From Dreams to Reality (by Debbie B.)

Summary:  Sequel to Gossamer Dreams

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,493


 

“Hey, lookit Pa, Joe finally made it home,” sang Hoss happily as he pointed in the direction of his younger brother’s pinto.

“Well, it’s about time that rapscallion got back; he’s just a week overdue!” fumed Ben.

He had been worried sick about his youngest son.  Joseph had been sent to Salt Lake City on business for the ranch and was supposed to finish up there and come right straight back home with the needed documents.  Ben was anxious to speak with the boy and find out what had delayed him.  And it had not better be a pretty face, concluded Ben privately.

“He must have just gotten home,” Adam said as he tied his horse to the hitching rail next to Cochise.

“Why do ya think that?” Hoss asked as he joined his brother on the opposite side of Joe’s horse.

“This horse is lathered…Joe knows better than to leave his mount standing like that without tending to him.”

Adam’s voice had a ring of sarcasm to it.  He rubbed his hand down the front of his younger brother’s horse and held his hand out for Hoss to see.

Hoss said nothing at first but raised his brows in question and gave Adam a disbelieving look.  “That ain’t like Joe…why…that boy…”

“What’s wrong with that lad?” stormed Ben as he ran his hand down Joe’s horse in the same matter as Adam had done.  “Just wait until I get my hands on that boy, come on!”

Ben turned and marched angrily toward the house.  Adam and Hoss swapped worried looks with one another and hurried to follow after their father.

Ben stormed into the house and paused at the credenza.  “JOSEPH!” he bellowed as he hung his hat on one of the pegs behind the front door.  “JOSEPH!” Ben shouted a second time, adding more volume to his already deep voice.  He unbuckled his gunbelt and folded it up, carefully placing it on the credenza.  Adam and Hoss were doing the same.

“Where is that boy!” growled Ben.

“Pa…Pa?”

Joe heard his father shouting for him and he tried to raise his head, but he was too tired from riding non-stop and going without food for the better part of two days.  And the wound in his right shoulder had been hurting like blazes, ever since Adrienne had beaten her fists against his chest.

All three of the older Cartwrights exchanged puzzled glances and then hurried to the settee.  Ben gasped when he spied Joe lying on his back on the couch.  Immediately the concerned father noted the worn, troubled expression on his youngest son’s face and he knelt down on one knee, his hand gently brushing Joe’s colorless face.

“Son, what’s happened to you, boy?” Ben said; his anger had vanished when he had seen his son and the look of despair on the young face.

“Pa!  Oh Pa!” cried Joe as he raised his left hand and tried to grab for his father.

Ben took Joe’s hand in his.  He gave Adam who stood behind the settee, looking down at his brother, a confused look.

“Pa…I didn’t want to kill him…but he made me…and I didn’t know…it was her husband…Petey…he…hates me now and wants…to kill…me.  Oh Pa…I didn’t know he was her husband!”

The tears streamed from Joe’s face as Ben gathered his son into his arms and held him.  Joe clung tightly to his father as he buried his face against his father’s chest and cried.

“Joseph, what on earth are you talking about…who did you kill…and who is this Petey fellow that wants to kill you?” Ben asked as he cradled Joe tightly.  Ben started to move Joe but stopped when he cried out in pain.

“My shoulder,” muttered Joe, flinching slightly.

“Pa, he’s been hurt,” Adam said, as he peeled back Joe’s jacket and began unbuttoning the shirt that covered the wound in Joe’s shoulder.

“Take it easy Joseph,” soothed Ben.  He watched as Adam moved aside Joe’s clothing and then peeled away the bandage so that they could see the wound.

“He’s been shot,” muttered Hoss who stood over Ben’s shoulder and looked down at his younger brother.

“It’s also been tended to,” Ben added.  He gently ran his hand over the area where the bullet had been removed.

“Guess we know why he took so long in getting home.”  Adam glanced at his father and then looked up at Hoss.

“Joe, can you tell us what happened son?  Who shot you…and why?” Ben questioned.

Joe had laid his head back down on the red pillow.  His face was drawn and his features tight.  The last teardrops slid down his face and he sniffed loudly.

“Joe?”

“It doesn’t matter now…it’s over,” Joe said solemnly.

Joe pushed himself up into a sitting position.  Ben moved to the table in front of the settee and sat down in front of Joe.  Adam circled the couch and sat down on the arm, watching his brother.  For several moments Joe was quiet and refused to look into the faces of his family.

When he sniffled again, Ben reached out and placed his hand on Joe’s arm.  “Why don’t you go to bed son, you look as if you could use a few hours sleep.”

Joe looked up, into his father’s eyes and nodded his head.  “Thanks, Pa,” he said quietly, “I think I will.”

“All right then, you do that.  I’m going to have Adam ride into town and fetch Doc Martin though.  I want him to take a look at that shoulder.  I don’t see any infection, but it has been bleeding some.  It looks as if a couple of the stitches have broken loose, and I’m sure you’re feeling some discomfort from it,” Ben stated.

“It does hurt some…but Adr…” Joe stopped.

He couldn’t bring himself to speak her name…just thinking about her and what he had done to her and her children was more than he could bare to think about just yet.

“Please,” whispered Joe with a quivering chin, “could I go to my room now, Pa?  Please?”

“Of course you can…Hoss, why don’t you help Joe get to bed?  I’ll be up shortly,” Ben had turned to his middle son and motioned with a nod of his head towards Joe.

“Sure thing, Pa.  Come on Short Shanks, let me help ya.”

“Adam, on your way out, have one of the hands tend to Joe’s horse for him, please,” Ben said as he watched Hoss help Joe up the stairs.

“Sure thing, Pa,” answered Adam.  “Wonder what happened to him?” Adam said to his father when Ben turned to face him.

“I suppose the boy will tell us, when he’s ready.  Right now I’m more concerned about this Petey fellow that Joe claims wants to kill him.”  Ben reached his hand out and placed it on Adam’s shoulder.  “Tell the men to keep an eye opened for any strangers or anything unusual, until we know more.”

“All right, Pa.  I’ll have Hank post a couple of guards close to the house, just in case.  I’ll send Paul right out and while I’m in town, I think I’ll stop by Roy’s and tell him what’s going on,” Adam informed his father.

“That’s a good idea, son.  Maybe Roy has a poster on this Petey fellow.”

*****

Hoss waited until his brother had stripped down to his long johns and then handed Joe his nightshirt.  Joe took the offered clothing from his brother’s hand, glancing quickly into Hoss’ blue eyes.

“Thanks Hoss,” Joe muttered, as he worked the garment over his head with only one hand and finally managed to slip his arm left arm into the sleeve.  His right arm, still encased in the bandage that Adrienne had wrapped about his wounded shoulder, he left covered by his nightshirt.  He did not bother to remove his long johns, but instead, pulled back the cover and sat down on the side of the bed.  Hoss still stood silently, not quite knowing what to say.

“Does it hurt…your shoulder I mean?” Hoss said at last.

Joe turned troubled eyes upward and peered into his brother’s face, failing to notice the concerned look that Hoss’ wore.

“I’ve been shot, what do you think?” snapped Joe as he leaned back and swung his legs onto the bed.  “Of course it hurts!”

Hoss bit his lip at the same time that he lowered his head.  He shrugged his shoulders and was about to turn to leave when Joe’s hand touched his arm.

“I’m sorry Hoss…I didn’t mean to sound so snappy,” Joe said softly.  He glanced up at his brother, who was watching him from beneath lowered lashes.

“Aw…it’s alright Short Shanks, it was a dumb question anyway,” Hoss mumbled.

“No it wasn’t…” Joe paused.

When Hoss looked Joe fully in the face, he could see the unhappy lines that had furrowed deep into his brother’s brow, and he wondered what, besides the wound in his little brother’s shoulder, had caused such unhappiness.  He longed to ask, but dared not.  It was the sudden rush of tears that filled the hazel eyes that tore at the big man’s heart and they warned him not to push his brother for any explanations.

“Joe…Pa’s sent for the doc, he’ll be here soon and then he’ll give ya somethin’ for the pain,” Hoss said encouragingly.  “I know it ain’t none of my business, but I just want ya to know, if’n ya wanna talk about what happened to ya…well…I mean…huh…”

“Thanks Hoss, I know what you’re trying to say, and I appreciate it…honest…but right now, I’d really rather just sleep.  I’ve ridden steady for nearly two days, and I’m bushed,” Joe said wearily. He buried his head deeply into the soft pillows and gave his brother a forced smile.  “There’s nothing to tell anyhow…I was shot, and some woman dug the bullet out…that’s all there was to it…”

Joe’s eyes had taken on a faraway look.  His brother, forgotten, as Joe lost himself in the memory of the gentle hands that had tended to his wound with such compassion.  He closed his eyes, seeing again the image of Adrienne’s face when he had placed his lips to hers and kissed her passionately.  Just as quickly, the image faded and was replaced by another…the face of the man he had been forced into killing…the face of Adrienne’s husband, Josh Deavers.  Miniature droplets of water trickled silently down Joe’s face.  Quickly, he brushed them away, but not before his gentle-hearted brother had seen.

