Gun for Hire (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,919


“I want you to go straight to the bank and pick up the payroll, and then come straight home, understand?” Ben said in a deep voice that bordered on angry.

“Pa, I’m not ten years old anymore, I’m twenty…and yes sir, I understand,” Joe said as he turned and swung gracefully up into the saddle.  “Don’t worry, I’ll guard your money with my life,” he added with a smirk that softened when his lips curled slightly into a smile.

Ben’s annoyed look softened as well, but his voice remained firm as he pointed his finger at his youngest son.

“Joseph, don’t take that tone with me, young man…and as for guarding the money with your life…don’t even think it.  I’d rather have you and your snappy tongue arguing with me all the time as to have all the money in the world.”

Ben smiled at last and placed his hand on Joe’s knee.

“You watch yourself, Joseph and come home safely…that’s all I care about.”

Joe gave his father a cheeky grin as he tipped his hand to his hat.

“I will Pa, don’t worry, I’ll be back before supper, I promise,” he smiled.

Joe nudged Cochise with his knees, forcing Ben to take a step backwards.  His father tossed his hand in the air and watched as Joe rode from the yard.  For a long moment, Ben stood, staring at nothing, until Adam’s voice beckoned him from his pondering back to the business at hand.

“Anything wrong, Pa?” Adam said, pausing on his way to the barn to speak with his father.

Ben looked up, his face was serious but he shook his head.

“No…I reckon not,” he said to Adam.

“Well something sure has you looking down, could it be your youngest offspring?” he teased lightly, hoping to make his father smile and forget whatever dark thought that seemed caught in Ben’s mind.

“I don’t know, Adam…not really, I just have this…sick feeling in my gut,” Ben explained.

“You’re not feeling well?” Adam asked with a show of surprise.

He had seen his father picking at his breakfast and had wondered then if perhaps Ben might be getting sick, for his father always ate a hearty breakfast.  It was, in Ben’s words, ‘the most important meal of the day’.

Ben turned and looked at Adam and shook his head.

“No, nothing like that, son…it’s just like…well, I’m not at all sure what it’s like,” Ben stammered.

“Maybe a forewarning?  Like what…want to talk about it?” Adam suggested.

Ben took a deep breath and blew it out quickly.  “I just have a gut feeling that today isn’t going to go well, that’s all.”

Ben made a clicking sound with his tongue and walked away, leaving Adam following his father’s retreat with his eyes until Ben opened the door to the house and disappeared inside.

“What was that all about?” Hoss said, coming from the barn and having heard just the last few words of the conversation between his father and older brother.

“Nothing I suppose.  Pa’s just got a feeling that today is not going to be his day,” Adam explained with a grin.  “Whatever that’s supposed to mean.  Come on, we’ve got fences to mend.”

*****

Joe rode into town, going straight to the bank.  As he dismounted and laced the reins across the hitching post, a voice called out to him from across the street.  Turning, Joe saw his two friends, Mitch Devlin and Seth Pruett standing outside the swinging doors of the Silver Dollar Saloon.

“Come on Joe,” Seth called, waving one hand in the air and motioning for Joe to come over.

“Let’s have a beer,” Mitch shouted.

Joe paused on the boardwalk, contemplating the invitation.  He was hot and thirsty from the long, dusty ride into town and the thoughts of a tall frothy mug of beer appealed to him.  His promise to his father that he’d go straight to the bank and then straight home suddenly bore down on his conscience and stopped him in his tracks.

“Can’t,” he called to his two life-long friends.  “I have some business inside here,” he said, tossing a thumb in the air, pointing to the bank.  “Maybe next time,” Joe called out, disappointed that he’d have to miss a chance to share a beer with his two best friends.

“Aw…come on Little Joe, just one…then you can take care of business,” Seth called.

It was harder than Joe thought it might be, but he stood firm on his promise to his father and shook his head again at Seth and Mitch.

“Sorry fellas, I can’t.”

Joe didn’t give the pair time to make an argument; he turned quickly and entered the bank.  His mind was still on the beer he’d miss and was totally taken by surprise when he suddenly felt a sharp pang to the back of his head and across the tops of his shoulders.  Gasping in pain, as his world spun black and his eyes rolled back in his head, Joe crumbled to the floor in a heap at the stranger’s feet.

“Alright now, don’t anyone move,” shouted the man who had knocked Joe out.

He used his pistol and pointed toward the teller’s window.  “You there,” he called, “fill up those saddlebags and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll make it fast,” the tall stranger ordered.

His cohort tossed the teller the saddlebags in question, and jabbed his gun into the man’s side.

“You heard the boss, hurry up,” he growled.

The teller picked up the saddlebag and quickly turned to the bank vault and began stuffing money into them.  When he finished with one, he fastened the buckle.

The man at the door moved deeper into the room, forgetting the intruder whom he had bonked on the head.  He glanced nervously around the room at the frightened customers and then waved his gun at the teller.

“Ain’t you finished yet?  Make it fast before I blow you in half,” he snarled.

At the door, Joe slowly came back to his senses.  He eased up his head, seeing the bank robber with his back to him and paying him no mind at all.  Joe quietly rose to his feet.  A young woman opposite him, who stood at the counter watching, trembled with fear.

The robber behind the counter turned just then and seeing Joe getting to his feet, called out to his crony.

“Dutch, behind you!”

Dutch, his pistol still firmly held in his hand, spun around and pointed his weapon at Joe.  Joe, seeing what was happening, drew his gun in a flash and dropped to the floor.  Dutch’s pistol blasted off two shots, both missing Joe but Joe’s aim was more accurate and with two shots of his own, both Dutch and his accomplice lay sprawled in the floor, both men dead.  Joe, his head spinning from the blow to the back of his head and then all the exertion he used in his befuddled state, collapsed along side the dead man.

The shots had barely been fired when the front door burst opened and Roy Coffee, the local sheriff, and several other men came crashing into the bank’s lobby, all with guns drawn and ready to do battle if need be.

“What in blazes is goin’ on here?” Roy shouted after a quick survey of the lobby.

Mitch and Seth were among the group and the minute they spied Little Joe lying on the floor, they both rushed to their friend’s side.

“Little Joe,” Mitch said in a fearful voice as he gently turned Joe over, afraid that he’d find his friend in the same condition as the two men who had foolishly tried to rob the bank.

“Joe?” Mitch muttered again.

Seth quickly made an examination of his unconscious friend and then looked up at Mitch.

“He’s not been shot…”

“No,” said the young woman, coming forward and squatting down beside Mitch and Seth.  “He was hit on the back of the head, he came to, just in time to stop those…awful men from stealing everyone’s money,” she explained.

“Some of you men get these bodies outta here and down to the undertakers,” Roy ordered.

He hurried to Joe’ side and made his own examination.  He looked at the bump that was slowly growing at the base of Joe’s head and deemed that to be the boy’s only injury.

“Seth, you and Mitch take Joe over to Doc Martin’s office and have Doc take a look at this goose egg on the back of his head,” Roy issued.

“Yes sir, Sheriff,” Mitch said as he and Seth gathered Joe up and carried him from the bank.

“Anyone else hurt?” Roy inquired.

Everyone in the lobby shook their head no.  The young woman stepped forward to speak to the sheriff.

“Sheriff, my name is Lila Gibbons, I’m new here in Virginia City,” she said softly.  “That young man, I think his friends called him, Little Joe?”

“Yes ma’am, that’s right, Joe Cartwright’s the boy’s name. What about him?” Roy asked.

“Why…he saved our lives…and our money,” she explained.  “I’ve never seen anyone perform such a feat…why the young man is the fastest draw I’ve ever seen,” Lila said.

“Yes ma’am, he’s fast…probably too fast for his own good.  But today, I’m glad he was.”

Roy turned his attention back to the others.  “Charlie,” he said to the teller.  “If it’s all the same to you, I think ya should close up now while I send these folks home.  They can come back tomorrow to finish their business after you count everything and we get this place back in order.”

*****

“I think one of you should ride out and tell Ben what’s happened.  Ask him to drive the buggy into town, I don’t want Little Joe back on a horse right now, not with this lump on his head,” Doc Martin told Seth and Mitch.

“I’ll go,” Mitch offered.  “Doc, Mr. Cartwright will ask, what should I tell him?”

“Just explain what happened and be sure to tell him, Joe’s going to be fine, I just don’t want him riding home on horseback, Joe can tell him all the details when he’s feeling better.  Right now he’s resting and I want him quiet until his father arrives, now please, get going, son,” the doctor said.

“I’ll ride along with you, Mitch,” Seth said, “seeing how Joe’s still out and all.  See ya, Doc,” Seth called as he followed Mitch from the doctor’s office.

*****

Ben was standing in the yard talking to Adam and Hoss, who had just returned from mending a downed fence, when Seth and Mitch rode into the yard.  Ben turned toward the two young men, smiling in a welcoming way.

“Seth, Mitch, how you boys doing?” he said as the pair slid down from their horses.

“Fine, sir,” Mitch said to Ben.  “Howdy Adam, Hoss.”

The two younger men exchanged pleasantries with the Cartwrights and then Mitch started to explain why they had dropped by.

“Mr. Cartwright, Doc Martin asked us to ride out here and get you,” Mitch said.

“Get me?  What on earth for?” Ben asked, looking puzzled.

