A Delusion, A Mockery, and a Snare (by Rona)

Summary:  Joe twice has a narrow brush with death, but it seems it isn’t Joe who is the target. Is it is ex-girlfriend? Or is it something altogether more sinister?

Category: Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,816


 

As he helped the young lady down from the buggy, Joe looked at Linda with a certain regret. She was lovely, with long dark hair, and dark eyes that appeared to be black in some lights, and an olive skin. But although they had been going out for a while, there was no spark between them and Linda had been the first to broach the subject that evening. They had fun together, but they were not going to fall in love and they both knew that.

“It’s been fun, Joe,” Linda said, as he handed her down.

“Yes it has,” Joe agreed. He leant forward and kissed her cheek. “I’ll be seeing you around.”

“Of course you will,” Linda agreed. She smiled. “Haven’t we been civilized about this, Joe?”

“Yes we have,” Joe nodded, grinning back. He couldn’t remember ever breaking up with anyone quite so easily. There were often tears and recriminations from the girls and guilt on his behalf. Joe walked Linda to the door. “Goodbye,” he said.

“Bye, Joe,” Linda replied, blithely. “I’ll see you at the dance with your new date – and mine – next week then?”

“Most likely,” Joe agreed. He tipped his hat to her and went back to the buggy. It had been fun while it lasted, but he was already thinking about who he might ask to next week’s dance.

*****

“Why didn’t Joe come in?” asked Jack, Linda’s older brother as his sister came into the house and took off her wrap.

“Because I didn’t ask him to,” Linda replied. “Why? What difference does it make? I thought you weren’t that keen on Joe.”

Ignoring this question, Jack replied, “Why didn’t you ask him in?” His eyes narrowed. “You are still a couple, aren’t you?”

Sighing, Linda sat down. “No, we’re not,” she told him. “And what does it have to do with you, Jack? Who I see is my business, not yours!”

Taking two quick strides across the room, Jack took Linda’s arm and shook it. “Are you mad?” he shouted. “He’s a Cartwright! He’s got money! Don’t tell me you’re stupid enough to want to marry for love!”

“Yes, I am!” Linda shouted back. “And I told him it’s over!”

For a long moment, Jack just looked at Linda. She began to feel a pang of disquiet. Jack had never been the same since the wagon accident that had killed their mother. He had suffered a bad head injury and his personality was changed after that. He was impulsive and hot-tempered and he became obsessed with ideas.

The door opened and their father came in. He sensed the atmosphere at once and looked sharply at Jack. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Jack’s unhappy that I’ve broken up with Joe Cartwright,” Linda explained, still eyeing her brother. “It was quite amicable, Dad. I told him it was over and he agreed.”

“Fool, if you think its over, ‘cos you said goodbye,” Jack muttered as he pushed past his father. They heard his footsteps going upstairs.

Sighing, Mr. Morton sat down. “I’m sorry, Linda,” he apologized. “Jack doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

Going over, Linda put her arms round her father’s neck and rested her head against his. “I know,” she sighed. Neither of them wished out loud that they could have the old Jack back, but they both thought it. “I know he doesn’t mean it.”

*****

“Hello,” Ben said, looking up from his book as Joe came in. “You’re earlier than I expected. Is everything all right?”

“Sure, its fine, Pa,” Joe replied, hanging up his hat.  “The dance just finished a little earlier than usual. One of the band had too much punch.” Joe laughed his unique, high-pitched giggle. “You should’ve seen the faces! Oh, the scandal will be talked about for months!”

Smiling Ben nodded. “I see. Did Linda enjoy herself?”

“Yes,” Joe agreed. He slumped down on the sofa, loosened his tie and opened the top buttons of his white shirt.

“When are you seeing her again?” Ben enquired. “Tomorrow after church?”

“No, we’ve split up,” Joe reported, casually. He yawned, because he had spent the morning and a good part of the afternoon haying and his energy was fast running out.

“Oh,” Ben commented, not sure what to say. Joe didn’t seem to be upset, and Ben had pretty good parental radar for Joe’s moods, but he was surprised by his son’s casual attitude. “Whose decision was that?” he asked, when it became clear that Joe wasn’t going to elucidate any further.

“Both of us,” Joe replied, startled out of his drowsy contemplation of the flames dancing in the fireplace opposite where he sat. “It was fun, but we’re never going to fall in love, Pa.”

“As long as you’re sure you made the right decision, son,” Ben told him.

“I’m sure, Pa,” Joe muttered through a yawn. He gave his father a tired smile. “I’m going to bed. Don’t waken me in the morning.”

“Good night, son,” Ben laughed.

“Night, Pa,” Joe replied and disappeared upstairs.

*****

It was hot and stuffy in the church the next morning and Joe found himself nodding off once or twice. He wasn’t the only one afflicted with this problem. Several people were finding it difficult to stay awake in the heat and one man fell asleep before his wife noticed and snored loudly. Joe bit the inside of his lip hard to avoid laughing, but Hoss’ continual throat clearing as he struggled with his laughter almost tipped Joe over the edge. Ben didn’t bother trying to reprove them; he was finding it hard to keep a straight face, too.

As they emerged into the bright, hot sunshine, Hoss veered off to lean on the hitching post and gave vent to his mirth. Joe laughed, and then glanced around him. Several of the young ladies of the town were looking at him, and Joe smiled. He was in no rush to find himself a new girlfriend. If he went stag to the dance on Saturday night, he would have the chance to dance with as many girls as he liked.

Seeing that his father was deep in conversation with Dr Paul Martin, and that Adam was talking to one of his stuffier friends, Joe turned to head over to Hoss and the horses. As he did so, someone cannoned into him, and knocked Joe clear off his feet.

There was a chorus of surprised gasps from all around, and Joe, more surprised than hurt, shook his head and squinted up into the sun. For a moment, all he could see was a shadow, but then the person moved away slightly as Adam and Ben hurried over and Joe saw that it was Jack Morton.

“Are you all right, Joe?” Ben asked, reaching down to help his son to his feet.

“I’m fine,” Joe assured Ben truthfully. He looked at Jack once more. He had never known what to say to Jack.

“Sorry, Cartwright,” Jack muttered, but he didn’t sound sorry. He glared at Joe before turning and walking away.

“What was that about?” Adam asked, as Ben retrieved Joe’s hat.

“Believe me, big brother,” Joe replied, “I wish I knew!” He took the hat from Ben, thanked him and brushed the dust off his pants.

“You sure you’re all right?” Ben asked. Joe nodded. “Well then, let’s get home for lunch.”

They mounted up and turned their horses for home. Joe held Cochise back for a moment as he looked in the direction Jack had gone. Sure enough, under the shade of a sycamore tree, Jack was watching Joe, his gaze intent and unnerving. Joe wondered what he had done that had so upset Jack. As he allowed Cochise to turn and join his stable mates, Joe guessed that he might never know.

