Summary: At sixteen, Joe was champing at the bit to be counted as a man. Until the day where his choices could have dire consequences for both his brothers.
Word Count: 33,779
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Ben stared at the dust trail long after the three men had departed. His hands were firmly planted on his hips, mostly to keep them from clenching into a fist or reaching for his gun. He’d been hiring and firing ranch hands for long enough that he considered himself a fair judge of character and the three men he’d just sent on their way were not men he wanted on his payroll. He could not define just what it was that had riled him so much, but the conversation he’d interrupted between his youngest son and the apparent leader of the trio was enough to raise his hackles. At sixteen, Joseph considered himself a man and Ben had often had to stifle a chuckle as his youngest son fought to find his place in the world. Yes, he carried his fair share of the load, but he was a long way from the man he thought he was.
The softness of the word caught his attention and Ben forced aside his thoughts and turned to see his son watching him. Joe’s face was a mixture of anger and something else and Ben suddenly realised his boy was rattled, but trying desperately to pull himself together. He took a few steps towards his son and smiled calmly at him before placing a hand on his shoulder. He kept his face neutral despite feeling the tremor under his hand.
“What did they say to you, Son?”
Joe shifted and twisted out from under his father’s hand.
“Nothin’! Just wanted to know if we had any work and weren’t too happy when I told ’em no.”
Ben frowned as he watched his son make his way back into the barn to resume his chores, but kept his mouth shut. He knew it was more than that and was glad he’d heard the riders from inside the house. He shook his head as he turned back towards the house, knowing he would not get anything further. Joseph seemed intent on proving himself a man since Ben had finally allowed him to leave school only a few weeks ago. Of course, some days were better than others and it seemed that today would be one where his youngest son simply clammed up. Adam had chastised Joe often enough that his angry outbursts were childish and while Joe had still champed at the bit, it was clear to all of them that he was trying to tame his temper.
By the time Adam and Hoss rode into the yard, Hop Sing had supper almost on the table and Joe had seemed to push aside the afternoon’s events. For his part, Ben hadn’t and he intended to ask Roy to keep an eye out for the trio of strangers. It would be hours later that Joe crawled into bed and pulled the covers up over his shoulder. He twisted his face into his pillow and tried to push down the images that arose in his thoughts. For all his tough words to others, especially Adam, he had felt the rush of fear as the three men had threatened him in his own yard. He felt shame rising up his throat as he recalled the relief of his father appearing on the front porch.
“Some man you turned out to be!”
The muttered words burned into his pillow and sleep eluded him for many hours to come as he considered the strangers’ scorn at dealing with a boy. He could not define just what it was that bothered him so much, but he was relieved his father had not needed any more hands at the present time.
It would be a little over a week later that Joe came face to face with two of the three men once again. He’d been in town with Hoss, loading supplies into the back of the wagon when a ruckus erupted outside the Bucket of Blood. If Hoss hadn’t been inside the mercantile at the time, the older brother might have clamped a hand on the younger brother’s collar, but Hoss wasn’t there to do so. Joe found his feet carrying him across the street alongside a gathering crowd of onlookers as a fight spilled out of the saloon doors. He heard glass shattering as a body flew through the window and the sound of angry voices carried on the breeze as he moved closer. A second later, one of the three men he’d encountered days earlier came clambering through the broken window. He hauled his victim to his feet and slammed a meaty fist into his face. Joe stood, almost transfixed as the man swung again, shouting alcohol-slurred words about what he would do to anybody who came against his brother. A part of him recoiled from the violence, but another part rose up into his throat and questioned what he would do if somebody hurt his brother.
Before he could think through the question, he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder and he spun around to find Hoss glaring at him.
“Whaddaya think you’re doin’, Joe?”
As he opened his mouth to answer, the man began shouting again. “The folks in this god-forsaken town think you’re all so much better’n us. Well, I got news for ya all. Ya just think ya are! Me an’ my brothers just wanted some work! Earn a little coin and have ourselves a …”
Joe lost track of what the man was shouting as Hoss dragged him back towards the mercantile.
“Them fellas is trouble, Joe. Roy said they’ve been nothin’ but trouble since they rode into town last month.”
Joe swallowed down whatever it was that had crawled up his throat as he followed his brother across the road. He glanced back to see Roy and one of his deputies dragging two of the brothers across to jail, while a crowd had gathered around the man on the ground, who wasn’t moving. Joe wasn’t sure where the third one was, but he knew that Hoss wasn’t going to let him wait around and find out. He shrugged as he climbed aboard the buckboard and allowed his brother to turn them for home. He almost smiled as he noted the school bell ringing and children spilling from the building. Hoss allowed their horse to amble up the road as children raced every which way and Joe really did smile as he considered the joy of escaping that building for the last time. It had been an uphill battle to convince his father that he really was done with his schooling and it had been a joyous day when he walked out for the last time.
