It was a sunny day in Eagle Station.

The place was bustling with business as usual…nothing was amiss.

Inside Eli and Ruth Orwitz's store, Ben Cartwright and his eldest son Adam were purchasing a few things.

The middle son, Hoss Cartwright was talking with his dear friend Tess Greene over by the stables and the youngest Cartwright, Little Joe was playing with some of the other boys in town over behind the saloon.

Little Joe loved marbles…he liked to play marbles and he certainly loved to win at marbles.

Finding a place to play marbles was always tricky because the ground was almost always muddy, but sometimes it was hard and even enough to play a quick game or two.

That was what Little Joe was doing when a large explosion sounded from somewhere around Eli Orwitz's store.

Little Joe and the other children immediately stood up and looked up at the smoke billowing up.

For young Joe it was almost like déjà vu because he had lost his own mother to an explosion at Eli's store.

Before Joe could move, he could hear gunshots and screams coming from the main street that led in and out of Eagle Station.

By this time the other boys had split, leaving Joe standing there behind the saloon; fear gripping at his heart.

After a few minutes the gunshots stopped and the entire station became deadly silent.

There were no screams, no dogs barking, not even the whistle of the wind.

It was as if Eagle Station had become a ghost town and he, Little Joe Cartwright was its only inhabitant.

Knees shaking, Little Joe licked his lips as he slowly crept along the back of the saloon.

Peering around the side of the building, he didn't see anything in the main street.

Gaining confidence, Joe slunk along the side of the saloon until he finally stopped.

Now he had a full view of the carnage that lay before him.

Bodies of men, woman and children littered the main street of Eagle Station.

To Joe it was clear that some of the men had been trying to protect the young children, especially the girls, but none of them had survived.

This had been a precision job, with gun shot wounds to the heart or one right between the eyes.

Knowing that whoever had done this could still be around; twelve year old Joseph Cartwright kept to the shadows as much as possible as he tiptoed all the way to the stables.

He didn't dare whisper Hoss's name because he feared that the murderer or murderers might hear him.

Swallowing his fear, Little Joe entered the stables and stopped dead in his tracks.

There right behind a large bale of hay laid the bloody form of Hoss Cartwright and just behind him was the equally bloody form of Tess Greene, having received at least two rounds to the chest.

Joe knew deep in his heart that his brother was dead, in his mind there was no question.

Some have said that brothers have this ability to silently speak to one another, and this had been true for the Cartwright boys; each having the uncanny ability to just know when either of the three of them was in some need of help.

This ability…this brotherly connection that Joe had had with Hoss was now gone…bleeding away out of Hoss' unmoving body with every ticking second.

Lowering his head, Joe left the stables and snuck along until he came to the General Store…or at least what was left of it.

Half of the store had collapsed and the other half was still smoking slightly.

Entering the part that was still standing, it didn't take Little Joe long before he located his Pa and Adam…both with gun shot wounds to their chest…not to mention burns and other lacerations where the shrapnel from the explosion had gotten them.

Tears pouring down his face, Little Joe turned to leave and stopped just in time to see a lone gun pointed directly at his head.

Joe blinked and slowly the vision faded from before him to be replaced with the cold, hard reality.

It was true, the whole of Eagle Station apart from one small boy had been murdered…that boy had been saved and removed from Nevada to be raised by the only man who ever seemed to care about him, even though the man was a murderer and a bounty hunter himself.

Joseph, or as he liked to be called now Ty stood before his horse while his mentor Jackson was awaiting him on top of his other horse.

"Ty…hey Ty you with me?"

"Sorry Jack…I lost it for a second." Little Joe replied as he got on to the horse.

By this time Little Joe was far from little, having grown up to be a tall 6 ft 1 twenty year old.

"Be careful doing that. Those few seconds of wishful thinking could very well be your last." Jackson warned.

"I know, I know. Sometimes I can't help it." Little Joe said as he guided his horse down the slope and towards the road, with Jackson following.

"Put the past in the past…it'll only cause you grief."

"Spoken like a true idiot." Little Joe said with a chuckle.

