Living in Fear (by Carla)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,000


 

“Ben, I hate to give you such bad news, but I know you want the truth.” Dr. Paul Martin explained as he buttoned up his winter coat.

Ben Cartwright put a hand on his old friend’s shoulder. “I know, Paul. I’m glad you told me. How long do I have to make the necessary arrangements?”

Paul shrugged and expelled a sigh of frustration. “I’m not sure, but I’d say no more than a month. This type of illness tends to take its victims fairly quickly and since there’s no medicine known to help, there’s not much we can do.”

“Is there anything to lessen the pain?” Ben wanted to know.

“Yes, I’ve brought a bottle of laudanum. But, it’s only to be used when absolutely necessary.” Paul warned as he pulled a small bottle from his coat pocket and handed it to his friend.

Ben examined the bottle, then shook his head in acknowledgment.

“Ben…” Paul began, then hesitated.

“Yes, Paul?

“Are you going to tell the boys?”

Ben sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

“Adam and Hoss left this morning for the high country to hunt with Charlie and Hank. They won’t be back until sometime next week.”

“And Little Joe?” Paul prodded.

“I think it would be best if I waited and told them all at the same time. Little Joe may take the news better if his brothers are here to help him. He’s already pretty upset that Adam and Hoss went on this trip without him and I don’t want to add fuel to the fire.”

“That’s probably a good idea.” Dr. Martin agreed, then frowned as he noticed Ben rubbing his forehead.

“Head hurt?” he questioned.

Ben nodded as Paul opened his black bag.

“Yes, Little Joe pitched one of his famous fits this morning. He’s restricted to his room until I can figure out what to do with him.”

Ben looked surprised as Paul handed him a small packet. “What’s this?”

“Just a little something for your headache.” Paul replied with a smile. “Well, Ben, I guess I’d best be on my way. If you need anything, just let me know.” He added, picking up his black bag and hat.

The two men shook hands as Ben said, “Thank you, Paul.”

After seeing Paul out, Ben headed for his desk. There was a lot to do—and not much time.

At the top of the winding staircase, just out of sight, Little Joe Cartwright sat in stunned silence. His young face was impossibly pale, almost translucent. Tears brimmed his hazel eyes like a photograph frozen in time before spilling down his cheeks as the full impact of Paul Martin’s words sunk in. His father was going to die—and very soon. Shaken to the core, Little Joe quietly made his way back to the sanctuary of his bedroom. Throwing himself on the bed, he lay there for a long time thinking about his father.

Hours later, Ben Cartwright glanced up from the will he’d been perusing as Hop Sing, the family cook, shuffled into the room.

“Lunch leady in 5 minute.” He announced glancing around the room. “Where Little Joe?”

Ben frowned, his dark eyes hooded. “He’s still in his room—hopefully thinking about his actions this morning. I should make him stay there until dinnertime.”

Hop Sing glared at his boss, but before he could speak, Ben threw his hands up in defeat. He knew better than to argue with Hop Sing when it came to Joseph and food. The Chinaman felt that Little Joe didn’t eat enough as it was.

Reluctantly, Ben pushed himself up from the desk and moved towards the stairs. “I’ll go get him. I sure hope he’s in a better mood.” He muttered.

*****

Breakfast that morning had started out quietly enough…until Little Joe discovered his brothers, twenty-year-old Adam and fourteen years old Hoss, were going on a hunting trip with Hank and Charlie, two long-time Ponderosa ranch hands. Unfortunately, the baby of the family—eight-year-old Little Joe, wasn’t invited. The youngster didn’t take kindly to what he was sure must be an oversight.

“I’m gonna go, too!” Little Joe announced, when Adam finished outlining plans for the trip.

“Sorry, little buddy, not this time. Hoss and I are going to be gone for at least seven or eight days. That’s much to long for you,” Adam explained patiently. He had dreaded this moment for he knew his little brother would be upset.

“No, it’s not too long!” Little Joe declared, his small face a mask of determination, his hazel eyes blazing. “If Hoss can go, then I can go too!”

Adam rolled his dark eyes and sighed. “Little Joe, I’m sorry, but you just can not go this time.”

“You’re going to see Toby, aren’t you?” Little Joe accused his brother. Toby West had been the Ponderosa foreman when Little Joe was born and the boy had adopted the old man as a substitute grandfather. After Toby’s family was killed in an Indian raid, Toby had taken to the hills to live as a hermit. Though Ben, Adam, and Hoss had tried to comfort the little boy, he was heartbroken when Toby left. In the time that had passed since Toby’s leaving, Little Joe had only seen him twice, but he still missed the old man a great deal and was hurt to think that his brothers would visit Toby without him.

“No, Little Joe, we’re not going to see Toby this time. We’ll be on the other side of Jackknife Pass,” Adam explained patiently. “We won’t have time to visit this trip.”

Little Joe would not be consoled. “You’re just saying that.”

Hoss, the middle brother and most often the family peacemaker tried to soothe his little brother.

“Maybe you can go next year, Short Shanks.” He said, using his special nickname for Little Joe.

“NO! I wanna go now!” The little boy shouted and banged a small fist on the table.

“Joseph! That’s enough!” Ben’s voice boomed.

Usually, his father’s tone of voice would be enough to calm the little boy down. But not today. Today, the youngest Cartwright felt slighted and he couldn’t let it go. Little Joe pounded the table again causing a spoon full of oatmeal to fly across the table and land on his father’s lap. Little Joe looked up stunned. Adam and Hoss stared at Joe in astonishment. Their little brother had done it now.

“I-I-I’m sorry, Papa.” Little Joe apologized quickly; his hazel eyes open wide.

“You should be!” declared Adam furiously.

Little Joe glared at his older brother as anger consumed him. He was already in trouble, might as well make his point before his father punished him.

“You shut up, Adam! It’s….” he yelled.

“Joseph! Upstairs! Now!!” Ben thundered as he gave his youngest son a look that brooked no argument.

“But, Papa, its all Adam’s fault. He’s being bossy and won’t let me go with him and Hoss to see Toby. It’s just not fair!” Joe pounded the table again as he glared at his older brother.

Hoss sighed. Usually Adam and Little Joe got along very well. The last week or so, however, they seemed to be at each other’s throat all the time. They were just too much alike, he figured—both stubborn as the day is long. Hoss knew Adam was right about Joe being too young for such a trip. But, at the same time, he hated to see Little Joe so disappointed and felt a twinge of guilt about leaving him behind. Little Joe was not only his little brother, but his best friend as well.

“Adam, you and Hoss finish breakfast. I’ll be back in a minute.” Ben commanded as he grabbed Little Joe by the arm and pulled him towards the stairs.

Little Joe knew he would just make things worse, but he couldn’t help himself. He turned to Adam and stuck out his tongue. He immediately felt a hand swat his backside…hard. He jumped, tears beginning to well in his eyes, his bottom lip quivering. ***

Ten minutes later, Ben headed back downstairs shaking his head.

“Is he all right, Pa?” Hoss inquired, his voice filled with concern for his little brother.

“Hoss, you baby him too much. No wonder he’s such a handful.” Adam complained.

Ben looked at his middle son. Hoss was big for his age but he had the heart and soul of an angel and his love for his family all-consuming. Especially when it came to Little Joe. Hoss had declared himself his brother’s protector soon after Little Joe was born. Though Hoss realized Joe had to be punished for his actions, he also felt sorry for the little boy.

“Don’t worry about Little Joe, Hoss. He’s fine. He’s got to learn that type of behavior will not be tolerated.” He said, reading Hoss’ thoughts. Turning to Adam he continued, “Now, back to this trip. Adam, tell me again where you plan to camp.

After breakfast, Adam and Hoss double-checked their supplies. It was late fall and both boys knew it would be cold in the mountains so they wanted to make sure they were ready for whatever Mother Nature threw at them. Ben noticed Hoss gazing unhappily towards the staircase and knew what was on his mind.

“Hoss?”

“Yessir.” Hoss answered, his eyes still glued to the staircase.

“Would you like to go up and see your younger brother before you leave?” Ben asked.

Hoss’ blue eyes sparkled like a newly cut diamond. “I sure would, Pa! I don’t like leaving without telling him good-bye. Maybe, I can calm him down a little, too.”

“Go on, then.”

Ben smiled as Hoss bounded up the stairs two at a time. He turned towards Adam expectantly. Adam suddenly became very interested in checking his saddlebags.

“Adam, why don’t you go up and talk to Joe; tell him good-by at least,” he suggested.

“I don’t think he wants to see me right now, Pa. It’ll just make things worse if I go up there. He thinks I just don’t want him along on this trip and that’s not true. It’s just that he’s too little and I don’t want him to get hurt, but I can’t seem to make him understand that. He just gets madder.”

Ben didn’t think it was a good idea for Adam to leave without making things right with Little Joe, but he didn’t push the issue.

Hoss opened Little Joe’s bedroom door without knocking. His heart nearly broke at the sight before him. Little Joe was sitting in the windowsill, knees pulled up to his chest; arms wrapped around both legs; head resting on his knees.

“Little Joe?” Hoss said quietly.

“Go away and leave me alone!” Little Joe mumbled, without looking up.

“Aw, come on Joe, don’t be mad at me.” Hoss implored.

After a minute, Little Joe lifted his head and looked at Hoss with red-rimmed, tear filled eyes.

“Why won’t Adam let me come with you?” he asked, his voice almost a whisper.

Hoss walked over to the window, reached out, and hugged Little Joe tightly. Little Joe snuggled against his brother’s chest, trying desperately to hold back the tears.

“Little Joe,” Hoss explained gently, “Adam loves you and doesn’t want to see you get hurt. Don’t you see he’s just trying to protect you? You’re not old enough to handle a trip like this just yet. When you are, I promise me and Adam will take you on the finest hunting trip you ever saw.

“Promise?” sniffed the little boy, tears spilling over his cheeks.

Hoss smiled, “I promise. I gotta go now, but I’ll see you in a few days. You be good for Pa now, ya hear?”

Little Joe nodded, his dark curls bouncing. Watching the tears stream down his little brothers’ face, Hoss almost changed his mind about leaving.

