Son, Don’t Take Your Guns to Town (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8408


 

Ben let his weary body slide down into the hot, sudsy water. He was tired, worn completely out. The ride into town and back twice in one day had taken its toll on his entire being. It seemed as if every muscle in his body ached. “I’m getting too old for this,” he grumbled softly to himself.

Leaning his head back, Ben closed his eyes. His thoughts immediately were consumed with images of his youngest, most daring and high-spirited adolescent son. Even now he shuddered to think what might have happened if Little Joe hadn’t heeded his warning. The end result was bad enough; his son, though battered and bruised, was alive. For that, Ben was grateful and ever so thankful that the dispute that had gone on for weeks was now settled. Gun play had been avoided, at least in the beginning; however, fists seemed to have rained their own fury down on both parties. Little Joe, being less experienced and much smaller than the other man, had taken the worst of the beating. He’d be sore for days and it would most likely take weeks for all the dark bruises to fade away.

Ben opened his eyes. The water was beginning to cool down and he decided he’d best get on with his bathing before he got chilled. As he lathered up and began to wash himself, his musings occupied his mind. The argument was senseless in his thinking. His son, however, believed he had a right to defend himself — to clear his name, as Little Joe had informed him. And in truth, Ben agreed, but had chosen not to share those thoughts with his son. He feared that if he had, Little Joe might have been the one to go looking for trouble. As it were, trouble seemed to have found the boy instead. Keeping the boy on restriction had been his last resort. He’d forbid the boy to go into town unless one of his brothers or himself went with him. That hadn’t gone over well at all with the defiant young man. And defiant he had been. Little Joe had argued until both he and his father had been blue in the face. And then just as suddenly as it began, it appeared that Little Joe had given in to his father’s demands, and for the next couple of days, a sort of tranquil peace descended upon his household. However, it proved to be the calm before the storm. Ben stood up and stepped out of the tub to begin drying off. His thoughts could not be re-directed from his son. The storm broke the morning he’d been told that Little Joe was not in his room when Hoss had gone upstairs to awaken the boy for breakfast. Ben had sent Adam to the barn to see if perhaps Little Joe might have gotten an early start on his chores. He should have known better; the lad was not one to take the initiative when it came to work. And the look on Adam’s face when he returned, told Ben what he had feared he would have to hear. Little Joe’s pinto was gone. The imprudent young man had sneaked out of the house. And his father knew exactly where the foolish kid had gone — Virginia City!

The only thing that had kept him from losing his temper completely had been the fact that Joe’s gun and holster had been found sitting on the credenza where the four of them always put their weapons when they entered the house. At least his son had not taken his gun to town when he had willingly disobeyed his orders. Still, Ben was furious, madder at the boy than he had ever been during Little Joe’s short eighteen years.

Ben was dressing when the soft knock changed the course of his ponderings. “I’m dressed,” Ben called to whoever was on the other side of the door. When he opened it, Adam stood leaning against the doorframe. “Adam?”

“Sorry to bother you, Pa, but Little Joe’s asking for you,” Adam told his father.

“You don’t say,” commented the weary man.

“Pa,” Adam’s tone was soft. “Sheriff Coffee’s just arrived and wants to speak to you as well.”

Ben shook his head back and forth. “Then, I suppose I’d better go see what he has to say.”

Adam stepped aside to let his father pass. “Who…Little Joe or the sheriff?”

Ben stopped and turned around, facing his eldest son. With a weary frown, Ben shrugged. “Do I have a choice?” He demanded. “I have an idea what your brother is going to say. I have no clue about why the sheriff is here.”

Adam smiled at his father. “Pa…you aren’t really mad at Little Joe are?”

Ben stopped again. When he looked at Adam, his son noted how dark his father’s eyes had suddenly become. Ben almost shook his finger under Adam’s nose. “Let me make this clear to you. No, I am not mad at your younger brother; I am FURIOUS! And I plan on letting the boy know just how furious I am at him. He deliberately defied me; he lied to me and dang near got himself killed. He should be ashamed of himself. I cannot say how disappointed I am in your brother right now.”

“But Pa…”

Ben held up his hand. “Don’t try to defend him, Adam. He’s always making a racket about being a man; therefore, I plan to treat him as a man.” He turned around and made his way to the great room to greet the sheriff. Adam stood still. He had known his father was angry with his youngest brother, but just hadn’t realized how angry Ben really was. He almost felt sorry for the kid.

Adam decided to let his father talk with the sheriff; he wanted to speak with Little Joe. If his father felt as if they should know whatever it was that Roy was here for, Ben would let them know.

Using the back stairs, Adam made his way to Little Joe’s room. He paused at the door before entering. Hoss was with Joe now. He knocked softly on the door and without waiting for an invitation, he entered the room.

“Hey Adam,” Hoss said as he got up from where he had been sitting on the edge of the bed next to Little Joe.

“Hey yourself, big guy,” Adam greeted his brother with a grin. He looked down at the boy. “How are you feeling, kid?” he asked Joe.

