A Fresh Start (by Rona)

Summary:  Features a reaccurring character named Tom Bryson.  Dialogue from these stories is referenced:

Only Skin Deep
Toil and Trouble
Wolf in the Fold

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,895


 

“Mr. Cartwright?”

The feminine voice cut through the general hubbub of the street noises and Joe turned. “Yes?” he replied, automatically tipping his hat to the lady. He didn’t think he had ever seen her before. “Can I help you, ma’am?”

“I hope so.” Having got Joe’s attention, the lady seemed suddenly uncertain. “Could I talk with you privately please?”

“Of course,” Joe agreed, thoroughly intrigued. He followed her away from the front of the busy general store and stopped at the side of the building, a few steps into the alley. “What can I do for you…?”

“My name is Mrs. Bryson, Judith Bryson,” she began, fingering her skirts nervously. “I believe you know my husband.” She paused, flashed Joe a nervous look from dark eyes and lowered her gaze again. “My husband’s name is Tom Bryson.”

Frowning, Joe puzzled over the name. He didn’t know the lady and he was certain he didn’t know anyone called Bryson. He looked at her again, seeing the well-cut dress and velvet hat that spoke of money. “I’m sorry,” he began, but Mrs. Bryson interrupted him.

“My husband told me to tell you…” Again, she stopped and looked up at him fearfully. “He told me to tell you that your last meetings hadn’t been pleasant for you, but that he is sorry now and would like to take you up on your offer.” Biting her lip, Mrs. Bryson looked at the puzzled young man in front of her and saw that he still didn’t understand. She loved her husband dearly, but this was so difficult. Taking a deep breath and grasping her courage with both hands, she explained further. “You first met my husband a few years ago when he broke into your home.” Still Joe looked at her blankly, and then he started to frown even harder. Hurriedly, she went on, “And then he tried to kill you again and another time kidnapped you.”

“Tom!” Joe exclaimed, his voice low and filled with a mixture of repulsion and fear.

Silently, Judith nodded. She stood waiting to see what else Joe would say, twisting her fingers together to still their shaking. The amiable young cowboy she had first spoken to had disappeared into an angry man with a hard look on his handsome face.

“What offer does Tom want to take me up on this time?” Joe asked bitterly. “Does he want me to come with you quietly so he can demand money from my father for my safe return?”

Although she couldn’t blame him for lashing out at her, tears formed in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Tom said you’d react like this, but he doesn’t know who else to turn to.” Raising damp lashes, she saw she had Joe’s full attention. “Tom wants to go straight.”

*****

“He doesn’t know what that means!” Joe growled after several moments of silence. “Does he think that he’s going to walk away from everything he did without paying for it? Why should I believe a word he says?”

Swallowing the tears, Judith replied, “We were married last year. Tom had been working for me for over a year and we fell in love after my husband died. I’m…” She blushed and looked down. “We’re expecting a child,” she concluded primly.

“My condolences,” Joe replied, savagely and turned smartly on his heel and walked away.

*****

Walking across the busy street, Joe was completely unaware of his surroundings. Nonetheless, he adroitly dodged horses and wagons, lifted his hat to a couple of ladies he knew and arrived back at his horse without knowing how he got there. All his thoughts were centered on Tom.

When Joe had first met Tom, Tom was breaking into the Ponderosa. Joe had been caught unawares by the man’s resemblance to his brother Adam. Joe had been quite badly injured in their encounter, and only the fortuitous arrival of the rest of his family had stopped Tom making off with many of their precious possessions. The following spring, Joe had been involved in a serious of accidents, culminating in the near drowning of both Ben and Joe. Tom once more had been the culprit, although Joe didn’t get confirmation of that for a couple of years when Tom returned, took Joe prisoner and proceeded to try to get a ransom from Ben. Luckily, Hoss had rescued Joe before Ben could pay over more than $100. Tom had fallen into the Truckee River and his body had never been recovered. It had been assumed he had drowned – by everyone except the Cartwrights.

And now, three years later, Tom was back. He was married, his wife expecting a child and he wanted to go straight – with Joe’s help. And Joe’s first and strongest instinct was to say ‘no’.

“Joe!” The voice was annoyed and a hand shook his sleeve. “Are you listening to me?” Candy Canaday, the ranch foreman, demanded. “I’ve been talking to you for the last few minutes.”

“I didn’t hear you,” Joe replied, shaking himself out of his reverie. “Sorry. What did you say?” He was having trouble staying focused.

“It doesn’t matter,” Candy answered, seeing how white Joe’s face was. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Joe replied, uncertainly. “What did you ask me?”

“I asked if you had collected the mail,” Candy replied. He frowned, wondering what had upset Joe so much. “Are you sure you’re all right, pal?”

“I’ll be fine,” Joe assured him, which wasn’t quite the answer Candy was expecting. “And yes, I got the mail.” Joe quickly checked his cinch before stepping into the saddle.

*****

All the way home, Candy thought that Joe looked like his own ghost. He was unusually tight-lipped, too, making almost no replies to Candy’s remarks. Sometimes Joe smiled and nodded, but Candy would have laid good money that Joe had no idea what he had just agreed to.

When they got back, Candy casually followed Joe into the house, where Joe gave Ben the mail and disappeared upstairs. Candy took his time over removing his hat and gun belt before going over to his employer. “Can I talk to you?” he asked, awkwardly.

“Yes, of course,” Ben replied, tilting the letter he’d been reading away from him, but not laying it down entirely. “What is it?”

Glancing over his shoulder, Candy was relieved to see Joe wasn’t suddenly coming back downstairs and he leaned in closer to Ben, lowering his voice. “When I met up with Joe in town, he was as white as a sheet,” he began. “I spoke to him for a few minutes before he responded, but he wouldn’t tell me what happened. He hardly said a word all the way home. Do you think he’s all right?”

At once, Ben divined that Candy was in deadly earnest. He had been vaguely surprised by the instant friendship that had sprung up between his youngest son and the drifter who had found such an integral place in their lives, but he knew that both men cared for each other. “He looked all right,” Ben replied, doubtfully, then realized that he hadn’t actually looked at Joe and wasn’t sure if his son looked all right or not. “He didn’t get in a fight, did he?”

“No,” Candy denied with authority. “No way could he have hidden a fight from me. No, he just seemed to be far away, thinking hard about something.” A sudden thought occurred to Candy, but he didn’t share it. Perhaps Joe had had a letter from Adam, his oldest brother who was off somewhere wandering the world. Candy knew that Joe had found it difficult to believe Adam had wanted to leave the ranch and the signs seemed to be that he was never coming back, and Joe was hurt by this. Candy suspected that Ben Cartwright was all too aware of Joe’s feelings, and Candy didn’t want to get in the middle. He had never met Adam – had no particular desire to – and most of all, he was Joe’s friend. He would take Joe’s part in almost anything, as that’s what friends did. So he didn’t mention his suspicions.

