For the Love of Little Joe (by Christy)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  27,2000


PROLOGUE

 

Ben Cartwright was deep in thought while he walked from a meeting at the International House in Virginia City. His mind was methodically measuring the amount of trees that would need to be taken down to fill a new logging contract. They would need to order new saplings to plant to replenish the ones thinned. Long ago, Ben had made that practice a rule. For every tree felled on the Ponderosa a new one was planted. His mind preoccupied, Ben suddenly collided with a young man coming out of a new General Store that had been opened recently. Both men stumbled backward a bit. Ben was about to apologize when his chocolate colored eyes focused on the hot-headed curly haired man who turned on him with blazing green eyes and temper let loose.

“What the hell is the matter with you, Mister?” the boy demanded. Ben shook his head in confusion, his heart starting to hammer in wild hope as he recognized the young man in front of him.

“Wait!” the older silver-haired man exclaimed. Ben didn’t see the gunfire but he felt his chest explode in a fire of agony. Crumbling to his knees, Ben Cartwright witnessed the young man collapse to the ground unconscious. From far away he heard footsteps.

“No!” he gurgled. “No, Joe!” Ben’s hand went out to the boy, and then hit the ground with the rest of his body. Still clinging to reality, the terribly wounded Cartwright tried to crawl towards the son he believed had died…three years ago. Only able to move a few inches, Ben’s hand was outstretched, touching the brown curls until he lost consciousness, fighting for a life that might have been taken by his own son.

*****

Adam and Hoss Cartwright burst through the doors to Dr. Paul Martin’s office. One of the sheriff’s deputies had ridden out to the ranch to get the two men but both had been out working, Hoss rounding up cattle and Adam mending fences. It had taken a while to find each of them. Now, it was early evening, several hours since Ben had been shot. The brothers met each other on the road, riding in silent anguish into town as fast as their mounts would carry them. Paul came out of his surgery at the sound of the doors slamming.

“Adam, Hoss. I’m glad you’re here,” the doctor greeted.

“Where’s our Pa, Doc?” Hoss demanded, his blue eyes showing his anguish. Brother Adam’s mouth was set in a hard line. The young man was wound tighter than a coiled rope ready to snap.

Dr. Martin’s voice was grim as he spoke. “Your Pa is sleeping, Hoss. I’m sorry to say he was gravely injured. Right now it’s touch and go.”

“No!” Hoss cried. “What the hell happened?”

“Apparently he was shot outside the General Store. The shooter is in jail. A witness says he drew on Ben for no reason and just shot him. Ben never had a chance.”

“I’ll kill em,” Hoss hissed. “Ain’t Pa been through enough?” Tears stood in the big man’s eyes.

Dr. Martin put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “Hoss, talk like that will not help your father. Knowing Ben, the best medicine for him is to have you boys by his side. Normally my wife and I would do the nursing, but I know you boys too well. Ben may be asleep, but he’ll know you’re here, so I’ll fix up a bedroom and you can take turns sleeping while one of you sits with him. How’s that sound?”

“Fine. Let us see him, Paul,” Adam ordered. Paul ignored the cold tone. Adam Cartwright always kept his feelings under wraps, but since Joe’s death, Ben’s eldest son was darker than ever as if protecting his own was the only thing that mattered. Dr. Martin led the two men into the surgery where Ben lay sleeping. His shirt had been taken off leaving him covered with a large white dressing over his right chest. Ben’s face was pale, his lips almost white. Hoss grabbed the end of the bed while Adam sat beside his father on the bed. Paul’s heart bled for the two remaining Cartwright sons. When one of the Cartwright men was hurt, they all were in pain. Unable to witness the family’s distress, Paul left the room.

“Pa?” Adam’s voice lingered in the air, the soft vulnerability tugging at Hoss’ heart. Ben laid so still, his chest drawing in slow breaths, as if each might be his last. Taking the work-worn hand in his own, Adam squeezed it, swallowing his disappointment when Ben didn’t respond. “Pa, it’s Hoss and me. We’re here.” Adam had seldom seen his father so terribly injured. Hoss leaned over the bed, needing to let his pa know he was near.

“We’re gonna stay right here with ya, Pa. You gotta fight. Please, Pa. Ya caint leave us,” Hoss added.

Adam’s eyes rested on his brother for a minute. Hoss was so readable, his grief for his father written all over his face. Standing up, the older brother went to the younger placing an arm around the broad shoulders. “You stay with Pa, Hoss. I’m going over to the jail.”

“Adam, if yer aiming to git information outta that low down, no good lowlife, I’d like ta help ya,” Hoss offered.

Adam knew what kind of help Hoss was offering. It wasn’t in questioning the man. He shook his head. “You don’t mean that, Hoss. You put your life on the line and Pa will have my head.”

Hoss had to chuckle at that. “Reckon he would at that. I’ll stay with Pa.”

“Thought you would, Little Brother. I’ll be back.” Adam walked back to his father’s side. He squeezed Ben’s hand again. “Promise I’ll be back, Pa.” Leaving the doctor’s house was hard for the black-clothed man. He wanted nothing more than to stay with his father, with the man he respected more than any other. Thoughts of his brother followed him down the street to the Virginia City jail. If Joe were here, would that make a difference to his father in fighting for his life? Adam scuffed to himself. Of course, it would. Little Joe could convince Pa to do anything. He’d keep at Pa till Ben did whatever he wanted him to. That was Joe. His baby brother had the same effect on all of them.

“Joe, why?” Adam asked himself. “Why?” He’d never figure how Joe could have got himself killed the way he did. Joe’s loss was a living nightmare to his father and brothers. The fifteen-year-old had been on his way to school when he disappeared. Weeks later, while Ben, Adam, and Hoss still searched frantically for the boy, soldiers had wiped out a Bannock camp. Two captives, women, told how Joe was killed, his body thrown over a waterfall, only a few days before the raid. Joe had literally been tortured to death. Adam couldn’t forget, no matter how he tried. He loved Joe so much…he always would he figured. Shaking himself, the oldest Cartwright son left his thoughts behind and entered the Virginia City jail where Sheriff Roy Coffee was sitting at his desk. Roy stood to greet him.

“Adam? Figured one of you boys would be over. How’s your father?” Adam’s dark face was the sheriff’s answer. Roy sighed. Ben was a good friend of his. Known the man more years than he could count and Ben’s boys too.

“Where is he, Roy?” Each word was all Adam, stoic and hard.

Roy nodded to the cell. “Got him back there. There’s something you should know though before you see him.”

“How’s that?”

Roy looked uncomfortable, but somehow pleased at the same time. Adam barely noticed. Roy was middle aged with a receding brown hairline and a muscular build. He was as familiar to Adam as his own father was.

“Well. Don’t reckon there’s an easy way ta say this, but…the man in the cell ain’t much more n a boy and his name is Joe.”

“So?”

“Adam…it’s Little Joe.”

Adam clenched his fists as he quenched a show of emotion. Confusion, anger, hurt…hope and disbelief all surged within while he fought to maintain his distance. His voice gave him away instantly as he hoarsely cried out. “No! It can’t be. Joe’s dead.”

“As God is my witness, Adam. Either its Little Joe or his twin brother. Look for yourself.” Roy opened the door to the back of the building where the jail cells were.

Walking after him, Adam’s mental argument against the possibilities went on as he approached the cell. The prisoner laid on a thin mattress and cot with his face to the wall. He didn’t turn even when the men’s footsteps sounded on the floorboard. Adam figured the boy had to have heard them. He saw the brown curls, even the form of the boy’s body. Still, he fought against believing…or hoping. Roy spoke up.

“Joe? Turn around Joe. There’s someone here to see you.”

“Who?” the boy mumbled, still not moving.

“Adam Cartwright. It was his father you shot.”

Adam’s furrowed eyebrows told Roy of his confusion at that comment. Roy bent over and whispered the rest of the story to him. “He says his name is Joe Black. He told me he don’t have a family.”

“Dear God,” Adam breathed out loud. With those words he figured he must have caught Little Joe’s attention for the boy turned over in bed and sat up. Adam took a few steps back in his shock at taking in Little Joe’s features. Joe! Joe! Joe! For a second Adam wondered if he could actually keep himself from running to Joe and hugging him. He had to stay in control. Of all times, he had to stay in control!

“I’ll leave you two alone,” Roy said.

“Let me into the cell, Roy.”

“Adam, that’s not procedure,” Roy deferred, his eyes narrowing with evident concern.

“He’s my brother, Roy,” Adam hissed his voice soft enough that Joe couldn’t hear. “For God’s sake, I won’t hurt him.”

“Give me your gun,” Roy ordered after hesitating for several seconds, looking back and forth between the two men.

Adam gave the sheriff an exasperated look. “Roy! Do you think I would use it on him?”

“No, but he could use it on you.” Roy replied. Adam rolled his eyes, but realized the truth of the sheriff’s words. If Joe would shoot his own father, he might shoot him. Adam handed over his gun and belt. Roy put the weapon and belt back in the office and then opened the door to the cell. Little Joe didn’t move. Adam stood in the cell as Roy locked the cell door behind him.

Shamefaced, Little Joe hung his head. “I’m sorry,” he stammered.

Adam steeled himself. How many times in his life had he heard Joe apologize and in just the same manner, with his head down and his voice contrite. Again it took everything he had not to take Joe in his arms and hug him, not just to comfort him but to know he was real. He took a deep breath before speaking. “So…you’re admitting you shot our…my father?” Joe’s head shot up. Adam steeled himself against the green eyes that stared into his own brown ones. Joe! Joe, how can you not know me, Adam screamed to himself. Little Buddy, it’s me, Adam!

“I didn’t!” Joe denied hotly with his usual impetuous temper. “I didn’t shoot him. I admit I drew my gun on him, but I didn’t shoot him. I was just in a bad mood. Ya gotta believe me.”

“A man saw you,” Adam reminded him.

“I don’t care who saw me,” Joe retorted. “I didn’t shoot him. The gun the sheriff took off me aint even mine.”

“What do you mean?”

“Mine was given to me by the man I worked for on a ranch over in California. He had my initials inscribed on it, JB. This one is a little fancier than mine even. It ain’t mine.”

“Did you tell the sheriff about the guns?” Joe’s skepticism at the question was written all over him. Adam sighed. His little brother wore his feelings like his clothes. Clearly he felt trapped.

“Sure, I told him. He don’t believe me. Why should he?” Joe’s skepticism about his own self hurt Adam. What happened to his little brother? Where was that funny kid who got into trouble at every turn with his schemes and impulsive nature? This boy was a shadow of the Joe Adam had known. He leaned against the wall, posing a less threatening stance, offering his support as he spoke.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened, and that way I might be able to help you.”

“Why would you want to help me?” Joe asked with more skepticism. “You think I shot your father.”

“Let’s just say I believe a man is innocent until proven guilty.”

“Well then you’re sure different.”

“Listen, I have to get back to the doctor’s office to see Pa. Tell me what happened, please.” Adam couldn’t keep his desperation out of his voice. If Joe picked up on it, he didn’t know, but in any case, Adam was relieved when Little Joe told his story. The kid looked scared as he confessed what he believed happened.

“I was coming out of the store when I bumped into this white-haired old man.” Adam hid a smile, knowing how his father would be insulted being called old. Joe went on. “I got mad cause I figured he wasn’t watching where he was going. I know I got a temper. It gets me in trouble all the time. So I drew my gun and told the old man to watch it. He got a funny look on his face and was staring at me. Then I heard a shot and the old man fell down. Next thing I know someone’s hit me over the head and I was out. When I woke up I was here in this cell and the sheriff said I was under arrest for attempted murder. I swear I didn’t shoot the old man. I’m not a cold-blooded killer.” Joe spoke with passion, with determination and Adam knew truth. Inside, he breathed a sigh of relief. Joe hadn’t shot Pa. Hoss would be glad to know that. Of course what if Ben told a different story when he woke up?

“Mister, do you believe me?”

“What?” Adam asked his mind questioning himself and Little Joe.

“I asked didja believe me?”

“Any reason I shouldn’t?”

“No! It’s the honest truth. I’m sorry your pa was hurt, and I really hope he gets better.”

Adam stood up. He patted Little Joe’s shoulder, resisting the urge to tell him who he really was. He’d have to talk to Dr. Martin about that. “I believe you, Joe. Don’t you worry. I’ll talk to the sheriff. For now, you’re going to have to stay here.”

“I don’t care so much about being in jail. I just don’t want to go to prison for something I didn’t do,” Little Joe said. “I don’t like real small spaces though either.”

“No, neither do I,” Adam concurred. “Listen, Joe, I have to go back and see how Pa is. We’ll get this mess straightened out. I want to find out who did shoot Pa, so one way or another if you’re telling the truth, we’ll get you out of here. How do you feel?” Joe had leaned forward putting his head between his hands. Adam could see the bump on his head. About being hit, the kid definitely wasn’t lying, but Adam had an idea on how that would be explained by the so-called witness.

“My head feels like I’ve got the hangover of the century. Otherwise, I’m okay.”

“I’ll have the doctor come over and see you.”

“Aint got much money. Don’t need a doctor. I need to prove I’m innocent.” Adam felt pride in Little Joe’s words. Joe could care less about seeing a doc, but when it came to his reputation, well, all the Cartwright men felt that their name should stand for something. It was ingrained in them by their father’s pride almost from birth. If Adam wasn’t convinced of his brother’s innocence before, he was now. He patted the boy’s shoulder so he looked up.

“Listen,” Adam almost said Little Buddy, his pet nickname for Little Joe. He stopped, taking a deep breath before he continued. “Listen, Joe. There’s more going on here than either one of us understands. I want to be your friend and I want to help you. Are you with me?” With his green eyes assessing Adam’s face, Joe finally nodded much to the older man’s relief.

“Good decision,” Adam told him. “I’ll be back.”

“Promise?”

“I promise, Joe.” Adam fled from the jail to the outer office before he gave away his worry and anxiety. With the outer door shut, Little Joe couldn’t hear him talking to Roy.

“Roy, I want him released,” Adam insisted. “He needs a doctor.”

“I can’t do that, Adam,” Roy drawled. “He was seen shooting Ben.”

“He didn’t do it!”

“Now, Adam are ya saying that cause he’s yer brother or cause ya believe him.”

“I think you know the answer to that, Roy. He’s innocent.”

“Well, there’s been a lot a talk in town. Some people aren’t as sure as you are. I think Joe is safer here than out there. Why don’t I do some investigating? In the meantime Doc can look at him here.”

Adam closed his eyes just for second gathering his patience. Pa was still out the last he heard, but Adam knew, he knew that if he heard Joe’s voice, he’d fight harder. “Fine,” he conceded against his own wishes. “I’ll check back with the doc and my pa and Hoss. But I won’t stand by to watch Joe go to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Damn it, Roy, we just found him.”

“I understand, Adam.”

“Do you, Roy? I don’t think so.”

“Now just a dang minute. I’ve known you boys since you came to this country. Known Joe since the day he was born. Ben is one of my best friends. Don’t you think I understand how upset Ben was when that little gal told him Joe was dead? Weren’t no reason not to believe her. Ben took it hard and I know the family ain’t been the same since.”

“Then for God’s sake, Roy. Let him go. I’ll take responsibility for him!”

“I can’t.”

Adam threw up his hands in disgust. Stomping out of the sheriff’s office, he wondered how he was going to free Joe in time to save his pa and help Joe at the same time to find himself.

*****

Back at the doctor’s office, Hoss was sitting with Ben. The big man sat on a chair, his large paw holding his father’s smaller hand in a firm grip. Ben was burning with fever. Dr. Martin’s nurse kept a porcelain basin of cool water on a nightstand next to the bed. Hoss used clean clothes to keep Ben’s forehead cool. Ben was restless, but did not regain consciousness.

“Pa,” Hoss stammered. “Pa…I know yer hurtin with all this. Wish Joe was here ta tell ya it’d be awright, but ya know it will be. Ya just gotta fight, Pa, please. Adam and me, we done lost Little Brother. We caint stand ta lose ya too. Pa? Pa kin ya hear me? If ya kin, I wouldn’t mind was ya ta yell at me or something.” Ben’s lack of response ate at the young man. The emptiness in Hoss’ heart threatened to consume him with a choking sensation that hurt worse than any physical pain. Iff’n his little brother was here, he wouldn’t leave their pa’s side for nothing till Ben was well. Joe adored his pa. Hoss loved his father too and his brothers. He missed Little Joe every day. Sometimes he missed him so much his heart purely hurt.

“Hoss?” Adam’s voice brought him out of his reverie. “Hoss, how’s he doing?”

“Adam! Ain’t nothing different.” Hoss stood to let his brother sit with their father. Instead Adam drew Hoss out of the room. “Adam! Whatcha doing? We don’t wanta leave him alone.”

“I need to talk to you, Hoss. It’s important.”

