Summary: A young Little Joe goes missing after fearing his father has been killed.
Word Count: 16,600
It had been eight months since Marie’s fatal accident and Ben still found some days a struggle as he came to terms with his loss. Luckily those days were becoming few and far between and the dark void that had claimed him in those early weeks after the tragedy was now behind him.
Ben had his boys and for that he would be eternally grateful. For a short while he had lost his focus in life, but with each new day and spring almost upon them, he found himself waking up in the morning looking forward to what the day would bring forth.
As Ben left his room that morning, he paused momentarily and looked into the room of his eldest son. As he suspected, the room was already empty; Adam was an early riser and it was very rare for him not to be the first downstairs on a morning. As Ben gazing into his son’s empty room, his second son made an appearance, looking slightly disheveled, but nevertheless dressed and ready to start the day.
“Mornin’ Pa,” said Hoss giving his father one of his gapless smiles.
“Morning son,” replied Ben. “Nice to see you up, bright and early. Got much of an appetite this morning?” he teased.
“A little, I guess – suppose I could eat a few of Hop Sings pancakes, if I have ta. Just ta keep him happy yer understand,” said Hoss playing along.
Ben grinned and slapped him on the back saying, “Well, good to hear it, son. Well, I guess it’s time to try and get one little mischief maker out of bed. Hmm I don’t suppose you would like to do your old man a favor and …?”
“Not me, Pa,” laughed Hoss, heading quickly for the stairs. “Last time I tried waking him up, I ended up with a bust lip. Those little legs of his sure can kick.”
Ben pushed open the door of his youngest son’s bedroom with trepidation and looked in; one never knew what to expect. The child was lying face down on the bed, left thumb in his mouth with his right arm draped round his favorite teddy His bed covers lay on the floor in a tangled heap just as they were each morning.
Little Joe stirred as his father entered the room. Ben raised an eyebrow. “OK Little Joe, time to get up and dressed. Don’t you know you have a very busy day ahead of you?”
Ben reached down and, taking hold of Joe’s shoulders, he pulled the little boy up into a sitting position. Joe’s eyes remained closed. Ben shook his head; this child of his never ceased to amaze him. When he was awake, he was like a little whirlwind, but once asleep, it was like trying to wake a bear from hibernation. After a couple of shakes, the sleepy eyes finally opened and Joe removed his thumb from his mouth.
Looking up at his father, he said, “Hi Papa; is it morning?”
“Hi yourself, Little Joe. Yes, it is morning, and time you were up. Hop Sing had breakfast ready 5 minutes ago and he won’t be happy if it goes cold, will he?”
Little Joe smiled happily up at his father and Ben heaved a sigh of relief. The family never knew what sort of mood Joe would greet the day with and it always bode well for the household when Joe’s sunny side was the first one to emerge. Joe was now five and most mornings insisted to his family that he was quite capable of dressing himself, but on mornings where time was of the essence, Ben often found it easier to help him along. After all, there was no point in Joe starting off the day in a good mood only to fall foul of Hop Sing.
Once Joe was washed and dressed, Ben set him on his feet and, with a pat to his bottom, sent him towards the stairs. Now that Joe was fully awake, it would need all of them — and several of the ranch hands — to have eyes in the back of their heads to keep one step ahead of this little dynamite.
Ben took a minute to straighten Joe’s bed before following Joe out of the room. The sight that met him stopped him dead in his tracks. “Joseph, stop that at once,” cried Ben, hurrying forward to grab hold of the child. Joe was making his way down the stairs on all fours, front first. Lifting the child in his arms, Ben gave him a quick swat. “What on earth are you doing? That is very dangerous Joseph; I don’t want to see you do that again.”
“But I’m being a doggie. Doggies go down stairs like that,” the indignant child retorted.
“How many times do I have to tell you — you are not a dog; you are a little boy. A little boy that will get a spanking if he does that again. Are you listening, Joseph?”
“Yes, Papa,” replied a petulant little boy.
Ben shook his head at Adam and Hoss as he approached the table and placed Little Joe in his chair.
“Starting early this morning,” Adam said gesturing in Joe’s direction. “I hope that’s not an indication of things to come.”
“Well it had better not be,” replied Ben giving Joe a meaningful look, “or else one little boy is going to have a sore bottom before the day is out.”
The look and words were wasted on Joe as he gave his father one of his most charming smiles and pushed another pancake into his mouth.
Joe was always slow to eat and it seemed an age before Hoss finally turned to him and said, “Come on Squirt, you can help me saddle my horse for school.” As usual, Joe was eager to help his middle brother and after excusing himself to his father and Adam, he jumped down from his chair and rushed for the door.
In the previous week, Ben had received a letter from old friends inviting him and the boys to stay with them. As Adam would be going to college later that year, Ben thought it an ideal opportunity for the family to spend a little time together and also to reacquaint themselves with Mary and Peter James. They had not seen the James’ family for a number of years and Ben felt that the break away from the scene of the tragedy that had dogged them over the last few months would be a tonic for all of them. As Joe was so excitable, it had been decided to keep the impending trip a secret from the little boy until the last minute.
“Do you want me to take Little Joe into town with me this morning, Pa?” asked Adam “That will give you time to sort out arrangements for the ranch with Charlie without him getting under your feet.”
“That would certainly help, Adam,” replied his father, “and I know I keep on about it but whatever you do, don’t let him out of your sight for a minute. You know what he’s like; turn your back for a second and he’s gone. And whatever you do, please don’t tell him about the trip. If he as much as gets an incline about it, we will all be driven mad by tomorrow morning.”
“Don’t worry Pa, I’ll take real good care of him,” said Adam. He had been looking out for his brother from the day that he was born, but his Pa still found it necessary to lecture him whenever he took Little Joe anywhere on his own, especially since the death of Marie.
“Oh and Adam, I know it’s a lot to ask, but do you think you could persuade Little Joe to have a haircut? It only seems a couple of weeks, but those curls of his have grown so long he is beginning to look like a little girl.”
Adam scowled. This wasn’t fair; it was legendary the fuss that Joe made whenever he was ‘persuaded’ into having his hair cut. Already Adam was beginning to think this trip into town with Little Joe was an error of judgment on his part.
Adam joined his brothers in the barn and went about saddling his horse.
“Where yer going, Adam? Why yer saddling yer horse?” asked Little Joe. “Can I go with yer? Pleeease…I want to go,” chanted Little Joe, jumping from one foot to another.
“OK, OK,” snapped Adam, still disgruntled about the haircut scenario. “You can come, but shut up and calm down; you’re already making my head ache.” Adam looked at Hoss’s face and immediately felt guilty for sniping at his little brother. Hoss was Joe’s champion and he hated it if anyone said anything to cause the little fellow to be upset.
“Don’t shout at him, Adam; he’s just excited that’s all,” said Hoss. “Come on Pumpkin, let’s go get your coat so you’ll be all ready to go and old bossy boots won’t have anything else to grumble about.”
Adam saddled his horse in record time before going back into the house to get last minute instructions from his father about the supplies that were needed for their trip. The three brothers returned to the barn together in a better frame of mind and Adam quickly climbed onto Sport before Hoss reached up and sat Joe on the saddle in front of him. Hoss mounted and they set off.
Just like every other time, Joe insisted on holding the reins and Adam was happy to allow the child into thinking he was steering the horse. Adam winked at Hoss as Joe sat up straight and gave Sport his instructions totally unaware that Adam still had full control.
Joe constantly asked questions all the way into town, never pausing for breath to give his brothers a chance to answer one question before he moved onto the next one. It was a fresh and pleasant morning with just a hint of a breeze and even though the same sight welcomed them each day, the brothers’ eyes still sparkled at the beauty that surrounded them. They were all in good humor as they entered into town and it was a reluctant Hoss that prepared to leave his brothers and head towards the schoolhouse.
“Couldn’t I spend the day with you and Joe?” asked Hoss, “You know what he’s like; it would be easier if there were two of us to keep an eye on him.”
“No way, buddy; Pa would have my hide if you skipped school. Anyway what have you got to complain about; you’re about to have a whole week off aren’t you,” said Adam winking at Hoss knowingly.
Nothing escaped Joe. “What do yer mean, a whole week off. Where yer going Hoss?”
“Mind your own business, nosey parker,” said Adam tapping Joe on the head. Wasn’t that just like Little Joe; if you wanted the child to listen, he completely ignored you.
Hoss reluctantly said goodbye to his brothers and headed towards the schoolhouse whilst Adam and Joe continued on their way. Adam pulled Sport to a stop just outside the bank and Joe immediately tried to slide from the horse and was only just grabbed by Adam before he tumbled to the ground. Adam quickly dismounted and pulled the small boy into his arms.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to do that, Little Joe?” he said in exasperation. “One of these days you are going to fall and hurt yourself.” Joe just smiled innocently into his brother’s face totally unaware of the danger. Wriggling once again, Joe declared, “Put me down, Adam; I want to go see Miss Emily.”
Adam set Joe on his feet but kept a tight hold of his hand. Joe was indignant and began to struggle even more, but try as he might he could not extract his small hand from Adam’s tight grip. A quick swat to the backside quelled Joe’s impending tantrum and Adam walked into the bank dragging a reluctant Joe behind him. From past experience, Adam made sure that his business in the bank was concluded as quickly as possible, knowing full well that he would not be able to restrain Joe for very long.
