Kate M-T.
  The following is a work of fan fiction and is not intended to infringe on any copyrights held by Bonanza Ventures, David Dortort, NBC Television, or any other hold of Bonanza copyrights.


Joe Cartwright turned the beer mug in his hand, leaving a wet ring on the scarred top of the barroom table.  The circle of moisture grew in an ever increasing arc as he inched the glass slowly to the side.  It was preferable studying the widening ring of moisture, rather than the two men siting across from him. Though he did his best to ignore them, they refused to leave.

"You're coming home with us."

The words were calm and precise, uttered with an aloofness that was infuriating to hear.  Joe abandoned the beer glass and balled his hands into fists.  He fought to keep a leash on his escalating temper.  Unlike his older brother, he'd never mastered the art of control.  Emotions tended to get the better of him, crackling through the air like summer lightning.

"Adam, I'm not." He tried unsuccessfully  to match his brother's tone.  A bristling edge of anger slipped through, making him realize how predictable his reaction was.  Adam expected hostility--had probably already mapped out the appropriate response to every stinging retort Joe could muster. He's not winning this one.  With effort, Joe silenced his frustration and plowed ahead.  "I'll come home when I'm ready.  I'm twenty-two, not twelve.  I don't need a babysitter."

"Joe--" a new voice attempted, "it ain't like we're trying to tell you what to do--"

Black-lashed hazel eyes skewed sideways to capture Hoss. "Oh, no?  What would you call it?"

Scowling, Hoss hooked his thumbs through his belt loops.  He'd sooner tangle with a rabid wolf than his younger brother in a foul frame of mind.  In the garish light of the saloon, Joe's eyes were unnaturally bright, underscored by a blossoming edge of fever.  Sweat stippled his upper lip and snagged the ragged fringe of chestnut hair splayed across his collar.  Hoss knew he was still
recovering from a bullet wound.  Even now, Joe favored his left side--careful not to put undue stress on the tender area just below his ribs.  Behind him, the patrons of Sam's drinking establishment went about their business, oblivious to the interplay of the three Cartwright brothers.  The piano player coaxed a tinny off-key melody from the upright to the delight of a half-drunken prospector by the bar.  A five-man poker game entered its sixth hour of continuous play, observed by middle-aged women in flared skirts and painted faces.

Retrieving his beer glass, Joe turned away.  "I'm staying," he mumbled.

"Can't let you do that," Adam said flatly.

The beer glass clacked against the table top with sudden force, sending foam-heavy, amber liquid sloshing over the side.  Irritably, Joe flung the overspill off his hand.  "Just how do you intend to stop me?"  he snapped.

Adam rose from his seat--slowly, gracefully--like a cat unwinding from a crouch.  His expression remained neutral, but there was a glimmer of displeasure in his coffee-dark eyes.  Dragging the barrel-back chair to the side, he planted one booted foot on the seat and leaned forward, draping an arm over his knee.  An index finger leveled at Joe's nose.  "Don't make us drag you out of here, Little Joe."

Joe's chair scraped against plank boards, screeching in protest as he thrust backwards from his seat.  "Let's see you try."

"Whoa!  Slow up."  Hoss's large hand pancaked flat against Joe's chest, pinning him in place when he would have lurched forward.  "Don't go gettin' all hot under the collar, little brother.  If you had two sense to rub together--and I don't mean coin--you'd know Pa's worried.  Adam and I are just--"

"Adam and you are just sticking your nose where it doesn't belong."

Hoss wet his lips.  He'd had just about enough.  He could feel the fever radiating through Joe's clothing; the lick of heat at his fingertips; the quiver of muscle strung tight across his brother's chest.  Joe was skirting dangerously close to the edge of disaster, but that fiery French-inherited temper and New Orleans pride, kept him from admitting when he was pushing the limit.

Hoss lowered his arm.  "You ain't had no sleep in dang near two days, and ain't eaten but a kitten's share of food.  You're skinny as a rail, Joe.  You ain't gonna keep handling those ales with nothing in your gut."

Joe bit his lip.  And chuckled.

Maybe it was the beer--fourth or fifth?--or maybe it was just Hoss's way of twisting his mouth into that bewildered frown, but the situation was suddenly amusing. Nothing in my gut?  Why would I eat, when everything comes back up, five minutes later?  He giggled and chanced a glance at Adam.  His eldest brother was serious as a thundercloud, dark eyes hooded and

"Hey, Adam."  Joe plunked a black-gloved finger in the middle of his brother's chest.  "You know what I think?  I think Pa sent you here 'cause he's afraid I'll do something stupid.  Like go gunning for Brecker."

"Well?  Are you?"

I'll kill the muck-raking scum.  "Naw."  Joe turned away and reached for his beer mug.  He guzzled the contents in three quick gulps.

Adams's eyes never left his younger brother.  "Why don't I believe you, Joe?"

"Don't know."  There was a mischevious light in the leaf-green eyes the mercurial younger brother testing his older siblings.  The rakish angle of his sandstone hat cast half of his face in darkness, drawing a crease of shadow along the line of one finely boned cheek.  Despite the charade of cavalier lightness, Adam knew a bleaker constitution lingered beneath his brother's showy mask.

"Hoss, get the horses."

Joe sent one finely shaped brow arching into his curly chestnut hair.  "Going somewhere, big brother?"

"We all are."

Joe made a soft sound of disgust.  "See that?  I try to be civil, and-and there you go again, telling me wh-what I'm gonna-gotta do."

Adam slipped a hand beneath his brother's arm.  "I think you've had a little too much to drink."  Drawing back on his wrist, he started to move towards the door.  Hoss had already departed, and with any luck would have the horses untethered, ready to go by the time he got Joe outside.  Quick thinking, however, didn't result in quick action.

Uncooperative as usual, Joe planted his feet and refused to budge.  It had been a number of years since Adam had really tangled with Joe.  They'd had skirmishes now and again, but it usually amounted to nothing more than rooster-strutting.  The fact that his brother had grown from a skinny kid to a whipcord-lean young man, had been conveniently overlooked by Adam.  He still
tended to think of Joe as "Little Joe," and was therefore surprised at the sudden tightening of well-developed muscle in his brother's arm.  Joe's face was oddly relaxed, despite the strain.

"I wanna 'nother beer."

"You've had too many."

"Y-you're a crabby ole' crow, Adam, you know that?"

"I'll survive the comparison."

Joe giggled.  Then grimaced.  His head hurt, and an unsettling knot of acid bloomed in his stomach.  The ache behind his eyes splintered to his temples, causing him to wince.  "Just wanted to forget for awhile," he mumbled.

Adam felt him relax.  Beneath the rough fabric of his corduroy jacket, Joe's arm grew lax.  Adam tugged him towards the door without resistance.  The hollow music of the saloon faded behind them as they stepped outside, boots clacking against the dusty planks of the boardwalk. Overhead, a cloud-streaked sky deepened with the violet cloak of twilight; the stain of a dying sun painting the streets of Virginia City blood red.

Adam wet his lips.  From the corner of his eye he could see Hoss leading the horses from the livery stable.  Joe's paint pony, Cochise was tethered just outside the saloon, and Adam pulled his younger brother towards the pinto.  No longer resisting, Joe leaned against Adam.  Head bowed, lips parted, he panted slightly, drinking uneven gulps of the thick air.

"Don't feel so good," he mumbled.

"We'll get you home," Adam said, worried now.  It was more than just the alcohol.  Sweat glistened in the wavy tangles of hair brushing Joe's collar.  His face was flushed and the light in his black-lashed eyes was jewel-bright, kindled by fever.  Adam raised his hand, grazing his knuckles across his brother's cheek.  Joe barely stirred. Damn Brecker, for this.  I shouldn't have believed him.  Should have listened to Joe.  He swallowed thickly, dryly.  "Little Joe?"

" . . .hmm . . ."

"I'll help you on your horse."  He heard the quiver of uncertainty in his own voice and thought it ironic his younger brother was too miserable to appreciate it.  Another day and Joe would have gloated over that hesitation.


By the time Joe was mounted, Hoss had arrived with the horses.  The middle Cartwright jutted his chin in the direction of his younger brother.  Joe sat half slumped in the saddle, his face waxen and drawn beneath the brim of his felt hat.  "He gonna be okay?"

Adam gave a clipped nod, then tugged on the reins of Joe's horse, pulling the pinto around. "Come on, Joe, let's go home . . ."


A pale white moon crested the treeline, tipping soft pine needles with jagged slivers of light by the time the trio neared the Ponderosa.  The air had grown considerably cooler, common to early spring in western Nevada.  Though not uncomfortably cold, it was crisp enough to warrant a jacket.  Adam had donned his soft-leather coat three miles back, but a glance at Joe told him he needed to part with it.  His younger brother was huddled into his light-weight jacket, shivering uncontrollably.  One arm cradled his wounded side, and he sat slightly forward as though in pain.

"Hoss, hold up."  Drawing rein, Adam reached out and snagged the bridle of Joe's horse.  Head lolling forward, Joe wrenched upright at the abrupt halt.

"Wh-what's going on?"

Adam shrugged out of his coat and draped it across Joe's shoulders.  "Here--"

"No."  One hand tried to weakly paw off the garment.  "I don't need--"

"You do."

Joe ducked his head, sucking on air.  He was clearly distraught.  "I . . . God, Adam, I can still see Elsie and Tom . . . all that blood . . . it was on my hands, my clothes.  Elsie was still alive.  I tried to save her . . . I tried, but . . ."  His voice broke and his breathing grew suddenly ragged.  Groaning, he leaned forward in the saddle.  " . . . gonna be sick . . ."

Grim-faced, Adam looked away.  Hoss's mouth was a tight white line as he rode up beside Joe.  "Hang in there, little brother," he whispered tightly.  His large hands white-knuckled on the reins as he listened to Joe retching.  It was over in a minute.

Trembling, Joe pressed his cheek to Cochise's sinewy neck.  His lashes dipped shut, spiking long shadows beneath his eyes in the pale moonlight.  Gloved fingers knotted in the horse's thick mane.  "Hoss, I'm tired.  I'm so tired."

"It ain't much further, Joe."  Hoss's large hand settled awkwardly on his brother's slim shoulder.  Though he'd always been slender, Joe had lost weight in the three weeks since the death of his close friends, Tom and Elsie Fower.  Tom and Joe had gone to school together, back when the youngest Cartwright was still wet-behind-the-ears.  Elsie Pendleton had shared porch swings, picnics and town socials with Joe, before deciding on blonde-haired Tom as her steady.  Joe had acted as best man at their wedding last summer, and had helped Tom put the finishing touches to  the newlyweds' homestead, just east of the Ponderosa.  Hoss knew their deaths, at the hands of thieves, had torn Joe up inside.  He'd taken a bullet during the robbery attempt and had been
driving himself relentlessly ever since--burying himself in ranch work or drink, operating on little sleep and less food.  Twice during the last week, Hoss had been awakened by the sound of Joe having a nightmare, and only yesterday he'd come upon his brother behind the barn, doubled-up sick, his stomach empty of the little food he'd ingested.