“Hoss, come on, let’s go! Charlie and Hank are waiting for us!” Adam called from downstairs.

“Coming!” Hoss yelled back. Turning back to Little Joe, he smiled. “See ya later, Short Shanks.”

Hoss had reached the door when he heard a small voice say, “Hoss, I love you.”

“Love you, too,” Hoss responded, his voice choked with emotion.

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Tell Adam I love him, too.”

“I’ll do that.”

Hoss slowly descended the stairs blinking back tears. He hated to leave Little Joe when he was so upset, but he also wanted to go with Adam. “Pa’ll take care of Little Joe,” he consoled himself.

Minutes later, Hoss, Adam, Hank, and Charlie said their good-byes and were on their way. Adam and Hoss each had a packhorse following behind loaded with gear.

“Take care of Little Joe!” Hoss called back to his father.

Ben waved and smiled, “I’ll do that, Hoss.”

Hours later, Little Joe was still in his room sulking and thinking about how unfair life was when he heard a buggy pull up outside. He ran to the window and peered out, puzzled to see Dr. Paul Martin. He sat on the windowsill for a few moments before curiosity got the best of him and he silently stole down the hallway to the top of the stairs. It was an action that he would come to regret, for in the next few minutes, his world would fall apart.

*****

When Ben opened Little Joe’s door, he had to smile. The child was fast asleep, his bed covers strewn all around. As Ben drew closer, he could see dried tears on his youngest son’s face and couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for the boy. Little Joe just couldn’t wait to grow up. He wanted to do everything his older brothers did and being left out because of his age left him hurt and angry.

Ben gently shook Little Joe. “C’mon Son, it’s time for lunch. Wake up.”

Joe stirred but did not wake.

Ben tried again, shaking Joe’s shoulders a little harder this time. “Little Joe, come on, Son, wake up.” He brushed a stray curl from Joe’s forehead.

Little Joe’s eyes fluttered open and he smiled at his father. Then, a look of fear invaded his young features as he remembered the conversation he’d overheard. All color drained from his face.

Ben frowned. Surely, his son didn’t think he was still angry with him. “Joseph, are you all right?” he asked gently.

Instead of answering, Joe threw his arms around his father’s neck and hugged him tightly. He squeezed his eyes shut to hold back the tears that threatened to overcome him.

Ben was alarmed at his son’s reaction.

“Joseph, what is it son? Ben questioned, his dark eyes filled with concern.

“I-I’m…s-s-sorry, Papa.” Joe sobbed.

“It’s all over now, Joe. I know you’re sorry—and so do your brothers. It’s over.” Ben said tenderly as he rubbed Little Joe’s back.

Ben held his son for a few more minutes before asking him if he was ready for lunch. Joe rubbed his swollen eyes and nodded solemnly. Ben walked over to the wash-stand and dipped a cloth into the water. Returning to Joe’s side, he said, a little too cheerfully, “Here, let’s wash you up before we go eat. Hop Sing won’t let you sit at his table with such a dirty face!”

He was rewarded with a small, crooked smile.

Just as Hop Sing was about to give up and throw lunch out, Ben and Joe appeared at the top of the stairs, hand in hand.

“It about time!” Hop Sing muttered as he headed into the kitchen.

Lunch was a quiet affair with Joe speaking only when asked a direct question. Ben watched with growing concern as Joe moved his food around on the plate, never taking a bite. Ben studied the boy’s pale face. In spite of the fact that he’d just had a long nap, Little Joe looked exhausted. Something was wrong. Ben knew from experience that getting information out of his stubborn young son was like pulling hen’s teeth. It was best to let Joe come to him when he was ready. Besides, maybe Hop Sing knew what was going on. Ben made a mental note to check with him as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Ben knew he should punish Little Joe for his behavior at the breakfast table that morning, but the boy looked so distressed Ben felt it best to wait.

After lunch, Ben went back to the books while Joe curled up in his father’s favorite chair by the fireplace. He stared at the blazing flames dancing in the great stone fireplace for a long time before the warmth lulled him to sleep. Twenty minutes later, Ben’s work was interrupted by a terrifying scream. He jumped up and rushed to the chair where Joseph was fighting some unseen opponent.

“Joseph? Joseph…it’s all right son.” Ben cooed as he lifted Joe into his arms and sat down in the chair.

Joe buried his head in his father’s chest and sobbed.

Frightened, Ben asked, “Joseph, what’s wrong? Are you hurt? Are you ill?”

His words only served to cause Joe to cry harder. Finally, when he was cried out, Joe whispered, “Papa, please don’t leave me.”

Shocked, Ben lifted Joe up to face him. His heart nearly broke as he took in his young son’s face. Joe’s hazel eyes were bright with tears, his pale skin a sharp contrast to the dark curls surrounding his angelic face.

“Joseph,” he inquired kindly, “what makes you think I would ever leave you?”

Remembering he wasn’t supposed to know his father was dying, Joe searched for a reason. Not able to find one, he finally answered softly, “I-I-It w-was…. just a nightmare, Papa. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to keep you from your work.”

Ben looked at him until Joe turned away, unable to meet his father’s eyes.

“Joseph, if there’s something you’d like to talk about…”

“NO!” Joe insisted quickly as he slid off his father’s lap. “No.” He repeated in a lower tone. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

Ben sighed. “All right. Why don’t you go see if Hop Sing needs any help in the kitchen?”

For a brief second Ben saw the same look of fear he’d seen earlier appear on Joe’s face.

“I’ll be right here, Son. I’m not going anywhere.” He assured the boy.

Reluctantly, Joe started for the kitchen, looking back over his shoulder. He didn’t want his father out of his sight. It was only a few minutes later that Hop Sing sent him back to the great room. The child was so preoccupied; he was more a hindrance than help.

Joe managed to keep his father in his sight all day. Dinner was much like lunch had been. Ben felt he was carrying on a conversation with himself and finally gave up. Joe again pushed his food around on the plate, never taking a bite. Ben thought about forcing Joe to eat, but one look at his son’s somber face changed his mind.

After dinner, Ben settled into his chair with a book that Adam had suggested he read. Joe curled up in front of the fireplace, his knees pulled up to his chest, arms wrapped around his legs. Ever so often Ben would look up to find Joe staring at him, his hazel eyes rimmed with tears. Joe would turn away as soon as he realized he was being watched. The last time he glanced up, Ben saw Joe had fallen asleep. Unwilling to wake him, Ben picked his young son up and carried him to bed. He worried that Joe hadn’t eaten a bite all day. He found it difficult to believe that Joe could be so upset about Adam and Hoss leaving him behind. After all, they’d gone places without him before and Joe hadn’t reacted this way. But, what other explanation was there?

Ben lay Little Joe gently on the bed and reached down to pull off his boots. He then pulled the covers up to the boy’s chin. Kissing him softly on the forehead, Ben bade his son a good night. Ben started to blow out the lamp, then thought better of it. Little Joe had never been afraid of the dark until his mother’s death three years earlier. Since then, a lamp had burned softly in his bedroom throughout the dark hours of night. Ben glanced once more at his young son before retiring to his own bedroom.

Hours later, terrified screams woke Ben. He rushed to Joe’s room to find him thrashing about on the bed.

“NO! Papa, don’t leave….please don’t leave me!” Little Joe begged pitifully.

“Little Joe! Wake up, son. I’m right here. I’m not going to leave you.” Ben’s voice was low and soothing as he gently hugged his son to his chest.

Joe woke with a start. He gazed into his father’s warm brown eyes a moment before speaking.

“I-I-I’m sorry. I-‘m all…right….Papa.” he sobbed, tears running like a river down his pale cheeks.

Ben studied his son’s face with concern.

“Joseph, please tell me what’s bothering you. Maybe I can help.”

Joe chewed on his bottom lip as his father waited patiently for him to speak. They sat quietly for a moment; father and son, each lost in his own thoughts. Finally Little Joe broke the silence.

“Papa?” he queried in a small voice.

“Yes, Little Joe, what is it?”

“What…what will happen… to me if you…” his voice faded.

“If I what, son?” Ben urged.

“If…if you…. die?” Joe’s voice was quavering now.

Ben was bewildered by Joe’s question and hesitated a moment to collect his thoughts. What had brought this on? He lifted Joe off the bed and pulled him into his lap.

“Little Joe, if something should happen to me, your brothers will take care of you. But, son, I plan to be around for quite awhile yet,” he assured him. “Is that what’s been bothering you?”

“Only a month”, Joe thought to himself, remembering Paul Martin’s words. His hazel eyes filled with tears again, but he didn’t answer his father’s question.

Ben pulled him close, speaking in quiet tones as he rubbed Joe’s back.

“Little Joe, someone will always be here to take care of you. Me, your brothers, Hop Sing. We would never leave you. Never.”

Finally, Joe pulled back and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes.

“Feel better, now?” Ben smiled.

“Y-yes.” Joe lied.

“Think you can sleep?”

Joe nodded his head, brown curls bouncing.

Ben tucked Joe back into bed, pulling the covers up to his chest.

“Close your eyes and go back to sleep. Everything will be better in the morning,” Ben said, though he had a feeling that neither he nor his son would get much sleep this night. He kissed Joe’s forehead.

Ben had just reached the door when he heard Joe’s small voice.

“Papa…would you….would you stay with me for awhile?” he asked, almost shyly.

Ben smiled and returned to Joe’s bedside. He pulled a chair up close and sat down. “Of course I’ll stay with you. I won’t leave you until you go to sleep. I’ll be right here.” He said as he brushed a leftover tear from Joe’s eye.

“Promise?”

Ben ran his hand through Little Joe’s tousled curls. “I promise.”

Joe closed his eyes and waited for sleep to take him.

*****

“Hoss, it’s been four days now, would you stop fretting about Little Joe! He’s probably forgotten all about wanting to come with us.” Adam scolded as they finished breaking camp.

Hoss sighed but finally nodded his agreement, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I just can’t help thinking that’s something’s wrong, though.”

Adam rolled his eyes, “The only thing wrong is that you’re spending too much time worrying about that little rapscallion instead of enjoying the trip. Little Joe is fine. Even if Pa is still upset with him, Hop Sing will baby him enough for all of us.”