Joe glanced up to see if Hoss had noticed, but Hoss, seeing the tears, had quickly turned his head.  “I think I’ll rest for awhile,” Joe said in a low voice.

Hoss forced himself to smile at his brother.  “Sure Joe…do ya need anythin’ fore I go?”

“No…” Joe answered and then turned onto his side, away from Hoss.

Inside, deep within the walls of his soul, his heart was crying out, shattered by the thoughts of the grief he had unintentionally brought to the woman and children that he had come to love so deeply.  Yes, he needed something, but nothing that his tender-hearted brother could offer him…nothing that his father or Adam could give him that would take away the pain in his heart.  Only one person could do that for him, but she had made it plain that she hated him and cared not that her words had torn into his heart and soul with more ferocity than what the bullet had ripped opened his flesh.  Joe sighed deeply, filled with longing and closing his eyes, slowly allowed the weariness to consume him.

*****

“Well Ben, all I can tell you is that whoever tended to Joe’s shoulder, did a mighty fine job.  He’s a lucky boy, from what he told me, he might have died had that lady and her two children not happened along when they did,” smiled Paul Martin, Virginia City’s only physician, and one of Ben Cartwright’s best friends.

“Then he’s going to be all right?”

“Of course he is, he’s exhausted, physically…and I might add, emotionally, but under the circumstances, that’s all to be expected.  A couple of days in bed, and he’ll be his old self again.”  Paul smiled and placed his hand on Ben’s arm.  “Don’t fret yourself, Papa, Joe’s seen worse times…and whatever is eating at him, will pass…you’ll see.”

Ben nodded his head in agreement and gave his friend a weak smile.  “I suppose you’re right Paul, but the boy seems mighty unhappy…and it goes deeper than just being shot and left to die.  There’s a lot more to this than what he’s willing to tell me.”

“Yes Ben, there is…a lot more…”

“Did he say anything to you?” Ben asked quickly.

“No, no…just that he was shot protecting himself and that whomever it was that tried to rob him, was killed.  He did tell me that a woman with two small children found him and that it was she that removed the bullet from his shoulder; he said she saved his life.  That’s all he’d say about what happened.  When I asked him about the man that he killed and the woman, who helped him, he clamed up tighter than a drum, refused to talk to me anymore.  He just turned his head and closed his eyes…I took that as my dismissal,” laughed the doctor softly.

“Try not to worry Ben, when he’s ready, he’ll tell you,” Paul said reassuringly.

Ben sighed deeply and nodded his head once more.  “I hope so, he’s hurting…inside…I see it in his eyes.”  Ben pinched his lips tightly together.  “I don’t like to see him so sad, it breaks my heart…especially when I have no idea what’s causing it,” muttered Ben as he glanced from the doctor’s kind face to the top of the stairs as if he expected to see his youngest son standing there.

Paul picked up his bag and started toward the door.  “I have a feeling it has something to do with that woman who saved his life…but then, I’m only supposing,” he added.

“What makes you say that?” Ben walked slowly to the door with his friend.

Paul laughed lightly.  “Because he’s young…because a boy like Joe carries his heart on his sleeve,” grinned the doctor.  “And because I hear it in his voice when he says her name…my bet is, Joe fell in love with her…and for whatever reason, she broke his heart.”

Paul walked out onto the porch and gazed upward at the sky.  He turned then and smiled at Ben.  “Send word if you need me…and Ben…give Joe time…it’s a great healer.”

“Thanks Paul, I’ll try to remember that…and you’re right, time does heal all,” agreed Ben, smiling for real this time.  “Thanks for coming out,” he called as Paul turned his buggy around and headed back to town.

*****

“Son,” Ben greeted Joe.  He’d been looking for his son and had found him sitting alone on the side porch.  Joe glanced up when he heard his father’s voice.

“Morning, Pa.”

“I missed you at breakfast earlier,” Ben said as he took a seat at the table.  He sipped his coffee and then sat the cup and saucer down in front of him as he watched his youngest son’s face.

“I wasn’t hungry,” Joe said and then turned to look at his father.  “I guess I haven’t had much of an appetite since I got home.”

“You’ve hardly eaten anything at all, since you came home,” Ben commented. “I’ve been worried about you Joseph, I thought maybe…”

“I’m sorry Pa…honest, I didn’t mean to cause you to worry,” Joe said sadly.

He rose to his feet and leaned against the pillar, his back to his father.  For several moments he said nothing as he gazed out across the yard.  Ben sat silently, waiting for his son to find the words that he knew the boy was searching his heart for.

“I loved her, Pa,” Joe said at last.  He glanced over his shoulder and found Ben watching his back intently.  “Adrienne…she’s the woman who found me.  She saved my life,” he explained.  He turned away from his father, afraid that Ben might see the swell of tears that had flooded his eyes.

“She was beautiful, kind, compassionate and caring.  Any man would have to be blind, not to see her as she really was.  I think I fell in love with her the very moment I saw her.  She was like a vision…so lovely…”

Joe moved back to his chair and sat back down.  He kept his head lowered for just a brief moment and then looked into his father’s eyes.

“She was married…but her husband had been gone for some time.  She wasn’t sure if he was ever coming back or not, and she had two small children, a little girl and a boy, about eight years old.”  Joe took a deep breath and then continued.  “Josh…her husband had gone to Salt Lake City for their winter supplies, Adrienne and the kids were alone, until they found me.  I had been shot and had lost a lot of blood…I’d be dead now, if she hadn’t come along and saved my life.”

Ben could see the inner pain that was forged onto his son’s face as Joe tried to tell his story.  “I’m glad that she came along when she did, son.  But would you mind telling me, how did you come to be shot?”

Ben saw Joe take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“I was camped for the night…and this stranger came by.  He seemed nice enough, so I didn’t think anything about him.  We shared the fire, a cup of coffee and a few beans, and then I turned in for the night.  Sometime later, something woke me up, that’s when I found this guy going through my saddlebags.”  Joe saw his father’s brows draw together into a frown.

“He didn’t get anything, I stopped him before he found the papers…but we did fight.  That’s when he shot me.  I managed to get to my gun and shout at him, but when he turned around, he pointed his gun at me…I…shot first…and killed him,” Joe said as he got up and moved away some.

“I buried him the best I could with this shoulder like it was.  After that, everything is sort of fuzzy…I don’t remember much, except waking up at Adrienne’s place.”

Joe turned back around and looked straight at his father, his expression showed his despair.  “I found out a few days later, when I was better, just how desperate Adrienne and her children were.  There was practically nothing at all left in the house to eat.  She had no money because her husband had taken it all with him for supplies, she killed the last rooster just so that she could fix me broth…she used the last of her flour for bread…” Joe’s voice faltered and he had to brush his hand over his face to wipe away the moisture that seeped from his eyes.

“Joe, none of that was your fault…”

“I know that Pa, but you don’t understand…”

“Then explain it to me,” Ben said as he stood to his feet and came to stand in front of his son.

“Pa…I couldn’t help myself…I knew she was married, but…I let myself fall in love with her…and her children.  I wanted to take care of them…I wanted…I…” Joe’s head dropped and Ben heard his son groan softly.

When Joe raised his head, Ben saw the trembling chin and the tear filled eyes that searched his face for understanding.

“The man I killed was…her husband,” stammered Joe.

The news caught Ben off guard and he inhaled deeply.  “What?”

“I didn’t know it at first.  I had given her part of the money I had and sent her to the trading post for a few supplies…while she was gone, wild dogs got after their milk cow.  I had to borrow her husband’s rifle to scare the dogs off, that’s when I saw a picture of Adrienne and her children, with her husband.”

Joe willed himself not to cry.  “I recognized him as the man I had killed.”

Ben pinched his lips together tightly and placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder.  He understood his son’s dilemma then.  “I’m sorry, Joseph, I can only imagine how that must have made you feel…especially after all that Adrienne had done for you.”

“I had to tell her, Pa,” Joe said in a soft voice.

“Of course you did.”

Joe glanced up at his father, “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do…I never meant to hurt her.”

