Restoring the Heart of the Ponderosa – Pt II (by BluewindFarm)

Synopsis: A continuation of Restoring the Heart of the Ponderosa. The family looks forward to life returning to normal, but find they have a rocky road to travel as nightmares from the past intrude.  This story is AU, it diverges from what we know as canon.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, prequel
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  54,1475

This story references a subject of a sensitive nature; however, no such actions occur within this story.


 

Chapter 16 – First Night

Ben was the first to see his twelve-year old son standing at the upper landing, on the opposite side of Hop Sing; he immediately stood. His eyes, only on his son, did not acknowledge the others who rapidly followed suit after noticing Ben’s gaze and movements. The father smiled as he recognized the word his son’s mouth formed, ‘Home’.

“Joseph?” Ben tentatively called as he hurriedly walked between the settee and the low table, gently pushing Paul Martin and Hoss forward and out of his way.

When his son cowered back at his approach, Ben stopped at the base of the staircase, his right hand on the decoration on top of the newel post and his left foot on the step.

“Joseph?”

The worried father waited as Hop Sing prevented the boy’s retreat and quietly spoke to him. Ben’s heart dropped as the boy’s face conveyed his fear; it was only moments later that Joe’s body gave into its exhaustion and collapsed. Hop Sing supported the child and held the boy until his employer could take his son into his own arms.

“Mr. Cartwright, I hear good doctor say boy sleep, but he woke, say ‘see home’,” Hop Sing stated while his employer climbed the steps in haste.

“Thank you for staying with him,” Ben stated as he picked up his son and carried him back to his bed.

“Fool boy,” Paul stated, shaking his head, as he entered the room behind Ben. He saw the worried expression on the man’s face and added, “Ben, as I told Adam in town, he’s exhausted. I’m not even sure how he had the energy to make it from Mill City to here… Let alone what woke him up just now.”

“Has he set himself back by gettin’ up?” Hoss asked as he had followed the others and lingered at the foot of the bed.

“No Hoss, he just needs to sleep and stay in bed for a while. Hop Sing knows what foods to feed him to help him regain his strength. That’s what he really needs now; sleep and nourishment.”

Ben stood up from tucking the blankets around his son’s frail body. The child looked so much younger than his soon-to-be thirteen years. The eldest Cartwright tried to stand strong as he thought of the abuse Paul had indicated his boy had suffered while they all thought he was dead.

“Two years, Paul. He was out there all along, all alone.”

“Pa, we couldn’t a known…” Hoss spoke up.

“Adam did,” Ben stated as he looked to his eldest who waited, leaning against the bureau in Joe’s room.

“No Pa, I didn’t know. I hoped, I prayed, maybe I was grasping at the wind,” Adam replied as he crossed his arms, a defensive movement towards the praise he knew he didn’t deserve.

“Then why’d ya go? Ya seemed so all fire sure when ya got that letter from Gabe,” Hoss asked.

Adam thought before he spoke, “When I was with Gabe, we talked and… he forced me to face a stark truth.”

A perplexed Ben looked to his eldest son.

“Pa… Before I left, I told Hoss that I… I was seriously considering returning to Grandfather’s.”

It shocked Ben to hear his son’s intentions, he had no idea his first born had felt this way. With all three of his sons in the same room, Ben looked long and hard from Adam to Hoss, wondering just what else he had not noticed while grieving over the death of his youngest.

“But you didn’t… What changed your mind son? I mean, I’m thankful that you stayed… that you found Joe, but…”

“Gabe’s letter stopped me. I didn’t exactly know why I went… I mean we all believed he was… had been killed. But once I arrived in Mill City… Gabe and I talked, and he was able to help me understand that even though my mind accepted Joe was dead, my heart didn’t and it wouldn’t because I didn’t really want to leave here… I didn’t want to leave home. If I truly accepted that Joe was dead, there was nothing more to keep me here.”

“I don’t understand,” Hoss spoke, scratching his chin.

“You’d have to know that Gabe’s father is a doctor… In his medical practice he’s coming to realize that the patient’s mental state has as much to do with recovery as treating the physical body. Gabe would have made an excellent physician himself…” Watching his brother struggle to comprehend, Adam continued, “Anyway, Gabe explained that the wind I was reaching for… it was really Joe. My quest to find Joe, even though my mind knew otherwise, my heart propelled me on this last grasp to stop me from leaving my family.”

“You find family,” Hop Sing stated, nodding in understanding as he stood within the room.

“Yes, I’m staying and now that Joe’s home, you’re staying, too,” Adam looked to the diminutive man; though small in stature, his heart was large enough to hold the entire Cartwright clan.

“I stay, I stay for family. Family here, Hop Sing here.”

“Gentlemen, I suggest we let this young man sleep; he should sleep for a long time.”

“You said that before, Paul,” Adam voiced.

“I know I did. I forgot what it was like to deal with this little scamp. Before he was in a restless sleep, now… he’s deep asleep. However, it wouldn’t do any harm to occasionally keep an eye on him through the afternoon and the night. And I mean it, I don’t want any of you to sacrifice your own health by trying to watch him all night long.”

The five men left the room, with Ben inviting Paul to stay for lunch.

“I would Ben, but I best get back to town. With Adam’s visit to the barbershop while I examined Joe, I’m sure the gossips in town are already having a field day as to why he left and what might happen now that he has returned. I can also spread the word that Joe’s home,” answered Paul. A large smile graced the man’s face as he stepped to the table behind the settee to retrieve his hat.

“Paul, I’d like it if no one knew that Joe was home…” requested Ben.

“What?” Hoss asked in surprise.

“I have to agree with Hoss; I figured you’d be happy to spread the word that Joe’s alive,” Paul clarified.

“They treated my boy’s death like… like they were planning to attend a church bazaar, excitedly planning what to wear and who they were going to meet up with or sit next to. I heard… Reverend Harrison told me. Those people, our so-called friends were not planning to mourn my son, but to be at his funeral to be seen! This is my family! My home! I’ll not see my son’s life turned into some circus sideshow.”

Paul was beginning to see a new reason behind why Ben had pulled away from the civic responsibilities he had previously supported; it wasn’t to avoid the pity from the people at all.

“Paul, I agree with our father. A lot of the people I didn’t know, but a few I did…” Adam shook his head in disgust. “I think you’ll agree with what we discussed while we were getting ready to leave your home this morning. It’s going to take time to acclimate Joe to living with his family. It’s going to be difficult enough for him with the family and the ranch hands, but Pa’s right… Joe doesn’t need to become some ‘freak’ show attraction.”

Nodding in understanding, Paul bid the family goodbye.

*****

Later in the afternoon, the large man stood in the doorway and watched his older brother tending to his horse in the barn before he finally called his brother’s name, “Adam.” He stepped into the building.

“That’s a right fine pinto ya got there. Was he… Joe’s?” Hoss hesitantly asked, somewhat afraid of Adam’s answer, that this horse might be a constant reminder of Joe’s time with those Indians.

The oldest brother hesitated while grooming his horse, Sport, and looked to the horse that resided in the previously empty stall.

“No, if you’re asking about that horse being his while he was with the tribe. I purchased him in Mill City… I remembered one of Joe’s letters while I was still at Harvard, he drew a picture of a pinto saying he hoped when he got big enough for a horse that Pa would buy him a pinto,” Adam answered as he resumed the gentle brush strokes.

“He don’t look like he grew that much,” Hoss mumbled in observance of his smallest brother.

Hoss entered the pinto’s stall and began running his hands over the horse’s body, evaluating his conformation and the bone structure of his legs.

“Ya done good,” Hoss stated as he gave a gentle pat to the horse’s haunches.

“What else… I know there’s more to you being out here than looking over a horse.”

Hoss shuffled his feet as he looked over the stall wall. “What was you and Doc talking about… before ya brung Joe home?”

Adam stopped, exited the stall, and put away the brushes he had been using.

“Adam?” Hoss called when his brother didn’t answer, he followed him to the other side of the barn.

“I heard you… I said earlier that we need to give Joe time, because he’s struggling to remember how to talk. I guess last night I got a little flustered at him because I didn’t think he was trying hard enough.” Adam looked to his brother and gave a little smirk. “I didn’t remember Pa’s letters about how highly temperamental our youngest brother could be.”

“So… what happened?” Hoss asked as he came to stand next to his brother.

“He threw a temper tantrum and ran off for a while. It wasn’t bad at least I don’t think so. I mean, he could have run farther away, but he stopped… He didn’t come back to camp until I went to get him. He looked so lost…” Adam’s memory went to the night before and quickly returned to the present. “But… there’s also the fact that Joe will soon be thirteen and Paul advised me that pretty soon, puberty could start kicking in…”

“Oh… I remember how tough that was for me, when I started growin’ and… uh…” Hoss answered as he slipped his hands into his back pockets.

“Me, too. We don’t know how Joe really lived for the past two years… I mean we know he wasn’t loved or properly cared for… By his lack of comprehension of English, he hasn’t spoken it in a long while… He’s going to be so far behind his contemporaries…” Seeing the confusion in Hoss’ eyes he corrected himself, “his schoolmates.”

“Pa ain’t gonna let him go back to school, not yet anyhow.”

“And I agree with Pa. There’s a lot of work we have to do before we can even consider sending him back to school.”

“But that can wait, Adam. We gotta get him better.”

“That is the most important step,” Adam agreed.

Hoss thought on some of the statements Paul Martin had made. “How did ya get him home from Mill City? I mean Doc Martin said ya shouldn’t have come all this way like ya done, and the fact that he’s sleepin’ so much now… Didn’t he fall asleep on ya bringin’ him home?”

“No, and I made sure we took our time traveling.” In his own way, Adam was replaying the events of their return home. “Did you see his expression before he collapsed in Hop Sing’s arms?”

“Naw, why?”

“He was scared. He looked almost as scared at seeing Pa as he did when I turned and fired on him. I’d love to be able to talk with Gabe’s father right now. What I wouldn’t give to have someone help explain to me everything that’s going to happen and how to help Joe get back to living like a normal human being.”

“You sound scared, Adam.”

“I am. Maybe… maybe I only saw what I wanted to see while we were on our way home.”

“Whatcha mean?”

“I thought he really remembered us, the Ponderosa. I thought he was so excited to finally be going home.”

“He mouthed Home, at the stop of the stairs; I saw that.”

“But while we were riding together, he never once looked as scared as he did at the top of the stairs,” Adam sighed.

“Adam, could it be that… in his dreams he dreamed of the Ponderosa and wanted to come home, but now that he’s here…” Hoss looked lost, he was glad his little brother was home, but how could he explain what he was thinking. “Could be… as little as he is, seein’ Pa comin’ at him and me standin’ there right behind him… Coulda been just our size scared him.”

“It’s possible. As far as bringing him home, I guess his constitution kept him going out on the trail. It could be that seeing Pa approach him like that was too much…”

“Almost reminded me of the times when his momma was alive… He’d be runnin’ around one minute and the next…”

“Sound asleep, curled up wherever he was,” Adam completed the thought.

The brothers smiled at the happier memory.

“There’s another thing we need to stand firm on, he needs to know that there are boundaries and rules…”

“He just…” Hoss began to object.

Adam interrupted, “Hoss he’s essentially been running free for the past two years. I know from the bruises and scars on his body he’s been punished, but those were probably because he is white. I need you to understand that this is going to be difficult for all of us, and hardest for Joe. Just the fact that he’s home… I can’t believe that the nightmare is over. Remember after Marie died and Pa left… Even after Pa came home…”

“His nightmares stopped,” Hoss added.

“But not the temper tantrums, they got worse when Pa asked him to do something.”

“But you got him to settle down and do…” Hoss stated, remembering a few tantrums his brother threw and how only Adam could get the boy to calm down and do as their father had asked.

“I know, but the point is… he’s going to throw tantrums from exasperation to frustration… Shoot, I’ll probably throw a tantrum or two, myself.”

Hearing the levity in Adam’s voice, Hoss gawked.

“WE have to be strong, for him and for Pa.”

“Pa’s strong…” Hoss protested.

“Not now, not when it comes to Joe; maybe before he disappeared Pa was strict with him, but now…”

“What’re we gonna do?”

“Right now, we’ll offer him love and support as well as guide him through his transition back to living with us.” Turning to survey that everything in the barn was where it should be, Adam faced his brother. “Let me ask you this… How’s he going to take being watched twenty-four hours a day? Because you know that’s what Pa’s going to do.”

“But it’s just ‘cause he loves him and won’t wanna see him hurt again,” Hoss explained.

“I know, but too much love, too much protectiveness can have the opposite effect. Hoss, I’m going to depend a lot on you; other than the past two weeks, it’s been seven years since I’ve interacted with Joe. He’s trying, but last night he showed me something that I’m not sure I can handle correctly. You know how to help a scared animal…”

“Joe ain’t no animal!” defended Hoss.

“No… he’s not an animal, but we’ll need to have the same approach, let them know they are safe, loved, and fed, but where Joe is concerned there are rules to obey.”

“I guess you’re right,” Hoss shrugged his shoulders. “He was always testin’ Pa to see what he could get away with…”

“Why don’t we go see what Hop Sing has fixed for supper?” Adam offered as he wrapped his arm around his brother’s shoulders.

Neither of the brothers took the time to see the vibrant colors of the late afternoon sky as they walked across the yard to their home; their focus was on their family.

*****

Throughout the afternoon Hop Sing had worked to prepare a wonderful meal, a celebratory meal. The pleasant aroma permeated the house from the kitchen out into the great room. The three elder Cartwrights sat around the table with their plates filled. Hoss and Adam ate and complimented Hop Sing for his culinary skills when he set a fresh pot of coffee on the table.

The cook nodded before he retreated from the room. When it was just the family, Adam watched his father sitting at the table, fork in hand, but making few trips from his plate to his mouth. Life was back in his father’s demeanor; however, even the worry that etched his face couldn’t prevent the deep sigh he exhaled.

“Pa, he’ll wake up when his body is ready,” Adam stated.

“But it’s not natural for a boy to sleep this long,” Ben replied as he practically ignored the food on his plate and kept looking to the staircase. “Not Joe, he never slept during the day.”

“Pa, he’s probably sleepin’, like Doc said, ‘cause this is the first time he’s felt safe, that he could sleep. That, and…” Hoss stated.

“And what?” Ben inquired, his forearm rested heavily on the table’s edge.

“Well, me and Adam was a talkin’ in the barn… And Doc Martin done told him Joe’s exhausted, but he also told Adam that it’s about that time for Joe.”

“What time?” Ben asked, a perplexed look crossed his face.

Adam hid a smile behind his napkin as he wiped his mouth, interested in how his brother would explain it and how long it would take their father to understand what it was that Hoss was trying to describe.

“Ya, know… That time. The talk…”

Ben interrupted, “I said there will be no talk of Joseph in town.” Looking to his eldest son, Ben continued, “Tonight, I’d like for you to explain to the men that are in the bunkhouse what’s happened. Right now they don’t know anything other than Paul was here earlier. Tell them that this is a private matter and their continued employment depends on their discretion.”

“I will Pa, but that’s not the ‘talk’ Hoss was talking about,” Adam worked to keep a straight face.

Ben stared at his eldest son, “Would you care to enlighten me?”

Unwilling to look his father in the eye, Adam answered, “I think Hoss should.”

Hoss glared at his brother, took a breath and said, “Pa, it’s that growing stuff…”

“Your brother was always on the small side, took after Marie, and now… two years of being malnourished… We’ll just have to take it slow and easy in order to help his body adjust to good food so that he can grow.”

“Pa… It ain’t just the growin’ because of food, there’s the other kinda growin’… Growin’ up… Purbity… Ain’t that what it’s called?” Hoss looked to his brother for help.

Adam gave a brief laugh, “Close… Pa, Doc Martin stated that with Joe nearing thirteen, we should also expect the onset of puberty.”

“Oh,” Ben smiled and then frowned. “He’s not yet thirteen…”

“Not yet, but we really don’t know him…”

“He’s your brother!” countered Ben.

Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly, Adam ignored his father’s comment and continued, “You wrote in your letters to me that Joe was temperamental and emotional, those traits will only be compounded when his body starts to change… With everything he’s suffered, we have to be prepared for that to possibly affect his ability to assimilate back to living with us.”

“You two weren’t that bad…”

“We ain’t as emotional as little brother, either,” Hoss asserted.

“And we had you to help guide us in the years leading up to our change,” Adam added.

“He doesn’t look as if he’s grown that much in the two years he’s been missing,” Ben stated, depression settled deeper. He visualized the small child sleeping upstairs; how would all this affect the boy… The child tucked into his bed, who should have spent the past two years enjoying the love and protection of his family; not alone and in a hostile environment.

“Pa, it’s going to take all three of us to get him through this. If Paul were here, he’d order you to eat, and then you can go upstairs and spend a few hours watching Joe,” Adam stated, trying to get their father to consider himself for a while.

Adam and Hoss looked at each other as their father finally began to eat his supper.

*****

After Hop Sing had cleared the table, Ben left the dining room and slowly walked up the staircase. He was anxious to return to his youngest, but at the same time grieved for his loss… two years of missing Marie’s child growing up and now, knowing the boy had suffered during that time.

“It’s gonna be a long night, ain’t it Adam?” Hoss asked as he followed his father’s progress up the stairs and out of sight.

“Yeah, a long night and days to come. Hoss, can you take care of the horses tonight? I need to talk to Charlie and the rest of the hands.”

“Sure.”

The two brothers left the table, stopping just outside of the front door; each knew the other was silently wishing him good luck, before heading their separate ways.

*****

Laughter and music from a harmonica slowly quieted after Adam entered the bunkhouse, as his presence became known.

“Boss?” Charlie called, looking up from polishing a boot.

“Charlie, can I see you outside for a few minutes?” inquired Adam.

“Everything okay?” Charlie queried as he bent to retrieve his other boot from under his bunk. He slipped them on before heading to the door.

“Nothing to be worried about.” Turning to speak to the others, “Don’t worry; there’s no trouble to take you away from relaxing.”

Closing the door behind them, Adam motioned for Charlie to follow him; they stopped next to the corrals.

“Nice evening, isn’t it,” Adam commented.

“Yeah,” Charlie replied, looking up to the sky. “Welcome home.”

“Thanks. It’s good to be home.”

“Something on your mind?” Charlie asked when Adam didn’t say anything more.

“Charlie I wanted to tell you, before I tell the men.”

“Sounds serious…”

“It is, but it’s good news.”

“Good news is usually accompanied by a smile or laughter. You look worried, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“I don’t. The news is good, but the ramifications have me worried,” Adam answered.

“Why don’t you just spit it out…”

“I’m not sure spitting it out is the best way to tell you.” Adam stepped to the corral, resting his forearms, one across the other, on the top railing, his foot on the bottom rail. “You know I’ve been gone for the past month; did Hoss say anything about where I went?”

“No.” Charlie mimicked Adam’s stance at the fence.

Adam struggled with how to explain and what to say. Rocking back on his heels, he looked to his feet for a few moments before returning to watch the horses milling about in the corral. Charlie waited.

“I brought Joe home,” Adam quietly stated.

“Joe?” Charlie asked.

Adam turned to face the long-time foreman.

“My brother,” Adam didn’t know any other way to say it that didn’t sound condescending towards the man.

“Your little brother?” Charlie gasped in shock.

Adam nodded and gave the man a few moments to accept what he had said. “It’s a long story, but he’s alive and he’s home.”

“I heard one of the fellas say Doc Martin was here earlier… I never woulda guessed that would be why… How is he?”

“Malnourished… Abused… Exhausted…”

“Adam, are you sure? I mean… What happened?”

“Yes, we’re sure. Quite a shock for Pa and Hoss, too. We don’t know all the details, hell… we don’t know any of the details.”

“Can I…”

“You want to see him?”

Charlie nodded.

“He’ll be asleep,” Adam added.

“I’ll be quiet… This place hasn’t quite been the same since… But I gotta see for myself.”

“I know and I agree. I’ll take you up to his bedroom,” Adam offered.

“Are you sure my going up will be okay with Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yes, you’re practically family… come on.”

*****

Ben looked up as the door opened, Adam entered first followed by Charlie.

“I don’t mean to disturb you…” Charlie whispered. “I just had to see for myself.”

“I understand,” Ben acknowledged.

“It’s really him,” Charlie opened his eyes wider in disbelief. Shaking his head from side to side, he wanted to know more, but knew that could wait until later. Still something inside stirred him to say, “Needs a haircut.”  The boy’s long hair draped across the pillow, down to his shoulders.

 

Adam refrained from snickering; the ranch foreman and his father had matching ideas on certain aspects of appearances, only his father had not yet addressed this issue.  Adam regretted he hadn’t addressed the issue prior to leaving Mill City, but he’d felt it was more important to get Joe home than to expose him to strangers in a strange town; just to get his hair cut.

 

Charlie turned to his employer, “Thank you, Ben. I’d best be returning to the bunkhouse.”

Adam followed Charlie into the hallway.

“Son, if you’d like… I can tell the others,” Charlie offered.

“I’d appreciate that. Also, from my father, let them know that this is a family matter and their continued employment depends on them keeping their mouths shut, especially when they go to town. Joe’s been through a lot and we’d prefer if the good people of Virginia City left us alone.”

“I’ll make sure the men know.”

“Good night, Charlie.”

“Night, boss.”

Slowly Charlie made his way down the stairs, knowing that he’d seen the boy himself, but it was still difficult to accept that the boy was alive. He crossed the floor of the great room and stopped upon seeing Hop Sing standing in the dining room.

“He’s really home?” Charlie asked, still seeking confirmation. Absentmindedly he rubbed his shoulder.

“Mr. Adam bring boy home. He sleep all day. Not like Lit’le Joe to sleep so long.”

“Adam said the boy was exhausted…”

“Need sleep, food, love…”

“I best go. I told Adam I’d tell the others.”

With that, Charlie left the house and Hop Sing returned to his kitchen, both remembering their own feelings from that day two years before.

Chapter 17 – The Nightmare Began

Night had long settled across the land and neither Adam nor Hoss could convince their father to leave Joe’s room, so they said goodnight to each other outside the closed door, returned to their own rooms, and hoped that sleep would come soon.

Adam restlessly lay on his bed having only stripped down to his black pants. Before lying down, he looked to the family portrait on the shelf that had been taken only weeks before he’d left for Boston. Three sons who looked so dissimilar yet it was clear they were a family. Adam moved the picture from where it had rested for the past eighteen months and placed it on his desk, next to his mother’s music box. Giving in to the pull of sleep, he returned to his bed to lay down. However, in the darkness, his mind actively replayed the past month and worried of things to come. He tossed and turned; ultimately lying on his back with his arm flung over his eyes and his leg crooked at the knee, flat of his foot on the bed. As much as he tried to relax, his hopes of pressing all concerns out of his mind only caused him more agitation. Eventually, exhaustion finally claimed the oldest Cartwright son.

Hoss entered his room and hugged himself, thrilled that his youngest brother was alive and home. He envisioned fishing at the pond and riding out on the range with his youngest sibling, much as they did up until two years prior. The clothes he had worn earlier were draped over the lattice work of the straight-back chair in his room. He smoothed out his nightshirt before pulling the covers up to his chest. Settling into his bed, content that there wasn’t anything to worry about, Hoss sighed. As Adam had said earlier in the evening, nice and slow and with love, he knew that was all Joe needed. His last thoughts of the night were spent looking forward to the morning and the banter at the breakfast table with both his brothers present. Sleep came easily to the middle son, as evident by the snoring that reverberated in his room, and resonated down the hallway.

The drapes in the room that had stood unoccupied for far too long were drawn closed, though they swayed gently in the night breeze after Hop Sing had opened the window earlier to air out the room. The lantern on the desk burned dimly, casting a warm glow over the furniture and the people in the room. The sight of his young son lying securely in his bed should have comforted the man; instead, he worried. Images slipped in and out of his mind of how his son had been treated. When he had carried his son from the top of the stairs to his room earlier in the day, it shocked him to realize just how slight his son was, especially compared to his siblings at the same age. He wondered about the abuse Paul had mentioned and just what scars, physical and emotional, would always be there to remind them of the past two years.

Before sleep claimed Ben, he thought of happier times and his son’s contagious laugh as well as the boy’s need for hugs. The child had always been filled with love for his family and the land they called The Ponderosa.

*****

Joe bolted upright in his bed, unsure how he’d gotten to his room or why it was dark. The only thing he remembered was Charlie yelling for him to run for the root cellar. Kicking the covers from his legs, he jumped from his bed, ran out the door, and bolted down the hallway.

Ben woke at hearing noises coming from outside the room. Casually, his eyes drifted to the partially opened door before scanning across the rest of the bedroom. With a speed belying his age, Ben launched himself from the chair upon seeing his son’s empty bed, covers strewn off the far side.

‘No, it couldn’t have been a dream,” Ben pleaded with God. When he heard the front door slam open into the sideboard downstairs, he looked to and ran through the open doorway. He knew it hadn’t been a dream.

“Adam! Hoss!” Ben yelled as he entered the hallway.

By the time Ben made it to the great room, Hop Sing stood with a lamp in his hand, asking, “What wrong?”

“It’s Joe… Joe woke and he’s gone!” Ben shouted as he followed his son out the front door.

The frantic father paused, trying to hear which way his son might have run. He was calmed by the fact that the horses dozed in the corral, and it appeared the barn doors were still securely latched. Looking right, he followed the muted cries and hollow thumping indicating someone was around the side of the house at the doors to the cold cellar.

“Joe?!” Ben shouted as he ran.

Hoss had paused only long enough to pull on his boots as he answered his father’s yell from the hallway, having been awakened by the slamming of the front door only moments before. Still sleepy, he didn’t even think of grabbing a weapon as he ran down the stairs, across the floor and out the door, clad in only his green checked nightshirt.

Adam paused long enough in his bedroom to pull on his boots; he’d lain in bed having only stripped to his pants. While running down the stairs he worked at pulling on a shirt. At the sideboard he grabbed his revolver from its holster and followed his father and brother out the front door.

“Pa?!” Hoss hollered as he and Adam ran across the wooden porch into the yard.

“Fatha go that way,” answered Hop Sing as he pointed the direction Ben had run.

“What’s wrong, Hop Sing?” Adam asked.

“It Lit’le Joe, he run away,” Hop Sing answered worriedly.

Ben rounded the corner to see his youngest frantically pulling on the handle to one of the double doors that led to the cold storage area under the house; his fright blinded him from seeing the bar that latched the doors closed.

“Joe,” Ben called as he ran towards his son.

The boy looked up, panicked, and screamed, “NO!” He ran from the man who approached him, toward the trees that he perceived as a place to hide and hopefully to safety.

Realizing there was no danger requiring his gun; Adam slipped it into the waist of his pants and followed his father around the side of the house. Rounding the corner of the building, Adam reacted quicker than his father or Hoss, who was still behind him, and took off after his youngest brother, running through the woods, jumping over fallen trees, and skirting around boulders. The eldest son reached the scared boy deep into the stand of trees.

“Joe, it’s okay,” Adam tried to calm the boy as he grabbed his brother from behind, around his chest and hauled him up short.

“CHARLIE!” Joe screamed. “CHARLIE!” He clawed at the arms which held him and began to kick backwards in an effort to escape. He felt the cold steel of the gun as it pressed into his back.

“Joe, it’s me, Adam,” he spoke soothingly in his brother’s ear; he worried about the boy’s ragged gasps for breath as he thrashed about, fighting against being restrained.

Adam cursed and dropped his brother when one kick caught him on the inside of his knee; he felt his leg buckle and soon both were on the ground. Adam reached for his knee as he watched Joe try to scramble, crab-walk, away from him.

“Stay away from me!” Joe shouted before he turned over, clambered to his feet, and began to run, slamming straight into his middle brother. “CHARLIE!” Joe screamed again, kicking, as Hoss wrapped his arms around his brother and held him in a protective embrace, preventing the boy from using his arms.

Joe attempted to fight, to break free; all the while crying and screaming in his head for his family to hurry up and return home. “Pa…” Joe pitifully cried before darkness claimed him.

By the time Ben reached the scene, a night-shirt clad Hoss cradled an unconscious Joe in his arms.

“What happened, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“I fell asleep,” Ben guiltily admitted as he pushed back his baby’s long hair from the boy’s face. “I woke to find his bed empty… I heard a crash downstairs and… followed the sounds around the side of the house. He was trying to get into the root cellar.”

“Why’d he do a thing like that?” Hoss queried.

“Probably for the same reason he kept calling for Charlie,” Adam offered as he sat up on the ground, rubbing his knee.

“Are you okay, Adam?” Ben asked as he stepped to his oldest and offered him assistance to rise.

“He caught me in the knee… My leg buckled. I can walk. Joe’s more important,” Adam stated, nodding his head to Hoss who held Joe.

“Let’s get him home and back in bed,” Ben stated as he waited for his large son to pass him and slowly walked next to his limping eldest.

Adam pulled his revolver from his waistband and carried it in his hand as he followed his family back to the house.

****

In the front yard, Ben declined Charlie’s offer to go for Doctor Martin explaining it would probably be better to wait until later in the morning. At least someone would have a good night’s sleep.

*****

The evening had turned to night hours before and the long-time ranch foreman had been unable to sleep after Adam had privately informed him of Joe’s return, before telling the rest of the hands as a group. Charlie had felt relief upon hearing the good news, but as the bunkhouse eventually quieted down, guilt consumed him; he had been the one responsible for taking care of the youngest Cartwright that day and he had failed this employer… and the boy.

As snores indicated the others were asleep, Charlie walked from the bunkhouse and stood near the corral, his memories caused him to shiver. He watched the horses milling about when the front door to the main house flew open and a young child ran across the yard. The foreman stood frozen in place upon recognizing the retreating figure. Emotions overwhelmed him as he remembered the last time he had seen the boy run away from him. Even after hearing the child screaming his name, Charlie couldn’t bring himself to move; his shoulder began to ache as well as his head, reminding him of his own injuries from that day two years before. He watched as first his employer and then the two eldest sons, followed after the youngest.

*****

Charlie stood next to Hop Sing as the Cartwrights slowly returned to the house and went inside. No one knew Hop Sing’s exact age, but standing next to the long-time foreman, Hop Sing appeared down-right weary. A comparison in likes, the two men were weary in heart, as well as remembrances.

“Boy here, but not home,” Hop Sing stated with sadness as his hand covered his heart.

“I couldn’t believe it when Adam told me earlier… It’s such a shock…”

“Me no sleep. Honorable doctor say boy abused. Boy hurt in body and heart,” Hop Sing shook his head in regret. How could anyone harm a child he loved as if his own?

“I know the boss said no, but… do you think I should go for the doc anyway?” Charlie inquired.

“Mista Cartwright say wait till morning… It best let honorable doctor sleep. Morning come soon enough.”

In quiet solitude, the two men went their separate directions.

*****

“Pa, what do ya think caused Shortshank to run like that?” Hoss asked after laying Joe in his bed.

“I have no idea,” Ben answered as he pulled the cover over his son. “I can see none of us are going to get any more sleep, why don’t you go get dressed for the day.”

Hoss looked from his father to his youngest brother and back again.

“I’ll yell if he wakes before you get back,” Ben replied.

*****

Three men lounged haphazardly throughout the room, not one willing to let the youngest out of their sight. Having witnessed the panic that had consumed the boy, they each wanted to be there to reassure Joe he was loved, and safe, when he woke. Sleep pulled heavy at their eyelids, but the moment a set of eyes closed, images and fears forced them to spring open again.

The bright dawn of morning shown upon the fatigued family, as their youngest continued to sleep.

Their father sat in an overstuffed chair pulled close to the bed. He leaned forward, one elbow on his knee, the other arm stretched out, his thumb constantly rubbing the back of his son’s hand that he held clasped in his own.

“I think it might have been a nightmare,” offered Adam.

“What mighta been a nightmare… Oh… Adam… He’s had nightmares before, but none like that…” Hoss answered as he sat on the floor and rested back against the wall, legs straight out in front of him. The largest son stretched his arms out wide in a failed attempt to prevent his yawn.

“I think we should have Paul out here sometime to discuss more of what we can expect from Joe,” Adam suggested.

“Why’d we need that?” Hoss asked.

“Even though he’s not interacted… talked with us….”

Hoss interrupted, “But you done talked with him on the way home…”

“But not as his brother… More like someone who protected him, someone who was restoring him to his family,” Adam somberly replied. “I think his coming home, standing at the top of the stairs… It’s possible it’s woke some memories he’s forgotten.”

