Small Kindnesses (by Judy)

Summary:   Written with Jerri.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  25,471


 

Adam, Hoss, and Ben Cartwright were almost finished with their breakfast when Little Joe, the youngest of the three brothers, came downstairs. They all looked at him, shook their heads, but didn’t comment on his late appearance. Hop Sing immediately brought his breakfast and poured him a cup of coffee, fussing in Chinese the entire time. Everyone figured he was fussing about Joe’s being late for breakfast again. No one paid him much attention, since they were used to his diatribes by now. After he finished pouring Joe’s cup of coffee, Joe looked at him and gave him a dazzling smile. Hop Sing continued to fuss, but it was fairly obvious that he was now only pretending to still be mad at Little Joe. Ben half-smiled as he realized this. His youngest son seemed to have that effect on everyone, including himself, though he tried hard not to show it.

“Good morning, Joseph” Ben said, “So nice of you to join us, son.”

“Morning, Pa.” Joe said, either ignoring or oblivious to the touch of sarcasm in his father’s voice. “You three should have gone to that wild west show in town yesterday” Joe said enthusiastically. “It was fantastic.”

“What was so special about it, Joe?” Hoss asked, curious about what could have been so exciting about that run-down looking outfit.

“Oh, Hoss, I have never seen such riding and shooting in my life.” Joe said. “You should have seen the trick shooting that one man could do, went by the name of Wild Bill Hitchcock,” There was another man there who did tricks on a horse that you wouldn’t believe and he had about the fastest draw of anybody except….well he was really fast.” Joe finished.

“Fastest draw of anybody except whom, Joseph?” Ben asked, with a moderately stern expression on his face.

“Fastest draw of anybody except me, Pa.” Joe said, looking at his father directly. Joe’s penchant for quick drawing and deadly aim with a gun and his hot-temper had always been somewhat of a sore subject between father and son. Regardless of his father’s feelings, Joe spent endless hours practicing these skills. Several incidents had resulted in Joe’s having to use his gun to defend himself or others and he had a pretty wide reputation as being fast and accurate with a handgun. His left-handed technique and the way in which he drew the gun with his left hand, and pulled the trigger with his right hand, gave him a distinctive style.

Hoss, wishing to head off another heated argument between Joe and his father, changed the subject by asking about the horse riding tricks.

“Oh, man, Hoss, that was something else. Hoss, you should have seen him. He could ride sitting backwards in the saddle, he could turn completely around in the saddle, he could ride without holding on, he even rode standing up one time. But the best trick was somethin’ to see. With the horse going full speed, he got off the saddle, got down on one side of the horse, and with just one foot in the stirrup, he hung onto the saddle with his hands. He was crouching down, so when we saw the horse from the side, it looked like there was no rider on the saddle. You could fool anybody.”

“Well, what possible purpose could that serve?” asked Adam, joining in the conversation for the first time.

“Everything in life doesn’t HAVE to be for a purpose, Adam. It was just for fun, something you don’t know too much about.” Joe said, exasperated with his older, always-serious brother.

“Seems to me something like that would take a lot of practice and that would be a waste of time for a rancher.” Adam responded, with a slight disapproving look on his face.

“That sounds to me like it would be dangerous” Ben said, looking at Joe.

“Oh, Pa, it looked easy as pie. I am sure Cochise and I could do it in no time.” Joe replied.

“Well as Adam pointed out, that would take too much time. If you have that much free time, Joe, perhaps I need to increase your responsibilities on the ranch. Don’t you have enough horses to break and other chores to do to keep you occupied?” Ben asked.

Joe frowned and didn’t respond, although his father clearly was waiting for an answer.

Hoss, always the peace maker, said, “I wish I had been with you, Joe. That does sound like it would have been fun to watch. Did you go by yourself or did you take one of those pretty little gals that flock around you like flies on honey?”

Joe looked at Hoss and gave him a grateful smile. Joe was pretty sure that his Pa was just about to tell him that he could not try that trick, when Hoss intervened. And Joe did not want his father to tell him not to do it, because he had already decided that he was going to learn how to do it. After all, he was about the same size as the trick rider and Cochise was a much better horse than the man had, so it should be a cinch. He had already taught Cochise several tricks and was sure that this would be the next addition to his repertoire. Judging by the response of the females in the audience yesterday, Joe was sure that the girls would love to see him do some fancy trick riding. Heck, they already enjoyed watching him do some trick shooting and fast-drawing contests. As long as his father didn’t outright tell him not to do it, he knew he could get away with it. He wouldn’t tell his father about it until he had the skill perfected and could show his father and show him that it was safe.

“Well it was going to be just Lance and me, but we ran into Billy so he went with us, and then we ran into…a few other people and they went with us, too.” Joe said, in answer to Hoss’ question. Hoss, not missing his brother’s omission of just who the “other people” were, pressed the issue. He knew it had to be girls, it always was. “What other people, little brother?” Hoss persisted. This time Joe gave Hoss a slightly exasperated look, but Hoss paid no attention.

Adam decided to help Hoss out before Joe wheedled out of answering the question, “Yeah, Joe who were these mysterious other people?”

“There was no mystery about it, for crying out loud. Jenny Johnson, Sally Rogers, and Melody Thompson joined us when we got there, that’s all.” Joe said, just a little too loudly.

“Joe, Mr. Johnson at the livery stable told me his Jenny was sweet on you. Are the other two sweet on Billy and Lance, or are they sweet on you, too?” Adam asked.

“If you are so concerned with what those girls are feeling, Adam, why don’t you ask them, not me?” Joe said with a smile. He wasn’t about to let Hoss’ and Adam’s teasing get to him this morning. If I told them to mind their own business like I’d like to, Pa wouldn’t agree for me to spend the afternoon with Lance, Joe thought to himself. He then asked Hoss to pass the biscuits and helped himself to another biscuit.

“Pa, I want to stay in town after church today. Lance’s mother invited me to have Sunday dinner with them. Then a group of us are going riding out to Beaver Creek. Is that okay?”

“Sure, Son, you just be home before supper time. And be sure to give our regards to Lance’s family.” Ben said, smiling at his son. Joe and Lance had both started attending the Virginia City School on the same day. For whatever reason, they had immediately been drawn to each other and had been almost inseparable ever since. Ben had always been glad about this, because Lance, though the same age as Joe, was less impulsive and had on many occasions prevented Joe from doing some things that could have gotten him in trouble or killed. He kept hoping that Lance’s good judgement and calm and rational behavior would rub off on Little Joe. Ben didn’t really see any evidence that that was happening, but at least Joe reaped the benefits of Lance’s good judgment when they were together.

When the Cartwrights rode into town a little later that morning, people were milling around the white frame church, talking and greeting each other prior to heading in to the services. As they rode up, Joe spotted Lance and called out to him. Joe then jumped off Cochise without bothering to stop the horse first. He then quickly led Cochise around to the shaded hitching post near the water trough. Giving her a quick pat and telling her “Now you stay out of trouble, Coch,” he went off to catch up with Lance. Ben and Adam and Hoss took their time, but left their horses in the same spot.

“Too bad your brother doesn’t move that fast getting his chores down” Ben said with an amused look on his face.

“Now, Pa, it just depends upon what chores you are referring to. If it is breaking horses, he moves that fast. It is just the wood-cutting and the fence-mending kind of chores that he doesn’t move too rapidly on.” Adam said with a sardonic smile.

“Yeah, you know, horse breaking is probably the most dangerous job on the Ponderosa. And it is definitely one of the most difficult, tiring and frustrating jobs, yet it is the only one that our little brother seems to enjoy.” Hoss said with a puzzled expression on his face. “I wonder why that is?” He asked. “I guess it is because of the excitement of horse breaking.” Hoss thought out loud.

“I think that is part of it, but I think it is more than that. I think it is the challenge of proving to himself over and over with each new horse, that he will win the battle of wills.” Ben said. “The reason he is so good at it is he is so darned obstinate.”

Hoss couldn’t help asking his father, “Are you saying that our little brother is stubborn Pa? I hadn’t noticed.”

Ben, Adam, and Hoss were all laughing when they came up the steps to the church. The Reverend welcomed them and told them he hoped they enjoyed the service. When they entered the church and made their way to their usual pew, they expected to find Little Joe already there, but he was nowhere in sight. When the music stopped and the minister approached the pulpit, Joe still hadn’t made it to his seat. By this time Ben was again getting aggravated with Joe and had looked around to make sure that he wasn’t sitting with Lance’s family. But what Ben saw was Lance’s father, mother, and brothers and sisters–but no Lance or Little Joe. He was about to really get aggravated when Joe slipped into the pew from the opposite side of the row, and seeing his father looking at him, he smiled at him. Ben returned the smile. What’s the point of being upset about Joe being late? He thought to himself. At least he got here. Besides if he wasted his time being upset over Joe’s every little infraction, he would be upset most of the time and not be able to enjoy his son’s exuberance.

Joe always had a hard time sitting through a church service, or anything that required sitting still for longer than a few minutes, but it was particularly hard today. He kept thinking about his plans for the rest of the day. He was having dinner with Lance’s family and then he, Lance, Billy, and the three girls from yesterday were going to ride to Beaver Creek. Beaver Creek was one of Joe’s favorite places to ride. There was a beautiful view and there was a large, level meadow nearby. That is where he went to practice his riding tricks. He had a momentary regret because he wouldn’t be able to practice any new skills today, since he wouldn’t want anyone to see him attempt it, until he had figured out how to do it and was good at it. But, he would enjoy being with his friends, and there was always tomorrow for the practice.

Joe was jolted out of his daydream by the sudden jumping and startled exclamation of his brother. Hoss had been dozing during the sermon and when the reverend pounded the pulpit to accentuate a point he was making, it jarred him out of his nap. Heads turned toward the origin of the noise from all the pews surrounding them. Hoss looked sheepish, his father and Adam gave him a slight disapproving look, but Joe giggled and winked at Hoss. Hoss smiled at Joe and assumed an innocent look. Ben then gave them both a look that was an implied warning. Joe had to bite his lips hard to keep from laughing out loud. Joe didn’t know it, but Ben had to do the same thing.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the Reverend concluded the service and people began to stand up slowly. His father and brothers were talking to people in the nearby pews. Joe, however, didn’t have time to socialize with the other church-goers today, he had places to go, people to see, and things to do. He said a hasty farewell to his Pa and brothers, telling them he had to hurry to catch up with Lance’s family. Of course Lance’s family was still in the church talking to neighbors, too. Ben saw no reason to hold up Joe’s plans, so he just said, “Have fun, Joe, and don’t forget to be home for supper,” and waved him on. Joe ran over to the Jurgen’s wagon, where Lance’s sisters and brothers were climbing in. Lance wasn’t there, so Joe asked Katie if she knew where he was.

“There he is over there with Billy. Ma told him he could invite Billy over too.” Katie said, pointing in the direction of the side of the church.

“Thanks, lovely Katie,” Joe said and hustled over to Lance and Billy.

“Come on you guys, let’s get a move on.” Joe said, clapping Lance on the back and smiling and winking at Billy.

Billy spoke up, “I can’t come to dinner with you, but I will be ready to go to Beaver Creek with you later.”

“How come, Billy? Lance’s Ma makes the best roast beef and potatoes and real caramel cake of anybody, except Hop Sing, of course” Joe said.

“Uncle Stewart and I always eat Sunday lunch together at Mrs. Westfield’s Sunday buffet. We have been going there for Sunday lunch ever since I came to live with him. He kind of looks forward to it.” Billy said.

“Well you could miss it just once couldn’t you? Just once wouldn’t make your Uncle mad would it?” Lance persisted.

“No, I will meet you later. Uncle Stewart wouldn’t get mad, but he would have to eat alone and he works so hard during the week that we don’t spend much time together, so he really counts on Sunday after church.” Billy said, looking a little disappointed.

“Well, that’s all right, Billy. We will see you after lunch then. I know how it is, my Pa is the same way.” Joe said.

Billy’s face brightened at this statement, glad that his friends understood. “Really, Joe?”

“Why, heck, yeah, except with my Pa, it isn’t JUST Sunday, it is EVERY meal. He also has a thing about every meal starting at the same time and everybody being on time for them.” Joe said with a slight frown.

“Yes, that is right, Joe, and maybe if you live to be 100 years old, you may just manage to be on time for one meal.” Lance said, laughing. Joe and Billy joined in. About this time, one of Lance’s brothers came over and said, “Pa said to tell you we are leaving now and for you and Joe to get to your horses and head home. Joe, he said to tell you that if you are late, you don’t get any caramel cake.”

“What are we waiting for?” Joe said. “Time’s awastin”. I have to have some of that cake.” “Billy we will see you in a couple of hours.” Joe and Lance said a hasty good by and high-tailed it for their horses. Billy saw his Uncle waiting for him in the shade of the tree and went to join him.

*****

Joe always enjoyed being with his friend, Lance. He and Lance had been friends since they both started school. Of course, Lance always told Little Joe that he just let him be his friend so that he could keep him from getting beaten up every day. Joe and Lance were very different; yet they were very much alike. Little Joe Cartwright, was like his name, “little”. Unfortunately, his temperament was much more suited to someone his brother Hoss’s size, rather than someone his size. His quick temper and impulsivity had led him into some dangerous situations. He didn’t usually start the problem, but he had just never been able to walk away from trouble either. This had led to many school yard confrontations between Joe and much bigger, meaner boys. Lance, one of the tallest and strongest boys in the school, unlike Little Joe, was usually calm and slow to anger. He had quickly found his niche that first day in school. During the first several years of their school years, Lance would have to step in to stop a fight that Joe had gotten into, but as they grew older, Lance started to intervene before the fight started, calming the situation down and preventing the otherwise inevitable fight.

The relationship between the two boys was something their parents recognized and valued. Whereas Ben was grateful for Lance’s calming effect on his son, Lance’s parents were equally grateful for Joe’s ability to draw Lance out of his shell. Lance was typically reserved, shy, and serious. Little Joe had brought fun, laughter, and much joy to their son’s life. The occasional mischief that they had gotten into at Joe’s insistence, had been a small price to pay for their son’s happiness.

The two boys frequently spent time with each other’s family and they each appreciated the difference in the two families. Lance’s family included a mother, father, and several siblings of both sexes, both younger and older than Lance. Lance’s mother always pampered and made over Little Joe when he came to visit. Since he could barely remember his own mother, who died when he was just under 5 years old, Little Joe really enjoyed the attention Lance’s mother bestowed upon him. And as far Lance’s sisters, now that was something really unique for Little Joe. He was used to brothers, but Lance’s brothers were much closer in age to Lance than Adam and Hoss were to Joe.

