Because We’re Brothers – Book 2 (by jfclover)

Summary:  Life takes an unexpected turn for Joe Cartwright.  He deals with his circumstances the best he knows how.

 Word Count 66,000.  Written 12-2011. Rated: T

Because We’re Brothers Series:

A Lesson Learned

A Change of Plans

A New Beginning

A Tragic Turn

Dreams of Revenge

                                                     

                                      Because We’re Brothers

                                       Book 2:  A Change of Plans

 

 

Prologue~

The sandstone quarry, situated alongside the outer walls of the Nevada State Prison, provided stone, free of charge for the construction of the new State Capitol Building and nearly every other structure throughout Carson City, the newly formed, rapidly growing capital city of Nevada in the early 1860s.

The rocky terrain, bleached white by the summer sun’s burning rays, melded each shattered rock with another across the barren countryside of the quarry. The cloudless sky was often filled with smoke and dust from the constant explosion of dynamite; charges set by prisoners—some skilled, some not—and did nothing to diminish the blistering heat, day after endless day.

The 12-hour workday often destroyed men in their prime, ending their worthless lives, their worn-out bodies buried in endless rock graves with no marker—no symbol of their hollow existence, their unfulfilled dreams of someday returning to the civilized world outside prison walls.

With ankles chained, men marched single file, their well-worn boots scraping along the rock-strewn quarry. The harsh clanking sound penetrated every nerve in their bodies and minds. Dust burned their eyes—burned their noses and throats—a constant reminder of where they were and why.

A life sentence meant death on the side of the mountain. A shorter sentence gave a man a small semblance of hope that there was a life out there worth living, if, and only if, he could survive the agonizing existence…of hell.

~~~

1870

Life’s a funny thing. You try to live your life according to plan, but oftentimes, the plan tends to be someone else’s—not your own. I tried to live my life the way my father would have expected me to, and of course my brothers, who also had their say in shaping the man I would become. But there were other men, men who envisioned a different plan—a different path for me—one I never would have imagined and certainly never expected.

As a young boy, my father taught me right from wrong so by the time I reached manhood I would be an honorable and decent human being. Pa expected nothing but the best from his sons and the three of us tried to follow the path he’d laid out.

I’ve been told, more than a few times during my life, that I was a bit more of a challenge to my father than either one of my older brothers, but as the saying goes, love conquers all and that was the way of my father.  He was forgiving of my mishaps and blunders and the two of us shared a bond, which I believed could never be broken. Pa was my hero, and as I grew from that young boy into a young man, the bond became even stronger.

I’m older now and I’ve been away from my father for a very long time. I’ve received random bits of correspondence from Pa over the years, but I feel sure I didn’t receive even half the letters he painstakingly sat down to write.

Now and then, I would get a letter from one of my brothers. My older brother, Adam, who is twelve years my senior, acted as my second father for most of my growing-up years, reminding me constantly what it meant to be a Cartwright. We had our differences for sure, but even with our constant bickering and endless disagreements, we loved and respected each other. We were brothers and that’s what mattered most.

Adam’s letters, when I was lucky enough to receive one, were informative more than personal. He kept me up to date on ranch business—men he’d hired and fired—marriages and deaths—things of that nature, trying in his own way to make me feel a part of all that took place. Little did he know it only made my time away from the people I loved even worse.

Hoss—my brother—my best friend. We’ve always had an easy way with each other but his letters generally brought tears to my eyes. Whereas Adam’s were much more formal, Hoss always tried to cheer me up by writing about something silly that happened at home or maybe in town—a brawl at the saloon where longtime friends of mine were treated to a night in the city jail.

A saloon fight was a different kind of fight—men working off steam—never intending to kill or maim. More of a free-for-all, the victor or victors edging themselves up to the bar for a beer after said brawl, unless, as Hoss mentioned, finding themselves in Roy’s jail.

Maybe I shouldn’t call it a free-for-all. Maybe that’s the wrong term. I learned what a real free-for-all was, and for the last few years, I tried to avoid any fight whenever possible. Rule number one—don’t be the one who initiates the fight and number two—don’t be the one who’s provoked. Then again, maybe I have those rules backward. I’ve been in my share of both kinds of fights and my days of any type of contact sport, or whatever the term might be, were a thing of the past.

As an adult, it should have been up to me to discover what my plan in life would be, but my life took a different turn—a different direction—one I wasn’t expecting. Some called it fate—I called it hell.

That momentous day is marked in my memory forever—the second Friday of October—just a couple of weeks shy my twenty-first birthday; the day my future was decided by someone else, not me. It was out of my hands; it was out of my father’s hands. There was nothing anyone could do to change the outcome.

“Please rise,” I heard a man say. The trial was over. The jury deliberated for less than an hour and the verdict was in. This was it. My fate had been decided. The judge ordered me to stand.

I felt the room spin—my ears buzzed with murmurs of men’s and women’s voices—citizens of Virginia City, who’d packed themselves into the hot, overcrowded courtroom. I wanted to run—to hide—to be anywhere but where I was right then.

The thought of standing and hearing the outcome overshadowed everything else. Beads of perspiration dotted my forehead, my mouth was like cotton. I ran my hands down my thighs, trying to calm the nerves that kept me from standing, kept me glued to the chair.

My attorney stood first. He took hold of my arm, easing me up from my seat. He never let go. I think he knew what would happen.

“Joseph Cartwright. You have been found guilty—” I closed my eyes. Had I heard him right? I started to tremble and quickly placed my fingertips on the table in front of me, steadying myself as the judge continued. “—sentenced to ten years of hard labor at the Territorial Prison of Nevada.”

Even though my father and brothers sat directly behind me, I couldn’t turn around and face them. Then my father’s hand came to rest on my shoulder. My head dropped; still, I couldn’t turn around. I was too scared to witness the look in my father’s eyes. The disappointment he must feel. The son he had plans for, the son who’d failed my father and family.

The room seemed to darken and my mind went blank. The sheriff locked the handcuffs in place, took hold of my arm, and led me away from the courthouse, down the wooden boardwalk to the jail. I kept my head down, knowing if I looked up I would see my father, my brothers, my longtime friends.

I had believed my father when he told me to have faith. Nothing could possibly happen to me because I was innocent and the one who was truly guilty would be brought to justice. “That’s why we have laws, Joseph, and a court system to protect the innocent.”

Pa had all but moved into the cell with me before the trial, promising me this whole ordeal was a terrible mistake. “Be patient, son.” It would be over soon and life as we knew it would be back to normal. “Faith, Joseph.” Drilled into me night and day. “Everything will be alright, you’ll see.”

~~~

As the stagecoach pulled to a stop in front of the International House in Virginia City, I noticed a few new buildings along C Street, buildings I didn’t recall before I’d been sent away. A couple of brand new stone buildings, which made me smirk—not quite a smile by any means, but I’ll tell you about that later.

But most of all there were people everywhere. It was a bustling community now—freight wagons, Chinese laundry carts, and people, men and women both, doing their everyday chores, paying no mind or concerning themselves over who departed from an incoming stage. Their lives were much too busy.

I hadn’t sent a wire to Pa explaining my early release, and I probably should have. I’d left the prison with a ten-dollar note, the exact amount I walked in with over eight years ago. With tears in his eyes, Hoss had shoved it into my pants pocket, passed the chains that secured my wrists.

“Just in case,” he’d said. I’m not sure if he thought the prison wagon would hole up somewhere for a quick beer or what, but it was a kindly gesture all the same. That little bit of cash served me well, given the fact I needed transportation back home after my early parole by the current Governor of the State of Nevada.

I climbed down from the stagecoach and stood on the boardwalk, taking in the sights and remembering the days when Sheriff Coffee used to make a point of greeting anyone new to town. “Like to know if any strangers come to my town, Little Joe,” he used to say, but there was no sheriff there today to welcome an ex-con. I felt like a stranger, standing alone in the middle of Virginia City, a town I’d been familiar with most of my life although barely recognized anymore.

There was a faint sound of music. The lively, sometimes off-key tunes, played for worn-out old men, boisterous cowboys, and miners who made time during the day for a beer or a quick hand of cards. Of course, there was always the attraction of the lovely, young ladies in their short, satin dresses which made the sights and sounds of a saloon a bit more appealing

From my earliest memory, I was Little Joe Cartwright to everyone who knew me. As the story goes, Hoss was responsible for the nickname I’d been saddled with all my life. He looked down at me in the cradle, just after I was born, and even though he was only six years old at the time, I was a little red runt of a thing, and immediately, he called me his own Little Joe. Pa said he stood next to that cradle watching over me until he or Mama had to drag him away and settle him in his own bed for the night.

“My Little Joe,” he’d say, until Pa promised I would still be there, rested, and anxious to see him when he woke in the morning.

It didn’t stop at the cradle though. Hoss watched over me my entire life and this whole ordeal with my being sentenced to ten years really shook him. My big brother—my protector—could do nothing to save me this time. I’d be on my own for the first time in my life—no Pa and no brothers to watch my back—no band of men I’d learned to count on.

But the name Little Joe had stuck with me forever, and when I left Virginia City in chains, I was still Little Joe Cartwright, third and youngest son of Ben Cartwright, a man of honor and prestige whose youngest son had brought shame and disgrace to the family name.

I’ve often wondered if the trial changed the way my father handled his business affairs with the fine, upstanding citizens of Virginia City; the same select group of men who’d found me guilty after only an hour of deliberation. I’m sure feelings changed after the trial whether business or personal, but I wasn’t privy to that information.

So if you’re wondering if I was guilty, the answer is no. I wasn’t guilty of murder, but I was the man accused, and I’m the one who just spent nearly a third of my life in prison. Because there was no eyewitness, and because the victim was only a woman—a second-class citizen—those two factors kept me from swinging at the end of a rope.

I knew who was guilty because I was the eyewitness, and if it took me the rest of my days on this earth, I’d make sure my family and everyone in town is well aware of what really happened that night. In reality, there’s only one person who needs to know the truth so there’s no second-guessing on his part and that’s my eldest brother, Adam.

I walked down the shaded boardwalk toward the livery. I had just enough money left to rent a horse and ride out to the ranch. I wasn’t by any means the same man I’d been when I was hauled off in chains and then thrown into the back of a hot, stinkin’ prison wagon with two other men, but I’d paid my debt and I was heading home.

Before that day, before the trial and my ultimate conviction, I was young, just starting out. I had the whole world in the palm of my hand. I had responsibilities on the ranch. I took pretty girls to Saturday night dances. I drank beer and played friendly hands of poker along with my friends in noisy saloons. I was proud to be called the good-looking’, cocky young cowboy called Little Joe Cartwright.

My plans for the future changed that day in October and my life was not my own. Eight long years I spent locked away for someone else’s crime. Was I bitter? Sure, I was at first, but I realized that kind of attitude got me nowhere. Did I plead for someone—anyone—to listen to my story and believe I was innocent? Sure, but so did everyone else. Everyone in prison is innocent—I learned that too.

Was I scared? Did I live the first two years of my sentence in a cell with a man who was twice my size, but unlike my brother, Hoss, he was far from kind and gentle? Was my life a living hell, forcing tears of guilt and shame in the dead of night? Did I hate anyone more than my cellmate, a man named Harold Collier? No! A definite no. And if the chance ever arose—a murderer I would become if it meant freeing this world of a beast of a man like him.

I was no longer Little Joe. I was no longer the carefree kid, who dared to sneak out my bedroom window after Pa and my brothers turned in so I could meet my friends in town for a beer and worry about the consequences later. I was no longer the boy who could out-ride, out-shoot, or out-dance anyone in the territory. I was a shell of a man, no longer caring about much of anything, no longer caring whether I lived or—well, maybe I won’t go quite that far, at least not since I’d become a free man once again.

I’d almost taken a stage in the opposite direction when I was released yesterday—somewhere no one had ever heard the Cartwright name, but the image I could never forget was the look of despair on Pa’s face when the guard slammed and locked the door on that prison wagon. I can’t begin to imagine how much my father has suffered in my absence, and I had to see him at least once more before I made any final decisions about my future. I owed him that much.

Without a doubt, I knew Hoss and Pa believed I was innocent, but I was never completely sure about Adam. He’d been through hell and I understood how he must have felt, but would he have thought me a murderer? Did he believe the evidence against me to be true? Did he agree with the verdict of guilty?

I made my way down the boardwalk to the end of town and across the street to the livery. Not one single person recognized me, nor did I know anyone passing by. A young Mexican boy leaned against the side of the barn and he seemed to be the one in charge.

He greeted me and then offered me a smaller mare after seeing me limp awkwardly toward the barn. It didn’t take much to realize I wasn’t one hundred percent, but I wasn’t an invalid either. I could still sit a horse.

“She’s very gentle,” he said softly as if someone else might overhear our conversation. I nodded and thanked him, then told him I’d return her tomorrow or maybe even later today.

I managed to mount but I was in no big hurry to get home. The gentle mare had a nice easy gait so I rode slowly along the road, leading away from town and out to the ranch. The sweet smell of pine and the beauty of the surrounding mountains with their snow-capped peaks filled my senses—senses that had been dulled for so long.

The constant stench of unclean men, and food not fit for dogs had become more normal to me than anything else. I’d almost forgotten how clean and beautiful the Ponderosa was. My father’s dream—a dream he’d passed on to his three sons. “Feast thine eyes,” Pa used to say, and that’s exactly what I was doing.

Even though the prison was only a short distance from my home, just east of Carson City, the landscape was as different as night and day. This land with its endless tree-covered mountains and heavenly blue lakes was magnificent—far from the rock quarry, and the general acceptance that day after day, there would always be an unending supply of stone—stone for bridges, stone for buildings, even newly built stone buildings in Virginia City.

Dynamite and dust. The constant clang of the hammer as it pounded against iron wedges—the constant layer of dust, which never seemed to completely wash off, along with a never-ending cough and nosebleeds from the dry, parched air, and seldom, a cool drink of water. The constant ache deep inside, the sore, inflamed joints a man’s body never got used to.

As I approached the ranch house, I rode around the side of the barn and there it stood, looking as it always had in my mind’s eye. Eight long years and the place looked the same—my memories had served me well. The lump in my throat made it hard for me to swallow, and I blinked repeatedly as hot, but unshed tears stung my eyes. A confident young man left this place and an empty shell had returned.

~~~

“You lookin’ for someone, mister?” Startled by the man’s presence, I turned in the saddle where an older man stood off to the side, a man I didn’t recognize, but then again, why should I?

“Um, yeah,” I said. “Ben Cartwright or Hoss or—anyone.”

“Well, everyone’s gone. Tonight’s the Governor’s Ball over to Carson City.”

I nodded at the old man. “And I took the stage from Carson just hours ago,” I mumbled.

“’Scuse me?”

“Oh, nothin’.”

“Whole family’s gone. Plannin’ to stay over,” he said. “Won’t be back till tomorrow sometime.”

I swung my leg over the back of the mare, steadying my lame leg in the stirrup. I stood in front of the man who seemed to know a lot more about my family’s comings and goings than I did. “Joe Cartwright,” I said, extending my hand.

“Orvis Simms,” he said, “but everyone ‘round here calls me Curly. So you’re Little Joe Cartwright,” he said, resting his hands on his hips and slapping on a silly grin.

“Yep, that’s me.”

“I’ve heard talk about ya over the years. You wasn’t expected was ya?” Curly said, bowing his shaking head. “Sorry, son—guess that didn’t come out quite right did it?”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. It’s just good to be home.” I wrapped the reins over the railing. “Guess I should have wired Pa after all.”

“Come on, you’re probably hungry.” This curly-headed man started toward the house. “Don’t you worry none.   I’ll come back out and put up your horse.”

A feeble smile was about all I could muster as I followed behind this man named Curly. I found myself standing just inside the threshold, taking in the familiar surroundings I’d once called home.

“Hop Sing gone too?” I asked, realizing Curly had stopped also.

“Fraid so. Took hisself a holiday. Went to Virginia City to visit them relatives of his since everyone else planned to be away.” He leaned toward me and whispered, “Probably playin’ a little Fan-tan if you want to know the truth.”

“That’s good. I’m sure a few days off was well deserved.” Curly seemed nice enough, but I didn’t feel like making idle conversation. I wondered if he was nervous about leaving me in the house alone. He didn’t know me from Joe Schmo.

“I guess you’ll have to scrounge through Hop Sing’s kitchen and find yourself somethin’ to eat.”

“That’s no problem. I can handle that.”

“I’ll see to your horse then, Mr.—”

“Please, call me Joe,” I interrupted. “Only my father is Mr. Cartwright.”

“Okay, Joe.”

The front door closed behind me, and even though I felt like an intruder in my father’s home, I was half starved, so raiding Hop Sing’s kitchen was first on the list. I slipped off my hat and jacket, ones that had been packed away the entire time, but were handed back to me when I was released. Even my old shirt and pants, which hung on my much too slender body, but my boots were probably nine or ten years old and had been the only boots I’d worn since I’d left home, so they’d definitely seen better days.

The first thing I saw in Hop Sing’s kitchen was a new contraption up against the far wall. I pulled on the brass handle of this large wooden box to find it filled with milk, butter and eggs and a cake with chocolate icing, along with a big chunk of ice, resting on a bottom pan.

I have to say I was quite impressed. I took out the tin of milk and poured a glass to go with a big slice of cake which I’m sure was meant for Hoss—not me, especially since I wasn’t due back home for another two years. This was quite a treat and you didn’t hear me complaining. I wondered if my stomach could handle something that sweet after so long without. I was sure willing to try.

I carried my milk and cake back into the great room, sat down, and then leaned back on the settee. I savored every chocolaty bite. Pa would have my hide if he walked in and saw me, my dirty boots propped up on the table, eating a big chunk of chocolate cake for supper.

It was late afternoon when I rode in and it wasn’t long before the sun would set. I shivered involuntarily, suddenly feeling cold and uneasy about sitting in my father’s house. I hadn’t been alone, really alone, for the past eight years. I’d always had a cellmate, and the guards were a constant reminder of where I was and why I was there.

“Even with all his power and money, his rich daddy couldn’t get him off.” Or— “Let’s see if the rich kid can cut it. He ain’t no real man, just a spoilt kid.” So many times I listened to their remarks. I’d grown accustomed to their taunts and their constant barrage of insults aimed at my father’s reputation and me.

The term rich kid was thrown my way more often than not. There was a time in my life, before my incarceration, I tried to prove myself to Pa and my brothers. I was insecure about my place in the family, feeling I’d never achieve adult status the way Adam and Hoss had. I can almost look back and laugh at those days because little did I know that every waking hour of every single day I’d have to prove myself in prison.

I hurried to light the wood already stacked neatly in the fireplace—something I should have thought of when I first came in, but I was out of practice. There were different priorities in a house than there were behind prison walls.

Tonight I would just relax and enjoy my freedom. I found myself back on the settee, knowing I could choose when to eat and when to sleep, when to go outside and when to stay in, when to put my feet on the table, and when to remove them. Pa hated disrespectful behavior.

I moved my feet to the floor and finished the glass of milk, stood up, and settled into Pa’s more comfortable chair. I glanced at the stairs and memories of a young boy always in a hurry, taking the stairs two or three at a time, running frantically across the room, and slamming the front door on his way out. Then, more often than not, I was hauled back inside the house by an angry father and told to sit in the chair next to Pa’s desk, followed by a lecture on proper respect and behavior.

I scanned the room, taking in every piece of furniture, every object, even the way the curtains hung behind Pa’s desk—everything—exactly the same after all this time. Memories of family flooded my mind, some good, some bad. There were unforgettable celebrations held right in this room. There were birthdays and grand parties, Chinese lanterns and tables filled with food, and there was always a punch bowl, waiting to be spiked as soon as Pa turned his back.

Then there was the celebration that started, or maybe I should say ended it all. What a joyful celebration we had that night, only to turn our lives upside-down, cause bitter feelings between brothers, and an eight-year absence for me.

I rested my head on the back of Pa’s chair, and again, my boots found their way to the table before me. When I closed my eyes, memories of that festive night—a lifetime ago—swirled through my head like it was only yesterday.

It was a grand night for Adam, an engagement party, and Pa had gone all out with food and decorations, and longtime friends who’d come to witness the eldest of Ben Cartwright’s sons, finally taking the plunge. Adam, the most eligible bachelor in all of Nevada was soon to be off the block.

He was to be married to a young woman who intended to deceive, but in the course of time, she fell in love with my brother. A young woman who never stood a chance in this world against the powerful influence of a cruel and vicious man—an immoral, wicked man who owned her—owned her body and soul.

~~~

“Let’s raise our glasses in honor of the soon-to-be bride and groom. To my son, Adam,” Pa said, lifting his own glass and resting his free hand on my brother’s shoulder. “Your giving spirit and your heart filled with love have earned you a most special gift, son. Miss Grace Monroe—cherish her with all your heart.

“And Grace,” Pa continued before Adam could speak. “You are indeed a gift from heaven and we welcome you into our family with open arms and loving hearts.” Pa glanced at the throng of family and friends gathered around him and the honored couple, then my father’s eyes rested on Grace. “We are here tonight to celebrate Adam’s good fortune in that he found you—and you him.”

Cheers and congratulations rang throughout the crowded room after Pa’s toast. Adam had met and fallen in love with Grace Monroe, and the happy couple would be married within two month’s time. I figured Hoss and I better get used to the idea that my eldest brother would be leaving with his new bride immediately after the wedding and setting out on their six-month honeymoon, traveling the globe and planning their future together.

I was proud of Adam. He finally let down that veil of caution he’d carried throughout his adult life. He’d fallen head over heels in love. My brother deserved the best and I think he found the best with his beautiful, raven-haired Grace.

I had to chuckle when I thought back to the day Adam first met this dark-haired beauty. My brothers and I had gone into town for supplies, and as always, which drove both my brothers crazy, I stopped loading the wagon in order to look up to see who got off the stage after it pulled up in front of the hotel.

“Joseph!” Hoss hollered, as he nudged me with his elbow. “Could ya help us out here?”

“I will,” I said. “Just wanna see who gets off the stage.”

“No one’s interested in you, little brother, so get your mind back on work,” Adam chimed in as if Hoss telling me once wasn’t enough.

“I said I would, Adam. Just hold on a minute.”

Before I could get a good eyeful, Hoss grabbed my arm and hauled me into the mercantile to help him carry out four large sacks of flour. “Geez, I just wanted to—”

“I know what you wanted,” he interrupted, “and we ain’t got time to mess around. Pa wants us back before lunch.”

“You mean you wanna be back for lunch.”

“Come on,” he said, grabbing my sleeve once again.

By the time Hoss and I loaded Hop Sing’s flour onto the back of the buckboard, Adam was nowhere in sight, and when I glanced back toward the coach, there was my eldest brother, helping a young lady down the wooden step the stage-line provided.

Hoss saw him too and collided right into the back of me. We both stood staring; our mouths gaping open like two little kids who’d just found the candy in a big glass jar in Jake’s mercantile. I started to protest, but what good would it have done?

From that day on, the two lovebirds seemed inseparable—dinners in Virginia City, followed by plays performed by traveling companies, speeches by men of so-called importance and an occasional concert when musicians graced our fair city. They took buggy rides on Sundays and then swung back by the Ponderosa for one of Hop Sing’s Sunday Dinners.

Adam and Grace were happy and content in each other’s company. Adam treasured her and she felt the same about him, and there were times I almost felt jealous, seeing the two of them together. Not jealous of him, per se, but jealous of what Grace and Adam shared together—a real bond—a sense of peace I’d never before seen in my eldest brother. I wished them the best.

Hoss was also in love. A young lady named Cindy he’d met at the bank a few months back had captured his heart. They hadn’t made it to the altar yet, and I didn’t know if Hoss would ever have the nerve to ask, but they were together that night, her arm weaved gently through his, making me think they just might be the next couple to the altar.

It wasn’t long after Pa’s speech before I found myself standing next to Adam and Grace. I tapped my glass several times to quiet the room and get everyone’s attention for a speech I’d not prepared.

“I’d just like to say—to my brother, Adam, who, since the day I was born, never passed up an opportunity to remind me he’s older, therefore much wiser than I, and in this case, I think he might be right. To Adam and Grace. I wish the two of you nothing but happiness, prosperity and may all your children take after their Uncle Joe.” I lowered my voice so people had to strain to hear. “That’s if you can keep up with your intended, old man.” I raised my glass to the happy couple. “Adam and Grace forever!” Again, the room exploded with cheers and laughter and gracious applause.

Drink glasses were filled and refilled while Hop Sing kept generous platters of everything imaginable coming out from the kitchen. Pa had hired Gus and the Fiddler’s Three to entertain our guests and the party was a raving success. I couldn’t imagine Pa topping this one, except for the fact, he would probably think of something even grander for the day of the wedding, which would be held here also.

I don’t think I’d ever seen my father that happy or proud. With Adam being the first one to marry, Pa was beside himself. The three of us had always had our share of ladies come and go, and maybe, just maybe, I did more than my brothers, but this time it was really going to happen—a Cartwright son taken off the market. Knowing Pa as well as I did, he was probably already visualizing the grandchildren he would bounce on his knee.

The room was stifling and Pa, bless his heart, was famous for keeping the fire blazing nearly twelve months out of the year. I refilled my drink and headed outside for a breath of fresh air. It was obvious I wasn’t the first person to swelter inside the house. Even Hoss and Cindy had given up trying to keep up appearances and I’d seen them slip out earlier, hand in hand, even before me.

Besides me, and a couple of old men my father’s age, standing outside smoking cigars and discussing something I’m sure wouldn’t interest me, there were mostly couples strolling away from the house and past the line of trees. I guess this whole love thing was catchy. Everyone had a partner except the two old cigar-smokers and me. I looked up to see Hoss and Cindy coming into view from the far side of the barn.

So, that’s where they slipped off. I’d wondered where they’d gone after Pa gave his toast. “Hey, brother, Miss Cindy.”

“Hey, Little Joe, whatcha doin’ out here by yourself?”

“You know Pa. It’s a hundred degrees inside that house.”

“Yeah, that’s why me and Cindy decided to take a walk.”

“Yeah—”

Good grief. I wasn’t born yesterday. I was almost twenty-one years old. I wasn’t naïve as to why two people took a walk behind the barn. I felt like a third wheel and I was bored out of my mind with all this love business. I didn’t have a steady girl; I didn’t have any kind of girl. It seemed to me that every pretty girl I knew was either taken or planning their own wedding with some of my longtime friends and schoolmates. It was okay for Adam to get married off but I couldn’t imagine losing Hoss too. I’d be stuck with the old men, smoking cigars and wondering what the hell happened.

~~~

It was nearly a week after the engagement party when Hop Sing quietly entered my bedroom in the middle of the night. He covered my mouth with his hand, which I immediately grabbed and tried to pull away. My eyes shot open and the little Chinaman was darn lucky I didn’t tackle him to the floor or give him a good whack for scaring me half to death.

“Must talk,” he whispered. “I talk, you listen.” He took his hand away. I nodded and then leaned up on one elbow after he’d sat himself down on the edge of my bed.

“What’s this all—”

“I talk,” he interrupted, again in a whispered voice.

He seemed put out with me already, so I kept my mouth shut and listened to what he considered so important he had to wake me in the dead of night. I pointed to the lamp, thinking we needed some light, but from the scowl on his face, he found the lamp unnecessary.

“Missy Grace go talk Chinese doctor, Hop Sing friend.”

“Why? Is she sick?”

“Quiet. Hop Sing explain.”

“Not sick. Not that kind of sick. Missy Grace no want have baby she carry inside.”

My mind was racing out of control. Adam’s baby? She’s with child? Adam would never want her to get rid of their baby. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up straight alongside Hop Sing.

“You’re sure,” I whispered.

“Hop Sing sure. Hop Sing worry for Mister Adam. Hop Sing not know who else to tell.”

“Has she done anything yet?”

“Hop Sing think not yet, but happen soon—already make plan with doctor.”

I scrubbed my face with my hands and released an extended breath. What a mess. What the heck could I do? Should I tell my brother or talk to Grace first? Maybe I could make some excuse to go to town in the morning and see if I could talk her out of something she might always regret. But why? Why didn’t she want the baby?

I nodded to Hop Sing. “I’ll talk to her.”

“Hop Sing think Mr. Adam not know about baby.”

“No—I guess not.” I patted the housekeeper on the leg. “I’ll take care of it in the morning, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing crossed my room, never making a sound, and quietly closed the door behind him. I knew I’d never fall back asleep. What was I going to say to her? It wasn’t any of my business to interfere but this was my—my nephew—my niece—my brother’s child. Did that give me the right?

The half-light of dawn brought a new day, and I still lay wide-awake. How should I approach Grace? What would I say? I hadn’t heard anyone else up and around yet and I didn’t want to draw suspicion by being the first one out of bed, so I waited until I heard footsteps in the hallway.

A gentle tapping on my door and Hoss sticking his head inside my room was the only announcement I needed. “I’m up,” I said, rolling my legs over the side of the bed. Now all I needed was an excuse to go into town.

“Everyone rested and ready to start the branding this morning?” Pa said, halfway through breakfast. I’d forgotten that started today. The branding pit was about as far from Virginia City as it could be and still be on the ranch. How was I going to escape Pa and my brothers for half a day without drawing attention?

I made a face and reached down and held my hand protectively across my stomach. If I could have produced a nice sheen of sweat it would have helped my case, but that wasn’t in the cards.

“Something wrong, son?”

“I don’t know. My stomach’s giving me fits,” I said.

“Maybe you should stay home this morning, Joe,” Pa said. I must have looked convincing, but I figured I could play it up a little bit more.

“Just give me a minute; maybe it’ll pass.”

I looked up suddenly, as if in panic mode, and quickly excused myself, making a beeline for the outhouse. I tried my best to look sick and weak when I staggered back into the house, clutching furniture, and stumbling along like a child taking his first unsteady steps.

“You look awful, son.” Pa stood up from his chair and felt my forehead for fever. I couldn’t fake that one either, but I kept my hand hugging tightly across my midsection.

“I just need to lie down for a minute then I’ll be ready to go.”

“Hoss, will you ride in and get Doc Martin?”

“Pa, I don’t need the doc. It’s probably just something I ate.”

“You best not let Hop Sing hear you say that,” Hoss quickly added.

“I’m just gonna go upstairs and lie down,” I said, moaning slightly and carrying on as I slowly ascended the stairs.

My little white lie worked better than I’d expected, and I wouldn’t even have to apologize to Hop Sing though I had no doubt he’d understand. Pa and my brothers rode off, leaving me the entire day to do what needed to be done.

I talked to Hop Sing briefly before I left and found out Grace had gone to Hop Sing’s friend, Doctor Kim, and where the clinic was located in Chinatown. I had a little more to go on before I confronted my brother’s fiancée.

I still didn’t know the words I would say, or how she’d receive me when I showed up at her front door, but it was time to get moving and get this over with before someone discovered I was faking the illness.

Grace lived alone in a small Victorian house just south of Virginia City. Most young, single women would have settled in a boarding house for the simple fact there were other occupants close by, giving a certain measure of safety and protection. I remember Adam saying both her parents had died recently and she had a little money of her own after she’d sold the family farm somewhere in Missouri. She’d told Adam she was on her way to San Francisco to live, but her plans for a new life on the west coast changed the day Adam helped her down from the stage.

When I pulled Cochise up in front of her house, I assumed she’d be up and dressed for the day, hoping I wasn’t arriving too early, causing her any embarrassment. To my knowledge, she didn’t have a job of any kind, so I didn’t know what she did during the day. Women things, I guess, although I wasn’t quite sure what women things were.

I started up to the front door when I heard two separate voices, a woman I assumed was Grace and a man’s deep baritone voice. I guess I panicked because before I knew it I’d turned away from the front door, leading Cochise down the side of Grace’s house and back behind a small clump of trees.

A man walked out the front door and onto the pathway leading to C Street only moments after I’d made my impromptu escape. He was dressed like a city dude, wearing a black, hand-tailored suit with a black, felt bowler; something we didn’t see too much of in Virginia City. As he took hold of his lapels and adjusted his coat while he walked down her front path, I watched closely, thinking he was at least twice my age if not older, but not someone I recognized off-hand.

I tried to picture the city slicker with Adam or Pa, some kind of business associate, but his face and his style of dress wasn’t familiar to me. He had to be someone Adam knew, and since Grace was new to town and didn’t know that many people outside of my brother, she would have needed a proper introduction. Maybe he was a lawyer or someone associated with the new bank in town. It was none of my business anyway. I had other things to discuss.

I led Cooch back to the hitching rail in front of her house when the gentleman had moved on down the road, and after removing my hat then running my hand through my hair, I knocked on her front door. She didn’t hesitate or ask who it was before flinging the door wide open.

“What now?”

Her remark and quick observation came to a sudden halt when she made eye contact with me instead of—whom? I was surprised to see her standing inside the doorway clad in a frilly pink dressing gown after the man, who I thought to be a business associate of some sort, just walked out of her house. She pulled her robe, and herself, together and started to laugh, a nervous, silly, little laugh.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, Grace. I was just, I wanted to stop by and—” I found myself tongue-tied and unable come up with an intelligent greeting.

“Oh Joseph, you caught me just getting ready to dress. I overslept and—and won’t you come in?”

“I should come back later. I see you’re busy this morning.”

“Never too busy for my future brother-in-law.”

“If you’re sure—”

“Don’t be silly,” she said, stepping away from the doorway then waving me inside to her small but tidy parlor.

I’d never been inside her home before so I took a quick glance around the room. Between the flocked wallpaper, the striped sofa, the crazy design on the two small parlor chairs, I almost felt dizzy. The tables were covered with pictures, which I assume were her and her parents, and knick-knacks galore, but what I found odd, was a faint odor of cigar smoke lingering in the air.

It looked like she’d brought as much with her from Missouri as possible after her parents died. I tried to picture my brother living amidst these ornate furnishings and wondered if this is what their home would look like once they settled in together. The ranch house was a man’s house. None of this fancy girly stuff junking up any of our rooms.

I questioned myself and I questioned what Hop Sing had said. Was he sure? I was so sure last night, and even this morning when I feigned the illness in front of my family, but now I felt downright ridiculous. How could I possibly bring up such a matter?

“Let me pour you some coffee. I have some hot on the stove,” Grace said, before scurrying off to the kitchen.

“Okay,” I said, not knowing what else I could say, but realizing how foolish my being here was. “You know Grace, maybe I should go.” I had no right to be there. There was no way I could ask her about something so private, something that was none of my business. This was between Grace and Adam.

“I said don’t be silly, Joseph. Now sit down and tell me what’s on your mind.”

I pulled a chair out, away from the table in the tiny dining room that barely accommodated the two of us. I’d already lied to Pa and now I’d have to conjure up a new lie for Grace. This whole morning was nothing but a terrible mistake.

“I was just in town, running an errand for Pa and thought I’d stop by and say hello. It’s funny,” I said, contemplating my next words. “I was lying in bed last night, thinking about all the nieces and nephews I’ll be able to spoil someday.”

Tears suddenly appeared. She picked up one of her fancy, lace-edged napkins from the table and gently dabbed the corners of her eyes. I’d hit the mark, and maybe if she thought it through—

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No,” she said, “I just hope someday I’m able to make your wish come true.”

“I’m sure you and Adam will, Grace.” I took a sip of the coffee and stood up to leave. “I better get movin’ or Pa will have my hide.”

She stood up too and walked me to the door. “I’m glad you stopped by, Joe,” she said, and then leaned in to kiss me on the cheek. “Say hello to Adam for me.”

“Will do. I’ll see ya.”

I felt like an idiot, and what I needed more than anything else was a drink. I walked down to the saloon and tied Cochise up outside. Just a quick beer and I’d head on home before I was found out and had to explain my idiotic plan to anyone, especially Adam.

As soon as I stepped out of the bright sunlight and into the dark saloon, I spotted the man with the bowler hat; the same man I’d seen leaving Grace’s house. There he was, standing belly-up to the bar and raising a glass of whiskey to his lips. I walked down to the far end of the bar, but I never took my eyes off this mystery man. The bartender drew me a beer before I’d even asked and set it down in front of me.

“Thanks, Cosmo.”

“Welcome, Little Joe.”

“Hey, who’s the dude?”

Cosmo leaned heavily on one elbow and kept his voice low. “Calls himself Owens, Richard Owens.”

“New in town?”

“Been here a couple months, I guess—why?”

“Just wondering; hadn’t seen him around here before.”

“Gambles all day. High stakes poker mostly, but it seems he’ll play with anyone dumb enough to sit at his table.”

I nodded. “Thanks, Cosmo.”

“Sure, Little Joe.”

He was definitely the man I’d seen leaving Grace’s house. I’d recognize him anywhere—but why? Why would she know some highfalutin’ gambler? I had just taken the first sip of my beer when this Owens fella crossed the room, sat at an empty table and pulled out a fresh deck of cards. He shuffled and reshuffled, then slid them in a long, crescent-shaped row across the table. He had all the time in the world to sit and wait patiently until men who’d had too much to drink would sit down and lose a month’s pay to the likes of someone like him.

As much as I wanted to stay and watch what happened next, I knew I’d better get home before I got caught in town after I’d pulled off my illness so well. What I wasn’t aware of was that my eldest brother was also in town, bailing out two of our ranch hands who’d spent the night in Roy Coffee’s jail.