“What’d ya mean…?” Hoss queried as he pulled one leg up, bent at the knee, from the floor.

“That would make sense,” Ben added as he thought on what his eldest said. “For him to scream for Charlie… And not Hoss or myself…”

“Or Adam…” Hoss added.

“I wasn’t home that day, and hadn’t been for five years. And from what I remember, he didn’t know that I would be coming home with you after the cattle drive,” Adam corrected. “Why would he call out my name?” The last part came out sounding a little bitter.

“Oh…” Hoss heard the regret in his brother’s and his father’s voices, “But Pa, he did call for ya, just before he passed out. I know I heard him whimper Pa.”

Adam sat in the wooden chair in front of the desk in Joe’s room, unconsciously rubbing his knee. “I wish I knew how to proceed. Whether we should push the issue to get him to talk about what happened…”

“But if’n he don’t really remember how to speak…” Hoss quietly stated.

“That’s part of the trouble. But the other issue is, if we don’t get him to talk and just let him keep repressing the past, when might his memories come flooding back and what harm will that do to him?” Adam responded.

Casting his head from side to side, Ben looked to his youngest, sitting lost in thought not knowing what they should do. Taking care of a child as a first time parent is full of mistakes and learning experiences, but there is always another parent or two around to offer advice or an ear to listen. And with each subsequent child born into the family, parenting becomes a little easier. But Ben feared that he had little knowledge to draw on to guide them through the unchartered territory that now lay before them.

The questions stayed unasked of the youth; what happened that day and how did he end up in Lander County with that tribe? In their desires to protect the boy, they didn’t want to cause him anymore pain by forcing him to tell them, but in order to quell the onslaught of nightmares, the boy needed to get his fears out into the open. Each man waited silently in his own thoughts, wishing the child to wake and at the same time, wishing he’d stay asleep.

Ben wanted to erase the past two years from his son’s memory as he watched the boy alternate between twitching and growing restless in his sleep to serenely lying under the covers.

*****

“Lit’le Joe, you come downstairs, Charlie have buckboard ready. We go get supplies,” Hop Sing called from the bottom of the staircase.

The Oriental man wore black, fitted pants under a black long-waisted overshirt. Underneath, he wore a starched white shirt that was visible above the collar and below the cuffs, as well as between the loops that fastened around the front buttons. The cut and color of the outfit indicated his status as one employed by a family of means, and for this he was a man of stature within the Chinese community. Around the Ponderosa, he would wear his normal outfit, similar in cut, but of a blue hue that fit loosely, indicating his status as a servant of the household.

“Do I have to go with you?” Joe asked from the second floor of the house, hesitating before slowly taking the steps, hand trailing behind him on the banister.

The curly-haired child was small for his age, had been since the day of his birth, and the dungarees he wore only made him appear more so.

“You no feel good?” Hop Sing asked, sensing the child wasn’t as ecstatic for the trip into town as he had been at breakfast.

“No, I feel fine…”

“Why you no want go to town with Hop Sing?”

Joe walked down to the mid-landing of the staircase before he sat down, placed both elbows upon his knees and rested his chin upon the heels of his hands.

“I got some thinkin’ to do, Hop Sing.”

“You think in buckboard… come… we go, now.”

“It’s about Adam…” Joe whispered.

“Brotha Adam be home soon. Take time say goodbye to friends and grandfatha, time to travel ‘cross country.

“I know…” Joe shrugged his shoulders. “But I gotta remember him.”

“You remember brotha when you see him.”

“I had a dream last night… I forgot about it until I went into his room…” admitted Joe.

“You no go in brotha room, you know betta,” scolded the housekeeper/cook.

“I know, but… Hop Sing… How would you feel if someone you knew and loved forgot about you… I just have to remember… And I think I am,” Joe looked up, slightly encouraged.

“You think you stay home, you remember?”

Joe nodded, he just knew that if he could stay home, stay where Adam had been, that his dream would come back and he’d remember.

“I ask Charlie he watch you…”

“You know any other time I’d want to go to town with you, don’t you?” pleaded Joe.

“I know you go with Hop Sing. This more important to Lit’le Joe. You do as Charlie say? You mind him like you mind fatha? Like you mind Hop Sing.”

Joe smiled. “I’ll mind him like my life depends upon it.”

“Just do as Charlie say, no need life depend on it.”

“Thanks Hop Sing,” the boy stated as he finished walking down the steps and reached out to hug his friend and confidant.

“I tell Charlie you stay here. Maybe, help think, you help Charlie do chores in barn.”

Hop Sing patted the young boy on the back before stepping aside and pushing the boy back upstairs.

*****

Several hours later, Charlie entered the barn to check on the youngest son of his employer and to gather more nails needed to finish replacing a few top rails in the corral, where the horses had chewed through the wood enough to weaken its integrity.

“You did real good with your job today, Little Joe. Your pa will be proud of how you arranged this area,” Charlie claimed as he stood behind the boy who had worked hard all morning to clean the tack and feed area in the front corner of the barn.

“Do ya think so, Charlie?” ten-year old Little Joe asked as he hitched his thumbs to the suspenders of his dirty dungarees.

“Why I don’t think Mr. Hoss himself could have done a better job.”

“Do ya think it’ll stay a…ranged until they come home?” Joe asked.

“If you put away everything after you use it between now and then, it’ll stay arranged.” Charlie laughed as the boy’s shoulders slightly dropped.

“Aw Charlie… I just want Pa to know how much I can help around the ranch… that he can depend on me to work.”

“Joe, you know your Pa hires men to work… You just worry about growing up and doing your lessons and your own jobs.”

“I know, but this is our barn… our land… Hoss helps Pa out on the range… and I just want to show him how much I can help him around here when they’re not home. I know I ain’t big enough to rope or brand…” Joe sounded a little sad.

“He lets you help hold the cut… don’t forget that,” Charlie smiled as the boy’s demeanor improved.

“Yeah, I can help hold the cut, but that’s more Star’s job.”

“You have to guide him, and believe me… If you weren’t there, he’d be just as happy chomping grass. And I don’t know of any other rider and pony who do as fine a job as the two of you.”

“Thanks Charlie… Do you need me to do anything else?” Joe asked.

“No, I think I’ve got my money outa ya today,” the man teased. “Hop Sing did say he probably wouldn’t be back until later this afternoon… why don’t we go inside and raid his kitchen.”

Joe’s eyes enlarged and he began laughing as the two stepped to the doors of the barn; the young boy began plotting what he wanted to snack on, and remembered the plate of cookies sitting on the kitchen counter.

*****

Charlie stopped and restrained Joe when he saw several riders dismounting from their horses over by the main entrance to the house.

“Can I help you?” Charlie called out.

“We’re just travelers looking for a rest and to water our horses, mister,” answered one of the men.

“This is private property…”

“That doesn’t sound too hospitable…”

“Just stating fact,” Charlie answered as a shiver ran down his spine. From behind he heard whooping and hollering. The twang of an arrow impaling the door next to him scared the man.

“RUN JOE! Get to the cellar!” he shouted and shoved Joe to the side. As he moved he saw several other men making their way through the corral, guns drawn.

Charlie tried to create a diversion, hoping he could give Joe enough time to get to safety. Over the fire of rifles and handguns Charlie yelled, “Bar yourself in boy!” as he ran towards the water trough, intending to use it as cover, while he returned fire.

His vision spun as an arrow slammed into his shoulder, flipping him to the ground. The foreman’s world went black before his body came to a complete rest, having struck his head on the edge of the trough.

“CHARLIE!!!” Joe screamed, before turning to run again.

The scared ten-year old didn’t get too far before massive arms grabbed him; he turned and fought with all his heart.

*****

“CHARLIE!!!” Joe screamed, he turned and fought against the massive arms that held him, preventing him from falling out of the bed.

CHAPTER 18 – There’s No Place Like Home

“Easy Shortshanks, I got ya,” Hoss crooned as he held his brother close. “No need to be scared…”

“Charlie…” Joe pitifully cried and tried to strike out. “Oh, Pa…”

“Joseph, I’m right here,” Ben stated as he reached across the bed and rubbed his son’s back.

“Papa, please…” Joe stopped fighting and grabbed hold of the vest, not knowing it was his brother who held him.

“Son, you’re home… You’re safe,” Ben answered.

The boy in Hoss’ arms sniffed and hiccuped; the big man could feel him trembling.

“It’s okay, Shortshanks… Pa, and Adam and me, we got ya…” Hoss softly spoke, rocking his brother.

Hoss looked up to see Hop Sing standing in the doorway bearing a tray with a coffee pot and cups, tears running down his face.

“Hop Sing’s here too,” Hoss added.

Joe took deep shuddering breaths, but had yet to open his eyes.

Quietly, Adam rose from his chair, walked over and sat down next to his brothers; Ben pulled back his hand.

“Joe, listen to me… listen to my voice. You don’t have to be scared any more… I told you on our way to the Ponderosa that I’d protect you. Do you remember?”

Slowly the boy’s head rose to look to the man who spoke to him, he barely nodded.

“Do you remember home?” asked Adam.

“’ome,” Joe replied.

“Do you remember who lives at home?” Adam was pleased that he had been able to draw his brother away from his nightmare; to have him focus on something better.

“Ah.”

“That’s right, Pa lives at home. Do you remember Pa?”

Joe nodded.

“Is he in this room?”

Joe hid his face in the vest he still gripped within his hands.

“Joe, I won’t let anyone hurt you. Do you trust me?” Adam asked.

Joe peeked.

“I told you before we left Mill City that you could trust me; that I’d get you home… to Pa.”

“’ome to ah.”

“Home and Pa.” Adam over pronounced the words; from his peripheral vision he saw Ben lean towards his youngest, and shook his head in warning against the movement. “Joe, will you trust me that no one is going to hurt you? Will you trust me when I ask you to look for Pa?” Again Adam emphasized the first letter of the word.

“P-ah?”

“Yes, Joe… Look behind you…” Adam encouraged.

Joe did as Adam asked, albeit slowly, he turned his head.

“Pa, just like a scared animal.” Hoss further explained, “Let him come to you. I ain’t holdin’ him now, just hold your hand out towards him, but don’t touch him.”

Joe looked to the silver-haired man who sat on the opposite side of the bed from him; the boy cocked his head left and right. With hesitant movements Joe raised a hand and reached out towards the man. He touched the outstretched hand and pulled back. Realizing that no one had moved to punish him, Joe reached out again. Ben hardly felt his son’s fingertips on his cheek before they moved towards his hair. “P-ah?”

With a nod of his head, Ben answered, “Yes, Joseph, I’m Pa.” Ben’s heart pained as he tried hard to restrain himself from moving lest he break this tenuous connection he had with his son.

“P-ah,” Joe whispered.

“Who else lives at home?” Ben asked, his eyes softening while he allowed a smile to appear.

“Ad-um,” Joe spoke; he looked and pointed to his oldest brother.

“That’s right, Joe,” Adam encouraged. “Who else? Who else lives at home?”

“’Oss.” Without being asked, Joe looked up and into the eyes of his middle brother whose arms still surrounded him; the man exuded compassion and love.

“That’s right Shortshanks, I’m big ol’ Hoss.”

“Me Joe.”

“Yes, you’re Little Joe,” Hoss reached up and ruffled is brother’s long, wavy hair.

Joe grew curious why he didn’t fear the ruffling of his hair, there was something familiar about the movement and the way the big man’s voice resonated as he rested his head against the man’s chest. As the men in the room calmly spoke, Joe felt a peace he had not sensed in a long time; he couldn’t think of how to explain, but he knew these men would not hurt him.

He took a chance to look around the room; hoping he would not be reprimanded for doing something he had not been told to do. His eyes came to rest on the housekeeper, who still stood in the doorway. “No go ta-ow-n,” Joe whispered.

“No, we no go town for supplies.” Hop Sing lowered his head in guilt, as he held a tray bearing a coffee pot and cups.

“’Op Ing?”

“I am Hop Sing,” the man stated as he returned to standing straight.

“Fa-mi-ee?” Joe yawned as he remembered the word.

“Yes, Family,” replied Hop Sing.

“Are you hungry?” Adam asked.

“H-ungry…” Joe nodded his head somewhat enthusiastically. “Eat?”

“Yes, you’ll eat,” Ben replied.

“Hop Sing have scrambled eggs and bacon and biscuits with jam. Me bring tray.”

“I’ll come with you,” Hoss stated as he tried to let go of Joe so he could stand.

“NO!” Joe yelled.

“I’ll be back, Shortshanks… I’m just gonna help Hop Sing brin’ up some grub, somethin’ for us to eat,” Hoss corrected himself.

“Be back?”

Hoss nodded. Joe cautiously let go.

“Pa,” Adam called. “There’s a small matter that I think I should help Joe tend to while Hoss helps Hop Sing.” Adam tilted his head twice, hoping he’d understand they should probably get a chamber pot for Joe to use.

“I’ll get one,” Ben stated.

*****

Ben stepped back into the room once his son had taken care of his personal needs; he accepted that right now it was more important for Adam to remain with his brother and so Ben removed the chamber pot in order to dispose of the contents.

Upon returning to Joe’s room, Ben helped settle Joe back under the covers and waited for breakfast, which Hop Sing and Hoss carried several trays into the room.

Breakfast was eaten silently and the older Cartwrights felt quite awkward, not knowing what to talk about; but they did watch as Joe picked up the eggs and bacon with his hands and shoved them into his mouth.

Ben refrained from correcting his son’s eating habits, especially after seeing Adam’s expression in warning Ben not to go there, not yet.

Hoss was the only one who seemed close to normal, he picked up a biscuit and plopped a spoonful of strawberry jam on it and handed it to his brother.

“Try this,” Hoss suggested. “Hop Sing made the jam fresh last month. Personally, I think this is his best batch yet.”

Joe took the biscuit in his hand, lifted it to his nose to smell. Lowering it slightly, he stuck out his tongue to taste, before cramming as much of the biscuit into his mouth as he could. After several attempts to swallow, Joe accepted the glass of milk that Adam held out for him.

“Good?” Hoss asked, pleased at his brother’s appetite.

“Good?” Joe mimicked and nodded.

*****

With an atypical buoyancy to his walk, Charlie approached the front door to the main ranch house and waited after knocking.

“Mr. Charlie, come in,” greeted Hop Sing.

“I was wondering if Mr. Cartwright was available to give first orders this morning.”

“I go see. He and family upstairs.”

Charlie looked up as he heard his employer call his name and bid him good morning from the top of the stairs.

“Ben,” Charlie greeted. “I didn’t know if you wanted to go over first orders this morning…”

“Sure, but first…” Ben calmly walked down the steps and motioned for his foreman to take a seat on the settee, he sat down, but forward in the blue chair. “Charlie, I need to talk to you about Joe.”

“He’s alright, ain’t he?”

“In time… I wanted to thank you for offering to send for Paul last night…”

“It weren’t nothing.”

“I think it was… Charlie, Joe was crying your name…”

“I heard him. I’m sorry about last night, I heard him screaming for me but… it’s like I was rooted in place. I couldn’t move. My mind flashed back to that day.” Charlie’s tone of voice conveyed his guilt.

“Not surprising… But I think he woke to a nightmare of that day too… And that’s what set him to run. He woke again this morning, crying your name…”

“I’m sorry boss,” Charlie quietly stated, not knowing anything else to say.

“No… I didn’t tell you this to make you feel sorry… But to ask you a favor… I think it would do Joe some good to see you… that you’re okay.”

“You don’t need to ask twice… if it’ll help the boy, I’m all for seeing the little scamp,” Charlie smiled.

“Thank you, but I’m not exactly sure how Joe will react upon seeing you. I wanted to prepare you in case he gets…”

“Scared?”

“Yes.”

“I’d be happy to say good morning to him and I’ll accept whatever happens and not be upset by him.”

Ben stood and titled his head towards the staircase.

*****

“Joe, you have a visitor… someone would like to see you.” Ben entered the room, motioning for Charlie to come.

“Chaw-lee,” Joe whispered after looking at the man until he remembered. “Me run.” Tears fell from Joe’s eyes.

“Hey there, Little Joe,” Charlie called as he walked to the bed, sat down, wrapped his arms around the boy, and patted his back. “I know you did as I said.”

“You urt,” Joe shivered at the memory of Charlie falling with an arrow protruding from his shoulder.

“I was, but that ol’ arrow and the knock on my head didn’t hurt me nearly as much as finding out that they’d taken you.”

“You betta?” Joe asked as he pushed back and looked up to the man’s face.

“Doc Martin patched me up. It aches in the cold weather and when your Pa makes me work too hard.” The man smiled. “But when your brother told me last night you were home… That was better than any medicine the doctor could have given me.”

“You good,” Joe smiled.

“I’m good, now that you’re home. Looks to me like we need to fatten you up… Can’t have my best hand being puny.”

“Pu-nee?”

“Nothing but skin and bones, no muscles.” Charlie poked Joe in the ribs and then squeezed the boy’s upper arm as he spoke.

“No pu-nee.”

“Not with your family and Hop Sing to look after ya.”

Charlie looked to the family, his eyes settling on Ben, who nodded.

“Listen, I need to get back to work, but I wanted to say good morning to you.”

“Good mor-ning to you,” Joe mimicked.

“Good morning, kid,” Charlie grinned. He stood from the bed, Joe still holding on to his hand.

“You go?”

“Yes, I have work to do.”

Joe slowly get go of the man’s hand.

“I’ll be downstairs in a few minutes to go over the schedule with you,” stated Ben.

“Thanks Boss.”

Charlie nodded to each man and left the room.

*****

With a very fully belly and an eventful morning behind him, Joe’s eyes drifted closed. Each time he fought to keep them open, his head bobbed up with each time he snapped open his eyes, only to have his head tilt forward as his eyes closed once more. Eventually, his eyes closed and his breathing evened out.

“I think he’s asleep, boys,” Ben stated. “Let’s lay him back down.”

Hop Sing entered the room and set the tray with the coffee pot on the desk and watched the family tend to their youngest. As they settled back, Hop Sing spoke, “I bring more coffee.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Adam stated as he held out his cup for Hop Sing to fill.

“He eat good?” Hop Sing asked as he filled the other cups.

“He nearly ate as much as me,” Hoss replied.

“Good boy, he need good food.”

With that, the Oriental man left the family alone.

“Pa, I don’t get it…” Hoss stated after sipping the refreshed brew.

“What?” Ben asked curiously.

“When he was fighting me… last night and this mornin’… He said Charlie just as clear as you and me. He also said Pa… But when Adam was askin’ him who lived at home… He couldn’t say ‘home’ nor could he say our names right. How come?”

“I don’t know,” Ben answered. “Lord I don’t know.” Ben’s head moved back and forth in regret. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Ben left the room to go downstairs to meet with Charlie.

*****

“Papa?” Little Joe called as he attempted to match his father stride for stride as they crossed the yard from the barn to the house. “When’s Adam gonna come home?”

“Not for some time yet, son. He’s only been gone a month.”

“Why’d he haveta leave?”

“He wanted to learn, to further his education.”

“Couldn’t he do it here with Hoss?”

Ben stopped and took a deep breath, bending over he picked up his son and carried the five-year old to the table and chairs that sat on the deck on the opposite side of the wall from his office area in the great room. With his son on his lap, Ben wrapped his arms around the boy’s shoulders and gave him a hug.

“Joe, the school in Mormon Station can’t teach Adam the kind of information that he desires to learn.”

“Then why’s Hoss goin’ ta school if they can’t teach?” Joe innocently asked.

“The teachers here are good for young boys like Hoss and for you this fall,” Ben explained. “But Adam…”

“It’s because he’s old?” Joe piped in.

“Not because he’s old, but because he wants to learn about how to build things. The school Hoss is going to is a good school to teach young boys and girls…”

“Girls, ya mean Hoss goes to school with girls? Yuck!” Joe stated. “They don’t wanna do nothin’ but dress up their dolls and kiss ya.”

Ben refrained from laughing and decided to continue his statement, “they’ll teach you your alphabet…”

“I know that already… Momma taught it to me…” Joe’s statement started out so proud, but then his voice quieted and his posture slumped, “before she went away.”

“And I’m so proud of you knowing your alphabet. At school your teacher will teach you how to use those letters to spell words. He’ll also teach you arithmetic, math… How to add and subtract, and in time, like Hoss is learning now, you’ll learn how to multiply.”

“Oh that’s easy,” Joe boasted.

“You think multiplication is easy?” Ben asked, surprised his young son would think this.

Looking his father in the eye, Joe said, “I don’t know about that mul-ti-pa-clay-shun, but all ya gotta do is turn a bull loose with the heifers; that’s how you multiply.”

With those words in mind, Ben realized they needed to be more careful of discussing certain aspects of ranching when his young son was nearby.

*****

Joe snuggled under the covers while happy memories played in his dreams. He relished the warmth of the blankets surrounding him like a cocoon.

“He seems to be havin’ pleasant dreams,” Hoss stated as he and Adam returned to the room after taking care of the morning chores in the barn.

“That he does,” Ben smiled. “I only hope they’ll continue.”

“But…” Adam interjected.

“I fear this morning’s nightmare is only the first of many. Adam, do you think Gabe’s father would be able to help us?”

“I don’t know, he’s all the way back in Boston,” Adam answered.

“Maybe Doc Martin knows some fancy doctors closer who could help us…” suggested Hoss.

“We can ask him the next time he’s here,” Adam offered.

*****

The low voices quietly talking in his room lulled Joe into a deeper sleep; various memories swirled around tantalizing him, but never fully coalescing before they retreated to allow another to come to the forefront. The scenes came and went until one finally came into focus.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Joe,” Ben answered, sitting at his desk, his head still bent over the journal where he was logging in the latest receipts for supplies.

“Did Charlie talk to ya?” ten-year old Joe asked.

“Charlie and I talk all the time.”

“But did he talk to ya about me?” Joe queried.

Ben stopped writing and looked up. “Did you do something wrong that Charlie should talk to me about?”

“No!” Joe’s voice squealed up in pitch. “I ain’t been in no more trouble since that note from my teacher.”

“That’s good to know, Joseph,” Ben answered, wondering how long he could keep secret the fact that he and Charlie had spoke.

“I was wondering…”

‘What were you wondering?”

“I’m growing up now… And Star is getting up there in age,”

“Son, for the time being, Star is the perfect horse for getting you back and forth to school and for doing your work, checking the watering holes and such.”

“But, he’s getting slower in his old age Pa… I’m afraid he might get injured the next time we have to hold the cut. He’s been too good a horse for me to let that happen.”

“So,” Ben finally set his pen aside and looked to his youngest son. “Is this your way to get me to negotiate for one of those pintos from Winnemucca?”

“No sir, I remember our talk that you said you’d talk to the Chief only when I was big enough to handle one of his horses. But I was thinking about Beauty…”

“Beauty?”

“Well, he’s just getting fat standing in his stall and being turned out. I mean, it’s not like he’s an inexperienced horse, he’s already broke…”

“So you want to ride your brother’s horse?”

“Chubbs is Hoss horse… ‘Sides no one’s riding Beauty, Charlie said he thought it would be good for Beauty to have someone riding him; getting him back in shape for this summer. I figured you’d be using him to hold the cut before the cattle drive this fall. Pa, you can’t expect a horse to be at his best when he’s out of shape.”

“Well, you do have a good point there, son.”

“I promise, I won’t race him, and I’ll only ride him when you, or Hoss, or Charlie are there to supervise, and I’ll only take him out on the range when one of you are with me, too.” Joe made a motion of crossing his heart and then held his left hand up. “I promise, Pa.”

“Okay, Joe. I accept your explanation, and I’ll give you permission, BUT…” Ben sternly looked his youngest in the eye and held up the index finger on his right hand as if in warning, “You remember your promises.”

“I will, because I don’t want a trip to the woodshed with Charlie if I don’t,” Joe gleefully answered.

“And what about a trip to the woodshed with me?” Ben was curious.

“Well, you wallop pretty good, but I’m sure Charlie hits harder.”

“And how to you figure that?”

“He ain’t my pa!” Joe laughed.

“Get out of here, you little scamp! Go see if Charlie needs your help.”

Joe ran outside, to see Charlie waiting for him, Beauty was ready with Joe’s saddle on his back.

Chapter 19 – Scars of the Past

As the youngest member of their family continued to sleep, the three older men convinced themselves to venture downstairs for lunch. Hop Sing knew for the time being that none of his charges would be heavily working, so he prepared a lighter-fare for lunch. As they took their seats around the table, the houseman retreated to the kitchen, only to appear a few moments later after hearing the sound of a horse and buggy enter the front yard.

Hop Sing opened the door, greeted their visitor and invited Paul Martin into the home, who followed the Oriental man into the dining room.

“Paul, welcome back,” greeted Ben, standing as his friend came into view. “Would you care to join us for a bite to eat?”

“Thank you,” Paul answered as he took the seat next to Adam.

The men quietly ate, refraining from discussing the reason for Paul’s visit until after they finished eating.

As Hop Sing cleared the dishes from the table and brought a fresh pot of coffee, Paul was the first to speak.

“How’s our patient?” He said ‘our’ knowing that it would take a well-orchestrated effort among all of them to see Joe through to a full recovery, if it was possible.

“He woke during the night,” Ben answered.

“Bolted from the house like a scared jackrabbit,” Hoss continued.

“What happened?” Paul inquired.

“I think he might have experienced a nightmare, maybe dreamed of the day the marauders struck. We found him trying to force his way into the root cellar. When Pa attempted to approach him, he ran for the woods,” explained Adam.

“Oh, no… I was afraid something like that might happen, I just didn’t expect it to be this soon,” Paul replied. “What else happened?”

“Joe kicked Adam good in the knee when he caught him…” Hoss snickered.

“My knee momentarily gave out, but I’ve not had any problems since,” Adam offered before Paul could insist on examining him, too. “Anyway, once we were both on the ground, he scrambled away from me and ran straight into…”

“Me,” Hoss finished. “He cried out a couple a times for Charlie before he whimpered ‘Pa’ and passed out.”

“Has he awakened since?”

“He did a little after daybreak,” Ben answered. “He looked so scared… as if he was having another nightmare. Adam was able to get through to him.”

“Did he recognize you?” Paul asked.

“One by one, he did,” Ben answered, proud that his eldest had been there to help.

“And afterwards we were able to get him to eat a decent breakfast,” Hoss added.

“And?” Paul queried.

Paul looked to the eldest son; without words, Adam knew what the physician wanted to know.

“All I did was speak to him like I did out on the trail… treating him like a wounded animal.” Adam stood from the table and walked over to the fireplace that stood center of the great room. He rested his arm straight out against the stone wall while placing his foot on the raised hearth.

Hoss ambled over towards his brother and sat down on the hearth. “I know it ain’t what ya wanted ta do, but like ya told me in the barn… We gotta show him that we don’t mean him any harm and that we’re here to protect him from his nightmares. We both want ta treat him like a brother, ta hug him, ta rough house with him. It’s almost like we have to treat him like some stranger…”

“Hoss, don’t,” Adam refused to look down at his brother.

“Damn it, Adam! Ya done missed out on five years of his growing up! And then we all thought he was dead. Admit it; he isn’t the Little Joe ya remembered.”

Ben slowly rose from the table and approached his sons. He had been so focused on the return of his baby that he hadn’t thoroughly considered the heartache his other sons might be experiencing. He remembered Adam admitting the day before of his desire to return to Boston, but what else was he keeping to himself. The father finally understood how traumatized Adam had been during the ordeal; it was a rarity for him to display emotions, even as a young child.

Ben took a seat in his leather chair, leaned forward, hands clasped as his elbows rested on his knees.

“Adam, even if the past two years hadn’t happened as they had… Joe wouldn’t be the same young boy you remembered. He couldn’t have been, he grew up. Son… when you left home Joe wasn’t yet six, he was several months shy of his eleventh birthday when… when he was taken. He’s not the same boy that any of us remember.”

“I’m sorry, I just can’t… You’ve someone more important to worry about than me,” Adam stated allowing his head to fall backwards on his neck in an effort to prevent the tears that threatened to well in his eyes.

“I have three sons to worry about, and I’m thankful that all three are under this roof. I won’t have one son belittle his own feelings for the sake of another, if you need to talk, we’ll talk. Right now, our young man is still asleep upstairs, so allow this father to fret about you for a few moments… if that’s alright with you.”

Adam nodded.

“Adam,” Paul stated as he left the table. “Your father is correct. All of you will need to talk this through, get your emotions and feelings out in the open.” Paul took a seat on the settee, followed by Hoss. “Right now, Joe is the focus, but not to the exclusion of dealing with your emotions.”

“Gabe told me pretty much the same thing, he used the example of the steam engine we tried to build during our second year,” Adam admitted.

Ben and Hoss remembered the letter they had received from Adam after the explosion.

Hoss good-naturedly spoke up, “I’m happy he’s home…” But then he allowed his shoulders to slump, showing his own distress, “But… I just want him back to the way he was before.”

“I don’t know that he’ll ever be the way he was before. Joe’s…” Paul looked carefully from one man to the next; including Hop Sing who had stopped by the sideboard in the great room. “Listen, last night I told you he was suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion and he’s suffered some long-term abuse…”

“What do ya mean?” Hoss inquired.

Looking to the elder Cartwright, “Ben, it’s not going to be easy for you, or for that matter Hoss or Hop Sing…” Paul hesitated as he finally ended up looking to the family caretaker.

“Mr. Adam no let me help last night…” Hop Sing stated, trying to understand what the physician meant.

“There are bruises from him being beaten, which could be attributed to a normal pre-teen boy getting into fights with other boys in his age group if he had been home, but I think these bruises were deliberate.”

“Ya mean, bullyin’?” Hoss asked.

“Bullying is a very apt description for what could have happened, from what I saw yesterday, but this goes beyond bullying by boys his own age or even a little older. There’s also…” the physician looked to Adam to see if he knew a better way to say what needed said.

“Pa, what Paul is trying to protect you from knowing is that he’s been whipped, and not just a tanning. Some welts are still healing and others are… old…”

“Shortshanks…” Hoss whispered in guilt.

Paul continued, “His back isn’t pretty, and I’m sure the whippings probably extended down to his buttocks and the back of his thighs…”

“Whipped… I need to see,” Ben emboldened for the first time since he sat down next to Adam.

“Don’t do this to yourself, Ben,” Paul offered.

“He’s my son. If I’m to help him adjust to being home, I need to see what they did to him. I need to know…”

Paul nodded.

*****

“No!” Joe yelled, rolling backwards off the bed in an effort to get away from the men in the room upon Ben stating the doctor wanted to examine him again.

“Joe,” Ben’s voice was firm.

“No!” he stated more calmly, but no less defiant.

“Joe, Doctor Martin just wants to examine you again, to make sure you’re okay,” Adam explained.

“No poke, no prod, me fine!”

Doctor Martin and Ben both smiled at seeing some of the Little Joe they fondly remembered showing himself. They remembered how much Joe hated to be examined unless he had really hurt himself, and even then, he’d protest that he was fine.

“Joseph, let Doctor Martin examine you,” Ben stated as he approached his youngest.

Joe shook his head, his eyes angry.

“Ben, let me,” Paul suggested as he gently restrained the father from nearing his son. “Joseph, what if I promise not to poke or prod you.”

The boy cocked his head sideways.

“Remember yesterday, at my home…” Paul removed his stethoscope from his black bag and revealed it to the boy. “I placed this upon your chest and your back. All I did was listen to your heart and your lungs, would you let me do this again?”

“Joe, I’ll be right here,” Adam offered as he took a seat on his brother’s bed.

“No go bar-ber shop?” Joe asked.

“No barber shop, I’ll sit right here next to you if that’s what you want.” Adam patted the edge of the bed, hoping to encourage his brother to sit down next to him.

With wary eyes, Joe approached his bed.

“Why don’t you take off your nightshirt,” suggested Adam as he reached for the hem.

“NO!” Joe screamed, louder than before.

“Hey Shortshanks, why won’t ya take off your nightshirt?” queried Hoss, trying to lighten the mood and calm his brother.

“Me fine!” Joe demanded, hands fisted, arms crossed as if hugging himself; conscious about what lay hidden beneath the garment he wore.

My God, Joe…” Paul had proclaimed the day before as the boy stood beside the examination table and removed his shirt. “These bruises…” Embarrassed, Joe turned from the physician who gasped louder when he saw the boy’s back, “You’ve been whipped…” His fingertips lightly traced one of the welts.

