Eight Years (by jfclover)

Summary:  Ben has a surprise for his young sons, but will the boys be as excited as their father?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:  16,200|


Book 1 – 1848

Adam

I hadn’t thought it was possible, but plans were being made.  Pa sat me down one night and asked if I approved, but what could I say?  He hadn’t asked my opinion last time. He’d made the decision on his own and we accepted that he was the father and we were the sons, and our opinion didn’t matter.  This time was different.  I was older now.  I was a man, not a little boy, yet I was uncomfortable talking about such things.

“It’s not my place to say, Pa.”

“Oh, but it is, son.  We’re a family, a family of men, and you have every right to an opinion.”

Joe was six and Hoss was twelve.  Did Pa consider them men too?  “If you’re happy, I’m happy.”

“But what do you really think?”

Pa persisted and I gave the only answer I could think of.  “It’ll change things, the way we do things, but Joe and Hoss might benefit.”

“And you won’t?”

“I’m eighteen years old, Pa, and I’m leaving for college in a few months.  You have to think of Hoss and Joe, not me.”  I tried not to squirm in my seat.  “Have you talked to either of them?”

Pa leaned back in his chair and set his pipe between his teeth.  “No, not man-to-man like I am with you.”

“Maybe you should.  Hoss is certainly old enough to have an opinion.”

“I’m not worried about Hoss, son.  It’s Joseph that worries me most.  He hasn’t . . . he’s—”

“I know.  I’ve noticed it too.”

“His resentment is uncalled-for.  There must be a reason he’s acting out, but I can’t put my finger on what’s causing the problem.  I’ve tried talking to him but, as you and Hoss know, I’ve failed at getting to the truth.”

“You want me to talk to him?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Adam.”  Pa leaned forward.  I could tell he was nervous about the whole matter, but I was willing to talk to my youngest brother.  “I hate for him to think we’re ganging up on him.”

“Someone has to set him straight.”  I stood from my chair and moved closer to Pa.  “Why don’t I have a go?  It can’t hurt, can it?”

Though it was obvious to me, Pa couldn’t see the problem.  Marie’s death was tragic and sudden.  A drawn-out illness would have given us time to say goodbye, but Joe’s mama died before we had that chance.  In the weeks and months that followed our unfortunate loss, we’d done Little Joe a great disservice.  We were all guilty of screening out the bad and enhancing the good.  We’d nearly elevated Marie Cartwright to sainthood.

Pa met the widow Jenkins—Maria Santos Jenkins—six or seven months ago, but he was hesitant to bring her home to meet the family until he was sure she was the one.  As Pa says, we’re a family of men and accepting a woman, a new mother, into our daily lives would clearly be challenging, especially for a kid like Joe.

In Pa’s eyes, Joe was still a baby and because he was the youngest, we all coddled and watched over him like he was a delicate figurine in an overpriced gift shop.  The kid wanted for nothing and if a six-year-old could play-act, Joe excelled.  Mostly, Joe’s antics were like a ray of sunshine.  He brought laughter and joy to the supper table.  He was pure entertainment for a house full of work-worn men.

Joe was leery of the widow Jenkins.  Never mean or disrespectful, of course, but having a saint for a mother, how could anyone take her place?  We’d whitewashed Marie’s faults too much for Joe to accept anyone as his new ma.

The date had been set for the wedding, two weeks before I left for the east coast, and I would serve as both Pa’s best man and father of the bride.  Reverend Whitehall would perform the service in our home, and since Maria had no children of her own and a younger sister who couldn’t make the trip, only my brothers and I would attend.

Hoss seemed to enjoy the process, but, of course, Hoss would.  He enjoyed most everything life had to offer and would never make a stink even if deep down, he wasn’t all that thrilled.  He tried to cajole Little Joe into seeing the bright side of Pa’s intended, but that was just Hoss.  He wasn’t happy unless everyone else was, but his power of persuasion wasn’t working on the kid.  Joe continued to sulk.

I saw nothing wrong with Maria.  She seemed okay to me.  There’d been talk when Pa married Joe’s mama.  She was young and beautiful, and men who had nothing better to do with their time questioned her background.  Maria might be fodder for those same people since she was younger than Pa and of Spanish descent, but if she made Pa happy, that’s all that mattered.  Joe would come around eventually.  Hoss would keep at him and keep at him until he convinced the kid that bringing a new ma into the house was a good thing.

Maria often corrected Joe’s behavior, and Pa backed her all the way.  Maybe that was part of the problem.  The kid felt he’d been left out of Pa’s good graces, maybe lost and afraid.  What meant most to him in this world was our father and in his overactive mind, Pa had traded his love for Joe for a woman who’d become his new mother.

While Pa and Maria sat at the dining room table discussing their upcoming nuptials, I took Joe by the hand and pulled him up from the settee.  “Time for a bath, kid.”

“It ain’t Saturday night, Adam.”

“Oh, yes, it is.”

“It is?”

“Yep.”

“You gonna take a bath too?”

“Yep.”

“All right.”

Hoss was eager to join in the fun.  “I’ll come up with you, Little Joe.”

“You dirty too?”

“I sure am.”

I often read Joe a story while he soaked, but I had other things on my mind.  I hated to leave for Boston with the kid so put out over the wedding.  Somehow, Hoss and I had to work this thing out, if not for his sake then for our father’s.

Hop Sing trailed in with buckets of water, and I had Joe strip down while we waited for him to bring more.  “Jump in, buddy.”

“Ain’t deep enough yet.”

“Just get in the tub.”

“Why ain’t you got no book?”

This wasn’t the time to correct Joe’s speech pattern; I didn’t want him mad at me before I even started.  “I thought we could talk.”

Joe looked up.  “‘Bout what, Adam?”

I pulled a wooden chair next to the copper tub.  “You know I’m leaving for college soon, and I wanted to talk to you man-to-man before I left.”

“Why ya gotta go, Adam?  Don’t you like us anymore?”

“That has nothing to do with it, and I’ve already explained why I have to go.”

“You don’t like her either, do you?”

“Maria?  I like her just fine.”

Hop Sing poured two more buckets of water next to Joe’s feet, and the kid grabbed both knees as if he’d been scalded.  “You tryin’ to burn me to death?”

“Don’t you yell at Hop Sing.  Little boy need hot water get clean.“  I nodded my thanks to our cook and he trotted toward the bedroom door.  “I bring more water up later for boys who appreciate.”

“She don’t like me, Adam.”

“That’s nonsense, Joe, and you know it.”  I tried a different route.  “Do you love Pa?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Pa loves Maria, and it would make him happy if you loved her too.”  I handed Joe the bar of soap.  “Get busy.”

“I don’t wanna love her.”

“I know you don’t, but she’s a nice lady.  Pa wouldn’t marry a mean old witch, would he?”  Joe let his hands fall into the water.  “Joe?”

“She don’t like me, Adam.  Why should I like her?”

I sighed heavily.  We’d been through this a hundred times before.  “Tell me why she doesn’t like you.”

“I just know.”

“You’ve got to do better than that, buddy.”

“She’s always staring at me.  She’s always waiting for me to mess up so she can yell at me.  And then she-she . . .”

“Oh, come on.  Now, you’re exaggerating.  If you don’t behave, you’ll be corrected.  Simple as that.”

“Yeah,” Hoss said.  “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with Miss Maria; besides, she’s pretty and she talks real sweet.  I bet she can sing real pretty too.”

Hoss had been so quiet; I’d forgotten he was in the room, but he was right.  Maria was a beautiful woman.  Around the house, her long, black hair hung to her waist.  Only when she and Pa would go out would she pull it up in a proper chignon.  She had dark eyes and olive skin that was flawless even in bright sunlight, and Pa fell in love at first sight.  At least, that’s the story he told the three of us.

“She ain’t as pretty as Mama,” Joe said.

“She’s pretty in a different way,” I replied.  “She’s . . . exotic.”

“She’s what?”  Both brothers chimed in on that one.

“She’s a woman of mystery,” I said dramatically, even waved my hands in the shape of a woman’s delicate figure.  “She’s striking.  She’s unusually beautiful.”  Hoss and Joe both stared at me as though I’d lost my mind, and I began to laugh.  “Okay,” I said.  “Maybe I got carried away, but Maria means well, Joe.  You’re trying to get used to her, and she’s trying to get used to all of us.  It’s not easy for her either.”

Joe pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around.  He plunked his chin down on top.  “Maybe she ain’t so bad.”

“That’s the spirit,” Hoss said.

“Hoss is right, Joe.  Give her a chance to love you too.  That’s all I’m asking.”

*****

Joe

“It’s too tight.”

Hoss swatted my hands away.  “No, it ain’t.  You wanna look your best, don’t you?”

“I’ll choke to death.”

“You’re almost seven, Little Joe, and seven-year-old boys don’t whine about every little thing.  Did you brush your hair?”

“‘Course, I did.”

“It don’t look like it.”  Hoss grabbed my arm.  “Come back here.”

I stood in front of the mirror and Hoss ran the brush through my hair.  Guess I kinda fibbed about doing it earlier, but I hated having to get all slicked up.

“Where’s your jacket?”

“I gotta wear that too?”

“Yeah, ‘fraid so.”  Hoss stood back and looked me over.  “You look fine, Little Joe.  Real fine.”

Hoss took the brush to his own hair.

“How long’s this thing gonna last?”

“Oh, maybe an hour.  Maybe less.”

“I ain’t never getting married, Hoss.”

“Oh, sure you will.  Someday you’ll meet some pretty little filly and fall head over heels in love.”

“Not me.  Not ever.”

“Famous last words, little brother.  Come on.  Let’s go downstairs.  And smile!”

When I started to sit on the settee, Hoss jerked me back to my feet.  “You’ll get all wrinkly,” he said.  I rolled my eyes.  What kind of shindig was this anyhow?  Couldn’t even get comfortable.  Adam was talking to the preacher when Pa came out of the guestroom dressed in a black suit and matching vest.  I’d never seen him look so stiff and proper.

“Hey, Pa,” I said.  “Hoss says I can’t sit down.”

“That’s right, son, but not for long.  We’re about to begin.  Adam?  If you’ll escort my bride, I think we’re ready.”