“There was some trouble at the bank this morning,” Seth hurried to explain.  “And Joe…was there…”

“Joe?” Ben muttered, the sick feeling that had been in the pit of his stomach earlier, returned in a rush.

“There was a hold up, sir,” Mitch said, gulping.

He knew how Ben Cartwright was always worrying about his youngest son, and it was hard for him to stand in front of the elder Cartwright and tell him that his boy had been hurt trying to foil a bank robbery.

“Is Joe hurt?  Is that why Paul sent you out here?” Ben asked in a rush of words.

“He ain’t shot or nothing bad; he just got bonked on the head, Mr. Cartwright,” Seth explained.  “Doc wants you to bring the buggy to fetch him home, that’s all…he’s gonna be fine…once that goose egg on the back of his head is gone.”

Ben let the wind blow from his lungs in a rush.  “Are you sure?”

“Positive,” one of the boys said.

“I’ll hitch up the team for ya, Pa,” offered Hoss.

“I’ll put a couple of blankets in the buggy and then saddle our horses,” Adam stated as he followed after his middle brother.  “We’re riding in with you.”

*****

“It’s just a bump on the head, Pa…honest…I’ll be fine.”

Joe had awakened from his unconscious state soon after his friends had ridden out to the Ponderosa to fetch back his father.  Joe, in the meantime, had been resting quietly, his head pounding as if someone were beating on a drum.  Opening his eyes, Joe saw that Ben was seated in a chair, close to the bed.  His father smiled at him as he looked up to see his father’s worried face looming just above his own.

“Silly boy, attempting to foil a bank robbery all by yourself,” Ben teased lightly.

“Pa…” Joe muttered weakly.  “I…killed…”

“Shh…Joseph, don’t think about that right now, you just rest,” Ben soothed, when he saw the saddened expression come into Joe’s eyes.  “We’ll talk about it later,” he whispered, brushing back a fallen strand of hair from Joe’s brow.

Joe closed his eyes, but Ben could still see the furrows in Joe’s brow made by the frown he was wearing and wondered if they were caused by the pain his son was experiencing or by the stress of the day, including the two men that he knew Joe had killed earlier in the morning.

“Head…hurts,” Joe muttered. He opened his eyes briefly and looked at his father.

“They didn’t get…the money,” Joe whispered.  “They didn’t even get…out alive.”

Joe’s voice trailed into a slur as he closed his eyes a second time and moaned softly.

Ben glanced up at Hoss who was standing at the head of the bed on the opposite side.  Ben could see the concern in his middle son’s eyes that Hoss held for his brother.

“I’ll get the buggy ready Joe, and then we’ll take ya home,” Hoss said softly.

Without looking at Hoss, Joe nodded his head once.  “Home…that’ll be nice.”

“He’s pretty heavily drugged, Ben,” Paul explained when Ben asked about Joe’s drowsiness. “And considering he has a concussion, he’s apt to be that way for a day or so.  And, he’ll probably have headaches, Ben, so here are some powders if he does.  They’ll help some, but the best thing for him right now is rest.  Take him home and make him stay in the bed until I get out there in a day or so and check on him.  If you need me, send word and I’ll come as soon as I can.”

The door to the front office opened, and the three men in the back room with Joe heard the tinkling of the little bell on the door that signaled someone’s arrival.  Before the doctor could get to the door separating the office from the examining room, Adam burst through the door and entered.

Adam took one look at his ailing and saw Joe turn to look his way.  He could see the misery in the young face that Joe was unable to hide.

“Sorry, I thought Joe was awake.  The buggy’s ready whenever you and Joe are,” Adam said to his father.

“Good, I’ll rest better once I have this boy of mine, home and in his own bed.  Adam, give us a hand and we’ll get Joe loaded in the buggy.”

*****

For two days, Joe remained obedient to his father’s demands that he remain in bed.  By the third day, that came to an end.  Joe was feeling more pert and felt more than ready to be up and about.  He pushed back the blankets that Ben had arranged so neatly and swung slowly around to the side of the bed and placed his feet on the floor.

For a moment, Joe closed his eyes, allowing his head to stop spinning.

“Whew,” he whispered softly.

Moving more slowly, Joe stood up straight and took a moment to steady himself.  Just as he reached for his trousers, the bedroom door swung opened and Ben appeared in the doorway carrying a tray.  He had a stunned expression on his face at seeing his son out of bed.  Quickly he sat the tray on the table and rushed over to Joe.

“Just where do you think you are going?” he demanded, grabbing the trousers from Joe’s hand and tossing them on the chair, out of his son’s reach.

“I don’t know!” snapped Joe.

Suddenly feeling quite weak, Joe allowed Ben to gently force him back down on the bed. “I just don’t want to be up here…I’m tired of being in the bed, I’m tired of being alone and I’m just…plain tired!” Joe fussed.

Still he gave in to his father as Ben helped him to lie back and pull the blankets over his lower body.

“I’ll excuse your rudeness and blame it on the fact that you are ill, young man,” Ben scolded firmly.  “You know what the doctor said this morning, two more days at least…and if you did not stay put, he would give you something to make sure you did.  Now, young man, what’s it to be?” Ben said.

He sat down on the side of the bed next to Joe and studied the boy’s face.  Joe still looked pale and his face still bore signs of fatigue, which Doctor Martin had said would be likely.

Joe leaned his head against the pillows and sighed deeply.  He closed his eyes and yawned.

“Alright, you win.  I’m just too tired to fight it out with you,” Joe conceded.

Ben smiled to himself and patted Joe’s arm.  “That’s better.”

Joe’s eyes opened and he gave his father a small smile.  “My head hurts…all the time.  When’s it gonna stop, Pa?” he asked weakly.  “Right back here.”

Joe rubbed the back of his head to show his father where he was feeling the persistent throbbing.

“Joseph, the doctor said you might suffer from headaches for several more days, until the lump was completely gone.  That’s why he wanted you to stay in bed and rest.  He meant for you to stay quiet, he meant…”

“He’s punishing me, that’s what he meant to do,” Joe said with a soft giggle.  “But he’s right, the less I move around, the less my head hurts…so once more…I lose, he wins.”

Ben stood to his feet and reached for the tray he had carried into the room.

“Good boy, now here’s your lunch.  I want you to eat all of it, and then take a nap,” Ben issued as he set the tray across Joe’s lap and uncovered the dishes.  “Hmm…smells good.”

“Want some?” Joe offered.

“Joseph!”

“Sorry, Pa…could you hand me that spoon, it’s impossible to eat soup with a knife and fork,” Joe said.

Ben sat down to keep his son company while Joe ate, but Joe knew that his father stayed mainly to be certain that he would eat everything on his tray. After several bites, Joe pushed the bowl of steaming soup away and looked over at his father.

“I can’t eat anything else,” Joe complained.

Ben peeked into the bowl, seeing that it was hardly touched and frowned.

“You didn’t even eat half of what’s in the bowl, son.”

“I’m sorry, Pa…I can’t, I’m just not hungry,” Joe explained.  “Please…take it away.”

“Alright,” sighed Ben,  “but you close your eyes and try to rest.  Perhaps you’ll do better later.  I’ll take the tray down to the kitchen and help your brothers with the chores while you take a nap, like a good boy,” Ben said with a soft laugh and a twinkle in his eyes.

Ben took the tray and left Joe alone to take a nap.  Joe giggled softly at his father’s words and then, when Ben was gone, nuzzled his head down into the soft pillows, closing his eyes.  The soft laughter died as imagines of the faces of the two men he had been forced to kill stood out in true-to-life fashion before his eyes.  Joe felt his throat constrict, making swallowing near impossible as he brushed his hands over his closed eyelids in hopes of wiping the distorted images from his mind.  The horrified look that had been on the man’s face nearest to him, refused to leave him alone and lingered, even after Joe had fallen into a troubled sleep.

*****

By the end of the week, Joe was back on his feet and his health seemed much improved.  Not so with his disposition, thought his father.  For Joe was irritable and short-tempered with all of them.  He seemed restless and his constant pacing was wearing on the nerves of his family, though they tried their hardest to ignore it and too, tried to put reasons behind the youngest Cartwright’s agitated state of being.

“Look Shortshanks, why don’t we play a game of checkers, might take ya mind of whatever’s been eatin’ at ya?” Hoss offered.

Joe, who had been poking at the fire, turned to glare at his middle brother.

“Nothing is eating at me…and no, I don’t want to play checkers, I’ve already told you that!” he snapped.

Joe jabbed at the fire once more and then in a huff, placed the poker back into the holding rack.  He turned to see three sets of dark eyes watching him.  Joe, suddenly overcome with emotion, lowered his head and sank down to sit on the hearth.  Using his opened hands, he covered his face, propping his elbows on his knees.

Quickly, Ben moved to his son’s side, slipping his arm about the trembling shoulders.  He was amazed to feel the drawn and tight muscles in his son’s upper body.

“Would it help to talk?” Ben offered.