“Thanks for telling me,” Ben replied, frowning. “I’ll see if I can find out what’s wrong. And if you manage that before me, would you tell me please?”

“Sure thing,” Candy agreed and went off back to work.

Picking up the letter once more, Ben found that although it was from his son, Adam, and the first letter they had received for months, he couldn’t concentrate on it. Skimming through, he saw that Adam was enjoying his stay in Italy, was well, but had no plans to return home.

Putting the letter down, Ben sighed. Reading between the lines, he was sure that Adam was never going to come back for good. Hoss still thought, so, he knew, but Ben no longer believed that and he knew Joe had never believed his oldest brother was coming back.

It occurred to Ben that Joe had yet to come downstairs. Rising, Ben picked up the letter again and headed towards the stairs. This would provide him with an excuse – not that he needed one – to see if Joe was all right.

“Joe?” Ben knocked and when he didn’t receive an answer, he cautiously opened the door.

Joe was standing by the window, gazing out, with a far-away look on his face. “Joe?” Ben said, again and this time, Joe heard him.

“Oh, hi, Pa,” Joe replied, summoning a smile, but it was a long way from its usual brilliance.

“Is there something wrong?” Ben asked. “You’ve been up here for ages. Are you feeling all right?”

For a minute, Joe wondered about telling Ben he was fine, but abruptly decided against it. Swallowing, he shook his head. “I’m not ill, but I’m not all right,” he admitted softly. “I was approached by a lady in town,” he went on. “She told me her husband wanted to talk to me. He wanted my help.”

When Joe seemed to be having difficulty going on, Ben prompted, “Who is her husband and why does he want your help?”

“He wants my help because I once offered to help him,” Joe replied, obliquely. He finally raised his eyes and Ben winced at the look on Joe’s face. “Her husband is Tom.”

For a moment, the name meant nothing to Ben. He knew dozens of Toms. But then the look on Joe’s face and the name made a connection and Ben knew who Joe meant. He could feel himself paling. “Tom?” he echoed.

Nodding, Joe sat down on the bed. Ben sat heavily in the chair near him. “Mrs. Bryson approached me and said Tom wants my help to go straight. They’ve been married for about a year and Tom was working for her and her late husband for more than a year before that. They’re having a child together.” There was bitterness in Joe’s voice. “I can’t help wondering if he married her for her money,” he added cynically.

“Where do they live?” Ben demanded and Joe shrugged.

“I didn’t think to ask,” he admitted. “I just wanted to get out of there.”

“Well, I can’t blame you,” Ben soothed. “I don’t suppose Tom was around?”

“I didn’t see him,” Joe replied. “But I don’t think he was there. He couldn’t risk coming into town.”

“We have to tell Roy,” Ben declared, rising.

When Joe didn’t immediately leap to his feet as well, Ben looked down at him, puzzled and saw reluctance on Joe’s face. “You are going to tell Roy, aren’t you,” he stated, phrasing it like a question, but making it a warning.

The ambivalence that Joe often felt about Tom showed clearly on his face. “I suppose,” he agreed, reluctantly.

“Joe?” Ben questioned, not understanding the reluctance.

“I don’t know, Pa,” Joe replied, almost savagely. He rose and paced over to the window. “I hate Tom and in a lot of ways I fear him. But he’s so like Adam in a lot of respects and that confuses me. I did want to help him that first time we met. I still do, in a way. But I think it’s too late and I don’t want to see him.”

Adam. Always it came back to Adam. Ben looked down and saw that Adam’s letter was crumpled beyond redemption in his fist. Well, no matter. Joe’s needs came first now. Slowly, Ben went over. “Joe, if Tom does want to go straight, he’ll have to face the law at some point.”

“I know!” Joe snapped, moving away from his father’s soothing hand. His confusion raged in his breast and he wasn’t ready to be soothed. He had to sort out his feelings first. “Pa, I know,” he repeated, trying to conquer his temper. He was at least partially successful. “I’m sorry; I just need to think this through.”

“All right,” Ben agreed. “But don’t think too long, Joe. Because if you don’t go in to see Roy tomorrow morning, I will.” Ben’s voice was soft and pleasant, but Joe knew that he meant every word.

“Yes, sir,” he nodded, ducking his head. At once, he noticed the paper in Ben’s hand. “What’s that, Pa?”

“This?” Ben held it up. Now wasn’t the time. “Nothing important, son. I must have forgotten to put it down when I came up here.”

“I’m sorry to worry you, Pa,” Joe replied and Ben patted his back.

“See you downstairs for supper?” he asked and Joe nodded.

As Ben left the room, Joe resumed gazing out of the window, his thoughts going round and round, but not getting anywhere.

*****

By supper, Joe was slightly calmer. He knew that he would have to tell Roy about Tom, but it had occurred to him that he had no idea where Tom lived. He had never seen Tom’s wife, Judith, before to his knowledge, although that meant nothing. There were about 20,000 people living in the immediate area and there was no way Joe could know them all.

“Are you all right?” Candy asked as they sat down to supper. He’d been acutely aware of Joe’s absence all afternoon.

“I’m fine,” Joe assured him, smiling slightly. “I’ll tell you all about it over supper.” And as the food grew cold on his plate, he told Candy the entire story with Tom, starting with their first meeting* and concluding with him falling into the Truckee River.

“Dadburnit, I don’ like the thought o’ that snake bein’ back,” Hoss growled. “Joe, don’ ya go anywheres near him!”

“I wasn’t planning to,” Joe replied impatiently, not sure whether he should be amused or annoyed at Hoss’ instructions. Did his older brother think he was completely stupid? “Pa, I’ll go into town first thing and tell Roy,” he added.

“I think that’s for the best, son,” Ben agreed, stretching his hand out and laying it on Joe’s arm. “By the way, I got a letter from your brother in the mail.”

As a change of subject, it was a good move in some respects. Hoss immediately exclaimed in delight and demanded to read the missive. Joe applied himself to his food, not expressing any interest in what Adam had to say. Ben wasn’t surprised. He knew how Joe felt. But it allowed them to stop thinking of Tom and, to Ben, that was a good thing.

Except Joe didn’t stop thinking about Tom. He now found himself wondering if Tom still resembled Adam as closely as he had done the last time Joe saw him.

If Ben had known, he would have done something to distract Joe, but he didn’t and so the thoughts ran on unchecked.

*****

It was almost a relief for Joe to be wakened come morning. He had dreamt violently the whole night, reliving his encounters with Tom.