*****

The incident with Jack was soon forgotten as they got caught up in the haying again. Each man was needed to cut and stack the hay to ensure there was enough winter feed for the animals. The old adage ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ was never truer. The Cartwrights worked from sunrise to sunset and fell into bed exhausted each night.

By that week’s end, the haying was completed and Joe, dressing for the dance, reflected that it was just as well he had decided to go stag, as he hadn’t had a second to look for a date! Hoss was trying to pluck up the courage to ask Bessie Sue to the dance, but hadn’t managed as yet, despite Joe’s patient coaching, so he also was going stag. Adam had decided that he was too tired to attend and was currently contending with Joe’s wise-cracks about being old.

“Sure ya ain’t gonna change yer mind an’ come?” Hoss asked Adam as he waited for Joe to put in an appearance.

“I’m sure,” Adam replied, with a slight edge to his voice. “I’d rather spend the evening relaxing here and have an early night.”

“Old age doesn’t come itself,” Joe remarked as he came downstairs.

“No, it brings younger brothers,” Adam retorted, but he couldn’t quell Joe’s high spirits. His youngest brother just grinned.

“Touchy tonight, ain’t we?” he parried and slid his green jacket on before following Hoss out of the house.

“Are you all right, Adam?” Ben asked, as the door closed.

“Yes, Pa, I’m fine,” Adam replied. He held up the book that had been resting in his lap. “But I’ve got a new book and it’s been tempting me for a few days now, so I thought I’d rather start it than go to the dance.”

“Ah, that explains it,” Ben nodded. “I thought for a few minutes there that you were getting old.”

For a moment, brown eyes met brown eyes as Adam gave Ben a ‘look’. Then a grin slid onto his face and they laughed together. “Good try,” Adam remarked, and opened his book. Smiling, Ben did the same.

*****

Almost the first person Joe saw as he went into the ballroom was Linda. She was standing with one of Joe’s friends, Drew Harding, and she smiled at Joe as he came in. Joe grinned back. He was soon talking to his friends and when the music started, Joe was out on the floor with the first of many young ladies he would dance with that night.

Later, he met Linda by the punch bowl. “Throwing me over for my friends now?” Joe joked, and Linda grinned.

“Looks like it,” Linda replied, in the same joking tone. “You look like you’re having fun,” she added. With another smile, she moved away.

“You sure don’t look upset that Linda’s found someone else already,” Hoss commented.

“I’m not,” Joe agreed. He glanced up at Hoss. “It was over, Hoss and we both knew it.”

“All right, little brother,” Hoss replied, agreeably. He could see that Joe wasn’t upset. He had wondered all week if Joe was just hiding his heartbreak. It seemed unlikely, given that Joe could seldom hide his feelings from his family, but Hoss supposed there was a first time for everything.

The evening wended its way to a conclusion and as they collected their guns from the cloakroom, Hoss yawned. “I’m plumb tuckered out,” Hoss complained.

“Don’t tell me you’re getting old, too,” Joe jibed.

“Don’t start, young’un,” Hoss warned. “Or I’ll pound ya!” He swiped a massive arm at Joe, who danced nimbly out of the way.

Still laughing and trying to keep out of Hoss’ way, Joe almost collided with Linda and Drew. “Watch it, Joe,” Drew chided amiably.

“Sorry,” Joe replied. “But that brother of mine is gonna pound me!”

“I don’t blame him!” Linda called as Joe dodged around Drew and outside. The couple followed Joe, both of them playing along and blocking Hoss’ attempts to squeeze past and grab Joe.

Suddenly, shockingly, shots were fired out of the darkness and Drew looked down at the blood on his chest in surprise before crumpling to the ground. Linda screamed as Hoss dragged her back into the building. There was shouting and noise as people clustered carefully around Drew and so it took Hoss a second to realize that his brother was racing across the street, his gun drawn, going after the gunman. “Joe!” he shouted, aghast. “Come back!”

Joe didn’t heed Hoss; in fact, he never heard his brother shouting. Joe had seen a dark figure detach itself from a building across the street and went after him. He wasn’t going to let the gunman get away! But although Joe was impulsive, he wasn’t completely foolhardy, and he slowed as he approached the entry to the alley he’d seen the gunman enter.

Poking his head around the corner cautiously, Joe couldn’t see anyone and he slowly eased out into the alley. This was a bad idea, Joe knew. He could be seen, but couldn’t see anyone. And, just to prove him correct, a bullet splintered the wooden wall by his face, and Joe felt his face stinging. He ducked, but not quite in time. Another bullet scored along his left forearm, and Joe’s gun dropped to the ground from his suddenly nerveless fingers. Joe kept moving, falling to the ground and rolling away.

From behind him, Joe heard footsteps. “Watch out!” he cried, not wanting whoever this was to face the gunman unprepared.

Shots fired above Joe’s head, but there was no returning fire from down the alley and Joe knew that the gunman had got away. He sat up cautiously, cradling his arm against his chest. The wound wasn’t serious, he knew, but it burned all the same.

“Joe, are ya all right?” Hoss demanded, kneeling by his brother and turning his face to the light.

“I’m fine,” Joe insisted. He winced slightly as he got to his feet. Hoss put his hand under Joe’s elbow to lend support. He picked Joe’s gun off the ground and dropped it back into Joe’s holster. Joe grunted his thanks. “How’s Drew?” he asked, anxiously.

The momentary hesitation told Joe the answer before Hoss mumbled, “I’m sorry, he’s dead, Joe.”

Standing in the street, Joe just looked at Hoss.

*****

Sheriff Roy Coffee was outside the hotel when Hoss and Joe arrived back. Linda was sitting on a chair in the lobby, sobbing, while some of her friends hovered around her helplessly. Drew’s body had been decently covered with a blanket. “Siddown,” Hoss instructed Joe as they arrived back, and pushed his brother down onto the steps leading to the hotel. Joe obediently did as he was told, his eyes riveted to the blanket-covered body.

Roy looked up. “You boys catch him?” Roy asked, although he already knew the answer.

“Naw, he got away, whoever it was,” Hoss replied. “I didn’ git a look at him.”

“What about ya, Joe?” Roy asked, looking round at Joe.

“I couldn’t see who it was,” Joe replied, numbly.

“Doc Martin will be here in a minute,” Roy told Hoss, who nodded. There was nothing else they could do that night.

A few minutes later, Dr Paul Martin arrived. He knelt by the body to confirm that Drew was dead, then headed inside to deal with Linda. He gave her a sedative and by then, her father had been summoned and took her home. Then, Paul turned his attention to Joe.

The wound on his arm wasn’t serious, and Paul just cleaned and bandaged it, advising Joe to be careful for a while. He picked a couple of splinters out of Joe’s cheek and could see Joe was shocked by his friend’s death, but not so shocked that he needed a sedative, or to stay in town. So, turning him over to Hoss’ capable hands, Paul took his leave again, walking back down the street with Roy as they debated who had done such a thing and why.

