The Detour Home (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  20,037


 

Ben glanced upward at the sun, it had begun moving toward the western horizon and the weary man knew that time was running out.  The day had dragged by slowly and still he had found no trace of his son.  Ben pulled back on Buck’s reins, bringing the big buckskin to a halt as he pushed back his hat and swiped his brow.  He was worried sick about his youngest son; the worry had replaced the anger he had been feeling at the boy when Joe had came home the week before and announced to them that he was leaving.

Ben pinched his lips together and frowned, the disturbing thoughts making his anger to simmer once more.  Joe had proclaimed that he was tired of being bossed by everyone in the house.  He had even shouted at them that Hop Sing tended to boss him around.

‘Eat your supper, wash your hands, stay out of my kitchen; why you always make such mess?’ Joe had grumbled, mocking their Chinese cook and housekeeper.

‘Well, I’m tired of it, I’m leaving, going someplace where there’s no one to tell me what to do,’ proclaimed Joe, and before anyone could so much as say a word, the boy had turned and run from the house.  By the time that Ben, or Adam and Hoss, could get out the door, Joe and Cochise was rounding the corner of the barn.

“Well, I’ll be danged,” Hoss said, scratching his balding head.  “Wonder what got under his craw?”

Ben stood, shaking his head, his anger showing in his dark eyes.   “Who’s to say what goes on in that mind of his.”  Ben turned to go back into the house.

“Aren’t you going after him?” Adam asked, somewhat surprised at how his father seemed to dismiss the matter altogether.

Ben stopped and turned back around.  “Why should I?  He made it plain, didn’t he, that he didn’t like it here anymore, so why should I go to all the trouble to drag him back when he’d only sneak out later and leave anyway?”  Ben flung himself around, muttering to himself and went back inside to finish his supper.

“If he thinks things will be any different elsewhere, then let him try it…He’ll come home, with his tail tucked between his legs, begging me to let him stay.”

Hoss stood watching his father’s retreating back.  Ben’s words stung and Hoss had to fight back the tears that wanted to well in his crystal blue eyes.

“Adam, ya don’t reckon Pa’s gonna let Joe get by with this do ya?  I mean, the kid’s only seventeen, he ain’t never been anywhere by hisself,” Hoss worried aloud to Adam who stood beside him, just as concerned.

Adam’s dark brows rose slightly and he studied his brother’s face.  Poor Hoss, thought Adam; he looks miserable and looks about to cry.  Gently he squeezed the bigger man’s shoulder, at twenty-three, Hoss wasn’t much more than a boy himself, thought Adam.  Kind, caring and loving, always the peacemaker between each of them, that one oft forgotten that his heart was easily broken or that he was such a worrier when it came to their kid brother, for Hoss had deemed it his duty to protect the boy from life’s hardships.  But this time, his hands were tied, in a fashion, for Pa had just seen fit to cut Joe’s apron strings and in so many words, had forbid them to go search for their youngest family member.

“Don’t worry big guy, Little Joe will come back, just like Pa says, he always does,” Adam tried to reassure Hoss.

Hoss shook his head sadly and when he glanced over at Adam, his eyes had welled with unshed tears.  “I reckon ya right, Adam, but Joe sure was mad this time, madder’n I’ve ever seen him.  He was hurt too, by what we all said to’em.  And I seen tears in his eyes, Adam, and his chin was quivering, and…”

“Hoss, I saw all that too, but you know how Joe is, he’s always so dramatic, he’s used those ploys before.  Why, I bet right now the boy’s up at his mama’s grave, already wishing he was back home.  But he won’t come home tonight, maybe not even tomorrow night, but I can almost promise you, by the third night, Joe will ride in here, just like he always does, and act like nothing’s ever happened.  Now, come on, let’s finish our supper and stop worrying about the rascal, he’ll be fine.”

**********

Ben took a long swig from his canteen and popped the cork back into the spout, lacing the long strap over his saddle horn.  He straightened his back, ridding so long without stopping, had made his back stiff and sore and had done nothing to help his bad mood.  He glanced again at the setting sun, and groaned.  Joe had been gone for nearly a week.  At first, Ben had been angry with the boy, Joe had grumbled all day about nit-picky things. He’d complained about such things as his assigned chores, mucking out the barn, feeding the chickens, helping Hop Sing in his garden, not being allowed into town by his self, being told to pick up after himself, keeping his feet off the furniture, and even told when to go to bed.

Ben sighed, and shook his head back and forth as he leaned forward to pet Buck’s long silky neck.  “When I think about it ole boy, I guess we all played a part in driving the boy from his home.  We still treat him as if he were a child, not a young man.”  Ben pressed his lips tightly together, “Guess it’s mostly my fault, I tend to want him to stay my little boy…I wasn’t being fair to him, and now he’s gone.”

Ben continued with his thoughts.  “It wasn’t that Joe had minded doing his part, it was being reminded on a regular basis to do them, like the rest of us thought that he wasn’t old enough to remember to wash his own hands before eating, or that it was his time to do the mucking.  We acted like he didn’t have enough sense to know when he was tired enough to go to bed, or that the chickens needed feeding, or the stock watered, or the eggs gathered, or….or…”

“Come Buck, get moving, I’ve got to find my son, and tell him I’m sorry,” whispered Ben, gently kicking at his mount’s sides and urging him on.  “Another hour, and we’ll be in Genoa; I sure hope Adam’s having better luck over in Carson City than what we’ve had.”

*****

It was nearly dusk by the time that Ben Cartwright slipped from his saddle and tied the reins around the hitching post in front of the Red Dog Saloon.  He gave Buck a quick but gentle rub on the end of his velvety nose and glanced over his shoulder, taking in his surroundings.

As he pushed the double half doors opened, the sound of laughter, the smell of thick smoke and an overall feeling of festivity had filled the room and spilled over into the street.  Ben paused in the doorway, giving his eyes time to adjust to the dim lighting and then scanning the room, hoping against hope that he might find his youngest son sitting among the assemblage.  Slowly Ben sauntered up to the bar and ordered a beer.  The man next to him bumped his arm; Ben turned the man’s way and excused himself.  The cowpoke touched his hat in compliance and then returned his attention to his mug of frothy ale.

Ben thanked the barkeeper and tipped his own beer up, drinking long at the cool beverage.  From behind him, he picked up the sounds of a high pitched giggle, causing him to spin around sharply.  Frantically, his eyes searched for the man, finding him sitting in a far corner, the man’s back facing him.

Ben smiled; he recognized the dark curls and began to weave in and out among the crowd.  As Ben neared the young man, the gentleman stood, gathered up the money he had obviously won while playing poker and stuffed the bills into his pocket.  As he turned, the boy bumped into Ben.

“Excuse me sir,” the younger man smiled and then walked passed Ben, who stared in disappointment, for he had been sure that the boy had been his own son.  Suddenly a great feeling of loss washed over the worried father and silently, he cursed himself for having been so unfeeling toward his son on the evening that Joe had left home.

Ben sighed deeply and followed the young man out of the saloon.  As Ben stood silently on the boardwalk and watched the cowpoke walking slowly down the street, Ben brushed his hand across his face, wiping away what he knew were the unexpected rush of remorseful tears that had filled his eyes.

“Joseph…Joseph…” his heart cried.

Without another thought, Ben untied Buck and walked slowly down the darkened street toward the livery.  He’d get a good night’s rest and then start fresh in the morning.  He would wire Adam in Carson City and Hoss in Virginia City and let them both know where he was.  Maybe, prayed Ben, Joe had seen fit to find his way home, or perhaps Adam had found the boy in or around Carson City.  Ben knew that there were plenty of ranches in that area where Joe might have found work.  There was no doubt that Joe was a good ranch hand, he had tried hard over his short lifetime to prove that fact to both his father and his two older brothers.  But had each of them, given the boy the credit that he had so deserved, or yearned for?  No, reckoned Ben, all three of them had continued to treat him as if he were still a child, and that treatment had sent the boy fleeing from the very ones who had loved him the most.

*****

The stable master was just closing the doors for the night when Ben arrived to stable his mount.

“Excuse me, but am I too late?” Ben inquired.

The old man turned, staring at Ben and taking in everything about his appearance.  “I was just closin’ up, Mister, but since ya here, take’em on in.”  The man pulled the door open just enough that Ben could lead Buck into the barn.

The man, Guss, he told Ben, pointed to an empty stall and waited until Ben had Buck secured inside.

“Give him some extra feed, if you don’t mind.  He’s earned it,” Ben said wearily, pulling some coins from his vest pocket and putting them in Guss’ outstretched hand.

“Sure ‘nough stranger,” Guss said, turning to Buck with the feed-sack and slipping it over his head.

“I’ll be back in the morning,” Ben began and then stopped in mid-sentence.

Ben stared in disbelief at the black and white pinto that whinnied softly to him from the far corner of the barn.  Quickly, Ben reached out and petted Cochise’s soft nose.  He turned back to Guss, a grim expression on his tired face.

“Do you happen to know where the boy is, that brought in this horse?” Ben asked, hope beginning to grow once again in his heart.

Guss turned, seeing the expectancy in the stranger’s deep, brown eyes.  “Yeah, I know where he’s at,” Guss said and then turned back to caring for Ben’s horse.

Ben waited momentary.  When Guss said nothing more, Ben hurried to the old man’s side.

“Well?” he practically shouted.  “Are you going to tell me, or are you just going to stand there?”

Guss looked up at Ben, “No need to get so worked up mister, the boy ain’t gonna be goin’ nowhere’s.”

“And why not?” growled Ben, his patience with the man growing thin.

“Now looky here, Mr. Whateveryousaidyournamewas, which question do ya want me to answer first…where is he or why ain’t he?” muttered Guss, wrenching his arm free of Ben’s hand, which had grabbed for him.

“The name’s Cartwright, now, where is the boy?” growled Ben.

“Well now, let’s see, I reckon ya can find him down the end of this here street,” Guss said, glancing sideways at the agitated Ben.  “Why, what’s the boy to ya?”

“Where at the end of the street?” Ben demanded, ignoring the other question.

“Genoa Cemetery, that’s where!”

Ben’s heart skipped a beat; he gulped as the tiny beads of water dotted his brow.  He opened his mouth, and moved his lips, but no words came out.  He felt his body grow weak, and he was forced to cling to the post nearest him.  His stomach churned, and for a minute, he thought he might start vomiting.

Guss watched as the color drained from the stranger’s face and saw the man stagger and grasp the post next to him.  Cautiously, Guss approached the man, taking Ben by the arm and leading him to a crate where he instructed the stranger to sit down.  He turned quickly and dipped Ben a cup of water from a bucket and made him take a swallow.  Patiently, Guss waited until Ben was able to find his voice.

Ben nodded his head and handed the cup back to the stable-master.  “Thanks,” he muttered, his voice sounding weak even to his own ears.  When he glanced up at Guss, the fear in his eyes was plainly visible.

“What do you mean, cemetery?  How…I mean…are you sure it was the same boy who stabled this horse?” whispered Ben, dreading the old man’s answer.

“Yessir,” nodded Guss, “I’s sure.  He was young, no more’n eighteen, maybe nineteen, maybe even younger than that.  He was a right nice lookin’ kid, too.  Didn’t seem to me like someone who’d gun down a man, but he sure ‘nough did, seed it with my own eyes, I did.”

Ben stood to his feet and began pacing, his hand constantly rubbing across the front of this face.  When he tired to breathe, his breath was in short gasping intervals as he tried to steady the trembling that had consumed his body.  He turned suddenly and grabbed Guss by the front of the shirt, hauling the old man up to his toes.

“Tell me exactly what you saw…and don’t leave out a thing!” demanded Ben.

Guss wrestled with Ben’s hands until he was able to free himself.  He took several paces backward, distancing himself from the angry man.

“Maybe ya best go talk to the sheriff.  He’ll tell ya himself what happened,” stammered Guss.

“I intend too, but first, I want to know what you saw, why you say my son is buried in the cemetery and…”

“Your son, ya say?” gasped Guss.

“That’s right, my son!  Now get to talking,” ordered Ben, advancing on the old man.

