Playing Soldiers (by Dodo)

Summary: A childhood dream becomes reality for Joe in a most unexpected way

Rated: K+  Word Count:  27896

Playing Soldiers Series:

Playing Soldiers
Never Say Never

 

                                                                         Playing Soldiers

 

Chapter 1:

(Disclaimer: I have borrowed a character from Season 5)

Prologue1847“Bang! Bang!” The voice of seven year old Little Joe Cartwright rang throughout the large sitting room of the Ponderosa. “Bang! Bang!” he continued, riding his favorite pony within his mind as he shot at the imaginary Indians that appeared behind every chair and table. Without thought for safety he kept running speedily between the furniture with his left hand and fingers drawn into the shape of a gun, his battle building up to its usual conclusion when he would shoot down the last Indian and rein up, victorious!Suddenly a large figure emerged from the kitchen and Little Joe ran headlong into his father, the coffee in Ben’s hand spilling onto the floor, the cup following with a crash.

“Joseph! Watch what you are doing!” cried Ben, as his little son looked up in alarm. “Gosh. Sorry Pa, but I had that last Indian on the run, and nearly got him!” he yelled triumphantly.

“Well, you should be getting ready for bed young man. Not riding the range at this time of night.” Picking up the broken crockery, Ben returned to the kitchen and brought out a cloth to clean up the spilt liquid.

“Ah, shucks Pa. Do I have to go to bed?” Little Joe asked, his dark green eyes pleading with his father for just another five minutes before climbing the stairs to his room. With his brother Hoss staying over at a friend’s house that night, it left the youngster with just his father for company, and he had looked forward to having him all to himself for once, if only for a few extra precious minutes.

Ben shot him a look of annoyance as he finished wiping the floor, but his heart melted at the forlorn look on Joe’s face and he gave a smile. “All right son. Just another five minutes, but you stop playing cowboys and Indians and sit quietly.” “Yes sir,” replied Little Joe. “But I wasn’t playing cowboys and Indians Pa. I was a cavalry soldier chasing those Indians.”

Depositing the dirty cloth in the kitchen sink, Ben carried in a fresh cup of coffee, settling back in his favorite chair as he pulled out a letter from his shirt pocket. Little Joe sat quietly on the settee, watching as his father began to read, noticing the quiet smile that crept across his father’s face. He had seen that look many times and knew it must be a letter from his eldest brother Adam. It was at times like these Ben liked to be undisturbed, left to wallow in the fine words and descriptions written by his eldest son, now so many miles away at college in Boston. However, for the seven year old, patience was never his strongest virtue, and he shuffled noisily in his seat unable to keep his silence for more than a minute.

“Pa! When I grow up I want to be a soldier,” he stated to his audience of one.

“Mm?” replied Ben, reading intently and not really listening to the youngster who was looking thoughtfully into the fire. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a soldier,” Joe repeated, a little too loud for Ben’s liking.

Ben looked over at Joe, frowning slightly. “Why would you want to be a soldier son? Last month you wanted to be a sailor, and the month before a sheriff. What’s wrong with just being a cowboy and helping to run this ranch with your brothers?”

“Nothing I suppose Pa…but I’m always going to be the smallest and youngest around here. Too little to do the heavy jobs and too young to do the important ones. With Adam and Hoss around you’ll manage fine without me. No! I want to be a cavalry soldier and fight battles, see lots of different places!”

Ben put down his treasured letter and looked at his son thoughtfully. “But I thought you loved the ranch Joe? Don’t you want to be a part of it, help to make it bigger?” The youngster nodded his head slightly, but still looked a little doubtful. “Sure I do Pa…but sometimes I wonder what it would be like to do something else, go somewhere else. After all you let Adam go away.”

“But Adam is coming back Joe. He wants to return and put his education to good use around here.”

“But if I really wanted to do something else, would you let me Pa?” Ben gave a gentle smile and nodded. “Of course son. I would never stop you, Adam or Hoss following your dreams, whatever they were. But I would always hope the Ponderosa was a big enough dream for you all to share together.”

Joe nodded, his seven year old mind taking in all his father had said. “I still want to be a soldier though Pa. That’s my dream….even if I stay here on the Ponderosa. I am allowed to have a dream like that, aren’t I Pa?”

“Of course you can have your dream Joe. But I bet by next week there will be something else you want to do or be, you mark my words!” Ben smiled at his son, the sparkling green eyes holding his own gaze. “I don’t think so Pa,” replied Little Joe resolutely. “I love playing soldiers, so one day I’m going to be one, and that’s final!”

Ben laughed at his resolve, though not taking his young son seriously. “Well, in that case Soldier Joe, you better start taking orders and head up those stairs to bed. Wouldn’t want you to miss getting up early for reveille in the morning!”

“Ah Pa, I’m not going to be a soldier for years,” laughed Little Joe as he went to Ben’s side and kissed him goodnight. “I’m going to need to sleep in late for a long time yet!” he shouted cheekily as he marched up the stairs, his father chuckling at him as he disappeared around the corner to his room.

***

1861

“Joseph!” Ben’s deep booming voice echoed up the stairs of the Ponderosa as he stood at the bottom, holding on to the banister rail, tapping his foot on the first step in annoyance.

With no sight or sound of movement from above Ben shouted again. “Joseph! If you aren’t down here in one minute there’s going to be trouble!” Sat at the dining table, Hoss and Adam caught each others gaze and shook their heads, both smiling, knowing their little brother was surely in for it this time. Last night he had promised faithfully to be up early, long before his father was due to leave for a five day trip to Sacramento and the yearly timber conference.

This meeting was one Ben attended each year, keen to push forward his ideas of conservation with constant debate amongst the other land owners of Nevada and California. Not for him the policy of stripping every living tree to supply the booming silver mines that had shot up over the past few years. Ben Cartwright had decided years before to continually replant and restock the slopes of the Sierra Nevada and not leave them bare and barren once the pines had been felled to sustain the hunger of the Comstock Lode. It was a policy he felt compelled to pursue with anyone who would listen year after year.

“That brother of yours is going to feel the palm of my hand on his backside in a minute, even if he has turned twenty one!” cried Ben as he grew red with anger listening to the undeniable sound of silence from the upstairs bedroom. Taking a deep breath he placed his foot on the first step in readiness to charge upstairs when the front door suddenly opened and a fresh faced and wide awake youngest son entered the room.

“You want me Pa?” Joe asked as he looked over towards his father. “Heard you yelling from the yard!” Ben turned around in amazement.

“Joseph! Where did you come from?” he responded, not quite believing his eyes. Equally surprised at his sudden appearance, Adam and Hoss sat back on their chairs as they watched the exchange between their brother and father with interest.

“Well you told me to be up early! So I’ve harnessed the buggy and put your suitcase under the seat, as you asked me to. You do still want me to drive you into town in time to catch the stage, don’t you Pa?” he asked in all innocence.

“Erm… yes son, that’s just what I wanted you to do. Thank you,” said Ben, giving his son an apologetic look as he walked over to his desk.

Noting how his father was walking from the direction of the stairs, shocked enlightenment suddenly appeared on Joe’s face. “You didn’t think I was still in bed did you Pa?”

Ben gave a slight cough while Adam and Hoss began to hide a snigger as they watched their father’s face turn red with embarrassment.

“Guess I did think the worst of you Joseph. I apologize,” he said as Joe wandered towards the fireplace.

“That’s okay Pa. Just wish some folk around here would have a bit more faith in me sometimes,” he said, sitting down on the settee, a forlorn look covering his face.

Shaking his head as he smiled gently towards Joe, Ben tidied up his desk, checking everything Adam would need for the next few days was left ready for him.

“Everything is here Adam. The list of chores, and all the paperwork for those accounts I need finalizing, so you and Hoss should have no problems while I’m away,” he shouted over to his son who was reading the local newspaper, his breakfast now finished as he supped his fourth cup of coffee of the morning.

“I’m sure we will cope just fine,” Adam called over as Ben gave his desk a final glance. Hoss nodded silently in agreement, his brow furrowed in concentration as he chewed a small piece of egg soaked bread.

Joe rolled his eyes. Just what he needed, he mused. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians with his two elder brothers around to give him orders.

“When do I ever get to be in charge of delegating out all the chores?” asked Joe mournfully in a quiet voice, half talking to himself.

“When I feel I can trust you young man,” answered Ben who had heard his son’s question clearly from the other side of the room.

Joe shot round and looked at his father. “Why can’t you trust me Pa? When have I ever let you down?”

“Joseph, I seem to remember the last time I left you in charge you ended up masterminding the robbing of a bank with your brother! Or had that little episode just slipped your mind?” he asked raising his eyebrows as Joe looked over at him.

“But Pa, it wasn’t my fault! There were extenuating circumstances….and I did give the money back!” he added, a slight smile of triumph on his face.

“Not your fault? And whose fault was it that we had that odious man, Jedediah Millbank staying last year with a busted ankle?”

Joe frowned remembering the incident. “But it was just an accident Pa! Didn’t mean to hit him on the foot with that log!”

“That is not the point young man!” cried Ben, inwardly chuckling to himself as the image of Jedediah leaving with the broken buggy canopy falling over his head flooded back.

“And what about you winning poor Su Ling in a poker game not so long ago…I suppose that wasn’t your fault either?”

“I thought I was winning a horse! But I had a straight flush Pa…never won with that before!”

Ben fought hard to contain from laughing as he sought to keep the conversation serious.

“I just cannot allow myself to leave you in charge again Joseph. Heaven knows what I would come back to!”

Joe gave a glare of frustration. “It’s not fair Pa! Elder brother is going to get me doing all the worst jobs….you know he is!”

Ben looked over at Adam, who was smiling broadly and nodding enthusiastically. “Oh yes little brother, I have quite a few of the most dirtiest jobs imaginable,” he teased as Joe gave him an icy stare.

“See what I mean Pa?”

“I am sure Adam will be fair in dishing out all the chores between the three of you Joe,” Ben said, walking behind the settee and giving his youngest son a loving pat on the shoulder. Joe looked up and caught his father’s gaze, but was not convinced.

“Yeh! I bet!” he said slowly as he looked over at the mischievous smile still evident on his elder brother’s face. “Sometimes I wish I’d joined the Army. Would be ordered around a lot less than I am here!”

Ben tried hard to keep a straight face. This had been Joe’s favorite expression since childhood, uttered every time he felt the whole world must be against him! Hoss started to laugh at the amusing exchange between his family, but then winced with pain and shot his hand to his mouth, rubbing his cheek.

“You still got the toothache Hoss?” asked Ben, Joe now forgotten as he gave his middle son a look of concern. Hoss nodded. “Sure have Pa and it seems to be getting worse. Can’t chew anything on that side of my mouth….and I’m even losing my appetite,” he replied, pushing away his half eaten breakfast as his cheek became redder.

“Now that is bad news boy!” said Ben kindly, aware of Hoss’ love of food. Anything that put him off eating Hop Sing’s glorious fare was truly serious. “Just get yourself over to the dentist, son.”

Hoss eyed his father, nodding and giving him a weak smile. Although he had the strength of three grown men, his fear of dentists was legendary and every excuse imaginable had been put forward over the past weeks to delay a visit.

“I will Pa, but that stuff he uses to knock me out always leaves me feeling sickly,” he mumbled painfully, keen to offer another excuse as he felt the offending molar with his tongue. The pulsating tooth sent a spasm of pain around his mouth and Hoss yelped, his eyes watering with the agony of it all

For such a big man there was something of the small child about Hoss at times and Ben noticed a look of fear on his son’s face. He walked towards him, placing his hand on his shoulder and squeezing it tenderly. “Son, you can’t put it off any longer. You know that don’t you?” Hoss nodded miserably his hand drifting back to the sore cheek. His face visibly paled as he now realized the inevitability of taking a trip to Virginia City where the dentist had his office.

“Come on Hoss, I’ve got an idea,” said Ben finally. “You drive me into town instead of Joe. Get yourself booked into the hotel, then get that tooth removed at the dentists. If you are feeling unwell at least you can recover overnight without having to ride back here.”

Throwing a look between Adam and Joe he added. “I’m sure your brothers will manage a day without you to help with the chores.” Hoss glanced over. “We will manage just fine Hoss,” responded Adam seriously as he noted the half eaten egg and bacon on Hoss’ plate.

Joe also looked at him in sympathy. “Don’t you worry none brother. Can’t have you starving yourself now, can we?” he said, though inwardly groaning at the thought of the extra chores that would undoubtedly be thrown his way.

Considering for a moment Hoss nodded resignedly. “Okay I will…and thanks.”

With one son sorted out, Ben looked back towards his youngest who’d returned to stare despondently into the fire, disappointment showing plainly on his face. His plan to have a day out in Virginia City once his father was safely deposited on the stage was foiled. Now all there was to look forward to was elder brother telling him what to do.

“Tell you what Joe,” said Ben, leveling a sympathetic glance his way. “I’ll make a deal with you.” Joe looked up, his eyes widening in surprise. “Pa?” he responded confused. “What kind of deal?”

Ben moved to his armchair and sat down as Joe looked at him intently.

“Yes Pa! What kind of deal?” echoed Adam, equally intrigued as he rose from his chair and stood with his back to the large fireplace, while Hoss walked upstairs to pack an overnight bag, still trying to rub away the pain of his infected tooth through his cheek.

Ben sat back and smiled, well aware of the undivided attention now thrown his way by his eldest and youngest.

“Well Joe. Seems to me whenever I leave I always return to find you in a physically battered state, or the Ponderosa verging on some sort of disaster! So, this time when I return I want to find not one scratch or cut on you caused by fighting with your elder brother or being involved in a drunken brawl. Not one mark! You will do everything asked of you without a quibble and the ranch must be running smoothly and without any problems caused by you. If these conditions are met, then I will allow you to be in charge the next time I’m away. How does that sound?” he asked, waiting for an answer from Joe as his son squirmed in his seat.

“Gee Pa, that’s hard. Sometimes disasters just sort of happen around me….and you know I always seem to end up in a fight at some point with Adam while you’re away. And as for the drunken brawl…..that means I would have to stay away from the saloons every night!”

“Take it or leave it Joseph!” cried Ben as he stood up and made towards the front door.
Joe swallowed hard, narrowing his eyes as he looked at the slightly curled mouth of Adam, his brother trying hard not to laugh. This was such a safe bet, Adam mused. Little brother could hardly manage a day let alone five without getting into some kind of fight. Joe stared back at Adam, equally aware of the difficulty of the task involved.

“Okay Pa. It’s a deal,” he replied finally. After all, what had he to lose? Suddenly another thought came to him. “What happens if I don’t manage to keep my hands off brother Adam?” he asked, shooting his elder brother a nervous look. “Do I have to pay a forfeit?”

Trying hard to suppress a chuckle, Ben looked back over as he put on his jacket and gun belt, catching the note of panic in Joe’s voice. “Well, apart from not being in charge in the near future, I’m sure we could think of a task that would keep you out of trouble for another week, far away from Virginia City and the ranch….clearing out the old line shacks comes to mind as a suitable chore. What do you say Adam?” he asked, throwing a deep grin over towards his eldest son. Adam nodded as he stifled the laugh forming within his throat, while Joe eyed him with a look of brotherly disdain.

Hoss walked downstairs, his bag packed. His infected tooth started to throb painfully again, making him swallow hard as he grimaced in discomfort. Joe looked over with sympathy, acknowledging the torment his brother was going through.

“Don’t you worry none Hoss. Sooner that tooth is out the better. Just think of those juicy steaks you will be able to eat after today.”

“Thanks Joe…that’s the one happy thought I will hold during the whole painful process,” he responded as he moved to the front door, appreciating the look of concern passed his way by his little brother.

“So I will see you boys in five days,” Ben stated, viewing his youngest son’s back as he
placed his hat on his head. “Just remember Joe, while I’m away Adam has carte blanche
to run the Ponderosa. You do what he tells you….to the letter! Do you understand?”

“Yes sir. I understand,” Joe called to his father without turning around, curling his lip and poking his tongue out at Adam who was stood facing him by the fireplace with a smug look on his face.

“And stop poking your tongue out at your brother! You’re not a little kid anymore Joseph!” cried Ben as Hoss opened the door and went outside. Joe sat back with a start! Ben grinned over as Adam nodded, both men giving a combined look of understanding as Adam finally was unable to keep from laughing out loud at the look of surprise on his little brother’s face.

From the settee Joe turned around and gave his father a lingering look of misery, one that conveyed the deep sense of foreboding he seemed to feel at being left for five whole days in the hands of such a hard taskmaster….his brother!