On leaving the bank, Joe continued to pull on Adam’s hand and, fast losing patience, Adam scooped the boy up and tucked him under his arm. Joe kicked his little legs as hard as he could and shouted out his protest to anyone who would listen, but he was still unable to get free. Adam set off down the street ignoring the looks of passers by and didn’t stop until he entered the mercantile store. Setting Joe on his feet once more, Adam pointed a warning finger into his face and said, “This is your last chance, Little Joe; anymore of your nonsense and you and I will be having a very necessary talk. Is that understood?”
Joe did not respond, whereupon Adam gave him a hard swat to the backside. “Is that understood?” he repeated.
“Yes sir,” said Little Joe, forcing back the impending tears that threatened to fall.
Adam handed the list of supplies that were needed from the store to Ike who was stood behind the counter, at the same time keeping a watchful eye on Joe. Joe’s spirits could not be dampened and before long, he sidled up to Adam and tugged on his sleeve.
“What is it, little buddy?” said Adam squatting down beside him.
Little Joe didn’t speak but looked up longingly at the candy jars sitting on the counter. There were jelly beans, molasses, red hots and humbugs all looking enticingly back at him.
Adam couldn’t help chuckling to himself, and, winking knowingly at Ike, he looked at Little Joe and said, “Do you think you deserve any candy, Joe? It’s not like you’ve been a very good little boy, is it?”
“Aw please Adam, I haven’t been that bad and I promise to be good for the rest of the day.”
“Even the next couple of hours would be a bonus, little buddy,” said Adam under his breath.
“You know Hoss loves jelly beans, Adam,” added Joe hopefully.
“OK, you can pick some candy for you and Hoss on one condition. You only have one piece now and the rest is to be kept until after you eat all your lunch.”
It took Joe a full five minutes to select the candy for both himself and Hoss, popping his allotted one piece into his mouth both they left the store.
To Joe’s delight, Adam’s next stop was Miss Emily’s restaurant to have lunch. Miss Emily always fussed over the motherless boys and took a special interest in one little bundle of fun. In Emily’s company, Little Joe always behaved perfectly and she could never understand why the rest of the family implied he was anything but an angel.
To Adam’s surprise, Joe made a valiant effort for Miss Emily and attempted to eat most of his lunch, including the vegetables.
After lunch, Adam could not put off the dreaded deed any longer and taking a deep breath he decided it was now time to try and coerce Joe into having his haircut. Taking a firm hold of Little Joe’s hand Adam set off for the barber’s shop. Joe immediately recognized the direction they were heading and, sensing what was coming, began to struggle and drag his feet, but to no avail, Adam was not letting go. On arriving outside Frank’s shop, Adam stared in dismay at the sign posted in the window: “Out of town, back on Monday.”
As Adam read the sign out loud, Joe was delighted; he had escaped the barber for yet another day and his beautiful curls were intact. Adam shrugged his shoulders; well, it was hardly his fault Frank was out of town and the haircut would just have to wait. He looked down at the curls framing his brother’s face and smiled; he really thought Joe looked kinda cute, a bit like the cherubs featured in the art books his grandfather had sent him from Boston. Adam sighed; unfortunately his father wasn’t likely to feel the same way. Well, there was nothing he could do about it; Frank wasn’t there and that was all there was to it.
By the time they were ready to leave town, it was almost time for school to be ending so they stopped by the schoolhouse to collect Hoss in order for them to all ride home together. Hoss was delighted when he came out of the doors to find his brothers waiting for him and especially delighted when Joe presented him with a large bag of candy.
“I picked em for yer, Hoss, so I got all yer favorites,” said Little Joe proudly.
True to his word Joe was good as gold all the way home, and with his mouth stuffed full of candy, it meant that Hoss and Adam were able to have a conversation for once without all Joe’s constant interruptions.
When they arrived back at the ranch, Ben came out into the yard to meet them. Joe almost jumped from Sport’s back in his effort to get to his father and Ben quickly stepped forward and caught the squirming youngster in his arms. Ben scowled as he ran his hands through Joe’s flowing locks and said, “What happened to the haircut Adam? It certainly doesn’t look any different to me.”
Before Adam had a chance to answer, Little Joe said “Mr. Green’s gone away, Papa, so the shop was closed. It’s not Adam’s fault.” The child positively gloated with satisfaction.
Ben shook his head. What was it with this child and getting his haircut? Marie had always loved her baby’s flowing locks and had stated on more than one occasion how it broke her heart to have his curls cut short. Even though Joe didn’t remember the words, the feeling had passed to him and he always felt tearful and upset at the idea of having his haircut.
After being out all day, the child had missed his afternoon nap and it was a fractious Little Joe that joined the family for dinner that evening. Ben was a little anxious about the trip they were about to embark on, as this was the first time he had been away from the ranch since Marie’s death. He was keen to discuss with Adam the arrangements that had been put in place with the men for looking after the day-to-day chores over the forthcoming week, but decided that this was best left until Joe was safely tucked up in bed. They were half way through the meal when Ben noticed that Joe was not eating.
“Joseph, eat your supper.”
“Don’t like carrots,” replied Joe and pushed his plate away.
“Carrots are good for you. Eat your meal, NOW,” said Ben pushing the plate back towards Joe.
Joe pushed it away again spilling half of his meal onto the table.
Ben reached over and slapped the child’s hand sharply, which resulted in Joe starting to cry. Ben replaced the plate of food back in front of Joe and again Joe pushed the plate away from him.
“Joseph, that is enough,” said Ben, beginning to raise his voice, at which point the child began to sob.
Joe’s howls were turning into wails and Adam and Hoss gave each other worried glances as they saw their father’s face turning red, a sure sign that his temper was beginning to rise. Ben had had enough; he stood up and looked down at the crying child, ready to drag him from the table. As Ben pushed his chair back away from him, he glanced up to see the worried expressions on the faces of his elder sons. Looking at Little Joe all flushed and crying, he took a deep breath in an effort to bring his emotions once more under control. Ben remonstrated with himself. What on earth was he thinking of? Surely he had been around small boys long enough to know that there was no point trying to reason with a distraught and tired five year old.
Much to the surprise of Adam and Hoss, Ben reached down and plucked the tot from his chair and gently placing him over his shoulder, he began to rub his back, all the time making shushing noises in his ear. The loud wailing soon began to subside and was replaced by small whimpering cries until eventually the little body went limp. Ben returned to the table and, taking the now sleeping Little Joe from his shoulder, placed him into the crook of his arm.
“I’ll take him and get him ready for bed if you want, Pa,” volunteered Adam.
“No, it’s alright, son; he’s OK where he is for the moment,” said Ben, marveling at the difference in the sleeping tot to the screaming tyrant of only a few minutes before. Ben reached down and with one finger wiped the still wet tears from the child’s cheeks. As Joe laid sleeping, Ben’s heart constricted as he was once again reminded of the boy’s likeness to his mother. The curls framing the perfect face and those long lashes sweeping down over his cheeks made for a breathtaking combination, and Ben wondered what the future held for this little heartbreaker in his arms. He had no doubt that his looks, and already acknowledged charm would prove a winning combination with the girls, and he just hoped he was up to the task of steering him in the right direction. Although he was very proud of how his elder sons were maturing, something told him the road ahead was not going to be quite as easy with this one; he had too much of his fiery mother running through his veins and Ben knew only too well from experience that life was not going to be easy.
Ben and the boys resumed their meal and, when finished, Ben walked over to his chair then sat down with Little Joe snuggled in his lap. For some reason, this evening he felt comforted by the small body in his arms and he was reluctant to give him up. The boys joined him and they began to make plans for the week ahead.
It would be a two-day ride to Mary and Peter James’ ranch and although they could go by stagecoach, Ben thought it would be a bit of an adventure for the boys if they took the buckboard and camped out for one night. One of the reasons they had refrained from telling Little Joe of their plans was that he was still too little to have any concept of time and they knew that they would be constantly bombarded with questions of when it was time to go if he was given any prior notice. The decision to only inform Joe on the day of their departure had been a unanimous one in order to preserve both their sanity and Ben’s temper in the intervening period.
Ben was happy to see the excitement on his sons’ faces as the final arrangements were made and it was a very happy family that made their way to bed that evening.
The following morning, Ben had the boys up at the crack of dawn in order to make an early start. After breakfast, they made their way into the yard and Little Joe, seeing that the buckboard was all packed, looked up at Ben and asked, “Are we going somewhere, Papa?”
Ben couldn’t resist teasing Joe and said, “What makes you think we are going somewhere, Little Joe?”
“‘Cause all our things are in the back of there,” he said pointing to the buckboard.
Adam and Hoss laughed and, reaching down, Adam swung Joe up in his arms and plonked him in the back of the wagon. “We’re going to visit Aunt Mary and Uncle Peter” said Adam. “You may not remember them, but they’re sure to remember you.”
Joe looked puzzled. “Why’s that, Adam?”