Lance’s mother had rushed home from church and started putting the finishing touches on the mid-day meal. Lance and his father and siblings all had to rush to change clothes, but since Joe was visiting, all he had to do was take off his tie and unbutton his top shirt button, something he had done before he was even off the church property. He went into the kitchen with Lance’s mom while the others changed.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Joe asked. She smiled at him, “Well, Joe, how about just sitting there keeping me company? What have you been up to these days? Why you haven’t been to visit us but once this week. I was beginning to think you didn’t like us anymore!” she teased Joe.

“Why, heck, no!” Joe said quickly. “It is all my Pa’s fault, you know. Perhaps you could speak to him and tell him he is making me work too hard” Joe said with a mischievous smile.

“Humph! Somehow, Joe, I doubt that is the problem. I bet it is some new little girl in town, instead.” she said with a chuckle.

“Now, Mam, you know I don’t like girls. Why I wouldn’t even be around ’em at all, if it weren’t for Lance, Ma’am.” Joe said with a deadpan expression on his face.

Lance’s mom laughed out loud; she was joined in the laughter by Lance’s father who had come into the room just as Joe had made the statement.

“Little Joe Cartwright, you keep telling tales like that and your Pa will tan your hide, Son!” he said.

“No, it is true, I just put up with the girls on account of Lance, Sir. Honest.” Joe said. “You can ask Lance, if you don’t believe me.”

About this time, Lance walked into the kitchen, and asked, “Ask me what, Joe?”

“Oh, nothing important, Lance. We were just talking about why I don’t come over as often anymore.” Joe said.

“It’s on account of the girls, Ma. They won’t leave Little Joe alone.” Lance said, watching Little Joe’s face to see if he blushed. Sure enough, he did, but just a little.

Then Joe laughed, and said, “All right, all right, but can I help it if the girls just can’t leave me alone?”

Lance’s sister Kate came into the kitchen about that time and said, “Little Joe Cartwright, you can’t leave the girls alone either. You are always with one of them. I don’t see why you bother with some of them
though—they are all so silly.”

“Katie, compared to you they are all silly and none of them can hold a candle to you as far as good looks go, either. Maybe I will just wait for you to grow up a little bit more, Katie.” This time Katie blushed.

Lance’s Mom thought it was about time to call this conversation to a halt, so she said, “All right everybody go find your place at the table. Katie, call the rest of your brothers and sisters and tell them to get a move on.”

As the young folks all left the kitchen, she turned to her husband and said, “That Little Joe Cartwright is going to break many a young girl’s heart in the next few years. I can just see it. And I think our Katie may just be one of them. And I don’t think he has even come into his full potential charm yet, either.”

*****

As soon as the meal was over, Joe and Lance asked to be excused and went straight to saddle their horses. Their first stop was Billy’s house. Billy was sitting on the front door steps, waiting for them.

“Hey, Billy, are you ready to go?” Joe hollered.

“Yep, Joe, I am ready” he answered and started to mount his horse, which he was holding by the reins.

“Wait a minute, Billy,” Joe said, jumping off Cochise in one leap, “look at that cinch. If you ride that horse with the cinch that loose, you are liable to find yourself sitting on the dirt. If you don’t believe me, just ask Hoss or Adam.” He said with a smile. “They have had the misfortune several times to try to ride a horse with a loose cinch.” As he was telling Billy this, he was methodically tightening and securing the cinch of Billy’s horse. “See here is how you can tell it is tight enough, without being too tight.” He motioned to Billy to watch what he was doing.

“TTTh Thanks, Joe. I thought it was tight when I put it on him.” Billy said, looking puzzled.

“Is this a horse from your Uncle’s livery stable?” Joe asked. “Yeah, he just got him a few days ago in Sockton. I haven’t ridden him before.”

“That is a trick that some horses that don’t especially cotton to being ridden know, Billy. See they take a deep breath and hold it, so you think it is tight. Then after you get on, they let their breath go, and plop, so do you go—right on the ground. There, that is just right, now. Let’s get going.” Joe said with a smile and leaped back onto his horse quickly.

“Gee, thanks, Joe.” Billy said, looking admiringly at Joe.

“Nothin’ to it, Billy. You’d have done the same for me.” Joe said as the three of them rode off.

When they came to the road leading away from Virginia City, they found the three girls waiting for them, with a basket with snacks and beverages.

“Hi, girls, glad you could come” Joe said easily.

Hello, girls” Lance said, just a second or two later, but not quite as self-assured as Little Joe.

“Billy, why don’t you ride with Sally and help her carry that big ol’ basket?” Joe said. Joe knew that Billy had a secret crush on Sally but was too shy to approach her. “Wouldn’t you like that, Sally?” Joe asked with a sweet smile.

“Sure would love help with this basket” Sally replied, handing the basket over to Billy, with a slight smile. Billy accepted the basket with a shy smile that kind of lit up his freckled face for a minute. Sally, seeing the smile, thought for the first time that Billy was kind of cute. She had never really paid him much attention before, he was just someone who was always hanging on to Joe and Lance.

Lance and Joe each fell in beside one of the other girls to make the ride to Beaver Creek. During the ride, they chatted about important things like when the next dance was going to be and when the summer picnic was going to be. They talked about the wild west show they had all seen yesterday, arguing over which part was the best—the gun tricks or the riding tricks. Lance said he liked the gun stuff best, Joe said he liked the riding stuff best. Joe said, “Well Billy it is up to you to cast the deciding vote—what was the best part of the show?”

Billy looked a little confused at first–he hated to have to disagree with either Joe or Lance. Then he looked triumphant and said, “I liked the company the best!” They all laughed and Billy’s smile lit up his face again. Again, Sally noticed the change in his appearance and thought I am going to see if I can make him smile more.

They turned the bend and there in front of them was Beaver Creek. Directly in front of them was the creek, it was a wide, relatively fast-moving creek, with clear, deep water. Creek was probably a misnomer, because it was more like a freshwater stream than a creek, the water in it came directly from the melted snow from the Sierra Madras mountains. The grass was green around the creek and there was a fine carpet of grass and moss on the edges. To the left of them there was a pine forest, actually part of the Ponderosa, with tall ponderosa pine trees reaching 100s of feet toward the sky. Then to the right of the road was the meadow, a large green flat expanse of land with wild flowers peeking out in places. It was a truly magnificent spot. The six young people just sat on their horses for a few minutes to take in the view.

Slowly, the boys dismounted and helped the girls dismount. The first time Hoss saw Joe help a girl off her horse, Hoss had said that was crazy because Joe knew that girl got on and off horses all her life and didn’t need any help to do it. Joe had looked at Hoss and finally said, “Hoss, that has nothing to do with it. You just trust me and the next time you are with a girl riding, you help her on and off the horse.” Hoss had later told Joe that he had tried his advice and the girl did seem to appreciate it, but he still thought it was silly. Joe laughed to himself about his brother’s unease with women, every time he helped a girl on or off a horse now. Joe had tried to help Hoss out with girls and give him courting advice ever since, though it felt strange for him to be giving his older brother advice. But Hoss seemed to need it and he would do anything for his brother Hoss.

The boys set up a game of horse shoes and the girls spread out a blanket for them to sit on. After the boys played a couple of games, which Lance won, Joe said, “Hey, Lance you are too much competition for us, isn’t he Billy?” “How about we play a game with couples? Maybe that way we will have at least a chance to win?”

Lance looked at Little Joe and smiled and said, “Come on then, Joe, I can take any combination, as long as you are part of it. I don’t understand it, you can hit a target with a handgun from about a mile away, but you can’t hit that stake with a horse shoe from 10 feet.”

“Hey, watch out, now, you may just hurt my feelings, Lance,” Joe said, his expressions and body language showing that he was in no way about to get his feelings hurt. “Come on Billy, you and Sally, and me and Jenny will take on Lance and Melody.” The outcome of this set of games was no different from the first two games–Lance and Melody won the games easily.

“Enough of this humiliation. Billy we have to think of something we can do better than Lance so we can redeem our image to these girls” Joe said in a mock serious voice.

“Why don’t you have a shooting match?” suggested Jenny, who knew that Little Joe was faster and had better aim than Lance. She also knew that that was just what Little Joe had in mind.

“Now why didn’t I think of that?” Joe asked, putting his hands to the side of his face.

The girls and Billy and Lance just laughed.

So the boys found some rocks to use as targets and set up a demonstration. Lance went first and made a respectable showing, hitting 3 of the 5 targets. Billy was going next, but just as he was about to start, Joe spoke up.

“Hey, Billy, you have been saying you wanted to try out my gun again. Now is a good time, why not give it a try and see what you think?”

Billy accepted the offer of Joe’s gun gratefully. His gun was an old one given to him by his Uncle and it wasn’t much for speed or accuracy. With the aid of Joe’s gun, Billy also managed to hit 3 of the 5 targets.

“That’s pretty good shooting, boys, but now let me show you how it’s really done” Little Joe said. As Billy handed him back his gun, Lance set up the new targets for Joe. He carefully selected rocks that were much smaller than the rocks he and Billy had used, knowing that it probably wouldn’t make a difference anyway.

As he was reloading his pistol, Joe saw the smaller targets, smiled and shook his head, not saying a word. He then holstered his gun, turned his back to the targets, and stepped a few feet further away than Lance and Billy had stood.

He then smiled at Jenny and said, “Give me a kiss for luck”. Jenny graciously complied. Then he said, “All right get back over there out of the way, and tell me when.

Jenny walked back to where the others were standing and then said, “NOW!”.

Joe whirled around, drew his pistol with his left hand, and using his right hand to pull the trigger, he hit all 5 targets, one after the other, within an astonishingly short time span. He then twirled his gun a few times and re-holstered it, smiling at Jenny all the while.

“Wow, Joe, that was the fastest time I have ever seen even you shoot” Lance said.

Billy added, “that’s faster than that guy in the show yesterday, Joe. Much faster.” The girls all agreed that that was fast and fancy shooting. Billy said, “I sure wish I could shoot like that, Joe.”

Joe said, “T’aint nothin’, Billy, all it takes is practice—and an excuse to get away from ranching chores so you can practice. And with my Pa, that is getting harder and harder to do—get time away from the Ponderosa.

“Still I wish I could do it, Joe.” Billy said.

“Well come out to the Ponderosa some time when my Pa isn’t around and I will give you some more pointers” Joe said.

Billy’s smile lit up his face again.

Lance spoke up and said, “Speaking of time, it is time we better be getting back home or our Pa’s won’t let us off next Saturday night for that barn dance in town.”

Joe added, “That’s right. Would you ladies like to accompany we three gentlemen to the dance next Saturday night?” Joe had really already asked Jenny who had said yes, and he knew that Lance had already asked Melody, but he was sure that Billy probably hadn’t asked Sally, so he was trying to help him out some.

Jenny responded, “That will be just fabulous, if our calendars are free. Let me confer with my friends for a moment.” The three girls huddled together in a pretense of “checking their calendars” and then Jenny said, “You are in luck, gentlemen, it just so happens that we are all free for next Saturday night. You may have the honor of escorting us to the dance.”

“Whew, what a relief,” Joe said. “I was afraid I was going to have to ask my brother Hoss to be my date.” They all laughed.

Lance, the official timekeeper, reminded them that they had to get on home, so the boys helped the girls pack up the remains of their snacks, and got ready to ride home. They all had to stop for a few minutes to help Sally look for one of her hair ribbons that she had noticed was missing. After an unsuccessful search, she said, “Oh, well, it isn’t worth wasting time looking for. I have a yard of ribbon that same pick color.” And they called off the search. After seeing the girls back to their houses, the three friends were riding on their way home and started talking about the wild wild west show again.

Joe said, “I am going to try out those tricks that the trick rider was doing. I know that Cochise and I can do them, especially that one where the rider is hidden beside the horse. That looks like fun, besides it could be a handy skill to have. You never know when you might want to avoid being seen.”

“Hey Joe, my Pa said I could have Tuesday afternoon off since I am not going to the cattle show this week. Do you think you could get off Tuesday afternoon? We could practice.” Lance asked.

“Yeah, my Pa and brothers will be going to the cattle show, but Pa won’t mind if I don’t go, in fact, he will probably be glad if I don’t go, after last year when I got in that little fight in the mud.” Joe said ruefully.

Lance and Billy both laughed at the memory of Joe running down the street covered in mud, chasing Brenda Thomas, after he had kissed her and gotten her face covered with mud.

“Brenda Thomas to this day crosses the street if she sees me coming” Joe said laughing. Of course they all knew it wasn’t true, but it was a funny example of Little Joe’s misadventures, of which they seen many.

“So, Tuesday afternoon–say about 2 o’clock?” Joe looked at Lance and Billy. They both nodded their heads.

“Well here is where I turn off” Joe said. “I will see you on Tuesday.”

With a wave, he left Billy and Lance to continue toward their homes. By the time he got home and cared for Cochise, he had 5 minutes to spare and was on time for supper. Of course, that was only because Lance had initiated coming home, but Joe never thought about that. Since he had arrived home on time, his father was in a good mood and they had a very enjoyable evening. After dinner, Adam played his guitar for a while, then read. Ben worked on the ranch books, and Joe beat Hoss at 3 games of checkers. His father only reminded him to get his feet off the furniture 3 times that entire evening. That must be a record low, Joe thought to himself as he started up the stairs for bed. Speaking of records, he thought, Pa hasn’t even mentioned me getting a haircut in weeks. Maybe he is finally going to forget about it. Just as he smiled inwardly at that thought, Ben said, “By the way, Joseph, please get your hair cut before next Sunday.”

For the 1000th time, Joe wondered if his father could read his mind. “Yes, Pa. Good night” Joe said as he went up the stairs. Ben smiled at his departing son’s back.

*****

Joe was up on time for breakfast Tuesday morning, a fact that was a give-away that there was something special about the day. His father guessed the cause of his good nature—but guessed wrong.

“Joe, are you planning to go to the cattle show & sale today?” he asked halfway hating to hear the response.

“No, Pa, I don’t think I am going to make it to the cattle sale and show today. They will just have to find someone else to finance the kissing booth.” Joe said, referring to the incident that happened the year before. Bringing it out in the open made his father look at him in surprise.

“Well, Joe, I guess I am surprised, though I sure wouldn’t like to see a repeat of last year’s fracus.” Ben said bemusedly.

“Hey, Pa, that was Hoss’ s fault. He was the one with the pig in the show” Joe protested.

“Yes, son, but I don’t remember seeing Hoss running down the street, covered in mud, chasing a girl with mud on her face!” Ben said. Adam and Hoss were both snickering by this time.

Adam said, “I just regret not being there to see it, Pa. Though I had plenty of people tell me about it for at least 3 months after the show was over.”

