Luck of the Draw
Karen F

It started out like any other day.  He rode into town to do some errands for his father, and naturally stopped by the saloon.  As he strolled through the wide, swinging doors, Joe paused and let the sights and sounds of the establishment wash over him.  He was in his element and knew it.  A group of his friends greeted him from a corner table, and Joe ambled over to join them.  An obliging barmaid placed a beer in his hand and an arm around his shoulder.  Taking a contented sip of the drink, Joe reflected that life just didn’t get any better than this.

The one beer stretched into two, and then three.  The barmaid had long since settled in his lap and was whispering sweet nothings in his ear, while his friends had grown raucous.  Joe was feeling a pleasant haze of good will, when the dusty group of men walked into the saloon and bellied up to the bar.  A quick glance from his keen eye was all that it took to figure out that these men were good with their guns and not afraid to show it.  They wore their holsters low and within easy reach of their fingertips, and all had that hard-edged look about them.  Not a group to be trifled with, and Joe was casually content to let them alone.

It was obvious the gunmen had other ideas, though.  Joe watched as they surveyed the room with cold eyes, and held a whispered consultation as they looked over the group of young men in the corner.  He knew the cut of his friends’ clothes indicated that most were the sons of local ranchers.  The presence of the saloon’s two barmaids at their table bespoke of local popularity and money to spend.  Joe knew they looked like just the kind of young pups who needed to be taken down a peg or two.

The leader of the group sauntered slowly over to Joe’s table and stood gazing down at the rowdy young men.  At first, he was ignored as the young  ranchers continued with their fooling.  But then, one by one, the voices died out and the eyes flickered upward.  Finally, silence reigned at the table as the two groups of men waged a battle with their eyes.

Tim Anderson, who sat to Joe’s right, spoke first.  A tall, good looking young man of 22, he was popular with the girls of Virginia City and with the group of young men who sat at the table beside him.  Tim was known for his quick wit and ready smile.  He was always ready to make a joke and get a laugh going.  Now, he poked Joe in the side and smirked up at the silent gunslinger.  “Well, lookee here, Joe.  I think this fellow don’t like us too much.”

Joe felt a stab of alarm as he saw the angry glint in the shootist’s eye.  “Shut up, Tim,” he said, striving to sound genial and failing miserably.

“Take your friend’s advice, pup,” the man advised in a raspy voice.  “I don’t like the way you boys are keeping all the women to yourselves.  I think you need to do a little sharing.”  He reached down and snagged the arm of the girl in Joe’s lap and gave a tug.

The girl gave Joe a pleading look as she was bundled off his lap and pulled into the strong embrace of the hard-eyed man.  “Joe?” she said imploringly.

Joe frowned and tipped his hat back on his head.  “I don’t think Daisy’s real happy about being pulled out of my lap, mister,” he remarked quietly.  “I’d appreciate it if you’d let her go.”

As Daisy flashed him a grateful smile, the hired gun pushed her behind him and into the waiting arms of one of his henchmen.  “Too bad, kid,” he said easily.  “Daisy is now otherwise occupied for the rest of the evening.”

He nodded insolently and strolled away, his hard-bitten men following at his heels.  Daisy flashed Joe another look over her shoulder as she was hustled away, and shook her head when he made a move to get up.  She’d seen men of this type before and knew that Joe was courting disaster by coming to her aid.

Joe settled back into his seat reluctantly, his eyes remaining on the gunman and his compadres as they commandeered a table in the center of the room.  He vaguely noticed that his own group of friends was no longer laughing and having a good time.  Instead they were sitting sullenly back in their chairs, their eyes flashing with anger.  Joe watched intently as Daisy was hauled into the leader’s lap, and held there, while she struggled to get free.  His jaw tensed and he rose to his feet without thinking.  Crossing the room in two strides, he stood over the struggling pair, arriving just as Daisy slapped the gunslinger across the face with a resounding crack.

“Let me go!” she shrilled angrily.  “I told you I’ve got work to do, now let me up.”  Daisy pushed futilely against the man’s chest, but he only gripped her more tightly.

“You’re working for me tonight, sugar,” the raspy voice drawled.  The gunman spared a hand to rub the large red stain on his cheek.  “I think you’re gonna regret that little stunt, Daisy.  What’re you gonna do if I get you fired for not being friendly with the customers?”

“Let her go.”  Joe’s voice cut through the man’s words, and Daisy looked up with a gasp.

“No, Joe, it’s okay,” she said urgently.  “Go on back to your table.”

“You heard the lady,” the gunman drawled.  “Go sit down, sonny, before I decide to teach you a lesson you won’t ever forget.” While he appeared to be occupied with holding onto the squirming barmaid, the older man’s eyes never left Joe’s left hip.

Joe registered the man’s interest in his gun, and he smiled.  Joe was talented with his weapon.  He liked the attention he got from being a good shot and he often indulged in shooting contests and demonstrations of fancy spins and twirls with his friends.  Joe was widely considered to be the fastest shot in Virginia City, a fact that he didn’t usually trouble to disagree with.  If the truth were told, Joe reveled in his notoriety around town.

Now he stood confidently poised on the balls of his feet, an expectant look in his eye.  He was more than ready to take on this stranger, an obvious gunslinger, and he felt only the adrenaline rush of excitement.  “I asked you nicely, mister.  Now let her go,” he said again.

With a scrape of the chair, the gunman stood abruptly, dumping Daisy from his lap as casually as if he’d been brushing a fly from his sleeve.  She landed on the floor with a soft cry, and Joe’s eyes hardened imperceptibly.  He held out his right hand to help the girl to her feet, and she grasped it in a sweaty palm.  She let herself be hauled to her feet, and with a nervous laugh she brushed back a lock of her ginger-colored hair.  “I’m fine, Little Joe, let’s go get a drink, okay.”

The gunslinger put out a restraining hand; the sneer on his face was repellent.  “You’re not going anywhere with Little Joe, girl.  You’re staying right here with me.”  He stepped away from the table, giving himself more maneuvering room in the event of a gunfight, and Daisy’s face paled.  “Now run along, sonny.  Leave the women to real men like us.”

Joe took a deep breath and struggled to control his rising temper.  “I’m not going anywhere until you let her go,” he replied.  “Now, I’ve asked you politely.  This time I’m telling you.  Leave her alone.”  He maintained his hold on Daisy’s satin covered arm with his right hand, but his left hovered near his hip.

Chairs pushed back, and men scrambled for cover in a melee of confusion.  The signs of a gunfight were evident and no one wanted to get in the way.  The bartender charged around the corner of the bar, his shotgun held high.  “Little Joe, you know we don’t allow gunplay in here.  You take this outside,” he bellowed frantically, his chubby face dripping with sweat.

Joe never looked in the bartender’s direction, instead, keeping his keen gaze focused on the shootist’s eyes.  He was waiting for that infinitesimal flicker that would indicate the man was about to draw.  “You want to take this outside, mister.  Or do you just want to leave Daisy alone,” Joe asked calmly.

The dark-clad gunslinger burst into loud laughter.  “You hear that fellas, this young pup thinks he can take on Jake Myers.”  His glance dismissed Joe’s abilities with a single flicker of an eyelid.  “I’ll take it outside, sonny, if you’re that eager to find your coffin.”

Joe flushed, but without deigning to reply he tipped his head in the direction of the swinging double doors.  “After you.”

Myers laughed again, as he strolled casually to the door with a low, loose-hipped stride.  His entourage followed close behind, already passing money as they wagered on how long it would take their leader to kill the young upstart.

Joe waited until they were all gone, and then he gave Daisy’s arm a reassuring squeeze.  “It’ll be all right now, Daisy.  You go on upstairs for a while, and I’ll straighten this fellow out.”

Daisy clung to Joe’s arm, a sob making her catch her breath in a gasp.  “Don’t do it, Little Joe.  The man’s a killer, I’ve seen his type a hundred times before.  It’s not worth you risking your life.”  She gazed up at him imploringly, tears making her dark eye makeup run in tracks down her cheeks.

Joe thumbed away the mess and kissed her gently on the forehead.  “I think it’s worth it.  Now you do as I say.”  He gently disengaged her clinging hands and headed for the door, all the men in the saloon following behind him.  A good gunfight wasn’t something they would willingly miss.

Joe walked slowly, without a trace of fear, to the center of the dusty street.  He saw that Myers was already in position at the far end.  He could hear the low murmur of the crowd that lined the sidewalk as word of the gunfight spread like wildfire through the little town.  He felt a slow trickle of sweat trace a path down his spine, but he suppressed the awareness of his discomfort.  His world now centered on one man, and everything else vanished from his thoughts.

Myers flexed his fingers experimentally over his holster and Joe’s eyes narrowed. The murmur of the crowd disappeared from his mind, as he deliberately shut out all sound.  His gaze sharpened, as he waited for that first, barely perceptible indication that the other man was ready to fire his weapon.  He no longer saw the faces that lined the streets, they’d been replaced by a hazy blur that allowed him to hone in on the gunslinger’s every breath and subtle movement.

Time slowed, stretching to the breaking point, every second turning into an agonizing length of time.  Joe felt his own heart thudding in his chest, and was aware of the tingle of his nerve-endings as he waited for the battle to begin.

And then it was there, the twitch that signaled the other man’s intent to draw, and Joe became all smooth motion.  His weapon was clearing its holster and coming up to bear on the gunman, when a flurry of motion erupted from the blur on the sidewalk.

Afterwards, Joe remembered every detail as if it were painted on a canvas.  His bullet left the barrel of the Colt and headed down the street at the same time that Myers’s bullet roared towards him.  But, Joe’s aim was affected by the distraction of a little bundle of churning arms and legs that seemed to be rolling across the street.  He opened his mouth in a silent scream of horror when he realized that his bullet was bearing down on seven-year-old Peggy Hardesty.  A piercing sound assaulted his ears when Peggy’s mother screamed as her daughter dashed toward her father on the opposite sidewalk.  Joe never felt the impact as Myers’s bullet entered his right arm, near the shoulder, he was so intent on the scene at the other end of the street.

He watched in horror as the little girl crumpled bonelessly to the ground, a growing stain of red seeping into the earth beneath her.  Freed at last from the paralysis that had overtaken him, Joe ran toward the little girl.  He knelt beside her weeping parents and surveyed the scene in numb fascination as the crowd around them thickened and intensified.  He reached out with a shaking hand to touch a lock of the blond hair, and was sickened to discover that it was now liberally daubed with blood.

“Get away from her!  Haven’t you done enough?” Mrs. Hardesty’s voice was shrill, her gaze lethal as she glared at Joe.  “You’ve killed my daughter.”  The distraught woman gathered the still form of the little girl into her arms and cradled her against her chest.  Keening sobs filled the air, the only sound heard on the hushed street.

Gentle hands pried at the child, as Paul Martin arrived on the scene.  He was puffing slightly, out of breath from his frenzied run down the street in answer to the summons of an onlooker.  “Let me see her, Mary.  Let her go,” he murmured gently.  “I’ve got to take a look at her, you know that.”

In response to the doctor’s continual stream of soothing words, the over-wrought mother finally released her child.  Peggy lay limply in her mother’s lap as the doctor conducted his examination.  Joe didn’t realize he was holding his breath, until a wave of dizziness threatened to overwhelm him.  Expelling the pent-up air in his chest in a shaky explosion, he worked to drag oxygen into his lungs.  Concentrating on his breathing, he almost missed the moment when the doctor finally raised his head.

“She’s not dead, Mary.  We need to get her to my office immediately.  I’ve got to remove the bullet and stop the bleeding, if she’s going to have any chance at all.”  Paul’s voice was brisk and unemotional, but his eyes told another story.  He looked directly at Joe.  “Wait in my office, Joe.  I’ll take a look at that arm as soon as I’ve finished with Peggy.”

Joe stared at him, uncomprehendingly.  Seeing the lack of understanding, Paul reached out and gently tapped Joe’s blood-soaked sleeve.  Following the doctor’s fingers, Joe realized that his sleeve was covered with an ever-growing stain, accompanied by an insistent throbbing in the wounded arm.  With a nod, he rose, intent on following the Hardestys and Paul down the street.

A black-clad figure stepped in front of Joe, halting his forward progress.  “Looks like you missed, Little Joe.”  Myers sneered, a mocking smile plastered on his face.  He tapped Joe’s chest with one finger.  “I’m glad I didn’t shoot that poor little girl.”

A haze of red rose before Joe’s eyes and obscured his vision.  With a wordless cry, he launched himself at Myers, intent on grinding his face into the dirt.  He barely noticed the restraining arms that reached out to enfold him as he struggled to reach his goal.  It was several minutes before he even heard the voice that was bellowing in his ear.

“Joe!  Stop it!  Settle down, boy.”  Roy Coffee bawled frantically.  “This isn’t doing anyone any good, son.  Stop it, now!”

Joe abruptly stopped his struggles to free himself, suddenly aware that the object of his anger was nowhere to be seen.  He was trapped in the arms of several of the townsmen, while Roy Coffee stood directly in front of him, his face apoplectic with fury.  “Where did he go?” Joe asked.  “Where’s that bastard, Myers?”

“I sent him out of town,” Roy replied quickly.  “Now, do I have your word that you’ll calm down, Little Joe.  I ain’t gonna have these fellas let you go until you do.”

Joe nodded reluctantly, and watched as Roy signaled the men holding his arms to let him go.  A sudden thought surged foremost in his mind, and he grabbed Roy’s sleeve in frantic fingers.  “Peggy Hardesty?  Is she all right?”

Roy’s face was wary, and his expression  remained grim.  “They took her on down to the Doc’s office.  I been too busy dealin’ with you to find out what’s goin’ on.  Let’s walk on down there together, and we’ll get your arm checked while we’re there.”

Joe had begun to shake in reaction to the shock of the day’s events.  The street swam in a hazy mist in front of his eyes, as he felt Roy grab his good arm and begin leading him down the street.  They hadn’t gone too far when dark spots appeared in front of Joe’s eyes.  They grew larger and enveloped his vision.  He let the darkness take him, and crumpled into a heap at Roy’s feet.


The clock ticked loudly, and Joe buried his aching head in his hands once more.  He had been alternating between huddling in a chair watching the hands of the big clock move with agonizing slowness, and pacing like a caged animal in the narrow confines of the doctor’s second examination room.  It seemed like days since Roy had left him on his own in the little room to wait for Paul to finish with Peggy.  Joe felt the acrid taste of bile at the back of his throat, as once again, his stomach rebelled against the ongoing tension that consumed him.

He pulled himself shakily to his feet and hastily doused his head with a splash of cool water from a basin set on the small bedside table.  Sickening images of Peggy Hardesty lying in a pool of her own blood flashed before his eyes, and he moaned softly.  He was sure that the little girl was dying, if she wasn’t already dead.  The fact that it was his bullet that the doctor was even now trying to pull from her small body was an idea so horrific that Joe had to struggle to make sense of it.

Joe dragged a trembling hand across his forehead, wiping away the moisture that clung to his skin.  Already he could feel the flush of fever spreading over his body.  His eyes burned in his head, and he blinked furiously.  His vision remained clouded with a mixture of sweat and tears.

“No sign of the doc yet?”

Joe jumped, startled by the sound of Roy Coffee entering the room.  “What?” he gasped.  When he saw who it was, he slumped against the examination table.  “Sorry, Roy, you startled me.  How’s Peggy?”

Roy sighed.  “The doc’s still with her.  He won’t let me in to see her, but it sure is takin’ a long time.”  He leaned companionably against the table, next to Joe, intentionally letting his shoulder brush against the green jacket.  “How’re you feelin’ Little Joe?  You don’t look so good to me.  Why don’t you lay down here, and I’ll keep an eye out for the doc?”

Joe shook his head grimly.  “I’m fine. I’m not lying down until I hear something about Peggy.” He expelled a heavy breath and let his head droop, his wounded arm clutched tightly to his chest.  “What happens if she dies?”

Roy turned his head in surprise.  “It was an accident, wasn’t it Little Joe?  You didn’t aim to shoot Peggy, did ya?”

Joe glared at the older man.  “Of course not!  She ran into the street, but it was my bullet that hit her, and no one else’s.  I’m responsible for what happened to her.”

With a muffled sigh, Roy heaved his weary body off the table, and reached to pat Joe gently on the shoulder.  “It was an accident, Joe.  Ya can’t change what happened.  All ya can do is hope that Peggy gets better soon.”

He walked slowly to the door, but he paused before leaving.  With a frown creasing his craggy face, he said softly.  “Why don’t you lie down on that table until the doc gets in here.  You’ve got a fever, and your Pa would tear the hide off me if I let anything happen to you.  I’ve sent someone out to the ranch to fetch him, so he should be here shortly.  It’ll be all right, Little Joe.”

Joe stared blankly at the wall, the sheriff’s presence already forgotten. Roy closed the door behind him, a gusty sigh trailing in his wake.  He had a feeling it was going to be a long night.

The sharp click of the door jerked Joe back to awareness.  He glanced up quickly, only to realize that he was once again alone in the room.  The green eyes tracked vacantly around the room, coming to rest on the pearl-handled pistol that peeked from the coiled leather of its holster.  Joe made a sharp sound of revulsion when he thought of what that gun had done to Peggy Hardesty.  He advanced across the room, his eyes locked on the silent weapon, until he stood in front of the table where it rested.

He reached out a tentative hand and touched the gleaming metal.  The gun was cool to the touch, and Joe let his fingers trail down the well-oiled surface.  He had so many memories of this gun.  It had been a gift from his father when the older Cartwright had finally decided that Joe was of an age to carry a gun.  Joe remembered the excitement of feeling like a man with the weight of the gun nestling against his left hip.  He allowed his thoughts to focus on all the hours of practice with the weapon, his face reflecting the disgust that he now felt.  He jerked his fingers back from the gun, suddenly repulsed by the feel of the cold metal.

He spun around, in an effort to shut out the sight of the gun that had become abhorrent to him.  But still he could feel it.  The gun’s presence shouted at him, even though he could no longer see it.  He felt the deadly potential of the weapon reaching out to him, calling to him to pick it up and put it on his hip again.  With a sharp cry, Joe wrenched open the door and left the room.  He quickly crossed the waiting room and was running out into the night before he understood what was happening.  Behind him the room was silent, the gun on the table the only sign that Joe Cartwright had ever been present.


The big buckskin horse pounded through the rapidly gathering darkness.  Dusk had given way to night, and Ben Cartwright was heading toward Virginia City and his youngest son as fast as his horse could carry him safely.  His thoughts were in turmoil and he battled with the rage that threatened to overtake all the other emotions that were coursing through him.  Little Joe had done it again.  Ben wondered when his youngest was ever going to stop getting himself into these messes.  His impulsive actions had led him into trouble so many times that the weary father had long since stopped counting.

As the lights of Virginia City appeared in the distance, Ben pulled the horse in a little.  He needed the time to fix a calm expression on his face. With Joe wounded, the last thing he wanted to do was go in yelling.  Time enough for that later, when the boy had healed some.  Taking a deep breath, Ben approached Paul Martin's surgery and hitched Buck’s reins to the rail.  Opening the door, he headed into the waiting area, only to stop short when he realized it was empty.

A quick glance around gave him no clue as to his son’s whereabouts, but the soft murmur of voices from the first examination room led him in that direction.  Softly pushing open the door, Ben glanced in and just as quickly pulled back again.  Paul was laboring over a still form in the bed, but the body was too small to be Joe’s.  Heaps of bloody rags lay on the floor, and the presence of a teary-eyed, blank-faced Mary Hardesty was all the evidence Ben needed to know that he wasn’t welcome in this room.

He backed into the waiting room and spun around slowly.  He saw the door to the second examination room was ajar, and he headed for that.  With a soft knock on the doorframe, he pushed the wooden panel open and stepped confidently into the room.  Again, he pulled up short, when he realized that this room was also empty.  A flash of fear stabbed through him and he wondered where Joe was.  His eyes swept the room frantically, and immediately they fastened on the bundle that lay silently on the small bedside table.