Adam caught the reins of Joe's horse and tugged.  "Lean forward and rest, Joe.  We'll get you home."


Ben Cartwright chewed on the edge of his thumb, a habit he only indulged at his most anxious.  Frustrated, he paced to the window, brushing aside the curtains to peer outside.  It was difficult to see much of anything beyond the hitching post.  The sky had feathered from blue to purple to plum.  A few virgin stars shimmered behind web-thin clouds, etching sickles of silver light on the dark canvas.

Ben cursed softly and turned back to his desk.  Coffee grew cold in the cup he had abandoned long ago.  Worrying about his youngest son seemed to be his major preoccupation of late.  Faced with a crisis, Joe's mercurial personality made him as fickle and uncertain as the weather. While Adam could be counted upon to be level-headed, and Hoss to be fair, Joe reacted instantly with
raw emotion.

Like he did with Brecker.

Ben frowned.  Five weeks ago they'd hired a man they thought was Omar Reese--a ramrod who'd worked the Box J in Utah; the Silver Fork in Oregon Territory.  But Chet Brecker--already wanted in conjunction with two stage robberies, had caught Reese outside of Whiskey Flats.  Though the body had never been found, Brecker assumed the other man's identity, then produced
letters of reference, dug rumpled from Reese's well-worn saddlebags.  A man of few words and no-nonsense, Brecker had quickly won Adam's approval.  Hoss, who normally took to strangers like a kitten, had been less enthusiastic, but Joseph had down- right bristled.

"I'm telling you, Pa, there's something wrong with that man."

Only later would they learn how accurate Joe's initial assumption had been.  Unfortunately, the realization would come too late for Tom and Elsie Fower, gunned down by Brecker and his two sons.  After being hired by the Ponderosa, Brecker in turn hired Roy and Colb--sons who had followed him from Texas.  Together they planned the heist of Ponderosa payroll, at its fattest,
after a cattle run.

Ben jerked suddenly, his thoughts scattering like pebbles on shale.  The sound of approaching hoofbeats drew him quickly to the front door, where he yanked open the barrier and stepped onto the porch.  A sense of relief washed through him at the sight of his sons drawing rein near the hitching post.

"How is he?"  Ben was off the porch in a instant, striding briskly to the trio.  Hoss dismounted and helped his younger brother from his horse.

"He ain't real good, Pa.  Too much alcohol and no food.  His body ain't gonna take much more abuse.  He's done started on a fever."

Frowning, Ben touched his son's cheek.  Joe was leaning heavily on Hoss, head lolling to his chest, eyes half-closed.  There were deep smudges of shadow beneath his eyes, and his face was drawn, aging him beyond his twenty-two years.  Catching Joe's arm, Ben hooked it over his shoulders, then slipped his own arm around his son's slim waist, bracing him.  "You two take care
of the horses.  I'll get him upstairs."

"Sure, Pa."


Later, alone with his son, Ben helped Joe out of his jacket, then eased him to his bed.  Only half coherent, the younger man didn't protest when Ben unbuckled his gun belt and tugged free his boots.  He'd already had Hop Sing fetch a basin of cool water to help tame the fever, and instructed the Chinese cook to prepare a clear broth.

"Joseph--" The bed creaked as Ben propped a hip on the edge.  He cupped a hand against his son's cheek--the large palm, calloused from years of ranching, grazing smooth skin.  Joe's eyes moved beneath lowered lids.  He turned his face into the warm caress, unconsciously seeking the reassurance of his father's touch.  Ben wet his lips.  "Little Joe--"

"Pa?"  Joe's voice was brittle and dry.  He drew a ragged breath and opened his eyes, wincing when he saw the anxious concern on his father's face.  He didn't want to be the cause of that worry; was ashamed by his own lack of concern for the man who had raised him.  His chest felt suddenly tight.  A wave of nausea washed over him, leaving him light-headed and dizzy.  Moaning
softly, he turned his head to the side.  "Pa, I'm sorry."

"Hush, Joseph."  Ben stroked his son's cheek.  His fingers shifted, trailing along the chiseled jaw, gently coaxing corded muscle to relax.  Retrieving the basin Hop Sing had fetched earlier, Ben dipped a cloth into the water, wringing free excess liquid.

Joe flinched at the touch of the cool cloth against his sweaty brow.  In the light cast by the bedside lantern, his eyes appeared more brown than green, flexed with gold near the center.  "I didn't mean to make you worry.  I just wanted to forget--"

"Joe, you can't change what happened."

"But I--" The words caught in his throat.  He swallowed thickly; felt the flutter of gut-wrenching nausea leap to his throat.  "Pa, it's my fault they're dead . . ."

"No, son--"

"It is!  I led Brecker there.  I--" Joe pushed his father's hand away, and turned his face into the pillow.  A ragged breath slipped from his fever-cracked lips. "It was my responsibility to carry the payroll back to the ranch.  If I hadn't stopped on my way home, they'd still be alive.  Brecker would have caught me on the trail.  Pa it's my fault!  Why can't you see that?"

"Because you didn't pull the trigger," Ben said sharply.  His voice was clipped, demanding that his son stop wallowing in guilt.  "Joseph, look at me."  The tone of his voice left no room for debate.  Reluctantly, Joe's eyes skewed sideways.  His lashes were wet, tipped with tears.

"If you take blame, then we all do.  Adam hired Brecker, and I kept him--even when you told me you didn't trust him.  He knew that cattle drive would bring a hefty return.  He planned the whole thing, Joseph.  Why do you think he had Reese's letters of reference in his saddlebags?  He'd already killed one man to assume his identity.  Do you really think he was going to let you, or
Tom or Elsie stand in his way?"

"But, I led--"

"You didn't."

Joe closed his eyes, sending hot tears leaking from the corners.  It was hard to think anymore, hard to concentrate.  His throat felt tight.  "I wish I could change it," he whispered.

"I know."  Gently, Ben thumbed the tracks of moisture from his son's face.  "Try to get some sleep.  If you're hungry later, Hop Sing is making hot broth."

Wordlessly, Joe rolled onto his side.  Ben stood and retrieved the blanket from the foot of the bed.  Carefully he spread it over his son, tucking the edges beneath Joe's legs.  When he made no further movement, Ben crept silently from the room.

Joe closed his eyes and tried to hold the memories at bay.


"Pa.  Hoss and I have been talking."  In the flickering light cast from the stone hearth, Adam's dark hair was threaded with glittering strands of copper and gold.  Hefting the poker in his right hand, he gave one last jab to the crackling logs.  Muscle rippled beneath his black shirt, the action as smooth and sensuous as the flow of water across his back.  "This thing with Brecker . . ."
Setting the poker aside, he took a seat in one of the scatter chairs by the fireplace.  "We're worried about Little Joe.  When you think about it, it makes sense that Brecker would come after Joe for what he did to Roy and Colb."

Ben glanced from his eldest son to Hoss, who was shuffling back and forth behind the sofa, his boots wearing a path on the embroidered rug.  The hour had inched closer to nine.  Upstairs, Joe slept soundly, but Ben couldn't stop the involuntary stray of his eyes to the stairway.  The coffee he'd nursed for the last fifteen minutes was only lukewarm, and quickly growing bitter.  Setting the cup aside on the large square table in front of the hearth, he forced his attention on Adam.  His son wasn't telling him anything he hadn't already considered a dozen times over.

"So what do you suggest?  We lock Little Joe in his room until Brecker's found?"

Adam scowled.  He hadn't expected that caustic a reaction from his father.  Ben was watching him pointedly, heavy black brows knitted above mahogany eyes.  "Adam, this man has lost one son to Joseph's bullet, and another to the gallows--all based on Joseph's testimony.  Don't you think it's occurred to me that Brecker wants him dead?"

"Yeah, but Pa--" Hoss tried.

"He's not a child.  I can't lock him in his room."

"We were thinking you could send him away," Adam inserted mildly.

"What?"  Ben's gaze swivelled back to his eldest.  Bracing his elbows on the arms of the chair, he leaned forward.

Adam shrugged.  "The Placerville Horse Auction's coming up.  Send him early . . . tell him you want him to scout around."

Ben backhanded the air in dismissal.  "He's not well enough for the trip.  His side's still healing from the bullet Doc Martin dug out of him.  Besides, I wouldn't trust him to keep after his health.  Look at him now--little sleep, less food, and we're all here, watching over him like hawks."

"Send one of us with him," Adam persisted, not ready to abandon the idea.

Ben shook his head.  "I want him here.  Near me."  He was being stubborn, but he didn't care.  He'd lost three wives.  He wasn't about to start losing sons.

Adam sighed.  He laced a hand through his short, dark hair and exchanged a glance with Hoss.  His younger brother stuffed his hands into his pockets and scuffed a foot against the floor.  The corner of his mouth twisted down in a look of resignation.  He too had heard the note of finality in Ben Cartwright's words.  The older man wasn't likely to be persuaded.

Adam made one last effort.  "Pa, the posse's given up on finding Brecker.  All he has to do is lay low for awhile and--"

"All right, Adam."  Ben pushed from his chair, feeling the growing restraints of frustration.  "So I send Little Joe to Placerville and Brecker still doesn't make a move.  Then what do I do?   Send him to Carson City?  To  San Francisco?  St. Louis?  When does it stop?  I'll not have my son hounded by fear."

Adam shook his head.  "We weren't suggesting Joe's afraid of Brecker, Pa."

"No," Hoss said quickly.  "It ain't that at all."

"Then what is it?"  Ben practically shouted.

Adam wet his lips.  "Pa, we're afraid Joe wants Brecker, as much as Brecker wants Joe."


The pale light of a sickle moon streamed through the window, illuminating the bed.  Adam hesitated in the doorway, listening to the sound of his brother's even breathing.  Joe's face was turned to the side, half his features obscured by shadow, the other half bathed in the bright wash of moonshine.  Asleep, he seemed impossibly young, almost vulnerable.  Long dark lashes curled like velvet thread beneath his eyes, and silver light snagged in the thick waves of his hair.

Adam approached the bed, hovering at the side.  He'd long grown accustomed to the lightning-quick changes in his younger brother's personality.  Joe's attitude ran from imp to ingrate, but even at his worst, Adam couldn't help feel protective of him.  Now, fighting both fever and illness, it was hard picturing the young man in the bed as the same hot-tempered fool who angrily
shrugged off help, determined to do everything on his own.  Not this time, Little Joe.  Not with Brecker.

Leaning forward, Adam pressed the back of his hand to Joe's cheek.  His skin was cool, signaling the fever had departed.  He breathed a silent thanks to the heavens.  Doc Martin had warned about fever and the possibility of infection, when he'd dug that bullet out of Joe, three weeks ago.   Though Adam was certain the fever tonight was related more to the abuse Joe had inflicted on his body, rather than a delayed reaction to the gunshot wound, he was nonetheless thankful it had passed quickly.  Tomorrow, he'd make Joe eat something, even if it meant force-feeding him.  The kid was thin enough as it was--he couldn't afford to lose more weight.  Retucking the blanket which had shifted during Joe's sleep, Adam turned to leave.  He was halfway to the door, when
Joe's voice stopped him.