Joe made a face at his brother, but was careful to not let his father see him do it. As sweetly as he could, he said, “Well Adam I wish you had been there, maybe you could have reasoned with that gang that was ready to tear Hoss and his pig apart.” For a moment, Adam thought he was serious, then he realized that Joe was making fun of him, so he added, “Why don’t we ever see you with Brenda Thomas any more, Joe?” just as sweetly as Joe had spoken.

“ALL right, enough of that, let’s not start a fight right here at home.” Ben said, calling a halt to a situation that could rapidly escalate. When the chips were down, Joe and Adam would do anything for each other, but most days they were always so close to coming to loggerheads. Ben never could make either one of them see the other’s viewpoint, and he wasn’t going to even try today.

“Joe what are your plans for the afternoon, if you aren’t going to the cattle sale and show? What have you and your two friends cooked up?” Ben asked.

“We’re riding out to Beaver Creek again, Pa.” Joe said, omitting the reason they were going.

“What is it with that place, Joe?” Hoss asked. “You and Lance seem to go there all the time.”

“It is just one of the prettiest places on the Ponderosa is all, Hoss. We just like to watch the creek and listen to the water swirling by and the wind talking in the pine trees and the birds singing.” Joe replied. This was a true statement, they really did enjoy all those things and that was part of the attraction of Beaver Creek and sometimes they did go there for no other reason than the scenery. It was just today that they had another purpose in mind, but still, he didn’t LIE, exactly. Joe was always very careful not to lie to his father.

As soon as his father and brothers left for town, Little Joe headed to Lance’s house to see if he were ready. Lance was just finishing up his chores when Joe got there. Joe dismounted and helped him finish up so they could take off. Soon they were finished, and they rode away. They were at the turnoff to go to Beaver Creek when Lance remembered that Billy was going with them.

“We have to go back to get Billy, Joe” Lance said, slowing his horse down.

“Oh, man, you are right,” Joe said, also slowing Cochise down. The two of them quickly turned around and took the road that took them to Billy’s house. As before, Billy was sitting on the steps, waiting for them, holding the reins of the same horse.

Joe said, “Billy do you sit on those steps and hold onto that horse all week?” Billy blushed a little and said, “No, I thought you had forgotten me.” This made Joe feel guilty, since they HAD in fact, forgotten him, but only for a few minutes. Joe said, “Hey that cinch is just right, Billy. Good job.”

Billy beamed at Joe and said, “Well what are we waiting for? Let’s go!”

“What are we waiting for? Let’s go!” echoed Joe and Lance at the same time. The three boys headed out, riding fairly fast, to Beaver Creek. When they got there, Billy asked Joe if they had time that afternoon if he would show him some tips for shooting. Joe said, “Why don’t we just do that now? We need to let the horses rest for a while, before we start any fancy riding anyway.” For the next 45 minutes, Joe gave both Billy and Lance some pointers on their technique and both of them made noticeable improvements, following Joe’s instructions. After the horses had had enough time to recover from the trip out to the meadow, Joe said, “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s give it a try.”

Joe said, “I will go first and see if I can figure out the right sequence to do this, then you can try, if you want to.”

By then Joe was already mounted on Cochise, and was riding her around in a tight circle. Just for the fun of it, he reared her before taking off in a straight line across the meadow at a fairly fast pace. Lance and Billy watched in silence as Joe attempted to duplicate the tricks they had seen at the show. Joe had no trouble at all turning around in the saddle or riding with no hands and even riding backwards. It looked as if he had been doing those things for a long time. He had more difficulty with the last trick, but he didn’t let that stop him. It took him a long time, but he was able to do it. The first time it took forever to get his left leg out of the stirrup, over the horse and then to figure out what to do with it, once he got it over there. But he kept trying and working at it, and eventually he was able to do the whole thing pretty quickly.

Lance and Billy had been admiring Joe’s persistence during his attempts. Lance said, “Joe is the best horseman I have ever seen. I don’t know anyone who could ride as well as he can. You just watch, if Joe gets any time at all to practice, he will be doing that trick in a few seconds before you know it.”

“You are right” said Billy. “I sure wish I could ride and shoot and talk to the girls like Little Joe can” he added.

Lance looked at him and laughed, “Don’t we all? Don’t we all?”

Shortly after that conversation, Joe rode away across the meadow, out of sight. In a minute, they saw Cochise come running back, without Joe. “Uh oh, Lance said, “Joe must have fallen off”.

About that time, Joe, re-appeared on Cochise’s saddle, and riding up to Lance and Billy, he jumped off and gave them a smile. “Well what do you think?” he asked, obviously pleased with himself.

“That was great, Little Joe. We thought you had fallen off.” Lance said, clapping Joe on the back.

“Now suppose you show me exactly how you did it?” Lance said. “No need in us all having to figure it out, since you already did that for us.”

“I will be glad to, it is so simple, really. I just had to think about it as I was doing it. Let me show you, come on over to Cochise and I will show you just what to do first and where to put your foot. It works like a charm. You will love it.” Joe said, motioning Lance and Billy to join him. He went through the steps that he used painstakingly several times for Lance’s and Billy’s benefit.

Finally, Lance said, “Allright, I think I got it, let me try it out.” He mounted his own horse and after several unsuccessful attempts, he managed to get his leg all the way over the saddle and to hang onto the side of the saddle on one side. Problem was, Lance was so darned tall, there was no way he could get his head out of sight. Joe and Billy laughed at Lance as he rode past, hanging on for dear life, although his horse was barely above a walk, but he could be seen quite clearly. His boots showed below the horse and his head showed above the horse.

“I don’t think Lance is ever going to be successful at this trick”, Joe said smiling, as Lance rode over and slowly dismounted near them.

“Hey, Little Joe, I heard that.” Lance said.

“Truth is truth, Lance.” You are great at horse shoes, but there ain’t no way you are going to be able to hide behind that horse. Maybe if you get one of those oversized Arabian stallions or a Clydesdale draft horse or something. But you are so darned tall that not only your head, but your legs show. Didn’t they Billy?”

Billy said, “Yep, Lance you are too tall to do it.” I think that trick is meant for someone Joe’s height, not yours. You ARE too tall.”

“Well, that’s it for me” Joe said. “Cochise has had enough of that for today. What about you, Lance, are you ready to call it a day?” Joe asked, looking at Lance.

“Yep, that is it for me. I think you two are right, I wasn’t built right for that trick. I guess my role in life is to beat you two at horseshoes.” Lance said, smiling.

“Well, Billy, do you want to try?” Joe and Lance said together, looking at Billy expectantly.

*****

Billy hesitated for the merest fraction of a second before turning to his horse. Joe felt a tiny bit of uneasiness as Billy took the reins in his hands and prepared to mount his horse. Unlike Joe who had Cochise and Lance who had his own horse Ranger Billy’s horse changed from day to day since he lived with his uncle who owned the livery. Today Billy was riding a high spirited gelding named Mephisto. Black as midnight with a single white fetlock, Mephisto shifted as Billy climbed on board.

Billy glanced back at his two friends and smiling brightly began to urge Mephisto into a canter. Mimicking Joe’s movements he slowly began to raise himself in the saddle, preparing to swing his leg over to the one side. For just a moment Billy hung perfectly suspended from the side of his saddle, exactly how Joe had done it earlier. Joe and Lance watched Billy with awe.

Then it happened, Mephisto stumbled briefly and Billy was jolted loose from his precarious grip. He began to fall but his foot got caught in the stirrup of his saddle. Billy’s head struck the ground and he was dragged behind Mephisto. Joe and Lance were momentarily paralyzed, horrified. Suddenly shaking himself free of his paralysis, Joe sprang into Cochise’s saddle and raced after them. After what seemed like an eternity Billy’s foot slipped from his boot and he came to rest on the ground. Joe reined Cochise in and leaped out of his saddle. He knelt by Billy’s side. Billy’s face was scraped and scratched and he lay with his eyes closed.

Joe placed his hand on Billy’s shoulder and shook him slightly, “Billy, come on Billy, wake up.” Joe shook him more vigorously, but Billy remained unresponsive.

Lance rode up on Ranger and came to Joe’s side. “Lance, I think he’s…” Joe choked on his words. His face reflected his terror.

“Let me see Joe.” Lance took Billy’s hand gently in his own and felt for a pulse. Nothing. He moved up to Billy’s head and placed his hand on Billy’s neck. Nothing. “Joe, he’s dead.”

Joe ran his hands through his hair then ran to Cochise, grabbing his canteen. Rushing back he pulled off his bandana and soaked it with water. He began frantically wiping off Billy’s face, calling his name loudly. Lance sat back on his heels and watched Joe work. Abruptly Joe stopped and bowed his head. Tears began to pour from Joe’s eyes. Lance felt a moment of tremendous fear, he had never seen Joe cry before, at least not this way.

“Joe, what are we going to do? People are going to want to know what happened.” Lance was terrified. If his father found out what they had been doing, well Lance could not even imagine the punishment.

Joe raised his head and as abruptly as they had started his tears stopped. “I don’t know.” Joe knew his father’s disappointment would be terrible, he could hardly bear to think about it. “Lance, we’re going to have to take him home to his uncle.”

“What will we say?”

“The truth, we were out riding and Mephisto stumbled and Billy fell off and got dragged.” The two sat side by side for a moment, not looking at each other then Joe stood up. “I’ll go fetch Mephisto.”

Mephisto was nearby grazing calmly. Joe walked up to the horse slowly and calmly snagged his reins. Leading him back to where Lance remained by Billy’s side Joe tied off the horse’s reins. Together the two lifted Billy’s body carefully and slung him over the saddle, binding Billy’s hands and feet underneath the saddle. Mephisto shifted uneasily, sensing the presence of death. Joe untied the horses reins and lead Mephisto over to Cochise. He and Lance each mounted up and without a word began leading the ebony horse, bearing its silent load back to town. Three hours later the two rode into Virginia City and without a word rode to the livery stable. Joe dismounted and looked up at Lance. They had not exchanged a word during the entire ride from the meadow where the accident had happened. There was really nothing they could say. Lance hesitated briefly then he too climbed out of his saddle. They tied their own horses and together went into the livery, leading Mephisto.

“Mr. Frankman.” Joe shouted.

From the hayloft above their heads a voice responded, “Just a minute.”

Moments later a pair of boots appeared on the upper rungs of the ladder. Mr. Frankman descended carefully and turned to face the two young men. He took in their solemn expressions, the unnatural pallor on both their faces. Then he saw Mephisto and his terrible load. He quickly moved to the side of the horse and peered down at his nephew’s still lifeless body. “My God. What happened?”

Joe took a deep breath, “We were out riding sir. Billy fell and got dragged. When we got to him, he was dead.” At the moment Joe spoke the words he felt a small part of himself die. Was it his soul? Was it his heart? He didn’t know, he just knew that something inside him was dead.

Frankman paused and looked at the two men, “Thank you for bringing him home boys. Can you help me take him to Mr. Price?”

Lance paled at the name. Mr Price was the Virginia City mortician. “Certainly sir.” Joe maintained a stoic expression and the three men walked out of the livery together. They moved slowly down the street and while Joe and Lance waited with the body Frankman went to get Mr. Price. The two waited in silence as the agonizing minutes ticked by. Finally, Frankman and Mr. Price emerged from the office together.

“Boys, help me get him inside. I’ve got the coffin we’ll need. The funeral will be tomorrow.” Mr Price nodded at Joe and Lance. Lance cut the rope tying Billy’s hands and feet together while Joe held Mephisto’s head. Mr. Frankman and Mr. Price lifted the body off the horse and carried it inside. The two waited patiently for Mr. Frankman to re-emerge. When he did he looked momentarily surprised.

“Boys, thank you for your help. Let’s take this one back to the livery. The funeral will be tomorrow at two. I’ll go talk to the reverend once we get Mephisto taken care of.” The two did nothing but nod their agreement. When they arrived at the livery Joe and Lance stood awkwardly looking at Mr. Frankman.

“We’re very sorry sir.” Joe finally broke the silence.

Frankman nodded. “Why don’t you boys head on home, I’ll see you both tomorrow at the funeral.”

They took their leave of Mr. Frankman and moved to their respective horses. For the briefest of moments Joe and Lance stared at each other then nodding grimly turned and rode out. By the time Joe arrived back at the Ponderosa he was a good half hour late for dinner. He unsaddled Cochise, carefully rubbing her down and making sure she had plenty of feed and water. He did everything he could think of to postpone having to go into the house and face his father and brothers. Finally he could put it off no longer. When Joe came in the front door he could hear his father and brothers talking in the dining room. He removed his coat and carefully hung it on the coat rack. He took off his gunbelt and placed it carefully on the side-board. Finally he took a deep breath and moved around the corner to wear his father and brothers sat eating.

“Joseph. You’re late.” Ben made a simple statement of fact. He had practically given up on ever getting his youngest son to meals on time. Of course Hoss more than made up for it by being perpetually early.

“Yes sir.” Joe assumed his seat on his father’s right hand side. He eyed the food uneasily, his stomach a tight ball of misery. He kept his face averted from his father’s, missing the fact that his father was waiting for an explanation.

“Joseph, I’m waiting.” Ben continued to survey his son. Something seemed different about Joe, but what? He seemed remarkably still.

“Sir?” Joe still did not raise his head from his plate.

“I’m waiting for you to explain why you are late.”

“I had to go to Virginia City, Pa.” Silence followed his statement. Joe finally realized he would have to speak. “Lance and I had to take Billy into town. He’s dead.”

“What?” Ben pushed back his chair and rose suddenly to his feet, astonishment gripping him. Hoss and Adam were gaping at their younger brother, who continued to stare down at his plate. “Joe, what are you saying? What happened?” Ben took Joe by the shoulders and lifted his face.

“He fell off his horse Pa while we was out riding. His feet got hung up in the stirrups and he got dragged. When we got to him he wasn’t breathing or nothing. We tried to bring him around, but he wouldn’t.” Joe abruptly ceased speaking. He felt his throat tightening up. He found he couldn’t meet his father’s eyes.

“Joe, are you ok?” Hoss was unsettled by his brother’s unusual silence.

“I’m fine Hoss.” Joe barely acknowledged his brother. “Pa, the funeral, it’s tomorrow afternoon. May I take the afternoon off to go?”

“Certainly son. We all will.”

“There’s no need for that Pa.” Joe protested weakly.

“Nonsense son. You and Billy have been friends for a long time. He’s been in and out of this house for years. He was a fine young man.” Joe barely nodded his head in agreement. “Of course we’ll be there with you.” Hoss and Adam chimed in with their agreement.

“Pa, I’m not really very hungry. Would you mind if I just went up to bed?”

“Of course Joe, go ahead.” Ben, Hoss and Adam all watched as Joe rose and went quietly up the stairs.