“Bye Pa,” he said, forcing out a smile as his father gazed at him with loving concern. Ben looked at the curly haired young man with the deep green eyes who constantly brought him such joy. “Goodbye Joseph,” he said softly closing the door behind him.

Suddenly Ben shivered, a feeling of unknown dread washing over him. Although he was not a superstitious man, he held onto the door knob for a few moments as if not sure whether to go or stay. “Pa? You coming?” asked an impatient Hoss, his tooth now throbbing relentlessly, as he watched his father hesitate by the door.

Silently cursing himself for his unfounded uneasiness Ben turned and joined Hoss, climbing up by his son’s side, the buggy and its two occupants disappearing quickly behind the back of the barn in a cloud of dust.

***

Joe gave a loud yawn and stretched out his arms above his head, his early morning start now catching up with him. He glanced over as his brother walked to the desk and sat in his father’s chair, fingering the expanse of papers laid out in a tidy line.

“Well Adam, lets get it over with. What delightful chore have you decided I should do first?” he asked resignedly, expecting the worst. Adam looked up and gave his brother a playful grin. “Why don’t you come over here and we’ll go through the list together?” he asked. “There are quite a few to choose from.”

“Okay,” Joe sighed, pushing himself up then joining his brother. He perched himself on the corner of the desk and picked up the paper with the familiar handwriting of his father.

“Pa certainly didn’t want us to be idle, did he?” he remarked miserably, as his eyes flittered up and down the sheet of paper.

Shaking his head Adam took the paper from Joe’s hand and began to scan it himself.

“Lets see… barn roof in need of repairing. Water holes in the east meadow to clear out. Finish mending the fence by the top of east meadow. Clear debris from the stream behind the house….” Adam’s voice trailed to silence as he quickly scanned down the list.

“I see what you mean Joe. There’s enough here to keep us occupied for a week, never mind five days especially with Hoss out of action till tomorrow. I reckon Pa made out this list extra long deliberately, just to keep us away from the Silver Dollar!”

Adam sat thoughtfully as he re-read the list once again, mulling over an idea as he noticed Joe’s forlorn expression. Finally his decision was made and he took a deep breath. “These chores need to be prioritized,” he said, passing the paper back to Joe. “If you can sort them out, I’ll do the accounts in the evening, and you can be in charge… deal?”

Joe gave him a quick glance in astonishment. “You’re asking me to be in charge?” his voice high pitched as his eyes widened in surprise. “What would Pa say?”

“Pa left me with carte blanche to run the ranch, remember? Said you had to follow my orders…to the letter! Well I’m ordering you to sort out these chores and then take charge! Besides, you’ve as much idea as any of us when it comes to this sort of thing,” he admitted, pointing to the paper clenched tightly in Joe’s hand. The respect in Adam’s voice was more than evident as Joe stared at him incredulously.

“You really want me to make the decisions? Tell you what to do?” he asked again in disbelief.

“Why not Joe? Don’t you think you’re up to it?” Joe, a little taken aback, looked down at the paper in his hand as his stomach lurched unexpectedly.

“Joe? Are you alright?” inquired Adam, noticing how his brother’s face had turned decidedly pale.

“I’m not sure…this has come as a bit of a shock you know!” he answered, trying hard to hide his nervousness. Being in charge was one thing, but to have the last word above his elder brother Adam! Well, that was another matter entirely. For a couple of minutes the two men sat in silence as Joe scanned down the list again. Slowly a confident smile appeared on his face. “I’m up to it Adam! I’ll get these chores sorted out in such a way they will all be completed before Pa gets home!”

Adam raised his eyebrow in surprise. “Such a confident statement little brother! Well, if you can do that the beer is on me for the next month,” he replied, grinning widely at Joe.
“So where do you want me to start?”

Joe laughed out loud, reveling at his brothers confidence in his capabilities.

“Just give me half an hour Adam….and thanks!” said Joe sincerely, leveling a grateful gaze with his brother, before picking up a pencil and walking over to the dining table to check through the list, concentrating hard on his newly acquired task.

Though never one to openly admit it, Adam loved and respected Joe more than his little brother would ever believe. Although he often rebelled at his elder brother’s pompous and over protective nature, Adam recognized that under the impish, charming, volatile tempered, and devil-may-care attitude of his little brother was an thoughtful, caring and highly intelligent young man, more than capable of taking responsibility…if only he took life a little more seriously at times!

Adam knew their father would not approve of his unscheduled change of plan, so he steeled himself for his father’s wrath as he leaned back in his chair unrepentant.
Whistling softly he folded his arms and closed his eyes awaiting the rescheduled work rota, hoping with all his heart he’d done the right thing.

***

The following two days passed in an exhausting blur as Adam and Joe worked through the long list of chores, hardly stopping for a minute, Joe’s order of priority seeming to ease the time and effort required for each task. Adam accepted Joe’s orders without contradiction, leaving Joe a little taken aback at the reversal of roles between them as the two brothers worked in unison and without argument.

As they ate their supper on the second evening, it was obvious Hoss was not going to be joining them that night from his excursion to the dentist.

“It looks like our big brother needs to convalesce a little longer than he intended,” remarked Adam as he poured out two cups of coffee and passed one over to Joe.

“So it would seem,” replied Joe. “But we’ve worked well together Adam. I have actually enjoyed doing all these chores with just the two of us….but don’t go telling Pa that will you? You do realized he won’t believe we haven’t been at loggerheads all the time?”

“No, I guess he won’t!” answered Adam, also happy at their brotherly closeness over the past few days. The two men pushed back their chairs from the table and made themselves comfortable in the two armchairs opposite each other, both glad of the chance to ease their aching backs.

“What do we have to do tomorrow Boss?” Adam asked, giving Joe a friendly grin as they supped their coffee together in front of the blazing fire. Joe returned his smile, appreciating the quiet acceptance of all he had requested of his elder brother, never having to ask twice. He put down his coffee cup and brought out the well folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket. Nodding to himself as he read the chores left to do he stared for a minute, deep in thought, pondering his next course of action.

“There are a couple of small chores to do around the barn, and those at the east meadow. I reckon they are going to take quite a few hours. After that, we should be finished!” he said gleefully, giving himself an imaginary pat on the back as he grinned over at Adam.

Frowning slightly, Adam leant over and took hold of the paper studying it closely. “I can hardly believe it…never thought we would actually do all Pa wanted. I take my hat off to you little brother…you’re a good organizer!”

“Thank you,” answered Joe, gratefully accepting the praise. “That means a lot to me.”

“I mean it Joe,” replied Adam, stretching out his long legs and heaving them to rest on the coffee table in front of him. “I must admit I didn’t think it was possible, but you have done wonders.”

Not used to such congratulatory words, especially from his elder brother, Joe gave an embarrassed nod then relaxed in silence for what seemed an age until finally Adam sat up as if to rise.

“Ah, well, I had better start doing some more of those accounts. Only managed a couple of hours last night….was too plum tuckered out to do any more,” he stated, yawning loudly.

“Leave them tonight Adam. There’s always tomorrow….that’s an order!” chuckled Joe, giving his brother a beaming smile.

Adam sat back, inwardly relieved of an excuse to remain sitting where he was. Both brothers stared with heavy eyes into the flickering flames that danced in the huge grate in front of them and within minutes were sound asleep, their faint snores the only noise competing with the crackling flames that continued to shoot up the soot lined chimney.

The next morning dawned with not a cloud in the Nevada sky. Adam made his way to the dining table, glancing at an empty coffee cup sat on the table. He was still sore from the past two days heavy labor, and stiff from the unscheduled sleep in his chair for most of the night. Both brothers had finally awoken around 3am, and had sleepily hauled themselves up to their beds, gratefully accepting the feel of their comfortable mattress and warm blankets.

When leaving his room Adam had been tempted to knock hard on Joe’s bedroom door when passing, but decided to let his little brother have the well deserved lie-in he usually craved. However, as Adam sat down at the dining table he noticed a note pinned under his plate and he looked at it, raising his eyebrows with surprise.

Not only was Joe already up, he’d decided to go to the east meadow alone, taking all the supplies for the tasks to be done in the wagon. As the journey took a couple of hours and the work involved would take quite a while, he had decided to camp over night so he could complete all that was required without the need to return to the ranch. All remaining chores, including the barn repair would therefore be completed the day after. Reading the hurriedly scribbled note, Adam smiled to himself as he was told his orders for the day.

‘Please complete the accounts and then take it easy. Your old bones have been creaking so loudly over the past few days, they probably need the respite! Joe’

***

It was midday when Hoss finally arrived back at the Ponderosa. As he hung his hat on the hook fixed to the wall and undid his gun belt he looked over towards his father’s desk where Adam was sat, head down, mulling over the final entries of the yearly accounts.

“Hi there big brother,” said Adam, looking up and smiling as Hoss walked over. “How are you feeling now?”

Pulling up a chair in front of the desk Hoss sat down then leaned back, gently rubbing his cheek. “Much better Adam. Had that aching tooth out, but even though my mouth is a mite sore, I’ve got my appetite back! I’m so hungry I could even eat your cooking right now!”

“Well, you won’t need to do that,” replied Adam with a chuckle. “You’ve certainly timed it to perfection as Hop Sing is just about to serve lunch!” Closing the last ledger, Adam stretched out his arms behind his head and flexed his fingers, his task finally completed to his satisfaction.

“We expected you back yesterday. You been trying to get out of all those chores Pa left us?” he teased. Hoss shook his head as his stomach rumbled loudly. “Intended to come back yesterday, but Roy Coffee asked me a favor.”

Adam raised his eyebrow, “Roy? What did he want? Not been on a posse have you?”

Shaking his head Hoss stood up and headed towards the delicious aroma of potatoes and chicken, just deposited on the table by Hop Sing. “Nope, nothing like that. Seems there’s four troops of Union Cavalry making their way from Fort Bridger down towards New Mexico, complete with supply wagons. A sergeant was in town, wondering where they could camp for a couple of days to rest their horses and the men. Roy asked if they could stay on the Ponderosa, so I showed the Sergeant the meadow up on the north border. It’s empty of cattle at the moment, and there’s plenty of water, so I didn’t think there would be a problem.”

Adam pursed his lips and gave out a whistle. “Four Troops? That’s…near on 400 men! Something must be pretty important to send them away from the Indian territories. I wonder why they have come this far west? It would be a lot quicker going down to New Mexico through Colorado? Did the Sergeant say anything to you?”

“Not a lot. With this Civil War gaining ground he wasn’t too sure what was going on himself. Just knew Fort Bridger was being abandoned for a while and they were headed for Fort Union. Seems there’s been rumors the Confederacy are heading towards Denver so maybe that’s why they are keeping as far west as they can…didn’t want to end up clashing with a regiment of ‘ornery southerners!”

Adam shook his head, despairing of the war that started months before, many miles away, and was now pitting father against son, brother against brother….

He thought back to just over a year, when Frederick Kyle, a Confederate sympathizer, had appeared in Virginia City, drumming up support for the Southern cause. Both Adam and Joe had argued bitterly, Joe drawn to the southern states because of his mother’s Louisiana blood, and Adam towards his New England heritage. He shuddered to think how close he had come that time to leaving the Ponderosa and all he held dear rather than let his little brother become an enemy within a house divided. Luckily for them all, common sense had prevailed and he had stayed, his brother apologizing, the family bond remaining strong and unyielding.

Hoss could see Adam was miles away, his face dark and serious.

“It was okay wasn’t it Adam? Letting the Army use our land?” Shaken from his reverie
Adam nodded his head. “Of course it was. Did you stay at the Army camp overnight?”

“No, Miller…the Sergeant, told me his battalion were about 6 hours behind. He was a real nice fella…kind of reminded me of Pa somehow. Anyhow, he returned to guide them to the north meadow, and by the time I got back to Virginia City it was dark so I stayed over another night.”

“That’s fine Hoss. But do be sure to check with the boss tomorrow, fill him in with the details.”

“What? Pa isn’t coming back a day early is he?” asked a bemused Hoss, as he sat down at the dining table and gleefully began scooping food onto his plate.

“No he isn’t. But Joe will be!”

“Joe? You got me darn confused Adam. What’s Joe got to do with it? And where is he, by the way? You two haven’t been fighting again have you? Not got him doing all those chores on his own?” Hoss gave his brother a wary look out of the corner of his eye as he placed a portion of meat into his mouth.

“I made a little change in the arrangements Hoss,” replied Adam. “Joe has been dishing out the orders. He decided to stay over at the east meadow till tomorrow which makes good sense too, saving a lot of time going back and forth. Our little brother has certainly been a revelation these past couple of days.”

“So Joe volunteered himself to stay out all night?” asked Hoss incredulously, chewing with ease for the first time in days.

“He sure did. Even ordered me to stay here all day, seeing as most of the chores have now been done.”

With a splutter of surprise Hoss looked over at Adam in disbelief. “What? Nearly all of them chores is done? If I’d known the two of you could manage that well I would of stayed away a while longer!”

Adam gave a laugh while helping himself to a portion of potatoes, but as he tucked into his meal his mind wandered, a frown appearing as he thought of all the young Union men now riding towards…who knows what? He shuddered involuntarily, inwardly relieved that this violent and catastrophic civil war had so far left him and his family untouched. But for how long, he wondered…how long?

***

Two days later, sitting on the buckboard on the main street of Virginia City, a slightly worried looking Adam Cartwright awaited the mid-morning stage from Sacramento. His father was due at any minute and Adam tapped his fingers thoughtfully on his knee as he awaited his arrival, not looking forward to the news he would have to give him. On time the stage duly pulled in and Ben dismounted, catching his bag thrown down from the roof by the driver.

“Hi Pa. Good to have you back,” said Adam as he walked up to his father, giving him a welcoming smile as he took the bag from his hand. Feeling tired from the long journey Ben looked over wearily.

“Good to be back son,” he said. “That journey seems to get longer and longer every year.” Climbing onto the buckboard, Adam expertly maneuvered the single horse through the busy thoroughfare of the main street and slowly made his way out of town, both men sitting in silence.

“Everything all right son?” asked Ben finally as he glanced over, Adam’s face looking more serious than usual. Shaking his head Adam pursed his lips. “I don’t really know Pa. I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation, but at the moment we seem to have lost Joe!”

Ben’s eyes widened. “You’ve lost Joseph? What on earth has he been up to now? Can’t I leave that young man for five days without him causing some sort of havoc around the Ponderosa?”

“No Pa, you don’t understand. Joe has been working real hard and went up to do those chores at the east meadow, even offering to stay overnight rather than come back and go again the next morning. He should of finished yesterday afternoon, at the latest…but he didn’t come home so Hoss left after breakfast to see if there’s any sign of him.”

“Knowing your brother he has probably sloped off and made his way to one of the saloons in Carson City for the night. He wouldn’t dare come to Virginia City knowing I was arriving back today.”

Adam tightened his lips. “Normally I would of agreed Pa, but not this time.”

Ben sat in silence, his face covered with a deep frown. “Well, lets see what Hoss has to report. But I bet your little brother will be sleeping soundly on the settee by the time we get home, just you see!” he said soundly, but his voice betrayed a feeling of unease he really felt.

Arriving back at the ranch, Chubb was tied to the hitching post when Ben and Adam pulled into the yard. As they alighted from the buggy Hoss walked out and welcomed his father’s return with a quick shake of the hand, knowing by the look on his face he was aware of the situation. Adam threw him a questioning look which Hoss caught immediately.

“No Adam! No sign! Found where he had been working, but the fence hadn’t been finished and there were a few posts scattered on the ground. Even the tools were still lying there…it just isn’t like Joe to leave a job unfinished and in such a mess.”

Making their way into the house Ben sat down, his brow furrowed with worry. Bringing out a fresh pot of coffee from the kitchen, Adam poured out three drinks and passed one over to his father who accepted it gratefully. As Hoss sat down on the settee he suddenly put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper.

“Almost forgot…found this up there,” he said, passing it over to Adam who unfolded the scrunched up note, recognizing it immediately. Biting his lip nervously he passed it over to his father who gave it a quick read. “My list of chores? And all nearly done!” he said thoughtfully. “Not like Joe to throw this away though. He would have great satisfaction in showing me, just to prove what he had completed.”

“What shall we do Pa?” asked Hoss finally, more than grateful their father was now back to take charge. Ben looked over at Adam. “You sure Joe gave no indication he was going to do another job…visit someone?” Adam shook his head. “No Pa. Just said he was going to the east meadow, nowhere else.”

Taking a deep breath Ben stood up and looked down at his sons. “Hoss, would you go and saddle up Buck for me please? Once I’ve changed out of these clothes we had better go out and look for your brother.”