“Okay, okay, mister…I’ll tell ya…but it ain’t my fault they dun hanged that boy.  I wasn’t the only one what saw the shootin’…honest, Mr. Cartwright!”

“Then, please…tell me what happened to my son,” Ben’s voiced sounded as if he were pleading with Guss.

Ben motioned for Guss to take his seat on the crate, which Guss, seeing the mixture of anger and fear on the face of the troubled father, complied with Ben’s wishes.  Ben however was too nervous to sit, so he paced back and forth in front of the stable master while Guss told his story.

“It happened four days ago, Mr. Cartwright.  Your boy came ridin’ into town early that evenin’.  I was just goin’ into the saloon when he follered me inside.  I ‘member, cause I said howdy to’em on the way in.  He said howdy back and then I ordered a beer, so’d the boy.  We stood and chitchatted for a minute or two, I ‘member he asked me if there were a livery where he could stable his horse fur the night.  I told’em I was the livery boy and then he asked if’n I’d care to take his horse on down to that stable fur him.  He paid me right then and there, so’s I took his pinto on down to my stable.  The last time I saw him that night, he was joining some ole boys at the poker table,” Guss explained to Ben, who had stopped in front of him.

Guss looked up at Ben, who seemed to be lost in thought.  “He paid you right then?” questioned Ben.

“Yessir, and he paid fur my beer.”

“Strange,” muttered Ben.  “I don’t remember Joe having any money on him when he left home.”

“Joe?” Guss repeated the name.

“My son, that was his name,” Ben said.

“Oh…he didn’t tell me his name,” Guss explained.

“What happened after that?  When was it that you claimed you saw him kill a man?” Ben asked as he pulled another crate over and sat facing Guss.

Guss scratched his head, mussing his gray hair.  “Twas the next mornin’ when the kid came for his horse.  I’d just finished saddlin’ the pinto and Joe, as you call him, was leadin’ him to the door.  That’s when this here other man, Marcus Bass stopped ya boy from leavin’ and then they started to argue, Bass accused ya son of cheatin’ him at poker the night before and called the boy such, ya know, liar and cheater.  Afore Bass could say another word, ya son dun pulled his pistol out and shot the man in the chest.  Bass crumbled to the ground, dead afore he hit the dirt, he was.  I ain’t never seen a man who could draw so dang fast,” Guss exclaimed.

“What then?” Ben asked.

“Well, I just stood there, shocked.  The boy got on his horse and rode off just as if nuthin’ had happened.  By that time, there was a crowd gatherin’, and I had someone go fur the sheriff.  After Sheriff Webster seen what happened, and I told’em I saw it with my own eyes, he dun got some men together fur a posse and took out after the kid.  It took’em til that evenin’ to catch up with’em, but they sure ‘nough did, and brung him back and tossed’em into jail.  The next day, they dun had the trial.  Didn’t take long, what with me havin’ to tell’em what happened and all.  They found him guilty five minutes later and early the next mornin’ yesterday t’was, they hung’em. Ya just missed the hangin’ by a few hours, Mr. Cartwright.  And they buried ya boy right away, cause of the heat and all.”

Guss stood to his feet, brushed his dirty hand over his weather worn face and glanced at Ben.  He could almost feel sorry for the man, what with just finding out that his son murdered a man and was hung for it.  Mr. Cartwright seemed like a nice enough man, someone who seemed truly shocked to find out that he had a no good murderin’, cheatin’ boy for a son.

“Guss, you said someone else saw what happened, who was it?” Ben questioned, looking up at the man who now stood, looking down at him.

“Pete Grissom.  He’s my helper, Pete was just comin’ to work, he was standing right over there,” Guss pointed to a spot just outside the door, in plain view of everything that Guss had explained to Ben.

“I see,” muttered Ben, standing.

“Do you know what happened to my son’s things, I mean, his gun, rifle, saddle and bags?”

“Yessir, I got the boy’s saddle and bedroll over there in the corner.  His other things are over to the sheriff’s office.”  Guss paused and eyed Ben from beneath lowered lashes.

“Ya goin’ over and have a talk with the sheriff?” he asked after several moments.

Ben took a deep breath, fighting down the nausea that caused his stomach to churn.  He shook his head and met Guss’ gaze.  “I reckon so,” Ben murmured and then turned to leave.

“Mr. Cartwright,” Guss called out to Ben, causing Ben to halt his steps at the door.

“I’m sorry about ya boy,” Guss said in a soft voice.  “I had a son once myself, I know what’s ya afeelin’ right about now.”

Ben, overcome with emotion, could not force any words from his throat; he shook his head sadly and turned, walking out, into the fading light.  When he finally stopped, he stood before a crudely made cross that stood lopsided where it had been haphazardly hammered into the ground.  The letters, even more crudely carved into the wood, spelled out his youngest son’s name, Joe Cartwright, Hung for Murder. 

 *****

Ben felt his stomach lurch, the rolling and rumbling that caused his head to swim, finally splashed forth and emptied itself onto the hard packed earth, inches from where his youngest son was laid to rest.  Ben braced his hand against the top portion of the cross and allowed his stomach muscles to push upward forcing the hot bile to spill again and again until there was nothing left to the vomit but the dry heaves.  Tears filled Ben’s dark eyes, the blood had rushed to his face and he looked down at his hands, they shook uncontrollably.  He tugged at his neck scarf, fumbling with the knot until he was able to pull it free and then wiped the spittle from his mouth and face.  Sucking in large gulps of air, Ben turned back to the soft mound, beneath which laid his most precious of life’s gifts.

Ben began to weep, softly crumbling to his knees as the sobs wracked his body.

“Joseph…my son…you were my heart…my soul…and now you are…no more,” wept Ben, muttering in a soft whisper.  “How can I go on?  Oh son…why…why…did this have to happen to you?   WHY!!” screamed Ben, falling across the mound of new dirt.

Ben had no idea how long he lay across his son’s grave, only that when he at last was able to pull himself up, the night air had grown chilly and he shivered slightly.  With his hands, he dusted himself off, removing all traces of the dirt that clung to his clothing.  He turned slowly, leaving the remains of a lifetime behind him and slowly made his way to the sheriff’s office.  It was dark inside, as he pushed opened the door.  The sheriff, seated in his chair with legs propped on the top of his desk, dozed.

When Ben closed the door, the sheriff woke with a start, jumping immediately to his feet.  “What the…”

“Sorry Sheriff,” Ben said, “didn’t mean to startle you.”

The sheriff wore a look of intolerance on his face as he settled back into his chair, placing his feet back on the desk.

“What can I do for ya, mister?”

“My name’s Ben Cartwright, and…”

“You the Ben Cartwright from Virginia City?” asked the sheriff, removing his feet and straightening himself in the chair.

“That’s right; I’m here about my son…”

“Your son?  Who’s your son?” interrupted the sheriff.

“Joe Cartwright…”

“That kid we hung yesterday?  That Joe Cartwright’s your son?” the sheriff inquired, getting to his feet and moving around his desk, where he settled himself on the corner.

“That’s right.  I came here looking for him, only to be told he was hung for murder,” Ben explained, growing impatient with the man’s off-handed attitude towards him.

“Well, Mr. Cartwright, you’ll find the boy…”

“I’ve already found him, thank you,” Ben growled.

“Then why ya bothering me?  As far as I’m concerned, that case is closed.”

Ben gritted his teeth; he was in no mood for the sheriff’s seemingly indifference to his feelings.

“I’ve come for my son’s personal belongings.  Guss over at the livery said they were here,” Ben informed the sheriff.

“Oh, sure,” said the sheriff, digging in his vest pocket for a small key, to which he used to unlock the top drawer of a filing cabinet.

He dug around briefly in the drawer until he found what he was looking for.  When he turned, he held out his hand toward Ben.  Ben stared at the pearl handle pistol and intricately engraved leather holster that his son had been so proud of.  With hands that had begun to tremble once again, he took the fine pieces into his own hands, holding them as his eyes fixed on the items.

“You okay, mister?” the sheriff asked when Ben said nothing.

Ben gulped swallowing the thickness that had arose in his throat and nodded his head.

The sheriff returned to the filing cabinet, glancing over his shoulder at Ben who had yet to find his voice.  “This was his too, Mr. Cartwright.  I was sorta surprise to find this many gold pieces on a boy that young.”

Ben’s eyes followed the movement of the sheriff’s hand as the lawman dropped the coins gently, one by one, on to his desk.  Ben’s eyes widened in disbelief at the sight of the coins.  He glanced questioningly up at the other man.

“Joe had these in his pockets?  I don’t understand, as far as I know, he didn’t have any money on him when he left,” muttered Ben, picking up one coin and fingering it.  “This is solid gold.”

“Yep, and it appears that there were lots about that kid of yours that you didn’t know.  Must have led a double life,” the sheriff snickered softly and then stopped suddenly, seeing the dark anger that had filled Ben’s ebony eyes.

“Whatever you think, mister, my son was no murderer, and he sure as hell didn’t live a double life,” growled Ben.

“Hey, sorry Mr. Cartwright, I just call’em as I see’em.”

“I don’t know all the facts, not yet at least, but I aim to find out.  Joe wouldn’t gun down a man for no reason.  He’s never killed a living soul…”

“Until now, ya mean,” the sheriff said with a smirk.

“Until now,” agreed Ben.  “But whatever happened, I know he wouldn’t have killed a man with out just cause, and certainly not just because some cowpoke called him a cheater and a liar, neither of which he was.”

“That’s your opinion, Cartwright; there were eye witnesses that says otherwise,” the sheriff informed Ben.

“So I’ve heard.  Tell me, where can I find this Pete Grissom?  I’d like to hear his side of the story,” Ben asked.

“Ole Pete, he’s probably over at the Red Dog, usually is this time of night.  Just ask anyone, they’ll point him out to ya.”

Ben took another deep breath.  “Thanks sheriff, I’ll do just that,” Ben said as he turned toward the door.

“Cartwright,” called the sheriff, moving from his perch on the desk to stand in front of Ben.  “Regardless of what you think of me, or this town…I didn’t relish hanging a kid.”

Ben studied the man’s face for several seconds and then pinching his lips tightly together, nodded his head.  “Thank you, sheriff.  But nonetheless, you’ll never convince me that my son was a murderer, let alone a lair or a cheat.  There has to be some mistake,” said Ben softly, jiggling the five gold coins in his hand.

*****

Ben’s walked revealed his weariness as he crossed the street and entered the hotel.  The innkeeper was nowhere in sight as Ben leaned against the counter.  One glance over his shoulder told him that the room was deserted.  He mashed the tiny bell that rested on the counter, making a dinging sound that soon brought the clerk from the back room.  It was obvious that the man had been sleeping and from the expression on his face, Ben could tell that the clerk was not happy about having been disturbed.

“I’d like a room, please,” Ben said.

“With or without a lock?” muttered the clerk, already turning his back to Ben as he reached for a key.

“With a lock,” Ben answered, signing his name in the registry.

“That will be a dollar,” the clerk said, spinning the book around as he placed the key in Ben’s hand.  “Hmm…Ben Cartwright,” the clerked mused, glancing up at Ben.

“Not the Ben Cartwright?”  It was more of a statement, directed at no one in particular, rather than a question.

Ben raised one eyebrow.  “Yes, the, Ben Cartwright,” said Ben, mocking the man’s condescending tone.  He turned checking his room number first and then climbed the long narrow stairs.

When he reached room three, Ben paused and then placing the key into the lock, he unlocked the thick oak door and slipped inside the dimly lit room. The room was stuffy and Ben hurried to raise the window to allow the cool night breeze to filter in.  He moved to the wash stand and groaning, picked up the pitcher and went back down stairs to get fresh water for bathing.  As he lumbered back up to his room, his mind kept recalling the story that Guss over at the livery had told him.  In his pocket, the five gold pieces made clinking sounds when he moved and Ben unconsciously slipped his hand inside his trousers pocket and fingered the gold coins.  How had Joe come by the coins?  Did he win them in a poker game, and if so, where had he gotten the money to play in the first place?  What had, before his death, the man seen while playing the game, that made him believe that Joe had cheated, for Ben had never known Joe to cheat, expect when playing checkers with his middle brother.  That thought, brought a tiny smile to his face but it quickly vanished, for his heart held no joy, only sadness and grief, and he wondered how in the world would he be able to break the news of Joe’s death to his two brothers.