The words threw Joe into a panic. He swung his legs around, twisting to try and reach his tormentor. As he kicked to try and reach him, his hip slid on the floor, and Joe found himself sliding, but still tied to the banisters. There was an audible crack as his right collar bone snapped under the sudden pressure. Joe went limp.

Panting, Joe tried to wipe the images from his mind, but he failed.

From his seat on the buckboard, Joe watched with horror as Ben broke the surface only to disappear again at once. He knew something was wrong. Ben was a very good swimmer. Joe jumped from the seat and ripped off his jacket, boots, hat and gun belt. Running to the water’s edge, he dived in and began to swim.

The cold and the pain hit him all at once. Joe gasped and spluttered, but kept on doggedly swimming towards the churning water a short distance away. “Pa!” he cried, as a head broke the surface for a moment. He swallowed a mouthful of water and choked.

Diving beneath the water, Joe looked around frantically before spotting Ben floating a few feet away. He swam over, grabbed his father and propelled him to the surface. Ben took a great breath of air and coughed out some water, but he didn’t open his eyes.

Rolling onto his side, Joe prepared to swim for the side, towing Ben with him. His every breath, every movement caused stabbing pains in his chest. But he kept going, knowing that if he didn’t, both he and his father would die.

By the time they reached the shore, Ben was conscious again and making an effort to help Joe along. Joe’s feet hit bottom, but he couldn’t stand. On his knees, he dragged Ben away from the water line before collapsing to the sandy ground, totally spent, and gasping for breath.

Dragging in a deep breath, Joe washed a hand over his face, feeling the sweat there. He had to relax. Another image forced its way into his consciousness and this one was the worst of all…

“I hate you!” Tom screamed. “I’m going to enjoy this!” He raised his knife and placed it on top of Joe’s right ear. The blade began to bite into the cartilage and for a moment Joe felt no pain. Then the blood began to flow and he screamed as the agony drove his wits asunder.

From somewhere behind Tom, there was an enraged bellow, and for a second, Joe thought that a grizzly bear had happened upon them. Then Tom was dragged away from Joe, the knife sliding down his cheek, leaving a thin, burning line of red behind it, and Joe slumped down, all but unconscious.

Unbidden, Joe’s hand went to his ear. The scar on the top of it was small and didn’t usually bother Joe. He seldom thought about it, but it was a tangible reminder of his ordeal. The ordeal that had only ended when Hoss came to find him.

Hoss, angrier than he had ever been before, dragged Tom away from Joe and hit him in the face. Tom looked stunned, but he tried to fight back, bringing the knife up in a futile attempt to protect himself. Contemptuously, Hoss hammered his fist down on Tom’s wrist and the knife dropped from his deadened fingers to the ground.

Frantically, Tom threw a punch with his left hand, but it glanced off Hoss’ cheek without making any impression on the enraged bigger man. Hoss was shaken by Tom’s resemblance to Adam, and he felt almost as though it was his brother, who had suddenly gone mad and tried to kill Joe.

Lifting his head, Joe saw Hoss beating the living daylights out of Tom. “Hoss, no!” he cried and tried to get to his feet. The last thing he wanted was Hoss beating anyone to death on his behalf. “Hoss!” he cried again, trying to get to his feet, but failing.

But Joe’s voice had penetrated the haze of anger that had fallen over Hoss’ mind. He gave Tom one last punch and looked let go of him. Tom reeled backwards and fell into the brush. Hoss made a grab for him, but missed. Tom screamed as he tumbled down the slope and fell into the river with a resounding splash.

That memory brought comfort, and Joe gradually relaxed. He knew his family would be there for him. They had never let him down yet and he knew they never would. It had taken Joe a long time to physically recover from his last ordeal with Tom. Joe didn’t want to take the chance that Tom was seeking some kind of misguided revenge against him, using his presumably innocent wife as bait.

At last, Joe rose, washed and dressed and went downstairs. Hoss and Candy were just finishing up and they smiled briefly at Joe before leaving, seeing that he was in no mood for inconsequential chatting. Ben remained seated, pouring himself another cup of coffee. “Rough night, huh?” he asked, sympathetically.

“Yeah,” Joe replied, unwilling to elaborate. He put some bread on his plate and frowned down at the bacon and eggs that Hop Sing placed in front of him, unasked. Joe wasn’t sure that he was hungry, but when he glanced round at the Oriental housekeeper, he saw the genuine concern in his friend’s eyes and knew that this was Hop Sing’s way of helping Joe. With a smile, Joe began to eat and discovered that he was hungrier than he thought.

When he finished eating, Joe sighed heavily. The moment had come and it wouldn’t get any easier by putting it off. Rising, he found a passable smile for Ben. “I’d better get into town and talk to Roy,” he commented. “See you later, Pa.”

“Be careful,” Ben admonished him.

“I will,” Joe promised and grabbed his gear before heading out to the barn. Cochise was already saddled and waiting for him and Joe, in absentia, thanked Candy and Hoss, not sure which of them had done this for him. Swiftly strapping on his gun belt, Joe shrugged on his green jacket, gave his hat a push to make sure it was firmly on his head and mounted.

Squaring his shoulders, Joe headed off into town.

*****

When the rider emerged onto the road in front of him, Joe knew instantly that it was Tom. Who else could it be? He reached for his gun, but Tom was way ahead of him and Joe found himself looking into the barrel of a 45. Wisely, he decided not to try anything. “So this is you wanting to go straight is it?” Joe asked, disgustedly. “I knew I didn’t believe it.”

“I couldn’t think of another way to make you stay and listen to me,” Tom replied. “I tried asking nicely – well, my wife tried. Do you know how upset she was by your last remark?” Tom sounded bitter.

“I didn’t mean to hurt her,” Joe admitted. “But I was shaken.” He wondered why he’d said that. Why did he always end up telling Tom things? Was it because he looked like Adam? Joe eyed the man in front of him and saw that the old resemblance was still there. Tom looked a bit slimmer than Adam had been when Joe had last seen him, but was still stocky. Tom was just as bald as Adam, too. It really was eerie.

“Please, Joe, won’t you come with me and hear what I have to say?”

“No,” Joe replied, shaking his head. “If you want to go straight, go and turn yourself over to Roy Coffee and be done with it. You don’t need my help for that.”

“I want you to come with me,” Tom explained. “I want you to tell him you won’t be pressing charges against me.”

“You want what?” Joe scoffed, his eyes wide, barely able to believe what he had just heard. “You are joking!”

“Joe, please, come home with me and let me explain. Please.” Tom was openly begging.

“No,” Joe replied. “I’m not doing it.” He tightened his reins and put his heel to his horse. He was suddenly certain that Tom would not shoot him. He rode past Tom at a walk.