He crossed the room in two swift strides and bent to pick up the gunbelt, obviously made for a left-hander.  The pearl-handled pistol was all-too familiar, and gave evidence that Joe had been here.  But where was he now?  Ben glanced around the room, his eye drawn to the bed that was still made up, but rumpled a little as though someone had leaned on one edge.  He moved closer and drew in a quick breath when he saw a couple of rusty stains that winked up at him from the white sheet.  He touched one with the tip of a finger, and his eyes grew wide when he realized it was still damp.

Wiping his hand on his pants, he headed for the door.  Paul Martin couldn’t be disturbed now, but Roy Coffee would know where Joe was.  Absently, he slung Joe’s gunbelt over his shoulder as he walked.  The sense of foreboding grew deeper as he struggled to piece together the information he had been given in the hasty message from the sheriff and the things he had seen at the doctor’s office.  Joe was in over his head, as usual.  Now all Ben needed to do was find him.


“Where is he?”  Ben’s usually mellow voice was a little strident as he barged into the sheriff’s office.  “Have you got him back in one of the cells, or is he over at the hotel?”

Roy looked up from a stack of paperwork, his shocked expression telling its own story.  “What are you talking about, Ben?  Little Joe?  I left him over at the Doc’s office.  I figgered you’d head there first.”

Ben’s face clouded with concern and he tossed Joe’s gunbelt onto Roy’s desk.  “He was there, because I found this.  But he’s not there now, so where is he?  Your message said that there’d been a gunfight and that Joe was wounded.  Has Paul seen him yet?  And if he hasn’t where would Joe go?  And why would he leave his gun behind?”

Roy stood hastily, and he trailed a finger over the soft leather of the belt.  “Joe wouldn’t go noplace without his gun, that’s for sure.  But he’s sure not here, Ben.  I think you should check over at the hotel, and I’ll go back to the saloon.  Mebbe he got tired of waitin’ on the doc, and he went back to check on Daisy.  You know how Little Joe is.”

Roy added the last statement in a matter of fact tone.  They all knew how Little Joe was; it would be just like him to put Daisy’s welfare above his own, especially if the doc had been too busy to tend to him yet.  He put a companionable arm around Ben’s tense shoulder.  “We’ll find him at one of those two places, you’ll see.  Then we’ll drag him back to the doc’s to get that arm looked at.  It was hurtin’ him some, and he was startin’ a fever, but I think he’ll be fine in no time.  It’s little Peggy Hardesty I’m worried about right now.”

Ben shot a sharp glance at the stocky sheriff.  “What happened here today, Roy?  What would cause Little Joe to take off like this?”

Roy’s shrug was almost hidden by the darkness as the two men headed out of the office and onto the dark streets of the town.  “I’ll tell you about it after we find Joe.  That’s what you need to be worryin’ about now, not what happened earlier.  We got time enough to worry about that.”  He clapped Ben on the shoulder, and pushed him gently in the direction of the hotel.  “Go find your son, Ben.”

With a last look at the sheriff’s bland mask, Ben turned on his heel and headed for the hotel.  Roy hadn’t set his mind at ease, if anything he’d added to the packload of worries that had settled on his back.  Yes, finding Little Joe had suddenly become imperative.


Tired.  He was so tired.  He felt the tug of the dried blood on his skin, and he swayed in the saddle from exhaustion.  His arm throbbed unmercifully and his head pounded in rhythm with the beat of his heart.  But still he rode without ceasing.  He didn’t care where he was going.  In fact, his horse was picking the path more often than not.  But he felt the need to continue.

He still felt the urgent need to put as much distance between himself and his gun as he could.  An uncontrolled trembling started again when he thought of the damage that his bullet had done to Peggy Hardesty.  The thought of that gleaming gun that had been such a source of pride just a few hours earlier, now made him feel sick to his stomach.  I’ll never touch a gun again!  The thought echoed in his aching head, over and over again.  And still he rode on.

The first faint glimmers of the false dawn were making their way across the horizon when he could go no further.  With an incoherent moan, he felt himself slipping from the saddle.  He grasped at the leather of the pinto’s lead rein as he fell, but it slipped through his nerveless fingers and did nothing to halt his descent to the ground.  He felt the rough grit of the rocky ground as it gouged his cheek, but he couldn’t summon the energy to lift his head.

Joe remained so still for so long that the horse grew restless.  Trained to a ground tie from an early age, the horse wouldn’t move far, but the call of the sweet grass at the edge of the trail proved to be too great a lure to resist.  The animal moved away, cropping at the grass, he, too, close to exhaustion.

The movement of the horse penetrated through Joe’s foggy brain, and he struggled to roll himself over onto his back.  The shift in his position sent renewed agony through his wounded shoulder and his aching head.  He could tell the wound had broken open again by the soft trickle of warm stickiness that trailed down his skin under his shirt.

In his new position, Joe could see that the sky had lightened considerably, but he had no idea where he was.  His headlong flight had taken him many miles from home, and while he knew every inch of the surrounding area like the back of his hand, he was too numb with fatigue to take in his surroundings.  His vision swam and blurred, dark streaks interspersed with lightning sharp flashes caused him to blink.  When he made the mistake of trying to shake his head to clear his eyes, it was too much, and the darkness reached out to claim him.  Joe’s last thought as he tumbled helplessly toward oblivion was of his father.  Ben Cartwright was going to be fit to be tied with his youngest son’s latest escapade.


Jolting movement reawakened the throbbing pain in Joe’s arm, and his stomach finally lost its battle to retain its contents.  He retched until what little remained from yesterday’s breakfast was expelled.  Once the dry heaves subsided, Joe took stock of his surroundings with a bleary eye.  He was lying on his back, but for some reason the wooden surface he was resting on appeared to be moving.  The soft tinkle of harness bells mingled with a constant soft tuneless humming, and he wondered what was causing the noise.  Struggling to pull himself upright, Joe looked around frantically for Cochise.  The only sight that met his eyes was a vision of stained and dirty canvas that swayed listlessly with the lurching movement of the wagon it covered.  From the collection of boxes, barrels, odds and ends, and a seemingly endless supply of junk, Joe surmised that he was in a tinker’s wagon.  He looked down at the pile of rags he had been laying on, now stained with blood and vomit, and his stomach lurched again.

With hesitation, he crawled toward the ray of light that peeked in through a slit in the canvas at the rear of the wagon.  After an agonizing passage over the assorted trash, he was rewarded for his efforts by an ever-widening gap in the canvas.  He tugged harder and was able to see the welcome sight of Cochise trailing placidly behind the wagon. The horse whinnied softly and nosed at the opening when he spotted the grimy face peering out at him.  Joe couldn’t help chuckling as the soft nose nuzzled his neck.

The wagon stopped moving abruptly, and Joe was thrown off balance.  He fell backward, his injured shoulder striking the edge of one of the innumerable crates.  He couldn’t help the cry of pain that left his lips, and he grabbed at his arm in an effort to quench the fierce throbbing.

Through a mist of pain, he was vaguely aware of the lurch and sway of the wagon as the driver left the seat.  He heard the tuneless humming grow louder and a pair of booted feet crunched through the rocky roadbed.  The footsteps stopped, and Joe raised his head.  The light streaming through the gap in the canvas was gone, replaced by a nebulous blob that blocked the sun.  The glare from the little light that made it past the tinker’s head kept Joe from making out the person’s features, and he instinctively struggled to sit up, not wanting to be caught lying down in the face of a potential threat.  His hand moved toward his hip in an unconscious gesture, but stopped when he remembered that the familiar weight of his gun was gone.  He held his head up as high as he could.

“Who are you?” he gasped out, hating that he sounded as weak as he did.  “I owe you my thanks for picking me up off the road last night.”

The voice was velvety, deep with a hint of huskiness.  “No problem.  Ya looked like ya was in a heap o’ trouble, so’s I picked ya up.  From the sounds o’ it, yer needin’ some tendin’.  Whyn’t ya lay back down and I’ll git ya some cool water.”

The head was removed from the opening in the canvas, with the result that a shaft of sunlight struck Joe full in the eyes.  He was dazzled by the brightness and closed his eyes against the glare.  He heard the tinker shuffling back, along with the welcome sloshing of a canteen that accompanied the footsteps this time.  As he propped himself more comfortably against the crates, he tried to shield his eyes for a better look at his rescuer.

“Here ya’ go, drink slow, now.  Ya don’ wanna git sick agin.”  The canteen was thrust into his hands along with the mellow-voiced advice.

Joe drank eagerly, savoring the sweet taste of the slightly tepid water as it washed away the sticky residue of the vomiting and the grit from the road dust.  He sighed in relief and resisted slightly when he felt the tinker tugging on the canteen.

“Enough, son, ye’ll be sick, I’m a’warnin’ ya.”  The tinker chuckled throatily, and Joe couldn’t help but grin in response.

“I’ve heard those words before, but I never can stop myself from drinking too much,” he said mildly. “Thanks again.”

A husky laugh emerged from the dark shape that peeked in the canvas.  “Yer soundin’ better all ready.  Kin ya last fer a spell longer, or do ya need ta stop here?  It’s still a ways ta my place, and I was aimin’ ta head there before I took a look at yer arm.”

Joe moved his arm experimentally, gasping at the sudden surge of pain that the smallest of movements engendered.  “I’ll be fine,” he ground out from between his gritted teeth.  “Don’t stop on my account.”

The head tilted a little in speculation.  “Lie back down then, or ye’ll get banged up sump’n fierce.  Try to sleep, it’ll be better fer ya, then tryin’ ta sit up there.”

Joe nodded slowly; he knew the tinker was right.  He eyed the trek back through the debris dubiously, though.  He didn’t know if he could face the crawl back with his entire body feeling like it had been caught in a stampede.

As if reading his mind, the dusky voice sounded again.  “Need some help,” the tinker asked sympathetically.

Joe tried to gauge the stranger.  It was obvious that the tinker meant no harm.  He’d scooped up a total stranger and taken him under his wing.  And he knew that he wasn’t feeling up to the crawl through the debris.  Letting his guard drop completely, he answered the query with a simple nod.

Without further ado, the tinker hoisted a large soft body up onto the wagon’s edge.  A pair of strong arms caught him up and deposited him in the back of the wagon as if he didn’t weigh any more than a child.  A ragged blanket was drawn up over his shoulders and Joe let himself settle in as well as he could.  With a soft sigh that was almost a moan, he shut his eyes.

He heard the tinker moving back out of the wagon and summoned up one last surge of energy.  “Thank you,” he tried to call, although it came out more as a whisper.  He couldn’t tell if the tinker heard, and suddenly it didn’t seem to matter too much.  He surrendered to the pull of sleep.


A pair of shiny bright eyes peered down at him, and Joe jerked reflexively.  He pulled himself out of the grogginess of sleep through sheer willpower and gazed back at the owner of the eyes.  He smiled involuntarily at the small boy who stood looking at him.  The child had curly black hair and skin the color of coffee.  “Hi,” Joe said quietly.  “Who are you?”

“Jared,” the child answered sturdily.  He rocked back on his heels and tucked a chubby pair of thumbs into his overall straps, never taking his eyes off the man in the bed.  “You sick?”

Joe tested his shoulder and felt the renewed stab of pain.  He could feel the binding of bandages and knew that someone had doctored him while he slept.  His muscles shrieked in protest as he stirred.  Mostly just sore from the long ride and the reaction to his injury, he decided.  He felt flushed and warm, all-too familiar signs of a fever, but it didn’t seem too bad.  All in all he’d been worse before.

“I’ll be okay,” he reassured the boy.  “Where’d you come from?”  He struggled to pull himself to a sitting position and looked around him with curious eyes.

He was lying on a rickety cot in a ramshackle shack.  Small, but cluttered, with an assortment of odds and ends piled haphazardly everywhere he could see.  The fabric of the quilt that covered him was clean but threadbare, attesting to the general state of the room.  It was apparent that there wasn’t much money to be spent on material things in this house.

The child’s voice startled him out of his reverie. Jared’s answer betrayed his disgust with adults who asked foolish questions.  “I live here, silly.  With my Pa.  He brung ya here, t’other night.  Ya been sleepin’ a long times.”

Joe grinned.  “Sorry about that.  I hope I haven’t taken your bed away from you.”

Jared grinned back, and Joe recognized a kindred spirit.  “Yep, ya did, but ah don’ mind.  Pa says that ya needs it more’n me.”

Just then the child clapped his hand to his head in a comical display of despair.  “I’s almost forgot.  Pa says ta give ya sump’n ta eat.  Ya hungry?”

The chubby body radiated an eagerness to please that made Joe forget the aches that plagued him.  He shook his head. “No, I’m thirsty, more than anything.  You wouldn’t happen to have some water, would you?”

Happy to have a job to do, the boy hustled away.  He soon returned lugging a heavy bucket with both hands.  Joe could hear the water sloshing with every step, and he saw that the boy was leaving a wet trail behind him.  It would be a miracle if there were anything left in the bucket when the child reached the bed, he thought ruefully.

After an arduous trek across the tiny cabin, the boy carefully placed his prize on the floor next to the bed.  He plopped a dipper into the bucket and proffered it to Joe with an expectant look on his face.  “Here ya’ go.  I fetched it from the well, so’s it’d be nice ‘n cold.”

Joe reached eagerly for the dipper and sighed with relief as the cool liquid soothed his dry throat.  He drank deeply before he held the dipper back out to the boy.  “Thanks, partner.  That hit the spot.  I already feel much better.  I don’t suppose you’ve got a rag around here somewhere, so I could do a little washing up?”

The boy accepted the dipper and his face lit up.  “I shore do.  I’s s’posed to take keer a ya till Pa gits back.  You’ll tell him I done a good job, won’cha, Mister?”

Joe nodded solemnly.  “Son, if you find me a rag, I’ll be happy to tell your Pa what a good job you’ve done today.”  He awkwardly reached out with his left hand, because his right was resting in a sling.  “Want to shake on it?”

Jared’s dark eyes gleamed like ebony as a brilliant grin streaked across his face. He proudly held out his hand.  “It’s a deal, Mister.” He turned to leave on his errand, but then stopped and turned back to the man in the bed.  “Say, what’s yer name anyways?”

Joe’s green eyes twinkled.  “It’s Joe.  So can I get that rag now?”

Jared nodded, his head bobbing up and down vigorously as he did so.  “Sure ‘nough, Mister Joe.  I’se be but a minute.”  He turned on his heel and scampered away quickly.

Joe could hear the sounds of the boy digging through something on the far side of the cabin, but he was hidden by a tall stack of boxes.  He felt himself relaxing against the bedframe, feeling calmer now than at any time since the shooting.  A sudden thought of Peggy Hardesty crossed his mind, and Joe blanched.  He drew a shaky hand across his forehead, feeling the trace of sweat that had sprung up.  The little girl might be dead now.  From the looks of Jared, he was about the same age as Peggy, although the man-child was  completely different in every way possible from the little girl.  Joe welcomed the distraction as Jared returned triumphantly brandishing a large square of white cloth.

“I jist knew Pa would hev sump’n to use for washin’,” he exclaimed excitedly.  “Here ya go, Mister Joe.”

Joe gratefully accepted the cloth and dipped it into the bucket of water.  He wiped the soft fabric across his hot forehead and sighed as the coolness brought him a little relief.  “You can just call me Joe,” he remarked with his eyes shut, as he continued to bathe his heated face.

Jared sucked in a breath, and Joe opened his eyes to see a look of something like hero worship in the boy’s eyes. “Ya mean it?  I kin call ya Joe?”

Joe winced.  “Don’t look at me like that, kid,” he mumbled.  He saw the hurt that streaked across the child’s face, and said hastily, “Of course I mean it.  I’d like it if you’d call me Joe.  We’re friends, aren’t we?”  He was rewarded by a smile like sunshine on Lake Tahoe and couldn’t help but smile back.

“Sure, Joe.  We’re friends,” Jared said happily.  He jumped up onto the bed beside Joe, jarring the injured shoulder in the process.

Joe winced as the movement sent a jolt of pain through his arm from his fingertips to his shoulder.  Jared stared at him, a sudden hint of tears in his eyes.  “I’s sorry,” the boy said quickly, and he moved to get back off the bed.

He was halted by the hand that Joe placed on his shoulder.  “It’s okay, stay,” he said quietly.  “Just move a little more slowly, okay?”  He patted the bed next to him.  “Tell me about you and your Pa.  Where is he anyway?"

Jared settled in, his happiness easily restored.  He prattled on at great length, telling Joe about his father who traveled around ‘fixin' and mendin’.  He didn’t specify what the man ‘traded’, but Joe took another glance around the room heaped with boxes, barrels and crates, all bulging with goods of one type or another, and was able to make a good guess at what the man was bartering.  Apparently Jared’s Pa was gone for days on end, leaving the seven year old to tend the few critters that lived in a ramshackle barn next to the house.  The boy’s Pa had a neighbor stop to check on things from time to time; the only visitor the boy had.  The child must have seen the indignation building in his new friend as Joe grew angry at the thought of the little boy living on his own for such a long time.  The story trailed off and the boy’s eyes grew huge in his face.

“I guess thass all, Mister…I mean Joe.  We ain’t got much goin’ on round here.  Don’ get many strangers t’all,” Jared said quietly.  “Ya mad at me, Joe?”

Joe shook his head quickly, but then regretted it, when he felt a sudden surge of dizziness sweep through him.  He made a mental note to remember not to move suddenly before he managed to answer his new friend.  “Of course, I’m not mad at you, Jared.  But don’t you get scared being out here all by yourself for so much of the time?”

Jared smiled serenely.  “Course not.  I’s most a man, cain’t ya see?  ‘Sides, if I didn’ take keer o’ the critters, they’d die.  Then where’d we be?  No milk, ner eggs neither.  Pa d’pends ‘n me.”  He puffed up his chest proudly.

Joe had to laugh at the boy’s air of manliness.  The child reminded him so much of himself at that age that it was eerie.  The difference was that Jared didn’t have two older brothers to smother him with doting affection and more rules than a boy could shake a stick at.  But he also didn’t have the security of two extra fathers to take care of him when his Pa was away, and for that, Joe was sorry.  He leaned back against the headboard, his eyes drifting shut.  He felt the small body curl up next to him.  Together the two “men” fell asleep on the bed.


“No word from anyone?”  Adam’s voice was soft, and his eyes darted quickly to his father’s desk where Ben was sitting.  “Did anyone even answer the telegrams we sent?”

Hoss deliberately steered Adam toward the door.  “I got answers, all right.  They just ain’t good ones,” he said in frustration.  “Ain’t no one seen Joe in any town within a hundred miles of here.  If he was shot in the arm, like the doc says he was, then he couldn’a ridden too far.  I just don’ understand this.”  He slammed his fist on the doorframe.

“I know you’re here, you might as well stop whispering in corners and come give me the news.”  Ben’s voice wasn’t loud, but it made itself heard in every corner of the room.

Hoss and Adam exchanged glances of trepidation, but they both walked obediently toward their father’s desk.  “Hey, Pa,” Hoss called out, struggling to interject a jovial note into his voice.

“Any news?”  Ben’s face was haggard, his eyes bleak with exhaustion and worry.  “Did anyone answer the telegrams?”

Hoss handed him a sheaf of papers.  “We got answers, Pa, just not good ones.  Ain’t no one seen Joe since he left here.”

Ben sighed heavily, and he listlessly ruffled through the telegrams.  “What’s the word from Paul?” he asked quietly.

Hoss lowered his eyes.  “Peggy’s still not awake yet, and the doc says if she stays that way much longer, he cain’t hold out much hope.”

“I’ll ride out again in the morning.  Don’t worry, Pa. He can’t have just ridden off the face of the earth.  Someone’s got to have seen him.”  Adam worked to sound calm and reassuring, but his effort was a failure.

Ben shook his head.  “Where will you look, Adam?  We don’t even know what direction he took when he left town.  We’ve had men asking questions in every town within riding distance, and we’ve wired all the ones that were farther away.  You and Hoss have spent every day this week in the saddle, but there’s just no place else to search.”  His shoulders slumped and he put a hand against the desk as if to brace himself.  “I think it’s time we admitted that Joe might be gone for good.”

“Pa!”  Hoss’s voice was appalled.  “Don’t say that.  Joe’s gotta be around somewhere.  We just ain’t looked in the right place yet.”