“Sure thing Pa,” said Hoss as he rose from the chair. “Any thoughts where we are going to start?” Ben shook his head. “I was hoping you boys would give me some ideas,” he answered as he slowly made his way up the stairs.

Hoss gave Adam a worried look, raising his eyebrows, then walked out to the barn, leaving his elder brother sitting alone wondering what could have happened to his youngest sibling in such a short time.

It was early afternoon when the three Cartwrights finally arrived at Joe’s last known place of work. Hoss dismounted and passed Chubb’s reins over to Adam, then began to look keenly around, studying the dry ground as his father and brother watched intently. Hoss was undoubtedly the best man suited to tracking anything that moved on the Ponderosa, and his perseverance paid off when he suddenly let out a yell and pointed down to the floor.

“Looks like the wagon went due east Pa. I recognize that chipped shoe on one of those two horses pulling that wagon.”

“East? Why would he go east? Nothing that way except that newly built Overland Stage relay station fifteen miles away!” said Adam puzzled as Hoss remounted and the three men sat, totally perplexed and unable to hide their unease.

“Well boys….if that’s the way he went, we had better follow. I just hope this isn’t a wild goose chase your brother is leading us on! ‘Cause if it is…heaven help him!” said Ben as he gathered up his reins and urged Buck forward, his two son’s following as they glanced at each other with trepidation.

For an hour they rode at a steady pace due east, finally arriving at their destination in the middle of the afternoon. The relay station comprised of a small stone built house that stood alone, its walls freshly white washed, and in a garden around the back a varied amount of healthy vegetables could be seen growing. A large barn was connected to a corral in which a dozen horses were enclosed, and they looked over in unison as the three men came into view and pulled up in front of a well built wooden verandah. Wearily they dismounted, stretching their backs and legs that ached from the long unscheduled ride that day.

The front door opened and a young man in his early thirties appeared, smiling cautiously at his visitors. Fredrik Larsson, his wife Mathilda, and five year old son Johan, had only arrived a few months before from their Swedish homeland, readily accepting the tenancy of the newly built relay station, and eager to begin a new life for themselves in their adopted country.

“Hello! How may I help you?” Fredrik asked in a strong Scandinavian accent.

“Good afternoon,” answered Ben with a slight smile, Fredrik’s accent stirring fond memories of his second wife Inger. “We are looking for someone, a young man…he may of come this way within the last couple of days? Probably driving a two horse wagon?”

Fredrik nodded and gave a smile. “Oh yes. Joe!” he answered, noticing a look of relief that flittered across Ben’s face. “Joe?” echoed Adam.

“Yes Joe. Joe..erm Cartfield…no..Cartwright. That’s right, Joe Cartwright! I remember him well.”

“When was he here?” queried Adam, the tone of his voice carrying a slight edge of impatience.

“He arrived early yesterday morning, looking a little tired, but said Lady Fortune must have blessed and guided him to our stagecoach station during the night. We gave him breakfast and when we told him the next stage east was due in within the hour he asked if I wanted to buy his horses and wagon,” answered Fredrik, noticing the looks of confusion that passed between the three men.

“He wanted to sell them?” asked Adam bewildered. “Why?”

“He told me it was the chance he waited for. I wasn’t too keen, but my wife persuaded me, so I paid him, erm….cash on the nose? Is that how you say it?” he asked in faltering English. “I gave him good price! I did not cheat him,” he cried in alarm as he stared at Adam’s icy and skeptical expression.

“Did he say why he was going east?” Hoss asked frowning, his expression serious as he looked over at his father’s shocked face.

“He said he wanted to get away….no more taking…erm…orders. Yes…orders! He say he wants better life, far away, never going to return.” An uncomfortable silence settled, Fredrik totally confused by the looks of utter disbelief and distress etched on the faces in front of him.

Suddenly a female figure could be seen peering through the doorway, her pretty face looking nervously at the visitors as she called over to her husband.

“Vad vill de? Jag vill inte ha några problem,”

Fredrik viewed his wife then turned back to Ben. “My wife is a little nervous. She wonders what you want. She is still unused to this country and doesn’t want any trouble.”

“Please tell her we mean no harm,” said Ben quietly as he forced out a reassuring smile, though inwardly his heart was breaking.

Frederik nodded, his strange words spilling out quickly, “Sch. Det är inget att vara rädd för. De vill bara veta vem som sålde den nya kärran och hästen till oss.”

“I have told her you are just asking who sold us the wagon and horses and she has nothing to worry about.”

With a faint glimmer of a smile Mathilda closed the door, leaving the four men to continue their conversation as the sound of a small child could be heard laughing inside the house.

Adam pressed on. “This man…Joe…who sold you the wagon, could you describe him?”

“Of course! Joe was a very good looking young man, dark curly hair, green colored eyes. He was forever smiling and seemed very happy he was able to catch a stage so quickly, making my little boy laugh, even though they could not understand each other very well. My wife felt sorry for him when he told how his mother had died when he was about the same age as our Johan.”

Adam glanced at his father and brother as he felt a sob crawl up into his throat. “Did he wear a firearm?” Fredrik looked at Adam and shrugged, not understanding the English.
“Firearm?” he echoed. “Yes, gun…like this,” said Adam impatiently, pointing to his right hip where his colt lay nestled within its holster.

“Ah! Now I understand. Yes he has firearm…but on other side,” replied Fredrik as he tapped his left leg. Adam visibly paled at further confirmation of the man’s identity.

“Please, wait here a moment,” Fredrik requested suddenly, disappearing through the front door. Moments later he reappeared, a green jacket folded over his arm. “The young man…Joe, he left this behind. Do you recognize it?”

Ben staggered slightly with shock as he viewed the garment. “Joseph?… why?” he muttered, and as his legs nearly buckled under him Hoss leapt forward, gently guiding his father to a bench on the verandah. Fredrik gazed at them sympathetically as Adam took hold of the familiar piece of clothing, holding it close to his chest.

“This man…Joe…he is kin to you?” Fredrik asked finally. Adam nodded over. “He is kin,” he answered simply, fighting hard to control the tears he felt forming in the back of his eyes.

“Are we following Joe?” asked a distraught Hoss to his father as Ben stared down the road, the tracks of the stage coach clearly visible on the dusty surface. Taking a deep breath and pursing his lips tight Ben stood up and walked to his horse, shaking his head.
“No son. We’re going home,” he answered sadly, dragging himself into the saddle.

With heavy hearts the three Cartwrights turned their horses back towards the Ponderosa, hardly believing, and unwillingly accepting the son and brother they loved so deeply had deserted them in such a malicious and cruel manner.

***

The day had passed quickly for Joe when he eventually arrived at the east meadow. Straightaway he could see the extensive gap in the fencing and he had inwardly groaned. This was much more than he had expected but no way was he going to let himself down in front of the family now.

All day he toiled, digging out the old broken posts, resetting the new, replacing broken wooden slats between. It was a repetitive and back breaking task, made worse by the heat of the day and the hardness of the ground. Stripped to the waist, the sweat poured off him as he continued, hardly drawing breath and oblivious to all his surroundings.

As the afternoon drew to a close, away to his left and hidden within a copse of trees, a pair of eyes followed Joe, watching intently his every move for many minutes. The young cavalry soldier had been sent with two other troopers by their sergeant to hunt for extra meat to sustain their meager rations while on the long haul south. The three men had parted company for a while to hunt alone and it was while he rested with half a dozen dead jack rabbits draped behind his saddle, the young Union trooper first spotted Joe.

This soldier was a disillusioned young man who had run away from his small, sparse and barely profitable ranch in Wyoming at the age of sixteen, leaving behind a father who neither cared for nor loved his only son. With the death of his mother at the age of five, he grew up to become rebellious, devious and with a volatile temper. A temper that eventually caused such bitter arguments with his father that when he finally left, the young man vowed he would never return.

Taking work where he could find it he survived for a few years until he finally turned up at Fort Bridger and decided to enlist. After all, the Army offered regular pay, three meals a day and company at night to play poker, his winning streak the cause of many sideward glances between his fellow troopers. But knowing how his temper could explode at a whim, no one ever questioned the suspicious run of good luck of the dark, curly haired young man, with the sparkling green eyes and handsome smile.

However his mundane, boring and safe life at the fort that he accepted happily eventually came to an end. He had enlisted in peacetime but now the Union Army was at war with the Southern Confederacy and he was marching many miles to certain conflict. It was not a prospect he relished. Gambling in the saloons of the ever growing towns of the west was much more inviting than fighting for a cause he neither understood nor cared for so he continually looked for a way out of his predicament.

Today his prayer would be answered!

While hidden among the heavily leaved trees, he soon noticed something about this stranger who toiled continually in the late summer sun that made his eyes open with astonishment and amazement. Hardly able to believe his luck a plan began to formulate within his head, his keen mind willing to grasp this god-given opportunity with both hands. Now he could take his leave of the Army and no one would ever realize the truth! Yes! he mused, it could work….it must work!

As the afternoon came to an end and the bright sun began to slip towards the western horizon the young trooper made his move. He could see Joe was working alone, so dismounting he walked his horse slowly towards the young Cartwright as Joe stood by the wagon, about to take a drink of refreshing water from the cask in the back. Joe heard the approaching sound of hooves on the hard ground and he swung round, his left hand gripping the handle of his Colt .45. However with the sun low in the west Joe was dazzled and unable to make out the distinctive features of the man, but he recognized the Cavalry uniform and the Army bridle on the bay horse so he relaxed his hand as his visitor came to a stop.

“Howdy soldier,” he said, as he ran his fingers through his curly hair. “What brings you to these parts?”

Partly hidden by his horse’s neck, his hat pulled down over his face, the trooper answered quietly. “Been hunting extra game for my unit. Could I have a swig of your water? Seems I have run dry.”

“Sure,” replied Joe. “I’m Joe Cartwright by the way. You camped far from here?” he asked as he turned his back on his companion and reached for a large ladle. However, before Joe had even turned halfway around a raised hand cracked him behind the ear with a gun butt, causing him to stagger forward. Then another savage blow on his forehead sent him backwards, plunging him deep into blackness, and far out of the reach of pain as he hit the ground with a resounding thump.

Quickly and without remorse, the trooper went about his plan, the savage blows clearly the attack of a man determined to kill his victim. Stripping down both himself and Joe, he pulled on Joe’s pants and put on the shirt that lay on top of the wagon. He even put on Joe’s boots, which miraculously fitted perfectly. His only problem was the gun belt which favored a left hander but that was a minor inconvenience he mused. Then he dressed Joe in his Cavalry uniform. It was not an easy task as the unconscious figure lay as a dead weight, but the trooper persevered, and soon Joe was in Army regulation dark blue shirt, light blue trousers, gun belt and gun, everything fitting like a glove.

Angus Borden looked down, still not quite believing what he saw. It was as if he looked in a mirror for never would he have believed there was another who could look as identical to him as the man lying on the ground. The Lord has been truly kind this day, Angus thought, his true wicked personality now emerging. “Thank you Joe Cartwright,” he said with a sneering grin, giving a quick salute to the corpse-like figure.

Bending down he picked up a green jacket and looked through the pockets finding a small wallet containing forty dollars, a small fortune to the young man, and a piece of paper which he unfolded and read quickly. It seemed to be a list of chores, most of which had a pencil line through them, and being of no interest, he screwed it up and threw it onto the floor. Placing the wallet in his shirt pocket he then flung the jacket over the seat and climbed onto the wagon, moving off without a backward glance, Angus Borden making his quick escape towards the east and the beckoning life of a hard drinking and dubiously honest card sharp.

A half hour later, as Joe lay unconscious, two troopers appeared in the clearing, freshly killed deer and rabbits hanging from their saddles. They noticed the figure motionless on the floor and rushed over towards their fallen comrade, immediately seeing the bruised forehead and flowing blood from the wound on the back of his head. Assuming Joe had been flung then kicked by his horse which now grazed contentedly feet away, they carefully lifted him up, one man holding Joe tightly as they rode while the other grabbed his horse and they made their way back to the north meadow campsite, neither man aware their comrade was Joe Cartwright rancher’s son and not Angus Borden, Union Cavalry soldier.

Hastily the troopers took the unconscious Joe to Captain John Roberts, chief surgeon and medical officer, who immediately took charge. His new patient was placed gently onto a mattress inside one of the hospital wagons, and the two troopers returned to report to their Troop Sergeant and deliver the assortment of meat successfully hunted over the past hours.

The cut on the back of Joe’s head was deep, his thick hair cushioning the blow and probably saving him from instant death. Blood flowed for a while as the doctor gently bathed and cleaned the wound, but eventually it stopped as a bandage was wrapped around his head. After an hour, with a damp and cool cloth on his forehead, Joe slowly began to moan and regain consciousness, his eyes eventually opening as he viewed with blurred vision the unfamiliar face that looked at him.

Looking wildly around him, panic filled his eyes as he tried to rise up. “Take it easy trooper,” said Captain Roberts firmly. “You’ve just had a lucky escape. Looks like your horse kicked you on the head a couple of times but nothing else seems broken.
Another half inch deeper and I reckon we would have been burying you tonight!”

The strong hands of the doctor gently pushed his patient’s shoulders back down onto the mattress as a feeling of nausea swept over Joe and he fought hard to keep from retching, his face growing pale. With a well practiced eye the Captain passed over a bowl and placed it by Joe’s head. “You feeling sick?” he asked. Joe nodded and then promptly emptied the contents of his stomach into the container. Quickly whisking it to one side, Roberts handed over a mug of water, leaving Joe to swill the liquid around and displace the sickly taste left in his mouth.

“Feel better now?” asked Roberts, replacing a wet cloth on Joe’s forehead.

With all energy gone Joe sunk down onto the mattress and nodded, watching as Roberts shouted out for an orderly who duly appeared and removed the unpleasant smelling basin.

“Who are you…where am I?” asked Joe finally in a weak voice.

The doctor frowned and looked deeply into his patients eyes. “Looks like you got a touch of concussion…don’t you recognize me or where you are?”

Joe looked blankly and shook his head. “What about an easy question then….what’s your name?” Again Joe stared, wide eyed and fearful, shaking his head.

“I can’t..remember. I can’t remember anything?” he stated as the curtain at the back of the wagon suddenly opened and a face peered through. Grey haired and in his middle forties with penetrating brown eyes, the veteran Sergeant of many years service looked into the gloom of the wagon.

“Ah Sergeant! This is one of your troopers I presume?” asked the Captain as Sergeant Thomas Miller looked over at Joe.

“Sure is Sir. Is he badly hurt?” The doctor shook his head, but still cast a worried glance over to the Sergeant. “Nothing broken, but has concussion and a touch of amnesia. Can’t remember who or where he is?”

Although he had only been posted to Fort Bridger a few weeks before, Miller had made a point of learning every name of the one hundred troopers under his control. He recognized the face in front of him, recalling the trooper’s undeniable reputation as a excellent poker player, but knew little else about his personality.

“Well, I can help him there,” responded Sergeant Miller, staring over at the young man who was watching him with an uneasy expression on his face. “Your name is Angus Borden and you are in D Troop.”

Puzzled Joe looked down at the deep blue shirt and blue pants he wore, and felt the yellow necktie tied around his throat. “I..I’m in the Army then?” asked Joe as sweat began to pour down his face. “I’m in the Army, but I don’t remember anything about it? Don’t even recognize my own name. What do I do now?” his openly frightened gaze shifting between the Medical Officer and the Troop Sergeant.

“Well for a start you are going to lie here for a couple of days to make sure there are no other side effects,” replied Roberts as he looked over towards the man by the back curtain. “When you are recovered to my satisfaction you can then rejoin your Troop and the sergeant here. He will soon show you the ropes!”

“So he won’t be fit enough to ride when we break camp tomorrow?” asked Miller, truly concerned for the young man under his command.

“Definitely not! He will be staying in the hospital wagon for a few days yet.”

Miller nodded over in agreement. “You get some rest then Borden. I will come and check up on you again in the morning.” Joe nodded, visibly relaxing at the deep booming kindly voice of the sergeant but not quite knowing why.

He managed a weak smile. “Thanks…erm..Sergeant,” he said as Miller closed the curtain and left, leaving Joe to lean back on the mattress. Gratefully sipping another mug of water offered by the Captain, Joe fought hard to recall anything…something…but to no avail…his past life was just lost in a deep dark void.

After a fitful sleep during the cool Nevada night, Joe was awoken to loud cries and shouts as 400 men and horses awoke and prepared for breakfast before making ready to move off and continue the long trek towards the deserts and mountains of New Mexico. As promised Sergeant Miller arrived early to check on his injured trooper, and looking in on the young man saw Joe was awake and eating a small portion of milk and oatmeal.