Jackson smiled as well. He had a feeling that he knew what Joseph had been thinking about, since it marked eight years today that the boy's family had been killed.

Hours went by as the two rode on in silence, before the next town came in to sight…it was the town that Little Joe dreaded, but he knew that they had to pass through on their way to California, where their little trail led.

"Now don't do anything stupid." Jackson warned.

"I haven't been back here in eight years Jack." Little Joe replied, looking slightly apprehensive as the first few buildings of Eagle Station came clearly in to view.

"All the more reason not to draw attention to yourself." Jackson said.

Little Joe sighed as they entered the town.

It was bustling again, with more woman, children and men.

Obviously the town hadn't been deserted long.

Little Joe almost had to hold his breath as they passed by what used to be Eli Orwitz's old store.

It still was a General Store but it was now run by a Jake Miller, whomever that was!

Seeing the signal from Jackson out of the corner of his eye, Little Joe led his horse over to a trough beside the old stables, which still looked the same as ever.

Getting down off of his horse, Little Joe waited for Jackson who muttered, "Play it cool."

Nodding his head, Joe slipped in to the shadows, waited and watched while Jackson slipped in to the small saloon to conduct a little business.

Not ten minutes later Joe heard a laugh that he recognized…it was something that he hoped it would forget.

Looking towards the General Store, Joe saw someone…in fact three someone's whom he thought had died in this very town!

It was Ben, Adam and Hoss Cartwright…his family!

No…no it couldn't be! Could it?

Swallowing in fear, Little Joe stuck to the shadows as he got closer to the trio who went to a wagon and placed a bag of grain in to the back of it.

"Eagle Station sure has changed, hasn't it Pa?" Hoss remarked as he climbed in to the wagon and took the reins of the pack horses.

"Yes it has. Eight years sure is a long time." Ben agreed.

"We were lucky though. If Jake hadn't shown up when he did, we would have been dead for sure. Heck he wasn't so sure about Hoss for awhile." Adam said solemnly.

A slight sniffling to his left caused Adam to look to his father who was doing his best not to cry.

This had been going on for eight years now…always on this day.

"He's gone Pa. Little Joe is gone and he isn't coming back." Adam said.

Ben Cartwright looked towards his eldest son with grief shining brightly in his eyes.

"You don't know that…and I don't know that. His body was never found so there's still a chance that he could he alive." Ben said.

With that said Ben wiped the tears from his eyes and boarded the wagon while Adam got on to his own horse.

As the Cartwrights slowly took off down the street, Little Joe had the urge to go after them, even raising his hands out to them from the shadows, but as they rounded the corner, Little Joe let his hand drop to his side…they were no longer part of his life.

His innocence…his very childhood and been stolen away from him. Now he was a different man.

He was no longer a Cartwright…he was a bounty hunter and nothing could change that.

However that call…the call of the Ponderosa was still there in his blood…in his very being, and it was calling him home.

Joseph knew that if Jackson caught him he would be in deep trouble, but seeing his family again was worth the risk, so smoothly Joseph approached his horse and mounted him.

Turning Denny around, Joe led the faithful horse out of Eagle Station and towards the Ponderosa.

Getting to the Ponderosa was easy, as was finding a hiding place.

Hiding behind tree after tree near the house, Little Joe watched Ben, Adam and Hoss do the chores on the Ponderosa.

It was only then that Little Joe saw the scars from the Cartwrights ordeal.

Ben had lost several fingers and his chest was misshapen, while Hoss walked with a slight limp. Adam had also lost most of his left hand, with only his ring finger and thumb remaining, which was why he liked to wear a glove that was fastened to his hand.

"May I help you?"

Little Joe jumped and nearly yelled out. It was no small feat to sneak up and scare him, yet Hop Sing had managed to do so.

Turning around, Little Joe faced the Chinese man, not being able to say anything to him.

"Do you wish to speak with Mr. Cartwright?" Hop Sing asked.

Little Joe realized that Hop Sing had no idea who he was. Would the rest of the family not recognize him? Had the world changed him that much?