~~~

After I stabled Cochise and made it back into the house, I talked briefly with Hop Sing. “I couldn’t go through with it,” I said. “I went to her house, but I couldn’t ask her about something so private.”

Hop Sing nodded and spoke quietly. “Maybe Hop Sing make mistake. Not Hop Sing business and not Little Joe business—only Missy Grace and Mr. Adam.”

After Hop Sing fixed me a sandwich, I kicked off my boots and lay down on the settee, taking into account what a fool I’d been, running into town to do what? Embarrass the two of us? Hop Sing was right—it was none of my business.

~~~

“Joseph?” Pa hollered as soon as he and my brothers walked in, sweaty and filthy after a long day spent hovering over a hot branding pit.

“Right here, Pa,” I said, sitting up slowly.

“How do you feel, son?”

“A lot better,” I said. “Hop Sing took good care of me and it seems I’m just about back to normal.”

“I sure hope you apologized to Hop Sing,” Hoss quickly said.

“Of course I did. He’s in there cooking your supper, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, smells good don’t it.”

I figured Adam would make some comment about me loafin’ around all day while they slaved over a stifling pit and dealt with unruly calves; instead, he slipped off his gun belt and hat and headed straight upstairs—no glance toward me—not even a hello.

By the time Hop Sing had supper on the table, I was starving, but I knew I’d only be able to pick at my meal to keep up the act. By breakfast tomorrow I could easily be back to normal.

When the four of us took our places at the dining room table, I glanced at the platters of food set in front of me. Luckily, Hop Sing had made all of Adam’s favorites, which weren’t necessarily mine. I could have kissed the cook. I had no problem leaving certain foods uneaten, claiming to still feel a bit queasy. I found it odd that my eldest brother still hadn’t said two words to me but sometimes, that was just Adam being Adam. I almost wondered if he’d overheard the midnight conversation between Hop Sing and me.

I kept up the pretense and turned in early, telling Pa I’d be ready to head out with all of them tomorrow morning and put in a full day’s work. I crawled into bed, but I wasn’t terribly tired and I’d just pulled out one of my dime novels when there was a knock on the door. Poor Pa—he probably worried about me all day. Part of me felt guilty.

“May I come in?”

My brother? That’s not who I expected to see.

“Sure,” I said. Adam was still acting odd, more odd than usual. He didn’t even look my direction before he crossed my room and stared out the window into the darkness. “What’s up?”

After crossing his arms, he leaned his shoulder against the window frame. There was silence. I didn’t know if he came here to talk or not. He turned his head slightly, but still, he didn’t look directly at me. “Why were you in town this morning?” he finally said before turning his face back to the window. I had to think fast.

“In town?”

Turning his entire body, leaving his back to the window and staring straight at the shocked look I tried to hide, he spoke in that ever-present, condescending tone. “Yes, Little Joe—in town.”

“I had an errand to run.”

“While you were so sick?”

“It couldn’t be helped.”

“What kind of errand?”

I was thinking as fast as I could. He’d seen me, but how—where? “You were in town?”

“Yes, I was.”

“What for?”

“Bailing Jim and Ralph out of Roy’s jail.”

“Oh—”

“You still haven’t answered my question.”

“It’s a private matter, Adam.”

“With Grace?”

“Grace?” I waited for Adam to say something else, but he didn’t, so I would just tell him the truth, tell him what I’d said to her, nothing to hide there. “I finished my business and stopped by to said hello—no big deal.”

“Hello?”

“Yeah, Adam—hello,” I said sharply. “I told her how happy we all were to have her as part of our family. End of story, okay?”

“It just seems a bit strange that you would fake an illness just to say hello to my fiancée.”

“Just forget it, Adam. It’s no big deal. If you don’t believe me ask Grace.”

I hadn’t satisfied his curiosity but there was nothing else I could say. I never should’ve gone to see her anyway, but now there were different problems. I was troubled by the Owens fella I saw leaving her place. Then finding her dressed like that in front of that man, a man who wasn’t my brother, that part bothered me even more.

Adam had nothing else to say, and when he started to leave my room, I called out to him.

“Adam?” He turned back to face me although he still looked annoyed by the answer I’d given. “You know a gambler in town named Owens?”

“No, Joe,” he said, with that sarcastic tone his he saves just for me, “You see, some of us actually work during the day and don’t spend time running around Virginia City, drinking, and gambling, or who knows what.”

I was tempted to make a comment but I left well enough alone. Adam probably thought I sat and played cards all day in the saloon. Go ahead; let him think that’s what I’d done. It was probably for the best anyway.

Something was wrong with the picture and I was determined to find out, if not for my brother’s sake, then for my own dadburned curiosity. I turned down my lamp and set my dime novel, Deadwood Dick’s Doom, on the table next to my bed. I couldn’t keep my mind on my Deadwood’s adventures anyway. Maybe if it had been called Dealin’ Dick’s Doom, it would have held my interest and helped me solve the mystery of the gambler named Richard Owens.

~~~

While Pa stayed home, saying he had paperwork, he couldn’t put off any longer, the three of us, plus Jim and Ralph—the jailbirds—rode out. They were both good men, they’d just had a little too much to drink the night before and ended up causing some damage at the Bucket of Blood. I’m sure yesterday was long and tedious for the pair of cowhands after Adam had sprung them and paid the damages, knowing how much they needed to pay him back and how long it would take to do it. Over a month’s wages for both, but they would stick around and make sure Adam was paid back. That’s the kind of men they were.

Branding calves all day in this miserable heat, especially standing over a hot fire with a red-hot iron in your hand, was not my idea of fun. But we all took turns; two stayed behind to brand while the other three rode out and brought the frightened calves in close to the pit.

Adam hadn’t spoken to me all morning and Hoss quickly noticed the tension between us. He’d kept from saying anything so far, but when we broke for lunch, he couldn’t take the silence any longer.

“What’s up with the two of you?” he finally asked, between bites of a sandwich we’d brought with us.

I glanced at Adam, who still wouldn’t give me the time of day; instead, he gazed out at something off in the distance—anywhere—rather than look at me. I did miss a day of work and that definitely riled him, so I would have to make it up to him somehow—do some extra chores or something else to get him to ease up and not watch my every move. I needed time alone to see what this Owens fella was all about, and if Adam was watching me like a hawk, it would make life much more difficult.

“Nothin’, Hoss,” I answered, “just a disagreement.”

We finished out the day, tired and dirty, and mounted up to head back to the house. “Glad this day is over,” I said. Adam still wasn’t speaking, to me or to Hoss for that matter, and he chose to ride on ahead, leaving the two of us behind. Hoss glanced my way and all I could do was shrug my shoulders. “Forget about him,” I said.

We caught up with older brother when Hoss and I pulled into the yard. “I’ll put up the horses,” I said, hoping that would be a start, but of course Adam looked at me suspiciously, as if I was pulling off something underhanded.

“Thanks, little brother,” Hoss said.

I nodded to Hoss, but Adam remained silent. I wondered if he was going in to clean up and go see Grace or if Hoss was going to town to see Cindy. I was beat and I’m sure my brothers were too, but if I had a girl—

Soon after supper, Hoss and I settled in for a few games of checkers while Pa and Adam sat quietly, reading the Territorial Enterprise and some new novel Adam couldn’t wait to dig into. Hoss was the first to bail, saying he was too tired to concentrate and was headin’ to bed. I followed him up the stairs, although I had a much different reason, and a good night’s sleep wasn’t part of the plan.

When Pa and Adam retired for the night, I slipped out my bedroom window and made the ride into town. The first order of business was to check out the saloon for any high-stakes poker games with Mr. Owens, and just as I suspected, there he sat, an arrogant, know-it-all look on his face. I ordered a beer and leaned back against the bar, hooking my boot heel over the railing, watching and waiting, for what, I wasn’t exactly sure.

It must have been after one or two in the morning when Owens gathered up his generous stack of bills, then slipped them into an inside pocket of his suit. He stood from the table and nodded to the remaining gamblers.

“Thanks for a lucrative evening, gentlemen,” he said, before stepping up to the bar for one last shot of whiskey. I watched him closely as he strolled out of the saloon.

I had to be careful—keep myself hidden—and I realized I should have taken Cooch to the livery instead of leaving him tied up right outside the saloon. He wasn’t an inconspicuous horse and I would certainly have to be a bit more careful if there proved to be a next time.

My heart skipped a beat when I saw the direction Owens started walking. I hid carefully in shadows and dark alleys while he made his way to the edge of town and to the same Victorian house he’d come out of yesterday. Without raising his hand to knock, he opened the front door and let himself in. My heart cried out for my brother. How would I ever tell Adam what I assumed to be true?

~~~

“Come on and wake up, little brother,” Hoss said, while at the same time, nudging my shoulder. “Wake up—wake up—wake up.”

“I’m up, Hoss,” I mumbled. His voice sounded worse than a bugle sounding reveille.

“No ya ain’t Joseph, and Pa’s gonna be sore if ya don’t get a move on.”

Even though I knew he was right, I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow. When the window shade flew up, sending bright sunlight across my face, I had no choice but to crawl out from under the covers before Hoss did something one or both of us would regret.

“Why you so tired this mornin’? Ya dun followed me up to bed.”

“No reason. I’m up now, and if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get dressed.”

“That’s the spirit, Joseph,” Hoss said laughing. “Up and at ‘em, boy.”

Why was Hoss always so dang cheerful that early in the morning? Why wasn’t he ever tired or grumpy? I could already tell this was going to be another long, miserable day.

The five of us rode out together, another day of branding. Adam was still as cool as a cucumber until we got to our destination, then he pulled me off to the side and away from the other men.

“You all get started. Joe and I’ll be there shortly,” he said. I saw Ralph and Jim look up to Hoss for an explanation, but Hoss only shrugged his shoulders and kept the two men moving forward and away from Adam and me.

“What now, Adam? What’s this all about?”

“What’s this all about?” he said, pressing his hands, firmly to his hips. “You tell me, Joe. Where were you last night?”

“What? You’re checkin’ up on me now?” How could he possibly have known I slipped out? What the heck would I tell him this time?

“I couldn’t sleep,” he said. He released a loud breath of air then he glared at me as if I was some lowlife he totally despised. “I came to your room last night. I came to apologize for jumping all over you yesterday, but I open your bedroom door and what do I find? Nothing. No one, only pillows piled up on the bed. I go to the barn and there’s no pinto, so I assume my youngest brother has more personal business in town, but it’s the middle of the night, and I wonder just what kind of personal business he might have.”

“Exactly what are you saying, Adam?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

“There’s nothing to tell.” I started to walk away when my brother grabbed my arm and jerked me back in front of him. “What!”

“Was this another mission to stop in and say hello?”

“I hope you’re joking.” The look on his face was quite serious. My brother was making me feel guilty for something I hadn’t done or would ever do. How could he think such a thing? “Let go of me, Adam.”

“You haven’t answered my question, Little Joe.”

“It doesn’t deserve an answer, older brother.” My brother’s eyes blazed, as did my own. I yanked my arm away and turned Cochise around so I could hook my foot in the stirrup.

“You don’t have a girl of your own so you have to go sneaking out in the middle of the night after your own brother’s? Is that it, Joe?”

The reins dropped from my hand and before I knew it, I’d sucker-punched Adam in the gut. Then as hard as I could, I nailed him across the jaw with my left fist. Rolling over and staring at me from the ground, his hand came up, touching the blood seeping from the corner of his mouth.

“No more!” I said, pointing my finger at him rather than helping him up. I wasn’t going to be a part of his uncalled-for theory of his, not in this lifetime.

What else could I do? He was so far off base, but I couldn’t reveal what started this whole mess. I mounted up and rode like hell in the direction of Virginia City. I wasn’t about to stay and listen to more of my older brother’s mistaken and unproven accusations.

I figured I’d ride into town and see what Owens what up to during daylight hours. Adam would know exactly where I’d gone, and if he decided to follow me, he could see for himself firsthand, I wasn’t doing anything close to what he had just accused me of.

It was hot. The air was hot and a hot wind blew in my face as I rode carelessly over rough terrain, way too fast for Pa’s liking. I took the back way into town, and I stabled Cochise at the livery before I walked back down toward the saloon.

A thought came to me, and I skipped going to the saloon. I decided I’d call on Doctor Kim, so I cut away from C Street and headed down the hill into Chinatown.

I turned down the alleyway, realizing I didn’t have a clue how Dr. Kim’s name would look in Chinese or if it was customary to hang out a shingle like Doc Martin did. Unexpectedly, I caught a glimpse of Grace, the only other person in Chinatown who wasn’t Chinese and immediately, I knew why she was there and what she planned to do. I ran to catch up with her before she could slip away   I took hold of her arms, spinning her around to face me.

“Please, Grace. Don’t do this,” I pleaded.

“Joseph, my goodness, you scared me. What are you talking about? Why are you grabbing me?” Her words were clear but her voice was shaky. “I just came down to pick up my laundry.”

“At Doctor Kim’s?”

I saw a look of panic on her face. “Joe, go home, please just leave me alone. You don’t understand.”

I let out a breath and let go of her arms. Maybe she was right. It might be a mistake, but it was her mistake. I could do nothing more. I dropped my head and picked up her hands, holding them together in mine.

“You’re right. It’s none of my business.” I kissed her on the cheek before I turned to leave. But when I looked up, there stood my brother, leaning against a wooden shack watching the two of us, but not close enough to hear our conversation. We locked eyes for just seconds before he disappeared around the corner of the small wooden structure.

“Adam, wait!” I yelled, but it was no use. Like it or not, I would have to explain the mess when I got home. It wasn’t the type of explanation I could shout out to him in the middle of the street, even if no one else in all of Chinatown understood what I said.

~~~

“Hold it, boy. Leave the lady alone.” Although I wasn’t familiar with his voice, I knew exactly who had his pistol centered in the small of my back. He released the small, leather loop and pulled my Colt from its holster.

“What’s this all about?” I said, raising my hands, hoping he didn’t get trigger-happy in the heart of the Chinese community where bodies could easily be disposed of and never again seen.

“Start walkin’,” Owens said in a low, calm voice.

I had no choice but at some point, I’d try to catch the gambler off guard. I turned to walk up the hill towards C Street when Owens stopped me from going that direction.

“Keep goin’ straight, Joseph.” The man knew my name. We moved through the shadows and dark alleyways, past several shanties and people oblivious to what was happening. “Let’s take a trip to the livery where you stabled your horse.”

“My horse?”

“You think I haven’t noticed you in town, watching me, following me? The common denominator between the two of us has kept me well informed, and now we’ll put a stop to the annoying inconvenience named Joseph Cartwright before it goes any further. The lady and I have plans and you’ve managed to disrupt those plans by sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong.

“You won’t get away with this you know. There’s no way you can shut me up now.”

“Oh there’s a way, boy, there’s definitely a way.”

~~~

“Where’s your brother?” Ben asked, looking up from his desk when Hoss and Adam walked through the door.

“He ain’t with us, Pa.”

“I can see that, Hoss. Where is he?” Ben said, disgusted with the answer Hoss chose to give. He stood and walked around to the front of his desk, then placed his hands on his hips, staring at each of his sons.

“Seems he had other plans today,” Adam said, before heading toward the stairs.

“Other plans? What other plans?” Ben all but shouted.

“Joe and Adam had words and Joe took off.”

“Took off where?”

“Donno—”

“Adam, get back here,” Ben shouted this time, unsatisfied with his sons’ explanations.

Adam was halfway up the stairs and turned on the landing. He gripped the railing tightly, trying desperately to keep control. “We had words, Pa, that’s all.”

“Words about what? Ben noticed the bruise marking Adam’s cheek. “And what happened to your face?”

“It’s between Joe and me. He took off and he didn’t bother coming back.”

Ben looked to Hoss, thinking he might add some much-needed details, but Hoss only shrugged his shoulders, then sunk his hands deep in his pockets and seemed to show a great deal of interest in the tips of his boots.

“Well, he better show up soon; that’s all I’ve got to say.” Ben turned away from both sons, letting out an exaggerated sigh. Adam gave Hoss a quick glance, knowing he was leaving his brother in a precarious situation before he turned and continued up the stairs. The last thing he planned to discuss with his father was Little Joe and what he’d witnessed in Chinatown.

By the time supper was finished and there was no sign of Joe, Adam stood from his chair, and without a word to anyone, he crossed the room, wrapped his gunbelt around his hips and placed his hat on his head.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ben said, following his son to the front door, Hoss soon at his side.

“I know where he might be,” Adam said, with no inflection whatsoever in his voice. He had the proof he needed, but now wasn’t the time to discuss any of it with his father or Hoss. If he found Joe, and he had a good idea where the boy would be, he’d try his best not to beat the livin’ tar out of him. But as his anger rose, he knew it was nearly impossible to keep calm much longer, and sitting at the dining room table, pretending all was right in the world wasn’t Adam’s idea of a pleasant evening. The best thing to do was to ride out and get it over with, no matter what the outcome.

“Want me to go with ya, Adam?”

“Not this time, Hoss,” he said then turned to his father. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Make sure you bring that young brother of yours home, you hear?”

Ben stood staring at the closed door after Adam slipped through without so much as a hint as to where he planned to go or where Joe might be. He looked to Hoss, and again, Hoss could only shrug his shoulders and dip his chin to his chest.

Instead of stopping at one of the saloons Joe often frequented, Adam rode straight through Virginia City, only to stop in front of Grace’s small home. He calmed when he didn’t see Joe’s pinto tied to the hitching post as he’d expected.

Maybe he’d been wrong in his assumption by practically accusing his young brother of such a dishonorable and appalling act. But the evidence was plainly written, and Joe’s feeble excuses weren’t helping the matter. He never would’ve thought Joe was capable, if only he hadn’t seen them together with his own eyes.

What was it about this whole situation that had made him think Joe would betray him in such a way? He hadn’t seen much of Grace this past week, what with the branding and other ranch business, but why would she take up with his little brother? Maybe Joe was telling the truth. Maybe he should check the saloons after all but first, he’d pay a visit to Grace.

After seeing no visible light coming from inside the house, he knocked hesitantly before opening the unlocked front door. The parlor was dark—no light streaming down from upstairs. He called out her name, nothing. He tried once more before lighting a lamp and making his way up the stairs.

Everything was intact. There was no sign of foul play, but then, there was no sign of Grace. Both parties were missing. A secret rendezvous? A hotel room? Adam sucked in a heavy breath, trying to keep his temper in check. This simply wasn’t happening? He called out once more, “Grace? Joe?”

~~~

The livery—

Adam spoke with a young Mexican boy, describing the pinto and the man who owned him, and after a brief explanation in a back and forth, a mix of English and Spanish, he was lead to believe the horse was no longer there but had been boarded earlier in the day. The pinto was easy to spot and Adam reasoned he could find Joe if he just rode past the saloons and cathouses his young brother normally frequented.

Adam walked Sport down C Street, overhearing sounds of loud, boisterous voices emerging from inside various saloons, but nowhere was there a sign of the pinto. He turned off the main street and down into the seedier side of town. Still no sign of the kid.

Had Joe ventured home? It still didn’t explain Grace’s whereabouts this late in the evening. The thought of returning home empty-handed didn’t sit well. The whole night, the whole episode of events was more embarrassing than Adam wanted to explain to his father or to anyone else for that matter. A comedy or a tragedy?   He wasn’t quite sure.

If Joe hadn’t returned home by morning, the Cartwright men would have to enlist Roy Coffee and form a search party, although Adam really didn’t think that would be necessary. The kid was still young though he could easily take care of himself. Knowing Joe, he was probably sitting up at his mama’s grave, complaining about his eldest brother and the unfair accusations before he decided to ride back home.

But there was still the matter of Grace—Joe and Grace? “Damn!” Adam said. He pushed his hat down low on his forehead, kicked Sport and rode out of Virginia City, daring to think the worst, daring to picture the two of them together at some mysterious rendezvous point—

                                   Passion—obsession—desire

                       Sweat-soaked bodies, melding together as one

                   Arms circling each other—pleasuring each other

“NO!” he said aloud, but his tormented mind said yes.

Sport’s hooves hammered against the hard-packed ground, the horse following the grueling commands as Adam’s knees gripped tighter and tighter around the bulk of the animal until he rid himself of the loathsome, depraved thoughts he’d conjured up between Grace and his young brother.

“Slow down, boy,” he finally said, realizing the unnecessary trauma he was causing the animal. His knuckles were white, his heart beat fast. Sport slowed. Two pounding heartbeats—man and beast—trying to regain control.

~~~

Ben had fallen asleep in his chair; having marked his page in A Tale of Two Cities with his index finger. After hearing the front door open, he sat up quickly, hoping to see his youngest and oldest walk through the door together.

“Sorry, Pa,” Adam said, glancing up at a worried father. He wouldn’t mention there was no trace of Grace either, at least not yet. It was evident Joe hadn’t returned on his own, and this brought more evidence—clear facts to the case—as to what was going on between two people he loved, he cherished. How long had he been made a fool of?

“That boy,” Ben said. “You want to tell me what all the fuss was about this morning or are you planning to keep me in suspense?” There was no answer. Ben watched his son closely as Adam hung up his hat and removed his gunbelt. He repeated his question. “Adam? I need an explanation.”

“What? Oh, it’s nothing, Pa, just a little mix-up between Joe and me.”

Ben met Adam face-to-face. “It seems to me, there was enough of a “mix-up” to cause your brother to leave work for the day, and then decide to spend the night somewhere other than here.”

“I’m tired, Pa,” Adam said, heading toward the stairs. “Knowing Joe, he’ll probably show up before breakfast.”

Joe was missing and Adam was acting as if he were lost in some kind of dream world where no one else was allowed in. Hoss had been no help when Ben had questioned him.

Realizing he was still marking the page, he opened the book; reaching the conclusion that he’d only managed to read one single page the entire evening. He set the book down, knowing it was worthless to try and concentrate any longer on the escapades of Sydney Carton. And since he knew the answers concerning Joe and his whereabouts weren’t going to be forthcoming from his eldest son, he did as Adam had done and followed him up the stairs. Surely, Joe would be home before daybreak.

~~~

My wrists and ankles had been bound. I’d been gagged with some foul smelling rag, then left inside an old mine a short distance from town. When he returned, he had Cochise and a smaller mare I recognized as a rented mount from the livery. We rode in silence, my reins in his hand, to a line shack on the southeast corner of the Ponderosa, one rarely used but there just the same.

Owens had this all worked out—the when and the where—and I was a fool to fall into the miserable trap he’d set. Still, I didn’t know the why. Grace told me to go away, to mind my own business. Well, maybe she was right. I was all but ready to walk away until Owens dug his gun into my back.

As normally found in any of our small cabins scattered throughout the thousand acres, there was a single bed and enough provisions for anyone finding themselves distressed in any way, whether a sudden winter storm or some unlikely event in which one of us couldn’t make it home, it really didn’t matter. Pa made sure the three of us kept them well stocked at all times.

Owens had me remove my boots, my hat and shirt, and my gunbelt. It didn’t feel right, and I’d become faint and weak as I struggled to do as he asked, but I managed without complaint.

I was told to sit in a rickety old chair, probably the worst worn-out chair on the Ponderosa, something I would mention to Pa when this ridiculous ordeal was over. The gag was removed after my wrists were tied behind my back and my ankles to the legs of the chair. He then tied more strips around my waist, securing me tightly.

My mind started to clear after I was backhanded across the face. The chair wobbled but didn’t fall. Another hearty slap across my face soon followed. I swallowed my fear and stared up at the man who held me captive only to wonder why.

“Who ya gonna to tell now, boy?”

“What’s this all about, Owens?”

Again, the backhand, and this time the chair and I fell to the floor. I moaned softly from the impact, but I wasn’t seriously injured and neither was the chair.

“Maybe you’ll find this position more to your liking, Joe Cartwright.”

Those were his final words before he closed the door behind him and left me alone, trying to figure out what to do next. I tugged at my restraints until every muscle ached, plus the sad fact, it got me nowhere. I wasn’t dead yet and my shoulder, which carried the bulk of my weight when I fell, let me know I was alive, although I wondered if my ultimate demise was what he had in mind.

Why tie me up and leave? Was I supposed to just lie on the ground till someone found me? Then what? Keep quiet about this whole situation? No, he would be back eventually, but why all the mystery? What was Grace’s part in this? She loved my brother, didn’t she? Less than two months from now they planned to be married.

The sky was darkening and the temperature would drop suddenly after the sun went down. The day’s heat would vanish and without my shirt and jacket, I would feel the cold.

I was tired but sleep wouldn’t come. I was thirsty and there wouldn’t be a drink or food until Owens returned. I still couldn’t figure out his motive. Was it ransom? That didn’t make any sense. And there was always the question of Grace and her connection with him.

My arms were useless from the strain of being tied and I wouldn’t be much good in a fight if or when the opportunity presented itself. My neck and back ached from the awkward position and my head pounded from whatever foul-smelling stuff he’d put on that rag—yeah; I was pretty much worthless at this point.

I realized the last time Adam saw me, I was holding onto Grace, pleading with her to reconsider. God only knows what’s running through his mind since I never got the chance to explain. After all he’d said to me earlier, I can just imagine what he’s thinking now. It would almost be a laughing matter if things weren’t quite so serious, and I had any chance of getting outta this place alive.

No food—no water—what a great guy. I assumed he would’ve been back later today, but I guess he had better things to do than tend to me. He was probably sitting in some saloon, drinking a nice cold beer and eating a big steak dinner while I lay on the ground tied to this stupid chair. I imagine I’d been here for at least twelve hours or better so I bet it’s safe to say he wouldn’t show up until morning.

A man could go days without food, but I wouldn’t last long without water. If Owens didn’t come back soon, this would be how my family would find me. I couldn’t let Pa see me like this—or worse—dead.

If I’d just minded my own business. If I’d done the branding like I was supposed to. If Adam hadn’t cornered me with his accusations, I wouldn’t be in this mess. I’d be home in my own bed, not here waiting to die.

I suppose Grace went through with the surgery, ending the life of their unborn child. I felt a heavy lump in my throat, and although Adam would never be the wiser, I can’t imagine her carrying on with the wedding. If she were a part of this whole scheme, she would always know the game she and Owens had played. She would have to carry my death and the memory of their dead child forever.

Maybe Owens left town; maybe he and Grace left together. Damn it! None of this made any sense. I ran my tongue across my lips but found it only made matters worse. I would have given just about anything for a cool drink. Funny, I hadn’t even felt the urge to relieve myself, but with nothin’ comin’ in—nothin’ was going out.

It was a test to keep my eyes open any longer, and I fell asleep. When I woke, a golden sliver of light coming through the shack’s only window told me it was morning. The urge to pee may not have hit last night, but it was definitely bothersome this morning.

I was mad as hell. What the hell did he want from me? “Son-of-a-bitch!” I yelled, though no one was there to hear. I jerked at the bindings and nothing—no give at all. “I gotta pee, you bastard!”

~~~

Ben Cartwright knocked loudly on his sons’ bedroom doors, “Get up, boys,” Ben hollered, never one to remain calm when his youngest boy found himself bold enough to stay out all night. No word, nothing. Ben was livid. Next, he’d take his anger and frustration out on Hop Sing. Everyone within shouting distance would pay a price for Joseph’s absence.

Adam was well aware of why his father was demanding their presence so early. He hadn’t slept most of the night as his mind conjured up images of deception and betrayal.

Hoss, on the other hand, was clueless. “What? What’s goin’ on around here?” He rolled over and stared at his open bedroom door. His father had already disappeared down the hallway after shouting his wake-up call, but there was no mistaking the mood he was in.

Both brothers dressed quickly and came downstairs. Hoss looked to Adam for clues as to Ben’s morning tirade, but Adam waved him off, curious to hear the brassy, rattled off words their father had to say about the missing member of the family.

Hop Sing, who had already set breakfast on the table, couldn’t help but notice the missing son and he wondered if it had anything to do with Missy Grace and her delicate condition.

“As you have probably figured out, your young brother didn’t bother to come home last night.”

“Joe ain’t home?” Hoss said, staring at the empty place setting across the table.

“No, he isn’t home, Hoss, and I’ll tell you one thing,” Ben said, pointing his finger in no definite direction, “that boy’s not going to sit for a week.”

“You’re gonna give Little Joe a tannin’?” Hoss couldn’t believe his ears.

Ben sat in his chair across from Adam, Hoss to his side. A low noise, a rumbling noise started deep in his throat and rose steadily until he burst out laughing. Hoss and Adam looked at each other, wondering if their father had lost just a few or all of his marbles.

“I guess not, Hoss, but that boy’s going to have a list of chores he’ll never finish in a month’s time.”

Hoss looked relieved. The prospect of his little brother gettin’ a tannin’ didn’t sit well with him. Joe was a grown man, not a little boy.

“We need to find him since he can’t seem to find his way home on his own,” Ben said. “I suppose there’s a chance his horse lost a shoe or some other calamity, which befalls that young man on a daily basis, but right now, he better pray it’s only a lost shoe.”

“You don’t think he’s hurt none, do ya, Pa?”

“He’s not hurt,” Adam said.

“You know that for a fact, do ya?” Hoss had been left in the dark. What did Adam know that he didn’t? Why was he always the last to know?

“Yes, Hoss, I’m 99% sure the kid’s not hurt.”

“How would ya know such a thing, Adam?”

“Let’s ride,” Adam said out of frustration. There was nothing funny about the situation and he was finding it hard to sit and joke with Hoss and his father over Joe’s antics. “We’re not getting anything done sitting here discussing it all day. We have a full day’s work ahead of us. We have branding to finish up and now we have to start out the day looking for Joe.”

“Is there something you’re not telling us, son?”

“No, there’s nothing to tell.” Adam stood and walked toward the front door. He fastened his gunbelt and picked up his hat. “I’ll saddle the horses and tell Jim and Ralph to head on out while you two finish breakfast.”

After hearing the front door slam unnecessarily, Hoss questioned his father. “What’s up with him? What’s goin’ on around here?”

“I guess he’s still upset with Joe over something. He won’t talk about it.”

“He ain’t said nothin’ to me neither, Pa. I know they had words and Joe rode off mad. That’s the last I seen of him. Kinda figured he’d go into town and have a cold beer and come back, but he never did.”

“Well, let’s get moving,” Ben said, laying his napkin on his empty plate.

“Sure thing, Pa.”

“Why don’t we split up,” Adam said, as his father and brother approached their saddled horses. “I’ll ride into Virginia City and maybe the two of you can track his steps from the branding pit. I’ll wait for you in town.”

“All right,” Ben said.

Ben was sure Adam knew more than he was letting on, especially if he was that determined to get to town before he and Hoss. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. They had just enjoyed Adam’s engagement celebration and his youngest and eldest were fine that night. Adam was pleased and Joe seemed very happy and proud of his eldest brother.

But something must have happened, sometime this past week affecting Adam, causing him to become even more private and withdrawn than usual. Whatever the problem was between him and Joe, it had caused Joe to stay out all night, distancing himself from his eldest brother.

Hoss and Ben did as Adam suggested and rode out with Jim and Ralph to the branding pit while Adam rode straight into town. Hoss pointed the way Joe had taken off yesterday morning after his confrontation with his eldest brother. Ben left instructions for the two ranch hands to do what they could and assured them there would be three Cartwright sons riding out to help finish up sometime today.

~~~

Adam rode down C Street toward the livery, checking hitching posts in front of saloons and glancing down alleyways for the familiar black and white. His heart beat a little faster than normal, his breathing unsteady. When he found nothing, he turned and started toward the little Victorian on the edge of town.

Some call it butterflies; Adam called it nerves as he tried the latch on the door and found it locked. He knocked repeatedly, and just like before, there was no answer. Sometime during the night, Grace had come home and left again.

Leaning back against the locked door, he closed his eyes, believing what he’d tried to rule out all along was true. His brother and his fiancée were off somewhere together. Run off maybe, another town, another territory or state. Facts were facts; they both disappeared at the same time and if nothing else, Adam was a logical man. What else could he possibly think? He checked the rear of the house for the pinto—nothing.

In his mind, the image of Joe and Grace together was front and center. Joe’s natural gift with women, his sweet talk, and his ability to convince Grace to run away with him.

Holding her close, his lips burning with desire, move delicately across her face, her chin, her neck. He unfastens the delicate ribbons, the final item of clothing, keeping their fervent bodies apart. Hands searching, caressing gentle curves and enveloping her with his body as she willingly gives herself to him.

Adam took a deep breath—why Joe? His heart pounded heavily. Now he would have to explain the sordid details to his father and Hoss. He would have to state the facts he knew to be true. They wouldn’t believe him at first; it would take time for the truth to sink in.

His father would demand proof, not accusations, whereas Hoss would never believe such a story since, in his eyes, the kid could do no wrong. He could hear his brother now. “I don’t know how you come up with such a fool way of thinkin’, Adam, but you’re mistaken. Joe’d never do nothin’ like that.”

~~~

My struggles with the cloth ties had been fruitless. I didn’t have the strength to fight with them any longer. It had to be noon or later, and hours ago, I couldn’t hold back; I had to relieve myself, then lay here in my own wetness, waiting for someone—anyone—to find me. The heat inside this cabin was unbearable—I could feel one rivulet after another run down my face and neck.

Even lying down, I felt dizzy although the pounding in my head had ended. Between the heat and lack of water, I knew my time was limited. Maybe Owens wasn’t coming back. He knew I die sooner or later so why bother checking to make sure the deed was done. I prayed someone would walk through that door.

Pa would be furious with me, thinking I was out all night, throwing away hard-earned money gambling or shacked-up with a whore in some seedy, little room above the saloon. I could practically guarantee that Pa and my brothers would be out looking for me early today, mad and upset or not.

They’d probably head straight to Virginia City and check in with Roy Coffee before looking anywhere else, figuring maybe I’d gotten into a brawl at one of the saloons. I could see Pa now, adding up the damages in his head before he ever reached the sheriff’s office.

When the trip to the jail had failed, Pa would start to worry. No sign of me, no sign of my horse, no tracks to follow, no one seeing me in town—none of this was helping my mood or my disposition.

Minutes passed—hours passed. My head jerked, waking me. I must have dozed off again. I thought I heard a noise outside but I couldn’t be sure. Could just be a skunk or raccoon, rummaging around for food, but there it was again. I was frozen in place; I couldn’t move a muscle. I listened; I waited.

The door flew open, banging against the cabin wall and in walked Richard Owens, holding Grace upright, nearly dragging her across the dirt floor. Her eyes were nearly closed and she looked tired and pale as she tried her best to place one foot in front of the other. There was blood on her light colored skirt and her free arm was wrapped tightly around her middle.

“Grace . . .” I tried to call out, but my voice was raw and just above a whisper. She raised her head slightly after hearing me then her head fell back down like a worn ragdoll, and hung limply, close to her chest.

Her dark, tangled hair wrapped limply across her shoulders, and from what I could see of her eyes, she looked dazed, maybe drugged. “What the hell have you done to her?” Owens took a minute of time from his efforts with Grace to smile at me before he continued walking her across the room. He stopped next to the bed, easing her down on the dirty old filthy mattress. “What’s wrong with her?”

“In time, boy, in time,” he said.

My heart pounded. By all accounts, she’d had the surgery, but something went wrong, terribly wrong. Was he bringing her here to die? Would he kill us both?

“Let me take care of her; she’s sick.” He wouldn’t even look my way. He started removing her clothes. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” I tried to scream, my voice suddenly cracking and bringing on a coughing fit I couldn’t control.

~~~

Hoss tracked Joe’s pinto across the vast meadows of the Ponderosa and into Virginia City. It was no surprise as to how fast the boy had ridden and Hoss hoped his father didn’t notice the lengthy strides between Cochise’s hoof prints.

“Well, just as we thought, Pa, he come to town.”

“He certainly did, son.”

“You find out where Adam is while I stop in and check with Roy.”

“Adam mighta done that already.”

“Just go find your brother.”

“Yessir.”

Ben tied Buck in front of the sheriff’s office and started up the steps when Roy opened the door and stopped to wipe sweat from his forehead. “Hotter’n I remember it being for a lot a years, Ben. What brings you to town?”

“Not what, Roy, who.”

“Huh?”

“Joseph.”

Roy grinned and started to chuckle until he saw the look on his friend’s face. “Boy gettin’ hisself in trouble again, Ben?”

“You could say that.”

“Well, he ain’t here. I ain’t seen Little Joe for some time now.”

“You’re sure—”

“Sure as I can be, Ben.”

“That boy,” Ben said, shaking his head out of sheer frustration.

“Just holler if I can help,” Roy offered as Ben had already turned and headed back down the steps.

With a heavy sigh, Ben untied Buck and started walking, leading his horse down to the Bucket of Blood, the saloon where he saw his elder sons’ horses tied out front. This was Joe’s favorite hangout and maybe Cosmo, or one of Joe’s umpteen saloon girl acquaintances knew something they didn’t.