“Oh dear God,” Ben moaned as he poured fresh water into the basin and splashed it on his face.

Ben lay across his bed, trying to gather his thoughts, trying to form a plan, something…anything that would turn back the hands of time and return to him, his beloved son.  His eyes, filling slowly with tears, his lashes dampened by the weight of those tears, drooped heavily until at last his eyes closed in slumber.  When Ben woke, it was morning, the sun had returned, as always, to shed its bright rays upon Ben’s troubled world.  It was a surety, for never once had the sun, since the time of creation, failed to appear at its appointed time.

Ben pushed himself up, into a sitting position and swung his long legs over the edge of the bed.  Taking a deep breath, Ben yawned and then stood, walking slowly to the window and brushing back the sheers in order to see out.  People had already began to gather on the street; shopkeepers were opening their doors and some where placing sale items out front, on the boardwalk.  Ben watched the activity below without really seeing the hustle and bustle of the awaking town.  When he at last dropped the curtains and turned, it was with a heavy heart, weighted down by his grief and sorrow over the loss of his youngest son.

Ben swiped his hand across his mouth; his whiskers making a brushing sound in the palm of his opened hand.  “It’s not dream,” he whispered to his reflection in the mirror.  “He’s really gone…my son…my baby…is…is…dead,” murmured Ben, watching in the mirror as his dark eyes filled with tears.

Ben’s head dropped to his chest and he felt his chest heave as the sobs overtook him.  For several moments, the grief stricken father sobbed out his loss until, exhausted from the effort, he at last regained control of his emotions.

Ben splashed water onto his face and then grabbing the towel, wiped it dry.  When he had finished shaving and donning fresh clothes, he slipped from the room, down the stairs and into the lobby of the hotel where he tossed the key on the counter.  The same clerk was on duty, though it was obvious that the man had somehow managed to change clothes and look refreshed.

“I’ll be back later,” Ben called as he went out the door.

Once outside, he glanced up one side of the street and then the other.  He knew he should find someplace to have breakfast, but just the thoughts of eating, caused his stomach to churn.  For now, he decided, he would forego eating and search for the telegraph office instead.  It was vital that he send a wire to Adam in Carson City and Hoss at home, instructing both boys to come to Genoa.  Only after they both arrived, would Ben then tell his sons of their brother’s untimely death.  After the wire was sent, Ben would talk with Pete, Guss’ helper down at the livery stable and find out what the man knew about what had taken place that fateful morning when Joe supposedly shot to death another man.

Ben stopped a passerby and asked where the telegraph office might be found and after thanking the man, headed down the street as the man had directed.  Ben pushed opened the door and entered.  The little bell attached to the top of the door facing dinged softly, calling to attention the office clerk behind the counter.

“Mornin’,” the clerk called.  “What can I do for you?”

“I’d like to send a couple of telegrams, please,” Ben informed the man.

The clerk handed Ben some paper and a pencil and instructed him to write out his message and to whom it was to be sent.  Ben quickly scribbled a note to Adam and one to Hoss and handed the paper back to the clerk, who smiled in a friendly manner at Ben.

His eyes quickly read over the notes as he turned to his equipment and sat down at his desk.

“This shouldn’t take long, hmm, Mr. Cartwright.  Ya wanna wait for a reply?”

“No, it might take awhile to find my sons.  I have some business in town, just have the replies delivered to the hotel.  I’ll check back there in a couple of hours,” instructed Ben, tossing some coins onto the counter to pay for the telegraphs.

“Yes sir,” the clerk said, still tapping out the message, the first one being sent to Adam.

“Where might I find the undertakers?”

The clerk, finished with the first wire, paused and glanced up at Ben.  “I don’t mean to be noisy, but ya gotta have your son dug up and take him home with you?”

Ben’s eyes must have shown his surprise, for he had no idea that this man would have any inkling to what his business was, here in Genoa.

“I was on the jury, Mr. Cartwright…there was no question as to your son’s guilt,” stammered the clerk.

Ben was speechless as he stared at the man.  The clerk began to fidget nervously with the paper in his hand as he stepped up to the counter that separated him from Ben.

“I hope ya don’t hold it against me, I was only doing my duty…serving on the jury, I mean.”

“No…you had to do what was required by law once you were summoned to jury duty.  But tell me one thing,” Ben stated.

“Sure Mr. Cartwright, if I can,” the clerk said, seeming to relax a bit.

“How did my son seem to you?  I mean, was he remorseful, frightened, angry, what?  Did he ask that someone send for his family?”

The clerk seemed to be thinking and it was several seconds before he met Ben’s piercing gaze.

“Well, if you ask me, I thought the boy seemed sorta…hmm…what’s the word?  Indifferent…like he didn’t really care whether he was found guilty or not, or more so like he thought he wouldn’t be found guilty.  I would say the kid acted like he didn’t care one whit that he had shot a man down in cold blood.  And his eyes…that’s what really got me…”

Ben straightened up to his full height, intrigued by the man’s words.  “What about his eyes?”

“Cold…that’s what. And the way he looked at each us, it was like he could see right through us…scared the bee-gees outta me.  I seen that look before, on hardened killers, but never on a boy as young as your son, Mr. Cartwright…sir.”

“And he never asked for me…or one of his brothers?”

“No sir, but the judge, when he sentenced that kid, asked if he had family he wanted a message sent to, and your boy just shook his head.  He never muttered a word, never asked for mercy, nothing atall…even refused to say anything in his own behalf…he just stood there like a statue when the judge told him he was to hang by the neck until dead.”

The clerk shook his head as if agreeing with himself.  He snapped back to the present when he heard Ben huffing.

“Sorry sir…didn’t mean to make you feel bad…I’ll finish sending these wires now and soon as I hear something back, I’ll take them to the hotel for ya.”

Ben couldn’t find words to express his feelings; he just turned and walked from the office.  His head was spinning and he needed fresh air to clear his jumbled thoughts.  He stood on the edge of the walkway, basking in the warm morning sun until his rapidly beating heart had slowed and his breathing had returned to normal.  When he felt surer of himself, Ben turned toward the livery and headed up the street in search of Pete.  Perhaps the man could tell him something more of what had transpired between Joe and the man that had been gunned down.

*****

“What do you mean, he didn’t come in this morning?  I thought he worked for you?” demanded Ben.

“Like I dun told ya, Mr. Cartwright, this is Pete’s day off, he ain’t agonna be comin’ in today,” Guss tried for the second time to explain to Ben.

“Well, why in heaven’s name didn’t you tell me that last night?” Ben growled.

Guss tossed down his rake and glared at the angry man.  “Cause ya didn’t ask me that last night.  If’n ya did, I would’a told ya that today was Pete’s day off.  Now I’s got work to do.  Do ya want me to saddle ya horse fur ya, or not?”

Ben took a deep breath, today didn’t seem as if it would be any better than the day before.  “I’ll saddle him myself.  Do you have any idea where I might find this Pete fellow?  Does he live around here somewhere?”

Guss stepped out of Ben’s way as Ben grabbed the saddle blanket and tossed it over Buck’s back.

“He lives over yonder hill, has a shack about a mile yonder side.  As to where ya might find him, I couldn’t tell ya.  He don’t stay home much on his day off, tends to wonder around them hills, lookin’ for SusieQ.”

Ben paused and turned around to look at Guss.  “SusieQ?”

“Yep, Susie was his gal…way back when…but she runned off with some old fella what showed up around here about ten year ago.  Broke ole Pete’s heart, he sure did love that ole gal, ain’t never been quite right sense then,” Guss explained.

“How do you mean?  If he isn’t…sane…how could he be positive of what happened between my son and the other man?” Ben questioned, beginning to doubt even Guss’ sanity just a bit.

“Oh, he’s sane ‘nough for that cause.  Only time he ain’t right in the head, is when there’s a full moon and he sets about wondering the hills, lookin’ for SusieQ.  Last night was a full moon, that’s why ya won’t find’em home this mornin’, probably wondered about all night and most likely laid up in them there hills all night, drunk, no doubt,” Guss said, going back to his rake and picking it up.

“Ya sure do ask a mighty lot of questions, mister,” he muttered as Ben backed Buck from his stall.

Ben had found the old cabin; it was, as Guss had proclaimed, Pete was nowhere to be found.  Ben had pushed opened the door and stepped inside.  The place looked as if it had been ransacked, but in truth, Pete was no housekeeper.  There were dishes stacked on the table, in the washtub, the bed looked as if it had never been made and dirty laundry was scattered about the entire room.

Ben stepped back outside, standing on the broken down porch.  “PETE!” he yelled, listening for an answer.  “MR. GRISSOM!” he shouted.  When he received no reply, Ben crossed the clutter filled yard and checked inside the barn.  It was empty, having appeared thus so for sometime.

Ben returned to Buck and mounted up, heading for the hills where he hoped to find the missing stable hand.  For half a day, Ben searched every gully, every hillside and looked under nearly every rock big enough to hide a man.  Still, he was unable to locate Pete, whom Ben wished to question.

Hot, thirsty and hungry, not to mention disappointed Ben headed back to his hotel.  Perhaps, with any luck, Pete had wandered into town and was even now, enjoying a cold beer.  Ben would check at the Red Dog Saloon first and then his hotel room to see if there had been a reply to his telegrams.

Ben’s thoughts turned to his two surviving sons, and how they would take the news of their brother’s death and the situation surrounding it.  To Ben it seemed a dream, a nightmare from which he could not awaken. Try though he might, Ben struggled with the knowledge that Joe’s death had, in part, been his fault; for had he been more in tune with his son’s emotions, or state of mind, perhaps Joe might not have felt the need to distance himself from his family.  It was for that reason that Ben blamed himself and would have to live the remainder of his life always wondering, could he have prevented such a merciless ending to his son’s life.

Both, Adam and Hoss would be crushed to learn that Joe would never be coming home, that they would never again hear the sound of his infamous giggle or see the twinkle in the hazel eyes when they danced with mischief.  Nevermore would they find themselves the butt of one of Joe’s practical jokes, or listen to the soft sound of their brother’s voice as he sang his father’s favorite songs.  Christmas would never be for the family, the joyful occasion that it had always been, gone now from their lives was the heart of the Ponderosa, for the steady beat had been silenced forever.

Ben felt his heart lurch, such sweet memories, his heart cried.  How could he bear the loneliness that Joseph’s absence would cause in his life, or in the lives of Adam and Hoss?  Nothing could ever fill the gaping hole that Joe’s death would leave in their hearts or grieving souls.

Ben reined in his mount in front of the hotel and dismounted.  He carelessly wrapped the reins around the hitching post before stepping up on the boardwalk.  With a heavy sigh, Ben entered the establishment and slowly made his way to the desk in order to collect his room key.

When the clerk behind the counter turned around and saw Ben, he smiled.

“Any messages for me?” Ben inquired.

“No sir, Mr. Cartwright, but there is someone here to see you, a gentleman, sir.  I had him wait in the dining room, he’s sitting at the back table,” the clerk said, giving Ben the information.

Ben glanced over his shoulder, half expecting to see his visitor standing behind him and then turned back to the clerk.

“Thank you,” he said and then went in search of the unknown caller.

Ben couldn’t have been more surprised when he spied Adam sitting in the far corner of the dining room, sipping a cup of coffee.  Instantly Ben felt part of his burdens lift from his shoulders and by the time that he stood before his oldest son, Ben was able to force a welcoming smile for his son.

Adam stood to his feet and returned the smile, noting the haggard expression that had left its configuration upon his father’s face.

“Hello, Pa,” greeted Adam, giving his father’s shoulder a welcoming squeeze.

“Hello, son,” Ben said and then pulled out the chair across from Adam and sat down.  “How did you get here so quickly?”

Adam’s face was one of puzzlement.  “What do you mean?  I left this morning and…”

“Oh,” interrupted Ben, “then you didn’t get my telegram?”