“Me… bad,” Joe whispered as he lowered his head and resisted handing his shirt to the physician by wrapping it in his hands.

Doctor Martin carefully placed a hand upon the boy’s shoulder and turned him around. Paul leaned forward and cupped his hand beneath the boy’s chin to lift his face; tears welled in the boy’s eyes.

“Joe, no child deserves to be whipped, not like that.”

“Me, bad,” the boy whispered again.

“You could never be bad enough to warrant that kind of abuse.”

Closing his eyes, Joe shrugged his shoulders indicating he didn’t understand what the physician was saying.

Though he didn’t exactly understand the words the man had said, he understood the tone in which he spoke and how much it had hurt the man to see his body. And now… his father was in the room and would be hurt even more.

Chapter 20 – Striving for Normalcy

Joe allowed Adam to help remove his nightshirt; tears fell down the boy’s face upon hearing his father and his middle brother gasp. Hoss laid a hand upon his father’s shoulder, offering encouragement. Adam pulled Joe to his lap hoping the movement would offer comfort to the boy, letting him know that they still loved him. In time, emotions and exhaustion claimed the boy once again in sleep.

*****

After examining Joe and dealing with the boy’s emotions over the other members of his family seeing his scars, Doctor Martin suggested they leave the sleeping boy’s room. Downstairs, in the great room, he explained to the family how to deal with Joe’s injuries as well as suggestions that they get him to talk, but not to push him.

Before bidding goodbye, he had one final discussion with the family surrounding Joe, “I don’t see why he can’t get up if he wants to. I’m happy with the way he’s been falling asleep, it’s his body’s natural reaction to healing, now that he feels safe. As for schooling…”

“I plan to tutor him,” Adam stated, his eyes dared the physician to challenge him.

“I think that would be for the best. I can order some additional school books on your behalf from friends of mine in San Francisco; I can’t request to borrow any school book from Mr. Brandenberg, the school teacher,” Paul clarified, not knowing if Ben or Adam had kept up with the change of staff at the school, “or order them through the general store since you don’t want anyone in town to know Joe’s home.”

“Thank you, Paul,” offered Ben.

“As for chores, I’m sure there are some light duty chores he can do around the house, chopping kindling for starting fires, but no chopping wood yet. He can help clean stalls and feed the horses as well as Hop Sing’s chickens.”

“Joe help in garden?” the cook asked as he stood aside from the family.

“I don’t see why not…”

“What about riding?” Hoss asked, remembering how his brother loved to ride.

“Short trips, nothing strenuous or of any lengthy duration,” Paul advised. “Maybe trips to show him the land around the main house here, but wait a week or so until you take him any farther.”

“What about as far as the breaking corrals?” Adam inquired, knowing that for the next few weeks he would need to be working with the men to fulfill a contract for the army. A contract that they desperately needed, and since he had been gone for a month he had no idea how close to meeting the terms the hands were.

“Sure, getting him acclimated to life on the ranch in general will be a good thing.”

“I cain’t wait to ride around with him,” Hoss stated, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

“Ben, Adam, Hoss, if you need any other help… I do have colleagues in Sacramento who might be willing to come.”

“Paul, thank you for the offer; however, for right now… You’ve given us some guidelines to follow, but I think this family needs some time together in order to finish healing…” Ben proffered his hand to the physician and escorted him to his buggy.

“I understand. Just send for me if you need anything.” Paul picked up his hat and his Gladstone bag and left the residence.

*****

“So, what first?” Hoss asked as he slipped his hands into his front pockets upon re-entering the house.

“Wait for him to wake up. Maybe… Adam, he’s had better reactions with you helping him, would you mind assisting him to bathe before supper? I think, if he’s up to it, I’d like to have all three of my sons at the supper table tonight.”

“I think I can manage that… If not, I’ll holler for Hoss to come help me restrain him.”

“If you cain’t restrain him as puny as he is… We need to talk to Hop Sing about beefing you up too,” teased Hoss.

Ben enjoyed the camaraderie his sons shared; it had been missing for far too long. He held onto this as a sign that their lives would return to normal.

*****

A freshly bathed Joe sat at the table, his long hair tied with a string at the nape of his neck. Adam escorted him into the dining room and indicated he should sit in the chair to the right of their Pa. Hoss took a seat across from him, while Adam sat at the end of the table, opposite their father. The boy watched as a platter of roast beef and bowls containing mashed potatoes and string beans were set on the checked cloth. The aromas were enticing, but at the same time strange yet vaguely familiar. Watching as the men around him scooped food from a bowl before passing it on; he tried his best to mimic his family.

Sitting there and watching, he began to remember how to use the fork and knife that lay next to his plate, but his movements were somewhat awkward; almost as if he was a young child learning to use the utensils for the first time.

Ben casually watched his youngest eat, and was pleased to see the boy actually eating.

“Hey Joe, try this,” Hoss spoke as he handed a biscuit split open and slathered with butter and honey. Joe smiled as he remembered the taste.

Hop Sing returned to the dining room to remove the dirty dishes, he smiled at the sight of Joe’s empty plate. “Good boy, eat all food. No non-sense push food around.”

“Hey Hop Sing, you got any chocolate cake tonight?” Hoss called in eager anticipation.

“Boy not ready for rich sweets. You want sweets, eat apple,” Hop Sing chided.

“Aw Hop Sing, I was lookin’ forward to a chocolate cake or…”

“No! Not good for boy.” Hop Sing curtly answered and nodded his head for emphasis.

“Me sorry,” Joe whispered and lowered his head. He vaguely remembered chocolate cake and knew he was to blame for his brother not getting any.

Ben tried to reassure his son, “Joe, it’s not your fault. We all heard what Doctor Martin said. I’m pleased that you were able to eat supper with us tonight. And we’ll all be eating desserts in time.”

“No eat sand,” Joe answered and scrunched his face.

“Joe,” Adam calmly spoke before anyone else, “desserts are sweets we eat. Sand is a desert.”

“No eat desert, eat desserts?” Joe asked.

“That’s right,” Adam answered and grinned as he lifted his coffee cup to his lips.

“Speaking of lessons,” Ben spoke assuredly to claim all three sons’ attention. Before continuing, he thought on how to say what needed to be said. It was difficult to determine based on the minimal discussions they’d had earlier, how much knowledge had his son retained, “Joe, Doctor Martin said Adam should continue your schooling… working with you in the reader… the book.”

“M-guff-ee,” Joe stated.

“Yes, your McGuffy reader. Did you like reading with Adam on your way home?”

Joe scowled slightly.

“All but that last night, right buddy?” Adam encouraged.

Joe nodded.

“Good, then why don’t the two of you plan to spend a little time tonight working through your reader,” Ben suggested, but his look to Adam emphasized a little time.

Joe looked to his oldest brother.

“A little time, Joe. Don’t worry,” Adam answered.

Joe looked back to Ben.

“In the morning, I need Adam to do some work, so how about Hoss,” Ben looked to his middle son, “working with you out in the barn. Showing you the horses,” Joe smiled, “and the work that needs to be done.”

Joe smiled and nodded, “Me like horses, me work.”

Ben was thrilled to remember not to use the word chores. Before Joe disappeared, he hadn’t been too keen to do a job if it was considered a chore, but if Ben phrased it as a job or work, Joe immediately performed the task.

*****

The family retired to the great room, a small fire burned in the massive fireplace that was the focal point of the room. As the brothers sat down on the settee, Adam decided to go back to the basics with Joe, from McGuffy’s Eclectic First Reader. He knew he didn’t want his brother to throw another temper tantrum in front of their father; it had been hard enough earlier in the day when Paul had been there. And Adam didn’t want to stress his brother as he had the night before their arrival, so he back tracked; hoping to bolster the boy’s confidence in his schooling.

Side by side the brothers sat as Adam over saw Joe and worked through the first few lessons in the book. Adam was pleased to see how Joe seemed more comfortable this time as they read. Adam would place his finger below each word as he spoke. Joe would repeat Adam’s words in the sentences. Once they were through each lesson, Adam encouraged Joe to go back to the beginning to read aloud on his own, with only a little prompting from his brother.

“Joe,” Adam said as they finished about ten pages in the reader, “You did a good job tonight.”

“Me good,” Joe answered.

“Your next lesson will be to learn how to properly phrase sentences when you speak,” Adam suggested as he closed the reader. “Instead of ‘me good’, you should say, ‘I did well’ or ‘I did a good job’.”

“I did a good job,” Joe stated.

“Yes, you did a good job,” Adam replied and wrapped an arm around his brother’s shoulders.

Joe looked a little perplexed, deep in concentration, as he sat next to his brother. It was so hard for him, what he thought he remembered from before, to now being allowed to speak.

“What’s troublin’ ya, Shortshanks?” Hoss asked as he looked up from working on rebraiding a string cinch.

“I…” Joe frowned.

“Take your time, Joe,” Ben added as he set aside the Territorial Enterprise.

“I… mist… you…” Joe answered and shook his head, feeling that what he’d said wasn’t right.

“Would you like my help?” Adam offered. When Joe looked up to him and nodded, Adam continued, “I think what you meant to say was, ‘I missed you’, you were close and we know what you meant to say, because we felt the same way. We missed you.” Adam hugged his brother closer.

“You missed I… me?” Joe rephrased when the sentence didn’t sound right.

“Very good,” Adam answered. “And yes, we did miss you.”

A deep yawn escaped Joe before he could prevent it, causing Ben to call the night to an end.

“Boys, I think it might be best for Joe to go to bed. He’s had a long day.”

“Me…” Joe started but corrected, “I sleeped…” he paused, knowing that wasn’t right, but couldn’t think of the word.

“Slept,” Adam offered.

“I slept…”

“Earlier…”

“I slept earlier,” Joe confidently stated.

“Yes, you did, but Doctor Martin said that sleeping was part of the healing process for your body; to get well from not eating.” Ben refrained from mentioning the rest.

Hoss laughed, as Joe rubbed his stomach and slowly said, “I am full.” His body chose that moment to rumble as part of the digestion process.

“Joe, I think Pa is right. And to leave the room, we ask for permission, we ask if we can leave the room. Do you remember how to ask?” Adam inquired.

“Pa,” Joe grew confident in his father’s familiar; he also remembered from before and took his words from what Adam had said. “Can I… leave… the room?”

“Adam, you done told Joe wrong,” Hoss teased. “It’s not can, it’s may.”

“May I leave the room?” Joe corrected himself and smiled at the frown Adam laughingly revealed to their middle brother.

“Yes, you may leave the room, if you go to bed, a growing boy needs his sleep,” Ben answered.

“May I leave the room… to… go to sleep?” Joe asked one more time.

“Yes, you have my permission to leave the room to go to sleep,” Ben answered, pleased with the progress Joe was making with his language skills.

“Good… night… Pa. Good..night, Hoss. Goodnight, Adam,” Joe stated as he stood and walked to the staircase.

“Goodnight, son.” “Goodnight, Shortshanks.” and “Goodnight, Buddy.” chorused from the others.

From the first step, Joe took that moment to reveal a little of the old Little Joe, “GOODNIGHT, HOP SING!”

“Joseph, we do not yell in the house,” Ben sternly admonished.

Joe quickly ran up the stairs; those below faintly heard his bedroom door close.

“It just slipped out,” Ben sheepishly explained.

“I think his yellin’ goodnight to Hop Sing just slipped out, too. Just like before… when he was in a good mood,” Hoss laughed, his head moving side to side in amusement.

“And Pa got after him for that, too,” Adam sighed, remember his precollege days.

*****

If Joe had to admit to himself, his father’s words had hurt him; his feelings of being home… of belonging to a family. But they were only words, words filled with love and compassion.

‘Words…’ Joe undressed as he prepared to go to bed; he slipped on the nightshirt that Hop Sing had placed upon his bed. He knew that Adam was right, he did need to learn how to speak properly again, how to talk to people. As he climbed into bed and pulled the covers over his shoulders he tried to think of his family, and things they had done together. As sleep claimed him, his dreams were filled with visions of him laughing, and running, and working with his family. He involuntarily shivered when his dreams included scenes from when he attended school; his teacher giving instructions and correcting improper use of the English language. His subconscious listened intently.

So deep in his dreams was the boy that he didn’t stir when his family members entered his room and kissed him upon his brow.

*****

Joe woke in the morning to find his room empty of people. He snuggled deeper into the comfort of the blankets and softness of the bed. He thought of the men who had been with him the day before. He committed to memory the way he felt safe as he called each one by name. He smiled at the memory of their sitting together in front of the fire in the big room.

“Good morning!” Ben called cheerfully as he brought a tray into the room. “Are you hungry?”

Joe nodded his head, his hair falling over his shining eyes at seeing his father enter the room.

“I brought you breakfast. We decided to let you sleep in a little this morning.”

Ben watched the expression on his son’s face as he set the tray to the boy’s lap.

“Eat all?” Joe inquired.

“If you don’t, Hop Sing would threaten us with going back to China,” Ben teased.

“No go, fa-mi-lee here,” Joe answered, reaching for a fork.

Ben tisk’d as Joe’s hair kept falling into his face as he ate. The unamused father reached forward and picked at Joe’s hair. “We need to get this trimmed.”

Joe looked up and cocked his head. Ben made a cutting motion with his fingers.

“Like long…” Joe answered as he pushed away an almost empty bowls of scrambled eggs. His face indicating he was full. After drinking most of his glass of milk, he licked his lips to erase the milk mustache that adorned his face.

“Not this long, it’s worse than a riverboat gambler…” Ben teased before he stood up to leave the room. A few minutes later he returned with scissors and a towel.

With the towel draped around his neck, Joe sat in a chair and scowled as Ben trimmed his hair to a more reasonable length.

“You don’t need to worry; I haven’t forgotten how to cut a young boy’s hair. Adam always enjoyed the time we spent together while I trimmed his hair when we were traveling. I couldn’t always afford to go to the barbershop, so I did what I could. Once Hoss’ hair needed trimmed, well… the three of us enjoyed sitting around talking while I cut their hair. Though you hair, is so much thicker…” Ben kept selecting smaller portions of hair to cut.

“No want cut,” Joe pouted with his arms crossed.

“Your mother didn’t want your hair cut too short, either. Guess you get that honestly. But seriously Joe, your hair is way too long that I don’t even think your mother would have approved. I’ll leave it longer than I normally would like, but it just won’t do having your hair past your shoulders.”

Ben continued to clip away as strand after strand fell to the floor.

“There, that looks much better,” Ben stood back and admired his son.

“Hey Pa!” Hoss called from the hallway.

“In here, son.”

How’s…” Hoss couldn’t stop the laugh that erupted from deep within, seeing Joe sitting there, frowning and his hair cut short. “Who done scalped ya, brother?”

“Hoss!” Ben reprimanded. “That is not funny.”

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Hoss offered in good humility.

Even so, Hoss struggled to keep the humorous look from his face as Joe reached up and felt the distance between his ears and his hair.

“Looks good there, little brother, real good. Pa, Adam said he’ll have the horses saddled shortly.”

Ben saw an uncertain look in Joe’s eyes as he turned to look towards the men.

“Joe, Adam and I have to see about some timber to fulfill a contract; we have to go to the logging site out on the ranch. And while we’re gone, I’d like for you to work with Hoss this morning. So… why don’t you get up and dressed, and I’ll see you downstairs in a few minutes. Okay?”

Ben collected the scissors and the towel and attempted to clean up all the hair clippings before leaving the room.

Joe was uncertain. He was home, with family, but now they were leaving him.

“Hey Shortshanks, what clothes do ya wanta wear this morning? We’re gonna be working in the barn.”

*****

After saying goodbye, Adam and Ben rode away from the yard leaving Hoss and Joe alone together for the first time.

“Pa, I could have stayed home and helped with Joe,” Adam stated as they rode away.

“Adam, I thank you for bringing Joe home, and he seems to respond well to you…”

“But?” Adam inquired.

“He needs to learn to trust someone other than just you. And I don’t believe it is in your best interest to devote all your time to your brother, either. You need time for you…”

“Don’t you mean you want me to be able to work out on the ranch?” Adam asked sarcastically, but with a grin.

“If need be… It’s sort of like before you went off to Harvard, it seemed like Joe wanted to tag along with you everywhere… And you got pretty defensive at times.”

Adam rode along in thoughtful silence, and after a few minutes he quietly stated, “Thanks, Pa.”

“Just remember what Paul said, we need to talk, and I believe that means we also need time alone to do what we want and need to do.” Ben raised his eyebrows in fatherly mischief.

*****

“Come along, Joe,” Hoss called as he stopped beside the sideboard to pull his hat from the pegs beside the door.

Joe tried hard to remember how to speak, and asked, “We… where do we go?”

“We, little brother, are goin’ to the barn. I fed the horses before we ate breakfast, now the real work begins. We’re gonna turn them out and then we’re gonna clean their stalls and add fresh beddin’, and dump and clean their water buckets before we refill them.” Hoss talked jovially as he pulled his younger brother close, draped his arm across the boy’s back, and rested his hand on the slim shoulder, before maneuvering the boy out the door. “Then we’re gonna pick the manure out of the corral, gotta keep it clean, too. We need to throw down some hay bales and then stack ‘em and last but not least, we need to make a list of the feed that’s runnin’ low. Cain’t run out of food for the horses, no siree, we cain’t do that.”

*****

“Morning Hoss, Little Joe,” Charlie greeted as he stopped in front of the house.

“Mornin’ Charlie,” Hoss greeted.

“Morning Charlie,” Joe replied.

“Say, it’s good to see you up and about,” Charlie stated as he waited the boys’ approach. “I like the haircut… You look more like the Joe I remembered. So, what do you have planned today?”

“We gonna work in barn,” Joe eagerly stated.

“Well, don’t let this big fella here work you too hard. If’n he does, you just send for me. He needs to pull his own weight,” Charlie teased.

“Aww Charlie, you know I wouldn’t pawn anything off on Little Joe, here,” Hoss gaffed.

“Just make sure you don’t.” Charlie gave Hoss the eye and smiled before he picked up the reins and mounted his horse.

*****

Upon entering the barn, Hoss escorted Joe to the stall where Chubbs was contentedly munching his hay. “This here is Chubbs, I’ve had him since… Well I’ve had him for a long time. He’s big, but he’s gotta be to haul me around.” The big man laughed. He left his brother standing at the stall as he went to grab a lead rope.

When he turned around, it appeared that Joe was having a one on one conversation with the horse, even though his mouth never moved. The horse flicked its ears as if listening to instructions.

“We turn them out?” Joe asked as he sensed the large man approach.

“Yeah, clip this on like this,” Hoss demonstrated clipping the lead rope to the halter, “and take him out that door,” he pointed to the door they had entered through, “and turn him loose in the corral. Make sure you close the gate behind him so he don’t get loose.”

Hoss kept an eye on his brother to ensure he had properly understood what to do. Even if he didn’t understand all the words, Hoss hoped he could figure out the intention.

A few moments later, Joe returned to the barn and proceeded to the pinto’s stall, followed by Hoss.

“Right fine lookin’ horse Adam bought for ya,” Hoss complimented. “What’s his name?”

“He no have name,” Joe stated.

“That’s alright. It takes time to figure out a fittin’ name for a horse, especially if he’s gonna be your buddy. Why don’t you turn him out with Chubbs, they were out together yesterday and didn’t cause any trouble so I think they’ll be good friends.”

“Good friends?” Joe looked to Hoss. The phrase brought back a memory and he stood there until Hoss nudged him.

“Hey, get a move on… take your horse outside, we don’t have time to daydream all day.”

“Hoss, we were… were we…” Joe became flustered.

“Were we what, Little Joe?” Hoss asked as he reached for two pitch forks from the wall.

“Good friends?” Joe asked tentatively.

With pitch forks in hand, Hoss turned around and looked at his brother. The boy looked smaller that he should have, so unsure of himself, struggling to fit in to a life he had not been a part of for two years.

“We were good friends, Joe. Best Friends, you got me into so much trouble with Pa…” Hoss ruefully remembered.

“Me, s… I’m sorry,” Joe cast his head down as he left the barn leading his pinto.

“Joe?!” Hoss called after him. From the doorway he watched his sibling move with slumped shoulders. As the boy returned to the barn, he shuffled his feet along the ground. Hoss blocked him for going any farther.

“Joe, you got me into trouble, and to be honest I’d say I let you get me into trouble. But I… we had fun doin’ what we did. I know I shoulda been the big brother, like Adam, and said no… But… gol darnit Joe, the way you laughed and lived life… I wanted that.” Lifting his brother’s chin up to look at him, “I hope you understand what I’m gonna say, but… If you ever get into trouble with Sheriff Biggs, I won’t be able to help bail ya outa jail… And that’s only gonna be because I’ll be right there next to ya. That’s what best friends do. You’ve got no cause to be sorry for the trouble WE got into, ya hear.” Hoss let Joe see a genuine smile. “Now you gonna help me with these stalls?”

“I gonna help,” Joe answered as he sniffled back a tear.

*****

Adam and Ben had to ride past the breaking corral on their way to the timber stand. They arrived just in time to see one of their long time hands, Dusty Armstrong, get dumped from a horse that continued to kick her heels high and chase the wranglers out of the way as they jumped in to help Dusty get out of danger.

By the time they had dismounted and tethered their horses, Dusty was sitting on the top rail, thanking his lucky stars that the pinpoints in his vision were fading.

“Tough break,” Adam called as he climbed upon the rail to check on their rider as well as to get a look at the mare who stood in the middle of the corral, head held high, snorting her defiance.

“Sometimes we get bucked off,” Dusty replied as he accepted a ladle full of water from one of the hands.

“And when you get bucked off…” Adam hinted.

“YOU, can get back on. I’ve come off that one twice already, and Jasper’s come off three times.”

“Maybe we should just turn her loose,” Ben suggested after hearing two of his best wranglers had been dumped so many times.

“How do we stand on meeting the army contract?” Adam asked, deflecting his father’s thoughts, but evaluating the mare.

“The contract is due, what… four weeks from Saturday?” Dusty inquired.

“Pa?” Adam asked.

“Yes, they’re coming here to take possession.”

“Well, that gives us a couple of extra days to put some additional training in on the ones we’ve broke so far. We’re only twenty shy of our quota.”

“Twenty?! That’s not bad, considering the wranglers around,” teased Adam.

“Who do you think you are, coming here to criticize the work we done,” a new hand scowled as he approached the railing.

Dusty shook his head in warning to the hand.

“My apologies, I didn’t mean to criticize anything…” Adam offered, give a man rope enough and he’ll hang himself. Adam deliberately didn’t look to his father, he knew the look he wore and what it meant.

“We’ve busted our butts for the past three weeks getting the thirty head broke. If you think you can do a better job, put your butt in that there saddle. If you think you can ride her.”

Before he decided on whether to take on the challenge or not, he appraised the mare and what Dusty had said, but still… Adam thought of putting this hand in his place, “And if I do ride her?”

“I’ll give you my month’s salary,” gruffed the hand, thinking the man in black wouldn’t last three bucks.

“Get her in the chute!” Adam yelled as he jumped into the corral and took the chaps Dusty had slipped off.

“Don’t you think the boss” the man jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards Dusty, “should give that order?” the man taunted, knowing that the lead wrangler or the boss was the only one to give an order regarding any horse or what rider would be up.

“He is… the boss,” Dusty drolly answered; eager to see this hand taken down a peg or two. It was one thing to be a good rider and be humble about it… it was something totally different to brag on being a good rider when one was only somewhat above par. But Dusty, and the rest of the men, knew that this Texan was no different than any other man from Texas, live big, brag big, take offense even bigger. They also knew it took time to settle in, find out just exactly how you fit into the various crews, and the man had been trying just a little too hard in the three weeks that he’d been on the Ponderosa.

The man looked to Ben, as if looking for him to dispute Dusty’s words.

“Ralph, this is my eldest son Adam. I’m sorry you’ve not had a chance to meet him, he’s been out of town for the past month and only returned a few days ago,” Ben confirmed. “Also, let this be a warning, I expect all my hands to be in the bunkhouse at night during the week, unless they’re riding herd, and not in Virginia City. Friday or Saturday nights are your nights to blow off steam and have a good time. All other times are mine.”

“Yes, sir,” Ralph replied. “I’m sorry, but I had something personal I needed to attend to in town.”

While Ben was adding the final touches to Ralph’s hanging, Adam settled himself into the saddle, making sure the cinch held the saddle in place as he shifted left then right. Taking the halter rope, he visually measured the length to give the mare her head, but not enough to prohibit him a secure seat and to keep the mare in check. Confident, Adam gave a nod.

The chute opened and the mare exploded from within with a powerful thrust forward, impacting stiff legged to the ground before sun fishing, twisting, bucking, kicking her heels high. Her jumps bounded left and right. Adam stuck to the saddle, ‘spurring’ her on, encouraging her to do her worst or best, as the case would be. No one was sure how much time had elapsed when the mare finally halted in the middle of the corral, head hung low, blowing harshly through her nostrils, flanks heaving.

Normally a rider would have insisted the mare move out, establishing his dominance, but Adam refrained as he hopped down from the saddle. This mare was worth a little spirit; he planned to personally see to her training.

“Good ride son,” Ben called as Adam approached, walking a little gingerly.

“Can I write you an IOU?” Ralph asked.

“So in addition to having a big mouth, you also make bets you can’t readily back?” Adam asked, giving the man no quarters for his earlier attitude.

“No sir… I mean yes sir. I didn’t know who you were. I’m sorry about before,” Ralph explained.

“That’s no excuse.” Adam chose to speak loud enough for all the men to hear, “On this ranch we treat everyone with respect. I don’t care who they are or what their job is… Every job and every man is important to the running of this ranch.”

Adam waited for his words to soak in, before he turned to Ralph.

“As for your wager, I could ask my father to withhold your wages…”

“Yes, sir.”

“But I won’t. Consider this a valuable lesson in economics. You can’t take anything at face value. Know who you’re dealing with… before you make an ass out of yourself.”

“Thank you, sir. I need the money… I got a wife and two kids back home,” Ralph humbly answered, his head lowered.

“Where’s home?” Ben asked.

“Lubbock,” Ralph answered as he looked up to the rancher.

“Why’re you so far from home?” Ben asked, not knowing anything about the man having a family.

“You’re good people and you pay wages better than most. ‘Sides the Cartwright name means something. You respect your workers and people respect you.”

“Ralph, for the next couple of weeks, you’re off the job,” Adam stated.

“See here, I said I was sorry for what I done… but I can’t be off the job for two weeks; I said I gotta a wife and two kids. They need every dollar I send home!”

“If you’d let me finish,” Adam calmly answered, “I don’t like hearing about families being separated. If you want to continue working on this ranch, you’re going to remember today’s lesson and you’re going home to pack your family and bring them here.”

“Where would we live? I mean, what I make is barely enough for them as it is, it’s just a rundown shack they live in… They can’t live in the bunkhouse with me.”

“We have a few cabins for married men. For those with families, a few are positioned closer to town to make it easier for their children to go to school. You’d be responsible for its upkeep in addition to your responsibilities as a working hand. We can discuss specific logistics when you return.” Adam firmly added, “No family should be separated, not for any reason.”

Bidding their wranglers good day, father and son headed on to their ultimate destination.

*****

Hoss noticed that Joe was slowing down and stumbling as he raked the corral; he remembered his father’s warning to keep an eye on his brother and not to overdo it on his first day out since his return.

“Hey Joe, I’m gettin’ a little tired a workin’. Why don’t we go inside and see if Hop Sing has some lemonade and cookies. You’ll like eatin’ Hop Sing’s cookies, they’re soft and moist… they’re real good.”

Joe wearily looked up and smiled.

Inside the house, Hop Sing carried the platter to the front room and set it upon the low table. “Big brother eat cookies and milk, younger brother eat cookies and milk. Maybe older brother teach younger brother how to dunk cookies.” The housekeeper smiled as Hoss eagerly reached for several cookies and a glass of milk, only to have Joe be a few moments behind him.

Fifteen minutes after entering the house, with his milk glass empty and the platter of cookies only containing crumbles, Joe fell asleep on the settee.

“I watch Lit’le Joe, you finish chores,” Hop Sing stated as he removed the empty glasses and plate from the low table between the settee and hearth.

“Don’t I get to rest?” Hoss teasingly asked as he hauled himself up from the chair.

“You rest later. Joe need rest now.”

“He did a good job today.” Spreading out the Indian blanket over this brother, Hoss added, “Well, I’ll see you later for lunch.”

Chapter 21 – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Joe bolted awake, one hand gripping the cushion of the settee upon which he sat with his other hand clutching the back, he was the only one to hear his silent scream. Raggedly he drew in a breath realizing he was home; it had just been a dream. The crackling of the fire mesmerized the boy as he took deep breaths to settle himself.

*****

Later that afternoon, Adam invited Joe out to the table on the deck to work on his studies. He noticed how pensive the boy had grown since the he’d said goodbye earlier that morning. Adam set the book on top of the table, but chose to keep it closed. He watched as Joe fidgeted with the pencil that he had picked up from where it had rolled to a stop between one of the crevices.

“How are you this afternoon, Joe?” Adam decided that maybe today’s lessons wouldn’t involve reading, but more to help the boy improve his conversational skills.

Joe shrugged his shoulders.

Adam raised his eyebrows when his brother didn’t answer him in words.

“Did you enjoy working with Hoss in the barn this morning?”

Joe shrugged one shoulder and titled his head towards that shoulder.

“Not very talkative, huh? Hoss talked you all out this morning?”

Joe shook his head.

“Joe, what’s wrong?” Adam asked as he reached a hand to his brother’s.

Joe pulled back.

“Are you upset that I left you this morning?”

Joe looked to his brother; confusion and fear were plainly visible on his face.

“Pa explained to you last night that he needed me to work out on the ranch today. I thought you understood that. You can trust Hoss, just as you trust me. He’ll help you remember everything you forgot…”

Joe looked apprehensively around before he whispered, “No forgot…” he whispered and warily looked around again.

Adam didn’t accept Joe’s countenance at face value. The night before the boy had been eager to learn and to correct his grammar, now… he wouldn’t readily speak. His actions alarmed Adam.

“What didn’t you forget?” Adam asked.

Joe shook his head, but Adam realized that his brother was also beginning to breathe faster and shallow as he continued to look around, never settling his eyes on one spot.

“Joe, you were eager to go over your studies on our way home from Mill City and last night.”

Joe acted as if he didn’t hear his brother.

Reaching for Joe’s shoulder and sensing the tension, Adam firmly asked, “Won’t you tell me what’s wrong?”

Joe startled and shook his head no. He pushed away his brother’s hand and stood up, knocking his chair backwards. Adam watched the boy run across the yard and into the barn. Slowly he followed.

Upon entering the barn, he heard shuffling and crying from the hayloft; from the cracks between the floorboards bits of hay rained down on the horses in their stalls. Deciding they could use some privacy, even from their own family, Adam pulled the barn doors closed before he climbed the ladder.

Again, as if the boy were a scared animal, as if he hadn’t made any headway with his brother in the weeks since he had found him, Adam slowly approached the trembling youth.

“Joe, no one’s going to hurt you.”

Joe sat in the corner, hidden between bales of hay, his ankles crossed, legs drawn up to his chest with his arms wrapped around them, head to his knees. His head shook left and right, his shoulders rose and fell as he cried.

Adam slipped beside his brother and wrapped his arms around him, pleased when the boy didn’t shrug away.

“Joe, you need to tell me what’s wrong. Why are you crying? Are you scared?”

With his head still lowered to his knees, Joe nodded.

“Why? Is it someone here? Are you afraid of someone on the Ponderosa?”

Joe had yet to look up when he shook his head no.

“Someone from before? The wagon train?”

A shake of the head was Adam’s answer.

“The town? What of the people in Mill City?”

Another shake of the head.

With concern and compassion Adam thought on who else could cause this about-face within his brother, he asked, “Joe, are you afraid of someone from the tribe?”

Joe tensed and nodded.

“Why? It’s been three weeks, there’s been no sign that anyone from the tribe was after us.”

Daring to look up, Joe answered in a faint whisper that Adam almost didn’t hear, “No speak. Bad boy.” He returned his face to his knees.

“Joe if you don’t want to talk today or work on your lessons, that’s okay.” Adam kept his voice light. “You’re not a bad boy because of that.”