“He’s powerful upset Pa.” Hoss frowned.

“Yes, it’s understandable Hoss. Billy has been one of Joe’s best friends since they were just children. Remember how we used to take the three of them fishing with us, Joe, Lance and Billy? Joe and Billy would sit there chattering non-stop, Joe catching all the fish. The two of them would nearly drive poor Lance crazy with all their chatter.” Adam said.

“Yeah, I ain’t hardly seen the three of them apart for the last eight years. This has got to be real hard for Joe.” Hoss nodded.

“He’ll be fine boys. It’s a shame but after all it was an accident.”

*****

The next afternoon Joe, Hoss, Adam and Ben rode into town together in the family carriage. All four were spit and polished in their best Sunday go to church clothes. Joe had slept little the night before and his face was drawn and tired looking. He sat in the back of the carriage with Hoss, saying little during the ride into town. At the church they met Lance and his family and Roy Coffee and his daughter Nancy. Nancy went immediately to Joe and gave him a quick hug. “Joe, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t tell me Nancy, you should tell Mr. Frankman.” Joe said softly.

“I already did.” Nancy stepped back and regarded Joe solemnly. Her brow wrinkled as she saw how exhausted Joe looked. The two turned as Lance approached them.

“It’s time.” Lance drawled. Joe nodded back. The two moved together and entered the church. They preceded their families down the aisle and sat side by side in the front row, next to Mr. Frankman.

Besides the Jurgens, Coffees, and Cartwrights few people attended the funeral. The three girls , Jenny, Sally and Melody came in together and sat in the row behind Joe and Lance. The three girls all sobbed softly, holding hands to comfort each other. The others were business associates of Billy’s Uncle. Joe and Lance remained stoic throughout the
funeral as the Reverend gave a brief sermon and eulogy. From what Ben could see They hardly even seemed to breathe.

As the funeral concluded the pall bearers moved up next to the coffin. Joe and Lance took the lead, assisted by Lance’s two brothers, Hoss and Adam. They carried the coffin out of the church and down to the churchyard where the open grave waited. The coffin was lowered into the grave and as everyone stood and watched the grave was filled in. People milled around briefly after the funeral. Ben shook hands with Mr. Frankman expressing his regrets. “Thank you Ben. I still can’t believe it.” Mr. Frankman walked over to where Joe and Lance stood.

“Boys, I have some things for you. You boys were Billy’s best friends in the world. I know he would want you to have them. Come with me.” The two followed him obediently to his surrey. He reached in and picked up two bags. “I want to thank you boys for everything you did. I know Billy would have appreciated it.” Joe and Lance both nodded.

Joe coughed and cleared his throat, “Thank you sir.” Lance echoed him a moment later. They each shook hands with Mr. Frankman and watched as he climbed into his surrey and drove off alone.

Joe wanted nothing more than to sink through the ground. He simply stood there clutching the bag tightly in his hand, desperately afraid he was going to lose his composure. He turned to Lance and briefly their eyes met. Lance merely nodded slightly then went to join his father and brothers. Joe stood alone for a moment, feeling lost then his father came up and put his arm around him. “Ready to go son?”

Joe shrugged and moved away from his father’s hand. He turned and followed him to the carriage. The four rode home, Joe clutching the bag on his lap tightly. That night as Joe got ready for bed he found himself watching the bag on his dresser intently. He still had not been able to bring himself to open it. Finally he doused the light next to his bed and lay back praying for sleep. For hours he lay staring at the ceiling, watching the moonlight shining in his window casting everchanging shadows around his room. When the sun finally shone in on the bag on his dresser Joe could hardly tear his eyes away. When he couldn’t stand it anymore Joe got out of bed And walked over to the rocking chair by his window. He sat down and stared remotely out the window.

*****

Joe watched the dawn breaking over the Ponderosa and he leveraged himself out of the chair. His body ached with tiredness but he knew that sleep would never come that night. He dressed carefully and walked quietly downstairs. He put on his gunbelt and eased open the front door. Hop Sing was coming from the kitchen to set the breakfast table and stopped to watch Joe go out. He frowned briefly then went back to work.

Two hours later Ben and Adam were sitting at the breakfast table talking.

“Where are those brothers of yours? I can understand Joe being late but where is Hoss?” As Ben finished speaking they heard Hoss’s heavy footsteps coming down the stairs.

“Morning Pa, morning Adam. What’s for breakfast?” Hoss pulled his chair out and sat next to his brother, his blue eyes scanned the table.

“Hoss, did you get your brother up?”

“No sir, when I went by his room he was already gone. Ain’t he down yet?” Hoss looked at his brother’s empty place and frowned.

“Little Joe leave very early this morning.” Hop Sing told them as he came in bearing a large platter of eggs and bacon.

Ben was astonished, “How early Hop Sing?”

“About six Mr. Cartlight.” Hop Sing waited for the next question patiently.

“Did he eat anything?” Hop Sing simply shook his head in response. He was worried, perhaps more so than Ben, he knew that Joe had eaten next to nothing since the day Billy died.

“Where is Joe working today boys?”

“I think he is supposed to be down at the corral most of the day Pa, breaking that new group of mustangs. Do you want me to ride down and see how he’s doing?” Adam felt just as concerned as his father.

“No, I think I’ll head down there later this afternoon. He’s probably just still upset about Billy, he may just need to be on his own today.”

Joe spent the day working himself to a state of exhaustion, breaking horse after horse. The men working with him were mesmerized by his performance. He rode each horse to a standstill, fiercely battling each into submission. Charlie Morgan was among the men watching. After eight hours he was convinced that there could be no way for Joe to ride another horse. His body ached simply watching Joe. Riding broncs puts an incredible strain on a cowboy’s stomach, neck and spine. The endless jarring Joe had taken that day made Charlie fear that he may have done himself some sort of injury.

As Joe approached his next horse Charlie decided to intervene. “Joe, why don’t you take a break.” He began to place his hand on Joe’s arm but found himself frozen by the look on Joe’s face. It was one of the coldest looks he had ever seen.

“Because I’m not ready for a break. We have fourteen more horses to get through this week. We’ve only gotten through eight horses today. We need at least one more so we can keep working these horses tomorrow and move ahead on the ones we haven’t touched. I don’t know about you Charlie but I personally do not intend to miss our delivery date.” Joe’s eyes were an icy green, as if he were suppressing a terrible rage. Charlie stepped back, truly shaken. Joe appeared much older than he actually was at that moment. Joe slowly approached his horse. It was a large roan and was nervously flicking it’s ears. Joe gripped his quirt in his left hand and climbed on board. The men turned the horse loose and Joe rode with a fierce determination, steadily using the quirt and spurs on the horse. Suddenly without warning the horse gave a sudden twist and Joe went flying off the horse’s back. Charlie and the other men immediately went into the ring, distracting the bronc to keep him from trampling Joe. Joe lay on his back, the breath knocked out of him. When Charlie bent by his side he gently touched Joe’s arm. “Joe, you ok?”

Joe’s eyes flew open and he abruptly sat up, jerking his arm away from Charlie. “I’m fine Charlie.” He staggered unsteadily to his feet and stood still for a moment, his feet spread apart to steady himself. He stared at the ground for a moment, Charlie was afraid Joe might keel over right in front of him, he was so pale. Finally Joe took a deep breath and looked at Charlie. “Back to work Charlie.”

“Joe, let me ride the next one.” Charlie asked. Joe’s face darkened and he shook his head firmly.

“No, this one is mine.” Joe moved back to the chute, pausing only to take a long drink of water. Joe wasn’t about to admit a momentary feeling of weakness that he’d felt. He got back on the next horse and rode it to a standstill. He climbed down and would have ridden another one but the men were all ready to call it a day. Joe nodded as he watched Charlie and the men move the horses into the corral. It had been a long day and he felt exhausted. Joe searched his brain for a way to avoid having to eat dinner with his family.
“Charlie, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure Joe. What?”

“Can you tell Pa that I have to do an errand in town? I’ll be home later tonight.” Joe couldn’t quite meet Charlie’s eyes as he spoke.

“Yes Joe, I’ll tell him.”

Joe hesitated. “Thanks,” he muttered as he moved out of the corral and over to where Cochise stood in the shade. He saddled her up and checked her cinch carefully. As Joe went down the road, Charlie watched him for a long time, then shook his head and went back to work.

Two hours later Ben opened the front door in response to a soft knock. “Charlie, how did everything go today?”

“Mr. Cartwright, I just wanted to bring you a message, Joe said he had to run an errand in town. He’ll be home later tonight.”

Ben nodded, “Thanks Charlie. So how did things go today?”

Charlie hesitated, torn between his loyalty to Joe, who was in fact his boss, and his concern for Joe’s safety.

“Charlie, I asked how things went today.”

“We got nine of the horses broken sir.”

“And how many did Joe break?”

Charlie knew hell was about to break loose, “All nine.”

“All nine, what in tarnation was he doing breaking all nine horses?” Ben was furious. “And you say he had to go into town? How can he even be riding? Did he get thrown?”

“Just once sir. He got the wind knocked out of him but he, well he seemed fine, when he left.” Charlie just didn’t know what to say to Ben at this point. How could he tell him about the intensity, the rage he had seen in Joe. Who would believe him?

Ben nodded, “I’ll deal with him when he gets home.”

Joe rode slowly into town, having no specific intention except to stay as far away from his father and brothers as possible. He couldn’t really explain what he was feeling, he just couldn’t stand the thought of having to sit with them, pretending that everything was fine. Nothing would ever be fine again. As he approached town he hesitated on the edge of town, facing two choices. He could head down mainstreet, possibly call on the Coffees or Jenny and her family. He cringed at the thought, he couldn’t stand the thought of possibly running into Mr. Frankman, or having to carry on a normal conversation. He wheeled Cochise around and headed down D Street,. He noticed a crowd near the Bucket of Blood. He rode Cochise over to the hitching post and dismounted. He was about to tie him off but was suddenly struck with a thought. Instead he lead Cochise to a small livery, not Mr. Frankman’s. He paid to board Cochise overnight and suddenly feeling freed he headed back down the street.

Joe marched into the saloon and quickly acquired two of the necessities of the evening, a shot of whiskey and a beer. The whiskey sent a flood of warmth through his veins. He began to relax slightly. He scanned the bar and noticed that the stage at the back of the bar had been cleared off and a piano player was warming up. He snagged another whiskey and taking that and his beer he strolled over to a table. As Joe seated himself the piano player struck up a tune and a woman came out. Joe found himself sitting up as he noticed what she was wearing. The neckline of her blue silk dress plunged almost to her waist, her cleavage covered by only a scrap of fine lace. Her dress was hitched up in the front, showing an expanse of calf and thigh. Joe gave her all his attention. As she sang song after song Joe continued to drink and Enjoy the view. By her last song Joe had consumed a great deal of whiskey and could be easily said to be feeling no pain. As she came off the stage she stopped at Joe’s table and surveyed the young cowboy, slouched low in his chair. “May I join you?” she asked in a low, husky voice.

“It would be my pleasure ma’am.” Joe rose somewhat unsteadily to his feet and held her chair. He beckoned over the barkeep and purchased her a fancy champagne filled drink. The two sat and talked for an hour.

*****

Ben sat up by the fire until late in the evening contemplating what he was going to be saying to his youngest son when he returned. As the hours passed Ben revised his speech from one of concern to one of anger. By the time he finally decided to retire he was planning quite a severe punishment for Little Joe. When Ben rose the next morning he joined Adam and Hoss and ate his breakfast in silence. Both had checked Joe’s room that morning, it was obvious to them both that Joe had never come home the night before. When Ben finished eating he rose, “I’m going into town to find that scamp brother of yours and teach him a little lesson in responsibility.”

“We’re going with you Pa.” Both men pushed their chairs out and rose. Both were more than a little worried about their younger brother. “Pa, you know Joe’s going through kind of a hard time, what with what happened to Billy and all. Maybe he decided to go visit one of his other friends and it got late and they invited him to stay over.”

“Hoss, your brother knows we have a lot to do before the branding starts in a few weeks. I don’t have time to be chasing him around the territory. Let’s go.”

A few hours later the three men rode into town. The first person they encountered was Roy Coffee strolling down the street on his daily walking tour of Virginia City. Roy made a point of inspecting all of Virginia City’s streets each day. Everyone in town knew Roy and he knew everyone. He kept tabs on his people, as he liked to call them.

“Ben, boys.” Roy nodded amiably. “Looking for Joe?”

“In fact we are Roy. Do you know where he is?” Adam leaned forward and gave Beauty’s mane a quick pat.

“He headed back to the ranch early this morning. He was planning on breaking a few horses today.”

“Did he stay with you last night Roy?” Ben felt almost hopeful, maybe Hoss had been right.

“No Ben, he spent the evening in the company of Miss Adelina Marsh.”

“Adelina Marsh, isn’t that the singer who’s working the Bucket of Blood?” Adam was intrigued, he had caught part of Miss Marsh’s act the weekend before.

“Yes Adam the same. It seems she was quite smitten with young Joe.” Roy noted Ben’s obvious discomfort with the subject of Joe’s woman chasing.

“Roy, did you say he was on the way back to the ranch? We should have passed him on the road.”

“Ben he left quite early, in fact I was a bit surprised he was up.”

Ben nodded, he had a good idea what Roy was talking about. “I’m going to go find him boys, Adam can you take care of those chores at the bank on your own?” Adam nodded.

“Pa, I’d like to stop by the mercantile and see if that order of liniment came in yet.” Hoss said.

“I’ll see you both at dinner.”

Adam and Hoss agreed to meet at the Cafe Paris for lunch before riding home. Hoss stopped at the store and picked up the special liniment he had ordered. Hoss performed many of the veterinary functions at the ranch and was often ordering new treatments that he saw in the paper. As he was leaving the store he ran into Lance.

“Hey Lance, how you doing buddy?” Hoss stopped before Lance and held out his hand to be shaken.

Lance stared at Hoss’s hand for a moment before taking it and shaking it briefly. “Hoss.”

“When you coming out to the ranch to do some fishing again?” Hoss was intrigued, Lance seemed to be looking everywhere but at Hoss’s face.

“Oh, we’re pretty busy right now Hoss, you know getting ready for the branding.” Lance continued to direct his gaze somewhere beyond Hoss.

“Well, I’m sure Joe misses ya. I know he’d be glad to see you.” At the mention of Joe’s name Lance’s mouth tightened and he looked down at his feet.

“I best be going Hoss, bye.” Lance moved off into the street and Hoss stood gazing after him. Adam arrived and came up behind Hoss.

“What are you looking at Hoss?”