“Joe, you had no way of knowing that the man who tried to kill you was her husband, and son, you were right in telling her…”

“I know that…but…now she…hates me.  And Petey…that’s her little boy, he didn’t like me at first, but after I saved the cow and ran the dogs off, he started warming up to me.  Then when Adrienne came back from the trading post and I told her about her husband, well…he hates me now as well.”  Joe paused for a minute to catch his breath.  “He swore that someday he’d find me…and kill me for murdering his pa.”

“Oh Joe,” Ben said with compassion, “he didn’t mean that, he was only speaking out of anger, and hurt.”

Joe nodded his head in agreement.  “I don’t blame him Pa…I would have felt the same way.  But it was what she said that hurt me…and I suppose it hurt because I thought she loved me as well.  I was being foolish though, for she loved her husband.  When she screamed at me that she wished that she had never found me and that I had bled to death and the buzzards had picked my eyeballs out…” Joe made a soft groaning sound.  “I wished I had died…”

“Joseph, you can’t mean that?” Ben said, shocked at his son’s proclamation.

“I did then Pa.  You should have seen the pain in her eyes, the grief that she was suffering…don’t you understand?  I caused all of that, I took from those kids, their father…I took from her the man she loved and needed and…”

“Joseph, listen to me,” Ben said as he took Joe by the shoulders and gripped them firmly.  “You didn’t know he was her husband, you were only protecting yourself…his death, and her loss was not your fault! From everything that you’ve just told me, all that happened was his fault, you were just as innocent in all of this as that woman and her children.”

“I know you’re right, Pa…but it still doesn’t take away the hurt I feel for what happened to them.”  Joe wrenched free of his father’s grasp and stepped back.  “I loved her…so much so, that there were days that I hoped…and prayed…that her husband would never come back…and then, when I found out that I had killed him…the guilt…it wouldn’t go away.  It still won’t…I feel as if somehow…I willed this to happen. I know it sounds dumb, but I can’t help what I feel.  I can’t help feeling as if I’m to blame for everything that’s happened to them. I don’t know what Adrienne will do now…she had nothing, except the food that she got from the trading post and the five hundred dollars I put on the table when I left.  It was all I had, I know it was yours, Pa…but I couldn’t leave her without any money and I wasn’t about…”

“Of course you couldn’t, son; I wouldn’t expect you to leave the woman destitute and her children hungry, you did the right thing, Joe,” Ben said softly.

“I’ll pay ya back, Pa…honest…” wept Joe.

“Don’t worry about the money, son,” whispered Ben.

The tears that Joe had fought so hard to control finally won as they began to roll gently down his face.  Ben stepped forward and gathered his weeping son into his arms and drew him to his breast, holding him until Joe had cried himself out.  When he had shed the last tear, he pulled away from his father and tried to smile.

“Thanks Pa,” Joe whispered.

“Son…I can’t honestly say that I know just how you feel, but in a way, I do…I’ve been in love a few times in my life…and not all of those loves have been rewarding.  But you’re young and someday…you’ll find the right woman, and when you do, everything will be as it should be, you’ll see,” smiled Ben.

“I hope so, Pa.  I just wish…I mean…”

“I just wish that it hadn’t ended the way it did, I mean, with Adrienne and her children, especially Petey, hating me…and blaming me,” Joe said in a small voice.  “I don’t suppose I would have felt any different than they did, but knowing that they hate me, when I still love all of them…well Pa…it hurts.”

“I know it does, son, but give it time.  Who knows, one day, God willing, maybe they will learn to forgive themselves for what they think you did to them,” Ben slipped his arm about Joe’s shoulders and smiled.

“I hope so, Pa…but right now, I would be satisfied with forgiving myself,” muttered Joe as he allowed himself to be led inside.

“You have nothing to forgive yourself for, son.  You were only protecting yourself…”

“That’s not what I was referring to.”

“Then what?” Ben stopped walking and turned to look at Joe.

“I was in love with another man’s wife…that’s not right, Pa…I should never have let myself…”

“Joseph, you can’t help what you feel in your heart…it’s what you do with those feelings that counts.  And you didn’t do anything wrong…and later, with time, you might find out that what you believed was love…real love, was instead, compassion for what they were having to endure.  In your condition, at the time, her care, the fact that she saved your life, and then learning of their needs…it could all be mistaken as the kind of love that you thought it to be.”

Joe studied his father’s face for several long moments.  Could his father be correct?  Had he mistaken compassion for true love?  Somehow, Joe didn’t think so, but for now, it offered a smidgen of comfort to his trouble soul; only time would tell.

*****

EIGHT YEARS LATER

“JOE!” Shouted Hoss as he entered the house.  “HEY, JOE!” he shouted again.

“What’s all this shouting about?” grumbled Ben as he rounded the corner from the kitchen.

“Oh, hi ya, Pa,” grinned Hoss.  “I was just lookin’ for Joe, there’s someone here to see’em,” Hoss said with a twinkle in his eyes.  “It’s a girl…ere I should say woman…and mighty fine lookin’ too,” he babbled merrily.

“Well why on earth didn’t you invite her in, for Heaven’s sake,” growled Ben as he started to the door to invite Joe’s guest inside.

“Pa, hold on a minute, the lady said she’d rather wait outside…hmm…said she wasn’t sure if’n Joe would be too pleased to see her.  JOSEPH!” Hoss bellowed loudly, making Ben cringe at the sound that caused the windows to rattle.

“What?” snapped Joe from where he stood at the top of the stairs.

He’d been getting dressed and stopped at the top step to button his shirt.  When he finished, he picked up his boots and carried them in one hand until he reached the last step.

“Why all the shouting?” he asked while sitting down in the blue chair.  He glanced up at Hoss who stood grinning from ear to ear.

“Well?” grumbled Joe.

“Ya got company; they’s awaitin’ for ya outside,” snickered Hoss.

“Company?  At this hour?” Joe seemed truly surprised.

“Joseph, it’s nine o’clock,” Ben said.  “Most people are usually up by this time of morning.”  He couldn’t resist smiling at Joe who cast him a disgruntle look.

He ignored his father’s statement, refusing to be pulled into an argument at this ungodly hour of the morning.  “Who is it and what does he want?” Joe asked Hoss.

“I didn’t say it was a he…in fact he’s a she…a right purty little filly, too,” grinned Hoss.

“A woman?” Joe stared at his brother and then glanced at his father.  “Who is she, did she say?”

“Sure ‘nough…said her name was Mrs. Adrienne Davers…Deavers…somethin’ or other like that, and she has a couple of young’uns with her too, and she said to tell ya…”

Joe’s eyes opened wide in surprise and he quickly got to his feet.  “Adrienne Deavers?” he repeated.  He glanced at his father, shock still showing in his expression.  “She’s really here…and wants to see me?”

Hoss he-hawed loudly and nodded his head.  “That’s what she said, and she doesn’t look like the type that likes to be kept waitin’ little brother.”

“Better go see what she wants, son,” Ben encouraged with a small smile.  He could see the mixture of wonder and fear that had ebbed itself onto his son’s handsome features.

“Whew…” sighed Joe and then turned toward the door.  He glanced back over his shoulder at his father.  “Do you remember who she is?” he asked.

“I remember, son…just remember what I told you back then…time heals all wounds.  Maybe hers has healed by now.”

Joe stopped at the door.  Ben could see how his son’s hand trembled when he reached for the latch.  “I don’t know what to say to them,” Joe admitted, worriedly.

“Hello, for openers,” smiled Ben.  “Then just let her do the talking, obviously that’s why she’s here, she has something to say to you.”  Ben opened the door for his son, “Go on, son, you’ve waited a long time for this day.”  Ben briefly rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder and then stepped aside to permit Joe to pass.

Joe eased slowly through the opened door and walked out onto the boarded porch.  He heard the door close softly behind and willed himself not to turn around and look.  His eyes scanned the yard, a buggy was parked next to the hitching rail and the horse’s reins were laced around the pole, but the woman and her children were nowhere to be seen.  Cautiously, as if he feared what he might find, Joe walked further into the yard and looked around.

She was leaning over the fence at the corral, pointing out the new colt to her children.  Joe heard her gentle laughter and his heart went into spasms at the sound of it.  He stopped, mid stride to catch his breath.  He was surprised at how rapidly his heart was beating and how, when he looked at them, his hands were shaking.  Adrienne was still the essence of loveliness.  If anything thought Joe, she was more beautiful than he had ever imagined her to be.  No doubt, the years had been kind to her, for she seemed to have a glow about her that simply took Joe’s breath away.  Suddenly, Adrienne turned.  Her eyes locked with Joe’s and for a brief moment, no one spoke, for time had stopped and neither was aware of anything in the world around them except for one another.

Joe swallowed the knot that had developed in his throat and moved closer to the lovely woman.  His rapid breathing, he willed to return to normal as he smiled at Adrienne.

“Hello Adrienne,” he finally managed to get out.