“Looks like you got some color in your cheeks,” he said, giving Joe a friendly and encouraging smile. “Remembered anything?”

Joe shook his head as he put down the emptied bowl on the floor of the wagon. He rubbed his bruised forehead gently and slumped deep into his pillow. “Tried and tried but nothing comes to mind. The Captain told me I might get my memory back anytime so I guess I will just have to be patient.”

Miller nodded. “Just you try and rest and get your strength back. Isn’t going to be easy in this wagon I grant you! Bet you feel every wheel rut in Nevada!” he said chuckling as Joe also smiled back sharing the humor of the moment.

“Anyway I had better get back to the rest of my troop. We’re due to break camp in five minutes and my Lieutenant is fussing around like a man possessed!” he said laughing loudly.

As he turned to leave Joe called out, a question tugging at him. “Hey Sergeant. What do I do when I am well enough to return to duty?”

The old sergeant looked back into the wagon and grinned, warming to the sparkling green eyes that looked at him. “Well Borden, then you get to play soldiers!”

***

For the next few days as his head ached and dizzy spells persisted, Joe lay back on the mattress feeling every bump and groove in the well-traveled road. The long column of cavalry horses and men, complete with hospital and supply wagons slowly made their way through Nevada, and from his sick bed Joe failed to notice the once familiar towering mountains of the Sierra Nevada disappear from sight, as hour by hour the distance between him and the Ponderosa grew.

Finally, after five days Joe was well enough to rejoin his troop. Relieved to at last leave the confines of the hospital wagon he welcomed happily Sergeant Miller who took it upon himself to assist the young trooper whose amnesia had left him a little traumatized, unsure of his surroundings and the people around him. As he instructed him at every opportunity on all aspects of the Cavalry Trooper’s way of life, Joe absorbed the information greedily, soon became familiar and comfortable with his new routine, obeying orders sent his way without a second thought. The days passed by quickly and he found himself enjoying the hard ways of the Army, it soon becoming apparent to all who had known him, a new and better Angus Borden had emerged since his accident, his fellow troopers and officers warming to him as never before.

Details of his past filtered through during late evening conversations with his new found friends, and he learned of his sad and miserable childhood on a small ranch in Wyoming. His memory failed to return as Captain Roberts had indicated, but with so much to do and think about he adapted with what he knew and compensated for his lack of knowledge by improvising, usually successfully.

However one puzzle caused him minor irritation. Wearing a right handed Army regulation firearm, he felt comfortable when his Army pistol was in his left hand, and often commented to Sergeant Miller he felt sure he should have a left handed holster. Miller had just laughed it off, telling him he had been wearing a right handed holster ever since joining the Army. With no plausible explanation offered, Joe eventually stopped mentioning it, but even the Sergeant failed to understand why Joe now wrote with his left hand instead of the right.

Day followed day, Joe accepting his new life as Angus Borden, Union Cavalry soldier without a thought. Onward the long Army column trekked, past the snow capped mountains of Nevada, the arid deserts of Arizona and onto New Mexico, finally arriving in late December at Fort Union, their presence causing much celebration amongst those already stationed at the territorial outpost. This garrison and arsenal was an important link for the supply of everything required by the military in the south west. Over the years it had constantly repelled Indian raids, winning fame and becoming known as the Guardian of the Santa Fe Trail. However, with the Civil War gaining support amongst the states and territories of the south, its importance became more acute.

The start of 1862 saw Joe and his fellow troopers settling into their cramped quarters, but even the three-tier bunk beds with straw mattresses provided undeniable comfort after the weeks on the trail. Early reveille, care and feeding of their horses, and guard duty around the fort filled their days, along with patrols throughout the area, ever watchful for rogue Indian raiders, but more alert for the grey-shirted army threatening to arrive at any time. Sergeant Miller continued to keep a watchful eye on Joe, admiring his dexterity and his ability to relearn so much in such a short time, his loss of memory all those months ago now hardly mentioned between them.

February arrived and unsettling reports and rumors began to filter around the fort about the impending arrival of enemy forces. General Sibley had entered New Mexico with a Brigade of Texan men, easily defeating Union forces based at Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Now his hungry eyes had settled on the Colorado gold fields, their reserves needed badly by the Southern States in an attempt to fund the ever growing confrontation with the North.

With the Confederate force drawing nearer and nearer, the men of Fort Union waited anxiously. This was to be the first time many of the troopers would be engaged in battle against their fellow Americans, and with mixed feelings of nervousness, fear and excitement they wondered how long before they too would be drawn into their first conflict of the Civil War.

Then, on one chilly March morning, a squad of Colorado volunteers sympathetic to the Union arrived, commanded by a man named Chivington. Days before they had ambushed part of the Confederate force at Apache Canyon, sending them into retreat, but they knew another even bloodier confrontation was imminent, so they arrived to join forces with the Union soldiers of the fort. Quickly the men were assembled and ordered into battle, the units of troopers following the Chivington irregulars to where the main section of Texan troops were assembled, Glorietta Pass.

Under the cover of darkness the Union army arrived, digging in quickly half a mile away from the Confederate army, the two forces of artillery and riflemen eyeing each other as the sun slowly arose in the cold of the early New Mexico morning.

Two troops of Union cavalry sat on their horses, either side of the long line of riflemen, and as dawn finally broke, the bugle sounded charge, and the battle began. It was in truth a hopeless frontal assault, but it was a tactic used in years gone by, and still put into futile practice. The horses jumped forward, Joe amongst them, as they rode toward and then through the enemy lines, galloping in a huge circle to the rear of the enemy and reemerged down the opposite side and returning to the Union position.

It was a bloody, fierce and confusing confrontation as Joe and his fellow troopers charged into the midst of Confederate troops, bayonets drawn, bullets flying in every direction. Exposed to gun fire from the offset, the carnage was predictable and inevitable as the melee of men and horseflesh crashed through the defenses, Union horses killed and their riders butchered where they fell.

Joe weaved his horse into the thick of the mayhem, pulling out his gun and shooting as he galloped on, turning in a long circle behind and making his way back towards the comparative safety of his own artillery. To his left, he suddenly saw Sergeant Miller fall to the floor, his horse shot from under him. As Miller stood, shooting anything in grey that moved, Joe pulled his horse around, returning to the Sergeant and grabbing Miller by the shirt, the Sergeant pulled up behind Joe as he kicked his horse on and back to the Union line and safety.

The whole operation had taken barely 5 minutes from start to finish, and as Joe pulled up Miller slid down and gave him a grateful look of thanks, and the two men took hold of their rifles and made their way to the front line, lying on the dirt ground their firearms at the ready.

Then a new onslaught began between the two opposing forces, as rifle and artillery fire was exchanged between the two camps. And so it continued, hour after hour, until darkness drew in, and an uneasy silence suddenly swept down over the corpse strewn battle field. The first day of fighting proved bloody and inconclusive, as did the days that followed, the resulting stalemate causing untold misery, and the cost to human life immense.

Wishing to end the bloody conflict, a small number of Chivington’s irregulars were sent to scale down the cliff behind the enemy and destroy the supply wagons of Sibley’s Texas Brigade. It was a hazardous and dangerous task, but by dawn the supply wagons had been wired with explosives and blown up, leaving the Confederate Texans without food, ammunition and medical supplies. Knowing the battle was therefore lost, the Texan forces fell back and retreated, leaving the remaining Union force to return to Fort Union victorious.

In later years this engagement would be known as the ‘Gettysburg of the West’, but to Joe and the surviving members of Fort Union is was just a bloody, savage and noisy carnage. Sergeant Miller stood with Joe as he steeled himself to view the casualties, his experienced eyes used to the sight of death over the years, though it still shocked and sickened him. As they viewed the bodies from both sides, the sight of the bullet riddled men and horses caused Joe to retch uncontrollably. Eventually he stopped and looked over at his Sergeant with tear filled eyes.

“Maybe I’m not cut out for this life after all. So much death….was it necessary?” he asked, the anguish in his voice clear.

Miller shook his head sadly. “This is war Borden…war! It’s what playing soldiers is all about!”

***

As the weeks went by the soldiers of Fort Union began to recover from the shock of the ordeal they had survived. The butchery and killing haunted Joe, giving him nightmares, but he accepted it was just part of a soldier’s life as he wondered how many men he had killed, how close had he come to dying as he heard the whistle of bullets shooting around him during the battle. Talking with his comrades he realized he was not alone with his thoughts, all the men just grateful they had survived…this time. With the threat of Confederate attack now long gone, Army life became boring and monotonous, and even Joe began to hanker occasionally for the challenge of battle again, if only to escape the mundane life they now led.

As the month of June arrived, Joe was called over to talk with Sergeant Miller one morning and was greeted with a smile when the Sergeant placed something in his hand. Joe looked down, his eyes widening with surprise. “What’s this?” he asked, bemused as he viewed the cloth in his hand. “Those are your Corporal’s stripes…..Corporal!” Miller said, grinning widely.

“Corporal? I’ve been promoted?” asked Joe, as a wide grin appeared on his face.
Nodding, Miller slapped Joe on the back. “Congratulations, you deserve it,” he said honestly, proud and grateful of the young man who had proved his worth tenfold and saved his life. “Now, go get them sewn on. I have a lot to organize and need you to help me…our brigade has been posted away from here!”

Joe looked over in surprise. “Posted? Where to?”

“Seems as the Confederate threat is now gone from these parts, we are being sent to Fort Laramie. Looks like your going home Borden…back to Wyoming!”

A deep frown suddenly appeared on Joe’s face. “Wyoming? Still can’t remember anything about the place Sergeant.”

“Well, I looked up your records. Seems you came from a place a days ride from the fort. You could go meet your Pa…maybe seeing him would jolt that memory of yours at long last?”

Shaking his head sadly, Joe bit his lip nervously. “From what I was told, we didn’t part on good terms. He probably won’t want to see me again.”

Miller saw the forlorn look and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“Once we get there and settle in, I’ll arrange a pass for a couple of days with the Commanding Officer, and the pair of us will go and see your Pa. You want to do that?”

“I suppose so. You wouldn’t mind tagging along…just for my sake?” asked Joe gratefully.

“I owe you my life…Corporal. It’s the least I can do.”

Taking a deep breath Joe nodded over. “Thanks Sergeant. It’s going to be pretty nerve wracking, meeting him again, but I suppose I need to try anything if it means I might get my memory back.”

With a light step Joe returned to his barracks with the treasured stripes, gleefully sewing them on to the amusement of his fellow troopers. Joe Cartwright, ranchers son, oblivious to his true past, was now Corporal Angus Borden, well liked and trusted by all who knew him.

The journey from New Mexico to Wyoming was to pass uneventfully for the troops and wagons, as they headed towards Fort Laramie in late June. With the Confederate threat now dissipated somewhat in the west, they headed due north through Colorado, cutting weeks off their original journey south. Corporal Borden settled into his new role with ease, obeyed without question by the troops now under his command and trusted by those officers above him.Arriving at their new home in early August, Joe viewed with interest the eastern Wyoming prairie that he had supposedly been raised on all those years ago, and the fort that was to be his home for the foreseeable future. It was a thriving and busy place, built near the North Platte and Laramie rivers, serving both as a station for the Overland Stage and a supply depot, but its main task was to protect the Oregon Trail from hostile bands of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. Built in the heartland of these tribes, daily patrols were always on the look out for Indian war parties, constantly aware of the dangers they took each time they left the relative safety of the large open planned fortifications.True to his word, a few weeks after arriving, Sergeant Miller requested a two day pass for himself and Joe. The Commanding Officer who was well aware of the circumstances of Joe’s desire to visit his home, willingly agreed. He knew Joe had worked hard and fought bravely and deserved the chance to regain the lost years of his life. After finding directions to his long forgotten home, Joe turned in one night, thinking of the father he was to meet the next day after so many years, hoping the visit would at last open a chink within his mind and allow him to remember something…anything.The following morning as the sky began to lighten with fingers of gold, the Sergeant and Corporal cantered away from the fort, silence hanging between them as Joe was far too nervous to converse. Facing a brigade of Texan Confederates was nothing to the way he felt at that moment. He was scared, his mouth felt dry and his hands sweated as he held tightly onto the reins. Even the usual jovial Miller was filled with his own worried thoughts for the young man he had grown to respect and care for. A man he would have been proud to call his son.By late morning they had made their way to the small town of Torrington, and turning left on the outskirts, followed a muddy track for half an hour until smoke could be seen beyond a rise, curling into the blue sky. Suddenly as they rounded a bend they saw a two-roomed cabin in a dilapidated state of repair from years of neglect, set in a clearing and surrounded by cottonwood trees.

To the side was a corral where one old and sorry looking horse stood by a half filled water trough, eyes closed, swishing its tail in a vain effort to chase away the hoard of flies that settled on its back. Beyond stood a hay barn looking in a worse state of repair than the house, used for the few cattle kept on the small ranch. Joe studied the homestead carefully, willing himself to remember and recall anything, but to no avail. Nothing was familiar and there was no miracle jolt for his memory.

As they reigned up their horses a man in his late fifties slowly shuffled through the barn’s half hinged door, eyeing them with suspicion. “Yeh? What you two soldiers want?” he called over in a gruff and unfriendly voice, parting a dozen chickens as he walked towards them. Joe tensed and chewed at his bottom lip nervously as he watched the old man. Was this his father?

“Mr. Frank Borden?” asked Sergeant Miller. The man nodded, “What’s it to you?” he replied giving them an icy stare. He was a big built man with a thick bull neck, his face bronzed and weathered by years of sun and wind with a stubble of beard.

“I’ve brought someone to see you,” Miller responded quickly with a smile that never quite reached his eyes.

“And who would that be?” asked Borden, frowning as he looked up at the two men. Joe slowly dismounted and turned to face him, removing his hat and holding it nervously in front of him. Borden looked at him, his eyes widening in astonishment.

“What the…” he said, his jaw sagging open as he walked up to Joe, staring deeply into his face. “You still know me then?” asked Joe nervously as Sergeant Miller dismounted and stood behind him, carefully watching the exchange between father and son.

“Seems I ought to know you…..” he began, a faint smile tugging at his mouth.

“I should explain, Mr. Borden,” said Miller. “Angus lost his memory last year. He doesn’t remember anything about you or his past. I hope you will forgive him if he doesn’t appear to greet you like you was his kin?”

Continuing to stare intently at Joe for a minute the man seemed to stiffen as thoughts flooded back of a child he once loved. Then suddenly the memories became painful and his smile disappeared as he stepped back and shrugged his massive shoulders then shook his head resolutely from side to side.

“Well young man, you certainly looks like my Angus, even down to those deep green eyes…just like those of my late wife. But I can assure you…you’re not my boy.”

Joe gasped! This conversation was not going well. “Please…Pa! Give me a chance!” he begged, giving a sideways glance towards Miller for support.

Noticing the anxious look thrown his way Miller turned on the older man. “I realize you had a big fall out, but surely you can acknowledge him as your only son? Just talk to him for a while?” he pressed.

“There isn’t any point!” snapped Borden. “He’s no son of mine!”

“But I am!” cried Joe. “What makes you think I’m not your son?”

“Because my Angus is laid in there right now…dying! That’s why!” he sneered, glancing toward the cabin.

Joe and Miller stared at each other, confusion and shock showing on their faces.

“Don’t you believe me then?” Borden snapped. “Want to see for yourself?” Joe nodded, banging his hat firmly down on his head, and the older man turned heel towards his home, the two soldiers following behind cautiously, both overwhelmed by the turn of events.

Once inside the gloomy cabin a figure could be seen with a bottle held tightly in his hand, lying on a bed with a single, thin and filthy blanket pulled up around his body. His eyes were closed but at the sound of footsteps he looked over with a glassy stare and studied the two uniformed figures, enlightenment suddenly dawning as he viewed the first face that came into view.

“Why if it isn’t good old Sergeant Miller! You making house calls now?” asked the young man in a slur, his breath reeking of stale liquor. Miller noticeably froze, not quite believing what he saw. “Borden?” he cried incredulously, as a near mirror image of his corporal looked up at him. “That’s my name Sergeant! What a good memory you’ve got! I should thank you for sending me on my last hunting trip. Gave me the chance I needed to get away from all those orders thrown my way every day!”

The sarcastic tone of his voice did not go unnoticed as Angus took a long swig of whisky, his hand shaking violently as he downed a gulp. Frank Borden slumped down on a well worn armchair and poured himself a drink of lukewarm coffee from a pot sat on a small stove in the corner, watching the proceedings through disinterested, narrowed eyes.