“What’s so dang blasted important, Big Brother? Dadburnit, Adam, Pa needs us.”

“I know that, Hoss. Just listen. I saw the man in jail. He’s not just any man, Hoss.”

“Well, who is it?” Hoss asked with exasperation.

“Little Joe.” Adam was blunt, too blunt. Hoss was exhausted. Leaning against the wall, the middle brother stared at Adam as if he had said one of their long dead mothers was sitting in the jail instead of Little Joe.

“Caint be,” Hoss gapped.

“Trust me, Hoss. I know our baby brother when I see him…and talk to him.” Adam could read Hoss as easily as a book. The same conflicts he felt were now flashing across his brother’s face. Hoss was as stunned as he was and then some.

Finally, Hoss spoke. “I caint hardly… Little Joe’s alive? But he shot Pa? He wouldn’t. I don’t believe it. Ya won’t convince me in a million years.”

“I don’t think he did either, Hoss. He says he didn’t. The truth is, the only one who can tell us, is Pa.”

“What exactly did the little feller say?”

“Little Joe admits he drew on Pa, but it was in a temper; he insists he wouldn’t have shot a man in cold blood. He’s determined to prove his innocence.”

“Iff’n Little Joe didn’t do it, then who did?”

“A man says he witnessed the shooting. We’ll have to talk to him.”

“Adam, what did Little Joe say when he saw you? What happened to him? How’d he git back here? Why didn’t he come to the ranch?”

“Whoa, Little Brother,” Adam answered. “I have all the questions you do. He gave me some answers, but he can’t give me all. Hoss, he has amnesia.” Adam swallowed hating what he had to say. Hoss was stunned yet again. Adam’s voice was filled with a vulnerable loss as he went on. “Joe…Joe didn’t recognize me. He doesn’t know who Pa is either.”

Hoss was in a state of disbelief. “No! No, Adam. It ain’t true. I gotta go talk to him. He’ll remember. He will.”

“No, Hoss, he won’t. I talked to Paul at the jail. He’s over there now examining Joe. Joe got hit on the head so that’s a good excuse to check him out. Paul will know what to do, and whatever he says, we’ll have to do it for Joe’s sake.”

Hoss was about to answer when a terrific crash came from the surgery where Ben had been sleeping. Ben’s voice cried out with a particular paternal sound that ripped at his sons. They raced into the room as he cried out again. “Joe! Joe!”

The brothers found their father lying on the floor, writhing in pain, rolling back and forth. He had pulled down a tray that contained the bowl of water and a pitcher of cold water on it. Ben was soaked to the skin.

“Pa!” the men cried simultaneously. Hoss was quick to move despite his size. With exceedingly gentle care, he lifted Ben back on to the bed. Ben kept muttering for Joe.

“He’s delirious, Hoss,” Adam murmured when Ben was lying down. Ben’s forehead was hot to the touch, his face flushed.

“I kin see that. We gotta get him cleaned up.”

“He wants Joe.”

“He must have seen him before he was…” Hoss couldn’t bring himself to say the word, shot. “How are we gonna tell him?”

“We’re not just yet. Come on, let’s get him warm and dry.” Hoss simply nodded.

“Pa?” Adam called to his father. “Pa, we’re going to get you more comfortable. Can you hear me, Pa?” Ben was weak. His chocolate colored eyes which often spoke of his thoughts and emotions were glazed, unfocused. Adam sighed as Ben just continued to mumble Joe’s name. The older man allowed his sons to help him without fuss. Hoss found a nightshirt in the bedroom he and Adam were to use while staying with the doctor. They put it on over Ben after washing and drying him. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to have bothered the chest wound with his fall.

“Pa, I swear,” Adam sighed after Ben was settled and had fallen asleep. “And you think your sons are bad patients.”

“He can’t hear ya, Big Brother.”

“I know, Hoss.” A knock on the door announced Dr. Paul Martin’s arrival home. Hoss was cleaning up the shattered porcelain on the floor as Adam moved out of the doctor’s way.

”What happened?” Dr. Martin asked moving towards his patient. Without waiting for a reply, he went on, “Let me check Ben over.”

“He tried to git outta bed, Doc. He’s been calling for Little Joe,” explained Hoss.

“Joe? Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. Natural he’d call for Joe.” Adam and Hoss exchanged glances but remained silent. Finally, Dr. Martin finished his exam. “Well, he’s all right, no thanks to him. The fever is pretty high. His pulse is fast too.”

“Doc, if he could see, Little Joe, would that help?” Adam asked. Dr. Martin looked from his patient to Ben’s sons. He shook his head.

“What’s that mean?” Hoss demanded. “Is that a no?”

“That means it doesn’t matter how much good seeing Little Joe would do Ben. It means that Joe doesn’t know who he is much less his family. He wouldn’t be able to help Ben even if he wanted to.”

“Can’t we tell him who he is?”

“Joe suffered a concussion when he was hit over the head. I’m not sure if telling him right now is the best thing for him.”

“He has to know,” Adam ground out. “Doctor, I’m not going to sit around and let that kid suffer anymore.”

“What makes you think he’s suffering?”

“He thinks he’s alone against an attempted murder charge. I don’t believe he did it in the first place, but in the second I can’t let him think he’s alone any longer. He’s been alone long enough.” Hoss nodded his agreement.

Dr. Martin was long used to the Cartwright boys’ loyalty and love for the family. They were unique and very close despite the fact that in truth they were only half brothers. “All right, but you have to remember it is going to be a shock for him. You cannot fill in his memories, Adam. He has to remember for himself.”

“Fine. When can we tell him?”

“Let him rest for awhile. We can tell him tomorrow. One more day won’t kill him.”

“It might kill Pa,” Hoss muttered.

“If his fever gets worse or he reaches a critical point, I’ll tell Joe myself,” Dr. Martin acquiesced.

“I’ll tell Joe,” Adam insisted. “Or Hoss. Better it comes from family.”

Hoss had finished cleaning up the broken porcelain. He asked Dr. Martin where he could get another bowl of cool water. While the doctor showed him, Adam sat down with his father. Gazing into the fevered face, he wished Ben was well, that he wasn’t hurt, anything but this. “Pa,” he said in a quiet tone. “Pa, it’s me, Adam. Joe is here, Pa. He’s alive. He can’t come right now, but we’ll get him here. You hear me, Pa? Joe is alive. Please, Pa, hold on to that. Hold on for Joe’s sake and for Hoss and me. We need you, Pa. We need you.” Ben remained asleep. Adam bowed his head in sorrow and fear. He bowed his head in prayer.

*****

Early the next morning, Joe woke to find himself still living a nightmare, as if his life wasn’t messed up enough. Sitting up on the edge of the bed, his head screamed at him, causing him to moan and remember his concussion. The moan was embarrassing, and the young man was glad no one had heard him.

“Some mess ya got yer self into this time, Joe. What’s wrong with you? How come ya can’t get a handle on your temper? Now look how much trouble you’re in.” His words tumbled out despite himself. For one thing it felt good to hear something, even his own voice in the hollow part of his heart.

“Why?” Joe asked. “Why is this happening to me? I didn’t shoot him. I didn’t!” Falling back on the bed, the young man allowed himself a few tears. He didn’t hear the door open, nor did he initially see the big man who came in with a breakfast tray. As the double doors slammed shut behind the man, Joe turned on his side, his eyes widening at the sight of the very large man in front of him. Only the breakfast tray he held told the boy that the man probably wasn’t dangerous. “What do ya want?” he asked with a little more sullenness than he intended. “I don’t need nuthin.”

For a second the big man stared at Joe. His mouth was open in a small oh. Clamping his mouth shut, he put the tray down on a table by the door. He held the keys to the cell in his hand. “Iff’n I open this door, ya won’t try to escape will ya?”

Joe was offended by the question and showed it. “Heck no! I’m no coward. I ain’t going nowhere till everyone knows I didn’t shoot anybody. Ain’t fool enough ta tussle with a big galoot like you no how.” To Joe’s surprise a big smile came over the stranger’s face. For a brief second Joe felt a tug at his heart, as if he should cherish that silly smile.

The man opened the cell door then stepped back to get the tray. He put it down on the bed, then sat on the other side of the tray, looking at Joe with a sudden offended stance. “Big galoot, huh?” he goaded.

Joe gulped. Had he offended the stranger? “Er, um, didn’t mean anything by it. Just kind of came to me.”

Hoss laughed, his body laughing with him as he spoke. “Aw, ya don’t need ta worry. I brought ya some vittles from the International House. Didn’t figure ya would like the sheriff’s cooking. He ain’t that great a cook.”

“How do you know?”

“Been here a time or two. Pa usually comes and bails me or my brothers out, but we gotta pay the bail out of our wages. Pa don’t hanker much with barroom brawls. Problem is, I got me a temper and sometimes I git right ornery.”

“Your Pa? He…he wouldn’t be that Mr. Cartwright, would he?”

Hoss almost grinned at Joe’s uneasiness. Joe was looking at him, but the green eyes were definitely uncomfortable. “How’d ya know?”

“I dunno. Just the way you said, Pa. Sounded like that fella, Adam was here yesterday,” Joe answered.

“Well, when yer right, yer right. Names Hoss Cartwright, and Adam is one of my brothers.”

“Horse?” Joe asked. “What kinda name is that?” Even as he asked the big man the question, Joe could feel the name wasn’t horse. It was Hoss, and it fit the big friendly man. There was no anger in him, nothing but a sense of warmth and care. Why wasn’t he mad at him? Had Adam convinced him that Joe was innocent? He was still thinking when Hoss informed him he’d gotten the name wrong.

“Not Horse, Little…Joe. It’s Hoss. Means a big friendly man.”

“Hoss? Sounds right.”

“It does? Ya mean ya know the name?”

Joe picked up on Hoss’ excitement. He felt more at ease than ever with the man. Why was that? “S’pose I’ve heard it somewhere before. Why ain’t ya mad at me iff’n ya think I shot yer pa?”

“Adam done tole me what ya tole him. Reckon I believe him. Adam’s not the easiest feller to convince.”

Joe breathed a sigh of relief. He took the cover off the plate on the tray. He was surprised to see eggs, bacon, and biscuits. There was coffee on the tray too. Surprisingly, he was hungry. Hoss watched him eat, waiting patiently. In fact, if Joe didn’t know better, he’d think that Hoss enjoyed watching him eat. When he had eaten all he wanted, he put the plate done. Half of the meal was still there.

“Ain’t ya gonna finish?” Hoss asked.

“Nah. I don’t need much. Thanks though. That was a better breakfast than I’ve had in a long time. What’d ya go to the trouble for?”

“Had me a reason. Wanted ta let ya know there were no hard feelings. We, Brother Adam and me, well, we’ll do our best ta find out what’s going on and who really shot Pa.”

“How is he?” Joe asked with genuine concern. The boy didn’t miss the mixture of fear and worry that lined Hoss’ face for a moment until he replaced the appearance with some optimism. Again the change in expressions tugged at Joe’s heart. What was it about the big galoot?

“Pa’s holding his own. He ain’t woke much yet. Sometimes he calls for my other brother, but that’s all.”

“Your brother, Adam? Does he call for you?”

“Nah. He’s not calling fer Adam or me. He knows we’re there. Joe, when ya saw my pa yesterday, did ya know him?”

Joe gave Hoss a look of confusion. “Never met him before,” Joe replied. “Funny thing though. He looked like he knew me. I had my gun drawn on him and he said, wait. I did wait, Hoss, I did. Honest.”

“Joe, I tole ya, I believed ya,” Hoss assured the anxious young man. Joe was getting agitated. The way he spoke, the way he moved, the way he defended himself was all Joe. Hoss knew Adam was right and this was his little brother. Did Adam feel the urge to hug Joe, to take him right to Pa and show Pa that Joe was real, that he was alive? He’d lied a bit to Joe. Ben was running a high fever this morning. The doc didn’t think he’d last another day. It was killing Hoss. He needed to get Joe to his Pa.

“Glad for that,” Joe breathed. “Spose ya have ta git back to yer Pa. I appreciate ya bringing breakfast. It was real good.”

“Ya haven’t had a lot ta eat lately have ya?” Hoss asked.

Joe looked down at his hands, avoiding Hoss’ blue eyes. “What’s it to ya?”

“Just wondered. Ya look plume puny.” Joe’s green eyes blazed as he fought for his pride.

“I ain’t puny! Just cause I ain’t as big as you, ya big lummox.”

“Hey, Hey, it’s okay, Lil Joe. I was just…well just worried about ya.”

“Why?” Joe demanded, still angry.

“Cause I care about ya, cause…Aw shucks, Lil Joe. Doc said ya ain’t got no memory, but dadburnit, I caint believe ya don’t remember me or Adam or Pa. We’re yer family.” Hoss had tears in his eyes, his stomach churning, his heart breaking. His little brother was sitting in front of him and Joe didn’t even know them.

Joe’s face registered shock along with confusion. For several seconds, time ticked. Hoss waited for Joe to collect himself and answer him.

“Family?” Joe whispered. “I got family?”

“Ya sure do, Shortshanks!”

To Hoss’ horror, Joe grabbed his head with both hands. His unearthly cry of agony echoed through the cell until he collapsed unconscious onto the bed. Hoss choked on his own distress.

“Joe! Joe!” Hoss screamed. Without hesitation, the big brother who loved his baby brother with all his heart scooped the boy up in his arms and rushed out of the jail. Hoss had one thought only, to get Joe to Dr. Martin. His thoughts weren’t on anything else. He was only a short distance from the doctor’s office when his own head exploded with an agonal grip on him, pulling him down to the ground. Joe fell with him. Hoss tried to crawl to his brother. A shadow over him raised his arm. Hoss started to move but wasn’t fast enough. The arm came down sending Hoss into a sea of darkness.

*****

“All right, break it up!” Sheriff Roy Coffee hollered busting through the crowd that had gathered in a circle around Hoss and Joe’s prone bodies. Neither man was moving. Roy bent down over Joe. There was no injury on the boy, and he couldn’t figure out why he was unconscious. The sheriff, a man in his late forties or early fifties with a balding head and a medium build, couldn’t help hearing the grumbling that was emitted by the people surrounding him. He shuddered, his hand briefly touching his holster. Somehow the feel of the gun was comforting.

“No good kid. He tried to kill Ben Cartwright.”

“Murder. He deserves to hang for what he done.”

“Now he’s trying to escape from jail. Got Ben Cartwright’s own boy to break him out of jail.”

The voices kept on. Roy tried to ignore them. Bending over Hoss, he saw the man was out flat on his stomach, his head bleeding profusely from an open wound. “Who did this? What’s going on here?” Roy demanded, standing up. “We’re gonna need a wagon to get these men to Dr. Martin’s.”

“The kid don’t need a wagon, Sheriff. What he needs is a noose. I saw him. He tried to kill Ben Cartwright.”

“Warton, just because you think you saw something doesn’t make it so. And no one is going to lynch anyone. This is my town. If something happens to the boy, you’ll all find yourselves in jail.”

“Ya ain’t got the room, sheriff. My wife talked to the doc last night. Had to get some medicine. Doc said Cartwright’s real bad. I took that to mean he probably won’t make it. That’s murder.”

“Burke, shut up,” Roy ordered yet another excited citizen.

“He’s gonna hang, Sheriff,” one of the men yelled out.

“Not on my watch. Now one of you men get me a wagon!” Roy bent down over Joe who was waking up. Roy’s mistake was in turning his back to the crowd who had been spoiling to hang Joe ever since his friend, Ben was shot. Unlike Hoss, the sheriff never knew what hit him, but in an irrevocable second he hit the ground in a blanket of fog that rapidly pulled him down into dark nothingness. Joe groaned, opening his green eyes to find himself surrounded by a mob of angry people. Scrambling away from the crowd, the boy found himself dragged to his feet. Still a little dazed, Joe’s mind was quickly coming back to him. He knew danger when he saw it. Two men were holding him. He struggled to free himself in vain. In the next second, Joe found himself facing his accuser.

“Kid yer a murderer and yer going to pay.”

“Ben Cartwright ain’t dead yet. What if we string up the kid and Cartwright doesn’t die?” someone yelled out.

“He shot Cartwright. The man didn’t have a chance to defend himself. How long do ya think afore he does the same thing ta someone else? He’s a murderer. I say he deserves what he gets.”

If there were any dissenters in the crowd, no one else came forward. Joe had only a chance to look down at the big man still out cold on the ground. Hoss, he thought. Hoss and Adam had offered to help him. Hoss said he was family. What did that mean? Again he struggled. Again he was held firmly, this time dragged down the street and put on a horse. He tried to jump off the other side, but was caught before he hit the ground by Warton himself. Warton, a big man, almost as big as Hoss’ 6’4 inches hit Joe in the stomach twice, doubling the boy over. He lifted him back onto the horse. Another man climbed up behind Joe who was still bent over gasping for air. Someone handed the man some rope and he tied Joe’s hands behind him, then held the boy about the waist so he couldn’t move. The men started the walk out of town, bent on doing one thing by the end of the day, hanging an innocent man…or boy depending on how you looked at it.