Hoss had to grin, for he knew it was true. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. C’mon, older brother, let’s go find that big buck!”

Adam and Hoss grinned at each other as Hank and Charlie shook their heads, chuckling.

“Those Cartwright brothers sure are a caution,” Charlie said to himself.

“Let’s go, boys.” ordered Hank as he mounted his horse. “If you two plan to bag that buck before this trip is over, we better get a move on. We’re burning daylight.”

Hoss and Adam quickly climbed on their horses, following Hank and Charlie up the mountain trail.

*****

On the fourth morning after his brothers’ departure, Joe decided to go to his favorite place —the loft of the barn—to think. His worry for his father had continued to increase leaving him restless and upset. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t think.

He lay there in the sweet smelling hay with Dr. Martin’s ominous words running through his mind. He’d suffered from nightmares every night, which had left him exhausted. After a few minutes, unable to keep his eyes open any longer, Joe fell into fitful slumber.

Something woke him with a start. Momentarily confused, he looked around the loft. Then he heard voices floating up from below.

“Heard Little Joe threw one hell of a fit when his brothers went hunting with Hank and Charlie and left him behind.” Laughed Vince Porter— one of the Ponderosa’s most trusted ranch hands— as he opened Buck’s stall and led the horse towards the barn door. “Wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Hoss and Adam decide to stay up on that mountain where it’s nice and quiet. Bet they don’t miss that little hellion brother of theirs one little bit!”

“The little scalawag’s been sulking ever since his brothers left. He ain’t eating or sleeping and Lord knows last time he cracked a smile. Got the Boss all worried. I swear, that boy’s gonna send his Daddy to an early grave!” Kenny Richardson chuckled, shaking his head as he followed behind Vince.

In the loft above, Little Joe’s heart shattered. Now, it was all too clear. That’s why his brothers refused to let him accompany them. They wanted to get away from him—forever. The idea cut him to the quick. And his father. He knew his father was going to die—Dr. Martin had told him that much, but he never dreamed it was all his fault! Shocked by the revelation, Joe’s stomach did flips as bile rose in his throat. He felt dizzy and warm all over. All he could think of was his brothers leaving him and his father dying. “It’s all my fault. It’s my fault. My fault…” he whispered. The little boy was too stunned to cry as he sat staring into empty space.

Ben walked out into the front yard where Vince and Kenny had just finished saddling Buck.

“Have you boys seen Little Joe this morning?” Ben inquired as he glanced around the yard.

Both men shook their heads. “Sorry, Boss. Haven’t seen him since yesterday afternoon.” Vince offered.

“Me neither.” added Kenny.

Ben frowned, “Wonder where he could be?” He searched the bunkhouse, hen house and corral without any luck.

“Little Joe? Where are you?” Ben called out anxiously. He hadn’t see Joe since breakfast and was beginning to worry. Joe had been out of sorts for several days now and Ben was at a loss as to how to help him.

“Little Joe?” he called again, taking one more look around the yard. Still, no Joseph. He walked into the barn. “Little Joe? Are you in here? Joseph, answer me!”

A moment later, he heard a small voice from the loft.

“I’m up here, Papa.”

“Joseph, what are you doing up there?” Without waiting for an answer he added, “Come on down, son. I need to talk to you before I go.”

“Go?” Joe’s heart thundered painfully in his chest. “W-where are you going, Papa?” he stuttered, scrambling from the loft.

As Joe climbed down the ladder, Ben got a good look at his son. Joe’s small face was pale; dark smudges very prevalent under his hazel eyes. He looked thin and drawn. For a moment, Ben reconsidered his plans to go to Virginia City. But, he’d stalled long enough. He had to take care of business.

“I’m just going into Virginia City, Joe. I’ll be back before dinner.” Ben responded.

“Can I go?” Joe pleaded.

Ben shook his head, “I’m sorry, son, not this time. I have to meet with the attorney and the banker. You would just be bored.”

As he studied Joe’s pale face, he added thoughtfully, “Maybe I should take you along and have Dr. Martin check you out. You look mighty pale.”

“No! I-I’m fine. I’ll just stay here with Hop Sing.” Little Joe said quickly.

Ben frowned at him a moment, then acquiesced.

“All right. Why don’t you go in and have Hop Sing fix you something to eat. You’ve hardly eaten a bite in days.”

“Yes, Sir.” Joe replied as he started out of the barn. He stopped just as he reached the door, turned and ran to his father, throwing his arms around him.

“I love you, Papa.” He choked.

Surprised, Ben returned the hug. “I love you too Little Joe.”

Joe released his father and ran as fast as his legs could carry him towards the house. As he opened the door, his reserve broke and tears streamed down his small face. He ran up the stairs to his bedroom and cried until he could cry no more.

Vince and Kenny’s earlier words haunted him. “Wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Hoss and Adam decide to stay up on that mountain where it’s nice and quiet. Bet they don’t miss that little hellion brother of theirs one little bit!”

“I swear, that boy’s gonna send his Daddy to an early grave!”

Joe threw his hands over his ears, trying to block out the hurtful words. He sat quietly for a long time, thinking. Suddenly, an idea occurred to him. Kenny and Vince said he was the one driving his father to an early grave. Did that mean if he wasn’t there, his father would be all right? The more he thought about it, the more logical it became to his eight-year-old mentality.

His heart breaking, Little Joe made the hardest decision of his young life. He would go away. Then his brothers would come back to the Ponderosa and his father would live. Joe would miss his family terribly, but it was his only choice. Now that he’d made up his mind, Joe had to get his gear together quickly in order to make his get away before his father returned. He put a few clothes in his travel kit along with his favorite picture of his mother. He looked at a picture of himself with his father and brothers that had been taken last Christmas. A tear stole down his cheek as he hugged the picture closely before stashing it in his bag. Sneaking quietly down the back stairs, he peeked around the corner, relieved to find the kitchen empty. If Hop Sing caught him, it would all be over. Grabbing some biscuits and beef jerky out of the pantry, Joe stuffed them into a small sack. As an afterthought, he picked up a hand full of matches and put them in his pants pocket. Grabbing his coat and hat, Joe quickly made his way to the barn.

Fifteen minutes later, Joe had saddled his pony, Lucky, and was ready to leave. As he rode away from the only home he’d ever known, he couldn’t help but look back one last time and hesitated. Maybe he shouldn’t leave. No, he had to leave; he didn’t have a choice.

“Joe, you have to do this ‘cause if you don’t, Papa will die,” he scolded, furiously wiping the tears from his face. Taking a deep breath, he spurred Lucky forward.

He was on his own now.

*****

“You say he’s not eating much and sleeping even less?” Dr. Martin asked, frowning.

“Yes, Paul. I don’t know what’s bothering him. I thought he was upset because Hoss and Adam went off without him, but now I’m not so sure. He’s pale and drawn and I can’t even get him to talk to me. He panics if I’m late getting home, has nightmare every night…” Ben stopped speaking and took a deep breath before continuing. “I just don’t know what to do.”

“I’ll ride out to the Ponderosa with you and take a look at him.” Paul offered.

Ben smiled his thanks. “I was hoping you’d say that. I’ve got one more errand to complete. How about I meet you back here in twenty minutes?”

“I’ll be ready. Don’t worry, Ben. I’m sure it’s nothing serious.” Paul tried to comfort his longtime friend.

“I hope you’re right.” Ben said, but Paul could tell he wasn’t convinced.

*****

Joe rode aimlessly for almost three hours before stopping by a clear stream to rest. He was halfway down a gentle slope into a valley dotted with huge pine trees. The sky was the deepest blue Joe had ever seen. The clear air made all colors seem richer and purer. Every breath he took of the crisp mountain air made him feel more alive, but even the beauty of nature couldn’t relinquish the sadness that gripped his heart.

He watered Lucky and led him to a stand of tall grass. As the pony grazed lazily, Little Joe sat with his back up against a tall tree. He’d made the decision to leave, yet he didn’t know where to go. As he took in the mountains surrounding him, he suddenly had an idea. He’d go to Toby’s! Nobody would ever think to look for him there and he knew Toby would let him stay. The last time Joe had seen Toby, the old man had told him to come by and visit. Joe squeezed his eyes shut tightly, trying to remember the directions Toby have given him. Joe had never been that high up in the Sierras by himself before, but he was pretty sure he could find Toby’s place without much trouble. Adam and Hoss had been teaching him the ways of the mountains. He already knew how to follow the stars at night and the sun during the day if he should get lost.

Now that he had a destination, Joe felt a little better. He retrieved Lucky and headed towards the massive snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains.

*****

“Mr. Carlight, Mr. Cartlite!!” Hop Sing called excitedly as he ran across the courtyard to meet Ben and Dr. Martin.

Ben noted the look of panic on Hop Sing’s face and knew immediately that something was wrong. He felt his heart constrict. Had something happened to one of his boys?

“Calm down, Hop Sing,” he demanded. “What is it? What’s happened?”

“Little Joe gone!” Hop Sing announced.

“Gone! What do you mean, gone? Where did he go?” Ben asked frantically.

“Little Joe not come for lunch. I check his room, he not there. Picture of Mama and Papa gone, clothes gone. Check barn, pony gone. Nobody see him leave,” Hop Sing reported quickly. “Must find!!”

“He’s been missing since noon? That was almost three hours ago! Hop Sing, get the men together. We have to find him!” Ben commanded.

“I’ll go with you, Ben,” Dr. Martin offered. “Just in case.”

Ben paled at his friend’s words.

“I shouldn’t have left him. I knew something was wrong. I should have stayed with him!” Ben lamented.

“Ben, it wasn’t your fault. C’mon now, let’s go find that little scamp and bring him home where he belongs. He’s probably just off fishing somewhere.” Dr. Martin said lightly.

“I sure hope so, Paul. I sure hope so.”

*****

“Looks like he’s headed for the high country, Mr. Cartwright,” Vince reported, as he looked at the tracks in the soft dirt. “You figure he’s trying to catch up to Hank and the boys?”

Ben frowned, “It’s beginning to look that way. I don’t understand what’s gotten in to that boy. I know he is angry at Hoss and Adam for leaving him behind, but I never dreamed he’d go looking for them.”