“Let’s go,” Hoss urged, and tugged gently on Joe’s elbow. His brother followed him without a word.

*****

It was a long ride home that night. Hoss kept a sharp eye on Joe, but he didn’t need to worry. Joe gradually came back to himself and started to pay more attention to his surroundings. “I wish I’d caught whoever it was,” Joe complained.

“I know how ya feel,” Hoss admitted, “but ya shouldn’t a gone after him alone. That was plain foolish.”

“I know,” Joe admitted. “But I didn’t think. All I could see was Drew lying there, and I thought I might be able to catch the person who’d shot him. Who could it be? Why shoot Drew?”

“I dunno, Shortshanks,” Hoss replied. “I cain’t figger it out no-how.”

When they arrived home, Hoss took Cochise’s rein. “I’ll take care o’ yer horse fer ya,” he told Joe.

“I can manage,” Joe protested.

“I’ll whisper sweet nuthin’s in his ear,” Hoss promised. “An’ tell him how wonderful he is, but ya ain’t gonna argue with me, Joe. Ya got shot in the arm an’ ya’re going inside!” He loomed over Joe threateningly.

“All right, I’m going,” Joe capitulated. In truth, he was quite glad, because his arm was throbbing. He walked quietly over to the house and let himself in, hoping that Ben and Adam would have gone to bed.

No such luck. They were involved in a chess game. Ben glanced up as Joe came in and gave him a distracted smile. Joe returned it, now hoping that his father’s inattention would last long enough to allow him to get upstairs to bed. However, something about Joe’s stance had alerted Ben that there was something wrong, and he glanced up again, focusing on Joe more closely this time.

“Is that blood on your sleeve?” he demanded, and Joe found himself telling the story of Drew’s murder once more. As he expected, Ben clucked over him, making sure he was all right. Hoss came in from the barn, and backed Joe up, assuring Ben that Joe had seen the doctor.

“I’m just tired and I want to go to bed,” Joe insisted and Ben agreed, sending his son off with a worried smile.

“Why would anyone want to shoot Drew?”  Ben asked.

It was the question that was on everyone’s lips for the next few days, and it went unanswered.

*****

Although the injury to Joe’s arm wasn’t serious, his arm was stiff for several days and he was glad to do as Doc Martin suggested and take it easy. He stayed on the ranch for the most part, but went into town for Drew’s funeral.

It was very painful. Roy had not been able to find any clues to the identity of the gunman and the mystery of who shot Drew and why still remained. His grieving parents didn’t care at that point who was responsible. They had lost their only son. Linda was there, still badly shaken by the incident.

“Are you all right?” she asked Joe, as they filed out of the cemetery.

“Yes,” Joe replied. “How about you?”

“I’m all right,” she assured him, but her voice was devoid of life. “I still can’t believe that Drew is dead.”

“I know,” Joe agreed. It made no sense and talking over it endlessly would not change what had happened. He patted Linda’s hand and mounted his horse. Behind them, Jack watched closely.

*****

Summer was a busy time on the ranch, and Joe was glad to throw himself back into the routine of the ranch. He was able to take his mind away from the tragedy and move on, which was the best thing. Adam and Hoss did their best to keep their younger sibling from brooding, too.

For a few weeks, Joe wasn’t in the mood to attend any of the dances, but as his natural zest for life came to the fore once more, Joe found himself getting ready on Saturday evening. This time, Adam decided to come along, too and as they rode into town, each son found himself reflecting on how good life was right then. The weather was perfect and the calves were fat and sassy. The ranch was remarkably free of problems right then and they relished the relaxed atmosphere.

The hotel ballroom was packed. “Its gonna be warm tonight,” Joe remarked as they went in.

He wasn’t wrong. As the evening went on, the heat rose and the inevitable fights broke out as the cowboys let their hair down and drank too much punch. Just for once, Joe managed to keep clear of the fights, as did Hoss who, by his own admission, liked a good fight!

Once more, the dance broke up in disarray, and the Cartwrights made their way out into the starlit night. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” Joe told Adam as he saw Linda waiting at the bottom of the steps. Joe had been trying to talk to her all night, but had never managed to catch her alone. “Hi,” he said, casually.

“Hi, yourself,” Linda replied.

“How are you?” Joe asked.

“I’m all right,” Linda replied. She gave Joe a look. “I’m not that hard-hearted, Joe, in case you were wondering,” she added bitterly. “I had only gone out with Drew once, I know, but I haven’t forgotten him that quickly!”

“I never said you had,” Joe reminded her gently. “Don’t you think I recognize Ross? He’s been a friend of your family for ages. And anyway, even if you were going out with Ross, what business is it of mine? I only wanted to know how you were.”

“Joe, I’m sorry,” Linda apologized, putting out her hand to stop him walking away. “I’ve been staying with Ross and his sister and he suggested we come into the dance this evening, because Polly isn’t too well. I agreed. Ross has gone to get the buggy to take me back to their place.”

“You enjoy yourself with Polly,” Joe told her. Linda and Polly were very close. Glancing across the street, Joe saw that Adam and Hoss had the horses out of the livery stable and were mounting. “I’d better go,” Joe told her.

“Bye, Joe,” Linda replied.

As Joe crossed the street, he suddenly became aware of the sound of galloping hooves. Wondering which idiot was galloping their horse through the town at that time of night, Joe paused to glance around. He couldn’t see anything, and the way the sound echoed back off the buildings made it difficult to guess where the sound was coming from.

Also hearing the hooves, Adam and Hoss looked round. From their vantage point on the other side of the street, they could see more than Joe and Adam spotted the trouble at once. “Joe, move!” he bellowed.

Hearing the shout, Joe looked over at Adam, unsure which direction he should go in. The hotel stood on a crossroads, and Joe was almost in the middle of the crossroads. If he chose the wrong direction, he could be in big trouble.

Before Adam could say anything more, a buggy came racing down from behind the hotel, aiming straight at Joe!

For a second, Joe was rooted to the spot, then, with mere moments to spare, he threw himself to one side, feeling the horse’s shoulder in the small of his back as he tumbled head over heels in the street. There was screaming and shouting from all round. Joe sat up slowly, barely able to believe that he had escaped uninjured. Hoss was at his side in seconds, his genial face pale.

“Ya all right?” he demanded, clutching Joe around the shoulders. “Joe, ya hurt, boy?”

“I’m fine,” Joe panted. He leaned forward to look past Hoss’ protective bulk and saw the buggy at a standstill further up the street. “Who is that?” he asked.

“I dunno,” Hoss replied, now helping Joe solicitously to his feet. He could hardly believe that Joe was all right, but it was clear that he was.

As they walked up towards the buggy, Joe saw that Adam had the horse by one extremely short rein. Adam shot a glance at his youngest brother as they drew near. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“He’s fine,” Hoss told Adam. Joe shot his middle brother a look of amusement. Then he looked at the buggy.