Angus looked behind Miller and noticing Joe let out a yell of surprise. “Well! If it isn’t my doppelganger! Thought I’d finished you off last year! Don’t tell me you’re still in the Army?” He roared with laugher, the irony of the situation apparent to his peculiar sense of humor but then he began to cough, blood and sputum forced into a dirty cloth he held up to his mouth.

Joe stared at the man, equally shocked and astounded at the uncanny similarities between them, once just like two peas in a pod! But the man lying in front of him now was pale and thin faced, sweat matted his dark curly hair, and his once strong muscled arms lay weak within his torn, vomit covered shirt. Angus Borden was a man dying of tuberculoses, his disease clearly evident to both Joe and Miller, but his condition failed to arise any feeling of pity as Joe looked down at him in disgust.

“So it wasn’t my horse that kicked me after all? You knocked me out and changed clothes and places with me!” he snarled. “But why?”

As his coughing subsided Angus gave a knowing smile. “I could see how alike we were… saw this god-sent opportunity to get away from the Army without having to look back over my shoulder for ever more….and I took it! Just a shame I didn’t make sure you was dead before I left you!”

“Why you…” Joe breathed deeply, his whole body shaking with anger. “Because of you I’ve spent more than a year with your name, living your life! You deserve a firing squad for what you’ve done!”

“Too late!” said Angus as he brought the bottle back up to his lips. “I’m already dead!” Finishing the last of the whisky the now empty bottle fell from his hand onto the floor, rolling under the wooden frame of the cot.

Angus continued to stare with fascination at the man who resembled him so closely, noticing the stripes on Joe’s arm. “Looks like Army life suits you!” he said, a sneer appearing on his gaunt face. “You could say I did you a favor by giving you a new career!”

This statement proved the last straw for Joe and he lurched forward in a single blurred motion, grabbing Angus by the shirt and pushing the muzzle of his gun against his throat.

“I should kill you here and now Borden!” he said, his finger tightening on the trigger as the two men held each other’s gaze, inches apart. Angus stared at his double, his once sparkling green eyes now dull and red rimmed.

“For God’s sake please do,” he pleaded in a whisper. “Put me out of my misery!”

Miller walked over and gripped Joe’s shoulder, his fingers tightening in a friendly squeeze. “Put your gun away Corporal….don’t want to make a murderer of you!” Something in the strong tone of the Sergeant’s voice tore at Joe’s memory and he instantly obeyed, pushing Borden down on the bed as he replaced his gun in its holster.

“Reckon that would have been too easy for you anyway,” Joe said as he stood up and backed away. “A lingering death is what you deserve!” Angus stared up in silence, his pallor turning pale as he started to cough again.

With a last look of contempt at the dying man on the bed, Joe stormed out of the cabin and stood by his horse, his eyes filling with tears. For more than a year he had been known as and answered to the name Borden. He had fought, killed and had nearly died as Angus Borden. Now the truth was out…but who the hell was he? Banging his hand onto the saddle in frustration he rested his head on his horses’ neck, once again fearful of the unknown.

As soon as Joe had left the cabin, Sergeant Miller turned to the stooped figure sitting silently in the far corner, the now empty coffee cup resting in a dirt covered and callused hand.

“How long has your son got?” he asked Frank Borden, as the sound of coughing subsided and the figure on the bed lay back exhausted.

“Only got days from what the doctor told me. So much for making a new life for himself and never wanting to see me again!” he answered bitterly, looking over to his son, the whisky now helping him to drift in and out of consciousness, away from his pain filled existence.

“Why did he come back here?”

“He’s like a fatally wounded animal returning to its lair. That’s Angus….come home to die. I took him in…for his dead mother’s sake, not for mine.”

Minutes past but no-one joined Joe from the cabin as he slowly composed himself and tried to make sense of his situation. Taking a drink from his canteen he swilled out the taste of impending death from his mouth then spit out the water onto the dirt ground. Now anxious to leave this god-forsaken place he paced up and down, not willing to venture inside the cabin again as he awaited the Sergeant to emerge.

Finally the door opened and Miller came into view standing silently for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight, a bundle held tightly under his arm. Sighing deeply he walked over to Joe.

“What we going to do about him?” asked Joe, nodding towards the cabin. “He should be tried for attempted murder and desertion!”

“I would normally agree Corporal…but its too late now. He’s dead!”

“Dead?” repeated Joe incredulously. Miller nodded and pursed his lips. “Died in his father’s arms. Guess father and son were reunited at the end, after all.”

“Well I for one am glad he’s gone!” cried Joe without pity. “The real Angus Borden is now officially dead…but where does that leave me? What you going to call me now Sergeant?” he asked coolly and sarcastically, looking directly at his companion.

The Sergeant considered his Corporal for a moment, removing his hat and wiping his arm across his sweat covered hair. “I reckon I call you Joe Cartwright!” he said finally, returning his stetson onto his head.

Joe narrowed his eyes, questioning his statement. “What?”

“Borden told us your name before he died. Said you introduced yourself just before he knocked you out. Your name is Joe Cartwright.”

“Why would he tell you that? What’s to say he wasn’t lying?”

“Why should he? He had nothing to lose! Maybe it was his need for absolution…who knows? But he admitted knocking you out, changing clothes, and then taking your wagon and leaving you for dead. He knew no one would tell the difference between the pair of you and they’d assume it was his body. If he had killed you, I guess his plan would of worked….but he didn’t count on a thick sculled young man who survived and never gives up!”

Joe saw the shadow of a smile on the old Sergeant’s face as Miller passed over the sack covered bundle, Joe taking it with a questioning look.

“He asked me to give this to you. It was yours apparently.”

With the sack thrown to the floor, Joe stroked the beautiful pearl handle of a Colt .45 and Miller looked closely at the expensive leather holster.

“This is a great looking firearm. And its for a left hander!” Miller added with delight. “Seems you were right all along….you are naturally left handed!”

Joe shrugged but made no reply as he removed his Army issue firearm and placed the newly acquired holster around his left hip, drawing the gun in and out with natural ease using his left hand.

“So that’s another mystery solved,” he said, swallowing hard as he placed the now redundant Army gun and holster into his saddle bag. He looked back towards the miserable cabin and sighed deeply, inwardly relieved beyond measure this near ruin held no ties on him. “Hell of a place to die,” he said quietly vaulting up onto his horse with well practiced ease.

Miller nodded, taking hold of his horse and hauling himself onto his saddle, equally glad to be leaving and intrigued by the turn of events.

“So, my name is Joe Cartwright…just need to work out where I came from,” said Joe morosely as they two men moved off. “Well I can tell you that,” replied Miller as a faint smile again tugged at his lips. Joe glanced over quickly. “What do you mean?”

“You come from a spread down by Virginia City, Nevada, by the name of The Ponderosa!”

“The Ponderosa?” Joe exclaimed, raising his eyebrows in disbelief. “How do you know that?” he asked as they kicked their horses into a gentle canter.

“Because I met your brother there last year when I was looking for a suitable campsite. It was on the Ponderosa you were brought back to the hospital wagon.”

Joe’s eyes widened, “I have a brother? What’s his name? What’s he like?” the excitement in his voice now noticeably growing. Miller thought back for a moment.
“Well, he was a big man, nothing like you that’s for sure! Wore this huge hat! Seem to recall he was called Hoss.”

“Hoss? What kind of a name is that?” asked Joe questioningly.

“Yeh, strange name,” replied Miller chuckling. “But one thing I remember clear was his nature…he was a kind and caring man. That I recognized straight away. He was most concerned our stock would have sufficient grazing and water, and he made sure we were on one of the Ponderosa’s most fertile meadows. Yes, he was a good man. He also mentioned his father…your father…and his two brothers.”

Joe stared over in surprise. Two brothers and a father…his true father! Maybe a mother who still waited and hoped to see her son again. Minutes past in silence as the two men rode on, a deep and thoughtful expression covering Joe’s face as placed his left hand on the newly acquired gun resting on his hip.

Gently slowing his horse, Miller looked over at his companion and saw the turmoil of emotions flowing over Joe’s face.

“You know Corporal….Joe, I am well within my rights to shoot you down!” he said in all seriousness as Joe reined in and their two horses walked side by side.

Joe looked over mystified, “What do you mean?”

“Well, the way I see it, being as your not Angus Borden, you have never actually sworn your allegiance to the Army and are therefore, technically, still a civilian. The fact you are wearing a uniform of the Union could deem you a Confederate spy!” The Sergeant’s dark look suddenly changed to a mischievous grin. “I’m joking!” he cried as he began to laugh, eager to lighten the mood of the journey.

However Joe just threw him a look of disdain and shook his head, unwilling to share the joke, and unable to shift the growing cloud of despair he felt. An uncomfortable silence hung between them for a few minutes more, when the Sergeant finally grabbed hold of Joe’s reins, pulling both their horses to a halt and stared over.

“Corporal what the hell is wrong with you? I would of thought knowing who you really are and where you came from would be enough to set you singing and grinning from ear to ear. Yet all I see is a face full of misery. What’s bugging you?”

Joe was silent for a minute as his eyes studied the flat prarieland around him. Finally he shrugged. “I guess you said it there…Corporal! I have probably been born and raised on a ranch…never thinking of leaving it to join the Army. Now I have the chance to return to where I belong….but I don’t know if that’s what I want to do anymore.”

“What you getting at?” Miller asked bluntly. “Don’t you want to go back to the Ponderosa? Aren’t you curious to know what you left behind…who you left behind? Meeting your family may be the only way you get that memory of yours back!”

Once more there was silence for a moment as Joe pursed his lips and uncertainty crept into his eyes.

“I don’t know! It took weeks to get up enough courage to meet Borden, and look where that got me! And now I have to go through it all again with my real family. Maybe I never got on with my brothers….hated my life there. I’m beginning to think getting my memory back just isn’t as important as I thought it would be.”

He hesitated for a moment and tightened his lips. “At least Angus was right with what he said….I’ve got a career in the Army, and I’m good at it…you’ve said that yourself, more than once! I’m with others who have gone through the same experiences, realize why sometimes you don’t want company, other times when you crave it. All my memories revolve around the past year and the Army life I’ve come to love and it would be so easy to just forget all about this Ponderosa…after all, if I hadn’t come here today, I would never of known of its existence!”

The Sergeant pondered for a few moments as he digested all Joe had said, for he had grown to like and respect this young man over the past months and was eager to offer the best advice possible for his future’s sake.

“You’ve come a long way since I first met you in that hospital wagon,” Miller remarked finally. “I think I have got to know you pretty well and one thing has always struck me…. you never take the easy option and you’re no quitter. I know it would be so easy for you to take the simple path and turn your back on what you don’t remember. I also can’t deny you are a natural for the Army…even heard on the grapevine your name has been put forward for a commission!”

There was a gasp of surprise as Joe took in the news. “A commission? Me go to West Point?” he cried, shaking his head in disbelief. Miller nodded. “The way this war is going they’re crying out for new officer material for the Union back east. And I would be the first to recommend you.”

“So you think I should stay in the Army?” Joe asked, looking intently at his companion.

Miller shook his head. “Before today, thinking you were Borden, I would of said yes in an instant, but now I’m not so convinced. Sure you aren’t forced to recall anything from the years gone bye, and its going to be difficult and hard for you to meet kin you don’t remember. But your Pa and brothers deserve the chance to see you again if only to let them know you are alive and nothing else. I bet they’ve been frantic with worry since you disappeared!”

Joe chewed at his under lip as he thought hard and eventually gave a deep sigh. “I know you’re right. Guess I’ve been selfish, just thinking of myself, ” he responded with sincerity. “And I appreciate everything you’ve said. Of course I need to meet my family again, see what kind of life I left behind. Just let me talk it over with the Colonel first, see what he advises…Okay?”

Reaching over Miller took Joe’s outstretched hand and shook it firmly. “Okay!”

As they kicked their horses on to a steady walk Joe suddenly began to chuckle as a thought struck him. “What’s so funny?” Miller asked, smiling back at his companion, relieved to see the young man in a more relaxed frame of mind.

“Me? A confederate spy? Could you really imagine me as a Confederate?” he spluttered, blissfully unaware of the irony in his statement as he chortled loudly, kicking his horse into a canter.

***

Adam swung the buggy into the yard and pulled the single horse to a stop, dismounting as Hoss walked out of the barn, his chores completed.

“You get Pa on the stage okay Adam?” he called over as Adam brushed the dust from his clothing. “Sure did, but I had to practically push him on and tie him down. He still didn’t want to go.”

“I suppose we can’t blame him. So many bad memories from this time last year.”

“There’s bad memories whether he went or not,” answered Adam coolly. “It’s about time he realized Joe is not coming back and there is still a ranch to run. The timber conference is an important meeting and we can’t afford him not attending.”

The resentful tone in Adam’s voice did not go unnoticed by Hoss who viewed his brother with concern.

“Don’t you think its time you stopped being so angry brother?” he asked. “I know Joe leaving the way he did hurt you…hurt us all…but you said it yourself…life goes on!”

“Hurt! Hurt! That don’t begin to describe the feelings Hoss and you know it!” Adam yelled back. “You saw what it did to Pa! Nearly sent him to an early grave…the shock of Joe leaving the way he did…and then to have no word from him! But do you know what makes it worse Hoss?” Adam asked, trying hard to keep his emotions under control as he faced his brother.

“It’s the look Pa gives me sometimes, and I know what he’s thinking. Did I push Joe too far and force his hand to leave? Even though I told him we’d got on better than ever before, there is still an element of doubt in his eyes, not quite believing me. That’s what hurts…really hurts! I tell you Hoss, if I meet Joe again, even though he is my brother, I would never want anything to do with him. He doesn’t deserve any favors from us, ever again!”

Hoss sighed deeply, knowing the pain his brother felt, also feeling sick to the stomach at the way Joe had treated them, but unwilling and unable to stop loving his little brother and hoping one day he would return.

His temper subsiding and regretting his aggressive outburst, Adam put his arm around his brother’s shoulders affectionately. “Sorry! Shouldn’t take it out on you,” he said apologetically. “How about a drink?” Hoss nodded and the two brothers went indoors, Adam disappearing into the kitchen then bringing out two freshly made cups of coffee and passing one over to his brother.

Suddenly he put his hand in his pocket. “Here’s a surprise…got a letter for you Hoss,” he said, passing over an envelope. “Letter? For me? Who on earth would write to me?” asked Hoss, staring at it for a minute or more as he turned it over and over in his hand. Adam watched impatiently, equally perplexed. “Brother, you going to open it before Christmas?” he asked sarcastically.

“Oh, very funny!” Hoss replied, as he tore open the envelope and unfolded the two pieces of paper inside. “Who is it from?” asked Adam inquisitively, peering over towards his brother. Hoss looked closely. “Sergeant Miller?…Ah yes, I remember, met him last year. Wonder what he wants?”

Slowly Hoss began to read, and as Adam watched he suddenly saw his brother’s jaw drop and his eyes widen. “What’s wrong?”

“Does this mean what I think it means?” asked Hoss nervously at last, as he passed over the letter.

Quickly Adam scanned through the hand written correspondence, his eyes absorbing each sentence in absolute amazement. He looked over at his brother who had tears in his eyes. “You reckon it’s true then Adam?” he asked, “Joe losing his memory and having a double? Is that possible?”

“Can’t see why Miller would lie Hoss. It’s just so unbelievable!” Adam reread the letter again, absorbing all the information told with such precise detail by the Army Sergeant.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” he said finally. Still shocked Hoss shook his head. “When we trailed the wagon to the relay station, we weren’t following Joe! It was this Angus Borden!”

Adam slumped back in his chair, the letter hanging loosely in his fingers. Feelings of anger built up over the past year against his brother quickly ebbed away, replaced by a deep feeling of guilt…guilt that he had thought Joe capable of treating his family in such a vindictive way. Minutes past, their coffee growing cold as Hoss read the letter again and Adam sat in thoughtful silence, mulling over its contents.

“According to Miller, Joe doesn’t know he was writing this letter and was planning to travel over on the Overland Stage on the 16th arriving in Virginia City on the 20th. When’s the 20th Adam?”

Adam looked blankly for a moment, then sat up with a start. “Tomorrow! Joe is coming home tomorrow!”

Wiping the tears from his eyes Hoss let out an almighty yell, jumping up in excitement. Hop Sing darted in from the kitchen, startled by the sudden noise. As Hoss noticed their long time housekeeper he raced over and lifted him up, dancing around in a jig. “Mister Hoss, Mister Hoss….what you do this for?” cried the little Chinaman as Hoss continued to whoop and holler around the room, Adam watching him with a huge grin on his face. “Little Joe is coming home Hop Sing!” yelled Hoss. “Number 3 son is coming home!”