Ben saw his sons sitting at a table, along with an extra beer and an empty chair, waiting for him to arrive. The cold beer sure looked good—tasted good too. Roy was right—it was unusually hot, and with his temper rising as fast as the temperature of the day, Ben downed his beer in two healthy gulps.

Adam had spoken to Cosmo when he’d first arrived and he informed Ben and Hoss that Little Joe had been in the saloon just the other day. “The day he was so sick,” he added, “asking about some stranger in town—a gambler named Owens.”

“Owens? Don’t know anyone by that name,” Ben said, then realized what Adam had said. “The day he was sick?”

Adam was seething. His dark hazel eyes narrowed into thin dark slits, as he considered the reason for Joe’s disappearance, which had become clear in his eyes, maybe not to the others just yet, but definitely to him. And furthermore, talking to his father was becoming increasingly difficult. “Yes, Pa., the day he was sick.”

Ben mulled over Joe’s actions—feigning sickness—sneaking into town. Something was up—something Adam was well aware of but wasn’t talking about. “Tell me about Owens.”

“Neither Hoss nor I have ever heard of the man or seen him for that matter,” Adam replied. “Apparently he’s a gambler—new in town. Joe asked me if I knew him the night after he supposedly stayed home sick. That was after I told him I’d seen him in town when I came in to get our ranch hands out of Roy Coffee’s jail.”

“You didn’t tell me he was in town,” Ben said angrily.

“No, I didn’t, Pa.”

“Is there a reason why?”

Holding his glass with both hands, Adam studied the remains of his beer before answering his father. “It had to do with the argument Joe and I—” This wasn’t the place or the time to go into detail.

“I think it’s high time you tell us what this is all about, son.”

~~~

Grace was in desperate need of medical care and Owens was still clawing at her clothing, removing the many layers every proper woman wears. “Why are you undressing her? Can’t you see she needs a doctor?”

Grace was helpless against Owens’ strength, his hands pawing at her, stripping off each item of clothing. I was tied to the damn chair and all I could do was watch and wait—wait for an explanation. For now, he wasn’t talking; he was struggling with hooks and eyes, pearl buttons and fancy ribbons.

Grace had given up the fight and lay limp, curled into herself, trying to hide her embarrassment. Owens began unlacing her boots—her shoulders and breasts were now on exposed and I assumed her entire naked body would be visible soon. As I looked on in disbelief at what Owens was doing, I could see only part her pale body, glistening with an even sheen of sweat while long, dark hair hid most of her face.

There were rust-colored stains, covering her undergarments—blood against the stark white cotton material. “Leave her be,” I tried to shout.

Owens had set Grace’s boots neatly together next to the foot of the bed. She’d been stripped naked, her clothing scattered on the dirt floor. He walked across the room and stood in front of me then righted the chair with me still bound tightly. He backhanded me so hard the chair rocked on two legs, but I straightened back up on the seat and he slapped me even harder the second time. “Best keep your mouth shut, boy. I like to play rough.”

He turned and walked back to Grace. “You don’t want me to play rough, do you Grace?”

I heard a slight whimper but there was no fight left in her. She curled up tighter, embarrassed that Owens and I were in the room and there was nothing she could do to hide.

I looked away. This was my brother’s fiancée. Another man was touching her, exposing her naked body in front of the two of us. Her shoulders shook. She was crying, and I was helpless to comfort her or free either of us from the madman.

Owens was finished with Grace and apparently finished with me too. He pulled up the only other chair in the shack, turned it around backward and rested his arms across the high back. I was no threat to him, so there was no gun, no reason for him to fear me or Grace.

“You gonna tell me what this is all about?” I asked, not really expecting an answer.

“I might as well. You won’t be around long enough to tell anyone the sad, sad tale.” There was no sense of decency, no regard for human life. Owens was an animal, maybe less if that’s possible. He stared at me with gambler’s eyes—eyes that gave away nothing—cold, hard and evil. He also had the advantage, holding us hostage, a sick, helpless woman and me, unable to do a damn thing about it.

“Things didn’t work out as planned,” he said, cool and composed as if he were holding all the cards, which he was.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“My little Grace fell in love with your brother. That wasn’t the plan—no, not the plan at all.” I watched him glance at the young woman lying curled up on the bed, shivering in the heat of the day.

“What do you mean your Grace?”

“Long story short, we came to Virginia City so Grace to marry a wealthy Cartwright. I’d read a news story about your father, the Ponderosa and his three eligible sons, young men who would take over the thousand-acre ranch. It didn’t matter which son, only one was necessary to carry out the plan.

“Your brother Adam was quick to oblige, taking my little Grace in hand, wanting to marry her and make her a Cartwright. I bided my time. I sat back and watched the happy couple set their wedding date. I would be set for life. I would live in style with money flowing in faster than I could gamble it all away.

“But Grace broke all the rules. She fell in love with your brother. That wasn’t the plan—no, that wasn’t the plan at all.”

“What about my brother’s baby. Was that part of the plan?”

“I hate to disappoint you, kid, but that wasn’t your brother’s baby. It was mine.”

“Yours!”

“In love or not, Grace failed to seduce your brother. He’s quite the gentleman you know.”

My head reeled. This wasn’t happening. All along I’d assumed— All along we’d all been duped into believing this was a joyful union, two people in love with each other. I knew how much my brother loved this woman and I guess her ultimate mistake was falling in love with him.

“So what happens now?”

“I’m afraid Grace is no use to me anymore.” Owens seemed deep in thought then shook his head. “The months we planned—wasted.”

“Why don’t you just cash in your chips and ride out? I’ll get Grace to the doctor before it’s too late.”

“You don’t seem to understand, kid. I don’t intend to watch over my shoulder for the rest of my life, waiting for you or one of your brothers to ride up and put a bullet in my back.” Owens stood up from the chair and positioned himself to look out the open door. “I’m sorry it has to be this way, but I have no other choice. Grace and I have been together, worked together for a long time. I really hate to see her life end this way.”

“Then walk away. Believe me; I won’t say a word to anyone. At this point, no one knows you and Grace were a team. No one knows what you had planned.”

Owens, still standing with his back to me, his arms stretched out, grasping hold of the doorframe as if he might do as I asked and walk away; instead, he bowed his head. “Sorry, kid. It has to be this way.”

~~~

Hop Sing served supper to three men, not four. Ben, Adam, and Hoss had ridden back to the house thinking Joe might be home, but Adam knew different. He knew why Joe hadn’t come home, but he had yet to explain the situation to his father and brother.

Adam managed to eat bits and pieces of his supper while debating what he should say and how it should be presented. Supper had been eaten in silence, but Adam was ready to lay it all out on the line. Whether anyone chose to believe him or not, he really didn’t care.

He divulged everything he knew to be true, everything he’d suspected from the beginning had now become fact. He told his father and brother how he’d confronted Joe more than once over spending time with Grace. He told of Joe’s midnight visit to be with her, then finding them holding each other in Chinatown, thinking they were invisible to prying eyes.

Both parties were missing and as expected, Hoss was the first to react, but Adam held back. He didn’t respond to the harsh words and the pounding fist on the table. It wasn’t worth the effort.

Ben listened. The words his son had spoken sounded more like a delusional tale, a bitter vision that Adam had conjured up in his mind. Not Joseph. He would never destroy his brother’s life that way. Something was missing in Adam’s story. Something wasn’t right between the two brothers, but the scenario Adam put together involving Grace wasn’t it—there had to be more.

Night fell and still no sign of Joe. Not long after supper, the Cartwright men went to bed, each with different thoughts running through their minds. Unanswered questions with no civilized answers plagued Ben and Hoss, but not Adam. He knew the truth.

Hop Sing stirred in his own bed. He had knowledge of Missy Grace he would have to tell the family. He heard things he knew weren’t true. He knew Little Joe wasn’t in love with that woman as Adam suggested. “Hop Sing make right in morning.”

~~~

Ben and his two eldest sons made their way down to breakfast, no one feeling rested, no one getting a decent night’s sleep. Ben knew he would have to go in and talk to Roy, let him know Joe was missing. For Adam’s sake, he really didn’t need to give the sheriff the full story, just have him keep a lookout for Joe in town.

Ben’s thoughts had been elsewhere when he noticed Hop Sing standing next to him. “What is it, Hop Sing?”

“Hop Sing need tell family what he know about Missy Grace.”

“What you know,” Ben said.

“I tell Little Joe when Hop Sing should have kept thoughts to self.”

“Go on,” Ben said.

“I tell Little Joe I see Doctor Kim, Hop Sing friend, and doctor tell Hop Sing Missy Grace want operation.”

“Operation for what, Hop Sing?” Ben asked.

Hop Sing glanced quickly at Adam before he continued. “Missy Grace don’t want baby. She see Doctor Kim for operation.”

“I knew it,” Adam shouted and stood so fast his chair banged to the floor. Without hesitation, Ben stood up too. Adam’s face turned a brilliant red as he pounded his fist on the dining room table, rattling dishes then telling his father and Hoss what he knew to be true. “It’s not my child, Pa. It’s your precious baby son’s child. That’s why I found the two of them in Chinatown.”

“You know nothing of the sort, Adam,” Ben hollered back.

Adam shook his head. “Of course I don’t, Pa. Joe would never do anything as dishonorable as sleep his own brother’s fiancée, impregnate her, and then take care of the problem. Oh no—not Joe. Not your baby son.”

“Adam! Adam! Where do you think you’re going?” Ben yelled when his eldest marched toward the front door and fastened his gun belt low on his hips.

“Anywhere but here.”

“Son, let’s talk this out. There has to be a reasonable explanation.”

“Not when Little Joe’s involved. Reason vanishes, Pa. You and Hoss think what you want. I can’t stay here, knowing you’ll always believe him over me.” Adam picked up his hat and turned back to face his father with Hoss now standing close by. “Believe what you want. I won’t be a part of it. Joe’s right and I’m wrong. Just leave it at that.”

“Son please, this isn’t the way.”

“I’m sorry, Pa. I can’t take any more of Joe’s lies.” Adam opened the front door and slammed it behind him. He was through explaining himself, defending himself. Joe and Grace could live happily ever after; he wasn’t going to be a part of it. The last thing he wanted was to witness the two of them together.

Ben opened the door to see his eldest son walk, almost run, to the barn. One son missing, one leaving home without thinking things through. He turned to Hoss, knowing his middle son was just as upset and bewildered over this chain of events as he was.

“What do we do now, Pa?”

“I wish I knew,” Ben said, closing the door and walking slowly to his desk. He needed time to process everything Adam had said. Was he blind to the ways of his youngest son? Could there be any truth in what Adam had said?

Resting his elbows on his desk, Ben laid his head in his hands. “No . . .” he mumbled to himself. Joseph would never do anything like that. He knew right from wrong and this was wrong, but his mind quickly leaped, conflicting words from Adam muddled his brain, leaving too many unanswered questions.

Did Joe and Grace, in fact, run away? Could it possibly be Joe’s child? Is that why he felt he had to leave the Ponderosa without a word? Ben pressed his hands to the sides of his head as though that would stop his mind from racing. Adam had to be wrong in his assumption—he had to be.

Hoss planted his feet in front of Ben’s desk, his gunbelt on, his hat in hand. “I’m gonna go find Little Joe, Pa.”

“He may have left town, son.”

“No. Joe wouldn’t do them things Adam said he done. Somethin’s happened to him and I intend to find out just what that somethin’ is.”

Ben couldn’t help but smile at his middle son. Hoss was Joe’s ally to the end, and Ben realized Hoss was right. He’d let himself think the unthinkable. He’d thought the worst about his youngest boy. “You’re absolutely right, son. Saddle my horse, I’ll go with you.”

“You stay here, Pa, ‘case Joe comes wanderin’ in hurt. He’ll need you here.”

Ben stood from his desk. “I’m glad you set me straight, Hoss. I was beginning to think—”

“Don’t think like that, Pa,” Hoss interrupted. “Ya know Little Joe’d never do nothin’ like Adam claimed he done.”

Ben reached up and placed his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “Find him, son, and bring him home.”

“Yessir.”

Hoss crossed the room with Ben following close behind. He opened the front door only to find Roy Coffee, standing, now startled, with his fist raised, ready to knock.

“Roy, wasn’t ‘spectin’ to see ya standin’ there,” Hoss said, almost colliding with the sheriff in his rush to get out the door.

“Sorry, Hoss.”

“Roy,” Ben said, extending his hand to the sheriff. “What brings you out this early in the morning?”

“This ain’t no social call, Ben.”

“How about some coffee?”

“No Ben, this is serious and it can’t be put off none.” Roy held his hat with both hands, twisting the brim in a nervous fashion. What he had to say would devastate Ben, would devastate Hoss and Adam, too.

“Well, don’t just stand there, come in, Roy.”

“Ben,” Roy said, trying to phrase his words so they didn’t sound as bad as the situation was. “I got Little Joe in my jail.”

“In jail?” Ben remarked.

“Yessir. He—well, he—he was—”

“Out with it, Roy. What’s he done this time?”

“He’s been charged with murder.”

“Murder!”

Roy couldn’t look Ben in the eye. He glanced quickly up at the big man, standing shoulder to shoulder alongside his father then looked away quickly after seeing the scowl on Hoss’ face.

“There’s some mistake,” Ben said, looking down at the sheriff.

“Ain’t no mistake, Ben. Little Joe was seen, holdin’ a bloody knife in his hand and Miss Grace Monroe was lying there dead from a stab wound.”

Ben’s hands went immediately to each side of his head, trying to lessen the pain piercing his skull. He shook his head slowly, walking away from the sheriff. “Not Little Joe.” He turned around suddenly, making eye contact with Roy. “What did Joseph say?”

“Says he don’t remember what happened.”

“Saddle the horses, Hoss.”

“Yessir.” Hoss headed out the front door, but not before giving the sheriff a look of contempt that said more than words could ever say. Roy didn’t miss the look and neither did Ben.

“He’s—oh never mind, Roy.” How could he explain Hoss’ feeling when he couldn’t begin to explain his own?

“Ben, I—”

Ben stood directly in front of his longtime friend and softened his voice. “You know Joseph didn’t do this. It’s a mistake, Roy. Joe would never—”

“Ben, as sheriff I had no choice. I had to lock him up. You know that. You’ll just have to wait till I can investigate further. I just come to tell you what I know, and right now all the evidence points to Little Joe.”

“Oh, Roy,” Ben said with disgust. “That’s ridiculous and you know it.”

“It may be, but—”

“Don’t say anything else,” Ben said, fumbling with his gun belt and grabbing his hat. His fingers weren’t working. Words he’d taught his sons never to say aloud were hovering close to the surface. “Let’s ride.”

Roy knew the effect this would have on Ben and he couldn’t miss the anger in his friend’s eyes; he also knew it was his job, no matter what the circumstances. He’d known Little Joe since the boy was just a young’un. He never would’ve thought him capable of murder, but it was his job, a job he hated more than ever right then.

Adam—Little Joe—Grace—unwanted baby—bloody knife. Ben couldn’t think straight. Even if Adam’s assumptions were true, it never would have come to this. None of this whole fiasco made a lick of sense. The ride into town was exhausting and by the time the three men hitched their horses outside Roy’s office, each one had the same thoughts running through their minds. What in God’s name happened to Grace and why Little Joe?

Pushing himself ahead of Roy, Ben hurried through the office and to the cell. Under normal circumstances, Roy would have taken their guns before letting them in his jail, but this was Ben and Hoss Cartwright, upstanding men in the community. Surely, they wouldn’t do anything rash.

“Joseph,” Ben said in the calmest voice he could muster.

“Pa—Hoss,” Joe said, looking up after hearing his father’s voice.

Ben turned to see what the holdup was. “Let us in here, Roy.”

The sheriff grabbed the keyring from the nail outside the cell then changing his mind, he held out his hand asking Ben and Hoss for their guns. He unlocked the iron door and it clanged shut after the two Cartwrights entered. Walking back out to his office, Roy dismissed his young deputy who’d been left in charge of watching the prisoner while he’d ridden out to the Ponderosa.

“Are you hurt, son?” Ben asked, noticing the blood-stained, foul-smelling trousers.

“No, Pa, I’m not hurt.” Joe stood up briefly when Ben and Hoss had entered the cell but sat back down on the rumpled cot where he’d spent a better part of last night. His head rested in his hands not wanting to look or talk to his brother or father.

“What happened, son? Where’s your shirt, and where are your boots?”

“I’m not sure, Pa.”

“Tell me anything you remember, Joe.”

“Well, I—I’m not really sure of anything right now.” He glanced quickly at Ben and then Hoss. “Owens—” Joe mumbled. “He took me to one of our line shacks, tied me up and left me there overnight. Then he brought Grace there yesterday, I think it was yesterday. She was sick. She was hurt, bleeding.”

Ben glanced at Hoss then sat down on the cot next to Joe. He slid his hand across Joe’s shoulder, squeezing tightly, adding a bit of comfort to his young son, but letting him know he needed to continue, as painful as the story might be. Hoss moved in closer so he could hear all Joe had to say, and hopefully block any unwanted tears.

“I remember Roy’s deputy stepping through the cabin door. I—I was kneeling on the floor next to the bed, holding a bloody knife, my knife.”

Ben sat silently, his hand never leaving Joe. It wasn’t hard to miss the tremors slipping through his son’s body. His hand gripped tighter. “Anything else?”

Joe looked into his father’s eyes. “Grace is dead, Pa.” He buried his face in his hands. “I just don’t know what happened. I don’t—”

“Son, I don’t believe for one minute that you had anything to do with this.”

“But, Pa—”

“Someone wanted Grace dead and someone, maybe this fellow Owens has somehow made it look like—”

As soon as the words were said, Adam’s assessment of Joe and what he’d come to believe as the truth flashed through Ben’s mind. Would Adam be so enraged he’d— No! Never! No matter how he felt, no matter how hurt he might be, Adam would never . . .

Ben shook his head, dismissing the absurd thoughts, thoughts of what his eldest son might consider doing in the state of mind he was in, but going that far wasn’t an option, not an option at all. And, as for Joe murdering this woman, no, not Joe either.

“What happens now, Pa? Will the sheriff let me go home? I can’t stay locked in here, Pa, you know that, don’t you?”

Ben knew the answer to Joe’s question. The answer Roy would give him wouldn’t even come close to what Joe wanted to hear. Joseph needed to be with family more than ever now but with a murder charge hanging over him; Ben knew Roy had no choice in the matter. The town would be up in arms, and Roy’s job would be on the line if he let Joe out of jail.

Ben needed to speak to his lawyer, and knowing Roy would never consent to Joe’s freedom, maybe the attorney could pull some strings. At this point, he could only hope for the best.

“Stay with your brother, Hoss. I need to talk to Roy and see if I can meet with Hiram.” Ben would also send Paul Martin back to the jail. Joe didn’t look well and it wasn’t just the fact he’d been confined to the cell. His eyes were glassy, his face pale. Ben knelt down on one knee in front of Joe. “Stay strong, son. I’ll go talk to Hiram and see what we need to do next.”

Joe nodded without looking up at his father. Why did he feel so sick and why was his head pounding unmercifully? He constantly swallowed, knowing how close he was to being sick.

“Joseph, look at me, son,” Ben said, resting his hand on Joe’s slender knee. And when their eyes finally met, Ben continued. “Trust me, boy. Everything will work out fine. You’ll be out of here in no time—trust me.”

~~~

Those are words I never forgot, but that was over eight years ago. I trusted my father. I trusted, as I always had in the past, that my father could make things right. I trusted the justice system. I trusted everything until I heard the judge say guilty, followed by sentenced to ten years of hard labor at the Territorial Prison, a newly built facility outside of Carson, just a day’s ride from my home, but it might as well have been a thousand miles away.

I was in shock; my family was, too. All except Adam, who didn’t attend the trial. Pa said he’d left on a business trip that very morning. He was on his way to San Francisco and wouldn’t even receive the telegram he’d sent for days. Then he would have to make the arduous trip back home.

The sentencing was over before there was any sign of my eldest brother. Maybe it was better that way. It would’ve been hard for him to sit through the trial and listen to the evidence, knowing how much he loved Grace and knowing what he’d tried to accuse me of only days before.

I didn’t know which was worse, her death or Adam thinking I was responsible. I hadn’t seen my brother since that day in Chinatown, the day he’d gotten the notion I was involved in a personal or maybe even a physical way with the woman he planned to marry.

I’d intended to tell him everything I knew about the baby and all as soon as I got back to the ranch. I would’ve told him about Dr. Kim and what I knew about Richard Owens, everything I thought I knew. At the time, I thought the child was my brother’s. I knew how much it would hurt him. I was a fool, we were all made fools of, but that was a long time ago and I was anxious to see my brother. I needed to know how he felt after eight years. I could tell by the letters I’d received in prison, he was only writing to please Pa, nothing more.

In the beginning, I believed my father when he told me about Adam and San Francisco. I believed Adam was on a business trip. But as time went on, I began to question the story I been told. I’d never heard any mention of Adam’s trip the week before all of this happened, which seemed strange to me after I’d had time to think. Did my brother hate me that much that he couldn’t or wouldn’t attend my trial?

All the evidence pointed at me. There were men on the jury, friends and business associates of my father, and there were new men to Virginia City, men who had never heard the name Cartwright, not that it should have made a difference, but at the same time, it made a big difference.

Men who sat in the courthouse, complaining about the rare heatwave we were having, praying it would be a quick trial so they could rush back to the saloon for a cold beer. Even the judge, who wore a black robe while sitting the bench, seemed uncomfortable and irritable due to the unusual and distracting heat.

The prosecuting attorney was a smart man, painting the perfect picture of love-gone-wrong. Dr. Kim was called to the stand, the first time a man of Chinese descent was allowed in the courtroom to testify, and he acknowledged the termination of the pregnancy.

Doc Martin was also called to the stand. He’d been sent to check me over after Pa and I’d first talked in my cell, during which time my father had gone to speak to Hiram Wood, our family attorney. The only thing Paul could detect was that I was nauseous and had a pounding headache. He’d given me powders to take for the strange discomfort although he was unsure of the cause. When he mentioned I could have been drugged, which he thought might be the case; the prosecutor reminded the jury that the doc was only voicing an opinion, an opinion he couldn’t begin to prove.

The young deputy, James, if I remember his name right, said a boy, he didn’t recognize as one of the locals, told him he’d seen two saddled horses tied up at a line shack just west of town and that the place seemed deserted when he called out, “Hello the house”. The young deputy, eager to make a name for himself, rode out alone to check things out.

I remember James walking in; I don’t remember if the door was already open or not, and after seeing blood everywhere—Grace, lying dead on the cot and me holding a bloody knife in my hand—the young deputy drew his gun. “You’re under arrest, mister,” he said. I was so confused, so busy trying to make sense of things; I let him tell me what to do, what to think.

I was on my knees next to Grace and after dropping the bloody knife to the floor; I turned to face him. Next thing I knew, I was sitting in Sheriff Coffee’s jail, accused of murdering my brother’s fiancée.

It wasn’t until the next day, after my mind cleared before bits and pieces started filling in the blank spots, and as they did, I relayed them to Mr. Wood, my attorney. Eventually, I’d remembered it all, even though it seemed like I was fabricating the entire event.

Owens, being tied to the chair, out of my head from lack of water, something that smelled funny that Owens held over my nose and mouth, twice, which I later learned from Paul was probably chloroform, but none of the remembering helped my case. There was no witness, no one to back up this strange-sounding story, which hadn’t come to me until later. The setup I suddenly claimed to remember didn’t wash with the jury.

Besides wanting out of the courtroom and out of the heat, the jury became determined to convict a rich man’s son after the prosecutor hammered into their heads how wealth and prestige couldn’t buy a murderer his freedom. Then he gave his closing statement.

“Joseph Cartwright is guilty of killing Grace Monroe, a young, beautiful woman, with her entire life ahead of her. Singlehandedly, with his own knife; Joseph Cartwright stabbed Miss Monroe repeatedly when things didn’t work out to suit his fancy or his status within the community. I beg you to find this young man guilty of this hideous crime.”

I will always remember those words. That’s all it took for the jury to come back with a guilty verdict. But I knew the truth. I knew what Owens had done to Grace and me. I knew who was guilty, but I had no proof. I never stood a chance. As soon as the scene was staged and the gambler was gone, having left Virginia City never to be seen or heard of again, I was forced to take the fall.

~~~

Pa had kept me informed of court appeals and ranch happening through letters over the years. He had Hiram file an appeal during the first year of my sentence. When the first one failed, Pa hired a prominent San Francisco attorney the second time around, but that didn’t work either.

I can’t imagine how my father suffered over the past eight years. I know I’m not guilty, but did he? Did Hoss? Did Adam? No one in the courtroom believed me—hell, I don’t even know if Hiram believed a word I’d said.

No one had ever seen Owens and Grace together as I had, and when I tried to introduce this piece of information; I was almost laughed out of court. After Dr. Kim’s statement, it made perfect sense to everyone in the courtroom that the baby was mine and unwanted. Then after the deputy found the two of us together nearly naked and very bloody, it didn’t take much to set up a love quarrel gone wrong followed by murder.

After James brought me into Roy’s office, he explained to the sheriff, rather excitedly, what he’d seen out at the line shack. I sat there numb and silent, listening to the story he told.

“Well, Sheriff, there was this naked woman on the bed and this man, this Joe Cartwright, and he was kneelin’ see—kinda half on and half off the bed—with a bloody knife in his hand.” James cringed, and then shivered at the scene he saw in his mind before he went on. “The woman was dead, beaten, I mean she was all bruised up, and she had stab wounds, more’n just one, Sheriff. Mighta been a struggle. Maybe he was trying to take advantage of her or somethin’ and she didn’t wanna.”

“Just tell me what ya saw, James,” Roy interrupted. “Don’t add nothin’ more to the story.”

“Well, as I said, she was already dead when I got there. Her clothes was strung all over the floor of the cabin like they was ripped off her or somethin’, know what I mean, Sheriff?”

“Go on.” Roy knew darn well this wasn’t the act of Little Joe Cartwright, but he had no choice but to let the deputy finish his story.

“Well, I told this Cartwright fella to drop the knife, and he did, ‘cause I had my gun drawn and he didn’t have no choice in the matter. He just stared at me then he stared at the woman, kinda like he knew he’d been caught and there was no way out. I’m pretty good with a gun, ain’t I Roy?”

“Yes, James. Anything else?”

“Well, this Cartwright fella started crying—he, well, he laid his head back down on the bed and tears was running down his face when he knew I had him cornered when he knew he was gonna hang for murderin’ that lady.”

“I think that’s all I need for now, James. Why don’t you go get yourself a beer, but you listen and you listen good. You don’t repeat this story to anyone else, ya hear. This is official business and it can’t go any farther than this office.”

“Yessir. I won’t say nothin’, Sheriff.”

Well, James, being a new, young deputy had a little trouble keeping the story to himself—after all, he’d caught a murder red-handed. His first arrest and the boy was proud and puffed up like a rooster ready to strut his stuff and make his name known throughout Virginia City, maybe even Nevada after he found out Cartwright was a big name in these parts.

Of course, I wasn’t privy to that information until the trial and it sort of slipped out, but by then the story had grown out of proportion, making James look like a hero. He’d captured the wicked villain and handed him over to the sheriff. By the time Roy tried to set the record straight, it was too late, words had been said and the jury was keen on hearing the more embellished story, and as I said before, the prosecutor was very good.

Pa finally came clean and set the record straight about Adam and the business trip to San Francisco after both appeals failed. I guess he couldn’t keep to the story he’d made up at the time.

Adam had never been sent to San Francisco. He had left that same morning, riding out to who knows where and hadn’t returned to the ranch until he read the headlines in the Utah Territory Gazette, a monthly publication, where the name Cartwright had become front-page news.

Pa didn’t go into detail as to why Adam left the ranch. That was left to my imagination, and if I imagined right, Adam thought I was involved with Grace, as in, more than a brother should be involved. I can only imagine what went through his mind after reading headlines stating that the same brother had been accused of her murder.

~~~

I was tired, physically and mentally, tired of thinking what might have been or what should have been and too tired to go upstairs and crawl into bed, so I stretched out on the settee. The fire was warm and the house was quiet. I still had trouble adjusting my leg and finding a comfortable position, but this would do for now. Sitting idle that long on the stage must have cramped it more than usual.

My leg didn’t bother me as much when I was working, at least not till the end of the day. I’d gotten so used to standing in the hot sun—rain—snow—nothing much mattered. My lame leg was part of me; it had been for over seven years. I was used to its weakness and its deformity and so the leg and I got along just fine.

Just as I started to nod off, the front door flew open with a bang; hitting the sidebar and making me sit up quickly, well, as quickly as I could, from the settee. I grabbed hold of my leg while twisting to see who’d entered the house in such an uproar.

There stood three finely dressed men, suits and ties, and the faintest hint of bay rum. I started to smile at the intrusion, but the young man, who was taken from his family so long ago, could only cry tears of joy, tears of eight long years away from my father and brothers.

“Joseph—”

“Pa . . .” I could barely mumble the word.

“Son,” he said, his hat dropping from his hand to the floor as he crossed the room toward me.

I can’t begin to explain my feelings. My father was holding me so tight I could barely breathe. I’d yearned for my father’s comforting embrace, his loving touch for so long; I hoped it was real and not a dream.

All the years spent away from my family vanished when I leaned back, away from Pa’s tight grasp, seeing those dark, tear-filled eyes that mirrored my own. “It’s good to be home,” I said before his arms pulled me tight against him once again.

I’d caught a glimpse of my brothers, standing together, waiting. Brothers who were willing to give Pa and me the few minutes needed. I was glad to see them, but it was my father I needed right now. The bond we shared for as long as I can remember was still as strong and heartfelt as ever.

“Your brothers and I were at the Governor’s Ball,” Pa said, as he caught his breath and tried to stay his own tears. “Henry Blasdel just told me he’d pardoned you before his term as governor was up. And when he said your sentence ended yesterday . . .”

“That about sums it up, Pa. I’m a free man.” I turned and smiled at my brothers. Hoss was about ready to burst, but Adam’s face was just the way I remembered it—unreadable—not giving away any secrets, and I feared his thoughts.

Pa finally let go and it was Hoss’ turn to give me his long-awaited welcome. In two long strides, my brother was in front of me, hoisting me up in the air in one of his famous bear hugs. “Put me down, ya big galoot,” I cried.

“Cain’t, little brother. I been savin’ up.”

When he dropped me to the floor, my dang leg gave out and I grabbed the settee, trying to right myself. Hoss noticed immediately and grabbed my arm, steadying me until I was solid on both feet.

“Did I hurt ya, Little Joe?”

“Naw, it’s nothin’.” I wasn’t fooling anyone. They all could see the bowed shape of my left leg and how long it took me to regain my balance.

“Ya sure?” Hoss was worried, and I saw the stunned look on Pa’s face.

“Not your fault, Hoss, just an old injury. It’s fine now.”

“Have you eaten anything, Joseph?” Pa asked, trying to change the subject, knowing we had the rest of our lives to talk about unpleasant things.

How could I tell him I’d had cake and a glass of milk for dinner? A simple answer would do. “Sure did, Pa.”

“Let’s see if Hop Sing left us anything to eat. Will you make us some coffee, Adam?”

Adam had stood like a stranger in his own home. I’m not sure if Pa even realized my eldest brother hadn’t said anything to me or not. Adam walked in my direction and extended his hand. “Good to have you home, Joe.”

“Good to see you too, brother.”

“I’ll get that coffee made,” he said, and as quick as his welcome was, he was gone.

“I’ll check the icebox!” Hoss was quick to offer.

Pa was back beside me; his arm wrapped around me, clenching and unclenching my shoulder. He needed to touch; make sure I was real, the same feeling I had only moments ago. It took everything in me not to let the tears flow like a newborn baby when I looked back up and into my father’s eyes.

This whole ordeal had been a nightmare. I wasn’t ready to discuss any of it with anyone, at least not tonight, maybe never. I knew there’d be question after question, my leg for starters. I would tell them only half-truths. Nothing good could possibly come from them knowing all I’d been through.

Like I’d forgotten where the dining room table was located, Pa hung on to me, guiding me in the right direction and settling me into my chair. Hoss brought out the cake with a considerable-sized chunk missing. Even though Hoss seemed a bit confused, Pa suddenly realized what I’d had for supper.

“I suppose this was your dinner. Am I right Joseph?”

“Yes, sir. Mighty tasty too.”

I wasn’t reprimanded for my infraction; Pa shook his head while Hoss’ laughter filled the room. “Good thing ya didn’t eat it all or I’da had to pound ya good.”

“That’s enough outta you, big brother. Just get on with it and start slicin’.”

Adam couldn’t help but hear the tomfoolery as he walked in with the coffee, but he kept his thoughts to himself. In a way, I felt like I’d never been away. Pa and Hoss had made my welcome home everything I’d hoped it would be. Adam was probably doing the best he could. Maybe after losing Grace, he’d become even more reserved and cautious. When the time was right we would talk. I would explain, as best I could, what really happened. It would be his choice to accept my word although I’m not sure how I’d react if he didn’t.

I dug into my second piece of cake then leaned back in my chair, realizing my stomach wasn’t used to such rich food after being denied for so long. I would have to ease back into eating a proper diet and at least use a bit more sense when it came to sweets. Hoss gave me a look I easily recognized. I picked up my plate and handed my half-eaten piece of cake to him. “I’m full, brother. It’s all yours.”

We chatted some about the ranch and current projects Pa and my brothers were each working on. Pa wouldn’t send me out tomorrow morning to work, and as it turned out; I would have to plead with him to let me go, to let me out of his sight.

With any luck at all, my plan was to return to the normal routine of a simple ranch hand as quick as possible. I didn’t want special treatment. I wanted everything to be the same as when I’d left. I needed to get healthy and strong, and I was determined to find Richard Owens and bring him back to Virginia City to clear my name. I knew it could take weeks, maybe even months, before I was ready to face the gambler and bring him to justice.

I didn’t want to be known as Little Joe Cartwright—murderer—for the rest of my life. The man responsible needed to pay, although those plans didn’t need to be revealed until I felt I was ready to leave, find him, and set things right. And if my eldest brother still had doubts, maybe then he would accept the truth.

~~~

My plan didn’t work the way I’d intended. During the next couple of weeks, Pa was not farther than ten feet away from me at all times. After that first night, when it was just simple conversation between the four of us, the real questions started and they continued. Things I never thought I’d talk about were forced into the open. Pa and Hoss begged to know everything, a day-by-day account, which was impossible, but I tried my best to tell them what I thought they wanted to hear.

The first question was my leg and how it had been injured. We all sat down in front of the fire after supper the following evening, and I tried to explain the events of that day without causing my father any unnecessary grief.

“It was nothing really,” I started until Pa glared at me like he does when he wants the entire story and not just a limited version. He wasn’t going to let me off the hook that easy. “Okay,” I said, rethinking how much I could say without hurting my father.

“I’d been in prison a couple of months, I guess, and I got in a fight with the man I shared a cell with.” No way was I telling Pa and my brothers the whole story; they’d have to live with a more sterilized version.

“Go on, son.”

“Well, this man, this cellmate I had at the beginning of my time there, wouldn’t leave me alone. What I mean is he taunted me all the time, called me rich kid, made me fetch and carry for him like a trained dog. It didn’t take long before I got tired of him constantly ordering me around, and as I found out, I’d made a big mistake when I looked over my shoulder at him one day and said, “Get it yourself”.

I couldn’t look anyone in the eye, especially my father. The events of that day surfaced in my mind, the sudden pain, the prolonged pain. I rubbed my hands over my face. I didn’t want to go there. I’d buried that time once. I didn’t want to relive it again.

“Is that the man what hurt your leg, Little Joe?” Leave it to Hoss. I could see him wringing his hands together, ready and willing to do bodily harm to the man who’d injured me. I glanced up at my big brother and nodded then continued the story, but I vowed right then and there, this would be the only story featuring Harold Collier that I’d be forced to tell.

“We were all chained together at the ankle while we worked the quarry. Some of the prisoners were sort of like crew bosses and Harold, my cellmate, happened to be one of the bosses. We were all stretched out in a line, hammering large pieces of rock into smaller ones that could easily be carried away, when he came up behind me and called out my name. With a twelve-inch length of chain between men, you were constantly watching your footing. It didn’t take much to land in a heap on the rocks and embarrass yourself in front of the other men.

“After I heard his voice, before I could turn around, he slammed the lead pipe he carried across the back of my leg.” I covered my face, my breathing became quick and shallow when I remembered the pain, then falling to the ground, only to be pulled back up to my feet, forcing me to continue to work. “He told me to get on my feet, and if I ever back-talked him again, he’d consider it a privilege to break the other leg too. I knew the bone was broken, but I was chained, and I . . .”

“Ya mean you never saw no doctor when ya had a broke leg?” Hoss said, not quite understanding that kind of inhumane behavior

I shook my head. “No, never did, Hoss. The one thing I can say about Harold; he was a man of his word, and, I preferred to keep my right leg intact.”

Pa looked away. I’d said too much already, but the story was told and it didn’t need to be talked about again. Clearly, the bone didn’t heal right. It never had a chance. I finished out the remainder of the day with a broken leg, using my long-handled hammer as sort of a crutch, and I was back at the quarry every day after that. I would carry this limp for the rest of my life. I lived in pain for a long time after that day, but I’d learned my lesson, at least for the time being. There were countless other events, but nothing as visually permanent as a lame leg.

“I’m sorry, Joseph.”

“Over and forgotten, Pa. It was a long time ago.”

“I just wish I—”

“Don’t say it, Pa. I’m a free man now. No need to dwell on the past.”

Pa nodded his head. My father had tried his best to get me released, but every avenue he’d taken had failed. I never blamed him. I hope he knew that. I was framed for murder and by damned; I would prove my innocence to the world.