“Telegram?  No sir, why did you send me a wire?” Suddenly Adam smiled, “I take it you found Little Joe?”

Adam watched as Ben pressed his lips tightly together, pinched his eyes shut and dropped his head.

“Pa?” Adam muttered, reaching across the table and placing his hand firmly over his father’s arm.  “What’s wrong…what’s happened?”

The air between them had grown heavy with impending dread and for several long moments, neither father nor son spoke a word.

“Your brother is…dead Adam.  He was hung for killing a man…”

Adam felt as if he had been hit in the chest with a cannon ball.  For several seconds it seemed his heart had stopped its continual beating and the wind had been forced from his lungs.  The hand that rested on Ben’s arm suddenly began squeezing tightly, as if his father’s arm was all that kept the shocked young man from sinking down into the pits of hell.

“What in Hades are you talking about?  Surely you can’t be serious…Joe hung?  I don’t understand, Pa…Joe’s never even fired his gun at anything other than wild game, or maybe a snake…how could he have killed a man?” stammered Adam.

“I don’t know Adam; I’m still trying to piece together the story.  What difference does it make right now anyway…your brother is…is…buried over in the cemetery,” Ben said, his voice heavy with emotions that threatened to spill over.

Had it been any one other than his father telling him that Joe had actually killed a man, and been hung for it, Adam would not have believed the story.  But one look at his father’s face, told Adam that this was no joke, Pa was serious and after studying Ben’s face in detail, Adam was sure that his father had spent several hours weeping over the loss of his youngest son.

“Why don’t we go upstairs, Pa?  We can talk in your room,” suggested Adam, finally finding his voice.

Ben looked up into the face of his son, as Adam slowly pushed back his chair and stood up.  The boy looked as if he were angry, but Ben knew that the anger was only a cover to mask Adam’s true feelings from those around him.  Ben saw the shine of tears that glistened in his son’s hazel eyes, and the way in which Adam’s lips were pressed into a fine straight line, and when Adam moved his hand out toward him, Ben saw how the hand trembled.

“Alright Adam,” said Ben in a near whisper.  Ben stood to his feet as well and led the way from the crowded dining room, up the stairs and to his room.

Once inside the room, Adam helped his father to the nearest chair and made him sit down.  Adam sat down on the bed, sucking in large gulps of air to fill his lungs.  When he glanced up, he saw that his father was watching him with tear filled eyes.

“I promised myself I wouldn’t cry anymore,” Ben said in a low whisper.  “But I just can’t seem to stop…the tears just spring up announced.”

Adam quickly wipe his hand across the front of his face, he willed himself to be strong, for his father and then moved from the edge of the bed to his father and dropping down on one knee, gently rested his hand on his father’s leg.

“It’s okay, Pa…I understand how you feel,” whispered Adam, his voice beginning to quiver.  “What I don’t understand is, what happened?  Who was Joe supposed to have killed and why?”

Ben raised his head, meeting Adam’s eyes.  Ben’s hand moved to the back of Adam’s head and tugging gently Ben pulled Adam toward him.  The anguished father wrapped his arms about the trembling body of his oldest son.  The pair gave in to the sorrow and for several moments, they remained, locked together in the comforting arms of one another.

Adam’s reserve crumbled the second he felt his father slip his strong arms about his body.  His sobbing sounded as if it were being wrenched from the depths of his soul as Ben allowed Adam to rid himself of the overwhelming grief.

“Go ahead son, get it all out…” murmured Ben softly.

After what seemed a lifetime to both father and son, Adam pulled back from Ben’s embrace and stood to his feet, turning his back to his father.  He quickly pulled his handkerchief from his pants pockets and wiped the dampness from his tear-streaked face.  When he turned again to face his father, his expression showed nothing of the sorrow that had embedded itself in his heart and soul.

“Tell me what happened,” Adam said, placing himself back down on the edge of the bed.

“I’m not sure I have all the details, but from what I can gather, Joe showed up here about four, maybe five days ago.  Guss, the man who witnessed the shooting, said he met Joe as they were both going into the saloon.  Joe bought him a beer and then paid him to take his horse over to the livery, that’s where Guss worked.  Guss said when he was leaving the saloon Joe had joined a couple of fellas in a poker game.  That was the last time Guss saw Joe, until the next morning when Joe came for his horse.  Guss said that as Joe was fixing to leave, this other fella came up and started to argue with your brother.  The man accused Joe of cheating him at cards the night before and demanded that Joe give him back his money; called Joe a lair and a cheat, so Guss says.  Joe just pulled his gun and fired at the man, hit him in the chest and killed him instantly, Guss claims.  After that, Guss said Joe just slipped his pistol back in his holster, stepped over the dead man, got on his horse and rode off as if nothing had happened,” Ben explained.

“That doesn’t sound like Little Joe,” Adam said.  “He’d never just gun down a man, hell, he hasn’t even been wearing his pistol more than six months, Pa…you just started letting him when he turned seventeen.”

“I know that Adam, but I also know what a hot head your brother can be at times…and we have to admit…Joe is fast with that gun; faster than most grown men,” Ben said, voicing his thoughts aloud.

“Sure he is Pa, but still…to kill a man and then walk away as if nothing happened, that’s not the Joe Cartwright we know…not my brother…not your son…not…” Adam stopped, seeing the look that suddenly washed over his father’s face.

“What’s wrong, Pa…are you okay?” Adam asked, getting up and moving to stand beside Ben, who had also gotten suddenly to his feet.

“Adam,” Ben said in a low voice, turning his head so that he could see into his son’s eyes.  “What if…” Ben had a strange, twisted smile on his face.

“What if, what, Pa?” Adam said, feeling his stomach tie itself in knots.

“What if, the man they hung, really wasn’t Joe?” Ben said with new hope in his heart.  “What if it were really some other young fellow?”

“Whoa…wait a minute, Pa,” Adam stammered, staring in disbelief at his father.  “First you tell me that my brother killed a man in cold blood, and was hung for it, now all of a sudden you want me to believe that there’s a possibility that the man they hung for murder wasn’t really Joe at all, but someone else?”

Ben took a deep breath and sat back down in his chair.  When he looked up at Adam, the old sorrowful look had replaced the moment of hope.

“Wishful thinking, I suppose,” Ben muttered, “but it isn’t impossible, you know.”

“I know that, Pa, but I think you’re grasping at straws.  There was an eyewitness…”

“Two, the man who worked for Guss, Pete Grissom, saw the shooting as well,” Ben added.

“Okay, two eyewitnesses, and if they both pointed Joe out…how could the sheriff not have hung the right man?” Adam felt his father’s tremble as he placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder.

“And what did this second witness tell you?”

Ben shook his head, his expression grim as he looked at his son.

“Nothing, I haven’t been able to find him to ask him,” explained Ben.  “That’s where I was just before I came back here.  I’ve been looking for him all day and can’t find him.  It’s like the fella just dropped off the face of the earth…Adam?” said Ben suddenly.  “You said you didn’t get my telegram…how’d you know to come here?”

“I just decided to, I couldn’t find a trace of Joe over in Carson City, so I gave up and came here, hoping to catch up to you,” Adam told his father.  “Pa, does Hoss know about Joe?”

Ben shook his head, “No, I sent him a wire at the same time I sent yours and asked that both of you come here, immediately.  I was going to wait until both of you were here and then tell you.”

A sharp rap on the door halted any further conversation as Ben turned to see who was at the door.

“Telegram, Mr. Cartwright,” said the clerk from the office.

“Thank you,” replied Ben, taking the paper and dropping a coin into the messenger’s waiting hand.

Ben pushed the door closed and began unfolding the paper.

“Is it from Hoss?” asked Adam, looking over his father’s shoulder.

Ben scanned the words and then folded up the paper, sticking it in his pocket.  “Yes, he’s on his way, should be here by morning,” Ben told his son.

“Good…you hungry, Pa?  You look as if you haven’t had a decent meal in a week,” Adam surmised, giving his father a small grin.

“I’m not hungry, Adam…I can’t get Joe off my mind.  I still can’t believe that…he’s gone,” muttered Ben.

Adam moved to stand behind his father, who stood before the window, gazing out.  He placed his hand on his father’s shoulder and gently pressed his long slender fingers into the flesh.

“Neither can I, Pa,” whispered Adam, “neither can I.”

*****

Hoss urged his mount on.  Pa must have found Joe, determined the big man, and something must be wrong, why else would he be summoned to Genoa?

“Come on Chubb,” voiced Hoss, “ya can do better’n this,” Hoss said, pressing his knees into this mount’s sides.  “We ain’t got far to go.”

The sun was just rising over the top of the distant hills as Hoss rode into town.  He had stopped the night before, only for a few hours to give himself and his horse time to rest, and then had saddled up and rode on.  He had sent word to his father that he would arrive sometime before noon, but something about the wire had tugged at the big man’s thoughts and an unspoken fear had urged him to hurry.  Hoss wondered briefly whether or not Adam had received a like message and might already be in Genoa with his father.

Hoss spotted the sign that read ‘Hotel’, and pulled Chubb to a stop in front of the establishment.  Quickly he tied the reins about the post and pausing just long enough to brush the trail dust from his clothes, hurried inside.  He was surprised to see his father and Adam coming down the stairs as he entered the lobby.

“Pa!” called out Hoss, greeting his father and Adam with a smile.

“Hoss,” Ben said, surprised that his middle son had made such good time.

“We weren’t expecting you this early,” continued Ben, glancing at Adam and seeing the dread in the dark eyes that looked back at him.

“Where’s Joe…you did find him, didn’t you?” Hoss inquired.

Adam took a deep breath, “Yes, we found him…or rather, Pa found him,” Adam said solemnly.

“Let’s go back upstairs, I’ll explain things to you,” Ben said quietly.

Hoss glanced first at Adam and then at his father.  His blue eyes clouded with worry as he silently read the expression on each face.

“What’s wrong, Pa, Adam?  Where’s Joe?” Hoss demanded, the fear making his voice to quiver.

Ben placed a steadying hand on Hoss’ shoulder and gently turned the boy toward the stairs.  “I said I’d explain it when we get back to my room.  Now please son, let’s go.”

Hoss gulped, glanced again at Adam and then followed his father to their room.  Adam climbed slowly up the stairs behind Hoss, dreading the scene that he knew would soon be taking place, for their worlds had changed dramatically since they all had last been altogether.

“Okay, out with it,” said Hoss, is usual jovial voice sounding fearful of the unexpected.  “Where’s Little Joe?” he asked, looking first at his father and then at Adam.

“Sit down, son,” Ben ordered softly, with no real authority in his voice.  He pointed to the lone chair in the room and waited until Hoss had complied with his wishes.

“Hoss…this isn’t easy to say…much less to believe,” his father said, glancing at Adam.

Hoss was quick to notice the exchange between his two senior family members and slowly stood to his feet.

“Sumton’s happened to Joe…I can see it in your eyes, both of you,” declared Hoss.  “What?  Is he hurt?  You said you found him…where is he?”  Hoss’ voice was getting edgy as he pushed his father for an answer.

“He’s…dead, son,” Ben murmured, raising his head slightly and watching as the color drained from his middle son’s face.

Instantly the blue eyes filled with tears as Hoss scrunched up his face in disbelief and began to slowly shake his head.

“No,” he said flatly, “Joe cain’t be dead…he’s just…just a kid.”

Ben glanced at Adam and then moved to slip an arm about the massive shoulders that had begun to tremble.  “Hoss…”

Hoss yanked away from his father, anger and fear replacing the shock on his rotund face.

“Ya lyin’, Pa…why…why ya atellin’ me that my little brother’s dead…when ya know that cain’t be?”

Hoss’ eyes had filled to capacity and the tears rolled over the rims and began their slow descent downward.  His shoulders heaved as the sobs wracked his large frame and the sound of his weeping ripped the heart out of his father as he stood and watched and listened.  Ben closed his eyes to the sight as he stepped up to his distraught son and placed a comforting hand on Hoss’ arm.

“Hoss please…” whispered Ben, his own eyes beginning to water.