As if Joe had not heard his brother he spoke in low voice, “Whipped…”

Adam heard the word, faintly stronger than those spoken before, and was bewildered. He chose to rub his brother’s back and felt the boy flinch, and it dawned on him, the scars.

“Joe, were you whipped for speaking?”

He nodded.

“I don’t…” Adam was aghast even more so at the lash marks that scarred his brother’s backside. “Joe, no one here will harm you for talking. We want you to talk and hopefully to be able to laugh again.”

“Me… I…,” a confused Joe answered. He remembered the night before, being with his family and he remembered his dream from earlier in the day, the reality he had experienced after being taken from the marauders to live with the Indians.

As the boy raised his head, Adam watched the tears stream down his face.

Hugging his brother tightly, Adam spoke, “Joe, I promise you… No one will whip you for talking. We might correct the way you speak or how you say something… But, outside of books, that is how you or anyone else learns. Baby’s don’t know how to read…”

“No baby,” Joe stated a little forcefully, but still quiet.

“I know you’re not a baby, I’m just using it as an example. Baby’s learn to speak by listening to their parents, their family. You’ve done remarkably… You’ve done a good job in listening to Pa, Hoss, and myself and trying to correct yourself. It will take time.” Adam relaxed his hold on his brother, and looked at him. “You don’t have to worry about being whipped for talking. I know I’m going to regret this someday, but we’re all anxious to hear you talking and laughing. Are you ready to study, now?”

Joe shook his head and said, “No, please.”

“What would you like to do instead?”

“Ride?” Joe asked inquisitively, he eyes begging his brother to say yes.

“Let me go tell Pa. You dry your tears and saddle your pinto. Okay?”

Joe nodded.

*****

Adam gave Joe one last smile before he disappeared down the ladder. After wiping his face, Joe climbed down from the loft. As he saddled his pinto, he remembered those days; the days when he wanted so desperately to go home.

Alone he had stood in the middle of the throng of people gathered around the young man with whom he had traveled for several weeks. Those who surrounded them sounded irate towards the man who still gripped him by the upper arm, tightening his grip as he shouted back at those who yelled at him. Without offering him any water or food, he was pushed into a lodge and the flap pulled behind him. A few minutes later the man he had accompanied entered, his tempter still flaring. He shoved Joe to the pallets, indicating that was where he should spend the night.

The following morning, he spied a small group of boys playing in the water and went to meet them in hopes of becoming friends. He wanted so much to make friends, but by the sounds of their voices and their actions he knew they were taunting him. He tried to stand his own ground but they began to beat him, some threw sticks and rocks at him while others took their turns in punching him. It didn’t take much time for him to be knocked forcefully to the muddy bank of the stream. An elder of the tribe grabbed him by the arm and pulled him from the boys; he shouted at the others causing them to flee. Joe was pushed in front of the man and to a different lodge on the outskirts of the tribe.

Wanting to know what was happening; Joe attempted to ask a question and was pushed to the ground. The man pointed and through the man’s angry face he figured out he was to stay put. He did his best to wipe away the mud he felt clinging to his face and plastered in his hair.

As the man and an older woman exited from behind the animal skin that served as a doorway, he stood and begged for them to explain. For his efforts he received a back-handed slap across the face, knocking him to the ground again. The man shouted at him before pulling him to his feet; Joe felt himself propelled towards the woman. She made a sound of disgust as she looked upon the filthy child who stood in front of her.

Later that night, after hours of collecting wood for her fire, he again tried to talk to the woman. She grabbed him and pushed him over the fallen log and proceeded to take a switch to his back side. By the time she was finished, Joe could only curl up on his side and cry.

Joe jumped and turned around at a hand being placed on his shoulder; without conscious thought he threw a fisted hand at the person standing behind him. In horror he gasped when he heard the ‘umpf’. He tried to run away, but a firm hand held him and pulled him close. He allowed the tears to fall when he heard, “It’s okay Joe. I understand, I should have waited until you knew I was here. I didn’t mean to startle you.” A loving hand rubbed circles on his back. “Were you remembering?”

“I’m sorry, Adam,” Joe sniffled and nodded.

“I love you, buddy. You do still want to go for a ride?”

With his arms wrapped around his brother’s waist, Joe’s wary eyes looked up; he relaxed when he saw the smile upon his oldest brother’s face.

“Pa and Hoss said they wanted to come, too. Is that okay?”

A wide grin spread upon the youth’s face as he remembered this was what he really wanted — to be home.

Chapter 22 – For the Love of Horses

Several days had passed and the family settled into a routine surrounding working on the ranch and making sure Joe had someone close by at all times. Late afternoons or early evenings were devoted to Joe’s lessons with Adam. Every day that the two worked on the boy’s studies Adam was impressed with how far Joe was coming with his language skills. But still… there was always room for improvement.

After one particularly difficult study session, Hoss thought to redirect his brother’s attitude away from sulking over Adam’s insistence to paying closer attention to the details. He thought if he could show the boy by example…

“Hey Shortshanks,” Hoss called as he pulled out the checkerboard and its pieces. “Do you remember this?” He set the board on the low table and placed the black and red pieces to their starting places.

Joe picked up a red wooden token and looked at the design on one side and the flat, undecorated opposite side. He looked at the cuts in the pieces, almost as if to help hold them stacked.

“Joe,” Ben sat forward in his burgundy leather chair and addressed his youngest. “Do you remember the design on that piece?”

“Money?” Joe asked, but shook his head.

“It’s called a checker piece. It’s a strategy game played by moving the checkers to various places on the board,” Adam stated. “The idea is to capture as any of your opponents pieces as you can. It requires you pay attention to not only your own pieces, but the pieces played by the other player. If you focus on the other pieces, you’ll leave your own to be captured.”

Thinking for a few minutes, Joe said, “King I… me.”

“Not yet, little brother,” Hoss guffed. “We ain’t played the game yet. Do you remember how to play?”

Joe looked to Hoss, trying to remember if he did.

“I can help you, son. Would you like for me to help you beat Hoss,” Ben conspired.

“Me… cheat…” Joe said without thinking.

Adam couldn’t hold his laughter, followed quickly by his father and larger brother.

“Why laugh?” Joe asked.

“Joe, the question you should ask would be, ‘Why is everyone laughing?’”, Adam suggested as he tried to refrain from laughing so hard.

“Well?” Joe pouted.

“Ah Shortshanks, it’s just the first time any of us heard you admit ya done cheat.”

“Me no… I don’t cheat!” Joe stated as he tossed the game piece to the table and ran upstairs.

“I’m sorry, Joe! I didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” Hoss called as he stood to go after his brother.

“I’ll get the door,” Adam answered upon hearing the knocking.

*****

“Charlie? Come in,” offered Adam.

“Evening Adam, I came to see if Hoss was available. We got a horse down in the back barn…”

Ben stood; he knew his middle son was torn between going to soothe things over with his brother versus going to tend to a horse.

“Hoss, go help Charlie take care of the horse. I’ll see to Joe.”

“Pa, I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings… It just felt…”

“Like old times,” Adam completed his statement. “I felt it too.”

“It did feel good to laugh. Go on Hoss,” encouraged Ben.

Hoss followed Charlie outside while Adam and Ben headed up to the second floor.

“Adam, you’ve done a good job with Joe, but this… I think this needs a father’s touch.”

The eldest Cartwright son nodded. “I’ll head to my room to get that book I started to read last night before I went to bed.”

As he stood outside the closed bedroom door, Ben was grateful that Adam had been there for Joe, but he was beginning to feel a twinge of jealously. Always in the past it had been he to whom Joe had sought comfort, he had previously been the one to soothe the boy’s ruffled feelings. He needed, wanted the chance to reconnect with his son.

*****

Gently Ben knocked on the door, waited for an answer and when one was not forthcoming he turned the knob and slowly entered. It pained him to see his youngest lying face down on his bed, face hidden in his folded arms, crying.

“Joseph,” Ben crooned as he eased his weight down onto the edge of the bed. His hand instinctively reached for his son’s back, rubbing comforting circle. “We didn’t mean to laugh at you. And Hoss didn’t mean to imply… didn’t mean to say that you did cheat.”

He felt the shudder course through the boy’s back.

“I guess we were getting too comfortable, feeling that things were getting back to being like they were before you were taken.” Ben remembered the nights that Joe and Hoss would play checkers, with Joe winning so many of the games. At first it was Hoss allowing his younger brother to win, especially when he was learning the game. But over time, Joe’s cunning mind figured out moves well ahead of what Hoss could, and the older brother knew it. But the running joke had started, and Joe had laughed once he realized his brother was only teasing him. Honor mattered to the Cartwrights, be it a legal contract or even a game of checkers. “Joe, we know you wouldn’t cheat, it was just the way you said it. It gave us a moment to forget what had happened. We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Ben watched as Joe turned over onto his side before sitting up. His heart swelled when he felt his boy wrap him in his arms, the boy’s head nestled against his chest.

The boy whispered, “I want like before, too.”

Ben was content to wrap his arms around this child and never let him go. Minutes had passed before Joe fell asleep, and Ben heard the door open and two sets of concerned eyes peered inside.

“Shhh, he just fell asleep.”

“Is he okay?” Adam asked as he pushed the door open and stepped into the room.

“He will be,” Ben whispered

“Can I help ya lay him down and get him ready for bed?” Hoss inquired as he walked deeper into the room.

“Why don’t you slip off his boots,” Ben suggested as he laid the boy back to the surface of his bed.

Hoss smiled while thinking of old times, the days after Adam had left for college and Joe tried so hard to be grown up. He’d fall asleep wherever he was and it had been up to him and his father to strip the boy and dress him in his nightshirt. They rarely ever had to worry about him waking once he was asleep.

Once boots and belt were set aside, Ben pulled the covers over the boy’s body, blew out the flame of the lantern on the bureau and motioned his sons to leave the room.

“You’re not gonna dress him in his nightshirt?” Hoss asked as they left the room.

“Not tonight. I think giving him a little dignity of not treating him like a small child will help him cope.” Ben answered. “How was the horse?”

“A little colicky, but he’ll be fine. We fixed up a bran mash for him,” Hoss answered. “Wish it were that easy to fix things up with Joe.” Glumly Hoss headed for his bedroom.

*****

The following day, after Hoss gave first orders, Joe had settled in to performing his chores as requested. As the days passed, Charlie had to laugh at a few of the shortcuts the boy took in order to get the job done, so much like before. The ranch foreman thought that life was finally returning to how it should have been. But he vowed to keep an eye on the boy to make sure his shortcuts didn’t lead to the boy totally ignoring how to do the job right.

*****

The first time he was allowed to accompany his brothers to the breaking corral, Joe sat on the railing and watched numerous horses ultimately submit as well as the wranglers go flying through the air to land in an unceremonious heap on the ground. He cringed the first time a man landed and scrambled out of the way of flailing hooves, he stared at the other men who had broke out in laughter. He cocked his head and looked to the man in the corral and noticed he too was laughing. By the time the third rider had fallen, Joe was lightly laughing with the men, as long as the rider had safely made it to the railing.

As one of the last horses of the day was coerced into the loading chute, Joe sat up and took notice. He saw the defiance in this one’s eye, the proud bearing as it held its head high, its anger conveyed as it struck out with a foreleg in protest to the saddle and girth being strapped around its body. The mare flung herself against the side of the chute a few times showing she was not willing to cooperate with this thing called horse breaking.

Adam waved off the next wrangler, Jasper, who was supposed to be up, indicating he wanted a chance to tame this one, and to prevent any of their hands from being hurt.

Adam began to second guess himself as the horse humped its back and forcefully kicked backwards within the chute. He took a deep breath and lowered himself into the saddle, quickly locating his stirrups and positioned his hand on the halter rope. He nodded and the gate flew open.

The mare jerked and bucked and kicked, spinning and twisting and jumping, pulling out every trick it could manage to unload the unwanted weight from its back. Not ten seconds elapsed before the majority of the weight left, but the mare still kicked in fury at the saddle and stirrups that thumped into its flanks.

The horse saw the men run to the fallen rider and it changed directions, bearing down on those who dared take away her freedom. Other wranglers jumped into the pen to change the horse’s direction, away from those helping. The bucking lessened when the mare realized she could not dislodge the saddle. The animal stopped in the middle of the ring, head held high and gave a shrill piercing scream; causing a few men to wince at the sound. A few horses in the holding corral answered the challenge.

Then men settled to taking care of their own and when Adam finally gingerly made it to the railing, the men turned their attention back to the horse. Each man stopped in fear, not wanting to set the horse off lest she injure or cripple the boy who stood before her. The boy’s left hand extended out flat in front of him, his right slowly approaching the mare’s face. They saw his mouth moving, but couldn’t hear what he was saying.

What no one had seen was the boy staring the mare straight in the eye, following her eyes wherever she looked. And the mare took notice of the figure sitting on the railing, watching her. She sensed no danger from the small person; she sensed this one would not harm her. The mare held her position when he jumped into the corral and calmly walked in her direction, speaking non-sense and chatter; sounds that soothed.

“Joe,” Hoss whispered, fear held him. That was his youngest brother out there standing in close proximity to an unbroken horse, one who had already shown a lack of respect for humans.

Joe reached for the halter rope as he leaned his head against the mare’s large jowl. He began stroking her velvety muzzle and continued talking to her. The smallest of those in the arena led the mare to the others and said, “Try her now, Adam.”

“Excuse me?” begged Adam.

“She was just scared. She didn’t know what you… were doing. She’ll be okay.”

Adam was dubious of his youngest bother’s claim, but motioned for the men to load her one more time. Cautiously, Adam climbed into the saddle; he couldn’t let this mare know she had won. If he didn’t finish the job now, it would be doubly hard the following day. The mare still expressed her displeasure when the chute opened, but the ferocity wasn’t as explosive and Adam managed to ride the mare to a halt.

As Adam slipped from the saddle, he realized there was indeed something special about this horse, like the previous mare the week before. He gave he a couple of pats on the neck as if to say, ‘you did good’ before walking away.

“Maybe we should have Shortshanks talk to all the horses before ya ride ‘em,” teased Hoss.

“Yeah, right. We’re just lucky he didn’t get killed. God, if Pa had been here,” bemoaned Adam.

“I ain’t gonna be the one to tell him, neither.”

“He’s gonna find out…” Adam stated.

“Yeah, but not from me, and not from you.” Hoss emphasized his point by jabbing his older brother in the chest with his index finger.

*****

One of the hands stood back and watched as the brothers left the corral, mounted their horses and headed home. No one heard him whisper, “Caballerizos.” (Master of the horse.)

*****

“Joe, do you realize how dangerous it was to do what you did?” Adam asked as they rode home.

“Do what? All I did was… talk to her.”

“Little brother, she was a wild horse. She coulda hurt ya,” Hoss stated.

“She didn’t,” Joe answered.

“Joe, I don’t know what you learned when you were with that tribe, but you can’t just do what you did,” Adam insisted. “It wasn’t safe. Can you imagine how Hoss or I would have felt had you been injured? What would we have told Pa?”

“She was scared. She didn’t have anyone…”

“Joe, that mare isn’t a human… you can’t equate human feelings to it,” Adam reprimanded.

Joe angered.

“Joe, I know you’re a natural, you can work with practically any horse, but not the ones we haven’t tamed. You’re not grown enough to handle them,” Adam attempted to explain.

“I tamed her!”

“You calmed her. She’s not tame, not by a long shot. And she won’t be for a while yet.” Adam answered. “I won’t tell Pa what you did, but this is it. No more of what you did. The next time… The next time there better not be a next time.”

“I wanted to help,” Joe whispered.

“We know ya did,” Hoss answered as he reached over and placed a hand on his brother’s arm. “But sometimes, that kind of help can get ya hurt. We don’t want to see ya hurt.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe submitted.

“Apology accepted. Now, we also won’t say anything about this to Pa… Okay?” asked Adam.

“Okay.”

Chapter 23 – Past and Present Collide

The following morning, Adam and Hoss revealed to Joe that he would be able to help a little bit with the horses that had already been broken, but under strict supervision.

Joe eagerly looked forward to working with his brothers and training the horses, he knew he could get a horse to do anything for him. And that was where his heart wanted to be; he was thankful his father hadn’t wanted him out on the range yet. He didn’t want to spend hours in the saddle pushing some dumb cow that didn’t have the sense to keep out of trouble.

Horses were majestic and noble; without a good horse a cowboy really wasn’t anything. He vaguely remembered a woman telling him a long time ago that he was a natural; he smiled at the vision of the blonde-haired woman laughing as he rode his big horse in circles around her. What he didn’t remember was his father sitting in the saddle behind him, guiding the horse.

*****

It was the first time Charlie had been scared for Little Joe in the weeks since his return. He’d watched the boy’s confidence grow as well as his command of talking and it had pleased him. But like most boys were bound to do, Joe began to take shortcuts and also pull a few stunts in an effort to get through his chores quicker and on to the breaking corral. What Joe was doing came to the point that the foreman knew he had to say something. He didn’t want the boy to get in trouble with his father, and he feared the boy was becoming a little reckless, so he decided to say something to Hoss; who was leading Chubbs into the yard.

“I know Charlie, I know he’s not doing his chores properly. Guess I overlooked it because it felt so good to have him with us out at the corrals and hearin’ him a laughin’. I’m sorry ya had to come to me.”

“Aw Hoss, he’s just getting back to living. If I remember, he didn’t cotton to chores before, daydreamed while doing them.”

“Still, it ain’t right and I don’t want ya doing his chores for him,” Hoss answered, a little miffed.

“Same could be said for you. I’m only saying something because if this continues, it could lead to him making a real mistake and possibly getting hurt.” Charlie hadn’t said exactly what he’d seen, but figured the boy’s brother could set him right without knowing all the details.

“I’ll say something to Joe. Thanks Charlie.”

Hoss dreaded what was about to come, but Adam had warned him back in the beginning that they would have to stand firm that there were rules to follow and Joe had to learn there were consequences for his actions or inactions.

Charlie returned to the forge where he had been working before he had gone to get Buck out of his stall and saw what Joe was doing.

*****

Hoss entered the barn and couldn’t believe what he saw. Joe had jumped from the hayloft to the pinto and was now standing on the pinto’s back reaching for the hayloft. Hoss was already flustered at his brother for shirking his responsibilities, and now he was taking risks and playing around on one of the horses. He raised his voice, “What in tarnation do you think youra doin’?!”

Joe turned around, startled and saved himself as he half fell, half jumped from the back of his horse. His eyes widened at the sound of his brother’s approach.

“Pa’d skin ya alive for doing somethin’ as stupid as that! This here’s a working ranch and I got work to do. I don’t have time to keep an eye on you boy!” Hoss grabbed the halter of the pinto and led it back into its stall. “You got a job to do, ya best just do it! I don’t wanna have ta tell ya again!”

Joe stood frozen, it was a shock, the anger in the words Hoss used as he approached and towered over him; Joe turned and ran.

Hoss watched as Joe ran towards the house; thinking he was grateful for a few minutes of quiet, he picked up Chubbs reins and led his horse inside. Grooming his horse helped settle his nerves and restore his heart to beating normally. As the minutes passed, he figured his brother wouldn’t return to the barn with him there, so he decided to go ahead and finish Joe’s chores; as a peace offering. He knew he’d come down hard on his brother, but that stunt had scared him… what if the pinto startled and bucked his brother off. Hoss felt even worse when he realized that his outburst could have spooked the horse.

*****

After escaping the anger of his large brother, Joe curled himself into a ball in the darkest recesses of the root cellar. The words his brother yelled at him caused his mind to venture back to that day, the day his world had shattered. He remembered the Indian who towered over him and punished him for not completing his task. It was difficult to know what to do when you didn’t know the language, and you weren’t allowed to speak. But he understood that tone of voice; it was the same as he heard earlier when Hoss towered over him. It was the same as Raging Bear’s, right before he’d grabbed Joe and tied the leather collar around his neck, after he had used it to whip Joe’s backside. The large Indian walked away and left him tied to the fallen log, like a dog, for hours in the afternoon sun.

Raging Bear’s anger was the same as Rufus’, bitter at Joe for not doing as told… only Joe understood what Rufus had told him to do. The young boy had been raised right by his father and his brother, he knew what the men were planning was wrong. Everything was wrong…

*****

He ran as Charlie told him to. He saw Charlie fall with an arrow lodged in his shoulder. He felt the rough hands grab him by the arm and yank him off the ground. Another lifted him up, staring at him face to face. He smelled the rank odors of the man’s breath and body. Joe began kicking and swinging his fists.

“Well, if you aren’t a little hellion,” the large man looked sideways and spat a wad of chew to the ground. “Keep it up kid and I’ll feed you to Black Wolf.”

Joe froze, eyes wide open in terror.

“Load up all the provisions you can find!” someone shouted.

Men ran back and forth from the house and root cellar to the horses carrying bags containing their plunder.

Joe watched in horror as several of the men doused the barn in kerosene before striking a match and tossing it inside.

“What about firing the house?” someone yelled.

The whoosh of the flames taking hold of the barn startled Joe while the large man continued to restrain him. Tears poured from his eyes as the wind blew the smoke towards where they stood. He cried for Star as he heard his pony shrilly screaming in terror, running around the corral as the flames leaped through the open windows and out the side door.

“Mount up, we ain’t got the time!” the leader ordered.

*****

They rode for hours; he was held roughly in front of one of the men. The man grumbled about why he had to put up with the brat, and wasn’t kind when he had to keep repositioning the boy in the saddle.

The sun was fading when they joined up with others who had already set up a camp. Joe saw several wagons at the edge of light from the camp fires; as well as several women crying. The man picked Joe up from in front of him and dropped him to the ground with a, “Stay put, kid.”

From where he fell, Joe watched the man dismount and hitch up his pants.

“Someone get over here and take care of this brat!” he yelled.

The others laughed before tending to their horses.

A very tall and slender man with long black hair stopped in front of Joe and stared down at him.

“Mister, I gotta go,” Joe stated.

“You ain’t going nowhere,” the first man answered, as he pulled his saddle from his horse.

Joe hadn’t wanted to, but for hours he’d sat in the saddle and now his body told him of its urgent needs, he grabbed himself in hopes of preventing an embarrassing accident.

The tall, black-haired Indian nodded his head sideways, indicating the direction where Joe should go. Hurriedly, Joe ran towards a copse of trees, unbuckling the suspenders of his dungarees as he went, he dropped his pants and relieved himself. Even with his back to the man, he was embarrassed as the tall man stood nearby, watching over him.

As he redressed himself, Joe wondered about running away into the dark, but that was as far as he got. A firm hand on his shoulder led him back the campfire and beyond.

“Get him tied up!” ordered the big man Joe had ridden with. As the man looked at Joe, it was the first time the boy saw the ugly scar that ran down the right side of Rufus Wilkins’ face, from the outer eyebrow down to his jawbone.

“I got him,” called a red-headed man, Red Murphy, who taunted the young boy by flipping a strip of dry rawhide towards him.

“Keep away from me!” Joe yelled as he tried to back away from the stranger who approached. His backward retreat was blocked by the tall Indian who stood behind him, grabbed his arms and held him tight. “Let go of me!”

The red head sneered as he bound the boy’s wrists.

“Is that necessary?” the Indian asked.

“Black Wolf, you want him to get away and bring the law on us? He’ll fetch a good price south of the border,” Ambrose McComber answered as he stared down at the Indian, having not dismounted from his horse.

“He’d bring a better price in San Francisco. I don’t want to head back to Mexico,” one of the other men called out.

“I said we’re heading to Mexico!” McComber declared.

“You’d better let me go! When my pa…” Joe shouted.

Having enough of dealing with the boy, Rufus back handed him across the face, knocking Joe to the ground. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Grabbing Joe by the arm, Red dragged him over to one of the wagon wheels where he securely tied him to a wheel so he couldn’t get away.

Trying to hide his tears, Joe watched as the women nearby were forced inside one of the wagons, hands tied behind their backs and then to the rings bolted to the floor.

*****

Joe and the other captives woke from an uncomfortable night’s sleep. When Red came to untie him from the wagon wheel, he took a chance.

“I wanna go home!” Joe pleaded.

“You’re gonna do as I say!” Rufus arrived and stood over him, watching him, he demanded that Black Wolf go watch over the boy as he gathered firewood.

“NO!” Joe yelled.

The man advanced upon Joe, grabbed him, hauled him over his lap after removing his belt… it was the first time the marauders whipped him for disobedience.

“I gave you a job to do, DO IT!” Rufus yelled directly in his face before shoving him to the ground.

*****

“How did your afternoon go, son?” Ben asked as Hoss entered the house and placed his hat upon the pegs hanging from the wall.

“It didn’t. I’m gonna go get washed up for supper,” Hoss said as he walked past his father.

“What happened?” Adam inquired as he looked up from the ledgers that he was working to tabulate at Ben’s desk. He was curious at his brother’s disappointed demeanor.

“He got to goofing off,” Hoss explained without looking to either member of his family. He paused in his walk across the room.

“He? I take it you’re talking of your little brother?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, and it ain’t the first time I covered for him.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” queried Ben, Hoss hadn’t moved from where he had stopped.

“I remembered what Adam told me about him needing to learn the rules, and I’ve been letting him slip.”

“What changed this time?” Adam asked as he walked from behind the desk to join Hoss and Ben in the middle of the room.

“This time… Charlie found him and told me about it.” Looking up to see his father’s expression, Hoss continued, “I got flustered at him… when I went in the barn… he was pulling a stunt.” Hoss started shuffling his feet.

“What?” Ben asked in surprise.

He hadn’t expected this, not so soon. But then again, Joe was Joe, he should have realized it as bound to happen, the stunt and his brother’s reaction. Regardless, he was pleased that Little Joe was beginning to return to his normal self.

“He was doing something dumb and I yelled at him. Told him he had a job to do and to get it done.”

“Did he?” Adam inquired, wondering just what transpired.

“No… He ran off… Figured he went to see Hop Sing and nab a few cookies before running upstairs to his bedroom to pout,” grumbled Hoss. “I’m sorry, Pa. He done scared me. I went ahead and done his chores.”

“Supper ready,” Hop Sing called as he set a platter of spare ribs on the table. “You bring Lit’le Joe in from barn, make clean, come eat.”

“What do ya mean bring him in from the barn? I just came from there and he hasn’t been out there since he ran off.”

“Ran off? Boy ran off? Why Joe run off?” Hop Sing asked.

“I’ll see if he’s up in his room, Pa,” Adam offered.

Moments later, “Pa, he’s not up here!” Adam quickly ran down the steps.

“What do ya mean he’s not up there?” Hoss asked as his voice conveyed a shudder of fear. “Where is he?”

*****

Joe grew uncomfortable riding with the men, he wished that they would let him ride with the women in the wagon. As much as he enjoyed riding horses, he hated being man-handled in the saddle by Rufus.

“You have an accident and it’ll be the last accident you ever have,” Rufus growled in his ear.

As noon approached, Joe couldn’t help but fidget in the saddle, his discomfort growing by the minute. “Please, I gotta go,” he begged.

Rufus halted his horse and dropped Joe to the ground, “You step one foot away from there and I won’t hesitate to put a hole in you. Don’t care what the boss says.”

Once he was through with his business, Joe was roughly hauled back into the saddle before Rufus spurred his horse to catch up with the others. The afternoon passed and Joe struggled to stay awake as their trip took him farther and farther away from home.

*****

Day after day, the marauders continued their southward trek; taking advantage of the bounty the Ponderosa had gained the group by traveling without worrying about restocking provisions.

Ambrose McComber realized his men were growing restless as they traveled towards the southeast end of the Nevada territory, so despite the fact they didn’t need any additional supplies, he authorized another raid on a homestead not quite the size of the Ponderosa. Provisions and livestock were readily taken as they had been during their last raid.

The youngest Cartwright had cowered after witnessing the raid on a homestead. The marauders laughed as they casually killed those living and working there, as if they might have been shooting prairie dogs running for shelter. The boy wanted to turn away but was brain couldn’t think clear enough to instruct his muscles. He finally forced his eyes closed when a woman was struck by an arrow as she ran to her husband’s side.

He remembered Charlie falling to the ground and two of the other hands, who arrived shortly after the raid began, had fallen as well. He was thankful that his family wasn’t home and that Hop Sing had been in town.

The whole experience sickened him, the men laughing the whole time as they murdered innocent people for the fun of it. He collapsed to his hands and knees as the dry heaves convulsed his body. His eyelids were closed tightly, pressing against his bulging eyes, yet the tears still fell. The strong heaves threatened to expel his tongue as the muscles below his rib cage constricted causing him pain.

*****

Hop Sing grumbled about dinner being ruined as he returned the spare ribs to the oven; however, he was there to look for the youngest member of the family.

The Cartwrights had checked the main house and the bath house, as well as the barn and hayloft in their search for Little Joe. Hoss even peeked inside the empty smoke house to see if the boy was hiding there. Hop Sing checked the chicken coop as well as the pig pen behind the barn.

The four men stood in the main yard, perplexed where the boy could have gone off to.

“Best notify the hands we’ll need their help in looking for Joseph,” Ben admitted with the sun sinking to the horizon. “Hoss, get the torches.”

*****

The days blurred together and Joe once gain found himself in a restless sleep, tied to the wagon wheel for another night during this journey. He retreated within himself as he had watched the women begin to give up on hopes of being rescued. Before the sun set, the wagon with the women had left the group, and it was only Joe and the men who continued on to wherever they were going.

He heard snatches of conversation but couldn’t clearly understand what the men were saying… or what it meant for him. All he knew was he was being taken farther from his family.

*****

Whenever they would stop, Rufus would stand over him, barking orders to him to gather firewood, or to do this or that. There were nights Joe would submit and obey without resistance, but other nights… Joe thought of Adam. He’d stayed home because he couldn’t remember Adam, but now all he could think about was his oldest brother…

‘He wouldn’t cower; he was strong, like pa. He’d fight these men,’ Joe thought to himself.

And so Joe attempted to defy Rufus, kick at him or just stick his chin out defiantly and yell, “NO!”

Earlier in the evening, Joe had received another whipping from the man, and while he tried to hide his tears the large man yelled, “TRY THAT AGAIN, YOU’LL GET THE SAME! I GAVE YOU A JOB, NOW DO IT!”

He grabbed the boy up from where he’d landed after being shoved to the ground and roughly propelled the boy into the woods in front of him. As Joe gathered firewood, the large man continued to play with his belt, teasingly slapping it against the palm of his hand or against his thigh.

*****

The marauders had settled down for the night after presenting their dirty supper dishes for Joe to wash in the nearby stream. With the cooking gear returned to the wagon and bed rolls pulled out, the camp quieted.

“Why not take that one to San Francisco. Abner said he’d pay good money for the likes of that kid,” Red complained. “Hell, he’ll pay a lot of money for him; he likes pretty little boys.”

McComber grinned, “Because, I know a man in Mexico, who will pay us more than Abner ever would, especially for the likes of this kid. Besides, I got other ideas on how this kid can make us some money… along the way.”

*****

The group had halted outside of Henning, Nevada when McComber announced his scheme.

“Wallace, in the morning you take the boy into town and buy him some decent cloths, get yourself set up like a dandy too.”

“How come?” Wallace asked, he didn’t look too kind at Rufus who had grunted in appreciation that he was not the one chosen.

“We can’t get away with what I’m planning with us wearing our old uniforms… They’re a dead sure give away. If Wheldon gets one whiff of uniforms being involved in this… He’ll surely be on our tails again.”

“I don’t follow ya, boss?” Wallace asked.

“It’s like this, we shuck our military clothes… Make us seem like a totally different group pulling off these robberies I got planned… You my young friend… are going to become a widower who struck it rich in the Comstock. Why you’ll be looking for a place to call home for you and your young son… You’ll want to make investments in the town, flash a wallet full of money and want to put it in the bank… Why any town would be willing to open the doors of their vaults to someone like you… You visit the bank, and we rob it. And as insurance against being followed, we’re gonna kidnap the kid… ‘our’ kid. We get our money back, and the town’s money, and you play the distraught father… We can’t lose!”

“How long do I have to play this part?” The man wasn’t too excited about playing the part of the boy’s father, but he was the only who could pull this off because of a faint resemblance to the child.

“Oh, for a day or two…” McComber stated, but then rethought the plan. “Better yet, wait a few hours demand a posse head out to find your son and you demand to ride with them… In time they’ll give up, money is money, but it ain’t their child. You tell them you won’t stop… Not until you find your son. Then you’ll catch up with us outside of the next town. We’ll wait for you.”