Adam shook his head, stubbornly.  “I’ll find him.  I’ll be riding out at first light.  Don’t worry if I’m not back for a couple of days, Pa.  I’m not calling off the search just yet.”  He turned to his brother.  “Come on, Hoss.  Hop Sing’s got some sandwiches and coffee in the kitchen.  We’ll eat light tonight.”

Hoss nodded, his gratitude for Adam’s words shining in his eyes.  He clapped a companionable arm around Adam’s shoulders, and the two men headed for the kitchen.

Ben sat at his desk, staring at the stack of useless telegrams in his hands.  In spite of his words, he felt reassured that his sons hadn’t given up hope.  If anyone could find Joe, it would be Adam and Hoss.  He rubbed a tired hand over his face and allowed himself the luxury of a moment of quiet despair.  Then, with a decisive push of his chair, he rose and headed for the kitchen, as well.  If his boys hadn’t given up, neither would he.


“Ya don’ need ta do that, Joe.”  The velvety voice made Joe jump and he almost dropped the pail of water he was lugging back to the shack.  He looked up to see the tinker making his way toward him, a worried expression dominating the man’s face.

“Sure I do.  You and Jared have taken good care of me the past couple of weeks and now it’s my turn to do something for you.”  Joe continued his trek to the shack and the tinker fell alongside him, matching the slow pace, step for step.

“Least’ways lemme take the bucket,” the older man insisted, reaching out a strong arm to take it away from Joe.  “Yor arm ain’ near ready ta be haulin’ a load like ‘is.”  He wrested the bucket away from Joe after a good-natured tussle, and Joe smiled ruefully.

“Come on, Hiram.  You’ve got to let me do something for you. My arm’s fine. I’ve been lying around long enough.  I know there’s a lot of things that need mending, and I figure I’m the man for the job.” Joe thumped his chest playfully.  “See, hale and hearty, that’s me.”

The tinker chuckled, the deep sound reverberating deep in his belly, making Joe grin in response.  “Wal now, if’n yer really of a mind ta help, ya could hunt up some game fer supper.  That’d not be too hard on that arm.”

Joe’s step faltered and his face grew pale.  A sudden vision of a small girl lying huddled in the street while blood soaked into her blond curls sent a shiver up his spine.  “Hunt up some game?” he repeated.  “I . . . I don’t think I can do that.  I’m sorry.”  He turned his face away from the dark eyes that now looked at him in amazement.  “How about I chop up a load of kindling for the stove while you go get the supper?”  He asked quickly, forcing his voice to a normal register.

Hiram stopped walking and peered at Joe intently.  “Ya don’ hunt?” he asked simply.  “Got sump’n gainst it?”  He pointed at Joe’s hips.  “O’course I noticed right off that ya didn’ hev no gun, but I figgered ya lost it to whoever winged ya.”

Joe swallowed and ducked his head.  “I did.  I lost my gun to the fellow who did this.  And I don’t want it back either.”  He began to walk quickly toward the shack, Hiram hurrying at his heels.

“I kin lend ya m’gun, if’n thass all it is, son,” Hiram said helpfully, the water sloshing on his heels as he tried to keep pace with Joe.  “Why don’ ya go ahead and give ‘er a try.  She’s a right nice ‘un if’n ah do say so meself.”

They had reached the shack, and Joe stood irresolutely at the doorway.  “I said I didn’t want to hunt, and I don’t want to borrow your gun,” he flashed irritably.  Turning on his heel, he pushed into the shack, heading straight to the little cot.  He sank down on it and buried his head in his hands.

He could feel his body trembling, and he flushed miserably at the spectacle he was making of himself.  But the thought of handling a gun terrified him.  “I can’t hurt anyone else, I just can’t,” he thought over and over again, and the memory of the shooting played itself out in his mind.  “I’ve already killed one little girl because of my stupid fascination with guns.  I won’t take the chance on someone else getting hurt because of me.”

Finally getting his breathing under control, Joe lifted his head.  He jumped a little when he found the tinker sitting quietly in a chair, companionably smoking a pipe and waiting until the younger man had himself under control.  Joe felt the heat rising on his face, and he looked down at the floor, unable to meet Hiram’s eyes.  “I’m sorry,” he forced out.  “I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“S’okay,” the other man returned.  His quiet voice was laced with compassion.  “Ya got some family I needs ta be gettin’ in touch with, Joe?  Yer arm’s bout healed, and I figger someone’s worryin’.  I know I’d be outta ma head if’n Jared just up’n disappeared.”

Joe flushed, the heat sweeping up from his collar to engulf his face in flame.  “I can’t go back there!” he snapped.  His voice faltered a bit as he thought of the people he’d left behind.  “M…my Pa will be looking for me, but he’s got to know I can’t go home again.  He’s got to understand that I had to leave.”

“Why?”  Hiram took a puff on his pipe and the soft scent of the tobacco filled the room.

Joe felt a floodtide of memories stir and threaten to overwhelm him.  Pipe tobacco reminded him so strongly of his father, and the thought that he might  not ever see the man again brought a hint of moisture to his eye.  He took a deep shuddering breath and dropped his head, so that Hiram couldn’t see his face.  “I killed a little girl,” he said softly.  “It was an accident.  I was in a gunfight with someone, and she ran across the street.  But all I can think of is her mother’s face.  She was screaming at me…”  Joe allowed his voice to trail off, and he clenched his hands to control the trembling that shook them.

Bringing his head up suddenly, Joe met Hiram’s deep brown eyes.  “Can’t you understand?  I can’t go back and face those people ever again.  I killed a little girl.  I was so proud of that gun, always showing off and bragging about how good I was.  And what did it get me?  It’s ruined my life.  I’ll never touch another gun as long as I live, but that still won’t bring Peggy back,”

Still the other man sat in silence, his craggy faced lit up with a compassion that Joe had seen in his own father’s eyes.  Puffing on his pipe, he let the silence grow until Joe wanted to scream.  When he couldn’t stand it anymore, Joe let the words burst out.  “So you want me to leave now?  Now that you know what kind of man I am?”

Hiram smiled softly.  “I ain’ askin’ ya ta leave, Joe.  I’se seen how ya is with Jared.  Yer not the man ya seem ta think y’are.  Looks ta me like ya got a bit more healin’ t’do.   Yer welcome here as long as ya want ta stay.”  He rose to his feet.  “I’m gonna go rustle up  some game fer supper.  Ya wanna fill the woodbox?”

The older man headed to the door without a backward glance, taking Joe’s silence for assent.  Joe sat gazing at nothing, his thoughts turned inward.  The thought of touching a gun still left him feeling sick and shaky.  Resolutely forcing his mind to calmness, he stood.  Grabbing the axe that stood by the door, he headed for the woodpile.  Soon the only sound that could be heard was a rhythmic thudding that filled the air. 


The heavily laden wagon rumbled forward slowly.  This time Joe sat on the seat next to Hiram, with Jared carefully wedged in between the two men.  As the ramshackle dwellings of a small town appeared around them, Joe took a deep breath.  He hadn’t been near anyone but the tinker and his small son since the shooting of Peggy Hardesty.  He wasn’t sure he was ready to face the rest of the world yet, but Jared had begged his new friend to “come’n see my town.”  Joe didn’t have the heart to refuse the excited plea from the small boy.

Even now the child was chattering away, excitedly pointing out items of interest to the silent man on the seat beside him.  Joe felt the small hand tug on the sleeve of his jacket and heard the boy exclaim, “There ‘tis, Joe.  See it?  Thass where Pa’s gonna trade us up some stuff, ‘n he’s gonna git some real nice things fer th’ house.”  He pointed in another direction.  “An over there, thass where Mr. Tom’s got some right nice horses.  He lets me pet ‘em when I’s in town.”

Joe let the words wash over him, and he scanned the street for familiar faces.  He was hoping that he didn’t know anyone in this little town.  He didn’t want to run the risk of his father finding out where he was just yet.  He rubbed absently at his still-tender shoulder, and resolutely pushed the thoughts of his family to the back of his mind.

The town was small.  The wagon was moving at a leisurely pace up the center of the single street.  A line of wooden buildings on either side of the street was the extent of the little pocket of civilization.  Hand-lettered signs indicated that the town boasted a saloon,  a general store and a sheriff’s office.  The livery stable that housed the ‘real nice horses’ graced the end of one of the rows, while the simple cross marked the presence of a church at the other end.  The rest of the buildings were a motley assortment of dwellings in various states of disrepair.  While some showed that the inhabitants still cared enough to try, the others were clearly being allowed to decay until they were swallowed up by the dust that eddied in small swirls everywhere.

They finally reached the general store, and Hiram jumped down to hitch the team to a rail that swayed drunkenly on its support posts.  “I’se got some bizness wit ol’ Sam Jenkins here, Joe,” he said.  “You wants ta come in wit me, or take a walk wit Jared?”

Joe couldn’t help but notice the excitement on the boy’s face, and put a hand on the little shoulder.  “I’ll take a little walk with my friend here, if you don’t mind,” he replied with a chuckle.  “I think he wants to show me his horses.”

Jared beamed, a sunny smile spreading across his face.  He grabbed Joe’s hand and tugged.  “C’mon, Joe.  I’se tol Mr. Tom all bout you.  C’mon.”

With a nod to the older man, Joe walked slowly down the street with the small boy tugging his hand the whole way.  He could feel the curious stares from the town’s few inhabitants, and knew that he was the topic of conversation on most of the lips that were carefully concealed from him as their owners shared quiet words.  He guessed that strangers didn’t come to the little village too often.  He squinted at the line of horses hitched in front of the saloon.  Obviously it was the one establishment in town that was doing a booming business.

He spent a pleasurable fifteen minutes discussing horses with Jared and his friend Tom, a swarthy man who stood at a whopping six feet five inches.  His bulk would have made Hoss look small, and Joe felt a sudden pang of homesickness at the thought of his older brother.  His thoughts turned to Peggy Hardesty and the homesickness was washed away by a rush of sick remorse.  He could never go back to Virginia City again, and he might as well get used to it.

He turned abruptly, stopping Tom mid-word.  “I think it’s time we headed back,” he muttered.  “We told your Pa we’d meet him by the wagon.”

Jared looked hurt for a moment, but then the child’s natural ebullience reasserted itself.  He once again grabbed Joe’s hand and they headed back toward the wagon.  “Wern’ them the best horses ya ever seen, Joe?” he asked, his face a study in pride and wonder.  “Mr. Tom’s got the nicest horses in the whole town.”

“Sure, they were great,” Joe replied distractedly.  His thoughts were centered on another herd of horses, most of which he had broken himself.  He was only vaguely aware that the child’s chatter continued.

They were almost on top of the wagon, when Joe realized that Hiram had indeed returned to the conveyance, but that he wasn’t alone.  A small group of men clustered in a loose semi-circle around the tinker, and their stance indicated that they weren’t feeling friendly. The angry voices carried in the still air, and instinctively, Joe pushed the child behind him as they stopped just outside the circle.

“Come on, man.  Tell us what you did with them,” shouted one of the men.  He was dressed in shabby trail clothes that were caked with layers of dust.  His eyes were bleak with anger, and he towered menacingly over Hiram.

“I don’ have nothin’ that don’ belong ta me,” Hiram asserted.  His eyes were wide and sweat gathered on his forehead.  “I tol’ ya already.  Search m’wagon if’n ya don’ b’lieve me.”

The group shuffled forward, but a cold voice stopped them.  “He doesn’t have anything of yours in his wagon.  You don’t need to search it.”  Joe stepped forward as all of the heads turned toward him.

“This ain’t none of your business, Mister,” shouted one of the men.  “Keep on walking, this don’t concern you.”

Joe stood his ground, his gaze level, but his eyes burned with anger.  “It does concern me, and I’ve just told you that you aren’t going to search this wagon.”

“S’alright, Joe, let ‘em search.  They won’ fine what theys after,” Hiram said.  His eye darted behind Joe to where Jared stood, his face reflecting his uncertainty.  “Once theys looked they’ll leave an it’ll be ovuh.”

Joe put his hands on his hips, his face set in a grim mask.  “I don’t like people who threaten my friends,” he said quietly.  “Whatever it is you’re after, it’s not in this wagon. Go on over to the saloon and have a drink and leave this man alone.”

The men muttered and shifted.  “What right d’you have to be telling us what to do, sonny?” demanded the spokesman, advancing forward.  He planted himself in front of Joe, and he glared down at the smaller man.  “It’s obvious that this man ain’t no kin of yours.  So leave us be.  He’s got our saddlebags in his wagon, and we aim to get ‘em back.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Joe replied.  “I said to back off.”  He stood his ground, refusing to be intimidated by the man’s size.

“Joe, watch out!”  Jared’s shrill voice rang through the air, and Joe turned in time to see one of the men heading toward him, a stout stick in his hands.

A sudden flash of rage swept through him, and without thinking, Joe dove into the man before he could raise the cudgel into the air.  He drove the man’s body into the dirt, and felt a satisfying gush of air leave the attacker’s body in a rush.  The man’s grunt of pain, and the stick flying from his suddenly limp hand encouraged Joe to crush his fist into the man’s chin.  One down.

From the sounds behind him, he could tell that Hiram had entered the fray.  Joe was on his feet, in a flash, fists flying, an unholy gleam in his eyes as he vented his frustrations on the hapless group. The crack of a bullet leaving someone’s gun took him by surprise.  He lurched to a stop and turned to see one of the remaining men holding his gun up and ready to fire again.

Joe raised his hands slowly in the air, while his stomach lurched with a surge of nausea.  He kept his eyes glued to the gun that was pointed at his heart.  For the first time he wished for the familiar weight of his holster, and then shuddered as the image of a blond-haired child lying in a pool of blood flashed before his eyes, the desire for his gun dying a quick death.

“Stand back!” the gunman barked.  “Burke, search that wagon.  Fletcher, see if Shorty is okay.”  Two men moved quickly to follow orders and Joe moved back a pace to stand silently beside Hiram.

Jared was sheltering behind his father’s broad back, so that Joe couldn’t see his face, but he could feel the tension radiating from the man who stood next to him.  It sickened Joe to see the men tossing odds and ends around the wagon’s interior.  Bits and pieces came flying out to land in the dust beside his feet, and he closed his eyes to shut out the sight.  To stand and allow the men to conduct their search galled him, and he fought back a wave of bitterness.

“They ain’t here, Coop,” Burke called.  He emerged from the wagon and shook his head.  “No sign of the saddlebags or the…” His words were cut off by a peremptory shake of the gunman’s head.

“Where’d you put ‘em?” Coop demanded, advancing a pace nearer to the waiting trio.  “Where are the saddlebags?”

Joe interposed himself between the gunman and Hiram.  “He doesn’t have them.  We already told you that.  You’ve had your search and the saddlebags aren’t in there.  Why don’t you fellas move on?”

Coop took another step forward until the brim of his hat was almost touching Joe’s.  “We’re gonna look around town, but if we don’t find those saddlebags, we’ll come find you,” he growled.

He spat, and watched with satisfaction as a messy trail of slime worked its way down Joe’s face.   “Don’t get in our way again, boy,” he said with a vicious grin.  “You don’t want to make that mistake twice.”  He spun on his heels and strode toward the saloon, his men trailing at his heels.

Joe stood silently, his body shaking with suppressed rage.  He reached for his kerchief and wiped away the disgusting mess that had tracked it’s way into his collar.  He jerked at the sudden pressure on his shoulder, looking up to see Hiram gazing at him intently.

“You okay, Joe?”  Hiram let his gaze run up and down the slender figure.  “Did them fellas hurt yor shoulder agin?”  He reached with a gentle hand to touch the part in question.

Joe shook him off impatiently.  “I’m fine,” he snapped.  “What was that all about anyway?”  He stooped to pick up some of the debris from the roadway, and began stowing it back in the wagon.

“Theys thought I done stole their saddle bags,” Hiram stated flatly.  “Don’ know why, but I reckon, I’se jist handy.  People only sees what theys wanna see.”  He joined Joe in the restoration of the wagon’s contents.

When the last item had been put away, the three silently mounted the wagon seat and set out on their return trip back to the little cabin.  No one spoke for the duration of the long ride.


“Out with it.  Why are you so angry with me?”  Joe asked as he dropped to the ground beside Jared.

The boy was sitting under the spreading branches of the lone tree that graced the yard of the little shack.  He picked listlessly at the faded grass and kept his eyes glued to the ground.  He had spent the previous day avoiding Joe, running to the barn if Joe entered the house, or heading for the yard if Joe followed him into the barn.  When they had shared the evening meal, Jared kept his eyes on his plate and his mouth, which normally issued a steady stream of chatter, was used only for chewing.  Joe saw Hiram give the boy a long, measuring look, but the man hadn’t pressed the issue.  Jared had escaped to bed as soon as the silent supper ended.

Now, the afternoon sun glinted off of several items from Hiram’s latest haul, adding a festive air to the ramshackle little cabin.  Joe studied the dwelling and the bits and pieces strewn about the yard as he waited for the boy to acknowledge his presence.  He risked a glance from under his hat brim, and saw that Jared was stealing a look at him, too.  He smiled encouragingly and the boy ducked his head quickly.  But not before Joe saw the gleam of tears in the little boy’s expressive eyes.

“What’s wrong, Jared?  I thought we were friends,” Joe pressed.  “Friends can tell each other what’s on their minds, you know.”

“Why’d ya let those bad men throw our stuff outta the wagon?”  a small voice asked finally.  “Whyn’t ya stop ‘em, Joe?”

Joe stared at the boy in amazement.  “There wasn’t anything I could do, you know that.  Those men had guns, Jared.”

The dark eyes came up at that, and they glared at Joe.  “Ya coulda had one too.  I done heerd Pa offer ya his one day.  A man likes y’are otta hev a gun,” the child asserted.

Joe smiled grimly at that.  “A man like me?” he asked.  “What kind of man am I, Jared?”

The child looked startled.  “Why, ya knows wat I means.  Travelin’ around, fightin’ with yer gun.  I heerd bout men who done that, but I’s never met one til ya come here.  I thought ya’d shoot ‘em or sump’n.  But ya just stood there.”  The child dropped his eyes and sighed, his face a study in disappointment and anger.

Joe was appalled.  “What made you think that I was the kind of man who traveled around making a living from my gun? I never told you that’s what I did. I don’t even wear a gun, Jared, you know that.  I’ve spent my life on a ranch with my family, not moving from town to town picking gunfights with other men.”

The child looked up again, confusion battling to the forefront on his expressive face.  “But…” he stopped, but at the compassionate look on Joe’s face, he struggled on.  “If’n yer not a gunman, then what was ya doing out there when Pa found ya?  And how’d yer arm git shot up?  Why aren’t ya home if’n ya’s got a fam’ly?  What do’s ya do onna ranch?”

The questions could have continued on endlessly, but Joe’s laugh dried up the stream.  Jared smiled shyly, and stopped talking long enough to allow his friend to speak.  “Whoa, fella!” Joe exclaimed.  “That’s a lot of questions to hit a man with.”  He stopped to think for a moment.  “Okay, let’s take them one at a time, then if you have more, you can ask them.  Is that a deal?”

Jared nodded eagerly and held out a grimy hand to seal the deal.  Joe took the hand without hesitation and gave it a manly shake, which widened the smile on the little face.

“First question, what was I doing out there?  That’s a tough one.”  Joe stopped and swallowed against a sudden thickening in this throat, then continued.  “I got myself into a lot of trouble back home.  I was showing off with my gun, thinking I was a big man, and a little girl got hurt.  She wasn’t much older than you, and she’s dead because of me.  That’s why I left.  I couldn’t face the fact that I let a little girl die because of my stupid pride.”

Joe watched the little boy carefully, waiting to see the first glimmer of disappointment take root on the boy’s face.  When Jared just gazed back curiously, his face showing his struggle to control his tongue until his friend had spoken his piece, Joe gathered his courage and continued.  “I got shot in a gun fight, just like the ones you’re talking about, but it’s not what I do for a living.  My Pa owns a big ranch, and my brothers and I help him take care of it.  I left because I couldn’t bear to see the shame in my father’s face when he looked at me.  So you see, I’m not a hero, or a gunfighter.  I’m just a man and not a very good man at that.”