“Well it may have something to do with the time you put flour inside Aunt Mary’s shoes, and then there’s the time you tried to climb out of their upstairs window onto the roof, or maybe just maybe it’s from when you fell asleep on Uncle Peter’s lap and peed all over him.”
“Aw Adam, I never did,” said Joe looking to his father for confirmation.
“That’s enough, boys,” said Ben, not wanting to start the day with tears and tantrums from his youngest. “Daylight’s burning; it’s time we were on our way.”
Six hours later, Joe’s enthusiasm was beginning to wear off. Ben found that he had to grit his teeth together on more than one occasion in order to stop himself from yelling. If the child asked him one more time if they could now stop for the night, he felt he would explode. When Joe said for the fourth time “Papa I need to pee,” Ben decided that this time they would make camp.
As Adam watered and fed the horses, Ben unpacked supplies for supper and tasked the younger boys to collect wood for the fire.
After eating, Ben decided that if Joe was to settle for the night, he was going to have to get rid of some of his pent up energy. The little boy was normally always on the go and after being cooped up in the wagon all day, Ben could tell he was like a valve in need of release. Hoss was happy to oblige and spent the next 30 minutes chasing Joe backwards and forwards through the trees. Joe giggled and ran continuously until Ben shouted for him and Hoss to prepare their bedrolls for the night. As Hoss and Little Joe snuggled down into their blankets, Hoss said, “Tell us a story, Adam.”
“Yeah, Adam, tell us a story,” repeated Little Joe.
“What sort of story?” said Adam.
“One about pirates,” said Joe, eyes widening at the prospect.
Adam was happy to oblige and Ben listened in amusement as Adam regaled the boys with a story about a pirate named Blackbeard.
“Blackbeard sailed the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea more than one hundred years ago, bringing fear to all who crossed his path,” Adam began.
As the tale continued, Adam enjoyed seeing the boys excited faces as he brought Blackbeard back to life. As he paused for breath, Little Joe looked up at him with wide eyes and asked in almost a whisper, “Does Blackbeard ever come to where we live?”
“Oh no Little Joe, Blackbeard is dead. He died a long long time ago,” said Adam, warming to his subject. Oblivious to Ben’s warning glance, he continued, “Blackbeard was shot with a pistol and then afterwards they cut off his head and hung it from the bow of the ship.”
Ben shook his head in disbelief and Adam was quick to realize his mistake when he saw the look of horror on his younger brothers’ faces. Hoss and Joe slid even further down under their blankets and Ben turned sharply on his eldest son. “I hope you are prepared to be the one to deal with any repercussions of that little story. Really Adam, I thought you would have had more sense.”
Adam cringed. “Sorry Pa, guess I didn’t think.”
“That is obvious.”
Sure enough, a couple of hours later the night was disturbed by a distraught Little Joe fighting imaginary pirates that were trying to cut off his head. Adam very quickly scooped up his little brother and gave him a reassuring cuddle, hoping that his father would not be disturbed. Ben, although awake, decided to let Adam deal with the trouble he had caused, and when he was certain that Little Joe was not too upset, he rolled over and went back to sleep. Adam spent the rest of the night with his small brother sharing his bedroll, which was not recommended as Joe constantly kicked and moved about in his sleep.
The next day continued pretty much like the first — Joe became over excited for the first couple of hours but then became bored as the journey became tedious. Much to everyone’s relief, the tot became tired by early afternoon and fell asleep in the back of the buckboard.
A couple of hours later, they pulled into the yard at the ranch of Mary and Peter James. The couple and their two children came out immediately to meet with their visitors. It was three years since the couple had seen the Cartwright family and Ben was overjoyed to be seeing his old friends once more.
Mary looked at the three Cartwright boys and could not believe the changes. Adam was almost a man, and Hoss at 11 was almost as big as Adam, and the baby, well, he wasn’t a baby any longer. The James’ two children had also changed dramatically in the intervening years. Karen the eldest at 16 was now quite the young lady and Adam could hardly take his eyes away from her. Michael the younger child was 14 and although quite tall for his age, he was a bit dismayed to see that Hoss at 11 was considerably taller than him.
Adam and Hoss remembered the family well and were anxious to renew their acquaintance. Little Joe, on the other hand, was a bit hesitant; he did not have any memories of them at all and when he was lifted from the buckboard, he held tightly to his father’s hand.
Karen and Adam hit it off immediately. Once the buckboard was emptied and the families had spent an hour catching up, Karen offered to show Adam round the ranch and they quickly made their escape from the younger children. Hoss and Michael found that they had quite a bit in common; Michael had a number of pets and he and Hoss compared notes. Little Joe was the odd one out. Michael made it clear to Hoss that he wasn’t keen on ‘babysitting’ and Hoss was anxious to be accepted by the older boy.
It was late afternoon when Ben came down the stairs to find Little Joe sitting on the porch on his own. Ben was in a bit of a dilemma; he did not want to spoil the older boys’ fun but at the same time he did not want Joe to be left out.
Mary came to the rescue. She took Little Joe by the hand and said, “How about you help me make some cookies?” At this, Joe cheered up immediately and followed Mary into the kitchen. Joe was missing a mother figure in his life and Ben was sure that the child would respond positively to some female attention.
The next few days turned out to be pure enjoyment for the family. Ben felt himself fully relax for the first time in months and he enjoyed having adult company to spend his evenings with. He was a bit concerned at first about Adam and Karen spending too much time together unsupervised, but that little problem was soon resolved. On the second day, Little Joe attached himself to Karen and the little boy’s charm soon had her completely captivated. Ben chuckled to himself as he watched Adam and Karen leave after lunch with Little Joe in tow; he was certainly the most effective chaperone any father could ever wish to have.
Hoss and Michael were also having a good time; they went fishing and riding throughout the day and enjoyed the freedom they were given to roam around the James’ ranch without adult supervision.
Early afternoon on the fourth day, Ben was sitting on the porch smoking his pipe and idly passing the day with Peter. The four older children had gone for a ride to the lake whilst Little Joe was having his afternoon nap. Mary James was in the kitchen preparing the food for the evening meal. One of the James’ ranch hands arrived in the yard and made his way over to the porch. He had been to town that morning to collect the mail and whilst there he had been given a telegram addressed to Ben. Ben quickly scanned the contents and sighed heavily.
“What is it, Ben? Not bad news, I hope,” said Peter.
“Well not exactly,” scowled Ben, “but there is a problem at the ranch, which means I am going to have to return early. I’m sorry but I need to leave first thing in the morning.”
Mary joined them on the porch and when she was informed about the contents of the telegram, she insisted that Ben leave the boys with her and Peter to complete their week’s break. Mary and Peter would see to it that the boys got the stage back to Virginia City at the end of that time, which would leave Ben free to complete his business back at the ranch. Ben was very grateful to the James’ for their kind offer and he was sure that the boy’s would be well looked after in his absence.
That afternoon Ben informed the boy’s of his decision and they all appeared to be happy with the arrangements, but the following morning at breakfast, Little Joe became extremely upset at the idea of Ben leaving him behind. Ben tried to reassure Joe that he would be staying with Adam and Hoss and that he would be coming home with them by stage at the end of the week, but Little Joe was inconsolable. Even the promise of an exciting ride on a stagecoach was not enough to placate him, and Ben could not bring himself to leave the child so traumatized. It was arranged to have the already prepared buckboard loaded with Little Joe’s belongings and shortly afterwards Ben said his goodbyes to the James family with a very happy little boy sat next to him.
Ben and Joe made surprisingly good time that day and covered a lot of miles. Little Joe was particularly good and was just so happy to be with Ben that he didn’t make any fuss whatsoever. It was only when they came to make camp that evening that Ben realized with dismay that in their haste to leave, the bag containing Joe’s clothes had been left behind. Ben didn’t dare risk leaving Joe all night in his only set of clothes, as the boy was still prone to the occasional accident. Searching through the bags he found one of his own shirts, which would have to do, and set about undressing, feeding and washing the small boy as the darkness fell. Once washed and fed, Ben smiled at the sight of the small child wearing his shirt with the sleeves turned back and picking him up he wrapped him in a blanket and sat with him on his knee in front of the campfire. The long day took its toll and Joe quickly surrendered to sleep. Ben decided to settle the boy in the back of the wagon, as it would be more comfortable for him than the hard ground. As night fell, Ben climbed into his own bedroll in front of the fire and drifted off to sleep.
Later that night, Ben was totally unaware of the two men that crept into the camp. One of the men hit Ben hard over the head with the butt of his gun before he even had time to stir. The men ransacked Ben’s belongings, quickly pocketing anything of value. When they rode out 10 minutes later, they were unconcerned whether the stranger lived or died and were totally oblivious of the small child that lay sleeping in the back of the wagon.
Three hours later, Little Joe awoke in the darkness and sat up a little disorientated. For a moment he was unaware of his surroundings and it took him a few moments to remember that he was traveling with his Papa on the way back to the Ponderosa. Joe was thirsty and disengaging himself from his blanket, he sidled out of the wagon to go in search of Ben. The embers from the dying campfire cast an eerie light over the prone figure on the ground. Joe made his way quickly over to his Papa and tried to rouse him.