*****

Before entering Henderson, Joe had been warned the consequences for any disobedience. Rufus had told Joe that this was his initiation into their gang, “After today kid, you’ll be a criminal just like us. What’ll yer Pa think of ya then?”

Joe cringed as Rufus lifted him into the saddle, “Don’t mess this up, kid… or else we’ll be shipping you home in pieces to your pa… Not that he’d want you back after you help rob the innocent people of this here town.” And so he quietly sat in the saddle, as Wallace led the horse he was riding.

While shopping for new clothes for him and his son, Wallace had let the store proprietor know that after being honorably discharged from the army he had headed west and recently struck it rich in the gold fields, had cashed it all in, sold his claim, and was now looking for a town to call home to settle down and provide a stable place for his son to go to school. He told a sad story of his wife being murdered by marauders years before, how grief had driven him farther west, and now…

The shop owner had directed them to the nearest barber shop and bath house in town. Once refreshed and looking dapper, Wallace stood behind Joe as they looked into the full-length looking glass.

The barber made comment, “Your son must be your pride and joy, considering how much he favors you,” as he dusted off the back of the man’s jacket.

Soon the mayor of Henderson made an appearance, and set right to work to convince the man that he should make Henderson his home. He boasted of the fine school and teaching staff, and the fact that law and order was a primary focus for the Sheriff.

Wallace enjoyed the attention and the free lunch the mayor treated him to, as well as his son. He strolled along the boardwalk, appearing to take interest in everything the mayor had to say, only really piquing his curiosity when they walked in front of the bank.

“Honestly, Mayor Amsterdam, if you don’t mind… I would like to see your bank,” Wallace stated, pretending to be hesitant to make such a suggestion. “I hope you’ll understand that… well, seeing some of the rowdy elements in OUR town, I’d like to get my money in the bank.”

The mayor was exceedingly pleased to hear the man say ‘our town’ and promptly directed him through the bank door where he eagerly introduced him to Jonas Sweitzer, the bank president.

Joe sat in the chair just inside the door to the bank president’s office, swinging his feet back and forth. He was happy to be wearing clean, new clothes, and appreciated that Wallace had insisted on stopping at the bath house before changing into their new purchases. He wished he’d been allowed to spend more time in the tub, playing with the soap and relishing the warmth of the water. But Wallace had commented that he was already looking like a prune and had best get out. The look on the man’s face indicated if he didn’t do as told, Rufus would hear about it.

He looked out the doorway, into the lobby, and watched the people come and go dreaming that maybe his family would enter the bank and rescue him. He didn’t want to be an outlaw. Wallace continued to play the part of a wealthy, gold-strike rich, dandy.

“EVERYONE… DON’T MOVE!” yelled a harsh voice from the lobby as three men entered, faces covered… guns drawn.

One man stayed at the closed door, preventing anyone else from entering, while the other two started taking money from the tellers’ drawers and the open bank vault.

“Make sure there ain’t anyone in those back offices!” yelled the voice.

Ambrose cowered to the back of the office, while Sweitzer stood firm at his desk, undecided on going for the weapon in the top right hand drawer. Had there not been a customer and child in his office he would have taken the risk.

The barrel of a gun preceded the masked man into the office, “What have we here?” The outlaw looked around the room; using his head and his gun he motioned for the occupants to step out into the lobby.

Joe looked into the eyes and knew this was Rufus; he cringed as he attempted to back away.

“Uh, uh, uh, little boy…” Rufus grabbed hold of Joe’s upper arm. “You and me… We’re gonna step out here and make sure these good people do like they’re supposed to, that no one does anything stupid.”

Wallace chose to speak up, to play his part… “Please don’t hurt him… He’s my only child…”

“Tell that to the good people out here,” Rufus growled, thoroughly enjoying his part.

Wallace, Sweitzer, and Ambrose walked with their hands raised, indicating their submission.

“Please he’s only eight years old…”

“I’m…”

Rufus gripped Joe’s arm firmer indicating his displeasure at the boy for saying anything. The fear in Joe’s eyes was real, as were the tears that began to fall.

“That your papa, boy?” Rufus asked.

Joe hesitantly nodded and wished his Pa was there, arms surrounding him, providing the protection that only a real father could offer.

“Tell ya what, you’ll get this kid back…”

“Please don’t harm him,” wailed Wallace.

Rufus leveled his weapon towards Wallace whose wide-opened eyes and gulp weren’t an act.

A harsh voice spoke, “As my accomplice was trying to say, you’ll get this kid back when we find there ain’t no posse after us.”

Walking backwards, the men slowly made their way through the door, quickly turning and running to their mounts. Rufus grabbed Joe around the chest before mounting his horse, he didn’t bother to set Joe in the saddle in front of him, he just threw the boy across his thighs like a sack of potatoes. Joe held tight to the big man’s leg, just in case he decided to accidentally let go.

*****

Hours later they met up with the others of their group, they swapped out their saddles to fresh mounts, slapping the used horses on their rumps to encourage them to continue to run and leave a false trail.

That night, the marauders made camp and waited for Wallace.

When the man arrived his first question was, “How much?”

“Ten thousand dollars,” McComber stated as he grinned at the others whistling.

Rufus hollered over to where they had Joe tied, “Hey kid, how’s it feel to be an outlaw? Too bad the people of Henderson ain’t got a clue!”

The man and the others howled in laughter.

*****

The ranch hands knew Joe hadn’t come into the bunk house, but still they searched inside anyway. They checked the back barn where their own horses were stabled. They checked the equipment sheds and the hay barn. Disappointment reigned as the search of each location failed to reveal the missing child; the men spread out in teams of two.

A full moon shone down on the searchers as each man hoped to be the one to find the missing boy, but as the night wore on, they hoped that someone else had found him instead.

*****

Five days later Wallace and Joe rode into Kingman, Arizona. Wallace rode with a confident air about him; pleased how well everything had gone the first time. He changed his story, now he was the son of a rich New Yorker, eager to make his way to a new job at a law firm his father owned in San Diego, California. He and his son were enjoying their time exploring the west.

In the bank, Wallace presented a letter of introduction to the teller who asked him to wait a moment while he notified the bank manager that he was there. As they waited, Wallace leaned over, whispered in Joe’s ear while he pretended to straighten out his son’s collar.

Introductions had yet to be made when four armed men barged into the bank. And as they had in Henderson, Joe Cartwright became their hostage. And as before, the town waited what they thought an appropriate amount of time before the posse followed. By nightfall, the posse had given up hopes of finding the outlaws and recovering their money, but one distraught ‘father’ pleaded to continue. “I have to go… He’s my only child.”

*****

Having already struck pay dirt in Lake Havasu City along the Arizona/California border, they crossed all the way into California and struck the Savings & Loan in Big River. To Rufus robbing a bank was tame, it lacked the fervor he experienced when attacking a homestead. So, he decided to up the ante, he relished the feeling that coursed through his body when his bullet struck true. He shot the customer who had attempted to prevent them from taking the child.

“Come on, brat!” Rufus jerked Joe’s arm hard, his head snapped backwards at the brutality.

“Please!” Wallace begged. “Take me instead! He’s just a child… Don’t hurt my son.”

“NO!” screamed Joe upon seeing the blood soaking the shoulder of the wounded man’s shirt. He valiantly struggled against the Rufus’ grip.

Images of Ben Cartwright flooded Joe’s mind, as he believed the man had acted as his father would have. It had been so long since he’d seen his family that he actually thought that the man might have been his father. No one previously had tried to prevent the marauders from taking him. Guilt ate at the boy that this man had been injured, all because he was now one of the outlaws.

With his gun hand, Rufus backhanded the boy across his face, knocking him temporarily unconscious. Like a rag doll, Rufus threw the boy over his shoulder and ran out the door.

They were just leaving the town when Joe regained his senses.

*****

That night, he didn’t hear Wallace arrive nor the boasting of the fact that they had hauled in over twelve thousand dollars.

*****

The marauders, dressed in their faded military uniforms, struck another homestead outside of Bouse, Arizona. Provisions were hauled out and horses were taken to provide the marauders with fresh mounts to use in their efforts to lay false trails. The women abducted from this homestead were immediately sent ahead to Mexico with several of the marauders acting as guards.

*****

The marauders headed in no particular direction when they left one town for the next, their only intent was to throw off any lawman that might be following from afar, anything to lead them in the wrong direction. It didn’t pay to take the chance that there wasn’t any law following them. They varied their routine in order to disassociate themselves from being connected to a previous act; they switched between Marauders and Outlaws as if on a whim.

As they entered Quartzsite, Arizona, they were pleased to hear the town boasted a fairly new bank. The hold-up began as all the others and progressed just as smoothly, until the Sheriff appeared moments after the marauders raced from the front of the bank. Regardless of the fact that the bank robbers had taken a child, and much to the chagrin of Wallace’s begging that they would kill his son; within fifteen minutes the posse was on their trail. The marauders rode harder than ever in an effort to lose their pursuers.

For two days stopping to make camp was out of the question; they only stopped when they came to streams to allow the horses a break, refill their canteens, and to eat some hardtack. One by one the men would step away from the group to take care of personal needs, before returning to run again.

The chase was taking its toll on the riders and their mounts, and little consideration was given to Joe and how he was holding up as the chase continued. The outlaws hoped they had slipped the posse, having been half a day since they’d seen any sign of someone following them. They decided to head towards their arranged meeting place; Black Wolf and Darting Hawk, a few other outlaws and the wagons were waiting for them at the small lake.

Joe was tired and exhausted, and tried as best that he could, but it was not to be, he suffered an unfortunate accident upon their arrival. Rufus threw the embarrassed child from his saddle and drew his weapon. Black Wolf urged his horse into the back of Rufus’ mount, distracting him from the boy.

“The brat pissed in my saddle!” Rufus yelled as his face turned red.

“I’ll deal with the boy,” Black Wolf replied as he watched Rufus’ horse nerviously move away.

“Ten minutes!” McComber yelled.

“You have dry clothes in the wagon, get changed,” Black Wolf ordered.

Joe was thankful for the Indian’s intervention and slight consideration, but more thankful that he could change in the wagon that had been waiting for them. He asked if he could ride in the back of the wagon for a while. The answer he received was a question asked by Red, ‘Do ya wanna be tied up all the time?’

From that point forward, Joe rode in the saddle with the tall Indian, Black Wolf.

It took two additional days of careful riding before they felt they had successfully accomplished their goal, evading the posse from Quartzsite. When they finally settled down to relax for the night, they counted the money and realized they had only netted a paltry five thousand dollars.

*****

Weary from all that he had experienced, Joe was growing tired, dragging his feet as he walked to collect wood or headed to the stream to clean the dirty dishes, or whatever task had been ordered of him.

Back home he had enjoyed helping take care of the horses, but now, there was no pleasure in performing tasks for these men. Each time he helped saddle a horse meant that much more distance would be placed between him and his family. He had no idea how long it had been since he’d last seen his father and brother.

*****

Dusk was settling when McComber ordered Rufus and another to scout around, to make sure no one else was nearby to accidentally come upon them. As had been their practice during their time in Texas, and now in the Nevada and the Arizona territories, McComber didn’t believe in posting guards near their camp, he made two riders ride as night hawks, just as if this were a cattle drive. The men rotated out throughout the night.

****

Rufus kicked at Joe as he ordered the boy to get his horse ready to ride. Too tired to truly care, Joe didn’t notice the burr caught in the saddle blanket he placed across the horse’s back. The first time in a long time Joe’s eyes brightened in seeing the large man bucked off his horse; he couldn’t resist giggling as the man landed hard upon the ground.

Joe had never been abused as much as Rufus did that night, the belt struck his buttocks and his thighs too many times to count. And the language the man used would have made a hardened criminal cringe. Shoving the boy off his lap, he stood and towered over the child, “All ya had to do was your job! I gave ya a job! Thought you were being cute putting that burr under my saddle, eh. I showed you cute!” Roughly he bound Joe’s wrists in front of him and tied his ankles. Rufus tied one end of another rope snuggly around Joe’s neck and the other end to a tree, as if he were a dog. As the man walked away he yelled to Red, “You watch the brat! Darting Hawk, get in the saddle!”

Tears poured down Joe’s face; even if he had been able to, the act of rubbing his backside wouldn’t have lessened the pain of his inflamed flesh. When exhaustion finally claimed him, he was curled on his side in the fetal position, subconsciously his thumb tucked in his mouth.

*****

The next several days, even though the youngest Cartwright did everything that Rufus ordered without complaint, the large man continued to intimidate him, shouting “JUST DO YOUR JOB!” inches from his face, before sneering, “I DON’T WANNA HAVETA TELL YA AGAIN!”

Joe cringed backwards at the man’s harsh words, which earned him a backhanded slap to the face for emphasis to get the job done.

*****

It had been well over two weeks since they had pulled a robbery or raided a homestead; McComber had decided to lay low for a while and they hadn’t moved in three days.

“That Quartzsite posse was too close,” Red Wilkins moaned as he stretched out on his bedroll near the fire.

Wallace added, “Yeah, reminded me a lot of Wheldon’s patrol back in Texas.”

The first time in a long time they had afforded themselves the luxury a night of drinking.

“I think it’s time we should head south…” McComber stated.

“Yeah, get rid of the kid,” Rufus growled and he pulled a well-worn boot from his foot. “I’m tired of dealing with him.”

“Hey Ambrose, where is that guy down in Mexico?” one of the men called out as he handed around a bottle of whiskey.

“Casa de Fuego,” McComber answered.

“House of Fire,” another translated as he grabbed himself and moved his hips suggestively. “Maybe we get to spend the night with a fiery woman…”

“Oh, Roberto has plenty of women… He likes to cater to the needs of ALL his clientele, young, old, skinny, fat… Just name it, he’s got them,” answered McComber.

“Why’d he…” *belch* “want the kid?” one of the men asked.

“How much money… will a boy… like him… fetch? You said this man… really likes pretty… pretty little boys…” This man and some of the others were becoming intoxicated.

“Roberto enjoys pretty boys, as do some of his friends… It was Abner in San Francisco who once introduced me to Roberto. What they do grosses me out, but…” McComber replied, “who cares what they do with the boy after we get our money.

*****

Later, as the camp settled back, Black Wolf stood on the outskirts of the camp and had listened to the white men talk as they passed bottle after bottle around. After days of riding with the boy, feeling him tremble whenever Rufus looked at him, the tall Indian came to see the others in a different light.

“Why do we stay, brother?” he quietly spoke in his native tongue as his brother came up behind him. “We should have left these men a long time ago…”

“We stay because we have nowhere else to go. And… he makes us rich,” Darting Hawk, replied as he pointed to McComber snatching a bottle of whiskey from one of the men who lounged around the fire.

“But the boy. What they do… Can you not see that he is dying?”

“He’s not dying…”

“His soul is, I see it in his eyes. Were he your son, would you wish him to see all that he has witnessed? To be forced into playing the parts he has?” Black Wolf asked.

“It is not for us to say whether he lives or dies. He is white. If he dies he is one less white child to grow up to oppress our people.”

“He does not belong here, nor does he belong in Mexico. We do not belong with these men, you speak of oppression….”

“We make good money by selling the whites to Mexico…”

“But not children… not…”

“We’ve sold children we’ve taken before,” Darting Hawk answered.

“To the mines, yes… Not as they says. They talk of this Abner in the city by the water… I do not like the tone they use when they speak of him. It is the same for this man in Mexico. This Casa de Fuego, and the way the man acted as he spoke…”

“It is a house where white men pay money to use women, to behave as if an animal in rut.”

“I know of the places… A woman selling her body is one thing, but they talk as if it will be done to the child. Please brother, let us leave…” pleaded Black Wolf.

“You are going soft, brother…”

“I do not care what they do to the white women or that they rob banks to steal money or attack homesteads and kill white men. But, if I am soft in caring about a child… Then so be it.”

Taking his eyes off those in the camp, Darting Hawk faced his brother.

”If we were to leave, where would we go? What would we do for money? You wish to take the boy? Where would you have us take him?” Darting Hawk asked. “Two Indians with a white child, they would shoot us down like mangy dogs.”

Black Wolf looked to the worn moccasin boots he wore and said one word, “Home.”

“Are you crazy?!” Darting Hawk lowered his voice before he continued. “That is no longer our home. We are outcast. Here we are someone!”

“Are we? Do they treat us any better than Raging Bear? We soil our hands with the blood of the whites; we join them in the attack… We do as they say, when they say, how they say. Do they ask our opinion? Are we truly one of them? Why are we here on the outskirts of the camp? Why are we not invited into their victory celebration?” Black Wolf pointed towards the men who were getting drunk. “We are only here because they need us to do what they feel is beneath them or to do what they cannot; we hunt, we scout… We are accepted here because we are outcasts, but we are not accepted as equals,” Black Wolf concluded.

“Why should we return to Raging Bear?”

“Not Raging Bear… but Mother, she grows old… I wish to see her one more time.”

“Then go.”

“What of the boy?” Black Wolf asked.

“Take him if you must.”

“Brother… please come with me. I do not know why, but I do know this, this will not end well. I see our deaths if we stay.”

“No, my path is here.” Looking to his brother, he said, “If you see mother, tell her I am sorry.”

Trying one more time, “We don’t have to go home…”

Darting Hawk shook his head.

“Keep safe, my brother.”

*****

So exhausted and deep in sleep, Joe did not feel the ropes being cut from his hands and ankles nor did he feel himself being lifted to the back of a horse to sit in front of a rider. He didn’t hear two brothers bid each other goodbye; he missed the longing in their eyes for what was about to happen as each understood the truth of things yet to come.

In the dead of the night, Black Wolf rode away from the marauders camp carrying one boy and leading one packhorse with provisions.

*****

Joe was trapped in the vacuum of his dream as it repeatedly showed Rufus screaming at him, “I don’t wanta haveta tell ya again!” and the man’s heavy hand swinging toward his face.

*****

The black of night was just beginning lose its grip on the eastern sky when Ben, Adam, and Charlie returned to the front yard to see a worried Hop Sing standing on the porch, shaking his head ‘no’ in answer to their unasked question.

“Where could he be Pa?” Adam asked.

“He couldn’t have gone far, Ben. His pinto was still in the barn,” Charlie stated.

“Could he have come back while we were all out looking for him?” Ben inquired.

“Hop Sing would have told us, and he was shaking his head,” Adam answered.

“Maybe he went to the barn? Adam check the hayloft, see if his pinto is still there. He has to be somewhere,” Ben beseeched.

“No one find Lit’le Joe,” Hop Sing said as he joined the men.

“Are the men still out looking?” Ben asked.

“Few come back, get jackets, go back out to look,” replied Hop Sing.

“Pa, Joe’s not in the barn,” Adam stated as he jogged back to return to the group.

“It doesn’t make any sense…” Hoss answered as he slowly walked into the yard to join his father and brother. “I done checked all the places he hid when he was a kid…”

“He’s still a kid,” Adam emphatically answered, pinching the bridge of his nose and holding his elbow with his other hand.

“Ya know what I mean… Before he was taken,” Hoss forcefully replied.

“Easy boys,” warned Ben, knowing their frustrations were surfacing. “The men took their guns with them; we just have to hope that someone will find him and signal…”

“Damn!” Charlie muttered as he took off jogging across the yard.

“Charlie?!” the Cartwrights called out.

“The root cellar!” he yelled, not breaking stride.

Hesitating for a moment, in dumbfounded silence, the men followed after Charlie. They rounded the corner of the house to see Charlie examining the ground in front of the doors to the root cellar.

“He’s been here recently, there’s boots print that could only be his,” Charlie stated.

“He’s right, Pa,” Hoss answered as he knelt down to the ground to examine the prints.

Hoss held out his arm to block his father who leaned forward to climb down the ladder, “Pa, let me. I’m the one who done scared him off. I should… I need to apologize.”

Even with the flickering torchlight, Ben saw the depth of anguish visible in his son’s eyes and heard the regret in the large man’s voice.

“Hoss, you go first,” stated Adam. “Pa and I’ll be right behind you.” Turning to Charlie, “We’ll let you know if he’s still down there so you can signal the men.”

*****

Cautiously, Hoss entered the darkened cellar, followed by Ben and then Adam. He didn’t need light from a torch to locate his brother; all he had to do was listen to the boy’s ragged gasping for breath.

“He’s here Pa,” Hoss quietly called back to the others.

After informing Charlie that his brother was indeed in the root cellar, Adam returned carrying a lantern that Hop Sing had brought to them, and set it on one of the shelves. They all heard Charlie fire three signal shots into the air. He watched as his larger brother cradled their little brother in his arms; speaking in an effort to calm the distraught boy.

“I think he’s havin’ a nightmare, Pa,” Hoss stated. “He’s just a tremblin’ somethin’ fierce.”

“Could be he’s cold, let’s get him out of here,” Ben suggested as he approached and knelt in front of two of his sons.

“No pa, this is scared.” Hoss turned his words to Joe, “Hey there Little Joe… Come on boy, wake up for ol’ Hoss. Please?” Hoss lovingly patted the boy’s face in hopes of rousing him from the images that had trapped him in his mind.

As the boy began to surface from his dreams, the expressions on his face changed quickly, leaving his family uncertain as to what was happening. But once his eyes had opened and began to focus, his fear and distrust towards his brother who held him were openly expressed. Tears streamed down his face as he pushed against his largest brother’s chest.

“It’s okay Joe. I’m sorry I yelled at ya earlier. Ya done scared the bejeebers outa me standin’ on your horse like ya done,” crooned Hoss as he continued to apologize and explain. He pulled the boy closer, “I done lost ya for two years and all I could think of was that horse spookin’ and dumpin’ ya, hurtin’ ya or worse. It weren’t ‘till I was doin’ your chores that I realized my yellin’ at ya like that coulda done what I was scared a happenin’. And then when I realized ya’d run off… the anger left me, and I got scared all over again. We done lived two years without ya, and I couldn’t go through that again. I cain’t lose ya again, little brother. You’re the heart of this family. But ya gotta remember that each one of us play a part in workin’ this ranch. I know yer just a kid, and playin’ is part of bein’ a kid, but my old heart cain’t take some of your shenanigans. Playin’ is fine, as long as yer jobs are completed, properly. No shirkin’ your responsibilities, no leavin’ a job for Charlie or me to finish…”

“Me neither,” Adam offered in admission, he too had covered for Joe a few times.

The oldest brother had knelt beside their father and listened to his brother. He glanced sideways to his father and smirked at the expression he saw, Pa’s raised eyebrows that said, “We’ll talk about this later.”

“Joe, do ya understand what I’m sayin’?” Hoss asked.

“I’m sorry. Don’t beat me. I didn’t mean to…” Joe cried. His hands were balled into fists with his palms facing out, and his arms defensively crossed over his chest. His lower lip trembled.

“Beat ya? Joe, no one here’s gonna beat you. Now we might tan ya ifn you’re real bad…”

“Joe, look at me, brother…” Adam asked of him. “We know you were beaten and whipped, but those were done in anger. We might get angry with you…”

“I’m sorry,” Joe cried harder as tears flooded from his eyes.

“Son,” Ben said and placed a hand upon Adam’s arm to refrain him from continuing.

“Joe, in this family, we love each other unconditionally, and if you deserve a whipping for something you’ve done wrong… punishment will be administered, will be given to you. I’m hoping the threat of punishment will be a strong enough deterrent… the threat of punishment will make you think twice before you act or get into trouble. I hope I never have to resort to that, but your actions, what you do will have bearing on what punishment you receive. But understand this Joe, any punishment will NEVER be in anger.”

Joe spoke, but didn’t look to his family. His eyes were focused on past memories, ones he couldn’t forget. “They whipped me… Rufus was mean… worse than the worse tanning Pa ever gave me. I tried to be brave…” Joe pitifully cried. “They made me do things… They made me bad… Made me an outlaw… I didn’t want to be bad…”

“Joe, you are not bad. No one could ever make you bad; you’ve too kind of a heart to be bad. And we’re so sorry… We looked for you for a long time.” Adam knew his father wasn’t up to talking. “We had posters sent all over the place. I had Pinkertons, bounty hunters, anyone I could think of; we hired men to look for you… We thought they had taken you to Mexico, and then…”

“I don’t know why I wasn’t with them anymore. It took a long time and then I was with the Indians… they whipped me for talking…” Adam looked to his father for he had not told the elder Cartwright this part of Joe’s story, “I couldn’t ask how to do what they wanted me to do… sometimes they beat me for no reason, maybe someone missed a shot while hunting… The dogs in camp were treated better than me. I dreamed of home… I wanted the hurting to stop.” Tears fluidly fell down his cheeks. “They were mean to me all the time. Even the other boys… I thought if I… I… wanted you to come for me.”

Joe looked to his brother, his eyes pleading for something, “You didn’t come.”

“Joe, it’s not because we didn’t want to…” And so in the dimly lit root cellar Adam explain how they had looked for Joe and ultimately were forced to return home after Adam had been injured. He told of how it was that he had come to find Joe. He explained about a college friend being part of an Army patrol that Joe had thrown a stick at, and the letter the officer had sent.

“I got beat for that…” Joe whispered. “I took a horse and…”

“Gabe said you had a quiver and a bow…” Adam stated. “You took them without permission?”

Head held low, Joe nodded. “I stole them… I was bad.”

“It was smart of you to mark that stick with our brand,” Adam encouraged. “How… Can you tell us how you came to be with the warriors that day? The day…”

“You shot me?” Joe innocently asked.

“Yes,” Adam lowered his eyes. He felt his father’s hand upon his shoulder.

“I followed the warriors that day. I thought if they’d go near a homestead… and I could get away. They saw the wagons. I thought if I could show myself to someone in the wagons, they’d see that I was white… they’d take me home… I saw the attack. But then the soldiers came…”

“Yeah, we came. God, Joe, when I tended to you that night, I was thankful that I hadn’t been true in my aim, I didn’t aimed, I just fired. I was so startled by your proximity, how close you were to me.”

Joe remembered back, “I saw you run to the rocks where I was, I watched you shoot. I was happy when you shot them. You reloaded fast… I slipped…”

“Did you know who I was?” Adam asked, for some reason he needed to know.

“…not at first,” Joe admitted. “I saw your eyes… I knew your eyes.” Joe reached out a hand to touch his brother’s cheek; he ignored the rough stubbles that poked his fingers. “I remembered them from before, but I didn’t know you were my brother. Not until we were at the doctor’s.”

“I think Joe’s been through enough. Let’s get him inside.”

Hoss refused to let Joe stand on his own, with his arm still around his brother, Joe looked up at him. “I’m sorry, Hoss.”

“I know you are Shortshanks.”

“You’re not mad at me, are ya?”

“Naw, not anymore, but let’s let there not be a next time in pullin’ such a stunt…”

Hoss reciprocated the hug he received from his little brother.

Ben was the first to climb the ladder and was surprised to see all his hands standing around the backside of the house, waiting.

“I couldn’t get them to go back to the bunkhouse. They said they wanted to see for themselves that Joe was okay,” stated Charlie.

Smiles broke out on the men’s faces when they saw the youngest Cartwright climb from the cellar entrance. Adam was the last out and closed the doors behind them.

*****

Within fifteen minutes of being settled in bed, Joe was soundly asleep.

“Let’s leave him be,” Ben suggested.

“Will you be okay, Pa?” Adam asked.

Adam knew it was difficult for him to accept what had happened to his brother; he had no idea how difficult it was for a father to accept what had happened to his child.

“I’ll have to be.”

Chapter 24: They Should Have Known

Joe slept the morning and afternoon away, though it was never a truly peaceful slumber as he twitched and turned, twisting the covers around him. Every time a loved one checked in on him, they straightened out the covers before leaving the room.

After the episode in the cellar, daytime life settled down for the Cartwrights. Joe diligently worked on his schoolwork with Adam, to which the eldest Cartwright was amazed with the improvements he was making. He performed his chores as they were supposed to be completed, and still had time to help his brothers at the breaking corrals as the deadline for the contract with the Army loomed near.

However, nights were a totally different matter. The family knew there was more of the story to be told, the dark circles under Joe’s eyes spoke volumes that when he didn’t wake the family with his nightmares, he still wasn’t sleeping deep enough to prevent the images from tormenting him.

Many a night Joe found himself awake in his bed, breathing heavily, his heart pounding in his chest. During these times, it was a struggle to keep the tears at bay, praying that his father or brothers had not heard him. He knew he was loved and that he was now safe. However, two years’ worth of abusive memories would not disappear in a matter of weeks, no matter how much he was loved.

*****

Ralph and his family were scheduled to arrive from Lubbock. At the end of breakfast, Ben suggested that Adam and Hoss head over to the cabin to help the family settle in.

“What about Joe?” Adam asked.

“I think he and I will spend the day fishing,” Ben beamed in anticipation of the outing with his youngest. “He deserves a little down time.”

“And so do you, Pa. Don’t you forget,” offered Hoss.

“I hope you can get him to open up more to you, Pa,” Adam answered before the older brother asked to be excused in order to head out for the day.

*****

Adam and Hoss rode home late in the afternoon, having worked hard at helping the family settle into their new home. In addition to moving belongings, they had also helped fix a few doors that had fallen askew, as well as to help clean out the barn to make it a habitable home for the horses.

Adam knew he would be feeling his muscles the next day, and kicked Sport into a slow lope, eager to get home to soak in a long, hot bath, and to hear all about Joe’s day.

*****

The following morning the brothers were sitting on the fence railing, Hoss lightly punched his older brother in the arm after rubbing his own arms to ease the aches. “Next time you unload them trunks.”

“To each their own specialty, brother,” Adam teased.

“It shore was fun comin’ home last night and listenin’ to Joe talk about him and Pa fishin’.” Hoss smiled at the memory.

“He’s a good story teller,” Adam answered.

Adam had taken pride in how well Joe had spoken during his oration. Anyone who knew that Adam was teaching Joe might have thought the look on the man’s face was as a teacher appreciating the work being performed by a student, but they would have been wrong. Adam knew how far his brother had come, but what brought the look to his face was seeing a little bit of the five-year old brother he remembered peeking through as the story was told.

“That’s ‘cause you’ve been such a good teacher to him. Ya know Adam, maybe Pa augta not think about sendin’ him back to school. He seems to take to you workin’ with him so much better than he ever did with the teacher we got in town.”

“As much as I’ve enjoyed working with him and seeing his progress… He needs to go back. He needs to be with kids his own age.”

“He looked so alive and happy. Guess that was the medicine he needed, just to spend some time with Pa. Do ya know if he said anythin’ more?”

“I doubt it. Pa didn’t look too upset last night, and no he didn’t say anything to me after you two went up to bed. I think Pa was just happy to spend some time alone with Joe.”

Their attention was drawn to the subject of their conversation as Joe slipped from the saddle and gave a resounding pat to the horse he had just finished putting through its paces.

“Good job, little brother,” beamed Hoss as he and Adam jumped down from the fence and walked over to where Joe stood.

“Thanks,” Joe laughed, enjoying the camaraderie with his brothers. “This one was easy compared to some of the others. He’s begging to learn more.”

“You’ve done a great job teaching him and the others you’ve ridden,” Adam congratulated.

Joe smiled at his two brothers and their praises.

“Why don’t you head on back to the house and get cleaned up,” Adam suggested. “Hoss and I can finish up here.”

“Are you sure?” Joe asked with an easy air about him as he looked from his brothers to his horse standing tethered between Sport and Chubbs.

“Hey, when ya gonna get around to naming that pony of yours?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know… I remember what I wanted to name him…” Joe allowed his head to fall, indicating his unease.

“Why don’t ya…” Hoss replied. “It’s a good name…”

“I don’t want to remind Pa…” Joe whispered.

“Joe, I remember one of the letters you sent me while I was away at college. You seemed pretty excited about the prospect of Pa purchasing you a pinto… Why not go ahead and name him Cochise… I’m sure Pa will accept it, you had your heart set on giving that name to your horse for a long time.”

“Are you sure Pa won’t mind?” Joe asked, looking up to his oldest brother with hopeful eyes.

“I’ll talk to Pa tonight, when we get home.”

“Thanks Adam,” Joe smiled as he handed the reins to Ralph who had entered the corral and joined the brothers.

“Go on… Get!” Hoss teased, taking his brother by the shoulders, turned him around and gently swatted him towards his pinto.

“See ya at home!” Joe hollered after swing mounting into the saddle. His turned his horse homeward and without his feet in the stirrups, was quickly into a ground covering gallop.