*****

“Joe!” Adam cried witnessing in amazement the mob taking his brother away. No one heard him because he was in Dr. Martin’s waiting room, looking out the window. Joe was sitting on a horse with another man holding him. Around him at least twenty men escorted the horse and riders. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on. Dear God, Adam thought, they’re going to hang him! They’re going to hang my baby brother. Where was Hoss?

Dr. Martin came running. “Adam, what is it?”

Adam was still wearing his gun and belt. He started towards the front door. “It’s a lynch mob. They’re gonna hang Joe, I’m sure of it. Damn it, where is Hoss? He was supposed to be with Joe.”

“I don’t know, Adam, but you can’t stop them by yourself. Ben has friends who can’t be a part of this. Your father is sleeping. I’ll go and find anyone I can to support us and you find Hoss and the sheriff.”

“Great,” Adam sighed. “Hasn’t that boy suffered enough?” Adam hurried out of the house, racing towards the sheriff’s office. Paul followed him but went in a different direction to get some help. Adam’s heart sank at the sight of two bodies lying on the ground less than a block from the sheriff’s office. “Hoss,” the young man breathed. He reached his brother so fast, the dust settled around him as he knelt by Hoss’ still body.

“Hoss!” Adam yelled this time. Hoss moaned in reply. His hand came up to touch his head. Adam helped his brother sit up. “Hoss, are you all right?”

“Naw, I’m not awright,” Hoss groaned with evident irritability. “What hit me?”

“I don’t know, Hoss, but we have to move it. They got Little Joe. Was that crowd planning to do what I think they were?”

“Doggone it,” Hoss declared. “Aw, Joe. No wonder they done hit me. They’re gonna lynch him up, Big Brother. I heard em. I couldn’t get up but I could hear em.” The sheriff was still out.

“Hoss, can you walk?”

“Course I can.”

“We haven’t got much time. They’re walking with Joe, but I’m not sure where they’re going.”

“Me either, Big Brother.”

Adam was relieved when Dr. Martin came hurrying towards them while Harry from the livery came down the street, riding one horse and leading a few more. Dr. Martin bent over the sheriff, rousing him. Hoss stood, getting his bearings.

“Harry!” Adam cried. “Those for us?”

“You betcha, Adam. I saw that band of no-goods. Most of em don’t even know your pa. You take these horses Adam and bring them back when you’re done.”

“Thanks, Harry. Roy?”

“I’m fine. Stupid of me to get hit. Let’s go, boys.” Roy stumbled a bit as Dr. Martin helped him up. Hoss mounted, but it took him twice to get his foot in the stirrup.

Dr. Martin whispered to Adam. “They both might be concussed, Adam. Watch them. I’ve got some men coming. They’ll follow you. I need to get back to Ben.”

“Hope it’s not too late,” Adam answered with a grim feeling sucking him down. They had to get to Joe. Hoss and Roy might have been concussed, but they gave Adam a good race as they galloped their horses out of town following the tracks of the men who had taken Joe. It only took about ten minutes before they realized where the men were going.

“Hoss, Adam, hold up. They’re going to Four Roads Crossing,” declared the sheriff.

“They’re gonna use that great big old tree there at the crossroad,” Hoss cried.

“Let’s circle around them,” Roy ordered. Hoss and Adam nodded. Adam went straight in while Roy and Hoss circled around. Adam tried to concentrate on getting to the mob. He tried not to worry about Hoss. As Adam rode over the hill at the edge of town, his heart pounded hard. He could see Joe sitting on the horse, the noose already around his neck. Adam couldn’t see his little brother’s face, but he could almost feel the fear that Joe must be experiencing. Joe! Joe! Hold on, Little Buddy. He rode. He rode as fast as he could. But before he could reach him, before Hoss and Roy or the other men could reach Joe, a man hit the rump of the horse Joe was on. Frightened, the horse gave flight allowing Joe’s body to fall, the noose catching him. Through blurred eyes, Adam saw his brother grab the rope, attempting to save himself even as he choked. Adam pushed his horse through the crowd his eyes only on the boy, grabbling to survive, but he was too late for Joe’s hands finally gave up the struggle letting the rope take his life away while his legs kicked convulsively. Adam’s screams filled the air as the crowd went silent, their objective completed.

“No! No! Stop it. Stop! Joe!” Hoss came from behind Joe ready to release the deadly rope. Throwing himself off the horse, Adam wanted to shut out the sight of Joe’s body swinging in the wind. A minute? Two minutes? How long was it he wondered before Hoss cut him down and Adam caught the boy in his arms. Ripping the rope off of Joe’s neck, he prayed his neck hadn’t been broken. A gun being fired sounded far away.

It was actually only feet away from where Adam gently laid the unconscious boy while Roy yelled at the mob. “That’s all of it,” his voice rang out.

Hoss knelt next to Joe. Around them, Roy was asking questions of the men who had so grievously injured Little Joe. Adam and Hoss didn’t hear him now. Hoss took off the ropes that held Joe’s hands behind him as Adam examined the boy.

“Adam? Is he…” Hoss’ question was thick was unshed tears.

Joe’s head rested in Adam’s lap, the ugly rope burns leaving nasty marks about the boy’s thin neck. Joe’s eyes were squeezed shut, his body limp, too limp, Adam thought. Joe! Joe! Don’t do this. Don’t die now! You just got here. You just got home.

“Adam!” Hoss finally reached the oldest brother.

With shaking hands, hands that were usually so sure and sturdy, Adam Cartwright put his finger to the battered neck. Two fingers were better than one he had been taught by someone. Pressing deep, he felt nothing, nothing at all. Joe was gone!

“Adam! Dagnabit, Adam. Tell me.”

“I don’t know, Hoss. I can’t…I can’t…” Adam sobbed finally giving way to the tremendous loss he was feeling for Joe for the second time in his life. His fingers came away, then pressed again not as hard this time. This time…

“He’s alive! There’s a pulse. Oh Joe! You’re a good little buddy. Let’s get him back to Dr. Martin, Hoss.”

“He’s alive,” Hoss mumbled with relief and shock. Without further words, Hoss scooped his little brother up in his arms, watching the curly hair blow in the wind, aching with rage at the harsh marks on the throat, kicking aside the rope on the ground that almost took Joe away from him again. The crowd was walking back to town, the men noticed. Other men on horseback dallied close by. Neither man thought of who they were. Adam mounted his horse. Hoss lifted Joe up to Adam who took Joe in his loving arms facing him forward so his head was resting on his shoulder.

“Go, Adam. Don’t wait for me,” Hoss ordered. “Just go.” Adam nodded. Unspoken words flashed from Adam’s brown eyes to Hoss’ blue for a brief instant till Hoss turned back to his horse, and Adam trotted off towards town. Hoss leaned against the animal’s back, relief making him weak. A hand on his back didn’t even get his attention.

“Hoss? How was Joe?” Roy Coffee’s voice asked.

For a minute Hoss was too overwhelmed to respond. Wisely, Roy waited. After a minute, Hoss was able to mount his horse. He let his gaze rest on the sheriff, a fury of anger replacing the tears. “He’s alive, sheriff, but that’s about all. He coulda been killed by that low down no-good mob. They as good as hung my little brother. Ain’t nothing too bad could happen to em.”

“Now, Hoss, ya don’t mean that. Warton’s the one hit the horse. I had two of the men that came with us take him to the jail.”

“Two a them?” Hoss’ sarcasm, rare for him to even show, was evident. “Well, sheriff, I reckon ya got the situation unda control. I’m going to my brother. And he ain’t going back ta yer jail. He’s innocent, and Pa’ll tell ya so.” Hoss didn’t wait for a reply. He left Sheriff Roy Coffee in the dust and the wind, racing back to town to see if Little Joe would live or die. Only this time, if Little Joe died, it would be permanent. There would be no hope, no second chances, and no amount of love would bring the boy back to them.

*****

Adam clung to his brother on the ride back to Dr. Martin’s. The ride seemed to take forever when in reality it only took ten minutes. Ten long arduous minutes where Adam held Joe’s back with one hand, and kept his hands on his horse’s reins with the other. Feeling Joe’s head on his shoulder reminded the young man of the many times his baby brother had fallen asleep in bed with him, most especially after the boy’s mother died in a tragic riding accident. Little Joe had only been five years old. Adam always smiled when he thought of Marie, Joe’s mother. Her beauty, compassion and maternal love had been received reluctantly at first, then with gratitude from when he was a boy of twelve until he was almost nineteen. Then in an irrevocable instant Marie had broken her neck, dying immediately after her fall leaving Adam to help quell Joe’s nightmares when he called for the mama who could not come. Now Joe had been hung by the neck from a tree in another irrevocable second. Would he die? Was he suffering? Was he aware of anything that was happening or was he mercifully unconscious. Adam prayed he was for his brother’s raspy gasps for air frightened him. Dr. Martin’s house came into view. The oldest son breathed a sigh of relief when the doctor came out of the house to meet him.

“Adam! Joe! Dear God, they didn’t?” Dr. Martin’s reaction was no less horrified than Adam’s had been. The quiet Cartwright had no words to express his anger, nor the grief that threatened to drown him if Joe died. Dr. Martin held Little Joe in the saddle while Adam got down. Together the men took him into the house.

Adam stopped in front of the doctor’s surgery assuming they would take Joe to lie next to his father. “No, Adam. Your father is still very ill. We can’t upset him like this.”

“Has he been awake? Has he asked for Joe?”

“He’s not lucid much. When he asked for Joe, I told him Joe was in jail and you and Hoss were with him. Let’s take him into the bedroom. I can care for him there.”

In no time that was exactly what the men did. Joe’s breathing was getting worse, terrifying Adam further. When Joe was in bed, Dr. Martin raced from the room. He came back in a few minutes with several pillows. “Help me position these so his head is elevated. Keep his neck as straight as possible. He has some swelling, which is contributing to his breathing difficulty. How could they do this to a boy?” Dr. Martin’s indignation did nothing to help Adam.

“Is there anything else we can do to help him?” Adam hazarded while helping get Joe comfortable.

“No, Adam. If that doesn’t work, well, there isn’t anything else to do! Now go.” Sitting near his brother, Adam placed his head in his hands. Hoss arrived demanding to know how Joe was. Dr. Martin informed the middle Cartwright what he had told Adam.

Hoss clenched his fists his anxiety written all over him as he pleaded for help. “Doggone it, Doc. Ya caint let Little Brother die. Ya cain’t.”

“Hoss, it’s up to Joe. Now one of you needs to go and sit with your father. I gave him some sleeping powders before. If he finds out what happened to Joe, well, I can’t imagine how he’ll react, even in his current condition.” The three men were sick themselves observing the boy in bed. Like a bird gasping for air, Joe’s breaths were sickeningly audible, a wheeze that resounded in the room while the men talked.

“I can,” Adam mumbled. “I’ll go sit with Pa. Do you mind if I tell him what’s happening?”

“Yes I do, Adam. You know Ben. If he knows Little Joe is here, he won’t stay in bed. I’ll have to keep him sedated forever or at least until I’m satisfied he’s on the road to recovery.”

“But maybe seeing Lil Joe…” Hoss started.

“No, Hoss. You know Ben. You know exactly what he will do. I cannot risk it. Will you exchange your father’s life for your brother’s?”

“Course not! That’s not what I meant.”

“Hoss, settle down,” Adam ordered. “I’ll go to Pa. Stay with our little brother. Encourage him. Talk to him. Whatever you do, don’t let him die.”

Hoss forced a smile on his face. “I won’t, Big Brother…if I kin help it!”

Adam left the room. Hoss sat down with his brother. Dr. Martin took Joe’s pulse. Hoss let his hand brush through the curly hair. His eyes met Dr. Martin’s. “Whaddya think, Doc?”

“I think we’ll know more by morning,” Dr. Martin answered. “It’s going to be a long day and night.”

“I meant what I said, Doc,” Hoss declared in his determined manner. “I ain’t letting Little Joe die.”

Dr. Martin nodded. “I’ll hold you to that, Hoss,” the doctor answered.

Hoss bent over his brother, ignoring the crowing sounds as Joe breathed in life sustaining air. “Punkin, kin ya hear me? Kin ya hear me? I love ya Little Joe and Pa and Adam, they do too. Don’t matter what those men done or what they believe. We know ya ain’t done nothing ta hurt Pa. Ya wouldn’t do that. So ya fight, Punkin and when ya wake up and Pa’s better, we’ll find out who shot Pa. Ya hear me? It’s gonna be all right, Punkin. I promise ya.”

Dr. Martin nodded. “Keep talking to him, Hoss. I’m sure somewhere in there he can hear you. Just keep talking to him.” Hoss did as he was told, his voice softer than normal, but still enough to reach Joe, or so he hoped…hoped and prayed.

*****

Normally his screams could raise his father and brothers right out of bed. As the boy’s dream turned to a nightmare where he was confronted with pure terror. They were hanging him! He didn’t do it! He was innocent and he was going to hang! The rope around his neck was rough, cinched tightly against him. Suddenly the horse he’d been mounted on was gone, his body weight pulling him down and down and down. Choking, choking. He couldn’t breathe! Joe tried to get away, tried to holler. Only a raspy yell could be heard at an octave far lower and far softer than normal.

Sitting up in bed, his breaths coming hard and fast, Joe’s green eyes flew wildly about the room. “No!” he screamed. “No! I didn’t do it.” Those words were not anywhere near as loud as Joe could normally yell but he was still heard.

Suddenly the man he knew as Adam was sitting next to him, grabbing his arms, shaking him a little to wake him up. “Joe, Joseph, it’s all right. You’re safe now. No one is going to hurt you, I promise. Come on, Little Buddy, wake up.”

Joseph stared at the man clothed in black under the dim light of the lamp on the table next to his bed. Adam…the man who had helped him in jail. The last thing Joe remembered was the horse going out from under him, the rope around his neck. He couldn’t breathe. “Adam?”

“Yes, Little Joe, it’s me. I’m here. You aren’t alone anymore.”

Joe gazed into Adam’s eyes as he collected himself. He thought of all that had happened since Ben Cartwright…since Ben…What had Hoss said? They were family? Adam, Hoss and Ben Cartwright were family. He didn’t understand, not anything, not even how he got into this bed. His puzzled expression matched his furrowed eyes and almost hysterical stance. “I thought…the horse…” he rasped.

“Joe…don’t worry about it right now. You just have to rest.”

Joe’s hand went to his throat. Swallowing with a little difficulty, he stared at Adam with unanswered questions. Taking a deep breath, Adam told Joe what had happened. Tears came to the boy’s eyes. “Not a dream,” he managed to say. “Oh God. Hurt…so bad.”

“I know, Joe. I know it was awful. But you have to remember it’s over now.” Joe laid back on the bed. Adam pulled the covers over the boy. “Do you think you can sleep now?” Joe nodded.

Adam smiled. He started to get up off the bed. In a flash, the younger man’s hand grabbed his, a strong grasp from Little Joe.

For some reason, Joe saw an emotional expression cross Adam’s face. He felt it. He felt something, something connecting him to this man who was so much older than him, not old enough to be his father, but still… “Who…are…you?” he gasped out again, his voice hoarse and his throat sore.

“Joe, not now. You need rest,” Adam demurred.

Joe wasn’t having it. He had to know. What was this man to him? He’d been alone all his life or so he thought. Did this man know about the scars on his body. Did he know about the years he couldn’t remember no matter how he tried? What did he know?

“Please!” Joe begged. “Hoss said…family.” Joe felt as though he were on the edge of something, something important. Adam’s other hand brushed through his hair, a gesture Joe recognized, a gesture Adam did when he was frustrated.

“Joe, the doctor wants you to get your strength back.”

“TELL ME!” Leaning forward, Joe screamed with all the vocal intensity he had left. Adam pushed the smaller man back on the bed, holding him down gently.

“Joe, calm down. I’m not going to say anything unless you calm down.”

Something about Adam’s tone told Joe the man was telling him the truth. He took some deep breaths which wasn’t easy. Slowly, slowly he relaxed, lying down on the bed, his heart not beating quite so hard, his anxiety buried for a few minutes.

“That’s better. Now stay there!”

Orders. Something told Joe Adam was good at giving orders. He felt a bit of rebellion. He was about to sit forward again when Adam finally confessed the truth.

“Joe, you’re my brother. You, me and Hoss, we’re all brothers. Our father is Ben Cartwright. We live on a ranch called the Ponderosa. Do you remember anything?”

Joe thought. He thought hard. He didn’t know Adam was watching him to see if he would faint the way he had before as Hoss told him. Finally he shook his head. Adam’s hand crossed his mouth for a second until he could speak again.