***

The next day could not arrive quick enough as Adam and Hoss left the ranch in good time to meet the incoming mid afternoon stage, wondering how to contact their father with the news, but realizing it would be a futile effort. By the time Ben received their wire he would be about to return anyway, so the joint decision was made to just wait until he returned before dropping the bombshell!

They arrived in Virginia City, Hoss leading Joe’s old horse Cochise by a leading rein and pulling in by the side of the stage office, both brothers sitting on a bench by the door. The minutes ticked by as they sat in nervous silence, watching continually down the street for the familiar cloud of dust that indicated the arrival of the Overland Stage. Adam tapped his foot continually on the wooden sidewalk while Hoss clapped his fingers together in front of him, neither men able to make conversation because of the dryness in their throats as they recalled the words in Sergeant Miller’s letter. He doesn’t remember The Ponderosa…his father…his brothers!

Suddenly, away in the distance came the sound they waited for, horses galloping in unison and the sight of a stage, bouncing behind the team of six that eventually were pulled to a standstill, feet away from Adam and Hoss. The door opened and a portly gentleman alighted, offering his hand to an elderly lady, the pair of them walking away together after their bags were dropped down from the roof of the stage.

For a moment Adam and Hoss thought they had made a mistake on the date of arrival as there was no further movement, but then the coach shifted slightly and another passenger jumped down onto the sidewalk. Retrieving a small bag thrown down by his feet Joe turned in full view of his two brothers. Not expecting to see him in uniform the sight startled them both momentarily as the Union Cavalry Corporal looked around him, banging his Army hat on his head in his old familiar way.

Little Joe! Their youngest brother stood in front of them, alive and well, his green eyes sparkling as before, but with absolutely no idea who they were! The mischievous and happy-go-lucky cowboy was now replaced by a responsible and experienced soldier, able to command and take orders without a second thought. The Army uniform fitted him well, and he looked totally at ease in the distinctive blue of the Union, his yellow necktie standing out on his sun burnt neck, the Corporal’s stripes clearly visible on each arm. His face was tanned and weathered, his body more muscular, and his hair slightly curled on his collar. They could see he was like a little boy lost, the once familiar sights and sounds of Virginia City leaving him with no sense of where to go or what to do next. But this was no little boy anymore. Little Joe had now grown up.

Joe noticed two men staring at him out of the corner of his eye, but thought they were just noting his Union uniform, forever a reminder of the Civil War still raging many miles away.

Beginning to move in the opposite direction he suddenly stopped in his tracks, the hairs on the back of his neck bristling as a gentle voice called out. “Joe?” Turning he stared towards a big man with a round kindly face, wearing a large hat and whose eyes were moist with tears. Gulping nervously, feeling slightly awkward, he walked forward, nodding at the figure in front of him as he put his small bag on the floor.

“I’m guessing you’re Hoss? Brother Hoss?”

Without another word Hoss put his arms around Joe and hugged him tightly, Joe’s own eyes moistening as he felt the strong yet gentle hands stroking him on the back.
“We’ve missed you little brother, lord knows how we’ve missed you,” a voice kept repeating in his ear, between deep gushing sobs.

Joe instinctively felt he was with someone who loved him deeply, his reassuring touch comforting him beyond words. Miller had been right. He had been missed. Slowly he pulled back from the safe haven of his big brother’s arms, a slight smile evident on his face.

“Did my Sergeant tell you I was coming?” Hoss nodded, unembarrassed by the tears that flowed down his cheeks. “He’s wrote and told us everything! Don’t mind do you?”

Joe shook his head, inwardly relieved and grateful.

Anxiously, Joe turned to the second man, tall, with piercing brown eyes and a black Stetson covering his dark hair, totally different in appearance to Hoss. They stared at each other for a moment, Joe nervously biting the bottom of his lip, instinctively wary of the serious looking man in front of him. “Are you my brother?” he asked finally, unsure and uncertain of the reception he was about to receive.

The stranger smiled softly, his eyes suddenly lighting up. “Yes Joe…I’m Adam.”

Stepping forward and cupping his right hand around Joe’s neck, Adam pulled him close, oblivious to the stares passed their way by the local townsfolk. Joe sunk his head into Adam’s shoulder, basking in his warmth and love. He could feel his unfounded fears of brotherly animosity slip away as they re-established their brotherly bond and for what seemed an age they clung together, eldest and youngest, together once more.

Eventually pulling apart, Joe stood back, looking fixedly at his brother’s faces as he attempted to recall them, but without success. Noticing his disappointment, not recognition, Hoss placed his arm around Joe’s shoulders sympathetically, “You really don’t remember us do you?”

“I was hoping for a miracle, thought the sight of you both would clear my amnesia instantly,” he said sadly. “I guess it’s going to take longer than I expected, if at all!”

“Well don’t you worry little brother. You’re home now…that’s all that matters.” Joe bit his lip as a frown passed across his face, the expression not lost on Adam who raised a thoughtful eyebrow. “Something wrong Joe?”

“Well..erm..no! Just wondered…my father..our Pa. Is he here to meet me?”

Adam shook his head sorrowfully. “I’m sorry Joe. Pa went to Sacramento yesterday for five days and has no idea you’re here.” Joe nodded, visibly disappointed. “Your…my Pa, he will want to see me won’t he?” Adam looked at him questioningly. “Of course! Why wouldn’t he?”

“Oh, just wondered…it’s difficult…when you don’t remember.”

“He loves you Joe, more than you can imagine,” responded Adam.

As a fleeting smile raced across Joe’s mouth, two young cowboys suddenly let out a yell as they recognized the figure in front of them.

“Joe! Joe Cartwright! You’re back after all this time! Good to see you Joe!”

Turning round Joe studied the two men facing him. He nodded, “Well I’m back, but have no idea who you are!” he said apologetically.

“Seth and Dave, Joe. You went to school together,” Adam explained. “Joe has amnesia boys. Not long found out about us, and doesn’t remember anything before last year.”

“He doesn’t know anyone?” Seth echoed incredulously. “That’s pretty tough Joe. We’ll have to get together sometime at the Silver Dollar and tell you about old times.” Joe nodded a little warily. “Thanks. I’d like that.”

“Looks like you’ve got a lot to tell us as well,” added Dave. “Must admit old friend, I never thought I’d see the day you’d be fighting as a Yankee!” he admitted, laughing as he scanned the uniform, noticing the corporal’s stripes. “Our Virginia City southern sympathizer seems to have done very well considering he’s changed sides!”

“What do you mean?” Joe asked, frowning. Adam stepped in quickly. “It’s a long story Joe, don’t you worry yourself,” he said, staring over at the two cowboys somberly. Noticing the dark looks passed their way by Adam, Seth and Dave gave a hurried farewell and departed, not wishing to incur the wrath of the eldest Cartwright who stared after them till they disappeared from view.

Mystified and feeling a little uneasy, Joe began to realize there was a great deal to learn about his past. Seeing the confused look on his brother’s face, Adam made a move and walked over to their horses, where Hoss threw Joe a huge grin as he handed over Cochises’ reins.

Joe studied the paint in horror. “I’ve had enough Indians trying to scalp me over the past year, I don’t need reminding!” he exploded. Suddenly he noticed Hoss’ beaming smile fading away to be replaced by a hurt and startled frown. Joe bit his lip and sighed loudly, slowly realizing the truth.

“I’m sorry! Guess the strain of it all is getting to me. This was my horse, wasn’t it?” he asked, gently stroking the warm muzzle. “What’s his name?”

“Cochise,” replied Hoss, visibly shaken by Joe’s outburst.

“Well Cochise, you glad to see me boy?” he asked, as the horse pushed his face onto Joe’s chest. “Looks like you are!” he chuckled quietly as he gave the horse a pat on the neck.

“You ready to go Joe?” asked Adam finally as he mounted his horse, Hoss following his lead, the two men looking down at their youngest sibling. “Guess so,” said Joe, vaulting onto his saddle, case in one hand, reins in the other. “Lead the way brother….take me home!”

***

The depth of Joe’s amnesia was soon felt when they arrived back at the ranch. Adam and Hoss sat down as Joe viewed the large ground floor sitting room, looking about him in awe. Such a difference from the lowly shack in Wyoming.

“Some place!” he murmured, removing his hat and walking around, studying closely the map of the Ponderosa hung behind a large desk. Then he looked at three silver framed photographs displayed in a line.

“Who is this?” he called over to Hoss as he looked down at a smiling face. Hoss wandered over. “That’s Adam’s mother, Elizabeth,” he answered, as his elder brother looked up from across the room.

“Adam’s mother? Isn’t she yours and mine then?” Hoss shook his head and chuckled. “Sorry little brother, I guess we’ve got a lot of things to get clear with you. We’ve all got different mothers. Adam’s Ma died in Boston when he was born.”

Hoss picked up a photograph of a fair haired woman and gave it a loving smile. “This is my Ma but she died on the journey west. Killed by Indians.”

Joe picked up the third frame, studying it intently. “So this must be my mother. She’s dead as well, isn’t she?” he asked quietly. “I did wonder if I had a mother waiting for me…to come home.” Hoss nodded. “Marie died when you was five Joe.”

“Borden’s mother died when he was five…strange coincidence that don’t you think?” he said, giving his mother a final loving look then replacing the silver frame and following Hoss who returned to the settee.

“What did Sergeant Miller tell you?” he asked, sitting down unknowingly in his father’s favorite large winged leather armchair. Reaching over Adam picked up an envelope from the top of the mantelpiece and handed it to his brother. There was a few minutes silence as Joe scanned through letter.

“He didn’t tell me he was writing this, but I’m glad he did,” Joe stated as he finished reading and folded the pages carefully. “He knew I was pretty nervous about meeting you after all this time.”

“So everything he says about Borden is true?”

“Yes Hoss, though I guess it’s hard to believe. We looked so alike we could have been twins. I woke up not knowing who I was, so when I was told my name was Borden and I was in the Army, I just accepted it without a second thought.”

“It must have been real strange Joe, doing things you’d never done before?” asked Adam.

Joe nodded over, shrugging his shoulders. “I just accepted what I was told and shown and followed any orders thrown my way. By the time we arrived in New Mexico I was doing the same as everyone else…it just seemed to come naturally.”

“Well, all that Army life is behind you now Joe. I’m looking forward to working with you again on the Ponderosa….just like old times,” said Hoss, smiling happily over towards his little brother.

Giving Hoss a sidelong look, but without answering, Joe picked up his small case and stood up, looking around the room. “I could do with a wash Hoss. Don’t suppose there’s anything I can change into here is there? Been traveling light, as you can see,” he responded, quickly changing the subject.

“Sure Joe. Pa wouldn’t let us touch a thing in your room. Everything is up there, as you left it,” he stated, indicating towards the stairs.

“Really! Borden’s father used to beat him regular from being a youngster until he eventually ran away from home. Hated his son so much he couldn’t get rid of him quick enough!”

“Well that’s something you haven’t got in common with Borden! Sure when we were young we used to feel Pa’s slipper on our backsides when we deserved it, you more than Adam and me put together, but that was all brother! It really broke his heart when you…or should I say Borden ended up selling the wagon, saying he just wanted to go away forever. Hurt us all.”

“It never occurred to me…didn’t really think I would have been missed so much.”

“Well you better believe it…those first months were sheer hell, I can tell you!” responded Hoss. “Anyway, you go get changed, dinner should be ready in half an hour. I’m sure looking forward to hearing about what you’ve been doing for this past year.”

“Oh, I haven’t got much more to add from what Miller wrote you,” answered Joe, walking to the bottom of the stairs, then turning towards his brothers. “I don’t seem to remember which is my room!” he added with an embarrassed grin.

“Sorry Joe…it’s the first door, on the left.”

“Thanks Hoss, Adam…for everything,” he called over his shoulder as he walked upstairs, leaving his brothers alone for a few minutes to discuss Joe’s plight.

“He’s looking good…considering, don’t you think Adam?” Adam nodded, but remained silent and thoughtful.

“There is so much he needs to be told…I can’t imagine what it feels like, not recognizing faces, places, anything,” said Hoss slowly.

“No, neither can I Hoss. It’s going to take a while for him to adjust…if that’s what he wants.”

Hoss looked over, puzzled at his brother’s statement. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, sorry Hoss. Just a feeling I’ve got…anyway, how about opening a bottle of Pa’s best brandy…to celebrate Joe’s homecoming?”

“Sounds good to me,” smiled Hoss as Adam continued to sit and look thoughtfully up the stairs.

Joe sat down on his bed, gazing around at the room, his room…what a difference compared to the barracks at Fort Union and Laramie. The furniture was expensive and well built, the furnishings luxurious compared to what he had been used to, and another portrait of his mother, smiling happily, stood on his dresser. A painting of an Indian Chief stared down on him from the wall, and he involuntarily shuddered. There had been a couple of short skirmishes with the Indians, and both times he had been lucky, repelling the renegade raiders without losing a man on his patrol. Others had not been so fortunate as he recalled the sight of the dead troopers, his friends, laid out on the prairie floor as they awaited burial.

He lay back on the bed, his arms folded under his head, thinking about Adam and Hoss. Meeting them had been more emotional than he ever expected, and he instinctively felt a deep rooted bond and affection for his two brothers. They obviously loved him and he could see they were caring and decent men, deserving more from him than he could give.
And what of his father? This man who apparently loved and willed him to return since the day he disappeared. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed Joe lowered his head into his hands. They all deserved to know the truth, but how could he tell them? With a deep sigh he stood up, found a clean shirt and pants and began to undress, his Army uniform hung back in the wardrobe neatly and with loving care. Taking another long and careful look at everything in his room he shook his head sadly.

Adam and Hoss looked up towards Joe as he walked down the stairs, hardly believing they were looking at the brother last seen over a year ago.

“Feels strange being out of uniform again,” Joe said, fingering his shirt as he sat down. “I had a good look around my room, but nothing looks familiar I’m afraid.”

“Early days Joe,” smiled Hoss encouragingly.

“Smells good!” said Joe, eyeing the steaks and potatoes being served by a slight figured Chinaman, who gave Joe a beaming smile. “Didn’t get to eat like this in the Army!”

“Hop Sing glad to see Little Joe again. Need to fatten him up!” said the cook before disappearing into the kitchen. Joe smiled, shaking his head slightly.

“Little Joe? Is that what I’m known as around here?”

“Oh, not any more brother,” answered Hoss with a chuckle. “But I don’t think Hop Sing wants to admit you’ve grown up some.”

“Hop Sing? He has lived here a long time?”

Hoss nodded, “Since you were a baby Joe. Took care of you a lot when your Ma died. He and you are real close.”

“But not close enough for me to remember who his is,” answered Joe, a bitter edge to his voice as he placed a piece of meat on his plate. Adam and Hoss glanced quickly at each other.

“I’ll take you for a ride around the ranch tomorrow Joe,” said Hoss cheerfully. “Maybe that will help bring your memory back.”

“Thanks Hoss, but if seeing you two and being in my old home hasn’t helped I doubt a ride around the Ponderosa is going to change anything.”

“But its worth a try Joe, and when Pa gets back this amnesia may well disappear once you meet him!” stated Hoss optimistically.

Joe shook his head and gave his brother a resigned look.

“You really don’t get it do you Hoss?” he said quietly. “My memory of the two of you, this place and Pa has gone! I don’t remember and never will remember you…and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

“Then we’ll just have to teach you what you’ve forgotten, give you new memories. Given time it’ll be as if you’ve never been gone.”

“Maybe,” replied Joe reflectively, sighing deeply as he poured out a glass of water and took a sip. A thought then struck him and he looked over at Adam questioningly. “Tell me Adam? What did Dave mean in town today, about being a southern sympathizer?”

“Oh nothing much Joe. You just used to feel inclined towards the South because your Mother came from New Orleans. That’s all,” he said, giving a quick smile, unwilling to elaborate more about their fierce altercation caused by Frederick Kyle that almost drove them apart all those months ago.

“She was a Southerner? Killed me a few of them in New Mexico,” he said in barely a whisper, painful memories flooding back. “Such a pity I can remember that so clearly but not my own family.” Joe’s eyes glazed over for a moment as he stared into the distance, oblivious to his brothers until he shook himself from his daydream and resumed his meal and family conversation.

Retiring to the comfort of the chairs and settee in front of the fire, their meal finished, Ben Cartwright’s best brandy was soon being enjoyed by his three sons as they sat together, Hoss and Adam telling Joe of some of his escapades over the years, and the last days before he disappeared.