“Hello Joe…” she stammered.

Joe noted the rise of pink to her complexion as she averted her eyes from his face.

“It’s nice to see you, again,” she said, raising her head slightly to peer at his face.  “I suppose you’re surprised to see me…and no doubt you’re wondering why I’m here,” she said.

“Surprised is probably not the right word…shocked would be more like it.  And yes, I am wondering what has brought you here…but…it is good to see you again, whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re here,” Joe smiled.

He couldn’t take his eyes off her.  He felt somewhat foolish, standing there gawking at her like some love sick schoolboy, but all the old feelings had come rushing back at him the moment her eyes had met his.

Before either of them could say another word a young man and a younger woman joined them.  The boy stood silent, staring hard at Joe, but the young girl smiled pleasantly at him.

“Hello Mr. Cartwright,” the girl smiled.  “Remember me?”

“Remember you?  Of course I do, Sarah Beth…my, how you have grown.  Why…you’re just as pretty as I remembered you to be…no…I do believe you are prettier,” smiled Joe who took her dainty hand in his and kissed the back of it gallantly.

“Mr. Cartwright…Little Joe…I do believe you are flirting with me!” Sarah Beth dared to tease.

Joe started laughing and then Sarah Beth and her mother joined him.  Only Petey remained without a smile to brighten his face.  After Sarah had given Joe a hug, Joe turned to the boy.

“Hello Petey,” Joe said in a thick voice.

The harsh words that the eight-year old had flung at him during their last meeting suddenly flashed in Joe’s thoughts.  The boy had declared his hatred of him and had promised to kill him…and from the grim look on the boy’s face, Joe was positive that Petey still felt the same.

“Pete,” corrected Petey, refusing to take Joe’s extended hand in his.

“Pete…I stand corrected,” Joe said in a firm voice.  He dropped his hand, glancing quickly at the boy’s mother, who was speaking softly to her daughter.

“You’ve grown some,” Joe said absently and for the lack of having anything else to say.

“I’m a man now,” Pete declared in a deep voice.

Joe’s eyes sought the boy’s face.  The way Petey emphasized the word man had not gone unnoticed by Joe.  It had been a warning, of that, Joe was positive, and he silently vowed to heed the warning.  Petey might only be sixteen now and not fully grown, calculated Joe, but the boy had already filled out and stood as tall as some full grown men that he knew.  Joe glanced at the boy’s hands and knew that once balled into tight fists, the kid would be a force to reckon with, especially if the boy knew how to use them in a fight, and something about the boy’s stature told him he was right in his assumption.

Joe could only wonder at the reasons that brought this family back into his life…were there motives that he should be leery of? Or…

“Joe?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Adrienne, I didn’t hear what you were saying,” stammered Joe.

He chided himself for having not been paying attention to what Adrienne was saying.

“What was it you were saying?” Joe asked.

“I was only saying that the reason why I came here was because…well…” her voice trailed off until she stopped talking altogether.  When she raised her eyes to look up at Joe, he could see the silent plea for understanding.

“Children,” she said, “why don’t you both wait in the buggy…I need to speak to Mr. Cartwright privately, and then, we’ll be on our way.”

Sarah Beth smiled at Joe and then her mother.  “Yes mother,” she said politely.  “It’s been nice seeing you again, Little Joe,” Sarah said as she curtsied and then climbed into the buggy.

Joe returned the smile and tipped his hat at the pretty young girl.  “My pleasure, Ma’am,” Joe said.

Petey had stood rooted to the spot and had refused to move.  He glared at Joe with dark eyes.

“Pete…please…wait for me in the buggy,” ordered Adrienne.

She waited, fearing that her son would not abide by her wishes.  Adrienne was well aware of the animosity that still simmered within her son.  Perhaps bringing him here, with her, had not been such a good idea after all.  She had been hoping to rectify things between herself and Joe Cartwright; it had been long overdue, but once finding out the truth about her husband, she had been hard pressed to admit that she had been wrong in blaming Joe for Josh’s death.  At first, she had made up excuses as to why she couldn’t face him.  And then, as the years slipped slowly by, it became easier and easier to forget how she had hurt Joe by accusing him and making him to be the one to carry all the guilt for her husband’s death.

But with the passing of the years, her son’s hatred seemed to deepen and by the time Petey had grown into the young man he was now, the hate was so deeply rooted in his heart that Adrienne feared for her son’s future.  She had sent him away to school, but he’d only returned home, barred from attending the academy or any of the other schools that she had found for him.  There had been fight after fight, each time Petey pounding some poor boy until this last fight, when Petey had beaten a much bigger boy nearly to death.  The school had threatened to press charges against her son, but Adrienne had begged and pleaded with the dean not to do so.  She had even gone as far as promising to go away, taking her son with her to get professional help.  That was where she and her family were headed…to San Francisco where she had found a doctor that promised to help her son overcome his inner demons.  The stop in Virginia City had sparked her memory.  She recalled having heard Joe mention that he lived on a ranch somewhere near Virginia City, so Adrienne had decided to stop and set the record straight with Joe.  Little did she realize the amount of hatred that she had awakened in her son’s soul, or what that loathing might lead the boy to do.

Petey gave Joe one more antagonizing glare and without a word went to the buggy where he climbed in and sat sullenly in the seat next to his sister.

Adrienne turned to Joe.  “I’m sorry Joe…but Pete…”

“No need for you to apologize for the boy, Adrienne,” Joe said as he took her arm and led her away.  “I know he hates me…and I understand why,” he said quietly.  “Though I was hoping that by now…he’d…”

“He hasn’t, Joe.  Pete’s hatred goes very deep, and to be honest with you, I don’t think it’s just you that he hates,” Adrienne said.  She glanced back toward the buggy at her son.  “I believe a part of him hates his own father for what he did.”  She looked up into Joe’s eyes and studied his expression.

“We found out later…after you had gone…that you were telling us the truth, about why you had to kill Josh.”  Adrienne separated herself a bit from Joe and then turned to look again at him.  “I suppose I knew, deep down, that you were telling the truth about what happened, I just didn’t want to believe it…not of Josh.  You see Joe, I loved him…no matter what he’d done and blaming you…letting you carry the guilt…was easier for me than to admit the truth about my husband.”

Adrienne placed her hand on Joe’s arm; her eyes had filled with tears.  “I’m truly sorry for that Joe…for hurting you as I did, for letting you live all these years thinking that you were to blame, when in truth, you did what you had to do because you were forced into it.  Can you ever forgive me?”

Joe took a deep breath to steady himself and with one finger, wiped away the lone tear that escaped from Adrienne’s dark eyes.

“There was nothing to forgive you for, you were hurt, you were grieving and I knew that what you said to me was spoken out of anger.  I did forgive myself…but it took me a long time to do so.  I did blame myself for what happened, for what I believed I had done to you and to the children and it took me a lot of sleepless nights before I got over that.”

“I’m so sorry Joe; I should have come here years ago…”

“Why didn’t you?  I mean…” Joe brushed his hand gently down the side of Adrienne’s face.  “Surely you knew I loved you?” he said quietly.

Adrienne pulled away and turned her back to Joe.  “I knew…perhaps in my mind that’s why I didn’t come here before now…at least that was one of the reasons.”  She turned to face Joe.  “I knew that if I had come…I would have to admit the truth about a lot of things…about Josh, about how I felt about you…and about myself.”

“About me?  How did you feel about me?” Joe inquired of Adrienne.

He placed both hands on Adrienne’s shoulders and held her so that she could not turn away from him again.  With one hand, he tipped her chin upward so that he could look into her eyes.

“Answer me,” he insisted in a husky voice.

Joe saw Adrienne swallow and try to avert her eyes.  “Look at me…please,” Joe whispered.

“I…I was falling in love with you, Joe.  I…felt as if I had been unfaithful to my husband.”  Adrienne’s eyes sought Joe’s.  “I loved him, honestly…but I was so lonely…so frightened.  The children and I were all alone…and then I found you…I’m sorry Joe…I should never have let you kiss me, I should have never let you hold me, or…or allow you to fall in love with me.”  Adrienne pulled free of the tender hands that held her.

“I was a married woman…with two children…it was wrong of me to encourage you.  It was wrong of me to hurt you and to blame you and then to send you away like I did…oh, Joe…I’m so ashamed.”  Adrienne covered her face and began to weep.

Joe, his stomach in knots, gathered the sobbing woman into his arms and held her tightly.

“Please don’t cry,” he whispered.  He leaned down and kissed the top of her head.  “You have nothing to be ashamed of,” he murmured softly.  Joe raised Adrienne’s head for the second time and this time, he pressed his lips to hers and kissed her deeply.