“I’m not sure how to say this, Joe, but we need your help.”

“Why?”

“Pa is still very sick. He could die.”

“Pa…” The word felt…funny to Joe…funny but good. The green eyes settled on Adam.

“Joe, can you tell me what the first thing is you remember about your life, about who you are?”

Joe tried to talk, but the words wouldn’t come. Suddenly there was no way to talk. He couldn’t talk! The thought terrified him. Grabbing his throat, the boy felt a terrifying jolt. What if he never talked again?

Before he could give into his fears Adam grabbed the boy’s hand again and squeezed it. “It’s okay, Little Buddy. It’s okay. Dr. Martin said your throat was swollen and you might have difficulty talking. It’s my fault for pushing you. I’m sorry.”

Joe closed his eyes. He was so tired and yet something nagged at him. Adam had said his pa… their pa could die. That wasn’t right. He had an idea. He tugged on Adam’s shirt as Adam started to get up.

“What? What is it, Little Buddy?”

Joe looked around the room. There was no paper. He held out his hand and then made a motion of writing. To his relief, Adam caught his suggestion immediately. A broad smile came over Adam’s face.

“Joe, you still have great ideas, but don’t quote me on that. I’ll get a pencil and paper. You wait right there and I’ll be back. Okay?”

Joe nodded. Lying back down on the bed, he couldn’t help himself. In a few minutes, he had fallen asleep again.

When Adam came back he found Joe totally out. Adam sighed not wanting to wake his little brother. He pulled the covers over Joe again, making sure he was safe and sound. “Sleep well, Little Buddy. I’ll be back after I check on Pa. I love you.” He bent down to kiss the boy’s forehead. His brother, his little brother…Dear God, what was going to happen to him now?

*****

Ben woke to feel as though his chest were burning. Moving his head, he wasn’t surprised to see Hoss sitting in a chair by his bed, holding his hand, and dozing. His son, Hoss. Hoss was so much like his mother, but more often just himself, a big bear of a man with the heart of a child and the strength of a giant.

“Hoss,” Ben whispered, testing his strength. “Hoss.” But Hoss didn’t hear him. Ben found he couldn’t make Hoss hear him. Moving took more out of him than he wanted to admit. In his soul, he felt himself slipping, felt Hoss and the room around him becoming more distant as if he wasn’t really a part of life anymore. How had he gotten here? Could he leave his two remaining sons alone? They had lost so much with Joe’s death. Joseph, Joseph, Joseph. How many nights had he cried himself to sleep mourning for his youngest son, for Marie’s son.

“Marie,” Ben whispered. Would Marie come for him or Inger or Elizabeth? He had loved and mourned each of his wives. Elizabeth, Adam’s mother, his first true love who shared his dreams. She died in childbirth, but made him promise to seek his future with their baby son. Inger…her common sense and love for Adam as well as himself had given Ben new life until an Indian’s arrow took her from them, leaving behind his second son, Hoss. And Marie who gave him Joe and left them as suddenly as Joe had. Joe had been so like her until he too was taken. Ben remembered that last evening with all three of his sons at home, now three years past. Now, he wondered if Joe was with his mother and they would take him to heaven’s gates. “Joe,” he called out. “Joseph.”

Hoss’ voice reached him. “Pa, we’re here. Joe’s here. He’ll come as soon as he can.”

Ben’s eyes met his son’s briefly until he couldn’t keep them open any more. What had Hoss said? Had he been talking about Joseph? Ben wanted to find his son. He rested…letting nature take its course.

“Pa? Pa! Doc, come quick.” Hoss yelled, his voice panicked. Ben was feeling peaceful until someone slapped his face.

“Oh no you don’t, Ben. You aren’t giving up on these boys,” Paul Martin’s voice said. “Hoss, get Adam. Get him now.”

“Right away, Doc.”

Ben could hear Hoss’ footsteps. The sounds were becoming more distant. Ben felt almost as though he were completely happy, completely without grief or sorrow or pain for the first time since Joe died, but wait. What was Paul saying? What was his old friend telling him? The words sank in slowly.

“Ben, the boys are here, all of them, including Joe. Joe’s been hurt. He’s in the bedroom down the hall. Do you understand me. Ben!”

Again Ben felt Paul slapping him. Why wouldn’t he leave him alone. Ben just wanted to feel that blessed release. He wanted to…what did Paul say about his boys? Joe? Joe was alive? It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be true. Joe was gone. But then if Joe was gone…Ben fought to remember. The world didn’t seem quite so far away as he thought as his mind conjured up the picture of the boy who drew a gun on him. He could see the dark curly hair, the boyish handsome face contorted in anger, so like Joseph’s impulsive nature. Joe? He felt again the agonizing burning in his chest. Had Joseph shot him? Joe!

“Pa!” That was Adam. Why was his voice so low? “Pa, you have to open your eyes. I’ve got Little Joe. You have to see him. He’s sleeping, and I don’t want to wake him. He needs you, Pa. Hoss and I need you.” Ben felt a rustling on the bed, movement. Added pressure next to him brought him further back to life though he wasn’t sure what was happening. Adam couldn’t be telling the truth could he? Was he grasping at straws to give Ben hope? He felt pressure next to his heart, the pressure of someone lying with him. His chest hurt. Why were they doing this?

“Doc, will it be okay if I leave Joe like this. It won’t hurt Pa will it?” Adam queried, his voice filled with the concern Ben associated with his oldest boy whenever he was worried about his younger brothers.

“Joe?” Ben whispered, his heart finally beating with purpose. He had to see, had to know, had to believe.

Joe’s voice didn’t answer him. Ignoring the pain in his chest, Ben somehow managed to move his hand to touch the soft curly hair he knew without seeing.

“He’s lost, Pa. He doesn’t remember who he is,” Hoss offered. “Ya caint leave him now. Ya know ya caint.”

“Hoss!” Dr. Martin hissed.

“I don’t care,” Hoss snapped back. “Pa has ta know the truth. Dagnabit, Adam and me need Pa ta help Joe.”

“Hoss is right, Paul,” Adam concurred.

Ben couldn’t see his old friend shake his head in obvious disapproval. Ben’s hand stayed on Joe’s head. He couldn’t move anymore. He was so tired.

“Pa? Joe was accused of shooting you,” Adam told him. “He says he’s innocent. Pa, you’re the only one who can exonerate him. You have to get well. If you don’t, we may not ever be able to save Joe.”

Adam knew how to reach his father. Ben heard the words. Adam’s hand squeezed his. He felt his son lying next to him, Joe’s head on his heart.

“Please, Pa,” Hoss begged.

His sons were begging him to live. He wanted to answer. He wanted to tell them he would try. He would try. Ben felt his body releasing itself. He had no more control. The darkness came and he was lost…to the well-deserved sleep he needed. His head rolled to the right, away from Joe.

“Doc!” Hoss cried in alarm.

Paul Martin rushed to Ben’s side. For several seconds the doctor examined his patient. Finally he turned to Adam and Hoss. “He’s only sleeping. His pulse is stronger, and regular. His respirations are good. I think…there’s hope now he’ll be all right.”

“Hot diggity,” Hoss yelled.

Joe groaned, opening his green eyes to find himself lying next to a man he didn’t know. In the flash of a second, he mumbled words that caused his brothers to rejoice even further. Joe’s voice was still hoarse but it was clearly understandable. “Hoss! Cantcha let me sleep for once?”

*****

The next few days were a blur for Little Joe. For some reason he developed a fever, perhaps from the shock of the hanging or perhaps because it appeared he hadn’t eaten much in the last days before he came to Virginia City. Those were the theories that Dr. Martin gave Adam and Hoss. The two brothers made sure Joe wasn’t left alone for a moment, not only because of his fever, but because of the ongoing grumbling going on around town.

On the bright side, they were thrilled to see their father improving. Ben slept a great deal the first day after he passed the crisis. When he finally woke the next night, he found himself in a bed that was softer than the one in Dr. Martin’s surgery. Opening his chocolate-colored eyes, Ben found his second son sitting in a chair, between his bed and another. When Hoss sat back in the chair, Ben’s heart leaped at the sight of his lost child.

“Joseph,” he breathed. “Hoss!”

Hoss’ large frame moved quickly to Ben. “Pa! Bout time you woke up. Thought ya was gonna sleep forever. Don’t worry about Little Joe none. He’s just got a fever. Doc says he’ll be fine when the fever breaks.”

“Little Joe?” Ben moved the name around in his head, feeling his soul rejoice in a fact and not a dream. “Hoss, how did he get here? Where did he come from? Where has he been?”

Hoss scratched his head a little before he answered, smiling a little sheepishly. “Ain’t got any answers, Pa. Joe, well, he’s got amnesia. Seems like he might be remembering, but he hasn’t said much since last night. All we know is that he came into town a few days ago, that same morning ya got shot.”

Screwing up his forehead, Ben tried to picture the shooting again.

“Pa, I gotta know. The whole town has ta know. Joe says he didn’t shoot ya. He swears it.”

“Do you believe him, Hoss?” Ben asked, still thinking.

“You bet I do. Joe don’t lie.” Ben nodded. “Do you remember what happened?”

“Yes, yes I think I do.” Ben moved a little, and felt the pain in his chest, but it wasn’t as bad now. “Help me sit up, Son.” Within a few minutes, Hoss had lifted Ben up on the bed so he was resting against pillows placed against the wall. Hoss gave him some water from a pitcher on the table.

After drinking the water, Ben told what he had seen that terrible day. “I was going to the livery stable to get Buck and go back to the Ponderosa. Joe came out of the General Store, that new one that just opened. I bumped into him by accident. He…he got angry and pulled his gun. I apologized and recognized him at the same time. I remember telling him to wait.” Ben closed his eyes in concentration. “His gun was pointed at me…”

Hoss swallowed fearful of what his father was going to say. He just couldn’t believe his brother would shoot a man for no reason. Ben’s eyes finally opened to meet Hoss’. The older man was clearly troubled, and Hoss’ fear grew. “Pa?”

“The gun never fired,” Ben answered perplexed. “I remember getting hit and being shocked, thinking Joe had shot me, but I saw. His gun never fired. Hoss, it wasn’t him. It wasn’t Joe!”

“I knew it,” Hoss cried with flair. “I knew it.”

“So if Joe didn’t do it,” Adam’s voice said from the open doorway, “Someone else did.”

“Adam!” Ben called out.

“Pa! I’m glad to see you awake. You been sleeping for almost an entire night and day.” Adam was walking across the room when noise from Joe caught his attention.

“No! Pa! No! Help me! Help me!” the hoarse voice cried out. “No. Stop it!” Adam sat on the side of Joe’s bed. Hoss turned to him, changing the wet cloth for a cooler one. The basin on the table was filled with cool water from the well. Hoss knew the water needed to be changed, but he didn’t want to leave Joe if he was regaining consciousness.

“What’s he saying?” Hoss asked. The curly head tossed too and fro as Joe called out in his delirium.

“Pa! Oh, Pa! I tried to be brave. I tried. It hurts. It hurts so damn much. Pa! Why are they doing this?” Joe’s scream was louder now, a scream of pure torment, coming from a hoarse voice that could barely verbalize his terror.

Hoss leaned over his little brother. “Hey, Punkin! Hey, it’s awright now. Yer safe with Pa and Adam and me. Ya hear me, Little Brother? Come on, Little Joe.”

Joe only continued to mumble. Ben tried to get up to go to his son, but he just wasn’t strong enough.

“Pa, stay still,” Adam ordered, seeing Ben’s restlessness. “Between the two of you, Hoss and I are definitely going to have our hands full.”

“When can we go home?” Ben asked.

“We’ll ask the doc, Pa, but ya gotta listen ta him. Iff’n ya don’t, ya know Joe won’t.”

Ben almost chuckled. Hoss was right about that. If it was one thing Joseph wasn’t, it was a good patient. He hated being confined to bed. Ben could understand, feeling helpless at his own condition.

“I can’t believe it,” Ben went on. He was getting tired already, his eyes trying to shut so he could sleep. Ben Cartwright did not want to sleep. He wanted to feast his eyes on his sons, on all three of them, but most especially Joe. Shuddering he realized how close he had come to dying, to leaving his boys behind forever.

“Pa, ya need ta rest,” Hoss urged. “Come on, let me help ya.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” Ben protested.

“You don’t have a choice, Pa,” Adam returned. “Come on, Hoss; let him lay back on the bed. Pa, the sooner you rest, the sooner we can go home.”

“Joe’s fever,” Ben protested.

“We’ll take care of him.”

Ben couldn’t argue. He could still hear Joe mumbling as he tossed about on the bed. Damn the fever, Ben thought. Where had his son been? Where? He fell asleep thinking of his sons.

Adam and Hoss were both relieved. Adam sat on his father’s bed. Hoss picked up the basin of water. “I’ll take it, Hoss,” Adam said. “You stay with him.”

“Thanks, Big Brother.” Hoss turned back to his little brother. His big paw pushed back a stray brown curl. Joe hadn’t opened his eyes since yesterday. The fever seemed to be worse instead of better. What if Dr. Martin was wrong, he asked himself? What if…he couldn’t think about that. Joe was home. He was going to get well and he’d drive his brothers to distraction again with his crazy schemes and tricks.

Adam brought the basin back filled with cool water. Speaking in a soft tone, Hoss comforted Joe. The cool cloth on his forehead seemed to help as well. Adam sat on the bed. Both men waited until Joe finally fell asleep before Hoss spoke.

“Adam, what are we gonna do iff’n Joe don’t remember us? And what’s going on in town? Are they still out ta lynch Joe?” asked Hoss.

“Roy says people aren’t quite as angry since Pa is going to be all right. I don’t know if they’ll believe that Joe didn’t shoot Pa.”

“Well he didn’t. Ya heard Pa.”

“I know. I’ve been listening to the scuttlebutt. It seems Tom Warton, a man who has no job but no apparent lack of money is the one who got most of the men in town riled against Joe.”

“Whattya getting at, Big Brother?” Hoss asked in puzzlement.

“Warton says he saw Joe shoot Pa. What does he have to gain by lying?” Hoss nodded his understanding. “Besides which, Warton is the one who tried to hang Joe. He wanted Joe dead.”

“But why? What’d Little Joe ever do ta him?”

“Good question, Hoss.”

“I wanta know, Adam. I gotta know what makes a man act like that.” Hoss went on, looking down at his baby brother. Again he pushed back the stray locks. The big-hearted man didn’t comprehend how anyone could want to hurt his brother, or any other man, on purpose. It made him sick inside to think that Joe had almost been murdered in front of his eyes. Joe’s hanging hadn’t just been the result of hysteria, but it was a cold calculated plan.

“If Warton wanted Joe dead,” Adam theorized, “then Joe must know something about him.”

“Or Joe did something he didn’t like,” Hoss added.

“Well I’ll tell you, Little Brother, I’m going to have a talk with Warton. One way or another, he’s going to tell us exactly what he has against our baby brother.” Adam’s tone was cold, his dark eyes cold, and devoid of expression. Only someone who knew him, someone like Hoss could see the icy rage that gleamed in Adam’s eyes, a rage that Hoss himself shared.

“I’ll be happy to assist ya, Adam. In fact, iff’n ya don’t mind, I’d like ta go with ya.”

“We want a confession from the man,” Adam warned. “We don’t want to face a lynch mob ourselves.”

“Don’t worry, Big Brother…I won’t hurt him…too much.” The two brothers nodded in agreement. As far as the Cartwright brothers were concerned, Warton was on borrowed time, maybe not with his life, but definitely with his freedom. He had aimed death at their father and brother in two almost lethal attacks. He was going to admit his culpability or else.

*****

Extreme silence filled the room where Ben and Joe were being cared for. Ben Cartwright could not believe what his son, Adam, had just told him.

“They tried to hang my son?” Ben exclaimed in horror. His stomach churned in disgust as he imagined Joe’s fear, his son choking…Oh God!

“We caught him in time, Pa,” Adam offered.

“I know you stopped them, Adam. Just the thought of Joe…I can’t stand it. How could they?”

“Pa, you know how a lynchmob is,” Adam reminded him. “There’s no reasoning with them.”

Ben clenched his hands into fists of suppressed anger. Sitting up in bed, he wished he were strong enough to take care of this Warton character himself. He’d do anything to protect his boys, all of them.

“Pa, I know yer mad, but if ya git upset, it ain’t gonna help anything,” Hoss reasoned.

Ben closed his eyes to maintain his overwhelming emotions. Hoss and Adam knew him so well, knew what he would be thinking. Ben couldn’t argue with his son. Three days after he had awakened, the Cartwright patriarch was doing better than his son. For his age, Ben Cartwright was in excellent shape and his wound was healing quickly. His youngest son wasn’t doing as well. Joe’s fever was a grave cause for concern.

“I’m getting better, Hoss. Our energy has to be placed on Joe. Paul says he’s malnourished, and very thin. He has no reserves to fight the fever.”