Without warning, Tom threw himself at Joe, knocking them both to the ground. Joe was underneath, caught off guard, but he began to fight. Tom, on the other hand, didn’t seem to want to beat Joe to a pulp this time. He just used his greater weight to keep the younger man pinned down, although it was quite a task. Joe was slim, but muscular and once or twice he almost succeeded in throwing Tom off.

But Tom had come prepared and he finally managed to pin Joe to the ground, face down. Despite Joe’s struggles, he pulled Joe’s right arm behind his back and Joe felt something cold and metallic fasten around his wrist! Handcuffs! Joe renewed his struggle, but Tom was too heavy for him to throw off and before long, Joe’s hands were cuffed firmly behind his back.

Panting, Tom rose and looked down at Joe. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he told his captive. “But I do need to speak to you and if this is the only way you’ll come back with me and listen to what I have to say, so be it.” He bent over to pull Joe to his feet and adroitly side-stepped the kick Joe aimed at him. He took his rope and tied one end round Joe’s waist, then forced Joe to mount, before tying the other end of the rope to the saddle horn. Then, leading Cochise, he mounted his own horse and they rode away.

*****

Tom was a mass of contradictions. By his own admission, he was an educated man, having graduated from Harvard law school. But after a drunken prank had gone wrong on graduation night when a fellow student was killed, Tom had run away. Since then, by his own admission, he had killed several times, yet Joe had sensed in him a desire to go home, return to the family he had not seen in almost two decades.

Since meeting Joe, Tom had admitted that Joe had awakened his conscience and he resented the younger man for that. He had made Joe’s life a misery while holding him a captive before and Joe knew enough to be afraid of Tom now. He didn’t think the leopard could change its spots this late in his life, and why he thought that Joe’s help would allow him to escape hanging was anyone’s guess. Joe couldn’t figure the man out at all.

For his part, Tom was feeling a twinge of conscience. He shouldn’t have forced Joe to come with him, but he was desperate to make Joe understand. He just hoped Joe would be willing to listen to him after this.

*****

It was a long ride. It was almost three hours before they arrived at a neat little ranch in a sheltered valley. Joe knew they were somewhere near Carson City, but he wasn’t entirely familiar with the area. He had maintained complete silence as they rode and even though he hated to admit it, he was glad they were at their destination. He was tired of fighting to keep his balance with his hands behind his back.

As they pulled to a stop in front of the house, the door opened and Judith came out, her face alight with pleasure at her husband’s return. But the light fled as she spotted Joe and her hand shot to her mouth. “Oh, Tom!” she exclaimed.

“I haven’t hurt him,” Tom replied, testily. “But he wouldn’t listen and I need him to listen. Judith, darling, I mean Joe no harm, honestly. Once I’ve explained to him, I promise I’ll let him go.”

There really was nothing Judith could say to that, for she knew that once Tom had made up his mind, that was it. She watched in silence as Tom untied the rope then helped Joe down from the horse. As Joe met her eyes, she flinched from the look. She had never seen such contempt.

Propelling Joe inside the house, Tom made him sit down in a kitchen chair and took a chair opposite him. Joe gazed at Tom expressionlessly. Tom sighed. This was going to be even harder than he had thought it might be. “Joe, I’m sorry about this,” he began, awkwardly, gesturing at him.

“So I see,” Joe replied, with biting sarcasm and Judith winced again. “So sorry you’re rushing to take these cuffs off.” He moved his arms slightly.

“I know,” Tom replied. “I don’t blame you for being annoyed. But, Joe, please, listen to me.”

“I don’t appear to have a choice,” Joe shot back venomously. Tom winced.

“No, you don’t,” he agreed, sounding annoyed himself. “So I’m going to talk and you’re going to listen.” He drew in a deep breath and began to talk.

*****

“I thought Joe would have been back by now,” Ben mentioned, worriedly as lunchtime loomed. “Roy wouldn’t let him go on a posse to look for Tom, would he?”

“Course not!” Candy denied. He looked at his boss’ face and saw how concerned he was for Joe. “This Tom fella – was he as bad as Joe said last night?” Candy had learned the hard way that Joe’s stories weren’t always unembellished.

“He’s possibly worse,” Ben sighed. “Joe didn’t tell me everything Tom did to him, but what I know of is bad enough.”

“That’s for sure,” Candy agreed. “And he really does look that much like Adam?” Candy only knew Adam from his pictures and the stories that Joe and Hoss told him.

“Yes, he does,” Ben admitted. “They could be twins.”

“Do you want me to go and see if I can find Joe?” Candy offered. “I’m sure he’s fine, but…”

“Yes, thanks,” Ben replied, warmly. He knew that Candy and Joe were friends – and friendly rivals on occasion – and perhaps Joe could open up to Candy.

“Be back soon,” Candy promised as he swung himself onto his horse and rode away.

*****

“I nearly drowned in that damned river,” Tom said, softly, his eyes looking back in time. “The fall had winded me and by the time I managed to drag myself out of the water, I’d gone miles downstream. I found some shelter and stayed there overnight. The next day, I moved on, but I had no destination in mind. I didn’t even know where I was. I had no food and no water and I collapsed. The next thing I knew, I was here.” Tom flashed a smile at his wife and Joe noted with surprise that he appeared to be genuinely fond of her. “Judith and her husband had found me on the road and they brought me back here and looked after me. When Dennis realized that I was a drifter, he offered me a job. He told me that he was sure I had a past, but that was what it was – a past. He said I could start my new life working for them, and he would ask no questions. So I accepted.”

Despite himself, Joe was listening now. His face was still expressionless, but Tom took heart from the fact that his posture was less rigid. He continued. “I had a lot to learn, because I knew nothing of how a ranch is run. I cleaned the stables and I tagged along with the other men, absorbing everything they said. And I began to realize that I was good at this. It was quite a revelation.” He glanced at Joe again, shame-faced. “I learned what I think you already knew, Joe; I learned that there is great satisfaction working hard with your hands, knowing that at the end of the day, you’ve accomplished something. I began to take pride in my work.”

“It was about then that Dennis fell ill,” Judith took up the story. “It was all over so suddenly. First he wasn’t feeling well, then, within a month, he was gone. Most of the men up and left, because they didn’t want to work for a woman. But Tom stayed. When a bunch of the men tried to rob the house, Tom protected me.” She laid a loving hand on his shoulder. Tom put his hand up and covered hers.

“I did what I could around the place,” Tom went on. “Some of the men left, others came and Judith made me foreman. And after a time, I realized that I loved her. Of course, it was too soon for Judith to even think about someone else, so I bided my time.” He shrugged. “I don’t know if you believe any of this, Joe, but it’s true. I’ve thought a lot about my life and I’m ashamed of the things I did. I want to live an ordinary life and raise my child.” He met Joe’s eyes. “I want to let my folks know that they’re going to be grandparents.”

