he was mature enough to wear that gun safely.  When he met those expectations, he would be allowed to wear the gun, at first only when he was with his father or brothers, but he could work on showing that he could handle that responsibility.  So with this plan in mind, they decided to get to work.  Hoss said he would go saddle the horses while Ben and Adam finished up the deposits that they were taking to the bank in Virginia City that day.

When Hoss walked into the barn he noticed that none of the ranch hands were around. He figured that he and Pa and Adam had lingered too long over breakfast and that they had gone to work.  He went over to get Chub ready for the day, as he walked into the tack room to get his saddle, someone walked out directly behind him and put a gun to his back.  Then Hoss saw another man with a sawed off shotgun aimed at him and still another man with two drawn pistols coming out of the shadows.  “What’s going on here, fellows?” Hoss asked.  Hoss wasn’t exactly scared, but he knew that his family was in some danger, since Pa had close to $30,000 in the safe in the house that they were getting ready to take to the bank.

The man in the shadows came out and said, “If you make a sound, you and your Pa and brother are dead men.”

“We have the house surrounded and we won’t hesitate to shoot.”

“What do you want? Hoss asked.

“What do we want, he says, did you hear that Martinson? Asked the man.   “We want the money in that safe behind your Father’s big old desk in there, Mr. Cartwright.”

“How did you know about that money, mister? Hoss had to ask.

“Well, don’t you remember me?” asked the man behind him.

Hoss said, “Should I?”

“Why Mr. Cartwright, I was once in your employ—for 2 weeks, ‘til your high and mighty brother fired me and my partner there. But not before we figured out the movement of your payrolls, though” he said with a laugh.

Hoss considered trying to take them, but he was afraid that the man could be telling the truth about having someone else watching the house and he didn’t want to put Pa or Adam in any more danger.  Thank goodness Joe isn’t here, he would probably try something foolish and get himself killed in the bargain, Hoss thought. “All right, mister, you are calling the shots, you can take the money, just get it and get on out of here.  But I am telling you that if you hurt either my Pa or my brother, I will kill you with my bare hands” Hoss said emphatically.  The men knew that he meant it.  Of course they didn’t plan to leave anyone alive to come after them, so they just laughed at the big man’s talk.

Adam and Ben heard Hoss coming toward the house and started getting ready to go and join him.  Before they could get to the door and get their gunbelts on, the door flew open and Hoss stepped in, with three men behind him, with guns pointed at Hoss and at them.  “I’m sorry, Pa, they slipped up on me” Hoss said.

“That’s okay, Hoss, what do they want?”

“The payroll, we want the whole payroll, that is what we want” said the leader.

Adam spoke out, “Your name is Martinson and I had to run you off from here a month ago”.

“Yes, that is right, Mr. High and Mighty Adam Cartwright.  But luckily for us, we had already found out what we needed to know and we were tired of your rules, anyway” the man said.

Little Joe used a little-used path to come back to the Ponderosa.  In fact he had been using it for the past couple of weeks as a way to avoid his Pa and brothers.  They never thought to use it when they were looking for him during the day.  He could see them going by the horse corral several times a day—but they couldn’t see him.  He would have thought it was funny at the time, if he hadn’t been so mad at them.  He knew they were trying to “accidentally on purpose” run into him.  Now he wished he hadn’t been so devious to his family.  He had to get home before they left to go to work.  Just as he was coming into the ranch yard of the Ponderosa, he saw Hoss coming out of the barn.  He started to yell at him to wait, but just in time, he saw the glint of a gun, pointed directly at his brother’s back.

Joe reigned in Cochise and watched what was going on.  He saw three men, all armed follow Hoss into the house.  The payroll, thought Joe, they are going to rob the timber payroll that was due to the bank today so the men could be paid tomorrow.  He had heard Adam telling his Pa many times that they needed a safer method to get the money to the bank, but they had not gotten around to doing anything about it yet.  Joe knew that all the men were gone already, because they had been leaving the same time he did.  Even Hop Sing had gone into town early this morning. Joe smiled, remembering that Hop Sing had told him he would not fix him any more special meals.  “You eat with family or you no eat, Little Joe.  Not good to not eat with family.  Family not happy at mealtime anymore.  Not even enjoy Hop Sing’s good cooking.”  He had said in English, then followed that with a long version in Chinese.  Joe was pretty sure he had meant it too.

Joe dismounted from Cochise and tied him to a hitching post out of sight beside the kitchen.  He didn’t want him to get hurt or get scared.  He knew that he didn’t have time to go for help; whatever was going to be done to help his Pa and brothers, he had to do it.  He worked his way all the way around the back of the house and didn’t see any other outlaws.  Then he worked his way back to the kitchen entrance and quietly opened that door and sneaked in through the kitchen.  What he heard as he walked in was chilling.  The robbers already had the money and were saying, “It’s been real nice doing business with you folks.  Sorry we won’t be able to work with you again, but we don’t believe in leaving witnesses.”