~~~

Two weeks passed. I was eating more and regaining some of my strength—I felt good. That didn’t mean Pa was ready for me to leave the house. I’d been out to the barn daily, spending time with Cochise and getting reacquainted. I was ready to take him for a ride; I just had to convince my father I was healthy enough and strong enough to take care of myself. I would turn thirty years old this year although there were times Pa tended to forget and continued to treat me like I was closer to ten.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” Pa said, after I’d told him the night before, I was riding out with Hoss to help him with the fencing he’d found down the other day. I needed to get back to work; I needed to feel useful and build up my strength. Sitting around the house resting every day wasn’t doing the trick.

“I feel fine, Pa. I’m used to hard work, you know.”

“Yes, son, I’m sure you are. Go ahead then but be careful.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll try to keep Hoss outta trouble and on task.”

Pa smiled, but there was sadness in his eyes. “See you at supper, son.”

“You bet, Pa.”

Mounting Cochise was challenging, just as the gentle mare had been when I’d ridden her home from the livery, but after a couple of tries, I managed to be back on Cooch, something I’d dreamed of for a very long time. Hoss drove the wagon filled with supplies and we headed out. The sky was blue and the hillsides were green. I was home on the Ponderosa—life was good.

~~~

Adam, as I found out early on, was in charge of the milling operation and he rode off early that morning to make sure everything was running on schedule. In the two weeks since I’d been home, he and I hadn’t talked, I mean, really talked. There was always ranch talk while we sat together in the evenings or during breakfast where decisions were made, mostly by my brothers, as to what would be taken care of that day.

Eight years ago, Pa sat at the head of the table, handing out instructions to the three of us for the day’s schedule. Things had changed. Pa still sat at the head, but Adam and Hoss told Pa their plans and everyone seemed to know their jobs and what needed done, everyone except me. My brothers were more in command of things and I was just a follower. It would take time to find my place; find out where I belonged or if I belonged.

I’d forgotten how tiring a day’s work on the Ponderosa could be. I didn’t complain, but I could have quit at lunchtime and headed back home for a nap. Different muscles, I guess, but man, I was beat when Hoss stopped for the day and we started back to the house.

“You’re still a hard worker, Little Joe, always was,” Hoss said. “We finished today what woulda taken me three or four days without you.”

“I didn’t spend eight years in a fancy hotel, you know.”

“I’m sorry, Joe. I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”

“I’m just joshin’ ya, big brother. I’m glad to be home.”

We rode along, Hoss in the wagon and me on Cochise, until he pulled the wagon to the side of the road. “What’s wrong?” I said, pulling up next to his seat.

“Can I ask ya somethin’, Little Joe?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Well, that guy—that guy what messed up your leg—was he real mean to you, I mean, other than messing up your leg?”

“Don’t fret over him, Hoss. He was just a mean sort of guy. He didn’t like anyone.”

“Well, I was just wonderin’ if he hurt ya more than just your leg.”

I wasn’t about to go there, especially with Hoss. I’d lived a lifetime of nightmares and I’d come to terms, more or less, with Harold and his way of breaking in the new guy. It was prison life, and it wasn’t meant for my overgrown, but gentle, big brother’s ears.

“Not anything to speak of, Hoss, anyway, he’s in bad shape now. Seems he ended up too close to the blasting one day in the quarry. His right arm ended up in a million pieces, scattered to kingdom come over endless tons of rock.”

“Well, guess he got what he deserved, didn’t he, Joe?”

“Guess he did, Hoss.”

I hoped Hoss wouldn’t figure things out, things like I was the man who set the blast. It’s a story I wouldn’t tell my father. It went against everything he believed in or had taught us all our lives. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” Pa drilled that verse into us from the day we were old enough to understand. Life was sacred and every man put on this earth was here for a reason, although in Harold’s case, I beg to differ.

Harold’s arm wasn’t the only thing he’d lost that day. He also lost vision in his right eye and his face, neck, and chest were scarred from burns caused by the explosion. When he was released from the infirmary, he was put in a cell by himself. Call it payback. Call it vengeance. I didn’t much care.

After dinner that evening, I excused myself and went upstairs to bed. I was dead on my feet and I had things on my mind. Things I hadn’t thought about for a long time. Things I thought I’d buried, but had climbed back to the surface once again.

Time heals all wounds; at least that’s what I’d told myself ever since Harold Collier was practically blown clear to kingdom come. Rehashing everything he’d done to a young man once known as Little Joe wasn’t going to help. I needed to re-dig that hole a little deeper and bury those memories once and for all.

~~~

Hoss and I rode out together every morning that week, only today, we got to play ditch diggers. My expertise with the shovel and Hoss’ brute strength got us through the day. Smart little beavers and their dam building skills plugged the main stream our cattle used as their water supply up. Adam had noticed the problem yesterday on his way home from the mill, and he suggested what a pleasant day Hoss and I could have enjoyed the cool, refreshing stream as we removed the beaver’s dam.

“I think we can handle that. What do you say, Hoss?”

“Yeah,” he said, not truly relishing the thought. “Seems to me it’s only a one-man job and since you’re the youngest—“

“Oh no, big brother. Don’t even think you’re gonna pawn this job off on just me.”

So there I stood, knee-deep in muddy, slimy ditch water. I’d removed my gun belt and hat early on, and without thinking, I stripped off my shirt and threw it up on the bank. I’m not sure why I bothered; I was already covered in mud from head to toe. The problem was I didn’t think, and as soon as I threw the shirt on the bank, I’d realized my mistake. I’d kept the scars hidden until now, and when I saw the look on my brother’s face, I would have done anything to spare him from seeing the countless marks, the crisscross design, the lashes the bullwhip had made.

“Joseph,” he said. I knew he was more than a little upset, seeing it for the first time, and I cursed myself for not thinking.

“Pull, Hoss,” I said, trying to distract. I knew he was shocked by what he’d seen when he let go of the limb in his hand and just stood there staring. “Pull hard on that branch and I think we’ve got it. Hoss—pull.”

I lay in bed that night, and as I expected, there was a knock on my door. Pa wanted to hear the story firsthand. He didn’t ask to see the scars; that would happen in time. He did want to know how I got them.

I sat up in bed, leaning back against my headboard as my father pulled up a chair. “It was my fault,” I said.

“Your fault?” Pa said in a loud whisper, not wanting anyone else to hear.

“Simple,” I said. “I tried to escape. I got caught.”

“When, son?”

“Just after the second appeal.” I looked up at my father who promptly looked away. “I knew there was no way out legally and I gave it a shot. As you can see, I failed.”

“I’m the one who failed you, Joseph.”

“I never blamed you, Pa. You did everything humanly possible.”

“If I could have—”

“Pa, as I said before. It’s over. It’s in the past.” I laid my hand on my father’s arm. “Let today be the first day of the rest of my life, no more talk of the past. I need to move forward, not backward. Please, Pa.”

Tears glistened in my father’s eyes. I wish I had the magic words that would ease his pain, but there were none. We had both suffered an injustice by spending those years apart and it was time to let it go. My future was at stake, and if I hung on to what was, or what should have been, I had no future at all.

Pa agreed—not another word would be said—but as soon as he left my room, memories of that day were as fresh as if it was yesterday. The post I was ordered to grab; the gray prison shirt ripped from my back. “Hold tight, boy,” said the man holding the whip, his head covered with a black hood. He stood directly behind me, cracking the whip just over my head.

Snap—the tips caught my shoulders—my chest slammed tight against the wooden post. “One,” he shouted. Again, the tips slashed my skin. “Two,” he, and the prisoners encircling the post, who’d been ordered to count along with him, yelled out together. “Three—four—five,” chanted in unison.

Sweat covered my face. Splinters dug at my hands and chest. “Six—seven.” I gripped tighter. “Eight—nine—ten.” The chanting became a dull roar.

Lightheaded and gasping for air, my hands slid down the rough wood. “Eleven—twelve”

“Hang on, boy,” he bellowed. “Thirteen—four—” I slid to my knees. Twenty in all and when I woke I was lying face down in the prison infirmary

The prison doctor was cleaning the wounds and changing the bandages. I lay flat on my stomach with a sheet covering my lower half while he worked diligently, spreading salve over the endless lashes I’d managed to endure. The remnants of my torn clothing had been destroyed, only the pain remained.

I lay face down for three days. The doc said he didn’t think I’d make it after the whippin’ I received. Said he’d never seen anyone take that many lashes and not succumb within just a few hours.

My life changed that day. Gone was the defiant young man. In his place, a new and different man emerged. I knew the voice behind the whip. It wasn’t just any voice; it was the voice of Harold Collier. I vowed revenge that day. I wouldn’t be content until life was forced from his body from my hand and my hand only.

~~~

Time passed. Pa, Hoss and I were as good as gold, but Adam and I were distant. We’d never been as close as Hoss and I were, but this was a different kind of silence. We were cordial with each other, but there was no love lost between us. I still hadn’t found the courage to sit and talk with him, and he hadn’t started any kind of conversation with me. It was high time I did something about it.

I was starting to feel human again. My body was filling out, thanks to Hop Sing, and the daily routine of work, which had done wonders to build up my stamina and strength. Weeks earlier, when I’d returned home, my clothes fit well enough, but gone was the strong, muscular body I’d had before prison. I thought I was hiding it well enough, but of course, my father had noticed right off and offered to buy me a new set of clothes or anything else I might need. I turned him down except for a new pair of boots. I was determined to get back in shape and I was getting much closer to my goal.

I needed to set things straight with Adam before I took off on my search for Richard Owens. I hadn’t mentioned my plan to anyone, but the time was drawing near. I had no idea where I’d start looking—heck, the guy could be living in New York City for all I knew, but there had to be a way to track him down, I just wasn’t exactly sure how.

During breakfast the following morning, Adam explained to Pa he needed to ride back up to the mill. The men were falling behind schedule the last time he’d been up there and he felt his presence would keep them all working as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I asked him if I could ride along. I hadn’t seen the operation since I’d been home, and more than just checking on the men at the mill, it would give me the time needed with my eldest brother.

“I might have to spend the night up there, ” Adam said.

“Fine by me. If it’s all right with Pa I’d like to see how things are run.”

“What do you think, Hoss?” Pa said. “Do you think we can spare these two for a couple of days?”

“Don’t see why not. It’s me who does all the work ‘round here anyhow.”

“Blast your hide, big brother,” I said, trying to keep a straight face. “Who climbs into muddy creek water while you stay nice and dry, standing on the bank telling me which limb to pull away next? And who pulls stupid cows, that ain’t got the sense God gave ‘em, out of mud holes while you sit on Chubb, laughing the whole time? Huh? Not too quick to answer, are ya?”

“Now, Joseph,” Hoss said, trying his best to look serious.

“Don’t you “now Joseph” me, big boy.”

Pa had already covered his mouth with his fist, curtailing his laughter. Hoss couldn’t hold back any longer, letting out a resounding guffaw even the ranch hands clear out at the bunkhouse could have heard. Adam, on the other hand, found no humor in our jovial antics. I’m sure he was already dreading spending two days with me. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it either, but it had to be done.

“I’ll hitch up the horses,” I said.

I hadn’t been up this way forever and I was confused as to the direction my brother took. Pa told me just this morning that Adam had drawn up the plans and had a new mill constructed while I was away, and he was proud to say it was extremely fast and efficient; finest mill in the territory. I never doubted my eldest brother’s ability to get things done and done right, and I had a feeling this had been Pa’s idea, something to take his mind off Grace.

It was a sight to see, and I knew why Pa was so proud of what my brother had accomplished. “This is a beauty, Adam,” I said as soon as I laid eyes on the new mill, which was twice the size I’d expected.

“It seems to work well, Joe. It was needed after the fire took the old one down in ’65.”

“Fire?” I questioned.

“Didn’t Pa write to you about the fire?”

“No.” I wondered how many other things I didn’t know, bits of information Pa decided wasn’t necessary to write about. My original thoughts about Adam dealing with the loss of Grace were way off base now that I knew about the fire.

“How’d it happen?”

“Lightning burned three to four hundred acres before the rains came.”

“This isn’t where the old mill was then, is it?”

“No. With the land blackened by fire, it didn’t make sense to build a new mill so far from where the loggers would be felling trees. This is about four miles from the old site, Joe.”

“Okay,” I said, mainly to myself. No one had mentioned anything about a fire and I had just been told about Adam building the new mill after I’d arrived back home. I imagine there were many things I hadn’t been told, same as the many things I felt needn’t be told. “Why don’t you show me around, Adam.”

“Be glad to.”

The tour was brief, and then my brother had work to do. He didn’t come up here just to spend time lollygagging with me. He needed to see how the work was coming along. “Anything I can do?”

“Nothing I can think of, Joe. I’m afraid this trip might prove to be boring for you.” He turned his back and walked up the hill to talk to the foreman. I stood watching my brother as he walked away, not really sure what he meant by boring, so I decided to look around for myself.

There was a newfangled saw—four in fact—that I no longer knew how to operate. I figured I’d just slow the men down who knew exactly what they were doing if I tried to step in and help. I walked around aimlessly, feeling a bit like a fool. Adam’s little brother, the ex-con, the guy with graying hair and a limp that didn’t know a dang thing about running a sawmill.

Maybe this was a mistake. I’d hoped we’d have time to talk, but it would have to wait until Adam finished his business with the foreman before we’d have that chance. At lunchtime, I sat with some of the crew, introduced myself, but saw no sign of my brother. It was a very long day.

Adam announced he was finished and we’d have time to make it back to the house for a late dinner. My plan didn’t work. It would have to be another time, but soon, before I needed to leave the ranch.

Days passed and I was determined to get my eldest brother alone. My chance finally came when Pa and Hoss went into town. Pa had business to take care of and Hoss would drive him into Virginia City and pick up supplies. Adam and I were left to finish chores around the house and barn.

Without a word in passing, Adam walked right by me then busied himself cleaning out the barn while I chopped kindling for Hop Sing’s stove. After about an hour, I was ready for a break and asked Hop Sing for two mugs of coffee. I carried them out to the barn where my brother had conveniently hidden. I handed him a cup.

“Thanks,” he said, before sipping the steaming brew.

“We need to talk, Adam.”

“Talk?”

I didn’t want to play games. He knew exactly why I was there. “I need to tell you what happened between Grace and me.”

“Pa told me everything that came out at the trial, Joe. It’s not something I want to hear twice.”

“I want you to hear it from me.”

“It’s not necessary. Grace is dead and you were wrongfully accused of her murder. End of story.”

“Is that what you believe?”

Adam shot me a look I wasn’t sure I understood. “Shouldn’t I?”

“Yes, you should because it’s the truth.”

“Then everything’s settled. Listen, Joe, I’m sorry I wasn’t here for the trial. I know it must have been rough and—”

“Rough? You think the trial was rough?” I was losing my temper and that wasn’t my intention. “How about eight years for a crime I didn’t commit?”

“Joe, I’m sorry it came to that, but—”

“But what, Adam? You think I killed her, don’t you?”

“Joe, I never said anything of the kind.”

“It’s what you think though, isn’t it?”

“Joe—”

“Isn’t it?” By this point, I was yelling and scaring the animals. I threw my half-empty cup against the barn wall and watched it shatter into a hundred little pieces. I turned too quickly and before I could right myself, my damn leg gave out, and I fell to the ground. Adam reached down and I felt his hand on my arm. “Let go of me,” I said, jerking my arm away.

“Joe, please.”

“Forget it, Adam.” I got back on my feet and limped awkwardly over to Cochise, then pulled the blanket and saddle from the half wall between the stalls.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Anywhere but here.”

I was in no mood for any more of Adam’s unspoken accusations and feeble attempt to placate me. I took the back way into Virginia City, not wanting to run into Pa or Hoss on their way back to the ranch. I ventured down C Street and didn’t see our buckboard and figured I was safe. After tying Cochise up in front of the sheriff’s office, I went in to talk to Roy.

“Hey, Little Joe,” Roy said, standing from his chair and extending his hand out to me. “Your Pa told me you was home. It’s good to see you, son.”

“Good to see you too, Sheriff.”

“Have a seat, Little Joe. Somethin’ I can do for ya?”

“There might be,” I said, but I stayed standing. “I need to find Richard Owens and I thought maybe this would be the best place to start.”

“That name sounds sorta familiar,” Roy said, as he sat back down behind his desk, “but I can’t rightly place him.”

“He’s the man who killed Grace Monroe. I thought he might be wanted for something else. Thought maybe you’d seen his name on one of your posters.”

“Oh, Richard Owens,” Roy said when realization finally hit. “Joe, that man’s dead. He got gunned down at some highfalutin’ poker game in Carson City not long after you was sent away.”

“He’s dead?” I felt the color drain from my face. I eased my hand onto Roy’s desk to steady myself.

“Sure enough is,” Roy said. “Thought your Pa woulda written ya about that. Weren’t that long after the trial, son.”

“Must have slipped his mind, I guess. Thanks anyway, Sheriff.” I turned to leave. I was dumbfounded, to say the least.

“You take care of yourself, Little Joe.”

“You do the same, Sheriff.”

Holding Cochise’s reins, I crossed the street to the Silver Dollar, which was always more subdued than the Bucket of Blood, at least it used to be, and my whole mood was quite subdued. This was my first trip into town since I’d stepped off the stage a few weeks ago, and I was still amazed at how grown up and city-like everything seemed.

Maybe it was just me. Maybe I was the one who was different, not the town. I wasn’t sure if this is where I belonged anymore, in fact, I wasn’t sure I belonged anywhere at all. Eight years may not seem like a long time to some, but it was a lifetime to me. And now with Owens dead.

“Give me a beer.”

When the bartender set the beer on the bar in front of me, he didn’t leave and go about his business like I thought he should. I lifted my beer and glanced up at him. “What?” I said. How annoying was this?

“Is that you, Little Joe?”

“Yeah—”

“It’s me, Cosmo.”

“Sure, I’m sorry, Cosmo. I had something else on my mind.”

“It’s good to have you back.”

“It’s good to be back.”

I wasn’t in the mood for people or chitchat, and I took a seat at an empty table in the corner of the saloon. There were no fancy poker games being played and only a few miners drinking beer with friends rather than catching forty winks before their next shift.

I remembered a time I sat in this very saloon. I thought I was the best poker player in all of Nevada. Boy, did I find out the hard way when my luck changed unexpectedly, and I began signing markers for ready cash. What a fool I’d been that night.

Adam had tried to save my hide by giving me money to pay off the loan to a man named McDonald. Things turned out much different than I had planned when McDonald thought I needed to learn a lesson about money owed. I almost lost my life that night from a beating I never expected from two local boys I’d dealt with most of my life. But I came through that ordeal. Physical wounds heal in time. The wounds deep inside your soul linger forever.

Bad things happen when you’re on your own with no one watching your back. Life behind bars showed me that. Some wounds you bury deep inside—some you wrestle with for the remainder of your life, trying constantly to maintain a semblance of control and not let the world know you’re damaged in some way. Joe Cartwright was damaged goods.

With Owens dead, my plans for redemption were shot all to hell. How would I ever prove to Adam or anyone else in town that he’s the one who killed Grace with my knife? There would always be doubt in people’s minds. “Did Joe Cartwright get away with murder? Boy shoulda been hung for killin’ his brother’s girl.” Is that what Pa and my brothers had to listen to every time they came into town? Why would anyone think any different? Why would Adam think any different?

I looked up when the batwing doors flew open and two men came waltzing in with their arms around each other’s shoulders, laughing and carrying on as if they’d started drinking at breakfast time. I stared at the camaraderie of friends then realized I knew both men. As young boys, we’d been together in school, and when we were all around sixteen years old, we all quit our schoolin’ and went to work on our father’s ranches.

They each picked up the beer Cosmo had drawn and stood to lean with their backs against the bar. Sam, the taller of the two, glanced my way. It took him a minute, but he did, in fact, recognize me. Nudging his friend Eddie in the ribs, I heard my name mentioned. Both men sauntered my way and took seats on either side of me at my corner table.

“Little Joe Cartwright,” Sam said, after setting his beer on the table, intending to sit with me a spell whether I liked it or not.

“Sam—Eddie,” I said.

“Didn’t know you were back, Joe,” Eddie said.

I nodded. I really didn’t want to talk about it, not with these two in the inebriated state they were in.

“Is it true what people say, Little Joe?”

“What’s that, Eddie?”

“That you claimed you was innocent of killin’ that lady? That some guy framed ya?”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“You know, Little Joe, there was rumors durin’ the trial that you and your brother’s lady friend was kinda hittin’ it on the side. That true too?” Sam said with a smirk on his face while nudging my elbow with his own.

I glared at the man, who was a complete idiot in school, and it seemed not much had changed over the years.

“You and that lady get a little too friendly with each other? I heard lots a stories ‘bout you and her back then, Little Joe.”

I grabbed the front of Sam’s shirt and pulled him to his feet. “You wanna continue this discussion outside, Sam?”

“Just sayin’ what I heard—”

My left fist found its mark and sent Sam Taylor sprawled over the table behind him and onto the floor. I started after him again when Eddie grabbed hold of my arm. I shook him off and picked Sam up by his shirt again and plowed my right fist hard against his stomach, a left across his jaw.

I turned to pick my hat up off the table when Eddie cracked a chair across the back of my head. Now it was all-out war. Eddie and I fought. Sam and I fought. We pummeled the hell out of each other until none of us could throw another punch. I could barely breathe as blood and sweat dripped down the front of my shirt from cuts and a bloody nose. I was so out of practice it’s a wonder they didn’t kill me. My only satisfaction was they both looked as bad, maybe worse than I did.

I reached a second time for my hat and made my way out of the saloon. I could barely stay on my feet. I grabbed on to the hitching rail still trying to calm down. I prayed my leg wouldn’t give out and I could mount my horse without landing flat on my butt and making a spectacle of myself.

It was obvious to everyone when I walked through the front door of the house that it hadn’t been my best day. Pa rushed to my side, and with his hand placed gently on my back, he guided me to the settee. Is it possible to feel like a little kid and an old man at the same time? I was beat all to hell and I could’ve looked after myself, but I favored my father’s gentle touch as would that little kid, making it all better and making the pain go away.

“What happened, Joe?”

I closed my eyes and shook my head.

“Who did this to you, son?” Pa was persistent and he was determined to know everything that happened when one of his sons came home looking as banged up as I did.

“Just a disagreement with a couple of fellas in town.”

“A disagreement? Someone beats you half to death over a disagreement?”

“Nothing that hasn’t been said before, I’m sure.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ask Adam. He seems to know the truth.”

“Son, I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I.”

~~~

I would heal, even without the help of Doc Martin, although it took some convincing on my part. I told Pa this wasn’t anything compared to what I’d been through before. As soon as I’d opened my mouth, I regretted the words I’d said. I could only hope he was remembering the gambling incident with McDonald and the Allen brothers and not considering anything else.

Somehow, I’d always managed to heal and I suppose I would again. I’d been beat up before and if I went back into Virginia City, odds were, it would happen again. I was an easy target for a man’s frustration, someone itchin’ for a fight—I was their man.

Pa and I talked long into the night. The open cuts were bandaged and the bruises would fade away in time. After a few days, no trace of the disagreement would be left as a reminder of what my life had become. Damaged goods.   No mother would allow her daughter to be seen with me. No rancher would trust the word of an ex-con. What were my chances in this town, on this ranch, or even in this family?

I had numerous questions that night, things I was finding out now, things I’d never been told. “Why wasn’t I told Owens was dead,” I asked my father, starting simple, but wanting more answers than I dared to ask in one sitting.

“I tried to keep my letters positive, son. Maybe I was wrong in doing that.”

“The fire, the new mill. I never knew until I got home. Didn’t you think I wanted to know those things?”

“I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t want you to worry. I figured you had enough on your plate without hearing bad news from home.”

I rested my head on the back of the settee. It had been a long day and I should have gone to bed, but my frustration over the events that took place in town kept me awake, and I ended up saying more to my father than I should have.

“For eight long years, all I could think about was finding Richard Owens and bringing him back to Virginia City for a full confession. I wanted people to know for sure—to honestly believe—I was innocent. I wanted all the doubts in people’s minds washed away. How do I prove that now, Pa? How do I prove, without a doubt that I was innocent? I can’t even convince my own brother.”

“Your brother?”

“Yes, Pa, my brother.”

“Joseph. Adam doesn’t for one minute think you’re to blame.”

“You’re wrong, Pa. Deep down he thinks I killed Grace.”

“I don’t know where you got that idea, but—”

“Ask him straight out, Pa,” I interrupted before he said anymore. “Then you’ll know what he really thinks happened between me and Grace.”

~~~

When morning came, I had trouble finding a reason to get out of bed. Hoss had banged on my door in passing on his way down to breakfast. I wasn’t the least bit hungry so I turned my back to the door and curled up on my side, pulling the quilt up tight over my shoulders. It wasn’t long before Pa knocked on his way into my room.

“Feel all right this morning, son?”

I rolled onto my back and at least looked toward my father when I spoke. “Just tired, Pa.”

“Why don’t you stay home and rest today? I’m riding out with your brothers to the north pasture to check on the herd. We shouldn’t be all day.”

“Think I’ll take you up on that, Pa.”

“You make sure you have Hop Sing fix you something to eat when you get up.”

“Okay.”

I rolled back on my side, pulling the quilt up again. The door closed softly behind me. I was anxious for a day alone; it was a luxury I took great pleasure in. No time frame—no schedule. No do this do that. It was like a holiday for me and I savored every minute I was able to spend alone.

Three sets of hooves beat the ground below my window as Pa and my brothers rode out. I was invigorated by their absence. I tossed off the blanket and swung my legs over the side of the bed, realizing immediately the mistake I’d made. Like an idiot, I’d all but forgotten about the results of yesterday’s “disagreement.” I slid my hand across my aching ribs and eased myself off the bed.

Dressing was difficult though I managed everything except my boots. I wasn’t planning to go far, maybe downstairs or maybe I’d venture out to the front porch, so it just didn’t seem worth the hassle of bending over that far.

The noticeable flecks of gray in my hair still shocked me every time I looked in the mirror. I was going to end up as white-haired as my father before long. Did I look older than I felt? I shouldn’t have gray hair yet. I was still a relatively young man, but prison ages a man past his years.

I ran my finger down the small scar on my cheek. A scar I’d gotten as a young boy when a branch slit my face after I’d lost my footing in a tall cottonwood tree and plummeted to the ground. With a scream, loud enough to wake the dead, Pa came running. He’d been sitting on the front porch doing paperwork and hadn’t seen my attempt to rescue our cat, Samson, from high in the tree.

I remember Pa rushing toward me; his large, gentle hands caressing my face and pressing me back down to the ground when I tried to sit up. As it turned out, my only injury was the gash on my cheek, and after Pa sent Adam for the doctor, he picked me up like a baby and carried me into the house. He didn’t bother laying me on the settee; he carried me straight upstairs to my bedroom.

“I’m fine Papa,” I said, although I was shivering while the summer day was warm. “I don’t need no doctor.”

Pa didn’t say a word. He pulled off my boots and covered me with a quilt from the foot of my bed. He kept turning his head away and rubbing his eyes. “Must have gotten a piece of cotton from that darn tree stuck in my eye,” he said. When he finally got his eyes straightened out, he turned to me and smiled.

“It don’t hurt much, Papa,” I said, which was mostly a lie.

“Shhh, Little Joe. Lay still now.” He held a cloth over the cut on my face for a long, long time, until the doctor finally arrived and stitched me back up. I think I might have fallen asleep for a moment or two, listening to Pa tell me a story all about pirates and their adventures on the high seas.

“He’ll probably have a scar, Ben, but I’ve done all I can do for now,” I heard the doctor say. “There are no broken bones as far as I can tell, and there appears to be no internal damage. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

I squeezed Pa’s hand tightly while the doc stitched me up, but now he was squeezing mine. I couldn’t talk with the huge bandage on my face and when I looked back up at my papa, he nodded and smiled. I knew right then that everything would be all right.

I tilted my head up and ran my fingers over the newer scar, the one that ran just under my chin from the prison-made metal shank. I needed to squeeze Pa’s hand that night. I needed him to tell me things would be all right.

I skipped the shave. That was enough reminders for now. I headed downstairs, planning to sweet talk Hop Sing into making a second breakfast. He was kind enough to oblige, and after I finished a good-sized portion of ham and biscuits, I took a mug of coffee out on the front porch and enjoyed the peaceful morning, no distractions, no time constraints.

This was livin’. The family had ridden out and the ranch hands, even Curly, were off doing whatever Pa had instructed for the day. Doves cooed to their mates while blue jays squawked at some nearby predator. I closed my eyes, leaning my head against the back of the rocker and listened to the gentle chatter.

How could I convince my brother I wasn’t to blame? There’d been no eyewitness except the killer. I told my story the best I could on the stand, but with what the deputy had so eloquently reported, my testimony seemed worthless. Guilty as charged.

Maybe if I got Hoss alone. He’s the one person, who, as hard as he’d try to spare my feelings, couldn’t sit in front of me straight-faced and lie. It was time to settle this business with Adam, get everything out in the open and put an end to this constant torment.

Seasons were changing. The morning air was crisp and cool. A couple more months and snow would fly, which meant the outside work had to be done beforehand, as we’d all be confined to the house for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. The way things were now, that wasn’t an option. Adam and I hadn’t spent five minutes in the same room together since I’d returned. No way could we last out the winter.

I jolted myself awake. I’d fallen asleep and the sun was high in the sky. That beating took more out of me that I’d realized and I felt every aching muscle when I stood up from the chair. Conscious of the fact I was barefoot, I walked cautiously back across the wooden planks.

“Son-of-a—”

Jerking my foot off the porch, I dropped the mug, and then proceeded to fall over the small table, knocking it sideways and landing hard against the wooden planks. My aching ribs sang out in protest against the fool who left his boots in his room. Then, to only make matters worse, three horses came rounding the side of the barn, taking in the whole humiliating scene. I made it to my feet, or should I say foot, by the time Pa reached me, steadying me, and trying to figure out what just happened. “Joe?”

“Stepped on a wasp, Pa.”

My father stared at my bare feet, and out of the kindness of his heart, he kept his thoughts to himself. Adam’s hand was covering his mouth, while Hoss was making enough racket to wake the dead.

“Keep your comments to yourselves,” I said, glaring at my brothers.

“Ain’t nobody else knows how to get hisself in a fix like you do, little brother.” I glared at Hoss a second time. The dang sting hurt and it was the foot attached to the good leg.

“I’m just gonna sit back down here, Pa.” I was in no mood for a repeat performance.

“Fine,” Pa said. “I’ll tell Hop Sing.”

My restful, peaceful day was shot all to heck. I couldn’t stand up if I wanted to. Hop Sing was quick to put a baking soda paste on the bottom of my foot and Pa suggested lunch be served on the front porch. I wasn’t going anywhere soon, and if my brothers didn’t have any plans for the afternoon, I’d be teased and laughed at for the rest of the day.

As it turned out, Adam left the house soon after he ate lunch and rode back up to the mill. He would spend the night and start back sometime tomorrow. Hoss was off to clean out another dam those crafty little beavers had built. He made a definite point of telling me who would be standing knee-deep in the stream this time.

That left Pa home with me, and feeling as though I needed a companion for the rest of the afternoon, he brought his paperwork outside to keep me company in my sedentary state. As much as I thought I wanted to be alone, I was glad Pa decided to join me.

I found it relaxing to just sit and rock. Hop Sing brought out lemonade and cookies around mid-afternoon and not long after that Hoss rode in. Poor guy was covered head to toe with an even layer of mud. Even his hat looked like it had seen better days with more than one shade of murky gray slime covering it entirely.

After he put up his horse, my big, muddy brother marched right past us without a word and into the bathhouse where the ear-piercing Cantonese words could be heard clear out to the front porch. I smiled at my father as he shook his head, then shut his ledger and leaned back in his chair.

“How’s the foot, Joseph?”

“Well, I probably shouldn’t be stickin’ my foot in some muddy old stream just yet, Pa.”

“No, I suppose not. Think you can make it back in the house now?”

“I could if I had to.” The conversation was lazy and comfortable and I would be content to rock in the chair forever.

“Well, I’m going in. I’m ready for a cup of coffee.”

“I’ll hold down the fort. You go ahead.”

Eventually, I did have to go in when Hoss hollered out the front door. “Supper’s on the table. Ya better get a move on if ya wanna eat.”

“On my way.”

~~~

I’d worked on a plan all afternoon. This was my chance to talk to Hoss without Adam around to stumble into our conversation, which I deemed a private affair, not something I even wanted to discuss with Pa.

With supper out of the way, and Hoss in a better mood than when he rode in earlier, I convinced him to come sit outside and enjoy the crispness of the fall air.

“Since when do you enjoy crisp air?” Hoss said.

“There are lots of things I enjoy, big brother, things I appreciate, things I once took for granted, and crisp air just happens to be one of them.”

“Sorry, Joe, I didn’t mean nothin’.”

“Come on.”

Hoss followed me outside. I was quite a sight as I stumbled along, grabbing onto pieces of furniture as I made my way across the room and out to the porch.

“Ya need some help, little brother?”

“You could have asked before we started ya know, not two feet from our destination.” There was a big difference in what I could say to Hoss and what I could say to Adam. Hoss understood when I was joking. Adam did not.

I plopped, unceremoniously, into the rocker I’d already spent most of the day in while Hoss dragged a chair up next to mine. “Somethin’ on your mind, Little Joe?”

“Sorta,” I said. I looked over my shoulder to see if the window was open behind Pa’s desk and found it shut up tight. “I kinda wanted to talk to you without Pa or Adam around.”

“Did I do somethin’ wrong?”

“No, it, well, it sorta concerns the trial and . . .”

“The trial?”

“Will you be straight with me? You won’t lie to me, will you, Hoss?”

“I ain’t never lied to ya before, have I?”

“Well, don’t start now.” I wasn’t sure where to start but the beginning was always best.

“Well—”

“I want you to tell me where Adam was when I got arrested, Hoss, and tell me where he was during the trial.”

“Joe, why ya gotta dredge all that up for?”

“I need to know. No one’s ever been straight with me, not even Pa.”

“Joe—Pa don’t lie.”

“You’re right. Pa don’t lie, but sometimes he leaves things out.”

“He leaves things out for a reason, Joe.”

“I need to know, Hoss. If I’m ever going to make peace with Adam, I need to know what I’m up against.”

Hoss rubbed the palms of his hands together, studying on things for a minute before he spoke. “You sure you wanna hear all this?”

“I’m sure.”

“Well, Adam left the same day you was found there with Miss Grace, but he didn’t know nothin’ about it at the time. He’d gone and worked hisself all up, thinkin’ the worst of ya, Joe.”

“Go on.”

“Well, Hop Sing told us all about the operation Miss Grace was gonna have from that Dr. Kim feller and that’s when Adam, well, he kinda said things he should notta said.”

“What things?”

“Joe—” he said, with signs of discomfort. “Don’t make me tell ya all this.”

I sat as calmly as possible and stared at Hoss. This was just as hard for him to explain as it was for me to hear. “Come on, Hoss. I need to know everything.”

He let out a long, slow breath before he was ready to talk. “Well, after Hop Sing told us about Doctor Kim, Adam kinda went into a rage, saying stuff like it was your baby, not his. Then he stormed outta the house, accusin’ Pa of always believin’ you instead of him.”

Without looking up at Hoss, I nodded my head. Adam really did believe I’d had an affair with Grace and that I’d solved the problem by taking her to see Doctor Kim. “What do you think, Hoss?”

“Oh, Joe. I knew you’d never do nothin’ like that. I told him so too, but his mind was all crazy with jealousy.”

“So that’s when he left home?”

“Yeah, said he couldn’t live here no more.”

“So what happened after the trial?”

“Well, as I already said, Adam took off right then and there before he knew anything about you or Grace. Pa and I never knew where he took off to, but he didn’t come home till he saw your likeness, and the name Joe Cartwright, on the front page of some newspaper. That’s when he come back, but by then the trial was over and you was already gone—ya know, to prison.”

I nodded again. “That makes sense.”

“It does?”

“Yeah, it does. Is that all?”

“Well, what no one knew, ‘ceptin me, was that Adam and Grace weren’t plannin’ on comin’ back here to live after their honeymoon. They was gonna settle back east somewhere, Boston, I s’pose. Adam wanted to work with his architecture and he said he couldn’t do that here. I guess he felt like everything he learned in college was wasted if’n he stayed living here. Said he’d already written to some firm back east and they invited him to come there and work.”