Pa and the preacher stood by the fireplace.  Adam and Hoss and I had moved some of the furniture so we’d have room to stand.  Seemed silly to me.  I’d be a lot happier if we were all sitting down.  Adam and Maria stood at the top of the stairs.

“Hoss,” Pa said.  “Will you start the music?”

“Yessir.”

Hoss opened the lid of a hand-painted music box, one Pa had bought just for the occasion, I guess, but no one told me.  It was a pretty song, and I could imagine a gathering of fairies dancing in an open meadow.  I’d seen a picture of that once in one of Adam’s books.  A whole bunch of pink-colored fairies held hands and danced in a circle.

Maria rested her hand on Adam’s arm and they walked slowly down the stairs until they reached the fireplace, and Adam placed her hand in Pa’s.  Pa was all watery-eyed like he was gonna cry over something sad, but Adam told me once, a long time ago, that people cry when they’re happy sometimes too.  I didn’t understand why, but I hoped Pa was happy, not sad.

“Dearly beloved—” said Reverend Whitehall.

I went kind of numb listening all the fancy words he used and when I stuck my finger inside my choking collar, Hoss swatted my hand back down to my side.  My legs were already tired of standing, and when I started wobbling my knees back and forth; Hoss elbowed me then clasped his hands back together in front of him.  I did the same.  Surely, this couldn’t last much longer.

“I now pronounce you man and wife.  You may kiss the bride.”

Watching Pa, I knew for sure I’d never get married.  Not if I had to kiss a girl in front of everyone in the room.

“Congratulations, Pa,” Adam said.

“Congratulations, you two,” Hoss said.

Pa looked down at me.  “Yeah, same here, Pa.”

“Thank you, Adam, Hoss, Little Joe.  Now,” he said.  “Let’s open that bottle of champagne and celebrate.  I think Hop Sing made some special punch for you boys.”

“May I say something, Ben?”

“Of course, sweetheart.  You’re family now.”

“I just want to say I’m happy you’ve accepted me into your family.  I know it’s been hard, especially for you, Little Joe, but I assure you we’ll all find happiness together.”  She stared down at me.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

I didn’t like being singled out, but I promised Adam I’d try to like my new ma.  Maria knelt down on one knee.  “You can’t call me ma’am anymore, Joe.  What would you like to call me?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Would you rather call me ma or mama?”

I looked up at Pa.  I swallowed the lump in my throat.  “My mama’s dead, ma’am.  I think I’d rather call you Maria.”

“Maria it is then.”  She stood back up.  “How about you, Hoss.”

I caught Hoss looking at Pa too.  “Maria’s fine with me too, ma’am.”

“Now that we have that settled,” —Pa raised his glass— “to my beautiful bride, the lovely Mrs. Maria Cartwright.”

“Hear, hear,” Adam said.

Like everyone else, Hoss and I followed our elders and held up our glasses of punch.  Pa let Adam have a glass of the fizzy stuff, but not me or Hoss.  Hop Sing brought out platters of food.  “Special food for a special occasion,” he said, and we all took our seats at the table, even the preacher sat down and joined us like it was Sunday dinner.

I guess Maria would live here from now on.  She’d been renting a room somewhere down by Mormon Station, and her stuff had been delivered yesterday.  Pa took everything up to his room except for one thing.  She had a little, china figurine that Pa set on the corner of his desk where framed pictures of our mama’s used to sit, but they’d been packed away long before today’s ceremony.  I guess we’d have to eat every meal with her too, and she’d be hanging around while Hoss and I played checkers after supper.  I wondered where she’d sit.  We all had our regular spots.

Other things had changed too.  Pa gave Maria her own horse; a buckskin that looked a lot like Buck only hers was a mare.  Her and Pa went riding a lot, but Hoss and me had to stay home and hold down the fort.  That’s what Pa would say before they took off around the barn and rode out of sight.  “Hold down the fort, boys.  We’ll be back soon.”  They’d often be gone for hours and leave Adam in charge.  Sometimes, I felt like crying, but I was almost seven, and I knew better than to cry over silly things.  Still, I missed my pa.

When Pa would go on trips, Adam was always in charge, and me and Hoss were told to obey, but we didn’t always.   Sometimes, we were bad, and sometimes it wasn’t even Hoss’ fault, but Adam would send both of us to our rooms anyway.  Hoss said he didn’t mind, said he had books he could thumb through ‘cause, in truth, he liked to read.  I never understood why he’d read books at home but hated going to school.  Maybe he’d tell me someday.

*****

Hoss

I ain’t never seen Pa so happy.  Maybe it’s ‘cause I’m older now, and I notice things like that.  I turned thirteen just last week and Pa said somethin’ real nice after I blew out the candles on my cake.  “You’re growing up, son.  You’re nearly a man, now.”  I was as big as my brother Adam, and almost as tall as Pa, but I still felt like a kid inside.  Adam started shavin’ at my age, but I didn’t shave yet ‘cause I didn’t have no whiskers, not even them wispy kind I’d seen on Ezra Mahoney at Mrs. Potts’ school.  Pa said not to worry about such things.  He said because I was born blonde, my whiskers would come in later.  Our pa knew everything.  He knew all about women too.

Miss Maria was a fine lady if you asked me.  I had no qualms, not like Little Joe, but he was still rememberin’ his own mama.  I did too on occasion.  We all loved Marie, even Adam took to her, and Adam don’t take to just everyone.  Joe would come around in time.  He’s just stubborn is all, but Miss Maria was tryin’ her darnedest to make sure we’d all be happy livin’ under one roof.

Pa’d courted her for a long time before he asked her to marry him.  He’d sat me and Joe in front of the fire one night and—well, I guess he asked our permission.  ‘Course, I said yes.  I had to nudge Little Joe, but he blurted out what any six-year-old kid would say.  “Is she gonna move in here?”

“Of course, Joseph,” Pa said.  “We’ll be a complete family again.  How does that sound?”

“Fine, Pa.”

Little Joe didn’t sound very excited.  Maybe none of us was real excited, but we didn’t let on.  Pa knew women, and if Miss Maria made him happy, then we was happy too.  That’s how things worked around here.  We all had to give and take sometimes, even if life would never the same again.

I seen that Joe had celebrated about all he could.  We was up to our ears in Hop Sing’s special punch, and I pulled him from his seat at the table.  “May we be excused?”  I said.

“Certainly, boys, but change out of your good clothes before you start any kind of roughhousing.”

“Yessir.”

I hauled Joe up the stairs, and we did as Pa asked.  We was both glad to pull our string ties from our necks so we could get into regular clothes.  “Much better,” I said, but Joe hadn’t gotten very far.  He’d sat down on the edge of his bed.  “Ain’t you gonna change?”

“I hope we don’t gotta dress like this all the time.”

“Don’t be silly.  Not every day is special like today.”

“It ain’t so special to me.”

“Come on now.  That ain’t no way to talk about your new mama.”

“She ain’t my mama, Hoss.  My mama’s in heaven.”

I was growin’ tired of Joe’s constant complainin’.  “Yeah, so’s mine and so’s Adam’s, but that don’t mean we can’t treat Maria with the respect she deserves, does it?”

“I don’t want her around here.  I don’t like her and she don’t like me.”

“She likes you just fine, Little Joe, but you keep up that attitude and I guarantee she’ll change her mind.  And, little brother, she’ll have darn good reason.”

Two things that changed right off was the way we were told to enter a room and the way we ate our supper.  We were to wipe our feet outside and enter the house like gentlemen rather than heathen banshees. There was no more running down the stairs.  Breakfast and lunch were pretty much the same, but Maria asked Hop Sing to serve dinner—like a waiter in a fancy restaurant—and he obliged.  He’d hold out a platter, and we’d serve ourselves rather than passin’ the foodstuffs to each other like we’d always done before.

Pa seemed pleased with the changes.  They wasn’t much really, but we had to watch ourselves so we’d do right by Pa’s new wife.  At least we didn’t have to dress for supper.

That would’ve put Little Joe right over the edge.

On Monday mornin’, Adam began getting organized for his trip to Boston.  He was putting stuff in a trunk that Pa would ship since it would be too heavy to carry.  I weren’t sure how Pa would get along without my older brother by his side, and I’d asked to quit school so I could take his place, but Pa wouldn’t have none of that kind of talk.

“Definitely not,” he said.

“But Pa—” I whined like Little Joe.  “I’m big as Adam and I can do the work.”

“No.  You’re not quitting school.  Not for at least two more years.”

“Two more years!”  I cried, but when Pa got that look, when he perched his hands on his hips and tightened his lips, I knew the discussion was over.  “Yessir.”

If Pa was willing to do the chores of two men, there weren’t nothin’ more I could say.  Little Joe and I would start school in the fall, and life would return to normal.  But, for now, I had chores to do, and I pulled Little Joe with me out to the barn.  It was time he learned how to muck.

*****

Ben

“I haven’t discussed it with him yet, sweetheart, but I will tomorrow morning.”

“Do you think he’ll mind?”

“Of course not.  He’s watched over the boys many times before, and if we want any kind of honeymoon at all, it has to happen before he leaves for Boston.”

“Oh, Ben.  I can’t wait for us to be alone together, really alone.”

I reached for my wife and pulled her close beside me.  Sharing my bed with a woman again was heaven on earth.  Rain pattered against the roof and wind coming through the open window whirled our white, lace curtain in a circular motion.  “You cold?  Should I shut the window?”

“Not if you hold me tight.”

It had rained for two days straight.  Rivers were running high and the ground was saturated.  Mud puddles dotted the yard and every road leading in and out from the house.

Hoss and Joe had gone to bed early, and we’d said our “goodnights” to Adam before we turned in.  My eldest liked to stay up late and read, and at eighteen, he needed a little time for himself.  I knew the boys would be safe if we took a short honeymoon.  If nothing else, Adam might enjoy his solitude even more with Maria and me out of the house.

*****

“You ready?”  I said as my new bride came down the stairs.  “We should be on our way.”

“I think I’ve got everything,” she said.  “At least, I hope so.”

I leaned in for a kiss.  “Don’t worry.  If it’s forgotten, we’ll buy a new one.”