Joe’s voice was scratchy when he talked. “I’m fine,” he lied.

Adam’s brows rose slightly. “Sure you are, sport,” he said. “You look like hell.”

“Oh,” groaned Joe. “Don’t make me laugh,” muttered Little Joe. “Alright, I feel about as badly as I look. There’s not a spot on my body that doesn’t hurt,” he said with a grim expression. “Hey, Adam, did you tell Pa that I wanted to see him?” He had a worried look on his face.

Adam glanced quickly at Hoss and then turned to look at his younger brother. He sat down on the bed next to Little Joe where, minutes before, Hoss had been sitting. “Look, Little Joe, you might as well know ahead of time. Pa’s not real happy with you right now. In fact, he’s furious with you.”

Joe pressed his lips tightly together and turned his head to the other side. “I figured he would be,” he said sadly. “But if he’d only give me time to explain… I tried when they brought me home last night, but he kept telling me to be quiet. I knew he was mad…”

“Joe, you disobeyed him, not to mention the fact that you lied to him.”

“I know, Adam, but I didn’t mean to. I mean, I didn’t do it on purpose,” Joe explained. He arched his back slightly trying to ward off the soreness there.

“Listen buddy, are you going to tell me next that you didn’t sneak out of the house on purpose? Because if you are, that won’t work with Pa; in fact, it doesn’t work with me. No one made you sneak out.”

“No, I wasn’t going to say that,” Joe said softly. “I did sneak out, alright? But I didn’t lie to Pa and I didn’t disobey him either.”

Hoss and Adam swapped worried looks. “Whatca call it then, Shortshanks?” Hoss asked his brother. His rotund face bore a deep worried frown. His blue eyes were dark with concern.

Little Joe closed his eyes. He wanted to forget everything that had happened to him over the last couple of weeks. What he wanted, was his father. He felt as if his father had been avoiding him and it worried the boy. He knew that Ben was angry with him, but Joe thought he could still Ben’s anger if only his father would give him a chance. He could explain it all in just a few minutes…if only.

The bedroom door opened quietly as Hop Sing slipped into the room. All three boys turned, thinking that Ben had finally come to talk with Joe. Joe’s heart sank when saw that, again, his father had refused to see him.

“Mr. Adam…Mr. Hoss, father wish to speak with you downstairs. He say come now,” Hop Sing explained to the eldest and middle brothers.

Adam glanced at Hoss. Hoss caused his brows to rise and then turned to Little Joe. He noted that his brother’s eyes had misted. “I’ll be back to sit with you in a bit, punkin,” he told his brother.

Joe simply nodded his head and then shrugged his shoulders and turned to Adam. “Adam?” he said in a whispered voice.

“I’ll tell him, Joe.” Adam knew what his kid brother wanted, or more so, who his brother wanted, perhaps even needed. “Joe, Pa’s just giving himself time to cool off. He’ll come up soon, just give him time,” Adam suggested.

Little Joe turned angry, hurt eyes up to look at Adam. “Give him time, Adam? He won’t give me time to explain things to him, dadburnit; he won’t even give me the time of day. He just…he just…doesn’t care anymore!” Groaning, Little Joe turned on to his side, away from his brothers. Tears filled his eyes but he held them in check until he heard the door close. Only then did he give in to both the pain in his body and the longing in his heart. “Guess Pa doesn’t love me anymore,” he whimpered. He knew he was acting like a kid, but his body hurt so badly, his heart was broken and his father had turned his back on him.

*****

What Little Joe Cartwright didn’t believe was that his father really did love him. Sure, Ben was very angry at his son. But he had never stopped loving him, nor would he. Ben had sat by the boy’s side for hours. Joe had been medicated and had slept through those hours, but his father had never left his side, until Joe had started waking up. Ben had wanted to stay but decided that until he was sure that he could talk to his son without totally losing his temper, it was better to keep away. They — both the father and the son — would work things out eventually; they always had and they would this as well. The one thing that Ben had not counted on was the fact that his youngest son took the absence of his father as rejection. Later, much later, would the angry father realize his mistake and learn of the heartache he had unintentionally caused his son.

*****

“Adam, Hoss,” Ben greeted his sons as they came down the steps. “How’s Joe?” he asked, looking to Adam for the answer.

“Unhappy, Pa. He thinks you don’t care about him anymore,” Adam explained, looking to Hoss for conformation.

“That’s right, Pa. He’s up there right this minute wonderin’ why his Pa’s turned his back on him.” Hoss wasn’t happy with the situation; he didn’t like seeing his youngest brother looking and feeling so down and out.

“Poppycock!” growled Ben. “I haven’t turned my back on the boy. He should know better than that!”

“He should, I agree,” Adam told his father. “But right now, he’s hurting, he needs his father and all he knows is that his father is purposely staying away from him.”