He turned back to the bed.  "I didn't mean to wake you.  I just wanted to see how you were feeling."

Joe wet his lips.  "Thirsty."

Adam located the pitcher of water on the nightstand and filled a glass.  Bracing an arm behind Joe's shoulders, he helped him sit up long enough to take three quick swallows.  Joe pushed the glass away.  "Thanks." His eyes skitted about the room, noting the heavy shadows.  "What time is it?"

"After midnight."  Adam sat on the edge of the bed.  "How do you feel?"

Joe grimaced.  "Like I've been kicked by a mule.  Guess I've been pretty stupid lately, huh?"

The hint of a smile flirted at the corner of Adam's mouth.  "Just lately?"

The jibe coaxed a lop-sided grin from Joe.  Scrunching beneath the blankets, he sought a position of better comfort.  "I'm sorry about today . . . about a lot of things . . ."

"Don't worry about it."  One hand smoothed the thick hair from Joe's forehead.  Somehow his younger brother's apology stung more than the cutting edge of his anger. The kid has to be hurting, to be this conciliatory .  "Go to sleep, Joe.  Pa's gonna send for Doc Martin in the morning--just to make sure that bullet wound isn't infected."

Joe grunted and touched his ribs.  "Think I would know if it was," he protested, but his eyes were already closing, heavy with sleep.  Adam stayed at his side, waiting until his breathing evened into the rhythmic cadence of slumber.

When he knew Joe slept peacefully, he stood, taking a moment to coax the stiffness from his muscles.  There was a crick in his shoulder that spread roots halfway down his back.  Splaying his fingers beneath his collar, he massaged the corded skin and twisted his neck to the side.  His eyes fell to Joe and he grimaced.  His brother was quiet now, but Adam knew the boy's restless nature would return with the dawn.

Then it would be time to worry all over again.


Joe obediently ate the light breakfast his father placed in front of him:  buttered toast, weak tea and hot broth.  Propped up by pillows, he juggled the breakfast tray on his lap, wincing at the stitch of pain that flared in his side.  Doc Martin had departed twenty minutes earlier, after subjecting him to a thorough examination.  Though Joe had hitched in his breath, he remained otherwise silent beneath the probe of Martin's exploratory touch.  Given a clean bill of health with instructions to eat and get plenty of rest, Joe was feeling oddly anxious.  Drifting in and out of sleep, he was plagued by reoccurring memories of Tom and Elsie's deaths.  Though his friends had been gone three weeks, the wound remained as painful and raw as the day of its conception.  Elsie's face haunted his dreams--her blue eyes and golden hair, fouled by the flow of blood from her hairline.  He could still hear the gurgling whisper of her breath, like wind through straw, as she begged him to save Tom.  But Tom was already dead, killed by Chet Brecker's .36 caliber bullet.

Should've been me.  Should've been me.  Joe repeated the litany over and over.  He could smell blood and gunpowder--sickly sweet, like carrion-rich syrup. Collapsing against the pillows, he closed his eyes and willed the demons silent.

By noon he could stand the confinement no longer.  Rising, he braced himself against the bedpost and waited out a bout of light-headedness.  When the dizziness passed, he collected his clothing, gingerly shrugging into pants, shirt and boots.  He had just finished dressing when Ben entered the room. His father took one look at him, and his face grew unnaturally grave.

"Where do you think you're going, Joseph?"

Joe flushed guiltily.  "I just wanted some fresh air."

"I'll open the window."

"Pa, please.  I want to go downstairs.  Just for a while.  I'll sit on the front porch--"


"Please," he persisted, hearing the brittle edge of frustration in the word.  He was still unsettled from memories of the Fowers, and knew his temper grew dangerously close to snapping.  He was operating on a hair-trigger.  One hand white-knuckled on the bed post, popping a ridge of muscle the length of his forearm. Ben was silent, studying his face.  At last he nodded, stepping clear of
the door and leaving the path unhindered for his son.

Joe sighed in relief.  "Thanks, Pa," he whispered.


" 'Afternoon, Miss Sally."  Hoss tipped his big hat at the petite redhead who stood behind the counter of the general store, then quickly shucked it from his head.  He offered a gap-toothed grin and held out a rumpled sheet of paper.  "Got a couple things here I need to pick up.  Wagon's out front.  Think you could have your Pa fill this?"

Sally Linden took the pro-offered paper and scanned the list.  "Hmm . . . thirty pounds of biscuit flour; ten pounds of sugar; two jugs of vinegar; a block of salt; fifty pounds of potatoes . . . sounds like you're doing Hop Sing's shopping for him, Hoss."

"Yes' um." He brim-shuffled the ten gallon hat through his hands.  Sally always made him nervous.  Truth of the matter was, most girls did.  Try as he may, he just couldn't adopt Adam's finesse, or Little Joe's easy charm when it came to the fairer sex.  He envied his brothers' their casual confidence around women.  All Little Joe had to do was flash that devil-may-care grin of his, and girls melted in his arms.  Hoss shifted awkwardly and cleared his throat.  He could feel the heat rising from his neck to his cheeks, turning his face red.  He'd always been sweet on Sally.  " 'Um, Miss Sally.  I was just wondering . . ."

"Yes, Hoss?"  Sea green eyes rose innocently to his face.  Hoss wet his lips and stared at the top of her head.  She barely reached his chin.  He was thankful the counter separated them.  It made him feel less like a clumsy oaf.

"Well, it's just . . . that is to say . . .I was wondering . . . if you didn't have no date for the town social . . ."

"Sally."  Hoss flinched at the sudden interruption of Ross Linden's voice from the rear of the store.  "Is that Hoss Cartwright I hear out there?"

Sally's eyes flashed from Hoss to the door behind her left shoulder.  "Yes, Pa."

A moment later Ross Linden appeared, mopping his hands with a towel.  He offered the right one to Hoss.  "How you been, Hoss?"

Hoss shook the pro-offered hand.  "Just fine, Mr. Linden.  I'm picking up a few things for Hop Sing before heading to the livery stable."

Ross nodded.  He was a short man with brick-colored hair and pale gray eyes.  "I was just wondering if you heard the news."

"What news?"

"About Chet Brecker.  Paul Blevins came in this morning and said he saw a man on a blood bay out past that stand of rimrock--you know--east of Cactus Mill Trail.  Didn't Brecker have a blood bay?"

"Yeah."  Hoss said the word slowly, feeling the first prick of apprehension.  "When did he see him?"

Linden worked his bony shoulders into a shrug.  "Early this morning.  Wasn't sure if it was Brecker--the man was too far away to tell.  First thing he did when he rode in town was see Sheriff Coffee.  Clem rounded up a posse and they headed out there a few hours ago.  Figured you'd want to know about it."

"You figured right.  Thanks."  Hoss's eyes returned to Sally.  All awkwardness was gone now.  All he could think of was Joe and getting back to the ranch.  If one of the hands heard the news and got to his brother before he did, who knew what the fool kid might try.  "If you don't mind, Miss Sally, I'll just get that order later.  I'll try to have one of the ranch hands stop for it, if I can't
make it back."

"Sure Hoss."  She seemed disappointed. "Hope you'll be able to come back yourself."

Plunking his hat on his head, Hoss spun on his heel and left.  He'd forgotten all about asking Sally Linden to the town social.


"Hey, Hoss!  Aren't you supposed to be getting supplies or something?"  Joe glanced up from the checkerboard, as his brother rode up to the hitching post.  Reclining in a spindle-backed rocker, Joe watched as the big man dismounted.  The warm haze of the noonday sun cast the front porch in a halo of marigold light.  Coupled with a soft easterly breeze, Joe found himself growing
drowsy.  He blinked and glanced aside at the man to his left.  "I think it's your move, Pa."

"Hmm . . ."  Ben Cartwright tapped a finger against his lip studying the checkerboard, but his eyes kept straying to his middle son.  He could tell from Hoss's agitated state that something was wrong.

"Supplies weren't ready," Hoss offered as way of exclamation, stepping onto the porch.  His gaze shifted between Joe and Ben.  "Where's Adam?"

"North pasture."  Ben leaned back in his chair and cocked his head.  "He's overseeing the branding."

Hoss bit his lip.  He was standing behind Joe, hands on his hips.  He lowered his eyes meaningfully and jutted his chin in Joe's direction, hoping his father would interpret the glance.

Ben laced his fingers together, and stretched his arms in front of him.  His wrist cracked.  "Well, Joseph, you seem to have this game well in hand . . ."

His son chuckled.  "Beat him three out of five, Hoss."

"If we're going to play another, I think I need some coffee.  Do you want anything?"

"No thanks, Pa."

Ben pushed out of his chair and walked past Hoss into the house.  Hoss remained a moment longer, then made a comment about needing to clean up.  He followed his father inside.


"All right, what is it?"  Ben demanded, almost the moment Hoss was through the door.  His son caught him by the arm and steered him into the great room.

"It's Brecker.  He's been spotted.  Least ways, they think it's him."

"Are you sure?"

Hoss worked his big shoulders into a shrug.  "Paul Blevins saw a rider out by Cactus Mill Trail.  He was on a blood bay."

Ben dragged a hand over his chin.  Exhaling sharply he took three paces from his son before turning around.  "Does Roy Coffee know about this?"

"Posse's already been formed.  Ross Linden said Clem was heading it."  Hoss canted his head to the side. "What are we gonna do, Pa?  Little Joe's bound to find out."

Ben's expression was sober. "Keeping him close to the ranch shouldn't be a problem with the way he's been feeling.  The trick will be to keep the information under wraps.  If I know Roy Coffee, he'll head out here to tell us personally."

"Want me to head him off?"  Hoss asked.

Ben nodded.  "Not a bad idea.  Stop by the south ridge on the way and have one of the hands ride up and tell Adam I want him back at the house.  If Brecker's going to try anything, we need to keep close to Joe."

"Pa--" Hoss wet his lips.  "Joe ain't never tolerated babysitting too well."

Ben's gaze was unyielding.  "Then it's about time he learn."


Hoss caught Roy Coffee on the trail.  Paul Blevins had indeed spotted a man on a blood bay, but it turned out to be a drifter from Placerville.  Clem's posse disassembled and the whole incident was quickly forgotten.

At the Ponderosa, Joe continued his recovery, overseen by his father and brothers.  Under their watchful guidance he regained the weight he'd lost and gradually resumed light duties at the ranch.  After a passage of two weeks, he found himself plagued less frequently by nightmares. The erratic pendulum that controlled the undulating hills and valleys of his emotional state slowed to
an even keel.  All four Cartwrights breathed easier.