“Papa, I’m thirsty,” said Little Joe. “I need a drink of water.” Ben did not stir and the child reached over and shook his father’s shoulder. Ben still did not move and in the dim light, Joe became aware of the pool of blood that had formed under his father’s head. Little Joe’s frightened cry echoed throughout the still night; his Papa had left him, just as his mama had and now he was all alone in the middle of nowhere.
The only other time Joe had ever been alone out in the darkness was shortly after his mother had died. In the aftermath of her death, Ben had been so preoccupied with his own grief that he had neglected Little Joe’s needs. One afternoon Joe had wandered off alone and climbed up Eagles Peak. Almost at the top of the mountain, it was only as darkness had fallen that Joe had become afraid and, huddling behind a rock, had started to cry. Joe had lain for many hours in the darkness, crying for his Papa before his prayers were answered. Ben had seemed to appear out of nowhere and had carried Joe to safety. But who would hear his cries this time?
Once Joe’s sobs subsided, an idea came to him. He stood up and began to walk back the way the wagon had come. He had to find Adam; Adam was the only one who could help him. His Papa had promised to stay with him and he had left him just as his Mama had left him – he had to find Adam, nothing else mattered.
It was just before daybreak the following morning when four men dismounted from their horses and made their way into the trees. They were from a nearby wagon train and were hoping to catch some rabbits and maybe even a deer to supplement their meager supplies.
Jake was a big man in his forties, over six feet tall, with a shock of grey hair and a deep booming voice. He was a genial man, but most people who did not know him were wary of his size and demeanor. Jake was a natural leader and he had willingly taken the job of leading the small band of wagons across the West to California.
There was a slight movement in the trees and the men readied their guns in preparation. Jake didn’t know what it was that unsettled him, but he told the men to hold fire. He made his way over to where the movement had been and the sight in front of him made him catch his breath. A small child dressed in a shirt many sizes too big for it was curled up on the ground in the fetal position looking at him with the biggest green eyes he had ever seen. The child was filthy and there were several scratches on the tot’s arms, legs and face. Jake slowly made his way over, trying not to frighten the child anymore than it obviously was.
“Hello little one,” he said, “what on earth are you doing out here all alone?”
The child continued to stare at him but did not react in any way to Jake’s words. Jake bent down and scooped the small body into his arms before turning to confront the shocked faces of the men behind him.
Although it had been a mild night, the child was extremely cold in the early morning chill. Jake unfastened his coat and placing the small body next to him he wrapped the coat around him and refastened it. Looking down, he was surprised to see the child place a small thumb in its mouth, close its eyes and surrender to sleep. Jake thought the child was beautiful with its chestnut curls surrounding a perfect cherubic face and he could not help but be entranced.
Turning to the surprised men, he said “Jacob, ride back to that town we passed by yesterday and see if you can find anything out about a missing child; someone’s got to know something about it. Martin, why don’t you and Sam scout round and see if you can pick up any clues; there’s got to be someone else around here. I’ll take this little mite back to Jessie; she’ll know what to do.” With that, Jake climbed on his horse, with the precious bundle secure inside his jacket, and headed back to the wagon train.
Jessie and a number of the other women were boiling water on the campfire in preparation for breakfast when Jessie caught sight of her husband riding towards her. Hands on hips, she walked towards him shaking her head. “You aren’t coming back empty handed, I hope; there are too many empty bellies to be filled before this day is out.”
Jake slowly dismounted and approaching his wife he smiled and said, “No, not empty-handed but I think what I have is probably a bit small to fill many bellies.” With that he opened his coat slightly and Jessie gasped in amazement at the bundle therein.
It didn’t take long for word to spread through the camp about Jake’s ‘find’ and within a short time everyone was gathered in front of the fire to listen to the story. Unfastening his coat, Jake carefully lifted out the dirty child and wrapped it into a cozy blanket that Jessie had fetched from their wagon.
As the tale was told, the women were quick to spring into action. As Jessie sat with the sleeping tot in her arms, Molly went to her own wagon to look for clean clothes to dress the child and Daisy set about preparing a tin bath in order to bathe the dirty youngster. The other women continued with the preparation of breakfast all the time talking and speculating as to where the child could have come from.
Thirty minutes later Martin and Sam returned to camp to inform them that they had not found anyone else in the vicinity of where the child had been found. The whole thing was a mystery; what on earth was the child doing out there all alone. As breakfast was ready, the whole congregation gathered round the fire to eat.
As everyone chatted and ate, the child began to awaken. Jessie’s heart ached to see the look of terror and shock in the child’s bewildered eyes and she quickly made cooing noises and stroked the child’s face in an effort to reassure.
Molly held out a small dress and underclothes. “They might be a bit big but they will be better than nothing” she said. “She sure is a beautiful baby. How old do you suppose she is.”
“I don’t know,” said Jessie, “she looks about 3 or 4. What on earth can of happened for her to be out there all on her own? I suppose we best get her cleaned up whilst that water is still hot” and so saying, Jessie unwrapped the blanket from around the frightened child and began to remove the dirty and torn shirt, being careful not to rub against any of the many scratches on the child’s body.
As she lifted the child up to place her in the tub, she gasped and then chuckled. “Ahem,” she said, drawing everyone’s attention, “I don’t think the little dress is going to be quite right. Molly, I think we may have been a little presumptuous.” The rest of the people gathered were confused for a second or two until their eyes rested on the naked child, whereupon the women smiled and several of the men began to chuckle.
Mabel rose to her feet and, reaching forward, she ran her hands through the little boy’s curls and said, “I still have some of Jimmy’s clothes that he has outgrown that might be just the job. I certainly think he will be more comfortable in them than one of Molly’s little one’s dresses.” With that, she headed back to her wagon.
The child in Jessie’s arms made no protest as he was washed, dried and dressed. Jessie proceeded to coax him to eat and drink, and he responded to her instructions without giving any indication that he was really listening. It was obvious the child was in shock and she could only imagine what had befallen him. Jessie could only hope that when Jacob returned from the town he would bring news of the little boy’s family.
It was more than two hours after finding the child that Jacob rode into Virginia City. He quickly made his way to the Sheriff’s office and proceeded to tell his tale to the man behind the desk. Deputy Sheriff Clay Dawson explained to Jacob that the regular sheriff was away from the city for a few days and he was just filling in. He had no knowledge of a missing little girl and thought that gypsies, who were very superstitious people, may have abandoned the child. It was not uncommon for them to banish people from their fold if they thought they were bringing bad luck into their community.
Jacob could not believe that anyone would abandon such a small child but as there was no other information to hand, he had no alternative but to complete a report and leave. He informed the deputy sheriff that they were heading towards California and if anyone laid claim to the child the wagon train could be found following the main trail.
The people back at the wagon train broke camp after breakfast and set out once again on their way. One of the men took over at the helm of Jessie and Jake’s wagon so that Jessie could remain in the back with the child. Once fed, he had not taken long to fall back asleep and Jessie cradled him in her strong arms as the wagon made its way forward over the bumpy track.
Jake had called a halt and they had stopped for lunch when Jacob caught up with them and informed them of what had taken place back in Virginia City. Jake and Jessie were distressed to realize that no one had come forward to claim the child but had to admit that the explanation put forward with regard to the gypsies was the only plausible one. The couple had no doubt in their own minds that if no one claimed the child then they would take care of him. They had big hearts and in the few short hours since he was found, Jessie could already feel him tugging at her heartstrings.
It was beginning to get dark that evening when two men on their way to Virginia City happened to come across an unconscious Ben Cartwright. By the time they found him, he was in a bad way; he had lost a lot of blood and was suffering from exposure and dehydration. They quickly loaded him into the back of the buckboard and headed into town where he was immediately taken to Paul Martin’s surgery. One of the men stayed to help Paul and the other went to the sheriff’s office to report the incident. Paul was shocked to see the state that Ben was in and after a quick examination, he was worried that the injury to Ben’s head was so severe that he might not recover consciousness.
Paul tended to Ben throughout the night. His temperature rose steadily until it was dangerously high and a fever raged through his body. Stitches were needed to close the wound in the back of Ben’s head and he had lost an awful lot of blood. It was a very tired Paul Martin that watched the sunrise that morning. Ben had still not regained consciousness and his fever showed no sign of peaking.
It was midmorning the following day when Sheriff Coffee returned to Virginia City. Upon hearing the news of his friend’s injuries, he quickly made his way to Paul Martin’s office. Paul brought him up to date on Ben’s condition and the fact that he was still unconscious and unable to tell them what had happened.
“Where are the boys?” asked Roy Coffee “Have they been informed?”
“Ben sent a telegram a couple of days ago to say he was returning, but the boys were staying with the James’ until the end of the week. I guess we have no choice, under the circumstances; I think we better send word to Adam and he can let the boys know their Pa’s hurt.” Looking back at Ben, he added, “Let’s just hope they get here in time.”
As Paul arranged for the telegram to be sent, Roy gathered together a posse to try and track down the man or men that had bushwhacked Ben.