“Oh, Ben.”

“Is the wagon ready Adam?”

“Hitched and ready to go.  I added extra bedding in case the rain doesn’t let up.”

I looked at my two younger sons.  “I want you to listen to your brother.  He’s in charge while I’m gone.”

“Yessir, Pa.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I know you’ll behave,” I said.  “Maria and I will only be gone a few days.  Can’t get in too much trouble in that short amount of time, can you?”

“Think again,” Adam said.

“You’ll all do fine.  If anything should—well, I’m sure nothing will.”

Adam opened the front door.  Rain splashed against the front porch as though it would never end.  I hoped the clouds would break and we could enjoy our outing.  Of course, being stuck inside the covered wagon wouldn’t be so bad either.

*****

Hoss

“I’ve looked everywhere, Adam.”

“Why’d you leave him alone?  I was just gone a couple of hours.”

“He ain’t missin’, Adam.  I just went to the barn for a minute; he’s gotta be around here somewhere unless—unless he followed me outside.”

“With all this rain, why would he go outside?”

“‘Cause he’s six?”

“Oh, that’s great, Hoss.  Got any other fool ideas in that head of yours?”

“He’s troubled, Adam.  He misses our pa.”  Adam leaned heavily against Pa’s desk.  He was put out with me, but I didn’t do nothin’ wrong.  Sometimes, Little Joe was just plain ornery.

“Pa hasn’t been gone half a day, Hoss.  How can Joe miss him already?”

“Because he’s been missin’ him since the day he met Miss Maria.”

“What?”

“You know exactly what I mean.  Pa ain’t been around for months, and Joe misses what he ain’t got no more.  He ain’t got Pa, Adam, and for a little shaver like him, it means he’s lost everything.  He lost his mama, and now he’s lost Pa.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

I stared at my brother until he looked me straight in the eye.  “Is it, Adam?”

The rain never let up.  The sky was gray and the wind was cold, and there weren’t no sign of Little Joe.  After checking the house and the barn, Adam and I saddled up and rode out.  Joe hadn’t taken his pony so he couldn’t be far; at least that’s what we first thought.  Now, I wasn’t so sure.

We’d ridden for two hours.  We’d even separated for a while at met back up at Signal Rock.  Without his pony and with all the rain, there was no way to track a six-year-old boy who probably didn’t want to be found anyhow.

“Let’s check down by the stream, Hoss.”

“You think he went that far?”

“I have no idea, but the creek’s running high and if he tried to cross . . .”

*****

Adam and I sat in front of the fireplace and stared at Little Joe’s light brown jacket.  It’s all we found of our young brother, and neither of us was talking.  What could we say? Next to Buckhorn Creek where Joe and I fished just last Sunday, his jacket had been draped over a bush in plain sight, like it was hung there for our benefit, but why?  That’s what me and Adam couldn’t figure out.

“Nothin’ more we can do tonight, “ I said.

“No, we’ll start out early tomorrow.  Maybe we can round up some neighbors to help us search.”

“Good enough.”

*****

Book 2 – 1856

Adam

“Ben, oh, Ben,” she cried when Pa opened the front door.

The old woman practically fell into Pa’s arms in her rush to get inside the house.  Looking over the top of her head toward me, I could tell that her animated entrance had stunned our father, but he did the best he could to console the crazy lady wrapped in his arms. “What is it, Dorothy?  What on earth’s the matter?”

“It’s him.”

“Him?  Him who?”  Pa squawked.

After containing herself enough that she could to talk without sobbing, she took a deep breath.  “Your Joseph.”

Pa smiled at the memory of his six-year-old son, but his reaction was brief.  When realization hit, when her words actually sank in, he grabbed her arms and looked straight into her eyes.  “What do you mean ‘my Joseph’?”

“I can’t be sure, but I just know it’s him.  He-he was walking alongside the road that runs along Buckhorn Creek.”

“After all this time, my son was just walking along?”

We’d had numerous sightings in the early days after Joe’s disappearance, but nothing ever panned out.  We’d been on several wild goose chases before.

“Oh, the poor soul,” she cried.  “A ragamuffin, but I coaxed him into my carriage and took him home with me.”

“You mean he’s there now?”

“Yes.  I cleaned him up some and fed him all he could eat.  I laid him on a bed in one of the empty guest rooms and left Mr. Hornsby to watch over him.  I had to come tonight, Ben.  I had to let you know.”

“Dorothy—” Pa said.  “I don’t understand what you’re saying.  Joseph died nearly eight years ago.  When there was no sign, we had to assume he’d fallen and drowned in Buckhorn Creek.  I don’t think he’d suddenly appear after eight long years.”

“You have to listen to me, Ben.  I’m not making this up.  I’d know that boy anywhere.”

The Widow Potts, along with teaching school and mending men’s britches, took in boarders like Mr. Hornsby to make ends meet.  She’d also taken Joe and Hoss in after Marie died.  When Pa had to be out of town, and I was too busy with ranch work to watch over two little boys, I’d drop them off in the morning and pick them up before supper.  Though Joe wasn’t school age, he sat in on her class with Hoss and as a little tyke; he was already learning his numbers and could point out words on a page.

“Calm down now, Dorothy,” Pa said.  “Adam, why don’t you ride back with Mrs. Potts and have a look at the boy.”

My father didn’t believe any part of the old lady’s fantastic tale, but he didn’t want to seem rude or uncaring so I was elected to go look at some orphan kid that she insisted was my long, lost brother.  Eight years.  Joe would be fourteen by now.  Would I even recognize him if, in fact, what Mrs. Potts said were true?

I strapped on my gunbelt and picked up my hat.  “I’ll saddle my horse, ma’am, and follow you home.”

Catching a glimpse of Maria standing at the top of the stairs, I wondered what thoughts ran through her mind.  When all hopes of finding Joe were lost, Maria did her best to keep Pa’s spirits up.  We all did, but she was determined to make their marriage work despite Pa’s grief over losing his baby son.  She was a good woman and an even better wife.  Pa was a very lucky man.

Maria also enjoyed the limelight.  She and my father were often invited to banquets and such that the Governor would host for the more prominent men residing in the Utah Territory.  Brigham Young valued Pa’s suggestions and approved of the way he did business.  Maria fulfilled Pa’s needs, and he took pride in the fact that her arm was wrapped around his during social events.  He was becoming an influential man in the territory, and I had to give Maria credit.  She was behind him one hundred percent.

I’d been to college and back, though I’d left for Boston a year later than I’d planned.  I couldn’t leave Pa and Hoss; at least, not then.  Our lives had been turned upside down; we’d searched everywhere for the kid.  Letters were sent to surrounding stations and missions to keep a lookout for a missing six-year-old boy.  Brown hair, green eyes, slight in stature, and we heard nothing.  Joe had simply vanished somewhere near Buckhorn Creek.

Hoss was a grown man, and we worked side-by-side.  The Ponderosa had prospered over the years.  Pa had made wise investments, and the ranch had doubled in size since those early days of near despondency.  Pa took a different route after Joe disappeared.  He delved into work like a man possessed.  He worked from sunup to sundown seven days a week, and Maria never complained.  She understood what Joe’s absence had done to our father, and I think she was even more important to him at that time than either Hoss or me.

Our lives changed drastically during that first year.  No more worshiping an uncaring god.  Though Hoss and I would try to make conversation, suppertime was a quiet affair. There was no more mention of Joe.  He was gone, and for Pa, it was as if his young son had never existed.  The loss was too overwhelming.  Maria, the only person who could comfort him, was always by his side.

I slid off Sport in front of Mrs. Potts’ home.  She’d done well for herself, considering her limited income.  Pink and purple flowers lined the front walkway, and the house had a fresh coat of whitewash.  I offered to unhitch her horse and put the rig in the barn, but she said no.  “This is too important, Adam.  Mr. Hornsby will do that later.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I thought she might offer me a seat in the parlor with her boarder and bring the boy down from the upstairs guest room, but that wasn’t the case.  I tipped my hat to Mr. Hornsby and followed the widow up the stairs.  “He’s in this room,” she said as she pushed open the door.  I followed her inside but hesitated until she lit the small glass lamp next to the bed.

The boy, who’d been lying on his side, sat up immediately when light shown in his eyes. Furiously, he scooted to the edge of the bed until he was smack against the wall.  He pulled his legs to his chest and wrapped his arms around tightly.  He lowered his head and hid his face from me.

I stared at his clothing.  His trousers were inches too short and his feet were crusted with filth.  Unable to button the cuffs of a threadbare shirt that was, at least, two sizes too small, he had a mop of tangled brown hair that hung past his eyes and ears.  His shoulder bones were prominent and his face was pasty and gaunt.  The lamp barely provided enough light to grasp much more until the boy raised his head from his knees and looked up, and that’s when I stared into the face of my “dead” brother.

Tears threatened.  My eyes burned hot, and I nearly collapsed to the floor.  Mrs. Potts took hold of my arm.  “It’s him, isn’t it?”

Words wouldn’t form so I nodded my head, affirming the same conclusion the widow had come to just a few hours earlier.  I had no doubt in my mind.  The boy, so frail and covered in weeks, maybe months of grime, was my brother, Little Joe Cartwright.

“My, God,” I mumbled.

“Do you need to sit down?”

“I think so.”

Mrs. Potts pulled a ladder-back chair up next to the bed, and when I reached for its tall back to steady myself, my hand was shaking.  I sucked in a deep breath and whispered my brother’s name.  “Joe?”

He seemed to hear me; his eyes moved slightly.  There was no acknowledgment, but what did I expect after all this time?  Most of his life had been spent away from his family.  Did he have a clue who I was?  I looked up at Mrs. Potts.  “It’s him.  It’s Joe.”

“Do you want him to stay the night?  You and your father can collect him in the morning if that would be better.”

“No,” I said too loudly.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t—I mean I’m a little overwhelmed right now, but I’ll take him with me.”

“That’s why I left the rig hitched, Adam.”

“Thank you kindly, Mrs. Potts, but Joe can ride double with me.”

“Adam Cartwright,” she scolded.  “Use your head and take the wagon.  The boy isn’t well.”