Hoss turned to his brother, a puzzled frown on his face. “I don’t know Adam, I just don’t know.” He shrugged after a moment and followed Adam down the street to the restaurant.

Ben went directly to the corral when he arrived back at the ranch. He found the men gathered around the fence watching Joe breaking a grey gelding. Ben dismounted and went to stand next to Charlie. “Charlie,” Ben nodded. Charlie silently nodded back, his eyes fixed on Joe’s ride.

“How many has he done today?”

“Six so far Ben. I’ve never seen riding like this, he’s like a man possessed.”

Ben leaned on the fence and followed Joe’s ride closely. Joe used the quirt and spurs skillfully, keeping the horse firmly under control. As the horse bucked Joe focused all his attention and his energy on the horse. Finally the horse gave in and began to respond to Joe’s commands, rather than fighting them. For the next hour Joe worked the horse vigorously. When he finally dismounted his shirt was soaked with sweat and after he handed the reins off to one of the men he moved to the nearby trough to pump some fresh water into his hands. After he had drunk his fill, he splashed more water over his face and hair.

His father moved up next to him unnoticed and placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe immediately spun, knocking the hand away. When he saw it was his father he became still. “Pa, I , you uh startled me.”

“So I see.” Ben searched his son’s face, noting the dark circles under Joe’s eyes and the way his cheekbones stood out on his face. He could see exhaustion and something more written across his son’s face. The harsh words he had been prepared to deliver that morning washed away and he found himself treating his son gently.

“Joe, I wanted to take some time to talk with you this afternoon, before dinner, about the horse operation. What time will you be back at the house?”

Joe was surprised. Where were the harsh words and admonishments he was expecting. “I should be back about six Pa. Is that all right?”

Ben started to protest. It was only a little after one. He couldn’t imagine that Joe would be able to work another five hours. He squelched his words, there was something about Joe that told him that anything he said would lead to a battle. “That’s fine son. I’ll see you then.” Ben made a move as if to touch Joe but Joe took a small step back. Ben’s hand lingered for a moment then dropped back to his side.

Joe watched as his father left on Buck. He felt oddly disappointed, but he shrugged and turned back to his work. That evening promptly at six Joe was sitting beside his father’s desk. Ben came down the stairs and stopped staring in surprise. The clock chimed the tones at the same moment. “Joe?”

“Yes Pa,” Joe turned to his father.

“Right on time,” Ben smiled at his son.

*****

Joe merely regarded his father, not returning his smile. Ben leaned back in his chair, solemnly studying his son. Joe sat waiting patiently for his father to begin, his head drooping slightly. Ben was shocked anew at the exhaustion showing on his son’s face. “Joe are you all right, you look terrible?” The caring in Ben’s voice did not have the
expected reaction. Joe shrank back into his chair. “I’m fine Pa. I’ve just been working hard. The men and I have a lot to get done this week.”

“Joe, your brothers and I are worried about you. Charlie tells me you’ve been breaking all the horses yourself. Why?”

Joe frowned, Charlie should not be carrying tales to his father. He paused only for a moment and decided to go on the offensive, “Pa, I thought the horse operation was my responsibility.”

“It is son.”

“Then I think it is my business how I run it. We have only four horses to go tomorrow and we’ll have the order ready. I’ve done the initial breaking, then the other men are working on training the individual horses. We’re getting everything done. What else did you want to say to me?”

“Joe, I know that you are getting everything done on time, but I’m worried about you.” Ben didn’t know what else to say. “Joe tell me what’s troubling you.”

Joe sat perfectly still for a moment then suddenly rose to his feet, “There’s nothing wrong Pa. I’d like to get cleaned up for dinner now.” Joe turned and went up the stairs. Ben listened carefully as he heard Joe’s door open and close. He sighed, if Joe wouldn’t tell him what was wrong maybe he would tell his brothers. Dinner that night was a strained affair. Joe kept his eyes on his plate, simply pushing the food around his plate. The mere thought of actually putting food in his stomach made Joe’s stomach twist into knots. Hoss and Adam kept glancing between Joe and their father. Hoss tried to break the silence.

“Guess who I say today in town Adam?”

Adam smiled at Hoss’s attempt, “I don’t know, who?”

“Lance Jurgens.”

“Really, we haven’t seen Lance around here in a while.” Adam snuck a peek at Joe. Joe sat with his head bowed, not even pretending to eat. “How’s he doing?”

“Busy. I invited him to come out and go fishing but he said they were too busy getting ready for branding. Of course we’ll see him at the dance tomorrow night. I think he’s taking that little gal of his.”

“Hmmm, that’s true. Are you still taking Jenny, Joe?” Adam turned to his brother.

Joe was in misery. He had almost forgotten the dance. He couldn’t just skip the dance, Jenny would be upset and it would worry his family even more. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Thought you’d be showing a little more enthusiasm. Well Hoss who are you going to take?”

“Thought I’d fetch Margie and take her in with me.”

“Margie, hmmm, well maybe Marianne and I will join you.” Adam grinned. “Joe would you like to ride in with us tomorrow night.”

Joe just shrugged his shoulders. “I guess so.” He put his fork down and stood up. “Pa, I’m real tired, I think I’ll go to bed, please excuse me.” Joe moved slowly from the table, his father and brothers merely watching him go.

“Pa, he looks terrible. Are you sure he ain’t sick?” Hoss couldn’t remember a time when his brother had looked this way except when he was ill.

“Hoss he keeps saying he’s fine. I don’t know what to do for him. Come on, let’s finish supper.”

Joe lay in bed for hours, desperately trying to clear him mind so he could get to sleep. About midnight he finally drifted off into a fitful doze. His sleep was invaded by a nightmarish swirling of images. Suddenly he was back in the meadow, laughing and talking with Lance and Billy. Billy turned to face Joe, his face covered in cuts and scratches, blood weeping from the wounds. He gestured towards his horse, “Come on Joe, just try it. It’s easy. Just climb on board.” Joe hesitated and Billy said, “Ok Joe, I’ll show you, death is easy, just like riding a horse.” Suddenly Billy was on his horse and it towered above Joe, blocking the sunlight. The horse reared and his hooves pawed the air above Joe’s head.

He cowered in terror and Billy rode off, suddenly falling from his horse and being dragged. Joe raced up on his horse, flinging himself from the saddle. As he rushed to Billy’s side he saw Billy was lying face down. Joe turned Billy over and a scream rose in his throat, it was his own face he saw before him. The eyelids lifted and Joe saw himself staring into black holes. The body suddenly sat up and finger pointing the mouth opened and it spoke, “You killed me.”

Joe shot up in his bed, a scream strangling in his throat. Had he screamed out loud? Joe could feel a cold sweat covering his body. He rubbed his hands together, they felt like ice. He felt sick to his stomach and rushed from his bed, vomiting what little dinner he had managed to eat into the basin on his dresser. Joe lit the small candle on his dresser and stared at himself in his bedroom mirror. How much longer was he going to be able to stay here? He had to find a way out, he had to get away from this terrible memory. He turned back to his bed and involuntarily shook his head. He went to the chair by his window and sat down, staring out into the night. Joe moved through the next day in a fog. It had rained for the early part of the day, so no horsebreaking was being done, even Joe recognized it was too dangerous for both the horse as well as the riders. It increased the likelihood of the horse falling and being injured. He did his best to avoid his family, working on various chores in the yard and barn. The sun finally broke through in the late afternoon and Joe busied himself getting ready for the dance. When he came down ready to leave he found both his brothers and father waiting for him. “Ready to go Joe?”

Joe couldn’t think of any way to get out of going into town with his family, he merely nodded his agreement. The four rode into town, Hoss, Ben and Adam keeping up a steady stream of chatter about various topics. Once in town, Joe turned off to go fetch Jenny, while his brothers went to get their own dates. As he reigned Cochise in he noticed that Lance’s horse was tied up in front of Jenny’s house as well. Joe knocked on Jenny’s door. It swung open and Jenny was standing in the doorway with a broad smile on her face. Her smile faltered as she took in Joe’s haggard face. “Joe, are you feeling all right?” Jenny moved to his side and slid her arm through his.

“I’m fine Jenny, I’ve just been working too hard, I guess.” Joe looked down on her pretty face and gave a weak smile.

“Well come on in, Lance and Melody stopped by to meet us.”

Joe allowed himself to be led into Jenny’s parents front parlor. He greeted Melody cordially. He faced Lance and gazed up steadily at his friend’s face. Lance’s expression was remote, but his eyes were staring at Joe fixedly. “Lance.” Joe acknowledged him.

“Joe.” Lance found himself fearing suddenly for his friend. He desperately wanted to speak to him, he could see that Joe was going through the same thing he was. Joe had always been more outwardly emotional, he was showing the strain of what had happened with Billy. But anything Lance said now would have to be meaningless polite conversation and he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He turned to Melody, “You ladies ready to go?”

As Lance turned away from Joe, Joe felt his last chance slipping away. Even Lance blamed him. Joe felt the darkness inside him that he had been fighting begin to overwhelm him. “Let’s go Jenny,” he said and took her hand. The two couples arrived at the dance a little after it started. Joe did his best to pretend he was having a good time, dancing every dance until he exhausted both himself and Jenny. Jenny was finding herself becoming ever more worried about him as the evening progressed. She finally had to halt their dancing and asked Joe to fetch her a drink. While he went she searched for his brothers. Jenny found Hoss leaning against a wall, watching his friend Margie dance with her brother.

“Hoss, may I speak to you for a moment?”

“Yeah sure Jenny. Having a good time? You and Joe sure are dancing up a storm.”

“Hoss what’s wrong with Joe? He’s acting, I don’t know, funny somehow.”

“What do you mean Jenny?” Hoss was worried. Maybe Jenny could help him find out what was going on with Joe.

“He’s acting different. Like he knows how he’s supposed to look if he’s having fun, and he’s trying to act like he’s having fun but he isn’t really.” Jenny looked almost ready to cry.

“Jenny, come on, now don’t cry.” Hoss moved up next to Jenny and put his arm around her. “Everything be all right, you’ll see.”

“So, I turn my back for one minute and my brother goes hitting on my girl.” The voice that came from behind them was icy cold.

Hoss and Jenny spun around, unintentionally looking guilty. “Joe, please, we weren’t doing anything.” Jenny pleaded, horrified at the frosty glare in Joe’s eyes. She felt terribly uneasy.

“Joe, we was just talking.” Hoss shifted uncomfortably. His brother’s face was irate, but his eyes were deadly.

Joe merely stared at the two of them for another long moment, then spun on his heel to walk away. Hoss went after him and put his hand on Joe’s arm. Joe halted and swiveled back to face his father. “Take your hand off me.” His wintry tone chilled Hoss’s blood.

“Joe come on, let me explain.” Hoss stopped when Joe shoved him away and moved quickly out the door. Hoss made as if to follow him but he saw that Jenny was very distressed and he didn’t feel he could abandon her. He began to search the room for his father and brother. Unseen nearby Lance watched the whole scene silently.

*****

Once Joe had made his escape he felt a bit better. He knew quite well that Jenny and Hoss had done nothing but talk. He had been watching them the whole time they were together. When Hoss went to comfort Jenny saw his opportunity. Joe went back to Jenny’s house to get Cochise and moved her into the livery stable he had used a few nights before. He flicked up the collar of his green jacket and tilted his hat at a jaunty angle and ambled at a leisurely pace to the Bucket of Blood.

Once inside he bought a beer and a bottle of whisky and settled himself at a table near the stage. As if on cue Adelina Marsh appeared on stage. She flicked a quick glance at Joe’s table and smiled ever so slightly. She then began to sing, prancing around the stage, her dress as revealing as the one she had worn the last time Joe had seen her.

When she finished her set Adelina came over to Joe’s table. She bent and kissed him directly on the lips. When she finished she sat on his lap and lifted the hat from his head. “Hey Joe, where ya been? I thought you’d be coming back to see me last night. A girl can get mighty lonely when a fella stands her up.”

“Got stuck at the ranch.” Joe felt himself relax slightly, her hand was running through his hair, ruffling his curls. Somehow, the fact that he didn’t care about Adelina at all made it easy for him to accept her touch. “You want a drink?” Joe gestured at the whisky bottle and glasses on the table.

“Don’t mind if I do.” Adelina held her hand up to the bartender who immediately brought over a champagne drink. Joe and Adelina spent the next half hour drinking, talking and laughing. As they were warming up to leave the bar a large cowboy wearing all black walked up to their table.

“Hey kid, why don’t you go away and leave the lady alone?”

Joe tilted his head back and regarded the man steadily. His eyes gleamed with a challenging light. “Doesn’t seem to me that the lady wants to be left alone, at least not by me. Why don’t you move along.”

“I don’t think you understand boy, the lady is with me.”

Joe secured his arm a bit more firmly around Adelina’s waist as she tried to get up. “Seems to me that since she’s sitting on my lap and drinking my whisky that she’s with me.”

The cowboy gave a howl of rage and moved forward, only to be stopped by the iron grip of the bartender. “Hold it boys, you take this outside, I ain’t having the likes of you break up my place.”

“You coming boy, or are you a yella coward?” The dark cowboy challenged Joe. Joe casually pulled Adelina’s mouth down on his own, kissing her deeply. Then he stood, moving her aside.

“Who you calling boy, bozo?” Joe moved ahead of the man out into the street. No one followed, most had not even noticed the ruckus. Adelina gazed after Joe longingly, but was held back by the bartender who shook his head warningly. Joe and the cowboy moved into a side alley near the saloon. As Joe stood facing the man he clenched his fists in preparation for a fist fight. Suddenly a fist lashed out, striking Joe right in the stomach. As he doubled over in pain a blow was struck to the back of his neck, driving him to his knees. Joe attempted to get to his feet but a hail of blows rained down on his body. For some reason the blows were not struck to his face, the man seemed to derive great pleasure in hitting Joe in the stomach, ribs and kidney’s. Finally Joe collapsed in pain. The man stood over him, smirking. “Let that be a lesson to you boy.” The man turned away but spun back and delivered a final kick directly to Joe’s ribs. Joe gave a small scream and passed out as his rib cracked. Two hours later Joe came to in the alley. No one had come looking for him, no one had even noticed him, lying as he was in the shadows. He rolled onto his back groaning. Slowly he crawled to the wall and levered himself onto his feet. He staggered a few steps, gasping at the pain in his ribs. He bent over, trying to catch his breath. He sat down carefully, his back against the alley wall. Carefully he gently pressed on his ribs. After a few moments he decided that he had cracked two ribs, but nothing was completely broken. He resolved not to let his father or brothers see him without his shirt, there would be too many questions.