It all made sense now. It wasn’t just the loss of Grace; it was his plans for the future. As soon as I was sent away, Adam was stuck here. He didn’t dare leave the ranch, leaving Pa and Hoss to take care of everything alone. He was forced to stay, forced to help keep the ranch running. All his dreams of a future away from the Ponderosa were gone, and I was the only one to blame.

“Adam must have been proud of himself for constructing the new mill, right?”

“I s’pose he should have been but he weren’t.”

“Why, Hoss? I saw it. It’s gotta be the finest mill operation in all of Nevada.”

“He just ain’t the same, Joe. You seen that for yourself. He ain’t happy here; he don’t want to be here no more.”

There was silence and I felt the cool, crisp air wash over me, then just like a lightning strike, it hit me. I needed to take over the mill operation and make it so Adam wasn’t in charge of anything important, and then he wouldn’t be needed here anymore. He’d be free to leave the Ponderosa, free to make a life for himself somewhere that he’d be happy.

Tomorrow I would devise a plan, a purpose in life for me and a new beginning for Adam.

~~~

My ribs didn’t feel any better when I crawled out of bed, but I wasn’t about to go barefoot again, so I bent over and pulled my boots on, still feeling the soreness from yesterday. The cuts and bruises from my fight with Sam and Eddie were fading as I scraped the razor across my face.

I thought I’d gotten up early, but Pa and Hoss were already finished with breakfast and drinking their second cup of coffee before I made it downstairs. There were a few morsels of food left on the platter and Pa was more than happy to call Hop Sing out to make more.

“This will do,” I said. “I just need some coffee.”

“How’s your foot this morning?”

“Fine,” I said. I was trying to figure out how to break the news to Pa that I wanted to take over the mill operation without divulging more information than necessary. I knew he’d never be keen on Adam leaving, and I sure didn’t want him to blame me outright, so I had to be subtle and map my words out carefully.

“What are your plans today, Joseph?”

“Glad you asked that, Pa.” I sat down my cup and turned my attention to my father. “I was thinking. Since I’m not cut out for horse breaking or rounding up wild mustangs anymore, what would you say about me taking over the mill?”

“The mill?” I’d really caught Pa off guard on this one.

“Just listen to what I have to say, Pa. It’s an easy ride up there and I thought maybe you could use Adam here for, I don’t know, paperwork, ledgers, whatever. Of course, I would need Adam’s help at first, kind of get me started, let me know what needs to be accomplished in whatever timeframe he’s laid out.”

“I don’t know, son,” Pa said, seeming a bit concerned. “Why the mill?”

“I don’t know. I thought it might be something I could do without sittin’ a horse all day, which isn’t an option anymore with this leg. I refilled my cup and looked back at my father. “I need to feel useful, Pa. I need to dig into something and feel like I’m doing my share around here.”

That tactic should work better than anything else, although the more I thought about the prospect of having something that was mine and no one else’s excited me. I sensed Pa was studying the idea and just maybe I’d really hit on something this time.

“You know what I’m saying, Pa? I need a job to do; something I’m responsible for.”

“The mill’s always been Adam’s project, son. I just don’t know if—”

“Then let me talk to him. You don’t have to say a word about it. I’ll feel him out, see what he thinks.”

“If you’re sure that’s what you want, son. I never thought the mill would be something you’d be interested in.”

“Things change, Pa. It’s time for me to settle down and try to accomplish something on my own. I’d sure like to give it a try.”

I stood from the chair; the discussion was over. Adam should be home sometime later today and I could present my case. Meanwhile, Hoss and I had work to do.

Pa sent the two of us to Virginia City for supplies. My first thought was to balk at the simple request my father made, knowing it was a one-man job, and one Hoss could have easily accomplished by himself without me along. But if I wanted to take on the job of my mature, responsible elder brother, I had to watch myself, although I’d learned quite well while I was away, when to speak up and when to keep my mouth shut.

I’d learned a lot these past few years about thinking before speaking. Beatings were commonplace during those first weeks, months really, and there were times I wasn’t sure I could handle even one more day. The beatings were a daily occurrence. I was young, and some would tend to say a bit hotheaded.

The infirmary was a joke. I only saw the prison doctor once, and that was following my failed attempt to escape when my back was on fire and nothing the prison doctor did helped ease my suffering. There were no painkillers like Doc Martin would have prescribed, no gentle hands to soothe the burning flesh, just fire. Any other time, when a prisoner was beaten or dropped to the ground from exhaustion, only pointless, brutal consequences followed.

Flicking the reins at the horse’s rumps, I headed the team around the side of the barn. I let my mind wander and memories I’d tried to suppress became brilliant, almost lifelike images, taking me back to my first beating, behind walls where there was no escape, and where guards didn’t give a rat’s ass unless someone died.

It was all about body count. A prisoner’s death meant no monthly paycheck for the warden, so a beating never went that far. It all began for me when the man sitting next to me in the mess hall took the only piece of bread I would get the entire day. I knew so little at the time. I guess you always remember the first of anything.

I swung first, a grave mistake, and I found out the consequences of that mistake. I was hauled outside to the yard, then to what was commonly called the hole; a six-by-six-by-six foot wooden box with a small air hole cut in one side. As I nursed my battered body, after I was jumped and pummeled by my entire table of men, I realized a lot of things. No one was sent to the infirmary unless it became evident the warden might lose a handsome chunk of that monthly paycheck.

I paced until my energy was spent. The pain that shot through my face and stomach was nothing compared to the lack of air in the tiny box, but still, I kept moving. By day two, I sat, only shifting my weight and by day three; I was lying on the ground until a guard dragged me out and into the open yard.

After three days in the dark, airless sweatbox, I realized a few more things. I was truly on my own, and if I didn’t learn quickly how to play the game, I wouldn’t survive. I was young and naïve and I’d just spent my first three days at the Territorial Prison in the worst place on earth. I was escorted from the box, still in chains—always in chains—and down to work in the quarry alongside everyone else.

I wanted to die that day. I was ready to give up, and if it weren’t for my father, and knowing how precious he thought life was, I might have said adios to this world. But I didn’t think my father would survive if I didn’t do what was necessary to make it through my sentence and return home.

In some ways, the three-day experience made me stronger. After the wounds healed and I began to learn the ropes, I managed to hold my temper, but I was never strong enough to avoid my cellmate, the madman named Harold Collier.

“Joseph!” Hoss yelled.

I quickly straightened the reins before we veered off the side of the road and plummeted headfirst down the rocky embankment. Hoss jerked the reins from my hands and took over driving the team.

“Sorry, Hoss.” My heart was beating double-time against the wall of my chest. Just the thought of—

“What’s the matter with you? Ya almost got us killed?”

“Nothin’, I—I’m sorry.”

I’d told myself repeatedly, the man could never hurt me again. I knew that for a fact, although in spite of everything, the fear he’d instilled was a constant reminder of how life had been. Remembering clouded my mind, taking me away from the present and landing me right back inside those prison walls.

~~~

“Joseph!”

Why was Hoss yelling at me? “What?” I hollered back, realizing I was yelling too.

“I asked if you was ready to go get a beer. What’s with you today anyhow?”

We’d finished loading the buckboard and my mind was so consumed with Harold Collier, I didn’t remember hauling out any of the supplies. I declined the offer of a beer without much of an explanation, which I’m sure my brother found odd, but I was in no mood to be taunted in the local saloon. I was too much on edge right now and I feared I’d say or do something I’d regret. There was no need to bring Hoss into the fray and that’s exactly what would happen.

After we returned to the house and had unloaded the wagon, Pa gave us the rest of the day off. There were always chores to be done and Hoss and I ventured out to the barn to clean and straighten up the tack. My mind wasn’t on my work and it didn’t take Hoss long to realize I was off in my own little world.

“Come here, Joe,” he said, guiding me to a bale of hay. I went willingly and we each took a seat. Hoss leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and looked my way. “What’s botherin’ ya, little brother? Ya ain’t been actin’ yourself at all.”

I let out a long breath before I found the words to answer. “It’s just one of those days, Hoss. Nothin’ special—just, it’s nothin’.”

“You can talk to me, ya know.”

“I know, Hoss. But really, it’s nothin’.” I knew he wanted more; I just wasn’t able to tell him.

“If there’s anything—”

I smiled, assuring him I was fine. “It’ll pass.” I wondered if I maybe I should have told him the bread story and let it go at that, but I knew how even that little bit of prison life would keep him awake at night. “Let’s go see if Hop Sing’s baking cookies. I’m starved.”

~~~

Adam made it home in time for supper. I was nervous enough without having Pa and Hoss’ eyes shifting in my direction during the entire meal. Adam finally noticed the lack of conversation and asked what was going on. I’d planned to wait until he and I could be alone, but I felt pressured into stating my proposal.

I scooted my plate forward, leaned my elbows on the dining room table, and after a quick glance at Pa, I turned my attention to Adam. “What would you say about me taking over the mill operation?” The look of surprise was a given but just as I expected, a frown appeared.

“The mill? Why on earth would you want to do that?” Adam glanced at Pa for confirmation and Pa leaned back in his chair and nodded for me to continue.

“Like I was saying to Pa this morning, I think it’s something I might be able to handle around here since I’m limited in my abilities to do other things.”

“I don’t know quite what to say, Joe. You know nothing about running a mill.”

“Well, I have you to show me all I’d need to know.” Although never a simple task, I had to break through that rigid exterior Adam conveniently wrapped around himself. “You know everything there is to know about the operation. Where would I find a better teacher than you?”

“Pa?” Adam said, but my father didn’t respond. He nodded at Adam to continue the conversation with me, not him.

Pa stood up from the dining room table. “Hoss?”

“Yessir?”

“How about a game of checkers?”

“Um, sure, Pa.”

Pa and Hoss left us alone to finish our discussion in private. There was no way Adam could avoid me now. He would either have to agree with my proposal or give me flat-out no.

“I’m still confused, Joe. You really want to run the mill?”

“Listen, Adam. I know it’s not a desk job, and you know I couldn’t handle it if it was, but here’s the thing. I’m no bronc-buster anymore; I can’t chase mustangs or even strays. So the horse operation, the one I’d started before—well, before prison, has to go to someone else, a younger man maybe, a hired hand.” I’d said this to Pa, but I didn’t want Adam to know. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “I need to feel useful; I need to pull my weight. You understand what I’m sayin’?” I hoped this would clinch the deal.

He seemed to be giving serious thought to the case I’d presented. After tapping his finger against his lips like I’d seen Pa do all my life, he was thinking hard, but not quite ready to concede. We were different men, my brother and I, and I wasn’t quite sure how his mind worked. Was he unwilling to give up a project that was his and his alone? He’d designed the mill himself and he’d worked five long years making sure it was a success. Was that the reason or was he worried I was incapable of doing the job properly?

I sat patiently, waiting for his answer.

“All right. How about we go over the blueprints tonight, and then you and I ride up to the mill tomorrow?”

“You won’t be sorry, brother. I’ll make you proud.”

This was a beginning. Adam would soon be off the hook as far as the mill was concerned. Hoss would eventually know what I was up to and it may upset him, thinking I was trying to run my eldest brother off the ranch. That wasn’t it at all and Hoss would realize that too. I felt like it was partially my fault that Adam had been forced to stay and do the jobs that should have been mine in the first place.

Somehow, the whole issue of nailing Richard Owens didn’t seem as important as it once had. I may never know how Adam really felt about my involvement with Grace or lack of, but I prayed to God he’d gotten over the anger and jealousy he once had. Time does funny things to a man, and even though we’d never sat down and talked things out, I hoped everything between us could be resolved before he decided it was time to move away, start a new life, and do what he’d kept tucked away deep inside.

~~~

My eldest brother and I rode up to the mill once a week for the past month. I was feeling confident and I got along well with the men I’d soon manage. Maybe it was that touch of gray that finally got me over the hump of just being Adam’s little brother.

I suppose every man who worked on the Ponderosa knew I’d done time. It’s not like they didn’t go into Virginia City on their days off or hadn’t heard stories about me in passing. I would carry those eight years with me for the rest of my life and it was just something I had to live with whether I was guilty or not. I’d been found guilty and that’s all that mattered to most people. With Owens dead, I didn’t stand a chance of proving anything to anybody. Next week I would ride up to the mill by myself. It would be my first solo appearance and I was ready. My plan was shaping up nicely.

Not long after I’d brought the idea up to Adam, Hoss confronted me. He wanted to know what I was up to. I told him my plan and asked that he keep this conversation just between the two of us. He questioned my motives and I tried to explain that after all our eldest brother had been through, I owed him that much.

By my second month on the job, I was ready to make a few changes. I hesitated at first, knowing Adam wouldn’t take kindly to me shaking things up, but I felt the men and the whole process would run more efficiently if I tweaked things just a tiny bit.

There were four saws available to work around the clock and more than enough men to operate them, stack the finished lumber, and drive the loaded wagons to their destination. The loggers produced more timber than the mill workers could handle, meaning, the saws didn’t run long enough during the day, costing the Ponderosa an excessive amount of money. I sat all the men down and had a short meeting. I asked if they’d be willing to stagger their working hours.

“We’d have three overlapping shifts, during the day,” I said. “A third of the crew started at six a.m., a third at seven and a third at eight, at least during the warmer months. You would all be milling during the bulk of the workday, but only a minimal amount of men to set up then clean up from the day’s work.” No one seemed to object to the new schedule, so I’d suggested we try it for a month and see how things went.

I numbered the cabins one, two, and three—one crew to each of the three cabins. Then I selected three of the men to be crew bosses, the general foreman being one of them and two others. I explained to the general foreman, who didn’t seem pleased with me adding two additional foremen, “This isn’t a demotion at all,” I said. “This way there’s three of you. You’ll all have fewer men to look after rather than just one man having to handle the entire crew.”

One man, Tim Wilson, I’d grown fond of over the last couple of months. He was young and eager to make his way in the world. He reminded me of me when I was his age, and I wanted to give him a chance to show what he was worth. I gave the new crew bosses the same wage as the foreman, an incentive to keep their crews on track. I mentioned a bonus at the end of each job that was brought in on time, and that seemed to get their attention quite readily.

My plan was working so far. The production level was up and costs would eventually go down. I hesitated to mention anything at home yet; after all, Adam had bossed this job for the past five years and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for all the work and time he’d put into the operation.

I found the job suited me more than I’d ever thought it might. The ride up to the mill wasn’t bad; in fact, I savored the time alone. The thirty-plus men all seemed to get along with each other and with me, and in a month’s time, I’d know if my new scheduling had been successful. Then I would mention it to Adam.

It was obvious, at least to me, that Pa was enjoying having his eldest son close to home, helping with the books, coming up with new ideas to save production costs on some of the various projects associated with the ranch.

But it wasn’t long before I noticed Adam becoming restless and bored with too much time on his hands. The Ponderosa had grown rapidly over the last few years and new men—younger men—had been hired for various jobs. This left Adam at a loss, especially without the mill to concentrate his efforts on, which of course, is exactly what I had in mind.

Winter was here, but no sign of snow yet—just colder temperatures—and I’d hoped by spring, Adam would feel the ranch could run without him. Rides up to the mill were becoming less frequent as the men kept the lumber flowing like clockwork without constant supervision.

When I skipped an entire week, telling Pa and Adam things were running smoothly, that I didn’t think a weekly check was important, it all came to a head. Adam was livid and assumed I was slacking; blowing off the job I’d begged to have. Voices were raised in what I considered an unnecessary fight, and by the next morning, Adam had saddled his horse and ridden out before the rest of us were even out of bed.

It was my job, my men, my project, and he had no right. To say I was furious was an understatement. Adam had a two-hour head start; the time it took to ride to the mill. I saddled Cochise.

Knowing it was a stupid thing to do when the terrain was so rough, I rode like the devil anyway. My heart beat overtime and my leg ached, but I was angry and hurt. I rounded a large boulder, blocking my line of vision when Cochise slipped on the shale covering the narrow trail and we both went down.

I couldn’t pull my left foot from the stirrup fast enough and the weight of Cochise felt like it crushed what was left of my lame, nearly useless leg. The horse scrambled frantically until he was upright and my foot finally released from the stirrup.

I rolled out of the way, clutching my leg and crying out at the searing pain. I was stranded, halfway to the mill, on a shortcut I never should have taken in the first place. It would be hours, possibly days, before anyone would find me. I needed to get back on my horse if I stood any chance at all.

Cochise stood only a few feet away; still trembling from the trauma I’d put him through. “Come here, boy,” I said, barely above a whisper. “Come on.”

He hesitated before he took that first step but eventually, I could grab the reins. How the devil would I mount with only one good leg? I contemplated my options. If I could force myself to stand and get myself on top of the boulder; I could ease myself down into the saddle. The rock seemed to double in size, as I lay on the ground staring up. What was I thinking? There was no way I could manage a rock that size.

I scooted closer to the boulder, but the pain stopped me before I made it halfway. “Just rest a minute, Joe, just rest.” I ran my tongue across my lips. I could only taste dirt and a hint of salt from the sweat I’d worked up riding like a man possessed.

Even though it was entirely my fault, I found myself in the predicament I was in; I blamed my brother. If he hadn’t interfered, none of this would have happened. I looked up at the sky to see dark, low-hanging clouds rolling in. “Just my luck. The first snowfall of the season would have to be today.” It was almost laughable. Here I was, Joe Cartwright, busted-up leg, stranded on the side of a mountain and completely out of options.

~~~

Adam stabled Sport in the barn and shook the snow from his hat before entering the house. His anger at Joe had subsided after seeing the simple but effective improvements his young brother had made. Although he was angry he hadn’t thought of making those corrections himself, he was ready to apologize and set things straight.

He’d spent the entire day with Joe’s men and was convinced his brother had made all the appropriate decisions. The newly appointed crew bosses took their work seriously, even the young pup named Tim Wilson, which Adam had to admit he never would’ve picked, or trusted, to handle the job. Joe had succeeded where he had failed, and it was up to him to hand out sincere congratulations for a job well done.

Ben sat behind his desk, hoping both sons would return soon before the weather became a serious problem, and the narrow trail leading down from the mill became nothing more than an icy death trap. Since the mill had become so successful, and travel back and forth was essential all year long, the trail would have to be widened come spring when they were able to get enough equipment up there to do the job properly. The trail was steep and scattered with shale, making travel slow and deliberate.

Ben stood from his chair to greet his sons as soon as he heard the front door open. He felt the blast of cold air, but he was puzzled when only one son stood inside the house, brushing snow from his heavy gold-colored coat. “Where’s your brother?”

“Brother?”

“Your brother, Joe?”

“How would I know?”

“Because he followed you up to the mill, that’s why.”

“He didn’t follow me. I haven’t laid eyes on him all day.” Hoss grabbed an apple and had just bit into it when Adam walked in. He strolled over to meet his brother, anxious to know if he and Joe had solved their differences or whether another storm between brothers was brewing, but now there was a turn of events. “He probably changed his mind and went to town and has settled in for a beer with friends,” Adam said, trying to pacify his father’s worries.

“I don’t think so, Adam,” Hoss said.

Adam looked at Hoss with skepticism. “Why not?”

“Member that time Joe came home from town all beat up? Well, I think someone musta said somethin’ about his time in prison or maybe about the trial, cuz when me and him went for supplies not long ago, he turned down my offer to buy him a beer. That ain’t like Joe, Adam. I just don’t think he’d a gone to town, ‘specially alone.”

“Well, he never made it to the mill, Hoss. I would’ve passed him on the trail.”

“He was madder’n a firecracker when he took off this mornin’, Adam. He coulda took that shortcut.”

“Shortcut?”

“Yeah—takes off ‘bout a half hour’s ride, but it’s a heck of a lot steeper than the regular trail.” Hoss brushed passed Adam and fastened his gunbelt around him.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ben said.

“Joe’d be here if’n he could, Pa. I’m ridin’ up the shortcut.”

“You may be right, son. Saddle my horse, will you?”

“I’m right behind you, Hoss,” Adam said. I’m tired. Sport’s tired. Why is it never easy? I’m ready to celebrate his achievements but no, there’s always a problem. It takes so much more effort, more exertion, more work when it comes to Joe.

~~~

I managed to scoot under the boulder’s overhang and out of the nasty weather. A generous amount of snow was falling, and as often the case, I wasn’t prepared. The sky showed no signs of a storm brewing this morning when I left, but I’d spent enough time living in the mountains to know it took next to nothing for the weather to change. Men often died from exposure and I was a fool to have left without the proper provisions, mainly my heavy coat. My thin little jacket wasn’t worth beans in this kind of weather.

There was no blood showing on my pant leg, which was a huge relief, but it didn’t mean the bone wasn’t broken into a hundred tiny pieces. I couldn’t stay the pain even for a few minutes, and sweating and freezing at the same time wasn’t helping my disposition. I tried to get comfortable, but I still didn’t have a clue as to how I would ever get myself down off this mountain.

Even though there was no sun to warm me now, things would only get worse as night fell. I had to make my move or sit against this rock and freeze to death as the temperature dropped. I laid one hand after the next behind me against the ten-foot-tall boulder, shimmying up, and then balancing on my one good leg. Cochise held steady and I grabbed hold of his reins. I was breathing hard and I stopped moving around. I leaned my shoulder against the horse’s neck.

My jacket was wet. I was wet, and I drank more than I should have from the canteen. Still leaning against Cochise for balance, and still not knowing how the hell I would mount, I sighed and groaned at the pain.

“Damnation!” I cried out when my boot touched the ground. The unmanageable amount of pain almost caused me to pass out. I gripped hard to his mane when Cochise started to sidestep, but the boulder hindered any other movement. This was as awkward for him as it was for me.

I held tightly to the saddle horn and placed my left hand on the cantle, and without letting my right boot touch the ground a second time, I pulled myself up so I was lying belly-down across the saddle. Cooch wasn’t happy with the uneven weight and he pranced nervously across the width of the path. When he finally got under control, I slipped my left foot into the stirrup, but I couldn’t find the strength to swing my right leg over the saddle.

I stood in the stirrup, one hand on the horn, the other grabbing hold of my leg, trying to haul it up and over. Words my father would have smacked me clear across the room for saying came as easily as letting out a breath of air.

My plan worked, and after I landed in the saddle, we started down the path. The snow was a blessing on my fevered skin, but the ride was slow and calculated, as I’d given Cochise full rein to get down the mountain the best he knew how. Small fragments of gray shale covered our route, and I let Cooch take his time, feeling his way down the narrow, now icy trail.

My hat kept off some of the snow, now feeling cold against my skin. Shivering and growing tired, I lay low against the horse’s neck. He’d do his best to get us home.

Any strength I had was used up by the time we made it to the flatlands, and if I could stay on the back of Cochise just a little while longer, we’d make it back to the house. I heard a noise in the distance, but I didn’t have the strength to lift my head off the wet, silky mane.

“Joseph! Joe!”

I must be dreaming. The noise got louder and I could almost swear I heard my father calling my name.

“Joe!” A different voice. My brother, Hoss.

I tried to lift myself up, but it was no use. I was done in. Gentle hands lifted me off Cochise, and an attempt was made to sit me on Buck in front of my father. “Oh God,” I cried when my leg hit the saddle. “My leg—“

~~~

A golden glow from a nearby lamp lit the room as my eyes slowly opened. I woke to the sound of men’s voices mumbling words I couldn’t make out, much less figure if they were directed at me or to someone else. My head was clouded—memories of snow—hot then cold. Louder voices calling my name. I lay flat on my back, floating on water, so soft, so calm. I gazed upon blurry faces, staring, talking.

“Joseph?” Time to wake up, son.”

My father’s voice. I studied each face surrounding me until I found the one I was searching for. “Pa.”

“I’m right here, Joe.” He cradled my hand in his, and the familiar feel of his thumb circling the back of my hand brought me from the darkness, and the pool of water I so enjoyed, to the present. I wasn’t floating any longer.

“What? How’d I get . . .”

“That can wait, son. Paul wants to talk to you.”

Paul—Doc—my leg. It was starting to make sense.

“Joe?” I turned my head just a fraction toward the doc. “I’ve just operated on your leg and you’re just coming out of the anesthetic so that’s why you feel confused.

“Floating—” I think the doc nodded but I wasn’t sure.

“I want you to lie as still as possible for now. No moving around. You have your father or someone else tend to your needs and don’t you try to get out of this bed. You understand?”

“Bed . . .”

“Right. You stay in bed and I’ll be back tomorrow to check on things.” I tried to nod my head, but I was so tired that moving my head or anything else was impossible.

“We’ll make sure he stays still, Paul,” Pa said. I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. Everybody in the room would have to entertain themselves without me for now.

~~~

A young man dies in my world behind walls, a world where we’re all dressed alike, we eat the same food and every day is the same until something like this happens. We walk the yard like lethargic cattle before we are marched, single file, down to the quarry.

I didn’t see the knife thrust. I didn’t see the young man stumble and fall, but I heard voices and I walked alone to the corner of the yard where the bleeding man lay. I look down. His eyes are still open, watery, staring for the last time.

He is young like me, only blonde and blue-eyed, and I wonder why I never noticed him before. Blood spreads in rust-colored layers across the front of his shirt, and from behind, I hear boots shuffling and voices barking commands. I’m shoved out of the way and when I look up, I see him—the man responsible—but I don’t say a word. I stare. He grins at me, only me.

I cringe deep inside, but I don’t move a muscle. Am I next?

My eyes shoot open. Sweat forms unexpectedly, streaming from each minute pore. Power and control. I resist. I fight. Power and control. I don’t want to die.

A thin stream of sunlight was edging its way into the room, alongside the length of the window shade. Adam, asleep in the chair, watches over me, keeping me safe from the man, the man who grins, the man with the power.

The nightmare has ended but my heart continues to race. I’m safe at home. He can’t get me here. I start to reach for a half-full glass of water on my bedside table, but when I extended my arm its full length; my fingertips are still inches away. Adam watches. Dark hazel eye meet mine.

“You thirsty?”

From the looks of things, my brother had fallen asleep with a leather-bound book in his lap; one that takes him to faraway places. I don’t need fancy books to drift away. I’m constantly drifting, but I’m here and here means the present, not the past.

“Yeah,” I said, trying hard to swallow and let him know I’d been dreaming. He filled the glass and brought it to my lips, held my head up slightly so I could drink. I’d let him take care of me now that I was back among the living and not under the watchful eye of my tormenter.

“You okay?” He looked concerned then gently slid his hand across my glistening forehead. There would be no fever, only the remains of sheer panic just now beginning to pass. I hate those faraway places.

“I’m fine, Adam.” I tried to ease my pounding heart.

“Need anything else?”

“Not right now, thanks.”

“The doc left some powders, but he suggested you eat something first.”

“I said I was fine.”

A gentle laugh came from my eldest brother. “Sure you are.”

I was surprised to see Adam rather than Pa or Hoss in my room. If he had been so angry, why was he sitting up with me during the night? I closed my eyes, thinking maybe he’d go away and not ask more questions if I feigned sleep. Knife-like spasms stabbed at my damaged leg and I vaguely remembered something about the doctor, but not much else.

“I’m going to see about getting you something to eat before you nod off again.”

I didn’t answer or even open my eyes. By the time he returned with a tray of chicken broth and dry toast, I’d tried my best to fall back asleep, but the constant pain darting up and down my leg was almost more than I could stand. It was a trick to force me to eat, whether I was hungry or not, but I would eat whatever was necessary in order to take the powders the doc had left.

Adam sat down with a cup of coffee after he’d sat me up enough with pillows so I could eat the soup without making too much of a mess. Before I got the spoon to my mouth, Pa and Hoss walked in, asking how I slept and how I was feeling. I answered both questions with my standard answer, “Fine,” then managed to eat most of my breakfast. All I wanted was the medicine. No one or nothing else mattered.

Adam mixed the chalky, white powder in a glass of water and I drank it down in two easy gulps. I laid my head back against the headboard and closed my eyes, blocking any unnecessary conversation.

“Don’t you want to lay back down, Joseph?”

“I’m fine like this, Pa. Just resting my eyes.”

“Well, I’ve got work to do,” Hoss said. “See ya later, little brother.”

“See ya, Hoss,” I mumbled, but I don’t know if he heard.

I imagined Pa and Adam were standing there staring at me, but I still didn’t open my eyes. It took every ounce of my energy to get my mind off my leg. Had the doctor said anything I should have remembered? Was the leg worse off than before?

My heart raced again at what hadn’t been said. I grabbed hold of the covers, pulling them up high above the mattress. Panic from not knowing the outcome of the surgery frightened me until I saw the entire leg was still intact.

“Joseph?”

“Sorry, Pa. I just, I wasn’t sure if—” I needed to calm down, remove any hint of fear from my voice before I continued. “Everything’s fine now.”

“If you’re sure. You get some rest and remember what Paul said, try not to move that leg.”

“Don’t worry, Pa. I won’t move the leg.”

The leg, my leg was still with me, lame or not. I couldn’t pretend to know what I would have done if I’d seen nothing left but a tightly wrapped stump, a casualty of my stupidity. I would endure the pain, rejoice in the pain, knowing what might have been. I was one lucky man. I slept.

A sharp piece of metal, a prison made shiv held tight to my throat. I didn’t dare scream, didn’t dare fight. Trapped in a living hell with no way out, I panicked and grabbed the bars of my cell. I heard myself scream. Guards heard me scream but guards had been paid to ignore.

The powders were a double-edged sword. I woke suddenly, scared and alone. Dreams—nightmares—always part of the package. I could live with the pain in my leg before I’d drink any more of that pain-killing medicine. No more of doc’s powders for me.

I thought about the Allen brothers, Harry and Jerome, and how they beat me one night, long before my prison days. My legs had been crushed by a whiskey barrel in an alleyway next to the saloon where I was headed to pay off a debt. I remember Pa and I fighting over the amount of medicine, laudanum I think, that I should take for the pain. Well, it wouldn’t be a problem this time. The drug-induced sleep turned dreams into vivid nightmares I didn’t want to deal with anymore.

~~~

Paul Martin returned the following day. He removed the bandages and I couldn’t help but grab hold of the sheets and clench my teeth when he pushed on a particularly tender spot. “I’m sorry, son, but the good news is everything looks fine so far.” He looked up from the incision he’d made on my leg. “No sign of infection.”

“That’s good, doc.” I started to relax until it was time to rewrap the wound. I was flat up against the headboard with my eyes closed, but my teeth were tightly clenched.

“I won’t apply a cast for several days yet, so it’s imperative you keep that leg as still as possible, understood?”

With my white-knuckled hands joined together in my lap, trying my best to not let him see the pain I was in, I nodded my head. After agreeing to his instructions, Paul picked up his instruments and placed them back in his bag.

Look at me now. How many weeks would I be laid up? I’d been such a fool, riding up that back trail just to quarrel with my brother who would have to look after the mill in my absence after such a fool move on my part.

“How long before I can ride again, Doc?” An eerie silence filled the room as Paul hesitated to give me an answer. “Doc?”

I noticed Pa standing in the doorway. Paul realized my attention wasn’t on him anymore and he, too, glanced at my father. He turned his attention back to me and I didn’t miss the look in his eyes. “It’s hard to say, Joe. I’m not sure what kind of movement you’ll have when the cast comes off.”

There was something strange about the sound of his voice as if he didn’t want to make promises he couldn’t keep. “Doc?” He looked like he’d rather be anywhere than standing beside this bed. “I’ll be able to ride, won’t I?”

“We’ll take it one step at a time, Joe.”

“Was that a little play on words, Doc?”

Paul smiled. There would be no answers today. I would have to lay here and wait, be a good patient and do as I’d been told, not knowing what the outcome might be. I glanced back at my father, whose face showed no reaction to Paul’s statement. There had been talking outside of this room, theories and opinions about my present condition I’d not been allowed to hear.

~~~

The first snow of the season had melted, but round two was starting to fall. Ranch work was slow this time of year, and I knew the mill would have to shut down if the amount of snow became too great. My leg had been cast, but Paul suggested I remain in bed, which to my father meant that’s where I would stay indefinitely.

Hoss entertained me with games of checkers and chess, and Pa sat with me on occasion, reading Adam’s hand-me-down novels aloud when he could spare the time. When he didn’t see my dime novels on the bedside table, I guess he thought I’d outgrown them, but let me say, they’re a lot more entertaining than some of the books Pa chose to read.

I hadn’t seen much of Adam until today. He walked into my room with two cups of steaming coffee and pulled up the chair next to the bed. “I thought this would be a good time to talk.”

Here we go; here comes the lecture. Adam can talk all he wants, but I’m not giving him the satisfaction of berating me, telling me his way of running the mill is better than mine and I shouldn’t shake things up. I was leaning back against the headboard and I crossed my arms in a defensive mode. Let him talk. I didn’t have to listen.

There was a smile on his face, which I didn’t like the look of at all. What could he possibly tell me that I hadn’t already gathered after he’d left before sunrise, leaving me mad as a hornet and following him up to the mill? “Well?” I said.

“While you were riding up to the mill, I was on my way back down with the intention of apologizing for anything I might have said.”

That little statement caught me off guard. “Apologizing for what?” I steadied my coffee and slowly uncrossed my arms. I knew the look on my face showed complete surprise.

“I misread your motives, your reasons for not making the weekly inspection.” I started to speak, but Adam held his hand up. “You’ve done more than a satisfactory job with the men, Joe; in fact, you’ve done an excellent job. The staggered shifts, separating the men into three groups is something I’d never thought of. I’m pleased with your choice of crew bosses, Tim Wilson may be a little young for the job, but let’s see how it goes. I’m proud of you, Joe, and I want you to know I respect your decisions and I applaud the way you’ve handled things.”

To say I was speechless was an understatement. My eldest brother didn’t hand out many compliments, especially to me. “I’m glad you approve,” I said, with a genuine smile.

“I do approve, and I see now why you felt you didn’t need to hound the men all the time like I did. You took charge, Joe, and you made leaders of men who are taking their jobs at the mill very seriously.”

“Thanks, Adam. It means a lot to hear you say that.”

“I told Pa.”

“And he made you come up here and talk to me, right?”

“Not at all. I just told him you achieved in a month’s time what I hadn’t accomplished in five years.”

I nodded, a bit embarrassed now.

“Pat yourself on the back for a job well done, little brother.”

Adam stood up to leave but before he made it out the door, I stopped him. “Adam?” He turned and looked back over his shoulder. “You built a fine mill. It’s too bad you can’t put more of your skills to work on the ranch.”

If I could get those architectural juices flowing again, then maybe he’d stop and think. Maybe he’d realize what he was meant to do all along and get busy planning his future rather than moving in no direction at all.

It had been so long now that I’d all but given up trying to prove there was never anything personal between Grace and me. We’d never sat down and really talked and we probably never would.

I thought back, remembering the last dime novel I’d read. Deadwood Dick’s Doom, one Adam had brought back from a trip to San Francisco before his engagement party. Eight years since I’d picked up one of those thin little paperback books. Those were the days; those carefree days of dime novels, spring dances, and a couple of beers with my friends. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

But back in those days, my brother and I did nothing but argue and disagree about anything and everything until he met Grace. Something changed in Adam when he was with her. She had a calming effect, a settling effect. Whether it was the woman herself or the plans they made, I didn’t know. All I know is I could try my best to make one of those dreams come true.

~~~

Heavy hammers sing out a grating tempo, playing their familiar tune while chains, linking men together like animals have their own distinct rhythm in the land of pitted stone.

Feeble, white-haired men stumble then fall to the ground, limp, lifeless. Their withered bodies wedged between stone and hauled back to their feet only to repeat the same performance again and again.

Dynamite explodes, overshadowing all other sounds. Blue skies turn gray while ringing sounds echo through the mountains, a maddening assault on the ears.

Debris from above pelts like dulled arrows. Dust blinds the eyes.

Unexpectedly, a bone-crushing blow from behind, unheard and unseen by men in charge. Thrusting forward, my body surrenders to uneven ground. Dust stings my tear-filled eyes. I whimper. I sob, but my cries are not heard.

The man speaks as I’m hauled back to my feet.

Pain, so much pain.

I fear I will die.

I let out a sigh of relief, grateful to find I was on my bedroom floor and not where my mind had taken me. Pa must have heard the thud when I hit, and after rushing up the stairs and through my bedroom door, he was bending down on one knee next to my crumpled body.

“You all right, son?” I heard the fear in his voice. I felt his hands trembling against my arms as he helped me back to my feet.

“I’m fine now, Pa.”

“What happened?”

“I caught the crutch on the edge of the rug. Next thing I knew, I was face down on the floor.”

Pa ran his hands up and down the cast, checking for cracks. “Seems okay, Joe, but maybe I should get Paul out here to make sure.”

“It’s fine. It feels fine, Pa. Don’t worry the doc over something like this.”

“You’re sure?”

I nodded. The leg didn’t feel any worse than it usually did so I figured I hadn’t caused any more damage.

“You want to sit down and rest a minute?” Pa said, figuring on helping me over to the chair.

“I thought I heard voices,” I said. “My plan was to come downstairs.”

“Well, that’s because we have company, Tim Wilson, one of your crew bosses from the mill just rode in.”

“Something wrong?”

“I don’t know yet, Joe. He just got here.” I situated the wooden crutches under my arms and started toward the door. “Let me help you.” Pa took hold of my arm.

We got to the top of the stairs and I paused for a minute to catch my breath and to look down and see who all was there. Tim stood from the settee, glaring at me with a tentative smile on his face.

“Are you okay, Mr. Cartwright?” It took me a minute to respond. My father was Mr. Cartwright, not me.

“I—um—let’s just say, I’m kind of a klutz with these things, Tim, and please, call me Joe.”

“Yessir, Joe.”

It took a while for Pa and me to make it down the stairs, but Adam stood up, scooted his blue chair forward, and settled me in so I could rest my casted leg on the table. Tim quickly grabbed and slid a red throw pillow under my sock-covered foot. “Thanks,” I said to both parties.

After all of us were seated, I think Pa was relieved I wasn’t dangling off the railing and had made it down to Adam’s chair without a second incident. He then urged Tim to explain why he was here.

“Well, you see, we had to shut the mill down temporarily. There’s two feet of snow in the high country.”

“I figured as much,” I said. “Nothing can be done about that, Tim.”

“The men are enjoyin’ the break, Mr. Car—Joe, but we’ll all be ready to get back to work as soon as we can reopen the mill that is.”

I smiled at Tim’s enthusiasm. He was a good kid. “I’m sure you’re on top of things. I have no doubt you can handle what needs to be done.”

“Thanks, Joe.”

“I’m going to be laid up for a while as you can see, so I’m counting on you and the other crew bosses to get things moving as soon as possible.”

“Shouldn’t be more than a few days, if’n we don’t get another storm.”

“That sounds about right,” I said.

“I guess that’s all then,” Tim said, standing up and twisting his hat nervously with both hands.

“I’d get up, but—”

“No need. I can see myself out.”

“Be careful headin’ back up, you hear?”

“I will—thanks.”

The kid had a killer smile and with his golden blonde hair, he would no doubt be dazzling the young ladies of Virginia City, that’s if he wasn’t already. I could sense his nervousness around me, his boss, and his aim to please attitude. I wondered if he had family or where he came from. I knew nothing about my men, and as soon as this dang leg healed, I would make it a point to get to know a little something about each man who worked for me.