The widow was right.  “Thank you.”  I stood from my chair.  “Thank you for everything, Ma’am.”

I sat down on the edge of the bed and took an even closer look.  “Joe.  I’m your brother, Adam.  I’m going to take you home to Pa, okay?”  Joe didn’t make a sound, but I didn’t notice resentment or fear either.  He seemed okay with the plan, and I reached for his hand.  “Will you come with me?  We’ll take one more ride in Mrs. Potts’ wagon.”

When I stood to my feet, Joe took my hand and scooted to the edge of the bed.  He slid his bare feet to the floor, and I pulled him to his full height.  He was small for fourteen.  He looked only ten or eleven, but there was no denying that the waif of a boy was my brother.

That wasn’t all I noticed about his appearance, though, but we’d discuss that later.  Since the kid hadn’t said a word, he certainly wasn’t up for a detailed explanation concerning the calloused marks on his wrists and ankles.  Hands that revealed fresh cuts and long-healed scars indicated he might have tried to free himself from handcuffs or chains more than once during his years of captivity.

“Are you ready to go?”  Silence.  “Okay then,” I said.  “Let’s get you downstairs.”  I moved slowly, and Joe followed.  Mrs. Potts brought up the rear.

“Wait,” she said.  On a tree stand by the front door, she reached for an old, gray jacket.  “Wrap him in this, Adam.  It’s a bit chilly tonight.”

I slid the oversized coat over Joe’s shoulders and led him out the front door.

“Oh, Adam,” she said.  “I’ll dig through my trunk first thing in the morning and see if I have anything that might fit the boy.  If not, I can always alter him a suit of clothes for now.”

I’d turned back to face Mrs. Potts.  “I can’t thank you enough.”

“We’ll talk tomorrow, son.  You get that boy home to his papa.”

While I tethered Sport to the back of the wagon, Joe climbed in unassisted.  My hands were still shaking, and I fumbled with the reins like a nervous schoolboy.  If I was this flustered, I couldn’t imagine where Pa’s thoughts would take him when I walked through the front door with Joe.

Hoss wasn’t home when I left the house.  If he’d returned by now, I’m sure Pa would’ve mentioned where I’d gone and why, and I could almost picture the look on my brother’s face.  Anticipation of what might be true would glisten in his sky-blue eyes, but our father would tamper his excitement by stating the obvious.  Joe had been dead for eight years, and Mrs. Potts was an old woman and probably had questionable eyesight.

After pulling into the yard, I jumped down, opened the barn doors, grabbed the harness, and led the horses and wagon and Sport inside.  Joe sat completely still until I reached for his hand and helped him down.  “I’ll stable the horses later.  Let’s get you inside the house first.”

Pa must have heard us ride in.  The front door opened and buttery light from inside the house silhouetted my father’s form, but he stood in place as Joe and I crossed the yard. When we came to stand on the porch and lantern light showed on the boy’s face, I thought my father might collapse.  If Hoss hadn’t come to stand beside him and held onto my father’s arm, I think he might’ve gone down.

“Adam?”  Pa said.

“It’s him, Pa.  It’s Joe.”

Pa stepped forward.  He stood right in front of his baby son and gaped in disbelief. “Joseph?  Little Joe?”  Pa brought his hands to Joe’s cheeks and studied the kid’s face.  Joe gripped my hand tighter.  It was the first sign of fear I witnessed.  Was Little Joe afraid of our father?

“Let’s go inside, Pa.”

Hoss stared, wide-eyed and not sure what to believe.  “It’s really him, ain’t it?”

“I believe so, brother.”

I guided Joe to the settee and nodded for him to sit down.  Pa rushed to sit on the table in front of him.  Their knees were nearly touching, but Pa had realized enough to hold back and not bombard the kid with a hundred questions.

“He hasn’t said a word,” I said, “and he’s probably dead tired.  We don’t know how far he traveled so maybe we should all get some rest, and then tomorrow . . .”

My words went right over Pa’s head.  He laid his hand on Joe’s left knee.  “It’s Pa, son.  I’m your father, and Hoss,” —Pa glanced up at Hoss, who stood at his side— “do you remember your brother, Hoss?”

“Hey, shortshanks.  You remember ol’ Hoss?”

Joe stared at both men, but there didn’t seem to be a hint of recollection.  There was no movement on his part either.  Joe sat like a frozen statue.  Afraid?  Confused maybe?  I couldn’t be certain.

“Pa—” I said, repeating myself.  “Can this wait till tomorrow?  The kid’s exhausted.”

“Ben?  What’s going on?”  Her voice came from the top of the stairs, and Joe’s head jerked to the side.  Wearing her dressing gown and slippers, Maria called down to Pa.

“Oh, darling.  You’ll never guess who’s sitting right in front of me.  It’s my son, my Joseph.  Come down, dear, and see for yourself.”

Maria was hesitant, and I appreciated her for that.  She was smart enough to realize that too many people staring down at a frightened young boy was too much at this point.

“Why don’t you go on upstairs with Maria, Pa?  I’ll put Joe to bed in his old room.  We have all day tomorrow to get re-acquainted.”

“I’ll put Joseph to bed, son.”  Pa reached for my brother’s hand, but Joe slid back on the settee and jerked his hand away as though he’d been scalded by a burning, hot stove.

“Let me, Pa.  Just this once, just tonight.”

My father looked heartbroken but he agreed with my suggestion.  “All right,” he said.  “Goodnight, Joseph and . . . and welcome home, son.”

*****

Hoss

I moved aside so Pa could slide over and go upstairs to Maria.  He moved like a snail, kept lookin’ back over his shoulder, and I couldn’t blame him.  We was all in shock. Adam took hold of Joe’s hand and pulled him to his feet.  He spoke softly.  “Let’s get you into bed,” he said.

“Mind if I come?”  I asked.

“Should be fine,” Adam said, smiling down at Joe.  “Just hang back some for now.”

I followed my brothers up the stairs.  Brothers, the word didn’t seem real, but it was.  It was as real as the smile on my face.  Little Joe was home.  He hadn’t said nothin’ yet but he would.  He was just scared is all.  Good food, a soft bed, and a family who cared would bring him around quicker’n anything.”

“Go get one of my nightshirts, will you, Hoss?”

I rushed out the room and did Adam’s bidding.  Pa hadn’t thrown any of Joe’s things away.  His dresser still held clothes fitting a six-year-old boy, no use to anyone now. Adam’s night- clothes would have to do until we could get my brother—I loved sayin’ that word—fitted with some decent clothes.

We all saw what he was wearing, clothes that was too small for a boy his age, and no shoes on his feet.  Where had he been and what had he gone through?  Would we ever know the whole truth?  Had he been caged like an animal or had he labored in the fields?  Had he pushed a plow or had he been kept in some dark, secret place?  The marks on his wrists and ankles were proof he’d been held captive somewhere by someone, but who’d do a thing like that?  Who’d want to hurt an innocent little boy? “Can I help?”

“I’ve about got him changed, Hoss, but we could use a cloth and some warm water.”

“Right,” I said.  “I’ll get Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing was already dressed and in the kitchen by the time I got downstairs.  “Water almost ready,” he said.  “Little boy not go bed dirty.”

“Did you see Little Joe?”

“Hop Sing see.”

Hop Sing knew when to be of service and when his presence wasn’t required, but he hadn’t missed Joe comin’ through the front door.  He would never interrupt an unexpected homecoming with a bunch of useless chatter, but he was there when we needed him most.

“Water ready.  You clean boy up real good.”

“I will, Hop Sing, and thanks.”

I grabbed a few clean rags and rushed the hot water upstairs.  Dressed in Adam’s nightshirt, Joe sat on the edge of the bed.  Adam had rolled up the sleeves and my brother’s calloused wrists were exposed.  We each took a clean cloth and started in on the boy.  I pulled a chair up to the bed and propped one of Joe’s feet on my lap.

“Gonna clean you up some, okay?  Don’t wanna put dirty feet against them clean sheets, right?”  I looked into my brother’s eyes but there was nothing.  “I got a better idea,” I said.  “Maybe we oughta soak ‘em a while.  Hang on little buddy.”  Adam was using Joe’s basin to clean his hands and arms, and I ran to my room and grabbed my own.  “Here we go.  That’ll work just fine.”  I set the basin on the floor and filled it halfway with warm water.  “Stick them feet right in there, Little Joe.”

I looked up at Adam and he winked his approval.  I was so afraid of scarin’ the boy; I took things real slow and easy.  I sat back down in the chair and stared down at Joe’s battered feet.  I didn’t expect he’d had shoes on since he outgrew the pair he was wearin’ when he disappeared all them years ago, but my imagination got the better of me, and I tried to slow down my thinkin’.  Nothing had been said and I tried not to think the worst, but how could I not when it was Joe’s life we was talkin’ about?

Adam was making progress.  His water weren’t clean anymore.  “Maybe I should get another bucket,” I said.

“We’re probably good enough for tonight.  Tomorrow, he can have a real bath.”

Joe looked up, and when he jerked his feet from the basin, I turned my head.  Pa stood in the doorway.  He hadn’t come in, but he was curious all the same.  “That’s just Pa, Little Joe.  No reason to be scared.  Me and you and Adam is all brothers, and that man” —I pointed to the doorway— “is our pa.”

Pa probably didn’t look the same to Joe.  Our father’s hair was nearly black when Joe disappeared.  Now, it was streaked with gray.  A few more lines etched his face, but otherwise, he hadn’t changed; at least, in my eyes.  Not so sure about Joe or why his reaction to Pa seemed so fearful.

The soakin’ time had passed and I dried Joe’s feet.  Adam did the same with his hands and arms, and Joe slid under the covers of his bed.  He lay very still; his eyes looked straight ahead as though he wondered what would happen next.

“Goodnight, little brother,” I said.  “Me and Adam are right down the hall if you need us.”

“Goodnight, Joe,” Adam followed, and we left the bedroom together.

“Guess we both better get some sleep.”  Pa had gone back to his room and shut the door behind him.  I felt bad for him, but I didn’t know what I should do.

“I think so.  Tomorrow might be a very long day.  Night, Hoss.”