“He’ll git through this Pa. He didn’t come home ta die now,” Hoss told him with a ferocity that Ben would have smiled at if he had felt like smiling. Still too weak to do more than sit in a chair by Joe’s bed, Ben’s heart ached for his family.

“Pa, maybe if we took him home?” Adam suggested as Ben changed the cloth on Joe’s forehead to keep him cool.

Ben looked at Adam standing at the foot of the bed as though he were crazy. Hoss was sitting in a chair on the other side of Joe’s bed. Dr. Martin walked into the room as Adam finished his sentence.

“Adam, that is not possible,” Paul said.

“Why not?” Adam demanded. “Pa, Little Joe has been away for three years. His memory might be returning. The other night he told Hoss he wanted to sleep. He called Hoss by name. What if taking him home would make the difference? We’ve tried everything else, ice baths, cool compresses, medicine. Nothing has worked. Why not take him home. The Ponderosa is all Joe knew until 3 years ago. Maybe being home will make the difference.”

“Ben, his fever is too high. He needs to rest.” Paul’s voice was quietly firm. The men knew each other well.

Ben took only a minute to make up his mind. “He’ll get rest. It’s only an hour home,” Ben returned, his eyes locked Joe, his tone just as intent as the doctor’s. “Adam’s right. Joseph was born on the Ponderosa. If he is going to die, he needs to be in his own bed, in the home where he is loved.”

Paul continued his argument. “Ben, you’re not in any condition to travel yourself, even if it is just to the Ponderosa.”

“We’ll put mattresses in the back of the wagon, and drive them home ourselves, Dr. Martin,” Adam offered. “There’s just something in my gut that says this is the right action to take.”

“Me too,” Hoss put in.

“We’re decided, Paul. Hoss, you go on home and get the wagon. Adam will sit with Joe and I’ll rest. Satisfied, Paul?”

Paul Martin was ready to explode. He shook his head. “I don’t agree, Ben. If that boy dies on the way home…I don’t want it on my conscience.”

Ben fought with his own conscience for a minute. What if Joseph died on the way home? What if…No, Ben told himself. Joe should be home. He should be home.

“We’ll take responsibility for Joseph, Paul,” Ben confirmed. “Boys?”

“I’m on my way, Pa,” Adam answered.

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss said.

Paul threw up his hands in resignation. Ben lay down in bed with Hoss’ help. He didn’t know what would happen next. The father in him only wanted to get Joseph and his sons home. Somehow the Ponderosa was beckoning to him. The Ponderosa had provided his family with hope, security, and peace ever since he first saw the land. It was where they belonged. Most important, it was where Joseph belonged.

*****

Through a fog of fever, through the heat that seemed to be smothering him, Joe fought to survive. In his delirium, he cried out to his father, to his brothers, who could save him from the torture the Bannocks were inflicting upon him. Hands held him down! They weren’t going to let him go. Stone cold faces told him he was going to die. He wouldn’t give up without a fight. “Pa! Don’t let them! Don’t let them.”

Then Joe felt the resignation he had felt in those terrifying moments, a day he had pressed into the very depths of his memory, pressed it so far back that he hadn’t remembered, until now. “Pa! I tried, Pa. I tried to be brave. It hurts so bad! I can’t stop them! They’re going to kill me. They told me.” His voice escalated with hysteria. He tried in vain to get away from the restraining hands that held him down. Voices reached him, voices he couldn’t believe he was hearing.

“Joe! Listen to me. You’re not going to die, Little Buddy,” Adam assured him. “There’s nothing to be afraid of here. We’re taking care of you. We love you, Little Buddy.” Was that really Adam’s voice, Joe wondered? Suddenly the harsh hands holding him down were replaced with a loving caring touch.

“Adam? Is that you?”

“Yeah, Little Buddy. It’s me. We’re going home, Joe. Do you know where you are?”

Joe didn’t answer. He was lost again in the sea of gray that surrounded him.

“Joe?”

Adam’s voice lingered in his fever-ridden brain until Joe felt himself being laid down on a soft bed, a softer bed than he had felt for a very long time. His head rested on a pillow that felt like heaven.

“Come on, Little Brother, let’s get ya settled,” Hoss urged. Big, gentle hands were helping him.

“Hoss?” Did he call his brother? He remembered! He remembered! “Adam! Pa!”

“We’re all here, Punkin,” Hoss told him. “You just git some rest and git better. We gotcha ya home, Punkin and home is where ya belong.”

“Home?” A flood of joy came over him. Home was where he had been born, where he lived and worked, where his life was. He had a home! He wasn’t a nobody, a drifter, a no-account kid anymore. Or was he? He tried to sort it out but it was so hard.

“Joseph.”

There! There was something he could grab on to, hold on to. It was his Pa’s voice. Pa always told him he loved him. Pa wouldn’t hurt him.

“Pa?” With an extreme effort, Joe focused. Had to focus. Had to see Pa.

“Yes, Joseph! Yes!” Ben urged.

Joe felt his father’s hand brushing back his matted curls, something he had done a thousand times. The movement was so familiar. Next his father took his hand, squeezing it tightly. Joe tried harder to see through the heat in his eyes. His heart quickened at the sight of the white-haired man he loved. Yes! The man sitting on the bed with him was his father. Pa! Joe fought to stay awake, fought to tell Pa something very important, the most important thing in the world to him. “Pa…” he started.

Ben held his hand. His smile was as comforting and caring as it always had been.

“Sh, Joe,” Ben encouraged. “Sleep. That’s what’s most important.”

“I…Pa…I love you,” Joe gasped. “Home. So glad…” There! He had said it. His vision caught his brothers: Adam dressed in black, his worry written all over his face; Hoss, his best friend, his family. Joe felt the heat take hold of him again. It was taking him away, taking him away from his family. The fire was taking him away.

“No! No, I don’t want to go,” Joe cried. He didn’t hear anything else. All he knew as the heat took him into oblivion was that he had made it home…he had made it home at least once and now…now he could let go.

*****

“Pa, we have to help him,” Hoss pleaded as Joe moaned and cried in a world created by fever.

Ben gathered the boy in his arms, ignoring his own pain and fatigue. The trip from town had taken a toll on him and on his youngest son, just as Paul predicted. At the same time, the older man was relieved to be home. This was where his family belonged.

“Joseph. Papa’s here,” Ben said softly.

“Pa, we need to get the fever down,” Adam urged. “And you need to get to bed.”

“No!” Ben returned. “I’m not leaving him.”

“Pa!” Hoss protested. “We can’t worry about you and Little Joe. It’s too hard. Dontcha understand? If ya work yourself ta death taking care of Little Brother, then we might lose ya both.”

“He’s right, Pa,” Adam concurred.

Ben rocked back and forth with his boy, his baby, the child he had mourned for three long years. He couldn’t give him up again, could he? His own chest was on fire with pain. But what was Joe suffering, living the nightmare that had taken him from them in the first place. It was all so confusing. Clutching the boy to him, listening to his harsh breathing, Ben didn’t know what to do. His heart was ruling his mind and logic did not make sense, not if he was going to lose his son…again.

“Pa, let me help ya get back ta bed,” Hoss urged. “Adam and I will pack Little Joe in ice.”

Ben shook his head.

“Ice not good for number 3 son,” Hop Sing’s voice said. “Too cold.” The three men looked up to see Hop Sing come into the bedroom. “Hop Sing use herb to bring fever down. Then use cold bath. Not so bad for #3 son.” The three men stared at the little Chinese man. Why hadn’t they thought of asking Hop Sing for his help? What was wrong with them?

“Hop Sing, do you really think you can help Little Joe?” Adam asked.

“I go and get herb. Make tea. Little Joe drink. Then we try cold bath,” the Chinaman explained.

Ben looked to his two oldest sons and nodded. They didn’t have anything to lose. As Hop Sing hurried from the room, Ben gently laid Joe back on the bed. He made sure the boy’s head was supported by the pillows, elevating his head to ease his breathing a little. Ben had provided his sons with basic nursing care over the years. He had to make sure Joe was comfortable. Adam put his hand on his father’s shoulder. Ben looked up at the calm face which hid the emotions Adam always kept inside.

“Hop Sing, Hoss and I will take care of Little Joe, Pa. You are going to bed,” declared Adam.

Ben wanted to argue, but he couldn’t. He was just too tired. Nodding in agreement, he kissed Joe’s hand one more time. “I love you, Son,” he told the boy, hoping Joe would hear him.

Hoss and Adam helped Ben to his own room. Ben didn’t know how he could rest while he left Adam and Hoss to care for Joseph. At the same time, the patriarch knew he was too tired and in too much pain to help his son just now. Hoss was right. If he didn’t take care of himself, he couldn’t help his sons when he needed them. It was an argument that threatened to drive him crazy till Adam made him take the laudanum, Paul had sent home with them. Lying back on his bed, Ben Cartwright had to give into the need to sleep. Still, he struggled against giving in. Adam sat next to him on the bed. Hoss had left the room. Ben could hear wisps of Hoss’ voice down the hall talking to Joseph.

“Pa, please,” Adam begged. “Hoss and I are almost as worried about you as we are about Joe. You look like a ghost and you haven’t eaten much. We’re going to do our best for Joe. When he gets through this, if you die, what will that do to him?”

“You say when, not if,” Ben had to smile. “You’re a good man, Adam.” He was drifting off as Adam bent over and kissed his father’s forehead in an unusually emotional display which gave away the young man’s own fears.

“Just a chip off the old block, Pa,” Adam teased. “Hoss and I are going to do our best, Pa. Go to sleep.” The laudanum took Ben away from the nightmare he was living if just for a little while.

*****

Ben Cartwright was living a dream, a dream that should have been happy except for the nagging feeling he felt in the pit of his stomach. He was riding with Marie, both of them galloping across the range. Her laughter rang out loud, her arms holding her five-year old son close to her, her fingers nimbly managing the reins. When she pulled up, Ben had barely caught up with her.

“Again, Mama, again,” Little Joe pleaded fearlessly. His green eyes were alight with mischief and life.

Marie threw her head back, laughing more, hugging the little boy in security and love. “Mon Dieu, Joseph. You will be a better horseman than your papa even,” she told Joe.

“Now see here,” Ben sputtered in his own enjoyment.

“Can’t you see it, Ben?” she pleaded, her own face alight with joy. “He loves to ride. He will leave the rest of us in the dust when he is as big as his brothers. We shall be so proud of him.”

Ben leaned over, kissing his wife, tasting her lips, inhaling the slight aroma of her perfume, now mixed with the heat of her ride and the scent of the horse. Her blond hair was blowing just the least bit about her beautiful face. Ben couldn’t remember when he had ever seen her so happy unless it was when Joseph was born. “I can see it, Marie. But you must be more careful,” he chided. “He’s just a little boy.”

“He’s a big boy, aren’t you, Mon petit?” she asked her son.

“I’ll be as big as Adam someday, Mama. I wanna go again. Let’s go, Mama. Let’s go, Papa.”

Ben nodded with good-natured enjoyment. Marie didn’t wait. She thundered off down the road with her mount. Ben chased after them. Marie was in her element, truly enjoying the happiest moments of her life. Ben was slightly behind her when she raced into the yard of the Ponderosa. All of a sudden her horse reared and Marie was thrown against the cowl fence, her scream silenced in an irrevocable instant. At the same time, Little Joe’s tiny body fell backward where his head too hit the fence. Ben screamed for Marie and his son as he threw himself off his horse, running to his wife and child. Marie was already gone, her eyes still open, her mouth opened slightly as if she realized what was going to happen and she wanted to say good-bye. Little Joe lay motionless on the ground, his sightless gaze looking past Ben into eternity.

Ben screamed again and again. “No! Marie! Joseph! Joseph! Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”

“Pa! Pa! Wake up!”

“Joseph!”

“Pa, Joe’s fine. Wake up!” Adam called.

Ben felt himself being shaken. Finally, finally he allowed himself to realize where he is, in his own bed, with a full-grown Adam waking him. It was a dream, just a dream. Marie…Marie was gone, but Little Joe? Where was Joseph? “Joseph?” he begged. “I have to see him.” Adam helped Ben to sit up. Finding his land legs, Ben threw them over the side of the bed.

“Take it easy, Pa.”

Ben shook off the dizziness he was being bombarded with. “Joseph!” he cried again.

“Pa, his fever broke. He’s fine. He’s just sleeping.” Adam’s tone was calming.

Ben took some deep breaths, letting out a sigh of relief, his heart beat slowly returning to normal. “Thank God,” he breathed.

“Must have been some dream,” Adam said, sitting beside his father. Ben nodded, putting his head between his hands.

“You called for Marie and Joe,” Adam told him.

Ben nodded again. He put his hand on Adam’s knee. “I’ll be all right, Son. Help me with my robe and slippers so I can see your brother.”

“I’d argue with you, but I guess that wouldn’t do much good, would it?” Ben’s chocolate colored eyes rested on his oldest son. Adam smiled. “Didn’t think so. Hoss is with him. Would you please eat and drink something? Hop Sing has some toast and broth waiting for you. I’ll get you a tray.” Adam didn’t wait for a reply. He pulled a blanket over Ben’s legs and hurried out of the room.

Ben immediately went into action. Using the bed for support, he made it to his clothes closet and took out his robe and slippers. In the same fashion, walls provided him added strength to get to Little Joe’s room. Leaning against the doorway, the patriarch took in a heartwarming sight. His second son was holding Little Joe’s hand, his head resting on the bed. Little Joe was awake, his eyes on Hoss with such joy that Ben knew. He knew his son had regained his memory. He stepped into the room, feeling as if he were walking on a cloud.

“Joseph!” Ben’s voice wasn’t as strong as he would like, but it carried enough for Joe to turn his head to see his father, truly see him for the first time in three years. What passed between father and son in that moment was private, a moment they would hold dear to their hearts always. With footsteps that moved quickly despite hiss illness, Ben was by his son’s side in a moment. He sat down on the side of the bed.

“Joseph,” Ben repeated.

Hoss woke, lifting his head, witnessing the reunion between his beloved brother and father. A great smile broke out over the gentle giant’s face.

“Pa! Oh, Pa, I’m so sorry,” Little Joe cried. “I love you!” Joe threw himself into his father’s arms, Ben returning the boy’s embrace. His hand rubbed the thin back, comforting the boy as both men tried not to cry and failed.

“Sh, Joseph! Sh, you’re home now. Oh son, I’m so glad to have you home. Sh, calm down.”

Slowly, Joe got himself under control. Resting his head on Ben’s shoulder, he relaxed. “Oh, Pa. I couldn’t remember anything. I couldn’t even remember who I was except that my name was Joe.”

“It’s over, Joe. We’re here for you now.”

“I was so alone,” Joe moaned. He didn’t offer anything else. Ben felt as though Joe was holding a great deal in, but that would come. That would come later.

“Hot diggity,” Hoss said. “Bout time ya let us know ya were back, Short shanks. We was getting plumb tuckered worrying about ya.”

“I was worried about Pa,” Joe confessed. “Pa are you all right?”

“I’m doing fine, Little Joe. You’re the one who was sick with the fever. We’re all going to be just fine.”

Little Joe didn’t answer. After a few minutes, he sat back on the bed. Ben could see the boy was troubled. “What is it, Joseph? What’s the matter?”

“Pa, I have ta tell ya. I…have to!”

“What, Joseph. You can tell me anything. You know that.”

“I know. Pa, I didn’t shoot you. Ya gotta know that.”

“I remembered, Joseph. You don’t have to worry about that. I told the sheriff your gun never fired. I know it wasn’t you.”

Joe closed his eyes in further relief. “I could never hurt you,” the boy muttered. “I couldn’t shoot anyone in cold blood, but not you Pa, not even if I did have amnesia.”

“I know, Joseph. Stop tormenting yourself,” Ben chided gently. “I can’t believe how you’ve grown. We have so much to talk about.”

“I’ll say. Bet when the kid starts talking, he’ll never stop,” Hoss put in with glee. “This house is going to be turned upside down I reckon.”

Joe turned his gaze to his brother. “How many times do I gotta tell ya, Hoss? I ain’t a kid no more.”

“Aren’t a kid, anymore,” Ben corrected automatically. Hoss and Ben both burst out laughing. Joe managed a wan grin. Ben fought back his concerns, his parental intuition telling him that Joe may have come home, but he still had to deal with the last three years. Shaking off this new fear, just as he had the fear of the nightmare just a short time before, Ben Cartwright told himself he didn’t care. His youngest child, his baby was home. No matter what happened, they would deal with it, together as a family, and they would never let anything happen to Joseph again, not if they could help it.

*****

“Roy, you cannot let this man get away from you,” Adam Cartwright warned. “He’s dangerous.”

Sheriff Roy Coffee rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Now you don’t know that, Adam. Ya don’t know anything about Warton.”