Regaining his composure, Little Joe nodded his head once towards Hop Sing.

"Yes sir, I need to ask him a few questions." Little Joe said in his best gruff voice.

Hop Sing nodded and led Little Joe out of the trees and over to Ben, Adam and Hoss.

When the three men saw Hop Sing and a visitor behind him, they all stopped working and wiped the sweat from their brows.

When the young lad was close enough, Ben greeted him.

"Hello, I'm Ben Cartwright. These are my boys, Adam and Hoss." Ben said, indicating his sons, who nodded at Little Joe.

It was at this moment in time that Little Joe ached to have his father hold him in his arms like he did oh so long ago.

Little Joe was aching to tell Ben the truth but…would Ben believe it?

The moment passed and Little Joe realized that Ben was waiting for a response.

"My name is not important. What is important is…what happened to Eagle Station?"

Little Joe had meant to ask if Ben had seen Tommy Tucker, a wanted man who was deemed to be in Texas, but the question about Eagle Station just slipped out. Needless to say the three Cartwrights were caught off guard by it.

"What do you mean?" Ben asked.

"After everyone was gunned down. What happened?" Little Joe asked.

It really was no big secret what had happened. Ben Cartwright was really surprised that this young man didn't know.

"A young doctor by the name of Jake Miller came in. He was able to save my three sons and I. Jake's set up shop in the General store now; he's a doctor only part time now." Ben said, not realizing he had made a slip up.

"Three sons?" Little Joe asked.

"Huh?" Ben asked.

"You said you had three boys." Little Joe prompted.

"Oh…my youngest son…Little Joe…he was only twelve at the time…he was never found after the massacre."

Little Joe saw the grief in his father's eyes; grief that he himself was causing!

"Why'd you want to know about Eagle Station?" Adam asked.

"Because…I used to live there once with my own family…but that was a long, long time ago. I hadn't been back since the incident." Little Joe said.

Joe knew that he had to get out of there or risk giving out to much information, but he did want to throw his family a small bone without just telling them outright.

"Well, thank you for your time but I must be off. The sun's setting and I need to be getting back to town." Little Joe lied.

"It was nice to meet you, mister…" Ben said, reaching out his hand to shake the young man's hand.

Joe didn't accept the handshake though and turned around, heading back to Denny, but before he was too far away he reached in to his pocket and withdrew his lucky, blue marble.

He had won a lot of games with that when he was a youngster. So much so that he had carved his initials in to its surface.

Joe looked at the marble for a brief second. It had been with him for years and years and he didn't want to part with it, but he didn't want his father to continue grieving like he was so he gently tossed the blue marble at Ben.

Swiftly Joe got back up on Denny and galloped off while Ben felt something hit him.

Looking down Ben saw something shiny and blue on the ground.

Gingerly he bent down and picked up the ball, dusting it off and studying it closely.

"Oh my God…"

Adam and Hoss who had been about to get back to work, heard their father's exclamation and went over to him.

"What is it, Pa?" Adam asked.

Ben Cartwright just looked up in the distance where Joe had been standing.

"Little Joe…" he whispered.

"Where in the blue blazes have you been Ty?" Jackson asked.

Little Joe had ridden in to camp just a minute ago and Ty had jumped on him like no tomorrow.

"They're alive Jack…they're all alive!" Little Joe exclaimed.

"Who's alive?"

"My Pa and brothers…they're all alive!" Joe said.

He had tears in his eyes as he said this but the look on Jackson's face seemed to wipe them away.

"And what…we have a tearful reunion and things pick up where they left off…is that it?!" Jackson asked.

Joe hung his head with a sigh.

"No…I know that things could never go back to the way they were. Besides, that time's over…I am a bounty hunter now…like you." Joe said.

"Then start acting like one! Maybe I was wrong…maybe we should'a stayed out of Nevada all together." Jackson said.

"You were right to bring me here buddy. I needed this." Joe said as he got down off of Denny.

He walked over to the fire that Jackson had built before sitting down on a log that was next to it.