“Yee Haw! Let’s go Cochise!” Joe yelled.

“That’s sure a fine sight to see… Don’tcha think so, Adam?”

“Yeah, and I think it’s time we had a talk with Pa,” Adam broached the subject.

“About what?” Hoss asked as they began gathering all the equipment to put in the back of the wagon to return to the barn.

“Besides telling Pa Joe wants to name his horse after an Apache warrior… We need to convince Pa to finally let the town know he’s alive… Maybe inviting some of his former friends over for a visit… And arrange for him to re-enter school.”

“Ya don’t think they know already?” Hoss asked.

“No, Paul would never have broken Pa’s request on that. And the men know to keep their mouths shut, and they have. They’re loyal to us.”

“I know they are. Especially Ralph. Did he really make that bet with you like he done said yesterday?”

“Yeah, I did.” Ralph answered as he came up behind the brothers, carrying the saddle from the horse Joe had just worked through its paces. “Ain’t proud of what I did, but I learned my lesson. You really are good people.”

After watching Ralph leave, Hoss stated, “I cain’t believe he bragged on that tellin’. But it shore were right nice of ya to make him go home and get his family. Them two little ‘un are cute as a button.” Hoss rubbed his hands together in anticipation as he said, “I cain’t wait to taste one of his misses’ apple pies…”

“Don’t let Hop Sing hear you,” teased Adam.

*****

“No!” Ben answered that night. “He’s not ready!”

“He’s not or you’re not?” Adam countered.

“He’s not!”

“Pa, ya cain’t hide him here forever,” Hoss answered as he sat in front of the hearth, his hands between his knees.

“I’m not hiding my son!”

“Then what do you call it?” Adam insisted.

“He’s not ready! When he’s ready, then I’ll think about it.” Ben stared at his oldest and recognized the determined look in his eye. Calmly Ben spoke, “Adam, when he asks about going to town, then I’ll know he’s ready. Until then, I won’t force the issue upon him.”

“What about havin’ a few of his school friends over,” Hoss asked.

“Who? We haven’t had anything to do with any of them…” Ben didn’t say why, but both the brothers understood that it just hurt too much to see the other families with their children with whom Joe had gone to school.

“I could ask George Devlin… explain to him about Joe and ask if he could bring Mitch over,” suggested Adam.

“There’s Seth Pruitt…” Hoss added. “Hey we can always invite that little gal, Sara.”

“Hoss, seriously!” Ben scolded. “A young girl has no business coming here to visit your youngest brother.”

“It was just a suggestion,” Hoss replied as he slipped his hands into his pockets.

“Pa, Mitch and Seth were Joe’s best friends, you wrote about all the mischief those three got into… What would it hurt to invite them over?”

“Let me think about it… please,” Ben asked.

“Pa, he’s doing so well otherwise,” Adam continued. “I agree that taking him to town might not be in his best interest, right now… too many people at one time. He doesn’t need the gawkers… But what harm can there be in inviting over a few of his friends to the Ponderosa?”

Ben understood the logic behind his son’s words, but he still wanted to protect his youngest child.

“Okay, but only after we’ve fulfilled the contract for the Army,” Ben finally relented. “But just Mitch and Seth, and only if their fathers agree.”

Both Hoss and Adam smiled, one down.

*****

Major Ronald Hughes, two fellow cavalry soldiers, and two horse wranglers entered the Silver Dollar Saloon and ordered beers. The soldiers went to their own table while the wranglers stayed at the bar.

“So this is Virginia City?” the leader of the soldiers stated as he sat down.

“Yeah,” the youthful looking soldier answered without much enthusiasm.

“What time are we supposed to meet these Cartwrights?” the sergeant asked.

“Nine o’clock in the morning,” Major Hughes replied.

“You know, I wonder… Remember last month… that civilian who rode with us.” Sergeant Loren Vance stated. “Weren’t his name Cartwright?”

“Adam… Adam Cartwright,” the major answered.

“Ya think he’s one of these Cartwrights?”

“Probably.”

The soldiers sat relaxing after a long trip to Virginia City. As the evening progressed they ordered a second beer, followed by a third, soon followed by a few shots of whiskey. In time, the two wranglers came to their table to inform the soldiers that they were going to bed down for the night and would meet them in the morning in front of the hotel, to guide them out to the Ponderosa.

*****

As the wranglers left, the freckled faced man with corporal stripes on his sleeve shivered. “Ain’t natural… workin’ with them two… cain’t tell one… from the other.” He slurred his speech as he spoke. “On the way down… them two seemed a might… pre… preoc…occupied about head… heading out to the Ponder-Osa.”

“Heard tell they worked for the Ponderosa some time back,” Major Hughes answered.

“You know,” the Sergeant gaffed as he drank from his whiskey, ignoring the comments about the twin-brother wranglers. “We mighta came all this way for nothin’.”

“Whatcha talkin’ about?” asked Corporal Jimmie Kelly.

“Well, Cartwright took in that breed kid. Think by now that boy’s done scalped them all?” the man laughed out loud. “Don’t know these upstanding folks… but once an Injun, always an Injun in my book. Heck, maybe these good people already took care a the breed.”

“Who’s an Indian?” asked a man sitting at the next table playing poker with three others.

“Adam Cartwright…” answered the Sergeant, who paused to issue a deep belch.

“He ain’t no Indian,” claimed another man sitting at the table.

“No, not him… Some breed kid he found last month, claimed it were his brother,” boasted Vance.

*****

The following morning, Orlando and Wren McCloud sat in the saddle and overlooked a sight they hadn’t seen for over a year and a half, the Ponderosa homestead sat in the far distance. They could just make out the main house, bunk house, and barns.

“When do we arrive at their land?” Corporal Kelly asked, looking a little green.

“We’ve been riding on it for over an hour,” Orlando answered. “Come on, we’ll be at the main complex within half an hour.”

The brothers signaled their horses into a lope.

*****

Upon entering the yard, they looked to each other after watching a young boy turn and run to the house. Moments later, Ben Cartwright appeared.

“Orlando? Wren? My, it’s good to see you two again,” Ben happily exclaimed as he approached; eagerly extending his arms to shake hands with the brothers as they dismounted.

“Mr. Cartwright… Who was that boy?” Wren quietly asked.

“A very long story, but that was Joseph,” Ben proudly admitted. “What brings you two here?”

“We’re wranglers for the Army. We’re here to look at those horses and help get them back to the fort,” Orlando answered.

“If they pass muster,” Wren teased, knowing full well the Major would be wasting his time trying to find a way to haggle down the price per horse.

“Can you stay a while? I mean, I’d like for you to see Joe…” he quietly spoke so only the brothers could hear him, “…more than just a fleeting image.”

“I’ll see what we can arrange. I’m pretty sure the major won’t want to head out until the morning… It’ll take him all day to inspect the horses,” Orlando answered.

“Good, then you’ll stay for supper.”

Turning to the soldiers, Orlando stated, “Major Hughes, I’d like to introduce you to Ben Cartwright, owner of the Ponderosa.”

Pleasantries were exchanged and Ben begged a few moments to inform those inside that he would be leaving to go to the breaking corrals.

Upon his return, he was slightly concerned that Joe had not asked to ride with them, but then he had only told Adam a few days before that Joe was not ready to interact with any people other than those he felt comfortable being around.

*****

The sun shone bright in the late afternoon sky when the major finished his inspection. “Well, Mr. Cartwright, these animals are all exemplary specimens. If this is the quality of horses you provide, and the training, I might just have to see if the colonel would sign an exclusive contract with you.”

The McCloud brothers hid their grins as they looked to each other, understanding how much it cost the major to admit to the quality of horses the Cartwrights turned out.

“I’m happy to hear that, I only wish my sons were here. My boys did a lot of the work alongside my wranglers.”

“We’d best return to town. I’ll authorize the bank to deposit the draft, in full, into your account, if that’s alright with you.”

“Sure, Harry knows what to do.” Ben was disappointed that Adam and Hoss had to miss out on meeting the soldiers and to hear the compliment first hand. But this was a working ranch, and with Charlie informing them that Ralph had found one of their herds of cattle had torn down a large section of fence, they rode out with the hands. It would probably take them all day to locate the strays and to fix the fence.

*****

Ben enjoyed the return trip home, talking with Wren and Orlando on what they had been doing. As they neared the house, the conversation turned to Joe.

“How long ago did he return home?” Wren asked.

“A little over a month. A friend of Adam’s spotted him and wrote to Adam. Adam was the one who ultimately found him and brought him home.” Ben didn’t feel the need to go into full details. “You may have to forgive him though… I’m not sure how he’s going to react to new people around. You’re the first visitors, other than Paul Martin, we’ve had since his return.”

“Can’t be easy for the boy. I can’t imagine what he went through,” Wren commented.

*****

The boy stood at the top of the stairs after being called by Ben; knuckles clinched white to the banister railing as he saw the two strangers.

“Joe, won’t you come down to say hello to Wren and Orlando McCloud? They used to work for us several years back.”

“Hi,” Joe quietly called slowly stepping to the mid-landing.

“Joe, it’s good to see you again,” Orlando called out, a large grin on his face.

“Joe, come on down and shake their hands,” suggested Ben, even though he saw the worry in Joe’s eyes.

“I’ve invited the brothers to join us for supper tonight,” Ben stated light-heartedly.

“I’m not hungry, Pa. I… had a big snack… a while ago…” Joe stated with hesitation.

“That’s alright, Joe.” Orlando turned to Ben. “Mr. Cartwright, Wren and I’ll head back into town. Don’t force us on the boy, we know he’s probably been through a lot and not exactly trusting of strangers.”

“Thank you for letting us see him,” Wren added.

“Thank you, for understanding… And I’m sorry,” Ben admitted.

“Joe, we’ll see you next time, okay?” Orlando called out before they turned to leave. “Mr. Cartwright, we saw Sam at the Silver Dollar, he remembered us last night and knew we worked for you. He didn’t say anything about Joe being alive…”

“I’ve not told anyone. So far, the only one off this ranch who knows he’s alive and home is Paul… and now you two.”

“We’ll keep quiet,” Orlando offered.

Wren nodded.

“I know you will. It was a great loss to the ranch when you two left.” Ben looked to each brother, and said, “But we all understood why you felt the need to leave.”

“We appreciate that. We’ll be back early with the solders pick up the herd tomorrow,” Orlando stated as they turned to leave.

“I’ll go ahead and give you the bill of sale, just have the major give the deposit slip to Dusty. He’s almost as good as you boys…” Ben walked to his desk, pulled a sheet of paper from the drawer and handed it to the oldest brother. “It was good to see you two again. If you ever do need a job… you’ll always be welcome on the Ponderosa.”

*****

The rumors began with one conversation in the saloon which spread to another. Word slowly made its way around Virginia City that Joe Cartwright was alive and at home. But the worst part of the entire matter was that the gossips latched onto the fact of where he had been found and how he had been living. In public as well as at home, people talked in hushed voice; not of pity for the boy’s suffering, but how could Ben accept him back home.

To those with school-age children the discussion turned to what would happen if Ben decided the boy should return to school. Parents of small children made sure their youngsters were in bed asleep before talking. Parents of older school-age children spoke openly in their homes.

*****

Sixteen year old Billy Trumble and the boys who looked up to him, met behind the livery and they passed around a bottle of whiskey. Their conversation centered on the subject they had overheard from their parents – Joe Cartwright.

“He’s a breed… nothing but a stinkin’ injun,” Clay Addison stated as he spit on the ground before taking a large gulp from the upturned bottle.

“We can’t have him sticking around… Living here… None of the girls in town will be safe,” Chester Lawrence stated.

Morten Hoffman stated, “Girls, what about us? My Pa was telling my Ma that he’d end up killing us in our beds, slitting our throats before scalping us.” His hand wrapped protectively around this neck with one hand while reaching for the bottle with the other.

*****

The whiskey propelled the boys into action; their conversation died and their bluster ran high. The empty whiskey bottle fell abandoned to the ground as the boys walked to their horses, mounted up and rode out.

*****

On a rise overlooking a large expanse of grassland, the five boys sat mounted and watched.

“See, just like my Pa said, he’s injun… Riding one of their spotted ponies too,” Pete Chipson pointed to the figure putting a pinto horse through its paces.

*****

Joe beamed over what he had accomplished with his pinto that morning. They were resting as he allowed his pinto to drink at a stream that threaded its way through the grassland. He praised Cochise for being so responsive and giving him the thrill of riding such a fine animal.

The youth tensed at the sound of the riders; he turned to look and didn’t recognize any of them. Nervous, he reached for the reins; torn between riding away from these intruders or to greet them. He knew that eventually he would have to face others from town; and so he calmed himself, thinking how proud his father would be when he told him the news.

As the riders approached they all dismounted and walked toward him, sizing him up, or down as one of the boys taunted. Another began calling him a papoose; another called him a filthy injun lover. They each took turns pushing and shoving him; pretending to be Indians by holding one hand over their head as if their fingers were feathers in a headband, while the other hand was moved rapidly back and forth in front of their mouth, mimicking a war cry.

“Get out of here, breed!” Clay ordered.

“We’re only here to protect our families, can’t have the likes of you around, waiting to sneak in and slit our throats as we sleep,” Morten yelled.

Joe attempted to defend himself, calling out that he wasn’t an Indian and pushing back.

Billy Trumble fisted his hand and punched the smaller boy, knocking him backwards to the ground. Joe felt his lip split and tasted his own blood, as his neck snapped sideways from the blow.

Rushing to his feet, their words, their accusations and actions drove home to him all that he had suffered through, but now he was being assaulted by whites. The anger and hurt from the images that he had refused to talk about with his family bubbled up to the surface. Unable to contain the fury that had welled within him for two years… Joe struck back. Not with words, but with his fists. Anger at the separation from his family, anger at being barred from speaking, forced to work day in and day out harder than a dog, and punished for being different. He took his rage out on those standing in front of him as he threw punch after punch, putting all his weight behind each strike.

The splatter of blood from Billy Trumble’s nose only drove Joe to a greater rage; with another blow they all heard the crack of bone in the boy’s face. The other boys tried to pull the combatants apart as Joe kept pressing the attack. As they pulled Joe away, his fists were directed at the ones trying to restrain him.

Eventually, the others managed to keep their distance and at the same time hurriedly helped Billy to his feet. The older boy ran while holding a hand to his broken, bloody nose. Joe spat out every vile insult that had been yelled at him for two lonely years; he shrieked at the retreating figures, throwing stones and rocks in their direction. The boys made their way to where they’d left their horses and galloped away.

Joe stopped, chest heaving, body taunt, fisted hands held away from his body by rigid arms bent at the elbows, he threw his head back and let out a gut-wrenching, blood-curdling scream. In a blind rage, he ran for Cochise, and kicked him into a gallop, guiding his horse faster over the land. Tears blinded his vision but still he urged his mount to a greater speed.

In time, he realized his horse was slowing as they approached a beautiful body of water. He dismounted his pinto, ignoring the heaving flanks of the horse as the reins fell slack from his hands. He saw the promontory… the crystal clear water just beyond. He wanted to wash away everything… The whole time since the attack by those boys he had felt driven to this spt, but didn’t understand why he had ridden there, until he saw them. Without conscious thought Joe fell to his knees in front of the grave markers.

Joe traced the letters comprising his name on the black stone.

Joseph Francis Cartwright
Loving Son and Brother
Taken too soon
May he Rest in Peace

Tears readily slipped from Joe’s eyes, streamed down his face to drip onto his pant legs. Grief consumed the boy for what he had lost, he wanted to be home, but this wasn’t home… He never knew they believed him dead.

Images of the last conversation he’d had with Adam before he left to go to college pressed into his memory; his brother had promised to return… Pa, Hoss, and Hop Sing said it would take time for him to come home. Why hadn’t Adam returned home to protect him?

Turning to the second headstone, Joe stood, his shoulders heaving as he cried.
He grew angry at the broken promises as he looked to the tan headstone bearing the name of his mother.

“Momma, Adam said he’d return. You said you’d return. You promised!”

Joe lashed out at the granite monolith that marked his mother’s final resting place, striking the rock over and over again with his fists. Slowly he stopped abusing his hands; raising his head he looked to the sky.

“YOU PROMISED!!” Joe screamed in a fit of rage, humiliation, and hurt.

*****

Dusk was falling by the time Ben, Adam, and Hoss rushed into the front room of Paul Martin’s clinic, worry and concern etched their faces.

“Paul?” Ben breathed out.

“Mitch Devlin found him on the road to Virginia City and brought him to town.”

“Mitch… but he lives on the other side of town from us,” Hoss stated.

“He evidently heard the boys talking… It was quite a shock to him… Joe’s return. He wanted to see for himself, so he headed out to the Ponderosa. They were best friends at school.”

“Paul?” Ben’s tone of voice indicated he knew Mitch had been Joe’s best friend.

Paul began to explain, “Billy Trumble was in here earlier this afternoon with a broken nose; the others have split lips or possible bruised ribs. I’d say you can expect a visit from Sheriff Biggs if you’ve not already seen him. Trumble’s father was furious over Joe beating up his son, and I can only imagine the fathers of the others.”

“I don’t follow…” Ben stated, his worry made concentrating nearly impossible. Besides, how did the story go from Joe’s best childhood friend to a group of bullies?

“From what I’ve learned, somehow word has spread that Joe is alive and back on the Ponderosa, there’s also talk of where he’s been for the past two years. I can only imagine what parents are saying behind closed doors and what their sons have overheard. The group of boys that runs with Trumble is a rough crowd.”

“Those boys are fifteen, sixteen years old,” Adam stated, thinking of the rough crowd of miners’ sons.

“True, but each one of the boys backed the other up that it was Joe who punched Billy as well as caused their own injuires,” Paul answered.

“But why’d they be on the Ponderosa? Joe ain’t left the Ponderosa since he come home, so that means they’d a been there. Them boys got no call to be on the Ponderosa…” Hoss stated,

He also knew that Joe had never been friends with any of them. Even without Joe saying something, Hoss had known that this group of boys had tormented his brother during his time at school.

“That’s where each and every one of them won’t say where they were when it happened,” Paul answered.

“But Mitch Devlin doesn’t run with that crowd, he’s Joe’s age,” Adam said, but looked to his father for confirmation.

“Mitch came in to pick up a prescription for his little sister… I guess he overheard the boys. I presume he hadn’t heard any of the rumors that Joe was home until today, so he rode out to the ranch…”

“How long have these rumors been floating around?” Adam asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t know who started it, or how… I only learned of it this morning when Billy and the others came in.”

“Back to Joe, please,” Ben stated in exasperation that the story kept being diverted away from his son.

Paul contemplated exactly what to say to his patient’s family.

“Is he okay? Ralph only said that he was here,” Ben voiced. He knew from the expression on his ranch hand’s face that something was terribly wrong when he ran his horse into the yard and jumped down. Ben had been working at the table on the deck and heard the rider coming long before he saw him.

“Ralph was down at the hardware store when he saw Mitch leading Joe on his horse. The boy just sat there in his saddle, so.. Ralph carried the boy inside. Mitch said he found Joe, sitting on his pinto at the crossroads. Just sitting there. I hate to say this, but he’s not okay… I think Joe’s had some kind of an emotional breakdown. He’s also broke bones in both his hands…”

“He hit Billy Trumble and the others that hard?” Hoss asked in disbelief.

“No, not Billy. He’s struck something hard, much harder, numerous times; flesh and bones won’t damage a person’s hands like this.”

“I want to see him,” Ben stated.

Paul needed to warn his friend about what lay behind the door; he didn’t think the man understood or heard him say anything about an emotional breakdown. “Ben, he’s retreated within himself… He won’t answer me or Mitch or even Vernon.”

“You let Sheriff Biggs in here?!” Adam was appalled.

“I had to, I had to only so that he could see for himself that Joe was in no condition to be removed from here. At least not until you arrived.”

“Removed from here?” Ben asked. “Why?”

“Angus Trumble was demanding that Joe be placed in jail,” Sheriff Vernon Biggs spoke from behind the family as he made his presence known.

“My son… He’s just a child! He does NOT belong IN JAIL!” Ben bellowed for emphasis.

“I know and I agree… I couldn’t believe it… what the boys told me… How long has he been home? How?” Vernon asked.

“A little over a month,” Adam coldly answered.

Momentarily thinking back over the past few months and remembering Adam’s absence, “Your trip… you brought your brother home?”

Adam nodded.

“And the rumors around town are true?”

“I don’t know what rumors are being spread, but what happened to Joe doesn’t concern this town. For God’s Sake, he’s just a child! And if what happened to him,” Adam pointed toward the doorway where he was sure his brother lay behind, “are because of some rumor…” Adam struggled to control the phrasing of his words. “He’ll be thirteen years old this fall and those boys, three to four years older than him came to the Ponderosa, to his home, for what?! So what if they got pummeled? Good for Joe!” vented Adam.

None of the Cartwright, nor Paul, could believe that this happened just when life appeared to be returning to normal for the family. Rumors, the one thing they had wanted so desperately to prevent… Rumors had spread regardless of their best intentions and had incited bullies to the Ponderosa, and no one had been there to protect Joe. The first day they had finally felt comfortable to allow him to ride out on his own.

“After Doc bandages his hands, I think it would be best if you were to take him home,” Vernon answered. “Angus can stir up trouble with some of the other miners.”

“Only if Paul says going home would be in the best interest for my son. I’ll not jeopardize my son’s health, not again. Not for you or this town!” declared Ben. Jabbing the lawman in the chest. “And believe me, when I say, if those boys ever set one foot on my land, I’ll…”

“Ben, don’t do anything you’ll regret…” cautioned the lawman.

“I won’t regret defending my family!” Ben stared hard at the man. “There are four other boys who run around with Trumble; I plan to file a complaint against all of them once I’ve taken care of Joe.”

“I’ll be in my office when you calm down.” Biggs stated, realizing things were not going to get any better.

“Calm down?” Adam’s eyes grew colder as he slipped his revolver from his holster. “I’ll show you and anyone else ‘calm’ when it comes to defending my brother. Now you just do your job and spread the word, unless personally invited, no one is welcome on the Ponderosa.”

Knowing the situation needed to be defused, Paul cleared his throat, “Ben, if you and your boys would come this way, I think it would be best for Joe if all three of you were in the room when he wakes.”

“For Joe,” Adam stated. Slipping his gun back into his holster, he turned from the lawman.

Chapter 25: Awakened Heartache

The family entered one of the recovery rooms on the side of the doctor’s clinic. Ben pulled up a chair to be close to his son who appeared to be sleeping in the bed. The ashen pallor of his face almost blended in with the white of the sheet the boy laid upon. Adam walked over to lean against the window sill, looking out to the people who gathered around the doctor’s surgery. Hoss stood at the foot of the bed, looking as if he’d lost his best friend.

Gently lifting one of his son’s hands, Ben assessed the damage done, the bruises and torn skin.

“I have no idea what he hit, Ben… I’m sure he didn’t use his fists on any trees, I’ve soaked and cleaned the abrasions as best I can and didn’t find any slivers of wood fibers.”

“How bad are the breaks,” Adam asked turning to those in the room.

“Most of them are probably only fractures, but I am concerned about the large knuckle of his right hand… It feels like a complete break.”

As Paul set out the wooden slats and gauze wrappings, Ben felt inadequate; he slipped into the bed, legs stretched out as he leaned against the headboard. The worried father wrapped his arms around Joe as if offering protection and comfort, all the while gathering him close.

“Ben, please slip off his shirt,” Paul requested. “He won’t be able to get it off over the bandages when I’m through.”

It had been weeks since he had seen his son shirtless and was pleased that the bruises had faded, but there were still the scars left from the lashes that had torn into his young flesh.

Without a sound, Joe’s movements were like that of a rag doll as his father positioned him, making sure the boy’s head was snuggled into his the crook of his shoulder. He intently watched as Paul aligned the broken bone in the one hand before carefully bandaging one damaged hand and then the other.

“I’m working the bandages so that he’ll still have some use of the fingers of his left hand, to address personal needs and to eat, but nothing else,” advised Paul.

“How long’s he gonna sleep,” Hoss asked.

“He’s not sleeping, he’s in shock right now,” explained Paul.

“For how long?” Adam asked.

“I can’t say. I hope once you get him home, he will fall asleep and by morning he’ll be back to his old self…” Paul accepted the words he had spoken as being a mistake, but he’d already said them. “Ben, I presume since I’ve not had to make any calls to the ranch that life has been settling down for you and the boys. I can only hope that this episode is quickly forgotten. We can only pray that maybe he’ll totally forget it even happened.”

“What’s the chance of that?” the pragmatist in Adam needed to know.

“Not as good as I’d like it to be… especially with these hands as a reminder.” Paul indicated the boy’s hands. “Hopefully he’ll forget this just like…”

“He hasn’t forgotten anything Paul…” Ben admitted as he nestled his cheek to the top of his son’s head. “We’ve had some fairly traumatic times since you were last out.”

“How’s he handling them?” Paul asked.

“Running away… Nightmares…” Hoss answered.

“Has he talked?”

Adam answered, “Not enough, not in full detail, just enough to placate us. He’s smart enough to know what he needs to say will hurt us and so he keeps the worst to himself. Like he tried to that first morning home.”

Paul remembered.

“You can stay here for the night, or if you’d like, I can arrange at the livery for a wagon so you can transport Joe home.”

“No,” Adam curtly answered. “I’ll ride on home and get our wagon. I don’t want to be beholden to any of the good people in this town.”

Doctor Martin didn’t take the comment personally; he knew Adam hurt was talking in generalities and not specifics.

Adam turned to face the window, scowling at the people who waited outside. As much as they had tried to prevent it, Joe had become a curiosity.

*****

As they left town, Adam drove the wagon while Ben sat in back with his youngest resting against his chest. Before leaving the Ponderosa, Adam had made sure the floor of the wagon was well-laden with straw and covers to make the trip as comfortable as possible. Buck and Cochise were tied to the tailgate, while Hoss brought up the rear riding Chubbs. The elder sons looked straight ahead as the wagon slowly made its way out of Virginia City; ignoring the stares of the people who lined the street during the late night hours. Ben only had eyes for the baby of his family.

Those who stood on the periphery and watched as the precious burden had been transferred from the surgery to his conveyance home quietly whispered. “He’s just a child…” “Poor boy…” “God help Ben and the boys…”

*****

Even though the hour was after midnight, Charlie and Hop Sing were there to meet the Cartwrights as they returned home.

“Adam, I’m sorry that I missed you when you came back for the wagon. Ralph told me the doc sent for you, said Joe was there. What happened?”

“Charlie, I’ll tell you later, but first, I want you to pass the word to every hand… no one, and I mean no one is welcome on the Ponderosa. If we have business dealings, we’ll advise the hands who to expect. The only one who had a free pass will be Doctor Paul Martin.”

“What of the sheriff?” Charlie asked as he stood to the side and watched Hop Sing gather the blanket that had fallen from the back of the wagon as Hoss lifted his brother to carry him inside and to his bed.

“I wish I could ban Biggs, too. But he is the law. From here on out, the hands ride in pairs, no one works alone. They find anyone trespassing, they are to be brought to the house for us to deal with,” Adam answered, his anger barely contained.

“I’ll see that the word gets spread.”

“When that’s done, come inside,” Adam stated as he turned to follow his family.

*****

Adam entered the house, not bothering with removing his hat or his gunbelt; he walked to the round table and poured himself a large glass of brandy. He looked up after several swallows when he heard footsteps on the landing.

“How’d the kid really do on the way home? I tried to drive as careful as I could.” Adam’s anger still seethed in his words.

“Still in shock I suppose. Adam, he looked even more pathetic lying up there.”

“Mr. Cartwright need sleep,” Hop Sing stated as he walked down the stairs carrying the boy’s dirty clothing.

“He won’t sleep until he knows that Joe’s gonna be fine,” Hoss answered.

Charlie knocked and entered the house, giving a curt nod to confirm the order was given.

“Have a seat Charlie…” Adam offered. “Care for a drink…”

Charlie hesitated in accepting. It was one thing to drink in town together at the Buck O’ Blood or the Silver Dollar or even at the end of a cattle drive, but for Adam to offer him a drink in the house, he decided to accept because the news couldn’t be that good.

Charlie’s anger paralleled that of the family by the time he walked across the yard and to the bunk house; sleep eluded him throughout the night.

As the hands were beginning to head out for the morning, his anger reinforced the orders… “NO TRESSPASSERS! And if there are… BRING THEM HERE!”

*****

Adam and Hoss sat at the breakfast table, picking at their food. Both looked up when they heard their father walk across the floor.

“How’s Shortshanks?”

“Sleeping… He finally fell asleep about an hour ago,” Ben mournfully answered.

“Pa, if you’d like to get some sleep, I’ll stay with Joe,” offered Adam.

“I’d like for one of you to stay with him. I need to go out…”

“Where ya goin’ Pa?” Hoss asked as he stopped lifting the coffee cup mid-way to his mouth.

“Out…”

“Pa, I don’t think that’s such a good idea… We’ve warned the men about riding out alone, advised they ride in pairs,” Adam replied.

“This is something I need to do… alone.”

Ben walked to the sideboard, wrapped his gun belt around his waist before buckling it and tying the holster to his thigh. After reaching for his hat he opened the door and was gone.

The brothers looked to each other and shrugged their shoulders when the sounds of hoof beats retreated from the yard.

“I’m gonna go sit with Joe,” Hoss stated as he pushed back his chair and made his way out of the dining room.

*****

The night had been long and lonely. Any time one of his sons had been sick or injured he had wished for the comfort of a wife, someone to share in his grief, someone who could help him face a situation no parent wished upon their child, regardless of their age. But as it had been for years, there was no warmth to share his bed or his sorrow.

Buck had been sluggish to leave his stable mates so early in the day but with quick jab in the flanks by his rider’s heels, he ambled out of the yard and obeyed as the man guided him out onto the road away from the house.

*****

Ben rode to the one place where he hoped he could receive the solace he sought, the one place he felt closest to his late wife.

“Oh my God…” gasped Ben. “He saw his grave…”

Ben stood in shock upon seeing the tombstone, erroneously marking the grave that they had thought to be a member of their family. Guilt assailed him that in their joy of Joe’s return they had forgotten; the stark truth that Joe had been there was indicated by the dried blood that stained the headstone over his mother’s grave.

“Joe…” Ben cried as he stumbled over the ground. “Marie… Help me reach our son. Help me prove to him that his is loved.”

*****

With heels to flanks, he urged Buck onward, panicked to return home to explain, if he could.

*****

“Pa, I’m sorry,” Adam stated upon Ben’s return and explanation of what he’d found. “I… I…”

“You’re not the only one who forgot about the grave, son.”

“I’ll have a couple of the hands help dig up the coffin…” Hoss stated. “What’ll we do with it, afterwards…”

“I’ll pay to have the boy buried in the Virginia City cemetery,” Adam offered.

“Hoss, you and Adam go to town, talk to Mortimer… Ask him to have his associates come to remove the coffin, and as Adam indicated, the Ponderosa will pay to have the boy reinterred in cemetery in town. Also ask Mortimer if he would please see to restoring Marie’s headstone.”

Worryingly, Ben mounted the steps… for once… he passed by his son’s room and headed to his own. He needed time to face the truth.

*****

Adam and Hoss quietly rode into Virginia City, careful not to ride down Main Street. They dismounted and tied their horses at the back entrance to the undertaker’s establishment.

After explaining all that needed done and paying for services to be performed, they left just as surreptitiously as they arrived.

*****

The sun progressed across the afternoon sky and announced the arrival of evening, and blissfully Joe didn’t feel the hurt of his hands, the oblivion of sleep brought a blessed relief as Joe dreamed of his mother.

Marie sang or hummed songs to him, taking him on picnics where he picked wild flowers for her. He dreamed of her twirling his locks of hair around her fingers. He remembered tugging her along behind him as he tried to hurry across the yard and out to the corral to show her a new horse.

He smiled as she called him her precious little man. He remembered her smell as she carried him to his bed, his head nuzzled at her neck.

Happy images of laughter and playing flowed like a river over boulders, eager to go on to the next. He had promised and watched a she rode away, waving her hand in goodbye, a smile on her face.

He should have been asleep, but was so eager for the candy he had been promised. When she returned, he stood up on the chair in front of his window and saw her returning, running her horse into the yard, with a happy smile on her face. Until…

“MOMMA!” Joe woke screaming, shaking those who heard him to the core.