Jared sighed, his eyes huge in his little face.  “What happened to the lil girl, Joe?  Did ya mean ta shoot her?”

Joe shut his eyes in pain.  “No, of course I didn’t’ meant to shoot her,” he said vehemently.  “I was so confident that I could take that guy, I just knew it.  Something went wrong, and suddenly, Peggy was in the street, and my bullet hit her instead of him.”  He drew in a shaky breath.  “It was horrible, something I’ll never forget.  She was so little, and she was just lying there. . .”

Jared waited for a minute and then realized that Joe wasn’t going to say anymore.  “But ya wassn’ aimin’ at her, was ya, Joe?”

Joe shook his head, unable to speak.

The boy eyed him wonderingly.  “Then, woudn’ that be a ak- aksident?  If’n ya didn’ mean to do it?”

“I shouldn’t have been shooting my gun in a crowded street,” Joe shot back.  “Of course I wasn’t aiming at her.  She was only a little older than you.  But I was responsible.  I could have refused to fight that man, or walked away from him, but I didn’t.  There was a woman that I was trying to protect, but it all went wrong.  It was my fault, accident or not.”

Jared patted Joe’s knee with a gentle hand.  “Ah’ll bet that li’l girl wouldn’ be mad at ya, Joe, if’n ya had ta hep another lady.”  His words careened onto another subject as his little mind struggled to grasp what Joe was saying to him.  “So ya think yer Pa’s wonderin’ bout ya, Joe?  Ya been gone awhiles now.”

The sudden wave of homesickness washed over Joe like a tide, and he flinched at the boy’s question.  “Yeah, I guess he probably is, now that you mention it.  And if you want to know the truth, I miss him, too.  He and my brothers are probably looking all over for me, right now.  But I can’t go home, don’t you see, boy?  A little girl got hurt because of my stupidity, and I can’t go home ever again.”

Jared studied Joe quietly.  “My Pa wouldn’ like it, if’n I’se just up and lef wif no note, nr nuthin.”

Joe grinned ruefully.  “I imagine my Pa doesn’t like it too much either, now that you mention it, and I don’t even want to think of what my brother, Adam is saying about me.  But then, Adam wouldn’t have made such a mess of things if he’d been in my shoes, either.”  He stood up and stretched.  “There’s a woodbox that needs filling, and I promised your Pa I’d take care of it.  Thanks for talking to me, Jared, you’re a good friend.”

The little boy puffed up his chest with pride and walked to the woodpile with Joe, struggling to match him stride for stride.  “Yer a good frien’ too, Joe,” he said, and slipped his hand into Joe’s.

Joe clasped the hand tightly, grateful for the return of the boy’s ready smile.  But the questions about his home and family had left him shaken, his confidence in his decision to leave eroding just a bit.  His Pa must be fit to be tied at his long absence.  In fact, he was probably tearing up the countryside looking for his lost sheep.

At the woodpile, Jared scampered to sit atop the pile of split logs; his favorite perch while Joe was at this chore.  He kept up his constant stream of chatter, and Joe lost himself in the rhythm of the work.  With each blow of the axe he tried to push the thoughts of home and family back into the recesses of his mind.


The last piece of wood was stacked neatly, and Joe stepped back to survey the results of his labors.  He felt the ache deep in his wounded shoulder and he rotated his arm to ease the pain.  When that didn’t help, he massaged the muscles with the heel of his other hand.

“Shoulder playin’ up on ya, boy?”  The mellow voice floated out from the shadows of the house.

Joe jerked his head up in surprise and squinted in the direction of the voice.  “A bit,” he said, moving to join his friend.  “I think I overdid it some.”

Hiram stepped out of the shadows and surveyed the towering pile of split wood that now lay neatly stacked.  He let loose with an appreciative chuckle.  “Looks like ya chopped enuff fer two winters, Joe.  I ain’t s’prised ta see ya arm hurts.  Sometimes a man jist has ta sweat out a problem.”

Joe grinned ruefully and levered himself down to the rickety porch steps with a sigh of relief.  Taking off his hat, he wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of one arm.  “You’re a wise man, Hiram.  Do you read everyone’s mind, or is it just mine?” he asked.

“Jist yers,” came the laconic reply.  “It don’ take much ta figger yer chewin’ on sump’n.  Jared got ya upset?”

Joe darted a look of surprise at the other man.  “You may claim that you’re not wise,” he commented.  “But you definitely know what I’m thinking.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Joe shook his head and sighed.  “Jared’s upset because he thinks I should have stopped those men in town, and I can’t say that I blame him.  If I’d had my gun, they wouldn’t have done what they did.”

Hiram took some time to light his pipe before he answered.  “Ya don’ know that, Joe.  I’se seen men like that afore.  They’se missin’ theys things, and o’course they think I’d took ‘em.  If’n ya’d had a gun ya’d be dead along about now.  Mebbe me an’ the boy right along wit ya.”

“Why do you say that of course they’d think you took the missing things,” Joe snapped.  “It shouldn’t be that way.  You didn’t do anything wrong.  All you did was ride into town to do some trading.  Those men had no reason to think you’d done anything wrong.”

“Didn’ need no reason.  They’s seen wat ah looks like,” Hiram replied without heat.  “It’s happened ‘fore an it’ll happen agin.  Ain’t nothin’ gonna change it.”

“If I’d had my gun, I would have changed it,”  Joe asserted.  “Those men were wrong, and I wanted so badly to teach them a lesson.  But when I thought about my gun, all I could see was Peggy Hardesty lying on that street.”

“When ya’s ready fer that gun agin, ya’ll know,” Hiram said quietly.  He reached over and patted Joe’s slumped shoulder.  “But tis more’n that, ain’t it, Joe.  I’se seen ya hackin’ at that wood like it’s a snake needs ta be killed.  Ya gots more on that mind o’yourn.”

Joe couldn’t help but laugh.  “You need to paint a sign on your wagon advertising the services of a mind reader, Hiram.  It could make your fortune.”  His laughter died as swiftly as it had started.  “Jared said something about my family worrying about me, and it started me thinking.  I was so set on getting away from Virginia City and what I’d done, that I never stopped to think about my Pa, or my brothers.  They’re probably tearing up the whole state looking for me.  I’m not ready to go home, but I don’t want them to worry anymore.  What do you think I ought to do?”

Hiram puffed on his pipe for a few minutes, and Joe inhaled the soft fragrance.  Unbidden, a picture of his father ensconced in his favorite chair came to mind, and he passed a quick hand over his eyes.  Forcing his attention back to the man beside him, he waited for the other man to speak.

“Well, now, ah mights be o’some hep ta ya there, boy,” Hiram said finally.  “Ah’s got ta leave in the mornin’.  Been neglectin’ my route, so I’se got a long ways ta go this trip.  Ah could post a letter fer ya, if’n ya wants.  From some town a ways from here.  Jist so’s they’s not worryin’.”

Joe beamed and clapped the tinker on the back.  “That’s it!  You’re a genius.  If you send the letter from the farthest town on your route, they’d never think to trace it back here.  That way they’d know I was safe, but wouldn’t know where to find me.”  He stood up and stretched the stiff muscles one more time.  “Got any paper in this shack of yours, my friend?”

Hiram smiled back.  “Shore do.  Ah’ll fetch it fer ya.”

The two men entered the little shack together.  In spite of his rapidly stiffening shoulder muscles, Joe felt easier than he had in a long time.  Maybe things were finally going to go his way.


Hiram left early the next morning with Joe’s letter tucked safely into an oilskin pouch that he kept stowed beneath the wagon seat.  He promised to mail it from a distant town, and then spent a few minutes checking over the wagon.  He moored a flap a little more securely, and shifted the position of several of the crates in the rear of the vehicle.  Jared and Joe stood and watched, and Joe kept a comforting hand on the boy’s small shoulder.  Hiram finished his pottering, and returned to take his son into his arms.

“Now ya tek ker o’things here, boy.  Ya knows what ta do.  Don’ fergit the critters cuz yer off playin’ somewhere.”  His words were stern, but his eyes were soft with warmth.  He clasped the boy close for a last hug, and then turned to Joe.

“Thanks for letting me stay on a while longer, Hiram,” Joe said.  “I should have moved on as soon as my arm healed.  It’s good of you not to turn me out.”  He reached out to shake the other man’s hand firmly.

Hiram nodded solemnly.  “Ain’ no chore ta hev ya here, Joe.  It eases ma mind a bits ta know Jared’s got some c’mpny while ah’m gone this time.  Usually the boy don’ hev no one but ol Jake Dawes lookin’ in on him ev’ry once ‘nwhile.  He’s got the place down the road a piece, an he stops by ta keeps an eye on the boy fer me whiles I’se off tradin’.  Lets me travel easy ta know he’s got ya here fer a spell.”

“We’ll be just fine,” Joe promised.  He clapped the tinker on the back, and watched as he climbed up onto the seat of the wagon.  “We’ll see you soon.”  He felt Jared nestle against his side, and he put a comforting arm around the boy’s shoulders.

The two “men” one big, one small waved as the wagon lurched out of the yard, groaning under the weight of the items Hiram hoped to trade.  They stood together until the wagon was a speck in the distance.  Reluctantly, Jared detached himself from Joe’s protective arm, and scampered toward the barn.  “Gotta check onna chickens, Joe.  Ah’ll be back,” he called over his shoulder.

Joe smiled at the boy’s easy acceptance of his father’s departure.  He couldn’t help but remember another small boy who’d had much more trouble saying goodbye when his father had departed for one of his many business trips.  Jared put him to shame. 


Joe perched on the rail of the rickety fence, a wistful smile on his face.  Jared was feeding his chickens, a chore the boy took on with relish.  It wasn’t readily apparent whether the chickens were actually getting a chance to enjoy their meal.  Jared scattered the grain about with abandon, but his wildly swinging arms startled the fowl and set them to flapping and squawking.  From a distance it looked like the boy was engaged in some sort of dance with the fluttering creatures.

Joe didn’t really see the boy though.  His mind had drifted back to the Ponderosa and his brother, Hoss.  He remembered vividly Hoss, on one occasion, chasing chickens in a futile effort to capture their dinner for the evening.  Joe had been unable to control his laughter then, but now his stomach clenched tight against the pain.  He missed his home and family, and even though the separation was of his own doing, it hurt like hell.

He felt the tug on his sleeve and arrived back in the present with a jolt.  Looking down, he saw Jared’s face staring up at him quizzically.

“What’cha thinkin’ bout, Joe?”

Joe jumped down from the fence and put his arm around the boy companionably.  “I was thinking about my brother Hoss and a flock of chickens a lot like yours.”  He started for the house with the little boy bobbing along at his side.

Jared giggled. “Hoss, thass a funny name.  Tell me ‘bout Hoss, Joe.”

They reached the house, and Joe started the preparations for supper, while Jared balanced on a stool, his legs swinging as he listened eagerly.  As Joe peeled potatoes he told story after story about his adventures with his older brothers.

The two finally settled in to the simple meal with equal enthusiasm.  Jared’s meal was interrupted frequently as he peppered Joe with questions about his home and his family.  The sudden whinny of a horse stopped the flow of chatter instantly as Joe put a warning finger on the boy’s lips.  Hiram had been gone for almost a week, but he wasn’t due back for at least another week, if not two.

Joe moved silently to the window and peered out into the yard.  He saw Cochise move restlessly around the small corral, and the chickens were fluttering around again, when they should have been settled comfortably on their nests.

“Joe?” A small voice whispered.  “Whass wrong?”

Joe turned to see the boy standing on tiptoe, trying to get a look out the window as well.  He crouched down to the child’s level and gazed seriously into the dark eyes.  “We might have some visitors out there Jared,” he said calmly.  “But they may not be friends.  The animals know something’s wrong, but whoever it is has taken the trouble to hide themselves.”

The small boy stood unflinching and  waited for his friend to continue.  Joe gave him a pat on the shoulder and pointed to the darkest corner of the shack.  “Go hide over there, in that corner.  Pull a blanket up over you.  I’m going to go outside to see what’s going on.”

He waited for an argument, but Jared just nodded.  Joe’s serious expression had apparently convinced the boy that he needed to listen without question.  Joe watched as Jared scampered over to the dark corner and nodded approvingly as he pulled a blanket up over his head.  When he blew out the candle and plunged the room into shadow, Jared could not be seen.  With that, he eased open the door, and stepped out onto the porch, hugging the shadows as best he could.

Pausing to survey the yard, Joe strained for a clue to the visitor’s whereabouts.  The chickens were settling back into their nests with distracted clucking, but the rest of the yard was unnaturally still.  There was not a sign to indicate who had disturbed the animals in the yard.

Joe eased himself toward the corner of the shack, intent of checking the other side of the house.  He had reached his goal when a shot whined past his head.  He ducked back, pulling his body close to the rough wooden wall.  The shot had come from the back of the shack.  He retreated across the porch to the opposite corner, a plan to swing behind the attacker foremost in his mind.  He had no sooner poked his head past the wall than another shot rang out.  Whoever it was had anticipated his move.

“Who are you?” he called out. “Why don’t you come out and tell me what you want?”

A laugh floated through the rapidly darkening evening.  “We want that tinker.  He’s still got our saddlebags and we aim to get them back.”

Joe cursed under his breath, and then raised his voice once again to call,  “He doesn’t have them.  I give you my word on that.  Now clear out of here and leave us in peace.”

“Step out into the light, kid, and we’ll talk,” came the reply.

It wasn’t hard to recognize Coop’s voice, now that Joe knew what the gunmen were seeking.  He spared a thought for Jared and hoped that he was following instructions.  Deciding that he had no choice, he walked slowly into the path of moonlight that now cut a wide swath on the lawn.  He made sure that it was evident he didn’t have a gun and raised his hands into the air.   “All right, I’m where you can see me.  Let’s talk,” he said calmly.

One by one the men moved into sight.  Burke, Fletcher, and Shorty arranged themselves in loose formation around Joe.  Coop swaggered into sight and took up a position in front of the younger man.  “Where’s the tinker?” he asked.  He hooked a thumb toward the house.  “Get in there and tear it apart, boys.  I want them saddlebags.”

“Wait!”  Joe kept his eyes fixed on Coop.  “I swear they’re not in there.  Hiram never had them.  You’re not going to find your saddlebags in there, even if you strip it to the floorboards.”  For the first time since the incident in Virginia City, Joe wished he held his gun.

“What makes you think we’ll take your word for it, kid?” Coop sneered.  “Last time I saw you, you was beatin’ up on old Shorty there.”

Shorty leveled an ugly glare at Joe.  Even in the moonlight it was evident that a fading bruise decorated one cheekbone.  It didn’t enhance the man’s looks any.

Joe let himself drift backward a pace.  “My name’s Joe Cartwright.  I’m from Virginia City.  If you’ve heard of my family, you’d know that we have a reputation for honesty.  If I give you my word, you can depend on it.”

While he was talking he drifted back a few more steps, until the rough edge of the wooden steps grated against his boot heel and halted his movement.

Coop eyed him warily.  “Yeah, I’ve heard of the Cartwrights.  You’re a long way from home, sonny.” He laughed mockingly when he saw Joe’s movement.  “Where d’ya think you’re going, kid? You think one unarmed man can keep us out of this shack?”

Joe backed up the single step and planted himself firmly in front of the door.  “I can try,” he replied, his hands planted on his hips.  “I know that I’m not going to let you search this place without a fight.”

The men surged forward, Fletcher and Burke positioned themselves on either side of Joe as he stood his ground in front of the door.  Joe tensed, ready to fight them all, when the door was wrenched open behind him.

“Joe!  I got you a gun, Joe!”  Jared’s shrill voice cut through the night.

Joe turned in horror at the sight of the little boy clutching the heavy weapon in his stubby hands.  He heard the sound of Coop cocking his gun but didn’t bother to turn to look at the other man.  Instead he focused on the little boy, who stood trembling in the doorway.  In one fluid motion, Joe snatched the gun from the little boy’s outstretched hands.  He shoved the boy back into the darkened interior of the house and wheeled to face Coop before the other man knew what was happening.

Joe felt a small whisper of wind brush his face as a bullet ripped past him.  Without thinking he cocked his own gun and fired.  He watched as Coop fell; the other man’s face reflecting surprise as he clutched at his now-bleeding shoulder.  Joe quickly turned the gun toward the remaining men.  “Who’s next?” he asked tonelessly.

The men shuffled their feet and Burke muttered, “We just want what’s ours.  We figgered the tinker had to have our saddlebags.  He was in town the day they went missin’.  We took the town apart after he left and they didn’t turn up.  Who else’d take ‘em?”  He gestured Coop’s prone body.  “Come on, boys, let’s get him to the doc.”

They gathered up their fallen leader and dragged him to their waiting horses.  Joe stood erect until they’d gone.  When the sound of hoofbeats finally died out in the distance, he slumped against the doorway, unable to control the trembling that overtook him.  He let the gun fall from suddenly nerveless fingers as he stood gulping in shuddering breaths of air. His knees buckled and he let himself slide to the floor.  He was sitting with his head on his knees when he felt a small hand tug on his arm.

“Joe?  They gone?”

Joe gathered the boy into his arms.  “They’re gone.  Are you okay?”

He felt the boy nod.  “I’m okay, but I’s scared,” Jared whispered.

“Me too.”

Joe never knew how long they sat there drawing comfort from each other.  He only knew that he couldn’t have stood up if he tried.


Hoss clumped into the house, slapping the dust from his clothing with one broad hand as he walked.  “I’ve got the mail, Pa,” he called out.

Ben turned from where he’d been standing, one foot propped up on the fireplace, his face carefully expressionless.  “Any telegrams?” he asked.

Hoss shook his head.  “None today,” he said softly.  “We’ll most likely get an answer from someone tomorrow.  Someone has to have seen that boy somewhere, and they’ll let us know.”  He brandished the thick stack of mail with a quick questioning glance.

Ben waved it away irritably.  “I’ll look at it later, son,” he said sharply.  “Go wash up, it’s almost time for supper.  Adam’s already home and will be down in a minute.  We don’t want to keep Hop Sing waiting.”

Hoss nodded and casually tossed the pile of mail onto the sturdy square table that stood by the fire.  He plodded up the stairs wearily.  The long days of worrying about his brother had left the biggest Cartwright feeling lost and alone. Hoss had been riding in ever-expanding circles around the perimeter of the ranch, spending long hours in the saddle, in a futile attempt to find some trace of his little brother.  At the same time, Adam worked tirelessly to keep the ranch running and sent out a steady stream of telegrams inquiring as to the whereabouts of the missing Cartwright. Both knew that their father wasn’t weathering Joe’s disappearance well.  He wasn’t eating or sleeping, and he alternated between frenzied activity around the ranch and periods where he did nothing but sit and stare into the fireplace.  Apparently this day had been one of the latter.

When the big man made his way back downstairs, he saw that Adam had taken up residence in his favorite chair.  He was sifting idly through the day’s mail, while their father sat at his desk, ostensibly looking at the books.  Hoss couldn’t help but notice that his father’s pen never moved and that the pages of the ledger spread open before him were never turned.
“Didn’ look like nothin’ too urgent ta me,” Hoss said as he plunked himself down on the settee.  “Mostly ranch business, I guess.  No telegrams today.”  He risked a quick glance at the study, but was reassured when his father didn’t appear to have heard what he said.

Adam sighed.  “I know.  I asked Pa.  It doesn’t look good, Hoss.  Joe’s disappeared completely, and wherever he’s holed up, it’s obviously someplace off the beaten path.  No one’s seen him or heard about him.”

He squinted at the grimy envelope in his hand.  “That’s odd.  I don’t think we’ve got any connections to Henderson, do we?”

Hoss shook his head.  “Nope, not that I know of, anyways.  Why don’ ya open it and see what it is.  Ya ain’t gonna find out what’s in it by starin’ at it.”

Adam slit open the envelope carefully and withdrew a tattered piece of paper.  He gasped in shock when his brother’s distinctive handwriting fairly leapt off the page.  “It’s from Joe!”

Hoss flung himself to his feet and leaned over Adam’s shoulder to read.  Ben was up and across the room so fast he almost flew.  He arrived at Adam’s other shoulder and reached with a disbelieving hand to capture the paper.