Silence fell. Joe was digesting Tom’s words. He believed Tom, despite the fact that he was still handcuffed and had been brought there against his will. But did Tom really believe that he would escape a hanging? He had admitted to Joe that he had murdered, and Joe knew that there was no time limit on prosecutions for murder.

“It’s a nice story,” he started. “But what about those crimes you’ve committed in the past? Have you told Judith about them? Have you told her what you did to me?” Joe was suddenly angry. “Take these cuffs off!” he demanded.

“I told her some of it,” Tom replied, cautiously. He made no move to free Joe. “And you’re not going to tell her any more,” he warned. “Not in her condition.”

And there it was, Joe thought. The dangerous killer peeking through the veneer of a civilized man. Tom had a lawless streak running through him which he would never entirely conquer. Joe knew that Tom had enjoyed subduing him earlier and was enjoying the fact that Joe was a prisoner, despite his protestations. Joe knew that if he told Judith any of the graphic details – as if he would tell a woman that! – Tom would make him pay.

“Tom has told me enough,” Judith replied quietly and Joe saw that she was pale.

Swallowing down his anger, Joe asked, “Supposing by some miracle I am persuaded to help you, what makes you think my father won’t press charges against you?”

“You’d be able to talk him out of it, wouldn’t you?” Tom replied.

“You live in a dream world, Tom,” Joe replied. “You committed crimes against us – tried to kill both Pa and me and you think I’d be able to talk him into forgiving you? I don’t think so. And what you told me when we first met – you’re wanted for murder, Tom! Do you think you’re going to get a smack on the hand and told to be a good boy? You’ll hang!”

With an anguished cry, Judith spun around and ran from the room. Joe cursed his impulsive nature that made him speak first without thinking. He hadn’t meant to hurt Judith.

“Judith!” Tom cried and rose. His angry gaze fell on Joe, and for a moment, Joe was sure that Tom was going to beat him to a pulp. “You’ll be sorry for that remark,” Tom warned him.

“It’s the truth,” Joe reminded him grimly. “Something that you aren’t too familiar with, it seems.” He watched as Tom raised his hand. “Go on,” he taunted him. “Hit me! Prove what I’ve been saying!”

Freezing in place, Tom gave Joe a look of black enmity. He dropped his hand slowly and drew in a deep calming breath. “Yes, it is the truth,” he admitted. “It’s not how I wanted Judith to hear it, though. I’ve got to talk to her, and you’re going to stay here. Like it or not, I know you, Joe and I know that while my back is turned you’re going to try and escape. Well, sorry, my friend, but you’re not going anywhere yet. I’m not finished with you yet.”

“Is that another threat?” Joe asked, as Tom grabbed a length of rawhide that was lying on the table and tied it around Joe’s wrist and to the back of the chair Joe was sitting on.

“No, it’s a statement,” Tom told him. “But you take it whichever way you please.” He tightened the rawhide strip and walked away, leaving Joe alone.

*****

“No, I ain’t seen him at all,” Roy replied, frowning at Ben. “Ya say Joe was meant ta come see me?”

“Yes,” Ben replied, seething with impatience. “I told you, Roy! Yesterday, Tom’s wife approached Joe. He refused to help her and this morning, he set off to see you and Candy found his hat a few hours ago. Joe never got here and I think Tom has him!”

“Any idea where Tom is?” Roy asked.

“If we had, we’d be there,” Hoss snapped. He was beginning to think Roy was getting past it.

“Joe told us that Tom has been married to this woman since last year. She was widowed. Her name is Judith. That’s all we know.” Ben drew in a calming breath. Beside him, he was grateful for Hoss and Candy’s quiet presence.

“Seems ta me that’s familiar, somehow,” Roy murmured. He got up and wandered aimlessly about the jailhouse while Ben quelled an urge to throttle him. “Jist let me check on somethin’,” he said at last and disappeared out of the door.

“This ain’t gettin’ us anywhere,” Hoss growled. “I reckon we shoulda jist looked fer Joe ourselves.”

“We don’t know where to look for Joe,” Candy pointed out. Hoss gave him a black look. Candy was not noticeably disturbed by it. He knew Hoss was worried, as were both he and Ben.

But they were all getting restless when Roy did, at length, reappear. “I thought so,” he announced cryptically.

“You thought what?” Ben demanded.

“I wired the sheriff over in Carson City,” Roy explained. “I ‘member hearing about somethin’ like this, so I thought I’d ask him. Seems like there was a lady called Judith Myers, whose husband Dennis died. She then up an’ married the foreman o’ their place a few months later. She’s now Mrs. Bryson.”

“That’s the name Joe said,” Candy remembered.

“Where does she stay?” Ben asked.

“Over near Carson,” Roy replied. “I done tol’ Sheriff Hall ta expect ya. He’ll take ya out to their place.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Ben replied, ashamed of his lack of patience earlier.

“Jist find Joe,” Roy replied. He watched as they rushed out of the door.

*****

As Tom had predicted, Joe was not going to passively remain a prisoner if he could somehow get free. He twisted and turned, but he couldn’t quite get his fingers to the knot on the rawhide. With disgust, he remembered that Tom’s knots had always defeated him before.

However, Joe was resourceful and he was in a kitchen. There were bound to be knives around somewhere. Rising awkwardly, Joe picked up the chair as best he could and began to shuffle across the room. The chair banged off the backs of his legs and once caught him across the knees. Joe had to sit down abruptly and was just lucky he landed in the chair, and not on the floor with the chair on top of him.

Eventually, he reached a drawer and twisted round to try and open it. He cursed as his fingers slipped off the handle, but undaunted, he tried again. Every time, his fingers didn’t quite manage the purchase he needed and Joe could feel sweat beading his brow, for every minute that he failed was one minute closer to Tom and Judith returning.

Vaguely, Joe was aware of the raised voices coming from another part of the house. Judith seemed like a nice woman and Joe was sorry that he had hurt her, but he had assumed that Tom had told her pretty much everything.

Suddenly, Joe’s fingers made the necessary twist and he gripped the drawer handle triumphantly. He pulled carefully, and was rewarded with a drawer full of cutlery. Scrabbling in it with difficulty, Joe winced as a sharp blade sliced over his fingers, leaving them slick with blood. However, he traced the knife down to its handle and grasped it firmly, despite the pain in his lacerated fingers. Within moments, Joe had cut the rawhide from the chair and he was free – relatively speaking.

Dropping the knife, Joe grinned tightly. Now, it was just a matter of threading his body through his hands so he had them at the front and he was going to get out of there! Sitting down, he began the tricky maneuver.

He was at the most awkward point, with his hands under his knees, and one leg drawn back in preparation for the final acrobatics required when Tom opened the kitchen door and saw at once what Joe was up to. He raced across the room and shoved the hapless young man over.