“Neither do you. Pa says Joe’s gun never fired. The only witness was this Warton character. Seems to me he was the one incited that lynch mob. He almost got Joe killed for no reason.”

“And I have no evidence against the man. I can’t just arrest him on your say so.”

“Roy, I’m serious. Either you do some investigating or I will!” Adam’s tone was cold, one Roy recognized immediately.

“Adam, this is a matter for the law, not an amateur. Leave it to me,” the sheriff ordered.

Adam’s face only grew more distant. He leaned across Roy’s desk, aiming his face at the seated sheriff. “My father and brother almost died because of this lunatic,” the young man hissed. “I’m not going to sit by while he hurts them or someone else again. Do you understand me?”

Roy Coffee stood to his full height, his own face smoldering with anger. “Don’t tell me how to do my job, Adam. You do something foolish and I’ll put you in jail so fast your head will spin. Do you think it’s going to do your pa or Joe any good if you get yourself in trouble? Now go on home and leave Warton ta me.”

“You know I’ll do what I have to, Roy,” Adam answered, storming from the office.

Outside Adam leaned against Sport. Warton was still in town, staying in a room above the saloon. Roy knew that much, but little else about the man who had caused such physical and mental anguish to the Cartwright family. Adam couldn’t stand that the man was still walking around free. He hated Warton, knowing without a doubt in his gut that if the man had the chance again, he’d wreck more havoc on Little Joe or Ben. In the week since Little Joe’s fever broke, the family was trying to get back to normal, but Joe was far too quiet and the rest of the men walked on tiptoe around him. He had yet to offer any information about his life over the past three years. Ben cautioned patience which Adam agreed with. So did Hoss. At the same time, Adam wished he could reach his little brother, wished more than anything that Joe would confide in them. He thought when Joe and Ben were on the road to recovery, life would finally get back to normal. It was anything but.

Riding home, Adam was halfway home when he pulled Sport to a halt. He waited in shocked amazement until his little brother reached him. Joe was clearly as surprised to see him. He looked distinctly uncomfortable, as if he had been caught at something he wasn’t supposed to be doing. Adam almost smiled. Trust Joe to do the unexpected.

“Uh, hi Adam,” Little Joe greeted. Cochise whinnied to his stablemate. The horses nudged noses as the brothers faced each other.

“Hi, Adam? Is that all you can say. When did Dr. Martin give you leave to ride, Little Brother?”

“Well, er, he didn’t exactly.”

Adam nodded. “I thought not. Does Pa know you’re out here?”

“Not…well…no, suppose not, but Adam I got a good reason.”

“I know I’m going to hate myself for asking this, but what is your good reason?”

“I wanted to talk to the sheriff.”

“About?” Adam queried trying to maintain his patience. He had forgotten how Joe could beat around the bush when he thought he was in trouble.

“It’s private,” Joe answered. “Really, Adam, I gotta go.”

Joe tried to brush past Adam, but Adam grabbed Cochise’s reins. It was the first time Adam had seen his little brother back on Cochise. When Joe disappeared, the horse had found its way home. Hoss had lovingly tended the pinto ever since. Cochise pulled away sensing trouble, but Adam held tight.

“Adam, for crying out loud. You’re not my keeper.”

“In case you’d forgotten, Little Joe, I am your keeper. I’m your brother and I care about what happens to you.”

“I have to do this on my own.”

“The hell you do!” Adam argued. He was about to say more when a shot rang through the air. To Adam’s horror, Joe grabbed his arm as he was thrown off his horse by the impact of the bullet that hit him.

Adam was off Sport instantly, kneeling beside his brother. “Joe!” he cried out. “Joe!”

“I’m all right,” Joe croaked, lying on the ground, his eyes closed clutching his left arm. Blood flowed from a wound in the upper arm. The bullet was still lodged in the arm as far as Adam could tell.

“We’re closer to town than we are to home,” Adam surmised. “Who the hell did this?”

“Reckon I can take credit for that,” a man said.

Joe’s eyes flew open as Adam whirled around only to be cold cocked with the butt of a pistol. Collapsing in oblivion to the ground, he never heard Joe’s scream.

“Adam! Adam!”

Nor did he see the smug wicked face of the man he knew would attack his family again. Warton bent down checking for a pulse in Adam’s wrist then turned his attention to Joe who was trying to scramble away from the man in vain. Warton moved quickly, his hand coming down on Little Joe’s neck, holding him firm into the ground.

“Hello, Joe…now it’s time for you to die…once and for all.”

*****

Joe tried to scramble away from Warton, disregarding the broken arm where a bullet was now embedded. Wave after wave of excruciating pain slammed into his brain. Still, he tried to ignore his torment while getting to Adam who lay motionless on the ground. Joe struggled to no avail as Warton had his hand on the boy’s neck. Typical of the boy was his concern for Adam as he yelled at Warton. “What’d ya go and do that for? Adam never hurt ya.”

“Didn’t he? You didn’t hear him in the saloon asking questions about me. Then he goes to the sheriff. I followed him out here planning ta kill him. Now that he’s dead, it’s your turn.”

Joe had difficulty getting a good look at Adam, past Warton. Was Adam dead? If he was, it was all Joe’s fault. He’d led Warton to town, he thought. With one more surge of anger, he tried to get up, but he didn’t have the energy. Warton’s hand grasped Joe’s neck hard, squeezing it so that Joe choked, his dark head falling back on the ground.

“I could leave ya here ta bleed ta death,” Warton taunted. “I could. You owe me Joe, don’t you?”

Joe’s mouth opened, but not to reply, only to gasp for air. Warton suddenly let him go. Joe rolled back and forth catching his breath and groaning with pain. Warton’s foot came down on Joe’s injured arm, slowly applying pressure to the lower arm, his cold dark eyes locked on Joe’s green orbs which widened in agony as the pressure became harder and harder until both bones snapped and Joe screamed in agony. Warton’s evil laugh was barely heard by the boy barely clinging to consciousness. If the man hadn’t been so rough, Joe probably wouldn’t even have felt Warton wrapping a rope around his ankles, and tying it in knots. That he didn’t bother to tie Joe’s hands didn’t register until the pain started to subside and he was able to see the rope being tied to the saddle’s pummel. With a sickening realization, Joe knew exactly how he was going to die and this time he was certain there would be no rescue, for his family did not even know where he or Adam were. His mind told him this could not be happening.

“No!” Joe begged, ashamed of his fear. “Please, don’t!”

Warton leaned down patting Joe’s face while Joe grabbed at him with his good arm. Warton shook him off. Joe was still bleeding and growing weaker. Warton had no sympathy. “I told ya, ya was gonna die, Joe. Ya turned me inta the sheriff in Modesto. Iff’n it weren’t for friends of mine, I woulda hung.”

“You killed a man,” Joe retorted. “I saw you.”

“Yeah, and I should a killed ya then. Ya know it’s funny. I didn’t know Cartwright was your pa when I shot him. It was a spur of the moment thing. I saw ya draw yer gun on the old man and the rest is history. Figured ya would hang for killing the old man. Too bad yer brothers saved ya from that lynch mob. It would a been easier if ya had died by hanging than this way, but I’m gonna enjoy it.”

Joe’s mind was dizzy with pain and fear. He watched as Warton stood, lifting his gun in the air and bringing it down. As if every second were an hour, Joe waited, holding his breath. Cochise was already nervous, prancing a bit on the hard ground. It wouldn’t take much to set her off. Joe closed his eyes as the gun descended, preparing himself for death.

Joe heard, not the thump of the gun on Cochise’s rump, but the sound of a body hitting the ground. Through the fog of throbbing pain in his arm, he saw Warton on the ground with Adam on top of him. The urge to get up and help his brother washed through the youngest Cartwright, but he could barely move. Warton and Adam were well matched being of equal height and similar weight. Joe resisted the urge to take his gun and shoot Warton. If he did, he’d scare Cochise who continued to prance nervously about, as if he would bolt any second. Joe concentrated on talking to the horse and dealing the agony that ripped through his entire left arm.

“Whoa, Cooch,” he crooned as Adam and Warton went at it. “Shh, Girl. Calm down for both of us, huh? Cooch, ya know me now, don’tcha? Cooch.”

Warton landed near the horse’s feet spurring the pinto to take off, trotting, pulling Joe’s hapless body after him. Joe stifled a cry of pure terror as his back scrapped along the ground, and his body was taken over a rock. When he hit the ground again with his arm, and head, the pain was too much for the boy. His one scream ended abruptly when he passed out and Cochise continued his run.

*****

“Pa, I can’t find Joe anywhere,” Hoss told his father. “Cochise is gone. Do ya think he woulda just gone for a ride?”

Ben had been pacing back and forth in the great room of his home worrying about his youngest son. He had expressly requested Joe not to go off the ranch until they knew that Warton was either out of town or in jail. He had agreed with Adam and Hoss that Warton had a grudge against Joe, though Joe wouldn’t admit it nor would he talk about it.

“Well, Hoss. You know your brother, what do you think?” Ben returned.

“I’ll saddle up the horses,” Hoss replied. In a very short period of time, Ben and Hoss were on their horses, heading down the road towards Virginia City. Cochise’s tracks weren’t hard to follow. It was clear after a short distance that Joe was headed into town.

“Pa, I reckon Joe ain’t changed too much. He still does things kind of sudden like,” Hoss grinned as they rode towards town.

Ben wasn’t in quite such a good humor. “When I get my hands on that boy…” he muttered. His words died in his throat at the sight of Cochise galloping towards them on the road dragging an unidentifiable object behind him. Both men stared, not believing what they were seeing. Hoss realized what was happening before the older man did. Breaking his own horse into a gallop, Hoss caught Cochise’s reins, pulling him to a stop. A sudden gunshot caused the horse to rear, but Hoss managed to control him. Ben reached him just as Hoss leaped off Chubb with amazing alacrity and knelt beside his unconscious brother. Ben was by the boys’ side in another few seconds.

“Pa!” Hoss gasped. He quickly untied the rope that held Joe captive to Cochise’s movements. “Pa, who coulda…”

Ben shook his head, holding up his hand. Another gun shot rang through the air. Ben looked from Joe to Hoss and back to his son. In silent agreement, the two men examined Joe for injuries. His left arm was broken in three places while the rest of his body was scraped and filthy from the dirt in the road. When Ben lifted the boy, even unconscious he moaned.

“Oh, Punkin,” Hoss breathed seeing his brother back missing at least a layer of skin. From his waist to his shoulders, several areas were scraped badly. The amount of damage was something the men would never forget.

Ben got up, and went over to Buck. He took his bedroll, angrily wiping away a stray tear. “Help me wrap him in the blanket,” the father instructed, keeping his voice stony and determined. “Then get to town and bring the doctor back. If you can see where those shots came from.”

“Yes, Sir, Pa,” Hoss assured his father. Looking down at Joe, Hoss’ anger and hurt was evident as he assisted his father.

Hoofbeats clattered down the road announcing a rider. Hoss and Ben were both relieved to see Adam come riding down the road at a hard gallop. Pulling Sport up short, he leaped off the horse, running to his father who was carrying Joe.

“Thank God!” Adam breathed. “Pa, where did you come from?”

“Never mind that now,” Ben shot back. “What happened?” Hoss held Joe while Ben mounted his horse. Handing his brother up to his father, Hoss listened as Adam responded.

“It was Warton. I’m sorry, Pa. I couldn’t stop him from hurting Joe. He…he’s dead now. I killed him. I didn’t have a choice.” The words hung in the air. Precious seconds passed. Adam’s contrition begged for Ben’s forgiveness.

Ben nodded with encouragement and care to his son. “You’re all right?”

“I’m fine,” Adam insisted, not telling his father of the knock he had taken on the head.

“Good.” Ben answered, his chocolate colored eyes conveying far more relief to his son than that one word. He turned his attention to his second son. “Hoss, get to town. After that, stop at Roy’s and tell him what’s happened. Roy can come out to the ranch if he wants to talk to Adam. Adam, help me get your brother home.”

Hoss had handed Joe up to their father, facing him forward to take pressure off his back. The boy remained unconscious to Ben’s relief. The ride home was going to be difficult. Hoss touched Joe’s leg. “I’ll be back quick, Punkin. You hang on now, ya hear.”

“Go, Hoss,” Ben instructed for the third time. Hoss slapped his hand on Adam’s shoulder then took Chubb and galloped down the road towards town. Adam mounted Sport.

“Let’s go, son,” Ben said. Father and son trotted back towards their home, with Joe resting his head against his father’s chest. Ben wondered if his son could hear his thumping heart, feel the rage mixed with dread at Joe’s condition, or if he would ever wake again to be part of the family he had been lost to for the past three years. Ben wanted his sons, all of them, whole and healthy. He clutched Joe to him, only daring to touch him below the waist. Joe was going to go through hell if he survived…and Ben would be with him. He would be with his son every step of the way, every step.

*****

Joe came back to reality gradually, his mind grabbling with the nightmare that he was living and the love that enfolded him. With his ear next to his father’s chest, he could hear Ben’s heartbeat, feel the love of the man’s arms in which he lay. A faint scent of bay told him that his father held him. Forcing himself to move, he regretted his action instantly for the excruciating pain threatened to take him under again.

“Joseph?” His father’s voice reached him. Could he reply? Drawing from deep within he found he was able to speak. “Pa? Adam? Adam?”

Ben’s hand touched Joe’s curls, providing much needed comfort as the words gave the boy some peace. “Adam’s right here, son. Warton is dead. He won’t hurt you again. Hoss has gone for the doctor. You just rest, son, you hear me? We’ll be home soon.”

“It’s over,” Joe mumbled to himself. It was over. He knew even in his befuddled mind that his father didn’t know why Warton would try and kill him or direct his rotten vengeance towards the Cartwright’s themselves, didn’t know that Joe had trusted the wrong man, didn’t know… Oh God, there was so much that he hadn’t told them. Hot flames of fire licked at his back, causing Joe to cry out when Buck stumbled. Through the next few miles till they got back to the ranch, all Joe could say was that it was over. Ben couldn’t get any more out of his son than that.

Finally, the house came into view. As they rounded the barn, Joe lifted his head. “Home,” he breathed. Why hadn’t he felt this relief and happiness when his father first brought him home? Why hadn’t he understood how much he missed it? The boy didn’t know, didn’t understand how he felt or the way he felt. He was so confused, so lost, yet unable to do anything other than deal with the fire on his back and the pain in his arm. He was suddenly aware of an explosion of agony as his father and brother lifted him off the saddle. The gray haze barely lifted when he found himself sitting on his bed.

“Pa, we need to get his clothes off,” Adam said.

“We need to get his back clean,” Ben retorted, a little more sharply than was normal. He didn’t apologize. “The dirt and the pebbles will cause an infection.”

“Pa, it’s going to hurt like hell to clean his back. Why don’t we get his clothes off, and wait for Paul. It won’t be too long.”

“Adam, I don’t know,” Ben hesitated.

Joe wanted to tell them what to do, but he didn’t know either. He was already suffering…suffering just as he had when he was with the Bannocks. With a blink of the eye, Ben was replaced in Joe’s mind by the Indians who had captured him. White Eagle and his warriors were holding him down. He could see White Eagle’s eyes filled with hatred, raising his knife and slicing it across his thigh. Tossing in agony, Joe protested his treatment. “No! No! Not again!” he screamed. “Pa don’t let them. The Bannock’s are…torturing me. I can’t take it. I can’t take it. I don’t want to let you down, Pa. Oh please!”

Joe didn’t hear his father’s reassurances, didn’t hear anything. His eyes were wide at the sight of the Indians who filled his line of vision. He screamed and screamed gut wrenching cries that rang through the house, worse than any nightmare that Joe had ever had to Ben and Adam’s knowledge.

“Adam, dear God, what’s happening to him,” Ben cried.

Adam pulled his brother to him, leaning his baby brother’s head against his chest. Holding him tight around the waist, just below the abrasions on his back, Adam didn’t let Joe go even though he tried to bolt. Joe’s cries grew hoarse until he collapsed against the oldest brother who had protected him from the day he was born.

“Joe?” Adam asked. Joe’s body was limp against him.

Ben, terrified, put his fingers on Joe’s neck, then breathed a sigh of relief. “He’s unconscious,” the father decided. “Let’s get him undressed. Hop Sing get some hot water and clean cloths.” Hop Sing scuttled away. With Adam holding his brother, Ben was able to get Joe’s pants, boots and socks off without too much difficulty. The tattered shirt wasn’t so simple. Not only was there the broken arm to consider, but shards of the shirt were embedded in his back. They were still working at it when Paul arrived.

“Ben, haven’t you seen me enough in the last few weeks,” Paul Martin tried to tease as he came into Joe’s bedroom.

“This is serious, Paul.”

“I know. Hoss told me about it. He’s pretty upset.”

“Where is he?” Adam asked.