“What’s it say?” Hoss demanded.  “C’mon, Adam, what’d he say?”

“He says that he’s safe, and that he doesn’t want us to worry, but he’s not ready to come home just yet.”  Ben Cartwright’s voice held an odd mixture of exultation and anger.  “How dare he send a letter like this.  Doesn’t he know what he’s done to us, disappearing for all this time without a word.  And now this….”

Adam and Hoss noticed that for all their father’s ranting, he smoothed the paper carefully, while his eyes returned to the words again and again.

“Are we going to call off the search?” Adam asked quietly.  “Joe says he’s all right, and he doesn’t want us to come after him.”

Ben snorted in disgust.  “Absolutely not!  He doesn’t know about Peggy yet.  The situation’s changed since he left.  Doc Martin thinks she’ll have a full recovery.  Joe must still think he killed her.  We need to let him know that she’s alive.”  He reached for the envelope.  “What does the postmark say?  Joe must have been somewhere in the vicinity in order to post this letter.”

He stood erect, his eyes flashing.  “Let’s eat and get a good night’s sleep, boys.  We’ll be riding out first thing in the morning.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged a quick glance.  Nothing would deter Ben Cartwright when he was on a mission.  Truth be told they wanted Joe home too.  The letter from Henderson had lit a powder keg in the big room.  Daybreak couldn’t arrive soon enough.


Adam strode through the swinging doors of the saloon and paused long enough to survey the room.  Spotting his father and brother at a table in the corner, he pushed through the crowd of cowboys who surrounded the bar.  He sat down at the table and reached gratefully for the beer that Hoss pushed in his direction.

“Any luck?” Ben’s voice was carefully devoid of expression.  They’d been in the town for several hours, and spent the morning questioning the locals about Joe, with no luck.  No one had seen a man who answered to Joe’s description.

Adam swallowed the amber liquid and sighed as the alcohol worked its way to his stomach.  “I found the clerk from the town post office,” he said.  “He didn’t see Joe.”

“How is that possible?” Ben exclaimed.  He slammed his hand on the table in disgust.  “That letter was postmarked Henderson.  Joe had to have been here.”

Adam glanced at Hoss, only to find his brother staring morosely into his own beer glass.  He turned back to his father.  “He didn’t recognize Joe, but he was able to give me a description of the man who posted the letter.”

Hoss jerked upright and glared at Adam.  “Why didn’ ya say so in the first place, Adam.  Ya know how worried we’ve been.  Where is this fella?  I wanta talk to him.”

“That’s just it,” Adam replied.  “He’s a tinker of some sort.  This man comes into town every couple of months to sharpen knives, repair guns and sell things.  He’s a black man, probably a freed slave, who’s been coming here for several years now.  That’s why the clerk remembered him posting the letter.  He was curious about why he was posting a letter to the Cartwrights of Virginia City.”

Hoss scraped his chair back, but before he could push to his feet, Adam reached out and grabbed his arm.  “Wait, Hoss,” he ordered.  “The tinker left Henderson a while back.  He has a regular route, and there’s no telling where he is now.  He could be in any one of a half dozen towns, or gone back to wherever he lives.  The clerk couldn’t tell me where this man makes his home.”

The two younger Cartwrights turned questioning eyes toward their father.  Ben sat silently for a moment, his fingertips drumming on the table were the only outward sign of his inner turmoil.  “All right, boys, let’s order some supper,” he said.  “We’ll have to ride out at first light.  We’ve got a lot of towns to cover.   We’re going to have to split up in order to find some trace of this tinker.”

He signaled for the barmaid, who hurried over obligingly.  After giving an order for a substantial dinner, Ben steepled his fingers together and gazed at the wooden surface of the table.

Hoss and Adam exchanged a long glance.  Adam drew a deep breath, and spoke in what he hoped was a reasonable tone.  “Pa, are you sure we should all go out on this search?  It might be better if one of us headed back for the ranch.  We’ve got a lot of things piling up back there, and Joe might come home on his own.  We might need someone there in case he does.”

Ben raised his head abruptly.  “I’m going to find my son, Adam.  In order to do that, we’re going to need to search a lot of territory.  It would be easier to have all of us out there looking for him, but if you want to give up and go home, I won’t stop you.  I’m not going to let Joe disappear forever, without at least making an attempt to bring him back.”

“I didn’t mean that we should give up, and you know it, Pa,” Adam replied, carefully keeping his voice neutral.  “It’s just that searching through every small town that this tinker could have visited is going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack.  We’ll be lucky to find any trace of Joe by Christmas, at this rate.”

Ben’s face set stubbornly in a frown.  Adam had seen the look many times in his life, and he sighed.  It was clear that his father’s mind was made up.  Through long experience he knew that trying to change the older man’s mind when he looked like that was next to impossible.  He held his hands up in surrender.

“Okay, Pa.  We’ll split up and search all the surrounding towns for the tinker.  How are we going to get in touch with each other if we find this man?”

The men listened carefully as Ben outlined plans to check in by telegraph in several of the largest towns in the area.  After eating a hearty meal, they headed up to the room for bed.  They were all aware that long days in the saddle lay ahead.


“Joe!  Some’un’s comin’, Joe!”  Jared’s voice was shrill with excitement.  He tugged urgently on Joe’s sleeve to attract his attention.  His finger jabbed in the direction of the roadway.

Joe wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of one arm, and shaded his eyes with his hand.  He could make out the growing dust cloud, but not what was creating it.  “You think it’s your pa coming home?” he asked the boy.  “It’s about time he was getting back.”

Even as he spoke, Joe was drifting casually back toward the house, his hand firmly clenching the axe he’d been using to chop wood.  He steered Jared with an iron grip on the boy’s shoulder.  After the visit from Coop and his gang two weeks earlier, Joe wasn’t going to take any chances.  As the dust cloud grew nearer, the pair settled in at the top of the steps, next to the door.  Joe figured if the  gang was returning he could shove Jared inside quickly.

Slowly a figure emerged from the cloud of dust.  A horse-drawn cart took shape, moving slowly along the dry road.  When at last they could make out the figure of Hiram perched on the high seat of the vehicle, Joe released his hold on the boy’s shoulder.  Jared took off like a shot, high-pitched shouts of delight drifting back over his shoulder.

Joe watched the reunion, a smile spreading over his face.  Hiram pulled the wagon into the yard, deftly missing the little boy, who leaped excitedly around the horses. The tinker left his seat, and jumped down into the yard.  As soon as his feet touched the ground he was hurled backward by the boy who flung himself into his father’s arms.

“Pa!  We missed ya, didn’ we Joe?  I got lots ta tell ya, don’t I Joe?”  Jared said between hugs.  He nodded back at Joe, who moved to join the exuberant pair.  “Joe shot up all the bad men ‘n made’em go ‘way.  Right, Joe?”

Hiram’s eyebrows shot up in alarm, and he shot a glance of inquiry at Joe.  “Bad men?” he asked quietly.  “We’ll talk ovuh dinner, I’m plumb starved.”  He headed for the house with his arms full of the small boy, who filled the air with his excited chatter.

Joe followed in their wake.  He was happy to see Hiram, for more reasons than he’d realized at first.  More and more since his second encounter with Coop and his gang, Joe had felt the urge to move on.  His first instinct was to head for home, but he knew that he still wasn’t ready to face the consequences of Peggy’s death.  Although he was grateful to Hiram for providing the safe haven he’d needed, he realized he’d hidden from life long enough.  It was time to face his fears and rejoin the real world.

The trio settled in to eat the simple stew that Joe had left simmering on the stove.  Jared more than filled in the gaps in the conversation, as Joe remained quiet.  Hiram asked a few pointed questions, which encouraged the boy to chatter happily about all that had transpired in the man’s absence.  It was obvious that the tinker had long practice in getting his son to tell him all he wanted to know.

At long last, Jared was safely tucked in bed, and Hiram sat in his favorite chair.  He gave the impression that he was completely focused on filling his pipe, but Joe sensed the unspoken questions hovering in the air.

“Successful trip?” he asked in an obvious effort to stall for time.

“Ya jes finished hepping me unload th’wagon, boy.  Ya could see it was a good ‘un.”  Hiram’s smile was serene, and he surveyed Joe with calm eyes.  “Ah gots time, Joe.  Ya don’t hev ta talk now, if’n ya don’ wan ta.”

“That’s just it,” Joe replied.  “I don’t have time. I need to move on Hiram.  I’ve overstayed my welcome, I think.”  He stood up and moved to stand before the fire, avoiding the other man’s compassionate glance as he did so.

“Ya ken stay long’s ya want.  I done tole ya that already.  Somethin’ eatin’ at ya, boy?  Those men, mebbe?”  The tinker took a long pull on his pipe and relaxed a little more in his chair.  “Ya did a fine job o’ protectin’ the place ‘n takin’ keer o’Jared.  I thanks ya fer that.”

“I didn’t ever want to use a gun again, but I did,” Joe retorted.  “It was a miracle no one was killed.  I seem to attract trouble, Hiram.  I always have.  I hoped that once I left Virginia City that I could put that part of my life behind me, but I was wrong.  I need to be someplace where I won’t be tempted to shoot at people.”

“Th’ man had a gun o’his own, didn’ he?” Hiram asked quietly.  “Ya kep’ him outta mah place ‘n ya didn’ kill him, though I ‘spect ya could’ve if’n ya wanted to.  There ain’t no wrong in that.”

Joe sighed and sank back into the room’s only other chair.  “I still can’t see any other choice in those circumstances, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it,” he said.  He lifted bleak eyes to the other man’s face.  “What if Jared had gotten hurt?  Would you have been so charitable then?”

Hiram smiled.  “If it happ’n’ like ya said, then I couldn’ fault ya, boy.  Jared didn’ get hurt, though.  So’s no sense borrowin’ trouble.”

“This time.” Joe’s voice rose.  He swallowed hard.  “I can’t take the chance of another child, or anyone else for that matter,  getting hurt because of me.  I’ll leave tomorrow.”

“You don’ hav ta go, ya know.  Jared’n me’ll miss ya.  Ya been good comp’ny.  But ah won’ hold ya here when ya feels the need ta move on.  A man’s gotta do wat he feels is right.”  Hiram sighed.  “Ya want me ta break it t’the boy in the mo’ning?”

Joe shook his head.  “I’ll do it.”  He stood up abruptly and moved to stand next to the tinker.  “Thanks, Hiram, for all you’ve done for me.  I’ll miss you and Jared, too.”

He clapped the older man on the back, and headed for his cot.  He felt a stirring of some unnamed emotion rising within him.  He wondered if it was fear of moving on, or relief that he’d finally been able to come to a decision. 


“C’mon, Jared, I thought we were friends,” Joe cajoled.  He crouched in the dust by the rickety porch and peered into the darkness underneath.  “Come out and say goodbye to me.”

The sunlight slanted through the slats of the porch marking the child’s face with alternating stripes of light and dark.  Joe saw the tear tracks that marked the child’s dusty face.  He smiled gently and reached out with one hand.  “Let’s talk man to man, okay, Jared?  I have some things to discuss with you.”

The child took a quavering breath and swallowed visibly.  After a long pause he reached out to grasp Joe’s outstretched hand.  “Kay, Joe,” he said.  He let Joe haul him out from under the porch, stoically enduring Joe’s attempts to wipe the dust and tears from his face.

Joe’s heart melted at the heartbreak peering out from the child’s large dark eyes, and he paced slowly toward the only tree in the yard, plopping down under the spreading branches and patting the ground encouragingly.  He waited until the little boy settled himself down, smiling a little at the way the boy sat with his arms folded across his chest and a dark scowl crinkling up the skin of his forehead.

“You knew I’d have to leave sometime, didn’t you?”  Joe’s words were soft, and he patted Jared’s knee as he spoke.  “I can’t stay here forever, Jared.  I’ve got to move on and settle some things before I can go home.”

Jared gazed up with troubled eyes.  “But why?  Ya said ya ain’ never gonna go home.  Ya tole me that.  Cuz that li’l girl got killed.  So why cain’ ya stay here, Joe?  We gots lots’a room.”

Joe gathered the boy into a hug.  He felt the boy pull back in resistance, then the tension drained from the small body, and Jared clung to him tightly.  “Oh, I’d love to be able to stay, Jared, and it’s nice of you to ask me.”  He let the boy snuggle closer to him before he continued.  “But people seem to get hurt when I’m around, and I don’t want anything to happen to you or your pa.  So, I’ve decided to move on.  It’s the safest thing for all of us.”

Jared pulled back a little.  “Ah don’ wanna be safe if’n ya gots to go, Joe.  Ya ken jes stay here and Pa ‘n me’ll take keer o’ya.”  He glared menacingly at the yard as if expecting a host of bandits to appear out of nowhere.

Joe chuckled.  “I know you would, buddy, but I can’t.  But I’m expecting you to take care of your Pa, okay?  And I’ll come back and visit you.  Now that we’re friends, I’ve got to be around to watch you grow up, you know.”

Jared smiled a little.  “Will ya really come back, Joe?  Ta sees me?”  He scrambled up to perch on Joe’s lap and peer intently into his eyes.  “Promise?”

Joe freed a hand and solemnly made a motion on his shirt front.  “Cross my heart.”

The boy’s smile widened and he repeated Joe’s motion.  “Cross ma’heart,” he said happily.  “Whens ya comin’ back, Joe?  Nex’ week?”

Joe laughed and disengaged the boy gently.  He stood up and pulled the child to his feet.  “Not next week, but soon,” he said.  “After all, you’ll have all sorts of new baby chicks to show me by then.  I’ve got to keep track of your critters, you know.”

The pair started for the house, crossing the yard with Jared once again chattering excitedly.  Joe stopped abruptly and shaded his eyes.  In the distance a cloud of dust could be seen on the road and the steady drum of a horse’s hooves sounded in the still air.  “Looks like your Pa’s got company coming,” he remarked.  “Run in and tell him, while I go get Cochise ready to go.”  He pretended to swat the boy’s bottom, and Jared scampered for the house, his giggle preceding him toward the house.

Joe headed for the small corral intent on getting his horse ready for their journey.  He’d seen a few visitors arrive before when Hiram was home, intent on purchasing small items or bringing something that needed to be repaired.  Joe didn’t think the single horse was a sign of trouble, but he kept a wary eye on the rider as he worked, just in case.  He saw Hiram come to the porch to greet the visitor, with Jared skipping at his side.

The figure emerged from the dust and Joe shaded his eyes in disbelief.  With a sudden whoop he was across the yard before the rider had a chance to dismount.  “Adam!” he shouted.  “What are you doing here?”


Joe saw Hiram and Jared watching; the man with a small smile of understanding, the boy with slack-jawed amazement.  Deliberately halting his forward rush, he stopped before reaching his brother.  His eyes grew wary and he waited for Adam to get off his horse.  “How’d you find me, Adam?” he asked quietly.  “Is Pa okay?”

Adam dismounted and reached out to grab Joe’s shoulder in a firm grip.  His breath released in a small sigh of relief as he surveyed his younger brother from top to bottom.  “You look well, Joe.  The shoulder all right?”

Joe flushed, the tinge of red sweeping up from his collar to engulf his face.  “It’s fine,” he replied shortly.  “What are you doing here, Adam?”

Adam hooked his thumbs into his pockets and rocked back on his heels a bit.  “Looking for you.”  He tipped his head briefly in the direction of the pair on the porch.  “Want to introduce me to your friends?”

Joe jerked slightly as he glanced at Hiram and Jared.  He’d almost forgotten they were standing there.  He could see that Hiram was holding Jared back by sheer force, and he grinned at the small boy.  “Hey, Jared, come meet my brother, Adam,” he called.

Jared flew across the yard like a shot and landed at Adam’s side, peering up at the man intently.  “Yer Joe’s brother? Ya don’ look nuthin’ like ‘im.”  He reached out to grab Joe’s hand companionably.    “Where’s Hoss?  I wanna see Hoss.”

Joe and Adam exchanged amused glances and Joe held up his hands in warning.  “Whoa, slow down, partner,” he exclaimed.  “Let’s give Adam a chance to breathe, okay.  Adam, meet my friend Jared.  And over there is his Pa, Hiram.  They’ve been taking care of me for a while.”

Hiram left the porch and moved across the yard to the little group.  “So yer Adam?  We done heerd all ‘bout yer family.  It’s nice ta git ta meet one o’ Joe’s brothers, at last.”  His face was creased in a friendly smile and he looked from Joe to Adam and back again.

Adam reached out to offer the other man his hand.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” he said quietly.  “I’d like to thank you for posting that letter for Joe.  It’s what helped us to find him.”

Joe frowned at his brother.  “That letter helped you find me?  We didn’t send it from anywhere near here, just so’s you wouldn’t be able to figure out where I was.”  He crossed his arms over his chest and rocked back on his heels.  “So, how did you find out?”

Adam swept the hat off his head and wiped a dusty, black-clad sleeve across his forehead.  “I’ve been searching every town between here and Henderson for days, ever since we got that letter.  And so  have Pa and Hoss.  In fact, they’re still looking in the towns due east and west of here.  We split up a while back to cover more territory.  I got lucky in that little town near here.  Ran into a blacksmith that was able to identify Hiram for me.  He gave me directions out this way.”

Adam smiled at the little boy who was gaping up at him open-mouthed.  He crouched down so that he was at eye-level with the child.  “Do you think you might be able to direct me to a bucket of cool water, son?  I could sure use a drink and a bit of a wash, don’t you think?”

Jared nodded, eager to be of help to Joe’s brother.  Puffing out his chest importantly, the small boy pulled at Adam’s hand.  “This way, Mr. Adam.  I’se got a bucket over here.”

Joe followed, his shoulders shaking a little with suppressed amusement.  It was a treat to see his older brother held captive by the boy.  The whole group retired to the shack where Hiram bustled about hospitably to offer Adam a chair and something to eat.  Joe hung back during the commotion of getting Adam settled.  He’d grown accustomed to thinking of Hiram and Jared as special to himself, to see them hovering over Adam sparked a surprising touch of jealousy that he quickly attempted to squelch.

He emerged from his thoughts just in time to see Jared proudly showing Adam a cracked slate board with a tipsy row of chalk-written letters straggling across the dimpled surface.  “An ah kin writes more’n jes these here letters,” the boy proclaimed in a triumphant voice.  “I’se been workin’ real hard, ain’t I Joe?”

Joe grinned at his little friend and nodded agreeably.  “You sure have, Jared.  Every day that I’ve been here, you’ve practiced those letters.  I think you’re getting pretty good at them.”

Adam examined the slate with interest and smiled at the boy.  “How long have you been going to school, Jared?” he asked idly.

“Oh, I ain’ never been to no school,” Jared replied with wide eyes.  “I’se learnin’ my letters from m’Pa.  He’s real smart.  ‘N since Joe’s been here, he done teach me some too.  I’se gonna read s’mday.”

It wasn’t hard to see the quick look of pain that flickered across Hiram’s face, but it was quickly masked by a gentle smile.  “Thass enuff now, boy,” he said calmly.  “Mr. Adam looks lak he might wan’ sum’n tah eat.  Go check the stew.”

Jared scampered off willingly, and the adults eyed each other in the sudden quiet that descended over the group.  With a soft clearing of his throat, Joe asked,  “You didn’t say how you knew it was Hiram you were looking for Adam.  You want to explain how you found out who he was?”

Adam settled back into the chair with a soft sound of contentment.  As he stretched out his legs, an audible creak sounded in the air.  “I can’t tell you how good it is to get out of that saddle,” he remarked.  Turning to face Joe, he continued, “I found the clerk who runs the post office in Henderson.  He knows Hiram from his regular visits to town.  He was curious as to why Hiram would be sending a letter to the Cartwrights of Virginia City, so he remembered it vividly.  It wasn’t hard to put two and two together.”

Joe looked down at the floor, suddenly unable to meet his brother’s eyes.  “Is Pa mad at me?” The words could barely be heard in the quiet room.

Adam snorted rudely.  “What do you think?” he asked, the words dripping with sarcasm.  “We were all upset and worried about you.  You disappeared from the doctor’s office without a trace.  We knew you’d been wounded and had a fever.  You didn’t send any word about your whereabouts.  Did you honestly think we were all going about our business without even thinking about what you were doing?”