Back at the wagon train, Little Joe had spent a restless night. He had slept for much of the previous day but during the night the whole wagon train was awakened by his screams. No amount of reassurance could quiet the distressed child and Jessie paced backwards and forwards holding the little boy to her breast in an effort to comfort him. It was only when Jake approached Jessie and spoke to Little Joe in his deep calm voice that Joe stopped screaming. There was something about this large, grey haired man that broke through Joe’s night terrors and calmed him. Little Joe held out his arms and Jake grasped the tiny tot to him and held him over his shoulder, stroking his back. The little boy’s wails had turned to sobs and eventually to whimpers punctuated by an occasional hiccough. When the little boy drifted off to sleep, Jake tried to lay him down, but the small hands reached out frantically and grasped the front of Jake’s shirt. So it was that Jake spent the rest of the night with the child in his lap.
When Joe awoke the following morning, he was, for the first time since being found, aware of his surroundings. Jake tried to coax the child to speak but was only rewarded with a blank stare. Joe continued to refuse to answer any questions that were put to him and Jake and Jessie decided that it would be best to leave the child to come round in his own time.
As everyone made their way to the campfire for breakfast, Mabel approached Jake and looking down at Little Joe said, “How is the baby this morning, he seemed to be very distressed during the night.”
To everyone’s surprise, the little boy jumped up and said, “I’m not a baby; I’m a big boy.”
“Yes, you are a big boy, aren’t you?” said Jessie, anxious to try and keep the atmosphere as normal as possible for the child. “And since you are such a big boy, I bet you could tell us what your name is.”
“Of course I can; my name’s Little Joe and I am a big boy. I’m five,” said Joe, standing as tall as he could.
The small group of women around the boy were pleased that progress had been made, but took things very slowly allowing Joe to volunteer information rather than asking him questions. Joe proudly told them how he lived on a big ranch with lots of horses. The little boy became very animated when talking about the horses and everyone laughed as he cantered round in imitation.
“What about your Mama, Little Joe?” asked one of the woman.
“My mama’s in heaven,” said a sad faced Little Joe. “She got hurted when she fell off her horse and so God took her to live with him, but I wish he would let her come back to me,” he added almost in a whisper.
The gathered crowd exchanged a sympathetic look between them.
“Well who looks after you, Little Joe?” Jessie coaxed.
“My Papa and big brothers.”
At that, Joe turned and buried his face in Jessie’s lap; he didn’t want to think of his Papa and what had happened. When he closed his eyes, he could still see all the blood and his Papa lying on the ground not moving.
Jessie patted the child on the back. “I think Little Joe’s had enough questions for now. There’s plenty time later to find out about what happened. Maybe it’s best if we let him adjust to being here with us for now, and if he volunteers any other information, that’s great, but otherwise I don’t think we ought to push him at this stage.”
Mabel had several children of her own and instinct told her that the best way of helping the child at this moment was to try and distract him from his obvious distress. She shouted to her youngest son Jimmy to fetch his puppy from the back of their wagon. Jimmy approached Little Joe with the tiny puppy in his arms and as soon as Joe set eyes on it, he was quick to dry his tears. As only a small child can, Joe temporarily forgot his troubles and began to play happily with Jimmy and the other children. There were still times during the day when the memories came flooding back to him and the tears and sobs would start again. In Joe’s world, nothing was as it should be and the only way he could deal with it was by pretending that it just wasn’t happening. He could not believe that his Papa had left him; he had always promised to stay and look after him, and where was Adam, why didn’t he come and get him. Joe was confused; it never occurred to him that Adam didn’t know that Papa was dead and that he didn’t know that Joe was on his own and needed him.
Gleamed from the little that Joe had said, Jessie and Jake assumed that the child’s father had died recently. How and why they had no way of knowing, but the child was clearly very traumatized by the experience. It was impossible to try and get such a young child to answer their questions; all they could do was wait and hope that the story would unfold as the boy felt more secure in his environment.
When the messenger arrived at the James’ ranch, nothing could have prepared Adam and Hoss for the contents that the telegram contained. Adam just knew it had to be bad news; his father wouldn’t send a telegram otherwise. It was with shaking hands that he opened the envelope and read the contents. Hoss looked at him expectantly and was almost afraid to hear what was contained therein.
“It’s Pa,” whispered Adam. “He’s hurt, but it doesn’t say how bad he is. The telegram’s from Dr Martin and he says we should return at once. It really doesn’t sound good.” Adam’s voice faded out as he watched the look of horror on his little brother’s face.
“Is he going to die Adam?” cried Hoss. “I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to Pa.”
Adam immediately put his arm round Hoss’s shoulders and tried to reassure him. It was times like these that Adam wished he wasn’t the eldest. Oh, to have someone there to try and take the hurt from him for a change.
The James’ were very sympathetic and made arrangements immediately for Adam and Hoss to catch the next stage back to Virginia City. Mary felt so distraught for the brothers. It just wasn’t fair; Ben and the boys had had so much tragedy in their lives. Why did this have to happen just when things seemed to be going right for them?
The stage journey back to Virginia City was a particularly trying one for Adam and Hoss. Adam was glad that they were the only passengers, as he didn’t think he was up to making polite conversation with strangers. Neither boy wanted to put their fears into words; afraid that if they did, there was a chance they would come true. A few hours into the journey, Adam looked over at Hoss and his heart went out to him; the boy’s eyes were clouded with tears that he was trying so hard not to shed. Because of Hoss’s size, everyone expected him to behave and act far older than his years, but he was 11 years old, a small boy trapped in a man’s body. Adam crossed over to sit next to his brother and without saying a word, he put his arms round his sibling’s shoulders and pulled the boy into his chest for a comforting hug. As Hoss finally allowed his tears to fall, Adam said “Everything will be OK, Hoss, don’t worry; we’ll get through this. Pa will be fine. I bet when we get there, he’s already up and shouting at Little Joe.”
Roy met Adam and Hoss from the stage and immediately took them to their father. On the way, he quickly explained to them that it was suspected that Ben had been bushwhacked, but up to now Ben had not been able to tell them very much.
Paul Martin greeted them at the door. “How is he, Dr Martin?” Adam asked anxiously.
“Well boys, he’s been a very sick man for the past few days. His fever was my biggest worry but that broke during the night and I think when he wakes up, we should see some improvement. Up to now, he has been quite delirious so we haven’t been able to find out much about what happened. I’m not going to promise anything — he’s not out of the woods yet — but things are certainly looking much better than they were 24 hours ago.”
Adam and Hoss quickly made their way to their father and although shocked at his appearance, were glad to see him sleeping peacefully with little trace of any fever. The sound of the boys’ voices must have broken into Ben’s subconscious and within a very short time, his eyes opened.
“Welcome back, Ben,” said Dr Martin, “you had us going there for awhile.”
The pain in Ben’s head was almost unbearable, but he made an effort to smile when he saw the worried faces of his eldest sons. Once it was obvious that Ben was coherent, Roy explained to him about the bushwhacking and how two men had found him and brought him back to town. Once that had sunk in, Ben immediately tried to sit up and asked anxiously, “What about Little Joe?”
“Little Joe,” chorused Paul, Roy, Adam and Hoss simultaneously.
Roy was the first to speak. “I thought Little Joe was with Adam and Hoss.”
“No, Little Joe was with Pa,” said Adam.
The horror showed plainly on Ben’s face. “How long has it been?”
“Three days,” said Paul. “My God, we had no idea; we thought you returned alone.”
The next few minutes were absolute chaos. A distraught Ben tried to get out of bed to search for Joe and Paul Martin had to administer a sedative whilst Adam and Roy fought to hold him down. Hoss collapsed on the nearest chair and sobbed uncontrollably at the thought of his baby brother alone and missing for three days. How could he possibly have survived?
Roy belatedly set about recruiting men for a search party. After three days, there wasn’t much hope of finding the small child, but he wouldn’t give up without trying. The fact that the posse had not come across him when searching for the bushwhackers did not bode well for Little Joe. Adam wanted to go with them but Roy insisted he stay with his father and brother. The truth of the matter was that Roy did not hold out much hope for the little boy. The last thing Roy wanted was for Adam to be there if his suspicions came to fruition and the child’s body was found. After three days, it would not be a pretty sight and he could not foster that on a young man of 17; it would be something he would never be able to come to terms with.
Word was sent to Hop Sing to inform him of what had befallen his family. As in times gone by, Hop Sing immediately came to the aid of those he loved. He moved into town to look after the boys and be of assistance to Paul Martin in looking after Ben. His own heart was breaking; how would they be able to carry on if they never heard that mischievous giggle again. Little Joe was their one link to Marie; whilst Joe was alive, Marie would never die, and like Marie before him, he brought laughter and happiness to their lives.
Men from the town and the nearby ranches searched until the end of the week for the child, but no trace whatsoever was found of Little Joe and, although no-one wanted to admit it, the opinion was that the child was dead. There was every possibility he had died of exposure, drowned in the lake or had been set upon by one of the many wild animals roaming the plain.
Paul Martin had kept Ben sedated for as long as he could. When he finally decided that Ben was fit enough to travel, he lessened the drugs and allowed Ben to come out of his drug-induced haze and face the harsh reality of Joe’s possible death.
Hop Sing returned to the ranch to prepare for the family’s homecoming. This would not be a celebration and he knew that his family could never be the same again.