~~~

The days of winter dragged on and I was bored out of my mind. I couldn’t fit a boot on in order to go outside and I sat, day after endless day, staring at the fire doing nothing. Hoss was in the barn, straightening tack and doing about all he could do without sitting around being as bored as me. The ground was icy and impassible, particularly hard on the horses, so no one wanted to take a chance unless it was necessary. Let’s just say the winter months were tedious at best.

I’d been using crutches for three weeks, and I was becoming proficient and no more spills. With two woolen socks on my foot, I decided it was time to venture outside whether Pa objected or not. There would be words, I knew that but I couldn’t help it, I had to get out and get some fresh air.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Out.”

“Out where?”

“Just out.”

We were all getting a little testy by now, and I was probably the worst of the bunch. It wasn’t the first time I’d ruffled my father’s feathers, and before I could take another step, he was right beside me. I gave him a determined look as I tried unsuccessfully to slip into my coat and hang on to my crutches at the same time.

“I’m here to help you, you know.”

“Thanks, Pa.” I’d been a real bear these last few weeks and my father understood my frustration. He was simply trying to help. “I’m sorry,” I said. A gentle smile crossed his face, and he chose not to address the issue of my inconsiderate behavior.

I was set. Bundled up a touch more than I would have liked thanks to Pa, but I was free to go out the front door without further discussion. The cold air stung my face, but it was the most refreshing, most invigorating feeling I could imagine. If I had eyes in the back of my head, I would have seen the dismayed look on my father’s face; instead, I kept to the frozen path Hoss had cleared earlier.

“Hey, big brother,” I hollered, as I swung open the barn door.

“Dang it, Joe, ya done scared me half ta death.” Hoss’ tin of saddle soap seemed to jump right out of his hand and land upside-down on the barn floor. He bent over to pick it up then flicked off the bits of straw that stuck to its greasy contents. “Whatcha doin’ out here anyways?”

“Bored.”

“Yeah, me too. Snow ain’t meltin’ very fast, is it?”

“Sure isn’t.” I eased myself down on a bale of hay. “I wanted to talk to you.”

“Bout what?”

“Adam.”

“What about him?”

“Does he seem different to you?”

“Different?”

“Yeah, quieter, keeping to himself more?”

“That’s just his way, Joe. You know that.”

“He said anything to you about anything?”

“What’s that s’posed to mean?”

“I don’t know.”

I wanted to know if my plan was working. I thought maybe Adam would have confided in Hoss about leaving, then again, if it had been a private conversation, one I’d been left out of, Hoss would never betray a confidence. I tried but failed to think of another way of saying things, knowing if Hoss had vowed secrecy, I wouldn’t get a word out of him anyway.

“Need somethin’ to do, Joe?”

“Sure, anything.”

“I could set Cochise’s saddle down there for ya and you could polish it up some.”

Hoss and I never faltered when it came to easy conversation, but after I had the saddle cleaned and shining like new, I grew tired of the barn. I’d much rather be sittin’ a saddle than polishing one, and I had to admit, I sometimes worried I may never have that privilege again.

The doc never gave me a straight answer about my leg. “One step at a time,” he’d said. And when I asked if I’d ride or even walk again he clammed up, adding nothing more. I was walking—well, sort of, but it told me nothing of the condition, or the strength and mobility I would have. It was the kind of answer no one wants to hear, especially me, but I’d let it pass. I needed answers. I wondered if Pa or Hoss knew Doc’s prognosis and were afraid to tell me the truth.

“You about done?” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Hoss?”

“Yeah.”

“The doc ever mention anything to you about my leg?”

“Well, not directly.” Hoss seemed to busy himself a little more and I could tell he was hedging. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck tingle with what wasn’t being said.

“What did he tell Pa?”

“Maybe you should ask Pa, Joe.”

“No, Hoss. I’m asking you.”

Hoss put the remainder of his supplies on the shelves then turned back around to look at me. “Doc said he don’t know.”

“He don’t know what?”

Hoss came and sat down across from me on another bale. He took off his gigantic hat and held it between his knees, running his fingers along the edge before looking me in the eye.

“Doc said he scraped away some bone that hadn’t healed right the first time. He said the first break left a weak spot in the bone and that’s why it broke on ya a second time.”

“So—”

“So, he said he don’t know.” He looked straight at me. I knew there was more, but prying something out Hoss when he didn’t want to talk about was never easy. “He said he weren’t sure if . . . he said he don’t know, Joe.” Hoss stood up from the bale quickly. “Come on. We’re done out here.”

I didn’t pester him anymore. I didn’t bring it up with Pa or Adam either. With Hoss unable to talk about it, I knew the prognosis wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I would just have to wait for Paul to take the cast off and take my chances, good or bad. I still had weeks to go and the snow wasn’t melting at all, which also meant nothing was happening at the mill. There went any substantial profits I’d planned for the Ponderosa.

~~~

The day finally came. The cast was coming off. Paul had apologized for the delay, but the roads had been impassable, blocked by drifts due to one snowfall after another during the past few weeks. I’d been half tempted to take a saw to the dang thing myself, but that was not an option with my father in the house.

My leg was white and scaly and looked like it belonged to someone else, maybe that of a corpse. I wiggled my toes then Paul asked me to try to raise my knee up off the bed. The muscles were weak and I had to use both hands to lift my leg up. It wouldn’t move an inch by itself. I looked up at the doc.

“It’ll take some time, Joe. I’d like you to keep using the crutches and not put your full weight on it just yet.”

“For how long?”

“I’ll check back in a week.”

“A week? No weight for a week?”

“At least.”

“And then what?”

Paul Martin turned toward the bedside table, and I watched him closely as he placed his instruments back inside his bag. It was the same answer I got before. He kept silent. I glanced at Pa, who was standing on the far side of the bed. Silence there too.

The doc rolled down his sleeves and slipped on his heavy overcoat. “One week, Joe.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Pa said.

At least I wasn’t confined to this bed. I could move around although I was still housebound. I glanced out the window where gray skies held back any hint of sun. I was tired of everything. I should be thrilled I still had the leg, and I was. I was just tired.

I’d about drifted off to sleep when there was a knock on my door. Pa and Tim Wilson were entering my bedroom before I had a chance to get any words out one way or another.

“Hey, Joe,” Tim said. “See you got the cast off.”

“Sure did,” I said, trying to look awake and boss-like while I lay in bed with nothing on but my long johns.

“I just wanted to tell you that all the men are back to work full time now. We lost a couple of guys who decided winters in the Sierra’s weren’t for them, but we’re managing just fine with the men who stuck it out.”

“You’re working?”

“Yeah, we got so bored sittin’ around that the men took long planks and shoveled away enough snow that we could start the saws up again.”

“I’ll be damned—darn,” I said, with a quick glance at Pa.

I’d kept the men on at half salary during the days they didn’t work, and although it wasn’t much, it was better than no income at all.

I envied Tim Wilson. I envied his youth, youth that was taken from me in an unfair world. I couldn’t help but like the kid, his energy, and enthusiasm. It seemed to rub off on me, and while he stood in my room, grinning like a peacock, I felt his passion for life extend a welcoming hand and pull me back to the land of the living.

“Thanks for coming down, Tim. Since I—” I waved my hand across the bed. “It’s still going to be a while before I make it up the mountain.”

“I guess I’ll go then,” he said, dipping his head as if he wanted to say more, but he seemed to struggle just getting that much said.

“Thanks again,” I said. Tim and Pa started out of the room when Pa turned to me and winked before he walked Tim downstairs and sent him on his way.

As much as I tried to hang on to Tim’s zest for life, by later that afternoon my gloom and doom mood returned. I’d seen the look in their eyes when they’d talked to me, looked at me. I managed quite well to wallow in my own self-pity. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone who had two good legs and I especially didn’t want their damn pity; I had enough to keep me going for a very long time.

When Pa entered my room later on, he was carrying two cups of coffee and ready to talk. Rather than pulling up a chair like he normally did, he sat down on the edge of the bed and handed me a cup.

“It’s just another week, son.”

“I really don’t want to talk about it, Pa.”

“You seem so discouraged that I—”

“It’s not that I’m discouraged, Pa, I’m just tired of it all.”

“Tired of what, Joe?”

“You don’t understand, Pa. Eight years of my life were taken from me and then this.” I swept my hand through the air above my leg, “It’s just a continuation of what my life has become.”

“Son—”

“You know about the talk in town, don’t you, Pa? Everyone thinks I’m guilty of murder and I should have been hung rather than back home—a free man. No one believes I’m innocent, no one. I can hear it all now, Pa. ‘Heard Joe Cartwright’s been laid up all winter with a busted leg. Serves him right for what he done. It’s never gonna end.”

“You don’t know that, Joe. It takes time for people to adjust.”

“Adjust? Adjust to a murderer walking the streets same as normal people? A killer on the loose, one who might strike again.”

“Joe, you’re making way too much out of . . .”

“Don’t you see, Pa?’ My voice had become strained, trying to get my point across. “I took over the mill so Adam would have a chance to move back east, back where he and Grace had planned to live after they were married. Now look at me. I’m nothin’ but half a man with a leg that’s never going to heal right.”

Pa started to look away until I continued.

“Adam put all of his future plans on hold because of me. Me, Pa. Where will those plans go now but up in smoke? He’s waited all these years for me to return so he would have the chance to do what he’d trained to do and that’s not here on the Ponderosa. If I can’t sit a horse, if I can’t even ride up to the mill . . .”

“I didn’t realize that was your reason for taking over the mill, son.”

“I’m sorry, Pa.” I’d expended all the energy I had. Out of frustration, I’d said things I shouldn’t have. Pa hadn’t known about the plans Adam had made so long ago. Now it was out in the open, plus, I had betrayed Hoss in the process so the less said now the better. “It was wrong of me to say anything.”

My father shook his head. “No, Joe, I’ve seen the signs. I’ve known all along Adam wasn’t happy here on the ranch. Don’t blame yourself.”

I wanted to shout. I wanted to tell Pa that my brother blames me for more than just holding up his plans to move away. Grace was and still is a big factor between the two of us, but this time I kept quiet. It served no purpose; it would only hurt Pa more.

I’d let the cat out of the bag so to speak and I regretted my frustrated outburst. Pa patted my good leg, and without another word, he left my room. His posture gave him away. He was hurt and he felt betrayed. He was the last to know what was happening in his own home, with his own family. I’d brought on that uncomfortable silence and it was up to me to set things straight.

~~~

“I’m riding up to the mill this morning,” Adam said. “Anything you want me to tell your men?”

“I’m sure you can handle things without me.” My words were sharp and uncalled for and I realized how I’d sounded. “I’m sorry. Just do what you have to do.” Pa glanced my way, letting me know I’d crossed the line again.

My moods were so up and down since Doc had removed the cast; half the time I was afraid to open my mouth. I couldn’t control my temper and more often than not, my sunny disposition was nowhere to be found.

So things like this morning’s outburst were happening more and more—words I didn’t mean—I snapped at people for no reason. Adam was doing me a favor, lending a helping hand, and I made it sound like he was buttin’ into my business, which wasn’t the case at all.

“I’m takin’ the buckboard in to get supplies if you want to come along, Little Joe.”

“Thanks, Hoss, but not today.”

The mill had been my outlet. It had been months now, but I still wasn’t ready to face the fine citizens of Virginia City. If comments were made, I sure as hell couldn’t stand up to anyone given my current disability. It wasn’t just the saloon crowd either. The noble bluebloods I’m sure had words to say only they were much too polite to make a remark straight to my face. It would be the sideways glances and finger-pointing that I didn’t much care to see or pretend to ignore.

I spent most my time on the front porch. A false spring, the old-timer’s called it, and the warmth of the sun felt good against my face. I wasn’t cut out to be an invalid. I wasn’t cut out to be waited on hand and foot.

My lunch was brought out to me, coffee was brought out to me, and even my jacket as clouds covered the warm rays of the sun. Hoss had returned earlier and unloaded the supplies, but even he opted not to sit out here alongside me and watch me brood. Hoss was the smart one in this family.

I was a good boy and I followed doctor’s orders, keeping weight off the leg until he would give me the okay. Out of boredom, I found certain chores I could do either sitting down or even standing and using only one crutch for balance.

Nothing was ever mentioned following my outburst about Adam and Grace’s plans. I wondered if Pa had said anything to Adam, or if he’d decided it best to keep that little tidbit of knowledge tucked away, figuring it would only hurt my brother having to think back on what should have been.

The day finally arrived when Doc Martin said I could put weight on my leg. That’s when Hoss appeared, carrying some kind of contraption, which my father and the doc seemed to already know about and were quite taken with. I was the only one left in the dark.

“It’s a brace, Little Joe. I seen one like it in doc’s medical book and the doc and I thought it’d be worth a try. It’s gonna make that leg twice as strong till it’s healed up proper like,” Hoss said grinning at his new invention.

A leather cuff set above the calf and one below, holding everything straight and secure. The brace attached with leather straps. There were uprights on either side of my leg fashioned from a thin piece of metal, wrapped in a sleeve of softly tanned rawhide.

“You made this for me?”

“Sure did. Now let’s see if’n it fits.”

Since we, Pa, Adam, Hoss, the doc and even Hop Sing were all gathered in my room, I was glad I had on my long johns when I was asked to remove my trousers.

Hoss informed me he’d tanned the leather nice and soft so it wouldn’t chafe next to my skin. I sat on the chair, but it took me some time to get all the straps buckled and fitted tightly around my leg while smarty-pants Adam recited poetry, seeing how many verses he could get through before I was finished.

“That ain’t helpin’, you know.”

“As usual, I’m just passing the time, waiting on you,” he said, then continued in his Shakespearean voice. “Something I learned to do many, many years ago, while you primped in front of the mirror before the Saturday Night Dance.”

“Oh, you’re real funny, big brother.”

Before I could pull the leg of my long johns back down, the doc wanted to check the brace, making sure I’d attached it correctly. “It looks fine, Joe.” Paul turned to Hoss while I finished dressing. “It’s perfect!”

“Glad to hear it, doc.” I slipped my clothes and my boots back on. “I just studied that picture in your book and it weren’t hard at all to make.”

My left leg was stiff to begin with and this would be the first day I put any kind of pressure on it. I glanced at Pa, who’d said nothing, only watched, since he and everyone else had converged in my room. I could see the lines etched deeply across his forehead, making me wonder still if the doc had told him things he hadn’t told me.

There was only one way to find out and I took my first tentative step. A relatively dull pain shot up my leg, and reflexively, I reached down and grabbed hold of my thigh. A couple of deep breaths and I was ready to try again. You could hear a pin drop as I straightened back up. I faced my father. One step, then another. I tried my best not to make a face, but he knew the pain I was in.

“I want you to take it slow for the next few days, Joe. There may be some swelling but it will pass in time.”

“I will, Doc.

I continued to walk around my bedroom, steadying myself with pieces of furniture when possible. Paul handed me one of the crutches. “This might help for a few days, just till you get used to putting weight on that leg again.”

“Okay.” The crutch did help. It cut the pain in half.

Seems Pa had seen enough of everyone watching me; waiting to see if I could walk again. “Okay, boys. I’m sure you have work to do.” Adam and Hoss bid their farewells, as did Hop Sing.

“I’ll be on my way too, Ben,” Paul said. “I’ll check back with you later this week, Joe, but remember, take it slow and easy.”

“I’ll walk you down,” Pa said.

“No need, Ben. I know my way out.”

Pa chose to stay after everyone else had gone. With my crutch lined up close to my leg, I maneuvered pretty well back across the room then sat down slowly on the edge of my bed with my braced-leg extended. I looked up at my father, who had tears glistening in his dark, gentle eyes. I was confused. Were they tears of joy or sadness? I wasn’t sure.

“How about a cup of coffee, Joe?”

“I’d rather know what you’re thinking,” I said. Pa smiled a tight-lipped smile and pulled the chair out from my desk.

“I’m just relieved, son.”

“Relieved?”

Pa nodded. He eased himself slowly into the chair. He seemed hesitant to go on. Finally, he looked up and met my eyes.

“I never said anything after the operation. I couldn’t I guess. I was afraid you’d give up completely if there was a chance you wouldn’t walk again.”

“You mean—”

“Paul wasn’t very confident after the surgery, son. He saw the damage caused by the first break, which had healed improperly, giving you that permanent limp, so he tried his best to set the bone straight this time without causing even more damage. He wasn’t predicting a very positive outcome.”

“You mean you’ve known this all along?”

“I’m afraid so.”

I’d always known there was more to the story, and I was finally getting the truth. “Well, you just watch me, Pa. I’m used to setbacks. This is nothing.”

I had to say something to cheer my father up. He’d carried this weight for weeks now and it was time to move on. I would definitely walk, maybe not properly or like I used to as a kid, but if I had to wear this brace till the day I died I would make sure I walked, if for no other reason but for my father.

“You ready for that cup of coffee now?”

“Sure am, but I’ll come with you.”

“Remember what the doctor said, Joe.”

“I’m just going downstairs. Then I’ll rest.”

Pa smiled. Maybe some of the weight had been lifted.

~~~

My leg grew stronger every day, even though the limp was still there. I often wondered if it was just habit. I’d given up the crutch a week ago and I was walking on my own. I still wore the brace Hoss had designed, thanking him so many times I’d embarrassed him, but it had been the key to success whether he realized it or not.

Adam had stepped back in for me at the mill, but as I’d done before the accident, he only checked in twice a month rather than the weekly visits he used to make. He had congratulated me more than once, crediting me with the marked increase in profits since I’d taken over management. The days of snow set us back some, but we were making up the difference in no time.

Even with the men working in three separate shifts, higher pay for crew bosses, and the added bonus at the end of a job, the profit margin was greater than before. But when Adam returned this time, he seemed different somehow. I didn’t ask questions. He didn’t comment.

Days passed. Spring was here. The days were warm and hopefully the snow and cold of winter was a thing of the past. Until tonight, Adam had been particularly subdued since his last trip up to the mill. We’d finished supper and he asked if he and I could talk in private.

“Sure,” I said. What could have gone wrong? Were the men walking off the job or had someone been hurt? I thought of Tim Wilson and wondered if something had happened to him.

“Let’s go outside, Joe.”

“All right.”

My leg was stiff by the end of the day, but mobile enough to get me from point A to point B. I grabbed my jacket from the hook by the front door and made my way outside to the front porch. “I’ll be right back,” Adam said. After lighting the lantern under the overhang, he slipped back into the house. When he came back through the door and into the soft, golden light, I noticed he carried a bottle and two glasses.

“Must be serious,” I said.

He sat down next to me and uncorked the bottle, poured us each a drink and began his story. “I had a long talk with Tim Wilson when I was up at the mill.”

“He’s leaving, isn’t he? He found a better job.”

“No, nothing like that, Joe.”

“What then?” Adam swallowed his shot and poured another. I did the same.

“Tim and I sat down and talked for quite some time. He was anxious to fill me in on the day he arrived in Virginia City.”

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what Tim Wilson’s arrival in Virginia City prompted my brother to bring out the whiskey and feel the need for a private conversation. “Go on.”

“He was fifteen years old, had ten dollars to his name and was feeling lucky. He’d never stepped foot in a saloon until the day he walked into the Silver Dollar. After talking the bartender into giving him a beer, he overheard one of the miners running off his mouth about doubling his money playing five-card-stud. Tim wanted to do the same.”

I started to smile. I knew the kid reminded me of me, the same cocky attitude I had at that age. Adam poured us each another drink, and we drank.

“He sat down at a table with Richard Owens.” My smile faded. I could easily imagine where this story was headed. “Owens not only got his ten dollars, but Tim gambled away his horse and saddle too.”

“Asshole,” I muttered.

“As you can imagine, Joe, the kid was devastated.” Adam looked at me, knowing quite well, how much I could imagine. “Now he was flat-broke plus, he’d lost his horse and tack. He begged Owens for a chance to make it back, but Owens just laughed in his face, told him to get lost until he made some more money, then come back and try his luck again.”

I cringed at the memories, the same stupid mistakes I’d made when I was his age. “Does Tim have family?”

“I asked the same question, Joe. He said they’d homesteaded not far from here, but a fire had swept through their house and barn, killing both his ma and pa, leaving him the only survivor.” He was on his own after that.”

“Poor kid.”

“That’s not quite all, Joe.”

I looked up surprised. What else could he have talked to Adam about? “Well?”

“He told me he wandered the streets, lived in alleys, begged for handouts. No one would hire him because of his age.”

I knew what my father would’ve done had he known about Tim’s circumstances. He never would’ve left a fifteen-year-old boy to fend for himself on the streets of Virginia City. If only we’d known at the time. “Go on.”

“Owens found him one night, sleeping next to a stack of wooden crates in one of the back alleys. He offered him ten dollars and his horse and saddle if he’d do Owens just one simple favor.”

Now I was intrigued. I knew the snake was capable of murder. What else would he possibly do?

“Naturally, Tim agreed to anything Owens had to offer. The kid was hungry and destitute. Owens told Tim what he wanted him to do—time—place—and exactly what to say.”

Adam stopped talking and poured another shot of whiskey. I didn’t understand my brother’s hesitation, but I slid my glass over for a refill anyway. “So, what was the favor?” I asked.

Adam stared at the amber liquid as he rolled the glass between the palms of his hands. Then he looked straight at me. “This favor took place almost nine years ago, Joe.”

I nodded. “Okay.”

“Tim was the boy Owens sent to tell the deputy about the two horses tied up outside our line shack.”

My heart pounded so fast I thought my chest would explode. I reached for the bottle and Adam pulled it away. I stared at my brother in disbelief. Where was Tim during the trial? Why wasn’t he summoned? It might have made all the difference. Adam wouldn’t know. He wasn’t there either.

“Tim has agreed to leave the Ponderosa as soon as you find a replacement for him as crew boss,” Adam continued.

My head spun so fast I couldn’t take it all in. “What?”

“He asked if I would apologize to you.”

“Apologize? For eight years? Sure, why not,” I said with a hint of sarcasm.

“There’s more, Joe.”

“I’ve heard enough, Adam.” I started to stand.

“Let me finish.”

“Fine.”

”As part of the deal, Owens forced Tim him to leave town that same day. He told the kid to never set foot back in Virginia City again if he wanted to live to be sixteen. So, that’s exactly what he did. Shortly thereafter, he heard Owens was gunned down in a poker game in Carson, he knew he didn’t have to fear the man anymore.

“I happened to be in town the second time Tim rode into Virginia City, looking to hire men for the mill. I hired Tim Wilson. He didn’t know anything about you, the murder, or the trial at that time. One of the men brought it to his attention when you took my place at the mill.

“By then he was too ashamed to tell anyone what a fool he’d been. He knew you’d been set up by Owens, but you’d already served time and he knew it was too late to made amends.”

I shook my head in disbelief. The whole trial hung on one boy’s statement, a boy who couldn’t be found. I remember Hiram Wood, my attorney, trying his best to track him down from the description the deputy gave. But who would know a transient, a kid, not from Virginia City?

“I told him to put someone else from his crew as temporary boss on Saturday and come to the house so we could all sit down and talk. He said he’d go into Virginia City first and tell Roy the whole story before he came here.”

“Tomorrow?” I started to stand, which was never easy, so I wobbled some, and whether it was the leg or the whiskey, I wasn’t sure and I didn’t much care.

“Joe, wait.”

“For what, Adam? Eight years—eight years and this damn leg! And that’s not the half of it.” I staggered across the front porch and back into the house, grabbing hold of furniture as I went.

“Joseph?” I ignored my father, who’d seen me stumbling through the house from his seat behind his desk. I got myself up the stairs and slammed the bedroom door behind me. I hadn’t lost control like this for some time, but I was burnin’. I wish to hell Owens was still alive so I could have the pleasure of firing a bullet straight through his cold-blooded heart.

There was a knock at my door.

“Go away!” Why do I even bother? The door opened anyway. “I don’t want to hear anymore, Adam.”

“Well, I have more to say, so it’s your choice whether to listen or not, but I’m not leaving this room until I’ve finished what needs to be said.”

I hobbled across my room and stared out the window, but all I could see at this time of night was my own reflection in the thin pane of glass. I saw the flash and smelled the sulfur as my brother lit the lamp next to my bed. Chair legs scraped across the wooden floor; Adam was settled and ready to continue. I didn’t look in his direction; instead, I kept my eyes focused on the darkness outside.

“Why don’t you put yourself in the kid’s shoes, Joe? Tim Wilson was fifteen years old—a boy—alone—desperate and scared. It seemed like a simple enough request at the time. Owens tricked him. By the time he realized what he’d done and what you’d been accused of, it was nine years too late. What would you have done in his place?”

The anger I felt, the anxiety and torment I’d dealt with for so many years was directed at Owens. Tim Wilson was not to blame. What would I have done? My shoulders fell as I dropped my head. The same. I would have done exactly the same thing as Tim.

Tears clouded my eyes when I thought of the injustice. I couldn’t face my brother. I kept my stance at the darkened window. Adam knew exactly what I was feeling. He gave me the time needed to pull myself together.

“I’ll see you in the morning, Joe.”

Without saying it outright, I knew Adam realized who the real murderer was. If there had been any doubt before, Tim had set the record straight and for that I was grateful. Maybe there never were any doubts—maybe it was just the way I saw life from a dark, almost austere point of view.

I stared at my reflection, a man’s face stared back, not a boy’s. I had let Richard Owens and Harold Collier consume my thoughts, my entire life for the past eight years. I started to turn and the reflection of light, the lamp Adam had lit, mirrored itself on the pane of glass. Was there a way out? Could I return from the darkness and into the light?

~~~

Tim didn’t show up at the house till noon, and by the way he was holding his hat and twisting the brim with both hands, it was obvious the boy was a nervous wreck. I’d let Adam open the front door, hoping he wouldn’t chicken out and run away before he made it inside. I stood back a ways and gave him room to step through the threshold without feeling too overwhelmed.

“You’re just in time for lunch,” Adam said, taking Tim’s hat and jacket.

“I don’t think—”

“Come on, Tim. We’re all friends here,” I said, smiling and sliding my arm around his shoulders, guiding him to the chair next to mine at the table. Pa and Hoss were already seated, but they both stood briefly and welcomed our guest. “You aren’t familiar with my brother, Hoss, so I’m gonna warn you right off—ya gotta be quick if you expect to get anything to eat around here.”

“Aww, cut it out, Joe.” A tentative smile started across Tim’s face as Hoss handed him the platter of meat. “I got more manners in my little finger than you got in that—that whole—in your whole hand, little brother.”

“Is that right, big brother?”

“You better believe I do. Ain’t that right, Adam?”

“Leave me outta this, Hoss.”

The food was passed and our plates were filled. We’d broken the ice and Tim dug into the food he’d piled high on his plate, but after a few bites, he seemed to lose his appetite, setting his knife and fork across his half-eaten plate of food.

“Joe?”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t know what to say,” he said softly. “I don’t think sayin’ I’m sorry is enough for what you went through cuz of me.” I could tell the boy felt uneasy and wanted to talk, but maybe this wasn’t the place.

“How about we take a walk.”

He didn’t speak, but he nodded his head and stood up from the table.

We excused ourselves and headed out to the front porch, which had turned into my second home. The kid was as pale as a ghost so I thought an explanation might get him through this without having to watch him fall apart.

“Listen, Tim. None of this was your fault,” I said as soon as we’d both sat down. “Adam explained it all to me last night and let me settle this right off. I don’t blame you for anything. Knowing Owens like we both do, he had that poker game rigged before you even sat down to play.”

“What do you mean, Joe?”

“Well, let me ask you this. Did you win a bunch of money after you first sat down at the table?”

“Yeah,” he said, without looking up.

“Then, you couldn’t win a hand if your life depended on it. Am I right?”

“Yeah, how’d you know that?”

“That’s the way a card sharp works, Tim. He suckers you in, and before you realize what’s happened, you don’t have a penny left in your pocket. Owens had you. He’d seen you as an easy mark and he took everything you owned. From that point on, he’d made you his property; someone he could con or mold into anything he wanted or needed. He made sure you were penniless and he knew exactly how to use it against you. It was all part of his plan. Do you see that?”

“That ever happen to you, Joe—I mean, did you ever get suckered in at a poker table?”

“You bet I did and I was almost killed in the process. Difference was, I had family to back me up while you were left on your own.”

“I’ve never played poker again since that night,” Tim said, embarrassed and afraid to look up.

“Probably a good thing. At least not with the likes of someone like Owens.”

“Yeah.” He glanced at me quickly then his head dropped again.

“A game of cards with friends—people you know—is fun, as it should be, but throw someone like Owens in the mix and you’re finished the minute you sit down at the table.”

“I didn’t even know his name until he got gunned down over in Carson. I was in the saloon that day watching him cheat the guy who shot him. I told Mr. Cartwright, I mean your brother, I’d leave as soon as you wanted me to.”

“Why the devil would I want you to leave? You’re one of the best men I know so just forget all that talk about leavin’.” He tried to look at me, but I could see his emotions had gotten the best of him. “Now, if we hurry, we might get back to the table before Hoss eats all the chocolate cake Hop Sing made for dessert.”

“You mean it, Joe? After all that’s hap—”

“We can’t erase the past, Tim. We only have the future, and I’d like you to stay on and be a part of the Ponderosa’s future.”

~~~

Tim Wilson returned to the mill, more determined than ever to do his best, and not let me or anyone else down. Deciding I should heed my own words, telling Tim the past was the past; I also needed to convince myself. I took Hoss up on his offer the following morning to ride into town with him for supplies. I needed to see the doc, and once again, I told myself it was time to move on. If people chose to point and stare, so be it.

Hoss pulled up in front of the mercantile and handed Jake his list of supplies while I walked down to Doc Martin’s. Paul greeted me and was pleased when he saw me walk in, no crutch and barely a limp. I still wore the brace Hoss had made. Maybe it was a security blanket of sorts, but I felt more confident with it on.

“Hey, Doc,” I said, extending my hand.

“Have a seat, Joe. My, you’ve done well.”

“Thanks. I had a good doctor.”

Paul smiled. “How’s the leg feel? Any pain? Swelling?”

“None to speak of. Tired at the end of the day if I do too much, but nothing I can’t handle.”

“That sounds about right. The muscles are healing and getting stronger then.”

“You gonna allow me on my horse yet?”

“Give it a try, Joe. You’re the best judge at this point.”

I thanked Paul and walked back up the boardwalk to meet Hoss at the mercantile. Hopefully, he had everything loaded by now and was ready to head back. As luck would have it, I was right. He’d just carried the last sack of flour to the buckboard. As much as I wanted to climb on board and head home, I told Hoss since he’d done all the work, I’d buy the beer.

“Ya sure, Joe?”

“I’m sure.”

The Silver Dollar was just across from the mercantile. We dodged freight wagons pulled by large draft horses, and men racing their mounts through town much faster than they should be as we made our way across C Street.

It was close to noon and the saloon was overflowing with men from various social standings. Virginia City was still a dusty, cow town full of cowboys and miners and not-so-cold beer, but it was home, my home, and high time I learned to live among her people again.

“Two cold ones,” Hoss said, holding up two fingers, in case he wasn’t heard over the mind-numbing racket. I glanced around the crowded room for an empty table, but every table was filled, so leaning back against the bar would have to do.

“Hey, Joe—Joe Cartwright!”

Coming at me from around Hoss’ generous girth were too old friends, Andy Jenkins and Rex Delaney. I turned, set my beer on the bar, and greeted the two first-rate bronc-busters I hadn’t seen since we were kids. “Hi fellas.” We all shook hands in a friendly greeting. “No work today?”

“Nope. Just finished up at the Circle C and we’re just here killin’ time.”

“Looks like everyone in Storey County is killin’ time today,” Hoss said.

“You boys lookin’ for work?”

“Sure, Joe. Ya gettin’ too old for the job?” I smiled at the easy banter. Years ago, it was a comment I would have made to my two older brothers, but my bronc bustin’ days were over. Guess I’d joined the ranks of old.

“Age has nothing to do with it, Andy, but I’ll keep you two boys in mind,” I said, holding onto some of my pride. “There may be something on down the road.”

“Thanks, Joe. You know where to find us.”

“Yeah, I sure do.”

Hoss and I watched two men stumble through the batwing doors, but somehow I thought they were just getting started on a day of drinking by hittin’ every saloon in town. “You ready?” Hoss asked.

“Yeah, let’s go.”

Hoss and I climbed up on the buckboard and he took hold of the reins. “Hey, Hoss. Didn’t you say you just saw a good size herd of wild mustangs when you were out checkin’ steers the other day?”

“Sure did, Joe, just a couple days ago down by Paiute Springs. Why? Whatcha got in mind?”

“Why couldn’t we hire Andy and Rex to go round ‘em up and break ‘em? They’re good boys and I’m sure we could get a decent price, make a little extra profit on the side for you and me.”

“Run the idea by Pa if ya want, Joe. Sounds like a good one to me. Giddy-up,” Hoss called out, as he flicked the reins a little harder once we reached the edge of town.

~~~

Andy and Rex were glad to have the work, leaving Adam, Hoss, and me available for other things. My days of chasing wild horses were long gone and the same went for both of my brothers.

I’d started riding Cochise these past few days, but never at a full-out run, and so far, my leg hadn’t felt any worse. It was still swollen by the end of the day, but it was servicing me just fine and that’s all that really mattered.

I figured it would take Andy and Rex a week at least to round up enough of the herd to make it worthwhile. There was always a market for young, saddle-broke mounts, plus it provided a decent income for all parties involved as long as the two boys wanted the work.

It was time for me to get back to my job at the mill now that I could sit Cochise. My big plans for Adam had been delayed and it was time to get things moving again and back on track. With the railway lines completed from coast to coast just a few short months ago, any one of us could be cross-country in next to no time.

As soon as Rex and Andy returned with the new mustangs, I felt I could leave and ride up to the mill. In the meantime, there was plenty to do around the ranch. I was anxious to see Tim Wilson again since we’d worked everything out.

I prayed I’d put his mind at ease and not just brushed the surface. He’d carried that weight for a long time thanks to our mutual acquaintance, Richard Owens. I often wondered if Owens had pulled something like this before or was Grace the only one. Another town, another young woman, a gambler’s obsession, a drug required, cash at hand at any price, no matter what the circumstances.

Hoss and I had taken a wagon full of supplies out to repair fencing for the last three days. It was a never-ending job with a thousand acres to care for. When we drove back into the yard on the third day, the corral was full of frisky, beautiful mustangs. The boys had done well.

“How many?” I hollered, cupping my hands to my mouth. Hoss had slowed the wagon, but in my excitement, I jumped down off the seat before he’d pulled to a stop. Just the sight of all those beautiful animals filled me with a long lost passion for life I’d thought was gone forever. All of my senses were heightened. I could see them, smell them, hear them. I felt alive.

“Twenty-eight, Joe.” Rex hollered back, as I ran across the yard toward the two pleased wranglers.

I shook both boys’ hands. They’d rounded up more than I could have asked for. “Great job, fellas, great job.” They were as excited as I was, though dirty and tired and needed a days’ rest, although I think if I’d asked, they would have been glad to start workin’ them today. “Let’s just let them prance around and get used to their new surroundings for a couple of days.”