*****

Adam

I was beat, and it didn’t take long before I was sound asleep.  When the wind picked up, signs of a summer storm brewing, a low-hanging branch scraped the side of the house and woke me from a dead sleep.  When my bedroom door opened, I turned my head to the sound.  It was Joe.  Just like that six-year-old boy who’d climbed in my bed when ghosts and goblins made noises in the night, he crawled under the covers beside me.

I didn’t say a word and neither did he.  He turned his back to me and I did the same.  He fell asleep but I was wide-awake.  My, God.  Eight long years and we didn’t have a clue.

When I couldn’t lie there any longer, I slid out of bed and left Joe to sleep on his own. Quietly, I dressed for the day but carried my boots until I was out of the room.  I pulled them on when I got to the main floor and headed toward the breakfast table where my father was already seated.  “Morning,” I said.

“Good morning, son.  Sleep well?”

I chuckled.  “I had company.”

“What?”  Pa’s coffee cup hung in the air.

“Your baby son,” I said.  “He crawled in my bed halfway through the night.”

Pa shook his head.  “Some things never change.”

“But everything else has, Pa.”

Hop Sing marched out with a cup and saucer and a fresh pot of coffee.  I sat to my father’s right so we could share the pot.  I poured myself a cup and considered what I should say, but Pa was eager to talk.

“He’s taken to you, Adam.”

“Yeah, although I’m not sure why.”

Pa steepled his hands and tapped his chin with his index finger.  “There’s something he sees in me that he doesn’t like.”

“I’m not sure I’d go that far.”

“You saw his reaction, son.  Joseph is afraid of me.”

I sipped my coffee.  “Don’t jump the gun, Pa.  Until Joe’s ready to talk we don’t know anything of the kind.”

“Yes, we do, Adam.  He fears me for some reason.  I see it in his eyes and don’t tell me you didn’t see it too.”

“Maybe because I went to the widow’s house.  I think he recognized me, but I can’t be sure.”

“Joseph seems fine around Hoss.”

Pa had me there, and I had no explanation to give.  “I don’t know what to say, Pa.  We’ll just have to take it slow until he opens up and we find out the truth.”

“I know.”

God help me.  My father was a beaten man, and I couldn’t ease his pain.  Hoss clambered down the stairs with his usual loud gait, and Pa and I both looked up.  “You’re worse than a stampede,” I said.

“It’s a fine day,” he replied, ignoring my comment completely.  His smile outweighed all the noise he made when he entered the room.  “Little Joe still sleepin’?”

“Yeah.  In my bed.”

“Huh?”

“You heard me.”

Hoss took the seat across from me, and Hop Sing rushed out with another cup and saucer.  “Was he scared or somethin’?”

“He didn’t tell me.”

“No, I guess he wouldn’t.  Has he said anything at all?”

“Nope.”

“Maybe I should go check on him—you know, in case he doesn’t know—or maybe he don’t remember where he is.”

“Go ahead,” I said.

Hoss charged up the stairs just like he’d come down.  We were all thrilled to have Joe back with us, but it showed more on Hoss.  He couldn’t hide how excited he was to have his little brother living and breathing under the same roof as him.  My gut told me he’d be the one to get Joe moving on the right path, to get him to open up about the last eight years of his life.

Maria wasn’t a morning person, and in some ways, she reminded me of Joe’s ma, Marie. The role of a rancher’s wife had been difficult for both women.  They’d each been quite adept at city life, and they’d both tried to adjust to ranch life, but neither of Pa’s wives accepted the fact that ranchers started their day at dawn.  Thank goodness for Hop Sing or we’d all starve to death.

As Hop Sing brought out platters of food, Hoss and Joe stood at the top of the stairs.  Joe still wore my nightshirt, and there was no way I was putting those worn-out, filthy clothes back on my young brother.  “Mrs. Potts might have something suitable he could wear.  I’ll ride back over after breakfast.”

“We owe her a great deal, son.  I don’t know how we’ll ever repay that woman.”

“Maybe she could use another milk cow.”

“That’s just the ticket, Adam.”

“Dixie’s offspring,” we said in unison.

“Great minds think alike,” Pa said, and while we chuckled, which seemed foreign anymore, Hoss headed down the stairs.

“See,” Hoss said to Joe.  “Told you there’d be hot food on the table.”  Hoss had started down, but Joe stayed put.  “Come on, little buddy.  Ain’t you hungry?”  Hoss reached out his hand and Joe took hold.  They came down the stairs together.

“Morning, Joe,” I said.

“Good morning, son.”

Joe moved behind Hoss after Pa spoke.  “Come on.  Ain’t no one here gonna hurt you, boy.”

Hoss had Joe sit next to him, but not next to Pa.  It was best for now.  I passed the platter of eggs, and Hoss dished up a pile for Joe and a pile for himself.  He put ham on both plates, grabbed two biscuits, and plopped one down for each of them.  “Dig in while it’s still hot, boy.”  Though tentative at first, Hoss nudged Joe with his elbow and the kid gobbled up everything in sight.

I got a kick out of watching my brothers scarf food like there was no tomorrow, but I realized the day was slipping away.  “I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” I said.  Since Hoss and Joe hadn’t heard Pa’s and my conversation, none of us expected my young brother’s reaction.  His eyes widened like saucers and he shook his head violently.

“Joe,” Hoss said.  “Little Joe, what’s wrong?”  A low sounding moan escaped the boy’s lips. “Is it Adam?  Adam leavin’?  Is that what’s worryin’ you so?”  Joe fisted his hands and slammed the table.  Coffee cups rattled, and empty plates bounced up and down.  Hoss grabbed the kid’s hands and steadied him.  “No, Joseph.  We don’t do that here.”

“I don’t think you should leave him,” Pa said.  “Why don’t Maria and I drive over?  That way you can stay here with your brothers.”

“All right.”

“I need to thank Dorothy for all she’s done anyway.  And—” Pa said, “Maria and I will stop at Mormon Station and pick up some coffee and sugar for Hop Sing, and maybe a sweetnin’ for Joe.  I think I’ll pack us a picnic lunch and make a day of it.  That way, you’ll have more time alone with these two.

“Come on, Joe,” Hoss said.  “You and me can hitch up the wagon.”

*****

Ben

“A real day off,” Maria said as we drove toward Mrs. Potts’.  “I never thought I’d see the day you didn’t sit yourself down at that desk and work on the books.”

“Oh, come on, now.  Have I been that bad?”

“Do you want the truth, Ben?”

“I have, haven’t I?”

I flicked the reins and the horse took on a livelier gait.  “It feels good, doesn’t it?  From now on, I promise we’ll do this more often.  You deserve more happiness than I’ve given you over these troublesome years.”

“You had your reasons.”

“Not anymore darling,” I said.  Even though Joe hadn’t warmed up to me, I couldn’t keep from smiling.  “Never in my lifetime did I expect Joseph to walk through that door.”

“Neither did I.”

I chuckled softly.  “You make it sound—I don’t know . . . ominous.”

“Ominous?  I’m just as thrilled as you are, Ben.”

“For a minute there, I wasn’t sure.”

“Don’t be silly darling.  Nothing will ever compare to Joe’s homecoming except maybe your enthusiasm in the bedroom last night.”

“Maria, really.”

“I’m not telling tales, am I?”

My wife moved closer to me and slipped her hand about my arm.  She was a loving woman, a joyful diversion to life’s problems, and I hadn’t been the kind of husband she’d hoped for.  I’d given her monetary items, but never the full effects of my love.  I’d supported her charitable work, even given a substantial amount to a friend who’d fallen on hard times, but I’d never given her much of myself.

Now that Joseph was home and our family was complete, I vowed our lives together would change.  Once Little Joe was well, I could arrange a few more day trips for just the two of us.  Maria deserved the best of everything, and I was determined to make that happen.

“We’ll begin anew,” I said.  “The honeymoon is just beginning, sweetheart.  Adam’s old enough to take on more responsibility, and Hoss; well, he’s a grown man and can help both of his brothers.  I’ll have more time to spend with my beautiful, incredible wife.”

Maria’s grip tightened on my arm.  “That sounds wonderful, Ben.”

I knocked on the widow’s front door and heard footsteps rushing across her front parlor. “Dorothy,” I said.

“Ben, Mrs. Cartwright, won’t you come in.  I’m so glad you stopped by.  I wasn’t sure I could get away today, but I’ve found some things for Joseph.”

“You’re a lifesaver,” I said.  “What would we do without you?”

“Oh, Ben.  I only do what I can.  Come have a seat.  Can I offer you some coffee?  Tea?”

“No, no we won’t be staying.  We have to get down to the station for supplies, but if there’s anything you need, we’d be glad to pick something up for you.”

“As a matter of fact, I could use a new spool of white thread.  Jacob keeps a good supply on hand, and I’m always in need.”

“Done,” I said, and I could pick up a little trinket if Jacob had anything worthwhile.  Maria would know best what a widow woman might like.

“Here’s what I found for Joseph.  I hemmed the pants last night and took in the waistband.  The shirt—well, he’ll just have to roll up the sleeves.”

“This is perfect, Dorothy.  I can’t thank you enough.”

“Just seeing that boy was enough for me, Ben.  How’s he getting on?”

“We’ve got a ways to go.”  I wasn’t going to tell her everything.  “He’s not talking yet.”

“Give him time.  He’s such a precious child.”

“Thank you again,” I said.  “We’ll stop by on our way back.”

I picked up three spools of white thread, a brown and a black, and set them on Jacob’s counter.  After telling him I needed coffee and sugar, and five cents worth of licorice, I added twenty pounds of flour now that Hop Sing was cooking for five.  I noticed Maria eyeing a stunning, blue dress one of the local women had made, and I told the shopkeeper we’d take that too.

“Don’t be silly,” Maria said.  “I don’t need a new dress.”

“Oh, but you do, my dear.  And, I want you to pick something out for Mrs. Potts, something pretty.”

Mormon Station didn’t offer much more than needed supplies but every now and then, Jacob would trade for a few trinkets if he thought they would sell, but he had nothing this time that stood out.

“You think she’d like this?”

Maria held up a jar of molasses, sometimes hard to come by, but a genuine treat when drizzled over cornbread.  “Perfect,” I said.