“Putting the horses up in the barn. He said he needed to keep busy.”

“I’ll go talk to him when we’re finished here,” Adam said.

“You can go now, Adam,” Dr. Martin ordered. “Ben can help me. You look as though you could use some rest. I want to see you when I’m done with Joe.”

“Why?” Ben asked in puzzled concern.

“Hoss said he noticed a bump on your head, Adam.”

 

Adam shook his head in surprise, his headache telling him Hoss was right, his pride not wanting to admit it. “Warton hit me,” he admitted protesting at the same time. “I’m fine.”

“Adam, you have no choice. You’ll let Paul check you over before he leaves.” Ben’s chocolate colored eyes bore into Adam’s hazel orbs.

Adam nodded. “Sure, Pa. No problem,” the young man consented. “But I’m fine,” He mumbled, letting his father take his place.

Even unconscious, Joe moaned at the movement. His cries ate at his father and brother’s hearts. Ben leaned back on the wall of the bed with Joe resting against him. Adam’s last glimpse of his brother was seeing his father comforting him while Paul and Hop Sing tended to his injuries. He only hoped they hadn’t been too late in saving Joe. He only hoped.

Outside, Adam found Hoss in the barn, sitting on a bale of hay, tears slipping down his cheek. It was clear to his oldest brother that Hoss was trying not to cry. Sitting next to the younger man, Adam put his arm around him. Hoss’ eyes met his brother’s.

“He okay?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know, Hoss. It’s up to Paul and Joe now.”

Hoss buried his head in his hands.

“Don’t make sense,” Hoss finally said. “How could this happen? Joe shoulda been here. What’d he go running off for?”

“He said he wanted to talk to the sheriff. I’m guessing it was about Warton.”

“He coulda told us. Ya know, Adam, it seems like he aint really trusted us since he come home.”

“Well, Hoss, maybe that’s something we need to take up with our baby brother when he gets better. We don’t know what happened to him while he was gone. Sometimes I wonder. You know what he said up there though?”

“Nah.”

Adam didn’t speak for a few minutes. Hoss observed his brother’s pale face. Adam appeared truly tormented. Placing his big paw on the smaller man’s knee, Hoss encouraged him to open up. “Ya kin tell me, Big Brother,” he soothed.

“He said…” Adam felt his own tears falling down his face. He clenched his fists with his anger and empathy for his brother. “He thought he was with the Bannocks. He said they were hurting him.” Adam’s voice cracked in his anguish. “Hoss, he didn’t want to let Pa down.” Silence greeted the admission. The two men had been told Joe had been tortured to death by the Bannocks. But to hear Joe admit even that much of his ordeal was like nothing either brother had ever felt, and they never wanted to feel it again.

“No wonder he had amnesia,” Hoss mused.

Adam shook his head as Hoss paced. “He’s in so much pain. It’s not surprising, he’s reliving that nightmare,” he rationalized.

“What are we gonna do, Adam? How’s he going ta live with those memories?” Hoss’ own voice was rather desperate.

Adam came to stand in front of his younger brother. “We’re going to do what we’ve always done for Joe. We’re going to be there for him. We’ll get him and ourselves through this.”

Hoss’ blue eyes were wide in his compassion. “And Pa? This has to be killin him.”

“Pa’s a strong man, Hoss. He’ll try and help Joe and us.”

Hoss nodded. Adam was right. He was…Hoss had to believe that.

Together the brothers walked back to the house to help their father, to help their brother and to deal with the nightmare of Joe’s past, a past that they had not shared, a past that left them with nightmares of their own, nightmares for the baby brother they had always vowed to protect, even at the cost of their own lives. They had let him down, they believed, and that was what was suddenly brought home to them by Joe’s admission. They had let him down.

*****

Upstairs, Ben was holding his own as Dr. Paul Martin and Hop Sing worked on his Joseph. It took only one careful sweep of Joe’s back with a warm washcloth to bring the boy around, crying out in pain. Paul saw no recourse but to anesthetize his patient with chloroform. After Joe was under, Dr. Martin was able to clean the back, picking out the shreds of Joe’s shirt, and then cleaning it again. Several dirty basins later, he had finished the job to Ben’s relief. Hop Sing and Ben between them supported Joe while Paul then set the broken arm and splinted it.

“I can cast it in a few days. Ben, he has to stay off his back, so he’ll need to lie on his side. I know that might not be easy, but splinting the arm to his chest was the only thing I could do.”

“We’ll manage,” Ben replied. “Whatever he needs.”

“I’ll leave some laudanum for the pain. Tell him he has to take the medication. I’ll also leave some medicine in case he develops a fever. I have no doubt infection will set in.”

“Will he be all right?” Ben ground out.

Paul shook his head. “It’s up to him, Ben. We’ll just have to wait and see. It’s going to be a bumpy couple of days. He’s still not recovered from the hanging. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Ben didn’t tell Paul of Joe’s cries just a short while ago. He could hardly accept those words without feeling a distinct guilt. Ben needed to talk to his son, needed to help him deal with the events that had taken away his memories. No, Ben didn’t tell Paul. He just nodded his understanding as Paul gathered his equipment and soaked them in more hot water. Then he helped Ben and Hop Sing position Joe on his side with pillows supporting him. As an afterthought, Ben brushed the dark curls, before looking up at Paul. “Would you tell the boys, and then examine Adam? I’ll stay with Joseph.”

“Ben, you can’t wear yourself out taking care of the boy.” Ben’s look could have killed. Paul wasn’t impressed. “I’m going to tell Adam and Hoss that you are still recovering from your own gunshot wound. You will have to take shifts with Joe, or I swear I’ll figure out a way to get you to rest, Ben. You’re too old to wear yourself out. Besides you’re my friend. I don’t want you to have a heart attack. I don’t think that would help Joe either.”

Ben’s face crumbled. “You win, Paul. You always do.”

“In this house?” Paul sighed. “Not often enough. I’ll be back tomorrow, Ben. Joe should wake in an hour or so. If he doesn’t, send for me.” He patted his friend on the back, then left the father to sit with his son.

Ben pulled a chair around to sit in front of Joe. The boy was still under the effects of the anesthetic, his face pale. They had positioned him on his left side. Ben took the hand in his own, talking to Joe as if he were awake. He didn’t hear Adam or Hoss arrive to hear him, didn’t know that his older sons had the same questions and thoughts he did.

“What happened out there, Joseph? Why did you have to go into town?” Ben stroked the boy’s hand, then rubbed the furrowed brow. “Why couldn’t you confide in me or your brothers? Was this another time when you had to do what you had to do, always determined to fix things yourself? When are you going to learn that you don’t have to do everything by yourself? Oh, Joe. I wish I knew what happened to you when you escaped or left the Bannocks. Where have you been?”

Looking into the young face, holding his hand, and thinking of the days past, Ben felt his son had changed while he was gone. He felt lost at knowing he had missed three years of Joe’s life when his son needed him. It wasn’t like Adam. Adam had gone east, gone to college, enjoyed experiences Ben had not shared. That was normal, a part of the growing and maturing process. However, Joe’s past wasn’t anything a boy should have gone through, with or without his father. Or was it? Ben didn’t even know the answer to that question.

“Pa?” Hoss called through the open doorway. “Pa, kin we come in?”

At first Ben didn’t hear the young man, his second son. Slowly he looked up, relieved actually to see his two older boys. Nodding wearily, he admitted Joe’s brothers to the room.

“Paul gave us a rundown,” Adam informed him. “Why don’t I make out a schedule and we’ll take shifts with Joe? It was Paul’s idea, but I think it’s a good one.”

Ben shook his head. Adam was about to protest when Ben’s palm came up in the air, forcing his son to silence. “After he’s awake, after he knows we’re here, and I’m assured he’ll be all right, then I’ll leave him, Adam. Not before. And Adam, what did Paul say about your head?”

“He has a slight concussion, Pa,” Hoss confessed. Adam made a face. “Told Adam he should get some rest.”

“Then that’s what you need to do, son,” Ben ordered. Adam turned quickly away, his feet leaving the room quietly.

Ben looked at Hoss who still had tears in his eyes. “It wasn’t your fault, on. There’s nothing you could have done.”

“Sure there is, Pa. With Joe, if we’d just got him before he got out the door, that mighta helped. Reckon it don’t help to cry now, but I jus caint help it.” Hoss leaned on the front of the bed frame. The men were silent watching Joe as he slept. Several minutes later, Adam and Hop Sing appeared. Adam had two chairs. Hop Sing brought a tray of sandwiches and coffee.

Ben smiled despite himself. “I thought I told you to get some rest,” he chided to the hazel-eyed man.

“You did and I will, after I make sure you get some nourishment.”

“#1 Son correct,” Hop Sing agreed. “If Cartlights don’t eat, who take care Little Joe?”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben returned.

Hop Sing put the tray down on Joe’s dresser then hurried out of the room, mumbling something in Cantonese. Joe moaned a bit, but didn’t come around. Adam sat on the side of the bed. Joe’s back was covered in bandages, his chest bare, a blanket pulled over him. Like his father, Adam had so many unanswered questions related to his brother. Hoss was quiet as he sat in his chair. No one eat the sandwiches. They sat uneaten on the tray as the three men concentrated their energy and love on the one family member they loved almost above all else, fearful that Joe may have come home…but that he might not live to answer the mystery that surrounded him, the mystery of the last three years he had lived…on his own.

*****

“Pa! You have ta be patient,” Hoss encouraged a few days later. Ben was sitting at the breakfast table, sipping on some hot coffee. With his chocolate eyes looking over the rim at his second son, the father tried to smile.

“Hoss is right, Pa,” Adam concurred. “Joe’s confused. He’s been through hell.”

“I understand my own son!” Ben snapped. Putting down the cup of coffee, he leaned back in the chair. “The problem is, does he understand himself.” Adam nodded in agreement.

Hoss was puzzled, as evidenced by the confusion written on his readable face. “Reckon I don’t git it, Pa,” the young man admitted putting down his fork after finishing a large plate of hotcakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, toast and fried potatoes.

“Joe’s over the worst of the infection and his back is healing. But he hasn’t said much more than a few words to each of us in the last several days. He has nightmares at night. Adam, you are right. Joe has been through hell. The question is, how are we are going to help Joseph deal with what is tormenting him?” Silence filled the room answering Ben’s question.

“That’s what I thought,” Ben answered. Putting his napkin down on the dining room table, the big man walked through his great room, up the stairs and into his son’s bedroom where Joe was trying to find a comfortable position. This was a nearly impossible task given his injuries. Ben understood that. Still, Joe had barely complained over the last few days. That was what upset Ben. Joseph’s very silence was killing his father inside.

“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben greeted with a rather over-optimistic tone. “How are you feeling?”

Joe’s answer was actually predictable. “Fine, Pa.”

“Well good. You know Adam was just saying he could do with some help mending fences.” Joe didn’t respond to the teasing remark with his usual bluster. Ben closed his eyes. “Joseph, are you in pain?” he went on. Joe remained quiet. “Joseph I asked you a question.”

“I’m fine, Pa,” the boy repeated.

“Joseph, so help me if you say I’m fine one more time…” Ben threatened.

“Doesn’t matter, Pa.”

“Joseph, I’ve never known you to feel so sorry for yourself.”

“Guess ya don’t know me that well,” Joe replied.

“Do not take that tone with me!” Joe sulked some more. Ben put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Now tell me the truth. Are you in pain?”

“Some.”

Ben shook his head. “What are you so angry about, Joseph?”

“I’m not!” Joe objected. He couldn’t help looking into the chocolate colored eyes that met his with such honesty. Ben was pleading with his son. Joe’s hazel gaze did not leave his father’s. Sinking into his bed, Joe felt the tears stinging his eyes. “I don’t know,” he admitted finally. “I can’t talk about it, Pa, not yet. I can’t. I’m really tired.”

“You’re going to have to talk about it sometime, s0n,” Ben reminded him. “Joseph, the three years you were gone…well, they were lonely years without you. We missed you. We love you. We need you.”

Again, Joe didn’t answer. Ben had never felt at such a loss before, not with Joseph, not with the child of his heart. There were things he didn’t know about the boy anymore. He knew he shouldn’t hesitate, but there would be time in the future. Patting Joe’s hand, he nodded. Moving over to the table, he took a teaspoon and the bottle of laudanum. Pouring the liquid into the spoon, he gave it to Joe who turned away. “Take it, son, or we’ll finish this conversation since you must be up to it.” Joe smiled a bit at that. He took the medication without further protest. Ben put the bottle back on the table. He started to stand up. He was surprised when Joe’s hand grabbed for his.

“Please, Pa. Stay until I fall asleep.”

Ben sat back down. His hand tenderly touched the boy’s cheek while his other clasped Joe’s firmly. “I’ll be here, Joseph. You know that. I love you, son.” Joe nodded, looking away, then closing his eyes to rest. Ben shook his head in frustration, and worry. Where was the son he remembered? Joe seemed to be improving after he initially came home. Since his run-in with Warton, Joseph had been almost unapproachable. Three years ago, Ben would have had it out with Joe. Now…now he wasn’t so sure. How had Joe changed? What kind of emotions and feelings hid behind the handsome face that always used to let his emotions show? Joe had always been as readable as an open book. Not anymore. He was almost like Adam, holding everything in. That admission bothered Ben right down to his boots. He held Joseph’s hand in his and prayed for guidance, prayed for the words that he would eventually need…for the love of his son to be his again.

******

Joe knew he was hurting his family. As his arm and back healed, he gained strength, slow but sure. There was nothing he wanted more than to be part of his family again, but within, he knew the story had to be told. He had to get Warton and the past out of his system and he couldn’t. He just couldn’t hurt his father any more than he had been. Frightened, and angry, his frustration was directed towards himself, just as it often was when he didn’t know what to do.

“All right, Short Shanks. Ya ready ta go downstairs?” Hoss asked one morning when the doctor had given the okay for Joe to get out of bed. The boy still hadn’t balked at the long days in bed. Instead he had slept, shutting out reality and the truth. Now, with his brother’s large body towering over him, he turned away.

“I’m tired, Hoss. Think I’ll just stay where I’m comfy.”

“Naw ya don’t!” Hoss chided. “Ya need ta get outta this bed. Ya been in it too long as it is. Ya aint got a choice, Short Shanks.”

Joe didn’t object. What was the point. Hoss was twice his size. Hoss was as gentle as could be in lifting his little brother in his big arms. Joe couldn’t help leaning his head against Hoss’ shoulder, feeling protected by the big galoot, he thought. Downstairs on the sofa, Hoss made sure Joe was comfortable. His back had healed enough so that he could put some pressure on it against the soft pillow. Joe had to admit that the great room was far more open and airy than his own room. Hoss got Joe a pitcher and some water and the book he had been reading. Joe knew he couldn’t ask for better care, care that he had missed even when he didn’t really know it.

“Ya look better,” Hoss said. “We was right worried about ya for a spell.”

“Hoss, you always worry,” Joe returned. Hoss sat down, lifting Joe’s legs and letting them rest on his.

“Hey!” Joe objected.

“There’s the spirit, Little Brother. Wondered where that been at. Ya been lower than low since ya got hurt. Now are ya gonna talk ta me or are ya gonna set there, feeling sorry for yerself?”

“I don’t feel sorry for myself. I never have.”

“Ya do now.”

Well, Joe couldn’t quite argue with that. Hoss was right. Then he usually was. That was the trouble with big brothers…Joe stopped that train of thought.

“Joe, do ya know what it was like here the last three years? Do ya?”

Joe remained quiet. He might not know the answer to Hoss’ question. However, he could guess.

“Ya went ta school that morning and ya never come back.”

“And you never found me!” Joe shot back without really realizing it.

Hoss pursed his lips a bit. “Naw, we didn’t. We done looked high and low for ya for weeks and weeks. Pa was near out of his mind. Didn’t eat or sleep much, and we worried about him. Worried about you too. Short Shanks, yer mighty important ta this family. Well, none a us been the same since. Ya go on, ya know, but it ain’t the same.”

Still, Joe didn’t answer.

“Dagnabit, Little Joe, I ain’t used ta talking so much. Ain’t ya got anything ta say?”

“S’pose not,” Joe answered. “Hoss, I know ya mean well, but ya can’t understand. I didn’t know who I was. I was living a life that has nothing to do with any of you.”

“Where?” Hoss curiously.

“Funny,” Joe admitted, his barriers breaking down despite himself. “S’pose it wasn’t that far away. Hoss, I’d have ta tell Pa and Adam all this.”

“Might be easier just ta tell me.”

“No, no. That’s okay, Hoss.”

“We would have been there fer ya if we could,” Hoss told him.

Joe couldn’t doubt his brother’s sincerity. He spoke even though he wasn’t sure he should. “It’s so strange, Hoss,” he admitted. “Ya can’t imagine what it’s like not ta know who you are or where you come from.”