Paul Martin studied his friend’s face for a moment. “Ben,” he said quietly. “Do you really think Little Joe is trying to find his brothers?”

Ben shrugged his shoulders. “Paul, I don’t know what to think,” he admitted. “I can’t think of any other reason he would be headed to the high country. I-I just don’t know.”

“Well, whatever the reason, if we hope to catch up to the boy anytime soon, we best get moving,” Sheriff Roy Coffee said. “It’ll be dark ‘fore long.”

“Let’s ride,” Ben commanded.

*****

Little Joe was beginning to wish he’d headed towards Reno or Carson City instead of the high country. It was rough going and progress was slow. The sun was low in the sky and Little Joe knew he had to find a safe place to camp for the night. He’d been this far up the mountain with Adam and Hoss before and knew he was in Crow Creek Canyon. If he remembered right, there was a cave just up ahead. He shivered as a cold wind started to blow. Gazing at the sky, Joe was disturbed to see dark clouds moving in.

“Looks like a storm coming. That’s all I need,” he grumbled to Lucky.

A few minutes later, Joe spotted the mouth of the cave up on a ridge. He jumped off his pony and scrambled up the ridge. Remembering what his brothers had taught him about caves and the creatures that lived in them, Joe peered into the mouth of the cave cautiously. It looked deserted but Adam had once told him that looks could be deceiving. Congratulating himself for remembering them, Little Joe pulled the matches of his pocket, struck one on a rock and lit a large piece of wood that he’d found behind a huge boulder. Cautiously thrusting the flaming wood inside the cave entrance, Joe glanced around. Slowly, he moved further into the cave, his eyes alert, darting back and forth rapidly. Nothing. Convinced the cave was empty, Joe expelled a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. Joe went back outside and gathering more wood carried it into the cave. Soon, he had a nice warm campfire going, being careful to bank it just the way Adam had shown him. A cold rain was starting to fall outside and reluctant to leave Lucky out in the elements; Joe led the pony to the back of the cave.

After a quick dinner of biscuits and jerky, the little boy wrapped himself in his blankets. Physically and mentally exhausted, he quickly surrendered to sleep.

*****

“Congratulations, Adam!” exclaimed Charlie as he looked at the eight-point buck Adam had brought down with a single shot. “Your Pa’s gonna be real proud of you.”

Adam smiled at the praise. This wasn’t the first buck he’d bagged, but it certainly was the biggest.

“Charlie’s right, Adam,” Hoss said admiringly. “Pa’s gonna be right proud.”

“Nice clean shot, too.” Charlie added examining the deer.

“Looks like we’re gonna have plenty of deer steaks this winter,” Hoss declared with a grin. As much as he loved a good beef roast, he also had a fondness for deer meat.

“Well, boys, let’s dress him out,” Hank ordered. “We’ll camp here tonight and head over to Dead Drop Wall tomorrow.”

“Dead Drop Wall?” Hoss asked, surprised. “Why do you want to go over there, Hank?”

Adam was puzzled as well. Dead Drop Wall was not noted for its deer population. The terrain was more suited for mountain goats.

Hank looked at Charlie who nodded his head slightly.

“Well,” Hank began. “I ran into old Toby the other day and he claims there’s a big grizzly bear up by his place. Been helping himself to Toby’s stock. Last time Toby saw him, he was around Dead Drop Wall.”

He looked at Hoss, then added, “Hoss, you might just get a chance to use that new rifle yet.”

Hoss looked at the rifle his father had given him as a birthday present. So far, he’d only fired it when target practicing with Adam. The prospect of bear hunting intrigued the boy and his blue eyes lit up with excitement.

“You reckon we’ll find him, Charlie?” he asked eagerly.

“Yep, Hoss. I sure do.” Charlie grinned.

Hoss couldn’t contain his excitement. “Did you hear that, Adam? We’re going bear hunting!”

Adam grinned at his younger brother’s enthusiasm. Adam noticed that Hank didn’t appear to be pleased about the prospect, though.

“Charlie, you really think it’s a good idea to take these boys hunting for bear?” Hank asked, with a slight wink in Charlie’s direction. “Anything happens to them and Mr. Cartwright will have us tarred and feathered.”

“You might be right. Maybe we should give it some more thought….” Charlie said slowly as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

Concerned that his hunt would be over before it ever started, Hoss looked at Hank pleadingly. Adam, on the other hand, had caught the mischievous look shared by the two cowboys and saw the twinkle in their eyes. All three looked sadly at Hoss, shaking their heads.

Hoss’ shoulders dropped in disappointment. Suddenly, Charlie, Hank and Adam burst into laughter. Surprised, Hoss looked at them like they’d lost their minds. It took him a minute to figure out that the three older men had been teasing him. “Very funny,” he grumbled, though his blue eyes belied his anger.

“Hey, wait a minute. What about the buck?” Adam asked suddenly. “We can’t just leave it here; the wild animals will get it.” Besides, Adam didn’t want to leave the meat behind.

“I thought about that, Adam,” Hank responded. “Charlie brought along a tarp. We’ll wrap the buck in that and put him on the packhorse. The weather’s cold enough up here that the meat won’t spoil and the tarp will help keep other animals away.”

As the four men readied the buck Adam glanced at his younger brother. While Hoss was helping with his hands, it seemed his mind was miles away.

“Hoss?” Adam said.

Hoss didn’t answer.

“Hey, Hoss.” Adam repeated, louder this time.

Hoss jumped. “Yeah, what?”

“Something wrong?”

“Huh? Nah, ain’t nothing wrong. I was just thinking about Pa and Little Joe. Sure wish they could’ve come with us.”

“Yeah, so do I,” Adam admitted. “But, Little Joe is just not old enough yet. When he is, you and I can bring him up here. We’ll show him where his big brother bagged an eight point buck!”

Both boys laughed.

“All right, boys. We gotta get a move on. There’s a lot of work to be done and it looks like a storm headed this way.” Charlie announced, looking up at the dark clouds.

“Comin’,” called Adam and Hoss in unison.

*****

Little Joe woke to the sound of crashing thunder. For a moment he was confused. A feeling of sadness overcame him as he remembered where he was and why. Sighing, he stood up, grabbing his blanket off the hard cave floor. Wrapping the blanket around his slim shoulders, Joe moved to the mouth of the cave. He sat down, crossing his legs beneath him and watched the raging storm.

He’d always loved storms. The flashing lightning and rolling thunder was so exciting. He remembered watching storms with his mother. Mama had always contended that storms were alive. His mama. His beautiful mama. How he missed her. She had been so pretty, so happy. When she laughed, the world seemed just a little brighter. She was always so alive and energetic—just like the storm. Until…until that awful day she rode into the front yard of the Ponderosa and her horse stumbled. She had died instantly of a broken neck. Little Joe had felt his world shatter on that day. It had taken months before he could sleep without nightmares. And now, only three short years later, his father and brothers would be lost to him as well.

Tears streamed unchecked down his pale cheeks.

“At least they’ll be alive,” he consoled himself.

Even if he could never see them again.

*****

“Sorry, Boss. We lost his trail. That storm last night swept everything away.” Vince reported.

Ben sighed, closing his eyes. Where could Little Joe be? Why hadn’t Ben listed to his instincts and stayed home with his son instead of running off to Virginia City?

“Ben? Are you all right?” questioned Dr. Martin softly.

“What? Oh. I’m fine…fine,” Ben answered in a distracted tone. In truth, he was exhausted. He had spent the night watching the storm and worrying about Little Joe. Had the little boy slept out in the pouring rain all night? Did he have anything to eat? Was he cold? Was he sick? Was he lying somewhere hurt?

Dr. Martin started to argue that point, but before he could speak, Sheriff Roy Coffee came running up, holding something in his right hand.

“Ben, oh, Ben. One of the boys found this down by Simpson’s Creek.” He called as he held up a muddy, wet, once blue neckerchief.

Ben grabbed the item and looked at it closely. “It’s Little Joe’s!” he confirmed. “Adam bought it for him in San Francisco. Where did you find it?”

“Over by Simpson’s Creek in the mud,” Roy answered. “He musta took it off and forgot it.”

Ben felt a glimmer of hope. At least now they knew they were on the right track.

“Where there any tracks? Can you tell which way he was going?” Ben asked, clutching the precious neckerchief in his right hand.

“Well, any tracks were pretty much washed out but it ‘pears to me he’s headed for the high country. Ben, did Little Joe know where Adam and Hoss were going to make camp?”

“I don’t know, Roy. Adam mentioned several places, but I think Joe was upstairs at the time.” Ben furrowed his brow in thought.

“Mebbe we oughta head towards Dead Drop Wall,” Roy suggested.

“But what if he’s gone in another direction? Little Joe doesn’t know these mountains. He’s only been up here a few times and his brothers and I were with him. He has no idea how to get to Dead Drop Wall.” Ben countered.

Roy pursed his lips, deep in thought.

“I think it’s best if we spilt up. Jack, you take some men and head toward Raven’s Ridge. Ben, you and I will head for Dead Drop Wall. Jess, Tom, Vince and Kenny, you come with us. The rest of you men go with Jack.” Roy ordered, “We’ll meet at Old Toby’s cabin. It’s ‘bout half way ‘tween Dead Drop Wall and Raven’s Ridge.”

The men nodded and mounted their horses. Ben Cartwright lifted his eyes towards heaven as he prayed, “Please, Lord, keep my boy safe. I can’t bear to lose him. Please, help me find him. Please.”

*****

“That sure was some storm last night,” Hoss commented as he finished his last bite of biscuit. “The thunder was so loud it ‘bout rattled my teeth!”

“What thunder?” Adam asked, his face serious.

Hoss looked at him, puzzled. “What do you mean? It was loud enough to bust an eardrum.”

“I mean, younger brother, that you were snoring so loudly, WE couldn’t hear it thunder!”

Charlie, Hank and Adam burst out laughing at the embarrassed look on Hoss’ face.

“Aw, come on fellers. It weren’t that bad. Was it?” he asked, his cheeks burning.