Joe had the grace to flush.  “No, I didn’t,” he replied.    “But I was hoping that you hadn’t wasted a lot of time looking for me.  I didn’t want the ranch to suffer because of my stupidity.  After what happened in town, I knew I couldn’t face it, Adam.  I had to leave.”  The green eyes pleaded for understanding.

Adam leaned forward and glared at his younger brother.  “No you didn’t.  You have a family, Joe.  That’s what we’re there for.  To help you over the rough spots.  You didn’t have to run away from your troubles; we’d have helped you.”

Joe’s head snapped up and his eyes took on an angry glitter.  “You expect me to walk through the streets of that town again, when I killed a seven-year-old girl who was doing nothing more than crossing a street. Don’t you understand, Adam?  I was shooting it out in the middle of the street because I was so sure I could beat that creep.  I never even thought about the consequences.  And a little girl is now dead, all because of me.”  Joe let his words trail off, and he let his eyes drop.

Adam levered himself out of the chair and moved to give Joe’s shoulders a hard shake.  “She’s not dead, Joe.  Peggy Hardesty is alive, and the doc says he thinks she’ll eventually have a full recovery.  You didn’t kill anyone, but you didn’t stop to find out, did you?”

Joe was no longer listening.  His mind whirled and he stared at Adam in confusion.  “Not dead?” he whispered.  The color drained from his face and he groped blindly for the back of the chair to steady himself.  “She’s not dead?”

Suddenly it was all too much for him.  He sank into the chair that Adam had just vacated and buried his head in his hands.  “She’s not dead,” he whispered again.


Three men sat silently before the fire.  Hiram pulled contentedly at his pipe while Adam discreetly watched Joe whenever he thought his brother wasn’t looking.  Joe hadn’t said much after Adam had revealed that Peggy was still alive, but his preparations for leaving had come to an abrupt halt.  Adam knew that when Joe was wrestling with a problem it was best to let him stew in peace for a while.  Instead he had passed the time in a long discussion with Hiram while Joe took himself off for a walk.

Now Adam cleared his throat, drawing two pairs of eyes toward him.  “I think we should head out in the morning, Joe.  We need to stop in town and send Pa and Hoss a wire, and then head back to Virginia City.  We’ve ignored the ranch for too long.”

Joe grimaced.   “I don’t know if I can go back, Adam.  I’ve made such a fool of myself.  How can I ever show my face there again?”

“No one in Virginia City blames you for what happened,” Adam said, exhaling softly.  “Daisy spread the word about the problems in the saloon, and there isn’t a man alive who wouldn’t have done the same thing you did.  Peggy happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  That’s not your fault.”

“That’s not what her mother said when I talked to her,” Joe replied, his face set in a stubborn mask.  “She was furious, and I can’t blame her.  I almost killed her little girl.  What’s she going to say when I crawl back into town now?”

“I’m sure that Mrs. Hardesty has had time to face the facts,” Adam responded.  “She can’t still be holding a grudge, especially  now that Peggy’s going to be okay.”

“Have you talked to her?”  Joe’s question was brief, and his eyes bored into Adam’s.

Adam dropped his eyes from Joe’s gaze and flushed a little.  “No, I haven’t.  But she has her daughter back, Joe.  She can’t still be holding a grudge.”

Joe sighed.  “I want to come home.  I really do, it’s just that I don’t know if I can.  I can’t bring myself to wear a gun, it makes me sick to even think of it.  How can I face my friends in Virginia City without a gun?  What will they think?”

“Is it really so impossible to wear a gun?”  Adam asked.  “You had a run-in with that gang not too long ago, didn’t you? You found you had to have a gun in those circumstances.   Maybe you should wear the gun but take the time to consider your actions before you draw it.”

Joe’s head came up sharply at Adam’s words, and his eyes flashed angrily.  “I do consider my actions carefully, brother, but sometimes accidents happen.”

Adam chuckled softly.  “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Joe.  Accidents happen.  So why don’t you come home with me and get this whole mess sorted out?”

The fire died from Joe’s eyes and he laughed suddenly.  “I always said you’d make a good lawyer, Adam.  You trapped me with my own words, didn’t you?”

“From where I’se sittin’ thass what it sounded lak t’me, boy,” Hiram said.  He leaned forward and peered at Joe intently.  “I been tryin’ t’stay outta this, but I think’s I needs t’agree wit Adam.  It’s time ya went home, boy.”

Both Cartwrights looked up in confusion. They’d forgotten that Hiram was with them, he’d been so quiet.  The tinker settled back in his chair with a quiet chuckle of amusement at their expressions.

After a moment, Joe nodded.  “If you’re both going to gang up on me, then I can’t win.  I’ll go home.”  He turned to Hiram.  “I’m going to miss you and Jared.  You’ve done so much for me.”

“Don’ hev ta miss me, I’se goin’ too,” the tinker said with a smug smile.  He waved his pipe in Adam’s direction.  “Yer brother says there’s a need fer a man like me in Virginia City.  Sum’n who kin fix things, and work with guns.  He sez they’s a school fer Jared.  Run by a freed slave, lak me.  Ah wan’ th’boy ta hev a better chance n’me.”

Joe had listened to Hiram’s words with a dawning glimmer of happiness on his face.  At the end of the man’s recital, he gave a whoop of joy.  Leaping from his chair, he pounded the tinker’s back enthusiastically, and then whirled to grab Adam.  “Big brother, don’t ever let me say anything bad about you again,” he cried.

Adam leaned back in his chair and manufactured a look of affronted dignity.  “I didn’t know you were in the habit of saying bad things about me,” he joked.

The men talked long into the night, hatching schemes for Hiram’s success in Virginia City, and making more concrete plans for the journey home.  Joe’s thoughts were in such a whirl that he barely had time to worry about his impending return to the scene of his nightmare.  There was time enough on the ride back to dwell on the situation in town.  For now, his happiness over Hiram’s decision outweighed any fears that he had.  He knew that he owed his life to the tinker.  The man's friendship had come to mean a lot to him, and the chance to repay some of the debt was something Joe wanted to act on as soon as possible.  He knew that he needed to put his friends first.  Tomorrow would come all too soon.  He could think about facing the people of Virginia City in the daylight.


The ride home was uneventful.  Joe was able to say goodbye to Hiram and Jared, secure in the knowledge that he would see them again soon.  Hiram was already working to close up his house and make the transition to Virginia City as soon as possible.  A brief stop in Jared’s little town allowed Adam to send wires to Ben and Hoss arranging to meet at the ranch.  Joe rode quietly at his brother’s side, his mind occupied with thoughts of the reunion with his father.   He knew that he’d caused his father concern by disappearing without a word, but still felt that he’d had no other choice.  With every mile bringing him closer to the confrontation, he felt his pace lagging.

Adam endured the slow pace for as long as he could, struggling with his natural inclination to hurry home.  He knew that Joe needed time to sort out the emotional aftermath of his ordeal, but it was hard not to snap at his brother to increase his speed.

Finally, he pulled his horse up and waited for Joe to amble forward.  “I’d like to get home before I’m old and gray, Joe.  Do you think we could pick up the pace a bit?” he asked a bit more sharply than he’d intended.

“You can ride on ahead, Adam. You don’t need to play nursemaid. I’ll get there, eventually,” Joe snapped.   His eyes flashed as Adam continued to match his pace.

“I know you’ve got a lot to think about,” Adam said, as he struggled to moderate his tone.   “But stalling isn’t going to help.  If we don’t make it home soon, Pa’s going to send someone out after us.  When I sent the wire, I gave him an estimate on when we’d arrive.”

Joe flushed and lowered his head.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t think about that,” he confessed.  “I’ve been tied up in knots over this whole thing.”

He rode on steadily for a few minutes, refusing to meet Adam’s eyes.  “Do you think things will ever go back to the way they were, Adam?” he asked finally.  “Will I ever be the same again?”

“No,” Adam replied firmly.  “I don’t think you’ll ever be the same, but is that such a bad thing, Joe?  If this whole experience has made you a little less cocksure with that gun of yours, or gets you to think a bit longer before you do something, it might be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”

Joe rode silently, his expressive face readily reflecting the thoughts that played in his mind.  Adam rode patiently at his side, pleased to note that their pace had picked up.  They traversed several miles before Joe spoke again.

“So was I really cocksure?” he asked, a weak attempt at a grin on his face.

Adam chuckled.  “Yes, you were,” he replied.  He reached over to slap Joe on the shoulder.  “And probably will be again in the future.  I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to a new, more humble Joe Cartwright, for as long as it lasts.”

Joe aimed a punch at his brother’s arm.  “Don’t hold your breath,” he said, his good humor struggling to emerge at last.  A wicked gleam shone in his eyes.  “Last one home is a rotten egg,” he yelled, just as he put his heels to Cochise’s side and urged the horse forward.

Adam pushed Sport to gallop, a smile lingering on his face.  He wondered if he’d ever get used to Joe’s mercurial moods.  At least they’d get home quicker this way.


Joe left the house and began the familiar ritual of saddling his horse and securing the items he needed to check the fence line.  As his hands busied themselves with the routine tasks, his thoughts drifted back over the last week.  His homecoming had been both joyous and wracked with tension.

Ben’s reaction had been typical.  He’d enveloped his youngest son in a huge bear hug, and then held him at arm’s length while he lectured him sternly on running away without making any attempt to let his worried family know where he was.  All the while, those dark eyes were scrutinizing every physical detail of the young man who squirmed in his father’s grasp.

Joe still felt the hot flush of shame as he realized the depth of his father’s worry.  He mentally berated himself yet again for his failure to consider what he was putting the people he loved through when he made one of his knee-jerk decisions.

As he hefted the saddle onto the pinto’s back, he felt the weight of the gun resting on his hip.  He spared a moment to consider the feel of it against his body.  It still felt strange to be wearing the weapon.  His father had been quietly insistent that Joe have the gun on his person while he worked the ranch.  It wasn’t safe for a man to be out alone and unprotected.  There were too many wild animals prowling about, and Ben wasn’t going to take any chances on losing his son a second time.  Joe’s attempts to explain his antipathy toward the gun had met with a stony-faced implacability.  He’d wear the gun or stay in the house.

Joe had to smile a little as he remembered Ben’s eyes softening.  His father knew full well what he was asking of his son.

“I’m not asking you to use it for anything other than self-defense, Joe,” Ben had said.  “But then, that’s all I ever wanted.  If this experience has made you reluctant to use your gun, and keeps you from feeling over-confident, I’ll be very happy.  But you won’t ride alone on this ranch without it.”

Joe eyed the pearl handle of the weapon warily.  He still felt a surge of antipathy when he looked at it.  Could he draw the weapon if he had to?  He wasn’t sure.  The incident at Hiram’s shack hadn’t resolved his questions.  Jared had thrust a gun into his hands and Joe had reacted without thinking.  But to actually pull the gun from its holster deliberately, to aim and pull the trigger knowing what could happen.  Joe wasn’t sure he could do it.  So far he hadn’t even been able to try target practice.  For now, the gun rode on his hip, a silent reminder of all that had happened in the past few weeks.

His preparations completed, he swung easily into the saddle.  He’d been spending a lot of time at the tinker’s new place.  Joe hoped to have things finished today because he knew that he’d been shirking ranch chores.  So far, his father hadn’t raised a complaint, but he could start demanding that Joe spend more time around the ranch at any moment.  Hoping to forestall any last minute requests from his father and brothers he headed out of the yard.


Joe looked up from his perch on the roof of Hiram’s new house.  His long hours were starting to pay off.  With a last intensive effort today, he’d have the place ready for Hiram and Jared when they arrived sometime during the week.  He was startled to see Adam driving a loaded wagon into the little yard.

Climbing down the ladder that was propped against the plank walls, Joe greeted Adam warily.  “Hey, older brother.  What brings you here?”

Adam jumped down from the wagon seat and grinned companionably.  “Just came out to see how things are going.  I brought some supplies I thought you’d need, and a pair of hands to help for a while.”  He pushed his hat back on his head a bit and whistled softly.  “Looks good, Joe.  I hardly recognize the place.”

Joe didn’t reply, as he waited for the derogatory comment to follow the first statement.  He was shocked when it wasn’t forthcoming.  “What’s the matter with you, Adam?” he demanded.  “It’s not like you to be so complimentary about anything that I do?”

Adam raised both hands in mock surrender.  “Whoa there, Joe.  I didn’t come here to fight.  I came to help.  Want to show me what you’ve done?”

Deciding to take Adam’s offer as one made in good faith, Joe eagerly showed his brother around the small dwelling.  He proudly pointed out the improvements he’d made, especially in the room that would be Jared’s first real bedroom.

Adam looked it all over with his critical eye and found a lot to praise.  He obviously couldn’t resist a few suggestions, however, and it wasn’t long before the brothers were working side by side on an improvement that he’d suggested.

Hoof beats sounded in the yard, and the brothers shared a quiet grin at the sight of Hoss hitching his horse to the rail.  Smiling his big, easy grin, he sidled up to the pair.

“I had ta deliver a message to the mill for Pa, and I thought I’d find ya both here.  Looks good, Joe,” he called out.  “Need any help?  I’ve got a couple a’hours ta spare.”

“What took you so long?” Joe asked cheekily.  He reached out to punch at Hoss’s beefy shoulder.  “The more the merrier, brother.  Pick up a hammer and join us.”

Hoss plunged into the work, whistling cheerfully as he joined the others on their project. Suddenly he stopped and slapped a hand to his forehead.  “Oh, hey, Joe, I’ve gotta message fer you.  Daisy heard you were back, ‘n she wants you to stop in at the saloon and see her.”

Joe stopped pounding long enough to shoot a venomous glance at Hoss.  “I’m not going into town,” he said curtly.  He bent his head to his task again, studiously avoiding the sympathetic glances he got from both of his brothers.

“You’re going to have to go sometime.”  Adam’s voice was deceptively casual, but his dark eyes were fixed intently on his youngest brother.  “I know it’s been hard for you to come back home, but maybe a trip to town would do you good.”

Joe just shook his head stubbornly, and continued working.  He knew that it would be next to impossible to avoid a trip to Virginia City indefinitely, but he fully intended to delay that trip for as long as possible.

Joe saw Adam glance at Hoss and shake his head.  It was obvious what his brothers wanted him to do, but he wasn’t ready to face the townspeople or his friends.  Whenever he thought of his last trip to Virginia City, the image of Peggy Hardesty lying in the dusty street superimposed itself on his mind’s eye.  No, he wasn’t ready to face the town yet.

Adam and Hoss didn’t bring up the subject again, and the tension eased.    They worked companionably for several more hours, only stopping when the sunlight indicated a late afternoon hour.  Adam was the first to go, promising to return to help more the next day, if he was needed.  Hoss followed soon after, the knowledge that Hop Sing was roasting chicken for dinner weighing heavily on his mind.  Joe intended to finish up a few things and then head home as well. He figured that if he put in another hour he’d have that roof done completely.

Hiram and Jared would be arriving within the next couple of days and he wanted everything to be perfect when they pulled in.  He grinned at the thought of Jared’s face when he viewed his new house.  The little boy would be beside himself with excitement.

Joe reached for another nail, only to come up with nothing.  He groped around the pouch where he’d stored his supplies and realized that he was out.  With a grimace of exasperation he climbed down his ladder and headed for the supply wagon that Adam had driven.  Surely his older brother, meticulous about details like that, would have included extra nails in the things that he’d brought.

A search of the wagon revealed nothing.  Either they’d used more nails than he’d realized today, or Adam hadn’t brought any extras.  Joe stood thinking.  He wouldn’t have many more opportunities to get the work done.  Hiram hadn’t been specific about his arrival, but Joe figured he’d be arriving in the next day or so.  If he didn’t finish up the repairs to the roof tonight, he might not have another chance before the tinker and his son saw their new home.

Joe swore angrily.  He had really wanted this to be done.  He only had two options.  Head back to the Ponderosa and hope that he had enough time tomorrow to finish the job, or make the quicker trip into town and pick up more nails.  If he went home, he’d have to sit down to dinner with the family and he’d never make it back.

Could he make the ride into Virginia City and face the mocking stares of the townspeople?  Joe grimaced in self-disgust.   He squared his shoulders and moved with determination to saddle his horse.  For Jared he could face anything.


Joe tied his horse in front of the general store and strode quickly into the little building.  He glanced around impatiently, but there was no sign of Tommy Hicks, the owner of the little Mercantile.  Swearing under his breath, he tapped his fingers impatiently on the countertop.  At this time of day, Tommy should have been closing his store, not wandering away from his post.

Without thinking, Joe pulled his hat lower and kept his eyes trained on the rough planking that constituted the sales counter.  He hoped to avoid running into anyone who would remember the events of that horrible day.  He couldn’t help the snort of disgust that escaped at the thought.  Everyone must remember what had happened the day Peggy Hardesty was shot.

The tinkle of the shop bell sounded loud in the quiet room.  Joe pulled the hat lower and moved to edge around the feminine figure that filled the doorway.

“Joe Cartwright? Is that you?”  The woman’s soft voice stopped Joe before he could move.

Joe looked up to find Mary Hardesty standing before him.  He flushed brightly and swept his hat from his head.  “Mrs. Hardesty, how are you?  How’s Peggy?” he managed to stammer.  “I was going to…”

Joe’s voice trailed off and he ducked his head quickly, unable to finish his sentence.  The encounter was exactly what he’d been trying to avoid since his return to the Ponderosa.  He felt her hand rest gently on his arm and he glanced up hesitantly.

“I thought that was your horse tied up out front.  I’ve been hoping I’d see you.  I heard you were back at the ranch,” Mary’s voice was soft and filled with a mixture of compassion and regret.  Then it was her turn to duck her head.  “I treated you very badly the last time I saw you, Joe.  I wasn’t thinking clearly then, and I’m afraid I took my fear and guilt out on you.  It wasn’t my intention to drive you out of town.”

Joe stared in amazement at the woman.  This was the last thing he’d expected from her.  “But, I shot Peggy,” he exclaimed.  “It was an accident, I swear, Mrs. Hardesty, but she almost died.”  A chill worked its way down his spine at the memory of the little girl lying in the street.

He could see Mary Hardesty’s eyes fill with tears, and with an instinctive need to comfort, he reached to take her hand.  “I really am sorry, Mrs. Hardesty.  I hope you believe me.”

She smiled through her tears.  “I do believe you, Joe.  I knew all along that you didn’t mean to hurt Peggy, but I couldn’t see that at the time.  I’m just as much to blame for letting her dash into the street like that.  It was wrong of me to take my guilt out on you.  I’m sorry you felt the need to leave Virginia City because of what I said.”

Joe gave her hand a sympathetic squeeze.  “It sounds like we’ve both done some thinking.  I’m glad I ran into you today.”  He glanced down at the floor and then up again quickly.  “Do you think I could come visit Peggy sometime?  I’d like to see her.”

Mrs. Hardesty nodded eagerly.  “Sure, Joe.  Anytime you want.  Stop by and see us.  She’s getting better every day.”  She clasped Joe’s hand in a warm grip.  “I’ve got to be going.  It seems like the chores are never done.  I’m glad I saw you today.”

Joe held the door for her; the relief that swept through him left him feeling better than he had in a long time.  “I’ll be seeing you soon, then.”  He watched her walk away, and then softly closed the door.

He turned toward the rear of the store, suddenly eager to complete his errand and head for Jared’s house.  Still caught up in his thoughts of Peggy Hardesty and her mother’s unexpected words, he didn’t hear the shop bell when it tinkled again.  The rough hand on his shoulder startled him, and he whirled to bump squarely into a man planted solidly in his path.

“Excuse me…” he began only to have his jaw drop in surprise as he stared into a face the haunted his worst nightmares.  He sucked in a deep breath as Jake Myers sneered at him.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded harshly.  “Roy Coffee said he’d run you out of town after the shooting.”

 The gunslinger smiled and arched an arrogant eyebrow.  “Well, well, well.  This must be my lucky day.  I’ve been wanting to see the man who gunned down that little girl in cold blood.”  He leaned against the doorframe and allowed a sneer to develop on his lips.  “How’ve you been, sonny?”