“Naw, guess I caint rightly understand. Wanta tell me?”

Joe closed his eyes. Hoss was plenty patient. Joe knew his brother would do anything for him, just as he would for his brothers or his father. “Hoss, if I had known who I was, I woulda come home. Ya believe that, don’tcha?”

“Course I do, Short Shanks.”

“I was hurt, hurt bad,” Joe finally confided. “I didn’t remember anything before I woke up in a bed in a house…in a place I didn’t recognize. They said they found me, found me on the river bank. I was in so much pain.” Joe couldn’t go into the injuries he had, or the nightmares he had had over the years, nightmares he couldn’t identify. He couldn’t do that to Hoss, nor to anyone.

“Go on, Little Brother.”

“When I got well, the family who took me in gave me a job working on their ranch. They had about three hundred head of cattle. I worked there for awhile. Then I drifted…Aw Hoss, it’s my fault Warton hurt Adam, and shot Pa and me. I didn’t know he’d come after me. Heck I even feel guilty he’s dead.”

“Yeah, he’s dead, but yer all right, Punkin!”

“I know.” Joe mused out loud. “I don’t know why I feel the way I do. I’m just confused. I should have stopped him, Hoss!”

“Little Joe. Ya couldn’t stop a killer and that’s what he was. Adam done tole us how Warton attacked him and you. He shot Pa in cold blood. You’re not a miracle worker, Little Brother. Yer just one man, and yer not very big at that.”

Joe shot Hoss a glare, then couldn’t help but giggle.

Hoss grinned. “Now that’s a sound I done missed. Iff’n ya can tell me this stuff, Little Brother, caint ya tell Pa? He’d like ta help. So would me and Adam.”

“Spose I can think on it, Big Brother,” Joe admitted. “I just need some time.”

Hoss made a little face, then patted Joe’s knee. Joe wondered if Hoss understood his message. Hoss got up, pulling a blanket over his brother. “Ya got plenty of time, Punkin. I’ll tell Pa what ya done said. We just want ya back home, ya know?”

Joe gave his brother a half grin. “I know, Hoss. So do I.” Joe meant it. He meant exactly what he said. He wanted to be back home too. The problem was…he just wasn’t sure how to go about it.

*****

The sands of time moved slowly for the Cartwrights, for Ben, Adam, and Hoss. Each one ached, their hearts wounded by a pain only Joe could heal.

A ranch doesn’t run itself. Ben found himself and his two older sons caught up in round-up and branding time. Joe was instructed to stay at home as Dr. Martin would not allow him to ride yet. After several weeks, Joe had insisted on doing his fair share around the ranch, keeping the horses groomed, keeping the tack room cleaned, even mucking the stalls although he still didn’t have the use of his right hand. On top of that, he asked his father to try keeping the books which he was surprisingly adept at. The young man remained unusually quiet, often curbing his temper before he could lose it when Adam or Hoss slipped into their old ways and teased him. The tension from the youngest son was thick, and no one dared to confront him for fear he would bolt permanently.

“Pa, we can’t go on like this,” Adam said one morning. He was eating breakfast with his father. Hoss was just coming down the stairs, and Joe had already eaten and gone to the barn. Another unusual aspect of Little Joe’s return to the family was his early hour of rising. It was eerie for the family to wake and know that Joe had a head start on them, but from the first time he had been allowed out of bed, that had been his habit. Even Hoss shook his head at finding Joe’s bed empty more usual than not. Joe liked to sleep in and getting him out of bed was usually a job in and of itself. This new Joe was impossible to figure out.

“What do you mean, Adam?” Ben asked, not being obtuse, but too worried to guess at what the young man meant.

“You know what I mean!” Adam snapped.

“Adam,” Ben warned in return.

Adam shook his head. He put his fork down, pushing away the plate of food in front of him.

Hoss sat down. Normally Hoss might have teased his brother by grabbing the plate of food, saying if he didn’t want it, Hoss would be plenty glad to finish it for him. This time, he just sat down…and listened.

“I can’t stand it,” Adam admitted. “I can’t stand him hurting so bad he can’t even tell us. What in the world is going on with the kid?”

Ben leaned back in his chair. Behind him, the mountains were splendid in their early summer apparel, with the snow still clinging to the mountainside, and the brilliant blue sky illuminating their beauty. Adam glanced at them, then set his gaze back to his father.

“I don’t know, Adam,” admitted Ben. “I’ve never seen Joe like this. Truth is, I don’t think he knows what’s wrong either. Hoss?”

Hoss was looking down at his empty plate. For once he was not hungry. Where he was, even he didn’t know until Ben’s voice reached him.

“Hoss!”

Looking up, Hoss felt a little confused, then gave his father a lopsided smile. “Sorry, Pa. Guess I was thinking.”

“Would we dare to ask?” Adam wondered out loud. “If it wasn’t about Little Joe, I don’t want to know.”

“Course it was about Little Joe. The little feller’s confused.”

“About what?” Ben wondered. “He’s home. He’s safe. He has everything he had before. What’s bothering him?”

“Don’t recollect he really knows. Aww, he said he felt guilty that Warton shot ya, Pa, and hurt us so much, but I don’t reckon that’s the whole story. One thing about Little Brother is he keeps things ta hisself till it eats him alive.”

“Yeah? Well this time it’s eating all of us alive,” Adam snapped. “He’s actually lost weight since he came home. You can see it in his face and clothes. All he does is his chores during the day, then comes home and stares into the fireplace. He hasn’t played a game of checkers with you, Hoss or asked me to read to him or play the guitar. He hasn’t even asked Pa to go into town to the saloon or a dance. Three years ago, that’s all he liked to do. He was always in to mischief.”

Hoss chuckled at Adam’s last sentence. Ben had to laugh as well and Adam ended up joining them.

“Well that about sums it up, doesn’t it?” Ben finished. “Joe isn’t getting into mischief. That does have to be a first.”

“True Pa,” Adam concurred. “Where Little Joe goes, trouble follows.”

“And if it ain’t trouble it’s usually some other disaster,” Hoss added.

“I’d forgotten how quick that boy could get himself into some scrape or another,” Ben went on. Silence filled the room as each man was left to think of the Joe they had lost when he disappeared three years before and hadn’t come home yet. None of them heard Joe standing by the credenza. Without a word or asking what they were talking about, the boy, his arm still in a cast abruptly turned and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

“What wouldn’t I give for Joe to get into some mischief or lose his temper or object when Paul tells him he has to take it easy,” Ben mused.

“That’s what I’m saying,” Adam told them. “We have to talk to him. We have to get him to confide in us what’s eating him up inside.”

“Little Joe? Adam have ya been drinking or something?”

“No, Hoss,” Adam shot back. “We’ve been patient long enough. If we’re patient any longer, that kid is going to either wither away and die or run away. I don’t know which and frankly I don’t want to find out.”

“I don’t know, Adam,” Ben hedged. “Maybe he’ll get it out of his system.”

“Pa!” Adam exclaimed, throwing his napkin down on the table. At that minute they heard a horse galloping across the yard. As one the trio raced through the front door to see Joe riding Cochise at breakneck speed. Using only one hand, the boy was riding far too quickly.

“Pa?” Adam asked, his fear written across his face. Ben nodded.

“I’ll go after him,” Ben said. “If we’re not back in a few hours, come after us.”

Hoss had already rushed to the barn where he was saddling Buck as if reading his father’s thoughts. He was finishing saddling the horse, pulling the cinch tight when Ben walked in weary even though it was the beginning of the day.

“Pa, bring him home, okay?” Hoss begged. Ben had no answer. With a pat on Hoss’ broad shoulder, he mounted his horse, praying he wouldn’t find his son lying dead along the road…or lost where he could never be found.

*****

Joe rode at a fast pace. What his family didn’t know was that over the last three years he had become even more expert at riding, one handed or not. He had no fear as he rode, except for the tightness of his healing back and the slight pain in his casted arm. Cochise was his horse, and he knew the horse’s movements by heart even if it had been years since he rode him. When he raced out of the yard, hurt by his father and brothers’ words, not knowing he had heard only part of the conversation, he didn’t have a destination in mind.

Somehow, for the first time since he got home, he found himself at his mother’s grave. Dismounting, tying Cochise’s reins to a tree so the horse could graze easily. He used his bedroll to spread a blanket out on the still wet grass, and plopped himself down next to the grave. “Ma,” he breathed, his eyes taking in the marker, a certain peace settling over him to his surprise. This was where he always came to talk when he was upset. In shock, Joe gazed on the monument that was next to his mother’s. He read the inscription with a sinking feeling of dismay and hurt for Ben, Adam and Hoss.

Joseph Francis Cartwright,

1842 to 1857

Beloved Son and Brother

Waiting at Heaven’s Gates

Still only eighteen, Joe almost cried at witnessing this tender monument. His guilt only grew tenfold at the sight. He had to force himself to think of his mama, to think of anything but his own tombstone. Looking out over the serene waters of Lake Tahoe, he strove to remember his mama’s voice singing him to sleep at night, her loving arms cuddling him, her contagious energy infecting him until they were both helpless with laughter and good feelings. Her sudden death had left him as lost and alone as he had been these last years. Now he assumed his family was angry at him because he couldn’t be the person he had been, that fifteen-year-old boy he had forgotten existed until he came home. Beyond that, he had put them through hell with his early demise.

“Ma, I don’t know what to do,” Joe whispered. “I’m so confused.” He did something he hadn’t done since he was a little boy missing the mama who had left him without saying good-bye. Lying down, he placed his body across the grave and sobbed, sobbed his heart out. So emotionally upset, the boy didn’t see Ben ride up to the grave. For an undetermined period of time, Joe lay still, wishing he could be a little boy again, safe and secure in his mama’s arms. But he knew Marie was long gone, that the person who helped him most, who loved him the most, was the one he hadn’t turned to since he came home, and he needed him so desperately, the word came out before he could stop it.

“Pa! Oh Pa. Why did I blame you? It wasn’t your fault, not any of it. I’m sorry, Pa, I’m so sorry. I was angry cause ya didn’t keep the Indians from hurting me. You couldn’t have done anything. If you had been with me, they would have killed ya. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” His wretched sobs wet the earth beneath him until gentle arms lifted him. With surprise, Joe saw that his father was holding him. Ben’s chocolate colored eyes, glistening with their own tears, told Joe he had heard his son’s apology. No further words were necessary. Joe sobbed again, letting loose the pain and anger he had kept inside for so long.

Ben rocked the boy back and forth, whispering soothing words, brushing back the errant curls over the boy’s forehead. Ben’s strength supported them both until finally the boy could cease his cries and control himself.

Slowly Joe sat up, his face red, and slightly embarrassed. “Sorry, Pa,” he apologized. “I didn’t mean ta cry so.”

“Joseph,” his father answered. “If you needed to cry, I’m glad I was here for you. What’s a father for?” To Ben’s relief, a small smile crept over the boy’s face.

Joe looked down at his hand and casted arm, then back up at his father. “Guess I forgot,” he admitted. “S’pose I owe you all an explanation for the time I was away.”

“No, no you don’t, Joe. You don’t owe us anything.”

“But Adam and Hoss said I was always getting into trouble, and they were right. If I hadn’t cut school that day, I wouldn’t have gotten into trouble in the first place.”

Ben sighed. “Joseph, is that what happened?”

“Yes, Sir,” Joe admitted, finally glad to get his guilt off his chest. “I…well I wanted to show you how I could find that wolf we were looking for. Problem is, I got lost and the Bannocks got me.”

“Oh, Joseph,” Ben cried hugging the boy again. “Don’t you know by now that I love you no matter what you do? Besides which, there’s nothing, nothing you could do that would make you deserve the treatment you received from the Bannocks.”

Joe felt the tears again as the memories assaulted him. He shook himself. He was not going to cry again. But he was curious. “Who told you, Pa? How did you know I’d been captured?”

Ben closed his eyes, his own memories painful at best, torturous at worst. He didn’t want to discuss this any more than Joe did, but his son deserved an answer. “Some women in the Bannock’s camp were rescued by soldiers. They told the soldiers that you had been killed. We…we thought you were dead.” Ben’s words were choked, his eyes filled with that loss, that agony that Joe had only seen a few times in his life when he or one of his brothers had been grievously injured. Joe knew his father loved him, loved him and his brothers more than anything in this world.

“Guess I made a bad mistake that day,” Joe admitted. “What wouldn’t I give to take it back?”

Ben’s silence spread out over several seconds until he could answer Joe wisely with words that brought comfort to the youngest Cartwright. “Joseph, you’re very young,” Ben told him. “There will be many times in your life when you wish you could take a moment back in time, and you can’t. You’re like your mother that way, full of energy and impulses. That’s what your brothers meant. Sometimes you act first and think later. They kind of missed that. So did I.”

For almost the first time, a real smile came across Joe’s face. “Adam’s always scolding me ta use my head and not rush inta things. Don’t know if I’ve changed much. In fact, I expect I was getting worse that day I pulled that gun on ya. I was having a kinda bad day.” Ben laughed, unable to resist Joe’s sheepish admission. The boy ducked his head and giggled. “Does that mean we can go home, Pa?” he asked.

For an answer, Ben stood. Joe stood with him. Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Son, I think home is the best possible place we could go,” he told him.

Joe grinned with a happy smile. He turned to go to Cochise. Ben watched him, his heart overflowing with joy. Looking down at Marie, and marker next to her that had been their memorial to Joe, he spoke softly. “Thank you, Marie. Thank you for bringing our son home to us. You gave him to me once and now you’ve given him to me again. I hope this time, I don’t let you down.”

*****

Epilogue

Joe snuggled under the covers, burrowing into the safety of his bed. For the first time since he came home, one of his brothers was going to come in and drag him out of bed, he was sure. He almost giggled hearing Hoss’ footsteps lumbering down the hall. At the same time, he heard more footsteps, several pairs in fact. Still, he was sleepy, so he kept his green eyes closed, enjoying the feel of his bed. How long had it been since he had appreciated a soft bed or had one for that matter. He couldn’t remember. No one knocked on the bedroom door. Joe heard the wooden structure snake open. Smiling to himself, he remained where he was, safe and warm.

“Do ya think he’s awake, Pa?”

“Well if he isn’t, he will be when we’re done with him,” Adam returned.

“Boys, if you drop that tray, Hop Sing may just go back to China,” Ben warned. Now Joe’s curiosity was piqued. He lifted his head over the covers peeking to see his father and brothers walking across the floor with a tray. Quickly he buried his head in his pillow again.

“Hey, Punkin. Yer awake. I saw ya,”

“Hoss, you act like he’s a little kid. Try it this way,” Adam put in. He shook Joe’s shoulders through the covers. “Time to get up, Little Buddy, or else Hoss is going to eat your breakfast tray. Eggs, bacon, hotcakes, and coffee.”

“Joseph!”

Ben’s voice caught Joe where it counted. Turning over, he rubbed his eyes sleepily as if he had just realized his family was in the room. All three men were fully dressed, ready for the day. “Pa? Adam? Hoss? What are you doing here?” He asked feigning confusion while pulling himself up on the bed. Ben and Adam sat on either side of his bed. Hoss leaned on the end of the wooden frame. Adam was holding a tray which he put on Joe’s lap.

“Breakfast in bed? For me? What for?” Joe’s questions came out quick, making everyone laugh.

“You better enjoy it, Joe,” Adam warned. “Now that you got your cast off, we’re going to put you to work. This is your official welcome home party.”

“But I thought we were going to have a party in a few weeks…around the 4th, Pa said.” Joe objected.

Ben grinned. “We’ll have a party then. This is just for you, Joseph.”

“Why?”

“So we can get you out of bed and back to work,” Adam insisted.

Joe shook his head.

“Why not, Short Shanks,” Hoss asked.

“I dunno.”

“Well, I shore wish someone would bring me a breakfast tray,” Hoss grumbled good naturedly. Joe giggled, unable to help himself.

“What’s so funny?” Hoss growled.

“Ya big galoot. There ain’t a tray large enough to carry all the food you eat for breakfast or any other meal.”

In retaliation for the jibe, Hoss grabbed Joe’s clothes from the day before carelessly thrown across the bed and threw them at his little brother. Adam tickled Joe. Ben just watched.

Adam’s hazel eyes met his father’s. “Don’t think you have to worry about this scamp any more, Pa. If he’s up to taking on Hoss…”

“Any time, Big Brother,” Joe laughed some more. “He might be able to sit on me, but I got other ways to best both of you.”

“Says who?” This from Hoss.

“Yeah, says who?” Adam put in.

Ben sat back watching his sons tease each other while Joe eat his breakfast. He didn’t even correct Joe for talking in between bites. Joe was home. There was a long road ahead of them and issues to be addressed to help Joe settle in to the family again. Ben fervently hoped his son would never have to be as alone as he had been over the last three years. For the love of Little Joe, he certainly hoped not.

***The End***

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