Of course, Dorothy Potts said the extra items were too much when I handed her the package, but I insisted.  Since I’d only planned to make a quick delivery and we’d be on our way, Maria stayed seated in the wagon while I handed the widow the small tokens of my appreciation.  I told her one of my boys would bring over a new milk cow sometime next week.

“You’re a very generous man, Ben Cartwright.”

“Don’t you think a thing about it,” I said.  “You deserve much more.”

Hop Sing had packed us a picnic lunch, and we stopped on the way home and spread a blanket alongside Buckhorn Creek.  And then it hit me.  We were in the very same location Adam said he and Hoss had found Little Joe’s jacket, the last telltale sign of my boy.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but this isn’t a good spot.”  My mood darkened faster than a raincloud blocking the sun.  I picked up the blanket and basket and threw them in the back of the wagon.  “I’ve lost my appetite.”

“Ben, what happened?  What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, dear, but we’ll have to picnic another day.”

I slapped the reins and we headed toward for home.  Just the sight of that damn river chilled me to the bone.  Joseph was home but what had my boy endured and how had he escaped his captors?  I needed answers.  I wanted to know every detail of every year I missed.  I smacked the reins even harder.

My wife deserved answers too.  I’d taken all my pent-up anger and thrown it right in her face.  I wasn’t the man I used to be.  I was bitter.  I worked day and night and ignored those around me.  I hadn’t been a caring father or a loving husband, and if I carried the burden of grief any longer, Joseph could easily see me as the enemy.  Maria, Adam, and Hoss.  My family had suffered greatly, and I’d been the primary cause.

I’m sorry, my love.  The words rattled in my head, but why couldn’t I say them aloud?

*****

Adam

We walked through the next two weeks on eggshells.  Joe was still as fragile as the night I’d brought him home.  He never spoke a word although he watched every move we made.  Unless I suggested otherwise, my gaunt shell of a brother would sit and stare at the fire.  Sometimes, he worried his hands.  Sometimes, his body trembled or jerked unexpectedly.  A single tear might escape, and he’d turn and hide his head.  I knew enough to leave him alone, but I couldn’t help but wonder what unpleasant thoughts ran through his mind.

An idea came to me and I thought it was worth a try.  I rummaged through Pa’s desk and found a new bottle of ink, a pen, and a plain sheet of paper.  I took them to the dining room table and called Joe over.

“I have something for you,” I said.  “Come give it a try.

Joe followed orders without complaint.  He did everything I asked, and I had to assume that obedience had been driven into him over the years.  The spontaneous, carefree little boy was gone.  The new Joe was reluctant to participate but acted on command.

“Pen and paper,” I said.  “You think you can draw something for me?”  Hoss walked out of the kitchen with sugar on his chin and a fresh donut in his hand.  “Did you leave any for us?”

“Sure did,” he said.  “I’ll bring ‘em out.”

I pulled a chair out for Joe and dipped the pen in ink.  “Here you go.  Can you draw a picture for Hoss and me?”

I’d nearly forgotten Joe was left-handed.  He showed signs early on, and I remember Mrs. Potts trying to direct the pen to his right hand when he was just a little tyke, but she told me he balked at the idea.  I’d suggested she let him use his left and she, in turn, balked at me.  Now, I knew for sure.  Joe reached for the pen with his left hand.

Though uncertain at first, he began scribbling angry, dark lines.  When Hoss set a plate of donuts on the table, Joe never looked up.  He dipped his pen and continued to run it hard across the paper until I thought the tip would break and fly across the room.  Pa’s brand new pen.  I’d have to restock the next time we needed supplies.

“That’s probably enough, Joe.  We’ll try again tomorrow.”

Joe laid the pen down and stood from the chair; he returned to his seat on the settee.  I looked at Hoss, an uneaten donut in his hand said he was as worried as I.  No fourteen-year-old boy should hold that much anger inside.  This was the first we’d seen of his exacting rage.  It was troubling.

Hoss and I would never mention a word in front of Joe, but we talked that night in the privacy of my room.  “I ain’t never seen anything like it,” Hoss said.

“He’s an angry young man.”

“Anger don’t begin to describe what that boy’s holdin’ back.”

“We have to get him talk.  I think he knows who took him, and if we find out that much, we’ll eventually know why.”  The kid didn’t drown in Buckhorn Creek; we were only made to think he was dead, but why was he let go or did he escape?  So many unanswered questions.

“But how we gonna do that, Adam?”

I shook my head.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  “I wish I knew.”

Pa’s mood had changed drastically over the last two weeks.  After his and Maria’s outing, he’d come home angry and he stayed angry.  He’d sit at his desk for hours.  He didn’t have much to say, and I suspected Joe’s avoidance of him had something to do with his mood.  Like our troubles with Joe, I didn’t know anything for sure.  I guessed at everything these days.

I’d tried the pen and paper each day following the first, and a pattern began to develop.  The anger was still there, but there was more.  Joe always started out the same.  Angry lines nearly shredding the page, but he began to add different shapes.

One day, there were up and down lines, straight lines that could’ve resembled a jail cell. I was guessing again, but had the boy been caged?  Had he lived eight years behind bars? Another time, I thought he added stick figures between the angry lines, but I couldn’t be sure.  If my guess was right, he’d either drawn himself and his captor or maybe there’d been two people involved.  Damn it.  Frustration wasn’t a good enough word.

Hoss and I rode out to work every day, and we took Joe with us.  Eyes that showed panic wouldn’t allow us to leave him behind.  Our father groused at the idea of Joe being forced to work, but there was no denying the facts.  Joe wasn’t comfortable around Pa—or Maria.

Our home-life had become uncomfortable, almost unbearable.  Pa and Maria barely spoke, not that they were unhappy or fighting with each other, they’d just gone their separate ways.  While Maria spent most of her time upstairs when Joe was inside the house, Pa sat his desk.  Whether he worked on the books or only pretended was anyone’s guess.  Things had to change before our home life crumbled like ashes, and I came up with an idea though running it by Pa would be complicated.  I knew how he’d react, but I had to try.  As soon as the two of us were alone, I laid out my proposal.

“May I have a minute, Pa?”

“Of course, son.  What’s on your mind?”

The absence of Joe in the room made all the difference.  If only for a brief moment, Pa acted his old self.  “I want to take Joe away,” I said.

“Away?”  Pa chuckled.  “Why on earth would you do that?”

“I don’t know.”  I palmed both hands on Pa’s desk and looked into questioning eyes.  “Maybe . . . maybe if he’s away from the house, I can break through that wall of protection he’s hiding behind.”

“I don’t know, Adam.”

“What can it hurt, Pa?  We’re getting nowhere with him here.  Let me try.”

Pa stood.  He rounded his desk and came to stand next to me.  “You’ll be careful,” he said.  “I can’t lose my son again.”

“I will, Pa.  Nothing will happen to Joe.”

*****

I helped the kid pack the following morning, and we rode out after breakfast.  Hoss said goodbye and shook Joe’s hand, but when Pa tried the same, he’d moved to close.  Fearful again, Joe stepped back.  His lack of empathy for our father left an empty pit in my stomach, and I vowed not to bring the boy home until the matter was resolved.  Pa couldn’t take much more.

Riding with my brothers earlier in the week had given me the idea.  We’d passed a line shack not far from Buckhorn Creek and not far from where we’d discovered Joe’s little jacket.  Would facing the memories of that day help or could it destroy him?

The cabin wasn’t far, and we unsaddled our horses an hour after we’d left the house.  Joe helped me unload our supplies but hesitated before he stepped inside.  I started a fire in the stove.  “We’ll need more wood later,” I said, “but that’ll do for now.”  It’s funny how a man can fill dead air with his own voice, but that’s exactly what I did.  Unfortunately, we’d been doing that for weeks.

Joe stood by the door as if waiting for another command.  “You hungry?  No, probably not.  It’s too early to eat.  Maybe we could do a little fishing.  There’s a stream nearby. Fresh trout sound good for supper?  That’s the one thing I know how to cook.”  I was rambling and wondered if Joe was growing as tired of my voice as I was.  “Come on.  Grab the poles.  Let’s give it a try.”

We settled ourselves on the bank of Buckhorn Creek, but Joe seemed cautious, unsteady.  His pole didn’t rest easy in the water, and I wondered if he knew how close we were to the site of that fatal day—as we called it—eight years ago.  The sun was high overhead when we threw our lines in the water and whether he liked it or not, I began talking again.

“I brought you here for a reason, Joe.”  The kid didn’t move or make eye contact; he stared at the end of his line.  “Down the way is where we found your jacket the day you vanished.”  My brother tensed.  I was glad for the reaction, but I felt uneasy.  “Pa didn’t let go of that coat for days.  He clutched it to his chest.  He cried, Joe.  He cried for his lost little boy.”

A low moan escaped from Joe’s throat, but even after hearing the rough, guttural sound, I persisted.  “Talk to me, Joe.  Tell me what happened.”  There were no words but the kid’s whimpering increased.  “Please.”

“Pushed,” he mumbled.

Damn.  I wanted to clap and cheer.  The first word had been spoken, but what did it mean?  “Were you pushed into the creek?”

Joe nodded.

“Someone pushed you?”

Silence.

“Did you know him?  Do you know who pushed you?”

Silence.

“Was he a big man?  A strong man?”

Silence.

My, God.  What could I say to break through?  Joe dropped his pole and covered his eyes.  “I asked some hard questions, buddy, but I’m glad you answered me.  You did good, and I’m proud of you.”

“Woman.”

Had I heard him right?  “Did you say . . . woman?”  Nothing was forthcoming, and I needed so much more.  “A woman pushed you in the creek?”

Silence.

I set my pole aside; there’d be no fresh fish for supper.  “Do you know her name?  Did she tell you her name?”

Joe pushed to his feet and ran away from the water.  Was he afraid to tell me?  Of course, he was.  Did he fear going back to . . . wherever?  I followed but I gave him plenty of room.  He headed downriver and stopped near the area where he must have gone in.  I stood behind him.  I was a patient man.  I had all the time in the world.

“It was deeper that day,” I said.  “The creek was cresting the bank.”

“Brung here.”

I worked the puzzle in my head.