“Pa…Adam,” said Hoss, turning to his older brother and seeing in the dark eyes that refused to look at him, the same truth that his father had told him.

“NO!” screamed Hoss, grabbing his hat and flinging it across the room.  The Stetson flew into the air, striking the lamp on the dressing table and sending it crashing to the floor, breaking into a dozen pieces as the glass shattered.

*****

By the next morning, it was evident that the three surviving Cartwrights had, for the present, come to terms with their deep abiding grief.  When Ben and his sons left the hotel, no one could tell by the expressions on their faces that each of them had suffered an enormous loss, or that their lives had changed in such a way that the three of them would never know life as they had once known it to be.

“Let’s see if we can find that Pete, fella.  Maybe he can shed some light on what happened,” suggested Hoss as he took the lead, heading straightway for the livery stable.

Adam and Ben had no choice but to follow along in Hoss’ footsteps.  The middle son seemed determined to find something that would exonerate his brother.  At this point, there was nothing that any of them could do to bring back the boy who had been the center of their lives.  Hoss deemed it his mission in life to prove to the town, to the world, and to himself, that his little brother was not the type of person that Genoa had labeled him to be.  Joe might have been a rapscallion at home, what with his practical jokes and all, reasoned Hoss, but a murderer and a liar?  No…that wasn’t Joe Cartwright, youngest son of Ben Cartwright and Hoss aimed to prove to the world that they were wrong in assuming so.

Hoss reached the stable ten paces ahead of his father and brother.  When he yanked opened the door, it was nearly pulled from its hinges.

“PETE GRISSOM!” shouted Hoss while standing in the doorway with his hand placed firmly on his hips and his feet standing apart.  He towered over old Guss who stepped from the shadows and glanced up at the taller man.

“Pete’s in the back, mister.  Ain’t no call fur ya to shout loud ‘nough to raise the roof off’n my stable,” Guss said, glaring at the huge man.

“Thank ya,” Hoss said and walked on through the barn to the rear entrance where he shoved that door opened as well.

An old man was shoveling manure from the wheel barrel and failed to see the visitor until Hoss stood behind him, tapping him softly on the shoulder.

“You Pete?” Hoss inquired, aware of his father and brother and the other man who had followed him out back.

“Yeah, I’m Pete…who wants to know?” asked the old man, turning and giving Hoss and his family the once over.

“My name’s Hoss Cartwright, and this here fella’s my Pa, Ben Cartwright and this is my brother, Adam.  We wanna ask…”

“Cartwright, ya say?” Pete said, “Ain’t that the name of that kid what killed that fella a coupl’a days ago?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Ben stepped in front of Hoss and answered for his son.  “I’m Ben Cartwright, the boy’s father, and…”

“I know who ya is; Gus there told me ya was lookin’ fur me.  Just what’ll ya fellas want with me?  I dun told the sheriff and judge and all them there other folks what I dun saw,” Pete said as he began shoveling again.

“We’d just like to hear your version, you know, so we can get things straight in our minds, before we have my brother’s body dug up and moved back home,” Adam stated.

“Gonna dig’em up, heh?” Pete said, turning back to the Cartwrights.

“That’s right,” Hoss grumbled.  His patience was wearing thin.  “Is there a problem with that?”

“No…no, not atall,” Pete agreed.  “So ya wanna know what I seen, do you?”

Ben took a deep breath and glanced at his sons.  “If you wouldn’t mind, yes.”

Pete looked at Guss who just shrugged his shoulders at his friend.  “Go ahead, tell’em, they ain’t never gonna leave us alone if’n ya don’t.”

Ben and both his sons turned and gave Guss an aggravated look.

“Well, ya ain’t, is ya?” Guss fumed.

“Reckon not,” growled Hoss, just as put out with the man as the man was with the three of them.

“Alright, I’ll tell ya, but listen up cause I ain’t gonna tell it again,” Pete said, setting his shovel aside.  “Foller me,” he said, leading the way back through the stable until they were all standing in front of the entrance.

“I was standin’ just over thar.  See, I was just comin’ to work that mornin’, when I heard shoutin’, so I stopped and when I did, I saw them two fellas.  Your boy was just comin’ out of the stable, leading that pinto of his’n.  This here other fella, he was older about your age,” said Pete pointing to Adam.

“What then?” asked Ben, wanting Pete to finish telling his side of the story.

“Well mister, like I dun told ya, they started arguin’.  The older man called ya boy a liar and a cheat, said the boy cheated him at poker and he wanted his money back.  The boy got awfully mad and said he tweren’t givin’ back nuthin’.  Your boy said he won it fair and square.  That’s when the other guy called him a liar and accused him of cheating fur the second time.  He said he was gonna go fur the sheriff and he’d be back.  That’s when your son pulled his gun and shot the man, hit him right in the heart he did, killed that old boy deader’n hell.”

“You sure, that’s the way it happened?” Adam asked, still not fully believing that his youngest brother could or would shoot a man for such trivial reasons.

“Sure I’m sure.  I ain’t never seen a man as fast as that kid was.”  Pete made a quick movement, imitating a fast draw.  “BAM! BAM!” t’was all it took, only the kid was faster,” Pete said, with the makings of a tiny smile.

Ben watched, perplexed over what he was seeing.  Something about what the man had told them and the way, in which Pete mimicked the fast draw, troubled the grief stricken father.

“Show me again,” asked Ben, trying not to let his inner feelings come through in his tone of voice.

Again Pete drew down, pointing his shooting finger of his right hand, at Adam.  “BAM! BAM!” laughed Pete.  “Kid sure knew how to use that pistol.  Twirled it around like a pro, onlys one thing I never could figure out,” he said, turning to Guss.  “We both noticed it, we even talked about it.”

“And what might that be?” asked Hoss, standing propped against the side of the barn, his long arms folder across his wide chest.

“Well, might not mean nuthin’ to ya.  Didn’t make no never mind to the sheriff, he said tweren’t important, a man could wear his six shooter anyway he’d a mind to,” Pete continued to explain.

Ben and Adam swapped troubled looks.

“Why would he say that? I mean, what was wrong with my son’s six shooter, as you called it,” Ben said, interested in any detail that might explain to him why his youngest son had acted as these two old men claimed.

“Well, that boy of yours was awearin’ a left handed holster and…”

“Joe was left handed, so naturally he’d be wearin’ one,” Hoss jumped in to explain.

Pete scratched his head and looked at Guss, who also wore an odd expression on his face.  Old Guss stepped up to Ben, his face wrinkled in a frown.

“Don’t make no sense to me.  The kid was wearing that there left handed holster of his’n on his right side, backwards like,” said Guss.

“Yeah, and he didn’t use no left hand to draw on that other fella, either…” Pete opened his mouth to say, but was cut off when Ben grabbed his arm.

“Wait a minute!” Ben nearly shouted.  “Are you saying that my son didn’t use his left hand at all, but his right instead?”

“And he was as fast as you say?” Hoss quizzed.

“Joe wore his holster backwards, on his right hip?” Adam had to know, for surely there must have been some mistake.

“Now wait just a dadburn minute,” Pete fussed, pulling free of Ben’s strong fingers.  “Ya all just heard me tellin’ ya…the kid was right handed, not left handed.  I might not look like no educated city slicker, but I ain’t no bloomin’ idiot either; the kid drew down on the old man, using his right hand!”

“Dear God,” muttered Ben, swaying slightly.

Hoss and Adam both reached out to support their father to keep him from falling.  Carefully they backed Ben up until he could sit on an old crate.

When Ben looked up, into the two pairs of eyes that watched him, his own dark chocolate eyes were damp with tears.  Ben wiped his hand across his face and took a deep breath; his voice quivered when he tried to speak, but his face wore a smile and the stress from the long days of worry and woe had vanished.

“It wasn’t Joe,” he said in a near whisper.  “They didn’t hang my baby…my baby,” Ben gulped.

Adam knelt down on one knee, his hand resting on his father’s leg.  “Pa…let’s not get our hopes up, not just yet.  It sounds as if it really was someone else, but if so, we now have a bigger problem.”

Ben studied his son’s face and then glanced up at Hoss, who seemed puzzled by his brother’s statement.

“What’ca talkin’ about Adam?  What other problem do we have?” Hoss spoke up first to inquire.

Adam stood and glanced from his father to Hoss and back down at Ben.  “If they didn’t hang Joe, where is he?”

“Oh,” hummed Hoss.

“And is he alright?” Ben added, standing to his feet, a new set of worries drawing their funny little furrows onto his brow.

Ben pushed passed Pete and Guss and motioned for Hoss and Adam to follow him.

“Thanks Pete, Guss, we appreciate all that you’ve done for us,” Ben tossed over his shoulder as he walked away.

Quickly Adam and Hoss fell into step beside their father.  “Where we headed, Pa?” Hoss questioned.

“You have a plan, I can tell, but are you going to share it with us?” Adam added, hurrying his steps in order to keep up with his father.

Ben stopped quickly and turned to face both sons.  “We’re going to do what I should have done in the first place,” declared Ben.  “We’re going to dig up that grave and have a look at who’s inside that casket.  If I’m right, it won’t be your little brother.”

Hoss grinned broadly, showing the gap between his two front teeth.

Adam felt the fresh hope that sprung forth like new life to his soul, but he remained realistic.  “And if it is Joe, what then, Pa?  Can you live with that?” Adam asked in a soft, compassionate voice.

Ben’s smile disappeared and he looked grim for just a moment before speaking.  When he at last found his voice, it was without emotion that he explained what he would then do.

“If it is Joe…then I’ll take him home and bury him up at the lake…next to his mother.”  Ben pivoted on his toes and marched off down the street toward the sheriff’s office.

It took nearly two hours for Ben to convince the sheriff that they should open up the grave. What with the things that both Guss and Pete had told them, there was now sufficient doubt as to the casket’s occupant.  Ben had to know; he had to be sure, for he could not live the rest of his life always wondering.  Perhaps, he would never know what really happened, if the remains turned out to be his son, but at least he would be able to take his son’s body home…home where Joe belonged.

It was passed noon by the time that the sheriff finally agreed and had spoken with a judge who would have to give his consent to the opening of the grave.  Ben hired two men to dig and along with the sheriff and the judge, plus Adam and Hoss they walked the short distance to the cemetery.  When Ben heard more footsteps behind him, he turned, curious as to who else might be tagging along.  A large crowd of men and women had joined the procession, headed by Pete and Guss.  It seemed as if the entire town had turned out to see for themselves if the young man buried in their town’s cemetery was the son of one of Nevada’s wealthiest men.

The sun had crested, the air was still and hot and the two men, who did the digging, were tired and thirsty.  After nearly three hours of digging in the hard packed earth, one man’s shovel struck the wooden top of the pine box.  Everything fell strangely quiet as every man, woman, and child froze, as if time had stopped and each individual had petrified and become as pillars of salt.

Adam broke the silence as he slipped into the deep grave and gave a nod at his brother.

“Help me slip these ropes around this box, and then we’ll pull it up,” he ordered.

When the ropes were in place, Adam motioned for the four men who had volunteered to help to begin raising the coffin.  It was only minutes before the pine box was safely on the surface and Adam knelt, hammer in hand, and with one last glance at his father and brother, began removing the long nails that sealed the top of the box.  When each nail had been removed, he tossed aside the hammer.

Hoss and Ben joined Adam, kneeling on the ground at the head of the box.  Ben gulped, Hoss wiped his hand across his mouth and Adam pinched the bridge of this nose with the fingers of his right hand.

One deep breath and Adam filled his lungs, holding in the air.  One gentle tug on the lid and the box was opened.  With bated breath and trembling hands, Ben leaned over and slowly began unfolding the burial cloth that covered the face of the coffin’s occupant.  Hoss’ wide brow was beaded with tiny droplets of perspiration and his breathing was unsteady while his heart pounded deep within his chest.

Ben lifted up the last fold and peered at the face of the dead man.  Around him, no one moved or whispered a word; every soul waited as Ben’s mind registered what his eyes were seeing.  Without warning, the silence was shattered by the loud, wracking sobs that ripped from the deepest depth of the senior Cartwright’s heart.  The cries of not only the dead man’s father, but his brothers as well, left the crowd wondering…was the boy in the coffin the man’s son, or was it not.