Joe glared at the other man, his hands planted on his hips.  “I want you out of this town, Myers.  You’re not welcome here.  I’ve got a feeling the sheriff doesn’t know you’re back, or he’d have made it plain that we don’t want your type in Virginia City.”

Myers laughed.  “My type, eh?  You’re the one who put a bullet into that kid.  Sounds to me that you’re the type that needs to be run out of Virginia City.  And I’m not too worried about your Sheriff. The head honcho of the Double B ranch has hired me.  Seems they’ve got a small rustling problem and needed a gun to scare the bad men away.  I’ve already had a talk with the sheriff and he knows I’m here.”  He let his hand drift down to his holster, where his fingers toyed with the pearl handle of his weapon.  “I don’t even know why I’m telling you all this.  I don’t owe you any explanations.  If you’ve got a problem with me, we could always settle it man to man.   Why don’t we take this discussion outside?”

Joe blanched.  “I don’t need to take anything outside,” he said quickly.  “I’ve got some business in the store, and I intend to do it.”  He tried to move forward but found his path blocked as Myers stepped in front of him again.

“What’s the matter, sonny?  Afraid of me?  You’ve been spouting off about running me out of town and now you’re losing your nerve?” the gunslinger taunted.  “I can see why.  Last time we had a little run-in you didn’t come out looking so good.”

Again, Joe tried to push past the gunman, and again the man moved to block his path.  “I’m not interested in fighting with you,” he said in what he hoped was a reasonable tone.  “We can agree to ignore each other.  Now let me pass.”

Myers loosed a loud peal of laughter.  “I guess you’ve learned to mind your betters, sonny,” he said, his strident tones loud in the small room.  “Looks like you know that you’re no match for me.”

The color returned to Joe’s face in a sudden heated rush.  “I’m not afraid of you, Myers.  I’m not interested in a gunfight, that’s all.”  He turned to go, but hesitated when Myers let loose another loud laugh.

“Go on, run away, sonny.  It’s safer for you at home.  Ya never know what can happen when you come out to play with the big boys.”

Joe wrenched his body around to see Myers leaning against the doorframe, a smug expression plastered across his face.  Without thinking, Joe took a step forward, his hand already snaking toward his gun.  The shop bell jangled again and a woman entered, a small boy trotting at her heels.  He heard the shrill tones of the child frantically asking a question and he stopped cold, his blood freezing in his veins.  Darting a quick look around, Joe saw Myers, a mocking sneer on his lips, while the woman at the doorway clutched her son to her frantically.  His eyes fastened on the face of the little boy who appeared to be around the same age as Jared.  The boy’s eyes were wide with fear as he tugged on his mother’s sleeve.

Without another word, Joe shoved past the pair and almost ran from the store.  He didn’t stop his headlong flight until he’d reached Cochise.  Flinging himself on the horse’s back, he pelted out of town at breakneck speed, the mocking laughter of the gunfighter still ringing in his ears with every step.


“He’s still out there, and he won’t come in, Pa,” Hoss Cartwright reported in a worried voice.  “I done told him that it was dinner time and that you said to skedaddle in here, but he just kept starin’ at nothing.”

“I’ll talk to him, Pa.” Adam rose from his chair as he slid a finger into the book he was reading to mark his place.

Ben nodded, his eyes thoughtful.  “Go ahead, Adam.  I’m not getting anywhere with him, and Hoss has already tried.  Something’s eating at him, but he’s not saying what it is.  See if you can get him to tell you what it is.”

Hoss shrugged ruefully, but headed for the table.  There wasn’t much that would keep him from one of Hop Sing’s meals, and although he was worried about Joe, the rumble of his stomach convinced him that his older brother was the one best able to handle the situation.

Adam closed the door softly behind him and headed for the corral.  He knew he’d find Joe perched on the top rail; it was where he could be found any time he was troubled.  His stomach twisted with worry as he observed the hunched figure sitting on the fence.  Joe’s shoulders were slumped and he exuded weariness and despair.

Adam climbed up to sit beside him and let the silence grow and lengthen.  At long last, Joe turned haunted eyes on his older brother and with the briefest of nods, acknowledged his presence.  “I know what you’re going to say, Adam, so don’t even bother.  I don’t feel like eating and I’m not going to come in.”

There was a touch of belligerence in Joe’s words, but Adam ignored it.  He placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder.  “You want to tell me what happened between when Hoss and I left you at Hiram’s and now.  You were excited about your friends’ arrival then.  Now you’re all tied in knots and not eating.  ”

Joe turned away from the searching eyes, and gazed blankly at the horses that ambled around the corral enjoying the soft evening breeze.  Again he let the silence grow until it became awkward.  At last, he forced the words out.  “I went into Virginia City after you left.  I know I said I wasn’t going to, but I ran out of nails, and I wanted to finish the house.  I ran into Mary Hardesty.”

Adam worked to keep his face from showing the astonishment that he felt.  Joe had been so adamant about going into town, and then he’d just up and done it.  And to run into Mary Hardesty . . . No wonder the kid was tied in knots.  “How’d it go?” he asked calmly.

“Fine.  She was very kind.  She told me it wasn’t my fault that Peggy got hurt, and invited me to come see her sometime soon.”

Adam’s voice reflected his confusion.  “Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?  What’s got you all upset?  You should be happy that you’ve been able to put that whole incident behind you.”

“She wasn’t the only one I ran into.  After she left, Jake Myers showed up.  He tried to get me to shoot it out in the street again.”  Joe’s voice trailed off, and he stared blankly at the horses in the corral.

Adam waited for him to continue and realized that the words weren’t coming.  “What happened?  Obviously you didn’t go with him,” he asked in concern.

Joe shook his head.  “He laughed at me.  Called me a coward.  But I couldn’t go with him, after what happened to Peggy.”  He looked at Adam in despair.  “I haven’t drawn this gun since Pa made me start wearing it again. I don’t know if I can even shoot it any more.  So what am I going to do, Adam?  I can’t go into town and have that bastard calling me a coward every time I see him.”

Adam’s face hardened imperceptibly.  “I’ll have a talk with him.  That’ll put an end to it.”

Joe straightened abruptly, his eyes flashing with sudden anger.  “No!  I can handle this myself, Adam.  I didn’t ask you to interfere.  I’m not a baby who needs his big brother taking care of him.  Not anymore.”

Adam held his hands up in a gesture of surrender.  “I didn’t say you couldn’t handle it.    You’ve got a real problem on your hands, and I’d like to help you solve it.  Is that so wrong?”

Joe dropped his eyes, his face flushed with a mixture of anger and contrition.  “I’m sorry.  It’s just that Myers has me so angry that I can’t think straight.  I know you’re just trying to help.  I have to work through this one on my own.”

Knowing that Joe was on the edge, Adam accepted the apology gracefully.  With a quick slap on his brother’s shoulder, he slipped down from the fence.  “I’m here if you need me, Joe.  All you have to do is ask.”

Joe smiled.  “I know that, brother.  Thanks.”  He turned back to his contemplation of the milling horses; his brother dismissed completely from his mind already.

Adam turned toward the house, but then swung back as another thought crossed his mind.  “Did you get the roof finished, Joe?  I’ll be more than happy to come by and give you a hand if you need me.”

Joe shook his head emphatically.  “I can finish it up myself, Adam.  There wasn’t much left to do.”  He turned away again, clearly signaling that the conversation was over.

Adam shrugged ruefully.  He hadn’t been able to help Joe, but his brother knew that he was available if he needed someone to talk to.  It would have to be enough for now.


After a morning spent finishing the roof, Joe was putting the final touches on the repairs to the house when he heard a horse enter the yard.   He pulled open the front door and saw his father dismounting.  Forcing a smile of greeting, Joe moved forward.

“What brings you out this way, Pa?” he asked.  “I thought you had a Cattlemen’s meeting today?”

“I’m on my way into Virginia City, and I thought I’d stop in and see just what’s been consuming all your time these days.”  Ben gazed around appreciatively.  “Looks good, son.  You’ve really been working hard.  I think your friends are going to like it.”

Joe flushed with pleasure.  Even though he considered himself a full-grown man these days, it still felt good to have his father praise something he’d done.  “I’m glad you think it looks okay, Pa,” he said.  “After all Hiram did for me, I felt like I had to do something to repay him.  This was the only thing I could think of.  Want to come in and take a look inside?”

Ben smiled with pleasure, his eyes resting fondly on Joe’s face.  “I’d love to.  Why don’t you give me the tour?”  He gestured for Joe to precede him into the house.

Joe felt a bit of his black mood slip away as he showed his father the improvements he’d made in the little house.  He found himself chatting naturally about his eagerness to see his friends again, pushing the thoughts of Myers to the back of his mind.  It came as a jolt when his father mentioned the man, almost as if he’d read Joe’s mind.

“I heard from Roy that Jake Myers is back in town.  Had you heard that?”  Ben’s voice was deceptively casual, but his eyes were dark with sympathy.

Tension flooded in to replace Joe’s good mood.  “I’d heard,” he snapped.  “Why?”

“I just wondered if he’s the reason you’ve been so upset the last couple of days.  You haven’t had a run-in with him, have you?”  Ben allowed his gaze to sharpen.

Joe slammed a fist into the doorframe, and then winced at the sudden pain in his bruised knuckles.  “Why can’t Adam ever keep his mouth shut?” he demanded.  “I told him about Myers in confidence and the first thing he did was go running to you.”

“Adam never said anything to me,” Ben’s answer was quick and sure, leaving no room for doubt.  “So you have seen Myers?”

Trapped by his own admission, Joe turned a hunted look on his father.  “So what if I have?  It’s my business.  I can handle this, Pa.”

A strong hand dropped to the slender shoulder.  “I didn’t say you couldn’t handle it, Joe.  I’m just here to tell you that if you need help, you know where to find me.  You don’t have to do it all by yourself, son.  That’s what family is for.”

Joe shrugged away from his father’s hand.  “I’ll be fine, Pa.  There’s nothing to worry about.  Nothing at all.”  He pointedly looked out at the bright sun.  “Aren’t you going to be late for your meeting?”

Ben sighed.  “I guess you’re right.  I’d better be going.”  He looked around the room again.  “You’ve done a fine job on this house, Joe.  I’m looking forward to meeting Hiram.  I owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Joe followed his father out to where he’d tied his horse.  “I know Hiram is looking forward to meeting you too, Pa.”  He watched as the older man swung himself into the saddle.  “Enjoy the meeting.”

Ben looked down and smiled softly.  “I meant what I said, Joe.  You think about it.”  He nodded briefly and rode out of the yard, leaving his youngest son leaning on the hitching post.

Joe sighed heavily.  It had taken every ounce of his self-control not to give in to those sympathetic eyes.  He’d almost confessed to his father all the fear and self-loathing that were churning in his gut.  Then he squared his shoulders, and turned back to the house.  He was running out of time.  Hiram would be arriving any time now.  There was no time for self-pity.  Myers would have to wait.


“Joe!” The little boy danced in excitement as Joe rode his pinto into the yard of the tinker’s new home.  “Y’came t’my new house!”

Jared could barely restrain himself long enough for Joe to dismount and hitch the horse to a rail in front of the little house.  As soon as Joe’s booted feet hit the ground, the boy flung himself at his friend, enveloping him in a bear hug worthy of someone Hoss’s size.  Joe pretended to be overpowered by the little boy and the pair ended up sprawled in the dust.  A deeper laugh joined with the boy’s giggle, and Joe looked up to see Hiram standing on the porch, laughing along with his son.

Joe grinned ruefully and gestured to the boy who was now perched on his chest, while Joe lay flat on his back in the dirt.  “What have you been doing with this guy, Hiram?  He’s got more energy than ever.”

“He’s bin waitin’ t’see ya.  He’s missed ya sump’n fierce, Joe.”  The tinker smiled, his dark eyes lit with a deep happiness.  “I done missed ya too.”

Joe managed to struggle to his feet, with little help from the giddy little boy, who was now clinging to his back.  He strolled over to clasp Hiram’s outstretched hand.  “I’ve missed you both, also.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived.  You traveled quickly.  I figured you for at least another day.”  He gazed around appreciatively.  “So what do you think of the new place? Looks like you’re settling in quickly.”

The house was small, but sturdily built.  The yard boasted a huge barn where Jared could keep his “critters” and Hiram could store the items he wanted to sell.  A shiny new chicken coop graced a quiet corner by the barn, and Jared’s little friends were already making themselves at home.

 “C’mon in, boy.  We’s got sum stew on, hopin y’d wanna stay.”  Hiram was already opening the door and shooing Joe inside.  He tossed a glance at the younger man.  “I knows how much work ya been puttin’ in ‘round here, Joe.  I thanks ya fer that.”

Joe shrugged.  “I enjoyed it.  I kept thinking how much Jared was going to enjoy his new home.”  He winked up at the small boy on his back, and received an answering giggle in return.

Once inside, Jared wriggled down and took Joe by the hand.  “Y’gotta see, Joe.  I’se got m’own room now.”  The boy’s eyes were round with excitement, and pride shone from his face.  “Ah’ll show ya everthin’.”

Joe allowed himself to be tugged around the small cabin and managed to produce the proper exclamations of appreciation, as if he were seeing it for the first time.  Then, he settled in for casual conversation over the simple meal of stew, gratefully allowing the calm atmosphere to settle his churning emotions.

At long last, with Jared playing contentedly at their feet, Joe and Hiram settled onto the porch.  Hiram lit his pipe, letting the fragrant smoke curl up over his head.  Joe inhaled deeply, the smell awakening an emotional response from his soul.  It seemed that every time he was in trouble, he’d go to his father.  Ben’s pipe smoke had accented almost every one of their heart to heart talks.  Now, Joe sat with another man, but the tobacco smoke was with him as well.

“Well, boy, ya wanna tell me ‘bout it?  Or is ya gonna make me guess wat’s got ya so riled?” Hiram asked, after the silence had grown long and uneasy.

Joe shook his head.  “I’ve got to stop letting you read my mind,” he said ruefully.  “Either that, or remember not to play poker with you.”

He took a deep breath, moving to perch restlessly on the edge of his chair.  “I ran into a couple of people in town the other day.  I’ve been avoiding the place, but I had to run an errand.  The first one turned out much better than I expected.”  He launched into a recitation of the meeting with Mary Hardesty.

Joe couldn’t help the little smile that crept onto his lips, when he recalled the meeting. He’d been twisted into knots about the shooting for so long, that Mrs. Hardesty’s words of forgiveness had set him free.  The immense burden had been removed from his shoulders and he could hold his head up again.  He saw Hiram nodding, as he talked, the echoing smile on his friend’s face showing his happiness over Joe’s newfound freedom.

“Sounds like Miz Hardesty done sum thinkin’ too, Joe,” he said, when Joe’s rush of words finally ground to a halt.  “I’se glad she’s able ta see that it weren’ yer fault.”

The tinker shot a glance at Joe from the corner of his eye.  “That cain’ be wat’s got ya in sech a twist, son.  There’s more, ain’ there?”

Joe nodded mutely.  He struggled to frame his next words.  “I think I have to leave Virginia City again.”  He bowed his head, his hands clenched into fists in his lap.  “I ran into Jake Myers, the man I had the gunfight with, and he was taunting me.  He called me a coward when I wouldn’t go out and have another try at him.  I can’t hold my head up in this town with him telling everyone I’m afraid to face him.”

Joe’s face was a study in misery.  “But I can’t fight him again,” he exclaimed.  “I haven’t even been able to practice with my gun, let alone face someone in a shoot-out.  I keep thinking of Peggy, and how I almost killed her.”

He dropped his head into his hands and shuddered as the horrifying images washed over him again.  He felt a warm hand on his shoulder and struggled to collect himself.  “Maybe I am a coward,” he whispered.  “How do I live with that?  I can’t stay here, though.  Here everyone thinks of me as cocky Joe Cartwright.  I won’t have them all laughing at me.”

“Yer real friens’ won’ be laughin’, Joe,” Hiram said quietly.  “An’ I don’ think yous a coward.  But ‘til you realizes that, then ya gots a problem.”  He stopped and waited, but Joe couldn’t answer, he was so wrapped up in his emotions.

“Kin ya really leave yer family, agin, Joe?” Hiram continued when it became obvious Joe wasn’t going to say any more.  “After wat ya puts yer Pa ‘n brothers through t’last time?”

Joe stood up abruptly, shaking the kind hand from his shoulder and pacing the length of the porch as he spoke.  “No!” he exclaimed roughly.  “I promised Pa I wouldn’t go again.  That’s what I’m so torn up about.  I can’t stay and I can’t leave.  That doesn’t give me many options, does it?”

Hiram leaned against the porch railing and gazed compassionately at his young friend.  “Go home, boy.  Talk t’yer Pa.  Mebbe he’ll be able t’hep ya with sum o’this.”

Joe stopped pacing and glared at the tinker.  “No, I can handle this on my own.  I don’t want Pa worrying about me any more.  This has to be my decision.”  He folded his arms over his chest and dared the other man to contradict him.

Hiram sighed and shook his head.  “Yer worse than m’old mule out there in t’pasture, Joe.  Handlin’ it on yer own wuz how ya ended up on m’doorstep inna firs’ place.”  He sucked on his pipe for a few moments and then continued.  “But, I’se kin see that yer a mite hardheaded, so I ain’ gonna try t’tell ya wut t’do.”

Joe smiled gratefully.  “I’ve been called hardheaded before.  I can live with that.  Thanks for listening to me, Hiram.  I didn’t mean to burden you with all of this.”

The tinker smiled.  “Ain’ no burden t’lissen ta yer friens’.  Ya thinks ‘bout alla this long ‘n hard, Joe.  Ya’ll come out allright, Ah’m sure.”  He patted Joe’s clenched arm.  Then, as if a sudden thought had occurred to him, he said, “I’se gots a favor t’ask.”

“You name it,” Joe replied.  “I’ll help you any way I can.”

“Ah’s s’posed t’take Jared t’meet his school teacher t’morra, but I’se also gots a man comin’ ta tek alook at m’stuff.  He wants t’buy sum things.  It’ll be good fer the folks in Virginia City ta hear from a neighbor that ah’m here, so’s Ah don’ wan’ t’put him off.  Could ya tek Jared along t’meet th’ teacher?”

Joe felt the tension returning, and his eyes grew wary.  “Where’s the teacher?  I don’t want to take a chance of running into Myers tomorrow, especially not if I have Jared with me.”

Hiram’s eyes were soft with understanding.  “Th’ schoolmastuh lives in a part o’the town where ya won’ be seein’ Myers.  Leastways, ah don’ spect so.  His wife said she’d be bakin’ a special batch a’cookies, jist fer th’boy, t’mek him feel more ta home.  Jared’s all ‘cited ‘bout t’visit, n’ah don’ lak t’disappoint ‘im.”

Joe considered the situation carefully.  It was unlikely that Myers would be wandering in the poorer section of town.  The man would most likely be out on the range, anyway.  It should be safe to take Jared in to meet his new schoolteacher.  He nodded his acceptance.  “Sure thing, Hiram. I’ll be glad to help you out.”

Hiram nodded gratefully, and the conversation turned to more mundane things.  After spending another hour playing with his little friend, Joe took his leave of the pair.  He rode home determined to keep his worries to himself.  The last thing his family needed was to worry about their wayward youngest son and brother.


He arrived back at the little house by mid-morning.  Jared was already waiting, and he danced around the horse in excitement as Joe rode into the yard.  Joe struggled to control Cochise, who wasn’t used to the frenetic activity.  When he finally succeeded in getting the animal under control, he saw that Hiram had scooped the boy up and was holding him firmly in his arms.

“Sorry ‘bout that, Joe. Ah’s been tryin’ t’teach t’boy how t’behave around horses, but he’s jes so excited t’see ya,” Hiram said apologetically.  “He’ll know better nex’ time.”

Joe grinned easily.  “It’s okay. I should be used to it by now.  Don’t worry, Hiram, he’ll learn.” He swung down from the saddle and turned to pull a squirming bundle from a basket he’d secured to the back of the saddle.  “I brought Jared a present though.  I figured your new place needed just one more thing to make it seem like home.”