“Kicked her.”

“A woman brought you here . . . and you kicked her?  You tried to get away?”

“Didn’t wanna come.”

“No, Joe, I’m sure you didn’t.”

Joe’s back was to me.  His shoulders shook and without seeing his face, I knew he was crying.  Still, I waited for more.  I stared down at the stream.  It ran low, barely more than a trickle but the day Joe disappeared, we’d had several days of rain and the creek had swollen to the top of its bank.  It would’ve been deep enough to trip a small boy up, especially if he’d been pushed from behind.

“Mama,” he whispered.

Not sure if I’d heard him right, I leaned in closer.  Had the woman told him his mama would be here?  No.  We’d explained death, and he understood his mother was never coming back.  He’d accepted the fact.  I waited, but the kid said nothing more.  I reached for his hand.  “That’s enough for now,” I said.  “Let’s go back to the cabin.”

I warmed the ham and beans Hop Sing had sent for our supper but neither of us ate enough to make serving the meal worthwhile.  I had no idea what Joe was thinking or what memories he was trying to escape.  We were all numb after Marie died, and though I tried not to think of that awful scene in the yard, her loss was all I ever thought about for days, weeks even.  I dreamed that her death wasn’t real, that I’d wake in the morning and our lives would be as they should be—a family of five.

We were a family of five again, but we were broken, and my heart bled for my father and the life he dreamed would be decent and blissful and full of wonders.  He’d married for the fourth time.  Not many men found true love more than once, but my father had, and we all should’ve grown and become better men but for one night of horror that shattered all our lives.  Finding the jacket and not the boy had ruined everything that was clean and pure.

I had to give Maria credit, though.  She’d done her best to soothe the ache in Pa’s heart.  It was little things really.  The way she touched his hand or gave him a sideways glance accompanied by an endearing smile that seemed to break the ice and bring him back to the living.

Joe was quiet during supper, and I didn’t want to leave him alone while I washed dishes down at the creek.  Instead, I stacked one on top of the other; I’d clean up tomorrow.  “I’m for bed,” I said.  “You?”

Normally, Joe did everything I asked, but he didn’t move from the table.  He dropped his hands between his legs and when he looked toward the cot near the back wall of the cabin, his demeanor changed completely.  “No,” he said.

I was surprised by his answer, but if I’d been chained to similar cots, maybe I’d feel the same way.  “You’re not tired?”

Joe closed his eyes and his legs began bouncing with nervous energy.  “Get away.”

Another piece of the puzzle or was he telling me to leave?  “I can’t leave you, Joe.”

He shook his head.  “G-got away.”

And then it hit me.  “You got away?  You escaped?  Is that what you’re telling me?”

His head bobbed up and down.

“Were you being held in a place like this?”

The low moan was back.  “H-here.”

“You were held here?”  He wasn’t making sense.  We’d checked every line shack; in fact, this was the first one we came to and there was no sign of Joe.  “But Joe,” I said.  “This was the first place we looked.”

He shook his head.  I’m sure my constant badgering frustrated him, and when he began pounding his legs with fisted hands, I did my best to calm him.  “Okay.  Slow down, buddy.  It’s my fault; I misunderstood.”  I tried to think things through.  “You weren’t held here the whole time, were you?”

The shaking stopped, but Joe gulped in so much air, I thought he might pass out.

“So the lady took you somewhere else first then brought you back here—to the Ponderosa.”

The low moan made me think I was right.  I squatted down on one knee in front of him.  “Did she have a name, Joe?  Do you know the woman’s name?”

I sounded like a damn Pinkerton, but all I wanted a justifiable reason why Joe didn’t want to sleep on the bed.  “Joe?”  I waited for him to look at me.  When he did, I pointed to the cot by the wall.  “Were you handcuffed to that bed?”

The answer came when Joe, perhaps subconsciously, rubbed at the fresher cuts on his wrists.

“But you escaped anyway.  You squeezed your hands through the cuffs?”

“Lucy.”

“Lucy?”  Finally, we had a name, but who the hell was Lucy.  I’d never heard the name before but it seemed to me now that Joe had spent more of his young life with her than he had with us.  And, I’m not sure how dense the woman was, but she obviously hadn’t realized how thin Joe had become, and he was able to twist his hands through the metal cuffs.  “You’re a pretty smart kid, Joe.”

My brother looked up and for the first time since his return, he smiled.  I repaid the gesture with a smile of my own.  “You’ll never have to see Lucy again.  Understand?  You’re with me now.”  But the smile faded and his legs started up again.  The nervous bounce was back, and I took a chance.  I rested my hand on his knee, and the legs settled down.

“There’s a whole lot more to the story, isn’t there?  Can you keep going?  Are you too tired to talk?”

We never made it to bed that night.  Joe was too young to share a bottle of whiskey so I made pots of coffee instead, and I listened to every detail he was willing to offer.  Joe was getting his voice back.  His sentences may not have been complete although he was starting to connect words together.

He and “Aunt Lucy” had ridden part way to the cabin on the back of a hay wagon.  The driver said he wasn’t crossing Ben Cartwright’s land for a couple of no-good drifters.  Joe remembered his name—Cartwright—and realized he must be close to home, though, at the time, he didn’t know why they’d come back to the Ponderosa.

Two days after they arrived, he heard muffled voices outside the cabin, and from what I could make out; Joe thought his life was in danger.  Lucy was tired of the arrangement and wanted more money or she was through.

After hearing what he thought was a gunshot, he knew he had to escape.  He freed himself from the manacles and hid in the brush maybe twenty yards from the cabin until dark.  When he felt safe, he followed the road that ran along Buckhorn Creek.  The story came in bits and pieces I had to sort out, but I learned much more than I ever wanted to know.  The truth was difficult to hear.

“Do you know who was paying Lucy?”

Joe shook his head as though I was the one who didn’t understand.  “Carmen.”

“Carmen paid Lucy?”  He shook his head again but as he did, an eerie feeling came over me and like a caged animal; I began pacing the small cabin and then stopped in front of Joe.  I’d heard the name before; I’d heard it mentioned years ago, but could I be mistaken?  “Are you saying Lucy’s real name was Carmen?”

Joe looked up and nodded.

“And Carmen demanded more money?”  God Almighty, I prayed I was wrong.

I listened well into the night.  It was so good to hear Joe’s voice, which cracked on occasion and embarrassed him, but I hid the smile on my face.  He asked several questions.  The first, “How long have I been gone?”  I wondered if he was calculating the missing years, and I hurried to answer.  “You’re fourteen years old, Joe.”  Maybe I should’ve remained silent.  I dropped my eyes when a tear rolled down Joe’s cheek. Realizing how many years had been wasted silenced us both.

We packed our saddlebags at dawn and rode out.  Much more had been said and telling the family would be difficult.  Joe had been told repeatedly that Pa was disappointed in him, that he wanted him out of the house because angry little boys were a source of distraction, an unnecessary burden for his father’s new bride.  Joe was frightened, and he believed every word that Carmen, aka “Aunt Lucy,” had driven into him.

I could imagine the look in my father’s eyes when I had to tell him the truth.  Tears of anger and tears of shame would only be the beginning of the heartbreak he’d have to resolve before he could heal.  At least I knew why Joe had been so hesitant around Pa, but we’d start life anew.  I’d explained that everything Carmen said was a lie and that our father—under no circumstance—would’ve ever sent his baby son away.  I reinforced Pa’s love for him more than a few times on the ride home.

*****

Hoss

I didn’t expect to see my brothers ride in so soon.  They’d only left yesterday, and Adam said he might be gone as long as a week or more.  “Pa—hey Pa,” I hollered.  “They’re back.”

Pa rushed to the front door.  He seemed surprised too, and the two of us walked out to welcome them home.  “Didn’t expect you so soon,” Pa said.  “But I’m glad you’re back.”

Adam smiled but it was a sad smile.  They both looked bedraggled.  They hadn’t ridden that far; the line shack was only a few miles away, but somethin’ was up.  I could feel it in my bones.  “Why don’t I put your horses up?  You two look beat.”

“Thanks, brother.  You guessed right for a change.”

I didn’t comment on Adam’s snarky remark, but when he reached for Joe’s hand, Joe shrugged him off and moved in front of our pa.  He extended his hand, and I nearly dropped the reins of both brothers’ mounts.  Something was up all right, and I stood and stared at the unfamiliar sight.

“It’s good to be home, Pa.”

Pa stood stock-still.  The shock of Joe addressing him in such a manner had caught him off guard.  “It’s good to have you home, son.”  His voice was shaky, and his eyes turned glassy and bright.  He reached for Joe’s hand and pulled the boy to his chest.  “I’ve missed you, Joseph.”

“Missed you too, Pa.”

I looked to Adam for answers, but I guess it weren’t the right time or place.  Curiously, though, Adam weren’t smilin’.  “I’ll help you with the horses,” he said.

We walked to the barn together, but I took one more look over my shoulder and saw that Pa and Joe were nearing house, each with an arm wrapped around the other’s waist.  It was a pretty sight to see.

“You sure worked some kind of magic, big brother.”

“Not me, Hoss.”  Adam loosened Sport’s cinch.  “Joe was ready to talk.”

I tended the horse Adam had picked out for Joe.  Our brother was taller now, and his little pony had been put out to pasture years ago.  “How’d you get him to open up?  I don’t know what you call it, but I call it magic.”

“It’s a long story, Hoss.”  Adam lifted the saddle and hefted it over the half-wall.  “It’s not a pretty story.”

“Huh?”

“You done?”

“Yeah.”

“Steady yourself, Hoss.  You’re not going to like what you hear.”

Me and Adam walked back to the house together.  I’d planned to make a trip for supplies, but I had an eerie feeling things was gonna get worse ‘fore they got better.  Besides, if there was an explanation to be had, I wasn’t about to miss out over a wagonload of flour and sugar.

I didn’t see Joe and Pa right off, not till they came walking out of the kitchen.  “Hop Sing’s fixing you and Joe something to eat,” Pa said to Adam.  “You two must be starving.”

Joe’s eyes dipped toward our brother.  His eyes were kinda fearful like, and I thought about what Adam had said.  “You’re not going to like what you hear.”  On most days, I could’ve eaten breakfast twice, but this time, I didn’t have no appetite for seconds.