A few children called out his name as they continued up the road and Joe waved in response. Suddenly he caught sight of Becky Longman and he waved at her as they passed. He was shocked to see her sombre face as she looked in his direction and he swiveled in his seat to keep watch on her as Hoss pushed towards home. Several of his former classmates had teased Becky more than once that she was sweet on a certain young Cartwright and she had blushed furiously while denying their claims. For his part, Joe thought she was pretty and her smattering of freckles on her nose had been his undoing more than once. Somehow, Miss Baker had snapped him out his daydream each time with a rap of her ruler on his desk. He frowned as he turned back in his seat, wondering why the usually vivacious young girl seemed so unlike herself.
Almost as if reading his thoughts, Hoss pointed back over his shoulder.
“Hey, wasn’t that little gal the one you danced with at Hal and Nancy’s wedding? Becky something?”
He nudged at his little brother’s elbow and grinned at him. When Joe barely nodded, he wondered if he’d touched a nerve. After all, Joe seemed to have a trail of girls following after him wherever he went and Hoss knew his pa had openly worried about his youngest son’s sense of propriety on more than one occasion.
“Didn’t seem real happy to see you, little brother. You done somethin’ to upset her since then?”
“I haven’t even seen her, Hoss!” The denial came out a little too angrily and Hoss frowned across the seat. Suddenly he grinned again.
“Maybe that’s what got her all riled up! You ain’t been to see her. It ain’t polite to leave a lady waitin’.”
“Shut up why don’tcha.”
Hoss reined in his grin and looked straight towards the road ahead. “Anythin’ you say, Little Joe. Anythin’ you say.”
It was a quiet trip back from town and Hoss began to wonder if there wasn’t something more than girl troubles going on. He glanced across at his brother several times and noted that Joe seemed lost in thought. His mind wandered back to the look on Joe’s face when he’d approached the Bucket of Blood and suddenly the penny dropped. Them two fellas that Roy had arrested were the same drifters that had turned up at the Ponderosa asking for work. He only knew that because his father had pointed them out some days later while in town and commented on how they had ruffled Little Joe’s feathers. Adam had laughed that that wasn’t exactly hard to do, but something about his father’s face had quickly brought the laughter to an end. For his part, Hoss would be more than happy to see them move on. Something about them raised his hackles and Joe’s interest in them earlier in the day, suddenly took on another layer of concern.
“I guess Roy’ll read them fellas the riot act and point them outta town tomorrow.”
Joe just nodded and Hoss knew he’d nailed something. He just didn’t know what.
“Joe … them three ain’t bothered you none have they?”
“No!” Joe’s vehement response had Hoss raising his eyebrows a touch while still staring straight down the road.
Joe felt the heat rising up his neck as he recalled seeing two of the three only a few days ago. He’d been out on the south road heading for a neighbouring ranch when he’d come across them. They had recognised him immediately and he knew he had no choice but to continue on or turn tail for home like some kind of child. His newfound sense of manhood forced him to push down the fear and keep his horse trotting down the road, into the hands of the enemy. It wasn’t until later that night that he allowed his fear to spill out in hot angry tears when he had been certain they would not allow him to pass unscathed. If not for the stage rumbling up the hill, he wasn’t sure what would have happened and he shuddered to think about it. He just knew he didn’t need his brothers going into town and defending him.
Hoss stored away the information and decided he’d have a quiet word with Adam once Joe was out of earshot.
Becky walked along the dusty road towards home, dragging her feet as she did so. She had no wish to get home any sooner than she had to and yet she knew her pa would be angry if supper was late again. She frowned as she stared at the road beneath her feet and wished for the tenth time that she had waved back at Joe and made him stop. She needed to tell somebody and everything in her had screamed at her to tell Joe, but something had clamped down over her mouth and silenced her. Just like the huge hand that had clamped over her mouth and stopped her from screaming for help. Tears welled in her eyes as she felt a wash of shame roll over her once again. One hand had silenced her mouth while another one had stroked the side of her face. A voice had whispered sick threats in her ears and her legs had turned to liquid beneath her. The memory welled up like some kind of phantom and she felt her insides roiling once again. She couldn’t tell Joe and have her father’s new ranch hand carry out his unthinkable threats. Becky suddenly realised she had stopped dead in the middle of the road and she slowly forced herself to move forward again. She would simply have to work out a way to outsmart the man without letting on to him that anything was amiss.