Joe wiped his hands across the front of his face and looked up at Ben.  Ben could see the unhappiness that clouded Joe’s emerald eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Joe said to his father and then turned to say the same to his brothers.  “It’s…just that…” Joe swallowed hard.  “I can’t seem to forget that regardless of the reasons, I killed two men,” muttered Joe.  “I wish…I could have stopped them some other way…but…”

“Joe,” Ben said softly, “there was no other way.  Everyone in the bank explained it to us.  Those men were holding loaded guns and they aimed to use them, if need be.  If you hadn’t killed them, they would have killed you and maybe some of the others.  You not only prevented them from doing so, you saved their lives, and son you had no other way of doing things.  It was either kill or be killed,” Ben explained.

He squeezed Joe’s shoulders and tried to smile.

“Pa’s right, Joe,” Adam added.  “Those men were determined to steal that money, our money included, and they cared not at all about whom they had to kill to get it.  I would have done exactly as you, had I been in your place.”

“Me too, Punkin,” Hoss agreed.  “Ya were right in what ya did, everyone is town knows that and they all have the highest praise for ya.”

“Praise,” Joe said in a huff, “for killing two men?  I don’t want or need their praise for that,” he added.  “I’m not proud of the fact that I killed two men!”

Joe stood to his feet and walked toward the door.  He paused and turned back around, facing his family.

“Someday, and soon I hope, it won’t be necessary to settle things with a gun and having to kill another man just to stay alive.”

Joe grabbed his hat from the peg behind the door, turning once more to his father who had moved and was now standing at the entrance with Joe.

“Where are you going?” Ben questioned in a concerned voice.

“For a ride.  I have to think things out, Pa, please.  And I might ride into town and have a beer, I won’t be late, I promise,” Joe said, opening the door and going.

Ben stood, hand on the door, and watched Joe as he walked through the fading light and into the barn.  When he could no longer see the boy, Ben closed the door and returned to his chair and the newspaper he had been reading, or trying to read.

*****

Joe dismounted and tied Cooch’s reins around the hitching post.  For a long moment, he stood still glancing around him and then with a shrug of his shoulders, headed for the Silver Dollar.  The hour was late when he entered the saloon.  Few patrons were left, it being a week day, the normal crowd that was usually there on Friday and Saturday nights had long since gone home.

Joe eased up to the bar and ordered a beer.  Cozmo placed the beer down in front of Joe and then watched as the young man downed a long drag of the frothy ale.

“There’s been a young lady coming in asking for ya, Little Joe,” Cozmo said as he wiped the counter with his damp cloth.

Joe looked up at the bartender, a puzzled expression on his face.

“A lady?” he asked, glancing around at the small group of men who still hung around.  Joe turned back to Cozmo.  “Who is she?  Did she say what she wanted?”

Cozmo shook his head.  “No, didn’t say what she wanted, but I’ll tell you this much Little Joe, she sure is a looker,” the bartender grinned.  “Said she was staying over at the International House and that you could find her there, anytime,” he laughed softly.

“The International House,” Joe repeated.

He turned the mug of beer upward and downed the remnants of his drink.  “What’s her name?” Joe asked, clunking the empty beer glass down on the counter.

“Lila Gibbons,” Cozmo said.

Joe reached into his pocket and dropped some money on the counter in front of the barkeeper.

“Thanks, Cozmo,” he smiled as he turned to leave.

*****

Joe walked out into the cool night air, glancing down the street at the entrance to the hotel.  He wondered briefly what the strange young woman Cosmo had told him about wanted with him.  Shrugging his shoulders, Joe decided that there was only one way to find out; he’d go ask.

Joe was amazed that there were more people milling around the lobby of the International than there had been in the saloon.  He nodded his head at a couple that waited at the door for him to stand clear so that they could leave.  After closing the door, Joe moved to the counter to speak with the clerk.

“Evenin’ Little Joe,” the clerk said in greeting.  “What brings you in?” the man smiled.

“I was looking for someone, a young woman, by the name of Lila Gibbons,” Joe answered.  “I was told she was staying here and wanted to speak to me.”

“You heard correctly,” answered a young sweet sounding voice from behind him.

Joe turned around to find himself staring into the bluest eyes he had ever seen.  For a moment, he was at a loss for words, so lost he was, in the deep sea of blue that he saw reflecting back at him.

The young woman smiled and offered her hand to Joe.

“Mr. Cartwright,” she said, awaking Joe from his stance.  “My name is Lila Gibbons,” she smiled.

Joe swallowed hard and smiled in return, taking the tiny, finely manicured fingers into his hand.  “Miss Gibbons,” Joe said in a low voice.

He leaned his head down and gently kissed the lady’s hand.  His eyes never left her face, for she was beautiful and he seemed lost, as ship at sea, as he took in her delicately chiseled features.

Lila’s smile broadened as she looked into Joe’s equally handsome face.  “It’s nice to meet, again,” she said, her voice soft and alluring.

Joe’s hand lingered on hers.  His expression held a bit of confusion.  “Again?”

Lila withdrew her hand from Joe’s and turned, pointing to the settee in the lobby.  “Could we sit down, please?”

“Of course,” Joe said, stepping aside so that the young woman could do as requested.  He removed his hat and waited until Lila was comfortable before sitting down next to her.

“Have we met before?” Joe questioned.

“Just once…”

Joe shook his head in disbelief.  “I’m sure I’d remember you, Ma’am, if we had, but I can’t recall ever seeing you…”

“It was just the other day, in the bank,” she said.  “I was there when you came in and disrupted the holdup…”

“Now I remember.  I caught of glimpse of you, right before…the shoot-out,” Joe said.

His voice faltered slightly as the memory came back to haunt him.  Joe swallowed and willed away the unpleasant image from his mind.

“I’m sorry you were forced into having to watch something so horrible,” he said apologetically.

“It was horrible,” Lila said, lowering her head, “but it was something that could not be avoided,” she added.

Lila looked up at Joe and saw the sadness that showed on his face and in his eyes.

“I certainly hope you don’t blame yourself for what happened?” she stated.

Joe heaved a sigh, the death of the two men still haunted him and he could not help feeling as if he were responsible for the lives he had taken.

“I try not to,” he said, “but…I can’t help it.  It’s not my nature to…kill…” he stammered.

“I see,” Lila mumbled.  “But sometimes, a man is forced into killing.  Just be grateful you were so…fast.  I’ve never seen anyone faster.”

“I suppose being a fast draw has its advantages, at times, and I reckon disrupting that holdup was one of them.  But enough about that.”

Joe took in a deep breath to fill his lungs and then smiled.

“I was told you wanted to see me?”

Lila smiled and nodded.

“Yes, I do.  Do you mind if we could go someplace where we could talk in private?” she suggested.

“No, I don’t mind,” answered Joe, offering the young lady his arm as he stood up.

“We could go to my room?” Lila suggested, seeing the slight rise of the dark brows.

“I’d love to go to your room,” Joe said with a snicker, “but I think we’d best go to the dining room.  I’m not the best at avoiding such sweet temptation,” he added with a smile.

He leaned down and kissed the back of Lila’s hand, his eyes consuming her lovely face.

“Besides, the dining room is almost empty.”

Lila saw the mischievous gleam in the hazel eyes that studied her face and she giggled.

“I hadn’t counted on gallantry,” she laughed.  “But thank you,” Lila said.

She led the way into the dining room, pausing at the entrance to scan the room.  Joe’s eyes swept the room as well.  Off to one side sat a man that Joe knew only briefly but wanted nothing to do with.  The man was a wanderer who had come to the ranch weeks ago begging for a handout.  When Ben had offered the man a job instead, the man had refused and left.  Joe had run into the man only once more, in the Bucket of Blood Saloon, where the man, obviously in a drunken state of mind, had started an argument with Joe and when the man had taken a misguided swing at the young Cartwright, Joe had stepped aside.  The drunk had fallen on his face and the entire crowd in the saloon that night had started to laugh.  The man, rising slowly to his feet, had glared at Joe, swearing to get even with him for having been humiliated in front of all the patrons who were present that night.

Roy Coffee had entered the saloon just in time to witness the exchange and had taken the drunken man into custody, allowing the vagrant to sleep it off in his jail.  By the next afternoon, Carl Simpson, had begun spreading it around town about what he would do to the youngest Cartwright, once he got the opportunity.  Most of the townsfolk, as well as Joe, paid the man little or mind and just ignored his idle threats.

Joe pointed to a table in the far back.

“I think over here is good.  We should have all the privacy you need.”

Joe pulled the chair out and waited for Lila to sit down.  Taking the chair opposite Lila, Joe waited for the beautiful lady to open the conversation.  Lila glanced around to be sure they could not be heard and then, taking a deep breath began explaining to Joe what she needed.

“There’s a man, Alex Jennings, and he’s been following me…”

“Following you?  Why?” Joe interrupted to ask.

“It’s a long story,” explained Lila.

Joe grinned.  “All I have is time,” he chuckled.

Lila returned the smile.  She lowered her head, hiding her eyes from the man’s face.  Had she misjudged this young man, would he actually do for her, what she was preparing to ask of him?  Slowly, Lila raised her head and looked into Joe’s eyes, seeing the youthful expression on his young face and the gleam in his eyes when he smiled at her.  She knew he had recently killed two men, but would he kill again, for her, she thought.

Lila glanced around once more.  The dining room was almost empty except for the one man who sat two tables over from them. She had seen him look up briefly at them when they had entered, but turned away almost instantly. The man had his back to them, and appeared to be busy sipping on a drink, ignoring them.  Joe seemed unaffected by the man’s presence and had sat with his back to the gent.