He felt the sudden rush of passion as it swept throughout his body and Joe found himself clinging to the woman he had once loved.  He buried his face in her long dark hair, sucking in the light fragrance of her perfume as he did so.  He felt her body surrender itself to his and for a brief moment, he stopped breathing.  Their bodies molded together as Adrienne’s arms encircled themselves around Joe’s body.

“Adrienne…my love,” Joe whispered in a thick, passionate tone.

Unexpectedly, Adrienne broke free from Joe’s arms and moved several paces away, surprising, and disappointing the man that had held her so tenderly.

“Joe…” she stammered, “please…don’t,” she cried as Joe came forward.  Adrienne held her arm out, stopping Joe at arm’s length from her.  “I didn’t come here for this…I came only because I wanted you to know that I was sorry for all the misery I caused you…and I was hoping to hear you say that you forgive me…and Petey for hurting you so.”

“But Adrienne…I still…”

“No!” she said in a troubled voice, “don’t say it, please…just say you forgive me and then I’ll go…please Joe…there can never be anything between us, except friendship,” she said with a weak smile.  “Don’t you understand?”

“No, I don’t understand,” Joe exclaimed.

“Joe, nothing has changed, not really…except for the fact that I know you were telling us the truth about what happened.  But the truth remains; you killed my husband…even if in self-defense, but when my children look at you…they don’t see the wonderful man that I know you to be…they only see the man who killed their father. I have to think of my children, Joe…I’m all they have, and…they’re all I have.”

Adrienne began walking slowly toward the buggy where her children were waiting.  Joe walked along beside her, unable to find the words that he carried in his heart.  When they reached the buggy, Adrienne stopped and turned to Joe.

“Thank you Joe, for understanding…and for forgiving me,” she said softly.

“Do you have to go?  I mean…please Adrienne…”

“Yes, Joe, I have to go…I have to find help for Petey.  He has to learn how to forgive, if he doesn’t soon, his hatred will only be the death of him…and I fear for his well-being.”

Adrienne raised up on her tiptoes and kissed Joe on the cheek.  Gently she brushed her hand along the side of his face.  “Good bye, Joe,” she whispered.

Joe held her arm briefly as he stared into the eyes that had haunted his dreams for months after he and Adrienne had parted ways nearly eight years ago.  He wanted to say something, but his emotions would not allow him to form the words.  Joe nodded his head and then helped Adrienne into the buggy.  As she picked up the reins, Joe stepped back out of the way.

“Good-bye and thank you for understanding,” he heard Adrienne whisper for the second time.

Joe tipped his hand to his hat, nodded at Sarah Beth and glanced at Petey.  Sarah Beth smiled slightly at him, but it was the dark angry glare on the young man’s face that took Joe by surprise.

“See ya ‘round, Cartwright,” Petey mouthed softly as Adrienne drove the buggy from the yard and out of Joe’s life forever.

*****

“Ready to ride, son?” Ben asked Joe when Joe finally met him outside.  Ben was tightening the cinch on his saddle when Joe joined him.

“Do I have a choice?” grumbled Joe as he checked his own cinch.

Ben gazed over the top of his saddle at his son.  Joe’s mood had been as such since Adrienne and her children had left two days ago.  And from the tone of Joe’s voice, Ben surmised that his youngest son’s mood would not be much better than it had been the day before or the day before that.

“You could always stay here and muck out the barn and pout some more,” Ben said without looking away.

Joe’s expression changed suddenly as his father’s words sunk in.  He raised his head and met his father’s gaze.

“I’m sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean to snap at you…it’s just that…”

“It’s all right, son…I understand how you feel, but please, won’t you put it aside for now.  Brooding about it won’t change things, Joe.  She gone, and it’s not likely that you will ever see her again.  What once was is over…or as she said, it never was meant to be.  It’s time, Joseph, to let her go,” Ben said softly.

He understood his son’s pain and disappointment, for he had loved before, women who had not returned that love, and it hurt, it always did. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last that Joe’s young heart would be broken, but he would survive, Ben had.

“I suppose you’re right, Pa,” Joe smiled.  “You usually always are,” he said and then giggled lightly.

Ben smiled knowingly at his son and then mounted up.  “Mount up then…and let’s ride, there’s work to be done.”

They were miles from the ranch when the first bullet whizzed by their heads.  The fencing they were working on was tossed to the ground as Ben and Joe both sought cover.

“Did you see where that shot came from?” Joe called out to his father who hunkered down behind a tree a short distance from where Joe lay sprawled out on the ground behind a large rock.

“No,” shouted Ben as he peeked from around the trunk of the tree.

Just then the sound of a shot split the air between them and Ben was forced to duck back his head as the bullet embedded itself in the trunk of the tree.

“There,” Joe shouted, pointing to a large boulder about three hundred yards away.

He waited until the unidentified man peeked over the top of the boulder he was hiding behind and fired, then Joe returned the fire.  He saw the man’s hat fly from his head and he turned to grin at his father, but Ben wasn’t grinning back.

“PA!” shouted Joe the instant he saw his father sprawled on the ground.  “PA!” yelled Joe a second time and still no response from his father.  Joe glanced up at the rocks but could not see the man who had opened fire at them.

Joe made a mad dash from the place where he had been hiding, over to the tree where Ben had been crouching.  What Joe saw made his heart stop.  Ben was lying face down in the grass, unmoving.  Joe slipped behind the tree and gently, with fear pumping through his veins, turned his father over, onto his back.

“Pa,” said Joe as he gazed around him and then slipped his gun into his holster.  Quickly he began ripping away the shirt that covered Ben’s arm where the bullet had creased his flesh.

“Pa,” Joe said worriedly.

Ben groaned and then opened his eyes, seeing his son’s anxious face looming over him.  He forced a smile.  “I’m alright, son,” he muttered.  “Guess I didn’t duck fast enough.”

“It’s only a flesh wound, Pa, but we better get you back to the ranch and let Doc Martin have a look at it,” Joe said as he ripped a strip from Ben’s shirt to use as a bandage.  “There, that should hold it until we get home.  Think you can walk?” Joe asked as he started to rise to help his father to his feet.

Ben’s eyes grew suddenly wide and he raised one hand to point at something behind Joe.  “Son, lookout!”

It was too late; as Joe turned to see what his father was pointing at, he felt a sudden blast of pain to the back of his head and instantly everything went black.

*****

“Pa and Joe must be back already,” Hoss said, looking over at his older brother.

Hoss stood to his feet and started to the door; Adam rose as well and followed after his brother.  Hoss pulled opened the front door and was startled to see a woman standing in front of him.  He recognized her as the woman who had come by a couple of days ago to visit with Joe.

“Ma’am?” Hoss floundered, as the woman, weeping, fell into his arms.  “Ma’am” stammered Hoss a second time, looking around frantically for Adam.

Hoss looked as if he was lost with the sobbing woman clinging to him and the expression on his face when he finally found his older brother, begged for help.

“Let’s get her to the settee,” Adam said, taking the woman’s other arm as together he and Hoss led the distraught woman to the couch.  Gently they guided her around until she was sitting.

“Mrs…Deavers, isn’t it?” Adam asked the weeping lady.  “Hoss, pour her a brandy,” he ordered.  “Please, Ma’am…what’s wrong?” Adam demanded in a gentle but commanding voice.

“My son…my son…he’s gone…gone…” sobbed Adrienne.

“Gone?” puzzled Adam, glancing up at Hoss who handed Adam the wineglass and then stood with his hands crammed into his pockets.

Adrienne accepted the goblet of wine and took a sip.  “Yes…he got very angry with me…and he’s gone…gone after Little Joe.”  She looked straight into Adam’s eyes without even blinking as she hurried to explain.   “Petey swore that he would kill Joe…oh please, Mr. Cartwright…you have to help me find Petey before he does something that he will regret for the rest of his life!”

Adam cast anxious eyes over at his brother and stood to his feet.  “Hoss, get the horses saddled, and some men ready to ride,” he ordered.

“Adrienne, when was the last time that you saw your son?  I thought you left Virginia City two days ago?” Adam asked.  He went to the credenza and began putting on his gun and holster.  He grabbed his hat from the peg and arranged it on his head.

“We did leave.  We were on our way to San Francisco and stopped over in Carson City.  Petey slipped out of our hotel room and stole a horse.  I knew he was coming back here; all he talked about on the stage was how he wished he’d killed Little Joe when he had the chance.”  Adrienne rushed to Adam and grabbed both of his hands.

“Please, Mr. Cartwright…Adam…he’s just a boy…”

“He’s as big, if not bigger than my little brother…he’s full of hate and he’s most likely armed.  I’m sorry Ma’am, but in my thinking, that makes him a very dangerous man.”