Ben turned away from his sons. He knew in his heart what they were telling him was the truth. It was not his intent to hurt his youngest son’s feelings. The real problem was not so much what Little Joe had done; more so the problem was within himself. He had been truly frightened and afraid for the boy of what might happen to him if Joe had been made to face those three thugs. No way could his son have managed to outdraw the other man, let alone three. Ben’s heart had been in his throat for several days. Now, it seemed as if his stomach hurt constantly from the worry. Joe had been beaten, his ribs were broken, and bruises covered almost every spot on his young body; and now, to add to the boy’s misery, it seemed as if he were the one responsible for his son’s broken heart. That, in turn, made his own heart ache for the boy.

Swallowing, Ben turned back to face Adam and Hoss. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t my intent,” he began.

Hoss scrunched up his lips and lowered his head slightly. “Shouldn’t you be talkin’ to Little Joe instead of us?” His tone was tender. Hoss glanced at his father. He hated to see his family hurting, not just his brother, but his father as well.

Ben nodded his head. “I will, but first I need to speak with the two of you,” Ben said. “Let’s sit down.”

Both Adam and Hoss wore worried looks on their handsome faces. “Is something wrong, Pa?” Adam inquired.

Ben sighed deeply. Some of his anger he’d been feeling toward Little Joe, abated somewhat. Ben stood in front of the fireplace and faced both younger men. “I’m afraid that your little brother might find himself in some trouble,” Ben explained.

“Trouble? What kind of trouble, Pa?” Adam asked.

“As you know, Roy was here. It seems as if Cole Douglas plans on filing assault charges against your brother.”

“What?” growled Hoss. “Little Joe’s the one laid up. How can this Douglas fella claim Joe assaulted him when he was the one goin’ ‘round town makin’ threats about gettin’ Little Joe?” Hoss wanted to know.

Ben sat down and immediately got up to continue his pacing. “I don’t know, Hoss; I’m about at my wits end with this whole matter. I’ve worried myself sick with the fear that something might happen to the boy…” he paused briefly. “I suppose that was why I was so angry with him. That’s why I forbid him from going into town. And then when he went anyway …”

“I didn’t go into town.”

All heads turned toward the stairs. Little Joe leaned heavily against the railing. His arm stretched across his mid-section and the look of pure agony spread over his bruised features. Ben rushed up the steps to his son’s side.

“Son, you shouldn’t be out of bed!” Ben scolded. Hoss and Adam joined their father to gather around the youngest Cartwright.

“You look about ready to drop, Shortshanks,” Hoss cautioned. “Let’s get you back to your room.” Hoss placed his hands on his brother’s shoulders in an effort to turn Joe around and head back upstairs, but Joe bulked at his brother’s efforts.

“No! Not until Pa hears me out,” Joe snapped at Hoss and then turned to face his father. His heart was in his eyes when he looked up at Ben. “Please, Pa…you have to let me explain…please,” he pleaded as his eyes filled with tears.

All the anger and disappointment Ben thought he felt towards his younger son evaporated in that second, melting his heart. He smiled at the boy. “Alright Joseph, but let’s get you back to bed first and then you can tell me everything.”

“Promise? Promise you will sit down and listen…and…not walk out again?” Joe said in a weakened voice.

“I promise, son,” Ben said tenderly as he placed his arm about his son’s mid-section and aided the boy back up the stairs, down the hall and into his own bed. After Ben covered Joe with the blankets, he sat down on the edge of the bed and took Joe’s hand into his larger one. With his thumb he caressed the bruised knuckles. “First Joseph, let me say I’m sorry. I never meant for you to feel as if I’d stopped loving you.”

Joe cast his eyes in Adam’s direction and back to what his father was saying.

“I’m sorry too, Joe, that I didn’t listen to you in the beginning, but I was so…” Ben swallowed, “afraid for you. My fear caused anger…not so much at you but at Cole Douglas and what he was trying to force you into. I know you thought I was mad, and as I explained to your brothers, I was mad — furious — and I directed it unjustly towards you.” Ben reached out his hand and caressed Joe’s battered face. “I promise that it will not happen again, son. I’m sorry.”

Joe, his features strained, smiled slightly. “It’s alright, Pa. I’m sorry, too, for all the worry I caused you. I should have known better.”

“Remember this — always — never have I, since the day you were born, ever not loved you. No matter what you might do, say, or even go –you are my son, I am your father. Those facts will never change; neither will my love for you. Do you understand, son?”

Joe, his throat thick with emotion could only nod his head in response.

“Good, now why don’t you explain to me how this entire mess got started?” Ben encouraged the boy.

Adam and Hoss stood at the foot of the bed, listening.

“You sent me into town to pick up some supplies for the miners. Remember?” Joe began.

“Yes. Then you were to take them up to the mine.”

“Which I did.”

“But not right away, I assume?” Ben said. His expression showed his doubt. He smiled.

“No sir. I went to the saloon to get a beer while I was waiting for Cas to fill the supply order — not afterwards,” he explained. “I was standing at the bar talking to Cosmo and drinking my beer when this fellow comes in and elbows his way through the crowd, pushing me aside and causing me to spill beer all over my shirt. That’s why you thought I was drunk that night. But I wasn’t, honest Pa,” said Joe.