“Alex Jennings thinks he owns me, Little Joe.  He’s a very wealthy man; he inherited his money from his father, who inherited it from his father, Governor Matthew T. Jennings, of New York.”

“Whew,” expressed Joe.

“Alex’s father, Tyron, was an extremely intelligent businessman back east.  Alex and I were once engaged to be married, a very long time ago; but I changed my mind…and now he won’t stop dogging me.  I’ve tried to explain to him that I didn’t love him, that I didn’t want to be married to him, but he is the type of man who won’t take no for an answer.  He’s gone as far as threatening my parents…”

Lila’s voice cracked and she fought back the tears that had suddenly sprung into her eyes.

Joe reached across the table and laid his hand on Lila’s.  She looked up and forced a smile.

“What does that have to do with me?” Joe asked.  “I don’t understand how I can help you. Why doesn’t your father have a talk with him?”

“Joe, Alex swore he’d kill my father if I didn’t marry him.  My father is a very sick man, in poor health.  He’s in no condition to speak up for me.  I have no brothers, no one…”

“What about the law?  Can’t they do something to make this man stop harassing you?”

Lila dabbed at her eyes with the dainty handkerchief that she pulled from her purse.  She shook her head back and forth.

“No.  The Jennings’ are too rich and much too powerful.  The law will not touch them,” sobbed Lila.  “And Alex said the only way I’d get out of marrying him was to…kill him, or…have him killed.”

Joe’s eyes widened slightly at Lila’s statement.  She dabbed her eyes again and saw the man sitting behind Joe, straighten slightly in his seat.  Lila lowered her head and spoke in a near whisper.

“Alex will arrive in town, the day after tomorrow.  He’s coming in on the noon stage.  Joe, I want you to…kill him for me…”

“WHAT!” proclaimed Joe in a loud voice.

He instantly lowered his head and leaned across the table, speaking in a low tone.

“You must be joking…do you have any idea what you just asked me to do?” he whispered.

“I do…I shall pay you well, Joe…you just name the price…”

“No!” Joe said, sitting back in his chair.  “My gun is not for hire…at any price!” he stated firmly, not now caring that listening ears might pick up on their conversation.

“Five thousand dollars?” Lila said, hoping to tempt the young man whose expression had suddenly taken on a look of distaste.

Joe gritted his teeth, his jaw twitched tightly.

“NO!” he declared again in a loud whisper.

Lila looked as if she were ready to cry, and somehow, the tears appeared as if right on cue.

“Ten thousand…”

“I’m sorry, Miss Gibbons, but what you are asking is out of the question.”

“Joe…please…I’m terrified of this man.  He’s mean, he’s powerful and he’ll kill my father…perhaps even my mother and if I still refuse to do as he wishes, he’ll kill me…he’s sworn that if he can’t have me…no man can.”

“If he’s as powerful and wealthy and is as important as you say, it isn’t likely that he would dirty his hands doing to you and your family, what you claim he will do,” Joe said.

Joe pushed back his chair and slowly stood to his feet.  “This conversation is over, Miss Gibbons.  I’ll walk you to your room, Ma’am,” he said, offering Lila his hand.

Anger replaced Lila’s fringed meekness as she shoved back her own chair.  She stuffed the hankie back into her purse and tilted her chin upward in a superior manner.

“No thank you,” she said with disgust.  “I can find my own way.”

Joe took a deep breath and leaned down, his hands resting on the table.  His face was very near to hers and he caught the faint scent of her perfume.  His eyes devoured her face, her lips, even her eyes.  She was beautiful and so…so…at risk, determined Joe.

“I will go talk to our sheriff, Roy Coffee, I’m sure he can come up with something…”

“No,” Lila ordered sternly.  “Leave the law out of this…I’ll not end up in jail on account of Alex Jennings…”

“You won’t…” Joe started to say.

“Won’t I?  What do you think will happen when you tell your sheriff I tried to hire you to kill a man for me?  And what more do you think will happen when your sheriff finds out who it is I asked you to kill?”

Lila saw just a flicker of doubt in Joe’s eyes and she changed tactics.  She voice softened and became thick with emotion.  She was used to getting what she wanted from the men in her life, and this handsome young man standing before her would be no different she determined.  Lila batted her eyes as if trying to stop the surge of tears that billowed so easily into her eyes.

“No…please, Little Joe…just forget all about this.  Pretend that we never had this conversation,” Lila begged.

She had risen to her feet and rounded the table to stand close to Joe. The young woman looked up, tears shining in her eyes.  Her downcast, dejected expression tugged at Joe’s heart and his anger at her suggestion dissipated immediately.

“Please, walk me to my room and promise me that you’ll only pretend that we’ve just spent a quiet evening together, alright?”

From over Joe’s shoulder, Lila saw the stranger rise and walk out of the dining room.

Her body language spoke volumes as Joe tried to still the rapid beating of his heart.  He was lost in her very essence and sure that he wasn’t thinking clearly.

“Come on,” Joe said in a voice thick with fervor as he took Lila’s arm and led her from the dining room.

Joe walked the lady to her door and paused while Lila fumbled in her purse for the key.  Her hand trembled as she tried to turn the key to unlock the door and Joe gently pushed her hand away and unlocked the door himself.  With an easy push, he swung wide the door and followed Lila just inside the room.

“I won’t tell the sheriff, Lila,” Joe said in a low voice.  “But I will talk to my father; he’s somewhat powerful himself,” Joe said with grin, “maybe he’ll have some idea what to do.”

He was anxious to leave; something about the girl’s persona had sent his thoughts veering off into all the wrong directions.  For a fraction of a second, Joe found himself believing he would do anything for this young woman, perhaps even kill for her.  He had to get away, quickly, before he lost all control over his own actions.

Lila’s sigh of relief was loud as she turned and threw herself against Joe.  Caught unaware, Joe found himself holding the beautiful woman within the folds of his arms, a position which stirred his desires more than he’d thought possible.  The fragrance he had enjoyed moments before sent his senses reeling as he lowered his face to hers, lost in the scent of her passion.

“Thank you, Little Joe,” murmured Lila.

Lila brazenly entwined her arms about Joe’s neck, tenderly pulling his body close against hers.  Her lips brushed lightly against his as she whispered his name in a seductive tone.

“Joe…kiss me…please,” she taunted in a mumbled whisper.  Lilia tilted her head upward, inviting without having to ask.

Giving in to growing desires and with little thought to his own actions Joe lowered his face to Lila’s and sealed their lips together in a heated kiss.  He felt Lila press her body tightly against his as she returned the kiss with more ardor than Joe thought possible.  For several moments, they stood, locked in an embrace with their lips hungrily devouring the others.  Using his foot, Joe pushed the door closed and without having to remove his lips from Lila’s, reached behind him and turned the key in the lock.  They were alone, in the dark, as Lila slowly inched backward, pulling Joe along with her, her kisses growing more demanding, until she had found the bed.  Lila released Joe long enough to lay down and then reached for his hands, pulling him down on top of her…

In a darkened corner of the hallway, Carl Simpson had watched the young couple disappear into the room.  For several moments he remained where he was, plotting his revenge.  His soft laughter went unnoticed, for the door had shut and the turning of the key mixed with the soft sounds of lovemaking had drowned out his iniquitous snickering.

*****

The sun was just cresting the ridge by the time that Joe rode into the yard of the Ponderosa.  Hoss and Ben were coming out the door as Joe dismounted and came around the backside of his horse.

“Mornin’ Shortshanks,” Hoss greeted his younger brother.

He didn’t bother to stop and chat, chores were waiting and Hoss knew that his father was not one bit happy over the absence of his youngest son at the breakfast table this morning.  The big man wanted nothing more than to put as much distance between himself and the ranting and raving that he knew was fixin’ to take place, as he could.

Ben stood with his arms folded across his chest and his face bore an expression of intense anger.  Ben saw his youngest son gulp and slowly make his way forward.

Joe forced a smile and greeted his father in his usual cheery manner.

“Howdy, Pa,” he said as he walked passed the elder Cartwright as if nothing was amiss.

Ben spun around.  “Hold it right there, young man!” he growled in his deep baritone voice.

Joe’s steps faltered only slightly, but he stopped and turned, the smile more sickly in appearance than what it had been seconds ago.

“Something wrong, Pa?” Joe asked.

“Just where have you been?” his father demanded.

“Been…me?”

“Well, it is you I’m speaking to…YES YOU!” Ben growled.  “You were only going for a ride…to think things through…and maybe have one beer…that was LAST NIGHT!”

“Oh…yeah…well, you see, Pa…I…met someone in town…and I sorta lost track of time,” stammered Joe.

Adam, who had just come from the house, paused on his way to the barn and grinned first at Joe and then at his father.  He tilted his head slightly, sniffing softly at the air, recognizing the sickly scent of stale perfume.  When he pulled aside Joe’s neckerchief, which was tied overly snug and saw the tiny dark blotches on his brother’s neck, which served as telltale signs, Adam burst out laughing.  He could only hope that his kid brother would one day learn what to permit a lady do to him and what not to do, and leaving passion marks on one’s neck was a strict no-no.

“And just what is so funny?” Ben demanded, turning his dark eyes on his eldest son and seeing for himself, the same evidence that Adam had seen.

Adam tossed his thumb into the air, pointing at Joe.