Adam opened the door and then turned to Adrienne. “You wait here until I come back.  Hop Sing will stay with you.  My father and Joe went to the south end of the ranch to do some work on the fence.  Hoss sent one of the men for the sheriff; if he shows up here, you tell him that’s where we’ve gone.  I want to make sure that both of them are okay, and to warn Joe that your son is looking for him.  You’ll be safe here, Ma’am,” Adam added in a kinder voice.

He noted the frightened look on her face and paused, one last time.  “Please, try not to worry; I’ll do what I can to help your son…and my brother.”

Relief washed away the worried look in Adrienne’s dark eyes and she forced herself to smile at Joe’s oldest brother.  “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright…I pray that my son, and your brother will both be alright.”

Adam nodded his head and touched his hand to his hat and then rushed to his horse.  Hoss had the horses ready and about four of the ranch hands had joined them.  Quickly Adam mounted up and headed the small group of men out of the yard.

Adam led the group of men straight to the fence line where he knew his father and Joe were planning on working.  What he found filled his heart with dread.  His father’s horse stood grazing nearby; Joe’s was nowhere to be found.  The tools that had been used were scattered about in the dirt.

Adam and Hoss slid from their horses.  Hoss studied the ground, looking for signs that might give them a clue as to what had happened.  He glanced up at Adam, a look of fear in his eyes.

“Lookit Adam, blood, one of them’s hurt,” he said, rising to his feet.  “Here, two sets of tracks,” Hoss said as he walked along, studying the ground.  “And here…looks as if a scuffle took place…oh Lordy, Adam, lookit yonder.”

Hoss was pointing to a crumpled figure lying motionless in the grass.  He dropped Chubb’s reins and took off at a run, running, as fast his heavy frame would allow him.

“Pa!” cried Hoss the second he reached his father’s body and sank to the ground.  Gently, he turned Ben over onto his back.

“Pa,” muttered Hoss as he gently brushed the dirt particles from his father’s face.  Ben groaned softly, but refused to open his eyes.  Blood seeped from the wound in his right arm and from the gash over his left eye.

Adam dropped to his knees.  He had grabbed the canteen and immediately wet his neck scarf with the cool water and began wiping his father’s brow.  “Pa, can you hear me?”

“Oh…” moaned Ben. “My head…hurts,” he whispered in a voice filled with pain.

“Easy,” Hoss instructed as he helped his father into a sitting position.

“What happened?  Who shot you?” Adam questioned.

“I don’t know, we were working on the fence when…someone started taking shots…at us,” Ben managed to get out while flinching as Adam dabbed away at the cut on his father’s brow.

“Did you see who it was?  Was it the Deavers boy?” Adam asked anxiously.

Ben turned troubled eyes on Adam and studied his face.  He was trying to remember, but everything was so fuzzy, it was hard to tell.  He placed a hand to his throbbing head and groaned.

“I don’t know…I can’t be sure…you’ll have to ask Joe…”

Suddenly Ben straightened and glanced quickly from Adam to Hoss, a frightened look on his face.

“Joe?  Where’s Joe…Adam!” Ben grabbed his oldest son’s arm.  “He hit Joe on the back of his head and knocked him out…I tried to help him…but the boy…yes, now I remember, it was the Deavers’ kid.  We struggled and that’s the last thing I remember…he must have knocked me out!”

“Well where’s Joe now, Pa?” Hoss glanced around as if expecting to see his kid brother appear out of no where.

“Help me up,” he ordered his sons as he tried to stand.

Once up, he swayed slightly and both Adam and Hoss had to clutch his arms until he was better able to stand on his own.  Ben moved his head slowly around, as if looking for his youngest son.

“Pa…where’s Joe?  Mrs. Deavers came by the house and told us that her son was set on killing Joe…we have to find him!” Adam said urgently.

Ben’s head was pounding and thinking straight was next to impossible.  He pinched his eyes tightly closed.  When he opened them, he looked at Adam as if seeing him for the first time.

“The boy…he must have taken Joe with him,” Ben said and then groaned again.  “Help me to my horse…we have to find your brother.”

“You’re not going any place except home, Pa.  You’re in no condition to ride…I’ll have one of the men take you back to the house…Hoss and I will find Little Joe,” Adam ordered.

Ben looked doubtful at first but then agreed.  “Alright son,” he muttered, looking at Adam and then at Hoss.  “You boys be careful…that kid may only be sixteen, but he’s dangerous…he hit both of us pretty hard, there’s no telling what he’s liable to do to Joe.”

“Don’t ya worry none, Pa, we’ll find Joe.  Ya jest get home and let Doc take a look at your head,” Hoss said as he helped Ben mount up.  “Seth, ya take Pa back to the ranch and send someone for the doctor…we’ll be home soon as we find Little Joe.”

*****

Joe woke to a throbbing pain in his head.  It was dark and when he tried to move, he found that his hands and feet had been bound tightly with coarse thick rope that burned his wrists when he tried to move.  He was lying on his stomach and his arms were pulled up behind his back and his legs were bent at an odd angle and tied to the rope around his wrists.  Moving was impossible.

Joe coughed to clear his dry throat but the action caused his throat to feel as if it were on fire.  The burning sensation from the hot acid that filled his mouth brought a sudden rush of water into his eyes and he pinched them tightly to keep the tears from dripping down his face.  When he opened them, he tried to look around the dingy room where he was being held prisoner but it was so dark that he could barely make out a thing in the room.  And it was quiet, very, very quiet and the eerie silence gave Joe an uneasy feeling.  He shivered for it was cold in the room and the room seemed large, too large to be in a house, or shack and Joe couldn’t help but wonder where he was and how he got there.

He tried to recall what had happened.  He remembered that he and his father had been working on a fence when someone had started taking pot shots at them and they had been forced to dive for cover.  Joe’s heart began beating rapidly.

“Pa!” he muttered to himself, surprised that his voice echoed slightly.

Ben had been struck in the arm by one of the bullets and he had rushed to his father’s side.  The injury had only been a flesh wound and Ben had not been hurt too badly, much to his youngest son’s relief.  But then Joe recalled his father pointing up at something or someone behind him, most likely the man who had been shooting at them.  Before Joe could turn around, he had been knocked on the head with something hard and with such force that he had fallen unconscious immediately.

Joe tried to move enough to lessen the pain in his arms and legs, but it seemed the more he squirmed, the tighter the ropes became.  Joe lowered his head onto the floor and tried to collect his thoughts.  If his father had not been hurt too badly, where was he now, pondered Joe.  Had the man who attacked them, taken his father prisoner as well, and if so, what had happened to him?  These thoughts worried Joe, for he knew he was alone in this dark place where there was no light, no sounds and obviously, no one else here with him.  He tugged once more at his ropes but it was useless, there would be no escape and he sighed heavily.

The soft sounds of someone walking aroused Joe’s attention and he tried to focus his eyes in the direction from which the sound was coming.  He could see nothing through the thick blackness that surrounded him, until the soft glow of a light could be seen.  Joe watched the light sway from side to side, casting grotesque shadows along the walls.  It dawned on Joe then as he watched the light grow larger and brighter, that he was in a cave and not in a building as he had first expected.  That would account for the stillness and the chill that he had been experiencing.

Joe waited until the man had come close enough to him that he could look up at the man’s face.  His own face showed an expression of shock as he stared into the blue eyes of the man that towered over him.  Joe sucked in a deep breath of air to fill his lungs.

“PETEY!” he groaned loudly.

“That’s right Cartwright, I told you I’d get you…and now I have you…and I’m going to kill you!” laughed Petey nervously as he placed the lantern off to the side and pulled up a stool and sat down next to Joe.

“Petey…you can’t mean that…your father’s death was…”

“SHUT UP!  I know why you killed my father…or so you’ve said!” snapped Petey as he jumped to his feet and kicked Joe in the side, which caused Joe to cry out in pain.

Joe struggled to breathe, the toe of Petey’s boot had jabbed him in the ribs and Joe feared that one rib might have cracked.

“You have to listen to me…don’t do this…think about your mother,” Joe moaned.

Petey had moved and Joe turned his head trying to keep an eye on the boy.

“I am thinking about my mother…if it hadn’t been for her, I’d have killed you a long time ago…you know…you ruined our lives…don’t you?” Petey growled as he sat back down on his stool in front of Joe.

Joe glanced up at the boy.  Petey had his revolver in his hand and was spinning the chamber around.  He saw Joe watching him and he smiled.

“I know how to use this…it took me a long time to learn and hours of practice, but I’m good, real good.”  Petey spun the chamber one more time and then twirled the pistol around his finger, plopping it back into his holster.

“Where’s my father?” Joe asked suddenly, taking the boy by surprise.