The driver was Ross.

*****

It was after midnight before the brothers got home. Ben had gone to bed, for which they were all grateful. Morning would be soon enough for them to relate the tale of the runaway buggy once more. They all fell into bed quickly, but it wasn’t just Joe who found it hard to fall asleep.

Come morning, Adam was first up and he found Ben at the breakfast table already. “Morning, Pa,” he sighed.

“Good morning,” Ben replied, eyeing Adam closely to see if his oldest son was hung over. It didn’t appear to be that way, but Ben couldn’t account for the sigh any other way. “You were late last night,” he commented, neutrally. “Did you have a good time?”

“Yes, right up until he end,” Adam answered. With another sigh, he told Ben the story. Ben listened quietly.

“Are you sure Joe’s all right?” he demanded, when the story was over. “And what about Ross?”

“Shaken,” Adam replied. “His rein had frayed through, and snapped.” Adam frowned. “Ross swears the rein was all right when he left home last night. And I know Ross, Pa. He’s not careless with his harness.”

Ben shrugged. “Well, these things happen, I suppose.” He glanced at the stairs, although there was no sign of Hoss or Joe. “I vote we let your brothers sleep in this morning, and skip church, what do you say?”

“Good idea,” Adam agreed.

*****

Shortly after noon, hooves in the yard alerted the Cartwrights that they had a visitor. Joe dutifully, if rebelliously, answered the door and was moderately surprised to find Roy Coffee on the doorstep. “Hi, Roy, come on in,” Joe invited him, stepping aside.

“Thanks, Little Joe,” Roy replied, coming in and taking off his hat. He retrieved a large checked handkerchief and mopped his brow with it. “Ben, boys. Sure is hot out there.”

“Sure is,” Ben agreed. “Would you like some lemonade?”

“That’d be real sociable of ya, Ben,” Roy accepted. He sat down and sipped appreciatively from the glass that Ben poured for him. Joe perched himself on the arm of the sofa, his left leg resting across his right thigh. Hoss was sitting on the stone hearth and Adam was in the blue velvet chair.

“Well, what can we do for you, Roy?” Ben asked, eyeing his sons, wondering if there was some small detail they had forgotten to tell him about the previous evening; like getting arrested, perhaps.

“It’s about last night,” Roy began and Ben rolled his eyes. He knew there had been something left out of that story! Oblivious to his host’s histrionics, Roy went on, “Clem an’ me had a good look at them reins this mornin’ an’ they’d frayed all right. But someone had cut the stitchin’.”

“Cut the stitching?”

“Deliberate?”

“Who’d do a thing like that?”

“What?”

The Cartwrights’ voices all mingles together as they voiced their outrage. Roy smiled. “That’s how me an’ Clem felt, too,” he admitted. “Thing is, Ben, we’ve bin doin’ some thinkin’, an’ we ain’t so sure that Drew or Ross was the targets o’ these attacks.”

“I’m not following you, Roy,” Ben admitted. “Why are you telling us? Who do you think is the target?”

“Joe,” Roy replied.

“Me?” Joe squeaked. “Why me?”

“Yeah, why Joe?” Hoss demanded, as though it was Roy’s fault.

Roy held up his hands to stop the barrage of questions. Ben moved to stand by Joe’s side, his hand resting on Joe’s shoulder for support. Joe’s eyes were wide as he thought through the implications. “We ain’t sure,” Roy began. “But when Clem an’ me talked it through, we realized that both times, Joe was there, or thereabouts. Now, we ain’t sure, an’ we don’ have no proof, but it seems likely ta us.”

“But who’d be trying to hurt Joe?” Ben asked, perplexed.

“Well, that’s what we couldn’ figger, neither,” Roy admitted sheepishly. “But when Drew was shot, Joe was right close by. And last night, Joe was in the middle o’ the road.”

“But, Roy, if someone was trying to kill Joe, he couldn’t guarantee that a runaway buggy would reach Joe,” Adam protested. “Or that Joe would be anywhere near!”

“I know,” Roy admitted.

“There was someone else close by both times,” Joe said, softly. As everyone’s eyes turned to him, he lifted his head. “Linda was right there,” he noted. “She was standing by Drew’s side. She was going to get into that buggy with Ross. I don’t think it’s me they were after – I think it was Linda.”

*****

None of them could refute Joe’s logic. While they were all relieved that Joe didn’t seem to be the target, they were instantly concerned about Linda. Roy took his leave to go and talk to Linda and her family and refused Joe’s company.

“Joe, I want you to be careful,” Ben said, as they went back inside out of the heat.

“But, Pa…” Joe protested.

“No buts,” Ben interrupted. “I know it looks as though you weren’t the target, but, Joe, we can’t be sure of that. Until we know what’s happening, I want you to be careful. That’s all I’m saying, here. I’m not asking you to stay around the house, or anything like that. Just be careful.”

Looking into his father’s worried brown eyes, Joe found his resistance melting. “I will, Pa,” he promised.

*****

Over the course of the next week, the Cartwrights were too busy to go into town. Hop Sing collected the supplies that were needed, but he didn’t ask Roy Coffee what the situation was with Linda. It wasn’t his place to do so. The Cartwrights thought of him as a member of the family, but Hop Sing knew only too well that others thought the complete opposite.

Obedient to his promise, Joe had been careful all week, making sure that he didn’t go off alone, or without telling someone where he was going. But the situation was telling on him. Joe’s natural high spirits were dampened and he no longer talked effortlessly and endlessly and the others found the change hard to deal with.

It was only at church on Sunday that they were able to find out what was happening. Mr. Morton was so concerned for Linda’s safety that he had taken her away somewhere secluded and the only people who knew where they had gone were Jack and Roy.

“I don’t blame him for doing that,” Ben remarked as Roy finished telling them. “I would do the same.” He shot a sideways look at Joe that his son did not see.

“But how long are they going to stay there?” Adam asked. “Mr. Morton can’t leave his business indefinitely.”

“We ain’t found any clues,” Roy admitted and Joe glanced away. Jack Morton was standing over by the church. When he saw Joe looking at him, he discreetly jerked his head, then wandered away round the side of the building.

Intrigued, Joe drifted away from his family, mumbling something unintelligible when Ben glanced at him curiously, but no one stopped him from going. After all, what could possibly happen to Joe outside the church?

“Joe,” Jack nodded.

“Jack,” Joe acknowledged in the same tone. “How’s Linda holding up?”

“All right,” Jack replied. “That’s what I wanted to see you about.”

“Oh?” Joe queried, suspiciously. He and Jack had never been friends, even before the wagon accident.

“Linda wants to see you, Joe,” Jack whispered, leaning in close. “She wants to meet you this afternoon out by the old Kissing Tree, do you remember?”

Nodding, Joe could picture the Kissing Tree perfectly. It was an old tree, leaning over to one side, and seeming to ‘kiss’ the tree next door. The girls had thought it a terribly romantic place when they were all kids, although the boys thought the whole thing was soppy. “I remember,” he replied. “What time does she want to meet?”