"Did you talk to em'?" Jackson asked as he followed Joe over.

"Yes but they didn't recognize me." Joe replied.

"It was for the best anyway. Now you better get some sleep, we need to get moving again at sunup." Jackson said.

Nodding his head Joe rose up and headed for Denny.

He grabbed the blanket off of the saddle and rolled it out before lying down and falling asleep.

At sunup the both of them started out again, Joe in the lead as always and Jackson staying back.

All of a sudden one lone gunshot sounded!

Turning his head Joe saw Jackson look down at the new hole in his chest before he groaned and fell off his horse.

Joe's first instinct was to get Denny in to a full fledged run but he squashed that idea in a heartbeat.

Instead Joe turned his horse and hid in the shadows next to a group of boulders.

Quickly he jumped off the horse, making sure to grab his gun as he hit the ground.

Keeping still Joe barely dared to breathe as he listened.

A little ways away he could hear some cackling.

"That was a great shot, wasn't it Pa?"

"You couldn't hit the broad side of a barn!"

"Shut up Aaron! It was a great shot, wasn't it Pa?"

The young kid, Aaron, spoke up then and said, "Pa, Mark didn't hit anything!"

Just then Little Joe heard this grown man's laughter at his boys bickering.

"I was just thinking of when I first taught you to shoot, Aaron. You missed the mark quite a few times as well!" The man said.

Joe peeked out from the shadows and saw a middle aged man, a boy with sandy blonde hair who looked to be fifteen or sixteen and another boy with slightly darker sandy hair who looked to be twelve or thirteen.

The older boy seemed to blush at his father's words, while the father took the big horse pistol from the hands of the youngest boy.

Joe watched the father empty out the rest of the bullets; put the bullets in his pocket and the gun in his holster.

"Go get the bottles then meet me at the wagon. Your Ma should have dinner ready by the time we get back to Eagle Station." The father said, before he turned and headed to the wagon.

At the mention of food, the boys quickly gathered up the eight beer bottles and high tailed it to the wagon.

Five minutes later and Joe was alone again.

Looking back towards his friend, Joe holstered his gun before running over to him.

"Jack…Jack!" Joe pleaded.

He gently opened Jack's blood soaked shirt to reveal the lone bullet hole that was very near to the heart.

There was no response from the bounty hunter, and deep down Joe knew that there wouldn't be. However, just to be sure Joe did check for a pulse…lowering his head when there wasn't one.

Knowing that he just couldn't leave a body in the road, Joe picked up the bloody mess and rode in to the woods near the Ponderosa and the Greene Ranch.

Once hidden by the fairly dense foliage, Joe dumped the body in a small crevice.

In minutes Joe had the body completely covered by dead bark and dry leaves, so that now as he made a small spark from his knife and a small piece of metal, the spark fell on to his small bundle of kindling.

Building the small, smoking kindling bundle up wasn't difficult, and soon the bundle was tossed on the dead wood and bark, setting the whole thing up in smoke.

Joe had been careful in choosing his location though, because even though the fire was hot and it was smoking, there was no chance of it spreading from its current location.

Backing away so he wouldn't be burned from the heat, Joe watched the fire burn for a short time, silently saying a quick goodbye to his friend and mentor before he mounted Denny once more.

Joe was tempted to go after Jackson's horse, which had gotten away after Jackson had fallen off of it, but Joe decided against that course of action because he knew that the horse only had the basic necessities and also that no one would know exactly who the owner had been.

A sudden chorus of screams, followed by an explosion rocked the ground slightly.

Turning the horse in the direction of Eagle Station, Joe's mouth dropped open slightly when he saw four plumes of black smoke rise in the distance…not to mention the volume of the screams was increasing.

Joe knew that he shouldn't get involved, but something inside of him…a sense of duty perhaps drove him to spur Denny in the direction of town.

The black smoke was thick enough to shield Joe from view as he approached the entrance to town. Hiding his horse behind a boulder, Joe made sure he had his gun before slinking in to the town.