“I realize that now, son; go on please.”

“Well, I told the fellow to watch what he was doing. He laughed and then shoved me aside.”

“And you lost your temper,” commented Adam with a sly grin.

“You got it, big brother. I slugged him.” Little Joe looked up at his father. “I know, Pa, I should have just walked away but I didn’t. He hit me a few times and I hit him. In the end, I bested him. I left him lying in the floor when I started to leave. When he jumped up and yelled at me, I stopped and turned around. He had his hand out ready to draw down on me.”

“I hope you had the good sense to walk away then,” Hoss injected.

Joe snickered softly. “I did. But it made him furious; he started yelling at me to turn around but I kept walking. I was praying the whole time that he wouldn’t just up and shoot me in the back. Last thing I heard him say was that he’d get even with me one way or the other,” Joe told his family.

“I didn’t think anything else about it, until the next time I went into town. He was there in the saloon, and when he saw me, he attempted to call me out. I tried to ignore him. But he grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around. He hit me before I had a chance to even think about trying to fight back. I tried to defend myself, but he got the best of me. I managed to get to my feet, but the sheriff came in by then and broke up the fight. Unfortunately, Cole got arrested because some of the men who witnessed the fight told Sheriff Coffee that Cole started it. I was told to go home, which I did.”

Joe took a deep breath to fill his lungs as he laid his head back onto the pillow. His eyes closed. Ben glanced at Adam and Hoss and with a nod of his head he motioned them toward the door. Quietly, Ben rose from the bed.

Joe’s eyes opened slowly. “No Pa, don’t go. I need to tell you the rest,” Joe said in a low, tired voice.

“We can finish this conversation later, son. You need to rest.”

“No,” Joe shook his head. “I need to talk; I need to tell you all of it. Please, stay.”

“Let him finish, Pa. He needs to get it off his chest,” Hoss said as he moved back into the room and pulled a chair close to the bed where he sat down. Adam moved to stand behind Hoss and Ben sat back down on the bed.

“Alright Joe, but if you get too tired, just say so and we can talk later,” Ben said.

“I will, Pa.”

“What happened next, son?”

“I went to the bank for you, to get the money for the payroll. When I came out, Cole and a couple of his goonies were waiting for me. They didn’t try to take the money, and they didn’t really threaten me, not in so many words. They blocked the sidewalk, so I just stepped off into the street but they moved in front of me again. Cole grinned — it was more like a sneer — but he said to me, ‘Cartwright, if I were you, I’d watch my back. Never know when some scumbag might stop you on the road home and take those saddlebags away from you,’ then they stepped aside and let me pass.”

“The next time I went into town was when you went with me.”

“Yes…and that was when we ran into those three on the road,” stated Ben.

Joe nodded, “Yes sir.”

“They were a rough crew, for sure. I didn’t like the looks of them, and for sure they left no doubt what they were capable of doing to you if they ever caught you out alone again. Joe, I guess knowing that was what prompted me to keep you on restriction. I wasn’t meaning to punish you. I was trying to keep you safe. And then when you sneaked out and went into town…”

“That’s just it, Pa. I didn’t go into town.”

“Please explain that then, Little Joe. Because I was sure you had. When Carl Hickman brought you home that night, he said he found you out on the road home from Virginia City. I guess I jumped to conclusions and just assumed you had gone to town. Where did you go, son, if you didn’t go into town?” Ben searched the boy’s eyes but Joe lowered his head. Ben noted that Joe’s lips were pressed tightly together. After several moments, he looked up at his father. Moisture had filled his hazel eyes.

Ben leaned over close to his son. The sadness was apparent. “What’s wrong, Little Joe? What are you having trouble telling me?” he said in a fatherly manner. “You know you can tell me anything.”

“I know,” Joe said glancing at his brothers.

“Do you want Hoss and I find something to do so you can talk to Pa without us listening in? Adam asked his brother.

“No, you might as well hear this now. I figure Pa would tell you later anyway,” Joe said as he smiled slightly. “What I haven’t told you,” he said shyly. “It sort of embarrassing…but I’ve been…seeing someone,” he said with some hesitation. Everyone’s eyes bulged as they stared in wonder at the youngest member of their family.

Hoss laughed loudly, drowning out his father and older brother. “Figures there would be a skirt involved!”

Even Little Joe giggled.

“Why didn’t you tell us, Little Joe? Were you afraid we’d tease you?” grinned Adam.

“Not really…” Little Joe said without looking up.

Ben studied the worried look that came into Joe’s eyes. “Are you ashamed of her?” His father snickered.

The smile suddenly left Little Joe’s face. He glanced up at his family. “No not exactly.”

“Who is this young woman and what does she have to do with you going or not going into town?” Ben questioned. He was beginning to get worried all over again.

“I met her that first trip into town that you sent me on, Pa, while I was in the mercantile giving Cas our order. And after that first fight with Cole. Her name is Sally Jamison. I thought she was nice and… she was pretty, so the next couple of times I went into town, I spent some time with her. I really did like her,” he told his family.