“Two thirty,” Jack answered. “And don’t tell anyone where you’re going, all right, Joe? Just in case.”

“All right,” Joe replied, although he had no intention of obeying Jack’s strictures. “I’ll be there.”

A smile flooded over Jack’s face and Joe thought what a good looking man he was. It was just a pity that, most of the time, Jack’s face reflected the disillusionment and discontent that now marred his life. “Good,” he whispered and walked away.

*****

“I’ve already said I’ll be careful,” Joe repeated, his voice full of strained patience. “I’ve told you where I’m going. What more do you want?”

“Don’t take that tone with me, boy!” Ben scolded.

“I’m sorry,” Joe replied, but his contrition wasn’t completely convincing.

Looking at his son, who had rebellion shouting from every pore of his body, Ben knew that he couldn’t stop Joe from going. His son was, after all, a man grown, entitled to make his own decisions. But that didn’t stop Ben from trying to pull rank and keep his child safe. He wondered if he would ever get over the need to protect his children, but somehow he doubted it. “I want you home for supper,” he reminded Joe, gently. “That gives you plenty of time to get there, talk to Linda, and come home again.”

“All right, Pa,” Joe replied, relief in his voice. He hated arguing with Ben. “See you for supper.” He left quickly and Ben stood at the door, watching Joe go.

*****

Arriving at the Kissing Tree, Joe saw Jack step out from the shade and was relieved that Linda hadn’t tried to come alone. “Hi, Jack,” he offered as he drew closer. “Where’s Linda?”

It was then he noticed the gun in Jack’s hand pointing directly at him. “What is this?” Joe asked, stiffening.

“Slowly, drop your gun,” Jack ordered. “Don’t do anything stupid, because I’m not averse to killing you, Joe.” Jack watched intently as Joe did as he was told. “Now, get down off that horse.” Joe dismounted slowly, his gaze fixed unwaveringly on Jack. “Start walking,” Jack told him, jerking his head in the direction he wanted Joe to take. Lips tight with anger, Joe did as he was told. Jack was standing too far away for Joe to chance taking him on.

“Where’s Linda?” Joe asked, as they walked.

“Don’t worry about her,” Jack replied. “You’ll see her later.”

“What is this about?” Joe demanded, but Jack refused to answer.

“Just keep walking,” he retorted and Joe had no choice but to keep walking.

They didn’t go very far. About half a mile away from the Kissing Tree was one of the Ponderosa’s line shacks. Joe had never quite seen the point in having a shack that close to the house, but it was checked and stocked regularly. Joe’s eyes narrowed as they came closer to it. What was Jack planning?

“Leave your horse there and go inside,” Jack ordered. “Don’t try anything.”

Dropping Cochise’s rein, Joe went over to the shack, opened the door and went in. The shack showed signs of recent habitation, but Joe didn’t think it was one of the hands. He glanced over his shoulder at Jack. “Now what?” he asked.

“Sit down,” Jack ordered, pointing at the chair. Joe saw, with disgust, that there was already rope looped around the back of it. Slowly he sat.

It didn’t take Jack long tie Joe’s hands tightly to the chair back. When Joe tested his bonds, he found them to be depressingly secure. Jack put his gun away and picked up some more rope, bending over, clearly intent on tying Joe’s ankles. Joe kicked at him, determined not to lose the last of his freedom, but Jack sensed the move and rounded on Joe, avoiding the kick and crashing a backhand slap into his face. He was phenomenally strong. Joe felt a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth.

“Don’t try that again,” Jack warned him. “Next time, I won’t be so nice!”

Kneeling, he swiftly bound Joe’s ankles together, then dragged them under the chair, and attached them to the rope binding his wrists. Joe wasn’t going anywhere. “Why are you doing this?” Joe demanded, angrily.

“You’ll find out,” Jack replied. “In a while. I’m going away now.” He snatched off the bandanna he wore around his neck and tried to place it in Joe’s mouth. Joe jerked his head away, thereby earning himself another backhander. Jack’s second attempt was more successful.

Turning, Jack left the shack, and Joe heard him secure the door on the outside. He struggled uselessly against his bonds, wondering what would happen next.

*****

Joe didn’t know how much time passed before he heard Jack returning, but it seemed like hours to him. He had struggled continuously against the ropes that held him captive, but to no avail. His wrists were raw and bleeding, but the ropes were as tight as ever. He turned furious eyes towards the door as it swung open, but he wasn’t expecting what he saw. For it wasn’t just Jack who came in, it was Linda, too!

*****

“Joe!” Linda cried, her hands flying to her mouth in horror. She swung round to look at her brother, eyes wide. “Jack, what is this?”

“Sit down, Linda,” Jack ordered and pointed to the other chair. Slowly, reluctantly, Linda sat down, clearly fearing that Jack would tie her up, too.

But that wasn’t what he had in mind. He pulled the gag from Joe’s mouth and took the third seat, turning it round and straddling it. His gun was held loosely in his hands. “See, Linda, it wasn’t you who was the target, like the sheriff thought,” Jack began. Linda gave him a sick look and glanced at Joe. “No, it wasn’t Joe, either,” Jack assured her, correctly interpreting her look. “I meant to kill those boys you were with.”

“You killed them?” Linda whispered, and the color drained out of her face. Joe renewed his struggles to get free, but the ropes were not budging. “But, Jack, why?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Jack replied, clearly perplexed.

“No, its not,” Joe responded. “And what has this got to do with me?”

“I didn’t want you going out with any other boy,” Jack explained to Linda. “You’ve got to marry Joe because he’s rich.”

“But we’re not in love,” Linda protested, as though logic had any grip on her brother’s thinking. “And we stopped seeing each other.”

“I told you before, you’re a fool if you think its over, just because you said goodbye,” Jack stated. “Joe and you are going to get married. I’ve decided that’s the way it’s going to be.”

“I’m not going to marry Joe!” Linda declared. “You can’t make me marry him Jack. Now, untie him and we’ll forget all about this nonsense.”

“I can’t do that, Linda,” Jack objected. He sounded as though she had just turned down a perfectly reasonable proposal, and Joe wondered if, from Jack’s point of view, it was a perfectly reasonable proposal. “You see, if you don’t marry Joe, I’m going to have to kill him, too.”

*****

The silence in the shack was resounding. Joe could clearly hear a bird singing outside. Linda looked as if she might faint. Her skin was ashen and waxy and beads of sweat popped into being on her forehead. Joe was pretty shaken, too, but not really surprised. What did surprise him was that it had taken this long for anyone to realize that Jack was crazy. Everyone knew he’d never been the same since the accident, but Joe wondered if they just hadn’t wanted to see how he was.