“Joseph…oh Joseph,” sobbed Ben, reaching out and gathering both Adam and Hoss into his arms, each man clinging to the other for support as the truth began to dawn on them.

“I can’t believe it…Dear God…my son…my son…”

*****

Drake hurried from the house, it looked as if it might rain and he didn’t want to get caught in the downpour.  He could still do his barn chores and not get wet, but the fencing that his father had wanted him to check on, would have to wait, at least until the rain stopped.  The young man had just pulled the door opened and was about ready to slip inside when the sounds of a man’s moaning stopped him in his tracks.  Carefully he cocked his head to one side, trying to determine which direction the strange sounds had come from.

Drake was just about to believe he had imagined the sounds when he stopped a second time.  He listened intently; the sounds were coming from around the corner of the barn.

Drake eased over to the side of the barn and peered around.  Nothing, and then he heard it.

“Please…some…one…help…me.”

The voice was weak, barely audible, but Drake saw the slight movement beneath the bushes and he hurried to the wounded man’s side.  He was surprised when he carefully turned the man over and saw the gapping hole in the man’s stomach.  Quickly he ripped the sleeve from his shirt, knowing it was the last of his good work shirts, and stuffed the cloth into the bleeding wound to squelch the seeping fluid.

“Oh…” cried the man as Drake slipped his arms beneath the injured man and with care, lifted the man’s body into his arms.

“Pa?”  The pitiful cry caught Drake’s full attention and he paused, staring down into the man’s face, seeing the distorted features for the first time.

“Well, I’ll be darned,” Drake muttered to himself.  “You ain’t no man; you’re just a kid, and I bet ya ain’t even as old as Johnny.  He’s my brother,” Drake whispered to the boy in his arms.

“PA!  PA!  Come quick!” shouted Drake, carrying the boy toward the house.

Stuart Casson pushed the screen door opened and Drake heard it bang against the wall as his father rushed to meet him.

“What in the world do you have here?” Stuart questioned his son.

Drake stopped and let his father take a quick look at his bundle.  When Stuart lifted the make-shift bandage, he frowned in dismay.

“Better take him inside, put him in the back room, and then fetch my medical supplies.  That bullet’s gotta come out.  Hurry up, get moving, the kid’s near dead now,” ordered Stuart, giving Drake a gentle nudge on his shoulder to hurry his son along.

“Yessir, Pa,” Drake called over his shoulder.

He rushed inside and carefully wove his way about the furniture until he reached the back room.  Using one hand, he twisted the doorknob and shoved back the door.  The room was dark with little light in which to see by, but neat and clean.

“Sarah!” shouted Stuart, “Come in here and help me!”

A young woman of about eighteen hurried into the room.  She was small for her age, but had a crown of golden curls that hung to her waist and her eyes were blue, like the crystals on the Tahoe.  Her face was twisted out of shape by the frowns she wore but the expression changed to one of compassion the minute her eyes saw the bundle her brother carried within the folds of his arms.

“Oh dear, Drake, put him in the bed.  Wait…let me turn back the covers.  There,” she said, stepping aside to allow her brother room.  “Easy Drake, he looks like he’s bleeding badly,” Sarah whispered.

Stuart pushed his way between his daughter and his son to get to the bed. He quickly lifted the bloodied rag to inspect the wound.  His face became distorted when he saw the damage done to the boy’s flesh.

“My bag, please Drake.  Sarah, I will need some clean bandages and linens, and would you please put some water on to boil, I need you to sterilize my instruments for me,” Stuart ordered gently as he worked at removing the wounded man’s clothing.

“Yes, Papa, I’ll hurry.”

Stuart glanced up and smiled at his daughter.  “Thank you my dear.”  He then turned his full attention to the boy who lingered between life and death.

“Well, now,” Stuart said softly, “someone must surely have had it in for you.  From the looks of this bullet wound, they must have thought you dead, or shot you and left you to die,” he murmured, knowing full well that the unconscious boy could not hear him.

“What a shame too, you look like a nice kid, though looks can be deceiving,” he whispered, tugging at the soiled trousers and finally getting them down enough from the slender waist that he could pull them off, over the boy’s dirtied feet.

“Did he take your boots, too?” the gentle man asked, glancing at the boy’s face, only to see his features scrunched up, telling the one in charge, of the pain that coursed through his body.

Drake returned in the same instant that Sarah carried in the basin of hot water and set it down on the table beside of the bed.  Stuart quickly pulled the light blanket over the boy’s body to cover the lower extremities from his daughter’s eyes.  Though the girl had served as her father’s nurse for the last three or four years, and had been witness to many sights that most young women her age, had yet to see, there was something about this boy’s allure that caused Stuart to want to shield his daughter.

“Sarah, go…I need to bath this boy, Drake can help me do that.  When I am finished, I will need you to help me operate, that bullet must come out,” Stuart explained to his daughter and Drake who was already getting the linens ready for his father.

“Sarah,” Stuart called as the girl stopped in the doorway.  “Would you mind telling Johnny what’s happened and to please do the chores for Drake until he’s finished in here?”

“No Papa, I don’t mind, just call when you’re ready for me.”

Sarah started to turn but stopped and glanced again at the unresponsive boy in the bed.  He was so near death, she feared; and so handsome her heart cried out.  She closed the door silently and made her way to the kitchen, still pondering over the handsome youth.  Who shot him…and why, she questioned herself.  Was he a bandit, had he gotten shot while trying to rob another, or maybe he had gotten caught rustling cattle from a nearby rancher.  Her mind seemed to be working overtime, conjuring up reasons as to why such a strikingly handsome young man would end up with a life-threatening bullet wound in his gut.

*****

Stuart, a retired army doctor who had given up the life of a solider to become a rancher, leaned low over the body on the bed. He probed gently for the bullet, but it was deep and the boy had lost a large amount of blood.  Sarah wiped carefully at the beads of sweat that continued to gather on her father’s brow and then handed him another swap to dab at the blood that still seeped from the open wound.  The boy was burning with fever and Stuart wondered how the kid had managed to hang on as long as he had, for the wound looked as if it were at least two, maybe even three days old.  The flesh had become inflamed and infection had started to set in; gangrene was a worry as well, for once the bullet was removed, he would have to cut away the flesh that showed tiny spots of rotting. It was the worst type of surgery that Stuart performed, for he had seen more than his share during his lifetime, especially while serving in the military.  He had seen men died needlessly because of gangrene, and even now, considering the poor condition of this current patient, the boy might well die before his time.

“Hang on, kid,” Stuart murmured softly to himself.  “Just don’t give up yet…something sure has kept you going.”

Stuart probed a little deeper, pausing when the boy moaned softly.  The doctor glanced down at his daughter and saw that she was watching the boy’s face too.  When she looked up at the father, her face was grim.

“Is he going to make it, Papa?” she whispered.

“I don’t know Sarah,” her father replied and returned to his probing.

Stuart carefully, with the skill of a talented surgeon, dug deeper.  He could feel the bullet, but it was lodged in the stomach muscle and he would have to be extremely careful when he began bringing the bullet upward.

The boy moaned again, turning his head slightly to one side.  “Give him another drop of the ether, Sarah; I can’t have him waking up before I’ve got this bullet.  The pain alone would kill him.”

Sarah hurried to do as her father had instructed and added one tiny drop of ether to the mask that covered the injured boy’s face.  The medication worked its miracle and within seconds, the boy became still once more.

“I’ve got it,” whispered Stuart, more to himself than to his nurse.  “Now, all I have to do is get this infernal bullet out without ripping the muscles.”

Stuart took a deep breath to steady himself, and waited until Sarah had dabbed at the beads of water on his brow before he began pulling gently on the bullet.  It seemed as if it was taking forever, but within moments, the pellet was dropped into the china basin where it made a dinging sound.

“Whew,” sighed Stuart softly.  “Now all I have to do is get rid of this rotting flesh and sew the boy up,” smiled Stuart to his daughter.  “Shouldn’t take much longer, how’s he doing?”

“He’s okay…Pa?” Sarah said softly.

Stuart worked as he talked quietly with his daughter.

“What is it, Sarah?”

“I wonder why someone shot him.  He isn’t any older than I am…and he’s so…” Sarah glanced at her father, her facing beginning to turn pink.

Stuart smiled and continued his work.  “I don’t know why, he was shot, he doesn’t look as if he were an outlaw.  Who’s to say, maybe he got in an argument over a girl.”

“Oh Papa, really!”

“It’s been known to happen.  Men will kill over a woman…they don’t have to have a big reason, sometimes just looking the wrong way at a man’s woman can get a fellow shot.  Maybe this boy…”

“Father, please…just hurry,” sighed Sarah, glancing up at Stuart.

The father chuckled softly.  “Tell you what daughter, when the boy wakes up, why don’t you just ask him why someone shot him?”

Sarah rolled her eyes and shook her head, but she did wonder how and why the boy was attacked, and who was he?  Was he from around here or a neighboring ranch perhaps, or was he a drifter?  He didn’t appear to be, he didn’t look like the other drifters she had seen, the ones hanging around town at the saloon on Saturday nights when she had been in town with her father and brothers.  No, this boy was different, he was…was…what, Sarah thought…different, that’s what.

“That’s about it,” Stuart said, several minutes later.  “I’m finished, now it’s up to the boy.”

The physician dropped his instruments into the china basin that Sarah held in her hands and turned to wash the blood off his own hands.  He glanced at the boy, watching the steady rise and fall of the boy’s chest; then when he had finished, Stuart turned, dried his hands and then pulled the blanket up around the boy’s chin.  He turned to Sarah and with a grim expression on his face, voiced aloud his thoughts.

“We should know something within the next few hours.  If he survives the night, he might have a chance, if not…well…”

“Please don’t say it, Father.”  Sarah’s eyes were dark with worry as she glanced back at the sleeping boy.  “I’d like to think that he’s strong enough to pull out of this.  Don’t you think that somewhere…he has a mother and a father who surely must be worried sick about him?”

Stuart smiled down into the face of his daughter, “Yes child, I’d rather think so.”

“Then we have to do everything possible to save him, Papa…so that he can go home.  Drake said he heard the boy calling for his father, so he must have a family.  Please Father…” Sarah leaned against her father’s chest.

Stuart wrapped his arms tightly about his daughter and sighed deeply; she was everything to him, as were his two sons.  Since the death of his wife, many years before, his three children were all that he had that really mattered to him.  As he held Sarah within his arms, he glanced at the boy; he was someone’s son, reckoned Stuart.  Regardless of how or why the boy had been shot and left to die, the fact remained the boy was some man’s son and was no doubt loved by that man.  Stuart put himself in that father’s place and knew instantly how he would feel, had the boy in the bed been one of his own sons.

“I’ll do all in my power Sarah, to keep the boy alive, but the final decision is not up to me, it’s up to God,” whispered Stuart, leaning his daughter back so that he might look into her eyes.  “God’s will child, not mine,” he said softly.

*****

For three days the boy lingered between life and death.  His fever skyrocketed and it took both Stuart and his daughter keeping the boy bathed in cool water to fight the fever.  The boy moaned and groaned, and cried out in his delirium, struggling to free himself from the tangle of blankets that held him prisoner in the bed.

The boy wept; muttering unintelligible words that neither Stuart nor Sarah could understand. He called names of individuals that neither of them knew and they watched as the boy groped the air, searching for a handhold that might keep him from slipping closer to the door of death.

Stuart held the hand of the boy and felt the dwindling strength as the fever raged and slowly sapped from the boy, the willpower to fight.  It was a losing battle; the boy was becoming too weak to even cry out; but just one lone word lingered on his lips.  The only word that the compassionate doctor recognized…Pa…and the lone word tore at his heart.

“I wish I knew who he was, I could get word to his pa,” Stuart told his son, Drake.

“I don’t know either, Pa.  He ain’t from around here; I’d know if he was. And he don’t work at any of the ranches; I’ve already checked with some of the men.  They don’t know him either,” Drake told his father late one afternoon while he sat with Stuart.