An emotionally distraught Ben, Adam and Hoss returned to the Ponderosa scarcely 10 days after they had left. Adam helped his father to his room and went downstairs to ask Hop Sing to prepare Ben a drink. Alone for the first time since Little Joe’s disappearance, Ben lay on his bed and allowed his emotions to surface. His sobs could be heard throughout the silent house as the heartbroken father tried to come to terms with the loss of his youngest.
Downstairs Adam gathered his younger brother into his arms and hugged him as they listened to their father’s cries. What would happen to them now? Ben had taken so long to recover after the death of Marie, how would he ever recover from the loss of Little Joe?
As Ben’s injuries healed, he spent his days riding the range looking for any sign of his lost child. He couldn’t believe his baby was gone; there was something inside him that wouldn’t accept that Joe was dead. Ben felt on more than one occasion that he and Joe had a connection that was unexplainable, and he knew in his heart that if Joe was really gone, he would feel it inside and that feeling wasn’t there. Joe was alive; he felt it with every bone in his body. And unless someone could prove otherwise, he would go on believing it.
It was nearing the end of the second week that Roy sent a man out to the Ponderosa to inform Ben that the men that had bushwhacked him had been apprehended. Ben and the boys quickly saddled their horses and rode into town. The two men were a sorry pair, drifters who had been down on their luck and had seen Ben as easy picking. They had admitted to attacking Ben and stealing his wallet and belongings but when questioned, denied any knowledge of Little Joe.
Ben was frantic; he could not believe that they had not been aware of the small child in the back of the buckboard. He had hoped, even though it was very unlikely, that maybe the bushwhackers had taken Joe with them and now his hopes were dashed. The men said that they had not meant to hit Ben as hard as they did, but they had been drinking, and upon realizing how badly hurt Ben was, they had panicked and had took only those valuables that were to hand. Both men expressed regret to think that their actions had resulted in a small child wandering off and perhaps perishing. Ben could not find it in his heart to accept the men’s apology; if not for them, Little Joe would be with him now. As the last vestige of hope was taken from him, Ben attacked the men before him and had to be restrained by Roy and his deputy.
Little Joe’s days were beginning to take on a pattern. He rose each morning and after breakfast, he spent his time playing with the other children before the wagons were packed and made ready for travel. It was obvious to everyone that Joe was forming a strong attachment to Jake as the little boy followed him round as often as he could. Whenever Joe was upset, which was often, it was the big man he sought for comfort. The people on the wagon train still did not know what had happened to the child’s family; he occasionally chattered about his life with his Pa and brothers but when they tried to ask about why he was out on the range himself, he dissolved into tears and it took Jake a long time to calm him down. They decided that when they reached their destination they would seek out the sheriff and inform him of the little they knew and hopefully the sheriff would be able to track down the boy’s family.
As the days went by, this small child captivated the people on the wagon train and the first time he laughed and giggled, had them entranced — his beautiful angelic face belying the imp that lay beneath. It had not taken long for Little Joe’s mischievous nature to come to the fore and it became obvious to all the adults present that this one small boy was going to take some watching. On several occasions, Joe found himself on the receiving end of a hard swat from Jake. The first time it happened, Joe immediately dissolved into floods of tears and Jessie ran forward to comfort him.
“How could you?” she remonstrated with Jake. “After all the little mite has been through.”
Jake shook his head at Jessie and said, “To let him get away with bad behavior is not helping him. The child still has to learn right from wrong, no matter what has gone before.”
Little Joe was not a spoilt child, but he had been brought up in a household where he was very much the youngest. In his short life, Little Joe did not have much experience of playing with children of his own age. Hoss was his main playmate and he would happily give up his playthings to Little Joe to keep him happy. Joe was now in an environment with children of a similar age and he was not forthcoming in sharing the few toys that were available to them. For the second time that morning, Little Joe had resorted to pushing in order to secure the toy he wanted.
Jake shook a finger in front of Joe’s face. “If I find you pushing and being selfish again, I will put you over my knee and tan that little bottom of yours. Is that understood?” Joe wrapped his arms tighter round Jessie’s neck and sobbed. Jake pulled the child back and said,
“Is that understood, Little Joe?”
Joe wiped his eyes and said, “Yes sir”, whereupon Jake scooped up the child and hugged him to his chest.
“That’s a good boy,” said Jake. Joe hugged him harder and listened to Jake’s deep voice. If he closed his eyes, he could pretend it was Papa’s arms around him and everything was alright. The boy began to sob even harder and Jake instinctively knew that Little Joe was thinking of his family and his heart felt like it would break; he would do anything in his power to make this small child’s world happy again.
During the day, Joe appeared like any other child; he played, ate, napped, cried and laughed like a normal five year old, but the nights were a different matter. Each evening he became fretful and weepy and the only way he went to sleep was cradled in Jake’s strong arms. His nightmares frequently disturbed the whole wagon train and it was pitiful to listen to his cries and sobs as he shouted out in his sleep for his Papa.
At night the child often wet himself during his sleep and it became routine for either Jake or Jessie to lift the boy during the night and hold him over the chamber pot to encourage him to relieve himself. When upset, the boy curled up in the fetal position and sucked his thumb. These were all signs of a very emotionally upset little boy and Jake and Jessie were at a loss as to how they could help him.
This child had gotten under Jake’s skin. How was he going to give him up when they reached their destination? He was now sure from the stories that Little Joe had told him that the child had not been left intentionally and he would make it his business to find out just where the child’s family were. From what Joe had said, he had been traveling for a long time before he had been found, and that had suggested to Jake that he was not from around the area where they had come across him. This was going to make it even harder to find his family.
Jake and Jessie discussed the possibility that Joe’s family would not be found and they both agreed that if that was to happen they would raise Joe as their own. Much as they wanted to find Joe’s kin, they were going to find it very difficult to give up this little bundle of energy that had entered their lives.
Life at the Ponderosa went on. Ben and the boys got up each morning and went through the motions, but the very heart had gone out of their existence. Hoss had very reluctantly returned to school and Adam supported his father in running the ranch. Ben no longer roamed the land; they had looked non-stop for months and had turned up nothing whatsoever. Ben had sent out posters to all neighboring towns and offered a large reward for any information about Little Joe but all to no avail. Ben felt that he had to carry on for the sake of his other two sons but he knew that if it were not for them, he could not have got through the day. In his darkest moments, he even wished that those men had finished the job and killed him, but then he thought of Adam and Hoss and felt even guiltier for his selfish thoughts.
Adam gave up the idea of going to college. He could not leave his father and brother in their time of need; he decided his own life would be put on hold indefinitely. Hoss was no longer the carefree child he had once been, without his baby brother to share in the fun life just wasn’t the same.
One of the most trying times for the family was the first anniversary of Marie’s death. Not only did Ben and the boys grieve for the loss of Marie, they now had the loss of Little Joe to grieve for also. Shortly after that date was Little Joe’s sixth birthday and Ben went ahead and bought the new saddle he had promised Little Joe for his pony. Ben felt that to ignore the day would be to acknowledge that Joe was dead, and, unless someone could come up with conclusive proof, he would not accept what everyone was telling him. The third and hardest time was Christmas Day. Christmas was always a special time for them all and now to try and celebrate without Marie and Little Joe was unthinkable. Each of them spent the day quietly buried in their own thoughts. As winter then set in, Ben wondered if their nightmare would ever end.
About nine months after Joe’s disappearance, Ben was in town for a meeting with the bank when he decided to pay a visit to his old friend Roy Coffee. As Ben made his way from the Bank to the Sheriff’s office, he bumped into Mrs. Devlin and her son Mitch. Ben’s heart constricted as he looked down at the small boy holding onto his mother’s hand.
“Good morning Ben, how are things with you?” asked Mrs. Devlin, knowing that Ben was having a hard time coming to terms with Little Joe’s disappearance. She also thought how hard it must be for the father to look at her own son knowing that Joe was the same age and should also have started school with Mitch earlier that year.
“Fine,” lied Ben. “And how are you Mitch? Enjoying school.”
Mitch looked up at Ben. “It’s OK, I guess,” he said.
“Little Joe looked forward to going to school,” said a wistful Ben, smiling at Mrs. Devlin.
“Mama, was Little Joe my friend?” asked a curious Mitch. People often mentioned him but the memories were fading fast.
A horrified Mrs. Devlin looked at Ben and said apologetically, “I’m sorry Ben. You know small children; they forget so easily.”
“Yes, of course, I understand, don’t worry,” said Ben, patting her on the arm, but now anxious to get away. He couldn’t blame Mitch, he was only six after all, and Mrs. Devlin was right, nine months was a long time in a small child’s life. But if Mitch could forget so easily, would Little Joe have forgotten his family by now? Ben stopped his train of thought before it had time to begin; there was no point in allowing his mind to go down that track. Little Joe was gone and would not be coming back; he would finally have to accept it.
Ben was deep in thought as he made his way into Roy Coffee’s office. Roy was having a cup of coffee with another lawman that Ben did not recognize. Ben joined the two men and Roy poured him a coffee.