“Him…he spent the night with a girl,” laughed Adam, continuing on to the barn.

“I DID NOT!” shouted Joe to his brother’s back, trying desperately to deny the fact.

His dark hazel eyes turned quickly to search his father’s face.  “Really, Pa…it’s not like Adam made it sound…”

Ben, seeing the crimson glow to his son’s cheeks, and being suddenly disgusted with the matter, decided to forego the sermon, for what was done, was done.  He shook his head and made his way to the house.

“Clean up, young man, and eat some breakfast, then get to work.  Staying out all night…for whatever reasons is no excuse to shun your responsibilities.”

Joe let out a long sigh of relief.  “Yes sir,” he called just as Ben slammed the front door.

*****

“Will someone answer the door?” Ben said, looking up from his paper.

It was early evening and the family had finished dinner and had gathered around the fire.  Joe and Hoss were playing their third game of checkers while Adam read from his book of sonnets.  Ben had been reading his paper, brought home that day from Carson City where he had gone to meet with some men on business.  His pipe was gently smoking and sending the pleasant aroma of Virginia Blend tobacco throughout the room.

“I’ll get it,” Joe offered, using his last checker to jump four of Hoss’ playing pieces.

“Dadburnit,” grumbled Hoss good-naturedly as Joe rose to go to the door.  He heard Joe giggle.

“Roy!” Joe proclaimed in surprise when he pulled opened the door and saw the sheriff standing in front of him.  “Come on in.”

“Howdy, Little Joe,” Roy said.

The sheriff stepped into the room and removed his hat.  Ben had laid aside his paper and pipe and moved to greet his friend.  Both Adam and Hoss stood to their feet waiting their turn to greet their unexpected company.

“Roy, come in,” offered Ben.  “Care for coffee?”

Roy shook hands with Ben and greeted Adam and Hoss with a nod of his head.

“Boys,” he said.  “I ain’t got time for coffee, Ben, but thank ya just the same.”

“What brings you out here this time of night?” questioned Ben, sensing his friend’s quiet demur, which was unusual for Roy.

“Business, Ben,” Roy explained, glancing at Joe.

Ben’s eyes followed the same path as Roy’s.  They lingered on his son for just a moment before turning back to Roy.

“What kind of business?” Ben asked.

He had a sudden sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that he had no explanation for.

“Ben, Joe, I hate to do this, but it’s my duty.  I gotta take ya in, boy,” Roy said, turning to Joe.

Adam and Hoss moved closer, exchanging anxious glances with their father.

“Why?” Joe asked.  “I didn’t do anything.”

“What are the charges, Sheriff?” Adam inquired.

“Suspicion of murder…”

“MURDER!” roared Ben.

Joe looked as if he had seen a ghost and he turned suddenly to his family.

“I didn’t murder anyone, Pa…Roy…honest,” he stammered.

“Well, not according to my witness…”

“Witness?  What witness?” Ben demanded.  “And just who is it that Joe was supposed to have murdered?”

“Yes, a witness, in part,” Roy explained.  “And as to whom, Alex Jennings, Governor Matthew T. Jennings’ grandson,” Roy said.

“Jennings…of New York?” Adam asked.

“Governor Jennings, of New York,” Roy corrected.

Ben turned worried eyes around to look at Joe, who seemed in shock.  Before Ben could speak, Joe spoke up.

“Alex Jennings…is dead?” he stammered.

“That’s right, Joe, shot in the back as he got off the stage this afternoon.”

“Joseph, do you know this…Alex Jennings?” Ben asked, moving to place his hand on Joe’s arm.

“I’ve never met him,” Joe said, looking his father, eye to eye.  “I’ve heard of him, that’s all,” he explained.  “But I didn’t kill him…honest.”

“Of course ya didn’t,” Hoss said, placing his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

“How son, how do you know about this man…”

“Ben…ya can talk to Joe about this later.  Right now, I gotta take him in,” Roy said with a worried look around at the family of men who had been his friends for the last several years, ever since he had arrived in Virginia City.

“Pa…do I have too?” Joe said in a worried voice.

Ben could see the apprehensive look in his son’s eyes and knew by the boy’s expression that Joe was holding something back from him.  His son’s fearful expression, added to his own mounting uneasiness.

Ben tightened his hold on Joe’s arm and nodded his head.

“Yes, for now son; it would be the best thing to do, just until we get this matter cleared up,” Ben explained.  “Hoss, you and Adam saddle our horses.”

“Yessir, Pa.  Come on big brother.”

Ben turned to the sheriff.  “We’ll all ride into town with you,” he said, leaving no doubt for the sheriff but to expect all the Cartwrights to go along.

*****

Joe walked reluctantly into the cell and turned to face his father.  He watched the sheriff close the door, which clanged shut, and then turn the key in the lock.  It was a sickening sound that caused his stomach to churn with both fear and worry.

“Ya can stay as long as ya like, Ben,” Roy said, leaving the family to discuss matters without his having to be a part.

“Thank you, Roy,” Ben said as Roy closed the door that separated the iron cells from the front office.

As soon as the door closed, Ben turned to his son.

“Alright Joseph, would you please explain to me, how you managed to get yourself into this mess?”

Joe let the wind expel from his lungs.  He removed his hat, tossing it over onto the narrow cot that served as a bed and then ran his fingers through his thick curls.  His young features distorted themselves into a frown.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“What do you mean you don’t know?  I thought you said you’ve heard of this…this…Alex Jennings?” Ben said in a tone bordering on exasperation.

“I have heard of him, but I’ve never laid eyes on him…honest, Pa,” Joe proclaimed.

“Then just explain how you’ve heard of him,” Adam prompted.  “In case you don’t realize it, little brother, you’re in heap of trouble.”

Joe turned his back to his family and walked to the barred windows.  He lowered his head, thinking how he should go about explaining everything to his father.

“Don’t you think I know that?” he said at last, facing the trio.

Joe crossed the tiny cell, coming back to stand in front of his father.  He placed both hands on the bars and leaned his head against them.

“I met a woman, Lila Gibbons,” he began.  “We…became friends.”

Joe glanced up, taking in the three vexed faces.

“Go on,” his father prompted.

“She was in the bank the day of the robbery.  Three days ago, the day I went for a ride…”

“I remember,” said Ben, “you stayed out all night.  Were you with this woman?”

Joe lowered his head again, unable to meet his father’s questioning eyes.

“Yes sir.”

“And?  What happened after that?” Adam asked.

Joe took a deep breath and went on.

“She told me about this man who was harassing her, he wanted her to marry him, but she wanted no part of him.  She was afraid of him and what he threatened to do to her family if she didn’t do as he wanted her to.”

“And this man, was it Alex Jennings?”

“Yes sir.  Pa,” Joe said, hesitating slightly.  “She offered me…money to…to…”

“To what, son?” Ben said as the fear in his gut began to grow.

“Lila offered me ten thousand dollars to…kill him…” Joe stammered.

Fresh fear washed over the three as the stood in shock, staring in disbelief at the young man behind bars.

“Dear Lord,” whispered Ben in a voice that trembled.

He glanced at the horrified faces of his two oldest sons and then turned wide, dark eyes back to look deeply into the hazel eyes that glistened with deep pools of crystal clear water.

“Joseph, please tell me, you didn’t…”

“Of course not!” Joe snapped angrily.  “What do you take me for?” he stormed, moving again to the window.

Adam and Hoss exchanged looks, both watching their brother trying to maintain his self-control.

“Joe,” Adam called.

He waited until his brother turned around and looked at him.  Adam motioned with his finger.

“Come over here, please,” he said, using as steady of a voice as he could.

Joe walked slowly back to his family.

“You came into town this afternoon, why, who were you with?”

“What difference does it make?” Joe asked as he gripped the cold bars with on hand.

Adam could see that his brother’s knuckles had turned white, so tightly did he cling to the iron.

“What difference does it make?” Ben repeated with a deep scowl.  “The difference could mean life or death…for you!”

“Why did you come into town?” Adam persisted.

Joe’s face twisted into a frown and he glared at his brother.

“Not for the reason you’re thinking,” he snapped.

Adam made a disgusted looking scowl and shook his head.

“What’s that suppose to mean?”

“What do you think?  You believe I murdered that man, don’t you!” Joe practically shouted, jerking his body around and moving to the cot where he dropped down onto it.

“Of course not!  For you information, Joe, we have more faith in you than that…give us a little credit,” Adam growled.

“Joseph…what were you doing when you came to town?  We have to know, son, we have to find out who really killed this Jennings fellow.  We don’t think for one second that you did, but someone had to…”

“I was with Miss Gibbons, alright?” Joe barked.

He stood and paced the cell.  “We went for a drive, okay?  She knew that Jennings was arriving on the stage this afternoon and she didn’t want to be in town, so I rented a buggy and took her up to the lake.”

Joe glanced at his father, seeing the disconcerted look in his eyes he as moved closer to the cell door.

“Honest, Pa…I didn’t kill that man…”

Ben reached his arm through the bars and grasped Joe’s arm, giving his son a tender squeeze.

“We believe you, boy,” he said in his reassuring voice.

“Well, it’s for sure someone killed that man,” Hoss said, voicing his own thoughts aloud.  “We just gotta figure out who done it.”