Hoss worked up his nerve and asked Sally Linden to the town social, much to the amusement of his younger brother. "You took three weeks to ask her, Hoss.  How long's it gonna be before you actually ask her to dance? "

Joe juggled possible dates and finally settled on Holly Johnson.  Blonde-haired and brown-eyed, she was beguiling and innocent--a combination that drove Joe crazy.  They'd shared moonlight walks and porch-swing kisses, and all too recently a picnic blanket on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

Adam chose to escort Miss David--a dark-haired beauty with green eyes and a sophisticated manner.  Hoss called her "exotic," while Joe simply named her "a head-turner."  The only Cartwright to attend dateless, Ben watched each of his sons make the rounds, exchanging pleasantries with the other guests.  Hoss was loveable and awkward; Adam proper and cool.  Joe--normally the enthusiastic charmer--was oddly subdued, even going so far as to relinquish Holly for most of the faster dances.  Though originally excited about the prospect of the social, Ben had noted Joe's tendency to withdraw over the last few days.  He'd grown unnaturally quiet, even somber.  Fearful that his health was waning, Ben kept a watchful eye on his youngest son, but
found nothing unusually amiss.

"Joseph,"  Ben said casually as he stepped to his son's side.  A dozen or so couples reeled across the dance floor, spurred into motion by a spray of fiddle-driven music.  Joe stood near the front door, quietly sipping a cup of whiskey-laced punch.  "You're not dancing much tonight," Ben observed.

Joe shrugged nonchalantly.  Slipping a finger beneath the collar of his impeccable white shirt, he loosened his black shoe-string tie.  "Guess I'm still a little stiff.  All that jumping around--it doesn't sit too well."

"Hmm . . ."  Ben's glance was measuring.  It wasn't that he didn't believe his son.  It was just so out of character for Joe to stand by while another man escorted his date.  Then again, Holly and Joe weren't seriously dating.  Ben's eyes skimmed across the floor and settled on Hoss.  The music had slowed to a softer tempo.  Sally Linden dragged her date onto the floor amid Hoss's sputtering protests.  The look on his face was one of pure terror.

Joe chuckled.  "Guess she got tired of waiting for him to ask."

Ben relaxed slightly, thankful to hear his son's laughter.  "Seems she isn't the only one."  He inclined his head to Holly, who was making her way towards Joe.  One black brow climbed into the thick fringe of Ben's silvery hair.  "Are all my boys backwards tonight?"

Joe's grin was crooked and a trifle cock-sure.  "Hardly."  Moving away, he collected Holly's hand and tugged her onto the dance floor.

"I was wondering when you were going to rescue me from Alex Wheeler," Holly Johnson said petulantly.

Joe loved the pouty look of her full lips; the shroud of lashes that dipped over her eyes when she demurely lowered her gaze to the floor.  He held one hand lodged in the small of her back, the other entwined with her palm, as he guided her across the floor.  Her head was bowed, spilling sun-gold hair over her creamy neck and shoulders.  She smelled of honeysuckle and clover--a
tantalizing fragrance that made his head spin.  He closed his eyes briefly, drinking the luscious perfume.  "I don't know.  You seemed to be having a good time."

Her head came up sharply, cinnamon eyes flashing.  "Joseph Cartwright!"

Cupping her back, he tugged her nearer, and lowered his lips to her ear.  "I don't mind you partnering with Alex on the fast ones," he whispered huskily.  "But the slow dances are mine."  He felt her shiver.  Delighted by the reaction he provoked, he allowed his lips to lightly brush her hair.  Smiling, he drew back, lest the prolonged closeness seem improper.  A heated flush fused bright spots of color on her cheeks.  When the dance ended, Joe took her hand and led her outside.

Holly pulled away from him, stepping beyond the puddle of yellow light that streamed through the windows and doorway; beyond the bright tangle of music and laughter, meshed together like silk in a spider's web.  Joe followed her to the end of the boardwalk.  Her skin was cameo-white beneath the ghostly cloak of the moon.  Propping one slim shoulder against a painted column,
Holly tilted her head to the sky.  Coin-bright hair flowed down her back.

"Isn't it beautiful, Joe?"

He was too busy studying her silhouette to pay attention to the night sky.  Stepping behind her, he stretched one arm above her head, planting his hand against the wooden column.  They were so close he could feel the tingle of air between their bodies.  "Beautiful," he agreed.  Sighing, she leaned back against him.  Joe brought his right arm up and encircled her waist.  Ducking his head, he allowed his lips to lightly brush the satiny arc of her neck.

"Little Joe, someone will see."  Holly's protest lacked conviction.  Although the shadows were thick, easily concealing them from prying eyes, he was nothing if not chivalrous.  Drawing her about, he tugged her away from the column and back towards the overhang of the building.  Here, the umbrage was steely and cool, wrapping them in a cocoon of privacy.

 Joe grazed his knuckle down the smooth line of Holly's cheek.  "God, you're so beautiful."  His mouth found hers, gently parting her lips.  Hesitant at first, she melted into his arms awakening the restless edge of his passion.  Tugging her nearer, he deepened the kiss.  She moaned softly and pressed against him.  This time it was he who shuddered.  He could feel the supple lines of her body melding to his; taste the sunflower sweetness of her lips upon his own.  Unbidden, a host of memories rose from the mire of his thoughts. All day long the guilt had plagued him: it wasn't right that he enjoy himself when Tom and Elsie were--were--

Unable to finish the thought, he drew back and he lowered his face into her hair.

"We should go inside," he said with effort.

Holly touched his cheek.  "Joe, what's wrong?"

Joe wet his lips.  Hesitantly, he traced two fingers over the hollow at the base of her throat.  He could feel her pulse, thrumming like liquid heat beneath the sensitive pads of his fingertips.  "It's just . . ." The words snagged in his throat.  He swallowed with difficulty.  Framed by a soft halo of moonlight, she almost looked like Elsie.  "For a minute there . . ."


He shook his head.  "Nothing.  Just tired, I guess."

Holly watched him closely.  He'd been subdued since arriving at her father's home in the surrey.  Though she too had secretly anticipated sharing kisses, she hadn't imagined him reacting like this.  "Did I do something wrong?"  she asked.

Joe chuckled softly but the sound was without humor.  "No, the contrary."  Once more his lips found hers.  When the kiss ended he wrapped her in his arms, content to hold her.  "Alex is probably looking for you," he said lightly.

She rested her head against his shoulder.  "I prefer this to dancing."

"Your father is probably looking for you too.  If I hope to have any hide left, I'd better get you back inside."

Holly lifted her hands, tangling her fingers in the thick waves of his dark hair. Gently she pulled his head down.  Joe needed no further urging.  He kissed her hungrily, allowing the rekindled wave of passion to carry him beyond the darker tidings of the night . . .beyond the memories that refused to stay silent.  When she whimpered softly, he reluctantly broke the kiss.  His fingers twined with hers, and he tugged on her wrist.  "Come back inside."  She was beautiful and he enjoyed kissing her, but it wasn't right to toy with her affections.  He could tell by her response and the look in her eyes, she had more on her mind than innocent romance.  The last thing he wanted was a serious entanglement.


He pulled her into the light . . . back towards the doorway where a shuffling mill of people and the bark of muffled laughter made the night safe. With an arm braced behind her waist he led her inside.  He squinted against the sudden brightness; against the noise and the gaiety.  He could feel her eyes on him--confused, disappointed.  He forced a casual grin.  "How about some punch?"

She nodded mutely.  He left her with a group of older women, then moved in the direction of the punch bowl.  Motion was performed without thought as he retrieved two glasses and filled them with sparkling ruby liquid.

"There you are.  We wondered what happened to you."

Joe glanced over his shoulder to find Adam standing behind him.  His older brother was dressed in black pants and a pressed white shirt, the fabric straining slightly over the tight planes of his chest.  He'd loosened his shoe string tie, and cuffed the sleeves of his shirt on his tan forearms. His face was composed, schooled to its customary control.  "Haven't seen you dancing much tonight."

"That seems to be the general consensus."

There was just enough of bite in the words to draw a flicker of disapproval through Adam's dark eyes.  Moving to the punch bowl, he quickly recovered.  "Well, I see you haven't lost your charming knack for repartee."

Joe's glare was baleful.

Smiling now, Adam tipped a glass to his lips.  "Relax, Joe.  I'm yanking your chain."

"Yeah . . . well, yank someone else's.  I'm not in the mood."  He started to move away but Adam caught his arm, tugging him near.  When he spoke, his voice was low, pitched beneath the mesh of music and laughter.

"I think you should lighten up."

"When I want your opinion I'll ask for it."

"Hey, Joe--"

"Let go of my arm."

Adam hesitated.  A few of the people standing nearby were beginning to cast curious glances in their direction.  Across the room, Ben Cartwright did the same, his face creased with an annoyed frown.  Adam knew Joe was just edgy enough to cause a disturbance.  When that notorious hair- trigger temper kicked in, his younger brother's reason flew out the window.  Lifting his hands in mock defeat, he took a step backwards.  "Tonight's supposed to be fun, remember?"

Joe grumbled something unintelligible and moved away.  A moment later Ben appeared at Adam's side.

"What was that all about?" he asked.

Adam sighed.  "Wish I knew.  He was ready to take my head off."

Scowling, Ben glanced across the room.  Joe stood sideways, conversing with Holly Johnson and another couple he didn't recognize.  A flash of even, white teeth betrayed his son's familiar grin, but Ben sensed the action was forced.  Even from this distance he could see the tautness strung along Joe's jaw; the minute tightening of muscle beneath his crisp white shirt.

"Something's eating at him again," he observed quietly.

Adam set his punch aside.  It had lost the thin thread of appeal it began with.  "Three guesses what that is."

"You don't mean--"

"Come on, Pa.  He isn't going to let it go until he's dead or Brecker's dead.  He's feeling better now and he's getting restless."

Ben squared his shoulders.  His gaze was black, warning of a dangerous rise in temper.  "I've had just about enough of this nonsense."

"But Joe hasn't."

"He has.  Least ways, he will."  Ben's glower left little doubt as to his frame of mind. "He isn't too old to be reacquainted with some old-fashioned discipline."  One finger rose menacingly in the air.  "I swear, Adam--I don't care if I have to--"

"Hey.  Is this a special meetin' or can anyone join in?"  Hoss's jovial inquiry drew a nod from Adam; an irritated glance from Ben.  Sensing his father's mood, Hoss's eager smile wilted at the edges.  "Sorry, Pa.  I didn't mean--"

Ben shook his head, waving a hand in frustrated dismissal. "It's nothing, Hoss.  Why aren't you dancing?  Both you boys should be with your young ladies--not your old man."

Hoss adopted his best "aw-shucks" grin and lowered his eyes, turning distinctly crimson.  "Miss Sally . . . Pa, she's such a dainty thing, ain't she?  I'm plum afeared I might break her."

"She doesn't seem to have the same fear about you," Adam intoned slyly.  "You do know how to pour your young lady punch, don't you, Hoss?"