It would be another few days before Joe managed to get his list of jobs finished and was done earlier than he’d anticipated. When he reflected back on the decision later, it had felt like a spur of the moment decision. After a while, he had wondered if it had been more than that. Whatever had prompted it, the change of plans at the last moment would change the course of his life. Since seeing Becky in town and noting her strange reaction to him, he decided he needed to go and see her. After all, their three dances at the wedding of mutual family friends had been the sweetest he’d ever had. Becky’s freckles seemed to tease him with their close proximity and for some strange reason all he wanted to do was plant a kiss on her nose. He knew both his father and Becky’s father were watching them intently and he’d resisted the urge – just. Their parting comment to each other had been teasing and promised more and Joe couldn’t figure what had happened since then to make her so mad with him.
He was deep in thought as he nudged his horse towards Becky’s father’s ranch and was unaware that anyone was anywhere near until he heard a scream. He lifted his head and tried to determine where the sound had come from as another scream gave him his bearings. Without stopping to think, he kicked his horse to a gallop and was horrified at what he saw when he rounded the bend on the road. Becky was scrambling to her feet, screaming again while a shadow in black towered over the top of her. The sound of his horse’s hooves broke the air and he sucked in a breath when the shadow looked up. One of the three men who had threatened him had a grip on Becky’s dress and he could see it was already torn. The man shoved her back to the ground as Joe pushed Cochise in between them, praying he didn’t trample Becky in the process. There was no time for rational thought as he simply reacted to her distress.
“Get outta here, boy! This ain’t none o’ your business.”
A fist swung towards him and Joe pulled back on the reins so sharply that Cochise reared back. As he gained his feet again, the hand grasped at Joe’s ankle and he felt himself being hauled out of the saddle. He never saw the solid mass of knuckles that slammed into the side of his head and the sound of Becky’s screams seemed almost surreal in the background. More wild punches, more screams and the taste of blood in his mouth had him reeling in a daze. He caught movement behind him and saw Becky staggering backwards as he tried to keep the focus on him. Wild rage welled up inside him as he saw the tattered state of her dress and he ploughed head first into his attacker. A hand grasped at the collar of his shirt and he felt himself lifted off his feet while the buttons on his shirt popped rapidly.
The air seemed to squeeze out of him as Joe felt a thick arm wrap around his chest and a hand grip at his throat. He panicked as his vision began to blur over and the sounds of Becky screaming were fading. With the power born of desperation, he grasped at the man’s gun belt and inched a hand along until he felt the handle within his grasp. It was only supposed to make the man stop as he squeezed the trigger and Joe felt the world turning black as he ran out of air. The noise of the gun firing jolted him back to awareness and he felt himself falling as the grip around his neck slowly gave way. It was all he could do to make himself crawl toward the sound of Becky crying and away from the threats that mixed with a strange growling sound.
“You’ll pay for this, Cartwright. My brothers’ll make sure o’ that.”
Joe looked up to see the man lying on his side, clutching at a bloodied hole in his gut. He felt his head swirling again and he tried to force himself to focus. The man was muttering again, through gritted teeth, as more blood oozed out between his fingers.
“My brothers’ll take away your brothers. An eye for an eye, Cartwright!”
Joe gradually became aware of Becky tugging at his arm and he looked up to see her tear-streaked face looming over him. His head was swimming and he shook it to make the world stay put. He suddenly wished he hadn’t done so and gripped the sides of his head with both hands. It took a moment before he registered the blood on his hands and pulled them away to stare at them.
“Your brothers are history, boy!”
As the ugly words faded, Joe felt Becky pulling him to his feet and she shoved Cochise’s reins into his hand. He turned to look at her as his own words stuck in his throat. As if someone was pulling the strings, he felt himself haul his body up into the saddle before stretching out a hand to Becky. She wrapped her arms around his waist and her head dropped against his back as they silently turned for the road again. He felt numb inside as he nudged the horse towards her home and almost fell off several times on the way there. His hands felt disconnected from his body and his thoughts swirled as he recalled the man’s threats.
Afterwards, Joe had no recollection of the last few miles to the ranch until he felt Becky nudging at his arm once again. He turned in the saddle to see she was saying something and he knew he’d missed it. As he eased her to the ground, he could not make himself move from the saddle. Something nagged at him that he needed to run before the posse caught up to him. After all, he’d just murdered a man.