“Go on, son, please get to the point,” Ben demanded. His patience was beginning to wear thin.

“The night I slipped out of the house. Oh, by the way, Pa, I’m sorry for doing that, more sorry than you know. But anyway, she had sent me a note asking me to meet her at the forks of the road. I hadn’t seen her in several days because of the restriction you had me on and I really wanted to spend some time with her. So after all of you went to sleep, I slipped out of the house and went to meet her.”

Ben’s brows rose slightly. “I see,” he said. “And?”

“Unfortunately, she didn’t come alone,” Joe said with a worried frown.

“Who came with her Joe?” Adam, who had remained quiet most of evening, had asked.

“Wait a dang minute,” Hoss blurted out. “Let me guess — Cole Douglas and his thugs?”

Joe’s lips were pinched tightly together. He nodded his head. “When I got there, Sally was waiting for me. I got down off my horse and gave her a hug. Cole and his two friends came out of the bushes and grabbed me.” He looked sadly over at his father. “I didn’t stand a chance against three of them,” he muttered as he lowered his head. After taking a deep breath, he looked at his family. He saw pity in Hoss’ eyes, compassion in his father’s and a touch of anger in Adam’s eyes.

“She was Cole’s wife,” Joe said in a near whisper. His cheeks grew rosy in embarrassment.

“WHAT!” Ben thundered. Little Joe heard Adam groan softly. Hoss shook his massive head from side to side.

“They bushwhacked you, that’s what they’ve done,” growled Ben.

“I guess so, Pa. All three of them jumped me, beat me and then left me for a goner. Cole kicked me a few times after I went down, saying that was for making him look bad at the saloon, for getting him arrested and for trying to steal his woman.”

Joe looked with sad eyes at his father. “I didn’t know, Pa…honest. I’m sorry I didn’t do as you asked. I feel like a dang fool.”

“Oh son,” cooed Ben as he gathered the boy into his arms. “You had no way of knowing.”

“I never intended on going into town, honest Pa.” Joe snuggled deeper into his father’s embrace. He had needed his father’s strength; his aching body, the bruises, the broken ribs and the betrayal of the young woman had taken its toll on the young man. “Please don’t be mad at me anymore. I don’t think I can bear anymore,” he whispered so that his father was the only one to hear him.

Ben caressed the back of Joe’s head in a loving way. All his anger and frustration at the boy was gone. “I’m not mad, son,” Ben murmured into Joe’s ear. He felt his son’s body relax and after several moments of holding his son, Joe’s body became slack. Gently, Ben laid Joe back down. The weary boy had fallen to sleep. With tender care, he covered the lad and then motioned for Adam and Hoss to leave. Ben turned down the kerosene lamp, pulled the door closed and joined the others in the hall.

Adam was leaning against the wall. Hoss shook his head slightly. “Poor little thing,” he muttered.

“What now, Pa? I mean, Roy did say that Cole was thinking about pressing assault charges against Little Joe,” Adam stated.

“Three against one,” Adam said in a disgusted voice. “Not very good odds.”

“But surely there are men in town that heard Douglas swear to get even with Little Joe for showing him up in the saloon and for walking away when he called Little Joe out,” Hoss said.

“I suggest right now we try to get some sleep, and in the morning, Adam and I will ride into town and talk to the sheriff,” suggested Ben. “Let’s turn in; it’s been a long couple of days.”

“Want me to sit with Little Joe for a while, Pa?” offered Hoss.

“Thanks, Hoss, but I think I should sit with him tonight. You two go on to bed and get some rest. We have things to get settled in the morning.” Ben turned the knob on Joe’s bedroom door. “Good night, Adam; good night, Hoss; sleep well and God bless,” he told them as he slipped quietly into Joe’s room.

*****

It was in the wee hours of the morning while Ben dozed in the chair next to Little Joe’s bed when the racket downstairs woke him up. For several moments, he sat in silence, trying to decide what the noise was and what had caused it. A second noise brought the sleepy man to his feet. Cautiously, Ben made his way to the door and eased it open slightly. Making sure that the hallway was clear, he slipped from his son’s room and quietly made his way to the small table in the hall where he kept a loaded pistol. When he turned around, he almost shouted out loud.

“Shh…” whispered Adam, much to his father’s relief. “I take it you heard the noise too?”

“Yes,” Ben said in a low voice. “You take the back stairs and come in through the kitchen; I’ll go down the main stairs. Be careful, son,” warned Ben.

“I will. Don’t mistake me for an intruder and shoot me,” Adam said with a touch of humor. Ben rolled his eyes and turned toward the main staircase.

Adam crept down the hall that led to the back stairs. He entered the kitchen quietly in the dark. Thankfully Hop Sing was a neat housekeeper and Adam, knowing where each piece of furniture was placed, managed to find the entrance to the dining room without running into a table or chair. He paused, waiting to see his father descend the stairs. What he didn’t see were the two men, one standing just inside the main door and the other man in Ben’s office. The man in the office area saw Ben at the top of the stairs. He watched as the senior Cartwright cautiously made his way down the steps. Adam inched quietly into the dining room. The man at the front door crept silently towards the end of the credenza, unaware that behind him stood Adam Cartwright. Adam paused, his pistol pointed at the man’s back.