“Johnny went into town yesterday and talked to the sheriff, but Gill ain’t heard of no shooting or killing that might have happened.  He told Johnny to let him know if the boy were to be able to talk, he’d come out and question the kid,” Drake informed his father.

“Is he going to ask around?” Stuart asked, standing to his feet and feeling the boy’s forehead.  “He’s still hot.”

“Yes sir, Johnny said that Gill would send a wire to the sheriff in Genoa and see if anyone there might know who the boy is,” Drake answered.  “I got chores to tend to, want me to send Sarah in while you take a break?”

Stuart pulled back the blanket and checked on the bandage.  “Yes, if you would.  I need some fresh air; in fact, if you will saddle my horse, I need to go into Dayton.  I think I’ll go have a talk with the sheriff myself.”

Drake slipped from the room and went in search of his sister.  He found Sarah in the kitchen, standing at the stove.  He smiled at her when the girl turned to see who had slipped up behind her.

“You are a vision, little sister,” smiled Drake, sniffing the pot that was simmering on the stove.  “And such a good cook, too,” he laughed.

“Drake Casson, I swear, you are as bad as Father,” she giggled, slapping at his hand, which he was dipping into the pot.

“Ouch!” he cried in mock pain.  “That hurt,” he grinned, licking his finger.  “Pa needs you to sit with the boy, he wants to ride into Dayton and have a talk with the sheriff,” Drake informed his sister.

“Alright, just let me move this pot to the back burner,” Sarah replied, taking a potholder and carefully moving the hot pot.

“I’ll be in the barn, helping Johnny, he’s still complaining about having to do his share of the chores.  I don’t know about that boy, think he’ll ever grow up?” laughed Drake.

“Of course he will,” laughed Sarah, untying her apron and tossing it on the back of the kitchen chair.  “He’s only sixteen, he’ll get there, and when he does, you won’t have a baby brother anymore…”

“Thank goodness for that…”

“Drake…just because you are six years older than Johnny, doesn’t make you Johnny’s father…or his boss.  You need to lighten up and give that boy time to grow up, all you do is order him around, always telling him to do this and do that…why it’s a wonder that he doesn’t run away from home.  If I were he, I know I would, what with both you and father and me, always telling him to wash his hands, go to bed, get up, clean the barn, feed the chickens, eat your supper, don’t talk with food in your mouth, take a bath…”

At the sound of her brother’s laughter, Sarah stopped talking.  “What?” she grumbled.

“Now you sound like ma used to sound when she was scolding Pa,” Drake snickered.

“Well, it’s true big brother, I’m surprised that Johnny hasn’t already thought of running away,” smiled Sarah, no longer angry with her older brother.

“I’m not going to run away,” a voice from behind them said.

Sarah and Drake both turned, smiling at their younger brother as Johnny entered through the back door.

“We were just saying…”

Johnny hung his hat on the peg next to the door and turned, smiling at his brother and sister.

“I heard what you were saying, and I have to admit, the thought did cross my mind.  But don’t worry, I’d rather stay here and put up with the likes of you two, than to be out on my own, maybe getting myself shot up like that kid in there,” Johnny said, staring at the closed door on the other side of the room.

“How’s he doing?” he asked, looking toward Sarah.

Sarah shook her head, “not too well, I’m afraid.  Which reminds me, I need to go relieve Papa,” she said and then left her two brothers alone.

“Please…oh…it hurts…Pa…”

Sarah heard the soft whining sound as she slipped silently into the room.  She hurried to the bedside where she joined her father.  Stuart was wiping at the boy’s brow with a cool cloth and he looked up when he saw his daughter.

“He seems to be cooling off some.  I can understand part of what he’s saying.  Seems to want his father,” Stuart said.

“Oh Pa, I wish we knew who he was, maybe having his father here would help him get better,” sighed Sarah, taking her father’s seat in the chair which remained by the boy’s bedside.

“So do I, Sarah, but until the boy is able to tell us his name, there’s nothing we can do for him.  I have to go now, you stay here with him and I’ll be back soon,” Stuart told his daughter.

“Okay Papa,” Sarah said, smiling up at her father.

*****

“We might as well head home, Pa,” Adam said, glancing at Hoss and then back to Ben.

Ben stood at the window.  He’d been standing there for nearly half and hour and in that time, had said nothing to either Adam or Hoss.

“Adam’s right, Pa.  If we start back, maybe we can find some trace of where Joe might have gotten too,” Hoss added.  “He’s bound to turn up, Pa.”

Ben turned at last from the window to stare at his two sons.  “We’ve covered nearly every inch of this country.  In the last two days, we’ve traveled from here to Reno and back and we’ve still not found anything, or anyone who has even admitted to seeing him.  And now, you two want to give up and go home?” Ben nearly shouted.

“Pa…that’s not what we meant…” began Adam, frowning.

“Then what?  First I find out my son shot and killed a man, and was hung for it.  I nearly die from the shock, I cry myself into a stupor for the ache in my heart and then I’m told it really wasn’t my son.  But no one can tell me where Little Joe is and now the two of you want to throw in the towel and go home!”  Ben stomped back to the window and spun back around.

“Go home, call it quits, but I’m not a quitter.  I intend to find my boy, with your help or without it!” ranted Ben, moving to the bed and grabbing his things.

He practically ran from the room and when he slammed the door behind him, Hoss and Adam jumped at the loud sound.

Adam expelled the air from his lungs and glanced at Hoss.  His middle brother looked as if he were on the verge of tears.  Adam got to his feet and placed a reassuring hand on his brother’s arm.

“Don’t take it to heart, Hoss, Pa’s just at his wits end with worry.  He’s been through hell these last few days, he doesn’t mean what he says,” Adam said, though he secretly wondered if he was right in assuming that his father did consider them quitters.

“Reckon ya right, Adam, come on, lets get a move on,” Hoss said, grabbing his things from the dresser top.

When they reached the stable, Ben was just coming from the barn, leading Buck and Cochise.  He smiled slightly when he saw his two sons.

“Glad you decided to join me,” he uttered.

“Pa…listen…” began Hoss.

“No, you listen.  Look Hoss, Adam…I’m sorry for snapping at you.  I didn’t mean what I said back there, it’s just that…well…I’m just sick with worry…and fear,” he added.

Hoss pressed his lips tightly and nodded his head in understanding.  “We know Pa; so are we.”

“Just give us a minute to saddle up and we’ll be on our way,” smiled Adam, heading into the dark barn.

Minutes later Adam and Hoss were leading their horses out into the bright sunlight.  With ease, they swung into their saddles and turned to their father.

“Let’s ride,” Ben said.

*****

They had ridden for hours and at last pulled their mounts to a halt.  Ben pushed back his hat and turned to his sons.

“I think we’ll ride over toward Dayton before heading home, just to see if anyone there might have seen him,” Ben said.

“Home?  But I thought you said…” began Hoss.

“I know what I said, but we have to face it son…”

“No Pa, we don’t.  Hoss and I have already agreed; we’re not quitting until we know something for sure…one way or the other.  Now, it stands to reason we know that Joe didn’t go to Carson City, I checked that out thoroughly.  We know that he had to be close to Genoa that’s where we found his horse and belongings.  Who ever took Cochise and Joe’s things, couldn’t have been too far from town…”

“How do you figure, Adam?” Hoss inquired.

“Because the man rode into town late at night, played poker for awhile and then was ready to move on by the next morning,” supplied Ben.  “Joe had to be within at least a day’s ride to Genoa, and the next closest town is Dayton.”

“Then let’s get a move on,” Hoss ordered.

The three anxious men kicked at their mounts and for another couple of hours rode without stopping.  When they finally did stop, they were on a small rise, overlooking a small ranch.  From where they sat mounted on their horses, they could see the white frame house, the big barn that stood off to the left of the house and beyond that, they could see the rich fertile pastures.

“Looks homey,” smiled Adam.

“Yeah, and whoever lives there is a good cook.  I smell beef stew, baked sweet potatoes and homemade apple pie,” said Hoss, sniffing at the air.

Ben and Adam swapped smiles and then laughed out loud.  “You hungry, son?” teased Ben.

“Ain’t I always, Pa?” Hoss said, licking his lips.  “We is gonna ride down there and say howdy, ain’t we?” he beamed brightly.

“Of course we are,” agreed Ben.  “Wouldn’t be neighborly if we didn’t…and maybe, they’ve seen Joe,” he added.

Ben urged his mount down the hill and within moments, all three had made it to the hitching post just on the outside of the white picket fence that surrounded the house.

Ben dismounted and was just starting to open the gate when the front door opened and a man, about Ben’s age, stepped out, onto the porch.  The man paused, seeing as how he had company, and then walked slowly to the fence.

“Afternoon,” he greeted Ben and his two sons.  “What can I do for you?” he asked Ben, who had stopped at the gate.

“Hello…I’m Ben Cartwright, and these are my…”

“Ben Cartwright, did you say?” the man said, as his eyes opened wide in surprise.

“Yes…I’m Ben Cartwright…why?” stammered Ben, looking at Adam and Hoss with some doubt.

The man began to laugh.  “Why Ben…you old goat…don’t you remember me?”

Ben studied the man’s face intently, trying to dredge from his memory this man’s name.

“Stuart…Casson, we served together in…”

“Stuart Casson, you old son of a gun, of course I remember you!” laughed Ben as the two men made a lunge for each other and wrapping their arms around one another.

“My God Ben, how long has it been, twenty years?” laughed Stuart.

“Nearly, why the last time I saw you, you had a wife on one arm, a toddler in your other arm, and if I remember correctly, Martha was expecting!” laughed Ben.

“You’re right, Drake, my oldest son is twenty two now and the baby Martha was carrying, she’s eighteen, Sarah’s her name, and I have a younger son, Johnny, he’s sixteen.”

Stuart pulled back from Ben’s embrace and looked up at Adam and Hoss who still sat astride their mounts.

“These your sons, Ben?” asked Stuart, moving outside the fence and offering his hand to Adam.

“I’m Adam Cartwright,” grinned Adam, “I’m the oldest.”

Adam took the gentleman’s offered hand.

“This is Hoss,” smiled Ben, pointing to his middle son, my second son.

“Howdy, please to meet ya,” smiled Hoss.

“Nice to meet you too, Hoss,” greeted the doctor and then he turned back to Ben.  “I’m forgetting my manners, won’t you come inside?  Sarah’s got a good stew brewing, and some baked sweet potatoes?” Stuart offered, with a grin.  “She’s a good cook,” he laughed, hoping to temp his old friend into staying for supper.  His trip into Dayton had completely slipped his mind with the arrival of his old friend.

“Well, I suppose we…”

The front door burst open, nearly coming off its hinges as Drake tore out onto the porch.

“Pa!” he shouted.  “Oh, hello,” he said quickly to his father’s guest.  “Pa, ya better come quick, it’s the boy…he’s trying to get up and Sarah and me can’t get him back in bed.”

“Sorry, Ben…I have a patient, please come on in, and make yourself at home.  I’ll be right back,” Stuart said, rushing to follow his son inside.

Ben paused and glanced up at Adam and Hoss who were just dismounting.  “Might as well go in,” Ben said, opening the screen door and allowing himself inside.

Adam and Hoss shrugged their shoulders and followed their father into the house.  Quietly, each man found a place to sit and wait for his host to return.  From the back of the house, they could hear the loud moans of Stuart’s patient, and they swapped looks with one another.

“Someone must be hurtin’ real bad,” whispered Hoss, concern for the unknown person sounding in his voice.

“PA!  PA!” the scream rang throughout the house, startling the three men in the parlor.

“PLEASE…I WANNA GO HOME!” the individual yelled.

Ben stood to his feet; his heart began to pound as he glanced in the direction from which the piteous wailing was coming.

“PAPA!”

“No,” uttered Ben, turning troubled eyes on his sons.  “That sounds like…”

Instantly, Hoss and Adam were on their feet, following Ben through the house and to the room where the wounded boy was struggling to free himself from the hands that restrained him to the bed.