“So you really thought I had upped and left, just like that? You really thought I was capable of doing something so vindictive?” asked Joe incredulously. Adam nodded truthfully. “I’m ashamed to say we did Joe…there just didn’t seem to be another explanation!”

“You must have both been real angry…Pa too!”

Adam swallowed hard, as he reddened slightly with embarrassment. “I’m sorry Joe. Guess I was pretty mad…madder than Hoss here, but Pa never stopped praying you would come back…refused to accept what you’d done.”

“From what you’ve told me I could be pretty wild at times. It’s no wonder you thought what you did,” he replied. Adam and Hoss threw each other a surprised glance which did not go unobserved by Joe.

“What?” he asked, slightly mystified. Adam smiled over gently. “There was a time you would have been at my throat in an instant, fists at the ready, for thinking what I did Joe. You had quite an explosive temper at times!”

“Well, maybe I’ve had to grow up some over the past months Adam,” answered Joe truthfully, throwing a generous grin over to his brother as he poured himself another glass of brandy. “Its good to know Pa still had faith in me though, regardless.”

As the minutes passed and the liquor loosened his tongue, Joe regaled stories about Fort Union and Fort Laramie. His brothers listening in stunned silence as he told of his confrontation with rogue Indian raiding parties, and the battle at Glorietta Pass, hesitating as he described the mutilation and blood covered battle ground.

“You don’t need to tell us everything Joe,” said Hoss, seeing the pain it obviously caused his brother to recall the horrors. “There’s no rush to get it off your chest.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t got time to wait Hoss,” he responded grimly, drinking the brandy in his glass in a final gulp. “What you getting at Joe?” asked Adam quickly, studying his little brother as he noticed a strange look fleetingly pass over his face.

Joe kept his eyes on the table in front of him for a moment, then looked up nervously catching his elder brother’s concerned gaze. His eyes then shifted to Hoss and he gave his brother a grateful smile.

“I couldn’t of asked for a warmer brotherly welcome home, and I’m truly grateful. But it’s only right you know the truth….I won’t be staying on the Ponderosa….I’ll be leaving in three weeks.”

Hoss stared open mouthed. “Not staying? But you’ve got to stay Joe! This is your home!” he cried, looking towards his elder brother. “Tell him Adam, he belongs here!”

Adam looked thoughtfully for a moment then shook his head. “I don’t think Joe agrees Hoss, not any more,” he muttered, realizing his initial instinct was proving correct. “I have a feeling little brother here has decided on a new future.”

Hoss stared over at his elder brother in surprise as Adam sat back in his chair and smiled gently. “Come on Joe..out with it. What’s going on in that thick skulled head of yours?”

Joe sat back nervously. “This isn’t easy for me to say Adam.”

“Just try Joe,” urged Adam, his usual poker face showing a genuine look of understanding and brotherly concern.

Nodding over Joe took a deep breath. “Truth is, I’ve re-enlisted into the Army. My Commanding Officer has allowed me back here for a few weeks so I can see you again, and let you know I’m okay.”

“But why Joe?” cried Hoss, openly distraught. “Why don’t you want to stay with us anymore?”

“I’m sorry Hoss, but I just know this life on the ranch is not for me anymore. Without any memories of where I grew up, what I did, what I enjoyed, the Army is now the only way of life I know and I want to continue with it. Say you understand, please!”

With tears in his eyes Hoss shook his head unhappily. “I don’t understand Joe…you loved the ranch so much! What makes you want to be a soldier and run the risk of getting yourself killed?”

“It’s hard to explain I know. Maybe it was always my dream to join the military. Can’t you accept that Hoss, knowing it makes me happy.”

“I’ve always wanted you to be happy little brother, but I’ve got to admit I don’t like this, not one bit. You’re bound to get caught up in this bitter civil war, and there’s just no need! You belong here…not half way across the country, fighting!”

“But Hoss, someone has got to stand up and fight for what’s right! Surely you can see that? And I just feel having a career in the Army is the right thing for me to do.”

Hoss shook his head, and gave a resigned sigh. “Well, I don’t agree Joe, but I guess I’ll have to get used to the idea, for your sake.”

“What about you Adam?” Joe asked pensively, as his elder brother studied him thoughtfully. “I understand Joe. We all have our dreams, need to make our own destiny. I can see your mind is set and there’s no point trying to change it. You always were too damn stubborn for your own good. If you want a career in the military, away from the Ponderosa, I wish you well. What happens next? Back to Wyoming?”

Joe shook his head and managed a slight smile. “No. Said my goodbyes to Fort Laramie and Sergeant Miller for now. I’ve been offered a commission so will be going to West Point next month.”

His eyes widening with surprise, Adam nodded over. “I can see why you want to continue! My brother Joe an officer! Congratulations brother!” he said, smiling proudly. Joe acknowledged his praise gratefully, but suddenly frowned,

“What about Pa?”

“Pa will be so happy to have you home, especially when he knows the whole story! And I daresay he will try his best to dissuade you, but he won’t stop you….not if it’s what you really want to do,” answered Adam.

“You sure? I don’t want to hurt him, not after all that’s happened. You said he suffered so much when you thought I’d left.”

“That was different Joe. Just going without warning or a goodbye…that’s what broke Pa’s heart. He would never prevent us from following our dreams, even if it isn’t the Ponderosa. He loves us too much to do that.”

“You really think he would accept me being in the military then? Knowing the risks and the life I would lead?”

Adam nodded. “I’m not saying he would like it, in fact he will be pretty upset for a while. But if that’s what you really want to do, Pa would support you all the way. That’s the kind of man he is.”

Joe visibly relaxed as he slumped back in his chair, and Adam looked over at Hoss who was sat quietly, still taking in his little brother’s new plans.

“You okay Hoss?” asked Adam, his brother’s tear filled eyes still staring towards Joe. Sniffing loudly Hoss gave a slight nod. “I guess. Been a shock for me… just getting our little brother back and then losing him again. I just worry…this war seems to be building up something fierce. Can’t understand why you’d want to go fighting Joe?”

Joe gave his brother a loving squeeze on the arm. “I won’t be lost any more brother,” he said gently. “Now I know I have a home to come back to, I’ll see you again. As for the war…that’s part and parcel of being a soldier and I’ll just have to take my chances, but I’ll keep my head down from any Johnny Reb fire, I promise!”

“You better Joe,” Hoss answered sincerely, his voice hesitant and emotional. “Just tell me something brother, if you’re memory does return, you wouldn’t still leave us, would you?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders but made no reply for a moment, seemingly lost in thought as he struggled to swallow away a tear at his brother’s heartfelt plea. He could see Hoss was waiting for an answer, and running his hand through his curly hair he looked over into his moistened blue eyes.

“To be perfectly honest Hoss, I don’t know. Colonel Wells, my commanding officer, was very sympathetic to what happened to me. He reckoned it was such a unique case, he gave me an official letter of discharge should my memory suddenly come back and I wanted to stay here. It’s more than likely not going to happen, but I promise if it did, I’ll seriously consider a change of career.”

Noticing a faint glimmer of hope pass over Hoss’ distraught face, Joe gave him a gentle squeeze on the arm. “Seeing as you want me to stay so much, how about taking me on that tour of the ranch tomorrow after all? Just in case something jolts this thick brain of mine.”

The beam on Hoss’ face was proof enough to Joe he’d said the right thing, and he caught a grateful smile of thanks thrown his way by Adam, both brothers aware of the emotional turmoil suffered by their sensitive middle brother.

Suddenly Joe was unable to suppress the yawn that had been threatening for a while, his long journey and brandy leaving him more tired that he had felt for a long time. “I’d better get to bed before I fall asleep where I sit,” he said, stretching out his arms as he yawned again.

Excusing himself he made his way to the stairs where he slowly turned and gazed over at Adam and Hoss for a moment, swallowing hard. “Even if my memory never returns, from now on I’ll remember my two brothers, always,” he said softly, his voice suddenly choking with emotion as two pairs of eyes watched him walk up the stairs and disappear from sight.

***

The following morning a much refreshed Joe came down the stairs for breakfast, his two brothers already seated at the table. “Just like old times Joe,” cried Hoss, smiling over as Joe joined them. “You were always the last one up!”

“That’s the best nights sleep I have had since I don’t know when,” replied Joe brightly. “That brandy sure has a kick in it!”

“I reckon it’s that old mattress of yours Joe. Never could prise you away from it without a lot of effort!”

“I’ve been thinking Joe,” interjected Adam, sipping his coffee. “Maybe it would be wise if I picked up Pa when he returns. It will give me a chance to tell him about you being here, give him most of the details and then warn him about you leaving again.”

Joe threw his brother a look of gratitude. “Thanks Adam, I’d appreciate that. I’m nervous enough about our meeting, wouldn’t want to cause him to have a heart attack at the same time!”

Breakfast finished, Hoss rose from the table and headed for the front door, eager to show Joe as much of the Ponderosa as he could in a hopeful but vain attempt to jolt his memory. Joe followed and as both brothers secured their gun belts, Hoss put his hand on a green jacket hanging alone on a peg and handed it over to Joe. “This is yours. It was left behind in the wagon Borden sold.”

Surprised, Joe put it on. “You kept it all this time?”

“Oh, that was Pa’s idea. Insisted we hung it there, for when you returned.” Hoss then opened a door in a large wooden sideboard by the front door and pulled out a tan colored hat with leather braid. “This is yours as well. You’d ordered it from the mercantile just before you disappeared. When it arrived with the supplies the next week Pa sat up all night, just holding it. He got real depressed…we thought we were losing him for a time.”

The stetson planted firmly on his head, Joe looked back at Adam who was leaning on the wall gazing at him. “Now you’re our little brother again,” he said with a grin. Joe nodded, smiling gently, following Hoss and waving a quick goodbye before closing the door behind him.

Adam stood for a moment, the smile on his face slowly fading to a sad and unhappy expression, his stomach churning with unease. Deeply sighing he moved over to his father’s desk and began the yearly accounts, but for once his thoughts were far from the columns of figures that stared up at his unfocused eyes. Though unwilling to deny Joe his dream, the thought of his brother leaving them for such an uncertain future tore at his heart, the usually stoical Adam inwardly agreeing with his brother Hoss. Joe belonged on the Ponderosa!

The beauty of Lake Tahoe took Joe’s breath away as he leant on a bolder by the shore, skimming stones. “We used to come here a lot when we were younger Joe,” said Hoss as his eyes gazed across the glittering water. “It was one of your favorite places on the ranch.” Joe nodded, taking in the scenery of the far away Sierra Nevada and the timberline of Ponderosa Pines.

“It’s very beautiful…but I don’t remember it,” he said, not failing to notice the look of disappointment on Hoss’ face. They continued, mile after mile, Hoss happily showing Joe as much as he could, describing with detail landmarks on the land Joe had once loved with a passion. Each time Joe could see Hoss out of the corner of his eye, glancing his way, ever watchful, hoping, praying for some indication Joe’s memory had returned. Each time he would look over and shake his head sadly.

Finally as the sun began to slowly sink into the western horizon, the two brothers ended up by the lake again, amongst a small clump of trees. Slowly dismounting, Hoss pointed over to a single grave, shaded by an old gnarled willow. Joe walked over and looked down at an ornate stone, his mother’s name clearly visible on the chiseled slab. His eyes welled up with tears for here was a place he must have visited many times, but nothing came to mind, no recollection, no remembrance.

Saying a silent prayer, he sighed deeply then turned and rejoined his brother by their horses. “Sorry,” he said quietly shaking his head. Hoss nodded, and without another word both brothers remounted and returned slowly to the ranch.

***

The next morning found Joe sitting at the table, breakfast finished, as his two brothers walked slowly down the stairs. Both looked over at him in astonishment.

“Now here’s a sight for sore eyes! Brother Joe is the first up!” chuckled Hoss as he joined his brother. “Had enough practice over the past year,” he answered. “I hear that bugle calling reveille over and over in my sleep sometimes.”

Sitting quietly, sipping his coffee while his brothers ate their food, Joe looked thoughtfully around, hardly believing this once familiar room could now hold no memories for him. He looked at the empty chair at the head of the table and tried to imagine the man who usually occupied that seat and who was returning tomorrow. How lucky he was, he mused, to have a father who still believed in him, waited for his return and loved him. Such a contrast to Angus Borden.

Adam looked over at Joe, noticing the serious expression now on his face. “What do you want to do today Joe?” he asked as his brother continued to look thoughtful for a minute.

“Would you mind if I went into Virginia City? I’d like to look round the place, maybe meet up with Seth and Dave.”

“You want any company?”

Joe shook his head. “I’d rather go alone if you don’t mind Adam. I know you need to finish those accounts before Pa gets home, and Hoss wants to check on the new calves he was showing me yesterday.”

“Okay Joe, as long as you don’t get lost,” joked Adam, his face suddenly lighting up mischievously. “Oh I think I will manage! After all, I did find my way here from Wyoming!” laughed Joe, genuinely warming to his usually serious elder brother.

“Why don’t you come with me Joe?” asked Hoss hopefully. “After I’ve looked them calves over we could go into town together.”

“Thanks for the offer, but looking at a herd of cows doesn’t seem half as appealing as having a few beers in the local saloon,” he answered with a slight smile, but could see his big brother was clearly disappointed.

Hoss sighed, “Okay Joe. If that’s what you want to do,” he answered in a despondent voice, rising and making for the front door. “I should be back in an hour or so,” he yelled from around the corner as the door closed, the sound of his heavy footsteps slowly fading as his two brothers sat in silence.

“Another coffee?” asked Adam, appreciating the chance to sit and talk alone with his little brother for the first time in over a year. Joe nodded, passing over his cup as he looked in the direction of the front door. “Hoss really loves this ranch, doesn’t he?”

“Oh yes! He and the Ponderosa are like a match made in heaven. This place is in his blood,” Adam replied, handing the refilled cup back to Joe. “But then again, there was a time you felt the same,” he added.

“But not anymore,” answered Joe sadly, coming to terms with the fact his amnesia was permanent. “Can I ask you something Adam?” Raising an eyebrow Adam sat back and nodded.

“When I said I wasn’t staying it didn’t seem to surprise you as much as it did Hoss. How come?”

“Oh, just an intuitive feeling and a distant look in your eye that I’ve seen before…in my own!”

“You mean you’ve wanted to leave the Ponderosa? Do something else?”

Adam smiled softly. “Everyone has dreams Joe, some more attainable than others. I have wanted and still want to do something else. Ever since I left Boston there’s been a longing…”

“Boston?”

“I was in college Joe. Spent four wonderful years on the east coast…but I came back to the Ponderosa, and a very demanding nine year old little brother!” he answered with a grin.

“Why did you return if you were happy? Did Pa insist?”

Adam smiled wistfully. “Pa didn’t insist but he did ask, and I said yes. I still long to return, and probably will one day….but not yet. Pa knows this, and he’ll accept it, when the time comes.”

Joe nodded, pondering Adam’s heartfelt thoughts, as he looked around the room, his eyes straying onto his father’s desk. Rising from his chair he walked over and picked up a silver framed photo and returned to the table. “Am I like my mother?” he asked, staring intently at the face that looked back at him.

“Definitely Joe, in many ways. Shall I tell you about her?” Adam asked, wishing to prolong their time together.

“Would you? Can you spare a few minutes?” Adam nodded, grinning playfully. “I daresay I can spare an hour or two!”

***

While the two brothers conversed amicably, a few miles away in Virginia City the daily stage from Sacramento arrived on time, its only passenger happy to alight from the hard springed coach seats after the long journey. The timber conference had gone well but finished early for once, so rather than enjoy the sights of Sacramento for another day, Ben Cartwright decided to return home.

When Joe left he made every excuse for his son’s behavior, laid the blame on himself rather than his youngest, had even fleetingly doubted Adam’s heartfelt denial they had argued while he had been in Sacramento. Ben carried the burden of guilt for months, becoming depressed and losing interest in the running of the ranch until Adam and Hoss eventually cajoled him out of his self-inflicted state of misery. It was then he realized his two remaining sons needed their father just as much as Joe ever did, but his faith in his youngest never wavered.

However, his few days away from the Ponderosa had given Ben an opportunity to think through Joe’s behavior. Now he could see clearly his son had been mean and spiteful, had treated his family despicably and all belief and faith in him finally evaporated away. Ben was left to feel an angry and bitter man as he admitted to himself his youngest son was gone and would never return.

Hiring a horse from the livery stable, Ben made his way back home, reflecting on the past year of misery suffered by Adam, Hoss and himself. Dismounting in the yard, he sighed deeply, his mind elsewhere as he moved towards the front door when it suddenly opened and he came face to face with a painfully familiar figure.