"Why do you think I'm here?"  Hoss wet his lips and moved to the punch bowl. The cut crystal goblets, tinted with a blush of rose, seemed extra fragile in his large hands.  "Shucks, Little Joe done had Miss Beth outside and back already."

Adam and Ben exchanged a glance.  There was little doubt what Hoss's "outside" implied.

"Watch how you speak of that young lady," Ben admonished, causing Hoss to turn a deeper shade of red.

"I didn't mean no disrespect, Pa."

Adam smiled sardonically.  "That's Little Joe for you--lover and fighter in darn near the same breath."

"Huh?"  Hoss's eyes mirrored his confusion.

Ben tried to smooth over Adam's remark.  "It's nothing, Hoss.  Your younger brother is up to his usual tricks again--"

"Namely spoiling for a fight."

"Adam," Ben said sharply.

The dark-haired man reclaimed his glass of punch.  "I think that's my cue to leave."

"I don't understand, Pa," Hoss complained when Adam had departed.  He'd filled two cups with punch and stood cradling one in each hand.  The earnest openness of his face made Ben sigh.

"Hoss, sometimes Joe listens to you when he won't listen to anyone else.  He's not immediately defensive, like he is with me or Adam.  If he says anything to you . . . Hoss, just be sure to steer him in the right direction.  I'm afraid he might be stewing over Brecker again."

Hoss bit his lip, seemingly uncertain.  His expression did not go unnoticed by Ben.

"What is it?"

Hoss drew his lips together like a fish sucking air.  His mouth compressed in a tight line.  "Well, Pa . . . it's just--" He gnawed on his bottom lip, clearly uncomfortable.  Hunching his big shoulders forward, he looked almost guilty of a crime.  "One of the hands told Joe 'bout that incident a few weeks back.  You remember--Paul Blevins thought he saw Brecker.  I know it was just a false alarm and all, but Joe thinks Brecker might have really headed towards Cactus Mill.  He's dead set on riding out that way.  'Said he's gonna scout the area tomorrow."

Ben blanched.  "And you didn't tell me?"

Hoss squirmed.  "Well you know how Little Joe is, Pa.  I knew if I told you, you'd try to stop him.  Then he'd go gettin' all hot-under-the-collar and probably sneak off anyway.  I figured this way I could go with him and keep an eye on him."

"Oh you did, did you?"  Ben's voice positively bristled.  He could feel the blood spiking in his head and knew that he grew dangerously close to losing his temper.  "Well, you figured wrong.  And another thing--" A thick index finger jabbed beneath Hoss's nose.  "I'm not going to 'try' to stop Little Joe.  There isn't going to be any 'trying' involved."  Shaking his head, he turned aside, lodging his hands on his hips.  "Of all the hare-brained, thick-headed . . . why, that stupid little--"

"Pa?" Hoss injected worriedly.  But Ben had spotted his youngest son and was already moving away, a murderous look in his dark eyes.

Joe was just escorting Holly from the dance floor when Ben drew abreast of him.  The younger man had broken his sullenness long enough to spin his date through a quick-step, and as a result was breathing a little faster than normal.  Ben cupped his large hand around his son's biceps, applying slight pressure.  "Joseph, I need to talk to you outside."

"Pa?"  Joe appeared genuinely surprised. There was just enough boyish innocence in his clear green eyes to lend credence to a bewildered frown.  Looking at that expression, Ben realized how easily women must fall prey to his son's considerable charms.  Fortunately, he was immune.

"Outside, Joseph," he said again, making no effort to conceal his mounting displeasure.

"But, Pa . . . Holly--" Joe tried with a glance towards his date.

"It's all right, Little Joe."  Holly smiled indulgently.  "I need to freshen up, anyway."

Ben inclined his head politely.  He waited until she had gone before he tightened his grip on his son's arm.  "Now," he growled and wrenched the younger man towards the door.  Snagging Joe's hat from a peg just inside the entrance, he shoved him outside.  Joe nearly stumbled beneath the gruff handling.

"Ow!  Pa!"  Ineffectively, he tried to pry the restrictive fingers free.  "What's wrong with you?"

It wasn't until Ben had hauled him around the corner of the building and shoved him up against the wall that he released his grip.  With his feet planted at shoulder width, Ben folded his thick arms across his chest.  His chin dipped slightly, accentuating the rigid line of his mouth; the diamond-hard glare of his eyes.

Joe rubbed his arm.  He knew that look.  "What'd I'd do?" he asked uncertainly.

"It's what you intend to do.  I had a talk with Hoss and he told me about a ride you plan to take."

Joe's gaze was blank, but the confusion lasted only a moment.  Anger washed over his face. "He had no right!"  he snapped, taking a quick step forward.  Ben planted a hand in his chest and roughly bumped him back against the wall.  Stepping forward, he used his height to maximum advantage, glowering down at his slighter son.

"Now you listen to me, Joseph.  This thing with Brecker--it's over.  For all you know the man could be halfway to Mexico--"

"For all I know, he could be watching us right now."

"Then we'll let the law deal with him and the law find him."

"How?"  Joe challenged.  "When Roy and Clem are too busy tripping over their own feet."

"Don't raise your voice to me, boy," Ben warned darkly.  His son flushed and lowered his head.  Joe shifted irritably like a tethered stallion.

"Pa, I'm sorry, but--"

"No,"  Ben cut him off.  Joe's head came up sharply, green eyes bristling with restrained anger.  "I don't want sorry.  I don't want excuses.  You're going to listen to me, Joseph.  You're going to get the surrey, and you and I are going to ride back to the ranch--"

"You can't be serious!  I'm here with Holly."

"Her father will take her home."

"Pa, you can't do this to me!"  Joe's eyes were wild, tangled with panic and rage.  His voice bumped up in octave, as his frustration grew.  "You can't treat me like I'm fifteen and haul me out of here--"

"I'm your father.  I'll do whatever I want," Ben snapped, but he too was beginning to think he had over-played his hand.  He should have let it rest.  Waited until after the social, when they were safely back at the ranch.  He often faulted his son for a quick temper, but he wasn't above that vice himself.  To physically remove Joe from the dance was a shame his son wouldn't easily forgive.

Ben squared his shoulders, seeing no way to back down.  "Don't make me repeat myself, Joseph."

Joe clenched and unclenched his hands.  In the concealing shadows his eyes were chips of molten flame.  "May I at least say good-night to Holly?"  he asked stiffly.

"Get the surrey first.  And my horse."  Ben shoved Joe's hat into his hands.  Beneath the ragged anger, Ben saw the wounded hurt in his son's eyes.  Part of him wanted to reach out and stroke the furrow from his brow; ease the tension that set the pulse visibly ticking in his temple.  Instead he held his ground.  "Do I make myself clear, Joseph?"

Angrily, Joe tugged his hat on his head.  "Yes, sir."

Ben watched him move away, then exhaled a pent-up breath. I'm doing it for his own good, he tried to reason, but the distance yawned between them.  He knew he was over-protective of Joe at times.  Even Hoss and Adam hovered over the boy like mother hens when the situation warranted. He's twenty-two.  He doesn't need coddling, just correcting, now and again.

Ben dragged a hand through his silver hair.  Though the night was still fairly young,  he felt decidedly old.


Outside the livery stable, Joe checked the saddle cinch on Ben's horse.  His hands trembled with repressed rage as he pulled the strap across Buck's ample girth.  The lecture he'd received from his father replayed in his mind like a bad dream.

Taken from the dance like a child . . . in front of Holly . . . in front of her father . . . his mouth tightened distastefully . . . in front of Alex Wheeler.  It was more than he could bear.

He set his jaw stubbornly.  It wasn't going to happen.  There was nothing to stop him from taking Ben's horse and heading out after Brecker now.  He swallowed uneasily.  Nothing except facing Ben Cartwright when he returned.

"Hey, Little Joe--" Brad Coleman moved from the open doors of the livery stable.  A square of yellow light spilled into the darkness.  "You ain't leavin' already, are ya?  Want me to hitch the surrey?"

Joe raised his head, glancing over the top of Ben's horse.  "Sure, Brad.  Thanks."

With a wave of his hand, the older man moved back into the stable.  Momentarily distracted, Joe didn't hear the shuffling of sound behind him.


He half-turned; caught a glimpse of mat-black hair and pinched features.  The descending end of a rifle stock angled sharply for his head.  Too late he realized the danger, and instinctively raised an arm to ward off the blow.  Deflected, the gun cracked against his wrist.  Joe grunted at the sudden paroxysm of pain, and crumbled to his knees.  Raising his head, he caught a glimpse of the rifle as it descended a second time.

Then there was only darkness as it battered his skull and sent him reeling into oblivion. 


"He sure is taking his good old time." Ben snapped his pocket watch closed and tucked it inside his vest.  The small amount of remorse he'd harbored earlier for his treatment of Joe, was quickly wearing thin.  Upon returning to the social hall, he'd located Holly and told her Joe would be along momentarily.  He planned to allow Joe the dignity of making his own apologies to his date.
The girl had bowed her head demurely and moved off to speak with friends.

Next, Ben had located Adam and told him what he'd done.  Sensing his father's volatile mood, Adam had wisely refrained from comment.  Withdrawing, he'd shared a slow dance with Miss David.  Moments later, when Joe still had not returned, Adam wandered back to his father's side.  "He's dragging his heels, Pa.  Give him some time."

"He's treading thin ice, is what he's doing," Ben returned darkly.

"Mr. Cartwright!"  Ben's attention was snagged by Brad Coleman, who suddenly appeared in the doorway.  The bowl-legged man hobbled across the room, waving an object in his hand.  "Mr. Cartwright--sure am glad I found you."  As he drew abreast, Ben realized the object he held was Joe's hat.  "I was hitchin' up the surrey for your son, and--"

"Where'd you get Joe's hat?"  Ben demanded, plagued by a sudden sinking sensation.

"That's what I'm tryin' to tell ya.  The boy was saddling your horse outside the stable.  I went in to get the surrey rigged up, and when I came back out, he and the horse were gone.  I found this just lying there, like he'd taken off in a hurry or something."

Ben took the offered hat from Coleman's hand.  His eyes skewed sideways to Adam.  "Would he ride off?"  he asked softly.

Adam shook his head.  "He's stubborn, Pa, but he's not defiant.  And that hat--"

"I know.  It doesn't feel right."  His glance returned to Coleman.  "Show me where, Brad, okay?"

The other man nodded and Ben followed him outside.  The stable master fetched a lantern and led Ben to the spot where Joe had saddled Buck.  Moments later the two men were joined by Adam.

"Miss David is with Hoss," he said as way of explanation as he drew abreast.  Ben squatted in the dirt and traced his fingers over the recently disturbed earth.

"Too many people have been through here during the course of the day.  It's impossible to tell if someone was with Joe."

Adam tilted his head.  "You have anyone special in mind?"

Ben sighed.  "I wish to God, I didn't."