At that second, Ben spotted the man standing in front of his desk. He yelled at Ben to drop his gun just as the second man moved forward. Ben’s eyes darted back and forth between the two intruders.

“Drop the gun, Cartwright, or I’ll shoot you where you stand,” the intruder by the desk demanded as he stepped forward, his gun pointing up to Ben who stood on the landing. Ben made as if to drop his gun. Both trespassers were now in full sight of the second Cartwright who had yet to announce his presence.

As Ben lowered his gun toward the floor, Adam stepped into view. “Drop your guns!” he demanded. The intruder closest to Adam spun around, aimed his gun and fired. Adam returned the gun fire, his bullet hitting the other man in the chest.

Ben dropped to the floor, lessening his chances of being hit. He fired at the stranger in the office area as the man fired his gun. Ben heard the bullet whiz by over his head as a loud groan reached his ears. The stranger fell to the floor in a heap as Ben jerked his head around just in time to see Hoss fall to the floor behind him.

“Hoss!” Ben shouted as he jumped to his feet and raced up the stairs. Hoss was struggling into a sitting position and leaned against the wall. “I’m alright, Pa,” he told his worried father. “That ole bullet just grazed me,” he said with a strained smile.

Adam had checked the two intruders. One man was dead, the other was badly injured. Hop Sing appeared as soon as the gun fire had stopped and now stood guard over the injured man. Quickly Adam joined his father at the top of the stairs. “How’s Hoss?” he asked.

“He’s arm is hurt but it’s just a graze; he’ll be alright in a day or two, once we get him cleaned up. What about those two? Do you know who they are?” he asked Adam.

“The wounded man is none other than Cole Douglas. I don’t know the dead man, but he’s one of the fellows that beat Joe,” Adam explained to his father.

“What’s going on out here?”

Adam and Ben looked up to see Little Joe standing in the hallway in only his nightshirt and a gun pointed at the two of them. “Put that thing away before you shoot one of us,” Adam warned his brother.

Immediately, Joe lowered his pistol as he made his way over to Hoss. “What happened? Is he alright? Who shot him?”

“One question at a time, son,” Ben chided gently. “Everything’s alright. Hoss was hit by a stray bullet but his arm was just grazed. As for who shot him…well, look downstairs.”

Joe walked slowly to the top of the stairs and looked down. His eyes rested on Cole Douglas. Anger filled his heart as he began making his way slowly down the steps. When he stood in front of Douglas, he stopped and eyed the man. Blood dripped from Cole’s shoulder, staining his shirt. His own eyes were dark with both pain and fury.

“Looks like you’ll live to see another day,” Joe said calmly.

“Yeah…but you’ll live to regret it, Cartwright,” Cole growled.

“I don’t think so.”

Suddenly and without warning, the front door was swung opened, slamming against the credenza. Two men entered shouting and shooting wildly.

“Cole…Bert…what’s going on in here?” shouted one of the men.

Ben and Adam had both dropped to the floor and began to return the gun fire. Joe had twisted around at the sound of the door being flung opened. Cole took advantage of Little Joe’s diverted attention, and with his good arm he punched Joe in the mid-section, causing the already injured man to double over in pain. Joe gasped for air as Cole managed to grab the gun which Little Joe still held in hand. He shoved Joe away from him and as Little Joe stumbled backwards, Cole fired the gun. Joe screamed in pain as the bullet buried it’s self deeply into his left shoulder.

A second shot rang through the air, but this time it was Cole who screamed out in pain as he dropped to the floor. The two other men had stopped firing as soon as they saw their boss had been shot. “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” they yelled out.

“Hold your fire, Adam,” Ben said as both he and his son rushed down the steps.

Hoss had managed to get to his feet and followed his father and brother. “I’ll watch these two varmints,” he told them, “see about Little Joe.”

While Adam and Hop Sing checked Cole, Ben bent over Little Joe’s still form. His stomach had leapt into his heart the second he had seen Little Joe fall. The boy’s scream of agony still rang in his ears.

Ben scooped the limp body into his arms, cradling his son to his chest. “Little Joe, Little Joe…” he wept.

Adam turned from Cole’s body to that of his brother’s. After checking for a pulse, he looked up at his father, and with a grin of relief, he told his father, “He’s alive, Pa.” Adam ripped opened the top of Joe’s nightshirt to inspect the wound. “That bullet is in deep; he’ll need the doctor,” he told Ben. Ben glanced behind him at the prone body of Cole Douglas. “He’s dead,” Adam said even before Ben asked.

“Get these men out of here. Take them all into town. Hop Sing will go with you. Send the doctor out right away and then see Roy Coffee to let him know what’s been going on out here. Hurry, Adam, please.”