And now here he was, stuck in the shack with Jack and Linda, and it would be hours yet before anyone turned up to look for him. What were they going to do? Somehow, he had to indicate to Linda that they had to play along. He had no idea what Jack actually had in mind, but if it would save both their lives, he was willing to go along. Jack, for all his worries over Linda’s prospects, obviously didn’t care as much as he thought he did, since Linda could have been killed both times he’d attacked the young man she was with.

“All right, we’ll get married, Jack,” Joe promised, breaking the silence.

At that, Linda’s head came up and Joe wondered if she was going to protest. He tried to signal her with his eyes to play along. He wasn’t afraid for himself – well, not that afraid – but he was scared of what might happen to Linda if she continued to defy her brother.

“No, Joe!” she cried. “No! I’m…”

The gunshot filled the shack, making Linda scream and clamp her hands over her ears. The air stank of cordite. The bullet buried itself in the floor by Joe’s foot. He breathed out, barely able to believe that he wasn’t dead. Blinking the sweat out of his eyes, for the shack was roasting under the hot sun, Joe lifted his head and caught Linda’s eye. For a long second, they gazed at one another.

“All right, I’ll marry him!” Linda cried and burst into tears.

*****

It appeared that Linda’s capitulation had caught Jack by surprise. He gazed at them for a moment before nodding in satisfaction. “We’d better get into town to the preacher, then,” he muttered. He rose and crossed over to Joe. “Don’t try anything,” he warned, and untied the rope that held Joe’s feet to the back of the chair.

For a moment, Joe hoped that Jack would untie him, and then he would simply wrestle the other man to the ground and overpower him. But Jack was still being careful. He loosened the ropes round Joe’s feet so that Joe was now hobbled, then untied the ropes that bound him to the chair, leaving Joe’s hands still tied tightly behind his back. “Let’s go,” he ordered.

Rising unsteadily to his feet, Joe shuffled awkwardly forward. Linda moved up close beside him to help him. Joe could feel the tremors in her body. “Go for help,” he hissed, deliberately stumbling to try and camouflage the noise.  He found it surprisingly difficult to get his feet under him again, and under the cover of a second, genuine, stumble, hissed, “Get Pa.”

“What did you say?” Jack demanded, crowding in close and grabbing Joe’s arm in painful grip.

Linda threw him a disgusted look. “It’s not something you would want me to repeat,” she told him, scathingly and Joe was thankful that she had understood what he’d said.

“I won’t tolerate that kind of language around my sister, Cartwright,” Jack warned him. “You watch your mouth in future.”

There was a slight breeze outside that made it seem cooler than the shack. Joe lifted his head for a moment, drawing in the sweet, fresh air. He glanced at Cochise, standing patiently at the hitching rail, and wondered how on earth he was supposed to mount with his feet hobbled. He hoped that Jack did not intend to throw him belly down over the saddle!

“You stand there, Cartwright!” Jack told him. “Linda, you mount up first.” He went over to help his sister onto her side-saddle. Joe shot a look at her. Linda met his eyes, then looked away.

The instant she was secure in the saddle, Joe threw himself at Jack. “Ride, Linda!” he shouted. “Ride!” He heard the sound of galloping hooves as Linda sped off to the Ponderosa. It wasn’t far away, but Joe harbored no hopes that he would still be alive when help arrived. He was bound hand and foot and unarmed. Jack would surely kill him.

But Joe had no intention of making it easy for Jack. The other man had been caught off guard and Joe’s abrupt assault had knocked the gun from his hand. The struggle from Joe’s point of view was now to keep Jack’s hand away from the gun. He butted the other man in the mouth with his head.

Enraged, Jack swung wildly at Joe. He had never been much of a fighter, Joe remembered from school, but he was very strong, and even his mis-timed, mis-directed blows stung a lot. And then one blow got through and struck Joe on the face, beside his ear. It knocked Joe over, and he fell to the ground, landing helplessly on his back, with no chance of getting to his feet.

For a horrified second, Joe thought it was all over, but as Jack scrambled to his feet, Joe realized that the gun they had been fighting over was under him!

Joe couldn’t afford for Jack to get that gun, and so he fought with the only weapon he had left – his feet. Joe was naturally athletic and he swung his feet at his opponent, catching Jack, as he had hoped, in the groin. The other man crumpled soundlessly, his hands clutching his injured parts.

Now was the time when Joe had to grab the gun, leap to his feet, jump on his horse and flee the scene. But he could do none of those things. Moving now would be the worst thing he could possibly do, so he lay there, enduring the discomfort of lying on his bound hands, hoping that Jack would not guess where the gun had gone. He struggled slightly, trying to give the impression that he was unable to rise, not that he was lying there for any other reason.

Slowly, Jack lifted his head and gazed at Joe with narrowed eyes. Then he quickly glanced around, quartering the area, and, when he couldn’t see his gun, he looked back at Joe. “You’re lying on it!” he cried and threw himself at Joe.

There was no time to bring his legs up to try and protect himself. Joe grunted as Jack’s weight landed square on him. This time, no mercy was given. Jack was determined to retrieve the gun and Joe was going to pay! Jack’s knee thumped Joe solidly in the ribs several times, driving his breath from his body before he was flipped over on his stomach.

Winded, Joe still retaliated, kicking out once more, and tripping Jack, causing him to fall, again dropping the gun. Jack scrambled after it. Joe somehow forced himself to his feet, but abandoned his attempts to get the weapon. This time, he tried to get to cover, hobbling as fast as he could manage. He knew it was hopeless.

The first shot bit into the ground by Joe’s foot as he ran. Joe flinched and stumbled. His left ankle twisted painfully under him and he distinctly heard a crack as he tumbled to the ground.

The second shot was, fortunately, deflected by the fall. It hit Joe in the shoulder, not in the back as Jack had intended. But it didn’t matter. Joe felt a moment of agonizing pain before he fell into the darkness.

*****

As she arrived in the yard of the Ponderosa, Linda did not care that her hair was falling down, or that her face had a big scratch along one cheek from a branch. She only cared that the Cartwrights were at home. Although the line shack was no more than 20 minutes hard riding from the house, she had no real hope that Joe would survive until help arrived.

“Help!” she cried. “Help!”

The house door opened and Ben popped out, his eyes widening as he recognized Linda and took in her disheveled appearance. He hurried over to her side as Adam and Hoss came into view.

“Linda? Let me help you.”

“No time,” Linda panted. She herself had no time for women who behaved like hot house lilies. She didn’t have time for Ben to comfort her, however much she felt in need of comfort. “Joe. He’s at the line shack near the Kissing Tree and he’s in trouble.” She paused to draw in some much needed air. “Jack has him tied up and he’s going to kill him! Quick!”

She didn’t need to say any more than that. Adam was running towards the barn to throw saddles on their horses. Hoss shouted for Hop Sing to come and helped Linda down from her horse and turned her over to their cook’s capable hands. Ben hurried to the bunkhouse, roused the men and sent one hurrying for the doctor and others to hitch the wagon and come after them. By then, Linda was inside sitting down and Adam and Hoss between them had got the horses tacked.