“Nah, Hoss, it wasn’t that bad. Matter of fact, it came in pretty handy.” Charlie laughed.

“What do you mean, Charlie?” Hoss asked suspiciously.

“Well sir, we didn’t have to worry ‘bout no wild animals. You scared them all away. You know, I bet they thought you was that big old grizzly bear!” Charlie teased.

The three older men burst into a fresh round of laughter. After a minute, Hoss joined them.

“All right, boys. Enough funning. We best be getting a move on if we want to make it to Dead Drop Wall by sundown.

Thirty minutes later, the four hunters were on their way.

*****

Little Joe woke to the warm sun kissing his cheeks. He had fallen asleep just inside the cave’s entrance. The storm had departed leaving a brilliant blue sky and the air smelling fresh and sweet.

Joe stretched the kinks out of his small body as he led Lucky out into the sunlight. He glanced toward the snow-capped mountains standing majestically above him.

“Wonder how far it is to Toby’s cabin?” he mused aloud.

Lucky nickered, as if answering his question.

Joe climbed on a large boulder overlooking a small, crystal clear stream. He sat down and pulled a piece of beef jerky from his shirt pocket. He bit off a piece as his eyes took in the snow-capped mountains, majestic pine trees and lush greenery, Joe thought this must be the most beautiful place this side of Lake Tahoe.

Joe’s mind wandered back to the Ponderosa—back home— and he wondered how his father had reacted to Joe’s disappearance. He knew he’d be upset, but in the long run, Joe’s being gone would be a good thing, the eight-year-old reasoned. Adam and Hoss were probably having breakfast at their campsite right about now. He smiled as he thought of Hoss snatching the last piece of bacon from the pan. Hoss somehow always managed to get the last bite of food. Adam would tease Hoss, Joe knew. Suddenly he was overwhelmed by loneliness. How he wished he was with his brothers right now. He wanted to tease and laugh along with them. Never in all his eight years had he felt so alone and confused.

Finishing his meager breakfast, Joe gathered his belongings. After checking to make sure his campfire was completely dead, he mounted his pony. He sat in the saddle a few minutes trying to get his bearings. Finally, he headed straight up the mountain trail that he hoped would lead him to Toby West’s cabin.

*****

Miles away, Hoss snatched the last piece of bacon from the skillet just ahead of Hank. Adam shook his head in amusement as Hank glared at Hoss.

“Hank, haven’t you learned by now that Hoss ALWAYS gets the last bite?” Adam laughed.

Hoss bushed, his cheeks growing hot with embarrassment.

“I’m sorry Hank. Here, you take it,” he apologized, offering the meat to the older man.

Hank chuckled. “Naw, that’s all right, Hoss. I’m full up anyhow.”

“Charlie, do you think we’ll make it to Dead Drop by nightfall?” Hoss changed the subject.

Charlie shaded his blue eyes from the bright sunlight and squinted up the mountain.

“Well, the trail’s a mite slippery from the storm, but barring any problems, we should be there by dinner time.” Charlie grinned.

Flustered Hoss exclaimed, “That ain’t what I meant….aw dadburnit anyhow!”

Hank, Adam, and Charlie all roared with laughter.

“Charlie’s just funning you, Hoss,” Adam told his younger brother as he slapped him on the back. “Come on. Let’s break camp.”

“I knew that, Adam.” Hoss insisted as he picked up the coffeepot, pouring the remaining liquid over the fire.

The older men managed to suppress another round of laughter, but their eyes danced with merriment.

A few minutes later, they were ready to go.

“Boy, Little Joe sure is gonna be madder than a wet hen when he finds out we’ve been on a real bear hunt.” Hoss said as he tied down his bedroll.

“Yeah,” Adam acknowledged as he swung up into the saddle. “He’s liable to pout for days.”

Hoss frowned. He didn’t like the idea of Little Joe being angry with him.

Adam noticed the frown and sighed. “Hoss, don’t fret about Little Joe,” he said. “Tell you what. When we get home, you and I can take him fishing. That’ll make him feel better.”

Hoss considered the idea, then smiled at his older brother. “Thanks, Adam.”

Hank and Charlie listened to the exchange quietly. Though they didn’t know it, both men were thinking the same thing. Ben Cartwright had raised his sons right. They were good boys who were loyal not only to family, but friends as well. Both men were thankful to be counted among the Cartwrights many friends.

*****

As Ben rode along the muddy trail, his thoughts were of his sons. He knew if Hoss and Adam had been aware of their little brothers’ disappearance, they would not quit until he was found and returned safely home.

Ben was justly proud of all three of his boys. They were so different, yet at the same time, so similar.

Tall and lean, with dark hair and eyes, Adam was the practical one of the family. His intelligence and good business sense was quickly turning him into his father’s right hand man. Adam loved to design and built things, qualities that made him very valuable to the ranch. Even at a young age, Adam’s ideas had proved to be very profitable. But, Ben knew Adam wanted to go to school in the east. He also knew that sooner or later, he would have to let him.

Hoss, his kind and gentle middle son, was wise in the ways of nature. As a young child, Hoss had displayed the uncanny ability to almost converse with animals. Hoss loved the mountains, the majestic ponderosa pines and crystal clear waters. Ben was sure that when he was gone, Hoss would always protect the Ponderosa’s natural beauty.

Ben frowned a little as his youngest son sprang to mind. Little Joe was so much like his mother, Marie. Joe had Marie’s eyes as well as her curly chestnut hair. He’d also inherited his mother’s zest for life and fiery temper. Little Joe was sometimes too energetic and that energy had led to a couple of broken bones. But, something had extinguished Joe’s passion for life in the past few days. The usually vigorous boy had become almost morose. Now, he was missing. Why? What could have happened that was so horrible that Joe felt he had to leave. Ben didn’t know—but he vowed he would find out. His determination renewed, Ben urged his horse to go faster.

*****

Toby West sat on a stump outside his humble cabin drinking in the glorious beauty of the place he called home. Small of stature, to an outsider, Toby probably looked out of place against the massive mountains. But the little man was all muscle and knew those mountains like the back of his hand. Having passed his 68th year, Toby was beginning to feel the effects of old age. His face was weathered and his once dark hair was now snowy white. Only his bright green eyes still held the light of youth. Toby had lived the last couple of years by himself in the remote cabin. After his wife and children were killed, he couldn’t stand living around people anymore. He wanted to be alone—he wanted to die on the mountain that had become his sanctuary someday. Toby had no way of knowing that ‘someday’ would come much sooner than expected.

The sound of a dog barking shattered the peaceful quiet Toby had been enjoying. Grabbing his rifle, he headed toward the sound, moving carefully through the thick stand of pine trees, his senses on full alert. A few minutes later, Toby came to a clearing where the dog was still barking. Toby looked around but saw nothing. He got down on one knee and petted the dog’s head.

“What’s the matter, boy? Huh? You see sumpthin?” he asked as his green eyes searched the area surrounding him. Suddenly, Toby spotted prints.

“Bear,” he declared as he outlined the print with his finger. “From the size of that paw print, he’s a big ‘un. Must be that ol’ grizzly. We best be careful, boy.”

Too late, Toby heard a branch snap behind him. Before he could rise, he felt something slam into his back, knocking him to the muddy ground. Terrified, Toby tried to get up and run, but old age and stiff joints slowed him down and the bear was on him before he could get to his feet. Toby heard his dog bark, then yelp, then nothing. Even as the bear slashed his chest and face, Toby felt the life draining from his body. It was all over in a matter of minutes. When the bear moved on, he left in his wake the bloody bodies of Toby West and his most trusted friend.

*****

Little Joe was beginning to think he was lost. The last place he’d recognized was Bear Meadow and that was hours ago. He’d been riding at a steady pace all morning, but had found no sign that anyone lived this far up the mountain. Joe knew Toby’s cabin was on this mountain somewhere and vowed to find it. Joe stopped, swung down from his pony and surveyed the land surrounding him. He spotted a huge rock face a few miles in the distance and studied it carefully. It was a sheer cliff at least a mile high.

“That’s it!” Joe said excitedly. “Dead Drop Wall! We found it, Lucky! Toby said his cabin was just beyond Dead Drop!”

Joe resisted the urge to run his pony as Dead Drop Wall loomed closer and closer. He was tired and knew Lucky must be as well. He stopped to rest underneath a huge shade tree and soon drifted to sleep. An hour later, refreshed somewhat from his nap, the little boy was on his way.

Hours later, he stood at the base of Dead Drop Wall. There was no way to climb the rock; he’d have to go around. Should he go left or right? After careful consideration, he decided to go right. Ten minutes later, he ran into a dead end. Retracing his steps, Joe soon found himself at the base of the rock again.

“C’mon, Lucky,” he said tiredly as he slid off Lucky and led him to the left side of the rock face. “Looks like we’re going this way.”

There was an almost hidden trail leading up the side of Dead Drop. The bushes and brambles were thick and Joe guessed it had been months since the trail was last used. Climbing through one particularly rough stretch, he slid on the muddy trail and stumbled into a thorn bush. As he slid, he lost Lucky’s reins and the pony took off up the mountain without him.

“Ouch!” he cried. “Stupid bush!” He sat up gingerly, checking his arms and legs for scratches. He frowned as he saw a large rent in his pants and a deep scratch in his right leg. Blinking back tears, Little Joe struggled to his feet.

Exhausted and frustrated, the boy continued his long trek up the slippery trail, tears rolling down his cheeks. He was tired and hungry, his leg was bleeding and he wished he were home in his own bed. But, there was no turning back now.

*****

It was late afternoon before the search party reached Dead Drop Wall. Ben looked at the 2,000-foot vertical drop and knew no one could ever climb the monstrous cliff.

“Tom, you look up thataway, see if there’s a trail,” Sheriff Coffee instructed. “We know he got this far, so he either went up to the left or the right. Ain’t nobody ever climbed Dead Drop.”

“Sheriff! Mr. Cartwright!” Tom called a minute later. “I think you best take a look.”

Ben and Roy rushed to Tom’s side to find him holding a piece of torn cloth spotted with dried blood.