Joe realized that he couldn’t stay home any longer; he just couldn’t stand being around his father and brothers. Every time one of them touched him he felt unclean, unworthy. If they knew what he had done they would hate him even more than he hated himself. When he felt well enough Joe went back to the livery stable to get Cochise. As he moved up next to her he felt overwhelmingly tired.

“Hey Coch, you ready to go home?” His horse nickered and gently nudged Joe. He patted his neck affectionately. He saddled him quickly and mindful of his ribs eased himself into the saddle. Back at the ranch Ben was pacing in the living room stopping to stare at the grandfather clock as it chimed midnight. “When that boy gets home, I’m going to thrash him.”

“Pa, you can’t do that. He got mad, he thought I was hitting on Jenny. It’s all my fault.” Hoss was devastated, he had never seen his little brother as angry as he was that evening.

“Hoss, you didn’t do anything wrong. And I bet Joe knows it too. He was looking to pick a fight, you just made an easy target. It could just as easily been Pa or me.” Adam put his arm around Hoss. He was as mystified as Hoss at his brother’s behavior but he knew that everything was building towards some sort of climax.

“But why Adam? What’s he trying to do?” Hoss shook his head, he didn’t understand.

“I don’t know Pa. Maybe he’s just testing us, trying to find out what our limits are. He may just need you to set some boundaries down. He’s out chasing girls and bossing everyone around.”

“So you think I should lay down the law?” Ben wasn’t sure. Joe had always gone his own way. Even as a child he was always testing his own limits and everyone else’s. And when limits were set down he would find the loophole in the rules.

“Reasoning with him, being nice doesn’t seem to be working. If anything his behavior is getting worse. There’s no call for doing what he did to Jenny and Hoss this evening.”

Ben nodded slowly. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow. It’s late boys, lets get to bed.” Hoss rose from the couch and joined his father and brother in going up the stairs.

Joe rode into the Ponderosa barnyard at 2 a.m. His head and sides ached with a combination of fatigue and the beating he had received. He carefully unsaddled Cochise and rubbed her down. He stood thoughtfully in the door of the barn looking towards the house. He longed for sleep, so much he could feel it in every bone and muscle of his body. But what if the nightmare came back, he couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t scream and wake the others. He turned back into the barn and grabbing several blankets moved to Cochise’s stall where he bedded down in the corner.

*****

Joe slept soundly for several hours, the sleep of exhaustion rather than simple tiredness. As dawn approached Joe’s head began to turn back and forth and he began to moan and mutter in his sleep. In his dream he could see Billy mounting his horse and turning to smile at Joe. No matter how much Joe tried to cry out to make Billy stop he couldn’t move. It was as if his feet were nailed to the ground. He could see Billy do that one perfect second suspended from the side of his saddle and then crash to the ground, his head bouncing. Joe sat upright, as a loud cry came from his mouth. He woke up suddenly, to find Cochise nuzzling his hair gently. He whickered and nudged him again and he put up his hand to his head. Joe slowly climbed to his feet, the pain in his side catching him unaware as he tried to stretch. He bent over and clutched the wall. Joe opened the barn door and looked outside, dawn was just starting to break. His stomach felt empty and he knew he had to try and eat something. He made his way across the yard and slipped in the back door of the kitchen. As he opened the bread box to take a piece of bread Hop Sing emerged from his bedroom. “Little Joe. What you doing? Why you no eat a good breakfast? Why you no be good boy?”

Joe tried to smile reassuringly at Hop Sing but found he could muster little more than a weak copy of his usual smile. “I’m fine Hop Sing.”

“You not fine, everybody worry bout you all the time.”

Joe shook his head. He didn’t want them to worry, he wanted them to leave him alone. “Hop Sing why don’t you all just worry about yourselves and leave me alone.” Joe snapped out his words in his harshest tone. He was rewarded with a reproachful look from Hop Sing. He knew Hop Sing was his staunchest ally, always willing to defend him in front of his father and brothers.

“Fine, you make own breakfast.”

“That’s what I was trying to do before you got in my way.” Joe’s voice cracked like a whip and he shook inside as Hop Sing flinched and moved silently from the kitchen, not looking back.

Joe stared at the bread in his hand and threw it aside, his appetite gone. He left the house as he had entered and went to the barn. He got Cochise and headed down to the horse breaking corral. Ben got up early and went down to Joe’s room. Without knocking he opened the door and looked in. Joe’s bed had obviously not been slept in. Ben was furious, this was the second night in less than a week Joe had stayed out all night. He came out of the room to find Hoss and Adam waiting in the hall. He simply shook his head and they headed downstairs.

As Hop Sing served breakfast the three men gradually became aware that something was wrong. The coffee was bitter, the eggs runny and the bacon was burnt. “Pa, something’s wrong with Hop Sing, you think he’s sick?”

“I don’t know,” Ben whispered back. “But I’m going to find out. Hop Sing. Come out here.”

Hop Sing came back out of the kitchen and stood silently at the head of the table. “Ok Hop Sing what’s going on?”

“Nothing Mr. Cartlight.”

“Then would you mind explaining to me what happened to the food, this isn’t like you.” Ben was truly concerned. He stood up and turned Hop Sing to face him, he could see that Hop Sing had been crying. “Hop Sing, what is it, are you in pain?”

“No, is nothing. Little Joe…” Hop Sing broke off. He didn’t want to hurt Joe or his family.

“What about Little Joe? Was he here? Did you see him?”

“I find him in kitchen, I ask him why he no eat, he get mad.”

“Mad? What did he say?”

Hop Sing merely shook his head. “It no important, I just leave him alone like he want.” Hop Sing moved away back into the kitchen.

Ben was livid. No matter what problems Joe was having there was no call to take it out on Hop Sing. “I don’t know where that brother of yours is but when I see him we are going to have a serious discussion about his behavior.”

Charlie Morgan rode down to the corral mid-morning. He could see that someone else was already there working with the stock. He reined in his horse and stood in his stirrups to get a better view. Joe was in the corral working with one of the horses that he had worked with two days before. The day off had given the animal, one of the wilder ones, the opportunity to revert to its previous behavior. The animal was bucking and twisting with all its might. Charlie dismounted and ran to the fence, climbing up and over quickly. It wasn’t safe for Joe to be working an animal on his own, if he were to fall, it could be fatal. At that moment the horse reared up on its hind legs and the horse began to fall over backwards. Joe fell off and landed flat on his back. At the last minute the horse righted itself and narrowly avoided stomping on Joe as he lay stunned. Charlie jumped off the fence and ran to the horse, snagging its reins and leading the horse away from Joe. Once the horse was tied off he went back and knelt at Joe’s side. Joe was gasping, the pain in his side quite sharp. He wasn’t sure if he had made the crack in his ribs even worse.

“Joe, can you hear me?” Charlie’s brows knit together, he could see that the boy’s face was pale and his breathing was ragged.

“Yes Charlie I can hear you.” Joe levered himself upright and shook his head to clear it. He still had a headache from the previous evening.

“Joe, let me help you back to the house.” Charlie grabbed Joe’s arm and helped him to his feet. Joe swayed briefly then shook off Charlie’s hand. “I’m not going back to the house. I’m getting back on that horse, we have a deadline to meet.”

“Joe is isn’t safe, you are obviously hurt. Come on let me help you.” Charlie again took Joe’s arm. Joe suddenly jerked away violently and landed a roundhouse punch right on Charlie’s jaw knocking him to the ground. Joe grabbed Charlie’s jacket by the lapels and staring right into his eyes said, “Now don’t you get in my way again Charlie.”

“Joe, what are you doing.” Charlie blinked and grabbed Joe’s arm.

Joe shoved Charlie back onto the ground, “I’m sick of your interference Charlie, I have deadlines to meet. I think you better pick up your pay and get out.”

Charlie gaped. Had he understood Joe correctly, was he firing him? Charlie climbed to his feet and stared at Joe. “You heard me, I said get out.”

Charlie mounted up and turned to stare at Joe again, “I don’t know what your problem is Joe.”

“The only problem I have right now is you Charlie. Just get out.” Joe turned away and Charlie rode off to the Ponderosa ranch house.

*****

Ben, Hoss and Adam were coming out of the house when Charlie rode in. He was pale and Ben moved to his side. “Charlie what’s going on?”

“I’m just here to pack my things Mr. Cartwright.”

“Charlie, are you quitting?” Hoss was surprised, Charlie had been with the Cartwrights for years.

“No, I ain’t quitting Hoss, I been fired.” Charlie tied his horse to the hitching post and turned to face the three men.

“Fired, who fired ya Charlie?”

“Little Joe.”

Ben was enraged. “Little Joe, what right does Joe have to fire you? I will deal with him Charlie, you just pay no attention to whatever he said.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I think something’s really wrong with him. You best tread lightly.” Charlie delivered his warning softly. Even with everything that had gone on he felt more sorry for Joe than anything else, he felt a terrible grief in Joe and he feared for the boy.

Ben ignored Charlie’s warning. “When I get ahold of that boy, he will learn the meaning of the words rules and respect.”

An hour later Joe rode into the ranch. He left Cochise tied to the hitching post, he had no intention of staying very long. As he entered through the front door he heard his father’s voice calling his name. “Joseph, here, now.” Joe hunched his shoulders briefly, he hurt everywhere but he couldn’t let his father see any sign of weakness. He straightened up and moved briskly into his father’s study.

“Yes Pa.”

“Joseph, I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in you. I am appalled at your behavior, and I want it to stop.”

“I don’t know what you mean sir.”

“Don’t give me that.” Ben surged to his feet and came around his desk. Hoss and Adam, watching from the side cringed, their father was radiating anger. Joe stood perfectly still without flinching. “I will not tolerate you mistreating the employees of this ranch Joseph. I will not tolerate you treating your brothers and your friends disrespectfully. And I will not tolerate this new habit of yours of staying out all night. This house has rules. As long as you live under this roof, you will obey these rules.”

Hoss sucked in air between his teeth, whistling softly. Adam tensed next to him. Both pairs of eyes were riveted on their younger brother’s face. It almost seemed to them both that Joe relaxed as the ultimatum was received.

“Fine.” Joe spoke the single word, staring directly into his father’s eyes. He turned and moved towards the stairs. They all watched as he climbed the stairs and turned the corner. The three were stunned. Ben let out a loud sigh and turned to face his sons.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into him.” Ben sat down at his desk and the three waited in silence, not quite sure for what.

In his room Joe quickly moved to his dresser and packed his travel kit with clothes. As he prepared to close up the kit his gaze became riveted on the small bag Billy’s uncle had given him. He didn’t want to take it, but he couldn’t leave it either. Finally he grabbed it and stuffed it into his kit. He left his room, checking one last time to make sure he had everything. He briefly studied the pictures on his dresser of his father, his brothers and himself and his mother. He put his hand on one of them then drew it back, leaving them in place. As he came down the stairs he could see his family was speaking quietly in the study. When they heard his footsteps Ben, Hoss and Adam got up and came to the foot of the stairs. “Joseph, what is the meaning of this?,” Ben’s hand indicated the saddle bag and travel kit.

“I’m doing what you said.” Joe answered simply, not taking his eyes off his father.

“Which is?” Ben felt his stomach sink,

“Getting out. I’m taking Cochise, he’s mine, and my clothes. Everything else is yours, I don’t want anything from you.” Joe’s voice was chilling in its remoteness. His eyes were cold and watchful.

“Joe, I didn’t mean…”

“Oh yes you did, every word of it. Only thing is I don’t want to live by your rules anymore. You thought I would just go along, well not anymore.”

Ben shrank back, the hatred in Joe’s voice and face drove home his point, Joe was leaving. Joe stepped around his father and went directly to the front door. Pulling it open he glanced back for a fraction of a second, and seemed about to speak. Instead he compressed his lips and went out the door.

Hoss broke free of the momentary paralysis that was gripping them all. He ran out the front door, Adam a short distance behind. Joe was checking the cinch of his saddle when they came up to him. Hoss grabbed Joe’s right arm and spun him around to face them. Joe’s hand by reflex went for his gun but stopped just short of drawing it, instead he rested his hand on the holster.

“What do you think you’re doing Joe? Are you trying to kill Pa? You’re doing a damn good job of it?” Hoss shouted at his younger brother.

Joe’s face maintained the still watchful expression that had become so much a part of him in the past few days.

“I’m leaving.”

“Joe,” Adam came forward. “Joe, what’s going on? Why are you leaving?”

“Because that’s my choice, no more of Pa’s rules. I want to do things my way, and since it is his way or get out that’s what I’m doing, getting out.” Joe turned away from his brothers and heaved himself up into the saddle. Adam noticed that Joe didn’t mount in his usual graceful style, but stiffly as if he was in pain. He began to speak then kept
silent. There was no way Joe would admit to anything. Joe simply turned Cochise and rode away as his two brothers simply stood by, helpless to stop him, not sure they wanted to.

*****

The next day Ben and his sons rode into Virginia City. They stopped by the Mercantile to order some supplies. The three were mostly silent, none wanting to discuss what had happened in the past two days. On their way to the bank the three ran into Roy Coffee. “Ben, boys, how are you doing?”

“Just fine Roy.”

“How’s Little Joe, I heard he took quite a beating the other night?”

“What?” Ben and his sons exchanged surprised looks. “When was this?”

“Saturday night, after the dance. He was calling on that saloon singer when one of her other admirers stopped by. He beat Joe pretty bad.” Roy was surprised, the Cartwrights were a close family, how could they not know.

“Did you see him afterwards Roy?”

“No Ben, the lady told me about it, at least what the gentleman told her. I tried to find Joe but he had already headed out of town. Sounded pretty bad, I had wanted to get him to a doctor if I could, from what she said I figured he might have a few cracked ribs at least, if not worse damage.”

Ben winced, Joe hadn’t said a word, and he hadn’t looked like he’d been in a fight. Adam suddenly snapped his fingers, “When he was getting on his horse, that’s what was wrong, he was in pain.”

“When was this?”

“When he was leaving Pa. He got on Cochise and he was obviously in pain. And I just let him go.”

“Go where Adam?” Roy was concerned.

“Joe left Roy. Yesterday afternoon. We had a, an, …” Ben paused, uncertain how to explain what had been going on with Joe. “Anyway, he’s gone.”

Roy was worried, “The Jurgens came into town this morning looking for Lance, Ben. They told us when he got home from the dance Saturday night he was real quiet. When they got up this morning he was gone. He left a note telling them he’d be gone for a while but not to look for him. Now you tell me Joe’s gone too. What do you think is going on Ben?”

“I don’t know Roy, I just don’t know.”