“That works for me, Joe,” Andy said.

“Me too,” Rex added.

“You two go get cleaned up and get yourselves something to eat. We’ll talk later.”

Though none of these frightened young horses wanted me near them, I stood with my arms crossed over the corral fence just mindlessly staring at their beauty. A couple of paints were mixed in with the herd, ones I probably would have picked to ride first, just to see if Cochise was paying attention. What I wouldn’t give to be ten years younger and able to break the whole string myself.

“Thanks for all your help, little brother,” Hoss said sarcastically, as he walked up next to me. “I had to put them supplies away by myself.”

“Look at ‘em, Hoss, just look at ‘em.” Hoss leaned on the top rail next to me.

“Them’s beauties, that’s for sure. Whatcha plan to do with ‘em all?”

“What’s all this?” came a voice from behind.

“Hey, Pa.”

“My, what a good lookin’ lot,” Pa said admiringly.

“They sure are.” I felt like I’d gathered them all myself, like I should take credit somehow.

“You have plans for all these horses, Joseph?”

“Well, maybe Hoss and I’ll go into the horse tradin’ business.”

“What?” Hoss seemed to have forgotten about our plan.

“They’re fine-looking animals, son. Should pull in a good sum of money.”

I nodded to Hoss. “No doubt they will.”

~~~

I rode to the mill the following day. I had two days before Rex and Andy would start breakin’ the new stock, and I wanted to be around and be part of the action. I stood next to the corral, gazing at them one more time, before leaving the house. Such beautiful young animals, trying to adjust to new smells, hand-feedings, corral walls—all of these things were foreign to them and they just needed time to settle and adjust.

As I approached the mill, I was surprised to see all the men sitting around doing nothing. All three crews; sitting, playing poker, drinking whiskey, laughing it up, having a good ol’ time, but the laughter stopped immediately and all eyes were on me. What the heck was going on?

“Where are the crew bosses?” I asked the first man I saw, trying my best to stay calm in the midst of chaos. He jumped up and stood in front of me to explain.

“Carl and Nick took the wagon into town ta get new blades.”

“Blades? There are four saws!” I was so upset with what I’d seen, even my voice cracked when I spoke.

“They’s all broke, Mr. Cartwright.”

Four blades don’t all break down. What was I missing? “Explain how all four blades broke at once?”

“Someone busted them all up during the night while we was sleepin’.”

“Did anyone see anything, hear anything?”

“No sir.”

“James, right?”

“Yessir.”

“So, James, no one here has a clue as to what happened to the blades, correct?”

“That’s right, Mr. Cartwright. Like I said before, them’s all busted up when we come down to work.”

“Do you know what time Carl and Nick left?”

“Was early this mornin’. Then Tim left here just a while back to ride down and tell you what happened.”

“How’d I miss Tim?” I mumbled to myself.

“Were you on schedule prior to last night?”

“We was a couple days ahead till now.”

There, to the side of the mill sat a ten-foot-tall mound of felled trees ready to be milled—trees brought in and stacked by the loggers. These men, these mill workers were not loggers. They’d been hired to work the mill and that’s all. I tried to think of jobs they could do, but there was nothing to now do but wait.

“I doubt they’ll be able to get four new blades in Virginia City. Maybe one, maybe two at the most,” I said, thinking out loud.

“There ain’t much we can do while we wait, Mr. Cartwright,” a smaller man said, who’d walked up to stand next to James.

“I know.” I felt bad; I didn’t know this man’s name. I’d planned to get to know all the men, until— “I’m gonna ride into Carson after I talk to Tim. I’ll see if they have any blades that will fit our saws.” Or, I thought to myself, I may have to ride to Reno. “Do you think the men would work Sunday if the mill’s up and running by then?”

“Most likely, sir. Ain’t gonna be workin’ today, and maybe not even tomorrow if’n them new blades ain’t here and set in place.”

“Thanks, James. I’ll see what I can do.”

I mounted Cochise and started back down the mountain, still finding it odd that I hadn’t seen Tim on the way up. Carl and Jed had taken the long way around with the wagon so I understood how I missed them, but Tim, I didn’t understand.

I left the men to their unscheduled day off and rode back down the mountain toward the house. The trail was narrow and it was a slow ride through switchbacks and heavy shale. As anxious as I was to find Tim, I kept a slow, steady pace, planning to stay on top of my horse this time. Finally, after making the flat straightaway, I kicked Cochise a little harder, trying to make up for lost time.

No one was home when I walked back in the house, and there was no sign of Tim or any indication that he’d been there at all. I glanced at Pa’s desk, thinking there might be a note. Nothing. The grandfather clock chimed first, then struck twelve times. I waited around another half hour, hoping someone would show up for lunch. No one did.

I’d left Cochise tied to the hitching rail before I went into the house. I grabbed my hat and walked back out in the yard, untied my horse, and led him to the trough. I waited while he got his fill since we’d have to ride back up the mountain. A small piece of paper was tucked partially under the saddle. I pulled it out, finding a handwritten note addressed to me.

“`

Joseph Cartwright

I have a young man here with me.

If you want him to remain alive, you will come alone.

He and I’ll be waiting at the line shack just southwest of the mill.

An old friend

 

“`

I scanned the yard; I ran to the barn. No one. Someone had to have left this note while I was inside the house, but I’d heard nothing. There were too many hoof prints in the yard to even know if this person had been on horseback or on foot, whether he was the kidnapper or someone else had been sent. How many people was I dealing with?

An old friend? Who? Tim, he had to be the young man. That’s why I never saw him on the mill road. My mind went a hundred different directions at once. Who? A gambling debt? Was the kid in trouble? No, they wanted me, not him. He was just being held hostage until I showed up.

I ran back into the house and sat down at Pa’s desk. I wrote out a brief note for Pa and Hoss, telling them I’d gone up to the shack. I left the note I’d found tucked under my saddle alongside the one I’d written. I took off back up the mountain.

The line shack wasn’t quite as far as the mill. I took a smaller trail toward the cabin, which veered off to the west and maybe a mile back in through dense forest and even rockier terrain than the main road.

How long had the kid been held captive? And by whom? Who was this person? Poor kid’s probably scared half to death and wished he’d left the Ponderosa when he’d had the chance. But no, I talked him into staying, and now he’s found himself in this fix all because of me.

The closer I got to the shack, the more foolish I realized I’d been. Why didn’t I wait until someone, anyone, rode in, someone to cover my back? It wouldn’t be long though and Pa would read the note I’d left in plain sight on his desk. Knowing Pa, he’d be furious with me, grumbling relentlessly to Hoss about my thoughtless behavior, while at the same time nervous and afraid. Within minutes of reading both notes, Pa and Hoss would be marching back out to the barn, mounting up and coming after us. Little did I know that wouldn’t be the case.

I tied Cochise a few yards behind the shack. I ran my hand along his heated neck before I ventured further ahead. I leveled my gun and walked slowly through the trees until I stood to the side of the shack. Suddenly, I stopped. In front of the small, wooden cabin, in plain view, sat Tim tied hand and foot to a wooden chair, his head hanging listlessly nearly meeting his chest. His entire body was limp and useless, the only thing holding him erect was a rope tied around him and the chair. Blood stained the boy’s face and had run down, leaving rust-colored streaks on the front of his shirt.

The man, or men, were somewhere around. Could they see me now? Had I been followed back up the mountain? Maybe I should have waited for extra help, but seeing the shape Tim was in, I knew he wouldn’t last much longer if I didn’t do something and do it quick.

I walked to the other side of the shack, still no one. An insufferable case of the jitters was battling its way through me, every nerve was on high alert, prickling my skin, making my mouth dry as cotton but my gun hand remained steady. I stood in eerie silence on the side of the mountain—no plan—no way of knowing what would come next. I stepped forward.

~~~

When I lifted my head; I was belly down on the dirt floor. I reached for the back of my head, feeling the egg-sized lump and the warm, sticky flow of blood at the base of my skull. While my head pounded unmercifully, I flattened my palms to the ground and pushed up slowly until I was sitting back on my heels, my knees still on the ground for balance.

After blinking a few times, my eyes began to focus and I looked straight ahead. Tim along with his chair had been dragged back into the shack and placed in front of me, but if he’d been conscious at all when I’d first arrived, he was passed out now, or at least I prayed that’s all he was.

“Hello, Joseph.”

The silence was broken. I knew the man—the voice—I knew it well. My body tensed, strung tight like a Paiute’s bow with no way to release the terror I felt. Within a moment’s time, I was that young kid again, alone and scared. Whatever I felt, whatever those long-ago feelings were, I couldn’t let them take hold. Not now, not ever again. I would win this time. I couldn’t let the man control my mind and body as he had before.

I glared at Harold, sitting on the edge of the bunk. He glared back as if we’d seen each other just yesterday. My body betrayed me, sending an unexpected shiver running up my spine. The hideous red scars, deforming his face and neck, made me want to turn and look the other way. His empty left sleeve, tucked inside the body of his shirt, his threadbare, gray clothing, still marking him as an inmate of the Nevada State Prison made me realize he’d escaped, not been set free.

We locked eyes, but his were cold and calculating, projecting the essence of evil, chilling my senses with memories of pain and suffering. His one good eye; only a narrow slit, stared down into mine. What could he possibly want now? He knew I’d come for my friend, but why? Why was he here at all?

“I’ve missed you, Joseph.”

The way he spoke, soft and low. The way he prolonged each syllable of my name, teasing, taunting, his voice raspy and hoarse, just above a whisper. Harold was a pathetic, miserable human being, who riled easily and could turn violent in a heartbeat.

“Let the kid go,” I said, praying he couldn’t hear the nervous and frightened inflection in my voice. “This is between you and me, not the boy.”

He started to chuckle. He seemed to find humor in my statement. This miserable excuse of a man should be dead by now, and I’m the one who should have made sure he was. My Colt rested in the palm of his hand—his only hand—and I had to get it back without getting myself or Tim killed in the process.

“That’s not the plan, Joseph,” he said. He glanced at Tim, who was starting to stir, then focused his eyes back on me.

Harold Collier had become most proficient with one hand. I watched in awe as he maneuvered my gun single-handedly, rotating the cylinder across his thigh, then glancing in each chamber as it passed his line of vision. Maybe he thought I’d make a move if I found him distracted in some way but now wasn’t the time. I’d be dead in an instant and so would Tim.

“What do you want from me, Collier?”

He raised my gun from his lap, aimed, and fired off a shot. The bullet kicked up dirt just an inch from my knees, enough to earn a jolt from me and bring Tim out of dreamland and back to the haunting reality known as Harold Collier’s world.

I was on my own, but it wouldn’t be long before Pa would realize where I was and why I’d had to leave and not wait for him and my brother to get home. Tim mumbled a few words I couldn’t make out then tried to lift his head, but beaten like he was, he didn’t have the strength.

“Remind you of anyone, Joseph?”

Of course, it did—me. “You’re a sick man, Collier.” What was the point of all this? What did he want? Revenge? Money? How many times had I looked as bad as, or worse than Tim did now? How many times had I fought this brute of a man, only to be beaten, trampled to the ground, physically and mentally abused behind cell bars with no way out?

“I think we should have some fun with the boy, Joseph. He reminds me a lot of you at that age.”

“Lay a hand on him and I’ll kill you.”

“Seems to me you’re in no position to do much killin’, Joseph. This young man and I got to know each other real well while we were waitin’ for you to show up.”

“God no,” I said, barely above a whisper.

I couldn’t look at Harold and I couldn’t look at Tim. Surely, he didn’t mean—

“Seems your memory’s comin’ back to you, son.”

“Just let the boy go. I’ll give you whatever you want.”

“Joseph, I have to say that’s mighty thoughtful of you. Just like old times.”

“Why are you here? Is it money you want?”

“Money?”

“Yes, Collier, money.”

“It’s Mr. Collier to you, boy.”

“Like hell—”

A bullet creased the side of my head. Jutting forward, I balanced on one hand while I felt the area close to my hairline, just above my right cheek.

Tim finally lifted his head; his questioning eyes met mine. I wondered how much of the conversation he’d heard. Seeing his face clearly now, I could make out the full effect of the beating he’d taken before I arrived. I started to reach for him when another shot rang out. I jerked my hand back when the bullet had seared the sleeve of my jacket, only to graze the skin on my arm.

“Not a smart move, Joseph.”

“At least give the kid a drink. He’s hurt. You wanna go back to prison for yet another murder?”

“Been there twice, Joseph. My home away from home ya might say.”

“Don’t try to tell me you were released?”

“No, they don’t exactly call it released.”

“So you escaped?”

“Ya ain’t stupid, Joseph. I’ll give ya credit for that.”

“Should have hanged you the first time around.”

“As you can see—”

I don’t know what good it did to talk to the man. I couldn’t focus my eyes; I was seeing double and it wasn’t helping the situation. He held the gun, and I didn’t see how Tim and I were going to get out of this mess alive, furthermore, I didn’t intend to put the kid’s life in danger on account of me. Harold wouldn’t think twice about pulling the trigger and killing him just to spite me.

I needed a distraction. The room was small—only a few short feet between us. I had to get to my gun without being blasted from here to eternity. I didn’t see another gun or even a rifle, so I had to assume this was the only weapon in the room.

“How about that drink?”

“I guess if we want to keep him alive a little while longer, you might as well find him something to drink.” With my eyes going back and forth between Tim and the gun, I had to find a canteen.

“I don’t suppose you have a canteen.”

“As you can rightly see, I ain’t been out for supplies yet.”

“I have a canteen on my horse. Do you mind?”

“Go right ahead.”

He knew it was safe for me to go with Tim still tied to the chair, but he followed me anyway. Harold stood in the doorway, watching closely as I walked around back to Cochise. I didn’t dare reach for my rifle for fear he’d shoot at least one of us before I even pulled the firearm from the scabbard. Life meant nothing to him. He’d feel no remorse in killing either or both of us flat out.

Figuring the note I’d left for Pa had been read by now, I listened carefully for any sign that he and Hoss were somewhere close by as I reached up for my canteen. If they were hidden in the brush that surrounded the cabin, watching from a distance, they’d be able to see Harold standing outside holding my pearl-handled Colt. If that were the case, they’d know what they were up against.

I started across the threshold when Harold sidestepped and planted himself right in front of me. I moved to the left. He did the same. Patience was one thing I learned in prison. I waited for him to tire of the game, but he raised the gun and pressed the barrel to my forehead.

I froze in place. Tim stared. Harold laughed.

He lowered the pistol and waved me through. My heart began beating again as I knelt down in front of Tim. I could see the fear in his eyes when I raised the canteen to his lips. “Just a little,” I said as calmly as I could. “I’ll give you more later.”

Harold used the barrel of the gun, waving me in the direction he wanted me to go, so I capped the canteen and set it on the floor next to Tim. He wanted me on the cot, across the room from Tim’s chair. If he restrained me to the bed, Tim and I wouldn’t stand a chance.

Harold had grown a bit too cocky since he held the only weapon in the room, but he’d just made his first mistake. In not keeping the two of us on the same side of the cabin, and with only one good eye, his head was in constant motion between the two of us.

When I stopped suddenly, turning my head toward the door as if I’d heard someone coming, Harold followed my lead. I was on him in a flash. Slamming my elbow hard to his gut, he started to lean forward but corrected his balance. The back of his hand came across my face with such force; I slammed into the cabin wall and slid to the floor like a rag doll.

The man matched the strength of Hoss, but unlike my brother, he used his strength to maim or kill. The wound at the base of my skull opened again; I felt blood trickle down the back of my neck. My eyes barely focused. I was outmatched, but I made it to my feet and charged forward again.

~~~

“I’m beat,” Ben said, easing himself down off Buck. “You mind putting my horse up, son?” He handed Hoss the reins, and being the dutiful son, Hoss gladly accepted. Ben crossed the yard slowly, heading straight for the house. A long cool drink of water and the comfort of his overstuffed chair was all he wanted after a long day in the saddle.

He wondered if Joe had made it back from the mill yet. It was just a routine inspection and there’d be no reason to stay the night unless there was a major problem of sorts, one that couldn’t be solved quickly. Then, with Hop Sing out of town and his stomach growling after missing lunch and supper, Ben and the boys were forced to fend for themselves. Even though his son wasn’t much of a cook, he hoped Joe had at least started supper.

The day began quite simply. Joe left early for the mill while Adam, accompanied by Ben and Hoss, rode into town to catch the stage heading west to San Francisco. Now that Joe was back managing the mill, Adam had planned a short vacation to visit an old college roommate, whom he’d kept in contact with during years of correspondence. The two had maintained a close friendship since their college days nearly twenty years ago.

After they’d said their goodbyes, Adam boarded the stage. He hadn’t seen his old roommate, Jackson, for years, and since Joe’s leg was not a hindrance any longer, it freed up some of his time, making the trip to San Francisco possible.

Roy Coffee met up with Hoss and Ben on the boardwalk. “Mornin’ Sheriff,” Hoss said, keeping his eyes on the coach, noticing the attractive young lady who’d boarded just before his older brother.

“Adam got business outta town?”

“San Francisco,” Hoss said.

“He’s meeting an old friend, Roy,” Ben stepped in when Hoss’ attention seemed to be on the young lady and not the sheriff.

Goodbyes had been said and Adam’s long arm stretched out the side window, a quick wave as the stagecoach pulled away. “Looks like big brother’s gonna have a pleasant trip out there ain’t he, Pa.”

Roy and Ben both grinned at Hoss’ remark. “I’m sure he will, son.” Ben was not too old and decrepit to not know what, or whom Hoss might be referring to.

Roy hated to be the bearer of bad news and spoil everyone’s good mood but he had no choice. He pulled a small piece of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to Ben. “Just got me a wire, Ben,” he said.

“Escaped? Seven of ‘em? Wonder what happened down there?”

“Don’t rightly know. I’ve been watching for anyone new around town this mornin’ but so far, I ain’t seen anyone out of the ordinary ridin’ through. But your ranch is about a day’s ride from the prison, that’s if’n they stole themselves some horses when they broke out. Wondered if you and Hoss would be willing to check a few of your line shacks with me just to make sure they ain’t in the area.”

Ben glanced and Hoss and his son gave a quick nod. “Sure, we could do that, Roy. Joe rode up to the mill earlier this morning, so we can probably skip the one up that way. He’d let us know if he saw any strangers in the area.”

That was several hours ago. Adam was on his way to San Francisco and Ben and Hoss were back home, having had no luck finding any of escaped inmates while riding a better part of the day with Roy. They’d separated up on the high road, and Roy rode on back to town empty-handed.

Ben checked the kitchen as soon as he walked in the house. There was no sign of Joseph and no sign of anything started for supper. He hollered up the staircase, thinking Joe could be in his room and might not have heard him come in. No answer there either. He strolled back into the kitchen. He would have to rustle something up, knowing Hoss would be grumbling somethin’ awful if a plate set in front of him soon.

He reached in the icebox and pulled out a couple of steaks. This would have to do tonight. He’d just lit the stove when Hoss came in strolling in, finding Ben in the kitchen and saw the two steaks laid out on the butcher block. “That’s it for both of us?”

“Grab another, son.”

“I didn’t see Joe’s horse in the barn. S’pose he ain’t back yet?”

“I guess not. Must have run into some trouble up at the mill,” Ben said, reaching for the skillet.

“I reckon.” Seeing that Ben only pulled one cast-iron skillet out, Hoss cleared his throat. “Ain’t all gonna fit in that one little pan, Pa.”

Ben was tired. It had been a long day with no results. “I have an idea, son.”

“Yessir.”

“Why don’t you cook the steaks and I’ll go pour myself a brandy?”

“Yessir.”

Hoss opened a second burner, moved some of the kindling over, and set the second skillet on top to heat. His father had a good fire going and the second burner would heat up quick. His mouth watered at just the thought of—

“Hoss!” Ben hollered. “Hoss!”

Hoss moved quickly out of the kitchen toward his father. “Pa, ya scared me half to death. I almost dropped them steaks on the floor. What’s wrong?” Ben shoved the note Joe had received into his middle son’s hand. “An old friend? Who do you s’pose . . .”

“Saddle two fresh horses, son.”

Ben hurried back into the kitchen, removing the skillets and covering the burners so they’d have a house to come back to. He grabbed what medical supplies they might need and quickly threw them into one of Hop Sing’s flour sacks.

With supper long forgotten, the two Cartwrights rode up the mountain toward the mill. Hoss carried a lantern, keeping himself a half a length in front of his father. “It’s gonna be a two- or three-hour ride at this rate, Pa,”

“I know, son, just keep moving forward.”

Ben didn’t know if time was at a premium or not. Joe had returned home from the mill sometime during the day in order to leave the notes. Someone had taken a young man. What young man? Who’d be after Joe? Was Joe’s early release an issue? His mind reeled with so many unanswered questions; he was relieved that Hoss was there to lead the way and Buck only needed to follow.

Trees and scrub thickened, forming high barriers and obstructing their view of anything else along the narrow trail. They rode single file without a word between them; each lost in their own thoughts and worries until Hoss stopped and turned to speak to his father. “We’re getting’ close now, Pa. I’m gonna put the light out.”

“All right, son. We’d better walk in from here.”

Leaving the lantern and supplies behind, Ben and Hoss tethered their mounts and hiked in from the trail, trying to tread quietly across the loose shale and small twigs and branches. The shack sat in complete darkness but for the faint hint of light from the moon. No sounds could be heard from inside. Cochise was still saddled and easy to spot, his glistening white coat gave him away.

Hoss moved along the side of the small structure and found two more horses tied close together not far from Cochise. Without saying a word, he held two fingers up to his father.

Neither had voiced a plan on the way up. They stood together, close to the only door, listening for voices or movement, but there was nothing.

Holding his gun level at his waist, Ben took it upon himself to go first and kicked the door in with Hoss right behind him. The room was silent, pitch-black until Ben reached in his vest pocket and ran a match across the back of his thigh. He held it out in front of him. Three bodies. Joe, a man tied to a turned-over chair and one other. A larger man dressed in gray.

Ben struck a second match and lit the only lantern inside the shack. “Check that one, Hoss,” Ben said, as he knelt down over Joe. He needed to know if the big man was still alive.

“Joseph—Joe.” Ben felt for a pulse when his son didn’t move or respond.

“This one’s dead, Pa.” Ben didn’t look up. “Gutshot.” Joe still hadn’t moved. Hoss walked over to the young man tied to the chair. “It’s Tim Wilson, Pa.” Hoss pulled his knife and snapped through the ropes that bound the young man to a chair. “How’s Joe?”

Ben could see the rust-colored stain on his son’s coat sleeve and blood from a scrape, maybe a bullet to the side of his head, but nothing else indicating a serious wound. “He’s alive, Hoss, but he hasn’t come to yet. After reaching behind and lifting Joe’s head up from the floor, Ben mumbled, “Head wound.”

“Tim’s taken an awful beatin’, Pa, but he’s alive.”

“Same thing happened to Joe.”

“Can you hear me, son?” Finally, after minutes of worry and trying not to panic, Ben noticed Joe begin to stir. With a sigh of relief, he brushed his hand across his son’s brow and down his battered face. Joe mumbled a single word Ben couldn’t make out. “Joe—son? Time to wake up now. Joe?”

~~~

I heard a voice, a faraway voice, calling my name. Tired, so tired. I didn’t have enough strength to answer the call. The voice again, two separate voices. Pa.

“Pa?”

“I’m right here, son.”

“Pa.”

“Hoss and I are here. We’re gonna get you home now.”

“Kay—” I didn’t have to worry now. Pa and Hoss were there and I could rest easy.

“Help me get Joe onto the cot, Hoss.”

“Oh, God!” I grabbed hold of my ribs when Pa tried to sit me up.

“Think we can move Tim?”

“He’s hurt bad, Pa.”

“Joe’s ribs have to be wrapped before we can get him down the mountain.”

“Sure wish we could get a wagon up here. It’s gonna be a rough ride on both of ‘em.”

I could hear their conversation, but I had trouble concentrating on what they were saying. I realized more now. I wanted to tell my father to watch out for Harold, but I couldn’t form the words. All this time I thought Tim was dead, but Hoss made it sound as though the kid was still alive.

~~~

“—lucky to be alive, Ben.”

A new voice. I wanted to open my eyes, but I was so tired. There was so much pain when my mind surfaced into the present, but I could hear—

“—Wilson boy?

“Touch and go—”

Did I hear right? Were they talking about Tim? To tired—

The gun went off. Tim slumped in the chair. I dove headfirst. Another shot. Fell to the floor.

“Joe? Can you hear me, son?”

I hear you, Pa.

“Time to wake up, son.”

Can’t—too tired.

“Joe, I need you to wake up now.”

Doc Martin, I think—

“Joseph.”

I opened my eyes. Pa’s face was only inches from my own. He smiled then leaned back. I was home—in my own bed. The doc stood next to Pa and Hoss was clutching the footboard at the far end of my bed. A smile still showed on my father’s face, but a deep sadness showed in his eyes.

“It’s morning, son.”

“Morning?” I couldn’t remember how I got home or what day it was.

“You’ve been out for some time,” Paul said. He reached down and lifted each one of my eyelids for a better view, I guess, then laid his hand on my forehead. “Better, fever’s down.”

“You’ve taken quite a beating, son.”

I didn’t need to be reminded. Everything, including my eyelids, hurt. Every inch of my body was in pain. Even my feet ached, which made no sense, but I remembered hearing something about Tim.

“Tim?”

“He’s holdin’ his own, som.”

“He’s alive?”

“He was shot, but Paul’s removed the bullet and says he’s got a fighting chance.”

“He’s here?”

“He’s sleeping in Adam’s room for now.”

“Adam’s room?” Nothing made sense. It was morning. Tim was alive. Where was Adam? Did Harold shoot my brother too?

“Is Adam—”

“Adam’s in San Francisco, son.” Pa stood up. He’d been sitting on the edge of the bed and even the slightest movements made me wince and reach to protect my ribs. Pa gently pulled my hand away and pulled the covers up over my shoulders.

“You rest now, son. We’ll talk later.”

Words I longed to hear. “Okay.”

I woke later, and as if on cue, Pa came walking in with a bowl of soup. I started to sit up and stopped. Eating was going to be a challenge with the ribs.

“Wait, son, let me help you.” Pa set the tray down on the table and helped me to sit up, stacking pillows behind me and easing me back against them. It took me a minute to catch my breath. My ribs were wrapped but still, this wasn’t the easiest position to be in with ribs that burned like hell with the slightest movement.

“You need to be careful, son. You have broken ribs this time, not just cracked.”

“Okay,” I said. “Better now.”

“Can you eat something?”

“Yeah.”

“Good,” Pa said. He was as bad as Hop Sing when it came time to eat. I managed the whole bowl of soup Pa had made. He seemed happy.

“You said Tim was here?”

“Paul’s in with him now, Joe.”

I looked at my father for more of an explanation. “And—”

“It’s serious, Joe. Paul’s doing all he can for him.”

“You said he was shot. Where?”

“It was close range. Luckily the bullet exited through the top of his shoulder, but he bled for a long time without medical care.”

“But the doc thinks he’ll live, right?”

“He’s made it this far and Paul says that a good sign.”

My father was the optimistic one. He always found the bright side if ever there was one. I remembered the shot. I remember Tim, still tied to the chair toppling sideways to the floor after the gun went off. I dove at Harold and we fought. There was another shot. “Harold?”

“He’s dead. Gut-shot, Joe.”

“By his own hand—” I mumbled.

“What was that?”

“We fought. After he shot Tim, we fought. He held my gun, a second shot and I guess I passed out, Pa. I don’t remember much after that.”

“Thank God it was him and not you, Joe.”

“Yeah.” He was going after the kid. He was going to make me watch Tim die before he killed me. “Tim was still tied to the chair when you found him, right?”

“Yes, why?”

“I’m trying to put it all together and parts are missing.”

“Why don’t you lie back down? It’ll come in time.”

Pa was right. I wanted to see Tim, but I didn’t have the strength to even consider rolling out of bed, much less walk clear down to Adam’s room. I’d rest for a while and try later. Pa wasn’t about to let me out of the bed willingly anyhow. Hoss brought the next bowl of soup and a cold glass of milk a few hours later. As Pa had earlier, he tried his best to sit me up in the bed and make me comfortable while I ate.

“Thanks,” I said. “I suppose you had a big juicy steak for dinner.”

“As a matter of fact—” I rolled my eyes and smirked, then placed my hand against my cheekbone, forgetting how Harold had worked me over after he’d shot at me twice. I finished my bowl of soup anyway. “Feel any better?” Hoss said.

“Some. How’s Tim?”

“Better, I guess. He’s alive.”

“Good.” I handed the empty bowl to Hoss.

“Ya want some more?”

“That’s enough for now.”

I couldn’t keep my mind off Tim and how he’d taken Harold’s abuse all because of me. The kid was just a pawn, and there was no reason for him to get beat like he did or shot for that matter. I felt protective of him; I had from the start. After he’d told me Owens had used him in his scheme to kill Grace, I felt some kind of a bond when Adam made me realize why he’d done what he did.

“Where’s Pa?” I asked, seeing how Hoss had made himself at home in the chair next to my bed.

“He’s downstairs writin’ Adam a letter.”

“A letter?”

“If you hadn’t noticed, little brother, Adam ain’t here. He went to visit some college friend of his down in San Francisco. Gonna be out there about a month so guess who gets stuck doin’ all the chores of three growed men now that you’re laid up and he’s gone?”

“Sorry, brother.”

“Sure ya are.”

I smiled up at Hoss; grateful he’d taken my mind off Tim’s injuries. That was my brother, though. No matter how awful the circumstances, he always knew when a body needed cheerin’ up.

“Do me a favor?” I asked.

“Sure, Joe. Whatcha need?”

“Help me to Tim’s room.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, before Pa comes up.”

“Ya sure?”

“Keep your voice down and give me a hand up.”

Hoss had to steady me after he’d gotten me to my feet. It was my first time out of bed, and for some reason, I didn’t think just standing up would be that hard. Boy, was I wrong. My head pounded and I held my hand across my ribs, but we continued slowly down the hall to Adam’s room.

Hoss opened the door and the two of us slipped in through the narrow opening. Hoss still had to hold me up I was so unsteady. We walked to the side of the bed, both of us looking down at Tim’s broken body. He was covered to just above his waist, but a generous amount of white bandages encircled most of his upper body.

Tim opened his eyes, and sluggishly, they shifted toward me; we locked eyes. His dark blonde hair barely showed through the dressings. His face was cut and bruised almost beyond recognition. Without any words spoken aloud, a single tear slipped down his face.

“I’m sorry.” The words weren’t loud enough to hear, but when he blinked his eyes, I knew he understood. We were his family now; Pa, Hoss, Adam and me. We would take this boy into our home and make him part of our family. That’s the least I could do.

~~~

Our days were a simple routine. Eat—sleep—sit—eat—sleep—sit. The two of us improved. The cuts healed, the bruises faded. Our ribs and Tim’s bullet wound took a little more time. Today we would both venture downstairs, and if we were lucky and could make it passed Pa, we’d take ourselves out to the front porch for some fresh air.

Adam had wired after receiving Pa’s letter, saying he’d start straight home if needed. Pa replied that we were both on the mend and to enjoy his time with his friend, Jackson. We all ate dinner that evening at the dining room table. Tim and I each sat down gingerly, neither of us still not quite 100%.

Hop Sing was glad to have his family back in some semblance of order while Hoss complained about having to share the meal with two hungry men, who hadn’t had much more than soup for the last few days and were both ready for a decent meal.

“Hope you made enough, Hop Sing. You got three growin’ boys sittin’ down here for supper.”

“Boys already grown. You watch what you say to Hop Sing or Hop Sing make nothing but cheese sandwich for Mr. Hoss.”

I started to laugh but quickly grabbed my side. The ribs had a ways to go yet. “You better quit sweet-talkin’ Hop Sing like that, brother, or he’ll do exactly as he says.”

“Aw, quiet down, Joseph,” Hoss said, looking toward the kitchen. “I done all your chores for the past week and I’m a hungry man. Not to mention I had to ride up to the mill and make sure all them blades were set back in place and all them men was back to work.”

“Hoss has been known to faint dead away if he doesn’t get fed on a certain schedule,” I said to Tim. The kid smiled although he was smart enough not to laugh.

Pa was more quiet than usual. He tolerated us fooling around at the table, but his mind seemed preoccupied with something else. I wouldn’t mention anything in front of Tim or even Hoss, but I would find time to talk with him later. I also needed to express how I felt about Tim becoming a part of the family, but only if everyone agreed it was something they wanted to do.

It was still hard to sit in a hard-backed chair, and since it was our first day out of bed and downstairs, Tim and I called it a night and both went upstairs to lie down. Doc Martin was scheduled to come out tomorrow and maybe the two of us would be released back to light work, very light. Most of the bandages had been removed and we’d both been allowed a bath, but we weren’t allowed to do anything more than lie around and rest.

I’d grown restless and was anxious to get back into a routine. Tim didn’t seem that way; in fact, he and Pa were acting very similar with their down-in-the-dumps attitudes. Nothing I could put my finger on, but both seemed just a little too quiet and withdrawn.

Tim and I hadn’t really talked much about that day in the shack, and now that he was healing and had gotten most of his strength back, it was time to have a serious talk, although it would be a difficult one, and I had no idea how I would start such a conversation.

I didn’t know how far Harold had gone with the boy before I’d made it up there. The way he talked, the words he used led me to believe he’d done the same things to Tim he’d done to me all those years ago. How would I bring that up? How does one talk about something so private, so wrong?

The next morning, after breakfast, I poured us each a mug of coffee and hauled Tim out to the front porch for that talk. “I wanted to talk to you, Tim,” I said after we’d each settled into a chair.

“What’s there to talk about?”

I knew that attitude, knew it well. Damaged goods I called it. “I wanted to explain about Harold, the man who did this to you.”

“I never knew anyone who could pack a punch like that man could, Joe.”

“I’ll agree with you there.”

“He’s got fists like iron,” Tim said. “I just never felt anything like that before.”

I listened, but I had to know more. “Can you tell me what happened that day; how he got a hold of you?”

“I was riding down the mountain. I was comin’ to see you, Joe. I guess you know all about the blades at the mill.”

“Yeah, all taken care of.”

Harold had been the one who’d sabotaged the mill, all part of his plan, although he must have found more out about the name Cartwright and our business operations while he was still behind bars. He knew exactly what to do and where to go after he’d escaped.

“I heard someone cry out like they were hurt or something. That’s when I rode off the main road and up that little trail toward the line shack. I don’t know what hit me, maybe the old man threw a rock or something and hit the back of my head, but I fell off my horse and the next thing I knew, I mean when I came to, I was tied up to that chair.”

“So you were tied to the chair the whole time? Is that where he beat you?”

“Yeah. He kept askin’ me where you were. When I said I didn’t know, BAM—a slap or a fist right across my face. When he got bored with that, he started in on my ribs. He kept askin’ and askin’ and hittin’ and hittin’. I think he even knocked me out a couple of times, but as soon as I came to again, more questions. I remember his boot coming at my middle after he’d knocked over the chair. I didn’t have the answers he wanted to hear.”

“But you were never outta that chair, right?”

“That’s about the size of it. He knocked me and the chair over a few times but then righted it and started in on me again.” I watched Tim tighten his fists and I saw a shiver run through him as if he was reliving the incident over again in his mind’s eye.

“I’m sorry he found you. I’m sorry you had to go through what you did.”

“What was the point? Why? I mean, what in blazes did he want?”

“He wanted me, Tim, and he knew I’d come runnin’ so he held you till I got there.”

“I don’t get it, Joe. I—”

“It’s over. The man’s dead. He was a sick bastard, Tim. He’d been tried and sentenced twice for murder and sent to prison when he should’ve been hung. He may have killed more than just the two we know of, in fact—” I knew he’d killed more. I remembered the blonde boy in the prison yard. How many more were there? I didn’t want to count; I didn’t want to know anything more about Harold Collier. “I’m just glad you and I weren’t added to the list.”

“I’m glad he’s dead,” Tim said. “My mama told me never to wish that on another human bein’, but she didn’t know no one like him”

“He’s certainly one of a kind, and don’t you go tellin’ my father how you feel because he thinks every man’s life is worth somethin’, just like your mama, but I’m with you on this one. The man deserved to die. I just wish you hadn’t been involved.”

“No need to blame yourself for another man’s actions, Joe.”

I didn’t know what to say. I blamed myself and I couldn’t help if the kid hated me for what he’d been through. “You got any family, Tim?”

“No.”

“Then I want you to be part of our family. I know it’s not like having your own family back, but we’re a pretty decent sort once you get used to us.”

“What are you saying?”

“I want you to live here, work here, be part of our family.”

“I don’t know, Joe. Your Pa already has three sons. Ain’t that enough?”

“Sure it is but who’s counting?”

“I don’t know.”

“You think about it, all right?” We both looked up as Doc Martin pulled his buggy up in the front yard. “Looks like we have company.”