Petey spun around and glared at Joe but said nothing.

“He was hit in the arm; where is he?” Joe asked again.

He watched the color on the boy’s face drain, leaving his complexion a milky white. The strange expression on the boy’s face gave Joe a sick feeling deep down in his stomach.

“Petey,” he said with more calm than he was actually feeling.  “What have you done with my father?”

“How should I know?” the boy stammered and moved out of the light where Joe could not see him.

“He wasn’t hurt too badly.  You only nicked him,” Joe said, trying to draw the information from the boy.  “He wasn’t even bleeding too badly…Petey…” Joe gulped, fear beginning to force the hot bile into his throat.  “My father…what happened to him, after you hit me on the head?”

Joe heard the boy laugh and twisted his head around trying to see where Petey had moved.  A moment later, the boy moved back into the light.  Joe watched the face twist into a deep frown and listened as Petey drew in a deep breath.  The boy’s eyes looked as if they had filled with tears and Joe could only wonder as to why.

“I hit him after I hit you,” Petey stammered.

Joe’s stomach did a flop.

“He tried to stop me from taking you…I warned him that I was going to kill you, for what you did to my family.  I was trying to get you on your horse, that’s when he tried to jump me…he wouldn’t let go of my arm, so I clubbed him on the head with a limb I picked up.”  Petey laughed but the sound had a sick ring to it.

“Petey…” Joe could see the strange look that came into the boy’s eyes and he knew that Petey had not finished telling him what had become of his father.

Petey squatted down in front of Joe, a twisted smile tugging at his lips.  “I hit him hard…much harder than I hit you.  The blood gushed out, all over his face…and he fell down, in the dirt.”

Joe’s breathing became labored as he pictured his father lying face down in the dirt, his life’s blood seeping from the gash in his head.

“He’s dead, Cartwright…I killed him, just like you killed my father,” Petey said in a strained voice.

“NO!” shouted Joe.  “No…why?  Why Petey…he never did anything to you…you didn’t even know him!” Joe yelled.

“He made me do it…” sniffed Petey.  “I told him I didn’t want to hurt him, I only wanted you…but he wouldn’t listen, so when he made a grab for me…I hit him.”  Petey’s tear filled eyes overflowed.

“Don’t you see…he forced me to do it, Joe.  I was only protecting myself…just like you.  Ain’t that what you said you were doing…when you killed my father?” shouted Petey.  His voice sounded high pitched and shrill and bordered on hysteria.

Joe felt his body tremble in fear and dread, surely the boy was lying to him.  “Petey…are you sure…I mean…”

“Of course I’m sure…his head cracked opened and…and…” he stopped and looked down at Joe.  “I…”

Joe saw Petey gulp and watched the miniature beads of water roll slowly down the boy’s face.

“I told ya…it was self-defense, just like…”

“No Petey, my father was only trying to help me.  He would never have hurt you…”

“But he did…I…have to kill you Joe…I have to make you pay for what you did to my father.”  Suddenly Petey burst into laughter.  “I killed your father…just like you killed mine.  It don’t feel so good, does it Cartwright…to know that your old man is dead!”

Joe pinched his lips tightly together and lowered his head to the ground.  His body shook with rage and at that precise moment, he was glad that his hands were bound tightly for he feared had they not been, he would have choked the life out of the one who stood before him laughing.

Quite unexpectedly, Petey dropped to his knees in the dirt before Joe.  “I…didn’t mean…to…honest Joe, ya gotta believe me…I didn’t mean to hit him so hard,” wept Petey.

Joe, stunned, could only stare in disbelief at the sobbing lad.

“Petey, untie my hands,” Joe said, forcing his voice not to break.

He was on the verge of falling apart, but he willed himself to be strong.  The only way he could get out of this mess was to convince the boy that he could help him.

Petey stopped crying for a brief moment and stared at Joe.  “Untie you?  What do you take me for, a fool?  I brought you here to kill you…and I plan on doing just that.”

Petey pulled his pistol from his holster and looked from it to where Joe lay.

“Don’t do this Petey…let me help you…”

“Shut up!” snapped Petey as he twirled the chamber around.

“Your mother needs you, boy…if you kill me, they’ll hang you.”

“I said shut up!”  Petey stood to his feet and walked a few paces away and then returned.

“What about Sarah Beth…what kind of life to you think she’d have…knowing that her brother killed a man while he was hog tied?”

Petey, once more on his knees and facing Joe, slapped Joe’s face.  “SHUT UP!” he screamed as he grabbed a handful of Joe’s hair and pressed the end of his pistol to Joe’s temple.

“I killed your father, true I didn’t mean to kill him…but I do mean to kill you,” Petey said.

“Petey…if it really was an accident…then nothing will happen to you, but if you kill me…”

Joe heard the trigger click as Petey cocked the pistol.  Joe’s body shook with unbridled fear as he felt Petey pushed the tip end of the pistol barrel deeper into his temple.

“I’ll hang anyway…your brothers will see to that…so what difference will it make if I kill you…they can only hang me once!”

“But you don’t have to hang…” Joe gulped and closed his eyes.  “Petey…please…don’t do…this,” moaned Joe softly.  He could feel the blood surging in his veins as he pleaded with the boy.

“Dear God…Petey…put the gun away…now before you do something you’ll only regret later.”

Petey had begun to cry softly and Joe felt the boy’s fingers as they loosened the grip on his hair. He started to move but the movement caused Petey to tighten up his hold on his prisoner’s hair.

“Don’t move!” snarled Petey as he jabbed the pistol hard against Joe’s temple for the second time.

Joe flinched.  “Take it easy Petey…” stammered Joe.

He could see the boy’s hand shaking and see by the expression on the young face how the boy fought with his inner self.   Joe knew that if he did anything to frighten the boy the gun might go off, and if it did…it would spell the end to Joe Cartwright.

“I have to kill you…don’t ya understand Cartwright?  No one knows that I killed your pa, only you…and I can’t let ya live now…not even if I wanted to.  You’re the only one that knows I done it…I gotta kill ya.”

“No you don’t, son…do as Joe asked, and put down the gun.”

Petey spun around at the sound of the deep voice coming from behind him.  He was startled to see Joe’s two brothers standing in the soft glow of the lantern light.  He glanced down quickly at Joe, who had pushed himself away as far as he could, and then looked back at Adam who stood poised to draw his gun.

It was evident by the confused look on Petey’s face that he was unsure of what action to take.  Adam dared to take a step nearer the frightened boy.

“STOP!” shouted Petey, “or I’ll kill him!”  He pointed the cocked pistol at Joe while keeping his eyes fixed on the other two men.

“You don’t want to do that…not really Petey…give me gun.”  Adam stretched out his hand, waiting, but Petey refused to lower or hand over his gun.

“NO!  You don’t understand…I killed your father…I…”

“No you didn’t boy…our father is fine…honest.  He has a pounding headache, but he’s not dead,” explained Adam who had just taken another step forward without the boy even realizing it.

“You’re lying…I hit him…I saw the blood.  He wasn’t moving…he’s DEAD!” screamed Petey.  He had begun to cry and for a fraction of a second he looked away.

Adam took another step and was now within an arm’s reach of the boy.  Petey’s head popped up and he pointed his pistol at Adam.

“Don’t come any closer, mister,” he snapped at Adam.

Petey was so busy keeping his eyes on Adam and Joe that he had been unaware that Hoss had slipped in behind him and was now standing only a few feet away.

“Give me the gun Pete,” Adam ordered, his hand still extended.

He moved his eyes to glance over Petey’s shoulder at Hoss who had moved even closer.  Petey saw the way that Adam’s dark eyes moved and he turned quickly to look over his shoulder.  When he did, Adam made a grab for the gun and was able to jerk it free of the boy’s fingers.  Petey screamed out in anger and turning back to Adam made a dive at the oldest Cartwright son, knocking him off his feet.  Together, Adam and Petey fell to the ground, arms and legs entwined around one another as they grappled for the pistol which had been knocked free of Adam’s hand.

Petey’s hand managed to lock around the pistol but Adam took the boy by surprise and delivered a much-deserved punch to the boy’s chin.  The pistol went flying through the air and landed with a thud at Hoss’ feet.  The big man bent quickly and retrieved the gun just as Adam locked his arms about the struggling lad’s body and held him tightly, the boy’s arms pinned down along his sides.  Petey kicked and screamed until he wore himself out and then fell against Adam’s chest, weeping.

“I didn’t…mean…to hurt…him…honest,” sobbed Petey.  “I wasn’t going…to kill…ya…Joe.  I was only gonna…scare…ya,” Petey continued.