The door, dividing the cells from the office, opened and Roy joined the group.  His lips were drawn tightly together and his face bore a look of regret.

“Sorry fellas, time’s up.  You’ll have to leave now,” the sheriff instructed.

“Alright, Roy.  Just give us another minute and we’ll go,” Ben asked.

“Sure ‘nough,” Roy said as he left them alone again.

“Try not to worry, Joe, we’ll pay Miss Gibbons a visit and I promise, we’ll have this matter straightened out in no time,” Ben said, trying to give his son some lingering hope.

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe muttered.

“See ya, Shortshanks,” Hoss called as he turned to go.

“Don’t worry, Joe, we’ll get to the bottom of this,” Adam promised, following after Hoss.

Ben lingered another moment, his hand on Joe’s who gripped the cold iron bars tightly.

“Pa, it don’t look too good for me, does it?” Joe asked in a small voice, laced with a mixture of chilling dread and near panic.

“Think positive son…”

“Jennings father and grandfather are powerful men…what chance do I have if they believe that I killed their…”

“That’s enough, Joseph…don’t even think like that.  I care little about how powerful they might be.  I’ll get to the bottom of this, one way or another, I promise you that much!” declared Ben.

“I’ll try not to worry…but they’ll hang me for sure, if you can’t find out who killed that man…”

Ben’s eyes turned black as he gripped the bars separating him from his youngest son.

“You will not hang…that I can assure you…regardless of what the courts deem!”

Ben, his anger consuming him, pivoted on his heels and stomped from the room.

*****

“She’s gone, Pa…ain’t nobody seen her since late this afternoon,” Hoss said as he stood in the doorway of the Silver Dollar.

“Did you check the hotel?” Ben said in a gruff voice.

“Yes sir, they done told me, she checked out this evening…so’s I went to the stage depot.  I thought maybe the little lady might of decided to leave town…”

“And?”

“Nope, they ain’t seen hide or hair of her either.”

“Wonder where she could have gotten off to?” Adam pondered aloud.

Ben looked somewhat perturbed about things and decided that he best go have a talk with the sheriff.

“I’m going back to the sheriff’s office and talk to Roy.  Maybe he’ll let me talk to your brother again.  No…wait, on second thought, Adam, you go to Roy’s and see if you can speak with Joe.  He was pretty upset earlier and now that he’s had time to calm down and think, perhaps he’s remembered something,” Ben issued.

“Alright, but what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to see Hiram Wood.  Joe’s going to need a good lawyer and Hiram’s about the best around,” explained Ben.

“What’cha want me to do, Pa?” Hoss asked.

Ben thought for a moment and then smiled at his middle son.

“Why don’t you mosey down to the livery and ask a few questions.  If Joe took the young lady for a buggy ride this afternoon, then he most likely stabled his horse there for the afternoon,” Ben suggested.

“Yeah…that’s a good ideay, Pa.  Maybe ole Pete saw somethin’ goin’ on what shouldn’t been goin’ on,” grinned Hoss, always ready with an easy smile and a set determination to be of help to his family.

*****

As Adam walked up the boardwalk toward the sheriff’s office, he saw Roy standing next to Joe’s pinto.  The sheriff looked as if he were looking for something.

“Roy, what’s going on?” Adam asked as Roy pulled Joe’s rifle from the scarab on the side of the saddle.

Roy checked the rifle to see if it had been fired before he turned to Adam.

“Just checkin’ Little Joe’s rifle.  It’s been fired recently, Adam…”

“Joe probably took a shot at some game, maybe a snake.  He took a young lady for a drive this afternoon; he could have used it for anything…”

“Sure he could,” the sheriff interrupted, “even murder,” Roy said as he turned and marched back into his office.

“Aw…you don’t really believe that Joe could do such a thing, do you Roy?  You know my brother better than that,” Adam debated.

He followed Roy back into the office and watched as Roy sat the rifle across his desk.

“This could be the murder weapon, Adam.  I have to consider everything, ya know.”

“I understand that, but Roy…what was the motive?  Joe said he’d never even met this Alex Jennings…”

“Money,” Roy said sternly.

Adam looked confused.  “Money?  That doesn’t make any sense and you know it Roy.  Joe doesn’t need any money, and if he did, Pa would give it to him.”

Roy had sat down in his chair and was leaning back, his arms folded across his chest.

“Yep, I know that…but there was another reason why Little Joe could have killed that man,” Roy said.

He spoke as a man who had inside information and his depth of assurance only served to heighten Adam’s growing concern.

“Such as?” he hinted.

“Adam,” Roy said as he stood up and came around the corner of his desk to stand face to face with his friend’s oldest son.  “Little Joe told me about that woman offering him money to kill Jennings.”

“Then he must have told you that he refused the offer?”

“Naturally, but what he didn’t do that he should have, was come straight to me with the information,” Roy explained.

“I agree, but he didn’t, but that doesn’t mean he killed the man.  It only means that…”

“It was possible Joe could have…let’s say, fallen under that woman’s charms and done exactly what she asked him to do…”

Adam’s eyes grew dark with anger.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Roy.  Joe would never hire out his gun.  My God, he’s been sick about having to kill those two holdup men, he’d never kill for no good reason!” barked Adam.

“Well, I have a witness that overheard that woman offer Joe $10,000 to kill Alex Jennings.  He was in the dining room on the night that Miss Gibbons was supposed to have made the plans.  And this same witness says he heard your brother agree to do it.”

“I don’t believe that for one minute!” Adam declared.  “And you shouldn’t either!”

Roy shook his head from side to side.  “I’m sorry, Adam, but under the circumstances…”

Adam stomped across the room and back to stand in front of Roy.  His dark eyes were angry darts of black fire.

“Circumstances,” he shouted.  “If this man heard this supposed conversation, just why didn’t he come straight to you and tell you about it?  What was his responsibility?  And why haven’t you arrested the woman…isn’t she guilty of soliciting and masterminding a murder?” he growled.

“First off, ya need to calm down, Adam, I don’t like ya tone of voice.  Secondly, I haven’t arrested her ’cause I can’t find her; she’s disappeared.  And thirdly, yes, she is guilty of soliciting to hire someone to commit murder.”

Roy picked up the rifle again and began moving toward the door that led to the cells. He paused and turned back to Adam.

“If ya can find the young lady, I’m sure we could clear this matter up.  As it stands, I have a dead man over at the undertaker’s, I have a witness that will swear under oath that he heard Joe agree to commit murder, and I have a prisoner who admits to havin’ a conversation with a woman who wanted someone killed.  What I don’t have is the murder weapon, and what your brother don’t have is someone who can back up his alibi.”

Roy pushed opened the door and walked over to the cell where Joe was locked up.  The boy was lying on the cot, his arm stretched across his eyes.  Adam followed the sheriff into the inner room.

“Joe,” Roy called.

Joe moved his arm and looked up to see the sheriff and his brother standing by the cell door.  He grinned at Adam as he got up.

“You here to bail me out?” Joe asked with a slight grin on his face.

“I’m afraid not, kid,” Adam returned the smile.  “Not yet, anyways.”

“Joe, I wanna know, is this your rifle?” Roy asked, holding the gun up so that Joe could get a good look at it.

“Roy,” said Joe with a twisted grin.  “You know it is, I saw you, from the window, take it off my saddle.”

“I just wanted to be sure.  It’s been fired recently; wanna tell me what ya was shooting at?”

“Nothing,” Joe said as the smile on his face faded.

He glanced at Adam as if asking what was going on.

“Nothin’?” Roy repeated the word.  “I’d think again about lyin’ to me, boy; it won’t go so well for ya if’n the judge…”

Joe’s eyes grew wide and Adam could see the doubt that shone brightly.

“I haven’t used my rifle…honest,” he stammered.  “Adam, last week, when you and I were up at the logging camp and I shot that rattler, that was the last time I’ve fired my gun…and it’s been cleaned since then,” Joe explained.

“May I see it, Roy?” Adam asked, holding out his hand.

“I don’t see why not,” the sheriff answered.

Roy checked the gun again, removing the shells and then placed the gun into Adam’s out stretched hand.  Adam examined the rifle thoroughly and then with a deep sigh, turned to his brother.

“It’s been used, Joe, I can still smell the gun powder.  Are you positive…”

“I am positive, Adam, absolutely…” Joe said in a shaky voice.

“Well, somebody used it,” Adam stated.  “Joe could someone have taken your gun and you not know it?”

“No, Adam…I don’t leave it anywhere, it goes where I go and where Cooch goes…wait a minute,” Joe said as if an idea had just popped into his head.

Adam had seen the strange look wash over his brother’s face and he moved closer to the bars that separated them.

“What is Joe?” he asked anxiously.

Joe raised his head as his lips curled into a smile.

“Adam,” he said excitedly, “this morning, when Lila and I went for that drive, I left Cooch at the livery…and I didn’t take my rifle along with me!”

Adam turned to Roy, an expectant look on his face.

“There you go, Roy.  Anyone could have slipped into the livery, taken Joe’s rifle and used it to kill Jennings, and sneak back, put the rifle back where he got it and walk away, just as if nothing had happened!” exclaimed Adam.