Off to the side he saw a woman in a gray dress on the ground clutching her stomach, while what appeared to be a young doctor kneeling down next to her, applying pressure to the wound.

"Let her go!"

The command came from a voice that Joe knew well…it was Ben Cartwright who had spoken.

Hiding against a building, the smoke cleared slightly, enough to see that Ben was hiding against a wagon, two buildings ahead. Adam and Hoss were hiding behind a trough on the other side, and in the middle, protected slightly by a wall was a notorious bandit by the name of 'Fearless' Quinton Lee.

Quinton had killed many men, woman and children in his time…some for as little as a few coins and now Quinton had his arm wrapped around a lady whom Joe recognized as Tess Greene.

"Why? She's no use to you!" Quinton shot back at Ben.

Joe saw movement off to the side and nearly fired on the person, but stopped when Ben waved to the man, who stayed low as he ran over to Ben.

Squinting, Joe was barely able to make out the form of Ben's close friend Carlos Rivera De Vega, who shook his head at Ben.

Joe couldn't hear what Carlos murmured to Ben, but it didn't have to.

It was clear that there was no easy way to free Tess without her getting hurt.

Looking around, Joe suddenly had an idea.

The smoke was still pretty thick, but did part slightly every few seconds.

Slowly Joe moved forward before jumping left, out of sight of the main street.

Quickly he snuck past four buildings before doubling back until he was on the other side of the building that Quinton was hiding behind.

Shimming up the side of the building was difficult, and for once Joe was glad of all the 'training' that Jackson had made him go through all those years ago.

Gun out and cocked, Joe got down on to his stomach and crawled to the far end of the building before peeking over the side.

Quinton was still there, obviously not having heard Joe sneak over, thanks to Tess's squirming and hysterics.

"Now Cartwright…get me my horse and me and the pretty lady will be on our way!" Quinton yelled through the smoke.

"That isn't going to happen and you know it!" Ben yelled back.

"It is if you want to see this pretty lady alive again!" Quinton countered.

While the two of them were yelling back at forth, Joe carefully took aim.

He knew he had one chance and one chance only to end this little squabble.

If he shot Quinton in the head, he could still end up shooting Tess, so a head shot was out of the question for sure, so Joe opted for the next idea…to shoot the gun…which gave him no margin for error.

Making sure his aim was true; Joe fired and leapt off the building.

The bullet barely missed hitting Tess, but it hit the barrel of Quinton's gun, causing him to drop it in surprise.

With that second of confusion, Joe landed to the side of Quinton, kicking out and causing Quinton to let go of Tess and go flying out in to the street.

Kicking Quinton's gun out of reach, he then walked over to Quinton and pointed his gun at the man one more time.

"Well, well…" Quinton remarked as he sat up on his elbows, "The boy with no name! It's been awhile!"

"Not nearly long enough!" Joe countered, not stepping any closer.

"I had been trackin' you…you and your friend for years now…but you always managed to slip away." Quinton said.

"I know." Joe replied simply.

"Did you know that the price on your head has now tripled?" Quinton asked.

Joe did indeed know this, but didn't respond to the question.

Meanwhile, Ben, Adam, Hoss and Carlos were sneaking closer, while Tess was already back with her mother, who was holding her in her arms and crying steadily.

"So…now what…are you going to kill me or just pass the time of day?" Quinton mocked, trying to get Joe to pull the trigger.

"Why should I kill you?" Joe questioned before he holstered his weapon.

At this Quinton was surprised but did begin to stand up and dust himself off.

"That was a stupid move kid…" Quinton remarked.

"Let me finish!" Joe replied sharply, immediately silencing Quinton, who looked at him in surprise.

"Why should I kill you when Denny can do it so much faster?" Joe said.

Quinton looked confused, not understanding Joe's remark at all.

"Denny…and who is…?" Quinton began, but he never finished because out of the now dissipating cloud of smoke, Joe's horse raced in and trampled Quinton in seconds.

Denny kept jumping up and down on Quinton, neighing his protests at the murderer for a few minutes before Joe went over and simply placed a hand on the horse's neck.