By this time, Joe had worked his way to the dining room and was able to see clearly what the situation was and it wasn’t good.   The three men had Ben, Hoss, and Adam circled in the middle of the den and they were unarmed.  They were surrounded by 3 men, with guns drawn.  Joe heard the guns cock and reacted without even thinking.  He jumped out of his hiding place in the foyer and hollered at the men.  The three gunmen turned to fire at him and Joe fired at them.  Joe was able to shoot two of the men before they got a shot off, but the third man fired directly at Little Joe.  Hoss and Adam both jumped on the third man and knocked him down, but it was too late.  Joe had already been hit.  Adam grabbed the man’s gun and held it on him, while Ben and Hoss rushed to see about Joe.  Joe was shot in the chest and was bleeding heavily.  Ben knelt down and cradled Joe’s head in his arms, while Hoss rushed to get something to stop the bleeding.  Ben looked down at Joe with tears in his eyes, saying “Joe, can you hear me?  I’m here Joe; you are going to be okay.  Just hold on.”

Joe opened his eyes and looked at Ben and smiled, “Hi, Pa, I’m sorry, Pa.”

Adam yelled, “I have this one tied up and I will go get the Doctor right now, Pa.”

“Hurry, Adam” Ben said, “ and get the sheriff, too”.  He looked down at Joe again and could see that Joe was trying to say something, so he leaned down close to his face with his ear so he could hear.

Joe whispered, “Pa, I bet I could have gotten the third one too, if I had had that new gun.”

Ben said, “I bet you could have too, Son.”

Hoss and Ben moved Joe to the sofa, holding a bandage tight across his wound to stop the bleeding.  Joe seemed to be going into shock from the loss of blood.  Adam came back in and said that one of the hands had come back and he had sent him for the Doc.  They covered Joe with blankets and kept him still on the sofa, Ben was still holding the bandages tight to stop the bleeding.  Joe was pale and breathing  a little fast, but his pulse was still strong, though a little fast.  Adam took over holding the bandage so that Ben could sit near Joe and hold his hand.  The time passed very slowly as they sat there waiting for the Doctor to come.  “Pa, what was that Joe said to you right before he passed out? Hoss asked.  Ben answered simply,

“He said he bet he could have gotten all three of them if he had had that new gun.”  Adam and Hoss looked stunned and then smiled.

Adam said, “That little scaliwag didn’t miss an opportunity, did he?”

“No, you have to admire that boy for his sheer persistence, if nothing else” Hoss replied.

Ben added, “Don’t forget his courage.  He didn’t hesitate to save our lives, did he?”  Ben said with tears in his eyes.

“No, Pa, he sure didn’t.”

“Pa, he is going to be okay.  He is too stubborn not to be” said Adam and Hoss, at the same time.

When Dr. Martin got there, he looked at Joe quickly on the sofa and then declared him stable enough to move to his bedroom.   Then he asked Ben and Adam and Hoss to wait downstairs.  Adam and Hoss went downstairs, but Ben said he preferred to stay there with Joe.  Dr. Martin agreed, but asked him to sit down and stay out of the way so he could tend to Joe properly.  Ben did as he was told.

Hop Sing had gotten home the same time Dr. Martin got there so he was in the kitchen making coffee for them to have while they waited.  Adam and Hoss waited impatiently for word from their father or the doctor.  About 45 minutes later, Ben came downstairs and announced, “Joseph is going to be okay. Dr. Martin got the bullet out and the bleeding stopped He is going to be okay, boys.”  He then called for Hop Sing to bring them all some coffee.

Hop Sing came in with a tray with a fresh pot of strong black coffee and cups and sugar and cream and some coffeecake.  “Mr. Cartlight, is Mr. Little Joe going to be okay? He asked.

“Yes, Hop Sing, he is going to be just fine,” Ben answered.

Hop Sing then said, “No more Mister Little Joe leave early, come home late, eat with ranch hands?”

“No more of that Hop Sing, I promise you” Ben said.

Sheriff Coffee came and collected the surviving outlaw and collected the bodies of the two Joseph had shot.  “Ben, all three of these men are wanted “dead or alive” and have a pretty high reward posted on them.  I have posters on all three of them hanging in my jail” Roy said.  “It looks like y’all will be collecting the reward money for the lot of ‘em.”

“Roy, Little Joe is responsible for catching them, and for saving our lives to boot” Ben said.