“Looks like it’s been here two, maybe three hours,” Tom explained. “He’s headed up this side of the rock face.” Tom glanced up at the enormous mountain. “That’s a pretty rough trail for a grown man, much less a little kid.” He said worriedly.

Ben noticed a frown on Roy’s face. “What’s wrong, Roy?” he asked.

“Nuthin’ exactly wrong, Ben. I was just thinking this trail will probably slow Little Joe’s progress, but…” his voice faded out.

“It’ll slow ours even more,” Ben finished.

Roy nodded and sighed. “Least ways, we know we’re still on the right trail. Let’s rest a bit before we tackle this rock. We ain’t gonna be able to ride the horses cause it’s just too steep. We’ll have to walk up.”

Ben didn’t want to rest, but he realized the horses as well as the men needed to catch their breath. After an agonizing hour, Roy decided it was time to move on.

As Ben started up the mountain, he again asked God to watch out for his child.

*****

“Adam! Hank! Charlie! Come here quick!” shouted Hoss.

The three men rushed to where Hoss was standing, carefully searching the muddy ground.

“What is it, Hoss?” Adam inquired.

“Bear tracks. Judging from the size of ‘em, it’s a pretty big one, too!” Hoss stooped down to take a closer look. “The edges are a bit blurred, they don’t look too fresh. They might be from yesterday or even the day before. They’re pretty well protected from the rain and wind in this canyon.”

Hank and Charlie looked at the teenaged boy with new respect. “You’re exactly right, Hoss,” Hank said as he looked around. “He’s probably long gone.”

“Yep, but he’s still headed toward Dead Drop.” Hoss intoned.

“You think it’s the grizzly?” quizzed Adam.

“Looks that way.” Hank confirmed.

“Isn’t Toby’s cabin just beyond Dead Drop?” Adam asked.

“Yep, but don’t you worry none about old Toby. That old mountain goat knows how to take care of himself. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if Toby ain’t already caught that big griz.” Hank replied.

Adam suddenly shivered. “Winds picking up. Looks like another storm blowing in,” he said as he pulled his coat collar up tighter.

Charlie frowned, noting the dark rolling clouds. “Looks more like snow clouds than rain clouds.”

“Snow!” exclaimed Hoss. “You sure?”

“Well, it is kind of early for a snow storm,” Charlie admitted. “But, it’s been known to happen this far up the mountain.”

“What should we do?” inquired Hoss. He was hoping Charlie would continue the quest for the grizzly bear. “Go on to Dead Drop Wall or head down the mountain towards home?”

Hank and Charlie thought for a few minutes before answering. Their boss had entrusted them with his two sons and the men meant to make sure Adam and Hoss were returned to him uninjured. But, they wanted that bear, too. Adam and Hoss waited quietly for the older men’s decision.

Finally, Hank spoke. “I think we ought to head for Toby’s. That way if the storm gets really bad, we can hole up there until it’s over.”

Charlie nodded his approval as Hoss grinned at Adam; delighted the hunt was still on.

*****

Joe saw the first flakes of snow as he finally made it to the top of Dead Drop. He was exhausted, sore, hungry, and very cold. Lucky had made his way up the trail, but was nowhere in sight. Little Joe blinked back the tears as he realized he’d have to go the rest of the way on foot.

Exhausted, but remembering what his father and brothers had taught him about snowstorms, he knew he couldn’t afford to stop and rest. He had to find shelter before the storm worsened. But, which way should he go? He was confused. There were no stars to guide him, no sun to give him a sense of direction.

“Oh, Papa, what should I do? Which way do I go?” Little Joe whispered as tears spilled onto his cheeks. He wiped his eyes on his jacket sleeve and berated himself. “You got yourself into this, so it’s up to you to get yourself out.” He scolded.

Finally, he decided to follow Lucky’s tracks. Even if he didn’t find Toby’s cabin, he might find Lucky. Then, at least, he wouldn’t be on foot.

*****

Spotting Joe’s trail was easy. Following it was another story. Joe was small enough to get through some of the thicker parts of the rugged terrain without much trouble. The grown men, however, were having a very difficult time, making progress painfully slow.

“We’ll never make it to the top of this mountain at the rate we’re going,” puffed Ben. He was tired and frightened. Frightened for a little boy out in the wilderness alone. One small boy. One huge mountain. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“We’ll get there, Ben,” promised Roy Coffee. “It’ll just take us a mite longer, that’s all.”

Ben scowled at the darkening sky. “Roy, those look like snow clouds moving in.”

Roy followed his friend’s gaze. Those were definitely snow clouds.

“That’s all we need,” Roy muttered. “Looks like it could be a bad one, too. What do you want to do, Ben? Find shelter somewhere on the side of this mountain or head on up?”

“Roy, I’ll understand if you and the others want to find shelter from the storm. I’m going after my son,” came the determined reply.

A small smile played on Roy’s lips. He’d known what the answer would be even before he’d asked. The look on Ben Cartwright’s face dared anybody to question his decision.

“No, no, Ben. We’ll go with you.” Roy declared, glancing at the other men who were sprawled across rocks and boulders resting.

“That’s right, Boss,” confirmed Tom as the others nodded in agreement.

“Sure, Boss. We’re fond of that little rascal. We don’t want nothing to happen to him.” Jess added.

“Let’s go then,” Ben said as he looked at the men. “And…thank you,” he added with a catch in his voice.

The snow had become harder now, fat flakes falling silently to the wet ground. As the wind picked up and the storm intensified, so did Ben’s anxiety for the safety of his young son.

*****

“How much further?” asked Hoss as he gave a shiver. “I’m ‘bout froze!”

“Another hour or so, I reckon,” guessed Hank, taking his hat off and rubbing a hand through his thick blond hair.

“IF the snow don’t get no worse,” added Charlie.

Adam pulled the collar of his coat up close around his neck. “Then how far to Toby’s cabin?” he inquired. He was cold and hoped the warmth of the cabin wasn’t too far.

“Toby’s place is another 30 minutes past Dead Drop in good weather. Probably take us an hour or more in this storm. Toby’s cabin is small, but it’ll keep us out of the weather.”

“I don’t care how small it is,” Hoss declared. “So long as it’s warm!”

“The temperature must have dropped ten degrees in the past hour” Adam noted.

“Yep, and its only gonna go lower as this wind gets worse,” Charlie concluded.

Adam brushed a flake of snow off his dark eyelashes. His thoughts turned to his father and little brother. He wondered if the two were curled up in front of a warm fire drinking hot cocoa. He could almost see the flames dancing in the huge hearthstone of the Ponderosa. He could almost smell the delicious aroma of Hop Sing’s famous sugar cookies.

“Adam?” Hoss’ voice broke his reverie. “Hey, Adam!”

“Yeah, what is it?” Adam snapped, a bit irritated at his thoughts being interrupted.

“I was just thinking about Little Joe. It sure is a good thing we didn’t bring him along. He wouldn’t have been able to stand this weather.”

Little did he know that his younger brother was only a few miles away?

*****

Exhausted, wet and half-frozen, Little Joe trudged slowly through the blinding snow. He had long since lost sight of Lucky’s tracks and tears of frustration mingled with melting snowflakes on his bright red cheeks.

“I gotta stop and rest,” he said aloud. He sat still for a moment, his eyes closed. Then he heard a voice saying, “Little Joe, if you ever get caught in a snowstorm and there’s no shelter, you have to keep moving. If you don’t, you’ll freeze to death. Don’t even stop to rest because if you should fall asleep, you’ll die.”

Hazel eyes blinked open in surprise as Joe looked around expectantly.

“Adam?” he croaked. “Adam, where are you? Please Adam, please help me. I’m sorry I was mad at you, Adam. Please help me!”

He saw Adam sitting not far away on a boulder. Adam’s arms were folded across his chest as he eyed his brother.

“Adam, please help me. I’m sorry. I’m not really mad at you.” Little Joe begged.

“Get up then, Little Joe. Just keep walking. You’ll be fine.”

Little Joe closed his eyes briefly and when he opened them again, Adam was gone. He must have been dreaming. With Adam’s warning running through his head, the little boy forced himself off the ground. Slowly, he stumbled through the freezing snow.

*****

“Finally,” wheezed Ben as he climbed the last ten feet up the side of Dead Drop Wall. Exhausted, he sat down on a boulder while the rest of the search party finished the trail. The snow was beginning to fall harder now, the wind so sharp it felt like a knife cutting into his cheeks. If he was this cold, this exhausted, what kind of shape was Little Joe in? Ben’s gaze took in the huge ponderosa pines and incredible mountains—beautiful in their new coat of snow. But, he knew the dangers buried beneath the pristine snow. The rugged terrain was difficult for a grown man on a good day. He shuttered as he thought about his young son facing the cruel elements alone.

“Mr. Cartwright!” shouted Kenny. “I’ve found Little Joe’s tracks! He can’t be more than a few miles ahead of us.”

Ben rushed to Kenny’s side to study the tracks. He was dismayed to see that his son was on foot. Time was of the essence now. They had to find Little Joe before he froze to death or fell into one of the mountains many dangerous traps. “Let’s go, men!” he called urgently. “We’ve got to find him fast!”

*****

Hoss squinted his blue eyes into small slits as he studied the scene before him. He could make out several figures—some human, some animals, but couldn’t tell who the people were.

“Adam, reckon who that is up ahead?” He quizzed.

Adam surveyed the small party for a minute before his eyes flew open wide.

“Hoss, that’s Pa!” he exclaimed.

“Pa? What in tarnation is he doing way up here?”

“What say we go find out?” asked Hank as he spurred his horse forward. The snow was becoming so deep that it took a full five minutes for them to reach the search party.

Ben’s eyes widened as he recognized his sons riding toward him. Hoss and Adam pulled up at the same time and dismounted quickly, worry written all over their young faces.

“Pa! What are you doing up here?”

“Where’s Joe?”

“What’s going on?”

Ben held up his hands to quiet the questions. He wished with all his heart he didn’t have to tell them that Little Joe was missing. Placing a hand on each of their shoulders, he let them to a large boulder. After they were seated, he told them all he knew about Little Joe’s disappearance. Both paled visibly as their father related the events that led him to Dead Drop Wall.