A razor-sharp splinter of pain shot from Joe's wrist, careening to his shoulder.  His arm was dragged behind his back and tightly restrained.  He blinked, trying to struggle back to consciousness.  There was a blinding ache in his skull, that induced a burrowing ribbon of nausea in his stomach.  Swallowing thickly, he fought to focus on the reeling instability of his surroundings.

He was sitting on the ground, his arms bound behind him, his shoulders supported by a rock wall.  Gray stone spun above his head, funneling into a pillow of blackness.  A damp breeze grazed his flushed skin, bringing a damp caress from what must surely be the bowels of a cave.

The nausea pummeled him and he moaned softly.  Roughly, a hand gripped his chin and forced his head back against the wall.  "Come on, Cartwright.  I ain't got all night.  Snap out of it, now."  A hand lashed across his cheek, rocking his head to the side.  The movement rekindled the throbbing ache at the base of his skull, and sent fire dancing behind his eyes.

Joe groaned and tumbled into the darkness.

Merciless and unforgiving, the past rose to haunt him, resurrecting memories he'd thought he'd buried.


"You've got to stay for supper, Little Joe."  Elsie's smile was endearing.  Joe remembered it as one of her most becoming traits, back when he was sparking her. 'Course, it had only been puppy love, and he'd been only too glad to concede her hand to his friend, Tom Fower.

"Sorry, Elsie.  I just dropped by to invite you and Tom over to the ranch on Saturday.  Pa's giving us all a break after that last cattle drive, and he thought a small dinner party would be a good way to unwind."

"Sounds good to me," Tom Fower announced, coming into the kitchen through the back door.  He caught Joe's hand in a warm clasp.  "Why didn't you tell me you were stopping, Little Joe?  I dang near might have missed you, if I'd headed into town like I planned."

Joe grinned and dropped the saddlebags he was carrying onto the nearest chair.  "Hmm . . . with this kind of welcome, maybe I can stay for a bite to eat."  His eyes shifted to Elsie.  "If the invitation still stands?"

She swatted him playfully.  "Go put up that horse of yours," she said with a nod for the door.   "I've got Shepard's Pie already baking in the oven."

"Sounds good to me."  He'd no sooner taken two steps towards the door, then he and Tom looked up suddenly at the sound of approaching hoofbeats.  Elsie moved to the window and brushed aside the curtains.

"Isn't that Omar Reese?"  she asked.

Joe's expression immediately darkened.  Moving beside her, he glanced over her shoulder.  "Yeah, that's him.  The other two are Roy and Colb Brecker."

Tom yanked open the door.  "Wonder what they want."

Joe followed his friend onto the porch.  He was decidedly edgy as the three men drew rein just off the front step.  Neither Reese nor the Breckers made any move to dismount.

Tom Fower inclined his head.  "Howdy.  What can I do you for?"

Reese glanced past Tom to where Joe stood off to the side.  "Cartwright . . ." he greeted evenly.   Joe's left hand rested casually near his holstered gun.  He could feel the hackles rise on his neck. It was no secret he disliked Reese.  He'd gone so far as to criticize Adam for hiring the man; had even tried to convince Ben to reverse the decision.  Joe knew he had no plausible reason for the aversion.  It was an instinctive reaction with no basis in fact, yet he couldn't dismiss it.

He inclined his head.  "You're a little out of your element, aren't you, Reese?  The Ponderosa's eight miles over those hills."  A toss of his head indicated the stand of trees in the distance.

"Depends," the man said slowly.  "On whether I'm looking for Cartwrights, or hunting one."

Colb Brecker shifted on his horse and snickered.  Joe could feel the mood getting ugly.  His heart was thumping in his chest.  He kept one eye trained on Colb, the other on Reese.

"Um, boys . . .we don't want any trouble here." Tom Fower tried to placate the new arrivals.

"No trouble," Roy Brecker assured. "Long as Cartwright parts with those saddlebags he got filled at the bank."

So--Reese showed his true colors at last.  Joe wasn't surprised.  His expression remained neutral, but inwardly he cursed.  His own stupidity had placed Tom and Elsie in jeopardy.  He couldn't risk their lives for the money he carried in those saddlebags.  He was about to tell Reese he'd give him what he wanted, when he caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye.

"Tom, no!"  he yelled, even as he watched his friend draw his gun.  Joe dove to the side, plowing into Tom, sending them both sprawling to the plank boards of the porch.  The high-pitched whine of a bullet whistled past his ear.  An explosion of gunfire followed. Tucking his shoulder, Joe rolled to the side.  He drew his gun as he sprang lithely to his feet.  A bullet shattered the window above his head, sending a shower of glass pelting against his jacket.  Inside, he heard Elsie scream.

"Tom!"  Joe tried to rouse his friend.  Reese and the Brecker brothers had taken cover in the yard, effectively pinning him beneath a volley of bullets.  "Damn it, Tom, come on!"  This time Joe tugged at his friend's sleeve, flopping him onto his back.

It took a moment for Joe to understand what had happened.  A moment for the lifeless stare of Tom's glazed eyes to penetrate the disbelieving fog in mind.  A moment to identify the sickening red stain on Tom's shirt as blood.

"Oh, God . . ." Choking, he dragged the back of his hand across his mouth.  His fingers were trembling.  "Tom?" he said weakly.  A bullet embedded into the wall by his shoulder, dislodging chips of wood.  He felt the sting of the expelled particles against his cheek.

"Give it up, Cartwright," he heard Reese yell.

Angry now, driven by rage as much as desperation, Joe retrieved Tom's gun.  With his friend's revolver in his right hand, and his own pearl-handled Colt in his left, Joe lurched to his feet.  Sending off a rapid spray of bullets, he darted towards the front door.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Colb Brecker fall, and knew that his strike had been lethal.  The brief hesitation cost him however.  He felt a harrowing stitch of pain in his left side, just below the ribs, and knew that he'd been hit.

Stumbling across the threshold, he slammed the door, then sagged back against the wall.  His breath came in ragged gasps, propelled by the fiery agony in his side.  Tentatively, he cupped his right hand against the wound.  Blood saturated his fingers.  He could feel the sticky wetness seeping through his shirt, plastering the fabric to his body.

"Elsie." He croaked the name hoarsely, his throat gone suddenly dry.  Anxiously, his eyes darted about the room.  He saw her then, lying on her side, her golden hair fanned about her like a shimmering halo.  "Dear God, no."

Joe lurched forward and stumbled.  His knees struck the floorboards, jolting his wounded side.  Pain flared from hip to shoulder, making his head swim with the raw intensity of the shock.  For a dizzying moment, blackness descended and he came dangerously close to passing out.  Shaking off the haze, he forced himself to crawl forward.  Gathering Elsie's limp form in his arms, he cradled her protectively in his lap.

"Elsie?  Please, Elsie, say something."  Blood flowed from her hairline, darkening the rose-tinted cream of her cheeks.  Joe smoothed a hand over her brow, brushing back the flaxen tresses, heedless of the blood soiling his jacket.  Bending over, he pressed his lips to her forehead.  He could feel the tears burning his eyes; blinked and sent the hot liquid rolling down his cheeks. He was vaguely aware that the gunfire had stopped.

"Joe."  Weakly her fingers twined with his.  "Is Tom . . . is Tom . . .?"

Lifting his head, he met her eyes.  He didn't have the heart to tell her differently.  "Tom's fine," he lied, forcing a watery smile.  Instantly, he felt her relax.  Her eyes were oddly peaceful, her face serene.  Her fingers grew lax and slipped from his hand.

"Elsie," he whispered.  But he knew there would be no response.  Not this time.

The sudden clatter of boots on the front porch drew his head up.  Instinctively he reached for his gun, leveling the revolver at the door.  The barrier yawned inward and Roy Brecker was shoved inside.  He was followed by two men who worked for Tom Fower. The oldest, Clint Draymore, took one look at Joe with Elsie cradled in his arms, and grimaced.

"Damnation, boy.  What the hell happened here?"


Adam pressed his lips together, watching silently as his father finished adjusting the saddle straps on his horse.  With Buck missing, he was riding Mutton, a spirited chestnut purchased two years ago at the Placerville Horse Auction.  A slight breeze rippled the horse's mane, carrying with it the scent of prairie and pine.  It was a welcoming odor, pungent but oddly comforting.  Adam breathed deeply, trying to glean solace from the familiar.

"Pa, it's dark out.  You can't ride in the dark."

"I'm not waiting 'till morning," Ben said shortly.

Adam sighed.  If Little Joe had taken off on his own initiative, he'd personally box his ears on his return.  He couldn't believe his brother would do something so foolish, or so selfish, but sometimes Joe was hard to read.  Just when he thought he had his younger brother figured out, the kid would throw him for a loop.  One never had the chance to rest on their laurels with Joe.

"And where do you think you're going?"  Adam asked Hoss, as his younger brother appeared from the barn, trailing his horse.

Hoss nodded in Ben's direction, as if the answer was obvious.  He cleared his throat.  "I got those lanterns you wanted, Pa."  Raising a hand, he displayed two oil lanterns.

"See Adam," Ben cast over his shoulder.  "The dark isn't a problem."

Pursing his lips, Adam nodded.  "I don't suppose there was a third lamp in the barn, was there, Hoss?"

His brother grinned brightly.  "Already fixed on your saddle horn, Adam.  You'd better fetch your horse, 'cause Pa's about ready to ride."

"Yeah," Adam said.  "I thought as much."  Striding briskly for the barn, he hurried to get his horse and join the others.


The pain in his right wrist brought Joe groggily back to consciousness.  Blinking, he opened his eyes and let his vision adjust to the confining shadow.  Wincing, he tried to move and realized that his hands were tethered behind his back.  Tiny needles set pinpricks of fire dancing in his fingertips.  His right arm ached from his wrist to his shoulder, but it was the concentrated swirl of
pain in his forearm that left him weak with nausea.  He dragged his tongue over his lips, feeling cracked skin beneath.

"Done with our beauty sleep, I see."

Joe tried to focus on the disembodied voice.  Gradually his eyes adjusted to the shadows and he deciphered a man squatting across from him.  An angular face and pinched features were offset by thinning black hair and pale blue eyes.

"I knew you wouldn't leave," Joe said evenly, surprised that he didn't feel much of anything.  Brecker's presence should have consumed him with murderous rage . . . at the very least guilt and remorse . . . but he felt strangely empty, as though the turmoil that had plagued him for so long had slithered into obscurity.  He drew a ragged breath, vowing to cling to Tom and Elsie's memory.

There was a distinctive click in the darkness--the hammer of a gun being drawn back.  Brecker moved forward and squatted directly in front of Joe.

"How could I leave?  You owe me, boy.  You owe me restitution."  Brecker raised the gun and dragged the barrel down Joe's cheek.  He allowed the weapon to fall into the hollow at Joe's throat, where he applied slight pressure.  "See, that circuit judge--if he hadn't been around, I might have busted Roy out of jail 'fore they hanged him.  Might even have ridden away, him and I.  You killed Colb, but Colb was shootin' at you, so I can almost overlook that.  But the gallows- -"  The gun dug deeper, pinching Joe's windpipe, causing him to choke and gasp for air.  He could feel his supply of oxygen being cut off, but couldn't raise his hands to ease the pressure.  "Hanging just ain't no way to die.  Is it boy?"