He turned around with his hands held carefully behind his back.  Crouching in front of the boy, he looked into the wide dark eyes.  “Want to take a guess what I’ve got for you, buddy?”

Jared squirmed with excitement.  “Don’ know, Joe?  Is it sweetnin’?”

Joe chuckled.  “Nope.  I haven’t been to the Mercantile this morning.  I brought you this from the ranch.”  He pulled a wiggling bundle from behind his back.  “This little guy was asking me if I could help find him a good home.  Do you know any little boys who need a good hunting dog?”

Jared’s eyes grew huge in his little face.  He stared awestruck at the little retriever puppy.  “For me?” he gasped.  He looked imploringly at his father.  “C’n I keep it, Pa?”

Hiram plastered a serious expression on his face, although his eyes sparkled with suppressed amusement.  “Ah don’ know, son.  A puppy is a lot o’work.  D’ya thinks ya c’n do it?”

Jared nodded eagerly, his whole body radiating his eagerness to touch the puppy that Joe held out.

Hiram nodded slowly.  “Well, son, that pup’s jes beggin’ ya t’hold it.  Ya might wanna tek it and see how ya gets along.”

The little boy reverently gathered the puppy into his arms, and immediately sat down in the dirt.  The puppy squirmed in his grasp and managed to wriggle close enough to lick the little face over and over.  Jared’s giggles resounded through the yard.  Joe exchanged a quick glance with Hiram.

“I hope you don’t mind, Hiram.  I know I should have asked you first, but the pups were ready to be weaned from their mother, and Jared came to mind.  I’ll help take care of it as much as I can.”

Hiram shrugged.  “Ah don’ mind.  The boy’ll tek care o’the dog.  He’s good wit all t’critters.”  He motioned for Joe to precede him to the house.  “C’mon in and set a bit.  Jared’ll want t’tek a little time getting’ t’know th’dog before ya go meet th’schoolmastuh.”

It was over an hour later before Joe was able to tear the little boy away from his new pet.  It was only when Hiram gathered the dog up into his own arms and assured the boy that he’d watch over the little animal the whole time Jared was gone that the child would consent to be tossed up into the saddle in front of Joe.

They rode out of the yard, waving happily to Hiram, who waved the dog’s paw in response.  Jared’s giggle was so infectious that Joe couldn’t help laughing right along with him.  The day was turning out much better than he’d anticipated.


Several hours later, Joe and Jared were stuffed full of cookies and good conversation.  The schoolmaster and his wife, both former slaves, had gone out of their way to make the little boy feel welcome to their home and the community.  Jared was in rapture over the thought of attending “real school”, and he couldn’t stop talking as they walked toward the farrier’s stable where Joe had left his horse.  Cochise had a loose shoe, and Joe had taken the opportunity to leave the horse with Job Watkins, another former slave who did a brisk trade in the poorer section of Virginia City.

Joe tried to keep his mind on the little boy’s chatter, but he was preoccupied by thoughts of his encounter with Myers.  He knew that he was going to have to come to terms with his gun, one way or another.  It was dangerous to wear a weapon if he wasn’t going to use it.  The fact that it was equally dangerous to live and work without one was something that he’d have to think about.  He knew his father was serious when he said that Joe had to wear the gun while working the ranch, but even now the thought of drawing the weapon was repugnant.  Every time he touched the smooth metal, he saw Peggy Hardesty lying in the street, her hair matted with blood.  Maybe if he went to visit the little girl he could finally wipe that picture from his mind.

If only he hadn’t been so cocksure about his prowess with his gun.  He had replayed that scene in the saloon over and over again, but hadn’t been able to come up with any way to avoid the gunfight.  Daisy had needed his help, and he would do it all again if he had to.  But he’d walked into that fight with the certainty that he could and would win.  The danger to innocent bystanders hadn’t even entered his mind; he’d been so focused on how good he was with his gun.

So where did that leave him?  Joe groaned in despair.  Jared heard the soft sound and stopped talking long enough to glance up and see the look on his friend’s face.  Stopping in his tracks, he planted his hands on his hips and demanded, “You sick, Joe?  You don’ look so good.”

Joe forced a smile to his face.  “I’m fine, buddy.  I just had a pain in my stomach from all those cookies.  I’m feeling better already,” he said reassuringly.  He grabbed the little boy’s hand and swung it gently.  “How about if we go find Cochise?  He’s probably got a stomach ache too from eating up all the grain in Mr. Watkin’s stable.”

Jared grinned companionably and tugged at Joe’s hand.  “C’n we see all t’other horses ‘fore we go, Joe?  I love horses.”

Glad that the boy’s worry was gone, Joe nodded.  “Sure thing.  We’ve got some time, and I’ll see to it that you get to talk to all the other horses in the stable.  How about that?”

Jared responded with a little hop, and then he was tugging harder at Joe’s hand, until the pair was hustling down the street.  It was obvious the boy wasn’t going to miss out on a minute of his promised treat.

An hour later, after visiting every horse in the farrier’s stable, several twice, Joe was ready to go.  He looked around for Jared, who had run into one of the stalls, holding the hand of the stable’s owner.  Joe was amazed at the effect the child had on people.  Job was charmed by the little boy, and his usual gruff manner had been replaced by a quick smile, and a willingness to take Jared to visit the horses as many times as he wanted.

Grabbing Cochise’s saddle, Joe talked softly to the horse as he made his preparations for leaving.  He turned to reach for the bridle and bumped squarely into a man who was lugging his own saddle through the center of the barn.

“Watch it sonny,” the man snarled, only to have his eyes widen in recognition.  “Cartwright?  I didn’t think I’d have the pleasure of seeing you again.  After our last meeting when you ran away rather than talk to me, I was sure you wouldn’t show your face in town again.”

His eyes narrowed, and he suddenly radiated a cold intensity that made Joe remember the man’s reputation as a gunslinger.  “You’ve been making trouble for me, boy.  I don’t appreciate that too much.”

Joe’s eyes widened at the sight of the man he’d wanted to avoid.  What was he doing in this part of town?  Joe straightened up to his full height, determined not to let the man intimidate him either physically or mentally.  “I haven’t made any trouble for you, Myers.  And I don’t want any from you.”

“Someone talked to the foreman of the Double B.  Told him I was trouble.  He fired me yesterday.  Me!  Jake Myers fired and sent packing on the word of a punk like you.”  He tapped one finger on Joe’s chest.  “We got a score to settle now, little Joe.”

“I didn’t talk to anyone at the Double B.  If someone told them you were trouble, it wasn’t me.”  Joe stood with a confidence that he didn’t feel, alert for any sudden move the other man might make.

The gunslinger’s eyes remained cold.  “You got family, boy.  One of them must have been nosing around in my business.  It’s all the same thing. I lost a good job because of you.  Now we’re going to settle it once and for all.”

Joe’s heart pounded and he felt a trickle of sweat work its way down his spine.  “We don’t have anything to settle, Myers,” he insisted, forcing all trace of emotion out of his voice.  “I didn’t talk to anyone at the Double B.  If my father, or one of my brothers did, I didn’t know about it.  You don’t have a reason to stay in Virginia City anymore, so why don’t you just move on?”

Myers laughed, but there was no warmth in the sound.  “Oh, I’ll move on, sonny.  After you and I settle our differences.  You were just a nuisance before, boy.  Now it’s personal.”

The gunslinger dropped his saddle and settled into a relaxed stance, his hand hovering near the gun that rode his hip.  “You still scared, sonny?  Or do you want to settle this like a man?”

Joe swallowed against the sudden surge of bile that rose in his throat.  He carefully put down Cochise’s saddle and backed away from the gunfighter, putting several yards between them.  His fingers twitched as he thought of pulling the trigger on his gun.  Could he do it again?  Peggy Hardesty flashed through his mind, and the world spun dizzily around him.  Working to keep all his churning emotions off his face, he struggled for words.

“We don’t have to do this, Myers.  Just ride out of town and don’t come back.  I don’t want to fight you.”

Myers’ lips curled in a sneer.  “No one wants to fight me, boy.  That’s because everyone knows what happens to the men who face Jake Myers.  Now you pull that gun, or I’ll see to it that everyone in this town knows you’re a coward.”

Joe grew still.  He’d been humbled by the accidental shooting of the little girl, but he knew that he’d never be able to stay in Virginia City if Myers spread word of his cowardice to anyone who would listen.  In the West, a man’s reputation preceded him in all things.  The Cartwright name stood for a lot of things to people and Joe wasn’t about to let that name be dragged through the mud.  Forcing his mind to settle and grow calm, he inhaled deeply.

Again, he let himself slip into a heightened sense of awareness, narrowing his focus to the man who stood at the far side of the livery stable.  His breathing hushed and his eyes riveted themselves on the gunslinger, watching intently for the signals that he knew so well.  Even the best gunfighter couldn’t hide some trace of his intentions if you knew what to look for.  Time stretched out and then slowed to a stop.  Only the thudding of his own heart marked the passage of minutes.

“Joe?  What’cha doin’, Joe?”  Jared’s voice was loud in the hushed barn, and the patter of his feet as he ran to his friend echoed in Joe’s ears.

Wrenching his gaze from Myers with a gasp of fear, Joe blanched.  Jared had run directly between the two men, putting himself in the line of fire.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Job Watkins hovering uncertainly.

“Jared, no!  Stay back.”  Joe’s voice was strained and he moved swiftly to put himself between the boy and the gunslinger.  He quickly focused back on Myers, pushing Jared behind him in one motion.  He tried to signal Watkins to grab the boy, but still the man stood frozen in place.

“Why, Joe?  You fightin?”  Jared’s eyes were wide.  “Ya said ya don’ fight, Joe.”

Fear for the little boy made Joe’s voice sharp.  “I want you to get out of here, Jared. Now,” Joe said roughly.  “Go back to the schoolmaster’s house and wait for me there.”  He glanced behind him long enough to see the boy wasn’t moving.  “I said go!”

He heard Myers laugh disdainfully, and saw that the gunslinger still stood poised for action.  The arrival of the boy hadn’t deterred the man from his intention to punish Joe for the man’s firing.  Joe’s concentration was in tatters, and his breath rasped in his lungs.  He pushed Jared roughly toward the door.  “Do as I say, Jared and get out.  I mean it.”

“Aw, don’t send the boy away, sonny.  So what if a darky kid gets hurt because of you?  He ain’t worth nothin’ to nobody.”  Myers almost choked with laughter at his own wit. “Good riddance, I say.  The world don’t need another brat running around in it.”

Suffused with anger at the other man’s words, Joe grabbed Jared by the arm and hustled him to the door of the livery stable. “Go on,” he urged.  “I’ll meet you back at the schoolmaster’s house.”  He shot a fierce look at Watkins.  “See that he gets out of here.”

Jared stood still for a moment, his face a mask of fear.  “Promise?” he whispered.

Joe reached to give him a swift hug.  “I promise.”  He pushed the boy gently toward the sidewalk and waited until he saw the boy’s feet moving of his own accord, clutching at the hand of the farrier who walked beside him.  Both man and boy looked back, but Joe forced himself to turn away.  Squaring his shoulders, he turned and walked back to the waiting gunfighter.

“I don’t want to do this, Myers, but I will.”  Joe’s voice was calm again, his eyes bleak with resignation.  “It’s time we finished this.”

Myers didn’t answer, instead he motioned with a disdainful wave of his arm for Joe to return to his place at the other side of the stable.  With practiced ease the gunslinger slipped into his relaxed stance, his fingers hovering over his gun.

Joe sighed and returned to his place, and then with a deep breath, he forced himself to relax as well.  He let his own hand hover near his gun, as he waited for the gunslinger to make his move.  It had been weeks since he’d drawn the gun, and he was no longer certain that he could win, but he knew he’d run out of options.

Myers twitched, his hand blurred toward his gun, and he drew in one smooth motion.  Joe felt the motion instinctively, and he had his own gun out and aiming at the other man’s chest without conscious thought.  It was only then that Joe realized that he had beaten Myers draw and had the gunslinger at a disadvantage.

He had a clear shot at the gunslinger, but he didn’t take it.  Instead, he sighted down the barrel of the gun, to see that Myers had paled, and was staring with confusion at the weapon that threatened him.  The man’s own gun was only halfway up and he’d never get a good shot off before Joe could shoot him down.  With a nervous chuckle the gunfighter dropped his weapon to his side, and raised his other hand in a gesture of surrender.

“Looks like you’ve got me at a slight disadvantage, sonny,” he said, all trace of his former arrogance gone.  “If you don’t aim to shoot that thing, why don’t you put it away and we’ll let bygones be bygones?”

Joe let the weapon menace the other man for a brief second longer, his anger over the events of the past weeks churned in his stomach and demanded that he make the other man pay for his arrogance and callous disregard for human life.  The knowledge that if he shot, he’d be no better than Myers surfaced, and taking a deep breath, Joe lowered his gun.

He shoved it into the holster.  “Get on your horse and get out of Virginia City, Myers.  Don’t come back,” he said wearily.  “We’ve had enough of you around here.”  He turned his back on the gunslinger and walked to the door, alert to any sound that would indicate the man was going for his gun.

He stopped in horror at the sight of a little face peering around the corner of the barn door.  Jared’s eyes were wide with fear and he trembled visibly as Joe resumed his walk.

“What are you doing here?”  Joe thundered.  He crouched in front of the boy and grabbed onto the little shoulders with shaking hands.  “I told you to get out of here.  Don’t you know that you could have been hurt, or worse?  How dare you come back here?”  He glared up at the farrier, who stood holding an ancient gun in his hands.  “How could you bring him back here?”

The sight of tears dripping steadily down the boy’s cheeks, and the shaking of the shoulders underneath his hands reminded Joe that he was talking to a child.  His face softened, and he pulled the boy forward into the circle of his arms.  “I’m sorry, Jared,” he breathed.  “I got scared when I saw you standing there.  You could have been hurt if there’d been any shooting.  I’m sorry I scared you.”

Jared hiccoughed and struggled to catch his breath.  He scrubbed a hand over his dripping eyes and for good measure wiped his runny nose on the back of his sleeve.  “I jes’ couldn’ go ‘way ‘n leave ya, Joe.  Tha’ man’s a bad’un, an’ ya said ya didn’ shoot no guns, so’s we brung one.”  He raised his bewildered eyes to Joe.  “Ya said ya didn’ shoot no guns, didn’ ya, Joe?”

Joe glanced back over his shoulder to see Myers putting the saddle on his horse.  He stood up abruptly and holding Jared’s hand, he pulled the boy out of the shadow of the barn and toward the street, with a nod of thanks and a quick handclasp for the farrier.  He felt an urgent need to put some distance between the boy and the gunslinger.  Stopping in the puddle of shade provided by a nearby tree, he dropped to the ground, waiting until Jared settled in beside him.  He offered the child his handkerchief and paused until the boy mopped his face thoroughly.

“Feeling better?” he asked, his voice soft with concern.

Jared nodded, his bright eyes reflecting the mountain of questions that he was unable to voice yet.  “Why didn’ ya shoot ‘im, Joe?” For once, the child stopped at one question.  He fixed his eyes on Joe’s and waited.

Joe flushed and ducked his head.  “I don’t know.  I could have, but it wasn’t worth it, Jared.  Myers is a fool and he needed to be taught a lesson, but I just couldn’t bring myself to take his life.”  He stopped and picked at a piece of long grass that he plucked from the ground.  “At one point in time, I wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot him, and maybe, I would have thought it was justified.  But things have changed.”

He glanced at the boy, who was struggling to follow the conversation.  Joe grinned at the intent expression on Jared’s face.  “It’s so hard to explain, I know, Jared.  I know I told you that I didn’t shoot guns anymore, but I think I’ve come to realize that I’m going to have to use one occasionally.  We don’t live in a place where I can be safe without one.  But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to have to feel like a big man because I’ve got one, or because I’m good with it.  Does that make sense to you?”

The boy nodded slowly.  “Ya means that sumtimes it’s okay ta shoot, ‘n sumtimes it’s not, Joe?  But how d’ya know which is which?”

Joe pulled his hat from his head, and rubbed his hand over his forehead.  “I don’t know, Jared.  I really hope that I’ll be able to decide when the time is right from now on.  But it’s going to be hard.”  He sighed, and then smiled as the little boy snuggled in close to his side.  He looked down to see a pair of trusting eyes looking up at him.  “I’ll probably struggle with decisions like that for the rest of my life.  I hope I do.  I don’t want to ever get to the point where I’m shooting at people just because I can, ever again.  Wearing a gun is a necessity here, but it doesn’t have to be a thing of pride to me.”

He realized that Jared probably didn’t understand much of what he was saying, but it felt good to put into words the churning mass of emotions that he’d been burdened with for so long.  “I hope everything will be all right from now on, Jared.  I don’t want anyone hurt because of me.  Once was enough.”

“I think ya’ll do jes fine, Joe,” Jared said.  “C’n we go home ‘n see m’puppy now?  He misses me.”

Joe grinned.  He stood up and swung Jared up to his shoulders.  “Sure thing, that puppy shouldn’t be alone any longer than he has too.”  They headed for the stables, embroiled in a deep discussion over the dog’s name.


Joe entered the ranch house quietly, coiled his gunbelt on the credenza and hung his hat on a peg by the door.  The familiar sounds and smells of the house enfolded him and he paused a moment to let them wash over him.

Hoss and Adam sat talking by the fireplace, Adam with one finger marking his place in the book he was holding.  Joe saw his father bent over some ledgers at his desk, his silver hair gleaming in the lamplight.  He felt his spirits soar upwards for the first time in weeks.  A weight had been lifted from his shoulders and he felt at peace with the world.

“Well, don’t all greet me at once,” he called cheerfully as he headed for the settee.  Settling down next to Hoss, he quickly scooped up an apple from the bowl and took a large bite.

“Don’t let Hop Sing see you eatin’ that apple, little brother,” Hoss commented.  “He just told us that dinner would be on the table in a couple a’minutes.  He don’t like us spoilin’ our appetites.”

Joe just grinned cheekily and ostentatiously took another large bite.  He glanced up in time to see Adam looking at him quizzically.  “What?” he asked innocently.  “What’s that look for, older brother?”

Adam shrugged, his eyes narrowed in speculation.  “You seem happy tonight, Joe.  Anything happen today you want to tell us?”

Joe giggled.  “Nope, not a thing.”

The ledger shut with an audible thump and Ben Cartwright strolled across the room to join his sons.  He, too, eyed Joe speculatively.  “You seem mighty happy about something, Joe.  You sure you don’t have anything to tell us?” he asked.

Joe flushed.  “Can’t a man sit and eat an apple without answering a lot of questions?” he asked, but he couldn’t help the wide grin that streaked across his face.

Hoss leaned back, his arms folded across his broad chest.  “I ain’t seen you grin like that in a long time, Joe.  Somethin’ happened.  Now out with it.”

Joe just sat for a moment, not yet ready to share the details of his run-in with Myers.  Instead he offered his family an apologetic look.  “I’m just happy that Jared took to the new schoolmaster so well.  He’s going to do real well in school.  It’s great to see him settle in and get a chance for a new life.”

Ben scrutinized his son’s face, and then relaxed, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.  “Looks like you’ve settled some of what’s been eating at you, Joe.  I’m glad.”  He clapped Joe on the back gently, and then letting his hand rest on his son’s shoulder for a moment, he said.  “Let’s eat, boys.  It looks like Hop Sing’s just about ready.”

Hoss stared at his father.  “You just gonna let him off the hook like that, Pa?  Don’t you want ta know what’s goin’ on?”

Ben shrugged.  “I have faith that Joe’s resolved things to his satisfaction.  If he wants to talk he knows where I am.  Now all I’m concerned with is supper.  Let’s see what Hop Sing’s got for us.”  He glared around at his three sons.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” he roared.  “Get to the table now.”

Joe flashed his father a grateful smile, and rose to take his place at the table.  He saw Adam and Hoss exchange rueful shrugs, and then they too settled down to eat.  For a few moments the only sound heard in the room was the clinking of china and crystal.  Joe glanced at his family surreptitiously.  He was finally home.

The End
March 2002

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