Fear rode along with them as they pushed their mounts to ever greater speeds. None of them believed that they would find Joe alive when they reached the shack. Ben could feel tears rising in his throat, the lump seemingly solid, so that he could barely swallow. He didn’t know why Jack should have tied Joe up, or want to kill him, but it didn’t seem to matter at that moment. All that mattered was reaching Joe. Adam and Hoss’ thoughts were no less harrowing.

By the time they reached the line shack, almost an hour had passed since Linda had ridden away. Cochise still stood by the hitching rail. There wasn’t another horse in sight. Ben pulled his horse to a stop, looking round frantically for any sign of Joe.

“There!” Hoss was the person who spotted him. He jumped off his horse and ran over to drop to his knees by Joe’s side. Ben and Adam were just a heart beat behind him.

Joe lay face down on the grass, his head slightly turned to one side, his hands and feet still bound. His face was bruised and blood soaked into his jacket on his right shoulder. He was deeply unconscious.

“Adam, get the canteen,” Ben ordered. He reached down to gently stroke Joe’s face. “We’re here, son,” he soothed. “Just hang on.” Hoss cut through the ropes that kept his brother captive.

Between them, they turned Joe over, so Ben could cradle his head. Adam brought the canteen and he and Hoss watched anxiously as Ben trickled water into Joe’s mouth. Joe swallowed reflexively, but didn’t waken.

“Better have a look around for Jack,” Ben suggested. The brothers hastily complied, but there was no sign of him anywhere in the immediate vicinity. The ground was too hard to show any tracks. They gave up the search and went back to Joe’s side.

*****

“He’ll be all right,” Paul Martin assured Ben as he washed his hands. “The bullet has damaged Joe’s shoulder blade a bit; I had to remove some slivers of bone, but it’s not badly broken. His ankle is broken and I’m going to put it in plaster now. Apart from that, Joe has lost quite a lot of blood and he’s going to be weak for a few days.”

Looking down on his youngest son, still under the effects of the anesthetic, Ben felt an overpowering sense of relief. Joe had been so still and quiet on the journey back to the ranch that Ben had feared for him greatly. “Thank you, Paul,” he replied.

“I’ll check Linda over before I go home,” Paul suggested as he began to fashion a plaster cast for Joe. “She seemed to be all right, but she’s bound to be quite shocked. It was nice of Hoss to go and get her father.”

“Yes, it was,” Ben agreed. “Adam went to tell Roy what happened. I’m kind of surprised that he’s not back yet.”

Glancing at the other man, Paul could see the worry lines still on his face. “I’m sure Adam is all right,” he replied.

“Yes, so am I,” Ben agreed. He looked over at the window, where the sun was still shining, although it was evening now. “They might have gathered a posse and be out looking for Jack.”

Straightening from his task, Paul hesitated to tell Ben what the other man probably already knew. “Ben, even if they catch Jack, I don’t think he’ll be fit to stand trial.”

“Because of the head injury?” Ben asked. He looked down at Joe again. His son moved, mumbling slightly as he came closer to regaining consciousness. “Do you think he’s crazy?” he prodded.

“Not in the way you mean,” Paul replied. He hated the term ‘crazy’. “But he’s definitely not the same as he was before the accident. There’s so much we don’t know about the brain, Ben. There must have been some sort of brain damage, but we can’t be sure what. After all, Jack wasn’t raving, and he seemed to know exactly what he was doing.”

“So how can you say he won’t stand trial?” Ben demanded, angrily. “If he knew what he was doing, then he’s sane!”

Sighing, Paul shrugged. “I think that somewhere, they’ll find a doctor who’ll tell you Jack isn’t responsible for his actions. As I said, it’s a difficult area, Ben. Jack can function in society, although not very well. But I have to say, this action, from the little that Linda told Hop Sing, and he repeated to you, suggests that Jack is not completely sane, and I suspect many judges might just accept that diagnosis and lock him up in an asylum.”

It looked as though Ben was going to give vent to his anger and worry right there, but Joe stirred, and opened his eyes, a groan of pain escaping his lips. Ben instantly bent over his youngest son, his dark eyes soft and loving. “Joe?”

“Pa?” Joe mumbled. He squinted. “I’m…alive?” he asked, disbelief in his tone.

Smiling, Paul Martin leant in. “I’ve pulled you back from the brink once more, young man,” he teased.

Frowning, Joe flicked a glance at the doctor before his eyes once more sought his father’s face. “I thought… Jack would…kill me,” he whispered.

“You’re safe now,” Ben soothed him. “Linda came for us.”

Closing his eyes momentarily, Joe tried to find a comfortable position to lie in. He failed and winced miserably. “Linda,” he breathed. His eyes opened once more. “Jack wanted Linda to marry me, Pa.” He caught his breath again. “He killed Drew.”

“Easy, Joe,” Ben crooned. He stroked the curls back from Joe’s forehead, the familiar gesture bringing him a measure of comfort and soothing Joe.

Breathlessly, Joe told Ben and Paul the whole story. “I thought he’d kill me,” Joe concluded. He tried once more to get comfortable and failed. He glanced at Paul. “Why am I so sore?” he asked.

“You’ve got a broken ankle,” Paul explained, pulling back the blanket so Joe could see his toes peeping out of the cast. “And I took a bullet out of your shoulder, too. That’s why you’re sore. But now I’ve seen that you’re with us, I can give you something for the pain.” Smoothly, he shot the morphine he’d prepared earlier into Joe’s arm and after a few moments, Joe felt the pain begin to ease. His eyes began to droop and a few minutes later, he surrendered to sleep.

*****

It was dark before Adam returned home. Ben greeted him anxiously, but Adam was quite unhurt, just hot and tired. “Roy got up a posse at once,” Adam explained as he slumped down at the table. Hop Sing silently brought Adam some food. “We went out to the house where the Mortons had been staying, just in case, but there was no sign of him there. Clem had gone to check their house in town, but it was deserted, too.”

“So we’re no further on,” Ben muttered.

“We’ll go out again in the morning,” Adam explained. “But the ground is so dry that there aren’t any tracks.” He forked some food into his mouth. “How’s Joe?” he asked, as he chewed.

“Sleeping,” Ben replied. “He’s going to be all right.” He quickly appraised Adam of Joe’s injuries.

“I’ll sit with him,” Adam offered. “And you can get some rest, Pa.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Ben scolded gently. “You’re exhausted! I’ll sit with Joe, and you get some sleep. You’ll need it if you’re going out after Jack tomorrow. I assume you are going?”

“Yes, unless you need me here,” Adam replied.

“I can manage,” Ben assured him. “You go and help find Jack.”