When the gun dug deeper still, Joe shifted his weight and lashed out with his legs.  He heard Brecker grunt as the heel of his boot made contact with flesh.  The gun dislodged and a bullet pinged against the cave wall.  Cursing, Brecker drew back and cracked the barrel of the revolver across Joe's cheek, driving him into the ground.  Groaning, Joe rolled onto his side.

Blood flowed from his torn face, but it was the sudden jarring movement to his battered wrist that buffeted him with sickening waves of pain.  He swallowed convulsively, forcing down bile, as he gasped on the rush of clean air to his lungs.  Brecker grabbed him by the shoulders and wrenched him back against the wall.  Joe cried out as his wrist connected with the rough stone at his back.

Brecker pressed his face close.  His breath smelled of stale alcohol and onions.  "Gonna hang you, Cartwright.  Just like they hung my boy.  Soon as it's light, gonna hang you.  I waited a long time.  Waited and watched.  Tomorrow I'm gonna kill you."

Blinded by pain, Joe drove forward, throwing his shoulder into the older man's chest.  Grunting beneath the unexpected blow, Brecker tumbled backwards.  Joe lurched unsteadily to his feet.  Behind him he could hear Brecker cursing, shuffling in the darkness.  Joe didn't hesitate, but ran for the lighter shadows at the front of the cave.  His head was spinning and he nearly lost his
footing twice.  Stumbling beneath a star-laden sky, he tried to pick his way down the rocky incline that led from the cave.  Cold sweat dripped into his eyes.

"Cartwright!"  Up above, Brecker bellowed his name.  Joe's breath came harsh and rasp, mixed with the bile in the back of his throat.  The confinement of his hands made his balance precarious. His foot turned on a loose piece of shale, and he tumbled head first down the embankment.  Jagged rock and scrub scored the tender flesh of his arms and legs, and left bloody scratches, like
welts on his face.  His fall was halted when his shoulder collided painfully with the trunk of a fir tree.  Gasping for air, he lay on his back, shrouded by a canopy of fragrant needles.  Night sky reeled above him, glimpsed in patches through wind-rippled branches.

The vision of moon and stars was the last thing he remembered before unconsciousness claimed him once again.


It was lighter when Joe awakened.  The sky had faded to charcoal, tipped with ribbons of copper and gold to the east, where the sun struggled to climb above the trees.  Early morning dew saturated the ground, soaking through the thin fabric of his white shirt.  Pristine last evening, the garment was now torn in numerous places.  Somewhere during the night, he'd lost his shoe-string tie. His collar gaped open at his throat, exposing a tanned wedge of skin on his chest; the discolored bruises on his neck.

Shivering, Joe dragged himself to a sitting position.  Crisp morning air whispered over his dew-soaked shirt, making him yearn for the extra warmth of his jacket.  Propping his back against the fir, he closed his eyes and waited for the pounding in his head to subside.  Tentatively, he flexed his bound hands.  The skin beneath the rope binding was raw.  He could feel the crack and pull of
dried blood on his skin.  There was little feeling in either hand, but the brittle ache in his right forearm warned of the abuse suffered by his battered wrist.  Though he didn't think it broken, it  was surely sprained.

Drawing a ragged breath, he glanced around his haven.  Brecker was no where to be seen, nor were the horses they'd used for travel.  Though Joe remembered little of his abduction, he vaguely recalled Brecker shoving him face-down over Buck's saddle.  The next thing he'd known, he'd awakened in the cave.  It was only through a stroke of fortune that Brecker hadn't located him last
night, beneath the sheltering arms of the fir tree.  Joe had no doubt the man was still around, scouting the area for signs of his whereabouts.

His head lolled back against the tree. Pa will think I disobeyed him and took off after Brecker,
he realized with a sinking heart.  Would Ben come looking for his wayward son?  Incensed, no doubt, but he would come.  Drawing his knees to his chest, seeking to trap what little warmth he could, Joe clung to that thin strand of hope.  He was shivering violently now.  The torturous ache in his arm was spreading roots to his shoulder.  He glanced about the concealing canopy and spied a jagged piece of rock jutting up from the ground.  Struggling first to his knees, then to his feet, he staggered towards the outcropping.  Blood pounded in his head, loud as thunder in his ears. For a moment, he thought he would black out.  Darkness swirled before his eyes, then gradually receded.  When his head cleared, he dropped to the ground.  Turning his back to the rock, he began to saw the hemp binding across the rough edge.  The work was slow and tiring, and each slight movement sent pain spiking from his wrist to his shoulder.  Cold sweat saturated his hair, dripping into his eyes.  At last the binding snapped free.

Joe gasped and lurched forward, assaulted by the fiery rush of circulation to his numb hands.  Instinctively, he cradled his right arm across his middle.  The wrist was swollen, marred by ugly puce-colored blotches that feathered to red at the edges.  Returning circulation, coupled with the sting of blood shooting through the battered wrist, wrenched his stomach inside out.  He swallowed convulsively, no longer able to control the nausea.  Doubling over, he gagged violently, dispelling last night's meal.  When his stomach was empty, he sat back on his haunches and dragged a trembling hand across his mouth.  His head was reeling, but he knew he couldn't stay where he was.  It was only a matter of time before Brecker doubled back and found him.

Groaning, he forced himself to his feet.  Immediately the world tipped, reeling helter-skelter.  A second wave of nausea pummeled his stomach, inducing a cold sweat.  Joe waited for it to pass.  When he could stand without swaying, he forced himself to move forward.  Exhausted and weak,  he began the difficult task of finding shelter.

The Ponderosa ranch lay some fifteen miles east.


Ben drew rein and held up a hand for his two sons to do likewise.  "We've lost it again," he complained angrily.  Twisting in the saddle, he cast a glance back over his shoulder.

The morning sun was inching higher in the sky, weaving streamers of salmon and peach through the cobalt canvas. Though they'd managed to pick up Buck's tracks on the outskirts of town, intermingled with those of another horse, they continued to lose the trail each time they ventured into rocky terrain.  Ben had no doubt the second horse belonged to Chet Brecker. Frowning at the
brightening sky, he glanced at his sons.  "We've spent all night fumbling around in the dark.  Brecker could have taken Joe halfway to Carson City by now.  Worse yet, he might have--" He swallowed, unable to finish the thought.  He wouldn't even consider the possibility that his son might be dead.

As though reading his mind, Hoss lowered his eyes.  Nervously, he laced the reins through his hands.  His saddle creaked as he shifted his weight.  "We could double back again.  Maybe split up.  Dadburnit, Pa, them tracks just got to be around here somewhere."

"We'll have help soon," Adam noted.  He could see the agitated worry in Ben's eyes; felt a similar strain in his own constitution.  There was no longer any question about Joe venturing off on his own.  The second horse clearly indicated the trouble his younger brother was in.  "Roy promised a posse at first light.  They're probably already saddled and heading our way.  With more men, we'll
cover more ground."

Ben gave a clipped nod.  He was tired and every bone in his body ached, but the thought of his son in danger made the discomfort trivial.  Tugging on the reins of his horse, he wheeled the animal around.  "Let's circle back and try it again, boys.  Those tracks have got to--"

"Hey, Pa, wait a minute," Hoss said abruptly.  He'd been staring morosely ahead where the trees clustered together, before they receded to rockier ground.  Tapping his heels to Chubb's sides, he nudged the horse forward.  A flicker of movement had drawn his attention to the low-hanging branch of a maple.  There, something fluttered weakly in the early morning breeze.  The breath
whistled through Hoss's teeth as he drew abreast.  "Look!"  He exclaimed, snagging the item and hefting it high in the air for the others to see.

A quaking thread of hope awakened in Ben's chest.  Hoss had found Joe's shoe-string tie.


Joe titled his head back and stared at the cloud-streaked sky.  The angle induced a blinding spell of dizziness and he quickly looked away, concentrating instead on placing one foot in front of the other.  He'd covered an incredibly small amount of ground in the hour since awakening, hampered by light-headedness and the hot, spiking pain in his right wrist.  Halting momentarily, he sagged against a spindly elm, struggling to catch his breath.

His throat was raw and dry, making him yearn for a cool drink of water.  Distractedly, he laced his left hand through his hair.  He knew he had too keep moving . . . try to find help . . . try to out-think Brecker since there was no chance he'd outrun the man.  Wearily he pushed away from the tree.

The ground sloped uphill and he panted with the effort of the climb.  The rising sun was warm on his back, chasing away the night's chill.  A breeze rippled across his cheek eliciting a shiver of pain where Brecker's revolver had laid open the skin.  He could feel the area beneath his eye swelling, and knew within a few hours it would push the lid shut.  After a time, the uphill trek took its toll.  The bouts of dizziness grew worse, his footing less certain. As he struggled to continue, his attention was drawn by the rat-a-tat cadence of hoofs on shale.

Joe threw a glance over his shoulder.   Haloed by the waxing light of the morning sun, a lone rider broached the horizon.

A knife of apprehension sliced through Joe.

There was no mistaking the distinctive hue of Brecker's blood bay.


"We've got to be close," Hoss complained.  They'd lost the trail again.  His frustration level was growing with each wrong turn.  "Dadburnit, where's Roy and that posse, anyway?"

Adam scrubbed a hand over his face.  The search was growing trying, fraying the raw edges of his nerves.  Between Hoss's chatty frustration and Ben's grim silences, Adam felt the sole balance on a precarious see-saw.  He chanced a glance at his father.

If anything happened to Joe--

He couldn't finish the thought.  The death of a son would destroy Ben.  Adam knew his father had survived the tragic losses of three wives, but he didn't think his father had the will to withstand the loss of a child.  Adam's own stomach twisted at the thought.  Life without Little Joe--without his pranks, his quick temper and even quicker grin--it could never be the same.

Cursing silently, his hands white-knuckled on the reins.  This was partially his fault.  He had hired Brecker, then turned a deaf ear to Joe when his younger brother tried to warn him something wasn't right with the man.  Adam was so accustomed to Joe's concerns being light-weight and fleeting, he hadn't given the observation any true credence.

His nails embedded into the tender flesh of his palms as he thought back on his own dismissal of the matter. If Brecker harms Little Joe, I'll kill him myself . . .

"Hey, Pa, lookee there--"

Adam broke from his thoughts, jostled by Hoss's exclamation.  His glance skitted over the terrain, following the direction of his brother's nod.  Reflexively, a tight grin spread over his lips.

"Gonna have to call you eagle eyes," he said aside to his brother.  In the distance Buck stood partially hidden by an outcropping of rock.  The horses's reins dangled loose, dragging over the ground, as it inspected the spindly clusters of grass sprouting among shale.