“I didn’t tell him good-bye when we left, Pa. I didn’t tell him I wasn’t really angry with him. Pa, it’s my fault, all my fault. He came up here looking for me, didn’t he?” Adam whispered, his heart constricting in his chest.

“Adam, it wasn’t your fault. We don’t know why Little Joe came up here. That’s not important right now. The important thing is to find Joseph as quickly as possible.”

But Adam wouldn’t be consoled. “I never told him I loved him.”

“You can still tell him, Adam, cause we’re gonna find him and he’s gonna be all right.” Hoss promised with a look that brooked no argument.

*****

“I can’t… do it. I can’t go… any further. I’m….” Little Joe panted as he slid to the ground.

“Yes, you can Little Joe. You have to,” Hoss’ voice insisted.

Little Joe managed to open his eyes to see his brother standing just a few feet away. Little Joe thought he must have been losing his mind and closed his eyes. Then he heard the voice again. Hoss’ voice.

“Little Joe, you have to get up. You have to or you’ll die. I couldn’t stand it if you died, Little Joe. It would break my heart. We wouldn’t be able to go on if you were gone. Pa and Adam and me, well, we’d be lost without you. You make us all smile. You remind us that life is a precious gift and we should appreciate every day we have. You have to live. Get up, Little Joe. Please get up,” Hoss’ voice begged.

Unwilling to cause his brother pain, Joe struggled to his feet.

“That’s it, Little Joe. Just put one foot in front of the other and walk. You have to keep moving. Just keep moving,” Hoss urged.

*****

“Mr. Cartwright!” called Kenny.

Ben, Adam, and Hoss turned to see Kenny leading Lucky. Ben jumped up and ran to the pony, Adam, and Hoss hot on his trail.

“Don’t look like he’s hurt none. Most likely just got away from Little Joe when he was climbing up the mountainside.”

Ben looked around frantically, “Did you see any sign of Joseph?”

Kenny shook his head, “Nope, but Jess and Tom are still scouting around. They think Little Joe may be headed towards Toby’s place.”

“The same way that grizzly bear is headed.” Adam said suddenly.

Ben swung around. “Grizzly bear? What are you talking about? What grizzly bear?”

“Oh, Lord, I’d forgotten all about the bear. We’ve been tracking a grizzly from Jackknife Pass,” Hoss explained. “Seems to be heading towards Toby’s cabin, far as we can tell.”

Ben’s head was spinning. Little Joe was out in a snowstorm on foot being followed by—or following— a grizzly bear. He found the situation difficult to grasp. He stood silently, too shocked to move.

“Pa,” Adam said anxiously. “Pa, we gotta go after him!”

Ben snapped out of shock and began issuing orders.

“Jess, get Lucky. Come on boys. The weather is getting worse by the minute. Little Joe can’t survive out there much longer. We have to find him before…before it’s too late.”

*****

Little Joe fell to the ground, exhausted. He knew he couldn’t go any further even if Hoss was there begging. He closed his eyes and waited for death to claim him.

“Joseph! Joseph! Wake up right now!” Ben Cartwright thundered.

“I’m …sorry…Papa,” Little Joe whispered. “I…I… can’t.”

“JOSEPH! Right now, young man.”

Little Joe struggled to open his eyes once again. His eyes filled with tears as he saw his father standing before him.

“I’m sorry, Papa.” he whispered.

“Joseph, get up, son. You’re almost there. You can do it, Little Joe. I know you can. Do it for me,” Ben implored.

“I… can’t. I’m so… tired. So… very tired,” Little Joe’s voice was almost inaudible.

“I know, son, but you can do it. You can make it to Toby’s cabin,” his father insisted. “You’re almost there Little Joe. You can do it. I know you can.”

“I’ll try…” Little Joe fought his way up out of the snow.

“Follow me, Joseph, follow me.” Ben whispered.

Keeping his eyes trained on his father, Joe put one foot in front of the other slowly. He knew he couldn’t make it to Toby’s but he had to try for his father.

Suddenly the image of his father disappeared and Joe was once again alone in the wilderness, his strength severely depleted. Joe stopped, unaware that he was standing on a fragile ledge. Suddenly the ledge gave way and Joe screamed over the roaring tide of earth and stone and snow. There was a groaning, rending noise. The stunted trees jerked and shuddered as the ledge crumbled away. The force of the landslide was too much for their root systems. They lost their tenuous grasp, and joined the rocks in their race to the bottom.

Joe felt the world drop out from under him, and his stomach jumped into his throat. Then everything spun around in confusion. He had just enough time to realize that the ledge had fallen before a searing jolt of pain brought an abrupt halt to all his figuring.

Joe woke with a sharp ache in his neck and a dull throb across his chest. He coughed and gagged. Peering through the dim haze, he vaguely wondered if he were still alive. Thin shafts of light trickled in through the rocky debris and dirty snow that surrounded him.

He wasn’t cold anymore. He must be dead.

“Little Joe?” a sweet voice sang.

Joe looked around, not believing what he saw. A woman dressed in a beautiful flowing white gown came toward him. Long blond tresses cascaded down her back. As she drew nearer he realized this angel—his mother. He reached up to her and she gathered him in her arms.

“Mama?” he whispered as he stroked his mother’s cheek.

“It’s me, baby. Sleep now. Everything will be fine. Sleep, my precious baby.” Marie cooed as she held him tightly.

“Mama, am I dead?” Little Joe asked quietly, his eyes already closing.

“No, baby. You’re not dead. You have a lot of living to do yet. But for now, sleep, my little one. Mama’s here.” Marie said softly.

Little Joe drifted into an exhausted sleep. How long he slept, he would never know. When he woke, he was still lying on the ledge and his mother was gone. He wasn’t as cold anymore and some of the exhaustion had seeped from his weary bones. Looking upward, he realized he hadn’t fallen very far and silently vowed that he would climb out. After all, hadn’t his mother told him he had a lot of living to do? He couldn’t let her down.

*****

“Pa, look over here!” Adam shouted as he bent down to study the ground.

Ben and Hoss rushed over to see what Adam had found.

“Look Pa, right there. Looks like he fell down right here, but he got up again. His tracks are all staggered. He has to be exhausted.” Adam’s voice was filled with emotion as he thought of his little brother fighting for his life.

“We have to hurry. He can’t last much longer.” Dr. Martin warned.

The search party departed in a rush, each man hoping against hope that they would find the lost child before it was too late.

It was twenty minutes later when Hoss spotted another depression in the snow.

“He fell again, Pa. He keeps getting back up. How does he have the strength? He’s just a little boy. Something has to be driving him. But what?” Hoss asked in amazement.

“I don’t care what’s driving him, Hoss. I’m just glad he DOES keep getting up. But, you’re right. His strength must be severely depleted. These tracks are getting more and more erratic. We have to get to him!” Ben declared.

*****

Little Joe dragged through the snow, his energy once again dangerously low. His chest hurt, his head hurt, his entire body was completely exhausted. The only thing that kept him moving was the promises he’d made to his family. He’d promised to try his best and he couldn’t go back on that promise.

After what seemed like forever, Little Joe came to a clearing where he spotted something under the snow. Despite his exhaustion, curiosity won over and he went to investigate. He brushed snow off the object and nearly retched as he uncovered the mutilated face of Toby West, his mouth forever frozen in a scream, his eyes open wide in fright. Joe jumped back and ran, forgetting how tired he was. He only wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and the dead body.

He stumbled on and on until he saw a cabin nestled in a grove of pine trees. The sight of the cabin spurred him on and he’d almost reached the porch when he heard a noise. He turned to find the biggest bear he’d ever seen. He shivered as the he looked into the murderous eyes of the huge creature. Before he could move, the bear roared loudly.

Joe knew it was useless to try to make a run for it—the bear could bring him down and tear him to pieces in seconds. His body would be found in pieces, just like Toby West.

The bear roared again. Joe slowly dropped to the ground. Tears choked him as he realized, after all he’d been through, he would die without ever seeing his family again. Joe braced himself for the impact of several hundred pounds of fur and teeth and claws.

Suddenly a sharp crack rang out. The bear roared and stumbled. Another shot, then another and the bear reeled backward. Joe sat frozen in place as the bear fell over. There was doubt and confusion in the big bear’s eyes now. The bear gave one last halfhearted roar before falling heavily into the snow.

Joe sat up warily, not sure what had just happened. A group of people was running toward him, waving and yelling. Suddenly dizzy, Joe fell to the ground, too tired to care who the people were. He was just glad someone was there.

Ben, Adam, and Hoss all reached Little Joe at the same time, Hoss still carrying the rifle he’d used to bring down the bear.

“Joseph!” Ben screamed. He dropped to the ground, quickly checking Little Joe’s neck for a pulse.

“Pa?” Hoss looked at his father as tears filled his eyes.

“He’s alive!” Ben whispered as he scooped the little boy up in his arms and ran towards the house.

“Get a fire going!” he ordered. “Doc, hurry!”

Paul Martin rushed into the cabin right on Ben’s heels. The inside of the cabin was small with just a washstand, table, four chairs, a rocking chair and bed. The ash in the fireplace was cold and Adam realized Toby must have been away from the cabin for quite awhile. He shuddered as he remembered how the search party had found Toby’s body, knowing that Little Joe had seen Toby as well.

Ben carried his young son to the bed in the corner as Adam and Hoss rushed to start the fire. Luckily, Toby had stacked enough wood next to the fireplace to keep them cozy for days if need be. They had a fire roaring in record time.

Ben and Paul stripped the wet clothes off Joe’s weary body then quickly wrapped him in warm blankets. Joe didn’t stir during their ministrations, which left his father very worried.

“Paul?” he asked fearfully.

“He got this far, Ben. I wouldn’t count him out yet,” Paul answered. “Give me a few minutes to check him over.”

They were all forced to wait as Paul Martin checked the small boy for injuries. There was a large gash on his head, and a deep bruise on his chest. The scratch on his leg had become infected and was red and swollen. He was obviously exhausted and Paul hoped the little boy had enough left to fight his way back. There were cuts and abrasions all over his small body, probably from the many falls Joe had experienced. Incredibly, there were no signs of frostbite. Paul couldn’t explain that one even to himself.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity to Joe worried family, Dr. Martin finished his exam.