“Sure they could have…but who? And why?  Jennings wasn’t known around these parts, at least as far as I can tell.  The only one havin’ any connection with the man, was…Miss Gibbons,” he stated.  “And we already know that she wanted him dead, andfrom what Little Joe says, the two of them were together, on a buggy ride…”

“There you go…that should clear Joe…”

“It should, Adam, but we still have one little problem,” Roy said as he took the rifle from Adam.

“And that is?”

“The only person who can clear Joe of the murder is Miss Gibbons, and she’s missing!” announced Roy.

“Missing?  What does he mean, Adam?” Joe asked as he pressed against the bars.

Ben appeared in the doorway before Adam had a chance to explain the sheriff’s statement.

“It means, son, that your lady friend is nowhere to be found.  It’s as if she’s drop off the face of the earth,” he told the trio.

“And without her testimony to back up what you’ve already told us…ya could…hang, if proven guilty,” Roy added.

Joe swallowed hard and turned to his father.  Ben could see the intense fear that clouded his son’s eyes and reached through the bars to rest his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

“Remember what I told you, son,” Ben said softly.

“I’m trying to, Pa,” Joe whispered back.

*****

Adam and Ben had moved into the office with Roy where they could talk in private.  The door between the two rooms had been shut, leaving Joe alone in his cell to wonder what was being said that he was unable to hear.

“Roy…we have to find that woman!” Ben said.

He was fuming mad about the fact that the woman his son swore he spent time with, was nowhere to be found.

“She couldn’t have gotten far, not without a horse and it’s for sure that she didn’t leave on the evening stage.”

“Roy,” Adam said before giving the sheriff time to comment on his father’s statement.  “Who is this person that says he heard Joe accept the offer made by Miss Gibbons?”

“A drifter, Adam.  He was in the dining room the night that Joe claims he talked to the lady,” Roy said.  “His name is Carl Simpson, why?”

“Just wondering,” Adam said.  “Hmm…a drifter you say?”

“That’s right.”

“Where’s he staying?” Ben asked.

“Why?  What are you going to do, Ben?” Roy questioned, suddenly suspicious of his friend.

Ben’s brows moved upward as he looked at the sheriff.

“I want to talk to him,” he said firmly.  “Where can I find him?”

The front door to the office burst opened and Hoss shoved a man into the room.

“Right here he is!” Hoss said angrily.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Roy demanded when he saw stranger’s battered face.

“I wanna press charges, sheriff,” the stranger whined.  “This big ox tried to kill me!”

“More like ya tried to kill me!” Hoss said as he shoved the man down into the chair.

Hoss reached into the man’s pocket and snatched a roll of bills from the man’s vest.

“Lookit what I found on’em!” he said as he tossed the roll onto Roy’s desk.  “There’s five thousand dollars there.”

The sheriff, Ben and Adam gathered around the desk to see for themselves the roll of bills.  Ben picked it up and thumbed through the stack of currency.

“Whew,” he sighed.

Roy turned to the man in the chair, a dark expression on his face.

“Where’d you get this?” he demanded.

The stranger sat motionless, refusing to speak.

“I ain’t got no ideay where he got it, but I found it on’em when me and Pete searched him,” Hoss explained.

The stranger still refused to say anything.  He kept his eyes focused on the wall in front of him and only once glanced up when Ben moved to stand in front of him.

“What’s your name?” Ben asked the man.

The man’s eyes moved slightly until he looked Ben in the eye.

“None of your dang business,” he snarled at the senior Cartwright.

“I’ll tell ya who he is, Carl Simpson, that’s who!” announced Roy.

“Isn’t that the name of your ‘witness’?” Adam said, surprised enough that he moved closer for a better look.

“That’s right,” Roy declared.

“Haven’t we met before?” Ben asked the man as he studied the other’s face.

Carl Simpson refused to acknowledge the question.

“Sure we have, you came by the ranch, about two, maybe three weeks ago, begging for a handout.  I offered you a job and you refused.  You left without so much as…”

“So what?  I still heard your brat tell that lady he’d kill her husband for her…”

“HUSBAND!” everyone in the room shouted at once.

“That’s right, that lady what said her name was Lila Gibbons, well…that ain’t her real name…it’s Lila Jennings…and the man your kid killed for her was her husband!” laughed Carl.

Silence filled the room as all parties tried to let the man’s words sink into their brains.  Ben looked stunned, but Adam looked more so, for he quickly recalled that Joe had spent the night with the Gibbons woman, or Jennings, whatever her name might be.

“Pa…don’t you think Joe should know?” Adam said after a short silence.

Ben had a haggard expression on his face.  It was obvious that the senior Cartwright was tired, both from the stress and the events of the last several days.

“You’re right, Adam.  I’ll go have a talk with him,” Ben agreed.

“Pa,” Hoss said, placing his hand on his father’s arm.

Ben turned around, seeing the look of dread on his middle son’s face.

“What is it, Hoss?”

“The girl?  Lila Gibbons or Jennings…me and the stable boy found her body out behind the livery.  She was murdered as well…her head was smashed in,” Hoss explained.

“WHAT?” roared Ben.

Adam lowered his head into his opened hand and wondered just how much worse this situation was going to get before it was finished.

“We heard a commotion out back, and then a woman screamed, we ran out back, that’s when I seen this man runnin’ down the back alley.  I chased’em while Pete looked after the woman.  When I caught up to this dude and dragged him back to the livery, the lady, Miss Gibbons, was already dead,” Hoss explained sadly.

“I saw this stranger drop the shovel, just as me and Pete opened the door.”

“Well, I’ll be danged,” mumbled Roy as he grabbed Carl by the arm and yanked him up from the chair in which he was sitting.

“Come on, you lowlife scoundrel; I’m lockin’ ya up,” ordered Roy as he practically dragged the man into the cellblock.

Joe was standing against the bars, having heard bits and pieces of the conversation, he was anxious to find out what was going on.  He had heard his name mentioned several times and his growing curiosity was steadily mounting.

“Pa,” Joe called when he caught a glimpse of his father standing in the main office.

Ben turned at the sound of his name and hurried to his son’s cell.

“What’s going on, Pa?  I heard shouting and arguing…and my name and Lila’s being said…say…” Joe paused to look at the man that Roy was locking up.

“That’s…the man in the dining room,” he said more to himself than to his father and Roy who now had the key turned, thus locking Carl’s cell door.

“In the dining room?” Ben repeated.

“Yeah…he was in the dining room the night Lila…asked me to kill that Jennings fella,” Joe rushed to explain.

“Hmm…” Ben thought aloud.

“Pa…that’s it…” Joe said with a new excitement growing in his voice.

“This man tried to pick a fight with me one night at the saloon.  It was after you offered him a job, he was all liquored up and when I wouldn’t fight him, he got mad and swore that he’d get even with me!”

“Even for what?” Ben questioned.

He could see that Joe was getting himself all worked up, but as of yet, Ben could not make heads or tails out of what Joe was trying to tell him.

“He took a swing at me and I ducked.  He fell down and everyone in the saloon started laughing at him; it infuriated him and he blamed me…that’s when he swore to get even.  Pa, don’t you see, he must have overheard Lila offering me money to kill Alex Jennings.  He must have done it and tried to pass the blame onto me…”

“Oh that’s a lie, you little bastard!” snarled Carl from his cell next to Joe’s.  “I heard alright, but I heard you promise the little lady you’d do her dirty work for her if she’d…” Carl laughed, “Let you…spend some time with her…hahahhaa….alone!”

“Why you filthy mouthed…”

“Joe! Joe!” shouted Ben as he reached through the bars and grabbed his son’s arm.

“Roy…can we open this door, there are things that I need to discuss with Joe, and certainly not in here,” Ben asked.

“Alright, Ben.  Joe, come into my office, ya can talk to ya pa in there,” answered the sheriff as he unlocked Joe’s cell and led the way back into the office.

Adam and Hoss turned to greet their brother.  Adam shook Joe’s hand and Hoss grabbed Joe and pulled him into a bear hug.

“Sit down, son,” Ben ordered.  “There’s something I have to tell you.”

Joe did as his father asked and took one of the seats in front of Roy’s desk.  Ben sat down on the corner of the desk and faced his son.

“It’s bad news, isn’t it?” Joe asked.  “I can always tell by the look on your face,” he said, forcing a smile.  “What did I do now?” he attempted to tease.

“Son, Lila’s dead,” Ben said bluntly.

He watched the easy grin disappear from Joe’s face and for a moment thought that the boy might cry.  Ben saw Joe swallow the shock and then turn his head away.  Joe rose and walked across the room, keeping his back to the others.

“Alex Jennings was her husband, Joe.”

Joe turned around, his emerald eyes dancing with sadness.

“Husband?” he muttered in a wee voice.  “My God…what have I done?”

His eyes spoke volumes of what he was feeling as Ben hurried to his son’s side.  Joe looked up at his father, his emerald eyes pleading for understanding.

“You had no way of knowing, son…she led you to believe he was just a man who desired her for his wife…”

Joe’s breath was coming in little gulps as he struggled with the news that his father had just given to him.

“But Pa,” Joe murmured in a low voice, “we…” Joe gulped.  “I mean…I…dear God,” cried Joe, turning his back on his father and hanging his head.  “I’m so…ashamed,” he whispered lowly.

Ben was the only one who heard and he pressed his opened hand down hard on Joe’s shoulder, reassuring his son that he understood the mixture of emotions that was surging through out his son’s veins.