When Maria started down the stairs—never an early riser—Pa nearly ran across the room and reached for her hand.  “Come see who’s here, sweetheart.”

Unexpectedly, Joe pushed passed me and ran into the kitchen.  A second later, Adam did the same.  “What the heck?”  I mumbled under my breath.  I didn’t know whether to follow or console our pa.  He looked confused and he had a darn good right to be.

“Maybe Joe had to use the outhouse,” I said.  The kitchen door slammed.  “Maybe he ate somethin’ he shouldn’t’ve.”

“I don’t understand.  Just a minute ago . . .”

“Don’t you worry, none, Pa.”  This was the strangest darn thing I’d ever seen.  A joyous reunion, and then Joe makes a beeline for the back door.  “I’ll find ‘em.”

I clomped out the kitchen door and studied the landscape.  No one in sight.  I headed to the barn first, and I heard ‘em before I saw ‘em.  My brothers was both in the loft.  I put my foot on the first rung of the ladder, but I stopped there.  Was I welcome?

“Hey, you two.  Mind if I come up?”

“Come on up, Hoss.”

I climbed the ladder and peeked over the bottom edge of the loft.  Adam had used the back wall for support, his right arm held Joe tight to his chest.  The boy’s sobs were soft and he was mumbling words I couldn’t quite hear.  I moved closer to my brothers and sat down in front of them.

Adam took a deep breath.  “Maria isn’t who she appears to be, Hoss.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I’m still trying to take it all in,” Adam said.  “If what Joe says is true, and I believe it is, Maria Santos Jenkins Cartwright planned Joe’s disappearance.  She paid her sister, Carmen, to do the dirty work.”

I held my breath.  Them words struck me like a lightnin’ bolt, and I felt lightheaded.  I ran a hand through my hair, and I took a big deep breath.  “No, it can’t be true.”

Adam’s hand moved up and down Joe’s back and our brother seemed to quiet some.  He’d been a lively but sensitive little boy, and the tears that tracked down his face showed me that some of that little boy was left inside him.  Them silent tears bothered me more’n hearin’ them awful words about Maria.

“Hello?  Adam?  Hoss?  Little Joe?”  Pa had found us.

Adam tightened his grip on Joe and whispered.  “Can Pa come up?”  Joe shook his head against my brother’s chest.

“I’ll go down,” I said.  I stood to my feet.  “Comin’, Pa.”

“Watch what you say, Hoss.”

“Don’t know if I can, Adam.”  I climbed down the ladder.

“What’s this all about, son?”

I was ready to repeat Adam’s words straight out until I looked over Pa’s shoulder. Standing just inside the barn doors, was Maria.  She could overhear everything I said so I heeded my brother’s advice.  I was careful.  “Joe told Adam everything, Pa.”

Pa’s anxious shoulders dropped.  “Thank God.”

I glanced at Maria again.  She hadn’t moved, but Pa didn’t know she was there, no one did ‘cept me.  Just like Maria, my hands were at my sides, but hers were hidden within the folds of her skirt.  I wasn’t armed.  Was she?  I let crazy thoughts run through my head.

“Maria,” I said.

Pa turned his head sharply, but it was Adam and Joe I wanted to warn.  Pa extended his hand toward his wife.  “Joseph is talking now.  He can tell us everything that happened to him, and we can finally get our lives back on track.”

Maria stepped forward, only one small step, but my thoughts hadn’t been crazy at all.  She leveled a small derringer at my father’s chest.  “I can’t let that happen, darling.”

“What?”  Pa chuckled hesitantly.  “What’s this all about?”

“Your son drowned in that the creek eight years ago.”

“Sweetheart,” Pa said.  Being the only one who didn’t know the truth, he was obviously stunned by her remark.  “Joseph is alive and well.  You’ve seen him with your own eyes.”

She took another step forward.  “He was never supposed to come home.”

Pa moved toward his wife.  “Why the gun, Maria?  What’s going on?”

“You paid her well to take care of her charge.”

“Paid who?  Wait,” Pa said.  “You said, ‘her charge’.”  Pa raised his hands as if surrendering to his wife’s admission that she’d been involved in his son’s disappearance.  “Are you saying” —Pa pressed his fingertips hard against his temples— “are you telling me the funds I gave you for your destitute friend was money spent to keep my son away from me all these years?”

“I always said you were a smart man, Ben Cartwright.”

“Then it’s true?”

“Carmen has played gatekeeper for eight long years, but she was tired of traipsing around the country with an extra hundred pounds of baggage.”

“You’re sister had Joseph all this time?”

“That’s enough talk, Ben.”

Pa’s throaty laugh surprised me, surprised Maria too.

“Enough talk?”  Pa began pacing, but the little derringer followed his every move.  “What kind of woman are you?  You stole my son!”

“It’s time for me to leave, Ben.”  Her voice was like the calm before a storm.  “My bag is packed, but I’ll need Hoss to saddle my horse.”

“Where’s Carmen, Maria?”  I said.  “You do away with her too?”

Maria’s lips turned up slightly, and I was convinced she hadn’t left a witness, but something snapped inside Pa and a loud throaty growl caught Maria off guard, and he lunged toward his wife and the gun she held in her hand.  A shot rang out.

I screamed my father’s name— “Pa!” —and raced forward, but our pa wasn’t shot.  Adam stood at the edge of the loft, a smoking gun in his hand.  Maria dropped to the ground.  Pa knelt down on one knee and lifted her head just off the barn floor.  “I loved you.  I trusted you.  I brought you into my home to be part of our family.  Why?  Why, Maria?”

Adam was a good shot.  He’d won contests at the annual fair, and he could’ve winged our father’s wife had he wanted.  There would’ve been a trial, and Little Joe would be forced to testify, but I don’t think Adam was willing to put our young brother though any more days of hell.  Maria didn’t answer our father.  Her head lolled to the side; her body fell limp in his arms.  Maria Santos Jenkins Cartwright was dead.

*****

Joe

I wasn’t afraid to stay home with Pa anymore, and my brothers made themselves scarce for the next couple of days.  Pa and I needed time alone.  We needed to heal and to deal with the effects of the last eight years.

My father’s wife, the woman I could never call Mama, was killed and then buried the same day.  Pa told me not to worry about Adam.  If Porter Rockwell—aka Old Port—a well-known lawman who serviced the Utah Territory, had questions about her death, Pa would tell him the honest truth.

“We searched for weeks,” Pa said, but that was a given.  I knew they would, and I knew they’d never find me.  I’d been whisked away in a covered wagon the same night I was pushed in and hauled back out of the creek.  Though I didn’t figure it out for a long time, leaving the jacket was proof of my death.

“You never stood a chance of finding me,” I said.  “I drowned in Buckhorn Creek.  Their plan went off without a hitch.”

In the beginning, I was kept in a barn, a converted stall became my home, but I couldn’t tell Pa everything.  He didn’t have to know about the chains or the days I went without food or water.  He’d been hurt enough already.  We moved all the time.  We never stayed in one place long enough for people to suspect we were anything but a loving aunt and her dead sister’s son.

If we were in public, I’d been instructed to call my captor Aunt Lucy.  We either walked from point A to point B or rode in the back of farmer’s wagons.  Oftentimes, I was given something that knocked me out during our travels.  I’d wake up confused but alive.  And then we came back to the line shack.

The telling was hard on Pa.  He wanted to know everything, but I had to find a way around that.  He blamed himself.  I realized why, but I wanted him to understand that I didn’t blame him; at least, not anymore.  The simple fact was that I was too much of a bother for his new wife.  She didn’t want to deal with a six-year-old kid.  Maria didn’t marry Ben Cartwright to become a mother.  She loved being Pa’s wife; she loved glitz and glamor—if one could call it that—of her new life with an honorable, prominent man.

“None of this is your fault, you know.”

“Oh, Joseph.  Everything that happened to you was my fault.”

“You didn’t know.  Maybe I should’ve told you everything eight years ago.”

“What, son?  What wasn’t I told?”

“I was a little kid, but I knew how much she hated me.  I told Hoss, but he thought I was acting silly.  I know I should’ve told you, but I was afraid.  You loved her, Pa.  I didn’t think you’d believe me.”

“How did I miss the signs?  How was I so blind?”

I took a deep breath.  I’d never told Hoss half of what Maria said or did to me, and what good would it do to tell Pa now?  “I’d rather not talk about it.  It’s over now.  It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me, son.”

I’d never tell him the worst.  He’d never know I was beaten if I talked or cried or how I had to watch Aunt Lucy eat in front of me when I had nothing at all.  He wouldn’t know that I was made to wear shoes that were too small or that I was left naked inside a cage when I’d outgrown my clothes.  Instead, I told him things that happened when I still lived at home.

“It was little things, Pa.  She told me I was an evil little boy, and she’d pinch me where a bruise wouldn’t show, the back of my arm or the skin under my shirt collar.  She’d grip my arms and shake me.  Sometimes, she’d swat my backside, little things that don’t matter anymore.  She knew how much you loved us but in her eyes, I was nothing more than an inconvenience.  Adam was leaving for college, and Hoss was needed to work the ranch.  I wasn’t big enough to be useful, but I’ve let that all go.  Don’t you understand, Pa?  You have to do the same.”

A gentle smile crossed Pa’s lips.  “You’re wise beyond your years, Joseph.”

“I may not be wise, but I know what’s important:  me and you and Hoss and Adam.”  I reached for my father’s hands.  “Nothing else matters, Pa.  I’m home now, and we can start over.”

“You’re quite a boy, Joseph.  No, I take that back.  You’re quite a man.  I’ll stop apologizing if that’s what you want, but I’ll never let anyone and anything come between us again.”

When I smiled, Pa pulled me to his chest.  A hint of bay rum mixed with pipe tobacco assured me he was willing to help me through life’s troubles.  For years, lies had been driven into me until I believed they were God’s truth, but now I knew better.  I had a father who wasn’t disappointed in me after all, and who loved me more than the evil he brought into our house.

“I think we’re good now, Pa.

“I think we are too, Joseph.”

***The End***

2017

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