“I’m on my way,” Adam told his father. “Come on, Hop Sing; let’s get these varmints to town.” Hop Sing stuck the point of his pistol into one man’s back. The stranger knew what to do. He turned, with hands still raised high and marched out the door.

“Hoss, let’s get you and Joe to bed.” Ben scooped Joe’s body up into his arms and carried the boy back up to his room where he carefully placed Joe on his bed. “How are you feeling, son?” he asked Hoss.

“I’m fine, Pa. You go ahead and get what you need; I’ll stay here with Little Joe.”

Ben patted the big man on his shoulder and hurried from the room to retrieve the medical supplies. Minutes later, he was back to tend to both of his sons. “Let me look at Joe first — he’s still bleeding — and then I’ll have a look at your arm.”

*****

Hours had passed since the doctor had come, removed the bullet from Joe’s shoulder and tended to Hoss’ arm. Both young men were sleeping, one from an induced sleep and the other simply because he was worn out. Ben sat with Little Joe, fretted over his lack of ability to keep his youngest son safe and simply because he did not want to leave the boy, lest Little Joe wake and call for him.

Joe stirred slightly moaning softly. “Pa?” his voice was weak and low and his father, who had shut his eyes to rest, barely heard the plea.

“I’m right here, son,” Ben said as he leaned down over the boy. Tenderly he caressed Joe’s curls. “Welcome back,” he smiled while he sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Water…please…”

Quickly Ben poured water into a glass from the nightstand and helped Little Joe take a drink.

“What happened?” Joe whispered after getting his fill of the cool water.

“Don’t you remember?” Ben asked.

“No…I…heard noise…got up…nothing else?” Joe’s voice was raspy and his throat burned.

“You got shot, son.”

“Who…who…shot…me?”

“It was Cole Douglas. He and his cronies broke into the house. That was the noise you probably heard. I’m not sure what they wanted, but Adam, Hop Sing and I managed to stop them. Cole’s…dead, son. He won’t be bothering you anymore,” Ben explained. “So is one of his men. Adam and Hop Sing took their bodies and the other two men into town to the sheriff early this morning.”

Joe looked tired and worried. “Was…Cole’s wife…with them?” he wanted to know.

“No.”

“Good,” whispered Joe.

“From what Roy told Adam, she had left on the stage the day before. So she wasn’t even in town,” explained his father. “Roy sent out a wanted poster on her.”

“Wanted…poster…why?”

“She set you up, son; she led you to believe she cared about you and then had you meet her so that her husband and his thugs could kill you. She has to answer for that,” Ben said.

Joe scrunched up his face as he tried to get comfortable. “Shoulder… sure does hurt,” he told his father.

“Doc Martin left something for pain. Do you want me to get it for you?”

“No…not yet, please. You know, Pa…I just can’t…figure it…out,” Little Joe said in broken words. His pain was worse than he wanted to let on, but he wanted to talk with his father before taking anything for it.

Ben looked puzzled. “What is that you can’t figure out, son?”

“Sally…Douglas — how someone like her could get involved with someone like Cole. She’s beautiful, Pa…and she was…so sweet. I just don’t…get…it,” Joe explained.

Ben’s lips formed a smile, sort of. “I guess some women might be drawn to men like Cole Douglas, son.” He laughed lightly. “It’s hard to figure out why and harder yet to understand women.”

Joe chuckled. “But you understood my mother, didn’t you?” Joe asked. For the first time in days, he actually smiled at his father.

Ben laughed. “Not all of the time,” he confessed.

“Hey, I see you finally woke up,” Hoss grinned as he entered his brother’s room. “How you feelin’?”

“He’s hurting, but trying not to let on,” Ben told Hoss. He rose from the bed and went to the table to fix a pain powder for his son. He turned around and held the glass out to Joe. “Drink this and then get some rest, son. I’ll have Hop Sing bring you something to eat shortly.”

*****

Two days later found Little Joe sitting downstairs on the settee. He was reading the book that Adam had loaned him to while away the hours until he could be up and about. Suddenly the door burst opened, causing Little Joe to look over the top of the settee to see who was making such a commotion. It was none other than his big brother Hoss. Hoss was grinning from ear to ear.

“Hey Little Joe, look who’s come to see you!” Hoss said with a wide grin on his rotund face.

Joe, slightly annoyed at the interruption, frowned at his brother until the big man stepped aside. Much to the surprise of the younger Cartwright, Sally Douglas stood in the doorway with an uncertain look on her pretty face.

“Sally,” Joe muttered as he carefully got up. “What are you doing here?”

Sally entered the room slowly and approached Little Joe. Hoss, still grinning, nodded his head at his brother and then politely went out, closing the door behind him, thus giving the pair some private time.

“Hello Joe,” the young woman said softly. Her head was low.

Joe approached her. His insides were churning and he hoped that the beautiful lady could not hear the rumbling. Gently he lifted her chin. “Hello, Sally. Please, won’t you have a seat,” he invited. He pointed to the settee where minutes ago he had been resting. The opened book lay face down on the cushion.