Joe lay on his back in the meadow where Billy had been killed. His head rested on his saddle and he stared vacantly up at the clouds, trying to decide what to do next. He’d had no plans when he left the Ponderosa, he had simply known that he had to get away from the place before it suffocated him. Being alone allowed him to give into the terrible wave of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. He hurt everywhere, his ribs, his back, his head and his heart. The constant pain in his ribs and back was something he was slowly becoming accustomed to, the pain in his heart he might never get used to. Joe rolled onto his stomach and rested his chin in his hands. He closed his eyes remembering the terrible disappointment he had seen on his father’s face during their final moments together. Joe felt oddly satisfied, at last his father knew the truth about the kind of person he was. They wouldn’t miss him very much.

Joe frowned thoughtfully, Hoss might. Hoss would have a harder time accepting everything, accepting Joe’s departure. He had been careful to cover his trail when leaving the ranch, sticking to the main road, then veering off to ride along the edge of the lake where the minute waves would wash away his trail. He had spent last night sleeping out miles from here. For the first time in over a week he had a relatively untroubled sleep. When he woke up this morning he knew he had to come here one final Time before leaving. His sleep being free of nightmares told him that he had done the right thing leaving his family. Joe rolled onto his back again and stared up into the sky, emptying his mind of all thought. Suddenly he heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats. Sitting up abruptly he clutched at his side. He sat still watching the approaching rider carefully. Somehow he wasn’t surprised to see Lance coming towards him.

Lance reigned in his horse and sat staring down at Joe. He raised an eyebrow at Joe but simply said, “Joe.”

“Lance.” The two continued to stare at each other intently. Lance took in his friend’s pale strained face and his heart went out to him. Joe noticed that Lance was carrying a travel kit similar to his own.

“You going somewhere Lance?,” Joe finally broke the silence.

“Away.”

“Me too. I left late yesterday morning.”

“I left early before the family got up.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Nothing, just left a note telling them I was going away for a while. How about you?”

“I had a fight with my father and he told me to either follow the rules or get out. I told them I would get out.”

Lance merely nodded and climbing down from his horse crossed to stand next to where Joe was sitting. “Somehow I kind of thought that it would look different here, now.”

“Me too.” Joe nodded his agreement. Lance sat down next to him and the two sat silently staring across the meadow. After hours Lance got up and stretched.

“If we’re staying here tonight we better get some firewood together.”

“You’re right.” Joe went to climb to his feet but the hours sitting still had caused him to stiffen up and he groaned clutching his ribs.

“Joe are you all right?” Lance rushed to Joe’s side and put his arms around his shoulders. Joe went still, feeling his friends’ hands holding him. He didn’t knock his hands away but merely allowed him to help him up.

“Yeah, I guess so. I got into a bit of a fight Saturday night and I got tossed bad yesterday.”

“Show me your ribs.” Lance was worried, Joe had paled considerably as he was getting to his feet. Joe shrugged and untucking his shirt allowed Lance to take a look.

Lance bit his lip, Joe’s ribs were covered with large bruises, and they looked so sore Lance didn’t even try to touch them. “Have you coughed any blood Joe?”

“No Lance, not a bit, everything just hurts that’s all. Let’s get that fire started.” For the next hour the two worked in silence, gathering wood. Lance took some beans from his back and a small pot and put the beans on to cook. As night fell the two sat side by side staring at the fire, waiting for the food.

Finally Lance could not bear his friend’s silence anymore. “Where are we going to go Joe?”

“We?,” Joe looked over at Lance with his eyebrows raised. “You’re not going anywhere, you are going home, I’m leaving on my own.”

“No you ain’t Joe. I can’t live there anymore. Not with this hanging over my head.” Lance hung his head briefly then suddenly it all burst out of him. “Joe, you know this was all my fault, I never should have tried that stunt after you showed it to us. I should have just nodded and let it go. But I wanted to do it so much. I just couldn’t help myself. If I
hadn’t Billy never would have tried it. And he’d still be alive.” Lance buried his face in his knees and the tears he had held in for so many days burst forth.

Joe squatted next to Lance and said forcefully, “No Lance, it wasn’t your fault. It never is. It was all me, I’m the one that’s always showing off, taking chances. I should have known that what I was doing was too dangerous. You both could have been killed. I shouldn’t have done it and I should have known it was too hard for both of you. When he hesitated before doing it I should have stopped him then. He always wanted to do what we did. I shouldn’t have made him feel like he should try.”

“What makes it worse is..” Lance choked.

“What makes it worse is everyone thinking what good friends we were. I killed him because he trusted me and everyone is all worried about how I feel. Poor Billy, he just wanted to be included. And we nearly forgot him that day. Lord I wish we had.” Joe bent his head in grief but his eyes remained dry.

*****

Late that night Lance woke up next to the fire. It was dying down and he got up to quietly add a few extra twigs. While he stirred the fire he glanced over at where Joe was sleeping. Joe was lying on his back, his hat next to him. Lance smiled, he could see that Joe had followed his usual pattern of sleeping with his hat over his face, but this time it must have fallen off. He frowned as he looked intently at Joe’s sleeping face. Joe’s face looked thin and small, his cheekbones standing out in the moonlight. Lance realized that while he had cooked and eaten dinner Joe had merely picked at the food Lance had given him. Lance opened Joe’s saddle bags and quickly pawed through them. He could see clothes but no cooking gear. There was no food anywhere.

Lance squatted by the fire, Joe had told him he had left home yesterday. That meant he had been out here for over twenty four hours with no food. Unless he had gone hunting he hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning. Lance thought how he had found Joe lying face up in the meadow that morning, simply lying there. He thought about how bruised Joe’s body was, the fight he had gotten into could easily have killed him. What was Joe trying to do? Kill himself? Lance’s eyes widened. Maybe that was what Joe was trying to do, punish himself for what had happened to Billy.

Joe gave a small moan in his sleep. It was a small eerie sound, as if given by a ghost. Joe’s head rolled back and forth and he became agitated in his sleep. “No, no, please don’t, no. Pa, I’m sorry, so sorry.”

Lance moved over and shook Joe by the shoulder, “Joe wake up, come on you got to wake up.”

Joe blinked his eyes several times in confusion. He sat up abruptly and gasped, clutching his side. “Lance, what’s the matter?”

“You were having another nightmare Joe.” Lance rocked back on his heels and stared intently at his friend. “Joe we have to talk.”

Joe drew his feet up under him and nodded, “Ok Lance, what do you want to talk about.”

“Joe, you have to stop this. And you have to stop it now. I can’t let you do it.”

“Do what?” Joe was truly puzzled.

“You have to stop trying to kill yourself. I can see what you are doing. You made it so your whole family hates you, or so you think, you came here with no food, you’ve been fighting, drinking. You’ve done everything you can to make nobody care about you so you could go off on your own and die.” Lance could feel tears rising up in his eyes.

Joe shrank back. He didn’t want to hear this. “Lance, when tomorrow gets here you and I have to go our separate ways.

“No, I’m not going to do that. I lost one friend, I’m not going to lose my best friend too.”

“Lance, you don’t want to be my friend. I’m careless, I hurt people. I get them killed. You always said you just hung with me to keep me from getting killed. Well, I think you best get as far away from me as possible to save yourself.”

“No.” Lance gave a simple statement and folded his arms. “I’m not going to let you do it to me too Joe. You aren’t going to drive me away the way you did your familly and Jenny. I’m staying with you until you are ready to go home with me.”

“Damn you Lance, I don’t want you here.” Joe could feel the cold dark rage building inside him, as it had with Charlie and his father. He thought for a moment, taking what he knew about Lance and selecting what would do the most damage. “Lance, look I don’t know why you think we’re friends. I’ve only been letting you hang around me all these years,
because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. You’re way too quiet, it’s not like you have a personality or anything.”

Lance merely smiled benignly on Joe, “That wasn’t your best shot was it Joe? I can’t imagine why your family would get so upset at your potshots?”

Joe seethed, “Leave me alone Lance, why can’t you just leave me alone?” Joe turned away. Lance moved up behind Joe and draped his long arm across Joe’s shoulder. Joe spun around and violently shoved Lance away.

“Joe, I ain’t leaving you now. Just make up your mind to it.” Lance moved towards the smaller man. Joe suddenly hunched his shoulders and charged at Lance, knocking him backwards and landing on top of him. Lance shoved him off and held him down on the ground. Joe struggled briefly then lay back, exhausted, the pain in his sides and his weakness from not eating keeping him from struggling.

“Joe, like I said, you are my best friend whether you like it or not. And you were Billy’s best friend too. And Hoss’s. And Jenny’s. And Hop Sing’s. And we all care what happens to you. Now they aren’t here but I am. I am not going to leave you alone, Joe like I said I will be staying with you until you are ready to come back.”

Joe stared up at Lance, his eyes filled with overwhelming sadness and despair. Lance pulled Joe up into a sitting position. “Lance please, can’t you leave me be?”

“No Joe, I can’t. Now I want you to eat something. I just realized a little while ago that you didn’t eat any dinner. So you are going to eat some now.” Lance stood and moved over to get the extra beans from their dinner. Joe stared around, trying to find his way out. Lance then brought a plate of cold beans back to Joe and handed it to him, “Eat.”

“I ain’t hungry.” Joe folded his arms across his chest.

“I said eat.” Lance frowned, “Before I make you.”

Joe rolled his eyes and picked up the plate. He was not about to be force fed by Lance. He scooped up a fork full of beans and sat staring at it. He hadn’t eaten anything in so long he wasn’t sure he could.”

“Joe,” Lance’s tone warned. “Eat.”

Joe sighed and took a mouthful of beans. His stomach churned but he finally swallowed the beans and looked at Lance. “Satisfied?”

“Nope.” Lance watched while Joe slowly chewed a second mouthful. “You are the only person in the world who can make eating look like a painful hardship Joe. I wish Hoss were here.”

Joe grimaced. “I’m glad he’s not Lance. I don’t think I can ever face my family again.” He sighed.

Lance walked over to his saddle bags, flipped them open and removed something. Coming back to Joe’s side he put it down in front of him. It was the sack Billy’s uncle had given him. “I’ve been carrying this thing around with me for days Joe, and I haven’t opened it yet. I’d like to open it now with you here.”

Joe shivered, it felt as if a ghost had walked over his grave. He slowly rose to his feet and fetched his sack from his own saddle bags. He put it on the ground and sat next to Lance. In the flickering light of the fire Joe suddenly appeared ancient to Lance. He looked at Lance, “You first.”

Lance opened the bag and put his hand in, the first thing he drew out was a pocket knife. He smiled suddenly, “You gave this to Billy on his eleventh birthday Joe. I remember, you surprised him with it. It made his day. He showed it off all the next day at school.”

Joe nodded, his throat suddenly felt tight. “I remember.”

Lance put the knife aside and reached back into the bag, drawing out a rock about the size of his palm. He held it up to the light and a small vein of gold could be seen running through it. “We got this that time we went camping out on Sun Mountain. We stayed up all night telling ghost stories until we were all so scared we couldn’t sleep.”

“Yeah, we found the rock the next day, in that old abandoned mine. Billy was so excited, he wanted us all to quit school to become miners. We would have too if Pa hadn’t explained that it was a mine already owned by someone else.” Joe smiled slightly, remembering his father’s stern lectures on no trespassing.

Lance put his hand into his bag and pulled out the last item. It was a small packet of pieces of paper tied with a pale pink ribbon. He Carefully untied the ribbon and looked at the various pieces of paper, holding them up to the firelight.

“What are they?” Joe leaned forward, curious.

“It looks like ticket stubs, notes we passed in school and here’s an invitation to that party your father had last Christmas. They all have tiny notes on them as to who went with him to these things.” Lance nodded. “This must be Sally’s ribbon, remember she said she lost it that day on the picnic.” Lance sighed. “So what’s in your bag Joe?”

Joe picked up his own bag carefully. He was surprised that he didn’t feel the trepidation and fear he had felt every time he looked at it this week. He unfolded the top and reached his hand in. The first thing he drew out appeared to be an old tin can. He held up to the firelight and saw a hole going straight through the can. “What’s the heck is this?”

Lance looked thoughtful for a moment and snapped his fingers. “Don’t you remember? About four months ago you took Billy out fishing. While you were out you offered to teach Billy to shoot. You spent the whole day with him. And at the end of the day Billy was able to hit his first target— that can.”

“How do you know?”

“I met him the next day in town. He told me all about it. He was so excited about hitting that target, it meant the world to him. He told me what a good teacher you were, you were patient and never made fun of him. And you wouldn’t let him give up, even when he wanted to, you made him keep on trying.”

Joe remembered that day vaguely, he hadn’t realized what it meant to Billy, to him it was just something fun to do. Joe stuck his hand back in the bag then pulled it away when he encountered a small soft item. He peeked into the bag then pulled out a rabbits foot. Billy’s lucky rabbit’s foot had always been a big joke to the three. Lance had given it to Billy once before a big test at school that Billy had feared he would fail. And it had brought Billy luck on the test, he got an A. The joke had always been Lance should have given it to Joe who failed the test miserably and had been forbidden to attend the harvest dance the following Saturday. Of course Joe had snuck out, attended the dance, been caught and grounded by his father.

Joe smiled wistfully at the rabbit’s foot, in the end it had not been enough to save Billy. At the bottom of the bag was a carefully folded piece of paper. Joe unfolded it and smoothed it with his hand. He studied it and recognized that it was a drawing of himself, Billy and Lance, at the Founders Day Picnic last year. All three had huge smiles on their faces. Joe and Billy were arm in arm and Lance was standing slightly behind them, his head thrown back laughing. The artist who had drawn it so quickly had offered it to the three of them and they had refused. Joe thought for a moment, he remembered Billy had broken away from them a few minutes later and rushed back intot the crowd. He must have bought it then. Joe studied it carefully and suddenly the wall he had built in his soul broke and a flood of tears came to his eyes. He bent his head and wracking sobs shook his entire body. Lance quickly edged to Joe’s side and put his arms around his friend. Joe briefly stiffened then relaxed and sobbed in his friend’s arms. Lance had tears in his eyes as well and together the two truly began to mourn their lost friend.

*****

Joe and Lance talked the rest of the night about their friend. As dawn broke Joe agreed with Lance’s suggestion that they return to town and tell Billy’s uncle the truth about what happened. They had both come to realize that it had truly been an accident, that three of them had in fact been like the three musketeers in that whatever one did the others would surely follow. Joe and Lance rode into Virginia City just as the town was beginning to wake up. They stopped by the small cafe near the livery and had breakfast. Joe was ravenous and Lance enjoyed watching his friend eat. When Joe pushed away from the table and patted his belly Lance laughed, “For a minute you looked just like Hoss.”

Joe laughed back, “I don’t think one breakfast could ever do that.” He began to speak when he saw Jenny and Melody entering the restaurant. Both girls spotted the boys and hesitated. Joe hastily got to his feet and Lance tripped over the legs of his chair following his example. Jenny put her nose in the air and swept past Joe.