Unable to regain his balance, Joe fell heavily onto his right shoulder and yelped as Tom dragged his arms backwards, ensuring that Joe remained a prisoner. “No you don’t!” he panted, keeping his grip tight and hauling Joe’s arms away from his body at an angle that nature never intended.

But Joe was unwilling to give in. He kicked frantically, striking Tom on the shin. But it was to no avail. Although Tom’s grip lessened slightly, and relieved the agonizing pressure on Joe’s shoulders, he didn’t let go completely and Joe shortly found himself being dragged across the kitchen and his arms were bound to something behind him that he couldn’t see. As Tom stepped away, Joe glanced over his shoulder and saw that his arms were attached to a clothes dryer that hung down from the ceiling in front of the small fire. Moments later, Tom began to raise the pulley, until Joe had to scramble to his feet. He only stopped when Joe’s arms were being held out painfully behind him, and Joe was forced to bend forward slightly from the waist.

“Damn your tongue, Cartwright!” he cursed. “You’ve all but destroyed my marriage! I wasn’t going to tell Judith about those murders; she didn’t need to know.”

“I was always taught that relationships should be based on honesty,” Joe panted, twisting his head to look up at Tom.

“Why couldn’t you help me?” Tom cried and Joe detected a genuine note of desperation there. What he didn’t know was what caused it. Did Tom really want to go straight? On the evidence of the day, Joe doubted it. He might be enjoying the good life right now, but his lawless streak was still far too apparent.

“I can forgive a lot of things,” Joe replied, quietly. “And I might even have helped you, if things had been different. But you tried to kill my Pa – and that’s something I can never forgive. You violated our home you read Adam’s journals – how could I forgive you that? If you had come to me and said you were going to turn yourself in, I’d have come with you for moral support. But you were asking me to make a liar out of myself and my family and I’m not going to do that. You have to face up to what you did, Tom and if you truly are willing to go to the sheriff, you have to be willing to face everything you did. There can be no half-measures in this.”

Scowling, Tom snarled, “That’s what Judith said.”

“Fancy that!” Joe remarked. His shoulders were already aching steadily, and Joe knew that everything would just get worse. “Maybe this should tell you something.”

“Maybe it should,” Tom admitted, sounding suddenly defeated. “I must go back and talk to Judith. I’ll be back to free you later, Joe.”

“You still don’t see it, do you?” Joe asked after a moment of appalled silence. “You want to go straight, but look what you’re doing to me! Is this the way to persuade me to help you?”

“If you’re with me – willingly or as a hostage – I’ll get to the sheriff alive,” Tom replied. “And if I’m alive I still have a chance.”

“Do you?” Joe asked. “Do you think my story will help you?”

“I don’t know any more,” Tom admitted, sounding defeated. He really didn’t know what to think any more. He turned and left. Joe couldn’t repress a groan. He was sure he’d lost.

*****

It was already late afternoon when they arrived in Carson City, but Ben wasn’t willing to rest. They got fresh horses from the livery and followed the sheriff out of town, heading towards the ranch where they hoped they’d find Joe.

Anxiety gnawed at them all the way there. Ben wondered if Hoss remembered the conversation they’d had the last time Tom had been seen as vividly as he did;

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Hoss asked. “Ya ain’t mad at me for what I done to Tom, are ya?”

“No, son,” Ben assured him. “No, I’m not mad at you.”

“Then what’s wrong?” Hoss asked, perplexed. “It ain’t Joe is it?”

“No, Joe will be fine in time. But it was something that Joe said.” Ben looked at Hoss. “He asked me if I thought Tom was dead.”

“What did you say?” Hoss wanted to know.

“I said yes,” Ben replied. He raised his eyes to meet Hoss’. “But I lied,” he added.

How had he known that Tom was not dead? Some sort of fatherly intuition? Or was it just plain dread? Ben didn’t know. All he did know for sure was that his son was in deadly danger and it was taking far too long to find him.

“There!” Hoss pointed. The homestead nestled snugly in the valley and lights showed in one window.

“I think we should leave the horses here,” Ben started, but the sheriff wasn’t listening. He was intent on capturing Tom and he put his heel to his horse and set it into a gallop.

There was no choice but to follow and hope that this didn’t turn into a bloodbath.

*****

Joe had no idea how much time passed before Tom and Judith came back into the kitchen, but the light was beginning to wane. Judith’s eyes were swollen and red. She didn’t make eye contact with Joe, just went round the room lighting the lamps and pulling down the blinds. Tom walked over to Joe and looked at him. Joe could only hope he was keeping his suffering off his face, for his shoulders were a mass of agony and his hands were growing numb.

“I’m really sorry, Joe,” he said, in a quiet voice. “I’ve treated you badly and done you a lot of wrong. I know I can’t expect you to forgive me.” He began to reach for the ropes that were keeping Joe prisoner when he stopped. “Horses!” he exclaimed and hurried over to a window.

It wasn’t entirely dark outside, but the lamps inside effectively killed any night vision Tom might have had. He peered uselessly outside, his hand reaching for his rifle. Without turning, he said, “Judith, go into the other room.”

“What?” Judith gasped, fearfully.

“There are horses coming towards the house and that can only mean one thing – the Cartwrights have found us and there might be some shooting.” Tom glanced round at Joe.

Rushing over to Tom’s side, Judith put her arms around him. “No, Tom, don’t shoot at them, please!” she begged. “You just told me you were going to do anything it took to go straight. Please don’t go back on your word!”

“Don’t worry, honey,” he soothed. “While I have Joe in here, they won’t do any wild shooting. But I don’t want you in danger. Please, go into the other room.”

But Judith hesitated a moment longer and there was a shot from outside. It shattered the window and hit Judith in the side. She let out a startled cry and slid to the floor. Tom tried to catch her, dropping his rifle as he did so, but she slipped from his hands. Joe gaped in horror as he saw the blood pooling on the floor. “No!” he whispered.

Looking up from where he knelt beside his stricken wife, Tom pinned Joe with a ferocious glare. “Is that your family?” he demanded angrily. He was no longer sorry, as he had been just a few moments before, that he had Joe tied up in such an uncomfortable position. He hoped Joe was in agony from it!

“I don’t know!” Joe cried, truthfully. “How could I know, trussed up here like this?”

With a savage animal sound, Tom leapt to his feet, snatched up his discarded rifle and smashed out the broken, jagged remains of the kitchen window. When the blind started to fall down on him, he ripped it off the wall and threw it aside. He aimed out of the window and fired.

At once, there was answering fire. Joe ducked as he felt a bullet sing past his cheek. He began to struggle against his bonds again, but there was no way he was going to get free. “Tom, surrender!” he cried. “Get help for Judith before it’s too late!”