*****

But Jack seemed to have disappeared into thin air. For days, the posse hunted for him, but Jack was nowhere to be found. Linda and her father returned to their home, trying their best to pick up the pieces of their lives, but it wasn’t easy. Joe spent the first few days sleeping, regaining his strength, but he was soon feeling better and was allowed to get up and go downstairs. Finally, after a week, as the numbers in the posse dwindled, Roy called off the hunt.

“We’ve got out wanted posters for him, Ben,” he explained to the family. “But I can’t ask the men to keep comin’ out. We ain’t gettin’ anywheres.”

“I understand that, Roy,” Ben sighed. He glanced at Joe, who sat with his plastered foot up along the sofa. Joe smiled at him, and adjusted the cushion at his back. He had complained of backache the day before, but found the cushion helped. “Thanks anyway.”

“Sorry I couldn’t do more,” Roy mumbled. “Be seein’ ya, boys.”

“Bye, Roy,” the brothers chorused.

“Where do you suppose Jack went?” Joe asked, twitching again, and trying to sort his cushion.

“If we knew that,” Adam replied, sarcastically, leaning over to help his brother,” we could just go there and catch him!”

“All right, clever clogs,” Joe muttered. “Thanks,” he added, as Adam got the cushion sorted to his satisfaction.

“We may never know,” Ben replied, glaring at Adam for being so tactless. He failed to hide his dissatisfaction at this answer.

*****

About two weeks later, Joe was sitting in the porch rocker when a buggy drew into the yard. He recognized Linda and her father at once. “Hey, Pa, we’ve got visitors,” Joe called. He wished he could stand up to greet them, but that simple, everyday task was one he couldn’t accomplish alone. “Hello,” he said, smiling at them.

“Hello, Joe,” Linda replied. “How are you?” It was the first time Joe had seen Linda since she rode off to get help. Linda had not seen Joe since he was carried, unconscious, into the house.

“I’m all right,” Joe smiled. He certainly felt a lot better and his shoulder wasn’t as sore as it had been.

“Linda! Mr. Morton!” Ben came striding out onto the porch and extended his hand. Morton shook it. “Have a seat,” he offered and pulled across chairs from the table on the porch. “Sorry we’re sitting out here, but if you knew the effort it takes to get Joe anywhere these days…” Ben let his voice trail off and grinned at Joe.

“I only stood on your toes once on the way out!” Joe protested, mock-indignantly. They all laughed.

“We came out to say goodbye,” Morton explained when the laughter had died down, and Ben had offered refreshments. “I’ve sold the business and we’re going to start fresh somewhere else.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ben murmured.

“We tried to stick it out,” Morton went on, as Linda looked down at her hands twined in her lap, “but we can’t take the talk any more. Jack is my son, and I love him, but I know what he did was wrong. But how could I know he was planning something like this?”

“You couldn’t,” Ben assured him stoutly. “I’m sorry that you haven’t received more understanding from the people in town.”

“So am I,” Morton agreed sadly. “This has been our home for a long time.” He made a wry face that didn’t fool any of them. “Anyway, I thought we should come out and say goodbye. Joe, it’s good to see you on the mend.”

“Thank you,” Joe replied, quietly. “I’m sorry to see you go.”

As Morton rose, a figure stepped out of the bushes at the side of the house. Joe, seeing the movement at the periphery of his vision, turned his head, and the color drained out of his face. It was Jack, but a Jack that was barely recognizable. He was bearded and dirty, thin and unkempt. He had a gun in his hand and it was pointing at the group on the porch.

“You can’t go, Dad,” Jack cried. “Joe and Linda aren’t married!”

“No, Jack!” Linda wailed and burst into tears.

“Listen to me, son,” Morton coaxed, putting his hand out towards Jack.

“I don’t want to listen to you!” Jack shouted. “You just said you were going away, but what about me? What about Linda and Joe getting married? Don’t you want to see them wed? Joe’s rich; he’ll make a good husband for Linda, don’t you see?”

“Linda has to choose her own husband,” Morton replied. “You can’t do it for her, Jack.” He took a step forward. “Give me the gun, son.”

“No!” Jack pulled the gun up, and clicked the safety off. “Dad, you’ve got to make them get married. That’s why I killed Drew. Linda has to marry Joe.”

“But you don’t even like Joe!” Linda cried, totally distraught. “You told me so yourself when I started going out with him.”

“I know!” Jack shouted back. “But he’s rich! You won’t have to worry about money, Linda! Isn’t that more important than love? You’ll have servants to do everything for you. You’ll be a lady!”

“I don’t care if I have to live in a hovel, as long as I love the man,” Linda shouted back. “I’m not going to live my life the way you think I ought to!”

“Yes, you will!” Jack yelled. He suddenly swung the gun round and pulled the trigger.

Joe dived from the rocker to the ground, crying out as his sore shoulder took the force of the impact. Morton dived at Jack, as did Ben. Linda screamed, her self control completely gone. Joe wanted to drag Linda to safety, but he knew he couldn’t reach her in time, and the pain from his shoulder made him feel sick.

The gun went off again as Ben, Morton and Jack went down in a struggling heap. Joe’s eyes widened in horror and he struggled to sit up, terrified that Jack had claimed another victim – his beloved father. “Pa!” he cried.

Slowly, oh, so slowly, Ben got up. “I’m all right, Joe,” he assured his son and reached down to help Morton to his feet. The other man was ashen.

“Dad?” Linda whimpered.

“I’m fine,” Morton replied, mechanically. His eyes were glued to the ground, where his son lay dead at his feet, his eyes gazing sightlessly at the sky, and a gaping hole in his stomach.

In a jumble of mixed emotions – relief that it was over and Ben was safe, and grief for Linda and her father – Joe allowed himself to slump to the ground. He was barely aware of Adam and Hoss arriving from the corrals in a panic, or of Hoss and Ben carrying him inside.

It was, finally, over.

*****

The funeral was brief and painful, with only the Mortons and the Cartwrights in attendance. Joe sat in the buggy at the gate and watched. As the minister left, the Cartwrights each spoke quietly to Mr. Morton and Linda before coming back over to where Joe sat. “Are you all right, son?” Ben asked.

Nodding, Joe replied, “I’m fine, Pa.” He found a smile for his father.

“Goodbye, Joe,” Linda whispered, as she reached the buggy. She leaned over to kiss his cheek.

“Goodbye, Linda,” Joe replied. “Take care of yourself.”

“You, too,” Linda responded and tried to smile. It didn’t come off. Turning to her father, she accepted his help in climbing onto the wagon seat. Morton nodded to them all and joined her.

Without a single, backward glance, they left Virginia City. The Cartwrights watched them go in complete silence.

Once they were out of sight, Ben cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, briskly. “I think we should be getting this young man home again. It’s been a long first outing for you, Joe. Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe replied, and his smile was more genuine this time. “But I am a bit tired I guess.”

“Well, you won’t have anything to do now, except get better,” Ben told him. He climbed into the buggy beside Joe as Adam and Hoss mounted.  “Let’s go home.”

***End***

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