“This is Clay Dawson, Ben. He filled in for me once before, and well, I’m going to be out of town for a week or two, so Clay says he will look after things again.” The three men made small talk for a few minutes and Ben was about to leave when Clay said,
“Actually we have met, but you probably won’t remember me, Mr. Cartwright. I was the one looking after things last year when you were brought into town after being bushwhacked. You were in a pretty bad way if I recall. Did they ever get the men that did it?”
“Yes, they did,” interrupted Roy. “There was two of them. Sorriest pair of drifters I ever set eyes on. They got 10 years hard labor, but they were lucky they weren’t hanged for murder.”
“Sorry I don’t remember you, Clay,” said Ben “but it was a pretty traumatic time.”
“Well it’s no surprise you don’t remember me; I left town before you regained consciousness. That sure was a busy day if I remember,” said Clay. “You were brought into town unconscious, I locked some guy up for being drunk and smashing up the saloon, had to give a tanning to some kid for causing a rumpus in the street, and to top it all, I’m sure that was the day the fellow from the wagon train came in to report finding some gypsy kid.”
“Gypsy child? What gypsy child?” cut in Ben.
“Well I’m almost sure it was the morning before you were found, this man from a wagon train came into town to report finding a small girl in the forest.”
For a few seconds the world spun out of control for Ben; he couldn’t get his breath and he felt as if he would pass out. Roy broke the spell. “I don’t remember you telling me anything about anyone finding a gypsy girl.”
“Well the fellow was from a wagon train, him and a couple of other men were hunting early in the morning when they came across the child abandoned. I assume they took her to the wagon train. He came here to see if anyone had reported a missing child, which they hadn’t.” It was at this point that Clay’s voice trailed off as he witnessed the faces of the other two men.
“It might not be him, Ben; the man said it was a little girl” said Roy.
“What is he going on about?” said Clay in confusion.
Roy and Ben ignored him. “It’s got to be him, Roy; how many other small children would have been wandering about the forest alone that morning. As for being a girl, you know as well as I do Little Joe would easily have been mistaken for a little girl.”
“Where was he going?” demanded Roy, turning to Clay.
“Where was who going?”
“The man from the wagon train, of course. I just can’t believe you didn’t report this to me at the time. Do you have any idea of the trouble you have caused?”
“Trouble? What trouble? I don’t know what you mean.”
“That child was Ben’s son. Little Joe was only five years old and he was with Ben when he was bushwhacked. We have spent months looking for him. Posters have been everywhere; I can’t believe you didn’t know about it.”
It slowly began to sink into Clay’s brain what the men were saying and turning to Ben he said, “Oh Mr. Cartwright, I am so sorry, I had no way of knowing. Please you have to believe me, if I’d of known your son was missing, I wo……..”
“Never mind all that now. Where was the wagon train headed for?”
“Well he said they were headed for California, but that was 9 months ago, they could be anywhere now.”
Ben sat down heavily and, with his head in his hands, he said, “It doesn’t matter where they are; Little Joe is alive and if it takes me the rest of my life, I’ll find him. There’s no way Little Joe is going to grow up not knowing his family and thinking we have abandoned him.” Ben’s eyes filled with unshed tears – he had to find Adam and Hoss and tell them the good news — their baby brother was alive.
The boys could hardly believe what their Pa was telling them. Could Little Joe really be alive and living in California? Hoss wanted to get on the next stagecoach and ride off after Joe immediately, and it took all of Ben and Adam’s persuasion to make him see that that was futile. Ben had several influential friends in the Californian region and he wired them immediately to inform them of his dilemma and asking their assistance. It took several weeks of investigation but finally news was sent to the Ponderosa that a family with a small boy fitting the description of Little Joe, had moved onto a homestead in California just over 9 months ago. That was the news that Ben and the boys had been waiting for; they immediately made arrangements to travel.
The atmosphere on the stagecoach was strained. The boys were worried. What if it wasn’t Little Joe? How would their father ever recover? He had only just accepted, but never come to terms with, the death of their little brother? What if he had to lose him all over again?
On reaching California, Ben, Adam and Hoss were met off the stagecoach by a Mr. Spencer. Mr. Spencer had been hired by Ben to find out as much information as he could with regards to the couple with the little boy.
Mr. Spencer accompanied them to their hotel room and then began his report: “Well Mr. Cartwright I am pretty sure the little boy in question is your son. He is living with a couple named Jake and Jessie Johnson. The boy goes by the name of Little Joe and looks about 5 or 6 years old. He has chestnut curly hair and green eyes. There doesn’t seem any doubt that he is your missing child.”
The nightmare was finally over; Little Joe was found, Ben and the boys could not wait to make their way to the Johnson’s house and reacquaint themselves with the little boy.
Jake and Jessie Johnson had been informed that Little Joe’s family had arrived in California to claim him. Over the months, they had grown to love the little boy as if he was their own. Although the couple was happy that Joe’s family had at last been found, the thought of giving Joe up was almost too much to bear.
It was an awkward moment as Ben and the boys stood outside the door of the Johnson’s home. Ben’s palms were hot and clammy and, as he waited for Jake Johnson to open the door, he wiped his hands down the legs of his pants in an attempt to dry them. As Ben and Jake faced each other for the first time, neither man could escape noticing the likeness between them. They looked into each other’s eyes, and each could see their own pain reflected back at them. Jake shook Ben’s hand and then almost wordlessly invited him into his home.
Ben, Adam and Hoss followed Jake into the living room where a subdued Jessie sat on a chair facing them. She nodded at the three visitors but did not speak. Ben noticed the red rimmed eyes and the handkerchief she kept twisting between her hands. Why was it that the thing that was to bring him the greatest joy was going to destroy these people’s lives?
“Why don’t you get some refreshments for our guests, Jessie?” said Jake, giving his wife the chance to escape to the kitchen. Jessie almost rushed from the room and when the kitchen door closed behind her, Jake turned back to Ben.
“As you can understand this is very difficult for both of us. We love Little Joe as if he is our own and it’s going to break Jessie’s heart, and mine, when we have to give him up.” Before Ben could speak, Jake raised his hand to quiet him. “Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Cartwright; a boy belongs with his family, but it’s just Joe is a very special little boy.” The last word came out as a sob.
Ben was rendered speechless; there were no words of comfort he could offer, there was no happy solution to the situation. There had to be a loser.
It was just at this point that the door opened and a small boy entered the house. He walked sedately over to Jake’s side and looked at the visitors.
Time stood still as Ben, Adam and Hoss allowed their eyes to gorge on the sight of Joe for the first time in nearly a year. There was no denying it was Little Joe, but this was not the small, mischievous child they remembered. The emerald green eyes looking at them held none of the usual sparkle, but much more frighteningly, they held no sign of recognition.
Ben stepped forward and reaching out to Little Joe he said, “Don’t you remember your Papa, Little Joe?”
Little Joe ignored the outstretched hand and, taking a step backwards, he looked up at Jake and said, “My Papa’s dead, ain’t he, Uncle Jake?”
“Well, we thought he was Little Joe,” said Jake.
Joe quickly changed the subject and said, “Where’s Aunt Jessie? Is she making cookies? Can I have some before supper?”
Jake nodded and the child skipped off happily to the kitchen.
Ben was still standing in the centre of the floor unable to move. Jake, feeling the other man’s angst, stood and put a consoling hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Mr. Cartwright, there’s something you should try and understand. When we found Little Joe, he was a very distraught and traumatized little boy. At first we thought he had been abandoned, but it soon became clear to us that something terrible had happened. From some of the things Little Joe said, we knew that his mother had been dead for a while, but we also believed you to be dead. Joe mentioned his brothers but we had no way of finding them.
At first he cried constantly for you all and he was having nightmares almost every night, crying out for his Papa. We didn’t know how to help him. As soon as we got to California, we had him checked out by a doctor. The doc said that only time and plenty of love would help him.
Well as the months have gone by, the nightmares have stopped and so have the questions. The doc thinks Little Joe has shut down everything in his brain relating to the time before we found him. He thinks the trauma was just too much for a little boy to deal with.
I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, but Little Joe doesn’t appear to remember anything before that day and quite frankly the doc’s not sure if he ever will.”
Sniffing sounds from Hoss finally broke the silence that followed. The tears shone in the young boy’s eyes. “Little Joe is coming home with us, ain’t he Pa?”
“Of course he is, Hoss. It’s just that it may take a bit longer that’s all. Little Joe needs to have some time to get to know us all again. We’ll just have to take things a bit slowly, let him remember us in his own time.”
“Look, Mr. Cartwright”
“Please call me Ben”
“Ben, I know now what really happened to you back then — the sheriff filled me in — and I understand how hard this must be for you to finally find your son only for him not to recognize you. But I’m sure if you’re patient and give it time, Little Joe’s memory will return.”
“I hope so, Jake, I certainly hope so. I couldn’t bear to lose him a second time.”
Over the next couple of weeks Ben, Adam and Hoss spend all of their time with Little Joe, trying to recapture the small boy they remembered. At times when Hoss called him ‘Pumpkin’ or Adam said ‘Little Buddy’, Ben thought he saw a flash of recognition in Joe’s eyes, but it was quickly replaced once more with the guarded expression that they had come to recognize – the one that Joe adopted whenever they were around. Ben longed to hold his little boy and to feel his small arms around his neck once more. He would have given anything just to have Joe climb on his knee and shower him with wet kisses like he had done so many times before, but it was not to be. Joe interacted quite well with his brothers; he took to following Adam round asking questions or playing tag with Hoss, but he was always wary of Ben and avoided him whenever he could.