“Quick Sarah, hand me my bag.  I need to give him something to calm him down,” ordered Stuart as he held the boy’s body pressed down against the bed.  From the corner of his eye, he spied his guest standing in the doorway.

“I’m sorry Ben, but…”

Ben, wide eyed and frightened at what he was seeing, moved slowly toward the bed.  Sarah handed her father the syringe filled with medicine used to calm the boy.

“Wait!” demanded Ben, brushing the doctor aside and taking the physician’s place on the bed.

He grabbed the boy’s shoulders as he tried to rise from the bed.  Ben wrapped his arms about the trembling body and pressed the sweat soaked curls to his shoulder.  He could feel the heat from the fever that still lingered in the boy’s flesh.

“Joseph…Joseph, son…Papa’s here now, it’s okay, precious,” muttered Ben, his eyes filling with tears.  “Shh…you’re going to be alright now, son.”

Stuart stared in shock at the boy leaning against Ben Cartwright.  Ben had actually embraced the boy as if he had known the kid all of his life.  He had seen the swell of tears that filled the dark eyes and the look of disbelief that shadowed his friend’s expression when he had first seen the boy trying to get out of the bed.

“Ben,” Stuart said softly, moving toward his friend.

Adam reached out and placed a gentle but restraining hand on the doctor’s shoulder.  “Don’t, please.  Give him a minute, that boy is my brother,” explained Adam.

“Brother?” stammered Stuart, backing up to give Ben time to calm the boy.

“Joseph, open your eyes, son…” Ben said, holding his son tightly, against his breast.

“Pa…pa…please…I wanna go home!” wept the boy.  The fever burned through Joe’s flesh and Ben could feel the heat even through his own clothing.

“You will son, but first…you have to get better,” soothed Ben, brushing his hand through the mass of thick, damp curls.

“Now, lay back Joe, please…Pa’s right here with you,” Ben comforted.

“Pa?” Joe struggled to open his eyes as his hand reached through the air, seeking the man with the deep, comforting voice that had always, in the past brought such soothing to his tormented soul.

“That’s right son, open your eyes,” smiled Ben taking Joe’s hand in his.

The long lashes fluttered and finally the eyes could be seen staring back at him.  The pain that Ben saw shining in the hazel depths gnawed at the walls of his heart as he smiled down at his son.

“Pa?” Joe cried in a low voice, filled with pain.

“I’m here, son,” whispered Ben, leaning down and placing a kiss on Joe’s fevered brow.

“I’m…sorry…I didn’t…mean…those things…I said,” Joe tried to explain.

“I know son, it’s okay, honest,” smiled Ben, bringing Joe’s hand to his lips and kissing the dampened palm.  “You try to rest Joe, and when you’re better, we’ll go home.”

Joe fought against the urge to close his eyes and allow himself to sleep.  He had to explain himself; he had to make his apologies to his father and brothers.

“Adam?  Hoss?” he called.

“We’re here, little buddy,” Adam said, moving with Hoss to the side of the bed.

“I didn’t mean those awful things…I’m sorry…” Joe said, the tears gathering in his already clouded eyes.

“Don’t worry about it,” Hoss grinned, “ya oughta know by now that we don’t take you seriously,” he laughed.

Before Joe could comment, he lost the battle to stay awake as he drifted slowly into the world of slumber.  “Pa,” he muttered.  “Don’t go…stay…with…me.”

Ben swallowed the lump in his throat.  He seriously doubted that he would ever leave his son’s side again, not after what he had been through, but he smiled.

“I’ll be right here sweetheart,” promised Ben as he watched the boy drift off.

*****

Late that same night, Joe’s fever broke.  Ben had made his son a promise and he held true to his word.  Joe slept the better part of two days, and when he finally opened his eyes, his father’s tired and whiskered face was the first thing that he saw.

“Pa?” muttered Joe, stretching out his hand and placing it over his father’s arm where Ben had rested his head on the bed, next to his son.

Ben was awake in a flash.  He hurriedly wiped the sleep from his eyes, and smiled.

“Well, welcome back,” he whispered, allowing Joe to hold on to his arm.

Ben watched as Joe moved his hand down to his bigger one and then as Joe’s fingers entwined themselves around his palm, Ben closed his own fingers around Joe’s.

“You’re still here,” the sleepy boy smiled.

“I promised you I would be,” Ben said, giving the hand a tiny squeeze.

“Thanks, Pa…I was afraid you’d…leave me,” Joe stammered, his eyes filling with tears.

“Even after I promised you, I’d be here?” Ben asked, somewhat surprised that his son had doubted his word, for he had never broken a promise to any of his sons.

“I guess I thought that…that…” Joe paused, swallowing away the thickness that had suddenly tightened his throat.  “I’m sorry Pa…for everything…” sniffed Joe, glancing up into Ben’s face.

“Why Joe?  Why did you run away?” began Ben.

“I didn’t run away…or at least I wouldn’t call it that,” Joe said quickly.  “I just…left home…I wanted to be on my own…”

Ben studied his son’s face and noted the quivering chin.  “Were you so unhappy at home that you felt you had to leave?” asked Ben, suddenly realizing that his youngest son must have felt as such to want to leave so badly.

“I thought I was,” whispered Joe.

“And now?” asked Ben, cupping the quivering chin in the palms of his hands.

“I don’t know,” Joe said honestly.  “I just wanted to try being on my own.  I wanted to be my own boss, not have everyone always telling me what to do and when to do, and how to do it.  I was tired of being shoved around, Pa.”

Ben frowned and let his hands drop to his side.  “Shoved, Joseph?”

Joe reached for his father’s hand that he had been holding and tightened his grip.  “That’s what I was feeling…but now…” Joe’s eyes clouded with tears as he searched his father’s face for a sign that his parent understood how he felt.

“And now?”

“I just want to go home,” muttered Joe softly.  “Home ain’t so bad…please, Pa?  Will you say you forgive me and let me come home with you?”

Ben saw the lone tear that slipped from the corner of one eye and rolled slowly down his son’s pale face.  With his free hand, Ben wiped away the tiny droplet and smiled.

“That depends, son,” he said and smiled at the expression that crossed Joe’s face.

“On what?” stammered Joe, taken back by the fact that his father might not be so willing to forgive him, and he feared that Ben would not permit him to come home.  His eyes had grown wide and Ben felt the hand within his begin to tremble.

“Did you learn something from your experience, son?” questioned Ben.

Joe hesitated only for a moment.  “Yes sir,” he said in a low voice and then relaxed when he saw the smile that crept onto his father’s face.  He knew then what it was that his father was doing; Ben aimed to make him admit the truth.

“And what might that be?”

“That no matter where I go, or what I do, or how long I stay away…home is still the best place to be.  Isn’t that what you’ve always told us?” smiled Joe.

“Yes that’s right son, but while you were gone, what did you learn?” Ben pushed ahead with his questioning.

“I learned that not everyone feels the same way about their home…or their family, as I do.  When I met up with Cody, that’s the fellow that shot me, I thought at first he was a pretty good guy.  I rode with him for a day or so, and that last night, the night he left me to die, we were talking about our homes and families, and why we left.  You know, Pa, we left for the same reasons, we each felt as if we weren’t being treated as equals.  Cody said his brothers and sisters and his parents were always bossing him around, and one night, his oldest brother slapped him.  Cody said he got real mad and grabbed his brother’s pistol and shot him.  He said he just ran off and never went back…that was about two years ago; he’s been on his own since then,” Joe explained.

“How did you get shot, Joseph?”

“Well, I got to thinking, it might have been me, you know, instead of Cody.  I know Adam and I go at it a lot and probably most of that’s my own fault, but I couldn’t ever see myself shooting my own brother…not for any reason.  Cody told me that he could never go any place without always having to look over his shoulder, or he could never trust anyone, cause he thought everyone was always out to get him.  He wanted to settle down, but he said he couldn’t and then he confessed that his brother wasn’t the only man he’d killed.  He said he had to kill a man over in Carson City, ’cause the man accused him of cheating, but Cody said he had to cheat ‘cause he needed the money.”  Joe paused and looked down at his hand, still clinging to his father’s.

“He said no one loved him anymore.  He claimed that he’d been a rotten son, a sorrier brother and that his family had turned their backs on him,” gulped Joe, raising his head and looking at his father.

“Suddenly, right then and there I knew I had to go home.  I was scared of becoming the same kind of person that Cody had become.  So I figured, once he fell asleep, I’d just saddle up and leave.  But he woke up and wouldn’t let me leave, that’s when he pulled the gun.  We got into a scuffle and the gun went off, that’s when I felt this burning pain in my gut.”

Joe wiped the tears from his face with his free hand.  “He left me there alone, to die.  I watched while he ran his horse off and took mine.  He even looked back at me and laughed.”

Joe had to stop to catch his breath.  Ben watched the play of emotions that crossed his son’s young face.

“Joe,” he said softly, “you don’t have to tell me the rest if you’d rather not.”

Joe jerked his head up, “Yes I do!  I want to, please Pa.”

Ben nodded in agreement.  “Then go on.”

“Well, I laid there, bleeding for what seemed like hours.  My middle hurt something awful and it burned like it was on fire.  I knew I was dying, but I was determined not to.  I had to find help; I had to get back to…you.”  Again Joe swallowed, and took a deep breath.

“I didn’t want you, or Adam and Hoss to…to…stop loving me,” cried Joe, his voice cracking as he began to weep.  “I didn’t want to end up like Cody…with no one to care about me.  So I crawled as far as I could.  It took me most of the night, but by daybreak, I’d made it to this place.”  Joe sniffed his nose.

“All I could think about was you…and how much I’d hurt you…and how much I wanted to come home…and tell you…that I was sorry…and that…I loved you,” sobbed Joe, pulling his hand free of his father’s and leaning up to wrap his arms around his father.

“I am sorry, Pa…please say you’ll forgive me…and let me come home…please Pa…please,” sobbed Joe.  “I wanna go home…it’s the best place in the whole world…home…and family who loves me.”

Ben took his son into his arms and held him until Joe had finished sobbing and was able to regain control of his emotions.  His long slender fingers gently entwined themselves into his son’s mass of thick curls and Ben tenderly pressed his lips to Joe’s head, kissing the top of the dark crown several times.

His own emotions had been stretched to their limit and Ben fought against the tears that threatened to spill over onto his own cheeks.

“There’s nothing to forgive, Joseph.  I understand how you must have felt.  I think even your brothers learned something about mutual respect.”

“Then I can come home?” Joe asked in a wee voice, refusing to remove his self from the comfort he had found in his father’s arms.

“You really think you’d be happy there from now on?” Ben smiled behind Joe’s back.

“I know I would, even if my brothers still boss me around.  Home is where the heart is, not where you hang your hat,” Joe said softly.  “Home is where your family is, where love dwells and where there’s always someone to point out your mistakes to you,” Joe stated, trying to smother the giggle that wanted to voice itself.

Ben felt Joe’s body shudder and he pulled back gently, looking into the cherub face of his youngest son.  In the hazel eyes that returned his gaze, Ben could see the twinkle that fathered the beginning of mischief that sparkled brightly and he could do nothing to stop the smile that spread across his face.

“Surely you don’t mean me?” he smiled.

“Or me!” Adam called from the doorway having stopped to listen to the last few declarations made by his little brother.

“I didn’t do it…whatever happened,” added Hoss, coming to stand behind his older brother, peeking into the room.  “Must have been Joe’s fault,” Hoss decided aloud.

“See what I mean, Pa?” laughed Joe, glancing around at his two brothers.

“I reckon I do son, I reckon I do,” Ben said, joining his son in laughter.

Ben gathered Joe back into his arms and as he held his giggling son, Ben winked at Adam and Hoss who stood, smiling at their father and youngest brother.

“Welcome home, son,” Ben said in a whispered voice, meant only for Joe’s ears.  “I love you Joe, now and forever more.”

“Thanks Pa…and Pa…I love you, too, but when can we go home?”

“Soon, very soon.”

*****

And they did, too, three days later.  What about the five gold coins, you might ask?  Well, Cody won them in a poker game before running into Little Joe; it was the only time in his life he had played fair…and he still lost, big time.

***End***

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