Downstairs in the dining room, Ben dropped the coffee cup and saucer; shattering the china and spilling the brandy laced warm milk to the floor. He’d hoped the concoction would calm his nerves.

In the bedroom room at the head of the stairs, Adam bolted forward from resting back in the chair next to the bed; his attempts to calm his brother were rebuffed.

Hoss charged across the hallway from his room, wearing only his pants and socks, as he had been preparing for bed.

Ben heard the arguing as he ran up the stairs, Joe shouting for Adam to go away, “DON’T TOUCH ME!” As their father entered the room, Adam was backing away from his brother’s bed, allowing Hoss, who had entered the room only moments before, to gather the boy in his arms and comfort him. “HOSS!” Joe screamed out, struggling against the one for whom he had cried.

“What’s this all about?” Ben asked as he stopped to take in the scene.

“I’m not sure. He looked to be finally dreaming peacefully… Next thing I know he’s screaming for Marie, and he didn’t want anything to do with me…” Adam stated; the features on his face plainly expressed his confusion.

“Oh, Pa…” cried Joe, struggling through bandaged hands to grab onto the arms which held him, having never once opened his eyes.

Ben walked to the bed and placed a hand on Joe’s back, all the while Hoss rocked him, neither able to make out the words the youngest spoke.

Chapter 26: They Would Dare…

“Joseph,” Ben whispered close to his son’s ear. “We’re here son… we’re here.”

Sniffling, Joe quietly cried, “Momma promised… Adam promised… They promised, they promised.”

“What did they promise, son?”

“Not home… not home…” Joe barely spoke. “Wanna go home… Pa… Hoss…”

Moments passed and Joe’s mumbling stopped and he lay limp in Hoss’ arms.

“He’s sleeping, Pa…” Hoss stated as he laid his brother back down and pulled the covers up over him. “What was he talkin’ about?”

“I don’t know… something about promises and not home…” a confused Ben answered as he turned to sit on the bed.

Placing Joe’s bandaged hands under the covers, Hoss asked, “Pa, do you think we should send for Doc and get him back out?”

“I don’t know… Maybe we should just let him sleep. I’m sure Paul will be out tomorrow to check his hands.”

In the background Adam waited, his soul a little wounded that his brother had pushed him away. ‘What happened? What are you remembering, Joe?’

*****

Adam had left his father and brother to tend to the youngest Cartwright; he knew that work needed to be done around the homestead. He needed the distraction to figure out what had happened and how to proceed.

Crossing the yard from the barn to the water trough, Adam halted upon hearing hoof beats.

“Adam? We done found these three trying to sneak onto the Ponderosa. They were about three miles from the house,” Ralph explained as Adam watched the men who squirmed in their saddles.

“Sheriff Biggs spread the word that the Ponderosa is off limits unless personally invited, and I know we didn’t invite any of you…” Adam tensed when he recognized Billy Trumble’s father in the group.

“I have every right to defend my son!” glared the large miner.

“Defend yes, when your son was being attacked. But from what I understand, my little brother was only defending himself against five boys older, larger than he. Maybe if you’d taught your son manners and respect for other’s he wouldn’t have found himself being beat up by a twelve year old child,” seethed Adam. “Are you turning vigilante? Do you three think you can succeed where his son failed? Won’t that make juicy gossip at the Buck O’ Blood. The three of you, miners by trade, ganging up on child who hasn’t even reached his teen years, won’t the town just love that news.”

“You got no right!” Angus vented.

“I have every right. You’re trespassing.”

“You think you Cartwrights are something special…” Angus spat on the ground.

“We are,” Adam answered coldly. He stepped back, encouraging the man to step down from his horse.

Angus rushed Adam, looking to encircle his waist, driving the man to the ground. Though the man was a miner and used to fighting, he had never witnessed the eldest Cartwright son in a fight, figured it was beneath the man’s college education.

Ralph watched as Adam deftly side stepped the enraged man and offered a jab to the side of the man’s rib cage. The miner kept his balance and twirled around, one fist held in front of him as he cocked the other in preparation of a blow.

Adam felt the breeze skim past his face as he evaded the punch, and delivered his own blow to the man’s exposed jaw that crumpled the big man to the ground.

With eyebrows raised, Ralph picked up the bucket next to the trough and in one swoop, filled it with water. Walking over, his face inquired if Adam wanted to pleasure of drowning the man.

Sputtering, Angus Trumble regained consciousness, looking up at the black figure who held an upturned bucket over him. With his eyes unfocused, he swayed from side to side as he attempted to rise to his feet.

Turning to the Ponderosa hands, “Ralph get him on his horse and then get their hands tied to their saddle horns. I’ll ride with you to take these men to Virginia City and turn them over to the sheriff.”

“What for?” demanded one of the miners who rode with Angus Trumble. “We ain’t done nothing. We didn’t even get anywhere near the kid until your men brought us here.”

“Trespassing for starters. I’ll see if Biggs can figure out any other charges, maybe inciting to inflict bodily harm.” Adam’s voice was colder than ice.

*****

Charlie entered the house several hours after Adam had left, and asked Hop Sing for either Hoss or Ben.

“Mr. Cartwright with numba three son. I see if Mr. Hoss come.”

“Who is it, Hop Sing?” Hoss called from the top of the stairs. Upon seeing their foreman he made his way down the steps and across the floor to where Charlie waited. “I heard riders…”

“Hoss.” Charlie removed his hat at the large man’s approach. “I know Adam said no visitors, and he and Ralph took those three miners who were trying to sneak out here to town earlier, but I didn’t think you’d mind this group we found coming up the main road.”

“Who’d ya find?” Hoss inquired.

“George and Mitch Devlin, as well as the reverend…”

“No problem, I’ll come out to see what they want.”

Hoss followed Charlie out the doorway and stopped on the wooden porch.

Having tied their horses to the hitching rails in the front yard, the small group was making their way to the entrance.

“Hoss” George Devlin called out, his hand upon his young son’s shoulder.

“Mr. Devlin, Mitch, Reverend Hamilton,” Hoss greeted with tolerance.

“Mitch came home yesterday late afternoon, he told me and his Ma what happened, that he found Joe out on the road. Said the boy wasn’t doing too good, said he took him to the doctor’s surgery where one of your men helped get the boy inside.”

“We’re beholding to young Mitch there for helping Joe,” Hoss answered.

“I didn’t know he was alive… I heard Trumble’s cronies whimpering at Doc’s and I just had to ride out to see for myself. Is he okay? He acted like he didn’t know who I was…” Mitch stated in a rambling fashion. He’d always been leery of the size of Joe’s older brother, even though the man had never looked at him crossly.

Hoss answered, “It’s a long story, but he’s alive and home.” He didn’t offer an invitation to come inside.

“Hoss, I can’t imagine what your family has endured,” Reverend Hamilton offered. “If I can be of any comfort to you and your family or to the child…”

“I appreciate your coming out here, but…” Hoss was distracted by the arrival of Doc Martin’s buggy.

Greetings were exchanged, and finally Hoss invited everyone into the house.

“Can I go up and see Joe?” Mitch asked. His eyes strayed to look up the staircase.

“Let’s wait to see what Doc Martin has to say,” Hoss answered.

Hop Sing entered the room bearing a tray with lemonade and sandwiches.

“Take time talk, listen. They mean only good,” Hop Sing whispered to Hoss before leaving the room.

“Hoss?!” Ben called from the mid-landing.

“Pa, Mr. Devlin and Reverend Hamilton came by…”

“Gentlemen…” Ben replied.

“Ben,” was returned in greeting.

“Is there anything Martha or I can do to help?” George offered. “It came as a shock last night when Mitch told us everything that happened yesterday.”

Reverend Hamilton followed up the offer, “Ben, if you need to talk, you know anything you tell me will be held in the strictest of confidence. Even though we’re not Catholic, I’ll hold what you tell me as if it were said in confession.”

“I have nothing to confess,” huffed Ben.

“Ben I was not implying that you’ve done anything wrong, only that should you wish to talk, I’m here to listen and your concerns will go no farther,” Reverend Hamilton explained.

“I’m sorry, Reverend. If you’ll forgive me… We’ve be under a lot of stress.”

“Please Ben, shall we be seated while we await the doctor’s prognosis of young Joseph?” suggested the good reverend.

Once everyone was seated, Ben gave a brief account of Joe’s return. He honestly answered the questions surrounding the rumors floating through town.

“And now Trumble and his buddies have inflicted more trauma upon the youth.”

“Yes, there was a fight among the boys, but the real trauma was unfortunately inflicted upon my son by his family…” Ben acknowledged.

“Ben, there’s no way you could harm that child,” George piped up.

“We did without meaning to… George… Reverend, you were here a year and a half ago… We thought we’d buried Little Joe next to his mother.”

The reverend gasped, now understanding that there was an unnamed child buried upon the Ponderosa.

“In our joy of Joe’s return… We never had the tombstone removed, we honestly forgot all about it.”

“I’ll talk with Mortimer…” Reverend Hamilton offered.

“Adam and Hoss went back to town yesterday to make the arrangements, I’ll pay your fees to say a few words when he’s buried in the town’s cemetery.”

“No need Ben, it’s the least I can do…”

“I don’t understand, Mr. Cartwright,” Mitch stated.

Softening his voice, Ben answered, “Evidently sometime between when Joe had his fight with Trumble and your finding him on the road, Joe rode to his mother’s grave and saw his own grave. Something happened and he… he took his emotions out on the headstone to his mother’s grave… I rode out this morning and found his blood on the monument.”

“The poor child,” Reverend Hamilton murmured.

“That’s why he was just sitting there?” Mitch inquired.

“I don’t know exactly why, but yes… that’s as good a reason as any.”

“Ben, how long has the boy been home?” Reverend Hamilton inquired.

“Over a month, closer to five weeks… I guess.”

“And this is the first anything has been heard about the child’s return?” the reverend asked.

“I’m sorry, Reverend, but Joe has suffered and we only wanted to protect him from people not understanding,” defended Ben. “The way the people treated his burial… My family’s affairs are our own… I’ll not have the good citizens of Virginia City make a mockery of my son being alive.”

“I understand Ben, but you do have friends in this town,” Reverend Hamilton answered. “Friends who will and have defended your family, whether you know it or not. George and Martha Devlin are fine examples.”

*****

Upstairs Hop Sing scurried about the boy’s room and realized that green eyes were following him around the room.

“How you feel, Lit’le Joe?” Hop Sing asked as he cautiously approached the bed.

“Fine… When’d I hurt my hands?” Joe asked, wincing as he pulled his hands from under the covers.

“You have accident, Doctor Martin leave room a lit’le while ago…”

“Pa and Hoss’ll be mad at me… I’m sorry I didn’t mind you or Charlie…” Joe whispered as he laid his hands on top of the covers. “Hop Sing, when’ll Adam come home?”

“Adam home later this afternoon,” the houseman answered.

“Really? What about Pa and Hoss? Do they know?” Joe eagerly asked, temporarily forgetting the aches in his hands.

“Fatha and brotha downstairs…”

“When did they get home?” Joe inquired.

“Fatha and brotha brought you home… Hop Sing go tell others you wake. You stay in bed.”

Chapter 27 – Acceptance

The houseman waited for the men in the great room to finish their conversation before he interrupted.

“Excuse me, Mr. Cartwright, Honorable Doctor. Lit’le Joe wake, ask of fatha and brothas.”

Ben and Paul climbed the stairs to the second floor. Hoss stayed with their guests who promptly excused themselves after making a last offering of any assistance before leaving.

*****

When his father and the doctor entered his room, Joe was struggling to keep his eyes open. He smiled and quietly answered their smiling faces with, “Glad you made it home, Pa. I missed you,” before sleep claimed him again.

“When he’s out, he’s out,” Paul smiled as he finished taking the boy’s pulse as the boy’s breathing evened out indicating sleep. “He should be fine Ben. Just let him sleep as much as he needs to. You know what to do.”

Ben saw the doctor out of the house and to his buggy. As he stepped inside his home he answered, ‘I have no idea what I’m to do.’

*****

The late night fire from the hearth illuminated Ben and the chair, highlighting the awkward position in which he slept, elbow on the arm of the chair, threatening to slide off while at the same time his hand supported his head. Hoss lay splayed out on the settee, head fallen back against the cushion, mouth gaped open and snoring. His left arm stretched across the top of the settee and his right arm hung off the side, his booted feet propped upon the low table, legs crossed at the ankles.

Upstairs, Adam closed the book he was trying to read, after place marking the page, and sat forward in the chair when he recognized signs that the boy might be waking, and quietly he waited. Several times during his overnight vigil he had switched seats to the bed when he thought Joe was rousing, only to be disappointed.

A faint smile graced the eldest brother’s face when eyelids fluttered, stilled, before fluttering open and closed, only to finally open once more. Looking around the room, Joe stopped when he saw Adam sitting there.

“Where’s Pa?” Joe whispered.

“He’s asleep downstairs,” quietly answered Adam.

“Why isn’t he up here? Why isn’t he with me?”

“He sat in this chair all afternoon.”

“And Hoss?”

“Asleep on the settee… He sat with you most of the evening, up until eleven o’clock.”

Joe looked around the room, looking deep into the shadows in the corners.

“Are you thirsty?” Adam asked.

Joe nodded.

Adam never completely let go of the glass, unsure how well his brother’s injured hands could hold it without dropping it and spilling its contents on the covers.

Letting go of the glass, Joe asked, “Do I know you?” after having stared at the man who acted so kind towards him.

Adam’s heart sank as he closed his eyes in regret. He returned the glass to the side table and stood, worrying. A moment later he looked to his brother after hearing, “My brother Adam does that.” Joe cocked his head left and right, he then explained, “Crosses his arms and pinches his nose between his eyes.” He scrunched his face as if in pain and began to cry.

“Joe, what’s wrong?” Adam asked as he sat down on the bed and wrapped his arms around his brother, pulling him close.

“It wasn’t a dream… It all happened.”

“What happened, Joe?” Adam asked.

“I’m sorry, I asked Hop Sing if I could stay home. I thought…” Joe stopped speaking.

“What did you think?”

Adam relaxed his arms, allowing Joe to sit back.

“I thought I was remembering you… You are Adam, aren’t you?” he hesitated in asking, not able to face his brother.

With his index finger folded in upon itself the side of the knuckle of this thumb against the nail of his index finger, Adam raised his brother’s head up from below his chin.

“Yes Joe, I’m Adam.”

With closed eyes, Joe quietly spoke, “You promised you’d come home…”

“I did come home…”

“But not before I forgot you. That part wasn’t a dream, either…”

“From what Pa and Hoss told me, no, it wasn’t a dream.”

“I didn’t mean to forget you.”

With an honest smile, Adam answered, “I know you didn’t. Do you really remember me?”

“You brought me home…”

“What about before I brought you home?”

“You used to let me crawl into bed with you, when I couldn’t sleep.”

“Yes, I enjoyed those nights,” answered Adam feeling a little bit relaxed.

“But not my cold feet.” Joe offered a hesitant giggle.

“Especially NOT your cold feet.”

“You took me fishing, you let me ride Beauty.”

The serene expression on Adam’s face faded at the mention of his previous horse and his remembrance in how the horse had been lost.

“What happened to Beauty? I mean, I like Sport…”

“It’s a long story, but he had to be destroyed.”

“When?”

“It doesn’t matter…” Adam answered.

Looking up from crying eyes, Joe asked, “It was when you were looking for me, wasn’t it?”

Adam nodded.

“It’s all my fault, I’m sorry, Adam.”

“Hey kid, there’s no need for you to be sorry. Nothing was your fault.”

“None of this would have happened if I hadn’t forgotten you. I wouldn’t have asked Hop Sing if I could stay home… Charlie wouldn’t have gotten hit by an arrow… They wouldn’t have taken me…”

Joe tightly wrapped his arms around his brother and cried bitter tears.

“Easy there young man,” Ben Cartwright firmly stated as he stepped into the room and proceeded to sit upon the other side of the bed.

*****

Downstairs, Ben had awakened feeling momentarily panicked; guilty he had fallen asleep and unsure what had woke him. Much to his chagrin he found he suffered a crick in his neck and his left hand numb, as his hand had supported his head while his elbow rested on the arm of the chair. He heeded the urgent desire to check on his youngest. Nearing the opened door, Ben listened to two of his sons talking. His fatherly instinct informed him this was a healing discussion that needed to occur, but he felt forced to make his presence known when he heard Joe’s last comments.

*****

Waiting for his son to calm, Ben placed his hand behind the boy’s neck and began massaging the tight-knit muscles.

“Joseph, it wasn’t your fault that those men attacked this ranch. There was nothing you could have done to have prevented it, and nothing you did caused it to happen.”

“But I was here, and… they took me…”

“Yes, and I’ve lived every day for the past two years with that regret.”

Joe looked to his father for the first time.

“The regret that in my intentions to keep you safe, by not allowing you to come with us on the cattle drive for fear you would be injured… my own selfish needs left you vulnerable to those men. For that, I am sorry…”

“But I could have gone to town with Hop Sing…”

“Maybe… Son… who knows what would have happened. All we can do is accept what did happen and live a better life knowing that it’s in the past.”

“But it’s not in the past…” Joe whispered.

“Your dreams?” Adam calmly asked.

Joe nodded. “They come at night or when I’m doing something… I can’t stop ‘em.”

“Do you want to talk about them?” Adam queried.

Joe shook his head no. He knew how much he’d already hurt his family and couldn’t bear to burden them with anymore details than what he had already said.

“Joe, can you tell me how you hurt your hands?” Ben asked.

With a shyness that was not the boy they knew, father and son listened.

“I got in a fight… I don’t know who they were…”

“Yes, we know about the fight…” Ben answered.

“I didn’t do anything to start it,” Joe declared.

“We know. We have a pretty good idea of what happened… But that’s not how you injured your hands. You couldn’t have struck any of those boys hard enough to damage your hands as you did.”

Minutes passed and Joe stiffened before he replied, “No sir,” unable to look his father in the eye.

“Do you remember what you did after the fight?”

Joe nodded.

“Would you care to tell us?”

Joe shook his head, no.

“Let me rephrase that, Joseph. I’d like for you to tell us how you hurt your hands.”

“I’m not your Joseph…” Joe’s voice was quite serious.

Stunned, Ben asked, “And just what do you mean by that? You most certainly are my Joseph.”

“Your Joseph died.” Looking up, Joe’s voice emboldened as he answered, his eyes held an anger that scared Ben and Adam.

Both men were held speechless based on the fact that the family had believed that Joe had died. But now, for over a month, they gladly accepted that they had been wrong.

With courage Joe expressed his hurt by looking to his oldest brother, “I begged you to come fine me, you promised you’d come home. Just like Momma… you lied!!”

Joe attempted to strike his brother with his hands, but found them securely restrained by his father.

“You gave up! You stopped looking for me! You buried me, just like Momma!!”

“Joseph, what else were we to believe,” pleaded Ben. “The McCloud brothers brought home a body that by all other accounts… we believed was you.”

“I’M YOUR SON! YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO KNOW!” Joe cried out while looking to his father. He turned to his brother and began to hysterically yell, “YOU PROMISED YOU’D COME HOME!!!”

Ben sat back in utter shock at his son’s accusation and allowed the boy to wrench his bandaged hands from his father’s grip and turn over in his bed to cry.

Ben and Adam looked to each other, guilt readily readable on their faces; both thinking the boy was right, wasn’t he?

Neither left the room, they allowed the boy his grief but kept contact with him. Ben rubbed his large hand in circles upon the boy’s back while Adam placed his hand upon the boy’s shoulder. Of all the reasons for the boy to throw a temper tantrum, this one they had never envisioned and were not adequately prepared to handle the situation.

*****

A very uncomfortable Hoss woke upon hearing Hop Sing in the kitchen. Smacking his tongue against the roof of his mouth he decided to go upstairs in order to freshen up for the day and to see his brother.

The middle Cartwright son looked into the room to see a worrisome scene, “What happened ta Shortshanks?”

“He woke earlier,” Ben answered. “He’s had a rough go of it… He said we gave up on him… If only I’d remembered that grave when he first came home…”

“Ya cain’t blame yourself, Pa. We’re all guilty of that. Like Adam said, we gotta stand firm, and at the same time let him know we love him and we’re happy he’s home. I can’t imagine what he thought, seeing his own grave there next to his Momma’s…”

“It had to be a shock to his system… Paul was right,” Adam offered. “Damn, why’d we have to spend that extra time in Sacramento?”

Adam lowered his head in accepting his culpability in the events that happened leading up to Joe’s kidnapping.

“But ya done wanted to come home early… We could have stayed longer,” Hoss added.

“If we’re going to play the blame game, then why’d I accept the contract for those cattle? Why didn’t the army send a warning that the marauders were heading in our direction? Why didn’t the telegraph company fix the line quicker? Why didn’t someone prevent the fire that took down the telegraph line?” Ben declared. “I could go on and on… I don’t care what could have done in the past to prevent what happened; all I care about is that I love my three sons… I thank God he’s returned my youngest to me… to us. I don’t need to know everything that happened, but if Joe wants to tell me, I’ll listen. And you will too.”

“No one said anything otherwise, Pa,” answered Adam. “Whatever will help the kid heal, the three of us will be here for him.”

“Four,” Hop Sing declared from the doorway. “Four of us be here for Lit’le Joe.”

*****

Throughout the next two days, Joe ignored his family as they came and went from his room; he wasn’t ready to face them, he was scared to face them. They had thought him dead, maybe it would have been easier for them if he had never come home.

Every time a member of his family entered his room, they couldn’t leave without caressing his face or touching his arm, just to let him know they loved him, regardless of his effort to disregard their presence. Countless times he felt the soft press of his father’s lips against his brow when he feigned sleep.

During the day when he was left alone, Joe sat in the window seat and watched all the comings and goings outside. He tried not to think, but the memories were persistent. Tears streaked his cheeks as he leaned his head against the windowpane.

Whenever he’d hear someone walking the hallway, he dried his face and quickly returned to his bed.

Chapter 28 – Boston Comes West

Gabe Cunningham halted the surrey after following two armed cowboys to the front of the imposing structure. During their college years, Adam had described his home and the land they owned, but he had never pictured anything as grand as what stood before them.

“Are you sure, Gabriel?” Doctor Truman Cunningham asked as he looked out from under the fringe canopy.

Ralph halted his horse and called out to the man exiting the red barn, “They were on the main road coming this way.”

“Can I help you fellas?” Charlie called as he walked out from the red barn to the stopped surrey.

“I’m a college fried of Adam Cartwright,” Gabe answered. “He told me if I was ever in the area, I should stop by…”

“I wished you’d have wired the family before you came all this way… They’ve had some personal troubles and right now they aren’t accepting any visitors.”

“Is this pertaining to the youngest brother?” asked the silver haired man who stepped from the surrey. “It might be presumptuous of us to stop by, but I’m Doctor Truman Cunningham and this is my son Captain Gabriel Cunningham.”

Looking to the younger man, Charlie surmised, “Then you’d be the fella who helped Mr. Adam find Little Joe.”

Gabe nodded.

“If you’ll wait here, I’ll have Hop Sing tell Mr. Adam that you’re here.”

Father and son heard the two cowboys turn about and ride away as they continued to take in the grandiose appearance and the fresh, clean air that held a strong fragrance of pine.

“Gabe?!” Adam called as he jogged from the house, eager to greet his former college friend.

Truman Cunningham stood back and watched the interaction between the two friends. He evaluated the mannerism from what he remembered of the man, to the one who stood before him, next to his son. He noted the black clothes, as if in mourning… He wondered if they were too late, that something had happened.

“Adam, you remember my father…” Gabe finally remembered his manners.

“Doctor Cunningham, welcome to the Ponderosa.” Surprised the man had finally made the trip out west, he remembered the man’s fear of the unknown territories.

During his years at Harvard, Adam had spent many nights visiting Gabe’s home and father. After listening to the man explain how his own father had traversed the Atlantic Ocean with his wife, he revealed the fact that he had been born only five months after his parents had settled in the port town. The man exhorted how he couldn’t believe his own father would risk jeopardy to his wife and unborn child to travel to somewhere unknown.

Though it amazed Adam that his friend’s father could to be so narrow minded when it came to exploring, and expanding one’s own knowledge of people and the lands they inhabit, he understood that adventure was not for everyone. Will little prompting from his friend, he sufficiently tamed the stories he told of life living on the Ponderosa, including a glancing precursor of their travels across the country from Boston. Even so, the tales bothered the man. He very much enjoyed the civilized land of the east coast of America.

On numerous occasions Adam had attempted to explain there really wasn’t that much difference when Gabe’s grandfather crossed the Atlantic from England, to their traveling across country, except one was over water and the other over land. It didn’t matter that they both suffered their own scourges; the sea had pirates to contend with instead of the Indians. The man just couldn’t understand a person’s willingness to take such risks to their own life as well as that of their loved ones; he pointed out Inger’s death.

Adam countered with his own mother’s death and how it was a fact of life regardless of where or how one lived.

Truman focused on if they were all to die, how would their remaining family members feel? Would they ever know the truth?

It humbled Adam to realize the man who had never consider leaving Boston was now standing in front of him.

“Lovely land…” Truman finally offered.

“We’re proud of it… ”

“Adam, I hope you won’t think me too forward, but…” Gabe announced without moving away from the surrey. “I wrote to my father about your situation with your brother…”

“Gabe…”

“Adam, please forgive me for coming unannounced, but… I came in the capacity as a physician; I was intrigued when I received Gabe’s wire, telling me about finding your little brother. I was also worried for you; I know how much you loved your siblings that I wanted to be here to help. I attempted to speak with your family physician in town, to gather a little more background information and to receive his blessings to try to help you and your family through this stressful time. I can’t imagine life has been easy in helping the boy re-acclimate back into family life.”

Knowing the man’s fears of life in the west, Adam knew he couldn’t deny the man the opportunity to try to help; the doctor had traveled all this way to help strangers, for all intent and purposes.

“Please come inside, I think we should have this discussion with my father. We’ve had some success with Joe, but the past number of days have been fairly traumatic for the whole family.”

*****

The Cunninghams joined the Cartwrights for lunch and listened to the men recount the successes and the setbacks they had experienced since Adam’s return home with Joe.

Ben offered a personal introduction to Paul Martin upon his next visit to the home, “I don’t think he’d be offended by your presence… or your help. We’re all kind of at a loss at the moment.”

*****

Plans were made for Gabe to return the surrey to the livery and Adam to follow with the Ponderosa buckboard. Adam would assist Gabe in retrieving their luggage that had been left at the stage depot, not wanting to be any more presumptuous that the Cartwrights would invite them into their home for the duration of their stay.

Upon seeing the physician in Virginia City, Adam introduced his former college friend and explained their presence, “I know Pa’d appreciate it if you could see your way to come for supper some night.”

“My father would also like the chance to talk with you regarding Adam’s younger brother… Understand your observations, since you know the boy from before, and can give an unbiased opinion on where he is now.”

“I don’t know if I have an unbiased opinion on the boy, but I’d be happy to meet with your father.”

“Just show up as your schedule allows,” Adam offered. “You know Hop Sing always has plenty.”

“How upset will Hoss be upon my arrival…” teased Paul.

“You can always threaten him with some vile medicine…” Adam teased back.

*****

During their return to the Ponderosa, Gabe again offered an apology for their unannounced arrival, but added that he knew his father could be of assistance.

“You don’t know how many times I wished there to be someone to talk to about how best to help Joe,” answered Adam as he rein slapped the horses to move out.

*****

Joe involuntarily flinched when the bright, late afternoon sun stole into his room; he quickly scowled at the figure standing by the window.

“I know you wake, you come eat,” Hop Sing declared, crossing his arms to indicate he could be just as stubborn. “Get dressed, suppa ready soon, you talk to family.”

“No.”

Shaking his index finger at the boy, Hop Sing threatened, “I get spoon if you not dressed and down stairs in fifteen minutes. Your choice, stop foolishness.”

The Oriental left the room with a smile on his face as he heard the covers being thrown back across the bed and feet padding across the wooden floor. Ten minutes later he was surprised to hear his name quietly called from the back staircase.

“Hop Sing, I need your help,” Joe called.

He had tried his best to fasten his pants as well as his shirt, but the bandaging on his hands interfered.

“We go back up stairs… Get you dressed… You come down other stairs, see family.”

*****

Joe slowly made his way downstairs. All afternoon, before Hop Sing rudely intruded on his solitude, he’d heard the voices in the great room, but never left his room to investigate.

“Joseph,” Ben quietly acknowledged his son’s presence. “It’s good to see you awake. Are you hungry, son?”

“Yes, sir.”

“We have guests who will be joining us tonight… I’d like you to meet Captain Gabe Cunningham and his father, Truman Cunningham.”

Joe slowly finished walking down the steps; he stopped short of greeting the men by standing next to the blue, velvet chair.

“Joseph, what do we say when we have visitors?” Ben cautiously asked.

Earlier in the afternoon he had been glad to have Dr. Cunningham confirm that they did need to set boundaries and expectations for the child. Being impolite would not be tolerated. The physician had commented on how their situation would make a very good case study, but he didn’t feel he could be objective enough or that it was right to put their family affairs out in the public domain. So instead, he chose to offer his services in a manner to assist the family, without thought to providing information to further this new field of medical science.

“Good afternoon, sirs,” Joe replied.

“You look a lot better than the last time I saw you,” Gabe offered. “I’m glad Adam was able to return you home.”

“Suppa ready,” Hop Sing called from the dining room.

Throughout supper, Ben, Adam, and Hoss took their lead from Gabe and Truman, they didn’t pressure the boy to interact with them, but talked of subjects that would allow the boy to participate, should he so choose. Gabe chose to hide his smiles behind a coffee cup or a napkin whenever it appeared that Joe was intently listening.

*****

It was the first time he’d been out of his room since injuring his hands and he wanted to get away from the inquisitive looks from the strangers and his family.

“Pa, may I go check on Cochise?”

Dr. Cunningham gulped hard as he swallowed his after dinner brandy.

“Yes, son, you may go out to check on your horse,” Ben replied.

The group watched Joe leave before Ben apologized and explained to the visitors.

“No need, just startled me to think that the boy personally knew the man,” Truman answered. “Though I do find it interesting that after his turbulent time with the Indians, he would choose a warrior’s name for his horse.”

“Ah, he’s had his heart on a pinto and givin’ it that name ever since he met Winnemucca,” commented Hoss.

“Well, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll start earning my keep,” Truman excused himself.

*****

To pass the time, Gabe recounted the events that Adam had only glossed over that led to the recovery of Little Joe; he also spoke of his promotion. Adam and Gabe gave voice to memories from their years at Harvard that had Ben and Hoss laughing in earnest.

*****

From the barn entryway, Dr. Cunningham observed the youngest Cartwright as he stood outside a horse’s stall.

“He is beautiful.”

“Yeah, he is…”

Walking across the dirty floor, Truman stopped near the stall door, but not close enough to pressure Joe.

“Joe, I’d like to be honest with you… Up front that I’m a doctor and I’m hoping that I can be your friend, someone to help you understand what you’re feeling inside.”

Joe had no reaction to the man’s words.

“They do love you, and they feel they have a right to know what happened. You’ve not told them the entire truth of the events, have you…”

“No sir, I don’t want to hurt them. I can see it in their eyes.”

“I’ve found in my medical practice that sometimes it is easier to talk to someone who isn’t family. I want you to be able to accept that nothing that happened was your fault, or the fault of your family.”

“I know that…” Joe answered.

“There’s a difference between knowing and accepting… I hope to find a way for you and your family to accept what happened so this can be buried and you can get on with living.”

Without looking to the man Joe asked, “Can you help me understand why they gave up on me… why they buried me?”

“I can try… I’m here to listen, whatever you wish to talk about.”

Joe proceeded to the hay bales stacked in tiered rows and climbed up to the third row, Doctor Cunningham took a seat on the second row.

*****

When the laughter subsided Adam addressed his own observations concerning the elder Cunningham.

“It was a shock to me too… when I received his wire that he was on his way here.”

“Knowing how much your father appreciated a contented life back in civilization…”

“Adam, I feel my father believes he owes you a debt of gratitude,” Gabe offered.

“You’re not going to bring that up again, are you?” Adam queried, his tone indicated he was a little more than embarrassed.

“What’s Gabe talkin’ about Adam?” inquired Hoss.