Still chatting together happily, Adam had returned to the kitchen for a fresh cup of coffee as Joe heard footsteps outside on the wooden verandah and wandered over to open the door where there stood an elderly man with thick grey hair.

“Hello,” he said with an easy smile, totally unaware of the identity of the figure in front of him.

A much startled Ben stared at his long lost son who gazed at him with sparkling green eyes without any sign of apology, remorse or regret for the misery he had caused his family. A son Ben now admitted to himself must be heartless, cruel and without compassion. A son who was now stood in front of him with a smile on his face.

Joe’s greeting went unheard as bitter memories flooded back to Ben of words in faltering English, said all those months ago. ‘Chance he had been waiting for…wants to get away…no more taking orders….better life far away….never going to return!’

The heartache, disappointment and pain of the past year suddenly spilt forth and unable to control his emotions, Ben raised his hand, striking his youngest son hard on his cheek with the palm of his hand. The sound echoed across the room, sending a startled and bewildered Joe reeling back, crashing heavily into the wooden sideboard.

Joe straightened up, glaring over at his assailant as Ben quickly stepped forward and struck him again, sending him with such force Joe fell to the floor in a heap. In a bemused daze he looked up at the crazed face that stared down at him, bracing himself for another attack as he wiped the blood pouring from the corner of his mouth with his sleeve.

Ben looked down without compassion at the figure on the floor. “Joseph! Listen good,” he said in a harsh, cold voice. “I will never forgive you!”

Joe tensed, a confused look in his eyes as he stared up at the unremembered face. “What the hell you talking about?” he cried, as Adam suddenly appeared around the corner and stared between his father and little brother, noticing his bruised cheek, split lip and bloodied mouth. “Pa! What’s going on!” he yelled, forcibly pushing his father away from his fallen brother.

Joe looked up in horror. “Pa?” he whispered, shaking his head in disbelief. Where was the loving father described with such clarity by Adam and Hoss? His father who alone had continued to believe in him, but now looked down with hatred in his eyes. His father who never raised a hand in anger, but had just beaten him to the floor. “Pa?” he whispered again, his eyes filling with tears.

Had his father turned into another Frank Borden?

It was all too much for Joe as he slowly got to his feet, his head throbbing, and held his father’s angry stare for a moment before staggering out of the house without saying another word.

“Joe! Wait!” Adam shouted after his brother but within seconds horses hooves could be heard galloping away. Angrily he turned on his father. “Pa? I can’t believe you hit Joe? Why? ” he cried, as his father shrugged off his son’s arm.

“I’m sorry you had to see that Adam, but I’m not sorry to have done it. I’ve finally seen sense and have come to agree with you. Your brother doesn’t deserve any favors from us again. I know that now, seeing him standing in front of me without a sign of apology on his face! ”

“But Pa, you don’t understand. Joe has..”

“Stop right there son,” Ben interrupted. “You for one should know how I’m feeling!”

“Damn it Pa! For heavens sake listen to me! Joe didn’t know who you were! He has amnesia!”

Ben’s brow furrowed as Adam’s words struggled to make sense. “Amnesia? What are you talking about?”

Moving quickly to the mantelpiece, Adam took down a white envelope and handed it to his father. “Read this. It explains everything.”

Mystified, Ben unfolded the letter and began to read as Adam watched his father’s face turn pale. “All this…it’s true? Joe doesn’t remember anything about us?” Adam nodded. “He’s been in the Army all this time, ever since Borden switched places with him. Doesn’t have any memory of anything before then.”

Ben sat down mortified as the full horror of his actions hit him. “So it wasn’t Joe we followed to the relay station was it?” he croaked, shamefully realizing his son was indeed innocent of all charges laid against him by his family.

At that moment Hoss walked in, surprised to see his father unexpectedly sitting by the fire.

“Hello Pa! What you doing back so e…” he voice trailed to nothing as his father suddenly began sobbing in front of him, Ben’s face buried deep within his hands.

“What’s wrong?” he asked in alarm, hurrying over as Adam raised his eyes slowly. “Pa and Joe just met…they had a fight.”

“Don’t skirt around the truth son,” Ben said quietly, wiping his eyes as he looked up at Hoss. “I’m ashamed to say I hit your brother son. Hit him hard. May God forgive me.”

Looking puzzled Hoss looked between his father and Adam. “I don’t understand…” Ben shook his head sadly, his hand throbbing as a constant reminder of the disgust he felt at himself.

“It wasn’t really Pa’s fault,” answered Adam quickly, looking towards his brother. “He and Joe surprised each other at the door, Pa just hit out, thinking he was unrepentant for what he did. He didn’t realize Joe had no idea who he was.”

“You really hit Joe?” asked Hoss incredulously. Ben nodded silently in shameful acquiescence.

Hoss stood in silence for a moment, visibly shaken and shocked by his father’s admission. “Where is he now?” he asked finally. Adam shrugged his shoulders. “He high-tailed it out of here. Heaven knows where he’s gone.”

“You don’t reckon he’s gone for good, do you Adam? It’s bad enough him leaving in a couple of weeks, I don’t want him going now with such bad feeling between us all.”

Ben looked up, fear creeping into his eyes. “Joe is leaving?” Adam nodded. “He’s decided to stay in the Army. Not remembering anything about his life here, he just doesn’t feel the Ponderosa is where he wants to be anymore.”

Slumping back into his chair, anguish and misery was clearly visible on Ben’s features as he took in all Adam had said. His beloved Joe…leaving…becoming a soldier! It was all too much for Ben as he felt fresh tears welling from deep within his eyes. He looked up at his two sons, whose concerned faces stared back at him.

“I don’t deserve your looks of compassion,” he said, his voice hesitating. “What I did was inexcusable…I just pray I get the chance to apologize, to let him know how wrong I was!”

“How about telling him now?” asked a quiet voice from the open doorway. Three pairs of eyes turned in surprised unison to view the figure who stood before them, his face bruised and dried blood congealed on his lip.

In a state of shock, Ben stood up and walked over to his son, concentrating hard on his bruised face. “Joseph,” he said softly, as he waved the letter held tightly in his hand. “I’ve just found out! I had no idea!”

Joe gave his father a gentle smile. “I know, though it took me a couple of miles of hard riding and a throbbing head to eventually realize. I take it you’ve read the letter…know about the amnesia, about my whereabouts over the past year?”

“Yes Joe, now I know,” Ben whispered, his face crumbling in pain. Stepping forward he placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “I’m so sorry son. You may not remember me but I’ve never before raised my hand in anger…believe that if nothing else. I’ve missed you so much!”

Joe looked into his father’s moistened eyes, saw the guilt and sorrow shining through.

“I know Pa,” he answered, falling into Ben’s arms, father and son clinging together again after a year of painful absence, as Adam and Hoss looked on in silence.

Finally they pulled apart, Ben gazing into the sparkling green eyes that looked at him with an unwavering look of love. “Can you forgive me? Forgive me for what I did to you? I just thought I’d never see you again Joe…I’d become bitter thinking you had gone for good. It was such a shock…seeing you in front of me in the doorway.”

“Of course I forgive you, but you of all people should have had more faith in me Pa,” Joe said quietly as he rubbed his cheek. “You should have trusted me more.”

Ben nodded his head shamefully as he held his son’s hurt expression then returned to his armchair by the fire, Joe following to join Hoss on the settee as Ben continued to stare at his son, guiltily rubbing the palm of his hand.

“I love you Joseph. Don’t you ever doubt that,” he said, his chest tight with emotion and anguish. Joe looked at his father and smiled slightly. “I know that too Pa.”

Making a concerted effort to appear calm, Ben looked down at the paper in his trembling hand. “Sergeant Miller writes a very concise letter. You certainly had an adventure away from here and I am just thankful you survived everything that was thrown at you.”
He paused for a moment, trying hard to keep his composure as his eyes moistened slightly.

“Adam tells me you want to stay in the Army…is that right?” he asked nervously in a shaky voice, trying hard to mask the deep sadness he felt. The thought of Joe leaving the Ponderosa was breaking his heart, but he knew he could not…would not stop him. It was his son’s dream to follow..wherever it took him.

Joe nodded. “Been offered a commission. They’re expecting me at West Point in a few weeks.”

Ben forced over a smile, swallowing hard to stop his voice from breaking. “So you’ll be leaving us again? Well, I’m proud of you Joseph. You’ll make a mighty fine officer.”

“Aren’t you going to talk me out of it then?” asked Joe. “Wouldn’t you rather I stayed on the Ponderosa?”

Ben clenched his fists in a vain effort to stop shaking, hardly able to look his son in the eye for fear of betraying his true feelings.

“Of course Joe, but I would never interfere with the dreams of my sons. Even though you don’t remember the Ponderosa, or us, I know it wouldn’t have been an easy decision for you to make, and if being in the Army is what you really want, then so be it. Just remember, this will always be your home, whenever you want to return.”

Joe swallowed hard, conscious of the tremendous sacrifice his father was prepared to make for his happiness. “Thanks Pa,” he said, giving his father a long loving stare.

Suddenly with a mischievous glint in his eye, he turned to Hoss. “Never did get to ask about your toothache last year. Did you have the tooth out?” he asked nonchalantly, his eyes wide with innocence.

Hoss, still shocked by the state of his brother’s face, looked taken aback at the change of subject. “Well… sure Joe. Had it out that very day,” he answered with a confused frown. Joe nodded then turned to his elder brother.

“Adam, seeing as we nearly finished those chores last year, I reckon you owe me a weeks worth of beer, at the least!” he added, sitting back on the settee as he glanced at each of his family in turn.

Adam was about to agree when enlightenment suddenly dawned. “Your memory! You’ve remembered!” he cried, a huge smile suddenly covering his face as Hoss looked over incredulously.

“Joe! Is this true?” asked Ben, his eyes widening with surprise as his youngest son nodded and chuckled quietly. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Joe stood up and began to look around the room as if seeing if for the first time, then gazed back at his father. “Sorry Pa. Guess I got carried away with seeing you again. Wanted to get things clear between us first.”

“So when did you begin to remember everything?”

“I was galloping away, not knowing where I was aiming for, when suddenly I knew every inch of the Ponderosa, every nook and cranny of this house, my childhood…and you, Adam and Hoss. Must have been the shock of you hitting me Pa, and saying what you did.”

Staring shamefully at the floor, Ben’s brown eyes slowly rose to look at his son, fighting hard to control his tears. “I’m just so sorry it took me beating you to regain your memory. That is something I will never forgive myself for,” he whispered.

Joe moved over and knelt before his father, taking his hands in his. “Pa! If you hadn’t hit out I don’t think I would have ever remembered you. It was just the unexpected and unprecedented jolt my brain needed! I should be thanking you for giving me this sore face!”

Ben saw the forgiveness within his son’s eyes as for once the son comforted the father and Ben slowly nodded his head in understanding, giving Joe’s hand a tight squeeze. “Thank you son, and welcome home.”

Hoss clapped his hands on his thigh with delight. “If your memory is back, you figure on staying here now Joe?” he asked as Joe sat back on the settee. Ben looked over nervously, ever hopeful. “You mean you might stay now Joseph? Is there a chance?”

Joe started to frown, biting at his lip.

“I did tell Hoss I would consider it should my memory return…never really thought it was going to happen though. I’m just not sure what to do anymore.”

“Take your time son. I know it’s a decision you need to think through carefully…for all our sakes,” said Ben cautiously. “But you know we truly want you here, don’t you?”

Joe nodded, rising up and standing with his back to the fireplace, oblivious to his family as he looked through the window beyond the dining table. There was silence for a few moments and Ben looked up at his youngest son, noticing a faraway look that had suddenly appeared on his face.

“Joe?”

Abruptly, Joe realized his father was staring at him and he cleared his throat to hide his embarrassment. “Sorry Pa,” he said, but moments later it was clear to all Joe was still absorbed by something as he continued to gaze towards the mountains far away on the horizon.

Ben frowned. “Joe? Are you okay?” Shaken from his reverie, he nodded. “Just a little distracted. I’m fine Pa, really! Would you excuse me for a minute?” Ben nodded and without another word Joe walked slowly upstairs, head hung low as his footsteps echoed on the wooden floored landing.

As the sound of Joe’s bedroom door closing filtered down, Adam looked thoughtfully at his father. “He’s torn between us and the Army. Whichever he chooses we will need to support him…even if its not what we want him to do,” he said, turning to Hoss who continued to stare up the stairs.

“But Adam! Joe belongs here…we all know that!” snapped Hoss, leveling a glare towards his brother.

“I know that Hoss, but we can’t force his hand. This has to be his decision, and his alone.”

Ben sighed deeply and nodded in silent agreement, pushing himself back into his chair and closing his eyes as the still painful memory of striking his son washed over him.

Minutes later, upstairs, a door could be heard closing and Joe appeared, looking thoughtfully at a white colored envelope held tightly in his hand as he walked down the stairs. Returning to sit on the settee he chewed on the side of his mouth nervously for a minute, an air of quiet tension slowly filling the room that no-one seemed keen to break as Ben, Adam and Hoss stared over at the young man.

Finally Joe broke the silence as he walked over to the fireplace. “My Commanding Officer gave me this….but I won’t be needing it anymore,” he said quietly, tearing up the envelope and watching the torn pieces of paper flare up in the open hearth, the ashes quickly flying up the chimney.

Hoss noticeably gasped, his eyes brimming with tears. “Are those your discharge papers Joe?” he asked nervously. “You’ve decided to return to the Army haven’t you?”
His voice noticeably broke with misery as Joe returned to sit by his side, Adam giving Hoss a look of sharp rebuke but remaining silent.

Joe eyed his big brother affectionately for a second or more, a little taken aback by his heartfelt outburst, knowing three pairs of eyes were sizing him up, awaiting an answer.

Slowly he shook his head. “No Hoss. That was my letter of introduction to West Point. I’m not leaving. Looks like you got me back again…for better or worse!” he chuckled quietly.

“You mean…you’re staying?” Hoss cried happily. Joe nodded, but the smile was now gone from his bruised face as he watched the flickering flames in the large fireplace.

“I’ll have to write and let Sergeant Miller know. He thought I would have made a good officer,” said Joe looking over at Ben with a sorrowful expression. “He believed in me Pa, really thought I would do well, trusted in me, respected my decisions. He persuaded me to come back here and see you all. Without him, I doubt I would of ever returned.”

Ben swallowed hard. “I will be forever in his debt then Joe, for showing my son the respect and faith that I should have had in him,” he said, his voice showing emotion in its tone. “Just believe me when I say I would gladly trust you with my life. I just hope you feel you can have the same trust and faith in me… again.”

Joe stared at his father, never before seeing him look so meek or helpless, his honesty surprising him. He nodded, blinking his moistened eyes in an attempt to focus. “Always Pa, you know that.”

Walking to the window, Joe stared out over the mountains and beyond.

“Are you sure this is what you want to do son?” asked Ben, watching his son’s concentrated viewing of the landscape. “Can the Ponderosa fulfill your dreams?”

Standing silently and still, Joe swallowed away a tear, not answering straight away. Clearly he was pondering deeply as his family viewed him with concern.

“Yes Pa. With that view, how could I not want to stay here?” he replied finally, as he turned and faced his family.

“And the Army Joe? You don’t mind giving it up?”

Shaking his head, Joe gave a resigned sigh. “No Pa. The Army could have been my life, had circumstances been different. But since I’ve remembered my home…my family, this is where my heart is and where I belong…I know that now. Besides, there’s only room for one Union sympathizer in this family,” he added, giving Adam a knowing smile. “I’ve finished playing soldiers…for ever!”

The End

 

Next Story in the Playing Soldiers Series:

Never Say Never

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Author: Dodo

Bonanza loving UK Grandma who wishes she were still 18! Loved Little Joe since the age of 12 and that's going back a whole load of years!

11 thoughts on “Playing Soldiers (by Dodo)

  1. Amazing adventure! What a tough situation for Joe, so glad for his loving family, love the brotherly bond!!!

  2. What an amazing story! Poor Ben hurting Joe like that, but I hope he knows it was the catalyst that changed everything.

    1. Cheers Questfan. Good to know you enjoyed the story and thanks for commenting and giving me such a positive review.

    1. Thanks PRLEE. Good to know you enjoyed the story and hopefully there was enough SJS to satisfy you. :lol

  3. Such hard feelings by the family, but no one knew the truth. And the reunion?! Fantastic job!

    1. What a lovely thing to say, Frasrgrl. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to tell me.

    1. Sorry I missed this review Pat. Pure stupidity on my part. Thanks for your kind words. Always appreciate what you have to say about one of my stories. I’m sure I don’t deserve such praise, but I’ll take it anyway. :lol

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