“Well, how is he?” Ben demanded.

“He’s exhausted, dehydrated, and nearly frozen. He doesn’t show any signs of frostbite, however.” Paul added quickly.

Ben sighed in relief. “Then he’s gonna be all right?”

“I don’t know, Ben,” Paul admitted. “We’ll have to wait and see. His lungs sound a bit wet. Hopefully, we’ll be able to stave off pneumonia. The first thing we need to do is warm him up—inside and out.”

Ben and Paul worked with Joe for the next four hours, massaging the little boy’s arms and legs, trying to warm him up. They forced warm water down his throat, which he swallowed reflectively.

Ben sat rubbing his small son’s hand between his large ones. Suddenly, Joe elicited a small moan. Adam and Hoss were on their feet in an instant.

“Joseph?” Ben spoke softly. “Wake up, Little Joe. It’s time to wake up.”

Joe stirred slightly, moaning again. He was so tired. All he wanted was to sleep, but his father’s voice dragged him closer and closer to reality. Finally, his eyes fluttered, then opened. As he focused, he saw the faces of the people he loved most in the world and unshed tears filled the tired, dull eyes. How he wished they were real. He waited for the faces to disappear as they had earlier and was surprised when they didn’t.

Gathering all his strength, he lifted his hand and stroked his father’s cheek. Ben grabbed the small hand, holding it close.

“Papa?” Joe whispered hoarsely.

Joe’s voice was so weak Ben had to lean down close to hear him.

“Are… you really… here?”

“Yes, Little Joe. I’m here and so are your brothers. You’ve had a rough go of it, but you’re gonna be fine now.” Ben’s voice was low and soothing.

Adam and Hoss had moved in closer to their brother and stood gazing at him with worried eyes. Joe turned his head and looked at Adam, his eyes so heavy now he could hardly keep them open.

“I’m s…sorr… sorry.” he whispered, his voice barely audible as he gave into the exhaustion.

Tears filled Adam’s eyes as he brushed a stray curl off Little Joe’s feverish forehead.

“I’m sorry, too, little buddy.”

*****

While the blizzard howled outside the small cabin, the inside was eerily quiet. The search party had taken up residence in Toby’s old but solid barn to wait out the storm. Only Ben, Adam, Hoss and Dr. Martin remained in the house to care for Little Joe.

In the three days since they’d found him, Little Joe had awakened only once. Shortly after that, his fever began to climb until it was dangerously high. The elder Cartwrights and Paul Martin fought what appeared to be a losing battle as they tried to lower Joe’s temperature.

“We’ve got to cool him down or he’s not going to make it,” Paul proclaimed. “Adam, you and Hoss get some snow. We’ll pack it around him.”

Adam and Hoss were out the door without a word, grabbing two buckets that hung on the wall as they went.

Paul took in the scene before him and his heart went out to his friend. It was evident by his posture that Ben Cartwright was exhausted, but Paul knew he would never be able to get his friend to rest until Little Joe was better. Ben sat now with his youngest child’s hand in his. Using his free hand, Ben brushed the stray, damp curls from Joe’s forehead, speaking to him in gentle tones.

“Little Joe, can you hear me, son?” Ben whispered hoarsely. “I need you to wake up now. You’ve got to fight, Little Joe. You’ve got to…” his voice broke as tears streamed down his anguished face.

Paul walked to Ben and put a hand on his shoulder. “Ben, why don’t you get some rest? Adam and Hoss can help me with him.”

“No…no, I can’t leave him. I can’t leave him….”

“Here’s the snow, Doc.” Adam said as he and Hoss made their way across the floor.

“Good, now we need to put it all around his body. Wait — let me put this sheet over him first. All right. Here we go,” Paul said as he packed the snow around Joe’s torso.

“Here’s some more, Doc,” Hoss said as he dumped the bucket of snow along Joe’s right side.

Adam moved up as Hoss left to fill his bucket again. After several loads, Joe’s small body was packed in the cold snow.

“All we can do now is wait,” Paul Martin said quietly as he lay a cold cloth across Little Joe’s feverish brow.

*****

Ben woke to the sound of someone singing softly. Confused, he blinked his eyes a few times before scanning the inside of the cabin. His eyes came to rest on Adam sitting in the rocking chair in front of the fireplace. Adam’s head rested against the back of the chair, his eyes closed. In his lap, Little Joe was sleeping, wrapped in a warm blanket.

Ben quietly rose and walked to the rocker.

“Adam?” he said softly as he gently touched his eldest son’s shoulder.

Adam stopped singing and opened his eyes but continued rocking.

“Hey, Pa.” He said in a tired voice.

“How is he?”

“His fever broke a couple of hours ago. He woke up for a minute, but he’s been sleeping peacefully for the most part,” Adam explained.

“Then, he’s going to be all right?” Ben asked, relief evident in his voice.

“We’ll have to watch him carefully,” Paul Martin warned as he moved closer to the rocker. “His lungs are still congested and he’s dangerously weak but I think he’s turned a corner.”

At that moment, Joe moaned and moved in Adam’s arms. Though his eyes felt heavy, he forced them open. Blinking, he looked first at Adam, then at his father.

“Papa?” he whispered, hazel eyes brimming with tears.

“I’m right here, Little Joe.” Ben said softly as he picked up his young son and held him close.

Adam vacated the rocking chair, offering it to his father.

Ben sat down with Little Joe, who had tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Joseph, what’s wrong?” Ben asked in alarm. “Paul!”

Paul Martin hurried to Ben’s side. He knelt down to get a better look at Little Joe.

“Fevers down a bit. Let me check his lungs,” Paul said as he put the cold disk on Joe’s back.

Paul spent several minutes checking Joe’s throat, ears and eyes. He listened to the child’s sobs. Unable to find anything that might be causing Joe pain, he shrugged his shoulders at Ben.

“Joe, can you tell me where you hurt?” Paul asked kindly.

“No…..nowhere.” Joe hiccupped.

“What’s wrong then, Little Joe?” Ben asked.

“I….I….I’m sorry…..” sobbed the little boy.

“Joseph, you don’t have any reason to be sorry.” Ben comforted his youngest.

It was several minutes before Joe could speak again. He turned his attention to Dr. Martin.

“Dr. Martin, can’t you help my Papa?” he asked, his voice pitifully small.

The four older men looked at one another, perplexed by Joe’s question.

“What do you mean, Joe? How do you want me to help your father?”

“I….I heard you….the day Hoss and Adam left. You gave Papa some medicine…..but he’s……gonna…gonna… die anyway.” Little Joe sobbed.

Paul and Ben exchanged a puzzled glance. Then, Paul understood. He put his hand under Joe chin and moved the child’s face to look him in the eye.

“Joe, look at me, son. Your Papa’s not going to die. The medicine I gave him was just for his headache. He’s fine.” Paul explained.

“No….you’re just…..saying…that. I…I heard Vince and Kenny talking. They….they said….I….was….gonna…drive Papa….to an early….grave!”

“Oh, Joseph.” Ben hugged the little boy tightly. “They didn’t mean it son, they were just kidding around.”

Joe sniffed and looked into his father’s warm brown eyes. Could it be true? Was his father really going to be all right?

“You….promise?” Little Joe asked in a small voice. “What about the other medicine—in the bottle?”

“I promise. Dr. Martin did give me another bottle of medicine, but it was for Toby.” Ben looked at Hoss and Adam. “Toby was in the last stages of cancer. Paul gave me medicine for Toby and I sent up to the cabin. It looks like the bear got to Toby before the cancer killed him.”

“Are…Adam and Hoss…..gonna stay on the mountain?” Little Joe asked, fighting to keep awake.

The four men looked at each other, confused.

“No, Little Joe. Your brothers will be going home with us as soon as you’re able to travel. Why did you think they wouldn’t?” Ben inquired.

Little Joe took a deep breath. He was tiring, but wanted to get everything straightened out before he slept again.

“Vince and Kenny said Hoss and Adam would probably stay on the mountain just to get away from me,” Joe said quietly as his eyes began to close. He had expended all his energy and couldn’t stay awake any longer.

“Joe, Hoss and I would never leave the Ponderosa. We’d never leave you. You can be a pain sometimes, but we love you and we’d never do anything to hurt you.” Adam told him.

Joe’s eyes slowly opened and he met the concerned looks of his two beloved brothers. Somehow, he felt Adam was telling the truth and he suddenly felt warm and safe.

“Love you.” He whispered as he gave in to the exhaustion.

“Love you too, Little Buddy,” Adam said softly, tears brimming his eyes.

“Me, too, Short Shanks,” Hoss added.

Joe snuggled close to his father and let sleep take him.

*****

“C’mon Little Joe! The fish are waiting!” called Adam.

Little Joe ran down the stairs as fast as his little legs could carry him. His hazel eyes were shining with excitement. It had been a month since they’d come home from the mountain. Little Joe had responded slowly to the medicine Paul Martin gave him, but was finally well again. Adam and Hoss were taking him fishing as promised.

“Hey, Short Shanks! Slow down there!” Hoss laughed as Little Joe almost ran into him.

“Joseph!” Ben said.

Joe looked at his father, a silly grin plastered on his face. “Yeah, Papa?” he asked.

Ben couldn’t help smiling at his young son’s enthusiasm. He’d missed the little boy’s exuberance.

“You mind Hoss and Adam, now. When Adam says its time to come home, don’t argue with him. All right?”

“Sure, Papa!”

“Here, Little Joe, let’s get your coat buttoned,” Adam said as he got down on one knee to button his little brother’s coat. “Can’t have you catching cold on us, now can we?”

A few minutes later, the three brothers left the house. Little Joe giggled as Adam swung him upon his shoulders while Hoss followed carrying their fishing poles.

Joe turned to look back at his father and waved.

“See you later Papa! Tell Hop Sing we’ll bring fish for dinner!” he called.

Ben laughed and waved back, “I’ll do that, son. I’ll do that.”

Ben watched until his sons were out of sight before heading indoors. Just before he reached the door, he looked heavenward and whispered, “Thank you.”

***The End***

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