Sally took a deep breath and shook her head. “Thank you, Little Joe, but I can only stay a minute. I’ve come to…to…” she stammered as her eyes began to fill with tears. She withdrew a hankie from her purse and dabbed at her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she smiled.

“I’m so ashamed of myself,” Sally said. “No, let me say what I have come here to say, please,” she said as she held her hand up to stop whatever it was that Little Joe had been about to say to her. “I want you to know how sorry I am…for my part in getting you hurt.” She looked Little Joe in the eye. “I was forced into it. You see, Cole and I are not really husband and wife.”

“What!” Joe all but shouted. “I thought…”

“I know what you thought.” she interrupted. “Cole wanted to make sure you thought that, but in truth, we are brother and sister — half-brother and sister, I should say. We share the same father.” Sally took a deep breath. “Cole told me if I didn’t help him, he would kill…my…son.”

“Son? You have a son?” Joe was surprised at this information.

“Yes, he’s five years old and is back east staying with my father and step-mother. Joe, my married name is Jamison. My husband was killed a year ago in a stage robbery. He came out here to work at a bank in Carson City and had sent for me. I had left my son with my parents until I could help Peter — that’s was my husband — get settled and then my parents were bringing our son to us. They were going to stay with us for a while. As it turned out, I had no idea that the man who held up the stagecoach was my own brother,” she explained as tears once again began to fill her eyes.

“Oh God, Sally, I’m so sorry,” Joe said as he put his arm around the young mother and drew her close.

“When I found out,” she said, gently moving out of Joe’s embrace, “I was so furious I wanted to kill Cole myself. He swore he had no way of knowing that Peter and I were married, which I knew to be true because he had never met my husband. He promised to make it all up to me if I would help him do one thing.”

“Lure me to my death,” Joe said with a touch of disgust in his voice.

“Yes,” Sally said meekly. “That and make you like me enough to be able to lure you to the crossroads. Oh Joe…I’m sorry, honest. But I was totally broke. I had no money, no way to get back to my son. At first I refused, but Cole said he knew people back east and that it wouldn’t take but his word to see that my son was destroyed. Joe, I was afraid of Cole. I knew he had already killed, so I believed him and I…I love my son. Please understand, Joe; he’s all I’ve got in this whole world that’s all mine.” Sally could no longer contain her tears. She sank down onto the settee and wept bitter tears. Joe moved to sit on the table in front of her. Her story seemed incredible to him, but he believed her. Her half-brother Cole was a cold blooded killer; Joe had no doubt that the man would have done exactly as he had threatened.

Joe cupped the woman’s chin and lifted her face so that he might look into her eyes. He saw the fear and the sorrow deep within her blue eyes. He smiled at her. “I do understand, Sally, honestly. So forget it.” He grinned.

“Oh Joe,” she sobbed as she reached out to hug him. She smiled. “The sheriff is outside waiting for me. I told him the same story, Joe, and he said that if you were willing to drop the charges, he’d release me so that I could go home to my son.”

Joe stood up, brining Sally up with him. “Then let’s go talk to the sheriff. I just know your boy is waiting for you to get home.” He slipped his arm around Sally’s shoulders and led her outside. Roy was talking with Ben, Hoss and Adam. All four men turned to look at him.

“Roy, I have no reason to want charges brought against this lady,” Joe explained. “Can you…let her go? She needs to get back with to her son.”

“Well, now, Little Joe, I reckon if you’re sure…”

“I’m sure,” Joe said, smiling at all of them. “A boy needs his…” For a moment Little Joe’s smile died until he looked up at his father. “A boy needs his parents,” he said, still looking at Ben. “I know…I do,” he added.

Ben swallowed the knot that had formed in his throat. “And I need my son,” he said in a loving but low whisper that only Little Joe was able to hear.

“Well then little lady, let’s get you back to town. You might be able to catch the afternoon stage,” Roy said in a light tone.

Sally turned back to Little Joe and flung her arms around his neck. “Oh thank you, Joe; I’ll never forget you for this!” When she finally released Little Joe, she smiled at his father and brothers. “Thank you…all of you…and please,” she pleaded, “take care of Joe; he’s a special kind of man.”

The Cartwrights watched Sally and Roy as they drove away in the buggy. Adam turned towards Hoss. His dark eyes twinkled with merriment. “Special?” he said, trying hard not to laugh.

Hoss puckered up his lips. “Man?” he teased.

“Hey!” Little Joe screeched.

“Alright you two, leave your brother alone,” Ben scolded as he put his arm around Little Joe’s shoulders. “I happen to agree with the lady. I think — no, I know — your brother is a special kind of man!” He laughed as he gently led Joe back into the house, leaving Adam and Hoss standing together in the yard. They looked at each other, smiled and nodded their heads in agreement.

“But let’s not tell him we think so too,” Adam stated.

“Yeah, wouldn’t want the kid to get the big head,” snickered Hoss as together they went to join their father and their ‘special’ youngest brother.

***End***

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