“It’s already too late!” Tom returned. “She’s dead, Joe! Dead! And my baby is dead with her!” He straightened, turned and walked deliberately over to Joe, looking him up and down, enjoying what he had done to his nemesis. “Without her, it doesn’t matter any more, do you understand? Nothing matters. I could kill you now, Joe and it wouldn’t matter!” He started to lift his rifle.

Another shot came in through the window and struck Tom in the back. There was a second, and then a third, but Tom was already crumpling to the ground, his rifle dropping from nerveless fingers.

The third bullet struck Joe.

*****

“Stop firing, you fool!” Ben cried, pushing the sheriff’s gun down. “There isn’t anyone firing back at you!” He gave the man a hard look and followed after Hoss and Candy, who were sprinting towards the house.

The door was locked, but that didn’t stop Hoss for more than a few seconds. He simply put his beefy shoulder to the wood and it yielded at once. He and Candy barreled inside, their guns up and ready, but neither of them thought they would need them. The lighted kitchen had shown them only too well that the sheriff had first shot a woman, then a man, then another man. There was no basis in proof at that moment to tell them one of the men was Joe, but still, that was what they believed.

And as they charged into the warm kitchen, they saw, with horror, that one of the men was Joe. Blood was dripping from a wound in his neck and shoulder onto the floor and he hung in his bonds, unconscious. Hoss raced over to grab Joe, while Candy quickly checked Tom. The man was alive. He looked at Candy without any curiosity and then muttered, “Tell Joe… I really am….sorry.” Then the light went out of his eyes, and Candy knew he was dead.

Turning away, he saw that Ben was with Joe now, too and he went to check on the lady. She was dead, too and Candy shook his head. The sheriff had a lot to answer for, but would it ever come before a court of law? And would he be charged when he was rescuing a hostage? Candy didn’t know the answer and right at that moment he didn’t care. “How’s Joe?” he asked, going over to where the youngest Cartwright now lay on the floor.

“He’s bleeding a lot,” Ben replied, tersely. “Candy, could you find a wagon? We’ve got to get Joe back to Virginia City.”

“Ain’t there a doc in Carson City, Pa?” Hoss asked. “I thought I heard of a fella who set up there.”

“He didn’t last the pace,” Ben replied, pressing his neckerchief against Joe’s neck. His son groaned, which Ben took as a good sign. “Joe, can you hear me?”

The darkness was warm and dark and Joe didn’t feel any pain there. As he surfaced, his neck and shoulder began to hurt badly and he was more than willing to slide back into the darkness until he heard Ben’s voice. He groaned slightly as he struggled to wake up. Eventually his eyes slit open and he focused on his father’s face above him. “Pa?” he whispered.

“I’m right here, Joseph,” Ben assured him. “You’re safe now. Just stay still. We’ll get you home.”

Licking his dry lips, Joe summoned the energy to ask something else. “Tom? Judith?”

“Get some water, Hoss,” Ben instructed, glancing in his middle son’s direction. He turned his attention back to Joe. “They’re both dead, Joe.”

“Sure,” Joe breathed, which puzzled Ben for a moment, because he didn’t know what his son meant. It didn’t sound like a question, but… Ben looked at the pain-filled green eyes fixed beseechingly on his and suddenly knew what Joe wanted to know.

“Yes,” he replied, gently, “I’m sure he’s dead this time.” He took the cup Hoss offered him and Joe gulped thirstily, Ben controlling the amount he was getting. He looked at Hoss again. “Could you find a blanket, son?”

“Sure,” Hoss rumbled.

“Is that Hoss?” Joe asked, blinking and trying to turn his head. Pain shot up his neck and he strangled a cry.

“Its me, Shortshanks,” Hoss replied, schooling his face just to look pleased, not horrified or worried, both of which things he was. “Didn’ I tell ya not ta see Tom?”

“You…were right,” Joe admitted. He closed his eyes, trying to deal with the pain. Hoss hurried off to collect a couple of blankets and he eventually stripped a mattress off a bed to pad the back of the wagon for his injured brother.

*****

It was a very long journey back to Virginia City. Hoss drove, while Ben sat in the back with Joe. Candy was riding on ahead to alert the doctor that they were coming. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, and Ben was fairly sure that Joe wouldn’t bleed to death before they got back. Not that they had any choice. There wasn’t another doctor any nearer than Virginia City.

The hapless sheriff hadn’t objected to them cannibalizing the house, but since he had caused the carnage in the first place, Ben didn’t give a fig for his opinion anyway. They had loaded Joe into the wagon, tucked blankets around him and then set off. Now, possibly about half way home, Ben thought, Joe was slipping in and out of consciousness and his temperature was rising dramatically.

“How’s he doin’, Pa?” Hoss asked, quietly, almost as though he had read Ben’s mind.

“Not too good,” Ben replied, soberly. “Just keep driving, Hoss. The sooner we get him there the better.” He held up Joe’s head and gave him some more water, which Joe obediently swallowed, but his eyes remained resolutely closed.

It was about one am when they arrived back in town. The streets were quiet and deserted, and the only lights were shining from the doctor’s office. Hoss guided the team down the street, suddenly feeling exhausted. It was with relief that he pulled them to a halt.

“How’s he doing?” Candy asked, hurrying out from the office. The lamplight spilled out into the street behind him, casting his face into shadow.

“Not good,” Hoss replied, jumping down. He hurried round to the back of the wagon to help Ben lift Joe, and Candy came forward, taking Joe’s shoulders from Ben as the older man scrambled down from the wagon bed.

“What have we got?” Paul Martin asked, as they came carefully into the room. “Lay him over here, boys.”

As soon as Joe was on the table, Paul leant over him, his keen eyes taking in Joe’s color, breathing and the wound itself. “I need to get these clothes off him,” he announced, straightening up. “We’ll just cut them off, to save moving Joe around too much. I think the bullet might still be in there.” He didn’t say how worried he was about the bullet being too close to Joe’s spinal cord. There was no point in worrying Ben needlessly at this point. It might be that Joe’s cord was already damaged and he was already paralyzed. But they might be lucky – Joe might be fine.

When Joe’s clothes were off, Paul ushered his worried family outside, and applied the ether mask. Joe hadn’t stirred while he was being moved, and Paul was just as glad. It was a nasty wound and the pain would be bad. Taking a deep breath, he started to repair the damage, cutting away ragged, dying skin and hunting diligently for the bullet. His nurse held the lamp as close as she could, but it was still some considerable time later before Paul finally extracted the squashed lump of lead. “At last!” he exclaimed in relief and exchanged a smile with the woman. “Now, let’s get this cleaned up and then we can start praying in earnest.”