We both stood up and waited for the doc from the front porch. I’d jumped the gun, talking to Tim, before I’d had a chance to talk to Pa or Hoss or Adam, but I’d deal with that later.

~~~

Doc took his time checking us both over and giving us the go-ahead to go back to work, light work for now. The days of constant rest and bland diet were finally over, even though we had both sat down to a full course meal the night before; we kept that part of our recovery hush-hush.

Hoss had taken over. He’d taken care of everything; riding to Reno and Carson to find enough new blades to get the saws back in operation. The men were troopers and worked steady until they were back on schedule again. They were a fine crew. Hoss had made James Ream the new crew boss of the second shift. I wasn’t sure what we’d do with Tim; he’d been gone from the mill for a month and someone had to take his place. James had worked out fine.

Tim had stayed in his room when the doc had finished with him, which gave me a chance to talk to Pa. I’d found the front porch a comfortable place to talk things out, so I did the same thing with my father; I poured two mugs of coffee and asked him to join me.

“I’m always ready for a break from this never-ending paperwork. Thanks, Joseph.”

Pa had been worried like any father would when he’d found the two of us barely alive in that line shack. He’d relaxed some as we both grew stronger, and after given the go-ahead by Paul to return to work, he should have been fine, but something still bothered him and he wasn’t talking, at least not to me.

“I wanted to talk to you,” I said. “Ask you something, really.”

“I’m all ears, Joe. What’s on your mind?” He still seemed distracted, but I needed to tell him what I’d done, what I’d offered Tim.

“I should have talked to you before I said what I did, but here goes.” That got his attention. “I asked Tim Wilson to move in with us, be part of the family.” Pa didn’t say anything; he just nodded his head ever so slightly. “He has no home, no family of his own. He’s a good kid, Pa, and I want him to feel like this is his home. I know I jumped the gun and I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you before—”

I never finished my sentence before Pa cut in. “I think Tim would be a fine addition to our family, Joe.”

“You do?”

“Yes, son, I do. You’re old enough to make smart, thoughtful decisions, and I believe having Tim Wilson live with us is a very thoughtful decision.”

That went well. I was shocked at how well. “Something on your mind, Pa?”

“What?”

“You seem preoccupied.”

“Oh, well—Adam, I guess.” Pa pulled a letter from his shirt pocket and handed it to me. “I received this the other day from your brother. Maybe this will explain.”

“`

Dear Pa,

Things are going well here with Jackson. He’s built from scratch, a fine architectural firm. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ll be blunt. He’s asked me to join him, partner with him, and I’m considering the notion of doing what I spent four years of my life studying to do. I haven’t given him an answer one way or another yet.

I’ll be leaving here next week so you and I can sit down and talk about the possibility of me moving away from the Ponderosa and living permanently in San Francisco.

I’d put those dreams aside when Grace died. Now with Joe back on the ranch and handling everything I would have done, I feel the time is right, but as I said before, you and I will make the final decision together.

Your son, Adam

“`

Finally. My plan had worked but in the process, I had made my father very unhappy. His dream since the day we were born was that each of his sons would take over the ranch, and now those dreams were beginning to shatter. I could see the sorrow in Pa’s eyes.

“It’s what Adam always wanted, Pa. It’s where he’ll be happy.”

There were no words.

“And think about it, Pa. San Francisco isn’t that far, not like Boston or Philadelphia, or New York. You’ll be able to visit Adam whenever you want.”

“I know what you’re saying, Joe, and you’re right. I just have to get used to the idea.”

“Nothing’s definite.”

Pa tried his best to smile. “Yes, son. It is.”

~~~

Tim and I worked together the next few days. We weren’t allowed to ride yet, “Give it a few more days,” Paul had said, so we were bound to the house and the outbuildings. The barn had never looked better when we’d finished cleaning and straightening, and then Tim learned a bit about house cleaning. Hop Sing thought we were loafing and put us both to work, cleaning downstairs and getting Tim moved to the guest room, which would become his room permanently before Adam arrived home on the next day’s stage.

We all rode to town together; Pa and Tim and me in the surrey while Hoss rode alongside on Chubb, leaving enough room for Adam on the ride home. Hoss and I joked about big brother and some of his persnickety ways and even Tim got in on the shenanigans. Pa rolled his eyes at our foolishness, but he’d heard all he wanted to hear.

“That’s enough, boys,” he said, then flicked the reins a little harder, jolting Tim and me in our seats. Hoss couldn’t contain his laughter, watching the two of us grab onto the sides of the surrey with one hand and across our tender middles with the other.

Pa was anxious to see Adam and he kept up the lively pace until we reached the edge of town. We’d made excellent time and now we would have to sit and wait for a stage that was guaranteed to be late. On occasion, I was right, but more often than not, I was wrong, and this would be one of those times. The stage pulled in twenty minutes ahead of schedule.

After Adam climbed out, we all greeted each other and were about to get back into the surrey when Pa stopped us all. He hadn’t mentioned his plans beforehand, but he wanted to treat us all to dinner at the International House. He pulled five string ties from his vest pocket and we were ready to dine in style.

“Ain’t Pa the smart one,” Hoss said, nudging me in the ribs and then apologizing when I winced.

“Anyone’s smart if they offer you food, big brother.”

“Aw, that’s enough outta you two. Let’s go,” Pa said, leading us down the boardwalk as he walked shoulder to shoulder with his eldest son.

Tim was still trying to fit in. It would take time, and he was still hesitant to make jokes or comments along with the rest of us, but he was starting to catch on and fit in. Life wasn’t always about work. Some fun, some silliness had always been a part of our family, and Tim would get the hang of things before too long.

“I’m starved,” he said. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. This is a real treat.”

Pa clapped Tim on the back while Adam looked on, not quite understanding why this young man was with us tonight. “You’re part of the family now, Tim. There’s only one problem.”

“What’s that, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I know Joseph has mentioned it before, but you’ll learn mighty quick to watch out for Hoss where food is concerned. If you want to survive, you’ll have to be quick.” Pa winked at Adam, giving the impression he’d explain things later, but for now he had all his sons together—his family—and a young man who’d become an extension of that family.

~~~

Adam talked in broad terms about San Francisco, but he became more serious when he started in on Jackson and the firm he’d begun nearly four years ago. He reminded Pa and Hoss of the piece Mark Twain wrote after witnessing the earthquake of ’65 first hand, something I knew nothing about. That’s when Jackson moved away from Boston and settled in San Francisco. He figured new buildings would go up in the place of ones that had fallen and he wanted to be part of the process. He’s done remarkably well. He’d established himself as a highly respected architect in the San Francisco-Oakland area.”

Excitement was written all over my brother’s face and in the way he told his story, it was easy to see he was chompin’ at the bit to partner up with his friend Jackson.

“So what’s this partnership going to be called, Adam? Cartwright and— hey, what’s Jackson’s last name?”

Adam let out a quiet laugh. “It’s not a done deal yet, Joe. Collier is Jackson’s last name, so if anything, it would be Collier and Cartwright, not the other way around.

I had quit listening halfway through Adam’s statement, as soon as the name Collier was mentioned. I looked at Tim and saw the smile drop from his face too. Harold Collier? It couldn’t be a relation, could it? I think Pa put two and two together also, and now that I thought back on it, maybe that’s why he’d been so down this past couple of weeks. Maybe he already knew or suspected. He laid his hand on my arm. We’d talk about it later.

Tim and I lost our appetites, and Hoss was kind enough to finish our steaks and potatoes, letting nothing go to waste, while even his steady flow of comments went unnoticed. I was anxious for the celebration to end and to get back home. The excitement over Adam’s visit with his college friend had left its mark on Tim and me.

The ride home wasn’t nearly as jovial as the ride into town had been. Hoss and I led the team and Chubby to the barn while Adam and Pa went inside. Tim felt more comfortable hanging out with me, and I told Hoss to go on in and we’d be in as soon as we finished.

“Ya sure, little brother?”

“I’m sure.”

“You know what Chubby likes, don’t ya?”

“I think I can manage. Now get outta here.”

Hoss thanked us both then strolled across the yard, happy to be relieved of the chore. I led Chubb to his stall and started removing his tack while Tim unharnessed the team. I knew what was on his mind, same thing that was on mine, and I decided to bring it up, get it out in the open.

“I don’t know if there’s any relation,” I said after hoisting the oversized saddle up over the half wall.

“Don’t matter.”

“It matters to me, Tim.” I looked back over my shoulder as I pulled the bit from Chubb’s mouth. “A bucket of oats for each.”

We finished our task; neither of us in much of a hurry, but I could see in Tim’s eyes, the same way I’d felt the first time Harold had beaten me. It wasn’t a fair fight. I was trapped in a cell and Tim was tied to a chair. I met up with the metal shiv Harold had made before I’d arrived, and I wondered if he’d used it to threatened Tim.

The man didn’t just beat the living crap out you; he pulled his psychological bull along with it. He made you feel less of a man than anyone else ever could.

Weak, worthless, pathetic waste of human life. I’d heard it all. Pretty boy, easily broken; the same words hammered into my head every single night until I pleaded with him to just kill me and be done with it.

“No, Joseph. You and I will be together always. Even when I’m not around, you’ll see my face, hear my words.” Damn if he wasn’t right.

“I’m kinda tired, Joe. Think I’ll turn in,” Tim said, steering me away from my thoughts. We crossed the yard to the house, and if Adam were tired after his trip, he’d head straight to bed, too, giving me a minute or two alone with Pa.

I watched Tim as he walked toward the dining room and into his own room now that Adam was home. When we were first brought back to the ranch, it was a lot easier for Doc Martin to tend both of us in rooms only separated by a hallway.

After bidding Tim goodnight, Adam continued his account of his month-long vacation and it was easy to tell he was content, more content than I’d seen him in a long time. This is what he’d been waiting for, an opportunity to be his own man, to be Adam Cartwright, Architect.

But my brother was exhausted, and after a second shot of brandy, he was off to bed. He hadn’t asked about Tim and why he was staying with us in the house, but I guess that could wait till tomorrow.

“You turnin’ in, Joe?” Hoss said, standing up from the settee.

“In a while—‘nite, Hoss.” I hoped Pa realized what I meant; that I wanted to speak to him alone.

“We’ll have one more nightcap, Hoss, then Joe and I’ll be up to bed.” I glanced at Pa. He’d understood.

When Hoss was out of sight Pa stood and motioned me to his desk. He sat down and opened the top drawer. He pulled out an envelope and removed its contents. He handed the letter to me. It was a letter from the State Prison address to Pa.

“`

Dear Mr. Cartwright,

In reply to your inquiry concerning Harold Randolph Collier – NSP #173:

Mr. Collier was incarcerated twice at the Nevada State Prison. His first offense was murder. He was tried and convicted, serving a twenty-five year sentence for killing his wife, Alva Jackson Collier, leaving two young children, a son, and daughter, with relatives while he served his prison term. The second offense—

“`

I didn’t need to read anymore. I had the information I needed. Harold Collier was Jackson Collier’s father. I looked up at Pa. “How did you know?”

Pa shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t, son. The names were the same and I was curious, I guess. After Roy had mentioned the name Collier and I knew that was Jackson’s last name, I wrote to the prison.” Pa leaned forward and rested his elbows on his desk. “Adam had told me that Jackson said his parents had died of cholera when he and his sister were spending their summer vacation with an aunt and uncle in Boston. He never saw either of his parents again. I have to assume Jackson and his sister were never told the truth.”

I looked back at the letter. Harold Collier—Jackson Collier—the names leaped off the paper. “Does Adam know?”

“No.”

“Were you planning to tell me? I mean, if Adam weren’t serious about moving?”

“I don’t know, son.”

I didn’t know what I thought. Pa had written Adam about the day he’d found Tim and me, but he didn’t know about the Collier connection at that time. While I’d been in bed recuperating, Pa told me he’d gone out with Roy to pick up and identify the body. “So Roy told you the name, didn’t he?”

“Yes and no. He wasn’t positive of Collier’s full name until Clem, Roy’s current deputy took the body back to the prison.”

I nodded. “That’s when you sent the letter?”

“Yes.”

“I see.”

“There’s more.”

“More?”

“You’ll be getting a reward for killing Harold Collier.”

I almost broke out laughing. I guess I was due a reward although I’d never given it a thought. “What about Adam?” I said. “Do I tell him?”

“That’s up to you, Joseph.”

I stood up from the chair in front of Pa’s desk, but my mind was in turmoil and I knew going to bed would be a waste. “I’m going outside for a little fresh air. I’ll be in later, Pa.” My father understood.

~~~

The five of us sat down for breakfast. Adam was still reeling from his trip, and from what I could gather, he’d be packing his bags before the month was out and moving to San Francisco. I knew he’d discuss all the pros and cons with Pa, but Pa would never hold him back. He would send him off to his new life with nothing but best wishes for a future he longed for, a future that no longer included the Ponderosa.

I finally spoke up, giving Adam the lowdown on Tim and how I’d asked him to be part of our family. My speech was short and simple and Adam welcomed him with open arms. “I may not be around to teach you the ropes,” he said to Tim, “and little brother is still learning, so Hoss is your man. Better to learn from him.”

“Thanks a lot, big brother,” I said.

“Adam’s right, Tim.” Oh great. Now Hoss was gonna get in on it. “You listen to me or Pa. As much as Adam and I’ve tried, year after year, my little brother still don’t get things right.”

Tim was smiling, even chuckling out loud, at the comments my brothers were making. It was good to see him smile. “We’ve got work to do, Tim. We’ll leave these two old men here to try and hold down the fort while we do our best to keep the ranch running smoothly.”

The two of us stood up from the table, but Tim stopped next to Adam’s chair and turned back, facing the rest of my family. “Thanks for takin’ me in like you did, Mr. Cartwright. It really means a lot.”

I couldn’t help but smile at Pa. He was losing one son and gaining another. I’d gone about the whole thing with Tim, asking him to be a part of our family without having a proper discussion with my father, but he’d never let on that I was doing the wrong thing. If having this young man here made me happy, it made Pa happy too.

Today we would head out on horseback, checkin’ fence and round up any strays that had wandered a bit too far from the main herd. Hoss had been handed a list of supplies and he was off to town. That gave Adam the day to talk with Pa, settle things up, and make his plans.

~~~

Close to ten long years, Adam had waited, and now his dream would come true. Even though Pa hated to lose him, San Francisco was a short distance away, and more often than not; Pa had business there anyway. In the past, he’d always dreaded leaving and being away from the ranch. I had a feeling the trip west would be a pleasant one now.

The two other men I hired, Andy and Rex, had sold the entire string of mustangs they’d brought in and they were out making another run, gathering maybe twenty-five to thirty more. It would become a profitable business, and I let them handle most everything themselves. At first, I thought Hoss and I would be the ones out hustling buyers, but the two young men got top dollar for the first string, and I had no doubt they could do it again.

This was the first time I’d ridden without the brace Hoss had made. I was walking fine without it and I was anxious to see how I did after sitting Cochise all day. My old-man limp was passing. No one had commented, and maybe they were too scared to say anything, thinking they’d jinx me but somehow, the leg had healed stronger after Doc repaired it correctly.

As expected when Tim and I rode out, there were fences down, and I took note so we could come back tomorrow and do the repairs. I should’ve hired fence-fixers rather than bronc busters. This job got mighty tiresome, but I kept my thoughts to myself. I didn’t want Tim to get discouraged, knowing how mundane some parts of ranch work could be.

“Who keeps knockin’ them fences down, Joe?”

“Cattle mostly. The grass is always greener on the other side.”

“When are you goin’ back up to the mill?”

“I don’t know, hadn’t thought about it. Sometime this week now that I can ride.” I studied Tim’s face and what I saw was disappointment. “You’d rather be up there than down here on the ranch, right?”

“I don’t know,” he said and gave a soft chuckle. “I was a boss at the mill.”

“Yes you were and a dang good one too.”

“It’s up to you. Hoss put James as temporary boss in charge of your crew.”

“James is a good man.”

“Well, you think about it and let me know.” I hadn’t given much thought about Tim returning to the mill, but he’d considered it being something he was good at and a boss no less.

By the time Tim and I returned home, Adam and Pa had talked and a final decision was made. During supper that night, Adam announced he’d be leaving. He’d be a full-time resident and partner of an architectural firm they’d call Collier and Cartwright in San Francisco. A stage was heading west on the fifteenth of the month and he would be on it, leaving this world behind and venturing out to make his mark in a new place he would call home.

I glanced up at Hoss and had to look away when I saw tears in his big, blue eyes. I’d taken part in hurting my father and my big brother and that part of my plan made me wish there’d been a different way of doing things, but what was best for one wasn’t always best for everyone.

Pa also announced he wanted to give a going away party Saturday night, a farewell to his eldest son. Adam agreed and preparations would be made. Hoss and Tim and I were given names of friends and neighbors from outlying ranches, while Pa would ride to town, inviting longtime acquaintances and the proper bluenoses, who I could have easily lived without.

The past was a part of all of us and I couldn’t help thinking back on the last party Pa threw here at the house. I’m sure older brother remembered it too. I doubt there’d been big fancy parties while I was away. Birthdays I’m sure, but nothing compared to the engagement party that changed all our lives for the worst.

I didn’t know what I’d missed. I suppose Pa thought it would be a courtesy to not to bring up such things, knowing I might grieve even more for the time I’d lost and could never replace.

But looking back on that special night, I remember the toasts; the look of pride on Pa’s face, thinking Adam had found the woman of his dreams. In a way, it seemed like only yesterday; instead, it was a lifetime ago. This party would be different. A gentle goodbye for a son Pa loved deeply, a son he’d raised singlehandedly through the rough years. A child he had depended on as if he were a grown man from birth. A man he’d worked side-by-side with, maybe more like brothers or friends rather than father and son.

I, too, would miss my eldest brother. I would miss his snide remarks, the never-ending arguments that raised the hair on the back of my neck. The fights we often picked with each other but never landed that crucial punch, always holding back because we were brothers.

People always said it was the age difference between Adam and me, but that wasn’t so. We were too much alike, two men who stood by their convictions, right or wrong, whatever differences we may have had, and in the end when the game was over, there was always a heartfelt apology, again, because we were brothers.

~~~

Seems like everyone who’d been invited to Adam’s party showed up on Saturday night. The Ponderosa was packed with young and old alike. I’d made sure I got word to all the young ladies in town that we had a whole slew of young men aching to dance and have a good time. Of course, I had to invite their mothers and fathers as chaperones, so we were overflowing with guests neither Pa nor Adam expected.

I’d sent word up to the mill to shut down at noon and invited all the men to attend the celebration. I’d invited Andy and Rex although I skipped over Sam and Eddie, the two I’d tussled with inside the saloon.

“Looks to me like every young lady and every eligible bachelor this side of the Washoe is here tonight, little brother,” Adam commented as the guests arrived.

“Who wants a party without the fairer sex, Adam, or are you gettin’ too old to appreciate a pretty face when you see one?”

“For your information, Little Joe, I appreciate every young lady I lay my eyes on.”

“Then why haven’t you asked one to dance?” I said, seeing if he’d take the bait.

“I might ask the same thing of you?”

“This ain’t my party, and besides, you know I like to spread myself around, and let every pretty girl have a chance with a good lookin’ guy like me.”

“Yes,” Adam said, stepping away. “How well I know.”

I couldn’t let on to either of my brothers that I was scared to death of being refused a dance, but I was, and I hoped it didn’t show. The young, cocky, Little Joe Cartwright had died almost ten years ago and what was left was me, an awkward, unsure man, who didn’t know where he stood within the community of people who had sent him away.

With that said, I made my way across the room, after I’d caught the eye of Miss Julie Ann Andrews, a blonde, blue-eyed beauty, who I should have left for one of the younger boys but had to see if I still had what it took.

“Miss Julie,” I said. “May I have this dance?” I saw the hesitant look when she glanced across the room at her father, the man who’d prosecuted my case. He nodded his head, but cautiously. I was still being accused, but was it only him or was it everyone in the room? I took Julie’s hand, then led her across the dance floor and introduced her to Tim.

“Tim, this is Miss Julie Ann Andrews, the prettiest girl in the room. Julie, Mr. Timothy Wilson, the best dancer this side of the Mississippi.” I put her hand in his then scooted them on their way.

I needed air, and I headed out the front door. Adam was soon at my side, handing me a glass of punch. “I could use something a tad stronger,” I said.

“I’m sure you could.” He’d seen the whole thing with Julie and her father and realized I was too embarrassed to go back inside. It was a family party, but they’d have to celebrate without me. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said.

“It’s never gonna be over, is it, Adam?”

“Sure it will. This is the first time most of these people have seen you since you’ve been back. Give them time to adjust.”

My emotions had gotten the best of me, and when Adam laid his hand on my shoulder, I couldn’t hold back any longer. With tears in my eyes, I looked straight at my eldest brother. “How can I ever expect any those people to think I’m innocent when I couldn’t even convince you?”

I shrugged his hand away and walked across the yard to the barn as Adam yelled out my name. I’d reached for the bridle and was centering the bit in Cochise’s mouth when Adam walked up behind me.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Let it go, Adam. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter? Do you really believe what you just said? That I think you were the one who killed Grace?”

“I said let it go.”

Adam grabbed my shoulder and jerked me around to face him. “Is that why you’ve been working so hard, taking over my job the mill, working twice as hard as anyone else on the ranch? You’ve been trying to get rid of me because that’s what you believe?”

“I’m trying to make things right, Adam. Can’t you see that?”

“NO! That’s not what I see, Joe.”

“Hoss told me about your plans, your plans to leave the Ponderosa after you and Grace were married. Your plans to move back to Boston. I ruined those plans and I—”

Adam turned his back, and with his hands on his hips and his eyes focused on the barn floor, he walked away from me. He kicked at the straw then slammed the toe of his boot into an upright between two stalls. He turned back to me. “I’ve known you since the day you were born. I’ve never thought you capable of murder. I never thought you were the one who killed Grace. I can’t believe—”

I pulled the bridle off Cochise, then came out of the stall and sat down on a bale of straw. “We never talked about it, Adam. I know why you left the day I was arrested. You believed I was with Grace. You believed I’d betrayed you with the woman you were to marry. What else was I to think?”

“God, Joe. I didn’t know.”

“Well, now you do.”

“I came back as soon as I found out what had happened, but it was too late. I would have done anything to—”

I shook my head. “It’s over now.”

“It’s not over, not if you still believe—”

“You didn’t believe anything I said until Tim told you his side of the story.”

Adam walked over and sat down next to me. I cradled my head in my hands. It had become too much. All the frustration, the years wasted—Harold Collier. I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to think about any of it.

Adam slid his hand across my back. It was something Pa had done all my life; a gentle touch, a calming touch, and with my emotions this high, I craved that touch to soothe and calm the sniveling child I’d become.

“I want you to tell me what really happened in that line shack.”

I shook my head. “Why? What good would it do?”

“I need to know before I leave. I need to know because you’re my one and only baby brother and I’ve treated you unfairly, put you through so much without realizing—”

Through the barn door, I could see the glow of Chinese lanterns. I could hear the faint sound of the three-piece band Pa had hired. People were clapping; another dance had just ended. The sights and sounds of people enjoying themselves, having a gay old time, people who’d rather not put up with the likes of Joe Cartwright, but came to the Ponderosa out of respect to Pa, and to honor his eldest son.

“Maybe I should be the one leaving, not you,” I said.

“If that’s what you want, I’ll stay.”

I took a deep breath. “No, it’s not what I want.”

“Tell me about Owens. Tell me what happened at the line shack, Joe.”

“It was his child; Owens’ child, Adam.”

“Go on.”

“I tried to stop her. She was going to see Dr. Kim down in Chinatown. I didn’t want her to go through with it. I didn’t want her to get rid of your baby without talking to you first. I thought it was your child, Adam. I didn’t know. I didn’t know you and she hadn’t—well, you know.” I didn’t mean to embarrass my brother, but if he wanted to know everything, what else could I say? “It was all part of a plan Owens had worked out. He was going to marry her off to a rich Cartwright and live off you and Grace, a way to implement his passion for gambling. Problem was, she fell in love with you and that wasn’t part of his plan.”

Adam fell silent. He was taking it all in. “And—”

“And that’s why you saw us together that day.”

Adam leaned back against the post behind him. “I was such a fool.”

“I called out to you so I could explain but you’d already left. Owens’ came up behind me, held his gun in the small of my back, and he forced me to ride out to the line shack.”

“So long story short,” Adam, said, “he killed Grace after he’d gotten her pregnant with his child, and his plan was over—finished.” I was glad Adam didn’t want to know the details of Grace’s death. I really didn’t know any of those details myself.

“That’s about it, except for the last piece of the puzzle,” I said.

“And what’s that?”

“All that stuff you found out about Tim Wilson. Without Tim’s testimony, without him in town, explaining to the judge that Owens had paid him off and had him send the deputy to the line shack, maybe that little bit of testimony would have at least proved there was a connection between Grace and Owens. Maybe it would have proved Owens had taken part somehow, and maybe it would have saved me from eight years of . . .”

I was tired, too tired to go on. Time and again, I’d tried to bury the past, but I knew the past would haunt me for the rest of my life, although I didn’t want my brother to realize the grim and disheartening future I faced. I would stop feeling sorry for myself before Adam caught on, change his plans, and ruin everything we’d both worked for.

“But you forgave Tim and you’ve moved forward, Joe.”

“He didn’t know what he’d done, Adam. He was just a pawn in one of Owens’ little games.”

“You’re a very forgiving soul.”

“It’s all in the past, Adam. Can’t change the past.”

“Well, we can change the future, Joe.”

“How’s that?”

“You can try and forgive me.”

“Forgive you?” I laughed sarcastically. “There’s nothing to forgive.”

“Forgive me for not being the kind of brother I should have been. Forgive me for ever doubting you. Forgive me for even thinking you and Grace were ever—”

I smiled at Adam. “You’re forgiven.”

“Even if I only brought you Hop Sing’s punch rather than a bottle of rotgut?”

“A bottle of Pa’s good whiskey would have been better.”

“That could be arranged.”

I raised my eyebrows wondering if Adam had lost his mind.

“I think we have guests to entertain first.”

“Go ahead, Adam. This party is for you and frankly, I’m surprised Pa hasn’t been out looking for us yet.”

“You okay with everything now?”

“Sure I am. We’re brothers, aren’t we? Adam stood to leave, but he hesitated for just a minute. “Go on, I’ll be in shortly.”

~~~

I didn’t make it back into the party. It was Adam’s night and the party was for him. I didn’t want our guests to dwell on me and not celebrate him. I’m sure there were rumors as to why he was leaving, rumors spread by people I didn’t care about anyway. “Poor Adam. He’s probably so humiliated to have Joe for a brother.” Or “Now maybe Adam can finally make a name for himself with the mark of a convicted murderer in the family.”

Yes, I’m sure there was talk. Pa and Hoss and Adam were above all of that. I wonder how many business associates Pa had lost since the trial. I’m guessing he’d lost many. Had Hoss lost close friends? Had Adam? If Adam was content here then yes, I’d be the one leaving, not him.

Later that evening after our guests had gone home, Adam and I spent most of the night on the front porch, along with a bottle of Pa’s good whiskey as promised by my eldest brother. It’s a night I’ll always treasure. We talked about the present and Adam’s plans. We talked about long ago; memories of childhood, mostly mine. My brother never had the chance to be a child like I did. His childhood was taken away. Mine was happy and carefree.

Adam valued those boyhood days, whether traveling alone with Pa, searching for a place to homestead or after they’d found this land—a place to call home among the mountains and clear, blue skies of western Nevada. There was a vast part of my brother’s life that he tended not to share with me or with anyone else. I learned over time that was just his way, not right or wrong, just his way.

After a few too many drinks, Adam made a comment I never would’ve expected and I wasn’t sure how to respond. “I’ve always envied the relationship you have with Pa, Joe.”

“What? Pour yourself another drink, big brother. You’re talkin’ crazy.” I was truly caught off guard. The love my father shared with the three of us was equally the same.

“I’ve always envied the ease you have, the way you express your feelings. It brings out a tender side of Pa that’s never as visible with Hoss or me.”

Adam and I were different in that respect. “It doesn’t mean Pa’s love is any less, Adam.”

“That’s not what I mean, Joe.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t deny his love for each of us. It’s—it’s your relationship with Pa that I envy. It’s the coming together of two individuals; maybe harmony is the word I’m searching for. You’ve touched Pa’s heart as no one else could.”

I was rendered speechless when Adam spoke his deepest thoughts. I never would’ve imagined him actually verbalizing his feelings out loud. Maybe he was just feeling melancholy about leaving. I really didn’t know.

“I probably shouldn’t even mention this, but you can’t begin to imagine what Pa went through when you were sent to prison.”

I’d always suspected it was tough for Pa, and I wasn’t sure I could stand to listen to what he’d actually gone through, but I consented to hear the rest and wondered how we’d gotten so off track. “Go on,” I said.

Adam told me things I’d never thought of, or realized, about my father. After the second attempt at an appeal had failed, Pa slid into a deep depression. Adam and Hoss had consulted Dr. Martin, thinking they were going to lose Pa too. They were willing to bring another doctor in from one of the larger cities, someone who’d dealt with emotional breakdowns.

Pa rarely spoke. He rarely came out of his room. That’s when my brothers took over the running of the ranch and that’s how it’s stayed to this day. Pa couldn’t see a future; he couldn’t move forward. He lived in the past, a past where I was part of his life. It was too unbearable for him to deal with anything else in his hopeless state.

I told Adam I would do my best to make it up to him, and we argued over the fact that none of what happened was my fault, but in the end, Adam knew I’d always be here for Pa. That’s the assurance he needed to hear before he left the Ponderosa.

I changed the subject, informing Adam that Pa was chompin’ at the bit to head out to San Francisco to visit, and he’d be on that stage, or maybe even the train, as soon as my brother was settled. Hoss and I wouldn’t be far behind, always looking for an excuse to ride out to San Francisco.

But our moods become melancholy again as the two of us realized we’d be living apart for the rest of our lives. Nothing would be the same again. Nothing had been the same for a long time, and even though we’d adjust to a different way of life, it was a turning point, an adjustment we’d learn to live with.

“Sun’s comin’ up,” I said, catching a glimpse of the early morning glow between the sturdy trunks of the tall Ponderosa Pines that surrounded the house.

“I know two people that won’t be worth a damn today,” Adam said, and then he yawned for effect, which, of course, I followed suit.

“You’re right there, brother. S’pose we should get some sleep?”

“Don’t know that I can move a muscle, little brother. I’m too tired to stand up.”

But we did get up, and as the two of us strolled across the great room, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, Hoss and Pa, bright-eyed and ready to start the day, were heading down the stairs.

“Nite, boys,” Pa said.

“Nite, Pa,” we answered in unison.

~~~

My brothers and I spent as much time as we could together before Adam would leave. Tim, who was now part of our family, joined us on several occasions and in our childish escapades. Where it normally took only one or maybe two men to do a job, all four of us went. We laughed and played like children and managed to get a fair amount of work done in the process.

I was healed completely now, even my leg, which had been a source of pain and discomfort for so many years seemed as good as new. Doc explained the healing process, and it may sound odd, but the second break, when fixed properly, had made the bone stronger after it healed. Paul also mentioned rheumatism, and he explained that I would probably have to deal with some complications in my old age. Doc knew my history of broken bones and even gunshot wounds. Yeah, I’d be loaded up with rheumatism provided I lived that long.

Tim fit right in with my brothers and me. He was more open now, more comfortable with the family, and he learned how much fun could be had and still get the work done. I wanted him to really know and understand my older brother before Adam left the ranch. I wanted him to know Adam had a fun side; it just took a bit longer to drag it out of him and see it in action.

The day before Adam was to leave, we all decided Tim needed one more test, a bit of an initiation to see if he could really handle the Cartwright Clan. Adam told him there was something he wanted to show him, something the kid could remember him by. The four of us rode down to the lake. We tethered our horses and walked down the steep grade the rest of the way.

“Now!” Adam said, nodding to Hoss.

Hoss grabbed Tim from behind and held his arms tight, while Adam and I stripped him buck-naked and threw him the icy-cold water of Lake Tahoe. Hell, none of us knew if the kid could swim or not. When his head finally popped up, and he screamed words my father would have died over, the three of us laughed till our sides nearly split.

Hoss and Adam and I proceeded to strip off our own clothes and join him, laughing and splashing like kids in the frigid, blue water. “It’s official,” Adam said. “You’re now a Cartwright—a full-fledged member of the family.”

After we’d had enough fun for one day, we climbed up the bank and lay flat on our backs in the sand, attempting to dry and warm our frozen bodies in the heat of the sun. The joking and snide comments continued until we heard a voice, someone clearing their throat.

“Is this what goes on when I’m not around to supervise?” The four of us rolled over in unison, covering our nakedness as best as we could.

“Hey, Pa—”

“Pa—”

“Hello—”

“Mr. Cartwright, sir—”

“Wanna join us, Pa?” I said.

“I think not, Joseph.”

There was a smile on my father’s face. Adam and I had made amends, and as brothers, we all felt secure enough in our love for each other to let a young man named Tim Wilson join our once private club. This was our last day living together as brothers under the same roof. I think Pa felt left out and wanted to join in on the brotherhood of men, although a dip in the lake wasn’t his cup a tea.

We all dressed, and the five of us rode back to the house together. Hop Sing was busy making a feast we would all remember. “My, don’t that smell good,” Hoss remarked as he stepped through the front door.

Like I’d done when I was away from home, Adam would take fond memories, and during the nights he felt lonesome or homesick, he’d think back on the life he had, the good times and the bad, and those memories would be a comfort to him until he fell asleep and woke to a new day.

I’d learned to seek out memories better than anyone during my absence. Memories of home and family are what got me through the tough times, the long, hard days and the unbearable nights. I was a different person now than the boy I was before my time in prison. Adam is a man, not a boy, and he’s leaving of his own free will, a different scenario, but he’ll miss the camaraderie of family.

I’ll miss my eldest brother, but I will have the chance to visit him whenever I want, or need to, and he’ll come home when the need to be with family falls heavy on his heart. Pa is doing the best he can, holding his emotions in check and putting on a brave front. It’s hard for him. Hoss and I have each other, but it’s different for Pa. He, along with Adam, made this dream called the Ponderosa come true.

We will all slap smiles on our faces tomorrow as we wave goodbye to a man we all cherish. A good man, a talented man, who will hopefully find what he’s looking for and know he’ll always have the love and support of his family back home.

I won’t say goodbye only “See ya soon.”

The stage door will close and a cloud of dust will tell us he’s really gone. It’s the last we’ll see of my brother for a while. The house will feel empty but we’ll manage.

We always have and we always will, because we’re brothers.

The End.

2011

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

Next Story in the Because We’re Brothers Series:

A New Beginning

A Tragic Turn

Dreams of Revenge

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Author: jfclover

I fell in love with Joe Cartwright when I was ten years old and over the years, nothing's changed, In 2010, I was goaded into writing my first fanfic, which has become a hobby I thoroughly enjoy. I hope you enjoy my stories.

18 thoughts on “Because We’re Brothers – Book 2 (by jfclover)

  1. Joe’s realization that his past may never be forgotten is heart-wrenching, and his journey to accepting this and building a future despite that is both painful and moving. Thank you for another emotional read.

    1. These are long books and I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. Thanks for reading and taking time to comment. Much appreciated!

  2. This was another excellent story! It truly gave me pause to think about how people live with traumatic experiences. I think you did well to focus on the importance of recognizing that the past cannot be changed. One can only choose to live with the way things are and work towards a better future or to cease living. I was interested to read the way in which you portrayed the Cartwrights in your tale. Thank you for sharing it!

  3. Pat, this is another great story. I read it straight through because I couldn’t put it down. Really loved the end. The emotions each of the brothers had were spot on. Lessons were learned and made them better men. On to the next Brothers!

  4. Oh please, can anybody help me out with handkerchiefs? Mine are all gone.
    Wow, those last miles in ‘A Change of Plans’ were tough.
    Great story, jfclover! Let me take a shot and I’ll head on with the next book. Anxious to read more here.

    1. Thanks for reading, Monika. I’ll have to email you Book 3. I couldn’t post it in the library since there’s a child involved. I’m glad you liked this one, and I appreciate you letting me know!

  5. A very difficult lesson for Joe to learn, that life isn’t always fair or just. An equally difficult lesson for Adam about jumping to conclusions; appearances can be deceiving. One has to believe and have faith in family, because in the end it is all about family, and if you love them set them free. ( — again more SJS — )

    1. Thanks for the read, Deanne. I enjoyed writing this series very much and I really appreciate your comments. Tough time for Joe indeed.

  6. Such a touching and emotional story. You really put Joe through the ringer, but you do it so well. Thank you.

    1. Through the ringer and hung out to dry. Poor Joe – he never has any peace in his life, does he. Thanks for the reread, Karol. I always love to hear your comments!

  7. Such a sad story–so many years lost, but I was so glad to see Joe’s story finally proven. (Someone should leak this vindication to the Territorial Enterprise!) A riveting page-turner that kept me reading far longer than I should have in one day.

    1. So glad you stuck with it, Puchi, and glad to know you enjoyed this part of the story. As always, I appreciate your comments. Thanks so much!

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