“Do you mean to tell me that Little Joe shot and killed two of them before they got a shot off?” Roy asked in a surprised voice.

“Yes, Roy, Adam and Hoss and I were about to get ourselves shot and Joe stepped in and got their attention and shot two of them before the other one shot him.” Ben answered.

“Well, I’ll be” said Roy.  “The little brother saved the two big brothers and their Pa.  If that don’t just take the cake.”  Roy was clearly enjoying this.  He had heard all about the “gun incident” from Ben.  He had tried to tell Ben that he thought he was underestimating Little Joe, but Ben would not listen.   “Well, I will be taking the prisoner back to jail now.  Let me know how Little Joe does.  When the money comes in from Tucson, I will ride out to bring it to Little Joe.” He said as he left.  He couldn’t resist just one more jibe,  “Yes sir, the little brother had to save the big brothers and their Pa from the bad men, ain’t that a switch?”  Ben, Adam, and Hoss just looked at each other.

Dr. Martin came downstairs shortly and said that Joe was resting comfortably now.  The bullet had narrowly missed his aorta, but it hadn’t done any irreparable harm.  He had lost some blood, but they had stopped the bleeding well enough to prevent serious blood loss.  “Joe should be in bed for about a week, then confined to light activity for a week or two” he said.  Then he laughed, “Though I don’t know how you will manage to keep that boy down, unless you assign Hoss to sit on him!”

Hoss replied, “Doc, I will sure do it, if I have to.”

“I will be back to check on him tonight and in the morning, Ben.”  “Watch out for fever or bleeding, send for me if either happens or if anything else happens that you aren’t sure about.  I left some medicine on the chest that you can give him about every 3 or 4 hours for pain.  He will have some considerable pain for a couple or three days, after that, it won’t be so bad” he said.

“Is he awake now, Paul? Ben asked.

“Yes, though he won’t be for long, I gave him a dose of the medicine before I came down. Oh, be sure to give him plenty to drink today and tomorrow, start getting him to eat to build his strength up” Dr. Martin said as he was getting ready to leave.  “I will be back later this evening.  Good day, Ben, boys.”

“Good by, Doctor Martin, Thanks for coming so quickly’ said Ben.

“That’s a mighty brave boy you have there, Ben.  Did I tell you that he told me he would have gotten the third one if he had had a new gun?”    

*****

After Dr. Martin left, Ben, Adam, and Hoss went up to check on Little Joe.  Joe was awake, but getting drowsy.  Joe said, “Pa, I am sorry for the way I have been acting, I was coming home to tell you that.”

“Joe, don’t worry about that now.  We are all sorry for the way we have acted.  The important thing is that you are okay now.  You get some rest.  Your brothers and I will be right here if you need us” Ben told Joe as he smoothed his hair out of his face and pulled the covers up over him.

Adam said, “Joe, you rest easy, everything is okay.”

Hoss said “Little Joe, you go to sleep like the doctor said so I don’t have to get rough with you.”

Joe smiled and closed his eyes.  He dreamed he was talking to his mother who was telling him how proud she was of him.

Dr. Martin was right about everything, especially how hard it was to keep Joe down.  Within a few days, he was ignoring the doctor’s advice and his father’s and brothers’ warnings and getting up and walking around.  He would have been out riding Cochise, but Ben and Hoss and Adam took turns staying home with him to make sure that he didn’t get too much out of hand.  Finally, after 3 weeks of confinement, Dr. Martin saw that he was fighting a losing battle and told them that Joe could do anything he wanted if he would promise to take it a little bit easy.  Joe promised and immediately said he was going to go take Cochise for a ride.  He rode straight to his mother’s grave site, said a prayer for his mother and for his family, then rode over to see how the horse breaking was coming along.

When he got home, Ben said he wanted to discuss something with him.  Joe, back in good humor said, “Oh, no Pa, that is what started that whole mess, are you sure you want to do this again?”

Ben said, “Well this time, I have Adam and Hoss here for reinforcements.”

Joe laughed and said, “Hey, no fair, three against one.”

Ben said, “Joe,  your brothers and I have something we want to give you.”  He opened the locked drawer in his desk and handed Joe a box.  It was the box that his gun was in.

Joe, raised his eyebrows and said “Is this what I think it is, Pa?”

“Well, Son, why don’t you open it and find out.”  Joe opened the box, expecting to find the gun he had bought just a few weeks ago, although now it seemed like a lifetime ago.  Inside the box lay a pair of the fancy pearl-handled revolvers and the holster that he had wanted.  On the body of the gun there was an engraving that said, “Joseph Cartwright” and on the silver box that the gun were in the engraving said, “Our love always, Pa, Adam, and Hoss”.

***End***

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