By the time the last of the sutures was in, Joe was stirring and the way he moved reassured Paul that he hadn’t been paralyzed, even though Paul had been fairly certain of that before. “Pa,” Joe mumbled, still more asleep than awake, but Paul took the hint and went to fetch Ben.

“He’s coming round,” Paul announced and Ben leapt to his feet.

“Is he all right?” he demanded. “Can I see him?”

“Yes, come in,” Paul agreed. “He’s just coming round at the moment, and barring infection, he’ll be fine. But we’ll have to wait and see, Ben. The bullet did a fair bit of damage and the wound wasn’t as clean as I would have liked. There were quite a few bits of cloth in there, as well as some dirt. He’s lost a lot of blood, so he’ll be weak for a while, but Joe is usually strong and healthy, so I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t pull through.”

“Thank you,” Ben breathed and hurried over to take Joe’s hand. Joe was still pale and he was hot to the touch, but he stirred as he felt Ben’s big warm hand grasping his own and opened his eyes. “Hi there,” Ben smiled.

“What… happened?” Joe asked. His eyes moved around the room, but he barely moved his head. Ben understood that it must be very painful for him. “This… isn’t where… I was.”

“No, we brought you back to Virginia City,” Ben explained. “There aren’t any doctors in Carson.”

“Sore,” Joe murmured. His eyes began to dip closed.

“Don’t go to sleep quite so soon, Joe,” Paul chided him. “I haven’t had the chance to say hello yet.”

With an obvious effort, Joe dragged his eyelids open again. “’llo,” he murmured and looked surprised when relieved laughter echoes through the room.

“Well, I think that answers a lot of our questions, wouldn’t you say, Ben?” Paul joked. “Joe, can you turn your head for me? Gently now, because it will hurt.”

Sighing petulantly, Joe gingerly turned his head a little bit both ways. The effort obviously exhausted him and his eyes closed once more. “That’s good,” Paul told him. “You’ll have to do that several times each day to keep the muscles moving, so that everything heals properly. But I’ll remind you of that tomorrow.” He gave Joe a shot of morphine and within minutes, Joe was sound asleep. Paul turned to Ben. “And you get some rest while you can,” he ordered.

“Candy an’ me’ll sort him out, Doc,” Hoss assured him, going over to loom ominously over Ben. “C’mon, Pa. Candy done got us rooms at the hotel. Ya ain’t gonna do Joe no good if’n ya don’ git enough rest!”

“I’ll come quietly,” Ben joked, but he paused for a moment to stroke the hair back from Joe’s forehead and to drop a gentle kiss there. “Sleep well,” he whispered.

*****

Initially unwell for several days, Joe began to rally at last and Ben was finally able to take him home. Commuting in and out of town every day had proved very taxing and Ben had moved into the hotel, leaving Hoss and Candy in charge of the ranch.

On the day Joe was going home, Roy Coffee came over to talk to him. There had been words between the sheriff of Virginia City and the sheriff of Carson City, but Ben was never to learn the outcome of those words. He just knew there had been a difference of opinion, but it didn’t matter to Ben. All that mattered to him was that Joe was going to be all right.

“Ya sure yer feelin’ up ta anwerin’ questions?” Roy asked, before he began.

“Sure,” Joe agreed. He nodded gingerly, feeling the muscles in his neck protest, but not as badly as they had the previous day. Joe was finding it incredibly frustrating that he could barely hold his head up, something he had taken entirely for granted before the injury. Every day movements took conscious effort.

“How’d ya fall in with Tom?” Roy asked.

“He came on me on the road,” Joe replied and went on to describe how he had been taken prisoner and then all that had transpired in the house.

“Those are not the actions of someone who wants to change his ways,” Ben commented when Joe was silent again.

“Yes, I know,” Joe agreed, “but even so, I think he really did want to start fresh. Say what you will against Tom, Pa, but he loved Judith. I thought he married her for her property and money, but he loved her. He was devastated when she was killed and the baby with her. He sort of – snapped then.” Joe shuddered and winced. “I think Tom thought that he just had to turn up and say he was sorry for the things he’d done and it would all be forgotten.”

“Why’d he think that?” Roy wondered.

“He said his father was a rich man,” Joe replied. “Maybe he got used to saying sorry and then the money clearing the way for him.”

“I looked inta Tom’s background,” Roy admitted. “Seems the Brysons he’s connected ta is the same Brysons that own about half o’ Philadelphia.”

“Brysons Carpets and Furniture?” Ben asked, amazed.

“That’s them,” Roy nodded. “I never heard o’ them myself.”

“They make very fine furniture and carpets,” Ben told him. “Very expensive, too.” He looked at Joe and saw that he was tiring again, and they still had the journey to make to the ranch. “Is there anything else, Roy?”

“Nah, that’s it,” Roy replied. “Ya take right good care o’ yerself, ya hear, Little Joe?”

“I hear,” Joe smiled wanly.

“You were going to help Tom, weren’t you?” Ben asked, his tone carefully neutral, not praising or accusing.

“Yes, I think I maybe was,” Joe replied. “I don’t quite know why, either, but I was leaning towards it.” He gave Ben a wry smile when he saw that Ben wasn’t angry. “Maybe I thought he deserved a fresh start, Pa.”

“If I’d been in your shoes, I might have done the same thing myself,” Ben confided. “Our justice system is excellent, but sometimes justice and right aren’t quite the same thing. However, the law is there for everyone, and we have to trust in it. We can’t go round making judgments and ignoring the law. That leads to anarchy.”

“I know,” Joe sighed. “I can hardly believe Tom is truly dead. You are sure, aren’t you?”

“He was buried today, along with Judith,” Ben replied. “You don’t need to worry about Tom any more, Joe. He can’t hurt you ever again.”

Hearing that suddenly made Joe realized that he was finally free from Tom. The relief was overwhelming and he was horrified to find himself sobbing in Ben’s arms. Ben said, nothing, just cradled Joe gently. When Joe at last sat up, Ben handed over a handkerchief and Joe blew his nose noisily. “I don’t know where that came from,” Joe declared, wiping his face.

“You needed it,” Ben replied. “It’s done you good. You look more relaxed.”

“I am,” Joe realized, wonderingly. He smiled at Ben and his smile was the usual brilliant smile, lighting up his handsome face and reminding Ben of Marie. “Let’s go home, Pa,” he suggested and Ben nodded.

“Let’s go home,” he agreed. He knew Joe would need time to heal, but he was already on the road to recovery and now he could make a fresh start, knowing that Tom was at last at peace and could never hurt him again. “Ready?” he asked.

Joe nodded carefully. “Ready,” he replied.

***End***

* refers to the previous stories featuring Tom. In chronological order:

Only Skin Deep

Toil and Trouble

Wolf in the Fold.

All words in italics are direct quotes from those stories.

 

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