“Nothing,” Adam answered.

“I don’t feel that saving my life is nothing, and neither does my father.”

“I didn’t do anything that anyone else wouldn’t have done,” proclaimed Adam.

“But no one else did.”

“It’s done, it’s over with, it’s in the past.”

“Not for my father. I’m sure you own father would feel beholden to any man who saved the life of one of his sons…”

“I would, Adam,” Ben answered.

“Adam tell us how ya saved Gabe,” Hoss stated.

Ignoring his middle brother, Adam answered, “He paid me back years ago.”

“Paying your medical bills is not even in the same category…” Gabe said.

“Medical bills…” Ben grew concerned and sat forward in his chair.

“You never told your family?” Gabe asked.

“Grandfather told them I had been injured…”

“Adam would you kindly explain…” Ben answered; his voice indicated he would take nothing less than a full explanation.

“It was nothing…” Adam insisted, his eyes dared his friend to say anything more.

“Mr. Cartwright, I and the young lady I was escorting were crossing one of the bridges that span the Charles River… I had just purchased a corsage for the young lady and was making my way back to her, not paying attention to my surroundings… I was dreaming of pinning the flower to her coat, oblivious to the run-away horses hauling a drayage wagon that was barreling down on me.”

“What’d Adam do?” Hoss eagerly asked.

“At great risk to his own life, and upsetting the young lady he was escorting, he ran towards me… pushing me out of the way, but ended up being struck by one of the horses. He was thrown into me and we both tumbled over the railing and fell into the river.

“Unfortunately, as we tumbled through the air, Adam ended up beneath me and when we landed in the river, a combination of my weight and hitting the ice, Adam suffered a broken leg…”

“I believe that Grandfather wrote you to inform you that I had had an accident…”Adam offered.

“I remember Abel’s letter, he wrote nothing of your heroism…” Ben answered.

“I asked him not too…”

Adam’s eyes asked his friend not to continue.

“Why’d ya do that?” Hoss asked.

“Probably because it was the middle of January and he also asked Captain Stoddard to not say anything regarding the severe case of pneumonia he developed…”

“Pneumonia!” exclaimed Ben. “Adam Stoddard Cartwright, how dare you keep such news from me!”

“There was nothing you could do, by the time you could have arrived, I was healthy again,” explained Adam.

“Mr. Cartwright, Adam spent nearly two weeks in the hospital, at one point the Captain professed to me that he wanted to break his word to his grandson… to wire you. Thankfully, it was two days later that Adam turned the corner and began to regain his health.”

“And you?” Hoss asked.

“Ultimately, I just suffered a severe cold and a dislocated shoulder. Though, once I was on the bank of the river, I had to suffer through the hysterics of two women as the Constables worked to pull Adam from the river. We both had been temporarily knocked unconscious as we crashed through the ice; Adam was out for a few minutes longer than I, an in the process inhaled some water.”

“As I said, your father paid me back a long time ago when he paid for my hospitalization and oversaw the team of physicians who treated me,” Adam said.

“That was money… This… this is personal for my father. Now, I hope you’ll understand how important it is for him to try to help your family,” answered Gabe.

*****

Those in the house grew curious when the front door opened; Joe and Truman entered; with a relieved look upon his face, Joe pleasantly bid them all goodnight before heading up the staircase.

“He’s quite a remarkable child…” Truman stated as he took a seat on the settee next to his son.

“That he is. Did he say anything to you?” Ben asked.

“We talked, and right now, what Joe has to say needs to remain between the two of us. I won’t break the trust he’s placed in me. Ben, I know he can’t ride, not with his hands bandaged, but I’m sure he can guide me, if you’ll allow us the use of your buggy tomorrow… I made a start with him tonight and I’d like to continue.”

“By all means, if it’ll help Joe,” Ben answered.

“I think it will. Honestly, I think getting him away from the homestead will help him cope. Ben, when I have a better understanding, I’ll tell you my thoughts of how I’m progressing with the boy, don’t worry.”

“I think that’s my prerogative as a father. Thank you,” Ben offered.

*****

Doctor Cunningham and Joe left the front yard around nine o’clock each morning. At first, Joe instructed the physician on how to improve his technique in driving a horse and buggy, which impressed the man when the horse actually stopped jigging in his stride. Joe gave directions on how to reach the areas that were his favorite.

Once there, Joe talked, whether resting back against a tree or sprawled in the grass, he was relaxed in the man’s company. There was no judgment, no pity, no desire to delve deeper into what he wasn’t saying. The man was just there… listening.

Together Joe and Truman made sure they were always back home before Hop Sing set lunch on the table, only to head out again afterwards. There wasn’t much discussion surrounding Joe’s experiences during the afternoons, instead, they sat together and watched his brothers working with horses and the cattle or repairing a fence line or two. Joe felt comfortable in explaining to the older gentleman what was happening and what to expect.

The two joined their family members around the dining table and discussed life on the ranch and then retired to the great room. Joe enjoyed watching Adam and Gabe playing chess. After watching a few games, he was especially pleased when he was able to figure out the next move before the piece was transferred to its new location.

*****

The next day, Paul Martin had finally managed his schedule so that he could make a trip out to the Ponderosa, he was eager to meet the doctor who held promise to help Little Joe, and he wanted to see how the family was doing.

“Paul!” Ben called out as he stepped from the wooden porch to greet the physician.

“Sorry it’s taken me so long to come back out here.”

“We were beginning to worry, a little bit. Adam told you about Doctor Cunningham?”

“He did, and I met the man’s son when he and Adam were in town.” Paul handed the long reins to one of the ranch hands to said he’d take care of the buggy and the horse. “Tell me Ben, has he been able to help Joe?”

“I think he has. He hasn’t told me anything that Joe’s talked about, but I can definitely see a difference in Joe. Last night… I could see his mind working as he watch Adam and Gabe place a game of chess… and the smile on his face? I can only believe that he had guessed Adam’s next move.” Ben smiled at the memory.

“How is the boy doing otherwise?”

“The two of them spend most of their mornings out on the ranch, just talking. Come on inside, enough of us conspiring out here… Come see for yourself.”

Ben escorted their guest inside and made introductions.

While enjoying a pre-dinner brandy, Paul and the others looked towards the staircase as soon as they heard sounds of someone running down the steps.

“Joseph?” Ben cautioned.

“Oh, sorry Pa. Uh… Hey Doc Martin… What are you doing here?” Joe worriedly asked as he finished walking down the lower steps.

“Just taking your father up on an invitation to supper… I hope you don’t mind.”

“Naw, as long as that’s the only reason,” Joe answered as he took a seat on the arm of the blue chair where Adam sat.

“How have you been?” Paul asked.

“Fine…” Joe answered and then saw the expression on his father’s and Doctor Cunningham’s faces. “I’ve been doing real good. I take it that you met Doctor Cunningham?”

Paul nodded.

“Uh… He’s been helping me to do some thinking.”

“Has it been working?”

“Yeah… Um… I hope your feelings haven’t been hurt by him being here…” Joe offered.

“No… Not in the least. From what I understand, this is his area of specialty.” Paul smiled.

“Oh… Good.”

The conversation turned to events happening in town before Hop Sing called for supper.

*****

Later that evening, Adam witnessed Paul Martin’s inclination to frequently look upstairs and said, “I take it you want to talk about Joe.”

“I’m sorry, was I that obvious?” Paul asked.

“Only if you realize how many times you’ve looked upstairs in the past half hour,” Adam answered.

“Forgive me, but… I’ve seen for myself the improvement in the boy… It’s amazing. But, as a physician, I guess what I’m wanting to ask…” he looked to Doctor Cunningham, “Joe will turn thirteen this fall, and my concern is related to his emotional state once he reaches puberty…”

“I agree with your concern,” Doctor Cunningham answered. “So far, I’ve not noticed any signs that he has reached that stage in his development. It could be that the malnourishment he suffered will have had some impact on when it will begin.”

“What happens if it begins before you’re finished with your course of treatment?” Paul asked.

“I’ll deal with it if it occurs, but I’m not nearly as worried for the boy as I would have been before we began talking. I believe he is in a better state, mentally and physically, than if puberty had struck before my arrival.”

“But…” Adam sensed there was more too say.

Paul Martin continued, “Are you in agreement that the Cartwrights will probably have some emotional tantrums to deal with?”

“Are you calling my son temperamental?” Ben asked in good nature.

“He was… somewhat unpredictable, before, but in a fun sort of way. And I can see hints of him returning to such livelihood,” Paul answered.

“Heaven help us…” Hoss whispered, but not quiet enough for the others in the room not to hear.

Truman laughed at Hoss’ comment. “Any child can be thrown for a loop once they reach that stage of their life… Ben and the boys just have to understand that they need to stand firm, and at the same time offer a guiding hand to see the child through this phase.”

*****

Adam and Hoss rode out to west pasture to check on the status of the cattle and their spring-born calves to see how soon it would be before they could consider moving the herd to a different grazing land.

“Joe’s doin’ good, ain’t he Adam?”

“He seems to be doing better…”

“Gabe’s Pa’s doin’ good by him…”

“It appears so…”

“Don’tcha wish it were you he was talkin’ too?” Hoss asked.

“The same as you do.”

“Ya know, before ya left for college I was jealous of you… Little Joe’d always run to you when he had troubles.”

“But once I left, he turned to you with his troubles,” Adam finished.

“Yeah, and more times than not, I got into trouble right alongside a him. But… after you brought him home, I was jealous of you all over again.”

“And now?”

“I’m jealous of Doctor Cunningham,” Hoss acknowledge.

“Me too.”

*****

Three days later, Truman approached Ben in the office area of the great room, he inquired if the family had given any thought to inviting some of the children that Joe had previously known to come over.

“How do you explain to a child that a friend they thought dead, is really alive?” Ben asked.

“How do you explain to a family that their child they thought dead, has lived under terrible circumstances?” Truman countered. “Ben, consider how far he has come since he first came home. Consider how far you, Adam, and Hoss have helped him heal since this whole ordeal started. I think this is the next logical step of progression for the boy.”

From the look on Ben’s face, Truman asked, “Are you ashamed of him? Are you scared of what people will think or say?”

“I’ll NEVER be ashamed of any of my sons,” Ben defensively answered. “I’m not scared… not for me at least. I’m worried for Joe. We’ve already seen what happened when those boys came here.”

“Boys who were not invited to the Ponderosa. Boys who, I understand, were already known as troublemakers. I’m talking of children whom Joe knew from school as friends. Children with whom he played with during recess… Hoss told me about his best friend Mitch finding him out on the road to town… What could it hurt to invite him and his family over, for a small get together.”

“We had talked about it, but were going to wait until after we fulfilled the contract with the army… then those boys showed up.”

“Ben, you’ve done a wonderful job in bringing him this far, from what Gabe told me he witnessed right after they found the boy. Why not invite a few people over after church on Sunday.”

“I’ll give it some thought…”

“Ben, I know this is difficult for you. I honestly think the main hurt Joe has is the tombstone and that you thought he’d died; that you gave up on him. Maybe by inviting the children over will help prove to him that he has a life to live. In my opinion, they will be able to help Joe to become a child again. In the Bible Isaiah spoke, “and a little child shall lead them.”

“Isaiah was talking of enemies; wolves and sheep, leopards and goats…”

“But I believe the moral is, the young, if raised right, the young can learn to live together regardless of their differences,” Truman answered. “If we believe and allow them the chance.”

Ben looked at the man, unsure how he should answer.

“Think on it Ben. I’ll talk with you later.”

Truman walked away, knowing he’d given the father plenty to think about.

*****

Ben did have a lot to think about, not only what Truman Cunningham had to say, but also what Reverend Hamilton has said earlier. What his eldest son had also tried to explain to him weeks before.

And so it was that Sunday morning, Ben rose early and dressed for church, the first time since that fateful summer. He quietly strode down the staircase to see Hoss, Adam, and Gabe properly attired to attend church. Truman stated he would stay home with Joe, he didn’t believe that this was the right time for the boy to make a trip into town.

*****

When the Ponderosa buggy with Ben and Gabe stopped in front of the church with Adam and Hoss right behind them on their horses, they weren’t sure of the reception they’d receive.

Paul Martin was first to notice them, followed by George and Martha Devlin. Abe Pruitt and his son Seth made a bee line for the newcomers. At the top of the steps that led into the sanctuary, Reverend Hamilton smiled. For whatever lay behind the reason, he was glad that Ben and his boys were returning to church; it didn’t surprise him that the youngest was not with them, not yet.

People who honestly called the Cartwrights friends waited in line to greet them, telling the family how thrilled they were of the news surrounding young Joseph being alive and his return to his family. Most members of the congregation asked for their well wishes to be relayed to the child.

Standing on the outskirts of the church yard, Angus Trumble and two of his friends, who had been escorted to the Sheriff’s Office and fined for trespassing, watched from the shadows of the trees.

*****

The focus of the sermon rested on acceptance and forgiveness. Reverend Hamilton quoted bible verses from Ephesians 4, Matthew 7, 1 Peter 3, James 2, 1 John 1, and 2 Corinthians 5. He expounded how each verse should be lived within their community, and that it shouldn’t be every now and then… when it suited a person. He urged that the people needed to live the teachings, each and every day.

As the service continued, everyone in the congregation acknowledged with humble accord the forth-right look of Reverend Hamilton as his eyes slowly scanned the parishioners and paused momentarily upon each man, woman, and child.

*****

Afterwards, with a smile, Ben again shook hands with the Devlins and the Pruitts, and was pleased when they said they’d arrive at the Ponderosa around three o’clock for Sunday supper. As he turned to walk to his sons, he instead encountered Mr. Brandenburg, the teacher.

“Mr. Cartwright, I don’t think we’ve had the opportunity to formally meet.”

“For that, I am sorry. There is more than one kind of acceptance and one type of forgiveness; as we were reminded today – my apologies.”

With a shake of hands, the men began anew.

“I don’t wish to seem too presumptuous, but when you are ready, I would be most happy to meet young Joseph to see where he fits in with his contemporaries at school. I’d be willing to privately tutor the boy so he won’t feel too… put upon.”

“Thank you, my oldest son has been working with Joseph since shortly after he was located. I’m sure Adam would be happy to discuss with you where Joe stands as well as working together to see where Joe might fit in your classroom.”

“I’d be honored to come to your home, whenever you feel the time would be the right.”

“I’m sure Hop Sing will welcome another place at the dinner table.”

“I’ve heard about his culinary skills and I look forward to your invitation.”

*****

Standing next to their horses, Hoss elbowed his older brother in the ribs and quietly said, “Guess we need to revamp our warning to the hands, seems we’re going to have quite a lot of visitors around home…”

“I think we’re ready for them,” smiled Adam as he prepared to mount his horse.

Chapter 29 – The Restoration

Joe was anxious to see his family upon their return from church, and it surprised him to see people milling about the great room as he came inside after a buggy ride with Doctor Cunningham. In addition to Charlie and Doctor Martin, he saw a man standing by the hearth with a badge on his vest; there were also two small family groupings standing in the room.

“Joe!” Mitch Devlin was the first one to see Joe entering the house and ran to greet him. When Joe hesitated and stared at him, the boy said, “Bet ya don’t remember me…”

Martha Devlin scolded her son for being impertinent.

Another young boy sauntered over to the doorway… “Well, if it ain’t the hero who took on Billy Trumble and his cronies…” Seth Pruitt announced and then looking downward, “Wow, did you really did do a number on your hands.”

The boy was quickly pulled backwards, by his collar, by a man who was obviously his father. The boy’s eyes temporarily glared in anger, but seeing his father’s expression, he gave a heavy gulp and softened his eyes.

“Joe don’t let Seth bother you none, he’s just upset that he doesn’t have all the girls in town talkin’ all goo-goo eyed about him.” Mitch accepted the good-natured punch in the arm from the other boy. “In case you don’t remember me, I’m Mitch Devlin and this here is Seth Pruitt. The three of us were best friends…”

Joe looked from the two boys who stood in front of him to his middle brother, searching to see if what they said was right.

“Shortshanks, the only ones who got into more trouble than me and you, were the three of you.” The index finger on Hoss’ right hand made a circular motion, indicating all three of the youths standing in the entryway.

“Sure Joe, don’t ya remember getting hided for…” Seth stopped speaking, even though it had been several years, it didn’t do well to bring up that particularly painful subject.

“Pa, can I show the fellas my horse?” Joe tentatively asked. He wasn’t sure how to interact with the boys, but he knew boys always like horses because he liked horses.

Ben nodded, “Don’t stay out there too long, Hop Sing will have supper on the table in about thirty minutes.”

*****

Ben asked Hoss to go bring the boys in from the barn so they could wash up before eating. Hoss had barely made it to the door when the others in room startled when something crashed into the door, followed by a high pitch screaming and laughter. Hoss opened the door and three boys tumbled onto the floor.

“WHAT IN THUNDERATION!” bellowed Ben as he jumped from his chair and ran to the entry way.

Looking up from trying to extricate himself from under his friends, Joe gave the widest grin, “Oh, hi Pa…”

“Don’t ‘hi Pa’ me. Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“Uh… trying to get here on time?” Joe laughed his answer.

Adam came up behind his father, placed a hand upon his shoulder, and gave a squeeze. Sinking down to his heels, Adam looked Joe in the eye and asked, “Do you need a hand up?”

Rolling onto his side, Joe held up his still bandaged hands, “Can you give me two?”

Hoss laughed out a huge guffaw at his brother’s antics.

“Adam, why don’t you help Joseph to his feet, and bring him upstairs,” suggested Doc Martin as he moved towards the staircase. “I’d like to take a look at his hands while I’m here.”

“Ah, Doc,” whined Joe as Adam assisted him to his feet. “I’m fine.” He shouldered into Mitch on one side, who shoved him back only to have him shoulder into Seth.

“March!” Ben ordered, his hand pointing towards the staircase.

“Yes, sir.”

Joe quickly covered his posterior when Ben threatened a swat.

“I’m going!” he laughingly declared.

Joe ran up the stairs cackling and calling out, “I’ll be back!!!”

“Yes, a child shall lead them,” Truman heard Ben whisper.

*****

By the time Paul Martin had finished his examination of Joe’s hands, he had changed the thick wrapping around the boy’s left hand to a light bandage without any kind of a splint. He intended for the bandage to only remind the boy to still take it easy. As for the boy’s right hand, the dark bruising had vanished, but the doctor was still a little concerned with the swelling over the boy’s knuckles.

Joe grumped when the wooden slat was repositioned and the heavy bandage was wrapped around it and his right hand.

“It’s for the best Joe. I’m trying to keep your hand slightly immobilized so the knuckles will have a chance to heal properly.”

“I know…” moaned Joe. “I just wish…”

“A couple more weeks… We’ll see how your hand is doing then. Just be thankful that your left hand is almost completely healed.”

“That is something… isn’t it?”

“It is really something,” answered Paul. “Now come on, let’s go downstairs and enjoy Hop Sings cooking.

*****

As Ben settled to sleep that night, he hesitated in using the term miraculous, but in the weeks since the Cunninghams had arrived at the Ponderosa he had watched a miraculous transformation in his youngest son as well as his entire family.

*****

Several weeks later, supper would be served within the hour as Ben watch the three riders make their way into the yard, he wondered if this is what it would eventually look like when his youngest had reached his full growth… Adam, Gabe, and Hoss were quite the filthy sight.

“Bath house!” Ben warned, pointing with his left arm across his chest to indicate the far side of the house. “Don’t even think of coming through this front door. Hop Sing will definitely head back to China if you were to track all…” Ben flipped his hand rapidly back and forth, palm down, as if trying to figure out the phrase to use, “…all that… filth.”

“Pa, it ain’t nothing but clean, honest work…”

“Clean?” Gabe squealed before laughter burst forth.

“Honest yes, little brother, but definitely NOT clean,” joked Adam as they all dismounted and took their horses into the barn.

“Well, regardless of what it is we’re sure making a cowboy outa this here soldier…” Hoss announced.

*****

As the group sat down for supper, Gabe inquired about the absence of his father and Little Joe.

“They decided to camp out overnight,” Ben answered.

“WHAT?!” Gabe gaped. “My father has NEVER camped out a night in his life…”

“Pa, what brought this on?” Hoss asked as he reached for the bowl of mashed potatoes.

“I’m not sure.”

“I don’t like the idea of the two of them being out there all alone. Joe’s hands aren’t totally healed…”

“His left hand is practically healed, Paul said so.”

“Still… Did Truman take a rifle?” Adam inquired as he refused to accept the bowl from his brother.

“My father doesn’t know how to use a firearm, Adam. You know that.”

Before Adam began to rise he asked, “Where did they go? They shouldn’t be out there without someone to protect them.”

“Adam, sit down. To ease your concerns, I sent Charlie to watch over them for the afternoon, and he arranged for some of the other hands to rotate through the night to keep an eye on them from a distance. I’m not that much of a fool to allow them to go out on their own without protection…”

“I didn’t say you were,” Adam humbly bowed his head.

“Doctor Cunningham has made significant headway with Joseph and I know you would like to know what they’re talking about, but you’ll just have to wait…”

“I don’t care what they’re talkin’ about anymore…” Hoss replied. “I see a lot of the old Little Joe coming back, so if by Shortshanks talkin’ to Gabe’s Pa is good enough for him… it’s good enough for me.”

The conversation turned to what happened during the day, while the boys were working.

*****

At their campsite down by one of the many stream-fed large ponds on the Ponderosa, Joe was enjoying himself. He’d caught several fish that afternoon and had managed to instruct Doctor Cunningham in how to clean them, and now, the fruit of his labors was sizzling in the pan over the fire.

“Joe, I’ve enjoyed my time with you these past weeks,” Truman announced as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you…” Joe stated as he cooked their supper, not turning to look at the man who sat behind him. He managed to remove the bandage around his right hand so that he could properly hold the frying pan, it barely hurt when he gripped the handle.

Truman noticed, and kept a close eye on Joe to make sure the boy wasn’t setting himself back.

“Yes, I have a practice to return to in Boston.”

“Guess I should thank you for spending all this time with me and helping me figure stuff out…” Joe stated.

“You’ve done that plenty, Joe.”

“How… I don’t remember thanking you…”

“Not directly, but you’ve opened my eyes to a whole new world. This land… the beauty, oh I know she can be harsh, as you’ve experienced, but it takes good, honest people with a talent for living to call this home. This is living. Back in Boston…”

“Why don’t ya stay here?” Joe asked as he served up one of the fish fillets to the physician. “I mean, you don’t have to stay here on the Ponderosa, I’m sure that Sacramento or one of the other big cities in California could use a doctor like you, maybe even Denver. I can’t be the only mixed up person in the world…”

“Do you still feel mixed up?” Truman asked.

“Not so much, just every once in a while.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“You know, if you stayed out west, you’d be closer to Gabe, and you could still come visit us… I know Pa’d like that… having someone his own age who’s not a ranch hand to talk too.”

“You are remarkable. I told your father that the first night after we spoke. But, what of Paul Martin or Vernon Biggs?”

“Gee the only time Doctor Martin comes is when one of us is injured or sick and then during our recovery… He’ll come every now and then for supper. And Sheriff Biggs, Pa’d rather not have him come because it would probably mean one of my brothers were in jail.” Joe laughed. “Guess things will change now that things are getting back to normal.”

“Life is all about changing and how you handle the changes. Your family is changing Joe, they’re looking forward to living life,” Truman stated.

Both settled back to eating the supper.

“How’s Adam doing?” Joe asked.

“What do you mean?” Truman was curious. He had never thought their conversations would take this path.

“I’m sure none of this has been easy for him… Especially me blaming him for not coming home…” Joe paused, his shoulders slumped.

“Well, I do know your oldest brother and he’s not the type of person who would open up to a man in my position, oh… He’s asked me questions about how to help you and what they should do in certain situations… but he won’t talk about himself.”

“So… How do you help him? I mean if he won’t talk to you about himself.”

“Not me… Gabe’s been doing most of that.”

“But I didn’t think he was a doctor? I thought he was in the Army.”

“He is in the Army, but Joe, even you can help your brother… Just be there for him, and more importantly keep telling him you love him and don’t forget to show him, too.”

*****

Long after dishes were washed and the campsite cleaned up, Joe and Doctor Cunningham lay on top of their bedrolls, listening to nature quieting for the night.

Truman interrupted the peace of the night, “Joe, that first night we met, after you went to bed… I talked with your father and told him that I’d let him know how you were doing, and I’ve done that.”

Joe sat up, concerned about what the doctor meant.

“I’ve not repeated anything that you’ve said to me, but I have written a lot of it down in a journal.”

Joe became defensive in posture as he turned towards the man.

“I’d like to give my journal to you, to do with as you please. You can burn it in the fire or you can give it to your family or keep it…”

Truman pulled the journal out from the satchel he had brought with him and handed it to Joe.

“Why’d you write all that stuff down?” Joe asked as he hesitantly took the book.

“I didn’t write ‘stuff’ down, I wrote down what you said and my observations, and I referred to my notes on quite a few occasions as I’ve tried to help you. You’ve come so far that I think you’ve honestly accepted that you have a good life to live.”

“I know I do…”

“And I believe you, but it’s not just that you’ve accepted it, you’re living it. You were fairly sullen that first day, too polite but only to avoid getting in trouble with your father. It took a while before I ever heard you laugh… now any room you walk into changes, especially with your family. I never really believed in ‘shining eyes’, but I see it now…” Truman’s voice changed to one of amusing warning, “And if you’re not careful, your shining eyes are going to get you into a lot of mischief and probably a few tannings from your father.”

“It’s worth the risk… And it’s only because he loves me…” Joe cackled. There was no fear of repercussions for any of his transgressions. He knew there was a difference between the abuse he’d suffered through and the punishments he probably would deserve.

*****

The family and Gabe lounged around the great room with Ben settled back into his chair, preparing his pipe to smoke, “Care to talk about it Hoss?”

“Huh?”

“You seem too quiet.”

“Nah, it ain’t nothin’,” answered Hoss.

“I miss him too,” Adam offered as he ‘toasted’ his brother with his cup of coffee. “Kind of got real used to hearing that peculiar laugh of his the past couple of weeks. Though sometimes, it does grate on my nerves.”

“Yeah… Gabe, you don’t know how much it really means to this family to hear Shortshanks cackle like he does.”

The big man smiled, and those in the room would have sworn he grew right before their eyes; he sat up straighter and had an air about himself that rained happiness.

*****

Once their camp was cleaned, bearing little indication that someone had spent the night, Truman placed a hand upon Joe’s shoulder, in his other hand were the bandages and the splint.

“Aw… Do you have to?”

“Yes, I know you’ve managed well enough without them, but… I don’t want to suffer your father’s wrath or that of Doctor Martin. Besides, I think he’ll remove them for good sometime this week.”

“You think so?” Joe hoped.

Truman nodded and a few minutes later, it was hard to tell that the bandages had ever been removed.

*****

On Friday, Paul Martin made another return to the Ponderosa, arriving just before dinner, and completely removed the light-weight bandage from Joe’s left hand. The physician suggested for the boy’s right hand that he continue to wear a bandage, for support purposes only, just for another week or two.

As the family and their friends relaxed after dinner, Gabe and Truman announced their intentions to leave.

Truman knew it was finally time to leave, and their leaving would prompt one last hurdle for Joe, his first trip to town. The physician knew the family was able to handle anything from here on out on their own… For the past week, most of their conversations had been more about the land and the work they performed than Joe.

*****

The house had quieted and Ben was banking the hearth in the great room, he looked up when he sensed someone on the stairs.

“Joseph, isnt’ it a little late for you to be up? I thought you went to bed hours ago.”

“I did, but I couldn’t sleep,” Joe answered as he finished walking down the stairs, proceeding to stand next to his father.

“Is there something I can help you with?”

It wasn’t that Joe was hesitant; he just didn’t know exactly how to begin the conversation.

“Pa, I… I think that I can help you with something…” Joe quietly stated.

“Oh?”

Ben watched as Joe revealed the book he was holding behind his back.

“I think this is what you’ve been wanting to know…”

“What is this?” Ben asked as he sat down on the stone hearth and looked at the book his son held.

“It’s Doctor Cunningham’s journal, his notes from our talks.”

“Does he know you have this?” Ben grew worried when his son told him what it was.

“He gave it to me when we went camping. Said he wanted me to have it, that I could do with it what I wanted.”

“And you want me to have this?”

“At first I wanted to burn it… But, I guess you have a right to know…I’d like for you to have it,” Joe answered as he held the journal out in front of him.

“How do you feel about that?” Ben asked as he held up his hands to accept the book.

“You’re my Pa and… regardless of what’s in there, I love you and I know that you, and Adam, and Hoss love me.” Joe let go of the book as it settled in his pa’s hands.

*****

Monday morning Ben drove the surrey with Truman and Gabe away from the Ponderosa, while Adam, Hoss, and Joe rode their own mounts. The oldest sons knew this would be one of the greatest tests for Joe and so they rode one on either side of him.

Adam smiled smugly at his youngest brother, he may not have reached his teen years yet, but he looked quite the image in his gray pants, black shirt and neck kerchief, and his grey jacket. The oldest brother laughed as Hoss repositioned Joe’s black hat to sit straight on the boy’s head, only to have Joe return it to being cocked slightly to the left side. Adam deeply sighed, wondering what would be in store for all of them once Joe became interested in… girls.

Having kept an eye on the youngest member of their traveling party and his interactions with his brothers, Truman knew his debt to Adam was now paid in full. The boy was animated in his discussions with his brothers as he pointed out various landmarks and talked of the training he wanted to continue with his horse.

*****

Before the stagecoach appeared, Truman made one more announcement to the family, “I plan to see you boys next year.”

“I don’t know if it would be possible for us to make a trip to Boston,” Adam offered.

“Ya mean it?!” squealed Joe, his voice breaking in pitch.

“I took your advisement seriously young man,” Truman stated as he looked to Joe.

“What advisement did you give?” a nervous Ben inquired.

“I’ll be closing my practice in Boston once winter breaks; after I’ve made inquiries where to relocate my practice. I’d like to be a lot closer to my son, as well as my adventure advisor.”

*****

As the stage disappeared from view, Ben spoke, “Come on boys, let’s head home.”

“Cain’t we eat in town?” begged Hoss.

“I don’t know…” Ben worried.

“Pa, I think we should,” Joe sheepishly advised.

“Are you sure?” Ben asked. As the boy’s father he had been worried about Joe’s first trip to town. He was pleased with how it had gone so far, but he worried that something might happen to ruin the happy occasion.

“Well, if big brother here faints from hunger on the way home, don’t expect me to be able to help you get him back in the saddle.” With that, Joe took off running, heading towards the diner they had passed as they entered town, with Hoss quick on his heels.

“Joe has a point,” Adam sarcastically answered. “He’ll be fine, Pa.”.

“I’m just worried…”

“A father’s prerogative, I know. But in case you haven’t noticed,” Adam wrapped his arm around his father’s shoulder, “we have friends in town. They’re keeping an eye on him. Pa… Let’s just enjoy the fact that he is home…”

Ben took a moment to look at the business men along the boardwalk and watched them smile and laugh Little Joe, followed by his much larger brother, ran past the front of their establishments. It had been a long time coming, Joe squealing in laughter, running away from the mock-threat his brother imposed. As their shenanigans continued, a few women feign anger at the boy’s approach, but after quick tips of their hats and a rapid, “Excuse us,” from Hoss, the women shook their heads; raised hands hid their smiles.

“Adam?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“It’s good to have you home.  Thank you.”

~The End

NOTE: I’ve taken a little bit of literary license with history; the first psychology clinic opened in Germany in 1879. But that doesn’t mean that doctors in America weren’t also experimenting in treating the whole patient, mind and body.

From the Etymology Online Dictionary: 1650s, “study of the soul,” from Modern Latin psychologia, probably coined mid-16c. in Germany by Melanchthon from Latinized form of Greek psykhe- “breath, spirit, soul” (see psyche) + logia “study of” (see -logy). Meaning “study of the mind” first recorded 1748, from Christian Wolff’s “Psychologia empirica” (1732); main modern behavioral sense is from early 1890s.

Also, as noted in Part One, I’ve taken the liberty to adjust the months that students would attend school. With The Ponderosa being located in the Sierra-Nevada Mountain range, the amount of snow totals at this elevation would make it practically impossible for those children who do not live in town to attend school during the winter months. So in this story, there is no lengthy time off during the summer, but time off during December through March.

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