Denny immediately stopped and quieted down, backing up now while Joe looked down at the muddy body of Quinton.

Whipping out his pistol, it took Joe mere seconds to shoot Quinton in the head, just to make sure the bastard was good and dead…just like Jackson had taught him.

Holstering his gun, Joe kneeled down next to Quinton's corpse, before he reached in and ripped off a simple, gold necklace from around Quinton's neck.

It was a memento… a keepsake that would let others know that the man was indeed dead…plus Joe always kept one item from every person he had killed.

"Thank you sir…you saved my life."

Joe knew it was Tess Greene standing behind him, so he turned and nodded his head.

Behind her was her mother, Ben Cartwright, Adam, Carlos and then Hoss…with the other townsfolk standing to the sides, just watching.

"I didn't do it for you…I did it for this town. I don't want to see another massacre happen to this town." Joe said.

"What is your name?" Carlos asked him in his Mexican accent.

"My name is not important." Joe said.

"Your name is part of who you are…Little Joe." Ben said in return.

At this remark, the Greene's gasped before once again looking at the young man and sure enough, a slight resemblance was now seen!

Little Joe sighed and removed his black hat so everyone could now get a good look at him.

His brown hair was still cut short but he was not as pale as he had been at the age of twelve. He brown eyes now showing the pain he had gone through all those years ago.

"I'm sorry. The Little Joe you know died here eight years ago." Joe said.

"I don't believe that. I know that deep down, somewhere inside, he is still there just waiting to come out." Ben replied.

Little Joe couldn't look his father in the eyes…he couldn't look anyone in the eyes.

"It's too late…Mr. Cartwright." Joe said after a few seconds thought.

It was really hard for him to address his own father so formally, but after everything that he had been through and everything that he had done, Joe felt that he didn't have the right to call Ben his father anymore.

"Joe…it's never too late to come home…where you belong." Adam said, finally joining in to the conversation.

Adam walked the few steps separating him from his youngest brother…the brother that he thought had been killed eight years ago.

It was very hard for Adam to fight the urge to not hug Little Joe, but he managed not to.

"Adam…I have no home anymore. I can't afford to have a home anymore. All I would bring you is danger and tribulation." Joe said.

Deep down Ben and all of the others were proud that Joe was sounding so articulate for his age, and they were proud of all his accomplishments…and for his survival.

Adam sighed and placed a gloved hand on his brother's shoulder.

"We will face whatever comes…as a family. We always have and always will." He said.

"Come on son…it's time to come home." Ben said, holding out a hand towards his youngest son.

It was at this moment that Little Joe found himself at a crossroads. In the one hand he had his future as a bounty hunter…in the other hand he had his future with his family. He knew that he couldn't have both, but which one was the best course.

Little Joe looked at his horse…his long time companion throughout those hard years.

Gently he stroked Denny's head and neck while silently contemplating his options.

Denny then nodded his head and whinnied a little, causing Joe to look him in the eye.

A sort of conversation passed between the two friends before Joe nodded his head.

He looked back at his father and brothers…his family.

They were all standing side-by-side, all of them looked like they were silently begging him to come home and be a part of their family again.

Without speaking a word, Joe walked over to them. He looked each of them in the eye before ending with his father.

After a moment's contemplation, Joe raised his hand and placed it on his father's shoulder, giving it a slight squeeze before allowing himself to smile a little…something he rarely if ever did anymore.

A huge feeling of relief flooded over the elder Cartwrights at that moment as Ben wrapped his arms around Little Joe.

Adam and Hoss for their parts joined in and made it a group/family hug.

It was then at that moment that Little Joe knew he had made the correct choice…for good or ill.

As the rest of the town converged on the reunited family, Little Joe was thinking of the repercussions in the back of his mind.

For one he would have to be on the look out for the federal marshals who had been on his and Jackson's tail over their thievery of a small gold shipment; not to mention he was going to have to keep a sharp look out for other bounty hunters because the price that was still on his head was quite substantial.

But for that moment none of it really mattered because he was home now…where he belonged, and it was the best feeling in the world.

THE END?