Hoss had untied his younger brother and was helping Joe to his feet.  Joe rubbed at his wrists where the ropes had burned into his flesh.  He stepped up to the weeping boy and turned him from Adam until Petey faced him.  Joe cupped the quivering chin with one hand and tilted Pete’s head upward.

“I’m sorry…Joe…honest…please…please,” he said in a wee voice.  “Help…me!”

Petey’s legs gave out and the boy slumped against Joe.  Quickly, Joe scooped the boy up into his arms and looked at his brothers.  Hoss noted the painful expression on Joe’s face

“Ya alright, little brother?” Hoss inquired as he took the boy from his brother.

“I think I have a cracked rib,” he muttered and then gave both a weak smile.

“You two sure are a sight for sore eyes,” he said.  “Adam…Pa…is he really alright?” he asked fearfully.

“He’s fine Joe, the doctor’s with him now.  You okay, other than that rib?” Adam asked as they turned to leave the cave.

Joe nodded his head.  “Fine…just fine, Adam,” he laughed softly.  “Let’s get this boy back to his mother.  I know she must be worried sick about him.”

“She is.  She came to the ranch and told us that he had run away from her and was intent on killing you,” Adam explained.  “She was frightened for him…and you, Joe.”

Joe stopped walking and took Adam by the arm, bringing him to a halt as well.  “She was?  She said that?”

“Yeah, Joe…she said as much.”

“Huh…well, I’ll be,” Joe muttered to himself.

When they all rode into the yard, Adrienne burst through the door and ran to her son.  She grabbed him the second that his feet touched the ground and wrapped her arms tightly around his quivering body.

“Petey…oh Petey, you’re all right,” she sobbed as she clung to her son.

Her eyes looked over the boy’s head and sought Joe’s.  Adam and Hoss had moved away, taking the horses to the barn and giving Joe time to speak with the boy’s mother.

“Thank you,” she mouthed to Joe.

Joe, his lips pinched tightly, only nodded his head, for the words that he wished to say were stuck deep in his throat.

“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone…honest Mama,” Petey cried.  He glanced over at Joe who stood silently.  “Joe’s brother could have killed me…and I thought he was going to…’cause I killed his father…”

“No Petey, no, you didn’t kill him…Mr. Cartwright is going to be fine,” explained Adrienne who still held her son.

“I know that now…but not then…I was so scared Mama…I didn’t know what to do…” Petey began sobbing again and buried his face into the fold of this mother’s neck.

“Shh…don’t cry son, everything will be okay,” whispered Adrienne softly.  She looked up at Joe, hopefully.

Joe swallowed down the thickness in his throat and placed a hand on the boy’s trembling shoulder.  “Your mother’s right Pete,” Joe said.  “My pa’s gonna be fine…and I’m sure we can work something out with the sheriff…about the shooting,” Joe assured the boy.

Petey turned from his mother to face Joe.  He looked into Joe’s eyes, seeing compassion instead of the hate that he had believed would be present.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright…I was wrong…so wrong.  For so long I wanted to hate you for what happened to my father…and I wanted to see you hurt like I was hurt.  I wanted to kill you…but then…when I had the chance…I couldn’t do it.  When I hit your father…I got so scared…I wasn’t even aware what I was doing,” stammered Petey.

Joe placed his hand to cup the back of the boy’s neck and gently pulled the sobbing boy into his arms.  He fought to keep his own tears from running down his face as he tried to comfort the frightened boy.

Petey entwined his arms about Joe’s mid section and clung to him.  “Please…I’m so sorry…for everything,” sobbed the boy.

“So am I, Pete,” Joe murmured softly, “so am I.”  His eyes found Adrienne’s and when she smiled slightly and moved nearer to him, Joe’s arm sought to bring her into the hug as well.

“Thank you, Joe,” she whispered, “for bringing my son back to me…and…”

“Don’t say it, Adrienne,” Joe muttered.

*****

Two days later, Joe stood in the yard and watched as Petey loaded their things into the buggy.  When the boy had placed the last of their belongings in the back, he turned to Joe.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said in a small voice.  He raised his head so that he could see Joe’s face.

“You don’t have to say anything, Pete.  It’s already been said,” smiled Joe who placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “I’m just glad that everything worked out as it did.”

“Me too.  It was sure nice of your father not to press charges against me,” Petey said.  “And…for the sheriff letting me off so lightly.”

“Well Pete, we all learned from the experience.  I just hope that you follow through with your promise to get help from that doctor your mother found in San Francisco,” Joe said, smiling.

“I will…I promise,” agreed Petey.

“You bet he will…I’ll make sure of it,” Adrienne said as she came up behind Joe and her son.

She flashed a bright smile at both her son and at Joe.  “Petey, wait in the buggy for me…I want to have a word with Joe before we go,” ordered Adrienne as she ran her fingers through her son’s blond curls.

“Yes Ma’am,” he smiled at his mother.  Petey turned to Joe; the smile had faded somewhat.  “Thanks again Joe, for…everything,” he said in a small voice.  “I…ere…”

“It’s all right Petey.  It’s over now and in the past…let’s just leave it there,” smiled Joe.

“Yes sir.  Well, see ya!”  Petey nodded his head and then did as his mother had asked.

He climbed into the buggy and watched as Joe led his mother a few steps from the wagon.  He couldn’t help but notice the strange expressions that each of them wore on their faces.

When he saw Joe pull his mother into his arms and kiss her, Petey turned away.  He could understand now, after all these years, why his mother loved Joe Cartwright as she did.  He had found in the man, a true sense of understanding and compassion that he had never found in another man, not even his own father.  And he had discovered that he loved Joe as much as he had ever loved his father, perhaps more so.  The realization caused his eyes to swell with tears at what he had almost done to this special person and the Cartwright family…not to mention how he had almost destroyed his own mother and sister by his hatred.  He shuddered at the thoughts that invaded his mind.

“I suppose I’ll never see you again,” Joe said in a thick voice.

“I suppose,” Adrienne whispered as she allowed Joe to hold her in his arms.  She tilted her head upward looking into the hazel eyes that searched her face.

“Why Adrienne?  It doesn’t have to be that way…now that Pete’s gotten over the hate…we could…”

The pressure of her fingertips silenced Joe as they pressed against his lips.  “No, Joe…” she uttered.  “Too many things have happened…we could never be happy…not with all that happened between us.  Please try to understand, Joe; I could never truly love you like you deserved to be loved.  And I have my children to consider…Petey still needs a lot of help, and I don’t think that…”

Joe silenced her words by pressing his lips tightly against hers in a deep passionate kiss that lasted several moments.  When he pulled away, there were tears in his eyes that he refused to allow to escape.

“There will always be a place in my heart for you,” he whispered in a thick voice.

“And one in mine for you, Joe Cartwright,” she answered.

Adrienne pulled away and returned to the buggy.  Ben had come into the yard and stopped to stand next to his son.  He watched as Joe stepped forward to help the young woman into her buggy and waved as she drove out of the yard.

He stood for several moments behind his son, waiting for Joe to speak.  His arm rested across the back of Joe’s shoulders.  When Joe finally turned to face his father, Ben could see the tears that swelled in the hazel eyes.  But instead of allowing them their freedom, Joe willed them away and offered his father a smile.

“Are you all right, son?” Ben asked softly, returning the smile.

“Yeah…I guess so,” he grinned as he allowed himself to be lead toward the house.  He stopped before reaching the door and smiled at his father.  “Thanks, Pa,” he muttered.

“For what, son?” Ben asked.

His eyes never left his son’s face, for deep down inside, he knew that his son was hurting and hated nothing more than to know that one of his boy’s were aching for something that could never be.

“For not pressing charges against the boy… and for…”

“Joe…you don’t have to thank me for anything.  I understand why the boy did what he did…he’s young and he was frightened, that’s all,” Ben explained.  “I suppose if it had been me that someone had killed, you, or one of your brothers, might have reacted in much the same way.  It’s understandable; I’m just pleased that he realized what he was doing to himself and his mother, before it was too late.  Much of that, he owes to you,” smiled Ben.

“To me?”

“Yes…because in you, he found something of the man within his own self.  He might not have realized it at the time, but he loved you, son.  And I dare say, from now on, he will pattern his life after the way that he saw how you lived yours.  Whether or not you see it son, you’ve managed to become the boy’s idol,” laughed Ben.

“What?  You’re fooling…you don’t think the kid really looks up to me…do you?” Joe asked, surprised by his father’s announcement.

“Do you find that so hard to believe son?” laughed Ben.

“Well…no, not really…I mean, after all, I am sorta special.”  Joe gave his father a cheeky grin.

Ben burst into laughter and hugged his son to him.  “Yes, Joseph, you are special, if to no one other than myself and your brothers. You are special…very, very special.”

***End***

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