The door opened and Clem Foster, Roy’s deputy, rushed into the office.  Behind him, walking rather slowly was Bert Taylor, the town drunk.  Clem spun around and grabbed Bert’s shirt and ushered him into the room filled with men.

All heads turned to watch the pair, so mismatched in appearance.

“Sheriff, ole Bert here has something he says is important.  He wouldn’t tell me, he said it was meant for the sheriff’s ears only,” Clem explained.

“Alrighty, Bert, why don’t ya sit down?” Roy offered, pulling a chair over so that the wobbly man might sit before he fell over.

Joe had turned around as well, standing with his father’s arm about his shoulders.  The entire group stared in puzzled wonderment at Bert, each anxiously waiting to hear what the drunk deemed so important.

“Well speak up man,” Roy ordered.

Bert looked all the way around the room at each one of them.  His eyes lingered on Joe’s face so long that Joe began to squirm.  Bert finally raised one shaky hand and pointed his long, calloused finger in Joe’s direction.

“T’weren’t him,” he said in a slurred speech.

Everyone turned Joe’s way to see the surprise on the young, tired face.

“T’weren’t him what killed that man when he got offa the stage,” Bert said, shaking his head from side to side.  “Nope, t’was the new man in town…Carl something or other.”

Ben’s eyes widened as he stepped forward and squatted down in front of Bert.

“How do you know this?” Ben asked in a gentle manner.

Bert’s cloudy eyes focused in on Ben’s face and after a spell, he smiled at Ben.

“ ‘Cause I see’d ’im do it.  I was lyin’ in the alleyway beside the stage stop, behind some crates.  That new fella didn’t see me when he dun snuck up to the side of the buildin’ and awaited until the man got offa the stage.  He shot that poor ole soul with no warnin’ and then took off runnin.  I follow’d’em to the livery stable and hid behind the door.  He put that rifle into a holder on ya boy’s saddle.  I knowed that was ya boy’s pinto, ’cause I see’d ya boy ridin’ ‘im plenty of times.”

When Bert smiled, his yellowed teeth and stale whiskey breath caused Ben’s stomach to do a flip-flop, but he remained where he was, resting his hand on Bert’s knee.

“Why didn’t come forward before now?” Ben asked.

“Was gonna…honest…but…well, I found a bottle.”

Bert grinned.  “Guess I had’ta drink up some courage first,” he said with a light, nervous laugh.

Ben smiled back and patted the bony knee.  “Well, Mr. Taylor, I want to thank you for coming now and telling us.  You’ve just taken a load off our shoulders, hasn’t he Joe?”

Ben turned to see his son smile as Joe stepped forward and offered his hand to the man.

“Yes, you certainly have, Mr. Taylor.  I can’t thank you enough,” Joe said, pumping Bert’s arm up and down.

Adam and Hoss moved forward and while they spoke to Bert and Clem, Ben turned to the sheriff.

“Well, will it hold up in a court of law?” he asked Roy in low voice.

“I reckon so, Ben.  He just cleared Little Joe of all charges as far as I’m concerned.  It’ll be up to a jury to determine Carl Simpson’s fate, and with Bert’s testimony swearin’ he saw Carl kill Jennings and with Hoss’ testimony seein’ him standin’ over the woman, Carl Simpson will no doubt hang.”

“Carl killed Lila?  But why?” Joe asked, having just then learned how the beautiful young woman had been killed.

“Haven’t gotten that figured out just yet, Little Joe,” Roy explained.

Bert pushed his way through the men who gathered about him and tapped Joe on the shoulder.

“I know why,” he said.

All eyes turned once again to the sodden man.

“He went to the lady’s room, at the hotel, the mornin’ ya left,” Bert said to Joe.  “He knocked on the door and when the lady opened up, he forced his way into her room.  I listened at the door while that Carl fella said he’d kill Jennings for her; she offered him $5,000.  At first, he wanted more, but he finally agreed.”

Bert wiped his hand across his mouth and smiled up at the group.

“Mouth sure gets dry when I have’ta talk so much,” he said.

“Clem, get that bottle outta the top drawer,” Roy ordered.

Clem handed the bottle to the sheriff and Roy popped the cork from the top.

“Here ya go, maybe this will help.”

Bert grinned broadly and took a long swig from the bottle.

“Ah…that sure is good whiskey, Sheriff,” Bert grinned.

“Go on,” urged Ben.

Bert wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his soiled shirt and continued.

“When it was done, the killin’ I mean, I followed that man in thar,” Bert pointed to the back room, “over to the livery, that’s when he put ya boy’s gun back.  After that I saw the lady goin’ into the stables, she was carryin’ a bag.  I watched her go through and out the back door.  That’s where she met him.  They got into an argument and that stranger picked up a shovel and started hittin’ the lady with it.  I was just about to call for help when the back door opened and that big fella over thar…him,” Bert said, pointing to Hoss.  “Well, that big fella chased that murderin’ good for nothin’ down the alley.  I knew he’d catch’em, just like I knowed ya younger boy here couldn’t of killed anyone.”

Joe smiled his thanks at the man and turned back to his father and the sheriff.

“Can I go home now, please?” he said in a boyish tone.

“I don’t see why not,” Roy said, gently slapping Joe on the back.  “Go home and get some rest, ya gonna need it when Simpson’s trial starts,” Roy warned.

“Whew…well, I can’t say I’m looking forward to that, but I am looking forward to sleeping in my own bed.  Come on, Pa, let’s ride,” giggled Joe.

*****

When the case came to trial, it was over and done with in less than two hours.  Carl Simpson was found guilty of two murders, Alex Jennings and Lila Gibbons.  Joe was relieved that it was over and that he could get on with his life.  It had been a hard month, what with the bank robbery, the murders and the last lingering regrets about his one night affair with the beautiful young woman.

*****

Joe stood at the corral fence, his arms folded across the top rail, his chin resting on his arms.

“A penny for your thoughts,” Adam said as he stood slightly behind his brother.

Adam had seen the faraway look in his brother’s eyes when they had sat down to supper, and had watched as Joe toyed with the food on his plate.  Minutes after Joe asked to be excused and went outside, Adam had glanced at his father.

“I think I know what’s eating at him.  Mind if I try talking to him?” he had asked Ben.

“No, please, be my guest,” Ben smiled.

Adam had excused himself and wandered out and across the yard where he found his brother lost in his own personal thoughts.

Joe turned to give Adam a half smile.

“Would take more than a penny’s worth to straighten out everything that’s running wild in my head tonight, big brother,” Joe said lightly.

Adam moseyed up to the fence and leaned against it, much as Joe was doing.

“Joe…not to be presumptuous, but I think I know what’s bothering you.”

Without raising his head, Joe turned and looked over at Adam. “You do?  How?”

“Because you’re not the first man to be drawn into the web…”

“The web?”

“Well, that might not be a good word.  How about…beguiled or better, bewitched?”

Joe raised his head, turned slightly and propped his elbow on the fence.

“Adam, you’re not making sense.  I have no clue what you’re talking about.”

“Joe, beguiled…taken in, by a beautiful woman’s charms.  Such as your friend, Lila.  It happens all the time to us…gullible men, little brother.  You certainly weren’t the first, and I promise, you won’t be the last…it’s happened to all of us, at some time or another,” smiled Adam.

“Even you?” Joe taunted gently.

“Even me,” laughed Adam.

The brothers returned to the chin-on-arm position and for several moments enjoyed the silence that lingered between them.

Joe glanced again at his brother.  His eyes were dark and the pupils, Adam could see from the moonbeam that they stood in, were enlarged.  A vision of a much younger Joe flashed in front of his mind’s eyes.

“Adam…do you think I’ll go to hell when I die?” he asked unexpectedly.

“WHAT?” Adam said in a loud whispering voice.

The look on his little brother’s face was priceless and it reminded him of all the times that Joe had come to him as a small boy, so full of the wonder of things and asking so many questions, unexplainable questions that were hard, at times, to answer.  Adam could do nothing to stop the grin that tugged at his lips.

“Why would you think that, Joe?”

“She was married, Adam…”

“But you didn’t know that…did you?”

“No…but…”

“Joe, think about this for just a moment.  If you had known…would you have stayed?”

“Of course not…Pa raised me…us…better than that, why that’s…adultery!” Joe said in an impassioned voice.

“Then by not knowing, don’t you think that frees you from that sin of…as you said…adultery? She didn’t tell you, little brother; she might have been beautiful, Joe, but she misled you, she deceived you into believing that she was something other than what she really was…and she used all her captivating charms to have her way with you.”

“Oh,” Joe said in a wee voice.

There remained between them, another long silence.  It was Adam’s deep voice that broke the stillness this time.

“Just be more careful next time, Joe.  Be sure before you give your heart away.  Love is a gift, to be earned, not something that springs forth in a matter of hours and then used for self satisfaction, only to be tossed to the way side once the need has been filled,” Adam advised gently.

Adam turned to go, but stopped when Joe called out to him.

“Thanks, Adam,” he said, as he fell into step beside his brother.

Adam slipped his arm about the slender shoulders and together the pair walked to the house.

“Anytime, kid, anytime.  Just feel free to ask me anything you need to know about women…I can tell…”

“Oh brother,” groaned Joe softly, causing Adam to burst into laughter.

***End***

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