Hoss beamed.  "Hey!  Things are looking up.  First Joe's tie, now Pa's horse.  You watch and see, Adam.   Why, I'll bet we find Joe in--"

His words were bludgeoned into sudden silence by the unexpected crack of gunfire--once, twice.

Adam shuddered as each shot burrowed through him.  At his side, Ben's face drained of all color. "Dear God," his father breathed.  And then Ben was past him, driving his horse in a frenzied dash over the rock strewn terrain.

In a matter of seconds, Adam and Hoss followed.


Joe's breath was a ragged gasp in his ears.  He could hear the tell-tale drum of hoofbeats behind him as he struggled to outdistance his pursuer.  Injured and on foot, he knew the effort was futile, but determination drove him on when exhaustion would have him crumble. He stumbled twice before Brecker caught him--each time taking the brunt of the fall on his left side and shoulder. As he scrambled to his feet the second time, he felt horse and rider close on his back.

Joe half-turned.  There was a hissing whoosh in the air, then Brecker's rifle caught him between the shoulder blades, propelling him forward.  Stunned by the impact as much as the pain, he gasped aloud.  Unable to halt the forward momentum of his fall, he crumbled to the ground.  His hands struck first, followed by his knees.  His right wrist buckled beneath him.

Joe screamed.

The agony that sliced through him was unlike anything he'd ever experienced.  Bone shattered in his wrist, pushing upward through his skin.  Wave upon wave of searing pain buffeted him, until near senseless with the agony, he thought he would faint.

Gravel crunched near his head.  He was vaguely aware that Brecker had dismounted and was standing over him, a wolfish grin curling his lips.  From the corner of his eye he saw the older man draw his foot back.  A new explosion of pain ripped across his stomach as Brecker's booted toe caught him below the ribs.  Still healing from the bullet wound, Joe instinctively folded his arms
over his middle and curled into a ball.  He heard Chet Brecker laugh.

"Come on, Cartwright.  This is too easy."  A hand laced into his hair and snagged his head up.  "Told you I was gonna hang you."  Wedging a knee tightly against Joe's stomach, Brecker pinned him on his back.  Joe squirmed but was unsuccessful in breaking the hold.  "Ain't no trees high enough around here, so guess I'll just have to do without."  Grinning, Brecker slipped a noose over Joe's neck and drew the knot snug.

His right arm practically useless, Joe snagged Brecker's wrist with his left hand, vainly trying to ease the pressure.  Realizing his intended victim was basically powerless, Brecker milked the advantage for all it was worth.  He tightened the knot bit by bit so that Joe's air supply was choked off in small amounts, prolonging his misery.  Though he squirmed beneath Brecker's larger bulk, Joe was unsuccessful in dislodging the heavier man.

Pinpricks of light danced before his eyes, and a noise like rushing water flooded his head.  His chest was tight, ready to explode.  Greedily, he wheezed on each precious trickle of breath sucked into his starving lungs.  His eyes rolled back in his head and his hand fell limply to the side.

"Too easy," he heard Brecker say again.

Joe palmed a heavy rock from the ground.  Summoning the last vestiges of his waning strength, he hefted the stone and cracked it against the side of Brecker's head.  Immediately the pressure eased from his throat and stomach.  Choking on the sudden rush of clean air, Joe rolled onto his side.  Pushing with his legs, he shoved away from Brecker and scrambled unsteadily to his feet.

The older man was doubled over, holding his head.  Blood seeped between his fingers, oozing in thick scarlet ribbons across the back of his hand.  "I'm gonna kill you boy, you son-of-a--"

Joe kicked out with his foot, driving the killer into the ground.  All the bitterness he'd kept buried for the last five weeks came bubbling abruptly to the surface.  This man had killed Tom!  Killed Elsie!  Unlike the calm that had befallen him in the cave, a dam of tethered emotions broke loose.  Blinded by pain, senseless with rage, Joe threw himself on Brecker.  His left fist drove into the man's unprotected midsection, striking again and again.  Brecker howled and cuffed him across the face.

The man's hands rose and tangled in the noose still wrapped about Joe's neck.  Clutching the loose end of the rope in one hand, Brecker caught the slip-knot and thrust upward with the other.  This time there was no gradual increase of pressure--just an all-out effort to crush Joe's windpipe beneath the hemp binding.

Gasping for air, Joe released his hold on Brecker.  He knew the man would kill him this time.  In desperation he clawed at the rope.  Unable to ease the pressure, he dropped his hand, fumbling for the other man's gun.  His fingers snagged the protruding butt of the revolver and he jerked the gun free, wedging the barrel tightly against Brecker's stomach.  Face-to-face, nearly eye-to-eye, Joe watched the realization dawn in Brecker's eyes the instant before he pulled the trigger--once for Elsie, once for Tom.  Brecker convulsed as each bullet tore his flesh, his eyes popping in his head like marbles.  Sickened, Joe shoved him away, watching as he crumbled lifelessly to the ground.

Bent double, his left hand held to his throat, Joe drank unsteady gulps of the warm air.  With a shaking hand, he ripped the noose from his neck and tossed it aside.  The danger now past, his body reacted to the fleeing rush of adrenalin, and he began to tremble violently.

The thunder of hoofs broaching the horizon brought his head up.  Too weak to move, he watched as three riders crested the rise.

"Pa--" The name left his throat in a hoarse croak.

Joe bowed his head and let the exhaustion sweep over him.


Ben drew his hand down the side of his son's face, content to sit at Joe's bedside and watch him sleep.  The doctor had departed three hours ago, after setting Joe's broken wrist and administrating to his many scrapes and bruises.  Sedated beneath a laudanum haze, Joe slept peacefully.

Ben expelled a tired sigh.  To think he'd almost lost this child--his throat tightened up at the memory of finding Joe, battered and bruised, by Brecker's dead body.  The last words they'd spoken at the social had been ones of anger, but that hadn't stopped him from cradling his son in his arms, until the tremor of Joe's emotions had passed.

It was over. Truly over.

Ben brushed a stray curl of hair from his son's forehead.  These last few hours he couldn't stop touching Joe, as if he needed to reassure himself that his son was flesh and bone and not a figment of his imagination.  Lost in sleep, Joe turned his head on the pillow.  The movement exposed the ugly black-purple bruises encircling his neck.

Ben grimaced.  He could feel the heat rising in his face as he thought of what his son had endured.  If Brecker were still alive--

He shoved the thought aside. No, no.  That won't do at all.  He had to concentrate on Joe now, not on Brecker.  His son needed him.  Not only to help him through the physical healing, but the emotional scars as well.


Ben jerked, realizing he'd been staring.  He blinked to find Joe awake, watching him.  His son's leaf-green eyes were achingly clear, tipped by a row of black lashes.  The skin above his right cheek had darkened from abuse, but the swelling was slowly receding and the lid remained open.  Ben's hand strayed from Joe's brow to his shoulder.  His fingers tightened noticeably.

"I thought you'd sleep for awhile."

Joe wet his lips.  "I'm tired," he admitted.  His voice was weak, a thin thread of his normal tone.  "Where's Adam and Hoss?"

"Downstairs," Ben supplied shortly.  The sound of his son's voice brought an unexpected knot to his throat.  Near strangulation had left Joe's voice raw and raspy.  Ben didn't doubt it was painful for him to speak.   "They're waiting.  And worrying about their younger brother.  We've pretty much decided the Cartwrights won't being doing much work today."

Joe's gaze was worried.  "I didn't mean . . . to cause trouble, Pa . . . I'm sorry . . ."

"It's all right, Joe."  Gently Ben stroked his cheek. "Nothing that happened is your fault."

Joe's lashes dipped to his cheeks.  Maybe it wasn't his fault, but he still felt like he owed Ben an apology.  He'd been angry with his father the night of the social.  Odd how their disagreement seemed so trivial now.  Shifting position, he eased onto his side.  The movement induced an unexpected flare of pain in his wrist, and he hitched in his breath.

"What's the matter?"  Ben asked quickly.

Joe shook his head.  His face was white.  "I just need to be careful for awhile, I guess.  My  wrist . . ."

"Yeah.  Joe . . ."  Ben shifted in his chair, his own expression growing troubled.  Cupping his hand around his son's forearm, he allowed his thumb to trace a leisurely path over the tanned skin.  Whether the touch was meant to reassure himself or Joe, he no longer knew.  "How did Brecker--?"

Joe swallowed and immediately grimaced.  The action was torture to his abused throat.  "He wanted restitution . . . a life for a life.  He thought I owed him, Pa."

Ben thought how horrible it must be, losing a son.  He'd come very close himself, though the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Roy and Colb Brecker were of their own making.  To have Joe here, safe and secure--his turmoil gave way to a sensation of rapidly spreading warmth.

Joe's eyes dipped momentarily, then opened.  Ben could see he was tired.

"You need to rest," he said softly.

Joe shook his head.  "No.  Not until . . ." he struggled to find the words.  "Pa, when Elsie and Tom died, I thought it was my fault."

"I told you it wasn't, Joseph."

"I know.  But hearing it said and feeling it inside are two different things.  I kept thinking . . . if I hadn't stopped . . . if I'd just kept riding by their home that day . . ."

"We've been through all this, Joe.  You can't take the blame for circumstance."  Ben's thumb stopped its leisurely path on his arm.  "I could have cashed that payroll draft myself instead of sending you. I could have sent Adam or Hoss.  I could have done it a day early or a day late--"

"I know what you're trying to say, and I appreciate it."  His voice grew shallower as the strain of talking wore on his vocal cords.  "But--"

"Enough, Joseph.  You need to sleep now."  Ben reached for the blankets, adjusting them on his son's shoulders.  He could feel Joe's eyes on him.  A second later, the warm touch of his son's hand against his wrist made him stop his fussing.  .

"Pa, I'm trying to tell you I don't feel that way any more."

Ben eased back, studying his son's face.  Trust and love mingled in Joe's expressive green eyes.  "Well . . ." Ben gave a satisfied nod of his head.  He could feel the emotion welling up in his throat.  He hadn't slept in almost thirty-six hours, nor eaten anything since yesterday noon.  The toll of trekking through the darkness looking for his missing son, not knowing if he was alive or dead, came to a cumulative head in Joe's uninhibited gaze.  He drew a ragged breath.  "I'm glad," he managed at last.  Once again his hand settled on his son's shoulder, then slowly tracked up the side of his neck.  "Get some rest, Joe.  I know two brothers who are going to be very anxious to see you."

A trace of a familiar grin lifted the corner of Joe's mouth.  "No more anxious than I'm gonna be to see them."  Carefully rolling onto his side, he settled down among the blankets.

Ben breathed a sigh of relief.  Leaning back in his chair, he tilted his head to stare at the ceiling.    He would wait until he heard the even sound of Joe's breathing.  When he knew his son slept, he would slip from the room and tell Adam and Hoss how their brother fared.  But Ben knew he wouldn't be long.  Something to eat, a few minutes to freshen up, and he would be back at his son's side.

Instinctively his eyes drifted to Joe.

It was where he belonged.

--End Restitution--

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