The nightmares had started again almost immediately after Ben’s arrival, and Jake’s nights were disturbed once more by the child crying for his Papa. Little Joe’s bed was often wet in the morning and he had also resorted once again to thumb sucking whenever he was tired or upset. Joe appeared to have no recollection of his nightmares when he awoke and no amount of coaxing could get him to talk about them.
The strain was beginning to tell and there were times when Ben wanted to pick Joe up and shake him, to tell him to snap out of it and return to the Little Joe they knew and loved. Ben felt as if he was stood at the side of an abyss and if he stepped the wrong way he would fall off and be lost forever. How was he to get through to his child? If he tried to show him any sign of affection, Joe immediately retreated to the safety of Jake’s strong arms. When this happened, Ben could hardly contain the hurt inside him; it felt as if someone had stuck a knife into him and every time Joe rejected him the knife just went a little deeper and twisted a little more.
Joe would never allow himself to be alone with Ben; it was as if the cocoon he had built up around himself might be penetrated if Ben was to get too close, and so Joe subconsciously kept him at arms length. To Joe’s troubled mind, it was self-preservation. Something about this man deeply unsettled him and that was frightening.
On one particular day, Little Joe and Hoss were playing hide and seek in the yard when Joe climbed onto a high fence and stood precariously on the top. Adam and Ben immediately ran towards the little boy, afraid that he might topple. Seeing the men coming towards him, Joe suspected he was in trouble and tried to jump from the top. He landed heavily, grazing his knees and hands and, on seeing the blood trickling down his legs, he started to wail. Ben reached him first and picked him up into his arms. The child screamed even harder and struggled to be put down. As soon as he was set on his feet, Little Joe ran into the open arms of Jake and allowed him to carry him into the house.
At that moment, Ben thought his heart would break in two. His child seemed lost to him forever and Ben’s very presence appeared to be causing him more distress. Ben was aware of the difficulties that Jake and Jessie were having with nightmares and bedwetting and, with a heavy heart, he finally had to admit that he was probably the cause of it.
After attending to his injuries, Jessie insisted that Joe prepare for bed and it wasn’t long before he was fed, washed and dressed in his nightshirt. After supper as the two families sat in the living room talking, Little Joe fell asleep in Jake’s arms.
As Ben looked at the sleeping child, he knew that he had to come to a decision. Ben’s sons were his life, his very reason for existence, but if his being there was going to cause Joe unhappiness then he had no alternative but to retreat from Joe’s life. With a trembling voice, Ben tried to explain to Adam and Hoss what he was thinking.
Both boys were shocked that their Pa would even consider leaving Little Joe with the Johnson family. Joe belonged with them. How could Pa think otherwise?
“If we take him home, he’ll remember. Once he sees his room and Hop Sing, he’ll be our Little Joe again” pleaded Hoss.
Pa reached over and stroked Hoss’s back. “We must do what’s best for Little Joe, Hoss. He’s happy here with his Uncle Jake and Aunt Jessie; we can’t go on upsetting him.”
“Can’t we stay here, Pa, just until he remembers?” said Adam.
“The doctors think that might never happen, Adam. And in the meantime, our presence is confusing him even more. We won’t be leaving him forever. I just think we need to give him a little space; then maybe he will come to terms with what happened, then perhaps his memory will start to come back”
As Ben fought back his tears, he stood up and walked over to Jake. “Is it OK if I hold him? I just want to feel him in my arms again. It has been so long.”
Jake just didn’t know what to say. Of course he would be happy for Little Joe to stay with him and Jessie, but Little Joe had a family who loved him very much and he admired and appreciated the sacrifice then Ben was willing to make for his son.
Ben lifted the tiny body into his arms and held him close. He kissed his eyes and mouth and stroked the child’s smooth baby cheeks. The tears that had threatened to fall all day now flooded from his eyes and ran down his cheeks; he was going to lose his precious child again and he didn’t know whether he could bear it. Running his hand through Joe’s silky curls he whispered, “Little Joe, my beautiful boy, never doubt how much I and your brother’s love you. Since the day you were born, you have brought sunshine into our lives and no matter where you are you will always have a special place in our hearts. You look so much like your Mama; every time I look at you I see her smile and her sparkling green eyes. She would have been so proud of the way you are growing up. Little Joe……..”
Ben could not continue, his whole body shook as he stood and handed Little Joe back to Jake before attempting to make his way to the door. Blinded by his own tears, Ben almost stumbled before Adam and Hoss reached out to steady him. Supporting their father between them, they made their way into the yard and Adam hurried to saddle their horses.
Jessie and Jake did not attempt to follow them, knowing that the family needed privacy in their grief. As the couple stood together trying to comprehend how this was going to affect all their lives, Little Joe stirred in Jake’s arms.
Joe was at that limbo stage, not quite asleep yet not quite awake. Something was disturbing him; he thought he was dreaming, but this was different. There had been a hand on his face and in his hair that was so familiar, it felt comforting and he didn’t want it to stop. The sound of the voice that was echoing in his head was filled with so much love, but more than that, most of all it was the smell that was attacking his senses. The smell of tobacco and Bay Rum scent filled his nose and penetrated his very being. Then the touch and the voice was gone and the aroma was no longer there and he felt abandoned. Joe sat up suddenly in Jake’s arms and looked around him in panic. Memories long buried were surfacing in his mind once more, and he knew what he had to do. Struggling fiercely, Jake was no longer able to hold him and he set Little Joe on his feet. Immediately Joe ran for the door and into the yard.
Ben, Adam and Hoss were just riding out of the yard when they heard a screech behind them.
“Papa, Papa, come back, Papa, Papa,” cried Little Joe as his voice rose in desperation.
Ben barely had time to dismount when the barefoot little boy leapt into his arms. The little arms circled the neck of the man who meant more to him than anyone else in the world and cried, “Don’t leave me, Papa, please don’t leave me.”
Hardly able to believe what was happening, Ben caressed the child. “I’ll not leave you, Little Joe; I’m not going anywhere without you.”
That was the start of a very long night. Little Joe clung to Ben as if his very life depended on it. Neither Ben nor Joe tried to explain what had brought about the change; they were just content to have found each other again. It was in the early hours of the next morning before they succumbed to sleep in each other’s arms.
Over the next couple of days, they could not believe the change in Joe. The excited, chattering child of the previous year began to emerge and the impish smile finally began to reach his eyes once more. Jake and Jessie were amazed as they were given glimpses of the child that Little Joe had once been; he was so different from the subdued boy that they had looked after.
Within days it seemed as if father time had turned back the clock, Joe and his brothers were interacting as if they had never been apart. Ben looked at the three of them with pride; his boys were finally together again, really together, and Ben’s world was once again complete.
The Cartwrights were spending one last evening with Jake and Jessie. As the conversation took a lull, Little Joe looked up from his place on his Pa’s lap and said to Ben, “Papa, since you went to heaven and came back to me, does that mean Mama is coming back as well?”
It was then that Ben realized that Joe had not fully understood what had happened.
“Little Joe, Papa didn’t go to heaven. Some bad men hurt him and that was why Papa didn’t get up, but Papa didn’t die. I’ve explained to you before, son, Mama didn’t want to leave you but God wanted her to be in heaven with him. Mama can’t come back Little Joe.”
Little Joe looked sad for a moment and then smiled. “I’m glad you didn’t go to heaven, Papa, ‘cause I want you to stay here with me.”
“And I want to stay here with you as well, Little Joe,” said Ben hugging the boy closer to him.
Little Joe then looked accusingly at Adam. “You didn’t come and get me. I looked for you and when I couldn’t find you, Uncle Jake came and got me. Why didn’t you come for me?”
Adam was slightly baffled. “I didn’t know where you were, Little Joe. If I’d known, I would have come and got you, honest I would. You know that, don’t you?”
Little Joe looked appeased for the moment and snuggled further into his father’s lap.
The following morning was not one any of them relished and Little Joe was desperately upset at leaving his surrogate father and mother and clung to them each in turn.
“Come with me, Uncle Jake. Aunt Jessie, you could live at our house with Pa and me and help Hop Sing in the kitchen. Couldn’t they live with us, Pa?”
“No, Little Joe. Aunt Jessie and I need to stay here and you need to go with you Pa and brothers back to the Ponderosa,” said Jake, handing Little Joe to his Pa.
“I’ll never be able to repay you for what you’ve done. Rest assured Little Joe will never forget you and when he’s older, I’ll bring him back to visit you. You are two very special people,” said Ben.
Ben lifted Little Joe and set him on his horse before climbing up behind him. The family waved a sad farewell to Jake and Jessie and headed towards town and within hours, they had boarded the stagecoach that would finally take them home.
As night began to fall that evening and the stage rumbled along, Ben looked at each of his sleeping sons and whispered a silent prayer of thanks. The dark days were gone and on days like this, it was just so good to be alive.