Joe ducked his head and sighed. He sat back down and Lance stood looking after Jenny. “Joe, aren’t you going to go after her?”

“No Lance, I made a big mistake with Jenny, I’m not sure she’ll even listen to me. You saw what she did. Besides after the way I carried on with Adelina I don’t think she should forgive me.” Joe shrugged and tried to smile.

“Joe, do you mind if I just go speak to Melody real quick. I kind of left her in the lurch at the party myself. I’ll be right back.”

Lance went over and stood next to Jenny and Melody’s table. “Melody may I speak to you for a moment.”

Melody tilted her head back and gave him a considering look, “Depends on what you got to say Lance.”

“I just wanted to say how sorry I am for Saturday night. I was real worried about Joe and I wasn’t really thinking about how you felt.”

“Why were you worried?” Melody cast a glance over to Joe’s table where he sat alone, his head bent over a cup of coffee.

“Well Billy’s death hit Joe really hard. I know it knocked me for a loop, and well Billy was much closer to Joe. Plus Joe was the one who, well he was the one who tried to save Billy. Anyway, I’m sorry about Saturday night. I know Joe is too.” Lance ducked his head and peaked at the two of them. Melody had tears in her eyes and Jenny was casting longing glances over at Joe.

Lance went back to their table and sat back down. “What happened?” Joe asked.

“I think that if you gave a big sigh and shook your head kind of soberly she’d be in your arms in about two seconds.” Lance spoke with a straight face but his eyes were twinkling.

Joe gave a deep sigh and shook his head, “I’m sorry we have to do it this way Lance.” Joe slowly rose to his feet and put his hand on Lance’s shoulder briefly. His green eyes were merry and he fought hard to repress a smile.

“Oh Joe, I’m so sorry.” Jenny threw herself into Joe’s arms.

“No Jenny I’m the one who’s sorry, I should have known you and Hoss weren’t doing anything. I was just, well I was just acting crazy.” Joe took Jenny in his arms and kissed her passionately. “Can I make it up to you?” He searched her face.

“You better come to dinner this weekend and you might want to bring me some flowers.” Jenny smiled up at Joe and kissed him again.

“Flowers and candy,” Joe promised. “Now finish your breakfast.” He turned to Lance and the two of them left the restaurant together.

“What did you say to them Lance?” Joe wondered.

“Let’s just say you aren’t the only one who knows how to do any sweet talking.” Lance adjusted his gunbelt and swaggered slightly.

As the two approached the livery Joe’s footsteps began to falter. Lance stopped and faced him. “Joe, can you do this?”

“Yes, I think so Lance. It’s just going to be so hard.” Joe squared his shoulders and opened the door to the livery.

“Mr. Frankman,” Joe shouted.

“Just a minute.” Frankman walked out from the back, wiping his hands on a rag. “Joe, Lance, boys what are you doing here?”

“Mr. Frankman, there’s something I have to tell you.” Joe took a deep breath and he carefully explained everything that had happened the day of the accident. He ended with, “And we wanted you to know Mr. Frankman how sorry I am I didn’t tell you all of this last week.”

Frankman looked Joe up and down and surprised him by smiling broadly. “Joe, you boys did the right thing to tell me. I’m sorry the accident happened, but you boys did nothing wrong. Billy was hellbent to do anything you fellas did. You were his best friends. You did him so many small kindnesses Joe, including him in all your games, parties and camping trips. It meant so much to him, being orphaned like he was. The way you took him under your wing the first day he went to school. I’ll never forget it, that first day all he talked about was Little Joe this, Lance that. I thought his name was Little Joe, Lance and me.” Frankman clapped both boys on the back affectionately. “Billy didn’t have a whole lot in this life, I couldn’t really give him much. But he was lucky to have two friends like you.”

Joe and Lance thanked Mr. Frankman and promised to stop and see him soon. Back at the horses Joe hesitated before mounting up. “That went well.” He felt relief at having passed the first hurdle.

“Yes it did.”

“But now I’ve got to face my family.” Joe felt real fear, he had been so wrong about so many things.

“Me too.”

“Yeah but Lance you didn’t say the terrible things I did to my family. What am I going to say to them?”

“Joe we talked about this. You’re just going to have to tell them the truth.” Lance frowned, he was worried about Joe. Joe still looked frail to him, he knew he was still feeling a lot of pain in his ribs. “Joe do you want to stop at the doctor’s office before we go out to the ranch?”

Joe hesitated, he wanted nothing more to avoid his family, but as much as he would love to see Doc Martin and get his ribs taped and some medicine for all the aches he was feeling, he knew he had to face his fate.

“No Lance, let’s get you home first then I’ll ride out to the ranch.”

“Don’t you want me to come with you?” Lance had been expecting to go out to the ranch with Joe.

“No, I want to see your family first, but I need to see my father on my own.” Joe mounted up and they rode out of town.

*****

As Joe and Lance approached Lance’s house they could see a lot of horses tied up outside the house. Joe began to slow as he recognized Buck, Chubb and Sport along with Roy Coffee’s horse. “What do you think’s going on here Lance?”

Lance and Joe walked their horses the rest of the way into the yard. As they dismounted, the door of the house swung open and a rush of people entered the yard, Lance’s parents, brothers and sisters poured out of the house followed by the Cartwrights and Roy Coffee. Everyone froze as they saw Joe and Lance standing shoulder to shoulder.

Lance glanced at Joe and realized that Joe was terrified, frozen in place. Lance opened his mouth to speak when his father bellowed, “Lance, where the devil have you been? We’ve been looking for you for the past three days.”

“But Pa,” Lance barely started when he was interrupted by his mother.

“Lance Jurgens, do not speak back to your father, I have been worried sick. And Joseph, I would like an explanation from you, too.”

Joe and Lance were both dumbstruck. Neither had expected quite so large an audience for their tale. It was going to be even worse than they had imagined. Joe stammered slightly when he started to speak, then paused, took a deep breath, and stood up straight and squared off his shoulders. Lance saw him from the corner of his eye and straightened up also. Joe began, “First of all we would both like to apologize for everything we’ve done. We are very sorry and we would like a chance to explain what’s been going on.” Joe paused to see the reaction of his audience. His father and brothers were watching him, their faces inscrutable. He didn’t know what to think. Usually he could read his father’s expressions well. He glanced quickly at Hoss, hoping to see a sign, but even Hoss’s face reflected his father’s. He didn’t bother to look at Adam, he knew what he would see there.

Joe was so unsure how to proceed. He glanced over at Lance, his eyes pleading for assistance. Lance put his arm around Joe, “We’re both a little tired, perhaps we could go inside and sit down.” Lance glanced pointedly at his younger siblings. Mrs. Jurgens took the hint and dismissed her children, banishing them to the barn. She led the adults back into the house and they all seated themselves in the livingroom, all eyes following Lance and Joe. Joe and Lance went to sit on the couch together. Joe lowered himself carefully, his arm protecting his ribs and back, which still ached constantly.

Ben, Hoss, and Adam all noted this movement and exchanged worried looks. Joe seemed so frail to them, Ben could see that he had lost weight and while tanned, his face had an unhealthy pallor. Ben’s instinct was to go and grab his son in a bear hug, but he was unsure what to do. He was so relieved to see Joe back, he didn’t want to do anything to upset him and make him change his mind. He had played that confrontation over again and again in his mind, regretting his harsh words, wishing he could take them back. The last thing he wanted was for his youngest son to leave.

Hoss was having a hard time controlling his emotions. He was so overcome with Joe’s return that he was not far from tears. He was trying to keep himself in check so that he wouldn’t make things any worse for Joe. He was terribly worried about his physical appearance, Joe looked like he did that time he had pneumonia and almost died. Hoss was terrified that the reason Joe had left in the first place was because of some disease or sickness that he hadn’t wanted them to know about. Adam, the most reserved and in control, was hardly doing better than Hoss and Ben. He too, was appalled at Joe’s physical appearance and also the psychological burden he seemed to be carrying. What could be so bad as to make his brother look and feel like that? All three of them seemed to be holding their breath and afraid to move, afraid somehow they would startle Joe.

Joe and Lance exchanged a quick look once everyone was settled and Joe began. He carefully explained everything that had happened the day of the accident. He hesitated when it came to explaining his behavior but finally just said, “I know I caused everyone a lot of heartache and I’m sorry about that. I blamed myself for Billy’s accident and I felt that somehow I didn’t deserve to be a part of your lives anymore. So I set out to give you a reason to feel that way so that I wouldn’t be hurting you anymore ever again. I know now that my actions hurt you far more than anything else I have ever done. I plan to apologize to Hop Sing and Charlie as soon as possible.” Joe took a deep breath, wincing slightly, “I’ll understand if you all can’t forgive me for the things I’ve said and done. I realize that I may have caused irreparable damage to my family and friends. I will accept that and will accept the consequences. I’ll leave if you want.”

A few moments passed in absolute silence. Everyone was appalled at what Joe and Lance had been through. Joe misinterpreted their silence as anger at the accident he had caused. Joe was bereft, his father and brothers had not said a word during his whole recital.

Lance jumped in when he could bear the silence no longer, “If Joe is going then I’m going too.”

If Joe had not been looking at his boots, he would have seen the panic that this statement caused his father and brothers. They looked at each other with consternation clearly written all over their faces. Even a casual observer would have been able to tell that they did not want Joe to leave. After a brief silence, caused by shock, everyone began to speak at the same time, Mrs. Jurgens protesting loudly that Lance wasn’t going anywhere, Mr. Jurgens bellowing, Hoss, Ben and Adam talking all at the same time.

Roy Coffee, who had been patiently watching from the sidelines felt his heart go out to Joe who was sitting quite still amongst all the chaos, looking as if he didn’t have a friend in the world. He put his fingers into his mouth and whistled loudly. Everyone froze.

“I think that Lance and his parents and Joe and his family need to have a private chat. Folks why don’t we step outside?” Roy hastily ushered the Jurgens, all protesting, right out their own front door.

Joe stood and faced his family. “I’m really sorry Pa. I know I am a disappointment to you. I should have told you the truth right at the beginning. What happened to Billy was just so awful that I didn’t know how to tell you. But every minute that I didn’t tell you, and you were trying to make me feel better, just made me feel worse. I just couldn’t find a way to tell you what was going on.

Hoss, I’ve already apologized to Jenny, I wanted to tell you how sorry I am for what I did to you both. I didn’t want you to feel bad about my leaving and I thought that accusing you of stealing Jenny would show you how awful I was.” Joe finally fell silent, emotionally spent, dejected, and staring at his boots again.

His father slowly got to his feet and crossed to stand in front of Joe.

“Joseph, I’m proud of you.”

“Proud?” Joe was incredulous. “Pa, haven’t you been listening? I did all sorts of terrible things.”

“Yes Joseph you did, but you had the courage to come back and tell the truth and you were willing to take the consequences. Joe, no matter the circumstances of the accident that killed Billy, that is all it was—an accident. Accidents happen, even when you are being careful, sometimes. We knew you wouldn’t have put Billy in danger. We wouldn’t have thought any less of you if you had told about the accident. Welcome home, Son. We missed you and would never have stopped looking until we found you.” Ben held his arms out and embraced his son, feeling nothing but relief that his son had come back to him. He was surprised when Joe gave a low grunt of pain.

“Joseph,” Ben held Joe away from him by the shoulders. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing Pa, just a bit sore is all.” Joe was clutching his ribs, his skin slightly paler than it had been.

“Joseph, Sheriff Coffee told us about the fight you got into and Charlie told us about the falls you took. You must be hurting. Let’s have a look at you.”

“I’m okay, Pa, just a little sore is all. It is getting better now. There is nothing to see.” Joe told his father, not wanting his father to see his bruises.

“Joseph, let me see your ribs. Now.” Ben said in his no-nonsense tone of voice that Joe and his brothers knew all-too-well.

Reluctantly Joe unbuttoned his shirt. Hoss and Adam had joined their father and all three were horrified at the sight of the large dark bruises on Joe’s ribs and back. “Are these bruises from the fight that Roy told us about? Or have you been in another fight since then?” Adam asked with his eyebrows raised. That was the worst bruising he had ever seen for there to be no signs of the fight on Joe’s face. He guessed that the man who had done that had some experience in boxing.

“I got in a fight Saturday night. And I got thrown a couple of times Sunday. It’s really better.” Joe tried to shrug it off.

“If that is better, I can’t imagine what it was like when it wasn’t “better”, Ben said frowning. “Young man, we are taking you home right now, and sending for Doctor Marten to look you over just to be safe, and then we are putting you to bed for a few day’s rest. And I expect Hop Sing will concentrate on putting some good food in you.”

When Ben mentioned Hop Sing, Joe’s face clouded up again. “Pa, I was so cruel to Hop Sing, he may never forgive me.” Hoss spoke up, “Joe, Hop Sing would forgive you for just about anything. He is worried sick about you and told me this morning not to come home without you.” Ben added, “He gave me the dickens about your leaving—said it was my fault for being a bad father. You have to come home for no other reason than to get Hop Sing to forgive me” Ben said smiling at his son.

“But Pa, I have a lot to do, I have to find Charlie and apologize to him and see if I can get him back. Then I have to get those horses ready for the branding.”

“Joseph, you don’t think Charlie actually left, do you? He knew you didn’t mean what you said. All the other things you need to do can wait a few more days. You are going to rest, eat, and get your strength back, and that is final. Let’s say it’s one of the house rules.”

Ben smiled and watched as Joe turned to face his brothers. “Hoss?” Joe merely looked at his brother. No words were needed. Hoss grinned his wide gapped-tooth grin, and said, “Welcome back little brother.”

Joe smiled in relief, “Thanks Hoss. It’s good to be back.”

Joe turned to Adam. He simply gazed at his older brother, worried that Adam would no longer respect him now that he knew the truth. “Joe it sounds like you’ve had a rough time, are you sure you’re ok?”

“I’ll be fine Adam.” Joe continued to gaze quietly at his oldest brother.

Adam realized his brother was waiting for some words of reassurance, “It’s about time you came home, Joe, the Ponderosa is not the same without you.” He said with a grin. “What made you come back Joe, what made you stop running?”

Joe thought a moment, “It was Billy’s gifts to us Adam. It made me realize how important a part of my life he was. And that he would never have wanted us to blame ourselves for what happened. He showed me the importance of small kindnesses.”

Ben, gently this time, put his arms around his youngest son, and looking at Adam and Hoss said, “Let’s get your brother back where he belongs.” Adam and Hoss smiled and said, “What are we waiting for”. The four Cartwrights went out the door, the youngest son, surrounded by his father’s and brothers’ love.

***The End***

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